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New routines

I arrived home on a near perfect Indian summer day, but the swimming days were over. This left as the only option the joining of a fitness club to keep up the swimming that had so become a part of my daily routine. I joined the Manchester Athletic Club. Axel is already a member but doesn’t use it much, preferring yoga at the gentler local Yoga studio – no bulky sweating men or women there.

As part of the membership orientation one gets a fully evaluation by a fitness professional. It was fun and very interesting. I had earlier embarked on a significant lifestyle change which I was able to maintain during my travels in West Africa: more exercise, more walking (no elevator use wherever there are elevators) and eating only what I need rather than what I want – at least when in hotels where breakfast buffets were probably responsible for my average weight gain of 5 pounds per trip.

I experienced what people who are exercising regularly have always told me: at first it is a bit of a chore – shall I ride my stationary bike at home or do some I find more enjoyable. Now that has changed – I look forward to the routines and miss it when I cannot.

In less than two weeks I will fly out again. The suitcase remained open and ready – I will be going back to West Africa for my last work trip this year.

System D

Système D stands for débrouillard. There is a long tradition in Africa of people making do with what they have. People have forever been making utilitarian goods out of things we usually discard such as tin cans, rubber tires, CDs and more.

Yet at the same time there is a persistent sense of hopelessness, victim hood and low confidence in the ability of the continent to pull itself out of the morass of poverty, illness and strife.

I see light points everywhere but they don’t seem to add up. There are people I know or have heard of who have been able to harness the innate talent at ingenuity.

My ICRC colleague A. in Bamako changed the outlook and attitude of the rehab center’s welder. He used to sit under a tree waiting for someone to bring him something to weld. When A. Told him “you can make a wheelchair” the welder rolled his eyes. But when A. showed up with a plan and materials he learned how to make a wheelchair. Since then he has made lots of frames. The director of the Centre was so proud of him that he took me over and they posed for a picture. The primitive storage room behind him was full of shiny frames. The director promised he would give him a proper workshop. Now it is a slab of concrete with a corrugated iron roof. No walls, looking more like an oil change station than a manufacturing workshop.

The possibilities are endless but it seems there always needs to be someone else from outside the system who is not paralyzed by the constraints. So too was the man who asked the artisanal shoe and slipper maker, sitting outside the museum on the sidewalk whether he would be interested in learning how to make orthopedic shoes. The shoemaker himself had a disability and could not walk. He said yes and rest is history. He is the only orthopedic shoemaker in the country and now training a young man to take over when he retired in a few years.

New connections

It’s been two weeks since we have been back from Maine. I dove back into work after Labor Day, finalizing documents that need to be finished when the main project that has kept me busy closes on September 23.

I facilitated a two weeks virtual seminar on governance, Governing for Good, on LeaderNet,  MSH’s platform for learning and connecting, that closed on Friday. Getting people to post on such seminars is tricky – we don’t quite know why.  With some prodding we ended up hearing from some twenty people (10% of those registered) including two young men from Bhutan which I was thrilled about. They are studying in Thailand. I know their professor who encouraged them. This is really one of the best parts of my job, to establish relationships, even if they are only over the internet, with young people who have little access that all the resources that abound.

My connection with the Naresuan University in Thailand is fascinating. It started with a simple query we received. I followed up and before I knew it I was an associate or adjunct professor with my own email address at this faraway university. Since then I have befriended the director of a new international health systems management program (Masters and PhD) and his mentor, advisor to the Dean and ex Deputy Minister of Health of Thailand.  Since teaching is really my vocation and passion, I am thrilled at these new connections.

I am preparing for a trip under a new contract with ICRC, that allows me to keep working with ICRC colleagues and their rehab center counterparts in Mali and Niger. The trip is supposed to start a week from Monday, if the paperwork gets taken care of. It has been a bit stressful since getting visas for these two countries takes a bit of time. I may not get my passport back until the day I leave.

I have also entered, after hours, into the last three months of getting certified as a Conversational Intelligence™ certified coach. This too is connecting me with people all over the world who have, if not similar professions, at least a passion for helping people find their strengths.  Although the program is a bit pricy I decided to go for it, as I am seeing potentially the end of my long run at MSH, if no other source of funding comes through.  I will move into coaching as a profession rather than as a hobby.

Writing project

Aside from the reading and doing nothing I actually had one particular goal I had set for myself. It was to finish writing the children’s book (it needed only a closing page) about a retired school bus that goes to Africa. It’s a project that I started with Sita nearly a decade ago. The story had already written itself in my head and Sita would illustrate it. She gave me two books about writing and illustrating children’s stories one Christmas as well as a watercolor pencil set and note book to make the thumbnail sketches.

Fulfilling a promise to myself I did finish the first book, and then I was on a roll. The early mornings in the cottage we rent are full of inspiration, especially when I am the only one up and the sun comes in over the water and through the pine trees.

The next books, which I had not even planned on, tumbled out of my head onto the screen without any effort. And so I wrote book number two, three and four. Now it is a series. In book one the school retires and is sold to an outfit in Africa. I had seen old American school busses in West Africa which had inspired me to write the story. I had always wondered how these busses got there.

In book two the school bus takes children on a field trip to the source of a big river. My inspiration for this was my own field trip into the Guinean Highlands – the Fouta Djallon – where I saw the initial triggle that eventually becomes the Niger River. This river baffled explores for the longest time because it flows away from the Atlantic and into the desert (where once was a big lake).  It goes underground in the desert and make a big  turn south eastwards near Timbouctou. From there, having lost much water, it flows towards the Bay of Benin, collecting water from tributaries and forming the Niger Delta. This was a deadly place for many an explorer when the cause of malaria was not known.

In book three the bus gets sold to a person associated with a district hospital. The bus serves both as an ambulance, carrying a very sick woman to the regional hospital and takes fieldworkers on a vaccination campaign. In the final book, when the bus breaks down (gets old) a few too many times it is retired. The bus finds its final resting place (but not a grave) on a hill overlooking the Atlantic. In my mind this is the place where the French garrison is stationed just north of Dakar on Cape Vert, a  place off limits to normal mortals like me but not an imaginary school bus. The bus is converted into a home for an old lady who paints during the day, inspired by the ocean and the creatures around her (this is where Maine slips in for a moment, and Faro’s experience of nature plus Axel’s art).

I tested the first two stories on my grandson. He liked it. Kids of 5 who are about to go to real school tend to be fascinated with school busses. This confirmed to me that the book is for the 5 to 7 age group.

Sita explained to me that illustrating a children’s book is not entirely the same as scribing a conference about such lofty things as public health, environmental issues, early childhood development or topics for graduate students. She asked me to make the thumbnails so she knows what images are in my mind. This made me think I should take a drawing course. The images I drew were awful; I can’t even draw the school bus. And so I started to describe the scenes while wondering how to perfect my drawing skills in another way.


Two of the five remaining days we are spending further north. We drove to Trention (ME) and found a no frills motel. We got the room right next to the Coca Cola machine, as Axel feared, across from the Trenton airport and right on the main thoroughfare that leads to Mt Desert Island, just outside Bar Harbor’s pricey reach.

We are going to visit the author of The House at Lobster Cove. The book describes the man, George Nixon Black, and the house (‘Kragsyde’) he built across our cove. The house was demolished in 1929. It is a place of some importance to us because it is where Axel’s grandparents met. He was the gardener and she was the maid.

We are spending the night here in Trenton so that we can catch the early morning ferry from Bass Harbor to Swan’s Island. It is the only way to reach the island. It took us more than three hours (slow lane) to get to Trenton. The ferry leaves at 9AM, hence the need for a night’s lodging a little closer.

The author and her husband have built a replica of the house, using the original plans. They did this over a period of 20 years, stone by stone, with their own hands, on Swan’s island. And so we will see what the place where Axel’s grandparents met looked like.

In the slow lane

On Saturday morning the grandchildren and their parents left and suddenly it was quiet.  We had a whole week to ourselves and no obligations other than, by the end of the week, a run to the laundry and cleaning the cottage. What luxury!

And so on Sunday we slept in (or rather Axel did). I continue to wake early when the sun gets up; I appear to be programmed that way. But waking up early here is wonderful. I sit on the deck, sipping my tea and look out over Booth Bay. The sun turns the water into gold. I am thinking about the kinds of colors you’d have to mix to produce that effect.

Early sailors on their way out of Boothbay Harbor cross my view from left to right, passing along the many islands in the bay. We can just see the most eastern tip of Squirrel Island, a summer colony we hope to explore one day. It only has pedestrian walkways, not even bikes are allowed.

We painted a bit sitting out in the sun on the deck. I tried flowers and Axel is making studies for his next silk painting project. After irises and variations in purple he is now marveling at poppies and their radiant colors. He is mixing reds and oranges and yellows to get the right hues. Our inspiration is a Maine painter Jean Swan Gordon whose enormous water color flower arrangements made us wish we could just plop down the 6000 or so dollars to buy one and enlarge our house to display it.

Life here in Maine is slow. I had to get used to move over to the slow lane from my usually fast lane pace.  I like it, although I still drink my coffees, my bloody Maries and my gin tonics too fast. Axel is much better at it, but I am adjusting.

We certainly get going slowly in the morning, or should I say early afternoon. Late on Sunday afternoon, our second day of not having to worry about naps, lunch or dinner times, we went to discover a new park. This part of Maine is full of chunks of land set aside for everyone’s pleasure. Dodge Point Preserve in Newcastle is such a place. After a walk in the woods on an old farm road one arrives at a spectacular shore trail along the Damariscotta River. There are places to sit (more reading) or swim in water that is slightly warmer than the ocean.

The warmer water that comes from being heated all day in the big marsh upriver makes the Damariscotta River a perfect place to cultivate oysters. The little ones need warm water to grow. We took a brief tour to learn how and where oysters grow and how they are harvested. Water temperature is important for the seed to grow into small then large oysters. They grow fast, in just a few weeks the nail-size oysters grow a couple of inches in size. We have seen this in our Lobster Cove oyster population. The temperature of our waters must be rising, how else to account for the new oyster population?

I have now read the second of the trilogy books and starting number three. This book will not return to my nightstand. And then there are the other six books I brought and a few new ones I bought. We have five days left.


We packed our car for the trip to Maine. It was hard to select what to bring of all the things I wanted to do but never had time for at home. Some years I brought my sewing machine and quilted. Another summer I brought knitting needles and lots of wool and made a cardigan. This summer in Maine was going to be a summer of reading, real books, not electronic ones.

I packed all the books on my night stand that were half or barely read. This included a heavy tome of 900 pages recommended by a friend of Sita. I had ordered it some month ago but got stuck in the first twenty or so pages because of all the (old) English words that I didn’t understand but was too lazy to look up. It plays at the border of Wales and what was then England in 1200. I thought I would give it another try.

I forgot my knitting basket which may have been a good thing because reading about Wales in 1200 and knitting at the same time is impossible. Axel brought the watercolor supplies. So that was it: reading and painting with water.

The first week we were vacationing as grandparents. This meant getting up early, feeding kids and entertaining them until the parents joined us. It also occasionally meant babysitting during naptime of one and beach time for the other. This was perfect. I’d sit on the deck in the sun reading.  We also gave the parents a lovers’ night out – something we remembered as being a huge luxury when you have small kids.

Beach time with Faro is wonderful as he is full of wonder about everything around him. Here too he terrified the crabs as he did in Lobster Cove. He caught many. There was a whole swarm of little boys and girls turning over stones and catching the crabs (and sometimes baby lobsters as well). It is not OK to terrify any creature,  but getting rid of the green crabs is considered a citizen’s duty here in Maine. There are too many of them. They, in their turn, not only terrify but eat the mussels and clams. Sita is teaching Faro about respect for everything that lives, no senseless killing or destroying. For her that includes the green crabs, even spiders and other creepy-crawlies she doesn’t much care about. So we, illegally as we found out, released them back into the ocean.

By the time Sita and family left I had finished the first of the trilogy books on Wales (The Heaven Tree) plus another book in between about the exploration of the Amazon (the quest for the city of Z) which made me think we are such wimps these days. Here I am sitting on a deck in the sun reading and drinking coffee while I could have been looking for El Dorado up to my waist in mud full of dangerous animals with mosquitoes and other flying creatures pulling chunks of my skin and settling in my eyes. Not to mention the jaguars, piranhas and anacondas.

November 2017
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