Patagonia: No Filters Needed

24 December 2014

Our first night at Estancia Cristina we went to our room around 9:30pm. It was still as bright as it is at 4pm at home in LA this

Estancia Cristina

Estancia Cristina

time of year. In Patagonia, they draw heavy curtains in the rooms to help guests transition to a normal night time but we were still wide awake. There is no television or internet in the rooms. I took out my phone to look at the pictures I took so far. I remembered I added several Apps on my phone to edit and enhance our photography. I played around a little to see what they can do then took out a book and read until I could fall asleep. The sky was still slightly light when I looked out the bathroom window after 11pm.

Patagonia had never really been on my short list of travel places. Somehow I have never been to South America before. Always wanted to. It was Brian that suggested this trip. Wow. What a place. Patagonia covers area in both Chile and Argentina. When looking at the map it was at first overwhelming to decide what to see and where to go for one week. Patagonia covers a third of Argentina (which is the 8th largest country in the world). There is the desert and the lake district. The Fitz Roy mountain area. The south most point where people gather before excursions to Antarctica.

IMG_0192We decided on Parque National Los Glaciares. The area of the glaciers. El Calafate is the small town (pop 16,000) where everyone flies in and out. We planned to spend one night (Sunday) there on our entrance before going farther in.  As soon as I got out of the airport, my mouth dropped. The mountains. The grassy fields. The gorgeous BLUE of Lago Argentina.

On Monday we woke at 7am. We took a small transport bus to the port. It was cold and rainy. Cloudy. We had to take a 4 hour boat ride to get to our destination, Estancia Cristina. We decided to spend the majority of our Patagonia time out there. Far far away from towns and foot traffic.

After a pretty treacherous boat ride (apparently we lucked out with intense winds and consistently turbulent waters) we arrived at the ranch. Before going, I had not known too much about the area. It was a bit like going to a movie you know has incredible ratings, is up for a bunch of Awards (though is obscure and has a small audience) but you don’t read the synopsis or watch the trailer before going. New levels of wow unfolded into every day. I learned that our boat ride was nothing compared to the experience of the pioneers of this land. In the early 1900s, Argentina offered incentives to people to come and stake claim to the lands in Patagonia. They were in a dispute with Chile over the borders of the area and so they sought national and foreign pioneers to help watch over and develop the land.

Joseph Masters convinced his young new wife, Jessie, to leave Great Britain and go to a far away place. Knowing nothing about farming they left home, their family, and everything they had known up until then. They found an established Estancia and signed up to work there for a time to learn the skills they would need in order to pioneer a fresh piece of land. They worked and learned to farm and how to build tools and structures. They had two children. A boy, Herbert, and a girl, Cristina. When they felt confident in their skills, they set off to search for their own plot of land.

The Masters family searched for a year to find a suitable place to settle. In 1914, they set out on a 14 hour boat ride (they had to stop regularly to collect wood to fuel the fire of the boat’s engine). When they landed, Joseph instantly knew that he had found their place. A land today still only reachable by water.

For their first year, they lived in tents on the beach. (Remember temperature highs in the summer are 60s Fahrenheit in the days and 40s at night). They explored. They planned. And they began to build. First a small stone building for their living quarters. Then more buildings as they brought in sheep and horses. They planted and experimented with gardening in the harsh climate. At its height, Estancia Cristina was home to 12,000 sheep. Twenty staff would come in for two weeks in the sheering season to help the family collecting the wool. A skilled person takes 5 minutes with heavy metal scissors to take all the wool off a single sheep. Most important is to ensure the animal is able to remain calm and is not hurt in the process. A scared animal will fight, alert the other animals to the fear, and will keep the memory of the injury with them for future sheering seasons.

Cristina, the Masters daughter, grew up a natural pioneer. At 28, while working the land, she caught a flu which turned into a fatal pneumonia. When she passed away, the Masters decided to change the original name of the Estancia (Estancia Masters) to the current name, Estancia Cristina, in her honor.

Estancia Cristina predates the establishment of the town El Calafate and The National Park (Parque National Los Glaciers). The family had a long history of welcoming scientists, explorers, and trekkers. Joseph, Jessie, and Herbert all lived the remainder of their lives on the ranch and each of them died in their 90s. The last living family member, Herbert’s wife Janet, started the official guesthouse in the 1990s. After her passing in 1997, the land was turned back over to the National Park. The Estancia is now owned by a company that leases the land from the Park in order to provide the unique experience of staying on the ranch and exploring the incredible natural beauty of the land.

On Tuesday, we took the trip to the lookout. A 40 minute 4X4 ride took us up and up. Behind the truck as we traveled on the mountain we could see Lago Argentina, the waterway that brought us here.

While our journey in had been wet and turbulent, this day was much better. The area is characteristically windy but there was no rain and the sun warmed it up enough that I could layer with a windbreaker and leave my winter coat behind.

IMG_0265The trip up the mountain introduced us to the merging landscapes. Hills with trees. Small water spots. Dark rock. We stopped for our first picture taking. Behind us was a larger water way. As glaciers move, they bring with them the sediments of rocks. The force breaks this down to extremely fine powder. As the glacier recedes and the ice turns to water, this sediment rises to the top and creates the most amazing color. Like sea foam green and turquoise blue fused and sparkling. Like no color I have ever seen before. Lago Argentina is entirely this color. Most of the small waterways on the way up were this color too. Some were a deep deep blue grey because of the dark rocks underneath. All of the colors seemed otherworldy. I constantly and spontaneously had widened eyes and found myself mouthing “wow.”

At a shallow water area, the rocks were dark brown and red and worn like ripples, the truck let us out to hike the rest of the way. It seemed as if we had been dropped off on Mars. Ahead I could see snowcapped mountains. To my right, I could see a valley and closer another smaller water hole. It was windy so I tied my fuzzy black hat with the cat ears (not worn since my winter in Uzbekistan) tight around my head to save my ears. The iron and minerals in the rock glistened in the sun. Sparkled. I smiled at Brian and said “This is the best thing that we’ve ever done!” He let out a long and a good laugh.

Upscala Glacier

Upscala Glacier

In about 10 minutes we had arrived at the top look out. Wow. I cannot exactly describe it. We had arrived on planet Venus. That seafoam torquise water was turned up about 5 more hues. It looked radioactive it was so brilliant. The wind had also been turned up about 10 notches. I had to brace myself to stay in one place and crawl sideways to edge up further. Then the wind would let down for a minute and we would all breathe and laugh and work at getting out our cameras. Turn side to side and take it in. Upscala Glacier was poised in view at about the 2pm location (of our circle view). It’s unseen depths go to 700 meters. It seems at a pause due to the slowness. At the 10pm and 12:30am locations are two smaller subsidiaries. Like the base of a river. Or like looking at ski slopes from a plane. With their fingers lightly dipped into this alien water.

We took photos and sucked in the air. Accepted the wind and all the reminders of how incredibly powerful and the extreme longevity of nature. We humbly bowed as teeny guests on the top of this mountain. Feeling our life force as it is connected to such a beautiful planet. I focused intently hoping to etch this scene and the expansive view into my brain and heart in order to carry it with me forever. I hoped that my photos would contain a small fraction of the “wowness.”

And then we set out for 5 more hours of hiking back. I could write a novel about it. More wow and then more again. Each section was uniquely beautiful and inspiring. An area with darker rock.   We walked and could hear the crunching of the slate under our feet. We stopped to look at the dozens and dozens of fossils. Sea shells and mollusks. 300 million years old. We seemed to be edging along a scene on Pluto now. Then that would melt into another view of snow capped mountains and a valley of a dark part of the river. The wind caused constant mini white waves in all the water areas. Then a gust would whip through and lift the water into the air. It was like thin walls moving across. Then the water would fall again as the wind passed.

Pluto melted to Saturn. We moved slowly into another canyon. We stopped to watch a condor. The second largest bird in the world. They mate for life and only have a baby every two years. It takes a full year for that new baby bird to learn to fly. As we watched this solo full-grown Condor, he hovered high at the top of the cliff. Close to the rocks. At first he was slow and deliberate as he went against the wind. He flapped one stroke of his wings. Pause. Second stroke of his wings. Pause. Third stroke of his wings. And then he turned into the wind and into the valley. Beautifully he glided and gained tremendous speed and he was gone. Leaving us all with our heads craned towards the sky. Now just looking at the magnificence of the deep blue sky with giant white clouds moving slower than the great bird.

IMG_0309Into the canyon, Saturn revealed another dimension to our history. Rocks layered in orange, red, brown, siennas…I need more color names. The layers were thinner than I have seen before which contributed to the dramatic nature. And the canyon was more narrow than the others. We walked steadily. We paused to look at the rock area closer to this water. It was the same reds and oranges but nearer to the water it was swirled and circled. It shined in the sun’s reflection a bit. Beautiful. Our guide filled her water bottle and we moved on.

Around this next bend was our first glimpse of the grasses of the lower land. We could see two water holes with a small strip of earth between. The first had that sea foam and turquoise. The other was more brownish blue (being from rain water and not the glacier).

We stopped on that hill for a picnic lunch. Our spot was cut in enough to block the majority of the wind so we could take off our hats and gloves. We ate and talked. Our group included our guide, a woman from Buenos Aires that had moved here to Patagonia eight years ago. She works as a guide from October until April each year. Walking these areas every day. The others: A father and son from Brazil. The son, Nikolis, lived in LA for four years so it was fun to share stories of home. The last man was Argentinian. He was also originally from Buenos Aires and had moved to El Calafate about 14 years ago. He had worked as a photographer until his cameras were stolen. Now he acts as a guide and was here at Estancia Cristina with the Brazilians to help them with fishing. (They caught five Salmon in two days. The biggest being 18 and 23 kilos). Brian and I shared about our lives and we all talked about our impressions of this tremendous hike.

IMG_0340In the far distance (another 2 hours of hiking) we were able to see the green/yellow cabins of the Estancia. Our return to Earth. Still to come were the slow layers of this lower land area. Dark long green grasses. Mossy bright green circled patches of fern grass. The first flowers. Dandelions. Blooming white green tumbleweeds. Prickly green vines with purple balls that stay stuck to your pants as you walk through. Bushes of tiny yellow flowers like babies’ breath. Yellow buttercups. Teeny pink trumpet flowers. Soft bushes with dainty pink flowers. Then bright yellow/green grass. And finally in the fields leading into the main area of the ranch is more dandelions and long red grass that seems made to perfectly dance in the winds. The winds being as much of a presence in this place as any animal or tree or human.

And there is that word…it hit me as I was walking those last two hours. Digesting the visuals of this fantastic journey. I was struck by the blip that the human race is in the history of Earth. How fragile we are especially compared with glaciers and rocks and mountains and wind. And also how each unique landscape melts into each other with no borders and no fences. The story of how nature evolves. How collaborative and interactive. How nature is…..Perfection. Real and Tangible Perfection. So beautiful that no photographic filters are necessary.


A beautiful way to the end the year. A reminder to spend more time in the perfection of nature. And to create more moments when I call out: This is the best thing we have ever done!

Thank you, Patagonia.

Ring Road

10 July 2012

On a recent trip to India, our driver in Delhi at one point told us:

“See that road?”  (We were about to cross under the over pass)

“If you start there and drive for five hours, you will end up right there.  They call it Ring Road”

We had already been in India for some time at that point so when we laughed it was a deep knowing laugh about the circular nature of doing things in India.  In a country where Hinduism is the most practiced religion, this pattern of thinking/doing/believing permeates.  Brian and I had been creating our own Ring Roads around Delhi.  Like different sized flower petals with the circle of Ring Road as our anchor.  Delhi to Jaipur to Delhi to Agra to Delhi to Varanasi to Delhi.  Sometimes in planes, sometimes in long hot car rides with drivers chewing betel nut, sometimes with air conditioning and speed.

Many philosophies, psychological theories, and religions have ideas about how we are living out cycles.  In our families, our caste, our kharma.  For me, as a westerner, I am affected by my culture’s way of viewing the cycle of life.  Old age, sickness, and death are more undesirable when we try to use our linear approach to making sense of the human experience.

We visited Varanasi for a short time.  For Hindus, this is the holiest city on the planet.  It is the location where Shiva created the world.  Therefore, the waters of the river Ganga hold healing powers.  It is of the highest tradition to have a body burned on the funeral pyres on the Ghats (the stairs surrounding the river).  Many people make their way here to spend their finals days.  Families bring their loved ones bodies for cremation and those that cannot make the journey bring ashes later.  Being burned in Varanasi means the liberation of your soul.  It means being released from the cycle of reincarnation into Moksha (nirvana).

Before going, I was sure that it was going to be so sad there.  I got butterflies in my stomach thinking about the emotions that I was about to experience.  I imagined families sobbing on these stairs along the river and long somber faces lit with the fires of the funeral pyres.  I was also sure that the river would have a strong stench.  How could it not with the constant mixture of dead bodies (some are not burnt but weighed down and released), freshly burnt corpses, and tons of dumped ashes?  Varanasi WAS the most intense place that I have ever traveled but it was not as I imagined.

streets of varanasi

We got to the town late in the afternoon.  Our driver took us into the city.  It was different than Delhi and Jaipur in that there were no sidewalks.  So pedestrians were in the mix of rickshaws, bicycles, some cars, animals.  The same clamor of horns and voices was there but since the streets were more narrow, with no separation of lanes or mode of transport, it felt closer.  There was the initial struggle to get into the pattern of walking in the traffic.  It needs to be done with flow and confidence.  If you pause as you are walking between a moving bicycle, a car and a cow….who is going to get hurt.  But if you walk carefully, weave in where it makes sense, get to the side when there is an opening..then it all works.  (As a side, we saw no traffic accidents in all of India, which was amazing.  But I am reminded in describing Varanasi that we as outsiders can see chaos rather than in-the-moment fluidity.)

Once we had made it to the center, we were introduced to a young man that looked about 19 or 20.  He told us his name was Dipak.  He would be our boat rider for sunset and sunrise on the river.  We climbed into the boat on the side of the river with the ghats.  On the opposite side was a bank of sand with an established camping ritual area for pilgrims.  Taking a bath in the river washes away sins, provides blessings, and allows for things to start anew.  So we saw our first sights of people bathing, swimming, and even gargling the water in the river.  And I was quickly aware that the feeling was not heavy.  Intense but not sad.  A lot of depth without the darkness that my stomach had anticipated.  The river didn’t smell.  It didn’t look like a brown murky thick water full of death.  It looked like a river.  Now….gargle the water….I wasn’t so sure.

funeral pyres

Dipak started rowing us down towards the funeral pyres.  Brian snapped photos and we both took a couple moments to take it all in.  I scanned the scene.  A bit speechless, I watched the people and felt closer to the cycle of life and death than I may have ever before.  Brian is excellent at engaging and asking questions so I am sure it was him that started the conversation with Dipak.  He told us about his life and his work.  How he (as most all locals) start every day at sunrise by going to the river to pray and have a swim.  He referred to the Ganga as a female.  Saying that she was the miracle of life and death.  He said that being born and living in Varanasi made him feel incredibly blessed.  He talked nonchalantly about the rituals of the families that bring their dead to be burned on the funeral pyres.  The women must watch from afar because they may cry which is not allowed.  Death is release of the soul and cremation is not a time for crying.  In fact, it can pollute or confuse the soul as it is released.

He told us about the process for the cremation ritual.  The fires burn 24 hours a day.  Some 300,000 bodies are cremated each year.  The men bring the body to the river for a bath.  They remove all clothing, jewelry, and adornments.  They dunk the corpse in the Ganga for a final bath and blessing.  They then anoint the body with ghee (butter) and Sandalwood.  The body is tied to the wooden platform and wrapped in brightly colored yellow and red fabric.  The fire is lit by the oldest son (if possible) from the eternal fire of the temple.  It takes much wood and about three hours for the cremation.  After the family goes through and collects bones that have not completely burned and takes them to the other end of the river for sunrise ceremonies.   Eventually the remaining bones and ashes can be placed into the river.

As we approached the area by boat, we slowly pulled to a stop.  There were 12 fires in progress, a wrapped body half submerged at the edge of the river, and one more body prepared on the wooden platform and waiting for a pyre to open.  Dipak told us that some bodies are not allowed to burned in cremation:  holy men, children, pregnant women, etc.  These bodies are already clean.  They are prepared in ceremony and then weighted down and placed into the river.

Brian asked about the Untouchables.  They are the lowest caste of people and we had read that it is their job to clean up the pyres.  Dipak was surprised that we knew the term.  He said that it is true that the untouchables sweep the ashes and go through the left over belongings of the dead.  But his tone is again calm and without judgment.  If fact, he makes me feel like everything that happens in Varanasi at the river is special and blessed and that this job too is so important to the process.

Nightly Brahman Ceremony

He believes in reincarnation and obviously has a comfortable relationship with death.  Later we watch the evening ceremony of the 7 Brahmans.  It was the lowest of the travelers season but there are still 1,000s of people watching on the stairs and from other boats like ours.  I lit a flower candle for my grandmother that died this year and set it off to float on the river with the countless other lights.  We went for a walk with him along the ghats and through the funeral pyres.   The heat of the fires and smoke surrounded us making the distinction between the living and dead less distinguishable.

After some more hours wandering the narrow alleyways and walking through town, Brian and I decompressed at the hotel.  We talked about the intensity but also how natural it seemed.  We think of dead bodies as dirty obviously because I imagined the river to smell and could not imagine how the people swimming and gargling the water could not be getting incredibly sick.  But it is natural to die and the river takes care of processing what goes in through a natural reintegration.

I realized that night too as I experienced this that I was starting new circles there.  Not just in my rings back and forth to Delhi but in relationships, beliefs, understandings.  This overarching circle of life and death is defined by these intertwining and varied smaller circles/cycles.

I have learned a lot this year.  And this concept of the intertwining circles and cycles of our lives has stuck with me for some weeks now.  I spoke with a man at another airport for two hours on the subject of destiny versus free will.  I have thought more about life and death and the natural process of things.  I have been remembering my studies in Gestalt where there is a cycle of experience and if it is broken then that is where we get stuck psychologically.  In Family Systems theory we look at the patterns that we pass down from generation to generation.

I bought the new Pablo Coelho book on this trip (The Zahir).  It describes his journey to accepting love as the central point in the universe, his awareness of loving something bigger than himself, and his letting go of his history in order to be free.

He describes how some of our “stories” get interrupted and keeping us cycling round and round.

“I am free, but, as I’m sure you’ll understand, therein lies the secret; there are always some stories that are “interrupted” and they are the stories that remain nearest to the surface and so still occupy the present; only when we close that story or chapter can we begin the next one.”


“That is why it is so important to let certain things go.  To release them.  To cut loose.  People need to understand that no one is playing with marked cards; sometimes we win and sometimes we lose.  Don’t expect to get anything back, don’t expect recognition for your efforts, don’t expect your genius to be discovered or your love to be understood.  Complete the circle.  Not out of pride, inability or arrogance, but simply because whatever it is no longer fits in your life.  Close the door, change the record, clean the house, get rid of the dust.  Stop being who you were and become who you are.”

I imagine mapping out the many patterns and circles in my life.  The things that have been passed to me in my family (the amazing things and the stuff that I am still working through).  Habits and things that I do that don’t serve me but somehow still stick around.  Circles that I have closed when I realized a place, a person, a job, or a belief was complete and I could move on.  I imagine the world map of my travels and all those circles.  Circles back and forth from Pennsylvania to Los Angeles.  The inner petals of my flower.  The longer oval circles of LA to South Africa to LA to London to LA to Cambodia to LA to Uzbekistan….

In Uzbekistan, this desert space around me is vast and it has given me the time and space to look closer at myself and the world.  Working with an illness that does not exist in my home country and yet is pervasive in many places around the world.  A medical treatment that is full of such harsh medications and side effects.  Looking at the core of what people’s motivations are to live.  What they care about when they think that they will not live.

On this day (that I am writing), I will land in Nukus, Karakalpakstan.  Back from my trip to Turkey.  I will step off of the plane onto the stairs.  There will be a very hot wind blowing.  A hazy orange sun low to the horizon.  I’ll take the walk to the building.  This will be my fifth time arriving at Nukus airport.  I’ll know the passport control officer (he is always the same).  I’ll chat for a couple of minutes with a business traveler (engineer) that will wonder what I am doing here.  I will head to the baggage claim.  This will be one of the things that is not circular in my world ;)

A 20-foot conveyer belt goes straight across the long side of a small room.  If you don’t grab your bag, it will slide off and pile up on the floor at the end.  I will shove my way into the crowd.  Everyone from the plane will burrow in to try to get right along side this 20 feet of belt.  We will all be touching arm to arm and shoulder to shoulder just to be sure we have completely and efficiently occupied the area.  I’ll be in a full sweat in the 100 plus heat.

Once I get my bag (a suitcase borrowed from our Italian pharmacist that has now come to four countries with me in the last month), I will shuffle out with the crowd.  Take the ramp down.  The wind will be blowing still.  Nukus will be screaming summer as loud and powerfully as it screamed winter.

I will see the MSF Toyota truck and our driver will push through the crowd to take my suitcase from me.  We will smile.  He will say, “Courtney, welcome back to Nukus.”  He will tell me how hot it has been in the days past and ask about my vacation.  We will communicate as best we can in simple English and the three Russian words that I know ; )

He will put my bag in the back and I will climb in the front with him.  We will drive with the windows down through town to the office so I can use the internet before I go home to sleep.  It’s summer so we will see all the women and children walking in the streets and the men on bicycles.  It is almost 9pm and still light out.  It will be a strange contrast to the dark stillness that was the winter.  But the wind will still be blowing in this desert keeping the air full of dust and salt.

The difference in this arrival is that I am aware that this is the last time that I will arrive on this circle.  The next time I see the airport will be my end of mission (in the next two months).

So these next weeks I will be closing this particular Ring Road around Karakalpakstan.  It feels to me a bit like reaching the last couple of chapters of a book.  I am tempted to rush through and read for hours to see what happens and get it done.  But a bigger part of me takes my time.  I put it aside and read when I am able to really take it in.  I want to finish at just the right time.

And I have tagged some corners along the way so that I can go back from time to time to review the things that I saw then as important and wanted to remember.

What do I care about in this life?  When my body is stripped of it’s material possessions and I am ready for my last bath in the Ganga…..what tattoos will my soul wear?  I think it is part of those contemplations that have led me to be ready to end old stories and start some new ones.

25 February 2012

What It feels like for a girl

The process of writing for me is like a giant exhale.  Thoughts start to swirl in my head.  I think about all these different things for days or weeks and then I get to the place that writing is a way to organize it and let it live a life of it’s own.

These past weeks, I have been thinking a lot about women around the world.  I can remember when the Madonna song “What it feels like for a girl,” came out.  I liked it but I didn’t necessarily feel that it expressed my experience of being a female.  With lyrics like….”Strong inside but you don’t know it, Good little girls they never show it, When you open up your mouth to speak, Could you be a little weak.”

Indian Construction Worker

Granted, I was born in the late 1970s in the United States to two pretty liberal minded parents.  My mom didn’t wear makeup, she didn’t really like getting all dressed up.  She worked full time.  Neither of them wanted me to base my identity on whether I was attractive or not.  They steered me towards gymnastics rather than dance because they felt it was more athletic and less gender based.  Because they had married very young, they didn’t want me to have serious relationships when I was young.  Even my grandmother was always of the opinion that there was time later for marriage.  Do well in school, be ambitious, go out into the world, live your life.

Individual personalities start very early.  Somehow, I still wanted so much to wear my mom’s few pairs of high heels.  I turned her turquoise robe into a gown.  I didn’t want to go to the grocery store without eyeliner on by the time I was 12.

At 34, this brand of western independence, desire to explore the edges of the world, professional ambitions, liberal principles, and love of all things feminine makes me somewhat of an alien in many parts of the planet.  Outside of North America and Europe most women live a very different life.  Being unwed is just the start of my obvious differences.  In both Cambodia and Uzbekistan, the first questions that any person asks me are “how old are you and are you married?”  It lets people know how they should address you.  There is consistent shock when I tell them I am 34 and that at that age I could be without a husband or children.  A national staff woman that is 25 told me that MSF workers have started to get used to this.  Many expat women that come are similar (30s and unmarried) but in their culture it is absolutely foreign.  It was the same in Africa and Cambodia.  Women marry between 18-25.  Adult life for them is defined by being a wife and a mother.

And it is not that I don’t want these things.  In fact, as I head into my mid 30s, I somehow…for the first time….fear that I am falling behind on a goal that I want very very much.  In my teens and my 20s, I knew that being married and a parent would be in the future and then one day you wake up and go….wait, isn’t the future NOW.  And then suddenly I think….how do I make that happen?  It is so different then making the other goals in my life come to be true.  And what in the world does a satisfying relationship look like?

Bali: This woman climbs a mountain before sunrise with a heavy load on her back every morning to serve hot drinks at the top of a volcano

Many urban, educated, independent women in the United States ask similar questions.  One of my best girlfriends decided at 39 that the relationship/marriage thing was taking too long and decided to have a baby on her own.  In Los Angeles, I am of the youngest of my friends and we are all largely unmarried and without children.  As my women friends approach the second half of their 30s there is a looming thought….will the opportunity pass us by?

In the US, I see how men have also become confused at how to approach relationships.  The pendulum is still swinging.  For so long women were either whores or virtuosic.  Then the lines blurred.  A sort of revolution happened and women were able to move into professions previously reserved for men.  Before you knew it, US households were based on a two-person income.  Then the crunch.  Women were then straddling two spheres.  They still held the majority of responsibilities in the home (taking care of their children, cleaning, cooking, etc) and they held full time jobs.

Men were raised to respect a women’s independent nature.  They were not supposed to open doors and chivalry was not necessary for a strong woman.  We can take care of ourselves!



I think I am part of the generation though that has realized, yes we can take care of ourselves but…wait, I also like being taken care of.  I don’t want to do it all on my own.  I have proved that I can pay my own bills, make my own decisions, and I don’t want to do it all on my own.  I like when a man opens the door, carries my luggage, holds my hand.  I actually feel more like a woman then.  Many of my female friends in the US that have gotten married and start to have children are now fighting a different battle…the right to stay home with their children even if they have a Masters level education.

Cambodian Street Children


So this is confusing enough for those of us that grew up in the same country with the same television shows and similar experiences.  Then take me and throw me into these different countries with very different experiences for women.  At surface, it seems natural that women (and humans in general) would marry early in adulthood, combine efforts to raise families, use extended networks to do this.  It is the natural order of things.  I agree.  But as someone that works in the arena of social issues, I am just more attuned to paying attention and thinking about some of the other “stuff.”



Of course some of that is more obvious and dramatic.  I went to Cambodia to work in an organization that assists young girls (13-18) that have been rescued from sex trafficking.  The idea that it is wrong to sell your daughter into prostitution is something that people around the world agree with.  And yet, it happens.  In MANY places, children are sent to work.  And girls are absolutely more expendable than boys to a family.  Sometimes children go to work for the furniture shop down the street but then that person makes a deal that a girl would be more profitable in a brothel.  That’s the risk.  And poor families take it.

In Cambodia there is a long running proverb, “Girls are made of cloth, Men are made of Gold.”  The implication is that if a man gets dirty, he can be wiped clean.  A girl (a cloth) is dirty forever.

South African Zulu Dancing



In South Africa, I was dumbfounded when I heard endless stories of women that came to find that they had HIV, had husbands that traveled while they stayed in their township/villages, had never cheated on their husbands, and yet were terrified to tell their husbands because they knew they would be blamed and beaten.




Uzbekistan is modern in many ways.  Fashion is largely up to date.  Education is very good and available.  Many professions are available to women as well as men.  In the workplace, women are respected and able to take some positions of leadership.  But as I got a bit deeper in, I have seen some bigger differences.


Girls of Karakalpakstan, Uzbekistan



Several weeks ago, I was in the car with one of our male national staff (in his early 30s).  He was in the back, me in the front seat.  Our driver didn’t speak English.  Somehow, we started to talk about men and women.  Lottie da.  Talking.  Talking.  This and that.  And then….”Yeah, most men still believe in beating their wives at the start of the marriage.”  I stared forward so he couldn’t see the reaction on my face.  (In my head): What?!







So do they wait for the first argument?

No, they deliberately beat their wife in the first week after they get married.


To show who has the power in the relationship.

What percentage of men do you think still do this?


Oh.  Really? 70%

Yeah.  I would say that the majority of my classmates did it.


I don’t beat my wife.


It just stayed with me.  I went home that night and talked to my female American housemate about it.  Suddenly some of the other information that I saw and heard added up differently.  I work hard at not being judgmental of other cultures and things that I could not possibly understand.  But things like that sit so heavily in my stomach.

I was told things like:

Girls are seen as “guests” in their biological families because they will eventually marry and go to live with their in-laws.  Then, they are also seen as “guests” in the homes of their in-laws.

Carpet Makers in Khiva, Uzbekistan

Carpet Makers in Khiva, Uzbekistan


Once a girl marries, she is expected to follow the rules of her husband (and more specifically of his family).  If he wants her to wear a scarf on her head, then that is what she should do.  A good wife does not drink much alcohol and does not smoke cigarettes.  She does not wear bright colors.  She does all the cooking and cleaning in the home.  While she lives with her in-laws, it is her job to take care of them.  She should not quarrel with anyone in the house.  When guests are over, she should serve them.  And once, I was even told that in cultures (not necessarily in Central Asia) where woman are supposed to dress in full black that it is to express that they are shadows of their husbands



Some of us were invited over to the house of a national staff (aged 23, married with one two month year old daughter).  We were going to meet his wife, young baby, and in laws.  It was a great day.  They hosted us in a large dining room.  There was a long table low to the floor.  We sat on cushions and ate delicious salads and fresh bread and rice and cakes.   His wife came in when we first got there.  We were all introduced and then she left.  An hour or so later, she came back with the baby.  We took turns holding her.  Did a cultural tradition of placing money in the baby’s hand to bring her good fortune.  Fifteen minutes later, his wife and the baby left and did not return until two hours later when we were finishing and saying our goodbyes.  Oh, I stand corrected.  His wife came once or twice during the meal to bring more food and to replenish our supply of tea.

Dancing at a wedding in Karakalpakstan, Uzbekistan

When we go out which is one or twice a week for dinner and some dancing, national male staff normally join us.  They are all married but I have never met their wives and national female staff rarely join us (unless it is a preplanned special event).  I get it, they have children to take care of.  But, of course, it is more than that.

I was out one night and met a nice Karakalpak boy.  He could speak little English and my Karakalpak is limited to thank you and let’s go.  So there was little chance that this was going anywhere but….even if we could somehow speak the same verbal language….I laughed talking with my housemate….As a western woman, I have been socialized to be useless to many men around the world.  I can’t cook very much, I don’t like cleaning, I love to go out for drinks and dancing, and if he raised a hand to me….I’d probably kick him in the stomach on instinct alone (I am a pacifist by heart though ; )


So what does all this mean.  Well, I am just processing.




For the world, I know that studies show that more equality in societies leads to less violence against women.  In development work studies have shown that if you give money to men in a community they typically reinvest 30% back into their families but if you earmark money to women in a community they typically reinvest up to 90% back into their families.

And personally.  Well, I go back and forth.  Sometimes I feel certain that the right person for me will have to be from a western culture with some old chivalry imbedded in their blood.  But then, the universe reminds me that you never know.  On my most recent trip, I met an Afghani man.  He told me that when he grew up (in Afghanistan before the Russians and the Taliban) that on his street there were families where the man worked and was in charge of all outside decisions while the woman was in total charge of the home, and families where both the man and woman worked and took equal decisions in and out of the home, and families (much less but still there) where the woman worked and the man stayed home.  And the most interesting thing he told me….His father had told him as a little boy…it is fine to be religious but please remember that people are human beings first.

Just Me

So one never knows where you will find love.  I will just have to stay open and trust that it will happen.  And as a woman, I respect greatly the experiences of women around the world.  We as humans have so much in common even while living such different lives.





March 2 2012

Just some quick travel updates:

Tashkent Market

I came into Uzbekistan on a three-month initial visa.  Can you believe it has been three months already?!

And in order to work here I also need a professional accreditation (the country has to check my degrees, references etc).  And so, MSF made plans to send me to our sister program in Dushanbe, Tajikistan.

I needed to go through Tashkent (the capital) first.  Our head team is there so it was a great chance to hang out with everyone and to have some of the luxuries of a city.  I made plans to stay at the

Gypsy Madonna Art Exhibit

apartment of our project Advocate, Natasha, whom I became friends with when she visited Nukus.  She has a great apartment in the city.  I got to Tashkent last weekend and found myself at an art opening with live jazz and then at a sweet restaurant with an actual vegetarian menu section!  Sunday a group of us explored the flea market.  You cannot even believe the millions of things we came across

and still only saw a fraction.

I also passed my time at a great café across from the apartment where I was staying.  Americano coffees to go or to dine in.  A full cabinet of delicious cakes, croissants, muffins.  We ate crepes to celebrate the Russian pancake holiday.  Monday was meetings and more time to enjoy the capital team.

Taskkent Flea Market

Tuesday, I set out with our HR capital coordinator, Viji.  We flew from Taskent to Termez.  An MSF driver picked us up.  We drove three hours to the border.  First through the desert and then through the farmlands.  Grass!  My first signs of spring.

The border is a series of buildings and stops.  Generally you have to walk the 1-2 kilometers but since our car had gotten permission (and we think they mistook our plates for diplomatic status) Viji and I never even get out the car.

Our next two hours, we drove through the hills of Tajikistan.  White snow capped mountains framed the view.  More farms.  Red roofs.  And generally more bustle than we see in Uzbekistan.  Oolibek, our driver, stopped to buy some flowers from the roadside kids.  He explained that when the first snow melts these yellow flowers are already there.  They smell delicious.  Life is growing!

Dushanbe is cozy.  A small city situated in a valley with 360 views of the mountains.  The weather has been incredible.  Sunny.  +15 C (60F).  The project was just started in the last 6 months.  It is a pediatric TB program and they are just starting to enroll patients.  4 of us from the Uzbek teams happen to be here visiting at the same time (2 people from Tashkent and two of us from Nukus).  They put us up at a guesthouse/hotel around the corner from the office.  I have had my own bathroom and a double bed!  Life is good ; )

First flowers of spring

We slept well after our 9 hour journey here.  My first day at the office, I got to meet the team.  The Psychosocial Officer (my counterpart here) is a Psychologist from New Zealand.  She has two counselors that work for her.  They are both former pediatricians.  They are still building the project from the ground up.  They currently visit a children’s center daily.  37 children with TB live there for 6-8 months at a time.  Their families often cannot be there with them since they come from so far away.  There is no school for them and no toys.  So the counselors go each day with three buckets of toys and activities.  The children were all outside waiting for us to arrive.  The Landover dropped us off.  The kids all called out the counselors’ names and jumped up and down, grabbing the buckets to carry in.

We played a game to get started and to get some of their energy out.  The children range in ages from 2-15.  The girls all wear scarves on their heads and all of them have a mix of pajamas and traditional clothes.  They hugged us and held our hands.  They smile so big!  The bigger children take time to practice schooling while the smaller ones got out some play dough (the counselors made it the day before and this was the first time that the kids had seen it).  We also made a big picture with a sun, mountains, flowers, and clouds.  Some of them played with blocks.  Some did puzzles.  They had the memory game out.  We finished the time with a circle outside where we took our respirators off (we as staff have to wear masks at all times when we are inside).  We sang “head, shoulders, knees and toes…knees and toes.”  They also sang traditional songs and invited me inside the circle to dance with them.  They hugged us in hordes as we piled the buckets back into the MSF truck when we left.  It was wonderful.

In the afternoon, I sat in on a meeting with an anthropologist that has been hired to do case studies to examine the stigma of TB and some of the influences that culture has on treatment.  We discussed some of the psychosocial aspects of traditional rituals as related to one young girl’s particular case.  Fascinating.

9 of us (8 countries represented:  Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Georgia, Holland, New Zealand and the United States) went to dinner at a quaint restaurant.  They had wine by the glass on the menu and they even asked which country I wanted it from!  Wow.  I have been in the village for a long time ; )

But just to share the whole picture…

As this is still a work trip, there have also been meetings and discussions as I work to edit the official adherence guidelines for my project in Karakalpakstan which included meetings, emails and discussions with our advisors in Amsterdam and Berlin, monthly status reports that are due now, consultations by phone and emails with my counselors regarding a TB patient of ours that is considering an abortion, and all else….

Oh yeah, and logistics.  Life in the mission is filled with endless logistics.  So while the melodic music that was playing as we all pictured me drinking aromatic coffee from a café mug and taking hot showers from a constant flow of heated water….let us hear the needle scratch across the record…and…cue the circus music…

Thursday at 10:30 I hear…Courtney, did you go to the Uzbek Embassy?

Huh?  I was never told I had to go to the embassy?

Really…you got an email two weeks ago…

Yeah, it was one sentence that said my new Uzbek visa would be obtained in Dushanbe and attached were two forms that were completely in Russian.

Yeah, you were supposed to go to the embassy.

Who should I talk to?

Yeah, that person isn’t in the office.

Ok.  When will they be back?

Then I wait an hour.

The person comes back.

Oh, you need to get your visa.


Well, the embassy closes at 12 and it is 12 now.  You can’t get it today.

Ok.  But I was supposed to leave tomorrow.

Well, you can’t.

Then 100 conversations about the people in Tashkent vs the people in Dushanbe that were supposed to take care of this.  And reviewing the emails and who was and who wasn’t (me) cc’d on the info.  And where the breakdown was.

So can I go back with Susan (our Infection Control Specialist that is also here from Nukus) on Saturday?

Well, she is going back through Hojent and not through Termez .

And wait….she was told she was going back on Saturday to Tashkent but now that we look at her tickets it says that she is going back on Sunday.

Wait, when is she going? So maybe Courtney, you will need to go on Monday when the project coordinator travels.  And if you are going to stay until Monday then you should move into the expat house and not stay in the hotel.  And wait, maybe you can go with Susan but she is leaving on Sunday instead of Saturday.  And now we will need to change both of your plane tickets back to Nukus…..

So I did what any good American would do with all of this going on….

I left my passport with the HR department.  Told them to call me if they needed me.  Told them that I am happy to be in Dushanbe for a couple of more days but please I do need to get back to my team in Nukus at the beginning of next week.

And I went shopping.  After all, they actually have STORES in Dushanbe.  ; )


Tajik White House

So play the melodic tunes again and see me (sans coat since it was 15C, 60F) wandering this small city for 2 and half hours taking photos and getting some spring clothes to take back to the land of Karakalpakstan.

I was supposed to be leaving this morning but…as life reminds me to remain flexible….I am writing still from Tajikistan.  It will all be ok.  Just spending time out and about in Central Asia.

A view of the moon from Tajikistan

Time Travel

4 February 2012

Time Travel:

I like to fall asleep to music or watching something.  Before coming on my mission, I tried to download as much stuff as possible.  They warned us that on many missions and projects that there is not much to do in the evenings.  Some things that are nice in Karakalpakstan are that we have a big team, we have few safety concerns (no curfews), and there are a couple of restaurants and dance places.  So I have had much less time than I thought to read, watch shows, or study new things.  The free Yale courses on economics and philosophy sit largely unwatched.  But I still have much more downtime than I did in LA.  Borrowing the projector from work and watching movies in the expat houses is a regular group activity.  And the 30 minutes or so before I fall asleep is a good time to watch a show or listen to a podcast.

One show that I brought is called “Through the Wormhole” and it is a science program that explores different ideas.  I had been watching this one about time travel that left me thinking about the experience of time for us humans and the subjective nature of what it means.

I have seen drawings of how people from different cultures value past, present and future.  They ask subjects to draw three circles and make the size of the circle relevant for importance and whether there is overlap.  (Thomas Cottle, 1967).   What you see is that western cultures place more emphasis on the future and the east places more on the present.  There is also a difference between cultures that have strong business versus areas with less wealth or higher conflict.  It is much harder or less necessary to focus on the future when there is little food or insecurity today.

But so many things influence the experience of time:  religion, mindset, activity, attention.   A watched kettle takes longer to boil.  A busy day flies by.

For me, Karakalpakstan is somewhere different than any place that I have lived before.  In South Africa or Cambodia, the level of poverty was more visible, the impact of crisis more apparent (HIV in SA, and survivors of genocide in Cambodia), and general education levels much lower.  Here the soviets installed strong schools and opportunities for upper level degrees.  We have several translators that have Masters degrees and there are staff that studied abroad in high school and at the University level.  Women’s roles in the home and family are different compared to the US but they have many more professional opportunities than I have seen in most places.  It seems that about 70% of the national doctors that we work with are women.


But the idea of planning ahead is more like the east than the west.  I asked our HR admin assistant that helps us with a lot of social plans if he could call to make us a dinner reservation.  He looked at the clock and then looked at me like I had five heads.  It was 2pm and I was hoping to get us a table for 7pm.  The idea to call five hours ahead was obviously absurd.  We have a training for the Ministry of Health nurses next Monday.  At the end of the day on Thursday my assistant let me know that a venue had still not been assigned.  She said that the Deputy often waited until the day before to answer the call and somehow it always seems to work out (usually by phone call versus the written info that we request).  And day to day plans both at work and personally seem to be the same.  It is rare for us to plan ahead.  I do a monthly work schedule so that my staff can know where I will be but it would be impossible for me to update it since it changes almost every hour.  Dinner and other social plans often come together as the workday ends.  Life feels like it unfolds here….rather than a system of goals, strategies, planning, and destinations.

That’s not to say that we don’t try.  There are some of us that decide a whole week ahead about something.  But after you see many times that change is more constant than stability…..you learn to hold onto planning much less than before.

Getting here was like that.  Most MSF people have a story of plans changing, time frames switching, lack of information,  and last minute…..whooommm….a portal of airports and briefings….and than…poof…you are in a strange land.  The organization and the process of working for MSF self selects people that can manage this.  Not that it is without its frustrations but we all still laugh about it and continue to exercise flexibility and patience.

I entered the country on a three month initial visa.  I have to leave twice by regulations.  I was supposed to go to India but we couldn’t get a visa for there in time so now I will go to Tajikistan at the end of February.  My American self wants all the details now so that I can plan…..no chance.  Flights and arrangements come in the days before and if dates are changed so be it.

This may sound like no big deal or it might sound horrific depending on how you organize your life.  I realized clearly last year when I lived in Cambodia, that people in the developing world and in the East are generally much more comfortable with uncertainty than Westerners.  I have definitely strengthened my muscles of flexibility in this time and I stand somewhere in the middle now.  I love the experience of trusting that things will happen as they should but I also have this need to have some of it structured.

In my work with patients, I have started to contemplate the cultural differences of timing.  We offer free medical treatment for a complicated and expensive disease:  multi-drug-resistant tuberculosis.  The regimen is up to two years long and can involve 20 medications that take somewhere between 2 to 5 hours to ingest seven days per week.  The pills have a variety of serious side effects that include nausea to fatigue to headaches.  The treatment must be taken with food which is a problem for many of our patients.  They are usually unable to work during the two years and so many of our patients do not have money to eat.  Without the medication, patients will eventually die.  When people do not take the treatment as prescribed (7 days per week for the 18-24 months), they increase their chances of becoming more resistant to the drugs until they no longer can work.  And yet, adherence runs around 70%.

The reasons for defaulting are wide but I am starting to recognize the challenges of providing adherence motivation to a culture (especially among the very poor) that see the future as the end of the day and not two years from now.  Building goals that are based on when they have completed the treatment is not realistic.  The 18 year old girl that I was working with for a month lives in a small village.  All of her neighbors know that she has TB.  It is already inappropriate for a good village girl to go out much but now the stigma of the disease has her family keeping her at home entirely.  When I ask her what she enjoys doing, she sits silent and unable to come up with anything.  When I ask her what she does each day, she answers about housework and staying indoors.  I notice that on some days she has painted her nails and put on some glittery eye shadow.  She dresses up in her high-heeled knee boots and has her hair done when I meet her at the clinic.  But she hates the treatment and she hates thinking about a future when she may get sick.  For now, she is healthy and is unable to focus on “goals.”  She just wishes she could go out for a walk but it is winter and she’s not allowed out anyhow.

So how should we measure time?  Once you feel how subjective it is, you realize how it can change and how it deeply affects the experience of life.  When I did group therapy back in the States, I would talk with the veterans about this.  How the past, present and future may not actually be a linear line.  Our version of the past can be completely repainted as if we take the canvas and add a whole new color.  Imagine a scene with a sunset that suddenly is a bright blue day.  How is that not time travel?  A realization of how completely different something can be seen adds a hue to our life story.

When I was in the US, I spent a month where I had no idea what would happen next.  Suddenly, I was in a very different space.  I didn’t know if MSF would work out or not.  I couldn’t spend my time job searching until I knew.  The whole world seemed to slow to a different speed.  I focused on the present and aimed to enjoy each day and try not to get preoccupied with a future that was so unknown.  My past had been largely planned out.  When I would set a goal, I could have great foresight and strategy about how to make it happen.  I tried to see the time as a gift and a vacation from my western preoccupation with who I was in the future….and rather experience my self (and my worth) from a “now” perspective.  At that time, I wrote a two page list of the things that I feel “good” at and what makes me feel satisfied personally and professionally.  Just three months later, that is now my reality.  The list became my life.  And I am wondering how is that not a form of time travel?

So if I measure time by how I experience a day then it feels like a flash.  I wake up at 6am.  I turn on the fire that warms the bathroom water.  I lay down for another hour and a half.  I wake up at 7:45.  I put my head in the tub.  Wash my hair in a blue plastic bucket.  I step in and wash my body.  I go to my room and put on my first layer of clothes:  thermal tights, a tank top, a long sleeved shirt.  I put the kettle on.  Make a coffee.  Get the homemade yogurt out.  (A doctor says she knows the cow where it comes from)  I sprinkle some of the homemade granola that my housemate and I baked.  (Ingredients from the bazaar.  Local honey.  Local walnuts.  Local almonds.  Local oats.  Locally dried plums and grapes).  I do 10-15 minutes of yoga stretches.  Dry my hair.  Put on my makeup sitting on the floor of my bedroom in front of an unframed sheet of a mirror.  I put on my next layer of clothes:  jeans, a sweater.  8:45am.  The Toyota honks.  I rush out to the living room.  My housemates and I all crowd at the door to put on our boots, wrap the scarf, put on the hat, coat, gloves.  My bags.  Someone locks the one door.  We walk out to the garage.  Unlock the door.  Lock it behind us.  Climb in the back of the jeep.  Say hi to the other expats and the driver.  Head to the office.

9am.  We arrive at the office.  Climb out of the jeep.  100 people (drivers, national staff, expats, a cat) all line the front yard, the stairs, the dining room, the front desk, the medical team office, the psychosocial department office, logistics, administration.  Everyone shakes hands as you move through.  The kettles are being filled.  People make coffee, mingle, smile.  The day has started.  We will all chat, check in, start the follow up of the last day, drink another cup of tea or coffee and take the first half an hour to get into it.  The next 9-10 hours will be a flurry of activity.  Most people will huddle in and out of our 13 cars to be shuttled to polyclinics, hospitals, patient homes, and meetings.  We will all aim to diagnose, treat, and motivate 900 patients towards a cure to a strangely dangerous and strong disease.  We will aim to train and build the capacity of a decayed health care system.  And….every day….we will ultimately learn something new and connect with new people and new parts of ourselves.  And somehow in a flash, it will be night time.  We will gather again in the office.  Some of us will stay late doing emails, reviewing protocols and guidelines, schedule more meetings.  Some of us will shuttle home in the jeeps.  Some of us will come together and find some café to eat where we will be the only non-Karakalpaks.  Some nights we will find ourselves dancing to Western cheesy club music.

And bam, a month has flown by.  If I measure time by this, it is swift.  It is full without being overwhelming.  It is present focused.  It is full of drives through the rolling desert with light layers of snow.  Roaming cows and goats.  The occasional camel.  Villages.  Local food that doesn’t need the tag of “organic” and is not bought in a grocery store but at a “bazaar” that is a large layout of tin roofs and could resemble a bombed out small town…except there was no “war.”  The constant low hum of a gas burner.  The chatter of 20 international professionals gathering for a year to dedicate a year of their lives to this cause.  Leaving behind paychecks and family and friends and their own cars.  Gas outages.  Electricity outages.  -20C.


And if I measure time by the feeling that comes when you miss the people you love, the people who know you, and you get for even a minute the reality that it will be a whole year until someone hugs you, until you are free to go on a date to a nice restaurant, or that you can flush toilet paper down the toilet, or brush your teeth without bottled water, or take for granted a hot shower that you haven’t had to light a fire to make, or talk to someone without ordering a car to pick you up and take you 20 minutes to an office to set up skype (if it works), or see the ocean…..if I measure time by that….it is very different.

I imagine that the lives of my patients and their experience of time must be different too.  So interesting that we can all exist in some ways together.  Right next door to each other.  And sometimes on the other side of this large planet.  And much of it is the same and how much it is different.  …It’s going to take some time  (whatever that means) to figure it all out.


As i felt when i was leaving LA….it is definitely harder to be away this time.
I just really enjoyed being in all of your prescence when I was there
but I keep the faith that LA and the warm air will also be there when this is complete.
My job here is pretty incredible.
I sat down in November when everything was up in the air and I made two pages of bullet points of the things that I wished for in a job.
Coming here, I realized quickly that this job matches nearly every single point.
It’s certainly matches the challenges that I faced at my VA job and is likely the most challenging job I have ever had.  I love it and of course some moments of some days (already ; ) I think why did I not spend more time manifesting that 4 hour work week ; )
The answer usually comes to me when I am visiting patients at the clinics or at their homes or when i am having a case disscusion/supervision meeting with my staff (I have two offices and we each do one of these meetings for two hours per week) and we are all discussing the psychology behind a patient’s case, discussing strategies for building human connection, or we are examining what really inspires and motivates human beings.
The lows come when I just wish that I could sit across a table and share a story or a glass of wine with one of you.  Someone that really knows me.  Or I just want to see the ocean.

Jeanne Whitfield White

This week, I got the news that my grandmother passed away.  She was my favorite person in the family and even though I did not see her all that often, in my adult years I had many insightful and wise conversations with her.

She was a very spiritual and open minded person.  Progressive, kind, and incredibly soft spoken.  Some of our contrasts were what endeared us to each other more I think.
She remained one of my largest supporters always.
Our last serious conversation was on Thanksgiving.  She asked me how I was managing the limbo that I was in.  I told her that it was strengthening my faith in God and the Universe.  That it was a practice of being present and active in my life while trusting and allowing.  She told me that she was so grateful to hear me say that and it was exactly how she was aiming to live her life as well.
I layed on the floor of my bedroom and cried for two hours after I got the news.  It was a mixture of serious grief and also the physical pain of not being able to be with my family.  One always hopes that no matter where we are and what choices we make that we can still be physically present for times that matter the most.
But after several discussions and realizations of cost and distance….I am not coming home.
My grandmother’s total support of my work and her spiritual nature give me faith that she understands.
I am taking a weekend trip to an ancient holy city next weekend and will prepare a memorial for her there.
People here have reached out in support of me this week which has been really nice.  Several people shared stories of similar things and how they managed being away.
I keep thinking of a quote from the Richard Back book that I read for my grandfather’s memorial service:
–this is the last day-a-year, special-time celebration that I shall be with you, learning what I have learned from our friends the birds.
I cannot go to be with you because I am already there.
You are not little because you are already grown, playing among your lifetimes as do we all, for the fun of living.
You have no birthday because you have always lived, you were never born, and never will you die.
You are not the child of the people you call mother and father, but their fellow- adventurer on a bright journey to understand the things that are.—    (Richard Bach, There’s No Such Place as Far Away)

When I pulled myself off my bedroom floor, I went to see my therapy patient.  An 18 year old girl that has had TB for the last two years.  She has XTR which means that her disease is resistant to first and second line drugs so she has a 50% of living through it.  She has become stubborn (as teenagers can be!) and so she has started skipping out on going to the clinic to take her drugs.  The doctor and the nurse are extremely concerned at this point because if she does not take the treatment correctly she will likely become resistant to all the medications.
So I started to see her at her home once a week.
She lives in a simple home.  They have a barren yard with pens for a goat and some chickens.  There is no furniture inside other than some low to ground tables with mats on the floor to sit.  She is done school and is not allowed out in the village (due to stigma and her age) so she stays home and does housework.  She was in a totally cute dress and tights that day.  We decided to not talk so much about TB so we (with my assistant/translator) played games and talked.  I taught her how to play Uno and she taught me a Karakalpak game called 6 cards.


Her smile is incredible and it was really nice to sit with her and hear her talk and think about what she wants for her future.
We drove back to town through the flat fields of the Karakapalkstan desert with roaming cows and goats.  Men riding wagons drawn by donkeys and collecting sticks and branches (since not much else is alive out here now).
We still have a dusting of snow on the ground which reflects so brightly in the sun (it is sunny almost every day).

Even on hard days, I still find that there is so much space to breathe here.  I mind the winter SO much less than I ever thought.  In fact, I even enjoy the crisp air sometimes and I got so happy when it snowed.
But I am also really excited to see it all change.  For the spring and all the seasons.  There is a lot of agriculture here and so I expect the landscape to look so different when there is color and even a bit more life.
We have a traditional deck in our back yard.  It’s just a big rectangular wooden platform.  Apparently once the weather is warm, it is common for people to take mats out and spend evenings eating and hanging out under the stars.  Staff that were here last year said that they even slept out there sometimes when the weather was too hot indoors.

For now, it is winter and so I will have to enjoy the sun (that thankfully shines usually 5 days a week), long car rides through the desert, and the continued challenge of my work.

Along the Way

15 December 2011

Along the Way

Today I am in Tashkent.  Tomorrow evening I will (finally) fly to Nukus where I will be living.  I keep hearing in my head the words that my MSF HR Coordinator told me at the beginning of October when everything was so up in the air…..”at some point, this will all be history.”  She said it with a lot of care and in a sympathetic tone for the impact that uncertainty can have on a person’s life.   There was a day last spring that I was driving my motorbike through Phnom Penh, Cambodia where I thought….there is a level of uncertainty to life in the developing world that people there are accustomed to that Americans have to learn.  My life has been strongly built on setting goals….sometimes quite big ones like moving to Los Angeles or South Africa or Cambodia….and then using whatever I have to make them happen.  And the more I travel, the more I realize this to be a unique opportunity.

But my experience with MSF has been the largest combination of goal setting and then handing over decisions….living in faith…that I have probably ever had.  In the weeks when Sri Lanka got yanked and my immediate future seemed so up in the air, I sometimes felt lost.  Like, what do I really want in this world….and what do I have to contribute….and how do I live the principles that I have come to believe.  The serenity prayer:  God grant me the strength to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things that I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.

Leaving Los Angeles this time was much harder than last year.  When I went to Cambodia, I had been living in the US again for 5 years and ready for a change.  I was anxious to get out in the world again and not just for a vacation.  This year, I was so (almost un-expectantly) at home back in LA and with my friends and with the weather and the food and the comforts of my life there.  And yet….when I think about it even now…..I wasn’t ready to stay.  When I thought about working there, I wondered how I could work the least and still somehow manage financially.  I couldn’t imagine working 50-70 hours again, renting an apartment, buying new furniture, getting back on that train.  I have started thinking a lot more about wanting to have a home and a base and roots….but know that I am just not quite ready…..

So I did what I knew I could to wait it out….I jogged, I spent time with friends, I made lists of the things that are important to me and what new things I want to create in my life and what I think my gifts are to contribute to this world.  And then the phone rang with several strong and encouraging conversations to consider this new opportunity in a totally new part of the world.

Today was the first day where I really looked at Uzbekistan as my driver was bringing me to the office of the MSF capital team and I thought….wow, I am in Central Asia.  I am here.  In this place that not many people in the world visit.  What an interesting life I am living.  And this place is so new to me in ways I am going to understand more about in the next months.  And it is part of a bigger story of my life where I have somehow managed to be a girl from a town of 5,000 people in Pennsylvania where some people have never visited New York City and I have now lived in Los Angeles, South Africa, London, Cambodia and now….Uzbekistan.

Tashkent, MSF Office

The administrator of our office told me yesterday that he applied last year for a tourist visa to the US and he was denied.  His brother moved to Colorado five years ago and he has not seen him since.  He hopes to try again for a visa next year.  I told him that I had met a lot of people in Cambodia that were also denied visas to visit their families in the US.  He said that he does understand because so many people in the world might consider illegally staying in the US if they got there…..he said that the American dream is still very big in the world.  That thought is still sinking in for me today.  I forget that and I take it for granted that so many people around the world 1) cannot financially or for reasons of visas travel (certainly not the way that I have been able to) and that 2) many people around the world have US life on a pedestal of unending possibility.

I realized, mostly after living in England, that my life is quintessentially American.  I was raised in an atmosphere that was optimistic and encouraging that anything really was possible.  And it has been.  I told both of my parents this fall that while obviously nothing is perfect….I can’t even begin to express to them the impact of them telling me as a child that I could do anything that I wanted has had on my life.  And every time that I travel, I am only more aware of that.  And even when I am down on certain over consumption habits or growing dissatisfaction with politics in America, I need to remind myself that as an American, the optimism that it has grown into my cellular makeup is apparent.

So what is it like for me to take that with me and to be here….

the portal bed

This week was challenging.  My first couple of days I felt like I was half asleep.  Jet lag.  A certain disbelief.  And being alone….each time I have gone abroad before I have been with friends at least initially.  On Tuesday night, it seemed to come to a head.  I had to move from the MSF guesthouse to a hotel (something to do with country registration laws).  The place was a large building with strange architecture.  It centered around a courtyard and was two stories.  Our administrator did all the negotiating for my room in Russian or Uzbek (I couldn’t tell) and I started to feel myself slipping to some outer ring.  I am alone.  I don’t speak the language.  I don’t really know where I am.  My room was simple but they had it decorated in this (to me) weird way to make it seem grander….the wallpaper was a light green with some sparkles, the curtains were thick and silky green, and above the bed was this white cement and wood circular thing that kind of looked like a giant wagon wheel with another circle on the wall.   It was like some portal to the sky.  I was so tired and yet I knew that I probably shouldn’t nap.  That can make jet lag worse because it is harder to sleep at night.  But I didn’t want to move.  I couldn’t even imagine going out to dinner by myself.  The effort to try and communicate was more than I could do.  The menus were generally in Russian and I hadn’t had enough experience to know if people really spoke enough English for me to explain that I am a vegetarian and figure out what to order.  I didn’t want to write because I was tired and sad and even though so much had been going through my head it didn’t feel coherent.  So I just stood by the door and cried.  I crawled into bed and told myself that I should just give myself that night to wallow a bit and rest.  That if I did that, I would surely feel better tomorrow.

I woke up reluctantly after a two and half hour nap and literally drug myself to the grocery store.  It was busy and set-up like any other medium sized grocery store that I have ever been to.  There were some small differences like there was a person weighing produce and pricing it in that section of the store.  I saw other people doing it so I got in line.  I felt a little like a zombie when I handed him my apples and bananas and cashews.  I knew he knew that I didn’t know what I was doing because I didn’t have bags with me and I just stared at him with deer eyes when he said something to me in Russian.  He didn’t really look at me but bagged the stuff and labeled the prices.  I wandered to the toiletry section.  Everything was labeled in Russian so I couldn’t tell what was lotion or soap.  I made a guess at shampoo vs conditioner based on the  shapes of bottles.  I leaned over to get one and hit my head on an extended shelf when I stood back up.  I looked around a little to see if anyone was watching…no one.  I felt tears in my eyes because I felt stupid and alone and strange.  I continued to shuffle through the store with my basket.  At the check out I realized I didn’t have enough cash on me.  I had gotten 300 US dollars exchanged.  It came back in these huge stacks of 1,000 bills called Sum.  I had put about 10,000 in my wallet and the rest in my hotel room.  I had no idea what things cost.  This grocery basket was 158,934 Sum (the equivalent of about $57)….so I paused to think…my mind slow and again zombie-like.  I pulled out my wallet and handed the cashier my debit card.  Totally unsure of whether she could take it.  In Cambodia, very few places would accept a credit card and it usually meant that three people would need to stare at it and discuss it and maybe ask for identification and that was only if they had a credit card machine.  But here, in Tashkent, they accepted the card.  Oh, good.  I really didn’t want to have to leave without the groceries and do this again.

I wandered back to my hotel.  Got lost at first and realized I hadn’t gotten a card and didn’t have the address.  I was too tired to really care and I knew I would find it.  I did.  I grabbed a bottle of Pierre water and my cashews and crawled into bed.  It was 8pm and I had already taken that 2 ½ hour nap.  I put on Madmen.  My perfect transitional object.  I haven’t really watched a television show in at least 6 years.  I started watching this one on DVD in October.  Now I was nearly finished four seasons in less than three months.  It was perfect.  I loved it.  Well written.  Set in a different time.  Commentary on the influence of advertising on our lives.  Americanism laden with strong alcohol, a suffocating amount of cigarettes, and dapper clothing.  I had watched it from bed on tough days in Los Angeles, on planes around the world, and in hotel rooms (in New York, Amsterdam and now Tashkent).  And when I was watching it, I actually had no need to know where I was.  Oh, this is why people watch television ; )

Sums and Sums

I assured myself that tomorrow would be better.  And behold….it was.  The last two days I have been more of myself.  I knew I was feeling better on Wednesday morning when I heard myself laugh.  I had gotten up really early.  Did some yoga in my room.  Put on my Itunes.  Decided to spread out on the floor and count this ridiculous stack of cash that I had.  I had a cup of instant coffee and my money.  I had 587,000 Sum left (after shopping for some sweaters and going to the grocery store).  A US hip hop song came on my playlist and then Prodigy’s “Smack my Bit*$ up.”  I spontaneously laughed…at the site of myself on the floor of this room, sitting on a faux Persian rug with instant coffee and three large piles of 1,000 bills with this music in the background.  I felt the hilarity.

I am sure it is a combination of adjusting to the time difference, getting to know the people in the MSF office better, having a chance to email with friends back home, reading over the material of the job I will be doing in Nukus, etc.  And I realized this week that if I allow myself the chance to just be human and be sad and acknowledge feeling strange…that I bounce back.  It is not some endless pit of sorrow and fear.  And it will come again.  The first months of being this far away have arcs.  We talked about it in Cambodia and even called it the bipolar periods.  My American friend in Vietnam talked about it.  I actually saw it graphed at my MSF training in Germany.  Culture entry, culture shock, anticipation of leaving, re-entry into home culture.  So I am just allowing it all and taking care of myself.

I remember a day in Cambodia where I was walking down a street in my neighborhood and I was on my way to language class.  I didn’t want to go.  And some locals were giggling at me as I walked by.  And for some reason on that day it just bothered me.  And I started thinking about this thing and that thing and….then I thought….this is why people don’t want to move.

And as I said before…today, for the first time since I got here, I had that feeling as my driver brought me to the office of….wow, I am in Central Asia.  And I looked at Tashkent and felt like taking photos of EVERYTHING I was seeing.  How incredible it was to be here and to see an entirely new part of the world and to be somewhere with a different alphabet and different language and different ways of living.  How incredible that I (me) have landed a job with Doctors without Borders!  An organization that I am amazed by and that impresses me with its dedication to being in places where no one else goes.  And now I am in a place that few outsiders come.  And I am going tomorrow to a place that even fewer people will ever go.  To do a job that is important and impactful and is helping real people in need.

It’s like that drawing:  there is a small circle that reads “Your comfort zone” and then there is a larger circle a couple of feet away that says “Where the magic happens”


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