Many Meetings

15 Mar

The Four Musketeers on safari, Ethiopia

For a fan of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, it is probably sacrilege to steal a chapter title from Tolkein, but I honestly couldn’t think of a more fitting header for this last post about my fellowship.  Fans of the trilogy know that the Many Meetings chapter covers the part of the story just after the fellowship has endured an arduous, stressful, and sometimes dangerous several month journey and arrived in the safe haven of Rivendell, with much rejoicing as old friends and family reunite to tell stories of the events of the recent past while also partaking in formal councils and meetings to plan for the days ahead.  For the characters in the book, it is a time to take a long rest to recover from the physical and emotional “bruises” endured along the trail, looking back on how far they have come and re-energizing before moving on with whatever lay ahead.  As the calendar page flipped to February in Addis Ababa, for the first time in my five months in Ethiopia I could see the end of my assignment and my days of rest and joyful reunions in sight.

After spending several months working to help improve operations at the Carter Center in Ethiopia, my first focus as my fellowship’s end drew nearer was making sure to “finish with finesse” and properly wrap up my ongoing projects so that they would progress after my departure.  To that end, my colleagues and I made final plans to enable the pilot of our Zithromax(R) dosing stickers, printed some research on inflation and exchange rates to aid in the office’s budget preparation, installed IT systems to help prevent viruses and enable file sharing, and printed the final MALTRA report to properly document our unprecedented achievements in the malaria and trachoma control programs.  My boss and new lifelong friend, Dr. Teshome Gebre, took Lorena and me out to a wonderful dinner at The Showroom in Mexico Square and the office threw us a farewell celebration and unexpectedly gave both Lorena and me traditional cotton Ethiopian gowns, blankets, and tablecloths!  It is strange how quickly an office can become like a home away from home, and it was certainly so with my experience at The Carter Center Ethiopia.  I will truly miss working with the team there, who are perhaps the most talented, passionately dedicated people I have ever known.

My in-country assignment came to a close after the first week in February, and Lorena and I celebrated by welcoming our great friends TJ and Nuz to Addis for our planned vacation into the Rift Valley.  Living in San Diego, we have become accustomed to entertaining visitors, but have never witnessed the shock on the faces of travelers like we did when our friends arrived in Addis!  Quickly we realized that many of the things Lo and I had become accustomed to – open sewers, car-sized potholes, sheep/goats/donkeys/cows in the streets, begging children, 40-year-old cars and trucks, smog so thick you can’t see more than a mile – were as shocking to TJ and Nuz as they were to us when we first arrived.  In a way, we had become “Habeshas” ourselves, moving through the streets and taking a “ho hum” attitude to sights to which we had once recoiled in surprise.  After some quick tours of our neighborhood, some local food (kitfo, or raw spiced ground beef), and some shopping trips to Piassa, we were off on our safari into the Rift.  Thankfully, our driver Bereket (from Duka Travel, great honest tour operators if you’re looking) was experienced and safe and never made us recoil in horror on the roads!

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For three nights we returned to Awash Falls National Park in the Afar Region of the Rift Valley, enjoying the sights and sounds of the river’s waterfalls, the baboons and vervet monkeys that roamed the trees in the lodge, the five-meter crocodiles in the river below, as well as the many lesser kudu, gazelles, oryx, jackals, and uncountable birds we saw on our game drives.  We hiked to the top of the Fantale Volcano, seeing smoke rise from its dormant dome as we stared down into its crater.  The highlight of the Awash trip was our visit to the “hyena cave”, where these canines have taken up residence in a nook of the several mile volcanic crack in the earth running from Fantale crater to the lake and where, at nightfall, you can watch them emerge from their daytime dens and begin their nighttime hunt.  On our trip, we saw chaos erupt when a hyena took aim at a passing herd of hundreds of sheep and goats, thwarted at the last moment by a shepherd and his loud shouts and the whacks of his cane.

Leaving Awash, we began the 11-hour drive to Arba Minch and the Netch Sar National Park.  From our room at Swaynes Lodge, we could take a few short steps to stand on the cliff face marking the edge of the Rift Valley and look down over a large forested plain with the sediment filled Lake Abaya to our left and the clear, croc and hippo infested Lake Chamo on our right.  Again, baboons frolicked everywhere we looked, whether wandering through the lodge or walking through the town itself.  The trip to Arba Minch was highlighted by a morning game drive into Nech Sar (meaning white grass), braving unthinkable offroading to see the hundreds of Zebra and Greater Kudu.  Later that day, we took a panga boat on Lake Chamo, passing several hippos lounging in the reeds to reach the famed “Crocodile Market”, a mud flat with hundreds of crocodiles and shore birds.  Some of the crocs topped 20 feet, and the guides had no problem poking them with boat oars to create a photo opportunity for a large swirling splash!

Our final leg of the safari took us eight hours north to Bishangari Eco Lodge on the shores of Lake Langano, where we had drinks in a treehouse bar surrounding a massive ficas, drank $1,500/lb coffee, and shared good spirits and great food in toasting our last full night in Ethiopia.  After returning to the city, we finished packing, gave away some last clothes and food to some local “friends” we had made on the streets during our six months (I gave away my hiking boots after four years of use on four continents, hoping that they, like the autos of Addis, will find many years of additional use!), and headed to dinner with our friends the Maxeys and new friends Bereket and Tedy (our taxi driver these many months).  Boarding the van to go to the airport was surreal.  We had waited so long for “our turn” to board that same van, watching uncountable adopting families leave our Guest House for home and feeling like our time would never come.  Finally, mercifully, we were heading home.

Flash forward 24 hours and there we were, sitting in the living room of the home outside of Boston where I grew up.  After six months in Africa, with the sounds of donkeys braying mixed with Amharic music outside our windows, it was beyond surreal to be watching HDTV in the relative quiet of our home.  For the next few days, it seemed a never ending string of reunions and feasts with family and friends, mixing jet lag with excitement and the stomach pains of the “reverse adjustment” back to foods like turkey and brisket and ribs and chinese food and….well, you get the point!

The trip home was coordinated to allow me to attend the Carter Center’s annual trachoma review meeting in Atlanta, which was a smash success.  I was heartened to meet several people from the Carter Center HQ who had read some of my IT proposals (Google Enterprise, digital surveys, etc.) and were considering pilot implementations as I had not realized they had been received so well.  We heard about the great work so many countries are doing with trachoma control – in Ethiopia, Sudan, Nigeria, Niger and more – as well as results from the latest research being conducted in academia and NGOs that will impact trachoma control strategies.  For me, it was a privilege to be in attendance, and a great way to formally wrap up my fellowship at one of the world’s most outstanding organizations.

And then, finally, six months to the day from leaving San Diego, my flight touched down at Lindbergh Field.  While we were greeted by cold rain, it didn’t dampen the mood of the many reunions with friends, family, and coworkers  that took place over the following days.  Whether having breakfast with family or barbecues with our friends, or even putting my boat (acquired while in Ethiopia)  in the water, gradually it felt like we were returning to normal again.  Well, I guess I’d have to say “the new normal”, because in a way, everything has changed.  That’s the thing about returning home, about a place that is constant, is that it makes it obvious when you come back just how much you are changed by what you went through.  An experience like the Global Health Fellows for some is life changing, and for others like me it is at the very least “life amplifying”, in that it may not fundamentally change who you are and what matters to you, but it will turn up the volume on those things and make you realize just how much these things give your life meaning.  In that way, by what you saw and what you accomplished, you do come back a different person than when you left, a better person for what you went through.  And, thanks to the work you did while you were gone, you’ve helped in some small way to make the lives of others better and more hopeful.

Thinking back on my six months in Ethiopia, I feel so lucky to have been afforded the opportunity to see what it is truly like to live in such an impoverished, yet burgeoning, city.  It was undoubtedly the hardest thing I have ever done, testing me (and Lo) on a daily basis and doing its best to wear us down with its “death by a thousand cuts” repertoire of pollution and dysentery and poverty and lack of “fun” diversions that we’re accustomed to in the developed world.  Despite all of these challenges, however, I got to know a city full of people who smiled despite their challenges, who find a reason to be optimistic about their future whether or not common sense tells them they should be.  I saw a city on the grow, with construction in all directions, with exponential improvement in services like electricity and internet and a government with grand development plans to help its citizens move out of poverty once and for all.  The future for Ethiopia truly is very bright, and thanks to the hard work of the Federal Ministry of Heatlth, the Carter Center, the Lions Club, Pfizer, ITI and many more, the people of Ethiopia will be able to see that future with their own eyes and help shape it for generations to come.  To have played some small part in that story is one of the great experiences of my life.

In a way, I suppose that’s what being a Global Health Fellow is all about.

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Addis Belly

1 Feb

Moving to an African country for six months gives one plenty of reasons to be afraid. Besides the numerous unknowns in a strange new land, there is no shortage of horror stories and anecdotes from previous travelers that can make you scared to even walk out your front door! While many people fear kidnapping, mugging, or attacks by wild animals, my own personal nightmare-in-waiting was getting so sick that thanks to bad food or water I would spend hours and hours praying to a toilet bowl followed by a day or two of sitting on one. Unfortunately for me, my nightmare came true on January 2, 2011.

I had just returned from spending the New Year in the remote western Ethiopian region of Gambella, which shares both a desert scrub landscape and regional tribal culture with neighboring South Sudan. Because I had been working almost exclusively on the Carter Center’s Trachoma elimination program which treats millions of people in just one week, my boss here thought I might benefit from being exposed to an entirely different approach to neglected tropical diseases that is relentlessly focused on reducing under two dozen cases in the entire country to zero cases for the rest of time! Gambella is “ground zero” for Guinea Worm in Ethiopia, with all 21 cases in 2010 reported from one small Woreda named “Gog”, confined to an area of three ponds the Center has dubbed “The Great Guinea Worm Triangle”. After seeing the MALTRA program first hand and having just analyzed the results of data that revealed over nine million doses of Zithromax® dispensed and almost 90,000 anti-malarial treatments in one week, 21 Guinea Worm cases seemed so low I wondered what all the fuss was about. However, completely eradicating any disease, I learned, requires the complete absence of cases, year after year, until the disease has no more transmission vectors and ceases to exist. And that requires a tremendous dedication to disease prevention, identification, containment, and treatment along with huge grass roots education campaigns, all of which I saw evidence of as we traveled hours through the countryside by land cruiser and on foot.

While we traversed the region, we had to eat of course. Fortunately, there were plenty of small restaurants (I can’t call them “hole in the wall” since not all of them had walls, exactly). Unfortunately for me, the sanitation left a lot to be desired, and after a day and a half of driving back to Addis through truly spectacular scenery, I returned home and felt a strange rumbling in my stomach. I’ll leave out all that followed for the next three days, but needless to say I didn’t have to worry conceptually about my nightmare any more. I was in it. There is a phenomenon here in Ethiopia that expats call “Addis Belly”. I had become accustomed to its symptoms, which I can only describe as a background, aching pain in the stomach and a feeling that your digestive tract is “just not right”. When it got a bit worse in October, I took a three-day course of Ciprofloxin which helped for a couple of weeks, but it came back. This new bout of illness, however, required something more. Besides the cycle of Cipro, Lorena found me the Ethiopian version of Pepto Bismol (Peptica), as well as an anti-emetic to help keep food down. After about a week of feeling better, the symptoms returned, and I got to go back to a place we are getting to know really well here, St Gebriel Hospital, for a diagnosis. After giving them a “sample” (enough said) to bring to the lab, the doctor told me I didn’t have a parasite and then reprimanded me for taking only three days of Cipro. Rather than defend myself, showing him the Global Health Fellows medical sheet calling for a three day cycle and the same instructions on the bottle from my US pharmacy, I accepted his advice that “our bacteria are stronger here in Africa” and his recommendation (which matched WebMD’s) that I take a full five-day course to knock the bacteria back once and for all. Those who know me won’t be surprised that I took it for seven days 🙂 For now, the symptoms are gone and Addis Belly has not returned. Fingers crossed that it may remain so!

Despite losing over a week of work to sick days, January was a busy month at the office. I had the task of finalizing the “MALTRA V Report” for the Carter Center and its partners, and the team allowed me to spend some time with my Macbook Pro trying to create a more aesthetically pleasing version for this round that would be a break from the typical “Microsoft Word” factual report and style. Thanks to a lot of photo contributions and repeated analyses of the (often updated) data, the final report is ready for printing in early February. I also pushed ahead on an idea to digitize the creation of “dosing stickers” to guide Zithromax® treatment in the field, purchasing samples from a vendor in the US and having local versions printed for comparison here. So far, it looks like the technique and approach are promising, and could allow the Carter Center here in Ethiopia to avoid a cumbersome and expensive process to repaint the thousands of existing metal sticks that are deployed across the northern reaches of the country. Though we had hoped to spend late January in the Simien Mountains of North Gondar to conduct a height/weight dosing study, due to time constraints and the difficult terrain of the zone, we were forced to postpone the activities until MALTRA VI in May. Some of the villages we were to visit were so remote that even donkeys cannot traverse the routes, so carrying the necessary digital scales and measuring devices would have been unfeasible. Back in Addis, a team of a dozen temporary workers have been furiously entering data into PCs from paper forms with the results of a trachoma prevalence survey that took place in East Amhara in December. The results will tell us how effective the first three years of Mass Drug Administration have been in reducing trachoma burden in the region, so we are anxiously awaiting the outcome! Seeing the effort required to manually enter tens of thousands of pages of data underscores the rationale behind the eSurvey proposal I put together for the Carter Center last month with the goal of digitizing the process of collecting this data in the field using new electronic tablet technologies. There is so much left to do, but so little time left.

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As I write this, I have just five full days in the office remaining, and have been busily trying to wrap up my tasks here in Ethiopia, get started on the required activities for my transition back to Pfizer, and of course meeting with newfound friends to start the process of saying farewell. It is amazing how much you can learn about a place in just a few months, and we’ve been trying to pass on some of our experience and knowledge to some newcomers to Addis so that they can have some “free” perspective we had to learn the hard way! Ben Maxey (Global Health Fellow assigned to ITI) and I had the pleasure of taking some of the leaders of the local Lions Clubs out to lunch to express our appreciation, both personally and on behalf of the company; the Lions fund a good deal of the trachoma elimination activities in MALTRA campaigns, and included us in their “Sight First” work related to eliminating Measles as well. Lorena, who did some amazing volunteer work at a local hospital, and I were invited to a traditional dinner and coffee ceremony at the house of one of the midwives and it was one of the most special meals we have ever had in our lives. We also have been able to have S’mores – yes, S’mores – with our friends Jeni and Ray and hang out, and visit the silk spinners and weavers of Sabahar with our friends Dan and Nataly from the embassy. Incidentally, if you haven’t seen the homes of the state department employees on deployment, you’re missing out. It’s the ONLY way to live overseas! We were lucky enough to housesit for them to take care of their gorgeous Rhodesian Ridgeback, Sophie, and avail ourselves of Armed Forces Network, HD/BluRay movies, and (God Bless them) a crock pot to make slow roasted chicken! To prove we care about more than just our human friends, we have also spent some time helping our favorite neighborhood street dog, who gave birth to a litter in late January, raise and cuddle her puppies almost daily. Lorena even rescued the lot of them when they fell into the open sewer and were close to drowning, proving she is a better human being than I am (I’m not saying I would have seen them drowned, but I definitely would have had to think about sticking my hand in there)!

With so much accomplished, thoughts now turn to the future but not before wrapping things up the right way. There was a phrase floating around Pfizer for a while that comes to mind, “Finish with Finesse”. February will be busy, with a frantic week at the office in Addis, a week of vacation in the Rift Valley with friends, a long trip home (if we can get through Cairo, that is!), and a review meeting at the Carter Center headquarters in Atlanta. If you’ll excuse me, I better get back to finessing my way to the finish line!

SJ

Addis January 2011

1 Feb

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Mourning the Patriots loss…several mornings later.

25 Jan

My blog of late has been devoted to my fellowship in Ethiopia, and for good reason. However, after getting to watch just my second Patriots game of the season here and suffering through an unexpected season-ending playoff loss to the New York Jets, I had to reflect on the “sports soul searching” I did over the past week and, just for one post, take a break from Africa and Health Care to focus on a less important, yet amazingly strong, passion.

I realize I may be in the minority, heck maybe I am the only one out there, but today I feel lucky to be a Boston sports fan. Like others who follow the Patriots, I am still reeling from the unexpected loss to a trash talking, inferior and loathed Jets team. There is no escaping the empty, gut wrenching feeling that hits you when a glance at the game clock and some quick calculations in your head reveal that there is no hope for a comeback and that the end of your team’s season is, as the chief engineer said about the Titanic’s probability of sinking, “a mathematical certainty”. If there is anything worse than waking up with the dreaded “Sports Hangover” the day after a season-ending loss, I have yet to experience it. Like many journalists and Patriots fans, over the past two days I have tried to find comfort by reminding myself that the team’s future is bright, that returning veterans, developing rookies and a stacked 2011 draft bode well for forging a new dynasty, that this team exceeded all expectations set for it before the 2010 season began, and of course that we still have the Celtics and Red Sox (sorry, Bruins).

I confess that the depth of my anguish from sports defeats has been unnerving, leaving me doing some soul searching and looking for intellectual and psychological explanations for, well, what the hell is wrong with me and why I care so much. I know I am not alone in my feelings, and when I started thinking about the historical context surrounding Boston and its love affair with sports, it hit me that I and all of my fellow Boston sports fans are really suffering from the normal range of issues that plague the nouveau riche – those who came from modest backgrounds and have found some modicum of wealth – in everyday society. Just as the members of this newly affluent group develop a world view that affects their expectations and personalities (rarely for the better), so too have the nouveau riche of the Boston sports scene been influenced by the successes of our teams in the past decade to such a degree that, I fear, we have lost our grasp on reality and what a healthy relationship with Boston sports is really all about. Frankly, we are spoiled and have forgotten where we came from, a fact that I only fully realized three years ago when I talked to a younger generation of fans at a Bar Mitzvah in New England.

I was 32 years old at the time, and was attending the entrance into manhood of the son of my own childhood mentor. Before he was even born, I remember sitting in his father’s downstairs game room in High School and on weekends home from the University of Connecticut, especially in the September and October days when the Red Sox would invariably lose to the Yankees in the playoffs and we would be naively hoping that Drew Bledsoe and Bill Parcells would cheer us up with a victory. It had been a decade since Larry Bird’s Celtics had given Bostonians anything to cheer about, and we were getting desperate. A decade and a half later, I found myself talking to a table of 13-year-old Boston sports fans who were exuding confidence not long before the Patriots were to take on the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLII. And who could blame them? They had no idea that the Patriots were once the worst franchise in football, perennial losers whose one Super Bowl memory was a humiliation at the hands of the 1985 Bears. They had probably heard stories about the Red Sox curse, but had just celebrated the second World Series title for the Sox in the decade and could not see what all the fuss was about. The Celtics had signed Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett and the new Big Three boasted the best record in the NBA (and would go on to win the championship that year). My UConn Husky basketball teams – both the men and women – were winning National Championships. For all these budding teenaged fans knew, Boston teams win championships and that is the way it has always been. Seeing the reaction of Boston fans this week after the Patriots loss to the Jets, it is evident that after living through the past decade of success and unbridled sporting avarice, even we seasoned veterans were quick to abandon reason and reality and subscribe to that same naïve philosophy that Boston teams win championships and that is the way it has always been. How soon we forget.

If we had the courage to face the pain and humiliation of decades past – when we cheered and were let down by great athletes like Dwight Evans, Bill Buckner, Antoine Walker, Mosi Tatupu and Drew Bledsoe – it would serve not only to re-educate us on the reality of what it takes to win it all but to also make us appreciate how lucky we have been to see the likes of Manny, Big Papi, The New Big Three and Tom Brady hoist championship trophies. We watched some great teams lose, again and again, decade after decade, before finally getting to celebrate the Red Sox, Celtics, and Patriots reaching the ultimate goal. Their ability to do it repeatedly has spoiled us, making us “rich” beyond our wildest dreams in such a short period of time that we are as careless with our support as teenage first round draft picks are with their signing bonuses. As with all new money folk, being called “winners” is nice but nothing compared to our fear of being called “losers” again and causes us to instinctively react to losing with intolerance and denial and with a total rejection of and distancing from our collective sporting past. For shame. We can learn at lot from the past, if only we are brave enough to face the lessons it teaches us.

First, we would be reminded that the best team doesn’t always win; rather the team that plays the best on a given day will be the victor. Sure, it didn’t feel good to lose to the New York Giants in 2008 or the New York Jets this week knowing we were the better and more talented team. But I’m sure the Rams of 2001 felt the same way, wishing they could play us and beat us nine more times in a row. Lesser teams sometimes outplay better ones, and they only have to do it once to send your team packing.

Second, winning it all takes luck, usually a lot of luck. If you don’t believe me, ask the Giants where they would be without the David Tyree catch and Asante Samuel missed interception. While you’re at it, ask Tom Brady if he would have advanced without the “tuck rule” against the Raiders in 2001.

Third, winning it all requires staying healthy, and injuries have a way of getting in the way of great teams and their goals. The Celtics learned that the hard way when they lost Kendrick Perkins in Game 6 last year and tragically saw how the losses of stars like Len Bias and Reggie Lewis can destroy a dynasty, not just a season.

Finally, and luckily for Boston sports fans, winning championships takes skill. Thankfully, we have people like Bill Belichick, Doc Rivers, and Terry Francona building and maintaining our beloved dynasties, and mercifully we fans are not involved in the process despite offering our opinions and “expertise” daily on talk radio and the blogosphere. I was horrified that we picked McCourty in the first round last year, only to have him make the Pro Bowl in his rookie season. My brother was convinced in 2001 that Drew Bledsoe was our future and that we should trade Tom Brady “while his value is still high”. Sox fans hated the trades of Nomar and Mo Vaughn, and we’ve won two World Series since. We didn’t have managers with the right vision or skill during the dark days of Boston sports, but we do now, and we should feel very good about it, and put our trust in them.

Clearly, that Patriots Sports Hangover we are suffering from can be cured only by the perspective that comes from looking to the past, which shows we have had it pretty darn good. In the modern era (starting in 1980), only three teams have made five Super Bowls in any 15 year span: The 49ers (five wins), the Broncos (2 wins), and the Patriots (3 wins). Since 1996, our team has been in the playoffs 11 times and won 10 AFC Championships. Thanks to the 2010 Patriots and their 14-2 record, we suffered only three Sports Hangovers this season, so we should be thankful that the team gave us 14 good Monday mornings this year. That’s a history to be proud of, and how can we complain when there are 29 less fortunate teams that would give anything to be in our shoes?

If we want to get back to a healthy passion for our teams, we have to accept that our sports wealth has changed who we are, and that only by facing and embracing our past will we truly appreciate our sporting future. It means we should be grateful for our past, even if the current season didn’t live up to expectations. It means that we should not expect perfection, even if we hope and cheer for it. It means that though we would never revel in defeat, we will not wallow in it either. And it means that while we look forward to Draft Days and trades and the building of our teams’ futures, we should never forget the long and emotional road we traveled with our teams that made us who we are today.

Boston fans, it could be a lot worse.

My Blog in 2010…Not Too Shabby!

15 Jan

The stats helper monkeys at WordPress.com mulled over how this blog did in 2010, and here’s a high level summary of its overall blog health:

Healthy blog!

The Blog-Health-o-Meter™ reads This blog is on fire!.

Crunchy numbers

Featured image

A Boeing 747-400 passenger jet can hold 416 passengers. This blog was viewed about 1,700 times in 2010. That’s about 4 full 747s.

In 2010, there were 13 new posts, growing the total archive of this blog to 28 posts. There were 73 pictures uploaded, taking up a total of 73mb. That’s about a picture per week.

The busiest day of the year was February 12th with 223 views. The most popular post that day was In Defense of Ray Ray.

Where did they come from?

The top referring sites in 2010 were facebook.com, myespn.go.com, linkedin.com, espn.go.com, and pfollow.pfizer.com.

Some visitors came searching, mostly for magician, i never could sit still, magician pictures, magician picture, and magicians.

Attractions in 2010

These are the posts and pages that got the most views in 2010.

1

In Defense of Ray Ray February 2010
5 comments

2

About Me February 2009

3

Now You See It… February 2009
3 comments

4

First Impressions September 2010
2 comments

5

Leaving Well September 2010
5 comments

Did You Hear That?

14 Jan

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About two weeks after starting at the office here in Addis Ababa, there came a day when I was so engrossed in a project I was working on that for an entire afternoon I didn’t go online or even look up from my cubicle.  Normally, the mercurial-yet-glacially-slow internet connection in the office here makes each moment trying to transact online so painful that the fact you’re working in a third world country couldn’t be more obvious if a Habesha dancer hopped out of the computer and slapped you in the face.  A glance out the window at the tropical plants climbing up the wall and sugarbirds hovering and sipping nectar from colorful flowers betrays the fact that though the laptop you’re using looks just like the one you used in the USA, your butt is firmly parked on an office chair exactly 9,148 miles from the office you used to call home.  On this day though, I had thoroughly “zoned out” and, so  I thought, blocked out the world beyond the office walls, but I was about to learn that despite the Y chromosome’s propensity for crippling the desire and ability of guys like me to listen, our ears have evolved to make us hear strange, alluring, or dangerous sounds whether we want to or not.

As I typed away on my proposal with all the passion and ferocity of Ralphie Parker while writing his “What I Want for Christmas” them in A Christmas Story, I was jolted back to Earth by the eardrum-blowingly loud and out-of-place sound of a donkey braying just feet from our office window!  After checking my pulse and realizing my heart had not exploded, I erupted in laughter as the donkey regaled us with his sweet serenade for the next 30 seconds.  In any other setting – a farm, an animal park, a Saturday outdoor market – I wouldn’t have even flinched.  But can you imagine being on a conference call and having to apologetically pause and wait out the mating cry of a barnyard animal?  The cool thing about living and working here in Addis, with its strange mixture of offices and hotels, city streets, and improvised chicken coops, is that you can literally hear any noise, in any place, at any time of night or day.

When we first arrived in Addis on September 1st, Lorena and I were so sick and jetlagged that we almost didn’t know what  planet we were on.  After staying up until 2 or 3AM, we were finally settling into Nyquil narco-comas when, just before sunrise, we were abruptly brought back into the world of the living by a pair of roosters having a “my spurs are bigger than yours” crowing contest.  In a major city, in a brand new guest house in the most modern part of town, we were awakened in a way we thought only existed in Corn Flakes commercials and Looney Tunes cartoons.

Since then, we’ve heard it all.  Our neighborhood is known for its packs of street dogs that wail and howl and bark and yelp from the time the sun goes down until they’re drowned out by the sounds of red-wattled roosters.  About five days a week, there’s a guy that drives through the streets leaning on his horn and, from the sound of it, blowing a vuvuzela at about 5AM.  As he gets closer and closer, he reaches the perfect pitch for canines, as evidenced by their synchronized howling in a stereophonic cacophony that must be heard to be truly appreciated.  I can’t neglect the cats in heat that frolic on the rooftops, moaning in unsatisfied sexual agony until two or more tomcats show up to battle it out.  If you haven’t heard a real cat fight before, you’re missing out.  The best way I can describe it is that it sounds like someone is tossing two angry cats into a blender together and hitting “puree”, every five minutes, for five hours.   I love Lorena because, despite her love of felines, even she has taken to throwing oranges down at them from the windows of our fifth floor apartment!  I’d be remiss if I left out the sheep and goats that are paraded through the streets on their way to market (aka slaughter) on Wednesdays and Saturdays, pooping and bleating and “bahhing” with practically every step.  And then of course there are the baritones of the animal world (I reserve bass for the lion), the cows, leaving their “mud pies” all over the road.

Then there are the people.  I’ve already mentioned Captain Vuvuzela and his horn-happy shitboxmobile, but at least he has the decency to keep his antics to about a five-minute window every morning.  The orthodox Medhane Alem Cathedral about a mile down the street, on the other hand, uses its divine right to broadcast chanting and Amharic prayer over concert-grade loudspeakers ALL NIGHT LONG.  Lorena likes it, saying it soothes her nerves and helps her to melodically breathe her way into dreamland.  To me, it sounds like a religious auction.  I seriously don’t know whether to shout out my bids or confess my sins into a megaphone.

Finally, there are the all-night clubs that dot our neighborhood and play music until 3 or 4 AM.  I actually don’t mind so much when they play Ethiopian music because it has a great beat and makes me realize I’m not in Kansas anymore.  What I can’t abide is the time of night when they switch to remixed US hip hop, and if I hear the electronicrap version of “One More Night” even One More Time, I might decide to end it all by throwing myself out the window, timing it just right so that I land hit terminal velocity before landing on (and crippling forever) the car of Mr. Hornblower Vuvuzela.  If nothing else, I’ll help everyone sleep easier and, thanks to my diet of injera here in Addis, be a lean meal for the neighborhood dogs.  Hell, maybe I’ll eat the roosters for dinner the night before just to clear the airwaves a bit more and make myself taste like chicken.

But I kid.  Truth be told, I think I’ve gotten used to the sounds here in a way that I never could get used to the smoke and pollution.  I can’t believe I’m saying it, but when I’m back in Pacific Beach falling asleep to the quiet sounds of the Pacific surf crashing onto the beach, I think I’m going to miss the sound of vuvuzelas and One More Night!  Heaven help me, if I end up with an iTunes sleeptime playlist of electronicrap and replays of the South African World Cup, they might call for the guys in white suits to come and lock me up.

I have to run.  I think I hear a honking car approaching…

SJ

Another New Year Abroad (The Way I Like It)

10 Jan

It was the end of December, 2006, and I was halfway through an international rotational assignment with Pfizer in Buenos Aires, Argentina.  My brother and two of my best college buddies Russ and Keith had ponied up the dough to fly 5,500 miles to experience one of South America’s great cities and ring in the New Year in Latin American style.  You see, Phil and I had done the Latin American New Year thing before, in Caracas, and had vowed to avoid being in the USA on future December 31sts if we could avoid it.  After spending the New Year’s holiday in Punta Del Este with us in 2006, Russ and Keith were adamant that they were believers in our “not in the US for New Year” philosophy, and we all reaffirmed our pact to get across the border or die trying every year!  Flash forward to New Year’s Eve this year and I found myself in Ethiopia where, because it celebrates its New Year in September, the 31st of December is just another night.   So when the clock was approaching midnight on 12/31 this year, I was sitting alone under a bed net in a motel in the remote region of Gambella (on a Guinea Worm Eradication project trip) reflecting on New Years past, thinking of old friends, and, despite being in the middle of one of the poorest nations on Earth with no celebrations or fanfare to be had, congratulating myself on adhering to our pact to spend the holiday outside the US.  My thoughts that night drifted back to some fond memories of the December 31sts gone by….

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Background:  In 2003, my brother and his three roommates were thinking about where to go for a New Year’s trip, and they made a bold commitment: they’d close their eyes, spin a globe, and wherever Phil’s finger landed, that’s where they’d go.  It was a pivotal moment in Jordan history, because it’s the exact second in which a love affair with Latin America began.  As fate would have it, the globe came to rest with Phil’s pointer finger touching the great nation of Venezuela, flights were booked, a debaucherous time was had by all, and they returned with tales of parties and beaches and beautiful women as far as the eye could see.  My favorite story was when Phil described their last night in the country, walking into a beach bar in El Morro as the only “Yanquis” and, as Phil said, the reaction of the locals was as though Ben Affleck and Matt Damon had walked into a random bar in Southie.  It was not surprising, then, that a year later on 12/31/04, Sean and Christopher Hawkins and the Jordan Brothers were sitting VIP in the hottest club in Caracas!

12/31/2004Genesis.  I can imagine you are wondering what is so great about Latin American New Year parties.  My first hint that they did things differently in the “other” America was when we hurried into the club in Caracas at 11PM (sure we were way late), and found the club empty save for some staff still setting up the floor.  We couldn’t understand what was going on, and frankly it looked like they couldn’t understand what the hell we were doing there so early.  It wasn’t until 2AM that people started rolling in, and by 3AM the place was jumping.  We later learned that New Year’s Eve is spent with family in South America, usually consisting of a huge feast, a countdown to midnight after which the women crowd together and cry their eyes out holding photos of all the family members who are no longer with them and didn’t make it to the new year.  After a good cry, they put the photos down and celebrate the fact that those in the room actually DID make it to see the New Year, and once they’ve properly toasted to their luck and health and a good year ahead, the youngsters shower and change and head for the clubs sometime after 2AM.  And so it was that Phil, Sean, Christopher and I found ourselves as the only Yanquis (what they call US people there) in a sea of Venezuelans (including Hugo Chavez’ redheaded son), doing our best to keep up with the salsa, merengue, bachata, and reggaeton dancing.  There are too many memories to list but the highlights were undoubtedly:

– Phil and I going up to two girls to hit on them and finding out that the brunette (Steve’s selection) was 37 and Phil was (stress past tense here) hitting on her (blond) 17-year-old daughter.

– Sean paying the DJ some obscene amount of bolivares to hijack the music playlist, resulting in a near riot as the DJ complied with King Sean’s demand of not wanting to hear anything but 50 Cent for an hour.   The four of us were the only ones dancing in that 60-minute window.

– Getting sunburned through the open roof at the club at 9AM as the subtropical sun rose overhead…while the party was still raging.

Clearly, beginning in 2004, all future New Years would have a hard time living up to the Gold Standard.

12/31/2005The New Year that never happened.  After a boring, frigid night in Boston not getting into any bars and exacerbated by Phil’s infamous “strikeout” and subsequent 2AM walk through the combat zone back to his apartment, we decided to strike this from all history books.  Outside of a $275 delivery bill from Chinatown at 3AM, there is nothing memorable about the night.  In fact, I’m only referencing the event to preserve Phil’s quote months later when he said, “It’s a damn shame they cancelled New Year last year”.  On 1/1/06, we swore quietly over pancakes at IHOP to never spend another New Year’s Eve in the USA.

12/31/2006The aforementioned boys trip to Punta Del Este, Uruguay.  For those unfamiliar with Punta, it’s known as South America’s playground, with people from all over Europe and South America descending for the New Year holiday and more paparazzi than the retinue that follows Paris Hilton.  No matter who you are, you can’t help feeling ugly when you step onto the beach and see toned bodies and bikinis in every direction.  Phil and I were getting footage for our Jordan Brothers production, so we had an HD video camera, tripod, microphones, and a spotlight brighter than the surface of the sun.  After our dinner and a lot of drinks at the Moby Dick restaurant (pronounced “mobileek” for some reason there), we “took it to the streets” to interact with the crowd for several hours under the fireworks and discovered that the light and the camera was to females as a flame is to insects, causing Keith to develop his now famous “like moths to a flame” approach (I think he carries around a fake camera and LED light everywhere he goes now).  Again, the highlights (and a lowlight):

– Taking the “Buquebus” ferry from Buenos Aires to Montevideo for three hours and then closing our eyes for the psychotic bus ride to Punta.  “Jordan, this guy’s going for a three-car pass!”

– The water heater in the kitchen springing a major leak, flooding the floor of our apartment and, over five days, having no one fix it despite constant calling.

– Paying for a seven day rental, telling the agent we would probably stay for five days, then the owner showing up for his vacation and demanding we leave because we said we would only be staying five days.  We had fun reminding the realtor that if you pay for a week, you get a week, despite her trying to tell us we needed to vacate.

– The coining of the term “The Rape Stare”.  Russ, after 14 hours of drinking, was by daybreak speaking out of the side of his mouth and starting to get into angry arguments with anyone within earshot.  When Phil caught Russ angrily looking at him for no reason, he told him, “Russ, don’t EVER look at me like that.  EVER.”  (Russ, angrily) “Like what?”  (Phil, calmly) “You’re giving me the rape stare.”  (Russ, angrier, incredulous)  “This is not ‘the rape stare’.  I’m just -” (Phil, interrupting) “Russ, the only time people see a stare like that is when they’re about to be violently and forceably raped.  I’m calling you out on it”.  (Russ trying to stay mad but realizing Phil is right, devolving into hysterical laughter).

– About 2 hours after “the rape stare” incident, Russ and Keith left the bar to go home, forgetting we had the keys and thus breaking into our rental.  When Phil and I got home, we found our room trashed, with the bunk bed mattresses on the floor and our clothes strewn everywhere.  Keith apologized saying Russ was on an angry tirade and he couldn’t talk any sense into him.  Two minutes later after we had put the beds back together, Russ was in our faces yelling at us, telling us he had “looked EVERYWHERE” for Phil and me and that we “ABANDONED” them.  When we reminded him that we were in the next room dancing with two girls and that we were the only four people left in the bar, and had he poked his head into the room he would have seen us, and that we were calling him out again, he laughed hysterically, turned around, and threw our mattresses down again.  The next afternoon (morning to us since we went to bed at 10AM) he was genuinely curious why the mattresses were on the floor.  Priceless.

– Lowlight – taking the Buquebus back to Buenos Aires, getting two taxis, then realizing one of them had driven off with Phil’s new Digital SLR setup and Russ’ new digital Elph.

– Bonus highlight – Driving on “The Road to Tandil” later that week, renting a car and heading five hours to Tandil, Argentina for a couple of days of ATVing and horseback riding.  We discovered Keith had a legitimate phobia of horses, but we somehow cajoled him (using every tactic known to mankind…Phil reminding him that a) every little girl wants a pony, so how can he be scared of horses?, b) the phrase “getting back on the horse” implies you had the cahones to at least have been on a horse once, c) the gaucho guide’s three-year-old son was on his own horse at that very moment in front of us and, the clincher d) Phil was going to wait until Keith was making progress with a girl at the bar later that night, walk up, and tell her in Spanish that Keith was afraid of horses)  into going on a four-hour trail ride into the Pampas that ended up being, as he stated during the “fogon” (campfire) and a round of mate, the greatest day of his life.

By the end of the trip, Russ and Keith understood our “ex-US” philosophy for December 31sts, leading to…

12/31/2007It Continues North of the Border.  We hadn’t gotten our acts together and, as Christmas approached, I was getting desperate for a New Year’s plan.  At the time I had moved back from Argentina and was living back in my shithole-white-elephant-of-a-fraudulently-constructed condo in Connecticut, it was Zero Kelvin outside, and I was fresh out of ideas.  Proving that desperation sometimes breeds miracles, I managed to put together a trip to Montreal and Mont Tremblant and, having infected Russ and Keith with the “not in America” NYE bug the year before, found the three of us crossing the Canadian border in my Xterra on the 28th of December.  While it wasn’t Latin America, the people of Montreal know how to party, and we got to experience some epic snowboarding on Mont Tremblant and even a day of ice climbing for me and Russ (see below).   The highlights:

– During our ice climbing escapade, Russ finally snapped and asked what the others were laughing about in French.  To our surprise, they told us they were trying to figure out which one of us was the “man” in our relationship!  All I could do was ask them how to say “I could do better” in French.

– Meeting two great girls from Alberta and hanging out with them for a few nights, even ringing in New Years at Club Rouge together.  Seeing the bartender get so drunk she could hardly stand up – and paying two bills so she would give me my credit card back – was the lowlight!

– Being abandoned by Russ and Keith (while waiting an hour to get my card back after paying two bills) at 4AM, wandering the streets in the snow and below-zero weather, ordering a large meat lovers pizza, taking a taxi back to the room, eating the entire pizza by myself, and waking up in the middle of the night sitting in a hotel chair with pizza crusts all over me.

– Keith inventing the term “Hamstering”, when he recounted waking up in the middle of the night with his head smashed into the mattress, being too catatonic to pick up his head, grabbing a bottle of water and putting it up to his mouth while slurping and sucking in like a hamster drinking water from a feeder.  Priceless.

– Me learning that data roaming charges on an iPhone will kill you.  Luckily, AT&T forgave my $400 bill….

12/31/2008Waterworld.  With a baby on the way, Pete decided now was the time to do his once-in-a-lifetime fishing trip on a mothership off the Pacific Coast of Panama.  With my dad and Phil onboard, we all headed to Central America for an excursion that is difficult to put into words.  For about a week, our home was a 120-foot retrofitted Norwegian icebreaker vessel.  Every day, we’d head out on 28-foot fishing boats to chase dorado, sailfish, amberjack and marlin and come back around sunset for a shower, drinks and dinner on the top deck.  Every night we anchored in a different location, usually in a cove off a remote island, and it seemed like the views each night were better than the last.  With no connection to the outside world, the four of us rang in the New Year looking forward to a big year ahead, which kick off the trip highlights:

– Pete’s son (Trevor) joining us in April

– Phil announced he was proposing to Anne, his girlfriend, in April as well (they’re now happily married!)

– Barry and Steve (with some help) catching a 450-lb blue marlin and 450-lb black marlin, respectively.  Barry brought new meaning to “the old man and the sea”.

– Getting to know the Red Devils of Panama.

It wasn’t a crazy year, but it was a memorable one, and another positive experience outside the US on the 31st of December!

12/31/2009San Diaaaago.  After bringing Lorena to Boston to meet the family in what became one of my most memorable weeks in my home town, we decided to take it easy for New Year and I finally relented on my “not in the USA” requirement for once.  With our best friends there, we hung with the Foothill Blvd crew in a semi-formal event that they generously turned into a fundraiser for my brother’s charity school in the Dominican Republic.  While it was a tame night, it was fun, and was highlighted with a ludicrous two-mile downhill bike ride home.  The highlight was undoubtedly being awakened by the same crew at 9AM and walking to the beach to have a breakfast of bloody mary cocktails at Lahaina’s bar.

12/31/2010In the African bush.  This year, I had to leave Lorena in Addis as I traveled to the region of Gambella, one of the poorest areas of Ethiopia that borders the Sudan.  With Ethiopia following a different calendar, there were no celebrations or countdowns, and without internet or phone coverage there was no way to wish my friends back home a happy new year.  The trip, however, was worth it, and seeing the conditions in which many millions of people live here in Ethiopia and seeing the horrible neglected tropical diseases that threaten them (malaria, trachoma, onchocerciasis, dracunculiasis, lymphatic filariasis, to name a few), it brought home to me how lucky I am to be seeing 2011 with my own two eyes and how incredibly fortunate I am to know that I’m heading back to the greatest nation on Earth.  Thank God for that.  Highlights:

– Seeing firsthand that people in some areas of the world – often by choice – still drink water from ponds that look like the missing link is going to spring from them.

– Taking a two day drive through some of the more spectacular mountain and rainforest scenery I’ve ever seen.

– Lowlight – throwing up for the first time in 16 years after getting a water/food-borne bacterial infection on 1/2/11.  It was bad enough that I thought to myself that if I ever get diagnosed with a terminal illness, I can think back to that night on the floor of the bathroom and take solace knowing I’ll never have to go through that again.  But I kept my sense of humor, asking Lorena to check the Patriots score during the worst of the ralphing!

Looking back, it’s hard to believe really that I’ve spent five of the past seven December 31sts outside of the US.  That’s a 71% success rate, so not too shabby!  You might ask, what has all of it taught me?  Basically, that there are a lot of places out there – Latin American and Montreal at the least – that know how to ring in the new year a whole lot better than we do.  But 12/31 is only one day, and for the other 364, there’s no place I’d rather be than the USA.

Happy New Year!

SJ

P.S.  In case you are wondering, on 12/31/11, if all goes as planned, I’ll be with Lorena, Phil and Anne someplace deep in the wilds of Patagonia….