Sunday, February 05, 2012

11 randoms

i just realized that i was tagged by kristen at inspired by dooce and it is perfect timing as i am sitting in a hotel lobby in accra waiting for a driver to collect me to transfer to another hotel (because as much as i love Villa Monticello where i have spent the last two nights, it is a bit pricey for me to stay for the next 3 nights i have in ghana and this was a birthday gift, a most wonderful birthday gift!)

i am not going to tag other people because as a Bad Blogger, it would be a bit rude of me to expect others to complete this, but i love lists, i love reading random things about other people, and i like answering them.  so if you do answer any of kristen's (or nicole's, who i don't even know) questions, leave a link as i'd love to read them!

11 Random Things about Me
 1. i have really big feet for being only 5'2"
2. my sneezes are loud.  so loud that people often comment on them.
3. i love taking long haul flights alone, i find it is a great time to think, catch up on reading, listen to music, be alone.  i hope they never introduce wireless to the flights i take as i think it would ruin it for me as i like being disconnected.
4. i live with a general level of anxiety that would probably surprise most people.
5. i am not very good at watching tv, i have to be doing something else at the same time, reading a magazine, looking at the internet, or talking (which apparently annoys some people!).
6. i love running outdoors, but sometimes struggle to motivate myself to do it.  but i don't like running races as there are too many people and too much pressure for me (which could be linked to #4 above).
7. i live in monrovia, the capital city of liberia.  i suppose that isn't too random to most people that i know as i have been here for 4 months now, but i suppose it could be considered random because what is a canadian girl doing living in a small west african country??  i moved here to live with my boyfriend is the answer. 
8. i don't know what i want to be when i grow up and i wonder if i will ever know.  instead of trying to figure it out, i think i will try and focus on accepting it and seeing it as a positive rather than a negative.
9. i would like to do a phd one day.  and recently, i may have come up with an idea for a research topic.
10. i went on a solo vacation to spain about 7 months ago to figure out my life.  apparently that meant starting a relationship with someone i already knew who came from the uk for a mini break and moving to liberia a few months later.
11. i have spent 4 birthdays and 3 christmases in africa. 

Nicole's Questions
1. How many languages do you speak? What are they?

english and spanish and that could likely use some refreshing.  i wish i spoke french and have tried to learn it, but never consistently and regularly.

2. What side of the bed do you sleep on?

the side that is closest to the wall currently, but if i had it my way, i would sleep diagonally and take up the entire bed with 4 pillows arranged in a 'v' around my head.  yes, i have given this some thought and have developed a system that i prefer.

3. Are you a morning person or a night owl?

i would like to think a bit of both.  i like to get a start on my day, but i also love sleeping until about 9 if i can.  i tend to be rather productive in the evenings if i am not too tired from waking up too early.  what i do know is that i need my sleep so if i am up early, i am down early and vice versa.

4. What's your biggest time waster?

the internet and tv when i have it

5. Mac or PC?
mac. i converted about a year and a half ago and love it (and my ipad and iphone!)

6. Can you drive a standard transmission car?
you bet and i have never owned a car that wasn't manual, i prefer it.

7. Where did you go on your last trip?
i am on right now in accra, ghana.  and before this one, it was to dar es salaam, tanzania.

8. What's your favourite game (board or video)?
i like all board games that i have played (but i have 2 rules when playing: if you are not playing the game (mom!) then don't help anyone playing and if you start a game, you should finish it!), but i really like scrabble and anything that involves groups of people and lots of laughs.

9. Did you play any sports growing up?
when i was wee, i played soccer then i figure skated.

10. What's your favourite number and why?
22 and i am not sure why.  i like things that are even and i like that 22 divided is 11 and 1 + 1 = 2 and so on.

11. If you could live anywhere, where would it be?
i would like to live in london, bangkok, cape town, berlin, dar es salaam, nairobi...  i think the more interesting part is where i will end up living in a year's time.

Kristen's Questions
1- When you're in a job interview, what do you use as your "weakness"? (you know, the weakness that you can turn into a positive somehow)
i don't like to delegate things to other people and i like to have control over all aspects of the work that i am involved in.  to be honest, i am not sure i would ever phrase it like that in a job interview, but if i did, i would say that it is because i have high expectations that my work will be delivered to a high standard of quality and on time.

2- What is your favourite food?
i am not sure.  i love macaroni and canned tomatoes because it is a comfort food from when i was kid, same with a roast beef dinner.  i would like to say that i have a favourite food place and that is san sebastian, spain. so if something can come with the quality and deliciousness of san sebastian, i will love it.

3- Why did you start blogging?
i was living in the uk studying my masters degree and it was a good way to keep in touch with friends and family back home without sending out the mass emails that were all about me, which is obnoxious.  i guess a blog is somewhere people can visit to see what i am up to.

4- If you could go anywhere on vacation, where would you go?
i've always wanted to visit brazil, argentina, and india.

5- If you're a runner, biker, triathlete, or any other sort of racer, what race is tops on your bucket list?
i don't like races.

6- What is your dream job? (pretending that it pays well)
ha, i answered the question above about how i don't know what i want to be when i grow up.  but i would like to be a professor or an advisor to a private company or a donor on how to spend their money and which projects are worth supporting.

7- Who is your celebrity crush?
apart from David Suzuki in his younger years?!  i think that Mike Rowe, Gabriel Garcia Bernal, Hugh Jackman, and Taye Diggs are all quite dreamy.

8- Did you or do you play an instrument?
no, but i think the drums could be fun.

9- What is your favourite "guilty pleasure" movie? (you know, the one that you like to pretend you didn't love)
Love Actually and i watch it every christmas!  i just can't get enough.

10- If you had to pick a last meal, what would you pick?
macaroni and tomatoes

11- Ben and Jerry's or Haagen Dazs?
neither as ice cream gives me a stomach ache (coincidentally, this is also the google search that leads to this blog most often so i am obviously not alone)

back to the working world

a week and a half into working at least 10 hours a day and i am reminded of how tiring working can be.  this past thursday, i just came home and flopped on to the couch at the end of the day before peeling myself off and heading out to the pool for a beer with some compoundmates.

but in this short period of time, i have already had some rather interesting experiences, including:

  • government meetings that open with prayers and close with benedictions (and who ask for volunteers to lead these things, where i ducked my head and avoided eye contact).
  • people repeating the phrase 'we must spread the message to avoid the dangers of human trafficking,' which is just wrong.  and not going to be effective in achieving anything.
  • my new colleagues brought in warm tarts and gave me a gift wrapped go mug on my birthday, neither of which i was expecting and was a lovely surprise.
  • a meeting where someone used latin to prove their point.  then they had to translate the phrase so the rest of the people understood.  lame.
  • working in an office building that sometimes has running water and sometimes does not.
  • a few peanut butter and jam sandwiches for lunch and the idea that if someone started a sandwich delivery service, they would have a market completely untapped.
  • there have been no less than 4 reports on the state of orphanages in liberia done in the last few years.  they all say the same thing: illegal international adoptions, majority of children in orphanages have living parents or relatives, substandard conditions, many are unlicensed and unregulated, some reports of child labour.  so don't go volunteer in one, please.
  • i have lots of ideas on what could be done by the agency i am working for and i just hope that at least one of them can be implemented, we shall see

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

season 2, episode 1

today was my first day at my new job.  it is just a temporary post at the moment as the details of contracts and salaries and technicalities are sorted out, but it didn't stop me from being nervous.

in the end, there was no reason to worry and it was difficult to slip back into the system that i left a few years ago.  the workload will be heavy and the obstacles in front of the team, rather substantial.  but if i am up for a challenge, it is there for the taking.

i can tell that the challenges will include: desks not lined up in any logical order in the office (yes, i am serious), a coworker who likes to listen to music at just audible levels, and utter lack of infrastructure in what is colloquially referred to as a 'resource poor' working environment.

in many ways, it is a great opportunity and a position that i can shape into my own and define as i go.  but it will also involve a lot of ambiguity and a certain degree of risk.  a bit like being the underdog and it could go either way, really.

i am happy for the chance to get involved in some potentially interesting project development and the flexibility that comes when you do not have a long term contract, which means i can still take my upcoming birthday trip to ghana, head home for a visit in march, and decide my own working hours.

maybe my independent spirit and no-nonsense manner of thinking about the development game will be pleased with this arrangement.  or maybe my love for organisation, planning, and preparations will be driven mad with the lack of clarity or clearly defined boundaries and roles.

only time will tell in this instance.  like many before and certainly many more to come.

Monday, January 23, 2012

eat what you kill

i know i am going to sound like i’m whining, but getting up at 6am with an alarm clock on a monday morning is tough!  and driving (well, being a passenger) for 6 hours of rural roads in liberia is also a challenge.  and i am going to blame the latter on my nap takeover when i finally got home this evening...

the purpose for the early start and travelling was that i had a job interview to work in a company’s corporate social responsibility/community investment department.  well, to essentially BE the csr department.  while there were moments where i was tempted, i know the role is not for me.

after discussions today, i confirmed what i already suspected – that i didn’t move all the way to liberia to work 10 hours a day 6 days a week while living away from my boyfriend (i still think that ‘partner’ sounds so lame).  although the worksite is not geographically that far away from monrovia, the road conditions make it a bit of a trek and the company’s rather restrictive policies would make it difficult to get back to the capital city with any regularity.

but it was still so interesting to see a new part of the country with the driver they sent to collect me and to see how a foreign company operates and attempts to have a lasting positive impact on the communities where they operate.  there were a few red flags in their programming (they directly support local orphanages), but it seemed like it would be a challenging and rewarding position, but it just won’t be the one for me.

which is ok as i have another job lined up as of last week and it will allow me to ease back into the world of international development with the organisation i used to work for in kenya.  and with the mentality of ‘eat what you kill’ in fund raising and project development, it might also be challenging and rewarding, but for very different reasons.

i have committed to something of a trial period and i am banking on previous healthy working relationships and familiarity with the organisation and the content to lend itself to success.  i am not so sure that i am ready to give up my weekday workouts, leisurely morning coffees, and flexible schedule.  but it could all be worthwhile simply to have regular fast internet at the office!

above all, in the big, bad world of international development, having work experience to show for my time in liberia will be beneficial and it will aid in making the big life decisions that are on the horizon.  but if we decide to stay in monrovia, i am getting a kitten!  and he is orange!  and he was just a week old when i met him and hadn't yet opened his eyes!

Friday, January 20, 2012


(january 13, 2012)

i am openly critical of people who visit a country on holiday and return home needing to do something about the poverty that they likely witnessed from their safari mobile or while on their wander through a capital city or rural area.

i don’t doubt people’s motives or believe that they don’t mean well in deciding to take up donations of used clothing to ship overseas or want to start their own foundation to put girls through school, but the reality is that what is witnessed on a two week vacation is not going to be easily fixed by starting a new ngo or from someone naively adopting a community or individual as their personal cause.

however, these same values have been challenged recently.  first, when i was put on the spot to explain why stopping our safari mobile on the side of the road in rural tanzania to give away our football to a stranger was a bad idea hidden by the good hearts and intentions of family members.  trying to explain that by picking out a child from the side of the road to give away a prized football could cause them and others to expect or hope that future vehicles travelling by with foreign faces will also deposit footballs.  and the last thing that is needed is more children hanging around roads waiting for gifts to come.  it would also make more sense to have the football donated to a school that could ensure it was available to more children to play with.  and to give the ball to the teacher in front of the students to prevent it from going missing or being taken out of the school.

luckily, we came up with a creative solution that didn’t make me look like a total asshole and included giving the ball away to a local tourism company that we were travelling with that has developed a sport and education programme in a village near their safari lodge that we had recently stayed at.  but it was interesting to see that as soon as there was effort involved in finding the office, a shop that sold a pump and other items to include with the ball, and dropping it all off, the interest in ‘doing good’ decreased, probably because the ‘problem’ was now no longer in front of our eyes.

another challenge has come whenever i walk out of my house to head into town.  my street is optimistically called 3rd street, but it is really a dirt alleyway without a street sign and you wouldn’t be blamed if you drove right by it on the main street (which happens rather regularly with delivery drivers…).  on the same street where i live in relative luxury is a house that was clearly bombed and/or burned during the civil wars.  and now a few families are living as squatters in the property without electricity or running water.

on the other side of my house is a similar beachfront lot with a house that was once undoubtedly a gem on the coastline, but now is a skeleton of what it once was.  and again, it is occupied by a family with a newborn that sometimes wakes me up in the early morning hours, our houses are so close to one another. 

and i can appreciate how those same people who come to a place like liberia and are overcome with the poverty and want to do something to remedy such an ethical wrong would also look at the disparity that exists right on my street.  and part of me just wants to give the kids that i see, having their daily baths or playing in their backyard that is cordoned off with pieces of scrap metal, whatever change i have in my pocket because i know a few liberian dollars will go much further for them than for me.

but, i also realize that just as giving away a football on the side of the road, my few liberian dollars are not going to overcome the systemic challenges facing a country and its people still rebuilding after devastating civil wars.  and because someone before me has clearly given something away on my street, i am regularly asked for ‘a chocolate’ or ‘a dollar’ or ‘a pen’ by the kids.

instead, i do what i can and purchase local produce and support the small enterprises in my neighbourhood and the greater city of monrovia.  in fact, i am now looking for a good tailor to make something out of all the fabric i have collected!

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

would like to go home now

yesterday, i had one of those days where i wanted to have my own car, the yellowpages to find someone to repair my leaking cooking gas hose, and a taste of winter to cool me down from the tropical heat.

the key to getting over that hump of what i suppose could be described by some as culture shock, was to have a serious in-the-bed nap and go for a run once the heat of the day had passed.

part of my frustration comes from the fact that although i have a few small projects that i am working on (including writing up a research report that is taking me far too long, but i am enjoying), i am beginning to get slightly stir crazy and need to have something that is mine, that i can accomplish, and that will show that i did something during my time in liberia.  it is a bit of a challenge in a city like monrovia, where you often have to do a little digging to figure out how to do more than go to the regular expat haunts and hang out by the pool or beach and the easiest way to go about this would be to find a short term consultancy so that i can have evidence of living in liberia on my cv (because we all know a person's value is based entirely on their cv in some circles...).

but then i am reminded that soon enough, i will have a job and i will too busy to sip my coffee into the morning hours while watching episodes of tv shows i usually don't have time for or reading book after book sitting poolside.  ups and downs, pros and cons, are always there, their content just shifts with time and location.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

deep breaths

after moaning about not knowing what i should be when i grow up, recently some options have materialized.  my recent flurry of job applications has resulted in 3 job interviews this week.  i've only heard back from 1 of them and i have the option of moving to azerbaijan if that were to tickle my fancy.

and it might.  it is just that i am still not really clear on what my next move should be.  and yet i am also perilously aware that this indecision can turn into paralysis.*  but so many factors need to be weighed.  salary, contract length, career direction, my interest in the roles, levels of responsibility, distance from the people i love.

more than anything, i am wondering if i am ready to relocate after coming to liberia just 2 months ago.  and after another few months in another location, if i will be ready to pick and leave again.  perhaps i could do it for a year or so, but the idea of having a home base once again is rather appealing.

but what is equally appealing is more field-based experience and more travel and adventure (even if adventure means sitting by my pool in tropical heat in december).  and i keep thinking it is a mutually exclusive decision, but maybe i need to think more creatively and explore ways to achieve both a sense of home and stability with the challenge and excitement of 'the new.'

i sense a few pro/con lists in my immediate future.  and more than a few reminders of deep breaths and that this decision, like all that have preceded it, is not the last i will make and that it is just as much ok to say no as it is to say yes.

* paralysis is a rather tricky word to spell without spellcheck.

Monday, December 12, 2011

a reminder

The good fight is the one that's fought in the name of our dreams. When we're young and our dreams first explode inside us with all of their force, we are very courageous, but we haven't yet learned how to fight. With great effort, we learn how to fight, but by then we no longer have the courage to go into combat. So we turn against ourselves and do battle within. We become our own worst enemy. We say that our dreams were childish, or too difficult to realize, or the result of our not having known enough about life. We kill our dreams because we are afraid to fight the good fight. 

Paulo Coelho from The Pilgrimage

Thursday, December 08, 2011

to town we go

i can be as guilty as the next traveller/expat of wanting to have a unique and 'authentic' experience when i am in a new country and yet i recognize that even seeking this out takes away its authenticity and leaves you constantly feeling as you didn't do enough, see enough, photograph enough.

and there are those instances that remind me that authentic experiences are authentic because they just happen.  and they just happen when you are open to them and others.

a bit trite, perhaps, but seems to hold true where ever i have been in the world.

yesterday was one of those 'authentic' days that i will likely cherish.  and largely because it felt so... normal.

motorcycle taxi driver (with sunglasses, of course!)

mary had agreed to take me to the waterside market in monrovia to buy lapas, the brightly printed (and ironically, printed in china) fabrics west africa is known for.  as much as i wanted to add to my collection and feed my addiction to fabric, i also wanted to hang out with mary and have her show me around town.
the first decision was how we would get there.  the shared taxis were an option, but we decided to spring for the motorcycle taxis at double the price because they are faster and a lot more comfortable, especially if you don't have to share one.  mary hailed them down and we got on.  she told me later that she was a little nervous when she couldn't see me, but she needn't worry as the only thing that i had to fend off was another motorcycle's passengers, two men who were fighting over talking to me every chance they got (in the middle of the road!).  it is times like these i need something that resembles a wedding ring in my back pocket.
bustling water street, with wheel barrows for hire
waterside is less of a market and more of a number of streets lined with vendors selling anything you need of your house.  much of the clothing and housewares were used, but there appeared to have been a large shipment of chinese shoes and they were laid out nicely for passersby to take a look.  the thought occurred to me a number of times that all those people at home who think donating t shirts and shoes to 'africa' are unaware they are being sold by the bundle and sold on the streets (in fact, there is a documentary made on this very topic: T Shirt Travels).

merry christmas!
it seemed as though mary knew a number of people around and we had to make several stops to say hello, but it turns out that she used to work there selling food so still knows many of the salespeople and shop owners.  i clearly stuck out, but didn't feel out of place or uncomfortable.  it is a pretty broad statement, but i have found monrovians very welcoming and kind to me.  but i would be lying if i said i was a lot less worried about getting lost or ripped off by having mary with me.

like much of the rest of the shops i have seen, many were owned by lebanese people.  we poked our heads into the ones selling lapas and i found 12 yards of fabric that i plan on using for sheets and cushions.  coincidentally, i got the number of a wonderful tailor today who can hopefully help me out because although learning how to sew (and quilt!) is something i would love to do, i am without a sewing machine.

it is tough to visualize what the fabric will look like as it is overwhelming to see so many patterns at once. and sometimes is very dim light while you are sweating buckets in the stuffy shops.  i picked out some more basic patterns although i might go back for the 'obama' print, which was rather lovely even if it did not have any images of obama on it at all.

in fact, there are some ma ellen prints i have seen around and like the nelson mandela cloth i bought in south africa, i might pick some up just for the laugh and memories of the time i am here.

lapas - the purpose of our journey
as i was unfolding and feeling all the fabric, mary was checking out the shoe selection and making sure my bags didn't get too heavy to carry.  one of my favourite parts of monrovia is the shop signs that are painted on the outer walls of buildings.  i hope to gain more confidence in bringing my camera along to take more photos next time i go to town, but this time i just took some snaps on my phone (which, by the way, have you downloaded the camera+ app yet?! amazing.)

after a wander around, we caught more motorcycle taxis on the way back.  this time, my driver was a shyster and made us pay too much and since we had two drivers, the second being a honest guy, i paid him the same exorbitant rate that the first demanded before taking my money, refusing to give change, and driving off.  i have no idea if he thought he could rip us off because of where he dropped us off, who he was carrying, or just because he was an ass, but neither mary nor i were impressed.  we were also nearly melting so we didn't bother too much and came inside to share a can of coke (which is still one of the most refreshing beverages when it is so hot out!).
this is what i look like on the back of a motorcycle taxi,
if ever you wondered

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

the week ahead

after my complaining about having a houseguest (who is a marvellous cook, i do admit), i will be spending the next week on my own in the big city of monrovia.

truth be told, i wish i was also heading out to the field to see more of the country, but instead i will be making the most of my time.  i have found a few shops that i want to check out: afropolitan and Jola House Creations and i'd like to take a trip to waterfront market to buy some lapas, but am a bit nervous to go alone partly because i have no idea how much anything should cost and partly because i envision it being a cacophonous and seemingly chaotic place.  i could be entirely wrong, but may enlist mary's help to navigate it.

one of the challenges to life in monrovia for me is that there are few options for transportation and i feel as though i can't be as independent as i'd like.  we don't have a car, although i recently learned that we could have one if someone had renewed his license (and knew how to drive standard...).  the yellow shared taxis that ply the roads are seemingly ubiquitous, but also come with a queue of people ready to fight their way to squeeze into the car doors and i'm not sure how exactly payment or the system works, which will cause me quite a bit of stress.

there are the motorcycle taxis, driven by young men often with a version of trendy (and sometimes lens-less) sunglasses regardless of the time of day.  the un security briefing includes a prohibition against using these, but we tried them out on the weekend and i must admit that it was a much more pleasant way to come home after a day in the city than being stuck to the synthetic seats of a dilapidated taxi.  very breezy and rather exhilarating, if not a bit dangerous.

the typical mode of transportation i use is a car service operated by 5 guys.  their cars are not always so reliable, as we found out while we were stuck for an hour this past weekend, but they are very friendly and a great resource about all things liberian.  they tend to be available when you call, but it means that you have to hire them for short journeys or by the hour.  and when i am in a shop knowing someone is waiting for me, i can't help but rush through my shopping.  i think that this is something that i will just have to get used to otherwise i will spend the next few months rushing about and worrying about how long i am taking.  the other downside is that if you just want to wander about and catch a taxi home, you can't.  i either plan a pick up time or location or call them and hope they are free to collect me when i'm ready.

after my week of living like a bachelorette again, i will be packing my own bags to head to dar es salaam, tanzania to celebrate christmas on the other coast of africa.  let the countdown begin!