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Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The Old Me (Except the Old Me Didn’t Come With All This Guilt and Worry)

Awhile back, when asked what I would take from my apartment if there was a fire and I only had a split second to decide, I had an immediate and unequivocal answer.

My passport.

(Not the cats – sorry PETA, not the photos of my young adult wanderings, not my wallet or my credit cards, or the jewelry I inherited from my Grandmother.)

My passport.

My passport, or rather my third of what have now been four passports, was my most prized possession. That passport took me from just before my first ever trip to Africa in 1996 to my departure for Tanzania last year.

It was super-thick, which is a badge of honor in the field of international public health. Extra pages (20 of them) were added three times. And because I was such a super-duper geek, I used to “subtly” turn it on its’ side and wave it around for attention to make sure that those standing with me on line at the airline counter or at immigration could see that I – a seemingly “average Joe” - was actually a travel superstar.

Why? Because it made me feel important and accomplished.

Kind of pathetic. I know.

I was proud of both the variety of stamps it possessed – many in alphabets I cannot read, and also of the fact that some stamps appeared many many times – like Jamaica where I traveled 25 or so times over a three year period right around the turn of the century. (Woe to the Jamaican immigration official who treated me like a tourist.) After each pass through immigration I still searched through the expanding book for the new stamp, just to savor how much space it took up and reflect on its page-mates. Geek that I am, I found meaning when Macedonia shared a page with Greece, or Haiti stamps and Dominican Republic stamps appeared on the same page, shadowing the exact proportion in which they also share the island of Hispaniola.

I think it is safe to say that I loved that passport. It was a metaphor for my life, my personal interests, my diversity of friends around the world, and my work. It was my travel companion during the years that I traveled 244 out of 365 days. To loose it or have it stolen would have been devastating.

But one day in April of 2003, as I stood outside my office building waiting for the cab that was to whisk me to an airplane bound for the Ukraine, all that changed. The doctor’s office called me. I was pregnant. (With twins as it turns out.) The Ukraine was my last trip for a long time. Everything had changed. My most prized positions were now supposed to be my kids; and the passport was to be semi-retired.

In the nearly three years between that trip to the Ukraine and my move to Tanzania, my passport became like a professor alumnus who comes to campus once a year to deliver a special lecture to the senior class. I got out, but not much. And going out to the field meant that I had to make super complex child care arrangements involving up to six people and costing lots of money. For some of my trips I felt like I had to pay out more money for child care than I made in salary during the same period. It was a crazy, confusing time for me. I wanted to be a good mother, but I also wanted and needed to do the work that I loved, and that meant being overseas in a developing country.

In a post I wrote almost a year ago, Mama Wa Wili and the Battle for Independent Hally, I talked about this push-pull that so many women face between being a great mom and being a whole person – so I’m not going to expand on it here. But, in short, I found relief from my guilt, lots of help, and the ability to balance it all (well most of it) by moving to Tanzania. And for the past (nearly) two years – I have managed to find career and parental fulfillment. Mostly.

But the pull of my passport never fully went away. It is great to be based overseas where I can do my work without traveling, but the urge to travel didn’t disappear.

During the day my colleagues in Washington would pressure me to travel to Uganda, or Rwanda or Southern Sudan to do some work for them – and I have been strong and maybe even a little bit self righteous. “Oh no,” I would say to them, “I’m a single mom of young twins. There is no way I could possibly leave them and go to _____ (fill in the blank). Really, you couldn’t possibly expect me to.”

But at night, in bed, I would think obsessively about the opportunities turned down and secretly mourn. The number of stamps in my new passport has remained few. And all of them are either from Tanzania or the US.

Until this week.

Today I’m writing you from Dakar, Senegal. Hally is back on the road!

And, if I have to be honest with you, it feels really great. It is all the more wonderful because I’m in a place that I used to know well, using my (nearly retired) French (although Swahili words keep popping out of my mouth), and I’m leaning about an entirely new topic – avian influenza.

It isn’t the same as before. I left the kids with people I trust – my closest friends. But it was all drama up until the day I left. For the week before my departure my son had a bacterial infection of unknown origin with very high fevers for many days in a row. The first round of antibiotics didn’t work. He ended up needing intramuscular antibiotic shots. And he had only been fever-free for 24 hours when I had to board the airplane at 5 AM for the long flight from East to West Africa. It was really hard making the decision to go. But the doctor said he thought my son would be OK. And so, I left.

I have at least one more solo trip coming up – a visit to South Africa for the wedding of my friends, Kent and Damon, at the end of November. And there is pressure for me to go to Uganda in January. And of course, I need to hook up with my friend David in Dubai or Mumbai sometime in the next six months or so. All of these are appealing prospects, but equally scary. I worry that the children will suffer from my absences and that my close friends will have had enough of watching the kids. (Jane and Gunnar I love you and owe you big!) Being Jewish, guilt and worry are part of my cultural heritage. I can’t help it.

But for today I’m trying to push out the demons of my subconscious, in favor of savoring the new stamp in my passport.

The Senegalese immigration official placed it not on a regular page, but in the Amendments and Endorsements section at the end. (What the hell is that actually for, anyway?)

But that’s OK. I forgive him.

The “Old Me” is on the road. I’m just carrying more baggage than in the past.

And it is beautiful baggage, indeed.

Monday, October 01, 2007

A Member of the Club

As I’ve mentioned before, I have a love-hate relationship with “belonging” to the “in” group. Something about being an outsider and doing things differently has always been more appealing to me.

Here in Dar es Salaam, the “in” group of expatriates belongs to the Dar es Salaam Yacht Club. I suppose the definition of “in” could stand to be examined in this case. If you consider “in” to be white, wealthy, cliquish, and privileged, then the Yacht Club it the “it” place to be “in”.

(Sorry for all the quotation marks!)

When I moved here I snubbed my nose at the Yacht Club. I told everyone I met that I’m not a Yacht Club kind of gal – despite it’s many obvious benefits. And it’s true. There are a million ways in which I’m not. But none of these ways involve NOT being white, wealthy, cliquish, and privileged. If I have to admit the ugly truth to myself, here in Dar es Salaam, I am indeed all of these things.

I also live only a block away, the setting is gorgeous, the Yacht Club has the only swimable beach within a 20-minute drive from my house, and it has the best pizza in Dar.

Really. The best.

Over the past 18 months I’ve watched innumerable friends try to decide whether or not to join. Everyone is drawn to it – especially those who aren’t working (usually spouses of those of us who are working). All the granola/development-type Americans are horrified by the air of privilege and lack of diversity – and yet they join in droves. This is a place where you can still see a man snap his fingers and call over the “boy” serving the drinks. (The “boy” being a black man.). But just because there is an ugly (sorry but usually) over-the-hill South African type at the bar making as ass of himself, does that mean the rest of us shouldn’t be able to enjoy the sunset?

Well… until my beloved Sea Cliff Hotel burned down last weekend, my answer would have been, “Yes. Absolutely. There are other alternatives in Dar.”

But today I find myself weak and considering what three weeks ago was unthinkable.

Today I stopped by the Yacht Club and picked up an application. It seems the logical thing to do given my situation.

But then why am I so ashamed?

Last weekend when I first started to seriously consider the Yacht Club, and as I was coming to terms with the fact that it will be many months before the Sea Cliff will rise again, I had an epiphany.

My internal struggle with whether or not to join the Yacht Club is actually more about baggage from my youth and less about whether or not here, in Dar es Salaam, should I or shouldn’t I join many friends I adore who made the decision to join despite their initial concerns.

You see, I grew up in Larchmont, New York where Yacht Clubs – or clubs in general – were the playground of the rich kids. But they were also segregated. I’m not so sure that in the late 1970s they were truly segregated (as in they had policies promoting segregation), but in practice they were almost entirely so.

The WASPy kids’ families belonged to THE Larchmont Yacht Club – which was so WASPy and preppy that it was even mentioned in The Preppy Handbook. The Larchmont Yacht Club really was the crème de la crème, although the joke in town was that it was so WASPy that they only sold alcohol but not food (because WASPs don’t eat).

The Jewish kids’ families belonged to Beach Point Club. The saying about Beach Point was that they only served food, but no drinks, because all we Jews ever do is eat.

Finally the Catholic kids’ families belonged to Bonnie Briar Country Club – which wasn’t a Yacht Club at all, but had an 18-hole golf course (which presumably only Catholics played on) that turned into the best sledding in town when snowstorms hit. (Thank you Catholics!) The saying about Bonnie Briar was that you could get both food and alcohol there, because, you know, the Catholics both eat and drink! (Well-rounded people.)

I don’t remember ever feeling like I was missing out on this scene (my family belonged only to the local junior high school swimming pool), but I think I had a sense of righteous indignation that some kids “belonged” and other didn’t, and whether or not you belonged had something to do with your heritage rather than self-selection.

But it was all for the best anyway. Even if my family had belonged to the Larchmont Yacht Club I’m not sure they would have let me in with the punk coiffe, blue hair, and black on black wardrobe I sported in my teenage years anyway.

So tonight I sit here with my application to the Dar es Salaam Yacht Club nearly complete. All that’s missing is a “recommendation” from a member in good standing and I’ll be accepted into their temporary membership program (i.e. I get to go for three months and try it out before coughing up $1000+ to actually join). I’m staring at it like I’m a recovering addict and the application is a heroin-filled syringe.

Oh the temptation. Oh the horror.

But actually, now I know I’m going to do it. I’m going to join. And You are the reason why.

I figure, three months won’t kill me, right?

But likely it will provide much fodder for the blog.

And so temptation wins.

I’m “in”.

Hey white, wealthy, cliquish, privileged lady! What do you want to drink?