RIGHT in the center of BKK’s bustling shopping district is the Erawan shrine, a revered Buddhist shrine that is seemingly always jam-packed with worshipers offering gifts of food or flowers and lighting incense.
According to the interwebs,
The Erawan Shrine was built in 1956 to appease the supposed evil forces that were taking the lives of construction workers and causing other calamities in the construction what is now the Grand Hyatt Erawan. The misfortunes were caused, it seemed, by starting the construction on an unfavorable date. After the shrine was erected, construction deaths stopped and the hotel grew very prosperous.
The apparent effectiveness of the monument made the shrine one of the most revered spots in Thailand. The great importance of the shrine became terribly apparent in 2006, when a mentally disturbed Thai man attacked the statue with a hammer – onlookers beat him to death in broad daylight. The statue was replaced within two months, incorporating pieces from the original image.
Jeeze. That’s dramatic.
I could lie and say that I’ve just been super busy with travel, but in reality, I’ve just been laaaazy about blogging after work. Srsly, this whole sitting in front of a computer all day and writing thing totally saps creative writing potential. I have no idea how people (like the amazing Jessica Darago!) write novels while working full time. Sheesh. Overachievers.
So, anyhoo, here I am in Thailand, and I realized (well, I didn’t realize, someone pointed out to me) that I totally haven’t told anyone what the hell I’m doing here. (Oh, and since this gets a little boring in the middle, I’ve put in some pretty pictures of my life here…)
Basically, three months ago, I didn’t have the faintest idea that I’d even be here now. Philip and I had planned to stay in Puerto Rico until mid-February, then sail the Picaroon back to Florida and up the Intra-Coastal Waterway, exploring the South, and back to the DC region in the summer to look for work.
I’d told myself I’d start a job search in January, and one of my first questions was whether we’d end up in DC or somewhere else. I scheduled an informational interview with a family friend, Mahesh, whom we know because Philip’s dad was his PhD thesis advisor, Philip had stayed with him for a couple months when we were in Nairobi, and he and his son Peter had stayed with us in DC while looking at colleges/getting set up at AU, my alma mater. (Sheesh. That was kinda ridiculously too detailed.) I wanted to just explore whether UN jobs might be open to me with my experience, and what level/type of job I should target.
The conversation was useful, but I was surprised two days later when Mahesh asked me what I’d be doing in January and said there was a possibility of a consultancy in Thailand, where he’s the advisor for social policy in the regional Asia-Pacific UNICEF office. Despite my initial thought that there was NO way I could make it happen, I didn’t say no, and after much thinking about how to get the boat back to the States and whether we’d be willing to spend 3.5 months away from each other, Philip and I decided that I should jump at the chance.
So here I am, swirly-whirling in a whole new life.
A little background: As you are no doubt aware, the Asia-Pacific region is booming. I mean BOOMING – the recent financial crisis that crippled the U.S. and Europe has slowed growth rates here . . . to around 7-8% a year. And with this economic boom, governments have (duh) more money. But the new wealth doesn’t mean that old problems have gone away. While overall poverty rates have fallen dramatically in most of the region, there are a lot of kids who are getting left behind. In some cases, things are getting worse for those who are worst off: for example, in Viet Nam, poverty has fallen dramatically in the past 20 years, and the death rate of kids under 5 has as well. But that’s not the case among minority groups: under 5 mortality actually rose over the most recent 5 years for minority kids. Children of migrants, with disabilities, from minority groups and rural kids are all getting left out of the boom.
Now, traditionally, UNICEF and organization like it have worked directly with kids, doing things like building schools, providing textbooks and giving vaccines. But as Asian economies grow, the governments have the money to provide these kinds of services themselves — and the question of how they do this becomes very important. While UNICEF has increasingly been working with governments to ensure that their programs are good enough to help the most disadvantaged kids by providing technical advice, when you dig a little deeper, you see that many of the issues are caused by budgets – that is, are governments allocating enough money, to whom, and is the way that they’re doing so benefitting those who need it most?
In many countries, poorer regions actually receive less money from the central government than rich ones — some rural regions in China and Indonesia receive ten times less per capita for things like education and health than the richer urban areas — while those rural areas might have higher per person costs because of remote locations or bad roads. Sometimes it’s not about how much money is budgeted but how it’s budgeted — if you determine how much money a district gets for health based on how many hospital beds it has, districts with a lot of need but few existing services actually get less when they might need more based on population and health challenges. Likewise, it’s not enough to just throw money at things if you’re not spending it on the right solutions.
UNICEF works with government officials in the ministries of heath, education, etc, to make sure that their budgets are effective at addressing the needs of all children, but particularly those most disadvantaged. But real decisions about budgets are often made one level up, in the Ministry of Finance or Bureau of Budget or whatever the local name is, and these guys are the ones who really control the purse strings — the decide not only who gets how much, but also a lot of technical things about how budgets are made that I’d probably send you into a wonk-induced coma if I even tried to explain, but suffice to say it makes a difference to whether kids get the services they need and deserve.
The project I’m working on seeks to engage these top-level officials and get them up to speed on what they need to do from their end, things like using budgeting based on results rather than line items like salary, making sure that allocations to local governments are fair and sufficient, and training their colleagues in the other ministries in how to prepare effective budgets and make their case, instead of just coming back and asking for more each year. It’s a very new area for UNICEF, but like all the advocacy work UNICEF is doing in the newly-richer and/or not-quite-so-desperately-bone-crushingly-poor countries, it’s really important, because it means that it’s getting governments to use their own money to take care of their own children, which is not only good, it’s sustainable. If you give a kid a textbook, that kid has a textbook, at least until he drops it in the tub, or spills milk on it, or forgets it on the bus. But even assuming the little idiot doesn’t screw up his textbook, it’s still just one kid, and the next kid will come along and need a textbook too, and WTF, we can’t do this for every kid in the world!! But governments can — and changing the way they do business – not just getting the right policies in place but making sure that those policies are effectively funded — means that from that point forward, you’ve eliminated the need for charity because you have governments doing their jobs.
Which is really awesome and cool.
And if any of you actually read THAT much, wow, congratulations. Of course, 90% of my friends are total geeks, so I’ll just assume you did. (Oh, and this is my first hack at “putting it in words my grandma would understand, so let me know if it made sense. But be gentle, it’s 10 PM on a Saturday and I’m not 100% on my game.) (And yes, it is tragic that I’m writing a blog post at 10 PM on a Satuday, but in my defense, I got in at 3am last night. Or this morning. Whatever. Moving on.)
So my job is to develop proposals and fundraising/communications strategies for this work at the country office level, which is awesome, yet slightly terrifying because it means I am traveling to most of our 14 country offices over the next 9 months. Yeah, that’s 1-2 international trips per month, at a week apiece. I was in Malaysia and Vietnam last month, am going to Cambodia and Mongolia in April, and Myanmar (Burma) in May. I’ll book the other countries after this week, when I should (fingers crossed!!) hear if my contract is extended beyond May 17 to the end of the year).
Oh, and one other thing: don’t be jealous. While it is super cool to have the opportunity to travel all around Asia, it’s not a vacation. It’s work. Which means I go to a super cool place and mostly see the inside of a hotel room and a UN office, have a lot of meetings, do a lot of writing on my laptop, and maybe get one or two evenings to see the town. So, not complaining — just be aware that it’s nowhere near as awesome as it sounds. And Mongolia in April? Lows could be around -11 celsius. That’s 14 degrees Fahrenheit, which is freaking nuts. I am going to have to go buy a whole set of clothes, as I haven’t been in anything under 70 celsius in two years! So, yeah, put that jealousy on hold.
I know, it’s been forever. I have a stack of real emails – you know, actual honest-to-god letters — that I owe responses to, and it’s been weeks since I’ve updated the blog, but I’ve been astoundingly busy. And astoundingly happy.
AND — I can’t just upload some photos to Facebook as I’ve been doing recently, because Vietnam blocks Facebook. Yeah. Go figure that one.
OK, first, let me say that Bangkok must be the crossroads of the world. In the “It’s a small, small world” category, I recently shared an amazing meal at a Laotian restaurant (NOM!) with the most amazing beer (if you ever, ever see Beer Laos, buy it, and drink it, and be happy) with Sarah — who I’d met at PEP meetings in DC when she worked at Refugees International with Peter Gantz — and Rachel Gerber, who I knew from her work on atrocities prevention at the Stanley Foundation. Both live in Bangkok now, illustrating either that the world is really, really small, or my network is just too big.
I’ve connected with another couple of cool women through the Bangkok Photography Club on Meet Up — we’d planned to see a bunch of cool street art but the launch party was short on street art — just two guys very slowly spray-painting a wall from a cherry picker — and long on launch-event speechifying and break-dancing. That day was such a study in contrasts: while killing time waiting for the group outside a couple of the big malls, there were all these other events — Izuzu was doing a big promo with one stage featuring awesome young dancers, and another featuring a few skinny, skimpily-clad girls who were all but pole dancing, and there was another launch of a music festival — while in the same
space were heart-wrenching beggars (see previously posted crummy video) and Buddhist shrines and the everyday weekend traffic of Thais and tourists shopping their hearts out. I also spent a lovely day with my friend Julie — who regular readers will remember was randomly visiting Puerto Rico with her partner Glenn in December when we were there — as she passed back through Bangkok again after her fabulous trip to Myanmar. After a lovely massage, hit the pool at her hotel (see, life REALLY not sucking!) and met up with another small-world connection — Astara, who just happens to be the daughter of our friend Randy from CURACAO. She’s also living in Bangkok. Seriously. I think that this is the center of the known universe.
But it’s not just the random connections that are delighting me — I also have fantastic colleagues — Lena, Dominik, Dao and Mahesh all make me terribly happy to come to work every day, and I’m continually delighted by how awesome all the folks at UNICEF are!
Oh, no, wait, the gushing doesn’t stop here, because my job ROCKS. Fundraising has never been my favorite thing (nor my least favorite, by any means), but this time, I’m LOVING it: how cool is it to ask for money for KIDS?? And, even better, for not just service delivery, but systems change, really changing the way governments do business?? It’s fantastic. Of course, I haven’t actually asked anyone for any actual real dollares yet, but, hey, I’m totally psyched about the idea of it. I PROMISE I’ll write about my job soon, but so far the actual job has kinda take up the time I’d otherwise have spent writing about it on my long-neglected blog.
Speaking of blogging, if you haven’t read Let’s Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny whazzername — The Blogess – go online and by it now. It’s just about the funniest thing I’ve ever read, and her writing makes me wish I could ever be as random and funny as her. But I’m not. I’m too earnest. And as we well know, earnest isn’t funny. But I try. You’re welcome.
So after being a social butterfly and thereby contracting a cold from hell (the inevitable “switched continents” virus), I did a combo work trip/visa run to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
I was totally psyched to go to Kuala Lumpur, because I’d seen Entrapment, and we all know how damn cool those buildings are. And the Petronis towers ARE cool, awesome cool, but Kuala Lumpur… um, well, not so much. If you like shopping, particularly mega-high-end malls and street markets with knock-offs of all the high-end mall designers, then ok. But I’d already gone though the OMG, WTF the f**K is this s**t in Bangkok and so was so. not. impressed. I was super-excited about the “traditional crafts village,” which ended up being mostly empty (though I did share a lovely tea with two gentlemen, one of whom had a real thing for carving owls. And noses. Yes, noses.) except for the gift shop, which was well stocked. The awesome Petronis towers? You need to grab tickets early on to go up to the skybridge (go Asia and the sky-stuff!), so the only option was wandering around the mega-mall below.
One of the nicest things about Kuala Lumpur was the chatty cabbies. I love talking to cabbies; they’re some of the most interesting folks around. In DC, you can always count on finding out that your cab driver was an Eastern European doctor who’s studying for the medical boards or an Ethopian or Eritrian anxious to tell you all about why the other side is wrong, and in New York, it’s a roll of the dice; they could be from any country on earth and have the most interesting stories. In KL, they were all Malaysian, but all spoke excellent English (unlike in Thailand, where my daily cab rides to and from work are strikingly silent) and two of the four drivers I had were retired from interesting jobs, like running an orphanage, and just driving cabs to avoid retirement boredom.
KL’s Chinatown, despite the tackiness of its street market (seriously, I AM NOT INTERESTED IN FAKE JIMMY CHOOs AND FAKE CHANEL BAGS!), was fabulous. I stumbled across a traditional lion dance — part of the ongoing Chinese New Year celebrations and had an amazing dinner of venison with ginger and spring onions accompanied by a delicious stir-fry of vegetables and a massive Tiger beer. It’s funny eating other Asian cuisines after so much Thai food: it’s so delicate and there’s no need to ask for “little chilis” to avoid overwhelming the other flavors. I also had Malay (also NOM!) food at just about every other meal, other than one *highly* disappointing Indian meal in Little India. Which kinda sums up Kuala Lumpur: rather disappointing, despite the fantastic experience in Chinatown and the super-chatty, very interesting cabbies.
But that’s OK, because in-between my evening trips to Little India and Chinatown, I did manage to get a lot of work done during the day, and even managed to get my Thai non-immigrant visa. Of course, that was a bit of a mess, as the KL Thai embassy used to issue multi-entry visas, but has recently switched over to only issuing single-entry visas with the requirement of adjusting them to multi-entry once you return to BKK and get the work permit. Which takes three weeks. While they have your visa. Which is a BIT of a problem when you’re scheduled to leave for Ha Noi the next Monday. Yikes! So I wrote to the UN visa people, who told me not to show the longer-term visa to immigration and just ask for a tourist visa.
Now, let me say that after 12 countries in 15 months, Philip and I learned the hard way that IT’S NOT A GOOD IDEA TO TRY TO DECEIVE IMMIGRATION. It backfires. So when I came back into Thailand, I told the nice, young Thai woman that I needed a tourist visa because blah, blah, blah. She heard the tourist visa blah blah blah, stamped my passport with a tourist visa, and called over her supervisor, whom I think spoke better English, because when I explained the situation to her — that I had a non-immigrant visa but had asked for a tourist visa because I was leaving for Ha Noi the next week — she started to take my passport back to her colleague, and when I said, “No, this is what I wanted, I just wanted to make sure that it was all by the rules,” she looked again at my passport, sorta rolled her eyes, then looked at me and smiled that beautiful Thai smile and handed me my passport. Score one for honesty! And the fact that no bureaucrat wants to un-do their colleague’s mistake when the customer is happy!
So… I was back in Bangkok for 4 days, during which time my boss told me that he didn’t want me to do “case studies” in three countries, but instead visit ALL of the countries in the region and create a proposal for each. (Insert here: INFORMATION THAT WOULD HAVE BEEN USEFUL YESTERDAY!!!!) So then I’m contacting all the country offices and trying to arrange visits to them before May 15, when my contract ostensibly ends — unless it’s extended as we hope — which is totally crazy, and impossible, because I have to get my Thai work permit/visa AND it takes up to a week for each other country for which I have to get a visa, during which times my passport is MIA… so that’s an ongoing snarl we’re trying to sort out. Thank God for our research assistant Kuhn Dao is so amazing; I can’t imagine figuring this all out without her!
I also had a fantastic weekend of bar hopping (I am totally too old for that shit. I’m not kidding.), brunches (crepes and Lebanese!) and pampering (TWO HOUR massage for $13!! Yoga!!), and another small-world connection: turns out that Anna, a friend of my friend Maegon, whom I knew in ’90-91 in Belgium when we were exchange students, is also friends with Sarah, the woman I mentioned above whom I knew in DC… and who two different DC friends told me to get in touch with. The web gets smaller…
Anyway, my weekend of pampering and wonderful Skype conversations with Val and Philip, I was both exhausted and refreshed (if that’s even possible) when I set off for Ha Noi this morning . . . at 5:45 AM. (OMG. Longest post ever. Three pages to get to TODAY.) Due to a dead battery in the cab and a longer-than-expected train ride, I barely made my flight (SERIOUSLY. When someone is sprinting through the airport, yelling, “Scuse me, ‘scuse me please!” at the top of her lungs, STOP SASHAYING and looking at the Hermes/Chanel/booze and get the hell out of the way!!) Amazingly, I made the flight and got to Ha Noi, where it was drizzy and cold — sixty degrees! I know, all y’all in the frigid U.S. are like, F-U! But I haven’t been in anything under 70 on a regular basis for years, and I don’t have any warm clothes!!) It’s nice, though, under my 100+ layers of long-sleeve T-shirts, to wander around in the mist, enjoying the spring.
(At some point during the afternoon in the hotel, my work was interrupted by a wee knock at the door, which I opened to find nice woman offering me a box. With lots of writing in Vietnamese. I surmised I should take it. When I opened it up, I found a plastic-wrapped, acid-green mass that looked a lot like that stuff we had as kids, you know, the goop you throw up against the wall and it oozes down dramatically? Yeah, that stuff. I surmised it might be food, so I opened it up, sniffed it and took a bite.
Now, I know you’re thinking that it must have been some sort of soap or something, but it turned out to be a sweet, a VERY ODD, acid-green, goo-looking sweet that tasted like marshmallows but had the consistency of tapioca pudding mixed with very strong jello. Um. Ok. Suffice to say it’s still sitting on my side-table.)
After spending the afternoon at the UNICEF office interviewing staff, and then back at the hotel sorting out travel and reading background docs, I figured 10+ hours of work was enough and headed out to see Ha Noi.
Ha Noi is amazing — I wandered the 1km or so from the hotel along long avenues strung with bright paper lanterns; past countless tea- and coffee-stalls where people young and old sat on tiny stools, sometimes puffing on long, bamboo water pipes or playing games; and by a couple of charming lakes bordered by shining temples and old people doing Tai Chi into the Old City. On the way, I was nearly killed by the crazy traffic at least a dozen times, as motorcyclists and cars alike ignored traffic signals and whizzed through intersections with little regard for pedestrian life, or other vehicles for that matter, honking wildly. Apparently, Ha Noians really, really like honking.
Oh, and dinner. Dinner was the most, ahem, orgasmic food experience I’ve had in years. I had been recommended to try out a tapas place, which sounded lovely after a month of mostly Asian food, but when I arrived I found a genuine little French cafe, complete with chalk-board menus and a French owner, with whom I rhapsodized about our dream to live in Southern France one day. I had two adequate, but well-matched, glasses of Malbec with my French onion soup (half-pureed, with cheese only on the toasts — perfect) and duck with cassis sauce (a point, seared on the outside, rare on the inside, and absolutely divine), all accompanied by slices of the best baguette I’ve had outside France with creamy, salty butter. I was swooning. Literally. Oh, and the bill: no swooning. Though looking shocking at 480,000 dong, It was less than $25.
I stumbled over to the Spa I’d scoped out on the way up for a much-needed pedicure. Now, before you get all bitchy and say, wait, massage on Saturday, pedicure on Monday, may I remind you that this is the second pedicure of my entire life, and after two years of running around barefoot on teak decks then transitioning to wearing shoes again, I had calluses literally peeling off my feet. OK, yuck, but the slight wine buzz and heavy food buzz, combined with the pampering left me swooning with contentment. Of course, after the pedicurist finished painting my toes a shocking shade of red, she absolutely forbid me to put my shoes on and provided me with a complimentary pair of acid-green, disposable flip-flops . . . all for less than $5. (Yeah, my life sucks. Didn’t I start this post saying MY LIFE DOESN’T SUCK???)
So, I waddled back to the hotel in my flippie floppies, full with dinner and the amazing adventures, where I found Downton Abbey on cable. Can life get any better??? Only if Philip were here with me, that’s for sure!
I’ve started reading the Bangkok Post and the Nation, surprisingly good English-language papers. Here are some recent gems:
At a recent political debate, one of the candidates failed to show up. The other organizers put a furby on the table in his place. You have to wonder if it significantly improved the quality of the debate.
I read in the newspaper the other day that the opposition Democratic candidates slogan, worn on their T-shirts, is “Honest — Not Corrupt,” which I realized only after guffawing out loud in public means, “We’re honest and not corrupt,” not, “No, honestly, we’re not corrupt!” Obviously, they haven’t heard of the cardinal rule in political communications, which is never to begin by deny your opponents’ characterization of you.
Numerology is a big deal here. Recently, winning lottery numbers matched the Prime Minister’s license plate a couple of times. Now people are mobbing her car to get the numbers. Sadly, I can’t share the editorial cartoon on this, as it’s not online, but it was good.
OK, so I’m posting this video despite the fact that it’s nowhere near what I’d like to create, as my video editing and shooting skills still suck, but nonetheless it captures a bit of my Saturday night in Bangkok.
While waiting for the photography club meetup to explore the launch of street-art festival (which ended up being more of a music and drinking thing with two guys on a cherry-picker SLOWLY painting a wall), I stood and looked out across the sky-bridge (to the skytrain) (I am not making this up) — as I watched the ultra-modern sky-train cruise in front of the mega-luxury-mall as a different music festival got underway, I noticed that there was a disabled amputee man begging with his small daughter on the steps leading up to the sky-bridge. Person after person passed him, toting their tourist backpacks or their shoppers’ bags, ignoring him and his girl. The look on his face, and the innocence of his girl, broke my heart. I stopped filming after a few seconds, embarrassed to be taping his humiliation.
But as I watched the dancers (dancing to remixes of White Lines, no less – how sad that I remember trying to breakdance to the original of that song!) and the expat kids mimicing them at the party later on, I kept thinking about that man and his little girl.
So here’s my crummy attempt to capture that on video. It’s nothing like I’d like it to be, but I’m putting it out there anyway.