Wednesday, March 28, 2007

There goes the neighborhood

Around lunchtime yesterday we got the word that a building on 115th and Lex had collapsed, causing all sorts of problems for my 'hood and - more importantly - the popular Lexington Avenue subway line (that'd be your 4,5,6 trains). I had an inkling of which building had bit the dust from the news reports and knew my own particular building, located one short block away, was probably OK.

Transit was a nightmare last evening, but I made it home without too much hassle by getting off at dear old 86th street, walking up to Madison, and catching a bus to 115th. As I approached my corner, I noticed that the street had been cordoned off and New York's finest were standing guard. I crossed the street and a charming police officer offered to escort me to my building.

"But I live right here," sez I, pointing to the corner.

I don't think he believed me. He let me cross under the tape, I pulled out my key, and went up to my doorway - about 4 steps from the street.

"Oh. You live here," sez my Boy in Blue.

"Yep, but I really appreciate the escort!" He smiled. I smiled. He left to partake in more escort duty.

I ran into my building, grabbed Bailey for her walk and made sure I had the camera, in hopes of getting a good look at what had happened. Alas, I couldn't get close to the building site, even though it's practically right outside my door. I did, however, manage to take a shot of the emergency vehicles and television trucks.

Getting in to work this morning was no breeze, either. My 116th subway stop is closed till further notice (or until they completely bring down the building in question), so I have to walk down to the 110th stop or catch the 2nd Avenue bus (veeeerrrry slow going).

Ah, well. Never a dull moment 'round here.

Friday, March 23, 2007

I smell fish and see plaid. This must be Scotland.

I hope it’s obvious, dear readers, that I would’ve posted more blogs in Africa if the internet connections had been better (or existent). It was frustrating, mainly because email was the only form of communication I had with family and friends while there.

Once in Kenya and settled in at St. Julian’s Retreat Center outside of Nairobi, I was able to make an internet connection and read email. It was then I leaned that my dear friend Aubrey had passed away in Aberdeen the same night as the crazy Umtata bus ride. (It was Aubrey and his wife Jean that I thought I’d lost when I was in England in October, out of contact and finding out that their house had been sold in Walton-on-Thames.)

Well, the news devastated me. At that point, all I wanted to do was get out of Kenya and get up to Jeannie. I found out about Aub’s death on Monday, March 19, and learned that the funeral was set for Thursday, March 22. Oh, yeah. And then I lost the internet connection (never to return). Also, the phone at the center wasn’t working properly, so I couldn’t call up to Scotland to find out all the details.

What to do? Well, first I just cried and cried. Remembering all the years and fun and talks made me sad beyond reasoning. Fortunately, our missioner who runs St. Julian’s had more of her wits about her than I did. She got on the phone with British Airways, changed my Thursday night Nairobi-London flight to same flight Tuesday night and got me on my way.

Mind, I hadn’t talked to Jean or her daughter, so I had no way of letting them know I was coming or finding out whether or not it was convenient for me to show up. I did go to an internet cafĂ© and manage to send an email stating my intentions. "Will call from Heathrow," was about all I managed. If I couldn't make my way to Aberdeen, I figured the worst that could happen was to end up in London for two nights, so off I went.

The Nairobi Airport is another yikes-filled experience, but I won’t bore you with that here. (Four security checkpoints and I still made it through with tweezers and nail clippers in my hand luggage.)

All the way to London, I’m thinking “What the hell are you doing? You have no winter clothes with you, you’ve never been to Aberdeen, you haven’t let Jean and Viv know you’re coming – aargh!”

OK. So I arrive at Heathrow and go online to see if any messages have come through. And yes, Viv says come on up, just let us know when to pick you up at the airport. Again online, I check out flights to Aberdeen via British Midlands and British Airways. BMI is a few pounds cheaper – but not much. I paid as much for round-trip Heathrow/Aberdeen as you’d paid for JFK/Heathrow, but it had to be done.

More trepidation as I looked down on Scotland and the outlying areas of Aberdeen to see snow, snow, snow. Oh. Great. I’m in light-weight trousers and sandals. Never mind. Aubrey’s looking down and laughing his ass off about it.

I’d never been to Aberdeen before. Aub and Jean’s daughter and family have a lovely horse farm near Stonehaven, a very picturesque fishing village near Aberdeen. I was warmly welcomed, given sweaters, thick socks and boots (though there was now snow on the ground where we were) and lots of tea.

I absolutely did the right thing leaving Kenya and flying blindly to Scotland to be with Jean. She needed family-but-not-real-family to listen to her and be there for her. We told remember-when story after remember-when story, laughed and drank tea for a while, then whiskey for a while. I spent the night with a good friend of Viv’s who showed me the most wonderful hospitality.

Aubrey’s funeral was at the local crematorium, and I must say I’ve never been to a funeral at a crematorium, so yet another new experience. I sat behind Jean and tied to stifle my sobs, since I was the only one in a puddle during the service. But when they pulled the little curtain around the casket to – I assume – cremate the body, well. Very hard, especially as the organist was playing “Amazing Grace.”

After the service, we all went to the St. Leonard’s Hotel in Stonehaven for drinks ('natch) and a great meal. I walked in, smelled the fish and saw the plaid carpet and knew without a doubt I was in Scotland. Lots of good talk, then back to the house for more tea and to unwind a bit before I had to hop back to London in order to catch this morning’s flight to New York.

What a strange trip it’s been. Africa to Aberdeen, in one fell swoop. But tonight –my own bed.

Here’s to you, Aubrey Dare, maker of splendid English breakfasts, bringer of tea or double-gin-and-tonics, picker-uppper from the airport or train station, spinner of yarns, fisher of the River Dee. You will live in our hearts as a good man.

Aubrey and moi, 2005

Seven hours of bad road

Steamy Dar es Salaam. I don’t do well in humidity. I never cooled off the entire time we were in Tanzania. Just too hot and moist.

We woke to a pouring-down rain on Sunday morning that soon cleared to leave – you guessed it – even thicker humidity. And what was facing us? A 6-hour bus ride to the Tanzanian capital of Dodoma. With no air-conditioning. Packed to the hilt with people and bundles of stuff. In a seat with broken springs that tilted me down and to the left. Well.

I was convinced that if I hadn’t died on the way to Umtata, I would surely expire (as I perspired) on the way to Dodoma. But you know what? I didn’t die there, either. In spite of an ungodly road that realigned my back with its craters, a constantly-honking bus horn warning folks walking or riding bikes along the side of the road, the bus slowing down periodically and people on the roadside thrusting bananas, cashews, potatoes, candy bars through the windows for us to buy, eventually we did make it to Dodoma. But not in the promised 6 hours. No. It took 7 hours.

Yes, it was a character-building exercise. I now have great, whacking storerooms of character. I think I’ll put some of it up on eBay and make a fortune!

But this must be said. The Tanzanians are the kindest, most hospitable people we met on our journey. Very open and gracious. After the steamy bus ride, the staff at Msalato Theological College laid on a real spread for us. And even though I couldn’t bring myself to eat the fish-heads, the rest of the food was de-lish.

We were only in Dodoma for one short evening. Early the next morning, we boarded a teeny airplane and flew to Nairobi. Don’t know if I like bouncing around Mt. Kilimanjaro in a paper airplane, but at least it was air-conditioned. And again, we made our destination in one piece (or should I say “peace”).

Now, who’s up for bidding on a bit of extra character, hm?

Umtata Night Bus

The thought of going someplace I’ve never been before always excites me. So when we boarded the plane for Umtata in Johannesburg I was feeling on top o’ the world. I had the row to myself, which meant I could move back and forth between the aisle seat (my preference) and the window to see what South Africa looked like from on high.

All clear – lovely scenery. Until we neared Umtata itself. A solid floor of clouds set in, but I didn’t think much about it. The PA system on the small airplane was virtually – no, actually – incomprehensible, but I gathered we were getting ready to land. The plan got low enough to see the ground, but it was obvious that fog had set in . Still, I could see the ground and prepared for touch-down.

All of a sudden the plane shot straight up into the clouds again. Hmm. That’s not right, sez I to meself. Bad PA announcement again, but word was passed back that the pilot would go around and try it again. Round and down we go, but ooops! Nope, back up. The flight attendant came back to inform us that we couldn’t land in Umtata – fog and (get ready for this) the likelihood of animals on the runway.

Great. Now, on any other airline the pilot would decide where to land and off we’d go. Not on this South African Airlines flight. The flight attendant polled all 25 of us to see whether we wanted to a) go back to Johannesburg, or b) land at East London. According to the map East London looked a lot closer to Umtata than Joburg, so all except one opted for that. We were told that SA would provide a bus to take us to Umtata, a 2-3 hour ride. The monkey-wrench, however, was that after dark the road was very dangerous – winding, foggy, and the ever-present animals-outta-nowhere. An Indian man, who claimed to have lived in Umtata for 20 years, kept yelling “We will all be killed! We will all be killed!”

Now, I gotta tell ya’, this was a new experience for me. I believe the moment the guy started yelling “We will all be killed!” is when I knew I was in a whole new dimension. The prospect of being killed notwithstanding, we all boarded the van provided - in the dark, in the fog. You know that scene in the Azkaban Harry Potter movie when he boards the Knight Bus to London? Well this was exactly like that.

Evidently, the bus driver wasn’t aware that we were all about to be killed, because he lit outta the East London airport like a cat on fire. And rarely slowed down afterward, I might add. Luggage and passengers flew around the inside of the van for two harrowing hours. Once in a while the hint of lights bore through the fog, but most of the time we traveled fast and furiously through a shroud. I was darn glad I couldn’t see what was going on. I flipped back and forth between terror and too-tired-for-terror.

But we made it, even though my hands still bear the pain of gripping the armrest and a suitcase for two solid hours. The driver even delivered us to the MacConnechie’s door, where the doctor/nurse missioners greeted us with tea and lasagna five hours after we were due to arrive.

Though the wild bus ride proved near-coronary inducing, in retrospect, my experience in Umtata with the MacConnechies and time spent with Monica and Heidi in Isibindi were the best of my Africa trip. Helping out in the clinic sorting and packaging pill doses, meeting the AIDS orphans and watching them laugh and play, watching the compassion and dignity of all concerned. Humbling, yet hopeful.

And I survived the ride to Umtata to experience it.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Pictures worth a ba-zillion words

I've been away from internet connection the past few days and this one's not so hot. So I'll forego the writing and just zap up a few pictures for now. On to Dar es Salaam tomorrow morning!

Flying from Jo'burg to Umtata. Well, we didn't make it. Umtata was fogged in, so they diverted us to East London, where were were loaded onto a van and driven (at break-neck speed) through fog and winding roads to Umtata. I'm glad I couldn't see what was going on. It was a harrowing 2-hour adventure, though it makes for a good story now!

Jenny McConnechie in the bread kitchen in one of the poor areas of Umtata (there are so many). Jenny, a nurse, runs a clinic at the project. My co-hort David and I spent the morning making "pill packets" with vitamins and other needed medications at the clinic. Jenny and her husband Chris (an orthopedic surgeon) have been missionaries in Umtata for over 30 years. In November, both Chris and Jenny were awarded OBEs by Prince Charles. They are British citizens but Episcopal missionaries.

See these happy little faces? These are all AIDs orphans at an after-school project in Ilingi, about 150 miles from Umtata.

And here is the AIDS cemetery in Ilingi (lest you believe that AIDS has been cured). New graves were being prepared when we were there.

A beautiful, peaceful place. An Anglican retreat center where we spent last night. Stunning!

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Africa Weird Dream Factory

I haven't slept well since I've been in Africa, and that's very unlike me. Here, I toss and turn (or play on the computer) until 3am, or I fall asleep around 11, then wake up every 2 hours. Sometimes I can go right back to sleep; other times, nope. I'm dead-dog tired, so I'm at a loss as to why this is happening.

However, when I do drop off to sleep for those little 2-hour wedges of slumber, the weird dream factory cranks up to high gear. I will not bore you with details of the rapid-fire, convoluted sub-conscious brain waves that shoot through my cranium in repose. Suffice it to say - weeeeiiiiiiirrrd. These dreams aren't helping the lack of rest situation, I can tell you.

Tomorrow's the last day of the conference in Boksburg. My cohort and I leave Johannesburg at 3:15 for Umtata (or Mthatha) to the south. We'll spend a couple of days traipsing between Umtata and Grahamstown on the coast, then back to Johannesburg on Friday. We leave for Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, on Saturday morning. I have no idea what the internet connection opportunities will be, but I'll post when I can.

Here's a little clip from this morning's Latin America Eucharist service. Again, lousy video and confusing audio, since "We are walking in the light of God" is being sung in English, Spanish, Portuguese and whatever other language folks felt called to use. Hang with it, though, to see Bishops Julio (Panama) and Marecio (Brazil) boogie down the aisle! (I promise to figure out how to edit my YouTube video when I get back home.)

Here's hoping for a solid night's sleep with no weird dreams!

Sunday, March 11, 2007

A joyful noise

For today's Sunday worship we were given a selection of 10-15 local parishes and asked to choose one to attend. Boy, did I make the right choice! Twenty or so of us boarded a bus to the township of Tembisa, about an hour's drive from the conference center, to attend services at The Church of the Holy Name. It's a poor township, with dusty roads and lean-to shacks and roadside stands selling chips and Coca Cola.

We were quite a collection of pilgrims - 4 bishops (Panama, Micronesia, 2 from Brazil) and an assortment of clergy and plain-old-folks from Canada, Sri Lanka, South Africa, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Tanzania, Brazil, and the United States. As we entered the church, we were ushered right up front, people waving and grabbing our hands. Such an outpouring of affection for strangers!

Among our number was Fr. Michael Lapsley, who lost both hands and an eye in a letter bomb attack in 1990 and founded the reconciliation group The Institute for Healing of Memories. In a gloriously impromptu manner, Fr. Michael was called on to preach, because the church's rector said that he couldn't possibly preach with Michael in the congregation. As told the story of his move to South Africa in the 1970s and the struggles with apartheid, an energetic woman translated his sermon into Sesotho (I think). She gave it all she had, using big hand motions and facial expressions - added enormously to the already amazing story that unfolded.

And the music! How can I adequately share the music of the day with you? Well, hear a little of it for yourself. (Please forgive the lousy video. I was trying to be unobtrusive in the worship service with my little digital camera.) Lots of call and response, heavenly harmonies, dancing, moving, clapping. Only one song was in English - the Prayers of the People responses, with the rest in local dialects. Whenever the song leader called out a hymn, she'd give hymnal pages for Zulu, Afrikaans, English, Sesotho, and about three other languages. People seemed to be singing in one dialect, but I guess you could choose which way you wanted to go with it.

The service lasted about 2 hours and 45 minutes, but let me tell you, the time flew by. I have been to much shorter services that seemed to last a lifetime. Not this one. There was too much to experience for even a moment's boredom.

If you ever, ever get the chance to experience an African church service, do yourself a favor and do it. I wish our churches made strangers feel so welcome and so energized. It was exhausting, but heavenly.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

My life so far

Whew! Hardly a minute to process everything that's going on here. From meetings, we're shuttled into workshops, then off to lunch, then back for plenary sessions, then small group discussions, then dinner - well, you get the picture. Thilling, but very tiring.

Except for the destruction of my one and only plug adapter (involving an inattentive bishop - and no, I didn't haul off and slap him once the damage had been done, though by rights I could've done), everything's gone smoothly so far.

The food is excellent - a big thing, in my book, you know. Big, slap-up breakfasts, but yogurt and cereal available for those not wanting to indulge in sausages and eggs. Lunches and dinners always offer fish and meat and lots of veg and salad and desserts, complete with hot custard to pour on top of everything. Yu-um!

Fortunately, there's plenty of opportunity to work off the custard 'round the fire with the local band and dancers every evening. And tonight, we hosted a party for the Latin America/Caribbean guests, and well, I musta danced off 20 pounds. (OK. I wish I'd danced off 20 pounds - but I gave it a good go.)

One curious thing - I find I'm having a harder time understanding the white South Africans than the people of color. That accent that sounds to me like a combination of Australian and Dutch is impossible for me to decipher. Sort of like one long "A" with a few consonants sprinkled in. I have to have them repeat things two or three times before I finally get it.

But other than that, I'm faring pretty well. Not getting enough sleep (see, it's already midnight here), but who wants to miss a single minute of it? Not me!

By the way, thanks for all your well-wishes. I'll get back in the blog-groove when I return to New York. (And sorry I had to put the code verification back up for comments - was getting too many people wanting me to visit their websites about viagra.)

For now, cheers, and greetings from South Africa!

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Rhythm and Hospitality

One day in, and I think the two words that best describe South Africa are rhythm and hospitality. I suspect the descriptions fit for most of the continent, as well.

We travelled to the township of Tsakane and All Souls Church for the opening service of the conference and were greeted by drums and bugles, waving clapping crowds lining the street. "Welcome! Welcome!" shouted to us as we made our way into the church.

I won't go into detail about the service itself, except to say that the choirs were everything I'd hoped they'd be. Amazing rhythms and harmonies. So energizing!

And after the 2-hour service? The women of the church had spend all day preparing a meal for all 350 of us! Chicken and beef and rice and pumpkin and a variety of potatoes and salads. All delicious, except for the African porridge, which I didn't much care for. But the work that went into all of this was just incredible.

Rhythm and hospitality to last a lifetime!

School girls in Tsakane greet us as we arrive.

Members of the Mothers' Union give us a warm welcome as we enter the church.

The young acolytes dance to the music of the choir and drums after the service. (I'm sure they were dancing for joy that it was over!)

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Plane Community

A weird sort of little community forms on a long trip. Sure, it’s true of car trips, bus trips, train trips, but it’s most certainly the case on those journeys that have you flying at 30,000 feet in a big ol’ tin can. You’re trapped – usually for good and exciting reasons, but trapped nonetheless - for hours on end over the United States or the Pacific Ocean or in my case over the Atlantic Ocean and the continent of Africa with hundreds of strangers. And so, a community forms.

Even if you’re not a chatty plane-talker, you bond in a strange way with the tall guy in the wheat-colored linen suit who walks up and down the aisle to stretch his legs. Or the grandmother with her two granddaughters in non-stop conversation in the row behind you. Or the flight attendant who brings you bottles of water and hand-freshening towels.

Maybe it’s necessary to feel community, especially in an airplane. Such a ubiquitous yet fragile form of transportation - and the worst possible thing could happen any moment. So we’re all in this together. At least for the next two hours. Or nine. Or seventeen.

Then. Phhhfffftt! We land safely in Los Angeles or London or Johannesburg, and the plane community disappears into the landscape, only to reform differently next time.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Saturday Blahs

Not the day but the book. Anyone else have a hard time slogging through Ian McEwan's Saturday? It's much shorter than Atonement - which I loved - but, like some real-life days, it seems to last 'way more than 24 hours. I've been trying to get though this little volume for almost 3 weeks. Granted, I've been dead-tired by the time I reach my bed at night, so I'd need a real page-turner to keep me from reading a few lines then settling into sleep. And this ain't it.

McEwan and Saturday do have interesting bits every now and then. Like this one:

"Without looking, he finds the button that secures the car. The door locks are activated in rapid sequence, little resonating clunks, four semiquavers that lull him further. An ancient evolutionary dilemma, the need to sleep, the fear of being eaten. Resolved at last, by central locking."

Never thought of automatic car locks as solving any ancient dilemma. Hm. Still, not enough to keep me awake. Ho-hum.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Into Africa

I'm pooped and posting from a hotel room in Ft. Lauderdale (at a resort, but not on the beach, so what's the point??). Tomorrow, it's back to New York to hug Bailey, do my laundry, unpack another box or two, pack my bag for Africa, and sleep in my bed for two nights.

On Monday, I'll hug Bailey, drag my bag and laptop to the office, do some last minute planning, pick up my tax forms from H&R Block (toooooooo complicated for Turbo Tax this year, my friends), then off we go to JFK to board a South Africa flight to Johannesburg by way of Dakar.

A contingent from our office has been tapped to attend a big Anglican mission conference in Boksburg, South Africa. The conference focuses on the Millennium Development Goals, especially the one that focuses on com batting HIV and malaria. The Archbish of Capetown is hoping that this work will get the same attention as the recent Primates' meeting in Tanzania, but I think we all know it won't. After all, though all factions of the church will be together for this conference, there won't be any threat of blood and guts (or huffy walk-outs) like the other. Just working on the tough stuff of changing the world. Naught to do with sexual orientation.

After the conference, another colleague and I will travel to the southern coast of South Africa to visit some of our doctors, teachers, and staff members, then on to Tanzania and Kenya to do the same. We'll return to New York March 23.

Talk about a whirlwind tour! I'm excited = understatement. We have a very full schedule (with a little down-time in Boksburg), and it will be wild and woolly. I haven't had much time to think about it because life's been so busy lately. Perhaps it will be more real to me once I board the plane Monday afternoon.

I will be bringing my laptop along and am hoping to blog along the way (or at least, put pictures up for ya'.) If any of you who have been to South Africa, Tanzania, or Kenya have suggestions, advice, ideas that will enhance my journey, don't be too shy to shout out.