Monday, October 20, 2008

Tanner in Tunis at 29

My first real day in Tunis I went to go see my friend Margaret at work and finish up a little work of my own. Margaret works for a company called Amid East, which specializes in teaching English and helping Middle Eastern students take the SATs and apply for college. They have schools all over the region, but Margaret is in charge of the Tunis American Corner, which in conjunction with the US State Department, serves as a library and resource center on American culture and academia. We stuck around there for a while but managed to leave early since most people were still operating on the Ramadan schedule. Ramadan combined with summer work hours means that almost everyone in Tunisia leaves work around 3pm. Though Eid had officially been called on Wednesday of that week, marking the end of Ramadan, most people didn’t start their full time schedule until the following Monday (Eid, or the end of Ramadan, is called regionally, when the local cleric first sees the moon. As it is a national holiday, you are never quite sure which day you will be getting off of work so it adds a little excitement. In Uganda they had called it on Tuesday, but in Tunisia they had called it on Wednesday). We took full advantage of this and snuck out early.

Friday happened to be my friend Tanner’s birthday so we set out to find him a cake and decide what to do. While running errands I called the airline and was happy to hear that they had received my baggage in Tunis. We rushed to the airport, picked up a cake from a fancy bakery in a very weird looking isolated neighborhood and headed back home to make some dinner. We decided to have a few of Tanner and Margaret’s friends over to their apartment, have a bit of a pitch in and play drinking games. To be able to do this we needed beer, which in Tunisia is a very difficult thing to do. There is one supermarket that carries beer and it is on the outskirts of town. Margaret and Tanner made a special trip there and as they walked out with two “flats” people stared at them judgingly.

That night we had quite the spread. Margaret and I had made fresh hummus with lemon from the tree in their yard and baked challah, one of their friends brought a rotisserie chicken, and we had the special cake. A group of 6 of us sat outside enjoying the moderate weather, good food and good company. We got to bed pretty late, knowing it would be rough to wake up early for our weekend trip to Cape Bon.

Kampala/Amsterdam/Paris/Tunis or bust

The post Uganda plan was to fly to Amsterdam where I would have a short connection, fly to Paris, wait an hour, then fly to Tunis. To my surprise, the KLM agent at the Entebbe airport said that they could check my luggage all the way through to Tunis. I was still nervous about the connections actually happening, so was a bit on edge for the majority of the trip.

I arrived in Amsterdam around 6am and double checked that my flight was on time then made my way to the internet lounge to finish a few things for work and charge my computer and ipod before boarding for France. I have heard bad things about Charles de Gaulle airport and Air France, but I never really understood the whining…it was France after all. But whoa, I get it now. The airport security was bizarrely inept and slow, funneling three lines at a time into one metal detector and forgetting that duty free materials can go through if it is sealed. They triple checked some of my duty free bags, pulled me to the side where I sat until a random worker told me that my carabineer holding my hat to my bag was too big. I told her, no, no its not, and its staying on my bag. 10 minutes later someone informed her that she was supposed to be looking at my duty free bag, not making up things to take from me. They apologized and sent me on my way. At the gate I checked on my luggage again. They responded that they didn’t have it yet registered but were sure it was on the plane…great. I boarded and was not at all surprised when I arrived in Tunis with no baggage.

I haven’t spoken French in years and it has gotten really really rusty. This did not help matters when trying to talk to the Tunian baggage correspondent regarding my lost luggage…I found my French vocabulary for outrage to be definitely insufficient. After being told that there were two more flights coming to Tunis that day but that I could not get my bags until the next day (when I would have to come pick them up), I left customs and met my friend Margaret outside. We headed back to her house, hoping that my luggage would turn up eventually.

That night we went to Sidi Bousaid, a beautiful ancient suburb of Tunis, set on the Mediterranean. It is a hilly city of whitewashed domed buildings with blue shutters and beautiful mosaics. Walking through its winding cobble stone streets feels a little like the old city in Jerusalem. We had dinner at a little outdoor restaurant…teaming with cats. Side note here, Tunisia feels like is has more cats than people. They are EVERYWHERE. And they are bold! One little white cat kept jumping up on my friend Tanner’s lap during dinner. Tanner would take him by the nape of his neck, place him away from the table and he would just jump right back up. Walking down the street, they are all around, some clearly diseased and starving, others well fed and cunning. Regardless, we had a nice little diner with the cats of cous cous, grilled meat, Tunisian salad Moushuai, and lots and lots of bread. We started off with a Brick, something you can find everywhere here. It is a fried egg, usually with tuna, wrapped in a thin crepe like thing and fried. Any rural or urban eatery is guaranteed to offer it.

After our dinner we walked around a bit and had traditional mint tea at a cafĂ© carved out of the side of a mountain over looking the harbor. We waited around a bit until it was time to meet up with one of Margaret and Tanner’s friends at a popular bar. Drinking in Tunisia is not well regarded, so though many Tunisians do drink, they do so only in certain places and at certain times. The popular bars take advantage of this and charge fairly high prices for poor selection. This particular hotel/bar was a bizarre collection of American kitsch. In the back section there were tables set around a pool and side tables for drinking. All around were plastic figures, pink flamingos, and Chinese lanterns. Somehow it just worked. The bar itself is up against the ocean. After a few drinks I was completely wiped and Margaret and I headed home.

I'm leaving on a KLM plane...

My last few days were hectic as I tried to say goodbye to friends and colleagues, manage to finish all my writing, and assist in our ongoing workload. The night before I left I got my last share of fabulous Indian food from Kahna Kahzana, watched Knocked up, and packed…works for me! The following day I went to work and left my packed stuff at home so I would be ready to head to the airport in the early evening. My boss and I left work around 4pm to meet up with a grouping of democracy and governance (D&G) implementers and funders for drinks and informal exchanges. The group of 8-10 discussed current programming, trends they are seeing, responses from government officials, and strategies for the upcoming years. It was a prefect way to end my time.

I anxiously fidgeted at the end as my boss and another D&G guy chatted, making me concerned I’d miss my flight. I was just being typically antsy overly programmed me. We drove the 2 minutes back to the house where I pulled my stuff together and played a bit with my boss’s kid who for some reason decided he wanted to hang out more than he ever did while I was staying there. I shoved some food in my face and waited for the driver to arrive (we hire drivers who drive our organization trucks). I waved good bye to the little guy and my boss and headed for the airport at 6:15pm. If I thought I was going to get there without a heavy bout of traffic I was surely delusional. At every turn we found ourselves at a standstill, coughing out the exhaust of the hundreds of cars and buses pressed close to our truck.

As the sun began to set and we creped along the outskirts of Uganda I watched a city alive in its afterhours. In the midst of what looked like miles of empty dark fields, were the little flickers of bonfires marking shanty town homes and informal bars. The fires dotted the horizon marking a massive expanse of informal settlements. Along the side of the road people walked and biked, carrying food, clothes, children, and other things home after work and shopping. Informal bars in small metal containers on the side of the road lit up and filled with men. The pattern continued until close to Entebbe where it became suddenly quite, peaceful and empty. I just finished reading the Last King of Scotland so driving the big main highway that connects Entebbe’s city center to the airport I couldn’t help but imagine those who rushed out of the country during Amin’s harder times, as described in the book, racing their way down the same road, seeing the same beauty of lake Victoria, and feeling the sudden quiet seemingly imposed on a bustling, breathing country. But that is Africa…a history that is simultaneously ancient, and frustratingly new.

Rosh Hashana in Kampala

As the end of my time in Uganda approached I realized just how much I needed to get done in only a few short days. With two reports, a proposal, and a memo due on top of the usual everyday things, I knew I was not going to be able to travel the 4 hours east to Mbale to celebrate Rosh Hashanah with the Abayudaya Jews. As an alternative I began trying to find Israeli or Jewish groups in Kampala that might want to at least eat together. I had tried to find the Embassy or Consulate but was surprised to learn that Israel never returned after evacuating during Idi Amin’s reign of terror. Israel always had an interesting relationship with Uganda, actually training Amin before he came to power, supplying him with weapons before they knew just how crazy he was, and then trying to push him from power once they realized that he was on course to destroy the country. The active Mossad (Israeli CIA) network prompted the paranoid Amin to kick all Israelis and Jews out around the time he exiled the Indians. Israel’s last major interaction with the Ugandan government was when it famously stormed the Palestinian hijackers who had, under the protection of Amin and the Ugandan army, landed their plane at Entebbe. The Israeli mission successfully rescued the passengers killing the hijackers in the process in a dramatic and complicated rescue mission. Since then, though they have normalized their relations, Israel has run all of its Uganda business from its Kenyan embassy.

Thinking my options had run their course I had planned on buying some apples and honey, forcing my colleagues to eat it while cheering happy new years, and going out to dinner. On the debate night outing however, I ran into someone who said they knew a bunch of Israelis who would be able to tell me if there was anything Jewish going on in Kampala. At Latin bar I was introduced to two bald, burly, Israelis who run a major road construction company in Uganda. They had organized a big dinner for their company’s workers and their families (mostly Israeli) and had a few additional people coming as well. What was originally a 60 person affair had turned into a 120 person extravaganza. They gave me the administrator’s number and told me to call him the next day. I called the man who did not speak English very well and we managed to communicate that I would come the next day to their office to pick up tickets for the dinner. He described their location as, in Gubalobi, across from the shell station, near the big muffler sign…somehow I got that.

The following day I took the truck and made my way to the Industrial area near Gubalobi. I bumped my way down what would generously be called potholed roads and enjoyed using the truck’s 4 wheel drive function on a particularly nasty bumpy dirt section (mind you I’m still driving in Kampala, no more than 10 minutes from where I was staying). I turned past a big old muffler sign and drove down a dirt road flanked by menacing looking industrial complexes and offices. On the phone I couldn’t understand if the man said NBI or SDA, or something else, so when I saw SBI I parked in front and hoped I was in the right place. 15 minutes later the Administrator called to say he had returned and a guard let me drive into the complex. I walked into the basic but clean office building and learned that the Rosh Hashanah dinner was being prepared by all of the wives of the company workers with some ingredients imported from Israel. He emphasized how excited he was that they had shipped over Gefilte Fish to which all I could muster was a meager wincing of a sound coupled with a fake smile…who voluntarily eats Gefilte Fish? Aside from the Gefilte though, everything he described was a traditional Israeli Rosh Hashanah…dates, figs, beet root, egg, fish head, round challah., and apples and honey…looked like my Ugandan Rosh Hashanah would actually be the most authentic Israeli event I’d ever attend. The only downer was that no one had communicated to me that this was a paid event so I had to cover my surprise when he asked for the equivalent of $40 in Ugandan Shillings (about 60,000).

As I was walking out a young American couple was coming in. I waited for them to pay and then offered to give them a ride back to wherever they were going. They had just arrived two days prior and it was weird for me to feel like the experienced Kampala person. It made me realize just how well I had come to know the city. I drove them downtown, made some recommendations of places to go explore and gave them the scoop on the social and restaurant scene. They were on an extended honeymoon, the tail end of which included a stint volunteering with the American Jewish World Service’s professionals program.

We made plans to meet up for the dinner and I was happy to know someone in advance of the actual event. On the day of, I made my way to the Sheraton after work…it taking 45 minutes in the car to get the 3 miles away (oh Kampala jams). The security was ridiculously tight, most likely in reaction to the recent Pakistani hotel bombing as well as Eid and Rosh Hashana falling on the same day. I have to be honest though, with recent talk of Somali Al Qaeda arrested in Kampala I was happy to see the extra measures.

I had been in quite a rush, concerned that I would be late for the dinner. An hour and a half after the official start time people were still mulling around the big banquet hall, chatting and drinking. Little did I know that combining Israeli time and East African time actually doubled the late factor. The Israeli I had met at the bar came by to chat and informed me that the Ministers of Finance and Security were to be coming to the dinner. My jaw dropped, probably visibly…The minister of Security is also the Secretary General of the ruling party, and is the President’s right hand man. We had taken him to our program at the Democratic convention but had decided not to follow up with meetings afterwards because he was immediately embroiled in a massive scandal in Uganda, a scandal that also involved the Minister of Finance. He was under unbelievable political pressure and was certainly someone with whom my organization needed to stay on good terms. I was surprised when about 20 minutes later, both ministers not only showed up, but put on Kippahs (yarmulkahs) and sat down with their families for the whole thing. At the beginning Mbabazi (the Minister of Security) stood up to say a few words and thanked SBI for its years of service to Uganda. I had no idea, but according to Mbabazi they had been building roads in the country since the 1960s. I still can’t get over the fact that two of the most powerful and important men aside from the President were present at this company’s Rosh Hashanah dinner. I don’t think I want to know the details of that relationship.

The dinner itself was a little disorganized and confusing. It was nice nonetheless. I sat with the American couple who were placed next to one of the company’s workers, a Cuban refugee who had moved to Uganda in the 80s and stayed there with his family ever since (non Jewish). The food was pretty good and we were all excited for some traditional Israeli salad and Schnitzel. By the end of the dinner I was ready to be out of the very odd atmosphere so I said my goodbyes walked out of the hotel and caught a boda back. I love the bodas at night when the streets are empty and you can feel the cool night air slapping against your face…there is also something just so efficient about it. 5 minute later I was home and back to work.

Tupperware parties, debates, and salsa

As estimated, as soon as my boss returned from overseas things really picked up. So much so that I haven’t posted for over two weeks! I’ll do my best to remember the insanity but I am tired and now on vacation so I reserve the right to forget everything ☺

The Monday that my boss got back we popped right back into work. The hardest part about working in Kampala is that there are always people who need to meet and they will always be late, want to talk about the country, their family, and the weather, and then will take a long time to repeat themselves on business matters. Days were taken up by meetings at the Parliament building with caucus staff, members and leadership, civil servants, and party leaders. This left the evenings to write reports due at the fiscal year close and develop proposals for programs that will be funded in 2009. We would leave the office around 6:30 or 7, grab some dinner, play with my boss’s 2 year old, and then hunker down to write, usually getting to bed around 1 or 2am.

Regardless of the pace, for some reason you don’t seem to mind so much because the work feels so immediate. Writing proposals entails conversations with those it will effect to inform the design. Writing reports means discussing and analyzing the impact of existing programming. In the thick of it, it all seems exciting and meaningful. It also helps that I get along well with my boss, and even at 2am, we managed to laugh through the process. We developed a truly great proposal to improve members of parliament’s constituency outreach and were able to garner some interest from new donors over the original idea.

On the personal front, there wasn’t as much time to hang out with friends and friends of friends but I did still manage to enjoy myself and get some social time in on the weekend.
A few Fridays ago, I headed to the equivalent of a Ugandan Tupperware party. We showed up at one of my friend of a friend of a friend’s houses for dinner where he had assembled a women’s group that makes Ugandan paper beads and fabric bags. Peter’s house was a typical middle class Ugandan house, with open windows and brightly painted cement walls. Our cab driver got lost so we didn’t get there until dinner was over but I still bought a bunch of necklaces and chilled with a very random grouping of people. After about an hour and a half we headed over to a bar called Iguana to meet up with a different group of people. Iguana felt like a giant treehouse with wooden bars and stand tables, couches, and a dance floor. It was open aired with only a roof overhead and was packed with muzungus (white people) and a fare share of Ugandans. We met up with a few embassy people, USAID workers, Clinton Foundation health folks, and environmentalists. Strangely I was the only overtly political worker there. After some time the decision was made to move on and my friends and I piled into one of the embassy guy’s trucks.

Upon realizing that we hadn’t eaten dinner, embassy guy demanded that we go in search of food and we wound up driving through downtown Kampala and stopping at my favorite South African Chicken chain, Nandos (which consequently is just not as good in Kampala). After a ridiculously long wait and what I’m sure was someone spitefully spitting in my sandwich we headed to the Latin bar, owned by a Cuban, located directly above the Irish bar that is called Bubbles O’learly (I really can’t make this stuff up). The Latin bar is mainly a huge outdoor area that pipes salsa, meringue, and regetone for a packed crowd of expats from every imaginable place and a few local Ugandans on the perimeter. It is bizarre.

When talking with folks at the first bar, I had mentioned that I was bummed that our cable was out because I had planned on waking up at 4am to watch the first of the Presidential debates. Embassy guy had excitedly responded…”I’m watching the debates at my place and I have a ton of peanut m&ms!!! (side note: In Uganda it is next to impossible to get good chocolate and even more difficult to get m&ms. You probably could find them but they’d cost something like $10…cheerios do. For this reason, expats crave American or European chocolate like a drug) So come 2am at the latin bar, my friend is ready to go home and I am only considering going to Embassy guy’s if she does. My friend puts up a good fight but embassy guy counters with the following combination, and it’s just too much for her:

- the embassy provides each worker with a ridiculously high perishable goods shipping quota
- He takes advantage of it by buying half of Costco every time he goes back the states and having it shipped to the embassy
- He therefore has trail mix, all sorts of m&m’s, Velveeta cheese (why?), Doritos, Pringles, peanut butter, and every other American “comfort/junk” food you could want at 2am after a night out.

So 2:15am we’re heading to his house to pass or wait out the time til 4. Now I knew Embassy folks were set up in nice places but wow is really all I have to say. His was the smallest of the Embassy pool, but it was more than large and nice enough for a young single guy. He had a yard, a porch with a grill, a big living room and dining room, a kitchen the size of most NY apartments, two bedrooms, and an even bigger back yard. He had decorated the place quite nicely and we all sunk into his oversized couches and passed out for a bit. At around 3:30 we woke back up to get hyped for the debate and were joined by a few other friends. We yelled at the television, rolled our eyes at boring answers, and groaned at missed opportunities until it was over and then around 6am headed home.

I walked into my boss’s house around 6:15am, greeted by her husband and 2 year old son just up and getting ready for the day. I felt a little like a high school kid coming home after curfew. I promptly went to my room and passed out for about 3.5 hours then woke up and decided I needed to be productive…why I’m not sure. My boss took particular delight in poking fun at my slow reaction time and half closed eyes throughout the day. Later that night they hosted a bbq for some of their friends and I attempted to muddle my way through conversations with young parents and wayyy too many small children to be in one place at one time. Great food and good beer though.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Over the river, through the woods, to Brett's house I go...

This past weekend I decided to go visit my friend Brett in Jinja (a good sized town about 2 hours east of Kampala, site of the source of the Nile river, and hot spot for white water rafting). Brett is coming up on the end of her 2 years of service in the Peace Corps and has been working with a great organization in a village about an hour’s walk away.

I left work early on Friday about 5:00 to be able to get back to my house, throw some random clothes in my backpack and make my way to the taxi park downtown. The easiest way to get around during rush hour “jams” is to take a boda, or public motorcycle, praying the whole way that the car 3 inches from your side doesn’t swerve and take you and the speeding boda driver out. Usually if you ask them to go slowly or pole, they tend to listen. I managed to hop on a boda and make it to the taxi park around 10 to 6. The taxi park is an insane experience. A huge parking lot filled with VW vans, painted white with blue checkers across the side, and various short buses called “coasters.” Weaving in and out of the scene of organized chaos are hundreds of vendors and merchants trying to get you to buy their wares and supplying snacks and drinks to waiting passengers.

The park is hectic but somewhat ordered. The taxis clump in sections according to their regional destinations. You walk through the mayhem to try to hear someone yelling your area and then choose the vehicle that looks like it will fill up most quickly. I chose a coaster because the larger vehicles tend to move slightly slower and give you the illusion of more space. I squeezed into a small seat at the back of the coaster and waited for the rest of the thing to fill up. Once every seat is full the driver takes off, weaving through the mayhem and people out to the packed Kampala roads.

Driving, even in the country side brings you past throngs of cement roadside shops, wood furniture sales space, young men grilling meet on sticks to be sold to passing cars, vegetable and fruit stands, and hundereds and hundereds of people on bicycles. Buses and cars routinely swerve, attempting to dodge, potholes, pedestrians, cyclists, and boda drivers. The only stretch of road not bustling with people and shops is through a small forest shortly before arriving in Jinja. Along the main paved roads though you will never see an uninhabited strip, the sheer quanitity is incredible. This time the trip took about 2.5 hours because of traffic and I arrived in Jinja after dark. I hopped off the taxi right before the bridge across the river, hopped on one of the 10 bodas waiting to shuttle taxi riders around, and enjoyed the wind on my face as the driver zoomed down the dirt road to my friend’s house. It was so quiet, clean, and peaceful…already quite a change from Kampala.

I saw my friend sitting on the side of the road, had the boda slow down, and hopped off. The first thing I noticed was the unbelievably clear sky, peppered with an impressive number of stars…you could make out the cluster of the milky way clearly as a backdrop to bright shinnings in the sky. Brett’s house was part of a family compound. Gated at the edge of a hill drop off to Lake Victoria and the crossing of the Nile, her view was incredible and her house quite nice. She might be the luckiest peace corps volunteer (PCV) to have ever graced the earth. Her house had a kitchen, common entry area, living room, two bedrooms, and full bathroom with indoor plumbing, running (hot) water, electricity, and a fridge! It was quite the treat. When I arrived we chatted for a few hours and then put our weary selves to bed.

The next morning we woke up around 7am, showered, ate muslix, yogurt, honey, banana, and fresh papaya, and then made our way to her site so she could do an HIV/AIDS prevention training with school children. We walked for a little over an hour over red dirt trails weaving through the country side and around the backs of small villages. The land was green, lush, overgrown, and rolling. We passed men tilling soil in fields, children playing in streams, and women doing their weekend laundry. When we got to her organization I was blown away by the oasis they had created. Amidst a fairly dirty and very poor village was a well groomed compound, fresh cut grass grounds, a clean cement clinic and resource center and small wooden school house/cantine a few feet away. The place was bustling with peer educators, school children, and members of the community coming to get tested or treated. We walked over towards the peer educator meeting and Brett was just about knocked down clean by one of the school kids coming to hug her. Many of the kids were orphans and HIV positive themselves so loved the consistency and positive attention they got from Brett.

We waited around in true east Africa style for about an hour for the other facilitator to come with the materials for the lesson. When he finally showed the kids got started discussing examples of peer pressure and how to counter it. They went through role plays of pressure situations and then discussed positive role models and methods for staying safe and healthy. It was very interesting to watch. By noon we made our way back to Brett’s place and made some grilled cheese and salad, with fresh Ugandan avocado. We then made pumpkin vegetable stew and rested for a bit. Around 5pm we started walking to Jinja town, about another 45 minutes away. Once on the outskirts of the town, we hopped on bicycle bodas and rode into the city center. There we hopped on another packed taxi, went through some ridiculous routine of local youth pushing the taxi through the streets to get it moving and then were on our way to a near by campsite/rafting center.

Jinja town is well known for its rafting. The Nile has some serious rapids and tourists come from all over to take part. It is a bit of a weird dynamic since it does attract some college frat like individuals and almost entirely muzungus (white people/foreigners). We were heading to the rafting center because one of Brett’s fellow PCV’s sister was visiting and they decided to go rafting and hang out in Jinja for the weekend. Two other PCVs decided to join so we headed up for dinner and some beers. We ate largely American fare and drank Nile beer overlooking the falls and enjoying the sunset. Topped it all off with an ice cream brownie and then went to the outdoor bar to hang out with Brett’s friends.

While throwing back a few beers one of the people who had been in Brett’s friend’s raft came over to talk. We quickly discovered mutual friends and spent a good portion of the night laughing over how small of a world it truly is. Finally around midnight we had a special hire taxi pick us up and bring us back to Brett’s. We both passed out hoping to sleep for a good long while. Unfortunately the rooster outside the window didn’t wish for that to be the case. Come 6:30am incessant crowing…no use trying. We made some eggs, hung out, read, and talked. Finally around 11am I packed my bags and said good bye. I walked to the main road, hailed a boda, and was taken to the highway where I loaded into a taxi heading to Kampala and counted 17 people squeezed in. We would stop every 10 minutes or so to try to squeeze more people in or let others off. Right outside of Kampala the taxi stopped again and this time the runner told me to get out and switch to another Taxi. I was very confused but did as was told and set off to town in the new crowded taxi. Thankfully it all worked out and I got off a few blocks from the house, hailed another boda and was home.

I scarfed down some food, chilled for a bit and then hopped in the truck and drove to the country club to fit in a swim. When I had finished my workout I drove to the downtown supermarket, stocked up on the week’s lunch supplies and fruits, and picked up dinner from my favorite take out place. All in all I have to say a great weekend. Tomorrow my boss gets back from England and I’m sure the work will pick up greatly.

Monday, September 15, 2008

First comes the rain, then comes the ants

A lot of people have been asking me about where I’m staying and for other descriptions of Kampala. I expected it to be much hotter and more humid than it has been. When I was here last in February it was the height of the hot season and the air was heavier than DC summer. Expecting the same I dress for work in my lightest dresses only to catch a few chills as the sky turns gray, the wind starts blowing and the monsoon like rains fall. Usually I’m told the rain pours for 30 minutes then clears up to a beautiful sky but I have been through two large storms, each dumping for the majority of the day and then leaving a gray and overcast sky. Most days though it is bright and sunny.

A side effect of the rain are the ants. They are everywhere. At a certain point you just have to pretend they don’t exist. They crawl all over your bags, the kitchen counter tops, and floors. If you brush them to the side they scurry on their way, returning a few moments later. I’ve stopped flicking them away. Because of the usual humidity, the vast difference between day time and night time temperatures, and ants, most houses have cement like walls and tile floors. They are easier to wash and care for and keep the house cool in the heat. Windows are always open to allow for cross breezes. Almost no where has air conditioning, though with this weather I’m grateful for it.

Showering is a bit of an art. Even with my country director’s nice house you are dependent on small hot water heaters attached individually to each shower. At night before you go to bed, you flick a switch to heat up the water so you have some in the morning. There’s not much time to wake up though, because the hot water lasts 3 minutes tops then starts tapering into sharply cold. The rest of the house has all the amenities you could want: washer, dryer, refrigerator, TV, DSTV, couches, and a yard. No matter how nice the house or neighborhood, you are always subject to the random power outages. On Sunday the power was out from when I woke up in the morning until 5:45 that night. Most of the time it works pretty well though.

Right now, because of the rain, things are pretty green. Somehow though, no matter how wet it gets, the dust doesn’t disappear. It is a red dust that gets onto everything but is pretty easy to brush off bags and clothing. The western part of the country is even greener and populated with rolling hills and bits of forest. Kampala itself is also pretty hilly as it is affectionately known to be the city of seven hills. Our office sits on Nakasero lending itself to a beautiful view of two adjacent hills and the small valley.

Driving in the city is insane. There few lane markers and no street lights. Every major intersection is broken up by a round about, which makes traffic back up for 15 minute waits. Once you approach the roundabout you put your life in god’s hands and pray that the 20 cars jamming within 3 inches of your door have good enough breaks to avoid smashing you. If you navigate the circle you’re home free. During the morning and evening, the circles are all manned by traffic policemen and women. A few months ago, when the Queen of England visited, the government updated their usual khaki uniforms to a crisp full white outfit with white gloves. With the dust and number of cars it is an odd choice but certainly a unique look for the city.

Food wise, Uganda has a few main staples. Matoke, which is mashed green banana, is used almost as a rice replacement. People often eat it with lamb, beef, fish, or chicken curry, or ground nut sauce (peanut sauce…they call them gnuts, but still refer to the spreadable stuff as peanut butter). They also eat a ton of cassava, and usually top it all off with the Indian bread called Roti (flat, dense, greasy). Many American foods are available but you have to pay. Right now, Rice Crispies in a supermarket costs about $8-10 a box. There are a few fabulous fresh foods though that I can’t get enough of. Avocados are everywhere in every size you could imagine. They also have tons of Pineapples and they are so juicy and sweet. Their mango’s aren’t bad but tend to be pretty small. Apples are very expensive, and their non-imported oranges are green and tart. Lemons are also green.

I think that about covers my impressions of the city. Let me know if there is anything you’re curious about and I can add it on in.

Trucks, friends, and country clubs

On Saturday afternoon my friend Nick, who just started Peace Corps, and his friend came by on their way through the city. We hung out for a while at the house, letting the dirty peace corps kids get in a hot shower and some faster internet. We threw around the football for a while and then departed on my great adventure for the day. My country director left one of our organization trucks for me to drive if I could get acquainted with the roads here. Since Uganda is a former British colony they drive on the left side of the road. Normally that wouldn’t be that big of a deal but in Uganda they don’t have many if any stop signs and traffic lights so it’s really just a big game of merge. Right hand turns (cross traffic here) therefore scare the crap out of me. To add to the challenge the truck is a manual, meaning I have to shift with my left hand. It’s all very awkward.

Nick and I headed out for a few laps on quiet streets and then ventured out to the supermarket or as he called it, muzungumart (muzungu means white people and you get it shouted at you everywhere you go). After stocking up on some basic fruits, veggies, and yogurt we headed out to my favorite Kampala Indian restaurant, Kahna Kahzana. It is a truly bizarre place. Owned by Indians, fabulous food, servers are all Ugandan…in Indian clothing. It is a confusing sight. A friend of a friend who is living here joined us for dinner and we ate far too much for our own good and then headed back to the house to watch a movie and catch up.

Nick and his friend took off Sunday morning to get back to their sites and I did some reading since the power was out when we woke up. Later in the afternoon I headed to the Kabira country club with a friend to get in a lift and some laps in the very nice outdoor pool. The place is a completely different world. It is always jarring to see the juxtaposition of the extreme poor in developing countries with the affluence of foreign expats. If you saw only the neighborhood I’m staying in you would have a very rosey view of the reality of most Ugandans. I have electricity, running water, internet, cable, a yard, and a gate. All things one would take for granted in the US, but rarities in a country with high unemployment, 50% of the budget subsidized by foreign aid, and an ever growing divide between rich and poor. You may now call me Debbie downer 

Sunday, September 14, 2008


The hotel we had our retreat at was beyond nice. I don’t mean nice by African standards, I just mean nice. The rooms were huge, with big king sized beds and canopies with mosquito nets. The bathrooms were gianormous and had very modern, pressurized showers with glass doors. At the back of the room was a balcony overlooking lake Victoria and the surrounding hills. To top it all off they had installed flat screen tvs with satellite stations (8 instead of the usual 2). As nice as it all was we didn’t really have time to enjoy it.

By 9am we had started our retreat meetings. My country director has more than doubled our staff since being here so it was a really great chance to get all 10 people on the same page about our organization’s mission, our method for work, and the state of Ugandan politics today. We started off by listing out what democracy means to us. This elicited very general responses about the broader context: “freedom of expression without fear of retribution, informed populations, equality…” Our country director then began digging deeper, asking what does informed mean in reality. Informed who? Citizens? Leaders? Who is or isn’t informed? Who needs to be informed? Whose burden is the informing? Why does that matter to democracy? We discussed that one for about 1 hour and then moved onto freedom, and the reset of the terms. When we were done with that we moved on to identify the gaps in democracy in Uganda and tried to match those up with our programming. It was an incredibly tiring way of thinking but ended up being so worthwhile in more clearly defining our reason for being in Uganda and a picture of what we could accomplish in 4 years. On a personal level it was a really great chance to put the work I do into a more realistic and vital context.

The following day my country director left at 6am to head out of town with her family, leaving me in charge of the office and her Kampala house. I spent the first part of my day in the office trying to coordinate for an upcoming trip to the western districts of Kasese and Busheyni to conduct our final local organization selection interviews. If one of the staff members ends up having to attend to a family matter then I will be going in her place. To prepare for that possibility I had to read up on the local organizations’ application papers and get briefed on our selection process. We didn’t end up leaving the office until around 7:45pm at which point it started raining. It kept going so I decided to stay in, read and watch a movie. I finally got in some much needed sleep and woke up without an alarm…so nice.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Hitting the ground running

I arrived in Entebbe on Tuesday night around 8:30pm. When I stepped off the plane I was hit with that powerful smell associated with tropical developing countries. That slightly offensive yet wholly comforting mix of roadside bonfires and humid equatorial air. I don’t know why, but it always makes me happy. The plane landed about a 100 feet away from the gate so I savored the Ugandan night on the walk to the terminal. Once inside I joined the very long “queue” to get my single entry visa. I am always struck by how many missionaries are in East Africa and this time was no exception. Of the few hundred people on my flight I would say 75% were with a church group or mission sponsored trip. It really does add an interesting dynamic to the already diverse planeful of people.

After I got my bag, a driver picked me up and we headed the 40 minutes into Kampala where I am staying with my country director. By the time I got in it was around 10 pm and I was ready to crash. I stayed up talking with my director for a while and finally got to sleep around 12:30 or 1. The next morning I got up at 7:30am, got ready and headed into work…no rest for the weary! The first day was jam packed. Around 10am we headed to Parliament to meet with Members of Parliament (MPs) on the FDC (opposition party) parliamentary caucus rules and procedures committee. Since Uganda was a one party state until 2005, political parties are still incredibly new and weak. The ruling NRM is the party that held control for the 30 years following Idi Amin’s fall and has held the presidency and majority in Parliament since. The opposition parties are all currently trying to create structures, rules, and platforms, and decide what they stand for…all monumental tasks.

A part of our program is working with these parties’ members in parliament (making up a parliamentary caucus) to create some of these documents and policies. A caucus code of conduct states the expectations the party has of its members in parliament and delineates who communicates for the group, how decisions are made, how they make deals with other groups, and the consequences of breaking the rules or not showing up for work. We had worked with them to draft an initial document and during this meeting went over some of the practicalities to determine what additional clauses would be needed to accomplish their vision. In the end only the chairman and one staffer showed but it was still a very interesting meeting. It took us 3 hours however because every few minutes someone’s cell phone would ring, and in East Africa people always answer.

After the meeting we headed back to our office to prepare some materials for the staff retreat that was starting that evening. Later in the afternoon we met with a very young NRM MP (looked like he was my age) from the central district. He held a leadership position in the NRM caucus and came to speak with us about assistance we are going to provide on communications strategies. We settled on a working meeting in late September and then he had to get back to Parliament for session. An hour or so later, the NRM chief whip’s staffer came by to discuss constituency outreach assistance we will also be providing. Again, we discussed when we would be able to discuss the training (so typical). Around 7pm we left the office and headed 40 minutes towards lake Victoria to start our retreat. By the time we all got there, ate our dinner, and had a few beers we were too tired to do much of anything and headed to bed.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Uganda bound

I am still amazed at just how exhausted I still am from the whole ILF experience. It’s incredible how the body can push off draining effects until you have time to be tired. The first thing my boss said to me when he saw me the Tuesday I got back to the office was “what on earth did ILF do to you? I want my Rojack back” Apparently I was quiet, subdued, rambling and slow…I guess that’s not normal for me.

I allowed myself a few days of 9-6 work days with appropriate tv viewing and laziness in the evening. Labor day weekend I tried to get in one last good ride in rural Maryland but my knee was so bad that I couldn’t make it past 5 miles before it completely gave out. My two friends who had gone the 1hour up north with me were beyond kind and understanding and we decided to go peach picking instead…not all was lost, but I was certainly frustrated.

By Wednesday however I had to acknowledge that I would be leaving in a few days for Uganda and Tunisia. Magically my exhaustion disappeared enough for me to run all my errands, catch up with friends, complete my 6am swims, organize my work materials, and busily prepare for 5.5 weeks out of the country. Not even a tropical storm/hurricane could stop the insane errand running that was taking place!

I write this as I am sitting on a plane to Amsterdam, fully drained, and trying not to physically harm the two people in front of me who have not stopped loudly talking for the entire flight…I may or may not have passively aggressively kicked the man’s seat a few times to send the message that I would greatly appreciate it if he could kindly shut up long enough for me to fall asleep. But that’s just the cranky tiredness talking.

Turns out my colleague is on the same flight so when we land in Amsterdam we can enjoy an early breakfast together, use the internet, and wait for our connecting flights. She’s heading to Kenya so we’ll say good bye then.

After this post I will be getting on another 8.5 hour flight for Entebbe where I land at 8:15pm. The next morning I’ll head to the office in Kampala and then be shuttled off to a staff retreat followed by a dinner with the whips of the opposition parties. The following day my country director will leave the country and I’ll be on my own to a degree. I’ll try to post at some point before then. In the meantime I will have e-mail access so please update me on your lives since I have been so preoccupied with mine.

Monday, September 8, 2008

It's a wrap

I woke up earlier than I’d liked to have on Friday morning because we had to check out of the dorms by 10am. Unfortunately our flight was not until 4pm so my friend and I wanted to head out for a leisurely breakfast or hang out in town. Our operations team however hadn’t really thought through our transport so we were, to put it lightly, screwed over. With no one to watch our luggage, no way to the airport unless we left at 8am for the city to catch a shuttle, we called a cab and headed to the airport at 10:30. We spent the rest of the day hanging out in the not so exciting Denver International Airport. Closer to our flight time I ran into two of my colleagues, an incredibly nice and funny Irish couple who were unfortunately leaving us to move back home.

While I sat and caught up with them we were briefly interrupted when the wife noticed a friend of theirs walking by the gate. She called him over and then told me that he was Tom, a good friend from the DNC. I said Tom? As in Dean’s Tom? She said yes….I said, as in campaign legend Tom? She said yes….I said, as in executive director of the DNC Tom….again, yes. As he approached they introduced me and told him that since they were moving he would have to adopt and take care of me. He pulled me over to his side and said of course. I told him that if put on an Irish accent it would go a long way in making me feel at home…he asked if New Jersey would do.

Throughout the flight he would pass by and joke around with me. Palin had just been announced as McCain’s VP pick and I was watching CNN coverage while on the plane. It was a little surreal to discuss the Republican’s strategy with someone sure to be involved in the Democratic response and quite an appropriate book end to the insane political week.

We got in at around 10:30 at night and I promptly passed out...I am still recovering from the marathon week but better do it quickly. Next adventure up: Uganda!

I'm on my soap box

To some degree I regret waiting so long to write and post this selection but between the insanity of the last few days of the convention and my attempt to recover back at the office I just couldn’t sit down and write. By now certain details are hazy but I will do my best to describe what was quite an appropriate ending to my marathon week.

Since Thursday was Invesco day we had a shorter programming schedule to allow our participants to make their way to the giant stadium for Obama’s acceptance speech. During the one panel of the day I made final arrangements with the Secretary for two last meetings and got the room set for the Prime Minister of Mauritius and a few key members of the OECD. After all the meetings we had our closing lunch. Mark Warner gave a great key note speech and you could see joy creeping across people’s faces as the lunch ended signaling a close to our most intensive responsibilities….we had finished and it went well! Our President was visibly giddy and we all breathed a huge sigh of relief. As the participants loaded on their special escorted buses to gain special entry to Invesco I stuck around to head over later with my boss.

After some hugging and self congratulations we loaded into her car and were driven to the convention hall to park and catch the special shuttle to the stadium. It took us about an hour and a half to do the whole thing, which was nothing compared to most people’s required 11:30-4pm wait. Once in the stadium we were all a little concerned about how many seats remained to be filled. The place was HUGE and with all the trouble the DNC had given us and others about access it would be a big scandal if they failed to fill it. Of course there was no reason to worry. As the likes of Sheryl Crowe, Wiliam, and Stevie Wonder played, tens of thousands of people poured in packing the place. As the sun began to set the energy was palpable. At one point we got the wave going about 8 times around the whole place. 85,000 people packed into a stadium to express their hope for change and desire to be an active member of their country, doing a giant wave with flags in hand was just the tip of exciting for the evening.

I found myself needing to close my awe dropped jaw every few minutes just trying to comprehend how massive this place was. There were just so many people there and it was for a political event. I really could just not get over it. As the momentum built I started to realize just how tired I was. I couldn’t make myself cheer or clap for the first half and actually started dozing off a few times leading up to Obama’s speech! But as he got going no level of exhaustion could win out.

I am still grasping for the words to appropriately describe what being there for the Obama speech was like. You’ve all seen the pictures, so you understand the scale of it all, but having that energy, that cheering, that chanting was mind boggling. I apologize if the following seems slightly soap boxy but this was the most affecting part for me:

For the past 8 years, the majority of my adult life, I have watched with envy as people from various countries wrap themselves in their flags during the world cup and other international competitions to cheer on their teams and express their pride in their countries. I am a deeply patriotic person and it has pained me to feel for so long as if the symbol of my country was stolen from me, hijacked and made to represent something that I did not believe in. I’ll tell you, I waved a flag that whole night and cannot begin to explain how proud and happy those few hours made me. In the course of 2 minutes, Barack reclaimed the patriotism that I believe in. He said everything that I have been waiting for the Democratic party to say. How dare you question my patriotism simply because I disagree with your ideology and policy. How dare you claim that I am un-American for questioning your decisions. I believe what makes this country great is its diversity of thought, opinion, expression, and people. That is what the American flag symbolizes to me. It is so much deeper than a blind support of leadership and it so much bigger than political ideology. I am a democrat and a proud liberal, but I am first an American just like republicans, just like independents, and just like every other citizen of this amazing country. And that night I could say definitively that I, standing next to 85,000 other cheering, flag waving people, was a very proud American.

Obama’s speech was good, not his most profound but it did what it needed to. However, what I think will be remembered from that night is the symbolism of so many Americans celebrating our democracy, standing up and saying, I am a part of this country, I am a part of this movement, and I will be a part of this future. It was beyond inspiring. Those of you who know me well know I am not a very emotional person. But as I stood with fireworks going off above me, music from Remember the Titans playing (some more symbolism for you), the Obama and Biden families waving on stage, and 85,000 people waving their flags and screaming their hearts out, I got a little choked up. It was some powerful stuff. And though the pundits may say it was all just a bunch of stage craft, what was so powerful to me had nothing to do with the fireworks or roman like stage. It was the mass expression of the American people, a gathering of historic proportions. Walking away from that stadium you just felt like the election was about so much more than the typical democrats vs. republicans. What I had just experienced was about our country and our return to that great nation of inspiration and opportunity. I can only hope that in the coming months the campaign is not pulled into such negative and phony minutiae that we forget the spirit of this movement, because if it is successful it has the power to fundamentally change so much for the better.

I am done preaching, I warned you it might happen if you all let me have a blog J Needless to say however, the final night of the convention did not disappoint.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

The 3rd night

By Wednesday I had gotten into a bit of a routine with the credentials. We started with our usual pick up at the DNCC main distribution center and were pleasantly surprised with a few more than we had originally expected. The rest of the day we worked our usual contacts and made the typical pick ups. Wednesday was a little different in terms of programming though because our panels were going to be held in conjunction with the Rocky Mountain Roundtable, the Council on Foreign Relations, and the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. We had moved for the day into the theater across the hall that seated over 2000 people…and we were sold out!

The first panel of the day was a discussion on enhancing the U.S. role around the world. Panelists included Tim Wirth, former Colorado Senator, Geoff Garin, Tom Brokaw, Madeleine Albright, Richard Haass (president of the Council on Foreign Relations), Richard Holbrooke (former US Permanent Representative to the United Nations), Jessica Mathews (President of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace), and Vin Weber (former Minnesota Confressman, chairman of the National Endowment for Democracy).

The second panel was on combating global poverty. Panelists included March Nathanson, Gayle Smith (Center for American Progress), Madeleine Albright, Ben Affleck, Nanc Birdsall (President Center for Global Development), John Danilovich (former Ambassador and CEO of the Millennium Challenge Corporation), Tom Daschle (former US Senator), Hernando de Soto, Oby Ezekwesili (vice president fo the World Bank Africa Region), Donald Payne (New Jersey Congressman), Tim Wirth, and James Wolfensohn (former World Bank president).

I was running around during the first session so was not able to see any of the panel. Right before the second panel I was escorted down to the green room to meet with our chairwoman’s chief of staff to finalize our schedule for the next two days. While down there, Ben Affleck and his wife, a very pregnant Jennifer Garner, walked in with their crew. He sat down with the rest of the second panel to begin discussing the structure of their presentation. It was a pretty incredible group to listen to and I was certainly excited to be down there. Once I had finished my scheduling though I ran back up stairs to meet my boss and continue with the credential gathering.

By the end of the night we had once again manged to collect enough credentials to send every person into the convention. Once we had driven through security, my boss let me go early so I could get into the hall. I had a floor pass again so I made my way to the Rhode Island delegation and said hi to my friends. I also saw Senator Whitehouse and his chief of staff. It was great to catch up with them after so long. I then made my way down to the Indiana delegation and planted myself about 20 feet from the podium to stand and watch the rest of the night. After speaking, Senator Evan Bayh came up next to me with his wife and I watched a good portion of the speeches with him and Congressman Andre Carson. From there I watched Bill Clinton, Joe Biden, and the surprise appearance from Obama. It was a great night but my legs and knee were so sore it was almost a little too much. The things you do for access at the convention.

Afterwards I headed to the Daimler party with a few of my colleagues and my good friend Gabe Amo from Wheaton and decided not to even try for the Kanye concert. We had a great time dancing and joking around and it was just what we needed. The weirdest thing about the convention is how you begin to expect free food and drinks wherever you go. When I get back to DC I'm going to have some issues with there not being at least 2 ritzy receptions per day. After our 3rd ritzy event of this particular day, I crashed in one of my friend’s rooms intending on driving one of our vans back to the DU dorms in the AM to change and get ready...

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

I'm a dealer of illicit material

As I have fallen behind on the blogging I’ll try to fit two days into one here. On Monday we started the real wheeling and dealing. One of my boss’ responsibilities at the convention is to get as many credentials as possible so that we can get our foreign dignitaries into the convention as often as possible. This is always a difficult task, but during a convention year with this much hype and so little space in the convention hall it is daunting.

The way it works is that every morning the Democratic National Convention Committee (DNCC) issues all of the credentials for the day. There are multiple levels of credentials going from Arena access that just gets you into the perimeter, to Hall Guest that lets you in the highest section up in the nosebleed seats, to Hall Special Guest that lets you into a slightly better seating section, to Hall Honored Guest, to Floor which lets you walk around where all the delegates and big politicos are, to backstage, which lets you mull around where the speakers get set up, all they way to podium which allows you access to the actual stage. Each better credential lets you also use the seats of the credential a step down. Floor and podium passes are highly prized possessions, any credentials at all are highly prized possessions, which brings me to how gathering credentials feels a little bit like being a drug dealer…

So as I said, every morning the DNCC goes to its safe in a bank (not kidding) and gets out its credentials for the day. They then give an allotment to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), the National host committee, the Denver host committee, and a few other select DNC finance groups. Those groups then have their own process for determining who they provide credentials to. The biggest allotment for groups and individuals though is distributed directly by the DNCC. Every morning at 8:30 when the random office building on a random side street with a small white sign on the door opens up, people line up around the block to be allowed into the building. Once in you go to a teller to request your designated allotment. You’re never quite sure what you’ll get but it’s usually not as many as you hope. After waiting for them to record the serial numbers they bring you back to a small room to count them. For a large group this can take some time. Because the DNCC allotment is never enough the next step is to find out who of your friends and contacts are receiving credentials and are willing to part with some of them. This involves driving around town, calling contacts who direct you to call randomly placed people on the street or in hotels to go pick up their donations of two or three credentials to you. This is where the drug dealing comes in…

On Monday we received instructions to call a woman regarding a packet that could be available for us. When I called her she instructed me to go to a specific hotel, look for the bar on the left, and find a woman in the corner in a dark suite with long dark hair. I was then to ask for Amanda and be handed over a package. So I went, and it went down just that sketchily. So for the past two days I have literally run around town with my boss, in her DNCC-provided car and driver tracking down credentials, meeting people on street corners and passing packets filled with precious materials discreetly into bags. Yea, it’s sketchy! The one nice thing is that the convention decided it wanted to be green so they purchased a whole fleet of hybrid Tahoe’s to tote around politicos, DNC officials, VIPs, and somehow our VP and President.

In between these shady deals I have continued to schedule for our chairwoman and as a result have had some interesting run-ins. Today President Clinton came by to speak briefly. He and Secretary Albright walked in to the room together and I was too busy scheduling to even notice. Of course my camera broke right at the moment they were standing in the corner talking about some issue of foreign affairs! I managed to get our meetings scheduled and while running around successfully coordinated 4 meetings with ILF participants from 4 different countries at an off site location.

I also attended today an event we had planned for executive women. NDI brought together women government ministers, business executives, and other influential individuals to discuss in small groups how the US could better support women’s rights and status around the world. Madeleine Albright, Ashley Judd, Mary Robinson (former Pres of Ireland), Charity Ngilu, and many others added their insight. It was very interesting to sit at one of the tables and participate in the discussion with members of parliament and major international power brokers.

In the evenings I accompany my boss to our hospitality suite which is located in the hard perimeter of the convention hall. Because of this we have some serious logistical issues to consider. All of the buses for our participants are pre swept and manned at all times by diplomatic security agents. This allows us to pass through security without being searched or having to get off the bus. I usually enter in one of the cars so we go through the whole bomb sniffing dog, magnetometer routine. Our hospitality suite is about 300 feet from the convention center so the walk is easy. Inside we have flat screen tvs with the convention on, food, drinks, desserts, chairs, tables, and computers. People rotate in and out of the hall with our hard earned credentials and when not in the hall, just hang out and drink. At the end of the night they load on their buses and head back to their hotels. On occasion there are special side events or after parties which start around 9:30. If we’re not too tired and our feet aren’t to sore we head out. Otherwise we head back to the dorms to get a few hours of sleep and be ready to start the search all over again.

It truly is a pretty insane process but very interesting to observe. Tomorrow we’ll go for it all over again and hope for the best! So far I have gone into the hall both nights but only for the main closing speeches. Michele Obama on Monday was amazing. So eloquent, honest, straight forward and smart! Hillary tonight did an incredible job and said exactly what needed to be said to encourage party unity. Though I did see Hillary’s speech, I was a little upset because I managed to get floor passes but as I approached the Rhode Island delegation to sit with some of my contacts from the campaign the fire marshall decalred capacity and barred anyone else from entering. Luckily my boss had handed me a pass to a sky box that a donor had given me. I walked up to the small crowded room and contorted myself to see the big screens through many heads. It was still cool to feel the energy of the hall though. Let’s hope tomorrow I make it inside earlier to actually get a seat!

That’s it for the longest post ever

Monday, August 25, 2008

A day of exasperation

I have often wondered what hell might be like, and I can tell you, I think it involves hundreds of copies of hardback books, hotels spread out across the city, donor requests, high security, no food, and a sore leg. But let me go back a little. My day started at 6:30am, getting picked up by two my colleagues to drive to a former NDIer's house to pick up hundreds of Madeleine K. Albright's new book to provide to our participants at check in. We loaded all the boxes of books into our minivan, and took off for the airport hotels followed by a few downtown hotels.

We then ran back to our headquarters to pick up information packets, credentials, and welcome totes for our major donors and board members. Piper and I then took to the Denver streets (neither of us knowing the city at all) and proceeded to hit up 10 hotels attempting to leave this material for our honored guests. Only complication was that every hotel in Denver was so overrun with convention security issues and massive check-in's that they either refused to accept the packets or didn't know what to do with them. After literally 5 hours of this running back and forth, being turned away by swat teams, and trying not to loose it we were burnt. Finally at the 2nd to last hotel we were told that one of our high profile board members' room had been canceled and he was supposed to check in that day. I couldn't access my e-mail to get contact info, couldn't call anyone to fix it because it had been a block of rooms from the Wisconsin delegation, and couldn't get the hotel to explain what happened. While Piper fought with the hotel inside, I sat in the van trying to figure out what to do. I hadn't eaten all day, which makes me a very very cranky person. Realizing I had a protein bar in my bag I got it out relieved that I had something. Right at that moment, an old couple walked up to my open window and said "we're homeless, starving, and have AIDS." I stammered with the protein bar held up in my hand and said..."um, I don't have cash but I have this bar." And of course they took it. So now I felt like a schmuck and had nothing to keep me from going batty. When piper returned we drove on to the last hotel and then dropped me off to get changed for that evening's event.

When I got to the hotel I jumped into action to try to figure out how we would manage to fix the board member's room. Every hotel in the city was sold out and the chaos made it even more difficult to getting anything done. After about 5 frantic e-mails, 4 frantic phone calls, and 3 hours, I got in touch with my key contact at the hotel and convinced them to provide a new room at the same rate. Crisis averted! Now to get ready for the events!

As I got out of the shower I got a phone call saying that Secretary Albright was arriving to speak at the opening panel and I needed to meet them at the door to show them to the green room. Still in my towel and no where close to the conference center I had to call around and arrange for someone else to escort them through and try my best to get there in time to work with her chief of staff to schedule a few side meetings. Of course when I went to dry my hair, half way through the drier broke. 35 minutes later the front desk finally brought me a new one. With my phone ringing every 2 minutes with questions about hotels, donors, and board members, requests to pick up kinko's orders, and my need to get to the conference center in 5 minutes I was about as stressed as one can be. As soon as I was done getting ready, I ran to our van (that I'm not supposed to drive being so young and all), hopped in, and tried to find my way back to our meeting space. I managed to find parking, ran inside and got there just in time for Secretary Albright and Howard Dean to walk by me into our holding area.

After the panel we gathered everyone for the opening reception in the ball room. While i had been running around, a few hundred foreign dignitaries had descended on Denver. As horrible as the day was, meeting Secretary Albright, helping to escort Dean, seeing Nancy Pelosi come and speak, and mingling with our guests made it ok.

After our reception I headed out with my boss and a few of her colleagues to a party hosted by a prominent law firm. There we ran into Harold Ford who knew one of the women we were with. We chatted with him for a while and then wandered around the Denver Art Museum admiring quite an original party. Towards the end of the night I saw Rob Riggle of the Daily Show standing across the room. Egged on by my boss I walked over to chat and joked around with him for a bit (very nice guy!). Finally after about 1.5 hours we were all too tired to make much more of a night of it. Luckily my boss gets a driver and car for the week so we were all escorted back to our hotels/dorms to get our much needed sleep and pray for a less stressful day.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

The fireworks, the fireworks!

Saturday was a little more relaxed than before. Still tons of work to do, but at a manageable pace. Though I thought fighting with hotels had been settled I was being too optimistic. I spent about 4 hours of my day negotiating between the DNC, one of our VIP’s staffers, and the hotel in question to cover up some dealings I had made to get us two additional rooms we weren’t supposed to have. In the end it all worked out but I had a few additional heart attacks before it was all settled. I spent the rest of the day preparing my boss’s schedule, coordinating with our chairwoman on her schedule and trying to collect briefing materials for bilateral meetings between our chairwoman and key dignitaries.

The day before we had all been watching the VP nod closely. CNN and MSNBC were ridiculous, staking out potential nominee's houses and we mostly whined about how crappy cable media is. By the end of the day we decided to start a little wager and all made our bets on a white board as to whom the man or woman would be. The next day when the official announcement was made we all huddled around the TV in our office to hear the words of our next President and Vice President of the United States. I have to say that it is the first time I have felt so relieved and happy about the potential of our country in a long time. I'm really happy with a straight talker like Biden and think we have two people who really care about the American spirit, ingenuity and dedication. Two real people who are in it for the right reasons. I was truly inspired and even more excited for the convention to begin!

By the end of the night I still had a million and one things to do but decided I needed to celebrate the VP announcement and decided to accept the offer of a credential to the media party instead. The media party is always held on the Saturday before the convention to kick off the week. It is usually pretty legendary fun. This one did not disappoint. The party was held at this theme park in the middle of Denver, complete with free drinks, funnel cakes, ice cream, food, bands, roller coasters, climbing walls, ferris wheels and fireworks. Basically imagine your childhood fair with alcohol and adults…good times. We made our way around the park and decided to get in line for the ferris wheel. We were a large enough group to need two “cages” and loaded in like excited school children. As soon as they had rotated us to the top one of the most spectacular fireworks show I have ever seen was set off on either side of us. It lasted close to 10 minutes and we saw it all from the wheel. I was joined by some of my fabulous colleagues and we could not have had a better time. The weather was fabulous, the view was incredible and it was a perfect way to start off the week. When we had our rotating fill we walked around a bit more. My friends Piper, Ian, and I decided to try the climbing wall (piper and I in skirts) and the rest of the crew headed for the roller coaster. At the end of the night we made our way back to the dorms/hotels and readied ourselves for what promised to be an insane first program day. It did not disappoint…

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Hotels, mountains, and dorm rooms

My last evening in the office proved as hectic and stressful as one might expect. I unfortunately was unable to wrap up the few important things that needed to be done before I stepped on the plane, so I went home a little preoccupied. I spent the first hour home trying to coordinate phone calls to interview potential roommates (as if there wasn’t already enough going on) and didn’t get packing until around 10ish. I gave up around 12ish and went to bed, setting my alarm for 4:15 to finish throwing too many clothes into my giant suitcase.

When I landed in Denver I headed straight downtown with my colleague to meet up with our bosses and get some e-mails off to our partners. The day was pretty hectic and insane, with lots of phone calls to what are now “good friends” at hotels, trying to straighten out logistical nightmares and putting complex puzzles of accommodation and meeting requirements together. High maintenance people + crowded oversold convention= crazy. The whole group of NDI staff also took a walk through of our program’s space at the Denver Performing Art’s Center. It’s pretty amazing. They have provided us with a beautiful office including a deck overlooking downtown Denver and the mountains, two large theater spaces for our panels, and an incredible ballroom for our opening reception. The whole room is flanked by windows looking out across the city. We then took a tour of our hospitality suite which is located within the hard security perimeter of the convention hall and walking distance from where the whole thing will go down. Very impressive space.

After such a marathon day of walking, traveling, and cutting deals I was feeling pretty dead. Finally around 7:00pm I got everything I asked for from the hotel I had been battling with for the past week whose only prior word uttered was "no", and indulged in a little lap of victory (I literally ran through the office declaring victory…small things in life). Those of us staying at the Denver University dorms (that’s what I said) loaded into vans, hunted down some snacks, and headed to our concrete walled, bunk bed filled, college desked dorm rooms…tomorrow I will try to remember how to iron on a chair.

So after I finish up a few e-mails, give a different hotel a call back (that just called me at 11:45pm) and post this bad boy, I’m going to make my little bunk bed and pass out…tomorrow begins the real work and hopefully more victory laps!

By the way: you can start seeing pictures I post throughout the week at

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Let the games begin

So it is now official. My ticket is purchased and the dates are solidified. I have two more weekends left in DC between now and October 14. I am extremely excited for my travel but am definitely overwhelmed with how much I have to do in my short time left. So here's the schedule:
  • August 8 to Indianapolis for my wonderful mother's 60th birthday
  • August 21-29 to Denver for the Democratic National Convention
  • September 8-October 1 to Uganda for work
  • October 2-11 to Tunisia to visit Margaret and Tanner
  • October 11-13 London to visit Gen
  • October 14 back in DC
Quite a bit coming up. I am really trying to fit in as much training and rehabbing as I can to make sure all of my recent gains aren't lost. I have finally started biking a limited amount again and am hoping to get back to running soon (better have a darn good tri season next year!) Once in Uganda I will most likely not have access to a pool and will certainly not be able to bike. I also will have close to 6 weeks without my usual twice a week physical therapy sessions. Considering it all, it makes me slightly apprehensive but all I can do is hope my body bears with me.

The trip seems to be shaping up nicely though. In Uganda I'm really looking forward to working with my country director Heather again and see our team in action. We have quite a busy September full of community organization trainings and party caucus meetings. I will also be there during Rosh Hashana and am going to try to head east to celebrate with the Abayudaya jews. For Yom Kippur I should be in Tunisia and will try to head south for services with the historic Jewish community down in Djerba. All in all it should be quite an adventure.

In Denver I'll be helping out with our International Leaders Forum at the convention. In other words trying to give a few hundred foreign dignitaries a sense of our electoral system... frightening. But it should be a good time and I definitely appreciate the chance to head to the convention again. I suppose that's it for now. I'll try to update as it all goes down.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

I have joined the "blogosphere"

So it has finally happened...I have joined that hipster mainstay blogging community and now you will all be forced to read my musings. I decided to do up the blog for a few reasons and I am pretty excited to start doing some things worthy of a blog post. I love to travel and have been lucky enough to explore some pretty incredible places. In the past I always tried to make up inevitably incomplete e-mail lists and send off poorly proofread rushed messages from dodgy internet cafes. While I'm sure my mother has saved each one of those e-mails I do not have them readily available to reflect on. So I figured why not kill two birds with one stone: make it easier for friends and family to stay updated with what I'm doing and be able to keep those updates for myself in one easy place. Of course I also like the fact that when some international travesty or policy gets me all riled up, I'll be able to whine about it on here (I apologize already).

I'll probably also throw in a few posts about music I'm writing, racing and training I'm doing and other random pieces of my life. So let's begin the journey and see where it goes!