Saturday, February 26, 2011

One Night in Bangkok

Well, actually it's been three nights... It took about a day and a half to feel like I understood the lay of the land here. My hotel is in a great spot - adjacent to the SkyTrain in Sukhumvit, an upscale neighborhood. Traffic here is terrible at all hours of the day, so the few miles the train travels east and west is an easy way to traverse the city (or at least parts of it.)

My first day, I took the train a few stops to the Paragon Center, an enormous shopping mall. After walking around the neighborhood, I wandered into the mall. Like Singapore, this is a mecca for designer everything. In the market for a Maserati? Third floor. I walked back along the main drag, filled with street hawkers and food vendors. Every stall had trinkets, t-shirts with awkward English phrases (Do It Just, Malibu - Big City California) and fake Viagra and Cialis. Notably different from the hawkers in Africa, Thais do not accost potential customers - they just stand quietly and rarely make eye contact, even if you do express interest in their wares. It's a pleasant change from being manhandled.

It's very hazy, hot and humid here, and although this isn't yet the rainy season, it has been raining during the night into mid-morning. You can tell the Farang (westerners) because they are sweating up a storm while the locals look cool, calm and collected. The air conditioning in the Skytrain is a welcome respite from the heat. I've been trying to time my adventures to morning/early afternoon before the heat becomes too stifling, and then spending the rest of the afternoon relaxing by the pool.
The following day I went to three temples - Wat Pho (the Reclining Buddha), Wat Phra Kaew (the Marble Temple) and Wat Traimit (the Golden Buddha). They are all a bit touristy, but still beautiful. Saturday was a holy day, so we encountered Buddhist monks performing ceremonies at each one. I also had the chance to explore some of the various ethnic neighborhoods and attractions (Chinatown, the flower market, the Grand Palace) and see where the Red Shirt and Yellow Shirt factions have set up their respective camps.

On Sunday, I went to the Chatuchak Weekend Market - over 5,000 stalls winding over 35 acres selling everything from clothing to furniture to souvenirs to food to fighting cocks (I don't think Farang are supposed to wander over to that area - the vendors were not particularly welcoming.) It's overwhelming and I was glad I got there early before it got too crowded.

From there, I went to the Jim Thompson House. He was a former OSS expat who is known for revitalizing the silk industry in Thailand, and mysteriously disappeared in the late 60's. Conspiracy theories abound, but his legacy of high-end retail shops remain.
The food here has been great. Anything you can put on a stick and grill is available on the street, and I've been alternating between nice Thai restaurants and local soup shops and vendors.

Next stop - Warsaw!

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Singapore - Check!

My presentation was done, the meeting was over and I had one afternoon to spend in Singapore. It's not much time, but then again, it's not a large island. I asked around at the hotel and was told that the best way to see a lot in a little time was to take the Hop On/Hop Off bus around the island.

I walked about a mile to Orchard Road, the main shopping district to the nearest stop and decided to poke around a bit first before boarding.
If you are a shopper - a high-end shopper - Singapore is for you. Gucci, Prada, Chanel - every designer you can think of is here. The sidewalks are filled with fashionably dressed people carrying bags, so people are buying things. It's really quite overwhelming with such a high concentration of stores and it seems like every neighborhood is known for its mall or galleria, rather than an historic aspect.

It took a few wrong turns before I finally found the bus stop - the signage was terrible - but once on in air-conditioned comfort, I was able to get a feel for the place. If you are an architect of modern buildings, Singapore is your playground. There is construction everywhere of angular glass towers and sleek stone office buildings. Every once in a while, we would pass by a small neighborhood of older homes, but it seems like most have made way for more contemporary buildings. The only area that appeared to still have the flavor of "old Singapore" was past the botanical gardens along Embassy Row.

I got off the bus at the La Pa Sat market, known for food stalls and satay sellers. It's an old Victorian iron building, now filled with rows and rows of vendors with everything from kimchi to pig organs. I settled for a lunch of noodles with greens, mushrooms and fish dumplings. Back on the bus, we drove through many more shopping districts before coming to the west end of island that is home to the botanical garden. It had started to rain, so I just took a short walk before hopping back on. It's rained heavily each afternoon, but it doesn't seem to break the heat.
A short trip back to Orchard Road brought me back to my starting place. I tried to wait out the rain in a few shops, but it wasn't letting up and eventually I decided to make my way back to the hotel. I don't mean to sound ungrateful, as I am extremely appreciative of this trip, but Singapore is not high on my list of favorite cities. It's too modern and commercial for my taste and reminds me of Miami, without the benefit of drag queens.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Deja Vu All Over Again

After spending the day in the British Airways lounge, we finally reboarded the plane. It was somewhat chaotic - none of the, "Rows 36 - 28" kind of thing - it was, "Get on the plane. Same seats as yesterday."

Business class in BA is comprised of individual pods where a pair of passengers are separated by a low wall with a retractable window in the center. My traveling partner was an interesting British gentleman who was extremely widely traveled, particularly throughout developing countries. He knew the crew by name and they made it a point to share the real story of our previous situation with him. It turned out that immediately after take-off, some of the landing gear would not return to the undercarriage of the plane. Nor, would the rest of the landing gear go down. The plane could not continue as it was and the decision was made to do a belly landing with limited gear at Heathrow.

Apparently, when the pilot summoned the entire crew to the cockpit and they went running through the plane, that was the signal that something was seriously wrong. Having never experienced that before, I didn't think much of it and continued to read my book (thanks for the good read, Anne.) My pod partner said he was impressed with my calmness - ignorance is bliss! It finally dawned on me later that a little girl sitting a few rows away had been crying inconsolably. All I could think of at the time was, "What does she have to be crying about?
Who wastes a business class seat on a kid?" Clearly, she was much more aware than I was.

All's well that ends well, and 24 hours later, with a new plane, we landed in Singapore. I haven't seen much aside from the Long Bar at Raffles, home to the Singapore Sling (the Brits sure do know how to colonize a country and I quickly fell into my Kenyan G+T habit) and the inside of my hotel. The little that I have experienced has been clean, modern and very humid, but it's a welcome change from snow. Hopefully, I'll have a little time Thursday to explore before I go to Bangkok.

Monday, February 21, 2011

A New Adventure - Asia

I wasn't going to blog this trip because it's not like I'm the first person to ever go to Singapore, Thailand and Poland (although most probably do not do that itinerary), but it's already shaping up to be slightly eventful.

My plan was to leave Boston early Sunday morning and arrive in Singapore Monday night, leaving plenty of time to get to a meeting at which I had been invited to speak. My portion doesn't start until Wednesday, so it gave me a day to get acclimated. Unfortunately, the plan isn't working out that way.

The connection from Heathrow to Singapore was tight and a few other Boston passengers and I were whisked off the plane in London and quickly escorted to the Singapore flight. We had been in the air only a few minutes when the pilot announced that the "undercarriage was operating improperly" - how understatedly British! What had actually happened was that not all the landing gear had retracted, creating drag on the plane (and using more fuel) and leaving the question of landing with partial gear. The pilot told us were were returning to Heathrow, but it would be about an hour as 80,000 gallons of fuel had to be dumped before we could land safely.

Upon hitting the runway, we were met with a fleet of fire engines and ambulances, but it was an uneventful landing. All the passengers were given vouchers for a night at the airport Sofitel, as well as dinner, breakfast and lunch the following day as the next flight out wasn't until 6:00 pm. As we all waited by the baggage carousel, it was clear that the only people still hoping to see their bags were the Boston passengers. We were reassured that although it appeared that our bags had never made it on the Singapore flight (and we wouldn't see them that night), the delay would give them a chance to catch up with us. Supplied with overnight kits and our vouchers, we headed to the hotel bar.

I considered spending the following day in London, but since my coat was in my luggage and it was a cold, rainy day, that seemed like an undesirable option. Instead, I've spent the day at the British Airways executive lounge (a reason why it's really great to not fly economy) catching up on work and watching planes and people. Hopefully, we will get off the ground tonight and stay there for 12 hours until we land in Singapore.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The End of This Adventure

My final week in Nairobi was filled with last-minute errands, a speech at the US Embassy and farewell get-togethers with friends. The speech went very well, with about 25 local information science professors, librarians and government and NGO representatives attending. They were extremely attentive and asked great questions. The key point I had wanted to get across was that information professionals - whether in knowledge management, library science or competitive intelligence - need to provide value-added analysis, rather than just point clients to information repositories. The group took it to heart and gave some great examples of where they could start employing that strategy immediately within their organizations.

I also picked up my custom made shirts (ugly, but well-made and carry fond memories) and ran a gauntlet of going-away dinners. It was great fun, and hard to say goodbye to a group of very kind, interesting and welcoming new friends.

I arrived in Boston on Saturday, after an uneventful, but long, series of flights. My plane actually landed nearly an hour early and I sailed through immigration and customs with merely a “Welcome to Bahston, Mahjorie,” from the Immigration Officer. Friends (and dogs) cheerfully met me at the airport and we headed to my sister’s house to meet my family for lunch. It was nice to catch up in person, after months of instant messaging and a few phone calls. Returning to Connecticut, I found my house to be in terrific shape, thanks to a great friend/house sitter.

Even though I had been warned that “re-entry” would be challenging and difficult to absorb, at this point, I haven’t experienced it (aside from having to shovel a foot of snow.) My time in Nairobi was eye-opening in terms of how governments and NGOs operate, but in fact, I lived a very easy, modern life there. For ex-pats and those with money, it can be a charmed life with great housing, household staff, and trendy restaurants and shops. On the work front, having had no prior exposure to NGOs, my limited time and contact with the NGO world has left me quite disappointed and frustrated. From what I can see, NGOs have created infrastructures that do very little capacity building, but rather create institutions that will remain in-country in perpetuity. If NGOs were doing their jobs well, they would be working themselves out of jobs, but I did not see that. I strongly believe that if all aid funding were cut, there would indeed be dramatic and terrible results, but ultimately, it would force local governments to stand on their own and eliminate the reliance, complacency and corruption that constitute the current status. It’s a harsh stand, but the existing co-dependency will never be resolved if neither party has any incentive to do so.

Although my visit to Africa was enjoyable and hardly all-encompassing, I think it unlikely I will return to the continent. The people, culture and scenery were wonderful, but there are many other places I now want to visit. Living and traveling in a new place has rekindled my desire to travel and finally use some of the vacation time I’ve accumulated over the years. Stay tuned for the next adventure.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Count Down

This is my last week in Nairobi and I’m trying to make sure that I don’t leave any loose ends at work, as well as complete any last minute shopping and say goodbye to friends. The week is shaping up to be busy, but it will be fun, too with some interesting events.

Last Thursday, I went to the US Embassy to meet with a woman I had met in the Fall who is the head of Information Services. She wanted me to speak with her colleague about giving a talk about Knowledge Management and Competitive Intelligence. Going to the Embassy is always an adventure because most of your possessions are taken from you - cell phone, camera, hand sanitizer, lipstick - before you can enter the compound. Even my pen and pad of paper were considered suspect. I wish I had visited the Embassy library earlier in my time in Kenya as it is a beautiful space and is a full-service lending library. I had run out of good books to read and had been swapping with friends, but access to a library would have been terrific.

The purpose of Embassy libraries is not only to provide access to resources and services to Americans, but also to promote America to the local population. The library is open to the public, but in the case of Kenya, it does not attract a large crowd. When the Embassy was relocated to a suburb after the 1998 bombing, it made it relatively inaccessible to the average Kenyan. First, it requires many matatu rides that can be costly and time consuming. Secondly, the library is only open during Embassy business hours which are relatively short, closing at 4:00 pm on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday and ½ days on Wednesdays and Fridays. Makes me want to work for the State Department! Finally, the security process can be daunting even for the most law-abiding American, let alone a young Kenyan with a big desire to learn and little documentation to get him in the door.

It was decided that I would give a talk the following Thursday to a group of invited professional librarians, knowledge management professionals, professors, business leaders and members of the diplomatic corp. I have an entire morning to fill, but have been assured that it will be a lively group who will ask lots of questions so little preparation will be necessary - my favorite kind of speaking engagement!

On Saturday morning I went to an Indian marketplace where I was persuaded to have some shirts custom tailored. I’m not confident I’ll like them, and I have to remember to pick them up before I leave on Friday. On Sunday afternoon, I met a new Global Health Fellow who will be working in Eldoret, in the Western Province of Kenya. I also met my replacement Fellow at the airport on Sunday night and am getting her settled into her new job. The time is going fast, and I’m looking forward to returning home this weekend.

Monday, February 16, 2009

I Got Nuthin'

It’s been a relatively quiet week and I don’t have much to show for it other than some bags under my eyes from lack of sleep. As I start to wrap up my work here, the pace is picking up. After many fits and starts, interviewer training began in Uganda this week, which meant that all the training materials for the Outlet Survey had to be finalized prior to the start. It was a long haul, but we got everything together just in the nick of time. There is another deadline this week in making sure we also have the training materials for the Household Survey ready in time. There’s still plenty to do, guaranteeing that my replacement will be busy throughout her Fellowship.

Other than a few dinners out and the weekly Perudo night, I haven’t done or seen much. The news here is the same - corruption probes, MPs trying to avoid The Hague and teacher strikes. The news that has hit home hardest is that one of the local cable TV companies went bankrupt, leaving a good portion of East Africa without the Premier Football (soccer) League. Personally, I was more upset that I would no longer get The Daily Show, but we all have our priorities.