2011: at a glance

January 11, 2012

Whenever I take the time to reflect on a year, I am always astonished to discover what has taken place. I get so busy in my daily life that I can hardly take in all that is passing by me. This last year was no different—full of the unexpected and the routine, introductions and goodbyes, miracles and prayers left unanswered, deep loneliness and even deeper joys. Though I make no claims to be a photographer, I wanted to share a few of my favorite shots from the last year. I feel blessed by every day of 2011, even–or even more so–the ones that took struggling through. And I feel honored to have spent time with some amazing individuals, many of whom are pictured here.

“To live is so startling, it leaves little time for anything else.” ~ Emily Dickinson

(Note: To see descriptions of the photographs, expand the show to full screen and click on “show info.”)

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two nights (part two)

January 28, 2011

Ekies Wonda

The next morning, after little sleep, I set out again from Karubaga with the staff. My colleague Jon was even groggier than me. Without a candle, he had been kept awake by mice banging into his feet while chasing each other around on the floor where he lay.

We headed out to see—or, more accurately, to gaze from afar at—our many remote AIDS project areas in the highlands of Papua, Indonesia. We work in the 12 cluster regions for the GIDI church, spanning the entire district of Tolikara. Two of these areas are accessible by road, and one is accessible only by plane. The remaining nine have to be reached by foot. Our volunteers come in from these areas on a bimonthly basis to learn about HIV and how to prevent it. They then return to their villages to share messages with their neighbors, women’s groups and youth using solar-powered MP3 players.

We were accompanied by several of the volunteers, who had attended the training and were now heading back to their communities. I asked one of them – Yowenus Wonda, a short man with kind but glazed eyes – how long it would take him to get home. He looked at me serenely, and replied, “Oh, only two nights.” Wonda walks three full days – both to and from the city – to attend our two-day sessions. Every two months. As an unpaid volunteer. He gives his time, and sacrifices his body and his sleep, simply because he believes that positive change can happen in his village as a result.

Papua has an AIDS rate 15 times that of the national average in Indonesia. Many of the Dani people are afraid this will be the scourge that wipes them out completely. They have gone from living just 50 years ago as people did in the Stone Ages, to being at the center of the complexities that the AIDS epidemic brings.  

We squinted at the distant mountains, trying to make out villages against the bright sun. Martin Jingga, the jovial Secretary for the GIDI church, said that it used to take him 12 hours to walk to where he pointed, beyond two mountains, because he was “very fat.” Now, the slimmer version of him (which is still plump) takes six hours to walk. I wondered how long the same distance would take me. And I doubted that I would be willing to attempt it even once.

Ekies Wonda told me he too walks three days to get to the training, spending the nights wherever people will shelter him. The different seasons bring added complications to the journey. During the rainy season the rivers are at times raging and impassable. In the dry season the roads are too unbearably hot to walk on, and the spring water is dried up.

Perched on the edge of a cliff, I felt dwarfed by the peaks surrounding me. Distance and infrastructure are only two of the many challenges we face in our work in Papua. Stigma against people living with AIDS is extremely high; women are oppressed in unthinkable ways; politics are incredibly complicated; literacy is low; healthcare is almost non-existent; and people continue to die unnecessarily.

I felt insignificant, knowing how few solutions I had to offer. I took a deep breath as I surveyed the area. The tin roofs of the local GIDI churches dotted the landscape, with the rest of the population hidden from sight in their traditional rounded honai homes. I reminded myself that the challenges we face are the very reasons we choose to work, and must continue to work, in this remote area. We are the only organization working to fight AIDS in Tolikara—and for the many who are hearing HIV prevention messages, it can mean the difference between hope and fear, between life and death. Author Kenneth Cain wrote, “The larger the threat, the more profound the doubts, the deeper you have to dig to find faith and conquer your fears.” I believe that our work in Papua will take more creativity and more persistence than most places. I also believe it will be worth it.

We dropped the volunteers off in one of the green valleys to begin their long treks home. As they set off with their basic army-green packs, I thought about what I had carried with me for the night – and what I would need to survive three days of walking. They smiled broadly and waved goodbye. We drove off, and I turned to watch them fade into the distance. I knew that each one of their strong steps would bring them closer to reuniting with family and friends—loved ones who are now healthier and more protected. I felt humbled by their faith, and shamed by their commitment. And I looked forward to doing more.

two nights (part one)

January 28, 2011

Papua, Indonesia

There is something about being in the highlands of Papua, Indonesia that gives you the distinct impression that you have stepped off the edge of the earth. That perhaps here, the same rules do not apply as the rest of the world. That humans are very much second to the forces of nature. That you could disappear forever and no one would be the wiser.

After surviving the many flights to arrive in Wamena, the small capital city of the highlands, I headed out to the Tolikara district, where our AIDS project is based. The drive took four hours over perhaps the most treacherous road I have ever experienced (now for the second time). Our taxi careened over clumsy bridges and whipped around narrow cliff bends to maintain momentum as we ascended the mountains. We then braked our way back down steep hills, swerving whenever necessary to avoid hitting the many wandering pigs, which are sacred to the Dani people. It is impossible to drive this road as an outsider, as you need to know which bridges will collapse and which will not, and when to risk driving over rivers versus the mud-entrenched roads.

The taxi windshield was covered with tinting, save for a small arc in the middle for the driver to peer through. The dashboard was decorated with a yellow apple-shaped clock displaying the wrong time with a smiley face in the center. Mounted next to this was a plastic silver heart held by two hands, with a perfume-filled rose in the center and “LOVE” engraved across the side. I was grateful to be in the front seat—providing me double the space of anyone in the truck—save one thing. Hanging from the rearview mirror was a dead bird of paradise, tied at its neck, with two long sharp wire talons protruding out from the bottom like scalpels. With every pothole and bump (and the road was replete with them), the bird—seemingly very much alive—would swing violently in my direction, the wires coming within centimeters of my eyes. I stayed pinned against the seat, doing my best to appear calm. I looked at the driver, who was equally threatened by the bird with each pendulum swing away from me, but he seemed either oblivious or unperturbed.

As I tried to distract myself by looking out the windows, I was once again inspired and intimidated by the extreme vastness and beauty of Papua. The jagged mountains and hills stretch out in every direction, blanketed by dark green trees. Pillowy clouds settled lazily on the ridges all around and below us. I saw signs of habitation in snapshots. Women hauled heavy loads of mangoes or wood up the steep inclines using noken bags, worn over the crown of their heads and hanging against their backs. Men weaved past the road burden-free in traditional dress—meaning simply a penis sheath or “gourd”, and sometimes a hat. (After all, it gets cold in the highlands.)

We eventually arrived safely in the Tolikara town of Karabuga. I joined the rest of our staff, who had been conducting a two-day meeting with our volunteer AIDS trainers. The regional church denomination, our local partner, has its offices in a recently converted hospital. I was shown to the room in which I would be spending the night: the old operating room. It was small and wood-paneled; I briefly surveyed the floor for stains and assessed the smell. I saw a smaller adjoining room: this had been the morgue—where the bodies were kept “when surgeries not a success,” I was told. The room was essentially as long as an average male body would be. As night fell, I was informed that I needed to keep candles burning to deter the rats and mice. I was also told that the previous night the trainees had heard bat noises, which is a local omen meaning that place will be attacked. They had called others for assistance and had stayed awake to wait. Since no attack had occurred, they were still in anticipation. With these pleasant warnings, I lay down and attempted to sleep. But despite my best attempts to picture a happy place (one devoid of rats, botched surgeries, and dead birds), I spent the majority of the night awake, staring at the ceiling, trying to decipher the sounds of bats.

the rollercoaster

October 14, 2010

Within my first week of moving to Phnom Penh, I have already managed to risk my life. Now, admittedly, this was completely self inflicted. I decided to ride a rollercoaster in Cambodia. Idiotic? Probably. But I cannot deny that it was thrilling.

I went with a co-worker and four of her adopted Cambodian children to the recently opened Diamond Island. I should say that out of principle just the idea of an amusement park in a developing country concerns me. Safety standards are not widely adhered to—if there are these so-called safety standards at all. The rides are second-hand and maybe, hopefully, put together according to the directions. I was intrigued to go, of course, but convinced that I would stay at a safe distance and simply observe. During the drive to the riverfront and over the elegant gold-painted bridge, I sat contemplating the criteria I would use to help determine for the kids which rides were safe and which were not. Height, velocity, extent of rusting, safety restraint (or lack thereof). I had a plan.

Then I arrived. And it was a sight to behold. Not because the rides were so impressive, but because there were hundreds of people strewn amongst the ferris wheels, carousels and tilt-a-whirls. Excitement filled the air. Motorbikes whizzed around the brightly-colored balloon pop stalls offering soda and pots as prizes. Children squeaked with pleasure. It was almost like any other carnival, save for the hazardous piles of bricks and overwhelming smell of fish sauce.

A storm was rolling in, so the kids were told to choose a ride quickly. They settled on a platform ride towering, tilting and dropping above us. Their mother, Joke, doled out the money. And they turned to me with expectant faces. Did I want to come? I was swept up in the moment. Yes, in fact, I did want to come. Thoughts of safety were abandoned. I bought my ticket and stood in line with the others, trying to subtly block out children half my height and a quarter my age attempting to squeeze to the front. We piled onto the platform, where I was temporarily without a seat because they had let too many on to the ride. I eventually sat and pulled down on the metal harness. It came to rest about a foot above my lap, but seemed to lock. I grinned gleefully at the kids – “Ready?!”

We shot into the air and then dropped suddenly, lifted again, dropped to the right, lifted, and lurched backwards to leave us dangling forwards. Zoë, sitting closest, clutched my arm and screamed a pained, “Heeeelp! Help me!” As the machine almost emptied us out onto the pavement filled with delighted crowds watching below, I began to think more rationally. I was going to die, here and now, within my first few days of living abroad. And the story—for its sheer hilarity—would spread quickly through the city. The day the barang toppled to her death on the kiddie ride. At this point I noticed the sinister smile of the man controlling the machine’s movements. He, too, knew how this would end.

To be clear, I was not alarmed by ride itself—I pride myself on normally loving the thrill of rollercoasters—but I was suddenly concerned that this unmerciful ride could fall apart in a moment’s notice. I continued to contemplate the possibilities, and the distance between my body and the ground. The monstrous contraption continued to fling us around. Zoë continued to yelp for assistance. Then, suddenly, it was over. I was alive. I smiled confidently again at the kids, “How was it?”

We moved on to explore the rest of the park. We navigated through the flying swings, the small train, and the vendors – amazingly – selling cotton candy. The sky was now dark and ominous, with lightening in the distance. I looked around at the expanse of metal equipment. And I considered the lightening.

The kids were allowed one more ride. They weighed their options, pointing to a rotating saucer that aggressively spun while swinging like a pendulum into the sky. Once again their expectant faces turned to me. I paused. I tried to look grown up and wise, and gave my best deterring look. “No, that one’s not safe.”

We drove away as night fell and the rain finally broke, and I pondered the issue of risks. When is taking risks wise? When is it wiser not to? It was certainly a risk to move to Southeast Asia. It was difficult to give up my tidy life. (I really, really crave a tidy life.) There is a risk that Cambodia will not ever feel like home. There is a risk that I will fail miserably. And simply living in a developing country brings many of its own risks. Risk of dengue fever and malaria; risk through simple things like food and water.

But often the greatest risks yield the greatest rewards. Whenever I have spent time overseas, the blessing has been ten-fold more than any minor sacrifices made on my part. The risks fade to the background as the beauty and mystery of being taught by other cultures come into focus. To participate in what God is doing around the globe is not necessarily easy or without danger, but it is always a privilege.

So, as I begin my new life in Cambodia, I commit to jumping in head first. To ride the ups and downs as they come. And to take risks, in the hope of truly being here.

I also commit, mostly for my parents, to have some restraint—and to just say no to towering-tilting-dropping machines of death.

Let the adventure begin.

chaotic refuge

June 11, 2010

A mother watches over her daughter on a rundown street in the slums of Cite Soleil, where World Relief delivered a truckload of water for vulnerable families in the aftermath of the earthquake. To me, the photograph – my personal favorite – embodies the striking and complex beauty of Haiti, even amidst disaster, in the daughter and the background colors; the strength of its people to conquer adversity and the proper place they have in caring for their own children in the attentive mother; and the normalcy of life—continuing on only because it must—in the elderly man reading in the background.

a great relief

February 27, 2010

World Relief is distributing life-saving water to thousands of vulnerable families in Cite Soleil, one of the most notorious slums in Port-au-Prince. More than 200,000 gallons of water have already been distributed, supplying 3,200 vulnerable households per day. Read more here.

new foundations

February 23, 2010

Shilaydine

Thousands of children were killed in the earthquake—leaving behind innumerable devastated mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers. The exact number has not yet been announced, but the loss of potential from Haiti’s younger generation is staggering. Those 14 years old and under normally represent 43 percent of the country’s population. If this ratio was even close to the same for the 230,000 lives lost, the impact is beyond comprehension.

The Ministry of Education has announced that 3,000 children were trapped and died in school buildings alone. This does not include the huge majority that would have left schools by that time of day and were in their homes or elsewhere. More than 200 children were buried under one Salesian school in Port-au-Prince. Only last week did they begin to recover the bodies. A man came to King’s hospital because he wanted a mask for his task of digging. Due to the elapsed time, piles of bones are being excavated rather than identifiable skeletons. To make matters worse, death certificates cannot be issued for unrecognizable bodies, so parents are unable to benefit from any government assistance for at least five years.

Children who survived the earthquake are traumatized, and many have lost one or both parents. One of our staff members rescued an eight-year-old girl from her house in the minutes that followed the disaster. Her mother had been crushed instantly. The girl had not witnessed this because she was completely buried in the rubble. As she was carried out, she unknowingly kept repeating, “If my mother is dead, I don’t want to live.”

It is natural for people to want to give children a reprieve from the harsh conditions they are now living in—to take them far away from this seemingly helpless situation. But the remaining potential of the country’s youth is so great that it must be nurtured and protected—and allowed to flourish in this very place. Haiti will not always be as it now is, and we all have the responsibility of ensuring the future is better.

I am continually blown away by the promise I see as I interact with children all around me. Shilaydine, six years old, had her leg crushed and broken in several places by cement falling during the earthquake. She cannot currently walk, but her family believes she is on the road to recovery. In a hushed voice, she shyly told me that she wants to be a doctor when she grows up. “I want to help my family,” she said. “I want to help others.” 

One of the children at King’s Orphanage, Reginald, prefers reading books to playing soccer or basketball. He is 11, though he says he is 12 because his birthday—in April—is basically here already. Sporting a Barack Obama t-shirt and flaunting his dimples, he tells me he wants to be a politician. He is intelligent and can regurgitate all the English phrases he has ever been taught. He has not been to school since the building collapsed.

Noelle, 13, wants to be a pilot. “I like the airplanes flying, and I like to be in the sky.” When asked if he had flown somewhere before, he looked at me like it was the silliest question he had ever heard. “No, I’ve never flown. But I’ve seen it in movies and read about it in books.” He wants to travel to the United States and Brazil. “I’m not scared to fly. I’m not afraid to die. We have one day to live and one day to be born,” he said, adding, “And I believe in Jesus Christ.”

Throughout the city, I see makeshift kites floating above the crushed buildings. It is a comforting reminder that amidst tragedy, sadness and loss, children continue to play. The delicate toys, jolted to and fro by soft breezes, seem to triumph over all that is hopeless on the ground. It reminds me that kids are just kids. It reminds me of their strength. It reminds me that they are the hope of the country.

Dorilas, 14, lost her 16-year-old brother in the earthquake. They were both at home, and she just barely managed to escape. When asked what she envisions for the future, she averted eye contact and stared at the ground. “I don’t see the future,” she said flatly.

We must help these children by investing in long-term efforts that will meet their needs. They need schools, shelters and safe spaces in which to grieve. They need to see steps made to secure their future, so they can continue to picture their place in it.

The other day, a mason was filling in some cracks at our temporary office. The country director, Dr. Hubert Morquette, watched him smooth the cement mix back and forth over the wall. “I don’t want us to do that,” he said. “I don’t want us to just fill in the cracks. I want to rebuild Haiti.”

The beautiful children of this country deserve something new. They need something in which to hope. The world has arrived at Haiti’s doorstep, and it has the privilege of helping to pave the way for the next generation.