Sir Bob rocks my world

7 06 2012

As a 42-year-old, there is not much that rocks my world anymore. I have seen quite a lot of it and become rather cynical about many things. But this week, my world was definitely rocked.

How often do you get the opportunity to meet a childhood hero? Okay, as a journalist I had more of an opportunity than most to experience powerful politicians, sports figures and movie stars, for example, in action, live, with my own eyes, in front of the lens of my camera.

But yesterday, I encountered someone whom I have looked up to and admired from afar for almost 27 years. That’s two thirds of my life.

Do you remember where you were on July 13th, 1985?

On July 13th, 1985, I was a teenager, and I woke up to a glorious summer Saturday in Vineland, New Jersey – about 30 miles south of Philadelphia – on which I would play in my first (and, it would turn out, my last) tennis tournament. I was swiftly smoked off the court, 6-0, 6-0. My mother had scheduled a yard sale; we were about move house yet again and she was on a mission to clear out useless clutter from our garage, our closets and our lives.

But something else happened that day… not too far away, in fact, just down the road in Philadelphia. Something that had global reach and global consequences.

Do you remember Bob Geldof? (Now “Sir Bob” to us mortals.) The guy who rallied his musician friends and family to fight poverty, drought and famine in Africa. His “Do they know it’s Christmas” LP was the very first piece of vinyl I purchased with my own money. Same guy who organized simultaneous blockbuster charity concerts in Philly and London on July 13th, 1985: Live Aid.

Remember?

I met Sir Bob Geldof yesterday, live and up close.

Almost 30 years on, he is now over 60, looking a little the worse for wear, but still rallying the masses with personal, passionate, inspirational messages, delivered extemporaneously, and unconventionally. A scandal here and a bit of outrage there always accompanied him on his journey.

But that never stopped him from his goal of changing the world, a single opinion at a time. With much noise, and little subtlety.

Last night he spoke to an international group of 200 high-level corporate executives from the chocolate industry, government officials and NGO representatives at a five-star Swiss mountain resort. At the industry’s invitation, he spoke about its responsibility to the regions of Africa, Asia and South America from which it sources its cocoa, and where its farmers eek out a precarious existence at the mercy of the weather and the global terminal markets. He spoke about deprivation and dependence, the need for ecological as well as social sustainability for communities ravaged by natural and man-made disasters, AIDS and hopelessness. He spoke about taboo topics like human trafficking, child labor, deforestation, abject poverty and exploitation.

He held up a mirror to the industry, and told all of those important folks in the room exactly what he thought of it. While he acknowledged that all of us are, generally, good people (probably), there are a lot of things our companies continue to do that are absolutely disgraceful. And that in the future, something must change.

We always blame it on “the system” when really, “the system” is every individual.

And the future, well, the future is now.

Geldof was in fine form, using the F-word a good dozen times in 45 minutes. I sat in the cheap seats and enjoyed every minute.

After his speech and a photo op, the event’s organizers invited him to join them for dinner. He declined, adding: “I just want to go get drunk now.”

Just a regular Irishman.

Rock on, Sir Bob. You are my hero.

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White folks, a school and recess.

20 05 2012

One hundred pairs of wide brown eyes stared at us like we had just landed in their corner of Ivory Coast from the moon: Two women with pale skin, smiling.

The classroom.

These two strange-looking women were accompanied by a third woman, carrying a leather handbag, who looked like they themselves did, or rather like their mothers, just better dressed. And better fed.

We felt a bit like we were in a zoo: the grown-ups showed us what was there, in the classroom, and the hundred kids got to take a good long look at what had just walked in the door.

The question was only – which of us was the caged animal?

Perhaps they had seen white people like us before, but likely only men, and only in a position of power. A foreman on a rubber plantation where their parents worked as day-labor, or a buyer for the cocoa that their parents harvested on their smallholder farm. In both cases the white man determined what they would eat, and if they could afford to go to school, or to a doctor. Today or tomorrow. Or never.

The principal of the rural primary school about 150 kilometers east of Abidjan opened his doors wide for the visitors from far-away Europe. The children stood for us, bade us good morning in unison, and then sang for us. And they stared at us. It was a strange feeling, being greeted like royalty, or the President.

A goat munched serenely on weeds near the flagpole. A natural lawnmower today, lunch (if necessary) tomorrow.

The schoolyard (with goat and woman).

The school has three classrooms for the 180 kids currently enrolled, a small office for the principal, housing for the teachers – including solar cells on the roof for electricity – and a water well in the barren schoolyard.

The youngest kids looked to be about 6 or 7 – the age where most children in most countries start school. But the one or the other stood much taller than her comrades. A teacher told us later that these were the kids who lived farthest away, and whose parents didn’t let them begin first grade until they were 10 or 11.

Some kids, the principal said, just do not show up during the harvest of whatever crop their parents or neighbors farm. Other children attend for a year, but don’t come back when the new term starts. The teachers are used to this, and have no choice but to accept it as part of this traditional, agricultural society, where child labor (and child slavery) is not uncommon. Often the parents are illiterate, and don’t know better.

During our visit, the principal promised the kids that if they are really good students, and work very, very hard, then someday they can get on a big airplane and fly to where these two strange-looking women came from.

The older kids laughed, knowing full well this was something that maybe a single lucky one of them might experience in a lifetime. The younger ones seemed more bewildered than anything else. They didn’t seem to find this funny – or a state to which they would really wish to aspire. An uncomfortable, confused silence followed. We kept the smiles pasted on our faces so that we didn’t have to say anything – because we had no words at that moment.

At mid-morning a small child ran out of one classroom, grabbed a stick and banged on the rim of an old truck tire that had been stripped of its rubber, hanging on a wooden frame in the middle of the schoolyard.

The bell.

And then we saw what happens at recess at probably every rural primary school in Cote d’Ivoire. And all over the world.

180 kids + break-time = boundless energy.





Three women of Africa

11 05 2012

The first woman is cocoa farmer, grasping a rare opportunity to learn.

On this overcast day she joins two dozen men of her community in an educational program that promises to help her grow more cocoa pods, and deliver higher-quality beans that will be used for exclusive foreign chocolate and enjoyed in sophisticated European capitals that she will never see. She hopes to apply the things she learns on her own farm, to generate a higher income, and build a better life. She squats on the ground in her flip-flops and mixes a pile of freshly shucked cocoa beans, up to her elbows in the white pulp that tastes a little like lychee juice.

She sings while she works.

Womens’ work.

The second woman is a villager, grinding manioc on the doorstep of her mud-and-wattle home, to feed her family.

Her settlement is in a clearing in the rainforest, a red dirt piste the only connection to the main road, several miles away. To get there, we drive slalom around potholes wide enough to easily throw out an axle, and deep enough to easily swallow an entire car. These homes have no running water or electricity, and the roofs are made of dried palm leaves.

She tastes some of the chocolate we bring from far-away Europe. It is soft and runny, from the heat, but she takes a handful anyway, and sucks it off her fingers.

Womens’ work.

The third woman is not a woman at all. She is a child of maybe 13 or 15 years old, who has, herself, just borne a child, a few hours earlier. He lies next to her on the plastic-covered bed, stretching his arms skyward, to hug his new world, while she rests. The doctor at the rural health center tells us that the birth took place without anesthesia. “Natural childbirth,” they call it here. To get to the clinic at the top of the hill she had to walk. Her own mother, barely 30, accompanied her. She is now a grandmother.

I did not photograph them.

**********

These are three of the women I met last week in Ivory Coast, a country of 21 million inhabitants nestled between Liberia and Ghana in Western Africa. “Met” is perhaps an exaggeration. I don’t know much more about these women than the basic facts I have written down here, hastily scribbled into my reporters’ notebook at the time. I don’t even know their names. We exchanged a handshake, a “Bonjour madame!”, a smile, and a laugh at something silly. Our worlds touched briefly, with that bond dispersing a short time later, just as quickly.

These are three of the strong women of Africa.

She is the backbone of her community, she is the keeper of her family. Here in the rural communities of the Ivory Coast, she learns from an early age that she must embrace hard physical work to survive. And that she must endure the constant machismo of a traditional male-dominated society, where polygamy is regularly practiced and inheritance usually only passes to her brothers. She bears these lifelong hardships with dignity.

Every day she has a million miles to go before she can sleep.

This was my first visit to Western Africa, and it will surely not be my last. My body returned to Europe this morning. My soul is having a hard time keeping up.

Womens’ work.





Screaming kids on airplanes

27 04 2012

So just because I love jetlag so much, I decided to go back to the States five days after I had just returned to Europe. Chicago last week, New York this week. But more about NYC another time, maybe.

Today I want to talk about children (again).

There is nothing on earth that brings the sociopath out in everyone than screeching, red-faced midgets on a transatlantic overnight flight.

I thought that my JFK-ZRH flight would be a good opportunity to get at least a few hours of shut-eye. Oh how wrong I was. Within the five rows around me there were seven kids ranging in age from about six months to 3 years.

Children in front of me, children to the right of me, children behind me.  There were no kids to the left of me because there was only a window, and beyond that, an airplane wing. And if you ask me, I would have put them all there rather than in the cabin with the rest of us.

The best place for kids: Outdoors!

Yes, attached to these children were also parents, all of whom seemed incapable and overwhelmed with the stress of parenting.

It’s bad enough when one child screams incessantly in a closed space with a captive audience of 200. But on this flight, they all screamed. Throughout the night. In a coordinated attempt to drive all the rest of us to commit extremely violent crimes.

Jethro Tull on the inflight entertainment system, at top volume, could not drown out these pint-sized terrorists.

My martyrdom (and that of my child-free co-passengers) lasted seven hours, thanks to a strong tailwind that got us to our destination faster than usual, plus 45 minutes of taxiing at both ends.

What can be done? I have three solutions:

  1. Completely child-free flights. Malaysia Airlines has the right idea, having banned infants from its First Class cabins and implementing a child-free upper deck on its new A380 aircraft from July 1. This is an idea whose time is way overdue. Folks like me who have to go from the gate to the office after an overnight flight will not stand for this kind of noise pollution much longer.
  2. An “objectionable noise surcharge,” kind of like the fuel surcharge all of us have gotten used to paying. The younger the child, the higher the tax. This would automatically disqualify families traveling with multiple infants because they would likely no longer be able to afford it.
  3. A sound-proof cabin at the back of the plane. Like a playpen, or a time-out box. Or just seal off the last five or six rows from the rest of the cabin with sound-proof glass. They used to put smokers at the back of the plane, and now we can just put kids there. Screaming (like smoking) is harmful to the environment and the health of all those individuals not currently engaged in it.

OK, time for all you parents with young kids to come at me with a machete. But you know darn well that I am right.  You have to deal with your own screaming kids all the time. You can’t escape them. (And don’t you wish you could?)

But ask yourselves this: Why must babies travel to other continents before they even know who they are? Why do you people drag them across oceans and time zones when they won’t remember any of it when they grow up? Why do you expose them to foreign germs and the misery of jetlag before their first day of school?

A suggestion that could keep all of us happy, the child-rich and the child-free: Show your kids your own country or region or continent when they are really small. There is so much to see in Europe, or North America, or Asia, alone. Then, when they turn six, or seven, or eight, when they are old enough to appreciate what you are offering them – that’s when you begin to show them the world.





Oh, Chicago!

15 04 2012

One of the Dalai Lama’s rules for living a good and wholesome life is: Visit at least one new place a year. Or something like that.

So I went to Chicago.

The view from my hotel window on the 22nd floor.

I had never been to the mid-west, other than changing planes at O’Hare once, maybe 15 years ago. (With the exception of a week-long trip to Winnipeg for my best friend’s wedding in 2000. But that’s Canada. Doesn’t count.) And I will be honest, Chicago was not really at the top of my list of new places to go. It just so happens that the company I work for has its U.S. headquarters there, and the company sent me on a business trip. So I went.

As your typical Northeast-Mid-Atlantic-I-95-corridor-sophisticate, I never gave my country’s heartland a second thought. All these years I thought there was just lots of white space and corn fields and cowboys between where DC ended (Georgetown) and the San Francisco Bay Area started (Berkeley). Heck, until five years ago, I had never even been to San Francisco, either. So here I thought there was just 3,000 miles of nothingness between the left and right coasts. I guess I started taking note of Chicago when Barack Obama emerged as a potential presidential candidate in 2007-ish. But I never really felt like I had to go there.

So on my first trip to Chicago, I arrived last Sunday with zero expectations and was open for, you know, whatever. And I was really impressed. The first Chicagoan (or is it Chicagoite?) I met was friendly and  helpful, showing me how to use the ticket machines to buy a fare on the L. The second one I met, as I got on the train, wished me a great time in his fair city.

I called an old friend of mine I hadn’t seen in more than eight years – a native of the South Side who moved back after years away to work as a television producer for a major national network. He drove me up and down Lake Shore Drive, showed me all the sights – at least from afar – and fed me a Chicago deep-dish pizza (basically a cheese quiche with a half-inch of tomato sauce on top) in his neighborhood pizza parlor, as we caught up on each other’s histories.

On day two he took me to the 27th floor of some ritzy downtown hotel and we drank very expensive whiskey and prosecco while gazing out the floor-to-ceiling windows, as twilight fell upon the bustling city below and all around us.

The Loop from high up.

(Yes, I did go to the office, too, and met lots of really nice folks there as well. Mid-westerners, mostly.)

What a great surprise, getting to know this cool city under brilliant springtime sunshine, as well the wind that gives the place it’s nickname. Giving rise to the thought that I’m not sure I’d want to spend a winter there.

And I realized once again that the Dalai Lama is a really smart guy.





Humiliation on the soccer field

14 03 2012

Switzerland is in shock today after its top soccer club, Basel, suffered a humiliating defeat in Germany last night. Basically, the Swiss team failed to show up for what was touted as the “match of the century” against Germany’s top team, Bayern Munich.

Cauchemar, indeed.

It was a bit of a fairy-tale story, and a win would have catapulted Basel into the stratosphere of global soccer greats. It would have opened a whole new chapter in the team’s history. It was an opportunity to sweep the best squad from its reviled neighbor to the north right out of the Champions League.

“Was” and “would have” are the operative words here.

What makes this whodunit even more irritating for the Swiss to swallow this morning is that Basel’s star player – a 20-year-old pipsqueak touted as “Switzerland’s Messi” (HA!) will transfer to Bayern at the end of the season.

Normally, I’m not a soccer fan. I could care less about the sport unless Argentina (and the real Messi) is playing. But somehow I got caught up in the hype of this one.

For days ahead of time, there were exaggerated visions of grandeur dancing in Swiss heads, from Geneva in the west to Zurich in the east, from Basel in the north to lovely Lago Maggiore in the south. Every single Swiss person was convinced they were (vicariously) on the cusp of stardom.

But alas. The team from Basel decided not to show up for the game. They were basically swept from the field before even setting foot on it.

Smeared.

Creamed.

Slaughtered.

Torn limb from limb and left to the vultures.

Sent home in shame.

Terminus station Munich.

We watched most of the match from our sofa, cringing every time Bayern found the goal and Basel did not.

When the score was 4-0 I left the room.

When it reached 6-0 I begged my husband to shut off the TV and spare us this embarassment. But he chose to watch till the bitter end, reveling in the agony.

The final score was 7-0 and silence blanketed the country.

Looks like Basel needs two weeks off. Too bad that last weekend the Swiss populace resoundingly voted against a measure that would have given us those two extra hard-earned weeks of vacation.  (But then again, the Swiss don’t just strongly dislike Germans, they have an equally profound aversion to each other too.)





Jake sets sail

11 03 2012

A very good friend of mine, let’s call him Jake, will be leaving his family soon on a seven-month journey that will take him to the other side of the planet.

He is doing this not completely voluntarily, because it’s part of his job. Jake is an officer in the U.S. Navy, and his ship is about to depart on a long military deployment.

I met Jake almost ten years ago, on a different Navy ship, just off the coast of Kuwait, its iconic city skyline on the horizon on the starboard side. Back then, he was a member of the crew and I was a journalist, and we watched the politics of the region heat up from front-row seats. The ground war in Iraq was a few months away but the conflict had claimed its first lives already.

Kuwaiti sunset, October 8, 2002

Jake and I kept in touch and we became really good friends. I got to know and love his parents, his wife and their two cool daughters, too. We visited each other – I traveled to both coasts of the United States to see them, they came to Europe to see us. They played a very important role at my wedding.

On a hot night in 2003, Jake, living in San Diego at the time, was my last link to the outside world as I sat in the back of an SUV, speeding through the darkness to Iraq from Amman, Jordan. We carried on a conversation by SMS until I got a few kilometers inside the border. Our chatting across 11 time zones ended abruptly as the sun began to rise, and I slipped out from under Jordanian cell phone coverage.

Iraqi sunrise, August 8, 2003

Nine years ago this month, the world saw a superpower and a dictator posturing for the public. The dictator lost on the first night of hellfire in Baghdad. Woe to those who try to tangle with the biggest military might in the world.

The politics of the region are, once again, in turmoil. The names of the places and the actors are different, but the anger behind it is similar. This new (and still verbal) conflict has very sinister undertones – there is talk of nuclear weapons for the first time since the Cold War ended. And Jake and his shipmates are sailing into the thick of it again.

It’s his fourth or fifth multi-month cruise in something like 12 years, and while I do understand his commitment and service to his country, I wonder how much more of this he and his family will be forced to endure. His father passed away recently, and he will miss his oldest daughter’s high school graduation this Spring. Last year she turned 18 without him… because he was underway.

I wish Jake – and the thousands of military personnel he sails with – Godspeed; that they return home physically and psychologically unscathed.  For the families and friends they leave behind, the wait will be a long one.