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Posts Tagged ‘Journalism’

He worked himself to death

In behavior, business, Health, journalism, Medicine, men, news, travel, work on April 13, 2014 at 1:25 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

The world of journalism is full of competitive, ambitious, driven people. I’m one of them.

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But a recent death — that of 39-year-old New York writer Matthew Power — raises questions for me that remain troubling and unanswered. He died in Uganda while on assignment of heatstroke.

On Facebook I read, and joined, a discussion with other journalists why his decisions seemed normal. Not to me.

From Bloomberg Businessweek:

And yet there was something else, too. Matt may have been a free spirit, but he paid a New York mortgage and worked hard to afford it. Reviewing Matt’s itinerary—red-eye, trans-Atlantic flight followed by a seven-hour drive to the trailhead the day of his arrival, then joining the expedition on his second day in country—I got a shiver of recognition. I’d have made the same mistake. Not just failing to give heat the respect I do altitude. Failing to give it more time. Departing from New York, where there is never a moment to lose, there’s no way I’d think to schedule an extra couple of days—much less the week Casa recommends to top athletes—to let my body adjust. No one has that kind of time….

It took Wood, Beka, Florio, and the rest several hours to get Matt’s body to the village of Arua. They lost most of Tuesday trying unsuccessfully to secure a helicopter to transfer his body to Kampala. By the time of his postmortem exam on Wednesday morning—36 hours since he’d passed away early on Monday afternoon—his body had begun to decompose badly, making it difficult to determine whether a preexisting condition or other factors had contributed to his collapse. To Florio, at least, his death poses no great mystery. Matt, he says, failed to acclimate to Uganda. The temperature as his flight departed New York was roughly 20F—had been, it seemed, for months.

“No one has that kind of time.”

This was not a breaking news story. He was not covering a war or conflict or election, nor competing head to head against dozens of other reporters on deadline.

If you’re working for so little money or on so tight a budget or feel so frenzied that you can’t afford even an extra day or two so take care of your body’s very real needs, what purpose does this faux frenzy actually serve?

To save your editor’s magazine $100 or $200?

I didn’t know Power or his work or the person who wrote this story about him. Power seems to have been universally loved and admired, so my comment is not meant to disrespect him or his skill. Let’s be clear about that.

But his judgment — and the encomiums of others mourning this set of decisions to race ahead at all costs — is not something I wish to emulate.

In the vastly diminished world of journalism, in which pay rates are lower than a decade ago and well-paid assignments rare for many, pushing back to defend your needs is now seen as suspect, grabby and weird; I was recently offered a contract that would only pay me 25 percent of the original $4,000 fee if it didn’t work out as we all hoped.

It didn’t, after two full revisions.

But, knowing this can happen on certain sorts of stories especially, when I asked for a better deal, I was called “difficult.”

I hate this.

Freelancers live in a state of perpetual professional and economic vulnerability. Caving immediately to editors’ “needs” — typically for more profit — is considered normal behavior.

Power died a few days before I left for Nicaragua to work in a five-person team, interviewing locals in 95-degree heat in 12-hour days, sometimes in the remote countryside. We often worked in full sun, drenched in sweat, frantically seeking whatever shade we could find; there was little to be had.

One morning, after walking and climbing in full sun for a few hours, I told our group leader I needed to soak myself at the well to cool down even though we were supposed to leave right then. I refused, politely but firmly, and told him I needed to lower my body temperature. We left 30 minutes later, and didn’t miss anything we had planned to do.

Of course I felt embarrassed being so demanding — no one else asked for this. But I’d almost gotten heatstroke when I was Power’s age, while hiking alone in the Grand Canyon. I’d written about it and knew how serious it is.

It killed Matthew Power, a young, healthy man who had done many tough overseas assignments before.

We are human beings — not machines. We are fragile. We get ill.

We can die from making the wrong choices.

Pretending otherwise, that we are somehow invulnerable — that an extra few hours of rest or an additional night in even the most basic hotel to acclimate — is an undeserved or greedy sort of luxury is madness.

His death appalls me.

But reinforcing the idea that ignoring your own needs is the wisest and most admirable choice is even worse.

 

A few thoughts on the Oscar Pistorius trial

In behavior, Crime, journalism, news, urban life, world on April 12, 2014 at 12:44 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

Have you been following this story?

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My Twitter feed includes the BBC reporter sitting in the courtroom, so I’ve read a lot of detail, some of it horrific, and reading about it in The New York Times.

The South African runner Oscar Pistorius stands accused of murdering his girlfriend, model Reeva Steenkamp, shooting her through his bathroom door when he mistook her for an intruder.

As someone who spent only one day — an unforgettably frightening one — covering two criminal trials in an Ontario courtroom decades ago, the coverage is making me crazy, because:

We don’t know if he is guilty. Endless speculation by journalists, almost all of which assumes Pistorius is guilty, appalls me.

The prosecutor, and Pistorius’ defense attorney, are not there to offer the truth. Their job is to present the most polished and impregnable version of whatever facts they have been able to assemble.

Mocking a defendant is cheap and nasty. Even the judge — as there is no jury system in South Africa — felt compelled to point this out to “Pit Bull” state prosecutor Gerrie Nel:

At one point during his testimony, Mr. Nel snickered. That prompted a rare interjection from Judge Thokozile Matilda Masipa, who seemed to be addressing the prosecutor and the gallery but whose comments could be heard far and wide, as the trial has become a global spectacle.

“You possibly think this is entertainment,” the judge said. “It is not.”

The trial is grisly and terrifying in its detail. I feel for the reporters who must listen to it and look at photos.

Why is it so impossible to imagine Pistorius’ very real terror if he thought an intruder had entered his home?

How would any of us feel or react if we awakened fearing an intruder — and we did not have quick, easy movement without prosthetics?

People who have never fired a handgun (as I have), have no idea — none — what that feels, smells and sounds like. To do so, as he did, half-asleep, in a small and enclosed space, would have been extremely loud and disorienting.

There is tremendous dislike and contempt for gun-owners by those who do not own a firearm — which includes most mainstream journalists covering this story. I know this, having spent two years researching gun use in the United States, interviewing 104 men, women and teens for my first book, “Blown Away: American Women and Guns.”

Like this New Yorker story.

I don’t own a gun but I get why some people make that choice. No matter how repugnant to others, their firearms are as normal and unremarkable a part of their life as a frying pan or car.

Prosecutor Nel demanded to know why Pistorius and Reeva Steenkamp had never emailed or texted the words “I love you” to one another. Really? Relevance? Not everyone is verbally effusive with their affection.

One piece that does confuse me — why Steenkamp would have locked the bathroom door in her lover’s home.

Have you also followed this trial?

What do you think of it all?

Do you live in, or know what life is like in, South Africa? I’d love to hear from you especially.

Mourning two journalism greats: Anja Niedringhaus and Heather Robertson

In beauty, business, culture, journalism, news, photography, travel, war, women, work on April 7, 2014 at 3:01 am

By Caitlin Kelly

We recently lost — we being the global community of journalists — two women who made profound differences in the lives of their many grateful editors, colleagues and readers.

Too often, journalism appears to be a business dominated by men: publishers, editors-in-chief, front-page bylines.

Talented, brave women also shape much of what we see, hear and feel.

One, shot dead while sitting in a car in Afghanistan, was Anja Niedringhaus, 48, a news photographer from Germany; in the car with her, also shot (but recovering) is Associated Press veteran correspondent, and Canadian, Kathy Gannon.

Heather Robertson

Heather Robertson

The other, Heather Robertson, is a Canadian journalist who led a life-changing lawsuit against Canadian publishers who, in a land grab, decided to “re-purpose” thousands of articles and earn handsome profits from them — without bothering to share those profits with the writers who had actually created them and their economic value.

Two lawsuits took decades to move through the Canadian courts, but they gave many writers fantastic windfalls; I got two five-figure payouts thanks to her work, which allowed me to breathe more easily in lean times, which every freelancer faces at some point.

Here’s Heather’s obituary from The Globe and Mail,written by my friend, Toronto writer David Hayes:

“Heather was a Canadian nationalist and a feminist,” says her friend and fellow writer, Elaine Dewar. “Her voice was clear, honest and rigorous in a way that was uncommon at the time.”

She embodied her grandfather’s crusading convictions outside of her writing life, too. Aware that writers were underpaid and often treated churlishly by publishers, she co-founded both the Writers’ Union of Canada and the Professional Writers Association of Canada. Her biggest coup, though, came in the 1990s when she became the lead plaintiff in two lawsuits against the country’s largest media corporations, including The Globe and Mail, over the electronic rights of freelance journalists. (Ms. Dewar remembers that Ms. Robertson was smart enough to be afraid of the responsibility and brave enough to ignore her doubts.) The eventual settlement of more than $11-million remunerated many freelancers for lost income and established that publishers could not simply re-purpose a writer’s work on databases or the Internet without credit or payment.

Here’s a long, thoughtful appreciation of Anja — with many of her photos — from The New York Times’ Lens blog:

She was long accustomed to the field, and to the dangers getting to it, and back to it. She wrote an essay, ‘Emotions Speak Through Images,’ for Harvard University’s Nieman Foundation for Journalism, in which she wrote of her compassion for civilians she met in Bosnia, Iraq, Gaza and elsewhere. She said she wanted to ‘understand the situation through their eyes’ during an American raid on a house in Baghdad in 2004. But she was also struck by the youth of the American Marines, ‘just out of school, young boys.’

In a passage, she described how after the 2003 invasion of Iraq she slipped across the border from Kuwait into Basra by hiding inside a Kuwaiti fire brigade truck, then joined up with her A.P. colleagues.

“I remember watching a fierce battle around the city’s university. Shells started to land nearby, and most journalists left the scene,” she wrote. “I had just put on my bulletproof vest when another shell landed so close to me that it injured three of my colleagues. I escaped with bruises and was able to drive them to safety in our Jeep, even though it was also hit, and two of its four tires were flat. One of my colleagues, a Lebanese cameraman, had shrapnel close to his heart and was immediately operated on by a British Army doctor in a makeshift tent. We were flown out to Kuwait for further treatment. Three days later I returned to Iraq in a rented Jeep from Kuwait.”

And, another, from AP colleague David Guttenflelder:

I honestly don’t think that the AP could have covered that war without her influence. Our entire staff was raised in her image. I’m sure that even now, when they go out the door with their cameras they ask themselves “What would Anja do?” I think maybe every AP photographer has asked themselves that at one point…

“She was one of the best people I’ve ever known. I was so lucky to have known and worked with her. I’m just one of countless people all over the world to have loved Anja. We are all totally devastated,” Guttenfelder said.

On being (truly) honest about our feelings

In behavior, books, Crime, Health, journalism, life, love, Media, photography, television, work on April 2, 2014 at 12:19 am

By Caitlin Kelly

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Here’s a recent post from Freshly Pressed, about the social dance of “How are you?” — and its expected, safe, reassuring antiphonal response of “Fine!”:

But there’s another problem – a more insidious problem – with lying. Every time you tell someone you are ‘fine’ – when you’re not – you buy into the belief that it’s not acceptable to be depressed. In other words, the act of concealing your true mood, sends a subconscious message that it needs concealing, that it’s something to be ashamed of.

It’s a very sad indictment of our emotionally-illiterate society that those or us who are suffering the most have to hide our feelings to protect the sensibilities of everyone else. One in four of the seven billion human beings on this earth will experience poor mental health at some point in their life. That’s 1.75 billion people. And over 10 billion in the history of humankind. The only shame would be if all those people lived their lives feeling ashamed of something that is clearly such a common part of the human experience.

And here’s an honest blog post about how messy real life really is:

I consider myself incredibly blessed and lucky. For nearly a quarter of a century Lisa has been the center of my universe … and I wouldn’t want it any other way.

But we are people, with kids as well as all of the normal stresses and pressures.

Here are some of the things we have had a fight of some type or other about: money, sex, having children, buying a car, how to spend a work bonus, having more children, using credit cards, buying a house, our jobs, who is cooking, technology, raising our children, shopping for groceries, stopping having children before Lisa died (which was what the doctor more or less said after #2), moving after my layoff, my parents, her parents, my brother, her sister, my sister, my friends, her friends, the woman (my friend) who stood in line at our wedding and pretty much said she couldn’t believe I was getting married (apparently I was more than one person’s ‘back-up plan’), pretty much every one of our nieces and nephews, computer games, TV, sleep, running, the gym, the kids’ friends, our neighbors at every house, trash, dogs, cats, food … and pretty much anything else you can think of.

Except about whether or not we loved each other.

And from A Transformed Faith blog:

Our vulnerabilities are an essential part of our human experience. While our culture tends to want us to cover them up, to act like everything is fine and we are all doing “great,” Jesus, on the other hand, invites us to acknowledge our vulnerabilities, to enter into a vulnerable space with God at our side.

According to the Gospel of John, on the night of his arrest Jesus washed the feet of his disciples. Foot washing was common in Jesus day, but it was the servants who washed the feet of guests, not the master of the house, or the master teacher.

For many of us the idea of letting someone touch our feet, let alone wash them, is uncomfortable. Why is that? Pause here and try to understand that in yourself.

For me, I think the discomfort comes from the radical vulnerability of letting a part of our body that we usually keep covered get uncovered. It’s hard to imagine letting someone touch and wash a part of our bodies that is less than perfect, possibly dirty and probably smelly. And I have one really messed up toenail, too.

I don’t want people to see that part of me that is messy and out of control. I don’t want to burden them with any discomfort they might feel about my feet. And I don’t want to feel the discomfort of my own shame.

Depending which culture you live in, some being far more discreet and emotionally buttoned-up than others, expressing your true feelings can create havoc, socially and professionally.

The United States values emotional self-expression and directness, (albeit with regional differences.) This can be quite unsettling if you come from a quieter and more discreet culture, where only your true intimates know how you really feel.

Being “honest” can outweigh being diplomatic or tactful.

They'll never tell!

They’ll never tell!

Even with friends, I hesitate to reveal a lot.

And yet, a candid Skype conversation with one Broadside’s followers, who lives overseas and is also a nervous flyer, led to a kind and comforting email to me — as I prepared for three flights in one direction to rural Nicaragua. (One of them was really bumpy. Shriek.)

A young friend, 23, came for lunch recently and we talked at length, discovering, to our mutual surprise, we had both been bullied  in high school, even as (because?) we assumed leadership roles there. We both blossomed, socially and professionally, while in college.

But many people see (only) who we are today — bright, attractive, super-confident women. They don’t know, (and nor would we be likely to discuss), the more painful and private backstory.

I’ve been told I’m intimidating in my self-confidence. My young friend sends off a similar vibe: assertive, comfortable in all sorts of new situations, willing and able to take charge…

No one would suspect, (and I had no idea about my friend’s experience until recently), that, when younger we’d both been so mistreated. We hide it well!

Not surprisingly, she’s also from a more reticent cultural background (British) , as am I (Canadian.)

But it felt good to discover that someone I admire and enjoy has endured, and thrived beyond, similar challenges.

Only if someone knows how we truly feel can intimacy and friendship root and blossom.

Over dinner with a young news photographer, he summed up a pathological issue for many news journalists:

“You can’t be a normal human being.”

By which he meant: for our work, we witness poverty and violence and death and listen to terrible tales of rape and incest and fiscal malfeasance. We cover fires and floods and the aftermath of landslides and car crashes and earthquakes.

Yet we can’t — at least in the moment — afford to feel much of anything, or we just can’t stay focused on doing our jobs. Nor can we cry or let our emotions show.

But then, to the people we meet and speak to and photograph, we often appear heartless and callous, because we’re not visibly reacting to what we hear and see. Some of us do have very deep feelings about our stories, but weeping at work is really not an option.

Then, later, maybe you sort out your feelings and process them.

Or not…

I’ve cried at my desk only a few times over the decades of my journalism career; once when interviewing a dead soldier’s father, once when listening to the most unbearable of all — 911 tapes from 9/11 and again after interviewing someone who volunteered to help in the morgue after 9/11.

How about you?

Do you tell the people in your life how you really feel about things?

Do you share your private feelings in your blog posts?

And now we return to our regularly scheduled programming…

In aging, behavior, life, travel, work on March 31, 2014 at 12:02 am

By Caitlin Kelly

We’ve printed, framed and hung a few of my Nicaragua photos.

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Jennifer — the blogger who was on our team — and I have scheduled a phone meeting to plot our next adventure.

Jennifer and I at the beach; our translator, Dixie, takes a break

Jennifer and I at the beach; our translator, Dixie, takes a break

I’ve finished my malaria pills and my stomach, after a quite rough week, is back to normal.

 

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We’ve left behind glowing red hibiscus for bare brown branches, 33 degrees Celsius (98 F) for 33 Fahrenheit, soft sunsets for pelting, cold wind-driven rain.

“Real” life begins again.

I wish it wouldn’t!

As many of you fellow travelers and adventurers know, re-entering “normal” life after a profoundly moving, challenging and fun adventure, whether personal or professional, can feel really unsettling. As one friend, who knows Nicaragua well after serving there in the Peace Corps and writing several country guidebooks about it, wrote: “Double culture shock. It sucks.”

My greatest challenge now, after 30 years working in journalism, isn’t money. We have no kids and have saved decently for what we hope will be a retirement with health to enjoy it.

It’s challenge. Or lack of it.

I tweeted the other day my motto: Challenge is my oxygen.

By which I mean, I feel suffocated by the tedium of much of the paid work I produce, even for Big Name publications like The New York Times. I work hard and do it well, but learn very little new about the world, or my craft or myself.

I know a few of you:

Cadence who recently moved to London to start a whole new life and career,

Charlene who ditched her life in Australia for life on the road,

Elizabeth who ventured to England for love, and marriage to the gggggorgeous John,

and Beth, who ditched advertising for teaching “littles”

have each made some major life shifts.

I admire your bravery and boldness!

I’m not sure what my next steps will be, or if they’ll head in a new direction or if that will even be financially possible.

I do feel enormously grateful that WaterAid chose me to join their team and tell some of their story. I hope add more of this sort of paid work — overseas, using my language skills, working in a team, working on projects that actually make a real, quantifiable difference in others’ lives — to my life, even a few times a year.

We’ll see.

How about you?

Are you ready for — or have you recently made — a re-set in your own life?

 

Traveling between worlds can give you whiplash

In animals, beauty, behavior, culture, domestic life, food, journalism, life, travel, world on March 27, 2014 at 1:22 am

By Caitlin Kelly

The first thing I did upon my return from a working week in Nicaragua — the second poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere after Haiti?

I took a long, deep, hot bath. In our time there, we only encountered heated water once, in the Best Western Hotel in Managua.

It was the first of multiple culture shocks…

The morning after my return to suburban New York, I got into our 12-year-old Subaru and drove; I hadn’t driven once, as we had drivers there, or took taxis in Managua.

Jose Luis, our driver; Alanna, our team leader -- and our push-to-start-it van

Jose Luis, our driver; Alanna, our team leader — and our push-to-start-it van

The road at home was smooth and paved. I had never thought to question, or appreciate, that.

Our old car started smoothly. That, too. Here’s a push, in 98 degree noon-time heat:

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I drove quickly and easily to my destination, with no bumps or potholes to dodge.

Here, I travel by foot, public transit or car. The bus ride from Bilwi — a 90-minute flight by Cessna — takes 24 hours.

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Here’s the dugout canoe in which we crossed the river to watch Linda work her fields.

 

 

Now that's a commute!

Now that’s a commute!

Here, I walked into a white tiled bathroom, with metal stall walls; this is the toilet at Linda’s home in the countryside.

 

Try climbing those steps in the dark, wearing a headlamp!

Try climbing those steps in the dark, wearing a headlamp!

 

Normal work for me, and many of you, means sitting at a desk, indoors. Here’s our photographer Rodrigo Cruz working in the Wawa River:

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I got into the elevator at my destination this week to ride up five floors — I hadn’t used an escalator or elevator in a week; most Bilwi buildings were made of wood, and two storeys high at most.

Across the street from our hotel in Bilwi

Across the street from our hotel in Bilwi

 

The streets here in New York have no animals on them, unless they’re road kill; on our final morning in Bilwi, a brown horse ambled past our hotel, riderless, unaccompanied. At Linda’s house in the countryside, we were always surrounded by them: a gobbling turkey, a contented, muddy pig, a flock of cheeping chicks, the Brahmin cow who wandered over to the well at sunset and kept me company while I bathedand many piles of fresh dung!

We saw very thin dogs everywhere, but only two cats. Life without the companionship of animals feels lonely!

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Buildings and houses here in New York are black or white or gray or brown, a sea of blandness. The houses we saw, everywhere, in Bilwi and the countryside of RAAN were painted in glorious colors: turquoise, emerald green, fuchsia, brilliant yellow, often using wood cut into patterns or laid on the diagonal for visual interest on a verandah. Beauty relies on imagination, some tools and a can of paint.

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Instead of breakfast alone at my dining table, we ate together from containers on our laps. Here’s a typical lunch:

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Here are Joshua, WaterAid’s country director, Jennifer Barbour and Alanna on Linda’s porch; she has a separate building next to her sleeping quarters for the kitchen.

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Here’s Linda’s (typical) stove/oven:

 

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Because it is still winter here in New York, the landscape is dull — still brown and sterile. The morning we left Bilwi, the town on the Atlantic coast we stayed in, brilliant red hibiscus glowed in the morning sun, as did wide, green palm fronds and lilac bougainvillea. Pale yellow butterflies flitted past us.

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The tropical rain forest glows green with towering banana and coconut palms and curved, feathery bamboo. It felt like walking into a painting by Henri Rousseau.

This painting in a Managua museum captures it

This painting in a Managua museum captures it

On our final night in Bilwi, the team went out to a disco, where men and women – 80 percent of whom live with no running water in their homes — arrived in stilettos and make-up and sequined tank tops. As we stood on the sidewalk afterward, a young man, clearly high and ill, drooled and begged and dropped to the pavement to caress Joshua’s shoes. The national police, rifles slung over their shoulders, cruised past us in a black pick-up truck.

My breakfast blueberrries in New York came from (!) Chile. One afternoon our rural RAAN hosts chopped open some coconuts from their tree with a machete — fresh juice and meat!

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Our view here is of other buildings and the Hudson River. Here’s the view from Linda’s home.

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We ate lunch in Managua in an upscale cafe, its prices marked in U.S. dollars, ordering food common in the U.S. — panini and cappuccinos. After a steady diet of Nicaraguan food: rice, beans, plantains, fish, a bit of meat — no green vegetables and very little fruit — it was disorienting. There was a case filled with cupcakes and cheesecake and cookies; no restaurant we had been to, in a poor town, had ever offered dessert or sweets on the menu. I’d never considered fruit, vegetables or sweetened foods a luxury or oddity. They are, for many people.

At home I work alone, all day every day. Here are Dixie, our translator (in the hammock) and Laxi, WaterAid’s community liaison, on Linda’s porch in the village we visited. Working with a dedicated and easy-going team is a blessing.

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As we canoed the Wawa River in a dugout, we sat on seats freshly-hacked from a piece of bamboo by Ailita’s machete. How refreshing to watch her casually, quickly — and generously! — make it herself. That sort of self-sufficiency is something so many of us now lack.

Every day, The New York Times — even as it runs front-page stories about poverty or income equality — runs ads from luxury purveyors like Chanel ($1,500 shoes) or Tiffany or Seaman Schepps, an old-money jeweler; recently offering a gold bracelet at $18,750.

The currency is the cordoba; 25 = $1 U.S.

The currency is the cordoba; 25 = $1 U.S.

That’s eighteen years’  of an average Nicaraguan’s annual income.

The head spins…

 

 

A week working in Nicaragua: Lessons learned

In behavior, culture, domestic life, journalism, life, travel, women, work, world on March 25, 2014 at 12:03 am

By Caitlin Kelly

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Have you ever been to a place with no electricity — or refrigeration or candles or kerosene lanterns?

No running water?

No postal service?

A place where ham radio or a transistor radio are the one reliable link to the rest of the world?

A place where the bus comes past twice a day, and a trip in it to the capital takes 24 hours — a 90-minute prop plane 12-seater flight?

We spent one night in Ayhua Tara, a village of 10 families in a part of the country called RAAN; an autonomous region of isolated villages near the northern border with Honduras. To get there meant traveling a washboard road of red dust so thick I wore a kerchief every day to keep my hair clean. (It worked, sort of.) The road was in the best shape it had been for a few years, freshly graded with gravel, but still had multiple dips probably several feet deep for most of our journey, slowing us and jolting us all.

We rode in a small van: a team of five people and all our backpacks and video and camera equipment and lots of cold water.

The families we visited live on land granted to them as members of the Miskitu people. They live in wooden houses high atop stilts, their animals snoozing beneath and around them in the shade — a muddy piglet, a snoozing dog, a hen and and her tiny chicks, a goat or two.

We were welcomed as family. We brought our own food, which they cooked in the dark — with one small boy holding up a flashlight as they cooked on their small clay woodstove, waist-high at the back of the large kitchen.

A few moments:

We met new animals, like the coatimundi chained up at a Bilwi restaurant where we ate lunch one day. Or the turkey at Linda’s house who followed us everywhere, desperately showing off his fluffed-up feathers. And the pavon, an endangered species of bird  — with a brilliant lemon-yellow beak and what looks like a very bad black perm — that perched on the wall over the stove while Linda was cooking.

The pavon.

The pavon.

When traveling in hot/dusty places bring plenty of clean cotton bandanas: use as a napkin, towel, mouth-covering, (useful when we visited a live volcano in Managua and the foul steam started to hurt out throats), neck gaiter, blindfold, pillow cover, carry-sack, head covering, neck covering (soaked in cold water as often as possible) — and a bit of style!

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Lifesavers are the best! My bag of mint Lifesaver candies were the hit of the week when we were all feeling weary/hungry/thirsty/tired — offering a portable bit of sweet, saliva-producing relief.

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Kindness and generosity know no language. We stayed in a home where no one spoke much Spanish, only Miskitu. We worked through an interpreter, but their welcome to a bunch of strangers was warm and touching. We walked through the forest one morning with Linda, her mother-in-law and grand-daughter.

Jennifer was handed tiny orchids and some beans by Exelia, the little girl, while Ailita, 69, wearing rubber boots and a torn, repaired man’s shirt, gestured to me to wipe down my bare legs and arms in case I’d brushed against something noxious.

Water is heavy. Many people here carry buckets of it back and forth every day, multiple times, from a well or river. When you see a tiny child of four or five, (their growth stunted by chronic malnutrition, so they might well be seven or eight), with a filled plastic bucket in his head or in her arms, straining, you’ll never leave a tap running again.

Accessing water takes time and physical energy that might be better used for earning income or being with your family. When you need water in a place like this for any purpose, and you need to get it from a well, that means six cranks of the wheel to get enough to fill a small-ish cup. I watched a youngl girl straining just to reach and turn the wheel; I’m a strong adult and it still took energy — in 98 degree heat, direct sun and humidity.

Then you have to fill an entire bucket, if only for your own use. Now add the needs for cooking, bathing and cleaning clothes for a family of six or more who work in muddy fields and hot sun all day.

Traveling pleasantly and efficiently for a week in a multi-cultural, multi-lingual, multi-national team — two Americans, two Canadians, a Mexican and three Nicaraguans, (driver, interpreter and community contact), means being flexible, calm, gentle and fun to be around. I had met Alanna, the communications director, in New York but none of us had met before or worked together until we raced off together on our very first day.

Our team! Jennifer Barbour; blogger; Alanna Imbach; media director; me; Rodrigo Cruz, photographer

Our team! Jennifer Barbour; blogger; Alanna Imbach; media director; me; Rodrigo Cruz, photographer

I was happily surprised to see how quickly and easily we fell into a rhythm, sharing water, sunscreen, Lifesavers, nuts. Maybe because we’re all professionals. Maybe because we’d all traveled, and worked, in fairly tough conditions before. Even pushing the dust-encrusted van to get it started every time wasn’t a big deal as long as we were still laughing about it. I heard no whining, despite hot, 10+ hour workdays starting at 8:00 a.m. or earlier.

Focus is energizing. We never touched, or needed to touch, money: our week was sleep, work, eat, repeat. We wasted no time on shopping, laundry or cooking. If we wanted to Skype with our loved ones, we did so at 6:00 a.m., since they were all two hours ahead in time zone.

Passion is galvanizing. Journalism is a desperate business these days, rife with insecurity and peacocking, whining and competitiveness. To spend a week with a team of smart, warm people passionate about social justice, and wise in its folkways, was deeply inspiring to me.

Pre-industrial life has a rhythm we rarely, if ever, live. When it is dark by 6:15 and there is no light beyond a headlamp or flashlight, and your day has been hot and physically demanding, you go to sleep early because you’ll rise before, or with the sun. The soothing chatter of the transistor radio hung on a nail, or the indignant gobbling of a turkey are the sounds lulling you to sleep.

When you walk through the field to weed your crops, why wear a watch? The work itself will tell you when you are finished.

I read Facebook and Twitter, posting when we had Internet access — freshly struck by how many of our “conversations” are purely trivial. That was instructive.

There is beauty in simplicity. I will not romanticize poverty. But I appreciated the smooth, wide wooden boards of Linda’s scrubbed, swept hardwood floor beneath my feet, the children’s tiny stuffed animals hung from nails (no shelves), a bright yellow flower growing in a blue plastic tub, the region’s purple, turquoise, emerald green and mustard yellow painted houses.

In a poor country, concrete and glass are luxury materials. In a week of travel through several RAAN villages and Bilwi, I saw perhaps six houses with glazed windows and few homes made of concrete, let alone two-story ones. Ironically, the most pristine, spotless, freshly-painted building I saw anywhere — new red metal roof, fresh banana yellow walls — was a large church.

Our host, Linda Felix, paddling her canoe

Our host, Linda Felix, paddling her canoe

We all work. We all struggle. Watching Linda and Ailita head off to work in a dugout canoe, whacking their way through the fields with a machete, claiming the hard-won prizes of enormous white squash and sun-warmed cucumber, felt familiar, even though all of it was new to me.

Work is work.

Fear of economic loss — while theirs is truly dire, and means not even lighting a cooking fire in the worst months because there is no food to prepare — is not unique to the beleaguered American or European middle class.

The Mexican freelance photographer with us told me he’s waited up to five months to see his invoices processed. That, too, was familiar.

I spoke for an hour, in Spanish, to a woman whose 25 year old sister stopped speaking for 18 months. She sold two cows and went to a curandero, a traditional healer, whose ministrations didn’t help. Then they went to a psychologist in Bilwi, then to a psychiatrist in Managua; health care is free, but the cost of distant travel hammered their ever-fragile finances.

“If you want to eat,” she finally said, “you have to work.”

Managing your emotions — and the roller-coaster of beauty/squalor — is…interesting. It was a week of truly dire poverty, with many people living on $1/day with six or eight children in a one-room wooden shack with a rusted, patched corrugated tin roof or walls; Haiti is the only nation in this part of the world poorer than Nicaragua.

You want to cry, but you don’t. It will all be there the next day as well and you’re there to observe and interview, not indulge your feelings and reactions.

Then you stare into the deepest, darkest silent sky-full of stars and want to weep at its beauty, lost once you return to the town filled with light and noise.

A shy, tiny girl hands you an orchid as you tramp through a field of pumpkins with her. Another little girl lets you comb her hair into a ponytail.

You crawl into a narrow, muddy, tippy dugout canoe and pray you don’t tip out into the river.

You sleep under a mosquito net and hope it works; malaria is no joke and the region you’re in is the country’s worst for it.

Fear, joy, awe, anxiety, exhaustion, guilt, inspiration, confusion.

Yes to all of these, and more.

Trust is key. Trust that the van will start. That the water won’t make you sick. That those weird itchy bites on your ankles are nothing, really. That the food is safe to eat. That the very small plane won’t crash.

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That your outraged bowels will calm down soon. That all those long, hot tiring days filling our hearts and heads and notebooks and cameras have gathered valuable useful insights.

That your team is as smart, funny and professional as they appeared to be. That you won’t want to tear each others’ throats out after a super-intense week. (We didn’t, nor did we want to.)

Have you been to a place that changed how you see your world?

Tell us….

Nicaragua: Days 3 and 4: Stars, Goats and a Dugout Canoe

In behavior, blogging, culture, domestic life, journalism, life, travel, women, work on March 21, 2014 at 1:40 am
Jennifer and I in a dugout canoe on the Wawa River

Jennifer and I in a dugout canoe on the Wawa River

Our third day we got back into the van and headed to a small village — 10 families — living near the Wawa River, to stay in the home of Linda Felix, a woman who has been working on sanitation issues there, trained by WaterAid.

Linda, 41, has six children, the oldest of whom is 22, and has a year-old grand-son. She lives, like most Nicaraguans in this part of the country, in a wooden house standing on thick stilts, tall enough for an adult to stand beneath.

Under the houses, including hers, roam: goats, pigs, chickens, roosters, dogs, piglets. A large herd of cattle stands nearby and an extremely friendly turkey even followed us all the way through the forest to the river. We bathed there at 4:30 and enjoyed the relative cool that sets in around that hour.

Her house has two parts — a separate kitchen with a small clay woodstove — and the living and sleeping area, divided into separate rooms for her children. Our team, three women and a man, slept on cots beneath mosquito nets in what is, essentially, her living room — which is bare except for a table.

The spotless home has no electricity or running water and the toilet is reached by going down very steep wooden steps (no handrail) and up an even steeper set into the shack with the toilet in it. I had to dodge a tiny black piglet on my way.

The sun sets at 5:45 and the sky is completely black within 30 minutes, offering a stunning array of stars visible when there is no competing artificial light for miles.

Our host, Linda Felix, paddling her canoe

Our host, Linda Felix, paddling her canoe

LInda's home

LInda’s home

all photos taken by Jennifer Barbour

Jennifer and I traveled this morning by dugout canoe — our seats were bits of bamboo hacked with a machete by Ailita, Linda’s 69 year old mother in law. We scrambled up very steep sandbanks with them to visit their gardens where they harvested cucumbers, watermelon, squash, beans, tomatoes and pumpkins, which the family eats and which Linda takes into Bilwi to sell.

The heat is crazy — 98 degrees. It wipes you out, so we’ve been drinking a lot of water.

I bathed a few times using the well, and a cow came by to visit me.

We were welcomed everywhere with smiles and generosity and kindness.

We saw some of the baseball teams competing for the championship of the Indigenous League.

I chatted in Spanish today with a woman who tried to help her sister’s deep depression by selling two cows and visiting a “curandero”, a traditional healer. Instead, it took a Bilwi psychologist and Managua psychiatrist to diagnose and treat her.

Our multi-lingual, multi-national team has been working in intense heat, long days, translating into Miskitu. We’re having a blast.

Now back in town for two more days, then one final free day in Managua, the capital.

I hope you’re enjoying some of our adventures!

Nicaragua, Days One and Two: Coconuts, Wells and a 16 Year Old GC

In blogging, books, culture, education, Health, journalism, life, travel, women, work on March 19, 2014 at 1:02 am

By Caitlin Kelly

It began with a flight from Atlanta to Managua — that was turned back 40 minutes in for mechanical problems, circled for 60 minutes in turbulence to burn off fuel — and had everyone rush into a waiting aircraft to get going, fast, before the Managua airport shut down for the night at midnight. We arrived at 12:30 and got four hours’ sleep because we had to catch a 6:00 a.m. flight to Bilwi/Puerto Cabezas, a town of about 40,000 on the edge of the Caribbean.

Jennifer and I at Bilwi airport, after arricving.

Jennifer and I at Bilwi airport, after arriving.

Our team: Mexican photographer Rodrigo, Maine mom blogger Jennifer, media director Alanna and I crammed into a plane with 12 seats. After 90 minutes we arrived, met by Josh, the Vancouver-born country director, and a borrowed van — that wouldn’t start until it was pushed.

Within an hour, we were all off and running in 95 degree heat, driving due west along washboard red dust roads that jolted us every few feet. Our destination? A house whose 48-year-old owners had decided would finally have a toilet, and we were going to watch them digging the trenches and drilling the gray PVC pipe that will serve as drainage.

Our journey took — to go 40 miles — about two hours, and included crossing the Wawa River on a barge. The road was jammed with chickens and pigs and dogs and small children. Cooks boiled food in pots on charcoal braziers. Enormous colored buses pulled up with men sitting on the roof.

We visited a primary school, where the boys were learning Spanish homonyms.

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The landscape changed, from scrubby low pines in sandy soil, to lush green hills. The house where we stopped was painted wood, as most are here, and on stilts, with lemon and mango trees on the hill. We watched the team working, spoke to them and to the family, then drank fresh coconut milk from the nuts on their tree, hacked open with a machete.

The rooster finishing my coconut

The rooster finishing my coconut

It’s very hot here, at sea level with the Caribbean ocean nearby — about 95 degrees during the day, dropping to about 82 after the sun sets at 5:45.

Much of our work interviewing and photographing people means we’re standing around outside in the sunshine for a few hours, sweating buckets.

By noon, my hair and clothes are drenched and dripping with perspiration so I cover my head, pirate-style with a kerchief. It looks a little goofy, but it works, keeping the sweat from my eyes and face; my notebook today at noon was so sweaty I couldn’t even use some of the paper.

We drink a lot of water! I also brought a bag of peppermint Lifesavers, which offers everyone a nice blast of sweetness and flavor in noonday heat.

Last night in the WaterAid office in Bilwi -- it has AC!

Last night in the WaterAid office in Bilwi — it has AC!

On Tuesday we met and interviewed Cora, a 16-year-old girl who’s acting as GC — a general contractor — building a bathroom for a local man whose house is under construction. Cora is a high-school dropout who WaterAid is helping, (the group sponsoring my trip), teach technical and life skills.

It was amazing to see her self-confidence supervising her team of four male workers. Like any 16-year-old, she wore a sparkly butterfly hair clip, tight blue jeans and a red cellphone she likes to check.

We visited an extremely poor neighborhood near the beach; that’s saying a lot in a place where poverty is endemic, where 0nly 20 percent of Bilwi’s residents have access to running water or any form of toilet in their home.

There we saw a community well and spoke to Nelisha, a shy, freckled 12-year-old living down the street in a bright green wooden house — who used to carry two heavy buckets of water every morning and night for a mile. Now she only carries them about a two-minute walk.

When you’re reporting in the field, the best thing you can do is get away from the official story, in this case, the well we had come to admire.

Jennifer and I wandered a block away toward the beach, where we found a long row of wooden latrines — their sewage emptying into a ditch barely 100 feet from the ocean. This was no tourist beach. This was squalid, dirty and unhealthy.

Jennifer and I at the beach; our translator, Dixie, takes a break

Jennifer and I at the beach; our translator, Dixie, takes a break

We ate lunch together at a local restaurant, then drove to Cora’s home to see how she lives.

We walked up a slight incline, red dust clogged with fallen palm leaves and coconuts, the walkway shaded by leaning palm trees. On either side were wooden houses on stilts, some patched with corrugated metal, some raw wood.

Her house is barely a few yards from a chain-link fence, the outer perimeter of the Bilwi airport.

Cora has lived here her whole life and shares her home — 15 by 20 feet, wood, no windows — with eight others, including three children, her nieces, ages 1, 3 and six. They have no running water or toilet. To get drinking water, they turn on a white plastic faucet in their small dirt yard.

But, despite the scorching heat and the thirst of a large family, it offers nothing, as the city only opens its taps a few hours a day, and not every day.

Their well, which her father dug, sits about 20 feet from their house’s open doorway. It has no cover or railing and is about 50 feet deep.

Easy for a tiny child to fall into — which apparently one or two a year do.

We have been here only two days, a group of people who were strangers to one another before that. It’s quite astonishing to join yet another five or six people — translators, staff, driver — and meld into a working, laughing, van-pushing unit.

Tomorrow we head into the countryside where we’ll spend two days, sleeping overnight in a village, using mosquito nets. There will be no electricity.

Imagine the stars!

Off to Nicaragua with WaterAid!

In culture, education, journalism, life, travel, women, work on March 16, 2014 at 2:44 am

By Caitlin Kelly

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The left shoulder got the polio shot, the right one got the hepatitis shot. I took my typhus vaccine orally, four pills over eight days, which made my head feel like a block of cement.

Next up, Malarone, for malaria.

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I leave today from my home in New York to fly to Atlanta, then on to Managua. Tomorrow morning, we fly in a plane so small we all have to get weighed, 90 minutes northeast to Puerto Cabezas, on the Caribbean coast, our headquarters for the week.

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From there, we’ll travel two hours inland to visit villages where WaterAid, a British-based charity, is helping to create better sanitation. The team includes Jennifer Barbour, a blogger from Maine, Rodrigo Cruz, a fellow freelancer, and photographer from Cuernavaca, Mexico, and two WaterAid staff; Alanna Imbach, who invited me, is listed here.

Jennifer’s post about the trip offers a lot of great detail about the country.

My role on this journey is to report and interview locals and in-country staff about their experiences with WaterAid, then write stories for the group that they can use in any way they find useful — sending them to the media or to potential donors.

Eighty per cent of the inhabitants of this region have no access to clean water or toilets.

I’ve never done anything like this, so I’m excited and honored to be given the opportunity and challenge of making a remote and unfamiliar place, and the work they’re doing there, into compelling narratives.

But the fundamentals of reporting remain constant:

listen, ask thoughtful questions, watch carefully, behave with cultural sensitivity in dress and demeanor, take photos for later reference, soak up the atmosphere so a reader thousands of miles away feels like they’re sitting beside us…

The other remote places I’ve previously been? Rural Kenya, Tanzania and an Arctic village of 500 near the Arctic circle, Salluit, Quebec — all in my late 20s, a few decades ago.

Alanna has warned us that the poverty we’ll see is quite devastating, and will likely affect us emotionally.

I speak Spanish but we’ll mostly rely on interpreters into the local language, Miskitu.

I’ve never been to Nicaragua before but was lucky enough to know a guy in Colorado who writes its guidebooks and referred to me a young woman in-country who gave me ace advice.

This will be the 38th country I’ve been to (so far!)

It’s a working trip, with long days; our one free day is the last one, in Managua.

I’ll be blogging from there, with images, so I hope you enjoy the journey.

 

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