Saturday, November 29, 2008

Sex Drive

According to the Durex Global Sex Survey last year, only 34% of Malaysians have sex more than twice a week. Well, it’s no surprise since I think that the other 66% are stuck in traffic most of the time.

Traffic in Kuala Lumpur is notoriously horrendous. If you are late for any appointment, all you need to say is, “Jam,lah” and nobody will question it. I am just amazed with the amount of  time wasted on the road each day.

Many people are quick to conclude that the main culprit is the number of cars on the road. An average household in the Klang Valley has at least two cars. Due to the hot weather and inefficiency of public transportation, most Malaysians opt for the car to travel around the city.

So, what the local authorities do is to build more roads but does the traffic cease? Hah! Of course not. It only makes it worse because road construction sites only cause more traffic jam as no alternative routes are provided in the mean time. This is recently seen in Klang.

While we need to regulate the number of cars on the road for environmental reason, I think this is not the main cause of traffic jam in the Klang Valley. After driving for more than 10 years in Malaysia, I’ve noticed that traffic jams are often caused by irresponsible, inconsiderate and selfish drivers. These people do not deserve to have a car and should instead stay at home and have sex.

The next time you are stuck in a traffic jam, try to observe and figure out the real reasons. I think that one of the best ways to measure the mentality of a population is by the way they drive. It seems that the Klang Valley is filled with a lot of morons and idiots.

Ever notice how drivers ignore traffic regulations? At a traffic cross section, it is common to see cars stopping on yellow boxes. These drivers have no qualms blocking other cars from the other side of the road. Hence, a traffic jam.

Ever notice the number of cars illegally parked on yellow lines? They don’t care about the fact that their cars are reducing a two-lane road to one. Hence, a traffic jam. I have no bloody idea what our traffic policemen are doing? Having sex at home, I hope.

Ever notice a car which stubbornly stays on the left lane when it wants to turn to the right, blocking those cars that are heading to the left? Yeah hah, they are the culprits! Let’s not forget drivers who refuse to allow other cars to pass and then wonder why other drivers are doing the same to them.

What about the classic situation of stopping to look at accidents on the road? Hey, if you want to see crashed victims of road accidents, just turn on the TV! If you can’t help, don’t make it worse.

Malaysian drivers are also known for jumping queue and driving on emergency or prohibited lanes in order to cut through traffic. Little do they know that they are posing a potential danger to accidents, and hence causing more traffic jams.

The police should not only catch those speeding but also those who hold up traffic with their inability to go beyond the third gear and oh, the RIGHT LANE IS NOT FOR  YOU!  As for all of you dumbass motorcyclists, use the motorcyclist lane for crying out loud. Some of you are part of the reasons for slowing down the traffic.

Last but not least, those who don’t know how to drive or can’t drive due to poor vision and mental alertness as a result of age, should simply be banned from the road. It doesn’t matter if you have a working tool if you can’t work it.

If these drivers have no manners on the road, you can be assured that their bed manners ain’t going to be impressive either.

Out of the closet and into The Gardens

What stroke me most about yesterday’s Kuala Lumpur Fashion Week held at The Gardens, was the number of she-boys and tom boys in attendance. An irony after the recent fatwa (edict) on tom boys and lesbianism here.

I suppose many of them took this opportunity to express who they are by using fashion as an excuse, not that they ever needed one. I’ve seen many of them all over Kuala Lumpur, particularly in shopping malls, as most of them tend to work in the clothing line.

The only difference last night was how comfortable they looked. It was almost as if they owned the event. One of my friends grumbled that this was definitely the wrong place to look for a single man!

I think that we can continue to speak for or against effeminate men and “unfeminine women”, it will not make any difference at all. It’s all too late. I think young Malaysian urbanites have evolved and whatever anyone says will not stop them from being who they are.

Religious and cultural intolerance are only effective in terms of keeping them in the closets but not in their secret gardens. If we can’t see something, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

To me, religions that are practised here today do not seek to address issues, but rather hide them. There is a tendency for religious authorities to believe that the only solution to anything they considered unsavoury is to prohibit it, as if the problem will disappear once an edict is issued.

I can’t help but think that clothes are not the only items they keep in their closets.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Fabulously glamourous?

My friend and I have been invited to attend the Kuala Lumpur Fashion Week this Friday. The dress code is Fabulously Glamourous and we have no clue what the hell that means! It’s tough enough to be fabulous but we have to be glamourous too?

We are excited about it of course but at the same time, mull over what to wear since we literally have nothing in our wardrobe. Thanks to the years of living in countries where combat pants and vests are considered decent.

Sure, I read fashion magazines and enjoy watching fashionable people but unfortunately, I can’t pull off many things since I am neither thin, nor tall. The only items of clothing which I am anxious to show off are my knee length leather boots, leather jacket and a fedora hat and I don’t think anyone will agree that it is fashion when worn together unless Dolce and Gabbana  get Adriana Lima to parade them on the cat walk.

So when I thought I could just wear jeans, a Cookie Monster baby tee, heels that kill and my leather jacket (with other fabulous accessories to glamourise the outfit, I was told very firmly that jeans are not tolerated.

Then, I asked my friend whether my Massoud hat will do the trick, she said unless I want to look like a Mujaheed and get kicked out of Fashion Week, then fine.

So as I am thinking that Fashion Week is all about people expressing their individual styles, I am reminded that it only means what others, especially renowned designers think is fabulously glamourous. French Connection FuCK!

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Left: Photo taken at the Fashion Week with my fabulous gal-pals, “L” and “S”. Black just can’t seem to go wrong. (Photo courtesy of MasterCard Malaysia)

Right: Me trying to strike a glamourous pose. Believe me, this was the only one that didn’t come out all weird. “S” and I had a hoot taking photos before attending the event. (Photo taken by “S”)

Monday, November 24, 2008

I love weddings. Just not my own.

I have heard many times that every girl dreams and waits for their wedding day so that she could become the most beautiful bride and be queen for the day. I am never one of those girls.

Weddings in the 21st century is a multi-million dollar industry. Wedding couples splurge on invitations, flowers, attires, accessories, photos, videos, restaurant, hotel, etc. just to prove that this would ultimately be the biggest day of their lives. In some countries such as Malaysia, the practice of dowry is still very much present. On the other side, guests spend hundreds of dollars in gifts or money every year for weddings.

I think that wedding is definitely a cause worth celebrating. Not only because it is a tradition but also a celebration of the love and union of two people with those who know them. While I love weddings, I can’t help but think that it is so over-rated these days. I will tell you why.

I love it for the fact that it is also an occasion for family and friends to gather together to catch up on lost time, to reminisce about the past and also to welcome and look forward to the arrival of a new member in the family or circle of friends. The food is usually great, it is an opportunity to over-dress and last but not least, to witness some of the traditions practiced by individual culture.

However, what I don’t like about weddings is the simple fact that I have attended too many weddings where I hardly know the bride or the bridegroom. The invitation has been extended to me by virtue of bloodline no matter how distant it is, colleagues whom I hardly know or acquaintances. 

I also think that weddings have lost a lot of its charm, excitement and real meaning. In other words, it has become so commercialised especially for the new generation. I believe that in the past, one of the main reasons for wedding to be the biggest day of a couple’s life is for the fact that it is also the day when the couple will be united in body and spirit for the first time.

It is really the start of a life together as oppose to now when many couples have been living together, or at least, shared intimate relationships way before their wedding nights. It is all fine and I don’t hold anything against this but it just doesn’t have that same charm, significance and spirit as before, especially when it is being carried out in such a large scale. Hence, my opinion that it is so over rated.

Now, the final thing which I don’t like about weddings will probably offend many people who read this but I will not hold back because I think it is time to defend my parents, in regards to my own marriage.

My parents are not traditionalists. So when my brother and I decided to get married without having a wedding dinner and formal traditional ceremony, they gave their unequivocal blessings. I love and thank my parents for that. This is completely a personal choice since I tend to believe that it’s the marriage that counts and not the wedding. I bought a decent dress for my civil marriage ceremony a day before and forgot to remove the price tag until minutes before entering the registrar office. I have a photo to prove it (see below)!

Bride being tagged_compressed

Anyway, since then, my mother has been taking some unreasonable and might I add cruel heat from some of my relatives. Some of them have accused my parents for failing to execute their parental responsibilities of having a wedding dinner. On top of that, my mother was told that we have been attending and benefiting from other people’s wedding but were too stingy to have our own. My mother was stunned and as the lady that she is, remained silent and took it all in, only to be hurt deeply inside.

Now, for some of you who might share the same sentiments as these relatives of mine, let me just try to put it as short and straightforward as possible. For all those years that my parents have been invited to weddings, they have given money, most of the time handsome amount of money, to the couples. So, those wedding dinners were not free of charge. A lot of time have been spent on waiting for dinners which often start very late and not to mention money spent on buying a dress. So, please, if anything, my brother and I have spared many people from having to do this. They don’t  get anything out of us, just as we don’t get anything out of them.

I hope that people will keep in mind that, weddings cost money, not only to the couple but also the guests. Unless you are rich, many do actually see weddings as some form of a financial burden but they still attend out of obligations and social grace.

Wedding is a time for celebration and joy but let’s not take it out of that context. The next time you plan a large scale wedding, do put your guest list in mind, especially during this time of economic recession.

p/s: I do not have anything against weddings if anyone misunderstood what I wrote. I believe it is a personal choice.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

The One with Friends

I spend a lot of time away from home. Every time I move from one country to another, one of the hardest things to do is to make new friends. It’ s not easy for me to strike up new friendships and it becomes even harder the older I get and the more selective I have become. I no longer feel that I need to fit in or please everyone that I meet.

When I was younger, I would make the effort to join a society or hang out with new people so that I would belong to a group of people. It was so easy at that time and the criteria was low since we just wanted to have fun and do stupid things. Now, if there is no chemistry upon the first meeting, I don’t bother to stay in touch. It’s particularly hard when the other person wants to continue the “friendship” without the same mutual enthusiasm.

There is always this awkward moment when someone whom I am not too keen on asks me out again for a drink. Hence, I have found a solution where I don’t pretend to be engaging or interested when I meet someone for the first time. Call me unfriendly or rude, but it’s better to be straightforward from the start.

I would say that most of the friendships I have made during my time away from home have been short lived. However, there are some friends whom I have known for a long time and we still remain as friends until today. Whenever I am home, I make it a point to meet up with them and these are treasured moments.

Recently, I had an interesting conversation with one of my closest friends. The conversation begs the question of whether we are pretentious as friends, not with each other, but with some other mutual friends who are less close.

You see, we have been trying to stay in touch with one of our friends whom we know quite awhile back. For reasons unknown, this particular friend had stood us up several times to a point where we simply gave up. Like any other relationships, for a friendship to work, it needs to be reciprocal from all parties involved. With this friend, it has come to a point where we were the ones taking the initiatives to meet up.

After a long period of silence, my friend, bumped into her one day by accident. This “friend” had apparently behaved very chummy and told my friend how much she has missed our company, much to our scepticism and we have very good reasons for being sceptical due to her past patterns of behaviour. My friend confided in me that she felt how fake this “friend” had behaved. She inevitably asked herself, why did we become friends in the first place? Then, the question she asked me was, “Are we pretentious and fake too?

My initial reaction was, of course not! Don’t be silly. I don’t think we are fake. However, as we dissected the issue more thoroughly, as we usually do with all other issues of our lives, I discovered that, yes, we are pretentious and fake when it comes to casual friendships. We entertain, we engage, we are polite and above all, we are dishonest with people who are not close to us. A simple question such as, “Do you think this dress looks good on me?” is often answered with a “yes” even if she looks fat in it.

There are very few friends in my life whom I can be brutally honest with, but they are also the ones who remain as part of my life until today.

So what defines true friendship? It’s not only when they are there for you in times of need, but also when you can be honest with them because when you do, they don’t see it as a criticism but as your opinion and usually done in your best interest. It’s also when they don’t constantly seek for your approval because being different is OK.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Malaysia, Truly Ass Yeah!

Have you seen a monkey swinging in mid air from branch to branch? That’s how they come to name a job which is being passed on from one to another in everyone’s attempt to escape having to deal with the job.

When dealing with government departments here, it’s taking the whole proverbial monkey management style to a whole new level.

I recently had to follow up some land compensation issues for my Father with the Department of Land. Two years ago, our local town council decided to take over some  plots of industrial land to construct road work. They offered compensation to the affected landowners, which my Father is one of them and of course we could not do anything but accept it.

Two years have lapsed and yet the cheque is yet to be seen. For the past year, we have been  following up on the compensation vigorously by making trips to the local land office every now and then.  Every time we are at the office, the same thing happens again and again. We wait for hours for someone to attend to us, only to be asked to come back again later because they can’t find the files, etc. etc.

Then I will get fed up and decide to call them instead. Guess what? A call will be followed by another and another, all in vain. To add salt to injury, come Chinese New Year, one of the senior officers, not so subtlely, asked my Father  to give the office some money in the spirit of the festive season. What a shocker, eh?

So anyway, last week, I paid them another visit. Only this time, I was told that I should deal with the Department of Public Works myself if I want to see the cheque soon.You see, since it’s a road construction project, the Department of Public Works is responsible for the payment of compensation but of course, it’s the Department of Land’s job to liaise and work it out with them.

I put my feet down  because I am not willing to get involved in this monkey business. When I told the senior officer that I would prefer her to follow up with the Department of Public Works, her patronizing smile turned sulky immediately.

I, however, took the initiative to call up the Department of Public Works just to see what’s the deal there and surprise, surprise! They need some time to find the file. Come on! Are we dealing with a bunch of imbeciles or what? They take our lands and they refuse to pay.

In the end, my Father concluded that we will never get to see the cheque this year because they will deliberately wait until Chinese New Year to get that annual “token” before moving their asses, if we are lucky.

Does anyone know where we can lodge a complaint on this without being victimised?

Yes, welcome to Malaysia, truly ass yeah!

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Are you an egg, a carrot or coffee?

Awhile ago, I received one of those forwarded emails with inspirational messages on the wisdom of life. It was an analogy of an egg, a carrot and a tablespoon of coffee, how each of them changed when put in a pot of boiling water for a period of time.

The egg became hard, the carrot soft and the coffee burst into an aromatic flavour. The message teaches you about how each and everyone of us become when put under the pressure and heat of life. depending on your personality or character. I would like to think of myself as the coffee, rising up to the occasion and bringing pleasure to others when confronted with adversity. Unfortunately, I am not. I’ve come to realise that I am an egg.

When I first met my husband, I remember how  quickly we entered into an intense conversation about who we are. My parting words to him was, “I am no longer a nice person. I’m a bitch.” After years of failed and disappointing relationships, I’ve decided that I will no longer remain as the doting doormat that gets trampled on.

More recently, I have been told that Somaly Mann, the founder of Afesip, a Cambodian NGO working on the protection and rehabilitation of victims of forced prostitution, has expressed her frustration towards some of the rescued women who have apparently fall in love and got married to men who are unemployed and depend on them for their livelihood. She has apparently advised the girls not to jump out of a frying pan and straight into a fire.

When I first heard this, I couldn’t help but posed the question, “why?"  I am simply amazed by some of these women’s ability to love and trust after what they had been subjected to. If I had been forced into prostitution, not only will I lose faith in humankind, I don’t think I will ever have the ability to love, much less serving another man who can’t even take care of me.

One of my Cambodian colleagues explained that Cambodian women take pride in serving and taking care of their family. It is seen as the ultimate responsibility and sacrifice. He added that this is one of the virtues which make Cambodian women the preferred life partners for many foreigners.

I just thought to myself, are these women  the epitome of what defines a woman? If yes, don’t they deserve a real man? I don’t judge them but in fact admire them for their ability to love unconditionally.

I’ve met very few people in my life who manage to preserve that innocence and unwavering faith in the good of mankind despite what they have gone through. I have a friend who endured an abusive marriage and yet was able to find love again. She often questions my cynicism towards people and it’s frustrating for me to see her positivism.

For what it’s worth, I believe that everyone deserves a second chance at happiness and it is up to you to find it or not. And if you don’t, perhaps the question to ask is, what are you worth?

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

I’m so vain!

I hate having my photos taken. I hate going to the hairdresser. I have my eyebrows shaped every 3 months if I have a chance. I do my nails only when I am home and even then, I leave my nail polish on until my nails turn yellow. I am definitely not a girlie girl type and by no means a lady.

Every time I am home, my mother nags me to have a haircut. It’s not that I don’t care about how I look, I just hate spending hours at the hair salon where the loquacious mother-of-all local CNN  hair dresser seeks you out for a conversation. If not the endless chats, it’s their way of convincing you that your hair is unhealthy and in desperate need of hair treatment. Yeah, yeah, what bollocks! Just leave me alone and do what you’re paid for.

I recently found a way to keep their mouths shut. Just get a really thick book and pretend to read or in my case, no pretension is needed since I rather read a book than have mindless chats. Yes, I am anti-social that way but sharing private information with a stranger is not my cup of tea. That’s why I never stick to one hair salon so that I don’t have to exchange polite greetings.

And then, there are the occasional facial treatments that I go to. I actually enjoy this. For some strange reasons, it feels comforting and soothing to have someone caress and slap your face about. I usually fall asleep but occasionally woken up by my own snoring. Embarrassing, huh? but my skin is too thick to bother now. If it’s not the snoring, it’s the facialist who doesn’t seem to understand the idea that just because other women enjoy having deep conversations on skin care, etc. everybody does as well. If I don’t appear to be talkative, it doesn’t mean I allow you to!

So, yeah. I guess I am not the friendliest customer but at least I don’t complain much as well.

Anyway, since I hardly have my own pictures taken, I decided to do some self-portraits. As you can see, I cannot take myself seriously, even when I am alone.

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        My Home Alone look                         I am so pretty!

IMG_1919_com IMG_1935_com Trying to be cute here in my 100% natural 0% silicon t-shirt.   How you doin?

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               Evil….            Yeah, have a good look while you can.

 

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Twisted minds

I have just returned home recently for a short visit. As usual, I make my regular trips to Klang to visit my family. One thing which I look forward to is to see my 1 year and 10 month old niece. She is a cheeky little thing but a bundle of joy.

Since she was 6 months old, she has developed a flare for impersonating every single thing we do; from my Dad snoring to her pregnant Mum puking into the toilet bowl. Not only does she know how to imitate but she also understands the concept of comedy because she enjoys watching us laughing in stitches with her antics.

The latest thing she learned shocked me. When I ask her to kiss her mother, she will tilt her head slightly to position her tiny little nose, put her hand on her Mum’s cheek and kisses her right on the lips. Not yet 2 and she already kisses like a pro. Apparently she has learned this from the television.

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The thing is, it’s all innocent but yet there is something disturbing about it. We have been brought up to see children as children, not as sexual objects. But now, with the influence of media, technology and fashion, children are becoming adults too soon, too quickly.

It doesn’t help either when more and more people are taking a liking towards children in a sexual way. Sometimes, when my husband and I see cute children around, we can’t help but pay attention and fuss over them. Then we are rudely awaken by the uncomfortable feeling that we might be perceived as paedophiles.

When did innocent hugging and touching of children become so wrong? Look at the picture below which I took recently in Cambodia. This father was fooling around with his son and yet what would usually be a beautiful picture, became distorted by the countless of stories I have heard about boys being sexually exploited.

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I am not a mother yet but when I become one, I think I will be obsessively worried about him or her growing up too quickly. By then, how do I tell him or her that childhood and innocence do not last forever and while they do, they should get the best out of it?

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Bonn Om Touk – a festival for all

Speactators_2_com Spectators_com

In case you are wondering why I have been so quiet these last couple of days, I was caught up in the festive mood of the Bonn Om Touk or Boat Race Festival in Phnom Penh.

The Bonn Om Touk is celebrated every year in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap (in a smaller scale) to mark the end of the rainy season and reversal of the water from the Tonle Sap Lake to the Mekong and Tonle Bassac rivers. It is probably one of the biggest events in Cambodia, attended by millions of Cambodians and foreigners for 3 whole day. Due to this annual “pilgrimage” of people to Phnom Penh, many city dwellers take the opportunity to leave the city to escape the noisy crowd of people.

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This year, about 4 million people from various parts of the countryside came to the city, many of those have never set foot in Phnom Penh before. There were more than 500 boats, beautifully hand painted, participated in the race. Some of the boats could fit more than 50 rowers, all dressed in bright coloured t-shirts and shorts, a pale version from the traditional costumes previously worn. Nevertheless, the colours were eye-catching from a distance. Many of these long wooden boats have travelled far from the villages from all over Cambodia and those chosen to row were needless to say, proud and excited.

Bored Dried cuttle fish_compressed

Cockles seller Father and son_compressed

A friend of mine came to visit me during this time and for three days, we were caught in the massive crowd of people all over the city. Road blocks were everywhere which forced us to walk for miles to get from one point to another. I didn’t really mind as it is usually the best way to take photographs of the whole camaraderie, often seen on the streets. My poor friend though had to drag her luggage all the way to the hotel. A month before, I had booked a hotel which overlooked the Tonle Bassac river in order to catch a good glimpse of the boat race as well as the firework display and illuminated floats at night.

Embryo in the egg_compressed Clapping hands_compressed

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This is probably the best time for tourists to visit Phnom Penh due to the countless number of street vendors all over the city. One can sample different kinds of street food (if you have a strong stomach and adventurous enough to try all sorts of strange nibbles) as well as buy all sorts of local knick knacks. Men, women and children took the opportunity to sell food and handmade souvenirs. We managed to try the omnipresent boiled duck eggs with the foetus intact. To be honest, it wasn’t our cup of tea. The sight of feathers attached to a foetus which has not even developed wings was too much to bear, even for those who possess eclectic taste buds.

One of the highlights of the event was when we took a tuk-tuk ride to the Chruoy Changvar (across) side of the river. That was where we found the real action, away from all the tourists. We witnessed how the rowers prepared their pre-race celebration; singing, dancing and feasting on simple local food together. We finally got into the spirit of the whole thing when we were invited to partake in the celebration. My friend enjoyed dancing with them, much to their delight.

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I of course, ended up taking more than 1,000 snap shots of people doing different things. One thing I have noticed is that it is a celebration for everyone. It doesn’t matter where you come from, whether you are rich or poor, or if you are able-bodied or not, everyone seemed to be having a good time with very limited means. Many of these people from the villages were happy to put up their hammocks which they slept on for the 3-day celebration.

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There was a feeling of communal spirit where women and children prepared tonnes of food for the rowers. It was fascinating to see these people with huge smiles and grins on their faces despite having to put up with poor conditions as opposed to our comfortable hotel suite with balcony view of the river.

As soon as it became dark, without any warning, we were rudely startled by the first burst of fireworks into the dark sky with the full moon on the background. The fireworks also marked the start of the light floats or pratip, sponsored by different government ministries.

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After three full days of dodging and avoiding masses of people, I was in a way glad to return home. It was fun while it lasted and I will not hesitate to attend the event again next year.

For those who are interested to catch this event, do book your hotel reservations way in advance to be guaranteed a room at the river front hotels. It is an event not to be missed.

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Giving a hand_compressed Hat seller_3_compressed

Monday, November 10, 2008

Emails from Bamyan, Afghanistan (Part finale) - finally!

Raffaele and I talked on the phone every day because of reporting and sometimes I sounded low on the phone and he would try to calm me down. He would then always tell me how many more days before I would return to Panjao. It did get very frustrating sometimes especially when my Thuraya ran out of credit and I was not able to call anyone. I had to wait for Raffaele to call me every evening.

So, most of the days, I would not have anyone to talk to because most of the Afghan staffs do not speak English. Aliase and I were getting on each other’s nerves and I was trying very hard to sustain the working relationship. I could see that Aliase was getting very agitated and unmotivated with the whole thing; being dumped in Lal on our own without office space, etc. I tried to keep ourselves positive and busy. Whenever Raffaele called, I tried to sound cheerful and uplifted just so that he wouldn’t have to worry about us in Lal.

But one evening, I just broke down and it was the day when I gave up on the recruitment process. Then immediately I felt guilty for doing that and reassured him that I would be different the next day and I was just feeling very vulnerable that day. I think for those days that I was in Lal, I began to realize how strong and independent I could be and how one can actually condition oneself to adapt to the situation and condition. I also began to discover how important it was to have someone like Raffaele to comfort and counsel me every single day and reassuring me that I was not alone on this.

Anyway, 2 days before I was supposed to return to Lal, Raffaele sent his Language Assistant, Jaffar, to Lal to confirm the registration sites with the District Governor. I was really happy to see Jaffar. Jaffar is 23 years old and was a refugee in Pakistan for a long time. He speaks very good English and is more liberal than most Afghans.

He and Raffaele work very well together and I think among all the PFCs and their Language Assistants, Raffaele and Jaffar have the best of relationship between them. That is also because Jaffar has loyalty and respect towards Raffaele. He sees Raffaele as his role model rather than his superior. Jaffar is also very competent and works more than a Language Assistant. His computing skill is excellent and he could create maps on software, etc. So, Raffaele depends a lot on him to carry out a lot of the technical work. Hence, it is no surprise for Jaffar to be sent on his own to speak with the District Governor, etc.

The moment I saw Jaffar, I said, “Get me out of here!” I needed to get out from Lal center, just to breathe. I was by then building a rapport with Khial Gol, the new driver who had been fetching me every morning from IAM to the field. Khial Gol surprisingly possesses a wide English vocabulary although he can’t really form English sentences. Every time he drives me to the field, he would point at things like river and then said it in Dari. He was turning into my Dari teacher and then I found out that he used to be a teacher.

For those 5 days that I had been isolated from my friends, I compensated by talking to Jaffar non-stop. I poured out my woes and my frustrations. Then Raffaele called to check whether Jaffar had arrived in Lal. He asked Jaffar on the phone how I was, etc. and Jaffar told him that I was bored and stressed. Then I discovered that Raffaele had given Jaffar a bottle of vodka to be shared with me!

Having Jaffar made a whole lot of difference. I was slowly adapting myself to Lal and by the last night, I remember talking on the phone with Raffaele as to whether he wanted me to go back to Panjao or stay on in Lal to monitor the training. Qurghani and I were supposed to return to Panjao the next day according to our schedule. While Aliase and the rest of the trainers were supposed to stay on in Lal to start training on the new staffs.

Raffaele asked me whether I wanted to stay on in Lal and I told him that I would prefer to go back to Panjao but if I had to stay in Lal, I would. He told me he had a feeling that I was beginning to enjoy Lal and didn’t want to come back to Panjao. I was like, “Are you kidding me? Stay on here with no one to talk to and go to bed at 8pm every night?”

I was dying to go back to Panjao especially when I knew we would be expecting some company; Collin and Shawn were to stop by in Panjao for one night before going to Uruzghan. It would be like a small former Bamyan team get-together and I wasn’t going to miss out. But I know that if I had to stay in Lal, I would for the interest of the team and then held it against Raffaele later! But thank God, Raffaele asked me to come back.

So, I was very excited to leave Lal the next morning with Khial Gol and Farid. The journey for the first time went as smooth as a banana. I arrived in Panjao just on time for lunch and of course talked myself silly. Those 7 days felt like forever and I was of course warmly greeted by Panjao team and felt a sense of accomplishment; being the first and only UN international electoral female staff in Central Highlands brazing a new district in another Province on her own and survived it!

When Collin came, he called me the toughest chick on the block and accused Raffaele of being crazy and irresponsible for sending me off alone. But I was happy and proud of that. It has been a man’s world here. For months now, I have been the only foreign woman working in the Central Highlands electoral team. If the PFCs can survive it, I can too. And for the first time, the PFCs could not accuse me of not knowing how it is like to be in the Province.

Life oh life….. you just never know what is going to happen next. As for me, I know I am just about done with Afghanistan. I think I would be leaving here after July.

I left Panjao in August and returned to Afghanistan two months later as a Human Rights Officer for UNAMA, based in Kabul. I stayed on for another 13 months before finally leaving Afghanistan for good.

This final part of my email series came at a good time because just today, I received news from Raffaele that he has just became a proud  father to baby girl, Zaira. I extend my sincere happiness for him as he embarks in this new chapter of his life.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

I am going to eat you!!

So, I got sick recently. When I am sick, there is nothing I like best than a bowl of steaming hot soup. Of course, gone are the days when Mummy's around to spoil the hell out of me and forget about asking my French husband to make Chinese soup. The French can never quite grasp the idea of drinking clear soup, what more attempting to cook something they don't believe in.

So, the only solution was for me to crawl out of bed to a nearby restaurant which serves fantastic tom yam soup. When I got there, I asked them for a small portion of soup for one. They told me that they only serve one size which can easily feed four. The thought of wasting all those yummy soup was too much to bear and so I asked them what sort of soup do they have for one.

The waiter told me that they have beef soup. I thought, ok why not? The Cambodians are quite famous for their beef soup and it's about time I tried something new.

After a few minutes, the soup arrived and it was steaming hot! Mmmmmm......I started digging in and while stirring the soup, I found every conceivable parts of a cow in the soup; tribes, tongues, hooves, blood, etc. That was enough to make me even more sick. For the longest time now, I could not make myself eat tribes, especially if you know how long it took me to start eating beef as part of my diet.

Nevertheless, I started drinking and surprisingly, the soup tasted good although I avoided the bits and pieces of meat that floated in the soup. Now, National Geographic channel was playing in front of me and at the same time, they were showing a calf being borne.

As I stared into the TV screen, watching the calf, covered in slimy amniotic fluid, hanging from its mother's rear and then dropped to the floor, I thought, that's it, I have lost my appetite.

Soup or not soup, it just felt weird having a cow in my soup.

"Breasts is Best for Babies"

I read this slogan on an advertisement by the Cambodian Ministry of Health, UNICEF and World Health Organization. This campaign to promote breastfeeding came at a time when China is facing a huge scandal on tainted milk product. 53,000 infants are sick and four have died from drinking milk powder tainted with melamine, a chemical used to make the level of protein higher than it really is.

China has tried to hush up this scandal and those parents who are seeking compensation by filing lawsuits against Sanlu, the milk company responsible for this, have been ignored.

What is more bizarre is how parents are now fighting to get their babies breast fed by other women. It seems that some women have agreed to breast feed other babies for a handsome sum of money. Many have raised the ethical issues behind this; whether it is morally right to sell breast milk in light of this tragedy.

To be honest, I don't really see what's wrong with this. If you have a "product" to sell and someone is willing to pay you for that, it's called business unless it is illegal substance such as drugs, weapons, etc.  Many would probably  condemn the fact that breast milk should not be  regarded as a profit-making business. My only reproach towards this is when mothers have abandoned their own babies in order to feed others for money, which apparently some mothers are doing in China.  In order for them to reserve sufficient milk for other rich parents' babies, they have substituted their own babies' diet with rice water.

The other disconcerting thing I find with all this is why many women refuse to breast feed? There are so many benefits to breastfeeding, not only for the baby but also the mother; decreases the risk of breast cancer, reduces fertility, helps mothers to return to their pre-pregnancy weight and it saves money.

With all the marketing strategies by milk powder companies, many women have been fooled into thinking that milk powder is superior to breast milk. Well, it is no wonder because breast milk does not come in packaging that says rich in calcium, amino acid, etc. to help develop babies' brains so on and so forth. However, it does come in a more attractive, warm and feminine package, don't you think?

Friday, November 7, 2008

A huge step for USA but what about us?

I can't resist putting up this short post after reading Tun Mahathir Mohammad's blog Che Det, congratulating Barack Obama's success in the presidential elections.

Tun called  it a victory for American politics which has been dominated by white men for centuries. Obama is borne as an American but evidently not of what we would call a pure American race; having a Kenyan father. And yet, he became the first black American president a few days ago.

What about us? Will we ever have a non-Malay as Prime Minister? I can't help but think that the congratulatory post made by our former Prime Minister, who was also one of the top guys who have continuously defended and propagated the Malay supremacy, hypocritical.

I wonder what the rest of the UMNO fellahs think about Obama's victory?

Emails from Bamyan, Afghanistan (Part XVII)

It was late, cold and again we had no dinner. I didn’t know where to sleep. The guys could just check into the local hotel/guesthouse but as a woman, I am not allowed to sleep in the hotel.

A hotel in Central Highlands means a big hall with 30 or more men sleeping on the same floor. Contagious diseases have been known to spread amongst the lodgers due to unhygienic and unsanitary condition at the guesthouse particularly when you have so many people who have travelled from far distances without so much as a shower sleeping closely together.

Bugs on the carpet are known to feast on the lodgers’ blood which then causes skin diseases. Shawn, the UNOPS Logistics Officer, had experienced chronic skin rashes for one week after sleeping on the floor at one of the local guesthouses. Apparently bugs had laid eggs under his epidermis and the eggs had possibly hatched through his skin follicles, creating extreme itchiness and inflammation on his skin. Ouch! Sounds painful.

I thought my last resort was to ask IAM whether I could stay with them. Raffaele had told me that my last option should be IAM because the last time he went to Lal, they were unfriendly and did not take in guests. At this stage, I hardly had any other choices and the thought of sleeping in the car, shivering all night, hungry and holding my bladder was just too insufferable.

So, we went to IAM and knocked on their door. Aliase said something in Dari. The voice that answered was a female’s voice and she spoke Dari. She then spoke in English, “Go away! I don’t know who you are and what you want. Just leave us alone!” As soon as I realized that it was a foreign woman’s voice, I started introducing myself.

She then opened the door just wide enough to take a peek at me. The lady before me looked African Caribbean, wore glasses and had a veil covering her head. I told her that I had nowhere to stay that night and I needed a place to sleep. What came out from my mouth was completely new. I had never in my entire life asked a stranger to give me shelter for the night. It was almost like begging and I had no choice. To be honest, it hurt my pride a little bit but it is all part of surviving in this God forsaken place. If you don’t learn to swallow your pride, you’ll just end up alone and miserable.

The lady asked grudgingly, “Is it just you or the rest of the guys as well ‘cause we don’t take in men.” She didn’t sound friendly at all. I told her that it was just me and the men were staying at the hotel at the bazaar.

She immediately responded, “Well, we don’t take in people and this is not a guesthouse but I suppose you can stay for tonight.” I was relieved and then made a last call to Raffaele informing him of my situation. I had not called him since the Oxfam incident and had taken off by myself without letting him know what the conclusion with Oxfam was. When he answered the phone, I was so close to screaming down the phone at him and cursing him for sending me off somewhere without a place to sleep. But instead, my voice was shaky and very much close to tears.

I was angry alright but it was also because of the exhaustion, cold and also the humiliation of being rejected by Oxfam and having to beg for a place to sleep. I could have cried on the phone but I managed to tell myself that I had to be strong for my own pride. I don’t want Raffaele having any excuse to tell anyone, “See, a woman! We can never send a woman off on a mission. All they do is cry.” I also did not want Raffaele to feel bad or guilty about sending me off on my own. I’m a team member and I want him to know that he can count on me to do as good a job as any other men. Here, as a woman, you need to constantly prove yourself lest you succumb to their stereotype.

So instead, I told him as calmly as I could that I was staying over at IAM and everything was fine. Good night! He said he was going to call Bamyan to report on Oxfam’s hostility. Apparently, most of the NGOs have agreed to assist and support UNAMA Electoral team in the field and what Oxfam did was against the agreement. But heck it, I am never going back there again.

What was meant to be only one night in IAM turned out to be 7 nights! I got to know the residents there; Martha, Erin and Rita. The lady who answered the door the other night was Erin, an American girl from Michigan. Erin and Rita are doctors. Rita is from Norway and Martha is a nurse from Germany. They are devout Christians funded by Scandinavian countries to provide medical care for the people of Afghanistan.

In fact, those 7 nights were very chastised nights. These women could very well be missionaries or nuns. They say grace before every meal, sing praises and have Sunday service in the house. Everything is organized and works on clockwise. Breakfast at 7:15am every morning, lunch at 12pm and dinner at 6pm. Bedtime is at 8pm. The doctors are on call 24 hours and often have to rush to the nearby clinic to deliver newborn babies. Oh not forgetting, shower on every Thursday evening only. Yep, shower only once a week. I do not know whether this policy has anything to do with the scarcity of water or the burden of heating up the bukhari for hot water or the cold weather because neither is Lal a desert, nor is it that cold at that time of the year. I had seen many rivers and it is getting warmer now.

When I related the stories of my adventure in Lal to the Panjao team, it has now become a standing joke about the nuns taking shower every Thursday only.

Martha must be at least 70 years old. She has been in Afghanistan since 1960s under the order of King Zahir Shah. She speaks fluent Pashto and Dari. She cooks all the time and was like a grandmother to me. In fact, they all treated me well after getting to know more about what I do, etc.

I was well-fed in Lal because they always have proper meals unlike when I am in Panjao. Meals in Panjao consist of pasta, potatoes, beans, rice and bread…and may I add… every day. No fruits at all. There is absolutely nothing else in Panjao for us to eat. But with IAM, I got the occasional kebabs, fish (from cans), local homemade yogurt (“moss” in Dari), salads and even cheesecakes baked by Martha. She would churn her own cheese from the fresh and homemade yogurt. The yogurt in Afghanistan is absolutely fantastic and possibly one of the best dairy products I have tasted. It makes a great dessert with a little bit of honey and cinnamon sugar.

We had a lot of conversation during dinner and I must say that I enjoyed the company and by the end of my stay, I was sad to go.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Arrival of Obama

So, history is in the making again and this time it's something worth celebrating.

It has only been 1 day since Barack Obama became the first African American President of the United States of America and I feel as if I have missed all the ceremonious events all over the world  since he won the election. The city of Phnom Penh was celebrating his victory last night.

I was following the presidential campaign with much vigour but somehow missed all the hoohahs towards the final countdown leading to the election result. I haven't even managed to see Obama giving his victory speech or McCain conceding his defeat.

Obama 014_compressed

You see, I have been pre-occupied with so many things lately, including welcoming the arrival of my very own Obama, a black kitten. She was found trapped underneath the floor board of a house which belongs to an expat who then put up a notice for her adoption. I immediately took her in. We named her Obama which turns out to be perfect. Not only is she black, she's cute and vocal.

Anyway, congratulations to Barack Obama and here's hoping that he will keep to his words of more dialogue and less aggression when it comes to foreign policies.

 Obama 003_compressed

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Hopes for victims of sexual trafficking in Cambodia

When you first look at these women, or rather girls, you won't be able to find any tell tale sign that they have been sold, trafficked and forced into sexual slavery by either their families or traffickers. The only signs are the fact that they have been sheltered under the roof of a centre called Tom Dy in Phnom Penh, or being referred to as sex workers by the community.

Tom Dy Centre, founded by Somaly Mann, a Cambodian woman who was once a victim of forced prostitution (refer to my article Who says it is OK to have sex with children), provides more than just a shelter for rescued trafficked girls. It implements a comprehensive care programme where it protects and rehabilitates victims of forced prostitution with the aim of reintegrating them back into society with an opportunity for self-independence.  Apart from that, it also advocates against human trafficking by working with governments, partner NGOs and communities to prevent such violations against human rights and dignity.

Today, I had a chance to visit the centre as part of my volunteering work with the Foundation for International Development/Relief (FIDR). Situated about 30 minutes on the outskirt of Phnom Penh, the centre looks like a quiet and peaceful retreat from the chaotic and noisy city. Upon entering, I was greeted by a lusciously landscaped garden, carefully tended by a gardener who is  obviously very good with his scissors. He was busy shaping a tall bush into a reindeer.

Reindeer_compressed

We were ushered into a hall where interviews with the in house trainers and doctor by the Director of FIDR were to take place. While waiting for the trainers to arrive, I looked at the wall with displays of photos highlighting the training programmes (sewing and hairdressing) conducted at the centre. Then, I saw about ten pictures of girls with small captions underneath. All the captions say, "Deceased in 2001, 2002, etc." These women have all died of HIV/AIDS.

I couldn't help but stared at their young faces. Some were really pretty but mostly they looked sad and empty , as if something had been taken away from them, which was not far from the truth. Their dignity, youth, hope, dreams and life were stolen from them by those whom they had trusted.

I was given a tour around the centre and it was evident that the founder has put in a lot of thoughts and efforts to make the girls feel as far away as possible from their traumatic past. Everything looks as clean, neat and organized as the landscaped garden. It was also evident that Somaly Mann is a respected figure who has become a symbol of trafficked women's hope not just in Cambodia but all over the world. She had pictures taken with Hilary Clinton, the Queen of Spain and received funding from famous personalities such as Queen Latifah and Barbara Walters.

It was comforting to see the girls attending literacy, sewing, hairdressing and make up lessons. Apart from these, they also receive medical treatment, psychological counselling, art therapy and other recreational activities such as beading and aerobics.

About less than 100 meters away from the centre, there is an actual hair salon manned by some of the girls who provide services to the residents in the area. There was a trainer who was previously a resident of the centre giving guidance to some of the novices. She is one of the success stories of victims who have benefited from Tom Dy Centre's care.

I felt very frustrated not being able to talk to the girls; mainly due to language barrier. Besides that, we have been advised not to ask questions relating to their background for fear of invoking bad memories. When taking photos, we must take care not to take direct and close up pictures of the girls. Medical information such as HIV/AIDS are kept strictly confidential to prevent further stigmatization, even from NGOs such as FIDR. Such are the level of protection and care attached to Tom Dy Centre.

Most of the girls I saw were able to maintain a cheerful disposition but there was one particular girl who carries the scars of her violated dignity on her face. She is only 22 but I could see the lines around her tired and lifeless eyes. She is a mother of two children who are also being cared by the centre. Judging from the age of the children, she must had them when she was 16. In a way, I was glad that I could not hear their stories from them because I am not sure how I would be able to contain my anger towards the people who had subjected her to such cruel and inhumane treatment.

On our way back, I had a small chat with the Director of FIDR about our visit. I asked her whether the residents around the area feel any animosity or prejudice towards the girls? Some apparently do, but she suspects that it is mainly due to jealousy. Earlier today, when we stopped  to ask a woman for the direction to the centre, instead of referring the centre with its name, she had answered, "Oh, you mean the place with all the sex workers?"

Unfortunately such stigma will be attached to these girls for a long time. What would further reduce their popularity is how these girls are being given quality treatment and support; free medical treatment, meals, training, comfortable accommodation and subsequently small sum of money to help them start small businesses, all these are much more than most other women have. So, it's no wonder that many tend to feel jealous.

Understanding such human nature, the centre takes caution not to keep a girl for too long for fear that they might get too complacent and comfortable which will then deter them from being self-independent. After all, this is precisely what these girls need in order to prevent them from falling victims to further trafficking.

 

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Voulez-vous coucher avec moi, ce soir?

Various studies have been conducted by research centres all over the world on couple relationship behaviour; notably infidelity.

The act of infidelity is not a modern phenomenon. It has probably started since the existence of mankind. The only difference is that it is less tolerated now as modern societies began to create the concept of marriage as an institution, the religious impositions of the sanctity of marriage, new moral codes regulating the exclusivity of coupleship, the romantic idealism of fidelity and not least the feminist movement.

The whole concept of one man for one woman, as romantic as it sounds, does it really work for or against the core of human nature?

Now, I was brought up in a society and community which regard fidelity as an obligation. I believe that my parents have been completely faithful with each other although I've known some of my relatives who have been cheating on their wives. Yes, only the men cheat, never the women. While we try to close an eye on this, it is nevertheless a scandal  where endless gossips, conversations and debates  are held behind closed doors. 

The debates are usually divided into two groups; as most debates usually are but the interesting thing is, there is absolutely no gender balance in any of the group. You always get the women thrashing the adulterer while the men are quick to come to his defence.

One of my cousins had a huge fight with her husband when they decided to debate on Clinton's fidelity. There is nothing better than a healthy discussion on global "affairs", I'll say!

Recent studies carried out by several reputable behavioural science research centres in America have shown two surprising changes in the American society today, in regards to infidelity. Firstly, the female infidelity rate has increased which means that women are equally unfaithful to their spouses, and secondly more and more young couples are engaging in adulterous relationships.

They claimed that modern women now have more opportunity to commit infidelity as they become more emancipated; they get to know more people at the workplace, staying late at work and travelling more on business. Previously, when most women were still housewives, they stayed at home all day and hence were less exposed to the possibilities of infidelity. (Have they not heard about how the milk men and post men do more than just delivery services?)

They also claimed that in this modern era, the internet and mobile phone have contributed to the increase rate of infidelity. Even housewives can now indulge in  flirtations via the internet and instant text messaging. As for younger couples committing adultery, the internet is the main culprit.

This I can agree to an extent because with so many online dating services, adult friend finders, etc. it's so easy for men and women to hook up with someone in total discretion. Let's face it, even if you have every intention to stay faithful to your spouse, many profit-making agencies are trying very hard to make you fail. You can hire escort services with just a click of a button by entering your credit card details, preferences and hey presto!

Look at all the seemingly innocent online social network websites; Facebook, MySpace, etc. Applications like "Are you interested in me?" "Would you like to sleep with me?" are not as innocent as it seems.

Bottom line is, whatever these studies aim to achieve, I think the bigger question to ask is why are  people committing infidelity? I don't think any of this rate can ever be considered accurate because many people will never own up to being an adulterer. So, they can just stop wasting their time and money on researches.

Society has taught us that infidelity is a taboo and it is wrong, but it has never quite prepared us as human beings to deal with such concepts which are created by presumably religious or sexually inactive people. When he or she decided that marriage should be a sacred institution and it is morally sinful to cheat, many of us have  followed without ever studying the nature and readiness of humankind. Otherwise, why so many have faltered under the most insignificant temptation?

Then, there are bigger questions like is it possible for a person to love more than two people at a time, or is it possible for a person to fall in and out of love?

A one night stand to a certain extent is arguably acceptable but what happens when a fling becomes a thing? An affair is no longer harmless because it breaks up a family which can potentially lead to far reaching consequences, especially when children are involved.

Various people commit adultery for various reasons. While to many, it is simply unacceptable, it doesn't really address the issue. Instead, couples need to look at themselves and evaluate what has gone wrong in their relationship to cause either one of them, or both, to be unfaithful.

Has the husband stopped noticing his wife because he is too busy with work? Has the wife stopped being sexually desirable because she becomes a full time mother? Have the children became the center of their lives as a couple?

Or an option would be to study yourself by asking whether you are the faithful type or not. Be honest and own up to it.

Unless these problems are being addressed, be rest assured that infidelity will continue for as long as mankind shall exist.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

UNfair and UNbelievable

I probably shouldn't have wrote this or I should know better but what the heck, it never shut my mouth before.

Recently, I wrote to a former colleague  who is now working for the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operation (DPKO) in New York.  Since I left Afghanistan, I have applied to an endless list of UN field positions. It has been three years and still nothing. It's not such a shocker because the UN takes forever to recruit people, and even then, it can't get it right.

Being me, I am very reluctant to lobby for myself or suck up to people so that I am well connected. That's why I have been waiting for 3 years. But this time, I thought, why not? Let's send this girl an email to see what kind of advice she could give me. (Actually, to be honest, I sort of pounce on her on Facebook chat in my moments of desperation.)

She was kind enough to entertain me and provided me with some tips on the recruitment process. I made it clear to her that I don't want her to get me a job, I just need her to point me to the right or let's say shortest direction.

Then, she listed down some of the criteria for an application to be cleared, shortlisted and then approved.  Some of them I knew before, typically one whereby if someone wants a specific person for a job, he or she will request DPKO to clear that person. So, yes, connections play a huge part in the UN recruitment system. Fair enough if the applicant is favoured for his/her performance but I have known many who are favoured for their ass-licking skills.

Then, there is another criteria which surprised me and unfortunately applies to me. She said that if I haven't served enough time with the UN, my application is deemed weak. Of course, this is an unpleasant revelation to me since I had only officially worked for DPKO for 4 months in Afghanistan. They have failed to take into account the other 25 months which I had served as a UN Volunteer (UNV) in Timor Leste and part of Afghanistan.

When I was first recruited as a UN Human Rights Officer in Afghanistan, which is a DPKO P-2 position, I was forced to remain under a UNV contract due to the agreement signed by UNV and DPKO which makes it compulsory for a UNV to serve at least 18 months in the same mission before being "promoted" to a P-2 position.  I did my time and when I finally received a P-2 contract, I had to leave the mission for health reasons as well as receiving death threats.

Since I treasure my life over a contract with substantial salary, I made the choice to leave but of course I think I am paying for it now.

I know life is unfair but it is even more unfair when it comes with a capital U and N.

Emails from Bamyan, Afghanistan (Part XVI)

Ever since I came to Panjao, it seems like I am starting a new chapter in my life. I’m experiencing things which I have not before. I guess it’s all about character building, which has all of a sudden become the decree of my life.

After less than one week in Panjao, I was sent to Lal to recruit new national staffs. Aaahhh….my favourite task! Raffaele, as the PFC, had to stay in Panjao to monitor the registration process. We were the only 2 permanent international electoral staffs in Panjao.

I was not happy when I was told that I had to go on my own with a few other national staffs. It wasn’t because I was scared or anything but it can get very lonely and miserable on my own. But at the same time, I do enjoy road missions and I guess, it was a new challenge for me as well.

This time, I was given a Thuraya and told that I would be staying with Oxfam in Lal. We do not have an office in Lal and Raffaele had only gone to Lal once to establish contact with the local community. Registration is to start on 22 May 2004 in Lal.

Again, I was sent with 2 new drivers; one was Farid (the one who came with me from Bamyan) and Khial Gol. Arif had proceeded to Uruzghan with A. I was glad to get rid of him. The journey from Panjao to Lal is supposed to be less than 5 hours on a Runner but because we took the Rangers, it took us nearly 7 hours. I arrived in Lal at about 8:30pm.

We went straight to Oxfam only to be given the cold shoulders. The guard refused to even open the gate and was talking to us through a thick wooden door. The guard kept saying that the manager had gone to Panjao and he could not let us in. I told him that we are from UNAMA Electoral and our staffs used to stay with Oxfam in Lal, etc.

I called Raffaele immediately on the Thuraya to inform him of our problem. It took us about 1 hour standing outside in the cold for the guard to come back and tell us that their manager in Panjao had instructed them not to allow anyone working for the elections to stay in their place. I was so shocked especially when the guard told us that the manager said that we were politically motivated.

Qurghani, Raffaele’s national counterpart, tried to explain to the guard about our neutrality and I felt so dejected that I just went to the car and asked the driver to drive off. I felt so disappointed and upset at the people because I had travelled for hours just to get there to help them and they treated me like a leper.

It was the first time in Afghanistan when I felt unwelcome and unwanted.

....to be continued in Part XVII.....