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January 31, 2006

The East Village Opera Company Rocks!

Tonight we saw one of the most amazing performances I've seen in my life!

We had a busy day at the office, starting with a meeting at 9am where we met the other US based staff.  It was great to meet everyone else, and get a clearer picture on the organization's goals and everyone's places within those. 

After work we met Catie and Greg at a little Mexican joint in the city, before heading to the Great American Music Hall, a magnificent venue complete with high ceiling and balcony.  Catie and Greg knew someone who was able to get free tickets to see the East Village Opera Company, and though no-one really knew what we were going to see, we were up for a free show even if we did make jokes about having to have a few drinks beforehand so that the show was bearable.

How wrong we were.  The East Village Opera Company combines opera with, what in hindsight is obviously the only appropriate marriage with opera, rock.  I'm not talking just a couple guitars and a quiet drum set, I'm talking squealing electric guitar solos, thumping bass and dominating drums in the only way leather pants can provide.  And I'm not talking about toned-down opera either.  I mean full-drama, foreign language lyrics with unforgivable demand for vocal range and control.  Together.  Leather pants and Puccini.  Passionate duets and gyrating thumping beats.  A crowd of twenty-somethings through sixty-somethings.  It was amazing.  Uplifting.  Inspiring.  And having seen it, obvious.  Both genres are equally, ridiculously, and over-the-top dramatic expressions.  And the men wear too-tight pants in both.

If you have the opportunity to see the guys, do.  It's really a once-in-a-lifetime experience.  If not, check out their video at: http://www.eastvillageoperacompany.com/video.aspx

January 30, 2006

First Day

We had a great first day today and learned a lot about one of the organizations we will be working with.  We spent the majority of the day at the office, after starting the day off with a visit to the immunization clinic so I could get my final jab (rabies).  I’m finally done, which is a relief, more fiscal than physical.

We have a lot of reading and organizing to do so we’ve spent tonight in front of our computers.  I’m feeling tired, but good.  Learning is always stimulating and always makes me happy.  I’m glad how much I read before we arrived so that I’m familiar with some of the issues.

Tomorrow we meet the other US staff members so it will be a big day for us.  Wish us luck!

January 29, 2006

We Finally Got To Meet Everyone

It was wonderful, and what a relief.

We had a relaxing, yet for me very anxious, morning sitting in Catie and Greg’s apartment catching up on emails, talking and drinking a lot of tea while Greg went bouldering at the climbing gym.  Around two o’clock we went out and got one of the many delicious schwarmas (like a souvlaki) that you can get around here at the middle-eastern take-out shops.  By the time we got back it was time to shower and leave.

It took a long time to get to San Carlos, we had to take the inner-city subway to the end of the line, and then change to what you might call the outer-suburbs rail system.  We actually thought we were really early but it turned out we had no time for dallying at all, so I’m glad that we did leave “early”.  When we arrived at San Carlos we were met at the train station by Brian, who took us back to his house.  As we stepped inside we saw some other people hanging about, who we instantly recognized from the Kiva website as the founders of that organization!  It was such a surreal moment, we recognized them from their website and they instantly recognized us from Jeremy’s “Turn that shit Up”.  So there were a number of people who we met, including one guy who is moving to Uganda in a few weeks, so we plan to be seeing him there.

We had a wonderful, wonderful evening talking about how we’d all met, what we’d been doing, how we’d come to this point.  It really felt like a meeting of positive energy, young intelligent minds, lives of different backgrounds meeting around a dinner table in San Carlos to figure out how we can help to make things better for those who don’t have a dinner table to sit around.  It felt empowering and I definitely felt some destiny in play, like I had been looking for that dinner table for the last year and a half.  We talked and exchanged ideas and I felt stimulated and excited.  It was wonderful.

Unfortunately our getting home was a little more difficult, as the “last train” wasn’t running on Sundays so we had to get a taxi to the inner-city subway just in time for the last train.  We got home pretty late but tomorrow we are starting in the office, so it will be up early for us.  We feel very welcomed, which is very reassuring after such a long, anxious wait to this moment.

January 28, 2006



Today Catie, Greg, Jeremy and I all walked down to Chinatown after a nice relaxing morning sitting around drinking tea and catching up.  We had lunch at Nanking Restaurant, which was recommended to us by a good friend of ours, and it was great - yummy chicken with yams, scallops and mushrooms and dumplings.  After lunch we walked downtown to look around, but it started raining and Catie and Greg had studying to do so they bailed on us.  Jeremy and I carried on and checked out a huge camping and outdoor sports store out here, REI.  We still haven’t settled on the luggage equipment we are going to take with us to Africa, and probably won’t really decide until we’ve learnt more of the logistics of our trip, but it was good to get an idea of what is available.

We walked back to Catie and Greg’s house, in the rain, and are now absolutely exhausted.  Walking around all day, combined with all the jabs we got yesterday has been too much.  Tomorrow we get to meet Brian finally, and I’m really excited about that.  Hopefully my headache will go away soon.

January 27, 2006

Crack Would Be Cheaper

We made it.

And already I must say I love this city.  After only 4 hours sleep last night we were up bright and early, well it wasn't bright actually it was very dark, and arrived at Bradley International Airport at a crisp 6:10am.  Our flight left right on time and we changed at Chicago before continuing on to Oakland International just outside of San Francisco city. 

Even in the airport you could tell things were different.  People were smiling at me, for no reson.  I asked Jeremy if I had a huge goober hanging out of my nose and he said that I didn't.  While we were waiting for our luggage  we listened to a bird singing inside the building, it had flown through the automatic doors and was flying around near the ceiling.  People waited patiently for their luggage.  We went to catch the bus to the train station and the driver helpfully told us where we could buy our tickets and get change, as he had no change to give us.  We hadn't even asked him yet!  As I was standing there I heard someone say something about it being a lovely day.  What is wrong with these people! 

Once we made it into the city we lunched at a middle-eastern take-out which reminded me a lot of the many kebab shops on Brunswick street.  There were a lot of asian people about and it really felt like Melbourne.  We followed our map to the vaccination clinic and walked past the city hall, where only a few months ago same-sex couples had lined up to marry during a short utopian period of SF history.  I began to wonder about this gay city, everyone had a smile on their face, maybe gay was catching?  Maybe all the anti-gayers don't hate homosexuality, they just hate all the happiness?

We arrived at the vaccination clinic and spent the next two hours and a half hours discussing the pros and cons of needing a human immuglobin product in a third world country, survival rates of meningitis and possible psychotic effects (not in a good way) of some anti-malarials.  We were very lucky to be advised by a nurse who spent two years in Zambia with the PeaceCorps.  She gave us a lot of great first-hand advice, and further convinced us that we had done the right thing by not choosing to volunteer with PeaceCorps. 

After two and a half hours I began to feel as though I actually was getting sick, just as it was time to lay down and submit to the needle.  I was stuck five times, Jeremy six, and we now are chemical concoctions ready to fight off Tetanus, Diphtheria, Hepatitis A, Hepatitis B, Polio, Tyhoid, Rabies, Meningitis and Yellow Fever.

$1,200 dollars later, and we're still not even done with all of the necessary vaccinations, and I'm still trying to convince myself that it's cheaper than dying out there.  But I can't help feeling that I should have at least got a good time for my $600 worth.  All I got was the feeling that Hell-Boy punched me in each arm thrice before sitting on my head for a while.  Drugs these days, they're not what they used to be. 

For now I'm exhausted.  We had to walk over a mile to Catie and Greg's with our luggage - the nurses were a little afraid we mightn't make it considering the long day we'd had and made us lie down a little before we left the clinic.  Oh, and the real kicker was, after looking at my travel vaccinations booklet and seeing what I have had in the past, they discovered that I actually might have rabies now as I was given the wrong injection after my monkey bite in India in 2001.  Maybe that explains that drooling problem I've been having lately.

January 26, 2006

I Got My US Driver's License

Today I got my US Driver’s License.  I know, I should be so proud of myself.  And in many ways I am.  I learnt a lot, the safe following distances for different driving conditions, the “four-second rule” and, most importantl, that one must give way to a train at railway tracks (I couldn’t have made that up if I’d tried).  However, in terms of actually passing the test, I don’t feel proud of that at all, in fact quite disappointed.  Being the competitive type, I had looked forward to getting tested, to see how well I could score.  Silly me.  I thought this was all about me, but of course it wasn’t. 

The test takes place in a DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles) office, and consists of three parts: vision test, knowledge test and driving skills test.  I arrived half an hour early for my appointment so I had plenty of time to do all the paperwork first.  When my name was called for the first test I jumped up and rushed over.  The visual test involved holding what was like some huge goggles up to your face and peering inside them.  There were a number of rows of letters “inside” the goggles.  I as asked to read one row.  I did.  Then there were flashing lights in my peripheral vision and I was asked where I saw the lights.  I identified that I saw them on both sides.  I was asked to go back and sit down.

That was it.  No reading rows of letters which became gradually smaller.  No depth-of-vision testing.  No identification of colours.  I was disappointed, but hoped that the next test would be a better chance for me to prove my capability to be a good driver.

After a very short wait I was called up for the knowledge test.  I was shown a computer screen on which I would select the correct answer for 16 questions.  My computer screen was actually back-to-back with another computer screen, which meant that the other candidate and I were facing each other as we selected our answers.  There was no-one supervising us.  He was having a particularly difficult time with the questions and it would have been unbelievably easy for me to whisper some answers to him.  We were not even in a separate room, we were surrounded by the noise and activities of the DMV.  In fact, when Jeremy went to the bathroom he had to walk right by me.  He asked me what I was doing and I said “I’m doing my test – go away!”

I tapped the screen and began my test.  The guy opposite me was starting to really sweat so I thought it must be very hard.  The first question was, ““If you would like to pass a car in front of you, what should you do?  A – speed up  B – slow down  C – wait for the car in front of you to signal  D – Signal”.  Well, that was easy.  The second question was “Which of the following is correct: A – you don’t have to wear a seatbelt if you have airbags  B – seatbelts are dangerous because they keep you from being safely thrown from the car C – if you have a lap seatbelt you don’t have to wear the shoulder seatbelt  D – you should always wear a seatbelt”.  Another easy one.  Maybe I’m getting lucky because the guy opposite me is starting to look around him and curse under his breath.  The third question was “What do you have to do at a stop sign?: A – slow down  B – stop only if there is traffic in the intersection C – be ready to stop C – come to a complete stop.” 

At this point I wondered if I had been given the right test.  In fact, two of the questions I had been given were the exact same questions on the sample test on the DMV website.  Maybe the guy opposite me had asked for the test in the wrong language?  How could he be having difficulty with this? 

I worked through each question, waiting for the trick question they obviously were setting me up for.  Suddenly the program exited the test.  Hang on, what’s going on here?  I’m sure I haven’t answered 16 questions yet.  A message box appeared on the screen “You have answered 12 questions correctly, please wait for the DMV officer.”  What?  What about  my 4 remaining questions?  Can I only do the minimum required to pass?  Don't you want to see if I get 100% (because I do!)  As I was waiting the guy opposite me suddenly hit the screen and then walked over to the officer.  After he complained there was something wrong with the computer as it had just shut itself down, the officer explained that it had done that as he had answered 5 questions incorrectly (I’m really not sure he got it in the right language).

Without even a “Well done, you got them all right!” I was asked to sit down and wait for my driving test.  “This part will be hard” I thought to myself.  I mean, obviously they didn’t really test you much on the vision and knowledge test because the driving test will reveal everything.  I sat back down with Jeremy (who was shocked I was already done) and waited eagerly for the big one.

After 10 minutes I was called up and greeted by a gruff looking man with “Which side of the road do you usually drive on?”  After my reply he looked whimsically back at his desk before heading out the door. 

We headed outside and he checked my side indicators and brake lights worked berfore we got in (I could almost see his lips whispering prayers under his breath).  As I started up the engine he pointed out all the possible dangers around me in an urgent tone - the pedestrian walking through the parking lot, the SUV pulling in beside me, the passing traffic.  "Wow, this is easy" I thought to myself.  "I don't even need to think, he's doing it all for me!"  As we pulled out to the street he made sure he mentioned the stop sign dead ahead, and as we drove into town he tried to calm himself, whoops I mean myself, with some casual conversation.  We stuck to right turns, don't want to get crazy now do we, and stayed far behind a school bus, just in case.  I did a three-point turn in a wide street with no traffic, and we headed back.  My one left-turn was coming up, so my instructor, whoops I mean tester, told me when to wait and when to go.  Even parking back in the parking lot he made sure I didn't get too close to any other cars, and I just slowly rolled around until I found an easy spot to park in.  He scribbled on a piece of paper and circled "Pass", and we headed inside. 

Wow.  I couldn't believe it.  It was all over.  I didn't have to do anything!  I didn't realise all I had to do was just sit in the car and do what the instructor told me.   I thought I had to actually think for myself.  Silly me. 

See, most people think that when you do the driving test it’s actually testing how well you drive.  They’re all wrong.  It’s actually to test the mettle of the tester, see, to see how long before he craps his pants sitting in a car driven by a native of a left-side driving country.  Don’t worry about making sure if you’re clear to turn left across on-coming traffic.  He’ll tell you when to go, and when to stop too.  If there’s a stop sign coming up, he’ll mention it to you so you don’t kill him.  I wasn't being tested at all.  I was testing him, see, to make sure he was a good tester.  Which he was.  I’m an okay driver too, which he’ll never know, as I didn’t have to make a single decision on my own.  And because I didn’t drive more than 10 minutes. 

Wow, after just 1 hour, including probably 30 minutes of waiting, it was all over!  It was that easy!  And here was I thinking I had to know speed limits and safe following distances.  Hah!  All I had to say was “I’m Australian – do you want to die today?”

Jeremy Has Gum Disease

Leaving for Africa for a 6 month journey to places we don't even know about yet requires an extensive pre-departure check-list.  Get vaccinations, book flights, buy travel insurance, check if there are any wars being fought, visit the dentist etc.  We are currently up to "visit the dentist" and in pursuit of crossing that one off the list Jeremy yesterday called around a few dentists in the area to see if he could get an appointment for a cleaning before we leave (I will be seeing my beloved Dr. Michael when I'm in D.C., the only person I feel comfortable allowing to poke sharp objects inside my mouth). 

Finding a dentist is not like bargain hunting - if you find one for half the price you're not necessarily going to assume there's just a clearance sale going on.  But at the same time it's not a transparent industry - like car mechanics, most of the time we have to just trust that we/the car do have the condition they have diagnosed and that the treatment they have prescribed is necessary, and the price they have quoted is reasonable.  Besides, who are we to question an expert who has obviously studied optimum emissions testing or periodontitis.

Which, in fact, was the exact position Jeremy found himself in yesterday.  Because who can resist a sale, really?  Even it is a dentist's sale - I mean, who are we to say that a reasonable dentist can't have a sale?  Maybe they're just want to "give back" (I know, it's starting to sound bad already).  In hindsight, maybe a $95 consultation and full set of x-rays does set of a few warning lights, but hindsight is a cruel thing.  Maybe we should have started to question this "deal" when we called back to check if this included a clean (isn't that the whole point of going to the dentist?) which of course it didn't, but $95 for an individual x-ray of each tooth is a great deal ("All the better to find lots of expensive things wrong with your teeth, my dear").  Maybe we should have wondered why this dentist was able to see us the same day, when most dentists in the States (that I've had contact with) are usually booked out at least 2 or 3 months in advance.  But instead we rejoiced in our luck and Jeremy trotted off to the dentist in the afternoon.

Upon his return he looked, let me say, disconcerted.  A little confused, a little anxious.  I asked him how the appointment went.
"I have gum disease?"
"What???"  OK, let's start from the beginning.  "Did she clean your teeth?"
"Yeah, I guess so." 
"Well, did it feel like she did a good job?" 
"I don't know, it hurt like hell.  Then she held up a mirror and started stabbing my gums with this sharp thing until there was blood pouring from my gums, and said 'See, you have gum disease'".
"You don't have gum disease."
"How do you know?"
Flashback to second grade, when two ladies in dental nurse's outfits visited my Australian classroom with huge dentures and a huge toothbrush and demonstrated how to clean your teeth correctly.  Then, just to make sure you got the message, they pulled out huge picture cards showing us, in progressive steps, what would happen if you didn't clean your teeth correctly, from the slightly reddened gums with a little plaque on the teeth, right through to the gap-toothed, pussy-gummed, blackened smile which has haunted me to this day. 
"So what did she say you have to do?"
"She said I need a deep-cleaning, four quadrants at $210 each."
"WHAT!!!!!!!!  But you don't even have gum disease!"
"How do you know?"
"If you had gum disease, YOU would know.  Get on the internet."

At this point ensued a frenzied 20 minutes of internet searching punctuated by tourets-like swearing and cursing of this so-called dentist.  I mean, this is no "extra-good clean" she prescribed, her deep-cleaning involves anaesthetising the gums and cutting them open to clean them right out.  For a 29 year-old perfectly healthy man who very very rarely bleeds from his gums when he brushes them (show me someone whose gums never bleed and I'll show you someone who's never eaten a chocolate bar ever). 

So now we're left with Jeremy's very sore and tender gums, and wondering if the "so-called cavity" she noticed actually exists or was another figment of her imagination.  Who's to know?  Luckily Jeremy still has the appointment with the other dentist, who apparently doesn't stab gums to inflict symptoms of a  condition requiring very expensive treatment.

I guess the moral to this story is, when it comes to dentists, if it sounds like a good deal, it's not the one that you want.  And if someone ever stabs you in the gums and says you have gum disease, try stabbing them in the face and telling them they have face disease.

January 25, 2006

About To Dive Off The Deep End...

Yes, it's been a week, and thanks to Karen for keeping me honest.  I've had a bit of a weird week.  Feeling like when you're on a rollercoaster and you're just starting to fly down and suddenly you're aware that your stomach is not with you.

Well, the day after I last wrote, I had an appointment with a lawyer in Hartford.  I had not yet up to that point consulted a lawyer about anything to do with my immigration status or any new status I was trying to achieve.  However, as it has become clear to me that all this travelling is going to become a serious problem I decided to see what a lawyer had to say.  Which was nothing.  Along with reaffirming my conviction that I know just as much, if not more, than most regarding this subject.  So I'm going back to relying on my own ability to learn and understand all this nonsense rather than trust that someone else is going to be nice enough not to screw me whilst they take all my money (I've got nothing against lawyers, I just don't trust anyone else handling my affairs).  I will be applying for naturalization as soon as I am able, which probably wouldn't have been very difficult had I not been out of the country for 7 months, as opposed to the 6 month hassle-free maximum, during 2004-05.  All I can do is hope that my skin color and country of origin assist in making me a "shake 'n' bake" case - and that is by no means an attempt at humor, I really think that's what it comes down to most of the time. 

I spent the next two days researching immigration law while I wasn't working, and then Saturday I had The Worst Shift Ever at the restaurant.  In only one evening I managed to have a table which had to order three bottles of wine before we actually had one they ordered, which of course went down like a ton of bricks, then we ran out of one of the main meals which was ordered so the customer had to order a substitute (usually not a big deal but when combined with the wine being out of stock, it did almost seem like we were playing a joke on them), two customers ordering something completely different to what they wanted, so of course when their food arrived they were like "what is this?" and another table whose food was cold when it arrived (after they took 45 minutes to eat their salad).  I know this doesn't sound like much, but when combined altogether at the same time (I was only seated once) it was an absolute nightmare.  The only thing that kept me going was the thought that I was never going to be doing an evening shift again.

The next day I worked my final shift, a Sunday brunch.  At the end of the shift I told the owner "I won't be coming back after my vacation period so this is effectively my two weeks notice" to which he replied "OK" as he was walking away from me... and that was that.  Jeremy couldn't believe that I wasn't going to tell them I was leaving before I actually left, but when I told him the owner's reaction he realised that I had done the right thing - if he was that immature when I quit, who knows what might have happened if I had actually given time to react.  At the end of the day we achieved our goal, which was earning enough to fund this trip, and I'm glad I didn't give anyone the chance to jeopardise that.

I would have liked to celebrate quitting but it didn't really work out like that, so I watched a movie in bed and had an early night.  Monday I worked on the Fiji movie (I'm so embarrassed that it's taken so long) which has been all but finished for about a year.  We've finally burned the DVDs and they're ready to mail out.  Yesterday I had a non-productive day, it all finally caught up to me and I was exhausted all day.  Today I have to study the Connecticut driver's manual as I'll be doing a driver's test tomorrow - it's about time I got a US license.  Hopefully I'll pass... how embarrassing if I've been driving all this time and I fail! 

2 sleeps until San Francisco now.  I'm feeling a little bit of a lull in my energy levels, I think I need a holiday but I sure don't have time for one.  Hopefully this will pass and I'll be just as excited when I get there as I was to go there a week ago.

January 17, 2006

A Little Bit Disoriented

I'm not feeling my self today.  I'm feeling very run down, very tired, and my head is overflowing with information I've been cramming in it.  I'm feeling anxious about doing everything before we leave, getting it all down.  I'm anxious that I'm not up to the challenge of all this.  I'm anxious that I've bitten off more than I can chew.  I'm giving myself grief about having saved all of the money for this trip from what Jeremy and I have earned over the last two months, even though we have been very generously given a donation which has gone towards our flights.  So in fact, we now don't need to earn as much as I had budgeted for, but instead of giving myself a break, I am still trying to work towards earning the original amount.  Why?  Because that's what we were originally trying to do, and I want to achieve that goal.  Because that's what I said I'd do.

I'm spending hours and hours getting J and my financial affairs in order.  Learning about investment types, total returns, principals and compounded interest rates.  Learning about what I don't know so I can decide what I need to know.  So that J and I are not totally floundering around in terms of our finances, so that we are being proactive to make the most of what we do have.  I feel empowered doing this, but I know that I am also pushing myself to learn a lot in a short amount of time.  But when I feel tired, I think about all the people who I've personally met on my travels, who would do anything to be in my situation, who make me look like a millionaire when compared to me, and I find myself pushing myself harder for them.  On behalf of all those who wish they had access to all the self-education tools that I have. 

I find that I feel better, physically, than I have in a long time.  I feel my brain working, and I haven't felt that in quite a while.  I feel my mind struggling with new concepts, with ideas, and the processes of my uni days are coming back to me.  I like how it feels, but I don't know how to make it stop.  Not that I want it to stop, but when I wake in the morning I feel like I haven't slept, I feel like I've just been laying there turning everything over in my head.  I've really been learning lately that the more you do, the more will happen to you.  When Jeremy subbed at the local high school, we got an opportunity to speak to the Human Rights class.  Nothing is going to happen unless you get yourself out there.  I'm trying to do that as much as possible.  I want things to start happening, and I've finally realised you just have to do it, then things can't help but happen in reaction to what you already began.

In day-to-day terms, Saturday was a work day for me, quite profitable which was nice.  Sunday it snowed and I managed to leave work early and get home for a lot of reading.  Right now I'm reading "Chasing the Sun" by Neville Williams which is quite interesting.  I'm learning a lot about people who make things happen.  Yesterday I worked the lunch shift which was chaotic, then Jeremy and I picked up our plane tickets in New Haven, came straight home, then more reading for me.  This morning I worked again, picked Jeremy up from work in the afternoon, had some lunch, did some more financial stuff and then chatted to Mum and Dad on Skype for a little while.  I ended up watching a movie tonight, "Crash", which is really good, but I feel conflicted about watching a movie.  I feel like I wasted the evening but on the other hand I feel like I needed a night off.  There's just so much I want to accomplish, and I'm trying my best, I just hope I don't run myself into the ground. 

9 days 'til San Fran and counting...

January 13, 2006

Our Flights to Africa!

So, I've finally purchased our tickets to Africa.  We had held off for another couple days as we wanted to make sure we were going to Kenya first, not Uganda, but as there are elections in Uganda in February we were advised not to make that our first stop.  Luckily, I know good advice when I hear it.

So here is our complete itinerary for the next few weeks:

Sunday, January 22:         
Fiona's last day waitressing.  All will rejoice.
Probably J's last working day too, as we'll have a "couple" things to do
Thursday, January 26:
Depart Hartford airport at 2:40pm, arrive in San Francisco at 8:25pm
We'll be getting picked up by Catie and Greg, friends in San Francisco, who we'll be staying with for the duration of our trip.  We are so lucky to be staying with them, and it's going to be lots of fun!
Friday, January 27:
Get lots of injections for all the diseases we don't want to catch
Saturday 28 & Sunday 29:
Sightseeing in San Francisco
Monday, January 30:
First day working in the office
Friday, February 10:
Jeremy and I both leave San Francisco on flights around noon.
Jeremy will be flying back to Hartford, to spend some time with his family.
I will be flying to DC to spend some time with the lovely Erin Mudd.
Tuesday, February 14:
What better way to spend Valentine's Day than with the dentist?
I will then be flying back to Hartford in the afternoon.
Friday, February 17:
Jeremy and I will catch the bus down to New York, and spend the weekend catching up with some of his friends from his uni days.
Sunday, February 19:
Leave New York at 8:30pm, and arrive in London the next day at 8:20am
Monday, February 20:
Leave London at 10:05am and arrive in Nairobi at 9:20pm

After that... Work in Africa!!!!!!

I think I'm going to wet my pants.

January 12, 2006

Naughty Note

Here's a story for you.  So, tonight I was working at the restaurant, and I had one table which was an "older" couple, who just ordered a main meal each, taking home all left-overs and no drinks.  They were quite nice, but when I collected the bill there was only $4.25 left on the table.  I looked around but couldn't find any more money, so I went to the front of the restaurant where sometimes people pay the host/ess.  No-one had paid at the front.  I asked the busser but he hadn't seen anything either.  I concluded that they must have meant to pay at the front, but forgotten (like I said, they were "older"). 
So, I went and told the manager what happened, and he kind of skirted the issue and asked me to check with everybody (wow, what an amazing idea, how did you think of that?) and then later I asked him directly "what are we going to do about that table?" to which he replied "can you check if that take-out order is ready?"  It was obvious to me that he didn't want to make a decision, so I left it until the very end of the night, when I told him all of my tables were done but I needed to deal with the one that hadn't paid.  He shut the door behind us in the office and informed me that I could either pay it, or be written up.  Always the Aussie who doesn't understand what the Yanks are talking about, I asked "written up?  Oh, you mean like a naughty note - 'I was naughty'?"
    "Yes, like that." 
    Is this even a serious question?  "Write me up then?"
    It was very surreal signing a piece of paper that said I had been very naughty because I let the old people leave without counting the money they had left on the table (because I had nothing else to do???) before they left, and knowing that I was supposed to feel bad for being naughty.  Trying not to laugh at the situation, I was really in disbelief that this is how this place treats it's employees.  Rather than just "void"ing the meals, because to pretend that they don't give away free stuff all the time is ridiculous, they would prefer to make the servers pay or "write them up". 
    Of course, all of this is insignificant to me, my last day there is in 10 days, but what makes me really upset is that the people who work there, who have worked there for years and think that it counts as a real job, don't know any different.  Don't know that this is not how an employer should treat its employees, that the behaviour that goes on in there every day is not normal for a workplace, but they just assume that it is.  When I'm not there, there are still going to be people putting in hours trying to make money in a restaurant which has rotting carpet downstairs in front of the bathrooms because the kitchen has been leaking through the wall for the past 9 months. 

In other news...
    Yesterday was uneventful really, just worked a double all day while J was at the cheese shop.  After work we prepared for the presentation at Hall High, which we gave this morning at 7:30am!  The talk went really well.  Yesterday the class had watched a video on Grameen Bank and had discussed the ideas of microfinancing afterwards.  There was definitely a lot of debate, one student in particular thinking that microfinancing was spreading the evil of money and capitalism to the poor innocent third world victims.  It almost broke my heart to hear this guy speak, just because he was coming from the right place, but getting it completely wrong.  I think he was obviously speaking from his conflict coming from belonging to a system that he believes is doing a lot of harm, but unable to extricate himself from it.  But the only way to learn those lessons is to be in a 3rd world country and have someone tell you they just want $20 so they can go to school, and then see if you can deny them taking part in this evil capitalist society.  Try to tell them then that they don't really want that money, it'll just corrupt them.  In all the class was great, and it was very interesting for Jeremy and I to hear what the students thought of it all, particularly as they are 17 year-old mostly-white students from a wealthy town in Connecticut. 

Jeremy and I also placed our first trades on the stock market today.  I feel really empowered with all this that we've been doing regarding our finances.  I'm learning a lot and I enjoy being in complete control of our money, our portfolio.  I feel like I could be really good at this, and I'd like for us to be able to make some money with the money we have so we're not completely heading towards the red.

Very tired and lots to do tomorrow... Goodnight

January 10, 2006

An interesting opportunity...

Today J was a substitute teacher at Hall High School, which is in fact the same high school that he attended.  The amazing thing is that to be a substitute teacher all you have have is someone with an undergraduate degree, a clean police record and fingerprints.  Even more amazing (read "messed up") is that classes begin at 7:30am.  What the hell is that about?  Ask my mother, if I had ever had classes that early I would still be in second grade.  I'm still trying to figure out who that idea benefits.  So basically J spent today hanging out in the classes he was covering, letting the students get on with their thing while he tried to stay awake at the front of the class.

At the end of the day he decided to drop in and see one of his old teachers, who he had for American Government.  When she found out what J and I are up to she asked us to come and speak to her social development class on Friday morning (at 7:30 no less!)  Of course Jeremy accepted and so we spent tonight thrashing out how to convey to 17 year-old West Hartford students what we're doing in a nutshell.  I'm taking this very seriously, I think it's a very important exercise in communication, and also testing our own understanding of what we are doing.  Who knows, maybe we'll get some laptops or digital cameras out of it.

Yesterday and today were both continuing with all our jobs for me.  I feel a little frustrated because I want to just do this full-time, but I have to go to work occasionally to get the money so we can go do all this stuff, but I'd much prefer staying home to continue research and reading than serving someone ginger ale and a cobb salad tomorrow.  It's hard to concentrate at work when I'm distracted by what's going on.

January 08, 2006

Is it over yet?

I'm so sick of this job.  Aside from having to work with some real "beer-short-of-a-six-pack"s, it's so temperamental.  You just never know if you're going to make any money or not.  Saturday night I made $140, and don't get me wrong I'm not complaining, and then Sunday one girl had only 3 tables the whole day.  And she drives 45 minutes to work (unbelievable I think if you're waitressing).  And considering you don't get any benefits, I really wonder why some people stay there.  I think it just comes down to them not believing they can get anything any better.

So I just spent Saturday and Sunday working doubles, and now I have two days off ahead of me.  I get so tired waitressing with all the running around and heavy lifting, and it's really frustrating sometimes because someone's yelling at me because I forgot their side of fries, and in my head I'm trying to work out the pros and cons of microequity vs. microcredit.  And having to listen to what my co-workers talk about, some of them have been there for many years, and some of them won't be leaving anytime soon.  I don't feel sorry for them because they're waiting, I feel sorry for them because they don't have to be, they don't enjoy it, but they're still there. 

Only 2 weeks left...

January 06, 2006

Another busy day, I spent the morning today tidying up some of my investment transactions, and hopefully we'll be meeting with our financial adviser on Monday and pretty soon I'll be back to minimal supervision on the money side of things.  Jeremy sent out an email to see if anyone wants to donate old laptops to people in Africa, and we've already had some "maybe" replies.  It would be so amazing if we could get some stuff together to take over with us.

Then we went for a drive out to the Berlin Turnpike to visit an Army/Navy surplus store and a camping store.  I have asked Jeremy never to take me there again - I don't think I've ever been so scared since... since I saw The Blair Witch Project for the first time.  It really felt like we were right out in Hicksville, we passed a Roy Rogers, an old diner, Doogie Dogs which sells foot-long hot dogs (WHY???), a cowboy shop, a shop only for safety shoes, and numerous dodgy pay-by-the-hour motels before we reached the Army/Navy store which was filled with WWII memorabilia, loads of army clothing and moose heads hanging all over the walls.  It was soooooo scary.  There was a twenty-something-year-old guy trying to impress his 15 year old girlfriend by shopping for bags for his magazines (you can hear her defending him to her friends saying "he's so misunderstood") and I swear if anyone had come in in a trenchcoat I would have been out of there before anyone could say "I have a right to bear arms".  I ended up hiding in the car (with the doors locked) waiting for Jeremy, with my escape route already planned out in case some psycho popped up next to the car window.  I've been a lot of places, and that definitely rates as one of the scaries.  Jeremy has been instructed to never take me there again.  Needless to say we didn't buy anything as the last thing we need is to go to Africa looking like we just stepped off the Freedom Fighters bus. 

On the way home we stopped by Janet's and visited before Stephanie leaves tomorrow.  We had a delicious Indian dinner and hung out for a while before back home to do some more microfinance reading.  Call me a nerd but I'm really enjoying reading these analytical papers on the effects/advantages/disadvantages of microfinance - kinda feels like uni days again (except I don't have to hand in any papers).

Double shift Saturday and Sunday, here we go again...

January 05, 2006

So Much To Do...

Ah yes, I have been caught out already, I missed a day's post.  But perhaps sometimes I can post for 2 days at once, Karen?  Thanks for the reminder though, it's nice to know that you're looking on.

Yesterday I had a pleasant lunch shift before coming home to a long night.  I finally finished Banker to the Poor by Muhummad Yunus, founder of the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, and I highly recommend it.  Besides being an easy read and a very interesting insight into the life of someone who grew up in East Pakistan, before it became Bangladesh, was educated in the States and ended up the founder of Bangladesh's biggest bank and of "microfinance", an idea supported by the UN as an effective tool to eradicate poverty.

In fact, forgive me while I rant, but let me tack on some of my favourite excerpts from the book:

On capitalism and social-entrepreneurship, and their place in improving the world:

"Economic protectionism, subsidies, and welfare benefits were instituted by well-meaning people to soften capitalism’s hard edges.
    I believe in the central thesis of capitalism: The economic system must be competitive.  Competition is the driving force for all innovation, technological change, and improved management.
    Another central feature of capitalism is profit maximization.  Profit maximiazation ensures the optimal use of scarce resources.  This is the feature of capitalism that led us to create the image of a greedy (almost bloodthirsty) person in the role of profit maximizer.  We have presumed that the profit maximizer has no interest in achieving social objectives.  We then postulated that true entrepreneurs are a rare and special breed of people whom society should feel lucky to have.  We feel so grateful to them that we give them all the privileges we can afford – credit, social recognition, tax holidays, priority access to land, market protection, and so on.
    I am proposing two changes to this basic feature of capitalism.  The first change relates to this overblown image of a capitalist entrepreneur.  To me, an entrepreneur is not an especially gifted person.  I rather take the reverse view.  I believe that all human beings are potential entrepreneurs.  Some of us get the opportunity to express this talent, but many of us never get the chance because we were made to imagine that an entrepreneur is someone enormously gifted and different from ourselves...
     The second change relates to how an entrepreneur makes investment decisions.  Economic theory depicts the entrepreneur as only a profit maximizer.  Indeed, in some countries, like the United States, corporate law requires the maximization of profits.  Shareholders can sue an executive or a board of directors that uses corporate funds to benefit society as a whole rather than to maximize the profits of the shareholders.  As a result, the social dimension in the thinking of the entrepreneur has been completely bypassed.  For social science and society itself, this is not a good starting point.  Even if social considerations have a very small role in the investment decision of an entrepreneur, we should allow them to come into play for the overall social good.  A human being’s social considerations are qualities that can be inculcated through generating appropriate social values.  If we leave no room for them in our theoretical framework, we will be encouraging human beings to behave without respect to social values.
    The market, of course, needs rules for the efficient allocation of resources.  I propose that we replace the narrow profit-maximization principle with a generalized principle – an entrepreneur maximizes a bundle consisting of two components: (a) profit and (b) social returns, subject to the condition that profit cannot be negatives.  (Actually, neither of these components should be negatives; but I make this conceptualization in order to stay close to the existing profit-maximization principle.)
    All investment decisions can be taken within a range of options.  At one extreme, the capitalist will be guided purely by the profit motive.  At the other extreme, a social entrepreneur will continue to be in the market for as long as his or her socially beneficial enterprise is at least breaking even.
    Under this principle, a social entrepreneur could, for example, run a health-care service for the poor if it is financially viable.  Other such enterprises might include financial services for the poor, supermarket chains for the poor, educational institutions, training centers, renewable energy ventures, old-age homes, institutions for handicapoped people, recycling enterprises, marketing products produced by the poor, and so on.

And now to blow your mind, on The Future:

"If somehow we could come back to today’s world 100 years from now, we could definitely feel as if we were visitors from some prehistoric age.  If we try to imagine what the world will be like twenty-five years from today, we would have to create science fiction.
The momentum for change is clearly in place.  The insatiable quest for knowing the unknown, the eagerness of business to put technology at the service of consumers, and the military arms race between nations have all helped create this momentum.  The real question is whether these changes will bring the human race closer to or farther away from desirable social and economic conditions.
   The answer is obvious.  If we consider ourselves passengers on “Spaceship Earth,” we will find ourselves on a pilotless journey with no discernable route to follow.  If we can convince ourselves that we are actually the crew of this spaceship, and that we must reach a specific socioeconomic destination, then we will continue to approach that destination – even if we make mistakes or take detours along the way.
We need to know the destination – if not in a precise way, then at least a generalized way.  Before we actually translate something into reality, we must be able to dream about it.  Any socioeconomic dream is nothing but the first step in the process of mapping the course to our destination.  If we do a good job in identifying our destination, more innovations and changes will take place to help us reach it.
So the real question is not so much where we will be in the year 2050, but where we would like the world to be in 2050.
By that time, I want to see a world free from poverty.  This means that there will not be a single human being on this planet that may be described as a poor person or who is unable to meet his or her basic needs.  By then, the word “poverty” will no longer have relevance.  It will be understood only with reference to the past.
Poverty does not belong in civilized human society. 

At each step, future information and communication technology should be creating a global environment to unleash the creativity, ingenuity, and productivity in every human being.  Any person anywhere should be able to enroll in any academic institution on the basis of his or her interest and ability, irrespective of his or her social upbringing, geographic location, or financial capacity.
The entire concept of an academic institution would also be vastly different from what it is today.  In such an environment, it would not be surprising to learn that the most creative student in a very prestigious university comes from a poor family in a remote village in China, or Ethiopia, or Bangladesh – and that she or he has never yet visited at town.
Another “access” I would like to see is access to the market: I would like to see all barriers and protections around world markets disappear.  Protectionism is built up in each nation in the name of the poor, but its real beneficiaries are the rich and clever  people who known how to manipulate the system.  By contrast, the poor have a better chance in a bigger open market than in a smaller protected market.  Everyone would benefit from the free flow of commodities, finances, and people.
It does not make sense to build high walls around the borders of our countries.  Passports and visas are a twentieth-century phenomenon that did not really exist before that.  Let us leave them behind with the century that invented them.  Let us take pride in our human identity above all other identities.  Let us wave our national flags, celebrate our regional, national, racial, local, religious, political, and cultural identities, but not by offending the unity of humankind, strengthened and enhanced through the friendly competition of cultures, religions, and other diversities.
Needless to say, technology as well as economic necessity is bringing us closer to this borderless, distanceless world.  Let us welcome it with applause."

I know, that was long.  But you needed to read it.  This guy has already changed parts of the world, and he is inspiring to read.  His book is only 250 pages long, I really recommend reading it.

In other news... (let me just step down from my soapbox)... I had a very busy evening last night turning myself into a paperless person, I am now going to operate only from my computer and rid myself of the desire to jot down notes on paper and flip through pages to organise my thoughts.  It is soooo1990s, dude.  And unnecessary.  It's just changing the way you think about things.  So my bookmarks (on my internet browser, of course, what did you think I was referring to, like, actuall "book"marks?) are totally organised and I've organised the piles of crap which has accumulated on my hard-drive.  (How techno-savvy do I sound?)  Reading Yunus' book was really inspiring and I'm so excited to get ready for Africa.

This morning I was up early ( a trend lately, can't sleep much because I've got so much going on in my brain) and working on my computer before J went to work at the cheese shop.  I was due at work at 6pm but they sent me home after half an hour as it was too quiet, and I've got all of tomorrow off too.  Today I was focussing on our money stuff, and I'm organising our investments and moving some things around.  I'm so relieved to have finally gotten to it, this has been one of those jobs that has been kicking around for months, but we've had some hiccups in terms of some money movements which has made things very frustrating.  Hence, Jeremy and I now officially hate Bank of America and love Charles Schwab.  Charles Schwab has the best website where you can buy your stock, mutual funds, cds or even a family pet (just kidding) all online with heaps of information to help educate you about it all if you're like me and are studying Investing for Dummies (that's not even a joke, I really am.)  So hopefully by tomorrow we'll have just about finished moving everything over there, and will place our first trades (yay!) towards becoming as rich as Howard Stern is now.  I'm really excited about it, the stock market and all of that has always fascinated me, mainly just because I don't understand it at all, and Charles Schwab even does investment training sessions online over webcast which I can't wait to join in.  Will let you know how it goes.  Jeremy has already suggested that we split some money in half and have a "friendly competition" (contradiction in terms as far as I'm concerned) to see who has the best stock tips.  There's gonna be blood.

Tomorrow is another busy day, just doing jobs that we've gotta do.  Need to do some banking, see the Charles Schwab guy, Jeremy wants to go to the army disposal store and I've got some Christmas money to spend - not sure if I'll do that tomorrow or wait until I have a nice relaxing day to really make the most of it.  Might wait I think.  Need to call the African embassies about visas and catch up on some emails, the list goes on...

Oh, but it was amazing to see and hear my brother and sister-in-law over webcame last night for 2 hours, though the picture wasn't the best we did manage to see Angie's huge belly hiding a new Ramsey.  Who will it be???  What will "it" look like???  Wish I had a name to call "it"!  Only a few weeks left, I'll be waiting for the phone call (and I'd better get a phonecall, not just an email)!

Bed now, I'm exhausted.  Africa is sneaking up on us so quickly.  Jeremy has been hard at work trying to find old laptops for us to take with us, and so far I think we have 2.  Hard to believe in just a month we'll be handing them over to some African person, and doing who knows what else.  Who knows...  I've just got so much to do...

January 03, 2006

Moving Along

It blows my mind how one minute you can feel so stuck, and the next, the stars are aligning and things just falling into place.

I guess Jeremy and I had begun to feel a little overwhelmed, perhaps, over the last few days regarding this whole Africa trip.  There is a lot to prepare, but more importantly at least for me, at lot being invested in this expedition.  Mostly our time, or to put it more personally, my time.  I have begun to feel very aware of the time I have spent, and the time I have left, and that there is no "time bank" for me to tap into when my age begins to impede my activities.  I need to get the most bang for the time I have left to spend. 

Tonight Jeremy made a phonecall to one of the people we hope to be working with throughout this whole madness.  I am so relieved that the call was, for lack of a better word, successful.  To summarize, we have connected, we believe, with like minds, of similar approach, someone we can relate well to and work well with.  Of course, this is still all over the phone, but you can sometimes tell a lot through a conversation.  I am so excited to meet these people, I feel like a lot of things are falling into place, and I don't want to jinx it, but I really have high, high hopes.

Today we had quite a bit of snowfall.  I walked to the library in the snow to return a book and borrow a new one, Investing for Dummies, to be precise.  I would be the dummy.  I love to walk in the snow when it has just fallen.  It amazes me how the entire landscape can change in just a few hours, suddenly everything is white, everywhere, it is so bright, the trees are dark against the white of the snow clouds behind them, you can't see the ground before you, just the layer of snow and you walk through it, not quite knowing where the road ends and the sidewalk begins.  Most of all I love to turn around and look at my footprints in the snow, the first footprints to spoil the smooth surface of white, and then I turn and look ahead where no-one has yet walked, but I am about to.  Usually the only others I see out in the snow are squirrels and birds, but rarely.  Usually it is just me, and an eternal white landscape.  I feel suddenly all alone though I know there are people surrounding me, hiding inside their houses.  And the silence, all sounds are duller and the missing sound of traffic puzzles me in the back of mind, trying to remember what is missing.

Of course, in a few days we will be complaining about the dirty slush all over the roads and sidewalks which won't disappear, and then when we have a freeze the slush will turn to ice and try to trip me up every time I walk to work.  But for now, it is just painfully pretty.  And everytime I look at it I try to remember, unsuccessfully, what it was like when I could see the grass everywhere.  And then when the landscape changes again and I am surrounded by green, I will try, unsuccessfully, to remember what it was like when it was all white.

January 02, 2006

Catching up...

And so now it is here, a new year and a new start.  26 days and counting...

Unfortunately my New Year work schedule has been pathetic, I was sent home tonight as I didn't have any tables.  So the piles of money I expected to make this weekend will have to be made up somewhere else.

It was nice to have a surprise dinner at home, as I've been working dinners so much lately I've rarely been here.  To be honest I'm quite exhausted.  I've made it through the madness of the holiday season and I kind of feel a bit disoriented, I should have gone to bed early tonight but instead I kind of stayed up not doing much, a little unsure of what to do with myself.  I'll be putting an end to that tomorrow.

Now that I'm on a much more relaxed work schedule my focus is shifting to prepare for our trip as much as we can.  We've had some contact tonight with someone else we might be working with, and Jeremy will hopefully be chatting to them soon to get more information.  Me being the more cynical (I prefer "cautious") of myself and Jeremy, I'm quite anxious about the way things are operating, but I am really trying to hang in there and have some faith.  This is one of those kinds of things that could be really amazing, or just fizzle away. 

January 01, 2006

Happy New Year!

Here it is, and not a minute too soon.

Last night was the first New Year's Eve I've ever had where I didn't go to a party or event or something.  My double at work yesterday did not turn out as eventful as expected, I had one table at lunch, and then the snowfall at 5pm made my dinner shift feel more like any old Tuesday night than New Year's Eve.  I also had my record low tip - 5% on a $72 check.  Un-be-lievable.

I came home to find Adrienne, Tony and Jeremy had just finished watching Napoleon Dynamite.  We watched the various celebrations in America on Time, mostly Times Square and Atlanta, and watched the ball drop (for those who don't know, there's this big crystal ball in Times Square which moves down a pole at the countdown, it has become a phenomenon over here.)  We were in bed by 1:30am.

In any case, I think it was nice to have a NYE at home.  I'm sure if I was in Melbourne there's no way you could keep me at home because there's too much to do, but at least in West Hartford with fresh layers of ice on the road, it seemed to be the best idea.

Happy New Year everyone.  Erin, I wish I could have been at your party!  My first New Year's Resolution is to blog every day, so we'll see how that goes.  As for now, someone's gotta serve the brunch shift in West Hartford...

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