Season ticket on a one-way ride…

9 Jul

I won’t lie to you. The past several months have been tough.

It’s been a combination of things. Heavy workload, heavy issues to deal with, some troubling uncertainty around different aspects of the in-house NGO world that I inhabit. I’ve been working through a number of things personally, none really negative, but requiring effort and focus and introspection.

Although it seems somewhere between self-centered and immoral to complain about it, Haiti took it’s own kind of toll as well on myself and my friends involved in the early weeks of that response. On top of that, my travel schedule has been quite heavy the past several weeks, and as fun and exciting as that life sounds to some and sometimes even is in fact, it can also be very draining.

All to say that I arrived a couple of days ago for a short week of life-saving meetings in – get this – Phuket, Thailand, feeling basically worn out and grumpy. I was not exactly thrilled to be getting on an airplane again so quickly, nor was I particularly thrilled to be headed to Phuket. For as much time as I’ve spent in Southeast Asia, I have thus far managed to steer clear of Phuket. Until now. And FYI, it’s “pooo-KET.”

For as basically optimistic as this work requires us to be, there are moments when it can incredibly difficult to lift one’s gaze beyond the tyranny of the immediately urgent and imminent, and to get bogged down in all that’s going wrong at the moment, whether in our personal lives, in a country that we support, or with our finance department.

* * *

My first evening here, deep in the throes of jet-lag (I’ve been in jet-lag solid for the past four weeks) I had dinner with a close aid-worker friend. He was as tired and cranky as I. Our conversation: reflecting on the fact that none of the older (than us) aid workers we know have actually retired and gone on to a “normal” life. They all a) died young; b) went crazy or are very clearly headed in that direction; c) are about to die of old age, but still trying to pull off hardship post deployments; or d)  b + c.

We moved on from there to something we’d both read about the leading causes of death among aid workers. Nope, it’s not getting shot by militants or inadvertently stepping on landmines. It’s not encephalic malaria or meningitis or hepatitis C. The top two leading causes of death among aid workers, in order, are motor vehicle accidents and drowning. And according to the study, drowning in particular happens in the context of aid workers getting drunk and then falling into the pool or ocean. If I can ever find the article online I’ll link it.

That’s certainly one way to put an early damper on after-workshop evenings at Thai beach bars.

* * *

But then last night, after the first day of the life-saving meetings, the same guy, plus one more old friend aid-worker and I threw caution to the wind. We walked a few blocks down the motor-vehicle infested street for dinner and a few Singhas at a little bamboo bar within sight of the ocean.

After eating we tried another bamboo bar or two, and then eventually ended up in the lobby of the hotel where we were staying. The lobby band – for that evening only, a lone young woman, a microphone and a computer (it was the guitarist’s night off) – was just getting going.

* * *

The lobby singer – her name turned out to be “Geng” – sang an awesome set of classic rock just for the three of us that evening. (And when I say “awesome”, I mean we had a great time, not that she ever sounded anything like the originals.) But the real highlight was a cover of the best band to ever record on vinyl, her rendition of the consummate aid worker anthem.

It was so fabulous I had to put it on YouTube: Check it out (you can even hear a few aid workers, a bit off-key, singing along on the chorus).


I’ve said and written many times that AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” is the consummate aid work anthem. And it totally is. But I have to say that Geng’s cute-dimple ponytail-swinging uber-cheerful rendition is the best, and as I think about it, the most apt for aid work, that I’ve ever seen.

As she air-guitared her way through the bridge I began to feel… better. The angst of recent weeks and months began to wane. Aid work, at least for me, is a one-way ride. And that is definitely something to be cheerful about.

Sure, times might be tough. Certain aspects of the future may be hard to see. I feel worn down. Maybe my friends and I will end up like our older(er) friends – crazy or dead. Maybe we’ll end up in some kind of hell. Maybe that hell will be a life of cubicles or a really socially toxic team house. Maybe it will be some kind of metaphysical retribution for bad past bad choices, promises made but not kept, decisions made the wrong ways and realized too late.

Whatever. So long as there’s beer, we’re near water… and Geng is in the house band.

13 Responses to “Season ticket on a one-way ride…”

  1. Marianne 9 July, 2010 at 4:35 am #

    Geng knows how to really work that pony-tail.

    I’m going to have to go home and practice.

  2. Texas in Africa 9 July, 2010 at 5:27 am #

    I’m kindof having a hard time feeling sorry for you when you’re in Phuket and I’m watching the smoke rise from rioting in Butembo. 🙂

    Seriously, great post, J. I hadn’t thought about aid workers not having retirement funds, or a sense of when to quit, or, or, or…

  3. Michael Keizer 9 July, 2010 at 6:38 pm #

    That was awesome. No other word for it.

  4. Rachel B 11 July, 2010 at 4:54 pm #

    DUDE! I’m having an out-of-body experience just watching this. Something about AC/DC makes me remember my youth and the feeling that all is in front of me. Nice to feel that way again. Rock on, brothah, rock on.

  5. Sharon 12 July, 2010 at 7:36 am #

    Hey J,

    Glad you liked the charms of Phuket. I’m one very lucky aid worker who managed to get a one year contract based in Phuket – working for a delegation finishing up programs for the tsunami recovery program. I definitely feel lucky to be here, after 5 years in Afghanistan and 3 years in Pakistan, but it certainly doesn’t help with any ‘street-cred’ on the CV.

    I check on your site every now and then – as I think you have some very interesting things to say. I agree with most of your opinions.

    I wish I had of known you were in Phuket last week. I would have liked to say hi. We have many friends in common, and we have crossed paths before, when we worked together (for the same organisation) in the IDP response in Pakistan last year. I was the Australian program officer completely swamped with proposals/concepts until you guys all arrived to help us out. (Before we were all unceremoniously evicted from the country).

    Anyway – just wanted to say hello.

    • J. 12 July, 2010 at 5:56 pm #

      Ahhhh… good to meet you… again! And thank you for reading. Had I known you were in Phuket, I would have made a point of circling past for a Singha or two. Next time.

      Stoked to read that you saw our arrival in Pakistan as “help”🙂

  6. Rachel 12 July, 2010 at 10:54 am #

    Oh my god, that’s just fantastic, that YouTube video.

    Enjoy Thailand. Greetings from Pittsburgh!

  7. r 20 July, 2010 at 7:58 pm #

    Don’t underestimate crazy; it’s better than you know. As an older-than-you aid worker spending my dotage in the rubber room of my mind, every day is a holiday.

    You should be so lucky. Keep it up and you will be so lucky. . .

  8. Amelia 27 July, 2010 at 3:23 am #

    Mate, loooove your singing. Loved her ponytail, she was a hell of a lot better than my ‘weird Serbian in a bar experience’. What about an email to me now and then eh?

    • J. 27 July, 2010 at 6:51 am #

      I know, I’m a total delinquent… Will write soon. Are you still in Haiti?

  9. Karina 20 August, 2010 at 7:27 pm #

    You have made my day/week/month. I am struggling with the usual aid worker challenges – this week is more difficult than most. Thank you SO MUCH for this post, and your blog. And Geng is amazing. Thank you.

  10. hala 2 February, 2011 at 7:56 am #

    Thanks for this, J. those are things they don’t tell us in Grad School!…


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