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Do good, and good will come to you: The Story of Claudia Martinez

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Claudia Martinez - The original newspaper article

How we discovered Claudia Martinez

As some of you know, I worked in the Dominican Republic. I arrived days after the Haiti earthquake early January this year, and flew back to Rome last week.

I already told you a story from my time in the Dominican. Something else happened during my stay, something to be know of “The story of Claudia”.

When we set up our office in the Dominican, we called in staff normally working in other parts of the world. One of them was Anisa. I worked with her back in my Dubai days, where we considered her “the mama” of the office. While she was probably the shortest of us all, she had the biggest heart of the bunch. Anisa is the person who considered the office as dear to her heart as her own home. She is the one coming in early to put a flower on people’s desk, goes around with soup when we – once again – have a long day… And come up with the craziest ideas, born in her big heart.

I called in Anisa to help us in Santo Domingo…. where she immediately resumed her ‘mother-ing’ role, and looked after us like we were her own. For the coffee, the fresh fruit and the occasional “time for you to get out of the office, you have been here long enough!”.

In the early days of the emergency, she wrote me an email, titled “Gesture of generosity to appreciate a local Santo Domingo hairdresser”. (and I thought: What now?):

Peter,

I read the attached article in Gulf News on 23.01. It really touched me that here is a soul who is reaching out to others in her best capacity, physically, financially as well as emotionally… as she is doing it with her heart.
I am sure she herself penny pinches but has a heart of gold and filled with generosity to reach out and bring a smile on another human being.

So I cut out the article and was going to ask any one of our staff who would be in Santo Domingo to trace her. I wanted someone to give her a small donation from myself. This would then enable her to continue spreading the happiness and cheer to a lot more other ‘Haitian patients’.

But then I was asked to come her myself. I was in a state of shock …. Was this a calling for me to come over personally and seek this woman out or what?

Well, I cut out the article and from the time I have arrived I have requested Amelia and Elizabeth to help me trace this lady – Claudia Martinez. Which has not been easy.

Eventually, Elizabeth managed and has spoken to her and we have her phone number. Claudia is willing to come to the Hotel and meet with us. So my humble request is can we keep a small box for a collection? Have a write up stuck up above the coffee station with the box and staff can pitch in as they feel best.
With the donation and our best wishes she can then continue with her ‘good deeds’?

An opportunity for the our staff to reach out and bring some happiness and support to the less fortunate…..

Thank you,

Anisa.

I read the article Anisa attached. It was a piece from Gulfnews, one of the local newspapers in the UAE. It told the story of Claudia Martinez, a Dominican lady who volunteered to help some of the Haitian earthquake victims in the main Santo Domingo hospital. She helped by… doing their hair. As the story said: “Her task may seem trivial, but she believes restoring a bit of beauty and humanity to people who have lost everything and survived deplorable conditions is important.”

A story that speaks to one’s imagination. We collected over US$300, and finally met Claudia in March. She came over to the office together with the hospital volunteers’ coordinator. I introduced her to the staff in the office, and we engaged into a lively conversation. Claudia, a single mother of two, was not aware of the newspaper story. “One day, a guy at the hospital took some pictures and asked me some questions, and that was it”, she said. Nor did she realize it was picked up by Agence Presse, and got republished in many newspapers all over the world, from the US to the Middle East, Pakistan and New Zealand. And she had no idea how she had inspired others.

We emphasized the money we collected was for her, and to use it for something she wanted to do. Asked what she wished for, she answered: “I wished I could learn how to read and write. I wished I could give my kids a proper education”. That was quite a challenge as she could barely make ends meet, and her eldest is speech impaired. But still, she volunteered most of her time at the hospital. “It is heart-breaking to see how little those people in the hospitals really have”, she said. “I feel rich compared to them”…

Anisa and Claudia

Anisa (L) and Claudia (R)

We sat outside for a long while, with staff from the office joining into the conversation, and Gaby patiently translating between English and Spanish. We got to understand the hospital is the largest in the Dominican. Often patients were brought in, and left there. Many did not have a change of clothes. Kids without anything but a pair of pants. Their families simply did not have the means to take care of them. Neither did the hospital. Claudia asked if we wanted to come over, to see for ourselves. Which we promised to do.

Since then, “our project” continued: we donated several parcels with used toys for the kids and basic clothing for the patients. But then another thing happened unexpectedly: Just incredible how things go sometimes…:

A few weeks after I met Claudia, I was in North Italy, on a short break with my family. Frau Preindl, the owner of the hotel, knew I worked in the Haiti emergency. Just as we were leaving, Frau Preindl said “wait!”. She grabbed an envelope and put it in my hands: “Here, you will know what to do with it. Go and make a difference. You know, we seldom realize how lucky we are. We have all we need, so the least thing we can do, is to share some of it.”

It was not until I got back to the Dominican, three days later, I realized there was a real significant sum in that envelope. And I did not have to think long what to do with the money…

Stay tuned for Part II of the story.

Written by Peter

June 21st, 2010 at 6:20 pm

Posted in Stories

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Welcome to “Erbil”, the bar of ex-aidworkers

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the public bar is closed
I read through the last (for now) post of Harry Rud, an aidworker who returned from several years in Afghanistan, now working at the organisation’s UK HQ. Someone mentioned in the comments, we should start an ex-aidworkers’ bar. A place to indulge in reminiscent memories of dusty pasts…

I thought.. What would be the ideal ex-aidworkers’ bar? The bar is to be called “Erbil”, for sure. To remember the UN bar up there as the only safe place to drink (and eat for that matter) after the Iraq war (the second one that is).

The bar is really the only place you can go, to meet those in the same “zone” as you. THE spot to chill out and exchange another story “I remember when I was in..” after yet another day trying to save the world and realizing you didn’t make a shit of difference. Was mostly after catching your two drivers syphoning out the petrol from your car. That was this morning. This afternoon, you fired the guard as he fell asleep on his stool next to the gate and did not wake up even if you hooted right next to him.

There are old yellow-ish pictures on the wall showing people in happier times. All of them taking in the same bar, of course. Mixed with postcards sent from holiday places. All reachable within the R&R cycle.
There is a trace of stains from the time John thought it would be fun to shake that cheap champagne bottle on his birthday, years ago. A bottle he risked his life for, smuggling it through airport customs.

The tables and chairs are a mishmash of different makes. Mostly cheap plastic. Collected after the bombing of a local community center back in 2005.

The servings of drinks differ as the weeks go by, dependent on what container Patrice – the MSF logistician – was able to smuggle into this darned muslim country. Some months, whiskey is the only drink, as the beer container got stuck at the port, lack of sufficient baksheesh.
It is amazing in how many different ways you can drink whiskey. And in how many ways you can use it. Including lightening up a short shot, and then, flame and all, put it on your forehead where it sucks itself out of oxygen. The half burned round sucking mark stays on one’s forehead for a week. And is the trademark of “Erbil”, our bar.
Mal once tried the same trick by sticking two of those burning shots onto his balls. He can only grin at that memory now… As I said, there are many things you can do with whiskey.

Andrew is always sitting at the same stool at the corner, no matter when you come in. You wonder if he really has a job at Care International, or if he became a beneficiary himself. His brother, Jolly -nobody knows his real name- is famous for the fancy dive he took in the swimming pool in the back. Forgetting the fact they never filled it up again after the 1995 earthquake which cracked up the foundation of the pool. And the spilling water flooded the underground safety shelter. Something which really upset that ex-Foreign Legion security officer we once had. Remember him? I remember his face, but can’t remember his name. Rodriguez, wasn’t it? He did not last two days after we took those shots from him dancing naked on this very same bar, and emailed it to the director of UNDSS in New York.
Little did we know they wouldn’t think that was not funny. Bureaucrats!

They serve a mean chicken, here. Full of spices to kill everything living in your stomach. Special recipe of Paul, who once owned the bar. Until he drove over a landmine up-country, shopping for two lambs to put on the barbie on Xmas.
It takes about one hour to get the grilled chicken serving, as all is fresh. The chickens roam in the backyard. After the order the cook disappears for 10 minutes with an axe in her hand.
If you want to understand what food poisoning means, you eat the salad too.

The music is always the same choice out of five CDs. The rest was nicked. Aidworkers can be thugs when it comes to personal entertainment. The CD of Tom Jones’ “Sexbomb” is kept for special occasions. Diana Ross’ “I’m coming out” always keeps hicking up at the same spot, until the bartender gives the CDplayer a kick.

But you don’t hear the music, you concentrate on that drink, and the distant noise of your VHF handheld, as a desperate radio operator tries to go through the daily radio check list. And on the distant muffled sounds of yet another grenade attack (all pre-recorded of course).

There is a large, half torn poster of Bukavu, at Lake Kivu. Must be from the Fifties, as the cypresses are not chopped into firewood yet, and the Hotel Karibu is still there. Those were the times when the living was good, and aidworkers were well respected civil servants, representing the social welfare and education arm of the colonizing country.

The electricity is cut twice a day, after which Abdul, the current owner, manually kickstarts the old grumpy 5 KVA generator, which makes the lights shimmer slightly in a rhythmic pattern.

The guests are always the same. Julie, ex-Jalalabad (shagged on R&R in Islamabad) sitting with Patricia (shagged in Juba), and Olivia, the ex-UNHCR reproductive health specialist from Goma (shagged in Mombasa). Olivia actually picked you up with the catch phrase “I have a container full of condoms, expiring next month” (HT Michael). Or was that Shelly? Anyways, does not matter, all of them give you the evil eye anyways. As if it was your fault you wanted to remain celibataire and were only looking for a quick fix?

At the next table we have Joaquim from ECHO, still looking for that single killer project to fund. A project that would propel him into the higher echelons of the Brussels Ivory Tower. For the moment, he is doing his best looking important, going through the 50 pages assessment report, full of baseline data and stakeholder interviews.
Cathy, the Texan chick (shagged in Monrovia) from USAID sits next to him, reading Bush’s new book “How I won the Iraq war”. As usual, Antoine, the head of mission Lutheran World Relief, joins in (tried to shag you in the Kigali transit lounge, of all places). Bible at hand, as per habit. You remember the fight you had with him, as he kept on spilling profanity on the security repeater in the middle of the night. Usually after he crawled back from the bar to his compound. You’ve never seen anyone wasted like this.

And then there is the table of the three OCHA dudes. Normally the loudest of all tables, as each keeps on raising their voice on top of the other. They never shut up, do they, those OCHA dudes? Professional deformity, the talking. They are either the youngest or the oldest of the whole bunch. Either fresh graduates naive enough to think aidworkers want to be coordinated, or the pre-retirees fired from every single other agency for incompetency.
Just last month, they all had a fit when their office was closed. Security phase IV, meaning “essential staff only”. It was the public acknowledgement OCHA was not essential, all found. Except the Humanitarian Coordinator, of course, who got NY to intervene and allow the “Holy Threesome” as you call them, back into the country.

But all of that is “what once was”, of course. Memories mixed with the cheap whiskey. Memories as all of us have decent jobs now. Jobs none of us likes. With only one common thought: “I wish I was back there”. In Tblisi, Luanda, Bor, Djamena, Peshawar, Dili, Mogadishu, Nazareth (in Ethiopia, not Israel) or Gulu.

And then at 21:45 someone rings the bell (an old ship’s bell that George found on the shipwrecks’ beach near Karachi) and shouts “Last call, curfew at twentytwohundred!”. After which we order those last 10 shots-to-go. Hand back our make-believe handhelds and safari jackets at the reception, pick up our attache case, straighten our tie, and step into our BMW.

Driving back to our suburban villa we make a mental note not to forget to pick up the lawn fertilizer tomorrow morning. And the tickets for the mid-term holiday in Tenerife.

Picture courtesy Lost in Berlin

Written by Peter

June 17th, 2010 at 6:12 pm

Posted in Funny,Stories

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Travelling by plane

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kids on the plane

There is not much to say about most aeroplane journeys. Anything remarkable must be disastrous, so you define a good flight by negatives: you didn’t get hijacked, you didn’t crash, you didn’t throw up, you weren’t late, you weren’t nauseated by the food. So you are grateful.
The gratitude brings such relief your mind goes blank, which is appropriate, for the aeroplane passenger is a time-traveller. He crawls into a carpeted tube that is reeking of disinfectant; he strapped in to go home, or away. Time is truncated, or in any case warped. (..) And from the moment he departs, his mind is focused on arrival.

Paul Theroux
in “The old Patagonian Express”

I thought of that quote yesterday. After spending five hours in transit at Madrid’s airport before boarding. A group of 150 seven-graders from Portugal boarded just in front of me, all excited about their one week trip to Rome. I loved their excitement and aggitation. Kids should have fun, so I put on my headset, and fell asleep the moment I got in my seat. Only to wake up half an hour later, in the midst of a school play ground. The boys and girls were running up and down, even though the “fasten seat belts” sign was on, calling the flight attendants for yet another coke or Mars bar.

I thought we were already in the air, half way to Rome, but we had not moved an inch. And we did not move an inch for three hours, unable to take off due to traffic congestion, it seemed later. Not that the captain was eager to announce anything. We just sat there. Except for the kids. They were not sleepy as I was. True, I had just flown through the night, and had been awake for 36 hours, but then again, I thought they’d been settling down after a few hours. But they did not.

It was strange to see how the other passengers reacted. The noise was that of a kids’ birthday party, and so was the agitation and the running around. Kids love kids parties. Adults not. So, most other people switched off. At best, some would get up to stretch their legs, still with a blank stare focused on the horizon. One guy started to play cards with them. Only two passengers got excited. “Che casino, questi ragazzi! Calma, per favore, calma!” shouted an Italian passenger. And it was “piu calma” for five minutes straight.

I was glad to arrive in Rome, where we got stuck for another hour waiting for the transit buses to arrive. And for the luggage to arrive. When I finally opened the door of my apartment, I sighed with relief. I can’t wait until time and space travel finally becomes reality. We just step into a tube, and “zwoop”, we arrive where we need to be. From the hotel lobby in Santo Domingo to my apartment in Rome. “Zwoop”.

Hopefully by the time we can warp into time and space, it will be immune to volcanic dust. But probably the kids would not enjoy warping that much. They enjoy the travel. I envied them.

Written by Peter

June 5th, 2010 at 9:14 pm

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Aidworkers are like driftwood

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driftwood

Last night I arrived back in my apartment near Rome. As I opened the door with a key I had not used for almost three months, the familiar smells and sights engulfed me. It felt as if I had just walked out of the door for a few minutes, to buy a pack of cigarettes in the shop downstairs.

A pair of shoes stood under the small table in the hallway, with next to it some spots of volcanic sand from the previous stroll on the beach now ten weeks ago. I walked into the kitchen to unlock the backdoor, switched on the boiler, picked up a glass on the way back, hooked up my iPod to the sound system, selected Italian opera, checked messages on the answering machine, drew the curtains aside and opened the living room windows.

The smell of distant sea-silt, the fresh breeze, the trees waking up from a winter sleep, the laughter of the kids playing below in the street, the dog from the house across the street barking, and the meshed conversations from the people coming out of the ristorante on one corner, with the those sitting on the terrace of the coffee shop on the other corner.

All of it made it feel as if I only left for a few minutes. But it did not feel this was the place I missed during my travels to the Dominican and Haiti. It did not feel this was the place I dreamt of. It felt as if I wasn’t really gone. A piece of me stayed here. A big piece of my heart never left. Coming back felt like two pieces of my heart were joined again, making it skip a beat for a second. I smiled when I realized my heart pounded faster. I felt happy. “Honey, I am home”..!

But what is “home” for a wandering aidworker? I will be here for four days, then off to the North for a few days, followed by another plane ride to Belgium, my other home, for a week. Then I will drive off for a week of skiing, and back. Plane back to Rome for a day, and then to my other home, in the Dominican, for a few months.

What is home really? What defines home? The pillow I lay my head on? The hands I held in thoughts? The smile of my girls?

In thoughts, I pushed my travel bags in a corner, sat down, and opened a bottle of Prosecco, realizing this life I lead is a weird life. But it is the life I conscientiously had chosen since I left for a war-torn Angola back in 1994. Sixteen years I have been on the road, and made my home in dozens of places. What? Hundreds of places! From the hotel room in Georgia where the wind would swing the electrical wires on the street until they shortened with a bang, waking me up every night. To the apartment in Tajikistan where the tap water was as black as ink. To the bed and breakfast place on the border of Cambodia and Vietnam where I had to pick the leeches off my legs each time I walked in the garden. To the underground bunker in Kabul. The humid guesthouse in Islamabad shared with cockroaches. The Out-of-Africa villa in Lilongwe and the house on the hill in Kampala, known as “the house next to the big mango tree”, until the transformer next to it went up in flames, burning down the tree while it was at it, then to be known as “the house next to the big charred mango tree”…

This morning, before even taking a shower, I wanted one of the things I missed about this place: A Cafe Latte with a cornetto. As I got out of bed, I put on some clothes – realizing I forgot my jeans in my Domingo home, and went down. Laura, behind the counter as usual, said ‘Ciao, Peter!”, as if I’d never left. I sat on the terrace tasting the coffee as if it was my first. Looking at the blue sky lined with palm trees as if it was the first time I saw it.

I thought a shower might be a good idea, but, as I went through the last piece of the croissant, I realized I took my electric shaver with me, but forgot my charger in Santo Domingo. Strange how you realize things clearly sometimes, but at the moment where you should have remembered, you forget. I dug out the keys to my car, brushed the pine tree needles off the wind shield, and went to buy a razor. Got distracted by the early spring flowers on the way back. Conscientiously took a different turn, and drove off to the sea. Locked the car, and walked up the beach.

It was then I saw a large piece of driftwood. It was then I realized my life was as if it were driftwood. Floating from one place to the other. Each place left marks on me, in me. And as time went by, each place sculptured me bit by bit, making me who and what I am.

It was then I realized this is the life I like. Drifting from place to place. Not rooting in any, but loving all. And particularly loving this beach where I was pulled ashore, right here in Italy.

Written by Peter

April 15th, 2010 at 9:00 pm

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Haiti, where Mañana is not an option…

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Log Base in Haiti

“Mañana, por favor!”, I answer when housekeeping knocks on my door. Mañana, please, I am working…

I sit, computer on my lap, on my bed reading through a backlog of emails, catching up on work done, being done, and work to do.

I just got back from two days in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. It has been almost two months since I landed in Santo Domingo to coordinate the support functions for the Haiti crisis, out of the Dominican Republic. My days are full. My attention is switching from a meeting with one of the ministers, staff recruitment, debugging a cash advance problem, a meeting on limiting the overtime the drivers can do, a shipment which seems to be lost but really is not, stamping the numbering on the food coupons, staffing contracts and a security incident.

It is not the amount of work that tires me, it is the intensity in which issues come, and need to be dealt with. Not that I don’t like it, but in the evening, I pass out on my bed…

After two days in Haiti, I wonder how my colleagues can deal with their work, which is a ten fold more complex than mine. They don’t have a comfortable hotel room, five floors up and 1 minute away from the office. They either live in Camp Charly, the tent camp for the humanitarians, or have to shuttle to the boat anchored off shore, to spend the night. Given, the boat is more comfortable, but it takes anything between one to two hours to get there. Some of the staff pitched their tent in the back of the container park, in “Log Base”, right next to the airport, where most UN agencies set up tents, tarps and office containers, making it the “humanitarian nerve center” of the operation.

The humanitarian part of Log Base is nothing but one narrow road, lined with parked vehicles, crowded with people moving around between the offices, and filled on either side with “offices”.

The fortunate have a 20 foot office container, some with airconditioning, with tarps over them to avoid water sipping through the joints. The less fortunate have massive tents to work in. Meetings are held in open spaces covered with tarps, or half open shelters. Lack of working space is common with most containers cramped with four people, hardly fitting the make shift desks, filled with files and folders hardly leaving space to fit their legs inbetween.

The noise is constant, mostly from planes and helicopters taking off or landing on the airstrip a few hundred feet away. During the meetings, when the screaming noise of yet another Ilutsin taking off builds up, people just stop their sentence for thirty seconds, and then continue as if nothing happened. Like pushing the ‘pause’ button on a video.

Most of the containers are now properly wired up onto the generators, and have network connections to the servers and satellite links. Nothing much we can do these days anymore without connectivity, be it for emails, telephone calls, or registering all procurement or logistics transactions onto the central servers in HQ.

Luckily, during my two days, it was neither hot, nor raining, and many staff commented “this weather is as good as it gets”. I can imagine the dust, humidity or mud on other days.

There is a constant flow of visitors. Army personnel, staff from the other agencies and NGOs, civilians, people from the government and local communities, people coming back from assessment missions or distribution points. It makes it hard to keep concentrated to the task at hand, as people get interrupted every other minute.

And although the spotlight of the world’s cameras is no longer focused on Haiti, the humanitarian operation is still to peak. While during the first six weeks, the utmost urgent needs were being met with loads of cargo being flown in, the steady massive flow of the aid cargo coming in per ship has started. While one plane can bring in up to 100,000 kgs of aid supplies, a ship can bring in 400,000,000 kgs in one go. So the logistics and distribution challenges are only starting now.

On top of it all, the rainy season has begun, making the need of the bringing in supplies even more urgent. And we have the hurricane season just around the corner.

So, sitting back in my hotel room on this Sunday, I can not have but admiration for the staff working in Haiti. Many of them were present during the earthquake. They have lost their homes, suffered from loosing family or friends, scarred by seeing the human misery day by day.

I wish anyone criticizing the humanitarian agencies on the ground in Haiti, could spend a week there, working with them and feel what it is to be faced with the daunting tasks ahead, where “Mañana” might not be an option.

Pictures from my visit to Haiti, and random snapshot from day to day life here, can be found on Shot from the Hip.

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Written by Peter

April 1st, 2010 at 9:06 pm

Posted in Stories

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