Wednesday, December 31, 2014

My 2014 summarized in a photo

I have already offered a written summary of my 2014. Here is how I felt many times in 2014, summarized in a photo by a friend of a friend:

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

2014 in review, in brief

2014: the year where nothing went as planned. I know that's pretty much every year, but this year... wow.

It started off with my book being published (and thanks to all of you that bought it).

Early in the year, I found out my ethnic ancestry, which was super fascinating. I also found out I had an ancestor named Henchcliff Higginson, and feel the need to write a novel using that name.

I paid $300 to get not-my-cat Gray Max repaired after a nasty fight with a raccoon- and that's when I knew he was pretty much my cat.

At long last came the third season of Sherlock, the first episode of which I got to watch with the fabulous Lee Family.

A certain religious group decided I was worthy of doing workshops at their annual conferences on Pennsylvania and Canada in the Spring. Yes, a RELIGIOUS group. The highlight of the USA trip was seeing Philadelphia, eating, them puking, a cheesesteak with my friend Ann L. from my theatre days, watching UK in the final four with my book co-author and then the final in the bar of an Italian restaurant in the heart of Amish country (who knew?), and spending a day and evening with Michael S, from my WKU days, and his partner, George, in beautiful Lewes, Delaware. The highlight of the Canada trip was almost being turned away at the border - that's never happened to me before!

And all that is a nice way to start the year!

But then came the sadness. And it just kept coming.

In January, I spent my last day ever with my dear friend Anne Marino, with whom I've been friends with for most of my adult life. She passed away three months later. I think about her so often... I miss her terribly.

In May, I lost my former co-worker and forever friend Michael DeLong, who died suddenly in Seattle. I almost email him once a month.

I mourned the loss of Robin Williams as much as I did my friends. I still can't believe he's gone.

But hardest of all in 2014: the loss of my incredible paternal grandmother, who I've written about again and again, and our heart-breaking last weekend with Albi. Our house is so empty without her.

I thought the highlight of 2014 would be our spectacular two-week June motorcycle trip through Utah and Nevada - 2989 miles / 4810.329 kilometers, even including my first wreck! It was an amazing adventure, one we needed BADLY.

But then, out of the blue, while we celebrated Germany's World Cup victory (oh, that Brazil game!!!) came the offer to work in Ukraine for nine weeks. Still can't believe it. And, of course, how could I be in Ukraine and not go to Chornobyl?

This was followed by a magical trip with Stefan to Dublin, Ireland, a visit in Germany (so great to see Lis, Carrie and Rita!), my first ever trip to Warsaw, Poland, and, at LONG last, a visit to Barcelona! (I've been trying to go there for more than a year and a half!)

Back in the USA in the Fall, my big issue was dealing with the animals left before when my neighbor died. I also worked to prepare Washington, County ballots in the November elections (there was an official video, where you could see me working - but it's gone now...). Sadly, because of the election work, I missed the ceremony for Stefan's promotion to full-fledged volunteer firefighter.

Stefan got to see his first professional theatre production ever: the Broadway tour of The Book of Mormon. He loved it! He also competed in the Oregon state cornhole championship and was featured before the tourney on The Oregonian.

I also finally got to see Gregg Hale - first time since the 1990s.

And as the year ends, I'm debating with myself: keep trying to consult, or try to get a full-time gig doing whatever?

Let's not mention the gas line...

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

My days with Tracfone are numbered

(note updates at the end)

Yes, I have a Tracfone. No, I do NOT have bad credit. I have fantastic credit. And, no, I'm NOT in debt. I became debt free in 2003 or so, except for my house mortgage, and I intend to stay that way. I realize that's very un-American of me. So be it.

One of the reasons I'm not in debt is because of how little I've spent on phone service since 2009. I hear people complaining about $500 or more smart phones and monthly phone bills in the hundreds of dollars. I want to spend that kind of money on travel, not on my phone!

Until now, there has been only one downside to Tracfone: I cannot send nor receive texts from people outside the USA. And that's been a huge pain in the rear for an international consultant with clients overseas. But I decided it was a downside I would have to live with.

Another downside: if you decide to get a Tracfone, you may not be able to keep your Tracfone phone number if you move or get a new phone. For instance, if you move into a new zip code, even one right next door, you may have to get a new phone number. This is a downside I've only just learned, today. I've been pointing my Google Voice account to my Tracfone - I thought that was a good work around, but even Google Voice may go away. And if Google Voice ever goes away, I'll be using all the money I've saved on phone service on therapy.

Back to my Tracfone horror story:

Earlier this year, I decided a needed a smart phone. I needed to be able to check and post to social media and to check my Google voice account when I don't have my laptop with me, in the USA or abroad, even when I don't have phone service. But I do not want to become one of those people always looking at my phone - even on the bus, I listen to the radio on my old Walkman, and I will not use a phone at a breakfast, lunch or dinner table, smart or otherwise. An iPhone just seems ridiculous to me - I want to spend that money traveling! For at least a year now, Tracfone has offered smart phones running Android. So I decided to get one.

Now, this next paragraph is very important - it's why I'm furious with Tracfone:

I logged into my Tracfone account, and clicked on "Buy Phones and More." Then I came to a screen that said, "Please enter the ZIP Code of the area where you will be using your TRACFONE the most." So I typed in my zip code, and I got a message that said, "The TRACFONE you will be purchasing will be activated and used in the: FOREST GROVE, OR area", and a "yes" and "no" button. And I clicked "yes."

Tracfone, if you are reading, read that previous, highlighted paragraph carefully. Read it out loud to yourself.

After a LOT of research and consideration, I chose the $80 LG Optimus Fuel™.  Yes, that's $80, not $800. It arrived at my home - the address that is on record at Tracfone, in the aforementioned zip code - and I went through the online process of moving the service from my old phone to my new phone. It said it could take up to 48 hours for my phone number and minutes to get transferred. In the meantime, I got the phone configured, downloaded apps, downloaded my contacts to the phone, and on and on. Hours of set up. By the next day, by old phone had been deactivated, and according to my account on the Tracfone web site, my phone number and minutes had been transferred. But after a couple of days, I noticed that I hadn't gotten a call in a while. That's when I figured out I couldn't send or receive phone calls nor texts on my new Tracfone smartphone.

Today, I went on Tracfone's livechat to get some help. And what do I find out? Tracfone still has my zip code from two years ago as the area where any phone of mine has to be activated. So, even though I typed in my current zip code, even though the system said, The TRACFONE you will be purchasing will be activated and used in the: FOREST GROVE, OR area, TracFone set my new phone to be activated from Canby, a city that's two hours away from where I live now. I have two choices: drive all the way Canby to activate the phone, or lose my phone number and have Tracfone give me a new number and then HOPE the phone will work - and if it doesn't, I can't get my phone number back.

So I'm driving to Canby on Friday or Saturday to sit in a parking lot and hope, at long last, my phone will activate. And I'm demanding Tracfone give me a LOT of minutes. I mean a LOT. TONS. Massive numbers of minutes. And an apology.

I've done screen captures of my live chat - I'll upload them if I have to use them as leverage.

You've screwed up, Tracfone. Big time. What are you going to do about it?

Update December 3, 2014

So, a reminder: I cannot make calls or send texts, nor receive calls or texts. I have bars on the phone - but no connection. When I try to make a call, I get connected to a Verizon recorded message that tells me I'm roaming and that I can make a call with my credit card. When I call the number to try to activate my phone, I get a Verizon recorded message that tells me I'm roaming and that I can make a call with my credit card.

Here's all I've done to try to resolve this issue, as directed by TracFone:
  • I have turned my phone off and on. No change.
  • I have taken the batter out of my phone, waited a few minutes, put it back in, and turned my phone on and tried again. No change.
  • I have restored the phone's factory settings, losing ALL of my apps and configurations for those apps, which took me HOURS, and turned my phone on and tried again. No change.
I started tweeting about this issue, and several Tracfone accounts told me send an email to So I did:

I'm a long-time Tracfone customer. Recently, I decided to upgrade my service and get one of your smart phones.

I logged into my Tracfone account, and clicked on "Buy Phones and More." Then I came to a screen that said, "Please enter the ZIP Code of the area where you will be using your TRACFONE the most." So I typed in my zip code, and I got a message that said, "The TRACFONE you will be purchasing will be activated and used in the: FOREST GROVE, OR area", and a "yes" and "no" button. And I clicked "yes."

After a LOT of research and consideration, I chose the $80 LG Optimus Fuel™. It arrived at my home - the address that is on record at Tracfone, in the aforementioned zip code - and I went through the online process of moving the service from my old phone to my new phone. It said it could take up to 48 hours for my phone number and minutes to get transferred. In the meantime, I got the phone configured, downloaded apps, downloaded my contacts to the phone, and on and on. Hours of set up. By the next day, by old phone had been deactivated, and according to my account on the Tracfone web site, my phone number and minutes had been transferred. But after a couple of days, I noticed that I hadn't gotten a call in a while. That's when I figured out I couldn't send or receive phone calls nor texts on my new Tracfone smartphone.

Today, I went on Tracfone's livechat to get some help. And what do I find out? Tracfone still has my zip code from two years ago as the area where any phone of mine has to be activated. So, even though I typed in my current zip code, even though the system said, "The TRACFONE you will be purchasing will be activated and used in the: FOREST GROVE, OR area", even though you sent my new phone to the address you have on record for me, in the 97116 zip code, TracFone set my new phone to be activated from Canby, a city that's two hours away from where I live now.

I have two choices: drive all the way Canby to activate the phone, or lose my phone number and have Tracfone give me a new number and then HOPE the phone will work - and if it doesn't, I can't get my phone number back.

So I'm driving TWO HOURS to Canby on Friday or Saturday to sit in a parking lot and hope, at long last, my phone will activate. And then driving TWO HOURS back home.

I'm demanding Tracfone give me a LOT of minutes. I mean a LOT. TONS. Massive numbers of minutes. And an apology.

Here's what the Tracfone representative replied with:
    Regarding your issue, there is no need to ask for a ZIP code if we are transferring a phone number from one phone to another as we will automatically use the ZIP code from the old phone. If you have any questions, feelf ree to send us a reply.
and then, in another message:
    Once you transferred a number from one phone to another, you will have to use the original activation ZIP code where the phone was originally activated. The website notified you that the ZIP code you entered is not the same where you first activated your old phone.
So I replied:
    And how was I supposed to know, when your web site asked me for my zip code, and I said 97116, and your system said "This phone will be activated in Forest Grove" and I clicked "Yes", that, in fact, the phone would NOT be activated from Forest Grove but from a two-year old zip code? How was I supposed to know that?
And they replied with the following. Note the complete LIE in the last sentence, which I've made bold here on the blog:
    Once you transferred a number from one phone to another, you will have to use the original activation ZIP code where the phone was originally activated. The website notified you that the ZIP code you entered is not the same where you first activated your old phone.
Tracfone started lying about what happened. I was floored. My reply:
    No, the web site did not. I never, ever received any notification from your web site that the zip code I entered was NOT the same where I first activated my old phone. And when the phone arrived at my house, there was no notice that said the zip code was different for the phone.

    I learned that this happened ONLY after failing to get the phone to work, and spending almost an hour on your live chat - and I have the chat records to prove it.

    Again, I NEVER got notice that this phone would not work where I live now. I NEVER got notice that I would have to either drive to a town where I lived two years ago to activate the phone, OR, that I would have to get a new number. Your web site NEVER notified me that there was ANY issue with my current zip code. Those are the facts - let's stay truthful, please.

    I want the name and contact information of your supervisor - it's time to take this mistake on Tracfone's part higher up, since you are denying the facts. 
No supervisor name. It was after two days of this back and forth that I realized I was never talking to the same person via email - it's always someone new. I'm always starting over whenever I talk to anyone from Tracfone. And they kept giving me the same advice: turn the phone off and on, take the battery out and put it back in, etc.

I wrote yet again. This time, a new person responded. "Shelly." Here are her responses in full. The highlighted stuff is what you should pay attention to in particular:
    We are sorry for the confusion. TracFone supports different phone technologies; we have GSM phones (phone with SIM card) and CDMA phones (digital phone technology). Thus, upon purchasing a new phone online, the system will ask for the ZIP code where the phone will be used the most in order to be able to provide an accurate list of phones that will work in the area. Some customers used different ZIP codes in ordering a phone though to be able to get the phone model that they want but are currently not available in their area.

    During the activation process, the system will ask for the activation ZIP code again. However, this scenario does not apply to phone upgrade/transfer of service from one TracFone to another. In order to transfer the phone number from one TracFone to another we will need to use the original activation ZIP code from the old phone. Otherwise, you will be assigned with a new number.

    Despite of the difference with the activation ZIP code and your current location, the phone should work as long as the phone technology is supported in the area and network coverage is available. As I checked on both ZIP codes, the phone is supported and network coverage is available. Therefore, the phone should work.

    Please try to turn the phone off and back on. Please ensure the phone displays at least three signal bars. Then dial *22890. Wait until the programming is completed and successful. Then make a test call. Let us know if the phone will work.
The first highlighted sentence, in the last paragraph? An implication by Tracfone that this is what I did. I did not. Don't accuse me of fraud, Tracfone - I've got the proof that it's NOT what happened.

Second set of highlighted sentences, in the second paragraph. Tracfone finally admits to their policy, which they never told me during the sign up process. Never.

Third set of highlighted sentences, in the third paragraph, tell ming "the phone should work." Lie. It doesn't work. And, yes, I did everything asked for in the last sentence. No dice. And so I responded. And then I get this response:
    We need to speak with you directly. Please contact one of our customer care representatives at 1-866-667-6470 and enter reference PIN 631667. Please be advised that your reference PIN is valid only for two weeks. For your convenience, our representatives are available Monday-Sunday from 8:00 AM to 11:45 PM EST.
I think, wow, great, I'm finally going to talk to someone that can help me, that will give me clear answers, that will apologize and try to make this right. I'm going to call, and type in that PIN, and the person is going to be able to call up all the information about my case, and he or she will help me! Or apologize and give me thousands of minutes as a way to keep me happy.


December 4, 2014

I called. The person had no idea why I was calling. The person just repeated again and again that I could have a new phone number, or I had to return to the "correct" zip code, and that there is no way that I could have gotten this phone with my current zip code, that was impossible.

So, that's where we are now. Tracfone is now lying about what happened. This is spiraling out of control, Tracfone. Tell the truth, apologize, and make this right.

Oh, and check out my frustration on Twitter - this is the reply I get EVERY time I tweet this blog out:

March 18, 2015

I ended up driving almost two hours away, to Canby, Oregon, where I used to live, and was able to activate the phone from there.

TracFone gave me, like, 30 minutes of free time. Yes, just 30. And that was only after I repeatedly pestered them.

As for the phone, I do really like it. It will be nice that I'll be able to use it outside the country for Internet access, as one CANNOT make calls in other countries on a Tracfone plan. But about 30% of the time, it won't make a phone call - I dial the number, there is a long silence, and then I get a busy signal. That's relatively okay, as I make most of my phone calls via Skype on my computer. But it can be annoying to have to text someone rather than actually call them when I'm out and about.

I'll stick with this phone for at least a year... but, indeed, this may be my last TracFone. I just can't take the horrible customer service anymore.

And I'll tweet out a link to this blog because of this update, I'll tag Tracfone, and I guarantee you thy will tweet back that I need to email them - and the person I email will have NO idea why I'm writing.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Some thoughts on Thanksgiving 2014

I have had so many memorable Thanksgiving Days. So many. 

Before I met Stefan, and since leaving Henderson, Kentucky, I’ve spent only one Thanksgiving by myself - otherwise, I’ve always gotten invitations. It’s hard to pick the most memorable Thanksgiving. There's the one with my colleague and her entire Mexican American Family in San Jose, California, where her girlfriend was welcomed, but her brother, and his boyfriend, were not. Or the horrible one with an ex-boyfriend’s friend’s racist family in Austin, Texas, just after I'd moved there. Or the one I prepared for my French colleagues in Germany, where I made homemade stuffing for the first and only time in my life (they loved it). Or the one with a co-worker, when her husband presented the turkey on the table, skinless, and she and I staged open rebellion, demanding said skin for immediate devouring, which we did, as he told us again and again how unhealthy it was. Or the one where a co-worker and her then-boyfriend (now husband) and I gorged ourselves while watching Prick Up Your Ears and The Lion in Winter, the latter of which should be shown every Thanksgiving on TCM, truly. Or the one with Sharron Rush’s delightful family in Texas. Or the one at Carrie’s. Or the one at Lis’s. I could go on and on…

I once spent Thanksgiving with Anne Marino, hosted at the house of her sister’s husband’s sister. Anne has been on my mind a lot lately. I miss her terribly. Even as she faced death, she remained graceful, Bohemian, sassy - ANNE. As I sat with her that last time, I was angry at myself for not making more of an effort to get to the San Francisco Bay area since I moved back to the USA - and I vowed I would stop hesitating about traveling in the USA. I don’t have a lot of money, but I have enough to make traveling to visit certain friends and family a priority. I said “yes” this year way more than I said “no” regarding travel this year, and I’m so glad I did. And every time, I think of Anne.  

At some point in my 20s or so - I'm not sure when - Thanksgiving in my family started being hosted at my Aunt Charla's house. I didn't spend many Thanksgivings there, as I moved away from Kentucky when I was 22, but I so appreciated that my paternal grandmother was always invited - my Aunt is my mom's sister, but like me, she has big ideas about what "family" is. Either that, or they really did invite Mamaw only because of her awesome creamed corn. 

Thanksgiving is a difficult holiday for me now, because in 1995, my Dad called me and suggested he fly out to California and spend it with me. And though I would have really liked that, and said so, over and over again, I’d already made plans to be in So Cal for Thanksgiving. It was the last time I talked to him. What I didn’t know was that it was a part of his goodbye tour - he’d wanted to come to say goodbye before he killed himself the following February. Thanksgiving has never been quite the same for me since then. It’s still my favorite holiday, but I always remember that phone call, a mix of love and manipulation. 

There’s so much I’m grateful for this year, but I’ll save that for my blog just before New Year’s Eve. I will say that I’m grateful for my friends and family - clichéd as it sounds, they are awesome and I celebrate them all in my life, more than they know. I'm particularly grateful for the relationship I have with my sister - I was afraid, after Mamaw died, I'd feel less a part of the family. She's ensured that never happens. 

Thanksgiving is about food and being together - no presents, no shopping, just being together, with people, whether family, close friends, or just people you think need somewhere to go today. And that's why I love it. It's the ultimate Humanist Holiday. Have a happy day.

Friday, November 7, 2014

My sweet Irish travelogue

Long overdue: my travel blog about our recent trip to Dublin, Ireland. I have to admit that I wasn't charmed by Dublin when I visited in 2001. I liked it okay, but it just didn't really grab me - I preferred Kilkenny and New Grange so much more. But this time, I LOVED DUBLIN. Find out why...

My last five blogs have been so negative... happy to finally write something POSITIVE.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Helping abandoned animals: you are on your own

A friend back in Kentucky lives in a rural area and has an ongoing problem with people dumping their unwanted dogs near her house. She has the option of taking them to the shelter in the nearest city (Henderson), but has to pay a hefty fee each time she does - and she can't afford it. So she posts on Facebook, begging people to adopt the latest abandoned dog. I understand the shelter has huge expenses, and the fee is reasonable for most people - but for my friend, it's preventing her from bringing in animals at all. I have really felt for her - to be put into this position is incredibly unfair. What affordable, humane choice does she have?

Here in Oregon, I would have been happy to pay a HEFTY rehoming fee to the Bonnie Hays Animal Shelter to shelter and seek a new home for Daisy the dog, one of the eight dogs and cats left behind when my neighbor died recently. But the shelter wouldn't take her, or any of the animals - they take only abandoned animals, and they felt these animals weren't abandoned. How could this be? Because after I filed officially to say the animals were abandoned, Washington County, Oregon animals services contacted the landlord, who told them the animals were being taken care of - and they took his word. What he didn't tell them - but I did, repeatedly - was that it was me, and another neighbor, that were scrambling to take care of the animals, even having to break into the apartment to get them out when the squatter living in there chain-locked the apartment from the inside and then collapsed on the floor for more than 24 hours (I was the one that called 911 for him - he's been in the hospital for more than a week). The animals were saved - but I'll probably be arrested for burglary.

Daisy and the other animals were clearly neglected/abandoned by the landlord, but because he said to an investigator, on the phone, "Oh, no, the animals are being taken care of," no further investigation was done - no interviews with us, the people scrambling to take care of the animals, no site visit to see the condition in which they were living... .

The person helping me take care of the animals is a resident of a nearby group home for adults with mental disabilities. He's a wonderful man - but has very limited reasoning skills. The landlord had told him, "Hey, you get to take care of the animals!," and let him keep the key the deceased had given him long ago - but he never talked with the group home manager. While my neighbor is a wonderful person and very helpful regarding the animals, he's in no position whatsoever to assume complete responsibility for eight animals; one evening, after getting home late, I asked him if he'd taken the dogs out that evening. "Nope!" he said cheerily. "It was raining!" I had to explain to him yet again that the dogs MUST get out at least twice a day, and we went over together to remedy the situation. I would have been happy to tell an investigator this - but no one ever called me, despite my filing a report of animal neglect.

I was told the only way to save the dogs from that situation and into the shelter was to get a letter signed by the landlord declaring that the animals were abandoned. It was a horrible prospect: the landlord had already shown great hostility to another neighbor who had stepped forward to help with the cats, insulting her in a way I shall not repeat, and repeatedly implying that, since she wasn't representing an official shelter, he would not cooperate with her. Later, when I asked him to please stop putting massive bowls of food in the floor of the apartment for the dogs, because Daisy is 30 pounds overweight, he laughed at me and said, "There's nothing wrong with that!" When I explained that she was having trouble getting up and down the steps, and that last year, a vet had said she could die because of all the extra weight, he made a sound and a hand gesture to show he didn't care. When I told him my husband had repaired the fence in the backyard so that the dogs couldn't get out, in case he wanted to put them back there, he said, "The fence is fine! It didn't need fixing!" The fence, in fact, was falling over before my husband fixed it.

So I went to the group home manager, told him what was going on, and he was horrified that one of his residents had been put in this situation, and said he would have to stop his resident from helping because of the inappropriateness of the situation; armed with this information, and a letter declaring the animals abandoned but in no way implying that the landlord had behaved inappropriately, I went over to the landlord when he arrived on the property. It was a hostile situation, and I'm not sure how I overcame his initial refusal to sign - but I talked fast, I emphasized that the neighbor would NOT be helping anymore, and somehow, I got the letter signed.

I shudder to think what would have had happened if I hadn't gotten that letter signed.

In the three weeks since my neighbor died, myself and several other people have taken to the Internet with an aggressive campaign to get the animals adopted. Through the efforts of many people who forwarded our messages to their own networks, we have gotten ALL of the animals adopted with the exception of two: Daisy the dog, and Little Kitty. A neighbor down the street agreed to foster Little Kitty, and then, the week I had finally gotten Bonnie Hays to agree to take Daisy, that same neighbor, who has never had a dog before and has SEVERAL cats, decided to foster Daisy until we can find her a forever home - she felt Daisy would be doomed if Bonnie Hays took her, that she would be completely broken going to a shelter after all that she has been through. I wish the shelter would post information about Daisy on their web site and via social media, but they won't, since she isn't at the shelter.

I adopted Gray Max the cat, FYI. My husband doesn't like cats. Convincing him to do this was not easy. I deserve a medal for that alone.

In all seriousness: I have a job. I have work to do. I have been out of the country for 12 weeks, and I'll be going out of the country again next week, and I have SO MUCH to do. I've done all this with the animals amid all that - what if I'd still been out of the country? What if I hadn't been able to help? What if I had refused to help? I had no legal obligation whatsoever to help. But I did. How many animals out there aren't so lucky to have someone willing to make the time to care for them in similar circumstances?

I hope Bonnie Hays and Washington County animal services will consider making it very clear on their web site exactly what it takes for them to investigate the conditions of abandoned or neglected animals - I'm still stunned that, after reporting their condition, all the landlord had to do was to say was that he was taking care of them, which he was not, for the complaint not to go any further and no investigation to be undertaken. I really can't stress enough how difficult it was for me to get him to sign that letter declaring all of the animals abandoned - it was not a very safe situation to be in regarding that man and having to deal with him, but I did it for the animals. Someone else may not be so brave.

Please, by all means, continue to give financial donations to Bonnie Hays - but consider volunteering there and working to change their policies and communications to better serve abandoned and neglected animals in our county. And being a nonprofit consultant with an international reputation, I offer to DONATE 20 hours my services to Bonnie Hays, for whatever service they want, if it means it could move resources to improve their communications regarding abandoned animals.

I also want to note that I contacted every Portland, Oregon area dog rescue society listed on this page on the Bonnie Hays web site regarding Daisy earlier in 2014, when my now-deceased neighbor asked me to help rehome her. Not one of them wrote me back. Not one.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Neighbors and obligations

I find that most people, regardless of the country they are from, believe a "good neighbor" is someone that is silent, never or rarely speaks to them, never asks them for anything, and never bothers them. I've been to more than 30 countries, and I find that most people don't know the names of anyone living in their apartment building or their block, and don't want to, and when they talk about their neighbors, it's to complain about them. And that's true of many communities in the Southern USA as well, the place where everyone is supposed to be "so friendly."

I guess I'm in the minority in that, to me, a neighborhood is a community, and a neighbor is someone I live with. Yes, I want my neighbors to not bother me - no loud music at midnight, no screaming kids on the trampoline in the evenings when I'm trying to watch a movie or go to bed early, no trash in the yard that attracts vermin, no criminals in the family waiting for an opportunity to steal something and all that. But I also really like neighbors that speak to me, that say "Hi" and "Good morning" and "How as Ukraine?" I like neighbors that mow my lawn ("Well, I was done with mine, and just thought I'd do yours too") or bring me food ("We made three pizzas - you want one?") or wave to me when we're all outside or express concern when they haven't seen me in a while.

I try to be what I think is a "good neighbor." I will bring a neighbor food. I toss people's newspapers closer to their doors. I'll accept a package from Fed Ex or UPS or whatever on your behalf and make sure you get it when you're home. I'll put your loose dog in my backyard and call you at work to let you know. I may not ever invite you to my house for dinner or give you any indication of my politics and I might stick to the weather and traffic in our conversations - I don't want to necessarily be friends with all of my neighbors. But we're neighbors, and we live together. That means I have to count on you if I collapse in my front yard and can't reach a phone, or a moving truck pulls up to my house while I'm out of town, or flames start shooting out of a window when I'm not home.

Two doors down from me lived a woman that most people here in our neighborhood didn't like, and some even feared. She could be loud when she talked, and she had a dog that did not like other dogs. She was schizophrenic and on a variety of medications. She hobbled when she walked, had a massive belly, never wore a bra, and wore... comfortable clothes. She believed in conspiracy theories and thought Jesse Ventura was terrific. She's been arrested at least a few times, I think mostly for fighting with people in public. The police knew her well. The outside of the house where she lived looks awful - dirty, with abandoned things all around - but that wasn't her fault, as she wasn't the owner. She lived upstairs, in one of the four apartments in the building. The apartment next to her is occupied by a scary looking man who she said is a convicted sexual predator, and the two apartments on the first floor are packed with her landlord's junk.

She loved animals. She had a retired therapy dog, and another dog she rescued from Mt. Hood, where she found her tied to a tree, shot by BBs. She had two in-door cats and three outdoor cats. She would cry if she thought any were in danger or sick. She thought I was wonderful for also loving animals, and she came to my door crying when she heard my dog had died.

She told me that, in her younger days, she'd manufactured meth, been a volunteer firefighter in Virginia, wrangled horses in Wyoming, rode with the Gypsy Jokers, and had a BS in biology. She was appalled I am an atheist. She went to church every Sunday, unless she didn't feel up to it. She moved to Forest Grove because it was last on the bus line from Portland in this direction, and she felt like this was a good place to be far away from "bad influences." She told me many times that she wanted to "live right" now, because she hadn't been a very good person for so long.

She was living off of social security and disability, and I have no doubt that she would have been homeless were it not for those programs. And what's sad is that, in the USA, she was one of the lucky ones: a disabled, elderly woman with no family, able to keep a (leaky) roof over her head.

I bought food for her dogs and cats, and helped pay for one of her cats to be fixed. I also walked her dogs when I had the time, along with a man from the group home for mentally-disabled adults - he considered her his best friend, and they had supper together almost every night.

Every time she said something hateful - about wanting her flat mate to die or wanting to get someone in trouble with the police or whatever, I would say her name and, "Is that what you really want? Do you think that's what's best?" and I could always get her to recant and reconsider and calm down. I told her once I was disappointed in her for something she said and she apologized for it every time I saw her for at least a month.

I lived with this woman, in this neighborhood. I decided it would be better to be her friend than to make her an enemy. I've had some really horrible neighbors, MUCH worse than her - unlike them, she never bothered me, never made me regret moving here, never gave me any cause to call the police or the person in charge of city codes or anyone else. I also think that kindness is something that shouldn't have to be earned and that kindness makes the world a livable place; I'm kind to anyone, including people I don't like, and will continue to be until that kindness is taken advantage of or rejected or I become frightened of you for some reason.

I had planned on going to see my neighbor last evening, after I was home from Europe, because she had been so worried about me going, and had asked my husband how I was whenever she saw him. But I didn't go see her - I had to go to the emergency room from the airport for a little problem of my own I was having, and when I finally did come home, did a little unpacking, and had some Chinese food, I was exhausted from jet lag and my little medical issue, so I went to bed. I walked by her house this morning, and was told that she'd been taken to the hospital late last night.

My neighbor died this morning.

I doubt there will be a funeral - there's no money to pay for such, and I don't think she was in touch with any family, though I hear a daughter showed up at her apartment at some point today. Her apartment-mate has said he'll take care of her two dogs this month, and maybe next month, if he can figure out a way to pay November's rent, but that he'd appreciate my trying to find a home for them. I've already pretty much adopted one cat, but there's at least two more that need homes. I fear that I'll walk by in a few days and the place will be emptied and I'll never know what happened to the animals or her things.

Her flat-mate, whom she threatened to kill on at least two occasions with me, said "She was too mean to die", and I know she must have alienated a lot of people, including her family, if she has such; maybe she ruined so many birthday parties and Christmas's, asked to borrow money and called to be bailed out too many times, picked too many fights, and hurt and betrayed anyone who could have loved her - maybe her isolation was all of her own making. I get that, and I respect anyone's decision to cut off ties with someone who has hurt them so, even a blood-relation.

But I could judge her only on what I saw and experienced here and now, and what I saw was a woman who loved animals, whose compassion for them was true and deep, who was always happy to see me and who loved her neighbor friend that she spent so much time with. Am I and that neighbor friend the only two people in the world are mourning her?

I'll miss her stories. I'll stress over finding homes for these animals - I fear that one of the dogs will be branded as un-adoptable by whatever authorities decide such and will be doomed to be put down, and the cats will be forced outside just as winter begins. My husband will be annoyed at how much time I stress over this.

And whomever moves in to that apartment will be worse. Far worse.

I'm sad for my neighbor. My friend. I'm so sorry I couldn't be kind to her one more time.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Complaint to Frankfurt Airport Security

From the Frankfurt Airport web site:

Information about entrainment of goods in the hand luggage or check-in luggage e. g. will be provided by the German Federal Police. The Federal Police will also deal with compliments and complaints concerning aviation security matters.

Criticism and suggestions 

The following was sent via email to both of the aforementioned email addresses:

On the evening of Monday, October 13, I came to Frankfurt airport with my husband for a 20:45 Aer Lingus flight to Dublin, Ireland. My husband and I began walking to our departure gate as soon as the gate information was posted on the announcement board. As we passed the first G gates, we noticed that all of the gates in that section were fully staffed with German security personnel, but were empty of travelers - the security staff was standing at their stations with nothing to do. However, when we got to the next set of G gates, we were shocked to see a line of more than 20 travelers extending out to the pedestrian walkway, because just one gate was open. We stood in line and our shock continued: just one staff member was addressing each traveler as they prepared their items for the x-ray machine, and he was oh-so-slowly picking up almost all of the items placed in bins for his own examination, while at least five other security staff stood around on the other side of the barrier, talking, sometimes laughing. We expected another line to open - there were plenty of security staff none too far away, with nothing to do - why hadn't anyone called even one group to come down and open a second line?

One security staff member spent most of our time in line trying to realign one of the barrier doors. She spent a long time trying to adjust the door - which looked perfectly fine as it was, was in no one's way, and no one was trying to go through it, as it was almost entirely closed. We learned later she was the security staff supervisor - she really though moving a door five inches was more important than shifting staff from the other gate section to here?

At long last, it was my turn to go through the security line. As an experienced international travel, I know how to place my items in different bins and onto the conveyor belt quickly and appropriately, and how to ensure I have nothing on my person that might set off the x-ray alarm. The one security staff member that was speaking with customers in line slowly went through my items, then asked me if I had any liquids. "Right there" I said, pointing to my already unpacked back of cosmetics. "Oh, okay" he said, lethargically moving my items closer to the machine. I stood in front of the body x-ray machine, waiting to be told to walk through. The security staff on the other side were having a chat together, both leaning on different machines, having a nice, casual evening. Finally, one glanced up and waved me through. As no alarms went off, I walked to retrieve my things that had gone through the x-ray machine, and as I reached for my watch, a security guy grabbed the tray that held it and tried to shove it away from me further down the belt. I grabbed the tray and said, "Excuse me." Then reached down for my watch. He looked at me and said, "Do you have a computer?" I said I did. "I'll need to do a security check on it." Then he pointed to a computer coming through the conveyor belt. "This is your computer?" I said no, and saw that my computer, in its tray, had already been shoved down to the far end of the belt. "That's mine down there" I said. He smirked and said, "You will wait here, and I will get someone to check it." Note: he did not see a suspicious computer and decide to check it - he was ready to test someone else's computer merely because he thought it was mine. He was doing this test only because I had annoyed him. He then turned away from me and began talking and joking with a colleague. I said, "Excuse me, but could I know your name please?" He smirked and looked away. I tried to see his identification badge, and when he saw me looking, he tucked it into his shirt so I couldn't see it, and he walked further away from me. After what seemed like a few minutes, I said, "Excuse me, but I have a flight to catch, and I will miss it if I stay here much longer," He turned to me, smirked, and said, "Yes, I'm getting someone." Until then, he had made NO effort to find someone to do this suddenly-needed computer check - a check he had decided to do NOT based on the look of the computer, but because he did not like me. He called out for someone and, finally, a person came walking up and I was directed to go with him to another room so he could check my computer. I told that person as we walked that I wanted to speak to a supervisor and I wanted to file a complaint. He seemed very apologetic.

My computer was checked, and then a supervisor was brought. I was stunned to see it was the woman who had spent so much time trying to move the door instead of shifting completely unoccupied staff to the crowded security line. She didn't have a business card - or so she said - and took a few minutes to finally find a brochure that she said I could fill out and give to her. Knowing that the brochure would most likely end up in the trash rather than be given to anyone, I chose to write this email instead.

I never yelled. I never used inappropriate language. I never tried to distract anyone from doing their job. I followed all security staff instructions immediately. I was in no way at fault this night.

We proceeded to our gate, we sat down, and within 5 minutes, probably less, our flight was called to board.

Everyone on staff that night at the security gate line in Frankfurt deserves to be reprimanded for their unprofessional behavior. By being more focused on their own amusement and on inconveniencing travelers and taking punitive action against someone who dared to speak out, they took their focus off of doing what should be their job: ensuring we are all safe to travel. The behavior of your staff that night was shameful.

I hesitate to send this email, as I am flying again from Frankfurt soon, and I know that it will be within the power of the Frankfurt airport security staff to complicate my future travel based on my making this complaint. So I am also posting this to my public travel blog, and will be blogging about any further unprofessional behavior on the part of Frankfurt security staff I encounter, so that the public can see for themselves if this email results in further negative behavior on your part.

I also want to add that the Dublin, Ireland security check point staff was friendly, efficient and very professional in their approach, in stark contrast to the Frankfurt airport. I not only felt happier after I left that check point, I felt safer - and passenger safety is what should be the priority of your staff. Based on what I witnessed, it is not.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Insults on a plane

A dear friend was on a long-distance flight across the USA within the last 24 hours of my writing this blog. She was sitting next to a teenage boy. She glanced at his phone and saw he was tweeting that he was in middle seat next to "fat bitch." She said "Really, dude?" And he said "Oh, just trying to be funny."

She sat there in the seat, feeling humiliated, for almost an hour. As she said on one of her social media accounts where she related this story, which I'm retelling with her permission, "I finally decided that listening to him have fun while I felt awful was just too much."

Awful. She felt AWFUL. Can you imagine how she felt? I can. The feeling - the pain - makes my skin crawl. I know exactly how she felt.

She walked to the back of the plane and asked the Alaska Airlines flight attendants if there were any other seats available. "When they said no, I explained the situation and that I felt uncomfortable staying in my seat. I wasn't trying to get him in trouble; I just really wanted to move. They were all immediately sympathetic and the people in the last row offered for me to sit with them. The guy who swapped seats with me was really nice about it."

So, already, my faith in humanity is restored at this point in the story - the flight attendants were genuinely sympathetic, and random strangers in the last row of the plane offered to help out. That's just what you need in a situation like this - to know that you have, indeed, been horribly wronged, and that people want to help you.

As she said in her retelling,"I went back and got my backpack and said to the kid, 'What you wrote was cruel. It was really mean and not ok.' After I sat down in my new seat, one of the flight attendants went up and talked to the kid. At this point, his dad who was sitting in the row in front of him figured out what was going on. After a little while, the dad can back with tears streaming down his face, apologizing for the behavior of his son. He was horrified and I felt so bad for him. I assured him that I didn't think his son was a bad person, just a young person who needs to remember that words hurt people. We talked for awhile."

To know that the Dad was ashamed for his son just makes this all the better. That's beyond awesome. That's as it should be.

She added, "Then the boy came back and sheepishly apologized. He seemed genuinely apologetic." I should note there that I am NOT ready to cut that kid any slack. Especially since, 16 hours later, that tweet is still up. And that tweet is even worse than she's related, but I cannot quote it verbatim to show you just how bad it is because then you would be able to find him on Twitter, and she has forbidden me or any of her friends from outing him. My friend is, obviously, a better person than me.

She said, "After the flight, I saw them all again. The father and I embraced and while he had said there would be repercussions for his son's behavior, I urged him to make it about learning not punishment. The kid waved to me and again seemed genuinely sorry." Did I mention that, 16 hours later, the tweet is still there? And favorited by five different people already?

She also said, "The flight attendants were super kind and gracious and gave me unnecessary perks like a free video player." You rock, Alaska Airlines!

Of course, when she related this story, so many of her friends, myself included, jumped in to say what an incredibly classy, wonderful, awesome human being she is. My comment, "you are just pure GRACE. I mean it. I'm blown away at how you handled this. I could never, ever have handled it so well. You are a goddess."

I hope that all you parents out there will have a talk with your kids about both social media, about shaming people for any reason, including their weight, and about sexism. Explain to them that, indeed, words hurt.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Back to being plain Jayne

I had this incredible dream: I was working for a major international organization that was helping Ukraine with a range of issues, from recovery of armed conflict in the East, preparations for winter amid major infrastructure damage and the displacement of more than 300,000 people because of Russian aggression in the East and South, to addressing severe corruption, to addressing some of the worst HIV/AIDS and TB and other health issues in all of Europe. People all around me were working on these and other issues, and I was writing about their work. My phone rang a lot. There were lots of important meetings that were rarely boring. Every day was an adventure. Every minute was filled with something to do - and I had SO much to do. I felt so important! I even glowed! I took pictures almost every day.

But it couldn't have been true, because I'm in Germany, and it's raining, and there's not much to do, and no one here is talking about Ukraine, and I'm just the usual unemployed not-so-welcomed non-German speaking girl from the USA who no one knows what to do with. And I'm not glowing. And there's nothing to take photos of. 

I sure loved that dream.  

I knew re-entry would be hard. I thought I had prepared myself. I was wrong. I'm completely lost. My work email still works, and I opened it today, and there was a sea of important emails - about visitors from abroad and new initiatives and even some questions from people who didn't know I was already gone. And I almost burst into tears. 

This is going to be so much tougher than I thought. 

Shout out to my friend Lis in Bonn who made me feel oh so important again, and very, very welcomed, for a few hours here in Deutschland.

I'll get to feel important again next week, when I go to Ireland to present at a conference. But until then... well, here I am. I actually do have a few more photos from Kyiv, but no way to get them off my camera and upload them. I'll do that in a couple of weeks, when I'm back in the USA. I wonder if I'll cry... 

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Thank you, Ukraine. Jayne got her groove back.

What a great time I've had monopolizing the #Ukraine #Kyiv #Kiev #travel searches on Twitter. Right now, as I publish this blog, a search of any of those place names and #travel always brings up my tweets the most. I wonder if I've convinced anyone to come here... so many European friends working here have said they can't get friends to visit, despite there being no travel warnings at all by their governments against travel to Kyiv. They say their friends all say the same thing: "I'm scared to go there." Such a shame - because this place is a gem. An absolute gem.

I've put a link to all of my personal and professional blogs that relate to my time in Ukraine here. It's part of my ongoing quest to answer the question, "But what is it like to work in aid and development overseas?"

The international crewSunday night, there was a party by the second in command at our office, who is on permanent contract here, meaning she'll be here for at least a year, maybe up to three years. It was a party to welcome some new international staff, and to say goodbye to her boss, the boss of all the agencies here, the boss of all of us, and little ole' me. She made a heart-felt speech about the big boss, about what he had walked into in June and how he'd handled all the pressure and the mess and everything else with such decisiveness and direction, how supportive he'd been, and on and on. Then big boss made a beautiful speech about why he liked this assignment, why he liked this team, and his hope for Ukraine. I was thinking the whole time, I wish I had recorded this. It's wonderful. I was fighting back tears.

And then the second-in-command turned to me and told the story of why I was hired. I had never heard it. My friends on my real Facebook account got the whole story. What I'll share here: I wasn't the first choice, I wasn't the second choice, but for various reasons, those choices didn't work out. That's what I got told privately. Here's what happened after that, and got told publicly: the big boss picked up the CVs of everyone that had been recommended by our HQ for the job and said, "I"m going to go back through these. I'm going to pick someone." So he went into his office, was gone a while, and then came back into his second's office holding my profile, and said, "I like her. She's social media savvy, she has a WONDERFUL web site, and look, she rides a motorbike!"

Jens & JayneAs a part of his goodbye-to-me speech, he also said he'd never seen me angry. "Jayne never gets upset. Jayne, can you get angry? Because I've never seen you angry. I come into your office, furious about something, never at you, and you're calm and smiling and just say, 'Okay, let's do this and this, and, please, eat some peanuts." I said, "You don't think I can get angry? I'll give you my husband's number." Everyone laughed. I laughed. And inside, I was about to just crumple on the floor and weep with joy at this experience and sadness that it was ending.

I texted my landlord Monday afternoon and said, "I need to pay you for the rest of the month!" He said he would come by tonight. And he could not have been sweeter - told me he had been sick and meant to come sooner, and that I was the first tenant who wrote to remind him that he was owed money. Then he just went on and on about how sweet I am, that I always smile, and that I must stay here again when I am next in Ukraine. He's gayer than a 3 dollar bill, btw. Anyway… almost burst into tears during his you-are-so-wonderfu speech. I'm so freaking' weepy tonight. I miss my boss already… I miss Ukraine already.

My long-time friends and colleagues know, I do get angry, and I'm so scary when I'm angry, and I do NOT smile all the time - but I do like to smile because, well, why not? I like smiling.

Just three more days here. I just hope getting to and out of the airport is no adventure.

I won't be able to upload photos from these final days until Germany, after Oct. 6. Stay tuned.

Nine weeks in Ukraine. Most work days have been packed with, well, work, and most weekends have packed with doing or seeing *something* more than halfway interesting. And it was all so very, very good.

The things that were absolutely fundamental to making this work and living experience in Ukraine so wonderful:
  • that I had someone housing me and taking care of me from the moment I stepped out of my ride from the airport
  • that the person in charge at my work place knew EXACTLY what he wanted out of everyone, including me
  • that my co-workers let me do my job and used me frequently for what I was here for
  • that there was no one targeting me for failure
  • that I just kept encountering all these really fun, silly people at work and outside of such
  • mind-blowingly delicious Ukrainian food
  • all that makes Kyiv a wonderful city (too much to name)
Change a few things: no friend to guide me - and, therefore, I end up in the creepy Russian hotel my first weeks here, and desperate to find an affordable, nearby apartment entirely on my own, in a language I cannot speak nor read. No one to help me negotiate anything: not finding an apartment, not going to the grocery, let alone organizing a spa day in her apartment. Walking into a dysfunctional office, where no one talks to each other, where staff members hate each other so much they can't get work done, where leadership is confused or angry or just incompetent, where people do not remember WHY we are here in these jobs, where people put more energy into undermining each other than to getting something productive done. Living in a city that's either too dangerous to enjoy or just isn't a place I like for whatever reason. Any one of those things would have changed this experience completely, and might have ruined everything else.

That's why I keep saying I'm so lucky lucky lucky. Because I know each of those awful situations first hand. When you work in international aid, you're usually on your own for most things, from coordinating a pick up at the airport when you land to finding a place to stay to getting your money exchanged to getting office staff to provide you what you need, like a desk and chair. But almost everything was ready for me from day one in the office here in Kyiv - my name was even already on the name plate by the door. And even if you walk into a great office, leadership often changes - and in just a few weeks, boom, your office is transformed from a great place to work to hell.

Would I do anything differently?
  • I would have asked more different people out to lunch - a new person every week. I didn't get to know certain people at all, and I regret that. 
  • I wish I'd taken more photos. 
  • I wish I'd gone to the national art museum. 
  • I wish I'd managed my money a bit more frugally. 
  • I wish I'd had a second massage from Nicholai from Mimosa.
  • I wish I'd met one of the five motorcycle-riding women I saw on the roads of Ukraine.
But that's pretty much it.

I had fun - but not *too* much fun. I put everything into my work - it was always my priority here. And I have never been more proud of my work.

I just so desperately want to be worthy of people's respect here. That was constantly on my mind as well in Afghanistan. And in Egypt. And in anywhere: I want to be worthy of you. I want anyone who comes after me in this job to not have to work even harder to build trust with you because I was crappy. It's your country, not mine. Even if I don't like it, I'm going to respect your country. And you.

So many aid workers are such arrogant shits. And they can be from ANY country and be that way. I've see people from developing countries themselves act like colonialists when they are on assignment elsewhere - like local staff are beneath them. I don't ever what to be that way. Everyone doesn't have to like me - I just want them to think of me as a reliable expert who doesn't BS.

And with all that said: I'm ready to leave Ukraine. Oh, yeah, I'm going to cry cry cry when I leave. And cry after I leave. Probably cry in Forest Grove, Oregon at some point. I'm all but crying now. I have almost cried a few times at work. I cried at a bar last night. But I'm ready to go. I'm done. While I'm ahead. While it's still good. While there's no snow. I miss Stefan. I miss my house. I miss not-my-cat. I want a dog. I want two dogs.

Have I missed this life of aid / humanitarian / development work abroad?


Do I want to return to it permanently, full-time?


I made a choice back in 2007 or so. To have a home. Some people like living out of suitcases. They like the freedom of not being tied down. They love the rush of the adventure, even amid all the crap you have to live through when it's NOT an adventure. I used to. But something changed at some point. I'm not sure what. Also, some people can swing long distance relationships where they see their beloved only every eight weeks for a few days, for years on end. I can't.

I love this work. I LOVE IT. And I wish I could have done it starting when I was 30. But I didn't. I started it when I started it, and from 2001 to 2008, I wrung a lot of delight and wonder and delirious joy from the experiences. But I also didn't get much sleep, I wasn't eating in healthy ways, it was an emotional roller coaster that was great at times and just awful at others, and when things were bad - when work wasn't so great or the place I was working was not a place I'd like to come as a tourist, it was soul-sucking. I wanted to keep my soul.

To have gotten to do this again, one more time, maybe for the last time, and have had it turn out SO well, instead of being a crappy experience - oh, SUCH a gift. Of course, I've got two days to go... maybe it will all go wrong...

I say it again: I love this work. If I get another chance for a short-term gig abroad - up to nine weeks - in 2015, I will take it. If I could get short-term gigs like this once or twice a year for the rest of my life, and they were half this good, I would do this for the rest of my life. I'm lucky because I get health care through my husband (though, with the Affordable Care Act, I could have it anyway - thank you, President Obama!), I don't have any debt, and I make regular contributions into my retirement accounts - all of which would, indeed, allow me to "have it all" and just go out on such a gig once a year.

But that's probably not going to happen. Most of these type of short-term assignments are for nine months, not nine weeks. The choice, really, is between being an international aid worker full-time, year-round, or going back to stringing together consulting jobs or trying to get just any job, even being mostly unemployed, but having a home with my husband. And I freely, happily, chose the home and the Kraut.

After this gig ends, I fly to Germany. Stefan will join me a few days later, and we'll have the vacation we've planned for months. I'll get to see friends I haven't since 2009 - I haven't been to Germany since we moved away! He'll get to see his friends and regale them with his American firefighting exploits. We'll take a side trip to Ireland, a place neither of us have been to since 2001 - when we met there.

And then we'll go back to Forest Grove, Oregon. I'll have a joyous reunion with not-my-cat. I'll decorate the house for Halloween. I'll check in on my mentally-disabled neighbors, Virgil and Virginia. I'll lament the garden produce I missed. I'll talk too much. I'll laugh too loudly. We'll ride our motorcycles. I'll go back to cooking. I'll make a dentist appointment for teeth cleaning (long overdue) and an eye appointment (I need stronger reading glasses). And we'll start the process of looking for and adopting our next doggy. Wish I could bring one back from here (I would, if I were going to the USA from here, but I'm not).

And I'll keep looking for short-term gigs. I'll keep trying to consult enough to be able to cover my part of the mortgage and bills, as well as paying into my retirement. I'll work the Fall elections in Washington County and hope that experience is enough for the US government agency that contributes employees on election-observing missions abroad to PICK ME PICK ME OH GAWD PICK ME in 2015 for a gig.

And I'll look for full-time jobs to apply for and, maybe, just maybe, I'll give up aid and humanitarian work abroad altogether.

But I'll never give up traveling abroad. Never. It may happen only once a year, and it may be just Canada in that year. But I will use my damn passport every year. And if you think traveling is a waste of money, I pity you.

And I will come back to Kyiv. I will.

And I will never give up caring for the world outside the boundaries of the USA. I will never stop caring about people I may never meet.

Thank you, Ukraine. Jayne got her groove back.

And thank you, Neko Case, for tweeting a reply to me when I was listening to your music one night in Kyiv. Sigh…

And I end with this, which I posted a while back to my real Facebook profile - and it's meant with all sincerity:

Soooooo happy to be an atheist. Soooooo happy. Right now, this second, and every moment, every day. 
The universe is so, so, SO much bigger and full of far more possibilities than any religious text has ever said. 
I don't have to believe in any book that tells me I'm less than a man, that I have to defer to a man because he's my husband or father. 
I get to eat shellfish and mix clothing fabrics without guilt. 
I get to evaluate people by their actions, not by whether or not they are on my "team." 
I get to think and reason, instead of just follow and obey without question.
I get to rejoice in being a goat rather than a sheep. 
Oh, I am so happy to be an atheist! Right now, this second, and every moment, every day.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Last weekend in Ukraine

Pedestrian Bridge in Kyiv, over the Dnipro RiverI love that so many people here called me Jay-nee. The Ukrainian Chornobyl guide did it. My Catalan co-worker did it. So many Ukrainians did it. It was sweet. It made me think of my maternal grandmother, who has always called me that.

Oh, and in case you were wondering, following my trip to Chornobyl: no, I still have NOT developed super powers. None. So disappointing.

I do, however, look like a slouch outside of work. As I've telecommuted since 2007, and my jobs since then have required me to work onsite with other people for just a day or two at a time, a proper work wardrobe has disappeared from my closet - I had enough work outfits for a couple of days, but that's it. So I had to get creative and buy a few things before I came so I could have work clothes for nine weeks without wearing the same thing every day, but without bringing any extra bags. What I did not do was to even attempt casual fun clothes for outside of work - I brought my I'm-a-lazy-American-tourist clothes. Which are super comfy. But in this country where most women are gorgeous and take so much care to dress well... I look like a slouch.

Biggest surprise in Ukraine: far, far less mullets, far, far more women wearing flat shoes than I was expecting.

Best meal I've had? There have been so many. SO many. But I'm going with the home-cooked goose in Korosten. My guide in Chornobyl asked me what I thought of the food in Ukraine, and I told her how much I LOVE the fresh vegetables and about the home-cooked goose, and her eyes widened and she said, softly, almost longingly, "With apples?" Oh, yes. With apples. Baked right in. Mmmmmmmmm.....

Also, I must say that I have never felt worse about not knowing the local language in a place I'm working.

In Afghanistan, people were used to most of the consultants not knowing Dari or Pashto - those aren't common languages throughout the world. In Germany, my office was an English-speaking office - it was our official work language, though a lot of people worked in Spanish and French and even Arabic, if everyone in the room spoke those languages. Even when I tried to speak German outside of the office, Germans switched to English very often. In Arabic countries, people also seem to really like speaking English, though they always appreciated my 10 Arabic words.

But here, to not speak Russian, which is as widely spoken as Ukrainian, and which is spoken by many millions world wide? I felt ridiculous at times here because I didn't speak it. An entire meeting of more than 20 people once had to do the meeting in English ONLY because of ME. I felt so bad about that. I still feel bad about that.

BTW: I've put a link to all of my personal and professional blogs that relate to my time in Ukraine here. It's part of my ongoing quest to answer the question, "But what is it like to work in aid and development overseas?"

Jayne and OlenaAs I noted earlier, I bought a Ukrainian-style blouse. It took a long while to find one that wasn't white - I just don't look good in white - and that I liked and really wanted to wear. I finally wore it to work and HOLY COW I WAS THE MOST POPULAR CONSULTANT AT MY WORK PLACE EVER!! I have never been told "you look so beautiful!!!" so many times in one day. I don't think I've been told that so many times, in sum, for the last seven years - not since my wedding. Yes, I loved it, even if it was just to be nice. But it got me thinking: in some cultures, when you, a foreigner, wear local-style clothing, it's considered cultural appropriation. It's considered a big no-no. In other cultures, its considered an endorsement - they celebrate that you recognize the beauty of their culture. I know a lot of Indian women have been delighted that I wore a sari at my wedding, but I'm guessing there might be a few that found it offensive… I actually asked several people if it was appropriate for me to wear a Ukrainian blouse before I dared to buy one.

One day recently, I spent a morning talking to Sergey, the IT guy about his dacha. That is NOT a double entendre. I'm so glad I got to go to a dacha (though not his) - it's such a part of the culture of this part of the world. I'm amazed at how many people have them - a simple summer/weekend home in Eastern Europe is not something just for rich people - it's a priority possession for people in urban areas all over the economic scale. I tried to talk Sergey out of using RoundUp to kill all the weeds on the dacha, but he wasn't buying my environmental pleas. Environmental communication fail. Won't put that on my résumé. I also tried to explain to him about mimeograph machines, and how much we loved when the teacher gave us things that had been mimeographed, because the smell of the ink on the paper gave you a little bit of a high. He just looked at me like, "Wow, you are old and speaking too fast of ancient machines and my English is not so great."

I finally found the English movie night in Kyiv. I would get to see Edge of Tomorrow (don't mock me - reviews were excellent) and Godzilla (Bryan Cranston!). I was so excited - I was going by myself, sit inside a dark theatre, and be oh-so-happy. But then I saw the start time: 11:30 p.m. Sigh… I'm old. I stayed home and watched The Daily Show and Colbert on my computer (thank you, HotSpot Shield VPN). I love John Stewart's imitation of Lindsey Graham more than just about everything in life.

And that said… I'm not sure there could be a John Stewart-type show here in Ukraine. It needs one - every country needs one. If such a show just went after Putin, everyone would love it. But whereas Stewart will go after anything and anyone in the USA -- Obama, left-wing politicians, beloved but racist team mascots, beloved musicians, etc. -- and dare to make absolutely anyone uncomfortable even if he likes them, a show here that would dare to question, say, the most popular politician, or the appropriateness of the actions of some of the independent militia in Eastern Ukraine fighting against the Russians, or the zeal of some of the "patriots," would be yanked off the air immediately and get death threats for the host. It's yet another alternative country development indicator I like to do to measure a country's economic and democratic progress: number of goth girls, number of roller derby events, number of blues music clubs, reaction to a gay pride parade in the center of town, and does the country have a TV show that will cut absolutely anything and anyone down to size?

On a related note: I'm so, so sorry the Daily Show-type show in Egypt ended. I salute everyone who worked on that show. That is yet another step backward for Egypt.

Zip-lining in Kyiv over the Dnipro RiverFor my last Saturday in Kyiv, I went zip lining for the first time in my life, over the Dnipro River. I went with Tom, the maybe-a-Canadian-we-aren't-so-sure, with whom I went to Chornobyl as well. The launch site is near the big rainbow sculpture in Park Askoldova Mohyia, just past this not-so-beloved monument to the "unification" of Russia and Ukraine in 1654. I had no idea the launch and the ride is as high up as it is. If I had had to launch myself - to step off a platform, for instance - I never would have done it. But you put your feet up on those doors, they open at some point, and off you go, no way to stop, dropping down in the abyss and over the river! I screamed most of the way down and part of the way over the river. I hope the people on the pedestrian bridge were amused as I went screaming by. It was terrifying and so fun. I decided that the staff on the other side was either asleep or didn't like us, because instead of slowing us down, as they did with EVERYONE else, we slammed into the crash pads on the back wall -- the ones that are there JUST IN CASE. I had done as instructed earlier, and lifted my feet up as we approached, which meant that the hit made me turn upside down and take most of the impact on my butt. It didn't hurt... at least I don't think so... I was so traumatized by the crossing that I didn't really notice as I was righted and the worker mumbled, "Sorry." But with all that said, I would absolutely do it again. In fact, I almost suggested doing it again right away. You end up on Dniprovsky Park, which is one of Kyiv's many urban recreational beaches. It looked rather closed up when we were there.

We walked back over the pedestrian bridge, taking photos and talking about how spoiled we are to live in downtown Kyiv, when the vast majority of residents live on the other side of the river, and most of our local co-workers have to commute at least 45 minutes to work, one way. I have been on the other side of the river only once. I didn't see much green space then, but maybe things like can't be seen from the main roads. We walked down along the main road and through some construction to the entrance to the funicular, and road it back up to St. Michael's, then walked over to Maidan and said our goodbyes. I did a bit of shopping for some last minute items, then headed home to relax and work on a couple of projects.

I went out that night for my last night on the town with friends (photos uploaded soon). It was fun, and it was a nice goodbye to Saturday nights in Kyiv out on the town. But I was sorry only one Ukrainian friend showed up. I invited a few others, including two from work. The divide between local and international staff or travelers always bothers me, whether I'm working or just a tourist. I know that there are a lot of positives to not socializing together, work wise - we, the international staff, are supposed to maintain neutrality, and the respect of local staff, and I'm not sure we can maintain that, at least in their eyes, when they see us not being very professional. And, yet, it's informal moments that can also really solidify a work relationship. Likewise, when I'm traveling, when I'm just a tourist, there are also a lot of advantages to maintaining distance with local people - it can keep me from making a huge, massive social gaffe that ruins the moment or their view of people from the USA, for instance, and it can make me feel safe and not so vulnerable - as a woman, no matter your age or body type, it's something you have to think about - and keeping your distance can make you feel just a bit more in control, particularly when you are in a place where you don't speak the language. It can give you an easy, polite way to retreat. But, then again, those moments mixing with locals rather than fellow tourists can be the best parts about a trip - and who wants to only hang around with other tourists?

And that's why, through work, I always try to do something with a few local staff, even just shopping, especially close to the end of my contract, to just be a bit social, to show I'm human, and to maybe learn things about the country I never would otherwise. It also makes me see my co-workers more as "on my team" - rather than just the locals. Of course, now one Ukrainian co-worker knows just how much beer I can drink in one sitting and what a potty mouth I have...

I was a part of a very important onsite and online event for my employer, and at the last minute, I got to invite two Ukrainian friends from a local NGO that I met my first week here. I know this is weird, but I almost got weepy when I saw them in the room. Like, oh, hey, those are my FRIENDS here. I was honored that they came - even though the whole reason I wanted them there was because I thought it would be such a fantastic networking opportunity for their organization - they weren't there for me.

Afterwards, I went with my office mate to a restaurant in the park across from Taras Shevchenko National University, where we'd held the event. It was yet another unbelievably crazy good Ukrainian meal. The restaurant is near Tarasa Shevchenko Blvd. If it's lunch time, ask for the lunch menu. I had the tomato salad, the chicken soup, the fish with mashed potatoes, and a glass of juice. 65 hr - 5 bucks at the current exchange rate.

And while the exchange rate here is heavenly if you have dollars, it's horrible for Ukrainians, and iit's Ukraine's economic state that worries me far, far more than the unrest in the East. Far more. I get dread in the pit of my stomach when I read the stats at work. It will feed unrest all over the country if it isn't rapidly, effectively addressed. Based on what I've read through my job, I agree with this article: Ukraine is probably on the brink of total economic collapse.

Exports are severely down, because of the broken ties with Russia. "A great example of Ukraine's export challenges is the Antonov aircraft company known for its Soviet era large transport planes as well as other types of aircraft. As the military cooperation with Russia ended, Antonov was in trouble. It had to take a $150 million hit recently by not delivering the medium-range An-148 planes to the Russian Air Force. The Russians will find a replacement for this aircraft, but in the highly competitive global aircraft market, it's far less likely that Antonov will find another client."

Its GDP is down, Ukraine's retail sales are falling, industrial production is collapsing, and the hryvnia is getting killed on exchange rates. Inflation is running above 14% and will spike sharply from here in the next few months if the currency weakness persists. Real wages are collapsing. "A number of economists now believe that given worsening economic crisis, the country's public debt problem is simply unsustainable and default is becoming increasingly likely."

All that makes my heart hurt. Because this country is so worth investing in. I wouldn't hesitate to open a manufacturing plant here over Romania or Italy. Would. Not. Hesitate. This is a very educated, tech-savvy country. Okay, the infrastructure isn't Germany - but it's as good as I've seen in some other EU member states (I'm looking at you, Romania). Ukraine reminds me of Poland in many ways - and I mean that as a huge compliment. And Spain. Put Spain and Poland together and you get Ukraine. Yes, Ukraine needs customer service training. So does Spain and Italy. And everyone in London. I'm not the only one that sees the potential of this country: the Tech4Ukraine initiative, lead by a group of USA-based tech leaders representing companies with strong economic ties to Ukraine, that do a lot of out-sourcing here, and want to see the country turn itself around economically and flourish. You can follow them on Twitter.

In other news: from afar, I've been watching some schools in the USA make some really horrible decisions regarding NOT allowing their students to stage certain plays. A school in the USA blocked a production of "Spamalot" - which is, of course, based on the movie "Monty Python and the Holy Grail", a movie I had seen MANY times in junior high and high school. Among the many people that have responded is Richard Thomas. Thank you, Howard Sherman, for staying on top of this issue!

Probably just one more blog from Ukraine... four working days to go...

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Jayne Visits Chornobyl (Chernobyl)

Thou shalt not freak out over my trip to Chornobyl, nor how I spell it:

First, let's dispel some myths re: Chornobyl (spelling is based on how Ukranians pronounce it). Because some of your comments ("Oh, Jayne, please stay safe!") have me much more worried than my trip to the exclusion zone:

The town of Chornobyl is still inhabited. There are houses there. There are people there. It's quite a nice little village, actually. Approximately 3,000 people work in the area on various projects, such as the construction of the New Safe Confinement, the ongoing decommissioning of the reactors, and assessment and monitoring of the conditions in the zone. Employees can live in the 30 km exclusion zone - in Chornobyl - but not within the 10 km exclusion zone. Some work "4-3" shifts (four days on, three off), whilst others work 15 days on, 15 off. Other workers commute into the Zone daily from outside of it.

What isn't in Chornobyl: children. The people that live in Chornobyl are not allowed to have children there. More on that later.

"Chornobyl" is the same word as a local Ukrainian name for wormwood, though  alternative etymology holds that it is a combination of the words chornyi (чорний, black) and byllia (билля, grass blades or stalks), hence it would literally mean black grass or black stalks.

Chornobyl was NOT not the residence of the power plant workers nor the industries that supported those workers - restaurants, dry cleaners, movie theaters, bars, hair salons, etc. That was Pripyat, a city much larger than Chornobyl, and built specifically for the Chornobyl workers and their families. It was ultra-modern, with all the latest everything. It's Pripyat that is the ghost city now, with all the decaying streets and buildings, that you see in photos and videos.

After the explosion at Reactor No. 4, the remaining three reactors at the power plant continued to operate. They are now in the process of decommissioning those reactors, which actually takes several years - there's no "off" switch. The first stage of decommissioning is the removal of the highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel, which is placed in deep water cooling ponds. However, storage facilities for this are not suitable for long term containment, so, officially, the place is NOT fully decommissioned. And all this is said to explain why the place still looks like a working nuclear power plant, with offices and plant workers all around. (and it's the constant lack of places to safely store highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel that keeps me from embracing nuclear energy as a viable energy option, along with the human potential for stupidity).

The remains of Reactor No. 4 will remain radioactive for 1000 years.

It was Sweden's search for the source of radioactivity at a Swedish nuclear power plant that led to the first hint of a serious nuclear problem in what was then the Western Soviet Union. They figured it out and, so, the Soviets had to come clean and tell all.

Contamination from the Chornobyl disaster was not evenly spread across the surrounding countryside or the nearby regions, but scattered irregularly depending on weather conditions. Some mushrooms as well as wild animals which eat them, e.g. wild boars hunted in Germany and deer in Austria, may have levels which are not considered safe for human consumption - while the same in Southern Ukraine are fine.

Invertebrate populations (including bumblebees, butterflies, grasshoppers, dragonflies, and spiders) has significantly decreased in the area. Currently, most radioactivity around Chornobyl is located in the top layer of soil, where many invertebrates live or lay their eggs. The reduced abundance of invertebrates can have negative implications for the entire ecosystem surrounding Chornobyl. However, the "giant" fish you see near the plant aren't so large because of radiation - they are that large because of their diet.

One of the main mechanisms by which radiation contamination was passed to humans was through the ingestion of milk from contaminated cows.

The issue of long-term effects of the Chornobyl disaster on people is an ongoing debate. There's little pre-disaster data to rely on - how many people had thyroid cancer before the plant was built? How many birth defects were there before the plant was built? Without that kind of data, it's really hard to say what the radiation, for sure, has caused in humans and animals, beyond the immediate injuries and deaths of first responders. Lack of funds, an infrastructure with little or no experience in chronic disease epidemiology, and extremely poor communication (record-keeping, information sharing, etc.) hamper efforts to effectively study this.

In Belarus, Yury Bandazhevsky, a scientist who questioned the official reporting regarding Chornobyl's consequences, was imprisoned from 2001 to 2005 for "corruption." Bandazhevsky and some human rights groups allege his imprisonment was a reprisal for his publication of reports critical of the official research being conducted into the after effects of the Chornobyl incident.

After Ukrainian Independence in the early 90s, funding for the policing and protection of the Zone was initially limited, resulting in lots of returnees - samosely - and other illegal intrusion. But they have it under better control now.

A Geiger counter measures both radioactive particles and waves in the air around it. Most of the radiation in Chernobyl now is transported via particles that can easily be blocked by clothing. The other types of radiation that exists as waves can move straight through a wall. A Geiger counter is expresses the amount of radiation, from both particles and waves, in a unit called Sieverts, per hour of exposure. I receive about .15 microSieverts (μSv) of radiation during my breakfast time in Kiev. And that's around what YOU had this morning as well. Maybe more.

Here are some basic numbers to use as a guide:

10 μSv – The average total radiation you received by the end of today

40 μSv – The radiation you receive by taking a flight from New York to L.A.

100 μSv – The radiation you receive during a dental x-ray

3,000 μSv – Radiation dose from a mammogram

3,600 μSv – Average radiation a US citizen receives in a year from all sources

50,000 μSv – Maximum allowable yearly occupational dose (USA)

100,000 μSv – Lowest yearly dose likely linked to increased cancer risk

2,000,000 μSv – Severe radiation poisoning (sometimes fatal)

A new steel containment structure named the New Safe Confinement (NSC) is being built to replace the aging and hastily-built sarcophagus that currently protects Reactor No. 4. That's what a lot of the workers at the plant are doing now - working on this giant dome. Behave, or you will be encased in it. Just kidding. Maybe.

The most radiation I was exposed to on this visit, at once, was 9 μSv, for at least some, and maybe most, of the 45 minutes we were standing right outside the plant. In one hour, I supposedly got what I normally get in a day, in terms of radiation - and it's still not as much as I get on a long plane ride - I say supposedly, because my counter was usually at 3.5 while we were at the nuclear disaster site. In Pripyat, I checked my Geiger counter constantly (yes, I rented one) and we were between .5 and 3.5 μSv the whole time. But upon visiting the Duga-3 radar, readings were at 4 and 5 μSv, and stayed there for the next 2 hours, all through lunch. Not sure why they were so much more there. Yet, even so, at the end of the day, I still had less exposure to radiation all day than you received during your last dental x-ray.

To limit exposure to radiation, even though radiation levels are low, workers in the Chornobyl Exclusion Zone are limited in the number of days per week or weeks per month they stay in Chernobyl.

So, why not let children back in to people back into Chornobyl? Why not let people back into Pripyat and the many villages that have been evacuated in the exclusion zone? Because of so many, many hotspots (where radiation levels spike), because the items that were left behind - clothes, furniture, books, everything - are still radioactive, because of the lack of information about health risks for people, especially children, regarding elevated, constant, long-term radiation exposure - we just do not know what having the effects of having a dental x-ray EVERY day would be.

Finally, you are not allowed to freak out about my trip to Chornobyl until you've read this web site.

Would I move to Chornobyl? No. There's no movie theater there. Would I suggest you go to Chornobyl, even if you want to get pregnant someday? Absolutely. Would I suggest you go if you ARE pregnant? No - just as doctors don't like doing x-rays on pregnant women.

So, are we good?


Let's talk about my trip to Chornobyl:

On Saturday, September 20, I awoke to a positively GORGEOUS Kyiv day. It was cool, but not at all cold. A visit out on the balcony and I was back in the bedroom changing my clothes from a long warm undershirt to a long sleeve oh-so-light shirt, with a t-shirt over it. The SoloEast web site said that long sleeves, long pants and shoes - not sandals - were mandatory, so I had planned ahead. I brought a sweater just in case, but it stayed in my bag the whole time.

When I booked this trip more than two weeks ago, I was gambling on the weather. But looking at all the forecasts, I had a feeling this might very well be the last dry, clear weekend. I was SO right. I wanted this particular weekend because I knew my former host here would be out of town - and I really like spending free weekends with her.

Why did I choose Solo East? They had great reviews, they were mentioned in Lonely Planet, and they were the company that Top Gear used when the boys went to Chernobyl - and Stefan and I had watched that very episode earlier this year. How could I not? I'll say right up front: they were terrific. I'll also say, right up front: next time, when Stefan is here with me, we're paying big bucks for a private tour. I'm losing my patience with other tourists.

I headed out the door at 8 a.m. and walked the less than 2 km (about a mile) to the McDonald's in Maidan, and found Tom, a co-worker, having breakfast. I had invited him and a few other co-workers to sign up for the tour with me, but only Tom took me up on it. Took us to find the tour organizer - he was quite nondescript. I got called "number 1", because I was the first to sign up on the tour, so I was first on all lists for the rest of the day, actually. A few other people from our company turned up - not sure when they booked, but we don't really hang, so they stuck together, and I got to do my own thing. Which was what I wanted. Other people on the tour: interactive game designers, an MBA student, an Australian on that epic international trip all Australians do, an Irish guy obviously making the trip of a life time, and a really annoying guy I'm going to skip talking about for now.

We headed out on time, though one guy - from the USA, of course - forgot his passport, so he had to be driven back to his apartment to get it and then catch up to us on the road. He, and all of the people from my company, forgot to bring snacks as well - both Lonely Planet and the SoloEast web site say to bring a snack, as lunch is REALLY late. I was getting annoyed now - I started to feel like there was a large group on our trip not taking this trip seriously. It was a school field trip: WOOT!

I took this trip seriously. I take all trips seriously. I'm not an emotionally-distant, snobby aid worker that does touristy things just because I'm bored and hungover. Visiting historical sites is serious business for me. It's not a joke. As for being a "disaster tourist" as someone called it - it's not that l seek out sites of disasters - like Pompeii and Mt. St. Helen's and Chornobyl - it's that I seek out places of SIGNIFICANCE - maybe because of tragedy, maybe because of triumph. Hence why I've also been to the pyramids and Karnak in France AND Egypt and so many USA historical sites.

I am happy in all the photos touring the area. But please understand: the trip was, in many ways, quite sad. There were times I had no words - I just stared. What made me saddest was how people were lied to about the accident. Everyone lied to everybody. And the consequences of those lies are so far-reaching.

We were in a large mini-bus, very comfy, and the drive is surprisingly quick - but, then again, I like road trips. I liked looking out at the Ukrainian country side and the suburbs and villages on the way. I half watched the view and half watched what was on the screen above the center of the front of the van: two horrific cheesy music videos that were shot at Chernobyl, and a documentary called The Battle of Chernobyl. Before it started, our guide, Anastasia, said the video was sensationalist and we shouldn't be alarmed because everything was presented in a very overly dramatic manner. But watching, I didn't think much was overly-dramatic - the video very accurately helps you understand just how close Western Europe came to nuclear annihilation. And it came SO close. And it also helps you understand just what the first responders did - and what they sacrificed - for all of mankind. For you. Those are people that truly deserve to hear, "Thank you for your service. Thank you for my life. Thank you for the future of the planet." I had done a lot of research beforehand - I knew how much things had changed in almost 30 years since the accident, so the video didn't freak me out, in the sense of, "Turn this bus around, I ain't goin'!" But I can totally see someone doing that after watching the video and not understanding what the site is *now*. I asked our guide later if, indeed, people had panicked over the video and, indeed, they had - a couple of people have seen it and changed their minds about going.

And I'd like to say "Soviet problem", regarding the mistakes and the lies, but the owner of Fukushima did the same damn thing - lied about the damage, lied about the risks, lied about the containment. I just don't trust humans. I trust nuclear energy only if aliens manage it.

There is a very strict check point at the entrance to the check point to enter the 30 km exclusion zone. Passports are rechecked against a list that the guard has. Our guide says that there have been cases where the guards have turned a group back - because something didn't quite match up between a passport and the list, because someone wasn't dressed properly, because someone behaved badly (NO PHOTOS). I could hear what she was saying underneath those stories: please follow directions, please don't ruin it for everyone.

If you have decided to dress one way for the drive and another for a tour, this is where you change clothes. Also, USE THE BATHROOM AT THIS CHECKPOINT. It's your last opportunity to use a toilet before lunch. Otherwise, you'll be using a bush. Watch out for the hot spots!

And speaking of Geiger counters - yes, I rented one from the company. Because… GEEK GIRL! Come on, it's a GEIGER COUNTER. It was the best toy EVER. I was the only one that rented such. Anastasia had one as well, of course.

Once you enter the 30 km exclusion zone, most cars on the road disappear. Even though Chornobyl, as noted earlier, is inhabited, it's a village. You are on mostly empty roads, with forests all around. That's your only indication for a while that's something different here - there are few cars, and the roads look fantastic, from lack of use.

Once you enter the 10 km exclusion zone, things get even more deserted. Most houses are gone. Cars are VERY rare. There are two more check points beyond the first one, but because our guide is so trusted, we didn't have to get off the bus and present passports again. But she said that does happen sometimes.

And… well, I'm not going to do a play-by-play of the tour. I have a lot of commentary in my photos about what we did, what we saw, etc. That's your play-by-play.

I will say that myself and other passengers harassed poor Tom for forgetting his camera - in fact, I'm still harassing him about it. He has a decent camera on his smart phone, so he got some good photos. And he took photos of me, whenever I asked, which was sweet of him - and that included the very best photo of my in the last five years.

Also, Anastasia thought Tom and I were brother and sister - literally. So we kept making jokes the whole time about how mom always liked me better, how I always got the best Christmas presents, etc.

I will also say that the dogs and cats in Chornobyl broke my heart. All of the dogs and cats n the area were killed in the 1980s after the accident, for fear that they would take radiation with them outside the area. All animals in the area were killed, actually - cows, chickens, horses. The dogs and cats there now have wandered in from the surrounding villages, or been brought in by thoughtless residents. There were no strays seen around Pripyat, thankfully - that would have made me insane.

And one of the many reasons I want to do a private tour next time is because one of the tourists convinced everyone that it was a better idea to go to the Duga-3 radar than to climb the 16 stories to the top of the Pripyat hotel, to get a rooftop view of the city. I wanted to do the latter. But the lazy, hungover members of our group didn't. I let it go… but I'm still bitter.

Another reason other tourists annoyed me - they didn't realize that they weren't the only ones that wanted a particular photo, or that someone might want a photo where they had decided to stand and hang out. One guy not only asked others to take photos of him - which is FINE - he wanted you to redo the photo SEVERAL times. Dude, if you are that obsessed about how you are supposed to look in your photos, HIRE SOMEONE TO GO WITH YOU AS A PHOTOGRAPHER.

And yet ANOTHER reason tourists annoy me: temperature. There was one woman that complained about being cold every time we were outside. It was a GORGEOUS sunny day, and it was NOT cold. The Australian woman had stripped down to her thin, short-sleeved t-shirt, and most people had no jackets on outside. She stood in the sun, wrapped in her coat, shivering. Which wasn't the problem. It was her insistence that the van have the heat on. On the way back, I had to demand it get turned off. I was ready to say I was going to get car sick if it wasn't turned off, if that's what it took.

And then there was the woman who, I swear, asked the DUMBEST questions and make ridiculous comments. I don't even know where to begin...

Private tour next time. For sure.

Wow. I sound like I didn't enjoy the trip. I did. I did a remarkable job of finding ways to stay away from everyone else when we were off the bus. I really enjoyed the trip, truly.

So, yes, I totally fan-girled over Anastasia being the guide for the Top Gear guys. I wanted to ask her a million questions, but limited myself to just a few:

    Were they all nice?


    But you didn't know they were famous?

    No. I have never seen the show. I understand it is about cars. I don't like car shows.

    Have you seen their show that they did here in Ukraine?


    So you may be on TV and you don't even know it.

    (grins nervously)

    So, I know you say they were all nice. Even the really, really tall, big guy, fat around the middle?


    And the short guy was also nice?


    Who was the nicest?

    The tall guy with the long hair.

    James May?

    Yes. He was very nice, very considerate, and asked a lot of questions
And I left her alone after that, for fear I would sound creepy.

Except for at the Chernobyl Nuclear Plant and various hot spots, my Geiger counter was always below 2. Until we started towards the Duga-3 radar. After that, it hit 4, then 5, then a little over 5, and stayed there. It was still there when we arrived at one of the exit check points, and I had to give the Geiger Counter back. I never did get a chance to ask why.

Lunch didn't happen until after 4. But that was fine as I, of course, had BROUGHT SNACKS. Also, lunch was worth the wait - as usual, it was a great meal. Because - UKRAINE. All of the food is brought in from outside the zone, FYI. Surprisingly, the only gift shop is a small display case inside the restaurant. I bought two key chains.

You go through two radiation check points on your way out. The first checkpoint has a machine that, supposedly, is very sensitive, and WILL reveal if you were an idiot and picked up something. I asked Anastasia if she'd ever witnessed the machine go off. Indeed, she had - because someone had something they had picked up, which they then have to leave. Or, in one case, because they thought a photo in a scooper of a bulldozer was a great idea - a bulldozer used to help clean up right after the accident. She said he went pack to Kyiv without his pants, as they could not be decontaminated. And he was Russian.

And… everyone slept as we drove back to town, except me. I looked out the window and thought about the day. Midway back, we passed a large group of motorcycles, none Harleys, that were taking a break from a group ride. The riders looked so happy on this beautiful day. Oh, to have joined them…

I cannot believe I forgot to listen to the Great Atomic Power while touring Chernobyl. Alt country FAIL. I have three different versions of it on my iPod! (Uncle Tupelo, Southern Culture on the Skids and, of course, the Louvin Brothers).

And… that's it, really. Far more details in the descriptions that go with my photos. I beg you to please read the descriptions that go with the photos. Please? Start with the first photo. Not all have descriptions yet, but they will. Soon. Otherwise, they're just images, pretty colors, a few seconds of your time... and they're worth more than a few seconds.

And if you ask me a question that is answered in the photo descriptions or in the above narrative, like, "But weren't you worried about all the radiation?! And why are there people living there?!" I'm not answering you.