Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Bookfest, My Kids’ Hawaii Reunion, Peace Corps Tragedies, Honduras Happenings, Osama, Haiti Cholera, Cuba Gay Pride Parade

If I were a conventional blogger, I would post more often and not include so many topics in a single post. I admit to being rather quirky and scattered, or maybe a softer word is “wide-ranging." Hope something in every post catches a reader’s eye or engages the mind.

I am loving your book, Triumph and Hope,” says a reader in Illinois who found my e-mail address through this blog. It’s always nice to hear something like that. I did write a very personal, sincere book, which I hope has some value to others, whether or not they plan on joining Peace Corps. That service, like anything else in life, has its share of common aspects, ups and downs, and unexpected twists and turns. Each individual life and each experience is unique, yet also interconnected and part of the universal human condition. I hope my book expresses that.

On Sunday, May 15, 30 authors gathered at Eastern Market’s north hall on Capitol Hill to talk with passersby at a Bookfest. A local bookstore at a nearby location was actually selling our books. Only 4 of my books were sold, but it was an interesting day. I was pleased that one of the organizers, who had reviewed my book for a local paper and had invited me, described my book as “the best self-published book I’ve ever read,” though my daughter Stephanie observed that was only qualified praise. Yes, I’m sure it was not the very best book of any kind ever published that she had read in her entire life, but I do believe she was indicating her surprise at the quality of the writing. I’ve reviewed some self-published books myself, not very well-written, for the Peace Corps Writers’ organization that had awarded me “Best Peace Corps Memoir of 2009.” But I’ve also read my share of commercially published junk. A number of best sellers fall into that category, in my opinion.

My three adult kids just finished holding a mini-reunion in Honolulu today and I’ve been speaking with them daily by phone, wishing I were there too! Maybe one day we can organize a get-together like that, with Mom included. Of course, I was just in Hawaii myself in March, having gone there from Amnesty International’s 50th anniversary conference in San Francisco. My older daughter Melanie, who lives 3 ½ hours away from me by car in Virginia Beach, was in San Diego last week to showcase products made by her company, Earth Friendly Chemicals. So, as I had done earlier, she decided that since she was already that far, why not go on to Hawaii as well?

Recent Congressional hearings have exposed the occasionally tragic side of Peace Corps service, namely murders and rapes. These are terrible, but fortunately rare, occurrences and are not totally unexpected risks of living in third world countries. The Peace Corps’ record actually compares favorably with that of college campuses where such unfortunate events also occur. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, young single women volunteers should not live alone in third-world countries, but instead should imitate local single young women by living with others. That is not to say that they are to blame for whatever happens to them, but special, commonsense precautions have to be taken in countries where violent crime occurs frequently and local police are few and far between and lacking in resources.

The Peace Corps also has to do a better job with security and with educating volunteers about risks. But not all risks can be eliminated abroad, any more than here at home. In Honduras, we were prohibited from riding motorcycles, had to wear bike helmets, advised not to ride buses at night, and warned not to frequent city nightclubs. At the slightest hint of trouble, volunteers were whisked out of their sites, sometimes under protest. Better safe than sorry. The Peace Corps now has initiated a reporting system to track sexual assaults, and that data is being used to train staff. More prevebtive training is also being given to volunteers. So far, the agency says that they has seen a decline in the incidence rate of rape and sexual assaults.

Meanwhile, I just heard from Luis, my former Honduran colleague in La Esperanza’s Peace Corps regional office. Our regional office had long since been abolished because of budget cuts. After that, Luis had begun working at Peace Corps headquarters in Tegucigalpa, commuting home by bus on weekends. Now, because of the mid-year budget deal just agreed on by Congress, he is out of a job completely. His wife still works as a nurse at the local hospital and Luis is a hustler, so I hope he comes up with some plan to help sustain the family. He still has a ten-year multiple-entry visa to the U.S. and has come here before to buy used cars to re-sell, though he tells me that now, no one in Honduras can afford a car.

Notice from Jose Luis in El Triunfo that his lady friend gave birth to healthy twin girls last month, keeping him and their mother pretty busy. I hope to see his latest family addition next Feb., Primero Dios.

On the more somber side in Honduras, several journalist killings in recent weeks. Journalist killings have become an epidemic there.

I quite agree that photos of Osama bin Laden’s body should not be released. Those who demand that sort of corroboration of his death are likely to become inflamed. Of course, there will always be doubters. How many sightings of Elvis have there been? Also, all things considered, although there may be qualms about the shooting of an unarmed man, it’s best that he is dead, sparing the world a long drawn-out trial.

That GW Bush declined Obama’s invitation to attend ceremonies at Ground Zero is not terribly surprising. Bush has been the most reticent of former presidents, emerging in public rarely, mainly to sign his memoir. That he had Laura, while herself attending a small public forum, explain that he prefers not to be in the public eye is also telling. He may just be relieved to be out of the presidency, where he seemed way out of his depth. He certainly was subjected to withering criticism during his last few years. His speech difficulties, apparent need for coaching by Cheney and others, and frequent bike excursions, long naps, and early bedtimes all indicated that the presidency was not a job he particularly relished, rather something he endured for eight long years. Public life can be exhilarating and rewarding—Obama certainly seems to enjoy it—but it also must be stressful having to constantly speak to different audiences, avoid slipups, and appear perpetually strong. Bush has been there, done that, proven himself to his father, if that was a motivation; now he may prefer his naps, golf, watching TV, and chopping down brush at his ranch. Certainly he will need to attend the Republican Party convention—missing that would be a real snub to the party that elected him. Does he perhaps have an undisclosed health problem? No, probably just wants privacy and to be left alone. On an infinitely smaller scale, whenever I return from the constant activity, exposure, and personal demands of my Honduras trips, I always feel like hibernating for a few days.

Meanwhile, W’s brother Jeb Bush has been rumored to be in the 2012 presidential race, though he denies it. I don’t know that voters would tolerate a 3rd Bush presidential candidate. At least Jeb does not suffer from the speaking impediments plaguing his father and brother and is also pretty fluent in Spanish, thanks to his wife’s influence. He might be able to capture the Hisapnuic vote. But what does he stand for? Most of us really don’t know.

Now, Louisiana’s Republican governor, Bobby Jindal, has felt compelled to release his birth certificate in case he decides to make a run for the presidency. This whole birth certificate thing has taken on a life of its own. Jindal is a relatively fresh face in the Republican Party and it’s interesting to imagine a contest between him and Obama.

Washington, DC, seems to be bucking the oil industry and Tea Party-led trend to advocate cutting, never raising, taxes, no matter what. A poll of DC residents at the $100,000 and above annual income level has shown a majority favoring modest tax hikes on themselves in order to preserve services for the most needy. It does seem that the way out of our fiscal hole requires a combination of raising taxes and cutting spending, not making the most vulnerable bear the entire brunt of sacrifice. Of course, I’m a voter nowhere near the $100,000 income level, but if I were, I would certainly agree to a modest tax hike and I applaud my fellow Washingtonians for expressing that opinion. Taxes are not evil incarnate—they are a useful and necessary part of our system.

Going carless for a week or a month is catching on as a way to save the environment, but what about going without a car all the time, like I do? I haven’t owned a car since 1996, when the motor of my Honda burned up. I decided then not to impact the environment and my personal economy any more by replacing it. Besides, the germ of the idea of joining the Peace Corps was already starting to sprout. No more car payments, insurance, annual registration, inspections, gas, and repair bills. No more parking problems either. Of course, 2000-2003, I was in the Peace Corps and when I came home, I decided to continue without a car, traveling to my various Spanish interpretation assignments by metro train and bus, rarely getting lost because I check routes and schedules beforehand with the transit system. When public transportation goes smoothly, it’s a dream. But, when it doesn’t, passengers have virtually no control and, when a train stops unexpectedly, cannot get out in a tunnel or the middle of a track to find another way to get where they’re going.

Today, everything went wrong. A train stopped several times because of a malfunction in a train ahead. The long escalator at my destination had stopped, forcing a long climb up steep steps. My farecard got stuck in the exit machine, requiring an attendant to dislodge it. All that took precious extra minutes and almost made me late for my assignment. An interpreter should arrive early, never late. Last week, when my route took me via two metros and a bus, a delay ahead on the track meant that when I was exiting the metro, I knew my bus was about to leave. Running for the escalator, I tripped, perhaps on the heel of someone running in front of me, and fell flat on my face. By the time I got up from the floor and down the escalator, I saw my bus pulling out, requiring me to wait a half hour for the next one. Meanwhile, the side of my face started swelling up, though it didn’t look too bad until after I finished working. Serious accidents rarely happen on the metro, but when they do, they can even be fatal, as happened over a year ago when brakes failed and many were killed. After that, I avoid the front and last cars.

Another gripe is that metro doors close abruptly, sometimes leaving us outside when passengers entering in front move in too slowly. So public transportation is no panacea. Best from a transportation standpoint is telecommuting from home, which more people are doing. I could do more telephone interpretation and avoid the commute, but I still prefer face-to-face contact.

As for the following item, it’s what I’ve said from the beginning of the Haiti cholera outbreak. Below that, Havana’s first gay pride parade, thanks to Raul Castro’s daughter, a gay advocate. As my book readers know, my foster son Alex, who died of AIDS in 1995, was gay, probably why he was in jail and was forced to leave Cuba at age 16 in 1980.

Independent, UN panel confirms Haiti cholera outbreak caused by South Asian strainBy Associated Press, May 4, 2011

UNITED NATIONS — The cholera outbreak that has killed nearly 5,000 people in Haiti was caused by a South Asian strain that contaminated a river where tens of thousands of people wash, bath, drink and play, a U.N. independent panel of experts said Wednesday. Although many have blamed the epidemic on U.N. peacekeepers from South Asia working in Haiti, the report issued by the panel declined to point the finger at any single group for the outbreak, saying it was the result of a “confluence of circumstances.”

“The evidence overwhelmingly supports the conclusion that the source of the Haiti cholera outbreak was due to contamination of the Meye Tributary of the Artibonite River with a pathogenic strain of current South Asian type Vibrio cholerae as a result of human activity,” the report said. It said the panel concluded the epidemic “was not the fault of, or deliberate action of, a group or individual.”

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon requested the independent probe amid reports of poor sanitation at a U.N. base housing Nepalese peacekeepers near Mirebalais, the central town where the outbreak was first reported.
Besides killing almost 5,000 people in a country still recovering from a devastating earthquake more than a year ago, the outbreak has sickened another 250,000.

The belief that the Nepalese peacekeepers are to blame for the epidemic is widespread in Haiti, straining relations between the population and U.N. personnel. Angry protests berating the peacekeepers erupted late last year, and just last week about 100 demonstrators blamed the United Nations for the spread of cholera. Ban will carefully consider the panel’s findings and recommendations, U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said. The spokesman said the U.N. chief will convene a task force to study the findings and recommendations to ensure they are dealt with promptly.

Haitian officials in the health ministry declined to comment Wednesday afternoon, saying they had not yet read the report. The U.N. envoy to Haiti Edmond Mulet was to deliver the report to the government Wednesday.
Doctors Without Borders, a medical charity that has treated about 130,000 cholera patients since the outbreak, welcomed the report’s release.

“We’re happy that there’s a process to ensure the origins of the epidemic can be investigated, and that the report has been made public for full transparency,” said Sylvain Groulx, the group’s chief of mission in Haiti.

The report came amid concerns from the U.S.-based medical aid group Partners in Health that an increase in new cholera patients in rural Haiti may signal a new surge of the epidemic with the onset of the spring rainy season.
Panel members said Haiti’s outbreak underscored the need for U.N. personnel and other first responders coming from countries where cholera is endemic to be screened for the disease, receive a prophylactic dose of appropriate antibiotics before departure, or both. They also recommended that U.N. installations worldwide treat fecal waste using on-site systems “that inactivate pathogens before disposal.”

In their report’s conclusions, panel members said the Artibonite River’s canal system and delta “provide optimal conditions for rapid proliferation” of cholera, that Haitians lacked immunity to the disease, and that many areas of the country suffer from poor water and sanitation conditions. It also said the South Asia strain that caused the outbreak “causes a more severe diarrhea due to an increase in the production of a classical type of cholera toxin and has the propensity of protracting outbreaks of cholera.”

“The conditions in which cholera patients were initially treated in medical facilities did not help in the prevention of the spread of the disease to other patients or to the health workers,” it added.

“The introduction of this cholera strain as a result of environmental contamination with feces could not have been the source of such an outbreak without simultaneous water and sanitation and health care system deficiencies,” panel members said.
Colorful march in Havana celebrates sexual diversity, opposes anti-gay discrimination
By Associated Press, May 14, 2011

HAVANA — Cubans have held a short but colorful parade celebrating sexual diversity to mark the International Day Against Homophobia. Dozens of people waving rainbow flags and banging drums marched through the capital Saturday. One participant held a portrait of ex-leader Fidel Castro.

Castro’s niece Mariela Castro campaigns for gay rights and heads the government-backed National Sexual Education Center. She says the march is meant to raise awareness about discrimination. Cuba is far more tolerant of homosexuality than in the early years after the 1959 revolution, when many gays lost jobs, were imprisoned or sent to work camps or fled to exile. The government has even begun paying for Cubans’ sex-change operations in recent years.

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