I won’t lie to you. The past several months have been tough.
It’s been a combination of things. Heavy workload, heavy issues to deal with, some troubling uncertainty around different aspects of the in-house NGO world that I inhabit. I’ve been working through a number of things personally, none really negative, but requiring effort and focus and introspection.
Although it seems somewhere between self-centered and immoral to complain about it, Haiti took it’s own kind of toll as well on myself and my friends involved in the early weeks of that response. On top of that, my travel schedule has been quite heavy the past several weeks, and as fun and exciting as that life sounds to some and sometimes even is in fact, it can also be very draining.
All to say that I arrived a couple of days ago for a short week of life-saving meetings in – get this – Phuket, Thailand, feeling basically worn out and grumpy. I was not exactly thrilled to be getting on an airplane again so quickly, nor was I particularly thrilled to be headed to Phuket. For as much time as I’ve spent in Southeast Asia, I have thus far managed to steer clear of Phuket. Until now. And FYI, it’s “pooo-KET.”
For as basically optimistic as this work requires us to be, there are moments when it can incredibly difficult to lift one’s gaze beyond the tyranny of the immediately urgent and imminent, and to get bogged down in all that’s going wrong at the moment, whether in our personal lives, in a country that we support, or with our finance department.
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My first evening here, deep in the throes of jet-lag (I’ve been in jet-lag solid for the past four weeks) I had dinner with a close aid-worker friend. He was as tired and cranky as I. Our conversation: reflecting on the fact that none of the older (than us) aid workers we know have actually retired and gone on to a “normal” life. They all a) died young; b) went crazy or are very clearly headed in that direction; c) are about to die of old age, but still trying to pull off hardship post deployments; or d) b + c.
We moved on from there to something we’d both read about the leading causes of death among aid workers. Nope, it’s not getting shot by militants or inadvertently stepping on landmines. It’s not encephalic malaria or meningitis or hepatitis C. The top two leading causes of death among aid workers, in order, are motor vehicle accidents and drowning. And according to the study, drowning in particular happens in the context of aid workers getting drunk and then falling into the pool or ocean. If I can ever find the article online I’ll link it.
That’s certainly one way to put an early damper on after-workshop evenings at Thai beach bars.
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But then last night, after the first day of the life-saving meetings, the same guy, plus one more old friend aid-worker and I threw caution to the wind. We walked a few blocks down the motor-vehicle infested street for dinner and a few Singhas at a little bamboo bar within sight of the ocean (they didn’t have Beer Lao – I asked…).
After eating we tried another bamboo bar or two, and then eventually ended up in the lobby of the hotel where we were staying. The lobby band – for that evening only, a lone young woman, a microphone and a computer (it was the guitarist’s night off) – was just getting going.
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The lobby singer – her name turned out to be “Geng” – sang an awesome set of classic rock just for the three of us that evening. (And when I say “awesome”, I mean we had a great time, not that she ever sounded anything like the originals.) But the real highlight was a cover of the best band to ever record on vinyl, her rendition of the consummate aid worker anthem.
It was so fabulous I had to put it on YouTube: Check it out (you can even hear a few aid workers, a bit off-key, singing along on the chorus).
I’ve said and written many times that AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” is the consummate aid work anthem. And it totally is. But I have to say that Geng’s cute-dimple ponytail-swinging uber-cheerful rendition is the best, and as I think about it, the most apt for aid work, that I’ve ever seen.
As she air-guitared her way through the bridge I began to feel… better. The angst of recent weeks and months began to wane. Aid work, at least for me, is a one-way ride. And that is definitely something to be cheerful about.
Sure, times might be tough. Certain aspects of the future may be hard to see. I feel worn down. Maybe my friends and I will end up like our older(er) friends – crazy or dead. Maybe we’ll end up in some kind of hell. Maybe that hell will be a life of cubicles or a really socially toxic team house. Maybe it will be some kind of metaphysical retribution for bad past bad choices, promises made but not kept, decisions made the wrong ways and realized too late.
Whatever. So long as there’s beer, we’re near water… and Geng is in the house band.