Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Hide and Seek

A favorite game here is hide and seek. This proved to be such a good hiding spot that I wasn't allowed to blog it until now, when most of the friends have figured it out.

Monday, August 25, 2008

BlueChoice Health Insurance

So, my insurance company, to whom I pay almost $700 a month for coverage, again started denying claims. They do this periodically to try and weasel out of paying things. Of course, they say that if I would just remember to call once a year and tell them I still want them to pay for things, they won't stop paying for things. My kids were put on at different times, so this "once a year" evidently comes up at different times.

If they need this information to do their jobs (ie, pay claims) why don't they call me? If I need info from a paying client to do her job, I'm able to pick up the phone, right?

And, more importantly, why don't they mail me a letter saying I need to confirm that even though I'm paying without fail each month, I also want SERVICE?

They say they do. The letter is when they reject a claim and I get to go round and round with the doctors office promising them that I do have insurance.

So, I asked how much longer my cobra coverage would last.

"We can't tell you that, ma'am, we won't know until the cancelation letter comes out."


Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Royalty free music

So, my friend Aaron gave me this 4 dvd set of royalty free music. And, as my job today was to find music for our Children's Hospital video, I thought I should give it a listen before dropping real money on some songs on line.

I had my normal array of computer issues downloading each DVD (4 hours total) and now I'm listening to the various tracks.

The first one, titled Producers Pack 1, started out with a harsh record scratch and the words "I wanna get FREAKY tonight!"

Hmm, not exactly what you want to hear while watching surgeons talk about the latest in children's medical technology, though it might jive with the shot I got in surgery the other day. My friend Wade calls it the "alien belly shot" because it shows a child's belly, extended and lit from inside while a 4 armed robot operates inside him via remote control. Wade wouldn't let me include that shot in the final video, calling it, "great material for our future movie."

Apparently, there is either another computer issue, or someone is playing a trick on me, because now every third selection I open starts with the same music and graphic announcement. I'm hoping my daughter is sound asleep in her loft overlooking my office.

Not to fear. There is plenty of other good stuff on the dvds. In fact, the freaky Producers Pack 1 PALES in comparison to the incredible jingles on these cds. Jingles complete with generic LYRICS (and tubas).

I called Aaron and started singing one to him and he FINISHED THE SONG, so, obviously, they are effective jingles.

This is one of my brothers

I took this quote and photo AND video(!) from this site, because I can't begin to explain what my brother was doing at a comic book convention in California. I do think his success at it is the result of homeschooling at it's finest.

"In the midst of burning cars and exploding grenades, Daniel Mehltretter emerged triumphant, taking home the super-sized $1000 check, the Shinkawa-art-adorned PS3, and a Metal Gear Online poster. "It still hasn't hit me," said Mehltretter, seemingly shell-shocked from the frenetic gameplay and the uproarious cheers from the crowd of spectators encircling the gaming stations."

Now, he is working on getting a team together to compete for a free trip to Tokoyo and a bigger competition. I told him he needed to request a photographer/blogger to go with the team - all expenses paid, of course, and someone closely related.

Here is the video. Can you believe these cheering fans????

Sunday, August 10, 2008

it's like Vegas, on crack

I left the rich, dark soil of Ethiopia and landed hours later in the steamy desert, pearl-diving village of . . . okay, scratch that and jump forward 40 years . . . I actually touched down on some of the highest priced sand on the planet.


My first time in the Middle East, if you don't count Cairo, so I slept three hours and got up in time for the once-a-day mosque tour and discussion of Islam.

It was well presented, and I learned quite a bit, and certainly feel more comfortable now vising a mosque than a did a few years ago when I went to the one in my home city.

I only have the day to see as much as I can of Dubai, so after the two hour lecture/tour, I headed straight to the museum of history. There, I noticed the similarity in jewelry design to what I've seen in Ethiopia. I also got to see the early and later wind tunnel construction, which, living where I do and not using AC in the summer, is something I'd like to try building - wondering if the chimney is wide enough for a vent into the house.

From there, I grabbed a cab to the spice and gold souks, where I felt like I was back in Delhi, treated like a tourist. Top favorite phrase is "where are you from" followed closely by, in second place, "excuse me ma'am, purses-handbags-Gucci-Prada?". I did barter for a piece of cobalt (fabric dye), henna in powdered form so Sarah and I can try doing designs, some saffron (for rice), some sulpher (for skin allergies)and a crystal deoderant thing.

I also walked around where the normal people (mostly expat Indians, Pakistanis and a mix of Asians) live and shop. I took a water taxi with some of them. Picturesque old boats and hand carts are used here to move goods around the city. The local currency is pegged to the dollar, so everyone had a complaint about the rising cost of living. Especially maddening to the cab drivers was the price of fuel - now over ONE dollar per gallon!

I felt I should go see something insane, so I took a cab to the Emirites Mall to witness the indoor ski slope. In case you have trouble believing such a thing exists in the 112 degree, ultra-flat desert, this is their web site. Here, one can sip coffee in the lodge while watching the flat screen fires in big stone fireplaces, then go shop for some new mittens at the ski pro shop before snowboarding down one of the four slopes.

After the mall adventure, I went to the area of town where the Burj Al Arab, an exquisite building that resembles a ship's sail, looks out to sea. I wanted to take a photo of what many say is the world's best - seven star - hotel. It stands on it's own island, built just for the hotel, but you can reach it by car or by the helicopter pad at the top if you prefer a more discreet entrance. Here is a link for more info. You can also send postcards to your friends from their website. I took a cab that direction and ended up in a hotel next to it, where I got some nice shots, and then I decided to go to the beach, but got stopped by security because it was a private beach, and he said there is a public access after the hotel, you can walk there.

Well, he must have meant, after EVERY SINGLE HOTEL on the beach, because now I feel very sorry for whomever has to sit next to me on tonight's flight because I sweated through everything I own walking to it. It was worth the walk, though, to put my feet in the Persian Gulf surf and take pictures of people swimming and playing soccer and women wearing head to toe black playing with adorable kids, and shoot the big hotel and find a cowrie shell.

It seems like most of Dubai is under construction. I believe the idea is to make it a tourist destination so when oil money evaporates, there will still be ways to live well. The newest version of the world's tallest building is going up behind the new metro system (see photo to left).

I had some good talks with taxi drivers about the city and also what it is like to live far away from family in order to make good money. Most of the drivers work six months here, then go home for one. One cab driver from way "out" in Pakistan told me about how he had to fly home recently for a week because the Taliban came into his village and demanded that all the girls quit school and everyone smash their tvs, radios and cell phones. The village elders met up and asked the army if there would be reprocussions if they just killed the Taliban if they got aggressive with their demands and the army said, "no, go for it." No way were these guys giving up their cell phones, tv's and radios!

My final stop was to visit a grocery store, a family tradition when we visit a new country. A bag of dates for the trip and I was off to home.

First class, of course, how else can you leave Dubai??

Dumpster Girls

I'm not going to say too much about these girls, because I plan to make a video about them to try and raise money to get them out of the dump and into school. But, here is a condensed version I felt I should put up because every day is one day too long to live like they do. Please contact me if you want to help them, or contact Hanna at her website, www.childrensheaven.org.

These girls, and four others, saw a posted notice about Hanna's work helping orphan girls, so they came to her office to see if they could get help. Some are biological sisters, but all treat each other as family, sticking close together for protection and companionship. All completely support themselves. Some live in plastic houses - houses made of tarps hanging from sticks stuck into the mud, and a few live with extended family in meager surroundings.

Hanna has not yet had the resources to help them, and it haunts her. She asked me to go with them one day as they work so I could record and show others.

They picked me up at her office and we walked a long way to their neighborhood. During the walk, they asked me to stay behind them and pretend I didn't know them. This was for my safety, they explained, as the big boys that work in the dumpsters will take cameras from tourists who try and snap photos. I saw these boys - men, really - riding atop garbage trucks, leering at the girls and yelling to them as they walked past.

The girls told me they would take me to someplace safer than their normal dumpsters to show me their work.

First, we went to one girl's home, which she shares with two sisters. Inside, it is the size of a twin bed. They had lived in a plastic house, but were able to get this one for 50 birr, about $4.80, a month. They will have to move out at the end of the month, though, because the landlord just increased the rent to 60 birr. Looking around at the out-of-work men gathered in the street, I asked if she felt safe at night. She told me they use sticks to block the door and that it helps. None of the girls travel or stay alone.

She is 11 years old.

I asked her what her very favorite food was. Her eyes glowed and she smiled as she said softly, "potatoes."

We went to the dump and I taped them digging for metal (see photo above of nails and other dump discoverd metal), which they sell for half a birr per kilo. Usually, five of them working can find a kilo each day. They also gather pieces of plastic grocery bags to use as fuel to cook cabbage, their main meal.

At his "suggestion," I ended up paying one of the men there to "protect" me as we shot.

The girls didn't get enough metal to sell that day, so I bought them some potatoes, onions and a bag of coal from this lady in the photo, who agreed to hold things until the youngest came back from accompanying me home, which she did. This little girl had a horrible, nasty looking infection in her ear and could not hear, so I took her back to Hanna's and sent her to the doctor.

Hanna and I talked that night about how we could help them with their job - gloves, a tool to dig . . . but it was a depressing discussion as we don't want to help them dig in the garbage all day every day, we just want them OUT of that work.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Azan Aleu

If there are themes to this trip, one is death.
I'm not sure of the spelling, but azan aleu means “I'm sorry.” I'm getting better at saying it correctly.

I met some boys last year, the day I met Hanna. I'm changing their names here.

Hanna officially only works with girls, but these boys touched her heart. Their mom and dad were both HIV positive last year when I met them. It was then Hanna asked if we could find someone to help them financially, so they could stay in school. A few months later, she reported that the eldest, Isaiah, dropped out of school and had stopped coming to see her.

Yesterday, we found out why.

Isaiah showed up at Hanna's office and held onto her, sobbing. His daddy had just died. He had not wanted to tell Hanna that his dad asked him to stop school so he could care for him once he became bedridden with AIDS. His mother, so frustrated with her husband over giving her the disease, had left him, and he had no one. The twelve year old boy cared for him for about nine months, washing him and feeding him and rubbing his feet, trying to keep him comfortable. Just before he died, though, his wife forgave him and they spent their last few weeks togther as a family.

It was late by the time we were free to go to the family. I suggested getting a taxi to make the trip faster, but was told that we could not get there by car. True. The steep, rutted roads were slick mud, and it drizzled as we approached the one room, cinderblock home. People were gathered outside, wearing their nicest shawls. Inside we moved through the crowd and were ushered onto preferential seating, metal folding chairs. Four chairs spaned the room under an open window. A woman poured water over our right hands so we could rinse them, and gave us a meal of injera and tasty wot of lentils and onions, served on dark orange plastic plates. Other friends sat on solid cinderblocks, placed on the worn plastic matting that covered the floor. In the middle of the damp room was a brazier, coals dark, holding a large silver coffee kettle.

The boy's mom came in, wrapped over her clothes in two shawls and also a large towel for warmth. She greeted us, and sat what appeared to be an old army trunk to our left. She leaned against a wall covered with a lace cloth to soften the grey cement. She spoke to Hanna for awhile about her regrets and fear for the future, then began crying, then sobbing loudly. Her boys seemed to not know what to do, and the youngest curled up next to me and let me snuggle him. A young toddler, sitting on his mother's lap across the room, was eyeing me as well, but it was clear he was not quite sure if I was intriguing or just scary. When I smiled, he would pull his mother's shawl over his face, peeking out seconds later to see if I was looking elsewhere.

Eventually, a man sitting to our right asked for a Bible and read a passage, then spoke to the mother and we all prayed. Hanna told me later he told her that she should have no regrets, that she was not God to decide when her husband must leave this world. He told her there was nothing she could do to change God's timing, and that she must look forward and not take on any blame for the past.

Hanna offered to take the boys home, since the mother had guests, and she said we could do that, so they walked home with us. Hanna gave them baths, and we ate dinner by candlelight when the power went out, then roasted big kernels of corn for a snack. We pulled a mattress onto the floor and everyone got on it, including the two sweet girls that live with Hanna, and they played mandala and told stories, and had devotions and eventually, the boys fell asleep.

Tonight the boys are here again, and also many members of Hanna's family, as her uncle passed away today. The living room is filled with smoke because we had a coffee cermony for Hanna's cousin. It was her father who died. Most of the family will leave at 4am. I wanted to give them my room and share with Hanna, but she would not have it, saying that guests are highly honored in Ethiopia. I have certainly found that to be true and then some, though I don't feel I deserve this honor.

There May be Two Moms . . .

. . . but there can be only one Zion.

Here we are, enjoying photos of our shared daughter.


Since we've touched on hunger, I'll just add to it by saying that my friend Hanna has been under a lot of stress this week. One contributing factor involves the challenge of gathering food for the 44 orphaned and partially orphaned girls in her care. Each month, girls are given a ration of hair oil, soap, wheat, cooking oil and some basic other food supplies so that their extended families can afford to keep them in their homes.

In times past, food was purchased from the government, in bulk, at good prices. Now, the government is taking an anti-NGO (Non Gov't Organization) stance, and will no longer sell food to many organizations, including Hanna's. I remember seeing news stories about government “suspicions” regarding NGOs, and wished I'd paid more attention to them. Certainly, the on-the-street-changes, stemming from this new government profile, are hot conversation at the various NGOs I've visited the past few weeks.

The problem of procuring expensive food is compounded by fuel prices and draught. Many vendors simply refuse to make trips to the market because people can't pay enough to make it worth the expense.

This morning was food distribution out of Hanna's plastic house (she built it on family land when her rent doubled and she had to move out of her building). This mother (or aunt or grandma, I'm not sure) was so happy to get her daughter's food, but as she walked across the wet grass, she slipped and fell. It was then I noticed her foot - horribly misshapen, toes pointing up. She must walk on the end of her leg bone - no shoe in this cold weather! She, like the other women here, dressed up to receive the food ration. But, her normal job is as a beggar.

I have been told by many Ethiopians - actually, many people in all big cities around the world - that city beggars really have a lot of money. It is not the case for this woman. Hanna visits all her childrens' homes and checks them out, and talks to neighbors and local police and the local schools to confirm the stories they tell. This way, she is sure to only help the neediest children.

Yesterday, I met ten or so girls who are on Hanna's waiting list. It is heartbreaking to know how just a little money could change their lives and realize that it will take some time to spread the word and get the funds. Each day of waiting is too long here.

Sunday, August 03, 2008


I've seen news reports in the past few months about the famine predicted to hit Ethiopia.

Well, it's here. And, it seems it will get much worse. Food prices are HIGH. My friends bought some chickens for someone here (I carried them through the market, so please picture that spectacle). When they bought corn for the chickens to eat, the price was FOUR times higher than it is at home. Even people I know from last October have lost weight, and the stories I hear from the rural areas break my heart.

My friend Ruth Droppers decided she should do something when they ran out of F75 and F100 milk. This is a high protein milk you give to children on the brink of starvation. She got a letter from the NGO she is helping and went to Addis to the World Food Program and asked to speak to the nutrition specialists. They were on the fifth floor. She walked in, told them she was a doctor from the Woliata region, and that she needed food. They wanted to know how she got into the building.

After realizing that they were not at all interested in helping, she told them, "You know, there is a famine going on, and we should do something!" She wondered if they thought she was a hyserical bush doctor when one of them slid behind her computer.

Finally, they got rid of her by telling her to go to the blue roofed UNICEF building. A series of adventures there led to a kind doctor telling her there was a supply of almost expired milk at the Black Lion Hospital, and if she hurried, she might be able to get it before the Sister's of Mercy showed up, as he had also told them about it.

She raced over, and was told it was being inventoried and the door could not be unlocked. Another few hours of adventure and a helpful pediatrician and high up admin person later, Ruth found out there was food she could have and was able to get the door opened to it, but not until tomorrow.

She came back the next day and had a huge power struggle with the guy in charge of the inventory, who didn't want her to get the almost expired milk, but he was overruled by the high up admin person, and then he very slowly opened the door and left for a two hour lunch with the form she needed to get the food out legally.

With the help of someone at the hospital in Soddo, she was able to find a strong enough truck to get it back to Soddo, and when it arrived and she loaded 44 boxes of 44 packages into it and waited for the form. The surly warehouse manager finally returned and gave her the version of the form which required the most possible signatures, then tried to leave again without signing his own name on it. She stopped him and then spent the rest of the day getting the rest of the signatures, and then headed home the following day with a team of friends from the Netherlands.

She then gave the food to a group that runs a clinic for people with a form of Elephantitis called Mossy Foot, caused by walking barefoot, a sadly common occurance where people can't afford shoes. People that have this disease, which causes horrible swelling in the leg, are discriminated against and can't get work.

The clinic set up distribution and took two people from Ruth's Dutch team every day for a few weeks until they reached all their families in remote regions where they badly needed the milk to help their families. This picture is of a thankful mother and one of her children. She burst into tears when they handed her a few packets of milk and some used clothing they had brought.

If they want it, we plan to give most of the famine food we brought from my friend Chris to this same organization to send out to their people.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Addis Pounding

I did buy a plane ticket, but, after spending inordinate amouts of time sitting on runways and then flying in circles waiting for permission to land, it's almost a surprise that I am actually in Ethiopia.

Except that it's after one am and I'm too awake, squinting at the bright computer screen while my high altitude headache screams that I am in a new place that is not humid and hot.

In fact, it is humid and cold. Very cold. My numb fingers are telling my memory that last week's weather reports of 68 degree lows and 70 degree highs were lies. Or, during the long, sleepless flight, hurtling forward in time while sitting next to a very nice, but VERY large man, winter fell on Addis.

I am wearing a maternity sweater, the single warm item in 140 pounds of checked luggage squashed full of donations.

There would have been more sweaters, but, according to the gum smacking woman at the Continental counter, “Delta doesn't go by our baggage rules when we book our customers on their flights, so we sure aren't going by theirs just because they booked you on our flight – I don't care what medallion status you have - and you have to give me $200 to take those overweight suitcases and that extra bag.

Thank God my friend Wade had a good poker night prior to taking me that morning, or I would have had to do an entire re-pack in the hallway of the airport. As it was, Wade paid $100 for the two overweight bags and took the last one – sweater, shoe and jean bag – home.

Now that I'm here and have seen what Hanna's girls have to wear, I'm really wishing I'd paid the $100 for that one bag. I keep going through all that is in it in my mind – good quality clothes and shoes that would hold up to the rainy season and walking long distances for the girls I saw smiling and shivering in their studies today. Their classrooms, which Hanna calls the “plastic house” because it is made of blue tarps under a roof, flooded earlier this week. The woven mats from the floor are scattered around the back yard in a vain effort to dry them out.

Today we went to the mercado and bought white fabric. Hanna wants the girls to learn embroidery, so they will begin by making themselves outfits for the new year, each girl embroidering her own shirt with one of the classic Ethiopian crosses or flower motifs. Asher, one of the workers at Hanna's office, got into an amusing discussion with Hanna and the other office girl, Miriam, about the skirt design. He felt if they made the long, A-line skirts Hanna suggested, the girls would cut the slits too high on the sides. So, he voted for wrap around skirts. It turns out that zippers are cheap compared to the extra length of fabric for a wrap skirt, so Asher lost.

I like this young introvert. He loves peace and nature, yet finds himself surrounded by 44 orphan and partially orphaned girls, and two other female staff members. His mother was a Muslim, and he is fairly sure his father was Jewish, though he always refused to say he was anything other than “Ethiopian.” Asher recently changed his name and seemed quite interested in reading my favorite book, My Name is Asher Lev, when I described it. I plan to send it to him.

Asher went with us to the mercado, one of the largest open air markets in all of Africa, because Hanna says you can get a better price when you shop with a man. I informed her that you get a much worse price when you shop with a ferangie (white person), and I don't think she believed me at first, but it quickly became an obvious truth, and she told me to stay behind with Asher and not let the shop people see me until she struck a bargain.

In spite of my presence, we managed to buy two bolts of white fabric, rolls of multi colored embroidery wool, a new clay coffee pot and three large drums for the girls to practice music. The drums are made of goat skin stretched over metal containers. My favorite was one marked with all sorts of runny stains and danger signs like “flamable” and “toxic.” Hanna didn't agree that it was cool and instead bought ones that we think may be made out of metal buckets, but are covered with flowered fabric, so we can't be sure. I kindof figured I might have trouble getting my chosen drum on the airplane, what with the bleached red triangle toxic sign and the dead animal skin, so I settled on a wonderful sounding small drum made of wood and skin for my son. I couldn't stop tapping it. Neither could anyone else. Random men kept walking up to me to smack my drum and smile crazily. Hanna shook her head, pointing at beautiful Miriam, walking ahead of me with the bigger drums, “Why do they let two drums go by and they only hit yours?”

Ferangie power.

It's a stronger pull than beauty, evidently. Useful to know if you want to pay quadruple an item's value and enjoy muddy strangers smacking your goat skin.

Oh, and, note to traveling photographers. If you dare take photos in places where it may not be appreciated, you might not want to count on the "cover" of your public taxi van speeding away after your not-so-secret photo nabbing. After spending 15 minutes making sure every possible cranny of the taxi was full, we finally lurched forward, sputtered, and then ran out of gas.