Living Big

One of my biggest challenges since moving to Houston has been getting enough exercise.  Unlike my life in Oslo, walking is not a mode of transport here.  On an average day in Oslo, my iPhone app told me that I walked between 7,500 and 12,000 steps a day, and this, without counting my running or other exercise.  Here in Houston, I struggle to get in 2,000 steps.  My car, on the other hand, gets a lot of exercise.  I guess that is how she stays so svelte.

Today I decided to use running as a mode of transport to visit my mother who is in hospital at the Texas Medical Center recovering from surgery.   Did I mention that I live only a few kilometers from the Texas Medical Center (TMC)?

The TMC employs 106,000 people who provide medical services to 10 million patients a year.  The TMC comprises 54 medical institutions, 21 hospitals (my mother is in one of them), 4 medical schools, 7 nursing schools, 2 pharmacy schools, and a dental school. More heart surgeries are performed here than anywhere in the world.  The TMC is home to the world’s largest children’s hospital (Texas Children’s Hospital) and the largest cancer hospital (MD Anderson Cancer Center).  And, with a GDP of $25 billion, the TMC is the world’s largest medical complex.  This is BIG business!  Ironically, the medical institutions are part of the Texas Medical Center Corporation, a non-profit umbrella organization.  Someone is making a lot of money at the TMC and, with more than 160,000 visitors each day, I believe it is whoever manages the parking garages.

My 4-km run to TMC began directly across the street from my apartment at Hermann Park.  I am lucky to live so near to one of Houston’s most visited green spaces.  Hermann Park is home to the Houston Zoo, a great running track, a 9-hole golf course, a Japanese garden and the Miller Outdoor Theater.  On any given day, the park is full of people like me whose cars get more exercise than they.  The running trail is lined with gorgeous oak trees dripping with the Spanish moss that is so symbolic of the Southern US and makes me think of swamplands and bayous and crawfish and the blues.

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The Marvin Taylor Trail at Hermann Park

As with most of my running activities, I like to listen to a variety of podcasts.  Today’s playlist included one of my favourites, On Being, an award-winning podcast that describes itself as a program that asks “What does it mean to be human, and how do we want to live?”.  Despite its somewhat complex themes, the program is always inspiring and always uplifting…something to which I increasingly turn to counter the rather depressing traditional news programs here in the US.

The program is usually an interview format but today I listened to a special broadcast from a theater in New York entitled Stories about Mystery.  One such story was a reading of “The Doctor and the Rabbi“, written by Aimee Bender, a novelist and short-story writer.  The story, read by a great American actress, Ellen Burstyn, begins with:

The doctor went to see the rabbi. “Tell me, rabbi, please,” he said, “about God.”

The rabbi pulled out some books. She talked about Jacob wrestling the angel. She talked about Heschel and the kernel of wonder as a seedling that could grow into awe. She tugged at her braid and told a Hasidic story about how at the end of one’s life, it is said that you will need to apologize to God for the ways you have not lived.

“Not for the usual sins,” she said. “For the sin of living small.”

I don’t know if it was the endorphins kicking in or my romantic association to the Spanish moss but these words struck me deeply and I have been mulling over them throughout the day.

I feel challenged (in a good way) by the notion that it is a moral imperative to live our lives to the fullest, to live big, and that this is what is expected of us; this is our normal.  And I began to wonder what it would look like for me to live this way on a daily basis.  I think of those cheesy refrigerator magnets I so quickly dismiss; “Do what you think you cannot”, “Build your own dreams, or someone else will hire you to build theirs” and “If you can dream it, you can do it”.  What if those kitchen magnets are right?  What would that look for me?  What would that look like for you?

America The Difficult

I have been back in the United States of America for a little over two months now.  That means I have been out of Europe for a little over two months, enough time to start missing things I’ve left behind; things like universal health care, job security, respectable  and intelligent heads of state, and friends.  I will, of course, make new friends and I have many of them in the US, just not yet in Houston.

It is unlikely that I will see universal health care in my lifetime.  Even though the Affordable Care Act is a big step forward, America is decades behind most other industrialised countries in providing health care for its citizens.

Job security for most Americans is a thing of the past and I even wonder how long this will continue to be the norm in Europe.

As for a respectable head of state, 2020 is not that far away and I am willing to ride the “Oprah for President” wave or any other wave that can put a human being who’s like, really smart in the White House.

When visiting, I had the impression that everything was easy in the US.   “America the beautiful” was also “America the easy”; easy because there are a lot of people to make things work, easy because I know the language, easy because stores are open all the time and easy because, well it is America and look how easy it is to become President…

Since moving back here, I find that not everything is easy.  Yes, there are a lot of people to make things work—according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are 158 million of them—but this does not always make things easy.  Take my bank for example.  There are so many people to make things easy that each time I call with a simple question, I get to talk to 3 or 4 of them.  A typical call will go something like this:

Confusing Recorded Automated Answering System (CRAAS):  Thank you for calling XXXX Bank.  Please enter the last four digits of your account number. If you are calling about xxx, please press 1.  If you are calling about yyy, please press 2 (and so on and so forth).  

CRAAS:  Please stay on the line.  A customer service specialist will be with you shortly.  This call is being recorded.

Really bad background music plays for a few minutes…

Customer Service Representative:  Thank you for calling XXXX Bank.  My name is John.  May I know who I am speaking with? (Doesn’t John know never to end a sentence with a preposition?)

Roberta:  My name is Roberta.

John:  May I know your last name? (John didn’t give me his so why should I give him mine?)

Roberta:  Bensky

John:  Thank you Miss Roberta (so why did I give him my last name if he doesn’t use it?)  May I have the last four digits of your account number?

Roberta:  9999 (Didn’t the CRAAS already ask me for this?  What has the CRAAS done with the last four digits of my account number?)

John:  Thank you.  For security purposes, may I send a verification code to your phone now?

Roberta:  Yes.

John:  May I have your telephone number (Don’t they have this information already?)

Roberta:  555-555-5555.

John:  Thank you.  Please know that XXXX Bank does not charge for this service but your telephone carrier may charge for this service.  Do I have your permission to send the verification code to your phone now?

Roberta:  Yes.  (Code arrives and I recite it to John).

John:  Thank you, Miss Roberta.  For security purposes, may I know your mother’s maiden name?

Roberta:  (I tell John my mother’s maiden name, but how old-fashioned is that???)

John:  Thank you, Miss Roberta.  How may I help you today?

Roberta:  I am wondering why I was charged $43.00 for something called “foreign exchange rate fee”?

John:  I do not see this charge on your credit card.

Roberta:  It was charged to my debit card.

John:  I’m afraid I only deal with credit card issues.  I will now transfer you to a customer service representative who specialises in debit card issues.  Please stay on the line.

Roberta’s internal dialogueOMG! WTF?

Really bad background music plays for a few minutes…

John:  Thank you for waiting, Miss Roberta.  I have explained your situation to my colleague, Jane, who will help you.  Thank you for calling XXXX Bank and have a wonderful day.

Roberta’s Internal Dialogue:  Well, it started out wonderful but is rapidly going downhill…

Jane:  Hello.  My name is Jane.  I am here to help you.  May I have your first and last names and your mother’s maiden name?

Roberta’s internal dialogueOMG!  WTF?

I feel it is important to note that (1) this bank HAS MY MONEY; (2) this bank USES MY MONEY WHEN I AM NOT USING IT; (3) this bank MAKES ME PAY TO USE MY MONEY; and (4) a reliable consumer magazine RANKS THIS BANK HIGH ON CUSTOMER SERVICE.

Why can’t banks be more like Lexus dealerships? (see Buying a Car in Texas – Part III (finale))

 

 

 

 

 

Buying a Car in Texas – Part III (finale)

The Good News

I bought a car  Yes, I did it.  I bought a car…an SUV…a Lexus.  I wasn’t planning to buy a Lexus.  I was planning to buy a Honda or a Toyota.  I gave Honda their chance.  I gave Toyota their chance.  Neither of them won me over…neither of them came even close.  In the end, Lexus won me over with a quality product, professional sales people, solid pricing and cars that, according to my “car therapist/brother-in-law” Phil and my friend Marsha, last a very, very long time.   I would venture a guess that there are far fewer Lexus vehicles in landfills than Toyotas or Hondas.

img_6296.jpgHere are some of the reasons I bought a “pre-owned” 2013 Lexus RX350:

  1. Lexus listens to its customers.  When I told the salesperson Stefanie my budget, she presented me with three options that were within my budget…not even slightly over my budget.  Lexus knows how to listen to its customers.
  2. Lexus knows what people like.  When I drove the RX350, the first thought that came to mind was “I feel as if I am driving on a cloud”.  I had never driven on a cloud before.  It is nice to drive on a cloud.  I think everyone should drive on a cloud.
  3. Lexus cares about its products.  The car was spotless, had new tires, new brake pads, and comes with a full 2-year warranty that covers EVERYTHING.  Stefanie also informed me that the car comes with free car washes forever and free oil changes.  When I asked her if the car also comes with a unicorn, she smiled and, after only a slight hesitation, said “yes, and fairies too”.  For a moment, I actually believed her.
  4. Lexus cares about its customer’s backs.  Their seats have fully adjustable lumbar support.  It is nice to have lumbar support.  My back is happier with lumbar support.  I think everyone should have lumbar support.
  5. Lexus knows how to take care of its customers when they wait.  While I was waiting for the financing paperwork to be completed, Stefanie ushered me to the on-site coffee bar where a barista took my order (a double cortado), prepared it on a genuine La Marazocco machine and offered me a full-sized whole-grain muffin.  There was no charge.  I know, I know, the cost of these services is built in to the car pricing.  I don’t care.  I like having a great coffee and a healthy muffin while I am waiting for financing.  I think everyone should have a great coffee and a healthy muffin while waiting for financing.
  6. Lexus gets financing for the customers.  Honda turned me down.  Six banks have turned me down.  Toyota got me financing but it took 3 days.  Lexus got me financing in an hour.
  7. Lexus bathrooms are decorated with oil paintings.  I know, this is not at all important when buying a car and probably does not affect performance.  But how could I not mention it here?
  8. Lexus knows how to treat its customers.  Stefanie, Christy (the financing person), and Chris (the technician who “trained” me on the use of my new vehicle) are all adult human beings and they treat their customers like adult human beings.  They do their job and they do it well.  Lexus knows how to treat its customers.

I have been driving my new (for me) pre-owned vehicle for several days now.  I am happy.  I think everyone should be happy.  I think everyone should drive a Lexus.

The Bad News

Trump is still President and I spent a sleepless night worrying about getting health care coverage by 1 January 2018 because of my decision to settle in Houston rather than in Austin.  In the end, I think it will work out.  But I am not used to worrying about such things and, for a civilised country, it is disheartening that I or anyone else should have to worry about such things.  The Affordable Care Act is a blessing (thank you, President Obama) but there are still some hoops to jump through to get it working for me as an unemployed individual moving back to the US after 26 years.  I’ll write about that another time.

*  * *

For now, I will sign off with wishes for a peaceful and meaningful holiday.  May you find oil paintings in all public bathrooms you happen to visit and may all your journeys be on a cloud.

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What do running on ice in the dark and a Rwandan restaurant have in common?

Me…and Tromsø (pronounced “Troomsuh”).  This is where Hans Einar and I spent the weekend from 3-5 January 2014.

About Tromsø

Tromsø is a group of islands located here, 350 km north of the Arctic Circle.  I live south of Oslo, about 1,200 km south of the Arctic Circle.  So Tromsø is far away.

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Most tourists visit Tromsø to view the northern lights in winter.  This is, in fact, the only way to see light in Tromsø in the winter, since there is no actual daylight.  Here is what the Weather Channel shows for sunrise and sunset times in Tromsø in early January:

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I did not go to Tromsø to see the northern lights, although I had hoped I would catch a glimpse of them.   No, I went to Tromsø to run a half-marathon…in the dark…on snow and ice.

The Polar Night Half-Marathon is in its 11th year of operation.  In addition to the 21k run, there are 10k and 5k runs (for the wimps!).  This year, 1,117 brave souls were, like me, inspired to run in this exotic destination.  I know, Hawaii is also exotic (and warm and sunny), but that is for another time.

As with the three other half-marathons I have run, Hans Einar accompanied me to show his support.  This he does well, especially on race day when I am jittery and I wonder if there is something wrong with me and he reminds me that I get this way each and every time I run a race.  He is also one of the last ones waiting at the finish line to see me cross over after most of the runners have completed the race and are already having a beer to celebrate.  And, he yells out “heia, heia” with as much enthusiasm and pride as if I were first over the finish line and, because of him, I feel as if I am.

Hans Einar and a polar bear at the Polar Museum.

Hans Einar and a polar bear at the Polar Museum.

The day before the race, we did a bit of tourism, visiting the very interesting Polar Museum that traced the polar expeditions of Roald Amundsen and Fridtjof Nanson.  We also visited “the world’s most northern aquarium”, the architecturally exquisite Polaria, where we stood for a long time watching two adorable bearded seals pop out of their open arctic aquarium to display themselves for us (there was no one else around so we had them to ourselves).

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Polaria – photo taken in a month with light!

Race Day

Getting ready at the hotel.

Getting ready at the hotel.

Saturday, 5 January 2104, 14:40

With woollen underwear, my favourite running jacket, my iPhone with a John Grisham audiobook queued up, plenty of energy gels and spikes on my shoes, I set off to join the other runners for a 15-minute warm-up provided by one of the local gym chains.  As Hans Einar and I approached the start area, I heard the end of O Fortuna from Carmina Burana blasting from the loudspeakers and felt a rush of adrenaline.  I wonder if Carl Orff had Halbmarathon-Läufer in mind when he wrote his musical composition.   It did the trick for me!

Pre-race ambiance...yes, the photos are dark but so was everything!

Pre-race ambiance…yes, the photos are dark but so was everything!

The ambiance

The ambiance

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Checking my spikes…

At 14:59 the countdown began, we runners lined up behind the start line and, “five, four three, two one”, we were off, through the centre of Tromsø along streets lined with well-wishers (northern Norwegians are known for being particularly hospitable).  In no time, we were out of town and on our way to the airport and the 10.5k turnaround.  The entire route was lit by candles and there was a strong contingent of race volunteers who made me feel VERY important since they stopped traffic just so I could cross the road (well, I guess they did it for all the runners but I pretended they did it just for me).

As with all my running, I use Jeff Galloway’s interval method of walk-run and I had set my handy interval timer to a 40:30 ratio (40 seconds of running followed by 30 seconds of walking).  This method has really worked for me so there was no question that I would use it in Tromsø.

Jeff is an American marathon runner (he participated in the 1972 Munich Olympics) and his walk-run method is very popular in the US.  But I have yet to find another runner in any of the half-marathons I have run who uses an interval timer.  The timer vibrates and beeps when it is time to switch intervals.  I have often felt embarrassed by the beeps and the stops and starts, as I pass others on my run interval only to have them pass me on my walk interval.  In the end, I usually end up leaving behind 5 or 6 of those runners since they run out of steam before I do, thanks to the walk breaks.  I have gotten used to the beeps and the embarrassment but I am still acutely aware that my beeper noises and starts and stops may annoy some runners.

Around the 3k mark, I had stopped to adjust my spikes and was aware of a presence behind me that had also stopped.  I turned around to see a couple who had, in fact, stopped behind me.  Kristie said “we’re stealing your intervals” in a very American English and I responded “you’re very welcome to them!” and we proceeded to run the rest of the race together.

Kristie and Ricardo had flown in from Seattle for this race and are both devout followers of Jeff’s walk-run method.  Kristie’s timer had frozen at the start of the race (pun not intended) and when I had passed them on my run interval, Kristie had recognised the timer beep and they proceeded to discreetly follow my intervals, staying behind me so as not to reveal themselves.  But when I had stopped, Kristie decided to tell me what they were doing.  From that point on, we ran together, talking a bit, stopping once or twice to take photos and, in general enjoying ourselves despite the physical challenges of running on ice in the dark for 21k.

Around the 15k mark, we ran up to another participant who was walking and eating a banana.  I said “hello” to him and mentioned what a great idea it was to have brought along a banana.   Jet (a local resident originally from the Philippines) told us that he had not brought bananas with him.  He had, in fact, run out of steam and had stopped in at a grocery store (one of only a few along the way) to get a banana to boost his energy.  Having no money, he had asked the grocer if he could have a banana with a promise to return and pay later.  The grocer gave him two bananas.  Ricardo offered him an energy gel which he gratefully took and Kristie, Ricardo and I resumed our intervals.

This was the first time I had actually run with anyone, since running has been a cherished solitary activity for me.  But I must admit that I enjoyed this run so much more thanks to Kristie and Ricardo.  We pushed each other, kept up a good pace and crossed the finish line together, with our arms raised in triumph.  I’ll save the Grisham audiobook for another time.

We met Jet again at the race end.  He came in slightly ahead of us so the bananas and Ricardo’s energy gel had helped.  Hans Einar took this photo of us, blissfully exhausted and so very proud.

Kristie, me, Ricardo and Jet

Kristie, me, Ricardo and Jet

African Oasis

Now, about that Rwandan restaurant.  As with any trip, I spend time researching the destination and especially its culinary possibilities.  I had discovered an unusual option for Tromsø on TripAdvisor; an African restaurant that had many positive reviews.  In keeping with my theme of the exotic, Hans Einar and I celebrated my victory with dinner at Afrika Oase.  Rose, the owner, is from Rwanda.  She explained to us that she was living in Luxembourg when she was offered a grant by the Norwegian government’s “innovation group” to move to Tromsø and open an African restaurant.  Norway is trying hard to internationalise and Tromsø has a large university full of international students and faculty who need to be fed.  Rose imports most of her products directly from Africa but has had also struck a deal with a few nearby farmers to raise goats for meat for her restaurant (instead of just for the brown goat cheese so cherished by Norwegians).

We ate near an open fireplace (which Hans Einar stoked every now and then since he is a master fire-builder).  I spoke French with Rose and told her about my trips to Rwanda and we discussed a bit of politics (but not too much).  We had an absolutely delicious meal of marinated goat kebabs and antelope, one of which was served with a blueberry chutney and the other with a red onion and chili chutney, friend plantains and a melon and cabbage salad.  Rose gave us a taste of every single juice on the menu (I especially enjoyed the ginger and hibiscus juices, Hans Einar loved the mango and baobab juices).  Hans Einar washed his goat kebabs down with a German white beer and I chased down my antelope (pun intended!) with a glass of red wine from Fairview, a South African winery I had visited back in 2001.  It was a wonderful way to revive my tired body.

The Day After

Because I train quite regularly, I don’t get really sore after running.  I have some small aches and pains but nothing dramatic.  Tromsø’s Polar Night Half-Marathon did a number on my feet though and I spent a few hours in the middle of the night massaging them.  While I enjoyed the race, my feet did not have such a good time.  Hans Einar and I roughly calculated the number of times my feet would have struck the hard ice…we ended up at around 39,600 strikes…OUCH!

We met up with Kristie and Ricardo the next day for a celebratory lunch that included a few of the local Mack dark beers from “the world’s northernmost brewery”.  I really liked Kristie and Ricardo and hope to maintain some contact.  Who knows, I may run into/behind/in front of them at another race in some other (warmer?) exotic destination.

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The day after

Tromsø is a dramatically beautiful place and well worth a visit.  The Polar Night Marathon organisers also run a Midnight Sun Marathon in Tromsø on 21 June each year…when the sun never sets.  Time to start training now?

Crescent moon over Tromsø

Crescent moon over Tromsø

10. Notes from the South Asia Tsunami 2004

As we read about the tragic events in the Philippines, I thought it might be a good time to post my 2004 reports from Sri Lanka  following the 26 December tsunamis.   As I read through them, I am once again reminded of how nature is no match for us mere mortals…

* * *

In mid-December 2004, Hans Einar and I travelled to Colombo to look for office space for the new NCA office in Sri Lanka and a house for us.  We stayed at a hotel in Colombo and had planned to go to Galle on the southern coast for the Christmas weekend.  After a week of intense office- and house-hunting, we were tired and so decided to stay in Colombo and just hang out in our hotel for the holidays.  It was one of the luckiest decisions we ever made.

On 26 December 2004, an earthquake off the west coast Sumatra, Indonesia triggered a series of tsunamis that killed more than 200,000 people in 14 countries.  Indonesia was the hardest hit, followed by Sri Lanka, India and Thailand.

What follows is a series of messages that I sent to family and friends to explain what was going on.

29 December 2004

The situation here is quite surreal, at least for me.  Since the tsunamis struck, I haven’t been much out of the hotel where we are staying (except to log in as often as possible to e-mail in the cybercafe next door).  But the changes in the hotel are symptomatic that things are not good “out there”.  The hotel lobby has slowly filled, first with tourists in bandages and now with foreign assistance in the form of military personnel (a large French contingent is here now).  I look at them and think how young they are!  In the afternoon and evening, I see groups of them walking out of the hotel with huge backpacks with labels like “infirmiere” (nurse) and realise that these young people are on their way to the south or to the east to help with people they have never seen before and probably don’t know much about.

The atmosphere is a very strange mix of feelings: excitement, shock, sadness.  I have heard foreign tourists calling home and relating their tales of survival with childlike excitement, bragging about the size of waves they saw from the hotel rooftops.  I think that surviving such a disaster brings out a lot of strange behaviours in people.

The Government of Sri Lanka has declared a national week of mourning and are encouraging people to fly white flags to show solidarity for the victims.  Almost all hotels in Colombo have cancelled New Year’s Eve parties, some are donating proceeds from the sales of tickets to relief efforts.  All throughout Colombo there are impromptu collection points for donations of dried food, blankets, mats, medicines.

We watch BBC World constantly and see the same images as you.  Hans Einar returned from Galle yesterday night.  He described the situation as “unreal” and mentioned that he had a hard time not being emotional about what he saw.  People were walking around in a sort of daze, picking up pieces of debris here and there.  He described the railway tracks as a roller coaster which will be impossible to reconstruct.  A woman told of her escape from the first waves with a friend and her daughter.  The daughter needed medicine and her mother returned to their house to get it, as things had calmed down.  The second wave hit and the mother has not reappeared.  Temples and churches have been turned into makeshift hotels for displaced persons. 

On the way home from Galle, Hans Einar stopped by a wonderful hotel where we had stayed in September, the Taruvillas Taprobane.  The hotel is 10 metres from the sea and we had expected the worst, especially since we read that the large beach resort in the same town has been totally destroyed.  Miraculously, however, the Taruvillas survived, totally undamaged, but many of the staff lost family and friends.  Stories of untouched areas a few hundred metres from areas devastated by the tsunamis abound.

The psychological strain for survivors is great and there is absolutely no capacity in Sri Lanka to handle this sort of counselling.  The clergy do what they can but they too have been affected and it becomes a situation of the affected trying to comfort the affected.  There is a great need for Tamil- and Singalese-speaking trauma counsellors here now and in the coming months.

Yesterday, the Daily Mirror’s headline was Death Toll at 12.000.  Today they just stopped counting and the headline reads “Sea of Deaths”.  News pours in every day about trains and buses that were packed for the tourist season and are only now noted as “missing”.  At the bottom of the tv screens, messages flash from business in Sri Lanka with pleas to employees to contact their headquarters.

So these are a few of my thoughts this day.  Thank you again for your support and good wishes.  They really have meant a lot to us both.

31 December 2004

The Daily Mirror’s headline yesterday was Disease after Disaster“.  The risk of epidemic outbreaks is high and soon we will be reading about deaths from cholera, dysentery and, for small children, diarrhea.  This, while the papers are still reporting on more deaths from the tsunamis.  There was a positive story in the paper about a group of 3.000 people who had been assumed dead but who were found alive today.  All had found refuge on a narrow strip of high ground in the district hardest hit.  They have been without food or water since Sunday morning.  But they are alive.

Hans Einar told of his trip to Galle on the 27th.  One of his strongest stories was from the priest they stayed with.  A friend had called to tell of another friend who had been struck by the tragedy.  The priest asked if the mutual friend was ok.  He was told that their friend had watched his wife and children washed away.  He was alive, but he was not “ok”  Being “ok” has taken on a strange meaning here.

The political situation in response to the disaster is unclear.  One paper reports that the LTTE (the Tamil Tigers) have turned back relief trucks who were bringing supplies to the northeastern regions.  But stories like these are difficult to confirm and they are often political motives behind these kinds of reports.  What is a big concern for relief workers is that the tidal waves have dislodged landmines in the areas already ravaged by civil war.  Some see an opportunity in the tragedy.  If the LTTE and the government can find a way to work effectively on the humanitarian aspects of the disaster, maybe they can resume peace talks with more optimism and solidarity.

Cricket is BIG in Sri Lanka and the national cricket team is currently in New Zealand.  The players had asked to come home but Sri Lanka was bound by international agreeements and cancelling the tour would have resulted in huge fines.   After an appeal by the players, New Zealand agreed to postpone the tour with no penalties imposed.

We had dinner with a Norwegian family who told us what is becoming a very common story of survival.  A colleague of Hans Einar, she lives and works in Laos. She, her husband and their two young chldren were vacationing in southern Sri Lanka and had just come back to their bungalow after a walk on the beach.  As they ate breakfast, their son noticed that the air conditioning started to “drip water” and, a few seconds later, the door to their bungalow burst open and water started filling their room.  They ran with their children to a hilly area a few hundred metres away from the beach, where they were safe from the horrors that unfolded below.  They were picked up on the road by a Sri Lankan family who took them home and gave them shelter until transport could be arranged for them.  They arrived in Colombo the day before yesterday.  She told me that having children was a blessing, since it meant that they had to focus on keeping things “normal” and didn’t have time to think about what they had been through.  They left for the hill country yesterday to try to be “normal” for the rest of their vacation.

Today is a day of national mourning in Sri Lanka and a huge memorial gathering has been organised, ironically, on the beachfront in Colombo.  The Galle Face Green beachfront is usually a place filled with families flying kites and couples holding hands and strolling along the boardwalk.  For the past few days the Green has been virtually empty except for a few tents set up for relief workers who pack boxes of donations and load them on to trucks

It is strange to think about a new year today.  Usually, the 31st is filled with feelings of optimism and excitement for what is to come.  I feel stuck in a past that happened 5 days ago and think about the future of millions of people whose efforts will be on survival, rehabilitation and rebuilding.  Have an optimistic thought for them at midnight tonight.

6 January 2004

Until yesterday, my images of the disaster that hit Sri Lanka were from BBC World, the bandaged and bruised tourists who came to the hotel in the days following the tsunamis and the foreign military and medical personnel who spend a day at the hotel before going out to the affected areas.  One morning, as I was having breakfast with Hans Einar, my view was of a Frenchman wearing a shirt that identified his specialty “Gendarmerie: Identification des Victimes.”

Yesterday I left Colombo for the first time since the tsunamis hit.  I travelled with some Norwegian radio and TV journalists.  Everyone had different needs and it was arranged that we would go to Galle and see what was happening there.  It has taken me some hours to reflect on what I saw and put my experiences in writing.  Here they are.

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We leave at 4.30 in the morning and it is dark for half of the drive.  As I scan the horizon, I can make out the shadows of the terrible destruction left behind.  As the sun rises, the veil of darkness lifts and the horror of what lies before us turns our talkative van into total silence.

The devastation is clear…for miles and miles and miles and miles.  Where there once were homes and villages, there is nothing but debris and shells of homes and beachfront hotels that had been built of concrete.  It is impossible to imagine the fishermen’s huts that used to line Sri Lanka’s southern coast.  Nothing is left of them.  The shoreline is littered with large broken boats washed up onto the shore.  There are boats upside-down floating in the ocean.  The coast road is clear now but the debris has been piled up along both sides of the road.  It is a war zone where there was no war.

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I find myself wondering how water could be so powerful to, in a few minutes, wash away lives, livelihoods and family histories.  We see many areas where survivors have come back to what were once their homes.  They walk on huge piles of debris trying to salvage something of their lives.  Clothes litter tree branches.  I see a child’s red toy keyboard lying in a pool of stagnant water.  A statue of a Buddha sits surrounded by rubble on the foundation of what was once a seaside temple.

Our first stop is near Galle to see the infamous train that carried holiday travellers from Colombo to Galle on the morning of 26 December.  The train carriages are only near the tracks, which have been ripped from the ground by the force of the waves.  The four cars and the engine are scattered around a 300-metre area. None of the train cars is intact.  The bodies have been cleared but most of the cars still contain personal belongings of those who were on the train.  Clothing and shoes lay on the floor and hang from the luggage racks.  The area is guarded by Sri Lankan military personnel wearing gauze masks over their mouths and noses.  There are a few other foreign news people there and a lot of Sri Lankans have come to see.  I have a feeling of walking on a mass grave.

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Inside a train car.

A man walks up to us.  Through an interpreter, we learn that he had gone to the market on the 26th and escaped the waves.  His entire family has been washed away.  As I find out all throughout the day, people need to talk.  They do not ask for anything…they just need to tell their stories.

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In Galle, we visit a temple that now serves as a camp for the homeless.  About 80 people sleep on the floor of one room.  Cooked food is distributed twice a day with rations provided by NCA’s partner in Sri Lanka.  The camp is full of women and children, almost all of whom have lost a family member.  The men are out salvaging through the remains of their homes.  Children love having their photos taken and yesterday was no exception.  Their faces light up the first time I show them their image on the screen of my digital camera.  Soon, they all want their photos taken with their siblings or their best friends.  These are the faces of survivors.

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At another temple, a doctor volunteers in the mornings to treat homeless children.  Two young volunteers help him distribute donated medicines.  I talk to a social worker.  She is articulate and energetic.  She tells me that it is good that people like us come to see what is happening.  She tells me that Sri Lanka is a beautiful place full of beautiful people.  She tells me that her people will need help to rebuild.  She tells me that her people want to move on from this tragedy.  She starts to cry.  All I can do is hug her.  She follows me out to the van and waves as we drive away.

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Volunteers helping to dispense medicines.

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On a cleared parcel of land across the road from the ocean, the 7 survivors of a family of 11 sleep under tents provided by UNHCR.  A woman tells me her story.  In the morning of the 26th, she was feeding her 19-day old son when the water started invading her coastal home.  Her 7-year old son was in the house with them while her 5-year old daughter played outside.  As the waves grew in strength, she grabbed both her baby and her 7-year old son and started running.  As she was putting her 7-year old up in a tree, she lost hold of her baby.  She grabbed her 7-year old and continued running.  She ran to safe ground and realised that her son was not breathing.  She pressed on his stomach as dirty seawater poured out and he started breathing again.  Her husband, her 7-year old son and she survived.  They found the body of their daughter.  The baby’s body is still missing.  They want to start rebuilding their home but the land on which their home stood has eroded.  She wonders where they will go now.  I do not take any photos.  Sometimes, taking photos just doesn’t seem right.

As we drive through Galle, a group of demonstrators is shouting outside the municipal building.  One carries a sign in English that says “We want to go to our born place”.  They too are wondering where they will go now that the government has prohibited rebuilding within 100 metres of the shoreline (a law that has been in existence for many years but not enforced).

A young Buddhist monk coordinating relief activities at a temple speaks about the tragedy.  When asked what message he wants to send back to the people of Norway, he emphasises that the tsunami tragedy should not divert the Norwegian government from their efforts to broker peace in Sri Lanka.

At another refugee camp, a group of young political leaders from the radical JVP party speak about Norway’s role in the peace process.  The problems, as they expressed them, are that Norway is on the side of the Tamil Tigers and that their motivation in brokering peace is to spread Christianity throughout the island.

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Our last stop is at the Galle YMCA which has turned into an orphanage for 25 children aged 2-15.  There is not yet a clear policy on what the government will do with orphaned survivors. The children are sitting in a circle singing songs with two youth leaders.  Many of them giggle as I walked around them taking photos.  My feeling is that most of them are too young to comprehend what has happened.  For now, they are just being children.

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Before leaving Galle, we stop along the coast.  I walk into the shell of what was once someone’s home.  In one room, a picture of a Sri Lankan music star hangs on what was left of the wall.  Evidence of people’s lives are still very apparent.  Some still cling to the hope of finding family members alive.  The streetlamps that are still standing are covered with posters asking for information about loved ones.

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The press is full of photos of the devastation that the tsunamis left behind.  What is difficult to capture from these photographs is that each pile of rubble, each shell of a house, each piece of clothing hanging from a tree branch represents a man, a woman, a boy, a girl, a family.  Survivors talk freely of those they have lost.  I think they feel the need, even in front of strangers, to bear witness to the fact that these people existed.