Haiti, a country I’ve been reading about for years but have never been to before. My accommodations are as basic as advertised, and that’s just fine for a few days. If you ever find yourself in need of humility, come down here and spend the week with nuns and missionaries. That should do the trick.
As for me, I came in the other day after flying to New York, encountering three separate delays, attempting to sleep for three hours on the floor of JFK airport, and having my plane return to JFK 15 minutes after takeoff due to a medical emergency. International travel is rarely simple.
The morning I was slowly waking up in the airport after very little sleep, a profile of my travel adventures was published in the New York Times. I hung out before my flight in the American Airlines lounge, and enjoyed opening up the paper to page B6 and reading Joan’s fun article.
An hour later two of the lounge staff came over to say they had just read about me in the paper. In addition to feeling momentarily famous, I found it quite ironic that I had just talked my way into the lounge an hour earlier, and then the staff read the article where I mentioned sneaking into airline lounges.
I do live a life of unusual experiences, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
New readers (there are a lot of you, from the Times, everyone still reading 279 Days, and elsewhere), I should explain that some of my articles are longer than others. This one, for example, will be quite long. First of all, I don’t have much of an internet connection here in Port Au Prince, which isn’t good for my Inbox but is good for the actual writing I’m supposed to be doing.
Second of all, since I started writing back in February 2008, a number of people have asked me to share more about my time in West Africa from 2002-2006. It’s fair to say that those years served as the foundation for much of my worldview, but I haven’t written about them in detail.
I’m not entirely sure why I’ve waited, but I suspect it’s because I wanted to put some space in between then and now. I’m also wary of Glory Days – the habit of glamorizing or living in the past instead of focusing on the present and future. These days I’m very much living in the present with a view towards the future, and that’s the way I like it.
It’s true that our past can shape who we are, though, and it can also be helpful to go back to the beginning to make sure we’re on the right track now. This article will attempt to explain more about what I learned and what happened along the way. If you don’t care about this subject, of course, feel free to skip it.
For all practical purposes, the story begins in 2001. Jolie and I were living in the U.S. and going about what I consider to be a fairly typical life. It was unconventional only in the sense that I was self-employed – here’s an early look at how that developed – but aside from that, life was pretty normal.
I felt a longing for something more, but didn’t quite know what. Then came 9/11. Like most of you, I watched the towers fall and the world change forever. Like so many others, I was in shock. It seemed to have happened so quickly – one day those people went to work in the morning, and never came back to their families.
Along with countless other Americans, and of course people all over the world who identified with the loss, I was greatly troubled for several weeks. My spiritual leaders had no good explanation for why 9/11 had happened; they just said we should pray for the families who had lost loved ones and accept that everything would somehow be alright.
My president said that Americans who wanted to help should “go shopping” to stimulate the economy. I was already going to Target and Best Buy. I didn’t see how my American Express card could make the world a better place, and buying things certainly didn’t make me feel any better.
I felt an urge to do something more, to give of myself, to find a way to make a difference and live the “real life” I had dreamed of for a long time without doing much about. I talked with Jolie and she had been feeling the same way – confused, uncertain, but also eager to do something different.
One night a few weeks after 9/11 I was surfing the internet looking for volunteer opportunities. I ended up reading about Sierra Leone, the poorest country in the world according to the U.N. Human Development Index at the time, and a country just beginning the slow process of recovery after civil war.
Even then I wasn’t interested in doing anything halfway, so I decided there had to be some way I could give of myself to help the Sierra Leonians who had managed to survive through a brutal, senseless conflict.
Then I read about a surgeon from California named Gary Parker. Countless physicians give up a couple of weeks to go on a humanitarian trip to the poorer parts of the world, but Gary had gone and stayed for 17 years. Along the way he met his wife Susan, another volunteer, and they raised their two children in the community of volunteers Gary was partially responsible for leading.
Reading his story again and again, I was inspired by the sacrifice Gary and Susan had made. What could I do to make some kind of sacrifice?
It turned out that more help was needed. Gary was part of an organization of 400+ volunteers, most of whom weren’t medical professionals. They were just regular people of all backgrounds who served in support roles.
The only catch was you needed to pay your own way, and you had to make a commitment of at least two years. Those requirements put a lot of people off, but I was strangely motivated by them. I thought, if a surgeon can devote 17 years (and more – he’s still there) to this mission, surely I can give at least two.
The application was about a six-month process. We applied in early 2002, and in the fall of that year, we flew to Germany to join a number of other volunteers before continuing on. About a month was spent in Europe (Germany, Holland, Spain) and then in November, we sailed on a hospital ship to Freetown, Sierra Leone – the country I had spent so much time reading about in the post-9/11 research, and where we would be staying for four months before going next to Togo, a few countries away but still in the same region.
When your resumé contains no real work experience of note, even an unconventional organization doesn’t really know what to do with you. They wanted Jolie because she was a teacher, and I was given a job carrying boxes around every day. Let me tell you — at that point in my life, carrying boxes around was the best work I had ever done. I loved it.
After I found my way around the job, I decided I would be the best box-carrier ever. I worked at night, in the early morning, and on weekends. When other people couldn’t do their jobs, I helped out any way I could.
The way you stand out in a non-profit organization isn’t that different from what you do in any group or company. You show up, give more than expected, and try to make other people look good. I hadn’t thought much about the philosophy behind this way of working in those days, I just did it because it was fun. It was what I was supposed to do.
I realize now that a great deal of my belief about life and work convergence comes from this time. I don’t necessarily think everyone should work 80 hours a week, but I do think if someone is clock-watching and likes to maintain a strict separation between life and work worlds, part of the problem is that they’re probably doing the wrong work.
Anyway, I worked hard. I also learned a lot of difficult lessons about poverty and international development, but it’s better to learn those things as early on as possible.
After I had carried boxes around for six months, a few people started noticing that I was somewhat reliable at doing other things. I was asked to join the leadership team, putting me among the twelve most senior leaders of our 400-person operation. I was 25 years old then. My boss at the time was about twice my age, had been there for 15 years… and was not part of this group. When he heard the news, he offered me congratulations but then said, “Of course, some of us were surprised you were selected, being so young and inexperienced.”
I told him, “Thanks… I think.” I tried to see that kind of attitude as another obstacle to overcome. If you’re young and inexperienced, you just need to work harder than everyone else. That’s all.
A few months later a brand new set of circumstances enabled me to become the Programs Director for the organization, the #2 most senior leader together with our Operations Director and reporting to the CEO. Just over a year after I came over to carry boxes, I was now responsible for 120 staff. I also represented our group to all the host governments in the region, which is how I ended up meeting warlords and cabinet members.
It was a learn-as-you-go process, and all very public. When you learn in public, everyone sees you succeed and everyone sees you fail. It can be hard, but it’s usually good in the end if you stick with it. I stuck with it. I kept getting up whenever I fell down, learned more about leadership, public speaking, conflict resolution, and so on.
(On the side, I learned how to perform emergency dental repairs on myself while traveling alone in Nigeria, how to defuse bribe requests, how to drive a Land Rover through the mud during rainy season, and other useful skills. Those were the days, I like to say.)
High Points, Low Points
Each week, if not each day, brought a number of extremely high points and extremely low points. I call this the Hope and Despair dichotomy of development work – it’s an overused comparison, but hard to get past.
The high points included helping to bring Gary and the rest of the organization over for their first visit to Liberia, overseeing the security for large medical screenings in Ghana, Liberia, and Togo, and working with a large, motivated team of remarkable people that included hundreds of expats from all over the world and hundreds of West Africans in each country we worked in.
The low points were also extreme – visiting overcrowded camps of refugees and internally displaced people, realizing that a culture of corruption holds back many countries in Africa from developing, having to say no many times a day to people who asked for help, and other things I’m not able to write about now.
As I said, it was extreme – but overall, my feelings towards the experience are positive. I used to be a fairly cynical person, and frequently saw the negative side of things before I saw any positives. After four years of working with Gary and other remarkable people, I became a reformed optimist.
When to Leave the Best Job in the World
The time to leave the best job in the world is right before you get tired of it. There are some exceptions (including Gary, the reason I left home to begin with), but most people I’ve known who have stayed in post-conflict and extreme poverty situations for a long time become tired and cynical about their surroundings. I don’t necessarily blame them – there are a huge number of frustrations, and when you keep going back to the same countries that don’t change much on a macro level, it can be discouraging – but I also knew I didn’t want that to happen to me.
In the end, Jolie and I decided to leave and start a new life in a new place. I applied to an M.A. program in International Studies at the University of Washington and somehow managed to get accepted on the basis of my overseas work. (It certainly wasn’t on the basis of my academic record – I had finished two four-year undergraduate degrees in a little over two years, but the transcript was quite random.)
In the summer of 2006 we came to Seattle and started over. In between school breaks I began traveling independently, two weeks at a time and all over the world. If you’ve been reading for a while, you know the rest. If you’re new and you care, it’s all in the archives.
The time in West Africa remains a huge part of my identity. But I want to use it as a channel that pushes me to keep going towards new adventures and other things. I’m not sure they are greater things, necessarily – but they are meaningful things that challenge me and seem to help others. That’s what I’m after, and that’s what motivates me these days.
I know this article is long and personal. Blame it on Haiti, which is eerily reminiscent of Sierra Leone, or my general sense of introspection as I begin a new trip.
As long as it is, though, there are a lot of stories I’ve left out. I haven’t written about the small business I started by working at night in my third year, and how I ended up effectively having two jobs the last six months I was overseas. I haven’t written much about how I learned to travel in challenging situations by becoming a frequent flyer on airlines like Air Ivoire, Slok, and West Coast Airways. There were also overland border crossings, U.N. helicopter rides, and crowded African ferries.
The thing is, we’re well beyond 2,000 words here, I didn’t sleep much last night, and I’ve been told I’m supposed to save some of these stories for the book that comes out next year.
If you’ve read this far, feel free to share any feedback. I do read everything that comes in, but keep in mind I have very little internet access this week and probably can’t respond for a while.
Speaking of the trip, the rain is falling hard on the roof of my guesthouse, where I just spent my second evening talking with more aid workers who impress me with their dedication and unacknowledged sacrifice. Miraculously, the internet is also back up — so I’ll take advantage of that and write some emails after posting this for the morning.
Good night from Port Au Prince. I hope all is well in your part of the world.
Freetown, Sierra Leone Image: AdamCohn