Omar’s missed meal

I blogged about this in 2005 but, after looking back at the post, I may not have explained it very well. And that was eight years ago, so I think the statute of limitations has expired for me to blog about it again.

I’m watching the wacky Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker comedy “Top Secret!”, starring Val Kilmer in his first starring role, right now on VH1 Classic. It’s delightfully silly and tasteless, and I don’t know that the movie itself has any messages or lessons. But the directors’ commentary on the DVD includes a great anecdote which I’ve actually used in mission trip training to talk about cultural differences and misunderstandings.

The great Omar Sharif appears in the first few minutes of “Top Secret!”, and he’s a wonderful sport, getting things sprayed on him and squirted at him and so on. With all due respect to Robert Stack, Sharif was easily the biggest star that Z/A/Z had worked with at that point in their young careers, and they wanted to thank him for what he’d done for the movie. So they invited him out to dinner at the end of his last day of shooting. They made a reservation at the most expensive restaurant in London, where the movie was shot, and the three of them waited for him to arrive.

And waited.

And waited.

He never showed up, and the directors enjoyed an expensive meal which they’d never have paid for just to treat themselves. They later discovered that Sharif had already checked out of his hotel and was on the plane home at the time of their dinner reservations.

Eventually, a mutual friend asked Sharif about the incident. He explained that in Egyptian culture, it is always considered rude to decline an invitation, even if you are unwilling or unable to attend. Even though he knew his plane reservations would prevent him from going to dinner, he accepted the invitation out of what, for him, was good manners.

And before you go clucking your tongue, there are certainly American customs or expectations that seem just as mysterious to people from other cultures. Every culture has its own assumptions and mores and etiquette and expectations, and when you travel to, or welcome visitors from, another culture, there are almost bound to be misunderstandings and confusion. The best you can do is try to be aware and step carefully.

A long day

It’s been a long day but (for the most part) a good one.

The Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration started yesterday, but the evening classes – which are the big, showy, public part of the show – began tonight. I had to run out to the show grounds early this morning to drop off a USB drive for the official photographer to put some presentation shots on, and so while I was there I naturally had to stop and bring back a dozen world famous Optimist Club donuts. I had to wait 20 minutes – which was a good thing, because it means I got donuts hot from the fryer. They were still hot when I got back to the paper. I had one donut myself and wandered around giving out the other 11.

But that’s nothing compared to what my co-workers did for me a couple of hours later. We had a fund-raising luncheon for my Sierra Leone mission trip. My father and Ms. Rachel attended as well. We raised $580 in donations, which is wonderful. I need to see if Debra’s made any progress with the airline tickets; I need to know what the final cost is going to be so I know exactly what my target is.

Tonight, of course, I was at the show. I went down to an empty box on the rail to get a picture of the flag horse, and I saw a couple of people waving at me, trying to get my attention. Not to drop names or anything, but it was a Grammy-and-Dove-Award-winning Christian music power couple. I stopped by their box a little later to say hello; I wish I could have stopped and chatted a bit, but I had other stops to make and wanted to let them enjoy their first show on their own. It thrilled me to death that the recognized me and wanted to say hello.

The Celebration is controversial, of course. The difference of opinion is whether or not the bad trainers – like the one in that video that “20/20” showed a few years back – are the exception or the norm. I know people who have horses, and I like to think that the bad trainers are the exception, and that the industry has made progress in the last couple of years in dealing with them. In any case, the Celebration is a big community event, a major fund-raiser for a lot of our school and civic organizations, a chance to see and be seen, and I always just love being there.

Ms. Rachel has had a box for years, and I went and sat with her and Dad for a while.

I had to use my phone to take video tonight. It’s still going crazy. I’m hoping the warranty replacement arrives tomorrow. They will check the phone I’m sending back for water damage, and I worried about having the phone in my pocket tonight when I was so sweaty. I swear, they raise the press box by 20 feet a year, and I had to climb all of those stairs, up and down, three or four times tonight.

I was anxious to see what my Fitbit recorded in terms of flights of stairs and total mileage walked. Unfortunately, at some point in the day my Fitbit seems to have left me. I’m not panicking yet – it may turn up in my car or at the office tomorrow.

Other than that, though, it was a really nice day. I think I got some good video, even on the sick phone, and I’ll post it to the Times-Gazette web site tomorrow morning.

Turkey after all

Our last plan for the Sierra Leone trip involved leaving the U.S. on Thanksgiving, which I reminded Debra would a terrible day to be at the airport. (I would also miss Thanksgiving dinner, but that had been my understanding ever since I first agreed to go on the trip. I just didn’t think we’d be leaving that day.)

Debra agreed, and she asked Pastor Gregory if we could push the trip back a week. So now we’re going to leave the U.S. on Dec. 5, which should be a lot better.

Now, I just have to get my vacation days changed. Everyone at the paper has been terrifically supportive – they’re having a luncheon for me in another couple of weeks. I still feel sheepish that this is the second or third time I’ve had to change my vacation request.

Best of all, this now means I’ll get to have Thanksgiving dinner with the family.

The binder

I was looking for something else tonight and, in passing, decided to grab the three-ring binder from my last foreign mission trip, in 2010, in case there was some information in it that might be relevant to the trip I’m taking this November to Sierra Leone.

I found two things in it I wasn’t expecting.

One was my yellow vaccination card. I’d already gotten the Vanderbilt International Travel Clinic to replace it. They were really nice about it, but the replacement only listed my yellow fever vaccine, not any of the other vaccines I got there in 2002 and 2003 when preparing for my first and second trips. The yellow fever vaccine is the one that you’re most likely to have to show to immigration officials.

Some of those vaccines probably need boosters (which may be why the Vanderbilt clinic didn’t put them on the replacement card), but the clinic has gotten way too expensive and won’t take insurance (or wouldn’t the last time I went there). I need to find an independent doctor who does travel medicine.

The other thing I found was tucked into the plastic cover of the three-ring binder.

It was one of Mom’s hospital bracelets. She was suffering from her pancreatic cancer at the time of that 2010 trip, and I’d saved one of her hospital bracelets from right before the trip and tucked it into the cover of the notebook as a point of contact.

I’ll think about that bracelet at Relay For Life next weekend.

Pomp, circumstance, bison and visas

I got my first-ever passport in August 2002, while preparing for my first-ever foreign mission trip, to Nicaragua in January 2003.  Passports are good for 10 years, and mine expired last August. Fortunately, you don’t have to renew right away; as long as your passport is less than five years out of date, you can use the renewal-by-mail form. If it’s more than five years out of date, you have to apply in person and use the same form as new passport applicants, which requires a $25 payment to the local office that accepts your application over and above the $110 passport fee.

Now that I’m planning a mission trip to Sierra Leone in November, I had to bite the bullet and renew. A couple of mission trip contributions made directly to me (instead of to LEAMIS, which is where people would normally contribute) paid for the $110 renewal fee plus the cost of new passport photos.

The application, along with my old passport, is now in the hands of the State Department, and it may be weeks before I get my new passport. They also return the old passport, with a hole punched through it to indicate that it’s no longer valid. That’s a good thing, because the visa stamps in the booklet are like little reminders of all your previous trips. It’s also great for showing off when you make mission trip presentations.

As I said, my old passport was from 2002. I’ve been reading up on the new passport design introduced in 2007, about the same time they started implanting RFID chips  with your passport number and information into the passports. The new design was, I discover, almost universally reviled:

Marketplace: ‘I don’t want an ugly American passport’

CBS News: ‘An embarrassingly patriotic passport’

New York Times: ‘Stars and Stripes, wrapped in the same old blue’

Here’s a quote from the NY Times story:

“It is like being given a coloring book that your brother already colored in,” said Michael Bierut, of the design firm Pentagram in New York City.

The complaints seem to be that the passport design is too garish and/or busy, and that it’s a little over-the-top in patriotic imagery. After all, say the critics, its primary function is to be shown to immigration officials from other countries, who are likely to be less-than-impressed by the Preamble to the Constitution, quotes from U.S. presidents, or imagery of bison on the Great Plains.

What little I’ve seen of the new design online doesn’t bother me that much. I do sort of understand some of the complaints – when you travel internationally, you’re proud of and grateful for your home country, but you try to avoid being the Ugly American who tries to shove the red, white and blue down everyone else’s throats. But I think immigration officials are probably too busy to take in, much less be offended by, the graphic design of any country’s passport. Their impressions of foreign countries are probably much more influenced by the behavior of frazzled and irritable travelers as they go through line.

The old passport book had the blank pages divided into quarters. I used to be a little annoyed that Kenya’s visa stamp was large enough to fill a whole page, which I considered wasteful and arrogant. My old passport wasn’t quite full, but it was getting there – and having the State Department add extra passport pages, which used to be free, now costs $82. $82! For blank pages! You can, if you think you’re going to be traveling heavily, order a fatter passport in the first place, and that is actually free.

Sorry, I was starting to ramble. At some point between my first three Kenya trips and my last two Kenya trips, the full-page rubber stamp was replaced by a full-page label, which features images of the “big five” – the five animals that give you bragging rights in terms of a safari. (I have seen all of the big five, but not all on the same trip.) The Kenyan visa label is not unlike the new U.S. passport – a celebration of the country’s heritage. I don’t see anything wrong with it. I still don’t think they should be taking up a whole page, but I have to admit the new label is more of a conversation piece.

Another thing that took up space in my old passport has now been eliminated. For a while, U.S. immigration was stamping your passport when you returned to the country. I don’t think they did so on my last couple of trips, and I’m not sure why they ever did.  I’m not sure exactly what that stamp was supposed to document which isn’t already documented elsewhere.

Anyway, the new passport pages are not specifically divided into quarters, because of the artistic background imagery. I can understand the people who find the new imagery a bit over-the-top, but I don’t think I agree with them, at least not from the photos I’ve seen online.

Ask me again when I get my new passport.

A cup of water for a child

The death of children is always shocking – when we hear about it and are reminded of it.

Around the world, 800,000 children under the age of 5 are killed by diarrhea each year. That’s 2,200 each day. The key cause is lack of safe drinking water. 

Depending on the source of your statistics, somewhere between 780 million and 1.1 billion people around the world lack access to safe drinking water.

I’ve obviously posted about this many times over the years, but not in a while – and when I started explaining it in a comment over on one of Katherine Coble’s Facebook posts, I decided it was time to come back here and give you an update.

When I go with LEAMIS International Ministries to Sierra Leone in November 2013, one thing we’ll do is install a water chlorination and filtration system. This is a major emphasis of LEAMIS, under the name “Project 10:42.” The name is a reference to Matthew 10:42: “I assure you that everybody who gives even a cup of cold water to these little ones because they are my disciples will certainly be rewarded.” (Common English Bible)

Who came up with that name, you ask? Modesty forbids an answer.

LEAMIS attacks the clean water issue from two different directions. In cases where relatively-clear, relatively-clean water is available, individuals and families can easily use a process called SODIS to disinfect it. SODIS is as simple as putting water into a clear plastic soft drink bottle and placing it in the sunlight for a designated amount of time. Ultraviolet rays kill the germs. (Plastic soft drink bottles, and I say this with some measure of regret, are available worldwide.)

But I’ve seen people in Kenya dipping water out of muddy ponds. SODIS only works on clear water. So LEAMIS works with the host church in any community we’re serving to install a water purification system at the church. This is a combined system, based on research by pillar-of-the-ministry and former Navy oceanographer Bob Willems.

DuncanFirst, the water is filtered, to get rid of sediment as well as larger parasites. This is accomplished with a series of four 50-gallon drums. The first drum, which must be higher than the others, is your source tank, where the water is collected. The second drum contains gravel and the third contains sand. The top layer of the sand, after a bit of use, actually develops good bacteria and becomes a “biofilter,” making it even more effective. The water is fed by gravity through the gravel filter and then the sand filter and drains into the fourth tank, where it is held for chlorination.

Chlorination kills off the microorganisms too small to be caught by filtration. LEAMIS originally used the McGuire chlorinator, and it’s a good product, but starting with the last trip I took, in 2010, we began using the Hays chlorinator, which is smaller, simpler and less expensive, making it better for the type of projects we do.

Both work on the same principle: electricity is passed through salt water to liberate the chlorine gas. The McGuire unit produces a stream of chlorine gas which you can bubble through a tank of water, or install inline so that it bubbles through running water.

fullpackageThe Hays unit, by contrast, produces a very strong chlorine solution – similar to your favorite bleach, but without any laundry-related additives – which can then be added, in small quantities, to a tank of water. The chlorinator itself is about the size of a softball. In a complete kit, it comes with a small battery and a solar panel with which to charge the battery. In a pinch, it can also be run off a car battery (a common power source in developing countries where not everyone is on the grid).

The complete Hays unit costs less than $600 – a pretty small price to pay, considering it can serve as many as 5,000 people a day.

Consider supporting a missions group that’s involved with clean water, or you can give directly to the producers of the Hays or McGuire units to help them make their products available. Or you could support someone who’s going on a mission trip in the next year or so. (Suffice it to say I have a suggestion along those lines.)

Other countries have elections, too

There will be a major election Saturday in Sierra Leone, the country to which I hope to travel on a short-term mission trip a year from now.

Better the election take place now than a year from now. My last mission trip, to Kenya in 2010, took place just weeks before a big constitutional referendum in that country. Our host pastor – a man I dearly love and respect – had strong feelings about the issue and talked constantly to Jan and me about them. While I was, from a very intellectual standpoint, somewhat interested, I really didn’t have a lot of background to know which side was right, and hearing about it quickly got old. It wasn’t my election, after all.

Of course, I get tense around political discussions even here in this country. Because of my work as a journalist, I don’t feel it’s right to wear my political heart on my sleeve. (Some journalists feel differently, and have good arguments for their position.) So when I am off-duty, and hear friends, family or fellow church members getting into intense, opinionated political discussion – at either end of the spectrum – I don’t feel comfortable. I don’t want to argue or agree; I just sit there feeling uncomfortable, or (if appropriate) I find an excuse to leave the room.

I had hoped that some of the political vitriol would die down after the election, and some of it has, but I still have Facebook friends whining or gloating, as the case may be, about the results. Get over it. We’ve all got to work together for the next two years.

Hopefully, the election in Sierra Leone, however it turns out, will be old news by this time next year, or at least enough of a non-issue that no one will feel like bending the American visitors’ ears about it.

Looking ahead a year

Some facts on Sierra Leone:

From the always-useful CIA World Factbook web site (yes, it really is put together by the real CIA):

Democracy is slowly being reestablished after the civil war from 1991 to 2002 that resulted in tens of thousands of deaths and the displacement of more than 2 million people (about a third of the population). The military, which took over full responsibility for security following the departure of UN peacekeepers at the end of 2005, is increasingly developing as a guarantor of the country’s stability. The armed forces remained on the sideline during the 2007 presidential election but still look to the UN Integrated Office in Sierra Leone (UNIOSIL) – a civilian UN mission – to support efforts to consolidate peace. The new government’s priorities include furthering development, creating jobs, and stamping out endemic corruption.

Muslim 60%, Christian 10%, indigenous beliefs 30%

This will be the first country I’ve visited where Christianity is in the minority. (For the record, my previous trips were to Nicaragua, Kenya, Bolivia and Costa Rica.) However, note this from Wikipedia:

Sierra Leone is a predominantly Muslim country,[8][9][10] though with an influential Christian minority. Sierra Leone is ranked as one of the most religiously tolerant nations in the world.

From the U.S. State Department travel web site:

Lungi Airport is located across a large body of water from Freetown. There are usually four travel options to and from Lungi airport: helicopter, ferry, water taxi, and by car. None of the options are without risk, and Embassy personnel do not travel from the airport to Freetown by car. The cost for the ferry service is minimal, but the service experiences frequent delays. The ferry terminal is located in East Freetown, which has a higher crime rate than other parts of the capital. When the helicopter is operating, the charge is $120 each way (payable in U.S. dollars). Passengers departing Freetown by air should expect to pay an airport tax of $65.00 (payable in U.S. dollars).

Lonely Planet, meanwhile, gives a good explanation for the timing of the trip, which will cause me to miss Thanksgiving next year:

The best time to visit is November, after the rains and before the dusty harmattan winds blow in and paint the skies grey. During the rainy season, washed out roads make travel to some destinations difficult or impossible, though there are some sunny days at the beginning and end. The further you go into the dry season the more heat you’ll have to endure and the less green you’ll see in the countryside.

Mission trip travel is always an adventure.