Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Happy Holidays 2010!

I think it’s been about three years since our last holiday letter, so we have a bit of ground to cover! If I recall correctly, we left of at Christmas 2007, having just returned from volunteering in New Orleans for the fall.

First thing in 2008, we moved to Melbourne, Australia. Erika attended the University of Melbourne for a postgraduate degree in Philosophy, focusing on environmental ethics. She loved her job there, teaching and tutoring students in the Philosophy of Biology. Petra worked for World Vision Australia, a Christian international development and humanitarian aid organization, and not only loved her work but made some great friends amongst her colleagues.

We both enjoyed being near Petra’s Aussie relatives, and spent most of our social time with cousins. We had fun taking short trips to the Dandenong mountain ranges east of the city with their towering mountain ash trees and giant fern trees and elusive lyre birds; the Great Ocean Road southeast of the city with its tiny fishing towns and glorious cliffs; a big trip up north to Queensland with Petra’s parents where we basked in the tropical splendor and snorkeled amazedly amidst the teeming life of the Great Barrier Reef; and a few beautiful weeks in New Zealand where Erika’s sister and mom met us for hiking. The wonderful people around us in Oz, the fascinating and beautiful natural world of Australia, the amazingly humane standards of living there, and its mild weather combined to make a truly great year. We look forward to returning to Australia in a few years’ time.

Through her work at World Vision, Petra was offered a position dually with World Vision Thailand and the Australian version of the Peace Corps. So, first thing in 2009, we moved to Bangkok. Petra’s job was in Anti-human-trafficking: she mainly led workshops training staff in the small local offices around rural Thailand and Cambodia about how to integrate anti-trafficking goals into their existing programs. As part of this work, she not only learned Thai very well and got to travel around the Mekong region regularly, but also fell in love with Monitoring and Evaluation, the nerdy quality assurance side of NGO management. Human trafficking is of course a heartbreaking problem, and Petra struggled to keep her optimism in the face of the extremes of human suffering.

Erika spent the year volunteering as a children’s and adult’s English and Music teacher at a UNHCR refugee center in the center of Bankgok. The refugees came from not only Thailand’s neighboring countries, but also places of strife like Somalia, the Congo, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and Iraq. The cultural, religious, and linguistic mishmash combined with their broad span of life histories (subsistence farmers to elite politicians) made the center the most truly diverse community we had ever experienced. This diversity, while usually delightful, often made teaching a challenge. Additionally, the center was under-resourced and went through a number of major staff changes throughout the year, leading to significant management and oversight gaps. With the help of Petra, ex-patriot friends, and volunteers from the refugee community, Erika took on a number of extra satisfying projects, including renovating, cleaning, and painting the derelict classrooms and public spaces of the center.

Living in Thailand was generally fascinating, surprising, and tiring. We loved the food (Petra LOVED the fruit, Erika the curries and soups), the architecture, the Buddhist animist religious environment, the playfulness of the Thai people, and the many dear friends we made. In addition to Petra’s regular work trips, we also vacationed in Chiang Mai, an ancient walled city in the northern mountains, where we meditated in temples, participated in the annual water festival, enjoyed the Hmong handicrafts, mountain-biked, rode elephants, and went rafting; in the islands in the Gulf of Thailand, where we slept in hammocks strung between trees on the beach, ate lots of spicy fish, and where Erika fell dangerously in love with scuba diving; in the Siam Reap area of Cambodia, where we gloried in the Ankor Wat temples and pretended to be Angelina Jolie in Tomb Raider, laughed at monkeys, and chatted with the children; and in Bangkok itself, where we shopped in the markets, explored the rivers and canals, admired the palaces and temples, and retreated to the underdeveloped neighborhoods of leafy banana forests and stilt-houses. Of course, we miss all of this now.

It wasn’t all glorious, though. It was really, really sweatily hot all the time (which Petra loved). Our workplaces and the violent political turmoil tested our mettle and morals. We both became ill on a very regular basis, from bad food, bad water, and insect-borne illnesses. Having to grapple against extortion and corruption daily became infuriating. The crowdedness and pollution and infrastructural danger (bare wires, kamikaze buses, etc.) of Bangkok were often very uncomfortable, as was missing our favorite foods (dairy products, bread, etc.). And of course we missed our friends and family from the US and Australia.

A convergence of Petra’s contract ending and her desiring to try for her Masters as well as an especially violent attempted coup in Bangkok led us to move back to the USA in the spring of this year. For the spring and summer, we bounced around visiting family and friends while Petra finished her grad school applications, studied up on Economics and math, and Erika temped and applied for jobs. We got outside a bit for canoeing and hikes and the like, but not nearly as much as we'd wish.

In August we moved into our new apartment on the Upper West Side of New York City, and soon thereafter Petra started her Masters in International Affairs at Columbia University. Since then, Petra’s been studying like crazy, while Erika’s continued temping and applying for jobs. (If you know of any great jobs in international human rights or environmental NGOs in NYC, let Erika know!)

We've enjoyed having a number of visitors this fall, especially the long stay of Petra's cousin Matt from Australia, whom we wished would never leave. Let us know if any of you are planning on being in the city, we'd love to see you!

In a few weeks’ time, over the holidays, Petra will be volunteering in Haiti, while Erika will visit her twin sister’s new home in Italy. More information on these trips will be available on this blog as we travel.

We hope you and yours are well. Wishing you all the blessings of the season.
-Erika and Petra