Tuesday, December 26, 2023

A Hospitality Pro's Christmas

Luckily, the 23rd was my longest day - at just under 12 hours. Christmas Eve was only nine hours. I help manage running two restaurants at a busy hotel that is especially popular from Thanksgiving through New Year's. It is a peculiar reality to work for a place that never closes, especially around the holidays, but if we are in the company of police, doctors, and flight crew, I cannot feel that oppressed.

Christmas Day I arrived to work before 2:00 pm, and I was suffering a mild cold, though I felt better than the night before - acquired or worsened by the various people who cough on me, the jumbo shot of tequila handed to me by Chris from Security (after work) two nights prior, or compounded fatigue while working outside in the Southern California winter without a jacket. 

As I walk into work, I see families in matching pajamas, couples holding hands... people from many countries on an expedition to experience some joy for the season. It is easy to see them all as rich people, given the prices of things here, but I know there are parents who saved up for some time to take their kids someplace special, and I always try to remember that. World travel makes that empathy more attainable, and by that same token, if someone proves he doesn't know how to act, they are more likely to hear about it.

My team was growing irritable serving throngs of merrimakers over several straight days. Some of them have second jobs, but they power on. They are very good at what they do, and it heartens me to see them creating joy for their guests on these special days away from loved ones. I wonder if they feel like me - someday we'll be like regular people and not have to work on Christmas... maybe. But then, it takes a special type of person to do what we do - and be good at it, and be genuine. 

Anyway, I'll settle for homemade tamales made by my host Roxana that were in my backpack all night and a raspberry sour by the tree, with my favorite Chistmas hymns I missed from being too tired to make mass... in the dark at 11:00 pm - when I can finally relax and enjoy Christmas.

Sunday, September 17, 2023

The Life of Çay in Turkey


People sitting around a wood stove drinking tea
It took a brief introduction to the pleasant truth of "çay" (or "chai" or tea). As in other countries, tea drinking is not only customary, but fuel for life.

I have not been much of a tea drinker, although I do enjoy a cup from time to time, especially in the company of my mother. She even offers to provide coffee at her house, but I enjoy exploring her collection of various teas.

Volunteering in Turkey, and you may say the same about Nepal or elsewhere, drinking tea is as normal as a coffee break in the United States. However, it is less an opportunity to escape one's duties and more a communal ritual part of life. It would be quite common to be offered tea several times a day - by fellow workers, neighbors, partnering organizations, and even the displaced people living in tents whom we were there ostensibly to serve. If I didn't know better, I would have been a bit embarrassed by taking so many breaks to receive charity while we were meant to be working... and offering our own charity.

But international disaster response - as in life, you see - is a two-way street. We can also experience a unique cultural exchange. Part of the humanity of coming to help is also in receiving acts of kindness and showing gratitude. One of my first days volunteering in Turkey was bitterly cold, and we labored much of the morning outside. Within about a half hour on the job, Burhan, my Turkish workmate stopped, looked at me after only a brief hesitation and said,"çay?"

"Sure, why not?"

We sauntered over to the unofficial break area that had the wood-fired tea stove by the lockers. Burhan's several compatriots were there breaking as well, and they offered me bread, Nutella, olives, and cheese! Not a bad little tea break! They were simple things - items I would normally scan past on any given day at the grocery store - but it was an exquisite little treat, and I was promptly hooked on the favorite Turkish beverage... and all that came along with it.

Thursday, September 14, 2023

Honoring Thy Father and Mother

The Decision to Care for a Parent with Terminal Illness

 It was a somber flight arriving in Los Angeles from DC, memorably the beginning of a Lakers' 2013-14 season with a win against the Clippers. There would not be a lot of winning to follow that year - for the Lakers or for my dad who had been diagnosed with cancer.

I have wanted to write about this and make it somehow worthwhile to any adult son or daughter thinking of making the caregiving of their elderly parent a full-time endeavor - something I wish were more a consideration in America, yet a solemn and arduous commitment with plenty of its own drawbacks and heartbreaks. Ten years has granted some perspective, but I'm not sure there has been much added clarity, except it was the right thing to do.

Can I Even Help?

First of all, erase the notion that you are stepping in to help your parent die. We all unavoidably die, and we usually do not need much help getting to that point. He probably accepted the end before I did, though he refused to show it. People do not need your help to die; they need you to help them live. There is nothing for you to achieve or attain, except perhaps a greater appreciation for the preciousness of life and the inevitability of death. Your job is to be there and help with the living part.

It will be hard. Most pursuits in life of any importance are, of course. But caring for a dying parent is really hard. Do not let that dissuade you, however; in trials of this magnitude, one discovers he can do more than he had predicted when he perseveres. Just remember to ask for help. You may be of the mindset that you chose this challenging time for yourself, so it is up to you to carry the load. Ask for help. People often will, they just don't know how to help or if they should intrude. I knew my friend Josh had cared for his mother and would jump in if I needed him. It turns out, when I was out making a delivery, my dad had a fall in his room. I called Josh, and he bolted there to help Dad back into bed. You should not have to do it alone.

It Won't be Picture-Perfect

It's not a movie. It is certainly a story, but you can forget about any grand storybook plots that involve skydiving and traveling the world, drinking Champagne at mountain chalets, reuniting and making peace with all prior loose ends, and arriving at some grand revelation and pretty ending. Some of that is possible, but it probably will not go as you envision. Be open to the possibilities, but running with the bulls in Pamplona in your eighties with the pains and limitations of terminal illness is usually something that could be left undone.

Yes to Life

That brings me to another point - which has its limitations, but try to give your parent what she wants. Maybe she wants to see Paris. Or maybe she just wants to spend time down the street at her favorite park. Maybe she wants a margarita every once in a while. Several times, my dad wanted to go out and make purchases that I thought were unnecessary, especially since the two of us were living on his modest pension - a wallet, a watch, pancakes at IHOP multiple times per week... You may often have to tell your parent "no," but remember these things don't mean a lot to you, but they are little things that feel like living to them. And by repeatedly telling a formerly independent person "no," you chip away at what makes life worth living. While denying a child has its merits (and seems like something that similarly must be done), denying your parent does not build character, but rather reinforces the lack of control she has over her life - what's left of it.

Take Care

They always tell you to "take care of yourself." which seems like a no-brainer. Heck, people say that all the time under normal circumstances. Caring for a dying parent full-time is a stressful event unlike any you have likely experienced. You will see and do things you never thought you should have to. It is tempting to neglect your own well-being as part of your sacrifice and even indulge yourself in activities that you know are bad for you, but perhaps you deserve a pass to deal with the stress. Your parent would never consent to you caring for her if she knew it was leading to your demise.

Quality of Life

Lastly, appreciate that dying is a natural part of life, and being there for your parent is a special, humane and profound way of both fulfilling your duty as a son or daughter and living your own journey. You may very well contribute to your parent's quality of life in the time when they need you the most. In return, you will gain perspective, wisdom, and a unique durability - perhaps even a better closeness to God and purpose. I cannot say for certain, but it may help you and your approach to the reality of death and possibilities of life. It takes you to the brink, and may haunt you for some time, but eventually you will be a better person for your experience, and your gift to your parent will have given comfort while he prepared himself for that final journey.

Tuesday, August 29, 2023

So Far... (2023)

So far, there are a few things I've learned that I should never forget:

Competing with lesbians is an endeavor in futility. Learn as much of the local language as you can when traveling abroad, especially how to say "thank you." If you don't push the boundaries, there will never be any discovery. Coffee, like life, is time-sensitive, and ought to be appreciated as such. Loving someone and letting them go are not necessarily congruous events. If you don't tell people who you are, what you want, and what you intend to do, you should not expect them to guess or deduce. Try the pork belly. Travel alone and travel with people; both are important. We do not pray to change God's mind, but we should welcome a change in ourselves. There is no equivalent substitute for being there. Do not expect help from anyone, but it can't hurt to ask. Someone who claims to be your friend may very well delight in attempting to sabotage your progress for reasons you may never comprehend. Drive through France and eat and drink and talk to people. Stand up to shake hands. Always accept a breath mint. Feed people. Read. Watch out for motorcycles.

Wednesday, July 19, 2023

The Children of Radymno


Polish buildings and a chimney with smoke behind a gate

It would have been a bitter cold, but we couldn't be bitter, really; we all chose to be there - Poland in January. We slogged through the icy muddy ground below us for another day of painting blue and white, walls and ceilings. No, it was hard to be bitter, because our work for the day was turning a dreary old simple building into a temporary home for women and children who had escaped war.

There were many children from toddlers to those approaching their teenage years. I didn't know if I should expect that they would be interested in what we were doing there; most days I would say no, not at all. I felt a bit invisible, which was mostly fine. There was the little girl with a mild injury to her face who enjoyed practicing her "hello" with us and feeling the muted glow of how a child feels when she got something right. Small girls carried smaller children, and the little boys mostly ran, so we had to ensure our paint containers were out of the pathway and that our drips were kept to a minimum.

Mostly finished Disney princess puzzle taped to a window

One of my first days, I had to prepare the walls and fixtures for painting, and I found a mostly finished Disney princess puzzle proudly taped up on display. I wouldn't know if I was doing a kind gesture or taking too much care for something no one wanted, but I retaped it to the nearest window in the hope that some child would rediscover their masterpiece when our work was complete. A metaphor, perhaps - familiar innocent joy moving forward despite the missing pieces?

Aside from our organization, the only men in the building typically were local Polish construction workers. I was quite certain they did not speak English, but I could understand their regular reliance of the one Polish swear word I learned against my will upon passing through Krakow. My original judgment was that they might not be very nice men, so I kept my distance. One day as I painted the ceiling from atop a bucket, I was particularly observant of the creatures running below, and there were two boys running in and out of their apartment, each time slamming the door - not really in anger, but to cause a ruckus as unsupervised boys do. It was annoying, but I chose to simply accept it due to a number of reasons - not the least of which that I don't speak Ukrainian either. Annoying, nonetheless. However, when I saw the roughest of the Polish workers pause his work and approach the one boy, I was actually somewhat frightened for him. To my surprise, the man gently but firmly explained to the boy his trespass by showing him in a kind non-expletive-laced manner the calm and quiet way to enter and exit one's adobe. The boy took pause, slinked back inside admonished, and it hit me - there are no fathers here.

It is hard to pick a best day, because every day I just felt sympathy for these kids who had little more than they could carry away from war. They were provided for by the people who ran the shelter, but still far from ideal. Every lunch break, I would practice learning Tagalog with my phone app for five minutes outside. It was always chilly, but the fresh winter air was refreshing, and it was some of the few available alone times I could find as a volunteer. This one day there was a group of about five younger children playing outside with one another, likely most or all siblings. There was a nearby only partially deflated ball, so I challenged them to a game of soccer. It was a good break. Not bitter at all.

I hope they take comfort in their well-painted temporary home, and that they are reunited with their fathers sometime soon.

Man in purple t-shirt and red hardhat near a blue and white wall

Friday, June 23, 2023

Those I Met Along the Way Around the World

All Hands and Hearts volunteers

People can be some of your greatest discoveries.

Traveling alone is something everyone should do in their lifetime. That is not to say it is necessary to cut oneself off from human contact or to aim purely for self-indulgence - quite the contrary! The strangers you meet out in the world whom you dare bring into your life - even for a short time - challenge you, offer you a new perspective, and give you an opportunity to even explore an alternative reality from what may exist in your brain. You may never see them again, or they may become lifelong friends; it doesn't actually matter. These connections change you, live with you, and give you a chance to explore the unfamiliar with a fresh set of eyes. Although, it is even better if you can carry on knowing you have a new friend.

From November 2022 until June 2023, I traveled around the world, volunteered for over five months with All Hands and Hearts in three different countries, and I had some wonderful experiences. The following are special people whom I met for the first time on this trip (there were so many others, but I had to keep the list somewhat brief, or I would be writing forever):

Bernard the French Enigma

It was a rather cozy environment to be in a large cabin in the middle of the snow during winter in Poland. This was our volunteer base - the nicest of its kind, in my experience - which had a full kitchen, a ping-pong table, a fireplace, and a certain percentage of moonshine left by the owner for our enjoyment. We had many Europeans come through to volunteer, many of whom were motivated specifically against the war in Ukraine. Bernard was a Frenchman who seemed to enjoy relative privacy in that he claimed often that he was not able to understand English. I don't doubt it was a difficulty for him, it just seemed he was able to express himself fairly well when the need arose. But with this cloak of anonymity, many fellow volunteers collectively decided he might actually be the most interesting man in the world. He speaks Spanish fairly well, which is how we communicated at times, and he is fluent in Arabic. We bonded somehow, maybe in just taking the time to share medicine, food, and simple stories. 

We both had an interest in feeding the fire that warmed our home for a time, and we were able to snag two coveted spots on the floor nearest the crackle and heat of the flames. Bernard ushered me over, "Mark, let us sit here and talk like old women."

With only miniscule apprehension about what that would portend, I happily obliged and joined him. Randy Travis lyrics quickly came to mind as I quipped back, "What do old women talk about? Old men?"

Karen the Shout-Outer

Upon arrival in Kahramanmaraş, Turkey, two of us were greeted by a small crew, as we were the first volunteers invited after consecutive 7.8 and 7.5 earthquakes. The woman first on scene charged with building and maintaining a base that would soon need to accommodate scores of volunteers and staff was a woman named Karen, who spoke with a distinct Boston-area accent. Someone once asked me, in a group setting, what I thought of her, as she was certainly a unique individual - outspoken in an official setting, yet otherwise either reclusive or just not around after work hours and not actively seeking to be one of the crowd. I responded that I very much identify with that stance, in that I enjoyed putting myself out there in ways that make our place more than a workers' bunkhouse but prize some alone time away from it all. She and I never spent much time really getting to know each other, apart from some dawn whisperings around the kitchen, but she immediately entrusted me with liberty to do what needed to be done to build our base and make it a home. This freedom of ownership, nurtured by Karen most certainly fueled my decisions to keep extending my stay from five weeks to my visa's maximum three months. Quick to recognize my insistence on providing nightly pit fires on base, she dubbed me, "Sparky Marky."

Hedaya the Devoted

It is strange how you can spend three months with someone, yet only know them on the surface... somewhat. Hedaya is from Jordan and comes with, of course, Arabic proficiency, which helps when communicating with Syrian refugees, and her expertise in the construction we put so much time and effort into. But most importantly, she is a kind human being who is genuinely interested in helping people. As with many people, I got to know her though the power of food. I took it upon myself to cook quite a bit - especially breakfast - and she was always a willing recipient. I think she was typically up and about several hours before she actually woke up. Clearly, camping is a step outside of her comfort zone. I often felt she would starve or just get by on scraps if I did not feed her, which of course is an overstatement, but I was always happy to have her enjoy my creations.

Tony the Friend

If you had to bottle youthful enthusiasm with British wit and purposeful intention, I do believe it would look a lot like my friend Tony. For five weeks, he was our site leader in Poland as we refurbished a building and repurposed it into apartments for refugees escaping war in Ukraine. We complemented each other as architects of base life in Turkey, as he planted a garden and surrounded us with herbs and flowers; he orchestrated a Coronation Day event on base, complete with a giant meal for everyone, games, and a live viewing on a big screen of his King Charles' special day. I believe Tony is what All Hands and Hearts is all about - balancing the enjoyment of life and travel with a serious attention to the fact that we were charged with helping people build back their lives. 

Aly the Bold

Tony's arrival on base in Turkey followed, just by hours, the departure of Aly. People come and go on a volunteer base, and to some extent, you get used to it. It is often a shame that you can't really get to know all of the unique and special individuals who come with various inspirations and stories. Aly and I became friends around the fire, and then making sport of sorting baby food donations at the local university. She has a penetrating wit about her - the kind that can make you laugh without her even breaking a smile. She came to Turkey with serious intentions about making a difference, and in the process made some great friends. We spent much time discussing volunteerism and life, and she challenged me to keep evaluating what it was we were doing, how, and why. Seeing Aly and others waking to the cold of a still-wintery base, facing a rather limited selection of breakfast nourishment, I decided to make pancakes upon her recommendation. That practice would become an event not so uncommon over the following months, so we can credit her with that. It is easy to withdraw from strangers sometimes, but then someone comes along and gives you a reason to put yourself out there; that's pretty special.

Marvin the Marvelous

Everyone loves Marvin. I'm not even sure that's a debatable statement. He is a German explorer and a conscious lover of the world. He prefers not to use air travel or eat meat as notable personal contributions, and he really is a serious builder for other people. As my site leader in the Philippines, he made sure everyone was happy and healthy in the heat and in the rain while we constructed school classrooms. I remember being bummed that I was spending Thanksgiving abroad with no turkey, feast, or family. It was likely a coincidence, since I don't think he is terribly concerned about American holidays, but he ordered pizzas for us all that lunch - a welcomed treat and change from rice and some Filipino viand. Marvin also became staff in Turkey and welcomed me on my day one and immediately put me to work making a table and a kitchen. This tidbit will not do him justice, but this is a guy who is intelligent, caring, strong, fascinating, friendly and uplifting. I do hope to find him again out in the world that he so purposefully intends to improve.


Ryan the Thinker

He would probably object to being characterized as a "thinker," though he clearly is, but he would make an addendum. Perhaps "writer," "observer," or "truth-teller," but I believe he already eschewed the designation of "philospher." Ryan and I would connect in the Poland base lodge from time to time during our long evenings with nowhere to go, where I would make him laugh and he would make me think... or was it vice-versa? Leaving Poland, I traversed eastern Europe, and we teamed up to drive through Romania. We also volunteered together in Turkey, where we had a number of adventures, and then met up in France for another road trip from Paris to Bordeaux. It turns out we both enjoy wine, exploring by wandering with purpose, and talking to strangers. I think he enjoys my non-bellicose nature and I his fascination with discovery. He is writing a book, and being out in the world is what fuels the turbines of his mind. In our short friendship he has already tied Kim from the Philippines for traveling with me in the most countries (4) of any other companions, and usually I travel alone. It seems like further proof that God puts people on our path as part of a plan; Ryan might see it differently. 

Ismail and Tahir the Turkish Friends

Early in the Turkey program, we established a campsite for a base at quite a distance from the city, so we were somewhat isolated from stores, restaurants, and of course devastated and precarious structures left from the earthquakes. There was a little town with a few small shops nearby, but little of any recreational opportunities apart from the magestic view of a nearby lake and mountainscape. Oftentimes after work, I would take a walk to see the lake and pop in to see what was available for purchase in the shops, since we didn't have much on base. Also, I was always on the lookout for ingredients and useful supplies, such as pots, whisks, and grill baskets. My favorite shop became the one where the shopkeeper, Ismail, invited me in to enjoy home-cooked food and a beverage... with a heater to save me from the evening chill. Like most Turkish people in the area, Ismail spoke very little English - about as much as I spoke Turkish. But he was always happy to have me in his shop, and he would introduce his family and friends to me as well. One of his friends is Tahir, who is someone who truly enjoys conversing, and his English is exceptional. So, he would translate, and we would have illuminating discussions on everything from politics to Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. During my third month in Turkey, having already moved our base way across town into the mountains, Ismail invited me to his wedding, which I was proud to attend the first day of the elaborate ceremony. What joy it is, not only to share moments or stories with people who live where you are traveling, but to be invited into their lives is extraordinary and what keeps me wanting to explore this world.

Zavi Girl, Gekka, and Jeyd - the Family

Just over three years ago this little girl was born, and I saw her nearly every day of her life, yet we hadn't met in person until this January. Her "Mamita" (aunt) and I were very close, so I was privy to near-daily photos, videos, and even video calls. I had already met "Mama" Dolor on a previous trip to Legazpi, and I was so looking forward to meeting the rest of the family. Traveling from the Philippines program to Poland, I gave myself some time to travel to Bulan from Tacloban before returning to Manila. The family took me in warmly, and I felt like an old friend instantly. Gekka was in her ninth month of pregnancy at the time and still working her food stand out on the side of the busy street, and Zavi would "help" as best she could. Jeyd and his parents kindly welcomed me into their home. I had some extra funds left over from our last Tacloban Barangay Kitchen feeding, so Jeyd and friends came up with a plan to feed some of the children there in Bulan. What an adventure to be surrounded by people you've just (or not even) met to rally and cook and distribute Filipino spaghetti to hundreds of kids on short notice. I am so thankful for my time there in Bulan and will always remember their kindness. Hopefully I can meet Zavi's little sister next time!

Thursday, May 11, 2023

Life After Turkey's Earthquake

I signed up for five weeks here - arriving with the first of the volunteers - and I plan to stay for the duration of my three-month visa. The physical devastation is widespread, as I have witnessed spanning at least from our base of operations in Kahramanmaraş to Antakya. In the case of the latter, it appears an entire city will need to be rebuilt. 
The human devastation is hard to explain or even fathom, but surely every tented family has their own story, and we just offer our labor, time, and what we can in the way of compassion to make life a little better for those we can reach who find themselves in this holding pattern.
I suppose the tent living for us is a blessing in disguise in that it offers us some shared experience with the Turks and Syrians who have been living in the elements for some time now without the comforts of home. And in working close to where these people reside, we are fortunate to gather some sense of the struggle of humanity - in its imperfections, setbacks, disappointments, and simple joys. Being a part of this is probably why I stay, though it too is a difficult picture to capture.

Tuesday, February 14, 2023

I Hate Valentine's Day

Rose in empty restaurant

It is understandable why people love the holiday centered around romantic love - especially if you are accustomed to getting things. Heck, it's probably like a second birthday, without the aging requirement! 

However, for many singles, this day is like not being invited to the party. And the people who do get invited want to tell you all about what you missed! Perhaps it is akin to Thanksgiving if you are too poor to afford a meal, but even then, there are people and organizations giving out food. Nobody cares about the lonely on Valentine's Day.

Of course, for decades, it was quite normal for me to work on the evening of Valentine's Day. So, it was my job to help make your night even more special. Champagne for you... and you... how about a chocolate dessert for two? Me? I'd probably have a slice of pizza and a whiskey around midnight after you all get out of the restaurant.

It's an annoying holiday, and you will probably still rub it in on social media how great you've got it. And even though I hate Valentine's Day, still... ugh, still... buy the flowers, buy the chocolate, write the poem, get that fantastic bottle of wine... hell, buy the ring. If love is in your life, you ought to try to keep it. And if you're smart, you'll do that every day and not wait for a special occasion to prove to someone what they mean to you.