"The greatest oppression is to those that don't truly know they are not free."

Sunday, October 31, 2010


It took a while for AIDS and its effect on this part of the world to unfurl in my experience and consciousness. And it is still an ongoing process of realization. The first people I met infected with HIV were some of the kids and mamas that live in the OHS house. Only one of the kids, however, is actually allowed to share her status with the volunteers. 4 year old Bahati who is the adopted daughter of our director, Hori, and his wife, Lena. Bahati is a diva, full of life, energy, sass, opinion, personality. She puts up with her pediatric AIDS shingles. She stoic-ly accepts injections and medicines. She is survivng and conquering. But she is only 4. She will battle for the rest of her life. And at some point, only God knows when, the quiet period of her virus will close. The virus will have killed enough immune cells in her body to leave her with a CD4 count of less than 200. She will have full-blown AIDS. And like millions of others, she too will be robbed of her precious life by a disease that cannot be cured.
There are other children in the house who are also HIV positive. They dont know their own status though and neither do the volunteers. That information is guarded by the "parents" of the house. And all the children, positive or negative, take their respective medicines and vitamins without question as to who is taking an anti-retroviral and who is not. The kids are just given a chance to be the spunky, energetic, individual kids that they are and fully live a childhood that is not afforded to so many of their comrades in this part of the world.

So HIV is here on the homefront, but day to day we see smiles and giggles and energy and tantrums and doggy piles and all the other elements one would expect in a house with 21 kids. The kids force their neighbor, the Virus, to take a backstage role while they all dominate the stage with their lively theatrics.

We had an HIV testing day in the village where we teach HIV curriculum in the schools. We advertised the testing day for a week and a half prior. Posters in hand we walked mile after mile of dusty road, climbing hill after hill to reach one Masai boma (family compound) after another. We talked to hundreds of red and purple shuka robed Masai warriors, mamas, kokos and babus (grandparents), and their dusty children. Kokos and Babus laughed and said: Why would an old person like me test? I dont do anything like those crazy young people do to get AIDS. Mamas said: If i found out I was positive, then what? There's nothing I can do about it. Besides, Jesus is the only cure. The men said: We Masai have leaves to make medicines out of to cure anything. Many made empty promises to come test. But come testing day, not one shuka-wearing Masia entered our testing tents, despite our rebuffs to uniformed concepts, our urging that testing is the only way to prevent the spread of the disease, our insistence that the test was free, painless, and quick.

Yet we tested 106 people that day. And I saw the glimmer of achievement to all that we do here in a sometimes seemingly hopeless situation. Our students came out to be tested. Masai all of them, but pursuing education, uninhibited by tradition and superstition, enlightened by not only our curriculum but their own experience and critical thinking. We tested 106. We had 106 negative results. We have a promising next generation. We have hope to end this cycle. We have individuals who care about their own health and care about the ability of their generation to stay healthy and strong. We have young people who overcome stifling fears and stigmas to take a stand against one of the biggest enemies to their countries success and prosperity.

AIDS is a hopeless case if you only look at the ignorant, the unwilling, the victims, the surrenderers of the community. But if you look far enough down the road and watch this minority of enlightened and empowered young people carry their knowledge, conviction, and motivation for change and solution to region after region, year after year, you see hope and you see a way to end  this cycle. 

Sunday, October 24, 2010


We had our first 3 day weekend off this week. I went to Ngoro Ngoro crater and the Serengeti for the most amazing safari trip one could ever ask for.
First ingredient: the best safari mates. My roommates and fellow volunteers, 5 of us in all, animals lovers and adventure seekers, campers and PB and J eaters.
Second ingredient: the best tour guide in all of Africa, our friend and coworker, Rasta Reggie, funny, loving, dedicated, knowledgeable, and already a good friend of ours.
Third ingredient: our own OHS safari land rover with a pop-up roof in order to stand our our chairs and have an unobstructed view of the landscape and wildlife.
Fourth ingredient: DYI PBnJ's and spaghetti and tons of matunda (fruit).
Fifth ingredient: awesome OHS tents--what i like to call "veritable palaces"
Last ingredient: 2 reggae CD's played on repeat for 48 hours, courtesy of Rasta Reggie

Loaded up and ready to go we set off for Ngoro Ngoro, a massive crater made thousands and thousands of years ago which is home to 3 kinds of life: the Masai people, the Masai livestock, and the wild animals (all sorts except for giraffes which cannot survive at the low altitude of the crater on account of their oversized hearts). The crater introduced us to tons of hungry hyenas which we watched rounding up herds of zebras and wildebeasts. Unfortunately we missed the take-down of one unfortunate wildebeast by the pack of hyenas. We came up close and personal with 3 baby jackals that suprisingly tried to climb into our car. Reggie said in all his safari trips he's never seen any animals get that close to the car. But the most exciting up-close encounter happened, of course, when we stopped the car for me to go use the choo. As Crystal and I were in the choo, reggie and the other girls walked over to a beautiful old tree right next to a hippo pond. (The bathroom was one of the areas where you were actually allowed out of the car.) As they walked over, they heard a weird growling sound. Reggie looked up and immediately shouted, "F***!!! it's a lion!!" A large female lion had been in the tree the whole time and as they got closer, she got ready to attack. She jumped out of the tree in Reggie's direction and landed only 2 feet away from him. He fell down on a tree root in fear and thought he was dead as the lion hovered above his face and growled at him. One of the girls ran, one froze, and the other probably saved his life by shrieking "REGGIE!!!" The lion turned and ran in fear as i walked out of the bathroom to a very rattled group of safari mates.
I was very sad not to have seen it first hand but very glad that Reggie and the rest were still alive.

My time is up so i must finish this post later.


Saturday, October 16, 2010


I have been in Tanzania for 2 weeks now. I live in a mud hut with a family that has 7 children though only 4 still live at home. I sleep on a wooden cot with a mosquitoo net hanging overhead from a branch that sticks out of the mud-daubed walls. I eat plain bread out of a bag with chai tea in the mornings. I take about 7 different pills and vitamins in order to avoid malaria, scurvy, and constipation. I eat one of 4 different meals for lunch or dinner: rice with beans, beans with potatoes, beans and corn, or a grits-like mash with spinach called ugali. I have lost what I estimate to be around 4-5 pounds judging by the expansion of my clothes around me and the degree that my ribs stick out. I work on site digging trenches, gardening, hoeing, etc. I teach HIV and AIDS prevention  3 days a week in a high school to a class of 40-50 16-20 year olds. I teach a class of elementary students in the local village twice a week.
But the absolute joy of my teaching expereince is in tutoring 7-year old Farajah every day in our children's home. Farajah was orhpaned at 4. Both parents died to AIDS. He was the only person at his mom's side when she died. He has an older sister, age 10, who also lives with him at the OHS children's home. He is the sweetest boy, full of energy, physically talented, with the biggest eyes that show straight to the center of his little heart. He is in 1st grade but he cannot read. So I am teaching him. And he is learning and learning fast. I tell him I love him because I really do. And he loves me too. We get along famously.
I am always dirty here. There is no way to avoid it. We live in dust and dirt and clay and sand and mud. Those "Save the children" spots on TV in the States show the kids looking so pathetic and dirty.Well we may not be living in luxury, but dirt no longer conveys a sense of helplessness to me. Dirt is merely a way of life.
Africa is home to the most stunning vibrant and unreal sunsets in the whole world (at least the parts that I have traveled). I love to climb the hill behind our site and see the whole village sprawled out below and the mountains in the distance and the deep reds and fiery oranges washed with a rare purple.
Everyone here is called "mama" or "baba" or "brother" or "sister". And we really do feel like family. We dont know everyone. But anyone is always welcomed to anyone's little mud hut for a warm meal, some hugs, and some belly laughs.

More to come from the land of Safari, Mt. Kilimanjaro, Lake Victoria, the Masai Tribe, and AIDS.

Sunday, October 3, 2010


So a month passes without any blogs. I am sorry my land locked friends. I momentarily forgot I was traveling the world with a loyal audience behind me. Arriving in Taiwan, I spontaneously slipped into “I’m at home doing nothing exciting but everything relaxing and fun” mode.
In telling you all about my time in my homeland, it would not be very interesting to keep a daily or even weekly journal. Days go something like this: wake up at 6:30 am when little cousin, Tommy wakes me up as he gets ready for school, go back to sleep until 8:30 am when Ah Po (grandma) calls me to eat breakfast, go do whatever activity my grandparents or aunts have arranged for me for the day, if no activity then help Ah po around the house, eat lunch, take afternoon nap, go for a stroll with Ah po and do exercises, go for a bike ride with the little cousins in the afternoon, have a shower, eat dinner, clean up, watch the news with Ah Gong (grandpa), play with the cousins, check email, go to sleep. Repeat the next day. Boring, you may think. But for me, what a balm to my soul!! To spend slow summer days with all my relatives, to talk in Hakka in large groups of chatterboxes, to eat all my favourite foods, to ride our bikes around for hours and hours, to visit night markets and cheap Taiwanese stores, but mainly, just to be with my family…I couldn’t ask for anything more.


Instead of a run-down of activities, I offer you some reflections on my September in Taiwan as I sit at the gate in the airport waiting to fly to Hong Kong en route to Addis Ababa. It’s funny to think how apprehensive I have been all these years to come back to Taiwan by myself. I had always been afraid that on my own, I wouldn’t have enough to talk about with my family, my Chinese would fail me, I would get bored, I wouldn’t fit in, I wouldn’t know how to handle all the hard situations that come with being a member of the Liu family. Leaving Taiwan after living there for a year in 2006 was one of the hardest things I ever did. My sisters and I were a train wreck, bawling our eyes out as we walked through airport security. When we got back home, we cried and lamented for our perfect and carefree days back in our beloved little island. There was an ever-present fear too that upon returning to my little island, it would no longer be as perfect and carefree as memory would preserve it.
Still, as I sat on my flight from Beijing to Taipei, in one moment it hit me that I was finally going home. Four years I hadn’t seen my cousins and grandparents and aunts and uncles who love me so. And now I was finally going home. Tears welled up unexpectedly as the man sitting next to me attempted to break through my bubble of emotion and excitement with his frivolous small talk in Chinglish about green cards and residency visas and things of that nature. In Taipei, I grabbed my baggage and ran to the exit. I set my camera to video and walked briskly to the pick-up area, scanning manically through the crowds. Not there, not there, not there, hmm….where is a familiar face? Where is my family? I reached the end of the line and very disappointedly turned off my camera and trudged to the pay phone to call my grandpa. It was midnight. He answered very groggily and told me it was my uncle that had picked me up. Just as I was about to dial my uncle’s cell phone I saw him running over with my aunt. In my excitement to see them, I left my little card wallet (containing not only phone card but also credit and debit cards) there at the phone booth, grabbed the rest of my stuff and off we went! ….To the hospital.


My first stop after arriving in Taiwan was the hospital. One of my cousins had gotten into a motorcycle accident only hours before I landed and her mother, my aunt, found out en route to the airport to pick me up. I walked into the observation room and saw her lying there with a brace on her neck, blood all over her clothes, all her appendages in bandages and splints. When I walked next to her she opened her eyes and said “Jie Jie” (Big Sister). In Chinese culture, it’s really important for someone who is younger to immediately address an elder by their title when they see them. I was so touched that even in immense pain and shock and chaos, my cousin still made the effort to greet me. Looking at her wounds and not knowing the severity of her injuries, a sudden wave of nausea overcame me and I ran to the bathroom. What a wake up call. I had been traipsing around China and Mongolia with no worries and no responsibilities, spending money, laughing, and living it up with a good friend. Now I was home and life was abruptly raw and real.
I spent the next few weeks visiting my cousin (who lives just down the street) every day. She mainly slept while nursing her injuries which turned out to be a concussion, broken toe, whiplash, and a lot of road rash. So I spent a lot of time just sitting there chatting with my Aunt, finding out what had happened in the four years that I’ve been gone. All sorts of stories: cousin after cousin getting into accidents, marriage dramas, baby dramas, school dramas, aunts and uncles having health scares, hospital visits, lost jobs, bad jobs, money tight, arguments in the family. In short: the usual.


I have always thought that my family could be the subject of a soap opera. Does everyone feel that way about their family. I don’t know if everyone is on their best behavior when I am around, but amidst all the drama and hardships (the stuff that I get to see at least), you can’t deny the feeling of family love. Our family is big and loud and complicated. We all are yellers and laughers. We yell one the one hand because we all think our way is best, on the other hand we yell because we care and we are dealing with people who are thick headed and don’t know how to take care of themselves (at least that’s how we feel.) Each of us think we are the strongest person in the world and don’t need anyone to take care of us but that doesn’t stop us from butting into other people’s lives and trying to take care of them.
When something bad happens to one of us (car accident, lost credit and atm card, lost job, get cancer, etc.) we try our best not to let the whole family know so that they don’t worry. But somebody always finds out and somebody always tells the rest (usually either my Second Aunt or Lizzy Liu). And then the yelling and opinion throwing begins but in the end it’s all out of love and in the end it makes us laugh because we all know that we gotta laugh our way through things because bad things are always gonna happen (especially to us) but if you can’t keep laughing and loving, then what’s the point?


Take my littlest aunt for example (one of my favorite aunts, by the way). A woman who knows what it means to say “Life is hard”. Pregnant and married at 16, three kids by 23, stuck with a drunken and abusive husband who just 5 years ago got into a motorcycle coma that left him in coma for 3 months. The cause for the accident? Driving drunk. The cause for that particular drunkenness? Drowning the sorrow of having a runaway daughter. My uncle is woke up and learned how to walk and talk against all odds. But now he lives at home with the mental capabilities of a 5 year old while my Aunt works to support all of them. One daughter with a high school diploma working in a factory. One daughter with only middle school education working in a hair salon. And a boy, the pride of the family, a freshman in college, majoring in Ship Building. When she started going bald last year, my Little Aunt went to the doctor and discovered she had cancer in her uterus and without so much as a blink of the eye, she asked the doctor to schedule surgery that very day. She went back to work the next week. As we sat and chatted today before I left my Aunt kept lovingly punching my leg and telling me I had to take care of myself when I went to Africa. I replied, “Aunt, don’t worry about me! I can take care of myself! You’re the one who needs to take care of themselves. Take care of your health!” (She was on her way to a doctor’s appointment that afternoon for a post-op checkup.) She looked at me with a twinkle in her eye, flexed her arm, and said, “I’m the strongest!” And she laughed and laughed. So I looked back at her, flexed my arm, and said back, “I’m the strongest too!” She nodded her head and laughed, acknowledging my claim.  


This time going back to Taiwan I feel like I was my opportunity to get initiated into the very special and exclusive club called “The Liu Women”. We are sisters, strong, stubborn, motherly, Hakka, independent, smart, funny, playful, loud-mouthed, hard-working, suffocating, nosy, unbearable, generous, dominating, and unshakeable. And we always cry when we have to say goodbye to one another. Lizzy Liu with her visit this past June and her news of her swanky job as Kitchen Manager of a fancy restaurant in Los Angeles is the newest member. Lizzy Liu is a rock star in the homeland. With her big hair, big personality, cupcake baking abilities, generosity, dimples, swagger, charm, and bangles, she has left our little island behind all abuzz with legends of her magnificence. I awkwardly failed my initiation test in 23 days. I came black as a barbarian still dusty with Mongolian sand. My acne scarred face and over-tanned skin became the main topic of conversation among the whole family. And with 20 women and girls in my family, beauty regimens and potions came flying my way as I was also pulled along to see one Chinese doctor after the other. Each medicine that was prescribed to me put me through different levels of never-ending diarrhea. In addition, I my body did not do so extraordinary at adjusting to 95 degree weather with 95% humidity after spending half a month in the deserts of Mongolia, so I just wanted to sleep all the time. Also, I am notorious for doing ditsy things like going the wrong way and clumsy things like tripping and breaking things. Thus, despite my best efforts to show my independence and grace, I was taken as the black, pimply, sickly, sleepy, klutzy, stupid one with never-ending diarrhea. And I thought I could handle myself in going to Africa??
Well Lady Liu’s, to Africa I go. I will show you all that as awkward and clumsy and sleepy I might be, I am the strongest too. I already passed the first level in just making my transfer flight in Hong Kong to Bangkok. My flight from Taipei was late so I landed in Hong Kong while my flight was already boarding. I walked off the airplane to see an airport employee holding a paper sign with my name on it. I ran up to her and she directed me down the hall to the transfer station and told me to run. As I was running with backpack and carry-on suitcase down the endless, shiny hall I thought to myself, “Why are terminals ALWAYS a mile away from each other. I reached the transfer desk and asked how I could check in to Ethiopian Air because my flight was leaving in half an hour. The attendant of course took her sweet time in checking which desk my airline was at, and then informed me it was in the next terminal and to go down that hallway. That hallway went to immigration so I ignored her instructions and followed the signs, running to get onto a tram that I had to wait for anyways, then running to the check-in desk where my ticket was already printed and waiting for me. I handed the attendant my passport and she said, “oh you must hurry! Your flight is boarding!” And I thought to myself, “well you did see me run up to you didn’t you? You do notice that I am quite out of breath don’t you? And you do know that I can’t board until you return my passport don’t you?” Then she commenced to take her sweet time leafing through my passport, looking through my visas. She finally said: “You have no visa for Ethopia.” I said, “Yes, I know. I am going to purchase one upon arrival at the airport just as the Ethipoian consulate informed me to do.” She put my passport down and began to type on the computer. After a few minutes, she looked up and said, “you must purchase a visa.” Here? “No. when you get there.” Oh my goodness, I just told you that myself. She nonchalantly handed me my passport back and then looked at me as though I was wasting time and said, “You must hurry!” “Yes ma’am,” I mind saluted and dashed off to security and ran past all the duty-free shops to my gate. I pulled up much out of breath as the last of the boarding line was sneaking through the door.


I am the strongest, I laugh to myself as I sit in my seat looking out at the Hong Kong harbor. Maybe I am not the strongest (I admit, I usually ask some guy onboard to help me put my carry-on suitcase heavy with books into the overhead bin.) But I just keep going. And I just keep laughing. I’ll get in the club one day. Black skin, pimples, and all.
I have written a month’s worth, I believe. Now rest your weary eyes and look forward to a picture edition of my time in Taiwan and stories from a brand new continent in my next few installments.

Ah-Gung and I with Cousin and her two children

Ah-Po, Ah-Gung, and Uncle on a hike in the mountains

Some of the Liu Girls

Some of the youngest Liu grandkids and great-grandkids

Cousin, former runaway, now hair stylist, responsible for my short do'

Ah-Po, in her chair

Ah-Gung, assuming the usual position

Autumn Moon Festival BBQ

Family biking holidays