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A Christmas message

Casco Viejo, Panama City, December 2019

Here comes a copy of the message that I sent out to friends:

Dear Friends,
We are in the middle of December, and Christmas and the end of the year are just around the corner. Inevitably, it is a sign that time for some reflections and writing has come
I have been thinking for a while, how to formulate this year’s email… What form should it have? How personal (versus purely factual) should it be…? I enjoy writing to you, and, as you know, I like taking pictures. It is therefore, I thought that I would build the message around the pictures that I took since Christmas last year… thus making the message a structured chronologically. Given that all of you, to whom this message is addressed are people that are important to me, and are wonderful friends, I will allow myself being reflective and include some more intimate experiences that have shaped my life in 2019 (yes, you know me… not that it is that surprising… After all, writing is therapeutic and I am a well known drama queen). And the theme of this year’s email is about ‘being prepared’, as various aspects of preparedness have been haunting me for last months…
As you are probably aware, I am now based in the Americas, and I am writing to you from Panama City. Yet, just as Christmas of 2018 was approaching, my mind, spirit and indeed physical capacities were tested in Sunda Strait of Indonesia (
https://photos.app.goo.gl/FhQpdyhoEVgA6ckz7). 2018, for me was marked with dealing with powerful natural disasters in Indonesia… within short 12 months, I was exposed to experience the destructive powers of nature, the way I had not done it before in my life. Dealing with the Sunda Strait’s aftermath of the tsunami was a cherry on the cake, I wish that never needed to be eaten. The tsunami, although relatively small, was catastrophic to coastal communities… claimed considerable amount of lives, and was responsible for massive destruction. Sunda affected me personally too… even if I am used to dealing with emergency situations. I guess, the reason was, that at one point we had a false alarm that tsunami was coming… with all the consequences of it. Being scared for a moment that we were going to be submerged in water ourselves, looking at the chaos created by people trying to run for their lives… It was frightening, even if, the tsunami actually never came… The whole panic of the people taught me a very practical lesson about my own work… it is so important to prepare for disasters… being ready for whatever may be coming saves trouble and even lives (I will write about an aspects of being prepared, later on in this email).
January 2019 was much kinder to me. I spent it with family. First visiting my own lot in southern Poland, then travelling with my Mum to Kyiv (what a wonderful city – you need to visit it, if you have a chance), and then paying a visit with Zosia (my niece) to Canada, to visit Tahir in his new country (
https://photos.app.goo.gl/jXEfEzg7Ao7aUnxW7). It was so nice to see them all, apparently happy and well. You will be glad to read that Tahir is doing well in Canada, though winter is not necessarily his favourite part of the year… 😉
The time after my winter break was very busy with my humanitarian missions around Asia. And so my work brought me to northern Philippines, where together with my colleagues, we looked at the projects that were supposed to help the communities cope with the aftermath of the cyclone and flooding that had hit the area earlier on in the year (
https://photos.app.goo.gl/EFeAwcthe7MFyUUX7), and DPR of Korea, where we tried to make sense of what humanitarian assistance may be needed in the complicated context of North Korea (https://photos.app.goo.gl/WKGpsGgFYAwaL53UA). Both of the trips were intense emotionally… On one side, it was encouraging to see how quickly people are able to get back to normality after having their lives wrecked by a disaster, and then there was a feeling of powerless, to the protracted situation of neglect which exposes people to severe suffering, where seemingly, for political reasons, there are no effective remedies to otherwise very solvable problems.
During spring, I practically and mentally started preparing for leaving my post in Bangkok, and moving on to my new posting. Before that happened, I travelled to Europe again, where I had a chance to visit my Portuguese home (
https://photos.app.goo.gl/kBCYfxUnt4FJtX9h7) and participate in an excellent training organised by the Austrian Red Cross. Then I also visited my head office in Brussels (https://photos.app.goo.gl/Hg5faQtFXgRJij5t6). I will skip on being repetitive on Portugal… You all know that I love the country, and I feel so happy to be able to consider it as one of my homes… The training in Austria, was a great opportunity to reflect on being prepared to disasters… Yes, it was dealing with institutional preparedness rather than community or personal preparedness, but nonetheless, it provided me a bit of space to think about my own role in my professional capacity to advocate for better preparedness to disasters…
On my return to Asia, I travelled to Indonesia again. Together with my newly appointed colleague, we travelled to Jakarta and Sunda Strait to check on how the communities were recovering from the Christmas’s calamity. We also had discussions on strengths and weaknesses of the Indonesia’s systems to respond to crises caused by sudden onset disasters (
https://photos.app.goo.gl/Mttadiu1kK8CZ3xB6). I enjoyed the trip tremendously, but what I liked the most about it, is the vitality and sharpness of my colleague. She proved it clearly that being new brings so many advantages… She looked at many of the issues with freshness, and challenged me with her innovative ideas… precisely on being prepared to deal with crises. I think that the best lesson was to look at the small aspects of our lives, as much as we tend to look at the ‘bigger picture’! It was her that prepared and implemented ALL aspects of the trip; and it went impeccable, both when it comes to its logistics, and the quality of our professional engagement with partners that we work with. I am grateful to her for the experience in Indonesia.
After my mission to Indonesia, I needed to travel to Manila, the Philippines for 2 days. This short mission was to give me an opportunity to hand over some of my last duties to my colleagues in the country and gave me a chance to say goodbye to the team of the Philippines, and to the country (
https://photos.app.goo.gl/kwxL8ahCVh4WRxXX8). I grew to like the diversity of the country very much. I always felt comfortable and happy being there. I find Filipino people to be extremely friendly, but also professional and easy to deal with. I will miss the place a lot, and I hope that I will have a chance to return one day.
Time for packing, and closing the card of my life in Thailand and Asia is coming to its end. Four and a half long years turned out to be quite short, and (
https://photos.app.goo.gl/BEjE5YSoT2XtztvZ9), and when I was preparing to leave, I could not stop thinking that all went far too fast. My life in Thailand had been incredible, and on a personal level, one of the more exciting periods of my life. After all, it is thank to Thailand that allowed me to extend my family, make dozen of new friends. Yes, Thailand confronted me with situations that I hated too… specially when it comes to realisation of the extent of modern slavery, abuse of rights of immigrants (especially refugees)… and as these phenomena sadly exist, perhaps, it is better to know and understand them. Thailand opened my eyes to many of the issues that I had not comprehended to the degree that South Asia allowed me to. So when I was finally leaving Asia for Europe (https://photos.app.goo.gl/v2D8EYvS8mn2fNv58), I felt sentimental and to a large extent sad!
The summer, time between Asia and America turned out to be filled with joy, travelling, and happy moments with the whole family. We were lucky to be able to bring Tahir from Canada to Europe for 2 weeks too! Although, we needed to make some adjustments to initial plans, due to his Schengen visa restrictions, we actually managed to travel central, eastern and southern Europe a bit, and we really had time of our lives (
https://photos.app.goo.gl/BNYet9cb3SEpor8d7; https://photos.app.goo.gl/hs7HiEDMdCc68SR47; https://photos.app.goo.gl/9m9nALmsQMEdhDHN9; https://photos.app.goo.gl/5cSMM5UuvHVxwU4g9). In a way, the time with Mum, my Polish family and Tahir, as well as with my friends somehow reached perfection and fulfilment of my dreams. After years of struggle, I managed to reunite the people that I love in one place, in a secure environment, able to enjoy the few moments together, without needing to worry about the very basic safety (extensional) issues. Man of you, who helped us getting Tahir out from his seemingly helpless situation, know what I am writing about. I would like to take this opportunity here are now, once again, to thank you as profoundly as I possibly can, for all your support that you have provided to us to make this dream take place!
Time in Europe passed very quickly, and it was time to board the plane to set off for a new adventures in Panama and America. My journey to Panama took me to Los Angeles first… then I arrived in Central America, trying to arrange my new work and life here… in order to find my ways to fit and find my happiness in this continent (
https://photos.app.goo.gl/vbPx1yTjrTPrJrkeA; https://photos.app.goo.gl/Q5pe3haekz5in5uT6). I only arrived to Panama in July, and even if over 5 months have passed already, and my basic logistical issues of my stay in the new place are sorted, I am still unsure and definitely curious on how things work out for me here. So far, I like it here very much… but I also recognise that I need to keep on making arrangements in my personal and professional space to find a good balance to feel happy and fulfilled here.
You may remember that August and September brought quite a lot of devastation in the Amazonia… The forest fires appeared to be especially severe this year, so and so that I needed to travel to Bolivia with a mission to help coordinating the extinguishing efforts, as well as supporting (however modestly) organisations in the country helping communities cope with the humanitarian consequences of the disaster (
https://photos.app.goo.gl/DPYbyjsqtBKxNVZR7). Bolivia left me speechless… On one side loved La Paz, and the country for its beauty and fantastically cheerful and optimistic people, but then, I was astounded to learn about inequalities, extreme tensions in the society (economic, racial and political), abuse of power of the wealthy… Similar stories to other parts of the world, really… yet still managed to get upset about what I was seeing. Also, the fires of the Amazon exposed to me, once more how unprepared we are to deal with threats that are so easily predictable and manageable, only if we were all a little bit more honest with ourselves. Seeing nature being put on fire (quite literally) was very sad…
After I returned from Bolivia, I also participated in an simulation exercise to respond to hurricanes in the Caribbean Sea (
https://photos.app.goo.gl/pupVVSSGBcgVP1Lr5). You may be aware that the small nations in the Caribbean Sea are particularly vulnerable to extremely powerful winds. The question of preparedness for the communities, nations and international organisations is key to limit casualties, safe livelihoods and protect nature. The exercise in Curacao showed that we can do things better… Not that all was perfect, but I believe that all of us (governments, NGOs, UN agencies, Red Cross, national civil protection bodies) brought some lessons home to work on yet better systems to get a little bit more resilient, when the time of the calamity comes.
November arrived very fast, and I planned for my birthday celebrations with Tahir and friends in Toronto. I also needed to travel to Obidos to deal with some administrative duties in my Portuguese home (
https://photos.app.goo.gl/dfFLtY4cdApXkbvdA; https://photos.app.goo.gl/XxdBSsUseb5EzX6g8). I had a wonderful time in both of the places… and again felt really happy spending time with people that energise me!
End of November brought an unexpected twist in my life. I will spare all the details, as they are not important… but together with some other people in a restaurant not far to my home, we became a victim to the assault. A group of armed men stormed a place where I was talking to friends, and used forced to rob us from our possessions. The experience, was dramatic, and could have ended up much worse… We all cleared it unharmed physically, albeit a bit shaken… I would like to assure you that even if what happened was very unpleasant, I am fine now, also as I have received the most amazing support from my colleagues in the organisation here in Panama and in Brussels (a big THANK YOU). However, what the incident left me shaken about is a realisation that I am so unprepared with what may be happening to me. How ironical… my work is to think about disaster preparedness of the communities, and I realised how little prepared I am in my personal life… It struck me that if anything serious happened to me, my friends, my family, people who are important to me… they would find it so difficult to deal with possible aftermaths… And I am just thinking of some simple, practical stuff… getting access to my savings, insurance policies, keys to my flats… small practical things like that… Weirdly, this lack of being ready bothers me far more than the experience itself! I definitely have homework to do in weeks to come!
As Costa Rica is not far from Panama, the dramatic events of the restaurant prompted a short break in a country next door. Costa Rica is stunningly beautiful! The nature did its trick and helped me find peace and rebalance myself fast (
https://photos.app.goo.gl/hDdzN8Uv5AF7AV9E7). It is wonderful to know that just a few hours in a bus brings you to this paradise!
I am now gearing up for Christmas, New Year and challenges of 2020. As Tahir is coming to visit me in Panama in 1 week, I am excited to show him around and introduce him to my many friends here. I hope that 2020 will bring opportunities to meet you, either here in Panama, or elsewhere in the world (
https://photos.app.goo.gl/S5KU1af9dM2Tm7R46). Please consider visiting, Panama is beautiful, and there is always a space for an extra mattress in my flat!
Needless to write that I am looking forward to hearing from you soon! Before that happens, I would like to wish you all the most wonderful time during the rest of 2019. Those of you, who celebrate, HAPPY CHRISTMAS… To all of you, the most wonderful wishes of prosperity and happiness for 2020!
And yes… have lots of fun celebrating the New Year’s Eve parties!
Hugs to all, Roman