Thursday, April 22, 2010

Cat Hawley Post #7: My Limited Impressions of the United Nations

Megan and I were fortunate enough to be graciously invited to the home of Svante and Leah for a marvelous dinner. This excited me on many fronts: 1. We have a wonderful mutual friend (Phil Homer) 2. They have a darling new baby (Dexter) 3. Who would turn down a home cooked meal consisting of Swedish meatballs stuffed with figs, salad (my only one on this trip – stuck to cooked vegetables in an effort not to get sick) and decadent chocolate cake.

Several friends had been invited and we are introduced. The conversation followed a predictable course until the topic of the Chillean earthquake brought definitive comments from a French lady who works at UNEP (UN Environmental Protection). From here on out I’ll refer to her as “U.N.” U.N. told us there will be a large earthquake in the next three years in San Francisco. I contended that although earthquake preparedness is an important part of living in the Bay Area (I have most of the items in a “72 hour” kit) I am skeptical that earthquakes can be predicted with such accuracy. She went on to state that people are leaving the state for fear of the impending “big one” and I contest that, no, if anything, people are leaving the state because of high taxes (and Megan chimed in due to the rising cost of living!).

The conversation normalized. Svante recounted a trip to Sweden and we got updates on eight month old Dexter. Megan was next up and she explained that, “I have been involved in the life of a young women who recently had a baby as the result of rape. We had tea with her yesterday and dropped off baby gear brought over from the states. She just got her own place not far from her Mom's in Kawangware (one of Nairobi’s many slums) and she and the adorable little baby are doing well.”

U.N. nearly let out a shriek. She is shocked that Megan goes to the slums and asked in a perfectly posh French accent “You drive your car there? Do you fear for your safety?” Megan diplomatically explained that it isn’t safe to visit at night but that she has made several uneventful visits during the day. What I find shocking is not that Megan has been to a slum but that someone who has lived in Nairobi for 13 years could have such complete isolation from a critical part of the population. This woman is supposed to have a knowledge base to give helpful advice on local matters.

I’d had a little beer so the edge was taken off and I was in a compliant and relaxed state for the moment. The conversation turns to the Chinese and U.N. unequivocally stated that when they smile they are cajoling you and will use this tactic to manipulate almost any situation. Megan asks, “Cat did you experience this when you lived in Hong Kong?” I give a flat, “No.”

We wrap up the evening as I had to sort gear for a climb I was leaving for the next morning. Megan offered to give a friend of Svante’s a ride home and U.N. and her helper as well. U.N. doesn’t drive at night and, yes, she had full-time help with her (I don't think she likes living alone). I was sandwiched in the back seat with U.N. on my right. Megan turned on the wipers and defroster and we backed out. U.N. starts frantically rolling her window down and barking at Megan that she has the “wrong icon” on (due to the slow defrost and the admittedly uncomfortable hot air) about three times in rapid succession. U.N. was getting a bit frantic, it seems she thought Megan could’t drive. While I’ve shared this sentiment on previous occasions, in this instance Megan had complete control of the situation.

U.N. was relentless in her expressions of discomfort. It’s as if her very life depended on the windshield defrosting at the rate of jet propulsion. She told Megan to turn off the windshield wipers . . . the rain let up for a nanosecond then came down again in sheets. I proclaimed, “We have a back seat driver on our hands.” She told Megan her brakes are useless as her car is so old. Megan took it all in stride, handling the situation with her usual maturity and grace. I’m not so poised and began to giggle (as much to myself as possible). U.N. exclaimed she is too hot and I was noticeably giggling at that point. When you insist on maximum defrost on a wet night in a crowded vehicle things are bound to get warm. This is not a secret of physics, it is basic common sense, which is clearly lacking. I swallowed my giggles and collected myself. For the sake of friends involved I summon everything I had not to be rude or comment further.

We turn onto Muthaiga Road where U.N. lives. I momentarily wondered if Megan turned left into a porthole that emptied in Beverly Hills. We found ourselves on pristine light pavement with manicured gardens that would make Kew Garden's greener with envy. U.N. explains that her neighbor, whose estate we are passing, is the sultan of blah blah blah and the “he receives his weight in gold each year.” I’m not doubting this guy is extremely wealthy but a this point I’m beginning to question the factuality of her little tidbits. The askari (guard) opens the gate to her chateau. A guard is actually typical in Kenya but you are getting the picture. . . this is no ordinary Kenyan existence this lady is living. We are invited in for wine but respectfully decline citing the long day of travel ahead. U.N. says we can do it another time and promises to invite Megan to a lawn party.

The helper and U.N. exit our vehicle and I immediately express my astonishment in my typical boisterous fashion that Megan is well accustomed to. “Did you hear the same things I was hearing? Please tell me you think that was as unbelievable and ridiculous as I do?” Svante’s friend concurs that this woman is a little off. My giggling has turned to fits of laughter as I recount the comments of the evening. Megan has joined in my astonished glee. I encourage Megan to attend the lawn party and drink as much of U.N.’s free booze as possible.

Svante’s friend explains that the last time she went to dinner at the house she had an escort car in front and in back of her. This seems outlandish seeing as they live in a middle class neighborhood a mere fifteen minutes from her house. It’s not like she is driving through a SLUM to get there . . . oh the horror!

More recollections of the evening bring amusement and I go back and forth between giddy befuddlement and dismay. Once the absurdity wore off I was left to make sense of the experience. The United Nations has a reputation of being out of touch and the microcosm of my exposure did nothing to dispute this stereotype. I couldn’t help but be concerned that someone so removed is giving opinions and making policies that effect the lives of locals. Is the United Nation’s role just another form of colonialism? I feel momentary guilt for passing so much judgment. After all, I live a comfortable life in San Francisco and this woman left her home presumably to help others. Still, it wasn’t clear that good intentions were helping anyone. I had run out of empathy for another over paid bureaucrat.

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