How I came to be on Chios

I’ve spent some New Year’s Eves in some pretty unusual places, but I never expected one of those to be a refugee camp. There are only ~20 refugees on the island right now, all in Souda, so the Greek police allowed for a small party at Tabakika for those who are involved in helping out. The UN, NGOs and many volunteers showed up for a muted gathering in the main hall. There was music and alcohol as we huddled around the new (but not very effective) space heaters and conversed our way into the New Year. Can’t say I felt like celebrating or that it was much of a celebration and the whole get-together was just odd on many levels. But, I’m definitely looking forward to a new year…

I think I mentioned in one of my earliest posts how I wanted to write an entry on how I came to be here in Chios. A friend pointed out that after writing about the volunteer situation yesterday and all the different people here, I should probably explain what my story is. I’ve been hesitant about this in a few ways. For one, it’s personal in a way I’m not exactly comfortable with sharing and this broaches on making the blog about me (which is also naïve to think that doesn’t happen). It’s not that it’s dramatic or heart-wrenching or anything of the sort. You may say to yourself after, “Did I miss something?”

But, how I came to be here is part of a longer story (which I tell here, so skip to the last two paragraphs for the truncated version) of the last year or so of my life that has been difficult in ways that I haven’t shared so much and that I think certain people don’t like to share. Part of it is pride, embarrassment and maybe being a bit ashamed and there are certain people in your life that you cross paths with that you don’t want to know these things, because you want your best face forward. But, I vowed to be open about all this, so will be so here. This is all sounding so dramatic, but it’s really not. And, I’m good. I’m extremely blessed with the opportunities that have come my way.

Those friends who are reading this, I try to see as many of you as possible whenever and wherever I can, but I can’t reach all of you, so maybe this will act as an update as well from the sporadic postings on Facebook (until recently!).

2014 was a rough year, personally. More specifically, relationship-wise. There is no need for details on that here. I also finished my PhD, which was… a relief, a weight lifted, after 8 years of the back and forth many of you were familiar with. Based on where my life was at the moment, and an overwhelming number of interesting short-term consulting opportunities that were coming my way, I decided I would become an independent consultant.

I was very busy for the majority of the year. Also, because most of the project work I was getting I could do from anywhere; I took advantage of that to go to new places and visit friends. Mid-2014 was two months in Quito. Then a month in Portland, OR in August. For one of my projects I was slated to go to London for a meeting in mid-September, so I decided that I would stay for a month in Europe and visit friends, because, why not? The plan was to spend that month there and then move to either New York or Washington in mid-October to try to find a home somewhere. Most of you know my peripatetic life and I was looking for a change.

While in Europe, during that time, my last contract started to end and there was nothing on the horizon. I started to look at apartments in NYC and DC and got sticker shock. With work drying up, how was I supposed to be able to regularly pay a few thousand dollars a month? So, not needing a push, and realizing it was cheaper to keep traveling than to settle down in one of those places, I just kept going and extended my European trip to two months, and continued to look for work.

Mid-November came along with still no work on the horizon, but Europe being more expensive than I could afford, I doubled down and flew to Asia to continue on the friend tour and visiting a continent I didn’t know that well. You are really feeling sorry for me right now, aren’t you?

I was originally going to stay for just two months, but then I finally got a very short-term, part-time contract with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands to prepare for a high-level water meeting in Japan in March. So, why leave after two months when I had a meeting in Japan in March and then the World Water Forum in South Korea in April? I extended my trip to stay for 6 months.

Two things happened in April-May (2015), which set the tone for how this year has gone. One, I got burned out by traveling. I’m sure for many of you this sounds like a sacrilegious statement. But, in 8 months, I had been in 25 countries and slept in 75 different beds. That is even nuts for me. More so though, Southeast Asia was turning me into something I didn’t like. People try to take advantage of you very often for almost everything and this was starting to wear me down and was making me enter almost every interaction with my defenses up. I didn’t like what I was becoming and I needed a change.

The other was the money situation. I think the perception is that travel is expensive. I was, however, making my dollars go further than I would if I had been living in many parts of the US. Truly. But, I was starting to run low and work was still not coming my way.

Between being tired of traveling and the money/work situation, I decided to return to the US and start looking for permanent work (primarily in US/Europe, but open if the right opportunity came along) instead of consulting. Part of this was because I’ve been ready to have a home somewhere for a while now. I wanted to be more financially secure as well. I’d like a regular income. And there are certain things in my life that get waylaid, because of the movement: relationships, continuity with friends, community, regular exercise and volunteering. I make these work, because I have to and I want to, but I want it to be easier. This was May of what is now last year.

I’ve been blessed and very lucky with having some great jobs with amazing exposure in the field that I work in: international water. I love what I do (whatever that is) and I love the community of people that I work with. The Fletcher folks will get this, but my water community is like my Fletcher community and my role is a similar one in both. I get energy and motivation from the people I work with and the work that I do.

It has been difficult, to say the least, to have had only 10 days of work in the last 9 months and 25 total in the last 13 months. Emotionally, intellectually and financially. I’m not sure what the best word is to describe how I feel. I’m not devastated. I’m not depressed about it, although there have been moments. I’m still me, the Josh most of you know, but it’s been damn hard, especially when part of your identity is so linked to what you love to do. To know that you have something to offer, but yet not being able to contribute. And the precariousness of the financial situation is one that no one is comfortable with.

Yes, I’ve kept myself busy with projects. Publishing my dissertation as a book, my water jobs listserv that will become a website (ironic, no, that the unemployed guy sends a weekly digest of international water jobs to 10,000+ people?), a still-in-the-works US water road trip podcast idea and the very site you are reading this from. And, looking for work, of course. They are all very much me and I enjoy them, but (a) they aren’t my true professional passion and (b) they don’t pay.

I got back to the US in mid-May and have been mostly based in DC since then, benefitting from beyond generous friends to crash, cat-sit and dog-sit my way through the summer and fall. As time went by, the situation got bleaker on all levels. Still no work and because of various potential opportunities that kept arising and disappearing, the potential road trip and other factors, temp work and the like were off the table at that time. Come November, with the Paris Climate Change conference on the horizon and the holidays right after, networking and reaching out to people came to a standstill and that will be the case for another week now into January.

So, I had some dead time to deal with. I was feeling stagnant in DC. Not because I was getting the travel bug, but because nothing in my life was advancing. I decided that I would do one last trip that I could afford to improve my mood before going back to DC in January to get temp work, maybe wait tables, and turn the job search on its head and take a different approach. This is still the plan, and I have no issues with this other than I believe I have more to offer than doing temp work, but reality is reality.

I chose Colombia. It’s been #1 on my destination list for some time now. Flights from the US are cheap, the country is cheap and I have friends who live there. There is tons of hiking, there are beaches and I could speak Spanish, which I miss doing on a regular basis. I probably came within a day or two of buying the ticket.

A friend was in DC over Thanksgiving weekend and she mentioned that a friend of hers was going down to Colombia to help communities build soccer/football fields for communities without, to encourage sport and exercise. I thought to myself, that actually sounds like something I would enjoy doing right now rather than traveling just for traveling’s sake. I could volunteer, work, give back and do something. I asked if he needed help, but he didn’t.

Shortly after that I saw my Fletcher friend Kim’s post on Facebook that she was volunteering on the beaches of Lesvos helping with the arrival of refugees. It immediately became a no-brainer. Post-Paris and San Bernardino, with all the very public vitriol against Syrian refugees and Muslims, I had been so angry, confused and depressed at the United States’ general (and sometimes insane) reaction to the difficult questions that the world is facing today. I saw juxtaposed in my mind Trump and what he was saying about Muslim IDs and a photo of the absolute helplessness of a Syrian refugee father holding his children in his arms in despair. I can’t begin to fathom what he was feeling in that moment and wasn’t afraid of people like that immigrating to my homeland.

That’s one of the reasons I’m here. To show refugees that, even if the government of the United States won’t support them, some Americans do. And, coming here, I could actually act. I was the person I mentioned in the post yesterday that is here, because he does not feel useful in his current life. It’s been difficult to be on the sidelines for so long with something I’m passionate about. I was starting to slowly crumble. So, it’s edifying to be on the frontlines here and feel like I’m useful and I’m making an impact, even if it’s really small. It’s not forever, and I don’t want it to be, but to make people smile by helping them out when they are in one of their moments of greatest need? Priceless.

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