Friday, April 28, 2017

The Bag Lady remembers a trip full of hiccups

My husband Art and I volunteered for a month at Oinofyta refugee camp in Greece. We've been home for three days now, and we're remembering. Not just the people of the camp and what we did, but the hiccups. Of all the trips we've taken, this one had the most:
  • I checked my large suitcase which contained supplies for camp. It got lost in Amsterdam, arrived in Greece two days later, and was sent by bus from Athens to the Schimitari station, which is open for limited hours. Naturally, I arrived while it was closed. We've had lost luggage three times before, but the airline always delivered it to our door. 
  • Between the time Art checked his bag in Seattle and picked it up in Athens, a third of his medications went missing. He had to ration everything for a month - meds for blood pressure, cholesterol and atrial fibrillation. Fortunately, he didn't tell me about it until we got home, or I would have spent time getting the meds replaced.
  • When we pulled into the camp at Oinofyta, Art didn't see the tall curb near the office trailer so he hit it. The bumper of our rental car was damaged. When we returned the vehicle a month later, we were charged 600 euros (about $650) for a deductible before our insurance picked up the last 400 euros. 
  • Art has an implanted pacemaker/defibrillator as the result of a cardiac arrest three years ago. Three days after our arrival the defibrillator started beeping.  Exactly every four hours. At the recommendation of the camp doctor, we drove to the emergency room of one of Athens' public hospitals to have him checked out. The ER waiting room was chaotic, with patients and their families milling around, gurneys coming and going, and no English whatever being spoken. Art took a number and waited two hours to see the doc. An EKG revealed no problem with his heart. He was instructed to come back the next morning and go to the Cardiology department to have his device checked. He did. Device was checked and then adjusted. He was instructed to come back five days later for a follow up. He did. No beeps, no problems. The biggest challenge was driving our tiny car in Athens. Google Maps has trouble in Athens.
  • I left my CPAP at home but decided to have it shipped since, after five nights, my snoring was keeping my roommates awake. Decided to pay $250 for four-day expedited Fedex shipping. The package got to Athens in four days, but got detained in Customs because of its declared value. I told the truth. I had to send them a copy of my passport and then pay 215 euros to their local bank account. The package was released from Customs to a local courier, which took another three days to find me. Total cost for the CPAP was $500 to ship! When I got home I wrangled with Fedex for a couple of hours, and they finally gave me a $120 credit for the delayed delivery.
  • Art developed a pain in his hip and could feel a kidney stone coming on. He gets one about every eight years so he knows all about it. We'd planned on spending a week in Crete after our month-long volunteer stint at Oinofyta, but we decided to cancel our plans - and our plane reservations for May 6 - and come back early so Art's medical issues could be handled by his American doctors.  We changed our flights to April 24, incurring a $300 per person change fee for the Athens to JFK leg on KLM. I'd made separate reservations on Delta for the JFK to Seattle segment because of a pricing advantage, but their website wouldn't let me change the flight without calling. Delta's Athens office was closed for the day, so I called the US line which had an 80-minute wait time! Decided to just cancel the flight and rebook. 
  • We boarded our flight as scheduled on April 24 and sat there for two hours while mechanics checked out a problem indicated by a light on the cockpit instrument panel. The captain then told us the part needed was not available anywhere in Western Europe, so the flight was being cancelled until the next day. Delta put the entire planeload of people up at a nice hotel across the street from the airport and fed us lunch, dinner and breakfast, then scheduled an extra flight the next day - on the same plane! - to take us home. No problem for us, the retired couple, but very inconvenient for people still working. The airline also reimbursed everyone for the cost of their flight.
An unusual number of hiccups, for sure. And yet, that is part of the adventure of travel. What goes really well is sometimes not as memorable as what doesn't!

I'm grateful to be home. Art's hip issue turned out to be bursitis, which he is treating with ibuprofen and exercises. And the kidney stone is moving along and will be checked out next Tuesday by a urologist. 

There's no cure for jet lag, though, except time. And THAT is a pain!

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Let's say you're a refugee at the Oinofyta camp

If you're a refugee here, you are probably one of the 88 percent who are Afghan (the remainder are Pakistani, Iranian or Iraqi). You may have been middle class when you left Afghanistan. You left not for a better life in Europe, but to save your life. Maybe you were a woman teaching girls. Maybe you worked for the U.S. Maybe your wife witnessed a killing and reported it. Maybe you questioned the tenets of Islam. You walked from your homeland. Maybe you came an overland route or maybe you got here via Turkey by a boat that didn't sink into the sea. Most likely you arrived on one of the Greek islands.

Last year you could get registered and your papers processed in a relatively short time, and you could move through Greece, staying at camps until you found a smuggler who might be able to get you to the border of a country like Macedonia, and onward to more desirable countries in Europe. Recently, though, the delay has increased. At camps like Moria on Lesvos, living conditions are poor. You may have decided to go to mainland Greece before you got your papers. That means you are now illegal in Greece.

If you are at Oinofyta, you and your family live in a small room inside what used to be a chemical factory. For months you had only a shower curtain to protect your privacy; now you have a door with a key. If you lose the key, you pay five euros to the camp manager. If you have five euros.

You share bathrooms and showers with 500 other people. The bathrooms are very dirty and, even though they were built only last year, they are in need of repair.  If you are a woman, you share a cooking space and a cleaning-up space with 80 other women. You and your husband have no personal space for privacy.

Several nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) provide help with social and psychological and educational and recreational needs. One of them, Do Your Part, provides distributions for clothing and food in addition to progressive camp management. None of the NGOs can help you with the most important thing: finding a way to move out of Greece to other Western countries. The NGOs will explain the current process for getting asylum in Greece, and will try to help you with it, but if you don't have legal papers or if you can't get through to Greek Asylum Services on Skype to arrange for an asylum interview, you can't move forward. Progress in Greece always happens slowly, and sometimes it does not happen, and often the rules change. This seems to be the nature of the Greek culture.

Last night you found out that, as of next month, Mercy Corps, which distributes money from the European Union via money cards, will not be available to you if you do not have current papers. Also next month, the Greek government will no longer provide catering of simple meals. The rules have changed again. You know you will have less money and be responsible for more of your own care.

You have trouble sleeping at night. You remember your life before you had to leave your country. Even now you could go back there, but it is not safe. You want to find a safe place to live and raise your children. This camp is not that place.

I am an American woman. I have been working at Oinofyta for a month on my third trip here. Tomorrow I am going home. If you're a refugee at this camp, you are not going anywhere any time soon.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Can we call the plumber? A lesson in Greece

The Oinofyta volunteer house, in Dilesi, Greece, is about six miles from the camp. It’s two stacked apartments, fairly basic. Each has two bedrooms and one bathroom and a small kitchen. Lisa, the camp manager, lives upstairs in one bedroom; the other upstairs bedroom has two Ikea beds, and the living room has a set of Ikea bunk beds. We live downstairs in one of the bedrooms; the second bedroom has two beds and a set of bunk beds. 

The keyword here is one bathroom.

When we arrived on March 22, there was a plumbing problem in the sink upstairs and in the bathroom downstairs. Upstairs, the sink was clogged and drained slowly. Downstairs, when the washing machine drained into the sink, water came up into the sink and also up through the drain in the floor. Six people sharing one bathroom made the situation worse. When someone took a shower, by the time they got out, they were standing in two inches of dirty water. And if you were using the toilet you sometimes had to lift your feet to keep them dry.

This is not an unusual situation; plumbing pipes are apparently not designed for use except by one or two people. “Greek plumbing,” a friend told me.

After a few days I asked if we could call a plumber. A plumber was called for the upstairs apartment. While he was there, we had an okay for him to fix the downstairs problem as well. But the plumber did not speak English, and the person opening the upstairs door for the plumber did not speak Greek, so the plumber left after fixing the upstairs problem.

After another few days I asked if we could call the plumber for the downstairs. I was told that the problem was hair in the shower drain and could be fixed by running hot water down that drain for ten minutes or so. I tried that one day and burned my arm when the flexible shower line escaped from my grasp and sprayed hot water all over me.

Two days later, on a Saturday, I asked again. I was told only one person had the plumber’s number and I should ask them to call, which I did. No plumber came on Saturday. On Sunday I asked when the plumber would be coming. The person said, “I didn’t call because I knew they wouldn’t come on Sunday.” I asked for the plumber to be called anyway. The person made the call and said, “The plumber will come out later today.”

The plumber did not come out on Sunday.

Monday the plumber came. In 15 minutes he unclogged the floor drain which had caused the problem. I paid him 70 euros for the work he’d done on both apartments. 

It’s been nearly a week now, and the six of us sharing the bathroom have had no further problem with the drains in the bathroom.

The residents at the Oinofyta camp have a different problem. There are about 500 people sharing the multiple bathrooms and showers. These were put in last summer. They now have multiple problems. Partly it’s the drain issue. Another is that the heavy use results in broken fixtures and pipes. For some reason the repairs have not been made. There doesn’t seem to be an easy solution for some camp problems, no matter how well intentioned volunteer agencies are.

A week from tomorrow our month-long volunteer commitment ends. My husband Art and I are planning on spending ten days traveling in Greece. We will stay at airbnbs with clean bathrooms. Then we will fly home where we have another clean bathroom and where we can call a plumber if we need one.

The four other volunteers who share our apartment will also fly home to their clean bathrooms, where plumbers can be called.

The 500 Afghans, Pakistanis, Iranians and Iraqis who live at the Oinofyta camp will not go anywhere. The borders are closed to them, unless they pay several thousand euros to smugglers for a risky trip - and few of them have the euros to do that. And they cannot return to their homelands, where their lives are in danger.

If I ruled the world I would invite one or two of these families to live in my house in the US. But my government will not allow me to do that.

For today, on Easter Sunday, I am grateful for a dry bathroom floor and a plane ticket home on May 5. And for my healthy mind and body which allows me to serve the people of Oinofyta.

Friday, April 7, 2017

The CPAP saga

I decided to leave my CPAP at home when we left last month for six weeks in Greece. I’d spent $2,000 last summer to acquire a custom-made “oral appliance” which would prevent my sleep apnea and, possibly, the snoring that accompanies it. The appliance took up much less space than the carry-on CPAP case. We had two plane changes and I didn’t want to mess with the CPAP, as I had lost a previous one two summers ago on the Metro train in Atlanta.

Two days after our arrival in Greece, my snoring drove my 37-year-old son out of the dormitory-like room he shared with my husband Art and me. He was invited to the upstairs apartment to an empty bunk bed in the living room there. We were expecting an influx of volunteers, so I decided to ship my CPAP from Tucson. My friend Ellen, keeping company with Larisa, our Designer Cat, researched the possibilities. FedEx offered the quickest option. I could select 6-9 business days for $120 or 4-5 business days for $212. I chose the quicker service.

I watched the tracking emails. The package left Tucson on Monday, March 27. By Thursday it was in Athens at Customs, where it was delayed because I’d foolishly listed its value as $600. I should have lied. A nice lady named Ifigenia Stavroulaki sent me an email that said I needed to (1) send her a copy of my passport and (2) deposit 265.40 euros (135 for duty, 25 for handling and 105.40 for a brokerage fee) in the bank account of the customs office. I drove around the town of Oinofyta for a good 40 minutes before I found the bank to give them my money. I took a picture of my receipt and my passport. Ifigenia said she would release the package for delivery, but unfortunately, it was too late for a Friday or Monday delivery. I could expect the CPAP on Tuesday.

Nope. On Tuesday I got a phone call from a Greek speaker. I heard “Fedex” and “Linda Myers”. I said, “I am Linda Myers” and the caller hung up.

No delivery on Wednesday. At the end of the day I called Ifigenia. She said the driver couldn’t find me at the address I’d given. I gave her the same address again.

No delivery on Thursday. I sent Ifigenia an email asking for her help. She gave me a number to call and my tracking number. I found someone at the camp who spoke Greek and asked them to make the call for me. Another nice lady said, “I found you on the map.The package will be delivered tomorrow.”

This morning - Friday, 11 days after shipping, my CPAP machine arrived at the camp gate at 8:55 a.m. Tonight I will use it. And Trish, our second dormitory mate, who went sleepless for six nights because of my snoring and the unavailability of an extra bed until last night, will be able to move back into the same room where she unpacked her stuff last weekend.

I suspect I’ll sleep better as well.

There have been enough hiccups on this trip so far. I could have done without this one. Still, I’m grateful for the CPAP’s arrival. I plan to write a letter to Fedex in an attempt to get at least a partial refund on the expensive, “fast” shipping. And I hear that when I go home I may be able to get a refund from customs, since I’m taking home what I had shipped over.

For that, as for many other things, I am grateful.

Monday, April 3, 2017

All quiet on the Sunday front

Five volunteers took the train to Athens this morning, my son James among them. So it’s a quiet day here at the volunteer house in Dilesi, a small seaside town on the Aegean Sea. Jess is doing laundry, Trish is giving the bathroom a thorough cleaning, Art is fixing dinner. I am thinking about the twelve days we’ve been here so far in Greece.

During my time here last October, I thought about how we could make life easier for the international bunch of volunteers who spend their days at the refugee camp. I realized a couple of ways we could make a difference would be to have a definite departure time from the camp each evening, and to have planned meals. At that time, volunteers often waited for an hour or more at camp for a ride back to the house, and meals were often catch as catch can. On this trip, Art’s car leaves camp at 6:30 for whoever is ready to go home, and he sets out breakfast each morning in addition to planning for lunch and dinner. The volunteers can do their work during the day, knowing their meals and transportation will be taken care of.

The volunteers are here for varying lengths of time, from six days to three months. They’re housed in top and bottom apartments on a residential street. Carmen left yesterday for her home in Spain; two hours later Trish arrived from Oregon. By next Thursday three of the four men will be gone - Hannes returns to Germany, Jamie to the UK, and James to Seattle. By then we’ll have a few new arrivals. Each group gathers around the dinner table in the evening, sharing a meal. Once the dishes have been cleaned up at about 9:30, Art and I go to our room and the rest of the group remains at the table, drinking beer or wine and listening to music and laughing and talking. Or they go into Dilesi or Oinofyta. I know my son James is having a great time with this international group. He works hard during the day on the garden planters and benches, and enjoys the active social life in the evening, and sleeps like a rock all night. This is his first exposure to an international population.

The refugee camp itself runs in a state of controlled chaos. Camp manager Lisa and shift supervisors Jess and Ale are on their feet ten hours a day or more seeing to the needs of the residents, planning for enhancements, meeting governmental requirements. This week the volunteers have been building a community garden with a shelter for residents to congregate in comfort outdoors. From the warehouse, residents have received weekly distributions of dry food - lentils, chickpeas, rice, tomato paste, sugar, salt and other basics. And clothing from a thrift shop environment of donations. This week there was a special distribution; every resident received a pair of Crocs. 

Back in February, when 85 children in the camp were to begin attending Greek schools, backpacks were prepared for each with winter garments for a change of clothes. But February came and went; the kids start school next Thursday instead, so the winter clothes in the backpacks have to be changed out for lighter weight spring clothing. And tomorrow, a truck will be coming to our camp to collect items we no longer need here to transport to other camps where they can be put to use. So a team is bagging up the donations from our camp and indicating the contents of the bags. There are about 47 refugee camps in Greece, all of them networked informally.

This morning Trish and I drove to the bakery and to the coffee shop. While I napped this afternoon she and Saraya walked into town. Dilesi has a population of about 2,000. It is not a tourist area, so we’re about the only Americans the locals see. I’d say about 25 percent of the people in town speak some English. We learn good morning and thank you and use a lot of body language and smiles to communicate. We eat fresh-made bread every morning. In spite of the differences here, I note the same birdsong as we have in Arizona - especially the doves. Random dogs lie in the streets, and a few are lifelong car chasers. I remind myself to keep driving straight and ignore them. They’re experts at avoiding the wheels.

The roles Art and I play here at camp are mostly supporting the younger volunteers. It’s a satisfying assignment, though we have relatively little quiet time. I’d like to see people in their 50s and beyond volunteer for Do Your Part at this camp. We don’t have the stamina of the younger people, but we have wisdom and we can be their second-level support. During the day Art does the food shopping for both the volunteers and for the camp. He lays out breakfast at the volunteer house, lunch in the volunteer space at the camp, and dinner at the house again - except for Fridays, when we have pizza at the camp before the camp-wide evening meeting, and Mondays, when we gather as a group at a local restaurant. Mostly during the day I’m in the Do Your Part trailer, watching and listening as I do the bookkeeping - an absorbing job since many of the receipts are in Greek. I have a Greek friend who will come by on Wednesday or Friday of this week to translate the more challenging receipts. Do Your Part is a 501(c)(3) corporation that has grown tenfold in the last year with its presence in the Oinofyta camp.

Camp manager Lisa is in the US for a couple of weeks and she asked me to hold the fort in her absence. But shift managers Jess and Ale do nearly all the work. They know how the camp runs and they know the residents. I think of myself as the camp grandmother and the house mom. I’m comfortable with those roles. Really, it’s about how we can be most useful here, giving our on-the-ground help.