Saturday, May 30, 2020

My Past Birthdays

Note:  I wrote this piece in August 2019 and didn't finish it because . . . I don't remember!  How crazy is that?  I got so busy with other things and forgot all about this project.  Well, I'm back!  Fast forward to COVID-19 in the year 2020, and it has totally changed the world.  Choosing to stay home as the world slowly re-opens, I am blogging again.  So here is my first post in the age of the corona pandemic.

My birthday was a few days ago (August 12) and the day didn't unfold the way I had hoped.  After the recent mass shootings throughout the country, I decided to donate blood - something I hadn't done since I was 29 years old but was committed to doing since I was 18 years old.  Through the Red Cross website, August appointments were very few and I wanted a morning appointment.  I found an opening which happened to be on my birthday.  Since there was no mention of anything being planned for my special day (but my family did celebrate me over the weekend) I went ahead and booked it.  

The above photo was taken a year ago on my birthday.  The group visited a farm and stopped by the piggery to visit the baby pigs born that day.  My husband suggested that we should name one of the babies Marie and everyone thought that was such a great idea.  The founder of the nursery, who also was our guide today, told me to pick out a baby to officially name, and I picked the smallest piglet in the litter.  She squealed and wriggled in my arms so much, I thought I might drop her.  Adorable little thing!
Back to my story.  This morning I felt great that I would be doing something meaningful and important but it wasn't meant to be.  After my vitals were taken,  a finger pricked for blood, and a short interview, it was determined that I wasn't a good candidate.  Why?  Because I was in Africa a year ago, in Uganda.  I was told that Uganda has one of the highest rates of malaria and even though I had the necessary vaccinations to enter the country, the Red Cross still couldn't take me as a blood donor.  Damn.  I wasn't happy about it but I understood.

I've spent past birthdays in pretty cool locations like Tonga, Maui, Santa Fe, Oahu, and New York City.  But last year I was in Africa!  Entebbe, to be exact.   I never blogged about it but it seems appropriate now to share thoughts of my time there.  I went to Entebbe with Project Compassion and a team of doctors, nurses and other volunteers called Helping Hands.  I was one of the helpers.  I did a lot of reading about Entebbe as soon as I signed up for this gig.  All I knew about Entebbe was it once had a dictator named Idi Amin, nicknamed the Butcher of Uganda, one of the most feared leaders in world history.  Also, Uganda was, and still is, a third world country in terms of human development.  In the early 1900s, though, Winston Churchill penned the book The Pearl of Africa in which he states, “For magnificence, for variety of form and color, for profusion of brilliant life — bird, insect, reptile, beast — for vast scale — Uganda is truly “the Pearl of Africa.”  Churchill got that right!

Our plane arrived at the Entebbe International Airport late at night.  Going through Customs was a little chaotic, and became very concerning when we later learned that the agents withheld large suitcases of antibiotics and vitamins.  We left with a truckload of our personal luggage and the remaining suitcases of medicine.  We did not drive into Entebbe but stayed near the airport at the Sisters of Mary Retreat Center as it was too dangerous to drive to the Asili Medical Center in Luwero late at night.  It was past midnight when we arrived at the retreat center.  Sister Ernestine, a Kenyan nun, was there to welcome us.  The next morning we departed for the two-hour drive to Entebbe.  Days later I would learn from Sister Ernestine that she went to the airport to confront the Customs agents about the two suitcases being held.  She told them that they were wrong for withholding medicines that were meant for the needy.  Customs said she could have the medicines if she gave them money.  Crooks, she called them.  Sister was not happy. 

My first impression of the Ugandan landscape during the drive was unlike anything I could have imagined.  I was expecting vast areas of dry land.  Instead, the landscape was so lush and exotic and the birdlife plentiful.  Something also stood out that I didn't expect.  The dirt is a rich red.  It was everywhere!

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Things To Know When Using AirBNB For The First Time

Last summer Gerry asked me where we could go for a long weekend trip?  My ideas included the ancient Mesa Verde Indian ruins in New Mexico, a drive up the picturesque U.S. Route 101 to anywhere, or to Palm Springs.  To my surprise, he says "how about that trip to Forks you've always wanted to do since Twilight came out?".  Insert the surprised-face emoji right here.  Is he for real?  Why don't you plan it, he says, and I took off like a rocket.

As I searched the web for places to stay, an Airbnb ad popped up showing a photo of Bella's Cabin in Forks.  It looked like an amazing cabin in the woods, and after reading all of the reviews, I booked it.  On the day of our arrival in Forks, our host met us on the side of the lonely Highway 101 in upper Washington as was the plan.  She said there was no way we'd find it on our own.  The cabin was surrounded by a few houses, but being surrounded by woodland trees and shrubs, it would've been difficult to find on our own after sunset.

The cabin was definitely cozy and charming but cluttered with so much stuff, mainly Twilight memorabilia.  I gently gathered the items and placed them to the side.  Other than that, the cabin had all the amenities.  It was lovely . . . . until Gerry found the bats.  Little brown bats, the Latin name:  Myotis lucifugus.  The cabin description made no mention of flying mammals as part of the booking, although the host did tell us that tons of bats live in the tree right outside the cabin and will zoom right in through an open door or window.  Personally, I feel that bats are harmless but I am also aware that bat guano is dangerous to your health.  The story of the bats will have to be found in a future post because this post is all about what you need to know about booking through Airbnb.

So for all of you first-time Airbnb users, the following is what you need to know.


What kind of home are you looking for to give you and your group the best time possible?  Where in the town or city do you plan to spend the most time in?  Do you prefer renting a room in an apartment or an entire house?  Whichever you choose, select one that's large enough to provide ease of movement inside and outside.  Another basic question is what is your budget?  Knowing exactly what you want is the first step.


When you know exactly what you want in the location and type of lodging, fine-tune the details of your search.  There are many options in Airbnb and has over 5 million listings worldwide.  Besides knowing if you want an entire house, shared or private room, you also need to ask yourself: is a washer and dryer included, is there a parking spot for your car rental, are pets welcome, or are baby cribs included?  Seek all of your essentials. 


Check out the photos of the property you're interested in.  Photos will verify the size of the rooms, aesthetic and design.  If there aren't enough photos to view, or are of poor quality, beware.  You want to see what you'll be walking into when you arrive at your destination. Photos should give you an idea of what's included in each room, from different viewpoints.  Does the page give you views to the outside and landscapes?  If so, then you can be sure the host is sharing every aspect of a well-outfitted vacation space and proud of it.


User reviews are crucial and a useful tool in selecting a property.  While the host will always give a favorable description of their property, past users provide more reliable insight into their experience and more.

Thoroughly read the reviews, taking note of recurring themes.  If a problem is mentioned over and over again, it doesn't necessarily mean you should skip that listing.  For example, many reviews will mention that the property has no air conditioning but if you're traveling in the cooler season, it won't be as much of a concern for you.  However, if the reviewers consistently complain about poor communication with the host, or uncleanliness of the property, you may want to move on.  Don't let one negative review squelch your interest if there are tons of positive ones.  Everyone's experience will be different, so look for overall trends rather than particular negatives.

Lastly, the number of reviews posted carries weight.  If you're okay with taking a chance on a brand new property with little or no reviews, that's your choice.  Properties with plentiful reviews mean the host is competent and knows how to give the Airbnb user a memorable experience. 


Everything you need to know about your Airbnb rental is right there on the page.  Click on every link and tab to gather all the information.  What amenities are included, what is the cancellation policy, what type of lodging is it, and what are the host's rules of the house?  It will be different for all properties. Don't assume that what you have in your own home will be included in the Airbnb of your choice.  Familiarizing yourself with the fine print will assure you will have a lovely and stress-free stay.  Should you arrive and certain amenities that were described on the Airbnb page are not available, you are within your rights to ask for a refund.


Once you've decided on your perfect location in one of the 191-plus available countries Airbnb operates in, get to know the neighborhood.  Use the map provided in the listing you chose, or pull up the information on Google Maps.  You'll have peace of mind knowing where to buy basic food staples or where to pick up cold medicine once you're there, and not look like a lost tourist.


You are encouraged to reach out to your host if you have any questions about the listing, sites to see, anything.  You can reach them directly if the host has not already contacted you first.  Introduce yourself, explain why you're visiting the area and your plans for when you're there.  A good host will do their absolute best to accommodate your needs.  Open communication with your host builds confidence for both parties and gives the host an opportunity to make you feel even more welcome.


Being a good guest means following the house rules and paying attention to the policies set forth in the Airbnb listing.  Treat your vacation home the same way you want your home to be treated.  Be clean and tidy always and write a gracious review so your host knows how well she/he did their job.  Did you know that hosts can leave reviews about you?  If you have a bad mark against your name, chances are you may not be accepted as a guest elsewhere in the future.

Happy travels,

Friday, March 29, 2019

My Red Cross Story: Heaven Receives Another Angel

There are so many stories shared by Red Cross staff and volunteers.  From my nine years in this organization, I've not had a story to tell as sad as this one.  Two evenings ago, I received a phone call from a friend who also volunteers with the American Red Cross (ARC).  It's not the kind of call I was expecting.  I thought Cheri was calling to confirm our meet-up at headquarters next Tuesday.  Instead, she gave me the horrible news that the last client to leave the Otay Recreation Center shelter in Chula Vista two weeks ago had passed.

On the morning of March 18, I was called by the ARC to head down to the rec center to do a walk-through inspection of the facility and to set up a shelter for people displaced from two separate fires, unbelievably occurring at the same time, a block away from each other.  I saw the trailer park fire on the news as I dressed for the day.  That was the fire I believed I was responding to.  When I got to the shelter was when I learned of the other fire.  Most of the clients - we at the ARC do not refer to the displaced residents as "victims" - were able to find places to stay instead of coming to the shelter.  Those who couldn't find a place arrived at the shelter sleepy and bewildered.  The fires occurred very early in the morning.  

It was relayed to me, as the shelter was being readied, that the Fire Department took one client to the emergency room for smoke inhalation and that she could be released from the hospital early evening.  The client's name is Sherry.  She was found on the floor of her smoke-filled apartment, where the fire evidently started in her bedroom and had to be pulled out.

Sherry told me that the day before the fire, she was packing her belongings for a move out of her apartment to another place.  It was a marathon packing session.  In the super-early morning hours the day of the fire, she put her tea kettle on the stove fire and returned to her bedroom to continue packing but fell asleep instead.  It was the whistle of the tea kettle that woke her up, and not wanting the loud noise to wake up her neighbors, she hastily rose from the bed, knocking over her table lamp which also took a lit candle with it.  What you need to know is that Sherry suffered from multiple ailments before the fire and uses a walker to get around.  She was also still grieving the loss of her adult son and loved to share that she was proud of his military service in Afghanistan.  She also was grieving the loss of her granddaughter, circumstances unknown to us.

My shift ended at 7pm on the opening day of the shelter. I returned the next day at 6:45am.  The first time I met Sherry, she was wearing a hospital gown over the clothes she'd been wearing since the day before.  The hospital staff turned the hospital gown around so that the opening was now in the front to make it look like a jacket.  She also had hospital socks on her feet, no shoes.  She was asleep in the dormitory when I arrived.  Sherry would wake up a couple of hours later when she asked me to show her the restroom.  She sauntered from the back of the gym to the front, and into the next section of the building where the toilets were.  During that slow walk, Sherry told me that the hospital staff put her in a taxi upon her release from the hospital after it was apparent her daughter-in-law was not going to pick her up and take her home with her after many attempts to reach her by phone.  

I noticed when checking out the dorm area that Sherry had only 3 tote bags to her name plus the clothes on her back.  These were the items she had placed at the door of her apartment before the fire.  It came to mind that she was going to need clothing and shoes.  When John (ARC Spiritual Care Associate) and I talked about it, he said he'd do the shopping, that is until I said he'd have to buy undergarments, too.  So I wrote down a complete list of what she'd need, and it was passed to a team of two ARC Feeding associates who went shopping.  One of them was Lisa, so there was no hesitation in the buying panties and bra.  Sherry looked so happy and refreshed in her new garments.  She beamed like a ray of sunshine!  I couldn't let this moment go by without a picture to celebrate it.

By noon, Sherry said she called her daughter-in-law again to pick her up from the shelter.  This lady told Sherry that she was working a 10-hour shift and didn't feel she could manage to come and get her after work.  It saddened me that this family member obviously didn't care for Sherry's well-being.  Through all that Sherry had been through, she still smiled mixed with bouts of crying.  This lonely woman carried so much physical pain, a heavy heart for the loss of her beloved son and granddaughter, and no place to call home.

My very last memory of Sherry is bringing her a plate of a big slice of pepperoni pizza, a bowl of garden salad, her favorite cookie, a bag of chips and bottled water.  She was so hungry.  It's what she wanted to eat for dinner.  Before I left, I put my hands on her shoulders, looked into her eyes and told her that everything will turn out well and that I wished all good things for her.  The Red Cross is going to take very good care you, I told her.  I was experiencing pain in my lower back since Monday morning and knew if I didn't start self-care, I was going to be in big trouble.  The cause for pain was wrestling with metal chairs that wouldn't come off the carts as they should, carrying them from the classroom to the gym, then sitting in them.  They were the worst chairs ever to sit in.  Before I left for home, I took a photo of Sherry's shelter registration form which had her cell phone number.  I planned to phone her, and maybe even take lunch and sit with her for an hour or so.  However, when I woke up Wednesday morning, I could barely sit, stand or anything else without pain.  That's fine, I thought, I'll contact Sherry the following week.

The ARC caseworkers worked hard to find Sherry a new home.  With no identification card (because it was burnt in the fire), no apartment management would accept her.  It took eight calls before the caseworkers found the Rambler Motel.  It sounds frightful but it's rated high in Tripadvisor, believe it or not.  Caseworkers drove Sherry to her new home last Wednesday evening, and every single day, the ARC would phone her to see how she's doing, if she needs anything, and so on.  Caseworkers said Sherry would express endless gratitude and that she was so happy. Calls to her this past Monday and Tuesday went unanswered, however, and so when my friend Mary, a caseworker, phoned her on Wednesday and got no answer, she asked the motel management to do a wellness check on her.  Mary would then receive a call from the motel saying they had to call the Chula Vista Police Department because when they entered Sherry's room, they found her deceased.  I was informed of her death shortly thereafter.  I was stunned, heartbroken, unbelieving.    How can this be?

The ARC Mental Health Department did a kind thing for those of us who had the pleasure of spending time caring for Sherry on site and behind the scenes.  Last night, they invited us to come into headquarters for a coffee chat.  Stories about Sherry were shared, tears were shed and now we're trying to fill in the missing pieces of her death.  Why did she die?  Where was her body taken to?  Where will she be buried?  It's sad Sherry didn't have loved ones to keep an eye on her.  It's sad that she died alone.  How does anyone end up alone?  I don't know these kinds of things because I'm surrounded by an extremely huge family unit.  A mental health specialist asked each of us how we intend to deal with our grief.  The answers were so varied.  A nurse said that she will go see the super blooms, another staffer said he was going to get in his truck and drive, and another said she was going to spend a day this weekend walking in the park.  I shared that I began my grieving process by starting this blog post as soon as I learned of Sherry's death.

This story is not over.  We want to give our sweet Sherry a proper memorial service when our questions have been answered.  I grieve at Sherry's passing, but I am so thankful that she received the love and compassion while she was in our care.