Guest Blog: Beauty in the Bush

We are very excited to announce our second ever guest blog on Aidwork Oddity! If you have thoughts, musings, stories or rants you would like to share, just drop us a line at aidworkoddity@gmail.com, follow us on facebook: Aidwork Oddities, or get us via the twittersphere: @aidworkoddity

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We’ve all had those moments of despair when trying to reach beauty nirvana. That terrible haircut, bleach job or wax/burn-your-skin-off moment when attempting to become the paragons we see in Vogue. For aid workers living in the field, the compulsion to feel more aesthetically pleasing, even for just 20 minutes, is a strong one. Somehow, despite the hundreds of bad experiences, horror stories from our fellow humanitarians and nightmares of our own of trying to beautify ourselves, we continue to trail the wax-strip, popped zit, gloopy mascara filled road, hopeful that this time will be different and a veritable Cara Delevigne will come strolling out of the tent each morning.

Once, in Nepal, I attempted to get what I thought was a basic leg wax.  I dared to ask if they did bikini line waxing and received a cold, ‘no’, a clear look of disgust and a disapproving look up and down. After being shown to the delightful ‘treatment room’ (a bed in the basement of a hotel) I settled back, but was soon confused by the feeling that the woman was working both legs at the same time. Propping up, I saw two women down there. One for each leg? No. Rather, I had one waxing the leg and the other following the wax with threading, her teeth working the thin string to get those strays from my kneecaps. The worst thing was I wasn’t even that shocked by it, considering the other beauty nightmares I’ve had on my travels…

beauty

Me 90% of the time on deployment

I clearly hadn’t learned from that time in India when they promised me that they do ‘white girl hair’ and I sat in a salon in tears pulling out over-bleached chunks of fluff as they fell from my scalp. Nor the time a year later when I taught a young Indian immigrant who didn’t speak a word of English what a Brazilian was in the back of a pedicure shop in Kampala. That delightful experience ended in a delicate scissor operation to try to cut out globs of wax that had clumped together and hardened in an area you really don’t want to be using blades. Even these two experiences didn’t stop me from inviting a friend for a pedicure in Ouagadogou, where her little toenail was completely clipped off, and the foot soak baths smelt clearly of rot.  A few years later, having forgotten the Indian hair salon and desperately wanting to feel fresh for an attempt at a romantic R&R, I yet again left a hair salon in tears sporting tiger stripes of bright blonde in my hair. My attempt at romance ended with him escorting me to various hairdressers whilst I tried to blend the yellow patches. Not the start that either of us had in mind.

I had hoped that my previous experiences would stand me in good stead for my current predicament of travelling with my partner. When you’re single in the field, it’s easier to let body hairs run riot – the likelihood is anyone who sees them is only going to see them once (ok, a couple of times… ok, four times a week until one of you leaves the deployment), and is quite likely also so sex-starved that they also won’t care. But when you have a longer term partner, especially in the first few months, you start to care whether your legs are silky smooth. When we arrived to our new homestead, I opened my bag in the 46 degree heat only to find all my wax strips had melted together. With no razor in sight and seven long weeks of cohabitation on the cards, I pulled out my tweezers and got at my armpits holding a flashlight between my teeth. Desperate times.

I keep telling myself I’m getting better at keeping to a beauty routine; half my luggage weight is skin creams and conditioner to try to reduce the sun’s traumatising impact on my ageing skin and greying, brittle hair. However, I still spend more time checking that the chocolate I buy is sealed inside the paper so if/when it melts in transit it can be refrozen and rescued, than I do making sure I have essentials like nail clippers, or oil to remove wax when I accidentally stick the strip facing the wrong way up on my inner thigh. Maybe this is because I opt for those locations far away from any swimming pools, romantic encounters or skin-baring (although, wearing a hijab in Yemen was a good opportunity to sneak extra oil in my unwashed hair without notice, hoping to provide some respite to my South-Sudan split ends). Or maybe I like to keep things a little risky with local, ‘natural’ approaches to beauty, such as that time in Mauritania someone convinced me that a paste made from flour and water was the best solution to stop in-growing hairs….

Lying back in that basement ‘beauty parlour’ watching two women both wax and thread my leg hairs, I realise that, much like any NGO applying for UNICEF funding, I have placed disastrous past experiences outside of the realm of decision-making consciousness, and choose instead to steadfastly repeat the same activity over and over hoping for a different outcome. That, my friends, is surely the definition of insanity.

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I’m Bored.

Close on the heels of those misty-eyed looks from strangers when admitting what you do for a job, is the assumption – by those same strangers – that your life consists of endless helicopter rides, trekking across mountains, surviving on WFP rice rations or passionately shouting down a telephone, ‘Damn it man, we need those latrine slabs and we need them now!’ whilst ISIS storm your compound.

The truth is; aid work is not always exciting.

Whenever I stop to re-assess my job (which recently has been more than a healthy amount), I am reminded of those memes that people make that go along the lines of, ‘what my friends/parents/society/tax-man (that last one for aid workers is probably lounging under a palm tree waving two fingers in the air) think I do’, with a final ‘what it’s really like’. What would you think is the final picture for humanitarians? Digging with bear hands into an earthquake collapsed building? Trekking across a mountain covered in bags of plumpy nut? Pointing with an air of authority whilst holding a clip board and wearing a multi-pocketed, multi-logo embossed gilet? No. Nothing quite so exciting. For humanitarianism, the ‘what it’s really like’ usually consists of a person holding their head in despair whilst surrounded by piles of paperwork and an open laptop displaying the swirly circle of doom on Google chrome.

Bored

That’s not what its really like… that man needs more empty coffee cups and less hair. 

Don’t get me wrong, humanitarianism is exciting for the most part. Its high-stress, high-octane, problem-solving awesomeness.  There are the opportunities to work with incredible people, and to travel to places you would never ordinarily see, not even if you booked your last holiday with Exodus. But that’s not all day, every day.

A lot of time will be spent in meetings. So many meetings. I once spent so much of my week in meetings, my team thought I had been kidnapped. A bit more time is spent shackled to a laptop staring bleary eyed at spreadsheets wondering why finance has coded all the payments for water trucking under ‘kitchen ware’. A bit more time will be spent signing things. If you work in any role where you have budgetary authority, you’re likely to dedicate at least 10% of your entire working time being chased around the office by team mates equipped with blue pens, but woefully inadequate knowledge of budget codes.

But no part of aid work, and I mean literally, no part, beats the boredom of “working from home.” I am currently “working from home”. It is force of habit for me to write this in quotation marks, since everyone knows “working from home” entails lying in your pyjamas on the couch watching Homes under the Hammer whilst occasionally checking your work emails on your phone (praise the lord for mobile technology; it saves having to be anything other than horizontal whilst “working from home”). As a rapid response person, my job is supposedly sees me dashing around between countries, but sometimes there is nowhere to dash to, so instead you sit on the sidelines like the slightly strange kid that always got picked last for the rounders team (ah, memories).

There is still work to be done; however, that work is often so mind-numbingly, spirit-crushingly boring it can induce a level of existential angst hitherto unconsidered by the average humanitarian worker, particularly those who thrive on the go-go-go of an emergency environment. It is during these periods that I have a tendency to become very emotional, especially when my opportunities to go back to the field get cancelled. Sometimes my parents hope they can cure my boredom with small consolation prizes, leading to interesting new realms of sibling rivalry:

Me: ‘Do you like my new pyjamas?’ My sister: ‘I want new pyjamas!’ My Mum: ‘Well, when your deployment to Yemen gets cancelled, you can have new pyjamas too’

I canvassed opinion on Aidwork Oddity’s new Facebook page (that’s right, we’re on Facebook! Self-plug!) and apparently, if I can get through working at home without eating too many biscuits, I’m already crushing it. Within the last two weeks, I don’t think there has been a biscuit on the Tesco aisle that I haven’t sampled. Don’t worry, I did take them to the till and pay for them first.

I suppose I should look on the positive side: I’ve been able to catch up on A LOT of day time telly when waiting for work inspiration to strike, including Jeremy Kyle. Watching that programme exposes viewers to a lot of conflict and distressing sights, like ill fitting tracksuits, so I guess I found it vaguely comforting. My manager tells me I should enjoy the time working on the go-slow to relax and prepare for my next deployment; it bodes well for our working relationship that she clearly hasn’t yet figured out that I’m a highly-strung workaholic occupying a normal person body suit.

Until there is more news about where I’m going next, I’m stuck in a working from home boredom hell. I’ve got to pray that a space opens up for dashing somewhere pretty soon. If I have to do a second round of the biscuit aisle, I’m not sure I’ll fit in the airplane seat.

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