Where in the World

Where in the World?

Excerpts from a Life Abroad

My thanks to the scores of people who responded positively when asked, via Facebook, if they’d be interested in reading edits of the journals and letters I wrote home from a lifetime of living and working overseas. I’m going to give it a try. I’d hoped to be able to dig into my extensive archive of photos, but they’re currently in storage. Because of the pandemic shelter-in-place, I can’t get at them. For now, I’ll post some available photos or photos I can create out of whatever I have to illustrate the text. Later on, when I can get into all those boxes, I’ll post additional photos taken during my sojourns abroad.

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Let’s start with an excerpt from my first journal, about a girl from small-town West Virginia who almost bit off more than she could chew. During my Junior year at West Virginia University, I felt a strong need to do something useful. A psych-soc major, I wanted real experience, not more lectures. And I wanted the challenge of trying this somewhere else in the world. I was president of the student YWCA at the time and asked the director, Harriet Shetler, to help me identify some summer programs with those opportunities. She came up with …

That first experience of culture shock during Asian Seminar 1964 pretty much inoculated me for the rest of my life. By the time I applied for Peace Corps training after obtaining my Masters in Television Production at Boston University, I knew what to expect and had some ability to deal with the discombobulation of entering a new culture.  I’d also learned that being busy and productive was critical to having …

I was working for CBS in Los Angeles and sharing an apartment with WVU chum Bettina Altizer when the phone rang one day. Recent calls from men who wanted to inquire if I liked to “swing” had made us cautious. Bettina answered, listened for a few moments, put her hand over the receiver and said, “It’s some guy who says his name is…” she rolled her eyes “…Russell Sunshine.” “Oh …

Let me turn, in this post, from our domestic to my professional life in East Africa. My participation in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania film project entailed a lot of red tape with both ELCT and the Tanzanian government. One example of the latter was that any entity hiring a foreign national had to certify there was no Tanzanian qualified for the job. Without that, the foreigner wouldn’t be …

While I was working on the ELCT film, I’d typically be away from home for 3-7 days, then back for days or even weeks, depending on the availability of hosts for my scouting visits, as well as an ELCT driver to take me to potential film sites if I couldn’t get there by rural bus. So life went on — Little Theatre performances, entertaining guests, trips to sights near and …

My work on the documentary film for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania proceeded throughout 1975. I travelled here and there, visiting sites where ELCT was engaged in health, support for women and youth, education and other projects. The plan was to write a script in English, from which the team could film and which would also be translated into Swahili and German. In the end, there would be three …

Our final months in East Africa were as full as the first — safaris with guests, my ELCT film work, one last Little Theatre performance (as the leads in “Butterflies are Free”), plus the complicated and red-tape-full preparations for leaving any overseas post. All interspersed with the sadness of saying goodbye, in more ways than one, to dear friends. Here are relevant excerpts from letters I wrote home. January 2Jane …

When I started Where in the World?, the COVID lockdown prevented me from accessing photos in storage that would have illustrated my posts. Now the lockdown has eased somewhat, and I can get to those albums. In the meantime, many of you have sent feedback sharing your own overseas experiences and/or support for these excerpts from my journals and letters home from overseas. So I’d like to dedicate Post #8 …

We returned to the States as 1975 turned to ’76, discovering that some of our elders were not in good health. More long-term overseas projects didn’t make sense, we thought and decided to stay Stateside until the situations became clearer. Russell took a short-term consulting assignment advising Indonesian Government lawyers at U.C. Berkeley Law School, while I enrolled in a graduate course on Central Asian Nomads. That fall, we moved …

People often ask me what’s my favorite country. Surely one of them is Somalia. These people who have had to endure so many trials are tough and yet gentle, hardened and yet gracious. My days among them were blessed with support and lessons in how to face life’s demands. Let’s continue the story of that first sojourn with excerpts from my journal. Map courtesy of Nations Online Project Baidoa [Baydhabo …

The 1980 project in Somalia was the first of multiple short-term assignments in developing countries during that decade. I went a second time to Somalia, at least five times to Pakistan and once each to Jamaica, The Philippines, Guyana, Egypt and Kenya.   Pakistan Unfortunately, all the journals from my various projects in Pakistan are not to be found anywhere. The only artifacts are a few photos, mostly official pictures …

A year after my first Somali sojourn, I was asked to return and conduct a series of one-week agricultural communication workshops for extension agents in three locations: Janale, Jowhar and Baidoa (Baydhabo on the map). I was keen to go not only because of my love for the country and many friends there, but also  because the second trip would be a chance for what a colleague has called “bamboo.” …

The U.S. Department of Agriculture contacted me about conducting the agricultural communications workshop in Guyana. Because I didn’t speak Spanish, I’d never worked in Central or South America, so this English-speaking country offered an intriguing opportunity. A former British colony, Guyana had a distinctively mixed population with descendants of Amerindians, British colonials, Hindu and Muslim indentured servants from the Subcontinent, as well as African slaves. [Please note: the term “Indian” …

Let’s return to the Guyana story for a bumpy road to a happy ending. Map courtesy of Nations Online Project   August 13Workshop field trip delayed by driving rainstorm, but we managed to leave by 8:15. Up Timehri Road to Linden Hwy, then on dirt/sand track through dense second-growth bush (former timber land) to Mrs. Sharif’s farm where James and MOA staff were to conduct sessions on method-and-result demonstrations. AID …

The 1990s brought big changes to my life overseas. Before we explore that transition, I thought it might be interesting to hear from others who’ve lived and worked abroad. Not counting the military, 8.7 million Americans currently live in over 160 countries. If they all lived in one U.S. state, it would be the 12th most populous — right between New Jersey and Virginia. You may have friends or neighbors …

For years, I’d been operating with the philosophy that, as a consultant, I could focus on the beneficiaries of a project, working around the politics of bureaucracy and the challenge of team mates who were some combination of poorly prepared, racist and/or not focused on empowering participants to be effective in their own milieux. But repeated incidents like those in Somalia, Guyana, Nairobi and Cairo were taking their toll. After …

As we did everywhere, we shared our lives with other creatures in a garden that someone else had already started. Laos was a little different in that some of the creatures were not your basic pets, and the garden was already overflowing with abundance. 1991 March 16 Our family has been expanded by one. Exactly one week after I arrived, we were at the Australian Club for a swim, and …

Everyday life in Laos wasn’t as dramatic as an attempted coup or an assassination, but it was often challenging. Staying healthy, coping with high heat (over 100ºF) and humidity (99%) for much of the year, managing without household appliances that Americans take for granted, hosting frequent official events connected with Russell’s U.N. project, getting visas for overseas visitors — all these and more were character-building, to say the least. But …

Laos didn’t offer a lot in the way of entertainment, either for adults or children, so the expatriate community devoted significant time and energy to creating events as best they could. I love celebrations, but entertaining, both as a hostess and a guest, is a challenge. Because Russell was head of the United Nations Development Programme’s five-part Foreign Investment Project, we were immersed in both aspects of entertaining. For two …

I went to Laos knowing I no longer wanted to work as an independent consultant in adult education and media. I saw the posting as a chance to begin to develop skills and a résumé as a writer, a role teachers had been encouraging since high school. Before leaving Virginia, I’d received assurance from the editor of our Fredericksburg paper that he’d welcome articles from me about Southeast Asia. Little …

As we neared the end of our stay in Vientiane, we had no inkling of where we’d be going next. This circumstance is fairly common for self-employed professionals in international development. You may just go home for a while and hope for short-term assignments, or you may be moving on to the next long-term one. We both had ideas for books as a result of our experiences as farang (S. …

Time to share some more stories from others who’ve lived and worked abroad. The peripatetic life means you get to meet a lot of special folks. Here are a few, each one a jewel in my memory. [You can click on the map below in order to enlarge it for a clearer view of where their stories take place.] Map courtesy of Nations Online Project Michèle St. Clair: Brazil, 1970 …

Living and working overseas is very different from being there as a tourist. However, living and working overseas means you also get to be a tourist. Traveling to Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, Saigon, Singapore or other destinations from Vientiane usually involved short flying times. Here, as described in letters home, are some of the places we were fortunate to visit while we lived in Laos. May 5, 1991 Luang Prabang, …

Living in Laos made it easy to get to other countries in the region. Often I would tag along, at our expense, on study tours that Russell was leading for his Lao Investment team, or we would go early for a few days’ vacation before they arrived. This travel allowed me to make observations and notes for articles I’d later write for the Fredericksburg, VA newspaper. Here are some excerpts …

All our lives, we’ve preferred to journey on our own, organizing travel and accommodations, making it up when things go wrong. Getting there is as much a part of the trip as the ultimate destination. We thrive on the challenge and the adventure. Here are some more trips we wrote home about while living in Laos. [You can click on the photos to enlarge them.] December, 1991 Ayutthaya, Sukhothai and …

Russell’s UNDP Foreign Investment Advisory Project had borne fruit as his Lao Team moved from study tours in the region to organizing a conference in Sydney on investing in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic. I went along as a volunteer helper during the conference, and then we two added on a vacation in New Zealand. Here are excerpts from a long letter to family about this memorable trip. (You can …

As 1992 turned to 1993, we celebrated the New Year with Vientiane friends in Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon and Hanoi. It was fascinating to experience another part of former French Indochina in transition, as the United States and Vietnam worked to restore normalcy after their war. Here are excerpts from letters to family about our adventures. (Click on photos to enlarge.)   January 6, 1993 We had anticipated that we …

In May 1993, as we were preparing to leave Laos after more than two years, Russell received an invitation from the East-West Center in Hawaii to serve as a Centerwide Fellow. Joking that we hoped the title wasn’t a comment on his waistline, we boarded a plane in Vientiane, our arms filled with flowers from friends and graced with white cotton cords from our farewell baci [see post #21 for …

Moving is said to be one of the most stressful experiences in life — second only to losing a spouse. People who work in international development may move every two years, across great distances, to wildly different climates. Edited from letters to the family, here’s our story of moving from Honolulu, Hawaii to Almaty, Kazakhstan.   In the mid-nineties, Russell served as Field Director of the Central Asian Republics Rule-of-Law …

As summer turned to fall, friends began asking for an update on how we were doing in Central Asia. Here’s the good news and the bad news, edited from the first section of my response. [Click on photos to enlarge.]   THE SUNSHINE-SWING CHRONICLESor How to Live in Central Asia and Learn to Love It October 1995 Here followeth the story of how Big Russie and Little Nannie moved to …

By the time October rolled around, we were pretty much settled in our renovated “dacha” in Almaty. We’d survived a couple health challenges, got work projects off the ground and started having some fun, including a visit from my 85 year-old Dad, touring the wonders of Tashkent, Samarkand and Bokhara. These adventures filled the second half of “The Sunshine-Swing Chronicles,” written in response to inquiries from friends about how we …

During our first year in Kazakhstan, Russell and I had a visit from that intrepid traveler, my Dad, Leonard C. Swing. We not only toured Almaty, its nearby mountains and steppes, we also journeyed to Tashkent, Samarkand and Bokhara on the Silk Road. In those days, modern tourist facilities in Central Asia had not really developed. The old Intourist hotels, never very good before the fall of the Soviet Union, …

If you read last month’s “preview,” you know I promised two weddings and a picnic, plus floating down the Ili River. When I got further into reviewing my family letters, I discovered there were three weddings reflecting the cultural changes coming to Central Asia. The old Soviet system was lingering, but religious rebirth was rising. And that picnic blended multiple traditions, old and new. So let’s focus on those events …

Almaty Challenges: Painting the Zal, Plus Climate, Cars and Cats Living overseas always presents challenges and the fulfillment of meeting them. Here are a few we wrote home about while living in Almaty. [Click on photos to enlarge.]   1995: Painting the Zal October 18We’re hoping to repaint the living room (zal in Russian) in the wonderful color which “sold” the house for us last spring — a warm, cozy …

As always when overseas, we had the opportunity to enjoy tourist excursions while living in Central Asia. Not only the trip along the Silk Road as chronicled in Post #32, but lesser known sights like the Ili River and Charan Canyon. [Click on photos to enlarge.] Ili River June 27 We’ve had a wonderful visit this week with Frank Olson, Russell’s law school friend, visiting Valodya’s mountain dacha and the …

We lost our Stateside home in 1992, when Virginia’s Stafford County announced it was taking all the properties in our valley by right of eminent domain in order to build a reservoir. At that time, we were living in Laos and asked to receive payment as soon as possible because we were overseas and needed a home to return to. Four years later, when we finally got the check, we …

Leaving Almaty was much like leaving every other place in our overseas lives — attending goodbye parties, winding down professional projects, helping our office and home staff find jobs, selling the stuff we wouldn’t take with us. But this time, we had the added challenges of moving into our new home far from both the States and Kazakhstan. Once in Italy, I wrote early letters to family by hand. I …

Early on, during my days alone at our new house, I bought a bottle of pro secco, stood on the south terrace, sipped a glass and tipped the rest onto the earth below — a libation to whatever gods watched over our farm that we might live long and happy in their land. My petition must have been granted. Through challenges and triumphs, the sixteen years in our Italian house …

In the previous post, I wrote about so many changes to our Italian house that there wasn’t room to add enough photos to visualize all that was accomplished in the first four months. So here are some pix from those early days. At last, after years of wandering, we were able to bring all our treasures together to create our own home — family heirlooms and items collected during our …

The town of Amelia, our town, was called Ameria in ancient days, said to be named for its Umbrian founder, King Ameroe. All this is lost in the sands of time, yet the citizens of Amelia are still termed Amerini. Here are excerpts from letters to family about our first summer in our new home. [As always, you can click on photos to enlarge them.] July 3It’s been quite a …

The final months of our first year in Italy were filled with travel, loss and near-loss, visits from friends and the pleasures of Christmas in our own home. [As always, you can click on photos to enlarge them.] August 28 Earlier in the month, we spent a delightful couple of days in Ravenna on the NE coast. We had a three-hour drive on a direct freeway passing through 15 tunnels, …

The year 1998 brought expected and unexpected challenges. The renovations of our old farmhouse continued. Guests arrived almost every month, and my Dad returned for his third visit. He was ever an enthusiastic traveller, from his days in post-war Japan, through countless Elder Hostel trips to time spent with us in faraway places. If there was a voyage on offer from Antarctica to Iceland, he was keen to sign up. …

After my Dad’s passing during the 1998 holiday season, I stayed in the States longer than I’d anticipated due to unforeseen events. When I returned to Italy in 1999, the first half of the year was filled with the joys of homecoming plus more unexpected challenges. Here are excerpts from family letters. [As always, you can click on photos to enlarge them.] February 6“Mi sento a casa.” I feel myself …

The last months of 1999 challenged us with more of everything — more guests, more renovation planning, more of Russell working overseas while I managed the home front. When we bought our Italian house, we decided not to do all the renovations at once. Live it in for a while, we were advised, and that proved to be good advice. Often, what we thought we’d want changed as we lived …

The best laid plans… We’d hoped to start renovations on the south side of our Italian house in the autumn of 1999, but various trials accumulated until it was too late in the year for such a project. (See post #44 for details.) Our design got approved by the authorities, but the actual work didn’t begin until the following spring — sunporch, pergola and patio with terracotta tiles, protective walls …

The previous post chronicled our year-long effort to renovate the south side of our old farmhouse. But that wasn’t all that happened in 2000. When we weren’t working with the artisans making our renovation dream come true, we were dealing with the bureaucracy, I was participating in a writer’s workshop at UCLA, R was crafting a writing adventure, and we both were taking “Magical Mystical Tour” day-trips to nearby hill …

Looking forward to hearing from you.

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