Friday, 24 April 2009

Dispatches from New York

I am on the road again. Wednesday night it was Jakarta to Singapore. There I met my colleague Jerry Talbot and together we made our way to JFK airport in New York via Frankfurt. Over 30 hours in the air.

I was in an aisle seat going from Singapore to Frankfurt, and next to me was a 65 year old marine engineer from Myanmar, called U San Myint. At the window seat sat Herman, yes a German, who didn’t speak a word of English. At first I counted my blessings as U San was a small man which meant I had lots of arm room on his side of the arm rest, He also spoke reasonable English so I was able to quiz him about his days at sea where he travelled to many parts of the world on Japanese ships. I manged to get some sleep as we flew across Asia and Turkey, and as first light broke across the Black sea, breakfast was served , I noticed U San bring out the air sickness bag. O no ! he was going to vomit. I had just lifted the foil lid off my cooked breakfast of scrambled eggs, potatoes and bacon, when he gathered a large ball of saliva and Flem, and spat into the bag. Obviously he had been doing this while I was sleeping as the bag was bulging with tissues and spittle. As he spat into the bag, I am sure I could see droplets of saliva spraying my eggs and bacon. I thought, I hope he doesn’t have TB, and started my breakfast. Apart from spitting regularly into the airsickness bag, U San was a pleasant companion as he told me about his grown up children and grand children living in New York. But he continued spitting into the bag every now and then. Over the years I have had to put up with other people’s irritating habits, and they with mine. After breakfast I switched on the movie channels and was delighted to find Slumdog Millionaire. It was every bit as good as it was cracked up to be and I can see how it got 8 awards at the Oscars. What a wonderful actor Patel is in playing Jamal Malik.

I worked quite a lot in slums in India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nepal over a few decades and it brought back so many strong memories. The noise, the smell, the laughter. the crying and the squalor I remember flooded back. It was all there in Slumdogs, except the smell. U San’s spitting added a live touch in the next seat, while Herman muttered away in German in the window seat. ( see photo)

I am heading to New York for the presentation of the Tsunami Global Lessons Learned Report to the Secretary General of the UN, Ban Ki- moon, and his special adviser Bill Clinton. In many ways it is a celebration of the outstanding work done by the Governments, the Red Cross Societies, the NGOs, and most importantly, the affected people themselves, in building back better after the Tsunami.

New York Thursday afternoon.

Landed about 11 am NY time at JFK airport in our aging Singapore Airlines Boeing 747-400. It took at least five minutes for my personal information to come up on the computers screen, so I had a good opportunity to talk to the Immigration Officer. We discussed the Tsunami, 9/11 where some of his friends were killed. He was in the Police department then and had the job of identifying cars that were wrecked. He told me huge cars were burnt into an unrecognisable ball of metal. The officer happily stamped my passport and told me the hot places to go in NY.

New York is grayish-brown and dusty and looks if it is still struggling to accept spring.

Manhattan Island

Jerry and I are staying in a small hotel on Manhattan island, called Murray Hill east, which is close to our office in New York, and close to the UN where we have meetings all day tomorrow. The district is generally regarded as the area from 34th street to 42nd street, from MADISON Avenue to the east River. The hill and hotel is named after Robert Murray whose 18th century farm is now Murray Hill Just behind the hotel on the hill, is the site of the original farmhouse. Legend has it that Murray’s wife and daughter saved George Washington;s army from British capture in 1776 when General William Howe and his landed at Kips Bay, they made their way to Murray’s farm. Mrs Murray and her daughter staegically served Howe lunch which gave Washington time to slip with his troops to Harlem Heights and out of Harms way.

Once we unpacked, we went to the IFRC office a few blocks away and met Michael Schulz, Maude Froberg, Anne Bang Christtensen, Fantaye (Ethiopia) and Antti the Finn, who make up our team, do crucial advocacy work at the UN Headquarters. Michael and his team do a lot of political lobbying, positioning of the Red Cross and Red Crescent movement, advocating for the most vulnerable, and of course raising funds from all the countries who are represented at the UN in NY.

We all assisted Jerry Talbot to polish his speech tomorrow that he will give after Ban Ki-moon, Bill Clinton and the Governments of India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Thailand and the Maldives.

Friday 245. The Big day

Got to bed last night at around 9.3o pm NY time, 8.30 am Friday Jakarta time. Got 4 or 5 hours sleep but up doing some work at 4.00 am.

Left hotel at 6 am and headed up Murray Hill by way of 39th street. The first rays of sun caress the skyscrapers. I am hungry. I see a sign SCOTTY’S DINER – Open 24 hours. A step into a cosy atmosphere. A tall handsome waiter in his late 20s asks, “What do you want Sir ?”

I am starving. I order bacon, eggs and sausages, a cup of tea, I get talking to Stano, short for Anastano. He tells me he’s Greek and earning money working here until he can get a better job. He is an economist and he tells me about the down turn in the economy. We agree what has happened down the road at Wall Street is unforgivable, and then he tells me he wants to come to New Zealand. I hear Spanish being spoken by the other waitresses. I ask Stano if he’s proud to have Obama as President. He hesitates and says, “ Give him time, he has to prove himself.”

I tuck into a breakfast that would do any New Zealand farmer proud. Stano keeps popping by to say a few words and a pretty Spanish waitress refills my cup with tea. The locals pop in for coffee, a newspaper, a chat. The greet me warmly and one elderly man enquires as to my health. I am beginning to like this city. I take a photo of Stano, one hand on the counter, the other akimbo.

I need to read a real paper. I find a busy, colourful shop with the hoarding announcing, 39 Gourmet Deli and Convenience Store. I stop to admire the beautiful selection of cut flowers. They must be romantic people these Greeks, Spanish, Italians and Indians. I buy milk, tea, chips and orange juice, and ask the guy behind the counter for the best paper in town. He recommends THE NEW YORK TIMES. We get talking and I find he is from Nepal. “Namaska” I greet him. “How do you know my languages ?” he asks. I explained I worked there for some years. His name is Gurung. He explains his father was a Gurkha in the British army and he is from Pokhara. We spent five cherry minutes discussing Nepal. I take a photo of Gurung smiling proudly. I know feel secure. I have two friends in New York, Stano and Gurung. I promise I will come and see them tomorrow morning.

I walk the streets and love the openness of people and shops. There are many dry cleaners and shops announcing Laundry. The large ground floor windows at Polaris Cleaners are flung wide open and women busily press clothes. I walk down Lexington street watching Manhattan come to life.

I go back to the Hotel and shower. I look forward to the big dat at the UN headquarters. New York has put me in a great mood.

I will post some photos when I am back of the people I met and let you know how the event at the UN went.

You are invited to attend the Tsunami Global Lessons Learned Event,presenting a report on lessons learned from the five countries most affected by the tsunami tragedy: India, Indonesia, Maldives, Sri Lanka and Thailand.

The report will be presented to the Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and former UN Special Envoy for Tsunami Recovery, President Bill Clinton by UNDP Administrator Helen Clark in her capacity as UNDG Chair, and the Permanent Representative of the Mission of the Republic of Indonesia, H. E. Marty Natalegawa.

The presentation will be followed by discussions on the experiences and lessons learned.

When: 3:00 – 6:00pm, Friday, 24 April

Please be seated by 2:45

Where: Trusteeship Council Chamber, the Secretariat

The Tsunami Global Lessons Learned Event will offer a unique opportunity for various partners to engage in cross-border learning, take stock of the amassed knowledge and share best practices of the recovery and reconstruction efforts following the Indian Ocean Tsunami on 26 December 2004. The high-level event is jointly organized – and co-chaired – by the United Nations Development Group and the Permanent Mission of Indonesia to
the United Nations. The proceedings will also feature the official release of a new global stock-taking report entitled The Tsunami Legacy: Innovation, Breakthroughs and Change, a summary of the report’s major findings, as well as an opportunity for representatives of the five countries to detail their specific experiences of the recovery.

Significantly, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and former UN Special Envoy for Tsunami Recovery, President Bill Clinton, will be on hand to offer remarks on the recovery process. They will also be the first recipients of a copy of the new report, handed to them by the Permanent Representative of the Mission of the Republic of Indonesia, H. E. Marty Natalegawa and UNDP Administrator Helen Clark in her capacity as UNDG Chair.

After these presentations, the floor will be opened to the invited guests, which include Permanent Representatives from all UN member states, heads and directors of all UN agencies and UNDP Bureaus, representatives from major NGOs and UNDP staff.

The report on The Tsunami Legacy: Innovation, Breakthroughs and Change looks broadly at the lessons drawn from the massive recovery efforts that followed the disaster zeroing in on the experiences from the five worst affected countries: India, Indonesia, Maldives, Sri Lanka and Thailand. It details the arduous task of ensuring that all victims of the tsunami – even those less visible in the initial damage assessments – would get access to and benefit from the aid. Responding to the danger of exclusion, recovery actors in all five countries embraced new and innovative strategies for ensuring that victims and vulnerable groups would get the required assistance.


Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

Really enjoyed reading about NY through the BmcK lens. Scottys Diner is well known to me and one of my favourite (legal) haunts in NY. What a crowning achievement for Jerry in his final (official) hours as a Red Cross envoy. I would be proud to hang a photo of the mck, talbot, shultz triumvirate on my office wall so I hope to see it in the next post! Onward and Upward.

Ruahines said...

Kia ora Bob,
A fine report. You bring the cosmopolitan nature of New York, and America, to life. Makes me think of my own grand father arriving at that very same place as a young immigrant from Sweden "fresh off the boat", and of course, Ellis Island. The circle keeps expanding taking in new nations, and new cultures - hopefully resulting in a better and more tolerant America.

Bob McKerrow - Wayfarer said...

Hi Paul

I have really enjoyed the visit and it was great to meet all my old friends from Indonesia who came, plus our former Prime Minister, h
Helen Clark.

We had a great night out last night, and took jerry to Scotty's for lunch. jerry discovered an Irish Pub this afternoon so he has a great nose. Cheers

Bob McKerrow - Wayfarer said...

Kia Ora Robb

I can visulise your grandfather arriving in NY and with all those challenges facing him. It is a lively town. Take care. Bob said...

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