The away normal of an aid worker

Normal is a relative term that recalibrates frequently.  At first glance, my normal life when I’m away is basically the same as my normal life at home: I eat, go to work, sit in an office, come home, and try to have some sort of social life.  On the surface, not that different. It’s all the little things that make my away normal unrecognisable from my home normal.

I’m not condoning any of the stupid shit that I do to get through my away normal week.  But here it is, in all its ugly glory:

Well I’ll admit straight up, I use wanky terms: mission, deployment, in the field, post, station, and for some reason people in Dili say sensitize when they mean ‘consult’.  I still hold firm and rage against incorrect use of my old foe, the ampersand. That will never change.


I cohabitate.  Crabs from the ditch, singing geckoes, cockroaches, Mister Busa, and the scary enormous centipedes that can bite and possibly kill. I understand both ends of the giant killer centipede must be crushed to ensure death – I’ve never had the nerve. I just hope they don’t sneak up behind me or when I’m asleep. I hate them. Oh and mosquitoes and flying ant things, and other things with wings.   The ghost cats in the ceiling, that other people have identified as either rats or monkeys (I prefer to visualise ceiling cats).

I’ve tried to domesticate geckoes.  So many times.

I feed my cat dog food and wash him with dishwashing liquid.  Options are limited.


For me, some countries are fat countries and some countries are thin countries.  There is no logic to determine which will be which, so it’s a surprise.  I come home from one country borderline malnourished with my hair falling out, and then I can come home from another all squishy and fat.   A mystery of the universe.  This is a fat year for me. No drama, provided I don’t need new clothes. That would pose significant challenges.

I wear a lunji. I only get dressed if I have to leave the house. Otherwise I’m in a lungi.

Birkenstocks every day. No exceptions.  Smart thing on at an embassy? Birkenstocks.  Climb a waterfall? Birkenstocks. Meet government ministers to sign a super important contract? Birkenstocks. Get taken out to dinner at somewhere posh that I could never afford? Birkenstocks. Get sent on a work trip to fancy European cities during winter? Birkenstocks. Factory visit? Birkenstocks. Walk through effluent mixed with flood-waters? Birkenstocks.  Wet season or monsoon? Birkenstocks. Dry season? Birkenstocks. Hiking shoes are only for hiking. I’m back into Birkenstocks as soon as I’m off the hill. I stand by this, and my other sartorial choices of questionable aesthetic, but undeniable practicality.

I don’t do my own laundry or wash my own floors: I provide employment.

I get bitten by mosquitoes every day. Yes, there is dengue, and malaria is horrible.  I console myself that being bitten four times a day is less risky than being bitten forty times.  I do make an effort:  I douse myself in 80% DEET with the misguided enthusiasm of a stinky teenager clutching a can of Lynx, but I still get bitten.  My house isn’t mosquito proof, and my life-style is not as air-conditioned as I would like it to be.

I know we have been through this before, but I’m totally proficient with a three litre bath.

I eat eggs that are probably from a battery farm; that’s all there is. I know I’m a hypocrite. I pretend to compensate for this by not killing all the bugs, or eating meat as it is all certainly the product of questionable animal husbandry methods.

I walk around dead cockroaches on the floor for days, and barely notice them.

Once or twice a week my flat will stink. Eye-wateringly stink.  Maybe this correlates with the ebb and flow of the stench of the ditch I live next to, but I’m just too jaded to investigate.  Maybe it’s the drains.  I don’t care any more. It gets pretty bad, especially when the power goes out.

Without knowing the words, I sing along to Toto’s Africa. Loudly.

My eyes involuntarily narrow when someone alludes to having an oven.
Or a microwave. Or enough internet for Netflix. Or enough power to boil a kettle. Or guards who wear shoes. Or not having to source their own drinking water or gas bottles. Or access to alcohol in a US military commissary when living under Sharia law. Or have access to mail through a diplomatic bag (often the only option). Or look surprised when they find one cockroach. Or haven’t ever changed a drinking water gallon. Or have their own driver. These people exist. I tell myself that they are missing out on something rugged.  I don’t convince myself.

Seatbelts. Most don’t work, no one uses them, and if we crash we will be screwed anyway – some fatalistic bullshit kicks in.

On the subject of fatalistic bullshit: deployment smoking. For a couple of dollars I buy illegally imported cigarettes on the street from children. And I smoke them furiously, with relish. All the time. Everywhere. Sometimes I forget the Australian customs limit when I come back in. Once by 40 packets. Honest mistake.

At work I live on the edge, I save to the desktop. That’s the only option.

My relationship with alcohol changes. Under Sharia law, I stealthily develop a slight dependency. I become a nifty little alcohol smuggler. In countries where alcohol is legal, there is less urgency, no hoarding, but still binge drinking. In the Pacific, I add kava to the mix. Maybe boredom, sometimes stress, sometimes loneness. I’ll drink at home with the cat. I’ll wipe myself out at messy embassy parties. In my current post, it isn’t a problem, but from experience I know that it can become one.

Any whiff of a road trip, and I’m in. I don’t care where to, I care not the purpose. I’m ready. Let’s go.


I put down serious coin investing in my mental health. I have to have muesli. There are months-long muesli droughts where there is none to be found; I bring muesli and sultanas from Australia in my pack. On the rare occasion that a shop has muesli, the expat network is on fire with celebrations. And I hoard. I spend crazy money, and treasure the bags of muesli like precious precious riches. I must have.

Thats US dollars, USD11.20
Thats US dollars, USD11.20

I’ve made a vague comment at work about a cousin getting married, and head straight to international departures. When I return I look like I’ve just spent 4,5,6,7 or 8 days at a music festival. And not had many naps.

And of course the lovers, near misses, and train wrecks.  But I think that in a subject is deserving of it’s own little story, yes?


I feel my fellow aid workers nodding in agreement. Trust me when I tell you that this is all standard practice for people in this line of work. This is just away normal.


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