In the Face of the Extreme, Finding Balance (and Mashed Potatoes)

Caroline Brennan, who works with Catholic Relief Services, speaking with a Syrian family at a refugee camp in Lebanon.

AFTER college, I joined the Peace Corps and eventually started working with refugee charitable organizations. When I started working with Catholic Relief Services, I had some travel under my belt, and now almost all of my work is focused on going to countries where people are in crisis, whether because of a natural disaster or war.

Because my work is communications-focused, I meet with those people we are helping to capture their story and document relief efforts. I also do quite a bit of domestic travel for the organization, mostly for various events.

In recent months, I’ve been to Gaza, Central African Republic, Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Philippines and the Syrian border with Jordan and Lebanon, among others. These aren’t places where you worry about the state of the airline’s hospitality lounge. But I have to say that your sense of self can start to slip when you’re in places where humanity is so greatly tested.

I’ve learned the importance of having the right combination of personal relief supplies, which help keep you going when things start to get difficult. It took a while for me to realize that, rather than just a few days away from the office, my travel for work was my lifestyle, and how much of a difference it made when I tried to make my life on the road mirror my life at home, as much as it was humanly possible. That means equal weight and suitcase space are given to the things that keep me physically healthy, like water purifiers when traveling to areas with collapsed or contaminated water sources and medication for the common case of giardia.

Equally important are the salves for my emotional sanity — the things that are reminders of home, normalcy and comfort, like a favorite five-oil shampoo, facial serum, music playlist, exercise bands or bags of ground Chicago coffee. The absurdity of packing products when headed to places of peril is not lost on me. And I’ve struggled with the guilt. But it’s exactly that extreme that brings me back to center when the base of normal has swung so far in the other direction.

I think that anyone who does the kind of work we do knows that you have to find balance and, even on occasion, humor in absurd situations.

I was headed to Banda Aceh, Indonesia, and had a 13-hour layover in Singapore. I was living in Delhi at the time, and had friends over for a nice pasta and meatball dinner the night before I left. I clearly made a mistake with the meatballs, and when I left for my trip the next morning, I was horribly sick, and once I got to Singapore, I went straight to a lounge with private beds and slept for 10 hours straight.

When I finally woke up, I went out into the food area and saw what appeared to be a mashed potato machine. It looked like a cappuccino machine, but there was a potato sticker on it. Instead of espresso, potato powder and hot water came out of the spigot. It even had a gravy button.

Although this may not sound enticing from a distance, after being so sick, this mechanical carb machine was like a gift from above. I would get a helping, eat it, and then circle the machine for yet another helping. I should have had more integrity and more dignity, but all I wanted were more mashed potatoes.

I have never seen another mashed potato machine in any of my travels. It’s a shame. I think if every airport in the world had mashed potatoes on tap, no one would complain about business travel.

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