Written by me in the form of emails to friends and family while working or travelling
CAR - 2015
Chad - 2014
USA - 2013
Chad - 2013
Trans-Asian - 2012/13
DR Congo - 2011/12
France - 2011
India & Sri Lanka - 2005/6
Peru & Bolivia - 2004
Central African Republic 2015
All CAR photos - https://goo.gl/photos/N4Gn3R3Zo4hwNqXUA
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_________________________________18 Jan 2015
I'm off on another mission with 'our organisation' and so the beginning of another series of juicy long emails every few weeks!
This time to the Central African Republic (CAR).
I'll be based in the town of Bossangoa (pretty central) managing the construction of an extension to the hospital that 'my organisation' is running.
The people there have had it pretty rough... link
I'll be away till August (2015)!! More on arrival...
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_________________________________1 Feb 2015
I am now sitting in my room in the 'my organisation' Hollande base in the town of Bossangoa. It is GORGEOUS here! It is green and lush and we sit right next to the Ouham river, where this morning, some of my colleagues saw 3 Hippotopamus!! We went on Hippo-Watch later that afternoon, but alas, nothing but rocks that looked like potential hippos. But then, I heard that low grunting honking panting sound from afar and I leapt to my feet, grabbed my radio and 'my organisation' vest and descended at once to the river side... and what a show he gave... eventually. After sitting like a rock for 15 minutes in the middle of the river he (or perhaps she) honked a little and then gave a big fat yawn. No photo of the hippo, just the river. Sorry.
Re-wind. 2 weeks ago, I passed through Berlin and Amsterdam (which was a bit of disorganised... they forgot I was coming) but saw some familiar faces in the office and met some friends which was a great way to leave.
Arrived in the capital of Central African Republic (CAR), Bangui (Ban-gee) last week and was presently surprised. It's quite lush and pretty. Looks and feels somewhere between Chad and Congo (not suprisingly since its between the two). We had to wait in the airport for about 5 hrs after arriving though to wait for another flight to arrive and then travel in a 3 car + truck convey with 4 other 'my organisation' sections (French, Spanish and Belgium). Welcome to CAR!!!
I stayed in Bangui for 3 days (till I got my visa) in a beautiful house on a hill overlooking the town (with a view of DR Congo in the distance). There was a really friendly feel amongst both the expat and national staff which made me consider that I might consider, one day, if presented with the opportunity, working in a capital city.
CAR.. a brief history
I won't go into details (see the news reports in the last email), but the population here has had, and in some places is still having, a horrendous time since the coup in Mar 2013. - Rebels (called Seleka - mainly Muslim) come over from NE of CAR with Sudanese and Chadian mercenaries to help, - They storm the capital and the leader declares himself the new president, - Rebels forces (now called ex-Seleka) get out of control - Self-defense groups (anti-Balaka) spring up to defend their populations, - Self-defense groups get out of control, - Lines between Civilians and Armed groups get blurred, while their religions become emphasised - Fear and greed and chaos escalate the situation into a religious civil war, - Many, many, people killed or fled...
There are literally almost no muslims left in the country when they used to represent 15% of the population!!! Genocide? Ethnic cleansing? Exodus...
The town of Bossangoa where I am going be for the next 6 months or so is pretty big (~30,000 people) but has a lovely big jungle village feel to it. There's a bustling market every day and the local people are smiley. Here's our base on the map
Why we came
This town used to have a large Muslim population and now there's just one Muslim left, Ali, our Log assistant and he needs to live our base for safety. At the start of 2014 when the country was starting to descend into religious anarchy the entire population of Bossangoa became refugies within their own town. The Christians (30,000) sheltering in the Church and the Muslims (8,000) in the School, all too scared to leave the 'camps' for fear of what yesterday's neighbours and friends might do to them today. We came to work in the camps and provided a lot of Water and Sanitation in addition to healthcare.
Eventually all 7,999 Muslims (all except Ali) where 'evacuated' to neighbouring countries - Chad and Cameroon mainly - and the remaining Christian has been slowly returning to their homes and 'normality' since.
Why we stayed? Normality hasn't quite returned. The Muslims are gone and the (ex) Seleka rebels have been pushed to the East. However, the village self-defense groups who got out of control and lost sight of their original objective are still in existence and the Seleka are still in the country and so the stability is tentative. Having said all this, Bossangoa is pretty safe and has been for quite a few months so you can all relax.
Even if all possibility of further conflict was gone, all public and many private sector services were left in pieces - buildings and equipment looted, staff fled. This includes the Health sector where 'my organisation' (all 5 sections together) are now providing the majority of health services in the country as a whole.
So, now we have a huge hospital and no one to run. So we stayed and are now running the hospital for / in collaboration with the Ministry of Health. In addition we are running 7 mobile clinics in the, now empty, health centres around the area. The statistics are pretty nuts: +90% of people showing up to our clinics have malaria and horrendous skin diseases on account of living out in the bush, many children have malnutrition and some mothers will walk up to 60km to reach us.
Back in the hospital we are providing outpatient, inpatient, surgery, malnutrition, maternity and lab services, but there aren't enough beds or space to provide the level of care needed. Last month some patients we put outside due to lack of space in wards. So who you gonna call.... Robbie Loggie, now re-born as Bobbie the Builder.
Gosh, this email is getting long... sorry. Keep going...
I'm responsible for managing the construction of a new: Outpatient building, Intensive Care Unit (ICU) / Emergency Room building, Pharmacy building and TB facility.
I'm kind of doing a project within a project so have a bit more autonomy than usual. It's also nice to get back into the engineering stuff!
I've been trying to recruit an assistant, do basic designs and drawings, order materials and make sure everyone's input is taken into account. Next week I'll go back to the capital to meet with the Ministry of Health Engineer and General Director (he has time to meet about a few little buildings in a bush hospital) to put on a flashy presentation so that we get all permissions and avoid potential bureaucratic traffic jams. I need to shave and buy some shiny shoes...
The expat team here is big (currently 10, planned 15). They are mostly super friendly, interesting, creative, hard working and generally fab. We have some little gardens around the base where onions and raddishes are growing. We have some pets, chickens, guinee fowl, kittens. We also have internet... though it is limited.
I'm lucky to be here and involved in trying to rebuild a life for the people here.
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_________________________________10 April 2015
Seems I'm not so email verbose as I was last year. Next mind. Here's my latest news for the CAR...
The reason I'm here is to manage the design and construction of some new buildings in the Bossangoa hospital. I finally, after 2.5 months, have managed to start building something.
The project that ended up being first past the starting post was the new €100,000 Intensive Care Unit (see image). I pushed and pushed to get this moving on time (1 April) and with a large helping hand from 'my organisation', our contractor started digging and laying the foundations before I flew out of the project this morning for holiday. See photo
Luckily I found a great assistant (civil engineer) who will be able to handle things well enough while I'm gone.
We organised an inter-NGO easter lunch. We cooked fresh pasta and had people over from ACF (Action Against Hunger) and CRS (catholic relief services - neither of whom were actually Catholic) for the first time which will hopefully lead to more inter-ngo-mingling in the future. We are a big team, but its good to socialise outside of the 'my organisation' bubble. We have an awful reputation for this....
I started running along the river to the bridge and back in the morning and it feels good. It's (relatively) cool, it only takes 15 mins and there's a chance to see hippos. It's makes me sweat heavily for around 3 hours afterwards, but makes me feel a lot more alive - thank you Max and Chloe for putting the idea in my head. I'm still doing Tai Chi most mornings and am slowing gathering a group of potentially interested followers...
HOLIDAY - ITALY
I met a nice Italian girl who works with the NGO next door and so tomorrow I'm going to Italy for 2 weeks holiday. Yowzer!!!
FLORA AND FAUNA
We have 2 cute cats - Stanley and Edna and it makes me happy. I have a variety of old food tin cans with seeds in soil in them outside my room which I water everyday and see grow (suprisingly fast) and it makes me happy. Hippos live at the bottom of the garden and it makes me happy.
My contract ends mid-August. I'm thinking of doing a humanitarian masters in Liverpool or Manchester or maybe something totally different.
Please write back and tell me anything and everything!!
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_________________________________8 June 2015
Its been a little while since I wrote, mainly because things feel calm and less dramatic than my previous assignments and so I haven't felt that I had so much to share. Anyhoo, here I am sharing a little of my life out here in Bossangoa, Central African Republic...
The rains have now started and with them increased malaria and respitory (tract) infections. This time of year also sees a 'hunger gap', where last year's crops have been used up and this year's harvest is still a few months away. The disruption to agriculture from 2 years of war only exagerate this... Last year the hospital was overflowing with 2, 3 or even 4 patients + their caretakers to a bed (usually patient = baby and caretaker = mother). This led to the plan to construct some new buildings to increase the bed capacity of the hospital... that's where I stepped in.
The Intensive Care Unit (ICU) is the biggest priority with regards to the lack of space in the hospital and although construction is coming along quite well, our contractor, despite being a pretty big operation here in CAR, has been a little dissapointing unfortunately. As a result, we are a few weeks behind schedule and soon the mounting patient numbers will again cause bed overflow. We'll hopefully be finished by mid-July... Walls are now up and hopefully we'll start the roof in the next week. See some of the latest photos.
A great thing I've realised about construction is that I get to climb around on things in order to 'properly do my job'. In the UK this is impossible due to health and safety, but here, to check some concrete reinforcement for example, I get to; mantel up onto the window opening, rock-over, stand-up, flag out with my left leg for balance and then undercling the lintel to hold on while doing my 'control'. Fab!
Another planned project was the TB Department. Last year, the huge numbers of malnourished kids caused us to kick the TB patients out of their building and the TB department was thus transformed into a group of traditional wood and straw huts which are now rotting and leaking. Last week we did a Tender process to find a contractor and this week we plan to break ground and get the foundations going. Hopefully this will be (nearly) finished before I leave at the end of July... See some images of what it is planned to look like.
BARE FOOT BOY
A revolation that I've already shared with some of you is that of my new found bare foot running joys. A week ago on Sunday, I wanted to run. My shoes were very very wet from the previous day's rain. I'm reading 'Born to Run' and has just read more details on 'how to run the way we were made to...'. So I did it...
I ran to the bridge and back - along the hippo river about 1km or so. I couldn't stop smiling. On a day when I'm usually too floppy to hardly move I had more energy and bounce than I'd had for months. I literally bounced along the trail, like I was dancing on springs. I couldn't stop grinning, wooping and waving my arms. I felt like a child running. By the end I wasn't tired at all. It was wonderful!
My calves felt like they had quite a work out and turned to stone the next day, however after going a few more times they're feeling grand!
GARDENING AND VETENARY RESPONSIBILITIES
I now have some additional responsibilities, those of vegetable garden and cat guardian. The first brings me great joy as I inspect every morning our little circular plots to see signs of new life and growth. With the rains everything is growing like crazy (including the elephant grass everywhere - you really could hide an elephant in it. I calculated it grows at about 5cm a day!). We planted some seeds a few weeks ago and now my main task is the continuous weeding necessary to stop our 'good plants' being overtaken by the 'bad plants'.
The cats are now also under my responsibility. Stanley and Edna are about 5 months old and are very cute, especially when sleeping, especially Stanley (see photo). I have a dilema about feeding them. Give leftovers or not considering we treat many human children for malnutrition here? Give them what 'I would have eaten if I ate meat'? Give them nothing and let them learn to hunt? Give them milk that's from the capital that was imported from Europe? Give them Nestle nido milk powder? Give them left over rice or pasta (which they'll probably not touch)...? In addition to feeding, the other main task concerning Edna and Stanley is de-maggoting. Mango flies lay their eggs on animals and then the fly feeds off the host until it becomes a maggot thing and then eventually plops out and flies away. Today, with the help of Sam, I extracted 3 maggots from Edna's head, back and foot with a safety pin. Gross... Stanley remains more or less maggot free interestingly.
ITALY - ELENA
So I went to Italy with the girl next door who I would maybe, oh I don't know, call my girlfriend, and it was really wonderful and now I'm in love. Smashing! Meeting her family and friends and 'home-life' and spending some time exploring beautiful Milan and its beautiful mountains to the north was, well, also wonderful really. Growing a relationship in this environment is a little bizarre, but we are evolving little by little and I feel very lucky. One little photo of us and a few more of Milan.
I'm due to be back in Manchester on 1 Aug. I'll be doing a med course almost immediately for 2 weeks but will then be around for the rest of the month. In September I'll be starting a masters either at Liverpool or Manchester... depending on scholarship results.
See you all soon.
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_________________________________30 July 2015
I'm writing this from Paris Charles de Galle airport en-route back home. My Mission / Assignment / contract has come to an end as was originally planned in January and I'm now feeling tired and slightly irritable as I continue my 33 hr trip from The Central African Republic to Berlin to debrief.
So what happened since I last wrote...
CAR is re-building
Despite the devastion caused by the Seleka coup d'etat in 2013 and subsequent violent resprisals and total breakdown of state institutions things have been relatively calm and some positive signs are starting to show. Populations are staying more or less in the same place and are rebuilding their houses and villages. In Bossangoa town, the Market is little by little expanding and the Western Union bank was undergoing some rehabilitation and may soon re-open.
Since there are many other NGOs (including medical ones) present, 'my organisation' has been trying to hand over the 'non-emergency' parts of the hospital we're 'supporting' so we can focus on other unmet needs. As a result of this decision and more stable security we increased on movements to the more rural areas with supporting health centres, mobile clinics and basic malaria diagnosis and treatment points (points-palu).
Some horror stories do still come up however. One is of witch-hunting. Women, often elderly or widowed or those not following the social norms, and even in some cases children, are accused of sorcery on a shockingly regular basis. When a misfortune, e.g. illness, befalls a family, it often becomes an opportunity to take revenge on disliked neighbours. This is particularly popular in the Bossangoa area and every few weeks a small (fortunate) number who make it to the hospital with only a missing ear or finger show us only the tip of the iceberg of this traditional belief and socially normal atrocity. Live burials and burnings which are just as common don't normally make it to 'my organisation''s care...
Expat HR 'crisis'
Every summer, 'my organisation' HR department starts to struggle. And why not? It's understandable that those in Europe or N America would rather enjoy the few months of sun and fun and kids and friend's holidays that go to some other forsaken failed state where its too hot anyway. On top of this, no one wants to come a country like CAR that no-one has even heard of with all its horror stories of civil war, violence and lawlessness. As a result of this, our project had, at times, less than half of the expat positions filled. As a result of THIS, almost everyone has been doing 2, 3 or even 4 roles at once to fill the gaps and we got a little tired. I did not escape this fate and was, for a time, Log Construction, Supply and Tech. Other than nearly burning myself out (like last year), I really enjoyed getting to grips with many of the tasks and systems I have managed in the past. Good.
Back to the gaps. Most everyone I spoke to in the field fiercely disagreed with this conclusion of the CAR being a crappy assignment. The population are very warm and friendly and generally good to work with. The country is gorgeous with 3m high grass, green green everywhere, colourful birds and hippos at the bottom of the garden. As a result we discussed the need for an Advertising Campaign, selling the wonders of a 'my organisation' mission in CAR. So far, this has only taken the form of a number of Facebook posts complete with Hippo pictures, but we're still working on it...
I'm leaving and my Construction babies that I dreamed into reality are unfortunately not yet finished... There is also no replacement for me, so I wrote a monster handover report to try to ensure that the guy who will have follow up (in addition to his normal responsibilities) will have as much help as possible in figuring things out. I also left behind a fantastic assistant, a Central African civil engineer, full of enthusiasm and intelligence who'll keep the ship running day-to-day.
Our new Intensive Care Unit fell further and further behind due to our contractor having 'unexpected difficulties' and not communicating any of them. As a result the overcrowding of patients in the current ICU will continue until probably mid-August. My parting gesture was a 2.5 hr negotiation with the contractor in the capital to agree on a financial settlement where we would pay extra for some of the changes we made and some of the errors they made, but still applying all of the Late Penalties (Liquidated damages) fro them being, well, late. I realised that I've never really done this kind of 'business battling' before and I'm certainly not particularly 'tough'. I tried to see things from their perspective and be as pragmatic as possible, so the work just gets finished - but they weren't budging and hence a 2.5 hr meeting entailed... 2 minutes before leaving the office as I was walking out of the room they agreed to meet our offer 1/5 of the way and something got signed. A good result as I was worried to dump this all on my overburdened successor.
They did start on the roof before I left though, which is exciting. See photo.
I realised this is reading less like a account of a humanitarian and more like a business report. Sorry. I'll continue anyway.
Our new TB department went a lot more positively. Since I designed the whole thing I feel a lot more pride in it and was sad that I didn't get to see it totally finished. Most of the roof was on before I left and I got some feelings of pride and achievement anyway. see photo
Enjoy I really enjoyed this assignment for a for a few reasons. Despite a few horrors, my colleagues were generally full of smiles, support and fun. Aside from this and the CAR advertising campaign content mentioned above, I really enjoyed being an Engineer. And not just an engineer. A planner, designer, construction manager and client. I finally felt like I actually brought some skills to 'my organisation' that are rare within the organisation and, what's more, for big projects such as these, really valuable. I reminded myself that it I did study this stuff for 4 years and then work in it for a further 4 years and so it makes sense that I should be a bit more useful doing this than being the standard jack-of-all-trades logistician. Probably the most important is that, where I used to feel very unmotivated working for Arup in London on our skyscraping, architectural wonders, I now felt incredibly enthused and feel more of a 'builder' than ever before. I find myself looking a timber roof connections and pulling out my measuring tape wherever I go, pondering the advantages of metal roof sheeting over tiles and looking for ventilation openings.
So what's next? For the first time, I'm finishing a mission but already excited about going and building more 'Public Health Infrastructure' for 'my organisation' in, well anywhere. I learned a lot and feel there's so much more I want to learn and with each project and context I will become a wiser Bob-the-Builder. But wait... I mentioned something last time about a Masters course...
With my New Direction in mind, my decision to go ahead with a Public Health masters took on a new flavour. The spin: To better understand the public health of populations, what helps and what doesn't to be a better Planner / Designer / Builder of Public Health Infrastructure - most probably medical structures, but could also be water and sanitation or shelter projects. It will also hopefully open up other ideas and possibilities and build up a set of skills that could take me in a number of other directions in the humanitarian circus.
With this plan in mind I applied to 'my organisation' for some funding to help me pay for a year of study in the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine. Surprisingly, they seemed to think it was a good idea and said yes!!!
Thus, from mid-Sept I'll be a Liverpudlian (spelling?) for a year. The course in International Public Health with Humanitarian Assistance, it has a few links with 'my organisation' and I'm told is very intense with a lot of contact / class time. I'm excited to think, discuss and ask lots of questions!! I'm excited to be an independent adult again, with my own place, cooking my own meals and getting to know the north of England in a context other than that of a 16 year old. I'm also excited to spend time with my family (Manchester is only 40 mins away) and get to know my nieces!!
After the course I've agreed to another 2 years in the field with 'my organisation' to 'pay off the debt' which, at the moment, suits me fine. There's no time limit on how quickly I need to do this, so that also gives me the flexibility to try something different also. Grand!
Nice goodbyes My last weeks were a little tiring due to all the gap-filling, but I also realised how sad I was to leave. Despite a shaky start with a dragon of a Project Coordinator (PC) who didn't like me, things eventually became really lovely. We had a PC for a month, who despite the fatigue and holes in the team, delegated a lot and really empowered and brought us together. She was also very encouraging to me and re-built a lot of my shattered confidence in myself and my place in 'my organisation', "you are not standard 'my organisation', but to have diversity in our leaders is important for the organisation". Nice. We also had a visit from the 'my organisation' USA president, an anaesthetist and generally funky middle-aged lady who also gave me a nice boost as I left, "you are 'my organisation' in the next 20 years".
Other colleagues said other encouraging words, bought me a t-shirt with Hippos Sans Frontieres drawn on it (photo) and my assistant had local 'pyjama' costumes made me and Elena (photo).
With these happy parting words, acts, thoughts and feelings I flew the first of what will be 6 different airplanes over a 6 day period to get me back home to Manchester on Friday (tomorrow - 31 July) night.
I have an action packed schedule of silent meditation for 2 weeks then a wedding, Italian visit, France long weekend and then going back to school!!
Write back and let's meet soon!!
Chad - 2014
All Chad photos - https://plus.google.com/photos/118445038205507021514/albums/6097867009726434065?authkey=CMiPlOad_qeV9wE
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I'm heading out tomorrow morn back to the beautiful biblical-looking desert plains and little towns dotted around the Chad - Sudan (Darfur) - Central African Republic border.
I'll be with 'our organisation' again, doing the Engineering / Technical Logistics for our project that provides medical support to the refugee populations who have fled some inter-tribal conflict over Darfur, Sudan. Around 20,000 of them are situated in the Abgadam refugee camp when the UN party is in full swing and a few other NGOs like 'our organisation' pitching in too.
I think I'm going to be more or less at coordinates: 11.05644, 22.65587 (google map). If it isn't quite right you get the idea at least.
Hearing from you all while I'm away can be a huge comfort, so please send me a hello now and then.
Lots of happiness to you all for 2014!
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I am now hanging with Chad and what a swell fella he is too.
I'm leaving the capital (N'djamena) tomorrow morning and so this'll be the last email from this address for a few months.
Be well and happy!
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Turns out that the UN base down the road has a satellite dish the size of a house that allows me to have internet while sitting in our quaint bamboo office. Wonderful!
I've been here a few weeks now and all is zooming along splendidly. I'm based in the town of Birnhal (Bir = well, Nhal = Bees). I have as yet seen neither well nor bee in this sandy little village / town. This small town is pretty much dead every day except Saturday - market day. I have frequented the following local establishments:
- Local 'bar' - 'Café Birnhal', a collection of straw huts, some of which contain drinks. I didn't like.
- 2 parties at the UNHCR compound (1 because the boss was in town and another for xmas / new year). I didn't like.
- Little tea shack 'down-town'. Giggling tea girls serve amazing sweet ginger and hibuscus tea and I practce my arabic on anyone who will listen. I like very much
I am responsible for 30 or so staff (I'm still trying to figure it out) who are split between our Birnhal Base and Abgadam clinic. We Loggies are here to support and facilitate our medical operations which up to now are a clinic in the camp. Here we provide In-patient, Out-patient, Maternity and Nutrition facilities for the camp's 20,000 residents and anyone else that can make it (currently about 1/2 and 1/2). Soon we hope to start doing some mobile clinics and being a bit more mobile now that the dry season is upon us.
My guys and me are responsible for: Transport, Supply, Construction, Energy, Communications and IT. We also have some big WaSH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) actvities in the camp that are run by a seperate team. 'our organisation' helps provide the 200,000 ltrs of water a day for the camp population and in the past constructed a lot of the latrines now in use.
We were actually meant to have handed over all of our medical and Water activities by now to other NGOs who are here, but they weren't in a position to take our all we're doing so we are now here till the end of March... at which point we'll evaluate again.
At the moment I'm trying to get to know everyone in my team and have lots of meeings to understand who is who, what is in place and what I need to focus my efforts. Feeling busy, but have lots of energy so it feels fun.
Our base is enormous. We have enough space for ultimate frisbee and a small number of national staff are getting keen and the games are beginning. In our little expat (foreigner) part of the base I have a nice little bamboo / straw hut thing with everything I need including just enough space for 5am Tai Chi. We are currently 6 expats - 1 me, 1 sweed, 1 germanian, 1 italy-an, 1 burundian & 1 french-canadan. We are a so solid crew with 3 hammocks.
There are a number of other NGOs / Charities in town including: UN High Commision for Refugees (HCR), World Food Programme (WFP), Chad Red Cross, Jesuit Refugee Services, World Lutheran Federation, Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, Inter SOS and ADES (Association pour le Développement Economique et Social), the latter of which is Chadian org supported by the government and who we work with both medically and with the water stuff and who we're trying to hand everything over to... 'our organisation' is the only NGO with whiteys so we stick out quite a lot when we wander around town.
Look at the map below to see our Clinic in Abgadam camp (A) and our Base (B). The map is at least 8 months out of date because in A you would see 1000s of little white dots (UNHCR plastic sheeting used to waterproof the refugees little straw huts) and in B you would see some enormous rectangular shapes with smaller rectangular dots within (NGO bases with large tents, shipping containers or plastic sheeting roofed thatched dwellings). map
I haven't been ill yet!
That'll do for now.
Asalaam Aleikum ashabi!
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Just a short one to say hi and share a few highlights of the last week
- Camels and other beasts - Camels are in-season!! There are herds of them on the road, they are delivering things to our base and I can only hope that they are not appearing in the meat pots that my colleagues are eating. We also had a delivery of fuel drums on a horse drawn carriage - although classy and funny, I did feel sorry for the poor tortured animal with its mangey fur and tied up feet... I find it a little difficult to understand how the strong humanitarian motivation that brought us here can be cut so short and so cleanly at the line between humans and other animals - that an indifferent, calous, careless or even comedic attitude towards the suffering, torture and killing of animals can co-exist with this noble motivation to help those refugies or other suffering populations confuses me. What do I say about this? What do I do about this?
- Food - I'm eating mostly vegan at the moment (bit of chocolate is the only exception) and together with my daily dose of spirilina I'm feeling very healthy and whole. All of the local population eats a stodgey ball of pure carbohydrate made from millet floor. Our funky cook Hawa knows all too well that Kawajat (Kawaji - singular) would never touch such authentic delicacies so I eat most days, rice or couscous, local beans and peanuts and some vege thing (maybe from a tin, maybe local). We also have guava (yum!) and watermelon locally.
- Routine - I am currently waking at 5h00 with the first rays of dawn, doing some Tai chi and meditation and feeling righteous and fresh (currently around 12 deg C in the morning); 6h30 BBC world service then break-fast, 7h00 who, where and what meeting (mingled with breakfast) with other expats and then try to get all the cars out of the base and off to camp by 7h30. I'm spending maybe 1 or 2 days a week in the clinic / camp and the rest mincing around the base. Sometimes we play a little frisbee before it gets dark (17h30) and I plan on doing a little Arabic-English exchange with those colleagues who speak both Chadian and Sudanese Arabic. Unfortunately, most of what I have been learning over the past 2 months is barely understood in Chad, whose dialect is 'un peu bizarre quoi', but our Sudanese refugee guards in the clinic make much better conversation partners.
- UN Magic Bus - Although 'our organisation' doesn't make use of this hiliarious form or NGO public truck-transport I enjoy seeing it pass everytime reminding me of some kind of maximum security prison referral vehicle and so took a photo
- Squirrel - I looked in the mirror (a very small one) for the first time a few days ago and remarked that I appear to have a red squirrel attached to my face. Good. Maybe some squirrel photos next time...
Would love to hear how you're all doing. Write to me!
Lots of warmth and sandy smiles!
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Yesterday evening I had one of the most physically pleasurable experiences since my arrival in Chad over a month ago...
Here one bathes oneself with the quaint method of the 'bucket shower'. This technique is natural, simple and efficient. Concepts that please me very much. It involves
- filling a bucket with water (amazing how little one needs, I'm now down to about 2 litres)
- taking it to the shower cubicle (3 walls made of wooden posts and plastic sheeting and open to the stars)
- dipping a stylish plastic cup into the bucket and pouring it over one's head and body to wet, then soap then rinse
- This often happens for me at about 8pm and is a bit of a cold shock to the system. Morning showers are so cold that they border on masochism.
Now the special treat...
There are a number of large, black water containers (looking suspiciously like dustbins) around that, due to their colour absorb lots of lovely sunny energy during the day. If one times it just right (around 6pm), the water from this receptical provides one (me yesterday) with the delightful experience of a HOT shower. It felt like being cuddled and wrapped in a soft comforting blanket from above. I could almost taste its warm goodness. Such are the luxuries of life here. It made me fizz and glow with delight all evening afterwards.
I have even heard legend, from others who have lived to tell the tale, that if one is to take a midday shower - the torrent, once unleashed upon the participant practically scolds the poor blighter! Would I ever dare such a thing....
I'm constrantly striving to be efficient, wise, compassionate and sustainable in each moment of my day, from the value of standing on my head every morning, to the managment of my to-do list; trying to approach everything with calm, joy and gratitude at being within this amazing experience.
Please write back and tell how you are and what's going on in your life. Hearing from friends means a lot more to me here...
Follow link to see photo of me with a squirrel on my face.
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A few weeks ago I took my first taste of the that joyous institution reserved only for such hardened western heroes such as overseas military personnel or humanitarian workers. This is the R and R!
NOTE - A reference was made to this in the film Avatar... and I quote - " If there is a Hell, you might wanna go there for some R & R after a tour on Pandora." Indeed.
The idea is that we work so hard and under such stressful, foreign environments that we are in need of some Rest and Relaxation, some time away from the field so that we can last the entirety of our contracts without burning out. Despite my mocking tone, something to stop expats burning out and becoming dis-functional (or even distructive as happened last year) is a good idea. I suppose it's more the idea the ridiculous relative level of luxury and resources that this involves when one compares what is available to national staff, local staff or the local population. And what does it involve...
- THURSDAY - Stress myself out trying to finish and hand-over everything necessary for while I am absent
- FRIDAY - Spend half a day driving and then flying on the UN HAS (humanitarian air service) from Bir Nhal where we live to the capital N'Djamena.
- SATURDAY - SUNDAY - I then spent the weekend in the lovely expat house (maison mars - photo) chatting with a colleague also on R&R, reading, splashing in our little pool and eating such foods as avocado and french-ish style baguettes that impossible to get in the field. Lovely!
- I also was persuaded to go to the Novotel hotel (the ONLY thing to do in N'Djamena) an experience, which, as expected left me feeling pretty uncomfortable. It was like a palm encrusted little white haven - reserved for the western aid workers, diplomats or other foreigners who live in the capital. Although there is a need to pamper oneself sometimes and although the pool was fun - photo, the lunch very tasty, the tanning half-naked European bodies distracting - the dissonance between the streets outside the hotel, and more so, my home in the field from whence I had come made it difficult for me to enjoy. Maybe I just need to learn to be an expat. Maybe I need to just avoid such places.
- MONDAY - Another half-day of travelling back to the bush and home sweet home in my little hut.
Unfortunately, it took me a week to recover from this... the following week was the most stressful to date since arrival as I tried to catch-up, mop up and restore order to all that I had missed.
2 weeks have now passed and I think I'm back on balance again - In fact I'm not waking up feeling anxious anymore - with my 'to do' list burning in my forehead. Still not sure if it would have been better to just take saturday and sunday off and hide away in the hammock...
There's lots of comings and going still in the project. New expats in and other out. New refugee movements from Sudan and C.A.R., measles outbreaks all over the country and the possible forced relocation of all the refugees in the Ab Gadam camp where we work to a more convenient and safer one further north (those that are going voluntarily have already started to be trucked out - photo). We were meant to close the project down in a month's time and I, being part of the CERU (Chad Emergency Response Unit) would flitter off to some emergency somewhere else in the country. Now I'm not so sure where I'll be in the coming months.
I am here to serve (the population, my medical colleagues, the organisation) and as long as I keep this in mind I'll be happy wherever and whatever I end up doing for the next 7 months.
Please write back. Your day-to-day activities are actually really fun and comforting to read here.
Oh and the squirrel on my face ran away whilst I was in NDJ.
2 March 2014
Chad - Magic, Goats and Egg shells - Part 6
This time, instead of writing about expat living or camels, I want to tell y'all a little bit about what's happening here and what we're doing.
Let me start by saying that all the 'scary' stuff is going on over the border in Sudan, not here in Chad. We just get to (try to) help those fleeing from it.
Around a year ago, 2 tribes over the border in Darfur started fighting. Regional borders had been moved, land rights were disrupted, nomad living and cattle grazing were thus affected, shifts in ownership and power led to tensions between formerly wealthy tribe (Salamat) with it's less wealthy underdog neighbour (Misseriya). The underdog Misseriya, assisted (and fueled?) by the Gov of Sudan attacked the Salamat caused 10s of thousands to flee over the border to Chad. It should be noted that these are both Arab tribes, who were friends in the past and actually both were part of the Janjaweed (Arabs on horseback) that caused so much atrocities around 10 years ago.
Over the past year peace talks have been held, quiet seems to fall and then, as happened just under 2 weeks ago, the negotiations suddenly fall apart and minor incidents of cattle stealing and individual eye-for-eye killings quickly escalate to what can only be described as war. One group against another, for reasons I don't claim to understand.
Civilians and not civilians
So here come another 10 or 20 thousand people (all Salamat), many women and children. Many with just the clothes on their backs. To the border town of Um Dukhun about 15 miles NE of us. Everyone was scattered about the outskirts of the town sleeping under trees, with little or no food or water and maybe a mat to lie on if they were lucky to grab it in time.
In comes the International humanitarians ('our organisation', UNHCR and all its 'partner' organisations - those that it funds - Chad Red Cross, HIAS, ADES and the Chad Gov. representative CNARR). Now, as I mentioned last time, UNHCR and the gov are in the process of trying to truck ALL of the refugees (from our local Ab Gadam camp and any newcomers) north to a camp that will both be easier to access and manage (especially in the rainy season) but also will help keep the security in border area calm... This camp, Kerfi, is some 200 km away however, a long, long way from home for the refugees.
Those that have fled are suffering. They have been chased from their homes and have lost perhaps all their belongings and maybe also their cattle (= livelihood, capital, way of life). What's more this were group is used to be the one's in charge, the owners, the employers, the wealthy, the powerful. The men are regrouping, re-arming and planning counter-attacks. Although a mixed force (1/2 & 1/2 Sudanese / Chadian) secures the border the presecene of this large angry group risks (further) destabilizing the whole border area - something the Chadian (and I would assume the Sudanese) Government do not want.
During this time, we are doing a few thing in the area. One is beefing up the health centre, whose case load has now tripled, with more staff each day. Another is to try to rehabilitate an old Oxfam water tank and distribution system to provide water to both the newcomers and local residents (who as hosts begin to have their own resources strained). The last is to do a rapid quick-fire measles vaccination as large dense groups of vulnerable people are very susceptible to outbreaks in these environments (especially when it there are epidemics elsewhere in Chad already). This last intervention is very much a logistical operation, so last week I found myself running around trying get as much information and materials together as possible to start vaccinating - as quickly as possible.
The people know all refugees are now being shipped north and with ever increasing rhetoric from the Chad Gov of forced relocation, the new arrivals - who want to stay close to home, to their cattle, to possibilities of returning - start playing games. Despite some signing up for transfer, they remain spread-out, in small groups. This is good news for epidemic risk, but bad news for anyone trying to count, track and put people in trucks.
We turn up last Wednesday for a final evaluation of the area to find that, in fact, everyone has gone. Ping! Magic!
Not really, rumours of population movements north (mostly trying to cross back into Sudan) had been coming in for a few days and so this did not come as a huge surprise. The need for 'our organisation' interventions in town were now gone, though the situation is a fragile one that may break again very soon.
Back to camp
Back in our local Ab Gadam camp a few days ago we hear of some new comers arriving so I go to see hear their stories and see if there are any sick in need of immediate care. A few hundred people of the disappearing refugees had come to the camp but had been refused the Gov security guys (who told me off when I got back with some stupid comment about them being rebels and the sick being only good for dying - idiot). Again, this is, however, understandable as they want to send everyone to the new Kerfi camp in the paradise lands up north and they also fear that these new arrivals will contain armed elements or potential combatants and NO ONE wants to host a rebel group in their refugee camp do they.
All these refusing and disappearing refugees is making the gov of Chad and UNHCR get very frustrated and look a little silly. They are also trying to desperately find scapegoats and at the moment 'our organisation' is it! We like to be close to the populations we work with. We have Community Health Workers (CHWs) who go out and gather health (and other) information from the community and we are not in the business of moving people here, there or anywhere. Just treating their sick and keep an eye on things to make sure human rights aren't been trampled on. When we tell them that our CHWs have informed us that people are leaving cause they're scared of being shipped off to Kerfi, they start saying that 'our organisation' is telling the population not to go to Kerfi. Oh silly billy's - don't they listen!?
So, 'our organisation' now has to tread carefully to not piss off the authorities or UNHCR. We are also trying to hand over and get out of Ab Gadam in the next few weeks and hand over to a Chadian organisation ADES - who are just finishing the most gorgeous little bush hospital which makes our little bamboo shack clinic look like - well - a shack. Good.
After that we just need to send everyone home, shut down our base and make sure our staff don't steal everything. I'm currently making lots of lists to deal with this. After that I'll pop over to Cameroon for an equatorial holiday and then come back to... who knows what. If all hell breaks loose again we may end up just staying in the area. Who knows.
I think that'll do for now.
Oh and I turned 31 last week, which I tried to ignore. Funny things Birthdays. Not so magical as when I was 4. Also I don't like being a prime number very much... does saying that make me a nerd? Good.
Oh and if anyone ever wants to send me anything (which happened once and I was so excited I nearly wee-ed in my pants - imagine - getting a letter in the middle of the desert - nuts!!) - Please send and it will find me...
13 Mar 2014
Chad - Closing time - Part 7
We are closing down this thing!
Something that has been planned since Sept but never, for various reasons, been able to become a reality is 'our organisation's departure and handover of medical services in the Ab Gadam refugee camp. In the last week this has begun to become and reality and if all goes to plan we'll be out of here in 10 days.
We are leaving for a number of reasons:
- There are other NGOs present who can do what we are doing & are supported by the UN
- The numbers in the camp go up and down but are generally reducing
- The population is well looked after in terms of food, shelter, water and other needs
- Its very difficult for us to stay here during the rains (starting June) - no way to get in or out - and so we'd rather get out early
- We have another project (in Tissi where I was last year) that will stay in the area to take care of any big needs and will even visit the camp to help out when needed
Closing down is known to be a very challenging period, but I have personally been enjoying it very much. It can cause problems for the population that don't want us to leave, for staff who don't want to lose their jobs and various political and logistical difficulties to handover and shut down without leaving a big hole in care and without things being stolen.
I have been making lots of big lists and are now trucking anything and everything that someone isn't in the process of using out of the hospital and base by car, truck or, as will be case on Saturday, by horse drawn cart. It feels like we're handling things well with ADES our handover partner, with the staff and with the keep all the logistics under control.
Plan is that we fly out on 25 Mar to the capital N'Djamena and then I go out on holiday a few days later on the 30 Mar to Cameroon to mooch around for 2 weeks. After I return I'm still not sure where I'll be going. Maybe helping out with the new camps for CAR refugees in the South or SE. I'll keep y'all posted.
It has also gone from
- hot in the day and cool at night (nice!) to...
- very hot in the day - max 47 degs (which my body still seems pretty comfortable with - feels like living in a sauna) to hot at night - min of 31 deg (which my body does not seem very comfortable with - maybe something to do with lack of temp control as the body shuts down to sleep). My medical friends have offered no explanation.
- See photo for proof!
Look forward to hearing from you!
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I left Chad, went away and now am back in Chad again.
My holiday was a brief 10 days in the lush sweaty green land of Cameroon. I went alone but was hosted all along the way by friends of one of my colleagues who used to live there a few years ago.
I'm not feeling hugely verbose today so here are some highlights and then a link to some photos at the end. Enjoy
Douala - Commercial capital, steaming and bustling. I stayed with Marcel who hosted me very kindly in his little shack in the outskirts of the city. Very 'real', but wasn't exactly what I needed in that moment. After being wizzed around on the back of his motorbike for 24 hrs I escaped to the coast
Limbe - A beautiful little town nestled in cove, with traditional wooden fishing boats lining the shore, tropical hills bubbling back inland behind and the bizarre sight of 5 gigantic oil rigs sitting just out into the sea. Most of Cameroon is French speaking, but this SW region (along with another region in the NW) were formally part of Nigeria and are English speaking. They have very fertile soil from the volcanic mountain looming in the background and of course the huge revenues from the SONARA oil company. Many in the area want Independence and Cameroon, not surprisingly, does not.
I spent a lot of time in the room in the house owned by Mr and Mrs Dinga, where I split my time between meditating, eating tasty local dishes they cooked for me and watching a mixture of Iranian state News (often the only news available) and a hilarious English-dubbed Filipino soap opera that they were enthralled with.
I spent a day exploring some of the beaches along of the coast, splashed a little in the sea, got horribly burned and saw some whiteys. Didn't see many (if any come to think of it), young dirty backpacker types (like me) and it seems that a lot of the foreign tourists were eastern European and more middle aged. There were also a lot of Cameroon tourists (speaking French). I didn't speak to either.
On my last day I trekked up the hill behind the house with papa Dinga and thrashed through lots of bushes to encircle a gigantic Boma tree. VERY impressive. Got some good views and found lots of mangos all over the place.
Buea Mountain - I then headed north a little to Climb the mighty Mount Cameroon. A volcano (last erupted 2003) towering over the University town of Buea (Boy-a). I was accompanied by Amos, my porter / guide who once a year runs up the 4090m (12000 ft) beast in just 5 hours. This made me feel less guilty about the fact that he carried all our food and my tent, mat and sleeping bag. I certainly suffered a lot more than him and he got paid for it. He spoke not at all and gave me the opportunity to feel like I was walking alone and get into a nice meditative zone while walking.
Our 3 day trek took us up through rainforest then bare grassy slopes springing for black volcanic rock. Tremendous winds blew clouds passed, above, below and through us giving some amazing 'heaven' like vistas as well as deep dark fog. Once over the summit we headed down the other side through volcanic plains with a mixture of ash, rock and scrub bushes. We passed a few craters (with a faint sulfurous smell still lingering) and skidded and plodded our way back to the forest. On the last day we encircled the mountain, mainly within the forests and only in the last hour were we caught in an almighty downpour in which my advanced gore-tex lined hiking shoes became flooded and then proceeded to hold the water inside, refusing to let it escape, leaving me with the wonderful sensation of walking in water balloons.
I spent my last day in Buea, hobbling about of legs that had turned to stone and being shown around by another friend of a friend and visited the university and met a prominent professor who did his phD in Salford many years ago and wanted to meet to ask how the Queen was doing.
Back to Chad - I'm not back in Chad and it feels like home. A lot of my team members had just got back from the field (due to an abruptly cancelled vaccination campaign) and it feels good to be back. It looks like I'll be sticking with the CERU team (Chad Emergency Response Unit), which we need to kind of re-grow from scratch since its been so dispersed this last year. Work starts tomorrow!!!
Photos here - https://plus.google.com/photos/118445038205507021514/albums/6001822798081012881?authkey=CNKU1JiOvcHzaQ
As always, I'd love to hear back from you all, even just a few words mean a lot.
Joy to the world and everyone in it!
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I am in Das Captial, N'Djamena (can ya say it, can ya??) acting in the role I was originally destined for, the Logistics Team Leader (LTL) of the Chad Emergency Response Unit (CERU).
At present we are not Responding. We are Preparing. Preparing for Emergencies. Emergency Preparedness. E-Prep. Voila.
But what are we preparing for you may ask....
Chad despite being pretty calm nowadays has a large number of 'dynamic' neighbours. Libya to the N, Darfur to the E, CAR to the S and Nigeria and Mali to the W. Being within the Sahel region, Chad also suffers from a 'hunger gap' each year with Malnutrition rates rising above threshold levels. Finally, due to its tropical climate, poor public health infrastructure (water, sanitation, health care) and general lack of resources and markets - epidemics like to run riot every few years amongst the population.
We have prepared 7 scenarios that our little team (3 expats, 3 National Staff and 4 drivers) can respond to. These are:
- Measles, Meningitis and Yellow Epidemics (usually intervene with vaccination and treating the sick),
- Cholera epidemic (chlorinate the water, health information & treat the sick),
- Malnutrition (feed the hungry kiddies),
- War Wounded (do what we can and then send them on to somewhere that can sew them up),
- Population Displacement (potentially... set up a clinic, water and sanitation, household items distribution)
This is what my medic and project coordinator colleagues are currently doing a lot of. I would love to also be able to mince around at meetings, at least to see what they're like and be on the front-line for receiving of data that will decide when and where and how we'll intervene. Alas, this is not my place, though they usually keep me filled in...
This is for the Loggies. I make many lists of equipment and supplies that we need in each car and to go out of explore trips (up to a week). I'm also trying to recruit more people to create an HR Pool of folk that we can call on when in need. After that's all ready we may try to run a few simulations to see what we forgot. In theory, we should be able to go out on an assessment within 24 hrs of receiving reports of any of the 7 scenarios above.
After an assessment, if we feel that our help is needed, we have authorisation, there is insufficient capacity from the government or others NGOs to act and the security allows we will go in with our slightly beefed up team (HR pool!) and start doing our thing. If it looks like we will be needed for more than 8 weeks we'll open up a whole new project, recruit new staff, order lots of new equipment and gradually withdraw to start all over again.
Our last objective is to look, listen and report. By making assessments, taking testimonies and just being present we are able to speak out from our direct observations and data to raise awareness of certain issues to effect change locally, nationally or internationally; bilaterally, multilaterally or through the media.
Soooooooo, what's on the table?
The hunger gap is just starting and from the health surveillance figures this week we may go to the East or the Centre of the country to investigate some hots spots. The refugees / returnees / scared people are still coming over the S border from CAR and despite being told that 'our organisation' France (we are 'our organisation' Hollande) is handling everything fine we still may go and see if they need a hand. We may move out at the end of the week or early next week. Just to have a look ya know. Nothin' serious or nothin...
Life is luxurious here in the capital. We have
- a little mossy swimming pool (that I swim in daily - always underwater - much more fun),
- very tasty food cooked for us (including a lot of avocado recently),
- air conditioning (which I try to avoid when possible - see photo of my luxurious room with recently acquired plants and tibetan colourful flags),
- expensive expat style restaurants (though i much prefer the little avocado sandwich stalls in the car pack next to the post office with all the potted plants, trees and lizards around it - see photo of my colleague and his cute kids eating there) and finally
- some really great 'cultural' events that were suprising and fun. These include:
- Normandine Cinema - a vast 400 seater single screen sponsored by the EU with a beautiful courtyard complete with central mango tree. I went to see Noah there dubbed in french on Saturday. Loved the rock transformers in it. Known as Nephilim or Giants in my Kindle bible.
- Hip hop dance off - This was held at the Institute Francaise and could have been, well, in France. Lots of young body popper break-dancers and Chadian Rap-Rappers, ripping it up and getting down all with good old fashioned hip-hop courtesies. Wonderful!
Well, I think that's all I have to say for now.
Oh, I'm going to Zanzibar / Tanzania for fish and mountain spotting at the start of June. After all these years I'm finally going to buy and own my own snorkel. Hurrah!!!
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Seems that them kids are way too skinny.... we're going in for a better look
The Sahel strip runs across Central Africa & passes right through the middle of Chad (picture). This area has had problems with drought and food security since the 60s and each year there is a period where last harvest's food supplies have started to run out and the rains and the next harvest are still far away... This 'Hunger Gap' typically lasts about 6 months but in very bad years as long as 10 months.
This is a chronic, re-occuring problem and I'm sure there are many organisations who are also working with the government or communities on the deeper, developmental causes and solutions to this - something that although is very important is not 'our organisation's focus.
Our concern is the immediate needs - to save lives and reduce suffering NOW. For this UNICEF are working with the Government to provide 'Plumpy Nut' - basically peanut butter in a sachet - and other support to Health Centres in the affected areas to deal with the inevitable malnutrition. Despite this, the figures are still worrying - UNICEF says it's given the plumpy nut, health centres say they haven't received - Who is lying? Where are the leaks? Is the plumpy nut appearing on the local market? Even where there are supplies why are the malnutrition rates so high? Are the figures to be trusted? Do parents not know to seek help? Are they unable to visit the health centres due to distance, an inability to leave their families and work or for other reasons?
These questions cannot be properly answered from meetings held in the capital and so we are going in to do an assessment this coming week. There are a number of areas with worrying statistics but we have picked one called Bokoro; only 4 hours drive from N'Djamena the capital and somewhere that we have experience in as we actually had a malnutrition intervention there in 2012. The medics have planned the survey, who, how and where we'll visit, the Project Coordinator (PC) has investigated the security situation & orchestrated plans and permissions and I've organised for cars (11!!), accommodation, communication, route information and supplies to keep us going for the week we'll be there.
We have set our intervention threshold at 5% Severe Acute Malnutrition (SAM) of kids under 5 yrs. SAM kids look like their arms are made of sticks, with wasted bodies way out of proportion to their heads. We've all seen famine images on the news and these children do look somewhat inhuman - phantom-like almost - and so quiet, so weak. However, with a good treatment program and care in place - they can gain weight within a few weeks and start to smile and become 'alive' again.
This threshold means that if we go and the results of our assessment show that the numbers are above 5% then we will act. Almost certainly we will open a program and directly intervene, but some advocacy may also be used to encourage others to provide longer term support and solutions.
Last night some key International Staff left and in the next few weeks there will be an almost 100% turn-over of our Coordination team. Tricky timing. Hopefully fresh energy and outlook will do us all well. There was a very loud, late party at our house last night and I was in early today to do the final preparations the first 'reconnaissance' team that went out this morning to prepare the ground for the rest of us (lots of introductions and meetings with local officials in Bokoro). I'm now feeling a bit frazzled... Time to leave the office and head back to our little high-security fenced paradise house with tasty left-overs and algae filled pool.
Oh, I have to add my fascination and amazement at the re-discovery of swimming goggles. A colleague gave me her old leaking pair and my daily evening dive in our little pool to cool off before meditating has become a mini Nature Documentary including the wonders of sights of 'the bottom of the pool', 'my hands underwater', 'the algae on the walls' and the most amazing of all 'looking up at the moon and sky from just under the surface' - like looking into another world. Grrrrrrrreat!
Right Write back. Right!
8 June 2014
Chad - Let's get Plumpy! - Part 11
It's been a little while since I last wrote. Mainly because I've been too stressed and busy. Also, we don't have internet here, so sorry if you wrote and I didn't reply. Please send anything to my 'our organisation' field address (with attachments, etc. please as we're on satellite link).
I'm now writing this from Bokoro where, in the last week, we have re-established an emergency nutritional intervention that 'our organisation' support 2 years ago, another NGO, Merlin, supported last year and now the Ministry of Health (MoH) has failed to implement. If you want to google map us - our base is here: N12.37874 E17.05195 and Hospital is here: N12.37861 E17.06021 (try removing the N and E and putting a comma between them if it doesn't work).
We got our first transfers into the Therapeutic Nutrition Centre tucked into the corner of the MoH Bokoro hospital yesterday and expect more to start pouring in each day. Here we'll hook them up to oxygen and whatever drugs are needed to stabilize them and then give them Therapeutic milk and close supervision until they gain enough weight to be discharged and continue with the Ambulatory feeding program.
The latter program is planned to be run in 10 Ambulatory Nutrition Centre sites around the District, which by the end of next week should all be operational. We'll visit each one once or twice a week to give out Plumpy Nut to skinny kids to take home and bring back any to the Hospital if they are severely malnourished.
Et voila. That's more or less why we're here and what we're doing. My role is pretty wide, covering all of the Technical and Supply Logistics as well as the Admin and Finance parts. The first week was pretty manic and I expect this to continue for the coming weeks as the we try to get all the sites up and running, essential repairs and constructions done, supplies delivered, people paid and advertising, testing, interviewing & recruiting an entire staff of 16 different positions. When the rains start, likely to be in the coming month, we'll also have to deal with wadis (seasonal rivers) and mud baths blocking our routes and making it difficult to move...
Despite some intense debilitating anxiety for a few weeks before leaving (brought on mainly by a very driven, micro-managing boss with very high standards), I'm now really loving it. Things are chaotic, but we are moving, we are getting things in place and we are treating malnourished kiddies! I have a good team (except the Admin guy who got sent back to the capital sick - so now I'm doing his job too) and am enjoying the adrenaline of doing lots of things at once. I'm working very long days (6am to 10pm), but am managing the heat well, am eating well and sleeping more or less enough to keep going.
My holiday to Zanzibar was cancelled in the end as I needed to be here to set-up, but on 28 June I'm flying back to Manchester for a 12 day sojourn which will be a great way to unwind and put things in perspective before heading back for a final 2 months - end of contract mid-Sept. Unless plans change... always possible... We'll see.
Write back and hopefully see some of you in 3 weeks!!
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Oh dear. I seem have have not followed up on my overly long email for the last 5 months. Sorry.
I STARTED TO WRITE THIS EMAIL
Back in the delightful Chad capital of Ndjamena having sadly left the Bokoro malnutrition project and am now preparing to be thoroughly debriefed in Berlin before leaving tomorrow night.
WHAT AND WHEN AND WHAT AND WHAT!
I've now spend the last 5 months in the Bokoro with a few weekend breaks and holidays thrown in and I'm now ready to leave.
We ended up opening, basically, the same project that 'our organisation' had run in 2010 and 2012 because there is, in fact, a need every year and the Ministry of Health with UNICEF support don't seem capable of running a malnutrition program.
We set up weekly Ambulatory Feeding clinics in 10 sites around the district for the severely malnourished kids and an Intensive Feeding centre for those with added complications. The estimations were that we'd treat around 5000 in the outreach clinics and of these 750 in the hospital. Of those 750 at least, it is reasonably clear that around 90% would have died if we had not transported and treated them. Good.
There are of course a million questions as to what ELSE we could be doing or even what HARM our presence and repeated interventions cause. It seems that often there is enough food available either in the household or the community, but the children are still malnourished... possible reasons:
- The kids drink dirty water and have so much diarrhea that they're losing most of what they take in
- The kids are sick with other diseases (malaria, measles, other)
- The parents go to the fields all day having given just a cup of tea (or not even that) to their 1 yr old baby for breakfast. The baby, left with a 5 yr old older sibling all day, will cry and cry and by evening the baby is so tired that it refuses to eat
- The hierarchy within the nomadic / muslim communities with regards to eating means that daddy eats first and then the boys and the women and smaller kids will just get the remains, maybe just the water that the food water cooked in
- In addition the nomadic / muslim communities in general is said to be a little liasser faire with regards to their kids and so when problems do arise a 'inshallah' attitude is taken meaning that treatment may often not be sought early (or at all)
- Food is available in the market, but in case of poor harvest or inability to cultivate, the lack of education and / or lack of income generating opportunities mean that many people aren't capable of buying anything.
In addition to all this, is the fact that we return every few years and spend a lot money meaning that the ministry of health's motivation to take on the responsibility themselves is basically extinguished?
So what could we be doing? More education? Water and sanitation work? just give them money? Teach better cultivation methods? Take a harder line on where our responsibilities stop and where the ministry starts?
Within the project we had some logistical issues the biggest of which was probably gradual the loss of 20% of the our Plumpy Nut (total stock worth €100,000). But loss to where? We still aren't quite sure, but have a feeling that many individuals within the team were involved. Since we started tracking and checking a lot more and putting more systems in place the 'discrepancies' seem to have now reduced to a neglible amount. Hmmmmm.... I have on my desk in the office a sachet of plumpy nut bought for 200 francs (a little less than the international price) in a local little shop. Hmm...
I got to experience both Eids while in Bokoro, the one for the end of Ramadan and the one to kill sheep. I was very kindly given a full traditional Bubu complete with hat, scarf and plastic faut leopard-skin shoes that gave me blisters but were oh so regal. We visited neighbours, wandered the streets in celebratory fashion and threw a party for the mothers to stop them escaping the hospital. The motivation for escaping was of course to celebrate with their families, despite the risk of their skinny babies dying. Such incidents highlight the enormous differences in education, culture, religion, health and life. How they interact and are prioritised and probably more importantly the lack of mutual-understanding of our respective world views.
In such a situation do we have the obligation or right to ask, pursued or force a mother to stay somewhere against her will to save the life of her child?
Personally, this last period has had some of the hardest and also most rewarding and enjoyable times in my 'our organisation' life.
I closed a project in March which wasn't so bad and I learned a few things. I have now opened a project and can say that it is pretty hellish. It was incredibly frantic, working from 6am till 9 or 10pm every night and very highly pressured.
In addition, I had a critical, highly-demanding boss who made me feel very much like a failure and as a result almost totally lost my confidence in my ability and place in 'our organisation' and nearly left. I'm very glad I managed to keep my head up through the period and set up all the logistics and admin for the malnutrition project.
Eventually, after a reshuffling of the teams I stayed and she left. End of nightmare. Good.
The fact that I was also managing all of the technical and supply logistics and also the admin (finance and HR) side of the project (a role done by 2 people in 2012) made me learn a lot about admin and how to delegate and manage a million things at once.
The stress of boss + opening + long days led to a bit of burn out however.
In July the new expat team started arriving and a wonderful bunch they mostly were. I was very close to 2 of the expats and together we would spend time in each other's rooms singing, doing yoga or reading together. A level of intimacy of friendship that I've not before experienced in 'our organisation' and that provided a lot of comfort and support in difficult times. This also, however, caused a little bit of division with the other expats, but by this point in the project I needed to look after myself and 'prioritised'.
Near the end as my staff and other expats knew i was considering leaving I started to receive many many people urging me to stay or tell me how appreciated I was. This was a first for me in 'our organisation' and was a tremendous boost for my confidence compared to the previous period where I was basically being told I was incapable of doing the job. Different people, different contexts, difference standards, different dynamics. Ahh the joys if change. This positive ending was topped off by my loggies throwing me a big party. I sat quietly, shook lots of hands, said a heartfelt little speech and improvised a little song along the lines of "merci Bokoro".
We didn't really have an pets unfortunately but we did share our living space with a few jolly fellows. Alfred and Cedric, the hedgehogs would run in circles round our dining room eating insects and frogs as we ate our own dinners.
Francois and Alphonse were our shy and rather large rat housemates who would run along the rafters as we ate, usually in such a hurry that wouldn't even respond to our salutations.
STAY OR GO?
Having been so involved since the beginning, enjoying the role and expat and national teams a lot made me want to extend till the project closure at the end of the year. I was, as mentioned, quite a Tired Terence and so after much umm-ing and ahh-ing decided to extend my contract just a month to ensure a replacement was found. Despite pooh-pooh-ing in previous emails the concept of R&R, I found it incredibly useful in these last months and even requested an additional weekend in the capital (only 5 hrs by car) that helped give me enough energy for my final few weeks.
The replacement was eventually found and I wrote a monster handover report and spent 4 intense days trying to explain all we'd done all that still needed to be done. I now feel happy to have left behind what I helped start with the acceptance that my time is now finished.
SINCE I STARTED THIS EMAIL...
I spent the last 24 hours wandering around rain soaked Berlin filled with so many western familiarities that seem so surreal. Observing the energy so different to Chad. Energy Inside. Energy Outside. I ate in a Lebanese falafel place and spoke to the guy in arabic which made me very happy. I then spent the night in an immense soul-less hostel overflowing with 16 yr old school groups and being surprised to feel quite alone. Not surprising really having spent 4 months living, working, eating and sleeping with the same group of people.
I am now waiting in the train station to travel with far too many bags to Hamburger (somewhere in Germany, not sure where - north?) to visit my old housemates from Madrid and their brand new baby. After that I'll spend am adventurous 2 weeks in the Turkey with my buddy Mil, monkey-ing about on rocks and in water.
I'll be back in Manchester end of Oct and then will bounce around the UK (London, Hereford, Bristol) and Europe (Bruxelles) till at least mid-Jan when I'll accept to fly off to some other warzone or plague or whatever.
I'd like to see y'all while I'm back so please get in touch and we'll make it happen.
Life is a story. Let's make it a good one!
USA - 2013
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4 Sept 2013
USA - part 1 - Bus
....think 'Follow the yellow brick road'
Boston to Boise by Bus,
Boston to Boise by Bus,
Follow, follow, follow, follow 69 hours no fuss,
If ever, if ever a trip there was,
It's Boston to Boise while glued to a bus
Because, because, because, because!
2800 miles it does...
...hmm, I think that just transitioned into 'We're off to see the wizard'. Nevermind. You get the idea.
For those of you wondering why I would choose to take a bus from the USA's NE coast to (almost) its NW coast, on that form of transport, associated with the lowest social and financial classes of US society please read on. In conclusion a train, plane and maybe even a car / ride share wouldn't have been anywhere near as much of an adventure...
Highlights of 'The Bus' (actually many different buses) included....
- AMISH - I sat next to the matriarch of an Amish threesome, also including bearded man and granddaughter. Despite trying my hardest to squeeze every last drop of knowledge and learning from the opportunity my seat-mate remained a little distant, although very smily and friendly, so I was resigned to enjoying listening to their interesting bouncy bizarre Germanic with its strange Mid-Western twang. See obvious Amish on bus photos
- FARMER - I spent half a day next to very open and friendly protestant standard typical US mid-western farmer. Despite my (gently & tactfully hurled though nevertheless) fierce and controversial questioning regarding modern farming methods, GMOs, chemicals, Monsanto, he honestly and gently relayed his own personal experiences and (large) difficulties in trying to dig himself out of inherited agricultural debt and providing the best for his family.
- AMATEUR INTELLECTUAL - Bob Robertson was a fascinating individual who has spent his adult life floating through various forms of manual, unstable employment though maintains a wide interest and knowledge about many subjects; scientific and political as well as being (so he claims) a fierce chess player. See photo of guy with 80s (possibly now considering retro, vintage or hipster) glasses.
- TRUCK DRIVER - The large soft gentleman I found myself next to on day 2 whose truck had broken down and thus had to take 'The Bus' provided me a great deal of education on the legal, psychological and technical aspects of the world of trucks. He was also psychic. E.g. Him: Where are you from? Me: England. Him: Manchester? This is amazing considering most United States-ians equate England with London.
- ESTRANGED FATHER - Mr J Knickerbocker was asking around about how he was going to find his daughter. Said daughter, now of 19 years, hadn't spoken to her dad for 3 years and hadn't seen him for 13. He knew she was in Las Vegas, but without phone or knowledge of how to manipulate computer devices was a little stuck and understandably anxious. After hearing some mostly unhelpful suggestions of others I jumped in. Two hours later, with the help of McDonalds free wifi, he had a gmail address, facebook account and we'd found, contacted and received the phone of his daughter. Following a very personal and awkwardly loud conversation with a crying and angry Alexandra but with a reassuring text sms confirming her love for him we felt Mr J was capable of carrying on his parental adventure alone. Good. See photo of guy with green t-shirt.
- THE BUS GANG - There were in addition a rainbow of weird and wonderful individuals or couples who, after a very unfriendly 'east coast' first day, became a sort of band of traveling companions, united in their sleep-deprivation and expert knowledge of Greyhound bus stations across the Northern USA. These included an LA gang member (the slippers, I was informed, gave it away), the Danish / German house-sitting couple, the stringy Eminem look-alike, the 2 mexican ladies and my seat mate who was either mad or was being hunted by the FBI for whistle-blowing some conspiracy or both.
So after 3 days of questionable sleep, I'm now nice rested in the cosy little (although a state capital) town of Boise in the hillbilly NW state of Idaho staying with my amazingly joyful friend Todd. Details of Boise and the parts to come (Sun Valley, Seattle & California will come in the next edition).
Let's rewind a little...
Why am I in the USA? As a result of my beautiful freedom to jump in and out of Adventurous humanitarian work and hobo style unemployment and freedom, I took advantage of being invited to my dear friend's, Monica and Charlie's, wedding to travel aboot these here United States of North America.
I'm pretty exhausted after writing all that so I'll keep the 'prequel' brief by saying that my time in Philadelphia, New York & Boston after the wedding was filled with (my receiving) huge amounts of generosity and fun times from friends old and new. In chronological order: Maya (free spirit), Hogs & Lewis' and wedding guests, The May family (zoo-house hosts), Dr Maureen ('our organisation' DRC) + Shawn (her BF), Jane Hunt (childhood tennis friend), Betsy (american mom 10 yrs ago), Kerrith (Israel trip leader), Sam and Jess (MIT / Cambridge friends), Jenn (Peru research companion).
Working on the lingo a bit. Currently favorites are: Oh lordy!! & Well sir... & Yessum.
Photos - https://plus.google.com/photos/118445038205507021514/albums/5919895680156033713?authkey=CIG-44-1jMfnvAE
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27 Sept 2013
USA - part II - Smiley folk, Sea-attle & Silly-con
So here I be, yes sir. Back on the old typer. Clippin' my fingers and telling my tales. Oh lordy, what a time! The life of a middle class hobo. Nothin' finer...
BOISE - Idaho
Most people in the USA have no idea what or who exists in Idaho other than vague notions of right-wing gun toting crazed hillbillies. The closest I got to this was a scary display of fire-arms in a small town sports shop and the ridiculous posters accompanying them (see photos of ridiculous guns for use by public).
Those that knew Boise, the tiny weeny walkable 1/2 million populated state capital couldn't stop singing it's praises. This included our bus driver as I pulled in from my mammoth trans-American bus voyage. As I left the bus station in at 7am, Todd, my buddy who I met doing some wwoofing (organic farming) in southern spain a few years ago was already as work in the Whole foods and so, following his instructions to go to his house and make myself at home, I wandered in through unlocked doors and shyly called a hello only to be met with a dead silence. Forward as I may sometimes be, I felt that to be found awkwardly wandering around a house I'd never been in before with the risk of terrifying any of 4 unknown house-mates finding me in their lounge, kitchen or bathroom, having just woken up, was too much to handle. So, taking the lesser risk of just leaving my big fat 20 kg / 50 lb backpack, I set off on a mission, with 2 objectives. Find a toilet asap and following this, somewhere to meditate. These were both nicely met by the awe inspiring beauty of the Cathedral of the Rockies round the corner. I did my thing and then my other thing and slipped out just before the Sunday service began.
At this point, I still had many hours to fill and enjoy and thus called Allison and her dog, Phoebe. I had posted a message on couchsurfing to see if anyone in the area would like to take me adventuring during the days that Todd worked. I received 2 shockingly friendly and sparkly responses, one of which told me to call a girl called Allison (without Allison's prior knowledge I later found out). So day 1 in the warm little snuggly town was spent wandering around with a new friend, a new dog and then searching out my old buddy, the yogi-wizard-wanderer-in-training Todd putting together bits of Food to make them Whole. Wholesome?
I have just realised that if I keep writing at this pace this email will take about an hour to read. I'll quicken the pace.
I ended up staying 2 weeks in Idaho, 3/4 of which was in Boise. I'm not really sure what I did with my time but it was very comfy and felt nice. Having laid of meditation recently (down from 2 hrs to maybe 1/2 hr or 0 hrs), through lack of enthusiasm, questioning of its effectiveness and the value of letting go and seeing what happens, I felt nicely energized in Todd's bohemian house to slowly start the fly-wheel going again.
Another thing I learned to do was ride a 'cruiser'. These are something that most United States-ians would have had as children and I found them to be, initially at least, horrifically un-functional. With silly high handle bars and back-peddle brake I felt like I was learning to ride a bicycle again. However, after letting go of the need for any sort of speed I found the joy in 'cruising' along with the big fat springy sofa sized saddle and smiling at the beautiful people and places about. Having now completed over half of a rotation of the country I can say that Boise-tonians are the friendly westerners I have ever experienced. While walking down the street at night, a scruffy, skate-boardy, grungy looking young youth passed up. Such an age and style choices in the UK would almost certainly suggest a adolescent at odds, critical, frustrated and angsty with all and everything they come across. This youth, however, piped up, "hey, how ya doin". Like he knew us!! AND HE DIDN'T KNOW US AT ALL!!! This, I came to find, was the norm. Everyone, EVERYONE, one passes in the street will make genuine eye contact, give a genuine smile and offer a genuine verbal greeting. Wow!
A wonderful woman, with a wonderful family, is Barbara. For Todd, Allison and I (and often many other young-ens) she became a mother to us all!! Overflowing with smiles, food and joy at our presence and all we had to say. Her children were all wonderfully mature and interesting and I had some wailing improvisations sessions with her son Riley (me singing or playing my monster bamboo flute and him on piano and singing), one of which left me so... ermm... effected??... that I had to go and sit quietly away from everyone for 15 mins.
Idaho is second only to Utah with regards to its Mormons, or (those of the Church of Jesus of the) Latter Day Saints or (if you're in the know) LDS. Barbara's family used to be involved and I met some others at her house who still are. We had many weird and wonderful discussion about this very tight-knit and interesting group. There is, I noted, quite a lot of prejudice towards them and often wild rumours which only hold true for a few tiny minority extreme communities. Having just waded my way through 'The History of the Jews' (immense!!), 'If this is a man' (Primo Levi's experiences in Auschvitz) and 'Mein Kampf' (just the chapter on race and people). I felt that many of the ancient persecutions of the Jews that would occasionally flare back up could also be seen with some of the negativity towards the Mormons. Both have been accused of heresy (against mainstream christianity) and can be closed, exclusive, superior groups, with both having been, or are currently, often in political or other positions of power.
Unfortunately my closest encounter with this fascinating group was a long bike ride on the 'cruiser' down a long road of strip malls (the worst of US shopping landscapes) to Fuddruckers (fun name to re-arrange but the worst of US food experiences). Worst, however, is still delightful as an experience (as long as not experienced with too high a frequency). Placed in this environment of over salted MSG fries and (actually quite tasty) burgers (mine was vege - ohhhh yesss) and conversations about phones and cars and other standard US gumbo I would never have guessed that I was surrounded, engulfed if you will, within a Mormon covern... I had some nice chats, but maybe missed my opportunity to have some down and dirty spiritual chats, the kind I do oh so like so very much with most people. Maybe it just didn't come up, or feel right or maybe it wouldn't have gone down so well or maybe they didn't talk about that stuff so much. Hmmm. Following dinner they drove and I eeked along on Mr Cruiser to the Mormon den. I think they are assumed I was 'LDS' and the student house they lived in and conversations were all quite 'normal'. That is, except for Mr Eli. He was a questionner, a doubter and a clever one, who they had given a hard time (at Crudrukkers) for not being baptised yet. As I was about to leave, I began chatting and an hour later was still there. He told me of his doubts and how frowned upon it was to question the teachings. In the end we didn't speak so much about the Mormon beliefs so much as general views of god and paths up mountains. Then I cycled home.
SUN VALLEY - Idaho
Candice is a gal I met travelling in Laos and she painted a picture of a beautiful valley in Idaho where everyone is outdoor sports crazy and mostly rich and all is not as it appears to be...
I ended up spending about 6 nights up in the gorgeous mountain views, strolling, mingling, a little biking & enjoying some natural hot springs (that were filled with ash from a recent monster fire - see photos).
This mountainous wonderland also gave me a chance to try out my new adventure hammock. A marvelous thing that, when fully erected, resembles a tent hanging between 2 trees. After a thorough briefing from Candice regarding the various dangers of; spring water, bears & getting lost I set off for 3 days in the wilds. It was wonderful being alone with nature for a few days cooking and bathing and tai chi-ing amongst pines and peaks that stretched to the horizon (see many photos).
Interesting features of the few days included: ANTI-BEAR BAG - I mitigated the risk of being mauled by a bear, cougar or other beast by putting my food in a water-tight canoe bag and hanging it as high as I could in a tree about 15m from my sleeping spot. BARE FEET - after taking my shoes off to wade through a swamp, I tried walking with just my feet on. Wowzer. This felt fantastic (until the little rocks hurt my tender soles too much). I felt like my grip, control and connection to the earth (both physically and hippy-ly) was vastly increased and have since been trying to toughen up my soles and re-align my pelvis / walk so as to avoid aches from prolapsing feet and to be able to be bare-foot-nature-boy more often. SHEEP - While passing an army of sheep on my last day (the only wildlife other than chipmunks that I saw) they baaa-ed at me. Naturally I baaa-ed back. The previously haphazard army, suddenly aligned and began marching in my direction. Every 20m or so, I looked back. Still there!! Despite my waving of arms and screeching they still kept coming. Eventually, fortunately I rounded a little hill and, being out of sight from their military leader / target they fell back into dis-order and I could continue as a free agent again. FORAGING - Before leaving the UK I bought the wonderful little pocket sized SAS Survival Guide. A section of much interest to me is that on finding food in the wild. Aware of the dangers of eating something that could subsequently kill me I started simple and enjoyed (the idea of - couldn't actually taste anything) some handpicked nettles to mix into my evening couscous. Wonderful!!!
After bidding farewell to Candice and her luxurious home and town I head back to Boise for a few days. Having heard of the ease with which one may obtain gifted transport in this area I tried my thum at Hitching for the first time in the US. This was both easy, quick and gave me many interesting conversations and warm feelings at the generosity of those who picked me up. These included an enthusiastic decorator in a pick-up truck who kepted shouting "f--king A man!" at everything, a joyful middle-aged woman who was very interested in my vagabonding-style life and told me I'd given her her "mom fix" as her daughter was in Italy. Finally a 40 yr old property guy going on a road trip to check out some of his properties. Had some good chats about digital watches. Nice!
Back in Boise Todd and I went to his parents house for dinner. After a tiring 20 mile ride out to the burbs I suddenly entered a bizarre pleasant-ville style world of imaculate green lawns, with little ponds here and there, clean-clean empty street, big beautiful houses and not a shop in site. And all of this in a area that, 10 years ago, was dry scrubby plains. This was the US suburban dream and one that would very rapidly return to burnt-out brush as soon as the sprinklers were turned off and one where it would be difficult to get to any amenities once the fuels and cars stop running. Beautiful, but bizarre, when one has grown up in old where town planning has largely been an organic process taking place over hundreds of years.
Finally it was time to leave and head to Seattle. Highlights included; driving for the first time in the US and seeing a Starlings murmur. It looked like some kind of oscillating black swarm cloud in the sky. Only later did we discover what it was. Here's a video of a similar (but much more impressive event) - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iRNqhi2ka9k
SEATTLE - Washington (State)
So now I arrive in Sea-attle, right up there in the NW corner on the coast. The land of Fraser, the space needle and home of much music (including Nirvana, Quincy Jones and Jimi Hendrix). Like Manchester, also in another NW, it rains a lot and is often cloudy.
Here I was to stay with Cameron, another friend from my MIT / Cambridge exchange days. Living in a comfy cool house with his fiancee and house-mates and a sorrowful, very friendly and very enormous great-dame of a dog, Zeffer. My time in Seattle was brief. The pull of California and Yosemite made me stay for just 5 days. It gave me enough time to slurp up a bit of a feel for the place and explore a little on Cameron's new sexy touring bicycle.
Some fun things of note: On my first night in Cameron's house we drove a short way to Lake Washington at 10pm and went swimming around nudey, got cold, came back and then sat in the luscious hot tub hidden amongst some trees behind their house. Day 2 I cycled down to the funky Pike Place market and had an interesting chat to Frederick, one of the many homeless folk around. Interesting and charming fella. Day 3 I cycled along one of the beautiful cycled trails through and around the city to the Ballad Locks where salmon eager to swim upstream from the sea to Lake Washington to give birth and then die pass through a little 'staircase' of concrete by the side of the lock and where we can gawp at them through a little window as they perform one of nature's more bizarre shows. That night we helped a friend paint blocks that will soon be used in a clever, arty and touching jigsaw-type ploy to ask his girlfriend to marry him.
My next and newest mode of transport to leave the cloudy NW and head South to the joys of California was a Craigslist rideshare. Craigslist, the wonderful one-stop-shop for anything that someone wants to buy or sell or offer or need is a website that I now very much like. It also has a section for people going somewhere who have space in their car and space in their wallets. I got a ride with Amber (car owner) and Chase (fellow ride-sharer). Both very interesting folk. Amber was jumping from one US hippy festival to another and spoke a lot of various drugs, most of which I had to request explanations for and Chase had just finished a short walk from Mexico to Canada, also known as the Pacific Crest Trail (2650 miles!) and had a monster of a beard to show for it. I was fascinated to learn from this master hiker about everything from the contents of his back-pack to his washing and toilet techniques. It was on this drive that I finally began Jack Kerouac's 1940s novel 'On the road' about his experiences mooching about theUSA. Made my trip feel a little more exciting and gave me a little prod to look at some things as he does.
SAN FRANSISCO - California
People told me back when I was in Boston 10 years ago that I would love California. Weather, people, culture. We'll see...
Arriving in the SF bay area too late to get down to Monica's place meant that Chase and I slept on the floor of Amber friend's apartment in Berkeley (good practice for camping sleeping!). Leaving his apartment the next morning, I stood in the street and wavered. Not sure in which direction to turn in order to go I wasn't sure where. I had all day before needed to meet Monica. I saw a long haired young-ish looking lad standing on the corner and thought I'd ask directions.
The youthful grungy looking lad presented me with a fist to which I was to touch my own fist and a friendly "hey, how's it goin', I'm Sage". It turned out he had just come from court marking the end of a long saga involving him being convicted for possession of 3 lbs of cannabis whe driving through Oregon (which is pretty much legal in California). He was Hawaiian. He also was a musician. He also had nothing much to do so we ended up spending the morning together. He old me lots, asked little and jabbered in a kind of fashionable gangster speak which required me to constantly request translations.
His young pal Brendan soon showed up and together we had a wander round the wonders of Berkeley with it's hippies, hobos and the best state University in the country. A fun mix! We also went into a music shop where play some guitar/flute jazz duos. Nice!
Then I sample the deligths of the bay area's public transport with thwir funky names (BART and Caltrain) to get to Monica's new lovely little home in the silicon valley. Now married (remember email #1) and without any proper contact for the past 3 years we immediately fell back into our communal companionship that we'd had living together in London and Cambridge.
We used the weekend to scoot about the beautiful local hills with their bizarre mix of yellow scorched grass and succulent moss draped trees (a result of an arid climate and absurd amounts of fog). We walked along the all but invisible San Andreas fault believing the guide book that this was not just a regular forest walk and toured about SF tour a million fun and gorgeous spots in and around SF o. The Sunday including; Americas cup, golden gate bridge, tram, trolley, china town, Castro gay district, mission district and baker beach.
Silly-con valley where Monica works at LinkedIn and my roller-blading/MIT friend Jackie works for the Google is where I spent the remainder oft stay. I would bike the 8 miles along sulphurous but stunning marshes to their campuses and enjoy many a free lunch and spending my time reading and learning Arabic (in preparation for Chad where I'll be returning from Dec).
My interactions on the 3 day bus ride, with homeless folk and with young druggies has led me to the conclusion that people are fascinating. Especially those who are very different to me. Both richer AND poorer (not just financially) people. Perhaps especially poorer, more troubled, more weathered folk. So why is it that most of my appreciation, knowledge and understanding of the harder-to-do members of society comes from movies and books. Why would I read Jack Kerouac's 'On the road' and all it's fascinating hobos, druggies and underdogs, but shudder at the thought of interacting with someone of that nature when I pass them in the street. Is it just lack of time (and patience) or something more?
I find it especially hard to do this 'at home' in the UK where I have so many historic associations & connotations associated with so many different 'groups' or 'types' of people that I've built up over the years that I end up putting up oh so many barriers of fear or superiority or judgement one way or another and end up reacting to the point that I am thus incapable of just observing with balance (and compassion / goodwill). I also often (feel I) have less time or maybe just less patience. And so, I stay in my circle and don't discover the multitude of fascinating stories, life, learning and wisdom floating about
Here, however it's different. I'm free (or more free) from social & psychological conditioning feeling just different enough to be an outside observer, an anthropologist, a social explorer! What's more I have the luxury of time and the time to practice and learn the subtle arts of patience and letting go.
So now, vagabonding about the USA, I sometimes find myself amongst those people who aren't so formally educated and middle class and who speak in a certain way that isn't my own. The way people talk to me, to each other, how they dress, their lifestyle, activities, values, history. All are rich. Everyone has a story to tell. There are fascinating aspects to each and everyone one of us. It just requires the time, patience & open mind of the listener and listened-to to bring it out and find beauty and learning from it. We have so much to learn from each other... We have so much to learn from ourselves...
Some photos (sorry they're not labelled. They are chronological though...)
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1 Nov 2013
USA - part III - Dhamma Bums and Climbing Bums
On leaving Fran San my intention was to become a climbing bum for a few weeks & then shift up a spiritual gear to spend another few weeks as a Dhamma bum. Due to somebody breaking the government or some such absurdity this got skewed a bit. Probably was the best thing for me.
So now I write this from the calm foothills within which sit the Vipassana meditation centre of central California. But let us go back to our story...
My voyage out of SF to the promising wonders of Yosemite national park involved a combination of train and bus. The former of these was my first intercity train experience in USA and was generally pretty sharp and efficient. The only thing of note was a conversation I had with the women sitting opposite me. She was chatty but maintained a certain aloofness throughout. When she asked what I was doing and I told her that I'd be rock climbing in Yosemite she responded with, "that's not a black persons sport" (being of African descent herself). When asked why she said that, "it's too dangerous. Black people just like to shake their booty and have fun". Didn't sound too bad to me. Having grown up with parents working 'in the fields' in a pretty poor setting, she'd worked hard and raised her kids with a hard work ethic resulting in one of them now playing (American) Football for the Raiders. Impressive! Then she got off and I read my book.
After arriving in Merced, I waited around, eavesdropped on some conversations, frantically tapped out my last email on the tiny screen of my recently acquired, now terribly 'outdated' but oh so incredible and futuristic-lly wonderful smart phone, boarded the bus & managed to send my message from a chance wifi signal at a traffic light before leaving town. What happened shortly after would, alone, not have been a big deal, but considering the events that followed we, the unwitting passengers, would have done well to take it as sign that things did not bode well and perhaps try to hitchhike or walk the next few hundred miles. In short, the bus - some 15 mins after leaving the station - stopped by the side of the road with the driver jumping on and off and checking things in a way that did not fill one with confidence at his capacity as mechanic and eventually informing us that the bus was broken. So we sat and waited an hour for another one to pick us up to continue our journey. This it did. Good. I would now get to Yosemite around 10pm instead of 8. This in itself was not such a problem as my plans for that evening's accommodation were relatively ad hoc.
I planned to get a spot in the legendary 'camp 4'. The one 'walk-in' campsite in the park where one does not need to reserve a site 3 months in advance of pay over $100 a night. Its location, lowly price and culture make it highly popular among climbing bums spending weeks or months there and, well, climbing a lot (of the most astoundingly high, beautiful & daunting looking walls I've ever seen). On top of all this the ideal climbing conditions of the month of October (or Roctober I found out) was nearly upon us and a big volunteer event was also happening at the time. Result: high demand. So I would troop over there at 5am after having slept somewhere or other to get in line and acquire a spot. Uncomfortable but simple. So if I was a bit late arriving also no problem.
Back on the bus on our way again. After another hour or so following a beautiful sunset and climbing slowly through dark winding mountain roads we suddenly heard a crunch and the bus stopped. I was half asleep and was vaguely aware of the driver doing his jumping on and off the bus and checking things routine again. 20 mins later it was clear that something was wrong. In an attempt to enter a small semi-circular turn-around off the side of the road he had vastly miscalculated and had steered the entire bus over the island separating it from the road. The result was the back wheels of the bus were now hanging, unconnected to the ground, which was a little lower in this grassy island, and the entire weight of the back side supported off the rear bumper sitting on the main road. Ridiculous and dangerous! See photos. I kept having to tell myself that this was not Laos or Mexico but the USA but after a few more hours, I was still laughing about it, pretty relaxed and quite prepared to spend the night on the bus. A big fat recovery tow-truck eventually turned up, the guys very quickly and competently checked out the situation and then dragged the bus back onto the road with the kindly local highway patrol sheriff blocking off the road so we didn’t cause any more incidents. I heard the recovery guys muttering that “we’re always having to get this guy out of trouble”, referring to the driver. Obviously not the first time. I finally arrived in a very dark Yosemite after midnight, saw a raccoon and went to sleep somewhere.
In the end, I wasn't early enough to get a spot in the campsite the next morning, but, since climbers are such a friendly bunch I somehow found myself a climbing partner and camping spot in another site for the next few days and all was well. I eventually got into the cosy camp 4 but, without a fixed climbing partner and feeling a bit like the climbing equivalent of an awkward teenager, I found it pretty difficult much of a climbing groove. I did meet lots and lots of lovely people in the camp though and shared dinners, campfires and evening music with many new friends.
My first day, having not slept much, I was happy to just go on a 'hike' to accompany the kind couple who'd shared their camp site with us on their approach to climb the almighty Half Dome. A 2200 ft (about 2/5 mile) climb of 23 pitches up a long crack. The approach actually involved quite a bit of scrambling or light climbing and offered some wonderful views of the valley in addition to being a good warm up for the climbing to come. Our friends, Tony and Kathy, would sleep at the base, start climbing at 5am (in the dark with headlamps) and top-out before that evening's sunset (hopefully)...
Many other people I met were doing even longer routes, where they would spend up to a few nights sleeping in little cocoons suspended from the vertical cliff face, continuing up and up each day. This kind of thing not only requires one to be a confident and competent climber, but have a lot of equipment and experience on how to use it. One day... one day... maybe...
Climbing was, and still is, a great joy to me. However, Yosemite is immense and, arriving with the same 'going with the flow' attitude as I had maintained on my trip up to that point, I found that I was not really prepared in terms of: research, knowledge, skill, strength, equipment and enthusiasm. Most people there lived to climb and had been in the park many times before. They had oodles of equipment and lots of experience in the weird art of 'crack climbing'. This was new to me and basically involves climbing up and vertical crack by jamming in hands and feet and any other part of the body that may assist in the endeavour.
The best and biggest climb I did was actually my first one and was a 800 ft (5 pitch) route called Nutcracker. Gorgeous, gorgeous views, made a few friends on the way up, many scary moments despite me always being the 2nd climber and thus constantly secured and very very fun. As we scaled the top some young long-haired late teens appeared on the route next to us and said a friendly hello. Realising that their only equipment was some climbing shoes and a chalk bag it dawned on me that they had just free solo-ed the entire route. Probably just squeezing in a quick climb after a day of working somewhere in the park. No ropes, no protective equipment and it probably took them about 30 mins to do what had taken us all day. Wow.
The rest of the time I drifted between various partners and did lots of short (single pitch) climbs gradually getting used to the rock and re-gaining confidence in traditional lead climbing (going first and poking little metal protective gear in the rock as I go).
Alas my Yosemite adventure was not to be quite as I had envisaged. In addition to some slight disappointments on the climbing front, after 3 days, we were informed that the park would close in 3 more days time and we would all have to go on our merry way. This meant that my plans for more climbing, visiting some giant redwood trees and camping in wilderness were not to be. These things all happen for a reason, I reason. Good. Let's see what exciting things come of it.
With the early closure I felt happy to be able to spend a little more time in California Vipassana Meditation centre ( www.mahavana.dhamma.org). So, following a ride from a friendly Aussie climber and a miraculous quick hitch-hike to the centre's front door by a Pranic-Crystal healer (who invited me to visit his beautiful house near Bass lake on the way) I got ready to settle back into Dhamma-land.
I had many times, both before and during the trip felt a little uncomfortable with the idea of a 3 months jaunt around the US. The main reasons for this were:
· I had been taking a lot of very long breaks between 'our organisation' assignments and really wanted to get stuck into another project to learn and contribute to its thrilling and hopefully helpful works
· This trip is not really want to challenge me or help me develop (relative to many other places I've been)
However, even though this sentiment lingers on I have felt very pleased and nourished to be able to:
· Visit and spend time with friends that I haven't seen for years and many not see again for many more years
· Spend almost 4 weeks doing some down and dirty dhamma work - serving, meditating and contemplating
· Get some insights (and just plain old sights) of the USA, a country so influential in our world today
Good. So what did I do for 4 weeks in this meditation centre? I've now been meditating daily for about 7 years and have probably spent 3 or 4 months volunteering my time and energy in Vipassana centres in the UK and France before. I have found these to be great practise for relationships and communal living - especially in a work environment and especially in a 'our organisation' work environment where I'll often be working, sleeping and eating with the same group of people under many pressure and stress for long periods. I get to do all this in a meditative environment, trying to have awareness of myself and compassion for others, but still 'getting stuff done'. On time and to a good quality.
The retreat that I was to be 'serving' was a 20 day one. Longer and thus more intense that the normal 10 day courses. I myself was signed up to do one a few years back but the call to go to Congo meant that it didn't happen. Normally servers will work in the kitchen, but someone among those serving will be asked to be the course manager. This role involves looking after the students logistical and administrative needs and being a link between them, the kitchen, centre coordinators and teachers. I was asked to be the manager for the male students on the course and even though there were few issues (as most had been meditating for many many years and just got on with it) I still had some tasks to do and enjoyed the contact with the students instead of hiding away in the kitchen like an invisible dhamma-food-fairy. Normally there are about 12 servers to a course, but we were only 6 and so we had to work a little harder, without breaks and more flexibly than usual. I ended up basically being a kitchen worker with a few other responsibilities as manager here and there.
The Central California centre is some semi-arid foothills about 60 south of Yosemite valley on an Indian Reserve. I would walk up and down the hill many times a day to meditate, ring the bell, organise interviews and other management matters - each time marvelling at the beautiful trees and grasses and the way the light played around them, especially in the evenings. Due to it's location there were a multitude of animals who would roam about the large forested grounds. I saw many deer, ground and tree squirrels, lots of different birds (the woodpeckers were slowly destroying the meditation hall), 1 opossum (I think) and others saw (or saw the poop of) bob cats, mountain lions and bears!!! Each evening we would star gaze a little at some of the clearest skies I've ever seen.
The other servers were an interesting bunch; 22 yr old wise bouncy Cole, 25 yr old work-a-holic Chi, 64 yr old life of hard knocks Bill, 42 yr old ex-financier Frank, 60-something yr old smiley Flo and me. We had some bizarre outbursts and tensions and some points, which I'm pleased to say, I was rarely in the middle of, all of which gave us opportunities to try and be aware and understand ourselves and others better. Things flowed more or less smoothly by the end.
I ditched Kerouac's 'On the road' (although nearly finished) and switched to his 'Dhamma Bums' which was similar but with a fitting Buddhist theme that I'm enjoying a lot more. I continue to try to learn Arabic. Love it!!
On leaving the centre after the end of the course with my next stop being Phoenix, Arizona - I secured a ride to Los Angeles with a student from the course. I decided to take an overnight bus from LA and thus was able to wander around with Cole during the afternoon. We managed to squeeze in a stroll around down-town including some Day of the Dead Mexican festivities, a quick walk down Hollywood Boulevard (bizarre, but kind of fun), riding the bus through Beverley Hills 90210 and finally, running down to the sea to just catch the sunset at the beach of Santa Monica. After the calm serenity of the centre, LA felt a bit like eating nothing but McDonalds for a day - a bit sick and depressed.
I'm now in Phoenix and having a wonderful old time and will tell y'all about it next time!!!
Photos - https://plus.google.com/photos/118445038205507021514/albums/5940614341950132449?authkey=CL-8xqqqh-av1AE
Hope you all smiled lots today!
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16 Nov 2013
"Robert, so what are your impressions of the USA?"
"Well... I grew up fed fat on US film, music and TV programs/shows which established a rosy glitzy glamorous Hollywood glow to all things that came from this fair land. Everything is bigger, better and prettier. My year in Boston dispelled this only slightly as I was young(er) and all my time was within a high pressure educational institution mixing only with its people. Following this trip my feeling has been that the US system is something of a shiny shell, but with cracks starting to appear if you look closely and with innards that are undergoing a little rot in those parts away from the spotlights.
In a free country, free to be ruled by money, competition and by fear, individuals are free to easily rise or easily fall. I saw glorious standards of luxurious living by people in mediocre jobs and I saw whole families travelling with all their positions on buses to new cities in the hope of finding work, without much education, healthcare or hope.
The US is one of the world's biggest international powers spending around $1 trillion / year on its military, depending on how you calculate it. Within its population, however, only 30% have passports. And for a country so large, beautiful, varied and expensive to leave, I'm not surprised. And of that 30% half the trips abroad are to neighbouring Canada or Mexico. Although one does not hvae to travel abroad to learn about overseas issues, the reasons for the lack of travel may also contribute to ignorance, fear and lack of experience of the world & peoples 'outside the US'. Considering that people vote leaders and US leaders have a lot of overseas clout, this is a little worrying.
Many that I spoke to love their country but not the way that its run. I did mostly mix with left-ies however...
The US is a beautiful country with many shockingly friendly and warm people. It also lies at the forefront of many scientific and social developments. At the age of 21, I wanted to live there. Now, I'm certainly less drawn to 'settling' down there, but I'm also not in a position to really settle down anywhere at the moment..."
SORRY IF ANY OF THIS IS OFFENSIVE. THESE ARE FLUID THOUGHTS AND I'D LOVE TO HEAR YOU VIEWS TO HELP SHAPE MY OWN...
Back to the story...
PHOENIX - Arizona
I would describe Phoenix a perfect grid of strip malls and card-board cut-out buildings in the desert, designed for car and not for people.
I was here to visit Lara. My lovely friend from Sri Lanka - always with a smiley yogic air about her.
After my arrival, I negotiated the sparse but efficient local transport system to find myself in a beautiful oasis of 'condos', a key under a mat and hilarious white 'evil villain' cat called Newton who made 2 tone noises like our late-kitty used to (umm woww, umm woww). A few hours later, Lara & her boyfriend returned from a jaunt over the border in Mexico and 7 years of absence disappeared.
That evening we went for a walk in some beautiful rocky cacti filled hills surrounding Phoenix allowing me to start to see some of the city's beauty, saw an extravagant sunset and then went for dinner is the oh so exciting Loving Hut. I came across this quaint little vegan restaurant for the first time in London opposite my office and was then overjoyed to find 2 more in Mongolia!! It is an attempt to tempt the world away from meat to save the planet from climate change doom. Like it! What's more there is a bizarre quirky twist. They were started by the followers of Supreme Master Ching Hai's a slightly cult-like leader of a meditation movement. I'm not sure if it's spooky or just hilarious. Probably both.
Another highlight of Phoenix (other than the cactus strewn hills) is the Heard museum of Native American stuff. This didn't seem to gloss over too many gruesome details of the abuses of the European invaders / colonists / settlers although I would be interested to be proved wrong on this by anyone more informed (see some photos of the Kachina dolls). Attempts were made at in the early 1900s to civilise, christianise and effectively eradicate the native American culture from US 'society' by shoving all their kids into boarding schools and making them proper. This led me to ponder colonisation...
How long before the occupation of another's territory becomes accepted (by the Natives, by the new-comers, by outsiders)?
How before the 'new-comers' feel it to be their home, their nation, their land, to feel themselves to be the natives?
How does the strength of culture affect this (native and new)?
How does the proportion of 'new-comers' vs 'natives' affect this?
How do these affect whether the 'new-comers' leave or not?
I questioned a number of white US friends to get an idea of their feelings of ownership of the land they live on. It seems that, any new-comer to a country, 1st or 2nd generation born, and regardless of motive for coming, will usually feel the country to be their own and ties to former nations will begin to fade. It may take longer for those onlookers abroad or those already living there to feel the same way however.
I wondered how applying these same questions would work out for white Europeans in; Israel / Palestine, South Africa, Australia & India. I applied them also to myself. I am 5th generation born into the UK from various Eastern European / Russian countries. Is the UK 'my' nation? Probably. Is it my land? Probably not. Am I a British native? Maybe. What about the Anglo Saxons? What about the Celts? Hmm. Not got many answers yet...
GRAND CANYON - Arizona
Then we all trooped along to the Grandest of Grand Canyons. It looks like a never-ending series of layers, canyons in canyons. There's some native American communities (the Havasupai - sounds like Have a soup pie) down there. I would love one day go back, hike down, camp about, hike about and then hike back up a few days later.
All US National Parks it seems have a wonderful thing called Ranger Talks. These are free talks given by Park Rangers and ours took the form of an evening talk about the various flora and fauna around the Canyon and their fascinating interconnections or symbiosis.
Lara is late 30s and Eric is early 40s. I am 30 years old. We were thus very amused when the little Thai lady who cleared our table in the park canteen made a cackling comment about how mummy (Lara) was having a drink of wine, but daddy and son having nothing to drink.
Next day we got up a little early to sub-freezing temperatures to walk along the rim to get to the perfect spot to watch the Halloween sunrise. Not much to say really, just see the link to the photos. We then trekked down a little then back up then headed back South.
SEDONA - Arizona
On the way back down to Phoenix we passed the famous Route 66, that passed from the pier in Santa Monica, Los Angeles in the SW (where I had been a few days earlier) all the way up to Chicago in the NE. We then took an incredibly scenic route through Eagle Creek canyon where we stopped and Lara book some Native American crafty goods. We then followed a winding road shrouded in a Autumn filled valley of trees exploding their fiery leaves upon us and being looked up by the ever reddening rocks high up on the valley sides leading us to the magical town of Sedona.
The red rocks, I was told by the young and enthusiastic tourist info chap, owed their colour to the large quantities of iron in them and resulted in weird and wonderful magnetic fields, known as Vortexes (vortices??), that affect our bodies and minds... This has resulted in many new age shops and services such as crystal healing, reiki, astrology and psychics. Like most of the buildings in Arizona everything was very new which gave the town a strange quirky trashy touristy feel. Good.
In an attempt to get the real 'Vortex Experience' we climbed Bell Mountain, said to have the strongest and most distinct of effects on visitors. We were told to look for those juniper trees with twisted trunks and branches as an indication of magnetic hot spots. Bell Mountain (more of a lumpy rocky hill) was beautiful, surrounded by majestic stunning scenery lit by a setting desert sun and provided a great opportunity to monkey about scrambling to the top of it. Unfortunately, for one reason or another, I felt 'nothing special' other than the exhilaration of climbing a big fat rock and watching the sunset over it. I meditated a little on top to cash in on anything I'd missed, just in case and then sauntered back down to mummy and daddy waiting in the car park. (see many Red Rock photos)
Bus to Texas
Heading out on the 25 hr journey to Austin, Texas bright and early the next day I noticed an adolescent girl riding our bus. She seemed a little unaware or vulnerable perhaps with her array of cartoon print pillows and blankets. During our little interactions, turned out that 19 year old Taquoia, who seemed to be more like 12 years old, was on her way to Austin also to see her mother for the first time in 18 years. A combination of her mother's drug addictions & the death of her twin sister Sequoia meant that she had spent her life pin-balling between 10 foster families, interspersed with periods on the street, the last being in Phoenix following her last foster family giving her up due to her being 'incompetent'. I felt the need to keep an eye on Taquoia and tried to guide her and her enormous cardboard boxes of possessions through gates and terminals when we changed buses, bought her some food and sang some Destiny's Child and TLC with her. It was touching to see her mum greeting her when we finally arrived a day later in Austin, though with some uncertainty as to what the future would bring for them... (see photo after Austin Greyhound sign).
AUSTIN - Texas
Austin, I was told was very un-Texas, despite being its capital city. Her I was to spend a few care free hippy thrilled days on the bountiful and beautiful Staats Estate of my meditation centre friend Cole Staats. The land that his family dwells on used to be a school and now houses, the spacious family house, a luscious garden, 'well-ness' centre, yoga studio, caravan, lots of interesting and arty signs and objects of interest and space for new and exciting developments (see lots of photos of Staats Estate).
For lunch we sauntered over the road to sample a Texas staple - Grits. This is some sort of gloopy porridge like substance something like polenta and was served to us with genuine smiles and warmth from a funky little 'food van' and which we ate in grassy surrounding on wooden benches. This felt like my kind of place. A sort of southern Boise perhaps...
Texas is known to be dusty, full of cowboy hats and boots, closed minded right-wingers and anything that one may associate with the Georges of Bush. Austin is lush and full of hippies. Wonderful!! It is the home of the organic (though quite upmarket) superstore Whole foods, is full of yoga studios, bikes and has a lovely greenbelt called the Greenbelt. This last feature provided some lovely 'Stand By Me' moments as a group of friends & friends of friends of friends wandered along the river in the undergrowth getting lost and whiling away a sunny afternoon on a rock bridge 50 ft above the swollen river below. (see greeny looking photos).
The Austin Celtic festival was the perfect example to travel across the Atlantic to hear performances from across the Atlantic, some of which came from back across the Atlantic (E.g. headlining Irishman singing blues). Here I got to see all the old favourites from home such as tossing the caber, sheep dogs, miniature horses, Irish folk music and very poor quality greasy overpriced exclusively-meaty fast food. Some of the bands were really great and it was fun to see the US take on what is considered 'Celtic' (pretty much the same as my view really). It also dawned on me that 'Country' music is basically just slow 'Celtic' music which one of the performers assured me was true. As a result, one could say that most US contemporary music originated from the African slaves and the Irish. Again, please correct me if you disagree on this.
My last night in funky friendly Austin was spent in true hippy style, staying up late night in the yoga studio, comparing headstands and tai chi forms, discussing Buddhist and Zen philosophies, exchanging English accents & eating a bizarre sounding, but surprisingly tasty spinach pizza from over the road (see amusing sign on pizza shop door).
Then I took the bus to the New Orleans (the old one is about an hour south of Paris) on the mystical 'Megabus'. Yes, my favourite cheap'o form of UK transportation has landed in the US and is kicking the Greyhound's skinny bottom!
NEW ORLEANS - Louisiana
I went to NOLA (New Orleans LousiAna - I can say that cause I've now been!!) for a mere 26 hrs. So many people recommended it, I was too tempted to miss it. Although it was spent alone and by this point I was getting pretty bored of being tourist (what a silly luxury to be able to say this I know) I felt pleased that I'd had a chance to get a feel and taste for what is a very interesting, historic and cultural city.
My hostel was located in the lush Garden district - filled with huge Colonial mansion, that summoned up images of plantations, slaves and Anne Rice's vampires (see pics of grand old timber houses).
The French quarter is the tourist hotspot due to its architecture, art, history, food, music and general funky feel. I went on a self-guided walking tour till I got bored and informed myself in a great little museum about the former mighty 'New France' district of Louisiana and the wars, people's and politics that surrounded it. I wandered through some streets that were part of the set of a new Will Smith movie where he plays a hustler and Mardi Gras extras streamed around me (look out for my back with a green water-tight bag on it). Someone said that Mr Smith was somewhere at the other side of the set, but all I saw was a scruffily dressed guy of mixed white-black skin with a scruffy beard... I finally went down to the grand old Mississippi river to eat my sandwich and watch the sunset and passers-by, listened to a bit of high street jazz and then walk on back to my wobbly skimpy framed dorm-room bunk-bed.
Are you getting as tired reading this as I am writing it? If so, then please take a break... I'm taking a break.
Finnnnnally I decided to take an overnight sleeper train instead of the cursed but oh so endearing bus. Hellooooo Amtrak!!
I opted for the train's Coach class which is the equivalent of (if such a thing existed) Greyhound business class. I had more leg room than I could possibly use, an attendant always on hand and a dinning carriage just a few leaps away.
I opened my eyes from an early morning meditation as we were leaving New Orleans to be viewed with the sight of our train going through the sea... This sight, in my semi-conscious state made me imagine I was in the magic cartoon movie Spirited Away. Please look at the photos to prove this wondrous phenomenon. I'm not sure of how far the track actually extended out of the water, but it was very very little. Look, look and see at the photo!
Instead of highways and McDonalds infested truck stops, I was now presented with miles of forest, tiny Alabama towns and Southern back gardens. This all reminded me of the reverse of a journey taken in the blues-y guitar-y film Crossroads featuring the kid who played Karate Kid and who no one has probably seen unless you were / are guitar nerds like me and my brother.
Arrived in the cold autumnal NE the next morning (more) nicely rested and ready for y'all'ses nation's fair capital.
Washington District of Columbia is the capital city of these here United States of America. Please do not, oh foreigners, confuse it with the NW State of Washington or every EVER ask what state Washington DC lies in. It sits in a small mess of awkwardly shaped states and non-states and is just Washington DC. Period. Good. Now let us continue...
Here I was to visit 2 Jen(n)s - Jenn & Jen and also 1 Susan - Susan. Jenn from my Peru-Researching days of 2004, Jen from my Laos-travelling days early this year and Susan from my (tag-along) Petroleum-Book-Writing days about a year ago (almost to the day actually... funky).
Washington is like an expanded High Profile University campus. Everything is neatly and nicely architectured, things are pretty clean, people all seem educated, lots of intelligent things going on everywhere and some tourists looking aboot. It felt nicely walkable, had some interesting culturally mixed up areas, some green (or orangey brown) partsand made for some good famous building spotting.
Autumn was exploding all around and my walks around the Tiny (Tenley) Town suburbs where Jen lived and along the Rock creek trail made my hands cold from constantly taking pictures of it all. (see orange coloured photos near the end of the album).
On my way to the main tourist trail I popped into the grand Scientology centre to take their 'Free personality Test' aka 'Oxford capacity analysis test'. I am welfare of the dangers of this group, but as a big fat meditator and have a great interest in all forms of psychological / spiritual self development I wanted to dip my toe in to test them out a little. I didn't do too badly, other than on the Appreciation (+ve) / Lack of Accord (-ve) section. I disagreed with the testing lady that I fitted the +ve description on this anymore than the other sections (possibly proving the tests correct) and she patiently discussed it. All in all not so spooky. The biggest wah wahhhh (un-impressed failure sound) was the promotional info-mercials. I was drawn to the one on human rights. Not only was the whole thing done with a voice over and background music so sensational and at times so inappropriate that turned a serious issue (war crimes in Liberia) into hilarity. What's more, their internal movement aiming to disseminate knowledge of the United National Universal Declaration of Human Rights was called 'United' and they reprinted all of the 30 declarations in their own words with L. Ron Hubbard's name all over their flyers. Could get a little confusing... Regardless, I don't want to write off the potential usefulness of the teaching (contained in a book called Dianetics) just because the institution seems a little wacky.
So, finally, I sauntered done to the House that is big and White and spent the remainder of my last day in the US visiting various monuments and memorials of political-men and war-men, spoke to some protesters, enjoyed a few Ranger talks (national parks include historical sites & memorials in cities) and enjoyed a cracking sunset over Martin Luther King's head. (see all sorts of grand looking memorial photos)
In the evening I span and stepped and grabbed strange girls in an American Square Dancing night. I loved the dancing and the mingling and felt a little sick from too much pizza, cake and spinning.
As my final hours the next days were ticking down I was delighted to be able to sneak in a fleeting but oh so valued pit-stop lunch in down-town New York with Dr Maureen my colleague from Congo before jumping on a few planes back to jolly old England.
The voyage is now finished. I am home and here are some statistics...
· How long - 90 days
· How far - 9200 miles of which...
o Bus - 5300
o Train - 1100
o Rides with friend - 1400
o Ride share (craigslist) - 800
o Ride from hitchhike - 200
o (it doesn't quite add up...)
· Where - and here's the.... Map
Thank you to all of those who hosted or greeted or shared my adventures in some way on this trip. Thank you all those who read (some) of my emails and those who responded. Would love to see or hear from you in the next month, although I'm likely to stay in Manchester till I head to Chad with 'our organisation' mid December. Get in touch!!!
MAP - https://roadtrippers.com/trips/usa-robert-2013/51ffa4397f3d77d8a8000197
PHOTOS - https://plus.google.com/photos/118445038205507021514/albums/5945407304908564433?authkey=CLbXidPDkLmKgQE
Smiles and warmth to you all!!
CHAD - 2013
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Fri, 24 May 2013
Robert in Chad - Week 1
Salaam Aleikum all,
I've now been in Tissi for a week. To call it a town would be an exaggeration. It's a small collection of grass huts, surrounded by grass fence, with a little market (Mon and Thu) and a mosque (one of 2 brick building in town - the other being the 'hospital' - I'll get to that later).
Within and around the town are sprinkled a generous helping of refugees (Sudanese & some Central Africans) and 'returnees' (Chadian), also living in little grass huts, but mostly under trees and not in nice grass compounds like the lucky town-folk. They all recently fled some unrest over the border in Darfur, Sudan and as a result there is an equally generous helping of UN and NGO groups. We foreigners also live within grass walled compounds, but sleep and work in fancy imported tents with imported computers, eat imported food with imported vehicles, money and ideas. All of this is crammed tightly into the bottom-right corner of Chad a few 100 metres from Sudan (to the East) and Central African Republic (to the South) over the lake.
It's very hot (min. 27 deg at about 05:00 - max. 45 deg) and dusty and today we had the pleasure of receiving our 2nd sandstorm since my arrival. Instead of cars, motorbikes or bicycles, the local means of transport is either donkey, horse or camel. I stand transfixed, watching the poor enslaved animals in our compound that pull their 'owners' sitting atop carts full of materials that are turning our desert straw base into something a little more substantial.
WHY IS OUR ORGANISATION HERE?
What are we doing. Well, there's about 50,000 refugees / returnees in the area, many of whom fled with very little. Many children are malnourished and they are very susceptible to diseases (40% of the kids seen have diarrhea). The tiny 2 buildings, known as the hospital is slowly being transformed into something that can cater for the medical needs of local population (locals and newbies), and though the numbers coming for treatment are currently low, they are gradually increasing.
WHAT IS ROBERT DOING?
For this project I'm doing nothing but managing our Supplies. I'm trying to make sure all of our medical, construction, water and sanitation and general living material needs are met, while at the same time training up our new storekeepers and trying to put in place some kind of order and system to our ever growing stocks. The rains are coming (and actually started this morning) and this means that pretty soon any road (sandy dust tracks) will become impassable and Tissi will become a bit of an island, surrounded by Wadis (flooded seasonal rivers). We still have an airstrip, though this may soon become difficult too. We're looking at another airstrip and the UN are talking about a helicopter. Yowzer!!
The expat Team consists of a nice mix of 17 people from at least 10 different countries and 4 or 5 continents. The food tastes good and we have A LOT of stuff shipped in from the capital, so I'm enjoying beans and nutella and the melted deformed dairy milk I brought with me. I also brought some Love Hearts candy / sweets which were a huge success. Two of my Canadian colleagues made a bizarre but great pizza last week.
I've been playing my new teeny-weeny guitar a little and finding it a wonderful release from the shock to my system (stress, heat, fatigue, foreign environment, living conditions, general energy and atmostphere). I sleep in a big 15m tent with 6 others which I quite like. My ear plugs help to keep out the noise of the generator, donkeys, cockerels, meds and others walking or talking around. I sleep on a bed made of local wooden poles with a nylon string mesh stretched between them. With the mattress on top it ends up feeling like sleeping in a hammock.
We all generally wake up between 5 and 6am, partly cause its hot and partly cause everything is still pretty much go go go. Looks like weekends won't exist for a while.
I love being here, though it is tough...
I'd love to hear how you're all doing.
Shukran katir for reading to the end.
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14 June 2013
It's the end of a very long 14 hour day. Got your text. Please send me lots of mundane (or interesting, either way is fine) emails. It will be very comforting.
Here... hmmm, how can I write anything which isn't a repetition of: I'm working A LOT and am tired. Though actually, I'm still in the that kind of twilight zone before the stress and burn-out kick in and hopefully I can ride this until I fly out of here in 3 weeks... (if they don't close our little airstrip again or some other major disaster happens).
Had some fighting round about, though all so far just over the border in Darfur. We've been shipping war wounded in and out with our pals ICRC in our 'shared' plane. Our 49% means we get to use it. Their 51% means that it's covered in ICRC stickers. There's probably more to it than that. Military are everywhere and I almost don't see them and their big fat fireworks over their shoulders now. I feel a bit like I'm constantly treading water and then a wave comes (e.g. a truck with 10 tons of medication or a large number of demands for things to be sent here or there on trucks that I need to find) and then one of my (already inexperienced and not very sharp) staff gets arrested and we need to get him out of prison and negotiate with many authorities so he doesn't get sent to some prison in the desert. He got out in the end and we asked him politely to leave. Then the other storekeeper, who is a lot sharper, left for an interview with some other NGO and today didn't come back, so in addition to the waves and treading water lots, my little life vests are losing air. We did some interviews today so hopefully it'll improve this coming week. Lots of people in the project are A LOT more tired than me though and so about half the team is leaving tmrw which means my responsibilities will now triple. Hurray!!! I plan to ignore these new burdens / joys and hope other people will take care of them and let me know when I need to sign something.
We've been doing lots of NFI (non-food items = useful stuff for living that you don't eat = jerrycans, blankets, plastic sheeting and mosquito nets) distributions, which for my supply team has been quite a lot of work. It's nice to be so directly connected to the populations we're assisting though. I organize / supervise / authorize something and people get NFIs or medicine or a new bamboo office gets built. Constant job satisfaction makes the often job frustrations and fatigue very much worth it.
Although I've learned very little I'm loving wielding my limited Arabic vocabulary. I can now count to 100, do the endless greatings, ask for a few things and talk some useless Egyptian Arabic I learned from the Michel Thomas (style) mp3s that I copied from a French girl who works for (ACF) Action Contre le Faim who I met at the airport and that I listened to on the day I was sick in bed / hammock all day.
We have 2 cute sister chickens that run around the compound. A cat came into the medical store this evening. Don't see many of them. Donkey are everywhere and very loud and very beautiful (donkey = homar).
Expat team is mostly lovely, though the fact that people are tired and stressed means that nerves get frayed sometimes. My boss threatened to send me home a few days ago after I argued with him. I think he was just angry and I didn't pick my moment very well. We haven't talked about it since. Luckily I like him, even though I find him a little difficult at times. Good lesson.
I've gone from feeling like girlfriend seeking adolescent (in Manchester) to being almost devoid of any such feelings. I sometimes have a little energy to play guitar and sing though this is diminishing unfortunately. Happily, I have a lot of smiles and patience for most of my colleagues (the expats at least - sometimes I get frustrated with my team...) and hopefully this will last for the next few weeks. I think it's appreciated.
The cool thing about doing an emergency mission is the same people keep popping up (2 people already from my DRC Katanga measles mission). My arch-nemesis (AKA - she whom I clashed with a lot) from Shamwana (who made me more stressed and unhappy than anything else) was also due to come and (I'm happy to say) has for some reason been delayed in NY due to visa issues. Even if she comes now it won't be for long and it'll be a good opportunity to try again and learn anyway and people have said that often a relationship that doesn't work in one context can be totally different in another.
Ok, I go now. Helas!!
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27 June 2013
I'm nearly done here in our little corner of Chad, Sudan, Central African Republic... If all goes to plan (no rain, no security incidents, no change of plane schedule) then I'll fly back to the capital (Ndjamena) next Thu 4 July and then back to UK arriving 10 July.
Here I've changed roles a bit and am doing more finance and HR since we are splitting the team to form a new project near the big fat and growing refugee camp of Abgadam. It's totally the fashion and UNHCR and most of the other NGOs in town have already moved house. There's even one called HIAS who are providing hot meals for the arriving refugees. Their logo is a menorah and I think the H stands for Hebrew... One of my storekeepers left us to go and work for them and now is calling me all the time to come back. Oh dear. We recently issued some press releases about the Ab Gadam camp. Maybe google will come up with something...
I'm feeling like my capacity to do good work is dropping and so the removal or shift of responsibilities is welcome. We got some visitors from the capital to help with the supply stuff, so it looks like I'll be staying in the admin seat till I leave the project (probably 4 or 5 July). I'm still doing the local purchases which means mingling around the market and trying to buy food for the hospital, beds, old tyres (made into very useful strings strips)...
Ok, I wrote half of this a few days ago and now I don't know what else to add. Today felt good. Some more expats who had been on R & R came back. I will have no such luxury given my looming departure. Good. So things are bit more shared around now. We've had some war wounded arrive from over the border in Sudan and some big governer getting angry cause we sent them to be sewn up on the Red Cross plane before he gave us his approval... or
something like that... and so now we've postponed a lot of activities again. Doesn't really affect my work at the moment though.
Tonight I'm gonna finish before 7pm... ok, it's now 7:36pm. 2 mins to finish this email then I'm gone.
We have a driver who is called Moomin and seems like a strangely proportioned rumple-stilkskin and lopes around in an show-man comedic way. I don't know him very well. The rest of our drivers went on strike and threatened to all leave on Saturday which would have been a tricky situation if we hadn't tempted them back with kind words and football game.
There are many amazing small and large birds flying around and over us everyday. Love it. I also still find the donkeys very beautiful and peaceful looking. There's 3 tiny kids who sit under a tiny bush opposite our base who sell peanuts. I bought some yesterday. Very tasty.
That's all for now I think.
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29 June 2013
Last night, as I said, was an interesting one. I have never before:
· Spent a night in a hospital
· Assisted in a medical procedure
· Seen children in severe pain and tried (poorly) to comfort them
· Seen holes in people so big and raw (and accidentally touched them)
· Seen (or touched) a limb, skin and bone so broken, so decimated, wow
By about 2am I went outside, took an empty bed made of local wood and string and lay under the cloudy moonlight sky with various others (most likely relatives of patients) scattered around the courtyard lying on matts. I slept more or less till 4am when the next shift pulled in.
This morning we shipped the 5 kids to the airstrip and the Red Cross / 'our organisation' plane came and scooped them up to the Abeche, a town a few 100 km away that has surgical capacity. They'll all survive, though one may lose his leg.
It was nice to be close to the patients for once.
Today is quiet and calm. I need to tell some storekeepers that we aren't going to keep them and then I'll go to the market to find wood, bamboo and straw walls to build us a new office.
I'm eating some really really tasty local dates (I soak them in water so they aren't so dry).
Helas. Ma salaam!
P.S. Pass on to family or friends
TRANS-ASIAN - 2012/13
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14 Oct 2012
COUNTRY #1 - Madrid
All going well here in Madrid. I've been staying with Ivan and Rocio and we're heading to Galicia tonight with with another friend Lydia too.
Ela, Ivan and Rocio's baby is super cute and hardly ever cries. Facial expressions are still a little difficult to read... it's like trying to catch rain drops. I've been downloading nursery rhymes for us to sing in Galicia.
Hope all is well back in jolly old england.
Spain photos - https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10100395900554280.2594404.36905017&type=1&l=fd2e647869
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29 Oct 2012
COUNTRY #2 - Germany - Berlin & a schloss
I've been in Berlin since Wednesday, seeing some colleagues who I worked with in DRC which was really lovely and exploring the city a bit (biking with Philip and an underground tour with Katrin). Mostly staying with Zara and meeting her group of international fun friends.
I'm now in a schloss (= castle) helping out (mostly by driving some spaceship like automatic geared people carrier) Zara's organisation 'Open Oil' with a 5 day intense workshop called Booksprint. The idea is to get loads of oil experts (goverment, environmental, legal, academic) together to write a book in 5 days!
I'll be here for a week then back to Berlin for a few days before heading into Mother Russia!
German photos - https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10100395894431550.2594402.36905017&type=1&l=e7f7433d4c
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9 Nov 2012
COUNTRY #3 - Russia - Moscow
I'm now in Mother Russia.
I wandered around a suprisingly dismal Moscow for most of the day, slightly suprised at the almost complete lack of english. My cyrillic reading ability has gone for zero to slow-moving-hero and so I can at least navigate with my russian map.
My couchsurfing host Elena is lovely and tomorrow she is hosting a shamanistic journeying session at her place which I'm very excited about.
I'll probably stay here a few days and then mosey on eastwards somewhere. Maybe the Ural mountains... I think I've had enough of big cities.
Much warmth to you all!
Russia photos http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10100395892705010.2594401.36905017&type=1&l=02d8bc9395
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19 Nov 2012
COUNTRY #3 - Russia - Kazan & Urals
Zdravstvuyte moi malenkiye chitateli (hello my little readers - thank you google!),
I am now in Asia, woo hoo!!!
I crossed over the border yesterday morning at some point. The border apparently consists of the Ural mountains, they are, however, not mountains at all, at least where I am, but slightly rolling small hills - indistinguishable from normal, non-mountainous areas. Nevermind. The countryside still looks pretty all covered in snow (now around -5 deg)
My Moscow experience turned out really well in the end. Despite the gloomy-ness that I felt on arrival (which did not particularly disperse), my couchsurfing host, Elena, and her friends enthusiasm for their city and travellers (me in this case) made it a very insightful and meaningful experience.
· The shamanic journeying session was a bit bizarre (and difficult to understand, being all in Russian)
· I went to a 'leaving to army service' party and met a bunch of young revolutionary, hippy 20-year-old Muscovites
· I was shown around the city by day and night by this same group of young visionaries.
I then went to a place called Kazan for some reason. Maybe because it was mentioned in my book (Life & Fate by Vasily Grossman - thanks for the tip Steven) or because my host mentioned it. It was another big fat russian city. This means: Some nice, historical parts of the centre, an explosion of western and non-western capitalist influences and styles everywhere and endless, concrete, identical, functional, soviet tenament blocks of apartments, looking like they were thrown together as quickly and for as many people as possible, from as soon as your leave the centre till you leave the outskirts of the city.
It didn't help that one of my couchsurfing hosts (I had 2; a guide, Renata, and an actual host, Venyera) seemed to hate Kazan and Russia in general and thus didn't really have any interest in the city, so I spent most of it in the superbs. This however, meant that I experienced a lot of real russian living, standing around smiling warnly and repeating my 2 phrases in Russian (I don't understand, thank you and Good, ok 3 phrases) as hosts parents (everyone lives with parents until and sometimes after marriage) and friends ask questions about me and experiencing inner-city public transportation. So, in the end, I saw a bit of Kazan, went to swim in an ice-cold blue pool with my hosts brother and also got to visit a friend of my guide and walk around a forest in a town about 1 hour away.
Now I'm in the Urals (let's avoid using that inaccurate word mountains). I arrived in another big, though slightly less fat. city - Yekaterinburg, got showed around for a few hours, by a nice Courchsurfing person, Ksenia, and then got picked up and whisked away to a little town (apparently it is now officially a city) called Zarichni, by a lovely guy called Kostya, who I'm now staying with (and his parents of course). He gave up meat and alcohol and cigarettes a few years ago and started reading Carlos Castaneda and now doesn't have an friends. He's like the Russian version of the Little Britain character, but is the 'only hippy in the village'.
The town kind of reminds me of Springfield (the simpsons). Since it came into existence to service a nuclear power plant. Tomorrow we will go and look at the lake and take pictures of the 3 eyed fish.
I'll stay another day before heading onto my final Russian destination of Irkutsk, near lake Baikal (55 hour train journey!). After that I'll move on down through Mongolia. Any tips of where to go or what to do please let me know.
So far, all my hosts have been incredibly generous and welcoming and incredibly eager to learn/practice english and hear about how it is that I can travel (so they can do the same). This means that I feel that a bit of an exchange is going on and so, aswell as enjoying and being grateful for other's kindness, I can also feel happy to be providing something for others. I think I'll carry on with this through Mongolia and China until I meet with Leo at xmas in Loas??. Go couchsurfing.org go!
I'll try to put some pictures on facebook tomorrow and will then send over the link.
Russia photos http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10100395892705010.2594401.36905017&type=1&l=02d8bc9395
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5 Dec 2012
COUNTRY #4 - Mongolia
I feel like a cloud, drifting along, with benevolent suns shining down on me and kind winds guiding me.
This way of traveling is really remarkable (I don't think I've ever used that word before). My mantra needs and continues to be 'go with the flow'. I don't know who, what or where I'm doing or going half the time and am just trusting these kind people who have invited me through couch surfing. They have given me so much, either by hosting, guiding, advising, organising, feeding or, most importantly, becoming new friends. I've never really made 'local' friends before while traveling. Usually, everyone I interact with is trying to sell me something, but now, well, this is totally different. I'm trying to trust in fate or some higher or lower or whatever magic or energy power that is human connection. Love it!
Right, where am, where was I... ermm. Ok
Lake Baikal / Irkutsk - Russia
I know this email is meant to be about Mongolia, but first I'll fill you in on my last stay in Russia in the city of Irkutsk near Lake Baikal, the deepest lake in the WORLD!!!
I stayed with Val and Marina who whisked me away to their Dacha (Russian wooden out-of-town summer house) that they live in all year round and many other places in and around the town. The highlights included:
· Visiting a Shaman - who told me that an ancestor, Richard, 17 generations ago wants to contact me. Nice
· Going to a secret gay night club - these are illegal in Russia and thus the whole experience was extra exciting
· Seeing the sunset over lake Baikal - looked nice, though I took too many photos and so didn't really 'experience' it as much as I could have
· Visiting a Russian rock-opera composer in his lair - Slightly eccentric man, a friend of a friend. Interesting experience
Mongolia - Ulaanbaatar (Ulan Bator)
Ok, Mongo, Mongo-land. Quite a wild place. My thoughts on it are thus:
· Coldest place I've ever been. Ever. Max temp was around -14 deg C and went down to -30 deg on some days. I wore 2 pairs of gloves, 3 pairs of socks and various borrowed items from my host mum. The sensation of having the snot in my nose freeze as I stepped outside was new and intriguing to me.
· A 'poor' country but...All cars were very modern & shiny, unlike russia, where only half are modern & shiny and the rest are Lada or other similar rusting sardine cans from the soviet era
· Traditional ways have remained in tact to a huge extent, despite, and sometimes combined with, a modern or city lifestyle. Many, many people still choose to live in Gers (Yurts) and live the nomadic life, but still have mobile phones, trade & use money and send their kids to school and maybe college too.
· Unlike many 'poor' countries the Mongolians do not seem to automatically treat each foreigner as if they were some god-like celebrity, despite any proof or knowledge of the individual concerned. Just a glance here or there of quiet interest.
There are some beautiful big mountains all around Ulan Bator, which I walked to and up with another couch surfing friend and then again on my own. Really magic and breathtaking. Outside of the cities, Mongolia, is bare bare bare. Whether its
Mongolia - Erdenet
My host very kindly organised for me to go and stay with a relative living in a small town in the north of Mongolia as I wanted to 'do the nomad thing'. The relative I stayed with was very smiley and kind, but spoke not a word of english and a few words of russian, so with my 10 words of bad russian, communication was basically non-existent. This stay wasn't exactly what I hoped for but still gave me some sights and insights of small town, countryside and nomadic / ger life in Mongolia. The 3 joys of my hosts seemed to be: Meat, Vodka and Hunting, preferably all at the same time. Sooooo, the first day we 'went hunting, stopping every hour for lots of meat and vodka. Although, I refrained from killing or drinking, my flexi-tarian ideals were certainly pushed to their limits, as I graciously accepted various meals consisting entirely of meat. This turned my urine red for a day or so, but it's now normal again. Phew!
I'm in the land of China. Beijing. Wowser. What a whopper. I'm stayed about 20km from the centre and outside in the street feels like central London. There's so much movement and 'busy' energy, my head is spinning. Maybe it's just me. I'm trying to learn chinese. Wo jiao Robert. Wo bu shi Maiguoren, wo shi yingguoren. Ni ne?
More reports in a week or so...
Mongolia - http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10100402622797850.2595892.36905017&type=1&l=14b2689392
Russia (a few added) - http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10100395892705010.2594401.36905017&type=1&l=02d8bc9395
Have a smiley insightful Thursday!
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15 Dec 2012
COUNTRY #5 - China (part 1)
I'm nearly at the end of my 'journey' and will soon be more flexible and probably less mobile and hopefully more relaxed (after I meet with Leo and Ursa in Laos as Christmas . Here's some brief stories from the land of china:
Absolutely immense. Some fun classic touristy stuff (forbidden city, great wall, olympic park, tianamen square), but way too big and hectic for me. I was constantly running everywhere and constantly late. Met some nice people though. Both local and foreigners.
A bit of a smaller city (a mere 7 million) and had a nice feel to it. I only stayed for 2 nights, saw some of the city and went to visit the terracota warriors. An interesting mix or museum and archaeological site. Only 30% uncovered!! I briefly experienced a chinese park in the morning. Old people in China have it all sorted. This much is clear to me. They spend their entire mornings (in the park) making music or listening or dancing to it, practicing some form of exercise, be it tai chi or on some weird and wonderful contraptions built by the authorities or flying chinese kites or practising chinese caligraphy using a long brush and water or watching some or all of the above. What a way to live!!!!
Hua Shan (mountain)
I climbed one of china's holy Taoist mountains. Wow. Incredibly beautiful and pretty high. Very very developed and pretty busy, but still stunning. Stayed in a hostel at the top and woke up in the clouds. Lots of funky little abandoned Taoist hermit caves all the way up. Fab!
I'm currently here. It's getting greener and a bit warmer as I head south. This city is still a monster (10 million people), but has a calmer feel to it. I'm staying with a tall 29 year old american guy who likes playing guitar and singing (like me!!). I'm realising increasingly that; a) chinese cities are kind of similar (to my eyes and feelings) and b) I don't really like cities that much and so am looking forward to seeing more of china's mountains and other natural countrysidey places.I went to see the Giant Pandas today. Twas fun.
I'm going to this tomorrow morning. Meant to be very beauty!
Much wintery warmth (both physical and mental) to you all!
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25 Dec 2012
COUNTRY #5 - China (part 2)
Merry early xmas, late winter solstice and late chanukah!
My 'journey' to find Leo and Ursa is now over. I found them today in Laos. I will now be moving a lot more slowly or maybe not at all. Wonderful!
So, how was the last part of my chinese travels.
This valley in Sichuan province (middle-ish), was hailed by many chinese and foreigners as one of the most beautiful spots in China. It was ok. Lots of turquoise coloured lakes amongst pines covered mountains. Lots of buses, moving lots of chinese tourists from beauty spot to beauty spot to take beauty beauty photographicos. I met some fun 29 year old chinese folks who I followed around and 'illegally' stayed in a little tibetan community village inside the park. Interesting thing was that there were chinese flags flying from most of the houses in these little villages. I had some interesting and slightly heated debates with various people about the 'tibet' situation. China says, they are liberated from slavery (back in 50s anyway) and are better off now and happier. West says that china is a monster and has no interest in the welfare of its people or their human rights. China maybe is careful / controls its media so as to assure continued confidence in the state. The west maybe manipulates its media to portray the negative sides of China's actions and development, maybe to reduce the opinion of this growing global economic threat. Hmm... I'm trying to stay balanced and neutral as I learn more.
Big big Buddha
No surprises here. Also in Sichuan. Biggest buddha in the whole wide world. We took a little boat and floated in front of it to look at it and take photos.
Emei shan (mountain)
Things were all getting a bit rushed as I tried to squeeze every last little adventure into my short time in china before heading down to Laos. So after the Taoist holy mountain (last email), I now climbed one of the holy buddhist mountains. This is known to be very cloudy and it didn't dissapoint. However, the climb (almost completely alone) from lush greenery to snow covered pines and temples, scary wild tibetan monkeys (actual macaque monkeys, not those devoted their lives to religion, though there were also some of those, but they weren't scary, just a bit frustating when they told me I couldn't meditate in the temple, only pray to the buddha statue). I also went on a bit of a hair raising trek to 'the other peak' which officially closed and inaccessible due to the monorail being stopped due to winter and so we walked. See photos
on to Laos...
I spent a few smelly days sleeping on a trains and buses and still feeling cold no matter how far south I went... and then I was in Laos and with my dear buddies and it feels simple and warm and lush and relaxed and tonight I will have a little sauna in the little shack next to the guest house I'm in... ahhhh
Thanks all for reading and sometimes even replying to my emails over the past few months. There'll be no more big group emails from me (other than the weekly 'I am ok' ones to mum and dad), but I'd still love to hear from any and all of you and you'll get either a big juicy or maybe a skinny dry response depending on where I am and what I'm capable of.
China Photos (new and older ones) - http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10100417610148080.2599352.36905017&type=1&l=565618a47e
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6 Jan 2013
COUNTRY #6 - Laos
Sorry I haven't written for a while. I've been in jungle villages and the like where they ain't got no internet. I'll keep it short and military report like...
· I'm fine and dandy.
· I'm in chronic awe at the views around me
· There's lots of westerners about. It's a bit of a shock. I WANT TO FEEL SPECIAL!
· Hoping to meet my friend Mil soon for some climbing
· I'm teaching myself the Tai Chi 'yang short form'. LOVE IT!!
· Please send me your updates if you have time. If not, no probs.
Much love and smiles to all
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14 Feb 2013
Country #7 - Myanmar
Hi guys, last update!!!
I'm now in the Golden Dhamma Land of Myanmar. Super.
I left the 'climbing camp' a few days ago after being there for 10 days and so now have internet again. It was paradise!!! At least some of you (maybe Mike) would have loved it, at least for a few days. I slept amongst the trees and rocks under a big overhang in my hammock every night and would wake up with the sun with a view of beautiful karst hills through the leaves and branches surrounding me. I bathed each and every day, hot, bloody and sweaty after climbing in the stream at the edge of the cave where it turns into a lake and I swam around most days. The community of climbers was small and very friendly and supportive. Lots of interesting people. I slept at 9 and woke at 6, did an hour of med, then an hour of tai chi (even taught some others). There were only 2 options for food each day and it was nearly always fab. And the climbing.... Wow, super beautiful and I pushed (or Mil, my friend, pushed me) to higher grades and levels than I've probably ever done before. I am now and pretty bedraggled and broken beaver, but really satisfied with the intense activities. Nice!!!
One night in Bangkok makes a hard man humble, they say. I certainly made me very sweaty and the 'bright lights' were a bit overwhelming. After finding the Myanmar embassy closed and thus unable to get our visas in time, we prepared for the worst, but the helpfulness and efficiency of the
I'm now in Yangon in Burma staying with friends and today (my first day) was great. The city has an interesting atmosphere. Not sure if it's just in my mind. Loads of monks and buddhism and meditation everywhere!!! Me and Mil got chatted up by a monk and we've been roped into teaching an english class tomorrow morning. It's lovely staying with Max and Jess and 4 month old Hugo is super cool!! I'll be checking into camp med in a few days to do a 10 day course and then stay around for probably another 10 days to serve / volunteer.
Back in London 16 March!!!
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12 Mar 2013
Country #7 - Myanmar Monkey business
I am now set to depart the Golden Dhamma Land of Myanmar to fly on home to mother England.
My experiences here have been very very ... interesting. This is a long one so feel free to save it to read late.
Max, Jess & Hugo
I had 2 objectives for coming to Myanmar.
1. To visit Max (friend from high school - known each other 19 years!!), Jess his wife and their cute little 4 month old baby, Hugo.
2. To do some meditation
It was fantastic to see Max, Jess and Hugo in their settled life in Myanmar. While Jess was away, I got to walk Max to work, sleep in his bed and cook him lunch. Alright!!!
The city is undergoing some rapid 'opening-up' to foreigners, particularly business and the roads now have about 5x as many cars as a year ago. There is still a lovely jovial atmosphere around the town and the monks, monasteries and golden pagodas everywhere make for a rich cultural and visual feast. The local people generally seem to be open to and happy to see foreigners around and I enjoyed smiling and doing little bows to people as I walked around the streets.
I did one of my usual 10 day silent meditation courses here, which I haven't done for a while and so felt really valuable. It was however, a lot more difficult than normal due to a combination of: Being out of practice, the constant day and night un-ventilated 30 deg heat, the constant threat of mosquitos (the centre was in the middle of a swamp), the 3 days of unabating music blasted from nearby temple for some festival (including Gangnam style at one point), the almost unabating hocking and burping of the fellow meditators and possibly most prominent was a minor cold and fever I developed half-way through. All good practice and hopefully added to the effectiveness in the end. There were only about 15 foreigners out of the 100 or so who sat the course. The Myanmar guys were super hardcore, appearing to be able to sit without moving a muscle for sometimes 3 hours in a row. Yowzer! Maybe they are just used to sit cross-legged all the time...
I was a monk. Here's the lowdown:
· WHY - I knew that practically all Myanmar men become monks at least once in their lives for anything from a week to a few months and in the middle of the vipassana course I though that instead of staying on at the centre afterwards to volunteer and keep my meditation going a while longer, I could, instead, try and do the same thing by becomming a monk in a monastery.
· HOW - At the end of the course I started asking around if anyone knew of a place that would accept a foreigner for a week or so and where I could continue my own practice (a lot of monasteries insist on following their teachings). One fellow meditator overhead me and telling me to leave everything with her, she called a friend of her's who told me that he would have something arranged by the evening. A bit shocked at such rapid and outright kindness to a total stranger, I asked their names and it turns out the girl, called 'She', is a famous Myanmar rock singer and her friend (and ex-singing teacher), Win Min Htwe, is a famous song writer. They told me not to worry about any of the robes of requisites and that they would sort out everything. After some brief resistance I decided to just accept their offer with gratitude and humility. This was to become and big theme. Nice
· WHERE - The same evening I was to meet at the Shwe Mann monastery on the slopes of the mighty and vast golden pagoda, Shwe Dagon, in the middle of Yangon. My friend Mil and some of the other foreigners from the course came along too.
· WHAT IS A MONK - The Buddha's teaching (as I understand it) was a practical path to help anyone (monk or non-monk [layman]) develop and purify their minds to become progressively more happy, peaceful and free from suffering. This practical path centres around meditation and its application in life. The reading of scriptures, although useful, takes a secondary role and rites and rituals had no role at all. Anyone who practises (properly) will benefit, but of course, someone who decides to commit their whole life to the practice (i.e. a monk or nun) will develop much faster. In addition, the act of letting go of all material possessions, comforts and social norms, live in a secluded or monastery environment, dress in rags & by following the 227 monastic rules, further allowed one to avoid distractions, reduce attachment, ego and again develop insight, wisdom, happiness, peace & compassion. The fact that nowadays many monastic institutions embody only the superficial shell of this is certainly a pity. Materialistically a monk is the lowest in the society, although spiritually one may argue the opposite. There are, however, especially in Myanmar, some monasteries and monks who are very intent on following the original teachings and their essence and there are also groups (e.g. NW of the country) whose political or sectarian interventions lead to increased increased intolerance & conflict. This is the danger and often common theme in all institutionalised-religions and is the main reason that I wish to remain unlabelled (as a 'Buddhist') and to merely say that I practice meditation. Voila.
· WHAT I DID - With this in mind and considering the cultural norms here & the opportunity & potential learning experience available I decided to go ahead and take on quite a large label for 10 days. In the brief conversations before my ordination, I discovered that instead of becoming a mere novice (training) monk, I was actually to take the fast-track to become a full monk. What normally takes years, I did in about 5 mins. This and the whole temporary nature of the thing, makes a bit of a mockery of a noble tradition, but in this Myanmar context everyone is overjoyed that anyone wants to become a monk, not to mention someone was a totally different culture... I therefore was determined that I would make the most of the opportunity and the generosity of all those supporting me by living as close to the ideals of monkhood as I could, namely practice, practice, practice of meditation and my behaviour, words and mindset.
· ORDINATION - After awkwardly squating on my heels in from of the head monk and repeating a bunch of words with poor pronounciation that I didn't understand, I was taken outside to be shaved bare... well just my head actually... except my eyebrows. After a bit of bleeding and an unsuccessful attempt (by them and me) to shave my ginger beard off I was given my robes, dressed in them (by another monk) and then more squating. During this time a large number of people with cameras (friends of my 'sponsors') buzzed around taking pictures. I was given the new name Shin Dobida (Shin = pre-fix for monks, Dobida = graceful). Reminded me of the name my mum used to call me, Robby-Dobby. Nice! I was then led to my new humble abode. This turned out to literally be a palace, and what's more, very newly built, and what's more, I was the only one in it!!! 3 stories high!
· HAIR - With the novelty of no hair on my head I kept touching it which felt like sand paper and would even grip my robe as I tried to pull it over my head. Every time I looked in the mirror, thoughts of Voldemort from Harry Potter would pop into my head, so I stopped looking. I tried to re-shave it after a few days and started bleeding a lot and so didn't try again.
· SCHEDULE - My monastery was pretty much empty (1 head monk, 3 monks, 3 novice baby monks, 2 laymen and 4 cats) though it apparently is jam packed during the festival season when everyone becomes a monk. It was also the kind of place with not much in the way or discipline or timetable. This gave me the freedom to pretty much do as I wanted. My day ran more or less like:
o 04h00 - wake up
o 05h00 - breakfast (cooked by layman) - awkwardly eaten in silence in the head monk's palacial penthouse
o 06h00 - go out bare foot begging, usually with a helper. Head down, lots of gratitude to those giving food, try to be mindful, aware.
o 11h00 - lunch with the 3 other monks, next to no common language but a jovial affair nonetheless
o The rest of the day I would mostly meditate (about 5 hours) with siestas and reading here and there and then usually some visitors (my celebrity friends and their friends and families) in the evenings. I also started doing a few hours of english reading, listening and speaking practice with some monks, novices and their none-monk friends.
· EXPERIENCE - The experience was undoubtably a very valuable one. Nothing was a huge surprise, except how people treated me. So much bowing, etc. (from my sponsors, people in the street). I even had someone fan me with a big leaf while I ate lunch in one other monastery I visited. I tried to take it all with gratitude and humility and in the wise words of an 'our organisation' colleague, "They give you so much power, your role is to give it back to them". Here however, respect is probably more suitable than power. So I tried to bow to everyone, speak & think with humility. This was made even more difficult by the fact that, due to my being a foreigner & being sponsored by a celebrity (She the rock singer), I appeared on the back page of a weekly newspaper, 'Popular Journal' and myself became something of celebrity. All very silly, but again a chance to practice. One morning we found a dog with broken leg, so we went to the vet (my layman helper paid cause I was not allowd to handle money) and we got him fixed up and took him to live in the Monastery. I called him Finley Dog (Dog = Quaye in Mynamar). Did the 6000 facebook photos detract and cheapen the experience. Yes, a bit. But my sponsor friends seemed to love taking them and I also like that I could share this bizarre and wonderful experience with friends and family.
· DE-ROBING - After 10 days I had a de-robing ceremony. I became Robert again and am now enjoying my last few days in Max's house.
14 Mar - fly to Bangkok
15 Mar - fly to London via Mumbai
16 Mar - arrive in London
18 or 19 Mar - Back to Manchester
Here's the photos - Myanmar pics
Much happiness, peace and freedom to you all!!!
Robert (Formelly known as Robby-Dobida)
D R CONGO - 2011/12
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26 Aug 2011
Just a brief note to say hi.
Arrived safe and sound here in Kongolo (next to the big fat Congo river) on Monday. This place will be the project base for the next month or so and is in a small town which is quite basic but pretty and is very safe and friendly. The base is really lovely and the team (most of whom I knew from Amsterdam) are really lovely. About 15 expats and 30 national staff.
We haven't really started the vaccination campaign yet and so most of the stuff going on is setting up and get prepared for when all the materials arrive and we are ready to go. We'll start with the places around Kongolo and then we'll split off into sub-teams, with based in sub-bases from which will go out from. I'll be in Vaccination Team 2 with an English nurse, Susan, and cool Colombian guy, Othman (with lots of 'our organisation' logistics experience), a slightly crazy Italian guy, Rocco, a Haitian nurse, nadia, and some national staff too (not sure who yet). I'll be the technical logistican for the team, which I'm please about. I'm trying to learn a lot from books, other staff, etc.
The food is cool - pretty same same each day but I'm not bored of it yet. They have peanuts, so I'm keeping up the no-meat diet so far. We'll see how it goes.
Although I feel pretty calm - there's almost certainly a lot of new stuff to settle and organize themselves in my head. Managing to keep up the meditation so far too.
Hope everything is happy at home. Please reply to this address (for now - I'll let you know when it changes) and forward anything else from other people to it too. Please also forward this to the David, Marsha and anyone else.
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2 Sept 2011
I've been in Kongolo for 9 days now and it feels like months.
I settled into a role of managing the "cold chain" which is all of the stuff to keep the vaccines cool (fridges, freezers, energy supply, ice packs) and have also been helping with a few other things in the base. Learning lots about generators, electricity, latrines...
Last Saturday a few of us went for a walk along the river and passed through some villages where we were surrounded by at least 100 kiddies. I waved my arms around and did a marching song and 100 little voices repeated after me. It was the first time I'd been 'outside' and it was great to have some liberation and be able to walk around freely.
A big cargo arrived with 157000 measles vaccines and a bunch of other stuff. A team is going out and handing out kits and training the local health centres to treat measles cases. Last few days I went out with a small team to various villages to talk with health centre people, community and religious leaders to prepare some sites where we can vaccinate. The 4x4 is really needed! Some roads look like small footpaths, but the driver just said, "no problem" and we zoomed on down anyway. The project is definitely moving and the team is lovely.
A few more expats arriving today and next week. Still like the food (which is still the same) and my stomach is adjusting to the friendly local bacteria!
Bought a little instrument called a Likambe which I'm learning to sing a few songs to (including U2). It's not the best quality, but enough for now.
All very safe here and the local people are so open and friendly and humble. Big smiles!!!
Apparently there was a press release on measles in DRC. Did you hear anything?
Please forward on to anyone and everyone.
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10 Sept 2011
Thanks a lot for the messages. It's nice to hear from the stability of home while everything here is still a bit crazy (apparently this is the calm before the storm too). We start vaccinating in 4 days (having FINALLY received the go ahead from the authorities - the whole business is very political) and apparently it will then get REALLY crazy.
Got back last night from a 3 day 'exploratory mission' to the northern most part of the area we'll be covering. I was the logistic leader and a Haitian girl called Nadia was the medical leader. It was great! We stayed with some priests in a little village / town which was bizarre. We went through beautiful hills and listened to the same Michael Jackson CD continuously - it felt very cheesy listening to 'Heal the World' as we drove through little villages with crowds of little brown children running alongside us waving and frantically screaming, "Muzungu, Muzungu" (= whitey whitey) and I sat like a lord in the front seat of our 4x4 waving back in the humblest way I could (by holding both palms up and open) and shouting "Jambo".
While staying with the priests (who constantly made jokes that I didn't understand) I was eating some green spinachy type thing that we also eat at the base which had a funny crunch to it. I assumed this was some seed or something that was part of the vegetable and since we ate by candlelight I didn't look much closer. On the second night they were joking with Nadia that there were fourmi rouge (red ants) in it and laughing (another unfunny joke). I questioned, "no really, what is the crunchy thing?", and was told, "oh no, don't worry, they aren't really red ants, they are just termites...". Great. I tried my best to follow the principle of, 'it's already on my plate, don't let them have died for nothing', but unfortunately after another attempt at crunching through them, I surrendered to the grossness and sneakily scooped them onto the plate of the guy next to me.
Doing at least 1 hour med each day and leading a little expat yoga session a few days a week which I really like.
OH, oh and we had the craziest tropical hurricane storm during the day last week. My little tent got flattened by a giant mango branch for the 3rd time and this combined with the minor flooding of our base (especially around my little tent) left it rendered a broken home. I am now resident of a spacious 'shelter box' mega tent (donated by the Rotary Club of a place called Helston-Lizard???) which I share with the Congolese-German doctor Jaque. He's cool. It was really fun watching the storm from inside the house and everyone really mucked in when the rain stopped to help dig trenches to drain the site. Our little straw roofed dinner shelter collapsed. Everyone was safe of course.
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18 Sept 2011
We're in 'stand-by' here at the moment after repeated blockages and delays from the MoH at a number of levels. I'm fortunately very happily riding this wave and haven't been touched by the frustration that hits a lot of the other members of the team. Maybe we'll start here in 10 days... maybe we'll move onto to the next place (where we apparently already have the green light to start), we'll see.
Finally starting to relax and since there's not so much work to do we had this whole weekend off. Yesterday went to the market and bought some crazy local fabric and went to the tailor who is making me some funky trousers that I'll pick up later today. Not sure how they'll turn out. Also commissioned the bicycle man to hammer me out some more little metal plinky pieces for my Likembe instrument. I'm less fearful about singing and playing flute around the compound and people seem to enjoy it. I organized a local band to come and play a few days ago for our german doctor Philip's birthday. Lots of people said it was the best night they'd had here so far!!! Did a huge yoga session with Susan, Cajsa and Charlotte this morning and sneaked in a little bit of relaxation meditation (basically vipassana) at the end. Mmmmmmm. Feel so full of love now. Mmmmmm.
It's mango season and I can't get enough. Ahhhh, they're so tasty, right off the tree outside the house. Sweet sweet manago.
We played ultimate Frisbee just outside the compound yesterday afternoon. After about 15mins we had a crowd of a few hundred local kids. After someone scored they would storm the pitch doing cartwheels and screaming and a load of other little crazy dances (including shuffling along on their bottoms). Their timing was always coordinated with an actual goal however and a brief pause in the game to discuss a point would often cause the same chaos. I don't think they really understood the rules... After the game we decided to invite the audience to throw around the Frisbee with us. After a serious of minor riots and small fights we decided this was not a wise idea and retired to the mzungu (whitey=foreigner) base.
Really getting into the Trois Musquetaires in french which is super fun and also helping the French a lot (albeit it 18 century French). Learning Swahili too and picking it up pretty fast. Languages are so fun!!!
Such fun and games.
I'm healthy and happy and I send this to you too!!
p.s. I've been looking out for birds. So far I've seen a large number of huge black and white noisy crows and lots of sparrow like things around the compound and just since yesterday have started noticing a small number of small birds with a white bit around the base of the tail. Very pretty
p.p.s. Just had a chat with the Head of Mission, Martine, who asked me if I'd like to stay on till the end of the campaign (maybe end of Dec, maybe end of Jan).
The plan was that all expat 'first missioners' would do 3 months and then a new team would come. Of the expat team of newbies there are currently around 10 of us, of which there are 4 logisticians (logs) - 2 technical + 2 admins. After those 3 months we would all go on to other missions (maybe in DRC, maybe elsewhere).
So Martine asked if I would like to stay on with 1 other log (charlotte) and with each of us taking on this double log role of tech + admin. It will also mean that we get to set up and close down sub-projects 3 or 4 times and see the project to the end which will be both satisfying and a great learning experience. I'll take a holiday maybe in 2 or 3 months. Thinking of going and climbing Mount Kilimanjaro with a tour group in Kenya. After the measles campaign here in Katanga Province I'd have 4 months or so on another project somewhere else. Who knows where...
I said yes.
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24 Sept 2011
We're still on stand-by here which means that we are working much. Managing to fill the time with various trainings for the vaccination. Hopefully get the go-ahead or the no-go in a few days. We'll see.
A few new people have arrived, including an Irish water and sanitation guy and I think I'll be getting a new Swedish nurse tent mate tomorrow.
I have my funky trousers back from the tailor which everyone thinks are cool. A few people have asked me, "are your parents also hippies". I like it!
Everyone is still fun and friendly and interesting. I bought a kiddies Swahili book (Reading and Writing in Swahili) and learned a Swahili song today from a cool translator called George who laughs loud, high and continuously. He's gonna help me understand and learn from the book. The first verse of the song (all I've learned) translates as:
I won't study today
Said the child Bavu
I want to fish in the river
I want to trap birds in the field.
Not sure how good an example this sets for small Congolese kiddies.
Kwaheri wa Kongolo,
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2 Oct 2011
We finally got the authorization from the authorities and so will start vaccinating on Wednesday. For the first 2 weeks we'll be just going to local places so will stay sleeping in the base, here in Kongolo. After that we'll start going a bit further afield and sleeping in 'sub-bases'. I think it will get a bit manic, 05h30 starts and late finishes, 6 days a week. Will be an interesting change of pace. I will observe...
Everything else all pretty stable and normal here. Some new people are arriving (mainly the management team) and replacing those who are leaving. Having a bit of a party here tonight.
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14 Oct 2011
I haven't emailed cause
1 - it's go go go here and I'm working 6.5 days a week from 5am till 7 or 8pm (and I love it!!!)
2 - the computer I use wasn't working (now fixed).
I'm working closely with a Danish girl (though living with boyfriend in Norway), called Maria who is our team leader (for Team B - consisting of 5 individual vaccination teams). She arrived just a few days before the manic vaccination started, so I supported her a lot with what was happening and it now feels like we are basically running the team together. I feel super motivated, engaged, confident, effective and happy! What's more the other guy (Rocco - Italian) who is the Log Admin for team B (where I am the Log Tech) left for a few days to evaluate some upcoming sites and so in addition to doing all the technical stuff (vehicle management and movements, security, communications, equipment & material supply and site evaluation and preparation), I've also been doing all his admin stuff (timesheets, paying out and managing the payments of teams [I manage around 1 to 2 million congo francs = 1 to $2000 at any one time]) and this is in addition to the all the planning and team management stuff I'm doing with Maria. Yayyyyyyyyy.
We did loads of evaluations to plan all of our sites, but are now having to rapidly changes plans to organize motorbike, walking and boat teams to reach remote villages that won't come to our fixed sites. I went to evaluate one on Monday and we got to a small river (about 10m across, 30-40cm deep). We thought that one of our 4x4 Land Cruisers (the only REAL all terrain 4x4) could get across but not the vehicle we were in (whose belly had already been given a good scraping in just reaching the river). Finally we decided to just wade across and do a short walk to the village on the other side. It felt very adventurous. Yesterday, the vehicle we sent just drove straight through it. Nice!
We've been planning a rapid one day vaccination in a far off location on 2 sides of the Congo river only reachable by motorbikes and canoes. We'll ferry the stuff across and me and Maria, 3 'our organisation' National nurses and 14 motorbike boys all sleeping in 4 tents in a little sub-base on the far side of the river and then sending the motorbikes off to various sites the next day. Lots to think about with constraints from timing, communication, security, materials, accessibility and HR but we have mapped out the area pretty well and got approval from the management team. Exciting!!
Also I forgot to say a while ago I made a name for myself in 3 ways:
1 - "Think Robert" - When the management team was fighting with the government and MoH (Ministry of Health) over whether or not we could vaccinate they came upon some very aggressive and tough cookies. In the feedback meetings in the evening they said that in the frustrating situations they had had a 'Zen moment' saying to themselves 'Think Robert' and then they we calmed and composed and able to hold their tongues - apparently cause I'm always so calm and positive. Woohoo. I really do feel like I'm riding a dhamma wave caused by all my time and experiences in France. Many people have said, "you're always so happy and calm" or even, "you have a kind of positive energy". Hurray!
2 - "Map man" - I took it upon myself to try and encourage everyone to give me GPS coordinates taken on Evaluation explore missions. I played around with Excel until a found a way to map these on top of some maps of area I found. I also modified it to show the number of measles cases around the area which was used in the final report given to the MoH. Martine (former Head of Mission) said many times - "wow, this is amazing, we love our map man". Super.
3 - Despite not liking spending much time on computers, I find that I know way more than pretty much everyone, especially on excel, which we use a lot. Anyone with any IT question always comes to me. I like it.
Ok, so now more people are leaving (some leaving Congo, some leaving this site to go to another), so they just asked me if I'd be able to be the only Log (admin + tech) for both teams A and B, which means 10 vaccination teams, managing 4 national logs and doubling my responsibility. I said, "sure, Just like cooking for 10 instead of 5". We'll see how it goes. I think delegation will be the name of the game.
New people keep arriving and people keep leaving. Apparently that's how it goes. I'm squeezing in bits of meditation and really feeling the difference. 4h30-5h00 and then after all the teams leave in the morning (7h00-8h00ish). Having said this, things are way calmer now as everyone get more familiar with the processes and routines.
Fufu is a pulped up mush of corn and manioc (yucca / cassava). I had a nutella, cornflake and local honey sandwich for breakfast. Twas mighty fine. A Canadian vegan arrived yesterday and we had tinned chick peas (found in the expat magic food treat box) for dinner for the first time there we loads left so I ate too much and had a grumbly stomach this morning. Watched it with interest. My body is telling me things very clearly (e.g. don't eat late it's not good for you). Grand!!
Planned a tentative holiday at the end of the Kongolo vaccination phase (there'll be a few more places after here) from 13-26 Nov. Thinking of climbing Kilimanjaro with a nice Dutch guy called Jelle. If I've learned anything about 'our organisation' it's that one needs to be flexible. This too will change...ahh life keeps giving me lessons, wonderful.
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24 Oct 2011
I had my personal assessment yesterday which went really well and I was surprised to get the comment that quite a few other expats had commented on how 'I' had helped / supported them, something which is normally expected of someone only with 'our organisation' experience. Anyway, we are all doing a bit of teaching.
I often ask myself the question, "what is work?" If I'm busy doing something I enjoy and I feel that I have chosen to be there, then even if I'm being paid to do it, is it work... what's more if I change how I think about it then nothing ever needs to be 'work'. Not so profound, but I find it a helpful way to think about what and why I'm doing something. I'm not really keeping in touch with so many people so if you hear anything let me know. With regards to the management question, I got asked the same thing in my evaluation and I said maybe, though don't want to be on a computer all day... however, I do like organizing and seeing and controlling the bigger picture. I also really enjoy the technical on the ground stuff. Good position to be in... for now I'll just try to do whatever I'm asked as best as I can and trust that 'our organisation' makes good choices with their people and projects. A conclusion of my evaluation was, "Robert could go in management positions very fast" and "I think he will be a great contribution to 'our organisation' in any project." I'm trying to not let this boost my ego too much. It does feel great to have such good relationships and be appreciated here though. This too will change... that's fine...
We're about to embark on Phase 2 of our Kongolo vaccination campaign which will involve us setting up lots of little sub-bases and the individual vaccination teams (led by 'our organisation' Congolese nurses) will sleep in the same places they vaccinate (usually a church) and we'll support, coordinate and supply them from our little bases nearby. We'll all be sleeping in churches in fact on mud floors with plastic sheeting, on $150 thermorests mats and covered with mosquito nets eating local food cooked by local mamas and managing everything with satellite phones, radios, mini electricity generators and candles. Really looking forward to it. Just doing the last minute panic prep today.
We did the thing across the river last week which was a fantastic experience but pretty tough. I didn't sleep much, as we were 10 people in a tent like sardines and so I ended up meditating through part of the night as I felt so uncomfortable (not quite sure why). Me and Maria had to manage 13 young slightly wild fun loving motorbike drivers who kept playing the same song again and again and dancing in a wiggly way and trying to get me to dance 'not like a robot' too. It was a bit like babysitting and there was a bit of 'telling off' from us. This next phase will be relatively luxurious and easy in comparison.
Lots of people coming and going still and the whole campaign (in all of Congo) may finish at the end of Dec instead of Jan. We'll see. Still no word on next mission.
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29 Oct 2011
Got back today from a few days of living out of sub-bases in Bena Hamba and Kilae (I'm sure you've heard of them...) and tomorrow we're heading out again for 4 days of the same. I starting getting a bit burned out in the last week as the responsibility and remoteness of our living and working spaces increase. I'm trying to look after myself and take it easy. Everyone else is very supportive. Our team leader, Maria, left yesterday, so I'm now taking being 1/2 a team leader too. Gosh, it's pretty crazy, but I really love it. I'm so grateful to have this amazing opportunity.
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11 Nov 2011
I found a really nice radio today (I never expected to find anything here). It has tons of Short Wave (SW) bands and I FOUND THE BBC (SW 17.64 MHz). It was so great to hear the news, we all sat around and listened and there was even something about DRC, so it's extra useful to have around.
Today was a really lovely day off. The first proper full day off for a lonnnnnnng time. It feels strange to be leaving Kongolo, I've been here for nearly 3 months now and it felt like we'd be here forever. The moving will be good practice. Change, change, flexibility, flexibility - that's 'our organisation' (they say).
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22 Nov 2011
Just arrived in Mitwaba last night. It was quite a gargantuan journey to get here. 10-14 hour days for 5 days in the back of a 4x4 on some very bumpy roads, being thrown around and thus having a constant mild headache and lack of appetite, often arriving after dark... but, so super amazing wow experience. We travelled 1400km and saw such a fantastic variety of scenery - jungle, mountains, plains, vast lakes (seeing Zambia and Tanzania on the other side), some new towns (compared to Kongolo they seemed like throbbing western luxurious metropolis - electricity, other cars, running water - gosh), some burnt out tanks and villages from the last war and some nice bonding with the other expats I travelled with. I was in charge of the convoy of 3 land cruisers + 1 truck which became just 3 land cruisers after the truck broke down and we carried on (a big relief as it kept getting stuck in the mud and delayed us by at least 4 hours the first day) and then became 4 land cruisers after we picked up a vehicle from another convoy that had broken down (and we got fixed). So for 6 days I felt like I was a primary school teacher looking after 20 kids - making sure they were all accounted for, had water, food, a bed, having to constantly have group meetings to 'tell them off' for something or other (usually for the 3rd or 4th time). The others expats wanted to share the responsibility but due to lack of French it was sometimes easier to just do it myself - pretty tiring. Resting this morning though...
Stopped by in a little place called Dubie (Doo-bee-ay) on the way and dropped in on a friend who was at Cam and involved in EWB-UK and gave me some tips for getting into 'our organisation' and is now working for the Irish NGO Concern. So crazy seeing someone I know in the the middle of the Heart of Darkness (p.s. want to read that book when I'm back). P.P.S - I notice I like parenthesis a lot!
Seems like there was an attack on 'our organisation' Belgium in North Kivu (a pretty hairy province) and it might make the press. Please don't worry as Katanga province is very stable and we are very far from the Kivus.
Now we are in Mitwaba and staying in a chintzey convent (sharing with some priests bizarrely) and it's all so (relatively) luxurious!! We had potatoes last night!!! And mushrooms!!! and bread that's a different from what we've been eating for the past 3 months and I'm sleeping in a room in an actual building and the roads are kind of flat (lots of mining companies around who make nice infrastructure for their trucks).. aaaaand it's kind of cold here which is a wonderful change. The meditation is so much easier and my body isn't constantly fighting to keep me cool. Everyone else is 'freezing'. I like it.
We're starting vaccinating here on Thursday - taking a break during the elections (28 Nov) and then doing another few days afterwards. This may mean we are all wrapped up and ready to leave mid December. We'll see... Some new people are here to replace some who have left and they seem really interesting and fun. Yayyy
I also got a job offer for a Technical Log in the permanent 'our organisation' project here in Katanga in a place called Shamwana. However... I got told by guys on the measles team that frankly I'd get a bit bored and they advised me to find something a bit more challenging. I heard they are opening a new project in a place called Bukama (also in Katanga province) and since it's new I'd be involved in loads more 'challenging' initiatives and would get some super experience.
Loving listening to the BBC on my funky little radio everyday. I think I am gradually moving towards the Omish or Ludite ideals with less and less and simpler and simpler technologies making me feel a lot more satisfied (or maybe the lack of constant complex technologically advanced entertainment and distraction leaving me feeling a lot clearer and happier). I'm aware that I'm writing this on a laptop and sending it with some very advanced satellite communication technology...hmm... no comment...
Lots of love, hugs and smiles,
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28 Nov 2011
Today outside, all are voting round the DRC,
We mzungus have imprisoned ourselves in the expat house for our own security,
Listening on my little r-r-r-radio to the B-B-BBC's low down,
Getting the latest local Congo goss sent round-trip from London town,
From the outside in and inside out I send and hear and see,
In the beautiful, shining, heart of Darkness...
There's nowhere else I'd rather be!
Right now all I want to read and watch is Africa movies and books and feel like I have lots of catching up to do. A friend bought me the famished road many moons ago and I gave it to Dad to read just before leaving for here. I thought about bringing it but decided it was too big. Hmm, bad choice maybe. Will defo read on my return (date pending...). Please send me any recommendations (especially if it will give me some good political, historical or cultural insights) in addition to those you've said and I could try to find them in Lubumbashi or wherever I go on holiday.
Things here are weird. I'm finding it hard for a number of reasons and trying to see the light and lesson in each:
- IT'S NUTS HERE - in Kongolo we had almost 2 months to prepare for the vaccination - here in Mitwaba we (the logistic team at least) did it in 2 days. I arrived, next day the truck with all the medical vaccination items, next day we started jabbing those pesky kids - THUS - good experience for emergency situations when you arrive and have to hit the ground running. Also seeing the importance of the 'our organisation' standard procedures and products (avoid reinventing the wheel each project - with a bit of flexibility of course). Also good to keep hold of the aims of the project - vaccinating kids for measles - so no matter how stressy or chaotic, we are still doing what we came to do.
- I'm tired - a lot more than I realized and finding it hard to engage and focus - THUS - trying to learn how to observe the signs and look after myself. Something essential if I want to do this thing in a sustainable way
- Lots of frustrations, fatigue and tensions leading to quite a lot of negativity and bitching causing more tensions and rifts - THUS - trying to watch myself, how I feel and what I say and try to support and listen to others without throwing any more fuel on the bitchy fires.
- Log team leader - a really experienced and assertive tiny Canadian girl - Sharla - is now leading our log team leaving me hanging a bit, not really knowing where to be or what to do, ego taking a knock as I step away from being top log dog in charge, making decisions and being responsible - THUS - learning to accept and follow the hierarchy, being humble, pick up any experience and tips from her and move down a few gears to recuperate a bit of energy.
It's really nice to hear stuff from home, especially the day to day details. It's really comforting. It's also really good to be able to unload a lot in these emails - how I feel - put it all down. I know you keep telling me the benefits of writing a diary. I totally see it, but it's just not for me right now. Big fat emails will have to do (and meditation). Speaking of med, mine has been slipping more and more and I think this is taking its toll. Without it I think I find it harder and harder to keep my energy up
- maybe the med itself gives me rest
or maybe it allows me to shed off tension (which zaps my energy)
or maybe it helps me connect with myself more so I sub-consciously avoid reacting in the first place.
Maybe many things, maybe all, either way - it's a big support.
The project I thought I might be going to next is on hold but I'm told that 'another interesting opportunity' has arisen which I'll find more about on Wednesday.
All calm here politically it seems.
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8 Dec 2011
This will probably be the last email I send from this address. It's been pretty hectic with a lot of movement and fatigue in the past few weeks, hence the lack of contact...
I'll put in bullet points cause it helps me think;
- The measles campaign is finished as of the last few days. Last stage was very rushed and manic and last minute and saw me exhausted
- I then moved out to a sub-base and took control a bit more and then due to a few reasons didn't return to the main base in Mitwaba with the rest of the main team, but ended up spending some time with the 'regular' mission in the village of Shamwana
- A few days of hibernation in Shamwarna while the election results were announced - lovely team, calm project, relatively large 'our organisation' hospital across the road, small pretty village, good (expat friendly) food, comfortable climate, own little hut thing to sleep in = nice restful few days
- Yesterday headed out to a place called Manono with Jelle (Danish guy nurse) and 3 National Staff, slept over there and then flew on the UN mini 18-seater plane this morning to Lubumbashi (capital of Katanga)
- The whole expat team is here (most leaving in next few days to Europe) and we went to a posh place and ate ice-cream by the lake next to the base here
- Election results expected at some time this evening. Not sure what the reaction will be but if Kabila wins (expected), stuff should stay reasonably calm in Lubumbashi
- I accepted the offer of Technical Logistician in Shamwarna starting beginning of Jan. Likely to stay until it closes down in June (then I'll come home). It will be a very calm affair compared to the measles campaign - working 8h00 till 17h00, taking Sundays off, lots of good books in their little expat library... hopefully will still provide lots of learning and growth opportunities
- Flying out of Congo tomorrow morning to Nairobi, Kenya with Jelle. We plan to immediately get out on a bus to Uganda (which is meant to be beautiful and very safe nowadays) heading back to Lubumbashi via Nairobi on 3 Jan
- In Uganda I plan to do some of the following - relax (near some nice waterfalls), eat chips, meditate lots, go down a big fat river on a raft, visit the mountain gorillas, do some hiking, go on a walking safari - Don't really have much info - plan on buying a Lonely Planet in the airport
I've been meditating more regularly and resting more in the last few days and feel the lovely calm, happy openness to whatever this big fat adventure decides to present to me
Big hug and lots of happiness and light to you all,
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5 Jan 2012
Robert in Uganda
So now I'm back in DR Congo (Lubumbashi) and am heading out to the field (Shamwana) tomorrow. Not sure how much I told you about my new project. I'll be the Log Tech managing all the technical stuff (construction, vehicles, electricity/power, field movements (including our own airstrip!!), ICT, communications and bit of WatSan stuff and security stuff) for a large rural health centre and 4 smaller health centres around about.
The village (Shamwana) is small and quiet, despite it being a bit of a hot-house during the last war all is relevatively calm now - though having said this, there's some seperatist guys in the area and so the military have moved in which led to some clashes and population displacements in Dec. We'll see what happens. Not scared in the slightest (a bit ashamed to feel excited about such things). As my experience grows I'm sure this will get a bit of a reality check.
The disputes over the elections have pretty much died down - certainly its very calm in Lubumbashi and Katanga province in general it seems. I read on the BBC - people are pretty resigned - they don't want another war. Seems that Kabila has done a lot better than the previous lot...
The expat team is super lovely - was around 9 but will drop to about 5 due to the project closing end of July. My contract runs till end of Aug so I'll be involved in shutting down, handing over and manageing the somewhat unpleasant process of 'pulling the plug' on some health infrastructure that's been pretty much entirely run and supported by 'our organisation' for the last 5 years and will almost certainly become a relative skeleton when we leave - both in terms of staff, expertise, finance, services, etc. This, however, is 'our organisation'. We do emergency stuff, which seems to usually run on a bit longer than intended and at some point we have to leave the community (now hopefully able to stand on it own two feet again) and let them manage.
Anyhoo, slightly nervous about being responsible for a lot of things a biggish team (about 30 guys), but I had a short but good handover with the last guy and the systems in place and National Staff are really capable so it will all be fine!!!
So Uganda was super truper. Saw some beautiful places, ate loads of food unavailable in DRC (lots of chapattis and chips!!), hung out with many wild animals (but used to humans) did some funky adventure things including grade 5 white water rafting and climbing!! Christmakuh and new year were simple affairs. Good. If they are nice they are nice, but if not then I would like to be equally content... Travelling with Jelle (dutch guy who was nurse in the vaccination team) was super and we complimented each other very well - considerate, calm, good chats. Good. I relaxed a lot which I really needed and I now have an Englishman-abroad lurgie which may or may not vacate me before heading to the field. Let it be...
I got back into meditation more since the vaccination finished and I had holiday time. The daily schedule in Shamwana will be pretty much 8 till 5 so I should be able to keep it up.
Also bought a 3/4 size guitar which is very beauty and I've been singing and playing a lot. Good. If this doesn't win me a tough-ass gorgious adventurous aid worker girl - nothing will.
I'm still feeling a bit allergic to computers and the internet so my replies may be a bit far apart...
Photos of Uganda - www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10100126445394580.2529527.36905017&type=1&l=63795b3cbf
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27 May 2012
May in Shamwana
Sorry I haven't written for a while and sorry if I haven't replied to any recent emails yet (I will).
I'm settled back in since holidays in Cape Town and and am enjoying the busy buzz. There's a lot to do at the moment as we are opening a new sub-base (in a place called Dubie about 100km away) and we've been juggling around with HR and doing interviews and stuff. I'm enjoying.
Today, Maureen (nice american egyptian swiss doctor) cut off all my hair. She left a funny curly tuft at the front. Good
Our dear little goat Agathe died of some unknown illness while I was on holiday. The team used all the medical knowledge and 'our organisation''s medication to save her but to no avail. Sad, but acceptable.
I've started playing football a few times a week and love it and am getting a lot better. Good
Going out to the field tomorrow to fix a broken solar panel / fridge combination. Leaving at 6h30. eek.
Much love and happy week to you all!
Shamwana - https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10100235380886980.2549507.36905017&type=1&l=74dd6941f7
Cape Town - https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10100258657280900.2552512.36905017&type=1&l=abc5cd2530
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9 June 2012
I attended (watched) a caesarian today. Wow!!!
Mother was tiny weeny, probably not quite pygmy but looked about 14 and was 22. Baby was already dead and quite white when it was dragged out. Think the mama is doing ok.
I was very suprised that I lost it a bit. About 5 minutes into the cutting I starting sweating loads and then wanted to vomit. I kept having to sit down. After a while (maybe when the dead baby was taken away) I felt better and watched all the sewing up without a problem. Not really had an appetite the rest of the day.
Even though my mind knew what and why it was happening, I feel like my body and instincts saw it as some kind of horrendous obomonation, like stabbing or torturing or mutilating. Images of Liberian attrocities were popping up. But it's different... of course.. but my poor subconscious didn't know that.
Boo that we haven't had contact for so long. Biiiiiiiig hug first of all. Looking forward to seeing you in a few months (back end of August). Things have calmed down here now. The army have left and so the villagers very quickly started pouring back in.
Still learning lots and still working during the weekend a bit too much, but I'm enjoying and living and loving life.
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30 June 2012
Quick email to say hi (in the style I write work emails)
m: 0"> · I'm starting to count down a little to my end of mission now though it's still not exactly clear when I'll be leaving DRC or getting back into the UK
m: 0"> · Sebastien (Log Admin) has gone on holiday leaving me as double Log again. Fine so far...
m: 0"> · Sarah, my Log boss from Lubumbashi (capital coordination team is based there) is visiting with Jaap, her boss from Amsterdam. It's nice to have them here, hear their feedback and have their support
m: 0"> · Someone came to the gate yesterday with a baby antelope (wow - so beautiful) that they caught in the bush. Katrin thought it wouldn't be a good idea to buy it considering the past record of these animals dying in the base - so we said no. The cats are increasingly cute and affectionate and Stinky, the male kitten (actually he is over 6 months old now, but a bit stunted I think) sits on my legs each day in the morning when I meditate. Good
m: 0"> · We started playing a bit of volleyball in the base, but that seems to have stopped now and I'm trying to do more bucket lid frisbee again.
m: 0"> · We're gonna try and give the cats some albendazol tomorrow to stop them constantly coughing and sneezing up blood (we think it's worms).
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15 July 2012
Having a very lazy day so far. Went to the market and bought some funky material for more funky trousers and gonna have a ultimate bucket lid match in an hour with sweeties and biscuits for a prize!!!
Had another 'heated exchange' with the same girl with whom such tensions have been lingering for quite a few months now. Makes things a bit uncomfortable, which is a pity as she's a super interesting person. We just seem to clash. Achh, what to do... observe myself, accept the situation, try to learn from it, try to have compassion.... observe, accept, learn, compassion....
The village is come to life a bit more (half full market today - sunday!!), but there's lots of rebels and military lingering in different villages in the area and trouble's a'brewin... we shall see. As always, 'our organisation' is well recognised, accepted and valued and so we (especially the mzungus) are safe.
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27 July 2012
Last weeks in the bush
Quick hello to say all is fine and good here. Starting to get into 'end of mission' mode now, as I'll be flying out of Shamwana in just over 3 weeks. I'll then head to Kenya for a course, after spending a few days in Nairobi with a guy I met at the vipassana centre in Hereford a few years ago.
Things are nice here in Shamwana. Getting lots of funky clothes made with local (imported from Nigeria actually) material and things are nice with the team... tis the season of departures though, with 3 of us planned to leave in the next 2 months with only some replacements in sight. Sebastien, my other log half (supply half) is back from holiday which takes some work off me. Good.
Work itself isn't feeling like a huge weight for once - trying to initiate a few new systems and get things tied up before I leave. There's still tons I want to learn about cars and electricity and generators and anything and everything medical... I'll see what's possible to squeeze in during the next few weeks. For sure I learn lots of the course too.
Gonna go over to the Concern (irish NGO) base tonight, who have a satellite dish to watch something or other Olympic.
Finally, finished a 2 month long recruitment process (3 drivers, 1 cleaner, 1 cook, 1 log for the base, 1 radio operator). Achhhh, long process, but learned a lot. HR and management seem to be the biggest challenges of all...
Trying to now finish some last things before departing: new cold chain protocol with training for staff, updating our lovely map, teaching as much computer stuff as to Sebastien as possible, writing new job descriptions for my team and learning as much as I can in the remaining time.
Mildred, our 1 remaining beautiful chicken gave birth a few weeks ago to lots of chicky chicks and 2 days ago they emerged!!! They are now chirping and following mama Mildred about and despite our fears of cat attacks, Mildred has proven herself and fierce and efficient defender of the brood. Go Mildred!!
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24 Aug 2012
Kenya photos of Robert
Here's some photos of Kenya!
The course here is fun. Learn some new stuff and it's nice to share
experiences and stuff with the others (mostly from 'our organisation' Belgium).
See ya'll soon, you hear!!
FRANCE - 2011
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16 May 2011
Gratitude en France
I want to share with you,
I'm back in the land of the civilised (Paris). Gosh, lots to tell. Lots!!!!
After leaving the meditation centre (www.dhamma.org) after 3 months of service and some sitting I went via a brief stop in Lyon down to Grenoble. A big city with all the usual big city things, but nestled amongst the most beautiful mountains with all the fun and adventure that such things can offer. After a few days in the town staying with an american guy I met (at the centre) and meeting some of his friends, climbing, snowboarding and exploring the town a bit - I went to stay with another guy (again - like everyone else - who I met at the centre) who lives in a huge Chateau just the other side of hills from Grenoble with his father (who is a count) and 3 dogs. This place is huge and kind of falling apart and is like something out of Harry Potter and is totally bizarre. In brief, I spent 2 weeks helping my friend develop a small vegetable garden which he hopes to eventually be able to feed himself with. His father, the Count, is pretty old, half deaf, an avid hunter and what's more there were all sort of strange tensions between him and the family. He felt the need to tell anyone who came to the house - Robert ne mange pas le viande. I think I might have been the first non-meat-eater he has met and despite he probably not thinking very much of me, I think I quite amused him. Within the family there were definitely quite a few skeletons in the closet and in fact, at one point I did actually find some bits of skeleton in one of the closets on the 1st floor. Bizarre, bizarre, bizarre.
So, after that, I went off into the wild as planned in the Vercors mountains next to Grenoble, what an amazing experience. I was alone with just my tent and little cooking stove and wandered hither and thither and it was like meditating all day long amongst nature and it was sooooooooo beautiful and I went for 3 days at one point without passing thru a village and ran out of water but there was some snow so I melted it and it was great and I had a bath in a stream and I was so happy nearly always and when I got down or scared at night or tired I found I could really take control of my mind and brings things back to here and now and I smiled again!!!
Then I went to Lyon to stay with a friend. I had started getting used to the idea of being a wandering man and wanted to experience it in a city. So we went out for 24 hours with no food or money and begged!!! It was so amazing. I wanted to try and be like a monk, just for a day, having no belongings and only taking what is offered. Learning to be humble, learning to ask and receive and also learned to give as well. We had a sign that said "On ne demande que de la nouriture" and left a bowl in front and we played a bit of music (I sang and played the flute) and then would do mettha meditation (wishing others happiness) to those passing by and people gave!!! They were so lovely and generous and some gave money and since monks don't handle money and we didn't really need it, we gave nearly all of it away to others. We shared some of our food with other people we met too. It felt so amazing. Then in the evening after we'd finished begging I said to Flo, "I'm actually still a bit hungry, but no problem" and then a van pulled up in front of us and a women started handing out leftover bakery bread from a huge sack. Whatttttttttt!!!!
And then I hitch-hiked from Lyon to the meditation centre and I ended up getting right to the centre 2 minutes before the last meditation of the day travelling with a total of 8 different people. Gosh, so much generosity and the fear and uncertainty of travelling like that. But oh what an adventure. Ask - Be humble - Be prepared and content to receive nothing - Accept whatever comes....... and wonderful things happen!!!! Wow.
And now I'm in Paris staying in the apartment of a girl I met at the centre. She just left to go on holiday as she'll be spending the next 4 months going all over the world as she's a super famous Iranian actress (though in exile) and so she's left me the apartment till I leave on Thursday and filled up the fridge and has given me her phone and laptop to use and has so many amazing instruments and we sang and played together before she left and wow, I've met so many wonderful people in these last 4 months. I feel blessed, I really do and so happy. This too will change and I accept it, I embrace all that will come.
Deep breath. Breath out.
Lots of happiness to you,
photos of France on my Facebook page - PART 1 - www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.849413367010.2485024.36905017&l=2d91ac0958
PART 2 - www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.921850158100.2503555.36905017&type=1&l=e4ef4da513
INDIA & SRI LANKA - 2005-6
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29 July 2005
Sri Lanker tanker
Hello hello. This is what Robert has been doing in the mystical indian subcontinet
A brief recap on where I left off. I arrived in Sri Lanka 1 month ago without a clue as to what I was going to do. Within a day I'd turned up in some beach town (HIkkaduwa) and found some people who were volunteering to build a village in the jungle for the tsunami affected people.
Thennnnn... I foolishly got a ride on the back of a scooter with another volunteer driving. The day finished with me having collided and been run over by a tractor and spending 8 hours in an unclean hospital. I didn't break anything but had quite a few cuts and a pretty painful upper torso. I then made the 'big hard man' decision to not tell anyone back home so as not to worry them. This was followed by another decision to go travelling for a week as a building site isn't the ideal location for a post road crash victim.
So I headed to 'the hill country' to a town called Kandy. A culmination of being alone and injured and having not told anyone and some post shock led to me having a minor nervous breakdown or panic attack or something which left me feeling a total nervous wreck. After a brief visit to a baby elephant santuary (see picture) I decided to ease my troubled sole by going to a buddhist meditation centre. This somewhat intense experience really calmed me down and I learned a load about buddha and the like. Our daily schedule was: 4:45am wake up, a total of 1/2 of speaking, 2 hours of yoga (had to stop cause still to injured) and a whopping 5 hours of group meditation each day. No one be suprised if come home wearing an orange robe and having no hair.
After that I went to a beach bum surfer town called Aragam bay with some folk I met. It was pretty dull just sitting on the beach all day (would have liked to surf but again too injured) but I did a load of reading and became slightly less of a whitey. See nice sunset.
5 days of that and I headed back to Colombo (the capital) to renew my visa for a few more months, change my flights and get an x-ray. The latter errand was on account of one of my collar bones being a bit of a worrying shape and seemed to be the sole cause of whatever pain I was still having. After about 30 mins of the most efficient medical care I've ever seen and a grand total of about 2 quid 50, I was told that my collar bone had indeed 'bent' but not broke (apparently very common with 4 year olds) and that I should rest a week or so more before returning to life as a labourer on the building site.
I got back to Hikkaduwa with the intention of maybe helping out with some of the more administrative stuff that was going on for a week, apply for some jobs with Oxfam etc. in the region and then go back to work after a week. By now there were loads more volunteers and it's a veritable social mad house here now. In passing I asked a guy called Mil if I could help out at the Hikkaduwa Aid Information Centre where he worked until I was healed. His reply was that he'd just been promoted to a role with UNHIC (the UN Humanitarian information centre) and so he'd actually been thinking of giving his old job to me anyway. Woohoo!! So now I'm working in this place with a girl called Charlotte, collecting info on and coordinating between all the NGO's in the Hikkaduwa division. I've only been there 2 days and still feel at a bit of a loss as to what I'm meant to be doing, what the organisation does and various other unsavoury thoughts. However, it's pretty much exactly what I wanted to be doing and so I'll probably try and stay here for at least another 2 months, maybe even 5 months.
On a lighter note, I have my first Tabla lesson on sunday (indian double drum thing) and am trying to get someone to teach me Sinhalese. Oh and I also got on the back of another scooter yesterday (twice!) and nearly pooed my pants on both occasions. Back on the horse and all that ay.
Ernmmmm.... this was very long. Thank you if you read all this way. I'd love to hear from any and all of you. Oh and there's loads of volunteer work available here (they don't charge to take part either) and so if anyone wants to pop over then I'll hook em up.
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28 Mar 2006
Jelly fish, schmelly fish
sorry for big group email but if you reply to me then I promise I'll get back to you personally cause I really want to know what you're all doing right now.
I've now been in India for 18 days and have been travelling solo through the south so far (Kerala and now Tamil Nadu). The food is way better and more varied than Sri Lanka and the music is also a lot better. So to bad mounth Lanka all those still there, but India is great and also soooo cheap.
I've been eating vegetarian since I got here and so much of the food is geared for veggies that that it's not really been any problem at all, cause it's all soooo tasty pasty. Current favourite is masala dosa (pancakey thing with oniony potatoey stuff inside) usually costing about 15p / 25 cents. Super.
My first hospitalization of the trip occurred yesterday and even though was not of quite the same extent as the motorbike crash in Sri Lanka was still a bit of a shaker.
Some background first.
I am currently in Pondicherry which is a nice little town that was inhabitated by the french till about 50 years ago and is also the current home of my buddy Lara who was also working in Sri Lanka (no romantic connection). She has a humongous house a few km out of town and I've staying there for about 5 days now. Yesterday we decided to go for a swim in the ocean, which, even under normal circumstances is somewhat of a questionable idea as the water is kind of brown and smelly, probably owing to the fact that there a large amounts of poo, dead fish and general trash/rubbish on the beach. However, Lara has been swimming for ages there and when we went a few days ago it was fine. We swam out to some little fishing boats with no one in em and hijacked them and sunbathed before heading back. Yesterday we did the same thing. However, when I was about 100m out to sea I suddenly felt a sharp stinging on my ankle. After screaming this news to Lara I started to swim back with somewhat of a sense of urgency. This was increased however when I received a worse stinging to my chest. I was now swimming back as fast as I could when suddenly the little (or possibly quite big) b**tard wrapped its stingy tentacles right around my left arm and neck. I was still functioning pretty well at this point to got back to the beach and on Dr Lara's advice, peeed in an empty bottle we had and poured it over my wounds which were by now blistering disgustingly and were very red and painfull. We then hopped in an auto/tuk tuk/rickshaw to go the hospital in town. By the time we got there about 30 mins later I was shaking all over, had a bitch of a painful lower back, couldn't really speak or breathe too well and was starting to cramp up in my hands.
4 hours later, I'd had an injection of something (probably hydro-cortizone) and a glucose drip and felt loads better. All last night my back really ached (on account of my kidneys fighting the poison) and I was pretty feavourish. Today I'm just a big weak and feeling proud of having been attacked by some sea beasty and survived. While I was in lots of pain I really tried hard to use my meditation stuff and at some points really enjoyed the sensation as I could just see it for what it was and not try to block it out. I was again very pleased with myself.
Also while I'm here I've been taking indian flute and singing classes from a dingy little performance school and have learnt 3 ragas. It's pretty cool and I look forward to imposing my new found music skills on you all when I see you again. Next I'm planning on heading to Bangalore to stay with another friend who was working in Sri Lanka and then I'm planning on heading to Mysore, Hampi, Goa, Mumbai and then eventually to Nepal or maybe NW India to do some trekking. I fly back to the UK on July 1st and then move to London on September 1st.
Please right write back.
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27 May 2006
India - part II
Here begins the telling of my past month in India. Twas much of a spiritual time for me. Mmmmmmmmmmm, ahhhhhhhhhhh, mmmmmmmmm.
I started my immersion in this facet of India culture by setting aside 2 weeks attempting to learn some yoga. I considered this to be quite a hefty and generous chunk of time but was told somewhat condescendingly "what can you learn in two weeks [and thinking, stupid foreigner]. I arrived in Mysore which has a huuuge Maharajah's palace and some other
cool buildings and is also well known for it's yogic masters. I found an iiintense yoga course with some famous old dude called Iyengar (different to the one that writes the yoga books if you happen to have seen them). The dude teaching is 80 something and talks a lot without explaining, understanding or listening much. He studied under Krishnamacharya, the guy who re found Ashtanga Vinyasa (popular style of yoga) and there are some photos of him as a wee nipper with his
legs wrapped multiple times round his head in the yoga shala where we practised. I hoped, however, that his vast experience would be enough to make up for his eccentricity.
The yoga was cool but oh oh so tiring. The fatigue was so deep and strange and it was so hot out that I thought I had dengue fever on multiple occasions. I was doing two sessions a day but after informing Mr Guru that I was so weak I could hardly leave my hotel he told me that it was no surprise as my body was, after all, very undisciplined. I cut it down to once a day. I think it'll take me a bit of time before I see the true benefits of contorting my body for an hour a day but I'm told that it feels great after a while and you don't get tired or stiff all day if you do it in the morning. Definitely gonna try to keep it up.
A few weeks later I took a definite downer on the spiritual side of things and spent a few days on some stupid beach in Goa. Everyone loves Goa. I think it's rubbish. Well, no. Goa is really beautiful and stuff but being surrounded by tourists and Indians trying to act and talk like tourists and who are all mainly interested in sunbathing, drinking and attracting the opposite sex, I found my calmly peaceful vibes got a bit ruffled. India is so conservative and I'd spent so much time on my own not even seeing a white person that the sight of topless Europeans and bars was a little hard to settle down to. So I
On the 5 May the beginning of Part II of my Indian experience (and possibly my life, ooooooow) began. The subsequent 10 days involved me not speaking, getting up at 4am, meditating for about 14 hours a day and learning a technique taught by Buddha, 2500 years ago, called Vipassana. Me and about 100 other people (all Indian) would basically sit still in a big hall all day and concentrate on either our breath or sensations on our bodies. Sometimes we had to sit for a hour
without moving which was obviously pretty difficult. The idea was/is to not like or dislike the sensations just to observe them and after a while your mind gets super sharp and calm. Due to the extreme lack of any sensory inputs, one of the highlights of my day became going to the toilet. I also took to experimenting with pain in the canteen and would bite myself and see what it felt like. I've mostly stopped that now.
Lots of funny memories and thoughts came up including craving for donner kebabs (I've been vege in India) in addition to all the angry difficult times in my life. Another interesting result of sitting still all day is what I called 'meditation breath'. This became apparent on about day 4 when I realised that the same nasty breath you get from sleeping is pretty much the same as the one you get sitting cross legged and not moving all day. I would have great fun smelling my stagnant breath (something I always found difficult in the past) in the breaks we had every hour and trying to work out what it smelled like.
At the end of the course I didn't want to ever speak again but suddenly found myself surrounded by about 15 of the male participants wanting to know everything about me and my good country, in addition to wanting my address and phone number back home (sorry mum and dad if you get some strange calls). Apparently I had been under surveillance for most of the 10 days despite the instructions for us to keep our attention within at all times. I was asked why I ate, dressed, moved, meditated and walked in a certain way and very soon the beautiful peace and silence I had attained in my head was shattered. The teaching however, is not about sitting still for the rest of your life though and is about actually living it day to day. Not craving or having aversion to your experiences, remaining calm, aware and, probably most beautifully of all, being loving and compassionate to everyone you come across. So I bought every English book they had and am now trying to be the Buddha that I'm told is within us all. I now find myself worrying less and being a lot calmer towards things that are happening around me. I hope it stays. Check out www.dhamma.org for some more info on it, there's even a course or two in the UK.
It also seemed that everyone on the course wanted me to come and stay at their houses and for alot of them, I was the first foreigner they'd ever spoken to. As a result I spent the next day cruising around some local sites with 4 of the young guys from the course and learning as much as I could about the music, language and culture that they all live in. After that I headed up to Pune (Poona) with 3 of them on what is certainly the most crowded train I have ever been involved in. We luckily got seats but many of the other 200 passengers sharing our carriage on the 8 hour journey were not so lucky. After a few hours I had 5 guys sharing my bench, 4 above me, 1 lying on the floor below me and many more sitting or standing in the isle. Our compartment was, however, relatively calm unlike some down the corridor where there would be regular explosions of shouting and banging which were translated to me as being nothing more than a few disagreements over each individuals small piece of seat of floor. These usually continued for about 30 minutes before someone would get really pissed off and scream at them all to shut up. They then shut up.
In Pune I spent 3 nights staying with a guy from the course and his parents. Their house was simple but comfy and he had a great blind dog that walked around bumping into things and letting me stroke it. It was a brilliant opportunity to live with a family, eat their food and see the sights from a local's perspective, something which I never really get to do before. On the 2nd day we went to visit the Osho International meditation resort. This place was started by a guy who called himself Osho in the 60's I think. He had a big long white beard, and a lot of very controversial ideas (many concerning sex), so back in the day his Ashram in Pune used to be filled with hippies becoming enlightened and having lots of free love. We arrived to see a beautiful black marble archway at the entrance of the accurately named 'resort' and loads of people walking around in weird cult-like maroon robes. After a tour and the unpleasant experience of trying to squeeze some answers to my questions from the rude people on the front desk, I decided to take advantage of a special deal for under 25 year olds and stay there for a while, 'just to see what it is like'. After my standard HIV test (I'm clean) and registration procedure I went on a tour and welcome morning. I somehow imagined a lot of hippy like decor and atmosphere in the place but instead was met with beautiful gardens surrounding state of the art air-conditioned black marble buildings and a load of seemingly aloof purple robe people.
The 'active meditation' sessions were started by Osho for people who couldn't sit still and do proper meditation and so at 6am we would start our day by filing into the huge auditorium and then proceed to exhale through our noses 'fast, chaotically and hard' without fainting or hyperventilating for 10 minutes. This was followed by 'total catharsis' where we would scream, cry, laugh, kick and 'just go mad' for a while. This session along with many of the meditations involved dancing to kind of new age music with our eyes closed. It was kind of nice to do these crazy, socially unpermitted things but I really found to it difficult to keep a calm mind and stop it drifting off all the time.
Some other meditation highlights included the 'laughing meditation' which I found to be one of the most unpleasant voluntary experiences of my life. Everyone else in the room was rolling about in what seemed to be genuine hysterics while I just sat there exhausted from all the fake guffawing. At one point I tried to leave but was told to sit down and just fake it. Errrrghh. Every evening at 6:40pm we would don our white robes and all troop up to the big pyramidal shaped auditorium
looking like we were on our way to some mass suicide. We'd then dance around to music then sit silently. If anyone sneezed or coughed (which was quite tempting as they air conditioning was so cold and dry) they were exiled to some other place where such disruptions were permitted. Many people seemed to fall asleep during this session however but
their snoring never seemed to earn them such castigations. Despite the lack of any deep, calm meditative bliss I did make friends with some really cool people which I haven't really done the whole time I've been in India. I also got a chance to learn a bit of Bollywood dancing, Zen archery, Capoiera (Brazilian dance fighting) and Tai Chi.
After 4 days I had had enough and left the Oshoville with a Canadian/Iranian buddy I met there. We headed to Mumbai (Bombay) and this is where I'm writing this epic saga from. After these last few months alone it feels so different travelling with someone. Everything is so much easier and fun but at the same time I don't take in anywhere near as much of what is happening around me or have time to read or spend time in my own head. I'm not sure if it's because of vipassana or travelling with a companion but it seems that I'm really seeing India from a different perspective now (hence India part II).
Mumbai is fantastic. It's a great mix of west and east. Just a few blocks from McDonalds & Louis Vuitton are Bollywood cinemas, traditional markets and then a bit further on the vast slums containing thousands of inhabitants. Like London, Rome, Barcelona and New York I really feel a kind of buzz about this city and would quite like to live here some day. A lot of the colonial architecture is amazing and rivals a lot of the stuff in London. There's all red 'Double-Decker' buses. Sweeeeeeet.
Yesterday I had the delightful experience of stretching my extensive performing arts skills by standing around all day as an extra in a Bollywood movie called Abne. On account of all Indian people wanting to be fair and lovely (whitey and pale) and cause westerners and sooo cool we were picked up on the street and asked to come and be in a scene filmed in a night club. The set was in 'film city' in the north of Mumbai and it looked great. All we had to do was stand or sit and a table with a class of some urine coloured liquid and 'look like we were enjoying the music', (the music was actually pretty good). Everyone was so stylish yahh that I would have expected myself to feel a little shy. For some reason I was incredibly laid back and had no problem wandering around the set amongst the scantily clad dancers while they tried to shoot the night club scene. They are filming for the next 6 days on the same set for one, yes just one, song lasting a few minutes. Yesterday, we filmed for about 10 hours and they probably got about 10 - 15 seconds of footage. Craaaaazy. I met loads of really interesting and down to earth people and got a free lunch and dinner and some money (500 rupees). By the end of the day I was having a great time singing and playing flute with some of the black guys whose role was to be the band in the club scene. There's a pretty big African population here and despite having lived here for a long time they are sooo different to most Indians. As a result of this sudden rise to Hindi movie fame I have decided to change my name to Robertab Khan.
It was a faaaaab experience and they asked us to come back again tomorrow but we decided not to as there's still so many other things we want to do and I've only got 1 month left now. Thanks if you read all of this, it has taken me about 3 days to write. I'm really looking forward to seeing people back home but at the same there's still so much to see and do in India. I'll almost definitely come back.
Please write back and tell me what is happening in your life.
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2 July 2006
India - part III
I was in Sri Lanka for 8 months and then India for 4 months......
.... and then I came home,
.... and nothing had changed,
.... except me (I hope).
PERU & BOLIVIA - 2004
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30 May 2004
Peru numero 1
So, I'm in Peru.
Arrived in Lima on tuesday. It is big, dirty and noisy. Every cab (about 80% of the cars on the road) feels the need to drive at a constant 80 miles/hour and honk it's horn continually.
Everything costs about 2p and despite this if you search hard you can still find things for 1p.
On tuesday me and Amber got a bus down to Nazca where there are big lines in the desert. We went up in a plane about 15 quid and got to see them from the air. I was nearly sick but I am strong and so I was not. After that we went to see some ancient aquaducts and our cool taxi man took us to the desert where the lines where which was great.
Now I am in the 2nd largest city, Arequipa. People are still staring at my strange hair, complexion and abnormal height but they seem a bit more used to us whities here. We are starting the research on the water filters on monday. Jenn, our other team member arrives on tuesday.
Creen que un dio blanco en Pero pero en 3 meses voy a ser le mismo que ellos. ˇCUIDADO!
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14 June 2004
Stuff here is going pretty well. The research is rolling now and even though we are a bit behind in some things it is definitely all going as planned. Our lab is in a clinic out in a reasonably poor area of Arequipa. A missionary called Padre Alex Bustilla is helping us out by giving us transport, lab space and a lot of help in other areas of our research as well. He seems to have basically organised the building and development of an area containing about 30,000 people (where there was initially only dirt and hills).
Working with the other two girls is ok but it's quite annoying at times. I'll be quite happy when I can go off travelling on my own.
The weekend just gone we went to Colca Canyon which was amazingly stunning. On Saturday we went to a little village called Yanque (near the canyon) on the invitation of a lady who's mother lives there and who teaches art classes at the clinic called Betsy. So we rocked up in the tiny village asked a random women where this family lived. Unlike many towns we did recieve a barrage of offers for hotels but only this friendly helpful women (who turned out to be the nursery teacher) who took us to the door of Betsy's family.
The house was made of rough stone and inside the whole extended family (all who live in the village) were helping with decorations for the church as this weekend was the big fiesta (party) of the year. None of them could speak english but we got by speaking slow spanish and soon they had given us some duck or goose or something for dinner. Jenn is vege and Amber is a vegan so I got to eat triple. They had no bathroom only a 'coral' which is a little walled off area of the courtyard where the donkeys and pig live. This was where we made weewee but thankfully I didn't need to also poop which would have been extra bad as I'm about three feet taller than all Peruvians and I could clearly be seen over the edge of the poopy area's wall.
The next day we got a super early bus to the canyon and hired a little local guide who led us 4000 feet in to the heart of the canyon. The view was stunning and at the bottom was an amazing little oasis with a pool and expensive prices. I took a million pictures which you'll be able to see on my return.
Last week there a big procession in the central plaza in Arequipa which I went to watch. During the course of the evening I found that three 16 year old girls had attached themselves to me. After first asking me what my email address was (before even asking for my name) they then proceeded to ask me many other personal questions including my marital status, music and film preferences and whether I preffered english or peruvian women. I am now about to read an email from one of them entitled, 'note enamores mucho' which I think means 'a letter of big love'.
Joyfull, joyfull, hope everyone is ok,
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18 June 2004
While in Peru
I becoming un maestro de musica Peruana!!!
I first bought a Sampońa which is basically pan pipes and learnt to play: Pasa de condor (the simon and garfunkel song, which is actually a Peruvian traditional song), then The sound of silence and then Oh Say Shalom Bimrooma (or however you say it).
I then was getting bored of that so I bought an Ocarina which turned out to suck as it only has 6 notes. Boooo
Thennnnnnn I bought this super hella cool pipe on which I can now play (after 1 week) Greensleeves, the theme from Titanic and today I taught myself Danny Boy. It sounds wicked!!
I also played guitar at the clinic one day and all the little weiners came to listen and said I looked like some clown off Mexican TV.
I think my spanish is improving. I haggled at man down in spanish for a headlight (trekking) from 57 soles to 50 soles. Come onnnn!!!
I found a super cheap trip to Machu Picchu (big fat Inca place, check it on the web) but I fear this price will ensure that they will feed us crappy food, no drink and will proceed to push us off some cliff in the night after stealing all our expensive American crap.
P.S. I am staying at the Casa La Reyna