(I've changed the name from "Rants" given that I can't really rant about many things that frustrate me here, at least not without getting into some sort of trouble. As such, you'll have to wait for the book.)

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Galkacyo-Qardho

(drafted Nov. 20)

I’m on a flight from Qardho to Galkacyo over north-central Somalia. I’ve been on joint monitoring mission with a donor to see some of the work we’re doing. It’s been a whirlwind trip and I’m a bit exhausted, particularly since I arrived on Saturday morning from London and departed for Somalia early the following morning. When I woke up in Hargeisa (Somaliland), on the Gulf of Aden, it took me a while for my brain to figure out where I was.
The trip began at the smallish Wilson Airport in Nairobi. The majority of the tourist flights (safari, coastal beaches) fly from there and it’s rather handy since it’s closer to home. There was only a small group of us and we had the plane to ourselves – not that we really needed it. The plane left around 7am and made a stop in Wajir, not far from the Kenyan border with Somalia, to refuel. We then continued on to Galkacyo, our first stop.
Galkacyo
Galkacyo is a medium-sized town in the middle of the country. It’s divided into north and south, separate clans and separate administrations. The town is frequently tense and has been off-limits to me for most of the time that I have been in my current role. Given the short duration of the trip (4-5 hours) and the fact that things have been relatively calm, I was allowed to go.
crossing the sometimes tense border from north to south
We support a decent-sized hospital in the south and that would be the primary target of our visit. A couple of other organizations work with us there to support the Ministry of Health in running the facility.
health education for women and girls
The area was severely hit by the drought. A glance at the patient register over the past few months sheds some light on how tough it has been on this area. There have been loads of cases of acute watery diarrhea, cholera and lately a spike in measles. The facility does some great work under sometimes difficult circumstances.
the impact of the drought is as bad as it looks
While there I was able to visit our office and see some of the staff. The majority were out in the field so the majority of the members of my team that I was able to meet were ones that were facilitating the visit. It was a pretty big deal since they don’t often get such visits.
ramshackle living conditions of those who have been displaced
We made a short trip out to a camp for people who have been displaced by drought or conflict (IDPs). It’s so tough to see these places and hear peoples’ stories. The needs are endless.
One woman was at our hospital with a gunshot wound on her left shin. Such wounds were high on the list when we asked what the primary causes of serious injury were. The doctor who was showing us around cracked a bit of a smile and said that her husband did it. “He shot her?!” we asked. The donor said she hoped that he didn’t do it intentionally. Apparently he did. The Somali guy next to me said that’s how a lot of Somali men deal with things. Crazy.
One thing I noticed about Galkacyo was the amount of guns that were floating about town. We agreed that it felt a bit like the Old West. In other towns I’ve been to I haven’t noticed as many.
Hargeisa
From Galkacyo we were off to Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland, where we would spend the night. Somaliland, as you might know, is a sensitive topic. The Somali government considers it part of Somalia while they consider themselves to be an independent country. Most countries don’t recognize it and that’s where things are for the time being. In the short time I was there I did notice some differences. I was told that the people of Somaliland feel as though they are superior to Somalis. I certainly won’t weigh in on that debate but I will say that what little I saw was safer, cleaner and more developed. Granted, that’s just Hargeisa, but it was still impressive. I guess that’s while a lot of international people are hosted there.
The other thing I noticed was how chilly it is. I’m told the wind blows frequently and the seasoned travelers to Hargeisa had brought a second layer. I, on the other hand, didn’t and even someone like me who is rarely cold was a bit uncomfortable.
We stayed at the Ambassador Hotel. I assume it’s one of the nicer hotels in the city. It’s big and has wireless. The rooms are basic but clean. I didn’t switch on the TV so I don’t know if it worked or what channels were available. I’m normally curious about such things but after the days I had leading up to this night, I just wanted to go to bed. After checking in, the one thing between bed and me was dinner. The lady from the donor agency I was traveling with suggested we meet up for dinner. I concurred, knowing four things: 1) I was a bit hungry, 2) the restaurant served some good camel, 3) the service is known to be fast and 4) she wanted to go to bed early as well. In the end, all four would be true and I was able to get a decent night’s sleep. This is where I woke up wondering where the hell I was.
We checked out at 5:30, had a quick breakfast and were off to the airport. I was told in advance that the security screenings are rather intense. In dodgy environments I’m a big fan of tight security. I’m less of a fan when it seems a bit over the top – at least in my opinion. Here they screen you as you come into the airport (understandable), after you check in and head to the waiting area (also understandable) but at that point you should be done. Instead there is a final screening – the most thorough of the three – before going to a final waiting area. They open even tiny tubes of toothpaste. They pull the caps off pens. They guy even stared at one of my Clif bars for a good 15-20 seconds. Given my confidence in the availability of food for the day, I offered it to him. It seemed to break his trance. He wrinkled his nose and stuffed it back in my backpack.
Qardho
Soon we were back on our plane and heading off to our first destination of the day. Qardho is a small town in northern Somalia/Puntland. Then it was dangerously dry and pre-famine conditions were just setting in. Clinics were full of the sick, mostly children. Carcasses of dead goats and camels could be seen from the road as you drove along. It’s doing better now, having had a bit of rain, but it’s far from enough.
our welcome; apparently we were on the local news
Qardho is sort of in the middle of the horn of the Horn of Africa. Looking down from the airplane you can see a lot of nothing as you approach. Sadly, it looked quite dry. After four failed rainy seasons, the area just can’t afford to lose out on this one. But it’s not looking good.
I had been to Qardho in April of this year. That time I flew in to Garowe and drove the 2 ½ hours north to get there. This time, since it was a chartered flight, we flew directly to the dirt airstrip on the outskirts of town. To our surprise, there was a greeting line of local authorities awaiting us with a TV camera and a couple of photographers. Impressive reception. But I guess my counterpart is a donor after all. One has to treat them well.
lots to see in this photo: our security guys, a guy hanging out of the side of a vehicle video-ing our drive from the airport to town, a roadside camel...
We shook lots of hands and then waited for the flight crew. Soon we were out on the road heading into town. It was a massive convoy of 7 Land Cruisers and a pick-up – the latter being full of armed local police. A ninth vehicle came up alongside us carrying the media with the cameraman filming precariously out one of the back windows. That sort of thing would have breached security protocols if there was a chance that any of the media, including Twitter or Facebook, would be released before we left Qardho. It didn’t and it all worked out.
We were off to visit a couple of maternal and child health (MCH) clinics and then we would meet up with some beneficiaries of the donor funding. I joined for the clinics but bailed thereafter given that these were not our organization’s activities. The beneficiary meeting was in a hotel compound. I sought out a space to sit down, charge my laptop and get some work done. The weather was nice and there was a cool breeze blowing through the small, square room with two doors to the outside. People walked through from time to time, most a bit startled by a white guy sitting alone on a chair with a laptop. One guy, who seemed the least surprised of all, even asked me something in Somali. I shrugged my shoulders and continued working.
Finally the meeting was over and we had some lunch. I think it was my third serving of camel in two days. Then it was back to the airstrip. The conspicuously long convoy weaved its way through town. Soon after leaving town we slowed as a herd of camels encroached on the road. I’m not sure why but I’m fascinated by them.
Our flight to Nairobi would need to make a couple of stops along the way for fuel. We would have only needed one stop but there was no fuel in Qardho (in fact we found out that we could have). The first stop was back to the airstrip in Galkacyo. We had to disembark while they fueled the plane. We chose an acacia tree to be our “transit area” shade. I tried in vain to get my Somali wireless working (I think I need to change companies). In addition to wanting to download emails, I wanted to get news about what was happening in Kenya with a Supreme Court election announcement. Another guy was able to get a signal with a different phone company and we found out that there was some violence but nothing major, at least not that that time.
the transit lounge
Though I was certainly looking forward to getting home, the thought of getting on another plane was not that appealing. It’s not just the fact that over the course of three days I will have boarded an airplane, taken off and landed a whopping eight times (if you include the London flight). Yes, I said eight flights. The whole time I’ve done it with a bad cold and congestion. Each change in altitude brings sharp pain to my ears.
refueling
So that brings me to where I am now – on the airplane from Galkacyo to Nairobi. The pilot said that he spotted a couple of drones flying below us moments ago. Ominous sight.
We have a mandatory a stopover in the tiny town across the border into Kenya called Wajir. Must be one of the world's tiniest international airports. It's not much bigger than my apartment. There I will download messages and thus be preoccupied until we arrive in Nairobi (and sometime thereafter). Looking forward to not traveling for a few days.

Monday, January 8, 2018

London



Way behind in my blog postings (still), I’ll see what I can do to catch up.

After returning from Nepal and conducting a short trip to Somalia I went to London to attend some meetings. It had been a couple years since I had been to the UK since June 2014. That visit was mostly spent in Windsor though I did sneak in a day in London. I remember being surprised at how much the city had changed over the years.
a quaint little wall-mounted tea box in my room
This visit, being only two and a half years later, I noted fewer big changes though, since I was there a bit longer this time, there were other things that I didn’t notice before. One thing that became apparent as I went on one of my two chilly jogs was the lack of classic red telephone boxes (or “booths” as we say in the US). While some are still around, they are steadily disappearing. Most of the ones that I saw weren’t functional. There are, however, initiatives out there that a looking to re-purpose them such that they maintain their presence on the London streets. Ideas include Wi-Fi stations, advertising, phone charging stations, etc. I also hear that people around the world have been buying them – a rather large souvenir from the UK but certainly a novelty for your backyard.
security barriers to protect from vehicle attacks
Another change I noticed was the presence of sidewalk security barriers, primarily due to the London Bridge attack last June. They were installed on major bridges and places around the city that are known to have a considerable amount of pedestrian traffic. For the most part they were tastefully done (unlike the cement blocks used in some places) and I suspect that they will increasingly be common. It’s unfortunate but that’s the direction we’re heading.
Trafalgar Square with Big Ben in the background, enshrouded in scaffolding
Given that it was late autumn and the fact that I was busy all day, what little time ad to sightsee was either before sunrise (jogging) or evening, in other words almost exclusively while it was dark. I don’t mind, really, but it’s just a different perspective.
the Eye of London (I'm not a fan)
Our meetings were in a place called Mary Ward House. It’s an interesting building with an interesting history. Considered a masterpiece of Victorian architecture, the building was constructed in 1898 as a part of the “settlement movement” whose main object was the establishment of "settlement houses" in poor urban areas. They served as housing for volunteer middle-class "settlement workers" hoping to share knowledge and culture with, and alleviate the poverty of, their low-income neighbors. They provided services such as daycare, education, and healthcare to improve the lives of the poor in these areas. By 1929, Mary Ward House had become a dedicated women’s settlement. A legal advice center was subsequently opened during the 1940s to provide both legal assistance and financial advice to low income individuals.
the courtyard at the Mary Ward House - note the low windows
History at the time of the construction dictated some of the interesting attributes:

  • Most of the rooms in the house have double doors. Women’s dress at the time consisted of the bustle which would not fit through single doors.
  • I was told that one meeting room was formerly called the Cripples Room, a name that fortunately disappeared at some point. Mary Ward, the wealthy yet generous activist who founded the facility, felt that people with disabilities were capable of overcoming them and thus put their dedicated room a couple of flights of stairs above the ground floor.
  • Because disadvantaged children were a key focus of the house, windows in some of the rooms were designed to be low, many only about a foot above the floor.
  • The house contained one of the UKs first public libraries. At the time, most felt that libraries should not be provided for the poor. Not only were most illiterate, the upper and middle class felt they could not, and would not, take advantage of such facilities. As you might guess, it was a huge success.

Today the building serves as a conference and exhibition center.

That Friday afternoon I took the tube back to Heathrow. I had a night flight so I arrived home early morning on Saturday. In addition to being unable to sleep on the plane, I had caught a bad cold my last day in London. It made it more of a challenge to enjoy the day with family. On top of that, I needed to get up the following morning at 4am to catch a flight to Somalia where I would endure seven take-offs and landings in a day and a half. With severe congestion, the landings were particularly painful. By Monday night upon my return to Nairobi I was in a rare state of complete exhaustion. The only saving grace was that the coming Thursday was a holiday and I would have some respite. Thanksgiving is obviously not a national holiday in Kenya but it’s one of the two American holidays that our US organization recognizes here – the 4th of July being the other.
Things didn’t let up, however. By the following Monday I would be off to Mogadishu again for two days followed by two days of senior management meetings in Nairobi. It’s no wonder I was at the end of my tether by the time my Christmas break rolled around.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Trip to Nepal Part 3 - Pokhara



Pokhara
Apparently the number two tourist destination in Nepal is Pokhara. To be honest, I didn’t know much about it before we went. I used to take pride in doing my homework before traveling someplace. Preparation for this particular trip sort of slipped through the cracks. In fact the trip as a whole was at risk of not happening, at least for me, due to professional responsibilities. In the end it seemed that canceling the trip wouldn’t have made a huge difference with what was going on with our staff and work in Somalia. I would, in the end, make a trip to Mogadishu soon after we returned to Nairobi and it seemed that it went quite well.

Priya and Liz
But all that drama with my work meant that my entire preparation involved packing a bag and making sure my family made it to the airport to catch the airplane on time. My poor wife shouldered the burden and complexities of getting everyone else ready and worked with Liz to determine, generally speaking, what we were going to do and when. Once on the ground, and a few time zones separated from my office, I did in the end become less useless.
We opted to fly to Pokhara from Kathmandu. It’s a choice between a full day’s drive or a short flight. Given our limited time in the country and two small children, the choice was a no-brainer. Though we might have deprived ourselves of the interesting and beautiful countryside afforded to road travelers, we more than made up for it with clear skies and spectacular views of the Himalayas – this time moving westwards towards along the Annapurna range.

view of the Himalayas on the flight to Pokhara

It’s the kind of thing that can almost make me weepy. I grew up with a fascination with, and hunger for, time in the mountains. I can’t seem to ever get enough. The past twelve and a half years I’ve spent working in Africa has resulted in very little time spent at altitude. It’s a cost that I signed up for but it’s one of the things that I miss the most. I do hope to rectify that at some point but for now, I need to take what I can get.

our Yeti Airlines plane at the Pokhara airport

I must say that the magnificent views of the Himalayas through an airplane window was cruel tease, akin to a hungry person seeing a brunch buffet through a locked door. If I were embarking on a trek, the tease would be eventually answered by the unlocking of the door to the buffet. Alas, not this time.
Pokhara has a nice little airport teeming with locals and energetic trekkers. Our bags were delivered to us by a tractor pulling a luggage trailer. I remember when we were living in remote Kibondo (Tanzania) and flying in and out of Kigoma airport, luggage there was delivered by Datsun pick-up (for those of you who remember Datsuns). 
  
the rope-tow raft to the hotel
I was told in advance that we would need to take a boat to get to our hotel. And so it was. It was an interesting little crossing that we ended up doing multiple times. I would consider it a feature of the hotel rather than an inconvenience (I suppose the guy pulling the rope that tugged the raft back and forth might think otherwise). The lake, on which the hotel was perched, was a quiet and still body of water wedged between lush, green hillsides and the town itself. The water seemed relatively clean though I suspect that a fair amount of sewage makes its way into it from the community.
Kinaya in the pool; note the prominent Fishtail peak in the background
The hotel had a pool and we ended up spending a considerable amount of time there. The girls love the water and I certainly wasn’t opposed to it, particularly since it came with a view of the Annapurna range (when not obscured by clouds).
caught this guy dangling off a branch for a sip
Liz had been to Pokhara before and did justice to her tour guide role in taking us to some very nice places to eat. She also advised that we get up early on day two in an attempt to see sunrise over the Annapurna range. I was game. I wake up early anyway and it was worth a shot, having been warned that often times they are shrouded in clouds.
tourists gathered to watch the sunrise
We were up at 4am and crossed the still lake in the dark of the early morning. The taxi we had reserved was waiting for us. He would take us up the windy road along the shoulder of hillside to where we would view the sunrise. This particular viewing is a thing, as I’ve seen from time to time in my travels. The west end of Santorini in Greece is a known place where people gather to watch the setting sun. The solar eclipse is another. Here, in what felt like it was the furthest place in the world from the Greek islands, hundreds of people were gathering from all over the world to watch yet another natural phenomenon – the simple yet amazing rising sun catching the Himalayas.
Our taxi driver played a bit of tour guide and escorted us to what I think was a restaurant. We ordered a couple hot teas and made our way up a spiral staircase to the roof. It was packed with people but we were able to find a couple of plastic chairs facing the dark mountains off in the distance. Everyone was sitting in the dark, chatting as if we were in a theater rather than high on a chilly Nepalese hillside. We soon had our teas in hand and watch the faint light of the sun start to appear. It didn’t seem long before the first ray of sun caught the tip of Mt. Machapuchare (meaning "fishtail"). While Fishtail is generally the star of the show, in fact it's not an incredibly big mountain as compared to the others in the neighborhood. Clocking in at a mere 6,993m. (22,943ft.) it's fame relies upon both its proximity to Pokhara and it's prominent shape. 
Mt. Machapuchare, aka "Fishtail"
Quickly people began to notice, almost with a cheer, and phones were raised to photograph the event. In fact there were only a couple of cameras (including mine) that were not also phones. It’s interesting to see how that has changed over the years – from 35mm, to digital, to phone.
good that I'm taller than most tourists
Unfortunately for the masses gathered for the event that morning, the clouds obscured much of the view. A peak would appear and then disappear. Hopes would raise and then be dashed. Very quickly people began to find their transportation and wind their way down the hill back to town. We soldiered on, half hoping for a change the weather, half just enjoying being where we were. Eventually we too made our way down the spiral staircase. On the lower level people were selling fabrics and other tourist items. There was a loom where the fabrics were being made. We ended up getting something, partially I think as something besides a photo that would take us back to the experience.
making fabrics on a mountain top
We were back at the hotel and it was still fairly early in the morning. We were able to rally the troops and head off to breakfast. We had time to walk around, hit the pool for a bit before heading back to the airport to catch the flight back to Kathmandu.

Kiran on the boat
For the remainder of our time we explored as much as we had time for. We visited temples, the zoo, more temples, etc. We had lots of yummy food. Much to see and do and amazing how much we were able to fit in over a week. We’ll definitely need to go back.