(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.)

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Comedy of Errors

When I was in college I took a class on theater, cinema and society. One of the things we studied was the comedy. Not comedy as is understood by the popular modern definition tied mostly to humor but by the academic and more traditional definition. In very simplistic terms, a comedy contains variations on the elements of surprise, conflict, repetitiveness and the effect of opposite expectations. Our trip to the US was a comedy in the classic sense containing all of the above elements – particularly the last one.


We boarded our plane in Amsterdam and the comedy of errors began. We taxied out and proceeded to stay on the tarmac for the next 6 1/2 hours (without leaving the plane). They closed the airport while they were de-icing our wings but then couldn't get us off the plane since all the gates were occupied by airplanes and the ice on the tarmac was preventing the tow vehicles from being able to pull any of them away from their respective gates. Even the movable stairs were unable to come retrieve us due to the ice. So we sat. Fortunately they turned on the entertainment system and even served us a meal as we could see the terminal off in the distance.


 When they were finally able to move the movable stairs, we were able to disembark and get into the terminal. What awaited us was pandemonium. The airport of full of thousands of desperate and angry people. Moreover we received no information so we didn't know where to proceed to deal with what came next. The transit/information desk had a queue that was over a kilometer long. Hotels were all booked. KLM staff were providing mixed, confused and errant information. We were told there was no possibility of being put on another plane until the next day - at the earliest. We were basically hosed with no indication as to when we'd get away. Long story short, we ended up joining the thousands who had plopped themselves on the cold floor someplace and settled in for the night. We had no pillow or blanket so we just made do with what we could find. About 4am I got up to walk around a bit. It was a surreal scene, I have to say. Thousands of bodies strewn about the airport. There was a bizarre stillness in a building I'd only known in hustle and bustle.



Our plan now was to get in line at the gate of any plane heading to North America. I jotted down the morning's flights on my unused boarding pass from the day before and we headed to the gate of the first one. Detroit. Not a bad option if we could pull it off. In addition to the thousands held hostage by the airport, thousands of people were unable to arrive in Amsterdam due to the closure so we knew we had a chance. Within an hour or so of queuing up, they canceled the flight. Our bad luck continued. On to the next gate. Detroit as well. After another hour or so, news came forward it was delayed. On to the next gate. Minneapolis. This time our luck held and the agents eventually arrived to do the security screening. It was looking promising. In the meantime the line behind us was now the length of a football field and as we neared the front I felt as though we were on the Titanic fighting for a spot on the insufficient life rafts. It made me wonder how I'd be in a life or death situation. Get the hell out of my way, women and children, we need to get to the US for the holidays! Hopefully I'd be different but all I knew at this point was that I was in no mood to let anyone sneak in front of us to grab one of these precious seats heading out across the ocean. We'd already traveled from Bujumbura, to Kigali, to Nairobi prior to arriving in Amsterdam and after a night on a cold, carpetless floor, I wanted to get the hell out of there.


Once we obtained the boarding passes, I refrained from performing a touchdown-like celebration and calmly walked towards the bar code reader. Humbled by the experience on the plane the previous day when more than one announcement of our imminent departure (accompanied by cheers) was subsequently thwarted by follow-up announcements telling us that we were doomed. There was no guarantee until we were safely landing on American soil, or ice as was the case in Minneapolis.


  The plane was very late taking off of course due to all of the passenger re-bookings but we were in no mood to complain. Much to our relief, we finally arrived in chilly Minnesota. It was hard not to laugh at the scene of 20+ inches of snow and a perfectly functioning airport after the pathetic 3 inches in Amsterdam (with no wind) that had created all of the chaos the day before. Both KLM and Schiphol Airport got caught with their trousers around their ankles. Normally very professional companies, my hope is that there will be some lessons learned. Possibly not given that the blame seems to be so diffused amongst all the entities involved.



We made our way through immigration and were not surprised to see that our bags did not make the trip. Alas, the comedy of errors continued.


  We were left with only one night in Minneapolis before our scheduled flight to Louisville. As suspected, they still didn't arrive despite assurances that they would.


We arrived in Louisville and have now spent two nights at Priya's parents. While it's nice to be settled with the holidays now underway, we have now been 5 1/2 days without our bags. Each day brings new assurances by earnest and sincere-sounding airline employees of their continued existence and imminent arrival. But they don't appear.


Surprise, conflict, repetitiveness and the effect of opposite expectations. It was a comedy and clearly not very funny.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Hendri

There’s a lot to comment on and I just haven’t had the time to do so. My last few weeks have been a whirlwind of travel, busy and stressful times at work, and getting settled into the new house. Amidst all of this there has been some significant emotional drama, some of which I’ll share now.
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A couple of weeks ago, we received the visitors that’d I’d mentioned a while back. These were the kayakers who were on an African whitewater expedition/adventure film project that was taking them through Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and the Congo (DRC). The film was to be about their expedition, but also the turbulent history and recovery in the countries they are traveling through and the strength and hope of the people they meet along the way. Our organization wasn’t sponsoring or hosting but simply providing them informal support here and there in addition to welcoming them to visit our projects.
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I’ve been in contact with them for a few months, particularly Hendri, their South African guide who is based in Uganda. I advised them on travel into Rwanda and Burundi and helped them with visas. We also set up interviews for them with some of our staff who’d lived through genocide and civil war – testimonials that were nonetheless positive messages about overcoming mind-blowing adversity.
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Hendri is a legendary African guide and a world class kayaker. The two guys with him, Ben and Chris, are amazing professional kayakers and had done kayak adventure films before.
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Hendri and I had been in touch periodically during the trip prior to their arrival in Rwanda and Burundi. They had satellite and cell phones he used it to keep me up to date on their progress and inform me about the potential timing of their arrival in Burundi. It was finally determined that they’d make it through the upper part of the Rusizi River, arriving at the Burundi border on Nov. 23rd. I’d suggested that the lower part of the Rusizi that flows into Lake Tanganyika adjacent to Bujumbura – the part that forms the DRC-Burundi border – might not be safe. In addition to crocodiles and hippos, there’d been recent reports a large number of bodies being found in the river (roughly 22 of them), many of which displayed signs of torture including at least one beheaded corpse. They received similar information from others so they prudently decided to stop near the border.
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Their opting out was a relief and we sent a vehicle to pick them up and bring them to Bujumbura. It’s about an hour and a half one way. When they arrived at our offices, it was good to finally meet them in person and hear about their adventures so far. Unfortunately I had to travel soon after their arrival so we basically had lunch at a nice place on the lake (which they absolutely loved after roughing it for quite some time). I had originally offered to put them up at our new house but given that I had to travel for a couple of days, I told them that if they were still in Bujumbura when I got back, we’d have them over.
Sure enough, when I returned on Thursday (Thanksgiving) they were still sorting out some of the logistics of their trip and wouldn’t be leaving until the next day. Though tired from my travel “up country”, I honored my promise and within a very short time we were all up at our house on the terrace sipping drinks and exchanging stories.
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Much of our belongings were still in boxes but we’d rapidly pulled out enough things to get by and provide beds for our three visitors for the night.  They turned out to be great. Far from the meathead thrill-seekers that one might anticipate, they’re a nice combination of smart (well-read), humble (more interested in our humanitarian work than talking about their own impressive backgrounds), humorous and gracious.
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After drinks on the terrace, we went to a nearby Indian restaurant for some great Indian food. Priya and I obviously have an affinity for Indian food and to have such a fantastic place so close is pretty cool. Hendri referred to it as the meal of the trip.
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We returned to the house and Chris and Ben proceeded to open up computers and begin downloading film. It’s a massive and fascinating project. The goal was to amass tons of footage that would be edited upon return to the US. The filming would be used in a number of ways, one of which would be to present it in adventure film festivals. Everything had to be downloaded in Bujumbura so as to protect what they had so far in case they were robbed or it was damaged. Though they had impressive water-tight bags in their kayaks, there was always a chance that something would happen.
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In between times of attending to the computers, they seemed happy to watch some TV and just relax. Hendri, being the guide, didn’t have to deal with the film stuff so he and I chatted about other things including life in Africa and adventure activities. Though I’ve dabbled in adventure, I tend to keep quiet around people like Hendri since he’s the real deal. He’s pushed African river exploration harder than anyone on the planet and that’s just one piece of the amazing things he’s accomplished. All the while he remains humble and seems quite happy to spend his time talking about other things.
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The downloading lasted through the night though by the next morning they assured me that they’d all slept quite well. During our discussions they informed us that as hard as the previous weeks had been, the next stretch would be the most arduous and dangerous. That seemed hard to believe given what I knew about what they’d already done. It wasn’t clear but it seems that the next stretch had only been attempted once or twice before and that the last person that attempted it was never seen again.
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We all went to the office the next morning. They wanted to use the internet and then they’d go back to the same lakeside restaurant we’d been to before while they awaited their boat to continue their travels to the Congo. We exchanged information, said our good-byes and off they went.
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There were a couple of times during the visit that I remember looking at them and wondering if we’d ever see each other again. Hendri offered us a standing invitation to his place in Uganda. Ben and Chris are from northern California and southern Oregon, places I know and are near and dear to my heart. But at one point when Hendri was talking at the Indian restaurant, I seriously wondered whether something serious might happen to them. It’s a morbid thought but the dangers of doing something like this are evident. And to see some slight signs of apprehension, even on the faces of these hardened professionals, it made me more nervous for what lay ahead.
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Hendri told us (and Ben and Chris) that they were going to be focused on these last few weeks and that they had to be done by Christmas. He was looking forward to meeting his girlfriend after it was over to go on their planned 3-month vacation together. He also took my parent’s address since he said he wanted to send us something after they were done. Though I said he didn’t need to, he seemed like he had good taste so I secretly hoped that he would.
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Over the past several days I hadn’t heard anything. I assumed that I wouldn’t. I knew that there was no longer need for our logistical and scheduling coordination. I figured I wouldn’t get a report from NY about the trip until they were done and I’d also be able to check their blog postings.
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Then yesterday morning I received a call from NY. My fears, and the fears of many, had been realized. Tragedy struck. Hendri, Ben and Chris were working their way along the Lukaga River beginning at Kalemie. The information that we have so far is that Hendri was attacked and pulled from his kayak by a crocodile day before yesterday. Neither his body nor the kayak were found. Ben and Chris are unhurt but obviously devastated. They were able to call out using the satphone and were taken the six and a half hours back to Kalemie.
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I’m a bit surprised at how much I have been taken aback by the news. I’d only known Hendri a short time and nonetheless I connected with him quite well. We had a lot of similar interests and perspectives about living sub-Saharan Africa. My guess is that we would have stayed in touch and likely met up in Uganda at some point. The horrific nature of his death adds to the sting.
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There’d been much talk about the dangers of the trip from the time we were informed about it. We seriously wondered whether they’d even make it to Burundi. Once they’d made it this far, I was more optimistic about their chances.
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I don’t claim to have the mindset of an adventurer – certainly not at the level of these guys. Having said that, I think I understand something about what drives them. I was discussing the incident with a staff member yesterday and she asked the rhetorical question as to how anyone would choose such a crazy occupation and willingly put himself in such danger. Based on my conversations with Hendri and his love for his work, he’d have asked the rhetorical question in disbelief as to how anyone would willingly choose to sit at a computer all day. He just seemed to love what he was doing and he could have cared less if anyone recognized him for his accomplishments. As one person described him, he simply did it for the love of adventure, not for the limelight. My deepest sympathies and prayers for his family and friends.
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For more information, click here.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Makamba to Gitega to Bujumbura to Kigali...

I think this will be a relatively short posting. I'm tired and probably not in the best mood to be anything close to interesting.

I'm in a hotel in Rwanda. The room smells like pee. Not the first time I've stayed in a hotel room that smelled of some sort of bodily function but I confess it's been a while. During my poorer years in Europe and the US as well as some budget travel here in Africa, I've had much, much worse than this but I didn't really expect it here. In my limited time in Kigali I've been exposed to mostly clean facilities. Oh well. At least I have a mozzie net and the BBC to keep me company.

Last week I traveled to Makamba (southern part of Burundi) to visit staff and give a presentation to newly elected government officials from the region. It was a good trip overall (minus a shootout not far away resulting in 2 dead and 2 captured by the army). I would have liked to have stayed longer but I needed to attend an opening ceremony of a gender-based violence (GBV) center in Gitega, a town in the center of the country. So the next morning we headed about 2 hours north. The ceremony was a couple of hours late (sigh) but it was fortunately not in Kirundi (French) so I could happily understand. Just afterward our convoy of twenty-some SUVs rolled to another part of town to another related event - the opening ceremony of the 16 Days of Activism for GBV at the local stadium. This was a large event attended also by the First Vice President. I took a couple of photos but they're not on this computer so you'll have to use your imagination.

It was a nice afternoon and I was happy to have attended. Unfortunately at this event only one speech was in French so during the Kirundi I either discreetly did some work or gazed about observing the interesting scene before me. One awkward bit was a little theater performance by a drama team to attempt to show the ugliness of abusive behavior. I'm not sure how effective it was. It started out with a woman in traditional dress doing her chores as her husband returned home. He asked her for some money so that he could go out for a drink. Without looking up she said that if she gave him some money it would be to go buy some food. Not appreciating her response, he reached over and smacked her (acting). She fell to the ground and the crowd roared with laughter. With raised eyebrows I looked at my GBV Coordinator colleague sitting next to me and she seemed a bit horrified. Theater is an amazingly powerful tool in sub-Saharan Africa. Need to use it wisely.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Anonymity

One thing that occurs to me every time I leave Africa is the sensation of anonymity. There's a certain amount of bliss in being able to leave your house without people staring at you or at least observing you at great length. Now I know that this happens all over the world. You have black people moving into white neighborhoods. White people moving into black neighborhoods. Arabs moving into non-Arab neighborhoods. Etc. It's uncomfortable. Even when people don't do it with any negative intent or possibly don't even realize the extent to which they are doing it, it's still annoying. At least for me.

I had hoped that things might be better in Burundi than in Tanzania but it's not the case. Foreigners and Burundians seem to mix quite well when you are in a restaurant or a car. People seem pleasantly indifferent to you. However walking or jogging is usually a stare-fest. Even the guards of the housing compounds spend quite a bit of time staring as well even though they see you all the time. It's not necessarily rude; just annoying.

So arriving in NY was a change. It's probably the most difficult place in the world to be the object of someone's attention. People rarely even make eye contact let alone stare. Plus you have so much craziness going on in the city that you need to be really bizarre to get any attention. It's so easy to just disappear into the mass and no one could care less. Bliss.

So I'm back to the grind in Burundi. It's been a whirlwind of activity since my return and it's not going to lighten up until at least the holidays. It's ok though since we've moved into a house finally and I'm enjoying the work, the learning and the team. I still have tons to learn but I'm getting a better handle on things. I'm off to Makamba (in the south) tomorrow and then Gitega (in the centre of the country) on Thursday. Then back to Bujumbura on Friday and then I fly to Kigali next week. It wouldn't be so bad if all the travel didn't prevent me from getting the other stuff done. Oh well. Bring it on.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Out of the Woods and into the City

I arrived late Friday. I was largely brain-dead when I caught a taxi to take me to the hotel. Nonetheless I had an interesting chat with the cab driver. He's probably used to semi-lucid people in his car so I was probably no surprise to him. He did seem to find it interesting that I worked in Africa. He was from Guyana and it trying to obtain citizenship in the US. He had lots of questions about working with asylum seekers and refugees. He seemed to want to know how I felt about people like him doing whatever they can to get into the US and to legalize their status – eventually to become citizens.

I actually don't remember what I said but I can guarantee it wasn't very articulate. I mostly empathized with him and said that often times it's the more recent immigrants that are the most fervent patriots. I think he appreciated that and I appreciated that we finally arrived at the hotel and my long-awaited bed.

On Saturday I had a chance to go for a nice run around the city. I had a nice loop along the East River up to 68th or so, cross over to Central Park, back down through the park and then angle back towards to hotel. Running along the East River at sunrise was surprisingly beautiful and a frosty run through Central Park is a joy for a cold weather guy like me who's been in the tropics for 5 ½ years. The fall colors were gorgeous. They were setting up for the NY Marathon which sort of made me sad that I wasn't running it. Oh well, maybe another time.

After my run I made my ritual trip to a diner for breakfast. It's just one of those pieces of Americana that doesn't tire me. I read through the NY Times, had a gallon of coffee and then went out to do a bit of shopping. I came across a street vendor who was selling various things on a table on the street. I searched the table over and honed in on a pair of sunglasses. I looked over at the guy who, oddly for a street vendor, was barely even paying attention to me. I asked him how much for a pair I was pointing at. He said, "They ain't for sale. None uh this stuff is for sale." I looked at him like he was crazy to have an official NYC vendor permit attached to his coat and a table full of merchandise in front of him with nothing for sale. He could see that I was still puzzled so he said, "Look around. This is a movie set. I ain't no vendor and none uh this stuff is for sale." Sure enough, I looked around and began to see that the cops on the street corner were not in fact real cops and this guy was, in fact, an "actor". He also pointed out various cameras being discreetly manned here and there. There were some above us dangling out of office windows and others across the street on rooftops. Now clued into what was going on around me, I could see that the whole intersection had been taken over by the film company. After taking it all in and speculating as to whether there was chance I could see them actually do some filming, I asked him if he could still sell me those sunglasses. He laughed. He said to come back when they were done filming and he's sell me the glasses, the fake cop car sitting in front of us and probably lots of other stuff. I smiled and told him the car was too big to take to Burundi as a souvenir and headed on.

On Sunday I was able to make it to church and see Tim Keller speak. No noticeable effects of jet lag. I have to say, Tim's good. I get why he resonates with a sophisticated NYC congregation. So brilliant and easy to listen to.

Monday and Tuesday were filled with meetings. In between I was able to fit in more meetings. That's sort of how it goes here. Monday night was a dinner with a very wealthy and prominent donor. It was held atop his office building in a large board room converted into a very nice dining room. Great conversation and very cool to see that someone like him is so informed and engaged in the work that we do around the world. Smart guy.

Wednesday night was the big gala event at the Waldorf Astoria. All kinds of important and famous people were there. I didn't get any photo ops but I did get to shake a few important hands.

Andy Grove, former CEO of Intel and former refugee assisted by IRC
I also fit in a lunch and a dinner with our friend Liya who now lives in NY. Good to see her and have her introduce me to some great food – including sushi and this other place that specializes in chocolate. What's not to like?!

Liya and me in front of some sort of amazing chocolate something
I left on Saturday evening and now I'm in my beloved Amsterdam airport. I'm taking in my last bit of broadband for a while. I arrive at 8:30am on Monday morning and head straight to the office. My first meeting is at 9:00am. Let's hope I can sleep on the flight tonight.

Monday, November 8, 2010

From 36,000 Feet

Flights should never leave at 1:20 in the morning. That's just wrong. Then I feel like I'm passing through every single airport between Burundi and NY. It reminds me of when I first moved to Europe and I learned the difference between a regional train and an "intercity" train - the hard way. I had hopped on a train from Lausanne to Geneva simply because it said it was going to Geneva. Wrong. The stupid thing proceeded to stop at every little train station the whole way. I think it'd been faster to walk. I know some of you are thinking "I'd never be that dumb" and for most of you that's probably the case. I did so many embarrassing things when I first started living overseas and fortunately for me, the world will never hear about them.

So anyway, I'm typing this as I fly over Albania or thereabouts. I'm sipping on some red wine and listening to Dean Martin on my ipod. This last flight from Nairobi was actually quite beautiful. I've rarely seen it so clear. Earlier the morning sun made the Sahara as bright and golden as I've ever seen it. Alexandria was so clear you could see cars moving about on the streets. Then of course the Mediterranean was a magnificent blue. It was the first time I'd seen my beloved Greek island of Santorini from the air. I'm aware that it's a sin for jaded travelers to be seen being impressed by anything to do with their air travel. You're not supposed to be caught paying attention to the flight safety demonstration and God forbid someone should see you take a photo from the airplane window. Alas, I threw caution to the wind and did both.

I will be in NY for meetings. It's actually not a bad time of year to be in NY. The cool air will do me good and it's usually not that biting cold that will come in a few more weeks. Also, a small dose of the Christmas holiday is nice given that I'm not subjected to the holiday hell that the Western world suffers. There is also the NY Marathon which, if I were to plan better, I might try to do the next time if the schedules coincide.

I'm also excited to attend church. Now I'm aware that such things are not high on people's tourism list unless it's to see a fantastic cathedral or listen to the organ in the Notre Dame (which by the way I highly recommend). In this case it is to see a man named Tim Keller. Not only is he an amazing and well-known speaker, he's also the uncle of someone who used to work with us in Kibondo (Carolyn is mentioned in a few past blogs). Back in the day we'd sit on our rustic porch overlooking the hills and the passing thunderstorms and listen to downloaded sermons. Anyway, with the crisscrossing of time zones, travel fatigue, time change in the US, my goal may be simply to be on time and awake.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Makamba

In the past several weeks I've been doing my best to get settled into the new job. It's a lot of new information to take in but I am starting to feel a bit more comfortable with my knowledge of what's going on. One of the things that has been helpful is taking the time to visit all of the field operations and meet with staff. I began with the trip to Muyinga in the north. Then there was the trip to Kigali. Then this past week I was off to Makamba, our field site in the south.

The drive along the coast of Lake Tanganyika is exceptionally beautiful. I had been to Makamba last year while I was still in Tanzania so I had a decent idea of what it was about. Nonetheless, it was still a very pleasant drive minus the police checkpoints and the time I was buried in my laptop.

Stove to support bread making activity
We arrived around noon and I had lunch with the Field Coordinator. We spent the afternoon meeting about various issues prior to the large gathering of the entire field team. They were generally very welcoming with the exception of the usual questions regarding salary increases.

The next day I made a brief stop at a gender-based violence workshop where I met with representatives from partner organizations. I wasn't able to stay long and was soon whisked away to a savings and credit activity that we are doing in a very small village near a town on the lake called Nyanza Lac. It was a wonderful but long meeting where I was able to participate by simply saying a few words and then letting them get on with their own thing. It was as close as a tall white guy can come to being a fly on the wall in a rural, sub-Saharan African setting. With the exception of occasionally looking to see my reaction to things, they carried on as if I wasn't there.

Opening the locked box of cash - three members each possess a key to ensure security
The activity is set up such that it is self-funded with the exception of some basic bookkeeping materials. Otherwise, the biggest thing we add is expertise. The beauty is that it is sustainable and they will be able to continue it in the future without our assistance.

While I was sitting there, a small girl was sitting across the way. She initially was terrified by seeing me and then gradually warmed up to me as the meeting progressed. At one point she began to fuss and I gave her a pen which she proceeded to chew off and on for the duration of the meeting. I think that helped break the ice. Not long afterwards she came closer and even sat down on my feet facing me with the slobbery pen sticking out of her mouth. While I focused on listening to my Kirundi translator, I suddenly felt a vibration on the top of my shoes. The vibration became audible and it quickly became apparent that the little one was quite happily having a little bowel movement. The mother, who was one of the money counters, was sitting in front of me to my left. Her eyes opened wide with horror and she started to get up to retrieve her daughter. Just then an elderly lady, who I found out later was the grandmother, waved off her daughter, came over, swooped up the little one and headed for the door. As she picked her up, however, it was quite apparent to all on my side of the room that junior was not wearing nappies.

She may look innocent...
The young mother, with a renewed look of horror as she saw my shoes, came over with a cloth that she'd been sitting on and proceeded to wipe them off. Trying not to disrupt the meeting, I motioned to her that it was fine and I finally got her to retake her seat. I looked down and the remnants of the greenish, watery mess were already starting to dry. Several in the room seemed to get a kick out of the whole thing. Good news is we both ended up with a story to tell.
Bread makers with one of our staff

Monday, October 25, 2010

A Curious Endeavor

In a few weeks our offices in Kigali and Bujumbura will be receiving some guests. That's not really news since we are frequented with visitors, auditors, technical advisers, etc. on a very regular basis. The interesting thing is that these visitors are going to be arriving by kayak.

Several weeks ago our external relations person from NY notified me that a kayak trip in Africa was being planned which is intended to be some sort of an adventure film with a highlight on humanitarian work. We have been asked to participate (unfortunately not in the kayaking) in providing some logistical support and interesting testimonials in exchange for some possible good exposure in the film. The trip is being sponsored by a well-known outdoor clothing company (which I will not reveal at this time). The voyage is intended to pass through a handful of countries in this region including a segment on the Rusizi River which ends on the northern tip of Lake Tanganyika just outside of Bujumbura.

Without dedicating a tremendous amount of time to this project (since it's outside the realm of what we're specifically funded to do), it is important to work with people like this to not only raise awareness for the work that our organization is doing, but also to continue to remind people in the Western world that their comfortable lifestyles are not the norm for the majority of the people on this planet. Maybe a third helpful aspect to this adventure is that the world should be more exposed to the amazing beauty of this continent. The only footage that most of the world sees of Africa consists of AIDS victims, war, starving children, etc. While that stuff certainly exists, it is NOT reflective of what this continent is about as a whole. In my travels to nine African countries, I have been astounded by the breathtaking scenery and warm people in every single country. I do wish that more of the world could experience that side of this continent. Ok, end of Africa promo.

One thing that was a bit funny when working with my Administration Manager on some of the logistics was that she didn't know what a kayak was. I tried to explain that it was sort of like a small boat similar to the indigenous ones here but with a few very different characteristics. I failed in my explanation so I drew a picture on the whiteboard in my office. My lack of artistic skill leads me to believe that she still has no idea what these little "boats" are all about. If they do end up storing their kayaks on our office compound, it's quite likely they'll be an object of curiosity. Just the description of people wanting to float hundreds of kilometers in small boats on somewhat dangerous waters (crocodiles and bad guys - in the last few weeks 22 dead bodies were found on the Rusizi not far from here, at least one decapitated) with no intention fishing is a curious endeavor in and of itself. We're hosting them here for a couple days so they'll likely have some good stories to share if they make it here in one piece.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Fast Times in Rwanda

I'm currently in Rwanda. It's a new country for me and it's good to finally be here given the amount of time I've spent discussing the place with colleagues and reading about it in briefings. Now it's all Rwanda, all day. Our program in the country is at a crossroads and there's a lot to do to sort out what we're going to do.

Kigali from the vehicle (didn't have time to take any decent photos - maybe next time)
I arrived in Kigali on Monday after the half-hour flight from Bujumbura. The early morning drive from the airport to the hotel consisted of moderate traffic and signage that reflected the national language transition from French to English. The densely populated hills that make up Kigali reveal another transition – the older cheap housing being phased out to make way for the new, modern construction. There's no question that Rwanda is changing and it's happening at a rate faster than anywhere else in sub-Saharan Africa.

The West generally knows little about Rwanda. People have some awareness about a tragic genocide and possibly a bit about AIDS and poverty. Some, with a bit more knowledge about the country, generally fill the air with accusations regarding the authoritarian nature of the government. It's unfortunate. There's an amazing transformation in the works and regardless of what many say about the past or the present, it seems that insufficient recognition is being given to the progress that has been made in the past 15 years in an often delicate environment.

My small room in Ngoma; fold-fest
My entire week has been spent in meetings with government officials, international organization representatives and staff. By Wednesday at noon we'd fit in 15 meetings. I realized that there are few countries in the world where cultural norms and infrastructure would have allowed for such an aggressive timeline. I also fit in a trip to our field sites in the eastern part of the country which afforded some nice views of the countryside and the affirmation that the cleanliness and organization is not restricted to Kigali.

So my head is completely full. It's an awful lot to fit into a very short period of time. It's now time to process it all and catch up on things in Bujumbura.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

First Trip to the Field


After a few days of staff meetings, signing billions of documents and house hunting, I escaped for a couple of days to travel to the northern part of the country where we have a field site and loads of interesting activities. The reasons for the trip were to attend some meetings, visit a refugee camp where we will begin working soon and also visit some of the projects that we are working on in the region.

the hills of Burundi
Traveling in Burundi is very different from Tanzania. Given the small size of the country you can get to most anywhere within a half day. An added advantage is that there are good tarmac roads that connect all the major areas. This is very cool since the bumpy roads in rural Tanzania have a habit of bruising all of your internal organs during the long, dusty treks from one place to the next.

Muyinga

So Monday morning we headed out with six people crammed into a Toyota Prado. The late dry season haze blurred the hills that border Bujumbura to the west. Our route would take us up through this rugged terrain which remained hilly all the way to our destination. In fact, Burundi is entirely made up of hills and one of the most beautiful places in Africa – at least from what I've seen. I say this having been told by my Burundian colleagues that I haven't even seen it at its best which is supposedly a clear day during the rainy season. Well, I'm looking forward to it and I'll have my camera ready.

having a look at a new bridge
Speaking of camera, you'll notice in this blog that I appear in some of the photos. This is rare in that I had a guy with me that was shooting pictures of our projects as we moved from one location to the next. Though I had my camera with me, most of the time I didn't pull it out.

life in the camp
We arrived in Muyinga around noon, visited the office, had some lunch and sped off to one of the refugee camps for a "town hall" meeting with refugees. The head table consisted of heads of a handful of organizations that work in the camp as well as the UN and the head of the local government. There were a few speeches and then we broke up into smaller groups to meet with various refugee committees on a variety of topics. Our group focused primarily on the protection of women and girls – a topic of special importance when working with Congolese refugees.

listening to speeches

That evening we had a drink at a local watering hole and then dinner at our guesthouse. The house is an architectural nightmare that adds insult to injury in the form of pink tiles, pink and orange curtains and topped off by my favorite pasty white fluorescent lighting. Having said that, the essentials were there. I had a hot shower (shared with a number of creepy, crawly things) and a comfortable bed (hopefully not shared with the creepy, crawly things).

visiting a new school
The next day we were off to an early meeting with the same organizations as the day before. I was a marginally relevant addition to the meeting until around mid-morning at which time I left things in the capable hands of a couple of my staff and I went off to visit some of our projects in the area. The schedule was quite tight and I had to cram in as much as possible.

With the exception of some small meetings and some email time, that was how I spent the rest of the day. The following day consisted of more project visits until mid-morning and then the half-day drive back to Bujumbura. The return, though I was a bit dirty and weary, was nothing like the arduous treks back and forth from Dar to the refugee camps in Tanzania. Not only does the latter take additional time and modes of transportation, you and your belongings are covered with red dust that seems to find its way into every nook and cranny including ears, pockets, keyboards, nostrils, etc.

roadside kiln for making bricks
Back to Buj

And the house hunt continues. I'm told it's normal for it to take some time to find the right house. Given that realization and the fact that the agreement ended on our tiny guesthouse, we just moved into a new temporary house until we find a place of our own. We were able to get a cool place near the lake that would be too small to live in for longer term but at least now have a bit more space and it no longer feels like we're living in a hallway closet.

hitching a ride
No real complaints though. We've been blessed in more ways than I can count. Happy to be here.

another way of hitching a ride

 


 


 

Saturday, September 18, 2010

And so it begins…

A Bit about the Blog

As you can decipher from the link for this blog, it was originally to consist of rants. Years ago I was accumulating numerous frustrations of this world in which I live that were, for the most part, and in my opinion, unnecessary. They were largely the product of human greed at the expense of others. The idea of the blog was that the ranting would give me an outlet for my frustrations and possibly shed some light on what is happening in this world where I work and live. The greed, just as much a characteristic of those helping Africa as those on the receiving end, hampers the ability of the aid to help those who need the help the most. If you're seriously in this work to see people's lives change for the better, I can assure you that seeing this over time creates considerable anxiety. There are many disillusioned bleeding hearts that have left this work for good as a result.

My occupation, however, took a different turn and I soon found myself no longer in a position to speak as freely about such injustices. I still see them. In fact I'm still writing about them but they will not be a part of this blog – at least not while I am doing what I do. For obvious reasons, I must be strategic in my approach to what I say and how I say it. I am very much involved in battling the injustices that exist but right now I can contribute more in my current role than I can by ranting (though I can say with all honesty that I am very happy with the integrity of the organization for whom I work). So for the time being, I'll continue to bite my tongue about some things and tell stories about other things. The stories may not have the bite that a nice corruption scandal would have but the blog does serve to shorten emails to family and friends. In other words, you can get the goods on what's going on with me if you want to but I'm not going to hammer you over the head with it. And if you are expecting any juicy stories about corruption in Africa, you shall be sadly disappointed. For now.


 

And so it begins…

So where did I leave off? Oh yes, the insignificant changes of a new home, new job, new language and new country. The language isn't entirely new to me but it is new from what I was using a couple weeks ago. Takes me a little longer to write emails since it's been 11 years since I worked in French.

Overall the change is going well. The new team has been very supportive and I have no complaints. Lots of reading to do and getting up to speed on what we are doing and where. It's very different from Tanzania where our primary focus was refugee camps. Here we're working in a post-conflict setting. This is where the war was that drove those people to become refugees (not referring to the Congolese for the time being). A little less than a tenth of the population is said to have been a refugee at some point. The programs target primarily, though not exclusively, the particularly vulnerable in this setting (ex. women, children, youth) and there are some pretty impressive efforts underway. I will discuss them from time to time in the weeks ahead.

As for the current security situation in the country, so far it seems to be unclear. I have met with a few other representatives of organizations, UN, embassies, etc. since I arrived and everyone seems to have a slightly different take on the current level of security. The three pillars of danger are banditry, internal conflict (roots of which go back to the decades of war) and the external threat posed by Muslim extremism in the form of Al-Shabaab (due to their anger regarding the presence of Burundian peace-keeping troops in Somalia). Most seem to put the threats in that order as to how much of a danger they are to personal safety for the population. I suppose you could include road accidents since that's the leading cause of death of foreigners in Africa but I'll stick to the other ones for now.

The variances are in how much of a threat people think each is. No one seems to live in panic in spite of a very visible presence of security forces around. I pass through a security road block almost every day just driving to or from work or going to a restaurant in the evening. It's not a problem really since they either just wave me through (my SUV is clearly marked as an NGO vehicle by license plates and our organization's logo) or ask me a few general questions as they peek in the windows. They have a tough job to do since they have a responsibility to protect the population without being overly invasive, abusive or just annoying. I wouldn't want their job.

I don't have a good feel yet as to how dangerous life is here. My security briefing from the UN comes every 24 hours and it lists incidents that are surprisingly numerous. The key, I think, is not to blow it out of proportion yet keep a close eye on things. My security responsibilities go beyond my wife and me since I'm also responsible for hundreds of staff. Remain vigilant. Keep the finger on the pulse of the security situation. Discuss frequently with the staff and partners. Don't overreact to rumors. Filter through the tons of information and communicate the essentials. It's as easy as that.

As a naïve newcomer to the country, I'm going to go out on a limb and say that I'm optimistic. The people here seem very sharp and good-natured. They have an enormous amount of challenges ahead and decades of war is not something that you recover from overnight. We shall see in the weeks, months and years ahead but this is such a beautiful place. It has so much potential and there's no question that most people want to put all the crap behind them and move forward. Fasten your seatbelts and store your hand luggage in the overhead bin. There may be a little turbulence but overall we anticipate a good flight.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Homeless


There is homelessness and there is homelessness. The kind that I'm experiencing is not the bad kind, or at least not the real bad kind. I don't like being without a home and being without our belongings around us but, given my occupation, I am quite aware that there are people that are far worse off in this category than I.

Nonetheless, being without any place that you can refer to as home is destabilizing. And it's probably a healthy experience. It's no comparison to people who have been driven from their homes due to violence but it does get old. First we sent our belongings on a truck a few weeks ago. Then we gave up our place for the arrival of the person (and his family) who was taking my place in Dar es Salaam and stayed with a friend for about a week. Then we went to Zanzibar for a break. Now were in Bujumbura staying in a guesthouse until we find a place to live. After a failed attempt to find a place last week, we will try again this week though I'm told it could take a few weeks. The whole time we are living out of a suitcase.

I'm not complaining. It's more of a description of our situation. I know we will find a place to live and we're not suffering in our tiny guesthouse. If this lasts a few more weeks, I may start complaining.





Zanzibar

When changing jobs, people often take a bit of a break. In my case, I took a break a bit longer than the length of a weekend. Maybe taking such a short break wasn't the smartest thing to do but we'd had a vacation in the US not long ago and I have been anxious to get started in the new job. They've been without a Country Director for almost two months and I'd probably stress out more not working (with the anticipation of the change) than working.

So we headed to Zanzibar a week ago Friday. Seems like longer than that after all that has happened since. Anyway, we took the arduous 20 minute flight, grabbed a taxi and headed to the east coast of the island. The taxi driver was an old guy who launched into a lively dialogue (monologue is probably more accurate) bouncing back and forth between English and Swahili. His English was surprisingly good and Priya accurately guessed that he was a former teacher before becoming a taxi driver as his retirement job.

The drive lasted just under an hour as we weaved our way through the bicycles, carts pulled by cows, the unique wood-sided Zanzibari daladalas (buses), pedestrians, etc. Driving in most African cities is an art – one that consists of a varying blend of aggression, courtesy, ruthlessness and sometimes teamwork. Anticipating the movements of others is essential and experience is the only way to learn. Our well-seasoned driver was half philosopher, half Formula One.

We were married on the east coast a few years ago but much further north than where we headed this time. As we pulled into the compound, I began to smell the salty sea air. We paid our driver and made arrangements for him to pick us up two days later. The warm, white sand felt good and I was happy with our decision to take our brief break here.

Our lodging was simple, comfortable and tasteless. I generally have high expectations for the décor of Zanzibar establishments given the wonderful and sophisticated style for which it's famous. Be that as it may, I was happy to be on the beach with air conditioning and running water. Let the relaxation begin.

It seems we split our time between the beach and the dining table. A sign of a good weekend. We'd pondered more activity but then thought otherwise. I desperately needed some downtime and in retrospect, we did the right thing. 
After a wonderful couple of days, we met our driver in the parking area and navigated our way back to one of the world's tiniest international airports. After our short flight to Dar, we flew directly to Bujumbura via Nairobi. We were met by a couple of my new staff and a driving rain. We meandered out of the airport parking lot and down the road towards town. Within less than a minute we were at our first military checkpoint. And so life begins in our new city.


Monday, August 23, 2010

Moving Situation


And the farewells begin. Moving is always a bittersweet time. There are gatherings of people that you haven't seen for a while which is nice. You have people who say nice things about you (the ones who wouldn't say nice things likely don't come or remain silent). You also have the recognition that you will be leaving so many people with whom you have spent several years – most you will unlikely ever see again. Everyone goes through this at various times in their lives though I feel like I've gone through this more than most.

Just an idea of some numbers. I have moved out of my residence 15 times in the last 22 years. Of those moves, 6 were to a different country from where I was living – 5 of them to a different continent. If I were to include my college years, it would be even worse since I changed residences every single year.

One would think that I enjoy this sort of thing – the adventure of changing houses, going through my belongings, throwing things out, etc. Nothing could be further from the truth actually. Traveling is one thing. Moving is another. I detest moving. It seems rather to be a consequence of a restless disorder that I have. It's not moving for the sake of moving but shifts in my career that necessitate radical changes in my living situation. I love what I do but I must say that I tolerate the changes. I may be wrong but it seems that if my career allowed it, I (and from our frequent conversations on the subject I suspect Priya as well) would hunker down in a single place, plant trees, get involved in a community, church and so forth. I would have a local pub where people would know my name.

Last dinner with home group
Apparently that desire is not enough to make us alter our careers, or at least not yet. As I said, I very much enjoy what I do. I'm sad to leave Tanzania and the wonderful people I've met here. At the same time I've already met many of my new team in Burundi and I'm very much looking forward to finally joining them. If all goes well we may be able to dig in for a few years. It sounds like it's going to be an interesting and challenging new adventure. It's just that this transition unfortunately requires us to move. So that's how we spent the weekend.

Eustache and family at our farewell party
We did have a nice farewell party at our apartment on Saturday. With most of our lives already in boxes, we at least kept the things on the walls to make the place a bit more welcoming. By Sunday evening, however, our flat looked as though the Grinch had made an appearance as the walls and floors are now bare. It's getting to be time to leave.

Strange pink sun that was invisible to the naked eye
 

Monday, August 16, 2010

Beginning of the End


Over the past couple of weeks there have been a number of topics that I have felt blog-worthy. With a fully-loaded schedule, I was not in a position to sit down and draft any of them. Now, back in Dar and attempting to get caught up on things, I'm realizing that the topics are: a) forgotten, b) not as interesting as I thought they were at the time, or c) just as interesting or more interesting than I was thinking at the time but inappropriate to communicate to the entire world.

Regarding the last one, I've wondered how it is with people who have more interesting jobs than I. I picture some Interpol or CIA agents who discover some fascinating information, possibly incriminating someone famous, and they successfully keep the information for themselves until they die or write their tell-all book some 25 years later. I certainly don't compare my withheld stories to such things as that, though I do think that there is some pretty crazy, sometimes even humorous, stuff going on that would likely get me into trouble if I wrote it up. I fear that such stories will, over time, veer into the "not as interesting as time passes" category. It's tough to guess what things age well.

Last week I went to visit the camps and staff in the field with the Regional Director (aka my boss). It was a good trip overall and things seemed to be moving along well. The situation in the Burundian camp is tense and still likely to come to a head at some point. The standoff between the refugees and the government continues and the latter, in the opinion of one UN official, will eventually win out. We shall see but don't expect me to speculate on it here.


Camp Visit
The one program that I am excited about is the Community-Based Rehabilitation sector. It's particularly interesting to me because I haven't had much experience with it in the past. 
Child being treated for clubfoot, therapy that will enable the child to grow up with normal functionality. The condition would have otherwise crippled the child for life.

The program focuses on people with disabilities. In a refugee camp this is a marginalized group within a marginalized group. The staff conduct home visits, physiotherapy and orthopaedic support as well as counseling. They also do awareness campaigns in the camp on issues surrounding the disabled. The program has been hampered in the past by lack of resources, materials to build prosthetics, a generator to power tools, fuel, etc. so it was good to see it actually up and running. 



 New wheels for guys that otherwise would drag themselves around or need to be carried. Very cool.

We also visited a new drop-in center for our Gender-Based Violence sector. It's not completed yet but it's in the final stages. There was already one center but due to the significant size of the camp, we decided a second one was necessary to make it more accessible to women who live a long distance from the other one. It's actually an area of the camp I don't know very well. It was easy to see that they don't get visitors much. 
Kids came from everywhere to see what the white visitors were up to. I was shaking hands and bumping fists with the waist-high mob. These kids crack me up and I always wish I had more time to hang out. Their grubby little hands were covered with everything from dried snot to red dirt, mud, etc. As I got back in the Land Cruiser I noticed that my right hand was covered with traces of my contact with the exuberant horde. I figured it wise to avoid eating with that hand until I cleaned up a bit.

It was my second to the last visit to the camps. I have one more before we leave for Bujumbura. It's going to be sad to leave this all but it was very nice to see that things are going well. This was confirmed by the positive comments we received in our visits to the UN and government officials. Pretty cool, after all we've gone through over the past couple of years, to leave behind something you feel good about. 


"Let's pray that the human race never escapes from Earth to spread its iniquity elsewhere."
C. S. Lewis

Monday, July 26, 2010

Unearthing Hidden Treasure


On Saturday night I was sitting at the computer (I know, it's a bit pathetic). I was doing some work in addition to scanning negatives. For the latter, Priya bought me a small scanner a while back that I am using to bring my pre-digital past into to the digital era. As I was painstakingly preserving my 35 mm. negatives over the years, I often thought that this was an exercise in futility as I would probably never need them. Now, as I unwrap these small bundles of negatives, and one by one pass them across this scanner, I am quite thankful that I kept them.

I was a slow convert to digital photography. The early quality was poor and the cameras were expensive. As the prices dropped and the quality improved, I still resisted. My first step was to request a floppy disk of my photos when I turned the roll of film in for development. After doing that for a period of time, my friend Russ upgraded his digital camera and gave me his old one. That was all it took. After using it for a while, there was no turning back. Even after a kayak mishap a few months later where my new digital partner slipped out of its protective sleeve and sank to the bottom of Monterey Bay, I decided to press on and replace it. The transition took place around 1999 and so all of the photos prior to that are in negative and/or photo form.

The first camera of my youth was an "instamatic" which didn't even use 35 mm. film. I still have most of those negatives which are probably about 15 mm. and they're a bit of a pain to use in the scanner. Fortunately or unfortunately most of the photos from those days are crap so there are not very many to scan. I moved on to a small 35 mm. camera when I was in college and the quality of my photography moved from crap to bad – in spite of a sophomore year photography class where I learned how to develop the photos myself in that nearly dead vestige of the pre-digital era called a darkroom.

As I trudge forward a couple hours at a time scanning my past, I am relieved to notice that my hairstyle has changed little from what it was when I was 4 years old. I'm a little thinner on top and gray is now becoming more dominant but it's basically the same. I grew it long in the early 90's but the ponytail-length hair eventually became a nuisance and one day while on holiday in Amsterdam I chopped it off. Since then it's been the same no-comb coiffure. Generally speaking I have rarely been one to take fashion risks. As a result, I may provoke some yawns when I appear in the photos of my past but I also incite far fewer snickers than some of the other people whose past is also being brought to light by this exercise. Beware you readers from my past who allowed me to photograph you with bad hair, you who thought the greatest thing about digital photography was that it happened after the 1980's. I've yet to decide what I'm going to do with all of these little digital gems.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Burundi


So we're headed to Burundi. It's sort of a strange thing to get my brain around since I really hadn't thought about it. At least not recently.

The idea of me going to Burundi and being Country Director for BDI/Rwanda came up quite some time ago but it was just a discussion about what may happen depending on how things go. I hadn't even been to the country until last year though we lived within a few kilometres for about a year. The decision was made while I was on vacation in the US so it ended up being an awkward thing where I had to announce to staff while I was away. There was no possibility to wait until I got back because everything was in motion. The current CD was leaving, my position had to be posted, etc. etc.

Though I am happy for the new opportunity and challenge, it is going to be difficult to leave Tanzania and my team here. I will have been living in TZ for 5 ½ years and I've worked with a lot of my current staff for 4 years (those that were with me back in my Kibondo days). You get close to people after a while and, separating wheat from chaff, we've developed a pretty solid team.

Priya's departure is a bit easier since she had already taken her "professional break" prior to knowing about this transition. Given that she is between jobs, it's a good time for her to try something new and work on her French. She's also been in TZ a couple years more than I so I think she's due for a change as well.

On the positive side, I do have a good feeling about the team there and the operation in general. Even the town has a nice feel to it. Yes, there is tension and a lot going on with the new terrorist threats but such things are part of the deal when you do this work. So far I like Bujumbura and the new team has already been very welcoming. As for working in French again, I guess I don't feel one way or the other about it. I was happy with how comfortable I was with the language after using it so seldom for so long (about 11 years since I've worked in French) and I guess at this point it doesn't seem like that big of a deal. 
Some quick facts about Burundi? 
One of the ten poorest countries in the world. 
Lowest GDP per capita in the entire world.
Tiny. 10,745 sq.miles (vs. Idaho which has 83,642 sq. miles)
Lots of people. 836 people per sq. mile (vs. Idaho which has 15 per sq. mile)
More on Burundi in future postings.


 Bujumbura photo I took last year

My handover pushed my ability to function with little sleep and serious jetlag. I arrived in Dar from the US at around 11pm a week ago Thursday and I was home by midnight. My flight to Buj via Nairobi was scheduled for 5:10am, meaning check-in by 4:00am, meaning leave the house by 3:30am, meaning wake up by 3:00am, meaning not a heckuva lot of sleep. After 32 hours of travel from the US and being 10 time zones away from where I started, my little "nap" would be a paltry contribution to alleviate my fatigue. No sleep on the two short flights and I was in meetings in Bujumbura by 9am (Dar time). The day would drag on until nearly midnight that evening due to the farewell/welcome party. Saturday consisted of meetings all day and Sunday I flew back to Dar to be in the office on Monday. Though insomnia has taught me how to function on little to no sleep, I'd be happy if I don't have to do that again.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Good Times in the Mountains


I'm sitting on a hotel terrace overlooking the hills surrounding Bujumbura, Burundi. The downtown traffic hums below me with the frequent sound of honking and beeping. The air is cool and wonderful as I pause for a moment to take in the fact that I'm officially a long way away from the mountains of Idaho.

I know I've been slacking on this blog thing but I've been a busy guy. It's not going to be less busy any time soon so I just need to step up and catch you up on what's going on. More on Buj later.

 
Lisa and Cheryl mountain biking among the flowers in the Boise foothills









So the surgery has been without issue. The eyes are still working fine, fine enough that Priya and I headed for the mountains to spend three nights backpacking. My target was the White Cloud Mountains near the central part of the state. It's an area I don't know well having only been there once when I was young. It has dozens of small lakes and jagged, snow-capped peaks. Just what I was seeking.

What I was not seeking was quite so much snow. A cold rain welcomed us at the 4th of July Lake trailhead and the start looked a bit foreboding. To make matters worse, two hikers, both seemingly anxious to chat about something as I walked over to them, communicated to me that they'd hiked in nearly a mile and the trail was completely blocked by huge snow drifts. I walked back to the Xterra and reported the news to Priya. Often being more enthusiastic than bright, I conveyed my support of the idea of having a look anyway. After about a one kilometer inspection of the trail and a possible clearer alternative route on the opposite side of the creek, Priya was on board as well. After all, it was less than two kilometers to the lake where we would establish a base camp and spend the next couple of days doing day hikes. How bad can it be?

 Stormy, chilly evening view of Sawtooth Mountains from White Cloud Mountains

Well, let's just say it was a long winter. As Priya and I embarked on our adventure, we had rather smooth sailing until we were not far beyond the part we'd already inspected. But occasional rain, bog from significant snow melt and the increasing size and frequency of snow banks began to impede our progress towards the elusive lake. The monstrous packs on our backs, meant for only a relatively short hike, were becoming increasingly a contributor to our fatigue as we worked our way across steep hillsides, skree and drifts. Eventually it became apparent. There was no way to get to the lake – certainly not without snow shoes and much more time than we had. It was already around 6pm and the temperature was beginning to drop. We agreed that we needed to turn around and find a place to camp. We proceeded to descend until we found a suitable camping spot. About a third the way down we came upon a rare flat piece of land near a stream with a nice view of the elusive snow-crested White Cloud peaks.

We set up camp, made a fire and prepared dinner. It's one of the best parts of backpacking. The night was cold but we were sufficiently prepared and we slept well. I'd bought and packed a large air mattress that contributed "heavily" to our comfort and warmth.

 The road out from 4th of July Lake

The next day we decided to hike back down to the Xterra and change tack. We drove out of the White Clouds and targeted my beloved Sawtooth Mountains to the west. Because it is forbidden to make campfires in the Sawtooth Wilderness area (something we didn't want to do without), we opted for the Sawtooth National Recreation Area (SNRA). Yellowbelly Lake (yes, these lakes do have strange names) was a place I'd been as a child but not since. I had vague memories of mosquitoes attacking me and my dad carrying me on his shoulders part of the way because I was likely complaining about the long hike. The other possibility was that I was goofing around too much and this was the only way to keep the family moving forward. If you've ever hiked with a dog, you have an idea as to the path I would take – zigzagging, allowing myself to be easily distracted, filling my pockets with interesting rocks, pulling wings off insects, etc.

A still morning at Yellowbelly Lake

By Idaho standards it was a short drive from 4th of July to Yellowbelly and we soon had our packs on our backs again. The hike was also short by Idaho standards and we were soon setting up camp on the shore of the lake. It was a rather ideal location amongst the pines near the outlet of the lake.

The next two days were spent hiking, relaxing and some fishing. The nights were cold and the days were warm. On Monday we hiked out and we were off to Boise. My one-week eye appointment was waiting for me on Tuesday and then we'd be off to McCall to "car camp" with my family.


Family Camp Trip
The family assembled at Ponderosa State Park. We would spend the next several days camping, eating and filling our days with activities and just hanging out, part of which was at PSP and part of which was further south on Cascade Lake. Among the activities were a group mountain bike ride around Payette Lake, another ride near the failed ski resort of Tamarak, a road bike ride up Warm Lake Road near the town of Cascade, a few jogs and a rather long hike near McCall encompassing Boulder Lake and Louis Lake. Good times.
The smiling ladies taking a break on the hike; this was before they knew how damn long the hike was going to be.


Strolling from Boulder Lake to Louis Lake

 Priya and the pristine Louis Lake

 Another room with a view - Cascade Lake

Osprey nest - very bird friendly park
 
 If it looks like Danny's going to fall, it's because he does.


 At the end of the Tamarak ride, we're all on our feet.

 The ride around Payette Lake; generally considered not safe to take photos while riding.

Chilly evening around the "fire".

 Rich and Priya's night to prepare dinner - two tons of food on skewers consumed by an overactive family. 
The photo shows less than half of what was eaten altogether.

Watching the fireworks - according to height.