Twelve

Arabic number twelve

Last week I sat on a mountain ridge overlooking the city of Duhok, snacking on curry-dusted broad beans and talking work and politics and culture for hours with a Kurdish friend I’ve known for four years. Located in the far north of the Kurdistan Autonomous Region of Iraq, Duhok Governorate hasn’t seen conflict in over two decades. Since the outbreak of the war in Syria it has hosted many thousands of refugees, including those in Domiz Camp where I worked with MSF in 2012 and 2013. In 2015 and 2016 many of these refugees, as well as a number of locals, made their way abroad and others are planning to do so in the coming months.

My friend weaves Kurdish sayings into everyday conversation at an impressive rate, and the occasional joke slips in as well. As we talked of the exodus from this stable and extremely peaceful area, he told me this one:

I was speaking with some young people, and they said they plan to go to Europe when they have the chance. I asked them, “Why you will go? Here it is safe, and Da’esh is losing the war in both Iraq and Syria. They will never arrive to this region. You should stay.”

“Yes,” they replied, “but don’t you remember? Before Da’esh we had Saddam, and after Saddam we had al-Qaeda. So you see there is always another evil waiting to take the place of the last one. Even after Da’esh is destroyed, it will be even more worse: Thna’ash will come.”

Before I continue, non-Arabic speakers need to understand a couple of basics:

  1. Da’esh is simply the Arabic acronym for ISIS. The meaning is exactly the same, but in Arabic acronyms are very rarely used and in this case it is largely the reduction from a grandiose name to an ugly acronym that the group’s members dislike. You can read a detailed explanation here: “Decoding Daesh”.

  2. The number eleven in Arabic is officially أحدعشر but commonly pronounced حدعش or hda’ash, which sounds very similar to داعش (da’esh) when spoken quickly. The number twelve is commonly pronounced ثنعش or thna’ash.

And now, back to the joke:

“What are you talking about?!?” asked my friend, perplexed. “What’s Thna’ash?”

“Zombies!” they replied.

(Another version of the joke substitutes Donald Trump in place of Zombies)

Annual Update v8: a rambling recap of 2015

Dear family, friends, colleagues, and various types of acquaintance:

Only four weeks later than planned, this is the annual update I share with evvvvvveryone I know, because it’s far easier than actually trying to keep in touch with all of you individually. 2015 was a tough year, so I’m not entirely unhappy that it’s finally over, but there were some highlights and other parts worth mentioning: below you’ll find photos plus odds and ends of stories that have already begun fading from my memory. Good luck making it all the way to the end!

Key facts and figures:

Chart of countries visited in 2015

Canada -> France -> Guinea -> Portugal -> Guinea -> Portugal -> Guinea -> Belgium -> Canada -> Netherlands -> Djibouti -> Yemen -> Djibouti -> Netherlands -> Canada

30 flights, 8 countries (including 2 more letters of the alphabet), so many chameleons, uncountable airstrikes, and a lifetime worth of coffee consumed.

2015 in photos and video:

January 2015 found me in Vancouver, learning how the world of online dating works while waiting to leave town again. I therefore drank a lot of coffee with strangers and walked around town a fair bit, including strolling along the downtown waterfront simultaneously disliking but wanting one of the super yachts moored in Coal Harbour, and admiring the neatly moored seaplanes.

Seaplanes in Coal Harbour, Vancouver

I also watched ghosts playing ping pong in the basement of my parents’ century-old home:

Ghost ping pong

The ends of my trouser legs were white from being sprayed hundreds of times with chlorine in the Ebola centre in Sierra Leone at the end of 2014 so I made a solid effort to dye them brown again and met with some success – works well for blue jeans that are too faded but still in good shape, so give it a try.

Dyeing trousers

My sister Josephine is a crazygood documentary filmmaker; the client work that pays her bills is also fantastic. She was kind enough to invite my brother and me to help her film a piece about a UBC robotics professor, complete with hugging robot! You can watch the impressive, hilarious 2 minute video here: Rewild Films: A Robot in Every Home (UBC Trek Magazine). You can check out her other work at RewildFilms.com.

Robot hugging a human at UBC

Fun and games can’t last forever, though. I was contacted by the Red Cross in early January and asked if I would consider working for them. The significant wage increase compared to my Doctors Without Borders salary made it an easy decision for me. By 27 January I was in a fully-automated futuristic hotel room in Paris on a long layover, playing around with the LED mood lighting.

Mood lighting in the Citizen M hotel, Paris

I also managed to head into the city centre to see my friends Tom and Estelle before boarding my flight southwards, passing over North Africa en route to West Africa.

Scenic views flying south from Paris to Conakry

Flying in low over the jungle on 28 January, I arrived in Guinea – the country in which the 2013-2015 Ebola epidemic began.

Flying over West African forests

This would be the start of the longest five months I can remember, and easily the worst work experience of my professional life. However, I’ll spare you the details that support this statement. The experience wasn’t entirely negative, and still produced a few odds and ends worth sharing. As in other parts of West Africa, slogans adorn the taxis and minibuses all over Guinea, many wishing us “bonne chance” (good luck), an unfortunate necessity on Guinean roads…

Minibus taxi in Conakry, capital of Guinea

I spent my first few days in the polluted, congested, noisy seaside capital: Conakry. With very little to do in the coordination office, I left on 5 February to Kissidougou, a small town halfway across the country. Keita – my driver / makeshift logistics assistant – and I rolled along the potholed roads in our Land Cruiser pickup, pausing occasionally to admire the scenery.

Guinea landscape view on the drive from Conakry to Kissidougou
Traditional homes in Guinea
Bridge at the entrance to Faranah

I spent one week in Kissidougou, advising the local Guinean Red Cross team on correct procedures for disinfecting living people, dead people, equipment, and homes, as well as helping organise their stock of Ebola-specific supplies. The morning of my second day in Kissidougou, I helped manage the patient transfer of the last Ebola case (ever, hopefully) in that town, and the hospital room disinfection that followed.

Disinfecting the hospital room where Kissidougou's last Ebola patient stayed

Kissidougou isn’t a particularly impressive town, but this tree is:

Baobab tree on the main drag in Kissidougou

We were lucky to have a visit from MSF (Médecins Sans Frontières / Doctors Without Borders), who made a presentation that helped correct some of the misperceptions held by the local Red Cross volunteers, whose training over the previous year was dangerously and unforgivably inadequate.

MSF presenting to Kissidougou Red Cross volunteers

On 13 February we drove north to Kankan, the second largest city in Guinea, and regional capital of Haute Guinée, where I would be based for the following two weeks. Ryan joined us for the first couple of days – during the drive we played trivia over the radios from one car to the other.

Driving through Haute Guinée

In Kankan I spent my time preparing to set up a regional office and warehouse for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC – my employer), and visiting Guinean Red Cross committees in the surrounding sub-prefectures to check their supplies of Ebola equipment and materials, as well as advising on correct procedures. Much of this time was spent driving from place to place, staring out the window at the flora, fauna, and surroundings.

Guinean man walking along the side of the road in Haute Guinée
Farmer's fields outside Siguiri, Guinea

Here are a couple of short clips to give you an idea what the Haute Guinée countryside looks like:


I also finally got to eat cashew apples, which grow all over the northern parts of Guinea. More on that experience in this blog post from February 2015: What did the nut say to his buddies as he left the cocktail bar?

Children bringing us piles of cashew apples as a gift
Cashew apples and mangoes in Guinea

When we visited the Guinea Red Cross local committee office in Kouroussa, to the northwest of Kankan, I was impressed by the old French colonial administration buildings with trees growing Angkor Wat-like through them, and the sheer size of some of the older trees:

Abandoned French colonial administrative buildings in Kouroussa, Guinea
Trees grow through old French colonial buildings in Kouroussa, Guinea
Large baobab tree in Kouroussa, Guinea

Among other sights in the region, I enjoyed this Christmas ornament tree (sadly, not its scientific name), millions and millions of termite towers, and a few formerly motorised but presently human-powered vehicle ferries:

Nature's Christmas ornaments
Termite tower in Guinea
Ferry crossing in Guinea

By the end of February, I was driving back to Conakry, where I received some cash, sought approval for my plans in Haute Guinée, picked up the rest of my personal belongings, then set off to move to Kankan to establish our regional base. That process mainly consisted of finding a suitable building to use as a house and office with some storage space, then filling it with furniture and equipment to render it usable. I also continued visiting the Guinea Red Cross local committees in the surrounding sub-prefectures, so there was no shortage of back-breaking bumpy roadtrips. Combining aggression with a tremendous lack of skill, most Guinean drivers are true dangers on the road. Luckily my drivers were far above average, so we never ended up like these guys or the dozens of flipped and burned eighteen-wheelers lining the highways of the country:

Flipped car in the outskirts of Kankan, Guinea
Car crashed into a house in the outskirts of Kankan, Guinea

As I sat down for my usual morning sandwiche omelette avec café noir at an outdoor restaurant at the edge of a roundabout in Kankan, colonies of fruit bats (the natural reservoir for Ebola and a number of other terrible diseases) would sometimes play excitedly in the trees above:

I’d only spent three weeks in Kankan, and was nearly ready to leave on a weeklong holiday to Portugal, when I got a call from Conakry. They asked me to move to Basse Guinée and set up a regional base there, as Haute Guinée had become a quiet area with no new Ebola cases while Basse Guinée was the hot zone of the country. On 19 March I caught a United Nations Humanitarian Air Service flight from Kankan to Conakry, and that afternoon drove to Forécariah, where there were the largest number of active cases at the time. I spent the next three days helping scout out additional rental housing so that our local volunteers would no longer be sharing bedrooms in cramped quarters as they had been for some time, in blatant contravention of the standard protocols for working in an Ebola setting. I also got furniture made, helped disinfect and burn the mattress and belongings of a first Red Cross ambulance driver, Michel, who’d caught Ebola, and organised for the Land Cruiser ambulance below to be disinfected and repainted so the surfaces could more easily be disinfected and cleaned in the future. The driver of this ambulance, Sheriff, who I’d met only briefly when I arrived in Forécariah, also caught Ebola and died a few weeks later. Michel just barely survived, but will never fully recover.

Repainted ambulance for transferring suspected or confirmed Ebola patients

On 24 March I flew from Conakry through Casablanca to Lisbon, Portugal for a much-needed short holiday. This was my first time visiting a country starting with the letter P, leaving only O, Q, X, Y, and Z to cross off my list.

Portuguese coastline

I went straight from the Lisbon airport to the nearby city of Sintra, where I enjoyed the freedom to shake people’s hands, speak face to face at a distance less than 2 metres, take public transit, share food with other people, and generally do all the things that you can’t do in an Ebola context if you want to stay safe. I posted a whole whack of photos from this trip (39, to be precise), which you can see here: Two trips to Portugal. If you go to Portugal I highly, highly recommend spending a few nights in Sintra rather than simply making the day trip from Lisbon that most tourists do.

Three-wheeler on cobblestone in Sintra, Portugal
Waves crashing to shore in Sintra-Cascais Natural Park, Portugal
Cabo da Roca, Portugal
Views out to sea over Cascais, Portugal
Tower at Quinta da Regaleira in Sintra, Portugal
Monserrate Palace, Sintra, Portugal
Pena Palace, Sintra, Portugal

I spent my last two nights in Lisbon, then flew back to work in Guinea. On arrival, I was asked to head to Coyah, just outside Conakry, to set up a regional base there. My work in Coyah was fuelled by black Robusta coffee from the local street vendors. They all owned the largest size of Moka pot and brewed over a woodfire, storing the strong coffee in thermoses. This was the only reliable and rapid service delivery I encountered in Guinea. Local Red Cross committee executives hung about one particular cafe and played a lot of Scrabble, albeit with extremely liberal rule interpretation and mostly invented words.

Scrabble at the café in Coyah, Guinea

In addition to setting up a regional IFRC base, I spent a lot of time creating an Ebola operational base for the Coyah committee of the Guinean Red Cross. The function of each of our operational bases in Guinea was for the Red Cross volunteers to prepare their protective equipment and disinfection materials before going out for safe and dignified burials, for which the Red Cross was solely responsible across the entire country. After burying someone or disinfecting a location, the teams also needed a place to return to disinfect and clean their vehicles and reusable protective equipment, dispose of their hazardous waste, and prepare for the next burial.

Sand delivery for construction at the Red Cross Ebola operational base in Coyah, Guinea
Coyah Red Cross Ebola operational base in use

Soon I was asked to support other nearby Red Cross committees in Dubréka, Fria, Boffa, and eventually even Boké and Kamsar near the border with Guinea-Bissau when the epidemic spread to the area and risked crossing another international border. I helped set up or kickstart operational bases in each of these places, with the bases varying in size and complexity depending on the number of burials being performed in each area. Sometimes we could use the existing Red Cross committee property, and sometimes we had to rent land or request to use it free of charge from the local governance structures. Here, volunteers in Dubréka receive basic training for disinfecting materials on a simple sloped washing platform with soakaway pit running the full length of the platform. It’s worth mentioning that local Red Cross volunteers bore the brunt of the workload, stress, and risk in the work we were doing in Guinea, and while they weren’t perfect they made a solid effort:

Training hygienists how to disinfect and clean reusable equipment at the Red Cross Ebola operational base in Dubréka, Guinea

Back in Coyah, where I slept most nights, we had some power issues at first. With the unbearable heat inside, and no power for the fan to blow hot air at me and help me sleep, I dragged my mattress and set up my mosquito net outdoors:

Quick mosquito net setup

This steep mountain dominates the landscape north of Dubréka:

Massif in Dubréka, Guinea

On the drive from Dubréka to Boffa, there’s a sign that reads “Bridge over the Ibola, length 105 metres”. Seemed fitting given the epidemic sweeping the region, but the poor grammar of writing “la Ibola” instead of “l’Ibola” bothered me. It was only after the third or fourth time driving past and considering this grammatical error that I noticed the first letter was in fact an ‘M’, worn partly off. It should be “Bridge over the Mbola”…

Bridge over the Ibola er... Mbola

On the drive into Conakry, there are a number of strangely-named so-called universities, including these two classics:

Winfrey Oprah University of Guinea
Barack Obama University

After eight long weeks racing back and forth across Basse-Guinée, to and from each of the places named above, with frequent weekend visits to Conakry, I took a second much-needed weeklong holiday in Portugal. Loads of photos from that trip are also in the blog post about my two trips to Portugal. Highlights of the trip included spending the whole time with my friend Angela, who I hadn’t seen since 2005; brunch with Callum in Porto; and fado and drinks with Sebastian and Mike in Lisbon.

Guimarães gondola with Angela in Portugal
Breakfast with Callum in Porto
Fado in Lisbon
Hanging out with Mike and Sebastian in Lisbon

Angela and I spent the first few days adventuring around Porto, plus a day trip to Guimarães where we walked around on the mountaintop and discussed my whimsical but never-gonna-happen-in-real-life plan to make a coffee table book about moss. We also spent one night in Lisbon before I flew back to Guinea. Some views of Porto:

Porto, Portugal
Porto streetcar

Some say this bookstore in Porto inspired the Hogwarts Library:

The inspiration for Hogwarts Library?
Porto, Portugal
Bridge over the Douro River, Porto, Portugal

Boats advertising for the major producers of port wine float on the Douro River in Porto, replicas of the ones that once carried the barrels of fortified wine from inland to the large storage cellars in Porto:

Replica port wine cargo ship on the Douro River, Porto, Portugal
Barrels of Taylor's port in Porto, Portugal

Moss in Guimarães:

Moss in Guimarães

Back in Guinea, I was asked to return to Kankan to close the regional base I’d opened just a couple months earlier, owing to a distinct lack of Ebola in the region. On the drives, we spotted a number of chameleons crossing the street, and several times stopped to take photos.

Chameleon on the road from Kankan to Kérouané, Guinea

This one got scared and puffed himself up to frighten me away:

Chameleon on the road from Kankan to Conakry, Guinea
Angry chameleon

Once I’d closed that base down, I was asked to fly to N’Zérékoré to do the same for the base that one of my colleagues had established some time before. A short while after closing this base, I reached the end of my time in Guinea. I flew home to Vancouver in the first week of July, with a short stopover in Brussels where I left the airport for an early morning walk around town and a coffee at the MSF Belgium office with my friend Elvina.

When I arrived back in British Columbia, there were forest fires raging all over the province, including several on the Sunshine Coast, not too distant from Vancouver. An apocalyptic haze of smoke and ash soon descended on Vancouver and the nearby Gulf Islands, including Bowen Island, where I spend much of my summers. The ferry in this photo is roughly 500 metres from me, and usually you can see the Vancouver coastline clearly right behind it:

Queen of Capilano through the forest fire haze at Bowen Island, BC, Canada

I never get sick of hanging out with deer on Bowen, or taking their photos:

Young buck on Bowen Island

One of the highlights of July in Canada was the wedding of my friends Ricardo and Isabel. Another highlight was hanging out with my grade 6 teacher (my favourite teacher of all time), Mme Grenier. This time I managed to round up all four of my siblings for coffee together with Mme Grenier in the sun!

All five Anderson children with our grade six teacher, Mme Grenier

At the end of July, I made it to my friend Stephanie’s West End apartment just in time to catch the offshore fireworks festival:

Fireworks in English Bay

Over the summer I also met up with several couchsurfers visiting Vancouver, taking them cycling along the seawall, walking around town, etc. One of them – a Torontonian named Jana – suggested we head to Whistler for the day so we rented a car on a whim and I drove us north up the Sea to Sky Highway. Once we arrived, we had a quick look around the village and signed up for a zipline ride. What I didn’t know at the time was that this would be no ordinary zipline: Jana signed us up for the Sasquatch – the longest zipline in Canada & the US, connecting Blackcomb Mountain to Whistler Mountain. After riding the chairlift up Blackcomb, we got strapped into harnesses and jumped into a huge passenger van which drove us further up the mountain, then hopped out to walk the last few metres to the launch platform.

Walking to the Sasquatch zipline platform
Sasquatch zipline platform, Blackcomb Mountain

Human beings hanging from a contraption with a wheel clipped onto a steel cable flying through the air at over 120 km/h… it still sounded like a great idea when I heard Jana say it, until we arrived at the launching platform and saw the steps leading down into thin air and the steel cable going nearly vertically downward through the trees.

Terrifying start to the Sasquatch zipline at Whistler

I can honestly say I’m not afraid of bombs going off nearby, drones circling overhead, or angry-looking men with very large guns. Standing there looking down at the Sasquatch zipline, on the other hand, had me completely terrified. With no way to back down, however, I had to go through with it. The advantage of the Sasquatch is that they’ve installed two cables parallel to each other so you have company, sort of. Jana and I got clipped onto our cables, walked through the safety gates and down onto the steps, and with much hesitation on my part (and absolutely none on Jana’s part, because she’s fearless), we counted to three and stepped into thin air. For the first few hundred metres, the cable is so steep that it feels like a freefall, but you’re flying through a swathe cut through the trees so there’s a very clear reference point to let you know how incredibly fast you’re moving, unlike skydiving where the ground moves slowly toward you at first. I started spinning around in the wind, my chest was so tight I couldn’t breathe, and then I gave up trying to resist. I guess the adrenaline must have kicked in, because I relaxed more completely than if I were in a hammock with an ocean breeze rocking me gently to sleep. At that point, the ride became entirely enjoyable – I took in the scenery around me, pulled my camera out of my pocket, snapped a few shots of Jana flying along on the other line, and tried (and failed) to get a good selfie. I highly recommend the Sasquatch, though it is a little pricey, and would definitely do it again (if I have to).

Jana sailing through the skies between Blackcomb and Whistler mountains
Trying to take a selfie. Photo taken by Jana.

The very next day, a group of my friends invited me to hike the Stawamus Chief, which I hadn’t done since I was maybe 11 or 12 years old in Boy Scouts. We took a group photo at the base, before I left them in the dust…

Group shot before hiking the Stawamus Chief first peak

I arrived at the summit of the first peak half an hour before my friends, and took advantage of my early arrival to have a nice nap in a spot where I was relatively confident I wouldn’t easily fall to my death.

Climbing up to the Stawamus Chief first peak

I spent the month of August split between Bowen Island and Vancouver, rather enamoured of a young lady I’d accidentally met in a coffeeshop, and cycling around town on my Bumblebike, enjoying the daytime sunshine and nighttime city lights.

False Creek and Science World at night

Much of my time on Bowen was consumed working on the rowboat restoration project I’ve been slowly tackling for the past couple of summers. This time around, I built a steambox to bend strips of teak for a new breasthook…

Early stages of my steambox
Bending teak strips into a new breasthook after steaming for a few hours

…carved out a new support for the centre thwart…

Cutting a new support for the centre thwart of Jaro, the family rowboat

…and carefully cut out new seat surfaces for the bow and stern seats from marine grade mahogany plywood:

New stern seat for Jaro, the family rowboat

Bowen Island has loads of interesting wildlife, including this mischievous little climbing creature:

Trinity showing off her ninja skills at the cottage on Bowen

One day in August, Nikki and I saw this seal making a commotion in Deep Bay:

Summer adventures must come to an end, however, and by the 1st of September I was airborne once more, flying over beautiful landscapes without knowing what I was looking down upon:

Pretty landscape, unknown location

This time around, my destination was Yemen via Amsterdam and Djibouti. After a few days in Amsterdam for briefings at the MSF (Médecins Sans Frontières) office and a home-cooked meal at Martin’s place, plus a museum visit with Lysandra, I flew east to Istanbul then down to Djibouti. Djibouti city is not a particularly beautiful place, and I wouldn’t recommend it unless your aim is to head out to the nature reserves or offshore diving with whale sharks.

Arriving in Djibouti

On 5 September our little MSF plane took off for Sana’a, Yemen, but turned around and landed back in Djibouti a short while later as the cabin wouldn’t pressurise. On the 7th we tried again and made it all the way to Yemen, so I could cross Y off my list, leaving only O, Q, X, and Z. After a poor night’s sleep, owing to the lack of mosquito net on my bed in the MSF Sana’a guesthouse and sizeable mosquito population at that time of year, we made the six hour drive down through the mountains to Taiz, where I would be based for the following three months. Here are a few photos and a tiny video clip from that drive:

Green fields in Yemen
Yemeni scenery
Old fortress on the drive from Sana'a to Taiz

Bridge cut by an airstrike:

Bombed bridge on the road from Sana'a to Taiz

My first six weeks in Taiz were… disappointing. I arrived on the ground having been briefed in Amsterdam about my role as a logistician setting up a Mother and Child Hospital, only to discover that we had no permission from the authorities to run a hospital, nor a physical building in which to house it. Unfortunately, there was also very little I could do to speed up the process and tear through the bureaucratic red tape holding us back. I focused instead on office work, some preparations for the hoped-for hospital, admiring roadside camels, and hanging out with Clockwork the clothesline chameleon.

Camels on the Taiz-Aden road
Clockwork, the clothesline chameleon, in our backyard
Clockwork, the clothesline chameleon, in our backyard
Clockwork, the clothesline chameleon, on our clothesline
Clockwork, the clothesline chameleon, on our clothesline

We eventually got permission from the health authorities to run a hospital and, finally, in the evening of 19 October we received the keys to the building which, long before my arrival, had been selected for conversion from shopping mall to hospital. For a bit more on that process, you can read this blog post: Three Familiar Sounds.
From the morning of 20 October onwards, we worked full-tilt to get the new MSF Taiz Mother and Child Hospital up and running. My role was focused on setting up the physical infrastructure and medical warehouse. I opened an Instagram account on 15 October 2015, which has lots of photos of my time in Yemen, mostly showing progress on setting up the hospital: Instagram: @photodiarist.

The basement started out like this:

Basement of the hospital building before we took possession

Later, half the basement was filled with shelving and became the medical warehouse, while I set up walls, furniture, equipment, and lighting in the other half to create the Emergency Department and Lab. I use Trimble SketchUp for all my mapping and planning during my work, so I know beforehand exactly how everything will fit. Here’s the design I made for the basement, showing the warehouse along the left side and the emergency department on the right, with the lab on the far right:

Design of our hospital basement, which we completed before I left

This is the large hospital waste zone I designed and had mostly built before leaving Yemen:

Hospital waste zone design

Getting started on the generator shelter:

Rear compound at the start of work

Generator shelter nearly completed:

Generator and fuel storage area nearly complete

Cleaning the diesel storage tanks before installation:

Cleaning the diesel reservoirs

Installing walls to create the outpatient department on the ground floor:

Erecting walls in the outpatient department at the MSF Taiz Mother and Child Hospital

Putting in new basement doorways:

Installing better doors at the MSF Taiz Mother and Child Hospital

Welding outdoor waiting area benches:

Welding benches for the outdoor waiting area

Excavating for the waste zone:

Excavating pits for the hospital waste zone

Foundation work for the waste zone:

Early foundation work for the hospital waste zone

Converting a minibus into an ambulance for transferring patients to other hospitals:

Minibus converted into a patient transfer ambulance in Taiz, Yemen

We opened the hospital, with just the Outpatient Department operational, on 7 November:

Opening day of the hospital, 7 November 2015

We opened the Nutrition Programme a week later, and the Emergency Department a week after that. I worked late and slept several times at the hospital, enjoying the occasional sunset from the rooftop:

Sunset view from the rooftop of the hospital

Yemen has been in the midst of a civil war for quite some time now. Taiz was a particularly noisy place, with a nearly constant stream of bullets, bombs, and missiles flying through the air and landing all over the place. Here are a few photos taken immediately after airstrikes launched from Saudi-led coalition fighter jets:

Smoke cloud after an airstrike in Taiz, Yemen
Smoke cloud after an airstrike in Taiz, Yemen
Smoke cloud after an airstrike in Taiz, Yemen

I took this photo of the landscape nearby, for no particular reason, the day after arriving in Taiz:

Hilltop building on 9 September 2015

Exactly two weeks later, there were a series of airstrikes and at least one of them hit the building in the photo above, destroying everything but the reinforced concrete pillars and floors:

Hilltop building on 23 September 2015, shortly after several airstrikes

As I wrote in the blog post mentioned above, this airstrike on 2 December indirectly resulted in me arriving back in Canada a few days earlier than expected:

Smoke cloud after an airstrike near the MSF tented scabies clinic in Taiz, Yemen which killed one person and injured several

On 3 December most of our team drove up from Taiz to Sana’a, admiring the scenery along the way, with an overnight stop in Ibb where I got to catch up with Ahmed and Armando, two guys with whom I lived and worked in Iraq three years ago.

Terraced hillsides on the drive from Ibb to Sana'a, Yemen

I spent the next few days working out of our Sana’a office, speaking with suppliers for hospital equipment, finishing up some 3D hospital plans and designs, and writing up my handover report notes, before flying out to Djibouti on 9 December. The Sana’a airport runways were repaved some months ago so that aircraft could land again, but the place is still littered with the remnants of passenger jets, fighter jets, helicopters, military vehicles, and old airport buildings. The terminal itself is in decent shape, at least!

Bombed infrastructure at Sana'a International Airport, Yemen
Destroyed fighter jet at Sana'a International Airport, Yemen
Destroyed passenger or cargo jet at Sana'a International Airport, Yemen

Taking off from Sana’a on the little MSF Beechcraft King Air 200 with its leather aft-facing seats and matching 1988 safety cards:

Beechcraft King Air 200 cockpit

Goodbye, Yemen:

Looking back down on Yemen

After a night in Djibouti, I flew back up to Istanbul and then over to Amsterdam, where I once again had a fantastic homemade meal and fascinating conversations with Martin and Kat. Once my debriefings were over at the MSF Amsterdam office, I flew to Toronto on 12 December to finally meet the MSF Canada people who’d been employing me for the past few years, and to give a presentation about my experience and MSF’s work in Taiz, Yemen.

I was lucky to arrive on the weekend, so I had Saturday afternoon and all of Sunday to see friends; the last time I was in Toronto, arriving on a bicycle, was in the summer of 2009. I managed to see Nikki, Mike C, Danielle, Joy, Bill, Ashik, and Amanda, plus the CN Tower (from a distance).

CN Tower, Toronto, Canada

On 14 December, I landed back in Vancouver, where I enjoyed much coffee and food with friends, tried my hand at online dating once again, and even tasted a little mulled wine at Sonja’s house:

Sonja with her spatula-turned-sugar melting tool for making mulled wine

I also made it out to two incredible Christmas choir concerts: Chor Leoni downtown at St Andrew’s Wesley, and the Corpus Christi College Chamber Choir at Our Lady of Fatima:

Corpus Christi College Chamber Choir Christmas Concert

The rest of those final two weeks of 2015 were occupied by catching up on sleep, hanging out with my wonderful family, and wondering where in the world I’ll be heading next…

That’s it for 2015! As always, I’d love to get an update from you – whether we know each other well or not at all, whether it’s a quick hello or a rambling email telling me every little detail of your life. I promise to read it, no matter how long, and eventually even reply.

Three familiar sounds

A little after 19:00 on 19 October 2015, a man named Nawaf, neatly dressed in a white ankle-length robe and smart suit jacket, arrived at our office in Taiz, Yemen, bearing a flimsy brown cardboard box. Around his waist he wore a large, finely crafted and highly stylised leather belt, which held in place the sheath of his traditional dagger. Nawaf had left the dagger itself outside on his car seat, because he knew the rules: Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF, aka Doctors Without Borders) facilities have a strict no-weapons policy. He handed me the box which contained 62 jagged pieces of metal, not one of which was clearly labelled, while I struggled to contain my excitement. These were the long-awaited keys to the hotel/shopping-centre building we were to convert into a Mother and Child Hospital, where all services would be provided free of charge.

Keys to the MSF Taiz Mother and Child Hospital

The very next day, we commenced the logistical works required for establishing the hospital: erecting internal walls to create rooms, installing electrical and diesel generator system, setting up a huge medical warehouse and receiving more than 40 tonnes of medical supplies and equipment, installing fencing for access control, assembling hospital furniture, and much more.

MSF Mother and Child Hospital, Taiz, Yemen. Opening day: 7 November 2015.

Less than three weeks later, on 7 November, we opened the front doors of the hospital to accept our first outpatients. Even though we hadn’t announced the opening, so many patients arrived on that first morning that we had to close at midday! The following week, we opened the nutrition programme. Two weeks after that, we opened the emergency department and had our first baby born, a beautiful baby girl.

One of the most common complaints of people coming to the hospital was scabies. Our medical team determined that a large community of people in Taiz, displaced by the war and thus forced to live in cramped and often unhygienic conditions, was in the midst of a scabies outbreak. Rather than treat these people in our hospital, the team suggested it would be better to address the problem at its source, in the community. So the MSF Taiz team planned a special tented clinic, met with representatives of the community, organised supplies of benzyl benzoate, set up a large white MSF tent near where many of the displaced people were living, and began treating them on 1 December.

The following day – Wednesday, 2 December – I arrived at the MSF Mother and Child Hospital to check the work of various contractors who were, respectively: installing workbenches and a filtered water system for the new laboratory to be opened the next day, welding an intermediate steel burner for waste incineration, installing doors for the staff’s rooftop sleeping quarters, and finishing the masonry for the hospital waste-zone pits.

Making progress on the hospital waste zone

I had also planned to spend an hour with the medical storekeeper, with whom I’d been working closely, to complete a full physical stock count of our enormous 315m2 central medical warehouse.

Medical warehouse

We arrived at the hospital around 14:00, and I was still standing outside behind the building, speaking with my colleague when, at 14:08, we heard a jet come in low overhead. It’s an all-too familiar sound, one usually followed by two other familiar sounds. I stretched my arm up toward the sky and pointed at the plane with my index finger, tracking its path as it moved northwest of our location. Within fractions of a second, we heard the second familiar sound: a bomb screaming downward from the sky, toward its target. With my index finger, I continued following the sound of the bomb, which I couldn’t see, until my arm was horizontal and my finger was pointing straight toward the horizon, at which moment we heard the last of the three familiar sounds: the airstrike hitting its target. There was a loud bang, followed by a pressure wave that shook us as it flexed the glass window panes of our five-storey hospital building. A column of brown smoke rose up from the spot I’d been pointing at, just a few hundred metres away from us.

Cloud of smoke after an airstrike in Taiz, Yemen on 02 December 2015

After chatting briefly with nearby staff about the airstrike and how close this one had been, I returned to my work, comfortable in my certain knowledge that the airstrike couldn’t have affected our nearby tented clinic. After all, the Saudi-led coalition, which was responsible for these airstrikes, knew the exact GPS coordinates of our tent, just as they know the coordinates of our Mother and Child Hospital. I had been talking for just a few minutes with an engineer about the next steps for our hospital waste zone, when I received a phone call from our Project Coordinator. He wanted us to return to the office promptly. Our tented clinic had been hit, he said, and several people had been injured, two of them critically.

Sadly, the following day, one of these two people succumbed to his injuries. As our Head of Mission in Yemen says, “The health structure’s GPS coordinates were regularly shared with the Saudi-led coalition, most recently on 29 November, when we informed them about this specific activity in Al Houban. There is no way that the Saudi-led coalition could have been unaware of the presence of MSF activities in this location.”

Several airstrikes in the morning, only 2km from our tented clinic, had shaken our staff, so MSF had called the coalition to remind them again of our tented clinic activity, just to be on the safe side. The tent sported a huge MSF flag spread flat on its roof, with the bright red MSF logo easily visible from the sky. The coalition was told multiple times about the tented clinic and its location and yet, because of this Saudi-led coalition airstrike, several people in the clinic were injured and one is now dead. This is the second MSF facility in Yemen to be hit by airstrikes from the Saudi-led coalition. The other, an MSF-supported hospital in Haydan, was turned into a pile of rubble in late October by a series of airstrikes.

One after-effect of this airstrike was a temporary reduction of staff in Taiz. I, among others, was relocated to the capital, Sana’a until things calmed down. As I had nearly completed the term of my contract, there was too little time for me to return to Taiz before I was due to leave Yemen, so I returned home to Canada a few days early. It’s unfortunate, as I’d hoped to complete some of the remaining works at the hospital, into which I had put so much thought and energy. Still, in the few weeks since the keys were handed over to us, we worked full-tilt to get the MSF Taiz Mother and Child Hospital up-and-running, and I’m confident this hospital will continue to grow and serve the community for a long time to come.

In case you’re wondering what an airstrike sounds like, I recorded several during my stay in Yemen. Below is a short audio clip recorded on my phone in the middle of the night at 03:36 on 03 October 2015, as I heard it from my bedroom:

High Risk Zone: Diary of an aid worker in Sierra Leone

This story was originally published as the feature article in the February 2015 issue of Trek Magazine.

December 22, 2014

As I disembark from Lufthansa flight 492 at Vancouver International Airport, two young men in dark blue uniforms deliberately block the economy class exit; another pair blocks business class. Painful-looking telescoping batons hang from their hips as they check the passport of every travel-weary passenger. I saw this routine many times during my UBC Arts Co-op days when I worked with the Canada Border Services Agency, and I know exactly who they’re looking for: me.

I show my passport. The leader of the quartet tilts his head to his shoulder, radios to someone that I’ve been found, and leads me away. As we pass the airport’s mesmerising jellyfish aquarium, I ask if they really expected to find me in business class. “No, it was just in case you decided to wander.” They needn’t have worried; I wasn’t about to hide from the authorities: my carry-on is a big, fire-engine red duffel with “Médecins Sans Frontières” plastered on each end. “So,” he asks, “how was Sierra Leone, man?”

November 9, 2014

Following a two-day Ebola training course in Amsterdam, our MSF team flies to Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone.

MSF Ebola training in Amsterdam

As we walk off the tarmac at Lungi International Airport, a man directs us to a water-filled bucket with a simple plastic tap, on a stand to the left of the airport terminal entrance. He instructs us to wash our hands. During training we’ve been warned that, while hand-washing stations are omnipresent in West Africa, many are either empty or hold unchlorinated water. Curious, I raise my dripping-wet hands to my nose and inhale deeply. My head spins as not-so-fond memories of childhood swim lessons slap me in the face. I won’t repeat that mistake.

The immigration officer stamps my passport with a half-page visitor stamp reading “occupation in Sierra Leone prohibited” despite my multiple-entry work visa. As I watch his left hand pick his nose then return my passport, I’m already lifting a bottle of hand sanitiser from my pocket. Obsessive hygiene habits will regulate my every move in this Ebola-stricken country if I want to sleep soundly at night.

November 11, 2014

The Ebola management centre where I work in Kailahun, eastern Sierra Leone, is big. At peak occupancy, its 12 tents held over 100 patients. Ambulances carrying suspected Ebola cases show up several times a day.

An ambulance arrives carrying suspected Ebola patients in Kailahun, Sierra Leone

The Low Risk zone holds the on-site medical office, water and sanitation team area, laundry service, dispensary, change room, and dressing and undressing tents. The Public Health Agency of Canada’s mobile laboratory operates out of two canvas tents, also in Low Risk, testing samples every morning for Ebola RNA.

Patryk, from the Public Health Agency of Canada lab, tests blood samples for Ebola in Kailahun, Sierra Leone

The patients’ area – the High Risk zone – is straightforward: two tents for people suspected of having Ebola; two tents for people showing more symptoms than the suspect cases but not yet confirmed by the Canadian lab; and eight tents for patients testing positive.

As logistics manager for the MSF Kailahun Ebola management centre, I’m responsible for keeping the centre running smoothly. This involves construction and rehabilitation, infrastructure maintenance and repairs, site security, maintaining diesel generators, electrical systems and lighting, plus odd tasks such as setting up an outdoor projector screen and sound system to entertain patients with movies and dance music.

December 1, 2014

I’ve been called back to the centre – the lighting has failed in two of the patient tents. Without light, the medics are not allowed to work. Anna, a Dutch medical doctor specialising in infectious diseases, accompanies me. We enter the change room, swap regular clothes and footwear for hospital scrubs and rubber boots, and exit through another door into Low Risk. While I will be in High Risk, Anna will remain in Low Risk ready to manage any unforeseen situations.

I can only enter High Risk with a buddy, so a hygienist named Foday comes too. If either of us leaves for any reason, the other will need to go too. In the dressing tent, we don our now-ubiquitous and colourful personal protective equipment (PPE), covering our faded turquoise hospital scrubs and white gumboots with a yellow spacesuit, white apron, blue nitrile gloves, pink facemask, white hood, anti-fog ski goggles, and green rubber gloves. My mirror-writing-on-forehead skills improve quickly in Kailahun.

Writing my name on my forehead, so colleagues and patients know who's hiding under the spacesuit
Donning PPE in Kailahun Ebola centre, Sierra Leone

Foday and I check each other for dressing mistakes – we’re responsible for each other’s safety, especially any PPE “accidents” such as snagging and tearing the suit on an exposed nail or splinter, or exposing skin because of a goggles slip. Something as simple as fogged-up eyewear, or a facemask soaked with condensation, will trigger an immediate departure from High Risk. A fashion faux pas in an Ebola centre could be fatal.

Foday and I walk through the Suspect and Probable areas, and into Confirmed. Flashlights hang from strings tied to the tent frame; others rest against the faces of patients sleeping on canvas cots. Between two tents, we find two light garlands have been disconnected from each other. I reconnect them and the lights come on. Happy to have solved the problem, we begin telling Anna, still standing a safe distance away in Low Risk, when a light turns off behind her. A second later, the lights above us go out. I hit the nearby switch to turn the lights back on and hear a loud pop. Not a good sound. Then, I hear a much worse sound: the generator rumbling to a painful stop a hundred metres away. The remaining lights flicker out as the entire Ebola centre loses power.

“Oh no,” I think to myself. “What am I going to do now?” Still wearing full PPE, there’s no efficient way for me to get to the generator. I take two long, deep breaths, then send Anna with basic instructions for restarting the generator. This way, I can stay in full PPE a little longer and keep trying to get the lights back on in the two tents. However, five minutes later Anna returns, unsuccessful. For safety’s sake, I need to get the generator going, so Foday and I make our way cautiously through the dark to the undressing tent, sidestepping furniture and trash scattered by patients. Tripping in the dark could expose us to Ebola, and neither of us is keen to be the next patient in Kailahun. In the undressing tent, the undressers shine flashlights so we can see to remove our gear. Unencumbered by my spacesuit, I race across the street to the generator room and succeed in restarting the generator, restoring power to most of the site. Other staff will enter High Risk to relocate patients from the unlit tents so medics can care for them.

December 12, 2014

Another hot, sunny day and I return to High Risk with my handyman for routine maintenance. As we hammer nails into an overhead beam, Andy – a British nurse with a thick northern accent – comes over and speaks through his spacesuit: “Hey mate, have you got a lot of this work to do?”

“No, just a few more nails and we should be done. If the noise is making any trouble for the medical work, we can stop.”

“No, no,” Andy says. “It’s just that we’ve got this little girl dying and we’re trying to give her a bit of peace in her last moments, but it’s fine if you’ve just got a few more nails to finish.”

Looking over his shoulder, I see the girl lying on a bed outside a tent, her head tilted to one side, her little body unable to cope with the disease. Three medics in yellow spacesuits sit on the edges of her bed, stroking her head softly as if she were their own daughter. Adult fingers in a white surgical glove gently hold her small brown hand. It’s all they can do for her as she drifts away. Later, in the medical tent, I see the grave-stick prepared for her: Augusta*, age 2, patient number 1166. Andy has drawn a little flower on the grave-stick, next to her name. Five red petals on a simple stem, with two green leaves.

Late December 2014

Despite the tragedy, there’s good news at the centre almost every day: patients are discharged, families are reunited, and the number of patients steadily decreases. When I arrived in Kailahun, the centre was packed. Six weeks later, only two patients remain.

At the Vancouver airport, a quarantine officer takes less than an hour to check me over, while a border services officer stands guard. I’m given a thermometer, instructed to report daily to the government by phone, then I collect my luggage and step out into the chilly winter air. Looking right and left of the door, there isn’t a bucket of chlorinated water in sight.

*Name changed to protect patient confidentiality