Dear family, friends, coworkers, and people I accidentally put in my contacts list:
Another year has passed and it follows, therefore, that it’s time for another annual update. In all of 2016, I published but a single blog post (aside from the last annual update), so as of late I’ve had a higher-than-average number of people asking where I was, am, and will soon be. I am presently in South Sudan, and will soon be somewhere else – where, exactly, I have no idea.
As for where I was in 2016, here’s the short version: Canada, USA, Canada, CAR, Spain, CAR, Greece, France, Canada, USA, Canada, Iraq, Syria, Iraq, Syria, Iraq, Syria, Iraq, England, Switzerland, England, Nigeria, England, Canada. 25 plane flights, 20 helicopter flights. 11 countries, including 2 that I’d not visited before. My first ever resignation from a job, couchsurfers galore, and a gangsta wrapper Christmas sweater.
And here, with a whole bunch of photos (click to view high-res copies), is the long version:
On 1 January 2016 I borrowed my mom’s car and drove out to Bowen Island to spend the day napping on the rocks in the midday winter sun, take a portrait selfie for posterity, and get a quiet night’s fireside sleep.
The next day Dave invited a few friends to go curling – it was the first time for most of us!
Right after curling, I drove a carload of run people to Liz and Yuen’s place in the far reaches of Richmond for dinner and a dance party, with Nate as our DJ for the night.
A few days later, I flew to New York City for work. It was my first time ever in New York, but I realised later that I had taken only 2 photos the entire time! Outside of work hours, I managed to catch up with my friend Lauren over ramen and kava, Maria over sushi, and Mark over brunch accompanied by strong black coffee and a spicy bloody Mary. On my last day in New York, I bought over two dozen real New York bagels to put in my carry-on luggage, which had the plane cabin smelling fantastic for the entire flight back to Vancouver, and served as the foundation for the first Bagelpalooza of the year.
Back in BC, I hung out with all sorts of fun people, like Taylor:
I went over to Bowen Island for a few more days in late January, where I saw this great blue heron and some cool moss:
The crocuses I planted with my siblings in the fall of 2014 finally came up in the spring of 2016!
Back on the mainland, Danielle and I went for a hike on 2 February up to Lynn Peak. I wore my reliable steel-toed construction boots and Danielle wore runners. The only other person we saw was using snowshoes on the same trail. I believe he was overdressed for the occasion.
Two days later, I was back at Bowen, taking Taylor for a hike up Mt Gardner.
A week after that, Danielle, Tiffany, and I went over to Bowen again for yet another hike up Mt Gardner searching for a robotic dinosaur followed by hours of joking around the fireplace back at the house. On the walk, we spotted this tree covered from bottom to top in mushrooms. I’ve never seen so many fungi on a single tree before! The photo doesn’t do it justice.
We also discovered an abandoned hobbit village, with its walkways shrouded in mist.
A warning sign at the north summit of Mt Gardner:
Tiffany led the way down from the summit:
Four days later, back on the mainland, Natassia took me to Capilano Suspension Bridge Park on the North Shore, using a special pass which got us both in for free. The last time I went was in grade 1, when my classmate Morgan’s dad put me on his shoulders to cross the bridge on the bridge staff’s instructions. I have a feeling they’re not allowed to say that anymore.
Since then, they’ve also added the Cliffwalk, anchored in the bedrock:
…and a canopy walk called Treetops Adventure up high among the trees, which I hope to one day copy on my own land.
I spent some of my spare time in February converting my grandfather’s old suitcase into a coffee table. I had found it a few years earlier in the garage, where it had been sitting for a few decades hidden on a shelf among cobwebs and old apple crates. It’s one piece from a large set that came with the family from England in June 1952.
I cleaned it as well as I could, tore out the rotten liner and put a new one in, coated the outer surfaces with a special clear coat to protect the woven material and leather, and put four old chair legs on the bottom. Viewed from most angles, it appears to be levitating in my parents’ living room.
I finished the suitcase coffee table project just before 4am on 3 March 2016. My flight out of Vancouver lifted off six and a half hours later, destination: Central African Republic.
Back in November 2015, while working for MSF in the frontline city of Taiz, Yemen, I had been interviewed and hired by the IRC (International Rescue Committee) to join their external emergency roster as a Supply Chain Coordinator. That was the reason I went to New York – for orientation. January and February were spent anticipating an imminent departure that never came, as there was no urgent need for my skill set. Finally, unable to remain unemployed in Vancouver for much longer, and with IRC’s knowledge and encouragement, I accepted a position with UNICEF (the UN Children’s Fund) in the Central African Republic (CAR).
It didn’t take me long to realise the mistake I had made. I won’t go into detail, as it might be considered unprofessional to write openly about my experience with UNICEF in CAR. Suffice it to say it was a valuable learning experience; my six month contract turned into a three month contract just two months in, when I gave my contractually-obligated one month’s notice. This photo will say much of what will remain unsaid: it’s the fluorescent light bulb in the UNICEF office male toilet on 13 May, the day it was replaced, well over a month after the old one burned out; a very directly applicable metaphor.
There were some excellent highlights, however: a bunch of old friends had ended up in CAR and it didn’t take long to reconnect with them. I even ended up working directly with two old friends: Simon, who I’d met in South Sudan in 2010, was my direct counterpart in ACF (Action Contre la Faim, a French NGO); and Dominique, who I’d met in Côte d’Ivoire in 2011, was my direct counterpart in ACTED (Agence d’Aide à la coopération technique et au développement, another French NGO). Working right beside me in my own office was Carmen, the younger sister of my Spanish friend Àngela, who I’d met when we were both students in Sweden in 2007.
Lisa, for whom I was an orientation leader at UBC in 2004, joined me for dinner one evening when she came for a field visit for Mercy Corps, and I got to see my fellow NOHA classmate Evelyn, now working for MSF, and another former NOHA, Catalina, a bunch of times. I also made a number of fantastic new friends, experienced a backyard mud and soap slip ‘n slide, learned to play squash, and organised the release of over a million dollars worth of humanitarian supplies to organisations that were responding to the multiple ongoing crises within the country.
I also got to catch up with two of my old colleagues from my MSF days in Grimari and Bambari: Cyrille, an excellent Centrafrican nurse and Papa Zach, my top Centrafrican driver and right hand as we worked on repairing and building bridges, among many other challenges in 2014.
One day, I came home at night to find the tiniest little baby bat outside my door. I put him somewhere the ants couldn’t get him, but without his mother I doubt he survived.
Six weeks into my contract, I was already due for a week’s rest and recuperation, so I flew up to Madrid, Spain where I met up with Carmen’s older sister Ángela for the first time in 8 years! She took me all over town on foot while we caught up on all the years that had passed.
The next day I caught the train to Segovia, where a famous Roman aqueduct greets visitors entering the town. It’s hard to grasp the size of this thing, but if you see the vehicle parked underneath at the bottom righthand side of the photo you might get an idea.
In Segovia I couchsurfed with Clara from Germany and her flatmate Marie from Ecuador. We ate well, laughed a lot, and I slept like a baby. Perfect preparation for another half day wandering around town, seeing the sights:
El Alcázar de Segovia:
The pipe organ in Segovia Cathedral:
Fancy ceiling in el Alcázar de Segovia:
Looking out through an archway in the Roman aqueduct:
That afternoon I headed down to Toledo, where for the first time in my life I had a couchsurfing host cancel on me. I managed to find a hotel, wander town a bit in the rain, and eat a Middle Eastern supper that the restaurant owner thought I couldn’t possibly finish alone.
El Alcázar de Toledo:
The next day I walked around Toledo some more, visited the Visigoths museum, looked around the shops, and generally got soaked by the mid-April rains. It was in a somewhat grumpy mood, shivering and wet, that I pulled my phone out of my pocket at this very spot:
There on my screen was a Skype message from an old friend, now working for IRC in Greece. He was drowning in work, as refugees arrived in the thousands on the Greek islands seeking EU asylum. We chatted a bit, and later that day I made up my mind to give my notice to UNICEF on my arrival back in CAR a few days later: it would be the first time I ever quit a job before the intended end date.
After walking along the river for a while, I wandered back through the old town, grabbed my bag from the hotel, then headed to the train station to return to Madrid.
Back in Madrid I spent some more time with Àngela, ate way too many tapas with Nick who was in town from Luxembourg for work, and enjoyed the botanical gardens with heaps of peacocks roaming loudly around.
Back in CAR, I gave my notice on the first day back in the office. Within less than 24 hours of doing so, I was asked if I could go straight to Greece as soon as my time in CAR was up which, of course, I accepted. I finished work in Bangui on 24 May and began briefings in Athens on 25 May, fresh from the airport.
I spent the next five and a half weeks working for IRC in Athens, while learning the organisation’s policies, procedures, and jargon. The workload was heavy, but being in Athens had distinct advantages rarely found in humanitarian work: zero security restrictions on movement or dress, decent cafés every few steps, excellent restaurants, reliable electricity and running water, and of course all the stuff that tourists seek out in a place like Athens (ancient ruins and museums, live music, interesting architecture, a humming nightlife).
I also got to meet up with and host loads of couchsurfers in Athens, as well as having a couple of friends meet up when they were passing through town, like Aurora, Lauren B, Maya K, and Sebastian:
The last day in the office was also the day that three members of the cast of Game of Thrones – Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey), Ser Davos Seaworth (Liam Cunningham), and Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) – visited us at our Athens office to wrap up their tour of refugee sites in Greece. I had nice conversations with each of them, but I was most impressed by Liam Cunningham, who was incredibly passionate about the injustice faced by refugees and the inaction of so many people. He told me how he started to feel like part of the problem, as he sat yelling aloud at the people on his television for their xenophobic and unhelpful behaviour. Nobody could hear him yelling at the TV, so now he’s standing up for refugees and trying to make a difference. And yes, he has all the fingertips on his right hand in real life, as seen on my shoulder.
I flew out of Athens on 2 July, ready for a break from work after 4 months of long office days.
My flight back to Canada had a 19 hour layover in Paris so, as is my habit, I left the airport. I spent the evening walking through Paris with Fleur, who I’d last seen seven and a half years earlier in northwestern Thailand.
We watched a UEFA Euro 2016 football match (Germany vs Italy) with Fleur’s lovely friends while dining on very fancy snacks, and before long I was soundly asleep on an inflatable mattress in her home office. I woke up early and slipped out the door to catch my final flight back to Vancouver, admiring the ancient staircase as I spiralled down to the cobblestone street below.
Back in Vancouver, I learned of a secret plot and was asked to take part just days after landing. A group of us surprised our friend Stash at the train station, and took him down to Portland for a post-wedding surprise bachelor weekend.
It was super boring, we did nothing interesting, slept early every night. I did spot this old fire extinguisher swallowed long ago by a curb-side tree, and a bicycle sign that looks really small until you see notice the standard-sized bricks that make up the building wall on which it’s painted.
I only had three and a half weeks off, so I crammed in as much adventure as I could. I returned to Bowen Island for a couple nights, walking around Killarney Lake on a sunny summer’s day:
I also spotted these donuts in disguise at the Snug Cafe, my favourite local eatery on Bowen, before hiking up Mt Gardner with Ashley, who had driven up from Washington for the day.
And this insane little mushroom poking out of the forest floor:
Back in the summer of 2013 I started restoring a little old yellow rowboat named Jaro, having been told while I was in Iraq that it had “to be refibreglassed”, I immediately volunteered for what should have been a simple fix. Unfortunately, as soon as I looked at the boat I found that it barely needed any fibreglassing at all – the main problem was that much of the wood had rotted out. Past annual updates have included photos of the slow progress I’ve made in fits and bursts in the three years that followed. In 2016, with just a couple of days to work on Jaro, all I managed to do was add a rough new layer of fibreglass to the interior of the hull to strengthen it and ensure it has a long life. Even worse – I ran out of fibreglass and had to return to Vancouver to buy more before I could finish. I didn’t have time for touching up, shaving off rough edges, adding more resin to get the right finish… all those things will have to wait for the next non-winter visit.
Before adding new fibreglass:
After adding the new fibreglass, halfway done applying yellow-tinted resin to the glass:
On 23 July, I watched what was easily the worst fireworks show I’ve ever seen at the annual offshore Celebration of Light fireworks festival. It was still fun, but simultaneously somewhat agonising to watch the light bursts that weren’t at all synchronised to the music, which itself had no rhyme or reason (we get a bit snobby about fireworks performances, I’ll admit…).
The next day I went for the final hike of the 25-day summer: up to St Mark’s Summit with Josephine and Danielle! After a classic “forgotten-coffee-falls-off-car-roof-and-hits-side-window-with-a-bang” start to the morning, we hit the trail. Soon, Danielle was enjoying one of Mother Nature’s free snacks, the famed North Shore Bearclawlipop Fungus. Apparently it tastes like a sweeter version of a certain donut-like dessert pastry.
When hikers passed us going the other way, we sang “hellooo” to them in three-part harmony, garnering many a laugh on our way to the top.
Looking down from St Mark’s Summit to Bowen Island:
This tree on the hike back down has a hollow straight out of a fairytale:
We also ate sooo many berries on the trail. Blueberries, huckleberries, and delicious salmonberries:
Three days later I was on a plane bound for Iraq. I spent the first month in Erbil, pushing more paper than I’ve pushed in a long time. One weekend a small group of us did manage to head out of town for a little adventure. We went to Korek Mountain, stopping en route to admire this beautiful canyon:
We had hoped to walk up Korek Mountain but, on arriving at the base, the two of us with hiking experience immediately realised it would take all day just to get to the top, in sweltering heat with zero shade and insufficient water and food. So, we did what all good hikers do in such situations: we paid to ride the gondola up!
Up at the top, we wandered around the bizarre rides, played on a swing, and eventually managed to get hooked up to this contraption, which dragged us backwards up the hill then pulled us forward at high speed for a few seconds to give the impression of flying:
Three days later, on 22 August, I headed up to Duhok, where I’d worked for a few months back in 2012. This round building, home to the General Directorate of Culture and Arts of Duhok, had been under construction when I left. By 2016 it was not only completed, but already ageing quickly…
I spent the next few weeks shuttling back and forth between Duhok and Derek, pushing paper and trying to help others learn how to push paper, while drinking lots of coffee.
I also got to see two of my old MSF friends, who took me out for dinner multiple times and never let me pay. One day I will succeed to buy these gentlemen dinner!
In mid-September I was driven back down to Erbil to wrap things up.
By 21 September I was flying out of Iraq, arriving in London late in the evening and flying down to Geneva early the next morning for a quick 31-hour visit.
The next day it was back to London for four nights, drinking coffee at Prufrock on Leather Lane with Ximena, warming more coffee in an underground public toilet, eating fancy food in East London with Natasha and Nate, and seeing Martin, Dave, and Lori as well!
This do not enter sign wasn’t far from the Attendant Café:
While I spent a bunch of time socialising, the main reason for being in London was actually to get a visa from the Nigerian High Commission. Before returning to Heathrow for my flight down to Abuja, Nigeria on 27 September, I spent some time sitting by the Thames admiring the scenery while, to my right, a guy silently practised some mind-boggling dance moves with his earbuds in.
I arrived in Abuja at 4:35am, got some sleep in a hotel in town, then was back at the airport for a UN flight up to Maiduguri, Borno State. Aside from the ongoing Boko Haram insurgency, Maiduguri also features an insane number of tuk-tuks as motorcycles were banned due to being a favoured means of transport for insurgents. In Nigeria a tuk-tuk is called a keke NAPEP or simply keke for short.
I soon caught my first ever helicopter flight, followed by 19 more helicopter flights over the next two months.
The reason for all the chopper flights was to reach a small town called Monguno, where many thousands of displaced persons had ended up. After arriving in town, most of them had to build their own shelters. This required heading out of town in search of firewood to cook, and branches and straw to make the structure and thatch…
…bringing it into town…
…weaving thatch mats to sell to other displaced people or use for their own homes…
…and set up their new homes…
…in sprawling IDP (internally displaced persons) camps spread across the town:
In the camp pictured below, I was tasked with building a Comprehensive Women’s Centre featuring women’s protection & empowerment and reproductive health clinic facilities:
Most of the facilities we built in Borno State had to be temporary constructions using very simple materials, as the land on which they were built will eventually return to its intended use (public or private land, housing estates, schools, etc – many different properties were temporarily assigned as IDP camps). This is what it looked like during my final visit to Monguno, with about a week’s work remaining to complete it:
I also spent a lot of time cancelling a contract for poor performance, finding a new contractor, and following up regularly on his completion of a contract to build more than twenty latrine and shower blocks for a new IDP camp being set up in Monguno Stadium.
Contractors are notoriously difficult to deal with, especially in the countries where I work. One company agreed to build a pair of water towers in the same IDP camp, each having 4 x 5000L = 20000L storage capacity, but when I saw the size of the tanks I knew they were too small. So, I got his team to measure them – he was trying to pass 2500L tanks off as 5000L tanks!
I was nearing the end of my time in Nigeria, so my successor took on the job of sorting out the contract and I got this photo 6 weeks later showing one of the towers with solar panels to power the submersible pump in the borehole below:
One day we got a good laugh before boarding the helicopter in Monguno. A tiny bit of a plastic shopping bag had become caught on one of the blades and was making lots of noise on the flight up, so one of the crew members climbed onto the pilot to take it off! (My camera lens cover hadn’t fully retracted, hence the artistic framing)
Back in Maiduguri, we got a good laugh testing our theory that one of my colleagues could fit in a suitcase:
I was also responsible for building a basic maternity, again out of temporary building materials, in an IDP camp in Maiduguri. I couldn’t have done this (or most of the rest of the stuff I did) without the dedicated effort of my driver and de facto logistics assistant, Ajalan.
I left Nigeria when it was about 90% complete:
The other construction project I managed was a 9x9m medical storeroom built within our existing warehouse. I designed it so that we would gain an additional 81 square metres of storage space, by building it from steel I-beams so that the “roof” of the storeroom could support the weight of heavy stock on pallets. The walls and the ceiling all had a 12-15cm air gap for basic insulation, formed by putting up plywood walls and false ceiling. By the time it was complete, it was cold inside and we hadn’t even installed the air conditioners yet!
One of the benefits of being in northeastern Nigeria that time of year was the omnipresence of guavas. As soon as I realised there were guavas at the roadside fruit stalls, I declared the beginning of Guavapalooza, which meant I had to eat a minimum of one guava per day for the rest of my stay in Nigeria. I not only succeeded, but exceeded expectations.
Of course, it’d be inconsiderate of me not to share this photo of two chameleons we saw chasing each other at the Maiduguri airport one morning:
Two months working in Nigeria without a single full day off was pretty exhausting, but I soon had a night in London to see Nate again and catch up with Ricardo, who I hadn’t seen in many years!
This do not enter sign was on Brick Lane:
I even managed to grab a quick breakfast with Natasha before she started work, then I returned to Heathrow to fly home for a real break!
I arrived in Vancouver on 1 December, and spent the next two weeks on all sorts of mini-adventures, beginning with a Christmas party at Ricardobel’s house, where giant hops lanterns greeted all who entered, and followed by a very important mulled wine Christmas party the same night at Sonja’s house.
On the 7th, Harpreet and I tried our hands at making rubber stamps, which was a great idea.
On the 11th a bunch of us had an amazing lunch prepared by Aunty Pat.
And later that same day, Liz and Yuen threw an entertaining dinner party in the far reaches of Richmond:
A visit home wouldn’t be the same without a trip to Bowen Island, and this year I was lucky to go over for two nights while the whole place was covered in snow! It was magical. This tree had bent over and created a perfect sleeping area, but I chose to sleep in perfect comfort next to the fireplace, instead.
Moss Mountain covered in snow:
The sun rises over West Vancouver:
On 20 December I joined a bunch of old high school friends for a longstanding tradition: the 15th Annual Christmas Dinner (photo by Mae Jamoyot)
Lisa spent Christmas in Ontario this year, so before she left we made sure to have a family dinner with her, on 21 December:
She took the occasion to announce this:
Making the night even better, Lisa gave me a new double-walled glass French press, which keeps the coffee warmer much longer than a traditional press, and looks really neat to boot.
In other happy news, I successfully repaired Bryan’s beer fridge a few days before Christmas without him noticing, then stocked it for him on Christmas Eve while he was out. His favourite four-legged companion seemed to approve of the surprise:
Come Christmas Day, we had a nice day with family. Matt had a surgery coming up in the new year, so I surprised him by making version 2 of the Cranderson Enterprises accELeration speedcrutches:
The next day we had our annual extended family Boxing Day party, and our little cousin got to try the accELeration speedcrutches too!
On 30 December, Mark and Renée hosted the final Bagelpalooza of 2016 at their apartment. It was delicious.
Finally, on 31 December, with just over an hour left in 2016, Stash played Pie Face…
If you made it this far, I’m impressed. 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. It took me 11 months to reply to a few people last time… but I did reply!
Good luck in 2017, we’re all gonna need it.