6th Annual Annual Update

Dear [insert relation],

A good friend of mine occasionally publishes a film review, which is invariably… concise. And so, in the spirit of learning from friends, I present to you my 6th Annual Annual Update:

Today, I will be reviewing 2013. I thought 2013 was interesting.

For my [insert relation, plural form] who would like me to elaborate further, hereunder can be found a selection of 80 photos from the year 2013. But first, a pie chart!

PhotoDiarist countries visited in 2013

On the first day of 2013, I woke up on Mars. Pretty cool place.

Martian landscape

After Mars, I returned to Earth and visited Petra, Jordan. I’ve been to a lot of interesting places, but I’ve not found any suitably strong superlatives with which to describe Petra.

Ornate Nabatean family tomb in Petra, Jordan

In that first week of January I visited a bunch of other places in Jordan and jumped really high for this selfie, which shows how happy I was during most of my Jordan adventures:

Jumping in Jordan

Then it was back to work in Iraq, where I saw the White House in passing several times (it’s the headquarters of the KUP, a major Kurdish political party) while driving to and from Kirkuk.

PUK headquarters outside Erbil, Iraq

In late February, I flew back to Sweden for the first time since 2009, for a United Nations Logistics Induction Course. Instead of arriving directly to the training just outside Lund, I flew instead to Gothenberg to see some old friends. I spent the first couple of nights staying with Vania and Dave at their home in the forest overlooking a frozen lake while horses grazed on tall blades of grass jutting out of the snow. How’s that for a contrast from Iraq?

Dave and Vania in Sweeeden

Next, I spent some time with my old friend Namiko, including a raucous raclette night with a bunch of Swedes.


And then, it was time for the training course, which involved a lot of sitting, listening, and talking. It was interesting, though!

UN Logistics Induction Training at MSB Revinge, Sweden

At the end of the training, we were driven across the bridge from Malmö, Sweden to Copenhagen, Denmark,

Copenhagen canal scene

and in the outskirts of Copenhagen we visited the massive, relatively new, and mostly automated (read: cool robots running the show!) Unicef warehouse.

Unicef warehouse in Copenhagen, Denmark

As the other participants headed to the airport to fly to their home countries, I took a train back across the bridge to Malmö, where I met and stayed with a particularly inspiring young couchsurfer and her inspiring housemate, sharing hours of conversation, then flew the next day back to Iraq.

Back in Iraq, we had to spend a few weeks out of the project location for security reasons, so instead of sitting around bored in Erbil, I went back up to Duhok (where I’d spent three months in late 2012) to lend a hand to the logistics team in Domiz Refugee Camp. And, lucky me, the day I arrived was a special day to celebrate traditional Kurdish dress, so my friends were all dressed up!

Salih, Ziyad, and Dilovan in traditional Kurdish dress

I had left Domiz Refugee Camp at the end of November 2012, at which point only the foundation was finished on the new health centre I had designed for the camp with the help of the Directorate of Health engineer. I was happy to find the centre had opened about five weeks before my return, though it was already starting to prove too small for the constantly growing camp population.

Domiz Refugee Camp Health Centre

I stayed in Duhok for two weeks, during which time a windstorm followed by a sandstorm did some serious damage to the huge tents MSF was using as extra clinic space:

Nahla rues the health centre tents destroyed by a storm

Many of my midday meals in March came from this kebab shop in the camp:

Kebab shop in Domiz Refugee Camp, Iraq

It was springtime, the best time of year to visit Duhok, if you ever have an opportunity.

Duhok, Iraq

After a lovely stay and a lot of hard work, I headed back down to work in Kirkuk and Hawijah in the last week of March.

On April 1st, my friends and colleagues in Kirkuk, Iraq bought me a cake because they thought it was my birthday, despite the fact that I never told anyone it was my birthday (it was not),

April Fools birthday cake in Kirkuk

and did a lot of springtime hiking in the mesmerising mountains of northern Iraq, in the Kurdish Autonomous Region:

Hiking in the mountains of Kurdistan, Iraq
Hiking in the mountains of Kurdistan, Iraq
Hiking in the mountains of Kurdistan, Iraq
Hiking in the mountains of Kurdistan, Iraq

In May, still in Iraq, I deliberately smashed my car into other people as hard as I could!

Bumper cars in Iraq
Bumper cars in Iraq

I also oversaw the start of construction on our new house,

The start of construction in Hawijah
The start of construction in Hawijah

ate huuuge meals in the temporary house I’d designed and had a contractor build,

Typical meal made by families of our staff in Hawijah

did more hiking in Kurdistan, luckily surviving each trip,

Trying not to fall off the edge of the world in Iraq

and played ping pong in my plaid pyjamas.

Ping pong in the basement

The first day of June was my last day in Iraq, so I caught a taxi to Duhok to visit my old friends, who then took me to see one of Saddam’s old palaces,

One of Saddam's former palaces in Kurdistan, Iraq

and we nearly got the little car stuck while offroading!

Getting Ziyad's car unstuck

During the next week, I spent time with Turkish protestors in Taksim Square, Istanbul,

Hanging out with protestors in Taksim Square, Istanbul, Turkey

had a sunny sidewalk lunch with Julia in Geneva, Switzerland,

Julia in Geneva

celebrated Aidan’s birthday in Aylesbury, England,

Aidan in Aylesbury

had tasty Thai food in London with Malin,

Malin in London

crashed at Dave’s place and talked over beers, finally visited Tate Modern after more than ten years of frequent visits to London,

Tate Modern colourful lights exhibit

ate lunch with Miriam, then took an out-of-focus selfie in the bus station,

Miriam in London

caught up with Sam over coffee, then took an out-of-focus selfie at the British Red Cross office,

Sam in London

stared as hundreds of people cycled past in the World Naked Bike Ride (which, incidentally, originated in Vancouver),

World Naked Bike Ride, London 2013

laughed with Will and Natalie,

Will and Natalie in London

talked about Amnesty International and things less serious with Estelle,

Estelle in London

then flew back to Canada.

In July I managed to catch the last Ruffled Feathers show before their lineup changed,

The Ruffled Feathers at the Biltmore, Vancouver

and that same night I saw Laura Mann and the Fairly Odd Folk and bought their album, to which I listened many times over the following months.

Laura Mann and the Fairly Odd Folk at the Biltmore, Vancouver

I also found this beautiful Golden Buprestid beetle on Bowen Island,

Colourful bug on Bowen Island

repaired a small bridge with my brother,

Dan testing our rebuilt log bridge by jumping up and down

spent time with AJ at Queen Elizabeth Park where we spent a few moments appreciating a monkey puzzle tree,

AJ mesmerised by the monkey puzzle tree

began restoration work on our family’s old rowboat,

Restoring a fifty-year-old rowboat

witnessed my friends catch a hipster crab,

Hipster crab drinks PBR

witnessed my sister’s friend get served coffee at a Main Street cafe out of the exact same Christmas mug we’ve had in our family’s home for years,

Mug match

witnessed a beautiful fireworks show from the West End balcony of a friend of a friend,

Vancouver fireworks in English Bay

cycled around the seawall and under the Lion’s Gate Bridge,

Lion's Gate Bridge

took a shameless bathroom selfie with Shawn and Denise,

Shameless selfie with Shawn and Denise

admired Mark’s colourful carrots at one of many delightful documentary nights,

Colourful carrots with Mark

got help from two siblings to pack my things again, and left Canada once more.

Lisa helping me pack for Afghanistan

In August I enjoyed an evening in Amsterdam with my friend Martin and a day of meetings and walks along canals,

Amsterdam canal scene

then arrived in Afghanistan for the first time and flew to Helmand,

Flying with ICRC in Afghanistan

saw these fantastic locally-made, heat-activated coffee mugs,

Neat heat-activated mugs

and figured out how to service and repair industrial laundry washing machines.

Repairing a hospital laundry washing machine

In September I continued to eat a LOT of good food,

Big spread of Afghan food

found a scorpion on my bedroom floor, just a few centimetres from my bare foot,

Scorpion in my bedroom

laughed daily at something new,

We did not shortlist him for an interview

figured out how to take apart an x-ray machine, and luckily also how to reassemble it after repairing it,

Trying not to forget how to put the x-ray machine back together

spent a weekend in Kabul, with a short but scenic visit to the top of TV Mountain,

South side of Kabul as seen from TV Mountain

and learned how to use a compactor as I began work on a water backup system for the hospital.

Learning to use a compactor in Helmand

In October I worked too much, slept too little.

In transit to Nepal in November, I spent a night in Dubai hanging out with couchsurfers I met there in 2012.

Dubai cityscape

In Nepal I made a new friend – a singer, climbing instructor, and trekking guide,

Lama singing in Kathmandu

saw some colourful things,like Boudhanath,

Boudhanath, Kathmandu

learned the correct way to eat rice with my hands,

Learning to eat rice correctly

went hiking in the Himalayas and lost my glasses,

played basketball for the first time in years, at over 2800m altitude, and lost,

Basketball in the Himalayas

played Carrom for the first time in my life, at over 2600m altitude, and lost,

Carrom board in the Himalayas

ran as fast as I could off the side of a mountain for the first time ever, and won (my paragliding instructor bet another instructor that we could reach the highest altitude first, and we did).

Paragliding over Pokhara, Nepal

In November I also saw massive sets of reinforcement bars being assembled in Dubai during my return trip to Afghanistan,

Massive reinforcements in Dubai

and watched the Helmand River rise dramatically after just a few hours of rain.

Helmand River rising

In December I saw a tanker truck transported on top of a bus in Lashkar Gah,

Tanker on a bus, Lashkar Gah

marvelled at this small pickup making its way through town,

Overloaded pickup, Lashkar Gah

caught a mouse and ate it to show my staff how tough I am,

Eating a mouse

learned how to use a massive new incinerator (which might double as a superspeed pizza oven if I get my way),

Loading the big new incinerator

catnapped a kitten from the hospital, taught her some manners, and named her Lion,


flew from Lashkar Gah to Kabul for a weekend off,

Bost Airport

got MRI exams for both my knees and looked through the resulting images as if I had a clue,

MRI results for my knee

woke up on December 30th to find the first snowfall of the season had settled on the streets as I slept,

First snowfall of the year in Kabul

watched the biggest snowplow I’ve ever seen, clearing the runways at Kabul Airport,

Snowplow clearing the runways of Kabul International Airport

flew back to Helmand over spectacularly beautiful Afghan winter landscapes,

Snowy Afghan landscape

woke up to my midnight alarm blaring as 2013 came to a close, and sent a text message to spark one of my grand adventures of 2014, which was just then beginning to take shape.

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 (this year, it took me 11 months to reply to some people, but I did reply!).

Master’s Thesis Defended

There hasn’t been much to blog about while in London, other than catching up on old stuff from the summer so that I can remember it when I’m old, if I want to. However, in November I went back to Sweden one last time to defend my Master’s thesis as the final requirement to earn my NOHA Master of International Humanitarian Action. Before we get to that, two photos from London: the first is the view from my office as the sun was setting one day in September; the second is one of many ladybugs that lived in the lampshade in my bedroom for several months and occasionally ventured out to visit me down below.



At the very end of October, with loads of help from my parents, I finally finished my Master’s thesis. It had been over a year since I began, and I was VERY happy to have it done. I flew to Sweden on November 4th to defend it on the 6th. Flying from London to Sweden:


The train station beneath Arlanda Airport, to catch my train to Uppsala:


My thesis is the reason I spent so much time in Thailand last year, as I was (among other things) carrying out research among Karen refugees from Burma in the largest refugee camp in Thailand. While I was there, I met a photojournalist named Dave Tacon, who kindly agreed to let me use one of his photos of a KNLA soldier in Karen State for my thesis cover page. Check out his different photo albums and magazine covers at www.DaveTacon.com. This is what my thesis cover looks like:


If you want to know what it’s about, the very short abstract explains my topic: Identity Formation and Armed Conflict: A Case Study of Young Karen Long-term Refugees in Mae La Refugee Camp.

After I successfully defended my thesis, which also involved meeting a bunch of this year’s NOHA students, I was invited to a party they were holding, which was lots of fun (as all parties seem to be when I’m with humanitarian students / workers).


I reluctantly left picturesque and relaxed Uppsala on November 8th to return to busy and smelly London, and on my last walk along the River Fyris for what will likely be many years, grabbed one last photo of a familiar sight:


Though London’s not my favourite city in the world, I’m still thoroughly enjoying my humanitarian logistics internship with Merlin (Medical Emergency Relief International). Speaking of which, the next round of Merlin internships in programmes, logistics, donor partnerships, finance, and communications (12 internships in total) are now posted on their website, with an application deadline of January 5th. Check out http://merlin.org.uk/jobs/ if you’re interested, and feel free to contact me if you’ve got any questions about it.

Uppsala – London – Vancouver

I left Uppsala in the very early hours of April 1st, after packing up all my stuff from my apartment, including my bedding, and flew to London Heathrow.

I found out a few days earlier that my good friend Vania was actually flying to Mexico the same day, so we managed to spend a couple hours together in the airport, which was awesome!

I then flew from London to Toronto, where I cleared customs and carried my heavy bags (after all, I carried ALL of my belongings from my long stay in Sweden, plus the stuff I bought in Asia) by hand to the transit lounge, as Toronto Pearson Airport kindly chose to charge an absurd $2 for a luggage trolley. Way to welcome people to the country.

Flying in to Toronto:

After a little while, I was back up in the sky heading west to Vancouver. The snow-covered prairies were interesting to watch as they passed below us:

I spent 10 days in Vancouver, taking care of various odds and ends and visiting family and friends, including participating on April 4th in my sister’s boyfriend’s final project for his documentary film program – The Beer Mile (click here to watch).

Matt Duquette (the guy making the film) decided to get a few people together to participate in the Beer Mile with him. It was simultaneously a terrible but terrific decision to agree to participate. I do not recommend anyone else doing it, although at the same time I highly recommend it.

The Beer Mile is a race wherein you drink a can of beer as fast as you can, run a lap of the track (400m = 1/4 mile), drink another beer as fast as you can, run another lap, until you’ve had four cans of beer and run four laps of the track. The beer foams up in your stomach, which is not at all pleasant, but the challenge of keeping it down and trying to defeat your opponents is fun and hilarious. JF, Matt, Spencer, and David can be seen here:

The same four are seen here, along with one of Matt’s classmates who was assisting with the filming:

And there’s me, not the fastest by any means, trying to finish and hoping to place second-last (my normal place in any track events back when I was on the track team in primary school)…

The track was not cleared before the event, so we had to share with children on bikes, who couldn’t keep up with me:

Spencer and I weren’t trying to place first – we were the men in jeans, taking our time, while the others were going for gold:

However, one thing that didn’t make it into the final cut of the film, is that I did manage to place second-last with a crowd-pleasing final dash to the finish during which I nearly knocked another kid off the track (kid should have been checking her rear-view mirror and pulling off to the side, clearly hasn’t taken a drivers’ ed course yet).

The day after the Beer Mile, I had lunch with my friends Howard and Margarita.

That evening I hung out with my friend Denise downtown. We had bubble tea and chilled at the beach at English Bay while the sun set, which was really nice.

On the morning of the 6th, I went to the dentist to get some old fillings replaced. This is the view from my chair, until they lowered me down and gave me the ceiling to stare at…

On April 10th I flew from Vancouver to Beijing to Kunming. Photos of my first trip to China will be posted in a couple of days.

March in Sweden

I spent all of March in Uppsala, Sweden, working on my thesis and searching online for jobs and an internship to finish up my degree requirements. I didn’t take a whole lot of photos as I spent most of my time in my apartment or in the library, away from natural light and human time schedules.

Descending the escalator at Arlanda airport to the subterranean train station when I arrived at the end of February:

It wasn’t particularly warm when I arrived in Sweden – definitely nothing close to the 30+ weather I’d been experiencing in Burma a few days earlier!

Here’s the River Fyris, frozen over and covered in snow, with Uppsala Cathedral in the background:

A few more shots of the River Fyris from other parts of town on different days:

After arranging an internship through a contact I made on a train in Burma, I headed to Stockholm to get a visa to enter China. Walking back from the embassy, which is in the middle of nowhere past the Djurgården area of town, the water was really well frozen. Check out how thick this saltwater ice is – at least 4 inches!

Back in Uppsala, when I wasn’t being a hermit in my apartment or the library, I was generally cycling to one café or another to catch up with friends. This is one of the many, many nice cafés in Uppsala. Going for fika is definitely one of the best things about Uppsala, and perhaps Sweden as a whole.

When my friend Namiko (she studied with me in New Zealand, years ago) was visiting for a few days, I took her to the cemetary next to my area of the university to show her the family grave of the Hammarskjöld family, which includes the grave of Dag Hammarskjöld, the celebrated 2nd Secretary General of the UN who died after his plane crashed (perhaps shot down) in Africa in 1961.

We also headed over to the castle, where I showed her the cannon pointed toward the cathedral. Many years ago, in order to maintain his position of power, the king arranged for these cannon to point directly at the cathedral so that the head of the Church of Sweden would think twice before doing anything to challenge the power of the king.

Having arranged an internship in Asia starting in April, I left Sweden earlier than expected – on April 1st of all days. More on that in the posts to come…