Category Archives: Canada

Annual Update Nine: a labyrinthine look at 2016

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.

Pie chart - percentage of 2016 spent in each country

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.

New Year's Day on Bowen Island
Woodstove on Bowen Island

The next day Dave invited a few friends to go curling – it was the first time for most of us!

First time curling in Vancouver

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.

DJ enku

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.

New York City skyline at night

Back in BC, I hung out with all sorts of fun people, like Taylor:

Taylor with her new beard

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:

Great blue heron at Killarney Lake, Bowen Island
Moss on Bowen Island

The crocuses I planted with my siblings in the fall of 2014 finally came up in the spring of 2016!

Purple crocuses blooming on Bowen Island
Yellow crocuses blooming on Bowen Island

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.

Forest walk up to Lynn Peak, North Vancouver
Making faces with Danielle on the Lynn Peak trail, North Vancouver
Forest view from the Lynn Peak trail, North Vancouver
Heading back down the snow-covered mountain in runners

Two days later, I was back at Bowen, taking Taylor for a hike up Mt Gardner.

Misty southern slope of Mount Gardner, Bowen Island
Taylor descending the North Summit of Mount Gardner, Bowen Island

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.

Mushrooms on a tree on the Skid Trail, Mount Gardner, Bowen Island

We also discovered an abandoned hobbit village, with its walkways shrouded in mist.

Mountain bike ramps, Skid Trail, Mount Gardner, Bowen Island

A warning sign at the north summit of Mt Gardner:

Balloons forbidden on the North Summit, Mount Gardner, Bowen Island

Tiffany led the way down from the summit:

Tiffany descending the North Summit of Mount Gardner, Bowen Island

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.

Capilano Suspension Bridge with Natassia

Since then, they’ve also added the Cliffwalk, anchored in the bedrock:

Capilano Cliffwalk, North Vancouver

…and a canopy walk called Treetops Adventure up high among the trees, which I hope to one day copy on my own land.

Capilano Treetops Adventure, North Vancouver

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.

Old suitcase before restoration, exterior
Old suitcase before restoration, interior

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.

Old suitcase after restoration, interior
Old suitcase after restoration and conversion to coffee table, exterior

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.

UNICEF fluorescent light bulb, Bangui, CAR

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.

Hanging out with Carmen in Bangui

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.

Catching up with Cyrille in Bangui
Reunion with Papa Zach in Bangui

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.

Baby bat on my diplomatic card, Bangui

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.

Hanging out with Ángela in Madrid, Spain

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.

Roman aqueduct in Segovia, Spain

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:

Segovia Cathedral:

Segovia Cathedral, Spain

El Alcázar de Segovia:

El Alcázar de Segovia, Spain

The pipe organ in Segovia Cathedral:

Organ inside Segovia Cathedral, Spain

Fancy ceiling in el Alcázar de Segovia:

Ornate ceiling in El Alcázar de Segovia, Spain

Looking out through an archway in the Roman aqueduct:

Looking through an archway in the Roman aqueduct in Segovia

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:

El Alcázar de Toledo, Spain

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:

El Puente de San Martín, Toledo, Spain

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.

Streets of Toledo, Spain

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.

Peacock in Real Jardín Botánico de Madrid
Peacock in Real Jardín Botánico de Madrid

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.

Athens, Greece

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).

Lampshade street décor in Athens, Greece
Tortoise on the walk up to the Acropolis in Athens, Greece
The Acropolis, Athens, Greece

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:

Dinner with Sebastian in Athens

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.

Lena Headey (Cersei Lannister), Orestis, me, Liam Cunningham (Ser Davos Seaworth), Ilias, Amy, Corita

I flew out of Athens on 2 July, ready for a break from work after 4 months of long office days.

Greek coastline, south of Athens

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.

Walking through Paris with Fleur

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.

Old staircase on Passade de la Main d'Or, Paris

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.

Stash boarding the train for Portland

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.

Old fire hydrant in Portland, Oregon
Bicycle icon in Portland, Oregon
Dunno where this came from...

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:

Killarney Lake, Bowen Island

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.

Donuts in disguise, Snug Café, Bowen Island

And this insane little mushroom poking out of the forest floor:

Amazing yellow mushroom on Bowen Island

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:

Jaro before fibreglassing

After adding the new fibreglass, halfway done applying yellow-tinted resin to the glass:

Jaro halfway through fibreglassing

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…).

Netherlands fireworks performance over English Bay, Vancouver

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.

Danielle and the giant fungus

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.

Josephine, Danielle, and me at St Mark's Summit

Looking down from St Mark’s Summit to Bowen Island:

Looking down on Bowen Island from St Mark's Summit

This tree on the hike back down has a hollow straight out of a fairytale:

Amazing tree on the descent from St Mark's Summit

We also ate sooo many berries on the trail. Blueberries, huckleberries, and delicious salmonberries:

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:

Canyon in Kurdistan, Iraq

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!

Gondola ride up Korek Mountain, Kurdistan, Iraq

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:

Skyflyer with Hajja and Simon on Korek Mountain, Kurdistan, Iraq

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…

General Directorate of Culture and Arts of Duhok, Kurdistan, Iraq

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.

Coffee in Derek, Kurdistan, Syria

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!

After a final big dinner in Duhok with Salih and Ziyad

In mid-September I was driven back down to Erbil to wrap things up.

Tunnel through a mountain on the drive from Duhok to Erbil, Kurdistan, Iraq

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.

Le viaduc de la Jonction, Geneva, Switzerland
Street art in Geneva, Switzerland

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!

Coffee with Ximena in London
Warming up coffee in the Attendant Café, London
Satisfied after a great meal with Natasha and Nate in East London
Modelling with Dave in a London Underground station
Modelling with Nate in a London Underground station

This do not enter sign wasn’t far from the Attendant Café:

Sumo wrestler do not enter sign in London

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.

Victoria Tower, Palace of Westminster at night in London

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.

Keke NAPEPs in Maiduguri, Nigeria

I soon caught my first ever helicopter flight, followed by 19 more helicopter flights over the next two months.

My first ever helicopter ride, in a Bell 412
Boarding a Bell 412 in Monguno, Nigeria
Takeoff from Maiduguri airport in a Bell 412 helicopter

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…

Displaced persons returning to Monguno, Borno State, Nigeria

…bringing it into town…

Displaced persons returning to Monguno, Borno State, Nigeria

…weaving thatch mats to sell to other displaced people or use for their own homes…

Women carrying wood, woven thatch mats for sale by the roadside in Monguno, Borno State, Nigeria

…and set up their new homes…

Thatch hut in an IDP camp, Monguno, Borno State, Nigeria

…in sprawling IDP (internally displaced persons) camps spread across the town:

IDP camp from above, Monguno, Borno State, Nigeria

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:

IDP camp from above, Monguno, Borno State, Nigeria

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:

Comprehensive Women's Centre in an IDP camp, Monguno, Borno State, Nigeria

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.

Latrine and shower blocks in a planned IDP camp, Monguno, Borno State, Nigeria

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!

Measuring water tanks for a camp distribution system, Monguno, Borno State, Nigeria

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:

Camp water distribution system with solar panels, Monguno, Borno State, Nigeria

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)

Removing a bit of plastic from the blade before flying out of Monguno, Borno State, Nigeria

Back in Maiduguri, we got a good laugh testing our theory that one of my colleagues could fit in a suitcase:

Fitting Jackie in a suitcase
Jackie ready to fly

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.

Mixing cement for the floor of the basic maternity at an IDP camp in Maiduguri, Borno State, Nigeria

I left Nigeria when it was about 90% complete:

Basic maternity under construction in Maiduguri, Borno State, Nigeria
Basic maternity under construction in Maiduguri, Borno State, Nigeria
Basic maternity under construction in Maiduguri, Borno State, Nigeria

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!

Clearing space in the big warehouse, to build a medical storeroom in Maiduguri, Borno State, Nigeria
Medical storeroom under construction in Maiduguri, Borno State, Nigeria
Medical storeroom under construction in Maiduguri, Borno State, Nigeria
Medical storeroom under construction in Maiduguri, Borno State, Nigeria
Interior of the medical storeroom, nearly complete

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.

Guava

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 chameleons playing at Maiduguri airport, Nigeria

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!

Tower Bridge, London
Having a beer with Ricardo in London

This do not enter sign was on Brick Lane:

Dinnertime do not enter sign on Brick Lane, London

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!

Catching up with Natasha before work in London

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.

Massive hops lanterns at Ricardobel's house

On the 7th, Harpreet and I tried our hands at making rubber stamps, which was a great idea.

Coffee rubber stamp

On the 11th a bunch of us had an amazing lunch prepared by Aunty Pat.

Aunty Pat and Josephine

And later that same day, Liz and Yuen threw an entertaining dinner party in the far reaches of Richmond:

Liz, the best No 7 Road party host

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.

A nice sleeping spot on Bowen Island

Moss Mountain covered in snow:

Snow-covered moss mountain, Bowen Island

The sun rises over West Vancouver:

Sunrise over West Vancouver and the snow-covered lawn at Bowen Island

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)

Annual Christmas Dinner 15 (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:

Early Christmas dinner with family in Vancouver

She took the occasion to announce this:

My sister got engaged

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.

Me with my new glass double-walled French press

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:

Pooper approves of Bryan's repaired beer fridge

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:

Matt shows off his accELeration speedcrutches on Christmas

The next day we had our annual extended family Boxing Day party, and our little cousin got to try the accELeration speedcrutches too!

Trinity tries the accELeration speedcrutches

On 30 December, Mark and Renée hosted the final Bagelpalooza of 2016 at their apartment. It was delicious.

Bagelpalooza spread

Finally, on 31 December, with just over an hour left in 2016, Stash played Pie Face…

Stash plays Pie Face

…and won:

Stash wins 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.

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.

7th Annual Update: Tenth Anniversary Edition!

Caution: this blog post has my favourite rainbow photo in it. Just in case you don’t like rainbows.

I started this blog ten years ago, but I didn’t start writing long-winded, chart-riddled, tiresome annual updates until Christmas Day in 2008. So, only 21 days later than planned, here’s my seventh annual annual update: tenth anniversary edition. Here’s what I did in 2014, illustrated with 112 photos. Protip: you can now click on any photo in my new blog posts, which will open up the high-resolution version of that photo in a new tab or window (unless your pop-up blocker dislikes me).

Key facts and figures:

Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Netherlands, Belgium, Netherlands, Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg, Belgium, Netherlands, Canada, Netherlands, Central African Republic, Germany, Canada, Netherlands, Sierra Leone, Netherlands, Canada.

38 flights, 9 countries, 1 rose arbour

Chart - number of flights per year
Pie chart - percentage of 2014 spent in each country

January

On New Year’s Day 2014, I woke up in my cosy room with vaulted ceiling and whitewashed mud-brick walls as thick as my arm is long, to a frigid winter day in Lashkar Gah, provincial capital of Helmand, Afghanistan, where I was working with MSF (Médecins Sans Frontières aka Doctors Without Borders) as the Technical Services Manager at Bost Provincial Hospital.

We spent the month replacing the broken submersible pump in the primary hospital water well…

Replacing a broken submersible pump at Bost Provincial Hospital

…repairing and repainting room B-17, which had been badly damaged in a gas heater fire in late December…

Repainting room B-17

…building a structure to protect the big diesel incinerator we’d installed in December…

Incinerator cage

…removing unsafe heating appliances such as this one, to prevent further fires…

Bare wire resistive heater

…and sending our 250 kVA generator to have its engine replaced.

FG Wilson P250HE2 diesel generator

February

We had snow in Lashkar Gah in February, for the first time in more than a decade / more than fourteen years / more than twenty years (depending on who you ask).

Chris Anderson in the 2014 Lashkar Gah blizzard

The snow lasted several days, which caused some problems. Our medical office roof, being flat, held the snow beautifully. However, once the team arrived for work in the morning and the heaters were all cranked up inside, the ceiling warmed up and the white rooftop carpet liquefied, leaving a heavy pool of standing water which began dripping through any small fissure it could find in the concrete roof. My team and I climbed onto the roof to shovel snow, push water, drill more drainage holes at the edges, and cover the area with plastic sheeting to divert the water to the drains. While we were up there, of course, we started an epic half hour air-to-surface snowball fight with staff on the ground below. The human resources assistant took this photo as I threw a snowball right at him:

Air-to-surface snowball after launch

With our new 30,000-litre water backup system built and running smoothly, in February we closed off the 45,000-litre metal tank perched atop a 12-metre steel tower and began the process of rehabilitating the tank, starting with a thorough cleaning. Before:

Sediment on floor of 45 cubic metre water reservoir

After:

Cleaned floor of 45 cubic metre water reservoir

On 13 February, I flew aboard the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) plane from Lashkar Gah to Kabul.

Flying over Afghanistan

The following day, I flew to Dubai for a connection to Sri Lanka, where I spent twelve days on holiday. I had an incredibly warm welcome in Colombo from Oxana and her son Nikita, who I’d met three months earlier in Nepal. Oxana took me south to visit the old city of Galle on the coast, to kickstart my Sri Lankan adventure:

Galle Lighthouse, Sri Lanka

I also took some trains

Train ride from Galle to Colombo, Sri Lanka

…visited loads of ancient ruins in Anuradhapura, Mihintale, Sigiriya, Aluvihara, and Polonnaruwa

Kaludiya Pokuna

…and drove a rental scooter all over the teardrop island, admiring the beautiful scenery, wildlife, people, and mouth-watering cuisine.

Beach off the coastal road to the north of Trincomalee, Sri Lanka

I flew back to Kabul on 27 February, and arrived back to my workplace in Lashkar Gah on 3 March.

March

The winter cold soon turned to beautiful spring weather. I spent the month admiring colourful auto-rickshaws

Auto rickshaw

…scaring other expat staff by handling a completely harmless snake (Coluber rhodorachis aka Jan’s Cliff Racer)…

Coluber rhodorachis in Lashkar Gah, Helmand, Afghanistan

…getting up close to the beautiful poppies that seemed to grow overnight everywhere we looked…

Poppy close-up

…watching lightning storms for hours at a time…

Lightning in Lashkar Gah, Afghanistan

…discovering four kittens that hadn’t yet opened their eyes, born in the room next to mine…

Newborn kittens

…and going to Kim’s room after hearing her scream from across the compound, to catch and then release a swallow that didn’t understand the concept of a glass window being solid.

A swallow I caught in a bedroom and released outdoors

April

I left Afghanistan in mid-April, but before my departure we spent several days working to unblock the Bost Hospital sewage system several metres underground which, after years of having large and non-biodegradable items flushed down the toilets, had become completely clogged in multiple locations…

Hussein working in the underground hospital sewage system

…finished condemning the former waste zone and converting that area into a materials storage area for bricks, sand, gravel, etc…

Materials storage area

…and completed the new fuel delivery system with carbon steel pipes and rehabilitation of the two fuel reservoirs:

7000 and 7700 litre diesel reservoirs with gauge and carbon steel pipe system

April was not only a month in which the opium poppies were in full bloom in Helmand…

Papaver somniferum (opium poppy) in Lashkar Gah, Helmand, Afghanistan

…but also the first round of the 2014 Afghanistan Presidential Elections:

Ink marks the finger of a voter to ensure he does not vote a second time, Afghanistan April 2014

I flew out of Lashkar Gah for the last time on 17 April after nearly 9 months on the ground:

Outskirts of Lashkar Gah viewed from the air

Very late the next day, I landed in Amsterdam, where Cathy met me at the airport. She drove me three hours through the night to Ghent, Belgium, where I spent most of the next four weeks, exploring the old town…

Ghent city centre, Belgium

…eating tinned apricots with tuna and mayonnaise for Easter…

Tinned apricots, tuna, mayonnaise. Must be Flemish.

…and appreciating the spring flowers and their guests:

Dragonfly perched on a Clematis bloom

May

In May, in addition to seeing more of Ghent…

Ghent city centre, Belgium

…I stopped briefly in Antwerp…

Antwerp train station, Belgium

…spent a half day walking around a sunny but wind-chilly Rotterdam…

Rotterdam riverscape, Netherlands

…and visited my old friend Pieter-Henk in the Hague, where he works as an artist at Suitup Studio in an underground nuclear bunker:

Suitup Studio, the Hague, Netherlands

I also made an impromptu decision to visit Luxembourg, where I stared at pointy buildings from caves carved out of steep cliff sides

View from the Bock, Luxembourg City

…and visited a rainbow-girdled castle in Vianden:

Rainbow over Vianden castle, Luxembourg

On 15 May I flew back to Vancouver for some summer fun, and ended up spending most of the next two months on Bowen Island, including removing moss from the roof of Glencairn…

Removing moss from the roof of Glencairn

…and planting dozens of herbs and flowers, like these columbines:

Columbines planted at Bowen Island

June

I spent most of June on Bowen Island, where I began building a rose arbour to replace the one that had existed decades before, one side of which remained to inspire the design:

First pillar of the the new rose arbour at Bowen Island

I also spent a few more days on rooftops, this time with a climbing harness and ascender, carefully removing several years’ worth of roof moss from Marycroft and Star of the Sea:

Rooftop moss work at Bowen Island, BC

Before:

Before removing moss from Marycroft

After:

After removing moss from Marycroft

July

In July, my brother Matt oversaw the big project of removing several hundred square feet of Hypericum aka St John’s wort, an invasive plant that was taking over the lawn on Bowen. Mom helped too!

Removing Hypericum at Bowen Island

Once the Hypericum was removed from the lawn, Matt did a grass dance to seed the lawn:

Grass seed dance

I found a snakeskin two and a half feet long in perfect condition – even the skin over the eyes remained intact!

Garter snake skin

While we worked, the deer chewed happily on all sorts of greenery:

Doe and fawn at Bowen Island, BC

It was nice spending so much time with all my siblings on Bowen; we even took a photo together down at the beach for our parents:

Sibling photo by the water

Matt also decided to build an arbour down near the boathouse, where there had been one many years before:

Matt building an arbour

I hauled several logs from the beach up into the forest, where we worked with our cousins to shore up the path to their cottage:

Path repair work

In mid-July I left Vancouver for my next field placement with MSF in the Central African Republic (CAR). When I arrived on the ground in CAR, I helped out in the warehouses in Bangui for a while…

Looking out from a warehouse by the river in Bangui, Central African Republic

…ogled bizarre plants…

Funny plants in the garden, Bangui, CAR

…watched the watchmen cook up a big pot of caterpillars…

Caterpillars for lunch

…and then sat down to eat caterpillars with them:

Eating caterpillars with baguette in Bangui, CAR

At the end of the month, we drove up to Bossangoa and then on to Boguila. We had an MSF plane land during our visit, and I was hugely impressed by the team’s preparedness: not only did they cordon off the airstrip to keep the hundreds of villagers clear of the landing area, but they had fire extinguishers pre-positioned and a huge signboard angled up toward the sky with the airstrip name and coordinates:

Boguila Airstrip, Central African Republic

August

In August, we were blocked on multiple occasions as French Foreign Legion convoys got stuck in the mud on narrow rural roads and made it difficult or impossible for us to pass:

French Foreign Legion Operation Sangaris stuck in the mud, again, Central African Republic

I spent some more time in Bangui, during which time I got to do one of my favourite things: teach the warehouse team the basics of cardboard box masonry! Look at how beautifully they stacked the gloves and anti-malarial drugs:

Coartem towers

I then flew east to Bambari, in Ouaka Prefecture, where I tried my hand at real stone masonry…

Stonework in Bambari, CAR

…then drove to Grimari, where I would spend the next two months. In Grimari, we got to eat the biggest mushrooms I’ve ever seen…

Giant mushroom in Grimari, CAR

…and I made a huge effort to improve the working and living conditions of the office and guesthouse compound, such as building an additional shower and latrine, and working on the poor drainage as it was rainy season:

Drainage work in front of new latrine and shower, Grimari

From Grimari, we supported several rural malaria treatment posts with training, supplies, and follow-up visits:

Malaria post supervision visit

But first, we had to get to them, which often involved cutting through trees blocking the roads:

Removing trees from the road, Ouaka, CAR

The conflict that brought us to the region had left thousands of homes burned like these:

Burned homes, Ouaka, CAR

We also ran mobile clinics, in which even the drivers and I participated by managing the setup and performing the rapid diagnostic tests for malaria:

Testing children for malaria, Ouaka, CAR

September

In September, we crossed dozens of bridges, many of which we had to reinforce with planks we carried on the Land Cruiser roof racks…

Crossing bridge in Ouaka, CAR after reinforcing with wooden boards

…MSF medics dressed wounds at the Grimari health centre almost daily…

War wounded dressings in Grimari

…ate raw coffee, straight off the tree…

Coffee beans fresh off the tree

…visited villages small and large, many of which had been decimated by the conflict…

Central Market of Lakandja, Ouaka, CAR

…helped organise and setup more mobile clinics…

Setting up a mobile clinic in Lakandja

…did heaps of pull-ups and chin-ups after Mark taught me the different techniques…

Chin-ups in Grimari

…and tested hundreds of people for malaria with Yvon, one of our legendary drivers. He tested me a few minutes after this photo was taken, and it turned out positive! My first time catching malaria since 2010!

Yvon during a quiet moment at a mobile clinic
My first positive malaria result since 2010

We also rehabilitated one bridge 6km south of Grimari and built this one from scratch 50km south of Grimari:

The brand new bridge we built - Pont Pende

In September we also benefited from all the base improvements, as the heavy rain finally began draining properly:

Heavy rain in Grimari, CAR

October

I left Grimari on 5 October then spent the next two days assessing a new base and planning the rehabilitation and construction needed to make it useable, before flying to Bangui on 8 October for my planned departure back to Europe. On landing in Bangui, however, I got stuck at the airport. Violence had broken out in the city centre while our plane was still in the sky, so I spent a couple of hours hanging out at the airport with Joe, the MSF Flight Coordinator, before we received permission to drive to our house. For the next five days a group of us were stuck enjoying each other’s company and the sunsets at Château, the MSF house overlooking Bangui:

Sunset over Bangui, CAR
Château house, Bangui

By 14 October, the security situation had stabilised sufficiently for me to fly out on a 19-seat United Nations Humanitarian Air Service (UNHAS) plane to Cameroon…

Snaking river seen from the UN flight to Douala, Cameroon

…from which I was able to fly via Paris to Berlin for meetings and aimless street wandering.

Checkpoint Charlie, Berlin, Germany
Brandenburg Gate, Berlin, Germany

Two days later, following some interesting flight juggling, I arrived in Vancouver for a short break. Back in Canada, I spent time on Bowen Island admiring the autumn mushrooms…

Mushrooms at Bowen Island, BC
Mushrooms at Bowen Island, BC

…admiring Vancouver’s new stop sign template…

Stop Harper sign, Vancouver, BC

…and finally getting a taste of the Colin Jack Antidisestablishmentarianism Amber Ale – a beer created in memory of a great man who died unexpectedly in 2011.

Colin Jack memorial Antidisestablishmentarianism Amber Ale

Just after arriving in Vancouver, we got the sad news that our grandmother, Margaret Anderson (née Monk) had died back East in Nova Scotia. I boarded a plane in time to spend about 30 hours in Nova Scotia, though I forgot my suit on the plane when I disembarked in Toronto before my connecting flight, so for the funeral I had to borrow trousers from Matt and a belt from Josephine to pair with the shirt and tie I had in my carry-on. Dan and I stayed behind to help the funeral home close the grave and throw the first handfuls of soil in:

Closing the grave

In scooping the soil with our bare hands, we found this friendly little Eastern red-backed salamander:

Eastern red-backed salamander, East Ship Harbour, Nova Scotia

This was the first time ever in the history of the world that my entire immediate family was in Nova Scotia together, because my youngest sister was born after the six of us moved out West. Seeing as how it would also most likely be the last time, we took a team photo in Grandma’s backyard overlooking the Atlantic Ocean:

The entire Anderson family in Nova Scotia for the first time ever

Back in BC, I returned to Bowen Island and worked some more on the summer’s unfinished arbour project, preparing the beams and rafters for the arch and cutting lots of notches in them:

Notching rafters for the rose arbour, Bowen Island

I also got to celebrate Halloween for the first time since 2006! Every one of the intervening years had found me in countries where Halloween is hardly or not at all celebrated, so I was pretty excited! My sisters dressed up as dead My Little Ponies:

Dead My Little Ponies

November

On 3 November, with a lot of help from my oldest brother in the cold rain (and food prepared by my mom inside), I got the top of the arbour installed at Bowen Island:

Rose arbour with top installed, Bowen Island, BC

That same day we caught the ferry back to Vancouver just in time for me to pack my bags and get a ride to the airport that afternoon. When I brought my check-in luggage to the bag drop counter 2 minutes after the cut-off, the electronic boarding pass in my phone said I had seat 43A, which I’d chosen as the only window seat left online the night before. By the time I arrived at the gate, however, my phone was showing 13A! Sure enough, I’d been bumped to World Traveller (business class) on the long British Airways flight to London – dinner was Alberta tenderloin steak with a red wine gooseberry sauce and other fancily named foodstuffs.

After arriving in Amsterdam on 4 November, a large group of us attended a two-day MSF Ebola training course in a rented warehouse space, where we learned the basics we’d need to work in Ebola projects in West Africa. The training was well organised and included a mock-up of the layout of a large Ebola centre, complete with mannequins and fake body fluid spills to be disinfected and cleaned up!

Ebola mannequin

We learned how to don and doff our personal protective equipment – the spacesuits and accessories you often see in the news media – and had MSF staff role playing as patients to be transferred from a modified Toyota Land Cruiser ambulance into the centre.

MSF Ebola training course, Amsterdam

The modified Land Cruisers have a separation wall to protect the driver from exposure to Ebola if the patients in the back turn out to be positive cases. These vehicles also have a latch system (metal bits on the floor on the right-hand side of the photo) to secure a standard patient stretcher for transport. Very cool.

Modified Land Cruiser ambulance for Ebola

Five of us flew together through Casablanca to Freetown, while five others flew together through Brussels and Dakar to Freetown. By the morning of the 10th, we were on the road to our field projects. Some stayed in Bo, while most of us continued past Bo to a town called Kailahun, close to the border with Guinea and Liberia. On the outskirts of Kailahun was a 100+ bed MSF Ebola management centre. My role for the next five and a half weeks was to manage the logistics for the Ebola centre, more details about which I’ll post later on.

Ambulance arriving to Kailahun Ebola Management Centre with patients on board

Getting my first pair of gloves on:

Dressing up in full personal protective equipment (PPE) in Kailahun, Sierra Leone

Working with Kalla, our handyman, to repair some fencing:

Working with Kalla to repair fencing in Kailahun Ebola Management Centre, Sierra Leone

Stepping out of my spacesuit during the slow and careful undressing procedure:

Undressing in Kailahun Ebola Management Centre, Sierra Leone

We also had a visit from the President of Sierra Leone, Ernest Bai Koroma (pictured, wearing a white baseball cap) who toured the site rapidly and spoke to some of the staff before leaving:

Sierra Leone President Ernest Bai Koroma visiting Kailahun Ebola Management Centre

One Sunday in November, I found this baby kingfisher near my room. He was by far the most beautiful and multi-coloured bird I’ve ever seen in my life. I spent about half an hour hanging out with him, during which time he even let me pet him!

The most colourful kingfisher, Kailahun, Sierra Leone

December

In November, my team of carpenters built a new burning pit shade structure. In the first week of December, my team of daily labourers finished digging an enormous fire pit under the new structure, and we began burning scrap wood from the carpentry workshop in order to bake the walls of the pit before handing it over to the water and sanitation team for burning medical waste.

Piling up scraps of wood in the new burning pit at Kailahun Ebola Management Centre, Sierra Leone
New burning pit at Kailahun Ebola Management Centre, Sierra Leone

While we were working on that side of the Ebola centre, I found this cute little white tree frog (technically, I believe it’s called a shrub frog), in some orange net fencing that I was about to remove. He ended up spending the next seven hours hanging out on my neck before I found him a suitable tree.

I found a tree frog in Kailahun

One day I accompanied two medics to the local children’s orphanage, where MSF referred children who’d lost their parents because of Ebola. The friendly folks from the Public Health Agency of Canada lab, who lived and worked with us, had brought over loads of children’s items donated by their colleagues in Winnipeg, specifically for this orphanage, and we were the lucky people who got to distribute the stuff.

Playing with toys donated by staff at the Public Health Agency of Canada labs in Winnipeg

As the dry season took hold, the nights were cooler and we began waking up to foggy mornings more frequently. Driving through the fog to start each day, the leaves of the tall roadside trees played tricks with my mind, changing shape and shade as we moved closer.

Trees in the fog

As the rainy season had ended, the evening sunsets in December were magnificent. Huge groups of pied crows appeared as the rains subsided, and in the evenings would converge on certain large trees, like this one at the central mosque in Kailahun:

Sunset over the mosque in Kailahun, Sierra Leone

December was also the beginning of pineapple season in Kailahun, and I soon found myself receiving 1-2 pineapples on an almost daily basis as gifts. Each one had to be carefully and very thoroughly sprayed with a strong 0.5% chlorine solution, the same as we use for the bottom of our boots, before I would take them home to wash again and share with the others.

Spraying a pineapple with 0.5% chlorine solution

I spent a lot of time in December overseeing the manufacturing of hundreds of pieces of furniture and signage for a new Ebola centre in a place called Magburaka. As we already had a large carpentry workshop with 12 full time carpenters and a head carpenter on contract, plus a list of skilled labourers I could hire on a daily basis to be carpenters, the team in Magburaka asked me to sort their furniture needs while they got local carpenters to build the infrastructure for a 100-bed centre on the ground. We made most of the furniture in pieces that could be transported more easily and assembled by local carpenters in Magburaka.

Making shelves in Kailahun for Magburaka Ebola Management Centre, Sierra Leone
Furniture piling up for the first truck shipment to Magburaka

On my final day in Kailahun, I took a walk with my assistant past the cemetery and a little village, arriving at a small clearing by the river. Only 10 minutes on foot north of the Ebola centre, we found ourselves looking across the river to Guinea:

Standing in Sierra Leone, looking across the river to Guinea

I also spent a good chunk of that last morning hanging out with the Canadian lab staff, who allowed me to observe as they went through each of the stages of testing blood samples for Ebola RNA. The final step involves running a PCR (polymerase chain reaction) device for nearly an hour, as the results popped up in the form of a graph on their laptop screen. That day, several patients tested negative for a second time, which means we considered them cured and eligible for discharge – great news! When I left Kailahun on 18 December, there were only two patients remaining in the centre, which had been packed just a month before.

PCR results in progress, testing for Ebola RNA in blood samples, Kailahun, Sierra Leone

I landed in Amsterdam on 19 December, had debriefings on the 20th, spent the weekend wandering around town and hanging out with MSF friends, plus an intellectually stimulating coffee with my old friend Martin, then flew out on 22 December to Vancouver.

Amsterdam at night

Landing in Vancouver, I spent some time speaking with the quarantine officer in her “office” which had been prepared the night before in a disused janitor’s closet at Vancouver International Airport. The only evidence it had been repurposed was the writing on this whiteboard:

A disused closet converted into the receiving room for the Public Health Agency of Canada quarantine officer, YVR

After missing Christmas 2012 and 2013, it was nice to be home with family this year. We had our traditional Boxing Day party with the extended family over, including lots of food and good conversation.

Boxing Day family party

I also learned that putting multiple people on the same smartphone video call and pointing two of the phones at each other creates a neat sort of melodic feedback loop with intriguing echoes. This particular group call ended up netting us fresh bagels hand-imported from New York a few days later:

Feedback loops with Google Hangouts video calling

On 29 December I went out to Bowen Island to enjoy the fresh ocean air and the next day, in the forest, we spotted two bald eagles circling directly overhead. Perhaps they were thinking I might make for a nice lunch?

Two bald eagles circling overhead in December at Bowen Island, BC

The next day, I went to a huge eatART party to ring in the new year, and then… [2015 annual update coming in approximately 11.3 months].

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.

Namiko!

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,

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!).