Category Archives: Travel

Two trips to Portugal

During my current contract with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in Guinea, according to the policy for delegates working in the stressful context of the Ebola epidemic, I had to take two short R&R breaks.

For the first one, I chose to visit Portugal because the flight price and length were both low, and because I’d never been to Portugal before. As a bonus, it just so happens that Portugal starts with the letter P: I’d never been to any country starting with the letters O, P, Q or X, Y, Z. Now, only five remain (X is going to be a tough one…).

Before I’d even left Guinea, my Singaporean friend Angela (check out her design portfolio at Behance: Angela Soh) told me about her plans to travel Europe, and we agreed to meet up wherever she’d be during my second R&R. As it turned out, Angela planned to arrive in Portugal at the end of May, at the same time I would be starting my holiday, so I booked a second trip to Portugal two months after the first. Here are a few photos from the two trips:

Trip 1: Sintra and Lisbon

I landed at Lisbon Portela Airport in Portugal on 24 March, caught a bus into town and then a train west to the small town of Sintra. As soon as I’d dropped my bags in my rented apartment, I hit the cobblestone streets to explore. This is the town hall:

Sintra Town Hall, Portugal

On my ramble home through the side streets of Sintra, I stumbled upon this old Piaggio three-wheeler and wished I could take it for a joyride:

Old Piaggio three-wheeler in Sintra, Portugal

The next morning I visited Quinta da Regaleira, a fantastical estate built by a set designer for a very wealthy man. Looking out from a cave:

Looking out from a cave at Quinta da Regaleira, Sintra

Walking through an underground tunnel:

Tunnel at Quinta da Regaleira, Sintra

There are also two initiation wells on the estate: towers that make you feel like you’re descending underground as you enter through a secret revolving stone door at the top and spiral downwards.

The initiation well at Quinta da Regaleira, Sintra

Some flowers floating on water with little green somethings:

Flower petal on green aquatic plants at Quinta da Regaleira, Sintra

There are loads of fancy stonemasonry creations at Quinta da Regaleira. Here’s an example:

Tower at Quinta da Regaleira, Sintra

That afternoon, Ricardo picked me up and drove me down to the coast to see some of the natural beauty of the area. Looking toward Cabo da Roca, the westernmost point of continental Europe:

Cabo da Roca, the westernmost point of continental Europe

Views in Sintra-Cascais Natural Park:

Waves crashing on the rocks near Cabo da Roca, Portugal
Yellow building in Sintra-Cascais Natural Park

The next day, I walked through the fog and some rain to the Capuchos Convent (which was a monastery). Luckily I had a map in my phone, as I walked along forest paths through the hills not on any tourist maps.

Low clouds in the forest walking from Sintra town to the Capuchos Convent

Cross on a cairn at the Capuchos Convent:

Cross on a cairn at the Capuchos Convent

The monks used cork to protect against moisture, tacking it around windows, doorways, even entire ceilings.

Cork-insulated window at the Capuchos Convent

On this visit to Portugal, I finally got to see real Cork oak, the tree species from which we get genuine cork material. This is what it looks like when it hasn’t been harvested:

A Cork oak tree

On the walk home, I stopped in at the Park and Palace of Monserrate, formerly owned by Sir Francis Cook. The botanical gardens are amazing, but I didn’t take too many photos so you’ll have to visit to see for yourself. Tree roots overgrowing a mock ruin:

Tree roots overgrowing a mock ruin at the Park and Palace of Monserrate, Sintra

Young Aloe vera leaves growing out of an old plant:

Aloe vera growing at the Park and Palace of Monserrate, Sintra

Monserrate Palace:

Monserrate Palace, former estate of Sir Francis Cook

Parts of the palace were under renovation, as water had damaged the ornate alabaster designs. It was interesting to see what’s behind all the fancy moulding:

Alabaster restoration inside Monserrate Palace, Sintra in March 2015

On 27 March I walked up the steep path to visit the Castle of the Moors, a fortress overlooking Sintra:

Castelo dos Mouros, seen from below
The Castle of the Moors (Castelo dos Mouros), Sintra

For a brief moment while I was at the Castle of the Moors, the sun shone through the clouds and directed a spotlight right onto the National Palace of Sintra in the town below:

National Palace of Sintra, seen from the Castle of the Moors

After rambling over the ramparts, I headed over to Pena Palace, which appears to have come straight out of a fantasy fairytale:

Pena Palace, Sintra
Grandiose vaulted carriageway into Pena Palace
Poseidon at Pena Palace
Pena Palace, Sintra
Pena Palace, Sintra

The view from Pena Palace to the Atlantic Ocean:

View to the Atlantic from Pena Palace

I was highly impressed by this wood and velvet shelf inside the palace:

Ornate woodwork and velvet shelf at Pena Palace

Mandatory flag photo:

Flag of Portugal

Pena Palace from a nearby vantage point, with Sintra in the background:

Pena Palace, Sintra

On the grounds of Pena Palace are a number of other things to see, including the Chalet da Condessa d’Edla, a whimsical home with ornate cork woodwork framing the entire thing:

Chalet da Condessa d'Edla, Sintra

On 28 March, I caught the train to Lisbon. The 25 April bridge bears a striking resemblance to the Golden Gate Bridge, no?

25 de Abril Bridge, Lisbon, Portugal

On 29 March I wandered the streets of Lisbon, wrote postcards while a daytime drunk blasted tunes on his phone nearby, and wandered the streets some more. This is Rua Augusta Arch, built to commemorate Lisbon’s reconstruction after the 1755 earthquake:

Rua Augusta Arch in Lisbon, Portugal

If you’re familiar with the Brussels street art scene, you’re used to seeing pencil crayons all over town. If not, you can see a collection of over 600 photos of the pencil crayon street art here: flickr ancatphil. Well, one of the artists seems to have made a visit to Lisbon, where he or she got to a hard-to-reach spot to paint this pencil crayon figure, who appears to be sitting on a toilet taking a dump:

Pencil crayon street art in Lisbon

There are many old street trams in Lisbon, mostly packed full of tourists:

Electric tram in Lisbon, Portugal

Sunset over Lisbon:

Sunset in Lisbon, Portugal

My flight out of Lisbon was on 30 March, but before I went to the airport I caught a train to Cascais to take a walk by the sea. Cascais is too beach-touristy for me, but it was nice for a stroll.

Cascais lighthouse

While standing near the underwhelming Boca do Inferno, I spotted a school of catfish having some sort of feeding frenzy at the surface of the water:

Catfish feeding frenzy at Boca do Inferno, Cascais

Walking farther along the coast, ice plants (an invasive species initially brought in from Africa on purpose) colour the shoreline:

Ice plant in the foreground, lighthouse in the background, at Cascais

That evening I flew back to Guinea, landing at 04:00 only to find no vehicle waiting for me. A fitting start to two very challenging months of work.

Trip 2: Porto and Lisbon

On 28 May I once again flew from Conakry to Casablanca, and then onwards to Lisbon. This time, I jogged a bit and mostly walked as fast as I could through the airport, caught the metro to the train station, bought a ticket, and boarded the train to Porto with 2 minutes to spare. The next one would have been an hour and a half later. I arrived in Porto in the late afternoon and met up with my friend Angela, who’d arrived a few hours before. The next morning we had breakfast with Callum and his girlfriend, who happened to be in town for a wedding.

Callum Benson and me in Porto, Portugal

Angela and I walked up and down the steep streets of Porto, got confused a few times, drank lots of coffee, and took photos. Looking across the River Douro to some ruins and the Mosteiro da Serra do Pilar:

Mosteiro da Serra do Pilar, Porto

There are only two tram lines remaining in Porto:

Electric tram in Porto, Portugal

We stopped in to look at all manner of old camera at the Portuguese Centre of Photography:

Old camera at the Portuguese Centre of Photography, Porto

Every day we passed by the Church of Saint Ildefonso as we walked to or from our rented apartment:

Church of Saint Ildefonso, Porto

The Lello & Irmão bookshop is said to have been the inspiration for the library at Hogwarts, in the Harry Potter series, although the best part of the bookshop – this fantastic staircase – isn’t found at Hogwarts:

Livraria Lello & Irmão, Porto

On 30 May, we caught the tram to Foz do Douro. The old trams still have the cable to ring for the next stop; the cable causes a little striker to hit the bell mounted on the ceiling of the driver’s cab: full analog.

1920s tram in Porto, Portugal

Felgueiras Lighthouse:

Felgueiras Lighthouse at Foz do Douro, Porto

Queijo Castle:

Queijo Castle, Porto

On 31 May, we caught the train to Guimarães for a day visit. After a couple of coffees each, we visited the Palace of the Dukes of Braganza, which has an interesting roof construction:

Roof structure at the Palace of the Dukes of Braganza, Guimarães, Portugal

Two of the rooms in the palace have ornate paintings on the ceilings, causing much neck strain:

Ceiling detail, Palace of the Dukes of Braganza, Guimarães
Ceiling detail, Palace of the Dukes of Braganza, Guimarães

After the palace, we bought some chips then caught the cable car up to Pena Mountain:

Angela and me in the teleférico (cable car) de Guimarães
Teleférico de Guimarães

Pena Mountain has some neat paths through, over, and under boulders although on this quiet Sunday in Guimarães, the mountain was a gong-show of families and groups who’d driven up with gear for Sunday picnics and merriment.

Steps through stones on Penha Mountain, Guimarães

There was a Cork oak up on Mount Pena which was missing most of its cork bark. So, here you can see the before/after of cork harvesting:

Cork oak, with the cork bark partially stripped

Back down in Guimarães town, the Church of São Guálter is a neat sight:

Church of São Guálter, Guimarães, Portugal

On our last day in Porto, we walked across the bridge to Gaia and took a short tour of the Taylor’s port wine cellars. They age different types of port in different sized barrels, such as these enormous 24,000+ litre wooden barrels…

Enormous barrels of Taylor's port ageing in the cellars at Porto

…and these 600+ litre barrels:

Hundreds of barrels of Taylor's port ageing in the cellars at Porto

After the tour, we were given small taster glasses and encouraged to sit in the sun and enjoy. Here, Angela and I are enjoying port wine in the sun:

Enjoying a tasting sample of Taylor's port with Angela

Back in the day, port wine was transported down the river on boats like these:

Dom Luís I bridge, Porto

On 2 June, Angela and I caught the train down the coast to Lisbon, where we drank coffee then wandered the streets, eventually stopping in to see the Design and Fashion Museum right before they closed. This colourful chair caught my eye:

Colourful chair at the Design and Fashion Museum, Lisbon, Portugal

That evening, my last in Portugal, we went to a small bar to enjoy some fado,a traditional form of Portuguese singing accompanied by two guitars. We had a great time listening to music and making friends with strangers from Italy and Germany at our table during the breaks.

Twelve-string Portuguese guitar during a fado performance in Lisbon, Portugal

It just so happened that Mike and his brother Sebastian were in town as well, so they came down to watch fado and then dragged me around town for late night adventures. Here, we each make a serious face:

Post-fado adventures with Mike and Sebastian in Lisbon

Although I was five minutes late to the airport, the check-in lady was kind enough to sit back down and print my boarding pass. Not long after, I found myself in Casablanca, on an airport shuttle to a nearby hotel to have a nap and dinner, before flying onward to Conakry. I landed at 04:00 and, once again, they had forgotten to send a car to pick me up. Hopefully not a sign of things to come, this time.

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


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


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


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.


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


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


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


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 removing moss from Marycroft


After removing moss from Marycroft


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


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


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


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


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


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].

Monitoring the waterworks

Exploring the ruins of a once-glorious Buddhist monastery at Sigiriya, most people stick to the main path, whether from lack of energy or led by a guide unwilling or unable to manage anything more than the bare minimum tour. With too much time on my hands, I strolled slowly around mostly unmarked ruins, attaching no meaning to the millennia-old structures but admiring the water system engineering. Rain collection systems, covered water channels, pipes hewn from granite, reservoirs built from bricks or carved out of solid bedrock, overflow outlets to other reservoirs, deep access manholes to unblock channels – the people who built the massive monastic complex at Sigiriya were incredibly clever.

Rain channel and chute, Sigiriya
Covered channel leading to reservoir, Sigiriya
Covered channel leading to reservoir, Sigiriya
Brick water reservoir, Sigiriya
Water reservoir hewn from bedrock, Sigiriya
Manhole access to underground water channels, Sigiriya

As it turned out, I was not the sole person admiring the waterworks that day; I found this metre-long lizard monitoring a covered channel through which water could flow from one tank to a lower one:

Monitor lizard in a water channel, Sigiriya

Rabid Response

Tufted grey langur

As I cycled southwards down a lonely road in an eventually-successful attempt to find my way out of the ancient ruins of Anuradhapura – where troops of hyperactive tufted grey langurs and toque macaques monkey around and feral dogs wander hungrily – a vehicle rolled quickly past in the opposite direction.

It was a large van, with a loudspeaker mounted above the windscreen, and in the window was a laminated, A4-sized sign that read: “Rabies Unit”.

Toque macaque
Feral dog