Tag Archives: How-To

Layover guide: Tokyo with under 10 hours between Narita flights

TL;DR
This post is a little lengthy. I think the level of detail will be helpful to many, but if you’re in a hurry you can click here to download the bullet points. There are also a number of important disclaimers at the end of this post; please read them and don’t blame me if you miss a flight by copying me.

Background
Every time I have a layover long enough to leave an airport and see the local town, I make an effort to do so, whether it’s just long enough to get a coffee in Amsterdam and turn right back around, or a few hours to explore Frankfurt, visit friends in Paris or London, check out Istanbul, or admire the windows of Bad Wimpfen. If I can leave an airport to have some fun, I do it.

So when I ended up with a flight home from Bangladesh via Tokyo Narita airport in Japan, with 9 hours and 45 minutes between landing and taking off, the first thing I did was start googling how to get out of the airport and make the most of my day. I’d never been to Japan before, knew next to nothing about it, but so many friends had told me amazing things that I couldn’t pass up this short chance to get a little glimpse of it.

Initially, I thought I would only have time to visit Narita, the town in which the airport is actually located, well over 70km away from Tokyo, because this is the advice that most commonly comes up on TripAdvisor and other online fora. Everyone seems to say that Tokyo is so far away, it’s not worth the trip if you’re not staying longer. However, on a whim I decided to see if a quick trip to Tokyo might actually be possible within my short timeframe. This was a rare time that Google was less helpful than usual, and I found myself only semi-confident that I would succeed, but I did it anyways. Now, having been to Tokyo and enjoyed it immensely, I felt it could be helpful if I share what I learned so the next person searching online will be able to make a more informed decision.

Getting out of Tokyo Narita Airport and storing luggage for the day
On 18 May 2018, the Thai Airways Airbus A330 descended to Tokyo Narita Airport through thick, dark, low clouds that nearly touched the runway in the cool morning hours. The landing gear hit the tarmac at 06:20 and the plane arrived at the gate at 06:34. Google Maps had told me that I could catch a 07:26 train into Tokyo, or another one about an hour later. With an afternoon flight boarding at 16:05, I had already decided that I should be back at the airport to clear customs and security one hour beforehand, so about 15:00 (3pm for those of you who don’t like 24-hour time). Narita terminal 1 is an old and relatively small airport (with bizarrely low ceilings), so I knew my walk from security to any international departure gate wouldn’t take more than 10 minutes.

The plan I made before arriving was to leave my carry-on bag at a left luggage storage facility in the international departures area before going through immigration – I figured this would allow me to get back into the airport with just my pocket contents, possibly shortening the security screening and allowing me to walk much faster through the airport. The internet told me that a QL Liner left luggage facility exists in international departures, open from 06:30. As I followed the signs from the gate to customs it became clear that I would have to go out of my way to get to the departures area, and my number one focus was to hustle through the airport as fast as I could to catch the 07:26 train, so I cancelled that plan and hoped I wouldn’t have to lug my backpack all around Tokyo.

I needn’t have worried.

At that early hour, even though I was at the back of the plane, it took only a few minutes on a series of moving sidewalks to reach the immigration area. I handed over my passport and arrival information forms. The immigration officer asked no questions; she just smiled and had a quick look at my passport. A machine with a very cheerfully colourful screen instructed me to place both index fingers on a pair of fingerprint scanners, then the camera took a quick photo of my face. The officer stuck a little visa sticker in my passport and that was that. You can read more details on the arrivals procedure and how to complete the forms here: https://myjapantips.com/2014/11/04/so-youve-landed-in-japan-customs-and-immigration/

I then walked down a short escalator to the baggage carousels. With no luggage to collect, I did a u-turn to head toward the exit. At the exit, I had to show my passport to a customs officer standing by one of those steel surfaces for bag searches; he took the customs declaration form and asked where I had travelled from (Bangladesh), why I had come to Japan (for a short tourist visit), how long I would stay (until the same afternoon), and several times whether I had any luggage to collect. His English wasn’t perfect so I’m not sure if he was asking whether I had checked luggage to collect at the carrousel (no) or if I had checked luggage that was still somewhere in the airport (yes). I just said my backpack was the only bag I was taking with me, which was the truth, and he returned my passport and said goodbye.

It must’ve been literally only about ten steps from this officer’s station to the Terminal 1 landside arrivals area where people wait to welcome their arriving family, friends, and clients. Off to my left I could see the words visitor service centre in huge letters.

Visitor Service Centre, Tokyo Narita International Airport

Walking in that direction, there were bus service counters along the right-hand side of the hall and on the left-hand side a left luggage service called Green Port Agency Company Ltd. The gentleman working there was so incredibly happy to see me, it really started my day off well! He was very quick to accept my backpack and give me a claim tag to collect my bag in the afternoon and wish me well on my way.

Green Port Agency Company Ltd left luggage / baggage storage in Tokyo Narita Airport
Claim ticket for left luggage; you pay in cash when you pick up your bag

Getting cash at Tokyo Narita Airport
Online searches had led me to believe that shops and the travel centre in Narita airport would all be closed until 08:30, but everything I needed was either automated or open already by 07:00. I guess I was reading the wrong internet.

From the left luggage office, I walked to the visitor service centre area just a few steps away. There I found a bunch of ATMs, including one from 7-11 (which all good trivia players know originated in Japan) which clearly indicated it was compatible with foreign cards with the Plus logo, Visa, MasterCard, American Express, UCB, etc. I took out a bunch of cash which, much to my surprise, was disbursed in 10,000 yen notes (10,000 JPY was about 90 USD / 120 CAD / 78 EUR at the time).

7-11 ATM for foreign debit / bank cards and credit cards at Tokyo Narita Airport

Buying a local data SIM at Tokyo Narita Airport to use phone data in Tokyo
These large denomination notes turned out to be a problem, because my next step was to buy a data SIM card from a vending machine so I could use data to navigate Tokyo and make the most of my time. The SIM vending machines are located just after the ATMs, as you walk toward the airport trains. The U-Mobile machine selling the cheaper SIM for 2500 yen for 7-days with 2GB data only accepted cash and only up to 1000 yen notes. Lesson learned: Try asking the ATM for either 9000, 19000, or 29000 yen and it will hopefully then give you some 1000 notes in the mix.

The second, more expensive SIM vending machine from NTT accepts only credit cards, so I used my MasterCard and coughed up almost 3800 yen for a 7-day data SIM with 2GB data. Yes that’s a lot of money, but to be honest it was still worth it. My Hong Kong layover adventure in April was severely hampered by an inability to look up information and directions on the fly; I cursed myself for forgetting to buy a SIM and an Octopus pass at the Hong Kong airport (both of which ended up costing me dearly in wasted time finding my way, and waiting in the non-Octopus queue for the Victoria Peak tram) and this time in Tokyo I refused to repeat that mistake. Note that you can only buy a data SIM from a machine – a full-feature SIM with phone call capabilities requires a more complicated registration process, but you can use a data SIM to make calls by Skype, WhatsApp, Signal, Facetime, etc so this shouldn’t be a problem for most people.

Data SIM card vending machine, Tokyo Narita Airport

In my rush, however, I failed to take note of the obvious instruction on the vending machine to activate my SIM. It appears from the huge arrow sign in my photo above that this can be done on the touch screen, though I’m not 100% certain. More on this process below.

Buying a train ticket from Narita Airport to Tokyo
SIM in hand, I continued walking just a few more steps and saw the “Skyliner and Keisei information center” with 3 staff sitting behind the counter and plenty of English signage. They answered my questions, gave me some advice, and sold me a Keisei Skyliner same-day return ticket with free 24-hour subway ticket, as well as a Pasmo card. It’s important to tell them if you’re returning the same day or later, as it’s much cheaper to return the same day. I didn’t need the free subway pass but I knew I needed a Pasmo card, which is just a preloaded transit card (like Oyster in London, Compass in Vancouver, Octopus in Hong Kong, Presto in Toronto). Train stations in Tokyo can be crazy busy so trying to pay each time for trains during the day would be confusing and time-consuming, while the prepaid card just needs to be tapped on entry and exit.

Keisei Skyliner train ticket and 24-hour subway pass
Pasmo IC card

There are actually a total of 10 different prepaid transit card types in Japan from different transit companies, which are now largely compatible with each other. Pasmo is what the visitor info centre was selling, and it worked for everything I needed. The other main card in Tokyo is called Suica and that would’ve worked for me as well. More info on the different cards here: https://www.japan-guide.com/e/e2359_003.html. You can actually even use these cards as cash debit cards to pay for stuff at some shops like 7-11, and if you’re done with the card you can return it to an appropriate transit service desk (like the one in Narita Airport) to get your remaining balance back in cash.

Warning: there’s no wifi on the train! Activate your SIM before departing.
I boarded the 07:26 Keisei Skyliner express train about 10 minutes before departure, and congratulated myself on being so efficient in getting from the plane to the train in so little time without any running involved. I connected to the free wifi, sent a few WhatsApp messages, checked email, and then we pulled away from the station. As I was sitting comfortably in my seat, the wifi suddenly disappeared! Every frequent traveller knows that modern airport express trains all around the world generally have free, if substandard, wifi. Well, despite signs everywhere about the free Keisei WiFi, it turns out it’s only in the stations – so if the train is between stations you’re out of luck. My plan to use the train ride to research my morning activities and plan a walk in the gardens was shut down.

You might be thinking, “Why not just use data with my new SIM, if there was no wifi”. Well, your data SIM won’t even let you connect to the provider’s website for activation – you need a wifi connection to go to their website to activate the SIM. Even before I discovered this issue, I faced the challenge of not having anything with which to eject my existing SIM from my phone. I used to always carry a paperclip with me but had recently lost it in Bangladesh and forgot to get a new one. A local passenger on the train was kind enough to lend me a safety pin, so that problem was quickly solved.

In case you’re worried about phone compatibility with Japan’s networks: your phone needs to be compatible with at least one of the Japanese mobile frequency bands, but these days pretty much all smartphones are. My phone is an ancient 2014 LG Nexus 5 and it worked just fine. There were two instruction leaflets with my SIM. One explained how to set the APN, but in my case the network broadcasted those settings to my phone automatically so they were already correctly set when I checked. The small print on the second leaflet had one important instruction hidden around the halfway point: the website address to register the SIM online before it can be used.

So if you’re sitting on the train with a non-activated SIM, get that done quickly before departure. If you don’t have time, don’t worry too much: the same free wifi network exists at the other stations, so if you get off at Nippori or Ueno station you can connect to the wifi there and activate your SIM. I got off at Nippori station to switch to a local train for Harajuku, the part of town I decided to explore (tip: on the Keisei Skyliner, the TV screen gives very clear instructions in English for how to transfer to the local trains with your Skyliner ticket and Pasmo card). I connected to wifi and began the registration process but my onward JR Yamanote Line train was about to leave so I left the wifi coverage area to jump on the train. I could’ve/should’ve just caught the next one 5 minutes later but I didn’t know they were so frequent because I was too tired to come to the realisation that I could just google it now that I had wifi to do so… So I hopped on the train for the 25-minute ride, annoyed that I still had no access to data to see what restaurants would be open for breakfast, or how to get to the local parks and gardens for a morning walk.

Instead of getting off at Harajuku station as planned, I got off one stop early at Yoyogi because I wanted to visit Yoyogi Park, not realising that there’s no entrance to the park near the station of the same name. There was no free wifi in this station, but five minutes into my walk from the station I managed to find a very slow free public wifi connection. I managed to activate my SIM, and from then on it was smooth sailing with Google Maps directions and searches for restaurants, cafés, things to do, etc.

Adventures on foot in Harajuku

Sake barrels at Yoyogi Park, Tokyo, Japan

Despite the dark clouds when we landed, by the time I was walking from Yoyogi station it was so bright and sunny I was dripping sweat. I took a long walk through Yoyogi Park, then walked through …. to Omotesandō where I found breakfast and coffee. If you’re a coffee drinker and you get a chance to visit the tiny little Koffee Mameya, you won’t be disappointed – they have beans from some of the world’s best roasters, and the baristas will let you sample several before deciding what to buy. You can get whole beans to take home, or a full-sized coffee to drink in Tokyo.

Koffee Mameya in Omotesando, Tokyo, Japan

Next, I headed to Hedgehog Cafe Harry for a pretty cute experience feeding a pair of cuddly animals. You can even pay to adopt one and take it home. Elsewhere in Tokyo there are similar “cafes” with cats, rabbits, otters, and even owls!

Hedgehog Café Menu
Hedgehog at Café Harry, Tokyo, Japan

Once I got bored of holding sleepy hedgehogs, I walked a few blocks to Harajuku Gyozarou (alternatively spelled Gyozaro or Gyoza Lou) for a cheap but delicious lunch.

Gyoza cooktops at Harajuku Gyouzarou, Tokyo, Japan

After eating a plate of hot gyoza, I spent some time walking through the little side streets of Harajuku filled with modern Japanese fashion and ended up picking up a pair of Onitsuka Tiger shoes.

Onitsuka Tiger yellow Mexico 66 shoes

I also had some more coffee at a little van converted into a mobile cafe, before walking back to Harajuku station in the bright sunshine to catch the JR Yamanote line back to Nippori.

Moar coffee!

Getting back to Tokyo Narita Airport
At Nippori station, I showed my open return train ticket to a guy in a booth, so that he could issue me the real ticket with my seat number on it. Within 10 minutes of starting the Keisei Skyliner journey from Nippori back to Narita Airport, thick ash-coloured clouds appeared ahead and it suddenly looked like most of the year in Vancouver: grey and threatening rain. Just my luck that I had a full day of warm sunshine for my adventure.

On arriving back at the airport at 15:01, I walked the short distance past the ATMs back to the left luggage desk to retrieve my carry-on backpack. It only cost me around 320 yen for the day’s storage.

From the luggage storage, it was a short walk to the escalators up to 4th floor departures lobby. On arriving at the top of the escalator, I walked straight through the check-in concourse to the opposite side of the large hall where there’s a big departures sign. There was a huge crowd people lined up to clear security but, with the same efficiency I noticed throughout the day in Tokyo, the queue was processed very quickly. It took only about 5 minutes to clear security. Next, I went to the immigration area where I was again processed very quickly.

By 15:32 I was already in the duty-free shops area, and by 15:40 I was sitting in the KAL lounge using my Priority Pass. Food options there were very limited compared to other Priority Pass lounges in other airports, but I had one of each of the sticky rice snacks: sea cabbage, vegetable, and sweet chicken which were pretty good. It only took me 5 minutes to walk to my gate in good time for the 16:05 scheduled boarding time.

I could’ve actually arrived half an hour later than I did and still walked onto the plane without breaking a sweat.

So despite having only 9 hours and 45 minutes from landing to takeoff, 1 hour 30 minutes travel time to Tokyo, and the same to return to the airport, I was still easily able to spend a solid 5 hours and 30 minutes exploring the Harajuku area without feeling particularly rushed.

Click here to download a printable very short summary of the main points above

Important disclaimers
If you’re making plans to visit Tokyo or any other city on a same-day layover, please bear in mind that I’m 185cm / 6’1″ and walk quite quickly, so if you’re a slow walker you may need to add a little more time to get around. I also have a high risk tolerance for arriving at the last minute for flights – if you’re the kind of person who arrives at the airport 3 hours before your flight, or you frequently end up getting extra attention from customs or airport security, then plan your trip carefully.

Before trying to exit the airport in Japan or any other country, make sure that you’ll be permitted to do so by the local government. Depending on the passport you hold, and the country you’re visiting, you may need a visa before arrival. In the case of Japan, I knew beforehand that I could show up unannounced with my Canadian passport and receive a 90-day tourist visa on arrival just by filling out the regular arrivals card provided by the airline on the flight. Some countries require additional forms, payment, or an advance application. Unfortunately, all nationalities are not treated equally and you may simply find that you can’t leave the airport at all. In the case of the UK, citizens of many countries discover too late that they are not even be able to transit through a UK airport without getting a transit visa in advance. For more info specific to Japan, see https://www.mofa.go.jp/j_info/visit/visa/short/novisa.html

Check whether your arriving and departing flights are both at the same terminal. I arrived at Narita Terminal 1 and departed from Narita Terminal 1, but if I had to switch to Terminals 2-3 there would’ve been a shuttle bus involved, requiring more time. Switching terminals at some airports, like Dubai DXB, Lost Angeles LAX, London LHR and others can take over an hour, especially if you’re not familiar with those airport layouts. One Tokyo-specific problem is that some people don’t notice that one flight arrives at Tokyo Narita and the next departs from Tokyo Haneda or vice versa, so pay careful attention when booking your trip. It’s also common to find yourself in need of a shuttle transfer between the two major Paris airports: Roissy Charles de Gaulle CDG and Orly ORY.

Also note that I was already checked in for my next flight as I was on a single booking from Dhaka to Bangkok to Tokyo to Vancouver; the airline assumes that passengers stay in the transit airports so luggage is transferred to the next plane and passengers just need to be at the gate in time for boarding. If you buy a separate ticket to get to a country and another one to leave that country just a few hours later, which is a very risky thing to do, you’ll likely have to collect your luggage and check in again for your next flight (the risk is that your arriving flight is delayed and, since you’re on unconnected bookings, if you miss your next flight then the airline can make you pay for a new ticket).

Building bridges with the community – Part II: from bamblooprint to reality (September 2014)

[This post is being published out of order; the story is from September 2014]

Disclaimer: This post does not contain any technical information or advice for constructing or repairing bridges that are safe and structurally sound. Do not use anything written below as a guide for bridge construction or repair.


On the second Thursday of September, we arrived at the Pont (bridge) Pende, 40km south of Grimari on the Kuango road in Ouaka Préfecture, Central African Republic, and found ourselves unable to make the crossing in our Land Cruisers. Turning back northward, we stopped in Lakandja to speak with the mayor and some of the villagers. With Yvon, one of our superstar drivers, I explored the central section of the conglomeration of seven villages, creatively named Kandjia 1 through Kandjia 7, on foot.

In addition to a number of dirty wells, we were taken one kilometre down a path to a natural spring from which many villagers draw their water. The natural spring water flowing out of a rock face looked and smelled clean enough, but without testing it there’s no way to know whether it’s really safe.

Spring water flowing near Lakandja, Central African Republic

However, as I stood chatting with a local man named Samedi (Saturday) at the edge of the shallow pool of water beneath the spring, I watched a woman dip her yellow plastic jerry can into the murky puddle at her feet, swish the brackish liquid around for a few seconds in a misguided effort to clean the container, empty the contents back into the brown water, then set the jerry can on the stone pedestal and reposition it until the stream of spring water was falling through the opening. The other women and girls followed suit. Clean water is only as safe as the receptacle in which it is stored, so it came as no surprise to hear the mayor tell of many cases of diarrhoea in the village.

After two hours looking around Lakandja, Yvon and I reunited with the medical team and together we agreed to return the following week to run a mobile clinic there.

We left Grimari just after 06:00 on the third Thursday (Thirdsday?) in September, driving south along the road that leads to Kuango. The medical team was made up of Alex, our Swedish doctor; Jean-Claude, Éric, and Félix, our nurses; and Dimanche, a local sécouriste. They would hire extra help onsite in Lakandja for crowd control, registration, temperature taking, and so forth; our polyvalent driver, Yvon, would handle the malaria rapid diagnostic tests.

Eric and Dimanche setting up for the mobile clinic:

Eric and Dimanche unloading the Land Cruiser

The sign in the photo below says “Lakandja Central Market”. Destroyed by armed groups, the market was mostly just piles of mud bricks where shops had stood.

Marché central de Lakandja

On my bridge building team I had two daily workers: Backer and Max. Backer had overseen the team of daily workers rebuilding the Pont Boungou a week earlier. Max was a regular daily worker at our base, and had proven to be sharp, conscientious, and hardworking. I chose these two to jointly lead a team of twenty daily workers drawn from the five villages nearest to the bridge.

Once we finished setting up the mobile clinic tables, tarps, and crowd control fencing in Lakandja, I jumped back into one of the two Land Cruisers with Zach (driver and self-appointed logistics assistant), Backer, and Max, and we set off southwards for the problematic Pont Pende, ten kilometres down the road.

The bridge was actually much more than problematic – it was nearly nonexistent. Two of the four original steel I-beams protruded from the fast-flowing water at French-friesian angles. The other two beams, each flipped on its side, still straddled the gap. A handful of crooked little tree trunks, bound together and set parallel to the beams, allowed commuters to cross on foot while rolling overburdened bicycles and motorcycles beside them on the metal beam – riding across would be too risky.

The old Pont Pende, 10km south of Lakandja, Central African Republic
Eric stands on the old Pont Pende, 10km south of Lakandja, Central African Republic

The day before, I’d sent letters by motorcycle to the leaders of nearby villages, asking them to identify 20 strong, hardworking men to build the bridge. I did my best to write in a tone both polite and pressing, with a handful of bureaucratic buzzwords sprinkled into the mix. Then, I printed the letters on official-looking MSF letterhead, signed with important-looking long blue pen strokes, and endorsed each one with a red rubber stamp. The rubber stamp is vital; in so many countries once colonised by Europeans, the systematic use of cachets to assign authority to an otherwise mundane document has persisted. Pro-tip: your stamp and signature must overlap at least partly, otherwise your document will be considered by some to have not been officially endorsed. This actually happened to me on more than one occasion.

When we arrived at the bridge (or rather, lack thereof), there must have been over 80 people waiting for us! It took just shy of an hour for us to sort everything out. First, we had to discuss our intentions and proposed plan of action with the mayor of Goussiema and the chefs from a number of nearby villages and quartiers. With their approval, we then needed to confirm the selection of twenty daily workers from the nearby villages. The names had been chosen the day before in each village: 6 from Lakandja, 2 from Koussingou, 2 from Bimbo, 2 from Zouniyaka, and 8 from Goussiema.

It was at this point that we hit a slight obstacle: in the week that had passed between our first and second visits to the Pont Pende, a team of youth had made a very slight improvement to the existing bridge. They had sprinkled some spindly tree branches and a bunch of stones to increase the bridge deck surface area, which was a modest improvement for pedestrians, but served no purpose at all for anything heavier than a motorbike. They had not added any kind of structural supports, so the bridge remained unsafe for vehicles.

Max demonstrated, by standing in the middle of the bridge and jumping up and down – the whole thing flexed and wobbled and creaked under the strain of his 60kg body. A 1750kg Land Cruiser, with a driver and cargo, would not likely make it more than a metre onto the bridge before taking a steep nosedive directly into the water. A motorcycle could make it across, but only at great risk.

We thanked them for the effort and sentiment, but explained that it would not be possible to cross this bridge without rebuilding it properly. The boys understood, but they asked us to pay them for the work they had done. I explained that the bridge they built wasn’t correctly done, that we appreciated the gesture, but that we couldn’t pay for work that was supposed to be done for free, and which wasn’t even done properly. The boys accepted this, but they asked to be paid as part of the new team. I asked how many they were, and the leader brought me a written list of twenty-five names! I was taken aback: the work they’d done should have taken three to four hours for a tiny group of two or three people. The situation began to smell fishy, but looking around I could see nobody holding a rod at the water’s edge.

The mayor of Goussiema intervened and decreed that the first group had accepted to fix the bridge as a community service and should not now be asking for payment; they had not done a good enough job, and they were mostly quite young, so they could not be hired as daily workers in the new group. They reluctantly accepted, but only after we agreed for them to remove the work they had done. For some reason, they tried to remove the entire bridge, old metal beams included, which led to an acute increase in volume as people converged to stop them from moving the beams – we had no plans to incorporate these beams into our new bridge, but no locals would be able to cross during the works if the beams were removed!

As this situation was heating and cooling like the oscillating fever typical of malaria, a half dozen daytime drunks lounged in deckchairs at the north end of the bridge, asking for work, stumbling into each other and the bushes, and taking turns expressing their ill will toward the group of daily workers whose names figured on the official list. Eventually, the drunks variously dispersed or fell asleep.

The team divided into two groups of ten, hacked away a hundred metres of roadside jungle-shrubbery in half an hour, then returned for further instruction. A boy brought a narrow bamboo chute on Zach’s instructions, held it to the ground and chopped it into 20cm segments with a few sharp wrist snaps of his machete. My knees creaked and cracked like the bamboo chute seconds before, as I crouched down to begin the demonstration at ground level. The bamboo pieces represented logs. First, I formed a rectangle out of a handful of logs set parallel to one another, then I positioned a second handful above that one, but rotated ninety degrees to run perpendicular to the first layer. As the layers built up, a little platform took shape: this was the bamblooprint for the footings on either side of the water. With the footings solidly installed, the team would then need to drag five sizable tree trunks to the site and rest the two ends of each trunk on the two footings, bridging the gap. After that, the bridge deck could be made using smaller trees laid crosswise and nailed onto the large tree trunks.

With the team already digging out the areas for installing the footings, Zach and I said our goodbyes and wished them all luck. Max and Backer remained with the twenty daily workers to manage the job on our behalf. Three days later – Sunday – I sent a motorbike with a digital camera to take photos and bring Backer back to Grimari for an update. We gave him further instructions, extra supplies, and tools, then sent him back out to work. He also took the equivalent of twenty dollars to split between the two coffee planters from whose land we had cut the five large trees, and another twenty dollars to pay for two nice cowhides. The leather would be softened in the water at the worksite, cut into strips, and used for lashing everything together.

On Wednesday I sent two motorbikes to bring Max and Backer back to Grimari, hoping the work was finished. With no phone network, the only way to communicate was to send motorbikes! In the afternoon, they returned, exhausted from the gruelling week’s work. Photos from the digital camera indicated success. We chatted for a while before sending them home to sleep.

The next day, we were up at 05:00 for a 06:00 departure to Pouko, about 40km northwest of Grimari on the road leading toward Dekoa, for a mobile clinic. Yvon and I masterfully managed the 107 malaria rapid tests. By early afternoon, we had finished testing patients, so I asked Yvon to test me for fun. I’d been feeling unbelievably tired the day before, and had lower back pain that I attributed to my poor quality mattress and the rough roads we’d been travelling of late – both of these are common symptoms of malaria. A few minutes later, my test result came back positive, for the first time since April 2010.

My first positive result for Plasmodium falciparum, aka Malaria, since April 2010

The following morning, we were up again at 05:00 to hit the road at 06:00 with Zach, Yvon, and Alex. We picked up Max and Backer and headed to the Pont Pende to check the work. We hoped we could drive our Land Cruisers across!

We arrived to a waiting crowd – the daily workers were excited to be paid, but also eager to see if their efforts would satisfy our expectations. The bridge was indeed very well built; I was highly impressed, though I likely looked otherwise, owing to my malarial light-headedness and lethargy-betraying eyelids. Both Land Cruisers drove over the brand new Pont Pende, crossing from Grimari Sous-Préfecture southward into Kuango Sous-Préfecture, with neither anxiety nor accident.

Bridge deck of the new Pont Pende
New Pont Pende, bridging Grimari and Kuango sub-prefectures in Ouaka, Central African Republic
The first ever crossing of the new Pont Pende, by an MSF Land Cruiser

I paid each daily worker for the week’s work with a colourful wad of cash rolled up, squashed flat, and sealed tightly into a six-by-eight centimetre pill bag, then we shook hands with the two mayors present for the bridge inauguration, pulled tight three point turns, and drove three hours back to Grimari.

Photo by Dr Alex Nyman: Zach, me, Max, the mayors of Goussiema and Lakandja, and Yvon (sitting) after the inauguration of the new Pont Pende

I went to bed early that Saturday night, exhausted and feverish; by morning my pyjamas and bedding had trebled in mass, and my bodyweight had decreased by as much, from a night of plasmodial perspiration.

(Luckily, on Sunday I was able to relax by sleeping in until 07:00, spending the first half of the day on the road, and the other half manning the radio station and satcomms while two of our Land Cruisers and our DAF truck tried in vain to drive to Bambari before eventually leaving the truck with a village chief and returning in the Land Cruisers to Grimari. It was such a relaxing Sunday… once again, the only official non-working day of my week.)

Building bridges with the community – Part I: when DIY portable bridge deck kits are not enough (September 2014)

[This post is being published out of order; the story is from September 2014]

Disclaimer: This post does not contain any technical information or advice for constructing or repairing bridges that are safe and structurally sound. Do not use anything written below as a guide for bridge construction or repair.


We left Grimari in two MSF Land Cruisers in the early morning of the first of September’s four Thursdays, intending to drive 60km south to Lihoto. Our objective was simple enough: ask a few questions, have a look around the town, make some basic observations on people’s living conditions and, hopefully, draw some initial conclusions about possible unmet healthcare needs. This evaluation would inform our decision to do something or nothing in Lihoto.

It was thus that we trundled forward through the morning fog as it lifted gently off the tall grass that leaned out over the dirt road. The broad green blades slapped the windshield in front of me while my window – open just a crack – harvested leaves, twigs, and angry little black ants that only bit me once they’d found someplace difficult to reach. Pulling my trousers down while in a moving vehicle to crush the ants in my pants would have been technically challenging and a tad unprofessional, so I set to work pounding my thighs and shins with closed fists as if I were playing whack-a-mole at a funfair. I didn’t win any prizes, though.

With the ants defeated, the windows shut for self-defence, and the air conditioning moderating the greenhouse effect of all that glass, I set my mind to enjoying the surge of caffeinated optimism that often washes over me during early-morning trips to new and exciting places. This warm feeling didn’t last for long.

My wristwatch GPS unit showed a paltry 6.0km travelled when we stopped and climbed out to assess the first of several bridges to cross that day, the Pont (bridge) Boungou. I had sent a motorcycle driver the day before to check the road conditions all the way to Lihoto, and he had assured me that the Pont Boungou was easily crossed. We would only need to strap some wooden planks to the vehicle roofs and lay the planks down across the existing metal beams to create a bridge deck. We faced this situation frequently, and had planned accordingly.

Unfortunately, having arrived on the spot, we discovered the motorcyclist had judged the bridge structure rather poorly. Three of the original I-beams remained but they were each twelve metres in length, far longer than we could cover with our homemade sixteen-plank portable bridge deck kit. A deviation through the slow green water to the east of the bridge seemed to be the only plausible alternative, but recent rains had raised the river level to roughly a metre above the riverbed. We couldn’t risk destroying an engine, so we spun the Land Cruisers around and headed back toward Grimari. To avoid wasting the day, we quickly put together a backup plan: we returned to Grimari then headed north-northeast to explore the communities along the road to Bakala. We succeeded to reach a village called Takobanda, farther than we expected to reach, given the fact that we’d lost a full two hours on the aborted trip. All through that day, however, I couldn’t get the bridge out of my head. As we crossed multiple bridges, repeating our time-tested plank method, I kept imagining how we might use that experience to rehabilitate the Pont Boungou.

Before I continue, let me explain, with photos, how we cross bridges that are not otherwise passable. First, we buy wooden planks and cut them into 3-metre lengths. 3m is long enough to lie crosswise on the metal beams typical of the small bridges found throughout the area, and this length also allows us to safely strap the planks onto the Land Cruiser roof racks.

Preparing wooden planks in Grimari, for the portable bridge deck kit

Arriving at a bridge in disrepair, we assess the strength of the existing metal beams and any wooden decking that remains. We then offload the planks from the roof, arrange as many as needed crosswise to create a decent bridge deck and, lastly, we place a few planks as lengthwise runners for the vehicle wheels. This last step is very important, to distribute the load across a greater surface area on the bridge deck.

This is what it looks like for a short, 3.3-metre long bridge:

3.3 metre bridge with portable bridge deck kit in place
MSF Land Cruiser crossing 3.3 metre bridge

Right after the successful crossing, we reclaim our lumber and load it back onto the Land Cruisers:

Cyrille and Mark removing our portable bridge deck planks
Loading the planks back onto the roof of the MSF Land Cruiser
Loading the planks back onto the roof of the MSF Land Cruiser

As the day went on, I began hatching a plan to restore the Pont Boungou to working order so that we could reach Lihoto the following Thursday. Over the weekend I found people willing to work for about five dollars a day, and by Monday morning a dozen young men from the nearby village of Ngoulinga were clearing brush at both ends of the bridge. My assistant, Papa Zach, and I arrived on the spot at 06:42 that day. We were immediately impressed by the team’s early morning enthusiasm and the visible progress.

Tall grass cleared by daily workers at the north end of Pont Boungou, outside Grimari, Central African Republic
Backer makes notes at the north end of Pont Boungou

While standing with Papa Zach on the steel beams over the water, my thumb and index finger stroked the hair from the edges of my mouth down to my chin, over and over. It was during this period of pondering that something among the reeds on the other side of the riverbed deviation caught my drifting eyes: the tip of the fourth and until-now-missing steel I-beam was poking out at such an angle that it could only be seen from the middle of the bridge.

Uncovering the missing bridge beam

Zach and I agreed before we’d even discussed – we would try and reinstall the old metal beam before building the wooden bridge deck.

We appointed a gentleman named Backer as the site supervisor to coordinate the work in our absence. Older than any member of the group by at least a decade if not two, Backer used to be the radio operator for the Grimari aerodrome, a laterite landing strip unvisited by aircraft in over twenty years. We agreed on the following steps to achieve our objective:

  1. Pull the metal beam from the mud and assess its usability;
  2. Cut 40 trees as straight as could be found, 4m long and approximately 20cm in diameter, and transport them to the worksite;
  3. Install the fourth metal beam, if possible;
  4. Attach wood to beams using vines, and strengthen by nailing joints together;
  5. Test drive, hopefully without falling in.

11 men heaving at an incredibly heavy bridge beam
The men discuss their strategy before continuing to move the bridge beam

By the end of the first day, the metal I-beam was up at road level, a few metres shy of the north end of the bridge. Severely bent and a bit twisted from the accident that destroyed the bridge, we found no signs of corrosion on the beam, and decided to use it as an additional support. Across the water, we had ten small, not particularly straight, tree trunks lying at the side of the road. We’d also succeeded to locate eight solid timbers at a nearby college, each 8cm x 23cm and 6m long, which had long ago been intended for rebuilding the bridge deck. Since political instability put those plans on hold, the timbers had been sitting patiently in the grass, accommodating all manner of ant, termite, and woodborer species, waiting to be put to good use.

On day two, the team chiselled and smashed and dug and clawed until a slot on each side was ready to receive the metal beam. While this work was beginning, two men were busy sawing the timbers into three-metre lengths, which we picked up in the Land Cruiser and drove to the worksite.

Sawing thick timbers for bridge supports
Timbers loaded into the Land Cruiser

The main group soon set off in search of additional small trees to place crosswise onto the beams, and strong jungle vines to lash everything together.

Two men carry a log for bridge repair near Grimari, Central African Republic

By the end of the second day we’d successfully moved the twisted metal beam to within a metre of its intended position.

11 men slide the bridge beam gradually into place
Two men carry a log for bridge repair near Grimari, Central African Republic

The third morning saw the guys place the twisted beam exactly where I wanted it.

During the final big heave, one of the daily workers let his attention slip for a fraction of a second and was rewarded with a deep gash halfway through the last segment of his ring finger. I immediately cleaned the wound, did a quick dressing with sterile compresses to stop the bleeding and wrapped it with a gauze bandage to hold the two flaps of finger flesh flush with each other. With the compresses securely held in place by the first half of the steadily unrolling bandage, I brought his pinkie finger up against his ring finger and wound the remainder of the bandage around the pair, thereby immobilising the injured digit. We then drove him directly to Grimari for proper medical care.

In the afternoon, we returned to the worksite and found a sturdy-looking bridge had appeared!

Timbers and logs lashed onto metal bridge beams at Pont Bongou, Central African Republic
Lashing the bridge deck onto the beams

Following a visual inspection, we tested the structure by driving the Land Cruiser across.

Seeing as how we arrived intact on the other side, we judged the job a success. A few improvements for long term durability, such as planks for the wheels to roll along, would be added later on.

Early the next morning, Thursday 11 September, we began our second abortive attempt to access Lihoto. This time we crossed the Pont Boungou without difficulty, but what we failed to foresee was the floodwater farther along the road, which, at the forty-kilometre mark, would ultimately force us to turn back.

The motorcycle driver who had earlier assured us that we could drive across the Pont Boungou, also promised that we could easily drive through the shallow water to the west of the Pont Pende. Pulling up to the crossing, however, our hope of reaching Lihoto quickly faded. We spoke with some locals hanging around the area, and one gentleman agreed to wade into the “shallow” water to give us an idea of the depth:

A man shows the depth of water at the location of the nonexistent Pont Pende

In the time it took us to decide that we could not safely make it to the other side with the Land Cruisers (the water was two metres deep!), I had a good look around and came to the conclusion that we could easily build a new log bridge with enough men from the local villages. And so it was that we hatched our second bridge building scheme in as many weeks.

To be continued…

“What’s Home Epot?” – The Bubble Dome Story (Shambhala 2012)

Have you ever wanted your very own geodesic dome home? A bunch of my friends did. So we made one and took it to Shambhala, the world’s premiere electronic music festival. Here’s how it all went down:

The mathematicians in the group calculated the dimensions and materials required to build 5/8 of a full sphere using information from that wonderful source of almost unlimited information: the interwerbz. A whole bunch of ten foot lengths of steel tubing were procured, and work began.

Step 1: CUTTING

Using my dad’s circular saw and metal-cutting blades (we wore through 3 blades by the end), we produced over 150 poles, none more than 1/8″ off the desired length. In order to make precise cuts, we set up a simple guide system on our workbench (actually my dad’s wooden scaffolding, put to use as a workbench). After every tenth cut, we also did a measurement to ensure we were still getting the same length of pole. There were three different lengths required, so we colour-coded them with black, red, and gold spray paint before making the cuts.

Here, on the left, you can see how we butted the pole up against a board clamped to the workbench. On the right, blocks on either side of the pole holds it snugly in place and provide a surface for the circular saw to slide across:

Table guide setup for cutting steel tubing with a circular saw

Power tools are fun! Note safety goggles and gloves to protect against the tiny bits of hot flying metal (photo by Conrad Nickels).

Cutting steel tubing with a circular saw

How many UBC graduates does it take to cut a piece of steel tubing? Apparently seven: one to cut, one to hold, one to take photos, and four to eat pizza, drink beer, and supervise.

Cutting steel tubing with a circular saw

Sparks flying:

Cutting steel tubing with a circular saw
Cutting steel tubing with a circular saw
Cutting steel tubing with a circular saw

Step 2: CRUSHING

Using an arbor press with a four foot piece of metal electrical conduit slipped over the handle to increase leverage, the end of each piece of steel tubing was flattened. This step is clearly visible in the video below. The seam that runs lengthwise down the steel tubing (easy to see if you look inside) was always lined up at a 45 degree angle from the horizontal plane to avoid splitting or buckling the metal.

Step 3: DRILLING HOLES

Using a drill press (borrowed from the Vancouver Tool Library) mounted on our workbench, we carefully drilled a hole slightly larger than the diameter of the bolts we planned to use for assembling the dome. Before each and every single hole, cutting oil was added to the drill bit. Don’t skip this step! Here, John drills through a flattened section of steel tubing with the drill press:

Drilling a hole in steel tubing for a geodesic dome

Step 4: BENDING

For our geodesic dome to work, the flattened tip of each piece of steel tubing had to be bent to the correct angle, otherwise we’d end up with a big, flat set of interconnected metal triangles. To get the angle right, we bolted one of my dad’s vices to a board, then attached a lightweight piece of perforated board to the base and marked lines on it at the correct angle. Jeremy drinks beer while steel tubing bends itself to the correct angle:

Bending steel tubing for a geodesic dome

Step 5: GRINDING

Once each piece of steel tubing had both ends crushed, drilled, and bent, we had to smooth out the sharp edges from the cutting and drilling that could otherwise be safety hazards. You can use sandpaper if you’re looking to lose weight, but we did the job with my angle grinder, as seen in the video below.

Step 6: PAINTING

As previously mentioned, we had three different lengths of steel tubing, marked with paint stripes during the cutting. Using three different colours of spray paint specifically designed to prevent rust, we coated the tips, where corrosion would be most likely to occur. Here, the colour-coded steel tubing surrounds my 1979 Honda CM400T to dry the paint in the hot summer sun:

Painted steel tubing for a geodesic dome drying

To give you a better idea of steps 2 to 6, here’s a video showing each of these steps in order:

Bubble Dome: Preparing the steel tubing from Chris Anderson on Vimeo.

Step 7: CUT DOME COVER PANELS

A geodesic dome would be neat, but not particularly practical as a living space, without a cover to protect against the elements. Mark’s research led to the conclusion that Tyvek HomeWrap would be the best material with which to fashion a cover for the Bubble Dome. Two rolls of the stuff, bought at a secret mystery store, the identity of which shall never be revealed, could be cut into 9 panels to be sewn into a dome form.

These were BIG panels, so we needed a big and level working space to make them. Where else would a group of former UBC students go? The lobby of War Memorial Gym of course:

Preparing Tyvek sheeting for a geodesic dome cover

Shoes came off to protect the Tyvek, and we began marking out the cut lines as precisely as possible (the key to getting this right on the first try was having several math experts present). We left about 1″ of material outside of the marked lines, so that the panels could later be sewn together.

Marking lines to cut Tyvek sheeting for a geodesic dome cover

The bigger your scissors, the easier it is to cut Tyvek quickly and accurately along the lines. For some reason there’s a 10″ pair of scissors in my family’s house, and this is the first time I’ve found them useful instead of bizarrely oversized.

Cutting Tyvek sheeting for a geodesic dome cover

The internerds has a dome cover calculator, which you can find at domerama.com. Incredible.

Dome cover calculator

One of the nine giant Tyvek panels we cut for our geodesic dome cover:

One of nine panels for our geodesic dome cover

Step 8: PAINT DOME COVER

The two steps of this process in which I didn’t manage to participate were the painting and sewing of the dome cover. Matthew researched and tested various types of paint on the Tyvek to determine what we could use without negatively affecting the tear-resistant and waterproof properties of the material, then he and John painted all sorts of crazy colourful patterns onto the panels.

Step 9: SEW DOME COVER

Once the paint had dried, a group returned with the panels to the War Memorial Gym lobby at UBC with a sewing machine and many helping hands to guide the panels while our expert seamstresses sewed the panels together with heavy duty thread (photo by Conrad Nickels).

Tyvek dome cover painted and sewn together

With all nine panels sewn together, they ‘inflated’ the dome cover to test it, and it worked! (Photo by Conrad Nickels)

Testing the Tyvek geodesic dome cover

Step 10: TEST

We did a quick, partial test build in Matthew’s front yard, pleasantly surprising a number of neighbours and passers-by, learned a number of things about dome assembly in doing so, checked that the Tyvek dome cover fit properly, and then dismantled the whole thing immediately.

Here’s a video showing the group pulling the cover onto the dome while I was lying on my back on the ground filming. You’ll notice at one point, someone jumps down without looking and lands on my recently-operated knee. Luckily I moved just in time, and his foot glanced off the side of my knee instead of crushing it.

Covering a geodesic dome with Tyvek from Chris Anderson on Vimeo.

Step 11: TRANSPORT

On August 8th, Conrad picked me up and we drove across town to pick up the Bubble Dome. We loaded the entire geodesic dome – steel tubing, Tyvek cover, bolts, nuts, and washers, turbine air vent, and tools – into Conrad’s car.

Loading the entire dome into Conrad's car

The drive from Vancouver to Shambhala (just outside the town of Salmo, BC) took us about nine hours. By the time we arrived, we had both become experts at spotting deer from a great distance and slowing down to avoid hitting them, despite their best efforts. We arrived a little after 2am and spent the next seven hours waiting, trying to sleep, and occasionally driving from one part of the vehicle staging grounds to the next. By 9am we were through the gates and after a fair bit of searching, we found our friends who had reserved a spot among the thousands of tents, large enough to fit the Bubble Dome.

Waiting to get in:

Thousands of vehicles wait through the night to enter Shambhala

Step 12: BUILD A BUBBLE DOME

Once the dome materials were unloaded, we started assembling our geodesic dome, being careful to place each colour-coded piece of steel tubing in the right place (photo by Conrad Nickels).

Geodesic dome assembly instructions

Starting our geodesic dome assembly at Shambhala:

Starting the geodesic dome assembly at Shambhala

3/8 sphere complete – only one layer left to reach our 5/8 sphere completed Bubble Dome:

3/8 of the Bubble Dome complete

Alllllmost done! In total, it took us about three hours to assemble the Bubble Dome.

Almost completed Bubble Dome

Bubble Dome structure completed! It proved to be extremely strong and able to safely support any number of us climbing and jumping all over it:

Testing the Bubble Dome: it works!

And then, for the Tyvek dome cover:

Bubble Dome with Tyvek cover in place

The final product, a Bubble Dome that was colourful on the inside, and white on the outside to reflect the intense sunlight, standing 16 feet high and 24 feet wide:

Our geodesic dome, with Tyvek cover rolled partway up, and Tigger totem

Daytime temperatures at Shambhala were in the high 30s every single day, roasting anyone who stayed out in the open sun or tried to hide in their tents, which acted like greenhouses. The weather inside our wonderful Bubble Dome, however, was perfectly comfortable! Many daytime naps were had.

Sleeping arrangements in the Bubble Dome

I won’t say much about the festival itself. It’s a bit too hard to describe, so you’ll just have to go yourself if you want to understand it. But I will say that there were some amazing musicians and some very cool people at Shambhala, and I had a lot of fun. The stages, lighting, and sound quality were very impressive. This is the Living Room stage by the river:

Living Room stage at Shambhala 2012

The festival runs all night and most of the day, with six main stages. The Chill Dome was a small stage where about twenty of us enjoyed DJ Zero D playing a set of trance music, and then an impromptu set when he realised that the next act hadn’t shown up for their slot.

Midday trance music with DJ Zero D in the Chill Dome at Shambhala 2012

The best lighting of any stage, in my opinion, was at Pagoda. Projectors beamed creative animations onto the various surfaces of the stage to produce optical illusions, while some of the best lasers in the world sliced through the air, painting patterns on the mountainside in the distance.

Porter Robinson playing at the Pagoda stage at Shambhala 2012
Porter Robinson playing at the Pagoda stage at Shambhala 2012

In one of the photos above (right before the hammock naptime photo), you can see the Tigger totem. Many groups make totems which they take with them when they go dancing at Shambhala, partly to express team spirit and partly to make it easier for the members to find each other. Mike built the Tigger totem a couple years ago and has added more lights (and disco ball squares) over time. It stands about 12 feet high and has its own (very heavy) power source. While cumbersome, the Tigger totem could be seen from very, very far away. When you’re trying to find your friends at one of six stages with 10,000 people in attendance, Tigger becomes your best friend. One night I found a guy dressed as Tigger, so we got a photo of Tigger with Tigger:

Tigger with Tigger totem at Shambhala 2012

The act I enjoyed the most, of the ones I saw, was Porter Robinson. The guy’s only 20 years old, and is a musical genius. Below is a random clip of a few seconds of his set at Pagoda, though this sample doesn’t do any justice to his skills; the video is intended to give you a glimpse of what it’s like to watch a set at Pagoda. To hear something more representative of his work, head over to: http://porterrobinsonofficial.com/

Porter Robinson and the Tigger Totem at Pagoda (Shambhala 2012) from Chris Anderson on Vimeo.

On the morning of August 13th, we disassembled the Bubble Dome, which only took about half an hour, packed up the cars, and headed for the exits. Lined up with thousands of other vehicles, it took us an hour and a half to get off the ranch. We then had a nice long drive back to Vancouver, and two days later I flew to Nova Scotia