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Annual Update v8: a rambling recap of 2015

Dear family, friends, colleagues, and various types of acquaintance:

Only four weeks later than planned, this is the annual update I share with evvvvvveryone I know, because it’s far easier than actually trying to keep in touch with all of you individually. 2015 was a tough year, so I’m not entirely unhappy that it’s finally over, but there were some highlights and other parts worth mentioning: below you’ll find photos plus odds and ends of stories that have already begun fading from my memory. Good luck making it all the way to the end!

Key facts and figures:

Chart of countries visited in 2015

Canada -> France -> Guinea -> Portugal -> Guinea -> Portugal -> Guinea -> Belgium -> Canada -> Netherlands -> Djibouti -> Yemen -> Djibouti -> Netherlands -> Canada

30 flights, 8 countries (including 2 more letters of the alphabet), so many chameleons, uncountable airstrikes, and a lifetime worth of coffee consumed.

2015 in photos and video:

January 2015 found me in Vancouver, learning how the world of online dating works while waiting to leave town again. I therefore drank a lot of coffee with strangers and walked around town a fair bit, including strolling along the downtown waterfront simultaneously disliking but wanting one of the super yachts moored in Coal Harbour, and admiring the neatly moored seaplanes.

Seaplanes in Coal Harbour, Vancouver

I also watched ghosts playing ping pong in the basement of my parents’ century-old home:

Ghost ping pong

The ends of my trouser legs were white from being sprayed hundreds of times with chlorine in the Ebola centre in Sierra Leone at the end of 2014 so I made a solid effort to dye them brown again and met with some success – works well for blue jeans that are too faded but still in good shape, so give it a try.

Dyeing trousers

My sister Josephine is a crazygood documentary filmmaker; the client work that pays her bills is also fantastic. She was kind enough to invite my brother and me to help her film a piece about a UBC robotics professor, complete with hugging robot! You can watch the impressive, hilarious 2 minute video here: Rewild Films: A Robot in Every Home (UBC Trek Magazine). You can check out her other work at RewildFilms.com.

Robot hugging a human at UBC

Fun and games can’t last forever, though. I was contacted by the Red Cross in early January and asked if I would consider working for them. The significant wage increase compared to my Doctors Without Borders salary made it an easy decision for me. By 27 January I was in a fully-automated futuristic hotel room in Paris on a long layover, playing around with the LED mood lighting.

Mood lighting in the Citizen M hotel, Paris

I also managed to head into the city centre to see my friends Tom and Estelle before boarding my flight southwards, passing over North Africa en route to West Africa.

Scenic views flying south from Paris to Conakry

Flying in low over the jungle on 28 January, I arrived in Guinea – the country in which the 2013-2015 Ebola epidemic began.

Flying over West African forests

This would be the start of the longest five months I can remember, and easily the worst work experience of my professional life. However, I’ll spare you the details that support this statement. The experience wasn’t entirely negative, and still produced a few odds and ends worth sharing. As in other parts of West Africa, slogans adorn the taxis and minibuses all over Guinea, many wishing us “bonne chance” (good luck), an unfortunate necessity on Guinean roads…

Minibus taxi in Conakry, capital of Guinea

I spent my first few days in the polluted, congested, noisy seaside capital: Conakry. With very little to do in the coordination office, I left on 5 February to Kissidougou, a small town halfway across the country. Keita – my driver / makeshift logistics assistant – and I rolled along the potholed roads in our Land Cruiser pickup, pausing occasionally to admire the scenery.

Guinea landscape view on the drive from Conakry to Kissidougou
Traditional homes in Guinea
Bridge at the entrance to Faranah

I spent one week in Kissidougou, advising the local Guinean Red Cross team on correct procedures for disinfecting living people, dead people, equipment, and homes, as well as helping organise their stock of Ebola-specific supplies. The morning of my second day in Kissidougou, I helped manage the patient transfer of the last Ebola case (ever, hopefully) in that town, and the hospital room disinfection that followed.

Disinfecting the hospital room where Kissidougou's last Ebola patient stayed

Kissidougou isn’t a particularly impressive town, but this tree is:

Baobab tree on the main drag in Kissidougou

We were lucky to have a visit from MSF (Médecins Sans Frontières / Doctors Without Borders), who made a presentation that helped correct some of the misperceptions held by the local Red Cross volunteers, whose training over the previous year was dangerously and unforgivably inadequate.

MSF presenting to Kissidougou Red Cross volunteers

On 13 February we drove north to Kankan, the second largest city in Guinea, and regional capital of Haute Guinée, where I would be based for the following two weeks. Ryan joined us for the first couple of days – during the drive we played trivia over the radios from one car to the other.

Driving through Haute Guinée

In Kankan I spent my time preparing to set up a regional office and warehouse for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC – my employer), and visiting Guinean Red Cross committees in the surrounding sub-prefectures to check their supplies of Ebola equipment and materials, as well as advising on correct procedures. Much of this time was spent driving from place to place, staring out the window at the flora, fauna, and surroundings.

Guinean man walking along the side of the road in Haute Guinée
Farmer's fields outside Siguiri, Guinea

Here are a couple of short clips to give you an idea what the Haute Guinée countryside looks like:


I also finally got to eat cashew apples, which grow all over the northern parts of Guinea. More on that experience in this blog post from February 2015: What did the nut say to his buddies as he left the cocktail bar?

Children bringing us piles of cashew apples as a gift
Cashew apples and mangoes in Guinea

When we visited the Guinea Red Cross local committee office in Kouroussa, to the northwest of Kankan, I was impressed by the old French colonial administration buildings with trees growing Angkor Wat-like through them, and the sheer size of some of the older trees:

Abandoned French colonial administrative buildings in Kouroussa, Guinea
Trees grow through old French colonial buildings in Kouroussa, Guinea
Large baobab tree in Kouroussa, Guinea

Among other sights in the region, I enjoyed this Christmas ornament tree (sadly, not its scientific name), millions and millions of termite towers, and a few formerly motorised but presently human-powered vehicle ferries:

Nature's Christmas ornaments
Termite tower in Guinea
Ferry crossing in Guinea

By the end of February, I was driving back to Conakry, where I received some cash, sought approval for my plans in Haute Guinée, picked up the rest of my personal belongings, then set off to move to Kankan to establish our regional base. That process mainly consisted of finding a suitable building to use as a house and office with some storage space, then filling it with furniture and equipment to render it usable. I also continued visiting the Guinea Red Cross local committees in the surrounding sub-prefectures, so there was no shortage of back-breaking bumpy roadtrips. Combining aggression with a tremendous lack of skill, most Guinean drivers are true dangers on the road. Luckily my drivers were far above average, so we never ended up like these guys or the dozens of flipped and burned eighteen-wheelers lining the highways of the country:

Flipped car in the outskirts of Kankan, Guinea
Car crashed into a house in the outskirts of Kankan, Guinea

As I sat down for my usual morning sandwiche omelette avec café noir at an outdoor restaurant at the edge of a roundabout in Kankan, colonies of fruit bats (the natural reservoir for Ebola and a number of other terrible diseases) would sometimes play excitedly in the trees above:

I’d only spent three weeks in Kankan, and was nearly ready to leave on a weeklong holiday to Portugal, when I got a call from Conakry. They asked me to move to Basse Guinée and set up a regional base there, as Haute Guinée had become a quiet area with no new Ebola cases while Basse Guinée was the hot zone of the country. On 19 March I caught a United Nations Humanitarian Air Service flight from Kankan to Conakry, and that afternoon drove to Forécariah, where there were the largest number of active cases at the time. I spent the next three days helping scout out additional rental housing so that our local volunteers would no longer be sharing bedrooms in cramped quarters as they had been for some time, in blatant contravention of the standard protocols for working in an Ebola setting. I also got furniture made, helped disinfect and burn the mattress and belongings of a first Red Cross ambulance driver, Michel, who’d caught Ebola, and organised for the Land Cruiser ambulance below to be disinfected and repainted so the surfaces could more easily be disinfected and cleaned in the future. The driver of this ambulance, Sheriff, who I’d met only briefly when I arrived in Forécariah, also caught Ebola and died a few weeks later. Michel just barely survived, but will never fully recover.

Repainted ambulance for transferring suspected or confirmed Ebola patients

On 24 March I flew from Conakry through Casablanca to Lisbon, Portugal for a much-needed short holiday. This was my first time visiting a country starting with the letter P, leaving only O, Q, X, Y, and Z to cross off my list.

Portuguese coastline

I went straight from the Lisbon airport to the nearby city of Sintra, where I enjoyed the freedom to shake people’s hands, speak face to face at a distance less than 2 metres, take public transit, share food with other people, and generally do all the things that you can’t do in an Ebola context if you want to stay safe. I posted a whole whack of photos from this trip (39, to be precise), which you can see here: Two trips to Portugal. If you go to Portugal I highly, highly recommend spending a few nights in Sintra rather than simply making the day trip from Lisbon that most tourists do.

Three-wheeler on cobblestone in Sintra, Portugal
Waves crashing to shore in Sintra-Cascais Natural Park, Portugal
Cabo da Roca, Portugal
Views out to sea over Cascais, Portugal
Tower at Quinta da Regaleira in Sintra, Portugal
Monserrate Palace, Sintra, Portugal
Pena Palace, Sintra, Portugal

I spent my last two nights in Lisbon, then flew back to work in Guinea. On arrival, I was asked to head to Coyah, just outside Conakry, to set up a regional base there. My work in Coyah was fuelled by black Robusta coffee from the local street vendors. They all owned the largest size of Moka pot and brewed over a woodfire, storing the strong coffee in thermoses. This was the only reliable and rapid service delivery I encountered in Guinea. Local Red Cross committee executives hung about one particular cafe and played a lot of Scrabble, albeit with extremely liberal rule interpretation and mostly invented words.

Scrabble at the café in Coyah, Guinea

In addition to setting up a regional IFRC base, I spent a lot of time creating an Ebola operational base for the Coyah committee of the Guinean Red Cross. The function of each of our operational bases in Guinea was for the Red Cross volunteers to prepare their protective equipment and disinfection materials before going out for safe and dignified burials, for which the Red Cross was solely responsible across the entire country. After burying someone or disinfecting a location, the teams also needed a place to return to disinfect and clean their vehicles and reusable protective equipment, dispose of their hazardous waste, and prepare for the next burial.

Sand delivery for construction at the Red Cross Ebola operational base in Coyah, Guinea
Coyah Red Cross Ebola operational base in use

Soon I was asked to support other nearby Red Cross committees in Dubréka, Fria, Boffa, and eventually even Boké and Kamsar near the border with Guinea-Bissau when the epidemic spread to the area and risked crossing another international border. I helped set up or kickstart operational bases in each of these places, with the bases varying in size and complexity depending on the number of burials being performed in each area. Sometimes we could use the existing Red Cross committee property, and sometimes we had to rent land or request to use it free of charge from the local governance structures. Here, volunteers in Dubréka receive basic training for disinfecting materials on a simple sloped washing platform with soakaway pit running the full length of the platform. It’s worth mentioning that local Red Cross volunteers bore the brunt of the workload, stress, and risk in the work we were doing in Guinea, and while they weren’t perfect they made a solid effort:

Training hygienists how to disinfect and clean reusable equipment at the Red Cross Ebola operational base in Dubréka, Guinea

Back in Coyah, where I slept most nights, we had some power issues at first. With the unbearable heat inside, and no power for the fan to blow hot air at me and help me sleep, I dragged my mattress and set up my mosquito net outdoors:

Quick mosquito net setup

This steep mountain dominates the landscape north of Dubréka:

Massif in Dubréka, Guinea

On the drive from Dubréka to Boffa, there’s a sign that reads “Bridge over the Ibola, length 105 metres”. Seemed fitting given the epidemic sweeping the region, but the poor grammar of writing “la Ibola” instead of “l’Ibola” bothered me. It was only after the third or fourth time driving past and considering this grammatical error that I noticed the first letter was in fact an ‘M’, worn partly off. It should be “Bridge over the Mbola”…

Bridge over the Ibola er... Mbola

On the drive into Conakry, there are a number of strangely-named so-called universities, including these two classics:

Winfrey Oprah University of Guinea
Barack Obama University

After eight long weeks racing back and forth across Basse-Guinée, to and from each of the places named above, with frequent weekend visits to Conakry, I took a second much-needed weeklong holiday in Portugal. Loads of photos from that trip are also in the blog post about my two trips to Portugal. Highlights of the trip included spending the whole time with my friend Angela, who I hadn’t seen since 2005; brunch with Callum in Porto; and fado and drinks with Sebastian and Mike in Lisbon.

Guimarães gondola with Angela in Portugal
Breakfast with Callum in Porto
Fado in Lisbon
Hanging out with Mike and Sebastian in Lisbon

Angela and I spent the first few days adventuring around Porto, plus a day trip to Guimarães where we walked around on the mountaintop and discussed my whimsical but never-gonna-happen-in-real-life plan to make a coffee table book about moss. We also spent one night in Lisbon before I flew back to Guinea. Some views of Porto:

Porto, Portugal
Porto streetcar

Some say this bookstore in Porto inspired the Hogwarts Library:

The inspiration for Hogwarts Library?
Porto, Portugal
Bridge over the Douro River, Porto, Portugal

Boats advertising for the major producers of port wine float on the Douro River in Porto, replicas of the ones that once carried the barrels of fortified wine from inland to the large storage cellars in Porto:

Replica port wine cargo ship on the Douro River, Porto, Portugal
Barrels of Taylor's port in Porto, Portugal

Moss in Guimarães:

Moss in Guimarães

Back in Guinea, I was asked to return to Kankan to close the regional base I’d opened just a couple months earlier, owing to a distinct lack of Ebola in the region. On the drives, we spotted a number of chameleons crossing the street, and several times stopped to take photos.

Chameleon on the road from Kankan to Kérouané, Guinea

This one got scared and puffed himself up to frighten me away:

Chameleon on the road from Kankan to Conakry, Guinea
Angry chameleon

Once I’d closed that base down, I was asked to fly to N’Zérékoré to do the same for the base that one of my colleagues had established some time before. A short while after closing this base, I reached the end of my time in Guinea. I flew home to Vancouver in the first week of July, with a short stopover in Brussels where I left the airport for an early morning walk around town and a coffee at the MSF Belgium office with my friend Elvina.

When I arrived back in British Columbia, there were forest fires raging all over the province, including several on the Sunshine Coast, not too distant from Vancouver. An apocalyptic haze of smoke and ash soon descended on Vancouver and the nearby Gulf Islands, including Bowen Island, where I spend much of my summers. The ferry in this photo is roughly 500 metres from me, and usually you can see the Vancouver coastline clearly right behind it:

Queen of Capilano through the forest fire haze at Bowen Island, BC, Canada

I never get sick of hanging out with deer on Bowen, or taking their photos:

Young buck on Bowen Island

One of the highlights of July in Canada was the wedding of my friends Ricardo and Isabel. Another highlight was hanging out with my grade 6 teacher (my favourite teacher of all time), Mme Grenier. This time I managed to round up all four of my siblings for coffee together with Mme Grenier in the sun!

All five Anderson children with our grade six teacher, Mme Grenier

At the end of July, I made it to my friend Stephanie’s West End apartment just in time to catch the offshore fireworks festival:

Fireworks in English Bay

Over the summer I also met up with several couchsurfers visiting Vancouver, taking them cycling along the seawall, walking around town, etc. One of them – a Torontonian named Jana – suggested we head to Whistler for the day so we rented a car on a whim and I drove us north up the Sea to Sky Highway. Once we arrived, we had a quick look around the village and signed up for a zipline ride. What I didn’t know at the time was that this would be no ordinary zipline: Jana signed us up for the Sasquatch – the longest zipline in Canada & the US, connecting Blackcomb Mountain to Whistler Mountain. After riding the chairlift up Blackcomb, we got strapped into harnesses and jumped into a huge passenger van which drove us further up the mountain, then hopped out to walk the last few metres to the launch platform.

Walking to the Sasquatch zipline platform
Sasquatch zipline platform, Blackcomb Mountain

Human beings hanging from a contraption with a wheel clipped onto a steel cable flying through the air at over 120 km/h… it still sounded like a great idea when I heard Jana say it, until we arrived at the launching platform and saw the steps leading down into thin air and the steel cable going nearly vertically downward through the trees.

Terrifying start to the Sasquatch zipline at Whistler

I can honestly say I’m not afraid of bombs going off nearby, drones circling overhead, or angry-looking men with very large guns. Standing there looking down at the Sasquatch zipline, on the other hand, had me completely terrified. With no way to back down, however, I had to go through with it. The advantage of the Sasquatch is that they’ve installed two cables parallel to each other so you have company, sort of. Jana and I got clipped onto our cables, walked through the safety gates and down onto the steps, and with much hesitation on my part (and absolutely none on Jana’s part, because she’s fearless), we counted to three and stepped into thin air. For the first few hundred metres, the cable is so steep that it feels like a freefall, but you’re flying through a swathe cut through the trees so there’s a very clear reference point to let you know how incredibly fast you’re moving, unlike skydiving where the ground moves slowly toward you at first. I started spinning around in the wind, my chest was so tight I couldn’t breathe, and then I gave up trying to resist. I guess the adrenaline must have kicked in, because I relaxed more completely than if I were in a hammock with an ocean breeze rocking me gently to sleep. At that point, the ride became entirely enjoyable – I took in the scenery around me, pulled my camera out of my pocket, snapped a few shots of Jana flying along on the other line, and tried (and failed) to get a good selfie. I highly recommend the Sasquatch, though it is a little pricey, and would definitely do it again (if I have to).

Jana sailing through the skies between Blackcomb and Whistler mountains
Trying to take a selfie. Photo taken by Jana.

The very next day, a group of my friends invited me to hike the Stawamus Chief, which I hadn’t done since I was maybe 11 or 12 years old in Boy Scouts. We took a group photo at the base, before I left them in the dust…

Group shot before hiking the Stawamus Chief first peak

I arrived at the summit of the first peak half an hour before my friends, and took advantage of my early arrival to have a nice nap in a spot where I was relatively confident I wouldn’t easily fall to my death.

Climbing up to the Stawamus Chief first peak

I spent the month of August split between Bowen Island and Vancouver, rather enamoured of a young lady I’d accidentally met in a coffeeshop, and cycling around town on my Bumblebike, enjoying the daytime sunshine and nighttime city lights.

False Creek and Science World at night

Much of my time on Bowen was consumed working on the rowboat restoration project I’ve been slowly tackling for the past couple of summers. This time around, I built a steambox to bend strips of teak for a new breasthook…

Early stages of my steambox
Bending teak strips into a new breasthook after steaming for a few hours

…carved out a new support for the centre thwart…

Cutting a new support for the centre thwart of Jaro, the family rowboat

…and carefully cut out new seat surfaces for the bow and stern seats from marine grade mahogany plywood:

New stern seat for Jaro, the family rowboat

Bowen Island has loads of interesting wildlife, including this mischievous little climbing creature:

Trinity showing off her ninja skills at the cottage on Bowen

One day in August, Nikki and I saw this seal making a commotion in Deep Bay:

Summer adventures must come to an end, however, and by the 1st of September I was airborne once more, flying over beautiful landscapes without knowing what I was looking down upon:

Pretty landscape, unknown location

This time around, my destination was Yemen via Amsterdam and Djibouti. After a few days in Amsterdam for briefings at the MSF (Médecins Sans Frontières) office and a home-cooked meal at Martin’s place, plus a museum visit with Lysandra, I flew east to Istanbul then down to Djibouti. Djibouti city is not a particularly beautiful place, and I wouldn’t recommend it unless your aim is to head out to the nature reserves or offshore diving with whale sharks.

Arriving in Djibouti

On 5 September our little MSF plane took off for Sana’a, Yemen, but turned around and landed back in Djibouti a short while later as the cabin wouldn’t pressurise. On the 7th we tried again and made it all the way to Yemen, so I could cross Y off my list, leaving only O, Q, X, and Z. After a poor night’s sleep, owing to the lack of mosquito net on my bed in the MSF Sana’a guesthouse and sizeable mosquito population at that time of year, we made the six hour drive down through the mountains to Taiz, where I would be based for the following three months. Here are a few photos and a tiny video clip from that drive:

Green fields in Yemen
Yemeni scenery
Old fortress on the drive from Sana'a to Taiz

Bridge cut by an airstrike:

Bombed bridge on the road from Sana'a to Taiz

My first six weeks in Taiz were… disappointing. I arrived on the ground having been briefed in Amsterdam about my role as a logistician setting up a Mother and Child Hospital, only to discover that we had no permission from the authorities to run a hospital, nor a physical building in which to house it. Unfortunately, there was also very little I could do to speed up the process and tear through the bureaucratic red tape holding us back. I focused instead on office work, some preparations for the hoped-for hospital, admiring roadside camels, and hanging out with Clockwork the clothesline chameleon.

Camels on the Taiz-Aden road
Clockwork, the clothesline chameleon, in our backyard
Clockwork, the clothesline chameleon, in our backyard
Clockwork, the clothesline chameleon, on our clothesline
Clockwork, the clothesline chameleon, on our clothesline

We eventually got permission from the health authorities to run a hospital and, finally, in the evening of 19 October we received the keys to the building which, long before my arrival, had been selected for conversion from shopping mall to hospital. For a bit more on that process, you can read this blog post: Three Familiar Sounds.
From the morning of 20 October onwards, we worked full-tilt to get the new MSF Taiz Mother and Child Hospital up and running. My role was focused on setting up the physical infrastructure and medical warehouse. I opened an Instagram account on 15 October 2015, which has lots of photos of my time in Yemen, mostly showing progress on setting up the hospital: Instagram: @photodiarist.

The basement started out like this:

Basement of the hospital building before we took possession

Later, half the basement was filled with shelving and became the medical warehouse, while I set up walls, furniture, equipment, and lighting in the other half to create the Emergency Department and Lab. I use Trimble SketchUp for all my mapping and planning during my work, so I know beforehand exactly how everything will fit. Here’s the design I made for the basement, showing the warehouse along the left side and the emergency department on the right, with the lab on the far right:

Design of our hospital basement, which we completed before I left

This is the large hospital waste zone I designed and had mostly built before leaving Yemen:

Hospital waste zone design

Getting started on the generator shelter:

Rear compound at the start of work

Generator shelter nearly completed:

Generator and fuel storage area nearly complete

Cleaning the diesel storage tanks before installation:

Cleaning the diesel reservoirs

Installing walls to create the outpatient department on the ground floor:

Erecting walls in the outpatient department at the MSF Taiz Mother and Child Hospital

Putting in new basement doorways:

Installing better doors at the MSF Taiz Mother and Child Hospital

Welding outdoor waiting area benches:

Welding benches for the outdoor waiting area

Excavating for the waste zone:

Excavating pits for the hospital waste zone

Foundation work for the waste zone:

Early foundation work for the hospital waste zone

Converting a minibus into an ambulance for transferring patients to other hospitals:

Minibus converted into a patient transfer ambulance in Taiz, Yemen

We opened the hospital, with just the Outpatient Department operational, on 7 November:

Opening day of the hospital, 7 November 2015

We opened the Nutrition Programme a week later, and the Emergency Department a week after that. I worked late and slept several times at the hospital, enjoying the occasional sunset from the rooftop:

Sunset view from the rooftop of the hospital

Yemen has been in the midst of a civil war for quite some time now. Taiz was a particularly noisy place, with a nearly constant stream of bullets, bombs, and missiles flying through the air and landing all over the place. Here are a few photos taken immediately after airstrikes launched from Saudi-led coalition fighter jets:

Smoke cloud after an airstrike in Taiz, Yemen
Smoke cloud after an airstrike in Taiz, Yemen
Smoke cloud after an airstrike in Taiz, Yemen

I took this photo of the landscape nearby, for no particular reason, the day after arriving in Taiz:

Hilltop building on 9 September 2015

Exactly two weeks later, there were a series of airstrikes and at least one of them hit the building in the photo above, destroying everything but the reinforced concrete pillars and floors:

Hilltop building on 23 September 2015, shortly after several airstrikes

As I wrote in the blog post mentioned above, this airstrike on 2 December indirectly resulted in me arriving back in Canada a few days earlier than expected:

Smoke cloud after an airstrike near the MSF tented scabies clinic in Taiz, Yemen which killed one person and injured several

On 3 December most of our team drove up from Taiz to Sana’a, admiring the scenery along the way, with an overnight stop in Ibb where I got to catch up with Ahmed and Armando, two guys with whom I lived and worked in Iraq three years ago.

Terraced hillsides on the drive from Ibb to Sana'a, Yemen

I spent the next few days working out of our Sana’a office, speaking with suppliers for hospital equipment, finishing up some 3D hospital plans and designs, and writing up my handover report notes, before flying out to Djibouti on 9 December. The Sana’a airport runways were repaved some months ago so that aircraft could land again, but the place is still littered with the remnants of passenger jets, fighter jets, helicopters, military vehicles, and old airport buildings. The terminal itself is in decent shape, at least!

Bombed infrastructure at Sana'a International Airport, Yemen
Destroyed fighter jet at Sana'a International Airport, Yemen
Destroyed passenger or cargo jet at Sana'a International Airport, Yemen

Taking off from Sana’a on the little MSF Beechcraft King Air 200 with its leather aft-facing seats and matching 1988 safety cards:

Beechcraft King Air 200 cockpit

Goodbye, Yemen:

Looking back down on Yemen

After a night in Djibouti, I flew back up to Istanbul and then over to Amsterdam, where I once again had a fantastic homemade meal and fascinating conversations with Martin and Kat. Once my debriefings were over at the MSF Amsterdam office, I flew to Toronto on 12 December to finally meet the MSF Canada people who’d been employing me for the past few years, and to give a presentation about my experience and MSF’s work in Taiz, Yemen.

I was lucky to arrive on the weekend, so I had Saturday afternoon and all of Sunday to see friends; the last time I was in Toronto, arriving on a bicycle, was in the summer of 2009. I managed to see Nikki, Mike C, Danielle, Joy, Bill, Ashik, and Amanda, plus the CN Tower (from a distance).

CN Tower, Toronto, Canada

On 14 December, I landed back in Vancouver, where I enjoyed much coffee and food with friends, tried my hand at online dating once again, and even tasted a little mulled wine at Sonja’s house:

Sonja with her spatula-turned-sugar melting tool for making mulled wine

I also made it out to two incredible Christmas choir concerts: Chor Leoni downtown at St Andrew’s Wesley, and the Corpus Christi College Chamber Choir at Our Lady of Fatima:

Corpus Christi College Chamber Choir Christmas Concert

The rest of those final two weeks of 2015 were occupied by catching up on sleep, hanging out with my wonderful family, and wondering where in the world I’ll be heading next…

That’s it for 2015! As always, I’d love to get an update from you – whether we know each other well or not at all, whether it’s a quick hello or a rambling email telling me every little detail of your life. I promise to read it, no matter how long, and eventually even reply.

Goodbye to Grandma

My grandma Anderson became a schoolteacher in rural Nova Scotia when she was just 17 years old. She especially enjoyed getting through to the classroom troublemakers, a skill at which she excelled. I was born in Nova Scotia, but moved to Vancouver before I could form any memories. I have only the vaguest of memories of Grandma visiting us in Vancouver one time, probably in the late eighties, and for some reason a particular hotel in the city sticks out in mind as the place where she stayed, though I’m not sure that I remember that correctly.

The first time I really got to see Grandma was my first visit to Nova Scotia when I was ten years old. My dad and my sisters and I spent a happy three weeks that summer in the Nova Scotia countryside visiting family, learning new card games in the living room, how to throw horseshoes at Uncle Roy’s and Aunt Gwen’s place nearby, and how to play darts and 8-ball in Grandma’s basement with Uncle John. Grandma cooked and cooked and cooked, feeding us huge meals and serving up all sorts of fancy desserts and baked goods like cookies and her famous Nanaimo bars. She was always ready for a hug, constantly telling us how much she loved us, just as she had been doing for years over the phone and in letters and cards from so many thousands of kilometres away.

Grandma Anderson and Josephine

I was lucky to have the chance to visit her and the rest of my extended family in Nova Scotia six more times over the next two decades. During those trips “back home”, Grandma regaled us with stories of her youth, walking for miles across the ice in wintertime, jumping out the schoolroom window, helping take care of her siblings, and having to put the lights out during the Second World War because her family lived on the Eastern Shore, their waterfront home overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, and there were submarines lurking about. Grandma taught me how to judge when peas are ripe for picking and let me help out in her vegetable garden, weeding around the yellow beans, scarlet runners, carrots, and onions.

In 2013, my sister Josephine shared one of the stories from Grandma Anderson’s youth, about the time Grandma was lost at sea:

Lost at Sea from Josephine Anderson on Vimeo.

Grandma's backyard

Each time I said goodbye to Grandma on her little back porch in East Ship Harbour, with the hill rolling down to the Atlantic ocean in the background, she’d tell me how much she loved me and how much she’d miss me. Each time we spoke on the phone she’d do the same. As the years went on and I began spending more and more time living and working overseas – oftentimes in countries making headlines for all the wrong reasons – Grandma would tell me how much she worried about me, how special all of us grandchildren were to her, how she could hardly wait to to hear that I’d arrived home again, safe and sound.

Like my other grandmother, Grandma loved her five grandchildren unconditionally. I don’t think we could have asked for anything better, and I hope that a younger generation will one day say the same about us.

My Grandma, Margaret Irene Anderson (née Monk), died at the admirable old age of ninety-two and a quarter on October 19th, 2014.

Grandma Anderson sitting in her living room

After the funeral mass at the Church of St Denis in East Ship Harbour, my brothers and I and three of my dad’s cousins lifted my grandmother’s coffin down onto the lowering device at the nearby cemetery, next to the resting places of her parents, three brothers, and husband, surrounded by over two dozen headstones bearing our family name Monk. The gentleman from the funeral home handed flowers to some of the women standing around, encouraging them to toss the flowers into the grave once the coffin was lowered down.

As our family and friends’ cars, parked along the gravel shoulder of Highway 7, gradually left to make their way eastward to the St Denis Parish Centre for the reception, I recalled as a very young boy learning over the phone that my brother Dan had broken his arm playing soccer with some older kids at school back in Nova Scotia, while the rest of us kids were already living in Vancouver. Out of the five of us, Dan had spent the most time with Grandma while he was growing up. She kept a photo of the two of them proudly displayed on the fridge, where she could see it every day.

Dan and I stayed behind at the grave after everyone had left. We asked and were allowed to help the guy from the funeral home to remove the lowering device and the artificial turf placed around the grave for the burial ceremony. The two of us bent down, dug our hands into the wet autumn earth just as Grandma had done so many times in her vegetable garden, tossed handfuls of soil gently down into the grave until the coffin was half obscured, wiped our hands clean on wet blades of grass growing over the graves of our long-dead Eastern Shore ancestors, thanked the funeral home gentleman, waved to the small backhoe as he arrived to finish the job we’d started, and walked softly out of the sloping cemetery to re-join the highway.

Paper Trail

Paper Trail, by Moosestash Films

“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