Yet another Annual Update: my year 2011 in 67 photos

Dear family, friends, and those who fit into both (or other) categories, this is that once-yearly mass email I send out and post to my blog to bore you with the details of 365 days of my life. It’s safe for work, except that you might fall asleep face first on your keyboard while reading it, thus creating a small commotion in your office.

The short version:

And now for the extended version, with a sprinkling of photos, some of which I’ve put within sentences (how clever).

When 2011 started off, I was nearing the end of a super fun three week holiday in Vancouver. Technically speaking, when 2011 started off I was on a dance floor surrounded by green lasers

Laser green goblin

…and booming bass, doing my best to jump up and down and side to side in what I hoped might be mistaken for dancing, while wearing a Buzz Lightyear costume with glowsticks lighting my flightpath at the wingtips.

Buzz Lightyear

All good things come to an end, however, and by January 2nd I was sitting back comfortably in a Vancouver International Airport departure lounge. The fact that I can show a little piece of plastic to a company and they then let me sit in a chair, in the middle of the sky, speeding over the land and sea at sometimes over 900 km/h, still amazes me. Two days of travelling took me back to work in Juba, South Sudan, where I had two months remaining on my contract. On January 9th I was lucky enough to witness the referendum on secession that resulted in South Sudan becoming the world’s newest country six months later.

Biggest polling station in South Sudan's referendum on independence in Juba, South Sudan

I also witnessed the delivery of, and first flight of, South Sudan’s first air force

South Sudan Air Force Mi-28 transport helicopter, Juba

…went hiking up Jebel Kujur to take a Sunday mid-morning nap…

Taking a nap atop Jebel Kujur, Juba

…and got a guided tour of the Physical Rehabilitation Reference Centre run jointly by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the South Sudan Ministry of Gender, Child and Social Welfare:

Touring the PRRC in Juba, South Sudan
Artificial foot at the PRRC in Juba, South Sudan

In my final week in South Sudan, I just barely managed to make it to see Juba’s best kept Engrish secret, the manure cure shop:

Thong Ping Salon, Juba, South Sudan

After leaving South Sudan, I spent the last week of February visiting friends in the UK. Within hours of landing at Heathrow, I was in real doctor’s scrubs in London, complete with anti-bacterial silver oxide thread participating in the Imperial College med school’s time-honoured, purely academic activity known as the Circle Line Pub Crawl with my friend Aidan and his fellow future doctors.

Circle Line Pub Crawl with Imperial College medical students

I also visited my friend Jackie in Cambridge, where we went to a show and the next day I took a long walk along the River Cam…

Narrowboats and rowing clubs on the River Cam in Cambridge, England

…and then Fraser and Kate in Abergavenny, where Fraser and I went mountain biking

Fraser above Abergavenny, Wales

and also saw my friends Katie and Louise in Oxford before hopping on a plane to return to Vancouver at the beginning of March. While waiting for my plane, I saw the mythical Airbus A380 roll by, the largest passenger aircraft in the world:

Qantas Airbus A380 at Heathrow Airport

I spent the next three months waiting in Vancouver to go somewhere new and unknown. I filled my time sleeping with no alarm, going to physiotherapy for my knee, building a couple of custom single speed bicycles (one for my sister, one for me)…

Custom single speed freewheel bicycle for Lisa
BumbleBike custom single speed freewheel bicycle for me

…checking the forecast for days when I could comfortably take my motorcycle out on the town (there were very few of these days in what was apparently Vancouver’s wettest and coldest spring in the last half century)…

Honda CM400T motorcycle

…and watching the Vancouver Canucks make it all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time since I was 10 years old. The city came alive like nothing I’ve seen (I was in London for the 2010 Vancouver-Whistler Olympics, living 5 minutes from one of the 2012 Olympic sites, so I missed out on all that craziness), with free taxi rides, SkyTrain antics, downtown street parties, and all kinds of awesome all around.

Celebrating a Vancouver Canucks win on Granville Street

Into these three months, I also somehow squeezed a trip to Kelowna

Kelowna, BC

…a couple of quick visits to Bowen Island

Bowen Island, BC

…a two night trip to Ottawa to get a visa for Côte d’Ivoire and see my friends Alex and Luke…

Parliament Hill, Ottawa

…and a motorcycle ride to Salt Spring Island

Salt Spring Island, BC

With the Canucks comfortably ahead in the final series against the Bruins, I left town to start my next job. Having spent a year and a half with Medical Emergency Relief International (Merlin), in the UK, DR Congo, and South Sudan, I’d decided to try on a different pair of shoes: Médecins sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders, aka MSF). They decided to send me to Côte d’Ivoire, but first, I flew to Germany (with a few hours spent hanging out in Amsterdam to see my friend Pieter-Henk) for the MSF PPD, a 10 day group introduction to the organisation for new staff. I can’t spoil any secrets by talking about it online, except to say that it was really fun, and I met and befriended some very cool people.

MSF PPD, Bonn, June 2011

During the PPD, I even woke up one morning at 4am to watch Game 7 of the playoffs streaming online, then had a productive day in Germany not torching police cars on camera.

By the morning of June 19th I was back up in the skies.

Flying to Côte d'Ivoire

By supper time that day I was eating supper (how appropriate) with my new colleagues in Abidjan, the biggest city and former capital of Côte d’Ivoire (Abidjan was also the name of the local watering hole in Buea, Cameroon, where my friends and I used to eat barbecued meat with a beer in the evenings after a good day’s work back in 2007).

Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire

The next day I arrived in Daloa, where I spent the next three and a half months working my butt off. Work was hard, but I gradually trained my staff to do a lot of the work I was doing myself, which greatly increased the number of hours I spent sleeping. It also let me get out of the office a bit more, including a day trip across the border into Liberia to help bring some medical goods into Côte d’Ivoire.

Welcome to Liberia (Pékanhouébli border crossing)

In Daloa, I saw our medical stock grow from taking up the space of a small bedroom with a few shelves…

First medical storeroom in Daloa

…to taking over my bedroom as an overflow area.

My bedroom, the overflow storage space in Daloa

At the end of July I organised to move our office out of the house and into a dedicated office space, where we had a new warehouse space in which I had custom shelves built…

Building shelves in the new warehouse space

…and another room of boxes stacked on pallets. What a difference a couple of months makes!

Medical goods on pallets

We also helped the Ministry of Health run a measles vaccination campaign for over 15,000 children and later on collected the dozens of sharps boxes from remote health centres.

Sharps boxes for safe disposal of vaccination needles

I also helped improve the water and sanitation standards of health centres around Daloa by donating soap and other supplies, and making these hand washing buckets for patients and staff:

Hand washing stations for health centres around Daloa, Côte d'Ivoire

We also spent a fair bit of energy rehabilitating a couple of health centres that had been looted and badly damaged by armed groups during the conflict.

Smashed glass on the floor of a looted health centre near Daloa, Côte d'Ivoire

They needed doors repaired, smashed locks and windows replaced, electricity and lighting restored, furniture built and donated, grounds cleared and cleaned, and much more.

New door for a health centre outside Daloa, Côte d'Ivoire
New door handle and lock for a health centre outside Daloa, Côte d'Ivoire
New electrical panels for a health centre outside Daloa, Côte d'Ivoire

One health centre had a puddle the size of a lake right out front, the perfect breeding place for mosquitoes, so I organised to have it fixed:

The lake outside Zoukpangbeu health centre, Côte d'Ivoire
The lake is gone outside Zoukpangbeu health centre, Côte d'Ivoire

My logistician, Moussa, did a great job of supervising all this work.

Moussa, my logistician

Two months into my time in Daloa, a few friends and I managed to see a huge wild elephant nearby.

The elephant outside Daloa, Côte d'Ivoire

By the end of September I was pretty tired out, so I decided to take a week’s vacation next door in Ghana. I had to fly out of Abidjan, so on the way from Daloa to Abidjan I visited the biggest church in the world in Yamoussoukro:

Basilique Notre Dame de la Paix, Yamoussoukro, Côte d'Ivoire

In Ghana, I became perhaps a bit too familiar with Ghanaian buses for such a short stay…

Bus broken down near Mole National Park, Ghana

…and had two different vehicles break down from radiator leaks, but the trip was really fun, and I got to see a whole bunch more elephants while I was there.

Elephants in Mole National Park, Ghana

I also saw lots of sideways lightning, which I’ve only seen in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana.

Horizontal lightning in Mole National Park, Ghana

Back in Côte d’Ivoire, within two days of my return to Daloa, I was asked to move to Tabou to replace the logistician who was leaving a bit earlier than planned. I was a bit surprised, and quite moved, when two of my staff broke down in tears when I announced the news to them. Tears of joy, perhaps, to finally be rid of their boss? The next weekend I arrived in Tabou, a very small town on the Atlantic coast, just a few kilometres from the Liberian border, overlooking the Gulf of Guinea.

Tabou, Côte d'Ivoire

I spent the next two months in Tabou, squeezing in three short trips north as far as a town called Para, with some beautiful stretches of road…

The road from Tabou to Para, Côte d'Ivoire

…and some short stretches of road almost as bad as the one we travelled from Buea to Mamfe, Cameroon, or the not-really-roads outside Kindu, DR Congo.

Rough spot of road en route to Para, Côte d'Ivoire
Rough spot of road en route to Para, Côte d'Ivoire

The last few weeks in Tabou were really focussed on closing down the project, which at its peak had over 40 national staff running 20 mobile clinics, plus support to 12 health centres (of which the farthest was 6 hours away), and running an intensive therapeutic feeding centre plus an ambulatory therapeutic feeding centre for malnourished children. Closing the project involved a LOT of paperwork (I might have drowned if it weren’t for the wonders of mail merging), but also some fun stuff like big donations of drugs and supplies to health centres and the Ministry of Health.

Paracetamol to be donated to health centres near Tabou, Côte d'Ivoire

Our office/warehouse space went from being completely packed with medicine…

The MSF office and warehouse space, full to capacity

…to completely empty!

The MSF office and warehouse space, totally empty after many donations

Other big jobs in closing the project in Tabou included donating all sorts of furniture and office supplies to another NGO working in the health sector, which involved lots of trips back and forth from our office to theirs…

Donating a vaccine fridge to a medical NGO in Tabou, Côte d'Ivoire

…and uninstalling our radio and comms equipment, like the VHF antenna bolted to the top of a 15 metre pole. The VHF antenna is on the left, not the huge mobile phone tower in the background!

The VHF antenna (on the left) in Tabou, Côte d'Ivoire
Removing the VHF antenna in Tabou, Côte d'Ivoire

I also got to burn all the unimportant paperwork in our big fire pit, fun!

Burning unimportant documents in Tabou, Côte d'Ivoire

Having closed the project, and with the December 11th parliamentary elections having passed without any violence, our team returned to the MSF coordination office in Abidjan. Eating extra oily omelets with my colleagues on the way to Abidjan was, as usual, good times:

Evening omelet time in Gagnoa, Côte d'Ivoire

I spent the next few days in Abidjan, finishing up some final reports and burning more unimportant paperwork…

Burning unimportant documents in Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire

…then took a three day road trip to the Liberian border to import a Land Cruiser into Côte d’Ivoire as the Liberia mission was also closing.

Bringing a Land Cruiser from Liberia to Côte d'Ivoire

My last few days in Abidjan were spent helping the Financial Coordinator with some actually important paperwork (sadly, this did not involve any fire).

Important paperwork

Then, on December 22nd/23rd an Air France jet kindly carried me to Paris for a coffee with Thomas, a friend and all-round amazing guy on break from his job in Afghanistan. Having finished coffee and a croissant, I high-tailed it back to the airport just in time for my flight to Toronto and eventually Vancouver. I landed about three hours before a DJ show downtown, for which I’d bought a ticket online a month earlier. Knowing that several friends would be there, I showed up downtown to surprise them. And, with the 6 month beard that was weighing down my chin, they were definitely surprised.

DJ show in Vancouver, BC

The next day, Christmas Eve, I went to Studio D Hair Salon

Studio D Hair Salon, Vancouver, BC

…and had my beard bleached white, morphing into a very odd-looking Santa Claus for the next couple of days, long enough to show it off to my grandma in Nova Scotia on her first ever Skype video call…

Santa beard
Grandma's first Skype video conversation

…and to the extended family at our annual Boxing Day party.

My cousin's kid testing whether my Santa beard is real

With that over, I removed all my white Santa hair in time to avoid scaring the surgeon who’ll be slicing my knee open in the future. On December 29th we met, we talked, and we settled on fixing my knee once I return from wherever I go next, if it’s about 5-6 months from now (oh, how I love waiting lists).

On December 30th a huge group of friends descended on the King’s Head in Kits to say goodbye to the place…

Closing party for the King's Head pub, Vancouver
Closing party for the King's Head pub, Vancouver

…which then shut its doors on New Year’s Day. Apparently it’s going to become a Wing’s. The following night, a potluck of culinary delights…

Preparing a veggie roast for New Year's Eve potluck
Mike's bacon coated turkeys for New Year's Eve potluck

…followed by another crazy New Year’s Eve party with friends…

New Year's Eve party in Vancouver

…helped shut 2011 down, and open 2012 up, a year bound to be filled with 24 extra hours of adventure, and boy am I looking forward to it!

If you got through this entire summary, I’m impressed; if you take the time to send me an update on your life, whether it be short or long, I will be even more impressed, and promise to read it too (I’ll even reply!).

Cheers, beers, and bicycle gears,

Vacation in Ghana, Part IV

By 4AM on October 7th the five German girls and I were huddled together again, waiting in the dark in Mole National Park for the bus to take us back to Tamale, hoping the nocturnal lions wouldn’t swing by for an early breakfast. While we waited, lightning flashed constantly, and one of the dozen or so 15-second exposures I took managed to catch some horizontal lightning bolts:

Horizontal lightning in Mole National Park, Ghana

This time the bus was only half an hour late, but after one hour on the road, picking up passengers in villages along the way, the engine overheated and refused to start up again. The conductor told me the radiator tank was leaking, so I told him to patch it and fill it with water, and he looked at me like I was from another planet. After an hour of arguing with him, trying to get our money back, we organised a mini-van to pick us up because we didn’t want to wait for the promised replacement bus, which would surely arrive half a day later if at all.

Metro Mass Transit bus, broken down due to leaking radiator

Once we had organised the mini-van to leave a nearby town to fetch us, the driver promptly filled a big jerrycan of water from a nearby water source, then used it to fill the radiator tank, started up the engine, and told everyone to get back on board for a ride to the next town to wait for the replacement bus. We took our bags off the bus and waited for the minivan to arrive, and by noon we were in Tamale again.

The pair of German girls split off to head north, leaving the trio of German girls and myself to head back to Accra. After a few hours waiting for the bus to fill up, munching on cookies and frozen fruit juice and drinking bags of cold water, we left Tamale in relatively good spirits. At the halfway mark – Kumasi – we got a pleasant surprise, when we were ordered off the bus and onto a different one for the second half of the trip. This bus, of course, was far less comfortable and we were given the very last row of seats with the least leg room and no way to lean back and try to sleep.

By 4AM we were in Accra, from which we caught a tro-tro (a mini-bus with about 20 very cramped seats) to a road junction on the outskirts of town and a taxi from there. By chance, the three girls were staying only 5 minutes from the beach-side guesthouse to which I was returning out of sheer convenience for my final day in Ghana. It was 515AM when I arrived, having spent 25 hours on the road.

All that uncomfortable road travel would have been very unpleasant, but good company made it a really fun experience for me. I spent the entire day Saturday reading a book and chatting with a couple of travellers who didn’t fit the description at the start of this blog post, and eating some tasty Ghanaian food (my favourite is the super simple plain fried rice with palaver source). Eating the food also involved waiting nearly two hours for the rasta cook to make it, a large part of which was spent sitting inside his hut chatting and staring out at the world slowly passing by:

The view from inside Prince Joe

Sunday morning I was off to the airport in Accra and by mid-afternoon I was eating German bread and Spanish chorizo sausage in Abidjan. The view after takeoff from Accra:

Flying out of Accra, Ghana

Long story short: if you get the chance to check this little country out some day, you’re probably Ghana have a great time like I did!

Vacation in Ghana, Part III

After a good night’s sleep in the Mole Motel (the only accommodation inside Mole National Park), I was up at 6AM on October 6th to meet up with the five German girls again. We ordered breakfast from the little motel restaurant, but they were so slow they hadn’t even boiled the water for the instant coffee by the time we had to leave to catch the 7AM walking safari in the park. The six of us joined three other pairs of tourists plus a park guide named Adam, and set off to see some wildlife. Over the course of almost four hours, we saw a few antelopes, warthogs, baboons, a monkey in the distance, and some birds.

Warthog in Mole National Park, Ghana
Monkeys in Mole National Park, Ghana

But of course, the main goal was to see elephants! The park guides all carry mobile phones with them, so they call each other to find out who’s seen elephants and then the others can head that way. This makes it far more likely for tourists to see elephants. Once another guide had called Adam to tell him where he’d spotted a group of five male elephants by a watering hole, we headed that way. The only problem was the big marsh, complete with narrow but fast-flowing river running through, that stood between us and the watering hole in the far distance. After a bit of discussion, we decided to risk ruining our shoes by sloshing through the mud and swamp water, and carefully crossing the river which came up higher than my knees. I was glad to be wearing my knee brace, as I could feel my kneecap trying to dislocate from the lateral pressure of the water while I slowly made my way across – it definitely wouldn’t have held out on its own.

We eventually made it all the way to the watering hole and spent a fair bit of time observing the five elephants, the largest of whom had a ridiculously long left tusk, showing his old age.

Savannah elephants in Mole National Park, Ghana
Savannah elephants in Mole National Park, Ghana
An old bull elephant in Mole National Park, Ghana

Having had our fill of elephant-watching, we headed back toward the park motel, crossing through a different part of the marsh and then another river that was much less powerful, but a fair bit wider and deeper than the first one. This time the water came halfway up my thighs!

Crossing a river in Mole National Park, Ghana

On arriving back at the motel, I spent a full hour in my bathroom washing the mud out of my only pair of shoes, plus my socks and trousers, then left them out to dry in the sun. I also saw a non-colourful agama lizard outside my room; I’ve seen a LOT of agamas in different countries, as far east as Uganda and as far west as Côte d’Ivoire (they can be found even farther in each direction, I just haven’t been that far!), but they’ve always been quite brightly coloured… purple, blue, red, orange, but this was the first time I’d seen one which seems to have had his colours taken away:

White-headed agama lizard, Mole National Park, Ghana

In the afternoon, the German girls invited me to join them for a canoe trip on a nearby river, so we all jumped into (and onto) a Nissan 4×4 vehicle with a park guide and headed to a small village outside the park to pick up two of villagers who would take us in their canoes. While we waited for the two men, the village chief suggested we get a good view of his village by climbing up these steps onto a roof of questionable structural integrity:

Very cool stairway in Mognori, Ghana

The canoe trip was very relaxing. We saw a few birds, including a kingfisher (I’ve now seen different types of kingfisher on every continent I’ve visited), and a bunch of kids playing in the water.

River canoes
Canoeing on Mole River, Ghana

On the dusk drive back to the park motel, I got to sit on the roof with two of the German girls, who chatted with me about the challenges of assimilating refugees and other immigrants into German and Swedish society.

Riding on the roof

Back at the motel we watched the sunset and were visited by a baboon looking for food.

Baboon visit at dusk, Mole National Park, Ghana

The six of us then ate dinner, three of us had a quiet beer, and by 9PM we had all gone to bed exhausted.

To be continued…

Vacation in Ghana, Part II

In the evening on October 4th, I met up with Dave and Sophie for a short catch up. The last time I saw them was in London back in February, right after I left South Sudan. Once it was time to settle our restaurant bill and the two of them had to head back to their guesthouse, I asked the waiter if he knew of any bus company other than STC, which might have overnight buses to any place at all. Following his advice, I caught a taxi to the VIP bus company office where I managed to get a ticket to Kumasi, the only destination available. “Better than nothing,” I thought, and hopped on.

At 3:30AM, after a six hour ride, I was told to get off; I’d arrived at the last stop, on a dark deserted side street somewhere in Kumasi, with no plans or ideas for what to do next. So, I found a taxi driver who took me to the local bus station where I then waited three hours to get on an old orange public transit bus for the six hour ride to Tamale.

Once at the Tamale bus station, I met a trio of German girls who were waiting for a bus to Mole National Park, so I bought my ticket and sat down to wait with them in the hot sun. Soon another pair of German girls showed up and it wasn’t long before the six of us were all chatting away and complaining to each other about the ridiculous heat and the lateness of the bus. I also spent quite a while talking with a king (true story), who was very friendly and an excellent conversationalist. In the end, the bus was only 3 hours late showing up, which meant we’d only been waiting outside in the sun for about five hours. We soon saw the sun set as we sat in our seats on the bus when it stopped at the side of the street for a few seconds:

Sunset seen from somewhere between Tamale and Damongo, Ghana

By the time we arrived at Mole National Park, the bus had been driving on the dirt road in the pouring rain in pitch black darkness with lightning flashing all around for a good two hours. It was only just after 9PM on October 5th, but we were exhausted and went to sleep almost immediately. It had taken me just over 24 hours to get from central Accra to Mole National Park.

To be continued…