Dear family and friends, some of you may have noticed that I didn’t put out an annual update for 2019. A bunch of people asked me to continue with my annual updates, so this year I’m doing a quick and dirty double feature: 2019 and 2020 in review. It’s mostly photos, and there are even 2 cat pictures to look forward to!
New Year’s Day 2019 found me underneath our cabin, digging by hand and breaking very big rocks to prepare for eventually replacing all the posts that have been rotting and/or tipping over for the last few decades, like this one:
Helaine was in town so we caught the gondola up to Grouse Mountain and made an impromptu decision to rent snowshoes. Fun!
By January 10th, 2019 I was on a plane bound for Geneva for briefings Jan 11 at World Health Organization (WHO) headquarters. That night I flew down to the Democratic Republic of Congo, which I had left only a few weeks earlier.
I spent most of January to early April 2019 in Butembo, as the WHO logistics team lead for the Ebola response there. It was exhausting. On the plus side, passionfruit is readily available and dirt cheap in DR Congo so I was able to eat 10-20 every single day for months.
There was also a day when we flew into a small village that had never had a helicopter visit before, so the local school brought all the kids to see us landing.
In late February I had a week off work so I flew all the way back to Canada and caught a train from Toronto to Kingston to spend some time with Harpreet, take possession of the house I had bought a few months earlier, and enjoy the balmy Ontario winter weather.
I returned to DR Congo to find more than one Ebola centre had been attacked while I was in the air coming back, and then a second attack happened after my arrival. It was really sad to see, and made my job even more demanding and challenging for the rest of my contract.
In early April I jumped on a helicopter, with some Ebola vaccine coolers, and left Butembo for Goma, then… Germany.
Canada wouldn’t let me come home on my UK passport and my Canadian passport had not been returned to me in time by the US IRS. So, instead of coming home I flew to Dresden, Germany where I could stay with my friend Darren, waiting for FedEx to bring me my Canadian passport. Darren showed me around town a bunch, and ordered our food and drinks in German.
Darren even took me out of town to see this amazing stonework built centuries ago up in the natural rock formations way up above the river valley:
FedEx took nearly a week despite paying for the guaranteed overnight rate, so I went to Prague for a few days and did a LOT of walking and staring at pretty buildings.
The last time I was in Prague, for only a day, was in late April 2003. I had tried to travel by train from Prague to Sedlec that time, but I made a mistake and got off the train one stop later than where I needed to switch to another train. I had to wait 4 hours in a tiny little town for the next train back to Prague. This time around, with my smartphone in hand and a direct train to Sedlec, I had no trouble at all getting there. I had been annoyed for 16 years about that one missed train stop, so I was really stoked to finally get to Sedlec and see the ossuary there!
My flight from Prague to Toronto had a long layover in Warsaw, and I’d never been in Poland before, so I left the airport and had a great time wandering around town seeing a few sites and drinking coffee at world class cafés including my first ever flight of espresso shots.
When the time came to head back to the airport, I boarded the wrong train and found myself in the middle of farmers fields, with no planes in sight. I was lucky enough to get an Uber that got me to the airport just in time. The flight was delayed leaving, or I would’ve missed it.
I spent the next month in Kingston, Ontario, fixing up and painting my house to rent out, and completing two online courses in anatomy and physiology.
From late May through August 2019 I was back and forth a couple times between Ontario and BC, where I worked on renovating our Bowen Island cabin. Most of which involved the continuing efforts to stop it from collapsing into the ocean. Also, my sister Lisa graduated from UBC Nursing!
I also had to finish those online anatomy and physiology courses, otherwise my university admission offer would be rescinded.
Then I broke some more rocks.
In late June Miriam and Chris visited from the UK, and we had a great time hanging out on Bowen.
In July I broke more rocks and dug more dirt from under the cabin. I also went to Steph and Trevor’s wedding, and the aquarium.
Then I spent two weeks in Ontario searching for a rental apartment in Toronto and working on fixing up my house in Kingston.
Back in BC by the end of July I was preparing to sell my 1979 Honda motorcycle and spending some time with Aunty Jo who was visiting from Uganda.
In August I broke more rocks.
And we hiked up to the amazing driftwood mastodon!
In late August 2019 I moved to Toronto, Ontario to return to university. I started a Bachelor of Nursing degree, which should finish in June 2021. It was interesting being back in school, and having my first clinical placement in hospital starting in mid September.
Josephine came to Toronto for TIFF, so we got to hang out!
Harpreet’s sister Prem also visited, which was tonnes of fun. And I started baking sourdough in September 2019 too. It took a while to get the hang of it, but by October things were looking and tasting good.
Ontario has real fall colours, unlike much of BC, so one day we went with Tim to a maple syrup farm north of Kingston to see all the pretty leaves and eat pancakes.
In November 2019, Harpreet and Tim went to New York City without me. So I rented a car, drove from Toronto to Kingston, bought a Christmas tree and hauled it on foot several kilometres through the snowy streets, and set up a bunch of Christmas lights at Harpreet’s apartment, before returning to Toronto. She returned from her trip to her first ever real Christmas tree.
After final exams ended in December, I went home to BC for Christmas, including taking Harpreet and Prem to the Chor Leoni Christmas concert at the Orpheum.
Then Prem got a kitten!
Harpreet came out to Bowen just after Christmas and spent some time with us, including a driftwood beach adventure.
I was looking forward to 2020 but like most people, I have been pretty disappointed with how things turned out. I had one clinical placement on a paediatrics unit from January to February, then my next placement was cut short after orientation because of COVID. All our classes moved online, which has been terrible for me as I learn much better in a classroom environment than staring at a screen. Without hospital shifts to apply the knowledge, most of it only stuck long enough to succeed in my exams. Plus, 2020 was the first year since 2004 that I didn’t leave Canada and the first year since 2006 that I didn’t visit at least one new country.
Still, there have been some good times!
For example, in January 2020 I cut a piece of black walnut in half, added some legs, and got two side tables for my couch.
Then in February I finally found where the tiny red ants in my apartment were coming from – this small box of water filters. Took care of it and I haven’t seen another ant in my apartment since, so that was a win.
In March, I made some focaccia and Harpreet decorated it with a coronavirus design.
And I got these gimmicky glasses for serving cortados:
In April I saw a fox and her cubs in Kingston, and then Harpreet made me a lactose-free version of the Judge’s torte with raspberries and mint leaves on top as my early birthday cake.
I returned to Bowen Island in April 2020 because sitting in my Toronto apartment all day was not a great use of my time. On Bowen, when I wasn’t doing online schoolwork, I was able to work on the cabin or just sit outside in the forest staring at the ocean or bake more bread with fresh herbs from the garden.
There was also a group of California sea lions that hung out until the end of May. They were really fun to watch!
I also bought an ebike in April and used it to ride in to Vancouver every couple of weeks for supplies, so I was in half decent shape for a little while (my ebike won’t go anywhere but downhill unless I pedal, and 35km of steep hills is still hard on a cargo-laden ebike).
On May 31st during a storm, a boat ran ashore on the beach below our cabin.
On June 1st, at about 2am when the tide was high, I helped my brother Matt float the boat off the beach and tie it up at the dock nearby, and the owners came and got it.
In late June when the first wave of the pandemic had calmed down, I flew back to Ontario and helped Harpreet move out of her Kingston apartment. It was a big undertaking, but we got everything packed up and into storage or my apartment, using several vehicles including this cargo van and jeep.
In early July we returned to BC and a few days later we got engaged on Bowen, with some help from our sisters to organise the surprise and a 4-person celebration afterwards.
We also hired our good friend Alasdair Benson to take some engagement photos for us before Harpreet returned to Ontario.
In August, Prem and I scoped out potential wedding venues.
In late August Brad, Lisa, and I succeeded to make, scribe, and install some braces on the cabin.
In September I got to hang out with Mushu and nearly finished the roof overhang before flying back to Toronto
Back in Toronto, I had delicious vegan ice cream with Harpreet.
In early October we went up to a cottage with some friends, and enjoyed the fall colours.
By mid October my only clinical placement for the semester was already over so I moved to Kingston. We moved into my house at the end of the month and I bought my first car!
I spent a few afternoons in November digging swales in the backyard to try and channel the seasonal flooding that happens here every year into a water feature. It worked for a while.
Then we had two days of BC-style normal rain over Christmas and the swales couldn’t quite cope, so there’s more digging in my future.
Harpreet and I put a bunch of Christmas lights in the tree. This is what they looked like before the squirrels started chewing through wires faster than I could splice them back together:
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, neither of us could go home to BC for Christmas, but we still had a great time!
To round the year out, I finished this live edge cherry vanity for Harpreet as a belated Christmas present, we toasted the end of 2020, and Stash organised a zoom call for a bunch of us to play Among Us.
That’s it for this year! Fingers crossed that my 2021 annual update will have some international travel and large groups of people in it for a change!
Dear family, friends, colleagues, acquaintances, random people I email in order to feel more popular, and people whose email addresses are easily confused with those of people I do actually know:
This long-winded email and blog post is my two-and-a-half-weeks-delayed annual attempt to let you all know how I’ve been wasting and/or taking advantage of an arbitrary selection of 366 days, which happens to be congruent with the Gregorian calendar year 2012, so that we can talk about more interesting things when we actually manage to hang out next. If we meet up for coffee, and you ask me, “So, Chris, it’s been n years since we saw each other last; what have you been up to?” I will grab the nearest napkin, clean or otherwise, and upon it I will write: “www.photodiarist.com/tag/annual-update/”. I will fold the napkin neatly, place it in your hand, then proceed to tell you an unrelated story, like the time a piece of paper fell off my desk and landed on the floor… on. its. EDGE. This annual update is longer than usual, because I’ve posted almost nothing in the past six months. It has exactly twice the number of pictures as last year’s annual update (do the math: 67 x 2 = ?).
In 2012, I spent a full SIX MONTHS in Canada — the longest since I left for Cameroon five and a half years ago. The reason for this unusual staycation? Another good old-fashioned knee surgery, but on the other leg! Back in December 2010, while on Christmas holiday from my job in South Sudan, a friend kindly helped me tear the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) off my femur in my right leg. In December 2011 I finally managed to see a surgeon, and by March 2012 I had scheduled the operation for April 10th. I went several times in March to see a physiotherapist at UBC to strengthen my knee in anticipation of post-operative muscle loss due to decreased use. On the 10th, Dr Patrick Chin repaired my knee at UBC Hospital and my dad kindly took care of all the practicalities (driving, drugs, many ice changes, and more). The rest of the family helped a lot, too!
This is what my knee looked like four days after my ACL reconstructive surgery:
Aside from my knee surgery, the various adventures over the six months I spent in Canada are best explained, categorically rather than chronologically, as follows:
Every weekend for a couple of months, I joined my three Vancouver-based siblings for Sibling Brunch. I’m not sure to whom the credit should be given for coming up with the concept, but what a great idea it was! Hosted at one of our homes each Sunday morning, we made food, drank coffee, talked about our week, the challenges we were facing and the successes we were achieving, plans to be made, and all sorts of random but interesting topics. And HEAPS of hugs!
Family birthdays with tasty cakes baked by Dad:
I don’t have any photos of the many long conversations I had with my parents, but it was really nice spending time with them at home.
One day, the home where I spent 14 years of my childhood was knocked down to build something bigger. I walked by a couple of nights later to have a look:
Not only did my childhood home get demolished while I was in Vancouver, but so too did my parents’ garage and driveway! Before the heavy machinery came in, I relocated hundreds of flower bulbs and other plants, including dozens and dozens of crocuses:
My brother salvaged a large part of the garage to make a neat shed, with some help from my dad and Matt D, the evening before the cat came to play.
As part of my rehabilitation, I spent a lot of time on my bicycles and the stationary bike at physio. Once I gained enough confidence in my knee, I began riding my single speed BumbleBike more often than my geared touring bike. At first, there were some hills up which I had to walk, in order to avoid straining my knee. However, it turns out that cycling without gears leads very quickly to an increase in the size and capacity of the muscles around the knee (plus all the other leg muscles, of course!). Soon, I was gliding up hills on my BumbleBike without much difficulty or any risk of overtaxing my knee. There was another benefit to riding the BumbleBike around town – lots of compliments from strangers on the street, despite the unintentional similarity to a certain Stanley Cup champion hockey team from the East Coast (I painted this bikebefore the 2011 playoffs).
In the first week of June, I went on my very first bicycle scavenger hunt. My friend Jasmine was my teammate, though it was difficult trying to win while my partner was always taking breaks:
Apparently our 2nd place victory high-five was quite painful for her…
I also got to watch a couple of cycle races in Vancouver. This one was on West 10th Avenue, from Trimble up to Sasamat:
Two weeks later, with my friends Mike and Lauren, I sped downtown on my BumbleBike to watch the end of the Gastown Grand Prix:
Throughout my stay in Vancouver, people kept finding excuses to celebrate this, that, or the other thing. Rarely one to refuse an invitation, I enjoyed many nights of dancing (both before and after my knee surgery) to live music and DJs, such as my friend DJ Goremay at the UBC Blank Canvass paint party:
About to be blasted with paint, my friends and I show a mix of welcoming anticipation, fear, and, in the case of the mysterious bearded photobomber who appears at the top right: readiness for battle:
In April, Lisa threw the most impressive birthday party I’ve been to, including a DJ, burlesque troupe, and these fantastically musical fellows who call themselves Maria in the Shower (pictured here with Geneviève, as Maria was home making waterproof origami cranes that evening).
For my birthday, I was lucky enough to share the party with Leslie, who decided it would be a good idea to let people paint the walls! We bought a bunch of different colours and brushes and gave people the chance to paint freely. Paulie and Jana painted Oscar the Grouch for me, my favourite character from Sesame Street!
The next day I went with a couple of friends to an eatART party with a number of performers, the most impressive of which were the Scantily Clad Clowns. Each time one of them would drop headfirst toward the ground (the ceiling of this room is much higher than it appears in this photo), I found myself surprised not to see a crumpled body on the floor. All part of the act, they used the cloth masterfully in their aerial gymnastics.
Moon Rock Disco 2, a final farewell to the Basement Sound Lounge, was also a big hit with the laser lovers (which is everyone).
I even made it to a couple of daytime parties, like Danielle’s Hello Kitty themed birthday party, where I ate all the lumpia while people weren’t looking.
Word of advice (but not official advice, so you can’t sue me if you follow it), to those of you who like musical mashups but don’t have the skill to pull it off. Make a lightshow mashup instead, by taping glowsticks to a ceiling fan. Turns out it’s AWESOME.
The loudest party I went to was the huge and very bright music festival, a nice short 9 hour drive by car from Vancouver, known as Shambhala. If you like lasers, you should probably check out Shambhala. They have a lot of lasers.
4. Bicycle parties
As a humanitarian logistician, it’s part of my job every day to (attempt to) achieve objectives by the use of logical reasoning. Said logical reasoning ensured that during my stay in Vancouver I spent time not only on my bicycles or at parties with friends, but engaging in both activities simultaneously. The two are not mutually exclusive, but complementary! If one night you’re lucky enough to see a pack of bicycles dancing down the street, bright lights flashing and music flowing, join them if you can. You won’t regret it.
Conrad getting ready for a Bike Dance Party in June:
Bike Dance Party in June:
Vancouver has an annual Bike Rave, which was attended by several thousand people this year. It was MASSIVE. And fun, despite my friend losing her bag with both of her phones, camera, and glasses in it.
While the Bike Rave was winding down, some people played around with LED hula hoops:
(The day after the Bike Rave, we spent several hours using a lost iPhone app to track her bag down to the lost and found of a pub several kilometres from where she lost it, but with nothing missing)
In July, we had yet another Bike Dance Party!
5. Motorised transport:
As a good North American, I also had to do my part in contributing to greenhouse gas emissions. To this end, before my knee surgery I rode around on my 1979 Honda CM400T motorcycle a bit, though not before first removing and cleaning the carburetors with some help from my dad.
Having your ACL replaced with a couple of doubled-up hamstrings is not particularly conducive to comfortable riding, so on the morning of my knee surgery I cancelled my motorcycle insurance. The gentleman processing my pro-rated refund asked me why I was cancelling. Surprised by my answer, he asked whether the surgery was a result of a motorcycle accident. “Nope, I’ve never been in an accident yet,” I told him. Seven weeks later, I had regained enough strength in my knee to brake safely while driving a car, so I borrowed my dad’s car to do some things around town.
Unfortunately, a German girl was also out on four wheels that day, and happened to cross paths with me. Literally.
Just a block away from my old high school, she ran a red light and plowed into me on my first day of post-surgery driving. Luckily I realised she was going to blow the light, so I stopped with loads of space for her to steer around me. Unluckily, despite my loud horn blasting to catch her attention, she only hit the brakes as she entered the intersection, and didn’t think to steer around me until the last minute. Even then, she didn’t release her brakes, so she still smashed into me. Luckily for me, I wasn’t hurt or shook up, as I could see it coming and was able to position myself comfortably for the impact.
This is her car, Manfred the Terrible, after the accident:
After we exchanged information, some firemen stopped by to check on us, and they tried and tried to get Manfred started again but he just wouldn’t start. I walked away smugly to my father’s destroyed 1994 Buick, which still started perfectly and drove quite acceptably all the way home (and, later, to the ICBC claims centre).
Suffice it to say, she got 100% of the blame for the accident, and ICBC wrote off my dad’s car as a total loss. I returned to BCAA a couple of days later and renewed my motorcycle insurance. Many days, I had no reason to ride anywhere, but took the motorbike out for a quick spin around town for fun. One day, my friend Stephanie bought a brand new 2012 Honda CBR 250 crotch rocket. Not long after, we met up at Central Park and went for a long ride around town, out to UBC and down to Spanish Banks, where we tried to look cool for this photo. Unfortunately, my helmet messed up my hair so I don’t look as cool as I’d hoped:
Music was flowing all over the place while I was in Vancouver. Among the many musical marvels that made my time in Canada so memorable, these ones really stick out:
In April, while doped up on painkillers, I went with my siblings and a couple of friends to see Chor Leoni, one of the premiere all-male choirs in the world, of which my friend Stash is a member. Their Rebirth spring concert was a nice distraction from the sharp pain and swelling in my knee only four days after my operation.
Only four days after Chor Leoni, myself and a group of my friends piled into the tiny performance theatre at Le Centre Culturel Francophone de Vancouver to watch the Bomb-itty of Errors: a hip-hop adraptation of Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors. I had low expectations, figuring it would be mechanical and forced, but I went because our friend DJ Oker was the DJ for the play and I wanted to support him. Turns out the Bomb-itty of Errors is a mindbogglingly marvellous mix of old school Shakespeare and old skool rap. It was easily the best stage performance I’ve ever seen. We were in stitches the whole time!
The Ruffled Feathers put on a great show – their new album is full of great tunes! Gina’s voice is something special, and the band beautifully blends trumpet, piano, ukulele, guitars, drums, vocal chords, and more.
To make sure you follow my advice on this one, I’ve made it easy for you to listen (and watch) the Ruffled Feathers: First, place a cushion on your desk to avoid breaking your jaw when it drops, then click the play button below and try to soak everything in. After that, check out their website, where you can get FREE MUSIC!
The day after my birthday, I hopped up the stairs to the choir loft of Oakridge United Church to enjoy a Corpus Christi College Chamber Choir concert. Many of the singers went to the same high school as I did, and I enjoyed spending a year and a half in this choir a decade ago.
One night in May, I met up with my friends Noor and Jasmine, among others. We played some Jenga in one establishment, and invited a couple of people at a nearby table to join us. When the joint closed, instead of going home, the guy runs to his car and pulls out a gorgeous guitar. Instant live music street corner dance party.
A month later, on a particularly rainy night, I found myself with Noor and Jasmine again, but this time in Fortune Sound Club in Chinatown, watching Art vs. Science put on a terrifically energetic show. Not only that, but within seconds of arriving, I recognised the back of one of the heads bobbing around in front of me — the lovely people I knew from weekly documentary night were dancing up a storm right in front of us!
While I was in Nova Scotia in August with my dad, we had a couple of really nice “kitchen parties” in the living room. Tom and Geline stopped by one day, and Charlie came around the next! If you don’t know what a kitchen party is, head out to a rural part of Atlantic Canada sometime and ask. You’ll surely be invited to one in no time.
7. Making and tinkering:
It would be unfair if I were to spend six months enjoying everybody else’s musical efforts without doing anything creative myself. So, to keep things balanced, I gave my best shot at making stuff that could be shared with the people around me.
Knowing I would soon be incapable of any real outdoor exertion, I spent many early spring days out in the garden. My objective was to create a walkway using the paving stones my grandfather had carefully laid several decades ago to create a path to the driveway, which this year was due to be torn up. He died eight years before I was born, but I’ve always admired the things he designed and built. I dug up each stone (much harder than I expected – these things are like icebergs, with a lot hidden under the surface!), heaved it onto a trolley, wheeled it out to the boulevard, rotated it 90°, then put it down. This way, I kept as close as possible to my grandfather’s original arrangement. Lots of digging and jumping up and down on stones ensued. As I dug holes to make space for the stones, I put all the dirt nearby for removal later. By the time I finished the path, however, I had such a huge pile of dirt next to it that I decided to create a raised bed there instead. It took about a week in total to do the path and raised bed, but I was pretty happy with the result. I finished well after dark, the night before my knee operation.
My brother and some friends of ours joined me on a number of occasions to brew up some tasty barley juice, following instructions as best we could (i.e. we made a LOT of mistakes). I was surprised at how good the results were after our first couple of batches. Some of the bottles will have aged a year by the time I’m back in Canada to taste them, if they haven’t already been tasted to extinction!
Creativity is fuelled by calories so I spent a lot of time in Vancouver making food. Among the things I made, the simplest was this blueberry-stuffed raspberry:
Other culinary curiosities…
I baked my first apple pie…
…and my first cherry pie, which took a while, owing to the pesky pit I had to remove from each cherry.
And just to be extra healthy, I stuffed a bunch of pickled jalapenos full of cream cheese, then wrapped them in bacon:
I had lots of fun making my accELeration speedcrutches, and even more fun showing them off in public. When my physiotherapist told me I didn’t need to use them anymore, I was actually sad!
Back in the Lower Mainland, in June a carload of men ventured to the far corner of the Earth (Aldergrove) for a tour of Dead Frog Brewery. The tour, given by Founder and President Derrick Smith, was well-organised, informative, and tasty. Plus, during the drive there, Stash won a radio call-in contest for two movie premiere passes and convinced the host to give him enough for all of us! The movie, Safety Not Guaranteed, blew us all away.
For the Canada Day long weekend, Omid organised a trip to a campsite outside Squamish, where it rained. A lot. We still had fun, the site was beautiful, and Jason made lots of tasty food for me.
In late July, Lisa organised a trip for a group of friends to come out to Bowen Island and do some sea kayaking. I took our rowboat out, and tried my best to keep up. Dan made friends with a couple of seals in Deep Bay:
Jaro is more than 20 years older than me. It’s my favourite boat in the world:
Right after Legendary camping, Conrad and I drove about nine hours to bring the Bubble Dome to Shambhala. Once it was all over and I arrived home, I got a couple nights’ sleep, packed my bags, and boarded a plane with my dad, headed over the mountains toward Nova Scotia.
Others focused on the bigger picture, like this gargantuan lobster:
We spent most of the time down home with family in East Ship Harbour, a picturesque little place with beautiful views (when the flies aren’t too much of a distraction).
One day, we drove across the province to Wolfville, where I was born. I’d never visited Wolfville since we left Nova Scotia a quarter century ago, so it was nice to see the town, albeit very quickly. We even managed to find the hospital where I was born, which took some time because it had been downgraded to a community health centre a few years ago – no one we asked on the street knew of any hospital in Wolfville!
Dad and I landed in Vancouver on August 30th, I had a lovely shared going-away party with Chloe on the 31st at the Legion on Commercial Drive, and by the afternoon of September 1st I was back up in the air. Destination? Iraq, with a few days each in Geneva and Amman.
From the moment I arrived in Amman, Jordan – my first visit to the Middle East – I’ve enjoyed my experience tremendously. The mosque near our apartment in Amman has a particularly soothing call to prayer:
After a few short days in Amman, I flew to Erbil, in the autonomous Kurdish part of Iraq. The city, while developing incredibly quickly at the moment, lacks much character, with the exception of the Citadel in the centre of town:
For relatively obvious reasons, I won’t go into much detail about my work with MSF here, though I’d be happy to tell you privately by email or Facebook message. I’m saving up the stories and some photos for a few years down the road. However, here’s a cursory glance to give you some idea of what I’ve been up to in this wonderful country:
Drinking loads of coffee! Turkish coffee, Lebanese coffee, instant coffee, JJ Bean coffee (I brought 4 bags with me!) — there’s been little shortage of caffeine so far.
In September I went up to work in Domiz refugee camp for Syrians. In my first hour there, I saw Angelina Jolie just a few armlengths away:
Walking in Domiz Refugee Camp for Syrians, Iraq:
Dusty day in Domiz Refugee Camp:
The city of Duhok is supplied with water from a big reservoir held back by Duhok Dam. What a beautiful place:
I was invited several times to join local friends driving out into the mountains where their families have fruit orchards and cottages. The mountains and valleys made me wish I knew how to paint. The Kurdish farmer below insisted we pick an enormous bag of plums from his trees to take home with us. This kind of generosity is something I experience every day here, from people of all backgrounds – regardless of whether they’re wealthy or not, Kurdish or Arab, Assyrian or Turkomen, whether holding Jordanian or Iraqi or Syrian passports. Iraq is an incredibly friendly country and I’ve been doing my best to let some of it rub off on me.
In October, I flew to Uganda for a two-week training course run by MSF called the Logistics Organisational Training. The site where we lived and did all of our training was right at the edge of Lake Victoria; the setting was as close to ideal as I could have imagined.
There were many lightning storms at night. One night I spent about half an hour perched on a plastic lawn chair of questionable structural integrity, holding onto a barbed wire fence for balance, taking long exposure photos until I got a couple that I liked. This was my favourite, with lots of horizontal lightning:
Of course, we also did some learning, such as installing a quad loop HF skywire antenna. I thought the training course was quite well done overall, and would highly recommend it to other MSF logisticians.
My return flight from Uganda to Iraq involved an overnight 9 hour stopover in Dubai. Not one to sit around an airport when there are adventures within reach, I found some friendly people through CouchSurfing.org to meet up and show me around Dubai by night. I arrived back at the airport in time for my next flight, only to discover that it had been cancelled! They put us on the next flight, 16 hours later, so I left my stuff at the Left Luggage and headed back into sunny Dubai to explore the shiny town by day. This is the tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa, at dusk:
Back in Iraq, the weather was becoming colder and much wetter. Heavy rains turned Domiz Camp into a very muddy place, but the refugees for the most part continued to put on a brave face and smile as they tried not to lose their shoes in the sticky mess. This garbage truck got stuck and had to be pulled out by a tractor later:
Me with some refugee children:
One of the interesting things I got to do in Domiz was help plan the layout of a new health centre, the construction of which began in mid-November:
A preschool almost ready to open, with roses planted in the inner courtyard and a Kurdistan flag flying:
Looking eastward near the entrance to the camp one evening, I again wished I knew how to paint:
One weekend, we made a trip through the mountains to visit Amêdî, an ancient town perched on a flat mountaintop. This is the view westward from the top:
The following week, three of us drove to Zakho, where we visited the famed Delal Bridge, built many centuries ago:
In December I began working in another project, which is also fascinating. I also signed a three-month contract extension to stay until at least the end of May because this country is so interesting. Since I always take photos of flags, here’s one of the current Iraqi flag, in use since 2008:
In keeping with my accidental pattern of spending every fifth Christmas overseas (Uganda 2002, Denmark 2007), I spent Christmas 2012 in Erbil, celebrated with lovely MSF and ICRC people. Just look at all the homemade Christmas treats!
At 5am on Boxing Day, I flew to Amman, Jordan to search for Santa Claus. Success:
After a couple of days hanging out with friends in Amman, I caught a bus up to Jerash to see the impressive Roman ruins there. Although I went alone, I ended up having a lot of fun because I met a Japanese tourist with whom I explored the ruins properly – going into dark, non-signposted tunnels, jumping down into hidden underground rooms to see where they would lead us, and going far beyond the main sites to which the vast majority of tourists limit themselves.
The next day I rented a 2013 Nissan Sunny in order to make the most of my short stay in Jordan. On December 31st I drove through stunning gorges and valleys along the Dead Sea Highway, stopping to see the sights on the way to Petra. My favourite spot en route was Mukawir, where the ruins of Herod’s fortress are found. It wasn’t the ruins that were particularly impressive, but the snaking roads with breathtaking views on the way there, the mountains dotted with caves, the deep blue of the Dead Sea, and the cliffs of Palestine on the other side.
I slid down the side of the mountain on which Herod’s fortress was built, then jogged along the ridgeline of mountains heading for the Dead Sea, until the strong wind nearly picked me up and threw me off. After that, I walked more carefully for a kilometre, found a rock ledge behind which I could hide from the wind (not unlike the rocks behind which Alasdair Benson and I hid from the elements in the south of France back in April 2003), and spent almost an hour simply chilling and marvelling at how amazing the world is, looking at this:
By the time I arrived in Petra it had already been dark for some time. I found a place to sleep, and by 23:00 I was in bed. Precisely 10 years earlier (literally within minutes of being exactly 10 years apart) I fell asleep in Kampala, only to wake up at 9am and be surprised that my watch showed 1-1-2003 on it. This time it was no surprise to wake up the next year, but I was more than happy to get some shut-eye, for there were some intense adventures awaiting me in Petra and beyond. However, those all happened in 2013, so it may well be another twelve months before I find time to put those photos online… ;-)
Now, if you tell me that you actually read this entire blog post, the longest one with the most photos that I have ever posted, it’s highly unlikely that I’ll believe you. Still, to those of you who graced me with your presence in 2012, thanks for making it a good one. I intend to make 2013 even better (but don’t worry, I don’t plan on writing a blog post this long ever again), and I look forward to the adventures ahead.
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.
Back on January 5th, I got a call from MSF Canada asking me to leave on the 7th for a short contract in DR Congo with the emergency team. I quickly finished typing up my annual update, then proceeded to cancel all the plans I’d made to meet up with friends. Having spent only two weeks in Vancouver after six months abroad, I first flew to Geneva, Switzerland for a briefing and to get my Congolese visa.
Of course, what would a flight to Geneva be without a stopover in Frankfurt, Germany? With about five hours to spare before the second leg of my flight, I was through customs and in the airport train station within minutes of landing. I’d never been to Frankfurt before, only the airport (the only time in my entire life that I missed a flight, in March 2008, due to a late connection, I spent many hours in the Frankfurt airport) and train station, so this was a great chance to have a quick look. As luck would have it, while I looked for the right train to take me into town, I got a phone call from a random German number. It turned out to be none other than my good friend Darren Peets, who was already in the airport waiting to surprise me!
This was a terrific surprise, and really made my day! Not only was it great to see an old friend in an unfamiliar place, but it also meant I had to put zero effort into figuring out the trains and various signs in German, as Darren handled all that with ease. Together, we visited an old church, strolled around the old town centre admiring neat old buildings, walked over and quite a ways along the river, ate German food outside while the restaurant staff looked at us as if we were a pair of crazy Canadians, and caught up on each others’ lives over the course of about three hours hanging out.
This bridge over the river is decorated with thousands of padlocks, each symbolic of a couple’s love. Every once in a while, they’re all removed by the city.
After Darren and I returned to the airport and said our goodbyes, I caught a quick flight to Geneva and headed to my hotel to sleep. I spent the next day at the MSF Switzerland office meeting a few people for briefings, getting my documents in order, and generally appearing out of place. Early the next morning, before the sun had shown his face to the snow-covered Swiss Alps, I caught a taxi to the airport with two colleagues. After downing a much-needed coffee, we were soon up in the air over Geneva.
That first flight took us only a short distance, to Brussels, Belgium where we rushed from one side of the airport to the other, with the typical Brussels Airport ridiculously long queue to get through security. We then flew to Kampala, Uganda with a one hour stopover in Kigali, Rwanda. After a night’s sleep in Kampala, we headed to Kajjansi Airfield and boarded a tiny little Cessna 206 to head to DR Congo.
From Kajjansi Airfield we first flew seven minutes to Entebbe International Airport to clear customs, during which time I was in the co-pilot seat for the first time in my life.
At Entebbe Airport, pictured below, we went through customs and bought food from the duty free store, then continued on to Bunia, DR Congo.
Heading out of Entebbe, and over Lake Victoria:
Winding road just outside Bunia, Province Orientale, Democratic Republic of Congo:
We landed happily in Bunia on January 10th and by the 12th were back at the airport, this time to board a slightly larger Cessna 208 Caravan I, which would take us from Bunia to Faradje, in the northeast corner of DR Congo, not far from South Sudan and Uganda.
For this final flight, I was seated the farthest back, just in front of the rear door. This turned out to be an excellent seat choice: as the plane began to pick up speed, there was a loud click, and a warning light on the pilot’s dashboard lit up red. The pilot looked back toward me, with the unhappy grimace of a father trying to manage some semblance of control over his difficult children on the drive to school in the morning. “OK, who left the door open?” he says. Of course, the answer was obviously his ground crew, but I figured out how to close and latch the door pretty quickly, the red light turned off, and within seconds we were climbing high into the sky.
The flight from Bunia to Faradje took exactly 60 minutes. The large Catholic church is visible near the top of this photo of Faradje from above, as we did a quick pass over the town before landing. Just below and to the left of the church is the parish centre where the priests live, and where we slept during our time in Faradje:
Having landed in Faradje, we went straight to work organising a measles vaccination campaign for the town. More on that in the next post.
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.
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…
…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.
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.
…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:
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:
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.
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…
…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:
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)…
…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)…
…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.
Into these three months, I also somehow squeezed a trip to Kelowna…
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.
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 nottorching police cars on camera.
By the morning of June 19th I was back up in the skies.
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).
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.
In Daloa, I saw our medical stock grow from taking up the space of a small bedroom with a few shelves…
…to taking over my bedroom as an overflow area.
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…
…and another room of boxes stacked on pallets. What a difference a couple of months makes!
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.
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:
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.
They needed doors repaired, smashed locks and windows replaced, electricity and lighting restored, furniture built and donated, grounds cleared and cleaned, and much more.
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:
My logistician, Moussa, did a great job of supervising all this work.
Two months into my time in Daloa, a few friends and I managed to see a huge wild elephant nearby.
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:
In Ghana, I became perhaps a bit too familiar with Ghanaian buses for such a short stay…
…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.
I also saw lots of sideways lightning, which I’ve only seen in Côte d’Ivoire and 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.
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 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.
Our office/warehouse space went from being completely packed with medicine…
…to completely empty!
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…
…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!
I also got to burn all the unimportant paperwork in our big fire pit, fun!
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:
I spent the next few days in Abidjan, finishing up some final reports and burning more unimportant paperwork…
…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.
My last few days in Abidjan were spent helping the Financial Coordinator with some actually important paperwork (sadly, this did not involve any fire).
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.
…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…
…and to the extended family at our annual Boxing Day party.
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…
…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…
…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!).