Vancouver to Frankfurt to Geneva to Brussels to Kigali to Kampala to Bunia to Faradje in 5 days

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.

Sunset over the clouds en route to Frankfurt, Germany

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!

Darren and me in Frankfurt

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.

Frankfurt old town centre, with massive Christmas tree
Frankfurt old town centre
Neat tower in Frankfurt, Germany

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.

Pedestrian bridge with love locks in Frankfurt, Germany

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.

Taking off from Geneva, Switzerland
Flying out of Switzerland

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.

Preparing to board a Cessna 206 at Kajjansi Airfield, Uganda

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.

Cessna 206 interior design

At Entebbe Airport, pictured below, we went through customs and bought food from the duty free store, then continued on to Bunia, DR Congo.

Entebbe International Airport, Uganda

Heading out of Entebbe, and over Lake Victoria:

Fishing boats line the shore of Lake Victoria

Winding road just outside Bunia, Province Orientale, Democratic Republic of Congo:

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.

Loading cargo on a Cessna 208 Caravan I at Bunia Murongo Airport

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:

Faradje from above

Having landed in Faradje, we went straight to work organising a measles vaccination campaign for the town. More on that in the next post.

Our Swiss Alps Adventure

While we were in Bern for a day trip, a few of us decided it would be a good idea to stay the night and go to Interlaken the following day rather than return to Geneva. By the end of much discussion, only three of us were really willing to do it, and so Devon, Drew, and myself booked ourselves into a hostel in Bern. It was a decision well-rewarded, as the next day would prove to be my favourite of all my entire trip to Switzerland, and one of the funnest days of travelling I’ve had in all my years of wandering.

The whole group came to the hostel before going back to Geneva and together we had a big, homemade delicious pasta meal with salad and bread, a group effort directed by Devon who is a trained chef. After the meal, everyone but us three boys headed back to Geneva, and we headed to bed.

In the morning us three boys literally sprinted to the train station and climbed on board our train to Interlaken as it was about to pull away.

Once we arrived at the Interlaken Ost train station, we bought another train ticket for a shorter ride to Lauterbrunnen, altitude 800m, then caught a cablecar up the side of the mountain to Grütschalp, where the walking trails begin (the red lines show two train rides and the cablecar, the green line is what we walked).

Completely unprepared and wearing the same clothes as the day before, we set out on a mission to conquer the Swiss Alps.

Devon ponders the grandeur of the Alps and the valley below from the cablecar

The snow-covered trail as we set out on our walk

Across the valley, the postcard-perfect stereotypical image of Switzerland

We stopped at a little town up on the side of the mountain called Mürren, ate our bagged lunch, and talked a lot.

There were some nifty little black birds flying around our sitting area

That’s a LOT of firewood

Swiss patriotism

When we reached the point of our walk at which we had to turn around to make it back to our train on time, we decided we’d stretch our muscles then do some cliff-jumping. There are a series of small cliffs about 3 metres high which form sort of terraces or steps down part of the mountain, and by jumping off each one we found we got to the bottom a lot faster than our climb up the mountain. We captured some of the more glorious leaps on camera:




This guy knew how to get down the mountain even faster than us!

Someone lost a shoe on the mountain, but we never found a body so hopefully he/she managed to get home safely.

This is the train for the lazy people who don’t want to walk

We made it back to Bern just in time to jump on the train back to Geneva and off we went. That evening in Geneva our whole group of 12 people had one last communal meal at a nice restaurant and we had speeches and laughter and all that good, sappy stuff. Juan and I enjoyed our supper so much that we took photos of each course. This photo shows the amazing dessert, and my sunburnt face. Yep, it was rather bright in the Alps and we had no sunscreen. The next day the burn was gone though, because of quick aloe vera application thanks to Devon who had some in our Geneva hotel room.

The next morning we headed to the airport for our flight home. Juan and I caught a separate train as we had been waiting for a straggler.

The End.

Back to Switzerland Part III

In Bern, there are statues EVERYWHERE! Juan explained each one to me, though I can’t remember what each one was anymore. Here are a few of the cool ones:

This one is Justice, because she is blindfolded and holding the balance scale.

This is Moses. Strangely, the ten commandments are just numbers in this version…

This is Stash, the baby-eating ogre.

Devon drank from a number of the city’s public fountains, and said the water tasted great. I think it was probably full of lead and mercury.

Fancy clockwork:

The famed astronomical clock in Bern, made in 1530:

Back to Switzerland Part II

Warning: The pics in this post aren’t necessarily in date order, they’re sort of randomized.

The closing ceremonies of the Model UN Conference at the Palais de Nations were a joke, really late starting and about as boring and self-adulating as an awards ceremony could be. But we made our own fun in the seats.

Lysandra shows her Japanese half.

Juan definitely had his pants open in the middle of the General Assembly Hall, but I guess security didn’t notice.

We had 2 days after the conference before heading home, so we headed east on a train to Bern, the capital, in the German-speaking part of Switzerland. Bern is very different from Geneva, but not much has changed since I first visited in April 2003.

Fancy clockwork

Bern gets its name from the bear, and there has been a bear pit in Bern for ages, though there are currently plans to move them to a better location.

The crest of the Canton of Bern is visible all over the place. In Switzerland, unlike Canada, the symbols and flags of the various cantons are seen all over the place.

This bunny statue thing was a bit taller than me, and is the main display in the centre of the chocolates and Easter egg section of a grocery store. I have no clue how this would entice people to buy more chocolate.

This is European architecture at its best

The view to which I awoke in the hostel in Bern

We had a visit to the International Labor Organisation in Geneva, where we watched the ending of the 298th session. This is the long, old-school hallway leading in. The building used to house the World Trade Organisation headquarters.

The Broken Chair, a commemoration of victims of landmines. From this angle, the broken leg isn’t really visible, and if you look for a bit you may notice the 3D optical illusion thus created.

Earpieces are a must for true diplomats, though many of them malfunction and the volume is always a hassle.

All week we had great sunny, warm weather and then a wee bit of rain, but when we left the closing ceremonies there was a raging blizzard outside! I’ve never seen such huge snowflakes in my life! Too bad they’re hard to photograph, but Juan proves that cold precipitation did indeed fall on us that afternoon.