Category Archives: Travel

Layover guide: Tokyo with under 10 hours between Narita flights

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

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

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

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

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

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

I needn’t have worried.

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

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

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

Visitor Service Centre, Tokyo Narita International Airport

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Data SIM card vending machine, Tokyo Narita Airport

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adventures on foot in Harajuku

Sake barrels at Yoyogi Park, Tokyo, Japan

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

Koffee Mameya in Omotesando, Tokyo, Japan

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

Hedgehog Café Menu
Hedgehog at Café Harry, Tokyo, Japan

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

Gyoza cooktops at Harajuku Gyouzarou, Tokyo, Japan

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

Onitsuka Tiger yellow Mexico 66 shoes

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

Moar coffee!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

400

On Saturday afternoon I arrived at Cox’s Bazar airport for my flight to Dhaka to apply for a visa extension at the Bangladesh immigration and passport office. The airport metal detector beeped loudly even though I had no metal or dense shoes on, but the security guy just gave me a fake pat down and waved me into the airport anyways.

My backpack rolled through the x-ray machine on the left side of the entrance. Now standing in the crowded check-in hall, the airline staff said there’d be a half hour delay before issuing boarding passes. I heard a banging noise near the entrance, so I looked back. A technician was standing on a wooden table, performing percussive maintenance against the side of the second x-ray machine with a crescent wrench. Two red indicators were brightly lit up with the words “X-RAY ON”. The sides of the machine were open. The technician jumped down, pushed some buttons on a control panel, jumped back up, hit the machine some more with his wrench. X-rays flew through the room, or so I imagined. I kept my distance, hoping I want being irradiated.

The X-ray machine being repaired while turned on in Cox's Bazar Airport, Bangladesh

Boarding passes were issued. I showed mine to the security guy at the entrance to the gates. This second metal detector didn’t beep. The guy stamped my boarding pass with a passed security check stamp, and he said to me “I knew just from looking at you that you’re alright, no problem with you!”

A few minutes later they announced the flight was cancelled due to bad weather in Dhaka; come back in the morning.

Sunday morning I caught my 43rd flight of 2017, which was my 400th flight in my lifetime.

Boarding pass for my 400th flight; I
Selfie time in Cox's Bazar Airport, Bangladesh

That second x-ray machine was still out of service. The weather on arrival in Dhaka was clear and sunny, with a few floodwaters.

Floodwaters in Dhaka, Bangladesh, following heavy rains

Annual Update Nine: a labyrinthine look at 2016

Dear family, friends, coworkers, and people I accidentally put in my contacts list:

Another year has passed and it follows, therefore, that it’s time for another annual update. In all of 2016, I published but a single blog post (aside from the last annual update), so as of late I’ve had a higher-than-average number of people asking where I was, am, and will soon be. I am presently in South Sudan, and will soon be somewhere else – where, exactly, I have no idea.

As for where I was in 2016, here’s the short version: Canada, USA, Canada, CAR, Spain, CAR, Greece, France, Canada, USA, Canada, Iraq, Syria, Iraq, Syria, Iraq, Syria, Iraq, England, Switzerland, England, Nigeria, England, Canada. 25 plane flights, 20 helicopter flights. 11 countries, including 2 that I’d not visited before. My first ever resignation from a job, couchsurfers galore, and a gangsta wrapper Christmas sweater.

Pie chart - percentage of 2016 spent in each country

And here, with a whole bunch of photos (click to view high-res copies), is the long version:

On 1 January 2016 I borrowed my mom’s car and drove out to Bowen Island to spend the day napping on the rocks in the midday winter sun, take a portrait selfie for posterity, and get a quiet night’s fireside sleep.

New Year's Day on Bowen Island
Woodstove on Bowen Island

The next day Dave invited a few friends to go curling – it was the first time for most of us!

First time curling in Vancouver

Right after curling, I drove a carload of run people to Liz and Yuen’s place in the far reaches of Richmond for dinner and a dance party, with Nate as our DJ for the night.

DJ enku

A few days later, I flew to New York City for work. It was my first time ever in New York, but I realised later that I had taken only 2 photos the entire time! Outside of work hours, I managed to catch up with my friend Lauren over ramen and kava, Maria over sushi, and Mark over brunch accompanied by strong black coffee and a spicy bloody Mary. On my last day in New York, I bought over two dozen real New York bagels to put in my carry-on luggage, which had the plane cabin smelling fantastic for the entire flight back to Vancouver, and served as the foundation for the first Bagelpalooza of the year.

New York City skyline at night

Back in BC, I hung out with all sorts of fun people, like Taylor:

Taylor with her new beard

I went over to Bowen Island for a few more days in late January, where I saw this great blue heron and some cool moss:

Great blue heron at Killarney Lake, Bowen Island
Moss on Bowen Island

The crocuses I planted with my siblings in the fall of 2014 finally came up in the spring of 2016!

Purple crocuses blooming on Bowen Island
Yellow crocuses blooming on Bowen Island

Back on the mainland, Danielle and I went for a hike on 2 February up to Lynn Peak. I wore my reliable steel-toed construction boots and Danielle wore runners. The only other person we saw was using snowshoes on the same trail. I believe he was overdressed for the occasion.

Forest walk up to Lynn Peak, North Vancouver
Making faces with Danielle on the Lynn Peak trail, North Vancouver
Forest view from the Lynn Peak trail, North Vancouver
Heading back down the snow-covered mountain in runners

Two days later, I was back at Bowen, taking Taylor for a hike up Mt Gardner.

Misty southern slope of Mount Gardner, Bowen Island
Taylor descending the North Summit of Mount Gardner, Bowen Island

A week after that, Danielle, Tiffany, and I went over to Bowen again for yet another hike up Mt Gardner searching for a robotic dinosaur followed by hours of joking around the fireplace back at the house. On the walk, we spotted this tree covered from bottom to top in mushrooms. I’ve never seen so many fungi on a single tree before! The photo doesn’t do it justice.

Mushrooms on a tree on the Skid Trail, Mount Gardner, Bowen Island

We also discovered an abandoned hobbit village, with its walkways shrouded in mist.

Mountain bike ramps, Skid Trail, Mount Gardner, Bowen Island

A warning sign at the north summit of Mt Gardner:

Balloons forbidden on the North Summit, Mount Gardner, Bowen Island

Tiffany led the way down from the summit:

Tiffany descending the North Summit of Mount Gardner, Bowen Island

Four days later, back on the mainland, Natassia took me to Capilano Suspension Bridge Park on the North Shore, using a special pass which got us both in for free. The last time I went was in grade 1, when my classmate Morgan’s dad put me on his shoulders to cross the bridge on the bridge staff’s instructions. I have a feeling they’re not allowed to say that anymore.

Capilano Suspension Bridge with Natassia

Since then, they’ve also added the Cliffwalk, anchored in the bedrock:

Capilano Cliffwalk, North Vancouver

…and a canopy walk called Treetops Adventure up high among the trees, which I hope to one day copy on my own land.

Capilano Treetops Adventure, North Vancouver

I spent some of my spare time in February converting my grandfather’s old suitcase into a coffee table. I had found it a few years earlier in the garage, where it had been sitting for a few decades hidden on a shelf among cobwebs and old apple crates. It’s one piece from a large set that came with the family from England in June 1952.

Old suitcase before restoration, exterior
Old suitcase before restoration, interior

I cleaned it as well as I could, tore out the rotten liner and put a new one in, coated the outer surfaces with a special clear coat to protect the woven material and leather, and put four old chair legs on the bottom. Viewed from most angles, it appears to be levitating in my parents’ living room.

Old suitcase after restoration, interior
Old suitcase after restoration and conversion to coffee table, exterior

I finished the suitcase coffee table project just before 4am on 3 March 2016. My flight out of Vancouver lifted off six and a half hours later, destination: Central African Republic.

Back in November 2015, while working for MSF in the frontline city of Taiz, Yemen, I had been interviewed and hired by the IRC (International Rescue Committee) to join their external emergency roster as a Supply Chain Coordinator. That was the reason I went to New York – for orientation. January and February were spent anticipating an imminent departure that never came, as there was no urgent need for my skill set. Finally, unable to remain unemployed in Vancouver for much longer, and with IRC’s knowledge and encouragement, I accepted a position with UNICEF (the UN Children’s Fund) in the Central African Republic (CAR).

It didn’t take me long to realise the mistake I had made. I won’t go into detail, as it might be considered unprofessional to write openly about my experience with UNICEF in CAR. Suffice it to say it was a valuable learning experience; my six month contract turned into a three month contract just two months in, when I gave my contractually-obligated one month’s notice. This photo will say much of what will remain unsaid: it’s the fluorescent light bulb in the UNICEF office male toilet on 13 May, the day it was replaced, well over a month after the old one burned out; a very directly applicable metaphor.

UNICEF fluorescent light bulb, Bangui, CAR

There were some excellent highlights, however: a bunch of old friends had ended up in CAR and it didn’t take long to reconnect with them. I even ended up working directly with two old friends: Simon, who I’d met in South Sudan in 2010, was my direct counterpart in ACF (Action Contre la Faim, a French NGO); and Dominique, who I’d met in Côte d’Ivoire in 2011, was my direct counterpart in ACTED (Agence d’Aide à la coopération technique et au développement, another French NGO). Working right beside me in my own office was Carmen, the younger sister of my Spanish friend Àngela, who I’d met when we were both students in Sweden in 2007.

Hanging out with Carmen in Bangui

Lisa, for whom I was an orientation leader at UBC in 2004, joined me for dinner one evening when she came for a field visit for Mercy Corps, and I got to see my fellow NOHA classmate Evelyn, now working for MSF, and another former NOHA, Catalina, a bunch of times. I also made a number of fantastic new friends, experienced a backyard mud and soap slip ‘n slide, learned to play squash, and organised the release of over a million dollars worth of humanitarian supplies to organisations that were responding to the multiple ongoing crises within the country.

I also got to catch up with two of my old colleagues from my MSF days in Grimari and Bambari: Cyrille, an excellent Centrafrican nurse and Papa Zach, my top Centrafrican driver and right hand as we worked on repairing and building bridges, among many other challenges in 2014.

Catching up with Cyrille in Bangui
Reunion with Papa Zach in Bangui

One day, I came home at night to find the tiniest little baby bat outside my door. I put him somewhere the ants couldn’t get him, but without his mother I doubt he survived.

Baby bat on my diplomatic card, Bangui

Six weeks into my contract, I was already due for a week’s rest and recuperation, so I flew up to Madrid, Spain where I met up with Carmen’s older sister Ángela for the first time in 8 years! She took me all over town on foot while we caught up on all the years that had passed.

Hanging out with Ángela in Madrid, Spain

The next day I caught the train to Segovia, where a famous Roman aqueduct greets visitors entering the town. It’s hard to grasp the size of this thing, but if you see the vehicle parked underneath at the bottom righthand side of the photo you might get an idea.

Roman aqueduct in Segovia, Spain

In Segovia I couchsurfed with Clara from Germany and her flatmate Marie from Ecuador. We ate well, laughed a lot, and I slept like a baby. Perfect preparation for another half day wandering around town, seeing the sights:

Segovia Cathedral:

Segovia Cathedral, Spain

El Alcázar de Segovia:

El Alcázar de Segovia, Spain

The pipe organ in Segovia Cathedral:

Organ inside Segovia Cathedral, Spain

Fancy ceiling in el Alcázar de Segovia:

Ornate ceiling in El Alcázar de Segovia, Spain

Looking out through an archway in the Roman aqueduct:

Looking through an archway in the Roman aqueduct in Segovia

That afternoon I headed down to Toledo, where for the first time in my life I had a couchsurfing host cancel on me. I managed to find a hotel, wander town a bit in the rain, and eat a Middle Eastern supper that the restaurant owner thought I couldn’t possibly finish alone.

El Alcázar de Toledo:

El Alcázar de Toledo, Spain

The next day I walked around Toledo some more, visited the Visigoths museum, looked around the shops, and generally got soaked by the mid-April rains. It was in a somewhat grumpy mood, shivering and wet, that I pulled my phone out of my pocket at this very spot:

El Puente de San Martín, Toledo, Spain

There on my screen was a Skype message from an old friend, now working for IRC in Greece. He was drowning in work, as refugees arrived in the thousands on the Greek islands seeking EU asylum. We chatted a bit, and later that day I made up my mind to give my notice to UNICEF on my arrival back in CAR a few days later: it would be the first time I ever quit a job before the intended end date.

After walking along the river for a while, I wandered back through the old town, grabbed my bag from the hotel, then headed to the train station to return to Madrid.

Streets of Toledo, Spain

Back in Madrid I spent some more time with Àngela, ate way too many tapas with Nick who was in town from Luxembourg for work, and enjoyed the botanical gardens with heaps of peacocks roaming loudly around.

Peacock in Real Jardín Botánico de Madrid
Peacock in Real Jardín Botánico de Madrid

Back in CAR, I gave my notice on the first day back in the office. Within less than 24 hours of doing so, I was asked if I could go straight to Greece as soon as my time in CAR was up which, of course, I accepted. I finished work in Bangui on 24 May and began briefings in Athens on 25 May, fresh from the airport.

Athens, Greece

I spent the next five and a half weeks working for IRC in Athens, while learning the organisation’s policies, procedures, and jargon. The workload was heavy, but being in Athens had distinct advantages rarely found in humanitarian work: zero security restrictions on movement or dress, decent cafés every few steps, excellent restaurants, reliable electricity and running water, and of course all the stuff that tourists seek out in a place like Athens (ancient ruins and museums, live music, interesting architecture, a humming nightlife).

Lampshade street décor in Athens, Greece
Tortoise on the walk up to the Acropolis in Athens, Greece
The Acropolis, Athens, Greece

I also got to meet up with and host loads of couchsurfers in Athens, as well as having a couple of friends meet up when they were passing through town, like Aurora, Lauren B, Maya K, and Sebastian:

Dinner with Sebastian in Athens

The last day in the office was also the day that three members of the cast of Game of Thrones – Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey), Ser Davos Seaworth (Liam Cunningham), and Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) – visited us at our Athens office to wrap up their tour of refugee sites in Greece. I had nice conversations with each of them, but I was most impressed by Liam Cunningham, who was incredibly passionate about the injustice faced by refugees and the inaction of so many people. He told me how he started to feel like part of the problem, as he sat yelling aloud at the people on his television for their xenophobic and unhelpful behaviour. Nobody could hear him yelling at the TV, so now he’s standing up for refugees and trying to make a difference. And yes, he has all the fingertips on his right hand in real life, as seen on my shoulder.

Lena Headey (Cersei Lannister), Orestis, me, Liam Cunningham (Ser Davos Seaworth), Ilias, Amy, Corita

I flew out of Athens on 2 July, ready for a break from work after 4 months of long office days.

Greek coastline, south of Athens

My flight back to Canada had a 19 hour layover in Paris so, as is my habit, I left the airport. I spent the evening walking through Paris with Fleur, who I’d last seen seven and a half years earlier in northwestern Thailand.

Walking through Paris with Fleur

We watched a UEFA Euro 2016 football match (Germany vs Italy) with Fleur’s lovely friends while dining on very fancy snacks, and before long I was soundly asleep on an inflatable mattress in her home office. I woke up early and slipped out the door to catch my final flight back to Vancouver, admiring the ancient staircase as I spiralled down to the cobblestone street below.

Old staircase on Passade de la Main d'Or, Paris

Back in Vancouver, I learned of a secret plot and was asked to take part just days after landing. A group of us surprised our friend Stash at the train station, and took him down to Portland for a post-wedding surprise bachelor weekend.

Stash boarding the train for Portland

It was super boring, we did nothing interesting, slept early every night. I did spot this old fire extinguisher swallowed long ago by a curb-side tree, and a bicycle sign that looks really small until you see notice the standard-sized bricks that make up the building wall on which it’s painted.

Old fire hydrant in Portland, Oregon
Bicycle icon in Portland, Oregon
Dunno where this came from...

I only had three and a half weeks off, so I crammed in as much adventure as I could. I returned to Bowen Island for a couple nights, walking around Killarney Lake on a sunny summer’s day:

Killarney Lake, Bowen Island

I also spotted these donuts in disguise at the Snug Cafe, my favourite local eatery on Bowen, before hiking up Mt Gardner with Ashley, who had driven up from Washington for the day.

Donuts in disguise, Snug Café, Bowen Island

And this insane little mushroom poking out of the forest floor:

Amazing yellow mushroom on Bowen Island

Back in the summer of 2013 I started restoring a little old yellow rowboat named Jaro, having been told while I was in Iraq that it had “to be refibreglassed”, I immediately volunteered for what should have been a simple fix. Unfortunately, as soon as I looked at the boat I found that it barely needed any fibreglassing at all – the main problem was that much of the wood had rotted out. Past annual updates have included photos of the slow progress I’ve made in fits and bursts in the three years that followed. In 2016, with just a couple of days to work on Jaro, all I managed to do was add a rough new layer of fibreglass to the interior of the hull to strengthen it and ensure it has a long life. Even worse – I ran out of fibreglass and had to return to Vancouver to buy more before I could finish. I didn’t have time for touching up, shaving off rough edges, adding more resin to get the right finish… all those things will have to wait for the next non-winter visit.

Before adding new fibreglass:

Jaro before fibreglassing

After adding the new fibreglass, halfway done applying yellow-tinted resin to the glass:

Jaro halfway through fibreglassing

On 23 July, I watched what was easily the worst fireworks show I’ve ever seen at the annual offshore Celebration of Light fireworks festival. It was still fun, but simultaneously somewhat agonising to watch the light bursts that weren’t at all synchronised to the music, which itself had no rhyme or reason (we get a bit snobby about fireworks performances, I’ll admit…).

Netherlands fireworks performance over English Bay, Vancouver

The next day I went for the final hike of the 25-day summer: up to St Mark’s Summit with Josephine and Danielle! After a classic “forgotten-coffee-falls-off-car-roof-and-hits-side-window-with-a-bang” start to the morning, we hit the trail. Soon, Danielle was enjoying one of Mother Nature’s free snacks, the famed North Shore Bearclawlipop Fungus. Apparently it tastes like a sweeter version of a certain donut-like dessert pastry.

Danielle and the giant fungus

When hikers passed us going the other way, we sang “hellooo” to them in three-part harmony, garnering many a laugh on our way to the top.

Josephine, Danielle, and me at St Mark's Summit

Looking down from St Mark’s Summit to Bowen Island:

Looking down on Bowen Island from St Mark's Summit

This tree on the hike back down has a hollow straight out of a fairytale:

Amazing tree on the descent from St Mark's Summit

We also ate sooo many berries on the trail. Blueberries, huckleberries, and delicious salmonberries:

Delicious salmonberries

Three days later I was on a plane bound for Iraq. I spent the first month in Erbil, pushing more paper than I’ve pushed in a long time. One weekend a small group of us did manage to head out of town for a little adventure. We went to Korek Mountain, stopping en route to admire this beautiful canyon:

Canyon in Kurdistan, Iraq

We had hoped to walk up Korek Mountain but, on arriving at the base, the two of us with hiking experience immediately realised it would take all day just to get to the top, in sweltering heat with zero shade and insufficient water and food. So, we did what all good hikers do in such situations: we paid to ride the gondola up!

Gondola ride up Korek Mountain, Kurdistan, Iraq

Up at the top, we wandered around the bizarre rides, played on a swing, and eventually managed to get hooked up to this contraption, which dragged us backwards up the hill then pulled us forward at high speed for a few seconds to give the impression of flying:

Skyflyer with Hajja and Simon on Korek Mountain, Kurdistan, Iraq

Three days later, on 22 August, I headed up to Duhok, where I’d worked for a few months back in 2012. This round building, home to the General Directorate of Culture and Arts of Duhok, had been under construction when I left. By 2016 it was not only completed, but already ageing quickly…

General Directorate of Culture and Arts of Duhok, Kurdistan, Iraq

I spent the next few weeks shuttling back and forth between Duhok and Derek, pushing paper and trying to help others learn how to push paper, while drinking lots of coffee.

Coffee in Derek, Kurdistan, Syria

I also got to see two of my old MSF friends, who took me out for dinner multiple times and never let me pay. One day I will succeed to buy these gentlemen dinner!

After a final big dinner in Duhok with Salih and Ziyad

In mid-September I was driven back down to Erbil to wrap things up.

Tunnel through a mountain on the drive from Duhok to Erbil, Kurdistan, Iraq

By 21 September I was flying out of Iraq, arriving in London late in the evening and flying down to Geneva early the next morning for a quick 31-hour visit.

Le viaduc de la Jonction, Geneva, Switzerland
Street art in Geneva, Switzerland

The next day it was back to London for four nights, drinking coffee at Prufrock on Leather Lane with Ximena, warming more coffee in an underground public toilet, eating fancy food in East London with Natasha and Nate, and seeing Martin, Dave, and Lori as well!

Coffee with Ximena in London
Warming up coffee in the Attendant Café, London
Satisfied after a great meal with Natasha and Nate in East London
Modelling with Dave in a London Underground station
Modelling with Nate in a London Underground station

This do not enter sign wasn’t far from the Attendant Café:

Sumo wrestler do not enter sign in London

While I spent a bunch of time socialising, the main reason for being in London was actually to get a visa from the Nigerian High Commission. Before returning to Heathrow for my flight down to Abuja, Nigeria on 27 September, I spent some time sitting by the Thames admiring the scenery while, to my right, a guy silently practised some mind-boggling dance moves with his earbuds in.

Victoria Tower, Palace of Westminster at night in London

I arrived in Abuja at 4:35am, got some sleep in a hotel in town, then was back at the airport for a UN flight up to Maiduguri, Borno State. Aside from the ongoing Boko Haram insurgency, Maiduguri also features an insane number of tuk-tuks as motorcycles were banned due to being a favoured means of transport for insurgents. In Nigeria a tuk-tuk is called a keke NAPEP or simply keke for short.

Keke NAPEPs in Maiduguri, Nigeria

I soon caught my first ever helicopter flight, followed by 19 more helicopter flights over the next two months.

My first ever helicopter ride, in a Bell 412
Boarding a Bell 412 in Monguno, Nigeria
Takeoff from Maiduguri airport in a Bell 412 helicopter

The reason for all the chopper flights was to reach a small town called Monguno, where many thousands of displaced persons had ended up. After arriving in town, most of them had to build their own shelters. This required heading out of town in search of firewood to cook, and branches and straw to make the structure and thatch…

Displaced persons returning to Monguno, Borno State, Nigeria

…bringing it into town…

Displaced persons returning to Monguno, Borno State, Nigeria

…weaving thatch mats to sell to other displaced people or use for their own homes…

Women carrying wood, woven thatch mats for sale by the roadside in Monguno, Borno State, Nigeria

…and set up their new homes…

Thatch hut in an IDP camp, Monguno, Borno State, Nigeria

…in sprawling IDP (internally displaced persons) camps spread across the town:

IDP camp from above, Monguno, Borno State, Nigeria

In the camp pictured below, I was tasked with building a Comprehensive Women’s Centre featuring women’s protection & empowerment and reproductive health clinic facilities:

IDP camp from above, Monguno, Borno State, Nigeria

Most of the facilities we built in Borno State had to be temporary constructions using very simple materials, as the land on which they were built will eventually return to its intended use (public or private land, housing estates, schools, etc – many different properties were temporarily assigned as IDP camps). This is what it looked like during my final visit to Monguno, with about a week’s work remaining to complete it:

Comprehensive Women's Centre in an IDP camp, Monguno, Borno State, Nigeria

I also spent a lot of time cancelling a contract for poor performance, finding a new contractor, and following up regularly on his completion of a contract to build more than twenty latrine and shower blocks for a new IDP camp being set up in Monguno Stadium.

Latrine and shower blocks in a planned IDP camp, Monguno, Borno State, Nigeria

Contractors are notoriously difficult to deal with, especially in the countries where I work. One company agreed to build a pair of water towers in the same IDP camp, each having 4 x 5000L = 20000L storage capacity, but when I saw the size of the tanks I knew they were too small. So, I got his team to measure them – he was trying to pass 2500L tanks off as 5000L tanks!

Measuring water tanks for a camp distribution system, Monguno, Borno State, Nigeria

I was nearing the end of my time in Nigeria, so my successor took on the job of sorting out the contract and I got this photo 6 weeks later showing one of the towers with solar panels to power the submersible pump in the borehole below:

Camp water distribution system with solar panels, Monguno, Borno State, Nigeria

One day we got a good laugh before boarding the helicopter in Monguno. A tiny bit of a plastic shopping bag had become caught on one of the blades and was making lots of noise on the flight up, so one of the crew members climbed onto the pilot to take it off! (My camera lens cover hadn’t fully retracted, hence the artistic framing)

Removing a bit of plastic from the blade before flying out of Monguno, Borno State, Nigeria

Back in Maiduguri, we got a good laugh testing our theory that one of my colleagues could fit in a suitcase:

Fitting Jackie in a suitcase
Jackie ready to fly

I was also responsible for building a basic maternity, again out of temporary building materials, in an IDP camp in Maiduguri. I couldn’t have done this (or most of the rest of the stuff I did) without the dedicated effort of my driver and de facto logistics assistant, Ajalan.

Mixing cement for the floor of the basic maternity at an IDP camp in Maiduguri, Borno State, Nigeria

I left Nigeria when it was about 90% complete:

Basic maternity under construction in Maiduguri, Borno State, Nigeria
Basic maternity under construction in Maiduguri, Borno State, Nigeria
Basic maternity under construction in Maiduguri, Borno State, Nigeria

The other construction project I managed was a 9x9m medical storeroom built within our existing warehouse. I designed it so that we would gain an additional 81 square metres of storage space, by building it from steel I-beams so that the “roof” of the storeroom could support the weight of heavy stock on pallets. The walls and the ceiling all had a 12-15cm air gap for basic insulation, formed by putting up plywood walls and false ceiling. By the time it was complete, it was cold inside and we hadn’t even installed the air conditioners yet!

Clearing space in the big warehouse, to build a medical storeroom in Maiduguri, Borno State, Nigeria
Medical storeroom under construction in Maiduguri, Borno State, Nigeria
Medical storeroom under construction in Maiduguri, Borno State, Nigeria
Medical storeroom under construction in Maiduguri, Borno State, Nigeria
Interior of the medical storeroom, nearly complete

One of the benefits of being in northeastern Nigeria that time of year was the omnipresence of guavas. As soon as I realised there were guavas at the roadside fruit stalls, I declared the beginning of Guavapalooza, which meant I had to eat a minimum of one guava per day for the rest of my stay in Nigeria. I not only succeeded, but exceeded expectations.

Guava

Of course, it’d be inconsiderate of me not to share this photo of two chameleons we saw chasing each other at the Maiduguri airport one morning:

Two chameleons playing at Maiduguri airport, Nigeria

Two months working in Nigeria without a single full day off was pretty exhausting, but I soon had a night in London to see Nate again and catch up with Ricardo, who I hadn’t seen in many years!

Tower Bridge, London
Having a beer with Ricardo in London

This do not enter sign was on Brick Lane:

Dinnertime do not enter sign on Brick Lane, London

I even managed to grab a quick breakfast with Natasha before she started work, then I returned to Heathrow to fly home for a real break!

Catching up with Natasha before work in London

I arrived in Vancouver on 1 December, and spent the next two weeks on all sorts of mini-adventures, beginning with a Christmas party at Ricardobel’s house, where giant hops lanterns greeted all who entered, and followed by a very important mulled wine Christmas party the same night at Sonja’s house.

Massive hops lanterns at Ricardobel's house

On the 7th, Harpreet and I tried our hands at making rubber stamps, which was a great idea.

Coffee rubber stamp

On the 11th a bunch of us had an amazing lunch prepared by Aunty Pat.

Aunty Pat and Josephine

And later that same day, Liz and Yuen threw an entertaining dinner party in the far reaches of Richmond:

Liz, the best No 7 Road party host

A visit home wouldn’t be the same without a trip to Bowen Island, and this year I was lucky to go over for two nights while the whole place was covered in snow! It was magical. This tree had bent over and created a perfect sleeping area, but I chose to sleep in perfect comfort next to the fireplace, instead.

A nice sleeping spot on Bowen Island

Moss Mountain covered in snow:

Snow-covered moss mountain, Bowen Island

The sun rises over West Vancouver:

Sunrise over West Vancouver and the snow-covered lawn at Bowen Island

On 20 December I joined a bunch of old high school friends for a longstanding tradition: the 15th Annual Christmas Dinner (photo by Mae Jamoyot)

Annual Christmas Dinner 15 (photo by Mae Jamoyot)

Lisa spent Christmas in Ontario this year, so before she left we made sure to have a family dinner with her, on 21 December:

Early Christmas dinner with family in Vancouver

She took the occasion to announce this:

My sister got engaged

Making the night even better, Lisa gave me a new double-walled glass French press, which keeps the coffee warmer much longer than a traditional press, and looks really neat to boot.

Me with my new glass double-walled French press

In other happy news, I successfully repaired Bryan’s beer fridge a few days before Christmas without him noticing, then stocked it for him on Christmas Eve while he was out. His favourite four-legged companion seemed to approve of the surprise:

Pooper approves of Bryan's repaired beer fridge

Come Christmas Day, we had a nice day with family. Matt had a surgery coming up in the new year, so I surprised him by making version 2 of the Cranderson Enterprises accELeration speedcrutches:

Matt shows off his accELeration speedcrutches on Christmas

The next day we had our annual extended family Boxing Day party, and our little cousin got to try the accELeration speedcrutches too!

Trinity tries the accELeration speedcrutches

On 30 December, Mark and Renée hosted the final Bagelpalooza of 2016 at their apartment. It was delicious.

Bagelpalooza spread

Finally, on 31 December, with just over an hour left in 2016, Stash played Pie Face…

Stash plays Pie Face

…and won:

Stash wins Pie Face

If you made it this far, I’m impressed. 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. It took me 11 months to reply to a few people last time… but I did reply!

Good luck in 2017, we’re all gonna need it.

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.