6th Annual Annual Update

Dear [insert relation],

A good friend of mine occasionally publishes a film review, which is invariably… concise. And so, in the spirit of learning from friends, I present to you my 6th Annual Annual Update:

Today, I will be reviewing 2013. I thought 2013 was interesting.

For my [insert relation, plural form] who would like me to elaborate further, hereunder can be found a selection of 80 photos from the year 2013. But first, a pie chart!

PhotoDiarist countries visited in 2013

On the first day of 2013, I woke up on Mars. Pretty cool place.

Martian landscape

After Mars, I returned to Earth and visited Petra, Jordan. I’ve been to a lot of interesting places, but I’ve not found any suitably strong superlatives with which to describe Petra.

Ornate Nabatean family tomb in Petra, Jordan

In that first week of January I visited a bunch of other places in Jordan and jumped really high for this selfie, which shows how happy I was during most of my Jordan adventures:

Jumping in Jordan

Then it was back to work in Iraq, where I saw the White House in passing several times (it’s the headquarters of the KUP, a major Kurdish political party) while driving to and from Kirkuk.

PUK headquarters outside Erbil, Iraq

In late February, I flew back to Sweden for the first time since 2009, for a United Nations Logistics Induction Course. Instead of arriving directly to the training just outside Lund, I flew instead to Gothenberg to see some old friends. I spent the first couple of nights staying with Vania and Dave at their home in the forest overlooking a frozen lake while horses grazed on tall blades of grass jutting out of the snow. How’s that for a contrast from Iraq?

Dave and Vania in Sweeeden

Next, I spent some time with my old friend Namiko, including a raucous raclette night with a bunch of Swedes.


And then, it was time for the training course, which involved a lot of sitting, listening, and talking. It was interesting, though!

UN Logistics Induction Training at MSB Revinge, Sweden

At the end of the training, we were driven across the bridge from Malmö, Sweden to Copenhagen, Denmark,

Copenhagen canal scene

and in the outskirts of Copenhagen we visited the massive, relatively new, and mostly automated (read: cool robots running the show!) Unicef warehouse.

Unicef warehouse in Copenhagen, Denmark

As the other participants headed to the airport to fly to their home countries, I took a train back across the bridge to Malmö, where I met and stayed with a particularly inspiring young couchsurfer and her inspiring housemate, sharing hours of conversation, then flew the next day back to Iraq.

Back in Iraq, we had to spend a few weeks out of the project location for security reasons, so instead of sitting around bored in Erbil, I went back up to Duhok (where I’d spent three months in late 2012) to lend a hand to the logistics team in Domiz Refugee Camp. And, lucky me, the day I arrived was a special day to celebrate traditional Kurdish dress, so my friends were all dressed up!

Salih, Ziyad, and Dilovan in traditional Kurdish dress

I had left Domiz Refugee Camp at the end of November 2012, at which point only the foundation was finished on the new health centre I had designed for the camp with the help of the Directorate of Health engineer. I was happy to find the centre had opened about five weeks before my return, though it was already starting to prove too small for the constantly growing camp population.

Domiz Refugee Camp Health Centre

I stayed in Duhok for two weeks, during which time a windstorm followed by a sandstorm did some serious damage to the huge tents MSF was using as extra clinic space:

Nahla rues the health centre tents destroyed by a storm

Many of my midday meals in March came from this kebab shop in the camp:

Kebab shop in Domiz Refugee Camp, Iraq

It was springtime, the best time of year to visit Duhok, if you ever have an opportunity.

Duhok, Iraq

After a lovely stay and a lot of hard work, I headed back down to work in Kirkuk and Hawijah in the last week of March.

On April 1st, my friends and colleagues in Kirkuk, Iraq bought me a cake because they thought it was my birthday, despite the fact that I never told anyone it was my birthday (it was not),

April Fools birthday cake in Kirkuk

and did a lot of springtime hiking in the mesmerising mountains of northern Iraq, in the Kurdish Autonomous Region:

Hiking in the mountains of Kurdistan, Iraq
Hiking in the mountains of Kurdistan, Iraq
Hiking in the mountains of Kurdistan, Iraq
Hiking in the mountains of Kurdistan, Iraq

In May, still in Iraq, I deliberately smashed my car into other people as hard as I could!

Bumper cars in Iraq
Bumper cars in Iraq

I also oversaw the start of construction on our new house,

The start of construction in Hawijah
The start of construction in Hawijah

ate huuuge meals in the temporary house I’d designed and had a contractor build,

Typical meal made by families of our staff in Hawijah

did more hiking in Kurdistan, luckily surviving each trip,

Trying not to fall off the edge of the world in Iraq

and played ping pong in my plaid pyjamas.

Ping pong in the basement

The first day of June was my last day in Iraq, so I caught a taxi to Duhok to visit my old friends, who then took me to see one of Saddam’s old palaces,

One of Saddam's former palaces in Kurdistan, Iraq

and we nearly got the little car stuck while offroading!

Getting Ziyad's car unstuck

During the next week, I spent time with Turkish protestors in Taksim Square, Istanbul,

Hanging out with protestors in Taksim Square, Istanbul, Turkey

had a sunny sidewalk lunch with Julia in Geneva, Switzerland,

Julia in Geneva

celebrated Aidan’s birthday in Aylesbury, England,

Aidan in Aylesbury

had tasty Thai food in London with Malin,

Malin in London

crashed at Dave’s place and talked over beers, finally visited Tate Modern after more than ten years of frequent visits to London,

Tate Modern colourful lights exhibit

ate lunch with Miriam, then took an out-of-focus selfie in the bus station,

Miriam in London

caught up with Sam over coffee, then took an out-of-focus selfie at the British Red Cross office,

Sam in London

stared as hundreds of people cycled past in the World Naked Bike Ride (which, incidentally, originated in Vancouver),

World Naked Bike Ride, London 2013

laughed with Will and Natalie,

Will and Natalie in London

talked about Amnesty International and things less serious with Estelle,

Estelle in London

then flew back to Canada.

In July I managed to catch the last Ruffled Feathers show before their lineup changed,

The Ruffled Feathers at the Biltmore, Vancouver

and that same night I saw Laura Mann and the Fairly Odd Folk and bought their album, to which I listened many times over the following months.

Laura Mann and the Fairly Odd Folk at the Biltmore, Vancouver

I also found this beautiful Golden Buprestid beetle on Bowen Island,

Colourful bug on Bowen Island

repaired a small bridge with my brother,

Dan testing our rebuilt log bridge by jumping up and down

spent time with AJ at Queen Elizabeth Park where we spent a few moments appreciating a monkey puzzle tree,

AJ mesmerised by the monkey puzzle tree

began restoration work on our family’s old rowboat,

Restoring a fifty-year-old rowboat

witnessed my friends catch a hipster crab,

Hipster crab drinks PBR

witnessed my sister’s friend get served coffee at a Main Street cafe out of the exact same Christmas mug we’ve had in our family’s home for years,

Mug match

witnessed a beautiful fireworks show from the West End balcony of a friend of a friend,

Vancouver fireworks in English Bay

cycled around the seawall and under the Lion’s Gate Bridge,

Lion's Gate Bridge

took a shameless bathroom selfie with Shawn and Denise,

Shameless selfie with Shawn and Denise

admired Mark’s colourful carrots at one of many delightful documentary nights,

Colourful carrots with Mark

got help from two siblings to pack my things again, and left Canada once more.

Lisa helping me pack for Afghanistan

In August I enjoyed an evening in Amsterdam with my friend Martin and a day of meetings and walks along canals,

Amsterdam canal scene

then arrived in Afghanistan for the first time and flew to Helmand,

Flying with ICRC in Afghanistan

saw these fantastic locally-made, heat-activated coffee mugs,

Neat heat-activated mugs

and figured out how to service and repair industrial laundry washing machines.

Repairing a hospital laundry washing machine

In September I continued to eat a LOT of good food,

Big spread of Afghan food

found a scorpion on my bedroom floor, just a few centimetres from my bare foot,

Scorpion in my bedroom

laughed daily at something new,

We did not shortlist him for an interview

figured out how to take apart an x-ray machine, and luckily also how to reassemble it after repairing it,

Trying not to forget how to put the x-ray machine back together

spent a weekend in Kabul, with a short but scenic visit to the top of TV Mountain,

South side of Kabul as seen from TV Mountain

and learned how to use a compactor as I began work on a water backup system for the hospital.

Learning to use a compactor in Helmand

In October I worked too much, slept too little.

In transit to Nepal in November, I spent a night in Dubai hanging out with couchsurfers I met there in 2012.

Dubai cityscape

In Nepal I made a new friend – a singer, climbing instructor, and trekking guide,

Lama singing in Kathmandu

saw some colourful things,like Boudhanath,

Boudhanath, Kathmandu

learned the correct way to eat rice with my hands,

Learning to eat rice correctly

went hiking in the Himalayas and lost my glasses,

played basketball for the first time in years, at over 2800m altitude, and lost,

Basketball in the Himalayas

played Carrom for the first time in my life, at over 2600m altitude, and lost,

Carrom board in the Himalayas

ran as fast as I could off the side of a mountain for the first time ever, and won (my paragliding instructor bet another instructor that we could reach the highest altitude first, and we did).

Paragliding over Pokhara, Nepal

In November I also saw massive sets of reinforcement bars being assembled in Dubai during my return trip to Afghanistan,

Massive reinforcements in Dubai

and watched the Helmand River rise dramatically after just a few hours of rain.

Helmand River rising

In December I saw a tanker truck transported on top of a bus in Lashkar Gah,

Tanker on a bus, Lashkar Gah

marvelled at this small pickup making its way through town,

Overloaded pickup, Lashkar Gah

caught a mouse and ate it to show my staff how tough I am,

Eating a mouse

learned how to use a massive new incinerator (which might double as a superspeed pizza oven if I get my way),

Loading the big new incinerator

catnapped a kitten from the hospital, taught her some manners, and named her Lion,


flew from Lashkar Gah to Kabul for a weekend off,

Bost Airport

got MRI exams for both my knees and looked through the resulting images as if I had a clue,

MRI results for my knee

woke up on December 30th to find the first snowfall of the season had settled on the streets as I slept,

First snowfall of the year in Kabul

watched the biggest snowplow I’ve ever seen, clearing the runways at Kabul Airport,

Snowplow clearing the runways of Kabul International Airport

flew back to Helmand over spectacularly beautiful Afghan winter landscapes,

Snowy Afghan landscape

woke up to my midnight alarm blaring as 2013 came to a close, and sent a text message to spark one of my grand adventures of 2014, which was just then beginning to take shape.

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 (this year, it took me 11 months to reply to some people, but I did reply!).

Last few days in Sweden

I’ve been busy lately, but I’ll post a quick note about the last few days I spent in Sweden after I returned from my trip to the Balkans.

After arriving back in Uppsala, I wrote a thematic paper then prepared a thematic presentation to go with it, then presented said presentation. On the 23rd, after I got my room cleaned up, stored some stuff in my storage closet, and packed my stuff, I caught a train to Göteborg (Gothenburg).

I spent Friday night, Saturday, and Sunday there, and flew out early Monday morning to Vancouver via London, arriving here in Vancouver May 26th, 365 days after I left (not including my 10 day trip in March for the knee stuff).

Current plans are: fly out of Vancouver August 13th, land in England August 14th for a 4 week internship in Oxford; fly home to Sweden in late September to get my act together there, then fly out sometime in October for Thailand where I hope to do my thesis research; fly back to Sweden at some point to actually write the thesis, submit it, then head off to wherever I manage to find a paid position to kick off my career. Other than the internship, all plans remain fluid, since I never really know what might come up to change them.

A few photos from the last days in Sweden:

On my last trip out to the student bar, I carried my passport as ID as always. And yes, it is real. Note that it opens ‘backward.’

On May 23, I trained across the country to Göteborg and met up with three friends who lived in the same set of flats with me in New Zealand – Karin, Vania, and Ratana – and one new friend who was there the next year, Henrik. Vania and her sister Sonia both work at Liseberg, which I visited just before Christmas.

This time, on Saturday, we went so the ‘kids’ could go on all the rides. I’m too old for rides, so I volunteered enthusiastically to be team photographer for the day.

Before the rides, Vania had to pay for parking. So while she walked to the nearest functional machine, we stole her car and drove it to another part of the lot, then hid a few metres away.

She spotted the empty stall immediately and found us (we accidentally wore ridiculously bright colours that day) pretty quickly…

Ratana, Henrik, Vania just before they got on the rainbow ride:

Can you see them?

I have no idea.


This one is made entirely out of wood (I’m pretty sure there are some metal bolts, but the structural stuff is all wood).

A city tram outside the park, seen from a super high viewing tower at Liseberg:

Crazy jukebox car ride:

That all-wood rollercoaster, with the three kids on it:

That night we went out to a dance club, danced a bit, and eventually went to bed very, very tired.

Sunday, among other things, we had a barbeque! Vania’s parents are terrific hosts; I highly recommend Hotel Ranjbar if you’re ever in Gothenburg! Mohammad and Jinus cooked us up some terrific Iranian style shishkebab stuff, and it was delicious!

To eat it, you have to hold the bread in your hand a bit folded, then take the skewer and pull it so that all the food stays in the bread – much harder than it sounds! Then add salad and special Persian spice mix and voilà! Instant awesome.

Right near Vania’s parents’ home there’s a lake so, on Sunday evening after Henrik caught his train home to Lund, Ratana, Vania, and I went there to chill for a while and eat candy.

It’s a very pretty little lake!

Vania drove me to the airport early in the morning, and after a short flight to London I was airborne once more en route to Vancouver, where I landed safe and sound in the early afternoon of the same day.

I then went to my friend Helaine’s apartment for a Settlers of Catan party, during which I played my second ever match of the game and beat the veterans I was competing against. I put that here purely to brag :-)


There hasn’t been too much to update about lately, and I haven’t taken many photos since Christmas. So, this will be a very short post with very few photos, sorry.

I left Uppsala on December 21st after finishing my International Law exam, headed by train to Göteborg (Gothenburg in English) on the west coast of Sweden, to visit the family of my friend Vania. I spent two days with her parents, Mohammad and Jinus, and her sister Sonia, and really enjoyed myself.

Then, on the 23rd, I took a train down to København (Köpenhamn in Swedish, Copenhagen in English) to spend Christmas there. My friend Nina lives there and left me the keys to her apartment to stay for free, and my friend Mike arrived in the evening from Paris to join me. We basically just lounged around for a few days, caught up on old times, explored the city in the rain and fog.

I saw Mike off at the airport on the 27th for his flight back to Vancouver after a year spent in Paris. The next day I got to hang out with Nina as she had returned from spending Christmas with family, and we got to catch up on everything that had happened since we last saw each other. I stayed in København until the morning of the 30th when I caught my train back to Uppsala.

On New Year’s Eve I had no plans, so I went online to CouchSurfing.com to see if anything open was planned for the evening, and found an open party invite. I convinced two friends to join me, and together we met up with the party-goers for a beach party indoors. The hosts had spent tonnes of time decorating a few rooms in the house to be tropical and cranked the heat way up, and we made a bunch of new friends and had a great time.

Our last class of the first semester began January 8th, Geopolitics and Conflict, with a very interesting and knowledgeable prof, Dr Kjell-Åke Nordquist. I would say it’s been my favourite class so far, and last week Kjell-Åke (almost everyone in Sweden goes on a first name basis, strangers or otherwise) agreed to be my thesis supervisor, which is great news for me.

I’m also moving out of my current apartment soon. I already have the keys to the new place, but going to coordinate my move next week with my friend Greg, who’s also moving into the same apartment.

And that’s about all I’ve been up to.

Merry Christmas etc from me to you

Dear friends and family,

Merry Christmas! I don’t normally send mass letters out, but I’m making an exception because I’ve been out of touch with a lot of you lately, and I haven’t updated my blog much since I arrived in Sweden three months ago.

Hmm… where to begin? I guess I can start with my studies. My program at Uppsala Universitet, the oldest university in Scandinavia, is called a Master’s degree in International Humanitarian Action. Our entire program is taught in English, and the Swedish government pays our tuition, as they do for all Master’s students in Sweden regardless of citizenship. We’re 19 students in the program in Uppsala, and there are 6 other universities in the Network on Humanitarian Action that offer this degree, so in total there are roughly 140 students across 7 universities in 7 countries in Europe. We take one course at a time here, for about 3 weeks each, and so far we’ve studied Anthropology, Public Health, Management, and International Law. Each time we start a new class, we change to a new building and new prof, so our program sort of mirrors the life I’ve been living recently – always spending some time in one place, then having to shift headquarters to a new location, then shift again, etc.

At the moment, my thesis idea is to do a bit of field research in a refugee camp and try to see if there’s any link between a child growing up as a refugee in a camp and the prospects for that child to join or support armed movements in his/her country of origin. The current tentative plan is to do that research in Northern Thailand, an area of the world I very much enjoyed visiting three years ago, as there are a number of large camps for Burmese refugees there. There are a bunch of potential problems with the idea, but we’ll see how it pans out. One interesting thing about this thesis is that I’m collaborating with three of my friends in the program to make a joint project out of four individual theses. Each person has a different topic, but we have a common framework and a fairly solid basis for combining the four into one publishable document/book a year from now. Hopefully the concept will work.

Uppsala itself is a small city, about the same size as Dunedin, where I lived in New Zealand in 2005. Like Dunedin, Uppsala is very much a student town, with over 40,000 students at two universities. Uppsala Universitet is a good university, super old (founded in 1477), and its buildings are spread through the centre of the city sort of similar to the Catholic university in Leuven, Belgium. There’s a small river running through the middle of Uppsala, and the buildings along both sides are pretty old and neat looking. They’ve got all sorts of Christmas lights and decorations up on city property now, which is really nice.

It gets pitch dark by 3pm and the sun is only back up by 830 or 9 in the morning, so the Swedes make a big deal of having decorative lights up at this time of year to help prevent depression. For instance, almost every home has a candle stand thing with 7 candles (they’re almost all just candle-shaped lamps now, due to hundreds of fires over the years). They put them in the window, so you can see them from outside as well; most homes and businesses have them in more than one window.

It’s much colder in Uppsala than it is in Vancouver. I wear a scarf every day, and I have to wear more than just a tee-shirt under my jacket! In Vancouver I often only wore a tee shirt and a windbreaker in the middle of winter, no problem. On my walk home last week in Uppsala, I had to put my scarf over my face, then the condensation from my breath froze and made the scarf turn solid! I also had little ice crystals in my goatee, like those people in movies about Antarctica, but not as many ice crystals and no frostbite or goggle tan for me – yet. I live 7 km outside of the city centre, in an area surrounded by fields and forest, so I get a nice cycle ride most days to and from uni. There’s a gravel path along the river which I often take when I’m not in a rush, very nice! Most of the river is now frozen over, and soon I reckon it will be safe to walk on, though I won’t be testing that theory. February is the coldest month here, so it’s only going to get colder and colder and colder.

I live alone in a furnished bachelor pad, which is basically a big room with my bed, desk, table, TV, kitchen, and my own bathroom and shower. Every single thing in the room is from Ikea. Seriously. The room includes all the pots, pans, plates, etc, etc that I need, and every single one is Ikea. The flooring, the windows, the curtains, the wardrobe, every single thing is from Ikea. Weird. I might be moving at the start of January, though, as there is a small room becoming available in my friend’s apartment and it’s more than $200 cheaper per month, and I wouldn’t have to spend money on the bus anymore on days when I can’t cycle, as I would be in town already, within walking distance of everything. Very tempting.

I’ve been trying to learn Swedish, but haven’t had so much time to devote to it. I took a 6 week beginner’s course, 30 hours in total of classes, which was very helpful and has given me a rough foundation for further learning, and I’ll take the next level class starting at the end of January. Everyone here speaks English and all our classes are in English so the normal effect of being immersed in a culture is not as great here, and it’s therefore not as easy to pick up the language. I hope to be moderately fluent by April or May.

Right now, as I write this letter to all of you, I’m in the guest room of my friend Vania’s family in Göteborg (known in English as Gothenburg) a very long way from Uppsala. Vania is in New Zealand, but I figured it would be nice to meet her parents and sister on my way to Copenhagen, so I’m staying two nights here. Gothenburg is the second largest city in Sweden, after Stockholm, and has a population of about half a million people. It’s a really beautiful city – I spent 4 hours walking alone around the town centre today, just walking and looking at everything around me and people-watching.

Last night I walked around Liseberg, the largest amusement park in Scandinavia, where Vania used to work and where her sister Sonia still works. It’s open for a bit during the Christmas season and really decked out with holiday cheer, and then again in the summer months. Sonia took me to a party with her coworkers at a local nightclub last night, which was super fun. We had to stand in line for about an hour and I may have done permanent damage to my bladder while waiting in that line-up, but the party was a lot of fun and I really enjoyed meeting a bunch of Sonia’s friends, all of whom were very friendly.

Mohammad and Jinus Ranjbar (Vania and Sonia’s parents) are terrific hosts, and Jinus is a very good cook too – we had reeeeeeally good Persian food last night: rice with berberis berries, which are sort of similar in taste to cranberries or foxberries, but different, and very Iranian. And some tasty, tasty chicken and salad. And they gave me some mango green tea, which is pretty much the best non-chai tea I’ve ever had. Just thought I’d throw that out there.

Tomorrow morning I’m back on track, (literally, the train track) on my way to Copenhagen. I’ll be spending Christmas there with my friend Mike, who’s from Vancouver but has spent the last year in Paris. My friend Nina (coincidentally Vania’s flatmate when they were exchange students at UBC) lives in Copenhagen, and when I asked her by email if she could meet up with us at some point, she offered us her apartment! She’s going home to stay with her family for Christmas, so she’s giving me and Mike the key to the apartment in central Copenhagen – talk about a lucky break for two poor students! Now we can afford a decent Christmas meal :-)

Not sure what adventures we’ll get up to in Copenhagen, but I will try to put some photos and stories up on the blog afterward. As of now I have no New Year’s Eve plans, so I could be anywhere doing anything. I will probably end up back in Uppsala by then, and try to find a few friends who haven’t left town.

Oh, and I shaved my head again. Well, I didn’t shave it – the hair dresser lady did. I’ve only had it shaved once before, back in June when I was getting too much cinder block dust in my hair on the construction site in Cameroon. With running water for only a few hours each morning and a few hours each evening, it was no good returning home with cement forming in my hair from the sweat and cinder dust, and not being able to wash it out. I let it grow back until it was way too long and ugly, then got a haircut from a friend to look more respectable, but decided to get it buzzed on my way to the train yesterday in Uppsala. It’s way more convenient for toque-wearing (beanie-wearing if you’re not from Canada), as toque-hair is really unbelievably ridiculous as well as hard to fix without water.

Well, that covers just about everything! I hope each of you has a wonderful Christmas and New Year, and I’d love to get an update from you on your life – it doesn’t have to be this long, though ;-)

All the best,