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.


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.

Paris then and now

This post is a little different from my normal, somewhat formulaic, posts with photos of where I’ve been or what I’ve been doing. Hopefully this is a good thing, but you can be the judge…

Back when I was but a young lad living in the English countryside on the grounds of a 15th century castle, in 2003, I made my first trip to Paris. And what a trip it was, full of crazy adventures that only kids can really have, without even a drop of liquid encouragement.

Last weekend I returned to Paris for the fourth time, and as such I’ve decided to put up photos and stories of that first trip alongside those I took more recently. Even if you don’t like them, I myself was highly amused to revisit those old memories from my first 1.3 megapixel digital camera which cost me over $300 and had a 32 MB memory card. I even found the text of a post from my old blog, from a post about that first trip to Paris. You’ll see some text in quotes below, which is original text from that post. Here we go:

The first thing most people picture when thinking of Paris is of course… the Eiffel Tower. Last week it looked like this:

In February 2003, it looked like this:

When Sarina and I went for a walk along the Seine, we passed by Les Invalides.

Five years ago, this is how I saw it while gallivanting around town. If you look at the green light to the left, that’s precisely where I was standing while taking the previous photo.

When I saw this statue last week, I had to take a photo. Why? Because she’s holding a holy hand grenade of course! Another holy hand grenade can be found in Dunedin, New Zealand (click here for that photo or click here for the blog post containing that photo).

A pretty bridge, pic taken last week:

Parisian view, last week:

This is the Colonne de Juillet 1830, a monument to the revolution that brought Louis-Philipe to power in France, as I saw it almost a year ago in 2007:

And here we have Alvin and I during our nighttime Parisian adventures, at the very same spot, in 2003 (yes, my hair is blue in this photo; it was like that for one whole year, and yes I had a lip piercing at the time).

Last week Sarina and I made a quick trip to the Louvre when it was free to get in, and spent about an hour in one of the wings we hadn’t been in before. I found this amusing: he’s got a star stabbing him in the head. Even more interesting? Unbeknownst to me until googling it just now, this is in fact a second copy of the golden statue that stands atop the July 1830 column in the previous two photos! Click here for that info.

The most exciting thing at the Louvre this time around was the protest going on outside, with 4 gendarmerie vans and a police bus parked nearby.

The protest was organised by a group called the “Cercle de silence Paris” which means Paris Circle of Silence. The protest method? Stand in a circle and don’t say anything, just hold signs and stay there. By the time we left the museum, there were even more people taking part in a number of concentric circles within the bigger circle. The protest was in support of rights for the sans-papiers, what we call illegal immigrants in Canada, and what are more correctly called irregular immigrants in many other countries.

This time around we didn’t bother with the Mona Lisa, since it’s a rather boring painting and you can see it on any coffee mug in a tourist shop, but in 2003 I did see it just for the sake of it:

It’s always more interesting to see how the crowds jostle with each other to take photos, including using flash, when you’re not allowed. And the security lady just watches and doesn’t care.

Back in 2003, we made a point of visiting la Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris, and I personally really enjoyed it. Some people think it’s overrated, but I quite liked it.

Dennis could perhaps manage a job as a gargoyle if his other prospects don’t pan out…

And of course, how could I not bite the bell… Why did I bite the bell? I have NO IDEA. Don’t even ask, although I remember several of us doing so. Dumb kids I guess.

Now onto more art, since Paris is home to so many artists. Original caption from my ancient blog: “Bronze statue of man relieving himself, Musée d’Orsay

More original captions:

“Some royals with something burning on their carpet” (turns out this is ‘The Excommunication of Robert the Pious’ by Jean-Paul Laurens).

“A close-up reveals the first subtle Marlboro King Size cigarette ad”

Being young and in need of adventure back then, rather than take the stairs we jumped out our hotel window onto the lower roof and re-entered via a friend’s window.

We then set out on the town at night, on foot. As you can see, we made it to the Place Charles de Gaulle roundabout, often called the biggest or busiest roundabout in the world. While there are several examples of larger roundabouts, they don’t fit my definition of a roundabout because of the function they serve. So, in my books, this one is the biggest.

L’Arc de Triomphe… surrounded by the largest roundabout in the world, fed by 12 roads. Alvin and I ran across said roundabout like the fools we are, and luckily survived the 15 lanes of traffic. We shoulda used the underpass.”

We then climbed a very long and narrow spiral staircase to get to the roof the arch and take photos like this one:

Back to the present, last week Sarina and I went to the Chateau de Versailles with two of her Canadian friends. It’s way more touristed-out than it used to be, costs more, has actual solid line-ups, and very little breathing space once you’re inside. Advice: don’t bother. I took two photos worth sharing:

The first time I’ve seen razor wire on scaffolding:

Neat section of a painting:

Back in 2003, we spent most of our short visit to Versailles outside in the gardens, despite the lack of blooming flowers:

“Q, Alvin, Dennis, and me by a fountain at the Palais de Versailles.”

“English: Don’t walk on grass”

“Who are those stupid Canadians, breaking yet another rule?”

That’s it for ancient stuff, but there are a few pics left from 2007 and last week.

Sarina, Jamie, and I decided to go to the Catacombs on Saturday since none of us had ever been. Unfortunately, we followed the sign with the arrow and thus could not find the entrance which was in the opposite direction, and only found it some time later. Either way, we would have been too late to get in anyway as it closes every day at 4pm. So we returned the next day, just in time to get in line and barely make it in before 4pm.

At the surface-level entrance/ticket booth (only costs 3.50 euro!) this sign made us laugh:

Down about 15 metres below ground we saw this neat hand carved wall piece, before we reached the actual catacombs themselves.

This is the inscription above the entrance to the catacombs: “Stop! Here is the Empire of Death.”

The bones of 6 million Parisians were placed underground during the 18th and 19th centuries to deal with health problems associated with serious overcrowding in the city centre, and allow for expansion of the city.

There were many interesting inscriptions in French and sometimes Latin, all of which said, in different words, that nobody can avoid death. This one is funny because it seems to be a play on tenses or time: “Where is Death? Always future or past. Barely is she present, but already, she is no longer.” In order, it seems to refer to the verb tenses: future, passé, présent, plus-que-parfait. But maybe I’m imagining that. Strangely, there is no accent on the first word, so it actually says “Or is Death?” but the accents are missing on “présente” and “déjà” as well; the engraver also didn’t capitalise “Toujours,” failed to put a period/full-stop after “passée,” and omitted the space in “A peine,” so I reckon the engraver probably simply didn’t know how to spell correctly. Still, the message comes across quite well.

This one has no spelling errors though I personally would add a couple extra commas for clarity of reading… hehe. It says (my translation, so please don’t take it as authoritative) “Come, people of the world, come into these quiet homes and your soul, calm for now, shall be struck by the voice that rises from inside them: ‘It is here that the biggest of masters, the Grave, holds his school of truth.'” I just googled this, and strangely there seems to be nothing about it online, except a transcript of the inscription in a book from 1815, which interestingly has inserted the commas I mentioned at the start of this paragraph. Hm. Free download in PDF format if you want it.

When we emerged from underground, around 1.7 km away from where we entered, we decided to walk home. But first, we had to stop in a little store to get some supplies for sandwich-making. On the shelves out front of the store was the BIGGEST potato I have EVER SEEN! It may not look massive in this photo, but remember that my hand is almost 8″ (20cm) long and this potato is actually much longer than my hand (strange camera angle). We even saw other pedestrians stop to stare at it!

And lastly, going back to May 2007, a picture from Paris that shows that perhaps my statement about ‘crazy adventures only kids can have’ was not 100% correct… this is Scary Mike ‘drinking’ sugar from a box. Why? Because it’s Daddy Sugar. Or, Sugar Daddy. Ha. Ha. Ha.

And that’s why I love Paris, in a rather large and unwieldy nutshell.

First Leg

Well, I finally managed to get the use of some photo-editing software to resize, crop, and ‘adjust’ (i.e. brightness, contrast, colour levels) a few of the photos I’ve taken since leaving Canada. Not only that, I even managed to upload them to the interwebernet on a 2KB/s internet connection. I’ll be posting several sets of photos over the next few days, and in each entry I plan on keeping the text to a minimum due to time restraints and an inability to remember what went on way back when many of these were taken.

I left Vancouver May 27th, landed in London on the morning of the 28th, and got off a bus in Paris by nightfall. I spent a few days at my friend Scary’s place along with my old pal Martin, and even got to meet up with Robin and Maya for a few hours one day. The girls and I went to Sacré Coeur cathedral and one of the big Parisian cemeteries where we marvelled at the crazy monuments (some were basically small churches on top of tombs), and the hundreds of stray cats.

Sacré Coeur

Robin and Maya exploring the cemetery

Somehow my Canon Powershot SD1000 point-and-shoot digital camera managed to capture two images in one… this happens when you forget to wind your film forward on an old manual camera, but how a digital camera could combine two images, without any exposure issues, is a real mystery. Then again, we were in a place full of ghosts and things.


Cool stained glass

Only in Paris…

After a few days I headed back to England to drop off my luggage at my friend Oz’s place in Poole. I took a sidetrip in London first to go visit the Imperial War Museum, a place I had intended to visit 5 years earlier when I lived in East Sussex. A few cool machines:

Imperial War Museum silhouette (boring photo taken on point-and-shoot; contrast and brightness levels taken to extremes to make it less boring)

What I always seem to remember best about London – the dirty, smelly, noisy Tube. There was a really good musician playing in one of the stations, in the long round corridor that leads down to the platform, creating a really rich tone which faded into the distance as I walked away. I had to work hard not to break into a big smile amidst all the gloomy suits in the station.

The trains at Waterloo Station, my departure point for the 3hr ride to Poole.

Mealtime with Oz’s family. I can definitely say it was impossible to go hungry while staying with Oz and his parents, who were super hospitable and always ready with a hot cup of tea :-)

Mr and Mrs Ahmed even took me to a boot sale! It’s basically a huge field turned into a yard-sale with hundreds of people who pay a fee to set up a table and sell their stuff. This lady’s job is to collect the small entrance fee from each car of people coming to buy stuff (i.e. us!). I got a cell phone to use in Sweden for cheap, and generally had a great time looking at all the stuff. It reminded me in a strange way of the Chiang Mai Sunday Night Market in Thailand… Jos, Ron, and Ian would probably understand.

As part of the agreement by which Oz managed to NOT wake up bright and early and go to the boot sale (he doesn’t like them, even though they’re so much fun), he agreed to mow the lawn. When we got home, he was not only awake, but had finished the lawn and was going to town on the hedges!

Unfortunately, time never really stops, and my stay with the Ahmed family was soon at an end.

After a solid night’s sleep on a relatively comfy bench in the surprisingly quiet Gatwick Airport surrounded by other sofa-surfers, I hit he skies en route to Douala via Brussels.

We left Gatwick very late, so when we landed in Belgium I ran to my next departure gate and boarded the plane without any waiting around. Once aboard, however, we had a delay of a few minutes after undercover police decided to arrest and remove a lady sitting a couple of rows back from me, while she kicked and screamed in a rather sad and desperate way, with most of the Africans on the plane yelling in different languages at the poor flight attendants for allowing such a thing to happen. I was just glad it wasn’t me.

After a relatively uneventful flight (the only event was the Congolese magistrate next to me spilling his red wine all over himself) we landed in Douala, Cameroon. Brussels Airlines even managed to get my luggage on the plane, which is saying a lot when landing in Cameroon: about 1/3 of volunteers who have arrived after me have had their luggage delayed by several days (none delayed on Brussels Airlines), and a few things have even disappeared in transit from inside of luggage.

This post is a bit more long-winded than planned, but then again I’m not known for being concise.