Friday, December 30, 2005

2005 wrap up

Kitchen department, Liberian Government Hospital, Buchanan, Liberia
December 31, 2005

Best wishes for a wonderful 2006 to any readers out there.

I'm writing this at 10:13pm on New Year's Eve and I think I'll be too tired to stay awake until midnight.

What an amazing year I've had. In these 12 seemingly brief months I took a mere 60 flights, visiting eight new countries (Brazil, Thailand, Malaysia, Cambodia, Ireland, India, Nepal and Liberia, bringing my official country total to 40), riding overnight trains in India, Canada and the US, and setting foot on five continents. I finished one job (working for the Survey Action Center in Afghanistan), started and finished another (with Oxfam in Afghanistan) and begun a third (with Merlin in Liberia).

Amongst my adventures were the following (not quite chronologically):

  • Leaving Afghanistan on Business class, drinking Turkish coffee in Istanbul - and then finding myself back in Kabul six weeks later;

  • Dancing until dawn in Itajuba, Brazil during Carnaval;

  • Being spied on by monkeys with Jenny on the Pao De Acucar in Rio de Janeiro;

  • Riding an elephant through the jungles of western Thailand after rafting through gorges, jumping off waterfalls, and enjoing welcome serenity in an eco lodge;

  • Learning to Scuba diving at Koh Chang, Thailand;

  • Taking my most comfortable (yet affordable) overnight train trips ever (Bangkok to Chang Mai) in Thailand;

  • Climbing and pondering the incredible monastery at Angkor Wat, Cambodia;

  • Swearing yet again that I'd attended my last Formula 1 Grand Prix (this time in Malaysia);

  • Gazing up (from valley floors) and down (from tiny aircraft) at the most beautiful country (Afghanistan) I've ever seen;

  • Being given an improbably large number of interpretations of whether or not the Holy Koran permits alcohol consumption;

  • Being told (before takeoff from Yawkalang airfield above 8'000 feet in the Central Highlands of Afghanistan) that we would make an immediate right-turn because otherwise "if one of the engines fails we'll hit that hill...";

  • Being the only person to follow Blue Rodeo around all twelve of their UK tour gigs - and in so doing drinking Guinness with some of them until long after their Bambridge show, being played 'Lost Together' for my personal loyalty in Leeds, and bar hopping with some of them and their most wonderful fans in Dublin;

  • Continuing the process of falling in love with Scotland;

  • Realizing that the Kings Cross bomb exploded 48 hours to the minute after I'd been there;

  • Visiting the incredible Taj Mahal but also the arguably more wonderful nearby Agra Fort;

  • Being required by kidnapping threats to ride cars from within and between walled compounds in Kabul;

  • Emerging from an ultra-modern cinema in Delhi into a darkened shopping precinct and bumping into a very dark and sacred cow;

  • Feeling a gentle swaying of the ground in Kabul - then flying to Delhi before learning that it had been a devastating earthquake in Kashmir;

  • Reaching out to hold hands with friends - riding in a separate speeding auto rickshaw weaving in and out of Delhi traffic;

  • Discovering truly wonderful restaurants in Delhi that would star even if I hadn't just emerged from Afghanistan;

  • Relaxing on a houseboat in Srinagar - then while at 10,050' in Indian-administered Kashmir being hailed by my tour guide from western Thailand;

  • Wallowing in the friendliness and extreme comfort of Kathmandu;

  • Feasting at American Thanksgiving (with great friends old and new);

  • Confirming once and for all that I'm too old to sleep on transcontinental railways without a bed;

  • Not sleeping in one bed for more than five consecutive nights between October 8 and December 25 (as I've already moaned);

  • Requiring the services of an English <> English translator in Liberia;

  • Beginning my potentially most rewarding and meaningful job ever.

Above all meeting lots of people in lots of countries, almost all of whom are immeasurably more gentle than their governments, and meeting and revisiting many wonderful and very very special friends (in one or two cases, quite unexpectedly). Almost my only regret in 2005 was that I couldn't go to see all the rest of my friends. You're all welcome to come and visit me in Liberia!!

Happy New Year.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Project Coordination - Buchanan

Buchanan street scene
December 16, 2005

As predicted I had a very quiet and peaceful Christmas - for which I'm grateful because responsibilities have now landed quite firmly on my shoulders.
One or two loyal and curious readers have asked what my new job involves. Therefore I present this summary.

I am the Project Coordinator for Merlin in Buchanan, Liberia. I finally took over from my predecessor yesterday, as such I am now referred to by my staff variously as "Bravo-1", "Tom Plus Fifteen Letters" and "Hey you". I haven't received a job description yet but if I adapt the one I had for the town of Harper, where I expected to be posted, I get this:

  • Supervision of Buchanan field base;

  • Project management based on project proposal, budgets and donor regulations;

  • Overall co-ordination of logistics, finance, administration and HR;

  • Reporting – internal to Merlin, and external to donors ;

  • Representation & liaison with local authorities, NGOs & International Donors;
    Programme development ;

  • Security monitoring and management;

  • Financial control.

I have two main projects and one minor one. One big one is support of the Liberia Government Hospital here in Buchanan. While Merlin only 'advises' we do so with quite a bit of authority because we entirely subsidize all the staff salaries and we pay for all the drugs and other costs. The other main project I manage is Merlin's support for 10 Primary Health Centres around Grand Bassa County, Liberia (for which Buchanan is the capital). Technically I also manage a small project that is constructing a surrounding wall, outpatient clinic and X-Ray laboratory at the hospital grounds.

See my last post for some spiteful comparisons between this job and my last one.

I'm happy to be here - as much for any other reason as because I can finally unpack all my bags. Since I left Kabul on October 8 I've slept in the following places, (plus some overnight flights) none of which were my own (although most were extremely lovely):

Delhi, India
Srinagar, India
Two overnight Indian trains
Bhairawa, Nepal
Kathmandu, Nepal
Delhi, India
Dubai, United Arab Emirates
Ottawa, Canada
Two nights on a train to Kamloops, Canada
Penticton, Canada
Overnight train to Vancouver, Canada
Seattle, USA
Richland, USA
Overnight train to St. Paul, USA
Mankato, USA
Overnight train to Albany, USA
Albany USA
Montreal, Canada
Ottawa, Canada
London, UK
Monrovia, Liberia (two different beds)
Buchanan, Liberia
Monrovia, Liberia
Buchanan, Liberia
Monrovia, Liberia ...and now I'm settled in Buchanan (except I may be moving rooms next week!!!

Friday, December 23, 2005

Christmas in Monrovia

Merlin residence, Liberia, Monrovia
December 24, 2005

Merry Christmas from Monrovia, capital of Liberia!

This is going to be a rather lonely Christmas for me - symbolized quite well by the tree where I'm staying. On the other hand I'm looking forward to two days of peace and quiet. I've had a very good two weeks working on mapping and data collection with three colleagues from England and I'll miss them but I'm also glad to be able to turn my attention to my upcoming responsibilities. And what a contrast they are to those of my previous job where very little I suggested was accepted and implemented. There I could not procure paperclips - now (and this is after being transferred from Harper, where I've never even been, to Buchanan) I'm responsible for two projects employing about 38 actual staff and over 200 more subsidized by Merlin, and having a combined annual budget of over 1.4 million US dollars.

I'm looking forward very much to actually moving to Buchanan, which I'll do on Tuesday. I've already been there twice (and when I went the first time I didn't know that that was where I would be stationed) but Tuesday will be my first chance since OCTOBER 8 to completely unpack my bags and settle somewhere where I'll remain longer than five days.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Blog updates

Quick news flash: I've won a contest on Ryan Schuh's web site!!

Less excitingly, I've just worked out how to send group mailings via Gmail. Please send me a note ( if you'd like to subscribe to alerts when I post new news.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Next few days in Liberia

Beach at Monrovia
December 10, 2005

Sitting on a veranda at 'London' - the main Merlin residence in Monrovia - reflecting on a very good but very surreal week since my last entry. OK, since typing that sentence I've fled to a different veranda because colleagues Andrew and Deston are having a meeting up there (it's SUNDAY for goodness sakes - and Sundays are our only days off) and because it was too bright to see my screen. Now I'm only disturbed by noisy Colin the cockerel, who doesn't know how close he is to a filling out a nice casserole. Maybe I can scare him away with Bizet's Carmen?

Surreal enough for you yet?
On Tuesday afternoon seven of us squeezed into a LandCruiser and set off on the 'two and a half' hour drive to Buchanan (further east along the coast). We got there six and a half hours later. I rode on the floor at the back and I think I was the most comfortable amongst us. Four staff sat across the back seat - I couldn't have coped with that. Amongst my failings as an aid worker are claustrophobia and the related abhorrence of personal-space invasions. (Other failings include my resistance to various staple vegetables and to tea.)

The first halt was called at the Firestone rubber plantation's grocery store. Firestone operated in Liberia continuously throughout the war - as did the breweries. (I have yet to get any satisfactory pictures of their plant or plantation but it's on my to-do list.) We also had very fruitful stops at a couple of Merlin's Public Health Clinics en route. This was my first exposure to what we actually do here - health care provision. The staff were extremely helpful and dedicated and I took it as a very good sign of things to come in my job.

Bokey Town Clinic staff, Grand Bassa County, Liberia
December 13, 2005

These things meant we weren't going to get to Buchanan before dusk, which is a contravention of security rules. But then the primary fuel pump of our LandCruiser failed and we were stuck - fortunately just within radio range of Buchanan. The Buchanan staff sent out a rescue vehicle but we jury-rigged a fix and set off, watching out for the rescuers. Then our vehicle failed again and we had to be wait to be towed the rest of the way. We got to Buchanan long after dusk with a water-tight excuse.

On Wednesday our Geographic Information System (GIS) people concentrated on their training and development and while I was given a life-changing tour of the Liberian Government Hospital in Buchanan by my friend Dr. Simon (from Tanzania).

Liberian Government Hospital, Buchanan, Liberia. (Construction of new Outpatient Department in the foreground.)
December 14, 2005

The hospital does such good work and I was very happy to learn from the tour so I could do a better job in my posting to Harper - and then on Thursday night I learned that I am going to be transferred 'from' Harper (I've not yet been there) to Buchanan. This means I'll be working with, for and at this hospital! I'm delighted and I'm looking forward very much to taking on the duties.

Liberian Government Hospital ward
December 14, 2005

The world's largest contributor to UN peacekeeping forces is Bangladesh, and they seem to be the largest contingent in the UN Mission in Liberia too (although in total 49 countries contribute). Friday was Bangladeshi 'Victory' Day and Buchanan Merlin staff were invited to their party. Um - it was a tiny bit stiff and bland. First we were treated to a video from the Bangladeshi Tourist Authority (or some such) during which stiff soldiers served tea and snacks. Then we were served delicious food but the atmosphere remained a bit rigid as a very old Bollywood-type film (I was told the next day that it was Indian rather than Bangla) was projected - without sound. Needless to say the event was dry. I'm afraid we preceded to the 'EK' bar in Buchanan before the film ended. I hope the lead character got the girl.

Yesterday some of us drove back to Monrovia while the rest of the GIS team explore the beach in Buchanan. (I'll have a lot of opportunities to explore it in due course.) I'll be here in Monrovia for a few more days.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Rocks thrown at Thai restaurant

Cece beach, Monrovia

December 11, 2005

Yesterday was a packed day. Went first to a Cece beach with our Oxfam friend Phil. Then to the pool where he lives - and then to a Thai restaurant ('the' Thai restaurant?). As I gather is common here, virtually every car at the beach and at the restaurant belonged to the UN or an NGO - rows of large white Toyota LandCruisers. While we were eating, supporters of George Wear (loser in the recent Presidential run-off election) were demonstrating around his nearby party headquarters. Rocks started to be thrown and we Phil had to move his LandCruiser further inside the compound when some came over the wall. We'd been eating in the garden with the frogs but retreated to the balcony. We had to wait until an UNMIL (United Nations Mission in Liberia) security officer made his way into the compound and lead everyone out in a rather high-speed convoy of large white LandCruisers. 500m later all was peaceful.

At this writing we have been told to stay in our residences until the situation is assessed.

Thursday, December 8, 2005


Monrovia, Liberia
December 6, 2005

I've now had two nights in Monrovia (Liberia). I haven't yet taken on my Project Coordinator responsibilities in the town of Harper - at the moment I'm shadowing a Merlin team which is demonstrating the capabilities and usefulness of Geographic Information Systems. As GIS used to be my gig I'm going to be the national focal person for GIS in the future. We're going to be here until about Monday, when we'll go to Buchanan for several days to develop a GIS demonstration. We return to Monrovia on the 17th and I'll only get to Harper on the 23rd.

This Merlin team consists of Sarah from headquarters and Lynne and Johnny from an NGO called MapAction. They flew here with me and yesterday was our first full day in Liberia. We had meetings in the morning and then had a tour of Monrovia including a visit to one of Merlin's Primary Health Care facilities.

Monrovia reminds me a bit of Freetown, Sierra Leone, although I think it's flatter.

Sunday, December 4, 2005

Tavistock Square

Tavistock Square, London
December 5, 2005

It's the middle of the night in the Tavistock Hotel, Tavistock Square, about 80m from where a bus was exploded by a suicide bomber on July 7. I can't sleep because I allowed myself a nap yesterday afternoon after flying here over the previous night.

I've began my newest adventure: a year (perhaps?) as Project Coordinator with Merlin. I'm in London for two days of induction. Too bad two of my three bags aren't - I haven't seen them since Ottawa and British Airways doesn't know where they are. Luckily I'm in the habit of not packing many valuables into checked luggage although my brand new external hard disk (wonderful Christmas gift from Dad) is in there. The rest is clothes and books. Fortunately for two or three reasons, the one checked bag that did arrive is the one containing gifts from my new boss from her parents that I'm delivering from Ottawa.

I had a wonderful dinner and evening with my friend Susi who I'd met in Delhi and her boyfriend Jon and their friend Dave. It was a great reintroduction to the UK.