Saturday, December 18, 2010


I am again - for umpteenth time - trying to get fit. I have joined a gym (Metafitnosis) here in Islamabad. What I like about it after one workout is that it's close, that they integrate exercise with nutrition education, and that they provide personal training (which I've never had before).

I go Saturdays, Tuesdays and Thursdays (and I play Ultimate on Mondays).

With a bit of luck and a lot of determination I will get fitter. I will measure this by: weight loss (I'm at 88kg and I'm aiming for 75kg) and improved stamina (which will be apparent on the Ultimate field).

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Travel map

I have belatedly updated my travel map and list. The newest additions were Russia, South Korea, and Myanmar.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Lucinda Williams' 'Sweet Side' lyrics

You run yourself ragged tryin' to be strong
You feel bad when you done nothin' wrong
Love got all confused with anger and pride
So much abuse on such a little child
Someone you trusted told you to shut up
Now there's a pain in your gut that you can't get rid of
No one heard your screams when you were nine
When bad dreams filled your summertime
So you don't always show your sweet side
You don't always show your sweet side
You don't always show your sweet side
You don't always show your sweet side

You're tough as steel and you keep your chin up
You don't ever feel like you're good enough
You've had the blues ever since you were six
Your little tennis shoes and your pick-up sticks
You were screamed at and kicked over and over
Now you always feel sick and you can't keep a lover
Every Christmas there were presents to unwrap
But the things you witnessed when you were five and a half
So you don't always show your sweet side
You don't always show your sweet side
You don't always show your sweet side
You don't always show your sweet side

Someone deserted you, the damage is done
Now you don't deserve to be loved by no one
Hands that would feed you when you were two
Were the same hands that beat you black and blue
You get defensive at every turn
You're overly sensitive and overly concerned
Few precious memories no lullabies
Hollowed out centuries of lies
You don't always show your sweet side
You don't always show your sweet side
You don't always show your sweet side
You don't always show your sweet side

I've seen you in the kitchen cookin' me supper
I listened to you bitchin' and I watched you suffer
I still love you baby 'cause I know you
Don't mean to do the cruel things you do
I've seen you sewin' buttons on your shirt
I've seen you throwin' up when your stomach hurt
I stick by you baby through thick and thin
No matter what kind of shape you're in
'Cause I've seen your sweet side
I've seen your sweet side
I've seen your sweet side
I've seen your sweet side

I've seen your sweet side Baby
I've seen your sweet side
I've seen your sweet side Baby
I've seen your sweet side

update from Pakistan

Although I've blogged on two unrelated issues (this and that) I haven't explained what I'm going or where I've been since I was in Myanmar in August.


After travelling in Myanmar I returned to Thailand where I met Ms S for 15 days of fun in Bangkok, Phuket, Koh Phi Phi, Bangkok again and Cha Ma. But while I was in Thailand it began to rain in Pakistan and instead of continuing my travels (I had plans for Bangladesh, Laos and Vietnam) I came here to Pakistan to help with the Shelter Cluster's flood response. I'm contracted to November 22, when Dad will visit, but have also agreed to extend from December to May, if we don't have any opportunity to move to Canada or the UK.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Death and dying

My friend Dr Ben-Bob just posted this wonderful blog on Dying and not dying in the SICU.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Open letter to Terry Jones, Senior Pastor, Dove World Outreach Center

Dear Pastor Jones,

I wholeheartedly condemn your plan to burn the Holy Koran. While I expect I defend your right and anybody’s right to freedom of expression far more than you do (I apologize if I am wrong) I believe that true Islam and true Christianity teach precisely the same messages of love and peace. I have lived in predominantly Christian countries and predominantly Muslim countries and ordinary people tell me this everywhere.

You cannot say that your action is against Islam instead of Muslims because true Muslims love their holy book with all their heart. Of course there are Muslims that hate blindly and you and your congregation are currently reminding me all too clearly that there are Christians that hate blindly too but I believe you have forgotten the most important lessons you should have been taught.


Tom Haythornthwaite

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Bagan to Mandalay

I've put a set of Bagan to Mandalay (Myanmar) photos here.

I'm terribly behind and out of order with blogging. Russia isn't finished, and Korea (where I went before Myanmar) isn't started!

Sunday, July 18, 2010


I've put a set of Moscow photos here.


I've put a set of Kremlin photos here.

Moscow Metro

I've put a set of Moscow Metro photos here.

Itinerary updated 2010 07 19

I have never been able to live my dream of travelling widely without plans. Visas are the main reason, particularly being able to get out on the weekly ferry from Vladivostok to Korea before my Russian visa expires. Every Russian train I have been on has been completely full so it must also be necessary to book ahead. Luckily I was able to change my Russian itinerary because I was invited by a Russian soldier (who I met between Yekaterinburg and Irkutsk) to visit Blagoveshchensk, which is 110km off the Trans Siberian route. This meant that I exchanged my Ulan-Ude to Vladivostok (three nights) ticket for Ulan-Ude to Blagoveshchensk... and Blagoveshchensk to Vladivostok, arriving in Vladivostok one night later. Anna is a cook in the Russian army and received a medal in Chechnya for saving some civilian lives. (I couldn’t understand any further details as she speaks even less English than my Russian.) It was well worth it as Blagoveshchensk is very interesting. Anna drove me to all the sights and we finished with a lovely dinner at an Armenian restaurant (she is half Armenian) before our farewell at Blagoveshchensk station.

I have also had to plan some of my onward details, largely to accommodate friends (although their details are not all fixed yet). It now looks as if I will be doing something the following – with all gaps flexible and the last parts least certain:

Wednesday July 21: Depart Vladivostok on ‘Eastern Dream’ ferry (if they have my reservation).
Thursday July 22: Arrive Dong Hai, South Korea. Train to Seoul.

Friday July 30: fly Seoul to Bangkok, Thailand
Saturday July 31: fly Bangkok to Yangon, Myanmar

Monday August 2: fly Yangon to Bagan

Thursday August 5: fly Bagan to Mandalay
Friday August 6: fly Mandalay to Yangan
Saturday August 7: fly Yangan to Bangkok

Saturday August 28??: fly Bangkok to Delhi???

Thursday September 9: fly Delhi to Dhaka, Bangladesh?

October 4 – 14: must be in London for exams...

Trans Siberian Railway thoughts

My dad recently sent me photos of the deluxe observation cars on his railway travels in Alaska. I wish the Trans Siberian railway had such good observation cars – or observation. Outward visibility is one of the main problems (after the fact my compartments have been like saunas). I've been in ‘Kupé’ class compartments containing four bunks and one window. When the door is closed I can only see out one side, which on most of my five Kupé trains (which exclude the high speed Siemens deluxe intercity train from St. Petersburg to Moscow) has been to the north side, which is not the side with the kilometre markers. I have had the top bunk four times out of five and I prefer this because it gives me more of my own space. But it's even harder to see from the top bunk because the window doesn't extend high enough so you have to either lie on your chest and bend your neck or get into other contortions to see out.

The alternatives are the corridor windows, or a little window at near the toilet which is sometimes not locked. That window is the main point for fresh air – the problem with the vestibule (through another door) is that it smells like a cloud of smoke if people are there or, worse, an ashtray if they’re not. The freshest air is in the passage between the carriages but that’s not practical because there are inter-sliding floor plates, dangerous holes, terrific noise, and there is no room for people to pass you.

I have just inspected, on my last segment, the Platskartny class carriages. These are more open bunk arrangements – still with groups of four bunks but another pair along the opposite window and no doors or walls in between. (I think at least the transverse bunks must be shorter – and my Kupé bunk isn't long enough for my 168cm - because they also have to fit the width of the longitudinal bunks into the train.) When I travel on Russian trains again I will go with the Platskartny class because it will be easier to see out both sides, because I think the camaraderie looks more fun and because it will cost less.

Unfortunately I did not properly photograph my compartment. Kupé compartment (left) and Platskartny carriage - photos from The Man in Seat Sixty-One.

Despite mentioning that I would like to be able to see out more easily, the natural landscape has been the only big disappointment of my trips. Ninety five percent of the route has been uninteresting to look at. It reminds me of the interior of British Colombia, both for being boring, and for being less than I’d expected. The exceptions in Russia were near Lake Baikal where there was some relief (I use the word in both meanings). I learn too late from my guidebook that the really good scenery is on the Baikal-Amur Mainline route.

The cultural landscape, on the other hand, has exceeded my hopes. Fantastically fascinating. Settlements from towns up to cities display a lot more Soviet legacy than I’d expected. I haven’t been able to ask anybody but my feeling is that the Lenin statues and local hero statues have faded into the invisible landscape that nobody would bother to erase. Hammer and sickle ornaments cast iron bridge railings would take a lot of resources to replace. What I haven’t been able to measure is the emotional side. Would Russians tear Lenin down more often if it were easy, or do they miss the guaranteed health, education and employment that he promised and generally delivered? (Russia remains a very socialist country and the health care and education are still essentially guaranteed.)

The smaller settlements don’t display any political position I can decode. I shared my Kupé compartment from Moscow to Yekaterinburg with an American who has lived here for ten years. He confirmed my suspicion that they were changed no more by the transition from Communism to the free market as they had been by the Russian Revolution. They seem to concentrate more on survival. Some of them are on permafrost and one at least has to cope with a total annual temperature range of 110°C.

Having had eight nights in Kupé compartments I’m now pretty familiar with the routines. I have been paying for a daily meal (although it didn't seem to arrive on my last full day). One of the dining car staff comes mid-morning to ask what you want. I can never understand much of this dialogue but it involves the words ‘rice’ or ‘puré’ (mashed potato) and at least once involved the international sign signal for beef. (This is indicated with fingers representing horns. The international sign signal for chicken is wagging arms.)

The selected meal will arrive within a few hours. Companions who selected more cleverly will be served as much as an hour earlier because all the servings of their choice are prepared first. The rest of the meals are self-managed and the options are the dining car, when it deigns to be open, or fast food from station platforms, supermarkets near stations, or, theoretically, restaurants in stations. I have not tried the last option because there has so rarely been time.

Regarding the dining car, it may be a privatized concession but it still seems a bit Soviet to me. There are normally more staff than customers and they are all busy checking and rechecking the inventory and there is a distinct impression that any sale would impose a lot of extra stock management. What I don’t understand is what happened to the profit motive – it certainly doesn’t seem to have reached the staff. My chief disappointment about the dining cars is that there is none of the (drunken) atmosphere I’d expected from movies. I imagined I’d be sharing endless rounds of vodka but there’s almost nobody to do it with.

Yekaterinburg to Irkutsk dining car.

Blagovenshchensk to Vladivostok dining car.

A confusion, which is actually not a confusion, is the complete use of Moscow time. When I’d read about this I thought it was political Moscow centralism. All timetables (except for local commuter trains) refer to Moscow time. Clocks in trains and train stations across the country show Moscow time. As I ride in my seventh and last time zone (nearing Vladivostok) I can see that this is the most practical method. Perhaps it would never go down well in Canada, Australia or the US (the other countries where I have ridden transcontinental trains) but it’s the best way here. I’ve kept my watch on Moscow time and it makes interpreting the onboard timetables very simple, particularly as most of the time the trains arrive and depart at the scheduled minute. In my case my train to Blagoveshchensk lost two hours in the middle of the second night and never caught up, but others maintain the schedule to the minute day in day out. The Lonely Planet guide explains that train managers get bonuses for on-time performance – and that the schedules are set very conservatively to make this possible. I wish the on-board timetable would list the kilometre marks (distance from Moscow) at each scheduled stop. Because I often wanted to know when to be awake to see something mentioned in the Lonely Planet I was always having to cross reference my Moscow-watch, the kilometre marks mentioned in the guidebook, the timetable, and the difficult-to-glimpse kilometre marks beside the track. It must be so much easier for the thousand other passengers who don’t care.

Please see my (growing) Russia Photos pages here.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Russian Museum

Here are my selected pictures of the Russian Museum in Saint Petersburg. I chose this museum over the Hermitage when I learned that the Hermitage has virtually no Russian art.

Saint Petersburg

Here are my selected pictures of Saint Petersburg. It is truly the Venice / Amsterdam of the north (except it has more canals than either).

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Trans Siberian Railway Day 1

I am writing this after my first night on the Trans Siberian Railway. I hope I’ll be able to post it in Yekaterinburg tonight. This first leg of the railway is my training exercise – one night aboard followed by a night in a hotel (rather than the hostels I could only afford in St. Petersburg and Moscow). Tomorrow night I begin a three-night leg towards Irkutsk.

Quick first impressions of the train journey so far:

• Staff service better than expected
• Toilet nicer than expected
• Breakfast much more delicious than expected
• Vodka (last night of course) cheaper than expected
• Dining car much less a social centre than expected

Friday, July 2, 2010

St. Petersburg to Moscow. First class. 201 Kph.

[I wrote this on the St. Petersburg to Moscow train two days ago, but could not access my blog until today.]

I am currently travelling from St. Petersburg to Moscow on what will be the most luxurious part of my travels. Even after spending four nights in a (very clean and comfortable) hostel dormitory – with more cost-saving shared dormitory nights to come – I decided to travel first class on the new high speed St. Petersburg to Moscow train. None of the nine nights I’ll be spending on the Trans Siberian Railway will be this comfortable.

The train reached 201 Kph but averaged less than 1050 Kph. Service was exemplary. I can only afford this level of quality for this short ride - but I am sure I will enjoy the Trans Siberian anyway.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Share-now, Kabul

I have put some photos from a nice walk around Share-now, including the park here.

Former USSR

Tomorrow I will be in Russia - the country I have most wanted to visit for decades. My earliest memory of anything Russian was a school teacher in England (which means before I turned eight) frightening us with descriptions of Russians' neighbors, families and teachers(!) betraying them to the secret police. The only other thing I remember knowing about Russia was that my mother's 'Zenit' camera was made in Russia.

I think my next impression came from the 1972 Canada-Russia hockey series. Of course I remember celebrating Paul Henderson's winning goal for Canada but some associated TV documentaries about Russia also enchanted my eye. I also began to understand and yet deny that Russia and Communism was living doublespeak. The Red Army hockey team were 'amateur' but were paid to do nothing other than win at hockey. And I began to get confused about civil rights.

My admiration for Communism grew until I visited Ukraine in (about) 1998. Although I didn't visit Chornobyl it was that disaster, with its institutionalized manslaughter that finally turned my head and heart off Communism - as I realized that Communism does not automatically consider the individuals above the State (which is its whole point). My soul was saved by the simultaneous discovery that Capitalism has its own faults. (I now embrace Social Democracy.)

As well as visiting Ukraine I have been to Azerbaijan and a variously Communist-influenced countries like Afghanistan, Angola, Cuba. But until now I have never been to the former Communist Motherland. I anticipate loving it.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Asia 2010 preparation

This gentleman working on the Kabul sidewalk sewed Canadian flags onto my backpack and knapsack.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Asia 2010 - who can I meet?

I am counting down the days to my big Asian holiday. Here is my current itinerary, which includes my decades-old dream of riding the Trans Siberian Railway:

Monday June 28
Fly Kabul >>> Moscow >>> Saint Petersburg

Friday July 2
Train Saint Petersburg >>> Moscow

Wednesday July 7
Train Moscow >>>

Thursday July 8
>>> Yekaterinburg

Friday July 9
Train Yekaterinburg >>>

Monday July 12
>>> Irkutsk

Tuesday July 13
Diving in Lake Baikal

Wednesday July 14
Train Irtusk >>> Ulan-Ude

Thursday July 15
Train Ulan-Ude >>>

Sunday July 18
>>> Vladivostok

Wednesday July 21
Ferry Vladivostok >>>

Thursday July 22
>>> Dong Hae (South Korea)

Seoul, Busan, Cheoangji, Jeju...

Thursday July 29
Fly Seoul >>> Bangkok????

Friday July 30
Fly Bangkok >>> Yangon (Myanmar)
Fly Seoul >>> Bangkok >>> Yangon

Saturday July 31
Yangon >>> Bagan

Mount Poppa, Mandalay, Yangon...


Will any of my friends be in any of these places?

Thursday, June 10, 2010

TV Hill June 2010

Because I am unemployed I am free to make my own sensible security decisions here in Kabul. Yesterday I walked up 'TV Hill', chatting with the children and guards and enjoying the panorama. More photos here.

I will be very impressed if anybody can identify this beverage.

Sunday, May 23, 2010


I am back in Kabul - happily unemployed. While I'm tinkering with my CV my immediate goal is to catch up on my studies, reconnect with friends, and enjoy some freedom. It is wonderful to be able to make my own security decisions and, where and when I judge safe, walk amongst the real people.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Photos of Port-au-Prince. Photos outside town still to come.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Camp Charlie

This is where I lived for all but the first few weeks of my time in Haïti.

I'll try to upload some more important pictures of Haïti soon.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Farewell to Haiti

I left Haiti last week and had a busy and fun week in Ottawa, mostly with my Dad.

Haiti was a mostly wonderful experience for me. None of my previous three jobs (which were in Afghanistan) gave me as much sense of fulfillment and reward. This job was much harder but much much more worthwhile.

I discovered a lovely country that, with the world's support, might be about to pick itself up. However, roughly a million and a half people remain under tents and tarpaulins as the rains get stronger and stronger and the threats of flooding and of diseases like diphtheria continue.

I gained excellent experience in the Information Management section of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance (OCHA). (I was embedded there by CANADEM, a Canadian agency.) OCHA is central to the cluster approach, in which NGOs and other humanitarian actors cooperate in twelve 'clusters' (such as 'Shelter', 'Camp Coordination Camp Management', or 'Water, Sanitation and Hygiene') which have lead agencies. The cluster approach has the benefit of coordinating actors doing similar tasks but can also be viewed as introducing a 'silo' mentality.

Mainly I was making maps but I also worked on the Stable Site Identifier system that gave unique codes to the more than 1,300 spontaneous camps that sprung up in the days and weeks after the earthquake. I also worked on the OCHA 'Who Does What Where When' (4W) system that is meant to show which actors (who) do what (which cluster's activities) where (geographic communes) when (by month). Perhaps my passion was the clarification and propagation of the existing administrative boundary (Place Code or P-Code) identification system which helps actors integrate and compare their geographically based data.

This was my first humanitarian emergency (except the Tsunami, where I showed up two years after the fact) and it was an eye-opener. I have never seen so many different organizations. There were over 900 registered with OCHA I saw some fascinating names and titles, the vast majority of which are doing great work.

My only regret about my work in Haiti was that I did not see enough of the country and meet enough of the people. What I did discover reminded me of my wonderful experiences in Liberia.

It is natural for me to make comparisons with other experiences I've had. Despite some corruption (and irresponsible tardiness in the allocation of land for temporary shelter) I would rate our host government higher than that of Afghanistan (though the Afghan government has the world's greatest challenges) and much higher than the government of Sri Lanka.

I commend all the foreign militaries working in Haiti. Some of them working in Afghanistan follow an agenda which is at odds with humanitarian work because of a mixture of poor communication and divergent motives. The same countries' militaries are doing a wonderful job in Haiti. Of course Haiti has its own strategic importance but the militaries are cooperative and helpful. (The only problems I perceived were occasional duplications of efforts in the information gathering field.)

My biggest reward was meeting and or working with many people who I admire very much. I hope I can work with them again. I would also like to work more closely with many of the people whose work I saw and admired in various cluster meetings, even though we may not have spoken.

[To my well-meaning friends who have made remarks about 'heroism'. I'm never comfortable about this because it's totally inapplicable but I need to remark on it now because the Haiti earthquake response had genuine heroes in the search and rescue phase (before I arrived). Firefighters and other rescue specialists from all over the world were risking aftershocks and spontaneous collapses to pull survivors from the rubble. They were working with little or no sleep for days on end and will not be forgotten. In my case the work was exhausting but the rewards far far outweighed the sacrifices.]

I'm anxious to return to Kabul but, on the whole, Haiti was a wonderful experience which I think taught me a bit about how to give more back.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Haitian resettlement

Earthquake displaced people in the most congested and flood vulnerable camps in Port-au-Prince now have the opportunity to move to big new planned settlements a little distance out of town. This morning I heard the following jewel of a story about the process which is being managed by many NGOs and the Camp Coordination and Camp Management cluster lead agency, the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

Apparently a senior national IOM staff member was on hand yesterday at the new camp where the beneficiaries were being shown their surveyed plots, provided with non-food items and otherwise generally assisted. She saw a Haitian who seemed to be alone instead of lining up with his countrymen and women. When she went to offer him help her colleagues tried to nudge her but she asked them to wait while she was giving assistance. They had to interrupt her to help her realize that he was Haitian president René Garcia Préval. If I knew her better I'd tease her but I think she's gone through enough.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Further thoughts about Havana

It took me a day or two to realize notice but then I really appreciated that Havana has little or no public advertising. I saw no billboards or sponsorship of bus stops or any other such commercialism. Lovely.

Havana need not be an expensive city. I paid a lot for a chic hotel (previously checked out on my behalf by Sting and Jimmy Carter) but could have found comfort for a lot less. Meals in the excellent restaurants I enjoyed cost no more than they would have in Ottawa and a lot less than they would have in Oslo. Drinks are cheap everywhere. As I remembered from Veradero in the 1980s a Cuba Libre is hardly tainted by Coke – because Coke costs more than the rum. Bartenders free-pour absently and will top Cuba Libres up with rum once you make some space. Mojitos are made sweeter than I prefer but you can ask them to use less sugar. I am not an expert in rum – I enjoyed the stuff that is cheaper and safer than the water but I saw a 15 year old bottle for $125.

I had dreamed of travelling to Santiago de Cuba and back on the ‘tren francais’ which I learned about from The Man In Seat 61. I couldn’t find which days it runs anywhere on-line so I wrote to ask my hotel but they never answered. Perhaps they only use the "INTERNET" for bookings. The driver of my taxi from the airport said it hadn’t run for a year and I didn’t investigate much more because it seemed unlikely that I could fit that expedition into a week – and because I was enjoying Havana so much.

Havana is an excellent place for people who like to look at women who care about the way they look. Current fashion seems to include mini skirts and patterned stockings – even if the wearer is a police officer. The other mode is tight low-rise jeans and every woman wears high heels. Age is no limit.

Almost every tourist restaurant has live music and every other restaurant plays music all the time. I found music as prevalent as in Angola but Cuban’s don’t seem to dance as spontaneously. The instruments are always drums and guitars and percussion and often flutes. I’m pretty sure every single song was about love gained, love lost, or love carrying nicely on just for the time being.

Havana is not a good place to avoid Americans. They may have had to arrive via Panama or Toronto but that doesn’t stop them. Cuban authorities famously don’t stamp passports and I am now kicking myself for forgetting to ask for mine. I read a Cuban book (The Cuba Project: CIA covert operations 1959-62 – The Secret War, by Fabián Escalante, former head of the Cuban Secret Service) and visited a couple museums so I got a good refresher on Cuban propaganda (which I think is no more or less over the top than American propaganda) but the only public anti-American sentiment I noticed was posters calling for America to provide compassionate visas for divided families. Canadians are adored but I had to participate in the normal conversation I’ve heard a hundred times in a dozen countries as follows:

Friendly local person (insert ‘Cuban’, ‘Afghan’, etc.): “Where are you from, Friend?”

Me (with resignation): “Canada”

F.L.P.: “Which city? Toronto?”

Me (knowing what’s coming next): “No. Ottawa. The capital”

F.L.P.: “Really? I have a cousin/brother/sister/uncle/aunt/daughter/son/cat in Toronto”.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Cuban society

As in China I had difficulty learning what Cuban people really think about Communism and history. I took a very good bus tour of the city and the guide seemed sincere about the Revolution but I did not feel comfortable asking probing questions.

I wanted to get a tattoo saying ‘Paz’ to go with my ‘peace’ tattoos from China, Nepal and Thailand and I made friends with a tattoo artist who took me to his home. We didn’t share much language but managed in French which he had learned at school. (I met quite a few Cubans who have studied French and or English.) He didn’t understand why I would ask if every child goes to school – they all do - even though he didn’t seem bothered that his home lacked glass in all the windows and running water. (I opted out of my tattoo, even after he had carbon copied ‘Paz’ onto my arm, because he didn’t have a new needle. He somehow ‘acquires’ needles from a hospital and said he could probably get one in an hour or so but I was already thinking too much about the cheese plate at the Paella.)

I don’t think the public has any easy or legal Internet access. I asked about Internet cafes and was told I could access at any hotel. My hotel had one computer with a fast reliable connection available for $6 per hour. I think I saw some hotel staff using it so it is not impossible for them connect – but $6 is quite a lot of money for many Cubans. At one of the museums I watched a video about successes in every year since the Revolution. One of the fairly recent years featured a boast about Cuba’s connection to the “INTENET – a world-wide network of computers” as if that implied little more than the new wonderful ability of Party Officials to arrange Congresses of the International Federation of Unions of Propaganda Writers and Editors (IFUPWE).

My tour passed the ‘Centro Cultural Islamico Malcolm X’. Apparently Havana has a mosque (and two Synagogues) – amongst over two thousand Catholic churches. My tour guide said that early Spanish settlers brought their Moorish influences to Cuba but I have an uncomfirmed feeling that the influence is more recent.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Celebrities in Haiti

I have got a lot of time for the two most famous celebrities (apart from Bill Clinton) who have been to Log Base where I work in Haiti. Angelina Jolie seems to know how to use her celebrity contentiously and usefully although I haven’t personally heard her speak. Today I was working at the International Organization for Migration office near to Sean Penn. He was participating in a meeting about the upcoming relocation of 7,500 people from the spontaneous camp where he lives and works to newly prepared transitional camp where displaced Haitians will live for at least a couple of years. He is very knowledgeable about humanitarian issues and passionate about his work and his NGO (Jenkins-Penn Haitian Relief Organization)’s beneficiaries. He has earned the attention and respect of the other experts in the meeting.

I wanted to meet him but he was busy and I had no justification. It felt nice to have made eye contact because I think he’s doing something very real.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Arts and Letters

I appreciate any cinema that puts the director’s name on the marquee and I enjoyed Michael Mann’s ‘Enemigos Publicos’ (with its several references to Cuba) at the Payret. It is a vast classical cinema that allows patrons to bring in their own cold beers.

Cuba has lots of bookshops. Most have English sections. Most books appear to be the writings or speeches of Fidel, Che, or Noam Chomsky but to be fair you can also see in and amongst those titles a separate genre: books written about Fidel, Che, and probably Noam Chomsky too.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Baseball in Cuba

Children (mostly boys) play improvised baseball games everywhere. I saw one boy batting with an empty 2 litre Coke bottle.

Devotees play overlapping games all around the national Capatolio building where I was called up as a pinch-hitter in an afternoon game between two unidentified teams.

I stared down the pitcher – which was not hard – and assumed my batting stance, crouching low to shrink the strike zone to his level. He wound up and delivered what was either a changeup or simply his best fastball. I lifted my left leg and hit the ball over the infielders and set off – at which point I realized I didn’t know where the bases were. ‘Donde el baso una?’ I yelled, and an infielder pointed to a tree beside the corner of the Capatolio. I reached first safely and feeling confident took a big lead towards where geometry led me to expect another base. The next batter popped a high fly ball and I tagged up at my tree, but the fielder caught it and apparently that was the third out. I had been sent in on a clean-up role and failed. I retired as the oldest player (by about 35 or 40 years) in the league.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Dining in Cuba

The Paella Restaurant in the Hotel Valencia was my favourite – the only place where I ate twice. I ordered their cheese plate and washed chunks of Stilton wrapped in slices of mozerella down with a Merlot for an absolute taste orgasm. The Paella and a couple of other restaurants I liked have a delicious dish of thick succulent slices of chicken, beef and pork in a subtle glaze.

Once I discovered that my hotel breakfast could include a juicy hamburger with mozzarella I ordered nothing else for the rest of my mornings. When I went to Cuba in the eighties (to Varadero, not Havana) I was disappointed by the blandness of the food but eating this last week has been a delight.

All Havana service industry staff – even in the lowest of dives and even where only locals and people like me eat and drink – wear black and white uniforms. You even sometimes see people dressed this way patronizing establishments on their way to and from work.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010


I'm about to return to Haiti after a great holiday in Havana.

Links to more pictures here

Saturday, March 20, 2010

I am in Havana on Rest and Recuperation from Haiti, where I worked never less than ten hours a day from February 2 until March 27. So far I have done little more than sleeping, reading a book about Cuba and the CIA, and walking around (and taking my first bath since October) but I’ll be taking a tour of the city tomorrow and making a start on the museums.

Although I am one of very many tourists I’m discovering Havana seem wonderfully uncommercial. I’m in a charming hotel that is full of colour and flowers – with no advertising or tackiness.

(NOTE: The water was that colour when it came out of the tap.)

There really are old American cars here. At least one I noticed (shown last below) would have been quite old even at the revolution. As many of these beauties are taxis I might get a ride in one but the taxi from the airport was a Kia - and seemed to be in worse condition than these.

I'd like to caption these - can anybody identify them?

Friday, February 26, 2010

Sharky is fine

Sharky says this was the worst bomb she's experienced in Kabul (and she's already experienced some bad ones) but she's 'fine'. I wish I hadn't left her there alone.

Bombs in Kabul

It feels worse waiting for news from Kabul when I'm not there.

Monday, February 22, 2010

This was the office for the OCHA mapping team in Port-au-Prince until a couple of days ago. We are now in prefabricated offices - but not yet our ultimate 'permanent' ones.

The first business of every day was to pump up the frame - the front (not shown) tended to droop during the night.

Friday, February 19, 2010

My organization

This link shows how I am deployed here in Port-au-Prince.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

First few days in Haiti

I think I’ve been in Haiti for four days now. The days seem so long and the nights so short. We have meetings at 7am and meetings at 7:30pm. I have literally not left the UN LogBase compound since I arrived – as it within the Port-au-Prince airport compound walls. But if I were to have time to go out I would be safe because this is a much nicer place to be than Kabul.

I am working with the Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Haiti and my role is the development, maintenance, and dissemination of geographic databases related to the earthquake response. I have splendid colleagues and I cannot remember the last time I felt this much camaraderie.

I live in a tent which is a few cm shorter than I am but if I lied diagonally I fit. On the first night I was allocated to a large communal tent but I prefer my own (small) space and the freedom to snore.

There are two showers for 90 people but by waking up early I have never had to wait for long.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Arrived in Port-au-Prince, Haiti

After five flights and four nights (Frankfurt, Ottawa, and two nights in Santo Domingo) I have arrived in Port-au-Prince.

More tomorrow.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Gore vs. Bush

From the 2000 debate (quoted by this BBC story)

Gore: "Under the [Texas] governor [George W. Bush]'s plan, if you kept the same fee for service that you have now under Medicare, your premiums would go up by between 18% and 47%, and that is the study of the Congressional plan that he's modelled his proposal on by the Medicare actuaries."

Bush: "Look, this is a man who has great numbers. He talks about numbers.

"I'm beginning to think not only did he invent the internet, but he invented the calculator. It's fuzzy math. It's trying to scare people in the voting booth."

This is who our neighbor to the south voted for...

Friday, January 29, 2010


I've seen a few queries about my deployment to Haiti. This is the scoop:

I applied to a few organizations in hopes of helping in Haiti. Only Merlin responded, but by then a Canadian UN recruiting agency had asked me to go and help the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Haiti. I enjoyed cooperating with OCHA in Sri Lanka so this makes me very pleased.

I resigned from the World Food Program and am right now in Frankfurt en route to Ottawa to collect my tent (and see my Dad) and then Santo Domingo where I will have a day of training before heading to Port-au-Prince - perhaps on Tuesday.

I don`t know much more about what will happen except that I understand I'll be living and working this close to the Aeroport Toussant L'Ouverture airport.

Meanwhile Sharky is expecting confirmation of a different opportunity in Port-au-Prince. No details yet.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

We're are fine

There was a suicide blast a few kilometres from our compound just now but we're both fine.

I'm really looking forward to when we've left this country...

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Frozen beauty

If only I could afford it I would buy this beautiful 100 year old photograph by Wilson A Bentley. (Story here.)


Sharky and I are going to Haiti - almost certainly. I applied for several Haiti jobs but got no response, and then was approached by CANADEM (a Canadian agency that provides human resources to the United Nations) about a position at the Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Port-au-Prince. I confirmed I would love to go and now they are checking with OCHA. I'll post updates.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Candlelight vigil for Haiti

At United Nations UNOCA compound, January 19, 2010.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Sharky and I are OK

There is currently a complex attack in the center of Kabul but we are far away and safe. BBC story here.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

"Vaccination Diplomacy"

This Wall Street Journal story illustrates the complexity of the World Health Organization's task in the south of Afghanistan.

It discusses the diplomatic and political issue of negotiating with the Taliban for access.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

George Orwell's six rules of writing

I have discovered and I admire these rules of writing by George Orwell:

1) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

2) Never use a long word where a short one will do.

3) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out. [But why didn't he say "...out, do so"?]

4) Never use the passive voice where you can use the active.

5) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

6) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

- "Politics and the English Language," George Orwell

Tuesday, January 5, 2010


We had a wonderful escape to Dubai for New Year's.

The Dubai that I normally see is modern and artificial.

Driver-less train.

Artificial rocks. Artificial waterfall.

Artificial wave.

World's tallest building. (300m taller than any rival.)

Ice skating in the world's largest shopping mall - in the desert. (I am in this picture.)

Artificial horizon pool

When we went to the bus station we saw some of the older parts of town. Unfortunately no photos. We would like to explore there next time.