Archive for the ‘Blog’ Category

When one blog just isn’t enough…

Posted: August 8, 2008 in Blog

Okay, okay, so things’ve been pretty quiet around here. Sorry ’bout that. But if as a result you are looking to fill a blog-shaped hole in your life, then why not wander by a new blog I started recently?

A think-tank asked me to blog about the media’s role in the developing world. You can find the blog here.

It is run under an umbrella group called ‘Governance Village’. You can find out more about them here.

On the life cycle of tadpoles

Posted: July 16, 2008 in Blog

Standing ankle-deep in water at the local swimming hole, I was unprepared for a moment of self-reflection.

But, tonight, there it was. I was looking down into the shallow waters, searching for the scores of tadpoles that usually scatter whenever I set foot in the lake.

Alas, there were none to be found

At least initially. Because I then saw the evidence of time passing by when I spotted a handful of plump tadpoles swimming along lazily.

These were no svelte, spry tadpoles exploring their new world. No, these were well-fed bruisers who looked a day or two away from stepping onto dry land.

There I was in the water, sun setting behind me, staring at my feet and thinking about what it means to have been living in one place long enough to witness a pile of tadpoles reach maturity.

A less than profound mental image, I know.

If you had asked me a year ago, when I was packing my bags for Uganda, where I saw myself in one year I probably wouldn’t have said “Standing ankle deep in a Quebec lake staring at fat tadpoles and wondering what it all means.”

But whaddya know, there I was.

And here I am.

These last couple months have been unpredictable, busy, fun and perplexing. Usually all at the same time. I’ve taken on a job covering Canada for the UK paper the Financial Times and have found a great chalet overlooking ski hills and near a lake and waterfalls and hiking that has given me plenty of exploring to do as I try to keep myself distracted.

The transition has been smooth enough, though I miss Uganda terribly. Nearly every person I’ve met who has lived in Uganda eventually goes back and I wouldn’t be surprised if I counted myself in that group someday.

Unpacking in my new home took at least twice as long as it should have. I was enjoying all the things I brought back with me from East Africa and Europe, while also digging through boxes that had been in storage for the better part of a year and rediscovering all the things I’d forgotten about. Each book I pulled from the boxes seemed so far away that it was new again.

And so here I am, surrounded by old and new, doing exactly what I wrote about at the end of this post in Stockholm– taking a breather at a bend in the road, wondering where I’ll find myself next.

Home, and a couple articles

Posted: May 6, 2008 in Blog

My boots have been on Canadian soil now for a couple weeks, enjoying some time at home and with family and friends while I plan my next steps.

In the meantime, here are a couple articles I wrote that have appeared recently in the Canadian Medical Association Journal:

First, an article that came out of a conference on a global shortage of health care workers that was held in Kampala.

Second, an article about the Ebola outbreak that struck western Uganda late last year.

A bend in the road ahead

Posted: April 16, 2008 in Blog

Writing here while aboard a ferry between the Netherlands and the U.K., I had hoped to write a fair bit on this site during my month in Europe. At that point, it had been mere hours since I’d left Uganda and the road ahead was one I was excited about documenting.

Well, I’ve been documenting it. But as you can see, I haven’t been documenting it here. Instead of looking back on a wealth of posts from some of the seven countries I’ve visited in the last four weeks, I see only that post fresh from Uganda and only one more written hastily in London– neither of which illustrate what I’ve done, seen, thought or felt over the past month.

And so I’m left here sitting at a kitchen table in Stockholm surrounded by the remnants of one last dinner party and the glow of a light that turns the window beside me into a mirror that mimics my every movement.

It has been a wonderful month of seeing new places, revisiting friends new and old and thinking of the road ahead while digesting the past nine months.  In the U.K. I stayed mostly with friends from Canada who live in and around London. I had initially meant to stay only a few days, but ended up being there for two weeks. It was fun having that time to properly visit with people, to see sites and also to plan the rest of the trip since I’d found myself too caught up in day-to-day life in Uganda to plan the Europe travels from there. I explored London, went south to Dover and across to northern France and then up north of London to see friends there. Later, a few of us went to Stonehenge and the town of Bath, both of which are beautiful and highly recommended if you’ve never been.

Then it was on to Austria, which was a five-day whirlwind experience that was in many ways the highlight of the trip. It was a chance to see things I’d only ever heard about and to take a train into the Alps and see the spectacular sights there. From there, it was on to Slovakia for a short stay before flying up to Sweden where I am now. Tomorrow I fly to Amsterdam before leaving for Canadian soil. It will be nice to be home.

Each leg of the journey was memorable for different reasons. But a common thread wove its way through each city and country. Along the way, I was meeting up with Canadians living abroad and friends I’d met in Uganda who have since returned to their home countries or, in one instance, distant relatives I’d never before met. Sitting in their living rooms and kitchens, we often talked long into the night about journeys taken and those yearned for.

Amidst those I met in Uganda who have since returned home, I often found myself surrounded by mementos of their trips– flags on the wall, pictures in frames, tins on shelves. Or more subtle, like the Luganda grammar book on the shelf, or the scarf hanging by the door that is unmistakably East African.

These are tangible signs of the less-than-tangible elements that linger long after the last suitcase is emptied– in the way stories are told or the smile that’s just a bit bigger, just a bit more sly,  when a journey taken comes into conversation. These conversations take place long after the detriment– the blown travel budgets, the missed flights, any language difficulties– has been sifted out so what remains is warm memories, the recalling of which is powerful enough to put a spring in your step.

In Austria, the wonderful couple I stayed with told me of a long-ago trip to Canada, where they saw more of Canada than many Canadians themselves ever see. “You come home from a trip like that, and you look around at your old life and you don’t feel too excited,” one of them said as we sipped wine in a chalet on the hills overlooking Vienna.

I looked around at their “old life”– in Vienna, one of the most beautiful cities you could hope to set eyes on, and their home that backs onto the forest on the fringes of the city– and thought that as far as “old” lives went, this one didn’t look so bad. But it was a reminder that what is old to others is new to me, and vice-versa. It was also a reminder of how little we sometimes explore the familiar territory that surrounds us. It can take a fresh pair of eyes to remind us of the beauty, the richness, that so often surrounds us. All too often, that beauty keeps quiet while we rush to and from work and practice and errands, focusing on the mundane instead of thinking of how many people yearn to see what we may see every day on the way to work.

Here in Stockholm, a friend took me on a tour of the city’s old town. “You know I haven’t seen any of this in ages, it’s fun,” she said as we wound our way along narrow cobblestone streets, later standing on the palace steps where we stood silently for a spell, just watching the sun set. I loved every moment of it. And it reminded me: when I was living in Toronto, why didn’t I spend more time in High Park? Why didn’t I ever bike down to the lake shore bridge separating Toronto from Etobicoke just to see what the sunset looked like from there? Who knows, maybe it would be nice. When I was living in Ottawa, I could have ended each day with a walk behind Parliament Hill to see the sun disappear and, in the Fall, to see colours creep into the leaves on the Gatineau Hills; Living on Vancouver Island, not once did I get up on a Saturday morning and take the ferry to Salt Spring Island to check out the market there; How could I have gone so long between visits to Algonquin Park when I was growing up?

Those are all things someone visiting for the first time would likely take pictures of, and tell stories about when they went home. Just like how in so many places on this Europe trip, I gathered pictures and stories in places that were everyday sights to the throngs who passed me on their way to or from appointments as I stood slack-jawed gazing at a beautiful building or standing on a street trying to imagine what it looked like during the war.

What am I trying to say? That the line between adventure and everyday may be fuzzier than many of us realize, and it’s those who find a way to stay in the middle who are the lucky ones.

What I’m also trying to say, more to reassure myself than anything, is that when I get on the plane back to Canada it will hopefully not be the full-stop end to one adventure but instead a semi-colon that, as the late U.S. doctor Lewis Thomas said, is a wooden bench at the bend in the road ahead, where you can sit for a moment to catch your breath.

A little change’ll do you good…

Posted: April 1, 2008 in Blog

change

I realized, while my weighed-down pockets had me swaggering down the street like John Wayne on his way to a western dust-up, that my Uganda approach to collecting small change is not as effective here in the UK.

In Uganda, small change is worth its weight in gold. It means you can pay a boda-boda or matatu taxi exact change, you can pay for your lunch without feeling bad about the server having to canvas the area for change and you can pay for phone air time without any hassles. The two largest denominations, the 20,000 shilling (about $11) and 50,000 shilling (just under $30) notes, are generally major hassles to break, since they are so much more than most day-to-day expenses. So when a group is out for dinner and all chipping in on the bill, any change and small bills tossed in are highly coveted by all others who want to break their bills.

There was a local food joint near my house that I went to often. I’d order the same thing every time– matooke, posho and rice, with stewed beef served in a soup that would be poured onto the matooke (steamed bananas), posho (a corn flour and water mixture with the consistency of mashed potatoes) and rice. With a drink, the total would come to 2,600 shillings (about $1.50). Once, I paid with a 5,000 shilling note (about $3) and they gave me my change but for several times after that they always checked with me when I ordered to see if I had exact change. “If you only have a big bill (meaning anything 5,000 shillings and above), please give it to me now so I can find change in the market while you eat,” the kind woman said. I always made a point to bring exact change from then on.

That having been my approach to small change for quite some time, it became my default approach here in London as well. I would break bills whenever buying newspapers, drinks or other small items, with the thought that I needed to make sure I had lots of small change.

The problem is, the British are fans of small coins. Their one pence, two pence and other small pence coins fill your pocket in no time. And so it was that I was walking down the street yesterday with, perhaps, 10 pounds ($22-ish) in my pocket, but much of it in coins that were so heavy I was walking with an unintentional swagger.

The abundance of coins is mixed with a different economy, where things are of course more expensive so more money is coming and going from your pocket. In one coffee shop I didn’t have the right change for a 1.25 pound cup of tea and apologized profusely as I gave him a 10 pound note, apologizing for him having to break such a big note.

He laughed. I was reminded, yet again, that I was not in Uganda any more.

________________

On a side note, all is going well on the trip. I’ve been traveling around the UK seeing friends and sites new and old. I am getting ready to move on elsewhere in Europe this weekend. It was freezing cold when I landed in Europe from Uganda, and I showed up at my friends’ London apartment wearing a rain jacket and sandals feeling like I’d just swum through a lake of ice cubes. I immediately bought a sweater that has rarely left my sight, but things are now warming up and it’s been quite nice traveling around in the crisp spring air.

Sitting on a ferry between the Netherlands and the U.K., I’m about 25 hours into the approx. 31 hours it’ll take to get door-to-door from Kampala to London. So far, so good. Before catching the ferry, I popped into a small pub in an even smaller Dutch coastal village. It was nice, really nice.

Uganda was hard, very hard, to leave, even if there’s a chance my absence may only be temporary. Between farewells to friends, touring the markets to say goodbye to everyone and having the area boda-boda drivers ask if they could come with me to the airport to say good-bye, it was an emotional parting. But it ended nicely– sitting with a few friends on the shores of Lake Victoria having one last cold drink before stepping onto the plane.

Though this leg of the journey has only just begun, I can be assured of one thing: I am going to freeze. I’ve had three cups of tea and a cup of coffee since landing (and for anyone who knows me well and my complete avoidance of coffee, that should speak to the degree of coldness), and am still cold. Though I quite enjoyed the looks I got in the village, walking along the coast in sandals as I passed people in winter boots and coats. I think on my end the novelty will wear off pretty quickly, though. Item number one on the London agenda may very well be sweater-and-fuzzy-slipper shopping.

Once on the ferry I was chatting with a burly long-distance truck driver from the U.K. who said I had a nice tan. Off-putting, that.

So this will be a new phase for the site, as I’ll be in Europe for the next month. I’ll post as often as I can, but the nature of the posts will certainly be different than they have been (and my apologies for the lack of posting of late. The last month in Uganda was a blur and one that I didn’t do a good job of documenting). Feel free to swing by the site every now and then and have a look at what’s going on.

Now time to go refill the coffee cup…

 On this day, when I will be getting on a plane to Europe, here are a few pictures of the people I’ve met along the way…

Bodas

These are four boda-boda drivers who I’ve enjoyed getting to know. Each are great guys– from Ronald, who at 21 has kids aged four and three and is trying his best to learn English, to Jackson who is president of the local boda-boda association, to Mathias who always has a joke and a wry smile, to Joseph who I have written about often here and has been a great friend.

YMCA class one

Here are some of the students learning English at a school I’ve been working at the past month or so. They are mostly Sudanese and are all wonderful people. There is no doubt in my mind that in the very short time I spent there, I learned more from them than they could have possibly learned from me. Below is a picture with the second English class I’ve been working with.

YMCA class two

Here is Stanley, one of the men in the nearby market who I have been buying my fruits and vegetables from these past months. Yesterday when I went to see him one last time, we sat for a while enjoying a few nuts as he told me about his family.

Market

Below is Francis, who sells roasted chickens outside the market. He always got a kick out of hearing me using the few Luganda phrases I’ve picked up.

Chicken Francis

And lastly, Tom, who has been cutting my hair since I got here. A wonderful, soft-spoken man who, despite having only a pair of clippers with no attachments, was by far the best barber I’ve ever been to.

Barber Tom

These are some of the many, many people I will be thinking of as I get on the plane.