Posts Tagged ‘Travel’

Stroke My Massive Ego…

August 12, 2011

In a boost to my already massive ego I’ve been a ‘guest blogger’ for GetInvolved.ca. Woo.

You can find my drivel at: http://www.getinvolved.ca/2011/08/a-long-way-from-home/

Or read it here…

In March 2009, I was dropped off outside a busy casualty department of a developing-world hospital at two a.m. on a Saturday morning and was met with all the kinds of sights, sounds and smells you might imagine.

I’d quit my job and travelled thousands of miles to come here and do a voluntary job in international development.

Here was the small town of Opuwo, capital of the Kunene Region of the Republic of Namibia and home of the Himba tribe – one of the world’s most visually unique and oft-photographed tribes.

The job was to be an IT Specialist for the Ministry of Health and Social Services, a role with a two-paragraph explanation encompassing just about everything.

Everyone’s motivation for volunteering is different but honestly for me it was mainly selfish with a degree of altruism mixed in there somewhere. I wanted to travel, have new experiences, challenge myself and hopefully do something worthwhile along the way.

I spent quite a while “shopping around” the different opportunities for volunteer work abroad – everything from the “pay yourself” projects, to the build an elephant reserve or orphanage sites. In the end, I settled on applying to Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO).

VSO (CUSO-VSO in Canada) are a large charity that specialise in sending skilled professionals overseas anywhere from three months to two years in a variety of roles in many different countries.

In September 2009 I attended an assessment day in London and by some miracle was selected as a potential volunteer. Six months later I was standing at the casualty department wondering what the hell I was doing here and thinking I may have made the biggest mistake of my life.

But by the next morning it had become apparent I hadn’t made a mistake as I explored the dusty little town I now called home. Walking the streets was like being inside a National Geographic photo shoot: the sun was beaming down and the bustle on the pavements was interrupted only by the occasional wandering goat or donkey.

Working overseas is far different from travelling or touring. The level of exposure to different cultures and experiences are far beyond anything I could have experienced as a tourist. Working alongside the people gives you the opportunity to get to know them well, struggle through the same challenges, drink with them in the shebeens, celebrate their birthdays and weddings.

Professionally it’s been an eye-opener. Gone are the days of forming teams of various skilled individuals to solve a difficult technical problem. Now it’s just me with a paperclip, glue and some luck. If network cabling needs installed then I’m off in a heavily-loaded bakkie with a drill, cable and the willingness to get very dirty crawling through ceilings (or rather convincing colleagues to do the crawling).

And personally, it’s confirmed what I think I always knew (or hoped); people are people the world over and generally good. The less well off people are often the more generous they are and nearly everyone is keen for opportunities to better themselves or better their work.

I’ve been lucky enough to work and live alongside some really dedicated professionals. Opuwo may seem like an idyllic placement to me coming from the UK, but for many of my Namibian colleagues it is seen rightly as a difficult place to live and work. The sparsely populated vastness of the area and the rugged terrain give delivery of healthcare some very unique challenges.

One of VSO’s mottos for their volunteers is that they must be adaptable. Last week for instance, I was doing a network installation for one of our hospitals, this week I’m out driving around with a team doing polio immunisations and next week I’m giving a presentation to a group of Parliamentarians on ICT development in the Kunene Region.

Of course it’s not all been plain sailing. There have been nights in the summer where I think my brain is about to melt and run out of my ears, local and not-so-friendly bacteria take time to get used to (if you ever can) and getting stuck in sand in the middle of the Namib desert with only a few leaky water bottles on hand and not seening another car for 24 hours was worrisome to say the least.

But despite all that, I can confidently say that this decision has been the best of my life.

If I had one piece of advice to give to aspiring international volunteers it is this: you can’t expect the unexpected – so try and expect nothing, keep an open mind and see what happens.

The results, unpredictable as they are, may well astound you. They will certainly surprise you.

Anyway if you’re Canadian or whatever and fancy volunteering you should check them out.

Please Note…

I’m traveling at the moment (right now in Dar es Salaam) so blogging and email replying may be slower than ever.

Some posts are safely on a hard disc supposedly in a bag flying to Europe (if all went well). Others are just in my head.

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Etosha Weekend

October 12, 2010

Last weekend I set off with a group of Peace Corps friends (John, Emily, Ann and Patty) to the Etosha National Game park for fun and frollicks.

I took Friday off mainly to clean out the car (I even washed it, sort of) and then set off with John and Ann to Outapi and Emily’s homestead (she lives with an Otjiwambo family deep in the bush). We met her “host family” who were very friendly (even to me), ate some traditional food, drank a little Tafel and chatted the night away.

Her homestead is in the middle of nowhere (makes Opuwo look like a city) with no electric lights for a few kilos around (which comes in handy later on).

In the morning I was up at 6.30 and feeling very tired. I’m sure the mass of empty bottles I had to wade through outside my tent had nothing to do with it. Soon we were on the road (well, the track) then onto the main road and picked up Patty near Outapi.

Stocked up on supplies in Oshakati and headed a few hundred km to the north gate for the park. Separate to any camping fees you pay a park entrance which comes in 24-hour blocks. Though we were only staying the one night because it was only 11.30am when we entered (and we get the local Namibian resident rate N$30 about £3 rather than N$80) we went mad and bought a 48 hour pass so we could leave at our leisure on Sunday.

After finding nothing as usual at the Stinkwater hole (will I never learn not to love that name enough to drive and find… nothing) the next waterhole provided some giraffes and bock various.

Etosha Waterhole Scene

Onwards through Namatoni for refreshments and ice we started hitting the big concentration of waterholes along the southern end. Eletastic with big groups standing around. Naturally I got a few bottom shots.

Elephants at Etosha

The rest of the day we meandered around, seeing more eles, giraffe and bock-various. Having set our tents up at Hallali we ventured out onto the pan (vast expansive salt pan in the middle of the park) and then retired to the campsite for Emily’s sausage brochens with mayo and other stuff. Most good.

After sunset we got to the waterhole (which is lit at night) in time to see a family of Rhino wandering about which vindicated my decision we should stay in Hallali rather than the more popular Oka-whatsit. Victory was mine.

Rhino Family at Hallali Waterhole Etosha

After the Rhino had wandered off we waited, and waited, and waited. Eventually after nothing else appeared I headed off to bed.

In the morning I was up around 6 to see the sunrise at the waterhole and the inevitable animal carnival. There was nothing. After a while I went back to bed for a nap.

We took full advantage of the 48-hour pass lack of pressure by lazing around, napping, showering (wonderful as I hadn’t had water in Opuwo for the previous two days) and bickering.

Camp dismantled and loaded up with cool drink, John was dispatched into the reception to find out where the lions were. This time round in Africa I have seen no lions. This was my third trip to Etosha and I even went to Chobe in Botswana earlier in the year. No lions.

Of course everyone else finds endless lions. New VSO intake go to Etosha, wham, 30 lions juggling flaming clubs. Driver goes to Kamanjab early in the morning, bam, lions crossing the road near Werda. But so far I was the anti-lion.

However all that was set to change and following the directions of the staff we drove out to a waterhole near the pan to find… LIONS. For a moment we weren’t sure, there had been so many false sightings of lionesque bushes and a hyena on the road looking cunningly lionly but there they finally were – a pride of six at least.

Lion Pride at Etosha

Lion at Etosha

We sat and watched the lions for a loooong time. It was excellent. At one point a massive herd (several hundred) of Springbock came toward the water and we waited with bated breath for some lion-on-bock action. Sadly they paused and even though a solitary bock (we named him Brave Bob though I think maybe Blind Bob might be nearer the truth) kept coming he suddenly stopped, probably after he saw the bloody lions.

The lions had their eyes locked onto the herd but sadly didn’t chase down a free lunch.

Eventually we decided that the lions weren’t going to do anything other than laze in the sun (and who can blame them?) so bid adieu. On the way out we had some more Ele action and then another apparently solitary lion at the very last waterhole before the gate.

Stopping in Oshakati I was introduced to the wonders of SOS pizza which was fantabulastic. We then dropped Patty off at her homestead gate and managed to find our way back to the main road.

Emily’s homestead, easy enough to find in the daytime if not a bit remote, turned out to be near impossible to find at night (for us palefaced devils anyway). We spent an hour or so circling round dirt tracks which all looked alike. Eventually Emily managed to get through to her Host Mother who (and this is where we thank the gods for the lack of electric light out there) could see our headlights and proceeded to talk us in. Even with this we still struggled and in the end were only rescued by two of her host sisters walking out and flashing torches. Victory.

Because someone was locked out of John’s house, me having to work the next day and foolish bravado we decided to get back on the main road and go to Opuwo that night rather than staying over. We were confident we could at the very least find our way back, especially with the instructions we now had.

No.

Instead we ended up even more lost in the bush. Finally using a combination of my GPS (though obviously none of the tracks are on it) and the notoriously useless dashboard compass we drove by-bearing cross country and after only a moderate amount of sobbing and recrimination FOUND A MAJOR GRAVEL ROAD.

After that it was simple to get into Outapi and pick up the main road arriving back to Opuwo in one piece around 1.30am.

So in summary a successful weekend with much fun and japes. AND LIONS OF COURSE! No longer the anti-lion. I just hope my lion-powers now don’t make them come and visit me at home.

Travels the Second

December 1, 2009

Ok so this post is (just) a little late. It actually follows on from my first travels with my Dad after I’d spent a week back at work. End of September-ish time.

Ruacana and the North

From Opuwo we headed North to the Kunene River and Ruacana. These are a set of waterfalls which, when running, rival Epupa for scale and majesty. Naturally they weren’t running (height of the dry season and all that) but you could see from the rockface that they would be impressive were they, ahem, actually running.

Must return when they are. Assuming I can actually get up there in the rainy season that is.

The Kunene River was very nice though as was the campsite we stayed at with a lovely view over the valley to Angola. The Hippo Pool we went to see was I suppose 50% correctly named – it was a pool even if there were no hippos.

From there we headed East through Oshakati and, having spectacularly failed to locate any of the many campsites marked on my pocket atlas of the world, eventually struck gold and found an unbelievably posh lodge somewhere near Etosha that also did camping, well away from the eyes of the lodge dwelling millionaires of course. We even had an armed guard for the night which was interesting curiously both reassuring and worrying.

Caprivi Strip

Having made much more progress than planned on the previous day we continued to burn up the Namibian countryside and made it to the start of the Caprivi Strip. This is the bit of Namibia that juts out Eastward above Botswana and below Zambia and Zimbabwe. We stayed for two nights at a place called Poppa Falls on the edge of the mighty Kavango river.

At this point, owing more to luck than my spectacular planning we also met up with some friends who were over doing a South Africa and Botswana trip with a one night stopover in Namibia. More cool beers overlooking the river.

There is a little gamepark here (the name of which escapes me but it’s south of Divundu and on the Botswana border) which we had a drive round and finally saw some Hippo which made up for the disappointment of the get-your-hopes-up-named Hippo Pool at Ruacana.

After travelling the length of the strip (longer than you’d think) we pitched up in Katima Mulilo where two friends of mine who arrived at the same time as me are based. They have an amazing old colonial-era house a short stroll from the Zambezi River and made us very welcome.

Katima is a bustling town and whereas Opuwo fills the African stereotype of dusty streets, dusty traditional tribespeople, dusty goats wandering around and dust (did I mention the dust) Katima is yet another totally different African stereotype of bursting greenery, wide open expanses of river and bustling markets full of fantastic wares and people cooking fish (and other small things) with great clouds of steam spewing forth.

Their open-arms policy backfired on our guests when they made us so welcome we stayed two nights rather than the planned one, went out for goat and pap at lunchtime and sat watching the sun go down over the river, beer in hand, naturally.

Waving fond adieu to Katima and my friends we then headed back along the strip. At this point we threw ourselves on the mercy of a new VSO volunteer I hadn’t met who works at the KiFi Inland Fisheries institute (right next to the game park below Divindu) who very kindly put us up for the night. My Dad is a bit of a fish worrier and a Marine Biologist in a previous life so was fascinated to tour the fishery (well the now being built fishery) and talk scaly things. It was pretty cool and I’m looking forward to crashing another visit once it’s up and running.

The Middle

Not being a contemporary account this is where I get a bit confused but I do know we came back to North Central Namibia at this point and stayed somewhere near (or in) Otavi. I think.

Another night at the picturesque, cheap and baboon-infested OppiKlippe followed.

Back to the Coast

Having convinced ourselves that our memories of the coast as a grey, miserable and cold place must be incorrect and getting confused with Skegness in our addled minds (this is sub-Saharan Africa after all, where the sun always shines) we risked another trip to the coast and went to Swakopmund.

Swakopmund was still a charming little town with very Germanic architecture and names yet still grey, cold and spitting rain. This time however we did actually manage to find a campsite just outside the town rather than trekking halfway back to Europe up the Skeleton Coast.

I should just add I’ve been to Swakopmund a few times since this trip, once for an entire week, and on occasion it was blue skies and blue seas. Briefly. Before returning to fogged in greyness. It does make a welcome relief from inland though – for short periods.

The next day, in keeping with the fish theme we attempted to visit the National Aquarium of Namibia which is located on the seafront. Turns out it was closed on whichever weekday it was (maybe a Monday).

Accepting defeat with cheery good heart we gave up on the coast and headed back inland. To sunshine.

Gross Barmen

For the last night of camping with my Dad we stayed at Gross Barmen springs near Okahandja, just North of Windhoek. The place was absolutely deserted and we had an entire, massive, campsite to ourselves with huge ablution blocks and hot water to cater for the entire population of the Khomas Region. To ourselves apart from the wide array of Baboons that wandered around, seemingly always shocked to come across us humans in “their” campsite.

Good fun was had using the toilet blocks as hides and watching whole troops playing around with their young and upsetting rubbish bins and the like. Well, it amused me anyway.

Windhoek

Back to Windhoek for a night crashing again on fellow volunteer’s hospitality and regaling them with tales of our travels.

The next day I safely saw my Dad through the departure gate and on his way back to Blighty. Cold, wet, miserable, winterbound, sleet and rain covered Blighty.

I spent a further night chancing my luck and the hospitality of my good VSO friends in the capital and then headed back to the North spending a stormy (seriously, from nowhere, rain, lightning, the works) night at OppiKlippe now in a sun shelter “tent” having handed back the executive canvass specials I’d borrowed from VSO.

Twyfelfontain

Twyfelfontain is a UNESCO World Heritage site West of Khorixas where there are world famous rock paintings and engravings. I picked up a couple of fellow VSO vols in Khroxias and in the encroaching gloom of the evening we headed out to camp somewhere near it. And out. And out.

Eventually we found a campsite with no office staff to be seen, claimed ourselves a pitch and setup camp for the night. Thanks to the culinary skills of my accomplices we even managed to get a hot meal prepared and didn’t die of food poisoning. Not being too fussy but I am very glad we couldn’t see what we were eating.

The next day we toured the rock carvings and engravings. Well, yes. Anyway. Obviously not wanting to detract anything from the wonderousness of these or indeed their historical significance but I think my philistine heathen ways failed to gather the full beauty and significance of the works.

Or maybe it was just a few crudely carved animals looking like a playschool wall. But UNESCO knows best and I am led to believe they have been there a long long time.

Home

After that and a brief stop off for a cooling drink at the Twyfelfontain lodge I dropped my fellow vols back in Khorixas and drove back to Opuwo and home.

Opuwo and Starting Work

April 11, 2009

Friday morning at 8am sharp the MoHSS driver turned up at the VSO office and we set off to Opuwo via the coast to pick a colleague up. In the end it only took about 13 hours so quite good really, considering.

The last part of the journey was in the dark where cows the size of buses, goats and donkey carts seemed intent on crashing into us (or have us crash into them) at every available opportunity. Luckily the driver knew his cow-avoidance-techniques and we made it safely. Arriving to a packed casualty department late on a Friday night was interesting to say the least. Unique sights, sounds and smells.

Spent the weekend finding my way around Opuwo (took about 10 minutes) with the help of some fellow vols here. It turns out that much of what is on the internet is either out-of-date or simply wrong (who’d have guessed).

There are actually three supermarkets – the Ok which lives up to its name and is ok, a Power Save and the Opuwa Supermarket. Of these the Ok is the only one to have fruit and veg which does indeed only arrive once a week.

There are also three petrol stations, two of which you could probably actually recognise as such. The “famous” 24-hour BP station is right next door to Ok.

On Monday I started work, found no computer on my desk (natch) so it’s lucky I brought the laptop and began trying to understand the hierarchy and bureaucracy of the MoHSS.

Spent the first week mainly trying to find my way around and get a feel for what they want me to do. On Friday we had a visit from the Honorable Minister for Health and Social Services Richard Kamwi. So here less than a week and I’ve already met the Minister (following on from arrival through the diplomatic desk and staying in the VIP suite this definately means I’m going up in the world).

In addition to shaking hands my role was to run the powerpoint slides for our Director and the Principle Medical Officer (PMO) for Opuwo District which I managed to do with less than a dozen or so errors. Success.