Saturday, November 23, 2019

Update from the Middle East

Hello everyone.
It is now 2 years on from my last update so high time that I wrote a few words about what I have been doing
My last job in Iraq was working for a de-mining organisation who worked all over Federal Iraq. We had a great team, did some amazing work and had a bit of a laugh at the same time. We have all gone our separate ways but in August 2019 we had a reunion in Manchester with people flying in from different places to enjoy the rain, the Manchester culture and a few beers. Some folks were missing as they were still in Iraq, but I found them later when I went back to Iraq in September this year

Whilst in Manchester, I also managed to catch up with the gorgeous girls from Beverley, sorry no pictures this time, and these lovely guys, Carl and Clive. Thank you all for hosting and entertaining me in great style.

When we all lived in Erbil, we were lucky enough to have a rooftop area. As you can imagine, this became a bar - a great chill out area where we would have a quiet beer and invite selected friends to join in. To decorate we hung flags from our different locations or battalions, depending on if you had one or not and Geordie built us a cracking chalk board. Below are Will, Cat and Bekim - the last of the gang left in Erbil and you can see some of the artwork behind.

This is the roof top in Iraq with our swimming pool in the far right hand corner which provided us with a place to cool down from the blazing sun during the hot summer weekends.

Between leaving Iraq in April and coming back in September this year, I went back to Cyprus to enjoy the lovely Cyprus weather, catch up with old friends and some well deserved chill out time. Sadly, we had to say goodbye to a lovely friend from Burnley, John Riley for those that knew him. However, there was good news with the wedding of Stef and Sweetie.

My favourite bar man, Ken attending the wedding in a borrowed hat. Suits you sir.

Helping me to wind down in Cyprus after a particularly fraught mission, was Chris, a great friend with whom you can never do anything but laugh. She invented Speedo Sunday, a regular habit down at the beach bar, where you've guessed it, yes a few beers and people watching

Spotted on a trip to Kyrenia in Northern Cyprus. I'm not sure how much business they do but I will always know where to go when needed

One of the great things about being based in Cyprus is that it is easy to visit. Anna from my last job came out to Cyprus and we had a lovely time exploring the island including going on one of those tacky pirate boats where you stop off and dive in the water every now and again. The highlight was the inflatable climbing frame where you fall into the water when you get it wrong. Such good fun. This is the view from Bellapais Monastery in Kyrenia

Larnaca Beach Bar with Laura and Kevin (not in Speedos), regular attendees from the rooftop bar in Iraq, leading Anna and I astray 

As time goes by, people move on and get other jobs. I had wanted to stay in the Middle East as I like the people and the culture so a new job in Syria was a good option for me. How surprised was I in September, when one of my flat mates Shannon, from my first year in Iraq turns up just down the road from me. Just waiting for the other half of the household to come back. (Hint to Kandice and Kara)

When I first arrived here to start my job, I did in fact make it to Syria. The town we worked in was friendly and safer than many I know in UK. They had restaurants - licensed, and a bar. There were a few indicators around though to remind you of the recent troubles they have been through such as this home made IED used a s a garden decoration Someone asked me if it was still live - to be honest there was no way I was going near it, but I would hope not.

My team very kindly gave me a tour of the place. This is what remained of the 'old' town

I know there was a pool at the beginning, so apologies for repeating the same content but this one is in Syria. An enterprising Syrian keeps it clean and rents it out to NGO workers at the weekend. What an unbelievable and unexpected find. It was still warm enough in September to make full use of it.

I don't know if you heard, but there were a few problems in Syria recently. Gazz, below also got a job in Syria, then Trump screwed it up for all of us working there. So everyone had to come back to Erbil, Iraq Nice to catch up with old colleagues but many have lost their jobs as a result so not exactly good times

Here are a couple of other old friends from my early days in Iraq, Jim and Paddy. So nice to see familiar faces again 

Iraq has certainly changed in the few months that I have been away. More security and oil and gas companies have come back and as a result there are more fancy bars and restaurants. This one is a seedy one but with a great singer who is so good that she is able to drown out people singing karaoke with her. Hats off to Jennifer

The organisation I work for arranges for everyone to have an induction in Prague. A group of us went from Iraq just recently. There was some interesting and useful training and a bit of free time to enjoy the sites. It coincided with 30 years since the Czech Republic was liberated and the Berlin Wall came down so there were lots of celebrations going on. These old Trebants were abandoned by East Germans as they left Germany on their way to better places

The John Lennon Wall where you can legitimately graffiti what you want

I can't remember when I last saw Autumn, so this park in Prague blew me away.

Lastly, this is the only thing I can remember from 25 years ago - Prague Astrological Clock. Lots of interesting facts about it, the best being that it is the second most disappointing tourist attraction in the world ........(The Mona Lisa)

Am now back in Iraq, waiting to see what happens next. You can never tell in this context. I would love to hear all your news, so please drop me a line.
Take care

Saturday, October 28, 2017

What's happening in Iraq?

Well, time is flying by and it's now the end of October with only 6 weeks left to go in this amazing country. Work goes on through its ups and down, mainly due to the areas we can and cannot access and then unexpected events taking place that are really difficult to predict. Since last writing, Mosul city has been liberated by the Iraqi and coalition forces so we started distributing cash to people who had fled their homes. Then the winter rains meant the bridges were unsafe to cross, so we had to cross by foot with a contingency to cross by boat if necessary. Crossing by foot meant provisions had to be carried across the bridges, so for the cafes selling kebabs and shawarma, 4 legged ingredients were brought in by wheelbarrow as shown below.

Take away or delivery?

Working in previously ISIS held territory meant we came across some of their devious military tricks and don't worry I don't meant their booby traps. There is a hill where you used to run to the top and make a wish and miraculously you were supposed to meet the love of your life in the following week. After ISIS occupation, the hill lost some of its allure, but instead you could explore the tunnels they have dug underground providing secret escape routes. After checking safety protocol after one of our distributions, the team explored the tunnels  and then ran up it just to see if the luck still applied. Sadly no distribution marriages have since followed.
Isis tinsel
 Distributions have entailed  early mornings and long days in up to 50 degrees C, so you will agree it's important to chill out now and again and look after the team spirit. This is an Arabic restaurant with carpeted walls, floors and tables where we treated ourselves after a busy week.
Mandi Restaurant Erbil
 When we first accessed Mosul, we worked in the East side whilst the West side was in the process of being liberated. It was quite noisy at times and the air smelled like bonfire night. There is massive amount of destruction but you've seen the pictures in the press so I'm not adding any here. Thankfully now the West is liberated too so work in Mosul is more peaceful

The view from the roof of our office across to West Mosul
Work wise, we have distributed cash and non - food items, such as blankets, cooking sets etc and we have separate lines for men and women. When we cross checkpoints, it is very ironic. It can sometimes take hours to cross so our team are charming towards the checkpoint soldiers and in the main we can push in at the front of the queue. How very un-British, I hear you cry. At distributions, however, we are so British. No pushing in, no shouting, take your turn and let through the elderly and disabled. My Iraqi team leader unfortunately does muddle some of his words sometimes and I was most concerned at one distribution when he ran off telling me he could hear shooting. Very alert and listening hard, I realised he meant shouting. What a relief!

No pushing please, we're British
 You will be pleased to know, it hasn't been all work and no play. We have R & R every 12 weeks and one of the nearest places to go used to be Lebanon (it hasn't moved but we now have to fly out of Kurdistan and into Iraq in order to leave the country - adding many hours to the journey). Lebanon has everything you could ask for, restaurants, culture, climate, sea and some things you don't, like a banging night life and traffic jams. After 3 months in a land locked country, it was bliss and so relaxing. Can't wait to go back sometime.
Tir in Lebanon
 You don't always need to leave Kurdistan to enjoy the outdoors. We went to Dohuk and found a trail to a local beauty spot. The mountains are snow capped for much of the year, so during the ridiculously hot summers the rivers are glacial and provide a great opportunity for cooling down. If you follow this irrigation channel for 20 minutes, balancing on the narrow wall on the left over a huge sheer drop or wade through the water, you end up at a turquoise pool filled with Iraqi men. Oh great. Then you walk, swim and climb up the river into smaller pools where there are fewer people. Rachel and I shared a lovely cup of chai made by some random lads who had their barbie and kettle over the charcoal in a tranquil pool up the river
Access to glacial pools and waterfalls
 So where is the romance in Erbil? Shannon, one of my housemates married her boyfriend here in Erbil. After months of chasing documents and unending bureaucratic checks, humiliation and disgust that as a woman you are only count as 1/2 a witness and if non Muslim, you don't count at all, eventually they got married. We celebrated in a lovely restaurant - the happy couple in the middle of the picture.
Shannon and Imad's wedding
 Prior to the Kurdish referendum, I went on another R & R, this time sailing in the Turkish Med. I know there are phones and internet in Turkey, but our beloved flotilla leaders took us to way- out places where the only access was by sea and not one ounce of retail therapy. Lovely clear, warm water for swimming and fresh fish. Great? Fabulous - except when you sail back into the real world and find out your flight is cancelled and you cannot get back to work. Terrible, I know. 
The Iraqi government had taken exception to the massive yes vote for a Kurdish independence and closed the Kurdish airport. This meant a detour via Baghdad and many many hours waiting to be processed.
 Generally I don't do the other 5 o'clock on holidays, but I was told sunrise in this particular harbour was exceptional. 

Worth getting up for
So, not much longer to go for me here in Kurdistan with many issues to be resolved. Will the coalition forces succeed in ridding the country entirely of ISIS, will the Kurds and Iraqis stop their quibbling over Kurdish independence (what will happen in Catalonia too?). Will Iraq return to a country of middle income means?
It has been a great experience for me as the first time working in the Middle East. Would I do it again - certainly. Great people even under the worst circumstances.
That's all from me for now.
Hope you enjoy the read

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Iraq and Kurdistan

So it has been a while and maybe you wondered what I was up to. After leaving Central African Republic, I returned to Cyprus for some well earned rest, a little sailing and swimming and readjustment to a peaceful routine. I realised I had forgotten how to cook for myself, so became well acquainted with the indian and seafood restaurants and local tavernas. My wine palate took some rehabilitation but I put in a lot of practice and gained 10 kgs.

However, I missed the humanitarian work and eventually found myself a cracking job in some place called Erbil. After checking wiki for average temperatures, I accepted the job and set off with my bikini, a couple of jumpers and some tee shirts. Sadly, although Erbil is south of Cyprus and north of Dubai, the climate is more like the Outer Hebrides. So a bit of a shock!

Anyway, Kurdistan is quite different from Iraq and nowhere near as much of a culture shock as I expected. I share a house in the Christian part of Erbil so no need for headscarves and alcohol is freely available. Yippee.
I found a few Christmas shops, see above and celebrated Christmas in Erbil, with a proper cooked Christmas dinner, thanks to some great colleagues.

I am working in distributions in areas recently recovered from ISIS some 75 kms from Erbil. I have been to the camps where there are displaced people, who have fled from the fighting and I am also working in towns. The people are incredibly hospitable and good to work with.
Also resilient and creative.Below is a gas powered bread maker which makes better bread than I do.

So you ask me, what are the shops like? Well, you can buy most things fresh. Lamb chops are particularly fresh, see below. Not sure the sheep in the picture has figured out his future!

So this is the team at work. Not the best ever picture, but distributing money in a half built house surrounded by a high wall to needy and vulnerable people.

The bridge in Qayyarrah was bombed by ISIS, see the gap in the middle of the bridge. Then as it was being repaired, the Americans sent another bomb to stop ISIS from using in during the period that they controlled the city. You may be able to see the repair truck that was caught in the middle. Pleased I wasn't the driver.

When ISIS fled, they set fire to the oil fields in this area, which are still burning now. The town is permanently covered by thick black smoke as no-one has put out the fires yet. The sheep are all black except for the little white lambs. These are two of my colleagues after a day in the field

A friend came to see me so I thought we should make the most of the opportunity to see the glorious Korek mountain at its best. In the summer, the Kurdish people travel north to the mountains where it is beautiful and cooler. I know, i'm already cold and I travel to where it's even colder. Anyway, we drove a couple of hours through spectacular scenery, pushed to the front of the cable car queue (it's obligatory over here) and went to the top of the mountain with my borrowed gloves and hat and all my jumpers. It was absolutely lovely and the accommodation had 3 types of heating - all on maximum of course. Well worth the trip and I will be going again in the summer, with my bikini of course.

 Having received a significant amount of safety training in my new career, I am always on the look out for potential dangers. Dodging snow falls and icicles off roofs is a new risk I had not expected.

Snow Angels in Iraq - who would have thought?

There was time for a spot of culture after the mountain trip. In the centre of Erbil, is an amazing citadel. Huge and in great restoration shape. Our super sweet taxi driver's dad owned the textile museum in the citadel, so we had a personalised tour and nearly had to buy a rug. These are traditional caps worn by different tribes in Kurdistan. For those of you who know of Ken Dodd, he would have a field day

So what's the food like you ask? Well, put simply. great. Lots of sheep and chicken, vegetables, nuts, dates, fruit, Lebanese, Turkish, Cypriot type food and fairly healthy. If you have a sweet tooth, I suspect you would be in heaven - see below.

Erbil Citadel and the bazaar- impressive hey?

Lastly, me after a very long day in the field but things are looking up, only a 4 jumper day and the sun is coming.

So that's all from me for now. I am a bit limited with photos as there are military personnel and checkpoints everywhere and they are not over keen on me taking pictures.
Would love to hear from you all and why not come over for a visit. It is actually great here.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Who knows where?

The last time I wrote was in October when I returned to the UK for the first time in 2 years. We are now 3 months on and yet another year has passed. How did that happen? I thought little had changed during the last quarter (work speak!)  then I look at a few pics and just for a change I have lots to say!
Two weeks rest and recuperation means I have been able to dowmload the photos - not possible in the lost country of CAR (know where it is?) and added a few words. 
The last 3 months has been more about goodbye than hello. I have worked with some remarkable people at Mercy Corps and it has been difficult to say goodbye to them, The NGO world is however very small and I know some of these guys will reappear in different countries and organisations (gis' a job)

Bodega Bar - Rafa's last day

 All the above have moved on - Emily, Colleen, Jobe. Moustapha and Rafa. This bar however was a bit of a find. Swanky menu with cinnamon flavoured Sangria, Probably the smartest place in Bangui! The seats even have cushions.

Kate's last night with everyone

Perfect example of team building.  Too many meetings followed by relaxation (beer) and the world is a better place. Moustapha, Jacques, Colleen, Christine, Oswald , Emily, Jean Emile and Kate. 

Girls Power

Bangui had become calmer and our curfew was extended until 10pm - yippee! Sadly one of our colleagues was car jacked that night but she is OK just a few pounds lighter. We were a few pounds heavier that night given that chips go so well with beer!

Motley Crew

So yes, I know a few guys as well outside of the NGO circuit. These lot have been in Bangui for about 100 years between them. Paolo on the left can tell us stories about when there was a cinema and the best night clubs are in what is now our no go zone. Oh and they all fly to the dangerous parts of CAR and have hair raising stories about their narrow escapes

Lilloth and Alfred for lunch

 You have to look hard but there are a few luxuries around. I was invited for a swim in a friend's pool and lunch one Sunday. It would have been rude to say no!

My sterling team in Bangui

We had a Mercy Corps Christmas party one Friday afternoon and danced in the dirt to trendy Congolese music. These are some of my team who are doing a good job of looking cool. As you can see I am the only one looking happy - something to do with them looking serious when the boss is around?

I live in a cosy 2 bedroom house tuckd safely away out of site. We have a day guard and 2 night guards who are there to protect us from 'intruders ie amed rebel groups and looters'. In terms of job description there seems to be a small issue however, I complained when next door's cockerel jumped over our wall and crowed loudly at 5.00 am under my bedroom window. The guard told me he was not able to do anything  After several rude awakenings it appears that the guard became equally fed up with either me or the cockerel and there was an unfortunate accident and it disappeared.
In terms of security, in addition to our own guards, next door (who used to have a cockerel) have a large, old bad tempered goose. I have now learnt that when on foot a large handbag is a good defensive measure. One of our guards was new and when my flatmate Louisa asked him to escort her past the goose,yes you know what happened!. I have no photos but this bird is now locked in its shed most of the day but if properly tormented will still try and attack you through the wire mesh. See above

Christmas Cheer

 This is the veranda where my flatmate and I put the world to rights on a regular basis. We have a beautiful view down the valley which I think you would have preferred but some folks want pictures of me from time to time

Chaotic Christmas - after
I am not convinced any of us wanted to be in Bangui for Christmas but due to work committments and some folks missing their flights, I was lucky enough to spend Christmas with my 3 favouritest people. And we had a fabulous time. Pop in the morning, then opening presents - if there were any. Then a few laps in the public pool with a cheeky beer. We then trouped back to the house and attempted a Christmas dinner, which despite the obvious challenges (too much pop) was fantastic. So thanks girls - Terri, Natalie and Louisa for a really good Christmas day!
Christmas dinner - before
Culinary delights included pumpkin puree, pasta and sauce, roast potatoes, roast aubergines, pineapple crumble and Christmas pud with a spot of vino 

Rafai Runway

When Terri and I landed at Rafai we were given a stern talking to by the pilot who threatened he would not return to collect us unles the runway was cleared. The people in the picture are on the run way. Behind me were 200 feet of overgrown dirt, like you see in the left of the picture. Rafai is nice but has little in the way of luxuries, no beer or running water. Terri organised a gang of 20 sturdy men with machetes to clear the runway. This picture is the macheteding group advancing on the Mercy Corps team. In any other circumstances, this would actually be extremely scary but in this situation everything was cool. The pilot was very happy now the landing strip had increased by 20%

Fishing Boats
 These are Blue Peter boats. Take one large tree trunk. Hollow out the inside. Check it can carry two motor bikes, 5 ladies with shopping and a bit of fish. Set yourself up as a fisherman-come river boat taxi.

Papa Pierre moonlighting
 This is our day guard. He is Pierre and as a mark of respect and affection we call him Papa Pierre. Although whilst working for us he has had a 50% pay rise and now has one day off per week with holidays, he gives his money away to his family members. Whilst protecting us from wall leaping cockerels and marauding geese, he collects waste paper dries it out and folds it up to sell to the local fast food kebab sellers in town, Payment is $1 for 500 pieces of paper.

Not what you would expect in Dubai but made me think of 'home' and Bangui!

I am at the end of my 2 week stay in Dubai and feel very refreshed. We have been to cultural events and some not so cultural, eaten in wonderful restaurants and they organised for the winter weather to be delayed until I left so we have been swimmng and sailing too! Thanks again guys!

This is not the end of alsadventuresinafrica although my contract in CAR finishes at the end of March so for the next blog - watch out. I may be around the corner from you. I am planning to take a bit of time out as I will have been in CAR for 2 years and 4 months which is quite a long time then I have to figure out where to go next. Who knows where that may be? Any suggestions. please let me know!