Christmas in Egypt

Trying not to let too much of my annual leave expire before 31 December, I booked a short tour of Upper Egypt (not a country I like travelling in independently due to the way the men behave towards foreign women).  So I joined five other people - four retired Brits and one New Zealander - in Luxor, for a tour taking in Dendera, the Valleys of the Kings, Queens and Workers, Karnak, Edfu, Kom Ombo, Philae, Aswan, and Abu Simbel, plus a few other places I've already forgotten the names of.

To be honest I hadn't expected that much, having previously seen the pyramids which are rather underwhelming - but I was quite blown away by the quality and variety of the decorations in the various temples and tombs that we visited.  It helped that we had a knowledgeable and passionate guide, who was able to explain the characters depicted in the reliefs and the meanings of the hieroglyphics (not that I can remember very much!), drawing our attention to all sorts of images that I would probably have overlooked if wandering around by myself.

There are so many pictures of this stuff available online, but I did want to just share an example of the detail and the way the reliefs differ - two different depictions of the face of the crocodile god Sobek, both from the Kom Ombo temple complex:

See how the first one is raised against its background, with the second cut more into the rock?  (I'm sure there are technical terms for both)  In other places there was still plenty of colour, especially inside the tombs at the Valley of the Kings and the nearby Valley of the Workers.  But generally just so much to look at that I really could have spent a full day at many of the temples, not just the couple of hours allotted us.  This slightly strange photo is looking up at the ceiling in the temple at Dendera, where you can see some preserved colour on the pillars and the ceiling.

Whilst motly spending time at archaeological sites, we also visited Aswan Dam, a few villages, and a couple of museums in Luxor and Aswan.  We travelled for four days by dalabiya (a large, comfortable sailing boat) along the Nile, which was very peaceful and allowed time for rest and relaxation.  I tried to do some birdwatching too, and did see many waterbirds along the Nile and hoopoes a-plenty in the hotel gardens, but nothing new. However it made me get up early a couple of times, and despite the lack of new birds there were some rather nice sunrises.

moving forward from the low point

One interesting side-effect of the low (lonely) patch that you go through after moving to a new country is the way it pushes you out of your comfort zone.  You have to go out there and try things, even when it would be easier to sit at home and mope, otherwise nothing will change.

So a couple of weeks ago I sent a mesasge to the Internations WhatsApp group (a group whose activity consists of one message about something irrelevant to anyone but the sender on approximately a monthly basis) to ask whether there was anything planned, and if not, whether we could plan something.  With a few mildly encouraging responses, I pushed further.  What about Thursday evening, meeting up somewhere?  Someone suggested the Radisson Blu - walking distance for me and with free entrance to the poolside area where a jazz band play during the evening.  So I made a promise to be there and encouraged others to attend.

Well, one person turned up.  Someone in the Egyptian Embassy, whose tenure has already come to an end and so is expecting to be reassigned to another post any day.  But it was company - and he offered to introduce me to some other people.  "Great!" I thought.  Firstly, well was I interested in deep sea fishing, as a group of them go out every so often to fish - only I'd have to be a strong swimmer as they sometimes get knocked over the side of the boat ... I politely declined that one.  So he had another option - a group who meet around twice a year to go out into the semi-desert and shoot birds.  Can you imagine?  Me, a bird-watcher, shooting birds?!  OK, third option - he would introduce me to the Senegalese lady who is organising the "Miss Senegal" contest.  Not really my cup of tea, but she could be interesting I suppose, so I agreed to that one.  Only he said it would be the following week and that week has already passed with no contact made.

One person who couldn't make the Radisson evening did contact me to meet on a different evening, when he took me to a bit of pebbly, rocky beach with plastic tables set up where women cook fresh fish, although unfortunately he asked them to smother the fish in a very spicy sauce, so I couldn't really eat anything; again, it was company which was nice, but this was a Senegalese man and will probably follow the usual trajectory.  Also, whilst I was waiting in the Radisson hoping someone would turn up, I got into conversation with someone else who was there.  We agreed to meet another time and he suggested the pebbly beach with the plastic tables ... at least this time I was able to specify that I didn't want anything spicy on or with my fish!  We'll see whether any real friendship comes out of those two but I'm not too hopeful.

Then this week was the annual Christmas carols and mince pies do at the British Embassy.  I'd heard it was on from someone in the office, and she tried to get me an invitation but with no luck.  However, the invitations did not have names on, so we printed a second copy of hers and I turned up on spec.  At the gate I was asked my name by the guard, and as he looked down his list I thrust my passport over it to prove my identity, and he said I could go in - I rushed off into the house before he could conclude that I wasn't on the guest list!

There, again, I had to move outside of my comfort zone and interrupt couples and groups of people to ask if I could join them.  I hate doing it, but towards the end of the evening I discovered a very interesting group, working in the security industry (from researching the environment and advising companies and institutions to negotiating for the release of kidnap victims) and one gave me his card as he left ... I've dropped him an email to ask him to let me know if he hears of any activities or, failing that, to perhaps meet up for a drink sometime ... again, way out of my comfort zone but it's the only way to move forward!

where exactly is Eritrea?

I think there was more confusion amongst my friends and colleagues at my choice of Eritrea for a holiday than for anywhere else I have travelled to.  At least when I went to Chad, and the DRC, people knew where those countries were (even if they wondered why I might want to go there), but my mention of Eritrea brought many puzzled looks, one person even asking me if it was a Caribbean island...

Whilst I did know where the country was located, I should admit that I knew very little about the history of the place.  I didn't know that it had been colonised by the Ottomans, then the Egyptians, the Italians, and the British (briefly) before it came under Ethiopian rule in 1961.  I didn't know that not one country, whether from the West or from the Eastern bloc, supported them in their fight for independence.  & I didn't know that the Italians had built them the longest cable car in the world (at nearly 72km long) that was able to transport 30 tons of material every hour between the port city of Massawa and the capital Asmara - nor that the British dismantled it as 'war reparations', putting the parts to use in other parts of our then Empire.

It was interesting to learn all this whilst seeing remnants of Ottoman buildings in Massawa (alongside extensive war damage) as well as the Italian art deco architecture in Asmara and Keren.

The Fiat Tagliero building is of course the famous one, but I decided to share instead a pic of the main street of Asmara - a general view of art deco buildings, palm trees and tidy pavements - just to try to give an idea as to how unlike Africa the place seems.  It is also the sixth highest capital city in the world (at some 2,300m) and so is surprisingly cold once the sun has gone down.  But the remnants of the Italian occupation mean that warming plates of pasta, and cups of cappuccino, are easy to find!

The country is quite rugged, with mountains and gorges and some quite dramatic views.  Lots of cacti.  As for architecture, as well as the art deco stuff, it has old ruins, remnants from the period of the Aksumite empire (around 750BC) - stelae and walls ... the majority of it still unexcavated.  It would be a good place for a walking holiday, although the logistics are hard right now as a permit is needed for every place you go outside of the capital, with no flexibility available so you cannot decide you like somewhere and will stay there for an extra night.

The other thing I really loved about my trip was all the camels, especially the camel market in Keren.  Of course camels are by no means unique to Eritrea, but really - you can never take enough camel photos, can you?

the low point

I've hit the low point in my Senegal contract.  A point I knew would come, as I've been here before - both during my first Senegal posting, and during my Panama posting.

It's when you've found somewhere to live, moved in, bought the things that are not provided by the landlord (soap dishes, dustpan and brush, coffee machine, and so on), unpacked all your stuff ... even spent a few evenings and weekends just being there, getting used to your new home.  & then you want to connect with some human beings.  But you don't know anyone outside the office, and perhaps the guy you buy your bread from (who has already looked at you hopefully whilst sharing how he would love a visa for somewhere in Europe...).

It's lonely.  Very lonely.  I recall when it hit me during my previous Senegal posting, which was when I cut my alcohol consumption down to almost nothing, aware of the dangers of coming home to an empty flat and having a nice, comforting glass of wine ... and maybe a second ... I've met alcoholic expats, as there are quite a lot of them, and I didn't want to risk going down that path.  Then you have to remind yourself that the sun is shining, that you saw a parrot on the way home, whatever - that you are living in a different continent, with all of the amazing opportunities that this offers.  & you have to keep reminding yourself of this as you go through this lonely patch.  Because it is only a patch - you will eventually meet someone, who will introduce you to someone else, who will invite you to an event where you'll meet other people ... and you will have your social circle.

Looking back, Panama seems so much easier, as there is the Expats in Panama facebook group, an expats Whatsapp group, an expats Meetup Group, a very active chapter of InterNations, not to mention the Friday evening happy hour in a bar in Marbella, the crowds that gather to watch football/rugby in the Irish Bar...  But it does take time to find all of these things so it took me time to find a social circle there too.

In Dakar there is none of this.  I've signed up to a Birding The Gambia and Senegal facebook group, but it turns out to be populated mostly by bird guides living in The Gambia wanting to sell their tours.  I've also signed up to the Dakar Vegan Group on facebook (although not a vegan), basically anything I can find that might be an entry point into a social group.  I know it will come because it always does, but hate this limbo period.  Made worse in Dakar by false hopes raised by a couple of men, and whether the one who told me he loves me after ten minutes of conversation or the one who was a little more honest and told me (before meeting me in the flesh) that he wants a no-strings sexual relationship, those are NOT what I am looking for.

This phase will pass, but just cross your fingers for me that it passes quickly!

escaping the emails at Wassadou Camp

Having left the visa application process too late, a planned holiday in Algeria had fallen through.  With no possibility of delaying the days off work until later in the year, and no time to organise a trip to somewhere further afield, I had to take the time off here in Senegal or lose it.  My first plan was to spend some time on holiday at home, just relaxing, listening to music, reading books ... but the emails came in and I spent the first few days working full time so I knew I had to get away.  Not as easy as it sounds given that we are in the worst part of the hot, humid, rainy season right now.

I had heard of sightings of a Pel's Fishing Owl at a site in Senegal - a bird I would love to see - so decided to follow that up.  An enquiry to a Senegal birding facebook group assured me that the bird would be equally present at any time of year, but that the site might be flooded out.  However they comfirmed that they were open for business even though a little wet, so I booked myself in for a two-night stay.  The website for the national bus company was out of action (suspended for non-payment of maintenance fees!) but I found another company providing bus transport there: the advertised phone number still worked and they assured me that the bus ran on a daily basis, departing at 8pm and arriving in Tambacounda around 5am (from there I would need to take a taxi to the camp).

What they didn't bother to tell me was that the bus departure point had moved to another part of town - and that it was necessary to reserve a seat in advance.  However my taxi driver rose to the occasion and found the new departure piont for me, and someone who had reserved a seat did not turn up, so I made it to Tambacounda as planned, and on to the camp.

Once there, I learned that the owl had not been seen since the end of April, and would not be expected to be around that location during the rainy season.  Whatever.  I was already there so had to make the most of things.

The bird guide said he would take me out along the river in the boat that evening, even though we would not see the owl, and in the meantime I took a slow walk along the dirt access road (the only track open as the rest were still underwater).  There were some birds around, some green vervet monkeys and a big troupe of baboons.  My favourite of the day had to be the green wood-hoopoes: big, noisy birds (they sometimes gather for a group cackle) that seemed to be totally camera-phobic, so I spent a great deal of time trying unsuccessfully to get a shot of one and this was the best I eventually managed.

Then I waited for the boat trip.  The guide arrived, with the boat engine, but discovered that the boat had half sunk during the rainy season and would need a bit of work before it was suitable to go out in - he promised me we would go out the next day.  Here are the site workers hauling the boat out of the river to dry out.

So, a much-needed early night.

Then the same again the next day, a long walk along the access road, with a few hours around the middle part of the day reading a book.  No internet access at the camp so no temptation to 'just check for urgent emails' and end up working all day!

I was too slow to get a photo of the rather beautiful red colobus monkey that sat briefly in the open part of a tree, and the birds were too quick for me that day too, but thankfully the unexpected banded mongoose froze on the track ahead when it saw me so I was able to snatch a shot.  Shortly afterward, investigating a strange noise in the undergrowth, I saw glimpses of a whole mongoose family.

Evening came around again and I went down to the water for my boat trip.  I wasn't too upset when they told me that two German guests had asked to do the boat trip so I wouldn't be alone (the price is double for a single-person trip), although rather surprised when we got on the water to find that it meant the guide spoke only German for the entire hour of the trip.  Thankfully I recognised the various birds (and baboons) that we saw so it didn't really matter.

Earlier in the day I had tried to phone the bus company to make a reservation for the trip home, but they said I could not reserve without paying. & by this time I was a one-hour $45 taxi ride away from the bus terminal - or, with the alternative I found the next day, a two-hour $2.50 shared van ride away - so I declined that opportunity and decided to try my luck with the shared taxi alternative, hoping at least that I would be able to find a taxi going the next day and thus avoid an overnight trip.  After the two-hour trip into Tambacounda, however, I found myself passenger number two for the shared taxi waiting to depart for Dakar; there are seven seats in the shared taxis.  It took another five hours until a further five passengers came along, so we didn't leave until after 6pm.  So another overnight trip, in a far less comfortable vehicle (no chance of any sleep!) which actually turned out to cost slightly more than the air-conditioned, wifi-equipped bus.  So I made it home very tired, and pretty muddy, from my 'holiday', and with no owl sighting to tick off on my bird list, but at least I had escaped the curse of email for a few days.

a hint of Nigeria

I have long wanted to visit Nigeria, and was delighted to have to take a full part in a three-week work assignment (followed by a one-week regional management meeting) in the country.  Sadly not in Lagos, but at least I got to spend time in Abuja and Maiduguri, plus a couple of visits to communities near to Maiduguri who are benefitting from our projects there.

However, the security situation in the country being as it is, I was under strict instructions from our local security advisor to remain in the hotel during the evenings and weekends - not even a ten-minute walk outside was permitted - so it turned into a very frustrating trip.  I did get to see bits of Abuja through the car window on the daily trip between the hotel and the office, so I saw the rather impressive National Mosque, although couldn't go inside as I would have liked.  & I do have to admit to a bit of editing of this picture - the top part of one of the minarets is copied and pasted from one of the others, as a sticker on the car windscreen blocked the perfect view...

Abuja is not really representative of Nigeria anyway, with its tall buildings, its shopping malls, and its modern streets free of hawkers and street food.  Hard to believe it is as dangerous as our security rep told me, but I have to follow the rules when I travel for work.

So I mostly had to content myself with experiencing the country within the confines of the hotel.  I even tried out the Sunday morning church service in one of the hotel conference rooms, although a room full of people swaying to "The name of Jesus will last forever" type songs from the live band was only bearable for around fifteen minutes (for balance I listened to Islamic prayers in the car on the way to the office).  As for the food in the hotel restaurant, well, a menu full of goats' heads, cows' tails and giant snails - all, sadly, swimming in a pepper sauce that was way too hot for me. Even the vegetarina section of the menu included a dish described as 'assorted meats'.  As a 'mostly' vegetarian who dislikes anything with even a hint of chilli in, I did struggle with the food.  This was served at the morning coffee break during our management meeting:

being unable to visualise

I am one of those people you may have read about who does not have a "mind's eye" - or at least I have a very poor one.  If I read a book that says someone is wearing a green jacket, I understand what that means, what a green jacket is - but I don't see a picture of someone in a green jacket somewhere inside my head.

I'm not as far along this spectrum as some, as I can (with a bit of effort) conjure up mental images of things I see commonly - like an apple, for example - as well as places that I spend a lot of time in.  But only if I have registered information about it.  For example trying to visualise my desk at work, I can 'see' the pile of old magazines that I rest my laptop on to get it at the right height to work with, but I cannot 'see' the desktop itself - and realise as I try to that I have never registered its colour.  I suppose that means it must be something neutral like white, beige or grey, otherwise I probably would have noticed.  I can't visualise people either, although I might recall the colour of their hair and eyes, if I have registered that.  Images that I can bring to mind (like the apple) are fleeting and faint.  I cannot hear sounds or smell odours in my head either, which I believe some people can.

It's hard to imagine what life is like for people who are at the other end of this spectrum - who apparently read a book and experience it almost as a film in their head.  I'm not sure whether it is something they can turn off?  Must be terribly distracting if not, when someone is trying to have a regular conversation with you and you get vivid images in your mind whilst they're speaking.

It would explain why I find long descriptive passages in books so boring, why I am totally unable to draw anything given a blank piece of paper - whilst at the same time being reasonably good at copying a picture from a photograph - and my total confusion at school when they told us to set out factual information with circles, arrows and so on across the page to help us remember it for the exams.  I had no idea that others might be able to visualise that diagram in their head!

Thinking about my time in Madagascar, however, I see one advantage for those who think like me.  We had a very near miss when driving along a road that went around the side of a small mountain, our small (12-seater) bus was suddenly faced by another small bus coming round the bend, on the wrong side of the road, at very great speed.  Braking would have merely meant a head-on collision, so the other vehicle had the choice of swerving left or right.  If he'd gone to his right, he'd almost certainly have plunged off the road and down the side of the mountain, so he swerved left, somehow (I'll never know how) managing to avoid even clipping the corner of our vehicle, but it meant that he smashed pretty hard into the rock face on that side of the road.  He bounced off and along a bit further (closely beside us to our right), then went into a small ditch and again into the rock face.  The driver must certainly have been killed and many of the passengers and the vehicle badly damaged.

Our local guide phoned for emergency medical people but we did not stop, apparently that is not advisable in such circumstances.  My reaction was, "Wow!  That was close!  Hope the people are okay.  Now, what were you saying about plans for this afternoon?"  & life went on.  Byt the end of the day I'd forgotten about it until the subject was raised over dinner.  At which point I found out that some of the others had been quite traumatised by it - our guide said that when we arrived at our destination and he got to his room he started shaing like a leaf.  Now I accept that the experience must have been a lot worse for him given that he was in the front seat - but I have realised that my lack of ability to visualise things serves to protect me in such situations.  I will never imagine what could have happened, other than in purely theoretical terms, and I will never have flashbacks of anything.

It makes me wonder whether this contributes to what others sometimes see as bravery in me.  Which I've always known was not bravery at all, but couldn't explain to people why it was not.  Now that I think about it - if someone asks "What if you were kidnapped by Al Qaida?", I might try to think in a practical way what that might mean, and then I might go off into a daydream about how I might manage to build some empathy with my kidnappers, get them to teach me Arabic, and so on - but I would not (and could not) visualise a scary-looking figure standing over me with a gun, so the thought of being kidnapped doesn't fill me with fear.  Not that it's likely to happen anyway (just so my Mum doesn't read too much into that example!!), but nevertheless I'm happy to be free from such mental images!