Mission (just about) accomplished

I was tired when I got home from Cambodia (via Istanbul), and the last thing I really wanted to hear was that my staff were having problems in Niger and I needed to join them as soon as possible in order to rescue the mission.

It turned out that none of the planning had been done as one team member had been confined to bed with a painful attack of gout.  The other team member had arrived in Niger late after her flight was delayed by ten hours, and also stressed from her experience on the flight.  Stopped at Bamako for some passengers to leave and others to join the flight, she suddenly realised her laptop was missing.  In her distress she managed to persuade the crew to let her briefly disembark to chase after the departing passengers, and finding them still in the terminal she announced that her laptop was missing and she wanted everyone to open their bags.  A man who'd been sitting near her (and trying unsuccessfully to chat her up for much of the flight) came forward and handed it over.  He'd thought it belonged to another woman who'd got off the flight, blah, blah, blah...

Perhaps her immune system was down after the stresses of her journey, as she then fell sick with malaria and spent the next five days in bed.

So they needed me to join them much earlier than intended so as to take on some of the work.  I ran around changing my flight, getting an additional few days' visa, etc (all made more difficult by the fact that all of my admin and logistics colleagues were away on a training course), and flew out to join them on the Saturday evening.  Due to full hotels we were all staying in different places, so they had agreed to bring a big pile of files to me on the Sunday as preparatory reading for my intended two days out in the field visiting projects, but the taxi drivers were all on strike so I had to sit there twiddling my thumbs until an office driver got to me on the Monday morning.  Laden down with the files we drove the 160km to the Dosso field office, and after the day's work I spent the evening, until midnight, on my reading.  There was little else to do in any case as the hotel restaurant was closed and with no street lighting and no torch I was restricted to a beer from the hotel bar for my dinner.

The next morning I was therefore quite hungry and could hardly believe it when told that the restaurant was still closed, with the chef not expected in for another couple of hours.  So I wandered out into the street, searching for somewhere selling food.  As Dosso is a kind of crossroads for travellers (mostly truckers) going from Niger to Benin or Nigeria, I quickly found somewhere.  No menu, just a chunk of baguette served with hot white beans, a dollop of mayonnaise and a glug of oil, but it was nicer than it sounds and a bargain at only 40¢.

Once in the office, I gave them the list of projects I wanted to visit so that they could make the necessary arrangements.  They came back looking concerned.  There had been a kidnapping of six NGO staff on the Sunday night, so apparently meetings had been held the previous day between security officers of the NGOS and the UN agencies, and the decision had been made to stop all field visits.  I was also told that there was to be no movement between the country office and the field offices, so I had to stay put.  With two policemen guarding my room that night!

I have to say that I felt it was all a huge overreaction; the kidnap had taken place 650km away, and as the kidnappers now had six hostages to deal with I thought it unlikely that they would be on the hunt for more.  Besides, this wasn't the first kidnapping of NGO staff in Niger over the past few years.  But I am not an expert on security matters, and obviously had to do what I was told in the circumstances.

Overreaction or not, it meant I couldn't carry out the work that was my reason for going to Dosso, so the next day they agreed to transport me back to Niamey.

Thankfully the other half of our planned project vists had been done a couple of days earlier so we were still able to draw some conclusions from our trip and produce a final report.

Time to go home, and although our homes are in different places the first leg of the journey, Niamey - Ouagadougou, was the same for all three so we travelled together to the airport early on the Wednesday morning.  This trip hadn't done with us yet though, as we found that the aeroplane had not arrived the previous evening, and with no other flights departing Niamey that day we could not be re-routed.  So we were sent back to the hotel to wait.  A chance to phone my Mum, to take a dip in the pool, it wasn't all bad, but at the same time I really had been away for long enough and was keen to get home.  Friday was a public holiday so I had a long weekend to look forward to.

Eventually, late afternoon, we got the call to go back to the airport; the plane had finally arrived.  At check-in I was asked whether I wanted to collect my luggage in Ouagadougou or check it through to Dakar.  I pointed out that as I had missed the midday connection with the Dakar flight it was a bit difficult to answer without more information on the rearranged connection.  At this they looked a little confused - it turned out they hadn't thought about that so I hadn't been booked on to any new connecting flight.

After more than an hour waiting for information, I was told that unfortunately the next flight from Ouaga to Dakar was not until Friday lunchtime and so I would have to spend two nights in transit in Ouagadougou.  I was not pleased but of course there was nothing I could do.  In fact I was nearly removed from the Friday flight as I refused point blank to pay $50 for a transit visa, arguing that it was the airline's fault and so they would have to pay.  Fine in theory but all the airline's staff were off enjoying the public holiday...  But I made the flight and finally collapsed into bed at home on Friday night.

Getting things done in Africa is rarely easy but this trip had managed to really pack in the challenges.

Transit in Turkey

I wasn't going to write any more about Istanbul.  I was only there, in total, for five days, and have already posted on the dervishes and the carpet sellers.  Besides, most readers will have been there, so what insights can I glean in five days that you don't already have?

But Istanbul is such a great place!  & as I go through sorting out the photos they were calling me to write one last post on the place.  Just a quick one.

Five days was plenty of time to visit the obvious tourist sights - the Blue Mosque, the Aya Sophia, the Topkapi Palace, the Yerebatan cistern, the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts and the Spice Market.  The most stunning of these is certainly the Aya Sophia, built in AD537 as a cathedral, converted to a mosque in 1453, and then to a museum in 1935, it is said to have changed the history of architecture.  For nearly a thousand years it was the world's largest cathedral, and certainly the size of the building is still impressive.

But a few hours wandering around it, prying into all the little corners and looking up at what remains of the painted ceilings, is tremendously rewarding.  It has been restored, and added to, many times over the centuries and is stuffed full of marble pillars, intricate ironwork, golden mosaics, calligraphy, and even some blue tiled decorations hidden under an archway.

The Bosphorus cruise was a little disappointing, though might have scored more highly in better weather - but was probably just about worth it for the delicious stuffed mussels and fresh sardines at the lunchtime stop.  Continuing on the food line, the Spice Market was great for filling those little corners of my case with delicacies I can't get at home - apple and cinnamon tea, local sheep's cheese, and a half-kilo of delicious dried cranberries.

The other highlight was a trip to the exquisite little Chora Church, now the Kariye Museum.  It is full of golden mosaics dating from the early 1400s, as well as some reasonably well-preserved frescoes, and is well worth the effort of finding it.  In any case the locals are helpful - when my intended route was blocked by redevelopment a local man insisted on giving me a lift there, which was typical of the kind way I was treated by everyone I met there.  Unfortunately no more trips to Asia are in the pipeline but I certainly would not complain about another day in transit in Istanbul!

Monkeying around

Despite not getting to Angkor Wat, Cambodia ended up offering me a few good experiences.  On the last Friday evening I went out for a bit of culture.  Not the classical dance, unfortunately, which is hard to find in the capital, but a performance by an arts group of what they called 'Hanuman and the big drum'.  There were actually two very big drums, two quite big drums, and a number of smaller drums and gongs.  Not to mention a few other traditional instruments (not sure what they are called, but the Cambodian equivalents of the West African balafon and njarka).  The drumming was excellent, and was accompanied at one point by some very good male dancers.

The best part for me though was the reference to Hanuman (the monkey god).  We were making our way back to our seats after the interval when some 'monkeys' came through the audience area to investigate the empty stage.  These were the male dancers but this time wearing sky blue ceramic monkey masks, and displaying all the mannerisms of monkeys in the way they moved, scratched, etc.  There was just something about their behaviour, and in those masks, that made all of us in the audience smile, then giggle, and then laugh out loud, and I really did go back to the hotel with a smile on my face and a spring in my step.

Then on my last Saturday morning, just before heading home, I tried out a completely different activity, with a visit to the Phnom Penh shooting range.  You can try your hand at everything from AK47s to a Rocket Propelled Grenade (although the latter costs $350).  I went for the revolver and the Ruger sniper rifle.  The revolver was difficult - the recoil was strong and tilted the gun upwards even before the bullet had left, so all my shots flew well over my target's head.

But I was much better with the rifle.  As you can see I didn't manage to hit the actual target (it looks as though I was aiming for his gun instead!), but nine of my ten shots would have killed my target man, and the tenth probably broken his shoulder, which isn't bad for a first attempt.

(Not a) holiday in Cambodia

It was a nice surprise to get sent on an assignment to Cambodia, even if it was in the middle of their monsoon.  We have two main field offices in the country, one in Kampong Cham and the other in Siem Reap - and at the latter some of the projects we are funding are in communities that live right within the area of the Angkor Wat ruins.  I saw the ruins on a holiday in 1998 when I spent a whole week based in Siem Reap, but I was very hopeful of a trip back there.

But it wasn't to be.  My colleague got to go to Siem Reap whilst I was assigned to Kampong Cham.  I did my research to see if there would be anything to visit at the weekend, but luck didn't seem to be on my side; the pagoda with the resident python is inaccessible during the monsoon, and the 100-year-old wooden temple was closed following the collapse of a beam in May.  So on the Saturday morning I just went for a walk, to take a better look at an area we'd driven through on the way to visit projects in the week.  I estimated that it was at least 5km away, so took a motorbike taxi there (swerving to avoid a snake in the road on the way!) and walked back.

Cambodia must be the wettest country I have ever been to.  Full of rivers, lakes, flooded rice fields, puddles - and of course the rain, which fell in torrents throughout my stay.  But fortunately we had a few dry hours during my morning outing, so I was able to get a picture of the wonderful local fishing nets without ruining yet another camera.

Then another, quite unexpected, opportunity to experience something new came on the drive back to Phnom Penh, when we passed some stalls selling local food.  Deep-fried spiders!!

I bought one to try, then was asked if I wanted to see a live one.  Well how could I resist!  Here it is on my arm:

More impressive than it probably looks as I'm actually terrified of spiders.