Wednesday, 19 December 2007

Viva Cuba

Just returned from a holiday in Cuba with Teresa. We had intended to go last Spring, but couldn't get onto a trip, and had to wait until November. (Summer months are the hurricane season, so to be avoided). Those of you reading this who were with me at VSO training at Harborne Hall - this is the reason why I couldn't start my placement in September when you all began!

So what was Cuba like? First of all hot, HOT, HOT! Good training for Rwanda, though. I must make sure I don't let myself get dehydrated, and I have to learn to move more slowly and not charge about like a bull in the proverbial.

Good things about Cuba: the music (everywhere and always competent; even the smallest cafe has its little band and absolutely everyone has a sense of rythm). Watching people dance - so fluid, so transported. The scenery - almost complete lack of adverts (but plenty of political slogans on billboard sized hoardings), litter-free in most places, vivid greens everywhere. The old American cars - they're eveywhere, kept going more by faith than physics. The safety - even in the most run-down parts of Havana we didn't feel threatened (though if I went out on my own I could barely get two blocks before being propositioned by a statuesque young jinetera). Old Havana where the buildings have been restored - high quality restoration. The courtyards inside some of the older colonial style buildings are simply wonderful oases of calm and coolness. Going round a crocodile reserve/farm, then eating crocodile meat for lunch. The aerial ropeway at Las Terrazas eco-resort - in fact just about everything about Las Terrazas from the landscaping of the main hotel to the wonderful vegetarian restaurant and the orchid collection in the botanical gardens.

Grotty things about Cuba: public transport (not that we used it, but literally hundreds of people crammed into the camel-buses in tropical heat must be unbearable). The unrestored buildings in central Havana - literally falling down, though with people still living in them. Turkey vultures - they're everywhere; the first few are interesting, after that they're boring. They gather in flocks of two dozen or more. The waste of land - thousands of acres of fertile land left idle because the combination of world sugar prices, the American blockade and the lack of lateral thinking by national planners means that growing and refining sugar is unprofitable. Pollution from ancient lorries and modern oil refineries or power stations (especially in Cienfuegos).

Here are some pictures which sum up my experience of Cuba:

Ah, the palm trees. Coconut palms, royal palms, even "pregnant palms" with suggestive bulge in their trunk in Pinar del Rio. Everone a slightly different shape. The curved ones were especially beautiful.

This is part of the World Heritage site in Trinidad, on the south coast of Cuba. Old, colonial style buildings, some restored and others stiull waiting. Cobbled streets. American car. Lack of traffic, lack of adverts. Chaotic jumble of phone and power wires. The whole town dozing away in the mid-day heat.

These are the "mogotes" - weird limestone formations in Pinar Del Rio province in the far West of Cuba. The flat land around them dotted with tiny houses, all of them small tobacco farms. Little tent-shaped huts thatched with leaves, where the tobacco is cured.

Once Edouardo, our guide, had sussed that none of our party had links to the secret police, he was amazingly open about the pluses and minuses of life in Cuba. Everybody wanted to sound him out about the big question: what will happen when Fidel dies. His take was that nothing will hapen until Fidel goes. Hopefully, Bush will be gone in the USA and replaced with Clinton or Obama, or other more moderate politicians. The Helms-Burton act, which has imposed a trade embargo to strangle Cuba's trade with the rest of the world, will be lifted. At the point Cuba will change very quickly. Whether it will be corporate America rolling in and swamping everything, or whether Cuba can control America's influence while welcoming its dollars, is a moot point.

One thing is certain: if you want to see the "classic" Cuba, the Cuba of Castro and Che Guevara as it has been for the past 50 years, you need to go as soon as poss!

Friday, 9 November 2007

A Hundred words in Kinyarwanda

Landscape near Gitarama - land of a thousand hills

(photo from Google earth)

Every day I'm slogging away learning about 10 new words or phrases. It's slow progress and maddening because the language is slippery as an eel. I'm told that people use "r" and "l" fairly interchangeably (so I can expect to be introduced as Bwana Bluce), and sometimes "k" is pronounced as "sh". This means the capital city could be pronounced as Kigali or Shigali or Kigari or Shigari. Oh what fun.....

Never mind. I can count laboriously to a hundred. I can ask directions and follow directions. I can greet people. I know enough words for food to survive.

I love the poetry of the language. Apparently the word for goodnight, "mwaramucye", really means "may you not die during the night"; the word for good morning "mwawamutse", means "I am glad to see you have survived the night". Lovely.

Went to Poole last night to a Dorset VSO meeting to see Heidi Farrow's photos of her 3 years in Rwanda. Lovely pictures and I already feel a real attraction to the place before I've even been there. Rwanda is green and profoundly beautiful.

Friday, 2 November 2007

At last - getting a handle on the job!

Street scene in Gitarama (photo from Google Earth site)

Sixty seven days to go (my departure date has now changed twice; the latest change came through while I was typing this posting). A good few days with lots of progress. Made contact with Bola Ojo, who I am succeeding in the post at Gitarama. (Thank you, Skev, my ultra-efficient placement adviser, for linking us together). Bola has sent me a detailed summary of what he has achieved during his time in Rwanda, and what needs doing. It is exactly what I needed and I feel energised and terrified at the prospect. But it's so good to at last have some details and specifics to work on.

My patch consists of 106 primary schools, 23 secondaries and 23 private schools. That's slightly more than in the entire county of Dorset. Also, ten of the secondaries have full or part-boarding establishments attached to them.

I now know the name of my boss - Claude Sebashi - and Bola says he is a good man and hard working, so I'm looking forward to meeting him.

I've discovered the main Rwandan website with details of the education system (see sidebar to this blog), and can begin to get to grips with it.

Other little snippets from the news.....
  • class sizes can be enormous - up to 87 I have seen in one particular case

  • according to the newspaper, thousands of school textbooks in Muhanga district have been stolen from schools, presumably to be sold off cheap in the markets of Kigali

  • some primaries still work in double shifts, i.e. one population of children in the morning and another completely different set each afternoon

On the other hand, Bola says nice things about Gitarama town - "the Birmingham of Rwanda" (yer what??) "it has electricity and water supply, inside loos, and even a hot shower is possible if you're lucky".

I'm intrigued. On Bola's "activities yet to be done" list it talks about the "Radio Maria Project" = "use local radio to broadcast a weekly English lesson aimed at teachers/students and the general public keen to learn English". Now that sounds like a real challenge/opportunity. Move over Chris Moyles; Radio Brucey could hit the airwaves some day soon............

Bola - you've made my day. I salute you!

Sunday, 21 October 2007

I've been SKWID-ed!

Another week closer to departure. Just finished my second training course at Harborne Hall in Birmingham (it's a converted convent: little statues of Mary in niches along corridors). Very intense course; I think we all felt emotionally drained after four days. I have to say, the VSO training regime is very detailed and thorough. Such a great bunch of other trainees, too - nobody in common with my first course, but at last I've met another volunteer who'll be in Rwanda with me! The range of posts and countries between 14 of us is simply amazing - Cambodia, the Gambia, India, Mozambique, Namibia, Nepal, Nigeria, Pakistan, Sri Lanka. Jobs ranging from paediatrics, to working with HIV positive sex workers, to education, to compiling a signing language for deaf people. Restores a bit of faith in humanity.
Our course ended up with VSO's customary health and safety advice. This can be summarised as:
Don't eat anything - it's nearly all buggy, or you'll blow yourself and half the neighbourhood to smithereens if you tinker around with your gas cooker
Don't drink anything non-alcoholic - 'cos it's swimming in bacteria, even in ice
Don't go anywhere - 'cos the roads are dangerous and everyone drives like maniacs
Stay indoors - 'cos if the bugs don't get you then the sunshine will
Don't have sex with anyone (or even anything) - you're guaranteed to end up infected or married
Can someone please bang me on the head and remind me why I signed up to VSO?

Now it's back to reality; yet more injections (3 this week alone); insurance to sort out and all sorts of boring domestic finance to prepare for departure. My clockwork radio has arrived and I've been fiddling with it to try to get short wave reception (world service is going to be a life saver); my new camera works beautifully but I need to get more proficient on close-range shots, and at last I have a moped helmet which fits me. (Apparently it's the biggest size they make, but if I tell you all then you'll make the obvious comment back).

Friday, 5 October 2007

Au centre du monde

OK, here's proof that Rwanda really is at the centre of the world!

Thursday, 4 October 2007

Now I know what a pin-cushion feels like

Today I'm almost half way through my jabs. I've had hepatitis B in my left arm, and rabies in my right. A while ago, both arms felt as if they were made of lead, but that's worn off now.

All in all I need at least 10 jabs - 3 each for rabies and hepatitis, one each for typhoid, meningitis and polio/tetanus/diphtheria, and a booster MMR to cover measles, mumps and rubella. Just about the only thing I don't need is japanese encephalitis. The sole jab from previous expeditions which seems valid is my yellow fever one. I've no grumbles with the Bridport Medical Centre - they're incredibly thorough.

It's the little asides that surprise me, the things I wasn't expecting. Apparently some of the immunity from the BCG jab I had back in 1961 might have worn off, so they want me to have another test to see if I still have resistance. All very well, but now that they've stopped doing the BCG jabs in schools there's hardly anywhere left to do the testing. I have to go about 35 miles to Stalbridge twice in November - once for the test and again in two days' time to have it read. If it transpires I need an injection then apparently I'll have to go all the way to Bristol for it.

No problem; it'll be a day out in the autumn sunshine/pouting rain! But why Stalbridge, of all places? - it's a village lost in the middle of Blackmoor Vale in the wilds of North Dorset. The most random, illogical place I can imagine to use as a repository for specialised medical treatment!

Then I've got to see my G.P. about anti malarials. Of course, the common-or-garden chloroquine and paludrine are no good for Rwanda as the bugs have become immune to them. So I need either mefloquine (side effects: bad dreams, sleep disturbance, headaches, rash, anxiety, depression, diarrhea and -{beat this} - paranoid hallucinations), or doxycycline (side effects: photosensitivity or heartburn). Photosensitivity for a year on the equator, anyone?.....

The jabs are expensive, too, even on the national health. Rabies - £105; meningitis £30, mefloquine - about £170, or doxycycline about £200.

And then I read about an outbreak of ebola in the Congo. No immunisation possible, 90% mortality rate, unbelievably awful way to die, no known cure. Fortunately it's a long way away from the Rwanda border, but, then again, diseases can travel a long way fast with long distance lorry drivers and the like.

So, I think, why am I putting myself through all this? Can't answer that yet. But Rwanda had better be good when the Bridport pin-cushion finally gets there!

Wednesday, 26 September 2007

Rwanda progress report - 100 days to go.......

Well, folks, in just over a hundred days I'll be on the plane winging my way over Africa and wondering what the hell I've let myself in for! Part of me wishes I was going next week; the other part is in a slow panic, thinking about all the things left to do and all the "what if"s both out there and back here at home.

At the moment I seem to be half drowning in bureaucracy. Over the past couple of weeks I've sent off all the documents for my work permit (including having to get 6 copies of each of four academic certificates and five copies of my CRB clearance, all notarised by a solicitor). I've arranged for my medical jabs - they start tomorrow. I've also arranged powers of attorney so that Teresa can deal with any financial stuff that crops up during my absence.

I've started trying to learn Ikinyarwanda; I've got about thirty words so far and then I seem to have stalled. I'm finding it really hard because it's so different from any other language I've looked at. The words all seem random and many are very similar to each other ("gatatu" = 3 and "gatanu" = 5).

I've ordered my helmet for moped riding. However, VSO in its wisdom has decided I won't have a moped of my own while I'm out there; I'll either have to be taken as a pillion passenger by someone else or I'll have to hire a bike locally. I can't quite reconcile this with a job description which seems to imply I'll be travelling round from school to school but no doubt it'll all become clear when I get there. In the meantime I've sent off for a International Driving Permit in case I decide to buy a second hand land rover or similar.

I'm compiling a master kit list, mainly to see what things I'm going to need to buy between now and Christmas.

There's also lots of busywork on things like insurance and the VSO setting-up grant.

On a positive note, I went to a local Dorset VSO group meeting last week and met Heidi Farrow who had just returned from three years in Rwanda at Butare, about 50 miles from where I'll be based at Gitarama. In her three year stint she managed to acquire a Rwandan husband, so clearly the country suits some people very well indeed! She was so reassuring about all the stupid things I wanted to know about, and It'll be great to have her on hand to answer any last minute panics. I've also made contact with three Canadians current out in Rwanda, one of whom will be one of my closest colleagues in Muhanga district.

I've spent hours on line googling everything I can think of to learn about the country; google earth is absolutely brilliant. I think I've already got a good feel for what the landscape is going to look like but I'm sure it's going to be a huge culture shock when I arrive. For the first few days I'll be based in Kigale, the capital, for intensive briefings on things like security.

The first question I get asked by friends is "is it safe to go there?" The answer seems to be a definite "yes"; in fact by many measures Rwanda is safer than most other countries in Africa.
It seems to be making an exceptionally fast adjustment back to normality after the genocide of 1994. The remnants of the interahamwe rebels and disaffected Rwandan army soldiers seem to have been pushed into Burundi and the Congo, where they're still causing mayhem but don't cross the borders and therefore don't cause trouble inside Rwanda proper. We're banned from going into the Congo and very strongly discouraged from Burundi because they're so dangerous. That's a shame, but, then, the situation could improve during my year there.

The mountain gorillas are in the north of Rwanda, right up against the borders with Congo and Uganda. So also is the big Karisimbi volcano - 14500 feet, very active, and just begging to be climbed......

So, it's onwards and upwards, and roll on my SKWID training course in mid October.

Monday, 17 September 2007

Grandad's Flight

It's August 16th and we've finally got Grandad airborne (at the third attempt). What a saga! When we arranged this back in Christmas 2006 we thought it would be a doddle to turn up and fly. And with Grandad being 90 it seemed a beautiful way to celebrate his birthday. In the event, however, it turned into such a marathon that we wondered if he would be 91 by the time we got off the ground!

After all the faffing around fixing a date when both Ruth and I were free, after booking ferries to the island, meeting up and collecting "Biggles"................... on the first attempt we arrived at the airfield to find the plane had broken down that morning. On the second attempt we got there to find the weather had closed in and the cloudbase was too low to allow a flight.

Never mind. On August 16th the sun was shining, the plane was working, and we were all there ready and waiting. We were airborne around 45 minutes doing a complete circuit of the island, clockwise from Sandown. The cabin on the plane was too cramped to get any decent pictures of Grandad, but I was able to take lots out of the window. Here are two of my favourites. Firstly the Needles and Alum Bay:

Secondly, Yarmouth harbour:

The views were stunning - everything we could have wished for. Flying through a rain shower, looking at individual houses (we were only about 1500 feet up and only doing about 80 knots), identifying from the air the places we've visited on land - magic! The island looked very green and pleasant.

The only negative thing was the constant lurching around of the plane whenever a gust of wind took it. That took some getting used to!

When we landed we asked the pilot to take a picture of the intrepid crew:

So here's to you Grandad! Not bad at all for a 90 year old. The spirit of Biggles lives....

Wednesday, 1 August 2007

The WOMAD festival, July 2007

Went to womad ("World of Music and Dance" for those not in the know) with Rachel. I've always wanted to go; the kind of music at womad is much more my thing that anything at Glastonbury.

Arrived in good time on the first day, but found all the good camping pitches already taken by crew and people who had come the day before. Put up tent on stubble of cornfield with plenty of bare soil under groundsheet. So little room to put tents that ours encroached onto one of the pathways between tents - not one of our nest ideas as we had a constant procession of people tripping over guy lines, especially after dark (and a few bevvies!). Tents so close all our guy lines were interlacing; privacy there wasn't.

Main feature of the site was the mud. We became connoisseurs of mud, from the liquid, six inch deep variety (the best, because it was easier to walk through) to the shallower sticky stuff. This was absolutely treacherous - as slippery as ice, and it sucked your boots off your feet. Very physically hard work to walk through - my legs are still aching two days after returning! Just to make life more exciting there were unexpected, hidden ridges and pits where tractors had ploughed their way through the gloop. The only way to cope with the sticky stuff was to KEEP MOVING. If someone crossed your path you didn't dare stop to give way to them.....

I particularly liked the ice cream van in this photo. There's something very English about splashing through puddles, wearing waterproofs, to buy a lolly!

ENOUGH! No more talk about rain and mud. The music was tremendous and more than made up for all the discomfort. Highlights for me were: Congolese/Kenyan soukous, reggae from both Jamaica and Birmingham, several French/North African groups, and Brazilian samba. We saw Cesaria Evora, Mariza, Baaba Maal and Taj Mahal. The Warsaw Village Band were a revelation, and Daara J put enough energy into their hip hop to power the entire festival. The atmosphere was brilliant, too. This festival seems very family friendly, with a wide spread of ages and a relaxed atmosphere. Loads of food stalls from round the world (Jamaican breakfast, anyone?) and lots of colours. Everywhere there were flags flying. There was even a full scale funfair with steam yachts, helter skelter and gallopers.

Would we go again? YOU BET your life we would!

Thursday, 14 June 2007

Polish interlude

(This is a second attempt to learn how to integrate text and pictures on the page).
At the start of April, Teresa and I spent a few days in Krakow - our first ever visit to Poland. We were bowled over by how beautiful the town was, and in particular how the centre has been spared the high-rise buildings and clutter of TV masts, advertising hoardings etc that disfigure so many of our English cities.
The first picture is of the old Market Square in Kazimierz, the quarter in which we were staying:

The nicest part of Kazimierz is Szeroka Street, a wide road at the centre of the old Jewish quarter. Many Jewish businesses have returned after the holocaust; in particular there are at least three restaurants.

The oldest part of Krakow is the hill, right next to the River Vistula, on which stand both castle and cathedral. Under the castle hill there is a cave - still visible - and the local legend tells of a dragon called Krak who used to be fed a diet of virgins etc in return for protecting the town. A metal statue of Krak belches fire every ten minutes or so. It's quite spectacular at night! We loved the randomness of these domes on side chapels of the cathedral:

This is a view up Kanonicza street. It's an unbroken succession of genuine very old buildings with a cobbled street. At a quiet time of day, with few other pedestrians and no cars, you really feel as if you've entered a time warp.

About 40 miles away from Krakow is the small town of Oswiecim, better known under its German name of Auschwitz. Auschwitz is a major railway junction with lines accessing all parts of central Europe - hence its choice as the ideal site for a camp.

The actual camp buildings are in two parts. Auschwitz proper is a former Polish army barracks taken over by the Germans after their invasion of Poland. Birkenau, the death camp, is about five minutes away by bus. Even now, the sheer scale and extent of the camp is sobering.

Some things are very deceptive. We visited on a bright, cold spring day, and the brick barracks of Auschwitz didn't feel as sinister as I expected - until you saw the lines of electrified wire. The dense crowds of visitors, including some from Germany and huge numbers from Britain, seemed somehow to populate the camp and made it less sinister than if we had been the only people there.

Inside the barracks the exhibits spoke for themselves and reduced us to silence. Huge display cases full of children's clothes, of shoes, spectacles, wooden limbs. Recreations of the cramped sleeping bunks, tiered three high.

In one corner, adjacent to each other, were the "hospital block" where Mengele and others carried out experiments, the execution wall, and the punishment block. Throughout the barracks were photos of inmates showing their dates of entry and death. The average life expectancy seemed to be around 4-5 months.

Here is the main gate with its infamous "Arbeit Macht Frei" slogan:

And this is a small corner of the extermination camp at Birkenau. The sheer scale of this place is staggering. Four huge gas chambers and crematoria were sited in the woods at the rear of the photo. The majority of the huts were wooden and have been demolished or rotted away, but each hut had a brick chimney stack and these have survived. The chimneys stand like humans grimly at attention. It is a profoundly sad place, even on a bright spring morning. We were glad to have visited this awful place, but more than ready to get back on the coach and head back for sanity in Krakow.

Saturday, 10 March 2007

Brucey enters the blogosphere

Well, it's 2007 and high time I got myself organised with a blog. Apologies to anyone reading this who is totally blog-savvy; I'm just getting started. Since I intend to do some travelling in the near future and since family and friends are pretty far flung, I reckon a blog is going to be more practical than e-mails for keeping in touch.

I also want to be able to use the blog to upload photos. Most blogs seem to start with a flattering photo of the author, so I'll be different and post one which shows me in the worst possible light!

This is a truly horrendous one at West Bay, taken on Boxing Day. I allowed myself to be conned into doing the charity swim, about fifty yards out and back. There were around fifty people taking part. The fancy dress was a laugh, but I hadn't counted on the amount of drag from my tutu. It acted like a sea anchor; I was swimming like mad but getting nowhere fast. In the end I was neary run down and swamped by faster people on their return leg, so I turned round before I reached the half way mark.

The water didn't feel too cold one I'd got properly in, but my God it was cold when I came out. There was a keen wind and it was FREEEEEEEZING!

We'd brought a thermos full of mulled wind with us, and it came in real handy, I can tell you!

Anyway, it's classic on how to look a total plonker in front of hundreds of people all lined up along the beach and the pier.

And here's one of all the family, taken on Christmas day. It's such a rare event nowadays getting everyone together, so despite the cloudy day I'm really pleased with this one.