Reflections on 2017

                  Countries visited in 2017

Just before Christmas, the year before I had taken a job-based in Malawi working for a UK based NGO. However, for Christmas time, we had decided to spend this with the family in the UK. As a family, we had decided to rent a house through Air BnB in Brighton. Christmas was great and simple and we spent it in the apartment cooking some food together. After Christmas Aini and I had to fly back to Malawi, but we stayed two nights in Ethiopia on the way as the flights were cheap and we wanted to see Addis Ababa (Ethiopia’s capital). It was a short stay so we did not get to see much, but from the feel, Ethiopia has a very rich culture which we would really like to come back to explore.

My friend Pappu who runs a Vegetarian restaurant in Malawi

We arrived back in Malawi for the new year where Aini and I went to a local Indian restaurant ran by a friend I had made earlier in the year. We just spent the night together eating, chatting and watching some Bollywood award ceremony. It was a bit of a surreal way to spend New Year, but the guy we were with is so friendly and made us feel very welcome. My friend was running the only vegetarian restaurant in the country, and his food was amazing. After going there a few times I knew I had to make this guy my best friend in Malawi. He was fantastic and whenever Aini was out of the country he would often drive to my place after work to bring me food in case I had not eaten.

January was mostly spent working in Malawi and I also started writing my dissertation for a distance masters I was doing. But by the end of the month, Aini (my wife) had to go to Macedonia for a project and I was sent for one week to Cambodia. After only being three months in Malawi I was so excited to go back to Asia. Being in Cambodia I just instantly felt comfortable, I knew then that Asia was much more my place than Africa. I had worked in the Gambia in 2005 for three months and found it a real challenge. Don’t get me wrong, Africa is a great continent despite its challenges, but Asia is just somewhere I feel more comfortable and really enjoy. I feel Africa is great for a holiday, but a bit of a challenge for living, at least for me.

Me in Angkor Wat, Cambodia

So after a week in Cambodia at a conference, I was sent to Uganda. In Uganda, we had a team meeting and the feeling was so different. Where I really liked being in Cambodia the conference was a total mess and I have no idea what it was meant to achieve. The Ugandan meeting was the total opposite. The team I was working with were clearly together and had great leadership. I was there with my line manager, a Canadian – South African woman who had worked in Africa and was very inspiring. She had worked in many countries in Africa including Mauritania, Sierra Leona and the Democratic Republic of Congo. She was full of stories like being locked in a hotel in Goma while there was an active war going on around them. A fascinating and very strong woman.  At the team meeting the event was managed by a guy from Sunderland who was now living in the Philippines, also a very fascinating person, married to a local Filipino.

Kampala (Uganda’s capital) felt like a very modern and vibrant city, especially compared to Lilongwe (Malawi’s capital). I went out a number of times with the team in the city, which was enjoyable. After the meeting, it was time to return to Malawi and back to the job. Aini was already back by this time and we spent the next month living in the city, going out with new friends we had made and making some small trips to nearby places like the lake.

Lake Malawi

By Mid March I was off to South Africa for a week to work out of the Pretoria office and preparing to go to Mozambique where I would be managing a project until the end of April. It was a very strange feeling in South Africa, the development was perfect, and there were all the trappings of the western world. They had shopping centres, nice roads and pavements, 24-hour electricity and more importantly access to the Internet. However, the safety situation was bad. All the buildings and homes were surrounded by high fences that were electrified, by the time it was dark you had to be inside. The murder rate was still very high and I became very aware of my race. The apartheid system in South Africa was long over, but there was still a strong tension between ethnicities in the country. I instantly felt that my race classification was important without my consent. I felt like I wanted to go up to people and say, hey I’m a cool white guy, I love black people and actively do work to tackle discrimination, but how would that conversation go down and how crazy would it look. It made me wonder how is the race experience for Black people back in Europe and do they experience such similar experiences. I just know that the feeling sucked.

In the office, I got speaking to one Black guy from South Africa whom I had also met in Cambodia. He told me that should I come to South Africa he wanted to show me ‘the real South Africa’. I had been speaking to him about my interest in race and race identity and about my study, that I was looking into how contact reduces racism. I’m sure this was very amusing for my new friend who planned to take me out for an evening in the township.

A night in the township

We drove for quite some time before arriving in one of the townships. I was brought to what seemed to be some kind of social club. It had a good vibe with a bar, a BBQ going and a DJ playing what I can only guess were some of the old hits. It was mostly an older audience of people around 40 +. I was the only white guy in the building, there were clearly now white people in the township and I am not sure when the last white person had stepped into this place. At first I felt peoples eyes burning into me, but after time some guys came over and spoke to me. These guys were mostly drunk, but overall friendly and glad that I came to their place, which was nice. After this my new friends took me to a place where their was a younger crowd, this had a totally different vibe. The eyes were really burning into me here and I could see that I was not welcome at all. It was really uncomfortable.  Whereas I believe that contact reduces prejudice, the contact situation needs to be planned and my permission or access to this place had not been negotiated. After some time some guys where coming up and speaking to me, but they clearly wanted to intimidate me and mess with me a bit. They were playing with my hair; getting up and close to me and then asking me what I was doing there? Where some guys I felt could be cool and genuine, some where just pissed that I was there. It was clear that it was getting to tense and my new friends could see this too and got me out of there. Reflecting on the experience I was glad to participate in what seemed to be a social experiment, but it was frightening and intimidating. I would really like to explore this further in some study, but under the right conditions.

Just before heading off to Mozambique Aini had arrived in South Africa back from a work trip she had to Bulgaria, which seems to mostly involve skiing. We stayed for the weekend in Johannesburg in a nice hotel and just hung about a shopping area district as this seemed like one of the safest areas.

Early Monday we were at the airport ready to fly to Maputo (Mozambique’s capital). We were both a little nervous as the visa process had proven to be a little difficult for me and Aini was trying to get her visa on arrival, which we were told was possible. After a long wait and very unorganised method of applying we were happy because she got the visa. We were then picked up at the airport by a driver that had been arranged to take us to our accommodation. What luck, we were in a city centre apartment with a view of the ocean on one side and a view of the city on the other. The apartment had Internet and was in close proximity to local shops and restaurants. The city also had security issues but was nowhere like South Africa.

View from our Maputo apartment

Overall Maputo was a pleasant city to live, despite the huge poverty issues. I was also working for a nice Bosnian lady who even welcomed us to her house for dinner and took us for the weekend to the beach.

Halfway through my time there I needed to support a research activity in the centre of the country. I was a little bit nervous about going there, as I was aware that this was still a rebel stronghold area and that despite a recent ceasefire, a conflict could break out at any moment. I spoke to my director about my concerns and she told me that she felt it was safe, but I was not forced to go. However, this was coming from a woman that lived through the conflict in Sarajevo, so I was not convinced what she felt was safe was the same as mine. Anyway, I decided to go and Aini tagged along. The feeling in the city was fine and there seemed to be a number of Portuguese families that were running little taverners. To be honest it had a feeling of Portugal in the past. I worked with some very nice people in the area and came quite good friends with a local girl who was managing the project in the area.

Our trip to Swaziland

After my time in Central Mozambique Aini and I had to leave the country for a visa run, so the office had given us this huge 4×4 truck and we drove to Swaziland for the weekend. This was a lovely little break, despite the country having a marry happy king, the country felt very safe. We drove right across the country and went to some local cultural sites. Swaziland is very beautiful with its mountains and unspoilt countryside, it also felt very clean.

We came back to Mozambique and Aini was not back long until she needed to travel again this time to the UK. I stayed in Mozambique to continue the job. While here I also came to the realization that this job was not for me. I had always wanted to work in development, but while taking on this study I had found that academia was more for me.

While I was working in Malawi there were also massive divides between the local staff and expats living there, to the point it also required diversity training. I loved this training and I spend some time trying to support this cultural divide, for me it felt like this was a sign to follow my true path, so I decided to quit this job, go back to Bali and focus on my studies. However, I needed to give 1 months notice.

I came back to Malawi and started to close my life there, we had bought a car and also bought a load of things for the house we were living in, but what we learned in Malawi is that you can sell anything there. We managed to sell all the stuff we bought for the house and the car at a reasonable profit. On the back of this, we were able to buy ourselves a little holiday in Cape Town before we left.

Penguins in Africa

Cape Town is truly one of the jewels of Africa, and as it is expressed it is Africa for beginners. Cape Town had a very different vibe from Johannesburg and Pretoria. Cape Town felt less stressed and much safer, but there was a high police presence. The landscape is absolutely breathtaking and the beaches can be put alongside some of the best in the world. It was really worth the visit and a place I would definitely like to come back too.

We left Cape Town and came directly to Bali, this was a really long flight via Dubai and we were so tired by the time we came back. It was great to be back in Bali, I found that I missed it a lot. But there was not much time to enjoy as the next few months would be devoted to finishing my study, which involved interviews, literature searches etc.

In September just before finishing the study we had a short visit to Macedonia, Albania and Greece. We had a project in Macedonia and as we flew all this way I thought it would be nice to finish some of the countries in Europe we had not seen. We were based in the south of Macedonia so going to Albania was just a short trip. We had gone with our Macedonian hosts for a day trip around Lake Ohrid, which also took to Albania. Once the project was over one of our hosts drove us to Tirana (Albania’s capital). We only had one night there and by chance, we caught up with one Italian girl who use to volunteer for our project in Bali. She was living in Tirana now and was working for an international organisation there (Read the Albania blog here).

Standard tourist photo of Greece

We had a great night on the town, but the next day we had to fly to Greece. It had always been one of Aini’s dreams to go to Santorini, so we were flying there directly. Santorini has some wonderful architecture, but it felt very overpriced for a rock in the middle of the sea. We hired a bike and drove around the island for a few days, we got a good chance to see all sides of the island and stayed in a simple homestay.

Catching up with old friends

After Santorini, we flew to Athens and stayed a few nights in the city taking an air BnB. I really enjoyed the city; it too had a great vibe and felt like somewhere I could spend more time. After just a few nights it was time to return, we flew to the UK to see the family and catch up with some of my friends. One of my really good friends had returned to Hastings after living in Canada for 12 years and was now looking to start a new life again with his family. We went out for one night and had a real blast; it was so fun to be with two of my best friends after so many years, it was like we just picked up where we left off all that time ago.

It was time to come back to Bali, I spend the next few weeks finishing off my Master thesis and getting this submitted. Then it was time for another project, this time in Nepal.

Staying with our Nepali host family

Back in 2014 I was in Sardinia and was at a meeting where I met one guy from Nepal, we got on right away and had remained in touch ever since. I was in contact with my friend and he insisted that I stay at his place while I was in Kathmandu. The meeting I was going to was also in the city, so we just came a few days earlier to hang out at his place. My friend’s wife was the perfect host for us cooking us all our meals and making sure our stay was enjoyable.

The seminar began and we caught up with all the partners that we knew. Most had come to Bali earlier in the year for a meeting they had there, so it was good to see some of the same people. After the project, my friend who I was staying with before invited us to come and spend Diwali (Tihar in Nepali) with his family in the south of the country. The journey was a bit of a mission as they were developing the roads, so it was about 7 hours with the last 3 being very rough and hard. Again my friend’s family were the perfect hosts, but the conditions were very basic, so it took some adjustment for Aini and I.

Tihar celebration Nepal

After a pleasant time with the family and a great festival experience, it was time for Aini and I to hit the road again. We had booked a hotel in the city of Pokhara for one week where we wanted to soak up the mountain and lake views. On the 2nd day in the city, we took a helicopter ride to the Annapurna base camp. It was an amazing experience to be standing halfway up an 8,000-meter mountain with stunning views all around. The air was a little thin and there was a hotel at this base camp. While there we also met some people filming a movie that was fun. While getting onto the helicopter we met with a Malaysian couple. The guy had not long turned 70 and had driven to Nepal from Malaysia, he was telling us how he had driven a few times from the UK to Malaysia, it was really inspiring to meet them and see them still doing these incredible travels.

We came back to Pokhara and the next day Aini became sick. It was hard to know what really caused it, but it knocked her out for most of the rest of the time in the city. The day before we left though we took a bit of a city tour and went to the temple of peace on the nearby mountain. As the journey to Pohkara was crazy we decided to spend a little bit more and fly back to Kathmandu rather than take that bus again.  Back in Kathmandu we just spent a night back at my friend’s place as we were leaving the next day. (See some funny videos I made in Nepal here)

Aini working on her yoga poses at 5000 meters

The next day Aini and I left but on different flights, I had to go to Bulgaria for the week, but Aini was heading back to Bali. In Bulgaria, I was there for a project about how countries are adapting to new migrants coming to their countries and the participants were from Estonia, Germany, Bulgaria, Dominican Republic, Kenya and me representing Indonesia. The city was great and I was really happy, as this was the last country for me in the Balkans. After a week I needed to head back to Bali.

A beard trim in Malta

I had only been back one night and Aini was off on a flight to India for another project. I decided to say as I had some friends from Sweden in Bali who I wanted to hang out with. They stayed in our place for the night and then wanted to explore different parts of the island. I joined them for a few adventures to the beach and waterfalls. As they left Aini came back, we had a couple of weeks relaxing at home before it was time to fly again, this time to Europe. Our first stop was in London but just for a connecting flight and then we were off to Malta for a week project, this time just with European partners. It was a nice easy project and I got a chance to catch up with a friend of my how took me to his mates barbers for a beard trim and a haircut. My friend is a beard model so I thought it would be a good experience to go to this barbers. I had let my facial hair grow for 2 months, so it was really great to get this trimmed and shaped, now I just need to work out how to maintain it. (See video on this here)

After a lovely week we were on another plane this time to Morocco. We first flew to Marrakesh where we rented an Air BnB in the medina. It was ok but very cold. We took some time to explore the city and the souk and had some small excursion to some city in the south. After this, we were meant to fly to France, but for some unknown reason Aini and I was just feeling that going there wasn’t a good idea, so we decided to stay in Morocco and make our way to Portugal over land. We made our way to the train station and just jumped on a train to Fez. Fez was really nice and for me the nicest part of the trip. Fez supposedly has the largest souk in the world and going around the market streets was really great, we enjoyed a lot getting lost and found again. We were only a couple of nights in the city before it was time to move on, but if I am to return to Morocco I would for sure prefer to stay in Fez.

Chefchaouen, Morocco

Going around Morocco is very easy and cheap using public transportation. From Fez, we took a bus to Chefchaouen, known as the blue city. The bus was very scenic and took some beautiful mountain roads, sadly the weather really sucked which affected visibility. We arrived at a cosy little hotel close to the famous blue streets of Chefchaouen. Again we only had a couple of days in the city to explore, but it’s a very small town so it was enough.

Our aim from Chefchaouen was to head to Spain, there are three ports that go to Spain but it seems that buses only went to Tangiers, so by default we had to travel to the port here. We came by bus and stayed one night in a hotel by the old city. I did not pick up a good vibe from the city and can not say I enjoyed it there. I had before in Tangiers in 2003 for a weekend and did not enjoy it then, but to be fair both times I did not really get the opportunity to explore. Anyway, the next day we headed to the port to take a ferry to Spain. This was so simple and fast, it was also very cool to be sailing between Europe and Africa.

Arriving in Spain the boat pulled into Tarifa, from there free buses were available to Algeciras, however, it was not clear how to get to the bus station from the port. We had to wheel our suitcases through the city and find our way to the bus station. Eventually, we found it and made our way to La Linea de la Concepcion, a small town the border with Gibraltar. I was curious to see Gibraltar and had an ex-colleague of mine now living there. We made our way over to the city and explored around. It was kind of small and quiet but at the same time a little weird. Gibraltar is a part of the UK but clearly has its own sense of identity. It felt like there were a number of things that had been copied and pasted from the UK but it is somewhat still very foreign to the UK. I had mixed feelings about this territory but it was interesting to see. Although having just come from Morocco where there are two Spanish exclaves within the country that are the most heavily bordered in the world, maybe Gibraltar is not so bad. We only spent one night and the next day we made our way to Seville where we spent two nights.

Seville had a much different vibe to Gibraltar, it was a very cool, young and vibrant city with a good energy about it. We spent a couple of days exploring the city and it was really nice down by the river. Some of the eating options were also great. We left Seville by bus to head to Portugal. The bus took us to Faro where we had the option of taking the bus or train. We decided to take the train as it gave us some hours to explore Faro, but it was a Sunday so Faro was closed and there was nothing to see or do. The train was not very special, but one we arrived towards Lisbon we crossed the bridge and it was a very dramatic entrance into the city.

Lisbon was incredible and a real highlight of the trip for a number of reasons, first as we would have Christmas here with my family including my uncle, cousin and his family, second as we had all come to celebrate my fathers 70th birthday and lastly because the city is just a joy to be in. I had been in Lisbon a number of times, but it had been a few years since I had been back. Being a bit older I was able to explore and experience the city in a different way. Everything felt cool and nice about the city and the surrounding areas are also very nice. It was just a shame that we came at a cold time of the year. We had rented again another Air BnB in the old part of the city. Location wise our apartment was great, but it was a very small apartment built into a cave, so there was no natural light and it was very noisy outside. On one of the days we went to explore Sintra with my cousin and brother, this was a really nice chilled out day with some great quality time with them. I really fell in love with Lisbon and the surrounding area and hope I will be back there very soon.

Aini and my cousin Pedro

We had spent ten days in Lisbon but there was still one more destination before we would end the year and that was Gothenburg, Sweden. The flight to Sweden was simple and we arrived late at night to the city. A friend of mine picked us up and brought us to stay with him. We spent a couple of nights with him and in that time I also went to see some other people I know in the city. One of the people we went to meet was a couple that had been living in the city for some years, the wife is Polish and the husband is Brazilian and they have two kids that seem to easily manage Polish, Portuguese, English and Swedish, it was incredible to witness. After joining one night for dinner they insisted that I should stay in their relative’s apartment who was away for the holidays which we did. It was a really nice apartment that was warm and spacious, so we were very grateful for that. They had shown us some incredible kindness and really made us feel very invited to their house. For the New Years Eve, my Swedish friend had organised a house party where they had made a full vegan three-course meal, it was very kind and thoughtful. When we arrived it was a little intimidating, I understood it was going to be a house party but when we turned up we saw that everyone was in very formal dress, I was wearing my hoody, so really clashed. At first, it felt a little awkward speaking to people as they seemed like a very close group, but as the evening went on we got to know people and had a lovely time. It was a nice close to the year watching fireworks outside over the lake. We spent a couple more days in the city before heading to Stockholm and then Thailand, but these stories will be saved for next year.

This must have been one of the craziest years of my life to date with very different experiences in all places. Of course, all the places have something to offer, things to see and experiences to be had, but as I reflect on the year it is the people that have made the places. It takes some bravery to allow yourself to be open to the kindness of others. Spending time with people in their places is something very special and it opens the chance to explore that friendship and understand the culture they are coming from. The more we travel the more we see the similarity in people who are all just trying to make the most of what they have and get on. It feels that deep down we are all curious about each other and if we can allow ourselves to be open and share our lives and stories with others we can learn to see the commonalities in each other and support each other too to work through the differences.