Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Reflections on Haiti

After landing on March 7th it didn't take long to get consumed in the work that the World Food Program (WFP) was doing in Haiti, leaving me a shortage of the headspace in which to step back and write about it.  So for those of you who are interested; here is a retrospective rumination on one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences of my life.

The last leg of the 75 hours of flying time which it took me to get from India to Haiti was certainly the most enjoyable from my point of view.  The single engined Cessna Caravan climbed slowly above to above the clouds from the Dominican Republic only to immediately begin it's descent towards Port-au-prince.  It was dusk by the time we descended over the arc of Caribbean coast that sandwiches this sprawling city against an imposing mountain range, but even with limited visibility it was obvious that  the destruction as a result of the January 12th earthquake was not, and could not, be over emphasized.  Thousands of hastily erected shelters could be seen clearly from the air, and what was left of the city's ramshackle buildings took on the appearance of an archaeological ruin where the roofs of buildings had long since abandoned their supporting walls and lay in rubble on the ground beneath.  Unfortunately the combination of low light, and a bouncy descent resulted in my photos looking more like an epileptic fit than a city, so this photo (right) taken on the ground in Port-au-prince will have to suffice as evidence of the destruction. 

After checking into the humanitarian community's own tent city (Camp Charlie) for the night, we were refreshed and ready to meet our co-workers.  It didn't take long to get into the swing of things, and although there were other options (that were "infinitely more difficult, and over priced" according to one colleague) our first meal together consisted of a US army MRE feast, hosted around an elegant flyaway container which was being used as a makeshift esky.  On first impression, these ingeniously designed ration packs are quite tasty, and come with all sorts of little extra's including the historic tiny bottle of tabasco sauce, matches, coffee, tea, sugar, napkins, and even toilet paper.  However, after a couple of weeks of eating three meals a day from plastic sachets, the novelty wears off to the point that even now I would have to be pretty hungry to consider one.  At the time, I was quite impressed and like a good humanitarian tourist I captured a moment that, as evident by the expressions on my colleagues faces, was clearly not worth capturing for those who had worked in a disaster zone before (left to right, Fredrik, Michael, Ivan, and Martin).

The work that I was brought in to do was fairly straight forward, or so I thought.  Essentially I was to improve functionality and stabilise the IT environment for the humanitarian community working around Haiti.  Coming from a professional background I honestly thought that this would be a fairly straight forward task.  We had some success in this regard, however I've included this picture from the server room in Port-au-prince for my more technical friends who have seen a few data centres to give an impression of the challenges that we faced. 

For me, the interesting thing about this kind of work is not so much the task itself, but context in which you have to work.  Although slightly dramatic, it analogous to a space mission.  While you do have the support of mission control in Houston (in our case WFP headquarters in Rome) you are pretty much limited to what you brought with you in order to solve the many an varied problems that you face on a day to day basis.  This problem is not limited to equipment either, the many and varied specialists that are available in the first world aren't available in these countries, so basically you make do with what you do know, and hit everything else that you don't understand with a big hammer until it works.

So I don't ramble too much more, I'll come to the most memorable and magnetic aspect of this kind of work; the people.  

The international staff that come from all corners of the globe and all walks of life provide the colour and bizarre night life which only comes about when passionate and enthusiastic people have a few drinks.  As the work became more manageable later in the deployment we had the chance to have a few fantastic weekends away for day hikes in the mountains, trips to deserted Caribbean beaches, and on each occasion the fervor with which we let our hair down was never dulled by the number of hours people had worked in the preceding week.

I think the part of the experience that I will look back on with the most nostalgia, is the opportunity to get to know some the local staff that we worked with.  It is easy to forget just how much harder it is for those who come to work every day without the knowledge that the harsh situation they are in is temporary.  I met Jean Serge Seide when he came to do an installation of some equipment from a local ISP.  I thought it was amazing that he could be working away at installing this equipment with a smile on his face, cracking jokes through his all too apparent exhaustion, and then turn around and ask in the politest way possible who he could speak to about getting basic supplies, such as food and tarpaulins for the small group of tents that he and his family lived in along side many others.  After submitting his resume, he eventually became part of our team and the more I worked with him and saw the determination with which he applied himself, the more my respect for him grew.  Jean Serge is just one example, in our small team we had nine local staff, each with there own stories, and each with an amazing attitude to the adversity that they faced.  As something to remember them by, they all signed a 25 Haitian Gourd I can't think of a better gift and / or inappropriate use of official currency.. 

This is not a sales pitch, but simply a practicality because everyone I talk to about this asks me how I got into this type of work, if you are interested in disaster work and have five years of experience in the one of the various fields that they accept, then you should look into joining the RedR Australia register for disaster workers, and attend one of the fabulous training courses that RedR offer:

For more information about WFP as a whole check out:

And for anyone with a Electrical, Telecommunications or IT background who wants to work in the Humanitarian arena:

Friday, March 5, 2010

En-route to Haiti

I am on a flight from the west to the east coast of the US with a colleague from RedR (Ivan), where we have half a night in a hotel before heading on to Santa Domingo tomorrow.  In the last 4 days I have travelled three quarters of the way around the globe (from India) and, as Ivan recently pointed out, I will have been in the air for 65 hours in 6 days by the time we reach our final destination, Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

In some semblance of preperation, I've been watching BBC world service earthquake stories since January, I've read all the notes provided in our kit from the UN World Food Program and from RedR in Melbourne, but even with all the information available, I still have only the vaguest idea of how it will feel when I hit the ground there.  I would be lieing if I said I'm not nervous.  This is both mine and Ivan's first deployment into a real disaster situation, on the one hand it is incredibly exciting, but on the other, quite daunting.  From a technical point of view, I am confident in my abilities to get on top of most engineering tasks given to me, for this I can fall back on my experience.  Also, we have been told that the accomodation is going to be quite basic (mainly tents with shared facilities, little privacy, etc.), but the working conditions do not seem to worry me to much either.  What is actually playing on my mind most as we draw closer to the epicentre of the destruction, is what my own reaction to the human suffering will be.  And will I be able to perform my role effectively in the face of it?
In any case, all this and more will be revealed in the next blog post (I'll try to post, but no promises for the next few weeks at least), for now here is a photo of me fullfilling a retrospective life goal (which I made once I saw the life saving tower on venice beach), I.e. to get my photo taken next to a beautiful girl on the set of Baywatch.  Tick.

PS.  Said beautiful girl is a friend of Ivan's who was kind enough to take us on a tour of LA on our stop over.  Thanks Elly!!

Friday, February 19, 2010

Dhaka, Pre-electric Pubs, and The Hunter becomes the Drunker

The moment we left Dhaka (the capital of Bangladesh) international airport the overwhelming density of people is staggering.  Just outside the terminal doors, there is a set of metal bars.  This is nothing to do with customs, or any other official airport-like business.  It is simply there to hold back the hoard of people who stand outside, put their arms through, and gesticulate wildly at the passing foreigners.  The construction creates the illusion of a prison, packed to the brim with bangladeshy nationals, except there is no wall on the other side, merely around the airport.  Imagine, a whole nation of poeples seemingly imprisoned by nature of their inability to access the airport.

Later, I found out that this was completely the wrong impression, and infact there is no such structure outside the departure gate, and those gesticulating Bangladeshis were most likely taxi drivers, auto-rickshaw drivers, and operators of the various scams that I'm sure befall many as they set foot in the meat grinder of Dhaka.

After meeting up with our friends Sharmeen and Farhan, who had recently been married and were continuing the celebrations with their family in Dhaka, we decided that it might be a nice idea to have a cold beer.  This is where we started to go horribly wrong.  Clearly, there was not going to be an abundance of alchohol, considering that 99% of the population here are the non-drinking muslim variety.  The hotel did serve us a beer or two, but at 250 Bangladeshi Taka ($4.20AUD) we expected it to at least be cold.  After draining the last sip Pat (for those who haven't had the pleasure, Pat is about the same height as me, Irish, and has a penchant for meeting french girls in his underpants) and I wandered off in search of a more suitable location for a refreshing ale.

On the basis of a third hand recommendation from someone who didn't even live in Dhaka, we found "La Diplomats".  The name conjured up images of smartly dressed expatriats reclining in ornate furniture, sipping the congac, smoking cigars, and discussing world affairs in the comfort of modest lighting.  Needless to say, the bar fell short of all these expectations, except for in terms of its lighting.  In this respect it completely surpassed anything I had seen before.  The room was at the back of a long tunnel underneath a hotel, and it was pitch black save a lone fosters sign which cast just enough light through the crowd of mosquitoes that you could make out that there were other customers.  Mainly huddled in the dark corners, quiet, their presences only given away by the orangle glow of their cigarettes.  After our first luke cold Heinekien we noticed the coasters were advertising a beer called "Hunter".  Deciding that things couldn't get much worse we called the waiter over:

"Two more Heineikens?" He said.
"No, we'd like to try a couple of Hunters" Pat said, pointing at the coaster.
After a confused look, he replied "No no, you don't want.  This Bangladeshi beer." He said, with clear disgust of his own countries brewing abilities.

After much reassurances that we really did want to purchase said beer, he disappeared reluctantly into the blackness, and came back with two cans which looked exactly the same as fosters, but with the word Fosters replaced with Hunter in the same font, and a little man with a loin cloth replacing the brewery logo (pictured right).  Pat managed somehow to finish his before closing time, but to both our horror, when the lights came up for the cleanup to begin, we got a clear look at the tepid, bubbless, broth in the half a glass that I had not managed to drink.  At that moment my head started to pound and I think I experienced the most instantaneous hangover of my life.

Later we found our that Hunter actually began as an energy drink, akin to red bull, however unbeknownst to the company selling it, the "energy drink" actually had an alcohol content of around 4%.  It was then that they decided that rather than going back to the drawing board and continuing in the energy drink market, they would simply re-market it as a beer.  Genius.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Pushkar, Beer Delivery Underpants, and a Poisoned Ganesh

It's Christmas eve, and we're driving from Jaipur (Rajastan) to Varanasi (Uttar Pradesh).  There is absolutely nothing that feels remotely like christmas here.  It's a beautiful place, but it's beauty is not aesthetic.  At first glance, India seems a dirty, run down, third world country.  But there is something inherently fascinating about the way the society hangs together, despite the constant flow of baksheesh (which means bribe or tip depending on the context), the slow crawl of traffic, and the incredible poverty of a large proportion of people.

My first impression of Dehli was a short one, but the hotel that arrived at was reasonably well appointed, and directly across the road was a small slum. Among the rubble a family sat next to a ramshackle tent and cooked their morning meal.  Across the road, backpackers lived in relative luxury, enjoying warm showers and western style breakfasts.

Straight off the plane from Moscow, I met Adam and Kelly and we embarked on our journey across the north of India.  First stop, Pushkar. The city is famous for it's holy lake. A place of worship and daily ritual for the predominantly Hindu population. As the signs clearly state, alchohol and meat are banned within the city limits. However it is becoming apparent that there are many ways to bend the law in India, and some of these included ordering the "special" coke, that was available on the menu at our first restaurant.  In the hotel things were more clear cut. Upon asking at reception we were told that we could order beer an inflated price (about 200Rs).  We were told that the beer would be delivered to the room, little did we know that the beer would indeed arrive at our room, but some time later, and stuffed down the pants of one of the bell boys so that no-one could see him bringing it.  Apart from being incredibly amusing to watch a rather small Hindu man trying to walk around with three 700mL bottles of beer stuffed down his pants, it was interesting to see the contrast that exists in india; First, how seriously they take particular laws, and yet how willing some people are to break them for the right price.

The other interesting story to arise from Pushkar was the recent events which had led to the lake being bone dry.  With the climate change zeitgeist looming in my mind, my heart immediately went out to the poor peoples of Pushkar, another traditional lifestyle falling victim to slow march of drought.  You could imagine my surprise to find out later, that the lake had actually been drained on purpose after being poisoned under tragicly ironic circumstances. Although I heard several versions of the story, the one I like best came from our Camel driver, Lala (pictured right), who painted a vivid picture as the sun set over the desert behind us. Lala described the scene on the day of the festival of just prior to the wet season, in which all the Hindu's in the town bring floating Ganesh statues down to the water and set them adrift in order to give thanks for the life giving rains.  Unfortunately, this year, unbeknownst to the thanksgiver, his giant Ganesh statue was actually constructed from poisonous materials, which, upon sinking into the river, released a toxin into the water powerful enough to kill all the fish overnight.  The next morning, the exclusively vegaterian town of Pushkar awoke to the rancid smell of rotting fish. The markets were closed for weeks, and the clean up operation began. Conspiracy theories flourished, involving a deal between the cleanup company and the government for a contract that was made in prior to the poisoned Ganesha being delivered. However, in time the lake should fill back up, and these events will fade into the quickly forgotten Indian past, but for now I'm happy to fill the gap in my experience with the postcard photos version displayed proudly in every hotel and shop stall, showing thousands of brightly coloured sari clad women hunched on the Ghats beside a sprawling lake, ringed by the haphazard white town of Pushkar.

A tail of two Aeroflot employees..

So it begins, in a ubiquitous Irish bar in the Moscow airport transit lounge.  My first, and only, impression of Russia was the first lady of the Aeroflod transfer desk (pictured left).  Her primary function, it seems, is to look entirely disinterested in your plight, whatever it may be.  Secondary to this in her job description, is to raise a tired finger and point at the sign on her desk, which reads: "(For) GATE NUMBER LOOK AT THE MONITOR", highlighted in several colours to aid readability.

It seems that no-one has ever asked to change seats on an Aeroflod flight before, and upon many gesticulations I got my point across to her younger minion.  It turns out that this girl was actually a diamond in the rough.  Despite the clearly taxing beaurocratic circles in which she was run on the phone, she actually came back and informed me that for the handsome sum of 700 rubbles it may indeed be possible to change my seat.  She seemed genuinely surprised at this discovery, and then decided to go into bat for a foreigner who was way out of his depth against the might of the Aeroflod seat changing procedure.  I eventually worked out that 700 rubbles equated to about 16 Euro, and was a bargain for the piviledge of 8 hours of sleep on the flight to Dehli.  I exchanged $100USD (ironically the only other currency that holds weight in this airport) for a chicken sandwich that tasted like the ashtray that it was sitting next to, and 2500 Rubbles.  After leaving me alone for a 20 minute walk with my boarding pass, and my newly exchanged cash (only slightly nerve wracking considering it also served as my Visa to be in Russia on transit), my favourite Aeroflod employee returned with a proud grin on her face, and the newly assigned 27B seat on an entirely Russian looking boarding pass.  I asked what thank you was in Russian, and promptly attempted to repeat it.