Sunday, July 29, 2012

Gr-eg it's your birthday, Happy Birthday Gr-eg

It's my big brother's birthday today. Happy Birthday Greg!! So let's all now sing along together (and just replace 'Lisa' with 'Gr-eg')!

Hope the day is full of good food and good company!

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Thirty, Flirty and Thriving

I've been in my 30s for a day now and I must say, I had a pretty great start to this new decade. On Thursday night my wonderful housemate E cooked up a storm with a lasagne and this delectable chocolate cake for 6 of us. 
My friend EJ, who I worked with in Pakistan gave me a fantastic gift that I'd had my eye on: these chunky retro head torches from the old city, which came in very handy as the power was out until about 8pm!
 EJ is a star!
I also had the absolute pleasure this week of meeting R, who I've known through blogging and twitter etc for a couple of years. I was so glad she was able to spend her last night in Yemen with us!
 Once the party got started after dinner there was some serious foosball going on,
and I was thrilled to have about 20 new friends (and I'd met almost all of them before!) come along to sit in the garden with a few drinks...of course there was gin, it wouldn't be a birthday without gin!
My housemate K is housesitting for someone at the moment, so we took advantage of the beautiful garden to have the party in.
Yesterday on my actual birthday it was business as usual at the weekly volleyball game. There were more people than I'd previously seen, enough to have four teams. While the day started off hot and sunny, after a couple of hours the rain came, and we just kept on playing - though the water logged ball was particularly painful and the muddy patches just grew and grew.
After getting thoroughly saturated I headed home for a nice hot shower, a birthday nap, and watched the most suitable cheesy movie I could find - "13 Going on 30" (that's where this post's title comes from). I don't think I could have asked for a better birthday!

Monday, July 23, 2012

Packing 101

A couple of friends have suggested I do a post on what I pack for deployments. I've been meaning to do something like this for ages, but the tricky part is that I generally pack very different things for each deployment. One of the downsides of my job (which is also an upside) is that I never know what's going to happen next. I've been deployed to Yemen ostensibly for 3 months, and that's what I packed for. But if a major disaster strikes somewhere else in the world, I'll be pulled out of here quick smart. So there's always a balancing act between clothes that are appropriate for the context I know I'm going into, and clothes for a range of other contexts that I might be sent on to. But first things first: what to put everything in.


My check in bag is a 95L Vigilante rolling duffle. I upgraded from a backpack before I started this job as I'm not quite grown up enough for a proper suitcase, and found this one for half price. I hadn't realised it weighs 4.4kg, which means I'm normally only packing 19-20kg of stuff and the bag is responsible for the rest! I've been quite happy with it, though it can be a bit cumbersome lugging it up stairs - either backpack straps, or one long strap across the top would make a huge difference. When you zip it open, the top has 3 mesh compartments (2 small on the outside, good for bits and pieces that get shoved in at the last minute, and one larger one in the middle). The bottom compartment has a separate zip, so after rolling all of my clothes and carefully arranging them (or shoving them once I get sick of carefully arranging) I then zip them all in, and am left with a nice space on top for my electronics bag (I just use an old cosmetic bag to keep all my adaptors and cables in), toiletries, shoes etc.

I also keep a Tatonka 45L bag in my luggage, which is good for spending up to a couple of weeks in the field, going on R&R, bringing home presents etc. Last time I rolled it up and secured it with belts in the bottom part of my luggage, which did take up a fair bit of room in the clothing section. This time, I'd been rolling up all my clothes on my bed and wasn't quite ready to start packing, so I just put them all in the Tatonka bag until the next morning. I realised that I could probably just travel with just the 45L, (you may recall I travelled 3 months around the world with only carry on) but then I'd have no room for any Yemeni goodies. So instead of unpacking the Tatonka into my big bag, I just plonked the whole thing in - there was room left in the bottom section for other bulkier things, and while I couldn't zipper it shut into the bottom, it was still very easy to rest my electronics bag etc on top of it. And then all my clothes were together when I pulled it out of the luggage. I'll definitely be doing that again! Both of these bags are bright red, which really helps on the conveyor belt at the airport - perhaps not as individual as orange polka dots or leopard print, it sure beats a black suitcase!

For carry on I have my work issued laptop backpack (which normally has my work and personal laptops in it, but I left my netbook at home this time), and then a rather large handbag that I use for my laptop once I'm in country, to be a little more discreet.


I'm packed for conservativeness, a lot of long baggy tops (some that are actually dresses, or swimsuit caftans) and long skirts. Not knowing what the laundry situation was going to be, I overpacked a little and brought 8 long tops with me, to let me get through a week without having to do laundry. Thankfully, we have someone who does that for us, so it wasn't necessary. I also bought 2 long skirts and 3 trousers to rotate. I also packed an abaya that a friend lent me, that has already come in handy to cover up on the way to a cocktail party!

While these are bulky and took up a lot of room, of course I was able to squish in some smart summery dresses that are more fitted, which are appropriate for the office in say, Nairobi, or a dinner party in the UK, or a beach party in Beirut. And add leggings and a long sleeve top underneath and they're appropriate for almost anywhere (except Muslim countries where clothes need to be baggy everywhere!) I also chucked in a couple of branded polo shirts, which with cargos is my uniform if I'm sent off to a field office somewhere.

To round out the clothing, I threw in some exercise leggings, a pair of shorts and a couple of t-shirts (which have come in very handy at volleyball), and a couple of other fun tops to either wear around the house, or on holiday somewhere afterwards. And I treated myself to 2 new pairs of Peter Alexander pajamas - the man really knows pajamas! Of course for Yemen I also brought 5 scarves to wear on my head. Never leave home without a fleece and of course, this made it into the bag for a photo shoot somewhere.


On the shoe front: 2 pairs of flip flops, walking shoes, a pair of sturdy mary janes (easy to take off in the air), and a pair of fold up ballet flats. I never pack high heels and always regret that, because no matter where I go, there's always a party to go to! Since I've been here, I've only worn the flip flops (and borrowed heels off my housemate!).


I travel with a basic first aid kit (which never seems to be removed from my luggage) and a basic medicine kit, which is basically just full of paracetamol, immodium and rehydration salts. I have a silk sleeping bag liner that folds down to almost nothing, which has come in very handy in places where the sheets aren't clean...or there are no sheets. I'm kicking myself for forgetting my coffee plunger mug, which was another excellent sale buy (basically I don't go into stores like Kathmandu or Colombia unless they're having a sale!), and makes good size cups of coffee for 3 people, or a supersize 'cup' for 1! What else?

I did buy a cheap little headtorch about 18 months ago which hadn't been removed from my bag. I pulled it out the other day and the batteries had calcified and it went straight in the bin. Lucky I picked up a keyring sized wind up LED light which is awesome (and orange). I always pack a lot of zip lock bags, which I use for a whole host of things not limited to leaking toiletries. I've used them to keep receipts together, and at the moment I have one in my handbag with a photocopy of my passport and visa etc, just in case. I keep an Australian power board in my bag, so if I have a lot of things to charge up or use, then I only need one adaptor to plug into the wall. What I should do is pick up a power board that you can put any type of plug in, as this would save the problem of my UK laptop and phone chargers.

I took out my gore-tex rain jacket as it hadn't moved from my bag in a year. While it rolls down to a small ball, it's just weight I don't need. A flat umbrella does the trick. Other things that stay in the bag include 2 packs of cards, a stubby cooler (there used to be 2, but someone in Liberia pilfered one!), a little photo album story that my friend Jules made for me which I keep a few extra photos in, and I think that's about it. Finally, a pegless washing line has been so handy to string up in a bathroom when handwashing clothes.


After listing everything out, I can see that I definitely travel with too much! There are things that I keep in my bag for 'just in case' reasons, but even if I didn't have them and suddenly needed them, I think I'd be able to find what I needed. Knowing now that my luggage weighs 4kg on its own is definitely enlightening. That being said, packing for 3 months (or more) and only checking 24kgs isn't too shabby!

What do you never leave home without? What sort of luggage do you prefer?

Saturday, July 21, 2012

New digs

I spent some time on Thursday afternoon looking out the lounge room window to see what the banging going on was. It turns out the puppies were getting a new home built.
It doesn't look particularly sound, and frankly, I don't think it is. There are some nails in it the roof, but a couple of big thunderstorms will probably rip it off. But I still think it's sweet that they're getting their own place (and I'm sure it has nothing to do with their owners perhaps wanting to reclaim the front porch for themselves!)
It's very difficult to get 2 excitable dogs to pose in their new home first thing in the morning, so here's a picture of Fluffy trying to get out of the house to get back to my pats.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Yemen's Hunger Crisis

My colleague has produced the video below following a recent trip to Al Hodeidah where we're distributing cash to enable people to buy food, and other essential items they need.
The situation in Yemen is dire: a World Food Programme assessment found that 10 million people don't have enough food - this is 44.5% of Yemen's population. Of these 10 million people, half are classified as severely food insecure, meaning they are unable to produce or buy the food they need. The markets are functioning, but people can't afford to purchase the food they need.

The flow on effects of this make the situation worse. Children are being taken out of school to find work, young girls are being forced into marriages as their families can't afford to feed them, and people are buying food on credit and falling further and further into debt.

Oxfam hopes to reach 1 million people, but due to a lack of funding, we only have money to reach 250,000.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Fun and Games with the Fluffies

I decided I wanted to buy a tennis ball so I could play with Fluffy and Fluffette but I could only find foam balls at the supermarket yesterday. I picked up a couple and couldn't wait to get home to play with the puppies.

It started out as I expected it would. They both ran after one ball, Fluffy (the boy) would grab it and snarl at Fluffette if she tried to get to it first. Then surprisingly he brought it straight back to me and dropped it at my feet. We carried on with one ball for a little while, but I felt sorry for Fluffette as she wasn't getting a go. So I threw the second ball, and she charged after it and immediately ran and hid under a car, chewing away happily. Fluffy didn't like this, so he ran over, dropped his ball beside her and grabbed hers out of her mouth.
Of course, she simply just picked up the ball he'd dropped and got back to chewing. It took Fluffy a few times to realise that this was a vicious circle and that he needed to run away with the ball.
We played for about half an hour, and towards the end they were so tuckered out that they were more interested in just flopping on their backs for a belly rub than chasing after the balls.
Such happy dogs!

Monday, July 16, 2012

In the old city

After spending a few hours in the office on Thursday (remember, that's my Saturday) I was thrilled to catch up with a friend I worked with in Pakistan to go exploring in the old city. The souk is pretty great, there's a mixture of little stalls and more formal shops, selling everything from tacky keyrings to the beautiful curved knives that Yemeni men wear around their waists. We just window shopped as I was far more interested in the architectural sights around me. I think this is my favourite shot of the afternoon:
As we strolled through tiny little alleyways we passed all sorts of tradesmen, particularly carpenters.
One thing I didn't take a photo of because I was a bit blown away by the whole concept of it, was the olive oil makers. My friend pointed one shop out to me - it was very dark inside - and the two men sitting just inside the door chewing qat waved us over to take a closer look. I could see a big metal lump in the middle which I was told was the olive press. I was still a bit unsure of what I was looking at, when the camel was pointed out to me. "Oh, they have a camel, why is there a camel in this tiny dark room?" is what I definitely thought to myself, and perhaps said out loud. One of the men explained that the camel walks in circles around the dragging the press, which is how the press actually presses the olives. That's a very poor explanation, I know. I did a quick search and found  this video which better shows what the camel does. That was interesting for me to see, since the camel I saw was taking a break and the room was so dark. I felt rather sorry for the camel. But on we walked through the narrow streets, with no real destination in mind. As for how narrow some of the streets were - well:
I know I said I might be focussing more on windows than doors in Sana'a, but this door was pretty fabulous!
We decided to make our way to the top of the Burj Al Salam hotel, and the view from the roof was spectacular. It's quite something to see the relatively uniform buildings stretch almost to the horizon, differing only in their decorative brick work.
And the mountains in the distance that are apparently controlled by the military (so definitely a no-go zone for us) which from some angles look like they rise up right behind some buildings.
Friday was spent at an ambassador's residence playing volleyball with a mix of NGO types and also the close personal protection of the ambassador. Thankfully there was nothing more than a bit of good natured ribbing and nobody seemed to take it too seriously. We played for a few hours, with a BBQ in between and my forearms were bruised by the time we got home. I guess that's what you get when you don't play volleyball for 13 years!!

All in all, a pretty great weekend!!

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Welcoming committee

There's a family that lives in the ground floor apartment in our building. These two lovely little critters belong to them:

Every morning when we walk downstairs the two of them go nutso. The little girl dog immediately rolls onto her back and present her belly for patting, which her big brother gets jealous and jumps around trying to regain all the attention. It's really a two person job to ensure that they both get equal pats.

The other day when I got home from work the kids were playing with the dogs. I attempted to ask one of the boys what the dogs' names were. My Arabic is not just rusty, it's basically non-existent, so I don't know whether I was asking "name?" in the masculine or feminine form. What I do know is that I was definitely asking 'what's your name?' to the kid, while pointing at the girl dog. He didn't seem to mind, and said "Fluffy". I then pointed at the boy dog, and he replied "Fluffy". So from here on, they'll be Fluffy and Fluffette to me.

The kid, who's probably about 10, then produced some meat that they were going to feed the dogs. He indicated that he wanted me to hold this particular bit of meat high in the air so that Fluffy would stand up on his hind legs to eat it. I shook my head politely, as it looked pretty gross, but the kid was so insistent. I took the piece of meat from him and then realised there was an eyeball attached to it. "Ewwwwwwww," I cried and the kids all laughed. Fluffy however, wasn't bothered and performed his trick and got his reward. Fluffette got a bone and everyone was happy.

It's nice to have a welcoming committee when I get home, particularly these two who are so very friendly and obviously well looked after....well, they could really do with a bath!

Monday, July 9, 2012

View from a rooftop

I'm settling into life in Sana'a. Since arriving last Wednesday I've only seen the guesthouse, the office, the supermarket and yesterday I was introduced to a lovely coffee shop that has a nice courtyard. I think it will take me a couple of weeks to get used to the weekend being Thursday/Friday, and starting my working week on a Saturday. TGIW doesn't quite have the same ring to it as TGIF...

Those of you who've seen my photos before will know that I love taking pictures of interesting doors. I think in Yemen it will be a series on interesting windows.

The atmosphere seems to always be hazy, though this could be mostly sand; it's quite muggy during the day but then a cool breeze comes in the late afternoon. You can see the minarets of a big mosque below (I haven't found out the name of it yet), and apparently we get a better view of it from the guesthouse roof, particularly at night, so I'll have to take my tripod up there one evening and see what I can see.

Below is a view in another direction; I was surprised at the landscape as I flew into Sana'a - what started as red sandy desert turned into jagged mountains. We're at 2300m here, but I haven't really had a problem with the altitude...touch wood.

Work seems to be going well, I've already written my first sitrep (situation report), and I've got lots of new ideas for other communications work that can be done internally. I think this deployment will be really interesting, and quite challenging.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Really, next stop: Yemen

It's been a while between hearing that I was going to Yemen, getting a visa, and getting a flight confirmed. So I've been at home, enjoying the Gold Coast "winter" (alright, there were a couple of days where it was raining and miserable) and hanging out with Jules in Brisbane on the weekends.

Last weekend we took Holly for a drive up Mt Tambourine; neither of us had been in years and it was a gorgeous day to wind up through the eucalyptus trees.

We pulled over to watch a hang-glider take off; waiting for the wind to be just right
 And then there was this crazy guy who just ran off the hill with a parachute and what looked like a sleeping bag (I'm sure it wasn't actually a sleeping bag) that he tucked his feet into once he was up in the air to end up in a seated position. It looked more comfortable than hang-gliding, but there's something about charging off a hefty drop with just a parachute billowing behind that doesn't grab me...
 After a bit of antiquing, I very magnanimously let Jules drive us home, and it's almost as much fun in the passenger seat as it is in the driver's seat!
 We followed a sign to the Cedar Creek falls, and the sound of this bubbling brook was rather peaceful
 The falls themselves weren't all that spectacular, but it was really nice to enjoy the sound of rushing water and the birds.
I made sure to savour the feeling of the sun on my arms, the fresh clean air, and the green of the rainforest...these will all be in short supply for the next three months. I'm all packed up to fly out tonight, and am really looking forward to getting stuck into some work, and catching up with old mates in Sana'a.