A week in China amidst living in Kenya
Hannah has made it to four years; funnily enough though we didn't expect much to change we have noticed the odd change recently. The most noticeable is one that I presume all parents are desperately waiting for almost as much as the time when you start potty training but are not sure when it will be successful. It is, of course, the time that a child begins to get over tantrums!
Yes, until a couple of weeks ago, when Hannah didn't get what she wanted (and the old 'distract her' tactic doesn't work as well as it used to when she was longer) we'd end up in long stand-offs, often involving her not coming along with us and staying in a sweet shop, near a fairground ride, or whatever.
Now that stand-off is still as dramatic as ever but is down to about a minute and once we walk off Hannah does actually run after us (crying of course) but does quickly accept reality and calm down. I hope it lasts… maybe, finally, she is learning that she can't always get what she wants, and there is a semblance of discipline appearing?
Hannah got her dream present a couple of weeks before her birthday when her grandpa turned up for a weekend (for those without kids, I'll tell you what all kids from 3 years old and up want: it's a tablet computer or similar device able to play games, watch cartoons, and tale photos) but still she was looking forward to her party. 8 friends came, mostly from her kindergarten, and all Chinese. They played, ate, cooked, danced, played some more, gave and took gifts and 2 and a half hours later left behind a happy and exhausted 8-year old.
I don't know the names of most of the kids, or indeed most of the parents, but I think Andrea and our nanny do. Though as I understand it the party invite list conversation started a couple of weeks ago and went something like "Hannah, which friends do you like the most and want to invite to the party?" and "Hannah, can you and the nanny talk to the friends and their parents over the next week at collection time to invite them". Andrea has some time on her hands as she doesn't start her new job until next month so did most of the organizing, whilst I was mostly on photo duty and general supervision (including of Leah) whilst also being responsible for getting hold of a red bike that morning and getting it wrapped up somehow.
All went well (though the bike is a bit big, it should be fine in a couple of months, and last her several years) and maybe it will be the first party she'll remember when she is older?
Meanwhile Leah has continued her rapid development, trying to run now, practicing using forks and spoons, and beginning to argue with her sister (over toys, naturally). She gets very vocal, though currently only has the standard mama and baba as words. She's got most of her teeth and a large belly from her non-stop eating (and drinking). Sometimes she sleeps really well and gets her 12 hours a night; sometimes she wakes up once or twice and needs comforting back to bed, but she is a great little toddler and really happy to walk around all day long. Today at the indoor playground she mastered walking up the 3 stairs of a small slide and going down the slide herself. It is the age where all the basics are there so simply combining various things leads to many different "firsts".
I'm sure the kids are going to have a lot of fun during their month in Europe coming up; and their grandparents and uncles/aunts (and the associated pets) will have even more fun playing with the two of them. It will be the first time they see them walking and playing together and interacting (rather than just Hannah playing with Leah, though that was also fun). Now that we have got Hannah past her tantrums, I wonder if we are going to be facing another major issue to deal with instead: the fighting between two kids who both want the same thing. How long will that issue last (maybe until we are bankrupt buying two of everything)?
And lastly we are just about to enter the Chinese New Year month, when there is no kindergarten, everything closes down, and everyone runs home for at least 1-2 weeks during this period. All the Christmas decorations have finally come down everywhere to be replaced with red Chinese lanterns and I seem to see monkeys on sale everywhere…. For an already shaky economy, the low of the holiday may not help; although it should stabilize the dodgy stock market since there will be limited investment activity (and limited expectations of any too)!
Flying across Africa is always a fantastic experience with incredible blue skies and great views; it is fascinating seeing the dramatic changes beneath from deserts to grassland, mountains to valleys to savannah. But arriving into Cape Town airport is really, really impressive as Table Mountain is visible from afar alongside the sea, with the City Bowl, as it is known, in between (with the mountain a semi-circular shape on three sides and the sea on the other side, much of the city feel like it is encircled by a bowl). And the plane circles around False Bay (to the South East of Cape Town) and the Cape of Good Hope behind the mountain to land. It is an amazing introduction to a fantastic city.
Before the conference that I was speaking at began I managed to see the Castle (built to defend the city by the Dutch 300 years ago), District 6 Museum (commemorating those who were forcible removed from where they lived during apartheid), the Company's Gardens (very nice, originally where the first traders planted crops that could be used to restock the ships on their way from Europe to India) and the Bo Kaap museum (an area where many Muslims live and famed for its colorful buildings). I also managed to get a ticket for the trip out to Robben Island where Mandela and many other political prisoners were kept during Apartheid. It was a nice boat journey and quite interesting to learn about the island's history and the different things on it: a lighthouse, the village where the wardens and staff used to live (and where the tour guides/administration staff still do), the quarry where prisoners were forced to do hard labor (and in most cases just moving rocks from A to B and then back to A again whilst their eyes were ruined by the reflection of the sunlight off the white stone) and of course to see the prison. I even saw one of the penguins that live on the island (it had run under the tour bus and was hiding there) and a seal that was on one of the rocks in the port.
The prison itself is no different really to any other prison I've visited and exactly what one would expect for an island prison, as in no particularly high security, just dormitory rooms, fences, guard towers and related buildings for working, washing and so on. Although the fact that it's on an island makes it more interesting. A former prisoner explained his experience, and we saw Mandela's small cell of course. I suppose the purpose of the visit is to think of the people who spent their lives there mostly due to persecution during apartheid and to imagine -as the tourists arrived by boat- what it was like arriving by boat back then as a prisoner. To be honest the cells and torture chamber in the Castle seemed more punishing, but then that was used a few hundred years ago, and Robben island was only a prison: prisoners had already been tortured when they were initially arrested and interrogated elsewhere.
In the very early mornings I climbed both Table Mountain and Lion's Head. With the latter it was a beautiful day and a wonderful view. With the former, it was a day when the top of the mountain was covered by the famed table cloth of mist and cloud. So there were great views on the way up, but once you were shrouded by mist at the top, you could only see 5m ahead of you and thus had no sense of the scale of the mountain really, or could see the view (which was really the same as the view half way up). I was surprised how barren the top of the mountain was in terms of its vegetation and rocks. Apparently it has its own flora that is not found anywhere else.
In the evenings, there was some great food in the City Bowl and at the waterfront, which also seems like the entertainment and shopping hub of the city which an excellent vibe: though one could be in Canary Wharf! The city felt very safe with a lot of police all over the streets. It really does feel like the opposite of Johannesburg which is more spread out, dangerous and larger. Although Johannesburg has a fantastic Apartheid Museum which is much better and more thought provoking than the relevant museums and exhibits in Cape Town, Cape Town does offer much more to see, is physically much more impressive with the dominating mountain and the sea, and is more pleasurable to live in from what I could tell. Cape Town is also several degrees cooler and gets a lot of wind on the coast.
Leah is one year old. It's quite incredible how time flies and how one only notices it when one has small children! Work has progressed of course, but nothing changes more than the first year of life. As with Hannah, Leah is practically walking, is eating more than the average teenager, is constantly grinning with her four teeth, and always looking adorable with her wonderful and bountiful hair. An incredible first year.
Despite being somewhat lazy, she is becoming more demanding and impatient: working out how to shout when she wants more food for example; and there is a lot of intelligence in there too: she seems to already be understanding a fair amount and pointing to what she wants. Last night at dinner she decided she did not want her food anymore, but wanted my food instead – she made that very clear through rejecting her own food and pointing at my food!
She's quite a drinker, quashing a few bottles of water per day, and is now enjoying the taste of soy milk and fresh milk, as well as everything else under the sun. She's more willing to eat spicy food than even Hannah is now. Unfortunately, as befalls most second-children I am told, Leah suffers from a lack of friends. She has one very good one, her sister, who plays with her continually, and she plays back. They sit together putting things in trucks and then emptying the truck; playing with play dough, balls and other things. But most of the friends we hang out with are of Hannah's age: from her kindergarten, neighbors and so on. Leah does not yet need friends, but we'll have to find some for her next year. Unfortunately most of the people we know in Shenzhen only have one kid, including the foreigners.
The last week or so was a national holiday in China. And a typhoon decided to hit South-East China meaning torrential rainfall almost non-stop. Just before the worst of it hit we managed to spend some time playing in the fountains at OCT Bay and a day in Hong Kong cycling along a bike bath on the Eastern coast, and after the rain hit we spend time in indoor playgrounds, a trampoline park, toys r us, and even some time at home! It is probably a good thing we did not travel around the region, though we should have got our act together and flown overseas somewhere for the holiday.
Hannah is still enjoying her kindergarten and having more interesting conversations that involve joining-the-dots as well as connecting disparate events. When I talk about flying she asks about me going to a different office, or sleeping on the plane; when she sees the Chinese flag she talks about the one she made in kindergarten; she remembers things from her visit back to Europe in January; compares a video of someone in a wedding dress to the dress worn at her Aunt's wedding in August and so on. She's enjoying her dance class and taekwondo class more: a good way for her to get some exercise and some discipline following teachers. She loves using her imagination to play games, but she is still failing to hide in any interesting places for hide-and-seek.
The 6 days in Croatia had two main themes to them: lots of old towns and lots of islands.
We had a day in Split, which has a sizable walled palace alongside the coast which now is a normal town that people live in, though one that is heavily geared towards tourism. Some of the small alleyways in the palace were delightful, and the Town museum was quite interesting. I went up the Tower of the St Dominus Cathedral for a good view over the palace and into the bay. Unusually the main bus station and main port is right next to the edge of the palace which is very convenient. Nowadays there is a strip of reclaimed land between the sea and the palace, which is full of restaurants.
A night and a day was certainly enough there though, so we took the 4-hour bus down to Dubrovnik and managed to spend half an hour in Bosnia (1 5 minutes on a bus covering the 10km it takes to get through it and 15 minutes at a service station getting a drink), since the tip of Croatia is separated from the rest of Croatia (though apparently there are plans to build a bridge to connect the two bypassing the bit of Bosnia that takes some of the Croatian coastline).
Dubrovnik is famed, apparently, as the location for Game of Thrones, though really it has the "best" city wall. It really is a beast of a wall. Dubrovnik, of course, also sits on the coast. The part of the wall facing the sea is impressive, though not as thick as the parts facing land. Those are more than 5m thick with massive towers and turrets. They offer great views over the old city within the walls which looks just like it did hundreds of years ago thanks to some excellent restoration work after the Balkan war which damaged it.
Inside the city are some fountains, churches, monasteries, and a very nice little synagogue. With two kids, and in 35 degree heat we didn't really feel in the mood to walk up and down the steep streets too much or visit the various museums and churches. Though mum and I walked up, along and around the famed city walls, Andrea played with the kids down below. I ate the local specialty (Squid stuffed with ham and cheese) at a decent restaurant, and we had a wonderful meal at the somewhat upmarket Zuzori. Always sitting outside, of course, and drinking some excellent wine.
Dubrovnik is built on a hill (with lots of steps - not great for buggies) and along the coast. I managed to go scuba diving (whilst the family spent the afternoon by the pool at the fancy hotel with the scuba club) though there was nothing too impressive to see under the water. We spent a day on a replica ship from the 17th century (aka. A Pirate Ship for Hannah) which was a wonderful experience, with some great live music and good food, as well as lots of time on the local Elafiti islands, including one that had an excellent beach (which you get to on a golf-cart across the island from the port).
We then took the bus back past split to another old town called Trogir. The old part, also surrounded by city walls, is particularly tiny and you can walk through it in just 5 minutes, and around the perimeter in 15 minutes. But it had some incredibly fancy yachts moored alongside it that kept many tourists' attention, a nice fort at one end, and some beautiful little squares and alleyways. The stone buildings—as with the other two cities—were all beautiful.
Not a lot to see in the tiny town to be honest, though we did have some excellent food at Konoba Trs. Trogir comes to life at night when you can barely find a table outside. There are more tourists than there is space for outside seating (or even inside seating) in the many restaurants. We were told the old town basically closes down in the Winter. Unfortunately the prices in Trogir for meals were very high—even higher than the expensive Dubrovnik. And there was clearly a general agreement across the whole town to maintain high prices. To entertain Hannah some more, we rented a speedboat for a day to take us to some more local islands (Drvenik Mali and Veli) which were also very nice with a bit of sand here and there. The sea was a beautiful color and it was nice and cool on the speedboat.
Leah seemed to enjoy herself, particularly the time splashing in the water. Hannah definitely did, playing in the beach for hours and eating countless ice creams. In one memorable moment when she asked for a strawberry ice cream (always strawberry) the man gave her about two scoops. "Too much" said Hannah (probably the first time the man had ever heard a kid say such a think) and despite his promise that she would love it and eat it all, she only managed half of it. She always saw the ice creams, always wanted them, but only ate a small amount of them!
We utilized airbnb a fair amount for accommodation and got some great places, particularly in Trogir. That place, which was actually a small hotel rather than just a regular apartment, even had a paddling pool on their terrace; so we spent a half day playing there in the morning before our flight back. It did the job and was much less messy than going to the nearby beach! Overall we managed to strike a good balance between seeing the history and culture, enjoying the beaches and islands, and entertaining the children. It was a very nice trip and I can see why people rave about Croatia. The beautiful coast and the stunning old towns are worth it.
So June and July went by without too much exciting happening in Shenzhen. We continued to find new friends for Hannah, explore some new places (like the zoo, which is actually more like a Safari park and very well done, especially for Chinese standards), go swimming downstairs often, and pop over to Hong Kong whenever there was a long weekend holiday or some friends there we wanted to see. Andrea had the odd business trip so I got to spend time with the kids. And all of a sudden it was the middle of July and we were of the UK for my sister's wedding.
With excellent weather, a beautiful venue, and an even more beautiful bride, the whole evening was a success. There was some great dancing and singing (especially by Hannah, but also Josh, the groom, managed to impress) to a very good band, which even continued on the bus back to the hotel.
As Beth flew off to Tanzania for her honeymoon, we went to Hertford camping. Hannah had been camping last summer, but this was Leah's first time… not that she would remember it. And, more importantly, Andrea's first time at a "Lane camp". Back in the day, when I was a kid, it was a regular activity, taking place several times each summer, led by my dad, and with different participants. After a bit of a hiatus, it looks like the tradition will continue, though maybe not as regularly as before.
It was fairly successful, with a nice walk alongside a canal (which is passable with a buggy), some cycling (Leah did well on a bike seat for the first time), visits to pubs, and some time walking around Hertford which is actually quite nice, though somewhat dominated by charity shops. Of course half the point of camping is relaxing, though there is not much lying-in with a 9-month old.
Campsites nowadays of course are quite different to those of 25 years ago when I was a regular camper: wi-fi, clean shower blocks, nice playgrounds, electricity at every pitch (to charge one's phone of course, as well as power a kettle) etc. The weather was generally good too. Whether it was a successful trip of course will really only be known next year: how willing will Andrea and Hannah be to go camping again? Only time will tell….
It's been quite a 5 years since I was last here, with some semi democratic elections, the release of The Lady and lots of opening up to western governments and business.
And arriving at midnight, when it was still 30 degrees, I had a smoother ride than previously (with fresh tarmac on the road) and saw more neon, instead of paper versions of bill boards. Now they weren't just advertising Japanese construction companies but all the things you expect nowadays...air con, coke, hotels, and of course mobile phones. Even just 2 years ago a SIM card cost up to$1,500, but now it's $1! Though mobile penetration and network coverage is still low, it's advancing rapidly. Every other shop in Yangon sells mobile phones!
The main road into town even had a real Rolex shop, I think. And plenty of new apartment buildings and malls are under construction, though not as much as maybe I'd expected. As you get into town, the massive Shwedagon pagoda shines brightly as ever, not yet crowded out by high rises, though much construction is evident near the other main pagoda (Sule) right in the center of a roundabout downtown which I remember well from last time.
Another big change has been with banks. In between all the phone shops are all the banks, and they are everywhere. 5 years ago there wasn't a single cash machine and there were two different exchange rates, an unofficial one and an official one which meant we changed money in the city of some guy's car! There's now a single exchange rate and many many cash machines that accept western cards too.
New buildings and run down colonial buildings are sprinkled amongst the rest of the decaying buildings that form the majority. The pavements are still as busy as ever and as run down as ever, though there is evidence of some progress downtown. There is great snack food everywhere and lots of drink options, a necessity when it's 40 degrees!
I experienced a couple of short power cuts in the office elevator, the increasingly awful traffic despite the use of one way streets to improve road capacity, and the local market that is busier and cheaper than before now that there are more tourists and more handicraft manufacturing.
I stepped over a sleeping guard to visit the only synagogue around (I arrived 15 mins after it closed but managed to sneak in), and walked around the ethnic minority park, mostly just seeing locals playing there amongst the replicas of houses from across the country (not much explanations unfortunately). The park had a great playground, and I saw many other playgrounds in Yangon. That impresses me. I checked out Shwedagon pagoda again, though it was much more crowded than previously, and enjoyed lots of local food as part of a successful work trip. There is so much choice now: of restaurants, hotels, even flights to and from the country. There is even an e-visa! In fact the country is still a real bargain with good hotels still pretty cheap (I can recommend East Hotel for around 50 USD a night), taxis are everywhere and cheap, and prices are good.
The country is in an interesting place--the elections in November this year will be another turning point, hopefully for the better. There is a fairly well coordinated development drive going on and the main challenges seem to be capacity: the government has so much to do, so many reforms and policies to make; its institutions have so far to catch up; its infrastructure is woeful and cannot be solved overnight etc. But lots is going in the right direction with a people that are keen to make progress.
I didn't go to Bagan, the incredible site with hundreds of temples from thousands of years ago, though I am sure it is different. I'm almost afraid to go. A large city can only change so much in a few years but a small tourist site could be radically different. If i do go back again for work reasons it will enable me to continue seeing how this country changes from afar. It seems off to a good start.
A week or so back in Shenzhen included time with the family and the arrival of 91 items from Beijing – it’s taking a long time to sort it all out and find a home for it all. Then it was back on a plane to Barcelona for Mobile World Congress (MWC), noticeable for Huawei announcing its first smart watch (which was unanimously loved by critics for its good looks), though my purpose was related to the Mobile for Development seminars and building relationships with those attendees and some internal meetings.
MWC is enormous with almost 100,000 people there, loads of events and thousands of exhibition stands. It is a major business deal-fest. Everyone is there, so it is convenient to meet potential partners, customers, suppliers and others beside. The Huawei booth is one of the biggest and is chock-a-block with people from our global offices showing people around. I had nice weather there and a few good networking dinners/drinks as well as the excellent seminars themselves. A lot of very relevant people were there so it was well worth the 4 day trip.
Then I was back in Shenzhen for 2 weeks or so (of which that included a weekend in Beijing) organizing a workshop in London which I would then fly off for. Obviously nice to see my other family there again, and the event was a success, though the weather was not a touch on Barcelona or Shenzhen. The Beijing weekend was a bit strange – feeling like a stranger in my previous home as things had changed and I certainly did not feel I belonged there any more (nowhere to stay being one aspect of this).
In Shenzhen this weekend we went to a fun fair and the Da Fen art village; legendary for making the best replicas of any art anywhere, as well as good originals too. No more travel plans for at least 3 weeks as things stand, though Andrea will be off around China a fair bit. Maybe a chance to get into a real routine amongst the four of us? Before I went to London we started this - me dropping Hannah off at kindergarten on the way to work, we put Hannah to bed before we eat so she gets to bed early and we have some time to ourselves and so on. At least this should be ok until it gets too hot and sticky for me to cycle to work!
Hannah is a delight as always, with amazing language skills and even more incredible insights that she uses them for, i.e. actual intelligence. She’s often a step ahead of us (there is no parking here) though seems to have slowed with the excessive “whys” recently. Her teacher came over to see us recently (kind of a reverse parents’ day) and all seems good. Though she refuses to speak English in her English lesson, mostly only hangs out with only 2 other kids and is a real teachers’ pet. We’re not worried and nice that Hannah’s not been affected by the move.
Leah’s able to sit on her own for a while before falling over and is still a champion thumb-sucker. She’s still big and healthy, and in that “always watching and observing everything” phase right now. Hannah takes care of her well, as does our new nanny, who came on board a couple of weeks ago, since our Beijing nanny wouldn’t move down with us. This nanny does not speak any English but otherwise seems pretty good. The kids all love her so far anyway.
I’m paying somewhat less attention to China for work reasons (mostly focused outside China) but personally what is happening, or not happening, is still fascinating. The not happening seems to be any meaningful reform or improvements in anything and an uncertainty over the general future growth of the country. But it does have strong leadership so hopefully they’ll manage to get some things changing – and hopefully for the better. Right now they are still in this stage of fear or anything different—which is not doing them (or the people they are harassing) any favors.
From Russia to Turkey, eventually, after a snow storm incapacitated Istanbul and required an extra night in Moscow and an alternative flight to Ankara via Munich, in order to avoid Istanbul. When we were in the airport on the first night, we saw a Transaero flight may have still flown to Istanbul even though the airport was shut, according to Turkish Airlines. I wonder what happened to it… (we decided not to buy a ticket on that one, just in case)
Ankara and Istanbul seem to be polar opposites. Ankara is fairly flat and is a fairly new city; it is quite small, quite spacious, with wide roads, new buildings and a general feeling of organized suburbia. Istanbul is crowded, even in the suburbs and full of traffic. It has plenty of old buildings and mosques; it has numerous hills on both European and Asian sides as well as having the bridges over the Straights. It’s lively and exciting, but chaotic and maddening at the same time. Thankfully the boats across the river are predictable, so we spent much of our time taking a taxi to the ferry, taking a ferry, and then taking a taxi again the other side. It worked. In Ankara we just drove around to meetings.
I say we, as one of the consultants supporting my project was with me the whole time, and of course our local staff joined all the meetings. Over the weekend the consultant and I managed to see a fair bit of Istanbul: the shopping area around the tower, the Palace, the Aya Sophia Mosque, the Blue Mosque, the spice market and lots of restaurants and cafes. Over the 5 days we had wonderful food in Turkey. Turkish pizzas (called Pide, though more like a kebab sandwich in pizza dough) and kebabs of course; but also wonderful deserts and lots of coffee and tea.
We witnessed a small demonstration on the main shopping street (whilst we sat in a café eating Bachlava of course) and saw several of the newer palaces as well as of the expensive homes on either side of the Bosphorous. I could certainly live in Ankara, but I can get much more excited about visiting Istanbul. Though to be fair, since I was last there about 14 years ago there is now a few subway lines and more under construction to alleviate traffic somewhat. It’s a city crying out for skyscrapers and tall apartment buildings but is full of 3 and 4 story buildings which is not the best use of space.
Now it’s back to China for a few days: at least it is a nice warm 20+ degrees unlike the snow of Russia and Turkey. It is also back to the world with only a half-working internet. But it is also back to a world with a wife and two wonderful daughters.
After a cancelled flight due to snow, being bumped off another flight due to incompetence, a third attempt to get to Moscow was finally successful. And it was well worth it. Though only there 2 days, we did get to drive around the city on our way to some meetings, and take a boat trip one evening on the river to see many of the key buildings (at least from the outside).
Things that stood out included the large amount of ski slopes dotted around the suburbs of the city (which my colleagues go to in the evenings after work sometimes); the incredibly robust and impressive buildings (many are decent looking; some like the seven sisters Stalin built are stunning); the wonderful food from across Russia and neighboring regions; and an hour at a “Banya” (a Russian “spa” so to speak that is often for male bonding) with a friend and some of his friends.
The on-the-ground impact of the current political situation was evident in just a couple of days of business meetings. Putin’s heavy grip on the country and the potential of whatever he says to happen; the focus on building up domestic companies (and at least on not buying from Western companies) which is similar to China at the moment; and the impact on business of the poor state of economic growth.
Taking the subway was a wonderful experience: classic modern Russian architecture that is functional and stylish, though also teeming with people at rush hour and deep below ground. Of all nationalities, I have to wonder if there are not some typical Russian stereotypes which are actually true. Whether it is the looks of the men or women, or the way the men act/drink in the evenings; it all seems true.
I left having enjoyed the short trip (and having visited the airports more times than I would have wished as my flight to Turkey was also cancelled due to snow) and thankful for the current political situation: everything was half the price it was a year ago, so now is the time to go (though the visa application form is VERY long)! I’d suggest taking BA rather than Aeroflot though after my experiences. And I’d check for weather conditions before going to the airport…
After South Africa it was Egypt. I didn't see much apart from the city, desert and lots of sand. Though I saw some pyramids in the distance and some nice and varied architecture. I left thinking Cairo is a rapidly growing city, maybe out of control with immense contrast, built by a river, in a desert, and currently going through interesting times. I'm not sure if is developing, developed, somewhere in the middle, or something else altogether. You can't compare the MENA region with anyone else.
The food was fantastic, the traffic bad, the people warm, and the experience positive. I'll be back to check it out for more than 4 working days next time.
Back in the UK for a couple of days to get a visa and meet some people I also got to spend a day with my three girls. Leah is making progress with proper nap times now and getting close to sitting up on her own. Hannah's really talkative and usually asking why, why, why. Of course this is a legendary part of childhood and enjoyable...So far. She'll be great in the development world in the future trying to identify the root cause and a theory of change! She's also developed her own girly accent for her favourite words, like nyow (no) with a high pitched tone and a singing tune too!
We managed to get her to walk 3 miles to and from the park, with some help from Cocoa the dog. She enjoyed trying on bridesmaids dresses and shoes. She's obsessed with playdough and she's a lot of fun all around. Can't wait to see her, Leah and incredible Andrea (who thanks to mum babysitting I actually got to spend a Valentine's dinner with alone) again in 9 days.
Johannesburg is a strange city; half English and half African. Much of the countryside looks like English countryside, and I was seeing the countryside whilst driving up the M1 Motorway here to Pretoria! In the nice suburbs of Johannesburg you could be any nice part of London – with very good quality street infrastructure (driving on the left of course), very nice houses and Western food. There is a slight difference with the many electric fences on top of the spiked fences around many of the houses and compounds! I spent 5 days working in these areas with lots of meetings in our office and in fancy office buildings around town. And not much walking, as South Africa seems really to be a country for driving, if you can afford it.
Then of course there is the poorer parts of Johannesburg; I spent this morning on a bike tour of SOWETO, the famous part of Johannesburg which was the hub of the anti-apartheid protests and where Mandela lived (for a while, though he spent much of his time undercover or in prison or living in a nicer place as President!) It is a strange area, with some real slum parts but also some areas that are very posh. What is strange is that most of the poorer people don’t live in the slums but in areas that looks like middle class housing – not big, mostly bungalows, but decent condition, made of brick and with gardens. Now they might not have many jobs, but it is I suppose a difference between South Africa and other parts of Africa: there has been some progress. On the tour we saw some memorial sites from apartheid-era protests as well as Mandela’s former house.
It is a strange city/country though. The local food is less “African” than in Kenya, though they have bap (similar to ugali in Kenya) and some stews, but they tend to prefer eating lots of BBQ meat. Some of the public transport is very nice but much of it is pretty poor and not safe. Of course since last year the country has been stuck in a massive power crisis; with regular “load shedding” (i.e. planned power cuts affecting different areas to manage the limited capacity). In our office we had part of a day without power (and internet, shock horror), though one of our buildings has a power generator so everyone can pile in there to work.
I don’t know how dangerous the city is, but it does feel dangerous: a combination of the high security fences around the nice areas; the reputation of the city; and probably just being white in a country of black people (that has high ethnic tensions). In the afternoon I went to the Apartheid Museum that is very well done with an incredible amount of information well delivered in various forms. If anything there is just too much information and sometimes it is hard to see the real themes, or see the bigger picture. But it is highly recommended, and I ended up spending more than 2 hours there. It does drive home the incredible efforts that were made to segregate the blacks from the whites; but it also showed how much violence there was to keep it that way and it was depressing how violent the four-year period was after Mandela was released and whilst the various parties sorted out a constitution and prepared for an election.
At the end of the afternoon I spent an hour walking around downtown Johannesburg. There are some old colonial buildings and a business district, but most of the companies have their shiny buildings out in the suburbs not down town. So downtown is fairly run down, though it is lively with markets and street sellers, whereas the suburbs are fairly barren and just like London suburbs with high streets and shopping malls, but not a lot of life on the streets. Pretoria, as a newer city, seemed less variable: less fancy areas but also less run-down areas. Though it still had some fancy shopping malls, of course.
And the robots? That's what South Africa's call traffic lights. As strange as the many local African languages and the strange accents of the white south Africans too!
I spent three hours at Kibera slum with a local as a tour guide. I suppose the main difference from the equivalent in China is the size. Somewhere close to a million people live in Kibera, many have been there for two or three generations. With a place this big (and it's big because everyone is only in single storey painted mud huts) there are countless high streets and markets, hundreds of churches, and a lot of rubbish!
Most people there get by it seems, some with jobs outside the slum cleaning or in construction. Most just do business within the slum, a massive economy in itself. In this way money comes in and circulates around enough for people to get by. The government and aid agencies fund several years of free primary school and try to improve infrastructure like toilet blocks. There's only a couple of high schools, but plenty of childcare and kindergarten options, all of which charge (kindergarten is about 15 USD a month).
Life is certainly lively there with cinemas, pubs and hotels as well the usual restaurants and all sorts of shops. Though of course all of the above are in mud huts with corrugated metal roofs with few widows so quite a different atmosphere. There's workshops making handicrafts too. It lacks for little. In practice of course incomes are unpredictable, living conditions are very cramp and poor, opportunities and hope are both limited.
It was striking how bustling life there is. How happy most people seem, especially the kids. Always the kids. It's all they known, all they do know and all they could hope for. It's tough for those who get sick, which is likely with poor hygiene, have to find the money for rent and children, or who may have personal tragedies, like deaths, affecting them. We met one old lady with AIDS who runs a small sewing cooperative to create income and self esteem for her and 15 other even with AIDS.
My tour guide (the tour company was set up by a foreign volunteer to create jobs and income for people like my guide) has 9 sisters and brothers with only 2 having regular work. This earns him some money every now and again but he's also busy helping other charitable projects and volunteering in the community. It's a very worthwhile few hours.
China's slums are actually similar, just much smaller and generally made of very simple brick buildings due to the harsher weather, and probably related to the abundance of building materials on one hand, and the Kenyan traditional mud buildings from the countryside where the residents come from on the other hand.
After Kibera I wasted time at a crocodile farm, enjoyed the giraffe center a lot thanks to the informative "educator", and visited Bombas of Kenya. A 2 hour show of different traditional Kenyan dances and outside the theater, replicas of all the different tribes' traditional houses. A good day overall.
2015 began with three days in Beijing, my last stay in an apartment that we'd rented for over 5 years. Then I had a crazy week at work launching my internal research project and a wonderful weekend in Guangzhou with the girls and my dad. Shortly after that I was on the plane to the UK for 10 days, the first country on my global tour for work. Always nice to see friends and family; it was also a hugely successful trip work wise spending time with colleagues and talking to customers and other really interesting groups.
From the UK I flew via Abu Dhabi to Nairobi.Etihad is a very nice airline and the views were fantastic: very strange seeing the habitats in the sparse UAE desert from the plane, and then changing scenery as we flew over desert Saudi Arabia, the barren parts of Ethiopia and then green Kenya.
In my mind Kenya sounds like green, safari savannahs, and blue skies, but Nairobi sounds like dangerous, dirty and chaotic. In reality of course Nairobi seems nice. Yes the roads are not great and the traffic makes Beijing look good (strangely there are almost no bikes or motorbikes here, just cars), but the food is nice and also cheap. Despite being one of the more developed cities in (east) Africa and with a reputation for being a bit of a tech hub, there are less tall buildings than I expected, and it's less commercial than I'd thought.
I'm obviously always comparing everything to China where some poor and dumpy peri-urban and rural towns contrast with insanely developed, advanced and shiny coastal cities. A poorish country as a whole, the cities and government in china are wealthy and now I can see the infrastructure difference compared to Africa. I walked to the office this morning to avoid the Nairobi traffic, though I got some dusty shoes- it's the dry season, and a present 26 degrees with blue skies. A taxi back to the office from a meeting across town was like a cross country adventure as we took all kinds of back roads to avoid traffic (as were many others) and ended up going through back gardens and construction sites!
The food is simple and nice (often meat/fish in sauce served with rice or ugali which soaks up the sauce); the bus system apparently effective though tricky for foreigners to navigate (i made it the short trip back to my hotel from CBD); the local lingo is a mixture of English and Swahili. I'm reminded by my wife to stay safe, though I realise that might be because China is so safe it's easy to forget (even when in London, I need to make a conscious effort particularly to avoid pick pocketing).
I spent a morning doing a safari, and at first it felt like hunting with several cars all working together to find a lion. One was spotted fairly early on though not that close up. After that my car was mostly alone and we saw hundreds of different wildebeest, zebras and giraffe. We also saw a few buffalos, a rhino and a couple of warthogs (aka pumbaa from the lion king). It was expensive getting one of the special open top cars but worth it and seemed fairly comparable to a safari further afield. A very enjoyable morning and convenient too, as Nairobi national park is only half an hour from downtown without traffic early in the morning. It's the smallest national park but still sizable; we were driving (not fast) for three hours non-stop.
In the afternoon I walked downtown and saw the park that was saved by an environmentalist with kids' rides in and a pretty lake. I also saw some markets and a craft shop. Lunch at a very local place was followed by a visit to the railway museum, where I learned about the challenges building the East Africa Railway from Mombassa to Lake Victoria where hundreds of Indian workers died building it and some were eaten by lions. The old photos and old trains were interesting and there was also a customized bike that could ride on the tracks.
In the afternoon I went to the National Museum with a lot of good exhibits on Kenyan history, culture, ancestry, wildlife and more. A quote in the museum explained that "any country can make a railway but in Kenya, a railway made a country". An entire stay of standing up in cars and museums as well as walking across Nairobi ended on the 7th floor balcony bar of a hotel with nice views and stimulating conversation with an Ashoka fellow who is using IT to make the countries' clinics and health system more efficient.