Monday, September 12, 2016

hi

Good morning


http://signygroup.com/images/news/bar.php?afternoon=g1787tayek1fugpq




Louise

Saturday, July 23, 2016

A week in China amidst living in Kenya

It seems a long time ago but at the beginning of this month I managed to break up a 10 week stint in Kenya with 1 week back in China: and what a wonderful week.

A weekend at the beach an hour or so east of Shenzhen so the girls could spend hours playing in the sand, the sea, and the swimming pool; as well as eat endless amounts of shrimps.

Daily swimming lessons for Hannah culminating in her being able to swim on her own (though she'll likely need a few more refresher lessons later on) that normally start with lots of screaming, but once she's left alone with the teacher become more productive.

Leah beginning to talk, and pronounce different sounds, though they're not quite fully formed words yet (more like half-words, at least in English; Chinese is easier).

Leah beginning to develop more emotional and inter-personal skills: deciding either to cuddle Hannah if she is upset, or deciding to also be upset "in solidarity" as Andrea puts it.

Regular story time every night with the same favorite books for each of the two; frequent "building" using wooden blocks and of course regular time with the dolls (putting them to sleep or taking them for a walk in their little buggies).

It's certainly tough not being with Andrea, Hannah and Leah in real life, and video connections are always tricky with China. Besides, seeing and hearing is not the same as being with!

Meanwhile back in Kenya I live out of a hotel, which thankfully has a fairly long menu, and another restaurant nearby. There has been a lot of sport to watch, and its nice being on a European time zone and also seeing Andy winning something. I regularly travel within China to the project sites where I am working, usually a town on an island or Mombasa. I've written about the island before and it is a pleasant change from the big city life - even just spending the evenings sitting on a balcony under the stars, or having breakfast on the balcony overlooking the sea.

Mombasa at first sight is nothing special, but hidden away, close to the coast, is an old town, which nice old buildings, small alleyways, and reminders of the city's colonial past (such as a Gentleman's club which even built a swimming pool in the sea by closing off the sides). There's also an impressive Fort, which also served as a prison for some time. Very impressive and in fairly good condition, it's survived multiple handovers from the Portuguese to the Arabs to the British and of course now to the Kenyans.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Rural Kenya

Quite a lot has happened in the last 6 months; I clearly need to blog more often, but of most interest has been my work trips to Kenya where I'm currently implementing a new project.

Back in February during one my trips here I went on a chartered UN flight (who knew they had their own airline, though not their own planes...) to a county in North-eastern Kenya called Mandera. Actually we went to Western Mandera landing, quite literally, in a field. A big, fairly flat, field, but a field none-the-less. Apart from grass, the only thing around was a fence around the field and not a single sign of an airport, or even landing strip. Landing to be greeted by several 4x4s from the local police force and our government hosts, we spent several hours visiting the local hospital and a clinic 2 hours away.

It was a fascinating visit to one of the poorest parts of Kenya, and one with some of the highest maternal and child health issues in the world. It is a very barren, sparsely populated, very dry, area (at least at the time i visited) with most of the population breeding a few animals for their livelihood and they eat a lot of meat there (in fact we had meat for breakfast as well as lunch). Many live in temporary huts that can be moved with the seasons. There was a mobile phone signal in the town near where we landed but that was not very stable and didn't go much beyond the town... once we left the town and drove past many smaller settlements we were truly unconnected.

The local hospital has been getting some investment but unable to hire trained staff willing to live there, so it still struggles to offer critical services like surgery (or emergency operations for mothers with pregnancy issues) in its theatre - the next closest hospital is several hours away. At the clinic we held a discussion with around 150 community members, gathered around a tree, and with local elders and tribal leaders leading the conversation (and also translating into the local dialect). It was very interesting indeed.

In the local village we saw the one little shop that had a solar panel connected to some large batteries and was charging several simple phones (there was also a weak mobile signal in some parts of this village); in the clinic we saw the "ambulance" which was a three-wheel motorbike with a bed on the back. All around us we saw the local people with their animals, and many of them using the animals to carry water from the (newly built) reservoir.

With such an inhospitable climate and poor geography, this is not a place with a bright future, but there is hope that they can at least have better health care, and since Kenya devolve more power and money to its 47 counties, we hear of increasing investment in public services and infrastructure from the government, in addition to the support from the UN and other charitable groups.

On another trip I went through Mombasa to a beach side resort where a major tech conference was taking place. I didn't see much of Mombasa but I briefly saw the port (since a taxi driver got lost on his way back to the airport), and experienced the ferry crossing (which really instead be a 2 minute drive over a bridge, but instead is a 20-minute ordeal waiting for, loading, crossing and unloading an ancient ferry across several hundred meters of river). At the resort an hour south, I saw some incredible beaches, but also suffered from the insane humidity.

The conference was better than most I have been to with some good updates from the government on all the key areas of work, and served to provide accountability to the conference participants on how the government was doing towards its strategy and goals. I was on a panel discussing universal access (i.e. how to ensure everyone can get access to phone and Internet services) amongst other things. I didn't participate in the pre-day playing golf that was very popular is a key networking activity in Kenya I am told.

One of the areas my project is working in is called Lamu County (not in Mandera, though that was interesting to visit in case we wok there in the future), which is on the coast and has its population on several islands as well as part of the mainland. On the island where the county capital is, there are no roads and transport is by boat around the island, by foot along the coast or through the island. Goods are carried on donkeys or, on the couple of paved paths, on large wooden wheelbarrows/pushcarts.

It is a pretty town, and the islands are picturesque; the mainland even has a few national parks but the transport is awful--taking boats of course can be expensive and slow and the condition of the one main road on the mainland is so bad that  our 4x4 broke down twice. The road was so bumpy that during 4 hours in the car, my fitness tracker thought i had walked 20,000 steps!

The area is one of the oldest settlements continuously inhabited in the area i believe, as a large trading and fishing community on the coast of East Africa, though much development has passed it by. A new, large, port is supposed to be built there soon and that has meant the main town on the island has finally been connected to the electric grid, and other islands are being electrified too (the mainland part has some grid electricity too).

We visited a number of health facilities as part of the project I am working on and spent a lot time on the road and in boats. But it was also a hugely interesting and very productive visit. It is crazy though that the whole county only has a permanent population of a couple hundred thousand people (with maybe another hundred thousand or so temporary residents from neighboring countries/counties) which is similar to just one part of the town in one of the suburbs of Shenzhen where i live. Indeed, the Huawei HQ has 60,000 people working there alone. Of course other parts of China (though not on the coast) are like this and Mandera too, especially in the Western parts of China.

It is fascinating to get to spend so much time in Kenya and by working there get to understand it better; the comparisons with China are of course difficult to make but still interesting. Looking at Kenya as a whole there are more relevant comparisons to China: Much of Kenya's economic activity is concentrated in just a few major cities; there are a couple of very successful industries in Kenya (such as flowers, tea, tourism); Kenya is a regional leader in technology and a pioneer in Africa for many things... lots of parallels with China's own development and its role in Asia!

More to come on this from me in the future, I am sure.

The girls - together - long may it last

Now Leah can climb up and down stairs, go down slides on her own, eat on her own and everything she is a real sister for Hannah. So the kids are playing in playgrounds together, sitting on the bobby-cart together, and even sitting on canons together (in an old fortress-town we visited with some work colleagues) and going to the dentist together (though Leah didn't do too well at letting the dentist into her mouth for more than 10 seconds it was better than Hannah managed at that age!).

They are brushing teeth together, reading books together, playing with dolls together, playing in the playhouse together, dressing up together, even sleeping together, doing lots of painting and drawing together (though Leah still has a long way to go here!). Normally it works out well - they like copying each other and we try to ensure it is a race to the top, but it can end up a race to the bottom too (if one starts refusing to do something the other might too). We are constantly reminding ourselves not to ever compare either of them or play one of them off against the other though... and hoping this will last a long time! It gives us a bit more of a break since they can play together a lot, but we still need to stay in our toes and be highly involved. Leah is not yet able to satisfy all of Hannah's play needs :)

In Shenzhen there is a routine involving Taekwondo twice a week, regular swimming now the pool is open (and some hit-and-miss swimming lessons for Hannah), and frequent trips during the hot summer to indoor playgrounds that are air-conditioned, as well as some trips to the beach in Hong Kong or to play in the water fountains outside some of the shopping malls downtown.

Kindergarten regularly organizes activities, often that require buying special clothes for various dances. There are constant requirements for us to do something for kindergarten - most recently there has been a theme of dinosaurs, so we've been drawing lots of dinosaurs, making dinosaurs out of play-doh, making dinosaurs out of cardboard, buying books about dinosaurs and all sorts.

The rainy season has come and gone, which was disrupting my pleasant bike ride into town, and it is full-on hot now. There are constant issues revolving around ice-creams for Hannah, who often wants several per day, but of course rarely gets them. And there is an increasing stream of friends that Hannah regularly plays with.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Winter Holidays

Earlier in the year there was time for a couple of vacations - a week in Germany with the in-laws during Chinese New Year, and then during the end of March 2 weeks in the UK and a Portuguese island called Madeira.

In Germany this time we spent a couple of days in Berlin. I enjoyed an outdoor market with excellent Gluhwein and the kids enjoyed the street musicians. We also found a fantastic indoor museum-cum-playground for children (technically a Museum for Children) with all kinds of things for kids to play in, such as tents, art activities, clothes to dress up in, and more. Greatway to spend a wet and cold winter holiday

Back in Doberlug-Kirchhain we had fun with the dog, sheep, local playground, and the two-decade old toys that are still going strong, such as the kids' piano. We also found an incredible place called Tropical Islands. One of the largest indoor domes in the world, it used to house airships (I believe) but was covered into a tropical paradise at 28 degrees all year around with a lagoon, 2 swimming pools, a beach, several water slides, hundreds of tents and hotel rooms, and a ginormous kids playground (complete with kids activities every couple of hours)... all of it boiling hot. There is also the world's largest indoor rain forest - and since it is done by the Germans it is really an indoor rain forest that takes several minutes to walk around and has all sorts of insects and animals amongst the trees.

It is a great idea; it is not cheap, but it is certainly cheaper than getting to an airport and flying overseas for a few days of beach time. The kids had a wonderful time; the adults also had a great time. Even the food there was decent (at least 6 different restaurants) and there was one of the world's largest changing rooms! Lots of people travel from all across Germany to go to it and it is well worth it. A place that we will frequently go back to again (though remember your swimming gear as the shop there is expensive!)

Andrea and the kids had more time off than me so they managed to spend some time in England as well - Leah was obsessed with the dog of course; Hannah got into painting various adults' faces and they played in the playground a lot.

At the end of March I took the the two kids back to England (the first time i had taken the two kids on my own on a flight or away from their mother for a significant period of time) - Leah was in love with her little suitcase that she wanted to pull behind her all the time, though she still loved Cocoa (the dog) more. She tried to throw sticks (unsuccessfully) though did successfully manage to fall flat on her face in the mud in the park as her feet got stuck in the mud.

We spent 8 days in Madeira, which is a Portuguese island off the West coast of Africa and was nice and warm (though not generally warm enough for swimming, it was warm enough to play with the water and sand). We saw a few really impressive gardens which the kids enjoyed--waterfalls, animals, Chinese-style gardens, Japanese style gardens, and all sorts. In one of them mum organized an Easter-egg hunt which of course was popular. Perfect except for having a sleeping baby in a buggy needing to be carried up and down stairs and over rock pools!

It is a very rocky island so there were lots of incredible views from the coast and a couple of sandy beaches, though inland there was also a lot of mist which somewhat ruined our outdoor activities there (no views, too cold and dangerous to go canyoning). It was a fairly relaxing holiday with lots of cab rides, some minibuses to explore the sights around the island and the kids playing with each other and with their aunties/grandma.

We found a museum about Madeira which had some entertaining aspects to it, such as part of a plane that Hannah enjoyed playing in and directing everyone (now we are landing, now we are serving meals, now we are putting our seat belts on....), and we found an incredible toy museum with several rooms packed with thousands of toys - cars, teddies, action figures, dolls and all sorts. In fact it was more fun for the adults than the kids, since the kids didn't really know most of the toys (some of which were very old) but we all enjoyed it.

We saw the pretty old villages and the main town that has a high street full of interestingly painted front doors (anything to interest the tourists), some interesting fish and fruit markets, a tour around a rum facility, and a couple of fantastic restaurants.The food was generally cheap there and some of the fish was fantastic; especially when cooked on a hot slab of marble in front of you. There was regular music at the restaurants and very good service.

It was a year or so after the trip to the Canary Islands (Spanish islands nearby) and another very successful sunny winter holiday.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Hannah hits 4

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)!

Monday, January 11, 2016

Macau

Back in my very first days in China I had popped over to Macau for a couple of days and a night from a regular trip to Hong Kong. I remember the impressive Portuguese architecture, some sleezy prostitutes, and a casino. Fast forward more than a decade and Macau has become the world's largest gambling destination, with 2-3 times more revenue than Vegas; it had joined up two islands with landfill in order to build some of the world's biggest casinos and hotels (and indeed, biggest buildings by floor space); there is a bridge being built between Hong Kong and Macau (at 30km or so, it is insane); and the little place has changed dramatically.

Originally a Portuguese colony, it was also handed back to the Chinese around the same time that Hong Kong was (from the British) and then it promptly opened up what had been a monopoly in gambling licenses (to one rich Hong Kong tycoon) and the floodgates opened with the Chinese getting very rich and having a large appetite for gambling needed to be satiated (it's illegal in the Mainland). Plus of course much of the rest of Asia came over to gamble to.

It is very different to Vegas: the gambling games are mostly different to those popular in the West, the minimum bets are high, there was until recently little else apart from gambling to do there, and the place is tiny. Now it is seeking to have people stay for longer (with more shows and theme parks), and to broaden its income into other forms of tourism (there is a nice museum in the grounds of the old fort, some impressive funding for reconstruction of old buildings and museums explaining them, a great app for walks exploring Macau and free wi-fi covering much of the islands etc).

We went there a couple months ago just for a day and enjoyed walking around the old town with very impressive churches and sqaures alongside the famous Ruins of St Paul's Church (which only has one wall standing at the top of a large flight of stairs), as well as a quick trip to the Venetian. The egg tarts there are still delicious. We went back again for the three-day New Year's Eve weekend where there was a good fireworks display and we had more time to explore the two islands off the mainland (though which are now one big island since the land between them has been filled in--there is still some water between them and the mainland part of Macau though which is crossed by bridges).

There are well signposted walks, a few old buildings, and some sleepy fishing folk alongside a couple of nice beaches. A world away from the casinos. We spent more time in the incredible Venetian and the massive City of Dreams; Andrea, Hannah and my dad went to watch a decent show there; we got to know the police station quite well as we searched (successfully eventually) to get a bag back that we had left in a taxi); and we generally had a good time there.

It is an interesting place, but it is very small. Hong Kong seems big in comparison (and it is) - partly because it has more diversity to its economy, it has a lot more islands and more countryside, it has a lot happening, and it feels like a real city. Macau just feels like a few districts next to each other with a lot of tourists going in between them. It's quite a nice place to take kids: they love the Venetian of course; there are several expensive kids play areas in the hotels; many of the hotels are kid friendly (though not that cheap); there are playgrounds dotted around the city; the beaches are fairly sparse (at least at this time of the year) and clean; and there's no need to walk too much.

It is a fascinating place to visit for a couple of days, though I'm not sure I'd want to live there as it really is so small and so dependent on casino-hotels (which are starting to struggle now due to the economic slowdown, restrictions on Chinese going to Macau, and corruption crackdown that discourages people flaunting or spending their money that may be illicitly gained). The older parts can get totally over-run with tourists (as can the casinos) and the transport is not great, due to a lack of taxis and poor planning of the bus routes (we found many of the buses on the popular bus routes were always full at busy times).

Now it's 2016, our kids are rapidly growing up and playing with each other and life is moving on. Let's see what this year brings!

Monday, December 14, 2015

On the road in Kenya

Since Cape Town I spent a few weeks not going anywhere as i renewed my visa and prepared to launch a report. But by the end of November, I was in Kenya, London, Geneva and Brussels. After a short rest back in Shenzhen, I am now back in Kenya as i try to finalize a project we're launching there.
It is a shame to travel so much and leave the family behind, especially at such interesting times in their lives, but when work takes you to a country you can sometimes get to understand a country better; though just as often the opposite happens! Thankfully my work normally entails me learning more about a country through meeting colleagues, customers and other partners.
Occasionally I end up spending weekends in these countries since my trip takes more than a week. It's not ideal, but I have used this chance to get out of Nairobi. On Saturday I climbed Mt Longonot, a volcano that most recently erupted 150 years or so ago. The view of the crater at the top was great, and so was the view of the neighboring lake and countryside. There was also another crater which was formed during the recent eruption and you can see where all the lava flowed because there is dense forests on top of the fertile lava. After lunch in the town I was on a boat on the lake checking out hippos playing in the water, birds living their lives on the water, and some animals (giraffes, zebras and the like) living alongside the water. A wonderful little boat trip - and interesting too to see the locals enjoying the national holiday on the public beach alongside the lake.
On Sunday, instead of taking a driver around, i took the public transport system, which mostly is a system of private minibuses. Common across the developing world, it can work quite well if you don't wait a long time for the minibus to fill up, and you don't keep stopping en-route to pick people up and drop others off. They can be a touch hairy at times due to the speed they drive at, but their a fairly efficient form of transport, cheap and very well used. The largest problem they cause is the chaos at the bus stations with all the minibuses competing with each other for customers and an immense amount of hooting going on. I also think there are just too many of these things on the road clogging up the roads in many places! 
The minibuses are usually highly personalized by the owners/drivers with decoration internally and externally, customized soundtracks blaring out inside, and all sorts of lights and luxuries. I'm not sure if it is to help them stand out and attract customers, because drivers just like it, or if there are other cultural reasons (i.e. as a form of self-expression). It is a great way to meet local people of course as everyone gets packed inside, though hard to communciate with them due to the loud music!
I had to take two minibuses to get to my destination: Hell's Gate National Park, actually next to the volcano and lake of the previous day. It is the only National Park where you can freely walk around to see the animals instead of having to stay in cars, this is because there are no dangerous animals like lions or buffalo. But on the strensous 18km bike ride we did see a lof ot zebras, giraffe, deer, monkeys, baboons, and other animals. It was great to get so close to them and wonderfully peaceful and serene. It was also very scenic. I did some mountain climbing as well as a couple hours hiking through a gorge.
In face the gorge is one of the most specatacular i've seen. It is quite small; only about 20-40m high, and at its narrowest, just a metre or two, but the different layers you can seek in the rock as the water has eroded it are fascinating and really impressive. A highly recommended trip.
Back on the road, you see what may be "typical Africa"; large expanses of countryside that is seemingly un-used; some smallhold farms; dusty and chaotic towns alongside noisy roads; animals just wondering around (either with their owners, or without); people just sitting around (either at their shops, or just watching the world go by); and of course the interesting style of shops and roadside businessess, often colored in one of the main mobile phone companies' branding as they sell airtime or mobile money services.
A while ago I basically stopped bargaining when i was travelling. If i know a price, I'll set it from the outset; if a price is ridiculous I'll walk away, but I'm usually fairly relaxed about paying a bit more than I should as the kind of people that are benefitting are certainly poorer than me and can do with the money. It also means you can get better service and extra help if you need it. I wasn't very well prepared for this weekend's excursions so I had to buy a small backpack, raincoat (thankfully that was not used), and a cap (though after I had already got a bit burnt).








Sunday, December 13, 2015

Hannah's friends

My interaction with Hannah's friends starts with their parents. And that requires online commnication: a highly active wechat (like what's app) group. On this wechat group they organize activities, debate what the homework request is and how to fulfill it, share the latest online e-commerce deals with each other, and share parenting techniques. It's hard to work out what matters and what does not or what they are actually up to due to the ongoing stream of messages in Chinese. I think half the class skipped off on friday to go to Disney Land Hong Kong because of a special offer they found online!

The kids here are in all sorts of after-school activities (though mostly related to sport, art or dance at this age). So we try to join in sometimes, and we try to organize things sometimes. Last month we organized a picnic which became very complicated: no-one quite knew what food they should bring to a (western) picnic, some wanted to share with each other; and then the chaos of making sure everyone could meet in the right spot in the park, after they had all sorted out their parking. . Last week we invited some of them to a christmas party held at an international school; I think these are the kind of events they want from us!

I don't really know which child is who, or which adult is the parent of which child, so it's always a surprise to see who actually turns up!

None-the-less Hannah is usually happy and seems to have 3-4 good friends there in addition to her few foreign friends through my colleagues at work. This is important as she has decided her parents are no longer entertaining enough and she wants to play with her friends more at weekends.

As all parents know, the child's friends' parents become your friends; and thus you no longer get to choose your own friends! Some of Hannah's friends' parents are fine, but most speak little English which is tough, and we don't get on that well with some of them, but we try to make things work: ideally in groups!

Coming up to 4 generally everything is wonderful with Hannah. Problems mostly arise around  chocolate, sweets and ice cream; something that she is often asking for (and its hard to avoid if in shops or on the street) and won't take no for an answer. The short fuse is often on show at other times too when it involves sharing with friends, or trying to get friends to do what she wants them to do.

As kids change so often, we need to keep learning new ways of managing them. At a very young age you can rely on them forgetting quickly, then you focus more on distraction, at other times it calls for a combination of incentives or threats, sometimes you need more presuasion and sometimes you just need to ignore the child (especially if there is a tantrum) and remain firm.

There's been more than a few times when Hannah has ended up screaming or sitting down and refusing to leave a fairground whilst others look on in amazement! Eventually we'll work something out with her, but i feel most Chinese parents are either very soft or very hard (i.e. shouting) whereas we are somewhere in the middle. Of course the hardest thing of all is when kids are together, because then you have to fall to the lowest common denominator and let Hannah do whatever her friends do.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Leah's friends

There has been quite a few changes since i last wrote, 2 months ago.

It began with a phone call from the landlord and his wife; the landlord giving us 1 month notice and his wife saying we should stay, and that as she is the legal owner of the apartment we should listen to her. Preferring not to move out, I decided to pick her sides and see what would happen. A number of tense phone calls and text messages later, with both sides, and it ended up with both of them coming over, meeting me downstairs and the wife giving me the message that she was in agreement with her husband and we were to move out. The husband was 10m away and refusing to speak to me - but making sure his wife delivered the message.

So we moved, thankfully to another fantastic place, though a duplex with stairs between the two floors (not great with a recently begun walking child). We did get luck since we managed to bargain the new landlady down very easily by 15%. And it turns out the apartment comes with plenty of friends for Leah, solving the problem I last wrote about. It seems all of our neighbors have kids her age, and one of the neighbors even runs a daycare center of sorts!

Unlike most apartments where you come our of an elevator in the centre of a tower with apartments on all sides of you; our block has elevators on two ends and 10 appartments in a rown between the ends, with the walkway connecting them all on the outside; this means that all these young kids walk around between everyone's apartments and play together on the walkway, particularly outside our door where the walkway is particularly wide. The result is random kids coming into our apartment, our kid wondering into other apartments, and all the kids playing together in front of our front door half the day (we've even put some playmats out for everyone to play on).

Leah's always on the move now; it has been two months of non-stop walking and she'll soon work out how to run and stay with her sister (rather than trying to chase her and falling over) when they play together. She's usually got a coloring pen in her hand too, which is particularly dangerous with the nice walls, and our blackboard/whiteboard combo is covered in all kinds of colors on the wood and the actual boards!

Leah is also very noisy - talking all the time, though nothing understandable yet. She has clear opnions and voices them often, backing them up with her fingers in terms of what she wants or does not want; and is learning what an attitude is. This usually involves food - since she just eats and eats and eats, and then when you take the food away she expresses her opinion very strongly!

Now that Leah's walking and has an attitude, she is very much into playing and that makes life lots of fun, whether it is in the playroom, or in a shopping mall. From throwing balls into skittles to holding dolls. Though she hasn't yet got a favorite doll, we've already had multiple cases when Hannah and Leah both want to play with the same toys, and we've had to defuse things.

Her cough has cleared up thanks to some good old modern medicine and she seems incredibly smart as she decides what to do and then does it, but then I can't remember what Hannah was doing at that age, so it is hard to compare!

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Cape Town

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.

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

A special first year

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.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

SDGs

Few people that didn't work in the charity and development sector had heard of the Milennium Development Goals, but hopefully after the events of the last few days, many more people will have heard about their successor, the Sustainable Development Goals, which also have 15-year targets. Holding concerts with celebrities, getting the pope to talk about them, and bringing 150+ heads of states to the UN tends to help get some attention.

Here in New York there were more than 150 side events related to different aspects of the 17 goals, and discussing how to implement them. I went to a couple focused on the role of businesses (attended by the UK Minister for International Aid amongst others) and on health (attended by the Minister of Health from Ethiopia for example) and also with the former Prime Minister of Norway listening. She led a UN Commission more than 30 years ago which was the first global recognition that we were leading an unsustainable lifestyle, using up too much of the earth's resources and needed a new approach to development that could be sustainable. She coined (and defined) the term "sustainable development" which these goals are aiming to achieve.

In some respect, and the media always forgets this, we have actually made tremendous progress in the last thirty years. Things have got worse in some areas, such as environmental degradation, but most people are living healthier, longer, more productive lives - and lives that they are in control of. And there are all kinds of things the world has prevented from happening or gettin worse which we just can't measure. In some respects it is a credit to the international community that it has taken this long until Europe faced such a dramatic migration crisis. One hopes that quickly attention will focus back on solving their plight in thei rhome countries than just resettling them all, which doesn't really help anyone.

You can read a lot about the goals and why they are meaningful; not just in the media but in the tons of special reports launched by companies, consultancies, charities, governemtns and everyone that has some angle on how to achieve the goals and what they mean. I was not in the UN as they held the vote but the side events were inspiring and well attended by a high level of participant which was very useful for my work. Unfortunately they were mostly the typical attendees, and the events were very much "preaching to the converted" but that's ago. These are just events in New York. One hopes that more people--including the public--will be involved in implementing and monitoring the goals across the world.

The Chinese President spent a while in the US before attending the meeting, he's much more engaged in the World nowadays compared to his predecessors (he has no choice), though very few Chinese companies are. Hopefully this will change somewhat. The Chinese President is also very active making committments which is great; he is not restricted by useless media or selfish politicians. It is great to see the Pope more involved in the agenda too; maybe he can help influence some of the critics and bring them around. Though at the rate the US is going at it might need to see how the goals matter to it more than the developing world (for example, by reducing information for women on contraception as well as restricting the availability of contraception methods and abortions -- something which is ludicrous and an insult to women, science and individual rights).

Despite the craziness of US politics, on the ground, the country is still a great place of course. And no better to see and enjoy the US than from the running track around Central Park, which is still the best place in New york: the lakes, playgrounds, fitness options, horse-drawn carriages, nature and role the Park plays in life.Shenzhen also has a Central Park, which is nicely designed but missing many of the elements that make a Central Park central to people's lives.

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Stories and Water

After 2 weeks in Europe I then spent 2 weeks in China - alone. It was immediately a strange experience having so little noise and so much time to myself. Thankfully it was a useful chance to get back into exercising to burn off all the deserts and did not last long anyway.

For then I was off to Beijing--a wonderful place to go during major sports or political events--where there was no traffic, blue skies, warm temperatures and some excellent athletics to watch in the Bird's Nest. It did not disappoint: Lots of tension and unknowns, though the same outcome in the races that mattered with a certain Jamaican ruling the roost. It was great to see the Mo win and wonderful to experience the atmosphere as the Chinese competed and did quite well in some events. It was also a chance to run around town and catch up with old friends since I'd not been to Beijing for more than 6 months.

After a 5-day work trip to Kenya it was time to be reunited with the girls in my life: one of which had decided she wanted to start walking, though still needs one hand of support for a little while yet, another who has decided she can now remember what has been happening during the day and wants to talk about it in a delightful high-pitched girly voice that she has developed.

Indeed Hannah is now in the next class up in kindergarten, attending dance class twice a week (its good for her to have some strict routines to follow and more friends to play with), and remembering how to speak Chinese again. We're slowly weaning off of Peppa Pig and trying to focus on stories again, though just like when she was a toddler, she still loves the same book over and over again!

Leah's now entered the next phase of her life, where she can decide what she wants to eat (by pointing), where she wants to go (by walking), and what to play with (by crawling/grabbing). She seems to understand some of what is being said now, is finally getting teeth number 3 and 4 and very much enjoying the outdoors. During the recent 3 day holiday we managed to spend each day at a water park, by a beach, or at water fountains so the two girls could cool down, play with us, and even play together.

Whether there was really a need for the public holiday to be created as a one-off to celebrate the "end of Japanese aggression 70 years ago" is another question altogether (was it for internal political purposes, internal reputation purposes, or for external reputation purposes?). Well we didn't complain.

Hannah's always loved hugging her sister, and trying to carry her around; but now that Leah can play back everything becomes much more interesting: the games of hide-and-seek, for example. The two of them playing on the bobby cart together. Once Leah does start walking on her own, then things might get even more fun.

Saturday, August 08, 2015

Croatia

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.

 

A wedding and camping

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….

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Bantian

Since I got back from Myanmar it has been well and truly into the rainy season here.

That means very high humidity accompanying the heat, as well as a lot of rain. It's a big change from Beijing which is very dry and rarely ever rained. Here going for a run takes forever to stop sweating afterwards (if ever), whilst a short walk in the middle of the day is not recommended. I've taken to riding to work in a different t-shirt and then changing at the office! That is of course the days that it is not pouring with rain (usually coming home actually, rather than in the morning, which i suppose is better as i can get changed once i get home) when i need to hide under a raincoat.

At weekends we thus often head to indoor malls that have playgrounds or activities for children as well as food options - both for the air conditioning and to shelter from the rain. If it doesn't rain we'll still try to get out to some parks and things. There are a lot of very good kids' playgrounds though. Way more than in Beijing, and certainly the large number of entrepreneurs in Shenzhen (plus the fact that the whole city is only recently built) means that is it well designed and has lots going for it.

The outdoor swimming pool downstairs opened in May, though only in the afternoons and evenings (even on weekends, strangely) and Hannah goes frequently after kindergarten with Andrea, Leah and the nanny. Obviously the pool closes during thunderstorms, and it has been pretty bad most weekends, but i have gone a couple of times. It is very strange to have a quasi-holiday experience from your doorstep... walking 5m to a wonderful outdoor, floodlit, pool in the heat.

We've not yet really explored Bantian, the area where we live as much as we had in Beijing. Obviously at 7 months old we can't really take Leah on a bike yet, though probably soon, and what with the rain and all, we've not been out too much. We know the immediate area, and the roads too and from the malls, downtown, my office etc, but the fun in China is exploring the bits in between, that you can't see from the main roads. And Shenzhen is all about the little villages near where we live, which was countryside very recently and very quickly gave birth to urbanization for factories and migrant workers to live. So there are a lot of little high streets, markets and things hidden away. I found a few of them when i was searching for a replacement part for a shower, but would love to spend more time exploring them in the future.

Actually another reason we don't explore that much is because online shopping is so easy in China - that is where i found my replacement shower part and it is where we buy a lot of our food and other stuff too. Plus, of course, 3 year olds are not known for their willingness to walk around for no good reason, and thus we tend to take Uber a lot (it is wonderfully cheap here due to nice subsidies as part of their growth efforts).

Generally there are some nice developments around, or going up, but a lot of the area is cheaply and quickly built housing from 15 years ago when Shenzhen was being built. They look much older! And they are very local with a very migrant worker feel to them with a lot of life on the streets. Recently I've been going further north from the office to play football, past wonderful roads, shabby buildings, and new developments. Nicely sums up China I suppose. I'm not sure who would want to live or work out there, or who will fill the space, but there is no lack of money for investing in building things in China, and especially in Shenzhen, the home of real estate.

We've never been fans of air conditioning, as we prefer to keep windows open, but what with the mosquitoes and the humidity, we've had to resort to air conditioning sometimes to the detriment of our health and the environment. But otherwise we all get hot and grumpy!

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Back in Myanmar

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.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Milestones that matter

So two key milestones have passed in the last week: some of the the most important ones with kids.

The first is Leah sleeping all night without waking up or needing feeding. As with Hannah the trick here was for Andrea to disappear for a few days. Leah could tell Andrea was not here so she woke up less. Also if she did cry I could easily ignore her for a while till she fell asleep again a few minutes later (women are really bad at this, they always rush to deal with crying children).

The second is Hannah's willingness to brush her teeth. It has been a perennial nightmare for 2 years; that she never wanted to brush her teeth, no matter what toothpaste (bubble gum flavored princess, for example) or what toothbrush (toy story electric toothbrush that plays music, for example). But now she is ok with it, doesn't complain and sometimes does it herself quite well. I don't think there was one trick for that. We've been trying every trick in the book for months and for some reason one of those tricks just worked last week!

In other news we're getting closer to a routine at home and trying to get into the spirit of being active parents academically (the kindergarten is very proactive and requires parents to help kids do homework (like read a book about fish, though tough when that book is in chinese; or in their textbooks, color in the tall house blue and the small house red; or buy a basketball to play with/seeds to plant; or make various things). The kindergarten really is very good. One day they worried about some marks on Hannah's hands and required we go to see a doctor in case it could be something contagious (it wasn't), every day they send an SMS with the plan for the day's activities, and every week they send an SMS with the menu for the week. It's impressive and Hannah enjoys it a lot.

Every morning, in every kindergarten in the area, after kids arrive at kindergarten they do exercises to music and many of the parents or grandparents watch. It is adorable. I usually rush off to work but yesterday stayed behind a bit and saw a guy with a wireless mic leading the exercises. It felt like watching an aerobics show on TV just for 3-5 year olds. They all love it. And Hannah knows a lot of Chinese songs (and some English ones, like Twinkle Twinkle Little Star). Her native language is still Chinese, which you can hear when she talks to herself as she falls asleep sometimes.

It is very sweet hearing kids' favorite phrases (like Hannah's "that's funny") and favorite facial expressions. Leah's still mostly got the gormless face going with a large chin, poor girl. But she has beautiful eyes and lots of wonderful hair. She's still the same size as kids a few months older than her and increasingly enjoying the fruits of the world that we feed her, though the first two teeth are achingly slow in coming through.

The weather is generally very nice and not too hot yet (only around 25 degrees) and it's still fine cycling to and from work early in the morning and late in the evening when its fairly cool; but we'll have to see how that changes in the next few months. We're told the outdoor swimming pool downstairs will open on May 1; which I know Andrea is really looking forward to!

Saturday, March 28, 2015

More travel but a chance for a routine?

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.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Turkish pizzas and boats

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.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Delays but Moscow is worth it

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…

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Why

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.

Sunday, February 08, 2015

Robots in South Africa

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!

Monday, February 02, 2015

Kibera

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.

Kenya!

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.