Discuss longhaul
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Travel is the most private of pleasures. There is no greater bore than the travel bore. We do not in the least want to hear what he has seen... (Vita Sackville West).

Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Something a bit different to write about today. I have just returned from a two-night trip to Entebbe, Uganda where I visited a children's orphanage in Kampala a forty-five minute drive from where we stay. It is the first time I have visited Uganda and of all the African countries I have seen (tiny patches of), it was the greenest and most beautiful. We stayed beside Lake Victoria, a huge expanse of pale blue shimmering light surrounded by gently undulating countryside, dotted with aristocratic old trees and with red earthen tracks running off between shacks and dilapidated colonial-era bungalows. At the end of the day immaculate Ugandan schoolchildren could be seen wending their way home up these roads, dressed in their yellow pinafores and white socks. For most of them home is little more than a shed - picturesque to me but the sign of an impoverished existence no doubt.

Still, at least the schoolchildren had somewhere to call home. Along with the Captain of our crew and the two co-pilots, I went by minibus into Kampala to the Sanyu Babies Home where all the children have been found abandoned beside the road or even on rubbish tips, in most cases due to absolute poverty not being able to support yet one more tiny African life. The Captain, Graham, had visited the place a few times before and this time had brought with him a suitcase of powdered baby milk and another of second-hand baby clothes provided by his own and friend's families. I have to hand it to Graham, he's a good guy.

I was charged with the task of compiling a sort of photo-journal of the afternoon's events as Graham is giving a "Day in the life of..." talk at his local school and wanted to show the children more than just himself lording it up in the flight deck of a 767. The photography part was right up my street of course but I was also curious to see my first orphanage, though I suspect it wont be my last as many countries we go to have such places and BA crew are often invaluable supporters, financially and morally.

We arrived in the pouring rain and at feeding time for the kids. The premises are circa 1929, the year the orphanage was founded and the metal cots that were already in use by the 1930's are still in situ today (albeit now covered mostly in BA blankets purloined by philanthropic crew).

Joyce, the manager, took me around. She has worked there since 1981 and is now a grandmother herself. Still full of commitment and zeal, she enthusiastically dragged me from dormitory to laundry and from classroom to storeroom - a whirlwind of positive energy. I had a job to keep up and take some snapshots of things at the same time. But eventually we returned to the dining room to watch the kids being spoonfed a basic meal of beans and potatoes mashed up together. They were very cute children, mostly boys and seemed to have healthy appetites. Conditions are basic but there was plenty of help on hand with three paid nurses, some European volunteers and a heroic man called Joe who used to be a top engineer for Waitrose but who jacked in his whole life to dedicate some of it to this cause. He seems to be a catalyst for modernisation and in less than two years has got a proper sewerage system installed and is now trying to sort out a web site with a donation feature. He also wants to look at tightening up the regulations for releasing children to foster families especially where this involves an international adoption.

There are about forty children at the moment, two certainly are HIV positive and the chances are that many others also are. The money doesn't exist to routinely test them all so they are only treat symptomatic cases. One little boy had died the day before we arrived, I think of tetanus and others may have been carrying hepatitis or tuberculosis.

Joyce spoke of the problems with cash flow, the cost of vitamins, the water bill and medicines. They have had to employ a security guard and fence the whole orphanage off after they had people trying to break in to steal some of the babies, probably to be used for ritual sacrifice. Baby wipes, milk powder, calpol - these were the items which Joyce coveted. They are available in Uganda but are costly and in the case of the medicines are less effective than western versions.

The future for these babies is uncertain. Most of them get fostered to Ugandan families but tracking them once they've left the orphanage is a hit and miss affair. The reason there are more boys than girls abandoned is that boys are more expensive to raise as they have to be given land so they can attract a wife and provide a home for their own families in turn. Women have no inheritance rights and they are bought with a dowry at the time of marriage - another expense for the males.

As all the children arrive nameless, they are given a christian name and then they borrow surnames from the various staff on hand at the time. All the names were British ones - Douglas, Owen, Faith .... The thing they can't be given is a tribe or clan. To be at large in Ugandan society without a clan to belong to is apparently an unenviable position - jobs, prosperity and marriage are all harder to come by. Even with all the efforts of Joyce, Joe and the other workers, it seemed to me that the children were still only getting a very shaky start in life and should they be unfortunate enough not to be fostered by their fifth birthday, they get handed on to another institution for their age group and their fates are probably sealed.

Everyone at Sanyu was glad to see us and even gladder to see the milk powder and wodge of American dollars we left behind. I promised I would highlight their cause on the blog so if any of you feel like helping out you can donate money by paying straight into their British based HSBC account. In the future this ought to be possible with a few clicks on the mouse but for now you have to take a cheque to the bank with the following details:

Account name: Sanyu Babies Home
Account no: 71121790
Sort code: 40-06-32

They rely on donations and a nurses wage is £35 per month whilst Joyce herself gets only £50 per month. They are in the process of setting up a craft shop on the premises, selling local handicrafts so that visitors can be encouraged to spend money when they come. It was humbling to see Joyce's gratitude when we left her some of our money. Puts Laura Ashley curtain poles at £70 a throw into perspective.
View from The Peak

Saturday, September 25, 2004

Silly me. I forgot to upload my Hong Kong post so you've only had the pics for a few days (and not all those as Jo, my technical support person had a few difficulties too). Here's the blurb, better late than never....

I'll leave the pictures of Hong Kong to speak mostly for themselves I think. Surprisingly hilly except very close to the coast, surprisingly friendly (Kong Kong people used to have a reputation for rudeness), suprisingly un-colonial feeling (not much in the way of anglo-architecture left standing), surprisingly easy to be there (English widely spoken and important information always given in three languages, the others being Mandarin and Cantonese), surprisingly difficult to fancy eating any local food when you olfactory senses are bombarded 24/7 with aromas familiar from any China Town when the temperatures are 30'C and the humidity saturating (I was delighted to find baked potatos and beans on offer for my last night's dinner).

I did the tourist thing of ascending "The Peak" in the funicular tram and trotting round the circular walk at the top. The views are tremendous but I hadn't been up there five minutes before encountering a large snake on the footpath in front of me. Two local people were trying to edge past it when it went for them, reared its head and lunged twice at their ankles while the woman swung out at it with her trusty handbag. The snake slithered past them, through railings, slid through branches and dropped onto the forest floor - thud. Very snakelike and a bit alarming really as I asked the man if it had been a dnagerous one and he replied "Yes! Velly dangerous!"

After this it wasn't easy to relax with trees and shrubbery to either side and above my head. Every branch could have touted a dangling python. Also there were these gigantic butterflies doing their arbitrary flying trick which makes me very uneasy. It makes you glad to live in a country of badgers and cows believe me.

On the bright side, Hong Kong, apart from the frenzy of the backstreets and the heat, is very relaxing and feels very safe. The local people ignore you in a benign sort of a way until you need to speak to them when they become solicitous for your welfare and happiness and can't do enough to help you. They seem happy themselves too, calm amongst the crowds on the tubes, never a raised voice in public, courteous in shops and seeming to be having a riotously social time in restaurants and parks. Good luck to them. Nimble and industrous people in a place where life is not always luxurious for the average person.

We had local cabin crew join us for the trip and Rissy (female) told me how she and her husband live in a tiny studio flat 20x15 feet in total, divided by partitions and furniture into sleeping, living, eating and washing spaces. As she and her husband are both shift workers they often clash with their times and should one of them need to sleep, the resulting partitioning and screening off of the bed that this involves, consequently shuts out all light to the living area so the other person has to sit in more or less total darkness and silence for hours.

Buying material possessions is mostly unthinkable as they have no spare space to put them and even clothes have to be kept to a mimimum as they have a single wardrobe to fit all their gear into. A recent attempt at a baby failed and Rissy's husband is convinced that the baby wont come until they have somehow found a place with room for it, but this isn't going to be easy as even a two room apartment (their current one is officially one room), costs two million Hong Kong dollars, or about £175,000. It was this kind of house that Rissy grew up in, with five brothers ans sisters and both parents all crammed inside. One sister now lives in a five bedroomed place in Canada. I wonder how that feels after a life of constant crampedness and having to be tolerant and patient of your nearest and dearest all day every day. Imagine homework, PMT or a bad attack of wind in conditions like this. How do they cope?

I admitted to my current frustration in Somerset, trying to decide how to fit a washing machine into my bathroom and having to order an especially small sofa to fit into my little sitting room and we compared ground plans of our respective homes to my embarassment. The garden and sheds turned out to be a point of particular envy from Rissy's point of view and of course, no snakes to worry about either! Oddly enough Rissy's nephew turned out to be at school just seven miles from me down in Taunton. A strangely small world.

Monday, September 20, 2004

Chinese lanterns
Hong Kong Kit
Signage hell
Queen of the herbaceous border
Late night excavating

It all went to our heads a bit really

Monday, September 13, 2004

Here are the latest pics from Scummerset. As you'll see I've had a bit of help from willing women around the garden. (Getting your hands all covered in soil is much more fun than covering them with emulsion). Mum tackled the cat-poo-ridden front flowerbed and for some reason, tonight, Leanne my next door neighbour and I decided to start constructing the perfect spot for a compost bin as the light faded. Since this involved destroying a concrete path using only a hammer a large spade and a trowel (who needs pneumatic drills?)then removing prehistoric rubble from what was revealed once the path was conquered, then digging a 35cm deep round hole for the composter to sit in.........by the time we had finished it was pitch dark. However, the results are phenomenal! A communal compost bin! It wouldn't have surprised me to see Tony Robinson or Richard Briers pop up to cheer us on (shades of Time Team and The Goodlife).

Off to Hong Kong on Wednesday so watch this space.

Sunday, September 05, 2004

I don't get time to do nothing anymore. Gone are the days of reading books, sitting on comfy chairs with a glass of wine or cup of tea and whiling away the time. Every hour of the day unless I'm asleep I have been painting or am in poxtratious B and Q or cleaning out my drains again (...don't ask). Somerset is a beautiful county and the weather has been glorious but it might as well be Stevenage outside my front door for all the chance I get to explore it or even to soak up the atmosphere of my own back garden. I know I owe lots of people phonecalls, emails, attention of one sort or another, birthday cards etc and am sorry I have been so distacted but I'm afraid you have to expect this to go on for some time. I reiterate the invitation for guests to come wandering by my new abode but perhaps don't make it a special trip just yet as I wont be able to offer anything comfy to sit on until about November and you are not allowed to have a poo here. So, M5 service station style stops only for the time being. Stay for a cuppa and then my advice is to make your escape before I hand you a paintbrush (or a drain rod). xxx

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