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Manzanillo, Mexico

Santa makes it to El Naranjo this Christmas

Not only did Santa make it to El Naranjo this Christmas, so did I; and I was very happy to escape the cold winter months in Ireland and the enormous rising costs of heating that came down the track. I’m staying with my friend Kelly who has lived here for a number of years and became involved with the local village, helping out during COVID. Despensas is the Spanish word for pantry and over the last couple of years when COVID destroyed local industry, Kelly fund raised and set up a despensas to help the neediest families in the village with the support of community organisers. I helped out this year and below is the report of the Christmas despensas. I hope you enjoy….more on life in Mexico to follow.

For the third year running, we (the community in Vida del Mar, Las Lomas, Miramar and Santiago Club) were able to help our neighbours celebrate Christmas in the village of El Naranjo. Our fundraising drive came a little later than usual, but thankfully did not disappoint. Thanks go out to our generous food donor Manzanillo Migrant Mission, and to Rich Taylor and Chris Lundgren for stepping in this year to assist with fund raising and also to our donor report publisher in Ajijic.

Shy but very happy with her Christmas gifts

Manzanillo Migrant Mission stepped up to the plate once again (no pun intended) and provided the essentials to help 50 of the poorest families with rice, beans, tuna fish, jalapenos and the much-appreciated packet of coffee and animal crackers, favourites among the residents of El Naranjo. We also distributed chicken stock cubes and washing powder for the families from your donations. Of course, Christmas is all about children, and this year we managed to provide 61 + 7 late-found children with a bag of age-appropriate goodies.


All children’s toy bags included Christmas gift bags, juice boxes, drinking bottles, candy bags, toothpaste and toothbrushes, combs and hair brushes and a basket or box to hold their ‘valuables’.

One of many elderly ladies on our list raising a child when their parents are out of the picture.

Gifts by age group

For the youngest girls and boys, we provided baby blankets, bath toys and bathing sponges, stuffed animals, squeeze toys and soft balls. Pre-schoolers also received some combination of play-doh and slime, building blocks, foam swords, spinning tops, toy cars, yoyos, small water pistols, bubble makers, balls, and t-shirts. Paints, crayons and coloring cooks/supplies and story books were also included.

All pre-schoolers and school-aged children got balloons, socks, balls, marbles, yoyos, and water pistols. In addition, there were school supply kits with a pencil bag, spiral notebook, coloring/activity books and coloring pencils/markers or crayons, pens, pencils, erasers, pencil sharpener, scissors and for the older children a folder and activity calendar. There was also a selection of frisbees, table games, watches, animal pillows, paints, story and educational books for the older kids, etc.

The foam sword was out of the bag before you could say ‘on guard

Girls received a selection from Barbie dolls, body spray and body wash, cream, stuffed animals, pony-tail holders, purses, compact mirrors and T-shirts. The older girls also enjoyed an assortment of nail polish, lip gloss, jewellery and handbags. The older boys received activity and puzzle books, soccer balls and sports jerseys.

It took five trips to Manzanillo to acquire sufficient toys to fill the initial 61 toy bags at a cost of $30,955.11 pesos which averaged $507.46 pesos per child for the toy bags distributed on December 21st. The supplemental detergent/bullion bags cost 31 pesos each from donor funds for the 50 families. Luckily the shopping team made it to the stores before the shelves were cleared of suitable toys. With the expectation that some extra children would show up, we packed three extra bags of presents, but that turned out to be too few when we discovered a number of street children without fixed abodes. Not to be forgotten, we are also grateful for the in-kind donations including math workbooks, marbles, jewellery, purses and grooming sets, clothes and the cutest beany toys brought down by car from a very generous donor coming from the States.


Our long-serving youth volunteer Jenny training her 11-year-old brother Axel to distribute toys

Our community organisers once again rolled up their sleeves and provided us with the lists and the man/woman power to pack the bags, while also providing the space for the main distribution. The distributions would not be possible without the inputs from the community – Gaby (fisherman) and Tonia (former Naranjo mayor), Adriana and her children Jenny and Axel, who between them and some school teachers, shopkeepers and street children know each family and their back story. The truck and car owners who bring the families down from the outskirts of the village to pick up the gift parcels are also a part of this team effort. Our Vida ex-pat helpers provided lessons in bow tying and helped with filling the bags. We are grateful to have the talent of John Chalmers taking a selection of the photos at the distribution. Our Irish visitor assisted with the shopping and while she may look older in years, her inner child provided some useful insights into the choice of toys for the appropriate age groups.


We saw many of the familiar faces (such as the Old Man on the Mountain’s brother; the coconut vendor on crutches; the meticulous housekeeper for whom your Other Donations added to the meager furnishings of her family’s tent home – her son’s broken arm from a fall has healed, her husband has also healed from a motorcycle accident; and the Chicken Lady who has moved her stand to the front entrance of the primary school) as well as many new faces including disabled children, people living with cancer and a number of street children and semi-nomadic kids without parents.

The Corn Seller with his three children who were extremely pleased with their gifts, with Old Man on the Mountain’s brother on the left and new to the list – twin girls on the right side

Across the road from where the despensas were distributed the ‘Corn Seller’ has a stall beside the bus shelter. A young widower, he has his own three small children and keeps them within his sight while he sells his cooked corn-on-the-cob. He also helps support his late wife’s sister’s children, whose parents are not present. They came early for the parcels, so the team were able to observe the children as they opened the toy bags and spent the remainder of the time during the distribution blowing bubbles with their shouts of laughter drifting across the road above the noise of the traffic. You can help this struggling father by stopping off to purchase corn on your way into Manzanillo.

Christina receiving a Christmas bag for her 4-footed family members

You may remember Christina whose arm was broken and set with pins last year – she had had blood vessels torn in several places from a subsequent fall and came to the distribution with a wheelbarrow and a grandchild in tow. It was news to the team that her 3-year-old grandson was now living with her and it was another situation where we had no toy bag. Christina really wanted to be able to give her grandson a ball so, with a late incoming donation, we made up a bag and dropped it at her house on Christmas Eve. Christina’s arm has healed a bit oddly and she does not have full use of her hands – one is still swollen, but she has returned to clearing land with a machete when she can, and she is an entertainer in a bar but can’t sing now because of throat problems. Christina’s poor diet means she is still anaemic, but is as artistic as ever and her house and street is a marvel of Christmas decoration from salvaged items. It was a lovely sight to see when we called to drop off pet food for the eight stray dogs and five stray cats she is currently taking care of until she finds a home for them.

Chema (the Accountant) and the Flop House –

Chema and his young brother picking up a food bag to help the elderly lady who takes in boys whose parents are absent

Chema was our inventory assistant and bag-stuffing volunteer for the first 2-years of the Naranjo Despensas Project and he is now 13 years old. Chema is now missing school sometimes because he hangs out in the streets despite local mothers trying to coax him back to classes. His mother has drug issues and the aunt who sold street food to support them has since died of a circulatory disease. An elderly woman who lived with the family and who works as a cook at a restaurant until the late hours, has six boys (aged 9-13) without parents flopping at her place,which is in a very poor condition since Chema’s aunt died. We knew about Chema, his younger brother and one other boy at the house, but there were three other street kids we didn’t know about who were left without toy bags when they showed up at the distribution point. The 13-year-old boy started to cry when we had to send him off without a bag. Once the distribution finished we discovered that an 11-year-old boy who was on our list had gone to visit his divorced father in Michoacan so a posse went out on foot, by motorcycle and car searching for the young teenager who got no gifts. We got him a bag of presents 2 days later. We will visit the flop house and see whether we can rustle up some further Other Donations to help them with living necessities.

Disabled Kids

A fragile boy and his sister of about 10 years-old came to the distribution point to personally receive their toys. We were unaware of the children in previous distributions as their hypoplasia bone condition leaves them too weak to stand or leave the house. Two adults helped the kids walk from their special chairs in the back of a pickup truck and held them under the armpits while they came to the counter. The children were clearly thrilled to be there among all the kids. Should there be any leftover donations, we will enquire about acquiring some more appropriate toys for delicate play in a chair or bed as some active play items given are inappropriate.

Jennifer and the plastic lid collection for Kids with Cancer – Jennifer and her family received the first two large deliveries of plastic lids collected here and in the US. The first two filled an SUV and a truck driven down from Washington with lids collected by the Crossroads Rotary members. A third delivery will be made in January as other visitors are bringing bins of lids down from Washington State.

Thanks to the many helpers who deliver lids. This will be the third year we have been participating in the children’s cancer program.

Jennifer with beanie baby toys as part of her gif

Jennifer has grown tall and is looking very healthy at 8-years-old. She still has monthly monitoring and regularly has her port cleaned which has been left in place should she have a relapse, but otherwise she is happy and never complains or feels sorry for herself. Keep saving those lids.

Teenage daughter of breast cancer Victim – You will remember the picture of the 12 year-old girl who was the face of our 2020 toy drive. Her mother was the former community organizer who contracted breast cancer and died this past year so the two daughters went to live with an aunt outside Colima. That situation didn’t work out so the girls (now 15 and 20) are back at their father’s house (the parents divorced years ago) near La Central where they are often left alone, especially at night.The father has alcohol issues and the girls are generally left to fend for themselves.

Former Bus Driver – Many of you will remember the bus driver who lost a leg above the knee last year due to diabetes. Neighbors built a ramp into his house so he can get around by wheelchair. The government finally agreed to pay his social security medical care and he had one eye operated upon. On the day of the distribution he was in day eight of a 30 day recovery period and has difficulty seeing yet. The other eye will be operated on for cataracts in the future. We talked with his wife who, as usual, showed up with a wheelbarrow to help neighbors transport despensas to their home on a faraway street. They now have three dogs and three cats they rescued from the streets in their area.

Heroes Del La Reforma –

Despensas and gifts were a real help for this family

The man who first informed us of the poverty of this undeveloped area on the edges of El Naranjo came early with his grandchildren. His daughter, who had purpura (blood pooling under the skin and excessive bleeding), died so he is supporting two families now.

Animal Rescuers –

The four kittens dropped off to this house

Before the despensas/toy distribution, we visited the five households that take care of strays (with food and limited medical care) to deliver pet food since they don’t receive outside support. During the drop offs we witnessed a number of dogs and cats with skin problems, mange has likely returned to town, along with eye conditions as well as starving dogs, limping dogs whose legs were broken when they were hit by a car and dogs that require sterilization.

Another home delivery to a late discovery in need.

The 30 Cat Lady now is helping just 13 cats because of poisonings. Stephania currently has 11 cats and eight dogs, two of whom had skin problems and she reported that Animal Angels had helped with six sterilizations. Street Paws, the lady with a special needs daughter who is part of a group of four women across parts of Manzanillo, had a box of four kittens dropped off the night before we visited. She already has eight adult cats, some with eye and skin problems, as well as five dogs. Marta now has eight dogs and 11 cats.

Seven Additional Children

A belated Christmas Eve toy bag put a smile on this mother’s face

There were seven very disappointed children who turned up at the despensas when we distributed on December 21st – from a young 9-month-old baby to several street kids who heard on the grapevine that we were handing out Christmas presents. It was heart-breaking to turn them away when they have absolutely nothing. Tonia, Adriana, Chema and Jenny helped find out where they lived and how many required our assistance. On Christmas Eve we enlisted the assistance of the ever polite and obliging Chema (the Accountant) who came along with us in the car to distribute the toy bags to where the kids lived. We also noted that Chema had to come barefoot to the Christmas distribution. His living situation has continued to worsen since we met him yet he continues to help others. We are open to offers of further assistance for these kids without parents but in the meantime, we used the remaining funds and some more to ensure they have some sort of Christmas.

This young boy got lucky when we were able to made delivery by Christmas Eve with a further donation

The seven new kids were delivered bags filled with soccer balls, candy, a doll, bathing sponges, bubble-maker, toothbrushes and toothpaste, some play-doh or slime, crayons and coloring/story books, toy cars, foam sword, stuffed toys, building blocks, marbles, street chalk and very bouncy balls as well as a couple of pair of socks each. We also provided them with school packs, hoping that it will encourage them to show up to school. They’re very vulnerable and open to all sorts of inappropriate influences on the streets.


Government Food Basket – the Mexican food basket (corn oil, rice, tuna, pork, chicken and beef, as well as onion, jalapeño pepper, beans, eggs, toilet soap, tomato, milk, lime, apple, orange, sliced bread, potato, pasta for soup, sardines, carrots, corn and wheat flour, white corn, sorghum and wheat) fell in price by 3.4% between October 2021 and 2022 (falling from 1,087 to 1,041 pesos in Guadalajara for the 24 items).

Inflation – Mexican inflation is currently 7.77-8.35% (with/without volatile products) and rose in first two weeks of December after declining for the previous three months (8.41% in October and 7.8% in November). The Bank of Mexico tries to keep inflation in the 2-4% range and is expected to raise lending rates again on 9 February.

Mother and son with a welcome bag of Christmas cheer

Minimum Wage In 2023 the Mexican minimum wage will rise by 20 per cent to 207.44 (€9.44 or US$10.57) pesos per day.

Labor & GDP – The informal economy, those with no benefits, (street vendors, maids/gardeners, retail, construction, agriculture, etc.) accounts for 55.8 per cent of employed Mexicans (up from 21.8 per cent due to the 2020 COVID contraction), but generates 23.7 per cent of earned income. In 2021, GDP grew 4.7 per cent due to the 2.7 per cent increase in the formal economy (manufacturing, government, wholesale trade, etc.)

Despensas – Manzanillo city provided Despensas in December to 1,250 families in greater Manzanillo including El Naranjo.

Carnival/Mardi Gras -is scheduled for February 9-12th ” Viva la Magic” and will have a circus theme with floats, artistic and cultural events, children’s groups, handicrafts, gastronomy, etc. If you prefer to avoid the traffic and crowds, mark your calendars to do your in-town shopping before this.

To the donors who made Santa’s job easier for the residents of El Narjano

Without your generous in-kind and cash contributions we would not have been able to assist some of the poorest families in the area and for that we wish to thank each and every one of you who took the time to support this year’s efforts.

The Corn Seller returned to work by the bus stop and his children were already excitedly playing with their new toys.

The quest for youth and eternal beauty, Indonesia style


I once worked and lived in Indonesia’s capital Jakarta where I hooked up a British woman who was of similar age, with a similar professional background so we had much in common. That common background and comparable experiences enabled a quick transition from acquaintances, to solid friendship.   Mel was a good looking women with flaming red hair, a quick turn of phrase and a wicked sense of humour. However, one significant difference was that she had a Romanian husband, who happened to be more than 15 years her junior. This kept Mel permanently obsessed in trying to look younger so that the husband wouldn’t stray. She had sourced and investigated every plastic surgeon, nail technician, beautician, dietician and hairdresser within a 100 kilometre radius of Jakarta. When we would meet socially at weekends, she would regale me with blow-by-blow details of lotions, potions, cures and the cost of the latest available treatments.

An extensive choice of therapies and treatments is typical of most Asian countries, where many of the wealthy classes are preoccupied with enhancing beauty and maintaining youthful looks. It’s also a region where you’re as likely to walk into a beauticians and find more men than women having deep facial cleansing; for some reason I was always felt more than a little uncomfortable lying on a therapist’s bed beside a strange man….I digress.  The wide choice of available treatments is matched only with an equally generous selection of charlatans offering therapies. 

I arrived one day to meet Mel holding an airline magazine with a story about some therapy that didn’t require surgical intervention. When I showed it to her she dismissed the article and began to rave about one particular acupuncturist who held a practice on the other side of the city. Mel swore that after attending his clinic several times she dropped a full dress size. In addition, this miracle man could tighten sagging facial skin using acupuncture – in other words, a face lift without a scalpel.

My curiosity was sparked and Mel suggested we make an appointment. Battling my weight since childhood, losing a dress size was always met with keen interest.  I couldn’t believe my luck that there was also the additional bonus of a face lift without a scalpel and that there may be a ‘cure’ for an increasingly severe nerve pain in my foot, where I had suffered a fracture a few years previously.

Mel booked an early Saturday morning appointment so we could avoid some of Jakarta’s notorious traffic. When we arrived,  I’m not sure what I expected to find, but was taken aback to find a room was packed with about 30 therapists beds, with just enough space between each bed to allow the acupuncturist move between clients. I couldn’t have been closer to these strangers if we were sleeping in the same bed. 

Pins and needles

With my limited Bahasa Indonesian and his limited English I explained that I wanted to lose a few kilogrammes and would be very happy to reduce the (ahem), laughter lines on my face.  I was asked to expose my belly, so opened the zip on my jeans. The acupuncturist proceeded to place needles all over my tummy before inserting more needles in my jaw and around my eyes. In a room packed full of Muslim women, still holding onto their modesty by wearing hijabs ensuring their hair was not exposed to a strange male, but all exposing pin-filled bellies and covered with needles sticking out of their face, the absurdity wasn’t lost on me.

I felt like a voodoo doll once I was all pinned up and proceeded to explain the pain I was experiencing from the pinched nerve in my foot. The therapist nodded sagely, then making a circle with his thumb and middle finger, he looked through the circle as if it was a magnifying glass, moving up and down my leg before honing in on the problem area of my foot.  Raising his index finger in the air he announced there was a devil living inside my leg and it would need to be exorcized. I could see several heads raised on the beds with curiosity as the therapist began sucking in deep breaths over my foot, throwing his head back, he exhaled deeply with his head angled towards the ceiling and repeated this action several times. From my reclined position all I could see was the pin-filled bellies of the other women shaking as the supressed giggles could no longer be supressed and rose to full-blown belly laughing.

Bathroom scales

Despite being the source/object of such great hilarity, I dismissed any feelings of embarrassment and returned for further ‘treatment’ two weeks in a row.  On the fourth Saturday when the bathroom scales had somehow stubbornly stuck on the same weight, I tackled the therapist asking when I could expect to see some weight loss. “Do you eat dinner?” he asked.  “Of course, I eat my dinner,” I responded indignantly.  When he suggested that in order to see some results I was to skip dinner, I decided at this point, enough was enough.  I was paying out good money to have needles stuck in my tummy every Saturday morning to lose weight when all along it was just a simple matter of….skipping dinner? It was the skipping dinner suggestion that helped in my decision not to return and waste energy sitting in Jakarta traffic each Saturday morning.

I eventually managed to achieve a small measure of success in the weight loss department by eating less and exercising more, without the need for acupuncture. I have to admit though, the laughter lines multiplied in the proceeding years, so much so that my face could be mistaken for a map of Ireland, without  makeup for camouflage.

Funny thing was the nerve pain in my foot miraculously disappeared, never to come back again. 

Mel and I had several more adventures before I moved on to work in other countries and we lost touch.  Mel managed to track me down several years later on social media. Our lives had taken different paths but we kept in touch.  She had however, lost the battle to hold on to the younger husband. No amount of pins, potions or lotions could save the marriage when the Romanian found a young lover and discarded Mel like a used acupuncture needle.

PS Mel returned to the UK and sadly succumbed to breast cancer in the summer of 2020. She was a sweet, gentle soul who was a great friend and a great source of entertainment in an otherwise big and lonely city. May she rest in peace.

Return to the Stan

My contract in Nigeria finished in January so I left a few days before Christmas, taking all my holidays.  I was happy to leave in one sense, the constant human misery in the north was taking its toll but I have to admit I was more than a bit torn; there was also a part of me that wanted to go back and help highlight this crisis for the 5 million plus people facing starvation. Five million people – that’s more than the population of Ireland.  Trying to create interest in the humanitarian situation was difficult in Nigeria itself, let alone among the international community.

The decision to return was taken out of my hands so with a three month break under my belt, it almost came then as a bit of ‘light’ relief to find myself boarding a plane back to The Stan (Afghanistan) after a seven-year absence.  Memories merge in my brain between my time in Afghanistan and Iraq, another duty station where freedom of movement is restricted because of insecurity. I can hardly complain about the tight security in Afghanistan considering there was sweet fanny adams in terms of security measures in place in northern Nigeria where Boko Haram, the local jihadi group, run riot.

There are a few differences; in Kabul I don’t have to negotiate traffic each day as I did in Nigeria. We live and work on the same compound. I reckon it’s probably less than 100 steps between the living quarters, small restaurant and the office – it takes just three minutes to walk the inside perimeter.

Afghans love roses and there are plenty in the summer

I can’t make up my mind whether the compound is more like living in an open prison, a convent or a home for alcoholics as there is zero booze to be had in country at the moment and the people coming back from their R&R are welcomed with open arms by inmates almost emptying out their suitcase on arrival. Nigeria in comparison has no taxes on alcohol; so the excellent South African wines were at giveaway prices. If you compare accommodation in Kabul it’s a thousand times better than anything in Nigeria – the compound is located in the former Dutch Embassy – (the Dutch couldn’t afford the horrendous rents that come with war zones, so the UN took it over). There is a small restaurant where lunch is around $5.  There’s also a pool and decent gym in the basement.

The gym is unavailable to women between 4.30 and 7.30 pm when the local male staff have access.  In this supposedly deeply conservative society it’s not kosher for men to see any part of a woman’s body.  My preference is to rise early, usually by 5.30 a.m. and be in the gym by 6 a.m.  It’s all about timing and routine – the cup of green tea, checking the emails… if I miss my imaginary deadlines it just upsets me for the day.  The boss decided to call a very early morning meeting not so long ago, upsetting my timetable resulting in a missed exercise schedule. I skipped (figuratively not literally) out of the office during lunchtime to catch up.  The national female staff began pouring in and the door, normally left open, was firmly shut behind them.  They arrived in long coats and scarves and disrobed once inside mostly to reveal regular gym gear under the coats.  Scarves were whipped off as they inspected hair and makeup in the mirror, and preened themselves before their workout!  One or two had pinafores over the gym clothes, which always looks strange to me to see somebody on a treadmill in full garb.

There are several UN compounds scattered around the city, the furthest being on the Jalalabad Road out towards the airport.  It’s one of the most dangerous roads in the world with horrendous traffic and there are plenty of opportunities for bad people to attach magnetic bombs to cars while stuck in traffic.  One of our own staff members was driving to work not so long ago when a suicide bomber across the road decided to blow himself up and while my colleague was thankfully unharmed, he was very upset that there wasn’t a window left on his car.

Most of my journeys around Kabul involve going to and from meetings.  I can understand why there is an R&R cycle to allow people a break after six weeks of living in lockdown! The lack of freedom of movement gets to you after a while so even being stuck in traffic allows you to observe life and I could happily sit for hours in a traffic jam (albeit always looking over my shoulder) and just watch people and behavior. What’s fascinating though is to watch the traffic at roundabouts – there are no rules.  Rather than taking the third exit off a roundabout, it’s normal to see cars just going in the opposite direction to take the shortest route possible.   Like many other countries in the region, it’s not unusual either to see a car careering down a highway travelling in the opposite direction to every other car on the highway so you need nerves of steel.

The general security situation hasn’t improved much in the seven years, a recent report says there were more people killed last year in Afghanistan than Syria and that’s saying something. It is believed that the BigT (Taliban) has control of more than 40 per cent of the country and there doesn’t appear to be abatement in the numbers of insurgents or their strength. The Americans and British are still around and the sound of military Chinoook helicopters crossing the skies several times a day can be heard long before they’re seen in Kabul.  The US picked the Easter weekend to target the ‘mother of all bombs’ in the east of the country where they believe ISIS to be hiding out in caves – no doubt increasing the likelihood of counter attacks on foreigners.  I have a few friends who live out in the compound close to the airport and sometimes I take the work-shuttle to go and hang out on a weekend.  This is much more like a village than a compound, although still surrounded by t-walls and heavily secured.  Sitting outside with an Irish friend, eating pizza I noticed that many of the aircraft flying over the compound had no lights.… a little bit worrying.  My friend pointed out that these were military planes and in fact when you looked up as they passed over, the bombs attached to the underbelly were clearly visible.

While life goes on, Kabul is still a city under siege.   Since my last visit, it’s striking the increase in the number of t-walls that surround buildings, blocking them to the average citizen and giving a very strange atmosphere to the city. The t-walls are mainly protecting Government buildings, NGOs, embassies and UN compounds.  Of course apartment buildings where the ordinary Afghani lives, (if they are lucky not to be stuck in a tent somewhere), don’t have the luxury of t-walls and hence very little protection – it’s impossible to get a sense of the architecture though around the city centre.  In the compound where I live, there are regular drills to the bunkers and the doors on each accommodation room is Taliban-proof so you can’t leave the key in the lock or it will take security an hour to drill through if they need to gain entry in an emergency.  The windows are also bullet proof (see photo of my room with the cracked glass – I’m not even going to think how that got there).  While you try to live or pretend that you live a ‘normal’ life, there is always something that brings you down to earth and reminders that this is a very abnormal life and situation.

Bullet holes in my room window

We’re allowed to visit Spinneys and Finest supermarkets but can stay no longer than 20 minutes. Back in 2009/2010 these supermarkets had windows and I remember a time coming up to Christmas there was a mannequin of Santa Claus in the window ‘playing’ a saxophone.  I think the BigT were more than a bit pissed off with that because there was a major attack on Finest in 2011 and eight people lost their lives. Now, the windows are boarded up and going into the supermarket is the nearest thing to boarding a flight these days, where you’re frisked and your bags are searched on the way in.  Almost everything you need can be bought in the supermarkets, okay there is difficulty in accessing pork (but I’m not a big fan), however most other things including the big brands are easily available – even some decent Irish cheddar cheese.  Magnum ice creams are a nice treat for a Friday afternoon, the first day of the weekend.

The supermarkets for foreigners are more like fortresses

Around the city, there are many more burka-less women about and about.   Indeed, it’s not unusual to see women without male escorts, although a colleague informed me that single women out on their own on the streets are generally hissed at as if they are prostitutes.  Remember that Kabul is a city where women wore mini-skirts in the 60s and 70s.  There also seems to be many more girls at school, identified by their black uniforms and white headscarves.  When I was here seven/eight years ago it was really unusual to find women out on the streets at all and you would mainly see them first thing in the morning going to work as cleaners.  Just a week ago there were women sweeping the streets outside the compound and an Afghan female colleague said it was the first time she witnessed women working outdoors.  Change is slowly coming, but I’m not so sure that women’s ‘liberation’ has moved much beyond the centre of Kabul. Once out on the Jalalabad Road, most of the women wear burkas so I can only imagine this phenomena is unique in the city.

Kabul, a city of T-walls

There is no doubt that women have a tough life in Afghanistan and I for one am very glad I wasn’t born here. Shamshia cleans my room and brings me some of the local flat bread three days a week. She had a nasty fall at work and her arm was bandaged up so she had to take a week off, but returned with the arm still in bandage to continue working.  I felt so guilty about her having to work with a strapped up arm that I began cleaning my own room to give her hand out.  Now Shamshia calls with bread and I get a big hug and a kiss on each cheek three times a week. Somehow I don’t think the contractor provides sick pay for staff.  While I wouldn’t envy Shamshia’s lot, she at least has a job unlike the poor unfortunates who are begging, walking up and down between cars on the roads.

In 2015 I went to the regional consultations for the World Humanitarian Summit in Tajikistan.  There was a gender meeting, mainly about women and women’s rights. In the middle of the meeting a professor from the University of Kabul stood up and announced that everything was okay in Afghanistan before these women started looking for an education.  Everybody was so shocked the room went silent. I’d like to report that men’s attitudes have changed, but I find little evidence and not much evidence among the national male colleagues either.   A work colleagues has a brother who works in the Ministry of Religious Affairs. Each year Afghanistan gets an allocation of 10,000 places on the Haj so places are prized and people make the pilgrimage one in their lifetime. However, it’s the Ministry of Religious Affairs that allocates the places so this guy (Haj 3) has been to Mecca, yes, three times. He’s on the look out for a second wife, the first is probably worn out with the eight children she produced for him.   Our driver supports 11 members of his family on his salary; he’s just a young fella with five kids of his own.  Apparently his house was burnt down a while back by somebody pouring petrol through the door.  They mistook his house for his landlords who it is believed shot a man in revenge for some petty incident. Life is not only interesting in Afghanistan but also cheap!

And on that not so cheery note I will sign off for now.  I head to Erbil in a few weeks on another contract, which should see me through until the end of the year.  So until Erbil, it’s Oscar Romeo Lima Alpha over and out from Kaboom.

Death in Banki town….

Shovels are almost as valuable a commodity as food in Nigeria’s north-east these days, because with a shovel you can bury the dead. This is the reality for hundreds and thousands of people fleeing from Boko Haram violence and suffering the effects of mass displacement. Such is the ensuing humanitarian situation that ordinary citizens are unable to recover from treatable diseases such as malaria because of their weakened nutritional status.

Farmers in the north-east haven’t returned to the land for three years in a row because they fear either attack from Boko Haram or the unexploded devices and land minutes

Fallow, fertile land on the way from Maiduguri to Monguno in north-east Nigeria.
Fallow, fertile land on the way from Maiduguri to Monguno in north-east Nigeria. Photo: Orla Fagan

and land mines planted in place of crops across their farms.  The result is food shortages across an area that was the bread basket of Nigeria as fertile land lies fallow.

I travelled by helicopter with the United Nations Humanitarian Air Service (UNHAS) over towns and villages for kilometres on end – all razed to the ground by Boko Haram violence.

Houses and premises are shells – empty, with the roofs of buildings gone and some of the towns going back to the jungle with rapid growth after the rainy season. Burnt out cars and trucks are randomly scattered as they were abandoned when set on fire. In Bama town, two burnt out cars and a truck remain on the courtyard of a petrol station – an apocalyptic scene more reminiscent of a Mad Max movie. You half expect to see Bruce Willis coming out of the jungle with a blackened face and an AK47 with a shoulder strap of bullets slung over his shoulder.

I was back in the helicopter a few weeks ago, travelling to Monguno, Banki and Gwoza on different days. All these areas have become newly accessible to the humanitarian community. I was travelling with Kevin Sieff a journalist with the Washington Post and Jane Hahn a freelance talented photographer – both were deployed to cover the unfolding humanitarian crisis. They had visited Gwoza a year previously, just after the Nigerian Armed Forces pushed out Boko Haram and they wanted to revisit to see what progress was made and also to see some of the lesser-reported areas.

banki-016We travelled to Banki on Wednesday 28 September after a 45-minute helicopter trip. The Nigerian Armed Forces controls the town and its officers are understandably paranoid about the possibility of Boko Haram attacks. Citizens are not free to move beyond the perimeter of the town for fear they will share their miserly food allowances with the rebels. Some believe there is a strategy to starve the rebels, but if that is so, then it is also affecting thousands of innocent people left without insufficient food on a daily basis.

There is not much traffic in Banki – the roads around it are too dangerous for humanitarian convoys to come from nearby Maidiguri, the capital of Borno state. The World Food Programme bring in food from neighbouring Cameroon. The first food convoy arrived in July and delivery is sporadic and dependent on road conditions and security.

Even the health clinic is run with personnel who come in from Cameroonbanki-015 and is open just a few days each week. Hundreds of people queued outside in the heat of the sun waiting as the nurse performed triage, making decision after decision on which patients needed immediate treatment and who could be treated for minor ailments or left for another day to see the medics.

I sat by in the medical tent and watched Kevin interview a few women with clearly malnourished babies, as they fed them with a mixture of water and sugar from syringes, in between feeds – these were severely acute malnourished children who would die without intervention. On a bed was a woman rolling around in pain, occasionally vomiting into a bucket. On another bed a young medic attended to a baby, as her mother sat on a chair watching in bewilderment. The mother, Adama Adam is just 15 years old and already married two years to a 22 year-old man. Fana, her daughter is six months old and weighs just 5 kg. Fana is Adama’s only child. Far too many young girls who should be going to school are married as children themselves and whipped out of school – Adama was just 13 years old when she married. Some men in this bigamist society are fathering scores of children with no thought, awareness , or questioning on whether there is enough land to support this massively increasing population.

Back in Banki, the afternoon heat intensified in the medical tent as the doctor brought in a portable oxygen tank for Fana to assist her breathing. She was hopeful that the baby would make it when her organs showed signs of recovery and Fana peed on the bed. The oxygen tank battery had run out and the doctor gently picked up the baby and with great banki-044care moved her to the car where she could recharge the battery. A while later the medic came back into the tent and I asked how the baby was doing, the doctor responded that she was hopeful of a recovery. In order to get Fana to a better-equipped hospital for treatment, they needed a military escort for the ambulance to protect them from Boko Haram attacks. With no reason given, the military refused the escort.

After some time, we proceeded to an orphanage to see the living conditions of the children and a compound full of women, who claimed their husbands’ were abducted; they were possibly Boko Haram widows.

Kevin, Jane and myself were returning to the clinic along the sandy streets when Jane recognized Adama as she walked alongside her sister-in-law who was carrying the remains of Fana, her tiny body still wrapped in the bundle of cloths. Adama walked alongside her husband’s sister, arms hanging by her side, as if, without a child to carry, she didn’t know what to do with them. Tears poured down her face. Fana’s death was caused by malaria but her weakened nutritional status prevented her ability to fight the disease and like so many weakened children, she just didn’t have the strength in the end. Not having access to adequate medical facilities also didn’t enhance Fana’s chances of survival.

Jane, with her journalist instinct used body language and hand signals to ask if it was okay to photograph the two women as they walked back to the house where the family had taken refuge. We followed them into the compound as other family members and people living there gathered to see what had happened. Adama’s husband leaned against the wall, watching, not knowing what to do.

Adama and some family members went indoors as we looked on from the outside. Adama’s sister-in-law knelt on the floor with Fana still in her arms, while a male relative took the baby. Adama, overcome with grief, passed out as the room became crowded with people who came to see what was happening and offer sympathy.

In this culture, funerals are the business of men. Women have nothing to do with the burial. The imam (holy man) came along and with a hand-made hatchet went to the corner of the compound and began digging. He then broke some sticks and placed them across the small hole he had dug. He gently placed the body on the sticks and began washing Fana’s body. The body is washed over the freshly dug hole incase an infectious disease caused the death, so the water used to cleanse the body is absorbed in the hole and not a danger to others in the compound.

A rag was then brought out and the baby’s body wrapped in the material and tied in several places. Fana was then placed on a board and carried to the front of the compound where the men prayed over the body. A wheelbarrow was brought out and the body placed in the barrow as the men in the family went to the army commander to seek permission to bury Fana on the edge of the forest.

I returned to the helicopter pad, to wait and reflect on the afternoon’s events as Jane and Kevin followed the funeral and see Fana’s burial. I felt depressed, deflated and just really helpless. Kevin and Jane were stopped at the edge of the town because in Banki there is an invisible line – on one side the Nigerian military are in control and on the other side it is Boko Haram territory.

September 28 was  an upsetting afternoon, not least for Adama and Fana’s family. We were witnesses to something that’s happening day in, day out for many families in Nigeria’s north-east.

Nigeria is considered a wealthy country, but there are millionsLand laying fallow as farmers fear attacked by Boko Haram if they return. who live below the poverty line, and in conditions that are incongruous to what should be happening in the 21st Century. These crushing levels poverty with zero quality of life, where children die unnecessarily is just fodder for Boko Haram recruitment.

Innocent people are suffering. The international community is reluctant to contribute to the unfolding humanitarian situation because they believe, and probably rightly so, there is sufficient wealth in this oil rich country.
In the meantime, scores of children and vulnerable people die each day, waiting for assistance that may never come. There are too many demands, with too many crises around the world, from Syria, to Yemen to Lybia, to the Central African Republic with billions of dollars required to assist the most vulnerable citizens of the world. But if we don’t provide the most basics, including food, health and clean water, then it will come back and bite us in the ass. Nigerians striving for a better life, will march towards Europe in their droves to escape the grinding poverty and then maybe, just maybe people will then take notice and do something to address the growing humanitarian needs developing in Nigeria.

Until next time….

Yours, Fagan

Back to Africa: Nigerian experiences


I was reminded of just what Nigeria is like when I visited the embassy in Dublin’s leafy upmarket Leeson Place in late June. The visa application office is in the basement of this beautiful old building and it has its own entrance ensuring Joe or Josephine Public is kept far from the embassy offices.

If you’ve ever tried for a Nigerian visa, then you’ll know just how frustrating and protracted it can be. The first time I went to Nigeria I was travelling from Liberia while working for an NGO and it took me five trips before I could gain entry to the embassy. On my fifth attempt, I managed to get my foot inside the door and once achieve, I refused to leave. And that was just to get the application form.

Most of the Nigerians who were queuing in Dublin had Irish passports and required a visa to go back ‘home’. On my first two visits I came well prepared with a book but so swift was my visit I over-paid the parking metre outside. On my third visit Sod’s Law kicked in – I forgot the book and spent my time feeding the metre as I waited for the diplomatic visa to be processed and issued.

On that last visit for the visa, I ended up waiting so long I needed the bathroom. To my surprise, (okay I’m being facetious), the toilets were actually located outside the building; something I don’t imagine exists anywhere else in Dublin in the 21st Century. The inside of the visa application office was reminiscent of a dole office anywhere in Ireland 30 years ago, before the Department of Social Welfare decided they needed to  smarten up and pretend to show a little respect for its clients. The carpet tiles were curling at the edges for the want of a cleaning and the walls hadn’t seen a lick of paint for many, many years. There were notices posted everywhere warning that verbal or physical violence would not be tolerated. Notices also threatened that if you even stopped your car outside the embassy gates for just one minute, you may forget about receiving any service. The Nigerians themselves were true to form and vocal about the treatment of ordinary citizen by their government. One Nigerian man commented that he had lived in Eastern Europe where government officials also “sat upstairs (referring to the embassy offices) scratching their arse.” His words, not mine. Another woman told us she was at the embassy every day at 9 a.m. for one week and came prepared with her lunch box. I have to say – there were more than a few chuckles that day.

Nigeria was just a wee culture shock from my previous posting in the hustle and bustle of Bangkok, with its shiny towers, good public transport and general easy lifestyle. While the city of Abuja, the federal capital of Nigeria, is in the heart of Africa, it’s quite unlike any other African city I know (outside most of South Africa).

Renting in the federal capital, Abuja

Abuja was created just 40 years ago to gather the country’s civil servants in one spot. A planned city with huge boulevards and motorways, Abuja is like many cities in West Africa, full of (thankfully) Lebanese restaurants and supermarkets and the bonus of it all, some South African supermarkets. The city empties at weekends as most Nigerian civil servants travel back to their villages and towns after the Muslim Friday prayers. This sprawling city has a shortage of accommodation so rent prices are equivalent to the astronomical rents paid in New York or Geneva. Abuja is also where the UN agencies have their country offices and where I’m based for the next few months.

Accommodation is something else and like Dublin there is a shortage of properties to rent. There are an awful lot of very wealthy property owners who exploit the ex-pat community and civil servants who frequently travel to the city. The first apartment myself and another newly arrived colleague went to look at was dingy beyond belief. You could hardly see the hand in front of your face it was so dark and the ceiling was particularly low – the one-bedroomed apartment was renting for US$1,500 per month. It was such a depressing environment I would have ended up on Prozac within a week, if I had chosen to live there. We ended up in a ‘super luxury apartment’ paying half of my salary in rent. To add insult to injury there is a further charge for laundry, with no washing machine in the apartment.  Super luxury the apartment ain’t, but what is luxurious are the number of Mercs and Lexus cars parked outside each day.   There seems to have been some very big party (possibly a wedding) at the complex and a 600SL (but what would I know about cars?), parked outside for a few days with the number plate ‘Emir of Zunu’.

Extreme sports

The one positive aspect of the accommodation is that it is within walking distance of the office and the footpaths are more than decent, ensuring walking is not an extreme sport as it can be in many other cities across Africa. I wouldn’t feel safe enough to walk the 3.2 kilometres home alone and do so only when I have company. Walking back to the accommodation in deep conversation one day there was beeping behind us and as we turned around to see a car travelling at about 20 kph up the footpath we had to scramble to the grassy bank to avoid being run over.

I hate assuming stereotypes, but patience isn’t a strong point for most Nigerians. Sitting with the work driver one day and waiting for the solar powered traffic light to turn green, there was a horn honking behind the first car to make the right turn at the lights. When the driver, respecting the rules of the road and the pedestrian crossing didn’t move, the honking-horn driver mounts the footpath and bypasses the cars waiting at the lights to turn right.

Transport around Abuja is reasonably cheap but like everywhere else cars are held together with pieces of string and rubber bands. They frequently break down at the side of the road, or sometimes even in the middle of the road, where they can be abandoned.

I’m still in the process of trying to find another Issac, my lovely taxi driver from Nairobi and so far I’m not having much luck – but I will continue to try. The office drivers are available for a few months to bring us in and out of work, but there’s the supermarket shopping at the weekends and the trips to Blu Cabana, a rather nice place so chill out of a Sunday afternoon – not that there’s much else to do on a weekend in Abuja.


Sundays’ are not the day to change money, unless you want to chance your arm with the guys lining the street sitting on the chairs under the trees. The official exchange rate for the Naira is fluctuating like a yoyo and frequent trips to the moneychangers rather than the banks will render you a rate of at least 20 per cent better on the official rate. When I arrived early July 2016 there was 260 Naira to the US$ – on 30 July the rate went from 316 to 322 on one day! Black market rates on 29 July were 375 Naira to the US$. Not only will the dropping Naira help make rents cheaper, it will also keep the price of red wine very reasonable, well at least until stocks run out! Some of the best South African wines are available in Nigeria so there are a few great aspects to living here for a few months anyway.

Now work and B0ko Haram antics…. well, that’s a different blog altogether. So until next time, I’ll leave you with some of the photos.

Yours, Fagan.

Moving on…..

IMG_1427Moving country, moving house, changing job, divorce and the death of a partner are reported to be some of the biggest causes of stress. The first three mentioned on that list, I’ve experienced with far too much regularity.

I’d love to say that I’m so accustomed to moving country, ergo house and job that it doesn’t take a feather out of me, but I’d be telling lies.  I don’t even move countries, but continents; from Indonesia (South East Asia), to Sierra Leone (West Africa), to Afghanistan (Central Asia), Iraq (the Middle East), Kenya (East Africa) and back to South East Asia, the Philippines and Thailand.

Because the nature of my work involves humanitarian response I have rarely stayed anywhere for longer than a year. Picture if you will the number of ironing boards, clothes irons, clothes hangers, wine glasses and coffee pots that were bought on arrival and distributed on departure from each country.


My last sojourn involved being based in Bangkok, which is a great city, when you’re well paid and can afford the lifestyle it has to offer. For the more fortunate ex-pats the choice of really good accommodation close to the city is extensive and the high prices reflect the quality of what’s on offer.  I may as well be living in a caravan if I don’t have an oven in the kitchen and when I lived in Manila I had a two-ring stove and a microwave that never worked. After some time I found it just plain depressing not to have access to a decent oven, especially when I didn’t consider Filipina food up to my gourmet standards. My stipulation that the apartment must have an oven in the kitchen guided me on what was available for the price range.  The Thais like to eat out and as most non-salad food is fried, there are few apartments even in the high-end range that offer an oven in the kitchen.

I got lucky in my quest for living accommodation and ended up in a very large 2-bed apartment located just off the main shopping area. It was situated on a minor soi (side street), sufficiently out of the way so as not to feel overwhelmed by tourists but removed from the noise and the bustle of a big Asian city like Bangkok.

Before Bangkok became the big bustling Asian city that it is, it was made up of a series of lanes and alleyways that defined the city.  All human life lived in these lanes and alleys. You could buy anything you needed from fruit to fridges, sinks to sofas; have a haircut; enjoy a massage or eat your dinner on the side of the road.


When I moved into the apartment in Bangkok, you could take a ‘shortcut’ to Luan Suan, an upmarket street, which is home to Gagan Restaurant one of the top three restaurants in Asia (and serving the most fantastic Indian-fusion food).  There are also some decent restaurants on the street and access to the Bangkok Transit System (BTS).  The shortcut was a series of small narrow lanes, with a huge tree almost similar to a willow tree more common in Europe, whose branches hung low, forming a semi-circle, marking the entrance to the laneway. You felt as if you were stepping into another world, and indeed you did step in to some unique culture, that’s not found in many other cities or places.

Motorcycle taxis weaved between the street food-sellers, the cyclists and the pedestrians who frequented the street. There were several massage parlours and the women would sit outside on the steps when there were no customers, often eating meals there.  There was one or two hair salons, a house where English lessons were conducted from the open carport at weekends, small grocery stores and a variety of eateries from a colonial style house converted to a restaurant, to small family run restaurants. The small restaurants usually entailed some plastic chairs and tables on the street and a mobile kitchen with open fire and boiling pots of fat for cooking – little regard for safety there. The plastic dishes from the restaurants were placed into large buckets and in the evenings as I took the shortcut home, the owners would wash the dishes on the street with water from an unidentified source. Sitting among cockroaches one evening while eating at one of these restaurants guaranteed a lost of appetite and I didn’t repeat the experience.  I was also turned off from eating local when travelling by car one day, I noticed two restaurant workers, during a quiet period sitting beside the kitchen and one woman was scouring the other’s hair for head lice.

Luan Suan itself is an upmarket street with lots of ongoing building construction at the top of the street towards Lumpini Park. I had a few friends who lived off Luan Suan and would frequently walk over to them for dinner.  Garbage from the restaurants would be left out in plastic bags on the sidewalk, ready for the bin collectors to come at night and clean the streets.  As you walked up the road, rats would scurry out and of the bags of rubbish and scatter at the sound of voices or footsteps.  I had never seen so many rats in my life and the open drains gave them easy access to scurry up and down the road. I took to walking down the street clapping my hands like some mentally deranged eccentric, but it worked and I once spotted seven rats scurrying out of some plastic bags, down the open drains.

The number of rats around food helped my decision to shop in the supermarket. The other option was to spend the day going from market to market to buy vegetables and then trying to find transport to do so.  The variety of vegetables and fruit is remarkable but then you have to know how to cook the local food to really experience the scale and variety of food on offer.  I tended to stick to what I knew, but paying Irish prices in a country where labour is cheap is upsetting added to the fact that there is some conglomerate capitalist rubbing his greasy palms at the prospect of massive profit.


Bangkok has many expats living in the city and the supermarkets cater to all nationalities. There’s nothing (well, maybe Helmanns mayonnaise) that you can’t find in the big supermarket from smoked salmon to salami, but I frequently chocked on the prices I paid. For some reason instant coffee is a premium produce with security tags on jars of Nescafe, the way you’d see them on bottles of whiskey elsewhere.  A 100 gramme jar of coffee costs about €20. The cost of wine in the country is outrageous and after India, Thailand has the second highest taxes on wine in the world. A bottle of Carlo Rossi (the cheapest, most awful wine in the world) is about €20 a pop, so I would use every opportunity when travelling to bring an extra large suitcase and lots of towels to wrap enough wine to open a small shop.

Members of high society in Thailand like to be seen drinking wine in the roof top bars of the fancy hotels dotted around Bangkok.  It’s considered a status symbol and gives these posers, a sense of sophistication. You can’t buy booze in the afternoons, apparently because children get out of school during this time and the king thinks it may influence the younger generation.


Any public criticisms of the king of Thailand, no matter how minor, will ensure a long jail term.  It is difficult to access if he is genuinely as popular as the media make him out to be, as saying otherwise would ensure time behind bars. According to the media, there is a fierce public loyalty to a man who is reputed to be one of the wealthiest in the world and whose family behave like feudal overlords in the 17th century.  At the cinema the national anthem is played before every movie and if you don’t stand to attention, then I dread to think of the consequences.  If you happen to be walking in Lumphini Park at 6 p.m. or past a military establishment, then you must stop while the anthem is blasted over megaphones.  The city is littered with enormous posters of the king and queen over many years.  In one poster, himself is dripping in sweat and when I asked one day why would you use such a picture, I was told that it reflected how hard he worked for the Thai people.  The notorious traffic jams in Bangkok are frequently caused by military escorts forcing the traffic to stop as a motorcade containing members of the royal family, going to or coming back from shopping sprees!

Happily there is one unmarried princess, who works tirelessly for the poor and marginalized in a deeply divided country.  The 87-year old king is crippled with failing health and lives in his own personal hospital.  His queen is similarly in bad health after a stroke in 2012.

The heir apparent, the Crown Prince (63) is surrounded in controversy.  His dog Foo Foo was promoted to the rank of Air Marshal and on his death received a four-day Buddhist funeral followed by a cremation. On the dog’s birthday, photos were released of the Prince’s naked third wife and the dog at a birthday celebration (he is now on his fourth wife, according to reports).  Many Thais, who would prefer to see his 60-year old sister, known for her altruistic and charitable work, accede the throne.

The support for whoever accedes to the throne very much depends on the military who are the real power kingpins in Thailand. The first woman prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra was removed through a military coup in 2014 and there are no signs of any early return to democracy, despite promises of reform. Shinawatra, is a wealthy businesswoman whose eldest brother Thaksin was also a previous prime minister. Reports accuse her brother, who fled the country when he was deposed, of ruling through his sister and using power to further business interests.  It’s very much an urban/rural divide with the Shinawatras’ being voted in by and representing the rural population. When there was a water shortage due to El Niño in 2015, the government cut off the water supply to the farmers while car washing and water for plants was still available in Bangkok.

It will be interesting to see what will happen when the king dies and many believe that the military will use his death as an excuse to remain in power, until things settle down.  An Irish friend who believes the king’s death is imminent is stacking up on bottles of gin for over a year now, as he believes there will be a ban on the sale of booze in the kingdom for at least six months after the royal death!

Another form of Chinese torture

Unlike the price of booze, the Thai massage is famous and costs as little as €10 for an hour’s therapy.  The local massage comprises of slight women walking on your back and yanking limbs and muscles you never knew existed.  Language can also be a problem and much to my shame my Thai was limited to giving instructions to taxi drivers and some basic words for hello, thank you and wrong number etc. This made finding a decent masseuse a hit-and-miss affair, trying to explain that I have an arthritic hip and it shouldn’t be yanked or I’ll scream the house down with pain. Indeed a greater challenge was finding therapists who had some kind of qualification.

A Japanese friend who previously lived in Bangkok, pointed me in the direction of the Chinese massage spa just off the BTS.  The place fascinated me and was just a 10-minute train ride from where I was living.  It was on a minor soi and when you turned into the compound a couple of dogs lazed under the trees to escape from the heat of the day.  This was no luxury spa – there were two rooms and a row of uncomfortable wicker chairs in both rooms.  There was a third room with a plastic sliding door that was almost permanently pulled shut, which fascinated me; well at least what was behind it interested me.  It was like some form of religious temple and there were days when lying on the wicker chair and for the want of something to look at, I would strain to get a glimpse of what was going on inside.  Some days when it sounded as if there was chanting and on one particular day tens of young people poured out, as the door was firmly pulled behind them. There were very few foreign clients, but some pretty fancy cars with Thais or Chinese would pull up outside for this no frills establishment. Lots of certificates covered the walls and like most other places there were some therapists who were better than others.

You couldn’t make an appointment because of the language barrier and I’m not sure they even took appointments, so you ended up with whatever therapist was next in line.  Like most places there were good and not so good therapists, but I hated when I arrived and it was  ‘Granny’s’ turn.  The woman must have been in her 80’s and she had a habit of holding my foot under her armpit while working on the other leg.  Another woman, who appeared to be the boss, spent most of her time watching Chinese soap operas on her smart phone.  They must have been short of staff one day when I ended up with her as a therapist and she had some English.  Without doing anything else she touched my feet and told me my knees were inflamed and then pointed to my hip.  She pointed out some other ailments by just touching my feet; I have to say I was fairly impressed by her skills.

The type of massage practiced by the Chinese was Rwo Shr, brought from Taiwan by a Swiss priest Father Josef Eugster, who introduced that particular method to many countries in Asia. Many people like to be cosseted in a spa with essential oil and have a massage that makes them fall asleep.  I much prefer to have a medical massage that sorts out some of the pains and aches I have developed with increasing age and I have to admit, despite the excruciating pain experienced during the massage, I came out walking on air and feeling fantastic.

I recommended the Chinese massage to a few friends, some of whom are yet to forgive me for the pain they endured and who have never returned to these gifted Chinese therapists.  I eventually found something nearer home, practicing the same method of reflexology, but with much more comfortable chairs and soothing music in the background to take my mind off the pain.

Bangkok is a big, brash South Asian city where everything and anything goes.  It’s exciting and exhausting, it’s hot and sweaty; it’s rich and poor. But whatever it is and however it wears you down at times, it’s an exciting place and there’s always something new on the horizon – it just depends on how you look at it.

Photography by Orla Fagan





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Until next time




What to do Kathmandu


Old Friends

My good friend James was visiting me in Bangkok on his way back from the UK to Myanmar, staying the weekend.  We returned from a morning of vigorous (a euphemism for torturous) massage on the Saturday morning when a message popped up on my mobile phone asking if I was preparing to write a Situation Report.  Thinking my colleague had lost her marbles I asked her had I missed something in the few hours I was out having massage and lunch.

Indeed, I had missed the Nepal earthquake and emails were arriving by the minute with updates of the situation in Kathmandu and the office there.  I had travelled to Nepal a month previously to provide training on the communications aspect of an emergency to public information officers and to local journalists.  There was never a more timely training, but it wasn’t sufficient.

The phone calls from the international journalists began in earnest . As the afternoon wore on it became more obvious that the situation on the ground was not good at all – I knew  I would be returning to Kathmandu. I left the house for a few hours to have a meal with friends, all the time aware I would be packing bags at some stage.

Heading to Kathmandu

Another colleague called on Sunday morning to say if I dashed to the airport I’d make the flight, but I decided it was best to aim for the following morning and at least know that I had packed the necessities to last a few weeks if the situation was dire.  Monday morning bright and early I took the taxi to the airport, meeting more than a few familiar faces queueing for the Thai Airways daily flight to Kathmandu TG319 departing at 10.30.

Part of me was dreading the flight –and as I arrived to the airport another colleague who travelled the day before texted to say he scored five hotel rooms.  If the hotel was damaged then we could stay in the garden in our tents but at least would have access to a hot shower in the morning.  Things were looking up.  The flight took off and we were on our way to Kathmandu.

The time difference between Kathmandu and Bangkok is one hour 15 minutes, which confuses the life out of everybody. I’ve seen mathematicians taking their fingers to try and figure out the time difference with Nepal.  One hour into the flight I duly set my watch to Kathmandu time and enjoyed what I thought was going to be the last bit of decent food for a while.  It seemed to be taking an extraordinary amount of time to get to our destination until I realized we were circling and circling and then circling some more.  The captain came on the intercom and announced that we were going to Calcutta to refuel as there was a bit of a backlog in Kathmandu.  Apparently there were 14 flights circling in the air.  We arrived to Calcutta and I sent off a couple of emails apologizing for my delay to a meeting I was due to attend.  In fairness we didn’t stay long on the ground in Calcutta and once more took off headed for Kathmandu.

People were walking up and down the aisles of the plane, talking to each other, reconnecting with others met on previous missions, swopping business cards. I began watching the flight path on the TV screen as it kept starting at 40 minutes and counting down to five minutes before it would start again at 40 minutes.  We turned back to Calcutta, supposedly for the night where Thai Airways was to put us up in a hotel.  When we arrived there were five other flights ahead of us and all the passengers had taken our rooms in the hotel!

In the row behind me there were some Eastern European medics, who, judging by their tshirts were responding to the disaster.  The oldest member of the group began complaining about the flight, asking if they expected us to sleep on the plane and would they offer us a cup of water for a shower.


There are some people who should just never volunteer to respond to a disaster. What did he expect? We also had 70 passengers who were from the Japanese search and rescue team, travelling with their rescue dogs on the flight. I could only imagine their frustration.  The Thai Airways pilot stayed in the air all day, trying to get us in to Kathmandu because he knew most people were on the flight as part of the response. Forget the fact that he went way over international standards for flying time, the man did his best to get us there and I pointed it out to the medic who complained.  Once again we took to the air, returning to Bangkok to spend the night.  We arrived back at 1 a.m.

Funny, the following morning, the row of seats that the four medics occupied the previous day, were empty. They just didn’t show up.

As we attempted once again to make our way to Kathmandu – everybody looked tired.  We were all dressed in the same clothes but at least I had found a 7/11 store to pick up a spare deodorant.

A state of calamity

We got to work as soon as we landed. I was fortunate I knew the crew in the UN office in Kathmandu, so understanding how they work made my job easier.

There were many differences between this response and Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines just 18 months earlier and a few similarities as well.  We have a highly competent Irish-Scot, Jamie McGoldrick the Humanitarian Coordinator in Nepal who is a former TV and radio producer and who knows the media, again making my job way easier.  He’s articulate and sharp, unlike his cohort who was in charge during Haiyan.  Media wouldn’t have been her forte.

It’s easier to respond to an emergency when it is an island country – you can just ship in the humanitarian aid.  Nepal is landlocked and it has just one runway in its main airport, with an apron that can take just five planes at a time.  Transporting goods from India through the road network was an alternative, but it didn’t solve the problem of transporting goods to the remote villages.

Kathmandu, what to do….

Kathmandu is as chaotic as any Asian capital city – it’s polluted and normally choked with traffic because of the small roads.  On top of that every male driver thinks the horn on his car is somehow relevant or connected to his penis and he insists on honking his horn every five seconds, making it as noisy as every other Asian city I have ever visited.  It can take five minutes to cross the road, dodging cars, bikes, busses and motorcycles.  You need the agility of a prizefighter to weave and duck in order to avoid impact with the oncoming traffic. This time, when we drove in from the airport, Kathmandu was strangely empty – no traffic, no people and 90 per cent of the shops closed.

I expected to see something similar to Banda Aceh, Indonesia after the 2004 earthquake, as we drove through the city to the office, but it was surprisingly intact with little evidence of the earthquake.  Buildings remained upright and Nepal wouldn’t be renowned for its excellence in building standards, so that was surprising.  It didn’t take long to look behind the facades though and when I went out to some of the temporary shelters, I found thousands of people sleeping outdoors in parks, fearful to return home because of the aftershocks.  The city had emptied as the migrant workers returned to their villages high in the Himalayas to ensure family members were okay.

First time

The first time I visited Nepal we went left the office after work one evening looking for somewhere to eat.  Durbar Square is a 20-minute walk from the office and a UNESCO cultural heritage site. I knew very little about Kathmandu so I was blown away by the sheer beauty of the square – palaces and places of worship all in one spot. There was a holiday atmosphere, yet few tourists.  It was very much a place for locals, especially young people – hanging out sitting on the steps of the temples – the square had a romantic, magical atmosphere that made it such a pleasant place to visit.

When the Under-Secretary General Valerie Amos, visited for three days in the aftermath of the disaster, part of her itinerary included a visit to Durbar Square which was unrecognizable. It was reduced to a pile of rubble where the military worked to clear the square, there was so much dust you could feel its grit in your mouth and in your lungs.  At the best of times because Kathmandu is in a valley, like Kabul in Afghanistan, the pollution is trapped in the valley, leaving an acrid smell from the fumes that pour out of baldy maintained trucks and cars on the road.

Setting the wheels in motion

After a week in the office of the usual manic post-disaster response, I headed to Gorkha, (where the famous Gurkha army comes from).  I went to see the devastation caused by the quake.  It’s a four hour drive, through the most spectacular countryside and as an added bonus, the further the distance we drove from Kathmandu, the clearer the air.

Even the town of Gorkha, where the buildings looked as if they are naturally tilted, I was surprised to see so many standing.  We called into the local administrative office where we met a young man Suedip who was working in Afghanistan when the earthquake happened.  He worked for a non-government organisation when he heard the news and got on the first flight to return to his mother’s village to help out.  He spoke with passion about the work they had already carried out and how they were trying to coordinate.  They had distributed tarpaulins for people to have shelter, food and cooking utensils.  In a country where the caste system delineates the high from the low caste, boundaries were coming down like buildings in an earthquake as neighbours who would normally never speak, helped each other out.   If you wanted to look for a positive outcome of this terrible tragedy, then this was it.

We set up a coordination office there a few days earlier, so there was an office tent and a separate tent with camp beds. Nights were very cold and I felt guilty in my warm sleeping bag as most people slept outside without decent blankets.  On the first night we slept in a field with no access to running water, so a bottle of water was used to wash. We had a porta-loo of sorts, but having a pee with 467 bluebottles, isn’t a healthy scenario.  The following day we moved to a hotel and camped on its grounds, so we had access to a room with a shower.

I have a fear in these situations that I will literally be caught with my knickers around my ankles, sitting on a toilet when the next disaster happens, or in the middle of having a shower.  None of the doors of the hotel would close properly, no matter how hard I tried. Kirsty, a colleague travelling with us from the NGO Map Action went for a shower the day following a fairly big aftershock and got locked in to the bathroom, where the door refused to close the previous day.  She had to phone to another colleague to ‘rescue’ her.

Devastation in Gorkha

While my colleagues went off to set up the coordination structures for the response, I went with the driver Gyanu to the off-road areas to see what the damage was really like.  Neither of us having visited the area before, I asked him to just ask somebody on the street where the best place was to see the destruction.  He scored well.  The first person he asked happened to be the local health inspector, Sharad Shrestha who knew everybody in the area and had no hesitation to jump into the car with us and to show us to areas where some of the damage was greatest.

Nepal is an agricultural country and because of the mountains, farmers have created steps into the side of the hills, to grow their crops – rice, corn and vegetables.  Just a half hour drive outside Gorkha it was a very different reality.  The terrain is challenging at the best of times and its people are tough, living so remote from the rest of the world, walking or using donkeys to transport goods to the village – they are a resilient, hardy people.  However, the earthquake had utterly demolished houses built of mud while many of the animals, mainly water buffalo, fettered under shelters died, leaving farmers without a means to plant crops.

They were lucky in a sense – the earthquake happened coming up to midday on 25 April, a Saturday.  Over 3,000 schools were destroyed – unbearable to think of if it was a school day. If the quake had occurred during the night, hundred of thousands of people would have lost their lives. On a regular Saturday, people were out and about in the fields working, reducing the death toll but leaving them without homes and sometimes livelihoods.

We parked the car and walked up to the villages to speak to people.  One man I met showed me a photo of himself and his wife on the balcony of their home and stood on the rubble with the satellite dish sitting on the top, so I could take his photo.  Even if there was a house left standing, people were so nervous they slept outside under tarpaulins.  It was interesting to see just a solitary door standing while a building was completely demolished – something that stuck in my mind.  We called up to the Nareshwar Health Clinic where Dev Nath Yogi was waiting to see the health inspector.  The back wall of the clinic displayed a major crack and is about to fall down, so the ‘treatment room’ and pharmacy was a desk at the front of the building.  Recovery from such devastation will take some time.

I returned to Kathmandu, after two days, leaving the remainder of the team behind to work on getting the aid out to those remote villages I had visited.  I was happy to go back to my comfy hotel that didn’t look as if it was going to fall down.  They were busy days, trying to advocate for the Nepali affected by the quake and raise the funds for the response.

Sounding alarms

We were located in the UN compound in Kathmandu, where most of the offices are fitted with an earthquake alarm. It’s not that you wouldn’t feel a major shock, but sometimes tremors can build into something bigger and you need to be aware that the tremor is starting, in order to ‘leg it’ out the door.  One day while conducting a press briefing with mainly local journalists, the alarm sounded.. bong, pause….. bong pause… Everybody ignored it.  I interrupted the briefing to point out that in fact it was indeed an earthquake alarm.  When it went off again several minutes –there were fewer pauses between the bongs.  It was the shortest press briefing in history and we made a good escape from the journalists and the quake by evacuating to a safe area.

I was frequently summoned to Jamie the Humanitarian Coordinator’s office for meetings and it was at one such meeting on Sunday afternoon when the alarm went off.  Myself, Jamie and another colleague, Stine took to the stairs like three demented escapees fleeing from the unknown. Stine, a tall, fit, much younger woman led the pace and I was on her heels.  I don’t think I have run as quickly as that in 20 years and once we reached the outside I gasped for breath after the dash.

With no proper space set up for the influx of surge staff, Leszek and I were sharing a desk. At lunchtime he went off looking for another colleague on the same floor, when the earthquake alarm went off.  There was no pause this time; it was just a high-pitched screech of an alarm indicating that this was a serious quake.  I fled from the desk, leaving everything behind and ran outside the area heading for the stairs.  I passed the doorway leading to Jamie’s office, which is double the  size of an average door and I spotted another colleague under the doorway holding on. Remembering the solitary doors that had remained standing in Gorkha, I jumped under the door.  Soon we were about eight people all squeezed in.  Stine, whose office was facing the door where we sheltered, came out of her office as if in slow motion; she was like an old woman with her arms stretched out, fingers splayed, trying to keep balance.  Once she realized she wasn’t going to fit under the doorway, she retreated back to her office and under her desk for protection.

It was the longest 45 seconds of my entire life.  I could feel my breath shortening in panic as I gulped for air. I didn’t want to die.  I was told that the building was earthquake proof, but if something is shaken for such a long time, eventually even the strongest building will give and tumble down.  We had experienced a 7.3 magnitude earthquake; the original quake was a 7.9, considerably stronger.  As the alarm bells slowed, we rushed down the stairs out of the building and on to safe ground.

After an hour or so, Leszek made a dash to recover his laptop and also recovered my phone.  I was reluctant to retrieve my laptop and it was at least five that evening before I took up the nerve to race upstairs and pick it up.

There had been several aftershocks that Leszek had felt during previous nights, enough to make him run outdoors.  I was obviously too tired and slept through them all. It probably had something to do with the fact that I had earplugs to block out the noise. The crows go berserk when an earthquake occurs, waking up Leszek, while I slept peacefully on.

Back to the 12 May and the 7.3 magnitude quake and we stood outside the building waiting for the all- clear but in the space of 30 minutes there were another five aftershocks, one measuring six on the Reciter scale.  After some time we headed to the tents that had been set up on the grounds, to do some work. The international media began calling so I got on with the job, setting up interviews.


I recovered my laptop before we left the office for the evening and returned to the hotel.  Shops were once again closed as shop owners and staff went back home to their loved ones.  As we walked down the street on the way to the hotel, old and young, men and women sat outside on the pavement, afraid to stay inside.  Some of our own colleagues opted to sleep in tents in the hotel grounds. That evening, exhausted from the day’s events, I soon dozed off and slept with one foot on the floor.

I slept well until, what felt like a poltergeist banging my bed off a wall woke me up at 2.05 a.m.  Jumping from the bed, I ran down the stairs. A number of other hotel guests followed – we waited outside as the crows went bananas for several minutes.  Eventually we went back inside.  An hour later, sleep eluding me, we had yet another aftershock; this time not as strong but still enough to be felt and just three other hotel guests and myself stood outside the building.  The remaining idiots had decided it wasn’t worth it to take themselves out of bed and out of the way of danger leading me to believe that some people have shit for brains.  One man came down the stairs and sat in the reception area, presumably as a safety precaution.

Logic obviously doesn’t come in to the equation for many. When I stood outside the hotel the first time shortly after the first aftershock I noticed the perimeter wall of the hotel had collapsed, presumably from the afternoon’s quake.  A Swedish woman and her daughter were standing outside when I pointed out the collapsed wall.  “We don’t know if it was the earthquake that caused the wall to fall,” said the woman. “What,” I asked, “do you think made it fall – somebody blowing it down?”


There was fun with hard work, stress and reward of a job well done.  But perhaps the most memorably documented moment of the three weeks I spent in Nepal was during the visit of the Under-Secretary General Valerie Amos. She was meeting with the Prime Minister and I had organized a TV interview with Al Jazeera, who had a temporary studio set up at the site of the nine-story tower, which was a national monument and had collapsed, killing many.  Markus my colleague who had led the mission was accompanying Amos along with her special assistant Manu (Emmanuel), on these official visits. I needed to ensure she would make it to the live panel interview.  The following is a transcript of the texts we exchanged on that Saturday:

Me:                Markus. The interview for Al Jazeera takes place in Dharara Square at 10.45. Orla.. There is an area where Valerie can prepare if she gets there early.

Markus:        But she has the Indian Amb(assador) at 10.30!! If the program has changed, I need urgent advice. Please get back to me now.

Me:                  Give me five.


Markus:          VA will need some stats on accomplishments over the past several days. How much has come in? Teams? Items? Some key snappy points on what has happened by 11.30 for Al-Jaz.

Me:                   On the case. Will get it to you and bring hard copy.

Markus:         Good. Just to confirm that you also be at Durbar Square.

Me:                  See earlier message. Dharara Square. Where the big tower was.

Markus:         Well copied. Yes. FYI VA will go back to PM so will be late for Al-Jaz.

Me:                  Straight to Al-Jaz after?

Markus:         Yes. On the way to square. VA wants to do this quickly. Few questions.

Me:                  This is a live weekly show.

Markus:         Where are you?

Me:                  Many gone for you… sorry Manu.

Markus:         What?

Me:                  Manu gone out to you.

Markus:         You see us?

Me:                  Where are you?

Markus:         Arrived at entrance to square. Same place as last visit.


Markus:          We’re at the wrong location.

Photography by Orla Fagan.  Click on pics to enlarge.


Until next time