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Magical Mexico: the woo woo trip

I worked abroad for a number of years, sometimes in hairy environments where famine, floods and conflict became the norm, but I always felt that should the manure hit the fan, I could up sticks and go home to where I felt safe. So, when Covid landed upon us in 2020, like many others, I felt trapped, with nowhere to escape.  I took to early morning walks to avoid the droves of people who appreared every afternoon as if they had just discovered the miracle of walking. Jaunts to the supermarket were so stressful it felt like going into battle in a coliseum facing a couple of hungry lions.

Other than a short trip to Spain in November of 2021, I didn’t leave the island for 18 months, the longest time I’ve been at home for many a year.  Then it all kicked in through 2022 with the help of work meetings in Jordan and Iraq, breaking the travel hiatus. And so, with some experience and renewed confidence in travel, I planned a trip to Mexico to visit an old Texan friend (she’s not old per se, I just know her a long time) and ‘retired’ to the Pacific side of Mexico a few years ago. Helping me make the decision to decamp for the winter was of course Senor Putin in Russia, whose war with the Ukraine triggered the greedy oil companies to increase prices of fuel and gas to heat our homes during the harsh winter months. Don’t get me wrong… I’m lucky and grateful to be able to afford the airline flight to Mexico and sympathise with the people who have to choose between eating and heating – I don’t take it lightly.

I had a really good experience on the 12-hour flight down here on Aero Mexico, which kinda surprised me.  What else surprised me was discovering that, according to the Economist magazine, Mexico is the 15th wealthiest country in the world.  Corruption is rife, but the ordinary Mexican, from my limited experience, is hard working and particularly friendly.  I did see illegal logging going on and illegal dumping in the jungle, which I find upsetting and of course you have the cartels who don’t always just focus on the drug trade, but have moved into the avocado and lime growing business, forcing farmers off their farms and hiking up prices beyond the reach of the poorer sections of the community. If you’re planning on travelling through Mexico, pay the tolls on the major roads and don’t travel at night!

Probably because of its distance from Europe where most Europeans think that Cancun is Mexico, it remains largely undiscovered. There are large swathes of Americans who have retired to places like Ajijic and Manzanillo, in the state of Colima, but once outside some of these areas are hidden gems with beaches, mountains and the most exquisite flora and fauna with huge jungle/forest areas. My friend Kelly has lived here for the past 10 years and travelled the length and breadth of the country, so a great woman to have as a travel companion with every nook and cranny well sussed out.

Mexico has ‘magic towns’, designated as area of interest for tourists. They must meet a minimum standard of hotel availability and suitability, free parking, good internet and be of historic value. We took off to visit some magic towns after Christmas as a way to escape the newly arrived Americans and Canadians who increased the possibility of catching COVID and the terrible flu virus circulating. I’d hate to praise her too much for fear it would go to her head, but I have to admit that Kelly makes a good travel companion as we hit the road to see some of the magic towns.

Not only did I not expect such great beauty in the country, but I also didn’t expect the devotion of the average Mexican to the Catholic religion. Coming from Ireland where religion, which was once deeply ingrained in the culture and is now largely passé,  I found it both fascinating and impressive.  There are saints’ celebrations every other week and religious iconography at every street corner, in every shop and restaurant and in the most unusual places – the side of cliffs, the roadsides and many houses with shrines to the Virgin. December is the feast of the Virgin of Guadalajara and every town and village has either a church dedicated to the Virgin or some sort of shrine. The celebrations are accompanied by firecrackers that go off randomly throughout the day and night, (terrifying most dogs who bark and howl the night away). The Virgin is said to protect the fishing boats going out to sea, so on our day out on a boat, we had to stop on the way out and the way back so the captain and his mate could pay their respects and thank the Virgin for a safe trip. 

I missed the Day of the Dead, which of course is a huge festival celebrated in Mexico.  Graveyards are decorated with Christmas-like decorations and those who passed before us are remembered and celebrated. Travelling with Kelly through San Sebastián del Oeste we came across a graveyard – thinking it was locked up, Kelly was walking away when I realised that the door was could indeed open once you lifted the bolt.  We walked in to discover a farmer had left his cows there for grazing, hence the reason for the locked door.  The cows looked up when we entered before going back to their job of keeping the graves neat  and tidy.  I don’t think I’ve seen such ornate graves anywhere and many remained decorated since the November celebrations. One of the weirdest shrines we came across was when we stopped at a truck rest point on the way out of Manzanillo where I wanted to take a photo of the vista below.  The small shrine had a skeletal (Day of the Dead) statue where some water, a fresh apple and some candy was left as an offering. We checked with some local friends of Kelly who confirmed that it was some sort of black magic ritual and not what one would expect to see at a roadside truck spot.

By the time I got to Mexico on 1 December, there was a proliferation of nativity scenes – in restaurants, by the roadside, in construction sites and in every town plaza, where hymns and Christmas songs were belted out night and day from speakers.  The entrance to a nearby large housing area where we were based had the crib outside the guards’ gate. Many of the baby Jesus statutes§ were dressed in white, sometimes with hand-made crochet dresses, or beautifully embroidered christening gowns. Travelling high in the mountains around Mascota, another travel companion Emily thought she had spotted a zipliner, something I fancied trying. She was convinced it was a zipline because it had a construction similar to what you’d come across if you went to a ski resort.  Prior to our arrival at the spot, I realised that it wasn’t a zipline, but rather some electricity wires! The ski hut was in fact a shine to St. Michael the archangel, with a statue of Jesus on the cross. It was rather weird then seeing a glass case with the baby Jesus enclosed wearing rosary beads around his neck – almost as a portend of his future demise.  Visiting Thailand, you must see the temples to appreciate the culture… well visiting Mexico it is a must to visit churches to get an insight into some of the culture. In several churches there were life size statues of Jesus in enclosed in glass cases. Apparently, the statues are taken out for parades and brought through the towns and villages as part of the religious processions. One church in Navidad had Jesus in a robe with a long black wig, which momentarily led me to think I was beamed up to Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum in London town.

As a throwback to the Spanish conquistadores the Three Kings is the big celebration in Mexico whereas in Ireland it signifies the end of Christmas.  It was a full week after the 6th of January before the decorations were taken down and the crib dismantled.

The tourist office in the magical town of Mascota recommended we visited a special area with a magnetic field where visitors could be cured of their ills.  We walked up the hill in the village of Yerbabuena to the holy area where the holy man was performing some sort of ceremony on the five women who came to visit. It felt as if there was a lot of woo woo going on at the site.

There was a concrete circle with three concrete painted columns and each person had to enter the area barefooted where they faced each column and declared in a loud voice their love and belief in Jesus. Some looked as if they were under a spell as the ‘holy’ man anointed them with oil, mumbled something over them and poked them in the breast and other areas. Kelly has a good command of the Spanish language as she eavesdropped into their conversation about how their aunt/mother/cousin’s daughter had been cured by the holy man. He didn’t want money but pointed them to the donation box. We didn’t consult with the holy man but myself and Emily entered the circle for the cure. Rather than be a hypocrite and profess a  belief in Jesus, I silently proclaimed my belief in the power of the universe. Let’s see if I’m cured of my ailments by the time I get home to Ireland.

I have another few weeks to go before my return home and another few road trips to make, including 36 hours in Mexico City. So, for now, hasta luego.

Photos by Órla Fagan

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.

Everything is Going to be All Right; a poem by Derek Mahon

Covid-19 words of consolation from the late Derek Mahon. Oh how I need to hear these words today.

Everything is Going to be All Right by Derek Mahon

How should I not be glad to contemplate

the clouds clearing beyond the dormer window

and a high tide reflected on the ceiling?

There will be dying, there will be dying,

but there is no need to go into that.

The poems flow from the hand unbidden

and the hidden source is the watchful heart.

The sun rises in spite of everything

and the far cities are beautiful and bright.

I lie here in a riot of sunlight

watching the day break and the clouds flying.

Everything is going to be all right.

Reflections on Lockdown

I worked as a humanitarian in conflict and post-conflict situations, through famine and the aftermath of earthquakes, typhoons and tsunami. My first mission as a humanitarian was the Indian Ocean tsunami response in Indonesia.  This set me off on a course, that I never imagined as a youngster growing up on Dublin’s northside.

In September 2009 I found myself working for the coordination arm of the United Nations in Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul. For the most part, non-government organisation workers and UN staff, lived in guesthouses on small compounds around the city.  In the early hours of the 28th October, Bakhtar Guesthouse was attacked by three Taliban. When I stepped into the garden that morning to go for breakfast I became aware of the rat-tat-tat of gunfire. Over the top of the compound walls the billowing smoke rose high into the sky, matching my increasing sense of fear and panic. My stomach knotted and descended into my shoes as I felt the blood drain from my head.  

Green Zone, Baghdad, Iraq

Five colleagues, two Afghan security guards and a civilian died that morning.

A stop was put on all staff movement as we went into immediate lockdown, unable to leave the compound.  Information on the situation was sparse as senior management scrambled to inform headquarters. The logistics teams went to work to evacuate the injured. Two of my own colleagues jumped from the roof of Bakthar guesthouse to the roof of the neighbouring building, both breaking their ankles.

As the news made headlines across the globe, the TV became our main source of information.  There was a sense of frustration not knowing what was happening to colleagues.  Real fear that we could be the next target, created tension and incredible stress for the residents inside our compound.  Adding to the stress was the fact that the telephone network crashed. Colleagues became desperate to make contact with loved ones at home to reassure they were okay.  I seemed to have the only working internet connection so my room turned into the equivalent of an internet café with a queue outside in the first 48-hours after the attack. 

Winter, which can be brutal in Afghanistan, hadn’t yet arrived.  We gathered each day in the fading rose garden, comforting each other on the loss of colleagues and putting together pieces of information gleaned through various sources.  Those afternoons in the garden became therapeutic as we spoke of our grief, our fears and our families at home, all the while transitioning from familiar acquaintances to friends.

Kabul, Afghanistan

My time in Iraq was not so different.  In Baghdad we lived on a compound in windowless containers, packed high with sandbags for protection. Each container had a Tannoy that triggered when a rocket was headed in our direction. We were frequently woken by the automated response with a mechanical voice repeatedly shouting “take cover, take cover, take cover.”  Our personal protection equipment consisted of a helmet and a 10 kilogramme bullet proof vest, which we dragged to and from work each day. Concrete shelters to provide protection in the event of an attack, dotted the empty roads of the ‘Green Zone’ – the diplomatic area of Baghdad. On more than one occasion I froze in fear lying in bed listening to the rockets land across the Tigris River and thinking they were inside the compound.

Colleagues acted differently to this daily level of stress. Some choose to disengage and rarely left their containers except to go to work.  Others choose to gather after dinner in the area outside the canteen known as the piazza, pulling together tables and chairs around the large yellow swing. There we found our tribes and consoled each other when the stress of living in confinement and fear became overbearing. 

Being confined to barracks in Ireland is somewhat different to lockdown in Iraq or Afghanistan.  There is the pure luxury of an early morning walk when the sun is re-introducing itself, as it slithers around Howth Head when I march down the Clontarf seafront.  Daily meditation helps me cope with the fear of Covid-19 and I increasingly appreciate the safe space my own home provides.  When I lived in Kabul, my wise Australian colleague and friend would take out her lipstick when the going got tough. She believed that when we had our lipstick on, we could put the world to rights.  Before I step outside the door each morning to take my walk, I take out my brightest red lipstick and apply liberally.

Lockdown walks in Ireland.

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.

UN Radio interivew

Radio interview on the humanitarian crisis in Nigeria’s north-east.

A “forgotten crisis” is taking place in north-eastern Nigeria which the UN humanitarian affairs office (OCHA) warns could be the worst on the African continent. Seven years of insecurity sparked by the terrorist group Boko Haram has affected up to 15 million people in four states, leading to mass displacement. It has also caused a major food shortage as agricultural production has stalled. As a result, some 400,000 children face starvation. Dianne Penn asked OCHA Public Information Officer Órla Fagan about the extent of the crisis.

Listen Here



Death in Banki town….

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.

The case of a well-dressed young Hungarian woman with the refugees at the Eastern Railway Station in Budapest

Refugee Crisis in Hungary

What happens when you have 5 minutes until your train leaves and there are three thousand migrants standing in your way? The personal account of Rita Perintfalvi. For the original article please click here.

“The train to the Promised Land: the refugees and me, waiting/longing for the early morning train.

The newspapers are filled with stories about the refugee crisis, I know. But I was there this morning, wanting to catch the early train to Vienna to get to work, as I do every week. The train was to leave from a different platform than usual. I quickly realised that it was because this platform could be cordoned off and the police could form a protective shield around it. I had 5 minutes till departure, so I had to rush, when I was suddenly faced with hundreds of refugees in front of me, who were waiting outside the cordon…

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