Sunday, February 26, 2006
Welcome to Bujumbura
Ok fans, sorry for the delay but getting on the internet is not easy here. For one thing, electricity is scarce here. It goes down once a day at least, generally when I don't have access to a computer. Internet is also dead slow here.
The flight in was long and with a detour via Nairobi (Kenya). I was supposed to sleep at the hotel in the airport, but upon arrival, no-one had heard about such a place. At such a moment, it is imperative to leave your western attitude behind and remain cool. After an hour and a half I had located the 'hotel' at terminal four. It was there all-right, it was just that no-one at the airport knew about it. Hotel was also a much too flattering term for this place. The rooms where shoe boxes and made from the same material, so I didn’t get too much sleep, also thanks to the gang of extremely loud Chinese that were staying in the same place.
Anyway, I arrived in Bujumbura, capital of Burundi. I must say I expected the place to be in shambles, since the country has seen roughly a decade of fighting and ethnic cleansing. However, I was pleasantly surprised because it is a beautiful city in a beautiful country. The climate is great, not too hot and not too humid. People are friendly. Lake Tanganyika is beautiful, warm and a great place to swim if you can set your mind over the fact that it has a substantial crocodile population in it. The ideal destination for tourists you might say.
Ideal, if you don’t mind rebel forces creeping into the city from time to time trough the small rivers that run from the surrounding hills into the lake. Government forces are trying to halt them, so there are a lot of heavily armed men in the city. White UN jeeps are also a very predominant species here.
Although the people are much friendlier than the inhabitants of Kinshasa, and much less aggressive, you can feel there is a certain tension in the air. The two main population groups, Hutu and Tutsi are living and working together again, but it’s a sensitive situation all together. For foreign NGO’s, human resources management is not evident. If you promote a Hutu, the Tutsi will complain and vice-versa.
But all together, I have to admit I fell in love with this little central African state. The situation may still be fragile, but it is possible to work here and there is plenty to do. Although for me this mainly means talking to people, participating in reunions and studying the possibilities. It was a busy week; I will spare you the details. The weekend was a lot of fun however. I already mentioned my swim in Lake Tanganyika, on the edge of which I established a castle, together with the 5-year old daughter of my colleague. It’s made out of sand, so I won’t guarantee it’s as durable as one expects of someone involved in structural development (inside joke, totally not funny). I also took a lot of photos, so you can expect some spectacular images once I return.
I hope I can give you more updates later, if and when I get access to the internet.
Sunday, February 19, 2006
To Be Continued In The Comments
I’ve been preparing my trip to Burundi all day long, or in fact all weekend long. I borrowed a laptop from our director, but she complained that it was running like a snail on a frozen lake. So I cleaned it up and checked it for viruses. In Africa, having a virus is not something to take lightly.
So now the suitcase is packed, and as usual I’ve taken much too much stuff. But you never know, when you least expect it you’ll always find that you did need that 24 volume encyclopaedia or that billiard table. I do hope it’s a big airplane tomorrow or I’ll have to leave half of it behind. It’s not my fault anyway, my colleague in Burundi asked me to buy half the contents of a medium-sized sports shop for her kids. One of the things she asked for is a horse riding helmet, which in French is called ‘une bombe d’équitation’. If anyone should ask, I’ll just say I carry ‘une casque’ (a helmet). Using the word ‘bombe’ in an airport may not be the smartest move.
Anyway, as usual I will keep you informed of my trip through Africa on this weblog. But as you know I won’t be able to post directly, so instead I’ll use the Haloscan comments on this post. I’ll copy them into proper posts once I’ve returned.
Saturday, February 18, 2006
Breaking the law
This was going to be a post about a set of very strange postcards I once bought. Was, because I wanted to scan them to show them to you. But when I lifted the cover of the scanner, I noticed to my gigantic horror that the glass of the scan bed was completely shattered. The police identified the probable suspects as two males, both wearing a fur coat, one white and one grey with stripes. They are known by many names, such as ‘that whiner’, ‘bad puss’ and ‘bloody cat’, but their real names are Snijeg and Macka. Should you come across one or both of these fugitives, contact your local police station. Extreme caution is advised, since both culprits are armed to the teeth – meaning exactly that, they bite. Preferably in electrical wiring.
So now I can probably throw away a perfectly good and rather expensive scanner. I think I’ll tie those two on it when I shove it into the trashcan.
Thursday, February 16, 2006
Lost in Translation
Because ministers here have nothing better to do with their – hugely overpaid – time, one member of the Flemish government has deemed it necessary to order that all Flemish cities should henceforth only be known by their Flemish (Dutch language) name. You see, in 1988 the national government decided that municipalities close to the language border and certain large cities should be referable both by their Dutch and their French name. So Antwerpen (Dutch name) is know by the French speaking population as Anvers. In English it is Antwerp of course. Gent (D) is Gand (F) or Ghent in English, and Brussel (D) is Bruxelles (F) is Brussels (E). So far so good.
Now that the authority to take decisions over these extremely important matters is transferred from national (federal) level to the three communities (French speaking, Dutch speaking and German speaking), the Flemish government apparently made it a priority to get somewhat more on the French speaking people’s nerves by forbidding the use of the French names. Needless to say, this move was very important to us, Flemish people, since it offers us such clear advantages as … ehm … and …er… and not to forget …Idunno…
This game has been going on for a while, and it leads to some annoying side effects. Especially to the poor foreigner who has to traverse our country. You see, it is very strictly forbidden to use the French designations for places on the highway and street signs in the Flemish part of the country. People that are caught writing Flemish names of places on signs in the French speaking part of the country will also be shot on the spot for this unforgivable error. So assume that you would want to go to the city of Mons in Wallonia coming from England and traversing Flanders. Would you know you had to follow the signs mentioning ‘Bergen’? Apparently people coming from Brussels and going to Liège via the ring way around Brussels can follow signs pointing out the direction to Liège, until they come to the very point where they have to get of the ring way and take another highway, because there the sign says ‘Luik’ instead of ‘Liège’. Unfortunately, that particular off ramp is located on Flemish territory, making it illegal to put up a sign with the French name of this rather important city.
Another problem is that people with nothing better to do on both sides of the language border, amuse themselves on otherwise boring Sundays by spray-painting over the French or Flemish name on the signs on the borderof their municipality. Of course, because everybody starts to do this – yelling ‘they started it’ as adults do – it has become very difficult to see in which place you’ve actually arrived.
My advice: when you come to Belgium, take a GPS system with you.
Wednesday, February 15, 2006
Lost and Found: Umbrella
It was raining this morning, not just a winter drizzle but a full-fledged downpour for which Belgium is known almost as much as the United Kingdom. If you come here as a tourist (or for business), don’t ever forget your raincoat because you’re bound to get soaked at least once. Another thing you may notice during your visit is that people between Ghent, Antwerp, Brussels and Turnhout, the town were I was born, all have the same umbrella: a small black or blue one that you can collapse until it almost takes up no place at all.
The reason why everyone in this area has such an umbrella, is because I gave them one. Not that I am that generous, mind you.
I always buy them in the Hema, a Dutch supermarket, because they only cost two or three euros. Then when I have to travel I often take it with me when I see dark clouds or the weatherman or woman predicted rain or it’s raining cats and dogs. I jump on the train, put my backpack and umbrella on the rack above me and my coat and scarf on the hanger and then happily wait until we arrive. Then I put on my coat and scarf, take my backpack and get off the train.
It often takes me several days to realise that I left ANOTHER umbrella on the train. Meanwhile, some poor guy or girl who forget his/her umbrella at home noticed that there was an unattended umbrella in the train (as seems often to be the case) and is very pleased that he/she doesn’t have to scramble through the showers without protection.
This morning I left the house with our jointly-owned, very beautiful and very expensive umbrella which I’m not supposed to take with me lest I forget it again on the train. But they were really throwing down the rain by the barrel, so I vowed not to be absent minded again and took it with me. And sure enough, I almost forgot it in Brussels Central station. It took me quite an effort to wrestle my way trough the row of commuters to get back at my seat and to rescue my precious.
The stupid thing of course is that I didn’t need it all they long. But if I hadn’t taken an umbrella, then I would have returned home wet like an albatross that got wing fatigue over the dead centre of the Atlantic Ocean!
Tuesday, February 14, 2006
NASDAQ - Valentine Shares up 35%
It was not so long ago that Saint Valentine was largely unknown in Belgium. That doesn’t mean there was no love in this little country of us, oh no. But then again, what is the relation between Saint Valentine’s and love? It’s just about gaining money anyway. And that’s how it got introduced in these parts of Europe in the first place. Some twenty years ago, there were a couple of gaps between the summer holidays, the return to school, the summer sales period, Saint-Nicolas (our equivalent of Father Christmas, but his celebration is on the 6th of December), Christmas, New Year, the winter sales period and Easter. So our intrepid store keepers decided to check over the wild seas to see if they couldn’t import some extra holidays to boost sales in between the traditional shopping frenzies. And find they did. So recently we have become quite familiar with Halloween for example, when we have to BUY pumpkins and BUY masks and BUY candles and BUY worthless junk to ‘decorate’ you home.
Saint Valentine got tied to the mast and sailed over the English channel a couple of years earlier. It’s an absolute shame how we get these holidays in our faces and stuffed down our troths just to serve the commercial interests of the greedy little capitalists that would sell their soul for a bit of cash. I mean, do we really need a special day to say ‘I love you’ with ridiculously expensive gifts that no-one asked for and that end up in the back of some closet a month later? Why do we dress up in ‘sexy’ lingerie that evening that we wouldn’t been seen dead in for the rest of the year and pretend to have the best fuck session ever like a couple over-used third rate porn stars? How meaningless is it if you empty your wallet once a year but don’t spend a moment’s attention to each other the other 364 days. Isn’t it more valuable to show your affection every day with little attentions and sweet words?
Anyway, I bought her a lovely candle shaped like a couple of cute little bears dancing with each other, dressed in a tuxedo and a beautiful dress. And tonight we’re going to have dinner at her (and my) favourite place in Antwerp, a Greek restaurant close to the Main Market square. And after that I’ll put on my ‘elephant’ underwear…
Sunday, February 12, 2006
Everything is arranged for my next trip to Africa. This time, the destination is Burundi in Central Africa. I’m leaving next Monday, and it will take me two days to get there. On the first day, I’ll take a plane to Nairobi, Kenya, where I’ll stay for the night. The next day it’s a short flight to Bujumbura, the capital of Burundi. I’ll stay there until the 3rd of March and I’ll be back on the 4th.
My visa should be in order this week and last Friday I went to the Institute of Tropical Medicine to get a prescription for drugs to prevent malaria from taking control over my body. It was very busy and crowded, and I had to wait for a full two hours before it was my turn. The doctor insisted on giving me the whole diarrhoea and malaria speech, which I know by heart by now. I tried to make him notice that I’m a well experienced traveller, but there was no stopping him giving me the whole lecture. If it’s watery take this, if it’s slimy and/or bloody, do that, sleep under a sleeping net (against malaria mosquitoes’ bites), smear your body with mosquito repellent every four hours, yacketee yacketee yack yack and blah blah blah.
Anyway, I decided to ask another malaria drug, since the one I took the previous times made me a tad aggressive two days after I took it (which you have to do weekly). Afterwards, I felt a bit depressed too. The one I got now doesn’t have all those side-effects, but you have to take it every day instead of once a week. But it is incredibly expensive, I had to shove a hefty 180 € over the counter of the pharmacist’s.
Luckily, the office will pay the bill.
Friday, February 10, 2006
‘Didn’t you get any bread?’
‘We’re out of bread?’
‘Yes we are. What did I tell you yesterday evening in bed?’
‘Err. Ehm. Sleep well?’
<Very stern look>
‘I told you we were out of bread and that you should get some for lunch!’
I thought that ‘sleep well’ was a pretty good guess.
Thursday, February 09, 2006
Macka is always fascinated by the sound of things that slide back and forth, for instance when we wipe the table or a kitchen cupboard with a sponge. After he once heard the sliding noise that came from within my inkjet printer, he got a real fascination for the printer head that he can just see moving back and forth, tantalisingly close to his reach. When he follows the printer head, his own goes left to right, as if he was following a game of tennis.
Wednesday, February 08, 2006
I don’t know if it goes for all models, but this particular model Bart comes with an auto-pilot. It allows me to mentally drift away to other places and events in my head, while still keeping the right course and avoiding any collisions with objects, buildings or people. Or for instance to converse with my fiancée while driving a car: my auto pilot even takes care of saying ‘yes dear’/ ‘no dear’ at the right moment.
It does have some drawbacks however. It seems to work with predefined tracks towards regularly frequented destinations that are stored in my memory. When I go to the backer’s, I take this street. If I want to go to the nearby supermarket, I turn left at the corner and take the underpass at the subway station. But I can’t count the times that I actually wanted to go somewhere else, but ended up in front of the backer shop or the supermarket. I can tell you it is very annoying when you ‘wake up’ when the shop lady asks you what kind of bread you want, while you’re kitchen closet is stuffed with bread, you don’t have any money on you and you get a very red face when suddenly realising what a moron you are. If I inadvertently switch from one track to the other, the system gets confused and I can end up anywhere but at the right place.
Yesterday, for instance, I took the escalator in a shopping mall, going from the electronics shop at 4th floor (that’s the fifth for Americans) to the exit at the ground floor. The auto pilot guided me safely from one escalator to the other, avoiding advertising panels and people moving in front of me. When there were no more escalators, it woke me out of my daydream involving my fiancée, our wedding night and some nice lingerie I saw passing the third floor. I couldn’t find the exit and it took me a few seconds before I realised I had ended up in the basement. Ooooh, the shame when you have to take that escalator back up!
Auto-pilot Mode isn’t good for my social life either, especially when combined with Pondering Mode. This is when I start to have deep thoughts about philosophical questions, the purpose of the universe, how to establish world peace, how to end world poverty and how my fiancée would look on our wedding night in that nice lingerie I saw when passing the third floor in the shopping mall. At such a time, my higher brain functions are completely cut off from the outside world, which means I effectively put my life in the hands of the auto-pilot. At such a time, I’m completely oblivious to anyone calling me, even repeatedly. Until they get so annoyed with me ignoring them that they start to yell my name out loud.
One day, this thing will make me loose a friend, or my life.
Monday, February 06, 2006
Blasphemy in Belgium
Even Belgium didn’t escape the worldwide frenzy of Muslims protesting against the alleged blasphemy against their prophet Mohammed in a Danish newspaper. Yesterday, a spontaneous protest march crossed Brussels, gathering momentum and people as it went along. It ended at the buildings of the Flemish and French-speaking television channels, where the protesters demanded both stations to stop emitting the infamous picture. Meanwhile, all their protests have made many newspapers across Europe take over the picture in which Mohammed is depicted with a turban or headscarf in the form of a bomb.
It’s strange to look at this global attack on all things Danish and Norwegian – the second country where the cartoons were published. ‘Provocative’ and ‘controversial’ are not exactly the first words that pop into one’s mind when these countries are mentioned. Meanwhile, I pity those poor people working for the Danish/Norwegian embassies in the Muslim world. EU buildings are also a prime target, and in several countries, people have called for a boycott against Danish/Norwegian/EU products. This included Palestine, which made me wonder if those countries would also call for a boycott on EU subsidies and aid assistance.
The demonstration in Brussels on the other hand was peaceful and relatively calm, despite being unauthorised. This stood in sharp contrasts to events in many other countries, which shows that Muslims in Belgium are integrated quite well and have taken over some of our lethargy.
Belgians react in a much calmer way to blasphemy than some people in the Middle East. When Belgium’s largest brewer InBev (the former Interbrew) announced that it would increase the size of the beer glasses with 2 centilitres, going from the traditional 33 cl. to an unheard of 35 cl, no-one started to fling bricks and iron bars towards buildings. There was some protest from the pub owners, because these two centilitres don’t make much difference for the customers (they claimed), but on a whole barrel it does make a difference for the pubs. And it’s difficult for them to raise the price of beer, because already less and less people are visiting pubs so more and more of them go bankrupt.
Interbrew reacted by saying that the idea wasn’t that the glasses be fuller, but that the foamy top of the beer should be made larger to a full two centimetres, because that was ‘what the costumers wanted’. Let me immediately intervene here in the name of the Belgian beer drinkers and state clearly and officially that this is bullshit! Granted, we don’t like those English froth-less beers where the glass is full but the beer is flat and without energy. But that’s no reason to turn our beers into a Parisian coffee with whipped cream on top and a biscuit on the side.
In any other country, such blasphemy would lead to a full scale revolt in which rulers get hanged, buildings get torched and public morals sink to an all time low making it possible to get a free shag on every street corner. But not here, reserved, law-abiding and calm as we are (triple ahem). You don’t see us throwing stuff through windows and raiding other people’s embassies.
Now if someone were to draw a picture of a pint of beer with the foamy top shaped like a turban shaped like an old-fashioned bomb…
THEN things would turn ugly!
Thursday, February 02, 2006
The 11.16 Pee
When I was young – way before I became a 34-year old fart – I loathed people that lead a completely unoriginal, repetitive and predictable life. You know, dragging yourself to the same office every day, doing the same repetitive job tightening nuts and bolts or dragging documents from one stack of paper to the other. I vowed this would never happen to me, I would lead a rich and varied life and become the very epitome of originality.
Despite having a career that involves occasional travelling to strange and exotic places, I must confess that I spend the very large majority of my time dragging documents from one stack to the other. I too have become a slave of reports, memo’s, proposals, budgets and the like. And when I finally do escape from the office, my trips very rarely – if ever – include searching for hidden treasures, fighting pirates, flying on dragons, discovering strange worlds where time stood still, kissing beautiful princesses and savagely taking away their virginity while they’re chained to the wall of a dark dungeon with a rubber ball stuffed in their mouth.
As if to rub the monotonous predictability in to the point where I get blisters, my bodily functions have started to take on a very strict routine. More precisely, this has developed into a clockwork-like urge to pee at the exact time of 11.16 PM. Not 11.13 or 11.18, but exactly one minute past quarter past eleven in the morning. You can set your watch to that. A minute earlier, and I’m happily working along without a worry on my mind. On minute later, my bladder threatens to explode under the enormous pressure my kidneys start to generate in a matter of seconds. And don’t think I can postpone it for a minute; a huge tidal wave would flood the city if I didn’t make it to the toilet within the next thirty seconds or so.
More annoyingly, several of my colleagues in the building seem to have a similar problem, although it seems their bladders are less accurate than mine. So every time it’s a race upstairs to the toilet in the hope that this time, they’re late and I get to occupy the toilet before someone else does. This race does add a bit of suspense to my daily routine but…
…I’m sorry; we’ll have to continue another time. Writing this has set some things in motion. I have to pee.
Wednesday, February 01, 2006
When the train entered the subway station, it was the usual hassle at the doors to get in. When they opened, I heard the distinct sound of a drunken git playing the accordion in an attempt to rob some fellow travellers of their change. He turned around, with the big instrument hanging over his belly, and looked me directly in the face with a big grin.
‘Bloody hell’, I muttered.
I ran for another door and just managed to get into the next car before they closed. I had a relatively quiet ride, only disturbed from time to time by the blood chilling cries of the people in the next car being submitted to the dreaded ‘accordion-in-a-tunnel’ death ride. When I finally arrived at my destination, I saw the accordion guy leaving the other car… alone, with a deadly grin upon his face. The silence in the railcar was eerie. I tucked my scarf into my coat and hastily left the station, without turning around.