Tuesday, April 25, 2006
Evening Stroll In Antwerp
The weather was so nice yesterday evening, so we had a nice walk trough the old part of town and along the river banks. A nice chance for me to practice my photography skills.
The 'Zuiderterras' is one of the very few places where you can sit right next to the river Schelde and have a drink or something to eat. It's been a while since I was here, but the food is quite good.
The Cathedral of Our Lady, as seen from the southern terrace next to the river.
The skyline of the leftbank.
These statues guard the entrance of the Zuiderterras, one of two terraces that follow the river bank. No better place for a warm evening, to look at the boats passing by.
This cold modern building near the northern end of the Noorderterras got a nice warm glow from the setting sun.
The church of Saint-Paul's overlooks the red light district, giving a stern look at the sins of the flesh commited nearby.
One of the many pubs in the old city.
Antwerp has more Irish pubs than Dublin! Well, almost...
The main tower of the Cathedral of Our Lady dominates the city centre.
Monday, April 24, 2006
'Doing A Terrace'
The first rays of sunshine have finally reached Belgian soil, after a long, cold and depressive winter. There’s a park right across the door of the office, so I ate my sandwich outdoors today, on a park bench in the shade, looking at the dogs play and smelling the fresh spring smell of the plants and flowers.
Belgians wait eagerly for these first moments of spring sunshine, because after a long winter stop, they can finally eat and drink outdoors again, on the terrace of a pub or restaurant. In the Flemish part, we call this ‘doing a terrace’. In fact, we’re so fond of it that it has become a bit ridiculous really. This weekend the sun was shining, but that doesn’t mean it was warm at all. Still, people were sitting on the terraces, dressed in coats and pullovers, or just huddling close together and trembling on their seats. The weather forecast said it was going to be warm (they were wrong of course), so we’re going to SIT OUTSIDE, even if our bums freeze off.
Another consequence of this Belgian terrace mania is that a lot of cafés and restaurants installed devices to allow their customers to survive the freezing cold and still sit outside. This starts with gas-heaters that make you melt at one side and freeze at the other. Then there are windshields at both sides of the terrace. Some will also make a roof to protect you from the rain. And finally, there’s the wind shield at the front, to make it nice and cosy. Now tell me, if you’re completely surrounded by walls, with a roof over your head and with a heating installed at the interior, why do people still call these ‘terraces’? In my dictionary, this is a building, or rather an add-on to a building. And generally, it’s an ugly add-on too. Plus, it blocks the sidewalks, often you have to walk on the street to pass these contraptions.
So, fellow countrymen and -women, make a choice: sit outside when the weather permits, or don’t if it’s too cold. But don’t pretend you’re outside when in fact you’re sitting in a damp, ugly, half-cold-half-warm dump without a decent view!
Sunday, April 23, 2006
Although I'm quite active on a number of weblogs, I never had a Gravatar. The main reason for this was that I just couldn't think of an avatar that suited me. I think you will understand that it was quite a challenge to find something that fully embodies my many outstanding capacities, without it getting so unbelievably impressive that fellow bloggers wouldn't dare to voice their humble opinions out of fear to have such an obviously pathetic point of view compared to mine.
You know me, I'm hopelessly modest.
So after much thought, I came up with this:
Pretty cool heh? I think it reflects well my style of writing, especially the biting remarks I sometime leave behind. I completely drew it myself. May I point you in particular to the beautiful shining effect on the copper part of the pen. No gratuitous use of filters there, all done by hand (mouse)!
Wednesday, April 19, 2006
Every good blog once in a while has a list. It doesn’t matter what about: favourite artists, fondly remembered zits, countries where you would like to live, places you wouldn’t visit even if the streets were paved with gold and park benches clad with fully undressed porn models, etc.
This blog of mine never had any lists, so the conclusion is that not every good blog once in a while has a list. Or what?
Anyway, to avoid discussion, I present you with my list, which I invented myself so it wasn’t send to me by someone else with the question of sending it to ten other people in order to flood the worlds servers with meaningless information. Just that you know. Incidentally, I’m not waiting for people to send me lists, nor will I send lists to other people. There’s enough pollution as it is.
So, my list:
Airports I’d rather crash land on after a long and agonizing dive in a burning plane fully loaded with fuel, than ever set another foot in:
- Kinshasa Pirates Refuge, a.k.a. Kinshasa International Airport (Dem. Rep. of Congo): a recent addition to my list, and straight to number one. You can’t talk about this airport in terms of annoyances or minor grieves. We’re talking raw survival here; I kill you before you kill me. Forget about your luggage, it’s already been stolen. Just get out and save your own life. Never mind about your wife and children, you killed them the moment you decided to come here.
- Miami International Airport (U.S.A): I was on my way to Central America a couple of years ago, when I had to spend several hours waiting there. It was exactly one year after 9/11, so the airport security personnel was as sweet as a Rotweiler from which you just stole his dinner after penetrating him in the arse with a spiked condom. Then we ended up in some remote building, with no windows and a malfunctioning air-conditioning turning the air into sour soup. There was a single shop where I bought a coke, with the idea to taste the Real Thing fresh from the country it originated in. But the clown behind the counter gave me a vanilla coke, which tasted light-years beyond disgusting. Finally we were whipped back into the Boeing, and I spent the next three weeks of my holiday with the awful thought that I had to return through the same airport.
- Madrid Barajas (Spain): First of all, the monitors with the departure information will show you every airplane that took off there since the earliest hours of the morning. However, you will fruitlessly look for any plane that is scheduled to take off in more than 30 minutes. Secondly, it takes you at least 45 minutes to go from one end of the airport to the other because you’ll have to take five busses and pass 20 check-points to get there. Why the departure of coming flights is kept such a secret is beyond me. Also, try to ask for information when you don’t speak Spanish in this international airport.
- Zurich Kloten (Switzerland): as a twist of faith, ‘kloten’ in Dutch means ‘bullocks’, and it is kloten if you have to spend a while on Zurich’s airport on a Sunday. It is grey. It is dark. It feels like the ceilings are slowly crushing you. There’s nothing to see. There’s nothing to do. Generally, it is rainy outside. If it isn’t, the depressing dark, grey interior of the airport is more than sufficient to give Jim Carrey a depression.
- Paris Charles De Gaulle (France): actually it’s not so much the airport itself; it’s the people that work there. They all have the ‘grand gueule’ of the real Parisian. Their attitude just sucks, they will treat you like the piece of filth you really are, and I don’t want to be reminded of that every time I’m going abroad. They will intentionally misinform you, knowing fully well that ten meters further there is a security guard that will shout at you because you don’t have the right colour baggage label or something. They will push you, prod you and look at you with their filthiest look.
- Frankfurt Airport (Germany): every time I arrive here, I spontaneously shoot ‘MOOOOH’! You immediately feel like a cow being driven from her meadow to the slaughter house. Frankfurt has these automatic glaze panels that move to form corridors to drive the passengers from one place to the other. Apart from that, it’s big and empty and not a nice place to wait for long.
Airports I’d gladly make a detour for:
- Vienna Airport (Austria): this is an airport you’d fly to, visit and return without even going outside to have a look at the country. I’m told that Vienna is a beautiful city. This airport is cosy, without being cramped. It has more the feel of a shopping mall than that of an airport. Not one of these large, bland, colourless shopping malls, but a nice, interesting one, where you like to wander around. There is a lot to see, a lot of cosy corners to eat or drink something and so on. You don’t mind waiting here.
- Brussels Zaventem (Belgium): yes, I know, I’m a chauvinist. But it is a rather nice airport, modern yet adapted to humans, with good facilities and lots of nice places to hang out. I especially like the architecture of the A docking pier, which looks like the inside of a Zeppelin airship.
- Budapest Ferihegy (Hungary): small but nice, everything within an easy distance, good facilities, friendly people, not too much check-points. Must visit the city one time.
- Nairobi Jomo Kenyatta International (Kenya): another recent addition. Given the fact that I had to wait twice here in two weeks and for no less than ten hours, this one really stands out for an African airport. It has clean, interesting, good facilities and incredibly friendly and helpful people, although the people are sometimes more helpful than useful. As a liftboy asked me after half an hour of negotiations to go to the restaurant on the third floor: ‘do you speak English?’ ‘I do’, I said, ‘but you don’t’. He just smiled and nodded.
- Bujumbura airport (Burundi): if you can’t remember how it was to step on a plane without being searched and man handled 500 times, try this airport. You’ve never gotten on a plane this relaxed, terrorists or no terrorists on board.
Tuesday, April 18, 2006
It worked only a moment ago!
Thursday was D-Day for my database application. After sweating and testing for weeks, I felt ready to present the fruits of my labour to the general public, in this case my colleagues in Niger. Let me first tell you what it was supposed to do. We work with a lot of African organisations that we help to get organised, to analyse problems, to define their own solutions and to realise their objectives. Don’t I sound like a real consultant there? In understandable terms, this means that people in Africa are not always sitting helplessly in the desert waiting for dashing young aid workers to give them water and bread. There are people in developing countries that know what’s wrong and that want to do something about it. They just don’t know very well how to get organised and how to get things done. That is where we come in, we help them get organised. We don’t tell them what to do (Build schools! Establish more hospitals! Move over, let me do that!) Instead, we help them looking at themselves and at their situation and come up with their own solutions. This is called capacity-building and empowerment, it means that they are aware that they can change things themselves and that they know how to do it.
You need a very close follow-up of each organisation to do any good, and you need to understand the local context it is working in to understand what it’s doing and where it is going. So when you work with close to one hundred organisations, it’s becoming difficult to see where they all are going and how they are doing. This is where my nifty new database comes into place.
So after weeks of work, the moment was there to present version 1.1 of my application. And then I did a ‘Bill Gates’.
Those of you who remember the official presentation of Windows XP will know what I mean. There he was, the giant big boss of Microsoft, to present his brand-new operating system. So much more stable than Windows 9x, because it was based on Windows NT. And blah blah blah blah! And more blah blah blah! And now we start up the system! And then the bloody system froze, in front of all these highbrows of the software and hardware industry. In front of all the members of the specialised computer magazines. In front of all the members of the general press, the newspapers, the magazines, the television stations. In front of the whole world! Poor Bill.
On Thursday, I wanted to feed the first real data into the database with one or two colleagues. Instead, the director of our partner organisation decided to make it a big show, with everyone present and my laptop linked to the projector. At first, things went well. We were able to identify the team and to define the different types of organisations. Then we proceeded to define the indicators to measure our progress. And then a little mistake occurred.
No problem, fixed on the spot. And then there was another. And then I noticed that significant parts of the navigation and the scoring system didn’t work anymore. And then there were some more errors. And there was whining and wailing and grinding of teeth while I furiously tried to deal with the most serious of problems. Finally, in front of all those present, I had to admit defeat and ask them to continue later while I solved the problem. By my misery didn’t end there.
There was a power cut, just to annoy me. I was able to toil on thanks to the fully charged battery of my laptop, but after an hour and a half or so the battery was empty and the power cut still wasn’t solved. Well, it was lunch time anyway, and lo and behold, just after lunch the power switched back on. I fired up the laptop again, and then MS Access, but it didn’t want to start. That was the second time since the beginning of my mission, and I knew the only remedy was to reinstall everything, ripping register values manually from the Windows registry. Luckily I had the installation CD with me!
But this time, Access still refused to launch. I checked the other computers, but they all had old versions of Access and I hadn’t saved my application as an Access 2000 file yet, so I was blocked. Then, by divine intervention, my laptop gave up it’s resistance and I got Access to work again. Later that afternoon, we were able to continue and in the evening I worked frantically to get everything in working order again. Just before my departure the next day, everything was fine and dandy and the team was happily feeding data into the database. I haven’t gotten any complaints yet, so as far as I know it is still working. Or else it exploded in their faces, killing everyone on the spot. Both scenarios are fine with me, as long as I don’t get any alarming e-mails.
So there you go. For those who have been doing some programming, it’s a classical case of ‘it worked only a moment ago’. No matter how much you test, your application WILL fail in front of everyone once you give a demonstration. And changing only the tinniest of lines of code during that demonstration will make everything fall apart, even when you just add a line of commentary.
Those of you that are not interested in programming will have had an interesting introduction in the wonderful world of application writing. Or you’re swinging on the end of a rope with the other end tied to your chandelier because you weren’t capable to cope with the immense boredom of this post.
Both scenarios are fine with me, as long as I don’t get any alarming e-mails.
Tuesday, April 11, 2006
I know some people have gliding working hours, but here they have gliding holidays. Last week I was told that Tuesday would be a Muslim Holiday. Because these depend on the moon calendar, I wasn't surprised to hear it could also be on Monday. But then they said it would be definitely on Tuesday. Friday afternoon however, the government announced that Monday would be the official holiday.
So on Monday morning I was still happily snoring the tiles of the ceiling, when somebody violently woke me up by knocking on the door. The driver was there, asking me to come to the office. When I arrived there, I asked about that holiday. The director told me that everyone was informed that it would be Monday finally, but on Monday morning it was announced again that it was on Tuesday.
So basically they had gotten me to the office to tell me that I could stay in bed and that I had the day's off.
Saturday, April 08, 2006
If you want to get around in Niamey, you take a taxi. They're cheap and usually in reasonable working order thanks to a regular control by the authorities, but taking a taxi here is a bit different from other places.
They don't necessarily take you where you want to go. When you stop one, the driver will ask where you want to go. If you're the first costumer, he will take you there but on the way he will pick up other people. If there's already someone in the taxi, it depends if they are going in the same general direction. So a taxi ride is never direct from one point to the other, but eventually you will get there. But the price for a ride is cheap because of this taxi sharing tradition. Although it can get quite cramped with five or six people in one cab.
Today was a day of hot winds, and I'm not talking about my intestines here. Even local people, who've been used to this kind of weather for countless generations, thought it was hot. But apparently, the worst is still to come.
Thursday, April 06, 2006
My soon-to-be-wife called yesterday about our new house and the stuff we want to take over from the previous owners (still can't believe I'm going to be an 'owner').
She called after she went horse riding, and on the background I heard some very familiar noises. Immediately my mouth started to water, because my mind had identified the sound of Belgian fries being tossed around to shake off the fat.
'Are you standing in a fries shop?' I asked. 'Why yes, I had to queue so I decided to call you while I had to wait'.
A true Belgian I am. Especially the mouth watering bit was revealing. In fact, it's happening again as I write this.
Eight more days
Wednesday, April 05, 2006
Village in a City
As every large city Niamey, the capital of Niger, has both poorer and wealthier parts of town. The funny thing is that even those wealthier parts have an interesting mix of poor and rich. Here you don't have the absolute division between people of different social backgrounds. My hotel is in a richer part of the city, where most houses are old colonial villas that are a bit worn, but they still are large properties with nice gardens surrounded by a high wall and guarded by day and night. Not that criminality is an issue here, in fact is ridiculously safe here for a city of this magnitude.
In between these castles you will find plots of land that are also surrounded by a wall, but they don't have any gates. This is were you will find poorer people. Their houses are the spitting image of how you used to draw a typical African hut when you were 10 years old. In front of them, women (who else) will cook on wood fires, while the children tend the goats. In fact, these are small traditional villages in the middle of the city. It really sets Niamey apart from all the other large cities I know.
Monday, April 03, 2006
Three Seconds to Meltdown
It's less hot than it's supposed to be here, a mere 37°C when I arrived. The desert wind is blowing massive amounts of sand and dust towards us, which blocks out the sun a wee bit. The wind itself is hot and hard. It's like standing in the airflow of a jet engine.
The dust gets everywhere: in your clothes, in your mouth, in your throat... I have to be careful with electronic equipment, so the camera stays mainly in its bag inside my suitcase.
Not that I have much free time here, there's much too much work to be done. But enough about that already.
My hotel is interesting. Sadly there was no more room at the place I stayed last time, where I met a lot of interesting people. The hotel staff of the place I'm staying in is nice and the rooms are clean and spacey, but it does not deserve it's name. It's called 'le Relaxe', but they try to keep you as best as they can from doing just that. The morning after my arrival, they woke me up at 7AM for breakfast. That was not what I was hoping for after a full day of travelling.
In the evening, it got even worse. A wedding kept me awake well into the night. The next morning, the staff had no compassion either, turning me into a nervous wreck with their cleaning noises. Oh, and I suspect the neighbour is keeping goats at the other side of the wall that's right outside my window (so much for a view there).