10 Years Later…

Reflections on a decade of blogging


It has been three whole years since I last posted on this blog. Three years. From a personal point of view I’m really disappointed with myself for neglecting it for so long. There have been times when it dawned on me that I had dedicated a tiny little corner of the internet to documenting my travel and experiences for several years, yet like an old t-shirt, I tossed it into the back of a cupboard, shut the door and forgot about it.

Perhaps I have been a little intimidated as my last post (in March 2018) documented a wonderful trip to the western part of Bangladesh that incorporated the contrasting intensity of the Lalon Festival and the peaceful tranquility of rural Rajshahi. That was a fairly characteristic post of mine as it presented a predominantly image-based dedication to the charm of a land I have called home for a number of years in the past decade.



Typically I enjoy blogging most about travels and adventures, yet in the past couple of years these have been limited, and totally curtailed for the past year of course. Thus, for too long now my blog has remained frozen in time, categorized as an activity I used to do, rather than a current interest.

Now seems like an appropriate time however to revisit and reopen those thoughts and experiences I had somewhat diligently recorded for a number of years. Not always regularly, but routinely enough to ensure I would at least have a record of where I had been, who I’d met, what I thought, how I felt and generally what life presented.

As I click submit and share this new post, it is April 9th, 2021. Exactly ten years to the day (April 9th, 2011) I sat at an unfamiliar table in Chittagong, Bangladesh and posted for the very first time on this blog. Ten years ago I had little idea of what life had in store and where the proceeding years would take me. I was beardless and perhaps a little aimless, trying to carve out a path based on a variety of somewhat vague goals and aims. I knew I wanted to teach, and I knew I wanted to do so outside of the UK.

Looking back, I can reflect upon a decade of personal and professional growth, driven primarily by travel and adventure that has opened many doors and allowed me the privilege to experience so much. When I arrived in Chittagong ten years ago, I did so on a short-term, three month contract with a limited vision into the immediate future and little beyond.

Chittagong (and Bangladesh) suited me though, and thus the initial three months turned into a distinctly satisfying six and a half years. Bangladesh became a second home, and from there I was able to explore many other beautiful and unique corners of South Asia.



I have written fairly extensively about my time in Bangladesh on this blog and shared countless images. Some of my favorite moments and experiences have come when armed with a camera and a willingness to explore, and this has led me to all corners of the country. From Cox’s Bazar in the south east to Rangpur in the north west, and Barishal in the south west to Sylhet in the north east. All offering something different, and reasons to return.

Over the years I have documented in words and images a wide range of subjects. From the passion of tea drinking and cricket, to chance encounters with UN peacekeepers, and the discovery of a war grave that revealed a connection between Chittagong and home. I have shared my thoughts on change and my experiences as a teacher, documented national days of significance and endeavored to share the stories of some wonderful people I’ve met along the way.



In particular though, I have frequently felt most comfortable when being able to offer a modest glimpse into the places I have visited through images. Photography evolved into a passionate hobby of mine during 2013, some two years after beginning this blog, and it has undoubtedly become my main motivation for blogging.

I must have clicked thousands of images since 2013, and a select few of my favorites have made it onto this blog. Sometimes I spent a week or so exploring different locations across Bangladesh, other times it was a weekend excursion meandering through the countryside that lay just a short cycle outside of Chittagong city. I can’t tell you how much pleasure this simple activity gave me, but I always strive to ensure my blogs do at least provide some sense of that.

During these past ten years I have also been extremely lucky to have had the opportunity to visit Sri Lanka, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Myanmar and Malaysia.



Between July 2012 and July 2013, I spent a year living and working in Guyana on the north-eastern tip of South America. During those months this blog was dedicated to documenting an episode that once again presented a vast array of fresh encounters. This period in Guyana was definitely a significant learning experience for me personally and professionally and a challenge on many levels. However, I look back and reflect upon it with great fondness now, and with the benefit of a huge amount of hindsight, I believe it may well have been one of the most defining years of my life so far.



I haven’t written about this previously, but in 2019 after leaving Bangladesh, I spent several months teaching in Sulaymaniyah (also known as Slemani, Sulaimani or ‘Suli’ for short) in the Kurdistan region of Iraq. It was a little daunting when I first arrived, but as always things tend to fall into place, and I was soon able to appreciate my surroundings and take time to learn and explore. I’d like to share a few images from my time in Kurdistan and Sulaymaniyah below.



Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to travel around all that extensively for various reasons, but Kurdistan, and Suli in particular is a beautiful place full of warm and welcoming people. Many hours were spent strolling through the streets of the city, or sat at a small tea stand watching the world go by.

Surrounded by mountains on most sides, Sulaymaniyah presented a diverse climate with freezing temperatures and snow in the winter to a challenging dry heat in the summer. Professional reasons meant I moved on after eight months in Suli, but in that time it was evident that Kurdistan is a fascinating place on many levels, and I am grateful for having the opportunity to experience that.

At present my teaching journey has taken me to Kabul, Afghanistan. I have been there since August 2019, yet a global pandemic has interrupted that for the time being. As you can imagine, Kabul is a whole new type of challenge, but equally another engaging and rewarding experience that allows me to work with some wonderful colleagues and students.

I would love to share some images of my current surroundings and location, but due to security reasons, it is not advisable at this point. However, I can say the view from my apartment looks out onto a stunning mountain range that surrounds Kabul on all sides, and at different times of the year it provides a colourful vibrancy that encases the city below.

Currently, traveling around Afghanistan is prohibited for me personally due to my job, and this is a key reason (or excuse perhaps) for my lack of motivation or inspiration to keep this blog updated. I will share one image though of a sight I pass most days in my place of work that never fails to spark my enthusiasm for my current role.



It feels good to return to this blog and compose a post. I’m hoping that it may inspire me to get back into a regular habit of doing so once again. I’m not sure if anyone is actually reading this post, but it’s okay if not – I’m happy knowing that I have a personal record that I can return to and remind myself of moments that shaped me over the years. If you have happened to stumble upon this blog and this post, thanks for stopping by.

Perhaps in ten years I will still be posting on here. I’d like to think I will be. It will hopefully mean that I have had ten further years of travel, exploration and adventure. Met more people, clicked more photos and lived life.


The People You Meet

Travelling – it’s all about the journey. All about the spectacular places you see, the food you eat, the fear and excitement of the unknown and the cultures and customs you experience and are often invited into. You click frantically in a desperate attempt to capture as many memories as possible, and if you’re like me, you try to keep notes and write about the unique, random and sometimes bizarre moments that will no doubt occur at regular points throughout the journey.

Local Rwandan band

However, during my most recent trip to Rwanda and the DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo) it dawned on me that one of the most important aspects of my travels and time abroad has been the people I’ve met, and crucially, the things I’ve learned from each and every one of these people. I have come to realise this cannot be underestimated or overlooked in regards to its value, relevance and impact.

Kim and I (halfway up a volcano)

International travelers inspire. Their sense of adventure and courage in the face of the unknown is at times baffling, but more often than not, totally energizing. They are often brave, curious, open, and unafraid to try new things, unburdened by logistics, and often equipped with a sharp and equally patient sense of humour. Those who travel live for the moment and instead of asking “Why?” the question is usually “Why not?”

Some may remark it is an irresponsible and risky existence, but I would say the outcomes of these risks are moments that will stay etched in the memory for a lifetime. From my personal experiences during my explorations I have encountered all manner of personalities, and this has undoubtedly been paramount to my own personal growth. It has inspired me to do things I had probably never before considered.

I have become more open and confident in meeting new people and more eager to strike up a conversation. My willingness to try new things has known far fewer bounds in recent years, and whilst I try my very best to be as careful and respectful as possible, I think the dive into the unknown is a truly formative experience.

At various points on my recent trip, I interacted and spent time with a group of people who truly emphasized the diversity and collective adventurous spirit of the international worker and traveller.

Firstly I reunited with three good friends who have all carved out their own individually international paths in recent years. Inga (from Norway) volunteered with me in Rwanda in 2010 and since then has gone on to spend an extended period teaching at an international school in Kigali. She has also spent time teaching in refugee camps in Lebanon (predominantly home to Syrian refugees) and is now about to begin a PhD at Oxford University researching education in refugee camps, which will once again take her to camps in East Africa and the Middle East.

Kirsty (from Canada) is a web designer and online entrepreneur currently based in Rwanda and responsible for this great website www.livinginkigali.com. She also travels extensively and a major part of this is dedicated to her work with disaster relief projects. In the past few years she has been to Haiti, Bangladesh, Malawi and most recently, Nepal as a volunteer for an organisation which sends volunteers to assist with work after major disasters (www.hands.org).

Finally Kim (from the US) is also a former fellow volunteer in Rwanda. Since our work together in 2010 she has lived in Bogota, Colombia and Dar es Salam, Tanzania and travelled a great deal during this time. It is safe to say that Kim has experienced some of the very real challenges of life in major international capital cities and has been a constant and reliable source of knowledge and advice during the past few years.

So, as you can imagine, the stories and experiences shared when we all came together were humorous, intriguing, eye-opening, but most importantly they provided a very real insight into a wide variety of life experiences and challenges.

(L-R) Johnny, me, Inga, Kirsty and Kim

We all signed up to hike Mount Nyiragongo in The DRC and personally I was a little reluctant when the volcano hike was in the planning stages due to cost and risk. Eastern DRC is an area rife with extremely dangerous rebel groups that reside in the dense forests and often unleash brutal and devastating attacks on surrounding towns and villages. It is the reason why there are large numbers of UN peacekeepers based in nearby Goma.

In addition to that Nyiragongo is an active volcano, which last erupted in 2002 leaving the town of Goma covered and destroyed by lava. The people are still rebuilding their homes and lives today. However, with a bit of peer pressure and that adventurous spirit, I was persuaded to sign up for the hike. Why not?!

Mount Nyiragongo

Mount Nyiragongo

Looking into the belly of the volcano

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Freezing, but happy at the ridge of the volcano

Also in our group for the volcano climb was Johnny from Ireland. Now if you want to hear stories about international adventures, Johnny is your man. He is currently on an 8 year mission to visit every country in the world. At the time of meeting him he was up to about 145 countries. How does he fund this you may ask? Well, a few years ago he was in a 9-5 office job which he disliked. So, he set up a travel blog/website and once this gained interest and popularity, it quickly attracted advertisers and he realised this was a liberating and exciting way to earn money. He recently celebrated breaking the $1 million mark for income generated by his online work. This is one of his websites; http://onestep4ward.com/.

Kim, Johnny and I

The hike was tough, but chatting with Johnny and hearing his many stories from almost any country you can think of helped pass the time and keep our minds off the sometimes gruelling ascent and knee-jerking descent.

At our hotel in Goma before beginning the hike we met Finbarr O’Reilly, an international correspondent and photographer, who was based in Africa when Mount Nyiragongo erupted in January 2002 and arrived on the scene the very next day. He has been visiting and working in the DRC ever since. He has also spent time working in Afghanistan, Darfur, Niger, Somalia, Libya and many other ‘hotspots’ which have exposed to him to some of the most emotionally challenging scenes you can imagine. This is his photography website http://www.finbarr-oreilly.com/.

We also shared a ride with Finbarr back from Goma to Kigali and in the car with us that day was Paul. Paul’s job is to work in conjunction with the US State Department organising hip hop workshops around the world. The overarching mission of the project is to promote diplomacy, reconciliation and trauma relief amongst young people who have been affected by various challenges often due to war and conflict.

It was fascinating hearing about such a program and how it has achieved such positive results in a diverse set of countries to date. Paul has facilitated these all over the world and it was really very cool to hear about such novel and unique methods of providing assistance and support to young people across the world.

So, in the space of just a few short days I was able to speak with, and more importantly, draw inspiration from a fascinating collection of people. Our volcano hike group was truly international and this is what I love.

Of course, this is not solely reflected in this one specific trip. It has been the case everywhere I’ve travelled/lived, and it is one of the reasons the travel bug gets you. You never know for sure who you are going to meet, where they will be from or what their background is. The one thing you can almost guarantee though is that whoever you cross paths with at that particular time will have a new story to tell, a new place to recommend and an ability to open your eyes to a new perspective that you may not have considered previously. And that I have found is priceless.

During the hike

Lenny, am I going mad?


This blog doesn’t really follow a set format as such. I tend to focus on anything that has interested or entertained me, an event that perhaps defines a place I’m in, a person or group of people I’ve met who have inspired me, a reminder that I don’t live in the UK, or just about anything I feel inclined to record through words and images.

On occasions my blog is serious (see previous posts about UN peacekeepers, reflections on life, etc.), but occasionally it’s the ramblings of a madman. So, welcome trusty readers to my 31st blog post, and allow me to introduce you to a friend of mine. Well, I guess you could say he’s my roommate.

From here on in this roommate shall be referred to as ‘Lenny’, the name I assigned him. In fairness Lenny may not even be male, but for the purposes of this blog post he is, and his name is Lenny.

Lenny arrived one day quite unannounced and made himself at home immediately. I left my desk to make a cup of tea, and when I returned I found Lenny enjoying his own liquid refreshment, attached to an empty fruit juice carton.


I soon realised he’s both agile and determined….

I wasn’t too sure what to feed him, so it’s been a case of trial and error. I’m sure he gets his fair share of mosquitoes, but this piece of guava seemed to take his fancy.

He was more suspicious of these sultanas.

The guava also attracted another of his kind, who I presume is now my second (and as yet unnamed) roommate.

Lenny looked on in intrigued confusion.

We’re both still getting used to each other’s presence, however. On occasions if I get too close or make any sudden movements, Lenny retreats.

And spies on me from a safe distance.

Lenny appreciates creativity and the arts. He enjoys many literary genres. In this instance his book of choice was the Georgetown phone directory…

He also enjoys American sitcoms and has excellent taste.

Yet, his favourite hobby by far is spying on me, and keeping a watchful eye on my movements. The other day he literally spent about 15 minutes just watching me. He needs to get a life…

Nevertheless, I can often feel those beady eyes fixed on me.

Lenny’s friend hasn’t quite built up the same courage yet, and prefers to keep a safe distance. In this case he peered down at me from a crack in the wall…

Although occasionally I catch him when he least expects it. Here he is in my coffee mug, the scamp.

And a very poor attempt at maintaining his anonymity…

So, there you have it. That’s Lenny (and his unnamed friend). He goes about his business in a quiet and unassuming manner, rarely disturbing me, unlike the mosquitoes – the bane of my existence. Lenny is of great use here as he snacks on them. I once saw him try to hunt down a fairly sizeable moth. He failed of course, but I was quite proud of his pluckiness and his spirit!

This isn’t actually the first time I’ve shared my home with a gecko. I had many scaly-tailed roommates in Rwanda too.

For anyone inclined to question my sanity at this point, never fear; Lenny says I’ve got nothing to worry about.

Until next time.



 

One People, One Nation, One Destiny.



Sunday, May 5th 2013 was a notable date here in Guyana. It marked the anniversary of an event which played a huge part in shaping the face of the Guyana you find today. Exactly 175 years ago to the day, on May 5th 1838, the very first indentured Indian labourers arrived to work in the sugar plantations of the then British colony of Guyana. They weren’t ‘slaves’ as such, however their workers’ rights were neglected and conditions were often poor. They did however have the right to repatriation in India after five years. Some took up this offer, others decided to make Guyana their permanent home.

Over 200,000 workers in total made the journey from Asia to South America in the 19th century, and possibly the most telling statistic of all is descendants of those immigrant workers now account for 44% of the total population in 2013. The Indo-Guyanese are therefore officially the largest ethnic group in Guyana.

One aspect of this country that has intrigued me most during my time here has been the incredible diversity. For a nation modest in geographical area and with a total population comparable to the city of Leeds (UK), or Austin (Texas), Guyana is a melting pot for such a diverse range of cultures, peoples, languages, and traditions. In addition to the Indo-Guyanese; Afro-Guyanese account for 30% of the population, whilst mixed heritage Guyanese make up 16%.  The Amerindian (indigenous) community accounts for the remaining 10%, aside from small Brazilian/Portuguese and Chinese communities.

This diversity manifests itself in so many aspects of Guyanese society. As I touched upon in a previous blog post, language is certainly a strong reflection, with the presence of English, Creole, Portuguese, Spanish, Chinese, and nine Amerindian dialects. Cuisine is another. The popular ‘cookup’ is a Caribbean style dish made of rice, beans, meat, coconut and various vegetables all cooked together in one pot. Curry and roti dishes are readily available and popular, as are Chinese options, including the Guyanese style chow mein. Meat eaters get their fix at various Brazilian barbeques, and Amerindian cuisine is known for the spicy beef or pork stew, Pepperpot – customarily eaten during the Christmas period.

Music and dance is another diverse characteristic of Guyana. Traditional south Asian beats, tablas and sitars, and popular Bollywood songs frequently fill the air. Calypso, Soca, and Reggae are equally prevalent, and a reminder that despite being part of mainland South America, Guyana is very much influenced by its Caribbean connection. Brazilian and traditional South American music is also a common sound.

However, I feel I’ve been struck most by the religious diversity of this country, which is quite evident in Georgetown. Perhaps it’s because my eighteen months prior to Guyana were spent in the predominantly Islamic state of Bangladesh, where 90% of the population identify themselves as Muslim. My religious experiences were therefore defined by the distinct daily call to prayer, the abundance of traditional Islamic dress, and the Mosques of varying shapes and sizes. There is of course a sizeable Hindu community in Bangladesh as well as a modest number of Buddhists. Yet, overall society is defined by the teachings and values of the Qu’ran.


Prashad Nagar Masjid, Georgetown

Prashad Nagar Masjid, Georgetown


Christianity is the most widespread faith in Guyana, but given the history I touched upon earlier in this post, Hinduism is also very visible. Islam has a noticeable presence, despite being less represented in terms of actual followers.

From my front porch if you look to your left you will see a large Seventh Day Adventist Church, and if you look to your right you will see the towering structure of Guyana’s newest and biggest Mosque (currently under construction).


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In the foreground a church and behind this Guyana’s newest mosque.


I decided a few weeks back to take a series of photos that would demonstrate Georgetown’s religious diversity, and I’d like to present these in this blog post.

(The images are best viewed in full screen mode!)

Christianity

I’ll begin with the most followed faith in Guyana. It is estimated that 57% of the population are Christian, of which various denominations are present.  Below is a selection of images showing the churches of varying shapes and sizes across Georgetown, most of which were built during colonial administration and therefore possess a significant degree of historical and architectural charm.


St George's Cathdral, Georgetown



Susamachar Methodist Church, Georgetown

Susamachar Methodist Church, Georgetown


Susamachar Methodist Church


St George's Cathedral, Georgetown

St George’s Anglican Cathedral, Georgetown


Christ Church


Smith Memorial Church, Georgetown

Smith Memorial Church – built in 1844


St Andrew's Kirk

St Andrew’s Kirk, Presbyterian Church – The oldest building in Guyana, built in 1818.


Brickdam Cathedral

Brickdam Cathedral (Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception) – built 1920s


Queenstown Moravian Church


Burn's Memorial Presbyterian Church, Georgetown

Burn’s Memorial Presbyterian Church, Georgetown


Hinduism

Hindus account for 28% of the population, with the presence of Hinduism a result of the vast numbers of Indian immigrants brought to Guyana in the colonial era. Below are photos taken at temples across Georgetown.


Cummings Lodge/Industry Mandir

Cummings Lodge/Industry Mandir, Georgetown


Central Vaidik Mandir

Central Vaidik Mandir, Georgetown


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Radha Krishna Mandir

Radha Krishna Mandir, Georgetown


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Guyana Sanatan Dharma Mahasabha Ashram

Guyana Sanatan Dharma Mahasabha Ashram, founded 1934.


Islam

The exact root of Islam in Guyana is debated. It’s quite possible that it first arrived with a number of the West African slaves. It’s also widely accepted of course that like Hinduism, the presence of Islam is a direct result of 19th century immigration from India.

The first three images below show the new Queenstown Jama Masjid. The original was built in 1895, but succumbed to old age in 2007 and was dismantled. Upon completion it will once again sit proudly as the biggest mosque in Guyana and will be a place of prayer for much of the city’s Muslim population. It sits literally right behind my house, and I have watched its growth with great interest. When I first arrived it was merely a shell, but 10 months on it’s nearing completion and will certainly be a grand structure when finished.

Below this are images taken at other mosques across Georgetown. I’m always more intrigued by the role of Islam in society here, and I think this stems from my time in Bangladesh.


Prashad Nagar Masjid, Georgetown

Prashad Nagar Masjid, Georgetown


Prashad Nagar Masjid, Georgetown

Prashad Nagar Masjid, Georgetown


Queenstown Jama Masjid

Queenstown Jama Masjid


Prashad Nagar Masjid, Georgetown

Prashad Nagar Masjid, Georgetown


Queenstown Jama Masjid

Queenstown Jama Masjid


Queenstown Jama Masjid

Queenstown Jama Masjid


Prashad Nagar Masjid, Georgetown

Prashad Nagar Masjid, Georgetown




LBI Masjid

LBI (La Bonne Intention) Masjid


So there you have it, a selection of places of worship, which are dotted across Georgetown, some of which bear a connection to a bygone era when the foundations of religious faith were being laid in Guyana. My impression has been that generally speaking this is a spiritual society, signified by the vast array of ‘houses of god’, which vary in shape and size.  Within one square mile of my house I believe there are at least ten different places I could visit to connect with god, if I were so inclined. I would therefore hazard a guess that there are at least fifty across the whole of Georgetown.

I could of course have delved much deeper into this subject area, but I was more interested in capturing and presenting the distinctive religious architecture that is displayed right across Georgetown. I am also pretty impressed by the manner in which religious respect seems to maintain a sound level here. Considering you have three significant world religions coexisting very openly side by side in such a concentrated area, maybe other places across the world could learn a few lessons on religious tolerance from Guyana.