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.


Panch Bochhor (পাঁচ বছর)

Marking 5 years


I like milestones. They provide a satisfying sense of accomplishment and achievement whilst ensuring the preservation of a little focus and direction.

This post is a celebration of one such milestone. April 9th, 2016 marked exactly 5 years since I first posted on this blog.  It’s a pleasant feeling to know that despite the many twists and turns, the sporadic uprooting, the hellos and the goodbyes, and the often unplanned wanderings, I have still found time to regularly (well, kind of regularly) update and commit part of my energy and heart to this little project.

A project that began with the somewhat vague aim of recording my ramblings has now grown into a means by which to document a multitude of experiences that came along the way.


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What this milestone also represents is that it is now a little over five years since I arrived in Bangladesh. When I think back to that time (March 2011), I really had no idea I would remain so long in this country, but I don’t regret it one bit. I arrived on a short term contract with a cautious ambition to perhaps extend that to a year. Five years on I’m still here aside from a one year sabbatical (of sorts) in Guyana.

Bangladesh has been good to me, and I am very grateful for that. I can’t really believe how quickly the five years have flown by, but in that time I’ve been lucky enough to explore this country a little and also travel to Nepal, India, Cambodia, Myanmar, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Laos, Bhutan, Thailand, and even back to Rwanda a couple of times.

Most importantly though I have been lucky enough to work in a job that has inspired me to grow and learn. I’ve been surrounded by some fantastic colleagues right from the start, and they have been a source of constant knowledge whilst encouraging me to change and develop my outlook on many, many things.

I have of course also been privileged to teach and work with students who have taught me far more than I have them.

As always with these short posts that mark a milestone, I prefer to let images tell the story, so here are a few which I think sum up just why that tentative first few months turned into five years and provided me with so many amazing adventures under this one sun.


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Sandwip


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Sandwip


One man and the sea


Sunset on the water



All images © John Stanlake

A Voice For The Voiceless

Animal Welfare in Bangladesh


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One of the most frustrating aspects of social media is the simple fact that stories about complete idiots are thrust directly in front of your face on an almost daily basis. Anyone who saw my Facebook page in the past week or so may have noticed one such story.

The news I’m referring to is surprisingly not about Donald Trump, Jeremy Hunt, or Sepp Blatter (although this trio are worthy contenders), but rather revolves around a group of people who epitomise the ignorance and disregard demonstrated so often by the human race to other creatures.

Endangered baby dolphin dies after swimmers pass it around for selfies

A dolphin plucked from the water and passed around like a trophy so that bronzed beachgoers of all ages could pose and take ‘selfies’ with it. Once the selfies were complete, the dolphin had inevitably died. Because you see, what these humans had so crucially forgotten, is that dolphins can’t survive for prolonged periods outside of water, and what those people now have on their cameras, or smart phones, or whatever they were using that day which caused them to lose all sense, is a selfie with a dolphin who died because of them.

It happened in Argentina, but this could be anywhere in the world, and the flagrant disregard for the life they passed around in their hands that day sums up the arrogance and sheer contempt we, humans, demonstrate on a daily basis.

It left me totally exasperated once again, as it seems there is not a week that passes without tales of sheer moronic stupidity claiming yet more animal lives. Whether it is a wealthy dentist shooting an innocent and treasured lion, Russian circuses forcing polar bears to dance, or puppies used for target practice, there is no limit to our cruelty and indifference.

However, despite all of this, there is hope, and I have witnessed a few examples here in Bangladesh.

Obhoyaronno is an animal welfare foundation formed in Dhaka in 2009 and has carried out some fantastic work mainly in the Bangladesh capital to rescue animals and educate the local population about animal welfare issues. The organisation has successfully campaigned to have dog culling in Dhaka cancelled, and they regularly carry out dog vaccination programs in the city. They have a large community now of like-minded people who will alert others about any cases of animal abuse or animals in trouble.

Dog Lovers of Bangladesh is an inspiring facebook page dedicated to, well…dogs of course. The members on that page never fail to amaze me with their dedication to the welfare of dogs here, and there are often emergency posts regarding an injured or distressed dog sighting. It is not uncommon for this to be followed by an immediate and robust response from other members of the group who mobilize and swiftly locate the dog, whilst doing all they can to source the care it needs. Other members often chip in with cash donations, and before you know it, a dog once destined to lie dying next to a busy road, has been scooped up and given the life-saving treatment it so gravely needed. The members of this group are caring, conscientious animal lovers who provide a reminder that all is not lost.

Finally, there is a group somewhat closer to home for which I have the utmost admiration; The Asian University for Women (AUW) Animal Welfare Club. Created just over two years ago, the club has grown steadily and in that time initiated a number of projects aimed at implementing clear strategies for improving the welfare of animals.

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Photo credit: Dhrubo (Dhrubo Photography)


In truth due to the modest size of the club and its limited financial capacity, the focus has been on street dogs and cats. However, the lack of funds has been no deterrent to the club members, and driven by their passionate club president and founder, Mandy Mukhuti, they have already played a significant role in making tangible changes in the lives of many animals.

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Since its inception in 2013, the club has visited primary schools to educate young children on how to treat animals. They have also initiated a daily feeding program, which entails collecting leftover food and feeding street dogs in the vicinity of the campus. The success of this is highlighted by the fact these dogs now know and recognise the members of the club when they come calling with their plastic container full of food!

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Photo credit: Dhrubo (Dhrubo Photoography)


The club has also rescued several cats and dogs and successfully found homes for many of these animals. Finally, this past weekend they arguably reached the peak of their success thus far. Having spent a few months raising necessary funds, they teamed up with local veterinarians and students from other universities and set about successfully vaccinating two hundred dogs across the city in just a single weekend! It’s a remarkable achievement given the constraints they experience and a testament to their passion and commitment to such a worthwhile cause.

Dogs vaccinated under AUW campaign

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Photo credit: Dhrubo (Dhrubo Photography)


I’ll leave you with a collection of images taken during my time here in Bangladesh, which show a number of the animal friends I’ve made. This family lived behind our building and the puppies provided hours of fun, yet immense stress! We managed to find homes for most of them, but a couple sadly fell victim to the unforgiving main road that lay just far too close for temptation.

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Father & Son

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A patient mother

At present I also regularly feed Tommy and Rocky who live on our road, and whilst this is just a very tiny act, I believe that the bewildered, yet intrigued gazes I receive as I sit feeding the dogs do go some way to showing people that these dogs are not angry beasts who should be avoided at all costs, but actually friendly animals who just need a bit of love and a friendly face.

Step by step we can make a difference, no matter how small that may be.


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You Set The Scenes

A new project


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So I’d like to take the opportunity to use this somewhat older (hmmm, let’s say more ‘mature’) platform of communication to tell you about a new project I’ve started working on.

I say I, but it is in fact ‘we’ – my good friend Rich and I. We know each other from our days in Prague when we both completed the same TEFL course (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) and have remained good friends ever since.

Rich still lives and works in the Czech Republic in a town called Podebrady, and he came up with the idea of creating a Vlog (video log) in which we both contribute regular videos offering a little glimpse into our individual experiences in the Czech Republic and Bangladesh respectively.

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The slight twist is that in doing so, we will set each other various challenges. We will also seek input from our viewers (who will hopefully exist!) and ask for suggestions for challenges they would like to see us complete, hence the name of the vlog – You Set The Scenes. Also, crucially, whoever receives the most thumbs up on youtube for their video wins the challenge.

*The name of the vlog is also a little nod to one of my favourite songs by one of my favourite bands.*

The main aims of this new project are as follows:

  1. For Rich and I to keep in touch!
  2. To hopefully offer viewers a little glimpse into what our lives are like as expats.
  3. To offer a positive look into the culture and environment of both Bangladesh and the Czech Republic.
  4. To motivate Rich and I to explore our locations further and hopefully create a richer personal understanding of our surroundings.
  5. To do things we may not have previously considered, which will no doubt at some points make us appear awkward and uncomfortable…perhaps much to the amusement of our viewers (again, if we have any)!

So that’s it really. I’m sure it will be a challenge at times, but also worthwhile, rewarding and fun. We both love exploring and getting away from the ‘tourist track’ and hope that this new vlog will reflect that.

Check out the trailer…

Our first challenge was to learn and recite a tongue twister in the native language of our countries.  So I learned a tongue twister in Bangla, and Rich learned one in Czech. You can see how we got on below.

Rich’s Czech Tongue Twister

and

John’s Bangla Tongue Twister

Please like our facebook page and subscribe to our youtube channel. We are also on Twitter and you can follow us at @YouSetTheScenes.

We hope you enjoy our future videos, and please comment below with any suggestions you would like us to try!


 

Tashi Delek

A week in the beautiful kingdom of Bhutan



It’s shamefully embarrassing to admit this, but upon reflection I think I have reached the point where I’m travelling to countries that just a few years ago I knew little, or nothing about. My move to Bangladesh back in 2011 not only introduced me to this golden land, but given that my job is teaching students from 15 different countries, my eyes and ears have been exposed to each and every one of those countries in some way. I’m undoubtedly a lot richer for that.

A few weeks back I finally had the opportunity to visit one of those countries that had most intrigued me, and thanks to the assistance, amazing kindness and visa office doggedness of Dechen (a former student) I was on a plane to Paro and landing in Bhutan.

Bhutan is sandwiched in a somewhat intimidating position between India and China and is unique in its policy of measuring Gross National Happiness (GNH) rather than GDP. In effect, focus is placed more firmly upon the preservation of culture with a commitment to environmental conservation and sustainable development.

Thus, it’s not the easiest of places to enter as a tourist or to roam freely once you are there. However, don’t let the bureaucracy deter you because quite frankly, it is stunning and so very endearing in many ways.



In this account of my brief stay in Bhutan, I will try to explain just why, based of course on personal experience, this kingdom of just 800,000 people made such an impression.

Here is an album with a selection of photos – Bhutan


Natural beauty

Eastern Himalayan mountains, deep and dramatic valleys, winding rivers, dense forests, fertile pastures, and wide open plains all contribute to the breathtaking scenery that surrounds you. As the plane lands in Paro, it weaves between mountainous peaks and according to this article, only eight pilots are currently certified to land aircrafts there!






Preservation of culture

Bhutan is proud of its cultural heritage, and has taken strong measures to ensure not only its survival, but crucially its conservation and continued significance in everyday life. Television and internet is a surprisingly new feature of life in Bhutan having only been introduced (officially) in 1999.

Tourism is limited and controlled, and national dress is a must at various locations including most workplaces. There is a gritty commitment to rejecting and actively fighting those external influences that can commonly be accused of eroding traditional culture in certain other countries that have welcomed tourism with open arms.







Road safety signs

On the beautiful winding and meandering main highway between Paro and Thimphu, which I imagine is one of Bhutan’s busiest, there are regular road safety signs that predominantly focus on reducing speed. They get their message across though in a quirky and sometimes cheeky fashion. I wasn’t able to capture any photos, but I did make a note of two in particular that stuck in my head…

“If you are married, divorce speed!”

And…

“Be gentle on my curves”

On a more serious note though, it does appear that road safety is a huge priority in Bhutan with regular police checkpoints and from what I saw a diligent appreciation of the laws in place.


Dogs

In Bhutan there are dogs….so many dogs. They are everywhere. On every street corner, under every bridge, asleep on every sidewalk and at night they serenade you until the early hours with huge canine choirs. They are also quite often big, furry things that generally add a level of happiness and warmth to an already happy and warm country.



There are bins. People use them.

There seems to be a genuine commitment to, and pride in keeping the country clean. It may seem a little patronizing to point this out, but from travelling and from experiences back home in the UK, I feel that many places (and people) have abandoned their responsibility to this simple and basic condition. The bins are also covered in motivational and encouraging messages, just in case you feel the inclination not to utilize them.



Hospitality

This was not much of a surprise. Whenever I travel I encounter genuinely kind and hospitable people. Bhutan was no different, and I had not expected it to be. Before I’d even begun the visa application process, my Bhutanese students and their families had offered all kinds of help and support, and once I landed in Bhutan that help and support became even more ubiquitous.

From the man in the coffee shop who gave me a warm welcome each morning, to the friend of a friend who within thirty minutes of meeting me had paid for my dinner, it was a week full of unrelenting kindness. Special mentions must go to Dechen, Pema, Sonam, Yeshey, Kencho, and Namgay. These wonderful people made my stay in Bhutan even more perfect than it could have been.





Beautiful Buildings

In Bhutan it seems there are beautiful old buildings everywhere. In Thimphu many of the newer buildings also display the traditional style, which goes a long way to once again preserving the history and cultural heritage.










So, those are just a few aspects of my trip to Bhutan that stood out and made we wish I’d had significantly more time to really explore further. As with many of the places I’ve visited, I plan to return one day. I’m not sure when that will be, but hopefully sooner rather than later.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering, Tashi Delek is difficult to translate directly, but it is often taken to mean “blessings and good luck” and is used in Bhutan, but also parts of Nepal and northern India.

Here is a gallery of some further photos from my trip…



46 Cups of Tea

A statistical and image-based reflection on a week in west Bangladesh


After nine straight weeks of teaching, the question was how to fill nine days of vacation. On this occasion I decided to remain in Bangladesh and take the opportunity to explore this country a little further, and having never ventured due west before, that is where I went. The division of Khulna to be precise, which borders India and comprises a number of districts, including Jessore and Khulna.


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Travelling individually has always felt a little daunting to me, so the prospect of spending the duration of the break navigating an unfamiliar area of Bangladesh alone provoked mixed emotions. Nevertheless, I survived, and I’m here to report in.

I’ll spare the mundane play by play account of what happened and instead present an array of telling statistics. Prior to leaving Chittagong I decided I’d take a pad and pen with me on the trip and keep a tally of the inevitable and the unexpected in equal measure.



So, here it is, the story of my week in Jessore and Khulna in numbers, beginning with the most important and reflective of all…

Cups of tea consumed – 46

Cups of tea I paid for – 20

Cups of tea bought for me by ever hospitable locals – 26



Invites to homes – 10

Invites accepted – 4

Photos taken – 659 (see a select set here – Jessore & Khulna)



Modes of transport used during the trip – 6



Times my unmarried status evoked confused frowns – 37

Times it was suggested I marry in Bangladesh – 21

Business cards received – 4

Business cards distributed – 27

Occasions in which I was asked if I came from Japan – 3

Jibes received regarding England’s woeful Cricket World Cup campaign – 24

Times I was asked to reveal my salary – 12

15th century mosques visited – 6



Hindu temples visited – 7



Here is a list of events which occurred just once, but I deemed worthy enough to scribble down in my notepad…

  • Requested to convert to Islam for marriage purposes
  • Military border parades witnessed


  • Squeezed into a body-hugging Bangladesh cricket shirt and told, “It fits perfectly boss!”
  • Asked if Iranian
  • Told to cancel my hotel booking and sleep in the home of a man I had met just 30 minutes previously
  • After briefly chatting with a man I met earlier in the day, he then text to inform me he was knocking on my hotel room door and requested I open said door…
  • ‘Adventure Parks’ visited that made me want to scream “WHY??!!” at the person who recommended it and assured me it was “very beautiful…”


  • Told I was lying about my age as I couldn’t possibly be as young as I was claiming
  • Told a man he was the least friendliest person I had ever met in Bangladesh after he spent a good five minutes ridiculing my intelligence for not carrying my passport and stating that as the British were “Kings” I am practically a disgrace to the great nation of Britain

And finally, a list of occurrences that initially I had firm intentions of meticulously tracking. Yet, as the hours and days passed, I soon realized it would be impossible to keep an accurate record due to the sheer volume. So, in the end they became uncountable, but no less significant…

  • Asked the question, “Your country?”
  • Confused questions with suspicious facial expressions regarding my reason for being in Jessore/Khulna/Bangladesh
  • Enthusiastically praised for my comprehensive Bangla language proficiency


  • Robustly chastised for my low level of Bangla language proficiency
  • Pondered the meaning of life
  • Wondered if rural Bangladesh is the most beautiful place on earth



  • Wondered why my bus driver was trying to overtake three other buses up ahead
  • Wondered how that 93rd passenger was going to find a space to squeeze into on the already cramped bus, but soon realizing there was space for passengers 94, 95 and 96.

So that concludes a brief look at my week in the west. It was fascinating, eye-opening, and at times a little testing. However, it was completely worth it, and evidence once again of why I often question why more tourists don’t come and explore this golden land.


Selfishly I’m glad they don’t though, because there were times on the trip as I sat on the back of a wagon and we meandered our way down a silent, tree-lined country road in the early evening, just as the sun began to set, that I thought to myself, “I’m totally at peace right now.”






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Green Grass of Home


The summer just passed brought about a number of reunions with good friends, familiar faces, and people who have defined recent phases of my life.

It began with a slight diversion to my usual route home from Bangladesh to the UK. A night spent sprawled out on a metal bench in an eerily quiet terminal building at Dubai Airport preceded a feeling of deja vu – boarding a Rwandair flight through to Kigali. The airport in Dubai felt disorientating as I contemplated a journey that began in Chittagong and would end in Kigali.

As I read ‘Inzozi’ the Rwandair inflight magazine, some very familiar emotions hit me. Upon landing and disembarking the plane, I would once again set foot on the continent of Afica and more specifically Rwanda, the country that taught me so much in such a short space of time.

Four years previously I landed in Kigali, and I had little idea if I’m honest of quite what the following ten months had in store for me. I needn’t have worried. Things have a way of working out and overall 2010 was a year that will undoubtedly stick in my mind for many positive reasons.

Before returning home to the UK for a few weeks this summer I spent 10 days back in Rwanda. Many people have since asked me how it felt to return to the country and quite frankly the only response I’ve been able to provide is, “Great…it was great.”

Not particularly inspring, or informative I’m well aware, yet that’s exactly how it felt. It was emotional too of course as I met with former students who are continuing to carve their own successful paths in life.

So, as in previous instances of being stuck for the right words, I will resort to images. Below is a selection of photos which sum up a summer of green hills, friendly faces, and of course…familiar homes both in Rwanda and the UK.


Rwanda


National Art Gallery, Nyanza


Huye, Rwanda

South Rwanda countryside


Sunset over Nyanza hills


Sunset over Nyanza hills


With former students


Kigali city outskirts



With former students


Devon

Dartmoor


Devon hills


Dartmoor


Dartmoor


Dartmoor road


Boats at Shaldon


Sunset over Torbay



The best walking partner


Woodland walk in Lustleigh


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Teignmouth Pier


All photos © John Stanlake