500 Leagues under the Sun

Photo by Kenza Benaouda on Unsplash

**

Of the things that still irk me, more than a year into my Arabian Odyssey, the sheer inefficiencies which seem baked into the system stand out for particular ire. Case in point: this past week to spend ten minutes picking up a letter from my employer and then delivering it at a government office fifteen kilometres away, I had to drive 250+kilometres. To my mind, it is something that can and should dare I say, be managed via an online portal but I found to my pain that this was not the case. It is no wonder then that in the short space of over a month I have driven just shy of three thousand kilometres, mainly between my outpost in the middle of nowhere, work (twice), the big city next door (multiple times) and the occasional trip to the provincial capital for some government thing or the other twice too.

One of those trips put into context why choosing not to buy a 4×4 wasn’t the brightest of ideas. Having taken a wrong turn off a certain road, I found to my chagrin that it soon dissolved into desert sands and nothing more. It was in trying to turn off it into the other side of the road to retrace my steps that trouble struck. My puny rear wheel drive, 1.6L engine, subcompact got mired in the sands which had accumulated on that section of unused roads. Several attempts only managed to get me firmly stuck with no seeming route to recovery. It didn’t help that I had left L and S at home with a view to dashing into the next town to grab some supplies and then return. My salvation came in the shape of two men who spotted me whilst driving their pick up truck across the sand on the other side of the road. After some frantic hand waving on my part to attract their attention, they came to a stop across the divider of the road as we tried to communicate my predicament. My Arabic is nonexistent as was their English but the one word we could both understand was ‘Help?’, to wish I nodded frantically. They promptly disappeared for a bit in a cloud of sand only to reappear at the bend where the road turned to sand. The younger of the two was dressed in full regalia, thobe and head gear included whilst his older companion had threadbare jeans and a denim shirt rolled up at the sleeves. Ten or so minutes afterwards, I finally came unstuck thanks to the younger getting into my car and proceeding to attempt to reverse out of the rut i had sunk into whilst his companion and I pushed. Not in a very long time, and I suspect/hope not in a long time in the future, have I felt such relief at seeing a stranger’s face.

Driving out here was one of the things I dreaded the most, given the stories of texting drivers and general disregard for other road users which were drummed into us during our orientation. Bar a couple of near misses where tailgaters have almost forced me off the road at 120km/hr, nothing much of note has happened. That, and the sense of habituation which has made the 60km trek to the next town feel normal are things to be thankful for.

At the Centre of Things

Image Source: The Guardian

**

Every waking minute of the past few weeks it seems has been filled with some nursery rhyme or the other, so much so that deep in my less wakeful moments, I have caught myself humming along to some tune or another. Chief of them has to be the ten in a bed one where a particularly bossy kid shoos off the others who end up in a pile beside the bed nursing various bumps and scrapes. Sometimes it has felt like there are an infinite number of ways this can happen, although the mathematics suggest that there is only one way to do that, if that particular order is maintained. All of this is long way to say that L is very much at the centre of things with sleep, if I can go out for a run in the morning and other such mundane things very much dependent on what state she wakes up in.

I would like to think that being the well adjusted, finely tuned primate that I am makes me the very epitome of a caring parent but the truth is that there are days when all I want with every fibre of my being is to ignore whatever plea for help is emanating from her crib and get some extra precious minutes of sleep, particularly on work days. Most days I don’t yield to my internal lazy boy but what I will admit is that I have begun to look forward to my forty-minute commute to work on the bus. That has begun to feel like an island of sanity, keeping the chaos of home away from the madness of work. Small mercies.

Theories, Tea and (Future) 10ks

Image Source: Tara’s Multicultural Table

**

The difference a few degrees makes never ceases to amaze me, a small mercy I have recently found to my advantage as the morning temperatures, dipping as they have below 30 degrees for the first time since April, have allowed me go for short runs and brisk runs again. Between stress eating in South Yorkshire and not being able to rack up those 10k steps, my weight has ballooned by a cringe worthy amount. In a sudden fit of resolve, I downloaded the NHS Couch to 5k app and have now completed one week. Hopefully, that along with some portion control, gets me back headed in the right direction. Frankly though, I would settle for being able to complete a sub 24 minute 5k again, seeing as the chap who ran Parkruns for fun in the ‘Deen seems like a whole different person now.

Another small mercy, or delight really, was making a pit stop at a tea spot a few days ago in the middle of a long journey up north. Between the very short notice to grab my gear and head out – the call came during the morning meeting and I had all of twenty minutes to grab a coffee, defer some other stuff and head out – and the long drive (over three hours and then some of 120km/hr driving each way), making a pit stop to drink in the distinctive flavours and grab some much needed caffeine from a cup of Yemeni tea was a blessing in disguise. Thankfully I didn’t do any of the driving, though I did feel for the guy who did. It must have been shattering to do all those miles!

The other thing that came from being cooped up for so long was a deep dive into some conspiracy theories: 9/11, ISIS and the West’s complicity in the travails of the region all came up. Politics and religion are two things I steer well clear of out here, given the different notions of liberty and freedoms that rule the roost out here, so I did most of the listening, throwing in a few questions here and there to appear interested. I am not sure what to make of the Afghanistan debacle, with the Taliban making great gains in the aftermath of the US withdrawal, though the parallels with Northern Nigeria/Chad/ Niger are not lost on me. Sadly hope, which seems to be all we can do for the Nigerian situation, is hardly a recipe for stability or a solution there.

On a brighter note, our little adventure up north has nudged me closer towards being open to explore the vast expanse of this country. I do have to buy a car first, but with my first year behind me and a semblance of slowly settling in, I am finally mentally able to see myself out here for more than a year.

Faces…

It struck me the other day that even after a year out here, there are still work colleagues whose faces I have not seen without masks on. Arriving in the middle of the pandemic, masks were required in all public spaces – and rigorously enforced – with more than a few people cited for either having theirs pulled down or not wearing one as they approached the security gates and barriers that dot the landscape. Only when I then see a face without a mask does it register that I have made up the hidden contours, seeing the mask as an integral part of these faces. This brings with it a mild sense of discomfort, stemming from – I think – the fact that even though I have built relationships and friendships with these people, their uncovered faces scream unknown  rather than familiar.

Faces apart, I have found myself returning again and again to Carlos Andres Gomez’ poem, Father. I first heard it read by Pádraig Ó Tuama on the excellent Poetry Unbound podcast, its second stanza perfectly encapsulating how I felt on many a visit to the ICU in the aftermath of L’s arrival.  Those moments, in which I grasped at everything that I hoped could provide certainty, come back to me in lines such as:

I confessed every wrong
of my life to an empty, over-lit room of steel
and sterile instruments

and

I never wanted
so badly to have been wrong
about anything in my life

This, for me, is part of the allure of poetry. Sometimes, amidst the many lines we read, we can feel seen and known in the words of others.

World, Meet L

Photo by Marcel Fagin on Unsplash

**

As I write this I am looking out of my window onto the lush greenery of the park across the road in the tiny corner of South Yorkshire in which I am currently ensconced, as different from the edge of the world in which I have spent the last eleven months as it could be. For 45 degree Celsius and 90% plus humidity, I give you a bone-chilling 14 degrees Celsius with more than the odd spattering of rain; a mild Yorkshire summer by all accounts I am told.

Somewhere within the transition from the edge of the world to Dee Dah land, we welcomed L into this one, a tiny bundle of joy – and terror – rolled into one. In the interest of full disclosure, my first choice of name was Aoife. Thankfully the other part of the unit is eminently more sensible than yours truly. Her big cousin M thinks she, L, is living the life, being cuddled, fed and cleaned on demand without seemingly a care in the world. Being one of those wrapped tightly around her little finger, I couldn’t agree more!

Not to say all of this has been smooth sailing. What little sleep I normally get is even more fractured now, being held hostage to the whims of wails for food and cleaning at the most ungodly of hours. That this leaves me less than lucid for the first few hours of the morning until strong cups of coffee begin to work their magic is the predictable outcome. All too soon it is nightfall and we begin the cycle again.

A couple of ICU trips for S in the middle of all of this set the cat among the pigeons for a bit, further complicating things somewhat. From the vantage point of a clear head from just over five hours sleep, it feels like some breathing space is coming up. The arrival, quite frankly out of the blue, of the calvary, read Grand Ma, only serves to reinforce that belief.

One of the few things I recall from the haze of the hardest bits a week or so ago is thinking about how questions about the sovereignty of God have a different heft when what is at stake is the life of your near and dear ones, not merely an academic proposition. This is a thought I think I will return to in the near future when some proper room to breathe (and contemplate) returns. On the evidence of the past few days that may not be any time soon but what is clear is that it truly takes a village, or two.

Arias, Young Love and Rediscovering the Delights of Walking

Memory is an interesting thing, not least for its triggers, the mechanisms behind what we remember and what we (choose to?) forget and also for how something can simmer beneath the surface in the subconscious layer of the mind, feeding a gnawing sense of restlessness but never being comprehended. The return of the Aria Code podcast for a third season this week was one of those jolts, the exploration of Puccini’s Nessun Dorma, the kick which opened up the door to a rabbit hole of memories. A few years ago now, in a season of young-ish love infatuation, HMT in the ‘Deen became the centre of many a late night taking in opera, walking along Union Street to cars parked in side streets (for the free parking) but not much else besides. In retrospect, it was very much a period of unrequited love that went no where in the end, although my memories of the time suggest otherwise. The things one chooses to remember or forget, I guess? The one upside to all that remembering was delving into the rabbit hole that is YouTube for performances of the Aria, one of the more fascinating ones for me being the soulful rendition by Aretha Franklin at the ’98 Grammys (which she agreed to do at short notice as Pavarotti was ill).  The aria’s closing sentiment (At dawn, I will win! I will win! I will win!) is apt given our time, as the Aria Code episode so aptly demonstrates.

I have just completed under a month of walking ten kilometres each day; noise cancelling headphones on and music cranked up to as loud as is comfortable as I do the loop around my house.  On most days I have tended to pass other walkers at pace, eyes averted, trying the least to intrude on their space (or more accurately preserve the sacredness of mine). On the odd occasion when it has not been possible, I have waved in response to others waving. A chance conversation on the bus the other day did however remind me that it wouldn’t hurt to initiate a greeting now and again as I whizz pass others. That is something I hope to take on board for the next batch of 10k strolls. 

Life is fleeting, things can change, and breath is a fickle thing after all. The word for this week, mashshaa‘, for walker.

Recent Finds (x5)

Spring, Shamals and the Aftermaths of Vaccination

***

The memories of the days are beginning to disappear into a haze, each one a maelstrom of activity that begins with waking with a dull, lingering sense of dread and ending the same way it began, only with a sense of battle weary tiredness layered on. One day it is Sunday, and then suddenly it seems like it is Tuesday and then Thursday – brings respite – only for it all to begin again; wash-rinse-repeat. The good thing is that somehow it is the beginning of March, and each day that passes quickly brings the arrival of that symbol of the worker’s Faustian pact, a salary, another day closer. In my more sanguine moments, I remind myself that for all my bellyaching, there are far worse things to moan about in the world than work.

With March comes a change of season to spring, if one can call day time temperatures in excess of 30 degrees C spring. December, and my will-I-or-won’t-I-wear-a-jacket phase, seem far away now. It is the season for sand storms, as I found out to my pain the other day when I got caught in a sand storm of sorts. As my bare legs stung with the impact of the grit, whipped into a potent weapon of attrition by the wind, I was grateful for the protection my glasses afforded my eyes. That does not happen often.

The other thing that March brought was getting a shot of one of the COVID-19 vaccines. Every time an opportunity to register came up, I put my name down, conscious of the seeming inevitability of vaccine passports and what not for travel. I opted to get my shot on a Wednesday evening, my thinking being that the timing would allow me sleep off any side effects. I felt especially tired the next day which might be related to not being able to sleep well the night before. My fitness tracker spotted a 0.4 degree C spike in body temperature for the next two days before returning to normal, but otherwise I had no discernible side-effects. One hopes that vaccine uptakes improves around the world, and a sort of normalcy returns thereafter. It has been a long hard year for most people!

For the word of the week, Khamis, for Thursday and respite.

Recent Finds

  • Teju Cole chats Fernweh amongst other things on the Behind the Covers podcast. Baldwin, race, photography and Switzerland all feature in this wide ranging chat.
  • Apparently, eating fresh mango with gold cutlery is the business, at least so say the experts on The Infinite Monkey Cage. Fun-fact, silver (in spite of its reputation as being the material of choice for posh, rich folks actually tastes the worst.
  • Confirmation that the ‘Deen Market demolition is to go ahead is somewhat bitter-sweet news on a personal level. It was hardly the most salubrious of places to eat in, or do anything else to be honest as O points out, but being starved of Nigerian food in my first few years there, popping in there provided some respite now and again.
  • Jane Goodall & Adam Grant chat Leadership (and chimps), not surprisingly there is stuff to learn in the areas they overlap.
  • And something poetry related of course. Naomi Shihab Nye chats poetry, growing up and a whole lot of other stuff with Krista Tippet at the On Being Podcast.

‘Big’ Man coming, and finally getting my Abu Name

The bare, Spartan space just outside my window – which I can just see if I crane my neck a little just beyond its normal range – is just that, barely noticeable. At least it was until a few days ago when swivelling in my chair, the profusion of reds and yellows it has become caught my eye. So certain was I that the flowers were new that at an opportune moment, when I could pretend it was a casual question, I asked one of the guys to confirm. It turns out that I was right, the flowers had not always been there. The coming of a certain big man in a couple of days had prompted the ground staff into sprucing up our surroundings. I am thankful for the splash of colours which will remain with us for a bit at least, but what I came away with was the sense that big men everywhere carried weight. It is a truism, as an old teacher liked to say.

The end of January marked another milestone, six months out here at the edge of the world. Sidebar: there is actually some place called the edge of the world out here I hear, with sunrises which are something to behold. Unfortunately there is an internal lock down again but I have made a mental note to plan for extended weekend outside the province I am in. O’s up for it which should marginally increase the likelihood of it happening. So six months out here then which brings with it a slight sense of having weathered a storm of sorts. Finally getting an Abu name helps with that sense of settling in I suppose.

With shut borders and all, it doesn’t look like I’m going anywhere anytime soon which means one must make my seat at the edge of the world home, or as close to it as it can be. Several times over the past few months I’ve gone back to Nicky Gumbel’s talk from October where he talked about flourishing where you’re planted. It is what it is.

Recent Finds

Sparks, Dark sides and Musings on Sight

***

The sparks have quite literally been flying, not for reasons of passion but for the more mundane fact that winter and the very low humidity have resulted in fairly significant amounts of static electricity build up on everything. More times than I care to remember over the past few weeks, I have had the sometimes unexpected displeasure of a substantial shock. I am much more careful now, taking the time to touch walls and other non-metallic objects to dissipate some of the build up. S insists that my refusal to moisturise often, and liberally, is a contributor to this – a google search seems to suggest she is right in some way. The jury is still out on that one I think, but I am leaning towards getting a humidifier, if and when I can sort out travel to the city next door.

I came face to face with my inner dark side this week, no thanks to what looks like a Bitcoin scam. Some website purporting to be associated with Chamath Palihapitiyia, claimed to be 10x-ing deposited Bitcoin. It seemed too good to be true, as quick google search proves (it was just another iteration of a long running scam) but in the moment all I saw was the potential to quickly turn around a small deposit into something substantial. In my head, it was the perfect opportunity to kick-off dollar cost averaging into Bitcoin. Thankfully, the exchange/wallet I ended up signing up for had a 24 hour cooling off period before one could transfer coins out, by which time the website was down and I had managed to do the google search I should have done at the onset. The silver lining is that I am left with about 1,000 GBP worth of Bitcoin which I suppose is as good as any starting point. The downside is that it puts my inner greed into perspective. There is much to shudder at there, I must admit.

On a slightly less troubling note, I found myself stepping into the shower several times this week with my glasses on. Whilst I am not sure what it means for my long term sight, I am willing to speculate. I am taking it as a sign to enjoy the things I still can see now. That, and learning to keep my greed in check, are perhaps the life lessons for this week.

Recent Finds

COVID Days

The other country both enthrals and frustrates me in equal measure, which I’m sure is no news to most others who like me have a foot in both worlds. The events of the past few weeks have left that tension in sharp relief for me in the form of two members of my extended family coming to terms with COVID. That they were in two very different parts of the country only served to underscore how dire the situation could be, the influence and contacts with people of authority in the medical establishments – nay death traps – they spent most of their with time in counting for very little in the overall scheme of things. They are out of the woods now, for which we are all thankful, though the bitter after taste – and light pockets – lingers. One wonders how much hope the common man still has in the event of a medical emergency back there.

Smarter people than I say, the tide is turning back in Blighty, in spite of the efforts of partiers and revellers it must be said. The surge in numbers put paid to my plan to pop back in for a few weeks to clear my head, so I am glad at this direction. One hopes it continues. Out here I have been offered the chance to take the vaccine, which I have accepted with both hands. As someone who has had to show vaccinations for work travel in the past, it is a small price to pay for the possibility of near trouble free travel I hope.

Recent Finds (x5)

  • The BBC’s Desert Island Discs is a series I have returned to from time to time, though I now mainly consume the abridged version via the podcast. Most recently enjoyed was David Olusoga’s debut, not least for the selection of an apt and timely Fela song, and an endearing anecdote about Paul Gascoigne.
  • David Epstein’s Range is all the rage it seems, popping up several times on my twitter feed and some of the podcasts I listen to. For a fascinating conversation on its subject (success, specialists and generalists), this Intelligence Squared podcast is a good one to listen to. Of course it earns bonus points for name checking John Urschel who ditched American football for a Maths PhD.