Saturday, 3 June 2017

'Early Morning Run in... Khartoum'

It was the 10th May 2008. I gaze out of the small portal window, across the tarmac, from a Boeing 777 Qatar Airways flight to Doha. Two colleagues are flying to Europe, en-route to Canada; they are two planes over.
Khartoum International Airport is about to shut down. Plumes of creamy black grey smoke swirl upwards, helicopters circle, explosions, distant gunfire. Will we take off?
A Darfur separatist group, from out west, has surprisingly entered Khartoum in force and is enjoying a good old-fashioned Mexican style shoot-out with government forces.
The last two planes to leave. Unfortunately, mine rattles down the runway first. What rotten luck. I wave awkwardly, slightly embarrassed, at the rapidly disappearing tarmac... my hand gesture, my intense gaze, are interrupted by the tell-tale rattle of the drinks trolley... "Oh, thanks, I'll have a large G&T..."
I recline my seat; I'm sure my shipmates will be okay. What movies are showing?
The very word 'Khartoum' conjures up a certain romance. The desert, the searing heat, the meandering banks and convergence of the Nile, the Arabs, the flowing robes, the tortured history. I loved this place, once. Khartoum is Casablanca without the heroes.
Fast forward eight years. October 2016. Back to a still ostracised and heavily sanctioned country. Second only to Iran. I worked here for many years, once.
"Salam El Keeni."
"Salam Mr Mark, do you like it? Please meet our driver, Mohamed."
We shake hands.
"I love it, well done El Keeni. I was expecting four wheels, but this works. Salam Mohamed. Your rickshaw should make you very proud."
El Keeni, a guest runner in the first Juba post, makes a welcome return. I've known El Keeni 17 years.
0600 hrs. We head north from the Rotana Hotel through Amaratt. Memories come flooding back. Street 53. Street 41. Street 27. Street 23. Street 60. The streets where we lived. Airport to our right. We 'speed' towards Nile Avenue. En-route we quickly visit the old apartment blocks.
We arrive on Nile Avenue. River Nile on our right, history to our left. "El Keeni, let's go..."
Armed with a smartphone and remembering photography here is involved. Paranoia everywhere, including El Kenni.
The sun slowly rises behind us as we head west along the banks of the Nile. You might recall El Keeni folded quicker in Juba than the time it takes to boil a soft boiled egg.
To our left Khartoum University, previously Gordon Memorial College until independence in 1956. The college was founded in 1902, in memory of General Charles George Gordon.
History surrounds us. This road continues into Omdurman. Over the far bank of this vast river is Khartoum North. Numerous bridges span the Nile, like this one, constructed over 100 years ago.
El Keeni goes well this morning, probably two soft boiled eggs worth. 
So many recollections. The Presidental Palace over there which we'll have to divert around. The Khartoum Sailing Club on our right. 
The Malaysians have their hotel, the Holiday Villa. As do the Chinese. My worst day's consulting experience took place right in there. I smile just thinking about it. An off colour Chinese joke to 50 Chinese fellows to open a four-day workshop. I'll save that for another day... 
Our destination, and turnaround point, this early hour is the former Hilton Hotel (now 'The Coral').
This hotel was the best back in the day. Someone described it as a Lyme Regis coffee shop from the 1970s. Harsh? One thing I remember of this hotel was providing our high ranking visitors with 'liberal' contraband. Sudan was under Shariah Law, as now. However, there was a vibrant black market. How much you paid depended on your position in the supply chain. 
The Hilton sat between the two Niles. Take a front room and overlook the Blue Nile, a room at the back and it's the White Nile. The convergence is a few hundred metres away. 
Back to contraband. Boris rang me one day from the Russian Embassy. "Mark, you want a beer? Cash deal."
"Boris, silly question."
"200 cases at $30."
I gulp. Beer in plentiful supply, coming out of the back door of the Russian Embassy. I like a beer as much the next man unless that next man is Oliver Reed. I'm in way over my head here. The black market was pushing $80.
"Boris, I could perhaps take 20 cases?"
"Mark, I like you a lot. You're funny. 200 my friend."
I pictured Boris with a bottle of vodka in one hand and a lump of meat attached to a bone in the other. He was wearing a black and white hooped turtle neck sweater. Negotiating with a hairy arsed Russian isn't easy. Phone a friend time; Rodney, in another oil company.
"Rodney, I've a great deal, loads of in-date Russian beer, I need to offset this. Help me."
"Mate, a result. Brilliant. Put me down for 3 cases."
"Rodney, I like you a lot. You're funny.
I talk Rodney up to 6 cases after about three hours. I never saw myself in the alcohol business; needs must...
To cut a long story short, I manage to offload another 50 cases at varying rates. Fortunately, the Country Manager I worked for stepped in and bought the remainder.
I telephone the hairy arsed Soviet, "Ivor, of course, I'll take the 200 at 30."
"Good. Bring the money, blankets, and vehicles to the back door of the compound at midnight tomorrow."
We assemble a posse of Canadian oil workers. I swear some turned up dressed head to toe in black with balaclavas and boot polish on their faces. Let's call them Ringo, George, Paul & John. In reality, it was more like the Wet Bandits from Home Alone. 
Joking aside, this wasn't exactly straightforward. Sudan, Ruskies, large sums of cash, Shariah Law, checkpoints, 200 cases of beer, and a nervously excited crew of helpers. What could go wrong...
Thankfully nothing. Nostrovia! A toast as we approach Christmas 2016 to everyone involved in the Sudan project over those memorable four years. 
After the Hilton, it's back the same route. 75 minutes run/walk this morning. El Keeni, a great effort. Thanks for everything.
Have we a choice for refreshments? We do. Milky tea with 7 sugars on a 3 legged stool on the street? Or coffee in a promising western chain over in Riyad?
Hobson's choice. Hawa and that winning smile all day long.
I hope you've enjoyed this morning's excursion along Nile Avenue and some memories from Khartoum. Bamako originally scheduled, will be next. 
In closing, I'd like to wish everyone a very Happy Christmas and good health and good fortune for 2017.

Sunday, 30 April 2017

'Early Morning Run in... Ouagadougou'

We’re in the heart of Africa. At the southern edge of the Sahara. Burkina Faso. Ouagadougou… as the locals fondly call it; Ouaga (as in Waga).


0545 hrs. A Sunday morning, October 2016.  Shall we get straight to the run? My guide & chauffeur this morning… 'C’est Paul'. Quick intros, in French, with Paul, confirms language will be a barrier. Merde, “Allons y...”
A storyline is far more romantic with a motorbike, or perhaps a submarine in the plot. Burkina is landlocked and OK this isn't a Harley, but it'll do the job. Remember, you're all on this bike with me...
We splutter eastwards into the rising sun. My 'plan', such as it is; a quick tour of Ouaga, then drop me (us) 4 or 5 miles away and we'll jog back and take brekkie together in the 'Laisse Faire' Hotel (official name - Laico Hotel). This is my third morning in former Upper Volta.
‘C’est Paul’ senses my foreboding, we potter along at a sedentary and constant 18 mph. To paraphrase Robert Shaw, 'we need a bigger bike'. I take a few photos of nothing, mostly Paul’s right ear. We ride for about 40 mins. Gradually, more motorbikes and bicycles join us, together with a sprinkling of mostly battered old automobiles. The temperature’s already a solid 24c. Proper desert heat. Paul glances intermittently over his right shoulder for guidance, a plan perhaps. Paul, we only need a start point, “Tout droit Monsieur…”
We're now near the airport and downtown and the Splendid Hotel. In January Islamist lunatics attacked this particular hotel, it was a Friday night. They also hit the popular Cappuccino bar/restaurant over the road. 28 innocent souls were murdered, including 6 Canadians. I dwell briefly on the madness… completely senseless… “Tout droit Monsieur…”
I ask Paul to head to the Monument des Martyrs. Some might think, monstrosity. Some might say, futuristic. I say a feature picked randomly off the map about 4 miles from the hotel. I tap Paul on the shoulder… 
“Monsieur…. la, la-bas… c’est bon.” Paul wants me to stay with him. He wants to take me safely back to the 'Lassiez Faire'.
I assure him, “Paul, c’est tout bon.” He reluctantly pulls our blue steed over; he looks on fascinated as I stretch half-heartedly. The scene, a dusty roadside in Ouaga, at 0625 hrs on a Sunday morning is probably surreal to most passersby. I want to say to Paul, as a sign-off, "Quand le seagulls follow le bateau..." Instead... "Paul, pour le diesel, merci beacoup, mon ami. Vous sont un grand chauffeur." He smiles broadly, we shake hands… and, as quick as I can say ‘au revoir’, he’s spluttered off.
I wave rather lamely, looking ahead up the long straight and unwinding road. I begin jogging, I’m hoping, 30 to 40 mins back to the hotel. The roads are wide, flat, well maintained and mostly traffic free and safe. Some detail on Burkina Faso (which means 'land of upright/honest people') to pass the time?
Well, Burkina is a similar size to the UK with only a quarter of the population. The main export is gold, followed by cotton. 2 million folks live in Ouaga. Most in Burkina scratch a living from subsistence farming.
A former French colony, independence came in 1960. Renamed Burkina Faso in 1984. A poor country even by West African standards; military coups and droughts quickly became a recurring theme. Longstanding President Compaore was finally ousted, after 29 years, in a popular uprising in 2014. Since then things have been ‘fluid’. An attempted coup d’etat in 2015; followed, reportedly, by another in October 2016, as I’m putting this together.
Back on the road. 20 mins done, about 20 to go. Get the flags out. In the words of Bon Jovi… ‘Whoa, we’re halfway there…’
Speaking of security... I checked into the hotel 2 days ago. I dumped my bag on the bed and began to wander. I wanted to be familiar in the event something went bang in the night, or we caught fire. As my old Drill Sergeant used to say; ‘never rely on the cavalry, they're always late’. I think you could probably include the Burkina Faso Fire Brigade.
We're arriving back into the Ouaga 2000 district. I suspect the Knightsbridge of Ouaga. I can see the Laico Hotel through the heat haze, also known as ‘The Libya Hotel’, apparently built by Gaddafi. Next door is a modern shopping centre which is largely empty. Seems out of place with the rest of Ouaga. As I close in on the hotel; whoa… there’s Paul, perched serenely astride his bike under a huge Acacia tree, like a giraffe watching the rest of the zoo flood; he gives me a hearty thumbs-up and a massive smile. I feel instantly warm inside and run over and high five him enthusiastically and kiss him on both cheeks…
The heat’s got to me. Paul’s not there (so much for loyalty); anyway, probably would’ve been an Anglo-Saxon type wave at best… went all Hollywood there for a moment…
Several days earlier…
I ask Ravik, my regular travel agent in Freetown, “Are these fellows reliable?”
Ravik laughs, not feeling my concern. Glancing at his laptop, “Over the past 15 days they've been on schedule, no delays.”
“Ravik, I’m thinking more maintenance of altitude, that sort of thing.”
I have a relaxed approach to airline safety, especially when you roll the dice. But, this upcoming sortie was quickening the pulse. I mean... and I've flown; Air Maroc, Air Niugini, Air Algerie, even Air France... now it’s time for... er... Air Burkina...
How’d it turn out?
Well, the navigator distributed goggles, Red Cross parcels, even brown leather skull caps, ahead of the props being turned. My goggles did mist up at one point. But, come on, we’re flying at 500 feet, s*gar happens. Any minor grumbles were quickly offset by the in-flight entertainment. The wing walker, Mahmoud from Khartoum, was simply outstanding. Fortunately, his straps held firm even as we diverted to spray crops on the outskirts of Ouagadougou, close to our final approach…
Air Burkina, only joking. You were absolutely first rate. I’d fly you again tomorrow. Just as well, as I am heading to Mali, for the next leg of this road trip… tomorrow…
Reading back and editing and editing and editing the above, perhaps Ouaga’s not coming out too well? Yes, basic. Yes, dirt poor. However, the people? People make any country. The Burkinabe are among the friendliest I’ve met on my travels. One of the most interesting places I've visited in Africa.
Completely different to the rest of West Africa. The West Africa I’ve lived in for 5 years. No-one bothers you here. There're no ‘entrepreneurs’ outside the hotel. The people seem to have a certain pride and a humility.
People obey rules. There's order. In wider West Africa rules and laws are for everyone else. For instance, at traffic junctions, everyone obeys the signals.  Where there're no lights there's a fellow with a fluorescent bib and a red flag and a green flag and a whistle. 75% of the traffic appears to be motorbikes and pedal cycles; there’s a whiff of Vietnam, perhaps of communism, almost. At a junction there may be 200 bikes; when the green flag is lowered, the whistle, off they go. Back in Freetown, there isn't a single set of working traffic lights. OK, there is a comedy set on Pedemba Rd, but they’re not plugged into anything. Divas, what can I say…
As I warm down and think about brekkie and noting it’s not yet 0730 hrs, I’m liking Ouaga. Maybe they're road warriors reading this, and I guess I’m a road warrior myself, albeit West African style. From that perspective it’s different; the worst Internet I've experienced in 15 years. If you covet things like a good budget hotel, Netflix, BBC iPlayer, browsing the Internet, email, WhatsApp, Skype, a decent cup of coffee, tasty chow, as part of your travel requirements… forget it. The pleasures are simple; a book, a kindle, a podcast...
But, when in life can you sleep in a city called Ouaga; a second city called Bobo… an episode of the Flintstones perhaps? Tomorrow, it’s onwards to Bamako. Air Burkina awaits...
After Mali, it’s Khartoum. Casablanca without the heroes. My first job after leaving the military. 
Feels these days I’m heading everywhere but Timbuktu. See you in Mali...

Friday, 14 April 2017

'Early Morning Run in... Stockholm'

The opening line is the most difficult to write. Will the others surely follow? Two possibilities. 
“Now is the Winter of our Discontent / Made glorious Summerby this son of York…”
Alternatively, and my choice, “Mama Mia, here we go again…”
Northern Europe. We’re in Sweden. A nation with thousands of coastal islands and inland lakes, along with vast forests and glaciated mountains. Stockholm spreads across 14 islands. It has more than 50 bridges, as well as the medieval Gamla Stan (Old Town).
Moreover, a special guest runner this morning. Let me introduce her. Please meet Fernando. “C’est voulez-vous, and you have, er… very cute shoes Fernando…”
No snooze cycles. 0531 hrs. 13 degrees. The first day of September. The year 2016. Winter is coming.
“Good morning Fernando, you look bright and breezy this early hour.”
“Hi, Mark.”
“Fernando, a name I’m not familiar with?”
Fernando laughs, “It’s not my real name, you said to use a codename, remember? You said link it to Abba.”
“Whoa, don’t let the readers know I've scripted this. I’m happy you’re my Stockholm Guide this morning...”
“Mark, we discussed all this yesterday. That sound, can you hear it. The music?”
“I can… what about you, can you hear the drums, Fernando." 
Fernando smiles, “Haha… come on, let’s run…”
We’re planning for an hour this morning. ‘Fernando’ is originally from Helsinki but has lived here six years. She proposes a real smorgasbord, “Gamla Stan and then east to Djurgarden?”
“Sounds good to me.”
“What would you like to see, Mark?”
“Fernando, for me, culture all the way please.”
“Good, I have some treats… the Vasa museum, Sweden’s most famous ship from the 17th century. Sank 15 minutes into its maiden voyage. The Titanic of its day. Laid at the bottom of the Baltic Sea for 300 years. Now lovingly restored.”
I nod, “Um, OK.”
“The Royal Palace, see over there?”
“Er, OK.”
“Also, Parliament perhaps, again over there in Gamla Stan?”
I nod, “OK.”
“We'll see the Skansen museum featuring 500 years of Swedish and Scandinavian history?”
I nod again, “Interesting.”
“You must know of the famous author, Astrid Lindgren, one of the most famous children’s authors in the world. She wrote of Pippi Longstocking. She sold millions of books all over the world.”
I half nod this time, “Um, vaguely…”
Fernando is on a roll, “What about the Alfred Nobel Museum, who funded and began the Nobel prizes?”
I nod, “Top fellow.”
Fernando sighs, “Of course, and I suppose… there’s always, the Abba Museum…”
“That's more like it, come on, let’s go…”
Joking aside, Stockholm is beautiful. Lakes, paths, forests, history, islands, boats, trams, bridges, the water, magical, has everything and more, just stunning.
Following a quick stretch, it’s north, a short distance, into Gamla Stan. We run past and around the Royal Palace, Parliament and the historic streets. 
We head back south. Fernando is sprightly and enthusiastic, “You know of the ‘Stockholm Syndrome?”
“I have a good ikea,” I reply, “It’s when everything costs a fortune and the price of watery beer beggars belief.”
Fernando ignores me; we deviate over to the square where forty-three years ago the term was first coined at the end of a bank siege. Four workers were taken hostage after a messy robbery. Six days later when the stand-off ended, the victims had formed some positive relationship with their captors. 
We run south-east along a cobbled street with commuter boats, to serve the islands, on our right; to our left some extremely expensive real estate. Oh, and a pink truck with a gorilla heading to Rwanda.
Over the bridge into the park village, a village within a city. A blue tram crosses towards us. Fernando tells me autumn is here and how she loves the sound of leaves beneath the wheels of a tram. We reflect on the first day of Sept being symbolic in this part of the world. Was another summer gone?
“Do you watch Game of Thrones, Mark?”
Fernando hasn’t stopped talking since we started stretching 30 mins ago.
“I’ve heard of it.”
Fernando informs me, ‘Winter is Coming’, was the title of first episode/series. The motto of the ‘House of Stark’. People in the north always strive to be prepared for the coming of winter. As a metaphor, make the best of the good times (summer) the bad times will come around (winter), and we must be ready.
Sweden’s geographical location means cold, dark winters. In dark winter above the Arctic Circle, this means only three hours of sunlight a day. 
The pace remains healthy as we pass, in close succession, the Skansen Museum.
… the masts of the ill-fated Vasa rise through the trees and the roof of the building housing it.
Fernando is patient and jogs on the spot while I take the snaps. A bright red Viking ferry comes into port as we discuss famous Swedes born in Stockholm. I need three. I settle on… Alfred Nobel, Ingrid Bergman and Benny from Abba.
… THERE IT IS; it emerges nearly 40 mins into the run. No words are necessary.
We run along the water, all of which runs into the Baltic Sea. A magnificent sunrise from the park…
I reflect on how much I’m liking Sweden. A world leader in many areas. Given the population is only 10 million? 
The best place to grow old. Third best country to be a mother. Second best country for youths. An unsurpassed record of success in the Eurovision Song Contest. The fifth happiest country in the world. One of the first countries to ban smacking children. Three years off for maternity/paternity leave. Some say the best healthcare in the world. Environmentally advanced. The shortest working days in Europe, outside of the naturally idle southern Europeans (& France). They seem to start work about nine-ish, and finish about three-ish, earlier if they've a boat to catch to the islands; and Fridays, well, anything goes. Ten week’s annual holiday, the list goes on.
OK, some 'facts' might be tongue in cheek… I mean France isn’t completely idle for starters. So, how do the Swedes pay for all this? What’s the secret? Must be more to it than just tax and prohibitively expensive alcohol?
I am here nine days, so difficult to make an informed judgment. I think, and to their credit, they’ve only figured out the work/life balance thing. Perhaps they work to live; maybe they’re less materialistic and utterly happy with their lot?
We leave the village and start the push back to the hotel. We complete the run in under an hour. Fernando seems as fresh as a daisy and still chatting away. Brekkie time and a local treat - cinnamon buns. Oh, and like me, they’re coffee fiends. Put good coffee and buns together, magic.
In Sweden one only works four hours a day, meaning plenty of time for navel-gazing. I'm a method writer; I reflect further the work/life balance and what it all means. My mind wanders over to West Africa. I'll soon be back at the other end of the scale following this little jaunt…
There's a saying in Freetown, ‘that lack of money means a lack of friends; that if you have money at your disposal, every dog and goat will claim to be related to you’. I’ll be broke by the time I arrive back… going to miss that goat.
In closing a sing-song? 'Thank you for the music, the songs I'm singing… Thanks for all the joy they're bringing. Without a song or dance, what are we? So I say...
Fernando, you’ve been special, a real pleasure, the best guest runner ever.
My number one city run is now Stockholm. An enjoyable experience. Visit if you've never been.
The next post is entirely different. West Africa. ‘Early Morning Run in… Ouagadougou’.