Monday, December 29, 2008


Previous readers of this blog may have been wondering what’s happened – why haven’t I written anything for so long? It’s not that I’ve stopped writing. In the past few months I’ve filled several notebooks of longhand, and many pages of laptop files; but it’s all been more personal than I’ve wanted to share on a public blog.

I left DR Congo in early February knowing that I needed a break from the work I’d been doing, and a good rest. I decided to use the opportunity to fulfil my dream of returning to Europe and revisiting places that I’d lived in or visited thirty years earlier. I had several wonderful months completing much of what I intended – with one major exception. I had intended to relax, improve my health, and generally de-stress and eventually get back into a frame of mind where I could either return to work overseas or find some other type of employment that I’d enjoy. While travelling I gradually found myself becoming more tired, more worn out, and feeling less well than ever before. Arriving in Malta in late August I let go of all my sightseeing goals and simply rested. This didn’t seem to help either. I began keeping a written record of how tired I was, how I was feeling in general, and other symptoms. After a couple of weeks I knew there was a problem. I began seeing medical specialists and by the second specialist I had a diagnosis: myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME), aka chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), or post-viral fatigue syndrome, or chronic fatigue and immune dysfunction syndrome (CFIDS).

Just the fact that there are so many different names for this illness tells you there’s a problem. Indeed, the medical community still has no firm evidence for the cause of the problem nor the exact nature of the illness. There is, as yet, no cure. There are a range of symptoms and there’s a wide range of the degree to which people are ill: some people (a very few) are actually able to hold down full time jobs; at the other end of the spectrum some are so incapacitated as to be permanently bed-ridden. The illness is recognised by the WHO and is listed under “other disorders of the nervous system” G93.3 as “benign myalgic encephalomyelitis”.

In my case although I‘m unable to function in the type of demanding role that I held in the past, fortunately I can take care of myself and carry out basic daily tasks such as shopping, cooking, cleaning, and so on. I can read uncomplicated material without difficulty, although technical, dense information becomes much more stressful and quickly incomprehensible. I can write for a couple of hours a day, but after that brain fatigue sets in, concentration goes, and I have to rest. I’ve had to give up long walks, and I need to think carefully before using up too much energy on a single task. Going to a large crowded supermarket with muzak is extremely draining and on the whole I limit that to once a fortnight. I mostly buy my fruit and vegetables from small local vendors.

The two most significant features of ME/CFS are muscle-related problems (extreme muscle fatigue and pain, general lack of energy) and brain fatigue/malfunction. Although low energy levels are frustrating and tiresome, it is the brain-related problems that make it impossible for me to return to the type of work that I’ve done in the past. Memory and concentration are affected; any type of mental exertion – especially when it involves other people, such as in meetings, team discussions, teaching, etc. – quickly results in ‘brain fog’. This is a dense cloud or fuzziness like having a brain full of cotton wool (often turning to dizziness) that seems to envelop the brain making it really difficult or impossible to think things through, see matters clearly, or make decisions, and can even result in slurred speech. Before my diagnosis I signed up to take a teacher training course, thinking that I might return to teaching. The classes were just four mornings a week, but left me exhausted, dizzy and feeling generally unwell. I would come home each afternoon and fall onto the bed, often unable to prepare even a simple lunch.

Now I’m learning to pace myself, rationing my activities, and learning when to tell myself that it’s time to go home and not do ‘just one more thing’. ME/CFS is counter-intuitive. Many of us believe that we have to soldier on through an illness and we’ll gradually get better. Most of us have also been fed endless articles by the media telling us how important exercise is for our health. Before my diagnosis I struggled on, walking as much as I could every day, believing that, whatever might be wrong, the exercise was doing me good. Specialists now know that too much exercise can cause a deterioration in the condition of those with ME/CFS. Every day is an internal battle between wanting to get things done, wanting to get out and be active, telling myself I need to get on with it, and trying to listen to what my body is telling me about how much rest I need.

And now I do need to rest!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Couch Surfing at Christmas

The Malta Couch Surfing group held a Christmas party last night that was a great success. Matthew, a local CS member, hosted the event in his atmospheric old "house of character" - as such traditional village houses are now called here - located down a narrow twisty lane and only reachable on foot. Everyone brought something to eat and/or drink, and visiting couch surfers from Ireland, Finland, Italy, the US, Russia, Sweden, France, and maybe some other places, came along too. When I left soon after midnight the party was still going strong! If you're not a couch surfer yet you can join the fun at:

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

President-elect Barack Hussein Obama

My warmest congratulations to President-elect of the USA, Barack Obama!

A truly historic moment for the US, for Kenya, and for all Africans and people of African descent.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Africans in Malta

Malta is still hot and humid! While northern Europe slides into Autumn, down here the sun shines brightly for almost 12 hours a day. Far too hot for me to think about work - such as sorting out photos or sightseeing - so I just go down to the Tigne Beach Club to catch a bit of breeze and take a dip in the Med to cool off.

With a population of around 400,000 and total area of approx. 316 sq km, I believe Malta is the smallest country in the European Union, and not well placed to deal with the influx of refugees from Africa who are now arriving by the boat load. The EU is doing nothing to help. Malta is already one of the most densely populated countries on earth, and large numbers of Maltese themselves emigrate to look for work and opportunities elsewhere (Edward de Bono is one of the more famous Maltese expatriates).

Most of the refugees are placed in one of two camps in the interior of the island, a closed camp which they cannot leave, and an open camp where people are free to come and go. A few, after being held for 18 months, are given ID cards and allowed to look for work on the island. There isn't much. One such is a young man from Abidjan in the Ivory Coast, Mamadou. Tall and good looking, speaking fluent French and learning English quickly, he tidies away deck chairs and sweeps up at the club. He looks sad, worried that by the end of October there'll be no more work for him. A few of his friends, he tells me, have gone to mainland Europe with young women who arranged the necessary papers for them. He'd like to do the same...but patrons at the beach club are mostly local Maltese, not foreigners, so his chances of meeting someone this year look slim.

Thursday, August 28, 2008


I'm in London as I write, taking a flight to Malta early tomorrow. My German language skills have improved following a few weeks of practice, and I also managed to squeeze in short visits to Hamburg, Lübeck and Münster following Berlin.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Goodbye England, Hello Europe!

So much for thinking I’d get the rest of my Crete, Paris and Chartres photos posted before I set off again! The past few weeks in England have been full of activities: seeing old friends, visiting art galleries, getting some minor laptop problems sorted with the help of an excellent young Polish computer whiz at the Apple Store on Regent Street (a temple devoted to all things Apple!), visits to Norwich and a return to Yorkshire.

However good it is to be among familiar surroundings in North Yorkshire, the weather is a strong reminder of why I could never again live up here. It is cold and wet, damp and chilly, grey and dark even in July! Of course the days when the sun does shine and the rich green of all the tall trees and fields glows, and garden flowers are all lit up, and the countryside is full of sheep, cows, bunnies, pheasants, deer and foxes, on these days it is perfectly English and very beautiful.

In the morning I’ll be flying to Prague and after a few days in the city I’ll head to the south of the country – new territory for me – to visit an old Czech friend whom I know from my Cornell days. Then it’s on to Graz and Klagenfurt in Austria, and from there I’ll head north again into Germany and go to Weimar, traveling via Munich. Anyone who has studied Goethe and Schiller will understand why I’m heading to Weimar, which in the old days was closed off to us behind the Iron Curtain, but can now easily be visited.

From Weimar I’ll go to Berlin for a couple of weeks. I was last there in the mid-70’s, so I’m curious to see all the changes and to get a better look at the eastern side of the city. I did visit before – a complicated and anxiety-inducing process of passing through checkpoints and changing required amounts of money with little to spend it on. After Berlin there will be a few brief days in Belgium seeing friends, then a few brief days back in Notting Hill to sort out my gear before packing it up and flying south to Malta for the month of September.

I’ve decided not to carry my laptop with me for the European mainland part of this trip, which means no new photos for some time. Yes, I’m way, way behind with posting photos – but I always was! In fact, I’ve got a huge stack of photos from Rwanda and Congo that I always think about posting if I ever get the chance….

Saturday, July 05, 2008

20 May - 12 June, 2008

I'm slightly reluctant to write about how delightful Crete is, for fear of encouraging yet more tourists. Fortunately this blog doesn't have such a large readership that I need to worry too much, and I suspect that most readers are people whom I'd be happy to share this wonderful island with. Bear in my that my photos do not even begin to show the wonders of Crete: the bluest sea, the clearest air, the divine scent of wild thyme on the hillsides, the majestic mountains... I'll divide my photos into three sections - favourite pics from Crete; Knossos (yes, it's Crete, but deserves a section of its own!); and Santorini. The photos below are the Crete pics. I did not take my camera on the Samaria Gorge hike to save on weight, but I doubt that my photographs could do it justice, in any case! And sorry - I have not arranged these photos in any particular order!

I love the way that almost everyone on Crete makes such an effort to decorate the outside of their houses with flowers.

This is a view of the village of Sellia, as seen from the village of Myrthios, on the south west coast, directly south of Rethymno, and just up the hill from Plakias, where I was staying.

Rethymno, on the north coast, has a Venetian "fortezza" and old harbour. This photo is taken from the new harbour showing the "white mountains" in the distance. The mountains are often covered with snow in the winter.

A wonderful display of potted plants from someone who clearly misses having a garden!

This is a small olive tree - the island is covered in olive trees with their distinctive grey-green leaves, and naturally olives and olive oil form a significant part of the local diet.

My Norwegian friend Astrid came to visit me in Crete! We had a great couple of days together catching up. She used to work in Bukavu, and is now in Goma (DR Congo) after an 8 month break.

Village street in Myrthios, south coast of Crete.

I guess you can tell that I like flowers!

Here are the White Mountains again in the distance. Hidden in the mountains is the amazing Samaria Gorge - the longest gorge in Europe (18km), and one of the most beautiful days I've ever spent. It is difficult to imagine, seeing the mountains from the "outside", just how beautiful the gorge is; one surprising feature are all the pine trees that grow there, but which you don't see on the mountains. Crete used to have ample tree cover, but the Venetians cut down all the trees to build their ships - history buffs might be interested in "Empires of the Sea - the Final Battle for the Mediterranean, 1521 - 1580" by Roger Crowley.

A view of the south coast, near Frangokastello.

I liked the way that the shape of this village conformed to the niche in the hillsides - near Frangokastello.

The village of Sellia

Taken near Preveli Monastery - I couldn't make out the purpose of the wall!

Another view of Rethymno.

The Rethymno Fortezza.

Preveli Monastery

View of Plakias taken from Myrthios. Back in the 70's there were only 10 houses in Plakias; now there are hotels and a large development of holiday homes is beginning construction. It's still delightful - but for how much longer? Fortunately the two-hour drive from the airport puts off plenty of people.

The Panorama Restaurant in Myrthios - it has truly panoramic views over Plakias. And yes, there are rather a lot of cars on the road - this is a popular place with tourists!

Views (above and below) of a lovely old bridge not far from Preveli.

Along the road between Sellia and Myrthios.

Frangokastello on the south coast. It's old. Don't know how old - can't remember all these details!

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Paris city hall

I am absolutely thrilled and delighted to tell you that Ingrid Betancourt is finally free! Please see for details.

I'm in Norwich, East Anglia for the next couple of days. Delightful town with a cathedral and central market that date back over 1,000 years.

Monday, June 30, 2008

It's London, it's summer, it's Wimbledon!! (and I'm glued to the telly!). But yesterday was Sunday, and they allow the players to take the day off to get revved up for week two, so I also took the day off and joined some friends in the lovely Brockwell Park at Herne Hill in south London for a picnic in the sun.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Just got back into London late last night on Eurostar from Paris (train delayed by an hour!). Millions of photos and a lot of catching up to do before I take off again.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Bright sun and tropical temperatures, and Parisians are still walking around in suit jackets and even overcoats, leather boots and sweaters. Only the tourists would dare commit such fashion faux-pas as wearing a t-shirt! Every building is a monument to history, outrageously grand and grandiose, and the gold leaf has not been spared in helping the city to shine for this summer season.
Yesterday I walked for six hours and by evening my feet couldn't drag me any further. Today I shall limit my expectations!

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Yesterday I hiked the Samaria Gorge - 18km - and today my legs are reminding me all about it!! I leave Crete tonight, flying back to London. Will spend a few hours in Rethymnon and Iraklio (Heraklion) before taking off.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

On 14th May I had just a few hours in York , famous for its Minster and the Shambles and other old buildings, so I wandered around with a friend snapping photos without paying too much attention as to what the buildings actually were. Apologies for not providing much detail with the photographs – I hope they will speak for themselves; or, if you’re especially interested, then they will encourage you to visit York and learn more. I was visiting together with another old school-friend whom I hadn’t seen in over 30 years, so my attention was more on getting re-connected with my friend than re-connected with York. In my childhood I came to York only occasionally, usually with family visitors interested in seeing the historic city.

At one time presumably all the city lay behind the city wall and was entered through gates such as this one:

Much of the old city wall still exists, and it's possible to walk on top of the wall, from where you get good views of the Minster. Here's a section of the wall:

View of the Minster from the wall:

The Abbey, destroyed when King Henry VIII dissolved monasteries in Britain, would have been outside the City walls, but is now well within the city proper. ("The Dissolution of the Monasteries, sometimes referred to as the Suppression of the Monasteries, was the formal process between 1536 and 1541 by which Henry VIII disbanded monastic communities in England, Wales and Ireland and confiscated their property. He was given the authority to do this by the Act of Supremacy, passed by Parliament in 1534, which made him Supreme Head of the Church in England, and by the First Suppression Act (1536) and the Second Suppression Act (1539)". Ref:

I love the details of the old buildings, such as these window panes and (below) the carvings on the external window frames:

This useful plaque shows us that the building was constructed sometime before 1606:

One street in York which is particularly well-known is The Shambles. This type of narrow street survives from the 16th century, and one detail I remember from my school-days is that in those days cities had no sewer system and slop buckets and chamber pots were simply emptied onto the street below from upstairs windows - passers-by beware!

York Minster seen in the background from a street near The Shambles:

Here are some different views of York Minister, which lies in the centre of the city:

Street scene:

Outdoor cafes in England are still a surprise to me - they didn't exist when I was young. Have continental fashions come to Britain, or do we have global warming to thank?

An old-fashioned pub sign:

Like many other British cities, York has many parks and gardens with beautiful trees, where people of all ages can pass the time:

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Harrogate, Yorkshire

As you leave London the sign on the M1 motorway just says: "The North", as if everything north of London were a dark and mysterious place where few dare to go. A mere four hours' drive further on brings you to Yorkshire. I was born and grew up in Harrogate, North Yorkshire and left as soon as I could: the day after I finished my A-levels (high school leaving exams). I have only ventured back three times since then - the third time was from the 11th to 16th May this year. I went with Helen, an old friend from high school, who had also escaped at the same time.

A typical Yorkshire sight: lots of green fields, sheep in the distance

You know you're in Yorkshire when you see fields full of sheep! May is still Spring, and springtime in Yorkshire means lambs in the fields. Falling asleep to the sound of the ewes baa-ing and lambs meh-meh-ing, I felt like I was back in a very familiar place, although it's been many years since I called it home.

Sheep in the fields at Burnbridge outside Harrogate

Harrogate was well-known as a spa town where people used to come to "take the waters" for cures. Grand hotels like the Swan and the Majestic sprang up to cater for all the visitors, and facilities where they could take the waters were also built, such as The Royal Baths and the Pump Room.

The Pump Room Museum - you can drink the water, which has a strong taste of sulphur!

The Swan Hotel later became famous as the place where Agatha Christie disappeared to when she had a nervous breakdown.
The Swan Hotel is in the background of this Harrogate street scene

Nowadays Harrogate has developed into a major conference center where the large hotels and meeting and exhibition facilities cater to many big events. One of the attractions of the town are the Valley Gardens - a large park with beautifully tended gardens and tall trees.

A path through the Valley Gardens

Man on a bench in the Valley Gardens - note the size of the trees! All trees in Harrogate - including those on private property - are under a preservation order and may not be cut down without permission.

The Valley Gardens Cafe, where we used to get vanilla wafer ice-creams when we were children (a small block of vanilla ice-cream pressed between two thin wafers; it was a special treat in those days!). When we were very small, my siblings and I were frequently taken for walks in the Gardens. When I attended primary school, my sister and I used to walk through the Gardens every day to reach our school. When there was enough snow we would go sledging on the hillside in the Gardens. I remember attending a performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream there one summer evening; a flower show one spring; art exhibitions in the covered terraces, and doubtless many other events over the years.

Walking out of the Valley Gardens, past the Pump Room and then the Crown Hotel, around a flower-decorated roundabout and past the divine Farrahs confectionary shop (heaven for chocaholics!), one comes to the much-photographed Montpellier Parade which leads up to the War Memorial and the town centre:

At the top of Montpellier Parade you will find the famous Betty's Cafe, a Harrogate tradition, where all the best ladies go for afternoon tea. You can now go there for dinner too. Betty's is a small, family-owned business which also owns "Yorkshire Tea" - a brand of strong English tea that you can probably find in a supermarket or speciality tea shop near you. Thanks to global warming they are now experimenting with actually growing tea in Yorkshire!

The famous Betty's Cafe, Harrogate

And close to Betty's you will see the War Memorial in the centre of Harrogate

Tree with blossoms, near the town centre

Just outside of town you will find the Harlow Carr Gardens, now owned by the Royal Horticultural Society. Here are a few photos to tempt the gardeners amongst you:

Decorative Garden Shed, 
Harlow Carr Gardens

Frilly Tulips in the Harlow Carr Gardens

The Facts: please note that due to writing this piece from a weak memory after 10pm in a hotel room in Crete without internet connection, I haven't actually bothered to check any facts. If you'd like to add corrections, please do!