A different kind of the middle of nowhere

Image Source: Wikipedia


Nursing a double espresso in the Air France lounge at Charles De Gaulle, it’s the first time in a week that I get the chance to be by myself and reflect on what has been a whirlwind week. From being up at 5.00 am two Sundays ago (to catch an early flight westward from Heathrow to Abidjan via Paris), multiple flying stops to a number of offshore assets and then to this stop on the way back to normalcy, it has felt like a blur of perpetual motion. It has also, much against my natural bent, been a time spent overwhelmingly in the company of others -  work colleagues, fellow travellers and the odd hustler looking to make a quick buck amongst others. With each change of location – Heathrow, Paris, Abidjan and offshore – there has been a progressive browning of my surroundings, one that means that by the time I arrive at the work site I am lost in a sea of similar faces. Not since my last job in this part of the world at the back end of 2008 have I found myself in this sort of surroundings; not in the minority but one face in a sea of similar faces.

Stepping out of the airport terminal, the humidity hits like a bed sheet heavy with water might if flapped about by a strong wind, along with the million indecipherable smells – smoke from cooked food, the linger of car exhaust fumes, dried sweat – the minutiae of life which might be from any city along this West African coast. The airport itself is not significantly different from one I am more familiar with – Murtala Mohammed International – with its milling masses of people; particularly the hustlers who sidle up to you, somewhat conspiratorially offering up various taxi and money changing services and a Burger King. Like that other airport, this one is also named for an African strong man.

The days start early and end late, involving a variety of boat transfers including the frog, a walk to work solution and the odd clamber up boat landings via ladders. My two slight concerns turn out to be unfounded – the heat isn’t overly oppressive and I find enough familiar food to subsist on. One can hardly go wrong with eggs, bacon and sausages or rice and fried plantains for that matter (and EVERYTHING tastes infinitely better with a dash of chilli sauce).  Somehow, I get cast in the role of the Africa expert – asked to weigh in everything from food choices to social mores.

Nights are spent trying to get to sleep whilst being swayed by the swells rocking the accommodation vessel we’re on. Fairly recently the beds have been doubled up to increase capacity, which is how three of us get a room with two beds. I volunteer to take one of the top bunk beds, given I have less of a frame to squeeze in than the others.

Being out and about brings back memories of another life, being the young local engineer learning the ropes and then chomping at the bit to take on more responsibilities. In the stories I tell myself of that time, I wrestle with the tension between wanting to do more but feeling like the real decision making power was elsewhere, which is one of the reasons I upped sticks and left in the end. With the benefit of the distance of a few years since then, it is clear that structural problems notwithstanding, my youthful headiness played a part in whatever grievances I carry from that time.  I can’t help but wonder if these younger engineers feel any different, and if the various players in this space have the global reach and structure to truly develop these minds into ‘world class’ engineers. This is the first of many trips westwards and south I suspect. I am curious to see how this pans out.

A Sense of An Ending?

 

Spread out in various states of recline around a long table in the inner room of the Indian restaurant we have gathered in, I imagine we cast a scene not too dissimilar to the last supper. Not only are we thirteen (ignoring for a moment that S is barely 9 months old), it is a last supper of sorts, pulled together to celebrate the two J’s, in these their final days up here before they up sticks and move to study not too far off from ground zero in America’s bible belt. That we’ve plopped for Indian cuisine is perhaps a slight oddity given all thirteen of us have African roots. I suspect it is more indicative of the paucity of suitable eating options than adventure, which is why phones come out when it is time to order; google comes to the rescue. All that drags out the ordering process, which has a knock on effect on when we get our food.

When dinner finally arrives, we break out into leisurely conversations, in which it transpires that the two J’s are not the only ones on the verge of leaving. R is off in about a month’s time, O has his feet on two continents already, A’s entrepreneurial life is very much in full flow, two other youngsters are on the cusp of going away to University, and I am one job opening away from upping sticks myself. Even those who do not have active moves planned suggest in conversation that they would consider a move outside of town, all of which feeds the sense that a lot of change is afoot, and that the group is tottering on the edge of significant change, particularly over the next few months.

With the benefit of a few days to reflect over the events and feelings of the day, I find myself wondering what about these particular set of circumstances make the sense of change deeply personal. It is not like the group has stayed the same over the past few years I have been part of it. As recently as three or so months ago there was a significant departure, which make my initial guess that it is the sheer number of moves in a relatively small time scale that  has largely engendered this feeling. Other possible reasons might be the relative importance of some of the people on the move this time, the season of life I am in, or just a plain, unexplained increased sensitivity to all of this.

Change they say is inevitable but on this occasion I feel like I am being dragged kicking and screaming towards it.

Winging It

I am seating in a meeting, listening to the folk around the table drone on about some subject now lost to memory when it hits me – in the way I imagine an out of body experience might – just how much of what is often dressed as expert opinion is little more than strongly expressed opinion. Far from thumbing my nose down at others, it is a farce I very much consider myself as a contributor to. That sense of winging it, making things up as I go along, is one which has come to define the first half of the year for me; from the vagaries of the aforementioned work situation to the minutiae of doing life, spread as it has been between the grey, dull granite of the ‘Deen and the leafy, colour-suffused greenery of the Wey country.

In the best of years, I face the second half of the year with a sense of tentativeness, primarily due to the fact that the six weeks between the 8th of July and the 15th of August are deeply emotive ones. This year, that sense of being dragged unwillingly into the second half of the year is heightened by my middling attempts at meeting the goals I set for myself at the beginning of the year. Boiled down to its essentials, 2018 was the year I would read (and write) more, lose weight (to the tune of ~ 10kg), go a long way towards replenishing the savings my Chelmsford exertions drained and complete a timed 10k race. Some progress has been made towards running that 10k (I am currently training for the Simply Health Great Aberdeen Run) and have managed to complete 7 of the 25 books I hope to read in 2018, but what is abundantly clear is that a humongous effort is required to recover and meet these targets.

Elsewhere work (and multiple trips to the middle of nowhere), travel and machine learning have been my continuum. In addition to Pula, pit stops over the course of the year have included Inverness, Glasgow and various dodgy London backwaters. I am only six weeks into a twelve week machine learning course on Coursera but what it has done to reignite niggling doubts in my mind about the future cannot be completely quantified. Poring over matrices, gradients and numerical computations has brought back to mind things learned in Further Mathematics many years ago, with the near instant feedback a few lines scripted in Octave can bring raising the question in my mind of what I want to do long term. A year ago, I could have sworn the corrosion and materials discipline was it for me (hence the Rust in RustGeek) but a combination of needing to move down south and studying has made me question what shape or form the move should take. I am far from being at a level of proficiency required to completely dump my past life and switch industries but I suspect if this horse had its wish, I would be dumping my rust geek card and picking up a Deep Mind one, never mind they are riddled with contractors.

It is not only on the subject of the future that niggling doubts assail me. Faith, developing a coherent world view and how that interfaces with science and what we know about the physical world is something that has floated on the periphery of my consciousness for a long time. The pitfall in all of this thinking is entertaining doubt for its own sake only, or worse as a proxy for a cool, worldly wise spirituality rather than as a means to an end, figuring out objective truth. That, this engagement of the mind and reason in the sphere of faith, is one that the church has a rich tradition of; Augustine, Origen, Eusebius, Anselm – to whom the motto fides quaerens intellectum – and more recently the likes of CS Lewis and John Stott all come to mind. Three books, one on the go and two on the to-read list, are likely to feature prominently here; Diarmaid MacCulloch’s (the partly read one) A History of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years which attempts to chronicle the coalescence of various ideas into what we know and practise as Christianity from a historian’s viewpoint, NT Wright’s Paul: A Biography which looks to reinterpret Paul’s legacy from the perspective of a theologian’s who is not afraid to colour outside the lines a bit, and Rachel Held Evans’ A Year of Biblical Womanhood which given her antecedents is likely to be a more modern, doubter turned believer again view. Paul looms large in all of this, predictably, given his outsize influence on the New Testament and its shaping, and also how a lot of the ‘problematic’ bits of the new testament, especially it’s treatment of women relate to his teaching.

Identity is also another topic which has lingered on my mind these past few months, triggered in the main by the World Cup and the make up (and performance) of the French, Belgian, English and German teams. Trevor Noah’s take, the response from the French ambassador and his response all demonstrate how deeply nuanced the subject is. Whilst there is certainly some delight in seeing people like me do well for these countries (sans the English team of course which being the dour, Calvinist almost Scotsman I am I must hate), the fact that none of the ‘proper’ African countries made it out of the group begs the question of if these sons of African émigrés have achieved what they have in spite of, rather than because they have African roots. The Mezut Ozil saga does suggest it is a little bit of both, with there being a sense in which the acceptance of one’s visible otherness is bestowed almost as a reward for being of the good other. Acceptance or not, the one question I have’t being able to wrap my head around is what I would do if I had a kid who was great at sport. Would I encourage them to represent Nigeria or their adopted country?

There are a lot of weighty things to mull over, and a few trips to the middle of nowhere to navigate but I would like to think I can make writing more a focus for this second half of the year. The benefits are obvious, I think, from providing an outlet for clearing my head and organising the prodigal thoughts swirling about in my head to providing opportunities for deliberate practice. I make no promises though, may what will be be.

#NaPoWriMo18

Offshore Nigeria, back in the day. For the prompt Rise/Set.

It is now a mere three days to the start of National Poetry Month this year, three years since I last participated. Back then in addition to the prompts from the NaPoWriMo website, I had La Reine and Tolu for company, two poets who are far more deserving of the label. I plan on jumping in this year, the idea primarily being to participate, rather than hammer out high quality poetry. Fingers crossed.

Coming Up For Air


Photo by Zen Photographer on Unsplash


Eat-sleep-work-walk; wash-rinse-repeat. This just about sums up the past six weeks for me, travel down south being one of the few brights spots in an otherwise humdrum existence. In that state the days blur into each other – the weekend when it comes offering scant relief – before being quickly subsumed by a new Monday morning and the start of a new cycle of drudgery.  It is that time of the year when the final reports from last year are being reviewed and finishing touches made to the detailed plans for the new year’s work so there is little scope for escape.

The various iterations of the  Beast from the East have also had their say, ice and snow being so serious that for the first time in a while those who live in the sticks were permitted to work from home. Being a centre dweller, I managed to make it into work regardless, the main impact of all that snow and ice being to put paid to my practice of lunch time walking and my running. That at least is my excuse. The one upside has been the opportunity to load up on the reading – the small matter of six books being downed from the twenty five I plan on reading this year.

Away from proper books I have been doing a lot of web-based reading, which is how I stumbled onto Tom Chritchlow’s Small B- blogging post (via Om Malik’s link). Tom’s premise is that purposefully crafting content for a small deliberate audience provides more value to both the writer and the reader than the content market approach that larger networks seem to favour. It is a sentiment that has been kicking about in various forms in the networks I float about in, a piece on the ‘demise’ of the mommy blog and one by Ethan Zuckerman being the examples that come most readily to mind.  Although the Zuckerman post is a plug for gobo.social,  it raises a number of points which, in our very own Facebook inspired 1984 dystopia, are particularly relevant. For what it is worth, I believe I read and follow a number of solid small b-blogs; Caitlin Kelly’s Broadside Blog, Elizabeth Adams’ Cassandra Pages and the aforementioned Ethan Zuckerman’s My Heart Is In Accra all come to mind.

The Social Media as Big Brother narrative has most certainly come home to roost on Facebook’s porch,  Facebook’s dealings with Cambridge Analytical leading to investors voting with their money to the tune of $58billion and counting. That Facebook has been harvesting user call log and messaging data for quite a while only worsens the situation, discovered ironically as users have exited the service in response to the Cambridge Analytical findings. Amidst the hue and cry,  I found William Davies’ take in the London Review of Books more clear eyed than most. Whilst Facebook might currently be the most egregious example of the social-as-big-brother problem , it is one which is deeply intertwined with the very fabric of the internet. Unplugging might be a solution, except for the small matter of the fact that everyone – Amazon, Google, Free wifi on the London Underground and almost every single online media outlet (including the ones who have raised the hue and cry) all gather data on their users. That horse may have already bolted.

Loads to reflect on then – big and small over the last few weeks. For me, my love hate relationship with Facebook continues. How long this latest season of deactivation lasts remains to be seen.

The Year in Reading

After many years of having thoroughly enjoyed the annual parade of opinions of books over at The Millions, I decided to have a go myself this year. Far from being a celebration of a year in which I read deeply and widely, it is a light reflection on all the things I managed to read this year. Enjoy!

Of the myriad of things I most deeply wanted to achieve this year, two loomed large in the personal development domain; to read more and write more, which was why I entered the year clutching my copy of Patty Dann‘s The Butterfly Hours close to my chest. In my head, writing more  – and by extension, better – required tools for tuning my craft, which was why this book, with its promise of personal memoir married to prompts, seemed the perfect fit. It helped that all nineteen reviews on Amazon were 5*. I did enjoy the book, albeit more an an example of easy reading memoir than a collection of prompts. I suspect that had a lot more to do with me than the book.  If it is any consolation, I returned to it several times over the course of the year, it along with Dinty Moore‘s Crafting The Personal Essay being fine examples of the sort of creative non-fiction I would like to churn out.

Next up was Taiye Selasi’s Ghana Must Go, which I finally finished at this third time of asking. On my two previous attempts, I had found myself bogged down in the tedious beginning, but ploughing through this time brought me to the delights of the end. What I never quite managed to suss out was just how autobiographical the novel was, given that like the Sais Taiye has dual Nigerian and Ghanian roots and is also a twin. So thoroughly did I enjoy this that I went hunting for her seminal essay from 2005, Bye Bye Babar. Well worth the read, if I say so myself.

The grudging, reluctant engagement with books which dogged my interactions with both books was something I found recurred over the course of the year. The list of unfinished books is extensive with Andrea Lucado’s English Lessons and Adam Gopnik’s At The Strangers’ Gate  being the more notable.  The books I did finish fell mainly into four main categories; ones I read as guides for my #100DaysOfCreating project (Felix Feneon’s Novels in Three Lines and Robert Smartwood’s Hint Fiction), annual anthologies which have become regular fixtures on my reading list (such as the Jonathan Franzen edited 2016 edition of The Best American Essays), personal essay collections (such as David SedarisLet’s Explore Diabetes with Owls and Teju Cole’s Known and Strange Things) and books inspired by media I consumed during the course of the year (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes a useful counterpoint to binge watching all five seasons of Elementary, and Walk On – Steve Stockman’s attempt at providing insights into the faith that underpins U2’s oeuvre).

I had a late spurt of three books to thank for reaching fifteen books this year. All three were really good reads:  Jorge Cham and Daniel Whiteson’s We Have No Idea (a reminder that for all we know about quarks, leptons, and the material universe, the vast majority of what is around us is unknown), Dame Elizabeth Anionwu’s Mixed Blessings from a Cambridge Union (a deeply personal story of growing up mixed race in the United Kingdom of the 50’s and 60’s and eventually connecting with her Nigerian heritage) and Diego Torres‘s The Special One: The Secret World of Jose Mourinho (a no-holds barred look at the behind the scenes behaviour of Mourinho, particularly his Real Madrid sojourn and how super agent Jorge Mendes towered over his transfer dealings).

All told reading more widely  – and more consistently – has to be one of the objectives for the new year. Braced for the challenge.

The Diary: The Paphos Files

The first bits of Cyprus we glimpsed as our flight began the descent towards Paphos were wind turbines slowly turning in what must have been a slight evening breeze, and houses which from the height looked like small, matchboxes  pressed into the sides of the hilly terrain below us. Although it was only 5.20pm local time, it was quickly growing dark, which at first seemed odd until I realised just how much closer to the equator we were here, than in England from where we were arriving. This trip to Cyprus was at the instance of S, ten days in Paphos being her idea of a honeymoon. The hope was to get the chance to catch our breaths after what had been a whirlwind three weeks in which we had managed to get hitched without losing our minds; the pressure of a large Nigerian wedding notwithstanding.

Having the main events on the other side of town in rural England – as far removed from our usual haunts as could be – added a layer of complexity to everything, that in retrospect we could have done without. The miracle in all of that was that friends and family rallied – some at particularly short notice, and braving the worst of the M25 and Dartford crossing traffic on the day – to be part of the events and support us. As we headed into Paphos, the overwhelming desire was to kick back and de-stress from all of that.

Before all of that kicking back and chilling could begin, there was the small matter of navigating passport checks and customs. Although I had the requisite approvals in my Nigerian passport, it still took in excess of ten minutes – and a couple of phone calls by the fellow at the desk – for my passport to be checked and then stamped. Only then could S and I head on to the baggage area and pick up our bags; she being British had no such problems. It was a warm 22 degrees C even at that time of the day, and importantly dry, with none of the chill from the wind that had hastened our arrival and helped claw back some of the lost time from our flight from Gatwick being delayed.

Bags in hand and through customs, we found our designated driver – he had our names on a card held high above his head – waited a bit at a Costa Coffee for the rest of our party to arrive and eventually headed out into town. That allowed me take in my surroundings at the airport, the overwhelming sense being one of being somewhat pleasantly surprised by the absence of any of that in-your-face first world glitter that airports around the Western world often portray. Our hotel, the King Evelthon, was a relatively recent addition to the Paphos holiday resort scene and just beyond the city limits – sculptures of the Greek letter ρ marking these. From arrival to the hotel and then dinner took all of two hours, including the wait. Not bad, given we needed to tuck into dinner having steadfastly refused the prodding of the the cabin crew to pony up the extra cash required to buy a meal on board.

***

Having finally managed to get out of our travel soaked clothes and then get some sleep, we woke up to the sight of glorious sunshine already streaming in. Looking through the doors into the pool – we had been upgraded to a swim up room – the sense was very much one of being a holiday resort, complete with all the trappings. In the distance, the lonesome hulk of a rusty brown ship loomed. I would later find out that there was some history to it, it being the MV Demetrios II. When we finally dragged ourselves out of bed for a hearty breakfast and were ready to head out, we hopped onto the 615 towards the Paphos harbour for a bit of sightseeing.

We found the harbour area a beehive of activity with buskers, hustlers and traders all keen to interest us in their wares. In the end we plumped for a glass bottomed boat ride around the harbour and picked up a flyer for the wave dancers suite of cruises from the Paphos Harbour. The glass bottomed boat ride ended up a damp squib of sorts – there was nothing of note to see besides the ruins of the Vera K – but the 90 minute trip around the harbour gave a good view of the coast line all the way up and down. Trip done, we found an ice cream place down the road where we took a much needed toilet break and three scoops of ice cream each, for the heat. We – read S – liked it so much that we returned on three other separate occasions for ice cream there. A hop-on, hop-off open bus tour topped off this first day, the whistle-stop tour putting Paphos and its size  – or lack thereof – into perspective.

***

Our time in Cyprus was organised around three main all-day events; a jeep safari, a gourmet tour and an all of Cyprus tour. Being the last of the nine passengers to be picked up for the jeep safari, meant we had to make do with being sat apart, S in the middle seat at the back and me perched on the edge of the back seat alongside the others, an older Italian couple , an English couple from Birmingham and three young men from Hungary. Our version of the safari tour took in a drive through banana plantations,  old Turkish and Greek villages, as well as pit stops at a number of other landmarks. In spite of the obvious pride the locals had in their banana plantations it turned out they were neither big enough nor straight enough to meet EU export regulations.

In keeping with the safari theme, much of the driving was on bumpy, rocky roads on which we in the back seat bounced about. The trek up the Avakas Gorge was the first real physical activity I had undertaken  since my last 5k on the 18th of October; that showed in my lack of fitness. The trek itself – ours was the abridged version – took in a number of rare bushes and flowers and a number of tiny rivulets; smaller now at the end of a long summer than they would be in the rainier, wetter winter season. Other interesting pit stops along the way were the Aphrodite baths (where Aphrodite used to bathe according to local mythology), the Adonis baths and the blue lagoon where a few of the less intrepid swimmers dove in for a leisurely swim. As we made to leave the Adonis baths, an interesting exchange ensued between the caretaker and I.  He called me a chocolate Adonis, warning S to be extra careful overnight, his point being that my brush with the very essence of Adonis at the baths had upped my virility. That made for a few awkward moments between him, S and I, although no offence was meant or taken.

***

Over the course of the remaining days we managed to fit in two more all-day tours. The first of these was a gourmet tour that focused on highlighting the food, art and craft of Cyprus, the intent clearly to show case a rustic Cyprus where life was lived at a leisurely, laid back pace. Pit stops on this tour included a winery where we got to taste a range of locally brewed liquids, an all female factory where a range of Cypriot sweets were made and  a factory where roses were used in everything from chocolate to wine in addition to the usual suspects of perfumed body care products. Elsewhere on the tour we got to see the Holy Cross church in Omodos and fraternise somewhat with the local silver and glass makers. Also on the gourmet tour, we discovered Carob, which became the bane of my existence over the next few days, as S tried to score bottles and bars of the ostensibly healthy stuff. The other tour – an all of Cyprus tour – went along similar lines, the highlights being a visit to the capital Nicosia and the view across the green line into Turkish controlled Cyprus from the top of the  Ledra observatory and the church of Saint Lazarus (the fellow who died twice).

In between the full day tours, we managed to get three 7k-ish runs in, possible in part because S is a running enthusiast who needs her running fix, and the presence of a coastal path which we learned is a fairly recent addition. The ruins being excavated at the harbour area and the Wave Dancer half day BBQ cruise also help the time pass.

***
By virtue of its position at the junction of Europe, the Middle East and Africa, Cyprus has had a long and checkered history, with ownership and control changing hands several times. Greeks, Ottomans, Venetians, The French, the Romans – and a few others I can’t remember – have all at various times laid claim to the island, leaving their marks in various ways. Greek culture predominates, as does the Turkish military presence in the Northern third of the island, a self declared Republic which is recognised only by Turkey. There was an opportunity to cross the Green Line and explore a bit of it, but the situation with my Nigerian passport made me wary of crossing any more borders than I needed to.

What I found surprising was a strong undercurrent of Russian influence – like London one of our guides joked  on one of the days. I suppose the shared religious history enables this – both the Russian Orthodox and Church of Cyprus are part of the Eastern Orthodox Tradition, making it easier for devout Russians to integrate, and providing a driver for them to visit shared holy spaces – as does the official passport for investment program which provides access to Cyprus and by extension the rest of the EU for €2million.  A different guide took great joy in pointing out which of the palatial, stately homes were owned by Russians.

The British influence was more expected, and obvious, given the recent colonial history and the long running interactions with the island going back to Richard the Lion heart’s invasion in the late 1100’s. The language and the sunshine does make it one of the prime destinations for Brits looking to retire by the sun and the sea, that they’ve arrived complete with their own little micro communities complete with English and Irish pubs suggests there is some impact to the local community, particularly in a town as small as Paphos with 75,000 inhabits.

Thankfully, it wasn’t peak season so places like the beach were not filled to the point of bursting at the seams, which made me wonder how this must feel in peak season.  I doubt the locals find the influx of tourists as disconcerting as the Barcelona locals do but I got the sense of a mild irritation at times – the eye roll and shrug I shared with an older lady at a shop within the Kings Avenue Mall at a couple rowing over a can of beer at the till being one such.

For all its history, I did get the sense that some of the places we visited over the course of the ten days were not particularly remarkable or deserving of the hype (It might have to do with my lack of culture or just an overt focus on looking to chill and de-stress). That got me thinking of just how much Nigeria could benefit from a concerted effort to clean up its hinterland, make it safer and easier to travel in, and market some of the natural features and historical artefacts. I remember visits to the Obudu Cattle ranch many years ago being the highlight of a team building session at work. Places like the Ikogosi springs, the Ososo tourist centre and carnival come to mind as ones which with a little more focus could be developed further.

***

All told, the ten days delivered on their promise of providing a place to disconnect from the real world and chill, which is perhaps why the enduring images of Cyprus for me will be narrow roads draped around towering mountains like ribbons – thin, flimsy and barely there, edged on the one side by the faces of the mountains themselves and on the other by vertiginous drops. The irony of this is not lost on me; without the roads, much of these parts would be inaccessible to the wider world which would lose out on all the treasures and delights we had the privilege of seeing over the past few days, but building the roads cannot have been a trivial experience given the terrain. A lot of hard, back breaking work was clearly required.

That  – the delights just out of view over the horizon and the hard work required to get there – is very much like marriage, S says, on the eve of our return to our new shared life; all the proof I need that she is indeed a wise one.

PS: For more pictures from Cyprus, go here.