Addicted to spending money

On this trip we transited through Addis Ababa. I have previously found this airport to be a challenging one in terms of there’s nothing there, the toilets are awful and there’s nowhere nice to wait. On this trip we muddled our way through the huge, colourful, crowds towards our gate. The gate is in the new building which is recently opened, or so it looks. Huge numbers people transit through Addis every day and the new terminal has lots of seating. It also has modern, western toilets which work. What is does not have is a single shop. There are a few vending machines for drinks and snacks and a water dispenser (yay for having keep-cup to get some of this water!).

My travelling companions and I agreed that our western, consumer minds were blown by the lack of opportunity to spend money. This terminal has focused on getting people on and off flights, not on taking their money. Shock. Horror. In the West the shops would be a priority and would probably be trading long before the departure gates were operational. Our sense of consumer starvation (not the best choice of word when thinking about Ethiopia, sorry) was startling to us all. We hadn’t realised how conditioned we are. So, I have no souvenirs of that short visit! I will be back for a couple of days, though, and hope to make up for it then.


Cycling in minus 19

Studded tyre

Not me though! I have trouble being outside in that weather, though the air sparkles in the sun and that is just magical. These cyclists are amazing. One of them chatted and I took a picture of his studded tyre. Most bikes don’t have those tyres, but mostly they do have fat tyres, so that connection with the path is more stable. It is all relative, though.

Messy collage – sorry!

The cold is such that some cyclists wear full face masks. At least, in these temperatures there are not many others out, though joggers are still jogging.

I loved the sign that suggests we should not cycle on the seat – just imagine it!


Arriving in Malawi

After a smooth, but long, trip via London and Johannesburg, the arrival at Lilongwe is very pretty, at least on the outside of the building. Inside it’s not so good. There are four processes for immigration. First the visa form must be authorised and no-one asked for all that supporting evidence that I had compiled. Next you must pay the visa fee of $75.00. This takes ages but does produce a receipt. Then the visa itself gets written by hand and stuck into the passport – very pretty. Finally, you are in a queue for immigration and that’s all done. It only too 45 minutes or so.
In the baggage hall there are trolleys (good) but my luggage is not there (bad).

A charade is then played whereby it is pretended that there is a system for locating it and ensuring that it will come tomorrow. In fact, I will just go back there tomorrow and personally look around the luggage hall for it. Without it I cannot go on with my work here so here’s hoping.  Yup. Found the luggage the next day so on with the plan. Sorry the jackaranda tree is on its side!


Pedalling for Scotland – well for Malawi actually

My very short trip last weekend might merit a blog post, since it was 45 miles by bicycle. I was part of a group who raised funds for girls’ education in Malawi. The ride itself was fine because I had used the project as an excuse to get fit and to abandon all other responsibilities in favour of cycling. It was great to have that motivation and the imperative to leave my desk and take to the roads and cycle paths.

Nearly 8,000 people took part in the event, some cycling 93 miles, some 10 miles and most of us doing 45 miles. Some people had not obviously trained much, nor were in the best shape but it was an ‘all shapes and sizes’ kind of event. Once the sleek, speedy, lycra-clad chaps (mostly men) had woven their way through the crowd and headed off to beat their own internal targets, the mere mortals pedalled on in a sociable way. There were rest/feeding stations on the way. The first ones were busy but there was more space and shorter loo queues as we got nearer Edinburgh.

Sadly someone had put tacks on the road in places so as to sabotage this happy event, resulting in lots of punctures and delays. How horrible is that? Luckily our group didn’t have any problem other than the rain and a bit of ‘maybe I should have trained more’.

A couple of years ago I would never have contemplated attempting that distance but, in the end, it didn’t feel very far at all. The only injury I sustained was hurting my back when moving rucksacks to make space for the bike in the hostel the night before. Silly. As well as the fun and the sense of achievement, we raised over £4,000.00 for our two charities – for girls’ at secondary school and young women at university in Malawi. I am heading off to Malawi shortly so watch this space for some stories.






Cambridge – ‘Bicycle capital of the UK’

Bike facilities at YHA Cambridge

I knew there were lots of bikes and cyclists in Cambridge but nothing prepares you for the reality of it. Even in the Artic conditions of this weekend, the streets are full of bicycles. Bikes are used to carry children (often more than one), shopping, dogs and anything else that needs to be transported. YHA hostels always have bike ‘sheds’ but the Cambridge one has a range of bike lockers AND a maintenance point – so I didn’t need to bring my pump or multi-tool kit.

Alternative antlers in the Old Bicycle Shop restaurant

There are so many bikes that the riders don’t need to be afraid of the motorised traffic. Bicycles were here first, after all.  However, some of the manoeuvres are startling – cyclists in dark clothing just dart across the traffic wherever they like. It’s even more hair-raising (if you weren’t wearing a hat to stay warm) in the dark where bicycle lights are clearly considered a waste of energy. Make a stand against climate change – ride your bike without lights. Eeek!

I was sad not to have adventures on my bike here. It is really too cold for recreational cycling – at least for this softie! But the city is beautiful and
the history so interesting. Bikes are not at all a modern invention, relatively, and so it should not seem so incongruous to see this bowler-hatted College porter behind all the bikes at this College gate. There is an ‘illumination’ festival on just now during which complex lighting shows are played on many of the old buildings in the city – gorgeous.

Note to self: come back with a bike in warmer weather!


Travelling by cago in Karonga

Getting to a meeting in style, cago-style
Getting to a meeting in style, cago-style

Having had the good luck of a lift from Mzuzu in a fancy vehicle, I am in Karonga, in the far north of Malawi. It is hot here and will get hotter as the summer goes on. It’s not a big city and my comfortable hotel, the Kapata Lodge, is close to where I need to be for my Mamie Martin Fund work here. However it is too hot to walk very far at any time after 8 am. The solution – ‘cago’ – is at hand.

Cute little passenger
Cute little passenger

Karonga is close to the Tanzanian border and has a history of import-export with considerable smuggling activity. Bicycles were used for carrying cargo in these business activities. Now the cargo travels by motorised vehicles but someone started this new business of bicycle taxi and they are known as ‘cago’, from ‘cargo’; you hail one by calling ‘cago’. As a msungu I don’t need to hail one at all, they will usually ask if I need their services. The city is full of bikes and these cagos are bigger than personal ones and the carrier is often decorated. They are comfortable and fast. Safe is not something to think too much about but all that would happen with a tumble is that I would get a bit dustier and give even more entertainment to the locals. The young men who ride them are generally thin and wear poor clothing. With a standard fare of 100MKW (about 10 pence in the UK), I can’t imagine them getting very rich anytime soon. I pay them more than that, especially when I ask them to pose for photos. I made this young man’s day when I added a ‘modelling’ fee to the fare and paid him the equivalent of a whole pound.


Travelling within Malawi – a bit challenging

Travelling light (not)
Travelling light (not)

The public transport between Malawian cities seems woefully inadequate in terms of the numbers who need to travel and the bus capacity available. Having gone from Lilongwe to Mzuzu on the ‘local’ bus on my last trip, I decided to go upmarket this time. I bought a ticket on the ‘Executive’ bus in advance but knew that this did not guarantee me a seat. Sadly this bus comes from Blantyre so some seats will already be taken and it is not possible to arrive hours earlier and occupy a seat.

Bus scrum
Bus scrum

I am travelling with three suitcases because of all the resources I am bringing to partners in the North. This means that I had to see two of those stowed before trying to get on. Their contents are too precious to our schools to lose or get left behind. By the time this was done, a rugby-type scrum was in full progress. There was no system for differentiating between those with tickets and those buying them there or later, on the bus. The bigger and stronger you were, the faster you got on the bus. I was championed by a man with a baby who saw that I had a ticket and that I didn’t have a hope of winning the scrum. Even that did not get me on board in time to get a seat. I sat down on the floor where I remained for two hours, till some people got off in Kusungu. To say that it was hot and dirty … I knew there was no toilet for hours so drank my water very sparingly. Once I had a seat, and it was beside a slim person, things improved hugely.

Dining in the dark
Dining in the dark

Easy taxi ride to my hotel (not so easy for the taxi driver who had to move my cases around), a hot shower (again!) and over to the hotel restaurant for dinner. It was in darkness but the city had power. ‘Yes we are open, sorry about the light’ was the response to my enquiry. No explanation as to why the lights didn’t work. Deciding not to push my luck, I just asked what food there was, as menus are often aspirational around here. Chicken and rice. I might as well get used to it. Beer was on the menu but they didn’t actually have any. They would send out for it, which they did, gaining my eternal gratitude. Beer wasn’t the best idea after such a dehydrating day …


Hand luggage solutions – on the way to Malawi

Any hand luggage madam?
Mt Kilimanjaro at sunrise

Transiting through Nairobi on the way to Malawi was picturesque. Not only did I spot these amazing women heading for their departure gate but I also got a gorgeous view of Mount Kilimanjaro. Wow! Another peak south of it was also pretty impressive. I don’t have the internet connection here to check that name.

Who knew?

I don’t fly much (honestly) so was surprised at the usb points in each of the Kenyan Airways planes I was on this trip. Is this common now? Handy for charging, which is the point I suppose – pardon the pun.



Only if you have mental telepathy

Then the arrival in Malawi. *sigh*. Lovely little airport – ‘Welcome to the warm heart of Africa’. Yes, it is that in every way but … I had checked their website (Ministry of Immigration) and it was clear that Irish nationals did not need an entry visa. Ah, well, they explained when I got to the desk, that changed last December. ‘Is the website wrong? Sorry sorry. But all the other Irish people know that they need a visa.’ Given that I could easily imagine a similar protestation being made in Ireland (‘but all the other Malawians know …’) I could not maintain my crossness too much. It did mean another lengthy queue and refraining from being rude in response to every ‘and how are you today?’ greeting. I was glad of a hot (yes, hot) shower and rest in the wonderful Kiboko Hotel very soon thereafter.


Birmingham surprises

Iron:Man 1993

Coming back through Birmingham city centre after a conference, I spent some time looking for football memorabilia (yes, really!). I had no luck with that but took a wander and found this giant Gormley ‘Iron:Man‘. I said ‘hello’ to it and brought it greetings from the Gormley people who used to live in the Water of Leith in Edinburgh – we hope to see their return soon. Like all of Antony Gormley’s art, the setting is a stunning part of the piece. Against a backdrop of the classical buildings here in Birmingham, it is amazing.

Birmingham New Street Station

Heading back down to the station, the sight of the station facade was so startling that I stopped dead to ponder it. A passing chap asked if I was all right and seemed unimpressed with the amazing reflections – he is a local and considered it all a bit of a mess. At first it looked like an enormous landform, but it is just the new facing of the station which reflects the city about it. Stunning!

Happy with that unexpected injection of culture, my Brompton and I headed through the fabulous new station, stocked up with provisions for the journey and got on the train home to Edinburgh. I had the usual hassle from train staff about using my own cup but they backed down when I insisted, truthfully, that I had been in touch with their management online about the issue. Grrr


New depths of inaccessibility

My last post was one of outrage and disbelief at an accessible toilet being down a flight of steps. I hadn’t realised that this seems quite common. Covent Garden, no less, has an accessible toilet on the lower level but no access to that area other than flights of stairs. So that whole part of Covent Garden is off limits to disabled people. It would beggar belief except that I am getting used to it.

For show only

A final complaint about inaccessibility in England (these incidents simply don’t happen in Scotland) is about our hotel – the Copthorne Tara Kensington. The service and facilities are generally lamentable on this visit and that was capped today by the explanation for the call button to the adjoining room not working – ‘we disconnected all those rooms because the call systems were a nuisance to other guests’. So, the technology of switching off those systems when the rooms were not occupied by a single party is beyond one of the large London hotels. No – it’s just that the needs of disabled customers don’t matter.

Edited to add: Harrods is a lovely exception – very accessible shop and helpful courteous staff.

Back to Scotland with us …