Posts Tagged ‘healthcare’

Fugitive faces

Cambodia and The Lake Clinic

‘Ladies and Gentlemen, can I have your attention please? We have reached the office where we will all get our VISAs to Cambodia’

‘Scam!’ crooned someone from the front seats on the bus bound for Siem Reap, Cambodia.

‘It’s not a scam!’ the man beseeched us. ‘Scam! Scam! Scam!’ The shouts ricocheted around the bus, each one a whip crack to our disparaged guide. With a final hangdog sigh, he sat down and our bus moved off, gangway untrammeled.

Our ‘guide’ was not savy enough to know that scores of forums, books and blogs all take pains to explain the routine: a representative of the bus company will try to get the passengers to pay for an unneeded, expensive VISA well before the actual border. It’s a bare-faced pretense that helped the epithet ‘Scambodia’ do the rounds, and we were all hip to the jive.

I left my bike in Bangkok for this fleeting side trip to Cambodia. From Siem Reap my plan was to visit a floating medical clinic on the Tonle Sap Lake and the temples at Ankor Wat before hightailing it back into Thailand and riding into Burma, chasing the clock as my Indian VISA marches on, and assailed by monsoon rains.

At the border I looked out from the vantage point of my bus seat to the bumpy terrain of tops of heads cut by trains of rickshaws and hand-pedalled carts with raggedy kids gripped to the sides, and chickens under free arms; a TV camera crew filmed the melee. An estimated 200,000 illegal workers from Cambodia were fleeing the country in the wake of the Thai military coup, fearing arrest.

Siem Reap, the launching point for tours of the world’s largest temple complex at Ankor Wat, is a vast muddle of tourists, haranguing tuk tuk drivers (slash drug dealers) and well-primped transexual masseuses, a pair of which grabbed me by the arms. ‘Massage! Massage!’ I slipped the grip of one, ducked, side stepped, tugged my arm away from the other but her grip was more determined than I imagined and the effect was to drag her brutally down the street which made a cluster of backpackers giggle wickedly.

There are several sureties that come with visiting any of the world’s most popular tourist attractions and Ankor Wat was no different to the Pyramids, Petra or Machu Picchu. Someone will usually try to convince you that a more authentic experience means arriving on the back of a large mammal. The British will get miffed because for those of other nations, forming an orderly queue is not such a venerable pastime. There are always people too skinflint to pay for their own tour guide who glide around the margins of tour groups, their deceit half-cloaked by the unfurled maps and newspapers they feign to study. And someone will perform an indecent act with one of the religious statues to the glee of their friends – this may include high fiving Buddha, picking an imaginary bugga from the trunk of Ganesha, or riding bareback on the Virgin Mary.


‘Dr Fabes!’ John stood up, festooned in a billowing Hawaiian shirt, a crop of silver hair tinged red; his voice spiced with the subtle twang of his Rhode Island roots.

John is a self-proclaimed ‘problem-solver’, and with obvious and abundant talent for it – he founded the Paediatric Hospital in Siem Reap and once managed psychiatric wards amongst a fleet of other varied endevours. He is also the man in charge of the Lake Clinic which serves the people who live in floating houses on the lake and river systems of the Tonle Sap.

Years before John had been drifting on a boat down the Tonle Sap, in tranquil admiration for the beauty of it: the swatches of water hyacinth amidst the glimmering water, the house-boats in gentle sway. But he took a closer look: at the houses, eight bodies a piece; at the murky margins of the image in his camera viewfinder; and there they were – scores of people washing, drinking and defecating in the same frame. It was that moment that he vowed to help, take up the slack, and the first spark that would later emerge as the Lake Clinic was cast into the black.

My journey to see the project for myself began at the staging post of Kampong Khleang, a village set on the banks of the river. I was encompassed by a host of stilted houses, but not for another six months would the wind-rushed wavelets of the lake water slap against their floor boards – now the lake drains into the Mekong, though when the direction of flow switches, as happens twice a year, the water will back up, filling the lake anew and swelling it’s area five-fold.

A clutter of long boats rocked near the bank as men loaded petrol and watermelons onto the out-going vessels and buckets of fish were claimed from the incoming ones. Nine of us packed into the boat and we set off, growling through the muddy water and sending a spray like erupting lava out behind us. Soon a thin layer of land on each side of us was all that divided the lake from the sky.

After three hours we turned into a river, past a slew of fishermen, the air rank with fish, and pulled up in front of a low-slung blue hut: The Lake Clinic, one of four floating clinics on the Tonle Sap, the water too low this time of year for the pontoons beneath to be of use. We debarked as clumps of green water hyacinth drifted by as easily as swans. Three hours on a boat helped explain why the people here might need the clinic, but it opened up a question too: why do so many people live in such isolation?

Life is cheap on the Tonle Sap. The path to a rickety floating home, far from cities and roads, might start with some small event, explained John, a sick child perhaps the first domino to fall. To cover medical costs the family might sell their cow: domino two tumbles. No cow to plough the fields? Then you sell your land, and so on, until deep in debt they drag what they have left to the lake and set out on a life of subsistence and for many, struggle. Some of the old timers have a different tale – after the war, fresh from the forced labour camps, they returned to their old homes only to discover new occupants. Often these intruders would have some document from the Khmer Rouge which supported their claim to ownership, some others may have a six-chambered and rather more persuasive argument.

The setting is sumptuous, a backcountry Venice and the very essence of serenity. Somewhere a radio speiled, a hammer concussed, the voices of gabbing neighbours carried. Thick armed men brandishing long wooden poles propelled their boats through the water. Wood smoke corkscrewed through the purple haze that lingered after the sunset.

Next morning the waiting room was soon well stocked with wriggling children and their wet coughs, women in loose patterned clothes, a few men: sun-wizened and blinking. They brought with them the scent of wood smoke, which hung from their clothes.

Many patients came with ailments that were bound to their lifestyle and habits on the lake – a fish smoker with a cough, babies with diarrhea, and spindly boys with skin and eye infections. There was the usual gamut of patients that might rock up to any family practice, bright looking teenagers with acne and arthritic older ladies, though I didn’t count any patient much over 60. Every third patient would respond to ‘what’s wrong?’ by pointing to their upper abdomen. Gastritis, driven by diet and perhaps by parasites, is rife.

But there are others, too. A small grubby boy, sunken-eyed, body lost inside a Man United top, hopped onto the chair; aside him his mum, her face a road map of wrinkles etched into caramel-coloured skin. She looked forlorn, uneasy and very poor. The boy was weighed and it was roundly agreed – 15kg is far from the ideal in light of his nine years. ‘Skinny, dirty…’ said the doctor to me, and I wondered whether she trailed off with thoughts of the relative futility of a few vitamin pills when there were forces at work were well beyond our ability to set right. They left with a prescription, hand in hand, incanting blessings in Khmer.

For the men, a visit to the Lake Clinic means time off fishing, and so I quickly started to steal myself as we examined the ones who did show up, their ailments so often long-standing and severe. One man complained of a lump in his neck. A long term smoker with a new raspy edge to his voice and a tennis ball sized lump would cause even the most green medical student alarm, but with no possibility of imaging the tumour, let alone treating cancer, it would have to remain the realm of gloomy guesswork. He didn’t seem disappointed when it was explained there was little that could be done, just stone-faced, but then perhaps he’d never courted much hope, only the relative privilege of life away from poverty and the lake begets those kinds of expectations. Or perhaps he was considering next the traditional healer, the revered traders and tappers of hope. All too often, the doctor tells me, the aftermath of the widespread local treatments reveal themselves – patients with small circular burns made by traditional healers, sometimes infected. Another common practice is to spit into wounds – and suddenly the inexorable bloom of tuberculosis began to make sense.

The Tonle Sap is the source of so much for the people that bob and drift on its waters: it’s their culture, their sustenance, their profit and their world. But the lake is a two-faced mistress and its gifts are not always as desirable, within the ripples gather disease, and the isolation it foists on the people who live here breeds an unrelenting cycle of poverty. The Lake Clinic helps with a fraction of these burdens, a true lifeline for a few and a boon to many.

Andrea, a Swiss doc






Western Thailand

I looked over my worn out Brooks saddle like an adolescent appraises a groin rash. I was reticent to deal with it – my old saddle, Bernard, had been a long and constant companion; moulded to me, dented by sit bones, splayed and bum-ready. So for months I’d just shot the thing an occasional doleful glance before shoving it again to the dregs of my to-do list, beyond the motivational wastelands of ‘sew pants’ and ‘find old to do list’ – a job that features on almost every one of my to-do lists. Bangkok though was the logical place for swapsies, and my arse stealed itself for a thrashing the likes of which it hadn’t seen since Kent.

The west of Thailand was laced by myriad small roads which coursed through chartreuse rice paddies as evenly hued as golf greens. In Bangkok I watched what seemed to be every single person in a frenzy of technology where only selfies were worthy interruptions to facebook – I didn’t anticipate the same in rural Thailand. An effete old man approached me though as I peered at my map; he was shabbily ragged, unshaven, grizzled. He towed a battered cart behind him past toward the ramshackle hut he called home.

‘No GPS then?’ he enquired

‘What?!’

‘You don’t have a GPS?’

‘Um, no’

‘No Iphone either?’ He was mildly startled now. I shook my head.

‘But you must have a satellite phone?’

A few days after leaving the city behind the mountains peeked up over the horizon, as sudden as a bend in a race track. Chieng, a young tall Chinese biker on his first national exodus, rode with me for a day. He had a hunger for the road I envied a little now that it seems more ordinary; his face filled with joy as he told me of a free coffee he was given at a police station, pausing then to let me absorb the shock of it, and I smiled at the simple things that mean so much when you’ve pedaled 150 km and run countless laps in your own head. His mum calls him every day on his cell phone to persuade him to return home. ‘I want to cycle around the world too’ he said, dreamily. ‘Chinese parents…’ he lamented ‘they don’t understand’.

I climbed over the Tanontongchai Range to a market where women from the hilltribes in loose green robes sold me the best lychees I have ever tasted, as fat as satsumas, and then I finally arrived at Mae Sot. Since the 70’s the border between Thailand and Burma has seen a mass of refugees who are now settled in camps near the town. I had planned to visit one of these camps and to give a presentation to the students, but the Thai army took over command the day I planned to visit, evicting foreigners, ordering searches on the pretext of ‘drugs’ (which likely meant ‘uncertified people’). This was worrying to say the least, especially set against the backdrop of military rule in Thailand with no government to answer to.

Instead I paid a visit to SMRU, medics treating migrant workers and refugees along the border, (story to come in a later blog post) and also gave a presentation to some refugees who had been taken by an NGO into higher education in the border town. In my presentation I often share my perception of people the world over as munificent and good-natured – I want to counter the all too common belief that the world is a terrifying place replete with boogie men. Sometimes though, I feel like I’ve been conned. Bicycle travel doesn’t offer the warts and all vision of the world I had hoped for. Most days I am treated to a roadside of mad grins and shining eyes, I’m gifted food and sometimes a bed, I’m treated almost always with nothing but deference. It breeds a kind of naive and unchecked optimism: I have to remind myself I’m only a surface traveler, usually immune to the violence and mistreatment the malignant forces around the globe dole out to their own people beyond the ken of the passers-by. I spoke to these Burmese students of how lovely Planet Earth is, forgetting then that the very fact that they live in a foreign land was because the military junta at home has persecuted and abused their own people for decades. Afterwards, I felt a bit of a dick.



Burmese Daze

I sprawled my map over the bed – Burma looked up at me, daringly. The border crossing I would use had been open only seven months, and crossing the country into India had been the mission of only a half dozen or so intrepid bikers since the rules were relaxed. Rarely had the prospect of a new frontier felt so thrilling.

I rolled under the golden arch which declared ‘The Republic of the Union of Myanmar’ thinking about how debatable those terms are: Republic, Union, and even Myanmar.

I rode on, the inside of every passing truck was thick with bodies, their eyes ablaze amid the shadows of their neighbours, full of astonishment as they peeked at me. Bare-chested men, red-mouthed from chewing betel net, wearing lungis riding up to their naval, and with dragon tattoos from shoulder blade to small of back, nodded hello from the shade of teak leaf-roofed huts. I didn’t mind the steep hills, the mashed up tarmac, the tails of stench that trailed from trucks chocker with chickens. The scenery, the smiles, the exoticism – all more than a fair trade.

That night I found a hostel in a town of dust and nervous dogs. The plywood paneled room was only just big enough for the bed, and I lay down, watching mosquitoes dance on the ceiling, listening to the sounds of this new land.

Burma proved not to be as behind the times as I had expected, ATMs and Internet exist outside the capital despite what Lonely Planet says; change is afoot, and guidebooks are out of date as they are published. I stopped for food – the girl who served me instructed her friend to ready her camera phone and then she jumped into the frame with me, hand draped over my shoulder. A few minutes after fiddling with the device, she showed me her handiwork – on the screen the image of us was now surrounded by a pink, heart shaped frame, like a wedding photo.

A motorbike raged past, it’s driver had swiveled 180 degrees to assure himself the best possible gawk at me whilst his un-chauffeured machine rallied off on a tangent to the direction of the road, eventually satisfied he turned back to the road to find himself almost upon the forest, and he jerked to the left, turned to me again, grinned insanely, wordlessly saying ‘hey, check that out!’ and disappeared.

A mother and then daughter walked past, the first demure and expressionless, the younger smiling widely. I thought about what might be behind that grin. I’m a novelty here, and perhaps it’s just that, but change is upon Burma, perhaps not the upheaval many desire, but change nonetheless. Tourists are a clear stigmata of that fact, and maybe not always smile-worthy in themselves, but because they remind of future promise. Or perhaps I just looked idiotic, as I often do, and Occam’s razor prevails.

I cycled past sudden outcrops of rock, and gold pagodas which studded every hill. Burmese roads offered a conveyor belt of arresting sights – a cow in a rickshaw, drunk soldiers, beautiful flower sellers with heart-fluttering smiles, a mad man in conversation with himself, bands of monks in their burgundy cowls claiming free food from eateries and teams of local people, not workmen, repairing the roads – the forced labour human rights groups so oppose. 




A mum and her son. Burmese put Thanaka on their faces – a cosmetic paste made from ground bark


One night I stayed in a hotel and locked my bike in the downstairs restaurant for the night, the next day though it had been propped up unlocked on the street on the opposite side of the road, anyone could have wheeled off my entire life, luckily theft is rare here. It is illegal for local people to host foreigners in Burma, but I didn’t resort to hotels every night and sought refuge once in a tin roofed derelict building, listening nervously to voices that sliced the night, playing hide and seek against the world.

On many buildings were adverts, on huge plastic drapes, for Grand Royal and High Class whiskey, with their taglines: ‘enjoy life!’ and ‘taste of life!’, which given the state of the people I saw drinking the stuff is ironic indeed. I got to Yangon via a back road that journeyed past tumbledown shacks steeped in a swamp and reachable by four-strong bridges of bamboo poles. I’m staying with Al and Jess – a pair of brilliant teachers who work at the International School. So far I have scored a permit for travel north, presented to the lively school kids and gave an interview for national TV.

Burma must be amongst the most electrifying places I have traveled, and I can’t help remember Ethiopia, a country about which I felt a similar buzz. But with these destinations comes an uncomfortable truth – the exoticism of Burma lies in the same ‘apartness’ I saw in Ethiopia, and it’s this separation that has dealt such a blow to the people who live here. The world is becoming ever more interconnected and cooperative, and good – the less apart we are the better – but the result is that we slide towards an ever more homogenised planet.

My plan is a blur of pedal strokes to Bagan, and then if the soldiers at the road block let me pass, an adventure through the wilds of Chin state, eventually arriving in the border town of Tamu, hopefully before an expired VISA, and then I’ll cross into India.




Producer, Anchor, man with hair on his face, and Herb The Chicken

‘Dig beneath exotic surfaces to find something even truer and more troubling, go beyond the postcard vistas and tourist shots to a sense of how places can not only surround you, but transform you’ 
– Pico Iyer, Tropical Classical.

Thank yous aplenty this month – shouts out to Al and Jess, the SMRU crew: Steph and Anne, Francois, Mellie, the Bangkok crew: Elena and Mim, The Cambodia crew: John Morgan, Ian Fergusson and Jess, Tobi and Andrea, the teachers and pupils at Horizons School and Moses and all those at MITV.

The people of the grey bull

Celebrating 14,000 km, Western Kenya
They watched. A hundred eyes were trained on me as I entered a room packed full of Turkana women, each cradling a child in their arms. They were adorned in huge colourful necklaces and wore trademark Mohican style haircuts. In their gaze I saw mixed impressions. Wariness, curiosity, hope. This was one of Merlin’s outreach projects, the medical aid charity I’m raising funds for, and these sentient eyes belonged to the mothers and children directly affected by their work. Two nurses were weighing, measuring and vaccinating the infants and they dished out nutritional supplements along the way. So far this morning five children had been deemed to be suffering from severe malnutrition, some of these may also be suffering from the affects of co-existing disease such as HIV or tuberculosis. They would be transferred by Merlin to the Stabilisation Unit in the nearest hospital at Lodwar.



Everything about this remote Northwest province of Kenya appeared tough and unforgiving. Tough to live here, tough to survive here and tough to provide healthcare to the inhabitants, the bold and ambitious task taken on by Merlin amongst others. The region is roughly the size of Scotland, with a tenth of the population. The Turkana are nomadic pastoralists, put down a medical clinic and chances are they won’t be around for long to use it. Merlin understand that you usually have to go to them. The area is intensely hot and arid, no rain fell at all during the short wet season this year. The longer the current drought rages on, the further they travel in search of greener earth, sometimes crossing international boundaries. When water is available it goes to the goats first, without them there’s no milk and no food. The Turkana, like other tribes, often cut the necks of the goats, mix the blood with milk and drink it.

Merlin work to strengthen the capacity of remote clinics in Turkana and on day two I was able to visit one and learn something of the success stories. The last epidemic of measles was in 2002, others may well have been prevented by Merlin’s attention to mass vaccination programmes. Medicines, staff, training and equipment are all essential and there seemed to be even more Merlin could do here with more funds and resources. On my third day I visited the local hospital in Lodwar and met children suffering diseases and conditions rarely encountered in the Western hospitals I trained in, tropical disease just another in the long list of burdens facing the population. I met a severely stunted five year old with visceral leishmaniasis, or Kala Azar, a parasitic infection I’d only ever read about in medical textbooks. Another had a snake bite, it was the forth bite from a carpet viper they had seen so far this year. Cases of polio do come in, but I was told that by the time patients present the disease is usually very advanced and sufferers often die or are left with permanent paralysis. One bay was devoted to the severely malnourished babies. They were oedematous, quiet and meek in their mother’s arms.

I have often read Merlin’s aims and objectives, one in particular I had recited several times in interviews with the press…

‘Merlin help those communities in greatest need.’

Now I was looking right into the heart of this need, staring it down. The Turkana are tough and resilient people coping with poverty, disease, drought, malnutrition, occasional conflict and an unforgiving environment and they are a group vulnerable for all those reasons. These are people living on the brink and if no rain falls in the wet season this year they will fall, Merlin will do their best to catch them. Having seen Merlin’s efforts firsthand I left Lodwar in no doubt that their work here is essential to the health and wellbeing of the Turkana and that the money raised through my journey was going right to where they said it would, to a community in great, great need.


The Merlin staff were the first to offer me a stern warning of the security situation on my road ahead. I was planning to travel through a region in which the Turkana and Pukot tribes were fighting. I reasoned that as long as I wasn’t wearing my ‘I heart turkana’ t-shirt or singing traditional Pukot shanties I would be OK as fighting between the tribes rarely affects tourists, unless you’re unlucky enough to get caught in the crossfire. I worried more when I was told banditry was also common around these parts. I rode into Lokichar and a local man asked me which direction I was heading, to which I told him south. He immediately warned me not to continue by bike and told me that bandits plied this route, bandits who would take everything, including my bicycle. Then I came across a French couple in a Land Cruiser. They told me of another cyclist they had met recently who had taken a lift from this point for fear of armed thieves ahead. They urged me not to continue. As I rode out of Lokichar it was the policeman’s turn to offer me advice. He told me of how a lorry had been hijacked twenty kilometres from here on this very road by armed men. ‘Was this recently?’ I asked, ‘Yesterday’ came the reply. I explained to him that I did have concerns and that locals had told me the bandits would take everything, including my bike. ‘No no no’ he said. ‘They won’t take your bike. But they will take your money. And that IPOD. And your clothes. And probably some food and water. Do you have a camera?’
‘I do’
And that too’.

I left town and began my journey across the boundary between Turkana and Pukot territory. I wondered if I was also crossing another boundary, the hazy line that lies between the adventurous and the foolhardy. Then came warning number six, a truck stopped and the driver leaned out of the window, his face said what the hell do you think you’re doing?
‘You’ll be killed’ he said finally ‘bandits are everywhere’.

I’ve grown numb to warnings of ‘bad people’, if I’d heeded every one I wouldn’t have made it past Greater London. But this was different. There comes a point when you can’t stop ignoring people telling you that you are about to get robbed and murdered. I pushed my bike onto that heavy truck with an even heavier heart. I planned to take the lift for just one hundred kilometres, a distance I could comfortably cover in one day, but I couldn’t shake the overwhelming feeling of defeat. But then at least I’m not dead, as almost everyone has told me since. When we pulled away I very quickly realised I had jumped into the wrong vehicle. The driver was an unhinged nutter. The journey along the pothole-laden, ungraded road with a speed freak behind the wheel was an hour and a half of my life I’d rather forget. I tried to hold my bike upright whilst protecting myself from smashing into the metal roll cage which was the only feature of the interior of the truck. Seatbelts were as absent as my drivers ambition to use the brakes. I constantly smashed my head and shoulders into the metal and sprained everything sprainable in my neck. If five Pukot bandits had given me a solid pasting I doubted they would have done a better job than I was getting in the back of this truck. We overtook many vehicles, none came past us. Another passenger pointed out the popular ambush points along the road and mentioned that there were more tribal warriors around today than usual, I felt slightly better about my decision but one thought resonated through my bruised and bouncing cranium…

If I die here, in this truck, I’m going to look like a right idiot

I imagined people chatting at my funeral ‘I know, I know, it’s very sad. And to think, he wasn’t really cycling around the world at all’.

I was dropped off at a campsite which smelt of mushrooms and which had a large group of endemic monkeys scampering around the tents. Every so often they would get into a loud and vicious fight. Back on my bike I started out riding through undulating hills, through tea planatations and in and out of luscious green valleys. When I arrived into one town a young Kenyan lad ran out in front of me and started cleaning my bike with an old rag. When he was done he yelled ‘Go go go!’ and patted me on the back. I cycled off feeling a little like a Formula One racing driver at a pit stop.

I carry my life around on my bicycle and there’s little room for luxuries. I have begun to get attached to the few possessions I own. I recently christened one of my inner tubes ‘Old Patchy’ after the 25 odd repair jobs he’s been through. On my way to Nairobi came the sudden and unsettling realisation that I may have befriended an inner tube. For anyone worried about my mental state I must stress that I’ve never had a (full) conversation with Old Patchy and I didn’t shed a tear when he eventually headed for the dustbin.

I continued south through the Kenyan countryside and picked up a curious smell. A nice smell. A great smell. Not just one, a host of different scents mixed together, but the combination familiar and now unmistakable. It was the smell of home. They say your sense of smell is the strongest link to your past, Kenya filled me with nostalgia and I realised suddenly that this was now the longest I have ever been away from home. The smell was from my childhood, of plants and flowers with names I’ve never known. Rain fell for almost the first time since I left Europe behind me six months ago and the countryside began to smell even more like the England I remember. It was still raining as I crossed the equator, a line I expect to ride through another five times before I get back to England. The rain was cool, refreshing, copious and welcome. You never miss the rain until it’s gone. There were numerous other small similarities to home, many probably relics of Kenya’s colonial past. Money is colloquially referred to as ‘bob’, people (are supposed to) drive on the left, electrical sockets have three pins, even the traffic police uniforms look strikingly similar to ours and tea always, always comes with milk. Judging by the boozy aroma emanating from virtually every Kenyan male that approached us, Kenya also has an alcohol problem to rival that of the UK.


There is a lot to like about Kenya. Most of all I like that every Kenyan is the proud owner of a preternaturally wide smile and that every Kenyan holds an obligation to show it off whenever they greet anyone. The children laugh and giggle when they see me approach, a very different reaction to that of those little sadistic anarchists in Ethiopia. I finally arrived into Nairobi at the start of February, slightly ruffled by numerous close skirmishes with Kenyan drivers, the worst I’ve seen in Africa (but not the world, sorry Syria, nobody’s stealing your crown). The first thing I noticed was the obvious wealth on display in the capital. Turkana was a world away, the gulf immense. In a country still plagued by corruption it made me angry to see how money never seems to filter down to those most in need. Kenya’s also a country more outwardly religious than most. Gospel music drifts through Nairobi’s streets and avenues, it’s slums are full of churches and signs on public transport command ‘No Preaching’. When I visited an HIV clinic in the west of the country the nurses all sat down to pray for the patients before they started work and every so often a beaming young Kenyan would put their arm around my shoulder and utter that brave opening gambit ‘Do you believe in Jesus?’

In Nairobi I was reunited with Nyomi after a month apart, a month during which she had hiked 5000 metres up Mount Kenya with her boyfriend, we swapped tales of our separate adventures. I looked at her bike and noticed that a catapult now sat tethered to the handlebars. I pointed at it and raised my palms skyward in question. ‘For the monkeys!’ she declared with bright eyes and a winsome grin. I won’t deny we needed the break from each other, but it felt good to be cycling together again. Earlier on in our African adventure Nyomi’s dreadlocks and the sign which sat on the front of her handlebar bag emblazoned with the words ‘I DON’T BRAKE FOR ANYONE’ had given her a bizarre and unique appearance. Her look often made me chuckle, I loved the sharp contrast between ‘friendly hippy’ and ‘violent sociopath’. When we met up again Nyomi had decided that enough was enough and those dreads had to go. She shaved her head – grade 1 – raging sociopath. At least drivers will think twice about cutting us up in future. I’m trying hard to encourage her to invest in some fake gold teeth and a studded leather neck collar.



In Nairobi I visited the Merlin team based there and stayed with John, an expat and another seasoned cycle tourer. After the well needed break Nyomi and I set off, travelling west towards Uganda. My journal entry from Thursday Febuary 17th reads simply ‘washout’. Some days just are, nothing you can do, nothing you can prepare for and no level of positive thinking will change that.

6.15 am – Wake up in my tent. We had camped with the police in the outskirts of a small town. I tell Nyomi I’m excited about the day ahead, my first day riding through Masai country. I’m optimistic we’ll cover a good 140 km before sunset.

7 am – Tent down, bike packed, mango consumed, police thanked.

7.01 am – Attempt to pump up back tyre. Pump breaks and air escapes from tyre.

8 am – Multiple attempts to fix pump using gaffa tape, o-rings and my leatherman eventually fail

8.01 am – Punch air, throw pump around petulantly, curse everything

8.10 am – Wander into town. Can’t find any bike pumps for sale but manage to get tyre re-inflated

9.15 am – Set off

9.25 am – Puncture

9.30 am – I repair it, cycle a ten kilometres on Nyomi’s bike into town and back to get tyre re-inflated

9.50 am – Return with tyre

9.51 am – Realise I have another slow puncture. I repair another tube and this time Ny cycles back into town with the wheel to get tyre re-inflated

10.15 am – Ny returns with inflated tyre

10.20 am – Realise Ny now has a puncture

10.30 am – Fix Ny’s puncture and inflate tyre with our other pump (the one that only works with the valves on Ny’s bike)

10.45 am – Nyomi’s pump breaks. Tyre not fully inflated but we cycle off anyway

11.15 am – Nyomi gets a puncture. We fix it and re-inflate the tyre by screwing together parts of the two broken pumps

12 pm – We lose a bolt in the sand and spend half an hour searching for it

12.30 – We sit down for lunch. Ny sits on an ant’s nest, I sit on a thorn bush.

13.30 – We set off again

15.30 – Thunder, lightning and heavy downpour. We get a soaking.

16.00 – We agree to officially class the day as a washout and a right-off. We’ve covered 26 km all day.

16.30 – We find a cheap hostel and decide to focus on tomorrow. As I lift up my bicycle to get it over the step the back wheel falls off. I’d forgotten to tighten it back on again after I fixed my last puncture. Crowd of onlookers laugh. So do I.

In the tropics when the rain settles and the sun shines once more, the land becomes caked in a damp, glistening, refulgent glow. There’s the foliant blaze of wet vegetation, the splendent gold of the yellow fever trees and the tiny brilliant scarlet dots of Masai people working in the fields. We pushed west with the infamous Masai Mara game reserve lying to our left and stretching out to the horizon and together we sang.

‘I see clearly now the rain has gone. I can see all obstacles in my way. Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind. It’s gonna be a (ny) bright, (me) bright, (together) bright sun-shining day!’

It was two days out from Nairobi when I noticed a portentous concrescence of dark grey clouds, almost black, overhead. There was a sudden disquieting groan, as if the sky above were being tortured. Each clap of thunder soon became indistinguishable from the last, a constant rumble echoed through the dimming light and quickening breeze. Within seconds the sky opened its dark underbelly and hail fired down upon us. We scrambled for raincoats and with no shelter nearby we hunched double over our bikes and covered our ears as the large hailstones smashed into our heads and backs, stinging as they made impact. After ten minutes the hail had turned to rain and we began to pedal onwards. It rained for the last days we spent in Nairobi and for almost every day since. Not the steady drizzle of Blighty but tropical rain, rain preceded by warm sunshine and then abrupt and torrential. It usually persists until sunset which is a sudden eclipse unlike the sunset of northern latitudes. I know the familiar pattern will only get more familiar, this is just the start of the big wet season which reaches its peak for us in April when we ride through Rwandan rainforest and then Tanzanian savannah.


After three days on the road (discounting the ‘washout’) we reached Kisii and met up with Merlin once again with a plan to visit projects in the area. Kisii was the polar opposite of Turkana – densely populated, wet and green with abundant food and water. The main problems being tackled here were HIV, tuberculosis and malaria. We visited a HIV clinic, the pure numbers involved incomprehensible. The hospital was heaving and it was easy to see how and why HIV infection in Africa is so often referred to as an epidemic. This one centre had an HIV positive population of 10,000 under it’s care. Some experiences with patients as a health care worker will always stay with you, indelible recollections of the good and the bad. For me the first and only time I have had to give a patient a positive diagnosis of HIV infection is one. In an instant I gained insight into the deep psychosocial trauma of HIV. Here in Kenya nurses counselled small groups of patients about to start on treatment and I didn’t envy their task but I could see how vital education, advice and support would be, and the groups also functioned to show people that they weren’t alone, that other people were suffering too, or in Kenya’s case, lots and lots of other people.

On the road west we passed villages just five or ten kilometres from the place of Barrick Obama’s grandmother’s home. The young men here described Obama as ‘our brother’, the pride was palpable. For a small fee you could visit Obama’s grandmother, she is now a popular tourist attraction. I waved goodbye to the last of the smiling Kenyans and crossed the border into Uganda.

Most people if they were pushed to describe my journey with a single adjective would probably choose ‘absurd’. I agree. And during my absurd adventure I know that at times I will closely scrutinise my own motivation. I wonder what I’m looking for, what I’m trying to achieve and ask myself why, again and again and again. Watching Merlin at work has been a huge boost for me and I feel privileged to have had the chance to see what most fundraisers don’t get the chance to – to look into the faces of the people whose lives have been changed, in big or small ways, by the donors at home who have sponsored my journey. It was worth seeing, if only because it makes me feel that describing my ride as ‘absurd’ doesn’t quite cover it. It gives some meaning to what can sometimes feel meaningless. In the tough times ahead I will try to remember that. In Turkana and Kisii I witnessed firsthand the need, the progess and the potential. I urge anyone moved to make a donation to Merlin to do so here. I hope I have shown that every penny is needed and that every penny will be spent wisely to help communities like the Turkana, ‘the people of the grey bull’, people who have the odds stacked squarely against them. Thanks for your support…

http://www.justgiving.com/cyclingthe6


Me and the Merlin team celebrating my 13,000 km milestone in Lodwar, Turkana.
In Nairobi I also found the time to add tags to all my images on Flickr, an online photo sharing service. To see a list of my tags click here, to see photos arranged in sets by country click here and to see a chronological slideshow of some of the best images from my ride so far click here.