An Ode to my MacPac…

As I was recently rooting around in my loft for something, I found my big macpac, and realised I’ve had it for 10 years this year. It’s the best rucksack I’ve ever bought, it has a lifetime guarantee, and it’s EXTREMELY well-made, so I thought it was worthy of a little shout-out.

I bought my matching big and little macpacs in 2007, before going to Nepal for a year.

My big macpac has gone with me to Nepal, India, Malaysia, Singapore, France, Liverpool, South Sudan, India again, Nepal again, Kashmir, Oxford, the USA, The Philippines, Thailand, Australia, Iraq, Jordan, Canada, USA again, Australia again, Senegal, Kenya, Iraq again, and Senegal again.

Other than an unfortunate incident once where my Big Mac got ripped in an airport and needed to be patched (I sent it off to macpac and they fixed it up and shipped it back to me), it has held up remarkably well! In Nepal I used to keep it empty under my bed, but padlocked as my passport was in there, and when I lost the key, I had to beg the locksmith to cut through the padlock carefully not to damage the zip!

It’s incredibly comfortable, exactly the right size, and I love that it unzips like a proper suitcase instead of rooting around in a normal rucksack. I also love that you can fold in and zip up the straps when checking it in at airports so they don’t get damaged en-route.

My little macpac has gone with me EVERYWHERE in the last 10 years. It’s literally my everyday bag, it carries my laptop into work everyday, it goes with me on mini-breaks and weekends, and in addition to all of the countries my big mac has been to it has ALSO been with me to Qatar, Madrid, Italy and Switzerland!

Obviously daily use for 10 years has left my little mac a bit grubby, but considering what it’s been through, it’s holding up INCREDIBLY well! It’s even still mostly waterproof, as I learned after a can of tonic water exploded inside it once in the Philippines…

This little bag goes with me pretty much everywhere, is still sturdy and comfy after 10 years, and it zips onto the front of Big Mac (although I hardly ever do that).

So, all in all, as a fairly frequent traveller, I give these bags 10 out of 10 and highly recommend them for your travelling adventures.


All the places I’ve been

In a recent conversation with my dad, I realised that in his 70+ years, he has travelled to a huge number of countries, (34 and counting!) so I thought it was worth listing all of mine out too to see how we compare!

My dad also pointed out that the majority of his travelling happened in his 20’s and 30’s, as like most people, once you settle down and have kids you tend to travel less often, so here is our combined list:  Continue reading

Revenge of the Machines…

Thursday 18th June 2009

So, as I believe I have mentioned several times in the past, I am a bit of a technophobe. I have a weird natural magnetism that seems to destroy anything electrical I touch or sometimes even just sit near.
I have so far killed several computers, often whole rooms of them at a time, numerous clocks and watches, my mum’s new electric mower, two microwaves, a handful of smaller electrical items such as phones, digital cameras, ipods, and many other items of technology.

And now, finally, the machines are striking back, with lethal force.

Allow me to tell you what happened to me last Saturday. I had a very scary near-death experience , and if I had in fact died, it would have been the most random and bizarre death EVER. Continue reading

The Latrine of Doom…

Tuesday 9th June 2009

Hello hello again everyone!
Firstly, thanks for all my lovely birthday messages! I had a great birthday weekend, I went for a lovely meal with some friends and had a very relaxing day!

Now, on to the much more exciting stuff!
I have just got back from Kajo Keji, a small town just next to the border with Uganda, which is beautiful! It’s very lush and green, and most people seem to consider it more Ugandan than Sudanese. We even had to change all our money into Ugandan shillings, even though we are still in Sudan. It’s much cooler down here, and quite hilly, and we’ve had some incredible thunderstorms. Continue reading

The Hounslow Triangle

Thursday 7th May 2009

Hello everyone!
Here is the first of my African blogs!

However, before I describe my first impressions of Africa, I’ll have to tell you what a drama I had getting there!
My flight was on Friday, at 9.35pm, and I was due to fly to Addis Ababa in Ethiopia and connect to Juba in South Sudan on Saturday morning.
Having gone through the usual tedious process of Heathrow security, I was reading my book, waiting for them to display the gate number, when a voice on the tannoy system announced “Could all passengers on the Ethiopian Airlines flight to Addis Ababa please go directly to the transit desk.”
Hmmmm, it didn’t sound good. Continue reading

The Hot Pirate

Tuesday 17th March 2009

Hello again,
Time for another update….

The Financial Management course lost it’s appeal rather quickly I’m sad to say (not that any of you will be surprised!).
It was actually all quite interesting, but pretty hardcore, doing finances 9-5 every day for three weeks! It’s also getting towards the end of term, so everyone’s completely exhausted!

However now we’ve moved onto an exciting new module called “Technical Support”, which is mostly about logistics and water/waste management – surprisingly interesting considering most of it is about how to dig a proper latrine! We’ve also learnt how to calculate “sludge accumulation rates” to assess how long it will be before you’ll need to dig a new pit!

My love life remains fairly boring, but I have recently discovered that Liverpool has quite a few hot guys, and I have been busy appreciating the view as usual!
I went to a party a couple of weeks ago, which was really fun and I met loads of nice new people. There were also several gorgeous guys there, which was great, and I was spoilt for choice between Hot English Guy, Hot Spanish Guy, Hot Scottish Guy and Hot Nigerian Guy!
Sadly, (and rather typically), as the night went on, I spent lots of time moving around chatting to people, and then Hot Nigerian guy left, Hot Scottish guy turned out to be madly in love with someone else, I’m pretty sure Hot Spanish guy was gay, and then Hot English guy got drunk and passed out on the sofa!

I really shouldn’t be at all surprised, but there we go!

Then last Saturday I went out with a few friends for a girl’s night, and the most random thing happened! My flatmate S and I were in a club, and I suddenly noticed a bunch of guys dressed up as pirates standing behind her. One of them was really quite fit, so I just said to S “Hey look! There’s a really hot pirate standing behind you”, and she promptly turned around, and said to the guy “Hi, this is my friend Maya” and then walked away!
It was actually a stroke of genius, as I got chatting to Hot Pirate, (who was GORGEOUS by the way), and he turned out to also be quite nice and interesting too. (What are the chances, a nice guy, who’s interesting and gorgeous???).
So we chatted for a while, and then he kissed me, (I don’t think I could actually be more swept off my feet at this point!).
I won’t bore you with the details of the rest of the evening, except to say that he was a perfect gentleman and asked for my number before seeing me into a cab!

So, having finally met the perfect man (26, gorgeous, nice, interesting, and likes to dress up as Johnny Depp on the weekends!), I predictably spent the whole of the next week thinking about him and did not spend a lot of time working on my 3,500 word essay on strategic financial planning (seriously, do you blame me??).

We exchanged text messages throughout the week, although I suddenly found myself completely unable to actually write a text message without consulting at least 4 people on what I should say, and precisely what time of evening I should send it, etc. It’s been sooooo long since I’ve been anywhere near actual dating that I am totally hopeless and pathetic and can’t seem to reply to a text without calling 6 people to ask if they think he likes me (I know, very sad!).

Thankfully, I have good friends with sensible advice, and after several long chats, most people agreed that I should just go ahead and ask him if he wanted to meet me for a drink. It was all a bit much, but I eventually did.
Unfortunately he replied that he’s just broken up with his girlfriend and isn’t really ready to start seeing other people, but I actually wasn’t that upset about it, as it was just such a relief to finally know whether or not he was interested! I have subsequently developed a new-found respect for men, given that they generally do the asking-out, as it’s nerve-wracking and exhausting! Also, I found that once all the weirdness of trying to flirt was taken out of the equation, we got on really well and ended up chatting for ages after that!

So,there’s a tiny possibility that he may one day decide he’s over his ex, and that I’m the perfect woman, but I’m pretty sure my hot pirate was just too good to be true, (although you never know!).
In the meantime I think I’ll just have to keep looking…..
It may be hard to find another man who can live up to the pirate though!

So, as for my upcoming trip to Sudan, I’ve been extremely busy getting passport photos taken and filling in visa application forms, and health and safety risk assessment forms (which are hilarious by the way – I have to rate the likelihood of a volcanic eruption, chemical dusts, and glaciers, crevasses and ice falls! I also had to say whether or not there was a risk of “desert”!). I’ve also been getting vaccinated against Hepatitis, Meningitis C, A, Y and W and Rabies etc. The rabies vaccine is actually quite cool – you have to have a series of 3 injections over 4 or 5 weeks, and the vaccine is bright neon pink! It looked seriously radioactive.

Unfortunately, as many of you will have seen on the news, the International Criminal Court (ICC) have announced their decision to issue a warrant for the arrest of President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, of Sudan for committing war crimes in Darfur. It’s quite the historic occasion, as the ICC has never issued an arrest warrant for a sitting head of state before. However it’s not exactly clear who is planning to enforce the warrant and actually arrest him! The Sudanese Government aren’t a signatory to the ICC, and therefore don’t recognise their decisions, so they have no plans to cooperate in the near future, but that’s hardly a surprise!

However the Sudanese Government have also just chucked about 13 NGO’s out of Darfur. It’s a huge shame, as obviously the NGO’s have nothing to do with the ICC, but nevermind. All of which makes things a bit complicated for me! CHF, the organisation I’m planning to go with, have also been ejected from Darfur and Khartoum, but they still have an office in Juba, where I’m planning to go. The government have issued a statement to say that all of the NGO’s in the South can stay and continue operations as normal, but that could all change at any time. So, CHF have asked me to postpone my trip until things calm down a bit, which is reasonable given the circumstances. However, it also means that in case it all falls through, I’ll have to come up with a plan B. I’m also now getting quite pressed for time, as I only have a limited window of time when I can conduct my research in the field. So, I’m working on a back-up plan, although the worst-case scenario is that I’ll have to stay in Liverpool and do a desk study instead. However I may still get to go to Sudan in May if things start settling down a bit – keep your fingers crossed!

In the meantime, along with the million other things I have to do, there’s a 2,500 word fundraising proposal to write for next Monday, and then a 5,000 word essay on the role of the “military logistics machine” in humanitarian aid work, due two weeks later! In amongst all that I also have to go to a friend’s birthday dinner this week, and another friend’s Beach-themed Party on Friday.
No rest for the wicked….

So, that’s all my news for the time being,
hope you’re all well and happy,

tons of love
Pirate Maya

ps – for those of you who may not have heard yet, my big sister just got engaged to her lovely boyfriend! We are all thrilled for them both, obviously! However it does sometimes make me think: My brother is married with three beautiful children and my sister has been married and is now engaged, while at 27, I’ve only just managed to get up the courage to ask someone out by text message…..
I suspect I was at the back of the queue when God was handing out dating skills! Ah well, you never know, next time I meet a nice guy, I may actually get as far as a whole phone call…….

Snakes, Sudan, and Student life.

Sunday 18th January 2009

Hey everyone,
Time for another mammoth update, so prepare yourselves!
Our classes are going really well, but it’s very intense! We have a HUGE amount of work to do and this Thursday we have to submit our proposals to the ethics committee, so I have to do a hell of a lot before then if I’m going to get it in on time (if you miss the deadline, the committee don’t meet again for a month, which leaves things a bit last minute!). Also I’ve had some really good news about my research project – CHF International are really keen to host me in South Sudan, so it’s almost all confirmed, which is a relief – lots of other people in my class are nowhere near getting a hosting organisation yet.

So yay!

In other random news….

LSTM itself has two buildings now – the old red brick one, which is actually very pretty, and a brand-spanking new one next door, which Bill Gates paid for (something in the region of £50 million). In there they do all the HIV, TB and major tropical disease research – apparently LSTM are constantly doing breakthrough research and basically are just amazing at it.

This also means that on the top floor of the building we’re in (the old brick one), there’s a thing called “The Snake Room”! Literally an entire lab filled with some of the most poisonous snakes in the world, which they milk for venom. Then they send the venom off to Costa Rica, inject it into horses, as apparently it doesn’t kill them, and then after a few months when the horse has built up an immunity to it, they tap it’s blood and use it for anti-venom things (although they’ve just discovered it works much better with camels, as they have a higher blood temperature, which means the anti-venom doesn’t need to be kept cool while in transit to various African countries).
Random! So, Barry, our lecturer has promised to arrange a guided tour of the snake room for us at some point, but in the meantime it’s quite exciting coming to lectures every day knowing that two floors above you there’s a room full of really poisonous snakes!

So, as well as wresting with the ethics form, and debating the pros and cons of qualitative or quantitative research methods (gripping, isn’t it?), I’m still learning an incredible amount of fascinating and sometimes quite scary things!

In our fundraising module, we had a discussion group on why some NGO’s might refuse funding from certain donors (e.g. refusing to accept money from a tobacco company, or Nestle because of unethical practices etc). A, one of the girls in our group had found out a really frightening thing about USAID, one of the biggest donors in the world (I can’t remember if it is actually the biggest, or if it’s second to the EU). Either way, USAID, (which is the US Government funding body for NGO’s), have just piloted a new scheme in Gaza, which might be implemented soon across all of their funding partners. It’s called the Partner Vetting System (PVS) and it’s a link directly from USAID to a CIA database (sorry, “law-enforcement information sharing system”), which, if implemented, means that any NGO looking for funding from the US needs to provide detailed personal information about all of their national staff, including suppliers, which is fed into this database. The premise of it (thanks to Bush’s “War on Terror”) is to ensure that no US Government funding inadvertently supports terrorism, but there has been absolutely no proof of that so far, and the way PVS works is really pretty unethical.

Because it’s going to be used for “law-enforcement purposes” (e.g. CIA), it is exempt from all privacy laws, and there is no guarantee of confidentiality regarding the information provided. The CIA can do whatever they want with it and it could have huge implications for local staff on the ground.
For example, if Oxfam have received funding from USAID to run a project in Liberia, and then hire Alice, a local liberian girl to clean their office, they have to provide USAID with the following information about Alice (this is taken from the USAID website) :

“Personally identifiable information collected from potential USAID partners includes: Name, date of birth, place of birth, county of origin, Social Security Number or other ID type or ID number, nationality, address, phone number, email address, and organizational affiliations.”

The CIA then enter all this information into their database and if they discover that Alice’s father’s brother’s wife’s cousin once voted for the wrong people, then you have to fire Alice or risk losing all your funding. Also, Alice’s name and personal information remains on the database, with no guarantees about confidentiality, so it would affect her future chances of getting a visa for a lot of countries and if it was leaked to local authorities could lead to retaliation against Alice in some countries, and literally put her life at risk.
Even if you buy a computer for your office from Mohammed in the computer shop, you have to provide USAID with all his personal information too!

It’s utterly insane, and has led to a bit of an outcry from the NGO community – Oxfam has apparently said that if they implement this system (it’s currently only being used in Gaza as a pilot scheme), then they will stop applying for funds from USAID. Oxfam are well-established enough to afford to say that, and many European NGO’s have other funding options. However, the majority of American NGO’s get 99% of their funding from USAID, and therefore would have to either comply with the new rules or go out of business.
Several Advocacy NGO’s are attempting to sue USAID for breach of Human Rights, but seriously, taking on USAID means taking on the US Government (not to mention the CIA) – I’m pretty sure they’re not going to win!

Here are some quotes about PVS. This was taken from the advocacy blog of OMB Watch:
“Highlights from the proposed PVS:

“USAID does not believe that it should wait for hard proof that our funds are actually flowing to terrorists” before assigning a designation of humanitarian groups as connected to terror-related activities.
Permits “the sharing of information, provided to USAID by applicants, with the intelligence community.”
Some organizations fear “considerable dangers associated with USAID using its implementing partners for U.S. law enforcement or intelligence purposes in foreign countries…leading to retaliation by foreign governments against partner employees and employees of subs of partners.”
Also from OMB:

“The organization said the university had received in $100,000 in 2006 in “in-kind” aid from USAID, and it also complained that USAID planned to provide $2.4 million in scholarships for about 2,000 Palestinian students without a guarantee that recipients are not “members of the Hamas or Islamic Jihad student unions, have participated in their events, or have given any support to Hamas or Islamic Jihad, including voting for them in the council elections.”
The fact that the U.S. government is responding to the appeals of an organization which is concerned about the political beliefs of students who receive scholarship funds from U.S. funds and may or may not have voted for Hamas is disturbing. This politicizes aid and violates the principle of a secret ballot.”

So in other words, we’re all for democracy in the US, but we’re going to need to know who you voted for, and we may penalise you if you voted for the wrong people!

Sorry for all that if it was boring for most of you, but I find it fascinating, and also a bit scary!

Anyhoo, on to other things, I’ve been really loving Liverpool as a city – it’s so much fun and there’s loads to do. However, I am once again starting to really feel my age, as although I’m only 27, I’m a long way from my own undergrad student days, and being surrounded by really young students does make me feel terribly old and boring!


My flatmate S is lovely, she’s doing a Masters degree in micro-biology, but is only 21 and I hadn’t really noticed the age gap until we went out last Friday night. She had suggested we all get together and have a few drinks at our flat before going out (the old student trick of getting drunk before leaving the house to save money!). That was fine, but Dee (another girl on my course – also 27) and I only managed a glass and a half of wine before we left, and it was only when we reached our first destination that I realised how bad it was going to be! We arrived at Flares, 70’s theme bar, complete with light-up dancefloor and mega-cheesy music. It was completely empty – we were literally the only people there, and as the others all headed straight for the empty dancefloor it slowly dawned on Dee and I that everyone else in our group was actually already hammered!

70's steph

I personally wasn’t nearly drunk enough to dance alone in an empty club, and although the discovery that there was a stripper-pole in the window did cheer me up, I still wasn’t actually drunk enough to fully appreciate it!

So, we moved on to another club, which was equally empty, and the music selection was even worse. I was hovering on the edge of the dancefloor, watching the others drunkenly fall about the empty stage and attempting to down pints before running off to throw up, debating how many rum and cokes it would take before I actually enjoyed this.

Then I suddenly thought to myself “I would have so much more fun right now if I was at home with a bottle of wine and a good film”. That was around the time that I also realised I’m so over student life! I’m clearly far too old to appreciate the finer points of stripper poles and the ability to drink a pint in 30 seconds. Ah well, probably for the best, what with all this work I have to do!
That’s about it from me for now – I’m sure this email is long enough by now!

hope you’re all well and happy,


love Maya