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.


New Year, New Job

Tuesday 11th January 2011

Hello again everyone!

I hope you all had a good Christmas and New Year? Mine was brilliant – I was spoilt rotten and got LOADS of great presents, and ate so much I almost exploded.

I have now moved most of my stuff down to Oxford, and have been settling into the office at work quite nicely.
XXX is an amazing place to work, although there is so much to learn that I’m doing my best to shovel all the information into my head as fast as I can!

The building itself is huge, and was purpose-built for the NGO 5 years ago on the business park. It’s a convenient 15 minutes walk from my new flat, and houses over 700 employees. It’s all very funky and open plan, lots of open space and kitchens with comfy break areas. There’s an amazing cafe downstairs with a plethora of vegetarian options (yay!), and a breakfast bar, as well as hot lunches, a deli bar and a salad bar. We have our own ATM inside the building and they have regular sales of shop products so you can go and browse all the new products they are planning to introduce into their high street shops soon. There is also a yoga class once a week in the big conference room, and a massage therapist who comes in on Wednesday afternoons, although you have to pay for those. Karina, my line manager, also took me along to the singing group, who meet at lunchtime once a week, and there’s apparently also a book club who meet at the pub once a month, so I might join that too!

In other words, it’s hard to find time to do any work once I’m done choosing my muesli/fruit/yoghurt/eggs/toast/croissants in the morning, having a massage, doing yoga, shopping and deciding what I fancy for lunch! I also have a sneaking suspicion that if I’m not careful the majority of my paycheck will find it’s way back to XXX – I’m sure they have designed all these fun activities with that in mind!

The whole office is designed to reflect the NGO’s ethos, so it’s ALL open plan, even the CEO doesn’t have her own office, she’s just at a desk with everybody else. There are of course lots of meeting rooms and conference rooms, and one-to-one rooms as well, and the only staff member I’ve seen who has his own office is the staff counsellor! We also have a staff health team that includes two registered nurses for confidential health and travel advice.

So far I’ve been having a lot of induction meetings and doing a lot of self-study e-learning modules to get me up to speed on everything. I’ve had HOURS of health and safety training, including tours of the building and fire exits, a training session on how to properly adjust my chair for correct lumbar support, making sure that my computer screen is level with my eyes and my wrists are flat on my desk at right angles from my shoulders. I’ve done the online workstation safety assessment, and had meetings with my manager about the levels of glare on my screen and not slouching forward while I type. I’ve even been informed about the “No peanut” policy which applies to the whole building, as there’s one staff member with an extremely severe peanut allergy.

On top of all this, there’s a little sheep on my computer who pops up and tells me to take a micro-break (30 secs) every 15 minutes, and a break (15mins) every 2 hours. It registers if you ignore it and keep using your mouse or keyboard, and just reminds you more and more often. If you ignore it for too long a scary Lara Croft-style animated woman pops up and sternly orders you to start doing stretches at your desk! If you use your computer for more than 4 hours continuously, or for more than 8 hours with breaks, it just tells you you’re done and orders you to stop everything!

In amongst this hive of activity it’s hard to know where to start! I’ve been busy reading lots of reports and things, and meeting people to figure out what they do and how it fits in with what I’m going to be doing. For those of you who don’t know, my new job title is “xxx” and in a nutshell my job is to help the humanitarian department achieve their vision, which is to develop the capacity of all the country offices in order to make sure that they are fully prepared to cope with a Category 2 or 3 emergency on their own, should one occur. This of course sparks off endless meetings and debates about how one defines “prepared”, and is of course a much bigger undertaking for some countries compared to others.

Countries as large and complex as the DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo) would require enormous manpower to cope with an emergency, whereas a country like Albania might be able to cope just fine. Then there’s levels of complexities, such as DRC or Sudan, with a complex political context, or Indonesia, which has over 16,000 islands, and requires a lot of remote management!

At the moment we are developing a set of frameworks to help individual countries plan their staff needs in an emergency.
We’ve had some hilarious meetings so far trying to hammer out the issue of language, and “unpack the jargon” – which in itself is a hilarious phrase. Each team leader has written a draft of their framework, and they are all completely different in every way, so my job (and Karina’s) is to try and standardise them and make them work as a generic tool for field staff to use.

Anyhoo, that’s enough about that! In other news, Oxford is a fantastic city, small and friendly with LOADS of great little bars and pubs and shops etc. Carl, my credit card, was feeling a bit nervous about the move, so I took him out and familiarised him with all the shops in town. He feels much more comfortable now, and thinks we’re going to like Oxford! One of my close friends from school, Hannah, is living here in Oxford, so she and her flatmates have very kindly been showing me around, and my cousin R has just finished her degree here, so she came back to visit the other day too.

I have found a lovely place to live, only 15mins walk to work, and 5mins from the local swimming pool and shops. J, the girl who owns the house, lives there too, and it’s a nice big house with loads of space. She is really nice, and although we’re still slowly getting to know each other I think we’re going to get on well. It might take me a while to get up to speed on everything (like remembering to rinse out my yoghurt pots for recycling, and only buying non-toxic organic dishwasher tablets), and she does occasionally have a rather judgemental raised eyebrow look (it’s usually combined with a comment like “You’re having a cup of regular tea with sugar at this time of night??? Caffeine AND sugar?…Tsk…You’ll never get to sleep…” or “Gin and tonic? On a school night? Hmmm….”) but in general I think we’ll get on fine.

That’s about it from me really.

Hope that gives you all a good idea of what I’m up to!

Lots of love to everyone,
Fully-Lumbar-Supported Maya!

P.s. – I almost forgot! Seeing as this year marks the official end of my twenties, I am having a big birthday party to celebrate! It’ll be at my mum’s house in XXX on the 21st May, starting at lunchtime and going on all day and evening. Feel free to drop in any time and we’ve got plenty of room if anyone wants to stay the night. Also I’ve decided on a fancy dress theme, although I know there are some of you (particularly of the older generation) who may not want to dress up! The theme is characters from your favourite children’s tv programme/cartoon. For those people around my age it’s a great excuse for some retro costumes – think Fraggles, Smurfs, He-man, Thundercats, Care Bears, Dangermouse, Muppets, Superted, Button Moon, Ducktales, Transformers, Sooty and Sweep, Inspector Gadget, etc!

Naturally there are many more – that’s just a few ideas to get you going!
Do let me know if you’ll be able to come, and if you’d like to stay the night.
Hope to see many of you then!

Christmas Cheer!

Tuesday 14th December 2010

Hello again everyone!
Well, seems I’ve got time to squeeze in another update before I slip into my annual chocolate-induced coma (also known as Christmas!).

I have yet to get fully into the spirit of the thing, as despite having bought and wrapped most of my presents, we have not yet acquired a tree or put up any decorations yet. I must admit that in a very childish way I only really feel like Christmas has arrived when I can go nuts and smother everything in sight with tinsel and sparkly things!
However, I am pleased to announce that one particular Christmas present (and frankly by far the best one I could possibly get!) has arrived early this year. Ladies and Gentlemen, I would like to announce that I have GOT A JOB!!!!

(insert screams of adulation and general fabulousness)

Even better, it’s not just any old job, not sharpening pencils for some teeny tiny little charity that no-one has ever heard of (even though I’d have taken that job if I was offered it). No, no, this is a stupendous job, an awesome and brilliant job, working for…….. (drumroll please……)………….XXXXX!!! (Major UK NGO)

Yeah baby, that’s right. The big fish. The blue chip. The motherload.

In other words, I am thrilled to have been offered a position working for them!
So, details, details……

Well, the position itself is as XXXX, working at their head office in Oxford.  Anyhoo, the job itself is mostly to do with staff training and development, and condensing and collating lessons learned from evaluations and reports to create fun! easy-to-read! intranet pages. Apparently they’re going to teach me how to design an intranet page, so that’s a bonus!

Anyway, that’s all really brilliant and exciting. I went through a rigorous screening process, which included a phone interview, a test, then a face-to-face interview and another test before I was offered the position. I got the call about 2 weeks ago, but was waiting to announce my news until all the administration was out of the way (checking references, negotiating salary, getting contracts and offer letters sent out and signed and sent back etc).

So, here we are, and I’m about to head down to Oxford to look for a flat, and then I’m officially starting my new job on Monday! Although it’s a bit strange to start so close to Christmas, my new line manager explained that it’s a lot easier for her to show me the ropes and settle in while the office is nice and quiet and empty! So I’m starting on Monday, and just working for 3 days, then home for xmas, then back down on the 29th for another 3 days before new year.

So, that is my big huge exciting news!
The perfect Christmas present – and just in time!

Soooo, well, what else is there? Not a lot really. Since my last update I’ve mostly been filling in endless job applications, visiting friends, and hauling my enormous bulk around the back roads behind the village in preparation for my 5km charity run. The impetus for losing weight and getting fit has recently increased after I sat on a friend’s sofa a few weeks ago and broke it. You know you need to lose a few kilos when sofas start to collapse underneath you!

We had lots of snow a couple of weeks ago, although sadly it’s all melted now, and I felt extremely hard-core when I went jogging in the snow. The shocked looks on my neighbours’ faces was enough to spur me on!
Unfortunately when I went out the following day all of the snow had frozen into solid ice, and no-one grits the country lanes, so I fell over a lot, and could barely get above a brisk walk without losing my balance! The neighbours especially enjoyed watching me slipping and sliding about, although the real low point was when I accidentally inhaled a large snowflake while jogging and almost choked (until it suddenly melted halfway down to my lungs!).

But nevertheless, I have bravely persevered! I was actually starting to look forward to the event itself (just so I could get it over with), but sadly it was cancelled due to all the ice! (Apparently the event organisers don’t have insurance against several thousand broken legs and shattered hips). So, sad day for me, but fear not, all you good people who have sponsored me! There is still hope!

The options left are that
a) I can get hold of a santa suit and run my own 5k with a friend taking photos and verifying that I actually did do it
b) I can post-pone it until May when the same organisers are holding a super-hero themed 5k fun run

So, don’t worry about your sponsorship money – I have promised you a 5k run in a silly outfit and one way or another I will complete the challenge!!
The only thing I am waiting for is to find out the specific date of the May run, as although I LOVE dressing up as superheroes, if it’s anywhere near my birthday weekend I’ll be either far too drunk or far too hungover to attempt it!

However feel free to write back and let me know which YOU’D rather see me do – a lone Santa run, or mass superhero run?

I guess that’s about all my news for now, except to wish everybody a very happy Christmas and spread a little bit of my xmas joy to you via the interweb.

Merry Crimble!!!!

lots of love
Employed Maya!!!

Life in the slow lane…

Wednesday 17th November 2010

Hello again all!

So, it’s once again time for a little update on my life, before the Christmas mania and panic starts to fully set in…

I must admit I haven’t been up to many exciting things recently, although I do find myself incredibly busy in general – the days seem to be flying by! I’m still flogging away at the job-hunting and am reluctantly doing my best to network on the few occasions that I leave the village! I must say that things are looking up compared to last year – although I am still unemployed, I have had a lot more interviews this time round, so clearly my CV is getting better, and I’m now getting roughly a 1:10 ratio of interviews to applications sent out, which is encouraging! Of course now that my CV is up to scratch I need to start honing my interview skills, in order to get through to round two (and these days it seems there are several rounds of selection, including phone interviews, face to face interviews and timed tests, all of which I had to do recently!).

But anyhoo, enough about that, what else have I been up to?

Two of my dearest friends recently got married in a beautiful ceremony in Islington Town Hall, which was a really fantastic day, and one of the best weddings I’ve ever been to. So naturally I drank far too much and spent the day afterwards with a hangover so severe I can only assume it’s the early stages of liver failure.
I’ve also been getting back into my knitting and sewing, in an attempt to make more homemade xmas presents! I am still fairly limited to scarves and other things that can be knitted in a straight line, although I almost managed a hat recently, but it all went a bit peculiar towards the end, and isn’t really very hat-shaped after all. Poor thing.

And course small-town rural life continues to be full of hilarious little anecdotes. Just today as I walked through the town center I came across 6 or 7 elderly pensioners standing in a huddle on the pavement outside the brand-new, just-opened fish and chip shop (humourously named “The Codfather”). As I walked past they were muttering to each other “ooooh, look at that!”, “It’s so smart!”,  “And look, it’s a restaurant – you can sit down to eat and everything!”, “Oooooohh”

It was just so funny.

And then of course, there’s my latest fad/hobby, Jogging.

It’s hard to put my thoughts on jogging down clearly to be honest. It’s a sport, much like it’s sibling, running, which people who do it claim to enjoy. They tell me insistently over and over again that once one gets the hang of it, it’s a lot of fun, or something similar.
I would have to say, after several weeks of “training” for my epic 5km fun run in December, that it is not fun, and it does not, in fact, become any more enjoyable over time. I have (most weeks) been doing my little 3-mile circuit of interval training (alternating jogging and walking) round the fields behind the village, 3 times a week. I did have one week off when I inadvertently made my knee go “twang” and couldn’t go up and down stairs for a week, but that seems to have fixed itself and regular torture has resumed.

There are brief moments, when I’m wheezing and panting my way through the ice-cold drizzle and gale-force winds of your average November morning, when I think perhaps it’s all a huge conspiracy and there are hundreds of people out there laughing hysterically at my gullibility and naivetee. And then there are other moments, when I’m gasping for air and barely able to move beyond snail’s pace, when I know that it really is a conspiracy. The only way running could EVER be enjoyable as a sport would be if, at the finish line, there was an enormous double bed, covered in rose petals, chocolates and Johnny Depp, and even then you’d only ever need to do the running bit once.

However, I persevere, because I have signed up for the fun run and am committed to raising a bit of cash for a really great NGO called EJF – Environmental Justice Foundation. Not only do they do all sorts of gung-ho environmental actions like lobbying and advocacy, and fair-trade to make sure Joe Bloggs-Ngumbe gets a decent price for his fish in Sierra Leone, but more importantly, they are one of the select few organisations that saw my potential and gave me an interview! Although I didn’t get that particular job, I still think they deserve your hard-earned £5 for being fabulous and for recognising my talent and brilliance! So please please please dig deep into your pockets and sponsor me on my 5km personal marathon! I only have £70 left to raise, and I’m fairly confident that you guys have got what it takes to get me there! GO TEAM! Do it! Do it now!

If that wasn’t motivational enough for you, I should also point out I’ll be staggering around Greenwich Park IN A SANTA SUIT! I’ll be taking my place alongside thousands of other fundraising Santas, complete with my red and white jacket and trousers, Santa hat AND BEARD! Naturally there will be photos to follow after the event, and any of you who want more comedy are welcome to come and watch me in person.

So, that’s about all from me this time, I do hope you’re all well,
tons of love
Jogging Maya


Monday 11th October 2010

Hello everyone,
I’m so sorry I haven’t written for AGES – completely unforgivable I know, and I’m sure most of you are DYING to know what I’ve been up to for the last two months or so, so prepare for a very long update!

Well, I came home from India in early August, and was almost immediately swept up in all of the excitement of my sister’s wedding, which was on the 4th September. There was a lot of logistics planning, and military-style organisation involved, including figuring out who was driving over to pick up the bouquet and bring it to the correct venue at what time/day etc. All terribly efficient, and it gave me a glimpse of just how much insane planning actually goes into a wedding!

Suffice to say the wedding itself was perfect, with a lovely registry office ceremony in Cambridge on Friday, and then a blessing ceremony and reception at my aunt’s house in Essex on Saturday. Two of my friends from Uni had also gotten married on the bank holiday Monday beforehand, so by Saturday it was technically my 3rd wedding in a week!
It was all fabulous however, and great to have a chance to catch up with so many friends and family – including my dad and stepmother, and my brother and his family, who had all come over from Australia for the occasion!

After all the wedding excitement died down, I spent a fantastic month with my brother and his family, who I have not seen for three years! We all had an amazing time, and mum and I got to babysit my gorgeous nephews while my brother and his wife had a couple of well-deserved mini-breaks – 3 days in Berlin and then 3 days in Barcelona. My nephews are perfect in every way – I still maintain that they are the best-behaved children in the world, and I know I’m not biased, because the rest of my extended family think so too!

O, the oldest, is now 6 and a half, devastatingly cute, and terrifyingly bright. He is very artistic, and is already reading the 5th Harry Potter book and can spell Lord Voldermort (I’m so proud!). He has of course also mastered the art of sulking, which is HILARIOUS to watch – I’ve never seen it done with such panache!

J is in the middle, and about to turn 5. He’s gorgeous as well of course, and LOVES all things Star Wars – so old school! He is extremely perceptive and also very funny, and has such a sunny disposition that he can’t stay in a huff for more than 5 minutes! He is very cheeky and loves wrestling and sword-fighting, and comes out with the best quotes.

Then there is N, who is the youngest, and just turned 2. He is an utterly adorable toddler, as his brothers were before him, and has a brilliant smile. He LOVES cars and driving cars and making brrrrummm, bruummm noises, and likes to pretend to drill things a lot. He is very cuddly and also sings little random tunes all the time, and frequently got us all joining in with “Do DO Do dooo Do Duh Duh Duh DOOOOO…YAY!” – A classic song for all the ages!

Basically they are all wonderful, and spending a month with them left my ovaries screaming! (I seem to have become even more broody than I was before!).

Anyhoo, it was of course also wonderful to see my bro, who is awesome, and my sister-in-law, who I get on with incredibly well too, so we spent LOADS of time gossiping and generally catching up. And so, with all of this hustle and bustle of activity going on I have barely had time to do any of the other things I was meant to be doing, like once again looking for a job!

However, since the family have swept off back to Oz, and mum and her partner are off on their holidays, I’ve now got the house to myself and some time to focus on it a bit more. I have now sent off around 35 job applications since leaving the University (which incidentally was recently shut down due to tax fraud, so a lucky escape there!), and have been attempting to take a few more pro-active measures about job-hunting.

I have not yet had any interviews as such, although I did get invited up to Leicester for a kind-of pre-interview interview with XXXX (more of an informal meeting to discuss my suitability for the post or any others they might have for me etc). All very good, and I spent £50 on a return train ticket to Leicester, but then got a very apologetic phone call the day before telling me that DFID (the UK Department for International Development) had just cut most of their funding and they have to immediately halt all recruitment, including for the position I was going for, as they can no longer afford to hire someone for that position! So sadly I never got to have that particular interview, although they very kindly offered to refund my train fare.

I also attended a conference last week on job-hunting and careers in the International Development sector, hosted by a charity recruitment company. It was…. interesting. The first half was a bit lame – all the speakers kept telling us to focus on volunteering abroad (yup, done that), and getting a masters degree (check) – all very useful for the 200-odd students and fresh graduates there, but not so helpful for me. The other thing that every single speaker kept harping on about was the importance of networking. “Network, Network, Network” was the general consensus, and there was a 40-minute “networking break” built into the conference timings.

I found it all a bit terrifying – 200 people vying to speak to 5 speakers in 40 minutes. Queuing disintegrated very quickly and it ended up being a case of shove your way to the front and say something interesting really really fast. Luckily I was one of the few people who had brought copies of my CV with me, so I was able to shove it at several people before getting trampled under the crowd of desperate graduates hungry for jobs. It was truly quite a scary experience, and I’m still not sure it was worth the £25 ticket price, but then again I suppose it can’t hurt. I did manage to get some useful CV advice from a major recruiter for charity/NGO jobs, so that part was good, and one of the speakers was from an organisation I had just applied for a job with, so I squeezed my way in to shake her hand and introduce myself (but in fact did not subsequently get selected for an interview for that position).

To be honest, I’m still very sceptical about networking. Even though I know it does seem to be the only way to get anywhere in the world these days, I think my bleeding-heart liberal mind still feels that it’s uncomfortably close to nepotism, which I fundamentally and very strongly disapprove of, and I wish that I could get a job based only on my merits, but apparently that’s not really possible these days. Also in fairness, I only got my most recent job in India because I have a friend who was related to someone there, so I can’t really be too judgemental! But anyhoo, job-hunting continues at a steady pace, and my attempts at networking continue….

So, in other news, I am finally attempting to get vaguely fit, so have taken some proactive measures in that general direction. Firstly I bought a cheap second hand bicycle back in August when I first came home and managed to cycle into Sudbury from the village several times (a 9-mile round trip I discovered!). However during the madness of the wedding and hanging out with my family, I didn’t really do much, and the filthy wet, soggy, cold British weather has dampened my enthusiasm for cycling in general, although I’m slowly building up the guts to get out and carry on in the rain!

I have also decided that I need a slightly bigger incentive to exercise, so I have signed up for a charity fun-run in December. It’s only 5k, which is apparently very easy, and I’m running it to raise money for EJF – Environmental Justice Foundation, an NGO my friend works for. I will of course be looking for sponsors for my epic jogging debut, and to make things more interesting, I’ll be running the whole thing in a Santa suit – I KNOW there are many of you who would pay to see me do that!

Please feel free to check out my fundraising page and sponsor me.
Also any of you who would like to come down in person and watch me run 5k in a Santa suit (or just come to point and laugh), please feel free to come to Greenwich Park, London, on Sunday 5th December, where the merriment will commence at 11am.

Now, I feel I should warn any of you planning to sponsor me that I may not necessarily manage to run the whole thing – I may end up walking some of it, but I am attempting to train in order to do my best. I started my “training” today – and was shocked to discover that Step One actually involves leaving the couch and going outside! I found a website online that suggested starting out with interval training (alternating 60 seconds of jogging and 60 seconds of walking for 20 minutes), so I went over to the village playing field to have a go. Of course there was a bloke over there in a tractor mowing the field, so I had an extremely amused audience for my very first attempt at learning to jog! I made it about 4 times round the field doing the intervals before getting a stitch and running out of breath! Fairly pathetic given that it’s such a small field, but hopefully it’ll be easier tomorrow!

So, that’s just about all of my news for now (Phew! Sighs of relief can be heard across the globe!). I hope you are all well and will send me some of your updates soon so I know what everyone has been up to!

For those of you wanting to catch up and hang out, I should be around for a while and my mobile number is the same as it was before, so feel free to give me a call! My immediate future plans involve continued job-hunting and reluctant networking, learning to jog, learning French (including a possible trip to France to practice sometime before xmas), and all sorts of other odds and ends like attempting to finish the patchwork quilt I’ve been working on for 10 years, and learning to knit something other than a scarf.

Best wishes to all of you – and well done for making it to the end of my email!
tons of love
wheezing, jogging Maya

2009 Round-up

Friday 8th January 2010

Hi Everyone,
My deepest apologies for not writing much over the last 5 months or so.

I think the last time I wrote it was about July and I was manically writing my masters dissertation. I’d have written sooner, but I’m afraid my life in the last 4 or 5 months has been unbelievably dull and so there really hasn’t been much to report!

Let’s see, I finished my thesis in August, and am proud to announce that I somehow wangled a distinction, and I graduated in December, so I am now, officially, Maya, Master of Science (Brief pause for applause and adoration….) Continue reading

The craziest week of my life!

Wednesday 17th September 2008

Monday 15th September….

Hello everyone,
I know my last couple of updates have been fairly mundane, mostly because my life just hasn’t been all that exciting.
However, all that has just changed rather drastically in the last few hours to something verging on insane.

Ok, so my life was tootling along quietly, applying for jobs, signing on, watching Neighbours, blah blah blah. Then on Saturday I had the training workshop I had been waiting ages for – run by a group called RedR and entitled “So you think you want to be a relief worker?”
I had applied for it back in July and had been rather gutted that they didn’t have one a bit sooner than September, but there you are.

Anyhoo, off I went, and learned an astonishing amount in the space of a mere day (this was especially impressive given the intensity of the monstrous hangover I was nursing after a lovely night in with my friends Betty, Bill, Rita and 5 bottles of wine!).
Basically, there was lots of background info on what it takes to work in the humanitarian aid sector. and examples of the types of jobs you can do, and then we heard talks from several aid workers with different organisations, including a senior logistician for UNHCR, who has planned missions to bring refugees out of Sierra Leone, and a woman who works in Human Resources for GOAL, who was able to tell us exactly what they look for on a cv for different kinds of jobs.
Sooooo useful!

However, it soon became apparent why it is that I’ve been utterly unable to find work in these kind of areas over the last few months, as I am hopelessly and completely un-qualified for them!
Firstly, the woman from GOAL explained that a Masters degree in a related field is pretty much a pre-requisite, which I do not have. Secondly, you MUST be fluent in another language, preferably a UN-approved language (eg French, Spanish, Arabic, Chinese, or Russian). French seems to be the obvious choice as I did GCSE French, although it was 11 years ago and I’m extremely rusty!

So, I came away from it buzzing with new plans for my rather bizarre life, and by Sunday my new life plan looked like this:
a) Do a masters
b) Learn French, become fluent.

I decided that it’s pointless to continue looking for work that I’m simply not going to get when what I really need to do it commit to re-training, and the RedR training pack gave a very helpful list of masters courses and logistics training institutes that come highly recommended. Many of them include exciting courses like “Disaster Management” and “Refugee Studies”. However I also realised that it’s mid-September and there’s almost no chance of me getting onto a course for this year, but I thought I might as well call around and ask on the off-chance, as some Uni’s don’t start term until October anyway.
Having researched around and found about 10 courses that looked pretty good and relevant, I called up, and amazingly, about 8 of them said “Term starts on Monday, but there are still places available if you can get your application in ASAP.”

I was amazed!

Anyhow, realising I couldn’t manage to do that many applications in only a day or two, I narrowed it down to the ones that looked the best, and met the criteria I was looking for the closest, and set off! I started around 8am Monday morning, and spent the whole day filling in applications, contacting my old lecturers for references, scanning and emailing people copies of my degree certificate and transcripts etc.
Eventually I applied for an MA in Post-War Recovery Studies with the University of York, and an Msc in Humanitarian Programme Management with the University of Liverpool.
The admissions secretary for York said that their term doesn’t actually start until October, but the professor running the course is leaving for a holiday on Thursday, so I’d have to get the application in by Wednesday so he can look at it. The woman at Liverpool told me that their course had actually already started on September 1st, which I thought meant I’d got no chance, however when I called the guy running the course to ask if I could apply, he said that I’d only missed two weeks, and he thought it’d be better for me to get my arse there asap and just work extra hard to catch up.

Their course runs the first semester in Lyon, France, in conjunction with a major humanitarian training organisation called BioForce (one of the best according to my training workshop – they’re responsible for a lot of the major relief operations around the world when it comes to logistics specifically). So, anyhoo, as long as I can get myself to Lyon this week, he reckoned I could easily catch up and do it, and of course it would also help my French come along nicely! However he was concerned that I’d have nowhere to live, but in a stroke of amazing luck, my cousin Arnie happens to live in Lyon at the moment and has very sweetly agreed to let me sleep on his floor until I can find a flat of my own.
This course is amazing – the first semester is in Lyon working with Bioforce, the second semester is in Liverpool, and then the third semester is a research project done in the field with the NGO of your choice pretty much, so I could spend 8 weeks in Sierra Leone with the Red Cross, or in Beirut with the UN, etc.

So, that all happened insanely fast, and it now looks like I could be in France by Thursday if my application is approved by the director of admissions, and my references from St Andrews get there in time, and I can prove I can support myself.

The money thing is a little scary – I am no longer eligible for a student loan, and bank loan rates have shot up to about 20%, however thanks to my work abroad in Korea and Kuwait I have saved up a fairly decent amount of cash. Unfortunately, this still won’t be enough!
The course fees for this masters are £6,800 (primarily because it includes all of the costs for the research project – flights, accomodation there etc). That leaves me with the remains of my savings to live off for the entire year, which is not really enough.

However, it’s enough to get me through the French portion of the course until Christmas, and once I come to Liverpool I can get a part-time job to support myself.

It’s all incredibly last-minute and hectic, and I’m a little scared of the idea of blowing all of my savings in one go like this, but I figured that this is definitely the career path I want to pursue, and to do that I need to be properly trained, so I simply have to invest in my own future to get there.

Sorry this email has been incredibly long, but so much happened all in one day, that I’m still not quite sure it’s even real! When I woke up this morning I had no idea anyone would even consider me for a placement this year, and now I’ve got about 2 days to pack and organise myself to go to France!

That’s it for now, but I wanted to make sure you all knew what was happening, as I may not have enough time to call you all to say goodbye, or cancel plans for dinner etc, so I hope you’ll all forgive me! My next update might even be from France!
Tres exciting!

tons of love

ps – It is now Wednesday, and I’ve been approved – the only thing I’m waiting for is to pay the fees, but first they have to check that I’m eligible as a home student as I’ve lived abroad for the last three years. So, my flight is booked and I’m off tomorrow!
What a crazy week!
Sorry again to those of you I haven’t had a chance to say goodbye to, but I’ll be back around Christmas time!
Au Revoir!


Living the dream…

Wednesday 23rd July 2008

Hello again everyone!
Time for another update of Steph’s life!
Well, as most of you know, I’m now at home and have settled back into western life remarkably well! I love being able to have hot showers whenever I like, and have been busy getting fat enjoying all my favourite foods (well, except for meat of course!).

On the job front things are going a bit slower than anticipated. I’ve updated my CV and have been sending it out to lots of agencies and applying for loads of jobs, but so far after a month of looking I’ve had several rejections and only 2 interviews, neither of which I got offers from, although thankfully neither of them were jobs that I wanted anyway!

I decided to sign onto the dole for jobseekers’ allowance, as it’s £60 a week that I could definitely do with having! Things are going a bit slowly, as each job application takes hours to fill out and a lot of them I get half way through before realising I’m not at all qualified for the position!

However as I am after all trying to start a new career from scratch it’s hardly surprising and I now have lots of options such as re-training in various different ways and I can also volunteer while I’m job-hunting to improve my job experience and help ease the boredom of sitting around at home all day!

I’ve been applying for jobs mostly in charity administration (as a way of getting my foot in the door, so to speak), and also quite a few for project officer positions in night shelters for the homeless. My ultimate goal is to try and get a job as an aid worker, but it will take several years of experience and training to get there, so I’m trying to find positions that will help to bridge the gap. I also found a fantastic agency (RedR) that runs training courses for relief workers, and they are having a seminar called “So you think you want to be an aid worker?” in September, which is perfect so I’ve signed up for that.

So, although I am a tad bored sitting round at home all day filling in applications for hours on end, I haven’t lost hope yet, and it has only been a month since I got back after all!
I also love the fact that when people ask me what I’m doing next, after all of my exciting travels around the world, I can say “Well, I’m 27, unemployed, claiming benefit and living with my mother.”
Living the dream baby!

However, I’ve had plenty of other things to keep me busy, such as continuing the orphanage newsletter, and attempting to set up a bank account and charity for them so I can start receiving donations (which has all turned out to be far more complicated than I expected, but I am persevering with it!).
I am also trying to learn the complexities of the new website so that I can update it myself, but it requires my dear sister and her lovely boyfriend to spend hours explaining things to me, so that continues slowly as well! I hope I shall one day have enough technical ability to work it by myself, but for now I am testing their patience with my computer-ignorance!

Also I have several other projects to while away time, like attempting to compile all of my emails into a book, finding a publisher etc, which is more like a hobby, but it certainly keeps me busy!
Then there’s my scrapbook to finish, and shopping to be done (so many gorgeous clothes! and shoes!), and all sorts of odds and ends to fill up my days.

And of course, I have about 4 year’s worth of Neighbours to catch up with, so that’ll take some time too!

I do hope you’re all well and happy and enjoying your summer wherever you are. The weather here has been pretty hit-and-miss so far and it hasn’t been terribly hot and summery, but hopefully it’ll warm up in August (and anyway, spray-tans are the new black this year!)

tons of love and happy thoughts,


Home Home Home!!!

Wednesday 2nd July 2008

Ok, where did I leave off last time?

Well, I whizzed across from Haampi to Goa for a night, and then took a very long train journey north. It was around 36 hours to Agra, and like the good Brit that I am I was well prepared for the boredom with several books, a pack of cards, my ipod and various snacks etc.
After reading for several hours, I busted out the cards for a few games of patience, which drew fascinated looks from basically everyone in a 5-metre radius of me.
They stared and talked excitedly for about 30 mins before one young man was clearly voted the one to speak to me. He stood up reverentially and asked in a shaking voice if I was doing magic.

I wasn’t sure if he was referring to Harry Potter style magic, or the more basic card tricks, but when I explained that I was merely playing a game a murmur went up around the bunks and the young man looked more puzzled than ever. He then looked at me in awe and asked how I could possibly play a card game with just one person!!
All highly amusing! Continue reading

Off once again to pastures, well, wet really

Monday 6th August 2007

Hello again all,
I am leaving tomorrow for Nepal to start my latest adventure, and am so overwhelmed with stuff to do I’ve decided to put it off by writing a big long email!

I’ve had a fantastic time the last few weeks, I’ve seen just about all of my friends (I think!) and spent a gorgeous couple of weeks looking after my lovely nephews as well.
The highlights of my summer are as follows:

I’ve had many a lovely drunken night out with friends, in Bury, London, Nottingham, Oxford and Sudbury. We’ve taken the boys to the races at Newmarket (Jack managed to pick out two winners, even though he’s only about 18 months old!!), to the Colne Valley Railway to go on a proper steam train, to the Zoo (Ollie fed the giraffes), and lots of trips to the park etc.

At the zoo

I have become an expert on Thomas the Tank Engine, as Ollie is currently completely obsessed with him, and I’m rather proud of how knowledgeable I am on all of their names and jobs! Jack prefers the Wiggles, an obscure Australian phenomenon involving four fully grown men who sing songs and tell stories. Three of them freak me out completely, although the blue one (Anthony) seems vaguely sane!

I have been to a pre-departure camp in Oxford, where I met lots of other volunteers going to loads of different countries, and we did lots of cultural awareness role-playing etc.
It was fun, and I’m now in contact with loads of people doing the same kinds of thing as me.

The Hill End massive!

As I prepare to depart, I gradually realise how little I’ve actually done!
Packing seems impossible, and although I’ve bought a posh new rucksack for this adventure, I keep making endless lists and forgetting crucial things like mosquito nets and antiseptic creams!

I looked on lots of websites, and there didn’t seem to be any one that agreed on which vaccinations I should get, so I figured it was fine, and I’d just get yellow fever (lots of countries require a certificate of vaccination to enter). I went to see the practice nurse last week, and she was a terribly fierce lady who told me off royally for not coming in sooner.
Our conversation went a lot like this:
“You mean you haven’t had your rabies shot yet? But you need 3 weeks for that one!”
“I, um, I’ll try not to get rabies then?”
“But you can catch it from saliva you know, not just bites!”
“Well, I’ll be extra careful not to let any dogs dribble into my mouth then.”
“What about Japanese B Encephalitis??”
“Well you’ll have to have Cholera, and Typhoid, and Hepatitis A,….”
and so on.

It turns out that there has been a recent outbreak of cholera in Kathmandu, due too monsoon flooding and a political strike in the South (something to do with chlorine not being delivered into the water supply) so I agreed on that one, but I had to drink it instead of an injection!
So, having ingested Cholera, (raspberry flavour by the way), I’ve had a rather unsuprisingly bad stomach, but it seems to be clearing up, and hopefully I’ll be fine for the journey.

I’m ironically flying with Gulf Air, with a stopover in Bahrain, a place I never thought I’d be going back to again so soon!

I’ve been in touch with a girl who’s just left the orphanage I’m going to, and she said that due to a lack of funding, the kids are no longer able to go to school, so they will be there all the time, which is a bit daunting! However, I am only a volunteer and I’m allowed to take a break if it gets too much! I also have a two-week orientation when I arrive to have some basic language classes and be shown around the city a bit, which hopefully will be quite fun!

So, on that note, I suppose I shall have to go and start packing, although I’m not sure I’ll have room for clothes once all the medical supplies are in!
Wish me luck!

tons of love