Sunday, December 20, 2009

Follow-up: On The Olympic Torch

Check out my pictures of the Vancouver 2010 Olympics Torch run in Kirkland, QC. I've also uploaded a couple of videos that will help you re-live the glory of the cool, cool wait for a very special flame.

53 days to go!

Friday, December 18, 2009

30-second movie reviews

These past few weeks have been full of movie-watching, for some reason. The first time, it was intentionally, with the first ever (soon to be monthly) Retro movie night. The movies won't always be retro, but they will always be flicks you've been dying to see but for some reason, haven't.

That night, we watched "It's A Wonderful Life" and "The Sound of Music". Two classics I had never seen. Then, I saw "Brothers", "Up in the Air", "The Blind Side" and "Avatar" in theatres. Wow. I'm kinda movie'd out, but I really want to see "Fantastic Mr. Fox" this holiday season, as well as "Nine". And I wouldn't say no to "Sherlock Holmes".

So with all that creative buzz flowing in my mind - and in case you're on the fence about seeing some of these films - here are my 30 second movie reviews.

Avatar was an incredible tale of hope, full of vivid colours and synaptic beings. Or it would be, if it weren't a sad reflection of our so-called humanity. These kinds of senseless wars and destruction take place around the world, and for what? We haven't learned from our mistakes, even in 2145. We are all inter-connected, whether we feel it daily or not. My heart weeps for all the unnecessary losses of souls.

The Blind Side
The Blind Side filled me with hope for a better world, and it wasn't presented in a cheesy way either. If only we all actually paid attention to the environment around us, the people we live with and their livelihoods, perhaps the world would be a better place. Perhaps we would all be happier. But instead, we choose to turn a blind eye and be selfish, only taking care of ourselves and our own, and even then, we barely do that. There needs to be more people like Leigh Anne Touhy in the world. I wish I could honestly say I was one of them.

Up in the Air
I keep thinking about this movie and the more I do, the more I understand how sad it truly is. I'm an avid traveler and I totally get the airport buzz... And I really enjoyed the ambiguous ending! Up in the Air is a story about humanity and how deep personal connections truly are essential to our happiness, no matter how individualistic we are. It's a story about finding love but not about looking for it. And it's a story about finding your place in the world, figuring out where you belong in all aspects of your life.

Wow. What a powerful movie! I cried a bunch of times and I don't usually tear up at movies. What really got to me was how real it was, but with no pretensions or exaggerations. You believe in it, like you would a documentary, but it has all the major elements of a movie too. It's like a really good book... it gives you enough material to become involved in their lives but leaves enough to the imagination as well, so you can fill in the blanks with your own thoughts and experience. A must see!

It's A Wonderful Life
I only loved "It's a Wonderful Life" at the end of the movie. The rest of the time, I simply followed the quest for figuring out what's important in life, and understanding how deeply each individual's actions affect the people around us and the environment we live in. We are all interconnected and we need to keep this in mind when we take actions. Lesson learned: People come first, and when you care about people, truly care, they care about you too.

The Sound of Music
Wow. After finally seeing this, I get why people love it so much. The songs are haunting, as are the sights, and though it's a little bit cheesy, you can truly dream along with the characters... each and every one of them. This is storytelling at its best: it had a little bit of everything: love, hope, passion, faith, fate, hate, action, battle... and an ambiguous resolution that says that these kinds of wars always live on.

Lots of stirring images and thoughts on humanity. What is our purpose in life? And will creative works like movies be what helps us figure it out? Only time will tell...

Stay tuned!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

On the Olympic Torch

Today, I had the great pleasure of seeing the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Torch in full flame.

Wait, that doesn't sound nearly exciting enough.


It was very windy, which made it feel very cold, but I was bundled up in some of my favourite winter gear and waited patiently with a big smile on my face... Along with a whole bunch of school kids and quite a few adults, given the 12:49 ETA of the flame.

The atmosphere was electric. The excitement was almost palpable. The kids were chanting eagerly, from the Montreal-favourite "Olé" song to "Go Canada Go!" to their class number, in competition with other classes, of course.

The sponsors, Coca-Cola and RBC, distributed mini-tambourines, flags, and those blow-up noisemakers that have become so common at sporting events and every time a car drove by, whether it was a random commuter or a cop, the crowd became feverish.

Finally, the relay vehicles -which all have cool "Flame 7", "Torch 5", "Relay 4" style license plates - announced that the torch would be showing up in 5 minutes and the crowd-warmer RBC and Coke trucks came by.

Then, someone standing near me yelled out excitedly, "I can see the flame!" And the crowd went wild!

It was such a spectacular moment. Being surrounded by all these strangers, united in our quest to see the flame, to be part of something bigger than us. Hopes and dreams for Canada's success in the upcoming games - and personal achievements too - silently filled the air as we all got our cameras ready and started waving.

And then, I saw his face. I don't know who the first Kirkland torchbearer was, but his face told me everything I needed to know. The pride, the excitement, the joy in his eyes and in his smile was reflected in all of us, young and old. For that one moment, I felt what he felt. For that little bit of time, I felt like an Olympian athlete: proud, excited, accomplished.

And the joy... I don't think anyone could stop smiling. Some people ran after the flame, others stayed and gushed with their friends... My camera battery died due to the cold so I stayed put, but it was worth it. For those quick glimpses of the flame - which at times almost looked like it was going to blow out due to the wind - it was worth it all.

Now, I can really feel the Olympic Spirit. I'm excited, I'm pumped and... I'm going to Vancouver! :D

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Eid Mubarak: The one with the sheep

This week, Muslims around the world celebrated Eid al-Adha, or as I like to call it, "The one with the sheep".

It's a traditional sacrifice story which is shared in all three religions of the book (Christianity, Judaism and Islam). Prophet Ibrahim, or Abraham, is called upon to sacrifice what is most dear to him, in this case, his son. At the ultimate moment, God declares that Abraham has accomplished his duty by his intention to sacrifice his son and replaces said son with a sheep.

And then there was a feast with the sacrificial lamb as the centerpiece.

For more on this, check out The Ismaili's writeup on the Festival of Sacrifice.

For Muslims, this is kind of the Thanksgiving equivalent. Coincidentally, the lunar and solar calendars matched up this year so that Eid al-Adha fell around American Thanksgiving. Now, we've already been through all the gazillions of things I'm thankful for, but in honour of the sheep, here's another:

I am thankful for life. With its ups and downs, confusions, tears and all, there's nothing more precious to me than life. Especially when you truly take the time to enjoy the little things. Oh, and giggle a lot. Which I do. A lot.

On that note... Eid Mubarak, Happy (American) Thanksgiving, and may the Christmas-Hanukkah-Kushiali holiday season begin!

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Just a few bites...

What are you doing this weekend?

It's been a while since I've updated, and because you're all dying to know what I've been up to (and assuming you don't follow me on Twitter), I figured I might as well type up a new post. Especially since I get to start with something tasty!!

  • Cupcake Camp Montreal! You've probably heard of the concept: it's a fundraiser organized entirely by volunteers who use Twitter to get the local community involved in the cause through a fun activity. In this case, cupcakes! Who doesn't like yummy cupcakes? It's too late to sign up to be a baker at this weekend's event (I'm sorry, I procrastinated!), but you can still show up and support this first annual (?) Montreal event. This year's charity is Kids Help Phone, and if you can't show up, you can donate online. The event takes place Nov 22, from 2pm to 4pm at Restaurant Bitoque and $10 gets you through the door with 3 cupcakes and a coffee. And if you need more convincing, check out this awesome animated promo video:

  • On a more personal note, remember my whole H1N1 kick? Yeah, guess who got the flu? It's pretty ironic too! In the evening of Monday, November 9, I learned that Quebec had accelerated its swine flu vaccination programme and I was now eligible to get my shot! I made plans to go the next afternoon but instead woke up with the flu -.- Of course, I can't be sure that it was H1N1, especially since they are no longer testing for it, so I'm going to get vaccinated anyway... just in case.
  • In other news, I booked my flights for the Vancouver Olympics! I really wanted to rack up the Aeroplan miles, but Air Canada just didn't compare to WestJet, so I cut my losses and went with the more flexible, cheaper itinerary. Of course, I would have flown Porter if I could have! I also thought about taking the Canadian train across the Rockies, but as much as I love VIA Rail, I'm pretty sure that that trip is best done with company. Plus, after working away from home for a month, I know I'm just going to want to get to my bedroom, my bed, my space. So flying it is!
  • I've been reading a wonderful book series suggested to me by J.T., the wonderful author behind The H does NOT stand for Habs. I'm sure you've all heard about it by now (I'm kinda late to this game). The first book was called "Outlander" and it's written by Diana Gabaldon. WOW! I can't wait to go to sleep and immerse myself in Jamie and Claire's world! If you're looking for a series that will captivate you like Ken Follet's Pillars of the Earth/World Without End, or even like Harry Potter did way back when, you have got to try this one out. The series is up to seven books with the release of An Echo in the Bone, and so far, it's totally worth it. I'm on book 3, Voyager. Trust me. Twilight doesn't even compare!
  • Apart from that, I've got a whole lot of translations to do thanks to end-of-year budgets. I can't complain! It'll make for a nice chunk of Christmas cash. Speaking of which, I'm almost done my holiday shopping! Are ya jealous?
  • And World Partnership Walk season is almost underway... We've got our first few meetings this weekend and the next. Are you looking for a cause you truly can commit to? What about improving the lives and livelihoods of some of the poorest people in the world by empowering them to invest in sustainable community development? Whether it's in education, health, rural support, civil society, the environment or gender issues, the Aga Khan Development Network does just that. And by volunteering for the World Partnership Walk (or Partnerships in Action walks in the US), you're helping to make a difference in the world. A real difference, since 100% of the funds raised by these walks go directly to supporting Aga Khan Foundation Canada projects, which are non-denominational, by the way. Drop me a line if you want to get involved! Even if you're in another city, I'll hook you up with the right people!

And that's about it for my roundup! Don't forget, you can get more tasty little bites at Cupcake Camp Montreal, tomorrow!

See you there!

Saturday, November 07, 2009

On Linking

I am a sponge. I absorb knowledge and I can't stop sucking it all in, even when I'm full. It's an unquenchable thirst, a never ending search.

People say I post cool links. Whether it's on Twitter, on Facebook or by email, they laugh, cry and wonder along with the variety of stories I help them discover. The truth is, as with anything else in life that is successful, I have a little help from my friends.

I don't find all these stories by myself - I'd never sleep! No, instead I rely on a well-knit network of sources who provide me with the most interesting articles in their niche and other stories that tickle their fancy.

Back in the days before Twitter, I did a lot more link exploring than I do now, but mostly because I wasn't satisfied with just the stories my Facebook friends posted (no offence!). My RSS feeds weren't enough to keep me occupied either. So I browsed Yahoo! News -gotta love their oddities section! - and clicked through Propeller and other sites I stumbled upon through previously linked stories.

But Twitter! Ah, Twitter changed everything! Now I have access to a wealth of stories in all kinds of interesting fields and - dare I say it? - sometimes too many articles to read! I often end up simply browsing before retweeting or Facebook posting, and then I'm forced to awkwardly add a belated comment on the story. (The secret is out!)

Still, I do end up reading everything I post, though certain links sometimes remain on my desktop all day or taunt me annoyingly from a perpetually open browser window.

At least I've evolved from my early Facebook years, when I felt almost compelled to post nearly every story I came across. It's a wonder my friends didn't de-friend me for spamming them with links! (Although in those days I guess they didn't really have to see them if they didn't want to).

I've often thought of turning this obsession into a potentially profitable venture. Why not collect all the cool stories I find and turn my blog into a news wire of sorts? Because then I would be forced to comment on each and every link when some of them deserve nothing more than a "Heh. Interesting." or are posted more for general knowledge than life-enhancing purposes.

Someone recently suggested to me that I might use my link-finding talents while hosting a radio show. Sure, that could be fun. But then the pressure of finding cool, creative and original stories each and every day would definitely take the enjoyment out of it. And who needs all that extra stress?

The fact remains that I post stories because I'm interested in them or because I think people should know about them. It is a truly selfish endeavour, at once feeding my incessant need to know (NOW!) and making me look fairly sociable - not to mention knowledgeable!

So while I have my reasons for retweeting and reposting, I am left with a feeling of emptiness at the end of the day, when my prolific sharing has resulted in no interesting conversations or additional sharing by others. Which is why I always appreciate the "likes" on Facebook... Simple and to the point: it can loosely be translated into a "This is cool, thanks for posting!"

And since I post mostly for me (now that I've gotten over my awkward Facebook adolescence stage), it always warms my heart to hear someone say in a private conversation when I'm starting to think no one is reading: "I really enjoy all the links you post." These comments are always exquisitely timed and give me a renewed enthusiasm for sharing what I think is cool with my little slice of the world.

But I wonder... Why do you post links?

P.S.: You're welcome.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Local TV Matters vs. Stop the TV Tax

Can't decide whether to save local TV or stop the TV tax?

That might be because both sides are broadcasting ambiguous messages.

I think we can all agree that local TV matters. Local news is where we get information about the things, people and institutions that surround us. Local entertainment programming allows talented Canadian individuals to shine, whether it's in front of the camera or behind the scenes. Local TV gives us, the locals, a platform to express our thoughts and ideas about the things that matter to us.

And yet, we can't help but agree with some of the rebuttal from the Stop the TV tax campaign. With the Local TV Matters campaign constantly reminding us of the November 2 deadline to help save local TV, I thought now would be a perfect time to put the arguments from both sides head-to-head.

So here goes.

1. "Why don't cable and satellite providers already pay for local television signals?" & "What is 'Negotiation for Value'?" vs. "Cable companies steal local television signals, then sell them to customers" & "The big networks deserve to be paid for their television signals"

Yes, it's true. Cable and satellite providers don't pay for local TV signals. But this has always been the case, mostly because TV started as an over-the-air broadcast, meaning anyone who was able to capture the signal (Oh hello, bunny ears!) had access to the content. However, most of that content was created locally or at least, somewhere locally across that network. These days, local programming consists mostly of news and current affairs shows, and even that's put together with a national perspective. The rest of the content is purchased from distributors, whether it's documentary, reality TV or entertainment production company. And we've seen an increase in the American-based content being purchased to air on our local stations.

Yes, broadcasters deserve to receive some sort of payment for the content they provide, because it then provides added value to the cable companies that distribute said content. For example, the only channel in Canada where you can catch Dexter is The Movie Network. If Rogers were to have the exclusive carriage of The Movie Network, and Dexter was your favourite show (and assuming you're not one to download TV shows or stream online), you would probably opt for a Rogers cable package instead of the other cable companies' offering.

Cable companies pay for specialty TV stations. Obviously, they must see some value in their investment. Do they not believe that local TV is as valuable? They carry the channels, so clearly, they must think they have some value. And please, don't use the "over-the-air" excuse. Times have changed. All TV signals will be digital only by August 2011, so no one will be able to capture those old analogue signals.

Conclusion: Cable companies get free content from the broadcasters (who pay for theirs) and should pay up.
Cable distributors should have to purchase the rights to carry a station. This would then provide additional funding for local producers and talent to get paid by local stations for producing original content that's relevant to the local community.

2. "Why are Canada's television broadcasters concerned about the future of local television?" & "Why don't broadcasters just invest more in local programming?" vs. "Canada's big networks invest heavily in local programming" & "the new tax will prevent closure of local stations" & "Cable and satellite providers do not believe in local television"

This is a tough one. Both sides are right. Both sides are also wrong.

Canada's television broadcasters already invest heavily in local programming, including Rogers, also a distributor. The problem is that local programming is so much more expensive than ready-made, produced-elsewhere (or nationally) programming: no HR, no production assistants, no insurance fees or crew salaries... The production expenses add up quickly. As for local news? It takes staff to put together the stories you want to hear. All the recent cuts mostly affect local stations, who see their workload remain the same (or sometimes increase!), while having less resources to reach the targets set by their networks. Something's gotta give.

Yet, there is no assurance than any additional fees given to broadcasters will be distributed to local stations. I'm sure it will trickle down in the long run, but on a day-to-day level, nothing's going to change for the hard-working staff in your local newsrooms. There won't be any innovative new programmes. No additional young doc-makers will see their footage to air.

Local broadcasters say they will negotiate with the CRTC exactly how much should be spent where. But if the goal of this fee is to save local TV, shouldn't local TV get all the money? Ah, bureaucracy!

Meanwhile, cable and satellite providers will simply pass on the additional costs to me and to you, the customers. And don't forget the taxes. At least the providers are being honest... They have no intention of actually paying for the local programming, if they're ordered to pay up by the CRTC. They will simply charge us again, which means we will be paying for the same content twice. And they say they truly care about offering us local programming. How underhanded!

Rogers is the only cable provider that is also a broadcaster. Yes, they care about local TV and air regional programming, which makes all of this even more odd, as they might actually save from not having to pay themselves for local TV programming, while all the other providers will pay them for the programming they say they produce anyway. They have nothing to lose! Even after paying for other local stations. If anything, they'd simply break even.

Conclusion: The CRTC must order the fee to be payed directly by the cable and satellite distributors and minutely monitor how the networks invest it in local TV. Do your job and regulate already!
The CRTC should not only order cable and satellite distributors to pay up for local content, they should make it illegal for them to pass this fee along to their customers or hike up their fees without valid reason in order to weasel out of paying for the product they provide. Also, the networks should be forced to spend this new income on local programming and should have to prove it by an annual audit of their financial records, showing that each and every cent collected was actually spent on producing local TV, whether it's on additional crew salaries, purchasing a locally-made documentary, or buying new cameras for the newsroom.

3. "I've noticed in the news that some people have referred to the issue as broadcasters wanting a bailout. Is this true?" & "Why can't broadcasters use the profits from their specialty stations to support local conventional stations?" vs. "Cable and satellite distributors earn billions in profits, but broadcasters are going broke" & "Cable and satellite providers pocket 70% of your bill" & "This is a 'one-time' fee to support local television to help them cope with lower advertising revenues"

First of all, the networks aren't claiming that this is a one-time fee, so you can take that one off your myth list. Nice try, though.

Guess what? Some broadcasters do want a bailout! (ahem, Canwest?). But this has nothing to do with the current discussion, which was a long time coming. Broadcasters are going broke, it's true, and that's a whole other discussion and a complicated one at that. You can't compare public and private broadcasters, for one. CBC's issue is that it doesn't get enough funding and isn't allowed to take advantage of all the advertising opportunities that other networks have. Of course, advertising is not working out so well for the private broadcasters either. Still, a business is a business and as much as media and journalism is important to the proper functioning of a society, you've got to take your responsibilities and own up to your failures. If you can't balance the books, you shouldn't be running a business.

However, the fees paid by the cable and satellite companies would contribute to turning the reds into blacks, and it's only fair to get paid for your work. Advertising alone no longer supports the costs of running a media company, and the free online content customers demand also comes at a cost to the broadcasters. Similarly, specialty stations make enough profit to be self-sustainable and more, but not enough to sustain sister conventional stations. And as always, you've got to consider the administrative costs too.

The cable and satellite companies claim that they're not as rich as the networks would make it seem and make most of their money from other ventures, namely as internet providers. And they charge us, the customers, disproportionately large sums of money for those services too. Sure, less than 6% goes to profits, but they're still taking that claimed 70% off our bills to pay for their expenses. Oh, and that "tiny 1%" profit they make is based on millions of dollars and ends up being not so tiny. They're not the victims here. Neither side is.

Conclusion: Suck it up and stop playing dead. Both of you.
The fact is that the cable television industry is reinventing itself and there will be tough times, especially in a harsh economical climate. The cable and satellite companies are trying to shy away from a change that should have been imposed ages ago, but because of the CRTC's poor understanding of the new face of the industry, they've managed to escape unscathed until now.

This so-called tax isn't a magical solution. It won't fix anything, but it might patch things up enough for local TV to re-invent itself successfully.... if the networks actually commit to it and listen to what the local community wants from its local stations.

Throughout this campaign, Local TV Matters and Stop the TV Tax have acted like rivaling siblings who will pick a fight about anything and everything just because. They're running to mom (aka the CRTC) at every twist and turn, wanting to be proclaimed the winner.

Well, guess what? No one's right, and no one's wrong. Stop bickering and whining and start getting along. The real issue here is mom, who is in serious need of parenting classes.

The CRTC needs to emerge from the dark ages, look around, and realize that the world is different, but that's okay. It needs to come to terms with the past and understand the present so it can properly plan for the future. Hip hop might not be its favourite musical styling, but that's what the kids are into these days. Like a good parent, it needs to accept its children's differences and that their modern world is different from its own experience. The CRTC needs to force the television broadcasters and the cable and satellite providers to work together and create a broadcasting environment that is truly the best for all Canadians.

So let's all agree that local TV matters, and stop the TV tax from being another completely irrelevant and mostly ineffective CRTC decision.

Stay tuned...

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Update on the #H1N1 (aka swine flu) vaccine

Since blogging about the H1N1 vaccine, I have come across several other sources making strong arguments against getting the swine flu vaccine, as well as additional sources debunking those arguments. All this research has made me seriusly re-think my willingness to get inoculated. With all the mixed messages out there, no wonder we're so confused!

Here are some links that you MUST read, no matter which side of the fence you're on (with thanks to my friends who pointed them out):
  • "What's the Danger of Swine Flu Vaccinations?" - Written by Dr. Anders Bruun Laursen for the Centre for Research for Globalization, based in Montreal, QC. The article is dated August 20, 2009, and though I hadn't heard of this centre before, it seems pretty credible, especially when you consider the next article.
Both these articles were written a while ago, so one would hope that changes have been made. However, I don't recall anything about these concerns being addressed by the media (who are supposed to be a trusted source of information for us, asking the questions we cannot ask). At least, not in Canada. has at least tried to address the issue most Canadians are dealing with in this next article:
  • "The vaccination debate: To be jabbed or not", dated October 28, 2009. It looks at both sides of the story, featuring interviews with two doctors who have varying opinions and is a must read for a clear and concise understanding of the main issues in this debate.
Except, of course, it doesn't directly address all of the issues raised in the previously posted two articles. It does, however, point us to the following article:
If you scroll down to the comments, you'll notice people complaining about the squalene in the vaccines. Another commentator then points out that squalene is in olive oil and a bunch of other ingredients we ingest on a daily basis, and produced by our bodies, as explained in this US-based resource on the anthrax vaccine.

Some very smart people read New Scientist... and now I'm more confused than ever. What I would like is an in-depth interview by the CBC (or another similarly trusted broadcaster - seeing how officials react to tough questions is definitely a bonus here) with Canada's chief public health doctor, Dr. David Butler-Jones, should directly address the concerns of Canadians. Namely,

  • What exactly is squalene and in what dosage is it harmful?
  • How is Canada planning to follow-up on the effectiveness of the vaccine (trials, etc)?
  • What about these other toxic substances said to be included in the vaccine?
Who's with me?!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

On H1N1 (aka Swine Flu)

Peter Budaj has swine flu. That's right, even NHLers like the Colorado Avalanche goaltender are at risk.

Will NHL players and staff be getting the H1N1 vaccine?

Although the NHL and other sports leagues are said to be monitoring the situation, they have yet to release any widespread policy on the matter. I assume each NHL team will be following the advice of its doctors. But why should NHLers get the H1N1 vaccine? After all, they don't usually get the seasonal flu shot either.

Here are a few reasons why I think NHL players and staff, and YOU should get the H1N1 vaccine.

  1. It tends to affect otherwise healthy and younger individuals. Like professional hockey players.

  2. It's a pandemic that's spread more easily through close contact and in contained spaces. Like locker rooms, team buses and airplanes.

  3. It can spread pretty rapidly, even through carriers who might not get sick. In the case of an NHL team, think of the thousands of employees who work in a building like the Bell Centre, from hockey staff to administration to concessions to broadcast TV technicians and reporters. That's a lot of people to potentially infect, and they in turn can infect all of their friends and families.

  4. Getting swine flu blows. I have yet to see a comment from someone who's had swine flu recommending for people NOT to get the vaccine. Even the mild cases can leave you bed-ridden for approximately 5 days. As much fun as it can be to play hooky, who wants to be stuck sick in bed for that long?
Heck, even health officials for the Vancouver 2010 Olympics are encouraging all athletes, staff and volunteers to get inoculated!

Yesterday, I posted a story about H1N1 vaccines and prevention on my Facebook page, stating that I am going to get vaccinated as soon as I can (Nov. 23) because I have a chronic illness (asthma). Immediately, comments started pouring in from people from different demographics, discussing why they would or wouldn't be getting the shot.

One has a needle phobia. Understandable. I've gotten used to getting pricked, but for most people, it's no fun. However, she also lives in a dorm. Again, close contact increases the chances of getting infected. Even if your whole network gets vaccinated, they might still be carriers of the disease and you, without the proper antibodies to fight off H1N1, can still get sick.

One family doesn't usually get the seasonal flu shot and won't be getting this one either. Not because it's not effective, really, but mostly because it's just been developed. What about long term side-effects? Medical experts and health officials have confirmed that the H1N1 vaccine is very much like the seasonal flu vaccines and side-effects should be just as limited.

What about Guillain-Barré syndrome? This auto-immune response is said to have caused deaths in the previous round of vaccinations against an influenza similar to H1N1 decades ago. However, the chances of getting Guillain-Barré syndrome are approximately 1 per 100,000, whether or not you actually get vaccinated. Plus, if you've ever been vaccinated against meningitis, which most of us have, you've already taken the risk of developing this disease.

There are reportedly nurses at a Canadian hospital that have refused to get the vaccine. If a case of H1N1 breaks out on their floor, they will all be sent home. Why wouldn't they get vaccinated? It's a personal choice and I'm sure they have their reasons. Still, by not getting inoculated, I feel that they are being irresponsible, putting their patients at risk and reducing the availability of health care professionals in the case of a local pandemic.

One person mentioned that his father is a doctor and has helped him dispel some of the confusion. He always gets his seasonal flu shot and will be getting the H1N1 vaccine as well. The one-in-a-million chance of complications from the vaccine goes head-to-head with a one-in-ten chance of complications from H1N1, he says. As he points out, the vaccine is tested, is safe, and the potential side-effects are minimal compared to the impact of swine flu on your health.

I might not always get my seasonal flu shot, but I always plan to. Even if you don't usually consider getting the seasonal vaccine, you should consider getting the H1N1 vaccine. It's a different strain and it affects different types of people than you'd usually expect. And sure, there's been hype over the numbers of swine flu-related deaths and the pandemic state of the disease. But the fact remains that swine flu is much tougher on your body, even if you are healthy.

Everyone's entitled to their opinion, to be sure, but take the time to research the facts on the vaccine for yourself. Don't just listen to what everyone else is saying. Talk to your doctor, but remember that his or her personal opinion will also affect his/her professional opinion.

Only you can make this decision. It's your life, your future, your well-being. Don't screw up.

Monday, October 26, 2009

On the new #CBC News Network

So, what do you think?

Personally, I like the new CBC News Network, overall. I like the fonts, I like the colours, I like the feel... but.

There is a "but".

I don't like the casual feel of CBC NN.

Let me explain.

I know Jennifer McGuire says that's what Canadians want from CBC. The new jingles? Yes, they're catchy. In a Euro pop kinda way. But some of them dismiss the seriousness of the headlines. They make me feel like I'm watching CNN. And I have many a bone to pick with CNN.

I'm not sure what the point is to having a "news now" block graph in your lower third... Or the CBC logo, for that matter. I miss my transparent bug: it's a much less cluttered look and still does the job branding-wise. There's a reason I'm watching CBC instead of CTV's Canada AM or CP24 (if it were available in Quebec!)

And the scrolling headlines? They no longer scroll! It took a while, but I've gotten used to it. Unfortunately, I find that the information contained in the scrolls is not as complete as it used to be.

The weather lower third is useful, sure, but all day long? At least give us a more relevant forecast like Now, Later, Tonight. Or something along those lines. Not Now, Tuesday and Wednesday. I can get that information online or on the Weather Network.

Speaking of the weather... Pointing to a giant screen (how much did those cost, by the way?) seems ineffective so far. I miss my swirling weather maps, and I bet the meteorologists feel insecure at no longer being in control of the switching. I'm glad they're alternating with the green screen instead of making it all big screen.

I do love the set. I like the clean lines and open space: it matches the crisp fonts and bold wipes. I think some anchors are really embracing the standing up news-telling and it fits them well - especially Carol MacNeil. I'm also glad to hear, via a tweet by Hill reporter Rosemary Barton, that they don't really have to stand if they don't want to. Plus, the anchors are seated when interviewing in-studio guests.

More on the set: I love that Entertainment and Business and all that stuff is now in studio. I like the hits from across the newsroom, but I really do wish the camera was on a tripod instead of handheld. It looks amateur, not trendy.

I don't like seeing a reporter on the big screen behind the anchor. It diminishes the anchor (literally and otherwise!) and is way too CNN for my liking.

I know CBC will be working out the kinks for the next few days -like segment wipes with audio timing - and I hope they take our feedback and truly make it a network for Canadians.

Again, there's a but. I have a big problem with all these changes. As much as I like them (see below for more on that), it puts extra pressure on the already strained local workforce. The local crews not only have to deal with extended 1.5h newscasts, it now also has to put on a nightly newscast. And those will be live, not pre-taped.

And although the extended local newscasts are very repetitive with 3 nearly identical blocks at 5pm, 5:30pm and 6pm, the producers and reporters are still overworked, trying to make the content seem original or putting together multiple versions of the same package. With all the added workload and the smaller workforce, it's no wonder the reporters trip on their words during their live fronts. And yet, there's no added value for the viewers. In fact, we don't even notice. As one of my CBC friends puts it, "It's more work for less people, with a shiny cover put over it to make us all feel better."

But there are some positives:

I like that new stories are introduced on the 2pm newscast. Who needs to hear the same packs all day?
I like repeat in-depth interviews with guests like CBC's Defence specialist Bill Gillespie. Give me more extracts from that and less of this morning's pack.
I like variations on the same story, ie the H1N1 virus/vaccine. Not just the clinics opening and the US story, but also the pregnant couple who needs to find a new pre-natal class.
I like Carol asking a Toronto hospital official if they've over-hyped the pandemic. That's CBC bringing us into the news-making process.
I like Anne-Marie Mediwake as my mid-morning anchor. She looks right at home on the set.
I like the breaking news reporter, even though she's stuck in the newsroom. It adds a different voice to the mix.
I like that Your View or Your Voice or whatever it used to be called is now simply POV. Much easier to remember.
I like the new accompanying websites for The National, Connect with Mark Kelley, World Report, and Politics & Power. They've got great cross-platform integration features.

I love that the anchors now throw to each other between shows. No more awkward "hey, where'd she go?"
I'm in love with the yellow in the fonts. Bright! Happy! A bit of positivity in an often negative news cycle.
I love Colleen Jones' style on the story of the day... She makes it personable and shows us how it relates to us.
I love how well Carol fits in to the redesign. It's like it was made for her.

I still wish CBC would make it easier to find News Network stories online, and put them up there quicker. I can't wait for their "make your own lineup" feature. I hope it's easy to share and doesn't apply exclusively to The National.

I also wish they would cut to developing stories even without tape, especially if they have that breaking news reporter on air instead of one on the scene. If not, make mention of it, and say you're going to follow up on it. A good example? Today's House of Commons climate change flash protest. It was tweeted by a CBC reporter 20 minutes before CBC NN made any mention of it at all. The information wasn't right, but you can safely report the fact that the protest is happening.

And I wish there were more sports... Apart from Jeff Marek's new morning show sports segment, there is barely any sports content throughout the day. I understand that it's not developing news, but neither is entertainment, and at least it would mix it up a bit. It wouldn't be that difficult to put together a template for moving from a recap kind of pack to a preview pack as the day progresses, and hey! Maybe even add in some sports business news, like today's NHL/bankruptcy court action in Phoenix.

And so while I like the new CBC News Network overall, all of these changes haven't really improved news content, have they?

PS: Follow my tweets on this and other topics at

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Only the Lonely

I had an absolutely wonderful weekend.

A bunch of my friends and fellow Habs fans from various places in North America congregated to Montreal so we could all enjoy a couple of days of hockey, friendship and good food.

And it was fabulous. From the tunes on Friday night, to hockey pool picks on Saturday afternoon, to a delicious Italian dinner and, of course, Habs vs. Rangers at the Bell Centre at 7pm, we all had a ball.

And now, I'm sad.

I'm sad because my friends have left town and this city I call home feels a little bit colder now that they're gone. Even on this beautiful sunny Sunday with its crisp autumn air (and winds gusting up to 50km/h!!), I felt lonelier than on those previous bone-chilling, wet, rainy days.

With all the turbulence in my friendships in recent times, from those that ended because of lack of commitment or a misunderstanding, to those that turned out to be less substantial than I thought they were, to the one-sided friendships, and the relationships that have become simply friendships... Well, it's sure been a lot to take in. I have learned a lot, grown from my experience, and am ready to move on.

But having all these wonderful people around for the past couple of days, real friends, who care about you in the good times and the bad, who check up on you even with an email or chat, who only see you once a year yet know you so well...

These are the friendships I cherish the most. These are the friendships I am so blessed to have. These are the friendships that leave a void. These are the friendships that only the lonely know.

(Incidentally, you can read the excellent Habs-related rants and raves of one of my aforementioned friends at The H does NOT stand for Habs).

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

On Indexing

When I decided to change my blog URL, I thought I had it made. I was finally ready to go from the unsophisticated, now defunct to the more professional

"NailaJ" also fit in with my "new" personal online branding as it matched my Twitter and Flickr handles. When I realized that I couldn't change my Flickr URL, I was disappointed, but I didn't think it was that big of a deal.

That's when I discovered the intricacies of search engine indexing.

Though I was always more or less aware of how sites got added to search engines, I forgot to take the lack of indexing into consideration when I switched URLs. I went from having having a respectable minimum amount of incoming traffic daily to almost no blog hits. For the longest time (give or take a week), I couldn't figure out why. (Not that I particularly value accidental 30-second clicks!)

That's when I noticed my keyword stats. Google and Yahoo! were no longer sending users my way (except for a couple of hits from Why? Well, even though I worked hard to establish my blog and presence online, indexing is still a primitive technology and couldn't see that I was still me, just... under another name and in a different place.

All my pride at my blog being the first search result for "Naila Jinnah"? Gone. Now, I've resorted to hoping that people will click on my Twitter feed, look under the bio, and stumble upon my blog, or find me through LinkedIn. It's no longer easy for employers to simply look me up. My social media/online branding credibility? Also greatly reduced.

Hopefully, my online involvement and activities will help boost my worth in Google's eyes and I'll return to my former blog glory... name recognition included.

Stay tuned...

PS: Maisonneuve re-posted my blog "On Hand Washing". How cool is that?

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Giving Thanks

This weekend is Canadian Thanksgiving. Which differs by other Thanksgiving celebrations only by date, as the concept remains the same.

What do I have to give thanks for?

Well, after a tumultuous week that involved a lot of disillusionment in the spheres of love, friendship, and professional advancement, it has been tough for me to smile and laugh as much as I usually do. And the rainy days didn't help.

Still, I have much to be thankful about.

I have a roof over my head, food in my belly, and really, it's not all bad. I don't worry about how I will survive the next day, if I'll still be alive in a month, or if my parents'll get mugged on the way home from work.

I lead a pretty good life, and as much as this past week has been trying, I cannot honestly say that I was ever in danger of not getting through it.

I am disappointed in many ways, but that's just the way the dice rolls. I truly believe that everything in life happens for a reason, and though it is sometimes tough to remember that when one door closes another opens - especially when you're in the thick of it all! - I know that with a little bit of patience, time and understanding, I'll be back to my old self in no time. I'll be more than okay. I'll be fantastic. It'll be great.

So on this weekend when we take the time to be thankful, I would like to count my blessings. Thank you for my home and my family, thank you for true friends and honesty, thank you for warmth and comfort, for the chirping birds, the shinning sun, the rustling leaves and the trees, the wind, the water, the earth and fire. Thank you for the ability to smell, touch, taste, hear and see. Thank you for the opportunities I have, the privileges I have been given, and the gifts I have received that allow me to function the way I do, to be the way I am... thank you for making me "me".

Thanks for making me laugh and smile, thank you for my health and that of those who are important to me. Thank you for the little joys in life, for giggling babies and happy brides, for mind-blowing TV shows and exciting movies, for music that moves you and books that teach as they entertain you. Thanks for my guitar and my piano because they can get me through anything and everything. Thank you for enabling me to see the positive in everything, for the sound that skates make when they cut into the ice, for cheeky monkeys and sneezing pandas, for hissing red squirrels and whispering seashells, the stars in the sky and the clouds that bring rain, new discoveries and getting over pain. Thanks for making the universe as crazily amazing as it is. Thank you for all the other things I can't name...

And most importantly, thank you for the love, hope and inspiration that's a part of my daily life. Thank you for making me see that there's a higher power out there than me. Thank you for hugging me when I need to be comforted, even if it's just by the wind or only in my imagination.

While so many other people in the world suffer, thank you for giving me everything I'll ever need. On this day, and every day, through the good times and the bad, may I always remember how fortunate I truly am.

(And thank you to those who always take the time to read!)

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Vancouver, here I come!

This week, I received some news that had me jumping up and down in my seat. And then on my feet.

This week, I received an automatic email.

It advised me that I had been selected to volunteer for the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Games as an ONS Reporter.


Some of you might know that working the 2010 Games have been a dream of mine since, well, since Canada and Vancouver were announced as its host.

I have been waiting and waiting, checking and double-checking, and not one to leave such an important dream up to fate, I've been applying for straight-up paid jobs with VANOC, trying to get on the broadcast team from the host and domestic side, and all to no avail.

Because it was written in the stars, volunteering was how I would accomplish my 2010 destiny.

Can you tell I'm excited? Even my writing is poetic!

As I await more details on my schedule and other logistics, I will continue to stay up-to-date with the latest on everything 2010. Call it research for my position, which includes getting quotes from athletes, writing bios and briefs and event updates, and all around assisting the Olympic News Service team in getting the info out to the press centres for other journalists and broadcasters to use in their work.

With glowing hearts... Vancouver, here I come!

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

On hand washing

A few days ago, when Canadian children started school, various health officials underlined the importance of proper hygiene in the classroom. These tips and precautions were distributed because of the H1N1 swine flu scare. However, it's probably good advice to follow at all times.

In Kenya, a similar campaign is underway. It's a constant struggle to educate children about the proper hand washing techniques as well as when one should scrub: before meals, after using the washroom, etc. This is especially true for the rural regions of Mombasa, where a water sanitation & hand washing awareness project was implemented.

One of the problems in this situation is the lack of education at home. Parents and other family members don't understand the need for proper hand washing to reduce the spread of disease. Obviously, when your water is scarce and its source is far, washing your hands is the last thing on your mind. It's more important to use water to cook, drink, and of course, feed the animals and water the plants... it's a priority thing. You can't lose your sole source of income to drought.

But drought or no drought, the Coastal Rural Support Programme, funded by the Aga Khan Development Network and run by the Aga Khan Foundation Kenya, strives to educate the children, because that's their way in to the rest of the family. Informal local studies have shown that the kids actually bring home the things they learn at school and tell their parents what's important and why. They get used to a certain standard of living and want to improve their lifestyle at home as well. This applies to prevention as much as to other tough issues, health-related or not.

As the CRSP(K) representatives informed us, the number 1 priority in rural communities is always water. When they visit different villages, the first request they get is water related. However, CRSP is not a service provider. It's a facilitator. Its motto is "Sombeza", which means "boost". This is their goal: Help people help themselves. This is a key principle of AKDN as well.

Fortunately, this programme doesn't require too many resources. In terms of human resources, CRSP is able to train administrators and teachers in the rural schools so that they can take charge of the local initiative and monitor it effectively. The project is sustainable, as most schools have some source of water, whether it's natural or purchased. In order to keep it low cost and effective, schools hang up tubs containing still water off trees in key areas: in the school yard where children eat and right in front of the outdoor bathrooms.

Keep in mind, these are regions where bathrooms consist of latrines, some of which no longer have doors. The school we visited benefited from another CRSP project that saw them build 3 additional so-called VIP latrines per gender, which are wider and have blocks on either side of the hole for easier squatting. This doubled the school's capacity: now boys and girls each have 6 stalls in which they can do their dirty business.

Here's a little perspective: there are 1300 students at this school.

Assuming a 50-50 gender split, that means 650 students for 6 latrines, or 108 people per latrine. Taking into account multiple uses per day and villagers that might wander down to use the facilities, that's a big boost!

*Old latrine*

*New latrine*
The waste from these latrines is contained in a landfill a few steps away and covered with old tin roofs, so there's obviously still a lot of work to be done in terms of proper hygiene and sanitation. And yes, it stinks!

With this school water sanitation project, CRSP has a community-wide impact. Because of the children's persistence in bringing the information they learn at school to their homes, the whole family gains a better understanding of the factors at play. According to the nurses at the regional dispensary, which is conveniently located just across the street, there has been a 50% reduction in water-born illnesses since the water sanitation project was implemented.

This is a battle that is far from over, but washing your hands is a good place to start.

So as we tell our kids in North America to "scrub for 30 seconds and don't forget between your fingers", let's also remember the African children, learning the same lessons, even though they are hundreds of thousands of miles away and living in a different reality.

These are good hygiene principles to have no matter where you live, and it's a shame we don't practice what we preach.

For now, lather, scrub and... stay tuned!

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Taking care of business

A few short business items...

As you may have noticed, I've changed the URL to this blog to better reflect my online brand. I started the transition from starshine_diva to NailaJ a few months ago when I switched my Twitter account name. Now, all my public accounts can be found by searching for "nailaj". The sole exception in the URL game is Flickr, where my display name is now "NailaJ" but my URL remains unchanged at

So please, do update your feeds and take note. My blog is now located at

I've started the process of uploading my 2009 AKFC Awareness Trip pictures to Flickr for easy public viewing. Hopefully, you'll see why I enjoyed Africa so much. Next step, the videos...

... "real" blog posts to follow, I promise! Stay tuned...

Friday, September 04, 2009

Why blogging about Africa is tough

Many of you have been asking me to blog more about my trip to Africa. As you can see, that hasn't happened.

Sure, I've been busy catching up on work. I was out of town again this week too. It's not that I don't want to blog. It's not even that I don't have time to do it.

It would in theory be very simple for me to treat this as any other assignment, look through my notes from each day's visits, select a few explanatory pictures, and put together a short text on what we saw and learned.

But it's so much more than just that. It was an experience. It wasn't so much a cultural shock, at least, it wasn't different than I expected it to be. But the mounds of information we absorbed in the little amount of time we had to absorb it... I know I've said this before, but I haven't sorted it all out yet.

I want to make sure that my blogs are truly reflective of this experience. I want to share the best anecdotes with you, from the personal and the professional sides of this trip. I want to show you the most beautiful or tearful pictures so you can better understand what I mean. I want you to feel like you were right there in Kenya with me.

And until I figure out how to share all of this with all of you, I'd prefer not to post lame little textbook-style descriptions of the projects we visited in Nairobi and Mombasa. I'm not trying to be selfish. I just want to be true to myself, to my fellow tripgoers, to AKFC, and most importantly, to the efforts of all the thousands of people involved in each and every one of those projects, from start to finish.

I hope you can understand... Until then, stay tuned!

Wednesday, August 19, 2009


Ah, the things traveling will do to you! It's a different environment, a different way of life... sometimes a different language and in this case, a different continent and a different worldview!

Coming home from Africa was quite an eye-opener, and I don't mean all the time I spent in the plane or waiting in airports!

The trip as a whole didn't impact me too much while I was there. It was when I came back and compared the reality I was just in with my everyday reality that I realized how fortunate we really are. Then again, there is also poverty here in North America... it's just not as painstakingly obvious.

Here are some of the flashbacks that I noted during my first two days back from Kenya. These are things that happened exactly like in the movies... Someone said something or I saw something that brought me back to my Kenyan experience.

* First and foremost, how weird is it to wake up in your own room, in your own bed, and not knowing where you are? It's very confusing, trust me. It took a good while to remember that I was home... and this didn't happen to me in any of the hotels I stayed in, or ever before!

* When I first brushed my teeth, I felt like something was missing... Water. Or more specifically, a water bottle. In Kenya, as per the travel clinic's orders, I used a water bottle to wet my toothbrush as well as to rinse my mouth after cleaning my teeth.

* More water woes... I'm so used to taking a sip or two of water when I was my face or in the shower. It was very hard for me to remember NOT to do that while I was in Kenya. Again, the travel clinic instilled fears of getting sick from the tap water deep down into my core. Good job!

* What about water pressure? There are places here where your water pressure isn't that great... namely cheap hotels or apartments. Luckily, the hotel was pretty good about strong shower streams, though there were times when the water would randomly stop, and sometimes you had to turn the tap completely to get a decent flow. Some places, even that didn't solve the problem. It made me wonder how people feel clean, especially when you have to wash that red Nairobi soil off the soles of your feet.

* Hey, guess what! I can plug my laptop directly into the wall! Yes, after 2 weeks of using adapters "African-style", as someone put it, it came as a bit of a surprise to me to be able to just plug it in. The "African-style" comment came after the porter helped us with my so-called universal adapter. Unfortunately, all the plugs at the hotel were UK, and my adapter was stuck on Europe. Cheap plastic! After trying to find us a spare adapter somewhere in the hotel, he took one look at mine, grabbed a pen cap, and pressed down the trigger in the top hole before inserting my European adapter into the UK plug. Fantastic! Only in Africa...

* My mom and I were lounging in the backyard when she said something about one of her plant attracting bees. I flashed back to the bee-keeping project we visited in rural Mombasa... I promise to tell you all about it later.

* I went for a drive a couple of days after I got back, or possibly even the day after I got back. I was at a stop sign and trying to figure out what the car opposite to me was going to do: go straight or turn. You know Montreal drivers. They rarely signal, especially on suburban streets! I tried to make eye contact with the driver and it took a few seconds before I understood why I wasn't reading any signals... I was staring at the passenger! Note to self: Drivers sit on the right in North America, not on the left.

I'm sure there were other moments that reminded me of life in Africa, but these are the fun that I noted. Spending time away from your reality also makes you realize what's important to you and what's not. Sorry, Perez. You didn't make the cut!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

It's all coming back to me now

I had been meaning to blog more about Africa earlier, but working Rogers Cup tennis for 7 straight days basically took up all my time. It was eat, work, sleep, and lots of transit. But, I did manage to make some professional gains. It was my first gig as a bug operator for CBC, which means I was responsible for putting the scoreboard and stats in... and updating it too! This means I really needed to understand tennis, and after 4 days of actively watching it, I managed to figure it out :)

But back to the topic of the day: Africa.

I've already given you an overview of the trip, and I do plan on going into more details about some of our visits, but I think it's also important to understand how different the worldview is, or, as it turns out, how similar life in Kenya is to life in Canada.

Things that are the same... but not

* Slowpoke! *

Ya know how when you're driving, and the car in front of you is driving at a snail's pace and you just wish they'd change lanes and let you pass? You're gonna flash your high beams, aren't you? Well, in Kenya, they do that too! It's not a big realization, but it definitely showed me that some things we believe apply only to our culture are actually more universal than we think! And in East Africa, you don't get deer or moose crossings, but cow crossings. One time, our matatu nearly hit a cow to try to get it to cross faster. It wasn't impressed. It moo-ed at us and hit back!

* The stars *

Well, they're not the same because we're in different hemispheres, but they are just as beautiful. The difference is that in North America, you see stars lower on the horizon, while in Kenya, you really have to look straight up. I had a blast hanging out at the outdoor lounge at the Serena Mombasa, lying back and watch these natural gems sparkle. One night, three of us even saw a shooting star! My first confirmed sighting, and what a sight it was!

* Media *

During our visit of the Nation Media Group facilities, I came to a startling realization. The more I listened and looked around, the more I was certain that while the media values, facilities and equipment are the same in Kenya as in North America, the East African newsrooms are evolving at a quicker pace. I believe that's because they're learning from our mistakes and successes. Basically, they're skipping the middle step, the trials and errors we made trying to achieve better quality and smoother content. Kenya is going digital this year. They're not in HD yet, but that's the next step. While here in Canada, we're struggling with upgrading from analog to digital because of the cost of the equipment, East Africans are at a natural equipment-replacement point and are able to purchase high end HD equipment as part of the renewal process. We tried to do it all too fast... We're in HD, but not true HD: True HD means that shooting equipment is HD, Audio is 5.1, transmission is HD, cables/transmitters are HD-capable, receivers and watching equipment are HD... If even one element is in standard definition, it's not HD. In Africa, they love gadgets. It won't be a problem to get people to buy HD TV sets, especially given that most people would probably be getting them as their first sets.

*Gender balance*

Most of the Frigoken factory workers in Nairobi were female. However, this was done by choice, not because of gender bias. Sure, women are detail-oriented and good with veggies, but does that mean they should be the ones assigned to snap the tips off green beans? The reason Frigoken employs mostly women is because this job allows them to provide a secondary income to their families. In some cases, it is the only decent job a woman with relatively little education can get in the city. And they make it easy too... The plant offers a drop-off daycare service in one of the adjoining buildings, and if I understood correctly, it's free! How many North American plants can boast the same? Also, many of the farmers in the village were women, although their husbands may own the plots.

Things that really are different

*The buses*
You've already heard the stories... The matatus run on a completely different system than our North American transit. It's more of a taxi-like system, regulated by the government to some extent in that drivers have to register their vehicles and pay some sort of fee. It's also like taxis because the drivers are absolutely insane. That's where the similarities end, though. Matatus are little white Toyota minivans/SUVs, often covered in all kinds of slogans and celebrity names. The most popular ones? Tupac and Obama buses. The slogans sometimes don't make sense... Why would an East African matatu driver decorate his bus to the theme of the Minnesota Wolverines? (No, not Michigan) Or "The Game"? Matatus decide to patrol specific routes, but pick people up and drop them off anywhere along that road or in that neighbourhood... And at the rate that these buses pass, you can probably get anywhere on time! Sometimes, you could see multiple matatus pulled over alongside the highway, trying to get people on board for the 2 Kenyan Shillings fair, which more or less converts to 2 cents.

*What time is it?*

In Kenya, you really can set your clock to the sun. Every day, without fail, the sun rises between 6:30 and 6:45 and sets between 6:30 and 6:45. It's absolutely amazing! You figure that's how villagers go by their day... So very impressive.

Nairobi vs. Mombasa


Nairobi is like any other metropolis: busy, constantly moving, full of people crowding the streets. In fact, it reminded me a bit of NYC. The only difference, of course, is the predominant skin colour on the downtown streets. But they're all in suits and briefcases, going about their day.


Mombasa, on the other hand, is totally a beach resort... Until you get to the main part of the town. There, you can definitely see the different levels of poverty, which are much more obvious than in the Nairobi outskirts. It's not just the shantytowns... From the moment you leave the Mombasa airport and until you reach the touristy beach resort, you can see the true face of East African poverty.

Those are just some general observations about my trip to Kenya. Next post? Coming home, and realizing how different life truly is from one end to the world to another.

Stay tuned...

Wednesday, August 05, 2009


It truly is a strange situation to wake up wondering where you are. It's even more confusing when you wake up in your own bed with that feeling.

On my first sleep at home after spending about 10 days in Kenya, one could say I needed an adaptation period. The landscape of my room looked pretty unfamiliar too... Though that could be because it was 3:45 AM and I had been more or less awake for 28 hours, traveling from Nairobi to London, London to Toronto, and being interminably delayed in Toronto before finally arriving in Montreal.

Remember the travel delay at the beginning of my trip? The train to Ottawa? Well, I guess it was just fate that my trip should end the same way. Told you it was an omen!

Luckily, the bulk of my trip, from Day 1 to... what day are we today? went more than smoothly. We visited multiple projects a day, spent a lot of time in matatu-like buses, often snoozing because many of the days had scattered schedules that made for not so much eating time. There were times when lunch was at 5pm, and breakfast had been at 7am!

All in all though, it was worth it. More than worth it! I've got loads of pictures and videos to sort through, stories to tell with all the knowledge I accumulated, and I met people, both AKFC Awareness buddies and those aided by the projects, that I will never forget.

It was a lot to take in and I'm not sure I've figured any of it out yet, so I might take a few days to put my thoughts in order. Good thing I took some notes!! The pictures will also be a great memory aid. Hopefully, I'll be able to enlighten you with more details on what we saw and experienced throughout this once-in-a-lifetime journey.

I promise to update soon, so stay tuned...


On a side note, and a very emotional one, the first news story I saw after coming home from Kenya was a report on the death of two men in a helicopter crash in Quebec. One of them was my buddy Hugh Haugland, longtime cameraman for CTV, who was a kind and inspiring person, funny and dedicated, and a mentor to me. I remember him saying he longed to go to Afghanistan, as dangerous stories were his specialty - he covered 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, etc - but was going to respect his family's wishes and stay out of seemingly unavoidable harm's way.

My condolences go out to anyone who ever had the good fortune to hang out with this great guy. It is a sad day for us all.

Hugh, you will be missed.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Karibu: Welcome to Kenya


Talk about an exhausting journey!

After 2x 7.5 hour plane rides and a 4h layover in Heathrow, we finally made it to the Serena Hotel in Nairobi, Kenya at approximately 9:30pm East African time... That's 17h of traveling, folks!

Friday in Ottawa, we had a full day orientation session, which was full of intellectual stimulation. It really got me thinking not only about what my interest in international development and how it compares to those of some younger, more accomplished people taking part in this trip. It also reminded me how much general/historical knowledge I do have, and how much I love learning about this kind of critical thinking about world poverty, etc.

I also realized that I'm pretty blunt on this and other topics, mostly about the real motives behind aid. Maybe it's because I have a more overall approach and I don't believe "it's just altruism" B.S.. Human beings, ultimately, are selfish. It's part of our nature.

I took a lot of other notes on my perceptions of the day and the topic of the day, including some good quotes from the little extract of the Monk debates that we watched, but I think I still need to internalize it all before I'm ready to share. I should also wait until I'm more awake ;)

The plane ride from YOW to Heathrow was great! Megan and I switched up our assigned seating to sit together... and no one sat in the third seat in our block! We were therefore able to stretch our legs out during the long flight, which was definitely helpful. I didn't get much sleep, however, and wasn't even able to sleep during our London layover!

Once we got on our Kenya Airways flight to, you guess it, Kenya, I made myself sleep... and I did, after attempting to watch a movie. I then finished one of the books I had brought along with dinner, then slept some more, then had a snack, and dozed off a bit before landing. I got some great shots of the Alps and of the red Saharan desert from the sky... Gorgeous!

I still need to go through all my pictures though, because you can bet I'm taking a whole lot of them!

The only problem with my flight was sitting behind someone who had her seat back the WHOLE TIME, and next to a man who seemed to be sick and was constantly coughing/wheezing and picking his nose. SO not cool!

Upon arriving in Kenya, Megan (who has been my amazing roommate from Ottawa to Kenya, and is also blogging for her company, AbeBooks) and I checked in, showered, and basically went straight to bed.

Sunday morning, we were up early (1am EDT, which is about 8am EAT). We did the buffet breakfast with the rest of the group, then left for a mini-safari trip to the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, where we saw some orphaned elephants, some warthogs (PUMBA!) and a couple of rhinos. They were absolutely adorable! I was able to get some good pictures and videos, including a few good macro-mode flower shots for my mom :)

We then proceeded to the Giraffe Centre where we obviously saw giraffes. We were also able to feed them, which provided some great pictures too! They were very friendly, with nice long eyelashes and a long tongue... which was actually kind of prickly! It felt as if there was hair on it or something.

Then, instead of going to lunch (which we all really needed!) and then to the Nairobi National Park, we decided to make our way to the Aga Khan University Hospital/School of Nursing because the Aga Khan himself, the Imam of the Ismaili Muslims, was in town for some meetings. We tried to get in through a contact, but weren't able to make it in time. Instead, most of the group lined up on the sidewalk with other Ismailis to await him crossing the street from the Campus to the Hospital, hoping to get a glimpse. A few of us retreated to the Hospital entrance, because we figured that it would provide a better sighting angle, and indeed, it did!

One of the guys in the security team allowed us to stand nearby, and the Aga Khan passed by a mere couple of feet away from us. He seemed happy and much more relaxed than during the millions of Golden Jubilee outings he has been taking part of recently. We were not allowed to take any pictures or videos because of media exclusivity rights, but it was nice to see him and his daughter, Princess Zarah, in such a casual setting.

Finally, after many hours of waiting and pacing and starving, we went back to the hotel for a quick change of clothes and made our way to Nairobi's famous game meat restaurant, Carnivore. It was amazing to see the city at night! During our day trips, we got used to the insane traffic, the crazy passing cars, and the colourful matatu buses. There is a good balance between buildings and green space, and giant billboards border the roads. It is very different from North America, but in many ways, it is the same. Since we already had the general feel of the landscape and were used to the bumps, the night trip was pretty enjoyable.

So was dinner! It started with a delicious soup that was probably a cream of some broccoli-like veggie and lentil. Then came serving after serving of beef sausages, chicken breast, chicken wings (which tasted awesome!), ostrich meatballs, lamb chops... in unlimited amounts! For desert, I chose the Black Magic cake, which was fantastic! It was definitely the best of the choices, at least from the ones I sampled from other people's plates ;) The mocha- flavoured Italian ice cream was a close second though...

Today was the start of another long day, the first official day of our trip. Our 6:45 am wake-up call was just early enough to make our 8am bus for a village outside of Nairobi, where we met with the CEO of Frigoken, whose name currently escapes me, and two guys name Peter, who were part of the regional and farming management team. We drove down tiny slanted dirt roads to make our way to the farm lands, and stood amongst the flowering green bean crops as we got a briefing on the company's structure, activities, and their relationship with the farmers. There was so much information shared with us at this point, so I will need some time to put deeper thoughts together, but what I remember the most is the CEO explaining that Frigoken takes all the risks, and if the crops don't turn out, the farmers don't lose anything. This, and other transparent operating policies, creates what he referred to as a relationship of trustworthiness with the farmers and the villagers.

Each farmer needs to meet a good list of requirements, including easy access to water and land ownership. The trading posts should be no more than a 30 minute walk from the crops/village, they need to respect the principle of fallow farming, and they are not allowed to cultivate more than one 250 meter square plot in order to ensure high quality. Frigoken provides the seeds, training, fertilizers (if needed), organic pesticides and their application, as well as many other resources. One plot/farmer will provide about 20 kilos of green beans, which are then hand-packed into approximately 800 cans, if I remember my numbers correctly.

It was actually quite interesting to hear about the whole process, from the business perspective to the farmer's perspective, and to get a little glimpse of what it's like to live in a small Kenyan village. One Peter actually used to be a farmer in this village... it was his home! He got promoted to centre supervisor, then technical supervisor, and now overseas the activities of 8 centres, or villages!!! Pretty impressive, isn't it?

It wasn't lunch time yet, though we were all getting pretty hungry! Instead, we made our way to the actual Frigoken factory and were guided through the whole plant, from receiving to labelling. Again, there was a lot to absorb in this portion of the trip... and I'm too tired to recall it all! One thing I do remember is that there were a lot of women working in the factory, both in the green bean and butternut squash portions of the plant. That is not a coincidence, but it's also probably not what you might think.

The factory planners, when they were deciding on how they wanted to run the plant at its inception, decided that women would make better labourers because they are hard working and knowledgeable. The idea is also that these women provide a secondary income to their families. They live nearby and walk to work. There are about 20% of permanent workers (mostly women and male factory floor management), and the rest are casual employees who get more work in busy seasons and less when it's calm like now. The farms also employ more women than men, though that's more because of the culture than earning a secondary income. About 85% of the primary farmers are women, though the whole family works on the crops. At the factory, there is a small daycare centre for women who need to bring their kids to work. We were able to visit the space and it's spotless and gorgeously decorated with Kenyan interpretations of typical North American childhood characters like the Teletubbies, Winnie the Pooh and, get this... Bart Simpson!

We finally went to lunch at a great Indian restaurant near a grocery store in the Ukay district - though I initially thought that was UK ;)

Unfortunately, the food was perhaps a bit TOO good and we were all pretty sleepy during our tour of the Aga Khan University Hospital/School of Nursing. It's a fairly small campus, but the hospital definitely had more to offer. Today, unlike when we found ourselves there yesterday, we did not see any medical emergencies. Which was a relief, because they were pretty painful to watch and felt like an intrusion on the patients family's privacy.

After a quick meeting with the head of the Aga Khan Development Network in East Africa, we headed back to the hotel and parted ways. We all needed a good shower after walking in the red dirt roads. They're gorgeous and make me look nice and tanned, but the tiny sand gets a little bit cakey after a while.

I really enjoyed today's drive because it allowed me to see more of the true Kenyan landscape: bidonville-style villages, quick road-side matatu pick ups, all kinds of people walking or running alongside the highway, rickshaw delivery/transport guys going at car-like speeds in the middle of traffic, small tin markets, railroad tracks, the insanely huge Del Monte fields, and some very pretty lakes!

I am pretty well aware that I'm in Africa now, though it took a long long time to sink in. It still doesn't always feel like a different continent, and I believe I'm become quite used to the sounds and sights, and after only 2 days!

I do miss my alone time and my guitar... Even though I don't necessarily play it every day or for that long, I miss being able to reach over and strum a bit. Perhaps what I am really missing is the music... African favourites seem to be old 80s music!

I will post pictures when I have the time to sort through them, which probably won't be for a while. But it'll be worth it just so you can see the Obama matatu buses! :)

Tomorrow, we visit the Nation Media Group and have a briefing with the CEO of Aga Khan Foundation East Africa before heading to the beautiful (or so I hear!) coast city of Mombasa. I can't wait to see the ocean!

Stay tuned...