Sunday, June 16, 2013

Namibia Keynote, workshop, debate, township

Day 1 – Hello Africa
Missed SA Airways flight, so rerouted through Frankfurt with direct Air Namibia flight to Windhoek. Last here in 2007 for a wonderful holiday camping in the desert, then to the waterholes at Etosha, climbing dunes in the Namib and down the Skeleton coast. This time, was for a keynote, workshop and participant in The Big Debate ate the E-learning Africa Conference.
Met airside at Windhoek and taken through the Diplomatic Channel where a driver was waiting – that’s what I call being met in style. Then off down that long road through scrubland that I remember from my last trip, past the same baboons. After a kip in the hotel I went to a reception where I met my fellow speakers and had a few Windhoek beers.
Day 2 – Keynote & workshop
Gave keynote on mobile learning. Written up in full on PlanB Learning, so won’t repeat. Similarly with workshop on mobile devices and literacy.
Day 3 – The Big Debate
This was a real shindig. A fight to the death on sustainability v innovation. Unusually I was on the side of sustainability. It was a riot – funny, loud and a huge amount of audience participation. We won, but Harold, the chair, for some reason went for a recount and people were so confused, we lost. That’s Africa, someone said!
Day 4 – Katatura Township
Taken out to Katatura Township on the edge of town to visit a school, and amazingly find an empty Sugata Mitra ‘hole-in-the-wall project that was derided by the staff at the school as a waste of time. It was proof, here in Africa, of what I had talked about in The Big Debate, where I had shown evidence that these projects were a waste of time and money. Empty shutters are all that remain, exactly what other else researchers have found elsewhere in India. The dangers of TED-driven ‘feelgood’ projects.
Above the entrance, however, was a more worrying structure. A huge concrete walkway stretched across the site, sued in apartheid days to shoot people who wanted to leave the compound at night. Namibia only gained independence in the early 1990s and the current politicians fought their S African neighbours in a bloody war. I happened to meet someone I knew from S Africa who fought in this very area, bitter about how he was brainwashed by the S African government and given no choice but to fight. It’s a testament to him that he came out with me to the township.

Inside the school I meet some kids, feisty, fashionable girls keen to ask about my wife and kids. They posed for the camera like professionals and were as knowledgeable as any western kid about Facebook and whatsapp. I showed them some photos of snow, as that’s one thing they had never seen. They were brilliant. What Africa does not lack is talented youth. The staff explained that attendance is a real problem, as the kids live so far from the school, so one member of staff, a keen cyclist started a cycling club and the school now provides bikes free of charge. . They had no problems with theft as the community protect what’s good for them. This is the sort of innovation that counts, practical people providing practical solutions.
The township is a vast area that starts with small houses, then turns into tin-shacks made of shiny new corrugated metal. Here people live on the streets, a vibrant self-sustaining community that is visible proof of Monica’s talk from the World Bank about urbanisation being the primary driver for social mobility in Africa. At junctions there are shops from mobile repairs, hairdressers and everything else one can think of. Football games being played in huge dusty patches of ground – football is a religion here, with four local teams. The locals tap into the electricity, share toilets and get on with the business of feeding their families.
We went for an Indian meal and they dropped me back at the hotel where I went straight off for an altogether different experience, dinner at River Crossing. 
On the way out I witnessed an interesting conversation in the car about who one would choose to be colonialists, if one had no choice. There was universal agreement that the French were the worst, whether the Belgians, Germans (Namibia) or British were that much better, who knows. We ‘turned right at the first baboon’ and headed up a dirt track to a lovely lodge atop a hill with views of a fantastic, blood-red, African sunset. Then the starts came out, unfamiliar sights like the Southern Cross but a more familiar huge swathe that is the Milky Way. This final dinner was wonderful. Tales of living in Zanzibar on the beach where the locals buy and internet access codes from staff at the nearby hotel, the fact that Swahili has ten words for farts. Anyone who has lived in Africa for any length of time, seems to have a pocketful of these wonderful tales. Interestingly, he was gay, and thought that Africans were incredibly relaxed about the issue. Next year’s conference is in Uganda….
Day 5 – Pilots, airport and home
At breakfast on the terrace I sat next to the Scottish pilot who was out there doing training for Air Namibia. His French colleague told tales of flying into Angola during the war, of handfuls of diamonds being exchanged. He also told of his problems in Saudi Arabia, when he used to fly the Hadj. Pilgrims would bring up to 20 litres of ‘Holy Water’ on board adding dangerously to the weight. He had to negotiate with the Imam to get it poured out on to the runway.
Still bumped into people at the airport eager to talk about the future, exchanging cards. Look forward to next year in Kampala, Uganda.


Day 1 Shangri-La, Twin Towers
Flying into Kuala Lumpur you can see the palm-oil moncoculture - mile after mile of palm trees. My driver was amazed that I had travelled half way around the world with just hand-luggage, with the greeting ‘You here to party!”. On asking about the palm oil, he was at pains to explain that most young Orang-Utangs die anyway, as sure a sign as any that things are not quite right. But he was far more eager to discuss football. I was back, after 20 years to the Shangri-La hotel, the difference being the fact that KL had become a modrn metropolis, rather than a city of shacks.  A Copse of skyscrapers were visible from my hotel window, including the twin towers of the Petronas building. This is a magnificent piece of architecture, two horizontally ribbed rockets joined by a bridge. Inside, the standard shopping mall but at the back a lovely park.
I was here to give some lectures at a conference, in the university, and a visit to the Malaysian government, so off to dinner with the redoubtable Julie Stone of the University of derby, who do business out here. Walking back past the Beach Bar, famous for its ‘ladyboys’ I was almost pulled in by someone whose grip seemed just a little too strong for a woman.
Day 2 – Lecture to academics
Long day of 14 lectures in a row! Luckily I was up first with a keynote, in which I did my ‘Don’t lecture me!” talk, along with some analysis of MOOCs. At least we had ample opportunity to talk over dinner where Paul Chang (who owns a University) gave a rousing and passionate speech. We did bump into the king when at the base of the Twin Towers. His police bodyguard stopped us but was amazingly friendly, referring to his love of the ‘red team’ – Liverpool. There’s an election going on and the flags are out but the TV and newspapers are full of stories about corruption.
Day 3 – Lecture to students
Off to give a lecture to University students. Again, I pointed towards a future where lectures would be seen as odd (through a lecture). They were attentive and had lots of questions. Then off to the Government quarter with its massive brick buildings, to meet with the skills Minister and a team doing e-learning for the public sector. Rather odd Confucian remark from someone in the car that referred to rape. Then back to the hotel and out for dinner with some of the University of Derby staff.
Day 4 British High Commission
A trip to the British High Commission and was met with what looked like the Green Zone in Baghdad, a double-fenced, barbed-wire affair with metal gates and guards galore. Inside, however, was a lovely chap (embassy staff are always chaps) who proved both knowledgeable and useful.

On the way back to the airport I saw a girl come off her small motorbike. Skidding on the wet surface after a short shower. It was as if she had hit ice. Someone stopped and she was fine but it was at a  junction and she was close to being run over by the traffic. Seemed like a fitting metaphor for what’s happening here as the country hurtles at speed into the future but is bound to hit the skids, whether it be pollution, strife or political instability.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Islay & Jura – sand, sea, sun and whisky

Day 1 - Epic journey
After a 6000 mile journey from Windhoek in Namibia via Johannesburg, arrived at Heathrow to be picked up and driven over 600 miles to Islay in Scotland. I know Scotland and spent many years freezing or bemaoaning the lack of sun and this weather was beyond belief – brilliant sunshine Skirting Glasgow we drove up the never-ending Loch Lomond then round Loch Fyne to Kinnacraig to sunbathe on the quay until the ferry arrived, mouth gaping like a shark, to take us for a further two hour trip to Port Askaig on the blessed isle of Islay. 33 hours in all to arrive at a lovely house just above Bowmore to see friends we’ve known for over 30 years.
Now I’ve seen some sunsets but this crimson ribbon effect was stunning. Island light is infused with reflected light from the sea and big skies. It was ideal for cycling – few cars, fresh air, big sky and lots of wildlife. Islay is bejewelled by a ring of whisky distilleries around its coast in wonderful locations and has an abundance of beaches. My plan is to visit all eight distilleries, cycle around the island, pop across to Jura to travel the length of the island to Orwell’s house.
Day 2 Tuesday
Bruichladdich Distillery was the starting point for our cycle round the Rhinns. Along the coast past the pushmi-pullyu lamas then down to Port where the seals wallowed in the mirror, black water in the sun. Then up the hill and across the moor to a stunning stone circle and down to a beach for lunch.
There’s 33 chapels on the island as it was a crossing point from Ireland, the source of northern Christianity. St Columba stopped off on his way to Iona in 563. They’re mostly ruins, victims of the clearances and reformation but have a lonely melancholy that echoes the monastic tradition from whence they came. Beside some of these churches are celtic, stone crosses, elaborate story-telling devices. These islands, like the Egyptian desert where the monastic tradition first flourished, induce a sense of isolation and piety. You find yourself looking up at the sky, out to sea and across the landscape in a way that is not possible in an urban environment. Then there’s the silence. Cycling here is an absolute joy.
Day 3
Walk out to the American Monument set high on the western cliffs looking out to the site of the ship disaster that led to so many deaths. Goats clung to the cliffs and the views across the sea to Ireland and out to the Atlantic were amazing.
Then south to Ardbeg Distillery for lunch – haggis baked potato, clootie dumplin’ and two whiskies! Whisky lesson 1: Whisky making came from Ireland and was first recorded in Scotland in the late 15th century. Originally distilling took place on farms with the whole process taking place in one location. This is rarely true today.
We sat on the pier watching the still sea in the sun then headed out to a beach, where Tony sat down inches from a set of three Oyster Catcher eggs. Then off to Kildalton church where there’s a celtic cross, curiously with a set of three eggs on the front, representing the Holy Trinity – spooky. When the cross was about to fall over in the 19th century it was excavated and the bodies of two people, who seemed to have suffered the Viking torture of being spread-eagled, were discovered beneath the cross.
On the way back we stopped off at Laphgroig Distillery. Whisky lesson 2:  Barley is soaked for a few days to germinate the seeds and produce the sugars that are converted to alcohol. The barley was spread out across a malting floor and turned many times by hand. It is now done by machine, and rarely at the distillery.
Next up, Lagavukin Distillery. Whisky lesson 3: The germinated malt is paced on a mesh and heated by burning peat. Many distilleries still have the high pagoda roofs that draw the hot air across and through the malted barley. This goes on for two days at 60 degrees until dried.
Then down to the Singing sands for a paddle. If you walk dragging your feet through the sand you can hear it singing – allegedly.
Day 4 Thursday Jura
Ferry across to Jura and a stop at the Jura Distillery and morning coffee (and a black pudding roll) at Antlers. Whisky lesson 4: The detritus is removed from the maltings and used as cattle food, then ground and fed into the ‘mash tun’ with hot water where it is stored so that the maltose, with the help of introduced yeast, can turn into a clear alcoholic liquid.
Then the long drive towards George Orwell’s cottage at Barnhill, almost at the northern tip of the island. We drive as far as we could but still three miles short of Barnhill, so hiked out, with deer in almost constant view, surprising a huge owl when rounding a rock outcrop, then there it was a whitewashed cottage in a valley facing the sea. No one at home, but the very place where 1984 was written. A few days later Edward Snowden was to reveal to the world the extent of illegal US Big Brother surveillance on the citizens of the world – Freedom is Slavery. We walked back, drove back down the east coast and stopped for an Arran Blonde Ale on the way back at the Jura Hotel in the evening sun.
Having stopped to see so many birds, we sped round the rocky headland to catch the last ferry back to Islay, only to see its bridge glide away from behind the quay. By the time we got to the ferry crossing it was well across the channel. We waved, and unbelievably, we saw it stop, reverse, turn and come back! What a great gesture. The captain lowered the ramp, we drove on, only one of three cars on board, and waved our thanks to the bridge. It made our day.
Day 5 Friday
Trips to the Bowmore Distillery that looks west. Whisky lesson 5:  The clear liquid ‘wash’ is then distilled in those pear-shaped copper vessels – pot stills. The liquid is distilled several times and stored in the ‘spirit safe’.
Then to the Bunnahabhain Distillery with its beach and magnificent views of the Paps of Jura, the source of many a bawdy comment. I had a dram here, at 11am, bought a bottle and had a chat with the girl in the shop who had seen two £1999 bottles of whisky sold in the last two weeks. Whisky lesson 6: Water has next to nothing to do with the colour or taste of whisky – much of it is down to the storage in sherry or bourbon casks. Some of the barrels are remade with different components from different barrels and some charred to induce the release of extra flavours.
We laughed at the barrel placed by the side of the road on which was stencilled an arrow and the words ‘Other places’. Then not far to the more workman-like Caol Isla Distillery just along from the ferry terminal. Whisky lesson 7: Whisky is stored for a minimum of three years but more often 10 years and more in constant cool conditions. This is where the casks do their magic and 2% is lost through evapouratin – the Angel’s Share.
Then off on our bikes from Port Charlotte over to the small Kilchoman Distillery, set in the hills, for tea and cake. Whisky lesson 8: A single, single malts is bottled from one cask, a single malt from one batch of casks, a blend from several different whiskies.
Then down to Kilchoman Church with its beautiful 14th C cross celtic cross. Then down to Machlin beach for a lazy lunch. A mile of exquisite beach, almost entirely to ourselves. The rock formations at the south end of the beach show volcanic dykes, hard rock that defies the waves.

Lovely island, lovely people, great for cycling, great for whisky….