Friday, 31 December 2010

The best book I read in 2010 !

Ella Maillart - The best travel writer of the 20th century ?

When I was in Delhi in mid November this year, I was thrilled to find a reprint of Ella Maillart's classic,  Turkistan Solo, in Bahrisons bookshop. Compared to modern writers of Central Asia such as Colin Thubron's and his book The Lost Heart of Asia which I found so depressing, Maillart's story is travel writing at its brilliant best. Her eye for detail, minute description of faces, dress, food, customs and landscape, is sheer joy to read. She doesn't dwell on the dirt, the lice, but on the human hearts of people

In this book her journey took place in 1932, long before travelling in Central Asia became fashionable, Ella Maillart travelled to Russian Turkestan, bordered by China, Tibet, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. Her dream was to see the mountains that lay on the fringes of China and the Takla Makan desert. She travelled like a nomad - slowly, by camel and on foot. Setting out from Moscow, she crossed Kyrgyzstan as far as the Tien Shan range (the Celestial Mountains). She climbed the 5,000 metre-high Sari Tor on makeshift skis, explored the legendary cities of Tashkent, Samarkand, Khiva and Bukhara, travelled down the Amu Daria river and crossed, solo, the freezing and hostile wastes of the Kizil Kum, the Desert of Red Sands. Her companions are drawn from both past and present - Mongolian princesses rub shoulders with Trotskyist exiles, whilst pilgrims and dervishes ride alongside emperors and kings. Even today, a trip like this would be considered daring. That Ella Maillart did it, largely alone almost 70 years ago, makes her journey all the more remarkable.

I was fortunate when I lived in Central Asia from 1993-99, to repeat many of her routes in what was then called Turkestan: today's Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan. I was fascinated to read that she had crossed Ak Bel Pass, and reached the source of the Syr Darya river

Naila and I spent time  with a Kyrgyz family near Tash Rabat, a place Elia Maillart passed through on her journey in 1932. I had that strange feeling they were closely related. This was in 1998. Photo Bob McKerrow

But it was not only her travels in modern day Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan that fascinated me, but her journey through Uzbekistan to Tashkent, Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva. It was fascinating to compare my photos with hers and see so many similarities.

Turkestan Solo  is the account of an expedition from the Tien Shan to the Kizil Kum where she spent time with the Kirghiz and Kazakh tribesmen. Talgar peak in the Tienshan range in Kazakhstan: Photo: Bob McKerrow

The quote from Turkestan Solo I love is this one:

 I smile when I think of the vegetarian credo. The Kirghiz feed exclusively on meat and milk.Yet they live long, and like the Esquimaux, are able to put up an astonishing resistance to cold, privation and the fatique of the long treks. To eat as much as possible when one has the chance, so that the unexpected may find one with every reserve stored full, that is the principle on which the camel works.  In unconscious obedience to this rule, I stuff myself daily and put on flesh visibly. I am the terror of Mila who is chatge of our victuals. Either her eyes of her voice  remind me daily : " It's frightful. Ella eats more than the men!"

When she died in early April 1997, Sarah Anderson pays tribute to her.

"To dawdle is my usual fashion, as if I had the whole of eternity before me." This sums up Ella Maillart's approach to travel; she liked travelling slowly, absorbing the culture, and she understood the importance of finding the similarities rather than the differences between people. It was this inquisitiveness which makes her part of the tradition of great women travellers; she had an interest in understanding the how and why of other people's lives, rather more than in straight exploration.

Her photos are brilliant such as this one taken of a woman picking cotton in Uzbekistan in 1932.

Ella Maillart, known as Kini, was born in Geneva in 1903; she was a sickly child until, aged ten, she and her family started to spend the summer months on Lake Geneva. She was entranced by the lake, where she learned to sail, and in 1924 she represented Switzerland as the only woman in single-handed yachting at the Paris Olympics. She was a natural athlete and wrote that "with sailing, hockey, and skiing as main amusements I could bear the boredom of school." Her skiing became so accomplished that between 1931-34 she was a member of the Swiss National Ski Team. A photograph in her autobiography Cruises and Caravans (1942) shows her as the only woman in the Swiss ladies' ski team wearing a skirt.

At 17 she gave up school to study privately, to try to discover what career was calling her. She realised that earning her own living was her only route to independence but envied those who knew what they wanted to do, not having any idea herself. Her private studies failed, but undaunted she embarked on a six-month voyage with another woman along the south coast of France. On her return, her father, a furrier, told her that, as business was bad, she must think further about a career. She decided that the answer to her future lay in turning her life into a continual holiday.

She did various jobs in England and Berlin, where she lived mostly on porridge, and finally got a visa to Russia in 1930, where she studied film in Moscow and learnt to speak fluent Russian. She soon tired of the sedentary life and set off for the Caucasus. An article she wrote on her Caucasus trip was rejected; this did not surprise her as she said "I never nursed the illusion that I could write." She later saw writing as a tool which enabled her to travel, insisting that "I write with my foot.

An Uzbek merchant and his caravan.

She was later persuaded to expand her rejected article, which was published as Parmi La Jeunesse Russe (1932). Turkestan Solo (1934) was the account of an expedition from the Tien Shan to the Kizil Kum where she spent time with the Kirghiz and Kazakh tribesmen. In 1935 she was sent as a special correspondent by the French newspaper Petit Parisien to Manchuria. It was there that she re-encountered Peter Fleming (whom she had previously interviewed in London), who was in China for the Times, and she suggested that they embark together on a 3,500-mile trip west from Peking through the Taklamakan desert and Sin-kiang (at that time closed to foreigners) to Kashmir: a journey which took seven months. In the foreword to his book of the journey News From Tartary (1936) Fleming wrote "I can hardly doubt that you will find her, as I did, a gallant traveller and a good companion."

This belies the inevitable difficulties that two strong-minded people had with their very different approaches to travel. Fleming (photo left) was impatient to get back to England while Ella Maillart, whose book about the trip, Forbidden Journey, was published in 1937, wanted to linger. She was a traveller rather than an explorer, not interested in map-making, but rather in understanding the people among whom she found herself. "I wanted to forget that we had inevitably to return home. I even lost the desire to return, and would have liked the journey to last for the rest of my life."

The Cruel Way (1947) recounts a journey from Geneva to India via Persia and Afghanistan made in 1939 with a friend who was recovering from drug addiction. She spent much of the war in India visiting ashrams and gurus, way ahead of her time, and stayed for some time with Ramana Maharshi in southern India. He cured her of some of her restlessness and she came to the realisation that "the world with its countless aspects cannot give us the fundamental answer: only God can. And God can be met nowhere but in ourselves . . ."

Her travels had always been a search rather than an escape, but after her time in India she achieved a greater serenity. I remember her coming into the Travel Bookshop in London as an old lady, sitting peacefully on the sofa but still exuding an air of curiosity. It was that, combined with a prodigious energy that made her into such a good traveller and an inspiration to women travellers of today. Her aim was "to push the nose of my sailing boat into every creek and to point my skis down every possible gully of the mountain."

In 1949 Maillart became one of the first travellers to the newly opened Nepal and wrote about the people, who reminded her of her native Swiss, in Land of the Sherpas (1955). That was her last travel book but she continued to write occasionally and to lecture and accompany tours abroad.

She retired to a chalet in Chandolin, one of the highest villages in the Swiss Alps, but went on taking tours to far-off places well into her eighties. In her old age she managed to achieve one of her ambitions by going to the South Pacific and aged 83, she went to Tibet on her last major expedition. Three years ago she went to Goa and spent her remaining years reading about India and Indian religions.

Ella Maillart, traveller and writer: born Geneva, Switzerland 20 February 1903; died Chandolin, Switzerland 27 March 1997. For me, she is the greatest travel writer of the 20th Century

My photograph of a woman sitting outside the Ulig Beg Madrasah in Registan square could easily have been taken by her, except for the colour. Photo: Bob McKerrow

Thursday, 30 December 2010

Let's continue to save lives in the New Year.

Visually it was not as impressive as Bondi Rescue or Baywatch, but a group of Red Cross volunteer life savers in Gampaha, Sri Lanka, with a record of saving 250 lives in 2010, impressed me enormously by their feats.

Chandana Priyantha (l) receiving an award for saving 15 lives in 2010.

With the year coming to an end I felt I should write something reflective about volunteers as I spend a lot of my time working with Red Cross volunteers. I stumbled across this quote the other day which inspired me

"Volunteers are the only human beings on the face of the earth who reflect this nation's compassion, unselfish caring, patience, and just plain love for one another,"

Today, 30 December, I was invited as guest of honour to present Awards of Appreciation to 50 plus Red Cross volunteer life savers, who have saved over 250 lives this year in Gampaha district in Sri Lanka..
Sri Lanka Red Cross life savers practicing at Negombo Beach.

Gampaha, the second most populated district in the country with a population of just over 2 million in a land area of 1,387 sq km., has  water hazards everywhere.

The district has many popular beaches, lagoons, rivers and ponds, and the rates of drowning incidents are very high.The lagoon on the west coast provides an area for local fishermen for their livelihood and with it comes many drownings.

The district adjoins Colombo and due to its canal systems and sluice gates in disrepair is prone to heavy flooding, so the trained life savers are used often for for flood rescue. In addition they go into fishing communities and teach water safety to the fishermen and their families. Thousands of people have received this community-based training. Also, part of the water safety programme is educating and training school children to be water proof.

Today it was a special privilge for me to present awards to the two most outstsnding life gurads, one man who saved 16 people and the other 8 people.

Left, presenting an award to  Sudesh  Perera who saved 8 lives in 2010

Due to the high incidence of drowniings noted in 2004,  the Japanese Red Cross sponsored this programme from 2005 for 3 years bringing in expert instructors from Japan to train local instructors. Recently the German Red Cross took over funding the programme which will continue until the end of 2011.
Negombo beach where many lives have been saved by Sri Lanka Red Cross life savers or life guards..

In addition to many other actvities the Red Cross ambulance is another life saving service in Gampaha district.

I was very impressed by these young and higfhly motivated life savers, so my New Year's resolution is to improve my skills in being able to save lives, initially in doing a refresher first aid course, and  improving my water safety skills. I hope you will consider the same. Any why not join your local Red Cross or Red Crescent branch ?


Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Surfing, architecture,and beaches in southern Sri Lanka.

We had almost a week over the Christmas period at 3 different beaches in Southern Sri Lanka, Hikkaduwa, Unawatuna and Bentota and it was a wonderful family holiday. The boys are now 11 and 7 and keen to improve the surfing techniques, so we went to two good surfing beaches, Hikkaduwa for more advanced surfers, and Bentota, a good beach for beginners.

Left. Sunset at Benotata Beach. Photo: Bob McKerrow

Ablai is really into surfing and handled some of the big waves at Hikkaduwa, but was more at home on the more moderate waves at Bentota

Ablai and his surfing instructor at Kikkaduwa.

I have always been fascinated by outrigger canoes or boats. Here is a typical fishing boat in Sri Lanka, a main hull with a flimsy outrigger. Photo: Bob McKerrow.

The family heading for outer waves at Bentota with Naila (l) Ablai (centre) and Mahdi (right}

Mahdi on his boogey board and just loving to ride the waves.

A Close Call: On 21 December, we headed south to Hikkaduwa arriving about 1 p.m.
At 2 pm when we checked the surf the waves were really wild and only one or two locals were braving the thunderous conditions. About 4.30 pm, the waves looked surfable so I thought it would be important for Ablai (11) and me to swim out and get used to the waves that looked huge, but manageable, We had been practicing for two weeks in a local pool to get the arm strength and technique back. We dived through a few huge waves and,=  body surfed in and were starting to feel like getting a board to go out. Slowly something happened, almost inperceptably to the currents and a rip pulled us out like the arm of an invisible octopus was tugging us further and further away from shore.

We were in difficulties. What do you say to al ll year old whose Father was once like a fish in water, but slowing a little ? Do you say “don’t panic.” No ! “ Ablai,” I said, “we’re being pulled out, just tred water and save energy.”
“The waves will take us out, but later they will bring us in.”

I could see three local surfers relishing in the curling waves and flowing through tube like waves. After some minutes one of them noticed we were in difficulty. First Galem came up and said, “ Can I help.” I said, “yes, can you help Ablai to shore.”  I breathed a sigh of relief and being an ex Outward Bound instructor, recalled my words to students, “ You have to learn to push beyond your own self-imposed limitations, and find the real you.” The real me was either a drowned Bob, or a an exhausted water-filled Bob.

This was the type of surf we were experiencing, large waves with a rip pulling us further out to sea.

I was trying to conserve energy but was being pulled further out, but reassured Galem was helping Ablai closer to shore. Next this dreadlocked smiling face surfed up to me and said, “ Do you need help ? ”

My Mother used to teach me Genteelism, so I said ” my right arm is bit painful and I am not swimming as strong as I should, would you be so kind as to help.” First he gave me his lightweight board that acted more like a submarine but together we were able to make ground shorewards. The submerged board acted more like a plough and a few minutes later Sanjay turned up with Nadeem, who had a large surf board. With huge smiles om their faces, they gave me the board. Slowly with a little pulling and pushing from Sanjay and Nadeem, I got to shore

Unawatuna Beach, close to Galle. A wonderful swimming, boating and socialising beach, but not for surfing. Photo: Bob McKerrow

Christmas eve party at Hikkaduwa.

Often we would stop at small fishing communities such as this one close to Galle. Photo: Bob McKerrow

Another superb Geoffrey Bawa designed hotel. We stayed one night at Hotel Serendib which is themed on an 18th century Dutch village by Sri Lanka’s world-famous architect, Geoffrey Bawa.Photo: Bob McKerrow

Geoffrey Bawa is Sri Lanka's most prolific and influential architect. His work has had tremendous impact upon architecture throughout Asia and is unanimously acclaimed by connoisseurs of architecture worldwide. Highly personal in his approach, evoking the pleasures of the senses that go hand in hand with the climate, landscape, and culture of ancient Ceylon, Bawa brings together an appreciation of the Western humanist tradition in architecture with needs and lifestyles of his own country.
Throughout its long and colourful history Sri Lanka has been subjected to strong outside influences from its Indian neighbours, from Arab traders and from European colonists, and it has always succeeded in translating these elements into something new but intrinsically Sri Lankan. Bawa has continued this tradition. His architecture is a subtle blend of modernity and tradition, East and West, formal and picturesque; he has broken down the artificial segregation of inside and outside, building and landscape; he has drawn on tradition to create an architecture that is fitting to its place, and he has also used his vast knowledge of the modern world to create an architecture that is of its time.

So it was a relaxing holiday with many new sights.

On the 26th of December, we joined many other Sri Lankans, observersing a two-minute silence in remebrance of those who died in the Tsunami six years ago.

Saturday, 25 December 2010

Tsunami recovery, six years on

In one hour between 9.25 and 9.27 a.m., the whole of Sri Lanka will pause for two minutes to remember those who died in the Tsunami six years ago. Yesterday I was driving between Hikkaduwa and Bentota, and stopped to look at one of the many tsunami protection walls.

There were thousands of purple flowers growing on the top of this wall and enough for one  in remembrance of every person who died. Let's remember them today and forever.

I have been working since the tsunami struck, first in India, then the  Maldives, Indonesia and now Sri Lanka. The work of the Red Cross is virtually finished except for a few large projects that were delayed by the conflict in Sri Lanka but they should be finished in a few months time. For those wanting to read more about the Tsunami recovery operation I recommend the link below to find out about individual case studies in Sri Lanka and Indonesia.

A Mother and daughter reflect on the tragedy the tsunami brought to their family and village. The scars are still deeply there. Photo: Sri Lanka Red Cross

The Sri Lanka Red Cross Society put this article on their website today:

Sri Lanka today remembered the victims of the 2004 tsunami that killed over 35,000 people all across the country. A nation-wide two minute silence was maintained between 9.25 am to 9.27 am as a mark of respect.

The National Safety Day that is to be held to commemorate tsunami victims was also held in the Jaffna in the Northern part of Sri Lanka attended by Prime Minister D. M. Jayaratne.

Meanwhile the Sri Lanka Red Cross Society (SLRCS) also launched activities in district level and community level to commemorate “National Safety Day”.

These activities were launched with support of Community Based Disaster Risk Management Project funded by International Federation of the Red Cross & Red Crescent Societies.

The Director General of SLRCS, Tissa Abeywickrama said “the Sri Lanka Red Cross Society has been in the forefront of the recovery operation soon after the tsunami. We have been able to build over 35,000 houses in order to restore the lives of the tsunami survivors. Various livelihood programmes were also in place and over millions have benefited from our Tsunami Reconstruction programme, which up to date was the biggest recovery operation of the Red Cross Movement. Even though it did happen 6 years ago we need to remember what we went through, and especially learn from the mistakes of the past so we can face the future better. Today’s programmes are aimed at refreshing our knowledge in disaster risk reduction and keeping our communities safe”.

The activities were held in Ratnapura, Gampaha, Nuwara-Eliya and Matale branches.

Twenty community activities and five branch level activities were held with awareness programme for the general public of the respective areas.

The Head of Delegation of IFRC, Sri Lanka Bob McKerrow said, “I have been working since the tsunami struck, first in India, then the Maldives, Indonesia and now Sri Lanka. The work of the Red Cross is virtually finished except for a few large projects that were delayed by the conflict in Sri Lanka but they should be finished in a few months’ time. We have been in the forefront of helping most vulnerable people of Sri Lanka and we will continue to do so in the years to come”

Meanwhile environmental cleaning programmes were also held in Ratnapura, especially near the Bopath-Ella waterfalls. A search and rescue demonstration was also held targeting the visitors of the waterfall at the premises as well.

Activities will be implemented in CBDRM project areas of the four districts with participation of stakeholders specially District DMC.

 If you like to read more or make a donation to the ongoing work of the Sri Lanka Red Cross, please click below.

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Christmas stories from the New Zealand mountains and Sri Lanka beaches

The traditional northern hemisphere Christmas with snow and reindeers used to seem foreign to me as a child living in New Zealand in the middle of summer and going to the beach after a Christmas lunch. I suppose I have always associated Christmas with two things: the birth of Christ and adventure. As a child it was outdoors, beaches,  a swimming hole and later, I discovered mountaineering. When I was 19, I climbed Malte Brun, an impressive 3000 m rock peak, on Christmas Day, 1967, in the Mount Cook National Park. In the New Zealand mountains I had finally found snow in the middle of a NZ summer.
On the summit of Malte Brun in 1967 with Aoraki Mount Cook in the bcakground. Photo Keith nMcIvor

The following day, Boxing Day, we climbed the high peak of the twin summits of Minarets. I was fortunate to join a team of three crack Dunedin mountaineers, and together we climbed many of the 10,000 foot or 3000 metres peaks in the Mount Cook National Park, and also, Mt. Aspiring, over the years.
In 1967 we were labelled the 'Four Scots' McIvor, McLeod, Cowie and McKerrow. Together, or in pairs, we climbed many of the 3000 metre peaks in NZ, including Mt. Aspiring.
Aoraki Mount Cook on the right and the tasman Glacier between Rod McLeod on the left, and me in the centre. Jim Cowie is on the right. Photo: Keith McIvor

My first ascent of Aoraki Mount Cook, our highest mountain on Christmas Day, 1968. It was a 20 hour climb and probably the best Christmas present of my life, standing on the top on New Zealand.  Read the story of Keith's tragic death attempting to do the first winter ascent of the Caroline face of Mount Cookin 1973. .

Two years later on Christmas day 1970, I climbed Aoraki Mount Cook again, this time by the East Ridge with Chris Timms. Chris later went on to win an Olympic gold medal in sailing.

On Christmas eve 1970, I was working for the Mt. Cook National Park on mountain rescue team. We knocked off about 3 pm that afternoon and were celebrating in the Park workshop. About 7.30 pm a scruffy climber walked in and said, "I have a ski plane booked to fly into the Grand Plateau in a few minutes. My partner hasn’t turned up so I need someone to climb with."

Most of us were glowing with the effects of large quantities of beer and relishing the thought of a relaxing Christmas day the following day. I looked at Chris Timms, with his curly blond locks falling down over his shoulders, and an impish smile, and I was instantly attracted to this odd character, and I said "yes". That was the beginning of a long friendship.

My pack was always packed, ready for rescues so I grabbed it, stuffed a few cans of beer into it, and 30 minutes later we were on the Grand Plateau with Mt Tasman and Cook towering above us. It was 9.00 pm in the evening. We had the last two remaining cans of beer and grabbed 3 hours sleep. We woke shortly after midnight to a starry sky. We wolfed down some breakfast and hit the hard snow at 1 am. Chris Timms was hell bent on doing the East Ridge of Mount Cook. As I stood on the steep knife edge ridge, my feet were not steady. The effects of the beer were still there. I could think of no place better in New Zealand to quickly sober up. ( This is where I took the picture of Chris posted below) I looked at the Caroline Face of Mt.Cook and searched for my friends Mike Browne and Keith Woodford who I knew were attempting the face today.
Chris Timms on the East Ridge of  Aoraki Mount Cook on Christmas day 1970. Photo: Bob McKerrow

Near the top of the ridge where it comes out just below the middle peak, we struck gale force winds and blizzard conditions. The snow and ice stabbed like a driven nail into our faces. For survival, the only options were to dig a snow hole on the summit ridge, and wait until the weather abated, or drop down into the Hooker Valley to Empress Hut. Originally we had planned to zip over the middle and high peaks and back down the Linda Glacier to Plateau Hut.The descent was the most treacherous in my whole climbing career as neither of us had been on this side of the mountain, and we fell a number of times descending what we found out later, was part of the Hooker face. Visibility was almost zero and we fell, staggered, stumbled our way to safety.
I can remember both of us falling onto the bunks in Empress Hut and both rocking with laughter. " Shit Bob, that was close," said Chris. We had clearly diced with death and survived. Chris Timms and and I were to survive many other close shaves in the years ahead, but eventually in 2004, his luck ran out. We walked out down the Hooker Glacier and out to the Hermitage the next day. Chris was such fun to be with as he sang, joked and enjoyed everything around him. While descending the previous day, Chris had ripped the seat out of his long johns and his bum was showing in places, much to the amusement of tourists as we hit the track near the Hermitage. Chris never cared about what people thought and laughed with them. He had an admirable quality of being able to laugh at himself.
Left, Chris Timms after winner a gold medal in the 1984 Olypmics for sailing.

Our Christmas playground as young mountaineers. Haast, Lendenfeld, Tasman and Aoraki Mt. Cook.  Photo: Bob McKerrow

For nearly a decade I spent my Christmases in the New Zealand mountains interspersed with climbs in Ethiopia, Kenya, Borneo and the Himalya.
On the summit of Mt. Kilimananjaro, 1978 ; "As high as the sky" wrote Hemmingway.

 In 1978, when living in Ethiopa, I climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro a few days before Christmas. In 1969  Christmas was spent in the Antartcic, and in 1986, preparing for  a trip to the North Pole in Ely Minnesota.

Many years later, 2010, I still try to do something adventurous over Christmas, so I am in southern Sri Lanka at Hikkaduwa, with my two sons surfing.

Around 4.30 pm, the surf gets bigger and the waves are fantastic. Photo: Bob McKerrow
Ablai catches a good wave and is handling the surf well for an 11 years old.
Ablai eyeing up the rack of surf boards.

Tonight, Christmas eve, there is a big party at the ' A Frame' just 100 metres from our Hotel.  Do you think I will look out of place without dread locks, as most of the local surfers are real cool ? Photo: Bob McKerrow


The Franz Josef Glacier taken from the Fritz range. Photo: Bob McKerrow

Saturday, 18 December 2010

The University of Humanitarian Affairs - Café du Soleil

The bell tolls, 'time for another.'
Recently, Mukesh Kapila, one of our Under Secretary General’s at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies headdquarters in Geneva, sent us an email about a Red Cross Red Crescent Academic Network which links us to appropriate learning institutions around the world. I was dismayed to see my almer mater where I earned my Doctorate in Humanitarian Affairs was not listed i.e. the illustrious Café du Soleil in Petit Saconnex, Geneva.

It was January 1975 when I supped my first beer in the Café du Soleil. It was the middle of winter and snow drifted across the courtyard as I opened the door to a babble of French, thick tobacco smoke and the smell of molten cheese. George Weber, my fellow desk officer who I shared an office  with, first took me to the Cafe. I was 26 years of age and had just started working at the League of Red Cross Societies along the road. I was a Desk Officer in the Disaster Preparedness Bureau. My boss was Tadateru Konoe, Deputy Head of the bureau, and now the President of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

Little did I know that in the following years, this would become my humanitarian university where my tutors included Stanley Mitton a veteran of World War II, Emergency Officer at the World Council of Churches, and Stanisis or Stan as everybody knew him, a Greek, who had grown up in Egypt, and who had been involved in wars and disasters since the Spanish Civil War. Fellow students and faculty included Monica Pejovic, Kingsley Seevaratnam (who already held a doctorate from Sorbonne), George Bolton, Ingrid Langernskiol , Bob Pierpont, Jean-Pierre Robert Tissot, Sverre Kilde, Sven Lampell, Sacha Bondar, Grant Akapov, Jeurgen and Amy Weyand, Chantal Pellaton, Mike Beacon, Karen Ramseyer, Enso Bighinatti, Martin Perret, David Chalfan, Valerie Berta, Bob Rossborough, UNDRO , Thomas Andreasson, Alice Wrinch, Christian Oliver, Henrik Beer, Brian Neldner, LWF, Mohammed Othman-Chande, George Weber, Carl Naucler, Hiroshi Higashuira, Pru Perry, Jurg Vittani, Rene Carrillo and Pierre Burtin.

A photo below taken in the mid 60's , showing many of the regulars at the Cafe du Soliel who worked for the then League of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies: What is remarkable is that Jurg Vittani and Kingsley Seevaratnam had hair for in the early 70's they were both bald as badgers. The famous George Bolton is 5th from the left.
In the 70’s we had staff from the Soviet Union working with us and after many shots of Vodka, and plates of viande sechee, we would settle all the Cold War problems over plates of cold meat and pickles. Mysteriously Sacha Bondar disappeared overnight never to be heard of again. We had to help pack up the things left in his apartment and send them back to Moscow. Grant Akapov, from Georgia, who was the Under Secretary General for health at that time, when questioned rather strongly by me in the Cafe, said "Sacha had to return for urgent work in the USSR."

In 1975, the Café du Soleil was patronised by many local characters, many of them tradesmen. Jacques, the chimney sweep parked his horse and cart, adorned with brushes, poles and bags, right outside tethered to the hitching post. We, a small group from the international humanitarian community, were looked upon as a bit of an oddity. Maurice, the balbulous blue-nosed patron and owner of the Café, tolerated us, as it put money in his till.

Next door was the lecture room – the Café du Commerce. Frequented by two veterans of the Spanish Civil War, an ICRC delegate, Andre Tschiffeli and Charles-André Schusselé of the League. For some unknown reason these two faculty members shunned the Café du Soliel. From these two I received detailed presentations on the application of the Geneva Conventions, lectures on international humanitarian law, the finer nuiances of the Conventions and particular laws applicable in times of war, and the use and misuse of the emblem.. All peppered with stories of the horrors of war, odd interpretations of the Geneva Convention including renaissances by Tschiffeli of a time when German trains full of medical supplies were allowed to cross Switzerland in WW II. But in the event some were full of soldiers. Also, he regailed me with anecdotes of missions to Mozambique, Rhodesia (where 3 ICRC delegates were murdered in 1968) and his negotiations with all the parties to the Vietnam conflict. This was training that no University could provide!

Between the two cafes, I did my night school and learnt the differences in mandates of the various international humanitarian organisations, how to take convoys through check points, the finer details of the use of land mines, what FoB is and how to check a plimosol line, how to distinquish between falciparum and vivax malaria, and that the cheapest planes were Canairs chartered out of Standstead airport in the UK.

The last of a breed of Geneva bistros , Cafe du Soleil is one of the few remaining old bistros in Geneva. It was once very popular for nearby workers at the Red Cross and UN Organizations, but has since seen competition from newer establishments.

.I wasn’t exactly a novice in 1975, having done two years in war-torn Vietnam, led a medical team to Bangladesh at the end of the 1971 Indo-Pakistan war and undertaken post hurricane assistance in Fiji. So ocassionally I had a chance to contribute to the tutorials. But with humanitarian giants like Brian Neldner and Stanley Mitton, who would look over the rims of their half-litre beer glasses (canets) at you letting it be understood that they did not tolerate fools gladly, I learned to make sure my contributions added value.

Institutional Development was always a hot topic for debate over the years and for two decades Kingsley Seevaratnam was the expert in the Cafe on the subject, claiming that our member countries built their own capacities learning from each other, and more than often, visiting experts from Geneva learn from them. George Bolton who spent decades in Africa  (1950s and 60s) teaching first aid and helping national societies build their capacities, was according to Kingsley, 'an exception.'  Nils Gussing, Christoph Meuller and Matthias Schmale continued these debates before, and into the new millenium.

Jurg Vittani, an old disaster relief hand had survived many extremely difficult missions starting with the Korean war. He would regail us with stories. For example, after months living in cold and difficult conditions near the DMZ, he and his colleagues finally flew out to a remote airport in Japan, and having been without women for a long time, and not speaking Japanese, showed the taxi driver in hand drawings, the shape of a women. The taxi drove, and drove and drove past many villages with bars, and finally they arrived at a Budhist temple. Obviously there are some similarities to the shape of a woman and a Budha statue.

The International Rugby Club headquartered across the French-Swiss border in Ferney-Voltaire for whom I played for also met at the Cafe du Soleil, and we had committee meetings there every month. These guys were working for large international business corporations like, Proctor and Gamble, Du Pont, Rolex and many of the multi-nationals that had offices in Geneva.Some of the club members were from the Australian mission and Danny McCaul, impressed by the passion of the Red Cross people in the Cafe, jumped ship and joined us. This group sat in the opposite corner to the humanitarian huddle. Often rugby songs would drown out the dominent French conversation and it was here I learnt ‘In my Liverpool home, ‘The Good Ship Venus’ and other rugby-song classics.

In summer, after a hard day's work, there is nothing better than a beer on the terrace with friends.
Photo: Petr Hlavacek

But as the years passed, my knowledge increased and I had my own experiences in the field. I slowly became a tutor to the next generation of Red Cross recruits.

My hardest mission was in Afghanistan in 1993-96, followed by tough one in central Asia following that. I regularly came to Geneva for high level meetings

In 1993 when I was heading off to Afghanistan, Janet Skeslien Charles started the Geneva Writers Group with about 20 other writers, men and women. In her words “We met at the Café du Soleil, once a month, with a thematic workshop in the morning and a critiquing workshop in the afternoon. The group grew and in 1998 we organized the first Geneva Writers’ Conference, with about 100 participants coming from over ten countries.

Unfortunately, being away for years at a time I never took part in this group, but one of my friends, Denis McClean, later got some sort of literary club underway, and according to Joe Lowry, was hatched in the Café du Soleil, which Denis named GLAS, Geneva Lierary Society.

I did attempt one poem in 1997 after numerous pints, and a number of “trois decis” of La Dole red wine. What it lacks in academic content, it makes up in truth.

Cafe du Soliel

The urinal hasn’t changed since 1975
Except the stained cracks are wider
Here I contemplated the excuses
Before I phoned to say “ I will be late”
Patron Maurice is no more
It’s now chic and commercial
Thank God the furntiure hasn’t changed
But this is my institute
Where I return flushed with emotion
Over the millions we helped
But life, like the urinal
It not always beautiful
And like the porcelain
It is only a veneer
But here I feel home

30 October 1997

In the 90’s I often met my former fellow desk officer, George Weber, who was later Secretary General, at the Café du Soleil. We used to yarn at length ‘ about our times on the Ho Chi Minh trail.' And our experiences with the Swedish au pair girls we met in the 70’s and wondered where they might be today. George and I first worked together in 1973-74 in Vietnam when the joint ICRC/LORCS Indo China operation group was the leading humanitarian force, under Col. Gill, Olaf Stroh and Jean-Pierre Hocké.

During the late 90’s I wrote a book on Afghanistan, and it was in the summer of 1999, I showed George Weber a draft in the courtyard of the cafe, and he looked at it, and saw a few controversial poems I had written, and said, “ If you publish that you’ll be fired.” I did publish it, and George's contract was terminated   later that year. Strange things happen in the Cafe du Soleil. Somehow I have outlived most of them.

I met Umed IBODULLOEV working for the Federation in the Pamir mountains of Tajikistan in 1998 and ten years later I met him in the Cafe. Next to him is Hrant Sahakyan, next to him and Gabrielle Wernli . They all work in the finance department. Photo Bob McKerrow

Strategies, appeals, resolutions have been penned on those aging tables in that cafe, and the paper table mats taken home with cross borders logistics strategies written on them, with blobs of cheese-foudue obscuring words, and those notes often formed the centre piece for the big planning meeting the next day.

I had a number of memorable evening in the Cafe du Soliel with many Japanese friends and colleagues I worked with over the years: Hiroshi Higashuira, Naoki Kokawa, Satoshi Sugai, Yasuo Tanaka, Kentaro Nagazumi, Hiroto Oyama and others whose names escape me.  Most were great singers and there were ocassions where we had sing-a-longs in the corner. The other nation of Red Crossers I really enjoyed meeting in the Cafe were the Norwegians and they could drink enormous quanties of almost any type of alcohol: characters such as Sverre Kilde, Knut Adler Willy Scholtz, Herman Hellander, Terje Lysholm,  Tore Svenning, Ole-Johan Hauge, Trygve Norby, Geir Nedgard, Grazyna Samsel and Oystein Larsen all come to mind with wonderful evenings discussing Fridjof Nansen, Roald Amunsden, whaling, vikings, the Fram and the polar seas. The Irish hardly need to be mentioned as many of them virtually lived there such as Danny McCaul, Tim MacGillaycuddy, Seamus Dunne, Dan Prewitt, Denis McLean, Joe Lowry, Paul Conneally and John Roche.

Chris Lamb a former Australian Ambassador and lawyer held court here most evenings for a decade or more until he retired in 2010. Ably supported by Torre Svenning and Chris Sorek who were known to spend a fair part of their salaries here, Chris Lamb was always ready to give sound advice and guide the new generation of humanitarians and argue with the ones who spoke rubbish.

Robbie Thomson wrote to me saying "six of us attended the reopening of the Cafe in 2002. We were pleased to note that the only visible difference after three weeks of closure was a missing clock and the that the chalk board had been wiped."
Jerry Talbot and Mike Davis  in early 2009. Photo: Bob McKerrow

 It was here in January 2009, I planned the closing down of the Tsunami operation in Indonesia with my then boss, Jerry Talbot. Former bosses such as Sverre Kilde, Bob Pierpont, Enso Bighinatti, Hiroshi Higahiura, Renny Nancholas and Simon Missiri, often would take me to the Cafe to discuss issues that required a more relaxing ambience to pass on good news, sometimes bad news.

Here I drank a farewell pint or two with the legendary Sven Lampell in the mid ninties, coming back from his last field mission at 74 years of age. But beating that age record was Floyd Barnaby who retired this year (2010) after his final mission in Indonesia. Floyd and I met at the Cafe in 1995 and began an evening that probably set another record, getting back to the Hotel at 6.30 a.m. and going directly to the HoD meeting
starting at 8.30 a.m. I was fortunate to be a Floyd's farewell party in Jakarta in June this year.

Writing about the Cafe du Soleil would be incomplete without the mention of Daniel Prewitt,(left) a fascinating Irish-American whose Red Cross career started with the American Red Cross in 1964. A well read and highly knowlegable man, Dan was one of the most tenacious debaters I ever met, and I recall sessions with him in the Cafe getting into very heated arguments. Before joining the Red Cross he was in the US Navy based in Peshawar tracking aircraft in the Soviet Union with sophisticated radar/radio equipment. Dan  was a brilliant raconteur.

The Cafe also served as a psycho social counselling centre as after an incredibly difficult mission in Central Asia in 1999, I remember returning to Geneva for a de-briefing, and on arriving at the HQs around 4 p.m. I was whipped off to the Café by my desk officer Grazyna Samsel and Robbie Thomson, a refugee expert who I worked with Tajikstan.

Tor Planting that amazing Finnish actor, conducted security briefings and de-briefings in the Cafe and I can remember him once drawing maps on a large puddle of spilt beer to illustrate a point.

A dear friend of many of us, Alistair Henley, died last November. I have fond memories being invited by Alistair in 2009 to join Debbie his wife, and Steve Davey, a former Under Secretary General of IFRC and his wife Sheelagh, for drinks on the Café terrace in summer. Below is a photo of Alistair on the right and Jerry Talbot on the left. (Photo: Jason Smith)

Perhaps the warmest and most sincere person I drank with there quite regularly when I was back in Geneva, was Harold Masterson. a man with humour and wisdom in abundance.
His good friend Yasuo Tanaka wrote
" he contributed quite a lot to this academic project as head of field personnel department and a lecturer of "human chemistry " at the Cafe du Soleil University. His lesson on the "sense of humour and culture of friendship" were so much cherished by many colleagues."

Harold is on the left with Bernard Gardiner and Bernard Morinière, all patrons of the Cafe 

Pru Perry-Adams sent me a classic message this week “ Another Alumnus from the C. de Soleil we have remembered is the one and only George Bolton. He and Stan used to go on 'retreats' organized by Fred Schmid in mountain cabins only accessible on skis but the two made sure they could carry whiskey.

Then there was this hairy bloke with a funny accent whose entire French vocabulary consisted of 'encore un canette svp! “
(I think this may have been a veiled reference at me)

I attended many Christmas parties in the Cafe du Soleil and recall in the seventies, le Patron Maurice, wearing his white apron, hanging up the same fading decorations he had been using from at least WW II. So as Christmas approaches, I feel very nostaligic and think of old friends, many who have passed on, with whom I celebrated Christmas and many other forgotten events here.

Recently that old Red Cross campaigner Bernd  Schell recounted the night he was in Geneva and went to the cafe with Alisdiar Gordon-Gibson, Harold Masterson, Hakan Sandblad, Uli Jaspers and Denis McClean and Alistair sang many songs with great gusto and the song Bernd remembered was  'Whiskey in the Jar." Alisdair G-G headed the British Red Cross logistics ERU in the Gurjarat earthquake operation and after a long hard day, I would gather with him and a few other fellow Scots, and have a great sing-a-long.

Opposite the café in the village square stands the rather sombre church with a spire and clock. The bell tolls marking each hour spent drinking and prompts us to look up from our glasses. But it is never long before one of our drinking companions says “just time for another”
 In 1993 when I did my briefing in Geneva for Afghanistan, 
Tricia Baglione had just returned as part of an audit team and explained the difficulties I would be taking over. Sixteen years later I met her in the Cafe. For further information on the Cafe du Soleil, go to their website:

Some time after I posted this article, Chris Lamb sent me two excellent pieces that he remembered.

One of my enduring memories of the Café du Soleil is from a summer afternoon in, I think, 2001.

As was usual, the usual Federation suspects and others of that ilk were sitting outside with a beer or two. We were at the table closest to the footpath, and I was next to the path leading up to the café itself.

Suddenly, we were aroused from the normal torpor of discussion about what was wrong in Geneva and the world by a lot of noise from the street. A van was disgorging its contents – several people including a smartly dressed woman and a cameraman.

They came in, calling out: “Anyone here speak English?”

Gallantly, I said Yes, why?

“We’re from CNN, doing a series on the great restaurants of Europe, and this place is on our list.”

“Good choice. What do you want to know?”

“Why are you all here? What’s so special about this place? It doesn’t exactly look like Paris.”

Camera starts. Heads turn.

“Ah. That’s where you’re wrong. This is the oldest continually operating restaurant in Geneva. It serves the best fondue you’ll find anywhere. It has a great atmosphere, and people come here from the whole world – you can meet people from anywhere, and you can talk about all the things which are important, at any level”.

“Great. Thanks. That’s enough. Bye”.

I don’t know what happened to this great piece of filmography. I never saw the series anywhere, but perhaps CNN realised that the story was too big for them.

Another small memory comes from the time the Café was closed for renovations. I think it must have been about 2006, give or take a year.

A sign went up – closed for 3 months for renovations.

A big sigh all round, so I went next door to the Café du Commerce to ask my ancient friend Le Patron whether he was prepared for new business. It was unlikely that he and Speedy Gonzalez (his right hand man) would cope with the influx. Especially as the Commerce had already earned a solid reputation for being ultra-slow.

Le Patron was unconcerned. “We don’t want those people. They’re foreigners. Our customers are locals”.

“Like me? An Australian?”. He then told me I was a local, so I and my friends were OK, but not “those people”.

So, the Commerce became home for a while, and the influx never materialised. I guess they knew.

3 months later, on 8 August 2005, young Mr Svenning was in town and we learned that the Soleil would re-open after its renovation. It would happen at 8 am on the given day, and we swore to be there for that historic moment.

We arrived early, fearing the worst. What would happen to that timeless ambience we had grown to love?

Our fears were groundless. It was exactly the same. The only clue to anything having been renovated was that the clock on the central pillar next to the cash register was missing, and the blackboard with prices was clean.

We hunted for more clues. There were none. The furniture was the same, the staff too, but it all smelled a little different – then we found the decisive clue – paint flecks on the skirting boards which they hadn’t covered properly when repainting.

On further investigation, we learned that renovation had involved replacing the ceiling above the ground floor so they could have larger numbers upstairs, in greater safety.
Reassured, we started drinking…