Sunday, 30 May 2010

Is truth being buried by the rise of new media ?

I was in Bangkok earlier in the month and saw an editorial in 'The Nation' that provoked me to respond as the writer was criticising those of us who use webs and blogs.

He says, " Rather than bringing us closer together, websites and blogs are bringing more hatred, division and misinformation than ever before."

Speaking at a commencement ceremony in Virginia, Obama - a known user of BlackBerry, as well as Twitter and Flickr - singled out Apple's iPods and iPads for criticism. No, he wasn't cheering one item over another; he was trying to make the point that these high-tech gizmos and applications are straining American democracy.

"With iPods and iPads and X-boxes and PlayStations - none of which I know how to work - information becomes a distraction, a diversion, a form of entertainment, rather than a tool of empowerment, rather than the means of emancipation," Obama said at Hampton University in Virginia. "These are distractions that are putting unnecessary pressure on the country."

It may seem that Obama was being hypocritical, given the fact that he has used such gizmos in his presidential campaign and in his current office. But if we look at his message with an open mind, we can't deny the fact that he has a point.

Obama lamented the spread of social media and blogs, through which "some of the craziest claims can quickly claim traction".

While Obama's message was for American consumption, Thailand and the rest of the world are not immune to this phenomenon.

"We can't stop these changes," he said, "but we can adapt to them. And education is what can allow us to do so. It can fortify you, as it did earlier generations, to meet the tests of your own time."

Thailand has come to know the "changes" that Obama was talking about. However, we can't say wholeheartedly that these changes are for the better. Much of the news about these new technologies, often disseminated through the so-called "new media", are associated with crime, such as theft and pornography, not to mention intrusion into private lives.

Modern telecommunications and Internet technology may make our business transactions faster and allow us access to information at the push of a button - as the makers of these devices claim that they are linking people closer to one another - but in reality they don't make us better people or help us better understand the world we live in.

Too often we confuse information with knowledge. Because we confuse these two very different ideals, there is a tendency to believe almost anything that is posted on the Internet or sent via Twitter. This is a dangerous development.

"With so many voices clamouring for attention on blogs, on cable, on talk radio, it can be difficult at times to sift through it all, to know what to believe, to figure out who's telling the truth and who's not," Obama said.

The users of the so-called "new media" of blogs, Twitter and Websites all operate on "real time" and they cannot and will not wait 24 hours before releasing their information - accurate or not. And so they grab at anything politicians say or do without putting it in a proper context. In other words, it's not hard for the new breed of shameless politicians and others to exploit this reality.

In a traditional newspaper, information is ditched every 24 hours. While this gives the public time to sift out the truth and form considered opinions, it also greatly reduces the free space to spin out lies or half-truths.

While Obama was referring to American society when he said "All of this is not only putting new pressures on you. It is putting new pressures on our country and on our democracy", we cannot deny that the same can be said for many other countries.
In some parts of Asia, where governments are dealing with vicious opposing voices, these new communication platforms have generated more hatred, misinformation and societal division than ever before.

Unfortunately, we can't turn back the clock. We can only, as individuals, employ sound judgement and not be fooled into believing everything that the spin-doctors and bloggers want us to believe.

This should be a lesson to all of us who blog, or communicate on social media, to take this democratic right responsibly, and seriously, to sift the chaff from the wheat, and try to be as accurate as possible in what we write about.

But like everything else in this world, that is easier said than done.

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

114 years of Red Cross experience

L to R. Jerry Talbot. former head of IFRC Asia and Pacific Dept, Alistair Henley, Director, Asia Pacific Zone, IFRC, and Bob McKerrow Head of delegation IFRC, Indonesia. Photo:  Jason Smith

A few weeks back I was in our Asia and Pacific zone office in Kuala Lumpur and met up with Alistair Henley and Jerry Talbot, and at the farewell for Peter Lundberg I spied Jerry and Alistair together. I did some quick calculations and said to Jason Smith our communications expert, "there is at least 114 years experience among the three of us." Jason rushed off and grabbed  his camera, and took this shot.

A little more about these two dedicated Red Cross workers.

Alistair Henley has worked with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies since 1981. He is currently Director, Asia Pacific Zone responsible for managing the IFRC’s operations and general activities in the entire Asia Pacific region from the Zone Office set up in July 2007 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Before that he was Head of the East Asia Regional Delegation based in Beijing from 2003 to 2007. He served as Director of the Development Cooperation Department in Geneva from 1995 to 2000 and Head of the Coordination Department from 2000 to 2003. In these 2 posts he worked with donors to build up support for the Federation’s National Society capacity building goals and longer term programme appeals. This is one of many of Alistair's strengths, his ability to inspire confidence in donors and to negotiate long term funding. When I worked in Afghanistan, Alistair did sterling work in promoting our work and ensuring we got adequate funding.

Between 1989 and 1993 he headed the Regional Delegation for Southern Africa in Harare, and worked as a desk officer in the Asia Pacific and Africa departments of the IFRC (1981 to 1989). He started his Red Cross career with the British Red Cross Society in London (1978-1981).

He holds a Master’s degree in East Asian studies from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. Alistair's grandfather and grandmother were amazing people who worked in what is today's Georgia and Azerbijan from about 1906 up until the collapse of Czarist Russia. He has a stunning collection of his grandparent's photos which is  a real treasure.

Alistair has a encylopedic knowledge of the Red Cross and Red Crescent movement and had the unenviable task in decentralising the leadership of our Asia and Pacific department from Geneva, to Kuala Lumpur, a task he has done with great verve and aplomb.

Jerry Talbot retired on Monday, 31 March 2009, after 42 years uninterrupted service to Red Cross. Jerry Talbot the former special representative to the secretary general for the tsunami operation of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, was an outstanding leader, with excellent vision, who took a long-range perspective on the big things and was able to develop concepts. He focused on people and inspired trust in all he met. He was gifted with a strong intellect and made a huge contribution for over 40 years to global humanity.

Bill Clinton with his arm round Jerry Talbot on the far left, when Clinton visited the Maldives.

Jerry comes from a large family who still farm In Onga Onga in the Hawkes Bay.

Not surprisingly with his farming background, his second assignment for the New Zealand Red Cross in 1969 was taking some bulls for breeding in Western Samoa. I often joked with him that he was an impressive bull-shipper. The year before that,  he spent one year in Vietnam working on livelihoods programmes for displaced people. For 14 years he was Secretary of the New Zealand Red Cross and under his leadership, it developed into a very well functioning organisation. Next he moved to Geneva in 1990 where he became head of the Asia Pacific Region for the IFRC. Jerry is married to Jen, a very lively and intelligent women, and the have three married sons.

During his Red Cross career he spent time helping his sister run the family farm and when possible, he would slip off to a quiet stream or river, where he indulged in fly fishing. There, like on Thoreau's Walden Pond, Jerry would reflect on the troubled world and come back more motivated to change the world.

In January 2005. Jerry moved to the Maldive Islands where the IFRC built thousands of houses, put in new water supplies, restored livelihoods and assisted many thousands of families. One on the greatest tributes to Jerry Talbot is through his leadership and vision on Dhuvaafaru Island in Raa Atoll, where the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) has created new homes for more than 3,700 people who were displaced from their original island after the Indian ocean tsunami struck in 2004.

So that's a bit of a ramble about Alistair and Jerry, (pictured above) two guys I have come to admire greatly over the years.

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Haunting memories from Vietnam

Hòa thượng Thích Quảng Đức was a Vietnamese Mahayana Buddhist monk who burned himself to death at a busy Saigon road intersection on 11 June 1963. Thích Quảng Đức was protesting against the persecution of Buddhists by South Vietnam's Ngô Đình Diệm administration. Photos of his self-immolation were circulated widely across the world and brought attention to the policies of the Diệm regime. Malcolm Browne won a Pulitzer Prize for his iconic photo of the monk's death, as did David Halberstam for his written account. After his death, his body was re-cremated, but his heart remained intact. This was interpreted as a symbol of compassion and led Buddhists to revere him as a bodhisattva, heightening the impact of his death on the public psyche.

I worked in Vietnam throughout 1971 with a Red Cross refugee welfare team in Binh Dinh province, and came back in 1973-74 for a further year working for New Zealand Red Cross IDP team in Pleiku, and saw a huge amount of war, suffering and hardship. Then in 1975, a huge tragedy occured when my best friend, Mac Riding, who replaced me as leader of a New Zealand Red Cross team, was killed when an Air Vietnam was shot down by North Vietnames troops in Pleiku. I travelled from Geneva to Saigon to try and locate the body and left a few days before the fall or liberation of Saigon. Death, destruction, exploitation, maiming, napalm, defoliants such as Agent Orange, are images that stick in my mind.

But of all the images taken during the Vietnam war, two I will never forget. The one of Hòa thượng Thích Quảng Đức, The Buddhist monk who set fire to himself. and Kim Phoc the young Vietnames girl running naked screaming with pain as napalm

The photo of Kim Phoc in the centre, has haunted me for many years.

An article on a BBC website this week brought back a flood of memories of my years in South Vietnam.

In 1971 I worked for the Red Cross for the first time and was right in middle of the South Vietnamese Army and the US forces dropping napalm and agent orange and other defoliants. Scorched jungles and villages fried by napalm and agent orange, are some of the memories that come back to me when I am sleeping.

Kim Phuc, the Vietnamese girl in one of the unforgettable images of the Vietnam War , has been reunited by the BBC with Christopher Wain, the ITN correspondent who helped save her life 38 years ago.

When Chris last saw Kim, she was lying on a hospital bed with first-degree burns to more than half of her body, after a South Vietnamese napalm bomb attack.

It was 8 June 1972 and Chris and his crew had been in Vietnam for seven weeks, covering the conflict for ITN.

I found our reunion much more moving than I'd anticipated... Kim was quite emotionally charged, and that's catching

Christopher Wain

He remembers the day clearly: "That morning we'd arrived at the village of Trang Bang, which had been infiltrated by the North Vietnamese two days earlier. They were dug in, awaiting a counter-attack.

"In the late morning, two vintage Vietnamese bombers started to circle overhead - this wasn't anything unusual, but because we had been into the village we knew something was going wrong."

Many of the villagers had already fled to the shelter of a temple, among them nine-year-old Kim.

"We thought this would be a safe place - but then I saw the plane - it got so close," she remembers.

"I heard the noise of the bombs then suddenly I saw the fire everywhere around me.

"I was terrified and I ran out of the fire. I saw my brother and my cousin. We just kept running. My clothes were burnt off by the fire."

Chris and his crew were about 400m from the point where the four canisters of napalm had exploded.

"There was a blast of heat which felt like someone had opened the door of an oven. Then we saw Kim and the rest of the children. None of them were making any sound at all - until they saw the adults. Then they started to scream."

Lasting memory

A Vietnamese photographer, Nick Ut, was also covering events in South Vietnam that day.

As Kim ran down the road, her arms outstretched and screaming for help, he took what is now seen as one of the most memorable images of the Vietnam War.

She was still running when Chris stopped her and poured water over her, while directing his crew to record the terrible scenes.

Chris helps Kim as the horrific scenes are captured on film

"We were short of film and my cameraman, the late, great Alan Downes, was worried that I was asking him to waste precious film shooting horrific pictures which were too awful to use. My attitude was that we needed to show what it was like, and to their lasting credit, ITN ran the shots."

Nick took Kim to the nearest hospital, the US-run Saigon First Children's Hospital. Shortly afterwards, his photograph and the film footage appeared all over the Western media.

One result was that everyone wanted to know what had happened to the little girl.

It was Chris who found Kim the following Sunday, in a small room at the British hospital.

"I asked a nurse how she was and she said she would die tomorrow," he says. So he got her moved to a specialist plastic surgery hospital, for life-saving treatment.

Kim stayed in hospital for 14 months and went through 17 operations, remaining in constant pain to this day.

Her image became a lasting memory for a generation - but the little girl herself disappeared from public view.

Powerful gift

Then, 10 years later, a journalist from Germany tracked Kim down.

She was at university studying medicine but the Vietnamese government cut short her studies and ordered her back to her village to be filmed and interviewed. She was now a propaganda tool.

Even when she succeeded in resuming her studies, this time in Cuba, she was still expected to fulfil her duties as a "symbol of war".I realised I have a powerful gift... now that I have freedom I can control that picture

Kim Phuc

It was at Havana University that she met Toan, a fellow student from Vietnam. They married and took a honeymoon in Russia, which provided them with a unique opportunity to flee to Canada.

"I heard rumours that a lot of Cuban students stay in Canada on the way back from Moscow, when the plane stops to refuel. By doing this I was finally able to gain my freedom."

Kim settled down to a peaceful and anonymous life in Canada with her husband and two children, but in 1995 she was traced by another journalist and the picture was splashed across the front page of the Toronto Sun.

"I wanted to escape the picture because the more famous it got, the more it cost me my private life. It seemed to me that my picture would not let me go," she says.

However, the realisation came to her she did not have to remain an unwilling victim. The photo was, in fact, a powerful gift that she could use to help promote peace.

"I realised that now that I have freedom and am in a free country, I can take control of that picture," she says.

'Impressive woman'

This idea led her to establish the Kim Phuc Foundation, which provides medical and psychological assistance to child victims of war.

Chris continued with ITN for another three years as defence correspondent, covering amongst other things the Yom Kippur War and the invasion of Cyprus. Later he moved to the BBC.

He retired in 1999 and never expected to see Kim again.

"At the time, it was just another story, though an appalling one. It was certainly the worst thing I ever saw.

"Later, when interest was rekindled, I felt that Kim was being used. That was why 10 years ago I declined a proposed on-screen reunion with her on the Oprah Winfrey Show - it sounded exploitative."

Now, having met Kim, he's changed his mind, and no longer thinks of her as a victim of that picture.

"Despite everything that has happened to her, and all she's endured, she's become a very impressive woman."

Thanks to the BBC for permission to reproduce the story on Kim Phuc and Christopher Wain.

Sunday, 23 May 2010

It's "Piss Poor !" and "I am Dirt Poor."

How many times did I hear that as a boy, or when a teenager the expression,  "Piss Poor". Where did the saying come from?

Here are some facts starting about  1500 AD.

They used to use urine to tan animal skins, so families used to all pee in a pot and; then once a day it was taken and sold to the tannery....... if you had to do this to survive you were "Piss Poor".

But worse than that were the really poor folk who couldn't even afford to buy a pot...........they "didn't have a pot to piss in" and were the lowest of the low.

Most people got married in June because they took their yearly bath in May, and they still smelled pretty good by June.

However,since they were starting to smell . .. .brides carried a bouquet of flowers to hide the body odor. Hence the custom today of carrying a  bouquet when getting married.

Baths consisted of a big tub filled with hot water. The man of the house had the privilege of the nice clean water, then all the other sons and men, then the women and finally the children. Last of all the babies. By then the water was so dirty you could actually lose someone in it.

Hence the saying, "Don't throw the baby out with the Bath water!"

Houses had thatched roofs-thick straw-piled high, with no ceiling underneath. It was the only place for animals to get warm, so all the cats and other small animals (mice, bugs) lived in the roof.

When it rained it became slippery and sometimes the animals would slip and fall off the roof. Hence the saying "It's raining cats and dogs."

There was nothing to stop things from falling into the house.

This posed a real problem in the bedroom where bugs and other droppings could mess up your nice clean bed.
Hence, a bed with big posts and a sheet hung over the top afforded some
protection. That's how canopy beds came into existence.

The floor was dirt.  Only the wealthy had something other than dirt.

Hence the saying, "Dirt poor."

The wealthy had slate floors that would get slippery in the winter when wet, so they spread thresh (straw) on floor to help keep their footing.

As the winter wore on, they added more thresh until, when you opened the door, it would all start slipping outside. A piece of wood was placed in the entrance-way.

Hence: a thresh hold.

(Getting quite an education, aren't you?)

In those old days, they cooked in the kitchen with a big kettle that always hung over the fire.

Every day they lit the fire and added things to the pot. They ate mostly vegetables and did not get much meat. They would eat the stew for dinner, leaving leftovers in the pot to get cold overnight and then start over the next day.

Sometimes stew had food in it that had been there for quite a while.

Hence the rhyme: Peas porridge hot, peas porridge cold, peas porridge in the pot nine days old.

Sometimes they could obtain pork, which made them feel quite special.

When visitors came over, they would hang up their bacon to show off. It
was a sign of wealth that a man could, "bring home the bacon."

They would cut off a little to share with guests and would all sit around and chew the fat.

Those with money had plates made of pewter. Food with high acid content caused some of the lead to leach onto the food, causing lead poisoning death. This happened most often with tomatoes, so for the next 400 years or so, tomatoes were considered poisonous.

Bread was divided according to status. Workers got the burnt bottom of the loaf, the family got the middle, and guests got the top, or the
upper crust.

Lead cups were used to drink ale or whiskey. The combination would sometimes knock the imbibers out for a couple of days. Someone walking along the road would take them for dead and prepare them for burial.

They were laid out on the kitchen table for a couple of days and the family would gather around and eat and drink and wait and see if they would wake up.

Hence the custom of holding a wake.

England is old and small and the local folks started running out of places to bury people.

So they would dig up coffins and would take the bones to a bone-house, and reuse the grave. When reopening these coffins, 1 out of 25 coffinswere found to have scratch marks on the inside and they realized they had been burying people alive. So they would tie a string on the wrist of  the corpse, lead it through the coffin and up through the ground and tie it to a bell.

Someone would have to sit out in the graveyard all night (the graveyard shift.) to listen for the bell; thus, someone could be, saved by the bell or was considered a dead ringer...

And that's the truth...

OK, you may thing it's a piss poor attempt but I tried.

Now, whoever said History was boring ! ! !

Monday, 17 May 2010

Total knee replacements - 18 months on

Eighteen months ago, on 18 November 2008, I had total knee replacements on both legs. In other words, I got both knees replaced at the same time. What a difference it has made to my life ! Simply amazing.
Last Saturday I was at the opening of the Indonesian Red Cross national water and sanitation complex near Bandung, and I was on the stage dancing. (see photo above) I can now dance all night, walk 10 km easily before work each day, climb stairs and clamber up volcanoes. I am even able to jog a little but I have been advised that is not recommended.

In the New Zealand bush near Kahanui, in the Bay of Plenty in July 2009, eight months after the operation. That day I walked 15 km up and down river valleys and small hills. Photo: Tania McKerrow

I can recommend total knee replacements for anyone who is suffering from accute pain in worn out knees. Before the operation I was in so much pain, I could not stand for more than 10 minutes before the pain became excruiating. My legs were badly bowed and I hobbled. Now I stride along with straight legs, dtright back, a twinkle in my eye. My whole attitude has changed.

I am grateful to Ed Newman, a leading orthopaedic surgeon from Christchurch, New Zealand pictured above, marking my legs to guide him and the computer assisted technology during the operation. Photo: Ruia McKerrow

My old knees were replaced with Stryker Orthopaedics, Triathlon Knee System, pictured above.

No knee opereation is perfect. With me the Stryker Orthopaedics, Triathlon Knee Systems are mechanically sound and my right knee is perfect. The left knee is a bit sticky on the inside of the knee and at times painful. as something is catching. When I was back in New Zealand late in February this year, I got X Rays taken and visited Ed Newman my surgeon. Ed was delighted with the progress I had made and felt I was walking as good as anyone he had seen. When I explained to him about something in the left knee not being right, he said it takes 3 or 4 years to fully recover from the operation. "Imagine, I cut through all that flesh, muscle, tendons, nerves, viens etc., and disturb everything, put in an artificial knee, so you must realise it takes time for everything to settle down and fully recover.

What advice do I have to anyone considering having the operation ?

1. Get yourself fit for the operation. Make sure the muscles in your legs are strong. I did a lot of stationery cycling and exercises prescribed by the surgeon.

2. Get yourself well set up at home or where ever you are going to recover, and ensure you have a raised toilet seat and a shower hose to wash yourself. I was fortunate as I stayed with my daughter Ruia, who is a nurse, and looked after me so well.

3. In the weeks following the operation, listen carefully to the physios as you need to get movement back in your knees as quickly as possible. They will push you from the first day and it will be painful, but you must concentrate on gradually getting a 90 degree bend in the knee, and slowly extend it in excess of 110 degrees.

4. See a top physiotherapist for as long as necessary. My last appointment with Leslie Kettle in Christchurch, was after 7 weeks. After one month, she put me on and Exercycle for 5 minutes and this was a wonderful exercise that helped me get maximum flexibility in my knees.

5. Don't overdo it. After being discharged from hospital after 9 days, I built up over the first two weeks, walking one km twice a day, After a month, I increased that a little plus extra short walks and all the prescribed flexibility/stretching exercises. After 6 weeks I was walking at least 2 km,  2 to 3 times a day.

6. Don't carry any heavy loads in the first three months.

7. From month 2 onwards, I mixed cycling with walking. Say 3km of walking, and 2 km of cycling.

At one stage after about four and a half months, I increased my walking up to 10 km for a week, but then eased off as I realised that these new knees have limited life, so I eased back to a maximum of 8 km a day. Now I average 8 to 10 km a day and if I need to do a strenuous walk in the hills, I will push it to 15 km.

8. Massage your knees regularly to help circulation and perhaps it helps the nerves to grow and bring back feeling. Even after 18 months I do not have full feeling in my knees, but the feeling is slowly coming back.

As soon as I was well enough, I had a small party for friends in Christchuch, and friends passing through.Front row l to r: Bob Headland, Robin Judkins and Bob McKerrow. Back row: Ed Cotter, Suzanne and Phil Ryder, Tara Kloss and Colin Monteath Photo: Robb Kloss. Enjoy your recovery and share it with friends and family.

9.  It is a major operation. Develop a positive attitude. Set small targets and make sure you attain them. In the early and dark days when you are struggling to take ten steps, visualise yourself walking freely across grassy meadows without pain. Even now, I visualise me climbing a mountain in a years time.

10. And then there was the step counter I bought in late January 2009 in Singapore. I average a minimu of 10,000 steps a day. That has kept me competing against the counter and the weight continues to come off.

11. Try and develop an improved walking style. Before the operation I was bow legged, and a little stooped. The new knees straighten your legs and give you good lower body posture. Improve your posture by straightening your back, pull your shoulders back and regain the walking style of your youth.

So pluck up the courage, and go and see a good orthopaedic surgeon, and get your knees checked. The operation will change your life positively for the rest of your life. As Ed Hillar said, "Nothing ventured, nothing gained."

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Dispatches from Bangkok. Challenges in a Mega City !

Early morning in Sukhumvit Road Bangkok

After being in Kuala Lumpur for 4 days last week, Jakarta for the weekend and now in Bangkok, it is such a joy to be in this vibrant and hospitable city.

Bangkok is one of my favourite cities, having first visited in March 1975.
This morning I went for a walk. Here is my dispatch:

At first light I head out of my hotel on Soi 5, Sukhumvit. I had only gone 50 metres when I saw three heavily armed soldiers, chatting peacefully to locals. One is drinking a cup of coffee. A tourist with a camera, quietly creeps closer to soldiers, and snaps a picture. Our security instructions tell us not to turn right as the stand-off between the anti-Govt Red Shirts and Govt are taking place not far away. On May 8 two Thai policemen were killed and 13 wounded in a gun and grenade attacks. The headlines in the papers this morning announce that the PM has told the Reds to leave today. I hope we don’t see more clashes in this usually peaceful city, but I have a feeling it will come to a head in the next 24 hours.

The traffic builds up early morning on Sukhumvit Road, Bangkok

I go onto Sukhumvit Road and walk by the entrance to Nana Station and head down towards Asok. First I thread my way through the sidewalk clothing market, next my nostrils are filled with spice-filled clouds of smoke billowing from barbecues cooking chicken, fish and other tasty looking morsels. The street is beginning to fill with people walking elegantly to work.

A young lady comes up to me and asks if I want a massage. I say no, but she persists, and puts her arm round my waist. I politely remove her arm and she goes away. It is just after 6 a.m.

There are more buskers and beggars on the streets than I recall on my last visit in 2009.

Foodstalls on the pavement serve delicious food.

Before the Westin hotel I am engulfed in more clouds of smoke coming from a bevy of people cooking breakfast on barbecues. I pass Asok station and turn left into Asok Road. A Monk in saffron robes has a bowl in his outstretched arms waiting for food. A Nun, 20 metres away, in a drab grey robe is also asking for food.

Suddenly I am in the midst of the fruit and vegetable market, where exotic mouth-watering fruits bunch, hang and attract. The jostling worsens as more the shoppers tangle with workers hurrying to offices and factories. Clangs, slams and crashes come from adjacent building sites. It's a busy city.

I am attracted by a sign outside an unusual building, and it reads 'Siam Culture Centre by Royal Appointment.' As opening hours were 9 a.m., I am not allowed in.

Outdoor side walk cafes serve food to hungry workers and beside, butchers chop meat, bakers roll dough and cooks stir huge woks.

A ticket seller on the roadside.

After a few kms, I retrace my steps back Soi 5 and go through the alley which connects to Soi 3. Three north African women, dressed in burhka and veils charge towards me like a rugby front row and I step aside. Men in long white robes and colourful head scarves and turbans drink coffee in small cafes. Many of the signs are in Arabic and most of the people are from the Middle east and North Africa.

A small flower market in Sukhumvit.

My early morning walk in Sukhumvit is over, and I go back to the hotel to prepare for the day. The second day of a conference of  preparing for our Red Cross programmes in South East Asia.

With troops and opposition factions at a standoff just down the road from my hotel, an increasingly polluted city, the water in the shower in the hotel a brownish colour and the jostling of people for space shows yet again that the escalating human vulnerability is among the many challenges facing people in cities and other densely populated areas around the globe. Yet the urban way of life also presents enormous opportunities and can serve as an engine of social inclusion, cultural expression, diversity and economic growth. But the challenges for the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement are many.

Violence, poverty, food shortages, insufficient health care, (including a shortage of safe blood) inadequate access to water and sanitation are just some of the challenges facing city politicians, administrators and the Red Cross in these mega cities.

For the first time, more than 50% of the world’s population is living in urban areas, a figure that is forecast to rise to more than 60% in 2030. Cities in the developing world are expected to account for 95% of urban growth over the next two decades.

Last Saturday (May 8) in a small community in South Jakarta, I celebrated World Red Cross and Red Crescent Day, with the Jakarta Chapter of the Indonesian Red Cross (PMI). We focussed attention on both the challenges and opportunities presented by urbanization. All around the world, National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies are working with city leaders and civil society to address urban challenges by aiming at their root causes. They focus on promoting diversity, opposing discrimination, and joining in efforts to provide decent social services –including the high quality of blood donor service-- and to ensure that adequate protection, preventive health-care, education and disaster risk reduction measures are taken. Red Cross Red Crescent volunteers are at the heart of the Movement's endeavours to strengthen urban communities.

The community we celebrated World Red Cross day  in South Jakarta are doing something about the urban challenges. One Red Cross volunteer had given up her home for the weekend and converted it  into a blood donor centre where over a hundred people gave blood for local hospitals, where there is always a shortage. A village drama team enacted a drama about climate change and the need to protect the environment. Hundreds of school children and their parents watched and learned.

I was proud that my organisation, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in Indonesia,  continues to support PMI to address these urban challenges, for instance undertaking integrated community based risk reduction (ICBRR) in four large villages in West and East Jakarta, as well as supporting the PMI on its Human Pandemic Preparedness (H2P) programme.

We are also supporting the PMI in the scaling up their blood programme nation-wide. The lack of safe blood is a problem in many densely populated areas around the world

So my walk through Bangkok this morning exposed to me the good and bad of incrreasing urbanisation. We must unite and work to improve the quality of life in Asia's mega-cities, or we will see increasing poverty, marginalization of certain sectors, and more violence.

Monday, 3 May 2010

Living in airports !

The airport is my home. Over the last ten years I seem to have spent more time in airports, flying, hotels, guest houses, than I have in my own home. I am writing this in the J J Royal café at the Jakarta airport. It is the only smoking café at the airport. I don’t like smoking, but the only places I find people chatting noisily, belly laughing and generally having fun, is in smoking lounges at airports. I find it worth shortening my life by a few years inhaling their smoke, while imbibing their laughter and joy. You need to find boredom breakers when you travel.

One of the best bars at Singapore airport is a smoking lounge that doubles up as an Irish pub. Similarly, Hard Rock café in Singapore airport is relaxing too. I didn’t set out to write an article on the best bars in Asia, but I suppose I pick up a lot of knowledge as I tred the weary path.

The water supplies we put in villages have a huge impact on the health of everyone.

Over the past 29 years I have kept a diary of my life, times and travel. The first few pages are where I record every town, village, city or significant place visit. Annually I visit well over 200 and over 300 in a good year. Sometimes these places I record are a village four hours up the side of an Indonesian volcano, others merely a cafe in Arthur’s Pass in the NZ alps. Most tend to be villages I visit in the course of my work in Indonesia where we have built houses, put in water and sanitation systems, provided livelihoods, clinics, schools, hospitals etc.

Sometimes the reception I get is hilarious such as a village near Mandrehe, on remote Nias island in Indonesia, which I visited last year. An old man came running up to me and hugged me as soon as I entered the village. We had put in a quality water supply six months earlier and he said, “ I could hardly walk then, I was ill, my stomach full of worms and I didn’t want to live. Once the Red Cross put in a water supply and latrines, slowly but steadily my health came back. Now I can run and I am able to work the fields again,” he told me. Hebent over and whispered in my ear, “ I can now chase women again."
In the same village people told me how absenteeism was high at the school, with around 50% attendance. Some months after our water supply was complete, attendance rocketed up to 90% and then higher. To do this work you have to travel, and airports become your home. I am travelling to Kuala Lumpur today for a tsunami planning meeting. I love KL airport because of its design, cafes, bars, book shops and friendly staff. And the worst airport I have been in ? There is no such place as airports, as every airport, like a sea port, has its charm. You just need an inquisitive mind and even from the most obstinate official, you can get a recommendation to his favourite café. Nine times out of ten he will come and pay for your meal. Everyone is human, if treated as a human being, and a smile, a nudge will bring the best out of the glum.

Just as I am about to post this jotting, a conservative Moslem woman covered from head to toe in black comes into the smoking cafe. Now this is unusual. She looks around, adjusts her head scarf, and lights a cigarette. Never a dull moment on the trail!

Next week I am in Bangkok. I hope I don't get stuck in the airport as there are certain tensions there at the moment.