Thursday, December 23, 2010

An incredible Week

Wednesday 22nd December

I arrived back in England yesterday evening!

On Sunday 12th December I wrote “ the Lord is waiting for me to let him get on with his work and stop trying to run his show! So I intend to step back and marvel at what he has in store!”

St. Paul, who was an ancient blogger, wrote what I think is the most beautiful prayer when writing to the Ephesians. He includes these words “ ...To him who by means of his power working in us is able to do so much more than we can ever ask for, or even think of ...” (Ephesians Chapter 3) Well sometimes I think I know what he means – the past week has certainly exceeded all my expectations!

A lot has happened since I posted my last blog on Monday 13th !

Tuesday was my last day in Monze. The power went off at about 9 hrs and wouldn't return until about 19 hrs. I used what battery power was left in the laptop to do some more work on the Diocese projects database.

I wanted to go around the hospital to check whether my photos had arrived from Dilys and to say goodbye to friends. I had checked out Sr. Juunza's laptop and wanted to give her my verdict and also thought I might grab some power from the hospital generator to add a little juice to the laptop. So I arrived at a little before midday with these tasks in mind. Teddy had said he would get someone to drop around some Office disks which I needed to sort out Sr. Juunza's computer - however they hadn't arrived. So I set off with a hospital driver to Teddy's house while the laptop was on charge. When I arrived back an hour later the generator was off and the laptop was 26% charged!

I called on Ireen and I was pleasantly surprised to find that my chitenge clothes were ready. Still having no generator I said a couple of goodbyes and left the laptop with Judy who offered to switch it on and off to take any advantage of available electricity.

After a bite to eat I returned to the hospital. Still no power, so I retrieved my laptops, left Sr. Juunza's at my flat and headed to PIZZ 'Old School' to meet Mrs. Sianga and one of the teachers. She was waiting with her daughter and the teacher soon arrived. The intention was to due some quick training of the accounts system, the Internet and taking and transferring photos. The power was still missing.

Although the laptop had only another 10 – 15 mins connected to the electricity, somehow the battery was now nearly 90% charged. (Still I do seem to be getting a bit of a hand at the moment.) I must have spent nearly 2 hours demonstrating the attributes of the laptop without it shutting down. Having three people involved would, I hope, enable them to help each other use the computer and remember how things were done. I will see how they get on. I was sad that we didn't set up a web link while I was in Monze. I will try to rectify that soon after Christmas.

I call around to Diven's shop which is close to the school and asked him to give me an hour or so to work on the other laptop before meeting me for a final meal and a chat. Fortunately the power came on and I was able to sort Sr. Juunza's laptop back at the flat.

At about 9.30 pm. I returned having had a pleasant meal with Diven (and a couple of Mozi's). I did the final packing and turned in for my final night in Monze.

I was up before 6 hrs on the Wednesday and at 6.10 Simon knocked on my door to deliver a Christmas card from St. Veronica's Small Christian Community. He had called the previous evening only to find me out. I failed to find any hospital transport so was planning to catch the first Mazundu bus – Mazundu is one of the large coach operators and is happy to carry multiple cases!

I walked along to the cathedral with Simon where mass was to be celebrated. After mass, I exchanged the laptop with Sr. Juunza, for the 5 bags that Bridget had sent to make up my consignment for the UK.

As arranged, I phoned the man from Mazundu at 7 am and booked my place on the 9 hrs bus. He asked me how many tickets I needed and told me to be at the Golden Pillow by 8 hrs.

At about 7.45 am Reymond came along to say goodbye and a little after 8 hrs I said my final farewells and, having acquired a taxi, left the flat for the last time this year – well almost!

When I arrived at the Golden Pillow I was told that, despite apparently booking my seat on the first coach, the bus was full and I would have to wait until the 10.30 bus. So I bought a ticket and settled down to wait for the bus. I wanted something from my case, so I reached in my pocket for the key to the small padlock only to find it missing. I had put the padlock keys together on my keyring that also held my UK front door key and the flash drive, that now held all the work I had undertaking since arriving in Zambia 6 weeks earlier. The flash drive was most important – the locks I could break and the front door key could be replaced. I rang Sr. Barbara and she offered to search for the keys in my flat. A few minutes later I was given the welcome news that the keys had been found – though they had no one available to bring them. Fortunately I now had plenty of time and could therefore get a taxi to take me back to the flat where I picked up my keys and returned to wait for the 10.30 bus.

By 11 hrs I was on my way to Lusaka. Justina met me in Lusaka and took me to her house, where I had a snack before getting a bus to Longacres and the Central Immigration Office. Strangely the usual nerves I feel at immigration weren't present. (My experience in 2004 still haunts me!) The process at Immigration is a mystery to me. On enquiring I was told to go into the first office and see Mrs. Birt. She checked and established that my permit was still being processed. She asked if I had sorted something – and because I wasn't aware of having sorted anything, I said no! I was directed to another desk and told to see the immigration officer there.

The practice seems to be to ignore anyone who approaches your desk and to get on with dealing with other clients and miscellaneous files. Then suddenly a hand goes out and you realise that you have been in a very orderly queue and it is your turn to hand over some documents. So I passed over my receipt and passport. The immigration officer seemed human! He joked with others and did some things on a computer. Then a printer jumped into life and another guy handed me a couple of pieces of paper and told me to sign them, while the officer put a few stamps on my passport. I noticed that the forms I was signing had my name on and said something about reporting to immigration within 30 days. I was given one copy of the form I had signed - the other being held at immigration.

I asked whether I should return tomorrow to check on my permit and was told tomorrow it would be too busy, perhaps I could come back next week! I then pointed out that I was leaving the country on Saturday. No problem I was told, I could collect the permit when I returned. They would let me back into the country with the documents. By the way I should guard the form jealously.

Justina told me that I could walk from Longacres to her house and something about robots. So I decided to relax and enjoy winding down before my return home. I asked the way to UTH (University Teaching Hospital) and was directed in the opposite way to that which I expected - I have mentioned my sense of direction – or lack of it! After a while I asked for further clarification and found I was on the correct route – just keep going straight until you get to the robots and turn right. OK no problem, but I wonder what these robots look like! After a couple of miles I had been travelling some distance in the same direction along the road I came to Longacres along – surely this isn't correct! So I asked again – and sure enough, I was directed back in the direction I had just come from. Up to the robots and turn left! I had obviously walked straight past the robots! (observation isn't one of my strong points either!)

A little way back on my return journey I met the policeman who directed me half an hour earlier! “I told you to turn at the robots!” After a mile or so I came across some traffic lights and the penny dropped! I have always said that Zambian English is different to British English and that extra words and different meanings are introduced in a living language, which English is in Zambia – this is an example of Zambian English. Soon after the robots I reached UTH and, having been taken past UTH by Justina earlier, I was able to trace my footsteps back to her house. I was grateful for a decent walk and was back at a suitable hour.

We took the opportunity to discuss the setting up of LIFE Zambia and agreed our respective tasks in moving things forward.

I was given a nice meal of local food and a comfortable bed for the night. In the morning Justina's husband Peter drove me to a point on the Great North Road where I could catch a bus to Chisamba.

At the crossroads I was offered a taxi, but decided to hang on for a full taxi that would cost ¼ of the price. After a few minutes it was full (I your personal space is important to you don't travel by local transport in Zambia! - with four of us in the back of the taxi it was certainly cosy!). In another 20 minutes and I was back at Chisamba Guest house. Justine had just arrived to organise a room. My usual room was taken – he apologised but another was soon found. After catching up on the latest happenings, we contacted Godfrey and arranged to meet at Fringilla for a drink and a chat.

I had a couple of hours spare, so, after saying hallo and goodbye to some of the staff and students at Kaliyangile, I went for a walk and found a quite spot and a tree to have my picnic. The swallows have continued to accompany me, and both at kaliyangile and on my walk they were ever present.

I wanted the opportunity to stress the importance of finding a replacement for Justine – someone who is foremost a competent manager - to complete the process of registering the project and to quickly erect the roof of the workshop. We discussed these issues and others and by the time we left the sun was setting.

I had supper at the Guest House and decided to have a final Mosi or two. Since I met a friend in the bar just as I was leaving, I had to accept a third!

On Thursday I wanted to get off early – or at least just after I had printed my boarding pass for Saturday's flight. Justine offered me a lift at 10 hrs at which time he had re-arranged a trip to take his sister to Lusaka – so I wouldn't need taxis and buses. He had also arranged for the committee to go to the police station to have their fingerprints taken, which gave me some concern in terms of timing!

I had looked more carefully at the form given to me yesterday at immigration. It did say I had to report to immigration within 30 days or I would be classed as a prohibited immigrant. Since in 2004 I was so designated, and told I had to leave the country immediately or I would be thrown into prison, I had decided to return on the Friday to immigration to check the position – and see if any progress had been made on my permit. I told Justine that I needed to be at immigration by 12 hrs – before it shut for lunch.

Thursday 23rd December

I timed out last night. I will try complete my post now!

I was heading for the computer when Justine told me that power was off and the laptop battery wouldn't last long!

I have found that checking in online saves a lot of hassle at the airport – especially if you are the only economy class passenger who believes he is entitled to 3 x 23kg bags! It looked as if I would have a challenge. I decided to try to access the BA website and hope power returned in time to print the boarding pass! I was about to access my booking when the laptop went into standby mode.

Power then returned for a couple of minutes and went off again. This process repeated a couple of times without being able to make progress. I tried once more but the power again went off quickly. I decided to continue and see how far I could go – somehow I got into my booking and managed to choose my seat, check in my bags and save my boarding pass with a flat battery! When the power returned I was able to print my boarding pass – mainly in black and white, as even the borrowed colour cartridge was a bit light on ink.

At about 12.30 Justine returned and at 13 hrs we were on our way to Lusaka. I decided to head straight for Immigration and arrived just after they opened for the afternoon at 14.30. Today the process was to check progress of my employment permit in a register – not surprisingly my permit was still somewhere in the system. I found the immigration officer who assured me that I didn't need to come back or get more stamps and that I wouldn't be locked up!

So, content, I decided to enjoy a stroll back to Justina's to retrieve my bags. I thought that I would take a short cut because there was a road that had to bisect the road I used on Wednesday. It is a mystery to me how you can head in one direction and end up going somewhere entirely different. Well, I seem to be able to achieve this feat without any effort – as was the case on this occasion. I passed many of the embassies and a few other impressive buildings before asking someone to help me out. I had plenty of exercise before I spotted the welcome lights of the robots! It was then easy to find my destination.

While I was enjoying a drink with Justina, Peter popped around and organised a taxi which would take me to Lwisha House.

There is something very comforting about arriving at Lwisha House. It is familiar and I know most of the priests living there. I can relax in the lounge with a paper or magazine and help myself to cups of tea and coffee. I have noticed that the priests always seem very calm and take a great interest in the activities of each other. They share their experiences of the day and include me in their discussions.

The supper is plentiful and is a mixture of Zambian and Western foods. There is also a pudding – such as fruit salad and ice cream - which is something I haven't had for the past few weeks.

I joined the congregation for evening prayer, booked my taxi, had a hot shower and settled for my last night this year in Zambia.

A little after 5 hrs. I arose and sorted myself out for the trip to the airport. The taxi arrived a bit before 6 hrs. so I didn't manage a cup of tea before we left.

The taxi driver was one who was used often by the priests at Lwisha House and had taken me to the airport on previous occasions. Checking in went smoothly and I joined the queue to pass through immigration – or perhaps emigration! On previous occasions there has been a queue of 3 or 4 people at each counter – today there was a queue that stretched all the way around the large room and out to the check-in desks. Cameras had been introduced and machines to take fingerprints. Each person had to have their photo taken and fingerprints from both hands – including the thumbs (taken separately). A guy next to me had a plane to catch in 30 minutes – he was still queuing nearly an hour later! It was over an hour before I reached the departure lounge and found out my plane hadn't yet arrived from the UK. The other passengers had been assured that their planes wouldn't leave without them.

I often think that most of the security measures are designed to convince the travelling public that their safety is being taken care of. In practice I suspect that it causes great inconvenience but has very limited value. (For instance I wonder what systems Zambia has to check the pictures and fingerprints against suitable databases?)

We boarded the plane a couple of hours behind schedule. Apparently snow and ice at Heathrow had delayed the planes departure and hence the reason we were also running late. It was good to be in the air and on my way back home to the family. Dilys had rang a couple of days earlier to say that the snow and ice around Cheltenham was bad and she was worried about driving. I had told her I would make my own way once I arrived at Heathrow – either by coach or train depending what was running.

Next to me on the plane was a lady who was working for an Irish NGO. Although she had only spent three weeks in the Country, she seemed to have a very similar view to me about the role we have in Zambia. We spent some time discussing our experiences and other matters and the time passed swiftly. I had a good view of the desert and kept an eye on our route. It appeared to me that we were heading slightly further west than usual and at one point I thought we must be going up through Spain. We adjusted our direction and again headed due north and I guessed we would just miss Spain passing it to the east!

In the book Landmarks Margaret Silf refers to our inner compass and our journey to god being a heading of true north. The UK is almost due north of Zambia, so for the journey back home the plane continues for very nearly 5,000 miles in a northerly direction with the sun shining, for most of the trip, through my window on my left. Once again I am reminded of my need to try to make the Lord my focus and allow him to lead. Despite my experiences I find it difficult to relax and trust that all will be well.

We were leaving the coast of Africa at about 5 pm GMT (19 hrs Zambian time) when the captain announced that unfortunately Heathrow had been closed. In addition no other UK airport could let us land. Since we couldn't continue to fly for many more hours we would have to land. It had therefore been arranged for us to divert to Barcelona in Spain! So at about 6.30 pm GMT, (19.30 local time or 20.30 Zambian Time!) we landed at Barcelona. We were given sandwiches while we waited for arrangements to be made for the next stage. It was clear that we would not be moving any further that night and that we would probably be taken to a local hotel.

Within an hour we disembarked. Most of us were soon through immigration, but those without EU passports and the appropriate visa, were not allowed to proceed. Unfortunately Britain is still separate from the rest of Europe in many ways, so a visa for the UK doesn't automatically allow you into other European countries – unlike that which allows you into France, Germany, Spain etc. I remember arriving in Nairobi and the flight being cancelled. I was immediately issued a temporary visa. (unfortunately for many of the Zambian passengers the process in Spain is different).

I headed to the baggage reclaim, where I was reunited with my three large suitcases ( I wasn't convinced this was really my greatest desire!). I had picked up a couple of bottles at Lusaka, so my hand luggage was also heavy. We were escorted through the airport and soon found ourselves outside waiting for buses to take us to the hotel. Two buses arrived – which was fine in terms of passenger numbers, but they couldn't cope with the luggage. About an hour later a third bus arrived. (We had by this time been taken to a cafeteria and provided with a snack and hot drink.) We were taken from the airport towards the city centre and deposited in a rather nice 4/5* hotel.

I didn't get the message that a meal was being laid on, so I had a small bottle of wine and a Kit Kat from the minibar before turning in. It had been a long day and I was ready for bed.

The Sunday arrived and I woke myself up with a luxurious shower and tuned into BBC World to get the latest on the weather in London. As I opened the door at 8.15, heading for breakfast, I noticed a sheet of paper that informed me that I would be picked up from the hotel at 8.45. So it was a rushed breakfast, but as I headed to retrieve my bags, I received another message. The schedule had been revised. We would now leave at 1 pm.

I decided to use the opportunity to go to mass and obtained a map from reception. Mass turned out to be at 10 am, so I found the beach and, although is was drizzling a little, had a pleasant walk along the seafront and rang Dilys to tell of the difficulties I was experiencing! During mass I was almost overcome by the closeness of the Lord and the way in which I was being looked after. There were so many possibilities that would have made my trip back a nightmare. In fact I couldn't have dreamt of such an incredible outcome.

After mass the sun was shining brightly and its rays warmed me both physically and mentally. I returned to the hotel and was told it was unlikely that we would be picked up before 4 pm. I headed into the city centre. Gaudé's unfinished cathedral was a 20 – 30 minute walk away so I strode out in that direction. I had never been to Barcelona before, in fact I have only made one visit before to mainland Spain and that was 40 years ago! I didn't think I had time to enter the cathedral – and when I saw the huge queue I wasn't sure I wanted to bother. So I contented myself with viewing it from the outside – which was impressive enough. I had intended to return to the hotel for 12.30 in case they reverted to that time, but decided it was a shame, now that I was very close to the city centre. I found the phone number of the hotel on the map and checked the latest position. We definitely wouldn't leave before 4 pm. so I had some more time to explore. I used the map to pass by the Arc de Triomf, Palau de la Musica and the original cathedral designed by Gaudé. I was delighted to see that there was no charge to enter this cathedral (I am never happy to have to pay to enter a church). Mass was being celebrated so I went to the Blessed Sacrament chapel and said a quite prayer of thanksgiving.

I returned to the hotel via the Parc de la Cuitadella, where there are attractive gardens, small lakes and fountains, and a zoological garden. On arriving at the hotel at 14.30 I was told that I could relax because I wouldn't be going anywhere on Sunday, and would be provided with lunch and supper, and another night in my luxurious room.

After a light meal (they seem to be into nouveau cuisine at the hotel!) I had a brief rest before once again heading for the sea. I love the sea! I am never bored walking along the shore. The sound and sight of the waves crashing onto the sand and the smell of seaweed, I find stimulating. Eventually I settled at the end of a small pier and watched as the sun set over the town. A photographer took a few photos of the sunset and left. I stayed a while longer and was treated to one of the best sunsets I have ever seen. Sunsets in Jamaica, Lanzarote, parts of the UK and of course Africa can be wonderful – so this was really special. The colours were spectacular and the buildings cast dark shapes on the skyline. The beach is bordered by a row of palm trees which again added an interesting texture to the scene.

I could see my hotel from the beach standing nearly 30 stories high and towering above the nearby buildings. I returned to a buffet supper and found the wine! I could get used to this!

There was no further news about our departure and I was settling for at least another day at the hotel! Another day would be good - more would not be ideal!

On Monday morning there was no note under my door, so I was able to enjoy a leisurely breakfast. I enquired at reception and was told we would leave the hotel at 3 pm. This time there was a bit of conviction behind the message. I met one of the BA crew in the lift and she seemed convinced we would fly today. Heathrow was now open once more.

Although I am sure there was much more to explore in the city, I needed a bit of peace and a time for reflection. Although I am used to visiting Zambia now, that doesn't stop me being sensitive to what I see. In fact, because of a better understanding and closer relationship with the people, perhaps the impact is even greater. So as I return I don't want to rush around doing things. The sea was again where I headed. I wanted a longer walk and on Sunday spotted some interesting structures in the distance along the seashore. I decided to head towards these. In fact I went beyond and found a small port and marina where I sat and read a further few pages of Landmarks, while watching the cormorants perched on nearby pillars.

On returning to the hotel the message had not changed. Lunch wasn't provided and I couldn't afford the hotel prices, so I headed out in search of a cafe. I eventually found such an establishment. I enjoyed a seafood salad with a cervesa and finished with a splendid cafe con leché!

We collected our bags and lined up outside the hotel, waiting for the buses to take us to the airport for the 6.25pm. flight. Then at about 3 pm. people starting moving back inside the hotel. A last minute change of plan meant that we would be collected at 16.30 – the plane would still go at 6.15pm and we would be 'fast-tracked' through the airport check-in. To show their commitment we would not return to our rooms, but the bags would be stored in the basement – lunch would now be provided. Well, I had only had a light salad, I guessed what the lunch would be like and suspected that the next decent meal might be some time away, so I took advantage of another free meal!

We retrieved our bags and soon after 16.30 two large coaches arrived and we embarked. We were now a slightly smaller group, as some had made alternative arrangements to get home. I had not seen Wendy, who sat next to me on the way out, since Sunday morning. She was on her way to Edinburgh and was hoping to get a direct flight from Barcelona (Edinburgh was open) – it looks as if she succeeded.

Once we found the correct terminal we piled into the lifts up to departures. I wasn't quite sure where I was and what I was doing so forgot that at airports they have trolleys which make carrying large amounts of luggage easier! I arrived in the queue for check in still struggling with my three cases and backpack! I told myself it was good practice for the other end! While waiting, I did grab a trolley to enable me to rest a little. We were surprised that we were all directed to a single check in desk, but soon four adjacent desks were closed - except for our group - and we moved through rapidly. I had picked up a couple of bottles of Amarula in Lusaka and made sure they were in appropriate transparent bags, sealed and with the invoice within. However I didn't think of moving them to a case – in a way it didn't seem right. The security guard at Barcelona Airport wanted to confiscate them because the date on the receipt wasn't the date of travel! I explained that it would have been if it wasn't for the diversion. (I could have shown him my boarding pass – just issued with the date of the 18th December on it!) In the event his superior told him to let me keep the bottles.

We were issued with our former seats and when we arrived at the departure gate we were immediately loaded into buses and taken to where the plane had parked on Saturday and shown back to our seats. Additional passengers joined us and by about 7.30 pm. we were all aboard and ready for take-off. The captain welcomed us back and told us the good news – we had a definite slot. The bad news was that it was for 10.30 pm! - though it might be brought forward. In the event we were reallocated a slot at 10.20 pm! I had a couple of Gin and Tonics courtesy of BA while I waited for take-off.

It was a relief to get back into the air, and a greater relief when we touched down safely at Heathrow at about 11.30 pm. local time (GMT). We gave the captain a respectful applause in appreciation!

I had some slight concerns about my allowances, but then decided that since I was now on a flight from an EU country the more restrictive allowances now longer applied. As in other recent trips there was no evidence of customs officers as we passed through.

I had been in touch with Dilys and Helen and concluded that attempting a trip to Cheltenham would not be sensible – by the time I arrived there was no option but to spend a night in London.

There were some problems with the baggage reclaim, but I was grateful to be back in the UK and still considered myself very fortunate. So many people were stuck at airports without any beds or food provided. At Heathrow there were vast piles of luggage taken from cancelled flights – how anyone was expected to find their luggage I am not sure. So the fact that it was 2 am before we were out of the airport wasn't too much of a problem. I had spent a couple of days in a beautiful hotel in a lovely city, where many would be delighted to pay handsomely for the privilege.

I was concerned that I wouldn't be allowed on the night bus with all my luggage, but with an effort I carried everything into the bus and stored it for the trip to Hyde Park Corner without being challenged. With help, I got everything off the bus and again was helped to get a taxi to my daughter Helen's house. Jack was a little surprised to see me at 4 am. But greeted me with “Silly Gaggy” - the children today have no respect! In fact it is a wonderful privilege to have such a close relationship with my grandchildren and I would have it no other way. Jack wasn't very well and had woken Helen at 2.30 am, but he still gave me a warm welcome.

After a few hours sleep and some playtime with my grandchildren, I left for Victoria Bus station with a light backpack – the rest of my luggage I decided to leave with Helen. The trip back was remarkably quick and incident free. At 6 pm I was back home in Cheltenham 3 days and 14 hours after leaving Lwisha House for Lusaka airport!

It was good to be at home at last. I was tired, but grateful that I had been looked after so well during the past week. I feel so sorry for the very many who weren't so fortunate.

The weather in the UK has been exceptional. The most snow in 30 years and the coldest December in 100 years. At Heathrow airport 6 inches of snow (15 cm) fell in an hour. In Cheltenham on Sunday, 12 inches fell (30 cm) and temperatures dropped below -10°C. Nearby temperatures dropped to – 19°C. For the past three weeks temperatures have rarely risen above freezing.

I haven't yet done anything towards Christmas – so please accept my apologies and allow me to wish you a wonderful, peaceful, happy and holy Christmas and a New Year filled with joy.

I will post another blog in a week or so reflecting on my trip, but for now I will sign off with my love and prayers, take care,


P.S. The photos are a selection of African images and not necessarily directly related to the text since the camera wasn't present during much of this posting.

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