Archive for the ‘PERSONAL’ Category



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I’m now in the Assuit University guest house. The notice at the entrance made me smile; ‘Assiut University guest house wishes you to spend the Happiest times and the most Beautiful nights’. Unfortunately the notice was followed by a set of rules that make having the ‘Happiest times and most Beautiful nights’ a bit of a challenge…

I and 3 colleagues have been ‘on the road’ for about 10 days now and after a couple of near dead experiences I’ve learned a great deal about Egypt traffic rules (or the lack thereof). Overtaking can be done passing left or right and overtaking a car that is already overtaking another car is perfectly fine as long as you use your horn during the procedure. Driving while shouting to another driver in the car next to you using the other lane at a speed of about 100km/hour is ok too. Obviously none of this moves my Egyptian fellow passengers one bit so I’ve decided to do as the Egyptians and leave it all up to God. So I relax sit back and enjoy the ride. ‘Insha’Allah’ all will be ok.

We have been visiting 9 villages and will be visiting 15 more in Upper Egypt. We’re revisiting people that have participated in an FAO study in 2007 assessing the impact of bird flu on people’s livelihoods. We want to see what changes have occurred since 2007 in terms of the number of birds they keep, the importance of poultry for income and other services and changes in attitude and behaviour in relation to bird flu. It’s quite a challenge trying to locate all the respondents, some names have been lost in translation, some have moved away and one entire village could not be visited because of an armed conflict.

In all honesty this research has been quite frustrating for us for many different reasons. It takes great effort and a whole lot of patience to conduct the interviews. Not all people –understandably- want to tell us about their income, diets and behaviours. Others for whatever reason give very confusing and contradictory answers which makes the interviews unreliable, while others prefer to talk A LOT about other things. This however is part of most research. It gets more difficult and above all embarrassing when people tell you that they don’t need another study, they need food. If you could see some of these people it is blatantly obvious they have not been ‘able to provide a ‘normal’ meal for themselves and their family members in the past year’ as one of the questions in our questionnaire states … One widowed old lady with bad eyesight and hearing lives in a tiny clay house, sleeps on a hard bed and her toilet consists of a hole in the floor of her tiny house. All she owns is 4 chickens and the rest of her possessions are contained in a few plastic bags. She spends all her money on food and regularly will have only tea and dry bread for her meals. Try telling these people that this research could possibly contribute to changes in policy that might be of benefit to them in years to come.

In those moments I feel pretty hopeless and I feel like giving up on ‘development’ work and doing something entirely different. No matter how much I love working with farmers, learning from them and spending time with colleagues in the field it is difficult sometimes to see how it might be of benefit. I only wish to be of more help to others but don’t seem to have found the right place and the right way to do it YET… But I hope and wish I will eventually!

All the photos posted on my blog are owned by me and they should not be used without my permission

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On Sunday 29th of August after work (Sunday is a work day in Egypt) two of my colleagues helped me load my luggage and a couple of boxes to be stored in my colleague’s house. I said goodbye to my old apartment and left it to the ants and the rat that had moved in. When I closed the door I realized that I’ve gone through this motion so many times before. By the time I close the door for good, life in a new city, which was scary and quite lonely in the beginning, had become familiar and comfortable. I’ve noticed one other thing too… I usually move in alone but when it is time to pack up and move on again I find these people helping me pack up, carry stuff around and accompanying me to the airport. I had no idea these people existed when I first moved in; these peculiar people with their own stories, worries, humour, ideas, fantasies, and ambitions. Some of these people carrying my stuff around have become dear friends, one or two have been my lovers, and yet others I have never seen or heard from again.

So here I am again back in the Netherlands, feeling terribly cold, wearing woollen sweaters and socks, eating potatoes and speaking this weird language again. The first thing that struck me when I walked out of Amsterdam Central station after landing at Schiphol airport is that the people in Amsterdam are all so damn hip and trendy. These people look like they just walked out of a fashion shoot, even their bicycles are hip! In my worn out clothes and after 2 sleepless nights I felt quite the opposite of hip and trendy. But a warm shower, a glass of champagne, delicious food, a yoga class and the wonderful company of my twin brother and his friend took care of that.

Now I am in the same room again where I spent almost a year sleeping (or rather trying to sleep), doing nothing, thinking (too much), studying and crying after the worst case of heartbreak I’ve ever experienced in my life. Coming back here confronts me again with the sadness and pain of losing a love and all the fantasies and hopes that came with it. But I have found ways to deal with the pain and overwhelming emotions that come with heartbreak. I go running or beat the crap out of my punching bag when I feel angry and frustrated, I meditate when my thoughts start to go wild, I take a shower, cut my nails and dress up nicely when I feel low on self esteem and I write in my diary or on my blog when I need to get things of my chest. I also stroke animals or hug my friends or family when I feel in need of affection and I call my friends for a drink and a chat when I want company.

Sometimes, in order to move on, more radical things are needed. Three months ago, even though I didn’t feel ready for it at all, I booked my ticket to Cairo. I am happy I did so because I gained so much from it; I had my own photo exhibition, I started to learn Arabic, I got an assignment with FAO, and I finally started my PhD research (the reason I had to go to Egypt in the first place). I also found this group of nice guys with whom I’ve been spending quite some time. I got to know these guys through the gallery where I had my exhibition and most of them are artists. With one of them I spent a whole night taking photos in old Cairo after which we had breakfast at 04.00h in the morning. Mostly we just sit in a street cafe somewhere, drinking tea and chatting until early morning. I also met some really nice foreigners and these people make going back to Cairo a pleasure.

Most of all I feel I regained a sense of curiosity and excitement about getting to know new places and new people and although I still have quite a long way to go, this tells me I am getting there….for sure!

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I have 2.5 weeks left before I go back to the Netherlands for a break.  Those last remaining weeks always make me restless and I’m looking forward to go home. My body feels a bit worn out and I’m tired of the floodings in my house, the many sleepless nights and the heat and pollution which make my eyes sting and my hands painful with eczema. I live in a very lively slightly rough area in the centre of town and this means constant sensory overload; dust, noise, heat and sometimes heartbreaking sights of poverty and neglect which had me rush home and crying on two occasions. The state of my clothes seems to reflect the state of my body; everything looks worn out and the colours seem less bright and what once was white is now greyish. I have only one pair of trousers left. I gave away one pair of trousers to a homeless man on the street along with a T-shirt flashing the lyrics ‘someone call the girl police’ from a song by Ani DiFranco (if he only knew what this song is about…).  My other pair of jeans is torn and has holes right in the bum area. I don’t think it would be very much appreciated me showing off my underwear here especially now during the holy month of Ramadan. I’ve started to feel quite embarrassed getting into work wearing the same trousers everyday but then again I wonder if people even notice these things.

So but anyway it is time to go back to the place that I have been calling home lately. One of the things that makes me very excited about going is the fact that my twin brother is one of the nominated actors for an important award and I’m going to attend the award ceremony in Amsterdam in September. I can only imagine all the pretty famous people in their fancy dresses sipping champagne and then there will be me being part of it… It feels very surreal thinking about it being here now not feeling very glamorous with my red puffy eyes wearing my pyjama trousers (washing my one pair of jeans!) and my Snoopy ‘wild 70s’ T-shirt.

It is amazing how most humans are able to adapt so quickly to new surroundings and blend in. Even after so many years of travelling I still get nervous and scared moving to a new place but inevitably end up surprising myself with my own capacity to find my own little niche, make friends with the neighbours, do sports and go to work like any normal person. After almost 20 years I decided a year ago to return back to the place where my parents live, where I’ve stored my stuff and where I grew up. Here too I had to find new friends, build up a routine of studying and find new routes to go running. Travelling and moving around has given me many wonderful things: a sense of freedom, it has made me see life through different eyes, it has given me goose bumps witnessing so much beauty, I’ve picked up a few new languages (not fluent but enough for street survival), but above all I have these wonderful people all over the world whom I can call friends.

But moving around so much has also left me with this one quite persistent feeling that my life hasn’t really started yet.  Rationally I know that life is what is happening right now right here but in the back of my mind there is always this little voice telling me that once I’ve settled down somewhere (preferably with this kind, cute, big hearted, funny person whom I haven’t  met yet  to share my life with) then my life will finally really start. That will be the moment I will feel ‘at home’ is what this little voice keeps telling me. But I also know that I always get restless staying in one place for a longer period of time, I get the urge to leave, to travel, to get away. I always had this and I wonder whether I will ever settle down.

I’ve started meditation a few months ago and this has made me realize how restless I actually am (also explaining the insomnia). Every morning before breakfast I sit down for 10 minutes and simply try and concentrate on my breathing. Sounds easy? It’s not! This is what goes through my mind during the average meditation session: ‘Ok El there’s nothing you have to do now except to focus on your breathing for only 10 minutes. Here I go: I’m breathing in, I’m breathing out. I’d love a coffee now, I wonder what my boss thinks of the report I handed in Thursday, oh and where did I put my key. HELLO! Back to breathing please! Ok breathing in breathing out, breathing in, breathing out, breathing in, my nose is itching, my goodness it’s so hot in here, oh that’s my neighbour screaming again, I wonder what she is actually saying, I’m really looking forward to my coffee now…HEY wait a minute! Back to breathing Ellen! Breathing in, what will I do with myself after I finish my PhD? Who did I need to write again? HELLO! Get back to breathing!! Breathing in, breathing out, breathing in etc. Amazing how something that appears so simple can be so painstakingly difficult. My mind is all over the place most of the time controlling me instead of ‘me’ controlling my thoughts.  But I keep trying and I’m very slowly beginning to feel the benefits of it. I feel slightly calmer and more in control of my life. Also by focussing consciously on the here and now I’ve had moments where I felt perfectly at home and at ease and happy without the need to be anywhere else or doing anything else. This has started me thinking that home is really a state of mind and perhaps not so much a place to go to. This probably sounds quite cliché for many but for me it is a whole new experience and it makes me hopeful; I might learn how to feel at home while doing what I love most which is exploring this strange, sometimes cruel but also very beautiful world.

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Life works in funny ways; in an attempt to track down the artist about whom I wrote in  ‘Bread, art and politics’ I ended up with my own photography exhibition opening next wednesday 28th July at El Balad Gallery for contemporary and visual arts here in Cairo.

I’ve always been fascinated by photography and its power to convey a story by just one single image. Photos are capable of touching the viewer profoundly and some of my favourite photographers who have mastered this ability are Elliot Erwitt, Eve Arnold and Henri Cartier Bresson. The main themes of my photos revolve around farming and livestock. This specific interest was developed through my work with farmers and livestock keepers either as part of my vocational training or as a researcher and consultant for NGOs, donor agencies, research institutes and UN organizations. The human-animal relationship has been a long time interest to me. In many cultures animals have multiple functions and their importance goes far beyond that of providing its owner with income. My studies and work have often focussed on human-animal interactions and the value of animals in contributing towards people’s socio-economic and cultural well-being. This human-animal interaction is something I’ve been trying to capture through photography. More recently I’ve been experimenting with high speed photography and HDR (high dynamic range) photography and I’ve also taken an interest in photographing old abandoned buildings; I find it a challenge to capture the timeless and eerie atmosphere present in these buildings.

The title of the exhibition refers both to the masterpiece of the exhibition – a monochrome panoramic view of the city of Rome – but also to the meaning of panorama in the sense of giving an overview. This exhibition presents a diverse selection of some of my favourite photos.

The oldest photo presented here is from 1996 and was taken on El Clarin, a  farm in Martinez de laTorre in Veracruz, Mexico; I was a trainee at this farm for 7 months.

There will be several photos of Raika pastoralists. The Raika are one of the largest groups of livestock herders inhabiting the western districts of Rajasthan and Gujarat in India, including the great Thar Desert. The Raika have developed their own system of animal healthcare making use of plant, animal and mineral based remedies, conventional drugs and traditional healers. I spent 8 months in Rajasthan studying the traditional animal healthcare system of the Raika.

The exhibition also shows several photos taken in Cambodia; I worked here in 2008 as a consultant for FAO studying the socio-economic impact of bird flu. The selection of photos from Cambodia both include more touristy type of scenes as well as photos taken during my work with farmers.

Other countries represented in this exhibition include Bangladesh, Cameroon, Greece and Egypt. The two landscape photos were taken in 2008 on a holiday in Norway.

The latest photo was taken in July 2010 at Mokattam mountain, Manshiyet Nasser on the outskirts of Cairo; an area referred to as the largest ‘garbage city’ in the world. Here the Zabaleen (garbage collectors) make a living out of collecting, sorting and recycling garbage.

A monochrome panorama photo shows a view of the city of Rome; a city I lived in for about 3 years and which served as the base from which I would be sent out to some of the different countries represented in this exhibition.

An announcement was made in Bikyamasr; an Egyptian and regional independent news site ttp://bikyamasr.com/wordpress/?p=14920

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I know the title seems a bit silly but it will all make sense in the end…

Insomnia is something I’ve been suffering from for a very long time. Stress and work pressure definitely make things worse. In my case I experience a few nights of reasonable sleep alternated with weeks of very bad sleep. During those bad periods my mind is just racing with thoughts and I can’t seem to calm down. Shopping lists, who to write or call, what sentences to add to my literature review, things I should’ve said, things I should’ve done run through my head over and over again.  I’d typically go to bed around 23.00h lay awake until 03.00h sleep for a couple of hours and wake up very early in the morning again.

I’ve tried all sorts of non prescriptive drugs, relaxation exercises, earplugs, regular going to bed times, and no coffee after 14.00h etc. Nothing really helps. Prescription drugs do help and are great but there’s a limit to what your doctor will prescribe. Since I arrived in Cairo I have not had a decent night’s sleep apart from the few nights I’ve used drugs (thanks to my dad who has found a way of getting these without prescription).  However I don’t like taking these pills every night and I’m running out of stash, so soon I’ll have to find other ways to get to sleep. Coincidently today I learned from one of my fellow insomniacs here in Cairo that Cairo pharmacies are great and they are more than happy to supply you with pretty much any sort of prescription drugs.

Cairo does seem to take my sleeping problems to a whole new level and I’m not alone; ‘Cairo is home to some five million people who suffer from a sleeping disorder, a third of the population, according to international studies.’

Several reasons were cited, amongst others the necessity for a lot of people to work long hours or even have a day and a night job to earn a decent living. Also it’s just not part of Egyptian culture to sleep early. I found this quote in an article on insomnia: ‘The only reason to go to bed early is if you are going to get a pay cut for showing up late at work, otherwise, why sleep early?’ Children equally stay up very late and it is very common to see them on the streets of Cairo late at night. Although exercise is generally thought to be beneficial for sleep, Cairo doesn’t particularly motivate people to get off the couch and into their track suits because of the heat, crazy traffic and air pollution. Besides, exercise in these circumstances will probably do you more bad than good.

The last reason, one which I can attest to personally, is Cairo’s infamous noise levels which make it difficult to sleep. My apartment happens to be located right in front of my neighbours (well obviously…) but this neighbour, like me, doesn’t sleep. Instead she shouts and screams for nights on end. She’s an old mentally disturbed lady who lives alone but seems to be having arguments with an imaginary person at night. She seems to get so furious, it’s like she’s telling someone off all the time. Obviously there is no use whatsoever in getting angry with her. In fact it’s very sad that this lady seems to be suffering from so much anger and stress on top of her living conditions which are dreadful already (she lives in a ruin literally).

My neighbor enjoying a rare moment outside of her dwelling.

What strikes me most is the fact that  she doesn’t seem to have family and friends caring for her which to me is probably what makes her situation most heartbreaking.

However, a few days ago I did notice people getting some water for her and I assume people are giving her food too.  Since then I’ve started to pay attention to these little gestures of kindness and care, maybe because Cairo can feel a bit hostile and alien to foreigners at first instance, and I was eager to see some kindness. Since then I’ve noticed: people leaving out trays of water for stray cats and dogs; a pizza and a coke placed carefully next to a sleeping homeless boy outside of the Piza hut; and a father giving his son money to give to an old lady selling handkerchiefs, the money came with a big sweet smile and was received with a big smile from the old lady.  I should also mention here the kindness of my neighbour (one apartment below) who, in a gesture of welcoming me to the neighbourhood, brought me a BIG BOX FULL of CHOCOLATE pastry (did I mention I live alone?), the best welcome present ever! I know I’m pretty sentimental but these little gestures of kindness and love make my day.

I don’t know how I got from insomnia to getting all sentimental but there you go, its my blog and I can write whatever I want :p

The research I mentioned and the quotes I used come from an online article by the JakartaGlobe:


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