Wednesday, February 27, 2008


We all made it just fine, and all in one piece.

(Ok, five different, human-sized and shaped pieces.)

Late on Friday night, packed into a van cab that still contained a dozen balloons from an earlier birthday party drop off, the five of us—Ashley, Hans, Mark, Megan, and I—made our way to Pearson airport. We stopped just before check-in to unpack and repack mosquito nets, strong sunscreen, and malaria meds to meet luggage weight restrictions and security fluid rules. No one lost a Swiss Army knife, or a canister of bug spray going through security (though I did receive the extra attention of a random search—ah, those friendly airport folks).

Twelve hours later (six for the time change, six for the flight) we were out roaming the bicycled streets of Amsterdam. Yes, we checked out a few coffee shops. No, Mom, I didn’t light up (though, that’s not to say the ambient smoke didn’t have an effect). Through no fault of our own, we found ourselves in the red light district. (My inkling is that every street originating from the train station we arrived at eventually funnels into it.) We took our time finding our way out. After lunch, we found a coffee shop that sold actual coffee, where we found an incomplete set of Jenga blocks and played a couple of intense rounds before making our way back to the airport to be early for our connection.

It was on Kenya Airways that we arrived in Nairobi. It was likely the point at which things became noticeably different: Hans pointing out Mt. Kenya, an all-African flight crew, African patterned upholstery, and a continuously updated on-screen map of our plane passing over the Mediterranean, then Tunisia, then the Sahara desert and even further on south. (Could it really be? Was that pixilated airplane really us?) We touched down (not so smoothly), taxied, and then sat in a humid, but not too hot, terminal waiting a little over an hour for our final connection.

After leaving Toronto late Friday night, we arrive mid-morning Sunday in Lusaka, Zambia: our final destination. The five of us ask a passing Kiwi to document our successful arrival on the tarmac of Zambian International Airport. Next is the visa line. I realized then why the passengers were in such a rush to exit the plane: the line, even divided into fourths (one each for Zambians, government and VIPs, some NGO with a particular four-letter acronym, and visitors—us) is excruciatingly long. After successfully attaining semi-legitimate holiday visas, we found the luggage carousel to hold all of our bags, save one: Ashley’s jam-packed, navy backpack. And so, finally, after notifying the airport baggage claim, we found our welcoming party, Monica Rucki, still so patiently waiting to pick us up, loaded our bags into a pair of taxis, and we drove, past the parking gate, past maize fields, past people on foot and on bike, farther and farther away from anything we had known before.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Why I did it.

A number of people have asked why I decided to work with Engineers Without Borders, and perhaps why I even submitted an application in the first place. Memory is a funny thing to me, and I don’t know if the reasons that I have in my head today for wanting to work with EWB are anything like those that I had in February, 2007 in the weeks before I applied.

In an attempt to go straight to the source, here is the first question of the original EWB application and my response. I’ve felt the desire to edit it before I posted it (mostly to cut out particular flowery bits), but resisted. So here it is in original form.

1. Describe why I am passionate about international development and describe how this interest came about.

At night, when the stars are out, I find myself with the thought, why do I live here in Edmonton, Alberta and not in Nancy, France, or Calcutta, India, or Abidjan, Côte D’Ivoire? Where I was born and raised was never up to me to decide. But regardless of why I live in Alberta, the context and surrounding of this province has shaped and molded who I am. As I reflect on where I live, I find that there is another part of me that transcends my surroundings and connects to every other person in every different context on this planet. For me, it’s from this understanding of the fundamental interconnectedness of the human race that my passion for international development grows.

This passion has emerged slowly in different areas of my life. During my time at university, and even before, I have had the great fortune of knowing a number of very wise mentors. These mentors have been friends, professors, business people, and acquaintances, and they all have stretched my own understanding of the world and of my role in it. My desire to be involved in international development didn’t spring up at a particular moment. Instead it has been the outcome of months and years of activity, of reflection, of questioning, and of discussing the important problems of the world with these mentors who have passed in and out of my life.

I’ve also found myself faced with very heady challenges, most particularly last year as President of the Students’ Union here at the University of Alberta. In that role, I found myself on the receiving end of failure time and again. Past challenges, and especially past failures, have given me a chance to admit that I don’t have all the answers, that I am error prone, that I am more ignorant than understanding of the world around me. Realizing this has been a great starting point for a new journey of learning and growth. It has made me question what I think is worthwhile to pursue, and has brought me to a desire to give the simple abilities that I have to the service of people most in need. In short, it has led me to want to be involved in international development.