Mike Simpson works on international environmental projects with partners in West Africa and Latin America. He is the executive director of One Sky — The Canadian Institute of Sustainable Living in the rural, northern town of Smithers, British Columbia.

Monday, 10 Nov 2003

EN ROUTE TO SIERRA LEONE

It’s the bags that always get me when I travel. I’m always leaving with an epic number of bags and trying to scam my way to Africa with way too much stuff. This trip I’m at 296 pounds and through my first airport. Only four more airports, 74 hours of travel, and who knows how many check-in counters and persuasive arguments to go. My all-time record without getting charged is five airports and 356 pounds of solar collectors, inverters, books on alternative technology, environmental education materials, and other stuff that for some reason I think will be useful. Usually it is useful.

This time I’m carrying, amongst other things, two deep-cycle sealed batteries for a solar system, female condoms for an HIV/AIDS program, three gross boxes of regular condoms (that is 144 condoms in case, like me, you don’t buy in large quantities), a Barbie doll, and gifts from some Sierra Leonean refugees now living in Canada, which include bras, panties, coloring books, and J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. I am going to a country ranked as 173rd out of 173 countries on the U.N. quality-of-life index. There are a lot of needs besides Barbie dolls. Normally I don’t travel with useless stuff, but we just sent a major shipment by boat and these are the leftovers. I was going to slow down on the care packages and chuck the Barbie doll, but it has a little girl’s name on it and this is the sort of silly little detail that will seem worth it later to a family in some sweltering corrugated iron shack with an assortment of kids running around.

The security guard in Smithers was hard on me. I live in a small town in northern British Columbia where you would think security would be lax, but she insisted on measuring my carry-on bag with precision. It is the kind of diligence that you don’t expect after you have managed to check in overweight bags. It was four inches too thick. Nikki, who is our communications coordinator, had just dropped me at the airport, said her goodbyes, and left me with a three-page list of things to get done in Sierra Leone. It was too late to ditch things. At this point in life I can travel with just one carry-on bag of personal stuff, including my computer and workbooks. But each item is well thought out and much needed. The security guard was telling me I had to leave my three shirts and underwear behind, and she exclaimed “What is this?” as she held up my shaving cream. I raced to the bathroom, donned four shirts, stuffed my pockets with underwear, put on my fleece jacket and my winter jacket, and waddled back to the security desk to proclaim my bag regulation size. I got on the plane next to about 35 wide-eyed miners from the Eskay Creek gold mine, all the while sweating, swearing, and undressing in the aisle.

When am I going to grow out of this kind of behavior? When am I going to go to bed before 3:00 a.m. the night before I leave? When am I going to be one of those organized people who has everything worked out before they travel? Why was I backing up my computer at 1:00 a.m. and trying to get my tractor chains fixed on my snowplow and my car battery charged at 7:00 a.m. before I raced to the airport, reports in hand, late as usual, for a month-long trip to Nigeria and Sierra Leone?

Basically, I’m cheap. That must be it. Here I am heading up an organization that has grown in three years from nothing more than an idea to a million dollar (Canadian) annual budget with nine Canadian staff, six overseas staff, two overseas offices, and enough programming to keep a project going in Latin America, five organizations busy in Nigeria, and a host of programs alive in Sierra Leone. Yet I am getting on the plane wearing four shirts and worried about excess baggage. I gotta get a grip on things. I gotta remember to concentrate on the bigger picture.

And what is the bigger picture this morning? Well I am living the bigger picture. I am getting on a jet plane, sucking huge amounts of fossil fuels to travel to a very poor country carrying marginally useful stuff, all the while participating in the global economy. I better have good reasons or I should resign myself to being part of the problem and stay home.

In short, I am off to work on a host of issues with our partner, Friends of the Earth Sierra Leone. We plan on a trip to the war-torn Kono region where the diamond industry has left a landscape scarred with alluvial mining debris and a war that has ravaged both the environment and people. It is part of our “Blood Diamonds Are for Never” campaign, which draws the links between resource extraction and war. The area has been very difficult to travel to until recently. Reports are still marginal. Our organization has been actively campaigning for a year now, and while there have been some significant breakthroughs, the diamond industry is still a huge problem. Or should I say challenge.

After that, I am off to do strategic planning workshops and work on a renewable-energy initiative in Nigeria. Hopefully I will coordinate with some cool folks doing canopy walkway research in the jungle. Hopefully this will all somehow make the world a better place, justify my excessive carbon dioxide emissions and energy consumption, and make me feel like the excess baggage and sleepless nights were worthwhile. Hopefully …

More mañana.