Chapel Hill, North Carolina

Nice to back in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, USA! I am here for two weeks as part of my work with the Water Institute at the University of North Carolina. Chapel Hill is a small town in the interior of the state of North Carolina on the eastern coast of the United States. The main economic driver of the town is the university and population doubles during the school year to 80,000. Chapel Hill is located in close proximity to the state capital Raleigh and the city of Durham, and together these three form the boundaries of what is known as “Research Triangle Park”, home to many firms providing finance, technology, medical and research services. The three major universities in this area are Duke University, North Carolina State University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and they are fierce rivals in sport and academics.

Compensation offer from United Airlines

For those of you following my long-running customer service debacle with United Airlines, they have sent me a cheque for US$1600 plus a US$250 travel voucher as a customer service gesture (they are assuming I want to fly with them again).

The value of my goods lost was US$3000 and I claimed US$2000 because I could not provide receipts for the rest. They haven’t provided a breakdown of how they arrived at US$1600 and have assumed I would be happy to accept their offer. I don’t think I am going to accept it and I am going to fight for the balance.

For those of you who think I should take the money because it’s all I am ever going to get out of them, you may be right. But the bigger issue for me is the way I have been treated throughout this whole process.

So long as I can help it, I will not fly with them again until they actually listen to me and compensate me for my loss. I have already booked one flight with a competing airline – it cost me more but if I am not willing to put my money where my mouth is, then what good is my word? I will not be a sheep.

A story by a 5-year-old

SAM_0970-resizeFor the last week, I’ve been visiting with “my” kids at the school in Kibera, Kenya. I call them mine because over the last two years I have grown to love them so much. Here is a snap of one of the girls at the school. She is just 5 years old and is already reading and writing at a level that is about 6 to 12 months ahead of the average child in a school in Canada or the USA (that’s the whole idea, actually). Below is a story she wrote for me/about me and a picture she drew of me in the first lesson I ever gave as a “teacher”. How cool is that? This child (and 101 others like her) were selected out of hundreds of applicants as being most in need of help. At this school, these vulnerable children are given the opportunity to grow, and thrive and ultimately reach their full potential as health, happy human beings. This is happiness!

“Teacher Rayn is come agen.
I am veri hppe (happy).
Teacher Rayn is veri big.
Teacher Rayn is have gril (girlfriend).
Teacher Rayn is in school.
Teacher Rayn come with Catherine.
Teacher Rayn is have bug (backpack).
Teacher Rayn is lik waking (walking).”

By a 5-year-old girl supported by Shine Academy, run by Catherine Whiting and Javier Martinez

Day safari at Nairobi National Park, Kenya

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Giraffe crossing the safari trail in front of our van

We just got back from a day safari (a morning and an afternoon game drive) to Nairobi National Park and are absolutely thrilled about our experience. It blew all our expectations out of the water. We went hoping to see a lion and came away having seen almost an entire pride (8 cubs and 3 adult females but no males) at a single site – park officials later told us that pride has a total of 11 cubs. We also saw a wide array of other wildlife: serval cat, giraffes, rhinos (black & white), ostrich, impala, guinea fowl and other birds, turtle, a dead black mamba, hippopotamus, cape buffalo, water buffalo, warthog, and hart beast. We were particularly pleased about the rhinos and the serval cat. We even saw a dung beetle at work – pretty cool!

Total cost for the day for both of us was US$200, which got us park entry, our own 4×4 safari van with an open top roof (basically a converted matatu-style van) and a driver/guide and two game drives. We capped off our day with a visit to the Nairobi Animal Orphanage – a zoo located right after the park entrance (note: there is a separate fee for this attraction). If you have kids, a visit to the orphanage before or after your safari would give them a chance to get up close to the animals they are seeing.

Park officials were professional and well-organised, and there are three restaurant facilities available, including a gift shop. The park land itself was very clean, good signage/directions throughout, and a well-maintained network of roads.

Quick tips:

– If you hire a taxi driver to take you on the safari, it will be cheaper but you will probably lose out on the conversations and valuable insight shared between guides about where all the animals are.

– In the wet season, the grasses are long and can obscure the view from a small car, such as a sedan. Roads can be wet and there were a few paths where a 4×4 was necessary. So we suggest you hire a 4×4 with an open roof top. This will allow you to stick your head out and scan the landscape for animals instead of craning your neck out a window. Remember that half the fun of a safari is just looking for the animals!

-We are told the best times to see lions are in the early morning and the late afternoon when the temperature is much cooler and they are likely to be walking around, hunting. But on our trip, we saw the lions at about 10:30am/11:00am.

– Park entry fees (currently US$40 each for adult tourists) are valid for only one entry to the park. But if you park your car just inside the entrance, you can go for lunch for an hour and then continue your game drive in the afternoon. Your guide may tell you parking is not allowed. But the park warden said we were welcome to go ahead and do that. Definitely try to do two game drives if you have time – this is great if you missed things in the morning and want to try again in the afternoon. You’re also sure to get more great photos ops the second time around!

Having been on two amazing weekend safaris before (Masai Mara, Kenya and Liwonde National Park, Malawi), I had kept my expectations low for this day safari but I can say this is a definite must if you have time in Nairobi. This was a fantastic experience and well worth the money and much more affordable than doing a weekend trip to a more far-flung safari destination that requires plane, hotel, etc.

This review is also published on Trip Advisor.

The value of the LinkedIn endorsements feature

Few months ago, I complained to some friends about the LinkedIn endorsements feature. There was no opt-out feature and receiving constant email updates was in my opinion nothing more than spam. Worse, a few of my early endorsers were acquaintances I met once at a conference or in a business meeting. One ticked the box on “Stata”, a statistical analysis software package I have never used. A Ugandan colleague I have never met endorsed me for speaking French (how would she know?). Overall, it seemed like a silly exercise!

Since then, LinkedIn has eliminated the email updates and I’m noticing an improvement in the quality of the endorsements. The endorsements feature uses crowd-sourcing to achieve a consensus view on what you’re good at. If you end up with 40 or 50 people endorsing you for “business development” or “program management” or “communications”, its probably a fairly reasonable assessment as to your skill set and area of expertise.

LinkedIn still has improvements to make. In the image below LinkedIn offers suggestions on possible skill endorsements. This is bad survey practice as it leads the respondent to an answer they might not otherwise have provided. A better way to approach the tool would be to hide my current endorsements and encourage connections to type in a few key words, e.g. “manages programs well” and have LinkedIn auto-complete with the most common matching phrase. The technology exists – why not use it?

Linkedin_Endorsements

Second, LinkedIn could include a second question which asks the endorser to rank how well they know the endorsee. Someone who I worked with in the past and who says they know me “very well” would rank higher in comparison to an endorsement from someone who met me only once. This would provide at least some means of validating their ability to assess my skills/expertise.

Perhaps a final improvement could be to allow the endorsee to choose whether or not to accept an endorsement from a certain individual. This might be useful if you are positioning yourself as a candidate for a job in the pharma industry and don’t want to be pigeon-holed as an auto-manufacturing supply chain specialist.

Nairobi, Kenya

I am in Nairobi, Kenya for 12 days visiting friends and colleagues. While I’m here, I’ll give a lesson to schoolchildren on hand-washing and household water treatment, go on a day safari, and try to get out to far-flung areas like Lake Naivasha or Nakuru which I did not have the chance to visit on previous travels in Kenya. Nairobi is the capital of Kenya and home to at least 3 million people. One of the most “connected” cities on the continent in terms of its technology infrastructure and air travel connections, Nairobi is a base for many multinational NGOs and companies serving the needs of the rapidly growing economies and populations of African countries.

Accra, Ghana

I am back in Accra, Ghana. The World Health Organization and UNICEF are sponsoring a workshop here on May 6-8 to help the governments of Gambia, Ghana, Liberia and Sierra Leone increase access to safe drinking water. In these countries combined, at least 7 million people get their drinking water from sources considered unsafe and which can cause serious health problems. Delivering piped and safe water is complicated and costly and will take years to implement. In the meantime, people can treat their water at home using methods such as filtration or chlorination (assuming they aware that they need to treat their water, have access to effective products and know how to use them!). The workshop will provide a forum for discussing policies and strategies to deal with these issues.