Greetings from Eastbourne on the south coast of England where I've been away for the last week. Even went swimming in the sea on one occasion, slightly different experience to the beach resorts near Dar es Salaam, 'bracing' I think is the word - or maybe 'freezing' would be better?
But it is interesting being mostly away for the last three years, and feeling a bit of a stranger in my own country. So, having grown up in South London and then lived for some years in North London as a teacher and PhD student, I feel I should be comfortable there. But these Oyster card things are all a bit complicated if you don't really know how to use them - although a very nice person behind me in the cue was very helpful. And then going onto the Docklands Light Railway was very confusing, nowhere to swipe the Oyster card so how to use it? It's salutary to realise how much common (general?) knowledge is assumed, and when you don't have it London can be a very disorientating place. But got my passport sorted out, I'm pleased to say.
So, just as I'm starting to come to terms with Oyster cards I discover they're about to go out of date, to be replaced by bank cards which one can just wave gently over a piece of electronic gadgetry and one's account gets automatically debited. I was aware of this possibility, and indeed have cards ready and willing to be used in this way, but have not actually used them myself as yet. Now being used to a cash only society this is a step too far just for the moment.
But I have to say, I do worry about these kinds of cards. Some years ago now I came to pay for petrol for the first time using the then new 'chip and pin' method rather than signing as before. As I came to pay I mentioned that this was my first time using this method, to get the response, "Well, you can go on a shopping spree now." On the one hand I can see that this is in the spirit of lighthearted repartee whilst the transaction was going through, but another part of me doesn't find this funny at all. Did she really not realise that, if I spent money with chip and pin, I would have to pay off the account eventually, at an exorbitant rate of interest if not straightaway? And this 'swipe and go' method (I don't think that's what it's called but it will do for the moment) seems to me to go even further down the 'this isn't really your money you're spending, no need to worry' line. Having said that, in Tanzania the maximum unit of currency is TSh 10 000 which is about UKP3.30, so there can be an air of unreality about financial transactions for other reasons, any one note doesn't seem very much money, a Tanzanian colleague once referred to 'Monopoly money' and I can see what she means.
So where does all this leave us? With some very straightforward advice, really: when spending money, however you spend it, make sure you're clear in your mind that it really is your money that you're spending. If keeping to cash for smaller transactions helps, great, do that, don't feel that you have to do the latest thing just because it's there.
Another thing on my mind being back is health and safety. People here complain about 'health and safety gone mad', but having come from an environment where rather more health and safety would be a jolly good thing in my opinion, I suppose I'm looking at things a bit differently, and I'm rather in favour of most - not all - of the things that I'm seeing done in the name of health and safety around me. Although, I was struck when I found myself having to stop for what seemed like an extremely long time (I was running late at the time) for a level crossing before a train came through, to be told that the norm in this country is for level crossings to be closed 4 minutes before the train is due. Now, clearly it is necessary for the crossing to be closed well before the train comes, but the problem with such a long wait, it seems to me, is that there can be a disconnection in our minds between the closing of the crossing and the reason for it, a shorter gap would make that connection clearer. I am reminded of when I was in Indonesia when I was 18, as soon as the train appeared the level crossing went up, presumably on the basis that when the train was going past it acted as a barrier quite effectively all by itself. It's one of those things, I think, which because it looks so dangerous it actually isn't, conversely, beware of the car which has so many safety features that it sends the driver into a false sense of security and invulnerability.
The one final thing I've noticed, not least because I've been on leave here, is the multiplicity of TV channels and the constant need to maintain oceans and oceans of programmes to fill them all up. So, I found myself in a random moment starting to watch a programme about pound shops, ie. shops in which every item is sold for a pound. Now, I can see that this is an interesting phenomenon, not least as more and more chains get in on the act, where on earth does all the stock come from? There can't be that many bankrupt businesses, can there? But after 1/2 hour I felt I had seen all I wanted to see on this subject, to discover that I was watching one programme out of a series of eight. Eight? Really? Can the producers honestly tell me that they're not padding out the issue endlessly in order to create the illusion that (if memory serves) BBC is still doing something useful whilst ITV is showing Coronation Street?
So, great to be back, looking forward to returning to Dar es Salaam at the end of this week to pick up the pieces again, look forward to working with students as they finalise their dissertations before the programme draws to an end at the beginning of December. If anything strikes me as I return to Dar es Salaam having been back in the UK for a bit, I'll be sure to let you know!