Face to face with a thermometer gun in Malawi


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When I arrived at Lilongwe’s airport in the central African country of Malawi recently I had to join a queue with the other arriving passengers. This was not unusual in itself as there are often various queues to join when arriving in a new country. When I got to the front of the queue, however, an officious looking man with latex gloves held what looked like a gun to my head and squeezed a button. After a beep I was allowed to continue to the more familiar passport control line. I didn’t ask at the time what it was for but a quick internet search told me that it was an infrared thermometer gun. But why would they need to know my temperature?

Liberia's capital Monrovia

Liberia’s capital Monrovia

It’s not uncommon when arriving in many African nations to be asked to present a yellow fever vaccination certificate but on this occasion I also had to complete a new form on the two hour flight from Nairobi. The form had some fairly morbid questions such as ‘have you recently attended any funerals or had any contact with any dead bodies?’ and ‘do you have any unexplained or unusual bleeding?’. It was not really a surprise to find that the form was an Ebola virus health screening form and although I have not been to any of the infected countries this year it felt rather odd to be filling it out. And now I know why I had the thermometer gun pointed at my head!

The current outbreak of Ebola in West Africa is believed to have begun back in December last year when a two year old child died in a village in rural Guinea. Since then the number of deaths has escalated and in recent weeks the virus have been making almost daily global headlines. With two deaths in Spain and the first transmission of the virus outside of Africa (also in Spain) and now a second nurse in the USA having being diagnosed, the West is putting a lot of money and effort into combating Ebola before the epidemic becomes a full blown global pandemic. So, whilst the world’s governments are trying their best to combat the outbreak how are global companies reacting?

The Ebola virus

The Ebola virus

The threat of Ebola specifically in the most infected countries of Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia has forced many expatriates working in those locations to leave. A recent report by Forbes states that in Sierra Leone all ‘non-critical’ expats have been evacuated and that many companies with international managerial assistance have halted operations or are functioning at a fraction of capacity. According to ECA’s recent spot survey on dealing with pandemics, though, many companies have no policy in place for dealing with pandemics or, if they do, global mobility teams managing expats are unaware of it. With the mobile workforce numbering in the millions, globally, and with cross-border travelling increasing the potential for transmission of infectious diseases around the world, it’s clearly very important that multinationals have a policy in place, more evidently so in light of the situation in West Africa.

Red sky in Malawi

Red sky in Malawi

Recent positives are the news that both Senegal and Nigeria have been declared Ebola free. These two West African nations were the only other countries with recorded cases. The news is still grim for the others infected though.  I visited Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, last year and have been to Monrovia in Liberia before and the recent scenes of bodies being dumped outside hospital gates in each city are all the more harrowing for having walked the very same pavements previously.

Fortunately my time spent on the pavements of Malawi was less upsetting. Malawi is a country that is rarely mentioned in international news. In fact the only time I can recall is when Madonna decided to adopt a Malawian child back in 2006! I can’t say that my time there was particularly eye opening and I’ll probably always remember it for being the 150th country I visited, a milestone I’m rather chuffed with.

I spent a couple of days in the capital Lilongwe and a day in Blantyre, the industrial and commercial capital. Both cities are fairly similar in that they are rather spread out and sparse even though each has a population approaching two million. Known as the ‘warm heart of Africa’, I found both places to have a laid back feel and the ever-present sight of the pink jacarandas in bloom added a colourful touch to the dusty orange pavements. Last year the IMF ranked Malawi third from bottom globally in terms of GDP per capita, and there are areas where this seems all too apparent, but the friendly locals seemed to spend most of their time smiling their way through the day. Maybe it was the jacarandas!

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Why are expats in Uganda?


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Before I left on my latest trip, this time to Uganda, I was speaking to my mother on the phone and she asked: “Why are you going there? There can’t be many expats there, surely?”. While it may be obvious that data is needed for the likes of Shanghai, Dubai, Singapore, New York, Paris, Moscow, for example, it’s important to remember that the non-Western locations are vital too. Okay, so Kampala, Uganda’s capital, may not be the financial centre of Africa, nor have a large port (it’s over 500 km from the Indian Ocean) or a biotechnology park but everywhere I went during my time there I spotted expats milling around. So why are they in Uganda?

Stanbic Bank in Kampala

Stanbic Bank in Kampala

Well, there are hundreds of foreign companies with investment in Uganda, most of which need input and expertise brought in from abroad. Banking, logistics, telecommunications, tobacco, mining, infrastructure, breweries, embassies, NGOs… you name it, all of the above are essential to the health of Uganda’s economy. At the same time, having a presence in the country is important for companies in terms of their position in the global marketplace. During my walks around town I was always a head turn away from spotting a recognisable company or organisation, be it Standard Chartered Bank, Heineken, DHL, British American Tobacco or the British Council. Perhaps the most common expat group globally is that of the diplomat. Governments of the world need to have a presence in other countries and certainly, while strolling through the salubrious suburb of Kololo in Kampala, I came across many an embassy, each requiring staff to represent their home country. In any case, I hope when my mum reads this she’ll now understand that expats are an important part of life the world over – even in those less obvious places!

Away from the hubbub of the city centre

Away from the hubbub of the city centre

The embassy suburb of Kololo was certainly a pleasant respite from the hubbub and choking fumes of the central area of the capital. All green verges and blooming plants with hardly a car engine in earshot and at the end of my stroll a well-earned vegetable panini and cup of tea at the Endiro Coffee shop. The coffee shop is opposite Kampala’s latest, and ‘sparkliest’, shopping centre, the Acacia Mall, complete with its very own genuine KFC – a rarity in these parts of Africa. From here I headed, via the expat-loved Nakumatt supermarket, for a beer at Bubbles O’Leary to watch my beloved Crystal Palace beamed over the large screen TVs. I arrived back at my hotel just before sunset, which is just as well as the lack of street lighting and ever-present potholes make for an eventful and ankle-testing challenge, as I had found to my dismay the previous night.

Planet of the apes

Planet of the apes

I have to say that overall I was surprised by Uganda. I think I was expecting it to be a bit more rundown and neglected. Certainly there are many areas which are – and I witnessed some of these on the way to the airport some 40km away in Entebbe – but the central areas of Kololo and Nakasero are where the majority of foreign workers live and work, and life here is fairly harmonious. One of the hotels in Nakasero has even played host to Queen Elizabeth of England. She stayed at the Serena Hotel during her visit back in 2007 (which I believe is the last time she visited Africa – please correct me if I’m wrong on that!). The hotel today is still the epitome of five star elegance and it is one of the most popular places for expats to relax at the weekend after a tiring week working in the equatorial heat.

The country is not without its problems though. It has one of the highest alcoholism rates globally and one of the highest malaria death rates in the world along with its neighbour Kenya. I’ve been taking my malaria pills and am up to date with all the various jabs but tropical diseases and viruses are all too common a problem in Africa as highlighted recently by the outbreak of Ebola in Western Africa. I’ll be talking more about this in my next blog.

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Texas – king of the south


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One of the inescapable aspects of life for an international data collector is the need to know your product measurement units, be it a litre of petrol, a kilogram of roast beef or 370 grams of Bonne Maman jam. Every mall we visit, every supermarket aisle we peruse and every bar drinks menu we scan has a unit of something or other. Clearly, these units are very important when it comes to analysing price data sets since a misquoted unit can have a significant impact on a standardised price and therefore a calculated average price. See a previous blog for more information on price analysis.

The Stars and Stripes

The Stars and Stripes

In 193 of the 196 countries of the world, the prices we collect are for metric measurements (mostly). Personally, I find this makes life a lot easier as I like a straightforward decimal system. Of the three countries which don’t officially use the metric system the USA is one of them. So, on my recent trip it has been all ounces, gallons and pounds rather than grams, litres and kilograms. The other two countries which still officially use the imperial system of measurements are Liberia in West Africa and Myanmar in South East Asia. Both of these nations have indicated that they plan to implement metrification in the future though, leaving the USA on its own. Of course there are exceptions, one of the most notable being in the UK where road distances are in miles and not kilometres. In my earlier trip to Canada I discovered some bars were quoting beer volumes in ounces too. And of course in the UK if you go to a local pub you’ll be served a pint rather than a half litre – those extra 68 millilitres can make all the difference!

To complicate matters further the USA uses a different imperial system to the globally recognised standard. They call it the US customary system and this, again, is important when it comes to standardising the prices at the analysis stage of my data collection. For example, a gallon of petrol (or gas) in the States equates to 3.785 metric litres but an imperial gallon elsewhere is 4.546 litres. That’s a 20% difference which could have a significant impact on a cost of living index overall – particularly so if that item has a high weighting within the shopping basket.

Low sun in Houston

Low sun in Houston

Anyway, moving on from measurements and back to my travels! I finished my US trip recently in the mighty Lone Star state of Texas. With over 26 million citizens it’s the second most populated US state (behind California) and, being larger than Germany and Italy combined at almost 700,000 square kilometres, it is the largest of the 48 contiguous states. It is also one of three main ‘powerhouse’ regions of the States when it comes to economic might and influence. Together with the states of California and New York, Texas is home to significantly more Fortune 500 companies than the other states. Texas is also home to four of the eleven most populated cities in the country – Houston, Dallas, San Antonio and Austin – and grosses more dollars a year in exports than California and New York combined.

Really? How did this happen?!

Really? How did this happen?!

I mentioned last week that if California were a country its economy would be 8th in the world. If Texas were a country it wouldn’t be quite so high up but sitting 14th in the list of national economies ahead of the likes of Mexico, South Korea and Indonesia is no mean feat. It also has a quarter of the country’s known petroleum deposits and produces a quarter of the country’s natural gas. But it’s not all about fossil fuels – Texas is also home to some of the largest wind farms in the world and produces by far the most wind energy of any US state.

Although the capital of Texas is Austin it was in the two cities of Houston and Dallas that I was out and about collecting data.  While some US cities such as New York and San Francisco have a somewhat European vibe to them and others, such as Miami, have a Latino vibe in Texas I very much got an American vibe – if that makes sense. The cars seem a little bit bigger, the roads seem a little wider, and there were definitely more people wearing cowboy hats.

Memphis in neon

Memphis in neon

It was also a lot hotter. Indeed, during the summer months Texas has the second highest average state temperature (after its neighbour Louisiana) and it’s not wise to spend too much time out walking on the sidewalks (or pavements!). This is just as well as the car is king in Texas and the sidewalks seem to be constructed as token efforts to make the streets appear more ‘foot friendly’. Wherever I am in the world I like to move from shop to shop on foot as much as possible. That way you get to soak up more of the atmosphere of a place, you come across little gems of information which are useful on the data collection front plus a bit of exercise is always good for the soul! However, in the States it can sometimes be a losing battle. You’ll be walking down a sidewalk which suddenly comes to a stop with no obvious way of how to continue without getting a twisted ankle from the now uneven roadside or coming a cropper under the wheels of the multitude of passing cars. On the plus side though there are plenty of parking spaces wherever you go, which I know is often a problem in the more compact cities of the UK, for example. I didn’t see a single traffic warden on my trip either!

After leaving Texas I took a week out to drive through one of the few parts of the States which I’d not already seen – the southern states of Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee and Kentucky. Most of the photos above are from that road trip and I hope you enjoy them! I’ll be back soon with tales from my next data collection mission, taking in Uganda, Malawi, Zimbabwe and Angola.

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California Dreaming


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In 1967 Scott McKenzie advised us to wear some flowers in our hair when venturing to San Francisco and in 2014 my advice is to wear a sweater. It can get a bit nippy under all that fog! This was my fifth visit to San Francisco and it’s one of my top three favourite world cities along with London and New York. It was here that I first stepped on to American soil back in 1998 as a 19 year old on a family holiday. I remember to this day the sense of ‘wow’ I got from everything I saw and soaked up but this time round the wow factor has gone, replaced by the aisles and passageways of Macy’s department store and Safeway supermarkets – such is the glamorous life of an International Data Researcher.

Colourful San Francisco architecture

Colourful San Francisco architecture

The city is currently the fourth largest in the state of California but during the mid-1800s it was the largest thanks to the famous California Gold Rush where 300,000 people came in search of riches. It was the largest mass migration in the history of the world and during the four years from 1848 to 1852 the population of California shot up from 14,000 to 223,000. This was the beginning of the state’s boom and the boom continues to this day. Earlier this year California’s economy overtook that of both Russia and Italy to become the 8th largest in the world – not bad for one 50th of a country! Well, it may be one of the 50 US states but it certainly isn’t equal. One in eight Americans live in California where 38 million of them call it home and its $2 trillion nominal gross domestic product accounts for over 13% of the country’s output.

The iconic Golden Gate Bridge

The iconic Golden Gate Bridge

Much of California’s prosperity in the last 30 years or so can be attributed to the extraordinary success of the high-tech industries which have blossomed in Silicon Valley some 40 miles south of San Francisco. The area is home to the global headquarters of many household names including Hewlett-Packard, Yahoo!, Adobe Systems, Apple Inc., eBay, Facebook, Google and Intel – a fairly impressive list to say the least. Silicon Valley accounts for a third of all venture capital investment in the States and the continuing innovation in the region is helping to keep California at the forefront of global technology thinking. After leaving San Francisco and missing the area’s strongest earthquake in 25 years by a few hours I flew the short distance south to California’s largest (and the USA’s second largest) city – Los Angeles. Loathed by some, embraced by others, there’s no escaping the fact that Los Angeles is a big deal. It is home to the fifth busiest port in the world and the largest in the Western Hemisphere. Its population of almost four million is some four and a half times that of San Francisco’s. And unlike San Francisco the city seems to spread for miles and miles in all directions except west (too much water!). San Francisco sits on a peninsular and so has always had expansion constraints. The sprawl of LA, however, is the epitome of the concrete jungle and it’s probably quite easy to go a little crazy there.

Macy's department store in Los Angeles

Macy’s department store in Los Angeles

It was my sixth visit to the City of Angels and, again, this time I dedicated my waking hours to the data collection trail and not the numerous distractions on offer from the red carpet of Hollywood to the sandy beaches of Santa Monica. One thing that hasn’t changed over all my visits is the lack of clouds in the sky. In San Francisco you’re lucky to see an inch of the blue stuff overhead with its infamous rolling fog but the sun always seems to shine in LA – one of the many reasons why some consider it a great place to live. California is also one of those states which doesn’t seem to have an ‘obvious’ capital city. Is it Los Angeles? Or San Francisco? Or San Diego? No, it’s Sacramento, the sixth largest city in the state. Similar to the likes of Florida, Illinois and New York State where Miami, Chicago and New York City are not state capitals, it got me wondering what are the largest state capitals by population – any guesses? Read on for the answers!

Risque Haight Ashbury

Risque Haight Ashbury

Rather than try and make photographs of supermarkets and shopping malls look interesting I’ve attached some colourful pictures from my small amounts of time out in San Francisco and Los Angeles, including from the quirky streets of Haight/Ashbury and the sublime Golden Gate Bridge which always looks spectacular, even when smothered in dense fog! And the largest state capitals are…Phoenix (Arizona), Indianapolis (Indiana) and Austin (Texas), although amazingly Austin is still only the fourth largest city in Texas. And it is from Dallas and Houston in Texas where I’ll be reporting very soon.

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Au revoir Canada, hello USA


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While I was in Canada it got me thinking. How many countries are officially bilingual? Even though I spent my two weeks in Canada in the predominantly English speaking cities of the west I was still greeted everywhere with a “hello, bonjour”, be it at airport security, hotel concierge or when ordering my daily sandwich from Subway.

What I did find strange was when people jumped between English and French. Waiting in the departure lounge at Vancouver’s airport were a group of teens speaking with that very recognisable North American twang. Then all of a sudden the conversation would continue in French and if you closed your eyes you could have been in a Parisian café – well sort of, I’m told the accent is quite different!

Vancouver's Burrard Bridge

Vancouver’s Burrard Bridge

Canada is officially bilingual but only around 30% of the population can speak French as opposed to close to 100% which can speak English. Having the USA as a neighbour no doubt helps to keep English at the fore. Either way I found it quite strange having “hello, bonjour” said to me all the time when pretty much everything in daily life in the cities of Calgary, Edmonton, Yellowknife and Vancouver happens in English. There are a few other countries which are officially bilingual including Belgium, Ireland and New Zealand as well as several of the former Soviet nations. However, there are three countries which are officially multilingual – know which ones? I’ll reveal all at the end of the post!

So my time in Canada ended with a couple of days in Vancouver, the third largest metropolitan area in the country, with almost 2.5 million people. Located on the Pacific coast a mere 20 miles north of the USA border, Vancouver is a veritable multicultural melting pot. Over a third of the population are foreign born and it has the highest proportion of Asians of any North American city. French is not spoken much, but for over half of Vancouver’s citizens English isn’t the first language either. I mentioned in a recent blog post that Calgary is often voted the cleanest city in the world, well Vancouver has the honour of appearing high up lists of the world’s most liveable cities, including ECA’s own Location Ratings.

A rainbow zebra crossing in Vancouver

A rainbow zebra crossing in Vancouver

Canada’s largest port is in Vancouver and this obviously contributes a large proportion to the city’s economy but tourism and the technology sector also play an important role. The reputation of the city for being one of the world’s most liveable has meant it’s not difficult to attract workers either, especially from the pool of local and overseas talent emerging from its prestigious universities.

With my time in Canada at an end I flew to the good ol’ US of A. In human history there have been periods of dominance and influence from various peoples and empires. The Greeks, Romans, Persians, Egyptians and Chinese have all had times when they could describe themselves as a superpower. Even the British Empire had significant global clout for a while. But in living memory, certainly since the end of the Second World War, the USA has been a dominant global superpower and the far reaching impact and ongoing influence – particularly economic, military and political – of all things American is hard to deny.

The emergence of China as a potential superpower in the 21st century does not mean that the USA is on the wane. The GDP facts speak for themselves. On the Forbes list of 100 most innovative companies, 39 are from the USA and over a third of the world’s 100 largest public companies are American.

Oregon licence plate

Oregon licence plate

My first port of call in the States was Portland in the north-western state of Oregon. It’s by no means one of the largest cities in the USA but with a population over 600,000 it’s still a significant centre along the Pacific coastline. I didn’t really get to experience much of the city itself, however, as most of the day-to-day shopping is done outside of the centre in the suburbs. It’s an unpretentious place which seems to go about its daily life without attracting too much attention but for those in the know the surrounding areas offer fantastic opportunities for outdoor recreation and getting away from it all. It’s also one of the country’s greenest cities and is helping to lead the way with eco-friendly initiatives. It was the first city in the USA to introduce a local plan to reduce CO2 emissions for example and residents recycle over 50% of their waste.

Next up is a place more familiar perhaps – the captivating city of San Francisco. Before that, though, what about the three multilingual countries? Give yourself a pat on the back if you came up with Luxembourg, Singapore and Switzerland.

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North America’s largest mall plus a visit to Yellowknife


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What does Edmonton, the capital of the Canadian province of Alberta, have that the rest of Canada and the entire USA are jealous of (probably)? Surprisingly, and rather pertinently for me, it is home to North America’s largest shopping mall – the West Edmonton Mall. So big in fact that I couldn’t even squeeze the whole façade into a single photo. From its inauguration in 1981 until 2004 it was actually the largest mall in the world until the oil-rich Gulf States and the consumer hungry Chinese took the title away. The list of superlatives is fairly random but impressive all the same. It has:

  • The world’s highest permanent indoor bungee jump
  • The world’s second largest indoor theme park
  • The world’s largest indoor wave pool
  • The world’s largest indoor lake
West Edmonton Mall - so big it doesn't fit in one photo!

West Edmonton Mall – so big it doesn’t fit in one photo!

On top of these it also has a shooting range, an ice hockey rink, parking for 20,000 vehicles, and over 800 stores and services. In peak season the footfall can exceed 200,000 while annually over 30 million people visit. To put this in to perspective, the Eiffel Tower in Paris receives a mere 7 million visitors in a year!

All in all, I was rather surprised to find this in a city which isn’t even the largest in Alberta – that honour goes to Calgary, where I have just come from. And, although the thermometer didn’t drop below 15 degrees Celsius during my stay, Edmonton, like Calgary also has freezing weather for much of the year. The record low was recorded at -61 degrees Celsius with wind chill. Grrrrr!!

Edmonton’s economy chiefly revolves around the oil and gas industry as well as being an important financial, research and education centre in Canada. It sits at the top end of the Calgary-Edmonton Corridor some 270km north. It also has the distinction of being the furthest north of any North American city with a population over one million. Edmonton sure is supplying fact after fact after fact! Which is just as well because, unfortunately, I didn’t really see much of the city aside from the mall and other shopping areas on my brief visit prior to heading even further north to my next destination, the wonderfully named city of Yellowknife.

Yellowknife Airport's luggage carousel
Yellowknife Airport’s luggage carousel

A 90 minute flight from Edmonton, Yellowknife may be known as a city but in fact it has a population just shy of 20,000. It is the capital of the Northwest Territories, an area which is larger than South Africa, and is home to almost half the population of the territory. The name comes from the local Dene tribe and the colour of the tools they used to make from copper deposits.

Yellowknife is actually a very new settlement and began life only in the mid-1930s when gold was discovered in the area. The first mine opened in 1938 and within 30 years it became the capital of the Northwest Territories and thus an administrative town as well as merely just to service the mining industry. Falling gold prices and increased operating costs forced the final gold mine to close in 2004. However, a new lease of life was brought to Yellowknife with the discovery of diamonds in the area and the subsequent opening of four new mines. These mines now mean that Canada is ranked third in the world in terms of diamond production by value.

A typical canoe-on-roof-of-car scene in Yellowknife

A typical canoe-on-roof-of-car scene in Yellowknife

So, what is the town like? Well it’s very small, however it does manage to have its own Walmart store as well as a couple of more upmarket supermarkets. Nightlife and entertainment options are somewhat limited but I’m sure workers for mining companies are used to this as mines generally tend to be in the middle of nowhere. There is one cinema, one theatre and, much to my dismay, only one McDonald’s. I say dismay as I’ve acquired a penchant for their Oreo McFlurrys with extra hot fudge sauce over the past week!

It may only be a few hundred kilometres south of the Arctic Circle but Canada’s famed liberalism is alive and well, with Yellowknife’s very own Gay Pride event being touted around town. It’s a great place to live if you like canoeing or kayaking too. It seems that every other vehicle has one attached to the roof and with an abundance of lakes in the surrounding area (including the deepest in North America) there’s plenty of water sport activities. However, the summer is the best time for this as in January there are an average of 17 days with wind chills below -40 degrees Celsius! More Grrrrr!!

I’ll leave you with a snippet of (related) information about the planet Mars. Believe it or not there is also a place called Yellowknife on the Red Planet. It’s a little bit colder there, though, with temperatures recorded as low as -153 degrees Celsius! Fortunately my next stop, and last location in Canada before moving on to the USA, is a little warmer – catch up with you from Vancouver!

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Calgary – leading the way in Canada?


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Usually I’m blogging about the lesser known countries and cities from the likes of Africa and Asia but for the next month or so I’ll be on the data collection trail in a much more alien environment – one where everything under the sun is available! Yes folks, I’m city hopping through Canada and the USA. I may find blog inspiration a bit of a struggle seeing as most of my time will be spent in huge, fairly nondescript shopping malls and supermarkets – but I hope you stick with it!

Calgary's downtown skyline from afar

Calgary’s downtown skyline from afar

One of the reasons why I and my fellow data researchers often report back from less well known locations is, well, because they aren’t very well known! Which means it’s usually almost impossible to get any meaningful information or data from the internet about most aspects of life in those places, be it whether frozen peas are available, how much a cinema ticket costs, or if the quality of available meats is of a good enough standard for expats. In places such as Burundi, Albania and Saudi Arabia, for example, on-the-ground research  is vital in order to gain as full an understanding of them as possible.

By contrast it’s pretty well known that in Canada and the USA frozen peas are widely available and that meats are of good quality. Why, then, am I here? Well, one of the reasons is consistency. It’s important that when collecting and analysing data from over 400 worldwide locations that like-for-like comparisons are adhered to as closely as possible, so I will take my ‘data collection’ approach from Burundi, or wherever, and apply it to here as well. Another benefit is that city to city comparisons within the countries I visit will also be extremely accurate as I will be collecting like-for-like information within that country whenever possible.

Christmas trees in August?

Christmas trees in August?

I started the trip earlier in the week arriving in Calgary, the largest city in the western half of Canada, the world’s second largest country. It’s a popular jumping off point for adventurous travellers to the Canadian Rockies which lie only a couple of hours drive to the west. There was a very pleasant feel about the city  as I drove around the suburbs popular with expats. Indeed it’s a very safe place with a trusted police force and many parts of the city are akin to a suburban utopia – that sort of life-is-so-great-and-so-is-our-neighbourhood setting that’s all too common in feel-good Hollywood movies where the kids play out front in a vast yard whilst the family golden retriever chases a dragonfly under a blazing sun. Oops I’ve gone off on a tangent again! Back to Calgary.

Not only is it a safe place to live but it often appears at the top of ‘cleanest city in the world’ polls. Two such recent polls have been reported by lifestyle9.com and MBC Times. This came as a surprise to me as Calgary’s economy is dominated by the oil industry which is usually a recipe for environmental degradation. The city’s oil boom began in the 1970s and peaked in the early 1980s. It saw the population more than double from 400,000 in the early 1970s to over 800,000 by the mid-1990s. The population growth continues apace and now exceeds 1.25 million making it the third largest city in the country behind Toronto and Montreal. Although 87% of Canada’s oil and gas companies are headquarted in the city other sectors of the economy are coming to the fore, in particular financial services, tourism and technology. In today’s market the city – and the state of Alberta in which it lies – is ‘sizzling’ according to Bloomberg, leaving the rest of Canada ‘fizzling’. A notable nugget of information from this article is the marked contrast of per capita GDP which is over 80,000 Canadian dollars (CAD) in Alberta compared to around CAD 50,000 for the rest of the country.

The Sunridge Mall in Calgary

The Sunridge Mall in Calgary

So it sounds like Calgary is a great place to live? Well, it is if you don’t mind snow! Only the months of July and August have never recorded snow and there is usually well over a metre of the white stuff falling in any given twelve months. On average snow is seen on the ground 88 days a year so if, like Bing Crosby, you’re dreaming of a white Christmas then perhaps Calgary is the place for you. But it’s not just the snow. It gets cold. Very, very cold and while it’s been pleasant during my summertime visit, winter temperatures can drop to minus 40 degrees celsius. It is generally so cold that cars in Alberta are fitted with engine block heaters that can be plugged into special electric sockets in car parks. On the flipside, though, Calgary is also the sunniest of Canada’s top 100 most populated cities. So, weatherwise, a city of great extremes! To add to the positives the city is also a very welcoming and progressive place with a multicultural population and over 200 ethnic backgrounds represented by its people. In 2010 it was also the first major city in North America to elect a Muslim mayor.

Calgary may be the largest city in the state of Alberta but it is not the capital. That distinction goes to Edmonton where I am now, only a couple of hours drive north of Calgary. Next time I’ll be reporting on Edmonton as well as the small town of Yellowknife. Watch this blog!

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Dog food and croissants – a glimpse of life in Bujumbura


 

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Heart shaped Burundi

Heart shaped Burundi

In the lobby of the Martha Hotel in Bujumbura is a colourful map of Burundi and it struck me that it looks very much like a human heart, complete with valves, arteries and an aorta! How apt, then, that this small and somewhat unknown country is pretty much in the heart of Africa. Bordered on the west by Lake Tanganyika and Tanzania to the east, Burundi nestles just south of central Africa’s other mini nation of Rwanda. Like its neighbour to the north the country has been through much upheaval in the past twenty years. Rwanda infamously suffered one of the worst genocides of the 20th century and these atrocities made global headlines. Burundi’s problems, however, were not reported so widely and hence it seems to be one of the continents ‘unknown’ nations.

Burundi was a no go area for over a decade from 1993 until 2005 during which a civil war raged with an estimated death toll in excess of 300,000. The war was related to the troubles in Rwanda in that it was borne out of the ethnic divisions between the Hutu and Tutsi tribes. Since the end of the war and the launching of a peace process life has been mostly tranquil and positive however Burundi still has the unenviable position of propping up several unwanted global statistical lists:

A serene street in the expat suburb of Rohero

A serene street in the expat suburb of Rohero

So you may think that my visit to Bujumbura, the country’s capital city, in May was a lesson in the worst of African poverty but what I actual found was quite different. You can see from my photos that the bleak rankings seem to contrast in many ways with what I observed. Obviously I saw the veneered surface of life but I’ve been to other countries which have a far less welcoming veneered surface. The city centre is fairly small and immediately to the east are the serene suburbs of Rohero, Gatoke and Kiriri (the latter very popular with diplomats) which are prime areas for expatriate abodes. I stayed at the Martha Hotel in Rohero and my daily walks into town were coupled with flowers in bloom and shady tree-lined avenues which could be from a brochure for Western suburban utopia. Okay, I’m waxing lyrical a tad there but my point is that the Bujumbura which I experienced, and which assignees experience, is certainly not one which may be imagined by the nation’s poor performances on the above lists.

Le Café Gourmand - The place to grab a coffee in Bujumbura

Le Café Gourmand – The place to grab a coffee in Bujumbura

A great example of this was a sight which I cannot remember seeing elsewhere in Africa (except maybe South Africa) but which is commonplace on the streets of Europe and North America – locals with a pet dog on a lead! I had to double-take when I saw it but sure enough there were a couple of Burundians with two well fed dogs complete with pink leashes and jangly metal name tags around their collars (the dogs that is, not the people!). That’s not where the familiar sights ended. When you step inside the Café Gourmand, located at prime crossroads in the centre of the city, you feel instantly transported to a gourmet delicatessen or boulangerie in Paris. Expats and locals alike meet over a coffee and set up their laptops to access the free wi-fi whilst taking an occasional bite from one of the many products on offer. Everything from freshly baked baguettes, mango smoothies, cream-filled éclairs, rich buttery croissants, toasted paninis and ice cream sundaes – it’s all quaffed with a smile at this Bujumbura institution.

Towards the west of the city centre the streets and buildings give way to Lake Tanganyika and on the shores of Africa’s second largest lake is another expat hangout – this one with a more relaxed ambience. The Bora Bora beach club is a favourite weekend and evening get away a few kilometres from the bustle of town where you can lounge for as long as you like under the equatorial sun with a cool beer and a pizza.

And if all of that isn’t enough to remind you of home when in Burundi just remember that you can head to Au Bon Prix where you can be sure to find all the dog food you’ll need!

 

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Is Albania closer to EU membership?


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This past winter was a very wet one for me and my fellow Brits as the rain seemed to lash down unabated for weeks on end. Whilst the downpours have quietened somewhat in the UK other parts of Europe have been suffering at the hands of the rain gods. In mid-May parts of the Balkans were subjected to the worst flooding in centuries. Serbia and Croatia were the worst affected but the rains have been lingering for a while in this part of the world. I was in Tirana, the capital of Albania, at the beginning of May, and even back then the rain was heavy and consistent enough for me to throw away another pair of footwear due to over-saturation on the data collection trail!

Tirana's very own section of the Berlin Wall

Tirana’s very own section of the Berlin Wall

So, besides being wet, how did I find my first visit to one of Europe’s least known countries? Well, having prepped up about its history since World War II and having been to most other former Eastern Bloc countries, it was pretty much as I expected – a small Eastern European country still trying to shake off legacies from its communist past.

After 1960 Albania and Yugoslavia were the only two non-USSR aligned nations in the Eastern Bloc, and during the Cold War Albania became an out-and-out communist dictatorship. This has left a rather drear legacy and has seen the country fall well behind other nations who were part of the Eastern Bloc. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and break-up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s the likes of Estonia, Slovenia and the Czech Republic made swift strides towards EU membership and embraced the new opportunities which came their way. Albania was the last country to see its communist regime outside of the USSR topple and, having applied for EU membership in 2009, has only just been awarded candidate status. They join Iceland, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Turkey and will hope that eventual full EU membership doesn’t take the 13 years it took for Croatia.

During the Cold War years Albania isolated itself from the West and its government isolated itself from its people. There is an area near the centre of Tirana called Blloku which was closed off to the ‘people’ and was an exclusive residential area for the political elite. After the communist era ended the villas and former homes of these elite were soon converted into modern flats and apartments. Development continued apace and the area is now the thriving heart of the Tirana entertainment scene. The 18 or so blocks of Blloku (literally ‘the Block’) seem to be wall-to-wall, cafes, bars, restaurants, boutiques and apartments – there’s even a store selling official Apple products. It’s also one of the most sought after areas where expats like to live – especially the young and single ones!

Bunker from the Cold War era

Bunker from the Cold War era

There are still signs of the past, even in the regenerated Blloku area. Perhaps the strangest, and most commonplace, sight from this period is the myriad of bunkers. These quirky concrete domes are dotted around the city and are remnants from communist rule when 700,000 were built at great cost to the already financially crippled country. They were never used for their military purpose and today are seen as a bleak reminder of the Cold War years, although some have been transformed into tourist spots, animal shelters, cafes and even homes.

Something else to look out for on the streets of Tirana besides the bunkers are the ubiquitous drainage and manhole voids on the pavements and in the gutters. Drains, you may think, are no big deal for a European city – but in Albania they seem to like drains without grills on top of them. I mention this as it wasn’t just one or two that I came across but pretty much every street I wandered down. After digging around on the internet it seems the reason is not a lax health and safety approach from the city administrators but the unfortunate result of ‘organised’ crime! Apparently there is a fortune to be made in the scrap metal market in Albania and so under the cover of night the crooks do their dirty work and remove the metalwork. The result is a rather hazardous pedestrian landscape, especially at night in the dim, unlit corners of the city.

Yet another random hole in the ground

Yet another random hole in the ground

I’d like to end on a more positive note about Albania – and it involves a British comedian, actor and singer who died four years ago at the age of 95. During the 41-year communist era of dictator Enver Hoxha, the Brit Norman Wisdom (or Sir Norman Wisdom) was one of the only Western actors whose films were allowed to be shown in the country. Hoxha appreciated Wisdom’s characters’ struggles against capitalism. As such he became a cult figure and when I mentioned his name a couple of times to taxi drivers it was greeted both times with a smile and a thumbs up. I usually find that football, or sport generally, is the easiest way to get a smile from a local when there is a language barrier, but I never thought it would be Sir Norman Wisdom!

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Guest blog: Panama – the Miami of Central America


I’ll shortly be writing about my own recent trips to Albania and Burundi. In the meantime, my colleague Shona, who has been collecting data in Panama, shares some of her experiences. Regards Mark.

This year marks 100 years since the first ship travelled the length of the Panama Canal when it first opened in August 1914. A 77 kilometre stretch of water linking the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans (via the Caribbean Sea), the canal was previously controlled by the USA until full ownership was ceded to Panama at the end of 1999. The centenary anniversary coincides with the canal expansion project, which is set to be completed within the next year, doubling the canal’s capacity and allowing a vast increase in trade and tourism that is dependent on this cut through. The expansion has run in parallel with other developments occurring across Panama City, which I visited on a data collection trip earlier this year.

The Panama Canal

The Panama Canal

Panama City has begun to shake off its reputation as a hide-out for criminals and tax dodgers, having been removed from the Organization of Economic Development’s ‘grey list’ of tax havens in 2011. Despite poverty levels in Panama hovering above 30%, and corruption remaining a pervasive problem (Panama was ranked number 102 out of 177 countries in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index in 2013), driving through the city centre, the comparisons with large, developed US cities seem fairly evident. Panama City is often referred to as the ‘Miami of Central America’ and the skyscrapers along the waterfront Balboa Avenue, from the domineeringly luxurious Trump Towers, to the collection of high rise office and apartment blocks, are reminiscent of the South Beach skyline. Nestled at the southern end of this vastly developed avenue is the Old Town, Casco Viejo, a World Heritage Site that houses a cluster of buildings dating back to the 17th century- and a buzzing nightlife enjoyed by locals and expats. The best views of the Panama City skyline can be seen from the rooftops of smart bars which sit side by side with the historic ruins of neglected buildings.

Panama City

Panama City

Panama City’s Americanisms are not all that surprising given that its history since independence from Colombia in 1903 has been so closely tied to the USA. In 1914, the USA completed the building of the Panama Canal, and was granted the right to use its military to defend it, although this later became a contentious issue between the two nations. In 1989 diplomatic ties became further entangled when Panama was invaded by the USA to oust the country’s dictator-president, Colonel Manuel Antonio Noriega, who was embroiled in international drug trafficking. His actions and hostility to the USA led to a military assault on Panama City and subsequently Noriega went into hiding at the Vatican Embassy until forced to turn himself over to the Americans.

Vertical living in Panama City

Vertical living in Panama City

America’s influence is not just evident in the city’s history and modern building developments, but also in the use of the US dollar as legal tender. Panama does have its own currency running alongside this, the Panamanian Balboa, but only in coin format- only US dollar notes are accepted. Shopping in Panama City is also a very American experience. The main supermarkets, Riba Smith and El Rey, are well stocked with international goods that would certainly make any western expat feel at home, and there are a number of large shopping malls that wouldn’t be out of place in an American city, such as the expansive Multiplaza which stocks a huge variety of high-end global brands, a multi-screen cinema and a wide range of international eateries.

Another part of my role involves meeting with estate agents to find out about the property market for expatriates in the locations we visit. While in Panama City, I met with a number of local experts who provided details about popular districts and offered an insight into the city’s relatively recent development. One agent told me that he owned an eighth floor apartment on Balboa Avenue and when he had bought this just over a decade before, it had been one of the tallest buildings on the street, but was now dwarfed by the towering structures that surround it. Accommodation in the popular central areas of Panama City is very much focused on vertical living. Agents highlighted the difficulties experienced by expats arriving from parts of the world where they were used to extensive outdoor space and who now had to deal with the reality of living thirty floors up in a city centre apartment, in order to reside in the most desirable districts.

Traffic in Panama city

Traffic in Panama city

Another issue faced by expats living in this bustling city, which I experienced first-hand, is the standstill traffic once the torrential rain begins. Panama’s traffic can be hectic at the best of times, and I was advised that, despite the heat and rain, it would be significantly quicker to traverse the city on foot. This issue will hopefully be somewhat relieved with the opening of the new Panama City metro, the first such system in Central America, which started running its first line in April this year. At present, the metro has 12 stops and runs almost 14km across the city. An additional line is expected to be completed by 2017 to expand its coverage. While this will not connect all parts of the city, hopefully it will offer residents an alternative to being stuck in endless traffic- or braving a soaking by the sudden tropical downpours!

ECAintl-International-Data-Researcher_ShonaShona is part of ECA International’s International Data Research team. She travels the world regularly, capturing price data for goods and services to assist with cost of living comparisons around the world.

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