Inspired by Bermuda, underway in Uganda – KAASO’s new water harvesting system

I often find myself trying to explain why a Kiwi girl married to an Aussie living in Bermuda thinks there are parallels between the international sailing community and a rural village community in Uganda. It all seems a bit improbable. … Continue reading

Back in the world again

And now, seemingly in the blink of an eye, it’s September. All my best intentions and New Year’s resolutions to keep in touch more, to write more, to share more stories seem to have gone by the wayside. But yesterday, while cruising with Nath through Ely’s Harbour, brainstorming book proposals and future plans, he reminded me that it’s never too late to get back in touch with the world. So here I am.

My last post, A Year of Milestones, summed up 2016 and all that it was. 2017 has been similarly epic, but also interspersed with the moments of calm and reflection that come from (finally) having your own space in the world, a place to rest your travelling shoes. From January until July, with the exception of a brief Easter trip to Newport, RI, we went almost half a year without getting on a plane, a record for us given the past four years of frenetic travel. It was such bliss to have a home of our own, a fixed, immovable place on a far-flung island, one that has come to mean the world to us. The people we have met, the opportunities we have had and that breath-catching view that never ceases to fill me with joy – Bermuda, we will miss you.

The America’s Cup came and went like a hurricane. After over three years of trying to convince people that being married to Nath did not compromise my ability to work on the Cup, I finally got a job. I spent the event period running the Longtail Lounge, a corporate hospitality lounge filled with Bermudians and international guests who came to fill themselves with Moët and gasp at the flying rocket ships that sailed before them. I put together a team of fabulous girls, friends old and new, and together with Mark and Ben, the Longtail Legends rocked the Cup village.

Being part of Artemis Racing was an experience I will remember for the rest of my days. I was so immensely proud of Nath and the entire team for what they managed to achieve – from where they started to where they ended up was a phenomenal leap. To me, most importantly, was also how they did it – the spirit, the sense of family, the determination and the refusal to give up right to the very end was extraordinary. “We are Artemis,” is a cry that will echo in my ears for many, many years to come.

Nath and I left Bermuda two weeks after the Cup ended for a whirlwind month around Europe – Nath competing in the moths, flying at a thousand miles around Lake Garda, a huge contrast to cruising with my parents along the south of France on their new boat, Sojourn II, Nath learning how to sail slowly. A brief stopover in England, sharing stories with friends and family before heading on to Sweden to celebrate the wedding of Nath’s teammate and his gorgeous bride on the Stockholm archipelago before returning to our Bermudian home for the last time.

So now is a time of reflection, of gathering our thoughts, of hypothesising about what the future might hold – something entirely out of our hands now – and, inevitably, packing up our home. To go where? That is still uncertain. What is absolutely certain, however, is that we are going to Uganda – together – in November. After five years of hearing stories about the village that stole my heart, it’s time for “Mr. Nathan” to meet his Ugandan family. Oh, and we thought we’d just throw a big, fat Ugandan wedding in there too. A date has been set – 24th November – the planning committee is underway, and family and friends are starting to book flights from around the world. Dominic and Rose have timed the date so that not only can the 638 KAASO students and 46 staff members attend, but also the majority of the 53 sponsor students, their families and those from the surrounding community. As the preparations get underway, Nath just watches me with a patient, albeit slightly terrified, smile, knowing how much this means to me but struggling to comprehend just how huge it is going to be. Even I have no real handle on how the day will unfold. When I ask Rose what exactly is going to happen at this wedding of ours, she simply laughs and asks, “But Madam Emma, you want to spoil the surprise??” No, no I don’t.

A school bus sails into the village…

Greetings from the shores of Lake Victoria!

Two days and several thousand miles later, from an island in the Atlantic to a land-locked nation in East Africa, I have arrived back in Uganda. This is my seventh annual trip here and I’m so excited to catch up with everyone in my village home, to hear about the highs and lows the year has brought and to share in the celebrations of those who are soon to be graduating from the Kiwi Sponsorships programme. However, this trip also has a particularly special purpose. For years, KAASO has had a dream dangling on the horizon but, until now, it has remained just that – an unattainable, far-off dream. Tomorrow though, that dream will become a reality. KAASO is getting a school bus.

Since 2009 when I first came to Uganda, Dominic and Rose have been telling me how much the school needs a school bus. The alternative – children riding on the barred tray of the school truck – is both illegal and incredibly dangerous. The truck has tipped several times and fortunately none of the children were badly hurt but we all feared that it was only a matter of time. It was not a sustainable option. A couple of years ago, KAASO began reaching out to the community requesting funds towards the school bus and over $1,500 was raised but, in a community where it’s hard to find the money for school fees, coming up with the remaining $30,000 for a bus was a colossal challenge.

And here’s where my story begins.

It all started in the most unlikely of settings – a beach-front restaurant for a rosé-infused lunch with a friend called Rebecca. I was explaining how much KAASO needed a school bus but how daunted I was by the task of trying to raise $30,000 USD to make this happen. You can gather donations for buildings and piggeries, I explained, brick by brick, sty by sty, but wheel by wheel doesn’t really work for a school bus. You kind of need the whole thing.

So Rebecca and I teamed up with the mission to make this actually happen. Her company, RenRe, was hosting their annual sailing day in early June and Rebecca suggested we use this day to help raise our funds. If I could get a bunch of America’s Cup sailors to helm the boats that RenRe’s clients and brokers would be sailing on, we could ask for bids to secure their favourite Cup sailor on board their boat. I emailed sailors from Artemis Racing, Oracle Team USA and Softbank Team Japan asking if they might help out – ‘an afternoon sail for a school bus?’ was my pitch. Within an hour, I had Dean Barker, Chris Draper, Jimmy Spithill, Tom Slingsby, Grant Simmer, Iain Percy, Francesco Bruni and, not surprisingly, Nathan Outteridge, committed to helping. We were on.

The team from RenRe, spearheaded by Rebecca, did an impressive job of rallying up support and enthusiasm and, once again, Claire’s amazing graphic design skills came into play, helping to create an infographic to explain what we were trying to achieve. All six America’s Cup teams donated signed merchandise which I had gathered at the America’s Cup World Series event in New York and, along with some LV Cup products from previous editions, I also had donated experiences from America’s Cup – and from my very obliging husband!

The day of the fundraiser, I felt sick with nerves. There was so much riding on this day and while I knew anything we could raise would be amazing, I was acutely aware of how much money was needed and that it might in fact take several fundraisers to achieve our goal. I so badly wanted this to work.

I boarded RenRe’s superyacht where I spent the day on board with a bunch of wonderful people, drumming up support for the silent auction items as well as encouraging those on the boats to bid higher and higher for their favourite sailors to join them for the final race of the day. Momentum gathered quickly and I was blown away not only by people’s generosity but also by how interested they were in the cause and how much the idea of providing a school bus to children in Uganda struck a chord with a bunch of people on an island in the middle of the ocean.

The final race was incredible. The Cup sailors did an amazing job of showing everyone a good time – and doing all they could to ensure that they were ahead of their team mates. By the time everyone rolled into the RenRe dock, the day had already far surpassed my expectations. And that was before the live bidding even began.

Originally there were only supposed to be two live auction items – a two-hour foiling sailing session with Nathan and a 4-person ride in an America’s Cup chase boat to watch the boats training on the Great Sound in Bermuda. However, a combination of much excitement, many drinks, and overwhelming support saw these two auction items multiply to six. Iain Percy from Artemis Racing, realising that there were multiple groups willing to pay good money for the chase boat ride, threw in two extra rides on the Artemis chase boat, spurring on Grant Simmer from Oracle Team USA to donate a ride as well.  That act alone raised us $12,000. Then, the CEO of RenRe, deciding that his wife should also have the chance to sail with Nathan, asked if Nath would donate another foiling experience (the first had already been won) which he gladly agreed to and the bidding opened once more. While Rebecca was helping coordinate the auction, I was madly running around trying to calculate where we were at so far between the boat bids, the silent auction items and the ever-growing live auction funds. As the live auction closed, I pushed EQUALS on my calculator, and then stood staring at my screen, stunned. Then the tears began to fall. We had raised $30,190.

I gave an impromptu – and hugely tearful – speech, letting the room know that we had reached our goal – we would have our school bus. A sea of smiling faces erupted into applause and cheers and I just stood there, crying and grinning dumbly before engulfing Rebecca in a huge hug. We had done it!

In the weeks that followed, Rebecca did an incredible job of helping me collect each and every dollar and I was amazed to find that our total amount just kept going up and up – people were so moved by the experience that they wanted to donate more, to give more, to help more. I was blown away.

In the end, we raised over $40,000, all of which has now reached the village and, on Wednesday, Dominic purchased the bus. As if that wasn’t enough, a few weeks ago, Rebecca decided to join me to help deliver the bus along with my brother-in-law, Beau, who is going to make a short film about the bus delivery. Things couldn’t have worked out more perfectly.

So now I sit looking out across Lake Victoria with Rebecca at my side, and I have to pinch myself to realise it’s not just some amazing dream that I’ll soon wake up from. Beau flies in tonight and Dominic will pick us all up in the bus tomorrow morning and together, we will drive to the village.

I am so hugely grateful to each and every person who helped make this happen – to the sailors, the donors, the far-away cheerleaders and of course to Rebecca, whose huge heart and incredible determination that this was going to happen has meant, quite simply, that is has. Tomorrow is going to be one for the record books – and one requiring quite a few tissues I feel…

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Lake Victoria, Uganda

It’s time to row inland

What an incredible whirlwind the past year has been. As most of you know, over summer in Wangi, Nath proposed with a handmade ring of sailing rope at the dinner table with both sets of parents watching on in speechless delight. We resumed our colourful magical mystery tour around the globe, hopping from 49er regattas to America’s Cup events before packing our life into a container and setting up camp in Bermuda. In the midst of it all, I did an incredibly enlightening writing course at UCLA where I met my inspiring mentor, Jennie, and, after working from satellite desks around the globe all year, last week I finished my manuscript while bobbing on a houseboat in Buenos Aires. It seemed only appropriate – it’s certainly been a year full of adventures.

Houseboat living was a hilarious juggling act. It turned out our floating homes were actually on an island up a river which meant that Nath and Goobs would go by RIB to the sailing club each morning while Claire and I rowed our tippy little dinghy around the marina in search of wifi to upload Claire’s graphic designs and my latest writing submissions. Thunder and lightning storms, torrential rain and power outages made some days more challenging than others, particularly when we lost water for three days but, as I keep reminding Nath, it’s all just practice for when we sail off into the sunset and cruise around the world together. He just smiles. One day, I will to teach him the pleasure of sailing slowly. But in the meantime, with the Olympics and the Cup just over the horizon, I’m happy for him to keep sailing as fast as he can!

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Yesterday evening, Nath and I farewelled our little houseboat, stacked my tower of exploding bags into the dinghy (plus a violin – thanks Alex, young Mark will be over the moon!!) and paddled ashore. We boarded separate flights headed in opposite directions and now it’s time for this girl to row inland. Thus I find myself on my own in the hazy midst of a two-day journey that will take me from a river in Argentina to a village in Uganda.

But I won’t be alone for long. Tomorrow I will be stepping into the customs hall of Entebbe Airport where the immigration officers are going to be baffled by not just one but now two Blackmen in Uganda – five minutes after I land, so does my brother. I can’t wait to share the incredible world of KAASO with Nicko who has been hearing about Uganda for so long and now he’s joining me on my annual pilgrimage back to the village. A huge thank you to Nicko not only for having the faith to follow me down the red dirt road – something I hope many more of you will do one day – but also for patiently receiving the bombardment of parcels from sponsors that I have been directing his way. Gifts for the children now take up 28 of his 30 kilo baggage allowance leaving him not a lot of space for his own clothes or belongings. That’s dedication. Luckily it’s warm on the equator.

This, my sixth trip back to Uganda, is a particularly special one. Six and a half years ago, I first tumbled onto African soil, wide-eyed, green, naïve, hopeful and full of aspirations to save the world. I quickly worked out the whole world might be a bit ambitious but I had to at least do something. Then I met Henry. He was twelve-years old, he had a smile as wide as the Sahara and enormous dreams to match. He wanted to go to secondary school. Thanks to mama and daddy-o, that dream has come true for Henry. And thanks to my other amazing sponsors, there are another 31 children able to continue their education. As I write, Henry and the original five sponsor students of 2009 are about to graduate from six years of secondary school. Nicko and I will be there to celebrate this incredible achievement and I can’t stop smiling thinking about it.

For those of you who have followed my trips since day one, a heartfelt thanks for your continuing support. Every single word of encouragement, every message, every conversation has spurred me on, enabling me to do what I do and I’m forever grateful for that. For those who are just joining the journey now, welcome. I hope you will enjoy being carried through the villages in my dusty backpack as much as I love sharing this adventure with you all.

Uganda awaits

It feels like an eternity since I last wrote – the past months have been full to bursting. But now, sitting in yet another airport, it seemed like an appropriate time to sit down and reestablish contact with the world. Outside the light is fading over Amsterdam where I have been for the past 24 hours for a brief but amazing catch up with a long lost friend I met one afternoon in the Greek Islands on the eve of my very first departure for Uganda. And here I am now, four and a half years later preparing to board my flight southbound, back to the African continent.

This trip to Uganda is about getting grounded, reconnecting with the village and catching up on the past year and a half since I was last there. In that time, thanks to so many of your generous donations, Mark House was completed and I can’t wait to see it with my own eyes and to visit all the boys who now call our dormitory home – there will be pictures coming for sure! Also, thanks to the incredible kindness of a few and the outstanding organisational skills of Madam Kirsty, we brought Dominic to the USA in July this year to speak at an educational conference in LA and attend an educational workshop in Florida. I can’t wait to hear all about it and, in Dominic’s words, to ‘compare stories of being American!’ I’m not quite sure I consider myself American after a year and a half in the States but will be hilarious to compare notes all the same…

I’ll be in the village for one month, and during that time I also plan to visit all of the sponsor children at their respective high schools on my magical mystery tour around the country with Rose as my co-pilot, navigating my way across the pitted roads, past the fish-sellers and fruit-laiden roadside stalls. It will be almost Christmas by the time I leave so I’m looking forward to having some pre-Christmas celebrations with the children and to spending time with those who are back at KAASO for the holidays.

It’s hard to believe I left my Bondi home in Sydney nearly two years ago. Since then, it’s been an incredible adventure of ever-changing horizons followed by planting my feet in one place for over a year – a rare miracle in my world. I met so many amazing people in San Francisco and it’s a really special feeling to be able to take your world with you – this travelling circus of people that follow the America’s Cup around the globe are like one big family to me. While the past year was marked with ups and downs, I ultimately left with great memories of the foggy city.

It’s a strange feeling now, sitting in a brightly lit room full of people going about their business, music playing, suitcases wheeling, laptops tapping, TVs buzzing and glasses clinking, knowing that this time tomorrow I will be back in the village, sitting outside under a tree, strumming my guitar and surrounded by singing, swaying, grinning little faces. I close my eyes and try to picture it and it still feels like another world, so very far.

But it’s undeniable, Uganda is calling me back. That dusty road is stretching before me and I can’t wait for the cacophony of sound, the flying hugs and tangle of limbs that await me. It’s been a while, but it’s time to return to my Ugandan home.

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From a foggy city to a village of hope

I have finally settled into a home on a hill where from my window the city of San Francisco sprawls across rolling hills and the fog, ever-present, hangs quietly overhead. It appears that after many, many months of roaming all four corners of the globe, this wanderer has finally put her feet to rest – at least for the time being. I moved to San Francisco a month ago and since then have traipsed far and wide across the city searching for a home, hiked vertical streets, dodged bell-ringing cable cars, and run around madly entertaining guests at sea and on land as the first San Francisco America’s Cup World Series event unfolded across the Bay. I have slowly begun to unpack and plant roots and, ultimately, come to love my new part of the world.

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Meanwhile, in Uganda, progress is being made. Since I last emailed from Paris, just one month ago, we have raised almost $5000 NZD – close to half of what we need to get this dormitory up off the ground. The pile of bricks we started with is rising and construction is ploughing forward. Thank you so very much to those of you who have donated so far, the gratitude flooding out of the village is overwhelming. If anyone else is still interested in donating, we have a truly incredible sponsor who has offered to match dollar for dollar any money received between now and the end of September! A very humbling show of generosity.

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There is a Canadian volunteer, Justin, at KAASO who has been keeping us updated on the dorm’s progress and sending through photos as construction continues. The goal is to have this building finished by the end of the year so it can be opened and the children can move in before Christmas.

Thanks so much to you all, from my little corner of San Francisco draped with African beads and dotted with Ugandan baskets…

Wanderings of Em

I currently find myself in a sun-drenched hotel room in Paris where my view consists of old brick buildings and spired domes, piercing the skyline. The windows are open and summer really feels as if it has arrived in Paris. Bliss.
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The past three months have been a whirlwind of travel, faces, places and ever-changing horizons. I left my Bondi home in March and flew to Paris where I started work immediately. I launched myself into Parisian life – with a warm coat, a woollen beret and plenty of wine and cheese to ease the transition from Sydney summer to a rather icy winter. I spring-boarded between Venice, Monaco, Naples, Newport, Verona and Paris in the build-up to the events that I was to be working on: the America’s Cup World Series in Naples, the Louis Vuitton Classic – a classic car rally from Monaco through France and Switzerland to Italy, and finally the America’s Cup World Series in Venice which saw super modern boats sailing against one of the world’s most ancient backdrops. It was like sailing in a painting.

I have met so many amazing people these past months, have paddled canals on gondolas, driven through snow-covered mountain passes while skiers fly by, watched yachts racing in the shadow of Mount Vesuvio, wound my way along the shores of Lake Garda at sunset, walked to work each day past the Louvre with the Eiffel Tower twinkling in the background, and island-hopped through the waters of Venice. Sometimes I have to pinch myself to see if it’s all real but I have been lucky enough to share it with a cast of wonderful characters along the way who help to keep things real amidst the madness.
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So now another page is turning. I am soon to be moving to San Francisco which is to become my home for the next 18 months. I am looking forward to setting up a life there, to wandering the winding streets, exploring bookshops, finding my local cafe and discovering another corner of the world in a city I love so much.

And, as I am always one for contrasts, I have just booked flights from the next regatta in Newport back to my African home – yes, I’m going back to Uganda. It’s only for two and a half weeks this time but every second I can have in the village is better than none. I am so incredibly excited to be reunited with Dominic and Rose and all the amazing people at KAASO and what makes it all the more special is that I will be with Cherie and Kirsty. The three of us haven’t been together since Kirsty flew out of Zanzibar in August 2009 so it will be a reunion to rival no other. I can’t wait to see the progress that has been made at the school and to be surrounded by the love and warmth of my Ugandan family once more.