More thrilling than two weeks in Ibiza!
PAUL Ford works at HSBC's international headquarters in London Docklands, where he's one of 8,000 staff. He commutes to the capital from Colchester and is based on the 40th level of the Canada Square skyscraper, working on the HSBC Premier Bank Account.
PAUL Ford works at HSBC's international headquarters in London Docklands, where he's one of 8,000 staff. He commutes to the capital from Colchester and is based on the 40th level of the Canada Square skyscraper, working on the HSBC Premier Bank Account. To qualify for one of those, you need a biggish mortgage, sizeable savings and/or a very decent income.
But for 10 days this summer you'd have found him instead in a tiny village in Kenya - population about 1,000 - where spare shillings are hard to come by, a football shirt is the equivalent of about two months' salary, and where a local fisherman with a leaky house is having to buy a new roof bit by bit.
Thanks to the backing of his employer, Paul assisted with a project run by the Earthwatch Institute - a science-based conservation trust. He helped plant about 150 mangrove seedlings and collected scientific data.
During its five-year, £11 million programme Investing in Nature, HSBC is sending 2,000 staff volunteers to work on vital conservation research projects around the globe. Paul was one of them.
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Gazi lay nearly a two-hour drive south of Mombassa, close to the border with Tanzania. In the past many mangrove forests had been cleared for grazing - unwitting action that left the soil unable to support the remaining trees. To make matters worse, the lack of vegetation allowed the topsoil to dry out and be blown away.
Paul joined other volunteers there - two HSBC employees from the United States and six people from other parts of the world - and lived in local accommodation. His had a tin roof - something of a luxury item in the village. “You know you've started to make it when you have a tin roof there,” he laughs.
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Not surprisingly, the experience provided many memories to sustain him as he reacquainted himself with those often-delayed rail commutes on the Liverpool Street line.
“There was a fisherman who was so grateful to us for planting the trees because it brought the fish closer to shore and therefore easier to catch, and made the job less dangerous for him. That was very rewarding,” says Paul, who is 27.
Before he went, he was concerned what locals would think of rich Westerners swanning around a village that, largely, ekes out a living through fishing; but the welcome could not have been warmer.
“It sounds a cliché, but it really was the happiest place I've ever been to. Because they've generally got so little, they just enjoy everything they do have. Everyone knows everyone else's name and there are no locked doors.”
One fellow volunteer, a teacher from Holland, was so moved by the life and spirit of the village and its inhabitants that she's returning for a visit in December.
The locals were keen to talk. “The only way I can describe it is that it's like being a celebrity. The boys would want to tell you their story and to talk to you about football. They'd be saying 'Frank Lampard! Stevie Gerrard!'”
Ah yes, the international language of soccer. Someone in the village managed to get satellite TV and crowds would hand over the equivalent of about 10p for the privilege of watching English games.
“They knew everything about every incident that had happened in the last five or six years - who scored penalties and things like that!”
Paul hails from Manchester, and City is his side - although, since he's been living in Colchester, the U's have become his second team. He's sent some football scarves and shirts back to Kenya for his new friends to display on the walls.
During a welcoming ceremony in Gazi - full of atmosphere, with burning fires and drumming - Paul even taught his hosts some football chants!
Was it easy to settle back into English life, or did his mind stray to the more simple and less materialistic existence he'd briefly witnessed?
“It wasn't the kind of culture shock where you think 'I don't want to live like this any more.' I have experienced so many different types of lifestyle and ways of living. I've been to Saudi Arabia, for instance, which is a more set and religious society, and then to places which are more 'free'. Then Kenya had its different levels of wealth. I think wherever you are, you make yourself a life out of it.
“I'm quite happy with being here. I didn't come back and think that it is a horrible and evil society; I just think that, here, we have got an opportunity to make a real difference, and we have got to take the opportunity to influence all the people you can, rather than being in situ.”
Paul says he's not one to stand and shout like some campaigners - which he feels tends to alienate people. “I always think it's better to inspire people than bully them,” he smiles.
Instead, in a more softly-softly approach, he's happy to tell them what a great time he had in Kenya. With a bit of luck, someone might consider helping by sponsoring a child's education, for instance. (School fees are about £15 a month, which is unaffordable for many parents.)
The experience has certainly left its mark on Paul. “It's something I will remember for the rest of my life.”
IF you ever need someone to catch a kittiwake, Colin Richards is your man.
He leads a pretty rich and varied life. As a commercial manager for HSBC, he's out on the roads of Suffolk, looking after business customers with turnovers of £500,000 or so upwards. His 150 clients include enterprises as diverse as shipping-related firms, wholesale florists and opticians.
In his spare time, the father of two is heavily involved with local football: he manages Witnesham Wasps' under-15s boys' team, the under-13s girls, and is treasurer and secretary.
This year, he enjoyed a dramatic change of environment - spending a fortnight helping seabirds in Alaska with Earthwatch. As with Paul Ford, it came about thanks to HSBC's commitment to conservation.
While Britain was getting hotter and hotter, Colin's home for a fortnight or so was a tent on about 12 feet of snow at Shoup Bay. Although it was quite warm and pleasant during the day, with a lot of rain, the snow froze solid at night.
The temperature wasn't the only challenge. Not far away, in the mountains, were avalanches . . . and bears.
“You've got an air horn in your tent so that if a bear does come in the camp in the middle of the night you set that off,” he explains. “You're not allowed to take food into the tent, because any scent could prove an attraction.”
The party at times had to don orange immersion suits - hardly the height of fashion, but crucial to chances of survival if one fell into the numbing waters. For safety reasons, volunteers were also discouraged from wandering off alone.
There were also no phones.
“There was actually a tsunami warning on the Wednesday; we didn't get the message until the Thursday! But the tsunami didn't come,” says Colin, with a wry smile.
The nearest town was Valdez, 40 minutes away by boat and with a population of about 4,000. “We were allowed, with good behaviour, to go back there once a week for a shower!” It's America's most northerly ice-free port and is billed as the gateway to the interior of Alaska. Even so, it's not a big place and “you expected tumbleweed to come down the street”.
Valdez had been re-sited after the town was destroyed by an earthquake and tsunami in 1964. It's name is immortalised because of the Exxon Valdez oil-tanker spillage in 1989 that devastated the environment and its wildlife.
Colin, who's 42 and lives at Otley, near Ipswich, helped document the breeding activity of black-legged kittiwakes, murrelets and other seabirds during his fortnight's stay.
At the time he went, birds were returning to the bay area. The volunteers had a number of tasks. One was to add to data collected over the years. Working with binoculars from a five-metre inflatable boat, they identified birds - recognisable by coloured bands on their legs - and marked their position on the rock-face on a series of charts. The birds tend to return year after year.
The team also climbed on to the rock to catch birds - to mark any new ones or to adjust leg-bands that needed adjusting. Birds would also be weighed, and their wing and beak lengths measured.
The kittiwake is quite a small and docile gull, says Colin. “Well, they will peck you, and they do hurt a bit. But after being out there a while, your hands are so hard: it's cold, they're in seawater, you're holding ropes. Certainly the bigger glaucous-winged gulls, that are there as well, you wouldn't go near them because they'd attack you.”
The odd peck wasn't the only occupational hazard. The rock-face was unforgiving if you tumbled.
“I did fall down a cliff one day, about three metres, and got bruised. I stood on a nest that was mud, and it just gave way. I can tell you from experience that it hurts!”
The delicate balance of nature was something that struck Colin. “Predation is quite intense on the colony. They were telling me that three years ago, because the salmon run was late, all the predators went on to the colony and there wasn't a single kittiwake that survived.
“Everyday you'd see a bald eagle sitting on the top. And come off and sit on the water - the screech (from the colony) was loud! Carrion, too; and Hawks.
“You get to hate bald eagles. You want to make lots of noise and get rid of them! They're protected out there, though.”
He enjoyed the location: it was sufficiently rugged and posed a real physical and mental challenge. If truth be told, the duties themselves weren't overly stimulating; and being there for the first two weeks of the project meant bird numbers were only building slowly.
Colin would have loved to have been there later, to see the chicks hatching. “So in that respect it was disappointing. It wasn't that exciting work, but you did it for the scientists, and the respect you had for them - highly intelligent people that have given up essentially their lives to study a particular thing because it was so important to them.”
Aly McKnight and Kelsey Sullivan - partners in their personal lives as well as in scientific endeavour, and there with their young child - “could earn serious amounts of money, I'm sure, in industry, but they go back there year after year. If it hadn't been for Earthwatch, they would have had to stop, because they couldn't have afforded to do it”.
Did his mind often think of Alaska following his return to Suffolk?
“Yes; you would think 'I saw a hummingbird the other day, or a sea otter.' You try to equate that with your normal day-to-day environment. You haven't got mobile phones going out there, or the immediate pressures of work. It was nice to get away and have that break.”
Being close to wildlife, the peace and calm, and the stunning scenery - “out of this world” - made it a memorable trip.
A fellow volunteer was a lady called Karen, from Marks and Spencer's credit card arm (now under the HSBC umbrella). She was originally earmarked for a project involving catching and monitoring crocodiles in South America. “So she was quite pleased when it was changed!” laughs Colin.
Colin is happy to give talks to groups about his Alaska experience. As part of
HSBC's initiative, he also has £400 to give to a local organisation involved in conservation work. He can be contacted on email at email@example.com