Monthly archives "April"

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Third World Traveler’s Survival Guide

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Before delving into the next part of my Day in the Life – Africa series, I thought it would be useful to paint a picture of the daily trials we face simply traveling the roads. In the writing of this blog, I unintentionally created a how-to manual, a survival guide for navigating the dusty and often dangerous roads of the third world. I hope you enjoy.

As a general (read: universal) rule, driving in any third world country is an experience for which no amount of Western driving can prepare. In the states, if you honk at someone, you may literally be taking your life in your own hands (in the very least, you’ll be told you’re #1 with a middle finger). In the third world, horns are merely another form of communication.

It seems any vehicle you see through your front windshield has the right-of-way. This includes cars merging from intersecting roads and parking lots. If you fail to notify them of your presence through the liberal application of your horn, they will pull out in front of you. Why not? You’re not visible through their front windshield; therefore, you don’t exist.

Traffic signs, stoplights, and lane markings are more suggestion than hard fast rule. In many areas, paved roads (and the stripes that adorn them) are a relatively new addition. So, third world drivers feel no compunction to pick a lane. On highways and two-lane one-way roads, it is normal to see drivers straddling the dashed lane marker. If you approach from their rear, it is incumbent upon the driver wishing to pass to honk his horn (once again, liberally, you’re not in his front windshield). At this time, the stripe-straddler will SLOWLY give way, typically just enough to allow passage. Most times, his left wheels are still riding the stripe.

Another rule, one you’ve no doubt heard in your homeland: He who hesitates is lost. It’s true everywhere, however, third world drivers take it to another level. Not unlike Chevy Chase’s roundabout scene in National Lampoon’s European Vacation, one must stick one’s nose in aggressively if one wishes to get anywhere, lest they find themselves making multiple patterns around a closed loop.

A colleague once described third world traffic as flowing water. I’ll add to the analogy. If you hesitate, i.e.: fail to flow, you become an eddy; the river parts, flowing around your idling whirlpool. You must proactively pull in front of oncoming traffic. This puts you in their windshield, and, as stated previously, grants you right-of-way.

Walking amongst this maelstrom is a challenge of a different sort. The same co-worker who coined the flowing water analogy related his experiences from a recent assignment in Vietnam. The primary mode of transportation is via scooter or moped. Their numbers far outstrip those of cars. Roundabouts offer relatively smooth merging of multiple roads, eliminating the need for the wasteful starts and stops generated by normal intersections. If a pedestrian wishes to cross a road leading into a roundabout, he or she must un-haltingly step into the flow of traffic. The scooter riders will aim for where you are, with the assumption you won’t still be there when they get there. Walk steadily and the traffic will flow like a stream around a moving rock. Hesitate and you’re liable to be run over.

Using taxis in the third world comes with its own set of rules. Looking like demolition derby finalist, they’re typically covered with dented panels and broken windows. Employing vehicular Darwinism, I try to pick a cab with minimum damage; steadfastly refusing to enter ones with partially caved-in windshields.

Always negotiate your rate upfront. There’s typically no meter in these cabs. Over a decade ago, my friend Richard Hernandez and I were traveling across Europe. While I wouldn’t classify the Czech Republic as a third world country, at the time it was less than ten years since it emerged from behind the iron curtain, and things were still a bit dicey. After a few days of partying in Prague, Richard and I made our way to the train station to catch the EuroRail to Berlin. Prague has two main train stations. Unfortunately, we picked the wrong one. Upon realizing our mistake, we dashed from the station, jumped into the nearest taxi, shouted for him to take us to the other station and, “Step on it!”

We knew the rule to negotiate in advance, but knowing we were about to miss our train we didn’t. Upon arriving at the other train station, the driver demanded Czech korunas in an amount equivalent to $40US. Had we negotiated in advance, it would’ve been in the $7 range. We handed him the equivalent of $10 and turned to walk in the station. The cabbie then started yelling for the police. With no time to spare—and no desire to take our chances with a soviet style prison—we capitulated, throwing the demanded korunas at the thieving bastard’s feet.

Finally, most countries have a standard paint scheme for their cabs. In the third world, never get in a non-conforming vehicle offering transportation for hire. While in the West unlicensed cabs are usually entrepreneurs operating on the fringe, in the third world, it’s often a path to a mugging or kidnapping.

I hope these hard-learned pearls of wisdom have amused as much as informed. Travel safe my friends.

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A Day in the Life – Africa Part 1

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The Author at Work in the Gulf of Guinea.

I’m often asked what it’s like to work, fly, and live in Africa. This telling of the story is an amalgamation of some of my African aviation and cultural experiences. Part 1 portrays the working part of our day, while Part 2 and beyond depicts our off time and the cultural experience that is sub-Saharan West Africa.

So, without further ado:

BEEP, BEEP, BEEP!

The beautiful blonde’s smile falters, Wait don’t go.

BEEP, BEEP, BEEP!

Reaching for her hand, I grasp only air, You’re fading away…

BEEP, BEEP, BEEP!

Ah crap, it was just a dream. A smile crosses my sleepy face. But what a beauty … it was a nice dream.

BEEP, BEEP, BEEP!

Groping in the dark, I find the source of the cacophony: my iPhone. Bleary eyed and squinting, I study its face.

4:20am … Ugggh.

Thus starts a typical African day.

Resolved to begin another of my forty-two straight work days, yet not quite ready to leave the warm cocoon of my bed, I check in on a couple of my social media sites. (Love my iPhone; it’s like a miniature laptop without all the fuss.)

4:20am here equates to 10:40pm in the Central Time Zone. Various friends are wishing each other good night. I throw out a few goodnights/mornings.

Fully awake I slide from under the covers into the air-conditioned room’s chilly air. Proud of my manhood, yet concerned the effects of cold-induced shrinkage might become permanent, I quickly wrap a towel around myself, grab my shaving kit, and head for the warmer climes of my bathroom.

Thirty minutes later—showered, shaved, and dressed—we head to work. On this contract, we fly our helicopters out of Malabo’s Santa Isabel Airport.

It’s Saturday, we only have one flight today. Scheduled for a six AM departure, the total round trip should take less than an hour. One of us handles the flight planning while the other does all the day’s flying. We share the load and take turns, either flying or doing the radio/paperwork thing on an every other day basis.

Today it’s my turn to fly. (Beats working for a living.)

Flightplan filed, passengers loaded, and engines started, we receive our movement clearance. As I taxi to the active runway, the non-flying pilot reads off the checklist. I confirm the items and reply in the affirmative.

Centered on the runway, checklists complete, and in position, we receive our takeoff clearance. Announcing ‘Lifting,’ I bring the fourteen-seat helicopter to a low, stationary hover, and after a final check of the instruments and flight controls, tilt the helicopter forward, increase power, and accelerate down the runway. In seconds, we accelerate through 100mph as we climb at 800 feet per minute. Crossing three hundred feet AGL (Above Ground Level), we retract the gear, turn on course, and continue our climb to 2000 feet.

Early Morning in the Gulf of Guinea Oil Patch.

Completing all required radio calls, we navigate to the rigs, land, unload arriving passengers, and load the returning passengers. Departure checks and procedures complete, we begin our return trip to planet earth (or at least the small chunk of it known as Equatorial Guinea’s Bioko Island). En route we spot something vaguely reminiscent of a life raft—low in the water, its white edges surround central dark protrusions.

Dropping to a lower altitude, we turn to intercept and identify the object. At closer range, it hasn’t resolved. Then we spot an identifiable feature. A huge, surreal tailfin is dangling from one end of the mass. Bleached white by the sun and salt, the whale’s bloated skin and blubber are bobbing like a Styrofoam cork. The dark shapes protruding from its center are ribs and decaying entrails. A huge shark dines on the fetid feast. We see pods of whales all the time; however, this is the first dead one for us. Firm in the knowledge that, save a Joana-want-to-be, there are no sailors waiting for rescue, we turn toward the airport.

Onboard radar shows a significant line of showers approaching the airport from the opposite direction. Ordered to hold for landing traffic we orbit two miles north of the airport. This affords us the opportunity to watch as a lifting ship floats a GIANT drilling rig on its cargo deck.

USS Cole Aboard Lifting Ship.

For scale, it’s the same class and size of the pictured vessel that brought back the USS Cole after it was bombed in Yemen.

Finally cleared, and with the impressive monsoon bearing down on us, we land mid-field, abeam our hangar, and taxi the short distance to our refueling point. As we complete our shutdown, the plane that delayed our arrival taxis past. It’s an Antonov AN-124, the world’s second biggest airplane.

World's Second Largest Airplane in Malabo.

For Scale, Here's a NASA File Photo of an AN-125.

Our passengers and cargo are unloaded, and the aircraft is refueled.

With the storm bearing down on us, the maintenance crew moves the helicopter into the hangar. The black clouds are ready to make their contribution to Bioko Island’s annual 300+ inches of rain.

Taking shelter from the downpour, we complete the paperwork, (the work is not complete until the paperwork is). Loading into the company bus, we head back to the compound.

7:30am and the day’s work is complete. This doesn’t happen often, but I’ll take it when it does. I regularly joke that I don’t work for a living. And if it wasn’t for the ever-present danger of malaria, military coups, internment in a third world prison for taking pictures (it has happened), and the(remote) potential to contract a parasite that takes six years of treatment to rid … this would be a cake job.

But I digress.

Where was I? Oh, on the way to the compound we spot a small Isuzu pickup with twelve Chinese laborers in its bed. Equatorial Guinea’s oil production has led to rapid growth and significant improvements in infrastructure. Chinese contractors do Ninety-five percent of the related construction. Ex-Soviet Ukrainian troops and Air Forces in Russian equipment provide military security. Thus I am surrounded by Chinese workers while sharing airspace and ramp-space with ex-Soviet troops and airmen in uniforms and equipment that, two short decades ago, I’d only seen in grainy black & white photos (presumably snuck out of the USSR by Cold War era spies) … who’d a thunk it.

Back at the compound, a few of us decide to head to the Sofitel Resort on the island’s northeast corner. It’s time for some spearfishing and jet skiing.

However, I’ll save that for Part 2.

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