Solitude was one of only five science fiction audiobooks nominated for the 2017 title. The awards ceremony takes place November 5 at The Lincoln Center in New York, so it looks like Donna and I will be doing some traveling this fall.
This episode of the Day in the Life – Africa series starts where Part 3 ended. Having finished our excursion to the island’s northeast corner for spear fishing and a visit to the Sofitel Resort, we are on our way back to the compound. Short on supplies, we stop at the island’s largest grocery store.
Grocery shopping in the developing world comes with its own set of challenges. Stocked levels of various goods vary radically from week to week. Often basic necessities are missing in action. Breakfast cereals occupy half an aisle, however, there’s no milk in sight. Eggs are a rare commodity. When you do find them, it looks like they rolled around the henhouse floor prior to finding their way to the store. Bread is a hit or miss proposal. If they have sliced bread, it may be too small to accommodate a slice of cheese. On the bright side, it makes sticking to a reduced carb diet a bit easier.
There are plenty of toiletries, i.e.: soap and deodorant, however, they are in a locked glass cabinet. Judging by the odoriferous scents assaulting my olfactory system, many of my fellow customers found that an insurmountable obstacle.
Due to shelf life concerns, all meats are frozen either uncut, or cut and thrown into a plastic bag. In our freezer, I have a several selections of meat. Typically, they’re frozen together by type. Want a pork chop? Break out your hammer and chisel (or the nearest kitchen utensils suitable to the task) and break one off the frozen block of pork chops.
I’m not complaining. The meats are good. It’s just a small example of the differences we face every day. Today I scored an incredible cut. Unfamiliar with the procedures for procuring the uncut meats, I show up at the cashier with a huge, frozen, ten-pound beef back-strap (a slab of meat big enough to produce ten filets). Apparently, I was supposed to take it to the meat counter for weighing and pricing. A helper runs it back while I continue to checkout. Shortly, he returns, the cashier rings it up, and I pay.
Here's a picture of my butchering efforts on said beef.
Back at the compound, I notice it was only marked at 5000 CFA ($10.00). I’m pretty sure that was a mistake. Had I noticed it at the store I would have pointed out the mistake. However, I won’t lose any sleep over it. A three-quarters full grocery cart that would cost you $75 in the states cost 100,000 CFA ($200) here.
Groceries put away, it’s time for Hin’s cookout. As you may recall from Part 3, tonight Hin, our Thai helicopter mechanic is cooking dinner.
With team members from Thailand, South Africa, Canada, Sri Lanka, Trinidad, Sweden, Denmark, Holland, Germany, the United States, and parts of Louisiana, our base is a multi-cultural, international collection of aviation professionals. With the industry, our current assignment, and a working knowledge of the English language (excepting our Cajun friends … kidding) as common ground, we’ve formed close ties. An eclectic collection of individuals (some more eccentric then eclectic) from radically differing backgrounds, we work in harmony (for the most part).
Speaking of eccentric, here’s our beloved, senior-most pilot, Jack, keeping the bushes trimmed. (We have people for that, but this is Jack’s Zen escape.)
While Hin works on dinner under our covered, outdoor dining area, Jack decides it’s time to burn a stump. Standing around the fire, we fluctuate between animated conversations and silently gazing into the flames. Staccato laughter pierces the hushed interludes. Watching the Harmattan-obscured sunset, we talk, laugh, and reflect.
“Dinner is ready!” shouts Hin.
Taking our places, we dine on Hin’s excellent cuisine. Feasting in relative silence, we proffer compliments through full mouths.
After dinner, we drink, laugh, and swap war stories. As dark envelopes the compound, the evening settles down. Chased inside by swarming tropical insects, a few of us decide to head to the Malabo’s Irish Pub (yep, there’s an Irish Pub in Equatorial Guinea). Armed with a designated driver, and firm in the knowledge that we’re not on tomorrow’s work schedule, it’s time to immerse ourselves in Malabo’s nightlife.
Who knows? We might not limit ourselves to the Irish Pub. But, that’s a tale I’ll save for Part 5.
Sofitel Beach: Islet and footbridge on left, tip of jetty on far right.
This installment of the Day in the Life – Africa series picks up where Part 2 ended. Come along as my colleagues and I immerse ourselves in Malabo’s culture. As I did in the previous parts, this story combines several African experiences into one day.
Having finished spear fishing outside the Sofitel Resort’s beach perimeter jetty, we decide to visit the resort. When crashing a resort you’re not paying to stay at, one must act as if one belongs. Don’t ask stupid questions. Walk around as if you own the place. Additionally, patronizing the resort’s various businesses tends to dissuade nosey busybodies from challenging the validity of your presence.
Cascading Fountains and Pool Leading to the Beach.
Employing this knowledge, we walked straight through the lobby into the resort’s inner sanctum. Knowing nothing screams ‘I don’t belong’ louder than a lost and confused face, I scanned my peripheral vision for the appropriate ocean-side exit. Not turning my head, (and with Mission Impossible’s iconic theme song driving me inexorably onward) I spot my quarry, and make a casual course correction. Passing through the exit, we find ourselves in a beautifully landscaped series of fountains and falls that lead to the pool and beach beyond.
On the left, or west side, of the resort’s quarter-mile section of the mile long beach, a modern foot bridge spans a few hundred feet of clear blue water to a small tropical island centered in the lagoon. A dense native jungle covers the rocky islet. Told it features a short nature trail we decide to do some exploring.
Crossing the footbridge, we step onto the rocky island. Greeted by a microcosm of the local (and hopefully tame) flora and fauna, we explore the trails, finding giant trees and colorful wildlife that would look at home on James Cameron’s fictional planet Pandora in the movie Avatar.
Feet sore, and tired of fighting off malarial mosquitos, we cross back to the beach. After a ‘cooling’ dip in the warm water we spread towels on the coral sand and try to relax and enjoy the thermonuclear equatorial sun.
Exploring Sofitel's Islet with Rob and Tomo.
While my colleagues seem content to cycle in and out of the water, I feel a more energetic activity tugging at my conscience. Half a mile beyond the bridge, farther west on the same beach on which we’re slowly baking, I’ve spied a Jet Ski or personal watercraft (PWC), sitting idle on a floating dock.
Standing facing west, and employing my best Arnold impersonation, I say, “I’ll be back.”
Walking west, I cross several ice-cold springs bubbling up through the sand. Stepping through their ocean-bound streams, I find the day’s first cool respite.
Finally reaching the floating dock, I inquire about renting the PWC. After a bit of negotiating we settle on a fair price. Since I’m restricted to the relatively small patch of lagoon bracketed by the beach, the footbridge to the east, and the western jetty, I decide to limit the rental to fifteen minutes. Pointing at a military gunboat visible in the open ocean and framed by the gap formed by the islet on the right and the western jetty on the left, the proprietor informs me I’ll have to deal with them if I go beyond the gap.
My wish to retreat into a mirage of western civility evaporates into the ether.
I Got This!
Mounting the Yamaha Waverunner, I spend the next quarter-hour putting the PWC through its paces, doing my utmost to extract every penny from my investment. Fifteen minutes of flat spins, tail stands, and nose tucks later, I see the proprietor beckoning. After a high-speed pass, which may or may not have spayed him, I pull it onto the PWC’s specially formed section on the plastic floating dock, in spite of his telling me he has to do that. “I Got This!” Not my first rodeo.
Deciding to call it a day, we pile into the Toyota Hilux and begin working our way through town. Here are a couple of pics taken along the way.
Hin, our Thai helicopter mechanic, is cooking tonight. We should arrive with enough time to cleanup before its dinnertime. In the meantime, we need to stop for groceries.
Hmmm, third world grocery shopping … sounds like the next part of the series.
Sofitel's Beach (Back Left), Eastern Jetty and Tropical Islet (Far Back Left)
In Part 1 I took you through a somewhat typical (albeit short) workday. Part 2 of this multi-part series brings you along as my colleagues and I immerse ourselves in Malabo’s culture (or lack thereof, depending on your perspective). As I did in the first part, this telling of the tale is an amalgamation of events spread across my time in West Central Africa.
Having finished our workday at the unusually early time of 7:30AM, four of us pile into our Toyota Hilux, (a virtually indestructible pickup truck according to the boys over at Top Gear) and head to Bioko Island’s northeast corner. Our destination is the beautiful and opulent Sofitel Resort. Their manmade beach, spear fishing-tastic perimeter jetties, and boat/personal watercraft rentals, coupled with a Caribbean style resort, make it the perfect getaway for Africa-weary world travelers.
Completing the thirty-minute trek, we arrive too early for beachside sunbathing, instead opting for the eastern perimeter jetty. It’s spear fishing time. While I’ve done it in the Caribbean, this is my first foray into West Central Africa’s shark-infested waters, with the intention to spill fish blood. (Hey, we’re helicopter pilots; we fear hard work more than death.)
Having donned our masks, snorkels, and fins, we slide into the warm water. Now we have entered the food chain … and not at the top. Harassing my wetsuit wearing compadres, I taunt, “Pussies.” (Ten jellyfish stings later, I decided next time I’ll join the estrogen-embracing ranks.)
Our prized catch is the large red snappers that live in the jetty’s numerous hidey-holes. Unlike many fish that will swim directly in front of you—begging to be shot—red snappers are as skittish as a long-tailed cat trapped in a square dancing convention. One must employ guile and cunning tactics to even see one, let alone fire on it.
Most of the quarter-mile long jetty sits in thirty feet of water. One effective tactic employed free-diving 30′ down to the sandy bottom at the jetty’s edge. You had to take a good gulp of air, because once there, you needed to lay motionless for the better part of a minute before a red snapper would decide the coast is clear, and venture into your sights.
William, a French engineer from our compound, had great success hovering in a three-foot thick layer of muddy water that occupied the ocean’s surface for the first thirty yards of the leeward side of the jetty. Opposite the beach, the water on that side dropped to thirty feet deep within a few feet of the shore. The fish in the perfectly clear water under William’s murky observation point never spotted his mask and speargun jutting from the muddy water overhead.
Niko, one of our South African helicopter mechanics, spots a couple of large fish near the tip of the jetty. Diving down, stalking his prey, he chases them into the rocks where they affect their escape. Looking up to begin his ascent, he finds a large barracuda overhead. Drawing a bead, he shoots it, catching the huge fish center-of-mass. In an instant, his $200 speargun explodes from his hand and disappears toward the horizon. Chasing the bubbles left in its wake, Niko searches in vain for the fish and gun. After foraying a couple of hundred meters into the open ocean, he begins to feel exposed, (here there be monsters) and dejected, returns to the relative safety of the jetty.
Working my way along the jetty, I spot an area teaming with marine activity. Applying my newly acquired tactics, I hyperventilate for a few seconds, take a Texas-sized gulp of air, and dive thirty feet to the rocky sand at the jetty’s edge. Lying motionless at the foot of a mountain of four to six foot thick boulders, I try not to think about how distant the surface looks. Thousands of small tropical fish slide in and out of the gaps in the rocks. The sound of my heartbeat mixes with the ever-present clicks and ticks of coral-based life. Just as my oxygen begins to wane, I see a big red snapper venturing from a nearby hidey-hole. For a second, it swims right at me. Slowly, I point the spear at him. At two meters, it sees me, or the movement, and darts sideways just as I pull the trigger. Catching the snapper dead center, I begin my ascent.
The surface never looked so far. My chest heaves involuntarily, my body’s self-defense mechanism working to draw in air. Mouth clamped shut against my insistent lungs I continue to rise. Breaching the surface, I shout in victory (between huge breaths).
Searching the jetty’s edge, I spot a speargun-less Niko next to the dive buoy and fish line. He’s hundreds of yards farther up the jetty … go figure. After ten or fifteen minutes of swimming with a large bleeding fish in tow, and having acquired a following of four circling barracudas, I finally reach Niko. Handing him my speargun, I tell him to try to hold on this time.
Speargun-less, I grab my iPhone in its Lifeproof waterproof cover and shoot a fifteen-minute underwater HD video. The results are spectacular. Here’s a short clip: iPhone Underwater Video Clip (If the video doesn’t play in your browser, right-click the link and save it to your computer. Then play it with your favorite video software.)
After three hours, and with a plentiful bounty, (and minus one speargun) we call it a day (the fishing part of it anyway). William, who needs to pick up his wife at the French embassy, takes the fish and gear while the rest of us head into the resort for a little exploration.
However, that’s a tale I’ll save for the next part of the series.
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.