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Day in the Life – Africa Part 4

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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.

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A Day in the Life – Africa Part 3

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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.

F#%k it.

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.

Malabo Mall

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.

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A Day in the Life – Africa Part 2

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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.

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The Road to Africa

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Following my three-week biker pilgrimage to Daytona Beach’s Biketoberfest via Panama City’s Thunder Beach Motorcycle Rally I broke camp and along with my new friend Naomi (Nene) hit the road. As you read in my last blog Nene, my new fellow world-traveling friend, was planning to hit New Orleans as the next stop in her great American backpack tour. Having previously decided to hit NOLA for a night or two en route to Houston it was a good fit for both of our schedules.

The trip was incredible. The interpersonal chemistry and easy conversations survived the ten plus hours of road time. We made it to the quarter and spent the next two days exploring the city. Wonderful memories and lots of fuel for my next blog to be sure. (Here’s her blog about it). Had a great time but after two days reality set in and I packed up, bid a sad farewell to Nene and headed to Houston with only two days to spare before my next African work hitch.

Back in Houston I spent the next 48 hours visiting family and friends, packing for a six-week work trip and two-week European vacation, and prepping the truck and trailer for long-term storage. I rented a covered space for the winter. It was big enough to accommodate them both with room to spare.

With all my affairs in order (sounds serious, huh?) I boarded a flight to Paris, France. I do enjoy flying Air France. What’s not to love about an airliner that brings you all the Champagne, beer, wine, and gourmet-ish food you want at no charge? The first time I flew Air France the person in front of me ordered Champagne and a Heineken … at the same time! Amazed, I followed suit, asking if I could have the same. To my delight the flight attendant smiled and said, ‘Oui.’

Nirvana!

Anyway, I digress. Upon arrival I set upon the torturous transit to my connecting flight’s terminal. Where the French excel in the form of culture and dining they more than make up for in their horrible airport layout and transit system. While most airports have trams linking widely separated terminals Charles de Gaul Airport relies upon a bus system whose pickup point takes twenty minutes to get to, then runs every twenty minutes, and whose circuitous routing takes twenty minutes to get to your desired terminal. Thus what takes as little as ten minutes in Atlanta takes an hour in Paris.

Suitably down trodden (by French ground transportation standards) I finally made it to the gate. I hopped on the Air France flight to Malabo, sat back and ordered my now traditional glass (disguised as a plastic cup) of Champagne and frosty mug (disguised as a can) of Heineken.

Nine hours later I stepped from the plane’s cool and comparatively fragrant air into Malabo’s dank, rank atmosphere. While I try to enjoy my time in Africa, I’m quickly reminded of one of the reasons I didn’t want to come back. Regular bathing hasn’t quite caught on. For the most part it’s not a matter of logistics. Many times I’ve picked up local oil workers who have spent days to weeks on well stocked, billion dollar offshore oil facilities with excellent accommodations, private showers, and all the soap you can use. Dressed in their best ‘going-home-to-mama’ clothes they smell like a July to August vintage hobo.

Once again, I digress. On the positive side I’ve arrived on the night the Marathon Oil facility throws their biweekly ‘Quiz Night.’ Knowing I was returning that evening my Norwegian friend Heidi has thoughtfully included me in the invitations she attains from her contacts at Marathon.

Unwilling to surrender to the jetlag nipping at the edge of consciousness I unpack and freshen up. We head to Marathon, crossing from the dirt filmed roads and purely African roadside scenery into the surreally disconnected facility. We drive between homes whose style and landscaping would look perfectly at home in Suburbia, USA. I feel like I’ve received a temporary reprieve from the governor. As much as I love travel and experiencing different cultures and ways of life I do love the comforts of home. So with my true immersion into African culture put off a day we arrive at the quiz’s location.

It’s a fun event that takes place at the facility’s recreation center. Two-for-one cocktails and free food capped off with several rounds of trivia quizzes. After some delicious dinner and cold beers we divide into company-based teams and move to the quiz area. After lots of laughter, and several quiz rounds on various subject matters from inane to insane we end up scoring in the middle. Not that anyone cares what place you come in (although there is a steep punishment for winning – you must generate and host the next biweekly trivia quizzes). Since your neighboring team grades your answers there’s light-hearted scuttlebutt that some teams elevate scores of their rivals to ensure the other team gets to host the next event.

Happy we haven’t pissed anyone off enough to receive that punishment, and pleased with our middle of the road placing, we stroll back to our cars. Subdued, riding in silence, African scenery supplants Suburbia as we pass through the gates … back to reality (smells and all).

I look at my watch’s date window…

Only 41 days to go.

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