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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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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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Leaving Amsterdam

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‘You have four minutes!’ proclaimed the short middle-aged blonde woman behind the train station’s ticket counter.

Not thinking I had cut it quite that close I stare back with wide-eyed incredulity. ‘Four minutes? There should be more time than that.’

Shaking her head she tells me they recommend international departures arrive one hour prior to departure. ‘But that’s obviously not possible in this case…’ she concludes curtly in her Dutch accent.

Two minutes into my remaining ‘four minutes’ we conclude the transaction. I give a rushed hug and farewell to Naomi, my traveling companion these past four days, and break into an all-out sprint for track 10B.

Roughly two minutes later (according to the clock in my head) I crest the stairs to track 10B. Sure enough there’s a train there.

Approaching I notice the conductors are stepping onto the train. Of course none of them are close enough to speak to. Breaking into a sprint (again) I dart through the nearest open train door.

Knowing I hadn’t had time to verify the train number and sure that Murphy’s Law is still firmly in place, I run through the train in search of a conductor; finally finding one just as the doors slide closed.

Breathless I hand her the ticket. Between wheezes I manage, ‘Right train?’

The train starts moving.

I already know the answer. With timing like this how can it be anything other than no?

Looking up from the ticket, she shakes her head, my intuition proves correct.

Damn!

After reviewing the train schedule for a minute she tells me the train I was supposed to board was pulling into the station when we left. Turns out I had ‘four minutes’ before boarding was to start, not before boarding was to complete.

Uggg!

(Wait, it gets better … or worse.)

She advises me to get off at the next station and catch the next train back to the starting point, stating, ‘There’s one every ten minutes.’ She goes on to tell me that once I’m back at Amsterdam Central I can try again.

Five minutes later I step from the train onto the platform. Crossing to the opposite side I take refuge behind a schedule board. It’s cold as hell (why do we say that? It’s supposed to be hot there, right?), and I didn’t dress for extended exposure to Amsterdam’s December weather.

Studying the board behind which I’m sheltering I see the train should be here in ten minutes. I thought to myself: Self, there’s a train every ten minutes and you get here just after one departs … thanks Murphy!

Five minutes later I wave as my originally assigned HiSpeed train to Berlin whizzes past.

Five minutes after that the station’s public address system crackles to life. I figure it must be announcing the next arrival so emerging from my hidey-hole I walk up to the tracks, craning my neck to glimpse the approaching transport. All I see is my fellow passenger-wanna-be’s heading for the exit.

WTF!?!

Chasing one down I ask what happened. He says the announcement stated a jumper has thrown himself in front of the HiSpeed train and all trains in the area will be delayed at least an hour.

HiSpeed Train … that name sounds familiar.

(Told you it gets better … or worse.)

Working my way to the surface streets I search for a cab or bus. No cabs in sight. The first bus stop I check doesn’t go to Central, neither does the second, or third. Finally I find a busy bus stop. There’s even a bus at it. I ask the driver if he goes to Central.

‘No,’ he says. Then points at the back of a bus two blocks ahead and getting farther. It has the number ten displayed on its rear.

“You need bus number ten.”

Shaking my head I say, “Let me guess, there will be another one in ten minutes.”

Looking impressed he nods, “Ya.”

I step out of his bus onto the curb. It starts to rain. It’s almost cold enough to snow … but not quite.

I refer you back to the middle of this blog, that part where I said I wasn’t dressed properly for December in Amsterdam.

Yeah, thanks again Murphy.

On the bright side, I’ve spoken with Naomi. Having a hunch that things might not work out as planned she is still at Amsterdam Central.

God bless her.

Ten minutes later, icicles hanging from my nose, I board the ’10’ bus and head back to Central (along the way snapping a photo of one of Holland’s iconic windmills).

Lost in Translation.

There are two stops labeled ‘Amsterdam Central’ along the ’10’ bus’ route. As he pulls up to the first I ask the bus driver which one is closer to the ticket counter. He says the first one. So I exit.

This doesn’t feel like the closest side. After walking along the station’s very long front I reach the far end (you know, the one closest to the ticket counter) just in time to see the ’10’ bus pulling away from the second ‘Amsterdam Central’ stop.

Murphy rears his ugly head yet again.

Side Note: I’m not a negative person and while this was a frustrating chain of events, the whole time I kept thinking, ‘Well, at least you’ll get a helluva blog out of this,’ and ‘You’ll get to give Naomi a proper farewell.’

Speaking of … arriving at the correct end of the station I see Naomi waiting for me.

‘Am I glad to see you!’

After rebooking my trip we have thirty minutes to kill (my arrival in Berlin has only been delayed by two hours). Naomi and I search for a Parisian style train station pub. Finding none we settle for a place selling rabbit food and wine.

Sitting down I ask, ‘So how’s your day going?’

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