Thursday, February 09, 2012

Angola Sejour en Mer: January 1998

To:       Hillary Maalouf
Subject:          Séjour en Mer

Bonjour mon cherie,

I am currently on the plateforme COBO1 with Fred.  We are giving a seminar on machinery diagnostics and the use of ADRE, our field diagnostics data acquisition software/hardware.  It is about 120 km from shore about 230 km nw from Luanda, Angola.  Every one on board here smokes except Fred and me.  At least there is no smoking in class while class is going.  That doesn't stand for breaks. 

The flight in was interesting.  The flight here left Bruxelles at 23h00 Thursday.  It was pretty full.  Business class and first was full of texans from Texaco.  In fact, I watched a drunk cowboy try and hit on a blonde a few rows up all night long.  It was pretty funny.  The people around and the person he was leaning over to must have been enraged by the time the sun came out.  I had trouble sleeping.  I was in the middle seat between fred and a stranger.  C'est normal.  We arrived in Luanda around 08h30.  The plane was on the tarmac, so we descended onto the tarmac.  It was a little strange looking at a 747 from below it.  It just made the size more impressive.  There were some UN planes and UN trucks.  Also there were a few trucks for some relief agencies.  It all was so close and real at that point.  We were in what they call in France black africa.  We spent about one and a half hours getting through the passport check.  The people were smoking in line too.  We got our 200 kg of baggage ok.  We paid 7000 francs to have it sent as extra baggage.  There were three local teenagers who helped us with our baggage. They just started helping without any prompting.  We were easy targets.  Getting through customs wasn't too bad.  The customs agent asked us to open about half of the cases.  He was quite shocked at the high tech metal things like the rotor kit and all the electronic accessories, that probably looked a lot like bombs.  He therefore called his supervisor who asked for a list of material, then he took it away, and brought it back with a stamp and a signature.  This was a list to ensure we take out what we brought in.  We made to the curb and waited for our contact from elf exploration angola.  The kids asked for money so we gave some to them in dollars.  Everyone says dollars are good just about everywhere.  It was quite strange on the curb.  We waited there for about an hour and a half.  It was a long wait.  There were about 50 locals, adolescents to old people.  Most of them were black with a few white people peppered in there.  The white people were either oil people, missionaries, or the few medical people who were from the medcins sans frontiers group that we saw in the tent by St. Pierre's Cathedral in Nantes.  It was quite noisy and bustling.  It was kind of nerve racking.  I was trying to keep an eye on the equipment while Fred looked for our contact.  These people, mostly kids, came up to our equipment and looked at the pile of equipment about the size of a small car in France.  The official Bently Nevada baggage porters hung out and kept us company.  They didn't speak french or english.  They spoke portugese, the official language of Angola.   While we were waiting, a guy who spoke french, offered to take us to the elf hotel.  He said “I am Taximan”.  I don't think he was legitimate, meaning he didn’t have a license.  He probably wasn't going to kill us, but I didn't want to take the chance.  Thoughts of being left in the desert without all my stuff kind of overrode the urge to get out of there.  He was actually nice, and he even knew all the cops all around.  There were a lot of cops or military.  They were dressed in army style clothes with combat boots and berets.  There were a few kids around with shoe polishing kits, who polished the shoes of all the officials.  The officials stood with one foot on the kit looking all pompous and proud.  There was a chain to limit the people from entering the airport with cops manning the chain.  The people would crowd around and bustle about.  I guess a kid got too rowdy and the cop frapped him in the lip.  He immediately went and found a rock, picked it up, returned and began to yell and scream at the cop.  A headline flashed through my head AMERICAN KILLED IN RIOT IN ANGOLAN AIRPORT.  Or during a riot, all the equipment disappears.  Nothing really happened.  The tension was relieved to my normal waiting on the curb level. 

Fred finally found someone from the elf hotel who was there by chance.  We loaded our volkswagon size equipment into his not too much bigger than a volkswagon little truck and went to the hotel.  The streets were as could be imagined.  But packed with people.  Selling anything from cokes, fruit, fish to large mousetraps about the size to catch a small house cat.  Makes you shudder to think of the size of the varmits they are made for.  A lot of the women were selling stuff.  They carried thier wares on top of their heads like you see in tribal films of Africa.  There were a lot of people sitting around too.  Wherever there was shade, there were people in it.  Including the airport runway which had old planes along the sidelines which have been slowly picked over for spare parts.  The wings provided the shade from the equatorial sun.  We passed through some pretty shady looking places.  I got kind of worried when the driver left the big unorganized streets to these little unorganized streets.  And then I thought it was all over when we went from the little unorganized streets to a smaller alley.  Happily, we got to the hotel.  Outside the hotel it was like any other rundown third world building.  Inside, it was like any three star hotel in France.  A nice bar, nice french restaurant.  Kind of like a little france haven inside the chaos of the street.  It was quite strange.  The difference between inside to outside was quite black and white, literally.  The clients inside were white, and the servers black.  Everyone outside was black.  I felt uncomfortable with the difference.  Outside in the streets, kids were crawling through the garbage.  Inside we were eating a very good french meal with wine and fromage, the whole bit.  We found out that the Machinery Diagnostics Course was going to be on the plateforme.  We would leave immediately after lunch.  We picked up the people in the class on the way back to the airport.  One of the roads was being repaved.  We took a detour through some even poorer places.  We were going so slow, long enough for all the people in the street to stare at the van load of us and our equipment.  It was equally as uncomfortable.  Through all my worrying, there was no sign of any trouble. 

We arrived at the airport again.  We un-loaded our equipment and waited there inside for our helicopter.  The people there were a lot more well off than most of the people in the streets.  I guess they had more money, since they were travelling by air.  There were a lot of women dressed in some really beautiful colorful african clothes.  The type of dresses where they are just a piece of material wrapped around artistically with the head wrap also.  It was refreshing.  There were a lot of mothers with their infants/toddlers strapped to there backs with a simple piece of cloth, creatively tied around the waist.  The kids just slept or observed contently from their post.  We were about 8 and our luggage about 250 kg.  They decided to ship us in two loads.  The people and the equipment weighed too much for one helicopter.  The little door to the gate area was quite crowded.  I was packed with people trying to get in with cops limiting the number inside to the gate area.  The people had tickets to get in and we didn’t.  But we got in.  We were all white and the others not let in were all black.  Another instance of the difference of black and white.  Not at all comfortable with the blatant difference in treatment. 
In contrast to the helicopter to the plateforme in the north sea, there were no thermal safety suits and no dry suits.  The water here is quite warm in equatorial africa.  The air is quite warm also.  It is ok if you just sit there in the shade, but if you move around and exert anything, it starts to get uncomfortable.  The helicopter ride was about an hour.  We landed first on a tanker.  This was the storage for all crude oil from the platformes.  All the plateformes have flares running full bore.  This is the natural gas that comes with the crude.  They use it to run gas turbines and then torch the rest.  It is too long from the shore to run a pipeline, and plus there is not a whole lot of consumption of natural gas on shore. 

We landed on AHMED.  This serves as the hotel for the rest of the satellite plateformes.  They gave us a tour as well as safety instructions.  The last guy to talk to us was the nurse/medic.  He gave us a pamphlet and said sign this to say that you have read the pamphlet.  And told us to read it later.  He then told us that alchohol is PROHIBITED ... but tolerated.  Some times you can buy an aperitif, and wine is served with dinner.  Essentially, they don't abuse it.  If you do, you go home.  The mess hall is a normal french meal, with the entrée, plat principal, fromage, et dessert.  They assigned fred and I to the same room which was intended for four. 

We worked till midnight setting up the equipment and class.  We planned the class session and realized that it would take a lot longer because they haven't been using the ADRE they bought in may.  We would have to teach them about probes to ADRE.  We started the class at 06h30 and ended at around 19h00.  The days here a 12 hours.  We then had dinner.  They wanted more so we demonstrated various equipment to them till about 0h00.  Started again the next day 06h30.  We ended up working to 23h00.  Shower – sleep.  Class 06h30.  Happily, class and the rest of the demo stuff ended around 21h00.  enough time to prepare for the next day and plan a little.  The next day we went to take some data on one of their compressors.  They had all of their machines equipped with CML vibration monitors.  Our competitor had won the sale three years back.  The client has sent at least 300 monitors back to the factory for repair.  This was a third of the reason we were there.  Just an example, the client disconnected the cables from the isolated “buffered outputs” from the front of the monitors and this shut the machine down.  Evidently, this is typical function for these monitors.  Half of the vibration monitors are bypassed.  That is the machine has no protection from high vibration.  That ended our practical sessions on data acquisition for the rest of the week.  We finished the week fairly easily on Wednesday evening.  A few of the practical workshops did not work, because we had no time to prepare the labs. 

Looking from the plateforme, we could see fish swimming below.  We say manta rays, sharks, and other fish.  One of the evening activities was to watch some guys fish from the railings.  It was another irony of africa.  The railings they fished over also had signs which said Pêcher interdite ; Pescado Prohibido ; Fishing prohibited. Most of the guys fishing were Philipiinos with a few french men.  The philipinos sold the fish for a dollar a kilo to the kitchen.  This made for good eating the next day.  Normally in the stores in France, the fish could sell for up to 20 dollars a kilo.  The first night i watched, they caught about 100 kilos between about 8 fishermen.  The equipment was very simple.  A string, a weight, and a hook with a small fish hooked to the hooks.  They were catching some good size fish.  Some were about 10 kilos or so.  It kind of made me snicker at some of the apparati people buy catch fish like that when here, they use line and hooks.  They use a special rope with a hooks to get the fish up to the plateforme.  This plateforme was about 15 metres from the sea.  One night we saw some dolphins feeding.  When that happens the philipinos take in their lines and go home.  There was a french boat captain who was fishing when there were some dolphins.  We even saw some fish around.  He said when there are dolphins, there are fish.  Evidently, when there are dolphins, the fish aren’t thinking about eating, more about surviving.  El capitain had no fish where as the other night the philipinos had a large box ful o 100 kilos of  tuna and other scrumptous fish.  I met a guy from the Philipinnes named joon.  That is short for junior.  He hadn’t seen his family in 18 mos.  The philipinos painted the plateforme, cleaned the deck and manned the fire stations when the helicopter landed and took off. 

We took our helicopter back to the shore to get to our flight home later that evening.  We went to the elf office on shore.  It was accross the street from the beach.  On every door there were smoking prohibited signs.  Each one different.   Ironic that each of the people inside every office were smokers and evidently excercised their right to smoke, contrary to the local ordinance posted on the door.  We needed to get a stamp that said we were immunized for cholera.  We went to the medical clinic which full of locals waiting for what looked like hours.  At least it was AC inside for those waiting.  We walked directly to the front and into a doctor’s office.  The people weren’t waiting to see him, but it must have looked like we bypassed the line because we were white.  He stamped and signed our immunization cards and off we were.  Another instance of special treatment for us that I did not feel totally comfortable with, but not too uncomfortable to not stand at the end of the line even though we weren’t waiting for the same person. 

Fred and I played pool at the hotel until our driver came to get us to the airport. The hotel wasn’t far from the beach.  When we first arrived, I was too occupied with the immediate surroundings to notice that the beach was two blocks away.  Along the beachfront, there were some very beautiful buildings.  Mostly goverment buildings.  The most striking was a brand new very large bank, with marble sidewalks even.  Again the contrast between, evidently, the very rich and the very run down buildings around was startling.  For the most part, the people were clean.  Even what seemed the very poor. One really neat picture was three or so kids, totally naked,  dousing themselves with water from a spigot on the street.  I don’t know if they were cooling down or bathing.  Either way, it looked like they were having fun.  There were some very disheartening sights of kids, naked or just wearing underwear, searching through garbage for whatever might be of help. 

We arrived at the airport with our volkswagon of baggage.  There were six different portes to go through with cops at the door.  One to get inside the building of the airport.  I saw the young cop take a handful of cash from a kid.  He stood there and counted it in open sight.  The second was cop to go through the door to the baggage inspection with a guy who I guess prompted our driver for some loot.  The third was the baggage inspection.  They inspected all of our bags.  The next was a cop to let us into the ticket counter line.  Our agent had the tickets ready and our boarding passes.  He helped us load our baggage for the ticket counter lady.  He asked for the credit card for the extra luggage.  He then asked if we had fifty dollars cash for the luggage instead of the credit card.  50 dollars is much less than the 1100 dollars we paid in France.  There is no receipt for this expense.  I don’t know how this will fly with the accountant on the expense report.  The third was to let us into the passport area.  The fourth was to get our passports stamped for the exit stamp.  The fifth was to get into the boarding area. 

There was a line with everyone to get into the boarding area.  They were mostly texans from texaco.  They were loud and bawdy.  After we entered the boarding area, we all saw that the chairs were full of local kids with bandages around parts of their body.  Upon closer inspection, some had very large bandages covering whole legs and arms.  One kid had the whole side of his body covered from his waist to his ear.  Some had missing limbs.  Some looked totally normal.  We all remembered we were in africa.  Especially in Angola.  Angola has the most land mines of any african country after several years of civil war.  Angola was the last country Lady Diana visited in her campaign against land mines before she died.  A deep sense of culpabilty fell over the crowd of white oil people.  It could sincerely be sensed because it was almost dead quiet.  One guy went up to one of the kids and asked how he was doing.  The guy was american, he didn’t speak portuguese, and the kid didn’t speak english.  The guy felt compassion but could do nothing to help at this point.  The kid was mostly scared of him.  He was clearly frustrated.  A lot of low conversations talked about the problems of victims of land mines and disease.  To me it seemed like idle talk when compared to the real product of disease and dismemberment sitting in front of us.  Every so often, they would carry a kid off to the bathroom.  They probably were taking them there due to dysentery.  Some kids were just very very thin.  Some were skin and bones and missing limbs also.  It was really unsettling when they brought the bus up to the door.  A third of the kids needed to be carried to the bus.  A couple screamed and cried due to the evident pain.  The carrying off of the kids pretty much silenced the crowd.  I wanted to help carry some to the bus but the fear of being exposed directly to diseases kept me from being kind and helpful.  What a coward.  There were only a few people to carry the kids who could not walk.  Watching each of the workers make their return trips for the kids made me feel even smaller.  After the last kid, who cried most of the way out , I was convinced I was downright evil.  I thought they would be going to a different plane because they were on a different bus than us.  I had hoped it too.  It was too close and too uncomfortable to be confronted with the realities of the hard side of the world.  God knew what I was thinking.  The timing was such that the kids were being carried up to the 747 from the tarmac as our bus arrived.  We then had to identify our baggage on the tarmac to be loaded onto the plane.  This was to ensure that no baggage got on the plane that didn’t belong to anyone on the plane.  All the kids were sitting in the same area to the right of the plane.  Against my fears again, my seat was in the middle of the row across the aisle from the kids.  Evidently, the responsibility for the kids was handed off to some white people who at least spoke portuguese.  I believe they were belgian.  The name on one of the trucks in the Luandan airport matched the name on the trucks in the Brussels airport.  I guess there are some organizations who take some of the kids from africa to europe for special care like care for cancer, aids and other special needs.   Most of the kids went asleep right away.  One was shouting for his mother and father.  The possibility and likelihood of most of these kids being orphans became conscious.  The kid cried for his Mama and Papa most the night quite loudly.  He also repeated a phrase over and over in portuguese.  The Belgian lady tried several times to console him and keep him quiet with no success.  I couldn’t sleep anyway, he had nothing to do with my inability to sleep while sitting up.  It didn’t bother me much.  My inabiltiy to get some sleep seemed minor compared to what this guy was experiencing.  He was off to a totally different country, continent, climate while severely in distress and probably pain. 

Through all my guilt and feelings of culpability, being white in a black country exploiting the natural resources in the sea, fred reminded me that  80% of the profits stay in the country from all the oil production.  That counts to 20,000,000 dollars a day.  If that money is not sufficient to help some of the ills there, well I don’t know.  I know from my little experience there, a lot of the money for the oil profits and aid organizations does not make it to the people who need it through corruption.  It still does not lift the feeling of culpability. 

I spent the rest of the morning trying to get some sleep before my connecting flight home to Nantes.  Those airport seats are tough to get comfortable in, but I guess not too tough because I slept with a bar in the middle of my back while 50 or so Germans crowded around me for their flight to Munich.  I woke up as they were boarding. 

I returned home to hillary and proceeded to sleep the evening and early night.