Sunday, September 23, 2007

An arresting experience (or Too Many Puppies!)

So here I am, sitting in another airport, this time being detained and waiting for deportation. Not quite how I intended to spend my Sunday, but hey...

Because very little was prepared for me in Lome, and because pretty much all of the resources that I needed to complete my work are out in Benin, I've hit a wall there. So I hopped a plane to Abidjan, Ivory Coast, in the hopes of being able to complete something there. Sadly, the admin lady who went to get me a visa for this trip was told that I don't need one on my passport, so I've been detained by some gentlemen with too many guns and not enough sense of humour. The bastards held me for 4 hours with no water, which is a bitch because by that point I'd been on the go since 4am with nothing to drink or eat. But enough whinging ...

After all of the other places I've been, Togo has been a breath of fresh air. I'm still not quite living the life I agreed before hitting the road, but it's certainly better. At least there are a couple of people around the place who speak English!

I have a question for you though - is it worse to have nothing, or to have something wonderful, but not be able to use it? I'm still undecided on this, but right outside the hotel is one of the most stunning beaches I've seen in years. The surf isn't anything to write home about, just a single line of breakers against the shore, but the overall image is stunning. And I can't use it.

Even the hotel key has a message advising that 'The beach and its surroundings are subject to frequent attacks'. Chatting to some people from the operator here confirms this. The first 3 people I spoke to had all been mugged on the beach. The third guy tried to be clever and left his wallet, watch and cellphone at the hotel before going, so they just beat seven shades of shit out of him instead.... Some kind of object lesson I guess... "Next time, bring money and don't waste our time... kicking you in the head is hard work in this heat!"

Transport around Lome is different. There are regular taxis, but very few people seem to use them, probably because of the cost. The primary form of public transport is the Moto. These are normally two-smoke motorcycles with a maniac behind the handlebars and accidents are frequent and brutal. Watching a family climb aboard one of these things is funny as hell though, especially if there is a kid involved. They just scamper up the driver's leg, haul themselves over his arms, and plop themselves down on the tank, holding the bars and grinning for all the world like they were born to be there. I've seen some pretty amazing things on the back of Motos, from 6' satellite dishes, to over 50 bottles of some kind. And when it rains, you'll often see the passenger holding a brolly over themselves and the driver. I don't know if they get a discount for that though.

On Friday night, I accompanied some of the local expats on their usual Friday night outing. It consists of finding a table at their regular bar, talking crap and drinking beer until late into the night, and watching the world go by. And the world does go by! Unlike the other places I've been lately, there is a definite energy, a sense of life to Togo. Everyone is working, active, doing something to try and improve their lot in life. You can buy pretty much anything you want without ever leaving your seat as the endless stream of hawkers rotates. Over the course of an evening, you start to recognise some of the regulars, and see how the operation works.

The island in the middle of the street is the centre of business. All of the guys are based there, and they restock each other's boxes with everything you could possibly want. Tissues, headache tablets, mints, smokes, condoms, DVDs, playing cards, you name it. One guy stays on the island at all times, just keeping the tea going and making sure that the guys doing the heavy work are fed and watered.

This goes on until well into the early hours of the morning, but there is none of the tension or desperation that I've seen and felt elsewhere - it's poor, but it's optimistic and healthy.

One of the things I've come to use as a benchmark of prosperity is the presence of pets. See, if a guy is eating well enough that he has food left over to raise an animal purely for pleasure, he's doing ok. In CAR, I didn't see a single pet; the only animals present were food in waiting. In Niger, I saw nothing outside the hotel, and a single litter of cats inside the hotel ground, but I still counted those daily and I'm sure the total was going down.

In Togo, I've seen at least a dozen dogs in all shapes and sizes, and the way they were interacting with their owners was clearly a relationship based on friendship, not on work. Sure, they probably hunt vermin and stuff in their free time, but they are kept around as friends. It's really heartening to see, and rams home the point of how much I miss my mutt and stinky cat while I'm out here on the road.

My trip to Abidjan required that I pack way light. I came out with my work tools and CDs, barely enough clothes to get by and my laptop. I could only take what I could fit in my laptop bag, and after chargers, cables and tools, that isn't a lot!

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Destination Unknown

It's been a while, hasn't it? In my defense, Bangui pretty much sapped any creative spirit I had, and even now it doesn't feel like I'm back to my old self yet. Hell, I couldn't even come up with individual names for all of my fleas, so I settled on just calling them all Bob... Who knew that the collective name for fleas was "Bobs"? Well, now you do!

Bangui was rough. I'm not talking Essex rough where 'three' and 'free' sound the same, I'm not even talking Hilbrow on a Tuesday night, just after the races (come naked!) rough... I'm talking proper rough. Living on 1 meal a day and 4 hours sleep a night is not something I advise you try for more than a day or two. Waking up to gunfights isn't fun either. I tried it for far too long, and I think it may have broken me a bit more than I realised at the time.

On the plus side, it was nice to hear from my work colleagues in Northcliff, Johannesburg. They assured me that we were all in the same boat and going through the same challenges, which reassured me. Oh, no, wait, it didn't - it sent me right over the edge of livid. Bunch of soft-as nancy boys who wouldn't survive a day without their TV's or their airconn'd cars.

Anyway, that's my excuse for not writing anything sooner. Sorry - beat me if you can find me (come on! I dare ya!)

I'm in Togo at the moment, but you'll have to wait to hear about that, because now you're going to hear about my layover in Ethiopia. My trip from SA to Togo involved a 5 hour flight to Addis Ababa, followed by a night's stopover, and then another 5 hour flight to Lome. You wouldn't think it, but 2 x 5 hour flights over 2 days is much harder than a single 11 or 12 hour flight.

The Ethiopia stopover was as well planned as everything else this rabble have done, which meant I had to go and find a hotel when I got there. After my experiences in C.A.R, I objected slightly vehemently and explained that if I didn't have a hotel booking in my hand on the Monday morning, I wasn't going anywhere near Togo.

This turned out to be a good thing, because they booked me into the Hilton. When I got there, I asked if I could get an upgrade based on my HHonors membership and they said sure, without even batting an eye-lid. Once I had my key, I started my hike to my room on the 11th floor. It turns out that the 11th and 12th floors are some kind of executive living area, and the reason for my hike to room 1118 is that each room is about the size of my house. When I got into the suite, I spent a few minutes looking for the bedroom. I eventually found it, drew myself a map so I could find my way back if I got lost and wandered into the living area, and ordered room service.

That only left me with about 5 hours to sleep and bathe before I had to be up and running the next morning, and all I had was the clothes I was standing in because my luggage had been checked all the way through to Lome. Breakfast was phenomenal by African standards, and I'm starting to understand why we see so many pictures of starving kids out there - all of the food is in the Hilton in Addis. Sadly, my stomach was not in love with me, so I had to make a short sprint back to my room. When I arrived, I found that it was even bigger than I originally thought - there was actually a spare bathroom right by the front door of the suite. Complete with shower. So I updated my map, and headed off.

On the plus side, not having any luggage made the transit thing slightly easier and it was a quick run back to the airport. They've got the whole security nightmare there that our American pussies, er, friends have forced on us all, but as with everywhere else it's a bit of a joke. Sure, they have the big "No Liquids" signs up everywhere, and you have to take your belt and your shoes off to go through the scanners. Twice. But hey, they don't notice the 2 x 500ml full water bottles attached to the outside of my rucksack at all. Genius!

The flight out to Togo was interesting only in that I got stuck in a window seat (yeah, the travel agent just doesn't bloody listen) next to a Chinese family. By the end of the trip, I had got involved filling out their landing cards, helped with hotel selection (isn't the plane a bit late to be doing this?) and illustrated the ancient art of leveling dodgy airplane trays.

So now I'm here in Togo, and nothing is ready for me. The server is here, but without power or networking. The SS7 (think Ethernet for telecoms) cables aren't in place, but that's ok, because no-one can find the SS7 card that they are supposed to plug into. The HLR isn't configured yet, and the project manager has run off to Benin, dumping one of his colleagues in the shit to run everything while I'm here. And while I deal with all of these small challenges, my management would like me to step out for three days to go to Ivory Coast, which has a higher alert level than CAR did, and do an upgrade there too. Not bloody likely I'm thinking!

In conclusion, I'd like to end this update by thanking all of my English colleagues for sending so many ardent supporters to the SA v England rugby match. If you could arrange for a rugby team to go with next time, I'm sure there would be space on the bus and it would be much appreciated because I took a LOT of stick when I showed up on the DZ on Saturday!

/Lemming fades away

Saturday, September 08, 2007

I can haz shithole?

No, wait... I got one. kthxbye!

When I am a stranger in a strange land, I will keep my council and watch and learn. I will not judge until I have had time for the culture shock to wear off and I have had time to make an objective decision.

That's the plan anyway, but sometimes it's hard to stick to it. Good intentions and all that...

My first impression of the Central African Republic was 'Damn, they have their corruption all smoothed out here!' I walked straight off the plane and before I even hit immigration, I was met by someone and whisked away into a VIP lounge. My contact took my passport and my baggage tags and wandered off. I sat drinking coffee and learning French off the iPod. Then I chatted to a bloke from Cape Town about diamond exploration. Then my contact came back an hour later and I walked out, without ever seeing immigration or customs. So far so good...

Unfortunately, that is where the good ended. It's funny, but one little thing is sometimes enough to put me off of an entire country. In this case, it's almost enough to put me off the whole damn continent. The little thing in question is the Hotel du Centre en Bangui at the low, low price of $85 per night. No, that's US dollars, not Zim dollars!

I'd be doing the place a disservice by calling it a shithole; at least shitholes are good for fertilisation. I've stayed in many a shithole and probably will again. Small, cramped, hot, whatever - no problems. But dirty is a problem. Dirty with no way to get clean is a monster problem. The room is just filthy, I have no other words to describe it... Well, I do, but they're not fit for print.

When I arrived, in a recently cleaned room, there were pubic hairs in the basin (anyone want to guess how they got there?), urine on the toilet and the floor, lord only knows what in the bath and towels that had clearly not been changed between several guests. There is a stain on the main bath towel that looks like shit, and smells like shit, so we're just going to assume that it shit. The whole room smells like damp and there is no way to open a window to get fresh air in, so now pretty much everything I own smells like damp.

Then it got worse.

It turns out that there is no hot water. Now while cold showers are a little inconvenient, I can live with them. Hell, they can even be invigorating from time to time. But as well as no hot water, there is no shower. So to get 'clean' I have to have cold baths. Then I have to get out of the bath and jump around for a while to get most of the water off, then use a t-shirt to dry off properly (note to self - add that to the list of clothes ruined on this trip).

But wait, there's more!

When it came time to go to bed, I found that the bedding is in a similar state to the towels and the carpet - cleaned only on special occasions or every alternate year, whether it needs it or not. And the pillows? Well, the pillow is just a pillowcase filled with lumps of foam and a knot in the end that would normally open. There is no cover over this, so I guess I would be sleeping on the same surface as lord only knows how many people before me.

I shit you not, but I'm sure you don't believe me, so here are the pictures:

Hmmm - that's a little lumpy looking!

Is that knot supposed to be there do you think?

Uh... Wow. Just. Fucking. Wow!

Long story short? I can stands what I can stands, but I can't stands no more. I quit.

Lemming out! Way, way, way out!

Friday, September 07, 2007

Them correspondents - they geniuseses

Ok, I think I've just hit upon my new career. I want to be a correspondent... It seems like the easiest job in the world after reading this article at the BBC. My favourite comment is

But correspondents say that as long as Zimbabwe has a shortage of staple foods, including maize, food shortages are likely to continue.

Yah, ok... so as long as there is a shortage of food, food shortages will continue. Glad someone told me, because I couldn't have worked that out on my own!