Monday, 2 April 2007

Prisoner In Port Harcourt

After a number of failed attempts, I finally made it to the enchanting city of Port Harcourt on Saturday morning. Flights direct to the city only began a week ago, in the absence of their burnt-down airport the little Virgin Nigeria aircraft had to instead land in the Nigerian Air Force base.

This recently reintroduced direct flight has removed the requirement to land at the airport of a nearby town, Owerri, and then take the two hour drive to Port Harcourt. While this certainly makes the trip more convenient, and safer (a foreigner was kidnapped and the escort shot dead on this drive not long ago), it does take away from some of the "fun". The whole experience from Owerri to Port Harcourt was a riot, almost literally so. Upon landing in Owerri, as I did on my first trip here three months ago, and looking on in astonishment at the two burnt-out aeroplanes just off the runway, I then had to face a pitched battle to reclaim my luggage. This involved delving through a five-thick cram of people, and then negotiating the touts and beggars to find our bus and armed escort. Then there was the two hour drive.

Everyone who has experienced this drive shares the same sense of awe, and perhaps horror. In a bus, with jeeps packed with armed police both in front and behind, it was a journey over potholed roads, through jungle, bustling slums and police check-points, past innumerate car wrecks and burnt-out lorries (there's a lot of burnt out things in Nigeria), and through traffic that grew increasingly dense and frantic. We moved onto a dual-carriageway, where most of the vehicle wrecks lay, and when the traffic grew too heavy in our direction, our escort promptly crossed the dire-green polluted swamp of the central reservation and into the oncoming traffic. All the cars behind our bus and escorts decided to follow, and this could only result into total gridlock for everyone, which was only resolved by our armed police leaping from their vehicles and shouting a lot, waving their guns, until eventually we moved back into the proper carriageway. A bullet-pocked, ancient sign of "Port Harcourt: The Garden City" introduced us to the concrete, litter-strewn mess that beheld us. In the distance, a vast jet of flame shot vertically into the air - an oil flare burning: more fumes for this condemned city.

But all that was avoided this time, by our direct flight to Port Harcourt, and so you could almost have been lulled into a false sense of security. But security is even tighter than it was at the start of the year. Then I sometimes travelled in a jeep with only the driver, and no armed policeman. But now the company bus has had its windows blackened, and even the journey to base involved an escort vehicle with armed guards, in addition to the two armed guards in the bus.

On base, I met with my colleague and we did a few hours of work, testing equipment and getting it ready to pack away. We had to leave early, because a political rally was taking place for the election a few weeks away, and there were worries the road would be congested. So we were taken to our home and prison, the Presidential Hotel, an ancient relic much in the manner of Lagos's Federal Palace, although I do have a little more affection for this particular artefact.

There's been little news since then. A loud, though very sparsely attended, awards show round the back of the hotel on Saturday night, combined with a faulty air-conditioner, left me with a poor night of sleep, but I only had to go into base for a couple of hours the following morning. Since then, it's been a case of eating, sleeping, and watching football. There's a tennis court here, so I intend to get a game later, if my colleague can raise his levels of motivation (he's been here a month, and Nigeria is an extremely demotivating country).

It looks like I'll be off to the rig sometime this week - the same rig I was on for my last job here. It's quite far into the ocean, so there's much less chance of being taken hostage. It's not a bad rig, but has abysmal internet. It should be a two or three week job. But, as ever, in the oil business not least the Nigerian sector, everything is subject to change and delays.

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