Thursday, 8 May 2008

OK in EG

EG is OK.

It's been seven days here now, in the small city of Malabo, on the small Bioko island that hosts the capital city of Equatorial Guinea. Dark, thundering clouds spill over the massive Pico Basilé volcano that overlooks this passive capital, but every third day or so they clear to blue sky and an intense sun stares down; on such clear days the massive, awesome Mount Cameroon can be seen across the sea. On the quiet streets, chickens and goats scamper as our jeep chugs by. Surely too, many of the omnipresent lizards. Except for the city centre, which hosts the only (to my knowledge) supermarket in this city of 100,000, the streets are sleepy and the locals amble by lackadaisically. Despite being a dictatorship and recent elections, there is a very low visible police or military presence. Indeed, the highest security seems reserved for our contracting oil company, who insist on barbed-wire ringed compounds with guards doing their best not to fall asleep in the sun.

In the year since I was last here, a difference is obvious. There is massive construction occurring everywhere. Hotels, apartments and general buildings have appeared and are appearing. The pot-holed roads are poor and battered, but are steadily improving, and the large airport highway now has streetlights. The streets, remarkably, are free of litter. This is truly astonishing: other African countries have mounds of rubbish piled high, but in the city of Malabo is clean. The ever-increasing price of oil is a major factor, plus the added boon that in the last year vast oil fields have been found here, and so serious investment is being pumped into the country. Quite how much this is benefitting the people, rather than the dictator or foreign oil companies, I'm not sure, but it is at least providing employment. Hopefully better infrastructure and education will follow, and hopefully some of the businesses here, whether supermarkets, restaurants, shipping or oil service companies, will start being locally owned rather than by the Chinese, Americans, Spanish, Arabs, British, or whoever.

Hopefully too, someone will start a local brewery. Everywhere I go, I have the joys of tasting the local lager, usually distinctly average but always with its own unique charisma. But here it's all imported - Heineken, San Miguel, Corona etc. Not bad of course, but impersonal. Certainly, any such local brewery would make a quick and significant return on their investment - the quantity that would have been drunk by myself and three of my colleagues in the last week would likely have already have seen a quick profit.

There's been a lot of drinking beer in the last week, almost all at the grand if idiosyncratic staffhouse we're staying in. There are five of us in all, but only room for four in the staffhouse, but by a kind twist of fortune the "odd-one out" placed in a different venue is the quiet, barely-drinking one. Leaving the remainder of us to continue uncurtailed. We were faced early on by a crisis in the shape of a weekend election beer-ban but survived by discovering an alternative universe. This was a bar in the vast Marathon oil company compound, involving two security points, a drive past a gigantic cube-shaped ethanol plant which lit up at dark looked unnervingly like a Borg cube spaceship from Star Trek, and finally passing through a pseudo all-American wholesome picket-fence street. The bar had beautiful, antique-style furniture which I would have loved to have stolen for my flat, including a solid daddy of a pool table and an elegant fusball table. Yet somehow it all combined to give the air of a giant hotel lobby, with the giant, immersive sofas sucking everyone in and creating distance. But worst, oh the worst, was the music. We arrived to Celine Dion's Titanic tune and though there was no possible way to go downhill from here, a damn good effort was put in. Shrieking love ballad followed shrieking love ballad, and we all felt our souls ebb away. And then things, unbelievably, went downhill - the Celine Dion song was played again. The love ballad CD was evidently on repeat. We bought a large carry-out with our remaining money and quickly left, to get drunk back at our staffhouse (which we did).

We made sure then to stock up fully at the sweaty, crowded supermarket on Monday when alcohol was again legal. Five crates were bought - by last night only one and a half remained. Last night was perhaps the heaviest session, lasting seven hours from 3pm. It was entirely impromptu, one beer after work, to celebrate a tough but effective day's, quickly became two then three then who knows. Work this morning was not the brightest.

And yes, we have been working. Over the weekend and Monday, due to the elections and other reasons, we couldn't really do anything, but since then we've been sorting out equipment and readying it for the potentially upcoming job. The status last week was two large jobs upcoming but by today this is now one large job maybe upcoming. Delays delays delays, as ever, and it's actually very possible I won't be going offshore for this entire stint. In fact, the only reason we're here anyway is visa reasons: initially to get into the country in time for validating our visa, and now to get our multiple entry visas, a process taking a week or more. But this doesn't mean we're spending our days waiting, hanging around, kicking our feet and hunting for beer, for as I said there's equipment to service and plenty of it. And, here's the thing about Equatorial Guinea - it is hot.

Really hot. Yesterday was a day involving building sample carriers: moving lots of large sections of pipe and screwing them together. At the best of times, this is a tough job, with a lot of heaving lifting, scrubbing, applying grease, screwing stuff in and more and more lifting. It's physically very demanding, and under the full glare of yesterday's sun became extreme. All of us were literally drenched in sweat - had we jumped into a pool we could hardly have been more soaked. The sun, unguarded by cloud, was intense, even at 8am it was uncomfortable, and by noon it was brutally fierce. I don't exaggerate - I've worked in some pretty damn hot climes before, but this was just about the fiercest. Only Egypt in summer, unsheltered, at noon and clear and windless compares - then I had sweat pouring off my hardhat and down my face like a river - but at least then I was right next to an air-conditioned unit with an infinite supply of cold water. Here, in this gravelly yard without shelter, with chicken and lizards sauntering and darting and mangy dogs slouching, there was no air-conditioning and the water quickly went from lukewarm to very warm. The energy was sucked from us. You could feel the radiation, unsubtle and burning. With the draining humidity, these were conditions that even taking a stroll in would be a challenge; endlessly hauling pipe around and scrubbing at metal in the direct glare of the sun was exhausting. The merest hint of a breeze, barely lasting seconds, was welcomed as a blessed relief. It was rare. Usually it was unrelenting heat. After just a few hours of this demonic stare, the very life seemed to have evaporated from me, and death, while not imminent, was still tangible. A terrible, comprehensive destruction of nature by nature, but mostly recharged after a leisurely lunch. Post-lunch was another brutal session, but some clouds appeared to take the edge of the intensity. Nonetheless, by 3pm and after some good work done in punishing conditions, it was definitely time to call it a day, and enjoy a nice cool beer. Or two...

Today was more forgiving. The work was still hard, perhaps moreso, but a dark cloud covering turned the sun into a dim haze all day and provided some light showers and a couple of heavy downpours, with thunder. The humidity made the coveralls merge with our skin, but the intensity of heat was far less. We managed to get the bulk of the physical labour over with, meaning that we have about a week now of light tasks interspersed with our ongoing alcoholism training. We've decided on some variety from the Heinekens and San Miguels and might strike out with some gin, vodka and wine. Gin, so we're told, costs only £1.50 a bottle in the supermarket - this may be inadvisable on several levels.

So, that's it. EG is OK. It's not heaven, but it's not hell. It's poor, unfair and rife with problems, but economically improving, not as evidently destitute as many places and surprisingly clean. The dictator, in power for thirty years, is in poor health; cross our fingers and with luck he'll die soon and one of his sons will take power without too much bloodshed, and with greater luck may instigate further positive changes in developing the nation. With luck, economic progress can translate into public health and education improvements and an enrichening of living conditions. With luck.

Of course, with proper luck, gin really will be £1.50 a bottle.

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