Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Angolan Welcome

"Welcome to Angola."

That's something I've not yet heard, or sensed sentiments of, after having spent a day here now, the vast majority in a state of waiting. I'm sitting in Malongo's Halliburton base right now, waiting. I was supposed to get a chopper to the rig earlier this morning but that was cancelled, so now I've got to wait and see if there's an afternoon one.

At least now this wait can be spent in an air-conditioned room, with internet access, water, a comfortable chair, and a bevy of semi-clad women stroking my underthighs. Maybe not that last one, alas, but the conditions are fair-to-middling, which is a large step up from the welcome that greets all foreign travellers upon arrival to the airport in Luanda, the capital. After a packed flight, albeit not too long at about seven hours, wedged between two men that seemed to want to rest their heads in my direction, I was hoping against the odds that the customs and visa process might not be as onerous as I was expecting. They were worse. Angola has mastered the third world art of hopeless organisation, so upon two large planefuls of people arriving at the same time into a small hallway, it was a genius move to only have one little man stamping the entry cards to confirm yellow fever vaccination. Better still was to hide the entry cards, so that they only appeared in limited numbers at random locations, and you just had to hope you were in the right place at the right time. But the masterstroke was putting this little man - and he was little, completely invisible within the sea of taller people - at a desk in the middle of the hallway, but near the immigration desks, so that the room descended into absolute confusion between people queueing for their yellow fever stamps, those queueing for their entry stamps and those still looking for an entry card to fill in. Nobody knew where anything was, and the only information about the system was through word of mouth - airport officials quickly made themselves scarce upon seeing the madness descend. Or perhaps just seeing that they might have to work.

After about two hours, I made it to the front desk, disrupting the lady's more important duty of fanning herself, and had my passport taken away so they could process it for the fifteen day visa. Now I had to wait in a small room with a hundred or more guys in my situation, although this time I was lucky enough to find a seat. But like the arrival hallway, their was no air-conditioning, or water, and I was feeling a tad fatigued by now. Every fifteen minutes a man would appear with a handful of passports and attempt to read the names, failing to pronounce a single one even remotely correct. After about two or three hours, he finally got to mine - "Nee Crig" - and I was free to go. But where?

Fortunately, I made the right choice. I knew I was supposed to be going to Malongo but had absolutely no details on flights or times or anything. I would usually have wandered into arrivals, hoping there would be a meet-and-greet, but after several hours in the airport I suspected that if this was the case then my meet-and-greet would have given up, or they would already have found their way in and met-and-gret me. My phone isn't getting a signal here so I didn't fancy wandering around Luanda airport and the reputed clusters of touts, trying to figure out my next move. And so I decided to wander through a door. I'd seen a few people wander through this door during my hours of waiting, and now and again an offical would ask them "Malongo?" Well, I knew that I was ultimately heading to Malongo, and so thought I'd try this. It seemed to work. I showed my passport to perhaps the most apathetic man I've encountered in some time, and he gave me a boarding card. A different man seemed to check off my name on a list, but not in a way that made me confident it was my name. Nobody knew when the flight would be leaving, so I just sat and read a book. This room was air-conditioned, mercifully.

Eventually the plane appeared, and me and about twenty others hopped on for the 50 minute flight north to Cabinda. Even on this flight I still had a suspicion I was only on it erroneously, and that some poor meet-and-greet was standing forlornly outside Luanda airport with my mis-spelt name on a card, but knew that Malongo was ultimate destination, and that a key rule of travelling is that if in doubt just get as close to your destination as possible. And at Cabinda airport there was a man who had my name. My name was buried in about the seventh page on a list of hundreds, but I was still heartened by the acknowledgement of existance. A bus bumped through a half hour of dusty tracks and crumbling buildings until we left the poverty of the native land - which obviously the oil workers don't want to associate with - and entered a truly vast guarded compound, safe from poor people. Here, my existence wasn't known about, and it took several phonecalls until someone realised who I was and found a room for me to stay in.

The compound I'm in is very odd. It reminds me very strongly of an army base, right down to the accommodation which looks like just a US army barracks. And lots and lots of men. There's one giant dining hall for everyone, which you must sign in for (don't want a poor person getting free food, do we?) and eating can only be done during set times. How I wish the breakfast set times weren't 4am to 6am: I confidently predict I will never eat breakfast here. There are recreational areas, and even a golf course for those so inclined, and identikit white Ford trucks leaving trails of dust second only to the giant US-style buses that roam, mostly empty. The whole place seems very artificial and hollow, a giant edifice for isolation and money-making; a run-down holiday camp. Imagine living here, in ths fake village, removed entirely from the world around you, eating and drinking at set hours in giant halls with hundreds of others, driving a hired jeep identical to your neighbours'. Sometimes taking the bus to the airport and hoping the dust it churns up obscures you from the black faces, and vice versa, you pass in the decrepit town, with your daily bonus being more than their annual income, with your food and shelter free too. I can imagine that for certain people this could be a pretty comfortable existence, but I think any extended time spent here would see me developing a prisoner mentality.

I suppose that things, now in the base, are a little more orderly, and I don't have to expect the complete shambles that was working in Nigeria, which the dust, dirt and poverty here reminds me most closely of. My accommodation is decent enough, and I was able to watch the football last night. And it's all pretty easy - the Halliburton coordinator is a phonecall or a few doors away and can answer any question, so there's no struggle or uncertainty, unlike the mountain that needed to be climbed for information in places like Brazil. And I should be offshore either later today, or tomorrow, for a different kind of prison experience.

Monday, 23 February 2009

Off To Angola

Well, I got back from Mozambique three weeks ago, and have spent the time trying (and succeeding) to regain the stone in weight I lost on that job, by means of a rigorous regime of alcohol and absolute inaction. But now I've been summoned from my atrophy, and in a matter of hours will be Angola bound. But I'm not going to this enchanting, earthly paradise for a holiday, oh no; instead I'll be once again hanging about big chunk of metal with lots and lots of men, getting sweaty and talking about big lengths of pipe. I do wonder where my life is heading sometimes.