Atchafalaya Swamp

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

SSS Reprise: The Quest For Eve

Thar Jath, Nunia

State of Alwehda (Unity), 1200 km southwest of Khartoum

I SQUINTED AT the luminescent display of my Casio Protrek - 33 degrees C it read; the sun blinding in the hot African bush afternoon. I alighted from the twin propeller Beechcraft thinking how much cooler it was compared to Khartoum, a brief respite from the forty-plus day temperatures in the capital. I stopped midway down the door (which doubled as the Beechcraft's stairs) and sniffed the air where the biological Eve and Adam once roamed. The humidity is about the same as Malaysia’s - in fact, if not for the barren landscape, it could very well be someplace in Kodiang, Kedah. But where is the airport terminal? None that I could see as Thar Jhaj is only a dusty airstrip. Except for a small white tent in the periphery there was no other man-made structure in sight. A few pick-up trucks had parked close to the aircraft, which I spied out the plane’s window moments before, looking desperately for the familiar tell tale markings of my company’s pick-up truck. No such luck.

The Beechcraft is a small 18 passenger plane, if you will, a minibus with wings. It has 11 rows and can actually sit 22 passengers but hey - this isn’t Singapore Airlines - the “cargo hold” overflowing into rows 10 and 11; bags, boxes, and critical rig supplies like rolls of toilet paper (sorry, no Scott's easy-on-your-bum but rather abrasive kind that wouldn't do your piles any good). What was a divider I’m sure, between the passenger cabin and cargo hold has been torn down. I can actually see our bags among some netting at the rear of the plane jumbled with a few boxes on top.

So here we are milling about the aircraft, my new white New Balance sneakers now reddish, covered in dust. I kicked the sneakers against the aircraft’s landing gear which brought a glare from the pilot. The pilot has since shut the propellers down - the signal to dig in our pockets for our much delayed nicotine fix. The Canadian captain and his Australian co-pilot, I noted, were also not immune to the ravages of nicotine dependence. Ah, Thank God for life's small pleasures, when your next flight could very well be your last.

After the Dunhill has glowed near its tip, I sauntered over the captain to make amends and small talk. A veteran of Africa, having done countless of airlifts for the UN and the International Red Cross in Sierra Leone, Senegal, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia and Darfur - that renegade western state of Sudan - a state bigger than the whole of France, the Captain has now decided to save up for retirement. He claimed one can only take so much of "social work", which I take to mean as not getting paid much if one is in the employ of the UN or Red Cross.

He saw me eying the cargo hold door with a small aluminum ladder beneath it, the kind you can buy at Ace Hardware, and gestured with a nod and a wink. Everyone else seemed to be just lounging and milling, and I had no choice but to take the hint by gingerly climbing up that ladder. I have a similar ladder at home used for changing burnt light bulbs. But I’m not about to change feather-light light bulbs, mind you.

My assistant, Triantono -Tonto, a smiley buck-toothed thirty-something from Indonesia positioned himself as the catcher. And here I was hauling boxes and bags down onto Tonto simply because there was no else to do it. I think I am beginning to understand the African mentality; the Africans on the flight seemed to suffer from the “boss” syndrome - being cooks, minor officials and clerks, baggage handling was definitely beneath them.

I cast a disapproving look at Tonto.

He had put my RM 478.00 Scuba-Pro bag squarely on the red earth. Why couldn’t he put it on the boxes instead was beyond me. I shook my head in disgust. He noticed my reprimand and quickly hoisted my 30-kilo bag off the offending dirt (part inventory: Yeo’s-canned-chicken-curry, packs of Maggi Mee Ayam Flavor, mosquito netting like the one used in Malaysian boarding schools, two bottles of Johnnie Walker’s Black Label—can’t go wrong with the world’s most popular brand, a prayer mat, and some books to while away my time) .

As my assistant, Tonto had more to carry for sure; a largish Epson printer and other consumables for our worksite and his own personal bag. I quickly took pity on him and transferred the Scuba-Pro to my sore shoulder. When I bought that duffel bag I had in mind the most robust and heaviest-duty bag I can find, something that would exceed US Army specifications (if Armoured Personnel Carriers in Iraq is anything to go by, that isn't saying much). I had purchased it a dive shop back home where the pretty sales clerk said that it is used for oxygen tanks and divers’ paraphernalia. (Good enough for me, I remembered saying. But she was curious as to why I would want one, since I admitted that I never went diving.) The bag also has a set of solid wheels on one end where you can slide it over nice air-conditioned airport lounges and corridors. I never factored-in the parched African red earth. I shifted around to balance the offending weight on my shoulder, resolute in my determination to save it from further indignities.

You can’t stand around with about 40 kilos on your back and shoulder (inclusive of a 10-kilo laptop bag) under the dry African sun can you?

As luck would have it a small off-white twin cab Mitsubishi pick-up came careering out of nowhere, the two blue clad Sudanese in the front cab a welcoming sight indeed. The blue coveralls meant they were part of my crew coming from the site to pick us up. Hafiz and Moustafa, about a years’ oilfield experience between them, both recent engineering graduates from the elite University of Khartoum.

Here’s the thing: Both Hafiz and Moustafa are as befuddled as I am. They are from the Muslim North while we are in rebel—controlled Christian South. They natives here are either Christians or Animists, and they don’t speak Arabic. A sensible Assalamua’alaikum will not earn you brownie points among AK-47 carrying child soldiers. You’re better off claiming you’re Christian. Remembering my security briefing the day before I asked Hafiz about the so-called armed escorts. He cast a nervous smile, and said he’ll explain later. The rig was about thirty kilometers away but it took us the better part of an hour in this pock marked terrain to get there, as I was later to find out.

I dumped my dusty bag at the back of the cab and sat in front. Hafiz took the wheel with Moustafa and Tonto nicely catching up on company gossip in the back. The air conditioner was on full tilt, recycling gritty air in the cab. We trailed some trucks and visibility was down to tens of meters in the dust. I can forget returning my Scuba-Pro duffel to its former glory. As I peeked over my shoulder all I saw was red dusty clouds kicked up by the truck’s wheels.

Progress was excruciatingly slow. As we thrown about in the pick-up, I can tell that the truck's shock absorbers and springs were already shot . The cab also has a make shift roll cage, courtesy of our company’s welders in Hegleg, to survive a rollover impact. Or potentially survive a rollover, provided rocket-propelled grenades haven't got to you yet. Crash test engineers at Volvo’s Goteburg facility in Sweden would snicker at this pathetic attempt but we can’t blame our employer for trying, can we?

In this parched bush flatland occasionally dotted by grass and mud huts and burnt out trucks from the civil war, I wondered what the denizens do for a living. I saw neither domesticated animals nor cultivation. Only eagles and buzzards hover overhead. Obviously there must be people around—it’s just that I cannot see beyond the tall elephant grass perhaps. Frankly, I cannot imagine anyone could survive in such an inhospitable place.

Sometimes we saw people walking by the side of the road, the women fully swathed in colorful garb to protect them from the sun and sand. Where were they going? It’s always the women, I noticed, that was doing the work. Carrying firewood and earthenware pots on their proud heads and carrying naked little babies (sometimes two, one on each hip). Except for the huts, I couldn’t make out anything from the air earlier. On every point of the compass my eyes could only see the same desolate landscape scape, nary a village in sight.

Occasionally our truck was stopped by a few Dinka Bushmen. I noticed their faces scarred around the forehead, probably done at puberty as a rite of passage, or a badge of honor. Were they anesthetized when they went under the knife - or precisely - under sharp stone implements? More likely they used Gillette razor blades. The Bushmen just wanted to ride at the back of the pick-up for some unknown destination along our way. Now that I've arrived and become the de-facto "Boss", Hafiz looked deferentially my way. I was worried whether they would pilfer our bags (my instant noodles, for instance), but gave my thumbs-up anyway.

Earlier on the way to pick us up Hafiz said the child rebels had put a small log across the dirt track, setting an impromptu roadblock. I asked what they boys wanted, and how were they dressed? Hafiz said they were in camouflage and slippers asking for some bottled waters and candy bars. Slippers, hmmm, not combat issue boots? Always wise to humor the kids, he added, and let them ride in the back. Give them water or cigarettes in case they remember the rebuff. I readily agreed, because I don't fancy being used as a live bait to these children-in-arms.

I was quite humbled actually, to be in such a place. Evolutionary biologists and archeologist have found evidence that the Homo sapiens hailed from parts of what is now Sudan and Kenya. It's quite inspiring to think our original ancestors once walked the earth where I now am flying over ruts in our diesel-powered pick-up. If the evolutionist are correct, this is indeed home, before the progenies of Eve and Adam evolved enough to cross whole continents.

After a few kilometers of small talk, dodging potholes and slithering snakes on this Highway to Hell I again asked Hafiz on the security situation. Since it’s quite an effort to talk and drive at the same time, he just shrugged. It would seem that I would find out for myself in due course.

I was thinking of the child soldiers, as Hafiz recounted the spot where the he was stopped earlier. I continued to scan the horizon half-hoping to see rebels. I asked where the insurgents get the money from. From the way he looked at me, I already knew that to be a Silly Question. His black obsidian eyes seemed to say: Where else but from that Evil Outpost of Tyranny headed by a real Bushman in the White House?

Yeah, but why are these kids carrying AK-47's? If the Yanks were to supply arms, it would surely be M-16's wouldn't it? Of course I was being naive. What the Yanks does best is supply money, and loads of it. Who cares where they get the weapons from?

I finally saw some child soldiers by some trees under the wayside. I'd put them somewhere between Primary IV to Lower Secondary if these kids were in school instead of playing Combat in oversized faitigues with real guns. Waving at us with their AK-47’s, they seemed harmless, if you can suspend disbelief for a moment and their AK's are indeed toys. Maybe these were the rebels that Hafiz had hosted earlier on the way to the airstrip. We waved back, in the universal gesture of Howdy.

I also saw some backhoes and caterpillars parked by the road, the work gang taking a break from resurfacing this sorry piece of red earth they call “road”. Moustafa explained (shouting from the back actually) that the rains would come in a month or two, hence the need to elevate the present road from the coming floods. Floods? What, here? Apparently it does flood here in the May-July monsoons. That’s when it gets “fun”, said Moustafa, slapping my shoulder for added effect. That’s when the snakes come out, he added, and all the bugs you can imagine that one needs full net masks when working at night.

The stark monotone landscape was finally broken by a tall structure in the distance. It was the rig’s derrick structure sticking out like a sore thumb in the bush. As we came to the perimeter I saw several large tents, dark green in the unmistakble color of the army. My heart leaped and I gave my "protectors" a cheerful smile and a wave as we passed.

Another quick look from Hafiz and I knew this wasn't the government army. The original fifty-plus North Sudanese Army had long abandoned their post. Now the rebels themselves have taken to “guarding” us. Although I have no proof of this, through local militiamen - The Client - headquartered at the Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur, is actually paying the rebels for the usurped security service. Great, let’s pay gangsters next to guard our nice freehold, gated community in suburbia Malaysia. Unbelievable, but true, because oil has to flow, people to be employed, guns to be bought. Let’s roll with it.

Truth is indeed stranger than fiction.

The rebels are part of the SPLA (Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Army) headed by John Garang. Apparently they have come to some sort of a truce with the Sudanese government, and in fact, Johnny Boy has been given vice-presidential status (First Vice President no less!) by President Omar Basher in a bid to further quell rebellion. But surely it offers no comfort to me when I see mostly pre-teen soldiers barely 100 yards away. Silly thoughts of whether .22 caliber AK-47's bullets can penetrate my sorry Malay ass at that distance floated in the back of my mind.

What I can surmise was renegade Johnny Boy telling the Sudanese cabinet that only SPLA will be allowed to provide security for rigs in the autonomous Dinka heartland, and he proceeded to chase out professional government troops only to be replaced by amateur soldiers. I suppose this is free market at work, let the locals benefit so to speak - trickle-down economics of the perverse kind. But I can bet The Client never factored this into the equation either.

Finding Eve

One fine morning some weeks later I heard a familar rustling outside my work cabin. I was enjoying my second cup of thick Sudanese coffee and my fifth Dunhills of the day, doing nothing in particular, perhaps even musing about writing a journal about my experiences in Sudan. The reason I lay idle was the rig was "shut down" due the unavailability of a critical piece of equipment - a frequent occurrence anyway. I had earlier radio-ed my crew at the camp to sleep-in and not show up. I looked forward to enjoy my solitude.

Sometimes a mule would forage around our work-site, among the thrash, no-thanks to sorely lacking sanitary habits of rig personnel (the don't call rig workers "oilfield thrash" for nothing).

I thought I heard a females voices, so I went outside to investigate.

This was my encounter with the mythical Eve that would forever burn into memory.

And there they were, a family of three; a girl of about twelve, and a boy on his mother’s hip. They must have been going through our thrash outside, but was now rooted to the spot, three pair of eyes on me. The mother was in her late twenties, but I couldn’t be sure. She had a dirty t-shirt on and and a piece cloth that reminded me of cheap curtains wrapped around her hips .

They were wondering how to proceed, at least Eve and the mother were, and I was at a loss myself. The boy, naked, perhaps two years old was already showing signs of malnutrition—the disproportionately large head and belly. But with malnutrition, one can never be sure. They could be younger than they looked, especially when it comes to children. Eve, I could not help but notice, had breasts that reminded me of lemons; perky and upturned. She also wore a rag that covered her modesty below, but not her pubescent mounds - symmetrical and really quite beautiful to look at but got me looking cross-eyed . Oh, and I now thought that she really must be older than twelve. She wasn’t shy, just an indignant look about her, like I was the interloper and not her. I forced my eyes to look away, thinking of what I was going to say to mother and the girl.

But what could I say to them?

They were pitiful to look at, Eve the girl held a banana peel that I had discarded only yesterday. What was she going to do, eat it? I gestured them to come inside, holding the door open, but still, mother and daughter just stood in their tracks. They didn’t quite know what to make of of my intentions. I don’t blame them. I myself am not sure what my intentions were.

I have a mini-fridge in the cabin, my last stock of orange juice, UHT milk, and a loaf of rock hard Sudanese bread. There was a small bar of Cadbury’s as well. I took the chocolate and bread out to show them. I gave them my most friendly smile, a bit hesitant at first but Eve came came forward to unabashedly take the chocolate from my hand. Careful not to draw my eyes to the inevitable, I motioned for them to come in. This time they did come, sat on the floor and ate in silence while I dug out some bottled water from a box.

Some gleam in my eye maybe, because even with her mother and little brother with her, Eve still looked at me with suspicion. For some reason I desperately wanted to win her over, I wanted her to know that I'm a friend, a person you can trust. But how do I convey this without talking Dinkanese or whatever the hell they speak around here?

I sighed, and what else could I do but light up and take in the precious scene before me: A once-proud people so pure and untainted from the dawn of civilization now brought down by the ravages of war. Or rather, brought down to sit on the floor facing me. I believe it was probably the first time they laid eyes on a Malay.

Soon they finished every last bit of bread, the girl imploring me for more chocolate. I turned my palms over and curled my lips in apology. As they got up to go, I thought I detected a hint of a smile from Eve. Her breasts resplendant, as usual, arose with her with the minimum of fuss that can only come from skin so taut and young. She was not at all self-concious, comfortable in her sexuality, or rather, unperturbed by it.

Ah, Eve, from thy wombs I have descended forth, and I asked myself why am I waxing lyrical over some girl in the bush? It must be Sudan, I thought, it must be the atmosphere that did it for me.

I turned on my notebook computer, made my fourth cup of coffee for the day, and began a business letter asking for a transfer.

©2007 MatSalo Images. Some rights reserved. Canon Digital Ixus 850. Top Image: Full Moon Over Straits of Makassar, Celebes Sea, May 31, 2007

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

SSS: Sudan Sandstorm Sonata Season I (Reruns)

I WROTE THIS PIECE on my first trip to Sudan, and was first published in the In Boxes of various friends. A couple of years ago and in a manner unfit to stand trial - if I was in a court of law that is - I agreed like a lamb to the slaughter to work the oilfields of southwestern Sudan. That area, is of course, deep in Christian rebel territory - The War Zone.

Why I need to catalogue my experiences I’ll never know. After all, I’m not a journalist. I’m more at home pushing tongs, making or breaking out a pipe connection, or barking orders to drillers whose entire English vocabulary consists of only two words: “up” or “down”. But that’s being generous, because I was also making wild hand gestures while shouting myself hoarse.

It was mostly written on a PDA, a first for me. Normally I don’t write at all. Back in Malaysia, I had long been jealous of white collar types with this gadget in their pockets, looking important, and going somewhere. So I bought one of the early 02 models; the “xda mini” not only because it has a “quad band” – whatever that means - but it has a pocket version of Word as well. It took some mean pictures too (I mean in the nasty sense, washed out and out-of-focus). It felt like I was going somewhere too. But not looking important enough, so nobody noticed. And so did the rest of the civilized world.

Khartoum, sometime early this Millenium

What goes through your mind whenever Sudan is mentioned?

The images I presume you must conjure is a plethora of inhumane suffering; civil strife, genocide, and of course malnourished toddlers with distended bellies, huge saucer-like eyes and flies around their runny noses. And you’d be mostly right. According to a U.N. report, by end the end of the first five years in the new millennium, TWO million (that's two followed by six zeroes) of its subjects in the western frontier will die of hunger. Those two million have probably gone to heaven as I write because that prediction was done years ago. Now, the UN is also being chased out, and reliable news from Darfur is as likely as me marrying Siti Nurhaliza. So we will never be able to confirm this.

Not many know this “pariah nation” is the largest country in the continent of Africa. It has 26 states, of which Darfur in the west is the largest. Darfur alone is about the size of France. If you believe Darwin, then you must also believe it is The Cradle of Civilization, long before the existence of Sphinxes' and Pharaoh’s up north. Its population is about the size of Malaysia’s, but fear not, there is no population boom here, only the reverse is true. By the next decade or two the negative population growth would make it about the size of Singapore. But that’s a poor analogy. Sudan is famous for being the poorest country on earth, and Singapore the richest. The Singapore premier’s salary is at least twice of that neo-con in the White House. Singapore is to Bukit Tunku / Damansara / Taman Tun conurbation what Malaysia is to Kampong Jawa, Klang.

Iraq is the other hot topic in the news.

Who can forget the face of two-year-old Muhammad Hassan of the Turkoman tribe in Mosul, just 2 years old and not yet weaned from his mother's breasts? He was in that celebrated Getty images photograph seen whimpering by the wall, clothes splattered in his parents' blood just after a US patrol gunned down his parents in the front seat of the family's Opel. Of course it made orphans of his six other siblings too. Widespread uproar! Condemnation everywhere! These outbursts of protests did not come from ordinary Iraqi’s, mind you, but from ordinary US citizens in the Pacific Northwest. Some soul in Oregon (a charitable Christian American, if there ever is such a thing) has even founded an organization and website to aid the Hassan survivors.

The last paragraph is called a digression of which I’ve been known to embark upon. Well, sometimes, only if the urge gets the better of me.

When my plane made its final approach to land in Khartoum International, I viewed with trepidation at the tarmac littered with UN planes. It looked like I had just landed at a "UN Airport", instead of some country’s international airport we are accustomed to. No Lufthansa’s, British Airways’, Air France’, or Malaysian Airlines’ planes on the apron. You can forget Singapore Airlines. Just big bellied behemoths double-parked everywhere with a fine tinge of red dust over its once-white bodies; the sides of the fuselage emblazoned with huge blocky UN logos that no self-respecting hand-shouldered RPG’s could miss.

The immigration check-in lanes at Khartoum airport, to put it mildly, is a joke. And so is the customs. There are no queues, only jostling and waving and name throwing. I’ll have you know, I’m a V.I.P., and therefore I’m “above” the hoi polloi. I learned this many years ago when I became a favored guest of despotic nations. Back in ’98, I had my work visa to Burma (Myanmar) approved in a record time of two hours at their embassy in Bangkok. I didn’t even have to appear in person. Which is great, so can I put the time to good use, like being face down on a mattress with my face looking through a hole at the floor, while a sinewy lithesome expert expertly walked over my back. The agent only had to show my nice 2 x 2 photos and a letter from the large multinational I worked for, presenting my credentials as a “hole digger”. At around the same time, Tan Sri Razali Ismail, the U.N. Special Representative to Myanmar, with a cover letter from UN supremo Kofi Annan no less, had his visa denied. So I must be a V.I.P.

When I mean V.I.P, I mean in the sense that not only am I rarely hassled at these ports of entry, but just the opposite - I am welcomed with arms wide open, often waved through a special lane. They want my filthy, uncouth oilfield-thrashy hands to grope their women, spend my dollars in their seedy bars, but most of all, they want me to remain sober enough to help them dig some black liquid gold. This would ensure that their leaders will be kept in power forever.

Yes Sir, we are prepared to look the other way, just drill these wells for us please. Oh, while you're in town, please free to have a good time.

I am perhaps doing a patriotic duty to these nations. Furthermore, even my luggage hardly gets checked.

“Sir, what this – three cartons of Dunhill’s and five cartons of Marlboro’s?” asked the Sudanese customs agent in flip-flops with trace of mirth, his teeth shining against a skin so black that it was almost blue, the flip-flops belied his heavily sing-song but otherwise excellent English. 200 sticks is the usual limit, but some countries let you through with 400. But 1600 sticks? I knew I would be alright, smug in my "V.I.P." look, if you can imagine what V.I.P.'s wearing stupid knock-off Man-U T-shirts and Teva sandals looked like. I took two packs out as a gesture of International Goodwill, and the agent helped me zipped my bag up. Khalas. The only thing I didn’t attempt was to smuggle in whiskey. That would be too much, Sudan being a Syaria state. I have no desire to flogged, especially since my name is a dead give-away. The whiskey, I would later learn, was easily available on the streets anyway. Later I would find whiskeys to be an essential currency that would help me get out of a jam in the rebel-controlled South.

I later chatted with Leonardo, my house guard for the night. In wholly-Moslem Khartoum, Leonardo is an anomaly because he is a Christian from the Christian South (read: rebel south). The strongly built security guard, fifty-ish and sporting scarred ivory muscled skin had fled the South some twenty years ago. Only half of his family is with him while other half are languishing in refugee camps over the western Sudanese border in the Central African Republic. He was waiting for a time to go “home”, if you can imagine what home to poor Leonardo is. Probably pock-marked patches of bombed-out red clay hovels patched with dung.

I asked Leonardo how far he had to walk through the bush to Khartoum. Over 2000 km was his nonplussed reply. A man used to so much suffering, dragging his family through thousands of kilometers of desert. I could see that he is upbeat at the prospect of returning.

Peace had just been restored, which is a tenuous thing. What is means is the rebels have agreed to (temporarily) lay down arms while the treaty is being discussed. The treaty is really about how to split the oil revenues in a fair, equitable manner. And also to discuss the future role of Janjaweeds; militiamen on horsebacks aligned to the Moslem North to not take way the Christian men, Dinka mostly, while raping and pillaging the villages wholesale. Nor let attack helicopters carpet bomb the villages either, after the raping and pillaging is done of course. I believe they call this genocide, which is distasteful term, so it’s definitely more pleasant to discuss Production Sharing Contracts. Not to mention more rewarding. Future profits from PSC’s would not be channeled to Education or Trade, but merely to buy more arms to kill each other. But for the moment that would have to wait. Let's get that Black Liquid Gold out of the ground first.

I awoke early. My newly acquired triple sensor-ed Protek Casio glowed 5:00 am in the dark. Quite late by Malaysian standards actually since it’s already ten in the morning in Malaysia. The Protek is my most exciting recent purchase: It has an analog hand that you can set independently of the digital. Which means you can run two time zones at a glance without having to press any buttons. Useful to fantasize what people are doing in Malaysia I suppose. It also has a digital compass, which I use for work and a barometer to detect impending inclement weather. Although Khartoum looks hot and arid, I’ve been told that where I’m going to in the South, some 1200 km away, is subject to torrential rains. Also, it has a digital temperature and what else? It is solar powered so it never needs any change in batteries.

Today I met the client. The client is Petronas, of course. The drilling superintendent, known for his nom de guerre “old man”, is a crony of mine from Terengganu. Same people, just the environment differs, and no Mamak teh tarik stalls around the corner. We make our own teh tarik at the corner table where incidentally, our Drilling and Other Plans are hatched. Our worlds are smaller then small (hence the need to hatch Other Plans), and no six-degree-of separation theory need apply. We sometimes even grope the same women, at the same bars on our stopovers in Dubai (there’s no direct flights to Khartoum from Malaysia or Singapore). What entices us to come here in this wonderland you might ask? If I knew the answer to that, then I would have the answers to all Questions That Plague Mankind Today.

I was stumped when a fellow employee from Egypt who share the fortified villa with me asked, “So, you must have fucked-up really badly for the company to send you here, eh?” It was said in jest, but somehow I couldn’t help feeling that it might be true. Did I fuck up? I probably did, because just as we left for the office a sandstorm hit us. I looked up at the hazy skies thinking doubtfully if planes can land in this “weather”. Visibility was reduced to a few hundred feet. The driver, to my chagrin, responded that it’s quite normal for planes to be diverted back to their point-of-origin, Dubai whatever, whenever sandstorms occur. Great, nobody told me about this.

At the office I was forced to attend The Security Briefing, mandatory to all newcomers, given by the company's head of security worldwide no less, an affable but bearish Brit, presumably an ex-MI5 agent something or other. In a grave voice, more Irish than true Cockney, he assured me that the security measures in place were “the best”. "Best" compared to what? He claimed that the recommendations came from the world’s premier civilian anti-terrorist outfit CRD, a consultant group based in Madrid. Among other things, CRD teaches Russky bodyguards in certain automobile environments how best to evade kidnappers and save their Boss' hides with one hand on the wheel and the other holding a high-powered small caliber handgun, and cheap cigarrette dangling out the mouth. I believe CRD is staffed with Soldiers of Fortune types, sort of a retirement job for baby killers with CV's detailing experiences in Congo and Angola. I felt a warm glow all over, knowing my own sorry hide is being watched by expert "perps".

The gist was: No taking local taxis, no discussing politics, and no consumption of alcohol (even in the privacy of your home). Only three restaurants and one supermarket for groceries are on the OK list. Keep a low profile and never - he stressed the never part and pausing for effect - draw attention to yourself because you DON’T want to be kidnapped, and being Moslem is not an advantage here. Why, in the Christian South is surely no advantage at all, you dimmie! And please, armed escorts when traveling to worksites in remote areas, blaa, blaa, blaa. Oh, he added, there were no serious issues (yet) but in 2001 some employees had to be evacuated by the Sudanese Army at Thar Jaj, the place where I am scheduled to go to tonight. Great. Be on your toes, be wary, and never let your guard down. At the end of the lecture, with drool dripping the side of my mouth, I’m issued a “Thuraya” satellite phone, which I haven’t figured out to use yet, for emergencies.

And that’s just the security brief. The medical brief is the other. I’m handed a malaria testing kit and some drugs to take weekly as prevention. Nobody I know takes these drugs because it induces some sort of psychosis in some people and worse, potential kidney and liver damage. Psychosis is fine; one needs to be psychotic anyway to want to earn a living in a cesspit. So I dumped the pills in the backpack.

On a lighter note, while waiting outside the house for my driver to take me to the airport for my flight to Thar Jath, I was surprised to see about a dozen Melayus milling about the street a few houses up. You can spot a Melayu a mile away, because next to Arabs, Melayus are also fond of milling and lounging. A subsidiary of Petronas that does pipelines has its offices nearby, so they were either waiting to go in to work, or ask for a raise, or submit a resignation letter or all three. Pleasantries were exchanged, although none suspected me being a fellow Melayu (there were plenty of Indonesians in these parts as well) until I said in jest, “So, bila bas ke Felda Sendayan nak sampai ni?” This was met by awkward surprise that quickly turned to nervous laughter. The Dunhills were passed around. Trust Alfred D for being a fabulous ice-breaker.

Funny how when you meet Melayus in a faraway land, Melayus you’ve never met, Melayus you might never consider rubbing shoulders with, will talk the most inane things with you in an intimate way. It’s as if you’ve known each other all your life. And then wish you hadn’t.

Somewhere along the way I passed some earthen colored apartments called “Block F”, and lo and behold, I saw some twenty Melayu-looking lads playing football. These are students at the university. Where? I couldn’t find a building large enough to pass muster as a University. And yet I knew that prior to World War II, the British had dubbed the University of Khartoum the “Cambridge of the Arabs”. Its entrance requirements are notoriously tough: Only the top one percentile of Sudanese high school super-achievers can dream of gaining a seat. The rest can take up arms. I should go there sometime because some of the more enterprising Melayu lads had opened a canteen serving nasi lemak and nasi goreng. But I doubt they serve teh tarik, not the real kind anyway, because you just cannot find condensed milk in Sudan. There’s an embargo on sweetened condensed milk. Before you roll your eyes increduluosly - this is true - along with Dell Computers and all other Yankee-derived goods.

And where are all the nubile women that Sudan is famous for? Steely Dan’s “Deacon Blues” looped foolishly inside my puny brain:

I crawl like a viper
through these suburban streets
make love to these women
so languid and bitter sweet

Deacon Blues: from Aja (1977) ©W.Becker, D. Fagen, G.Katz, prod.

Well, I wasn’t exactly “crawling like a viper” but the term nubile had its origins in the Nuba Mountains of Kordofan in central Sudan (in “nubilistic” terms, think David Bowie’s first-rate beauty of a wife, Iman, and you’re not far off). I couldn’t find any, let alone paw my grubby mitts on one, but what I saw along the dusty streets of Khartoum looked promising. And that is the tragedy of our modern times – the Imans had all gone overseas only to be discovered in shopping malls of suburban London. Actually Iman isn’t from Sudan, but is a native of Somalia - well, close enough. After some googling-but-not-ogling I am gratified to present you Sudanese-born supermodels like Sonja Wonda (whose nubile proportions grace London buses in alluring advertisements for Top Shop), Alex Wek, and Clara Aker Benjamin. There’s plenty more I reckon, only if we can stop these people from dying. Some Sudanese supermodels, believe me, were indeed discovered in refugee camps.

In the small twin propeller Beechcraft, on my 1200 kilometers trek to the darkest interiors of Africa, the less-than-majestic Nuba mountain range passed below me in a quilt of reds, browns and yellows. Well, they weren’t really mountains, just pointed hills. I looked out my window, and consoled myself that I might, just might – discover some nubile beauties if I looked hard enough.

Satisfied with tall, bare breasted nubile women trailing in my thoughts, I settled into a doze, aided and abetted by the rhythmic thuck thuck thuck of the Beechcraft's engines.

I would have a very rude awakening indeed. But that’s for another chapter.

*The author would like to assert that groping, is strictly, metamophorical. Does that make sense?
© 2007 Mat Salo Images. Photos that appear in this post date-stamped Dawn, Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Experts in "Tight" Places

In keeping with the "pro" and "non-pro" blogger stance, of which I am neither, this week I shall pay homage to people whom I am often in awe of - The Rig Movers.

The Two Captains would aprreciate this edition (and so would the rest of you I hope); Ancient, and Not-So-Ancient alike - because it deals with the complex intricacies of navigating in "tight" places.

Normally it takes me 2 - 4 weeks drilling "duals" - two wells on a given location before it's time to move again. I was fortunate this time around because I had my trusty Canon Ixus 850 in my front pocket while boarding the chopper while the rig is being moved by tugboats. The move can take anywhere between 16 to 30 hours (sometimes more, if the tide isn't in our favor because we have to stop and wait - and yes, occasionally we do get marooned on an unexpected sand or mud bar).

Ready to Board

Pre-flight checks. Notice the "legroom" of this French-made Dauphin helicopter?

Goodbye, Sepinggan (Balikpapan's International Bandara).

Some fall asleep . . .

While others contemplate . . .

While some perform "the sholat"

View from 3000 feet: Batu Bara from presumably Tenaga Coal Mines - being towed by barges to the open sea. Ready to electrify the lives of millions of Bolehsians. For more Tenaga Debacles go here.

And what's this is spy in the distance. A rig being towed?

On closer inspection - YES! - it's our rig! But since there are"big trees" flanking the small waterways, the pilot informed on our headsets that he'll have to drop us at "CPU" - a Central Processing Unit - where a boat will take us on board. He can't land the chopper on the rig's helideck lest he clips them branches . . . Aw shucks, that means lugging our bags all over the place again!

At the CPU . . .

And transfer to "sea truck" ( crew boat).

Joining the rig - me rushing up to the helideck - just in time to record this "tight places" business.

The powerful tugboat - pulling us 96 souls and associated drilling equipment on board a rig-cum- barge measuring 30 m X 100 m. Don't worry, after "de-ballasting" - the barge floats higher with an 11 feet draft. Plus these waterways were dredged ages ago . . . err, sure or not?

And the "Experts" who made it all possible? All home grown, mind you. The groups includes marine pilots and survey positioning experts.

Notice how close the fronds are. Sometimes you can put your hand out and touch the leaves!

And finally, we arrive . . .

To our new home for the next couple of weeks . . .

After ballasting (weighing and stabilizing the rig/barge), with the jacks in "up" position, we're ready to "ngebor" . . . To borrow a friend's phrase, "Baiklah murid murid, sekarang buat bulatan besar dan berlari setempat. Satu, dua, tiga . . ."

Up on the helideck, after final positioning, where I normally go for my pre-dinner walks with my 8 GB Nano in my pocket and MX-500 Sennheiser 'buds in my ear. But it rained earlier, so strike that. Now don't want to go slippin' and slidin' here do we?

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Tuesday Blooody Tuesday

©Mat Salo Images - Photo Time Stamp 18:19:15, May 1, 2007. Digital Ixus 850.

Labor Day Tuesday

When I began my day this morning my thoughts were drawn to my beloved homeland, Bolehsia. I was wondering what my two boys will be doing today, aside from hogging the PS2 and PC - while testing the patience of my eternally suffering wife - because today, May the 1st , is a public holiday.

And the boys will be at home.

Because it's Labors' Day holiday in Bolehsia.

And I'm on a swamp barge rig, on the eastern edge of swampy Borneo - and it's business as usual, of course.

But Indonesia doesn't recognize any form of Workers' Day, and so my thoughts were then drawn to a brave young woman called Marsinah, now dearly departed, who once walked the earth in a place called Sidoarjo in East Java.

Sidoarjo came into the news recently because of the huge ecological disaster allegedly caused by irresponsible drillng practices by a company called PT Lapindo Brantas, in pursuit of the Holy Black Gold. Overflowing hot mud caused 15,000 families to be displaced; some killed, flooded 600 hectares of land and submerged whole villages.

I'd like to think that the disaster was God's Wrath - a retribution for Marsinah.

Lagu Aku Untuk Marsinah (Dan Jua Sebuah Al-Fatihah)

In case you don't know who Marsinah was, here's an excerpt gleaned from an Amnesty International Report:

" . . . . Marsinah's body was found by a group of children in a shack at the edge of a rice field some 100 kilometres from her home. It was bloodied and covered in bruises. There were strangulation marks on her neck. A blunt instrument had been thrust into her vagina causing terrible injuries. A few days earlier she had been a lively 25-year-old leading a strike at the watch factory where she worked in Porong, Sidoarjo, East Java, in Indonesia. She was brutally murdered, almost certainly by the military, because she was a trade unionist who stood up for workers' rights . . . "

And all that she did in '93, this poor young woman, was to sit down with her employer to demand to be paid as was what was on their wage agreement. No more or no less. To demand what's rightfully hers and for her co-workers.

In '98, Ratna Sarumpaet, the famed Indonesian playwright, was thrown in jail in for daring to stage a play on Marsinah.

To this day, the ban on the play is still in effect.

While I leave you to enjoy Labors' Day holiday with your loved ones, O' my Bolehsian readers, spare a thought with this translated monologue from the play by Ratna - Marsinah Accuses.

Then I heard a door being opened right in front of me.
I don't know whether my head hit the wall
or whether I was hit on the brow with a club
I only know I fell headlong on the floor ...
When I tried to move, feet in heavy boots
quickly restrained me, standing on
my shins, my belly, my chest, my arms ...
I was abused with streams of filthy words

during every torture that followed,
I don't know how many times my body was lifted up,
then smashed down, hard.
Lifted up again, then smashed down again ...
Onto the floor ...
Onto the corner of a table ...
Onto a chair ...
Until at last I was truly helpless ...
Such brutality knows no satisfaction ...
I could no longer even move my fingertips
when they began to wildly grope my whole body...
Ratna Sarumpaet, excerpt from Marsinah Menggugat - A monologue from the banned play.