A different kind of the middle of nowhere

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Nursing a double espresso in the Air France lounge at Charles De Gaulle, it’s the first time in a week that I get the chance to be by myself and reflect on what has been a whirlwind week. From being up at 5.00 am two Sundays ago (to catch an early flight westward from Heathrow to Abidjan via Paris), multiple flying stops to a number of offshore assets and then to this stop on the way back to normalcy, it has felt like a blur of perpetual motion. It has also, much against my natural bent, been a time spent overwhelmingly in the company of others -  work colleagues, fellow travellers and the odd hustler looking to make a quick buck amongst others. With each change of location – Heathrow, Paris, Abidjan and offshore – there has been a progressive browning of my surroundings, one that means that by the time I arrive at the work site I am lost in a sea of similar faces. Not since my last job in this part of the world at the back end of 2008 have I found myself in this sort of surroundings; not in the minority but one face in a sea of similar faces.

Stepping out of the airport terminal, the humidity hits like a bed sheet heavy with water might if flapped about by a strong wind, along with the million indecipherable smells – smoke from cooked food, the linger of car exhaust fumes, dried sweat – the minutiae of life which might be from any city along this West African coast. The airport itself is not significantly different from one I am more familiar with – Murtala Mohammed International – with its milling masses of people; particularly the hustlers who sidle up to you, somewhat conspiratorially offering up various taxi and money changing services and a Burger King. Like that other airport, this one is also named for an African strong man.

The days start early and end late, involving a variety of boat transfers including the frog, a walk to work solution and the odd clamber up boat landings via ladders. My two slight concerns turn out to be unfounded – the heat isn’t overly oppressive and I find enough familiar food to subsist on. One can hardly go wrong with eggs, bacon and sausages or rice and fried plantains for that matter (and EVERYTHING tastes infinitely better with a dash of chilli sauce).  Somehow, I get cast in the role of the Africa expert – asked to weigh in everything from food choices to social mores.

Nights are spent trying to get to sleep whilst being swayed by the swells rocking the accommodation vessel we’re on. Fairly recently the beds have been doubled up to increase capacity, which is how three of us get a room with two beds. I volunteer to take one of the top bunk beds, given I have less of a frame to squeeze in than the others.

Being out and about brings back memories of another life, being the young local engineer learning the ropes and then chomping at the bit to take on more responsibilities. In the stories I tell myself of that time, I wrestle with the tension between wanting to do more but feeling like the real decision making power was elsewhere, which is one of the reasons I upped sticks and left in the end. With the benefit of the distance of a few years since then, it is clear that structural problems notwithstanding, my youthful headiness played a part in whatever grievances I carry from that time.  I can’t help but wonder if these younger engineers feel any different, and if the various players in this space have the global reach and structure to truly develop these minds into ‘world class’ engineers. This is the first of many trips westwards and south I suspect. I am curious to see how this pans out.

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