Sand in the Sandwiches – Another country – another routine work day

Ould Babah’s three tortoises never looked happy.  Day after day we walked into the locust compound in Nouakchott, Mauritania, past the little grassy area in the centre whey they resided.  Usually the male had his head stuck in his burrow at one end, the two females were motionless in any shade they could find.  They would chew inefficiently at some thorny scrub, or gently waddle around in the sand.  One day I found one of the females crunching on the remains of a plastic football.  Not finding it edible she would spit it out in front of her, look around for a few seconds, and then, as if she had forgotten all she had just done, would rediscover it anew and give it another tasting.

Not the greatest of meals

Not the greatest of meals

 During occasional breaks where I had to get my eyes away from my laptop, away from the air conditioned room in which we were teaching, I would step outside and sit on the low wall next to the tortoises’ pen.  I would watch there antics for a while, then look up at the clear blue sky, listen to the buzz of the occasional insect, a slight breeze rustling the bougainvillea on the trellis across the way.  Then I would make my way back in.  During the day, we would see very few people, the heat was too much for any activity outside, but at certain times though, they would all come out, place down a small dusty prayer mat and face Mecca to pray.

 When inside our little room with flowery curtains keeping out the intense light and the air conditioning keeping ourselves and the computer cool, we saw little of the day, and we spent most of our time there, Judith and I, for the whole two weeks we stayed in Mauritania.  How many times have I told people when I returned from trips that all I see is a computer screen, fluorescent lights and the occasional person.  I spent most of my time developing systems, setting up computers and training people in how to use them.  I was ecstatic when a trip was to be mainly meetings because it meant at least I got to drive around town in the day time, but so often the routine was the same, get up, have breakfast, drive or walk to work, work, have lunch, work again, come back, have a shower, eat and either flop on the bed or prepare for the next day.  Almost all these tales of fancy I have told in this book are brief interludes, the odd weekend, an evening out, in amongst a rather humdrum existence, albeit in  far flung corner of the globe.

The locust compound

The locust compound

Liming – On the Edge – Keith

So I had been asked to come out to St Lucia where Keith and his boss worked, and she, he and I had tried to see where we would go.  To be frank, I could see no way out at this stage.  In fact after I got back, I spent long hours trying to find a solution, and in the end the only way was to cancel the aerial photography and do it another way.  To my amazement, soon after that, a French company flying in the Guadeloupe and Martinique Departments carried on flying and covered the whole of St Vincent and The Grenadines at 1: 30000, full colour, few clouds.  It showed how you had to be lucky with weather in the Caribbean, and that to be based in the region meant you could cover the ground when the opportunities arose.  In the meantime, I had come to the conclusion that you could never have a project like this that depended so much on one of the first actions to be done before you tried to do the rest.  I eventually, with some help, redesigned the project to ensure that we could carry on with field work, training and data activities without the major dataset.  We also resorted to satellite imagery to map the resources, much coarser and far from satisfactory, but so came my working adage for the next three years, when you haven’t got the best to hand, you make best use of what you have.

 But I can tell you are nodding off and you don’t want to get into the work I am doing.  Instead I should tell you more about St Lucia.  To do that I have to tell you a little about Keith.  One of the most friendly people I have ever met, we had struggled together with the St Vincent problem for a whole year, and at least once a week I would ring him up from Chatham to give him an update.  His soft lilting voice used the way many Caribbeans do of enunciating clearly each syllable as it is the only way to get understood outside of their own island.  He met me at Hewannora Airport after I had taken a long route round for cheapness – London to Miami and on to the International Airport at the southern end of St Lucia by American Airlines.  Not ever having seen a picture of each other, it was remarkable that we recognised each other as I stepped through the doors from customs.  Since then we meet probably once or twice a year, but instantly click and although we bore each other silly with work talk, it is always a continuation of a great friendship that had formed during that first week.

Keith on the road into Soufriere

Keith on the road into Soufriere

 First he saw that I liked a drink, which made us easy to drop everything and enter a bar.  Second he saw I enjoyed an easy lime.  This is not, as you may think, a penchant for a liberated fruit, but the ability to sit in the street or outside a bar and drink, greeting the world as it goes by, talking when you wanted to rather than forcing it, and enjoying each other’s company.  Keith took me out to lime to so many of his favourite places.

 It was 10:30 local time at Hewannora, some twenty four hours since I had stepped out of the house in Chatham, and I still had an hour’s drive across the island to Castries, the capital.  Once there, there was still a short way as we went around the harbour to one of the most beautiful little hotels I have ever stayed in.  The Auberge Seraphine is small and locally owned.  It had lovely suites, a terrace top swimming pool and a large open fronted dining room.  It oozed peace and quiet, but was modern enough to help out the most demanding businessman.  I didn’t appreciate it that night as it was very late, and I flumped straight into bed.

The Port Run – Settling into routine

 Feeling rather warm inside, we went off up in to the streets up the hill from the Rio Douro.  Villa Nova de Gaia had two main central areas, one was the port lodges and the rabbit warren of streets and dilapidated squares; the other was a wide boulevard which seemed to climb never endingly up from the main bridge.  To the left of the bridge, an ornate group of white buildings were a fortified monastery, and gave some for the best views of Porto on the north bank.  This street bustled at any time, with buses, trolley buses and huge amounts of traffic, and every sort of business could be found.  Above the road where our school lay there were a series of restaurants, and about ten of us went in here.  We got some wine in and tucked in to the breads, breadsticks and delicious fish balls sitting on the table while we ordered.  We waited a while for our meals and were delighted when the waiter brought us more bread and balls.  We were less pleased to find out the price of these “complimentaries” when the bill came.  We were very careful in restaurants after that not to eat anything till our meal arrived.

 Eating out was fun, as we only got breakfast in the dorms.  In this depressing school the breakfast followed the trend.  We tended to get some very stale bread in various shapes, a saucer of margarine and a thick strip of orange sugary stuff.  It had the consistency of jelly concentrate, but looked as if it had been dragged around the floor to pick up every piece of dust and grit.  However, it turned out to be the best part of breakfast, even when I discovered we were eating carrot jam.  The coffee was served in wide bowls and was the bitterest I have ever tasted.  The surly guy who served us every morning looked like the type you would not argue over the food quality or safety, and it was as much as I could do to say “Obrigado” to him.

 I learnt a few words of Portuguese to get me by but I am never very good at new languages, and the book I had bought was probably the worst phrase book in the world.  It seemed more targeted towards visitors to Brazil than the motherland, and insisted that “please” was “Faz Favor”, which I never heard said in all my time there.  I hate European languages that have to distinguish between masculine and feminine word endings, and got my self in a tizzy regarding who I should said Obrigado or Obrigada to.  My tongue tiedness got me into trouble.  One day at Sao Bento station I asked for a rail ticket.  When he asked whether it was single, I said, “oui, I mean si,I mean Sim” as if I were the little constable that followed Clouseau around in the Pink Panther cartoons.  The man smiled at me and said in perfect English “you mean yes”.  Asking for a return ticket got me into trouble later on another occasion, as you will see.

To be honest I remember little of the actual work we did during those days – it was tedious stuff, mainly recording all sorts of useless information and then coming back to long evening classes on uncomfortable seats.  Everybody usually had to give a presentation some time during the week, and the day I had to do it I had the worst sore throat imaginable, and croaked my way through stuff.