Beating off the waves – Forty winks

It too was pokey – enough room to walk around the bed but only just – the wardrobe and chest of drawers filled most of the rest of the space.  A stand up shower integrated with the toilet (i.e. they were almost on top of each other) and a TV against the wall of the main room was about all I could expect.  At best I could say they made optimum use of the space they had available.  I thanked the guide and I started to unpack.  As usual if I am in town for more than one night I like to spread my stuff around and put some sort of stamp on this anonymous space.

The window was covered in a thick net curtain. I drew it back and gazed upon a most unusual view of the Maldives.  I could not see the sea.  In fact I could not see much apart from the backs of all the houses and tower blocks around me.  At least I could see beyond the other side of the street as there were a cluster of low rise buildings with tin roofs nestled in amongst the more modern apartment buildings.  Unfortunately the owners of these seemed to consider these roofs as both extra storage space or dumping ground.  The roof opposite was strewn with an old sink, several planks of wood, tubing, a box for some electrical equipment, pots of paint, spare tin roofing, and bits of vegetation that had somehow been left up there.  Let’s say it was not a pretty sight.


Not your typical view of the Maldives

I drew the net curtain back, took off my travelling clothes and took a quick forty winks – after all I had been travelling for the best part of the last 24 hours, and with spending the wee hours traipsing round Dubai airport, I could do with a bit of catch up sleep.

It did not last very long.  The phone rang and I heard Jeremy’s cheery voice inviting me to join him and our engineer, Dave, in reception.  I quickly mustered together a new outfit (shorts and t-shirt) and headed down the steep steps.

Blown Away – A novel garage

One car was too valuable to be left to chance.  I never found out who the owner one and why it was connected to the hotel, but it was a huge Rolls Royce in pristine condition, every piece of paintwork and chrome gleaming in the sunlight.  At present it was parked under the coconut trees outside in the car park.  A team of twenty people were standing in the lobby and were working out two things.  First how to prepare the lobby to have the Rolls Royce inside, second how to negotiate this huge car through the double doors to take up its exclusive garage location.

The lobby was certainly a big enough space, but in the centre was a large round table.  It happened to be made of solid marble, but fortunately could be split into the base and the top.  It took seven men to lift the base and turn it onto its side and roll it gently till it rested against a wall.  They were so ginger with it; I think both the table and the wall paint were seen as very valuable too.  Then the base which was even more problematic ; being smaller but just as heavy, it took a lot of shuffling for these guys to get it across the floor – and now the duty manager was worried about what damage could be done to the floor.  Once in the corner, they had to gently lever the table top back into the horizontal position and place (not slide) it back onto the base.  There was a lot of relief when stage one of the operation was complete.


Now for the even more tricky part – the room could take the vehicle, but could they get it through the doors.  I do not remember seeing anyone measuring the vehicle or the doors; but I had arrived some way into the whole process.

I know this it is not a regular operation to drive a Rolls Royce into a hotel lobby, but I think the driver chosen was either not very skilled, or the sheer responsibility of not putting a mark on the car made her a nervous driver.  I think part of the problem was that she had obviously been given this responsibility to get the car under cover, and no way would she contemplate passing it on to other people around given the chance that it could seriously screw up.


As ever in such a situation there were about 20 backseat drivers who caused her even more angst.  She wound down the windows and could hear about ten people shouting advice about how to line up.  She took about three attempts in the open air to get the car aligned perpendicular with the door and could stand a decent chance of getting through the gap without either jamming or scraping a panel.  Even now she was tempted to turn the steering wheel which took her off line again , and she had to reverse and start again.  At one point someone pointed out to her that it would be a good idea if she brought the wing mirrors in to give herself a few more centimetres’ grace.

Eventually it took a central guide standing like ground staff at an airport, and two other guys either side monitoring the potential conflict of Rolls and hotel.  Inch by inch this vast beautiful beast, headlights full on; eased into the lobby.  Even with the wing mirrors in there was barely light between car and door.

There was a lot of congratulations, and the paparazzi, including myself, got their shots of this one off occasion.

I often wonder how easy the reverse operation was after the storm.

Crazy Town, Crazy Island – The commotion beyond the wall

The third and completely contrasting event happened much later in the trip.  We were getting close to the workshop and Jean Luc was once more out making sure everything was OK at the hotel where it was to be held.  Chris was getting some printing done at a place in Petionville  – for some reason all workshops in the Caribbean need a banner; whether there are three people or thirty thousand.  They need to show all the logos of who is funding, who the clients are and a complicated title (with a set of roman numerals in them if they can possibly squeeze it in).  Titles of workshops seem to get sillier and sillier, although the most complicated one was for a meeting I attended when living in BVI.  It was on the nearby island of St John and called “Virgin Islands Reef Fish Spawning Aggregation and Marine Protected Area Workshop for Fishermen”.  The name was so long that they had to reduce the font on the t shirt to fit it all on one side.

So Chris was out measuring up the size of the plastic sheet to be used and getting the PDF of the banner together.  I love the efficient use of time in these contracts.

I was putting the finishing touches to the maps for the presentation, and was down in my usual haunt of the poolside tables.  I was close to the main wall of the bar and to my right there were more tables leading to the small garden at the front of the hotel.  At the end of the garden was a tall thick tall stone wall that shielded the hotel from the main road south out of Petionville and across from that the town square.  The square still had a lot of mature trees, but the ground around was hard from the heavy footfall it received, and littered with shoe shiners, tobacco stalls and newsstands, cell phone card vendors, people just hanging around and, well , litter.


Once in the Kinam Hotel you usually forgot the outside world existed

The noise from all this activity was impossible to ignore but somewhat tempered by the heaviness of the wall.  On this afternoon,  as I worked away at my screen, even I could perceive that the noise was more organised.  I could hear chanting and singing approaching the hotel.  I tried to continue on, but the racket got louder and many of the hotel guests and staff had broken from their current occupations and were heading to the front entrance.  The entrance to the hotel itself was a narrow gate barely two people wide so it did not take long for it to fill up and it was difficult for people to see.  If I leaned back I could just about see around the corner to where a small crowd of onlookers had now built up just inside the hotel grounds.

The singing and chanting were now loud and there was some competing shouting from a different direction.  I decided I could come away from my laptop for a moment and take a look.  I was glad I had delayed as it was just while I was wandering up to the onlookers I heard shots fired.

Crazy Town, Crazy Island – Hotel or Prison?

About 40 of us remained now and eventually a small 737 landed and we headed on board.  It was dark when I reached Port Au Prince, but a new driver had been hired and he was efficient at whisking me away from the hawkers and taxi drivers outside the terminal building.  And because it was already quite late, we headed straight up the main road with barely a stop – less than forty minutes to get up to Petionville instead of the usual hour and a half.

Jean Luc and Christophe were having an after dinner drink when I arrived; we greeted and they could see I was shattered so they gave me the barest of arrangement details and sent me to bed.

The Kinam Hotel is a remarkable piece of Caribbean culture in amongst the mayhem of the Port Au Prince region.  Beautifully ornate gingerbread details on the roof, the balustrades, even the window shutters. It was barely touched by the earthquake, probably because it was built on firm rock and its base too was local stone.  It covered a small plot but apart from a wall on the south face, the other three sides were all enclosed by one large building.  There were a couple of restaurants on the front side; one next to the pool, one raised up on a terrace.  Jean Luc had booked us in to one of the meeting rooms for the next two weeks, to do the analysis of the results, write the reports, make the maps and prepare a final presentation.  We were not going to work in the Fisheries Department for two reasons.  One it saved nearly four hours of commuting, but two, there had been some issues with various individuals in the ministry and we wanted to avoid them escalating into difficult problems.  That is diplomatic talk and I’m contractually not allowed to say more!


The gingerbread style of the Kinam Hotel

It meant the rather peaceful surrounds of the Hotel Kinam became my home and prison for most of the next two weeks.  In theory we could have gone out and about a lot more, visited all the Haitian restaurants around Petionville, but to be brutally honest there was not time.  We had a huge amount of work to do in time for the presentation before I left.  For those who read these blogs and think what a fantastic jolly time I always have; well you only really hear about the highlights.  On many a trip I have been on I spend 90% of it in an office or hotel.  I may get one day trip out to see a bit of the country, and of course take lots of photographs and have many stories about that.  What is never visible are the hours and hours of work that you do not take photographs of or talk about much because…. well it is tedious.  Tedium was the routine at the Kinam; up and breakfast where a nice grapefruit juice, a plate of fruit or maybe some scrambled egg and toast and lots of coffee, then back to the room to grab the laptop. Off to the office or the (ok yes) poolside to tap away.  We had a nice table next to the pool for a while but the sun came direct on to it by 10am and made us both sweat and not be able to see our laptop screens that we gave up on that idea.  The small meeting room above the main entrance was far more suitable, although the construction work outside and noise of street traffic could be distracting if the windows were open, and the inside either too hot, or if we used the AC , too noisy again.  My favourite spot was in the lower restaurant, shaded from the sun next to the cool stone walls of the hotel but still with a nice enough view and a modicum of activity to keep you interested when making maps became too much of a chore.  The three of us would take turns in going to different places as we felt comfortable.  We might all be around the restaurant table and interacting – either joking or discussing finer points of the project.  We might split for several hours.  Jean Luc had  a few activities out of the hotel to concern himself with, mainly about arranging the workshop.  Chris and I often as not were in the hotel.  Chris had all his field data, which he had shared with me, and was doing his analysis work with stats packages.  I had all the data I needed and spent hours putting it together, running some process that would take an hour or two and spend the interim time stopping my computer processor from overheating or typing up my notes for the report.

So this was the rhythm of life.  Lunch would be something light – a salad or a quick sandwich.  We might have a glass of lemonade in the afternoon, and our meal would be taken with a beer beforehand and a beer with and then back to the rooms for an hour of home emailing, watching whatever I could glean from the francophone and non-CNN channels on the TV and so to bed.

A tale of two swamps – Introduction to Bangweulu

Eventually a white 4 wheel drive turned up and a large middle aged man got out.  He beamed at me through his beard and shook my hand vigorously.  This was John Steel, a veteran Brit abroad, who was liaising with my project as the chief technical advisor.  We weren’t to stay in Mansa that night but at a hotel on the shores of Lake Bangweulu, some 75 kilometres to the east.  Before we drove out there, I was first driven to the outskirts of Mansa town and introduced to the project office staff.  My colleague from Hull, Ian, was already in the field, and John’s wife, Chris, had joined him to explore the villages down there.  So it was just John and I who sped along the straight tarmac road late in the afternoon.  The sun was beginning to drop as we reached Samfya, the small district centre situated on a hill above the lake.  We came to the end of the tarmac and dropped down to the lakeshore and the small hotel.  I was registered and was walked to my room by one of the porters.  We passed by several chalet rooms and the door was open on one and I spied Ian working away at a table.  He was wearing a jumper which surprised me but after initial greetings he told me the wind on the lake had been rough the last couple of nights and he needed it to keep the chill out.  I unpacked quickly in my plain but serviceable room, and joined Ian, Chris and John in a characterful bar near the reception.  We sat and drank and ate fish and discussed the findings of Ian so far and the plan for the next couple of days.


Morning at Lake Bangweulu

The lake was obviously the main feature of our work – this wide open tract of water is one of the less discovered great lakes of eastern Africa.  Although quite shallow it is broad – from our hotel we could just see a thin line of land on the horizon, and this was only a long split that nearly divides the lake – beyond is another stretch of water about half as broad.  Feeding into this lake are a myriad of rivers and dambos, each with their own areas of wetland and smaller lakes and pools, and at the far end a vast swamp where more rivers mingle with the outflow of the lake itself.  The marsh gradually tapers as it meets higher ground and then squeezes into a narrow valley as the Luapula River heads over a set of waterfalls and starts its long trek as a tributary of the Congo River and the Atlantic some 4000km away.

This series of watery features provides a  massive array of fishing options, whether it be from small fish ponds on dambos, seasonal river collection or nets in the swamps or open water all year round.  A hundred or more villages rely on these resources for the majority of their livelihoods and protein. Our job over the next couple of days was to explore a few of these villages, meet with the fisherfolk and elders and for me to get a feel for all the different types of landscapes and land rights that might influence my map of where the fisheries area should go.