I have just returned from my "field trip" to The Republic of Guinea
Bissau, where I spent the last fourteen days facing all sorts of
hydraulic challenges. During the "expedition" my only connection with
the outer world was my cell, occasionally allowing me to make a phone
call or two, which resulted in Two Weeks Offline!!! I thought that it was something impossible to happen in this world, but it happened, and now I am back!
This was my second hydraulic raid to Africa, and, just
like the first one, it was overwhelming. I have fixed hydraulic
equipment in many places, but Guinea-Bissau is by far the most exotic
of them all. Hopefully this year I will get to know Angola as well, but
for now all my African experience boils down to Bissau. My first trip
was but a week long, and this one lasted two - not much time from
the "standard" point of view, but take my word for it - every day
should count at least for three, because fixing hydraulics in Africa
equals taking an intensive hydraulic survival course in extremely harsh
conditions. Unfortunately, I will never be able to accurately describe
this marvellous experience - for that I am a poor writer - but it feels
like I should at least give it a try.
Africa lacks qualified manpower in all fields, but
from what I saw oil hydraulics is probably the most poorly satisfied of
them all. If you ever consider going to Africa as a technician, this
post may provide you with a couple of tips. After giving it some
thought, I decided to organize this report in a traditional IH manner of paragraphed topics.
The first impression.
The first impression is a huge shock! I was born
in Soviet Union, and have lived in European Union for the last
decade, so I didn't have the slightest idea of what an African country
would be like. My first thought when I got out of the plain was - Hot,
very hot! (referring to the air temperature, not the stewardess), my
second thought was - Where the hell am I and what the hell am I doing
here?!! Thought number three - NOW I am screwed!.. The first impression
is paralyzing, everything around you is different, and I mean everything!
If you have never been to Africa but consider
doing so, my advice would be to take the first couple of days like Bear
Grylls takes stepping into freezing waters! Prepare yourself and just
go for it - all the way, no stops in the middle - simply plunge into it
and the initial shock will quickly pass and you'll see that the things
aren't as bad as you though they would be. On my first trip here, two
years ago, my plain landed at two o'clock in the morning, and I spent
all the night in my room trying to fall asleep (unsuccessfully), and
then had to gather all of my moral strengths to step out of my room
(and before stepping out, I actually spent a good hour peeking out of
the window...). I smile when I recall it - so silly it was... So don't
crawl in - jump in!
The conditions are harsh at best, both for men
and machines. 40 C (104 F) temperatures in the shade are common around
here, so it gets extremely hard to maintain operating oil temperatures
within the optimum range. Then there's the dust - the famous red
African dust, which is absolutely everywhere! The dust covers all and
combined with the blistering heat creates the perfect equipment
destroyer. Any physical effort in this heat is exhausting - especially
when you have to work in the sun - although it gets better as the days
"I wonder how this can still be in one piece..."
- is the normal thought when you see hydraulics in Guinea Bissau. Most
of the time you deal with outdated hydraulic monsters of the last
century. The reason for this is simple - less electronics and more
mechanics. You don't need a super efficient piece of equipment, what
you need is a machine that works no matter what and that can be
repaired with basic tools - so no computers! Nothing electronic lasts
in Africa, only purely mechanical systems survive. I must confess that
I love it, as this is a back-engineerists's paradise.
You are extremely lucky if you get a basic set
of wrenches. I still can't explain it, but tools seem to disappear
here. Using 20 mm spanner on a 19 mm nut is something you will do every
day. Hydraulic fittings is another thing that you will have to
improvise a lot with. It is very frustrating to spend the whole morning
looking for a three quarters BSP tee, and then the rest of the day
inventing one by welding together a couple of old fittings you were
lucky to find at a local scrap yard.
As you see, the conditions are terrible and
resources are scarce, which means that solving even the simplest
problem requires an enormous amount of ingenuity. There is no place for
standard solutions in this workplace - here you don't work, you improvise.
If you don't have the right shaft end - you cut off the tip of the old
one and weld it to the new one, if you don't have the right hose
fitting - you cut off the old one and weld it to a new one. In fact,
cutting off old stuff and weld-adapting it to new stuff is a common
practice. A lot of solutions that office-engineers would label
technically impossible become a reality. The main objective of every
repair is to make it wok with what you have got and no matter what. All
other aspects, like aesthetics, oil leaks, excessive noise or fuel
consumption are secondary and insignificant.
Only in Africa.
I saw an eight seater minivan with no
windows transport twenty people inside (and partially outside). I saw
goats and pigs being put in taxis. I saw people doing stick welding
with cheap sunglasses for eye protection. I saw farm animals enter
restaurants. I saw one man alone (quite a husky fellow he was) take out
a diesel engine out of car by hand. I saw irrepairable gear
pumps being repaired. I saw common hookup wire used for engine spark
plug connection. I saw dead car batteries being taken apart to make
"undead" batteries. I saw damaged seals being replaced with copper
wire. I saw dirt mixed with oil being sold as a high quality valve
grinding compound. I saw hydraulic systems work until oil reached 100 C
and then fail, and then stop for a while to "cool down", and be put
back into service until the next forced stop. So much more I saw...
All I can say is that you shouldn't drive in
Bissau unless you absolutely have to. The rules of traffic simply do
not apply here, especially in the capital, which is an absolute chaos.
The first time I was taken downtown, I had to make an effort not to
close my eyes. They say that one gets used to if after a while, but
this is something I personally didn't manage to, or maybe three weeks
just weren't enough.
The nature is magnificent. There was this enormous
mango tree, loaded with mangos right next to my room... This is
tropics, with a lot of wild nature around you, and if you ever venture
to go to the interior - my God - it is astonishingly beautiful!!! You
get to see animals you'd only find in the zoo running and flying around
you and nobody seems to be making a big deal of it.
Clean and tidy.
If you are looking for clean and tidy - you won't find it here, so certain sacrificesare
to be made. Some restaurants will serve you one napkin and only if you
ask for it. Even in "good" places you may experience blackouts and
irregular water supply, among other things. Since there isn't much that
you can do, your best bet is to relax and "let yourself go with the
This is by far the best part. After working eight
hours under the baking sun, when you finally get to your room, all
covered in red dust and hydraulic oil, and you open that one cold beer
that's been waiting for you in the fridge - you finally get to know how
heaven feels like... (if you don't drink beer, make it fanta, pepsi,
water or whatever it is that you drink when you are really
thirsty). And then when you get downtown, and spend the rest of the
evening at a local pub listening to the band playing African music -
you forget about all your trouble! I didn't care much for African music
before going to Bissau, but here I understood that in the Western world
it's taken out of the context - I can't really explain it, but in this
environment it sounds beautiful. And boy, I tell you one thing -
African women can dance!
In the end.
The country is very poor, and most of the population
doesn't have regular water or power supply, even the sewage is often
missing. You get to see a lot of semi destroyed buildings, and the
nights are very dark since the illumination is practically absent.
Seeing all this put things in a very different perspective, at least
for me. We take so many things for granted and never bother to find out
where they come from, but the truth is - you don't need to have much to
This second trip to Africa taught me a lot and
definitely changed the way I look at things. There's so much about it
that I would like to tell but fail to put in words. One thing I am
certain about - working in Africa is definitely not for the
weak-stomached, and if you ever trip to Bissau (and I am sure that this
is true for any African country), - you will love it and you will hate
it at the same time! I guarantee that you won't be left indifferent.
I loved it - every second of it, and even
though I knew that I was coming back home to all that I was missing -
my (dearest) wife, my (stressful) work, my (very old) car, my (not so
old) bike, the internet (two weeks off-line!!!) - there were still
tears in my eyes when the plain took off from the reddish strip.