This post was written on May 18, 2011
I have just returned from 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, which occasionally allowed me to make a voice call, and that was it. 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 only one 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 marvelous experience - for 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 hydraulic technician, this post, hopefully, will provide you some tips.
The first impression of a European in Africa is always a huge shock! I still remember my first time. I was born in Ukraine (part of the Soviet Union back then), 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 off the plane 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 - "Well, I am officially screwed now!" 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. Embrace yourself and just go for it. All the way, no stops in the middle. Simply plunge - and the initial shock will quickly pass and you'll see that things aren't as bad as you thought they would be. On my first trip there, two years ago, my plane landed at two o'clock in the morning, and after a sleepless nigh I had to gather all my courage to step out of the 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 oil temperatures within the optimal 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 pass by.
"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-engineer's heaven.
You are extremely lucky if you get a basic set of wrenches. I can't explain it, but tools seem to disappear here. Using a 20 mm spanner on a 19 mm nut is something you will do every day. Hydraulic fittings are 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.
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. 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 work 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.
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 a man (and quite a husky fellow he was) single-handedly pull a diesel engine out of a car by hand. I saw irreparable gear pumps being repaired. I saw a common hookup wire used for the 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 stop. I saw so much more...
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 there, especially in the capital, which is 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 it after a while. I never did. Maybe a couple of weeks just wasn't enough.
The nature is magnificent. There was this enormous mango tree, loaded with mangos right next to my room... This is the 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.
If you are looking for clean and tidy - you won't find it here, so certain sacrifices are to be made. Some restaurants will serve you a single 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 you can do, your best bet is to relax and "let yourself go with the flow".
This is by far the best part. After spending hours under the baking sun, you finally get to your room, all covered in red dust and hydraulic oil, you open that cold beer that's been waiting for you in the fridge - and now you know what 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 context. I can't explain it, but in this environment, it sounds especially beautiful. And boy, I promise you one thing - African women can dance!
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 because the illumination is practically absent. Having seen all this put things in a very different perspective 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 be happy.
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 into 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 finally over) - there were still tears in my eyes when the plane took off from the reddish strip.