Mike's photo adventure weblog

Mike's photo adventure weblog: May 2007

Friday, May 25, 2007

Zambia #4

I’ve had a great opportunity of late, teaching surveying students about mining. My class consists of three students. I’m sure glad I brought scanned notes from all my classes, which I used to create handouts for them. Needless to say, I couldn't use Powerpoint.

To get to my class I must drive into town, a 12km trip that takes 25 minutes. Along the road to Solwezi, 60 km/h speed-limit signs mock you. Pot-holes have their own-potholes. Townsfolk ride their bicycles along the edge of the road, adding to the obstacles. Sometimes the bicycle passengers are dangerously distracting – have you ever seen a bicycle carrier rack loaded with three confused adolescent goats? Witnessing that is enough to cause an accident without all the other hazards.

On the topic of strange sights – have you ever seen a 25,000L fuel tanker truck driving ahead of you, spraying fuel from a hole in the tank? I hadn’t before either. When he stopped, guys were standing beside with 20L pails to catch the leaking diesel. I wonder how many pails they needed.

I’ve been spending some time with Team Indonesia, a crew of imported labourers. A few of them speak English and I’ve learned that some of these guys are highly educated. The first one I spoke to introduced himself in broken English as “Marlon Brando” – he’s a chief accountant and financial analyst with an MBA, getting field experience before going back to the corporate office. The chef worked in 5-star hotels before the tourism industry literally bombed, another two are engineers, and at least one other is an engineering student paying for his education.

I’ve also met lots of workers by offering them lifts if they’re going my way – usually the canteen or the city of Solwezi. There are many people that have migrated to this city since the mine opened 3 years ago, which has more than doubled the local population. I’ve met teachers working as security guards for $50/month, the lowest paid job on the site. I’ve met engineering students who couldn’t afford to finish their education and must work for 2 years to go back. I’ve met unemployed who come to the mine gates every morning hoping for temporary labour. Every single person I’ve ever met has been friendly and open and bubbling to speak to me, and I am invariably asked to help them secure a higher paying job on site. All I can tell them is to keep applying, and working to impress their superiors. This mine employs 1200 people, and there’s just no way it can employ everyone who needs a job – especially when people are coming from all over the province looking for work. The mine has a “Foundation” that spends money in the local community. I haven’t learned enough about the provided benefits, but I know the local schools and hospital are unacceptable. Most of the Zambian geologists and engineers have left their families back in larger cities with better facilities. Another definite problem is the horrible road conditions in the city – even the road to the mine is terrible. Around here, pot-holes have their own pot-holes

At the last mine I worked, I had no computer for the first two months and was forced to computer hop, as people cycled out of the office to visit the field. Thus I was pleasantly surprised here when given a corner desk with a 2 GHz computer with CD burner and 15” monitor. (I was lucky to show up the day the Chief Geologist was quitting, and smoothly took his desk). This was solid, but I was soon ‘bumped’ by the new Chief Geo, and my spirits were low as I had flashbacks to the last mine. However I got another corner desk but a slow computer with only a CD-ROM and 15” monitor. Things were soon looking up, upon discovering the computer was actually 2.8 GHz and just in dire need of a reformat. I had previously befriended the IT guys, who wiped it for me. Now the computer was flying! I also acquired a DVD burner through my IT connection. Just when things couldn’t get any better, the new engineer quit and I snagged his 17” LCD monitor when nobody was around. I don’t know if anybody realizes, but I think I have the sweetest machine in the office.

In my first week here, my boss Gerhard hadn’t smiled once. He is South African of British descent, and quite a down-to-business type of guy. I hadn’t gotten many friendly vibes from him, and rumour has it that the aforementioned Chief Geologist left due to their inability to get along. Gerhard has since shown a few chinks in his armour – in one morning meeting last week the senior engineer reported that we had no water in the dongas (the trailers we live in). With a straight-face and serious tone, Gerhard turned to me, and spoke with his high-brow British accent, “So that’s why your hair looks like that. I thought you were just having a bad-hair day.” Everybody laughed.

I’ve posted more photos at my flickr site, click the thumbnail above.

Please take a peak, and feel free to leave comments.

Happy African Liberation Day!

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Zambia #3

I’ve been getting very nostalgic of late, thinking back to my childhood days in elementary school. The reason? I ran out of lead for my imported mechanical pencil. Now I have to sharpen my pencil. How can people work in these conditions?

The weather here is gorgeous. There have only been two days where a cloud passed between me and the sun. Every day is in the mid 20s, with a cool breeze and low humidity. At night it remains in the 20s until midnight where it drops into the low teens. The strange this is, some of the people in the office like the AC cranked, so I need a fleece inside! And this is their winter.

Without a day off yet, I’ve only visited the nearby town only a few times. One of my visits was delivering a fellow engineer to teach a class. I decided to visit the infamous 'Shoprite' grocery store to see if the stories I'm told are true:

Every morning, enterprising customers collect every loaf of bread from the Shoprite bakery and purchase them each for $1. They transport the loaves to the storefront sidewalk, where they sell for $1.15. It seemed to me this practise has now caught on with toilet paper too -- but I didn't get a good look because I was slightly worried about my vehicle outside. (A local boy offered to 'watch my car', I declined, and decided it was better not to leave it for too long. Good thing too, as the fire extinguishers have a history of going missing when left unguarded). I went back a few days later and while purchasing some bananas noticed a huge mob of people, disregarding proper queuing etiquette as they anxiously awaited the forthcoming loaves fresh from the bakery. Ah, what a place.

In order to drive in the pit here, the employees must pass a driving examination. This normally wouldn't present any difficulties but a few special circumstances made this an interesting adventure: They drive on the left. They sit on the right. The turn signal on the steering column is on the right. The vehicles are all manual transmission (I normally drive automatic), and the gear-shifting hand is the left.

I stalled the vehicle once, I drove through a stop sign, and I scored perfect.

The daily maid service in my room is very thorough. They clean, sweep, wash any dirty laundry in the hamper, and make the bed. Sounds pretty sweet, you say? It has its aggravations too. They often mix up clothes and my laundered boxers disappeared. It turns out my next door neighbour had been given them. Then some shoes appeared in my room, which turned out to be my neighbours'. (Yes, for some strange reason they randomly wash your shoes). Another day, their thoroughness turned into invasiveness as they went into my closed cabinet, tidied all my personal belongings, investigated my clothing and overruled my interpretation of ‘dirty’ by deciding themselves what should be laundered. This was a bit much, considering both my passport and money belt is hidden in that cabinet. Not only that, but I'm told my clothes won't hold up very long against their rigorous washing methods - clothes would have a better chance were they washed with gravel.

I’ve met some more interesting individuals, such as a former Zimbabwean farmer who was forced off his land with little compensation. He had pedigree cattle he had selectively bred for 30 years, only to be slaughtered and sold. He had a $40 000 irrigation system he couldn’t sell, because nobody is buying farming equipment. Another man I spoke to had parents that escaped to England with only what they could carry.
(Background: President Mugabe earmarked 95% of white-owned for redistribution to black people, many of whom had no experience or skills in farming. The country had formally been producing excess food but now relies on food aid for 1.8 million people. And very recently, contrary to all common sense, the UN appointed Zimbabwe to head the Commission on Sustainable Development).

I met another guy, a South African, describing “croc feeding” at a reservoir full of crocodiles that he found a few hours away. Him and his friends attach a leash from a stake in the ground to a live chicken’s ankle, and run back to their car and wait. The real fun began when the leash snapped and the chicken came straight towards their car with the crocodile in hot pursuit. If I get the chance to try this out, I’ll be sure to send photographs.

Hope everyone is doing well. Don’t be afraid to send me an email. Click the thumbnail above for photos.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Zambia #2

Zambians are the friendliest and smiliest people in the world. Everyone greets you warmly and is interested in pleasant and open conversation. It helps that English is the official language, and everyone speaks it with a charming, and predominantly comprehensible, African accent. This has made my introduction here much less intimidating than if I were to have worked in another foreign land.

My office has an eclectic combination of local and ex-patriot employees: Zimbabweans ("Zimbo's"), South Africans, Brits, many Zambians including two Mining Engineering and two Geology students, a Ghanan, an Australian, an American, a Russian, a Filipino, and a lone Canadian - me. After making quick friends with the Zambian students Sumili, Zimba, Chiko, and Mas I will be visiting them at the University of Zambia ("UnZa") in Lusaka. Photos are available at my Flickr site (link below).

My work schedule is 13 days on followed by 1 day off with hours from 7:00 to 18:00, which doesn't include time spent eating breakfast and dinner. One interesting thing here is that people don't commonly use the AM/PM system, leading me to challenge myself to re-learn time (rather than simply 'translating' into the AM/PM system).

During my off-time, I have found plenty of things to do: Go to the gym, listen to the radio, read in bed, do sudoku at my desk, read at my desk, do sudoku in bed - the possibilities are endless. I'm sure glad I brought a stack of books. If I actually receive time off, I may go bicycling, visit Solwezi, go golfing (2 hours away) or to the driving range (nearby).

The food here has been delicious, and my diet seems pretty healthy. Vegetables are grown locally right on the property, and desserts or sweets are infrequently available (only weekend lunches have desserts). The meat possibilities are endless - even breakfast has 4 meat choices! (Eggs, sausages, ground beef, and chicken liver).

The other night at dinner they were having a barbecue and the cook came into the pub and told us "the meat is ready". I went out to the grill to try some chicken and the cook, confused at my request, told me the chicken wasn't ready yet - only "the meat". Apparently chicken is the vegetarian alternative here. Afton, I'm so excited for you!

Looking back on my journal, there's a few short anecdotes to relate:

-During the final approach to the airplane landing at Ndola I noticed a dusty football pitch full of lanky, African, barefoot adolescents and for the first time it struck me that I'm really in Africa.

-Listening to the radio my second night here I heard a report about a number of individuals in a far-off village being accused of witchcraft and subsequently hanging themselves. For the second time it struck me that I'm really in Africa.

On the hazards of the area :
-My first day here, my boss informed me that malaria was inevitable and that medication only causes problems by preventing a timely diagnosis. We'll see about that, but I'll stick to the Malarone Thank You Very Much.

-The Filipino geologist mentioned that cobras, vipers, brown snakes, and black mambas are all common in the area and have been seen on site. In case you don't know, the black mamba is lovingly referred to as the "two-step snake" - because that's how far you can get before you drop dead. One bite has enough venom to kill 30 adults.

I've posted some photos with descriptions at my flickr site; click the thumbnail above to reach them.

Until next time!

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Zambia #1

(Emailed to a few people upon arrival a few days ago, I've posted it here for everyone who wasn't on the mailing list)

Hello everyone! After 26 hours of flying, 14 hours of layover, and 4 countries, I have arrived at Solwezi in Zambia.
Upon arrival to site, I was dropped off with all my belongings at the office and sat for a half hour, struggling to stay awake as I awaited my boss. He introduced himself, and immediately began describing the project he'd like me to work on. His first words were, "We're throwing you into the deep-end...."
The facilities here are very basic. I live in a container with a bed and a desk, and share a bathroom with an Australian geologist. I have electricity.
I have been given a desk at the office with a computer and internet, so I must write personal emails on company time. Considering how busy I'll likely be, an abundance of emails isn't likely. I'll try to send updates every week. I've taken a few photos and will attempt to post some on my flickr site. Check out
my flickr set.

If anyone wants me to add their email address to my mailing list, let me know. Now back to work...