I continue to have a lot of "firsts", here in Africa. The other day, at the urging of the CEO I was flying for, I walked away from our airport "agent", denying him the money he was demanding, and proceeded to start up the engines and taxi away as he stood on the airport tarmac in Calabar, Nigeria. Let me give you the whole story…
December 11, 2008 marked my first international flight as a pilot- meaning that I actually took off from one country and landed in another. Sure, I'm an American and am flying in Gabon- that seems international enough. Or, take into consideration that portions of my previous flights to the north of Gabon traverse the airspace of Equatorial Guinea. That all seems very international, however, in my book, the trip departing Gabon and landing in Nigeria, in the Beechcraft BE58 Baron, is the bona fide real deal.
For the pilot crowd out there, here's the route:
1st leg: FOOL-BT-MBO-RALIN-DNCA
2nd leg: DNCA-LINOX-POT-DNBE
In a nutshell, the CEO of the agricultural company and I took off from Libreville at around 6:45am, landed Calabar (Nigeria) international airport around 8:30am and went through customs. After meeting our agent there, getting our passports stamped, having coffee and meat pie, and paying the agent $550 for his assistance, we took back to the skies. An hour and a half later we were at our destination- Benin City, also in Nigeria- a half hour drive to the rubber plantation by pickup. The CEO went first and I stayed to help with refueling of the airplane.
Let me describe how "hanging out at the airport" usually goes for me. As a white guy in a pilots' uniform (which is obligatory to wear), you get a lot of stares. This makes you slightly uncomfortable and you really hope you don't do anything stupid. I try to think of all the times I've been in airports and have seen pilots. They always seem to know what's going on and have things pretty much together. So… I try to do that. However, I usually haven't a clue what to expect at each new airport, so looking like I know what I'm doing gets challenging. I have found is that smiling and greeting people seems to get you points.
So when I was approached by a woman in a police-looking uniform, I did just that. She greeted me and let me know that she was part of the airport security detail and her name was Debbie. I was happy that we were in Nigeria, speaking English, and that I didn't have to stammer and struggle as I do with French in Gabon. She was very nice and, later, after she had assisted me to get my fueling people in a gate, refused a tip. That's much different behavior than Gabon where it seems obligatory to tip when helped.
Another worker at the airport also helped me with changing Central African Francs into the local currency of Nira. I hadn't the slightest clue if I got a good rate or not, but I had enough to do a little shopping for nick-nacks and other stuff to take back to the kids and Alace. At one point in this process, I was caught up with the refueling and had to give my Francs to this man so he could do the exchanging for me inside the terminal building. So, I gave him 40,000 francs ($80) and he walked away. It then occurred to me that I had no idea who this guy was and may very well never see this money again. However, he was wearing a day-glow green vest and ear protection… I figured that qualified him for some level of trust! I'm happy to report that I got my Nira!
The crew of three plantation workers had brought 3 fifty-five gallon drums of AvGas (shipped to them from South Africa) to the airplane and, after 30 minutes, a bucket, some filtering, and a large funnel later, we had all the tanks filled up. As thanks, I had the driver of the pickup pull into a fast-food joint to get everyone cokes and meat pies. Everyone seemed to be thankful for that. These expenses are listed as "handling fees"!
The plantation where was immaculate. It was as if someone took a gated neighborhood of one-story homes from the US and plopped them down in Africa! (note to all you LOST fans- it was eerily like a Dharma project community! YIKES!) It was a neat and tidy place with a community center and soccer field. To top this utopia off, it had a small, fenced in, zoo-type ¼ acre of cattle, rabbits, ostriches, peacocks, roosters, and more, living in harmony. It was all quite odd. I expected to see children with lemonade stands, mailmen on foot, yard sales, and the such. My accommodations in the guest house were great- air conditioning!
That night, at the community center, there was a dinner program honoring the best workers of 2008. As people arrived, a Nigerian band played classic US rock- Genesis, the OJ's, Pat Benetar, The Cars, The Police, etc. (Really? Am I in Nigeria!?!) After the meal, there was a prayer full of "amens" from the crowd, and then the CEO addressed the workers. He told them that overall it was a good year, but that there were some things that should not have happened. He then said, "many of you are Christians, so when you see someone doing something that they shouldn't be, you should tell your supervisors." I thought it interesting that he, a Belgium man who has not spoken a word regarding his spiritual beliefs, was using theirs as impetus for better job conduct. Good business move on his part, I'm sure. He told me privately that Nigerians are the best workers in Africa. Hmm. Anywho… During the presentations, I slipped back to the guest house to turn in early, but I hear that the evening went well with much dancing after I left.
The next morning, the cook at my guest house whipped up some omelets and toast, and then it was off to the office to do some emailing. After lunch, it was back to the airport, and to the skies!
We made the stop in Calabar, again, to go through the obligatory stop at customs. This was to be the most memorable part of the journey for me.
It all started out pretty much the same. We found our agent, Festus, and gave him our passports. He disappeared while we sat down at the snack counter- me, having coffee, and the CEO having a beer. Then, our guests started to arrive.
First, it was a gentleman in plain clothes from immigration. He was the one that interviewed the CEO the day before, but had evidently been told by someone that our CEO was a regular and shouldn't be hassled in this way. The purpose for his trip seemed to be to make amends and let our CEO know that further travel through Calabar would go much easier. He had a seat and hung out.
Our second guest was a uniformed immigration person. He seemed to know our CEO very well, and there was much smiling and exchanging of handshakes all around. He also had a seat and hung out.
Our third guest was our first guest's wife. She needed a job and wanted to work for our CEO, but was sad that all of the plantations were too far away. The CEO agreed that this was a shame, but suggested that everyone now present have a beer- his treat. They gladly accepted and the snack bar attendant was called over to place the order. She had a seat and we all hung out.
BUT WAIT! That's not all! Our fourth guest was the control tower supervisor who I had just talked to when landing. He pulled up a chair and let us know how we could better handle our paperwork when traveling through Calabar. He was also offered a beer and also accepted. This led me to wonder if he was off duty for the day or… oh well.
Then the CEO told everyone that the holidays were approaching and he hoped to be back through with a case of the company's products (vegetable oil, soap, etc.) to pass along to everyone as thanks for keeping the process smooth for him when he passes through.
This is a concept that, some may say, borders on bribery. Others would say that it is merely a sincere sign of gratitude. Since it's not plain old money changing hands, I say it's the latter.
Speaking of money changing hands… Festus finally appeared and pulled me aside to say that he needed $250 additional US dollars (for some reason he worked in dollars, not Nira). I told him that I was confused as he had said the day before that the $550 would cover all fees, coming and going out of the country- both days. He said "I know, but I still need $250". Something wasn't right here, in my humble opinion. Since I had given him all of the US dollars that the company had given me to use the day before, the response was easy. I told him that he already cleared me out of all my dollars and that if he wanted more he'd have to ask the CEO. I thought that this may deter him, but I was wrong.
I went back to the table and the CEO was ready to go. We walked out to the airplane with our contingent of guests in tow, and handed out some company products that were stowed in the nose of the airplane. The CEO made sure that all would get something- the immigration crew, the control tower crew, and even Festus. I thought THIS might deter Festus, but he approach the CEO and made his demand. The CEO would have nothing of it and jumped into the back of the airplane and locked the door. Festus then turned to me and explained the there were people in the airport that he needed to give this money to. If we didn't pay him, it would hurt his business. Then I heard knocking and turned to find the CEO motioning to me to get going. So, I apologized to Festus and told him that his partner would have to call the CEO and sort it out later. I jumped into the airplane and, as I shut the door, heard Festus on his cell phone say "they're leaving. They're in the airplane and they're shutting the door."
This was truly a bizarre moment for me.
I haven't heard if this matter has been resolved, but I'll tell Egmont, the company's pilot who I'm filling in for, so that he knows to be prepared for an angry Festus on his next visit to Calabar.
Thank you for your prayers that keep situations, like this, from getting out of control!