Monday, December 15, 2008

SCANDAL IN NIGERIA! ... so what's new?

More Bizarre "firsts"

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:



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!

Friday, December 12, 2008

Update on Life

Here are some cool things happening with the Straw's:

-Joey, Megan, and Sam are meeting with children from a city orphanage and helping prepare "sponsorship profiles".
-Alace has begun meeting with a language partner. A young lady who is the cousin of my (Steve's) language partner.
-My language partner, Romaric, has told me of his dissappointments with church experiences in the past, but has now said that he would like to go to church with our family!
-In the past two weeks I have been blessed with over 12 hours of flight time. It is crucial that I gain experience in this new environment and the Lord has provided this through the avenue of an agricultural company that needs a backup/vacation pilot.
-A church in California recently took an offering of over $4000 for the airplane!
-While facing a delay at immigration in Nigeria, the CEO of the agricultural company started quizing me about our program and then offered to make a generous donation! Praise God for delays!!!
-We praise God for these signs of HIS faithfulness as we nervously wonder how the "economic crisis" will effect a project such as ours. There are many people (work teams, medical pro's, etc.) re-thinking their trips to Gabon as a result of this fear.
- We praise the Lord for a sense of peace regarding decisions about whether to send Joe to boarding school next year or not. God has shown us how families have great success with homeschooling as well as with boarding school experiences. We are confident that any choice is viable and have a peace from the Lord that we can continue on our present home-schooling track until HE clearly directs otherwise.


-Pray that the "financial crisis" worldwide will not result in cancellations of teams from the US that are important for our work.
-Pray for continued outreach to our neighbors and new friends.
-Pray for new avenues of fund-raising
-Pray for wisdom as we consider the Cessna 207 tubine powered aircraft in Washington.
-Pray for a developing idea of an English-speaking, ex-patriot, Bible study with possiblities of growth to a faith community.
-Pray for the home-school and the education of our children.
-Pray for the possibility of an assistant teacher from the US. She has had difficulty in her arrangements coming here, but will be a great asset for Alace to have time to learn to run the guest house.

Thanks so much for praying for us!

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Kicked Off the Runway!

I'm back at the rubber plantation for SIAT. It was about an hour and
10 minute flight this morning. The landing was through some low,
scattered clouds, but the visibility was great and the airstrip at their plantation was in great shape.

The takeoff was kind of fun- I got kicked off the runway! HA! After
loading the passengers and taxiing to the runway, we were first in line, so I reported to the
tower that I was ready to take the runway and depart. Then, I thought
I heard him tell me to do so. What he was actually doing was telling someone
else that they could do this- it was a large commercial aircraft
(Airbus) operated by Gabon Airlines. In fact, this is their only
aircraft that just flies to Paris and back about every other day. Apparently, they get to cut in line whenever they are ready
to go. So that's what happened. I had started towards the runway and
the tower controller told me to vacate the runway that someone else had
been cleared. So, I apologized, made a quick u-turn, and got back in
to position.

The fun didn't end there! After this large aircraft departed, the
tower gave someone else permission to skip to the head of the line!
This time it was a Cessna Citation jet who, I happen to know, is flown
by a couple of South African pilots and carries one of the president's
sons around the country. I guess he "trumps" our little agricultural
business' twin-engine prop aircraft too! HA!

So, everyone in the airplane was good natured about this- I had 4
passengers. They all thought it was humorous that we would get bumped
for these particular two aircraft... It's not always "First come, First
serve" around these parts! It's the African way!

That's the update for now!

Oh yeah... SIAT was slated to have me fly their CEO down to Brazzaville
(Republic of Congo- one country to the south of Gabon) to get a new
passport (he lost his old one). However, when he came to the airplane
this morning for the flight, he told me that a kind person had found
and turned in his briefcase with his passport (he gave the person a $400 reward!) and
that the new plan is to fly to Lagos, Nigeria tomorrow! This will be
my first international flight (outside of Gabon), so I'll be excited.
Good stuff!

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The Death of a Gifted Fish

(aka. “The great fish mystery”; aka. “The one that got away”)

So, my language partner, Romaric, has been talking and talking about presenting a gift to me… a gift of fish from his brother, who is apparently a fisherman. Well, the day came and he delivered on his promise. As we were returning from a gathering at the Solvig house down the street, Romaric approached us as we
entered the gate. There, in the yellow bucket that he was holding, were three catfish! …alive! He told us how much these fish were loved among his people group- the Fang, and how we would love them too. Alace and I looked at each other amused and bewildered!

First, a little background: I am not a fisherman. I’ve never personally owned a
fishing pole, however, I have browsed through sporting good departments at
WalMarts and the such, thinking that it would be a great bonding activity for a
family. The few times that I have been fishing have been great successes! I usually caught 3 or 4 fish, but had always given them to the person that took me fishing, saying that they would have to prepare them so that we could get together again at their place for dinner. In this way, we have another time set up to get together, plus, I don’t have to go through the “fun” stuff of killing the fish, filleting it, and coming up with some type of edible meal for us.

So, what do we do with a bucket of 3 catfish? STALL! We verified with Romaric that there was time- we could keep them in the bucket for a day or two. By then, we’d do our research, find the best and most humane way to kill the fish, and then prep it for eating. We left the bucket on the porch and went to bed.

The next morning, I went to check on the fish and one was missing! The mystery starts! Where did this fish go? Perhaps the fish got up a head of steam and jumped out of the bucket!?! I thought this highly unlikely, considering the measurements of the bucket, however, I did some checking around the bucket, the porch, and then below the porch on the driveway- a 4 to 5 foot drop. All those areas checked out clear. I reported this to Alace and we figured that someone had taken one. We have a new night guard, Sosouli, and perhaps he felt this was a way that we “tip” him. In any case, we were not to broken up about the fact that we had one less fish to murder.

We mentioned the gift of fish to our friends, and veteran missionaries, Arnie and Cheryl Solvig. They said that this reminded them of a similar story from another missionary- let’s just call him “Bave Dill”. It was an identical situation where Bave’s language partner gifted him fish. Bave didn’t want the fish and threw them out. Later he was caught off guard when his language partner asked him how he liked the fish and he told him that they were delicious! He could only live with this
lie for about a day or two before he broke down and confessed his lie. Little did Arnie and Cheryl know how this story would come back to assist me just the next day.

So, another day came and went and it was now the next morning. In my normal morning routine, while unlocking the front door, I again peaked at the fish. More bad news… apparently the “expiration” date on the catfish had come and gone! Dead fish. Yikes. What to do. I decided to use the neighborhood “trash can” and dumped them over that back parking lot, down about 15 feet, to the stream and piles of trash that litter the banks, waiting for the next downpour to wash them downstream and, eventually, to the ocean. Sad, right? I’m happy, and sort of sad at the same time, to admit that, for the first time, I used this system.

I stood, briefly, looking down at the stream and piles of trash. The story that the Solvig’s told came to mind. Could I simply tell Romaric that I had enjoyed the fish? Could I outlast Bave Dill and live with this lie meant to keep our relationship on good terms and growing? How would Romaric take the news that I had mishandled the gift that he had talked and talked about to me. He had looked forward to the day when he could give me the gift. Well now he finally had done it, and my response? How did I handle the great display of friendship and gratitude? I killed it! I killed them! … the fish were dead! Well, at least two were dead and one was missing in action.

With all these feelings and questions being pondered in my mind, I turned to walk back to our apartment and looked up to see Sosouli, our guard, walking towards
me. Had he seen what I did? Did he know about Romaric’s gift to me and was now wondering what I was doing? Well, if he did, he didn’t mention anything and simply informed me that he was observing the Muslim holiday “Fete du mouton” or “festival of sheep”. I wished him a good day and a bon fete, as he continued past me. Woah… close call!

I still needed to make a decision regarding what I would tell Romaric. It occurred to me that I should tell him the truth- neither I nor Alace have any history with killing and prepping living fish. In our ignorance, we had let one get away and
killed the other two! I would pour apologies into the dialogue and let him know that his act of kindness made a great impression on me. Yes! This is the right thing- I was sure.

I was glad to have my mind made up as it was Monday morning and I would be expecting him at 8:30. However, I received a phone call that a passenger on one of my flights was missing a bag and needed me to double check that it was not on the aircraft. I had to put my pilot’s uniform on, I texted Romaric on the cell phone
to see if he was close by and could, perhaps, join me on the ride. However, he was not close, so I was on my own. Upon returning home, I drove down driveway to the rear of the apartment and that’s when things got really bizarre.

There, in our normal parking spot, was one of the dead catfish!!! WHAT is going on!?! It was like that part in the old Hitchcock movies when the main character realizes they are in the Twilight Zone. Alace said that it was a little more like the Godfather movie when that guy woke up and realized that… okay, okay… that’s a gory scene. However, strange, strange things were afoot!

A number of thoughts passed through my head… did Romaric find out and leave the fish there to let me know in some sort of passive/aggressive manner? Did Sosouli see me do it and let me know that he knew? Would there be blackmail
involved? Would I be dropping off a gym bag full of money in a locker at the airport? I quickly checked the rooftops nearby for the camera people that were
certainly filming this. Seeing none there, I kicked the fish off, over the edge of the parking area to the murky waters below.

Back in the apartment, I told Alace and we agreed that we should “stay the course”. “Honesty is the best policy”… or is it, “honesty is such a lonely word”? In any event…

Later, after Alace had returned to the classroom to teach the kids, Romaric came and his first question (you guessed it) was about the fish! Would I tell him? It all seemed so simple before, but now I was face to face with my fish-loving, Fang friend! Would this break our friendship? Would he carry on being my language partner? Just how much money did he want me to put in the gym bag!?!

I worked through my feelings of uncertainty and told him the truth. I’m happy to say that he took it all with a smile on his face and his head shaking back in forth, as if to say, “oh Mr. Steve… you are very interesting”- as he is prone to say. He even came up with the solution- for Christmas, his grand-mother is coming and would love to show “Madame Steve” (his name for Alace) how to kill the fish and prepare it in Fang tradition. Later, I informed Alace that I accepted this offer on her behalf… she can’t wait.

By the way, some of you have probably guessed that the fish that was in my parking spot was the first fish that made the great escape from the bucket and flopped its way down our driveway and under my car. When I left in the morning, I didn’t see it and, upon returning, thought that it had been placed there in the meantime. Romaric helped me to figure this out! Conspiracy theory averted, however, this marked the death of gifted fish.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Dogs on the Runway

So, we're still hangin' out in Africa praying that the Lord provides our aircraft soon. We've made great use of the 3 months that we've been here so far and have the foundation set for things to launch. We're looking at an aircraft in the states (Cessna 207 outfitted with a turbo-prop) but are about $160,000 - $170,000 short of the price tag (over $600,000). So, if you guys can just tell all your wealthy friends and relatives, that'd be cool.

Today, I am flying for SIAT, the Belgium agricultural company. Their main pilot, Egmont, has finally taken some vacation time back to his homeland in Germany. I'm sure that he's enjoying his grandson, daughter, and other friends and family about now.
This morning I flew 2 of their executives from Libreville to Lamberene (the place made famous from Dr. Albert Sweitzer) for a meeting. As I right this, they are in the next room- through the glass I see them discussing their plans regarding their company that manufactures soap, vegetable oil, and rubber. They seem to be replacing a lot of people lately... new faces.
The flight was good, but foggy. Lamberene is right on a river and last night it rained quite a lot. Those 2 factors can make for some foggy conditions. I decended over the river to about 1500 feet above the airport and caught a glimpse of the runway through the clouds. Then I was able to maintain visual connection with the river as I descended in a circular fashion while setting up for a landing heading South West.
As is normally the case,there were people using the runway as their walking path. They had all seen my landing light and moved off to the side. However, a dog was rolling around on the ground right at the intersection of the runway and the taxiway to the terminal. Apparently, the dog had one of those "hard to reach" itches and could think of no better place to search for satisfaction than on the town's asphalt runway. By the time that we landed and reached that point of the runway, we were rolling along at "taxiing speed" so it didn't pose a problem. One of the exec's sitting upfront with me pointed at the dog on the runway and said "Only in Africa!" get a lot of that around here.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Road Trip to Cameroon!

We're in Cameroon right now... we delayed our trip a week and then even an extra day after driving for 3 hours and running into a closed road.... the only road to Cameroon from Gabon!!! We didn't know quite where we were and didn't see any decent hotels, so... back to Libreville!

We left Sam and Megan back in Libreville- they weren't too excited about a road trip and have a good time hangin' with the Solvig family.

We are leaving tomorrow morning to return to Gabon. We've had a great time in Cameroon. The town is called Yaounde. It is actually a city of 1.3 million- twice the size of Libreville.

On Monday (after our first attempt to drive here) we spent 14 hours on the road- departure at 5:30am and arrival at 7:30pm. The last hour or so was in the dark and it was very very stressful. We had a window full of bug guts that blurred all the headlights coming toward us and made it very hard to see the people using the road as a sidewalk. As we got into the city, there were more and more people. So, we slowed down and prayed alot. It's amazing we didn't hit someone.

Upon arrival to the Wycliff Bible translators compoud (Wycliff is called "SIL" overseas) we found the key to our apartment ($9 per night, per person- not bad!) and then found dinner down the street. The scenes in the road are similar to Libreville- many pedestrians, small "magazines" (shops), street venders, taxis (usually Toyota Corolla's)... actually, it's general chaos.

On Tuesday we visited the campus of Rain Forest Int'l School which is right on the same campus as our apartment. The student body is just over 100, starting with 7th grade and goes to 12th. It's pretty diverse- Cameroonese, Chinese, Canadian, American, and more. We joined the students at 9am for the assembly time- worship music, prayer, and announcements. Then, Joe was given the option of joining his class and he jumped right in! He stayed with them until about 3:30pm. In the mean time, Alace and I met with some of the administration and asked questions. Joey had a great time and gives the campus a thumbs up.

We ate dinner at a "hostel" run by missionaries who take in about a dozen students, just 1/4 mile from the capmus. It's a big house where Joey may live while attending here. At Rain Forest school, there is a mix of students who live in the hostel homes and those that live at home with their mom and dad. Dinner was spaghetti at a long table. Everyone knew what to do when the dinner bell rang as well as how to clean it all up at the end of the meal. Again, Joey gave the place a "thumbs up" and could see himself fitting in there.

On Wednesday (today), I met up with Daryl Young, an SIL pilot who I email with regularly. He showed me around the aviation department offices, then took me out to the airport where they were putting on the finishing touches to the brand new helicopter which is being added to their fleet. In fact, they pulled it out of the hangar and started up for the first time while I was there!

The lead mechanic here is Carl Stutsman- he has also been giving us a lot of input to our program. His parents go to a C&MA church that gives he and his wife a lot of support. On the initial startup of the helicopter, he was putting a meter on different parts of the helicopter testing for balance and vibration. All of the personnel there were so happy about the progress they are making on the helicopter- it was just a week ago that they pulled it out of the shipping container.

For lunch, I took some of the SIL folks out to lunch and got to know them better. I told them that it was my pleasure to buy them lunch as a thanks for all their input to our program, which they do from the kindness of their heart and without remuneration.

A funny thing happened after lunch... actually... it was potentially something that could have ruined the trip. Read on...

Here's the "back-story": When you drive a car from Gabon to Cameroon, they are concerned that maybe you will try and sell your car while you're here. To control your desire to do this, they make you register your vehicle at the border and get a document called a "Passe-avant". Then, at all checkpoints along your way (and there are many!), you must get the document stamped.

SO... at our last checkpoint prior to reaching the city of Yaounde, they said that we would have to find our way to the customs officials in Yaounde near the train station for our final stamp during regular business.

SO... after lunch, we headed down to the customs office, but on our way there, we realized that we were missing our "carte de grise"- the title for our car! I remembered that we had put it with our "travel documents" and put it in our apartment at the SIL campus. Without this, we would not be able to get the stamp on our Passe-Avant. We continued to the customs office thinking that we were close and we would just see if they would do it anyway. Well, they didn't. In fact, because I didn't have the title, they figured that I might be driving a stolen car! They had me park the car, then they took the keys, and said that they'd release the car and give me my stamp whenever I produced the title. Woah...

What's interesting is that there were 6 of us in the car! What to do now!?! One of the SIL folks grabbed a cab to get to another errand and the rest of us grabbed another cab (4 in the back seat of a TOYOTA Corolla) to go back to the SIL campus and grab our document&183;

I'm happy to say, that the customs folks kept their word. The only glitch was that when we got back, they asked for 5,000 Central African francs (about $10) for the stamp. When we asked for a receipt for this expense (which is the best response when you are asked for money) they hesitated then said that someone was out to get a new receipt book so we could go ahead and go. Hmm...

So, we have our car and we're ready to get on the road tomorrow, bright and early again. We're leaving a little bit earlier to try and get home so as to avoid any driving in the dark.

We are feeling pretty confident that this will be the school for Joey next year. We have talked with many parents, students, and staff and have really good vibes. We'll commit it all to more prayer as we take some time to fill out the paperwork. It is expensive, but cheaper than the Dakar Academy (Senegal) where many C&MA missionaries send their kids. Also, it's much much closer (2 hour flight or 14 hour drive) and I'll be visiting the SIL aviation department regularly as well.

While here, the aviation department chatted with us about ways in which we could bless one another and we came up with some great ideas. It will be exciting to see what the Lord has in store for the future.

That's the update for now!

Hope you're all doing well.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Life Lately

Things are going pretty well around these parts. Getting pretty hot all the day long. It's rainy season until February. Then March and April are just plain hot. Then May starts to cool off and then "summer" is beautiful and cooler. It's mainly been raining at night, but, occasionally we'll have an all-day soaker.

LAUNDRY: We really depend upon the sun for drying our clothes, but you have to stay close to home during the rainy season. Otherwise, you're liable to have a "pop-up" thunderstorm and come home to wet laundry. We've tried to set up an indoor drying rack with fans, but, with all the humidity, it's days befor you really get the level of dryness that you need. Oh- there's also the fun of "Mango Worms". They get into your clothes while they are hanging outside and then into your body when you put on said clothing. They're too small to be seen, so the only way that you know that they are not in your clothes is to wait 2 days to wear anything that was hanging outside or to pass a hot iron over every inch of the fabric. Joey actually was the first to get a Mango Worms... thankfully, the only one to this point. You get a pimple looking thing that won't go away. You then put some Vaseline on the pimple to cut off the air source of the worm that is living in you. Then, when the worm comes up for air, you pinch it out. Joey's was about a 1/2 an ich long. He was actually a little excited about the experience because a couple people had told him that his pimple looking thing was just a rash, but he was convinced it was a mango worm. He was happy to prove them wrong. So... laundry here can be exciting on a whole other level.

FLYING: I have flown the Beechcraft Baron for about 10 hours to 5 airstrips around Gabon. It's been a great experience. This is expanding my knowledge of flying twin engine airplanes, of flying in Africa, filing flight plans, paying for flights (it's free in the US... not here!), and more. This week there are two trips planned- one day trip and the other is an overnighter ( my first overnighter). The company that I'm flying for is SIAT- a Belgium agricultural company that is helping Gabon revitalize it's Palm Nut industry. They have many plantations across the country that were formerly run by the government. The gov't let the plantations tank, and SIAT is going in and getting them running again. To do this, they have had to bring in workers from other African countries like Nigeria and Cameroon. This is because Gabonese are not inclined to do physical labor- surprising. They are all holding out for the cushy government job behind a desk. In some towns, some of them rather large, SIAT is the largest employer, so they've created quite an "ex-patriot" community in these places.

CULTURE: We're getting used to new and different ways of doing things here. Periodically, there is a person or two that march down the street, at night, in an oversized "straw" outfit with a large head covering thing. They usually have a group of people that are marching with them that are holding sticks and branches. The ones in front brush the street with the braches in a sweeping motion, and the ones with the stick beat on gates, doors, and various things. They making a "wha" noise that starts low and ends high. Our night gaurd, Malik, told us that no one is supposed to be looking as this person goes by or else they get beat with the sticks. Our friend Arnie also believes that these guys are called in when someone on the street dies. It's a ritual or something. Malik suggested that we put our camera away, as this may lead to beatings. That seemed to make sense to us.

FINANCES: The currency here, the Central African Franq (CFA), is tied to the Euro. Since the dollar is gaining ground on the Euro, it's a good time to get out to the local ATM and make some withdrawals. I'm certain that there is money to be made in trading currency somehow, but, with the heat, I'm not smart enough to figure out how that would work. Arnie tells me that there are Lebanese businessmen here that like to buy US dollars from him every now and then. This is good because the local banks never honor the going rates of exchange and they pile on the fees on top of that. When we first got here, I could withdraw 200,000 CFA from the ATM for $435. Now, it's down to $395. That's pretty good. I'm sure missionary agencies are thankful for the stronger dollar, but biting their nails about the "economic crisis" in the US and elsewhere. We are praying for everyone back home about this. Must be a little scary. It's hard not to feel removed from it all here.

HOMESCHOOLING: Homeschool is going great. All 6 students of "The Palm Forest Academy" are passing and enjoying things. Alace and Cheryl are doing an amazing job of teaching. The schedule is Monday through Thursday, 7:45am to 12:30pm for their "regular classes". Tuesday and Thursday from 2pm to 4:30pm, they have back to back gym classes held at the housing compound for US embassy workers. They started the year with volleyball then swimming. They now do basketball then swimming. On Friday's, they have "study hall" from 9-11am (the ladies do some grocery shopping), then they have fencing (that's right, I said "fencing") then time at the beach from 2pm to 5pm-ish. The fencing is taught by Wendy- her husband is a worker at the US embassy and they live right on the beach. So, the kids get a treat being in some AC in her house when they are fencing, then they are happy to have fun in the beach afterward. What a life.

FUND RAISING: The director of Air Calvary, Brock, has suggested that we come back to the states around the holidays for some presentations. We are really trying to wrap up the funding on the airplane and I think that he feels the holidays are the time to find people in the giving mood. Our concern is that many people have such a busy holiday schedule and that churches are often maxed out in terms of schedule then. We are praying about this and looking for clear confirmation. If we were to travel in this manner, we'd only do so with some rock-solid dates with individuals and donors. We have some possibilities in the Chicago area and California, but nothing definite. If you know of anyone connections that we could make, let us know.

AIRPLANE: We stay in close contact with the seller of the Cessna 207 in the state of Washington. He tells us that there is no one seriously interested in the aircraft other than us, so we're not feeling the pinch to do anything super fast. However, this is a unique aircraft that we know others are looking for, so it could get snatched up at any moment. We're still standing at a need just under $180,000.

FLYING- PART II: I failed to mention before that I had a meeting at the offices of "Aviation Civile" on Friday. A gentleman in the office had received my paperwork from SIAT requesting that I get my Gabonese flight permit and they now wanted to see my original documents as well as milk me for 100,000 CFA ($200). This all went well and I should have my permit tomorrow (Monday). When I got to the large building, home to the Aviation Civile and the Department de Sante (health dept.), I decided to go to the office of someone that I had met about a month ago. He is the director of the the Aviation Civile as well as a worshipper at one of the C&MA churches in town. I thought I could explain to him why I was there and see if he "smelled" anything fishy with this other guy asking for money. However, he seemed to think everything was in order and helped me find the office of the guy I needed to see. When we were getting our things out of port, there was a demand for extra money that seemed fishy, so I thought this may be one of those situations where someone wanted their palm "greased". But my pilot friend, Egmont, said that 100,000 CFA seemed right, so everything is cool, I guess.

CHURCHES: We're still making the rounds to various churches to do some respectful "meet and greet" stuff. It will be a month or two 'til were done with this. Kind of a bummer since we're used to settling in to a church and worshipping with the same people week in and week out.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Just when you thought the vaccines were done with...

GO PENN STATE!!! WOW! I read the report of the Michigan game over the internet... what a pounding! I hope they keep it up against Ohio State.

We are still getting all of our stuff into storage space and getting creative. We also bought some "rutan" shelves on the side of the road. This is how the Gabonese sell there things. These shelves really helped us. We're also still making use of all the shelving space in the bedrooms as well. I think we'll be in fine shape soon. The guest house doesnt' offer much more room for storage (to answer your question), so it's good that we learn how to make it all fit now.

I'm doing better with the drinking of water and staying healthy. We have so many large water bottles in the fridge. Everytime that we use one up, we have to use our filter (a stainless steel thing with filters inside) to run our tap water through and refill the bottles from the tap at the bottom. This makes for a good chore for the kids.

We are going through some more vaccinations- this time it's Rabies. The missionaries are all getting this- apparently there have been some deaths in other countries. We actually had a little bit of a scare. The day that we were unloading the large 40 foot container, we had just begun when Joey walked up saying that a dog had just bit him. He pulled up his shirt (which I noticed had a hole in it) to reveal a nice scratch on his stomach. The dog had not punctured his skin, but had scraped some skin. It was a dog that lived at the Bible School campus that was previously owned by Al Stombaugh. They were surprised that it was acting up like this. So... needless to say... we have been having people keep an eye on the dog, just in case. The dog has shown no signs of rabies- it has become mad due to the change in environment and living conditions since its' former owners have left.

I started using a new pillow and that has helped my sleeping. I like the idea of ear plugs- that could help as well. Also, taking showers right before bed has been helpful. That seems to be the way to go here- sweat all day and clean it off prior to laying down. Also, the water seems to come back on in the evening, making it one of the only times to shower anyway.

I'm headed to the airport to go flying with Egmont today! A short 1/2 day trip to a couple stops down south in the country.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Dog bites and more!

Here's some prayer items quickly:

PRAISE- The container from the US has arrived and we were able to get it unloaded and loaded a truck for things going down-country to the Bongolo Hospital

PRAISE- Joey, our oldest son, was bitten by a dog on Tuesday. We have kept an eye on the dog and are thankful to report that there is no fear of rabies. This has been a wake-up call to us, however, and we have started our rabies injections. There are many stray animals here.

PRAYER- The heat has gotten the best of me (as I mentioned). We are learning to drink a lot more than we think we have to.

PRAYER- That we continue to adjust to our new home. Sometimes the water service is out all day. This is quite a nuissance on days when the temperatures climb into the high 90's and you're covered in sweat in just minutes.

PRAISE- A large church in California is raising money for a large church campus expansion and will be donating a percentage of funds raised to the airplane! Praise God!

PRAISE- Our children continue to do very well in homeschooling for their first year! Joey is working ahead in math and will be able to do two years of study in just one!

PRAY- We have several things in process... driver's license, airport clearance badge, and investigating boarding schools options for Joey for next year.

PRAY- we are planning to take Joe to preview a boarding school in Cameroon the first week of November. I'll also be visiting the hangar of the SIL / JAARS pilots there. Pray that this goes well and we have discernment in this very hard decision for us.

THanks so much!

Saturday, October 11, 2008

When the Landing Gear Fails

Just another day at the Office…

So, on the first Saturday of every month, Egmont, my German pilot friend, delivers the payroll to the employees of the palm tree plantations that his company operates in Gabon. He asked me to come along and learn about the airstrips that he uses for this trip. This is great for two reasons: first, when Egmont goes on vacation, I will be his fill-in and will need to know as much as I can about every airport he uses- some of which are his company's private airstrips located right at their palm tree plantations. Secondly, the airports that Egmont and I visit may be some of the ones that we use in the future when flying medical emergencies.

The morning of our flight, I arrived at the airport around 7:45am. Egmont was just getting out to the airplane, so I joined him and we conducted the preflight of the airplane. Since the payroll money is transported in 3 large footlockers (1 footlocker per location), we had to remove the two seats at the rear of the airplane. This left 4 seats- in the very front were two seats, one for the pilot and co-pilot, and then, in the back, two passenger seats. After the preflight checked out normal, it was time for a cup of coffee at the "Aero Club" for 1,000 central African francs (about $2.20). Then, we filed the flight plan, said a "bon jour" to the regional air traffic controllers at the airport control tower, and then made it back to the airplane.

At the airplane, we were met by a fellow employee of Egmont's company who assists in the payroll flights. Soon, another, rather sizeable, employee arrived. This gentleman was returning from being out of the country and was catching a lift to his home and our first destination of the day, Bitam. Just as we were getting to know each other (thankfully they were speaking English!), the money arrived.

There was no mistaking the arrival of the money! A small truck with a large metal bin drove up to the airplane. The cab of the truck had three men and there were four more men hanging off the back- each with a shotgun! As the truck came to a stop, the guys on the back sprinted into a perimeter position around the airplane. These guys were serious! I was thinking about asking one of them what type of shotgun they had, but a quick look at his face told me he was all business. The men in the cab of the truck jumped out and unlocked the large bin in the back. This revealed an inner chamber that they unlocked and then pulled out the three footlockers. These were put in the back of the airplane, Egmont signed some forms, and then we jumped in the airplane for departure. It was only when we taxied for takeoff that these men stopped providing security for us- they finally got back in the truck and took off.

I flew the airplane from Libreville to Bitam at 9,000 feet- up where the air is nice and cool. After about an hour, we were descending to the Bitam airport and Egmont took over the controls to show me how he handles the landing at this airport that features a dirt runway that has an "upslope". Another interesting feature is that it is located directly in the center of the town with no fences! So, it's used as a road and walking path! YIKES!

Egmont started through the "before landing checklist" by putting the gear selector in the "down" position. Normally, this action is followed by a distinct sound of the electric landing gear motor operating and the sound of buffeting air around the three extending wheels. However, none of these things happened this time!

Egmont and I shared a startled look for a moment and then did what comes naturally to pilots- check the circuit breakers. Egmont found the breaker, pulled it out and then reinserted it. Then, "Viola", the landing gear extended! We shared another started look that said, "hmm- that was interesting", and then continued with the landing.

Egmont was right. As we landed, people cleared to the sides of the dirt runway- a sight I had only seen in videos until now. We taxied off of the runway to the terminal where, once more, we found ourselves surrounded by another security detail. We said a goodbye to the one employee, one footlocker of money, and we took off on our way to stop number two.

Stop number two was a private airstrip called "Mitzic", at one of their company's plantation. It was only about a 25 minute flight to the South and I piloted this leg of the journey as well. Once more, I turned the controls over to Egmont as we were arriving near the airport, and, once more, the landing gear motor failed to work- even after we tried the trick with the circuit breaker! Now Egmont and I really shared a startled look!

Now, let me put your mind at ease- especially all of you who travel frequently by airplane. Almost all critical systems on an aircraft are "redundant"- meaning, there is more than one way to operate them. So, in the case that, say, your landing gear motor fails, there is another way to get your wheels down and ready so that you can land the airplane.

The aircraft we were flying, the Beechcraft Baron 58, has a hand crank system, located under the rug behind the co-pilot's seat, for times when the landing gear motor fails. Knowing that this system is difficult to use and something you only want to do once before getting the landing gear motor fixed, we decided to head back to Libreville where there were mechanics who could assist. This decision meant that the payroll money would have to be delivered some other way to the remaining destinations, but that was not our issue to worry about.

We changed our course, climbed to 10,000 feet and, about an hour later, were approaching Libreville. We descended for the airport and, while I flew the airplane, Egmont reached back and cranked, and cranked, and cranked until the gear was down. It was about a 8 minute ordeal and Egmont told me he felt like his hand was going to break! While all this was going on, the remaining passenger was in the back of the airplane, trying to figure out what was going on!

Thankfully, we landed, back at our home airport, without incident. Just another day at the office!

You'll all be happy to hear that the airplane that we are raising funds for has landing gear that is permanently in the landing position- it does not retract, so there's no motor that will fail. Good news, right!?!

Also, we have just found out that the aircraft has ended its' contract with the parachute jump team and is now ready for sale. Please pray that we are able to discuss terms with the seller and we don't lose this opportunity to obtain an aircraft that is so well suited for our needs.

Thank you for your prayers and teamwork!

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Gabonese Validation

So, in December 2005 I met Egmont during the time that Alace and I visited Gabon. He is a believer and a friend of Bongolo Hospital who lives in Libreville, the capital city of Gabon. From the beginning, he has been there to lend a hand with the project to start the air medical program.

Fast forward to 2008. Egmont is still living in Libreville and working as the only pilot of an agricultural company. With no back up pilot, it is almost impossible for him to get time off for vacation.

So… along comes Steve and the answer to his prayers! …And I'm thinking the same thing! The Lord has provided this opportunity to fly with Egmont as a way for me to learn so much about flying in Africa. Essentially, Egmont will be my pilot mentor- what a blessing! The added blessing is that Egmont will finally get to go on vacation and enjoy his new grandson back in Berlin.

Egmont's company's aircraft is registered in Gabon and to be a pilot of a Gabonese registered aircraft, you must have your Gabonese pilot permit. As a US pilot with my FAA license, this means that I will have to take a check ride with an approved pilot evaluator. It just so happened that one such evaluator was in town about a month after our family hit the ground here in Libreville- nice timing, eh? Thanks Lord!

I told Egmont that I did not want to make a fool of myself during the evaluation, so I should have 2 or 3 flights with him to get to know the airplane- a 1979 Beechcraft Baron 58 twin-engine aircraft that seats 6. However, after the first flight of about an hour, Egmont said he was convinced that I'd do fine and not to worry. He said that he knew the pilot evaluator and he was a nice guy from South Africa. I took this to mean that the evaluation would include one or two elements, a landing or two and then we're done. How mistaken I was! Read on…

So, the day came- Friday, October 3rd. I was face-to-face with my evaluator, both of us in our pilot "get-up", sitting down across a conference table. His name is Tony Smit- A 70 something year-old South African man who has flown pretty much every type of aircraft you can think of. He's been in the Rhodesian and South African Air Forces as well as for the CIA during the Angolan crisis. I had forgotten that Zimbabwe had once been named Rhodesia… it was Zimbabwe, right!?!

Tony asked me about my flight experience and then launched into an overview of what we were about to do… it went something like this… "when we get on the runway, we'll go to full power, but then I'm going to fail one of your engines. You'll find that the Baron will really want to take off to the side of the runway like this, so I want you to see that." GULP!

…he continues, " I'll recover your failed engine and then we'll continue the takeoff. After we have a little altitude in the takeoff, I'm going to bring one of your engines back to zero thrust condition to simulate an engine failure. Let's see what the Baron will do on takeoff with one engine."

Ok… at this point I'm starting to breathe a little heavier and perspiration is rolling down my back. I'm thinking "Engine failure!?! Egmont and I only practiced this once!"

…he continues, "Then lets climb up to 10,000 feet for some steep turns and stalls…" ok- I know all about that stuff but, 10,000 feet!?! We hadn't been up over 2500 feet in the Baron so far!

…he continues, "then I want to show the Vmc (Velocity of minimum controllability) maneuver. The Baron is a cheeky little airplane that will really want to snap inverted on you in this configuration… we'll take a look at that and I think you'll be surprised to see how much altitude we'll lose in such a short time." DID HE SAY "INVERTED!!!" I am now earnestly praying for Jesus' return- NOW!

…he continues, "so then you can show me the Vmc maneuver yourself, and then we'll come back to the airport for some touch and goes…" cool- touch and goes I can do! "…and then some instrument approaches with one engine failed before we call it a day." Call it a day!?! How 'bout we call it a day right now!

Seriously… I was sitting there trying to figure out the best way to apologize to this man for wasting his time and call off this flight that I felt I had no reason to fly.

Now, let me interject an important point, here. I have indeed done everything that he was requesting of me, but not since my multi-engine check ride over a year and a half ago and never in succession like this. On top of that, I had only been flying twice since coming to Libreville- once for a ½ hour joy ride and the other one doing some simple maneuvers with Egmont for about an hour. Prior to that, I haven't been flying since July of '07 when I left the US for France and language school! Do you see where my anxiety was coming from?


He then asked if I had any questions and, in my stupor, said "Nope! Sounds good!" Did I say that out loud!?! Of course none of that sounded good!

So, as we stood up and started toward the tarmac for the flight, I quickly hatched an agreement with the Lord. I excused myself to visit the bathroom prior to the flight. My agreement with the Lord went like this: Lord, I'm going to the bathroom right now. If I'm meant to gracefully bow out of this evaluation and save myself embarrassment, then I'm going to need You to make me violently ill in the next minute or two. This seemed like a very reasonable agreement, so I headed into the bathroom. After two minutes and no violence or illness, I headed out to the airplane, into the airplane, and the evaluation commenced.

I'll quickly sum it up by saying this… I PASSED! We did everything that he explained on the ground and our gracious Lord kept my brain synapses firing so that I had good recall of the hours and hours of training over the years. Praise the Lord!

Following the evaluation, Egmont, Tony, and I headed in town for a delicious meal (crocodile kebab!) and story swapping. However, once Tony started telling stories, Egmont and I quickly figured out that our stories were not nearly as interesting, so we spent most of the time pulling more out of Tony. There is something to be said about pilot camaraderie. It was a privilege spending time in the cockpit with such an accomplished pilot and I hope he returns next year for the checkout.

So, I now have my Gabonese pilot validation and am able to fly aircraft registered in Gabon. There is an idea brewing in me that the Lord will use this to further our efforts with the hospital in some way. Please pray with me that our flights begin soon.