Bluelou...He's An African

Oh, yes! It's the Bluelou Christmas Review. For the snail mail denizens, that means the best of the semi-regular email letters I send out. For the email folks…once again, I apologize for the repetition.

For the new ones on this distribution, I don't care for Christmas cards. This letter is very, very personal. My letters are from the heart. A card, generally, isn't. I thoroughly enjoy both reading and writing letters. Letters I get, I read many times to try and make sure I get the whole gist. Letters I send, I scrutinize to avoid many of my typos and to make sure I understand it before you don't. Writing, printing, and stuffing the envelopes is part of my Christmas tradition…as are the returned copies for those of you who move and fail to tell me. Forgive me if I don't send you a card. I think these letters really up the ante. If you don't agree, trash it…I don't want to bore you.

The last time I left you, I was in Beijing. A great deal has changed since then but I'll follow the course of time and not get ahead of myself.

As I'd written, I'd planned my Christmas trip to the tropical island of Hainan China to the city of Sanya. I must admit I didn't want to go on this trip...don't know why. My attitude changed the next day.

Inside the airport, two "enterprising" girls thought they could get $50 each by toting the luggage of my companions for about ten minutes...worth about fifty-cents by local standards. When my friends didn't cough up the big bucks and paid the local standard for a porter, they looked at me...sorry...I only followed. For that same $100, I could have headed back to my neighborhood and had some real fun.

Airport security thought it was ok for one of my companions to bring her knife on the plane. Technically, it wasn't a weapon as it was too short. I felt 'secure'.

Getting on the plane didn't help...rude, loud...Chinese. Upon landing I mistook white stripes of plastic laid on the tarmac for snow...none of that here. A minor skirmish with the taxies and we were on our way...not a bad dig...money, calories...they don't count here.

We stayed at the Sanya Marriott. One of my companions worked for Marriott so we paid half-price for rooms. Half-price wasn't cheap by Chinese standards. The first clue that this ain't a cheap place came with breakfast...$20.

Every step I took around this facility brought back nightmares of the Ritz I worked on in Jamaica. It was a new hotel that opened up in July. The staff was a bit weak on their English skills and they needed a bit more training in customer relations but their smiles and enthusiasm made me forget the small stuff. I'd speak to them once and they seemed to remember me...wish I could do that!

Karen Carpenter singing "White Christmas" in my headphones while camping out on the beach is highly ironic. My Jimmy Buffett Christmas album seamed more in tune with the setting.

It's almost torture hanging out on the beach on the single plan. I knew that going in but full realization didn't kick in until I arrived at the beach. This was definitely a couples/family place.

My first day in the sun and I came out looking like a lobster. I checked out the diving...too close to departure to chance it. The diving folks recommend a twenty-four hour grace period between diving and flying. The water was a bit cool but I did go in to shoulder level. Somewhere in all the morning fun, I lost my solar protection, my baseball cap. I stayed underneath the cabana. Mostly, I read. The evening fare was a huge Christmas party with a massive buffet and a band. I overdosed on seafood and turkey and dessert. The beer group wasn't left behind either.

Christmas night was no slouch either...a Hawaiian luau. Like the previous night, I ate like I was going to the electric chair. Much better seats to drool over the Filipinos singing in the band. Tonight, there was audience participation. I did a couple of rounds of limbo and gave a half-stab at the Macarena...didn't go much further than getting me up on the stage. These girls were gorgeous. It was that mask of beauty that got me out in front of the crowd acting like a fool. Later, we watched these same ladies and we did a bit of karaoke.

I meant to get a bottle of sand from the beach but forgot. I had a friend who went there the next weekend get me a sample. I kept it at my work desk reminding me of paradise.

December 26 was departure day. I did a bit more reading at the beach before lunch and checkout. Leaving Sanya was a whole lot easier than getting there. When I arrived back in Beijing, I thought I was going to crack. Going from sub-freezing temps to basking on the beach and back to sub-freezing temps put the body in shock. Unfortunately, paradise left me a present...a bum club sandwich the day before gave me a touch of food poisoning.

In the ten years I've been working overseas, my mother has only called me once. I awoke the next morning a bit hazy from the food poisoning and insomnia...Ma called my cell phone worried that I had got caught up in the tsunami.

FYI, I was nowhere near the tsunami. The only problem I experienced was trying to donate to the fund drive organized by my apartment building. For reasons known only to them, I couldn't make a cash donation without them knowing my room number.

New Years Eve, I organized a dinner at the historic duck restaurant here in Beijing. I've been there many times but it always seems a bit different. You can order ala carte or by various set menus. We chose the small set menu. They just keep bringing you food. Most folks get stuffed before they bring out the duck. This time, we got certificates of authenticity that the three ducks we ate were real ducks made by the Qianmen Quanjude Peking Duck Restaurant. For you folks that can read Chinese, Click Here. The Chinese locals regard this high price joint like we do McDonalds...fast-food served at a premium price. I don't care. I just like the ambiance.

You can see the Sanya shots by Clicking Here.

The Chinese New Year was a whole new revelation for me. The last time I was here, I had limited exposure to this phenomenon. Since we're working with a Chinese subcontractor, it's been quite remarkable. The whole time period is two weeks. I can best relate it to the Christmas holiday season though it's strange wishing someone a happy new year in February. Many businesses close down for two weeks. How they can do this and not go broke is beyond me. Most folks go home. Our subcontractor promised they'd be working during the New Year. From a norm of 400 people, I'd guess that they had a five-dozen people working. We offered triple wages but not many bit...even flew in some laborers. Apparently, it is the norm that construction contract workers get ten-percent of their salary until just before the Chinese New Year when they get the remaining amount. Note that their general living costs are paid by their employer but deducted from their wages. Ain't no amount of money gonna keep these folks here.

Needless to say, we didn't accomplish too much during that month. Will the last person in Beijing, please turn out the lights...

Heard one story through the grapevine...can't vouch for any of it...you be the judge. Had a contractor with a bonus incentive for finishing ahead of time who chained the gates, brought in armed guards with dogs, and fed the workers all through the holiday. Workers were paid daily bonuses and they finished on time. We offered our workers triple wages to no avail...must have been the guns and dogs that did it.

Fireworks are illegal in Beijing. There were plenty of fireworks around Beijing during the two weeks of New Years. I heard lots of explosions but didn't see many showers of sparks. Some folks complained that they couldn't sleep from all the noise. I crashed early New Years Eve...February eighth. Folks said the skies of Beijing lit up. The police did their best to terminate the displays shutting one down and heading off to another...too many that they couldn't stop the masses.

I regret to inform you that the food street vendors have dramatically declined since the Chinese New Year. Many never returned after the holiday. Among them, the gut bomb dealers. What's a gut bomb you ask...pancake batter, egg, pepper sauce (choice of 3-4...I take them all)...cilantro, green onion, and a rice cake. For a video, Click Here. Hope you have a fast connection...it's a three meg file. An educated guess is that the government started clamping down on businesses without permits. To discourage illegal enterprises, they trash the establishment. In this case, they destroy these mobile businesses. To see a gut bomb kitchen, Click Here. Most of the folks here think I'm crazy for eating them but I love them. They're great for Lenten Fridays. They swear I have an iron stomach...maybe I do. Anyone interested in franchising these as a business, I have a slogan for you...free of charge: 'Gut Bombs...they not only hit the spot, they eat it too'.

The coat I brought to Beijing was getting kind of ratty and the green military coat / sleeping bag I wrote about in my last letter doesn't work for many settings. I decided to buy another North Face (a.k.a. North Fake). Once we resolved the price, the clerk took her seem ripper and removed the tag...Helly Hansen. Underneath the tag was the genuinely fake designer North Face tag. We have management conferences here periodically. Got one who brings two empty duffel bags and returns with them both stuffed with North Fakes. He just can't say no to the many requests that come from his neighbors.

I've started to play with digital video. I bought some software that takes a DVD movie and compresses the file so I can watch it on my PDA...will come in handy for the flight home. Right now, I use it while riding the stationary bicycle at the gym. The biggest challenge I face is finding DVD's that play all the way through. We pay slightly over one US dollar for bootleg movies so if a few don't work, not much is lost.

The fun thing about being an American living overseas is that every local that knows a bit of English tries it out on you...usually hello or hi. On this particular journey, I directed the taxi driver in Chinese and he replied in English. Usually, when someone cuts them off, they say and do nothing....an extreme type B personality. Some lay on the horn. I found he who knew the F word. He repeated it over and over again sticking up his middle digit to convince me that he knew the word. In Chinese, I repeated 'not good' as my mantra.

You may have noticed on the international news that there have been protests of the Japanese nomination for the UN Security Council. Also mired in the hostility is the Chinese position that the Japanese are covering up their role in human rights abuses during WWII by omitting it from a Japanese children's history textbook. Like some I've met in the US, many in China bear ill will towards the Japanese ever since WWII. Asians are big on apologies. The Japanese have apologized to China for the atrocities they committed during WWII but apparently; it's not sufficient for the Chinese.

My apartment is a five-minute walk to the Japanese Embassy in Beijing. Saturday evening, I went to Mass. I took a taxi back home. We tried to cross under the freeway at two different locations to no avail. Police blocked off all through traffic due to rioting. I paid my fare and got out and walked. I didn't have a problem though I did stay inside wasting a gorgeous evening of intended bicycling. From my balcony, I saw many, many people being headed off at the pass by police and soldiers in riot gear. Sunday, the day after the main protest, police had all the embassies under high security. The Japanese Embassy had serious protection with military guards spaced about fifteen feet apart around the perimeter of the embassy. I was going to go out on Sunday but waited until the coast was clear in the early afternoon. I had no problems getting around.

There isn't much that happens in China that the government doesn't have the final say. The protesters were bussed in from other locations. When the US accidentally bombed a Chinese embassy in the former Yugoslavia, the government bussed in a half-million protesters to surround the American Embassy in Beijing. When I was here in 2001, we had the P3 spy plan incident. Folks at the Embassy didn't know what to think regarding protesters whether they'd have another half-million folks throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails. Well, security was tight and any sign of a protest was immediately put down. You see, China was pushing for admittance into the World Trade Organization at the same time. They didn't want any negative publicity that would jeopardize the WTO vote and the US endorsement was tantamount to their acceptance.

Normally, when CNN or another network broadcasts something truly negative about China such as the anniversary of the Tiananmen riots, the segment gets blocked out by external forces and resumes once the segment is over. We got to see full coverage of the incident.

We hypothesize that the Chinese are pushing for their nominee, India, as the best contender and are putting out whatever negative publicity about Japan they can dig up. Decades ago, China nearly went to war with India about a boarder dispute. The Monday after the riots, China and India signed several trade agreements and were playing down their boarder dispute saying that they were working towards a peaceful resolution of this matter. What China doesn't publicize is that Japan and China are major trading partners with trade values only exceeded by the US and China. Heck, even the motorcycle cops ride Suzukis.

I should have seen it coming... More than one person muttered those words recently. In Beijing there's a dinner theater (A Fun Ti) with western Chinese dancers and music...even one who performs with a snake. This was the tourist trap where the customers and dancers get to dance upon the table. Before the show started, the dancers handed out colorful caps similar in the shape to those worn by Jewish males. Of the four in our party was the boss. He was one such recipient of these caps. In the early stages of the show, they were soliciting volunteers from the audience to become participants in the show. One dancer asked the boss to come up on stage. The rest of our party kind of egged him on. Part one of this segment included a partner of the opposite sex and a balloon. You danced with your partner trying to hold up the balloon between the pair. When the music stopped, you broke the balloon. Well, the boss didn't win. He came back to the table muttering something that he'd been set up...well... The female winner was given some prizes and escorted off the stage. The winning male was seated, blindfolded, and on came the music, dancer, and snake. The dancer proceeded to dance and dangle the snake on her blindfolded partner. Soon he shed the blindfold and started really getting into the show. Again, the boss muttered something about getting set up. The last time I was there, the dancer went through the audience and the snake bit someone in the nose...not hurt except it did draw blood.

It should have stopped there but in the next audience participation, they came looking for more volunteers...me. I should have excused myself and hid in the bathroom. Part one... belly dancing...complete with belly. Next stop...partner up. They rehearsed just once. They told me to remove the shirt...out came the catcalls...never seen anyone with a hairy chest before? Emulating Fred and Ginger, I got to take the partner to the knee, lift her up, and spin her while she rested (trusted) in my arms. My partner groaned that I wouldn't be able to lift her. Not a problem. My fear... Well, I hadn't been drinking a lot of late but had to get back into training for my trip home so I had a couple of beers and shared a bottle of wine. I feared, at best, that I was going to drop my partner. At worst, fling her off at a tangent into the fifth row. Fortunately, none of these happened and I gently laid her down across my knee. The last stop was walking like an Egyptian like the Bangles in the video of the same name. I can do that...end of story...except for the boss dancing on the table. For pictures, Click Here

In my last letter, I offered to do buying of the various goods sold here in China. Had a friend hit me up for some pearls. In total, I bought over eight-hundred dollars worth for two friends. Besides the pearls, I bought a Louis Vuitton purse. The store is another one of those underground deals. The location...call ahead...they may have moved. We showed the guard a business card. He let us in and swiped his security card so we could take the elevator to the eleventh floor. We rang the bell. The door opened into an empty expanse. Two beds sat in the room to the east. It was empty other than the beds. To the right was a huge room full of purses and other formal wear. I know nothing of purses so I showed a picture emailed to me by my friend. The clerk knew right away that she had one of the purses in the email photo. The rest were too new to be on her shelf. I'm told that my fake, $50, was sold retail for about $1500-2000 US.

Going home on leave in May, I did the usual thing...family, friends...but this time I through in a curve...Las Vegas. I'd only been through the Vegas airport before. When I asked if I could try my luck at the slots, they advised me that I might lose my seat so I stayed on the plane. My buddy met me at the airport with a convertible rental. Off to Laughlin Nevada, about two hours south of Vegas. Riding in a convertible with the top down was cool but the sky was sunny and clear...could have used my jacket but I wasn't about to complain. I arrived on the same day as the Kentucky Derby. The last time I'd bet horses was over twenty years ago. I did have a plan for a guaranteed payoff though I'd never tried it. Sure, everyone has one of those but mine works...whether you make any money at it is another issue. A friend and I bet the entire field to show...come in third place. If the favorites win, you've lost money but you still get a payoff. If the long shots win, you profit. In this case, the long shots did win and we split ten dollars in profit. I'd never placed a bet in Vegas before so we had a friend do it. He thought we were crazy. The clerk that punched in the bet thought we were crazy. We got the last laugh. The long shots left the veteran gamblers shaking their heads on this one. The payoff was fifty bucks so we cleared five bucks each on a forty-dollar bet. My scheme is my gift to you...Bluelou's guaranteed payoff at horse racing.

The rest of the gambling was confined to nickel and pennies with an occasional quarter machine thrown in. I like video poker though I feel no need to return the casinos or Vegas at all. I probably lost a couple of dollars...no big deal. Gambling was the cheapest pastime for me. I make a buck last for hours and hours at the video poker machines. I went for the shows.

We spent a day in Laughlin before heading back to Vegas where we stayed at the 4 Queens...right on Fremont Street. Fremont Street has hourly overhead light shows that extend over three city blocks every night. The technology is impressive though the shows content isn't. Elvis and Neil Diamond impersonators performed on stage out in the street. It was definitely one of a kind place.

We caught a couple of shows, Ronn Lucas (www.nolips.com). Ronn is best known as the ventriloquist on the TV show, Night Court. Remember the Bull mannequin? Ronn had an inexpensive, yet entertaining show that was good for the whole family. We also saw the infamous Blue Man Group. Tickets were pricey. The show was good but not great. I'm glad I went but not inspired enough to see them again. We strolled the strip, took in a luau, and hit an antique car show. We gorged ourselves on buffet food and fried Oreos and Twinkies...typical Vegas behavior. The taxi drivers amused me though they're close to what you would get when you're overseas.

We did a bit of the touristy things with a drive over Route 66 and a stop at the Hoover Dam. We didn't take the tour. Having built a power plant and with memories lingering of a couple of power plant tours...a dam included...going inside this on didn't have much urgency. We visited Red Rock Park about fifteen minutes outside Las Vegas. I even hooked up with a friend from San Antonio. I walked a bit of the strip. I'd seen the Venetian hotel on the National Geographic channel. It was interesting to see it in person.

This trip home wasn't gracious on the credit cards. When I got to the airport for the flight home, they were gone. I cancelled them immediately though the only damage on them was self-inflicted. It was an inconvenience.

Over twenty years ago, I left my childhood home in Blair Nebraska for my junior year of college never to return. My parents moved out of the house navigating southward to Missouri and eventually ended up near Blair in Omaha. They'd rented the house to both good tenants and bad ones. The last tenants painted the house in unimaginable colors and left it without notice and without paying back rents in a totally trashed state. Over the past several months, my sisters and brothers-in-law had restored the house. When I was home in May, my parents decided to put the house on the market. Less than a week on the market, the first prospective buyer bought the house at the list price.

I used to believe I was completely safe in Beijing. What happened to change my mind about security? We started getting warnings about violence done to foreigners. Believe me, a back pack and camera is like carrying a huge sign..."I'm a tourist...I'm gullible! Rip me off!" I got an email from a friend of mine, a retired Canadian priest, who got his cell phone removed from his backpack while riding on the train. The next day, he was mugged. After eating an early evening dinner in a prominent, high-priced shopping center, someone tried to forcibly remove his bag from his person. He turned to resist and got clocked in the head with a rubber mallet. If you've ever lived overseas, you know that even the police don't want to get involved. When you talk to one, it's always the wrong one. My friend estimated he talked to forty. The blow caused his head to bleed profusely. This had no impact upon the police nor did his highly placed contacts inside the Chinese government. He went to the hospital and they didn't want to treat him until the next day. Persistence prevailed and so he was treated with stitches and a CAT scan. Tests revealed no permanent damage but it took a while for him to get back to normal. As a priest, he was able to do his own do-it-yourself Mass!

Due to overstaffing at the Beijing project, I left at the end of July. I was supposed to be working in Omaha. My marching orders from Beijing were that I was to call the home office and check in once I landed. That was on Saturday. I called in on Monday telling them I'd be in the office the following Monday. On Tuesday, I got word that working in Omaha was out of the question. I'd be going to Freetown, Sierra Leone. It's funny how life can change with one phone call. Three weeks later, I was on a plane headed to Africa.

I'm the project engineer. The project is another American Embassy (Click Here). I wasn't blindsided by the project requirements. Before I left my last employer, I'd put together several proposal schedules for the embassies currently underway...including this one. When my former employer didn't get these jobs followed by my layoff, I was offered the job in Beijing, I didn't really give this project another thought...another one of those never say 'never' things. After a while, one embassy under construction kinda looks like the next.

The project is supposed to be completed in March 2006 but the scheduler in me tells me I wouldn't be surprised if I was here later than that. I need to make it into May to get my tax-free status again. My silver anniversary of my high school graduation is the first weekend in June and I have every intention of going followed by a trip to Alaska to return to my old home of Kodiak and some fishing.

Want to find out about Sierra Leone? The CIA has an interesting link; Click Here.

Weather here in Sierra Leone...when I arrived, it was the rainy season. Temperatures didn't (and still) don't vary much from highs to lows...about three degrees Fahrenheit or two degrees Celsius. During the rainy season, we got one or two rains a day...it's just plain muggy. For current conditions and the long term forecast, Click Here . For the average annual temperatures and rainfall, Click Here. One of the advantages here over China is that I can see an azure blue sky when the rain does stop. It's something I don't take for granted.

Immigration and customs were pretty easy to pass through. Working international and traveling overseas takes a bit of faith. On the immigration form, it's a standard question: where will you be staying. It's a lurking question that is often left to ponder...where am I staying? My standard answer...the company usually doesn't give you this key information...all I know is that I will be working on the American Embassy. If it is the only show in town...as in this embassy, the authorities accept it. Next question...taking a car and a ferry, hovercraft, or helicopter...that's a new one. All I know is that someone will be meeting me here and they get the rest of the burden...and my luggage. Frankly, to the majority of these questions, I'm clueless and I just BS my way through...usually works.

First impression...the airport is reminiscent of the seventies but stepping outside begins the trip into the twilight zone. I've never ridden in a helicopter but in order to avoid the three-hour trip by car and a ferry that runs twice daily, you take a helicopter from the airport to the city. I thought I was back in Tanzania only Sierra Leone has hills. The people remind me of Jamaicans.

We live in a man camp on the job site. Our Turkish subcontractor is doing the bulk of the work including cooking our food. Yes, we even eat on the site. Food...soup, rice, bread, (the three standards), and some sort of stew-like concoction...after a while, it may get old and I'll go in search of the ultimate cheeseburger. I have two sources of cheeseburgers yet only tried one...not bad but the bun was a bit crunchy on the outside...always been an issue that I've learned to live with while living overseas. The rest of the crew is into dumping salt, pepper, and Louisiana hot sauce and burying the taste...not me. Living quarters are reminiscent of my college days of yesteryear though we have private bathrooms. I thought I'd given up my college days but there's that word 'never' again. It's pleasant but too close to the office to suit me. TV...ten channels of satellite all in English.

Our lounge has the Armed Forces Network so we can check out major American sporting events like college and NFL football action if we want to stay up late.

I warned them before I came...I'd be bringing a lot of stuff...and that I did. I came prepared for the extended stay. It's a rule of mine. After too many indeterminate stays, if I can't bring my stuff, I won't go. Two months or two years...gotta bring the computer stuff and the kitchen stuff. Clothes...I always use them as bulk filler to hit the seventy-pound bag limit allowed by the airlines...I have more than my share.

We have a kitchen in our living quarters. It has an oven, fridge, stove, and microwave. So far, I've nuked popcorn. I brought my spices, utensils, and tortillas but the one grocery store didn't have good meat or produce. I've found about the same western style food selection as I had in Beijing at about the same cost. There are others. True to international living, you must shop around to find all of the foods you need for that one special recipe. Prices work along the lines of take it or leave it...do you want it or don't you? A box of cereal...twelve bucks. My sustenance...Diet Coke...twelve bucks a case. Selection is about the same as Beijing. Shopping strategy is the same as anywhere international. If you see a gotta have item that you know you'll want more of...buy the entire stock...it'll probably be gone when you need it again.

A maid does our room cleaning and laundry though we can use the washer and dryer in a pinch.

After the SL civil war ended, the UN folks came in and rented out the best houses. You can rent a nice place for a cool ten grand a month.

The company has a country club membership that offers a restaurant, tennis, pool, and a gym that is my second home.

The project is one of the highest points in the city. We have a wonderful view of the city and the neighboring lush green valleys (Click Here). It's easy to find at night as you look for the lights at the summit. Freetown is on the western coast so we can view the Atlantic. No doubt, once the rainy season goes away, Bluelou will become a beach bum. It's a two-hour drive to the nice beach (Click Here) and the roads aren't for sissies (Click Here).

The language of Sierra Leone is officially English though it's the typical thick African English and difficult for us outsiders to understand. Hearing the locals speak, it's Creole-type English like Jamaicans use. I have found a nearby cathedral (Click Here). If I didn't know the prayer or read it, I'd have never been able to follow along. Many locals also speak French. Perhaps, I can apply some of mine some day. Having been to Turkey several years ago, hearing the Turkish speak brings back memories. I can have a limited conversation with the Turks but most I just recall without understanding.

Sierra Leone is in the early stages of recovery of a recent civil war. In brief conversations with some of the locals, they frequently ask if I've ever been in the military…no.

The currency is called the Leones ('Lee-owns'). So far, my exposure to the currency hasn't been much. You can pay in US but get change in local currency. There are both coins and paper. The paper is old, torn, dirty, and threadbare. Both coins and paper are pretty much worthless. The biggest bill I've seen so far, the 10,000, is worth about US$3.44 (Click Here). If you do the math, you'll find the exchange rate at one USD equals 2900 Leones. The official exchange rate is considerably lower than the local vendors give. Since my arrival, the stores have gone up to 3000 Leones per buck. Most of my Leones end up in the church collection plate.

Before I came over here, I was told there weren't any automatic teller machines so the cash salary advance was the only avenue for getting spending money. I hadn't been on the ground for a week when I more than halved my original salary advance amount. There aren't many places where we can / need to spend money.

Like Tanzania, there is a definite bar circuit. Yes, I gave up finding Mrs. Right in a bar long ago but there are certain bars in which to go to on certain nights. On Thursday nights, the crew is taking salsa dance lessons at a local nightclub. The bar scene doesn't begin to develop until after midnight...I'm too old for that. The insomniac in me wakes me up as these folks are crawling home. Most of the guys crash before they go out so they look really ragged when they show up to work after a night on the town. No...ain't been to the bars either.

Internet is provided via satellite. At night, it's very good and fast...a great deal faster than I'd expected. I set up a wireless network inside my room. During the daylight hours, however, it can be slower than dial-up.

The guys got me going on my international calling using Skype...internet calling similar to MSN instant messaging. You can do like MSN and instant message or you can call someone's landline via the internet at about $0.02 per minute. Quality is comparable to most international calls I've made...some voice lag but not too bad. The guys swear by it. I haven't tried the local phone service at all. We have cell phones. Send me an e and I'll send you my number or Skype account number. Cellular service sucks where I live. The signal doesn't do well on this hill.

When you walk outside around the project, you hear this hammering that's hard to place. The locals are hand crushing the rock into pea-sized gravel that goes into the project concrete...we have our own impromptu rock quarry. Dump trucks drop off large stones that get crushed by hand. It boggles the mind...men, women, children, adults...if you can swing a sledge and carry the load you can work...no idea how much they earn but it can't be much. They carry their loads in bowls on their heads.

I was walking to work the other day when a guard drew me out of pre-work daze by telling me it was winter. Well…it's hard to tell from here. The end of the rainy season brought some of the most spectacular lightning storms I've seen but there doesn't seem to be the huge diversity from summer to winter temps. Still, the shock to my mindset even hearing someone bring up winter was considerable.

We had our Christmas party at a local hotel. There was little in the party to make it seem like Christmas. Having an outdoor Christmas party in the tropics does little to conjure traditional images in my brain. I've come up with a remedy for that…I'll be spending another Christmas in London…one of my qualifying criteria for coming here. As far as locations go, Freetown is definitely a step down from Beijing. London is just one way of coping with it. I leave 12/23 on a redeye flight. I'll be staying at the same hotel I stayed at in 2001…right on Oxford Street. I'll be twenty minutes from the original Hard Rock Café. I probably won't do any tourist things but I will shop and live well…dining, shows…whatever I can't do here. Like teachers and students who drool over school breaks, I've been dreaming of Christmas in London even before I left.

2005, if I look back, was a mixed up year. Why anyone would leave Beijing China to come to a third-world country in the recovery from war is a good question that needs a good answer. I don't have one. In March, I knew that more help for me was coming to China. Trouble was I didn't need help. Drowning in manpower isn't a good idea if you want to make a profit. I wanted my company to make money…is that self-centered? I will admit that Beijing had lost its challenge…I was no longer exploring. I was getting bored. I wasn't happy with the change in management and I didn't want to be a part of something I felt was doomed…upper management just didn't read the signs. I wanted to see what it was like to live in one place for a long time…I found out I got bored as it was no longer a quest…it was simple existence. Perhaps, I'm a permanent migrant worker. It was my choice to leave. It was nice to be able to choose rather than have the choice be made for me. We called it starving in the sea of plenty…we couldn't date the locals more than twice. There were lots of good candidates. Maybe, in my heart, I wanted to get married without facing the consequences of losing my position….we have a very jealous client. I didn't have, nor do I have, any serious candidates. I don't have a good or outstanding reason…just reasons. Maybe the reason was change…I thrive on it and get stale without it. Who knows, I may be back…but will I go? I never dreamed I'd come here. Why did I come to Sierra Leone? Friends, this isn't a toilet. Even toilets get cleaned. I came here for two reasons; my boss, who is also my great friend, asked me to and he gave me lots of money to influence my decision. I have a different job…a change of scenery…and a change of responsibilities. I enjoyed my work before the change and enjoy it after the change. I like my present company. 2005…a year of extremes….and it ain't over yet. 2006…my 25th class reunion…perhaps, a trip to Alaska…we'll see what 2006 has in store. I'll keep you posted.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

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