Sunday, April 26, 2009

A Return to Africa!!! (After Eight Years)

First let me say that I do like traveling ... but it's just that I absolutely HATE the seemingly endless trips that take me from Point A to Point B. Once I have had some time to get some blessed sleep and adjust to my new time zone, I am generally OK. But it's the trip over to where I need to go that's a real drag! Take for instance this trip. Many years ago I worked a rotational assignment in northwestern Angola (28 days on- 28 days off). Now, after an absence of over eight years, I have returned. In the old days (1998 - 2001) I had to travel on Air France from Houston to Paris and then from Paris to Luanda. Including a night layover at the Sofitel Hotel at Charles deGaulle, that trip took four days! Now, however, we have the Houston Express run by a contract airline called World Airways. We board the plane in Houston (no tourists ... just businesspeople and "oil field trash" types are on board the plane) and after about 14 hours, we alight in Lovely Luanda, the capital city of Angola. Then it's a mad dash to immigration (everyone wants to be first in line!!) where I hand in my short-term visa documentation to the nice man at the Immigration desk. He takes my passport and tells me to "wait over there" until my visa is actually stamped into my passport. That little deal took 30 minutes. Then I grab my suitcase from Baggage Claim (it took almost 30 minutes for my suitacse to finally appear!) and rush over to the desk where I check in to the short flight from Luanda to Cabinda - the little enclave of Angolan territory nestled inside the Congo.

We depart Luanda and arrive about an hour later (after a stop in Soyo) and then - after yet another immigration check in Cabinda - we take a 45 minute bus ride (thankfully in an AIRCONDITIONED bus!!) into our Malongo camp. By then I am totally drained of energy. Then we get off the bus, I pick up a key to my assigned camp residence and WALK over to my "home away from home" and CRASH! I try to relax after this 25 hour door-to-door travel event. What an Ordeal .... with a capital "O"! The things I do to make a living!

I know many of you dear readers may think that international travel is "exotic" and somehow attractive but let me assure you, this is the part of international travel I absolutely HATE! I only hope I can catch up on some badly needed sleep and THEN and only then can I start to enjoy my new surroundings, meet new people (plus get reacquainted with folks I haven't seen in almost 8 years!) and start to do the work that got me over here on this trip.

I hope I can make more postings as my stay here in Angola progresses. And most important share some pictures! I already have pictures of zillions of fruit bats hanging upside down in tress. What a sight to behold. At dusk, the sky is filled with thousands of bats!!

Oh well .... time for a nap. Yawn!!

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Houston IFEST - April 19, 2009

Every year Houston has an International Festival - commonly referred to as IFEST - which promotes cultural awareness. This year's IFEST centers around Ireland. What with my upcoming international trip (groan - yet another exercise in sleep deprivation!) looming ever closer (I expect to depart Houston this Friday, April 24th for a continent I have not been to in over eight years!), I needed a break and so I ventured downtown and attended Sunday's IFEST activities (entrance fee = $15.00). The weather was picture perfect (blue skies and moderate temps) and so I offer a few pictures of the event.

Although the IFEST features many countries exhibits, this year's event was centered around IRELAND.

Irish pipers entertained the crowds by playing many Irish (and Scottish) tunes during the day's activities.

The event opens at 12 noon (Saturday and Sunday for each of two weeks in late April) and by 1:00 pm it was packed with people!!

Always a favorite with me ... the so-called "Henna" artists. Nice to look at but this one doesn't appear to share my wish to take her picture!

Much of the IFEST is basically a "flea market" with numerous artists selling their handiwork. Here is one very attractive and unique piece of art.

The IFEST is held in downtown Houston near the Central Public Library and next to Tranquility Park.

While waiting for the festival to open at 12 noon, I ventured a few blocks south over to where my company has its two main headquarter buildings - what I sometimes refer to as "Enron #1 and #2". (My colleagues hate it when I refer to our downtown building as "the Enron building"!) Although Enron is long gone, its memory lives on in the minds of many a Houstonian .... a grim memory for sure. At least we are making good use of their fine structure. If you look carefully at the building on the left, you can still pick out a few windows that remain to be fixed since being damaged after Hurricane Ike in September of 2008.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Vacation in Tucson, Arizona

Yes, it may seem to some of my loyal followers that I am falling into a rut so to speak. I appear to be going to the same darn places over and over again and again. After all, I've traveled to Kuwait many times and now I am vacationing in Tucson, Arizona yet again! As some of you may recall from a prior posting (April, 2008), I visited Tucson, AZ last year and I liked it so much that my very good friend and host allowed me to come to his home again in March and spend what turned out to be another very pleasant four days. During this time, my friend and I traveled in and around the Tucson area and ventured over a hundred miles east and north of Tucson to take in even more of the amazing sites in the nearby areas.

I almost didn't make it out of Houston! Normally we don't see fog in Houston but Murphy's Law struck and we were hit with HEAVY FOG three days in a row!! On the morning I departed Bush Intercontinental (IAH), the fog was so heavy, we sat on the runway for over one hour before resuming our taxi and take off.
As we cleared the clouds, I managed to take this amazing photo of Houston shrouded in the fog that affected the entire metropolitan area. (The blue tint is an artifact of the photo enhancing software I use - Photoshop.)

We landed in Tucson about one hour late but once there, my host and I set out to do some sightseeing. We managed to take in some eye-catching views of numerous cactus plants. The above cactus reminded me of a camel's head. What do you think?

Lots of great views abound - this one was in Sabino Canyon, east of downtown Tucson.

Our first stop on my four-day odyssey to Arizona.

On Friday (March 20) we visited the ASARCO open-pit copper mine located about a 45-min drive southwest of Tucson.

After lunch (at a great salad restaurant called "Chopped"), we took in the Tucson Botanical Gardens and Butterfly exhibit. I should point out the the weather in March is still very tolerable with daytime temps maxing out in the mid-70s to near 85 F (25 - 30 deg C). [Summertime temps in Arizona are very much like Kuwait with highs hovering near 100 - 110 deg F!!!]

The highlight of the day on Saturday (March 21) was a pre-arranged tour (advance reservations are a MUST) of Kartchner Caverns. A definite MUST SEE if ever there was one! Mother Nature at her best!

After Kartchner Caverns, we had lunch in Tombstone (just like we did last year).
Sure, Tombstone is very tourist-oriented (with many characters milling around Allen Street in period costume) but it still is worth an hour or two of your time.

A replica stagecoach ......

On Sunday (March 22) , we took a two-hour drive north to Phoenix. Along the way, we passed by Picacho Peak (pictured above). "So what" you say? Well Picacho Peak marks the western most advance of the Confederate armies during the US Civil War (1861 - 1865)!! If you are a history buff, you'll appreciate that fact.

While in the Phoenix area, we toured Taliesin West, where Frank Lloyd Wright had one of the two schools he ran for apprentice architects. It's still in operation to this day so if you fancy a career in architecture .....

The grand entrance to Taliesin West (two hours north of Tucson, AZ).

On Monday (March 23) I had a smooth and on-time return flight home to Houston. I'm already thinking about next year's vacation in Tucson!
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PS: In her comment, Ms.Sarah Alia Shahrim asked about my camera. For this trip, I used a Canon 50D digital SLR camera with a 28 - 135 mm image stabilized zoom lens. I have had the use of this camera since December (2008) and I am still learning how to make use of all the many features it offers! During my trips to Kuwait, however, I have had to leave the SLR camera home and have opted instead to use a pocket-sized "point-and-shoot" camera. People in the Middle East often get upset when they see me pull out a huge camera and point it at them! On the other hand, a small camera is much less obtrusive and its easy to simply whip out a tiny camera, snap a picture and then return the camera to its holder all without attracting too much attention to my actions.