There are some days when I put on my blue suit, sit in my windowless office in Washington, write statistical analysis code, and wonder if I really made the right career decision. Then there are days where I get to take the helicopter to work.
I spent three days this week in the remote province of Oecussi, Timor Leste. Non-contiguous from the rest of the country, Oecussi is stuck out in the middle of Indonesian Timor. It is accessible only by overnight ferry or UN helicopter. The difference in death risk between ancient leaky ferry and ancient Russian helicopter is probably negligible, but at least the helicopter is faster and has a crew of attractive suntanned Ukrainian gentlemen.
After days of navigating the Byzantine UN bureaucracy to get myself a seat, I arrive at the airport. Things are somewhat different checking into a military rather than commercial flight. Instead of national passport and ticket, it was organizational badge and “orders.” They look at the ID, stamp the “orders,” hand you a set of earplugs and point the way to the open air waiting area. At some point, someone comes up, herds you into a group, tells you to turn off your cell phones and asks if anyone has any dangerous materials. The UN police and soldiers reach around their Batman belts containing baton, pepper stray and loaded handgun, to check their pockets for any accidentally forgotten cigarette lighters.Then shake their heads without a trace of irony and we all get on board. (One guy did transfer his extra ammunition clip to the zip pocket of his uniform, so safety was being completely ignored here.)
The helicopter is a Russian built Mi-8MTV-1. (I googled it, and found an order form! http://www.redstar.gr/Foto_red/Book/Mil_17_1V.pdf Note in the first sentence that this “multipurpose helicopter is intended primarily for airlifting assault troops and engaging hostile light armor material and manpower.” No wonder I had to sign a release saying I won’t sue if we are hit by any sort of shoulder mounted projectile…)
The name of the helicopter was part of the safety briefing. (This meant nothing to most of the civilians on the flight and none of them really spoke English anyway, but regardless, you get a nasty look if you put your earplugs in before they finish talking.) Also included was pointing out that the helicopter had four windows (clearly there were five), two door (okay got that one right) and two fire extinguishers (one is here to the left and one is… um… right then…) But don’t worry, the crew is well trained in case of an emergency. The really useful information that they don't mention is that you need to be careful with the windows (they are completely open to the outside). I under-estimated the suction and leaned out a little too far with the camera while we were flying. The Nikon almost got a quick lesson in gravity.
Oecussi was just like a three-day version of Peace Corps. It was brutally hot, no one spoke English, no electricity or running water, mosquitoes traveled in opaque squalls… I stayed in the best hotel in town for $10 a night. It had a bucket shower, squat toilet and no fan. It proved to be a long night.
After I had finished working with my teams for the day, I decided to explore despite the withering mid-afternoon sun. I walked up and down on the beautiful beach. The water was so nice and inviting. Unfortunately, the conditions violated one of my fundamental rules of traveling. I don’t swim on beaches where the locals don’t swim, and not a soul in the water. In a country with riptides, sharks and “endemic sandcroc” problems, you want to be careful about these things. So I meandered off to explore the rest of the town.
The main town, Costa, is the site of the first arrival of the Portuguese on the island in the 16th century, which explains why it is a fiercely patriotic bit of Timor Leste stuck out in the middle of Indonesia. The Portuguese were nice enough to lay it out in traditional old world Europe style, broad tree lined boulevards in nice straight lines. Which vastly simplifies a grid search of a restaurant with that telltale generator hum. Where there are soldiers, there must be cold beer… (I eventually found one attached to a hotel. I immediately switched hotels.)
The next day involved a long drive trying to meet up with one of my survey teams. Outside of the main town, there is no cell phone service in the district. So we drove from village to village, sometimes almost an hour apart, up and down mountains, asking if anyone had seen a car full of outsiders. We eventually passed them on the road by chance. (Which would be more amazing if Oecussi had more than 10 cars in it.)
After a roadside software patch and progress check, I had the rest of the day and all of the next to kill before the helicopter came to get me. It was a long hot 24 hours, particularly after I finished my book. Fortunately the helicopter ride back was uneventful. I never thought I would be so grateful to see Dili.