Sunday, May 12, 2013

Where the Rubber Meets the Road

One of the long time readers of the blog recently sent me an e-mail to ask whether I was dead or got married – which in his mind where the only two reasonable excuses for the gap in posts.  Neither of those has happened.  I switched jobs within the Bank – moving from working in the research group to something a bit closer to the “client.”  Hopefully this will result in more DC-based intellectual stimulation.  (While I am always happy that people enjoy my adventures, I actually have to live in this life.  Someday I aspire to the great American dream of condo co-habitation and a dog – the probability of which is inversely correlated with my annual frequent flyer mile accumulation.)

This is not to say that I still won’t be on the road.  I will.  These last few weeks have been my first trip with the new job.  I spent a week in Cameroon, which was so busy that I could find nothing blog-worthy to say other than there is an American made cereal called “High Fiber Twigs” that apparently sold so poorly domestically that it is currently being sold in discount Cameroonian supermarkets.  Grasping at straws I know.  So I skipped that post. 
Things picked up a bit flying from Cameroon to Liberia in a prop plane (by way of Gabon, Togo, and Ghana – the aviation equivalent of biking to Delaware).  While waiting in heavily tropical Gabon, I saw a man chasing a large brown snake across the tarmac.  It disappeared into a pile of luggage and plane stairways.  Hilarity ensued as a growing number of ground crew argued about who exactly was responsible for the location and extraction of said snake.  And it solved the age old mystery of how Samuel L got his snakes on that plane. 
And now I am in Liberia.  This is my 90th country – and in celebration of that – I certainly got one not like the others.  For those of you not familiar with its history, it was settled in the mid-1800s by slaves returning from the southern United States.  This was the solution that (mainly northern) church groups came up with because while they hated slavery but weren’t super keen on free blacks undercutting their labor market either.  For the first 100 years, all Liberian presidents had been born in the United States.  What they eventually created was a society where the returning blacks treated the indigenous African population exactly how they had learned from their plantation masters to treat black people – not super well.  Resentment grew, coupled with the abundance of easily-smuggled diamonds, and touched off one of the most brutal civil wars ever seen on a continent that sets a high bar in that department.  More than 200,000 people died in a country that even now only has about 4 million.  The stories you hear of 11 child soldier wearing costumes and wigs, cranked up on amphetamines and glue, running around with AK47s – yeah – that was here. 

But things are vastly improved now.  The country is healing.  Expatriate Liberians are returning and the government is attempting to rebuild the infrastructure.  (Though not this great crumbling hotel that used to be *the* place to see and be seen in the 1970s and 80s.  The government actually signed a contract with the government of Libya in 2008 to renovate it.  That one might need to be re-bid.)  The place as this very strange but completely intoxicating vibe.  Like a younger sibling that is always trying to emulate the older one, it is more American than anywhere else I have been in Africa.  (Thanksgiving is a national holiday celebrated on the third Thursday in November.)  The people – for all they have been through – are generally happy and motivated.  The city is right on the ocean – which is reasonably clean.  All equal a big Himelein thumbs up.

One of the more interesting institutions here, which I was able to visit Sunday, is the Firestone rubber plantation.  This sprawling quasi-autonomous city state is located about an hour outside the capital.  For the last 100 years, people have been producing raw rubber here that would eventually be made into Firestone tires.  In exchange, they have some of the best housing, schools, and health care of anywhere in the country.  They even have a golf course (though the greens are made of black powdered tires).
And like the first person that decided to eat a lobster, it boggles the mind that human beings figured out how to make tires.  The sap of the rubber tree has to be harvested by cutting channels into the tree and collecting it into little cups.  Daily, workers scoops the contents of the cups, add some weird red tinted something to keep it from sticking too much, and stick it in their bag.  The whole process takes less than two minutes, and the average worker does 700 trees per day.  The rubber is collected on bamboo tables before a tractor towing a trailer full of barrels comes to collect it.  In a third grade science kind of way, it is really gross-out to touch.  It has the consistency for very resilient fresh mozzarella cheese.  (If I ever accidentally poke a giant squid in the eye, this is what I would imagine it would feel like.)

So that sums that up for now.  I flew to Sierra Leone this afternoon (on a prop of course).  I left from the small airport, which has much lower passenger traffic than the main international outside the city.  Apparently I was a bit late because when my colleague and I arrived I was greeted with a stern “which one of you is Kristen?” by the guard at the front door.  Seems we were the last two to check in...


Anonymous said...

Somewhat safer for you? I hope so.
GB in Florida

Nagraj said...

I think Firestone mentioned around 650 - 700 trees are covered for rubber collection per plantation worker per day (even on Youtube). It takes about 2 minutes to collect rubber per tree. So at 650 trees a day to be covered, that's 650*2 = 1300 minutes a day = 1300/60 = 21 hours a day approx per plantation worker. Assuming that 2 minutes is an an exaggerated amount of time, and we went by 1 minute per tree, that is = 700 minutes = 700/60 = 11 hours a day approximately (best case scenario). Worker's rights anyone?

Tammy Barlow said...
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