TDY to Kenya - 1994

Well, here is the long-awaited journal of my travels.

We boarded a C-5B cargo jet here at Dyess on Sunday, July 24, 1994, at about noon. The C-5B is a huge freighter jet, a little larger than a Boeing 747. It has a compartment with 70 airline-style seats, but only a couple of windows. :/ There were only 15 of us, though, so we were able to stretch out. We took off, and 3 hours later arrived at Dover AFB, Delaware. We went just outside the main gate to a McDonald's for dinner, then went back to the mobility processing hangar, where I got a $200 pay advance and waited for the flight to board.

The 3 hour delay turned into a 5 hour delay, unfortunately, but they bussed us and a group of people from Dover AFB out to the airplane around 10 pm. Since the plane was carrying ammunition, they had to park it on the other side of the airfield, so that made for a 15-minute ride. Finally we got there and got on the plane, all 70 of us, completely filling the seats. The plane took off at 11 pm, but after about 30 minutes they began having problems retracting the flaps. So we landed just after midnight and deboarded, waiting outside the plane, and getting eaten up by mosquitoes. We boarded again at 1 am, but they couldn't find an aircrew to fly the plane, so we had to get off again. They found one, so we got on at 2 am, but that aircrew refused, so we got off again at 2:20 am. You can imagine the cynicism and grumbling going through our group. Then they bussed us back to the hangar (after a 10 minute delay because one of the buses didn't start). I sprawled out on some seats and went to sleep. At 6 am, however, they announced that we could board. So we got on the bus and went out there, and took off at 7:30 am (finally!)

The flight to Frankfurt, Germany was 8 hours, plus a correction for the time zone, so it was about 9 pm local time when we landed. The evening air was HOT and sticky (probably near 90, which is really warm for Germany, even in July). We were to gather at the departure gate at midnight, so we all walked to one of the hotels and ate at the snack bar. We showed up at midnight, and found out there was a maintenance delay, but to return at 3:30 am. I went to the hotel and got a room, and got a shower and a short catnap, and returned.

The plane did take off on time around 4:30 am, and I got some sleep. Four hours into the flight, we refueled over Greece. The ride got really uncomfortable since the pilots were making all kinds of adjustments to keep the large jet steady with the refueling boom... in fact, a couple of people got some use out of their barf bags. :) The refueling was over after 20 minutes, and we continued onward to Kenya. They served a hot lunch, which wasn't too bad.

After ten hours inflight, we landed in Kenya at about 4 pm local time. We parked on a taxiway, and they raised the nose and lowered the ramp. They drove a loader out and began removing the cargo right there -- yep, we were self-sufficient enough to unload our own airplane, which made things easy. Standing there by the C-5, I got my first look at Kenya... broad, flat land extending out into the distance. The afternoon sunlight was getting hazy and orange, and the sky was peppered with some flat cumulus. Some of us went ahead and walked to our building, about 1000 feet away, and eventually they drove our pallets over there, where we took the securing net off and the plastic wrap, and fished our equipment and bags off of it.

Within a few minutes, our lieutenant surveyed the building, which was a mostly-empty concrete building, about 200 feet long, 75 feet deep, and 25 feet high... very cavernous on the inside. Small wooden offices were built along the walls and corners of this open-bay building, and large freight doors were built into the sides to let a nice breeze through. Our lieutenant got us into one of the few air-conditioned offices, and we began unpacking our equipment in there. Since I was considered the big "radio" expert, I assembled the antennas and put up our satellite dish and our HF antenna (for which I got on a ladder and hung it up over the doors facing broadside north). I ran the cables in and hooked them to our satellite receiver and our Alden 9315 HF/fax machine. Within minutes, we were receiving maps from Nairobi and our first METEOSAT images.

We were really worn down, but we got our job done. By 8 or 9 pm local, they had assembled lots of safari buses going to the various hotels, and we gladly took them. The ride took us a long way... through some extensive suburbs toward Mombasa. We also got our first look at the local area. Even for me, someone who lived in the Philippines for 3 years, this was culture shock! We drove through some crowded ghettoes, along badly worn highways, past a burning landfill whose plume constantly blew over the highway, through downtown, and out along a road that angled north toward the hotels. Finally, after 30 minutes of travel, we arrived at the Giriama Hotel, where all 70 of us milled around getting checked in to our rooms. Here, there was no lobby... it was all open-air, with a huge thatched roof that covered the offices, the foyer, and the buildings. Everywhere you looked, you saw you were in Africa... in fact I remembered that night that the song "Late in the Evening" by Paul Simon got stuck in my head and I couldn't get rid of it..

Some people wanted to get dinner, but not me... I was tired. I got unpacked in my room, got a shower, and fell asleep. The next morning my roommate (a weather observer) and I got up, got ready, went to the open-air breakfast (where I had some canteloupe.. I wasn't ready to splurge in the food until I found out more about if it was safe).. As we waited out front for a bus, we watched a huge millipede go by. It was about the size and shape of a radiator hose. Some people got pictures of it, but it ignored us and wandered off into a garden nearby.

From that day on, we all easily slipped into a work schedule and a daily routine. A few days later, they moved us into the Reef Hotel, a much classier place, and probably where I spent most of my days there. The Reef Hotel was located much closer to the beach, had an indoor lobby with marble floors, and better food.

For that first week or two, our big quest was to find the best food. The Air Force had some MRE's at the airfield (meals ready-to-eat), which were freeze-dried and packaged foods... not too palatable, but tolerable. However, we were expected to find other sources of food. The MRE's were not something you'd want to subsist on, so naturally we looked for good food. Plus we began earning $63 per day to help us pay for the expenses.. food near the hotels was not cheap due to the tourism. You could eat at the hotel's buffet (which was about $15-20), a-la-carte (about $5-10), or at the snack bar ($3-7). We also scouted around other hotels to try out their meals. The best place we found was the Oasis, an Italian restaurant just outside the Reef. It was an upstairs open-air cafe that, as we learned, had poor service, but excellent food. They'd quickly take your order, but you could wait around 20-30 minutes for your check.

The next problem was entertainment. The televisions at the Reef Hotel only got two stations -- KBC and CNN-I. KBC was the official Kenyan TV network which played a lot of Swahili shows and American reruns (like Roc, Cheers, etc). CNN-I is the CNN International service, which gets old after awhile. I'd say I spent most of my time reading, relaxing on the balcony, or playing cards with some other guys. There really isn't a whole lot to do outside the hotel, and safaris are very expensive and don't go far enough. Some people went downtown to the nightclubs, but that got dull even for them. It became common knowledge that almost every single female in the clubs is a prostitute trying to find business -- even the guys that loved club-hopping in the United States got fed up with what was over there.

So what was the local area like? Really third-worldish for sure. There are definitely signs of decay... at one point, it seems like government money was being spent on all sorts of projects, even for the divided highway that ran from downtown towards the airport and out toward Voi and Nairobi, but the the money has dried up. The roads are in bad shape, an an oil pipeline going into the island is all rusted and has a segment missing, and power outages and brownouts frequently occur. The British occupation left in the 1960s, but I think they helped the country get on its feet, and signs of their presence still remain -- traffic drives on the left side of the road and the road signs are exactly like in England.

How is law enforcement? Traffic speed in crowded areas is controlled by a series of speed bumps... you find them in the most annoying places. As far as crime, the crime rate is dramatically low and anarchy is sometimes high. You read in the papers all the time about mobs who attack thieves in villages and suburbs -- they set a thief on fire at Jomo Kenyatta University in Nairobi for stealing laundry, and even had photographs of the mob, too. The only place that has a crime problem is, of course, right around tourist spots... one of the coastal highways just outside the resort town of Malindi (35 miles from Mombasa) has had a bad problem with highway bandits stopping tourist buses and stealing everything (including clothes).

Corruption is a serious problem within the Kenyan government... there is even a column in the Daily Nation called the "Cutting Edge" which is a lighthearted expose of examples of corruption in the government. One of the most persistent problems Kenya has are railway officials in smaller towns who charge people as much as 500 shillings ($10) to CROSS their railroad tracks! Since the local police are often in on it, the person often gets thrown in jail if he crosses and doesn't pay.

The police aren't exempt from bribes... the president of Kenya (President Moi) came to Mombasa in early September, and the local police were ordered not to accept bribes for the week before he came. After President Moi left, the cops were going around to locals trying to make up for the lost cash.. In fact, once a group of Air Force people walking back to their hotels got stopped and were politely asked to pay a "wildlife preservation fee" of some sort... it wasn't much money at all, so they blew it off and let him have it. The problem is supposed to be worse with the district police (sort of the equivalent of our sheriff's departments).

Guess that leads me to money. The official unit of currency is the Kenya shilling... 55 of those makes a dollar (the bank usually takes 4 shillings as a conversion fee). That slid toward late September... the American presence in the Mombasa area pumped so many dollars into the local banks that by the time we left, the rate had dropped to about 52. Kenyans are definitely not paid much... for example our busdrivers worked 12 hour shifts and took home about 200 KShs ($4) for that day of work. Obviously tips are appreciated by just about all the locals.

The people who are rich are for the most part the Europeans who live there. There are lots of them, mostly Germans and British. They're the ones who have the capital to invest in new hotels and ventures and go around town in their expensive cars, wearing Rolex watches, however they pay their employees poorly and tend to treat them likewise.

Diseases -- the biggest problem is malaria, a fever caused by (I believe) a type of protozoa, and transmitted by mosquitoes. Antibiotics don't have an effect on it, so the treatment is more of a chemical one. We began taking mefloquine once a week when we got there, and I still have to take it once weekly until the end of October. It kills malaria that's in the bloodstream. Now that I'm back, I have to take a smaller pill, primaguine, once a day for 14 days. It kills malaria that hides in the liver, which mefloquine can't reach. Malaria is definitely endemic among the population... I had busdrivers come by the weather station and ask if I had malaria pills (which I couldn't give away, of course). All over the place, you see billboards and signs for Malariquin, which is an over-the- counter medicine for malaria, and I even saw a TV commercial on KBC that showed a family suffering from malaria (actors), and the chipper announcer came on and said, "Do you suffer from malaria? Well take Malariquin!", etc..

Very few of us got sick... the hotels are good about sanitation, and we even had a health inspector look at the kitchens. The Giriama got a bad rating, but I only had dinner there once, and it was well-cooked food. The water isn't really good... in fact, if you fill up a sink, you can see the brown tinge to the water. I think most of it is just rust from the pipes. Fortunately we had bottled water the entire time we were there... there were cases and cases in back of the building free for the taking. Sure wish I had that luxury here in the US!

What was the weather like? Very dull. Every now and then we'd get showers, but invariably the low would be about 68 and the high 87, with a south wind. Cumulus and stratocumulus in the morning with coastal showers, due to the convergence of the land breeze and the southerly prevailing flow, then a fair afternoon and evening.

Around August 25, we moved into the Intercontinental Hotel, which was a nice change of pace. It put us in the best hotel in Mombasa, period. The Intercontinental had some of the best food, period. It was a seven-story, double-wing hotel, one of the few with interior corridors. The lobby was huge and full of glass and marble. Among its attractions were a casino, a large outdoors pool, and the beach only twenty yards away. Almost all the rooms, including mine, faced out onto the beach. No longer were we stuck with KBC and CNN-I.. we now had M-Net, a South African channel that was a lot like HBO, and even ran Oprah... there was KTV (Kids TV), which was South African too and played shows like the Flintstones and Hanna Barbera cartoons. There was CNN-I, and the BBC World Service which played a lot of news and some various documentaries.

Slowly, the operation began drawing down, and by late September we were looking at less than a week to go. On September 22, we had a flight going to Frankfurt that had plenty of seats left, so four of us weather people packed that day and left, and the lieutenant stayed behind to close everything out... her flight left around September 26. I talked to one of the pilots after his weather briefing, and he got permission for me to stay up in the flight deck for that flight. The huge C-5B freighter lifted off at 7 pm that night, with me in the jump seat. We turned for Nairobi, and I listened in the headphones to the technical discussions between the pilots and air traffic control. At one point we were able to see Mt. Kilimanjaro in the bright moonlight, peeking out of the top of a ghostly layer of clouds.

Slowly the flight deck got more relaxed, and that opened me up to talk to the pilots. We passed the hours in the darkness talking about all sorts of things, broken only occasionally by conversation with air traffic control. The waypoints (route of flight) were programmed into the on-board computer, so the autopilot did all the steering as we cruised at 26,000 feet. Every 100 to 200 miles, we would follow a new heading, and the plane would gently bank to follow it. The pilots looked at their navigation charts to make sure the computer was flying us the right way.

The course took us up from Nairobi, where we saw the beautiful city lights, and up towards Khartoum... far, far away across nothingness. Words cannot describe the sense of isolation as we moved through the night... listening to a sea of faint, distant chatter in the static on the HF radio, with Khartoum air traffic control center barely readable. I looked out the window and saw no lights on the ground... just the darkness of some remote part of Africa extending on for hundreds of miles. I thought about the wild cats and the wildebeest that call Sudan home below us... wondering what was going on down there. It was over 500 miles to Khartoum, with only the computer display to show where we are, and it was simply astonishing that this remote nothingness just went on, and on. It would be unsettling to be on an aircraft back in the 1940s, with nothing but a compass to go on... having to traverse this distance manually at even slower speeds.

Gradually we approached Khartoum around 11 pm. It looked nothing like Nairobi from the air... smaller and the lights were much dimmer. I also wondered what it was like in that city. As Khartoum slid past, we were once again out in the remote expanses of nighttime Africa, followed by the moon. We started seeing the ghostly forms of towering cumulus clouds extending up to flight level, then started seeing lightning flashes in some of them. This wasn't unexpected... this time of year, the intertropical convergence zone where the trade winds converge lies over Sudan. Thankfully with it past sunset, the activity was probably tapering off. The computer painted color radar echoes on the display. I couldn't help wondering that back in the US, meteorologists would be tracking these storms, but out here, no one probably paid any attention to them except us. We weaved around a few buildups, and saw a particularly intense line to our east over Eritrea, and as we entered Egypt, the activity began tapering off. Cairo began coming in loud and clear over the HF radio. They asked for our diplomatic clearance number, which we gave, and relaxed as we headed over Luxor and saw a snake of lights and towns following the Nile River northward.

By 1 am on the morning of Friday, September 23, we approached Cairo and landed. The airfield was pretty quiet. While they refueled the plane, we deboarded and stretched out at a small terminal building. Our greeting party consisted of one cat, which was quite fitting considering that Egypt reveres cats, and where they are held with the highest regard. It amazed me how friendly the cat was. It was kind of cream-colored with a blend of leopard spots and slender... it circulated through the crowd as we sat back or laid down. Some people petted the cat, while others ignored it, telling others that they didn't like cats. Obviously we didn't see much of Egypt, but got a wide, open view of the airfield and the nearby city (Cairo is probably as big as Washington, DC). An young Egyptian contract driver parked near us for a little while, smoking a cigarette, and we were able to hear some Arabic contemporary music coming from his radio.

Right on time, we got on-board at about 4 am and took off for Frankfurt, where we arrived at 8 am. From there, the C-5B shut down and we were on our own. Lots of people in our group got in cars or buses for places at military sites around Germany. For us 4 weather people, we went to the airline ticket office and arranged flights back to the United States. Things worked out really well... we secured commercial airline tickets back to the United States, courtesy of Uncle Sam. Since seating was scarce, two of us got one set of flights, while the other two took another, so we were to travel back in pairs.

After setting that up, we got established in our hotel and went out and rented a car, got some German marks and bought a few items at the store. By that time it was 1 pm. We didn't really have any specific sightseeing plans, so I suggested that I take us back to the area where I grew up. I got us on the autobahn and we headed down towards Ludwigshafen then west toward Kaiserslautern. I had no problems finding my hometown, Weselberg, even after being away for 17 years. I snapped lots of pictures, then we went to a nearby large town, Landstuhl, and window shopped and ate at a Pizza Hut, where a supreme pan pizza is 38 marks (about $25 -- so don't complain about Domino's prices!!).. Yes, things are expensive over there just as they are everywhere in Europe.

We headed back to Frankfurt around dusk. I'm sure everyone is wondering if I floored it on the autobahn. Yes, it's true that the autobahn has no speed limits, except around construction and congested areas. We had an Astra station wagon... I'd say that we averaged 140-170 km/h (about 88 to 105 mph), and reached a top speed of 183 km/h (about 110 mph). Traffic on the autobahn averages about 110-150 km/h, though we saw a few cars that had to be going over 200. The speed limit usually slows to 120 km/h around construction, then is gradually reduced to 100, then 80.

I slept good that night, and we all got up the next morning and went to Frankfurt Main airport. Bruce and Rick were scheduled for an American Airlines flight going to Dallas with one stop, while Dave and me took British Midland to London Heathrow, changed planes, then took a flight to Dallas with a stopover in Chicago.

Our flight was 30 minutes late leaving Frankfurt, and we ended up missing our connection. Even worse, British Midland would not book us in hotels since the cause was an air traffic control delay... but I got a written note so that I could claim the expense when I file my travel voucher. We got a flight nonstop to Dallas out of London Gatwick, and got into a luxurious hotel right near that airport for only 60 pounds (90 dollars -- a great bargain). There wasn't enough time to sightsee, but we got a good meal and a good sleep. And of course, the next day we flew home... spent 2 exhausting hours going through security (American Airlines at London is the worst place where you can check in for a flight)... but the 10-hour flight went without a hitch... we took off at 10 am on Saturday, landed in D/FW at 2:30 pm, and I made it to Abilene by 5 pm.