Glenside, Pa., USA
N 40.09243° W 75.16562 Elevation 306 feet. Temp: 28° F
We have returned to the place where this journey began three weeks ago on Christmas Day, a loading dock at Arcadia University, where seven out of the 24 people on the Arcadia expedition to Equatorial Guinea arrived tonight and will continue on our own, separate ways, I am tired and my muscles ache, not from the expedition, but from the 30-hour journey from Malabo to Philadelphia.
Just a few words about our journey back on Iberia Airways, a third-world airline masquerading as a first-world carrier. We left Malabo at 1 a.m, today and landed in Madrid at 7 a.m., expecting to connect to a noon flight to JFK. The flight was cancelled, however – broken equipment. So that gave us an extra four hours to enjoy the Madrid airport, which actually only requires about an hour to experience its highlights. When we finally boarded a packed Airbus A340, an American woman complained that the aircraft’s PA was playing Christmas carols nearly 10 days after Epiphany, and she found this offensive. Maybe she is an Iberia neophyte, but I’d say the music selection was a misdemeanor – the least of the airline’s problems. More vexing was the audio system didn’t function properly, so the movies were all silent films. The Iberia staff was indifferent, as it was on most of the other seven flights I’ve taken recently.
The son of the prime minister of an African nation sat a few rows behind us,, experiencing economy class perhaps for the first time in his life. He rang the attendant call button every few seconds when his needs are not met. I’m sure it was a character-building experience for him to be ignored like the rest of us.
But at least two people I know are not unhappy with Iberia’s service. Gail W. Hearn and Wayne A. Morra, the two Arcadia professors who led our expedition to save endangered species on Bioko island, got bumped up to business class by a friend of the program who works for the airline and pulled a few strings. Hearn and Morra deserve a few special treats for all the work they’ve done on their program in Equatorial Guinea. I would not have mentioned the upgrades had not Wayne strolled back to our cattle-car accommodations while we were finishing our dinner that closely resembled cat food and regaled us with stories about how great the dinner was in business class and wondered why we didn’t have personal video screens with our seats. I promised Wayne his visit would rate a blog entry, so being a man of my word, here it is. Wayne, by the way, is a very humorous fellow who suggested “Epiblogue” as the title for this epilogue. I don’t want to be accused of plagiarism.
Enough about the airline. Our stuff arrived intact, and Morra’s wife, Rita, drove up from Philadelphia in Arcadia’s van to welcome us with home-baked cookies. Even with the delays, I am grateful for the miracle of jet travel -- it has become such a common and accepted part of our lives to be able to hop onto a plane and get just about anywhere on earth in one sleep-deprived day.
One by one, Inquirer photographer Barbara Johnson and my wife, Amy Blackstone, have said goodbye today to the extraordinary group of volunteers who assembled to do the wildlife census for Arcadia. It was really a swell group of people who became good friends over the course of three weeks (one person who wrote a question to our Web site’s forum implied that the participants would be at each other’s throats, as though the expedition were some sort of Reality TV program, but that’s not at all how it played out). We are also filled with warm memories of the academics from the National University of Equatorial Guinea, most of whom genuinely are trying to establish an educational institution in an emerging nation where freedom is not assured. On many levels, what Arcadia University is doing in Equatorial Guinea is a positive thing – trying to encourage conservation and to develop the national educational institution, while respecting local traditions and building a strong grassroots organization. Hearn and Morra seem to have made a real impact in this small country.
Whether that will actually lead to lasting changes in the nation is a bigger question that we look at that a little more closely in an article in Sunday’s Philadelphia Inquirer. Conservation is a foreign concept in a place like Equatorial Guinea, and you could even see by the way the Equatoguineans consumed the expedition’s supplies that they are more accustomed to using the available resources as quickly as possible because there is little upside to trying to regulate your own consumption if it only allows your competitor to take more for himself. “When it’s gone,” the Africans would say with a shrug, “it’s gone.”
To the regular readers of this blog, thanks for dropping in. I had a lot of fun writing the updates on the travels of the Bioko Biodiversity Protection Program, and I hope it was entertaining and informative.