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An Exercise In Diplomacy

After we had almost finished a voter registration and sound-system installation for the Nicaraguan legislative assembly, I found myself engaged in a conversation

An Exercise In Diplomacy

Dec 1, 1998 12:00 PM,
Lynn Mader and R. David Read

After we had almost finished a voter registration and sound-systeminstallation for the Nicaraguan legislative assembly, I found myselfengaged in a conversation with a government official interested inpurchasing a similar system for Al Jumhuriyah al Yamaniyah (the Republic ofYemen). From our discussion, I learned that the 300-member assembly waslikewise in need of a voter registration and sound system. The opportunityseemed intriguing.

Their existing system was basically a conference-type system in which eachhouse member controlled the on/off and volume control of his individualmic. During the sometimes lively legislative debates, each member couldjoin the discussions at his leisure and yell louder than his opponents. Themembers learned that if they spoke softly into the mic, they would not beheard above the hubbub in the chamber, but their remarks would be broadcastsurreptitiously to the TV audience. When all else failed, a member wouldsimply couple his mic to an adjacent member’s loudspeaker and induce enoughfeedback to bring the proceedings to a grinding halt.

Moreover, the existing system had a single 3/4 inch (19 mm) conduit loopedfrom desk to desk in 100-member increments that terminated at the dais bymeans of three home-run 3/4 inch (19 mm) conduits. Voter registration andaudio wiring had to be run in common in these undersized conduits.

Daktronics, supplier of the voter-registration system, and Dakota Audio,responsible for the sound portion of the installation, had been developingtechnology to reduce the number of conductors needed for voter registrationand sound system communications. Seemingly a perfect opportunity to deploythe new technology (except for the fact it was halfway around the world),there were, however, severe conduit restrictions. The sound and data wouldhave to share the same conduits, and there were hefty penalties if thesystem was not completed on time or did not work. Despite our reservations,we accepted the assignment.

During the next couple of months, we finalized our equipment designs, triedto foresee any possible difficulties and began manufacturing. Finally, thesystem was assembled, burned in and tested one more time. Barring a fewminor glitches, the system worked. It was with somewhat mixed feelings thatI watched the truck, piled high with tons of equipment, pull away from ourloading dock and head eventually for Yemen.

The government in Yemen was notified, and arrangements were made for theequipment to clear customs. We were assured that all of our equipment wouldbe waiting for us on the parliament grounds when we would arrive in acouple of weeks. Nevertheless, I brought my stockpile of contingencyequipment.

Upon arriving at the San’a airport after a lengthy flight, our baggage wascarefully examined; each item was removed, studied, discussed and replaced.Because the inspectors were unfamiliar with most of our equipment, it wasreplaced in the box without question. All was well and good until they cameacross our miscellaneous assortment of screws, nuts, wall anchors andhardware. They did recognize hardware, and they were definitely going tocollect the duties on this category. Although our first taste of Yemenbureaucracy, the natives were used to it. Their solution was to collect allof our personal belongings, load it into the cars and lead us away while ananimated discussion continued behind us. Our equipment purportedlycontinued onto the parliament while we were delivered to the Taj Shebahotel in downtown San’a.

The next morning, we discovered that the equipment that we had shippedahead was not at the parliament. In fact, processing of the equipmentthrough customs would not begin without our presence. We piled into a carand rode to the air cargo terminal. One more time we were exposed to theidiosyncrasies of the Yemen bureaucracy. The Ministry of Roads hadconstructed a two-lane road from the main highway to the airport terminal.Meanwhile, the Ministry of Dams had constructed a dam across a nearbygully, which effectively flooded the road. The natives compensated bythrowing enough junk into the waterway to form a foot path. From there itwas only a quarter of a mile (400 m) hike to the terminal. We became veryfamiliar with this route; we traversed it twice a day for the next threedays as we awaited the release of our equipment. Although the customsofficials had gone out of their way to be amenable, they were caught up inthe bureaucracy as well. Meanwhile, we waited. We relied on ourparliamentary emissary to secure the release of the equipment while we satin the waiting room shooing flies.

After two days-a record time we were told-our equipment was finally clearedfor entry. The clerks apologized for the delay, but this had constituted aspecial condition because our equipment entered the country without anyduties or fees. The next morning, we accompanied the officials to a metal 2acre (0.8 hectare) shed where boxes and crates were piled at random.Fortunately, our equipment was buried only a couple of layers deep, andmost of it was not badly crushed. We spent the next hour retrieving ourequipment.

The following morning, we proceeded to the parliament building to seewhether our equipment had arrived and start planning our installation. Themilitary guards assigned to the parliament security had not been informedof our arrival. We spent what seemed like several hours in a small, hotroom under the eye of several poker-faced uniformed guards with automaticrifles at the ready. Eventually, the proper officials arrived, and we wereidentified as legitimate visitors.

Our equipment was on hand, but most of the boxes were crushed, and even theheavier wooden crates had sustained considerable damage. We spent severalanxious hours prying the crates open with the only tool available-a Toyotatire iron. Unbelievably, the equipment was not seriously damaged, and onlyone amp had disappeared during the process.

System installationThe parliamentary chamber itself was fairly standard-a raised dais to thefront with member desks arranged in a semicircle facing the dais. Thesystem we were to install consisted of a combination sound-and-votingconsole on each of the desks and a large, wall-mounted, visual display tobe hung behind the dais. The first order of business would be to mount thewall display. After carefully measuring the room, we discovered thatnothing was centered. The desks were not centered on the dais nor was thedais centered on the front wall. Consequently, no matter where the displaywas mounted, it would be noticeably off center. Finally, it was decidedthat the display’s appearance on television was most important, and so itwas centered on the dais.

Our preliminary information had indicated that the front wall was a woodfacing over a masonry wall. We had no information as to how thick thewooden facing was, how it was mounted, what the masonry wall consisted of,or how much space existed between the wooden facing and the masonry. Weknew that for safety, we had to anchor the display to the masonry. Weelected to use 18 inch (457 mm) long, 1/2 inch (12.7 mm) diameter,stainless-steel, threaded rod adhered into the masonry. We were relievedwhen the first hole was drilled into the surface and we realized that thechosen anchoring system was going to work.

Using this method of adherence, we found that we could mount an anchor atthe rate of about 15 minutes apiece. Of course, nothing proceeds smoothly,and we discovered that the 1/2 inch (12.7 mm) American standard nuts thatwe intended to thread onto the rods were missing. As they did many timesover during the course of the installation, our local assistants got us outof trouble. They located a source of the necessary hardware at a localToyota dealer who had an ample supply of American standard nuts.

One of the factors we had not considered was the altitude. When we landedat the airport, our on-board video display indicated we were at 8,500 feet(2.6 km) above sea level. The thin air was hot, dry and carried a constanthaze of fine dust particles. We quickly found that we had to paceourselves. It did not take too much exertion to leave us worn out andbreathless.

Our days settled into a blur of drilling holes, setting anchors andhoisting the display sections into position. We had planned to use some ofthe demurrage from the shipping crates to form the scaffolding. In the rushto get the equipment packaged, however, the crates had been nailed togetherwith cement-coated nails instead of the intended screws. That, coupled withthe damage that had been incurred in transit, made use of the crate lumbertotally unfeasible. An appeal to our parliamentary emissary produced somescaffolding. Although the scaffolding was in fairly good condition, itlacked a few essential parts for assembly. Using a combination of force, alarge hammer, some makeshift pieces of lumber and some ingenuity, the locallaborers soon had the structure in place.

Once the wall anchors had been set into the masonry, we lifted each sectioninto place and for further safety, bolted each section top, bottom andsides to the adjacent member. We saved some time by not removing the frontdoor as we mounted each section. Our procedure was to arrange thescaffolding so that I could slip inside the display section and close thedoor behind me. The crew would then rearrange the scaffolding, and I wouldpush the bolts into the adjacent display section so that someone on theoutside could tighten them. As an indication of the display’s size, I ammore than 6 feet (1.8 m) tall, and I could stand upright inside each of theboxes. After the section was secured, the scaffolding would be repositionedso I could crawl out, and we would repeat the procedure.

After spending several weeks mounting the display, it occurred to someonethat a portion of the display would be visible on television above the headof the president. It simply would not do to have someone’s name floatingabove the president’s head on every television in the city. The entiredisplay had to be moved up, which did not fit too well with our plans orour time frame. The wall fairly bristled with the anchors we had set intothe masonry; we lacked the tools to cut the 1/2 inch (12.7 mm)stainless-steel anchors off flush with the wall. Neither did we have enoughspare anchor stock and adhesives to start over. Even with the necessarymaterials, it would have taken weeks to redo the mounting. Because I wasapproximately the same height as the president, our assistants took glee indressing me in native clothing and seating me in the president’s placewhile the broadcasters studied the situation. They concluded that theycould raise the cameras and avoid the problem through careful use of theirshooting angles.

The parliamentary chamber was constructed with a corrugated metal roof witha suspended ceiling and thick masonry walls. There was neither insulationnor air conditioning. Usually, a light breeze moved the hot, dry air, andone of our first steps when entering the chamber was to open the windows. Inever understood why the windows were supposed to remain closed. There waseven a sign in my hotel room that requested that the windows not be opened,a condition that I also ignored. We would open the windows and go to work.Within an hour, the windows had mysteriously closed again. Whenever I triedto get an explanation, I was met with a shrug. I reasoned that the custommust have been a holdover from a period when disease was spread by insects,or maybe it was simply to keep the fine dust from infiltrating the room.

AlphabetizingAt long last, the display board was mounted and in place. We handed signswith the member names to our local technicians for mounting on the display.Following our western culture and because of the way computers work, we haddirected that the names be shown in alphabetical order on the display.

During testing, we discovered that the voting consoles did not registerwith the proper names on the display. The computer printouts registered thenames in correct order, and the display was lighting in the proper testsequence. We did not read Arabic, so we had to rely on an interpreter tosort this out. The only explanation was that the names had not been placedon the display in correct order. After a great deal of discussion, itbecame obvious that alphabetizing names was not a concept that they hadconsidered. Names were arranged in the order of importance, family, rankand political party. The fact that something as insignificant as the firstletter of a name could make a difference had never occurred to them. Oncewe and our local technicians were on the same wavelength, the rearrangingof the names went fairly rapidly, and we had the display operating properlywithin a matter of a few hours.

Wire pullingMany of our problems were a result of the language barrier. The memberconsoles were daisy-chained in groups of 25 with a signal cable and powerconductors running from console to console and then to the rack. The signalcable was custom manufactured to be as small as possible, but the powerconductors were another matter. Each station was rated at 0.5 A at 24 VDC(most of the power was drawn by the 5 W audio power amp in each console).For 25 stations this amounts to 12.5 amps, or 50 amps per section of 100stations. Although there was not a lot of wire, pulling it would be alittle complicated.

We first attempted to pull all the wire in one step. We looped the cableson the floor, tied the cable to a pull string and stationed a helper ateach junction box to feed the cable into the respective junction boxes.Because of our inability to communicate with the helpers, we were powerlessto correct matters as problems developed. A tangled mass of wire fell tothe floor. I was ready to attack the problem with a pair of wire cuttersand start over, but a couple of the local helpers patiently sat down in themiddle of the mess. Within a few hours, they had it untangled. The secondtry was more successful, and we finally had the first conduit pulled.

We had foreseen potential problems due to the small conduit and had broughta good supply of wire lube. Using liberal doses of lube, we avoidedconfusion by pulling the remainder of the conduits one or two cables at atime. Pulling the wire meant my reaching down into floor boxes through anopening barely large enough for my hand. Below the openings, the boxesexpanded into a larger chamber. I never did find out what was scurryingback and forth over my hands.

GroundingSan’a is located in the mountains and is subject to severe thunderstormsduring part of the year. As I was preparing to hook up the 220 V powerregulator and surge protector, I could not find an earth ground. I wasassured by the building electrician that the system was grounded-just tieto the breaker box, and everything would be all right. I was stillapprehensive and asked to see the actual physical ground. We followed abare, AWG #10 wire leading from the breaker box, which wandered about theinside of the building, along the outside of the building for 100 feet(30.5 m) and ended in a ground rod driven into dry sand. I suspected thatthe chosen ground spot was located in the only place where the dry sand wasdeep enough over the underlying rock to drive the ground rod. Having noother choice, we took the line of least resistance and connected ourground. One can always hope that the sand will be wet from the rain beforethe lightning strikes.

TouchscreensAs our work proceeded, we reached the testing stage. Soon, one of thetouchscreen monitors failed. We did not give that too much thought becausewe did have some spares. The labels on the back of the monitors indicatedthey were capable of operating from 100 V to 265 V. Because the localvoltage ran around 190 V to 205 V, we figured that was well within thedesign parameters of the equipment. We had been running them off the localpower while we waited for the electricians to install the voltageregulators. Concerned that the voltage could be a problem, I obtained thenecessary items to install the voltage regulators myself, and soon,everything was purring along on 230 V. Within hours, another screen failed,and by noon the next day, they had all failed. It was time to take themapart and determine what was going on. In each case, the 5 V power supplyfor the screen was fried into a blackened glob. On one of them, the labelwas still legible enough to read that the input voltage was rated at 120 V,and 230 V was apparently more than they were able to endure. A frantic callto the touchscreen manufacturer was not too satisfactory to say the least.Although the label indicated that the monitors would work over a widevoltage range, the manufacturer had apparently reached the conclusion thatthey would never be operated at anything other than 120 VAC. I bought up asupply of D-cell batteries, which, when hooked up in series, providedstable 4.5 V power to the touchscreens. We continued our testing as weawaited the arrival of new power supplies.

Considering that we were installing a newly designed system, we werehalfway around the world from any semblance of technical support, and wewere faced with very severe deadlines, the work went remarkably well. Otherthan the monitor screen problem and the meltdown of one computer powersupply, the equipment worked out of the box. The rest of the start-upproblems were related to field wiring errors generally associated with ournot being able to communicate properly with the technicians performing theinstallation work.

The opening sessionAfter approximately six weeks of steady work we wound up our installationand testing and awaited the opening session of the parliament. From pastexperience, we anticipated that the opening session would probably be adisasterbecause politicians the world over are not necessarily technicallyoriented. We also knew that several of the political parties were openlyanti-American-Yemen was one of the few Arabian countries that supportedIraq during the Gulf war. Other members would likely be upset over the factthat they no longer had exclusive control over their mics and that thepresident could now control the dialogue in the assembly. We spent severaldays briefing the local technicians so that they could assist us inexplaining to the members how the new system operated.

The opening of the new session arrived on a bright, sunny day. Many membersof the assembly appeared with their own personal army. The courtyard waspacked with men carrying assault rifles and some even more potentiallydevastating weapons. I felt more than a little conspicuous and out ofplace, but the first session was memorable, and the equipment worked asexpected.

LeavingFinally, the sound system was completed, technicians had been trained, andI was ready to leave after a bout with pneumonia. Because I knew thatexcess baggage would be expensive, I donated most of my tools and equipmentto the technicians at the parliament. Airplanes to and from Yemen areusually booked weeks in advance. A couple of weeks before completion, I hadmade a best guess as to when I would be leaving, and the hotel travel clerkreserved a seat for me. As is usually the case, it took a couple of dayslonger than I had anticipated to finished the job, and I had to cancel thereservation.

The lady in charge of the hotel travel desk left the hotel twice a day towalk to the various airline offices to arrange air travel for the hotelguests. It was becoming apparent that if I remained much longer, I would betoo sick to withstand an airplane flight. It took a couple of days, but shefinally found a seat for me on an Air France plane to Paris. I carefullysorted through my baggage, and by leaving many of my personal possessionsbehind, I managed to get my souvenirs packed into a suitcase and a coupleof plastic carrying cases. The parliamentary officials had provided aletter written in Arabic, which they assured me would take care of anyproblems that I might encounter at the airport.

I arrived at the airport around 9 p.m. to leave myself plenty of time tomake the scheduled 11:30 p.m. departure. I was immediately informed that Iwas not on the passenger list and that the plane was full, but I waswelcome to wait around in case someone did not show up.

My baggage was X-rayed, and I was quickly surrounded by soldiers who keptpointing at my baggage. They seemed to be indicating that they wantedeverything opened. I produced my letter from the parliament and showed itto them. They reacted as any good soldiers would and several officers werecalled into the discussion. I could not understand a word that was beingsaid, but they seemed to be divided up into two groups-one that wanted toopen the baggage and another group that kept pointing at the letter. Idecided that I was not adding anything to the discussion, and wandered overto the waiting area in case a seat became available.

There were a couple of no-shows and at the very last minute, and afterpaying an excess baggage charge of almost $1,000 per bag, I was providedwith a boarding pass. Of course, this solved the baggage problem becausethere was not time to examine it. As the crew waited to remove the stairwayfrom the plane, I approached the final checkpoint before walking out ontothe tarmac.

The soldier at the desk carefully examined my passport and entry visa. Hehanded my passport back to me and pointed to a rubber stamp impression thathad been made on one of the pages when I arrived in the country. Theimpression had been stamped too close to the edge of the page, and part ofit was missing. It was an oval stamp, and approximately 1/4 inch (6.4 mm)of it was missing over the edge of the page. I again produced my letterfrom the parliament, the officers were called, and the discussion beganagain.

At this point, I was very ill, and I just wanted to get out of there. Ipicked up my passport and started walking to the plane. There wasconsiderable yelling and what sounded like a couple of rounds beingchambered into weapons, but I did not care. I just kept walking. Lookingback on it, I do not think I was being brave. I just figured that therewould be a tremendous amount of paperwork involved if they did shoot, andas sick as I was, I probably was not thinking too clearly.

I boarded the plane, and then we sat on the ground for a couple of hoursbefore taking off. I do not know for sure, but I suspect the delay hadsomething to do with me. The trip back is somewhat of a blur. Somehow, Imade the connections and arrived back home. After 10 days in the hospitalbeing treated for parasites, I was good as new. Despite the problems anddifficulties encountered, I would have to admit that I would visit Yemenagain.

We had tried to second guess all the contingencies and packed everythingthat might conceivably be required to complete the project. On oneoccasion, we needed to set an AC electrical service box. After waitingseveral days for an electrician, I decided to buy the necessary equipmentto complete the project myself.

Shops in San’a are for some reason highly specialized. I found one shopthat had a circuit breaker. That shop owner sent me across the street toanother shop that had the outlet, where, in turn, I was directed to anothershop that sold the necessary wire to connect everything. Even though I didnot speak the language, the store owners were always cooperative, and witha lot of pointing and gesturing, I was able to find and purchase mostnecessary items.

The people of Yemen were part of a worldwide trade network while myancestors in northern Europe still thought that the world ended over thenext hill. Over the centuries, bargaining was developed into an art form.As a rank beginner, I was hopelessly outclassed. I quickly learned thatjust a few words in their language was good for at least a 50% discount.When bargaining, they would write the price in western style characters,and I would counter the offer by writing in Arabic characters. That simplemaneuver usually cut the price by another half. Finally, it got down to thelast few cents, and I was ready to concede the difference. That was not howthe game was played, and I was expected to make at least a token effort tobargain to the bitter end.

In the newer part of the city that we traveled on our way back and forthbetween the hotel and the parliament, the streets were lined with shopsselling traditional wares. On the curb side of the sidewalk, another set ofvendors sold items from carts and rugs spread out on the sidewalk. Whatcould not be found in the traditional suqs was generally available from thestreet vendors. One of the more unusual was the little stand where acraftsman disassembled disposable lighters, refilled them and repairedthem. Other tradesmen sat with slabs of sandstone on their laps to sharpenknives. One vendor, camped outside our hotel, sold only men’s socks.Because the hotel charged roughly twice as much to launder items as it costto buy them new on the street, one of my evening duties was to take a tripto the sidewalk vendors to purchase the necessary undergarments for thefollowing day.

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