Wednesday, 28 February 2007

Rig Birds

I arrived on this rig - about a hundred miles west of Mauritania, in the Atlantic - a couple of afternoons ago, and since then it’s been birds, birds, birds!

Kind of. In my experience, rigs aren’t the best location to spot birds of either variety (i.e. human female or um... bird) as they’re usually big metal platforms miles into the ocean, filled with sturdy, coarse men. They’re not the place for the weaker, more-refined sex, and not the place for a flying creature, unless lost. In my last rig before this, in Nigeria, there was a girl for a few days, and I also spotted a confused-seeming bird sitting on an aerial, but these really are the exception.

But this rig is bucking all the trends as there are two – yes, two! – whole girls. Imagine my astonishment. I walked into the galley soon after arriving and two young lasses were sitting at a table, looking a little pensive, drinking coffee and talking. They must be the cleaners, I thought, but later that evening my astonishment doubled, as I chanced upon them in the wireline unit. They are real , live engineers! I had to speak to the wireline unit about an issue, so spoke to one of the girls (this is quite a thrill for a young man on a rig) and she sounded Eastern European or something, but she didn’t understand my query so passed me on to her supervisor – a man, of course.

I’ve been reeling in the shock of that experience – a female engineer! – since then, but it should be noted that I’ve not actually seen them since that day, and rather suspect they have been replaced by some Asians, as they seemed to be the wireline operators yesterday.

My third and final encounter with a bird, was of the kind my friend Kitchen Mark prefers. My friend Kitchen Mark has recently requested I instead call him “Birder Mark” but this simply isn’t going to happen. Anyway, Kitchen Mark is a notorious birdwatcher, with an encyclopaedic knowledge of all birds, and he regular makes visits to cold, wet locations near Aberdeen in the hope of spotting a finch, or a gull, or whatever. Why his lovely French girlfriend, French Claire, tolerates these eccentricities, I don’t know.

Anyway, this bird was hovering rather low above the helideck today. It kept craning its neck and pointing its beak down, as if ready to plunge down and spear a fish. It did a little swooping, some gliding and some coasting, but never managed a full plunge and so I never saw a kingfisher-style fish-execution – rather a pity. But I didn’t find its presence rather unnerving, as the beak looked very pointy and sharp, and the menacing way it was hovering hinted at the threat that the bird – in the absence of fish – might plunge down and try and spear me. These things can happen. Now, truth be told, if I had to die then I think being speared through the skull by a pointy-beaked bird on a rig near Mauritania would be quite a memorable way to die, but I am only 28 and aren’t quite ready for that fate yet. So after a short while of warily observing this pest's movements I became too afraid and scampered off inside.

I did however capture the bird in a few photos, on my recently bought digital camera I’m still trying to figure out. And so I include a picture of the bird here:

I would like also to put my friend Kitchen Mark to the test. Marky, what is this bird? This is a test of two things:

1. Does Kitchen Mark know as much about birds as he makes out he does?
2. Does Kitchen Mark read this blog?

My own feelings are that it is a Oceanic Thrust Swift.

I suspect this thrilling start to this rig might ease off a little now, as I can barely imagine it reaching new heights. My beating heart can settle and I can get on with my real job of drinking coffee, gorging myself and of course, sleeping very soundly. It’s a tough life!

Sunday, 25 February 2007

Engineering Talk

As well as lots of French speaking (I've remembered some from my schooling: "Je ne sais quois" and "J'oublie"), there's a lot of engineering talk down here too. Like French, I have absolutely no clue about engineering: this is a problem as I am an engineer.

Even more of a problem is that I am the only engineer from my company here, and my job here is kind of a focal point of an entire drilling operation costing many millions of pounds. To put it another way, in simpler terms, imagine an Olympic 4x100m relay team putting a backward spastic in for the final leg. It's not going to work, is it? Unless you pump him full of steroids I suppose.

I met with the guys in charge of this operation today, and they explained what was going on. "I see", "Tell me more" and "No problem" I said, as they spoke about a whole bunch of stuff I had no chance at ever comprehending. I shook their hands and won their confidence. Little could they know how much their operation is balanced on a knife-edge and will be determined on quite how lucky I'm feeling on the key day.

The supervisor guy I spoke to was a joyless character anyway. An Australian, he's been here for about eight months. I asked him, "So have you seen much of Mauritania?". "I've been to the port," he replied. The port is ten minutes drive away.


Only-in-Africa sight of the day: Aside from the numerous donkeys in the road and rambling goats, it has to be the guy driving a quad bike, fast, and with great skill balanced on just the two left wheels. All the way down the main road.

Saturday, 24 February 2007


What a nightmare - it's been a day surrounded by Frenchies. I flew from Aberdeen early this morning and had to change flights at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris. Because I'm rather tired now, I'm not going to unleash my full fury on this diabolical shambles of an airport, with perhaps the longest and most pointless queues I have ever witnessed, but let's just say that I would fully support a terrorist act upon it.

I only just made my flight to Nouakchott, Mauritania, and have barely scratched the surface of this city, but I have a kind of liking for it already. It seems quite peaceful, certainly compared to other recent places I've been (I think Lagos springs to mind). However, everyone does speak French, and I don't speak French. Though I learnt French for four years in school, every time I try to say something I end up speaking Korean by mistake. Clearly, this is no good.

Oh, and this will probably surprise nobody, but I flew Air France and they lost my luggage. Not all of it, thankfully, but one box containing equipment. Obviously, this equipment was rather important, and without it I can't work. I don't know if the rig is waiting on me, but if they are then I think each day costs about $400,000 to run. This could be quite an expensive holiday in the sun.

In a moment of clear thinking, I bought a Teach-Yourself French book yesterday; unfortunately it appears to be pish. So I would welcome any useful suggestions on French phrases I could use here. French Claire especially - what is the French for "Would you rather eat a muffin or meet a puffin?"

Friday, 23 February 2007

The No. 27 Bus

Today, for what I sincerely hope was the final ever time in my wretched life, I took the number 27 bus.

I despise the 27 bus.

Now, I despise many things - children, Canadians, the guy who wrote "The Alchemist", bloody Abba and the Beatles obviously, the working class, Rangers F.C., and the list goes on - but above all I despise the no. 27 bus. The no. 27 bus serves what should be a simple function: transport people from the city centre to the airport and the industrial estate nearby. But somehow along the way, this lumbering anachronism manages to right-royally screw this up and generate contending waves of despair and outright fury with its desperate human cargo.

I've been one of the lucky ones. I started my job just last May, but have only needed to use the bus for a period of about three months in all, as I've been away on jobs much of the time. But it's the faces I always see on that mobile hell, the worn, weary faces that have obviously been using the bus for years and are pathetically resigned to an ongoing future without escape: these are the faces that I pity. There's the desperately nerdy guy in his perennial anorak, shuffling nervously along the aisle in the forlorn hope of not having to share a seat; the chunky woman of unattractive middle-age with wrinkles forming a menacing frown and jaw contorted in ceaseless chewing action; the young girl of attractive potential but with rabbit-in-headlights eyes which are beginning to grow empty. Permanent fixtures, all, and many others.

Some escape, or seem to. I've only used the bus twice this year, but several regulars from last summer appear to be missing. Most upsettingly is the strikingly beautiful girl, like a South American model, but shorter, spoiled only by the opening of her mouth to reveal common local origins. She has disappeared without trace. The near-Goth purple-tinted hair girl seems to have vanished too, thank God. She occupied the front seats of the upper level of the double decker; when alone she played drum'n'bass loudly on headphones, but was usually interrupted the following stop by her friend, a deeply unappealing girl to whom any accurate description would appear an insult. I will offer you only two words: whiny, fat. They would chat, but as the summer wore on, were joined by a gang of up to three boys and they would together all cluster in these front seats, chatting loudly about their student lifestyle and crazy antics, and upset the muted balance of the miserable bunch of people sharing a bus at 8am. Of these three boys, one was the focus of my ire. Wearing a long, black coat and trying hard not to show how uncomfortable he was with his inadequacies, he had a disastrous mess of hair on his face that he was trying to pass off as a "cool" "beard". He was the loudest of all five, but his words were mere noise, and his laughter a klaxon of irritation. It got so much worse though, something I could not believe possible, when one morning he and the whiny, fat girl sat together, hand in hand, arms round each other, evidently now a couple after a presumed night of passion (which to this day I try not to think about). Whispering sweet nothings, they frequently leaned their heads and kissed. And this was a mere two seats in front of me! I was almost physically sick! And believe me, if I had been, it would have been over them. Thank God, some other unwitting victim got on the bus and sat in the seat between them and me.

There were other, now-departed regulars, such as the quiet Indian girl who sat near the front, the sunglass-clad woman who got off at the Rowett Institute, and the handsome black guy who always spoke to a young white guy for the journey; but all these people were respectable members of the no. 27 bus, and I almost grew to like them. Indeed, for the bus's many shortcomings, a feeling of community was fostered there. Nobody ever actually spoke to each other, of course, but you could sense an unspoken empathy as everybody endured their misery together.

So why do I hate this bus so? There are many reasons, so many reasons, but ultimately one reason overrides all: it is LATE.

Never have I encountered such a late bus. It confounds my expectations as to what late is. Sometimes it has been so late as to not even turn up, other times I've simply given up waiting for it and gone home instead. It has never yet been on time. I am an extremely punctual person and to have anyone and anything frequently late infuriates me. Standing in the cold, ten minutes, twenty minutes, an hour has gone by with no sign of the bus. Then, of course, if I decide to take action and try to find an alternative bus to a less ideal destination, the no. 27 will promptly appear and drive off without me. It is not quite so bad on the way to work, but the way home is so dreadful I have given up even attemping and usually just walk for fifteen minutes to the airport and catch a better bus there.

The bus, in its double-decker form, is either far too cold with misted-up windows, or uncomfortably hot as heaters from the 1970s pump out sickly warmth; streams of water run up and down the central aisle on the upper level during wet weather; if stuck on the lower level it is dark and claustrophic and with fumes that leave me nauseus after the forty minute (plus) ride. It judders, it shakes, it imprisons. The seats are too narrow for two people to sit without rubbing legs.

I suppose I can't directly blame the no.27 for always being so slow, because the extremely heavy traffic on its route does grind vehicles to a halt - but I do anyway. The no. 27 is so goddam pish that it forces people to use cars, and thus more cars means slower traffic, and a slower no. 27. Even if it was on time, the no. 27 is so infrequent as to be useless for anyone not working 9-5 Monday to Friday (it doesn't operate at all on weekends), and even for those on that schedule it brings them to work five or more minutes late. What somebody should do - be that the bloody useless council, or the bus company - is have three buses running every hour, and for free, or at a fraction of the cost (paying a one-way fee of £1.60 to be punished is a farce). It probably wouldn't be economical, but at least it would be an attempt to promote public transport and reduce road congestion, and least when it inevitably failed the council could hold their limp wrists up and say, "Hey, we tried, but the general public have let themselves down."

Fortunately, as I have said, my days of riding the no. 27 are over. I bought a car last week (in fact, I bought it in October but only got it last week as I was working abroad during the interim) and it has reduced my daily travelling time in one direction from 1 hour 20 minutes to a mere 20 minutes. The only reason I had to take the bus today was because my car was in for its MOT.

Life goes on, and surely the no. 27 will do too, but life also moves on, as mine has. While I pity those I leave behind on this twice-daily punishment-in-a-can, I have to also scorn them as rejects who have not the money or ability to drive. Now, when I drive past, in my deluxe 1995 Ford Escort with the screechy fanbelt, I can look over and smile - maybe grin - for there is no joy like that of watching others suffer. And truly I have earned this joy, for I have certainly suffered enough.

Rewiring My Attic

An ongoing project of mine is the rewiring of my attic, or more accurately, the actual wiring of it. For some time I've been experimenting with electricity and trying to get working lights and power sockets up there, so I can then start floorboarding it and making it into a little haven. Ultimately I intend to have my decks up there, and spend entire weekends DJing alone, playing online poker and drinking red wine until unconsciousness. Really, if anyone has a better suggestion about to do with my time I'd be most surprised.

Unfortunately, anyone who knows me has expressed either fear of amusement at the thought of me delving into the fusebox and adding and rearranging it all. This was in no small way aided by my initial attempts, which resulted in me losing all the lights in one side of my flat for a week, as well as several "bangs" from the main fusebox including one which sounded like a grenade going off and had smoke pouring out.

But today I was on a little crusade, to get this wiring done before I go away on Saturday. I had the lights up and running a couple of weeks back. but today was the very meticulous job of pulling wires out of the main box and adding in new wires. And to my delight, it worked first time. Well, sort of. The rest of the flat continues to have power; as yet I'm too afraid to actually try out my new attic sockets. I think I'll leave that for after Mauritania. If the flat hasn't burnt down in the interim.

Wednesday, 21 February 2007

Poker Hopes And Fears

Last night, I played poker. Not for money, just for the competition; but I came last, so am feeling especially displeased.

In fairness to myself, although my play was too conservative, the cards just weren't falling my way: the perennial excuse of the poker loser. It's the first non-online game I've played since October and I'd been building it up into a triumphant return, but it seems in the interim my fellow players have been getting in some practice. Green, for once, exceeded his usual level of uselessness and if not living up to his brave talk of poker theory, seemed to have a bit more guts to his play. Stan, once a terrified child backing down at any big bet or alternately going all-in at the most ill-advised moment, actually played like a competent man. And Julie, the eventual winner, seemed as ever to coast through with a mixture of blind luck and faux-naiviety.

Of course, crucially, the game wasn't for money, and many would argue that poker without money at stake is barely a game at all. Money does transform poker from a mere exercise in pain-free luck to a game of nerve, daring and dastardly deception. I recall my first proper game of poker for money, back when I was living in Korea. It was with a bunch of Canadians and with characteristic poker-beginner's luck, I cleaned them all out. Anybody who knows my distaste of Canadians will understand how much this delighted me.

Subsequently, not for money, I practiced with a young Korean boy who was the sole student of a Wednesday class I taught. He loved it, and after a few weeks was well into the Korean tradition of gambling addiction. He even hugged me when I told him I was leaving - such a genuine, innocent moment that I scorn on the torried comments made my so-called "friends" when I mention the incident.

And since last year I've been gambling heavily on the internet. I've probably lost about $150 (£75) - so far, but of course am just one step away from that "big win". It started so well. My first $50 investment swelled to $250 within two days, but then over the course of a very frustrating week (in which I did little else) I managed to blow this $250 fortune. Disgusted, I vowed never to play again. A couple of months later, I put in another $50, but it didn't last long. Then life started to get in the way of my gambling, as I got a job, had to work, and began renovating my flats, and I had to put poker to the side. But in Nigeria, during a couple of weeks of inaction, trapped in the hotel with only cognac to drink, I discovered the internet connection was fast enough to gamble on, and quickly went through about $20. Convinced the poker site I was using was a fraud, I moved to a different one and my $50 investment went to $90 at one point, but tended to fluctuate around $70 until my freefall of last week has left me with just $25. I blame this mostly on my heavy drinking, alone in my damaged flat.

Now I'm going to Mauritania on Saturday, I wonder how the conditions will be for poker. Mauritania is a Muslim country, and the last Muslim place I was in - the mostly liberal Dubai - banned all poker websites, not to mention hardcore pornography. Nightmare! Given that I usually have an embarrassment of free time when working abroad, online poker accessability will very much dictate how the following month will shape up.

If I do have online poker, then my month will be a festival of gambling, soaked in gin and late nights. However, if I don't then I'll have to do other stuff, like work. I'm not a religious man, but I pray that I can play poker in Mauritania.

Monday, 19 February 2007


I just got the news that I'm going to Mauritania on Friday. This is an important job for me as I'll be going alone, and this is my chance to shine, or screw up royally. It should be straightforward though. I'll probably be there for a month.

I don't know much about Mauritania, except that it has lots of sand. I think that may be the country's only point of interest, in fact.

Although not as exciting as the recently-aborted Alaska job, this should still be interesting. The only shame is that I'm forced to abandon my plans to rush to Spain for a few days to rescue a stranded Bolivian girl. Never mind - hard luck, girl.

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year everyone. Sae-hae bok mani baduseyo. Today was the Korean New Year, a time for Korean families to get together and remember traditions long ago otherwise extinguished by the rapid industrialisation of their nation in the last fifty years. And here in Aberdeen, it was also the time for this city’s Korean community to gather together in a small church hall, and perhaps wonder what twist of fate led them to live in this small grey outpost in the north-east of Scotland.

Today, for me, was a mixture of fun and intensity. Having yesterday been invited to a Korean gathering, I spent the morning wondering exactly what this would entail. My primary concern was that it was hosted in a church – this wouldn’t happen to be a group of evangelical Christians not unknown in Korea? Oh no! Now, don’t get me wrong, I think Christians are lovely people – some of my best friends are Christian! – but, like a homosexual orgy, I don’t really want to delve too deeply into this other world. The last time I neared a church, the skies turned black and dark thunder threatened, so I moved swiftly onwards to the pub. Fortunately, this use of a church hall – more of a community centre really – was secular, and divine punishment was not meted out.

I was nervous though, for good reason I think. If any of my readers have been to a function alone, where they don’t or barely know anyone there, you may well understand that this is rather intimidating; so just imagine the scenario with everyone speaking Korean. I arrived unscathed in the hall to a sea of yellow, with a mere three other whiteys, all of whom were with their Korean wives (i.e. one man to one wife: this isn’t Utah). Fortunately, my friend "Kim" introduced me to a few people, who were inordinately impressed with my childlike command of Korean, and everything went smoothly after that. In fact, having a basic command of Korean saved my day. For I was elevated immediately from the position of rogue foreigner to talking monkey, and who doesn’t love a talking monkey? I made pleasantries with various people before being sat, where I spent a fair amount of time in (English) conversation with an American-Korean and his German-Korean wife, plus an Aberdonian and his Korean wife.

The place was resoundingly friendly. The tone was informal and light-hearted, focussing on being social, and seemingly one of the few times Koreans in this city can get together and be thoroughly Korean. A meeting place. At the beginning, in family units or singly, everyone stood up into the middle of the hall and publicly introduced themselves. I thought I might be excused from this endeavour, but no, my time came. Even in English, public speaking terrifies me, so in Korean I was no more comfortable, though I quickly discovered that even just saying “Hello. My name is Nev. I lived in Korea for two years but returned to Scotland last year. Thank-you,” was enough to generate awe in this small church hall, so I might plan all future speeches to be in foreign languages.

It was intense though. Although everyone was very friendly, I was there alone and so with no back-up to fall back on, and my only pretext for being there was that I’d eaten at Chef Jang’s stall yesterday and could speak Korean like an 8-year-old. But in some ways my foreignness helped me, as some went out of their way to be friendly, and Koreans are gratifyingly appreciative of any attempts to speak their language.

Importantly, I’ve been plunged into the Korean community, or at least dipped my toe into it. There were between 30 and 40 Koreans there, likely representing the bulk of the Korean population of Aberdeen. I’ve been put onto the Korean mailing list, and so will be informed of all upcoming Korean events, the next being a barbecue apparently, though I’m not sure when. A couple of people took my contact details. And best of all, there were a few tidy birds. Fresh meat waiting to be soiled! All very exciting.

But it’s only uphill from here, I realise. Today I was the talking monkey, and as I say, everyone loves a talking monkey. But only as a novelty act. You don’t want the same talking monkey at every wedding, funeral and barmitzvah, oh no. But a talking, dancing monkey! Now there’s a thing...

Saturday, 17 February 2007

Meet The Koreans

Compelled by incessant pressure from Kitchen Mark and Varwell and inspired by French Claire's recent foray, I have finally relented and have started a blog. This would usually be cause for only minor celebration, but as I bought a digital camera the other day I should soon have figured out how to post photos of my crotch here, so truly the online world will be whipped up into a frenzy.

Today was a good day: surely better than the day of anyone reading here. I live a very glamorous lifestyle that my vast oil wealth affords me. And so today I ate out for lunch and dinner (I'm never awake for breakfast). I barely ever cook for myself, because all I can cook is chilli con carne and baked potatoes. Once, I claimed to be able to do a corn beef hash, but after a year of eating mustard-infused charcoal lumps I realised that this was a mere delusion.

For lunch, I took my grandfather out. He's 87 and in good health, but does like to eat cheaply so I had to pretend he was paying initially so that he chose somewhere good. We went to the nearby Atholl Hotel, always of decent quality, and I ate beef olives. They were good but my God they stuffed me. At this rate I'll be as vast as Kitchen Mark - heavens!

My dinner is sitting beside me: bibimbap and kimchi. For readers unfamiliar with these terms, this is Korean food. I lived in Korea for a little over two years, returning last year. Bibimbap is kind of a mix of stuff, and kimchi is kind of fermented cabbage with spices, and is very much an acquired taste. With Green's astute eye for food, I was directed towards a little store/stall in the Aberdeen Market just last week, selling Japanese and Korean food. Having been a year without Korean food, I really miss the unique style of cuisine and made a beeline for the place. More intriguingly, I couldn't imagine a Japanese person selling Korean food. The name of the chef was "Jang", a name that sounded either Korean or Chinese, and the evidence was siding with the former.

And to my delight, eating at the place last week I quickly realised that they were indeed Korean, and we had a little exchange in Korean, much to their surprise. My Korean isn't great, but it can sustain an alright conversation. But they were busy last week, being Saturday lunch time, so the exchange was fairly brief, but I vowed to return, which today I did.

It went really well. As I say, I spent two years in Korea and really miss the place: the bustle, the food, the insane bus driving, all the little idiosyncracies. So after a year back in Aberdeen, and being entirely cold turkey with Korean culture (except for some guy I met at the airport bus stop), to suddenly be back in contact is very exciting. I chatted away, in a mix of Korean and English, mostly just jokes and banter, much to the bemusement of the two (Western) girls sitting waiting for their order (it's of no relevance, but they happened to be quite pretty).

Anyway, the upshot of this is that I've been invited to join the Korean underbelly of Aberdeen. Tomorrow is "Seollal", the Korean (aka Chinese/Lunar) New Year, and a bunch of them are meeting at a church to celebrate and eat traditional food. 3.30pm tomorrow at some church down in Holburn Street. Now, I'll admit that it has been some time since I visited a church, and I don't know if I can cope with being in a place of worship, but I'll give it my best shot, and there should be some free food. Even better, there may be some pretty - and susceptible - Korean girls that I can entice to stroke my beard. Whatever the setup, I'm looking forward to it, and am very honoured to be invited, as this is a big occasion in the Korean calendar.

That's my day then, a day of beef olives and meeting Koreans. Having nothing planned for the evening, I fully intend to drink alone in my flat, lose money playing online poker and eventually collapse in a stupor until I wake at 2.30am in a state of confusion, perhaps with my trousers round my ankles.

There you go. A nice long debut entry that no-one can possible be bothered to actually read. Don't worry, there'll soon be short punchy entries with photos of my crotch.