Monday, 30 April 2007

May Day

It's May Day today and yet another day I'm not allowed to leave the hotel because of the dangers - the third day in the last four. Apparently some rival party leaders, understandably upset at the brazenly open rigging of elections, have decided to have some rallies in the cities of Nigeria, so it's dangerous for me to get involved. They've chosen today because May Day is a national holiday. May Day seems to be a national holiday everywhere, but for what reason? It's not like Christmas or a special national day. It must be because it rhymes. So I might play some more tennis and maybe drink some gin; I probably won't play anymore online poker because the internet keeps crashing and I lose my money. Certainly I'll put a preposterously large amount of food in my mouth at dinner. I'll likely end up watching the GOD Channel. I've become grimly fascinated with this channel and the stadium evangelising. Whether you're Christian or not, I defy you not to find this channel incredibly odd. I think I'm going crazy.

Today celebrates, incidentally, my one year anniversary in this job. But I'm pretty sure that's not what all the holidays are about.

Saturday, 28 April 2007

Sweating In Nigeria

For all the flaws of this grand but faded hotel - the Presidential - I'm staying/imprisoned in while working in Port Harcourt, it does have a tennis court around the back. This one feature transforms days spent in the hotel from idle nothingness to having something to look forward to. My colleage - the "cognac colleague" - is about the same level as me, so we can have some pretty competitive matches. The only trouble is the heat - in the mid 30s, with the sun out, and with high humidity, it can get more than a little sweaty.

Sweat has been rather a feature of the last couple of days. Dripping, pouring, soaked-through with sweat, not through the leisure of tennis but from the toils of work. From hopes earlier this week of being home by now, it now doesn't look likely till early next week. There has been an enormous amount of work to do, preparing kit, made all more difficult by changing demands from the office in Aberdeen regarding what's meant to be happening with the kit. By the end of the day my coveralls have been dripping wet and filthy, and my hands black from dirt and grease. It's most unlike my usual working day of coffee and afternoon naps.

Today is a day off from this though. Not because it's Saturday, and not because we've finished, but because Halliburton have insisted on a shut-down. This means no Westerners are to leave the hotel or compound. The reason is something about run-on elections, and this apparently poses a risk.

To be honest, I'm beginning to think the security is a little too much. Port Harcourt is a violent city, but it's not a war zone, nor is it like one. Kidnappings appear to have descreased. There's been some election violence in Nigeria, but none that I'm aware of here, and none that has involved foreignters. The other day, after going to a meeting in some other part of the city, I had to wait for about 45 minutes for extra security going home. The one armed guard in my vehicle wasn't enough, I had to also have another vehicle with four armed police trailing me. Just for me. It wasn't at night, it was broad daylight in the middle of the city, I think there was a little too much paranoia at play.

Anyway, just a couple more days of this mania, then I'll be back home. Nigeria saps my motivation, and I don't feel being here benefits the nation much. It's certainly a financial boost, but I'll be happy not to return for a while.

Wednesday, 25 April 2007

Slow Progress

I got back onto dry land on Sunday, just squeezing onto one of only three seats on the chopper that day. Since then, life has been a series of drinking, tennis and hanging around doing absolutely nothing, bored out of my damn skull.

The drinking has been fine. I'm with two colleagues, and one is an Indian Muslim, so can't be tempted to pour cognac down his throat, but the other colleague most assuredly can. We had a fairly heavy session on Sunday, my return, in which I retired at a sensible hour and just before I lost my mind, but my cognac colleague failed to do, and from all accounts turned into an ultra-buffoon. And last night, for the very entertaining Man Utd vs Milan Champions' League semi, a few beers were sank also.

The tennis has been fine. My poor Muslim colleague plays like a cripple, so is of no competition, but my cognac colleague and I are finely matched. I lost our first match 6-0 6-2 6-2, but yesterday's match finished at me down 6-2 4-5 but the game had to be abandoned due to some other pricks who wanted to play. This was a shame as the quality of our game had risen to levels that would surely have graced the professional tournaments.

The hanging around doing absolutely nothing, bored out of my damn skull has not been fine. The reason I am still here, a prisoner in Port Harcourt, is because we are awaiting our equipment to return from the rig so that it can be checked and packed away safely. Usually this is a very straightforward and speedy process, but in Nigeria it is protracted to agonising lengths. The three of us go to the base with all assurances that our kit has or soon will arrive, and we wait for the entire day with no result. One set of kit, from a different job, is two weeks late. I know the logistics of oilfield equipment is not entertaining reading, so I won't rant on about this, but rest assured that it is even less fun waiting for oilfield equipment than it is reading about it. Especially when you're in some dire base with no facilties, let alone joyous diversions. It's no fun being in Nigeria in this blinkered existence of hotel existentialism and inefficient base monotony, and I'd quite like to go home, given that I've finished the job, so all this hanging around due to others' inadequacies in logistical handlings is very frustrating.

Still, despite all this, I must remember that my daily bonus works out as more than I used to earn in a week as a dishwasher, for substantially less work. And much more soberly, is about 50% of the average Nigerian's annual wage. So all my whinging is but a childish cry to the far greater anguish of those enslaved in this most undemocratic of bullying autocracies.

Monday, 23 April 2007

Nigerian President

The results of the Nigerian election have come and - surprise, surprise! - the ruling party have retained power with a landslide result. But against all expectation, it seems that a Star Wars alien is now the president. Meet Umaru Yar'Adua.

Saturday, 21 April 2007

The Weeping Chef

I think the chef is depressed. Usually on the cheap stereo in the kitchen, dreadful, pumping mid-90's trance blasts, regardless of which large, middle-aged, bald(ing), failed-in-their-chosen-profession northern-English cook is on shift. But since the most recent one - more a head balanced atop a sphere than an actual man - appeared on the rig for his month's service, the music has taken a turn for the downbeat. We have Pavarotti and classical music, and not long ago I heard The Scorpions' melancholic lighters-in-the-air post-Communist mega-anthem "Wind Of Change". I can only imagine that his wife has left him, or that he's having some other crisis of confidence that I am all too familiar with in chefs, having lost years of my life working in sweaty kitchen with these deeply unstable characters.

I'm pretty depressed myself, as it happens. Early yesterday morning, our carrier appeared on surface and so we got everything broken down, downloaded, and packed away, thus ready to leave the rig. But one too few choppers arrived, and though my colleague escaped, I am left stranded. It's the big election day today - the presidential one - so no choppers, meaning that it won't be till tomorrow I get away. That's two entire evenings of cognac-drinking celebration lost, enough to ignite a fury in anyone. I've probably got another week in the country, as there's two sets of kit to check over in the base.

Chambers liked my shirt.

Sunday, 15 April 2007

Update From The Rig

Wireline crew snapped cable (schoolboy error) so no SRO though fortunately no tool damage as it was in the catcher and we'd not yet RIH, but a routine check led to unfortunate galling of threads. Backup MDL unreliable - water damage - so had to do improvised job on mangled threads with help of mechanic and will swap housing and adaptor in the lubricator on Monday. All providing we get the go ahead for SRO - by no means certain as company man seems to have very little faith in the wireline crew. Whatever, hope to be off in less than a week.

Sunday, 8 April 2007

Happy Easter

Happy Easter everybody. I hope everyone is having a delightful Easter, spent with friends and/or family. Of course, I hope you all take a moment during this special time to remember the real reason for Easter – that is, Jesus rolling a big chocolate egg down a hill, or something, for our sins.

For my sins, I’ve been on this rig since Tuesday. Me and bunch of big burly men. Seems to be a theme, doesn’t it? It happens to be the same rig I was on back in January, for my last time in Nigeria. However, it’s a little more comfortable this time round, as I have a room with a window, and the room is being shared with someone who is hardly ever there. In fact, I think he left the rig today, meaning that for the time being I have a room to myself – an incredibly rare thing on a rig. Last time I had to share with a flatulent, impatient colleague with an insane sleeping schedule that messed up my sleeping pattern royally, and took me over a week to eventually recover.

Anyway, this pleasant state of comfort – which I don’t expect to last – has been matched by the leisurely amount of work I’ve been doing. I got on the rig a couple of days earlier than usual, thus giving myself and my colleague this time a generous amount of time to get our tools set up, and an even more generous amount of time to sleep, drink coffee and watch football. Our tools were all run-in-hole today, and I can now look forward to a few days of absolutely no work whatsoever. Everything appears to be roughly on schedule, and if this is the case I can expect to be finished and off the rig in about ten days. Plunged into a Nigeria is the midst of elections.

The elections have been causing a little bit of strife actually; not so much so in Nigeria itself, but a great amount of concern has been shown on the rig because it might affect the helicopters. For at least four days there won’t be any helicopters to and from the rig, but rumours have been abound that this could be as much as fourteen days, and might include all domestic flights. However, most of these rumours have been perpetuated by a pessimistic Canadian (why doesn’t America just swallow up this nation and save everyone a lot of grief?) so I’m not expecting too many problems.

That’s my Easter in Nigeria then, following a Christmas in Nigeria. Truly a festive haven of a nation. I quite want to do something to celebrate this special day, but there’s no hills and, as far as I’ve seen, no chocolate eggs, so I’m just going to chuck some cake down the stairs instead.

Thursday, 5 April 2007

Rig spelling

Many of the people I have to work with are, to be frank, complete spastics. Nowhere is this better exemplified in their use of written English. The standard of English in the oil industry is appalling. While this is forgivable with non-native speakers – who continually put native speakers to shame with their command of two or more languages – there can be no excuse among those who grew up speaking and learning the language. Even Glaswegians. Nary a day goes by without me seeing another notice or set of procedures with glaring, painful, basic, schoolboy mistakes. A recent notice, posted in my room, stood out especially.

Now as you can see, there are a number of errors contained in this simple message. The author – a gentleman named “Steve”, who is likely a dour Scot – obviously exhausts himself with his correct debut sentence, because it all falls apart from there. My assessment follows:

When I can get my hands on a red pen, I’ll amend the actual version. I may also, if I can locate the crass illiterate, sit Steve down and give him a quick English lesson.

Monday, 2 April 2007

Prisoner In Port Harcourt

After a number of failed attempts, I finally made it to the enchanting city of Port Harcourt on Saturday morning. Flights direct to the city only began a week ago, in the absence of their burnt-down airport the little Virgin Nigeria aircraft had to instead land in the Nigerian Air Force base.

This recently reintroduced direct flight has removed the requirement to land at the airport of a nearby town, Owerri, and then take the two hour drive to Port Harcourt. While this certainly makes the trip more convenient, and safer (a foreigner was kidnapped and the escort shot dead on this drive not long ago), it does take away from some of the "fun". The whole experience from Owerri to Port Harcourt was a riot, almost literally so. Upon landing in Owerri, as I did on my first trip here three months ago, and looking on in astonishment at the two burnt-out aeroplanes just off the runway, I then had to face a pitched battle to reclaim my luggage. This involved delving through a five-thick cram of people, and then negotiating the touts and beggars to find our bus and armed escort. Then there was the two hour drive.

Everyone who has experienced this drive shares the same sense of awe, and perhaps horror. In a bus, with jeeps packed with armed police both in front and behind, it was a journey over potholed roads, through jungle, bustling slums and police check-points, past innumerate car wrecks and burnt-out lorries (there's a lot of burnt out things in Nigeria), and through traffic that grew increasingly dense and frantic. We moved onto a dual-carriageway, where most of the vehicle wrecks lay, and when the traffic grew too heavy in our direction, our escort promptly crossed the dire-green polluted swamp of the central reservation and into the oncoming traffic. All the cars behind our bus and escorts decided to follow, and this could only result into total gridlock for everyone, which was only resolved by our armed police leaping from their vehicles and shouting a lot, waving their guns, until eventually we moved back into the proper carriageway. A bullet-pocked, ancient sign of "Port Harcourt: The Garden City" introduced us to the concrete, litter-strewn mess that beheld us. In the distance, a vast jet of flame shot vertically into the air - an oil flare burning: more fumes for this condemned city.

But all that was avoided this time, by our direct flight to Port Harcourt, and so you could almost have been lulled into a false sense of security. But security is even tighter than it was at the start of the year. Then I sometimes travelled in a jeep with only the driver, and no armed policeman. But now the company bus has had its windows blackened, and even the journey to base involved an escort vehicle with armed guards, in addition to the two armed guards in the bus.

On base, I met with my colleague and we did a few hours of work, testing equipment and getting it ready to pack away. We had to leave early, because a political rally was taking place for the election a few weeks away, and there were worries the road would be congested. So we were taken to our home and prison, the Presidential Hotel, an ancient relic much in the manner of Lagos's Federal Palace, although I do have a little more affection for this particular artefact.

There's been little news since then. A loud, though very sparsely attended, awards show round the back of the hotel on Saturday night, combined with a faulty air-conditioner, left me with a poor night of sleep, but I only had to go into base for a couple of hours the following morning. Since then, it's been a case of eating, sleeping, and watching football. There's a tennis court here, so I intend to get a game later, if my colleague can raise his levels of motivation (he's been here a month, and Nigeria is an extremely demotivating country).

It looks like I'll be off to the rig sometime this week - the same rig I was on for my last job here. It's quite far into the ocean, so there's much less chance of being taken hostage. It's not a bad rig, but has abysmal internet. It should be a two or three week job. But, as ever, in the oil business not least the Nigerian sector, everything is subject to change and delays.

The Federal Palace Hotel

During my three nights in Lagos, I stayed one night in the dully functional Halliburton staffhouse, and two nights in the Federal Palace Hotel. The latter is a faded behemoth of a hotel, clearly built several decades ago as the model of decadent opulence, but systematic neglect sees this hulk slowly decay with the passing of time. It has plenty of facilities - a restaurant, swimming pool, bar, conference rooms, appalling business centre - but absolutely no atmosphere. Everything is tired. And due to the guests being either Western oil workers with their company paying the bill, or rich Nigerians, the prices are vastly inflated.

So while superficially grand, it is the attention to detail that matters so much in the quality of a hotel. This is where Kuala Lumpur's Hotel Maya scored so many points, and alas where the Federal Palace fails. The lifts are hopelessly inefficient - an entire geological era can progress without one of the three lifts becoming available. The business centre is expensive, the internet very erratic, and the staff rude. The restaurant staff aren't so much rude as simply uncaring, though the buffet is decent.

But where it really matters is the room itself, and this is where the Federal Palace exemplifies itself.

I stayed in two rooms during my two days, and the one pictured here is the better of the two. It was a reasonable size and the bed comfortable enough. The other room actually had a double bed, but the room was smaller. There's no style to speak of: functional, not outstanding.

The other view of the room highlights the large windows which open out onto the balcony. Above the windows are lights, which do much more than any of the three lamps to brighten the room. It's a curious phenomenon that in any hotel I can remember staying in, none ever have a light hanging from the centre of the room, as just about every room in a house would have. Instead, they use various dull lamps scattered about the room to give light. This must be for reasons of conducing atmosphere, but for practical purposes just makes the room oppressively dark at night. Especially in the case of my first room in the Federal Palace, which only had one pathetic lamp working, and one more if I balanced the base of the lamp over the temperamental switch. The bright light above the window in my second room was pretty good though, but did make an annoying buzzing noise.

The balcony, and chairs. Quite a private balcony, but the height of the barrier and frosted glass meant that if you sat on the chairs you couldn't see the view, only the barrier.

I think Lagos is partially situated on some islands, the Federal Palace being on Victoria Island, and so my window had quite a nice sea view, for Lagos anyway. While most of the city is a congested slum, this kind of view could almost fool one into believing the place was quite pleasant. To my surprise, I didn't see any bodies washed up on the shore.

This little bit (what's it called? A jetty?) stuck out from the hotel. There appeared to be a film crew there the days I stayed, and there were lots of handsome young men and pretty young girls together in a big group too, so I'm guessing they were filming some kind of soap, or film, or Pepsi advert. Or porn.

Yes, in the bathroom, not one sink, but two!

Again, poor attention to detail, with regards to the shower curtain. It was fixed in a position that meant, when you showered, it hung far too deep into the bath, so gave little space to manouevre without finding yourself stuck to it. Also, I believe this style of bathroom suite is not quite up to modern tastes. The toilet water was permanently a worrying brown.

A large, spacious closet, with only a fridge. Room to hang hundreds of dresses, if you were so inclined.

TV and desk. But that's all. No kettle, no coffee - a criminal oversight in my view. Every good hotel should have these basic amenities, because I don't want to have to phone room service and wait 45 minutes every time I want a damn coffee. I am of the generation that wants things NOW. There was also no iron or ironing board, which all good hotels will provide. It goes without saying that internet access in this room could only be a distant dream, thus forcing you to use the dreadful and expensive business centre.

I rather liked this table and chairs however. The chairs were surprisingly comfortable.