Friday, 30 March 2007

Escape From Lagos

I arrived in Lagos around eight in the evening on Tuesday. I've been trying to escape ever since.

Lagos is a terrible place, there is no two ways about it. I've not spent a great deal of time here, thankfully, but it only takes a few hours to see how bad it is. There is nothing positive to be said, unfortunately. It is aggressive, congested, filthy, hopeless, pitiful, menacing, frantic, desperate... the list goes on. The traffic is a spectacle to behold.

Organisation is not a Nigerian speciality, hence two aborted attempts to fly out to the even more miserable city of Port Harcourt, where all the kidnappings take place. Yesterday morning I rose at 4.45am to be taken to the airport. I wasn't told where I was going or what time, just to stand in "that" queue. I stood in the queue, fighting off a hundred Nigerians to reach the harrassed attendant. There I was told very little of useful information - "Your name isn't here! Try check-in - next!" - and went to the check-in queue and fought off a hundred Nigerians to be told my flight had just left. To my surprise, my flight was direct to Port Harcourt. The airport there burnt down last year and repair work still hasn't begun, apparently, but they are now flying direct to the helicopter base.

I tried to get a new flight, but after battling yet another hundred Nigerians, was told the one for 11am was full. However, I was on course to getting the 3.30pm one, and even managed to withdraw the 5000 Neira (#20) required to change the flight, until being told I couldn't actually do this because my ticket was a corporate ticket and my company would have to do it. Or, rather, the company contracting ours, the woefully inefficient Halliburton Nigeria (I don't have anything against Halliburton per se - they were excellent in Malaysia - but their Nigerian office is appalling).

Having missed my flight and with no other flights to get, I had the pleasure of sitting in Lagos airport, unquestionably the worst airport I've ever visited, for many hours, before being told I would have to go to the office in town. A pick-up arrived, also with a colleague from my company, who I'll discreetly call "Len", and we went to the office, after spending a couple of hours in ludicrously heavy, aggessive, selfish traffic. My rescheduled ticket was for the following morning, at 7am.

The rest of the afternoon was spent getting a late lunch and having drinks with Len, and catching up on all the news. He then had to leave the get his flight home, and I got some sleep in preparation for a 4.15am wake up.

Well, this morning I duly rose, waited, and was driven to the airport, only to be told at the last minute that I didn't, in fact, have a flight. No, it was actually for the 3.30pm one. Thanks guys. On the way back, through crazy, bustling, angry, uncooperative traffic, the passage sped up only by the fact I was sharing my jeep with two angry armed police, I heard my flight may actually be 11.15am. It wasn't - as I discovered upon waiting in th hotel lobby for an hour.

Anyway, the hotel is where I find myself now - the very tired Federal Palace Hotel, with grossly inflated prices and utterly apathetic staff (I think this might be a Nigerian service trait). I hope to be getting a lift through some insane mentalist traffic at 1pm to the airport, to get my afternoon flight to the stinking, open sewer of crime-infested Port Harcourt, where I will spend my time as their prisoner in another tried old hotel, or figuring out the chaos of the Halliburton base.

Welcome to Nigeria!

Added note

I didn't make that afternoon flight, as the driver only turned up an hour and a half late - an hour and a half of me waiting in the hotel lobby - and probably only turned up at all because I phoned the Halliburton boss wondering what was going on. The driver still insisted on taking me to the airport though, just so I could confirm I'd missed my flight. I did, however, on the fourth attempt, make the flight the following morning.

Tuesday, 27 March 2007

Home For A Day

I woke today in my own bed, in my own flat, after my first good night's sleep in a week. The day was bright, and was mine to spend at my leisure. I arrived back from Malaysia yesterday morning, and had been told I'd have two or three weeks before the next job was due. Two or three weeks at home! A rare luxury.

Too rare, alas, as just this afternoon the phonecall came: something had come up. And so at 6.35am tomorrow I will be on the first leg of a trip to Nigeria. From the Malaysian paradise to the Nigerian hell. I was in Nigeria in December and January, and though an interesting experience in one sense, it's not a place most would be desperate for a repeat visit. Nigeria is, and I need only put this simply, a bad place.

Still, I'm automatically on my bonus x 2.5 because of the danger, so if I survive I will have a bit extra spending money. Which I'll have to do my best to use to its fullest on my next whole day at home.

Sunday, 25 March 2007

Malaysian KUL

I’m sitting back in Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA to its friends), sipping a beer and enjoying their free wireless internet service. My flight leaves in two hours, and I kind of wish I had a bit longer at this airport. This is because KLIA is a great airport. Which is fitting, because KL is a great city.

Really great. I’ve spent barely a day and a half here, and I’m all set to move in. I can’t think of anywhere else I’ve ever been that can compare. New York is a fantastic place, packed with culture, world-renowned landmarks and with a distinct edgy flavour – but it’s not as good as KL. I loved Zagreb, with its enchanting city centre and outdoor cafes spilling onto the roads to create a lively, friendly, exciting atmosphere – but KL is better. And for all I enjoyed Korea, even its thundering, bustling capital Seoul can’t rival its Malaysian counterpart. I’m flying back to Aberdeen and, well, oh dear: no competition, it’s like Barnet vs Barcelona.

KL is something special: a cosmopolitan capital without pretension, an Asian metropolis clean and orderly, a concrete jungle packed with greenery, a city pretty head to toe. It’s on the ascent and has a long way to go, and the optimism is palpatable everywhere. It’s Asian Muslim, and has married the best of both worlds without succumbing to the negatives. It’s developing with a direct eye on being developed. Architecturally, it’s magnificent, with one dead-gen world famous landmark surrounded by a host of other original, delightful structures. It’s peaceful, friendly, leisurely, fun.

It’s great, basically.

Of course, just 36 hours there; can that be enough for a considered view? Probably not. All I really saw was the city centre, plus a wander round Chinatown and the Indian part. I went to the top of a tower – the KL Menari Tower – and viewed the city from above, and almost all cities look good from 250m up on a clear day. I stayed at a wonderful, soothing, stylish hotel, and where you stay always facilitates your experience. But then, people fall in love in an instant, so they say; love at first sight when their eyes meet from across the crowded room. Only time can tell whether that first jump of the heart develops into a lifetime of growing old together, or is a passing infatuation over all too soon. But what I do know is that no other city has ever come close to matching KL’s first impression, and I feel I’ve only scratched the surface as a superficial tourist.

As you might be able to tell, I rather liked Kuala Lumpur. Likewise, I rather liked Malaysia. After the grim, disturbing hell that festers in Nigeria, Malaysia reaffirms faith not in humanity. This isn’t a perfect nation, but to be honest in my week here – albeit spent very pampered – I’ve seen very little imperfect with it. As I say, I’ve barely scratched the surface. But the place has been a revelation, and I can’t wait to go back.

My day and a half, basically, has been spent relaxing and doing a few tourist things. I could quite happily have spent my entire time in my hotel, but felt it prudent to do a little sightseeing. I took a long wander round the shopping centre of the Petronas Towers, and bought a gold-plated chess set for £300. This might seem excessive but the moment I saw the set I knew I had to buy it: it was beautiful, and if I had refrained I’d be bitterly regretting it now. I wandered for a while in the evening, through the Indian part of town, then to what I think was part of Chinatown, where I allowed myself to be hustled into an outdoor restaurant, where I stuffed my face with barbecued squid and 660ml bottles of Tiger. I queued early in the morning to get a ticket for the Petronas skybridge (the bridge linking the towers). I wandered up to the KL Menari Tower and watched the city from above. I bought books, drank coffee, sat outside, and looked at all the Asians.

Because KL is cosmopolitan, but Asian cosmopolitan moreover. From the West, it’s easy to lump Asians into one category, or perhaps two – Chinese and Indian. But a wander through KL and it’s clear how distinct all the nationalities are – the aforementioned Chinese and Indian in their various forms, Malaysian of course, Japanese, Indonesian, Filipino, Thai, Pakistani, Arab: all these were seen. There were hardly any Westerners or Africans. All this multiculturalism meant, of course, one important thing: great food.

But I see that I should really be moving on towards making sure I’m on this flight, otherwise I’ll be trapped here. Which might not be so bad. But duties call in Aberdeen, and I’m sure I’ll be sent off somewhere else within a few days – maybe even hours – of getting back, so I’ll just have to lodge a request to go on future Malaysian jobs, and perhaps strongly encourage my company to open an office here.

Hotel Maya

I've stayed in quite a lot of hotels in my time, and certainly in the last year with work. Hotels, like girls, come in all shapes and sizes, some cheap and some classy, some not worth even a night, others worth a whole week. Usually with work, the hotels are pretty decent 4 star affairs, with a swimming pool, bar, restaurant and alright location. One time I had a three bedroom suite, with two levels, all to myself, and the most recent one in Kuantan was a resort hotel on the beach.

But now, the hotel I'm staying at in Kuala Lumpur on my day's holiday before going home, is the best yet. It was booked and paid for by me, and I've outdone myself. This is simply the best hotel I've ever stayed at.

It's called the Hotel Maya and is situated smack bang in the city centre. It has genuine style, dark wood and glass with all the right curves and angles, but has the substance to match it. It's got all the obvious things a good hotel room should have (but often doesn't), like big TV, DVD player, broadband internet for free, stupidly big bed, but also has the other less obvious things that a seasoned hotel veteran requires: free coffee, free water, iron and ironing board, kettle, and they even surprised me by supplying an umbrella, which I've already put to use.

In my enthusiasm for this hotel, I've taken some photos that I'd like to share with you.

This is the room as you first see it. Observe the style, confidence and calm.

The desk is particularly impressive, as it can be slid along to suit your personal taste. Thoughtfully, as seen centre top of the picture, a plug adaptor is supplied for those without the three pinned plugs. Top right is a case containing all the information you might require about the hotel.

This reclining chair is a masterstroke. For not only is it ideal for resting on and viewing the city through the wall-to-wall window, but it amply demonstrates the implicit understanding of style from whoever designed this room. Because it's pink! In a room of cream and dark browns, this is a bright pink chair, and it works perfectly.

The view from my window - the KL Menara Tower. I can also see a children's school and playground, lots of trees and some pretty buildings surrounding a courtyard. Other rooms will have a view of the Petronas Twin Towers.

This is my room as seen when standing by the window. You'll immediately notice the room and the bathroom are only separated by glass, although there is the option of drawing a curtain across for privacy. This makes the room seem more spacious, and much brighter.

The shower has wooden flooring, a stool if all the standing tires you, and the option of a handheld nozzle or water from vertically above.

Yet more style. Soaps on offer include "Sandalwood & Oatmeal Scrub Soap" and "Honey & Oatmeal Scrub Soap". The latter, I believe, can also be eaten for breakfast.

A poor photo, I'm afraid. This is of the side of the TV cabinet, which opens out to reveal a coffee machine and a fridge. It took me half an hour to figure out the coffee machine, but then, I'm particularly stupid when it comes to these kind of things. It turned out my main mistakes were not filling it with water, and accidently turning the dial controlling the amount of coffee poured to virtually zero.

Saturday, 24 March 2007

Friday, 23 March 2007

Ireland In Photos

I’ve said little about my tax-dodging jaunt to Ireland, which is a shame because it was my first time there and I really enjoyed it. A picture, it is claimed, says a thousand words, and so I have ten pictures here, thus ten thousand words, which by anyone’s reckoning is a fair whack.


This first picture is of the enchanting Eileen and her inflatable bed. It was taken on the Friday night I arrived, after we’d gone out for a fair serving of drinks with some of Eileen’s improbably young friends (they were about 22 – monstrously young!). By this stage we were a little tipsy, gorged on red wine, beer and gin-and-tonics, and so Eileen’s Amazing Inflatable Bed could not fail to impress. It plugged into the wall and when switched on, rapidly inflated itself by the power of electricity. The process was rapid: within three seconds the bed appeared ready to burst, and I grew scared and switched it off.


The following afternoon, Eileen took me on a short walk through Cork. This is the university she used to attend. I can well imagine in the summer, this stretch of lawn being filled with braying students, drinking cider and smoking joints, or whatever it is that students do these days.


Here’s a picture of a Cork street. Before my visit, I knew next to nothing about Cork, and kind of imagined it as a grim coastal hinterland. But it was nothing of the sort, the Cork I arrived to was a charming, pretty and relaxed place, in some ways reminding me of Inverness (not least because of the number of Polish people).


My visit happened to coincide with St. Patrick’s Day, a day celebrated around the globe as fake Irish people put on big green hats and deserve a punching. But here were some real live Irish people celebrating their Irishness. In the city centre, a parade was going on; Eileen had expected this to be a muted event and was surprised at the heavy crowds lining the parade route. The atmosphere in town was great, with lots of Polish people dressed in green, and fifteen-year-old working class girls dressed in remarkably little. These girls, in Irish terms, are called “knackers”, which British sensibilities might recognise as chavs, or neds. The amount they didn’t wear was genuinely astonishing, given the cold weather, and what they did wear was invariably tight and pink. You might gather that this is still preying on my mind. But, anyway, the parade. Yeah, the parade was good.


On the way back from the parade, we went by St. Fin Barre’s Cathedral. It was quite big. On it is a golden angel, which has had to be firmly fixed to avoid some Irish scallywag stealing it to melt down and sell, as has apparently happened many times in the past. I don’t think I need remind you, dear reader, to always keep a check on your wallet in the presence of an Irish person.


Now we shift forward a day, onto the Sunday. By now, I’ve made a tearful farewell to Eileen, who is due to move to Canada in May to live with her boyfriend Ian, someone I also know from Korea and is notable for being perhaps the only Canadian person I’ve met that hasn’t deserved a culling. So it’s goodbye Eileen, and hello Rebecca, in Dublin. I’d not seen Rebecca for almost two years, but her beauty had remained undimmed. She’s not from Dublin but had agreed to meet me there, for ease of logistics. This photo is taken was taken by her in some park near the city centre, of some tramps disturbing the birdlife.


The weather in Dublin was godawful, with freeing horizontal sleet turning into thunderous hail, and an incessant icy wind that inverted any umbrella. Thus, any walking outside had to be brief. After a meal, then a coffee, then a beer, we found ourselves in a distillery in our next attempt to keep warm. It was the Jamieson’s distillery, and we took a guided tour. This is a picture of some barrels, containing yeast or hops, or whatever the hell they use to make Irish whiskey.


After the tour, we were allowed a complementary drink. I have a slight fear of whisky/whiskey ever since winning a drinking competition with it almost ten years ago, but I actually rather enjoyed this one.


Rebecca enjoyed her whiskey somewhat less, despite this posed smile. She mixed it with ginger beer, and had to gulp it down with a grimace.


This is a photo of a river in Dublin. Is it the Liffey?

Thursday, 22 March 2007

Sleepy in Malaysia

I'm in Malaysia, and really enjoying it, but good golly I'm tired. With skipping forward eight hours, spending a day in the air, being forced to fast for a medical, and being thrust from hotels to base, I've lost track of what day it is, and my body refuses to believe what the daylight and various timepieces are telling it. Hence, I went to sleep at 10pm last night and woke promptly at midnight, and refused to go back to sleep again.

Apart from the random attacks of drowsiness though, Malaysia is extremely pleasant. Even the Halliburton base, where I've been working for the last couple of days, is alright. The hotel resort I'm staying at is great. It's right next to a massive stretch of beach that's pretty unpopulated by tourists, and is fully equipped with plenty of facilities, should I have time to use them. The breakfast is perhaps the best I've ever seen. Yes, make no mistake, I am not one for idle exaggeration, the breakfast here is terrific. This morning I ate what I think was the largest breakfast of my life, with three giant courses of Chinese-style noodles washed down with about twenty glasses of fresh orange juice. I could barely finish my coffee after.

I got here on Tuesday night, following three flights, which doesn't include the first flight of Monday morning of Dublin to Inverness. It was delayed by an hour, and with the terrible weather conditions causing it, the road to Aberdeen was pretty poor. I arrived at work just in time to realise that the only way I could possibly make the first leg of my flight, to Heathrow, would be to drive like a man possessed in Aberdeen rush hour. I've never missed a flight in my life, but I came damn close this time. Check-in had closed, but a sly wink and shimmy of the lips persuaded the woman behind the desk to let me slip through.

Everything after that was routine. To my perennial disgust, I was placed in economy class, but for the 12 hour Heathrow to Kuala Lumpur leg I managed to score the best seat there. While others were crushed in unquestionable misery, I had a seat at the front, with good leg room and nobody sitting next to me. I attribute this to the sly wink and shimmy of the lips I threw at the check in girl at Heathrow.

I'm staying in a hotel near a place called Cheratin, which is near a city called Kuantan, which is on the east coast of peninsular Malaysia, on the South China Sea. I've had absolutely no time to get a proper look at the place yet, as work duties have seen me on base, sorting out equipment, and undergoing a medical.

All impressions so far have been positive. I'm in a Muslim part of Malaysia, but it's not a crazy version of Islam preached here, and everything's very relaxed. Loads of women are working on base, and the interaction between male and female is normal, which is sadly not the case in some of the other Muslim states I've visited. The people are friendly, the place isn't poor at all, and the pace of life seems comfortable. Even the driving, which some claim to be a bit crazy, really isn't anything compared to any of the African nations I've seen. No, Malaysia, on first impression, is a charming place. I just hope I get a chance to see it more.

It's looking a little unlikely. The job I'm on may not go ahead, so as soon as tomorrow morning I might be preparing to go back to Aberdeen. If this happens, I'm going to arrange a day in Kuala Lumpur, so I can sample a bit of the place at my own leisure. And then I'll just have to mark Malaysia down as yet another place I want to revisit, and get to know on my own terms.

Monday, 19 March 2007

Dublin Airport

So I'm the old Dublin airport then, waiting for the old flight to that town, you know, of Inverness. It's not much of a top mornin' though, to be sure, as there's icy wind and freezing sleet slashing down.

I've had a great weekend in Ireland, meeting Eileen in Cork and watching the St. Patrick's Day Parade there, then seeing Rebecca in Dublin and braving the horrendous weather chucked down at us. Hopefully I'll get a chance to write a little more about it, including plenty of well-taken photos, but I'm a little rushed today unfortunately.

That's because I'm supposed to be going to Malaysia at 4pm. This is for work and has kind of come from nowhere. It means today is going to be somewhat rushed, as I arrive in Inverness at 11.30am, then have to rush to Dingwall to pick up my stuff and drive to Aberdeen, through snow and diabolical conditions, in time to catch this long, long flight. I think I'm going to be feeling rather strung out in 24 hours.

The light at the end of the tunnel is that once I'm arrived and settled in Malaysia, I have a whole week on the beach before even the prospect of work, as I need to wait on the result of some medical. Hopefully this won't be too adversely affected by the quantity of alcohol in my system after three days in Ireland.

Friday, 16 March 2007

Tax Exile

So, later today I'm going to Ireland.

I'm not going to Ireland for work or, primarily, pleasure, but instead for tax reasons. Because I lived in Korea for two years, then started this job which takes me out of the country a lot, I may be eligible for a tax deduction or even exemption. This means my, ahem, hard-earned cash doesn't get channelled by the government into funding the underclasses. But to make sure of this I need to be out of the country a little more until Monday. Ireland is the only place I can go because I don't have any passports right now – two were lost (with replacements still being processed) and the other is in London getting a Nigerian visa.

This will be the first ever time I've visited Ireland and I'm quite looking forward to it. Obviously I'll have to avoid mentioning the "troubles" and not make jokes about potato famines (the Irish are so sensitive!), and I'll have to make it clear I'm not after any blarney or craic, and it seems that Saturday is St. Patrick's Day, which is usually a day to avoid in Aberdeen as it's full of students trying hard to be over-Irish, but apart from all that I think Ireland should be very pleasant. It seems to rate quite highly on surveys on the best places in the world to live; you can prove anything with statistics, can't you?

To make it even better, in Ireland I'll be meeting two beautiful girls, both native Irishers, one living in Cork and the other in a small town midway between Cork and Dublin, called Carrick-on-Suir. I've not quite figured out how to pronounce the final part of this last place – can it really sound like "sewer"? Both girls I know from my time in Korea, and so it has been some time since I last saw them: Eileen, the girl from Cork, was last seen about thirteen months ago, and sewer-girl Rebecca I've not seen for almost two years. So it'll be good to see them again, and reminisce fondly about younger times, before age and responsibility blighted our lives.

On Monday I'll be back in Aberdeen, and soon after I'll be away somewhere else on a job. Exactly when, exactly where, I don't yet know, but mark my words there'll be no Irish beauties there; just big, hairy, burly, brick-headed men. I question my life choices sometimes.

Thursday, 15 March 2007

Photos Of Mauritania

Here's a few photos of Mauritania.

This is an example of some of the transport available in the capital. To be fair, even by Mauritanian standards, this is a little ramshackle.

And this is another example of available transport.

An average street.

This is the guesthouse bar.

And this is how most of my photos turn out. I have tons like this: the digital age has not seen an upturn in quality by any means.

Tuesday, 13 March 2007

Weekend In Mauritania

As I said, I'm back in Aberdeen now, and suffering the glum stares and frigid attitudes of this oil-spoilt city, but I return with thoroughly good impressions of Mauritania and its capital, Nouakchott (pronounced, "Noo-WA-K-tchzow-(silent double t)", probably). In all I had about six days there: a day and a half before I went offshore, and about three and half days upon returning from the rig. You may add up that to total five days, but Mauritania has an extra bonus day between Friday and Saturday that most other countries don't have.

It was the final weekend that stood out though, as I only had to do a little logistics-related work, I wasn't ill or hungover, and I took the chance to have a mini-exploration of the city, plus was fortunate enough that the Saturday night at the bar was a terrific one.

The little voyage into the city centre was probably the standout part. Enclosed in my World Of Hangover the day before, waking on Saturday morning, fresh, bright and alive, I decided to thrust myself out into the dusty streets of Nouakchott and buy some music. Mauritanian music specifically, and to achieve this I needed to explore the city. And so armed with a page ripped out of the Lonely Planet guide to West Africa, and after studying the Google World images, I found myself weaving through a maelstrom of goats, cars and donkeys.

Goats, cars and donkeys, yes, but moreso than any of that: sand. It is impossible to overstate quite how much sand is in Nouakchott, as it is all pervasive and even more a part of life than the rain in the West of Scotland, but I suppose if you realise that Mauritania is mostly desert - and the Sahara at that - you can get an idea. Lots of sand. Though the roads, mercifully, are well tarmaced, by a mixture of Chinese and Arabic investors, sand is everywhere else. Walking by the side of the road was not unlike walking on a beach, on the soft sand that your feet sink into, hindering walking. A gust of wind would send particles sweeping through the streets, and leave you shielding your eyes. It was good quality sand too - light, soft, grainy - that would have the pasty bodies of the mainstream British flocking if only Nouakchott could shift itself 5km to the west, thus by the ocean, and build a series of high-rise hotels and English-themed pubs, perhaps with bulldog statues outside.

But Nouakchott is not a place for tacky tourism, and for now can rest safe from this dire fate. No, it's a dirty, dusty, sandy place, with stray dogs and goats, and over-worked donkeys; with cars and vans defying the sum of their ancient, dented parts, filled with cheery people, horns beeping; with bustling, colourful markets filled with bantering money-changers, rows of cheap watches and ties and sunglasses and anything else lain down on the pavement like an obstacle course, and innumerate item-packed shops and stalls vying for your attention. Finding myself, after a 45 minute walk through the noon heat, in one of these markets, I wandered for a while in search of somewhere selling CDs, which was proving elusive here. This ultimate goal was only half my objective though, as just seeing the city centre was an experience in itself. This is their capital of 600,000 at least, making up a fifth of the Mauritanian population, but it was not like any capital I've seen before. I've seen a few out of the way capitals in my time, such as Vientiane and Tirana, both of which were humble but still had definite signs of the modern era; but with Nouakchott it was like being in some dusty, forgotten village in the middle of nowhere, and nowhen.

Which I suppose it what it is really. Over 90% of people I've mentioned Mauritania to have immediately said, "Where's that?" or even, "What's that?" Four times the size of the UK, it's almost invisible to the world, and being the capital of an invisible nation isn't of much significance to anyone, except those from the even smaller and more invisible villages around. The city centre, though fun and interesting, was resolutely undeveloped, without any buildings over two or three storeys, without cash machines or international financial infrastructure, without malls or chain stores or advertising. It was grimy, litter-laden, stifling, and refreshing, sincere and good-natured. Some touts, in French of course, would try and sell me sunglasses or a watch or change my money, but were never pushy, and a smile was invariably met likewise.

I found my shop eventually. I'd been expecting, in the nature of most other ramshackle cities, there to be stalls dotted around pumping out some ridiculous local or Arab pop tune, audibly garish, but by this expectation I had grossly miscalculated the abundance of CD players in Mauritania. They have slightly more necessary things to do with their money. However, tape players do seem to exist, and lured by the sound of an appalling Arabic tune pumping from some soundsystem, I spotted a shop seemingly carved into a building, with a wooden sign displaying a picture of a tape. Inside - it was clear because there was no door, windows or external wall - I could see a vast array of tapes, and a man just waiting for my custom.

And my terrible French. I launched in with the line, "Bonjour! Je voudrais acheter la musique de Mauritania!" and must have said this fairly well because he started speaking to me fast in French before my blankness twigged him on to my ignorance. But he was unperturbed, and took this as an enjoyable challenge, as I conveyed across to him I wanted to get some music that wasn't Arabic but actually made by Mauritanians, and preferrably used fast drums. I stopped short of saying I wanted the Mauritanian equivalent of pounding German minimal house. Because the motion of the drums is easy to do, and that the French word for drumming, helpfully, is "le drumming", I was successful. He started to play a selection, most of which I can kindly say were not what my ears are attuned to, but eventually I selected two tapes, one apparently of slow drumming and the other of fast. Then, finally, I bought a tape of what is popular for the modern Mauritanian. At least I think so - he may have misunderstood the meaning of my badly pronounced "populaire" and interpreted it as "chanson populaire" which actually means traditional music. Listening to the tape doesn't clear things up much. And as all the tapes were just copies, thus no cover image, there's not much to go on really.

Still, that's three more tapes for the collection I'm building up for the tape player in my Ford Escort. My Ford Escort, incidentally , with its rust and tape-wrapped bumper, wouldn't look too out of place in Nouakchott.

With my mission successful, I returned to my guesthouse, only getting a little lost on the way. Lunch followed, and then an afternoon of listening to the sport of the radio via the internet, before the evening's entertainment took hold.

I was staying in the guesthouse of the hospitality agent my company were recruiting to house and feed me, plus arrange my visa, letter of invitation, transport and logistics of sending our equipment back to the UK. The guesthouse was a charming one. Whether new or not it's hard to say, for although it seemed worn and dusty, it had a great internet connection, decent showers, an air-con and a TV with one channel repeated twenty times. But it was cosy, comfortable and friendly, though if you tried to find any staff during the afternoon you were on a quest doomed to fail. Also, mystifyingly, although it had phones in every room, none worked or were even connected.

It also had a bar: the most popular bar. Mauritanians are 99% Muslim so you can probably guess that it wasn't Mauritanians getting drunk and annoying, but lots of stupid Westerners. I say stupid, because honestly, we must seem that way to them sometimes. The security guard who manned the main entrance, strolled around occasionally and, during that night at least, must have thought to himself, what is wrong with these people. When I mention that the bar was outside and there was also a swimming pool, you can probably see why he might later have thought this.

Anyway, I shouldn't venture on to more Westerner-bashing, because most of the expats here were very friendly and good fun, and there was a good atmosphere to the place that night. And also, although I wasn't too drunk or stupid that night, I must admit it has been known...

A pub quiz was on. It was for charity, with a £2 entrance free. There were about fifty people present, or £100 worth, but the total prizes for this pub quiz included about fifteen bottles of wine, ten cans of beers, loads of crisps and sweets, and lots of other trinkets like caps and corkscrews, so I do wonder if charity was the primary motivation here. Still, charity is not exactly my primary motivation in life (I wouldn't want to say what is) so I was more than happy to enter a pub quiz with loads of alcohol as the prize. Also, I have significant pedigree in pub quizzes, having more or less single-handedly won two national finals, and prizes such as all-expense paid holidays to New York, return flights to Cairo, music festival tickets, and likely an accumulative total of over 1000 litres of beer. For years I was part of a weekly team, the bastions of which included Varwell, Green, and also the lovely but decidely off-key Robert, who has not appeared in public for over five years to my knowledge. There were many other sometimes-members, plus even a few groupies: the Renault girls. I call them groupies because they couldn't be termed equal members of the team, simply because the two (very occasionally three) of them only managed to answer about one question a year correctly. In fact, they surely had a net negative result, because they would sometimes make us change a right answer to one they thought was righter. I wouldn't go as far to call these girls stupid, because that wouldn't be very gallant of me, but they had an ignorance of general knowledge that stretched to awe-inspiring levels.

But these girls weren't here, and neither were the others; nope, it was just me - the semi-self titled Nev 360. Just me, and three other random scrags that eventually gathered round to form a team. There was a 60 year old man called Bill, who'd quit drinking but was still smoking a giant cigar, and spoke in a deep South Carolina drawl. He knew nothing, except about Western films. There was some minky Scot, no different to the multitudes of other minky Scots that make up the offshore world and make me ashamed to be part of this nation. He knew nothing, except that Mike Tyson bit off Evander Holyfield's ear. Then there was some English guy, with an upper class moustache that actually suited him. He actually knew quite a bit, especially about 80s metal.

Well, although I'm sure you'd deeply love to hear a question-by-question account of the five rounds, with all the highs and lows and crazy hijinks, I'll keep it brief: we won. Yes, with 35.5/50, we brushed aside the feeble opposition, many of whom had teams twice the size of ours. I feigned modesty for the achievement, which all and sunder recognised as my own, but went up as team captain to receive the seven bottles of wine and the plaudits of all. Some say the glory of the victory will never fade.

Bill started drinking again.

By this time, the hours had rolled on, and merriness was in the air. The quiz had been good fun, and very social, and our seven bottles were worryingly quickly polished off. Somehow, the idea got around that it would be hilarious to shave someone's hair off. A volunteer came forward - a minky Scot - and I remembered that I had a set of clippers in my room. So the minky Scot was shaved bald, then he jumped in the pool. Somehow, this display encouraged another to repeat the feat. And then the quizmaster decided to join in. The security guard was surely shaking his head in wonder.

A bunch of us then went to some club, which was playing a bizarre set of early 90s techno hits, including Haddaway's "What Is Love?" The DJing - initally at least, it seemed to change later - was, remarkably, at around about my level. Enthusiastic, impatient, and completely abysmal. It included a lot of volume changes, trying to whip up the crowd into a frenzy but in fact just missing out giant portions of the best bits of songs. I eventually got tired of the dancing, and the packed crowds of people, and wandered back to the guesthouse, and I regard it as a modern miracle that I located it with only slight difficulty.

That being at 4.30am, I only got about four hours sleep before having to rise and face a day I was hoping I wouldn't have to. It seemed the equipment had arrived at the port and I'd have to go there, offload it and send it on its way. This was a real pain in the ass, but there was no other way around it, so I contacted the base manager of our hospitality agent and he picked me up to help deal with it all.

Last night's clippers returned to prominence.

He saw them on the guesthouse counter, and immediately exclaimed awe. You couldn't buy such things in Mauritania, he said, and what you did buy would just bite chunks out of your flesh. He was from Tunisia, and he had a beard that testified to his words. I said nothing but thought lots, and he took me to the port, where it turned out the kit wasn't, and then I made him a deal. He could have the clippers, I said, if he could get hold of a bongo drum for me. This sounded like a good deal to him, so we headed into town and he found a little hut spilling over with bongo drums, and we negotiated a drum, plus a really cool little Mauritanian mini-guitar, for about a tenner. Both of us were extremely pleased.

Some hours at the guesthouse followed, then the flight home via the perenially awful Charles de Gaulle airport, and thus ended my small jaunt in the delightful Mauritania. Perhaps not your usual destination, and perhaps more challenging than most want from a holiday, but I found it a genuinely charming place, very relaxed and laid-back, very safe and friendly. After being in the hell that Nigeria is becoming, it was very refreshing.

Mauritania, on Sunday, also had its first ever presidential elections. You'd never have known. Some evenings before had some people on the street to promote a candidate, but otherwise the place rumbled on a sleepily as ever. I don't know who is destined to win this first free vote, but I hope it's someone who actually cares about the place, and utilises some of the resources it has - fishing and oil - to improve the overall state of the nation, which is still very poor (though not, superficially, as desperate as some other place I've seen). And I hope they can do this without becoming pawns to the might of some Western oil company, some Arabic nation's contractors or some of the legions of new Chinese capitalists that are venturing into Africa.

I have photos of some of the above, which I will endeavour to show when I get round to it. Don't worry - someone at the guesthouse gave me a bunch of their photos, so I've got some that actually look like something.

Monday, 12 March 2007

The Back

I'm back. Back from 35C of donkeys, sand and landmark presidential elections to 10C of familiarity, visible wealth and bloody seagulls. It's nice to be back, of course, but I was very taken with Mauritania and am sorry to leave it.

My return to Aberdeen, I strongly suspect, will not be for long: by Friday I'll be in Egypt, Nigeria, or the North Sea. Oh, please, please, please don't make me go to the North Sea.

Friday, 9 March 2007

Where I Am

After just a little searching, I have found my location on the ever-wonderful modern miracle of Google maps. I am here.

I am in the building immediately to the top-right of the crossroads, and you can just see the swimming pool there. All the things on the road that look like cars are, in fact, just big goats.


I remember the day - oh, for that day again! - that I could drink and drink, and abuse my body like a man possessed, and not be in suffering the next morning. Great days indeed, even if I was left somewhat psychologically damaged by the end of the heaviest year, the infamous Year Of The Castle. Since then, my behaviour has improved and I would regard myself as a reformed character, indeed as a model young professional; but circumstance still sometimes/often requires a few social drinks, drinks of necessity, and you can't fight fate, can you? Alas, though, I am not the young man I used to be - my Korean age is 30! - and the Dark Powers that control such matters now punish any small excesses of mine with thumping pain the next morning and afternoon.

It is that pain I suffer now, back onshore, in the little guesthouse I'm hiding in. The job on the rig finished, for me, yesterday, and so I jumped on a passing chopper to return to Mauritania's goat-filled capital, Nouakchott. The job offshore was very successful for me, as it turned out, and very, very easy. All I really did was arrive, find my equipment, drink ever-increasing daily amounts of coffee, then pack everything up to go home. Actually, my final full rig day and the following morning were pretty busy - some very physical work and lots of pain-in-the-ass logistics - but as it was preceeded by ten days of extreme indolence, I won't be filing a complaint.

And on the helicopter ride back into town, I was sat next to one of the rig birds! I tell you, after spending all your time with foul, coarse, bulky men, this sort of thing is almost too exciting for the young man.

It's always a big relief to hit dry land again after being so long on a metal platform surrounded by endless sea, and this relief is usually exercised in the manner of hitting the bar. As there is a bar barely thirty seconds away from my guesthouse door, this bar was hit quick and hard, indeed much in the manner I'll treat my future wife. I have no amusing anecdotes from the evening however, because all I did was drink with middle-aged oil expats or helicopter pilots, who managed to provide me with enough mental stimulation so as to keep me awake, but failed to truly entertain or provoke controversy.

But because of that, all I have managed to do with my day of liberty in the dusty, out-of-the-way capital is eat lunch, play poker online and feel sorry for myself. It's pretty damn hot outside, at least 35C, and I'm not in the mood to take a wander.

I have a couple more days here by the looks of it anyway, as I have to check my equipment when it arrives at the port either tomorrow or Sunday. Although I am quite keen to be getting home (despite the fact I'll almost certainly be shunted off to another country for another job as soon as I arrive) I don't mind hanging around Mauritania a little longer, because it's a pleasant place. Peaceful, safe, very friendly. Being stuck in traffic is actually quite fun, as when the invariably terrible driving results in cars blocking other cars, the drivers poke their heads out the window and have a laugh about how terribly they're driving. Everything is taken in good humour. Rather unlike Lagos traffic, where drivers would deliberately ram you to try and muscle you out the way.

It's also the general election on Sunday, the first democratic election in Mauritania's history I'm told. This means that in the evening the roads are filled with people promoting their party politics, and as there's nineteen candidates you can imagine that this means quite a lot of noise and bustle. But while other African countries plunge into civil strife at the thought of an upcoming election, Mauritania seems to be taking it in its stride. It's a good humoured place, and definitely worth a proper visit one day, not tied-down with work.

I might try and take some photos, and put them in here, if I can be bothered. Unfortunately, I've never managed to progress much in my ability to take a good photograph, so you can expect lots of pictures of my hand.

Sunday, 4 March 2007

Helideck Dilemmas

Seeing as there really isn’t anything to do on a rig when you’re not working, hobbies previously not top of your list suddenly become elevated. Staring into space, reading 19th century literature, playing Patience on the computer, having conversations about engineering with plebs: all these will figure in my offshore day. But perhaps primary in my list of new-found offshore hobbies is walking on the helideck.

The helideck, for those uninitiated, is the large octagonal or octo-rectangular surface on the rig specifically for the landing of helicopters, which is how the bulk of the personnel get to and from the rig. It is usually jutting out somewhat from the rig itself, so that when you walk to most edges you find yourself precipitously peering down at the ocean about twenty metres below with only the fence-like mesh round the helideck perimeter providing scant security. In this age of manic health and safety on rigs, I am surprised there isn’t more protection here. The first few times I stepped close to the edge of a helideck I was struck with a little vertigo, although I don’t really notice the drop now. Still, at dark and with an enthusiastic wind blowing, I don’t tend to venture too close to that edge.

On a rig, with nothing to do, it’s very easy to just eat and sleep and stay indoors, and become another one of the many wretches I see skulking around the claustrophobic corridors. So an important part of my day is to take a brisk walk on the helideck, usually for about an hour, while listening to music, usually thundering German minimal-techno (what else?). This is good exercise, gets “the juices pumping” and importantly gets me outside into the sunshine. It also is a great time-filler: sometimes I’ll do two or more of these sessions (two hours is 2/16ths = 1/8th of my waking day, i.e. 12.5% of my time filled). And with the food on this rig being terrific, and in terrific portions, it’s perhaps a good idea to counter-strike before my belly overwhelms me.

But the helideck isn’t without its share of problems and dilemmas. Most significant of them is having to share the helideck. Put simply, I do not like sharing my helideck. When I’m pacing around in circles, blue waves on one side, clanking industrialism on the other, in a state of meditation to my German techno, I don’t like some other scrag interrupting my peace. It causes all sorts of problems. First of all you both have to space out appropriately, so that you are on opposite sides of the helideck. Next, you have to pace yourself correctly so that you don’t overtake or are overtaken by the other. I seriously dislike this as I don’t like having to regulate my pace. But I hate overtaking more, because as you close in on the other person you suddenly have to produce a spurt (i.e. quicken your pace: there’s no hanky panky going on here) so that you’re not walking alongside the other person. And I also get paranoid that the other person is gaining on me, and so I like to at least have them in sight so I know how fast to go, which can be difficult if the other person has ignored helideck etiquette and joined in at only a short distance behind – it’s like being chased!

As you can see, helideck etiquette is a minefield, and so I usually try and only walk there at times when no-one else is around. But it’s easier said than done when so many others don’t share my sentiments and, with nary a thought for my feelings on the matter, hop on and start marching away at a stupid pace. What can I do?

It gets even worse when you increase the numbers. I’ve seen five – yes, five grown men – marching around a helideck, spaced out evenly. I, of course, would not participate in something like that.

And the rare case when you get two men walking in opposite directions in the helideck, thus forced to acknowledge or studiously ignore the other person every time they pass, ugh... I will never put myself in that situation.

This has been the situation to date, but on this rig further complications have arisen by the post-lunch brigade of pasty white Scots who are determined to sprawl their fat oil-smeared bodies around the helideck space to enjoy a spot of sunbathing. Initially, they confined these activities to one small corner, but perhaps feeling that it was silly for up to six beefy men to lie in a short line next to each other, they have spread out all over, and thus taken the early afternoon slot, which was one of my favourites. Clearly, I’m not going to enjoy my hour’s walk round the helideck if I’m having to swerve round greased-up bodies with every second step.

A pasty white obstacle.

Fortunately, the pre-lunch and pre-dinner slots are still mine alone, and these are my favourites as they build up a healthy appetite so I can fully gorge myself on the main meals. Because in a job like this, where every day is a new challenge and real physical labour is a worrying possibility, you’ve got to take every opportunity to keep up your strength. Which reminds me, it’s almost time for my coffee break.

Saturday, 3 March 2007

Hidden Meaning?

Last night, I dreamt I was one half of Russian teen-lesb sensation, t.A.T.u.: we were filming a video on the streets of Aberdeen. The rest of the day can only go downhill from here.

Friday, 2 March 2007

The Working Day

I’ve been away almost a week, and on this rig for five days now: how much work have I done? How much? None.

Actually, that’s perhaps not entirely true, as when I arrived I spent quite a while running around just trying to locate my equipment, and the following day I set it up and tested it all, but in terms of actual work, that is actually carrying out the work that is the reason I am here, I have done nothing.

The lack of work involved in my job never ceases to amaze me. Before getting into this job I had spent two years as a teacher, and about fifteen years or something as a professional dishwasher. Both these jobs were pretty demanding. Teaching especially is knackering, as if you take your eye off the ball for just one second, some filthy child has smeared his faeces across the wall. It is like being the continual focus of a performance, with all eyes watching you, and any laziness on your part just results in a wilder, noisier, more exhausting class, and thus more work. And dishwashing, well... To be fair, I spent a considerable percentage of my dishwashing career inconceivably wasted, which only made things worse, but it could sometimes be a truly shattering job, physically. As you might imagine, the mental faculties aren’t overly strained in your average day of washing dishes, but on a busy night these goddam dishes just never stop coming. I worked in three kitchens: the first was a mixture of extreme tedium but hilarious chef banter/antics and sudden spurts of activity, which never failed to infuriate the kitchen who by this stage in the evening just wanted to go out and get drunk (again); the second also had great banter but was usually ridiculously busy and I’d be left by the end of the day a sweaty, dripping, weakened shell of a man; and the third and final in a soulless but inordinately popular teashop-restaurant hybrid in Inverness was just about the most physically demanding experience I’ve ever had to endure – 8+ hours of sometimes literally running about the place to keep up with what was going on, without a word of thanks, and sectioned off from the abysmal kitchen chat (the chefs were all commoners) by a giant wall. I lasted a month, before heading off to Korea, and anybody who would have been willing to work there longer would have to be a retard – especially as McDonald’s were paying 50p more an hour.

My point is, then, that all these previous jobs actually involved having to work, as one might imagine with a job. So imagine my surprise last year when I found myself with a job – a good, interesting, well-paid job – that only involved the barest minimum of work.

I love my job, and enjoy the working just as much as the non-working.. And sometimes I do have to work very hard, but the work seems to come in chunks of 18 hours shifts, followed by a week off, sitting around and ensuring a coffee is to hand. There’s certainly more at stake because if I mess up badly here it’s not a matter of a noisy class, or not enough clean dishes, it could be a matter of millions of pounds wasted and disaster for the oil company contracting my company. But really, if I screw things in the right way and press the right buttons on my computer, it should usually be fine.

So it’s a matter of maintaining focus at the right moments, I suppose, which mercifully I’ve managed to do in my short career so far. But it’s the other moments, the many, many other stray moments that fill my days or weeks that don’t require focus and just require passing – how does a young man fill his empty days on a rig with only burly, tobacco-spitting men?

To give you an idea of what life is like in captivity, here is the rough outline of my days.

6.25am: Wake up.
6.30am: Go to the morning meeting. This is the most important meeting of the day, because it’s where all the supervisors and guys in charge convene to discuss what’s going on. I like this meeting a lot, because I’m young, inexperienced and clearly have no idea what these guys are talking about, but have to go because I’m the only representative from my company. However, because I wear my glasses in the morning, these guys all think I’m intellectual.
7am: Get a hearty breakfast. Take my morning nap.
8am: Go to the “Positioning Room”. This is a great little room on this rig that no-one ever goes in, so I can sit back and relax here. In here, these days, I do a mixture of studying French, writing, drinking coffee and simply nothing. I might sometimes pop to the third party office to check my email.
10.30am: Go for my exercise, walking round the helideck, listening to music.
11.30am: Get a hearty lunch. Go to bed, read a little, then take my afternoon nap.
1pm: See 8am
4.30pm: Some more helideck walking.
5.30pm: Get a hearty dinner. Go to bed, read a little. then take my evening nap.
7pm: See 8am and 1pm.
9pm: Go to bed, read a little.
10pm: Sleep well.

As you can see, it’s a simple existence, but a strangely satisfying one. I think routine is important to all people, and so in a life that sometimes isn’t very routine it’s good to carve out a little one for yourself. In fact, of all my jobs so far, I’m enjoying this routine the best, as it’s relaxed, utilises several locations, and as long as I don’t become fluent in French or finish my book (the 1500 page, 1000 year old Japanese “Tale Of Genji”) has enough to occupy me.

But lest you worry that eveyr day becomes the same, don’t fear – I still obey the regular working week and take weekends off. Because the weekends means football, and in foreign countries this means 12 to 7pm nonstop English Premiership action, and so I can promise you that tomorrow I’ll be spending seven hours prostrate on a sofa in the recreation room, with just the occasional lifting of my hand to signal to one of the Egyptian boys to fetch me a coffee. In this job, as I’m sure you must have gathered, it’s important to know when to relax.