Thursday, 29 May 2008


The rig laundry have lost all my underwear.

Sunday, 25 May 2008

The Eye Of The Storm

This trip looks to be one of extremes...

I sit here, in an air-conditioned unit on a decent rig within spitting distance of Bioko island, monitoring some meandering lines of data, contemplating whether or not it's time for another coffee. With my earlier coffee, I'd taken just two bites of a rather tasty slice of cake before an unfortunate momentary lack of concentration saw the cake slip from its napkin onto the filthy floor. The icing had smeared across my chair leg and so continuing to eat the cake was not an option. You may well imagine this upset me somewhat, especially as the galley was now all out of cakes. But despite this hardship, all is calm and all is ticking along smoothly and gently. This was not always the case.

It is without exaggeration or lobbing around of superlatives that I state that the last few days have been among the most brutal, the most unrelenting, the most comprehensively exhausting of my career. In the torrential rain, with massive bursts of thunder engulfing the rig, and stifling humidity, we have been working up to 24 hours at a time to rig our equipment up. We have had less than a third of the usual time to do so, due to lack of planning by the oil company in charge. Thus four of us have been working around the clock, sorting out heavy equipment and sometimes intricate electronics, fighting exhaustion as we scale a vast wall of work. The effort has been immense, not least due to conditions we're working in. Caked in mud or brine or grease, and soaked through with sweat, the bursts of furious, swirling rain have been momentarily refreshing, though soon becoming yet another sensory battering. The concept of shifts have been thrown aside - we've just worked till we've dropped more-or-less, grabbing a few hours of rest before hauling ourselves up to continue the battle. Our initial schedule - 24 hours to rig up six carriers and twenty electronics to be run in hole - seemed preposterous and impossible, but somehow was managed. The pressure eased ever so slightly then, as slight delays gave us much-needed time to rig up a whole new batch of electronics, but there was still not much breathing space allowed. We became zombies, automated creatures working on pure instinct and habit, as we heaved our knackered, wrecked bodies around from task to task, our humanity and personality sacrificed in the name of unadulterated, neverending, ball-busting labour. On and on and on, I lost all track of time, and by Saturday morning could have been told it was Tuesday and accepted without blinking. When finally the prospect of a decent sleep came, it was rudely interrupted by a fire drill, for which I had to shake my colleague, "The Smiler", awake for, in his deep, exhausted sleep not hearing the alarm blare or sensing the lights come on.

But when that final piece of tubing disappeared from sight under the rotary table (the hole where things vanish) suddenly all became calm. The weather abated, and we have now entered the eye of the storm. It's time to monitor the data, a gentle process involving coffee and cake. I've had a full night (or day, technically, as I'm on nightshift) of sleep and feel healthy and rested, and with my senses back in place.

But not for long. Usually this data monitoring process is a leisurely stroll over a week or more: not so this time. This one is only for a day or two, extremely short by well-test standards as the guys in charge are scared the residue we're testing, kilometres underground, is so thick and waxy that it'll solidify and wedge all the equipment - millions of pounds worth - in hole. So pretty soon, the chaos will again ensue as a mass of filthy, waxy, clogged-up equipment is yanked out of hole for us to try and clean, break up and download. No doubt the rains will start again, and the sun will burn us up. A frenzy of activity, but rewarded with a boat trip back to Malabo, where out come the beers and wine, and drunken insanity will ensue. If I survive this, then I can go home.

So for now, I'll enjoy this momentary peace in the eye of the storm. The data keeps coming in, and sometimes I even take a look at it. And most crucially, the kettle is to hand to brew me coffee at any given moment - and I sense another cake quest coming up.

Monday, 19 May 2008

Staffhouse Life

Welcome to my life.

These three chairs, two tables and large TV have been the bulk of my existence over the last two weeks, with a few colleagues thrown in for good measure. With all prepatory work finished, we are waiting in our grand staffhouse fortress for news of going offshore. The staffhouse being fairly remote from the city, public transport non-existent and the company drivers we rely on for transportation at a premium, we are fairly cut off from the world. Outside is just steep hill, much of it untamed jungle, and mud tracks. Five or ten minutes away there is a street with a hotel bar and a few other crude bars, but we've never troubled ourselves with the effort. This is because our staffhouse, and the room you see pictured, is really rather comfortable.

Usually on jobs we stay in hotels. This is fine, and gives us privacy, but means that much of the day is spent alone in the room. Our company rarely use staffhouses because we're too small to have staffhouses of our own in countries, and so it's only Angola we make use of them, with Halliburton, our contractor there. I've not been, but reports aren't glowing. But with the price of hotels here - hundreds of dollars a night - NE, our contracting oil company here, reckon it's much cheaper just to let us use one of their staffhouses. And as luck would have it, there are four rooms here and four of us, so we have this fortified home all to ourselves, without "outsiders" to bother us.

This has meant for a lot of drinking.

With even our working days typically finishing about 2pm, it's become very natural for us all to congregate in the main room, with our laptops, and watch TV. Unlike the isolation of hotel rooms, this staffhouse is very social. Like a family, we gather round the TV and make pleasant conversation. Football, Mythbusters and Red Dwarf have become our staple TV diets, with the Discovery Channel standard wallpaper. Having not a TV at home, it's no exaggeration to say that I think I've seen more TV in the last two weeks than I have in the last two years. Life has become very stable and routine, a kind of domestic bliss. We've even got our favourite chairs - mine is the single-seater armchair.

And like every family, something is required to oil the cogs of harmony - alcohol. With bottles of gin and literally hundreds of beers at our disposal, every night - hell, most afternoons - has seen a steady and sometimes rapid intake. We try to hold off, but if one of us is going to the fridge for a beer, suddenly everyone has one. Tipsy is our usual goal, but it's a fine line between this and drunkenness, which we've crossed a number of times, hence bottletop fights, bedroom doors being taped up and bags of pasta being found in my bed.

And that's been life for the last two weeks, or the predominant part. In the first week, it's true, there was some tough work under an extremely intense sun, which we never failed to reward with copious amount of beer later on. And mealtimes are spent at the NE office, which has a dining room and a chef, and with a pretty high standard of food, though has a joyless atmosphere and vast, angry Americans. And we have ventured out into town a few times, to a pizza restaurant (the pizza restaurant?) and a Chinese, and a Chinese-run bar with large rats. But our stupid 10pm curfew means that nights out can never really kick off, and are inevitably just a warm up for yet another night in.

Offshore will likely be this week, and will be a relief to our health, which cannot have benefitted from the last two weeks. And it should be a short, focussed job, unlike the sprawling endlessness of Brazil.

Saturday, 17 May 2008

Upcoming Baby

What do you think about the name "Sonny Spink"? Honestly.

Thursday, 8 May 2008

OK in EG

EG is OK.

It's been seven days here now, in the small city of Malabo, on the small Bioko island that hosts the capital city of Equatorial Guinea. Dark, thundering clouds spill over the massive Pico Basilé volcano that overlooks this passive capital, but every third day or so they clear to blue sky and an intense sun stares down; on such clear days the massive, awesome Mount Cameroon can be seen across the sea. On the quiet streets, chickens and goats scamper as our jeep chugs by. Surely too, many of the omnipresent lizards. Except for the city centre, which hosts the only (to my knowledge) supermarket in this city of 100,000, the streets are sleepy and the locals amble by lackadaisically. Despite being a dictatorship and recent elections, there is a very low visible police or military presence. Indeed, the highest security seems reserved for our contracting oil company, who insist on barbed-wire ringed compounds with guards doing their best not to fall asleep in the sun.

In the year since I was last here, a difference is obvious. There is massive construction occurring everywhere. Hotels, apartments and general buildings have appeared and are appearing. The pot-holed roads are poor and battered, but are steadily improving, and the large airport highway now has streetlights. The streets, remarkably, are free of litter. This is truly astonishing: other African countries have mounds of rubbish piled high, but in the city of Malabo is clean. The ever-increasing price of oil is a major factor, plus the added boon that in the last year vast oil fields have been found here, and so serious investment is being pumped into the country. Quite how much this is benefitting the people, rather than the dictator or foreign oil companies, I'm not sure, but it is at least providing employment. Hopefully better infrastructure and education will follow, and hopefully some of the businesses here, whether supermarkets, restaurants, shipping or oil service companies, will start being locally owned rather than by the Chinese, Americans, Spanish, Arabs, British, or whoever.

Hopefully too, someone will start a local brewery. Everywhere I go, I have the joys of tasting the local lager, usually distinctly average but always with its own unique charisma. But here it's all imported - Heineken, San Miguel, Corona etc. Not bad of course, but impersonal. Certainly, any such local brewery would make a quick and significant return on their investment - the quantity that would have been drunk by myself and three of my colleagues in the last week would likely have already have seen a quick profit.

There's been a lot of drinking beer in the last week, almost all at the grand if idiosyncratic staffhouse we're staying in. There are five of us in all, but only room for four in the staffhouse, but by a kind twist of fortune the "odd-one out" placed in a different venue is the quiet, barely-drinking one. Leaving the remainder of us to continue uncurtailed. We were faced early on by a crisis in the shape of a weekend election beer-ban but survived by discovering an alternative universe. This was a bar in the vast Marathon oil company compound, involving two security points, a drive past a gigantic cube-shaped ethanol plant which lit up at dark looked unnervingly like a Borg cube spaceship from Star Trek, and finally passing through a pseudo all-American wholesome picket-fence street. The bar had beautiful, antique-style furniture which I would have loved to have stolen for my flat, including a solid daddy of a pool table and an elegant fusball table. Yet somehow it all combined to give the air of a giant hotel lobby, with the giant, immersive sofas sucking everyone in and creating distance. But worst, oh the worst, was the music. We arrived to Celine Dion's Titanic tune and though there was no possible way to go downhill from here, a damn good effort was put in. Shrieking love ballad followed shrieking love ballad, and we all felt our souls ebb away. And then things, unbelievably, went downhill - the Celine Dion song was played again. The love ballad CD was evidently on repeat. We bought a large carry-out with our remaining money and quickly left, to get drunk back at our staffhouse (which we did).

We made sure then to stock up fully at the sweaty, crowded supermarket on Monday when alcohol was again legal. Five crates were bought - by last night only one and a half remained. Last night was perhaps the heaviest session, lasting seven hours from 3pm. It was entirely impromptu, one beer after work, to celebrate a tough but effective day's, quickly became two then three then who knows. Work this morning was not the brightest.

And yes, we have been working. Over the weekend and Monday, due to the elections and other reasons, we couldn't really do anything, but since then we've been sorting out equipment and readying it for the potentially upcoming job. The status last week was two large jobs upcoming but by today this is now one large job maybe upcoming. Delays delays delays, as ever, and it's actually very possible I won't be going offshore for this entire stint. In fact, the only reason we're here anyway is visa reasons: initially to get into the country in time for validating our visa, and now to get our multiple entry visas, a process taking a week or more. But this doesn't mean we're spending our days waiting, hanging around, kicking our feet and hunting for beer, for as I said there's equipment to service and plenty of it. And, here's the thing about Equatorial Guinea - it is hot.

Really hot. Yesterday was a day involving building sample carriers: moving lots of large sections of pipe and screwing them together. At the best of times, this is a tough job, with a lot of heaving lifting, scrubbing, applying grease, screwing stuff in and more and more lifting. It's physically very demanding, and under the full glare of yesterday's sun became extreme. All of us were literally drenched in sweat - had we jumped into a pool we could hardly have been more soaked. The sun, unguarded by cloud, was intense, even at 8am it was uncomfortable, and by noon it was brutally fierce. I don't exaggerate - I've worked in some pretty damn hot climes before, but this was just about the fiercest. Only Egypt in summer, unsheltered, at noon and clear and windless compares - then I had sweat pouring off my hardhat and down my face like a river - but at least then I was right next to an air-conditioned unit with an infinite supply of cold water. Here, in this gravelly yard without shelter, with chicken and lizards sauntering and darting and mangy dogs slouching, there was no air-conditioning and the water quickly went from lukewarm to very warm. The energy was sucked from us. You could feel the radiation, unsubtle and burning. With the draining humidity, these were conditions that even taking a stroll in would be a challenge; endlessly hauling pipe around and scrubbing at metal in the direct glare of the sun was exhausting. The merest hint of a breeze, barely lasting seconds, was welcomed as a blessed relief. It was rare. Usually it was unrelenting heat. After just a few hours of this demonic stare, the very life seemed to have evaporated from me, and death, while not imminent, was still tangible. A terrible, comprehensive destruction of nature by nature, but mostly recharged after a leisurely lunch. Post-lunch was another brutal session, but some clouds appeared to take the edge of the intensity. Nonetheless, by 3pm and after some good work done in punishing conditions, it was definitely time to call it a day, and enjoy a nice cool beer. Or two...

Today was more forgiving. The work was still hard, perhaps moreso, but a dark cloud covering turned the sun into a dim haze all day and provided some light showers and a couple of heavy downpours, with thunder. The humidity made the coveralls merge with our skin, but the intensity of heat was far less. We managed to get the bulk of the physical labour over with, meaning that we have about a week now of light tasks interspersed with our ongoing alcoholism training. We've decided on some variety from the Heinekens and San Miguels and might strike out with some gin, vodka and wine. Gin, so we're told, costs only £1.50 a bottle in the supermarket - this may be inadvisable on several levels.

So, that's it. EG is OK. It's not heaven, but it's not hell. It's poor, unfair and rife with problems, but economically improving, not as evidently destitute as many places and surprisingly clean. The dictator, in power for thirty years, is in poor health; cross our fingers and with luck he'll die soon and one of his sons will take power without too much bloodshed, and with greater luck may instigate further positive changes in developing the nation. With luck, economic progress can translate into public health and education improvements and an enrichening of living conditions. With luck.

Of course, with proper luck, gin really will be £1.50 a bottle.

Wednesday, 7 May 2008


It's been a hard grind so far.

Saturday, 3 May 2008

Punishment in EG

My reward for the misfortunes of Brazil: banishment to a tiny African island, ruled by a despotic military dictator. Yes, it's back to Equatorial Guinea, and it's election time.

I arrived yesterday evening, after a genuinely pleasant flight. After so many cramped, noisy and horribly uncomfortable Air France voyages to and from Brazil in the last six months, the Air France plane to Malabo was an altogether different proposition. EG doesn't appear to attract vast hordes of tourists, and so I was able to have a row to myself in a spacious and pretty empty flight. This additional privacy meant I could shove my bottle of red wine between my legs to heat it up - Air France, please stop chilling your red wine.

I travelled with four other colleagues and for the next couple of weeks at least will be with them. This means I will avoid the ennui of isolation suffered on my last job. It also means I don't have to get drunk alone, as three of the others were equally keen to get stuck into the Heinekens last night. The first of these were at a pizza place, but the bulk back at our staffhouse as it was curfew time. Because of a fat old tosser called Mallett and his frequent drunken problems with prostitutes last year, a curfew was imposed upon service companies such as ours, and when two employees of our company then unfortunately missed this curfew due to drunkenness, it was brought back from 11pm to 10pm. Last night it was 9pm, ostensibly because of the imminent election, but likely because the contracting oil company here ("NE") were anxious about what might happen when five of us were together.

So Heinekens at our heavily fortified staffhouse it was. Our grand modern-colonial style staffhouse, with marble floors and massive beds that virtually need a footstool to climb onto. Around us are high walls with barbed wire, an observation turret, and a number of very bored guards wearing fetching safari hats with nothing to do. This is because Malabo isn't Port Harcourt: Equatorial Guinea isn't Nigeria. There have been no serious issues with foreigners here, and there are no rebel groups that want to kidnap us. But NE, a company founded and filled by vast deep-south Americans, have decided to go down the road of paranoia and security theatre, and so all foreigners working under them live and work in pointless prisons. However, for the locals that's probably somewhat of a blessing, as it means just a little less oil trash littering their city.

It's election time as well. This is the third African country I've now been to during elections in just over a year, after Mauritania's relaxed affair and weeks of edginess in Nigeria. All kinds of scaremongering are being chucked about by NE, especially a truly collosal entity called Leonard, with a deathly ill pallour, a limp, and an obnoxious habit of calling us "children". Leonard looks like he's risen from the dead and been inflated with bile. He claims the natives will be going wild tonight and tomorrow, drunk with hatred for the white man and political rallies, and if we were caught out after dark then things could get nasty. He exaggerates, as you might guess, but there may be a degree of truth in what he says, and the risk of trouble - which is minimal - could be elevated. This isn't just from NE's viewpoint, but from the government too, as all vehicle travel is banned tomorrow, unless with a special permit. The military dictator is taking this election seriously, even though his position isn't up for debate. Rather, it's some mayors and politicians. I'm ignorant of the specific details, but if I was an E. Guinean, I think I'd vote for his party.

Another measure of the seriousness of this election, and of the potential trouble, is that alcohol is unavailable! Facing a possible shutdown tomorrow, we went to the packed little supermarket (surely the biggest in this tiny nation) today to stock up. And to our horror, all alcohol was prohibited, a theme apparently running throughout all bars, restaurants and shops today. We only have four Heinekens left and doubt we can last an evening and a day with this, though a saviour in some special expat club may just come to the rescue.

Tomorrow then is the election, and day of shutdown for expats. I imagine the fuss will die down quickly this week and things will continue in a more normal way. It doesn't look like the workload will be heavy for the next couple of weeks. One of two upcoming jobs here has already been cancelled, and so we've only got to sort out some kit on base and wait for a new visa to be processed. Heineken and other beers will become freely available again, and time will pass. Delays are inevitable and two weeks away for going offshore will likely be moved back and back. I'm not sure if this will help me or not. I volunteered to go away on this job, so soon after eight weeks in Brazil and on the back of a hell of a lot of time away on jobs (since July I've only had two months off) not out of enthusiasm but in the hope of making a friend's wedding on June 7th. I have 45 days on my current visa, which would take me to about June 15th. Therefore, I'm either hoping to go offshore as soon as possible and get it all over and done with, or for things to be delayed massively and get to go home at the end of May after a month kicking dust and drinking beers. Unfortunately, the current itinery doesn't favour either. But we'll see.

My week and life prior to being cut short by this equatorial adventure was spent satisfyingly and productively. A Glasgow visit saw me catch up with loads of old faces and didn't see me too drunk, though there were some very late nights, and a fight. My days in Aberdeen afterwards saw me gain a flatmate/PA, almost break a giant mirror, fall in love with a bureau and feel the effects of the "credit crunch". I thought all this talk about global financial crisis was just hype, but getting a mortgage for the flat I've just bought is proving rather awkward. Hopefully by Monday I'll know if it's possible. I recall last year in this same country, my mortgage on a flat falling through, so let's hope for history not repeating.

Anyway, I believe it's dinner time. To be spent with a bunch of yelling, brash, vast, deep South Yankees. And this truly is the punishment deserved for being a bad boy in Brazil. But surely no crime can fit such a dire fate?