As many of you may know, it was always a great ambition of mine to join the army. It wasn't so much the combat fatigues, or the giant guns, or even the killing of civilians, but it was the regimented existence of barrack dwelling and stupidly early morning starts that appealed. That, and the total lack of independent thought or action, and the handing over of my own personal freedom to a greater power. Yes, the army was my dream, and what a terrific soldier I would have made! So I find myself overcome with joy at the circumstances I find myself in here in Angola.
Because it's just like being in the Army, except with less napalm or overt homosexuality. I'm awake by 5am to get my bus from the staffhouse to the world-of-men that is Malongo, then I march in line through the security checkpoint where they search my bag for grenades, and then it's to a safety meeting. Whoo yeah! And then, I get to sit about for hours and hours and hours doing nothing at all.
I've been here in sunny Angola for a week now, although days 2-5 were spent offshore, on the wonderfully named "Gorilla 7". I've been on a fair number of rigs in my three years as a glamorous oil exploration pioneer and most of them haven't been too adventurous in their nomenclature. I mean, if I built a rig, I would take some time to give it a memorable name, something that would stand out among the P5s and the SS-54s of this world. Why spent millions building a rig only to call it something generic like Sedco 700 or the sublime Sedco 701? I despair. I don't know what I would call a rig of my own, for it would take some deep thought, but it would almost certainly involve owls or the number 360. Perhaps "Giant Oil Owl Mania Platform" or "Super Wonder 360 Megaship", but those might be better saved for a Nintendo game. I certainly wouldn't throw it open to a committee, which seems to be responsible for the mundane names of offshore installations around the world. So I was very pleased to arrived on the Gorilla 7, my joy only dampened slightly by the helideck's lack of a big picture of a happy gorilla eating a banana. A wasted opportunity.
I was on the Gorilla 7 just to finish off a little job. It was a one man job, just pulling some gauges out of a hole and downloading them. I make this sound easy, and indeed to an experienced hand it should be, but ever since I screwed in the gauges upside down in Brazil last year, I've been a bit wary of easy jobs, so have learnt to view each with suspicion. I was replacing a colleague whose second visa extension was about to expire (the fine is apparently about $8000!) so I had one day with him on the rig as he gave me a quick overview of things, and then I got settled in for a couple of days doing nothing at all.
Apart from the good name, the Gorilla 7 was also one of the best rigs I've ever been on, if not the best, certainly in terms of space. Two-men rooms, various TV rooms and conference rooms, a huge and clean changing room, and a terrific helideck set away from the bulk of the rig, that didn't seem to attract any traffic at all (I like a quiet helideck free of bathers or walkers). I could have stayed here for some time with the greatest of contentment if not for the very average food, and the very limited internet access. But after a couple of days of gentle living, there came a spell of pretty tough work, as the equipment arrived out of hole and I had to break everything apart and rig it all down. This was about 12 hours of work, but it was overnight and I was feeling a little under the weather, so I'd like some sympathy please.
Back onshore then, where I appear to have rejoined the army. Beer is rationed - only six small cans a day, only after 6pm. It was to the barracks for the first night, and having to be up for 5.45am even on Sunday morning. The people I'm currently surrounded with, Halliburton people mostly from the rig I was on, are alright, and in the same boat as me in that they're just hanging about with little to do. Most of them are waiting for their passports back so they can leave the country, although I'm waiting for equipment to get back onshore. One of them, a definite hell-yeah American, noticed I was on the BBC website and said, "The BBC, goddamn. You like the BBC? I can't stand its liberal bias. I prefer Fox news myself, yeah!" I looked at him, thinking/hoping he was joking, before realising he was incapable of irony.
I've since been shifted from the barracks to the Halliburton staffhouse, which is a surreal kind of middle-American oasis in the middle of the filthy shantytown that is Cabinda. Arriving through some large gates, it's like entering a small street, with eight houses with immaculate lawns and stone-and-flower arrangements, plus a swimming pool. It's pretty nice to be honest, a definite step up from some of the places I've stayed. It could be argued it's not really representing the authentic Angolan experience, but I don't think that's going to be on the agenda on this trip. And judging by what I've seen, I'm not sure the authentic Angolan experience is something I'd voluntarily put myself into. This morning, still in complete darkness, on the 45 minute trip from the staffhouse to Malongo, we were stopped twice by gangs of kids who'd set up roadblocks, with oil drums and bits of string, demanding money to get through. This the driver took in his stride, as it's a pretty routine occurrence, though there being two separate stops raised an eyebrow. Recovering from decades of civil war, the place has no infrastructure and a corrupt government that use the oil wealth to entertain a lifestyle inconceivable for the majorty to imagine. People hang about the streets and laze outside their homes not due to indolence but because there's no education or work. Setting up a roadblock to demand money seems like quite a good initiative, if you ask me.
I'm protected from this outside existence while I remain in my little army bubble. Guards surround everywhere I stay, keeping Angola out. I should remain in Army Camp Malongo for a few more days, waiting for kit that I suspect will not arrive in time, then I'll fly down to the capital Luanda to spend more time in some pseudo-military surroundings. Then, although the future is always an uncertain beast, I may be off onto another Angolan rig. Until then, I'm going to see what damage I can do with my 6-can (1500ml) beer allowance. Hell yeah!