I arrived, wedged at the back corner of a planeful of boisterous Azeri 13-year-olds who applauded the landing, in Azerbaijan's capital, Baku, last Tuesday. I remained there for approximately 12 hours before being choppered into the Caspian Sea, or more precisely, a semi-submersible enigmatically named “Istiglal.” Thus, after almost two weeks, I can tell you a lot about this small metal space, and rather less about the nation of Azerbaijan.
What I do know is based on mere hearsay and colleagues' tales, plus a night-time taxi drive to my hotel, through the city from the airport. Despite being a Muslim country, the locals love their booze and channel 5 of the TV is dedicated to porn: I think they may have strayed from the Koran. I approve heartily of all this, even if the porn wasn't very good. What glimpses of the city I grabbed seemed to have more charm than recent expeditions, and unlike slums like Luanda or the blocky sprawl of Johannesburg (to be fair, I didn't get a proper look), there seemed a sense of style and history. Architecturally inspired by Islam, with the more recent Soviet monster looming high. But the place appeared distinct – and that is a vital quality in any good city. A recent post by Green perfectly expresses this and what constitutes the “soul” of a city, so I will direct you there for his excellently chosen words rather than regurgitate them here.
Azerbaijan is also noted for being the only country in the world to leap from the first letter of the alphabet to the last – not a bad effort for a small nation (though Zambia has a good shot, but gets it the wrong way round). I suppose Brazil gives it a shot too, but takes a few practice letters to get going. It's the fourth country now I've been to containing the letter “z”, and I can now proudly boast that I've met people from six different ex-Soviet nations. Well done. It's also country no. 40 for me, a milestone I've celebrated by vast consumption of cake.
In years to come, when I regale my offshore experiences in excruciating detail to my tiny and very weary grandchildren, my overriding memories of “Istiglal”, apart from not being able to say it, will be of cake. I shall tell little “Murphy”, “Geraldine” and “Shirley-Claire” (or whatever my stupid kids will call them) about the two different varieties of cake that dominated my first week, and the excitement that exploded when a third, colourful, cake appeared. My favourite cake is still the understated brown cake with a light beige icing – but gosh, isn't that sponge moist. It goes particularly well if some of the nuts from cake 2 have rubbed off on it. Cake 2 is a lot flatter and denser, and one is enough for any shift. The third cake, that caused such ripples of wonder, is adorned with green icing and a purple-icing flower. For me, the icing was a little disappointing, though the hefty wedges of light sponge never fail to satisfy.
Unfortunately, as I will then say in a low tone to my grandchildren, their restlessness only tempered by the vast inheritance they stand to one day gain, the rig is also likely to have developed a reputation in my memory for safety pedanticness. Health and safety on a rig is certainly a vital thing, of that I will not argue, but when extended way beyond useful causes, it just becomes a tool for pettiness. It has ended up with all the rig personnel looking for any excuse to catch you out on some utterly minor point. The worst yet was today, being “caught out” for not walking in the centre of a walkway outside. What? It all stems from the obsessive desire from everyone on the rig to write at least one “STOP” card (cards noting good or bad safety behaviour observed) every day. The problem is, when our lead engineer wrote a very sensible card noting some slightly off standards from a rig supervisor, the head of the rig – the OIM – called him up and basically gave him a bollocking for it, making him enemies of two rig supervisors at the same time. Hence, we have learnt to only write good cards. Well, the others have. I've only ever written two cards in my entire life – I'm just really, really not a fan of this kind of mindless bureaucracy - and so far haven't observed any extreme behaviour here, so don't look like I'll be adding to that quite yet. I suppose I could compliment the cakes.
It's not all been cakes and safety though. There's been plenty of assembling of tools, programming, downloading, disassembling, argonning, pressure testing, function testing, playing computer games, and all kinds of stuff that is better suited to official reports than regaling to my beloved audience here. My beloved grandchildren may not get off so lucky though. Currently, we're in the midst of delays, but these may be getting resolved soon, and the threat of work later in this shift looms. In truth, this is quite a big job, but a four-man team and a decent amount of time have made it very manageable.
So from A to Z, Aberdeen to Azerbaijan, a faux-Christian nation to a faux-Muslim nation, Scottish-style dourness to dourness in the way only ex-Soviets can manage, things are steady, if not exactly dramatic. Just another rig, to be honest. But with decent cakes.