Monday, 23 March 2009

Bonus Day

Today has been a bonus day.

With my work, I am resigned for days to sometimes disappear. A classic example being on a job in Equatorial Guinea a couple of years back: after having spent many hours feeding a cable into a hole, it transpired that the test engineer - a backwards bumpkin called "Mallett" single-handedly responsible for the imposition of the accursed 11pm onshore curfew - had made a basic error of calculation, which meant we would have to spend many hours pulling the cable back out of the hole before putting it back in again. Running cable in and out of a hole for hours and hours, let me tell you, is not fun. Not at all. And Mallett's maths mistake resigned me and the rest of the crew on the job to another 24 hours of it. When this stupid, stupid, stupid mistake and its consequences were realised, I turned to Mr Calm, who was the job leader, and said, "I suppose the way to think about all this is that it's one more day on this rig, and therefore in a lifetime of finite duration, one less day of our lives to actually live." Mr Calm just nodded, slowly and quietly. "One less day," he said.

And such things often happen. Days disappear. Why, I remember being just 27 years old and starting in the glorious offshore world. What young and fresh days these were. Now I'm 30, life is whizzing past me, and I find myself jaded, and contorted with bitterness. My eager face has long since been mangled into a dour scowl. The days disappear, one by one, a clock ticking ever louder and ever closer to its final tock.

But sometimes, though it may be a trick of the mind, a bonus day comes along. Today was such. On Saturday, after I'd meandered down to a nearby antiques shop and bought a lovely rolltop antique desk, a lovely antique cutlery set, a lovely antique box, and a lovely antique book, I got a phonecall - the lovely sound of my boss. Guess what, he said, your freedom is ending and soon you will be stuck on a metal hell surrounded by angry men. I paraphrase, but that's the gist.

So, I was supposed to be going to Azerbaijan today, and thus I spent Sunday getting prepared. Packing takes me about 20 minutes, and so the rest of my day was spent indulging in my "last day" routine. This is a routine that has been developing in the last year, as I prepare myself for going away again. It involves drinking a bottle of port, eating some very strong cheese, often smoking a pipe or cigar, and pacing about and ranting. These are all some of my favourite hobbies. But then, midway into the bottle of port, a phonecall interrupted my Sunday evening. Because Azerbaijan is on a two week national holiday (I fully endore this concept) something or other couldn't happen and so something else had to be done (I'd drunk half a bottle of port so wasn't retaining the details here). Thus, my flight was delayed from 6.30am on Monday to 9.55am on Tuesday. Hurray!

So today has been a bonus day, unexpected and joyful. I met with Varwell in the morning, for a coffee, as we discussed all manners of highbrow topics, and he accidentally guffawed far too loudly at one point, disrupting the entire coffeeshop/bookstore. Then I took a gentle stroll, bought a brand new housecoat (the gentleman's speckled housecoat, I have called it), and had lunch at 10.30am. My afternoon was spent playing pool on my deluxe table, looking at the pounding rain outside and being glad I was inside and cosy with my new housecoat, reading Calvin and Hobbes, playing a silly computer game and later on viewing a flat (for my mother, not for me). Then it was time to finish the port and cheese: finished.

So a day of inconsequence and indulgence, an unexpected bonus. And it will likely be the last day of such indolence for some time, as the job in Azerbaijan looks to be a biggie. Tons and tons of equipment, and all sorts of fancy stuff being done with it. And thus lots and lots of hard, physical graft for me to supervise over as I sip coffee.

Yes, a frightening amount of work, but don't worry, if it gets too much I'll just "pull a Luanda" and set fire to my passport. I'll try not to burn down the main office this time though.

Friday, 20 March 2009

Some Statistics

I've been home for a few days now, relishing the cool air and good beer. I popped into the office on Tuesday to do a tiny bit of paperwork but found myself sucked into a world of experiments and demos, that I hope will be ending today. Gosh, the regular working week is tough. However, my reason for writing is not to lament being dragged into the routine of the normal worker (which in fairness doesn't end at lunchtime as I manage to make it) but to force you, my dear reader, to enter into my world of statistics.

I had a bit of a stats binge last week, while sitting drinking beer in Johannesburg airport and while on the flight. I sat, supped beer, and thought "I wonder how many airports I've ever been to?" or "I wonder how many people I've met from the ex-Soviet nations?" Such vital subjects deserved much thought, so these and many others I worked out and I can now present to you here.

Total Number of Flights (excluding helicopter): 116.
I seriously think I can remember, if not each flight per se, but each occasion I had need to take a flight. It's not too difficult, just a matter of thinking of each holiday, or each place I've been to with work. Work constitutes 72 of these flights. There's a +/-1 error margin as I'm a little vague on the exact flights I took in Brazil. If helicopter flights were to be included then there'd be about another 40 added to this tally.

2007 had the most flights, with 45, and almost an entire week spent in the air.

Number of beds I've slept in this year: 12.
Alas, this has not been a first quarter of salacious mayhem. Work dominates, with three rig beds (including the 8-man container offshore Mozambique), five staffhouse beds, but only one hotel. I'm not counting overnight flights, of which there were four, as these seats hardly constitute sleeping units, especially as work persist in sending me on economy class. Me, economy! It's crazy, I know.

Total passports ever owned: 7.
In my youth, I had a passport that eventually expired after ten years of minimal usage. Since then I've had six and lost four through "mishaps". Currently I stand at two passports, but will be getting another after the unfortunate disintegration of Halliburton's main office in Angola.

Countries visited: 39
11 of these have been through work, although I've visited Egypt for recreation too. Some of the above total have only been for a few hours though, such as Luxembourg and Mozambique, and I'm not counting Taiwan or Barbados, which I only passed through in transit. I've only lived in two countries - the UK and Korea - though have probably spent an accumulative total of six months in Brazil.

Media appearances: 8.
This is, if you had somehow read every paper, magazine or comic, and watched every TV programme since my birth, how many times I would have appeared, to my knowledge. I'm not counting the internet, because it's a load of rubbish.
In no particular order, my moments of fame have been:

- Tema Magazine. The Bulgarian version of Time magazine in November 2001 featured a two page article about me and Simon, which included a full page photo of myself. This wasn't because of any inherent celebrity, but purely opportunistic as the magazine was doing an article about youth hostels in Sofia, and we happened to be the token foreigners there. As I recall to everyone when I regale this tale, the journalist was especially, achingly pretty, and gave me her phonenumber. It is of lasting regret that instead of phoning this young maiden I went to Romania.

- Dingwall Academy Magazine. This was an annual magazine produced by the school, on general sale in Dingwall and the surrounding area. I can't remember why I was in it one year, but I'm sure I did. Maybe I wrote a little poem or story.

- some TV programme on Channel 4. My father was featured on some Channel programme when I was about 13, so I was sneaked on for a few seconds depicting a "normal family scene", which was, for some reason, me playing chess with my father in the kitchen. This experience taught me that all TV is fake.

- the Press & Journal. About ten years ago, my mother won "mother of the year" in the Press & Journal, the newspaper for the north of Scotland. This was after having being nominated by my sister. As part of the article, I got a namecheck.

- Buster comic. When I was just a boy, I used to read comics voraciously. Not stupid stuff like Batman and Superman, that takes itself far too seriously for a bunch of cartoons, but cartoon strip-style comics like the Beano, Dandy, and my favourite, Buster, now defunct. I earned myself £2 by writing a very thoughtful letter into the letters page. This was something like 1988, so £2 then was worth a hell of a lot. Two weeks wages, in fact.

- Moray Firth Radio. I'm sure when I was about ten I was in the broadcasting part of the local radio station, along with a handful of other boys, for some reason that now eludes me. I recall it being on live, and the DJ - inevitably local DJ sensation "Titch McCooey" who seemed to be on 18 hours a day - asking us questions. But I'm not sure if I said much, or anything, so my subtle, understated eyebrow movements may have been wasted on radio.

- Israeli TV. While in Tel Aviv with Simon, in the youth hostel, an Israeli satellite TV broadcaster took a few shots of us on the hostel roof at sunset. I can't remember what the programme was called, but I do remember that every Israeli I asked about it had never heard of it before.

- TV. There was a football game on at Pittodrie a few years back between Scotland and the Faroe Islands, Scotland winning 2-0, and I was standing next to a piper. Upon seeing the highlights, there was a shot of the piper and surrounding area for a couple of seconds. Blink and you miss it - but there I was.

Number of fingers: 10

Number of jobs: 12.
This covers any paid employment, and I'm including my first ever job here, which was potato picking in a local field. I was only about ten, and got paid £1/day for 8 hours work, or was able to opt for a bag of potatoes instead. This seems so unlikely that I feel I must have mis-remembered. Other jobs have included Wimpy chef (and dressing up as Mr Wimpy once), old folks' hospital cleaner, dishwasher, glass collector, door-to-door salesman (didn't last very long), English teacher, and my current position as pioneering acoustical engineering specialist, or something like that. I'm not counting being a property baron here, though I suppose it brings in more revenue than a bag of potatoes a day.

Number of ex-Soviet nations from which I've met a citizen: 5.
A disappointing tally, to be honest. I've wracked my brain, but I can't recall meeting a single Latvian, Lithuanian, Estonian or even Georgian. I mean, you don't expect to meet many Tajikstanis or Turkmenistanis, but you think I'd have met a Georgian by now. Anyway, I've met the following:

- Uzbekistan. A couple of lovely 19-year-olds when I was in Korea. Gosh, they were lovely. I had such wicked intentions, but they were far too sensible.

- Kazakhstan. Also in Korea, I met a mental, tough-looking guy with gold teeth while waiting at a fountain. He was surely a gangster.

-Russia. I've surely met many Russians, but the ones that spring to mind are the two room salon girls that Matt befriended, and introduced to me very late one night. All very civilised, I'll have you know, I treat women like actual real people. One was called Linda, and was from Vladivostock, and was lovely, but no stunner, the other... oh, hang on, I think the other was another Uzbek. She was quite pretty, but a total maniac. Not even Matt would touch her - and that's saying something.

-Ukraine. While in a Tel Aviv hostel, a different one from the one that televised me, I befriended a Ukranian guy, surely called Vlad. He was a nice guy, but couldn't drink alcohol due to a road accident. He offered to buy my passport off me if I ever shaved my beard, as we would look alike. I said ok, but alas have still not shaved my beard.

-Moldova. I think Moldova used to be Soviet. Or did it break off from Romania? Anyway, on the overnight train from Bucharest to Sofia, a Moldovan called Antony joined us in the compartment and let us have some of his meat. No, really, he had some meat in a bag that he generously offered us. I never questioned what type of meat it was, and never, ever, would.

Goals scored in international football: 0

Number of football stadiums visited: 18.
Seven of these have been in Scotland, with Ross County's theatre of dreams, Victoria Park, notching up multiple visits. I've been to some seriously obscure foreign ones, like Slovenian "4th division" SK Piran's field with an embankment for the 50 fans and castle walls overlooking the pitch for those who didn't want to pay the £1 entry. Toftir's mountain-top stadium in the Faroes is probably the most scenic stadium, and the biggest is probably the main stadium in Seoul, although I was only there for a visit, not a game.

Homes I've lived in: 16
The first six homes were before the age of five, my gypsy-like family evidently being hounded from town to town. From then, the next thirteen years were in the same place in Dingwall. Since 2001, I've averaged a new home every year, although I'm quite settled in my current dwellings (though the hookers outside have dried up... I mean, that is, that there aren't really any hookers there any more)

Airports visited: 47 or 48.
Do you want the full list? No?

Vehicles owned: 6.
The accumulative value of my first five cars was £870; the Ford Transit at £750 was a real budget-breaker. You'll be unsurprised to hear that all six vehicles no longer exist except as scrap metal, and that I was the last driver of each.

Number of national pub quiz victories: 2.
In 2000, I won Scottish (student) pub quiz finals, and trips to both New York and Cairo. The New York victory was pretty much deserved, but the Cairo one is a dirty tale of cunning and dastardliness. I also won a pub quiz in Mauritania a couple of years ago - as the rest of the country is Muslim and doesn't go much in for the pubs, I'll warrant that I was probably national champion back then.

Number of words written so far in this blog entry: 1849.
And that's quite enough.

Friday, 13 March 2009

Luanda Getaway

It seems somewhat counter-intuitive to fly for three hours in the wrong direction, then wait for six hours before finally getting a flight in the right direction. But I don’t mind so much. For one thing, I’ve managed to get out of Luanda: armed with my backup passport, photocopies of my old passport and visa, and an agency guy to do all the smooth talking, I was able to slide gracefully through customs and escape with a mere $300 fine – which Halliburton pay anyway. Quick, painless, no bribes or anal rape in dark rooms required. I then flew for three hours to Johannesburg, where I am now, waiting and poised to have some more beers to smooth the passage of waiting.

The airport in Johannesburg is pretty nice too. Luanda’s international airport doesn’t really tingle the pleasure senses, unless you’re a fan of os interios drab, but Johannesburg has a really quite pleasant departure lounge area, with shops, space, bright lights, clear signage, and bars – though it could do with a few more. It’s laid out well, and doesn’t feel like an endurance test like most African airports, or the godawful Charles de Gaul.

I’ll be on a flight in a few hours, and by tomorrow morning touching down in the lovely city of Aberdeen. I say that only semi-facetiously. After the sweaty, intense, unremittingly unattractive megaslum that is Luanda, being back in a cool, calm and architecturally good-looking city will be a pleasure. Being allowed to go out at dark and not fear for my life or laptop will be a relief. Insane and idiotic traffic turning a fifteen minute drive into a two hour ordeal makes Aberdeen's rush hour seem like a petty complaint. Not having bored guards hovering listlessly outside every residence (in the “good” part of the city, at least) won’t be missed. Aberdeen may have a touch of the dour, and have its fair share of whingers, but I hope not to be one of these: I like Aberdeen, and its qualities shine when compared to some of the depressing pits of this Earth.

So, two more flights and 17 more hours. And many more beers, I expect.

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Passport Up In Flames

Well, it looks like my passport perished. As the main office disappeared into flames, so did my hopes of escape from Angola.

I had the last three days at leisure. Drinking beers in the evening sun and enjoying crisply barbecued food in the staffhouse. Nothing really happened, and I barely strayed beyond our guarded gates. Luanda has a bit of a reputation for badness, something not assuaged by the presence of four (armed?) guards at the nearby cornershop, and although I wouldn't have been worried about a daytime stroll through the city, it was just too hot, and there's nothing to see anyway. Really, Luanda is not a pretty place. Everything's falling apart, dust and car fumes fill the air, and more attention has to be paid into not walking into a pothole than enjoying what sights may be on offer.

I was back in the yard today and got my first viewing of what used to be the main office. Yup, it's pretty much levelled. The actual office building, three storeys I believe, is now a pile of charred rubble. It's believed an electrical fault on the third floor was the likely culprit. The office was attached to a covered yard, the metal roof of which has buckled and collapsed. The whole scene was like a small slice of the apocalypse. It still smells of burning and ash. There was a meeting at 8am, in which a man jumped on the back of a pick-up and spoke Portuguese for fifteen minutes; the English translation lasted thirty seconds.

And somewhere in the devastation lay my passport, or at least a bunch of dust that once constituted it. I do have a spare passport with me, but it doesn't have the visa, and so isn't much use for getting out of the country if I hope not to get arrested at the airport and given a thorough physical overhauling by the gents at immigration in some grimy back room. One solution is to go to the British Embassy and get an emergency passport out of the country; another is to use the photocopies of my old passport and visa and maybe some help from Halliburton; and another is simply to live in Angola for the rest of my life.

We'll see. The pace of progress is not too speedy over here, but I can take some solace in the fact I'm getting paid pretty well for doing really very little indeed.

Incidentally, this is now the fourth passport I've lost in just over three years. At least this one isn't really my fault (I choose not to divulge the lapses of sense that led to the previous three going AWOL).

Saturday, 7 March 2009


I got to Luanda a few days ago. To my surprise, it is a clean, thoroughly modern, efficient and beautiful city. No, just joking. It's coated in a thick layer of dirt, dead animals lie by the side of the road, and buildings rest in states of very obvious collapse. The smell changes every ten metres.

I get an extra half hour in bed too, as the bus leaves at 6.15am as compared to Malongo's 5.45am. Saturdays and Sundays too, so I was up this morning and over to have breakfast, in preparation for another day of hard graft (98% internet surfing). The dining room seemed suspiciously quiet though. Perhaps, I thought, Saturday is a late start - curse my unnecessary early rise! I munched my deeply unappetising cold beans and bread alone. A few people meandered by and poked about the breakfast spread, but the mood was quiet.

A guy appeared then, whom I met yesterday at the base and who was extremely helpful in showing me around. In fact, all the Halliburton guys I met yesterday were very friendly and helpful towards me. He said good morning, and I replied likewise.

Then he said: "Oh, did you hear the Halliburton base burnt down?"

"What?" I replied, for there's no other response.

"The Halliburton office burnt down last night. There was a big fire, and it burnt completely to the ground."

"Are you joking?"

"No, I'm dead serious."


And so it seems that the main Halliburton building in Luanda's Halliburton yard burnt down entirely last night. This was the building with all the admin, HR, managerial, travel logistics, and probably my passport too. It didn't contain my company's equipment, and the building where I've been mostly based seems fine, but for the core building for Halliburton in Angola to be razed to the ground is causing, as one may imagine, some ripples.

There's some good news. First, it looks like I'll be getting today off. Secondly, due to it happening it the middle of the night, I don't think there were any casualties, including, I hope, the many stray cats that hung around.

But mostly it's bad news. This will cause all sorts of disruptions, and worse will seriously damage the business, and in this economic climate could lead to job losses. And from my own perspective, it's very possible my passport was in that building, in which case I'm trapped in Angola forever. Or at least, a little longer than initially planned.

So I guess I better get comfortable in this modern metropolis of delight. And more pertinently, I better find a good supply of beer. Because ironically, Halliburton have a barbecue planned this weekend.

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Funeral Fundraising

It turns out that these street highwaymen that block the roads to politely request money, while brandishing sticks and machetes, are actually funeral mourners. Really. To raise the costs for burial, after having mourned and drunk all night, they gather by the roads, block them, and ask the passing drivers for a contribution.

You'll be pleased to hear that I sourced some beer (a supermarket on the way back to the staffhouse) and so bought 48. Not all for me, I've allowed some of the other boys to have a little drink too. I had a big discussion with the Fox News supporter, instigated by him. It was a less a discussion and more of a stand up rant by him complaining about the liberal media. He was, you may not be entirely surprised, a big Sarah Palin fan. Everything I may have heard about her, it seems, is liberal propaganda.

But he's ok actually, as are the Halliburton bunch I seem to be lumped with. We're all in the same boat of hanging about the Halliburton yard all day with little to do, before cramming into a minibus at the end of the day so we can drink cheap Turkish beer in a distant staffhouse.

Tomorrow it's going to change though. Cabinda, and the army camp that is Malongo, are a mere toedip into Angola; tomorrow I get pushed right in as I fly to its congested, infested, infected, unrested capital Luanda. Which so far, I've heard not one good word about yet.

Monday, 2 March 2009

Base Camp Malongo

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!