A different kind of the middle of nowhere

Image Source: Wikipedia


Nursing a double espresso in the Air France lounge at Charles De Gaulle, it’s the first time in a week that I get the chance to be by myself and reflect on what has been a whirlwind week. From being up at 5.00 am two Sundays ago (to catch an early flight westward from Heathrow to Abidjan via Paris), multiple flying stops to a number of offshore assets and then to this stop on the way back to normalcy, it has felt like a blur of perpetual motion. It has also, much against my natural bent, been a time spent overwhelmingly in the company of others -  work colleagues, fellow travellers and the odd hustler looking to make a quick buck amongst others. With each change of location – Heathrow, Paris, Abidjan and offshore – there has been a progressive browning of my surroundings, one that means that by the time I arrive at the work site I am lost in a sea of similar faces. Not since my last job in this part of the world at the back end of 2008 have I found myself in this sort of surroundings; not in the minority but one face in a sea of similar faces.

Stepping out of the airport terminal, the humidity hits like a bed sheet heavy with water might if flapped about by a strong wind, along with the million indecipherable smells – smoke from cooked food, the linger of car exhaust fumes, dried sweat – the minutiae of life which might be from any city along this West African coast. The airport itself is not significantly different from one I am more familiar with – Murtala Mohammed International – with its milling masses of people; particularly the hustlers who sidle up to you, somewhat conspiratorially offering up various taxi and money changing services and a Burger King. Like that other airport, this one is also named for an African strong man.

The days start early and end late, involving a variety of boat transfers including the frog, a walk to work solution and the odd clamber up boat landings via ladders. My two slight concerns turn out to be unfounded – the heat isn’t overly oppressive and I find enough familiar food to subsist on. One can hardly go wrong with eggs, bacon and sausages or rice and fried plantains for that matter (and EVERYTHING tastes infinitely better with a dash of chilli sauce).  Somehow, I get cast in the role of the Africa expert – asked to weigh in everything from food choices to social mores.

Nights are spent trying to get to sleep whilst being swayed by the swells rocking the accommodation vessel we’re on. Fairly recently the beds have been doubled up to increase capacity, which is how three of us get a room with two beds. I volunteer to take one of the top bunk beds, given I have less of a frame to squeeze in than the others.

Being out and about brings back memories of another life, being the young local engineer learning the ropes and then chomping at the bit to take on more responsibilities. In the stories I tell myself of that time, I wrestle with the tension between wanting to do more but feeling like the real decision making power was elsewhere, which is one of the reasons I upped sticks and left in the end. With the benefit of the distance of a few years since then, it is clear that structural problems notwithstanding, my youthful headiness played a part in whatever grievances I carry from that time.  I can’t help but wonder if these younger engineers feel any different, and if the various players in this space have the global reach and structure to truly develop these minds into ‘world class’ engineers. This is the first of many trips westwards and south I suspect. I am curious to see how this pans out.

#NaPoWriMo18: Day 19

After the sun, for the Day 19 prompt.

A lone man stands in front of the bus shelter, his bag slung across his shoulder, hands stuck deep in his pockets, staring out towards the square, at the space where the bus should be.

Behind him, four bicycles lie in various states of harness. Before him, the square lies suffused with light. The calm, strange for this time of the day, is broken when as though dumped from an arriving train, a flood of people begins to traverse the square. After that comes the rain, after which it becomes clear that the quiet that came before was only the calm before the storm.

Alone, his
bag slung across his shoulder
he stares.

The square lies
suffused with light. Calm, strange day.
Then the rain.

Coming Up For Air


Photo by Zen Photographer on Unsplash


Eat-sleep-work-walk; wash-rinse-repeat. This just about sums up the past six weeks for me, travel down south being one of the few brights spots in an otherwise humdrum existence. In that state the days blur into each other – the weekend when it comes offering scant relief – before being quickly subsumed by a new Monday morning and the start of a new cycle of drudgery.  It is that time of the year when the final reports from last year are being reviewed and finishing touches made to the detailed plans for the new year’s work so there is little scope for escape.

The various iterations of the  Beast from the East have also had their say, ice and snow being so serious that for the first time in a while those who live in the sticks were permitted to work from home. Being a centre dweller, I managed to make it into work regardless, the main impact of all that snow and ice being to put paid to my practice of lunch time walking and my running. That at least is my excuse. The one upside has been the opportunity to load up on the reading – the small matter of six books being downed from the twenty five I plan on reading this year.

Away from proper books I have been doing a lot of web-based reading, which is how I stumbled onto Tom Chritchlow’s Small B- blogging post (via Om Malik’s link). Tom’s premise is that purposefully crafting content for a small deliberate audience provides more value to both the writer and the reader than the content market approach that larger networks seem to favour. It is a sentiment that has been kicking about in various forms in the networks I float about in, a piece on the ‘demise’ of the mommy blog and one by Ethan Zuckerman being the examples that come most readily to mind.  Although the Zuckerman post is a plug for gobo.social,  it raises a number of points which, in our very own Facebook inspired 1984 dystopia, are particularly relevant. For what it is worth, I believe I read and follow a number of solid small b-blogs; Caitlin Kelly’s Broadside Blog, Elizabeth Adams’ Cassandra Pages and the aforementioned Ethan Zuckerman’s My Heart Is In Accra all come to mind.

The Social Media as Big Brother narrative has most certainly come home to roost on Facebook’s porch,  Facebook’s dealings with Cambridge Analytical leading to investors voting with their money to the tune of $58billion and counting. That Facebook has been harvesting user call log and messaging data for quite a while only worsens the situation, discovered ironically as users have exited the service in response to the Cambridge Analytical findings. Amidst the hue and cry,  I found William Davies’ take in the London Review of Books more clear eyed than most. Whilst Facebook might currently be the most egregious example of the social-as-big-brother problem , it is one which is deeply intertwined with the very fabric of the internet. Unplugging might be a solution, except for the small matter of the fact that everyone – Amazon, Google, Free wifi on the London Underground and almost every single online media outlet (including the ones who have raised the hue and cry) all gather data on their users. That horse may have already bolted.

Loads to reflect on then – big and small over the last few weeks. For me, my love hate relationship with Facebook continues. How long this latest season of deactivation lasts remains to be seen.

The Diary: Notes From The Northern Isles

 

37.Shetlands

What could have been. Image Source

It is in the middle of shovelling rice and chicken down my throat that just how similar to prison these cubby holes I pop into from time to time are. For one, there are a number of hoops to jump through to get here – in my case a 5.30am check-in followed by a fixed wing flight up to Scatsta in the Shetlands and then a further helicopter flight out to the platform – and the overwhelmingly maleness of everything, tattoos and all. There are also the shared rooms, the strict meal times and the restricted choices there tends to be for meals. The one statistic which goes against the prison narrative is perhaps the proportion of ethnic minorities in prison vis-a-vis the general population, but that is neither here nor there. And of course, we’re all out here by choice, getting paid a premium of sorts for the joy of being out here.

On this occasion I am on one of the bigger cubby holes – floated out in the late 70’s – with the claim to fame of being the world’s largest movable man-made object at the time. These days the Polarcus Armani  and Shell’s Floating LNG Plant the Prelude have stronger claims to that crown, a symbol perhaps of the changed fortunes of the UK sector of the North Sea vis-a-vis the rest of the world. To get here, this behemoth of the Northern North sea, we had to brave inclement weather at Scatsta, the clouds so thick and winds so strong that the pilots decided against going through with two landing attempts thirty minutes apart. In the end, we had to wing it to the southern end of the island to Sumburgh for a landing and then a bus back up to our original destination. The glimpses of the road that were visible through the windows in the pouring rain suggested that there would be some mileage in coming back here for leisure, but on this occasion the rough, rugged terrain – roads that wrapped themselves around hills and valleys and small streams fuelled by the torrential rains leaving their marks on the hills that lined our route – seemed more a trigger for memories of the past than anything else; St John’s, Newfoundland which I visited two years ago and the distant corner of Edo State to which I trace my heritage being the two main ones. One wonders where all that time went, not least the years since I last went home. My plan is to spend a total of three days out here – not since in my early years in February of 2014 have I had to spend more than a week at a time offshore – but for the regulars, a three week stint looms, which is why perhaps they seem less perturbed by the detour we have had to take.

The last few years have seen free wi-fi access hit these haunts, one more positive to everything. Back in the day, staying in touch with folk back home depended on finding access to a desk phone with the ability to dial out; access is a lot better out here than I recall from my offshore Nigeria days. Once offshore, I settle into the room I have been assigned, before heading out to the offices, to get stuck into the reasons why I am out here. A detailed chat with the platform manager to set the scene for why I’m out is followed by the first of what will be several meetings with the folk who I work with directly on a daily basis, and then a walk in the plant to eye-ball a number of areas which have piqued my interest.

With time I have come to realise that the routine is what keeps me sane – regular / restricted meal times, periodic review meetings, and the late night trip to the bund to stock up on sweets and bottled water have become things I look forward to on these trips, symbols of the passage of time, and with meetings, things checked off the to-do list.

There is joy and salvation in the mundane and routine after all, that much is not in doubt.

Weekly Photo Challenge – Evanescent

For the WordPress Weekly Photo Challenge Prompt, Evanescent:

A curious combination of events – somehow in my early thirties becoming an insomniac and flexible start times at work – is how I manage to get the entire floor at work to myself for an hour on week days.  Rather than stay awake in bed waiting for 8.00am, I figure it makes a lot more sense to use the morning hours up at work and free up my evenings.

Coming in early feeds a sense of quiet control and productivity; time to gather my thoughts and work to a plan of my own choosing. On most days by the time 8.00 am comes along, that feeling is as far removed from reality as can be,  a consequence of having one fire or the other to put out on assets that demand 100% uptime.

I am learning to treasure the quiet moments, fleeting as they may be. They afford me the chance to catch my breath and stay sane.

Springing… Bloom

Bang on time for the start of spring, the trees behind my house have sprouted flowers; a welcome change from the bare, gaunt visage which has greeted my eyes over the last few months. In its place is a splash of colour – bright pink – which is always welcome in our neck of the woods, known more for the ubiquity of grey granite and grey weather than anything else.

New lights at work also speak to this season of change, the new brightness being so disconcerting that for the first few seconds I thought I had come off on the wrong floor. Speaking to the Facilities folks suggests these may be SAD lights, a bit late in the day given the changing of the season, but welcome nonetheless. It feels like this will take a while to get used to, fingers crossed.

Times, seasons, the fleeting nature of life and the speed with which the year has sped by so far are all things which stumbling on trees in bloom force me to reflect on; particularly because in a few days time I will have spent six years working in the same building.

Settled, or in a rut? The jury is still out on that I suspect.

 

22. (Not) Crying Wolf

Source

There is a lot I enjoy about my work, not least being a purveyor of the somewhat esoteric knowledge of materials and how they perform in a variety of service environments.

Most of the time I am advising, providing insights into what types of degradation can occur, how likely it is to progress and what actions we should be taking to assure ourselves of the future integrity of the kit we look after.

Once in a while bad news strikes, a failure or an inspection finding that requires significant (and often expensive) action surfaces. My job in those circumstances then morphs into one in which I become the bearer of bad news.

I suppose it is the same way — in a manner of speaking — that a doctor who has to break the news of the diagnosis of a terminal illness feels; the need to get a job done been tempered by the tension between providing clarity around the seriousness of a situation and softening the blow. Different consequences of course….

On My Return To the Middle of Nowhere

middleofnowhere

Back at the heliport for a trip offshore – the first time since March – it feels like a lifetime ago. The last time there was the pressure of my counterpart from the government regulator looking over my shoulder to deal with, this time the roles are reversed as I am the one asking questions of others. Waiting to be checked in, what strikes me is how empty the terminal looks. Spending one’s days in an office which was only recently re-stacked has somehow shielded me from the reality of just how much more reduced offshore activity has been over the last year.

We go through the usual things – waiting, getting checked in, watching the safety brief and then more waiting – a monotony broken only by the joy of people watching. This time only a few things catch my eye, chief of which is a bit of banter between a group of men and a woman who appear to all be going to the same rig as I am. In sitting amongst them, she almost misses her seat, spilling a bit of her coffee. This leads to her being asked if she is sober. Only later, as I overhear another conversation whilst we’re offshore does that bit of banter make sense; she does have a reputation for being a lively, paint the town red kind of person, one which the latest escapades she regales the group with only cements.

Before all that, there is the small matter of an hour and some of flying time, whilst kitted out in one of these, not exactly the most comfortable of feelings. I do manage to fall asleep during the flight, the rhythmic chugging of the helicopter and having woken up at just past 4.00am all contributing, in my defence. Besides the boiler suit, I get the added ignominy of having to wear a green arm band, this being my first time out to the particular rig since the back end of 2014.

The series of meetings I am offshore for go very well, there being enough time over the course of the three days I am out to catch up with folk I haven’t seen in awhile. These offshore trips can sometimes be an exercise in politicking dealing with people, the overwhelming objectives being to not come across as an onshore boffin who is ramming things down people’s throats without thinking of the impact of the added work. This fine line of balance is never more obvious than when the subject of ongoing pay cuts come up. Word around town is that most of the folk I deal with directly have had to stomach a 22% pay cut over the last eighteen months with a few of the perks being pulled, like the option of an extra bacon roll at morning tea time. Not exactly the stuff morale boosting conversations are made of but I do my best we’re all in this together impression, a truthful one this time because the only reason why I am making slightly more money than this time last year is I have chosen to accept a contribution in lieu of a city centre parking spot.

Running into people I have met on other rigs in the four years and some since I began these trips is a recurring theme on this one. On arrival, I find out that the installation manager is a control room lead operator from a different asset I used to support who has risen through the ranks  – by way of a job elsewhere. The inspection team also includes two people who I have worked with in the past.  As we exchange life jackets ahead of hopping on to the helicopter for the flight out on Thursday, I run into another two folk from a past life. This all leaves me wondering if there is a wider meaning to all of these – have I spent too much time around these parts or is this just an indicator that one has done a good enough job, and stayed long enough to survive the impact of one’s decisions? I suspect it is a little bit of both.