Getting My Finger Out

Photo by Reiseuhu on Unsplash

**

I am finding myself drawn again to the radio and to the BBC World Service- not the physical box itself but the BBC Sounds app which my VPN allows me access – and in doing so, all sorts of memories come flooding back. Many moons ago, when I was nearer ten than thirty, the World Service was my companion on many a hot, humid day with not a lot to do. Programs such as Off The Shelf, Wright Around The World, various radio dramas and the bumper Saturday sports package which sated my Liverpool fixation in the days before colour TV (never mind satellite TV) came to my corner of the world, all came to define that era for me.

The offerings have changed since then, time and ratings conspiring to sound the death knell for some of those programs, as has the advent of the internet. Death itself has claimed a favourite of mine from those days, Alistair Cooke’s Letter From America. There are new favourites to be discovered I suspect but whilst the new offerings warm their way into my heart the sound of the World Service in the background as I putter around my house brings back memories, and some comfort, if I’m willing to admit it.

The World Service is not the only thing that has become a staple in my life. Between the peculiar timing of work and travel to work, I have now taken to waking up at 4.00 am, doing a little bit of indoor exercising (in a bid to exorcise the fruit of three months of lockdown, two weeks of quarantine and good neighbours who plied me with salah meat and rice) and then preparing for work. Podcasts keep me company on the bus into work and after dinner, a 5k walk helps me get the heart rate pumping. Ideally, I would like to get back to running 10k three times a week but given temperatures in the mid-forties even at night, I suspect that will be a jaunt for winter. At work, a cup of green tea with some mint leaves has become my after lunch pick-me-up.

When I first toyed with the idea of sending missives chronicling my time out here, the aspiration was for them to come out every week. In conversation with someone the other day, the difficulty of building a discipline of writing amidst all that life throws one’s way came up. Part of the issue for me has been trying to settle on where (Medium, here, a substack newsletter), when and what to write about. On far too many Friday evenings than I would care to admit, I have faffed about, worrying over one or all of the above rather than just writing.

So in the interest of getting on with it, here goes:

  1. What: Thoughts, a diary of sorts, anything from the mundane to the otherworldly. For inspiration, I will revisit my copy of Cooke’s Letter from America collection and one of my favourite expat blog from ages ago. Obviously, I’ll be trying to learn Arabic in 1,000 lessons (if I last that long given oil and all that stuff)
  2. When: On or before 10pm my time on Friday evening.
  3. Here!

Sorted

A Lift off of sorts…

Image Source: Rajab Guga on Unsplash

**

According to the Book of Proverbs King Solomon, who knew a thing or two about hope and despair once said – whether in despair or merely noting in a manner of fact way – that Hope deferred makes the heart sick, and for the last three months and some I feel like I have known just that; lurching — sometimes several times a day — between the delirious joy of looking forward to an adventure and the deep depths of despair. COVID-19 was the culprit, as were the not entirely unconnected issues of an oil supply glut and oil price wars leading to sub-zero oil futures pricing. That there was a clear cause-effect relationship did little to tame the perennial desire to find wider meanings in things that is our forte as Nigerians, cue warfare prayers from my near and dear ones, a la Mountain of Fire and all.

The call to suit up and boot up came out of the blue late one Thursday, which set off a series of throat swabs, trips into central London to hand in passports and pick them up and all the not entirely fun stuff of packing up a life and moving continents in a week. Part of me wondered if it was entirely sensible to be jumping onto a flight, cooped up with others for six hours and some, but given I had waited three months for this chance, I was not about to let it slide over the small matter of a lengthy flight. I felt like a guinea pig through it all – one way systems at the airport and all the rigmarole that came with those, unseasonably warm weather, and lengthy queues. Thankfully, I had my friend O for company, and copious amounts of hand sanitizer to slather my hands in. It might have been the weather, or plain old tiredness, which made someone drop in a faint was our queue slowly inched its way towards the check-in desk. We all had to physically check in our bags, which made for an interminably slow and painful process, exacerbated by the fact that people were flying with tons of bags, returning home after being stuck away from home I guess. Once through security and on to flights, it seemed like the plan was to send us through as quickly as possible – a quick turn around in Dubai and then onwards to our final destination being the plan. On arrival, we were whisked through security, on to the meet and greet folks and then in a taxi towards my final destination, reached at the ungodly hour of 3.30am, at which time I was barely lucid.

The price to pay for moving to the edge of the world in these difficult times has been to self-quarantine for 14 days, days which alternate between speeding past and dragging on interminably. The glorious gift of the internet is not something that is bestowed on us out here without any strings, so one has had to make do with a mobile wifi device and a pre-paid plan, a far cry from the unlimited fibre-optic broadband I enjoyed for the past three months. As such mindlessly watching Netflix or Amazon Prime has not been an option. Shades of living in Nigeria in the dark days before proper internet arrives you could say.

For food, I have had to ping WhatsApp messages back and forth with the chap who manages the camp diner, iteratively arriving – via pictures and explanatory texts – on a semblance of dinner. Bread and eggs have been a salvation of sorts. The downside to all of that though is the blandness of everything which led to me retching over a toilet bowl one afternoon after one too many meals comprising of bread and eggs. The small Nigerian community did come through several times though, bowls of soup turning up one weekend, rice on an another and then two trays of salah meat to cap it all off. Weight is something I am refusing to look at at the moment, not helped by the heat discouraging any attempts to running outdoors.

New routines are needed for this new life. One had best get going.

The Diary: Jacqueville By The Sea

This has been sitting in my drafts for several months, so I thought I’d try to finish it off and post it here as a means to making use of the time I have on my hands.

**

If there is a silver lining to being a terrible sleeper it is that I usually manage to wake up in time for things, typically before my alarm rings. The blips on that record are increasingly regular –  and spectacular – like this past weekend when I slept through multiple alarms. When I finally woke up (having failed to do so to the alarm on my phone and on my watch), it was ten minutes before my taxi was due, cue half-brained rushing about to splash some water on my face, brush my teeth and grab my travel bags. By the time that was done, there were already two missed calls from the taxi driver and the company on my phone. There was, I thought, a hint of irritation on the driver’s face when I finally emerged. All of that disappeared once we were on the way, and speeding, to the airport.  The usual chit-chat revealed he had passed through the corner of West Africa I was headed for many years ago, and that he was Latvian, not that anyone could have guessed from his near-perfect Aberdonian accent. Scrambling for change at the airport, he waived the additional £1.20, helped me with getting my bags out of the car trunk and then promptly disappeared for the next gig. Bag drop and security took ten minutes at that time of the morning, by which time I was barely lucid and grateful for the cup of black coffee I poured myself once I was into the lounge. I was the first of my work party to arrive, which gave me some time to settle in and breathe a little, before the incessant chit-chat and mindless prattle began. It was a good thing I managed to catch my breath because the chit-chat, when it began, focused on the prospect of my leaving for greener pastures – being a traitor to the cause was the good-natured accusation thrown about. In those days before the oil price tanked, there were stirrings of growth and opportunities and I was only the latest in a long line of folk who had either left or were in the process of leaving. To cut costs, we had somehow engineered a tight connection at Charles de Gaulle, our turn around time being a grand total of ninety minutes plane to plane which left us hands full, running almost full pelt through the airport. We made it with some time to spare in the end and were delayed by a further hour for reasons unknown to us, all of which left me internally cursing the necessity of the awfully early start. We found out in the end that the delay was due to a deportation order being served on someone, cue police and immigration and all the malarkey that comes with those.

The flight itself was unremarkable, except perhaps for the opportunity it provided to catch up on some sleep and a small moment of which I am ashamed in which I relocated a very pregnant woman’s bags to ensure I’d have access to mine during the flight. Not my finest hour I’ll admit, though I’d point to my being less than mentally optimal from the loss of sleep. There was food, some movie of some description to pass the time and then podcasts to drown out the noise around. The Bamako pitstop was just that, though it added an extra hour to our travel, meaning we arrived at Abidjan just after 5.30pm local time. Customs was a breeze, the one advantage of arriving on a flight that disgorged the majority of its passengers in Bamako, which meant in just under an hour we were through customs bags in hand searching the gathered crowds for our assigned driver. H and I were at our hotel by 7pm and having dinner by 7.30pm, before turning in for our early morning helicopter flight offshore. That set the tone for the week: early starts, late nights and plenty of helicopter flights, meetings, getting frogged on and off remote platforms, and largely being visible. By the time Thursday came around, the days had begun to blur into each other, the situation not helped by terribly slow internet which was the result of issues with undersea cables off the West African coast.

These trips take me down memory lane, to a time and place in which I was the young, exuberant national engineer with expatriate advisors doling out dollops from their vats of wisdom. Back then, I felt like I was kicking against a glass ceiling and would never really hit the heights I wanted to. There is after all, a perverse incentive structure here; the expatriate is by definition highly paid – better remunerated than in his (and it typically is a he in these parts) own country, waited on hand and foot and holds a lot of power by virtue of his perceived expertise. His approval is thus something of great significance in the local power structure, and when given sparingly can drive behaviours of subservience in the local engineer. There is also the small matter of the expat boys club and the propensity to err on the side of supporting the hegemony in the event of a potential threat to that power. After all, every member of the club benefits, and the more the perceived requirements for their expert service persists, the more the local engineers are made to feel and look incompetent. Nationalisation schemes attempt to address the skills gap by demanding quotas for nationals in these companies – whether they work is a different matter altogether. The irony is not lost on me though, I too am out here because of a perceived superiority of expertise – I too have become part of the White-Saviour industrial complex, to borrow a construct from Teju Cole.  I can only hope that with time, at least some of the bright, young people I meet on these trips can hit the heights their exuberance and energy deserve, and opportunities to grow and learn come their way.

We spend the last day back on land, a day visit to Jacqueville being the objective. It is one of those little outposts big (or medium-sized oil in this case) manages to find, the small pump station on the edge of the town being the most important thing of economic significance in the area. The road there, usually impassable in the heights of the rainy season, has recently been graded and is thus somewhat passable. Graded or not, it is a bumpy ride, our convoy of 4×4’s leaving dust in our wake as we bounce along the final stretch of earth road. Palm trees line the earth road, tricycles dot the roads and in the distance, boats bob about on the sea as fishermen go about their daily business. At our final destination, we carry out an impromptu inspection of some work which is planned for completion in early March with several strong words exchanged at the state of preparedness (or not). Part of it is a manifestation of that industrial complex, and the resultant lack of agency of the national engineer in charge. Lurking beneath the surface for me is that it is my last time out here. Although, I have been involved in this place for all of three years. I’d like to think I’m leaving it in a better state than I met it. Even out here, in the middle of nowhere, plastic shrouds the roots of the trees.

Almost The Season of Good Cheer

Although the lights have been on around town for a while now, only now with the office Christmas party a few days away has any sense of good cheer begun to rear its head. In addition to the bunting everywhere (and our very own special office Christmas tree), the subject of Christmas plans has now seeped into our coffee machine conversations, as has the buzz around the office secret Santa reveal. The Christmas party is definitely a highlight of the season, not least for the special costumes a certain someone breaks out year after year and the alcohol enabled banter which in my view tends to reveal the inner workings of peoples minds more often than not. On a personal note, I am looking forward to catching up with a couple of friends of mine ahead of Thursday, which means I’ll be out everyday from Tuesday till Friday when I hop on my flight down south to formally kick off my period of unplugging.

Until then the precious black gold has to keep flowing to fund our lifestyles, and having three teams in various stages of projects offshore who I have to keep an eye only makes it more imperative that I keep my proper head on. It is the best I can hope for, all things considered.

31 Days of Journaling, Day 8: On Work, A Timeline

For Day 8 of the AoM 31 Day Journaling Challenge: Reflect on Your Career.

Work for me has focused on materials, particularly ferrous ones, and how they perform in a variety of oil and gas environments, on two continents; Africa of my birth and Europe where I have spent the last few years. My journey began in December of 2003 with being hired straight out of University in 2003 as a trainee engineer through progressing via a number of roles in various aspects of the corrosion and materials discipline and eventually leaving in October of 2008, thanks to a mixture of burn out and the opportunity to return to the university for graduate studies. Since graduating in July of 2009, I’ve gotten back into the Corrosion & Materials field first with a service provider and latterly with an oil & gas production company where I am Corrosion & Materials Technical Authority.

Looking back, the early years were some of the best, being hired at one of the biggest oil and gas companies as part of a cohort of four others helped engender a sense of being special with resources available to develop us. 2008, was one of the most pressure filled years, culminating in my leaving to grad school, a few months out and then a return to industry in 2010.

The future is one that is a bit of a toss up at the moment. I feel like to truly reach the heights I wish to reach –  in which I am a broad based technical specialist able to contribute across design, operations and decommissioning – I need time in a design house or consultancy. That is likely to take a pay cut for some time to get into that slightly different field. There is also the question of my increasing interest in data science, analytics and machine learning and the real opportunities I see to migrate those critical skill sets into the oil and as domain. Perhaps the sweet spot would be to combine Corrosion Science and Analytics into a service (CorrSci Analytics?)  I can sell as a consultant in future?

#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.

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….