Building up?

Baku, Sunday 26th February 2006

It’s half past eleven on a Sunday night and as I sit down to write I can still faintly discern the groan of the cement mixer motor fifteen floors below.  There’s a plot of land on the corner of my street that is being transformed from urban wasteland to new building at a frankly alarming rate; or so far any way.  Building sites are definitely the ‘must have’ accessory for any Baku businessman these days but the need to actually complete the building process appears to be debatable: colleagues are often pointing out part-finished tower blocks to me and commenting on how they seem to have languished untouched for months or even years.  Perhaps the plethora of incomplete towers is testament to some grand tax fiddle and we expats just aren’t fully in on the joke.  It wouldn’t be without precedent: there has for example been a variation going on in Cyprus for years.  All the modern concrete buildings there have flat ‘roofs’ and concrete reinforcement rods sticking out of the top of them like rusty tufts of hair.  The reason for this unsightly stubble?  The owners of the buildings can claim that the buildings are unfinished and have a floor to be added before the roof finally gets constructed.  Until construction has been thus ‘completed’ the government can not charge the usual taxes on the building.  Jolly good wheeze eh?  Reminds me of the old window tax in England.

If tax avoidance really is the name of the game then I would conjecture that the tax point in Baku is on cosmetic rendering rather than on roofs or windows.  Many of the buildings I see here have a full roof on them and frequently have double-glazed windows fitted, often with the maker’s plastic film still stuck on the frames.  The sight is made incongruous however by the fact that these windows are surrounded by bare concrete and brick work which is barely finished, often full of holes and in obvious need of some finishing layers of concrete and plaster to seal it.  Double points go to the buildings where electricity has obviously been connected and you can see lights on through the windows (and the holes) at night.  Surely the rooms can’t be sold or rented for use so soon…?  One of Baku’s many little mysteries…

At this stage in the proceedings it is too early to tell what the nascent building on my corner is intended to become but if its growth continues with the current rapidity we should all find out pretty soon.  It’s development is comparable to that of a child in that it has appeared very rapidly (after an apparently brief period of labour) and it requires regular nourishment at all hours of the day and night.

Three weeks ago there was nothing.  Two weeks ago there was a hole about twenty metres deep with perfectly square, flattened sides and floor and a roller and a bulldozer seemingly abandoned at the bottom of it.  Looking down as I walked past that night I was forced to conclude that the only way those machines could be recovered was by crane.  Two nights later at about midnight the crane was there along with a low-loader and the roller was already out.  How did the workmen who had used it make their escape I wonder…

Once the pristine hole had been emptied the real action started and last weekend came several tonnes of rough timber and concrete reinforcement rods, again in the middle of the night.  Somehow the workmen have spent the last few days laying down a framework with the rods and creating an irrigation system with the timber – either they have invisible ladders or they are capable of levitation.  Their moment of triumph was last night when I came home from town at four a.m. to find not just one but three concrete trucks formed up on the street pumping a huge tonnage of ready-mix into the timber channels.  Thankfully I was too tired not to sleep, otherwise the sound of three mixer motors and three truck engines combined might have proven rather challenging.  Goodness only knows what my neighbours nearer the ground floor made of it all.

Not being and architect or an engineer I’m unable to comment upon the merits and demerits of the construction process I am witnessing: it could be a superb piece of work or it could be a collapsing embarrassment waiting to happen.  Regardless, it’s mildly fascinating to watch the birth of a new building literally from the ground up and see it all happening so fast.  Builders in London would be shocked at the progress; in fact didn’t I read a headline a couple of days ago saying that the new Wembley stadium is behind schedule and won’t be ready in time for the FA Cup final?

A little over an hour has passed and the sound of the mixer motor downstairs is starting to resemble whale song: definitely time for bed I think!


Brief breath

How’s things?  It’s still definitely Winter here but most days while still cold are now dry and sunny rather than wet and grey so spirits are definitely lifting.  The lengthening days now mean I leave for work after dawn rather than before which also helps.

It’s a crisp, bright morning outside with barely a breath of wind and the Caspian is as calm as a mill pond – a rare occurence.  The timing is fortuitous as we’re planning to lift one of the ‘spud cans’ into the water today: a 1500 tonne pastry cutter the size of a country house which the rig will wear like a shoe to gain secure purchase on the seabed.  The operation is delicate to say the least and I’d imagine our project weather forecasters are praying for the wind to stay away.

In other news: there’s a wedding fast approaching in Indiana, a baby overdue in London and not a lot happening in UAE if the local newspapers are anything to go by.  What’s happening where you are?  Keep the updates coming – they are always much appreciated.

The Job

Baku, Sunday 19th February 2006

“Giselle” has just provided a most welcome moment of levity at the end of a largely heavy week.  Down at the yard people are starting to brandish deadlines with serious intent and the already presto pace is about to hit prestissimo.  With this thought in mind, now seems as good a time as any to offer a bit of an explanation about what I’m actually doing here.

I can’t quote the exact figures (and I doubt anyone can) but it has been estimated that there is enough oil and gas under the Caspian Sea to make this region a serious global competitor in the energy producing game.  If Azerbaijan’s situation is typical then I’ll believe it: this country has been almost literally bursting at the seams with oil.  It seeps out of the ground, it seeps into the sea; this was one of the first oil-producing nations on earth.  The term ‘oil well’ was created here because when people first started using the stuff all they had to do to collect it was dig a hole in the ground and scoop it up with buckets.

During the time of the USSR the onshore oil was extracted in huge quantities and with scant regard for environmental or health concerns.  The legacy of the period will live forever in the thousands of old ‘nodding donkey’ pumps and rusted drilling derricks that litter the country, often standing next to open pools of crude oil and filthy ‘produced water’ that has been pumped up with it.  James Bond fans who come here all recognise the location used to film an intro sequence to one of Brosnan’s episodes (it might be “Goldeneye” but as I haven’t seen the films I don’t know precisely): it’s a stark, naked, scarred piece of land the size of a small town, all of it an oil field.  I’ve attached a couple of photographs to give an impression of the place but they don’t do it justice.

Nowadays Azerbaijan is independent, the international oil giants have moved in and BP is one of the biggest players in town.  BP is the operating party in a partnership of six companies funding the Shah Deniz project: a project to design, construct and install an offshore production platform plus onshore terminal plus pipeline between them to extract gas and condensate from an extremely large reservoir discovered approximately 20 miles of the coast.  The project received the green light in February 2002 and I’ve been working on it since May 2004 (which is not bad for a six week temping assignment).

Having been a “Technical Administrator” in Sutton for six months and Paris for a year, I now find myself dubbed “IM Data Coordinator” in Baku for an alleged six months: a new role that takes me away from admin and places me in the midst of the engineering team.  This is a significant step up in the grand scheme of things as I no longer have to worry about photocopying or monitoring the coffee supply.  It’s also a mighty great challenge seeing as I know diddly squat about engineering and I’m now one-to-one with some of the best engineers in the business, all of whom work within a framework of processes and lingo that I am rushing to comprehend.  Superficially my job has nothing to do with engineering (I wouldn’t be doing it otherwise!) but as part of my remit is to persuade these engineers to do a lot of work they don’t want to do I need to be able to walk the walk the talk the talk, or at least fake it very convincingly.

As IM Data Coordinator I am custodian of a large database – the IM standing for Information Management in this particular case.  The database needs to be filled with all the engineering data relating to the offshore platform before the engineering team hand over to the operations team and the platform sets off on its twenty-ish mile voyage to the gas reservoir.  This may sound like a relatively simple and mundane undertaking but when the deadlines are tight and the amount of data you need to collect is vast, things start to get interesting:

A couple of hundred metres away from my desk is a TPG500 jack-up production rig standing on its three legs by the quayside.  It’s not one of the biggest of its ilk but it still looks roughly the size of a smaller inner London council estate and about as pretty (readers in Paris: imagine the Pompidou Centre on stilts).  It’s got all the bells and whistles on it: drilling equipment set (DES), gas processing plant and living quarters for the crew who will run and maintain it.  There’s an awful lot of component parts: pipes, instruments, generators, cabling, you name it.  Many of those parts will need regular inspection and maintenance and they have each been given unique identity tags to make this possible.  This is where the database comes in.

We’ve got around fifty thousand tags recorded on the rig, identifying everything from the vent tower which is one hundred metres tall to the smallest sensors and switches in the electrical circuits.  Each of these tags carries attributes such as make, model, serial number, location and so on.  The exact number of attributes required varies depending on what type of equipment the tag is attached to: instruments for example carry a load of them because there are various settings and calibrations to record.  On average there will be about thirty attributes per tag.  Multiply that by the number of tags and our database has approximately one and a half million fields of data that require filling.

The plan way back whenever was that engineers would top up the database at the same time as they continued the main design and construction work.  This might have worked if someone had enforced the plan rigorously from day one but they didn’t and nature being what it is, most engineers found that getting on with the next bit of engineering was far more important than stopping to fill in spreadsheets or whatever.  Net result: we have a rig that’s nearly ready to sail and a database that needs some holes filling; trouble being that the rig is not allowed to sail until the database contains sufficient data.  Alarm bells finally started ringing just before last Christmas.

I am part of a rapidly drawn-up plan to get this database filled fast as there will be hell to pay if any sort of delay is caused by its incompleteness.  In addition to my deep water immersion in engineering life I am crash-coursing in eWarehouse (the database software), Business Objects (the software we’re using to report on the status of the database) and a proprietary piece of software called DQF which we use to upload data into the database from either Excel spreadsheets or Access tables.  That’s the easy stuff.  Finding the missing data, getting engineers to help find it and to enter it into spreadsheets for uploading are some of the greater challenges of the working day.  The situation for the engineers has changed little and many still have a dozen other urgent things to do before they’ll consider setting aside time to hunt down schematics or record some calibrations.  Lots to do.

It’s not all doom and gloom though: we are making progress and I can say that my efforts are having a positive effect.  The engineers are a decent bunch of people who have so far shown me a great deal of patience and goodwill and if I can translate that goodwill into hard graft for the IM cause over the coming weeks there’s hope yet.  Don’t expect me to radiate Bob the Builder levels of confidence but can we fix it?  We’re going to give it a jolly good try!


Somebody out there is…

Life in these parts must be starting to get internationally interesting as I’ve just received an e-mail from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office concerning avian ‘flu, a couple of recent muggings of expats in the town and the situation regarding protests against the cartoons depicting The Prophet.  Cheerfully, the FCO are making no claims to be able to save me if I contract a nasty dose avian ‘flu:  it’s just as well I don’t live or work near any poultry so shouldn’t have to trouble them.

Song and Dance

Baku, Sunday 12th February 2006

There can’t be many people in this town who can say they’ve been driven home in the Norwegian ambassador’s car (not that I expect it to be an aspiration at the top of everyone’s wish list) but I now count amongst those few.  Naturally there’s a caveat as this is Baku.  I haven’t suddenly fallen in with diplomatic set and spent an evening enjoying a Ferrero Rocher moment at the Norwegian embassy, I’ve simply cadged a lift home from the city’s Concert Hall courtesy of a chap called Joe.

Joe tells me that he and the ambassador have been good friends for quite a while so when the car went on the market Joe was happy to buy it knowing it had been well maintained (unlike the majority of vehicles here).  Unfortunately the ambassador and the Azeri government are not such good friends and the tensions have made themselves felt in this transaction.

After buying the car Joe did what you or I would do and applied to change the vehicle’s registration details into his name.  A straightforward operation?  Usually yes but not on this occasion.  The transfer has been blocked by someone in the government simply because they know it was the Norwegian ambassador’s car.  Joe has thus far been unable to do anything about it having bought the car two years ago.  He had it locked in a garage for a year and a half but eventually started driving it this winter.  I don’t blame him: it’s a four wheel drive Volvo 850 and as such is one of the few cars here that could cope with the recent snow.  Only trouble is, the car is still carrying the distinctive bright red plates that diplomatic vehicles have to carry here.

It was a suitably amusing conclusion to what has been quite an entertaining weekend.  In a break from the usual office routine of expat bar Saturday night followed by recovery all day Sunday, I have seen two shows and experienced the delights of Russian karaoke this weekend.

The catalyst for change was provided by two sisters who have befriended me: Emiliya and Ella.  We met at an apartment party a couple of weeks ago and I soon found out that Emiliya dances with the Baku ballet company, as did Ella until she retired last year.  Invitations to attend ballet performances followed rapidly so last Saturday night started for me at the opera house with a performance of “Love and Death” – a recent national piece.

Going to the ballet in Baku seems to be more about social preening than appreciating the performance.  This may be the situation the world over but as I haven’t been to many ballets I can’t comment.  Either way, it’s pretty obvious here.  I stood outside the opera house for 10 minutes waiting for Ella and watched a growing number of lavishly dressed locals arrive and position themselves at suitable points under the large portico so that they could see and be seen at best advantage.  The displays and the gossiping continue through the mandatory cloakroom (a large security man sent me back to use it when I attempted to walk into the foyer with my coat) and into the auditorium.  If only they would stop there but they don’t and my enjoyment of the performance was somewhat marred by several loud conversations going on around me and even the occasional ringing of mobile ‘phones.  I’m told that this is the norm and it’s a shame because the dancers are good, there’s a decent-sized orchestra of genuine live musicians in the pit (a sadly dwindling sight back home) and an auditorium with good space and acoustics in which to enjoy it all.  Undeterred, I am planning to go back for “Giselle” next week and “Swan Lake” in March: ballet is an art I’ve been meaning to see more of since researching it at college and now seems like as good a time as any to do so.

After the show and a coffee with Emiliya and Ella I bid them farewell and headed to a rendezvous with colleagues at Finnegan’s: an Irish-themed bar if you haven’t already guessed and one that is much favoured by expats.  They have a live band there on a Saturday night who play commendable covers of various ‘western’ favourites.  Their version of ‘Delilah’ is particularly amusing as the young man who sings it sounds nothing like Tom Jones but does sound similar to the Leningrad Cowboys: a Finnish band who have covered the same song with the whole Red Army Ensemble on stage behind them joining in with the choruses.

The stage is open to those who can make a half-decent job of playing or singing and I must confess to having caterwauled through a couple of songs myself in the past.  Much as the thought must make you cringe it seems that not only my colleagues but one of the band’s singers has been quite impressed.  She beckoned me up on to the stage and when I declined we got chatting instead.  She introduced herself as Olga and suggested that we went to a karaoke bar.  Always game to try anything once, I agreed.

The first thing that struck me was the darkness: the brightest sources of light in the place were the half-dozen or so high-mounted televisions that carried the words to the songs and the utterly naff video sequences that accompanied them.  Perhaps it’s a privacy/modesty thing as there wasn’t a stage or a spotlight.  Instead people were sat on low sofas and chairs with views of the televisions and the bar staff were passing radio mics from singer to singer as each turn came round.

The quality of the singing wasn’t all that bad compared to the few times I’ve witnessed karaoke in England; there were one or two fog horns in the house but most people were holding a tune well enough.  The majority of the performers were men mumbling in baritone and perhaps it was this that gave me the impression after a while that all the songs sounded the same.  On this evidence recent Russian music does not strike me as being the best canon from which to draw karaoke material.

Luckily there were several pages of English language songs in the book as well and amongst the old Sinatra staples and modern pop must-haves like Britney’s ‘Toxic’ were some very strange additions and omissions.  I never realised for instance that Samantha Fox had released so many songs or could be so popular as to have nearly and album’s worth of tracks listed in the book.  At the other end of the scale I can only assume that the B-52s never made it big in Russia as their ‘Loveshack’ was noticeable by its absence.

Olga introduced me to a couple of friends of hers, one of whom was a chap who’d lived in London for a while.  He had a grasp of English slang and a deadpan, Russian-accented delivery that amused me no end.  I guess we only stayed for an hour or so (the old ‘time through a lens’ trick again) before we all departed for our respective homes.  They’re a group of people I’d like to meet again but given the choice I’d make the next venue somewhere other than a karaoke bar.

After a lazy lie-in I had the Turkish ballet to look forward to this evening.  A show called “Shaman” (accent on the second syllable) was playing at the city Concert Hall (a place not unlike the Royal Festival Hall in London) and the sisters were getting a group together to go see it.  After Azeri ballet and Russian karaoke I felt a bit of Turkish ballet would complete the hat-trick nicely so off I went.  It transpired that the show was not ballet at all but more a Turkish equivalent of “Riverdance” with lots of national and folk dances and a cast of  twenty-odd doing various set-pieces across the vast stage.  As at the opera house, the audience was dressed to the nines and there to talk more than watch but the music was recorded rather than live this time and the PA system was loud enough to drown out most of the chatter.  The show itself was a little uneven and short on polish in my opinion (not good when the tickets cost over twice as much as the night before) but there were some good moments and as an educational experience it was certainly worthwhile.

With the Concert Hall being many times larger than the opera house there was utter chaos in the mandatory cloakroom once the performance had ended.  Luckily they keep the nearest bar open after the show so one can sit down with tea and cake and wait for the crowd to dissipate before stepping up to the counter – something I’ll have to remember for next time.

Coat and scarf reclaimed it was back out in the cold and after the fun I’ve had with taxis recently (did I find the only one-eyed, non-English-speaking driver in Baku who didn’t know the way to the opera house yesterday?) I was more than happy to accept the offer of a lift home; even when the car turned out to have red plates.


Time and Motion

Baku, Monday 6th February 2006

Come the dawn I’ll have been here a month already.  How on earth did that happen?  I’ve only just arrived!  As beauty be in the eye of the beholder, so truly time must quantify within just as wide a range of measures.  Should I yearn for the days when a six-week Summer holiday from school seemed to last an eternity or when four weeks in South Africa seemed like a lifetime in an other world?  Of course not.  I think I’m starting to understand why Oil of Olay sells so well though.

The situation here is not helped by a mild sense of claustrophobia.  An endless succession of dark exteriors and artificially lit interiors combined with the incestuous structure of expat life makes each day blur into the other far too easily.  From apartment to car to office to bar with familiar faces at every turn and very little time in which to truly get away from ‘the job’ – it can feel like life and time are both being gently warped by a slightly imperfect lens.  This is to be expected though and I knew what I was signing up for when I took the posting.  No need to get agitated about it; rather I think of it as a facet of what I’ve been referring to as ‘life in the expat bubble.’

Compared to working at some of oil exploration’s more remote and/or inhospitable locations (I hear Nigeria is worth avoiding for example) a posting to Azerbaijan is a pretty soft deal.  Baku has all the quantity and variety of shops, businesses, traffic and people you might need to persuade you that you’re living in a city not too far different from one nearer home.  Rather like the Britannia Pub’s “chicken provensal” however, the resemblance is mostly superficial.  The shops on the sea-front Boulevard selling Patek Philippe, Chopard and Mont Blanc may all look very Riviera in their nineteenth century Italian-designed architecture but one is constantly reminded that ninety-nine percent of the people passing the windows do not have the money to buy any of the wares on display.

Those shops are not aimed exclusively at expats.  The growing number of locally registered new Mercedes and BMWs terrorising the city streets is one of the more obvious signs that oil wealth is definitely getting spent somewhere in Azerbaijan.  Look at what they’re driving through though: roads like farm tracks, endless blocks of Soviet-era buildings on the verge of collapse and countless people standing on kerbsides waiting for a seat in one of the rickety old death-traps that constitute Baku’s apparently unofficial and unregulated bus service.

The average working wage here is reported to be well under one hundred US dollars a month but notable exception is the city police.  Corruption, as you may have gathered, is a way of life for many here and unfortunately the police have a record for being particularly susceptible.  Many is the story I have heard from locals and expats alike telling of how a driver has been pulled over for some spurious reason (or sometimes none at all) only to be sent on his way once more after a suitable amount of money has been handed over.  The government’s solution to this problem: last year a fleet of brand new VW Passats and BMW 5-series replaced the old police cars and police wages went up from one hundred to six hundred US dollars per month overnight.  These drastic changes were cited as the removal of all causes for corruption in the force.  In the long run you might see it being a success if you’re an avid optimist; in the meantime a leopard can’t change its spots:

The vast majority of taxis in Baku are Ladas, Volgas (the other Russian staple) or bright yellow Tofas’ (Turkish cars based on seventies Renaults and eighties Fiats).  There’s the odd late-model Mercedes cab out there too and when my colleague Dave and I spotted one while looking for a ride homewards on Sunday evening we took it.  The journey is a short, simple one and our driver was being perfectly sane and sensible at the wheel so I was quite surprised when he decided to pull in on a slip road off a roundabout for no apparent reason.  He got out and walked to the back of the car, at which point I looked through the rear window and saw the police Passat parked right behind us.  Dave and I stayed put.  A minute or so later our driver got back in the car and we finished our journey (all 30 seconds of it by that stage).  Our driver muttered “just money” in disgruntled tones as we pulled back into the traffic.

Dave and I couldn’t come up with an obvious explanation for the episode.  The best guess is that the policemen took one look and decided that a cabbie who had enough money to run a Mercedes would probably have enough money to bung them a couple of bucks to keep business going that day.  Suffice to say I’m sticking with the Ladas for future journeys.

As has been the case in so many places and times before it would appear that wealth is in the hands of particularly small minority.  As an expat – particularly an oil company expat – one is incontrovertibly part of that group on paper and it’s not something that sits particularly comfortably with me.  I try to maintain a down-to-earth approach in life but there are no doors in the expat bubble, one can only remain within it or burst it.  As the latter would be a somewhat foolhardy action for a greenhorn such as me I decided before I came here that I’d stick with the bubble and just deal with the nagging feels of hypocrisy that come with it.

Thankfully the bubble is at street level rather than perched at the top of an ivory tower and I’ve met some great people here with whom I’ve had some great conversations.  The man at the corner shop speaks no English and I speak no Russian or Azeri yet we still managed a perfectly meaningful exchange of the subject of choosing butter a few hours ago.  I have been pausing while writing this to conduct a text message conversation with a local twenty-one-year-old and as a result I find I now know a little bit about post-war German literature (addressing one of the many huge gaps in my literary knowledge).

I’m managing to do one of the things I came here to do, namely to learn something about a part of the world I know very little about and do so first hand.  This is a land full of history, culture and diversity populated by intelligent, educated and hospitable people.  While the means that have brought me and are sustaining me may be questionable, I nevertheless feel very fortunate to be here.  When my time is done and I say my farewells I hope to leave having gained a lot of good knowledge and perhaps a few friends if I’m lucky.  Only time will tell.