From Birkenhead to Bandar Seri Begawan and Bishkek
The Ramblings of a Wanderlust Builder
Chapter 2: Medieval Castles to Medieval Conditions
Chapter 2: Medieval Castles to Medieval Conditions
My first job secured overseas was precipitated by a confrontation with an extreme political group, which would prove to be the catalyst in propelling me into a career that initially could have had fatal consequences. I had by then reached the then dizzy height of Site Manager and was running a project in North Wales. We had moved to that part of the country a few years earlier to purchase an affordable property. It also held out the prospect of pleasant country living in the land of song and ancient castles, in which to bring up our young family.
North Wales Countryside
We had our first daughter by the time we relocated and with the arrival of two more children, the affordability factor began to look a bit fragile after two or three years. It was a challenge to balance the domestic budget and having any disposable income was an event rarer than a total eclipse of the sun. Continuity of work on projects was difficult enough, without the vagaries of the inclement British weather and I was rapidly coming to the conclusion that I was effectively controlled by circumstances, rather me being in control of them.
However, whatever recognisable abilities I had displayed with my work efforts, were apparently deemed adequate enough for me to be offered the exalted role of Site Manager. With a regular, if not spectacular salary, we could perhaps now look forward to an improvement in our family fortunes.
Within a few months of settling into my new work situation, unforeseen events propelled me into a move that would dictate my career path for years to come. My new appointment coincided with the rising to public attention of the far-left Trotskyist movement, the Militant Tendency, whose philosophy (allegedly) did not preclude organised violence, to achieve their political ends. Plans to modernise the antiquated sprawling dock complex that spanned both sides of the River Mersey had been recently made public. The facilities were to be upgraded into a mechanised container port compatible with European standards.
The changes would also eliminate the traditional labour-intensive practices and this was not well-received in some quarters. Conflicting opinions hardened and tensions escalated as a political dogfight ensued. Industrial protests and strikes followed, spilling over to other industries. The prospect of 7,000 dock workers losing their livelihood was an anathema to the unionised workforce. The toxic atmosphere was also providing a breeding ground to propagate extreme views and sew more discontent. Unfortunately, the protesting was not always peaceful.
It was in this volatile climate that I received an uninvited visit from a group of burly gentlemen, purporting to represent the ‘legitimate rights of the oppressed and exploited dockworkers. Dubbed as Flying Pickets, they had come to ‘strongly encourage’ me to close the site, in solidarity with their striking comrades.
Deferring to my own vain persona, that insisted I was a lover and not a fighter, I dodged around their demand by revealing I had no authority to make such drastic decisions but promised I would refer the matter to my management. After delivering a political diatribe on the ‘multiple evils of management and the heroic struggles of the proletariat’, they left, muttering noises about knowing where my family was located. Later, I discovered my car’s headlights had inexplicably been smashed, in solidarity with my visitor’s cause, no doubt.
I admit to having some empathy for the dockworkers’ plight. This was purely emotive and harked back to my formative years when I lived near the docks and loved the childhood excitement, but counted by the fact that my granddad met his tragic death working there. It was a bitter-sweet relationship. The dichotomy, however, was that it was painfully obvious that the proposed modernisation of the docks, would inevitably proceed and jobs would disappear as a result.
My sympathy was counted by utter disdain for the Militant Tendency. My report to my CEO on the site incident was incredulously met with a personal verbal tirade, holding me responsible for any repercussions on schedule or production. Obviously, he had not fully grasped the seriousness of the scenario in its entirety.
The events of the day and reaction from my own management left me a bit deflated. Intimidation and veiled threats towards my family, followed by a lack of company support, made a serious rethinking of my situation inevitable. A former colleague stepped in with a proposal to join him on a new venture in Saudi Arabia. The appeal of an enhanced income and the opportunity to travel were a magnetic combination.
Formalities were hastily agreed and move instigated to get us onto a flight. Only the day before I was due to depart, I was advised that we were to travel via Beirut, in order to secure visas for Saudi Arabia. This did not appeal to me, given the reports of serious political violence that erupt there on a regular basis.
The flight from London was uneventful, but I was unprepared for the shock of seeing the squalid refugee camps that extended from the airport into the city. They were a startling and poignant contrast with the view of the pristine, blue Mediterranean Sea on the opposite side of the road.
The city exuded a certain ‘shabby chic’ with its well-worn, but still identifiable French influences. However, damage done by fighting, served to confirm the city, once the Monte Carlo of the Middle East, had seen better times. With a palpable tenseness about the place, I was glad when the few days I spent there was over.
Culture shock was something I was not over-familiar with, but after reaching Saudi Arabia, I was confronted with it full on. I instantly learned that a uniform elevated the wearer above mere humans and made them instant arbiters of any rule or law, real or imaginary. This included officious customs personnel, who confiscated anything deemed as inappropriate items, or overly zealous religious police brandishing camel whips and belligerently exalting everyone to perform religious duties.
Our arrival coincided with the lead up to the Holy Month of Ramadan, of which I had no previous experience of and was ignorant of its strict etiquette. The long drive from the airport, on desert roads, squeezed into a truck devoid of air-conditioning, is not something I recommend to anyone and our arrival at the crude housing, on the periphery of an oil facility, did little to raise jaded spirits. After a poor night’s sleep in a sparse, shared room, I was taken to receive my work orders, which were short and blunt – ensure the workers didn’t slack, meet the programme and don’t break the rules. However, adhering to the rules in Ramadan proved to be torturous in the extreme August heat, especially as we did not have the benefit of shorter working hours afforded to others.
10th or 20th Century – not much has changed
The project was not very interesting or challenging. The really hard work entailed, preventing sunstroke, staying hydrated and retaining energy. The managing of the appalling, accommodation was given to local contractors. With their reduced hours during Ramadan, their habit was to prepare meals early morning, serve onto plates, cover with cling film and leave on a heated surface until our return in the evening. Hygiene and food quality had a very low priority.
At the end of Ramadan, the Eid (holiday) afforded us a few days mandatory break. In anticipation of the Eid starting the next day, some of my colleagues had gone off to Al Khobar, about 60 miles away, for some basic shopping. I had earlier begun to feel lethargic and nauseous and with a ferocious headache, I opted to lie down in my cell-like room to try and sleep it off.
In the early hours of the following morning, my returning colleagues found me, face down and unresponsive in the communal toilets. In obvious distress, they took me to the clinic in the oil company compound.
High Street shopping in Al Khobar in the 1970’s
After providing blood and fluid samples and a period on a saline drip, I was discharged and taken back to the accommodation. The company medic later attended me and prescribed tablets for my condition. I still had a monumental headache and a fever and had only water for four days but will forgo the other messy details, for the sake of decency.
Late at night, two days after the clinic visit, I was given an hours’ notice to pack my bag, before I was collected by a company driver and hastily driven across the desert to Dhahran airport and unceremoniously put on a flight out of Saudi Arabia. The ensuing events were gleaned retrospectively from the document trail and from colleagues and I have little memory still of how I managed to find my way home, other than by relying on instinct. I changed my Lufthansa flight in Frankfurt and connected with another plane to London, but recall no detail. I apparently also negotiated myself across London to buy a rail ticket.
I must, however, have been in control of my senses intermittently, as I contacted my home to make it known I would arrive in Chester in due course. Disorientated as I was, on the three-hour rail journey, I failed to recognise my target station and subsequently alighted some 60 miles further north. With assistance, I found another train heading south to Liverpool. In the meantime, my family had left Chester station, confused and unaware of where I was.
In Liverpool, I gave a cab driver my address and he drove me to North Wales, where I arrived at around midnight, in a state of utter exhaustion. I woke up the next morning with my family doctor standing over me. My wife had immediately recognised that things were far from well and had requested the doctor on an emergency basis. His concern, on seeing me, was such that he called for Public Health officials, who soon arrived at the doctor’s behest.
My doctor returned later to advise that sample test results had confirmed initial suspicions that I had contracted a contagious disease, with a potentially fatal strain of Paratyphoid now identified. Officials with pails of phenol disinfectant and instructions for my isolation arrived and proceeded to treat my family. The Public Health Department used my flight and rail ticket stubs to trace my fellow travellers to follow up with treatment as required. They also advised the Saudi Arabian health authorities that my condition had emanated from there and precautions could be taken accordingly. KSA officials responded by claiming no records existed of me being there. However, within days of my departure, the miserable accommodation we endured was totally sanitised and refurbished. The staffs were instructed in hygiene practices and wore pristine uniforms.
I later learned that my employers had received a hospital bill and medical report, which was analysed by their own Medical Officer. As he was responsible for wrongfully diagnosing and medicating me and for monitoring the hygiene standards at the accommodation, his hasty departure from KSA was no doubt done to avoid repercussions.
Back to North Wales
My family and I followed a strict hygiene régime, with all of us subject to sample testing on a weekly basis. My family never showed any sign of infection, but it took five months before I was given a clean bill of health to work again. The whole experience spanned just five weeks and was a baptism of fire that served to make me mentally prepared for my next overseas posting, which I couldn’t wait to find and started on.
I never received any salary for the time I was employed in KSA. Presumably, as it was denied I had ever been there, my employers felt no obligation to pay a ghost.
This is the second in a series of blogs narrating the life of an Expat – from childhood years to his ascend as a veteran of the Travel and Construction industry.
Bernard C. Dagnall, CIPM
Bernard is a highly experienced professional Project Manager with credentials earned over a span of 35 years with VVIP Clientele and Blue-Chip brands in Europe, Middle East, Central Asia and the Far East. He is also a creative writer having penned many industry-related articles and blogs.