From Birkenhead to Bandar Seri Begawan and Bishkek
The Ramblings of a Wanderlust Builder
Chapter 5: Making Friends and Losing Pals
Chapter 5: Making Friends and Losing Pals
After my experience on my previous excursion in the Middle East, I had little expectation, other than to look forward to basic facilities and a sparse existence, especially as I had signed up to work in remote desert areas. I soon learned that expats, when presented with hardship postings, became very adept at utilising whatever was available to improve conditions. Imagination proliferated with the possibility of raising comfort standards a notch or two. I suppose with the benefit of hindsight, given the amount of recycling that went on, they could be considered pioneer environmental conservationists.
This ingenuity was epically epitomised when I arrived in a remote desert camp, which incredulously boasted a swimming pool. The reservoir holding the large volume of water for construction and domestic needs had been restructured as a dual facility. With decking formed from crate timbers, redundant cable drums for tables and a BBQ grill fabricated from an old oil drum, a much-appreciated recreation facility was created, all from scrap materials and without a budget.
Well into my second year up country, the opportunity to make a significant contribution arose, when an unexpected delay to the project afforded me the time to extend the camp refurbishment scope. The cheap plank effect wall paneling, in the characterless bland bar, which invoked a feeling of being inside a crate, had to go. Condemned also was the green plastic laminated bar, which was about as appealing as a jellyfish sting. With limited materials to hand, but with good tradesmen, we set about bringing some comfort to the camp by refurbishing the bar in the style of an old Tudor pub. Package crates were stripped down and prepared before overlaying onto walls to mimic traditional Tudor structuring. The redesigned bar was over-clad and all timbers were painted black in relief of the white painted walls. With a few inexpensive brass accessories from the Abu Dhabi souk added, the place was given a new life and was well received by the arriving crew, when the project was reactivated.
English pub interior indicative of the Tudor style
The bar had always been called the Halfway House, due to it being a transit stop when heading in or out of the desert. It was jokingly referred to as Bernie’s Inn, as I was the only staff member living there for many weeks. After the refurbishment, some wag made a Bernie’s Inn pub sign, which hung outside, and the name stuck.
Notwithstanding efforts to improve facilities, regular duties had to be maintained and so it was when I was called on by the oil company Safety Officer. He inquired about two of his people from the Bu Hasa oilfield who were several hours overdue in reaching their destination and concerns for their safety were rising. They would normally pass though my station in the Bab oilfield en-route for Asab, but after confirming I had not seen them, it was obvious they had taken a more unconventional route.
Unfortunately, they were naughty boys, as not only had they not logged out and provided their intended route before departing but had not bothered with basic safety rules or essential supplies, such as water, shovels and first-aid kit. They were, however, known to have loaded a case of Heineken into their pick-up.
As the light was fast receding, we agreed with the Safety Officer that nothing would be gained by trying to search in pitch blackness and so he left declaring he would request a helicopter the following morning to support our ground search.
The next morning, while preparing to start a search, I received a message to stand down, as the two guys had arrived at their workstation just in time for breakfast. They were very nonchalant and claimed that they had suffered an overheated radiator and being not too familiar with their chosen route, had decided to camp where they were, until it cooled down. The pair confirmed they carried no water with them and when asked if they had then used the beer to top up the radiator, they retorted with a scorn that suggested a heinous crime had been proposed, “Do we look stupid? We drank the Heineken and then pee’d in the radiator.” Whether true or myth, the Safety Officer was far from amused and his incident report was no doubt scathing, but they could at least claim to be good conservationists by virtue of the well thought out recycling.
When there were the occasional lulls in activity, I enjoyed evenings with our local Bedouin watchmen at their campfire and sampled their strong, cardamom laced coffee. It was there I picked up useful smatterings of Arabic, reciprocated by teaching a few words of English, by simply pointing at an item and repeating its name several times. It was not exactly Berlitz learning, but it was done with good humour and they fell about laughing when I couldn’t get my tongue around some words and made a complete mess of the pronunciation.
About 20 miles away from my station, but off the beaten track between the Bab and Asab oilfields, was a village called Madinet Zayed. It was named after Sheik Zayed, the first president of the UAE and consisted of simple homes built from concrete blocks. Sheik Zayed promoted the traditional Bedu lifestyle and even paid a pension for each camel kept by tribesmen to encourage them to stay in the desert and maintain the culture, when an easier life was attracting desert dwellers away to the city. Madinet Zayed became the focal point for regular meetings for camel sales, traditional dancing, craft markets and falcon hunting. Today, with roads developed and good free housing, schools and clinics available for the Bedouin, it thrives as a living heritage town and Emirati families travel there for the annual festivals, to camp and live as their Bedu grandfathers did.
My company employed our drivers and watchmen from Madinet Zayed and I was invited to attend celebrations there when one of our watchmen became a father and was treated royally with incredibly warm hospitality.
It’s natural to remember and highlight memorable, happy or humorous times and forget about or dismiss less comfortable and mundane aspects from the memory. So, although we made the best of the conditions, little comforts garnered should to be contrasted against the hardship endured. Extreme heat and humidity, horrible sand storms, sweat-drenched nights when generators and A/C’s failed, driving for miles without air-con and especially lack of contact with family, were difficult to endure for many. We suffered a high turnover of staff, due to many not being able to adjust or accept the harsh conditions. Some men lasted a few weeks, others just didn’t return after their first home leave. With more than 80 contracted over 2 years, only 5 stalwarts remained from the original 35 men there when I arrived. I had met some incredible characters as well as a few scallywags of course and had gained some great experience, but was beginning to feel the need to spend more time with my family.
Early autumn saw the project rolling along nicely and I had some home leave, made memorable when the children experienced their first flight and we had our first real family holiday. It also prompted me to think hard about the way forward.
Sadly, I returned to learn that in my absence two of my colleagues had suffered a fatal accident. They were pals from South Wales and with no phones available in the camps, they decided on the long drive to Bu Hasa, to call home and surprise one of their wives on her birthday. It was already dark when they left on the rough track, to the oil company compound and they came off on a bend, rolled down a high dune and lay trapped and undiscovered until the next morning.
This incident made it easier for me to make a decision. I had remarkable memories and so with the project complete and just 3 days before Christmas I said my final goodbyes and departed the desert.
At a Dubai meeting in 1997, Habshan was mentioned, and I was asked if I was familiar with Bernie’s Inn. Apparently, with the camp defunct, someone had seen the bar’s potential and was impressed enough to get a license to run the place as a commercial venture. With a network of roads throughout the area planned and various new oil developments announced, there were potentially plenty of thirsty customers to patronise the place. I understand it was still a popular watering hole for expats as late as 2015. I guess we did not too shabby a job, with a load of scrap wood and a little imagination.
Later, Bernie’s Inn
This is the fifth 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.