From Birkenhead to Bandar Seri Begawan and Bishkek
The Ramblings of a Wanderlust Builder
Chapter 8: History Discovered and Fine Dining
Chapter 8: History Discovered and Fine Dining
When I landed on Das Island 1977, the UAE was still a new country and work in progress, since morphing from the cluster of Trucial States just a few years previously. There were a few British influences still present however, to assist in developing public services and for military training. The small Abu Dhabi Defense Force fleet monitored the waters around the off-shore platforms and occasionally moored up at Das overnight. It was on one of these stays that I met the last British seagoing officer, assigned to training of the fledgling navy, when we invited him to join us for dinner, reciprocated with an invitation for a nightcap aboard his 35 foot patrol boat. On boarding his berthed vessel, which boasted a sizable mounted gun on the foredeck, one of our team inquired if the gun rotated through 360 degrees? Commander Martin confirmed that it did, but as it was capable of facing the bridge and his crew was drawn from enthusiastic trainees, he thought it prudent to lock the firing pin in his safe.
A major priority for the navy was keeping dhows away from the off-shore complexes that fed crude into Das Island. The discharged organic waste from these platforms attracted huge shoals of fish and coupled with the powerful night lighting and gas flares attracted them to swarm nearer the surface. This provided easy harvesting for local fishermen, but it was extremely dangerous for the wooden dhows to sail near to the flares. Under certain circumstances flares could drip burning condensate, but local fishermen had worked in these waters for centuries and it was dificult to dissuade them from fishing there.
Wooden dhows intrigued me as they were built with traditional methods, without drawings and machinery, yet were beautifully elegant craft. Western history epitomises Marco Polo and Ferdinand Magellan among the earliest heroes of exploration in the east, but an envoy of a Chinese Emperor had sailed up the Euphrates to Bagdad in a junk circa 150 BC. The most revered of all Arab travellers; Ibn Battuta had sailed to China nearly 200 years before Magellan. Perhaps it is not too much of a coincidence therefore that dhows have a close resemblance to Chinese junks. Interestingly the original story of Aladdin (1001 Arabian Nights) was set in China. We tend to present world history to suit our own prejudices, while also downplaying the real contribution of others and sadly, even allow Hollywood to misinterpret actual historical facts.
Work projects were moving along well, included the upgrade to a new, (at least to me) system of navigation lights, mandatory to allow larger planes to land, once the ongoing airstrip extension was completed. Accuracy of light alignment was essential for landing planes, but with only technical documents for the installation, I was a bit nervous, as definitive checking needed data confirmation from incoming flights. Luckily a chat with a friendly pilot got me aloft and we did several dummy approaches, allowing inspection from the pilot’s cockpit view. Subsequently, a little tweaking was all that was needed to certify accurate alignment and allow larger planes to land as scheduled.
With the superb facilities provided for staff and the great esprit de corps, it was little wonder; Dasites employed their recreation time in inventive and imaginative ways. BP staff was for the most part, recruited from their main refineries and production sites and consequently were intuitively well organised. There were a large percentage of men from the Llandarcy and Baglan Bay plants in South Wales and groups from the Hull and Kent refineries, but the largest contingent were from the Scottish operations at Boness, Grangemouth and Aberdeen. The organisational ability manifested it’s self in the proliferation of clubs and dedicated societies that flourished on the island. With free access to the fine catering available, there also developed a tradition of annual events planned by the various groups, not least St David’s and St. Georges Day dinners, with traditional home fare on the menu and the Burns Society, which excelled in memorable evenings, complete with full Scottish Highland dress, pipers, imported haggis and salmon, entertaining speeches and much sipping of fine distilled malt.
It is not a requirement to be an Irishman to celebrate St Patrick’s Day of course, so even with just a few Irish members, the Oasis Club committee provided an evening of entertainment in deference. I was amazed by the number of talented musicians and entertainers among the expat staff and impressed with how they unerringly gave their free time when called upon. Less surprising however, was discovering the guys in my own engineering team, were always prominent in the organising of ad hoc entertainment, such was the great camaraderie and team spirit generated.
I was assigned to building a new stage, but my scheming pals, citing my heightened sense of humour, arbitrarily decided; I was ripe for a few gags on the evening and added me to the show cast. They were considerate enough however to tell me just a few days before the event.
I had been brought up on Merseyside when local comic talent was exploding into national prominence in UK, in parallel with the Beatles phenomenon. Comedians that later became huge international stars could then be seen in local clubs and pubs nightly. My work on sites in that era, almost guaranteed I was exposed to new jokes on a daily basis, as humour for Merseyside people, came as naturally as breathing. I had also been involved in the fit-out of entertainment venues which gave me access to see some of the best standup comedians in the business. I have to admit, I was occasionally disappointed in some comics and had the vain notion that I could have delivered some of the gags better myself. On my first St Patrick’s night on Das Island I was now forced to test out the validity of my notion, after being more or less press ganged into an involuntary performance. I was always game for a bit of banter however and so I put together a script that would hopefully keep me on stage for about 20 minutes. In the spirit of the evening, I had an emerald green bow-tie to compliment the suit I had made by the island’s tailor, complete with (then fashionable) trousers, featuring flares big enough, for me to practically take two steps inside, before moving forward.
My stage debut was received far better than I expected and even included a call for an encore. I had used a tip picked up from watching professionals and kept a couple of the better gags in reserve, as a way to prompt an audience to remember the last jokes and leave them wanting more. My first work tour was completed the next day however, so I would have to wait until I returned from leave, before getting the full impact of what that first gig would lead to.
The day after St Patrick’s Day and in advance of my impending flight home, I went to the club to collect any mail for posting in UK. The club manager, Ron Forrest, a master of menus and understated humour, kindly offered me some caviar to take home with me, as he apparently had over stocked and didn’t wish to be embarrassed when he was audited later that week. Naturally, I couldn’t be rude and decline his kind offer and so happily tucked six jars of caviar in my bag.
At breakfast on my first morning home, my eldest daughter Amanda spotted the caviar in the fridge, while retrieving milk for her cereal and out of pure curiosity, asked if she could taste it. Believing it was far too much of an acquired taste, even for adults, I gave her a little, expecting to see some extreme facial grimaces. Astoundingly, she liked it and requested it for breakfast, which immediately drew the same plea from her brother and sister. I was still chuckling when my 8, 9 and 10 year old kids left for school, having shared a jar of caviar and a little smoked salmon on toast for their breakfast.
By the most incredible coincidence, that particular school day had been selected for a random survey by the Social Services Department to identify if any children were possibly missing nutritious meals. To avoid embarrassment, the survey was incorporated within a class exercise, requiring the children to describe what they had for breakfast. My children, being in different age groups, provided their individual teachers with lot of mirth after handing in their work sheets. The laughing ceased, when they later compared notes in the staff room, which in turn prompted the Head Teacher to meet my wife at the school gate, to satisfy her curiosity and ask why our children had caviar and smoked salmon for breakfast. The response, delivered with a seriously straight faced advised, “Because we had no marmalade to put on the toast”. Obviously, I was not the only one in the family with comedic pretensions.
This is the eight and the final chapter 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.