Friday, 29 April 2011

No Royal Wave from me...

Just yet.

I'm still here, although I'm not sure for how much longer. As predicted, the Koreans raised concerns about my health (if only they knew the half of it) to my company, and there are now moves afoot to try and reallocate me (hopefully in the UK) and get someone else to take over this role, but it's all very hush hush at the moment.

I was ultimately persuaded that rather than jump on the first plane home I should stick it out for another few days or weeks and not give my company a bad name. Fair enough, I guess. It's not in my interests to burn bridges, and a job hunt in the UK could prove to be a tricky task in the "current climate".

I did need a break, though. Just to get out of this concrete cell for more than a snatched hour or two, and since pay day had arrived, I decided to treat myself to a night in a hotel. The wonderful wide world web helped me find a very reasonable offer in a nearby establishment, so I hurriedly packed my holdall bag (forgetting underwear) and called my driver man to take me there. I spent yesterday afternoon munching on goodies from the mini-bar, snoozing, watching trashy movies on TV (Oh, the joy of TV!) and having an aromatherapy massage (given to me by an Indian man with large, rough hands, but it was OK). It was glorious, and I felt refreshed and revitalised enough to drop down to the hotel pub/bar establishment and have a 3-course WESTERN meal and a couple of glasses of red wine. I ended up staying awake far too late, as I always do when there's a TV to watch, and watched Red Dragon, the Hannibal Lecter prequel (I think).

This morning I had a lovely, lazy breakfast in my room before checking out and getting myself a haircut and shave at the Male Beauty salon. The young Syrian man who attended to me was expert with clippers and cut-throat razors and sculpted me a very natty little goatee beard whilst we put the world to rights and discussed beer, cars and women.

Feeling even more refreshed and renewed, and with clearer nasal passages than I've had for weeks, I went back to the hotel pub for a spot of carvery brunch/lunch. I ended up sitting in there for a good couple of hours watching the Royal Wedding. It was on every screen, and they had Union flags all over the place. The British contingent were well up for it, cheering the national anthem and clapping every pivotal moment. Some nearby Aussies asked if I was English and automatically assumed that made me pro-Royal. I couldn't be arsed to debate the issue, so just raised my glass with them and smiled.

Of course, one can't be anything but impressed by the pomp and ceremony of a royal occasion. No-one does it like we do, and it's nice to see so many Brits smiling for once, rather than bloody moaning (which is the other thing we're good at). What was remarkable to me was the level of patriotism displayed by many of the expats around me. If I'd asked them if they wanted a ticket home right there and then, they'd probably have guffawed loudly in my face and possibly shoved a broken glass into my jugular vein. I guess that there is some logic behind it. I'm no raving patriot, coming from the "I didn't choose to born here" camp, but can of course see the good stuff about the UK, and when away from home, one does come to miss the good things and forget the bad things that one whinges about when at home.

It's the same for the family as well, I reckon. I miss them like crazy when I'm away, but at times they have the power to do my bloody head in when I'm actually with them. You don't know what you've got until you lose it, is that clichéd, but nevertheless accurate, refrain.

I'm back in Prisoner Cell Block K now. I'm skipping the Kraken stew and rice tonight, having eaten a week's worth of western-style food. I kept a Mars bar from the mini-bar, just in case I get peckish.

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Where do we go from here?

So I got to the weekend without any major upsets and battled on feeling like cack most of the time, making the most of the chance for a lie-in on Friday morning (they got the soju out again on Thursday night, but I only had a few small glasses this time). An idea for a road-trip to Al Ain or anywhere really had been mooted by the Canadian chap, but he didn't call me on Friday morning (he went on the lash Thursday night...nice for him) so I called Bashir the driver at about lunchtime but he was in Dubai so he sent a driver to collect me from the villa and take me wherever I wanted to go...the airport was tempting, but I settled for the Marina Mall in good old down-town AD. There are a few decent eateries there, so they tell me, and a chance just to get out and about.

On the way I noticed that AD has really come on leaps and bounds in terms of development since I was here 4 years ago. I remarked in my Beer and Bloating blog about how there were fewer high-rise buildings there, but now there are loads and many more being built. There are some real architect's flights of fancy and more than a few exhibitions of ego as well. They are definitely attracted to weird-shaped buildings in this part of the world, especially curves and wiggly lines. There's on at the Exhibition Centre that looks like a giant shiny sock. Hey, their money; their country, eh?

Marina Mall looks like a fairly mature, well-established mall, shall we say. There is a sky-tower sprouting from the back end, with what looks like a revolving restaurant at the top, giving views along the Corniche and the other way towards the sprawling, ornate Emirates Palace complex. The mall itself is airy and open with lots of natural light, and the choice of coffee shops and cafés is just mind-boggling. I made a bee-line for Belini, at the rear of the mall, having heard good reports of it, and had a very pleasant lunch of calamari followed by Quattro Staggioni pizza, sitting quietly and doing some people-watching. A young Bitish family with Southern accents were sat close by, with the obligatory blonde yummy-mummy and photogenic twin boys. One was called Sebastian, the poor child, and his father gave him a hard time over drawing a snake's head or something.

After lunch I wandered about for a bit, finding the Cinestar multi-screen cinema on an upper level, but deciding I didn't really fancy paying to see anything they had on, so decided to venture out the front of the mall and maybe take a taxi along to the beach and Corniche area. I ended up boarding an open-top double-decker bus that runs a shuttle to the beach park area and back and trying to take some photos of the AD sights as I went. The driver had other ideas, and sped along quite alarmingly, I thought. He took corners and roundabouts at high speed, and I honestly thought he was going to tip the bloody bus over, so when he came to his first stop, I jumped off and decided to use the two lower limbs and get some exercise. I hadn't reckoned with the heat.

It was knocking on towards 40 Celsius that afternoon, and I ended up walking a good half mile along a busy, bank-lined road trying to find my way to the beach. Luckily I found a shop where I bought a bottle of water to keep me going, and eventually I cut along a side street and came out at the Corniche road, not far from the beach park. I was getting very hot and sweaty by this point and was hoping to find a café with shaded tables to get an ice cream or similar, whilst making sure there were no inappropriate beach volley-ball games going on, otherwise I would have had to film them...

As it was, the options for drinks were rather limited, and access to the beach cost 10 dirhams, and since I had no swimming gear or towel, I decided not to bother, or risk being seen as a bit of an old perv just sat there watching people on the beach with my mega-zoom camera in hand. I ended up grabbing a taxi that had luckily just dropped someone at the beach and going back to the mall, finding Starbucks and ordering a large iced coffee. It was much needed, is all I can say.

So that was my weekend, pretty much. I tried hard not to think of the people in the UK enjoying the first of 2 four-day weekends, and apparently enjoying superb (not too hot) weather as well. And Saturday morning, I was woken at 5.30am by the alarm on my phone, and flung myself into another week of high adventure...or so I thought.

I got my blood test results back that morning. Nothing too alarming, just a bit of a naughty cholesterol profile. Tell me something I don't know. The anti-biotics should have been doing their job and ridding me of the sinus problem. If I could get my info together for the bosses, I might be able to get them to talk the client about moving me to my own place and reducing my hours, etc. and I might be better off within a week or two.


Sunday was pretty horrible. I felt horrible, and just didn't feel right. I had struggled to get up in the morning and just went through that day from one coffee to the next...drinking far too much caffeine again...and sugary stuff. My brother will kill me if this place doesn't, I tell you. I was glad to find out that I'm not alone in feeling tired and wretched. The main man I deal with at work and who I sit next to gets up as late as possible, turning up for breakfast five minutes before the bus leaves (even I'm not that bad), and I spent an hour watching him dozing off in front of his laptop one morning. He rarely types anything, just sits here with his left hand holding his head up, right hand holding the mouse and stares at the screen. Occasionally he rolls the mouse wheel. I can't see his screen from where I sit, but when I have managed to see it, it's always the internet on there. Everyone else is on it at least 50% of the time as well. It's insane. We could do what work we have in half the time we spend there, if not less. The stupidest bit is having the 90 minute lunch break which is spent sleeping to catch up on what we've lost in the morning. What is this about? It's fucking insane, people. Fucking insane!

But anyway, I got through Sunday, and half-hoped the soju would come out that night, as it had last Sunday. It did - for one or two tables - but not ours. Our department manager, sitting next to me at dinner, sent the bottle that came out for us back to the kitchen. I was not amused, and when I went back to my room, I got a migraine. I hardly ever get them. I can count the times I have had one on one hand, but my vision started going weird and then came the zig-zags, so it was an early night with 2 pain-killers for me.

So Monday morning, I'm thinking: this has to get better some time. I have to get used to this routine. My body clock has had 2 weeks to adjust, but no, I feel worse than ever, and sit at work wondering what the hell is going on. My head still hurts, and the nose is stuffier than ever. I tell the main man that I have to go back to the doctors, and this time I want to see a good one, not some dismissive prat who won't listen. I ring the insurance firm and tell them this, and they get me in with a very nice doctor called Doctor Vera, an American lady doc of oriental descent who sits and listens to all my worldly troubles, takes my BP, checks my ears and nose and then tells me I need to get some rest. I still have the sinus infection and my body needs rest to help it. I still have a high BP because of the lack of rest and the infection and probably the stress I'm under, and she thinks that a working situation like mine is unsustainable for someone in my fact anyone. What do you do for rest and relaxation, she asks? Everyone needs it. She gives me a letter for my bosses explaining this, and I take it back to the site, give a copy to the client and e-mail another to my company.

It's down to them now. They have let me take the prescribed time off (which is boring as hell in this villa, but it's needed), as they should, and they are going to want to discuss this between them all, I'm sure. Whatever. I have got to the point now that if the worst comes to the worst, I will just have to go home and start looking for a job in the UK, be it as a QS or a bloody burger-flipper. I really don't think I can do this shit any more, and I think my body is telling me that. Is this all really worth paying the ultimate price for? I don't think so. I don't want my health to get bad again after the work I've done to improve it. I want to be at home with my family and friends. I don't want to watch my daughter crying every time we Skype as she tries to hug the computer screen. I don't want to miss any more family get-togethers or friends' weddings or trips to the seaside. I just want a life.

I'm off for a sleep. Typing this has actually worn me out.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Weak too

I managed to get into AD on Thursday night and had a welcome break from Little Seoul. I met with a chap I "know" from an expat website, and we shared tales of Asian woe over Lebanese food and a beer or three on the patio area behind an Irish bar. The people in the group all agreed that I had a tough gig.

On Friday I ventured out again, calling up my new best friend the private hire taxi gadgie called Bashir who conveyed me to the new Dalma Mall slap bang in the middle of an industrial area (Mussafah). It's supposed to be the biggest in AD. I soon discovered that there was only about 10% occupancy so far, with only a few shops open, including a huge Carrefour. I did find a nice little coffee shop with big comfy seats where I had a very decent cappuccino and read some stuff on the e-reader. There were few other options in there, and I was really after a decent feed, so I called up Bashir and asked him to take me to a different mall...the closest one that was open, and that he did. It was smaller, but had an open food court and a couple of American chain restuaranty places, so I was happier than a pig in muck as I ordered and scoffed a platter of chicken tenders with fries. They were GOOOOOOD.

Saturday was Suckyday. I can't really remember specifics, but I just felt awful. I think it was my proper full day without an excuse to get away, so I spent an interminably long day staring at the clock on my computer. 12+ hours is a long time to do that, believe me. By the time it was time to leave, I was ready to walk myself to the airport and get on the first plane, wherever it went to. The only thing that stopped me was the fact that I was meeting my company boss in AD that night for dinner. Firstly I never turn down free food, and secondly I had a chance to whinge, which I won't pass up either, and it might even do some good this time.

I was ready and psyched up to lay down my list of demands and wave a plane ticket in his face, but my bravado dissipated a little on the way into town and all but disappeared when I met my boss at the hotel. He is a very easy-going, cool customer, and he just makes anyone he talks to feel relaxed and at ease. So I didn't go as forcefully as I wanted, but when he asked me how it was going, I did list my concerns to him...the accommodation, the food, the lack of personal transport, the ridiculous hours. He understood them all, thankfully, and said we should wait a week or two before going to the client with a list of issues and requests. I assented to this approach, seeing that it did really make sense.

After the meal we went to find beer and fortuitously ended up in a sports bar where the FA Cup semi-final between the United and City of Manchester was showing. We watched the last half hour or so over a couple of pints in a lively but not rowdy atmosphere and then went our separate ways. I ended up having a late night again, which isn't good when I have to get up at 5.30am.

Sunday was OK as well. I was sent with a driver to pick my boss up from the hotel, which meant another couple of hours out of the site office. We collected him and delivered him to the site where he spoke with the Korean management for all of about 10 minutes, going no further than a few pleasantries and general enquiries about the project. We then went on a lengthy site tour in a 4x4, and then it was lunchtime. I was hoping to escape to return the boss to his hotel, but was told the driver had other things to do afterwards, so I had to stay put.

That night, back at the ranch, I found the Koreans getting lightly sozzled over their dinners on a drink called soju. It's bamboo or rice spirit, something like that, and tastes like a sweet vodka, although it's only about half the strength at 20%. I was invited to sit with a table-full of Koreans and was soon learning the whole ritual surrounding the pouring of the drinks for other people and challenging to drink it down in one..."Gumbay!" A bit like the Chinese "Kampai" and the Japanese "Gambai". I don't know how much I drunk, but I was a little merry. The food that night was really good as well, featuring belly pork and onion-filled pancake things. It was the best meal I've had here by far, and I went to bed quite content...knowing that things were likely to improve.

That's been the peak of it, I think. Since then it has declined rapidly once more. Monday and Tuesday were pretty rotten. I have come down with another bloody sinus infection or something, and have been to the doctors. They gave me a load of medicine, half of which I've chucked away without taking because I probably know more about my own conditions than a new doctor and don't really trust what they give you here after a bad experience in Dubai. Blood tests were ordered as well, which I've had this morning, but they seemed to be surprised that my BP was up, when just getting to see the doctor was immensely stressful and involved 4 lengthy phone calls to my insurance company in London to arrange payment guarantee. It's times like this that you appreciate the good old NHS. (LEAVE IT ALONE, DAVID CAMERON!) I was at the clinic for 3 hours.

To make matters worse, I just can't fathom these Koreans. One minute they seem immensely worried about my welfare, the next they are completely ignoring me. I worry that I did something wrong on soju night, as I feel like a pariah at most meal times, and have watched them come in the dining room and purposefully avoid sitting with me. The 3 chaps I work with the most and share an office and even a villa with seem to have acquired their own car now, but have left me to use the mini-bus to get to and from work, and no-one says a word to me on there, other than the Indian driver who always says hello. I am showering...I'll say that now.

Do I make them uncomfortable in some way? I never had this level of cultural clashing when I worked with Japanese people in Taiwan, but then I was living with my western colleagues and mixing with them after work. I definitely need to get out of this villa ASAP. I've spoken to the Canadian safety guy again and he said it was hard. He lived with them for 4 months. Last night really took the biscuit when they decided to sit out in the common area (what could be a lounge in a normally-occupied villa) and blathered on in inscrutable words for a couple of hours...almost 11pm when they finished. I listened to my mp3 player to try and get some peace and maybe some sleep.

All in all, I am hoping things change quickly here for me, because I can't live like this for another 2 months. Last night I saw pictures of my daughter riding her bike without stabilisers for the first time. Of course, this could have happened when I was at work in the UK, but it's just another thing that got to me.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Day two at you know whooooo

To get my 8 hours of sleep in, I now need to retire at around 9.20pm. I feel like a 10-year-old. A 10-year-old who has been banished to his room without TV for 11 weeks...

Still, the accommodation is better than what I had for the first month or so in Libya. That was a shocker. The biggest shock here is one of culture. Getting up at 5.20am just isn't natural for me, and I can't see how it's natural for anyone, to be honest. Breakfast is served from 5.30am, and it's pretty much the same kind of food they offered for dinner last night. The cook made me 2 fried eggs, which was nice.

Then it was off to work at 6am. Another surprise awaited me, as my erstwhile colleague revealed on the way. Everyone does exercises before starting work. You've probably seen these morning exercises that Japanese and Korean companies get their staff to do...lots of star jumps and stretching. That's exactly what I had to do, feeling slightly absurd as I stretched my arms and legs in a group of people arranged in neat rows. The Koreans knew it off by heart, having been taught this stuff from school age. It did wake me up a bit, I'll admit that much.

I was put through a 2-hour-3-language H&S induction later that morning, featuring some rather gory pictures of men with broken grinding discs through their heads and so on, then was shuttled off by the helpful Indian admin man to get a local SIM card from a nearby newly-opened mall. As we set off over the bumpy site roads, a familiar rumbling feeling came to my stomach. It shouldn't have surprised me, really. I always get a dicky tum after a day or two in a new place, and I don't think the new diet has done much to help either. I informed my Indian friend that I needed a bathroom post haste, and he stopped at the same service station where I'd grabbed a bite to eat yesterday. A nice touch, I'm sure you'll agree. He pointed to the back of the station, saying the facilities were there. Again, I shouldn't have been surprised at what I found. I opened the door to find a squat-only-hole-in-the-floor bog. I wasn't going to even try it, not with guts like these, so I dashed back to the car and said I'd wait for the mall toilets. If they didn't have proper sit-down ones, I was screwed.

Luckily they did, and all was well. The primary reason for the visit to the mall didn't actually bear any fruit, because the supermarket phone counter was all out of SIM cards. We ended up driving to some back street phone shop where they had loads of them.

By lunchtime I was back at my desk, feeling very, very tired and hoping my stomach would settle. I went along to the canteen with a plan to eat some plain food, and was delighted to find the cook from the villa dishing up food for everyone onto delightfully prison-like metal food trays. I opted for some rice and some eggy stuff and a couple of pieces of fried fish. They didn't cause too much bother.

I managed to catch half an hour of sleep in the meeting room for the rest of the lunch hour-and-a-half, and resumed my work. The afternoon wasn't too bad, although I did have to pay a visit to the site clinic to get some immodium...just to be sure. My Indian friend plied me with Bombay Mix just before home time (although he quote forcefully insisted it was called KERALA MIX), pouring some very tasty mixed snacks into my hands. Before I knew it I was on the way back to the villa on a mini-bus, wondering what the cook had in store for dinner.

To my surprise she served up some steak...not really fancy, just some rump with some Chinese style veg and more spaghetti. Everyone got some, and I was left wondering if it was all on my account. There was still strange soup on offer and little dishes filled with a variety of tiny fish, noodles and a spicy dish called Kimshi or something. There are different types, and I tried a bit of a green one that had horseradish root in it. It was actually quite nice, and would have gone down well with the steak if I hadn't eaten it in one mouthful....recognisable foodstuffs will get that these days.

So now, I'm here in my room, with no TV, just Bejewelled Blitz and broken conversations on Facebook. I'll be turning in in less than an hour. All told, once I get back from work and have had dinner, I get less than 3 hours of spare time. Can I last the full 11 weeks in this environment? At the moment, there seems little choice.

I have lived and lamented this Life of Goodbyes enough (I'm a moaner and I know it) and just feel like my life is passing me by. I may be offered some relief tomorrow night if I can find a way into town for a beer and some recognisable the moment I feel like I could be in Seoul. Why is it never as bloody advertised?

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Back in the Sand Pit...

I know, I know. I can scarcely believe it myself, but I type this from a villa in a remote suburb of Abu Dhabi, wondering how the fuck I ended up back in the land of camels, date palms and Insha'allah.

To cut a long story short, my current job went down the swanny, but this job came along just at the right time...well, nothing else came up in its stead, to be fair, and I had little choice. How things change in the space of 3 months. After Christmas, all looked rosy in the garden (if you dug the snow out of the way), and I was in line to get a stable, secure, permanent role after another 3 month contract. I was that confident it was going to come off I bought a new(ish) car. It all started going breasts north about halfway through, say around 6 weeks ago...not in the sense that I was doing anything wrong, but there was a strange feeling of doom around the workplace, and people were feeling generally unsettled. Then came the announcement about redundancies. They said our office would be unaffected, other than the shedding of one admin person. This didn't stop people fearing the worst, especially those who've been through similar scenarios before. As a contractor, I felt immediately unsettled, and my attempts to seek any form of assurance were met with silence. I put the feelers out, as you do, within the company and elsewhere. In the "current climate", of course, the UK market was not offering up many solid leads. Only overseas did that.

As time went on, the unsettled feeling got worse. Rumours flew around. People got more and more peed off and as much time as possible was spent planning exits to the pub at lunchtime or after work. A phone call came completely out of the blue for this role in AD, and I was invited to attend an interview near London. I went down on the train, and was offered the job about 2 seconds after I walked in the door. I tend to get alarm bells going off when such things happen, but it sounded like a good job, even if the rotations were a bit harsh at 11 weeks on/2 weeks off. I had to make a decision.

A few days later, the decision was made for me. My boss told me I was no longer needed as the client couldn't see my role being full-time. Nothing else was showing on the horizon, so I took this AD one. Since then, I have spent my time buying new pairs of pants and socks and being with the wife and kids. I knew what was coming, and it has hit harder than ever before this time. We spent a last few beautiful days together for 3 months in some wonderful weather, wishing time would stand still. By Sunday night, I was pretty much in pieces. My daughter was distraught again, and I thought through a dozen ways of getting out of coming, including self-mutilation with a rolling pin and running away with the dish and the spoon.

I didn't do that of course, I got on the train yesterday morning, having given more tearful hugs to my kids and wife, and set off for here. The journey was long, uneventful, pretty damn lonely. I watched movies galore on the first flight (Tron and then Tron and contrast!), then read some HG Wells on my shiny new e-book reader on the second. If I manage to stick this one out, I'll be doing direct flights from now on, at least until the new Doha airport opens, because the little old one is shockingly small and unfit for purpose as a major hub.

I landed in AD just after 3am local time, and joined the muddled queues to go through immigration. I answered 2 simple questions about previous trips to the UAE and journey start points, but then almost jumped and screamed when they scanned my passport through their machine and some horrible electronic alarm coincidentally sounded nearby. I got through without a problem, however, and picked up my suitcase before heading for the exit. I was meeted and greeted by the driver who conveyed my at Mach 2.1 to the villa I am sharing with about a dozen Koreans. It was nearly 4am local time when I turned in, and about 30 minutes later the Muzzein started the mournful wailing. Luckily, there aren't any mosques in the vicinity, so it didn't startle me this time.

About an hour after that I heard movement. The others were getting up for work. Crikey. This is going to be fun, thought I. What kind of hours do these nutters work, for God's sake? I drifted in and out of sleep, hearing the cleaners doing the stuff, listening to jets flying overhead, and dreaming of sunny days at Saltburn-by-the-Sea with ice cream and sandy toes. I finally roused myself around noon, showered and dressed and wondered what the hell I had to do. I managed to find some phone numbers for the company I am working for here and eventually found out that the main chap I was going to be working with was on his way to pick me up. He arrived 45 minutes later and very helpfully diverted to a petrol station so I could get some food. Maynards wine gums and coca-cola had been my only intake so far today.

The office was standard site office fare, with big wide cabins filled with desks and rumbling air conditioning units. I was shown round the offices, introduced to about 40 people with about 10 different job titles (mine, not theirs - it's political, you know. I'm being asked to be somewhat dishonest to two companies now). Then they made me attend a meeting with only one person who had a working knowledge of English, and expected me to understand the complex contractual issues they were bringing up. Thank goodness I have offers of support from around the globe, or I would be sinking faster than a stone with a really big stone tied to it.

It was a mercifully short afternoon, however, and I soon discovered that the hours are strictly adhered to at both ends of the day. We finish at 6 sharp and then have to make our ways back to the villa for dinner. The villa I'm in is one of about 4 in a row, full of Koreans. The food offered is therefore....Korean. I give most things a chance, and discovered some of the food they do is actually quite nice. It was like the proper Chinese fare you find in China rather than on Linthorpe Road, but with more fish and loads more heat and spice. I tucked in with some aplomb, impressing my colleagues with my chopstick technique and ignoring the naughty thoughts of possible canine consumption that cropped up in my mind. I could really have been eating anything, but it tasted pretty good. Then the Chinese/Korean lady cook came out with a huge plate of spaghetti blog that she'd made just for me, which I felt obliged to polish off as she sat there grinning at me and nodding her head.

So now I'm in my room. At least I have the internet. I need an early night as breakfast is served at 5.30am before the bus for work leaves at 6.05 on the dot. Oh joy of joys! At least there are only 2 more days until the weekend!

P.S. you may have guessed that the health/diet regime is on hold somewhat...the Koreans tell me that their food is velly hearthy.