All the Kings Horses

Immediately after writing my dramatically boring post, I received news that I would be leaving the rig the following morning. And so, I fled the rig, returning from whence I came. That is, first I took a boat to a neighboring rig to catch the chopper from there. Instead of being lifted to that rig via the personnel basket, the boat just backed up to a grated platform with some stairs leading to what is called a “jacket”.

jackettransfer

I jumped from the boat to the platform, climbed all the stairs to the jacket, took another set of very precariously placed stairs suspended above the water and beneath the rig floor from the jacket to the rig and trekked across the deck and up another four flight of stairs to the helicopter briefing room.

RopeSwing

It felt like I should be receiving some sort of participants trophy, but I suppose the weekend in town is reward enough.

I made it into Doha just in time to go to dinner with friends, and to Dukhan the next day for more jobs. I finished a job in Dukhan in just in time to go back to Doha for dinner and offshore the next day.

When joining a group of people who have been stranded offshore, it is customary to come baring gifts. The crew requested cigarettes. I went to the gas station to buy an assortment of cigarettes. Whilst in line to pay for my assortment, a man approached me,

Man, in Arabic- “Do you speak Arabic”

Me- …..sure?

Man, still in Arabic- “Where are you from?”

Me-…USA

Man- You said you were Arab?

Me- ..*Annoyed, ‘leave me to buy all these cancer sticks in peace’ face*…

Man- What’s you’re name?

Me- Laila

Man- That’s an Arabic name.

Me- Yes, it is.

Man- And you have a very Arabic face.

Me- Yes, I do.  *exit gas station*

Oddly, and much to my extreme annoyance and frustration, these conversations have become routine in my life. No one asked you to approach me. Furthermore, I have NO problem talking to strangers (I love meeting strangers), but why argue with a stranger over a personal question you asked them uninvited and clearly unwelcomed? The answer is INCONCLUSIVE as to WHAT is the obsession with where you’re from and whether or not you are Arab.

Alas, I am back on the rig, Al-Zubarah, having bypassed all the standby time.

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Black Eyed Beans

The bag of peanuts almost got stuck in the vending machine. We had been waiting in the heliport for over two hours now and I was hungry. Today, I flew offshore to a Chinese rig. The oil company is Chinese, as is the drilling company. I’d heard many stories from my colleagues who previously visited this rig. From trainee engineers to veterans, the feedback seemed the same, “That rig is a mess.”

I haven’t been this curious or excited to make an offshore job in a while. Some of my preconceived ideas before I got here were…

  • What if they joke about America’s debt? I don’t think I’d know how to handle that…
  • Everything will be crappy and break.
  • Maybe I will see a robot.
  • I should be on the look-out for knock-off safety gear.
  • I hope the rig is colored red.
  • There’s going to be authentic Chinese food!

Some myth busters about the peculiar Chinese rig…

  • No one gives a shit that I’m American. And they certainly do not ‘joke’
  • The Chinese are SO nice.
  • One’s level of English can be noted by how hard he does or does not squint while listening to you. Speak to the poker faces.
  • No robots.
  • What they call “Fish” is ACTUALLY “Calamari”
  • The menu item “Black Eyed Beans” is neither black eyed peas nor black beans, but rather peas and carrots.
  • The drilling company wears red. The oil company wears yellow.

The daily supervisors meeting takes place in the evenings after dinner. The meeting room looks more or less like this:

ChineseMeetingBut instead of Mr Obama, Madam Clinton and friends on the left, there are a bunch of oilfield service hands. On the right, it pretty much looks the same except they are wearing yellow. We go through the room one by one, with each person addressing their upcoming activities and needs or concerns with anyone else on the rig. Once it comes time for the client supervisors to speak, they all turn and talk to each other in Mandarin. After a few minutes, the meeting is dismissed. They know all our concerns, yet we know none of theirs. Everyone smiles and stands, thanking each other as they walk out of the room.

Jump Like it’s 1997

Every morning I wake and take myself up to the helipad with jump rope and iPod in hand. My legs shake as the extent of their flexibility is surpassed in this morning’s stretch. For three days now, I have been standing on the edge of this platform suspended above the sea. There I look out over the ocean at the birds attacking the jumping fish where the ocean meets the sky. I imagine myself on an island cliff. I am alone with my thoughts, queen of everything the light touches. The key to sustaining the fantasy is never turn around. If I turn around, I see the rig behind me. 

My workout contains 4 cycles. Each cycle lasts 10 to 15 minutes. This is a model of the helipad shape, for your reference: 

Image

  1. Jump rope until I’m tired and don’t want to anymore. 
  2. Walking stretches for half the helipad circle and jog the other half. This includes lunges, high knees, butt-kicks, high kicks, and swinging my knees in and out.
  3. 200 crunches of varying positions.
  4. Jog 5 laps around the helipad.
  5. 10 Burpees and 20 Mountain climbers
  6. 4 Yo-Yo runs up and down the helideck. Using the yellow edges of the circle and white H for pivot points.
  7. On the last cycle, I will pick the jump rope up once more to wrap up the session.

Image

The essence of the workout is the jump rope. It’s so simple, yet so challenging. Its use is also very versatile and subject to your skill. After each cycle, jumping rope become increasingly difficult. I wait for a new song to come on my playlist.  I find myself jumping slowly, speeding up for the chorus and reserving rope tricks as a “finale” to the song or at other intense moments. It’s my own mini concert, choreographed with the most loyal of dance partners. 

As a kid, I was involved in the jump rope team at Highland Village Elementary. It was the first of many extra-curricular events I got passionate about. My first year to participate was the third grade. You may remember what an important year third grade was for me, as is detailed in this post. Jump rope was amazing. I remember my first year we did two routines. An army of children wearing sunglasses jumped rope to the theme song Men In Black by Will Smith. And the third graders jumped to Wannabe by the Spice Girls. I also looked forward every year to Jump Rope for Heart. We raised money, jumped rope a whole hour in PE, and decorated hearts, which I always dedicated to my late grandfather who suffered from heart disease and died in 1972 from a heart attack. As a young child with very little understanding of the world, I knew that Jump Rope for Heart wasn’t just fun (and it was,VERY fun), but it was one of the first things I did that I felt was close or important to me. I’d jump rope with every thing my little body could muster. I practiced at home in the driveway. I took my jump rope on vacation and practiced when I was bored. My mom would watch me and challenge me to do the double-unders which seemed impossible to me.

On the helideck, I jump looking out over the water. I skip from side to side as the choreography for my show dictates. I do several counts in “Around the Globe” trick, which is basically holding the rope vertically and jumping through sideways. I jump like it’s 1997. I jump quickly and do criss-crosses and build up momentum to the finale, I do a few double-unders for mom. 

Just to Pass the Time

This rig is limited with activity. Since my initial positive encounters with the company man, I’ve since elected to avoid him. I rewrote his son’s resume, and helped him apply to jobs. Every time he sees me, he asks me whether or not I’ve eaten. He never believes me, and asks two or three times if I’ve eaten. Are you sure, he asks further. Then he’ll ask what I ate. I‘m a grown person. I’m at my job. I didn’t get here by not knowing how to feed myself. Of course, I have to stop by his office once a day just to find out what the status is on the rig and if there’s any idea when we’ll get to work. Standby time can be fun, if the rig is well equipped with activities. This rig is not. There is a “gym”. This space is a clear container placed beneath the heli-deck with a set of weights. I hardly will subject myself to working out in a see through room. People can barely walk up stairs or open doors when they see me on the rig, see this post.  The company man will ask me where I’ve been or what I’m doing. Its a rig… where would I go? What could I possibly be doing? Absolutely nothing.

The absolutely nothing consists of the following. Let’s walk through a day in the standby life, as told by Laila. 

The day begins during the night, when I wake up invariably to aching back pains. My pillow smells faintly of smoke. I switch positions, but the stiffness in my back has just become a part of my body now. I bend at the hips, tuck my knees to my chest and attempt to stretch out the plank of wood which has replaced my dorsal muscles. This attempt is useless. I roll over on my back and flip through the four English channels on the TV. I’m not much for cooking shows or soap operas, so I keep the TV on Boomerang and watch Scooby Doo as I fall back asleep. It is of course a very light sleep, for after 12 hours of laying in bed, my body really can not sleep any more. I become very thirsty. I know there are water bottles in the company mans office two doors down the hall. It is 3 AM. Maybe he is asleep. Maybe I can sneak the 5 yards down the hall without getting dressed or being seen. I put on my shoes, open the door, poke my head out into the hallway. The coast is clear. Slowly, I move down the hall, careful not to let my sneakers squeak. I reach his doorway, lean my head forward to see his office chair is empty. I jump quickly to the box of water and collect two more bottles, enough to hold me over until I see the galley again.

Now it is an acceptable time to wake up, say 6 o’clock in the morning. If I wake now, I can have breakfast, get dressed, and go to the company man’s morning meeting. As I’m probably burning minimal calories in this vegetative state, I elect to stay in bed and forgo both breakfast and the meeting. I am in no mood to be quizzed on my activities anyhow. The TV is experiencing intermittent signal, so Scooby and the Gang are put on mute. I switch media intake to my laptop, where I watch old sitcoms for the next few hours and punish my body to stay in bed longer and maybe snooze through a few episodes of How I Met Your Mother.

It is now 9 am, or as I like to keep time, it is now T-2 hours until lunch time. This is an acceptable time to wake up. It is time to take a shower. I rummage through my offshore bag to find that if I go on rations, I can make it 4 more days without having to do laundry. Rations are pretty desperate and risk my personal hygiene. While the rig is dirty, and I’m sure taking a shower is actually less sanitary than just re-wearing my underwear for 2 more days, I decide that the shower will fill my time and maybe is not such a bad idea. I fill my laundry basket with a weeks worth of dirty underwear, my smokey pajamas, and toss the bag into the hallway. Climbing into the rusty smelly shower, I think I hope the laundry guys don’t take my underwear. I finish the shower quickly, but stay under the water for an extra five minutes, just to pass the time. When on stand by, I find myself doing everything very slowly…. just to pass the time. After the shower, I move myself outside, to my little offshore office, the logging unit. Here, I have internet. The YouTube takes 10 minutes to buffer and queue each song. I choose my playlist carefully, selecting the specific songs I would like to hear over my two hour internet session before I will break for lunch. Songs include Rita Ora’s cover of Somebody That I Used to Know, some 90’s country, Feds Watching and Where Have All the Cowboys Gone.  I peruse the internet and read both cool and dumb articles alike. In this state of boredom, one can’t be picky. Whatever loads quickest is what I will read. I think about my next vacation and research some ideas. I stumble upon this website and decide I should probably join this group in Thailand. I send them some emails inquiring about taking a PADI dive course during my trip. Seems feasible. I count my vacation balance until I can leave again.

I download a movie player on my Google phone (phones are totally illegal offshore here. It has been snuck offshore tucked into my pants). I download the Despicable Me movies and save them to my phone. It is now lunchtime. I go to my room first to change my safety boots to sneakers. I check the TV guide to see what is coming up in the next couple hours. Sometimes the TV will be playing a sitcom, like According to Jim, New Girl, or Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23. I will carve out some time in my busy day to sit in my bed and watch these shows. Sometimes there will be a move playing like X-Men: First Class, X-Men: The Last Stand, or Taken.  I eat lunch, slowly, to pass the time, and go sit in my bed for a couple hours to watch the afternoon programming. Maybe I will force myself to sleep. After a nap, its time to face the company man and find out how many more days of captivity to expect. He asks of course where I’ve been and what I’ve been doing. He asks when I will come apply for more jobs on behalf of his 27 year old son. He thanks me for doing the first applications. He tells me that if his son gets a job, he will marry his son to me. I try to evade these awkward statements and just focus on the task at hand. “Thats not necessary…. so what’s the status on the rig?” At least three more days of this standby is the verdict.

It is now time to move into the evening entertainment. I may or may not indulge in dinner on the rig. I go back outside to the internet. By this time, my friends in North America are awake. I chat with my mom. I read more articles. Eventually, it is late enough for me to go back to bed. I pack my things and go back to my room. If nothing is on TV, I’ll switch media and watch Despicable Me on my phone. Eventually, I drift off to sleep watching an Australian cooking show. The next day begins throughout the night.

Stranded in the Living Room

My stay on thus far Al-Doha has been uneventful, as standby time can often be. I am blessed with a television in my accommodations, as well as a private bathroom. I try to use it sparingly, as the aroma suggests the walls may be plague-ridden.

I mentioned the company man in the previous post, Acid in the Body. After our initial introductory meeting, I got settled on the rig and returned to see him in the evening to ask more questions about the upcoming job. He sat in his evening galabaya, which I basically will describe as a nightgown, drinking tea with cloves.
King in Nightgown

He began to speak of some of my co workers with very high praise. I’ve always thought you can tell a lot from a person by the way they speak about other people. He asked the office boy to bring another glass with tea and cloves. I sat with the company man drinking tea and chatting.
“Did Jacob tell you about me? That you’d come to the rig and find the company man drinking tea in a galabaya?”
“No. He didn’t say anything.”
“Write down his phone number. We’re going to call him. But you don’t say anything at first.”
The company man proceeded to prank call my co worker on speaker phone.
Following the phone call, he asked me about my family. Where in Egypt they were from, and how long they’ve been in the United States.
“And your father, what does he do for a living?”
“He coaches soccer.”
“He must be a Zamalek fan, then.”
Zamalek
This comment took my by surprise, because my father IS a Zamalek fan, but I always got the impression he was the only one. “He is, actually. How did you know!!?”
“Anyone who knows anything about soccer is a Zamalek supporter. Write down his phone number.”
“He’s in the USA. Can this phone dial out?”
The company man grinned mischievously, “I will bill you when you leave.” I wrote down my dad’s number on the paper, and just as the first phone call, the company man dialed, looked at me and said, “You stay quiet at first.”

I was no longer in the company man’s office, but maybe the living room of a family friend. The company man called my dad, told him I was on the rig and would be there for about a week. They talked about soccer together and players they admired. Then the company man handed the phone to me. After the phone call, I thanked the company man. “For what?” he replied, “We’re going to call him again! This is a son of the land.” (This expression is similar to ‘salt of the earth’ in English. I really am not sure how to directly translate its meaning, but land would be referring to Egypt, or the common land they are from.) The company man proceeded to walk me around the rig and introduce me to the OIM, Driller, Radio Operator, etc. He would say “This is Laila. She is my/our daughter. She is from Egypt.”

After the tour, I sat in his office while he called all the other Arab service hands into his office. A little congregation, we sat talking casually about the oilfield and our experiences or ideas about oil rigs in other places in the world. I told them about the drillships in the Gulf of Mexico. They were curious to know how large the rig was, how much it costs, and how deep the well is. Truthfully, these drillships float in water deeper than most wells.
“In America, do they like the Chinese?” The company man asked this heavy hitting question with the utmost casualty, as if he had asked how often does it rain. I laughed at the absurdity of the question, but recognized its political and cultural significance and tried to answer as honestly and correctly as possible.
“In America, its not allowed to not like a particular nationality or group of people. But the Chinese have been in America for a while, so we’re used to them. It’s the recent immigrant groups that may have a harder time. But we like the Chinese.”
“Yeah, they have China-town in every city!” The Algerian hand from Weatherford added in his perspective.

Acid in the Body

The rigs have been frenzied with activity. The desert has been frenzied with hooligans starting fires in the sand. After completing a job and driving back home, we passed two Land Cruisers parked on the wrong side of the road. A handful of young men stood outside. As we passed, they ran into their cars and drove away, leaving behind this little fire. We pulled over and put it out with sand.

 

Today, I am offshore on Al Doha, a QP rig. I wasn’t looking forward to coming out here, but suppose its time to just bite the bullet and get back to work. Sitting waiting for the helicopter, I wrapped myself in a concentrated getaway daydream and fell asleep with my chin on my chest. What I would do to escape this place… What is the worst that could happen if I just left to go home? Left my crew and my job, no warning, no excuse… When I was in college, I used to drive between Dallas and Phoenix on summer and winter breaks. Once or twice a year, I would get into my car, and spend 1200 quality miles and 16 unruffled hours alone with the I-10/ I-20. Always before leaving, I felt the compulsion to go. It would wake me at night, the restlessness dragging me out of the door and onto the road sometimes before 4 am. It felt like a migration. How do birds know when to fly? They just do. They get restless and the compulsion makes them know they have to fly away on that particular day. I feel a similar urge. I just want to leave. Suppressing this impulse, I sleep as often as I can. I sleep at 7 pm, I nap in the heliport… I dream about flying away….

 

I went to see the company man upon arriving. He sat facing his computer, with the back of his chair shielding his body from me. A man informed him, “The Whataberger engineer is here to see you.” Without turning in his chair, he called out to me, “How are you, Miss Laila?” I could tell from his voice he was an older man. “I am well. How are you?” I replied. “Very good. You are Egyptian?” He asked.

Here we go again, I thought to myself. Lately, company men pry about my ethnic background. They insist we speak in Arabic, and they insist we speak about politics. This has resulted in me talking as little as possible, mean mugging every person I see on a rig, refusing to speak in Arabic, and straight up leaving the room when someone begins to talk politics. At their best, these exchanges make me uncomfortable. At their worst, they are insulting and completely unprofessional. They ask about your religion, they ask how much you pray, they ask why your parents allow you to work in the oilfield, they ask a lot of things….. I’ve started ignoring these men. On one occasion- I looked at one and said, “What are you trying to accomplish by this conversation? This just seems completely pointless, If you need me for something relevant, I’ll be outside working.” I digress…

“Yes, I am originally from Egypt, but was born and raised in the States.” This can never be overstated. If I could, I would erase any feature of my name or face which makes everyone ask if I am Egyptian. It is a point of pride, but has also become a point of contention. Someone will notice I am Egyptian before they will notice anything else about me. It’s misleading. 

“I see. Welcome. We’re glad to have you on board. Do you like your room?” The chair turns to reveal an old man with glasses. He stands and shakes my hand. “Just give me five minutes, dear. Have you eaten?”

“I ate before I came. I suppose I can eat again. Shall I eat and come back?”

“That will be perfect. If anyone bothers you, you just let me know.” The company man seemed very nice, a clear veteran of the oilfield.

I returned and he talked to me about my job and my co workers he knows. He described Mighty Mouse as an unripened mango.

 

 

A Sailor’s Life

AlZubarahThe sugar team returned from offshore after a series of mini disasters. Upon returning, I booked a ticket to hop over the gulf and visit my aunt in Bahrain.

In 30 minutes, my plane landed in Manama and I spent 36 hours among family. This little excursion reminds me that home is never too far away. While work is conusming and hardly allows for time off, I hardly need time off when my family is so close. Flying to Bahrain from Qatar requires far less effort than going anywhere from my previous station in Houma.

Saturday, I came back to Doha to tackle the post job and begin prepartions for the next trip to the Rowan California. My focus train was cut short, as MightyMouse had other plans. I left Monday to come offshore and stand-by for a possible tubing cutting. This job was promised to last one day. Per usual, it has not. Rather, I am trapped on this rig and using the time to read and study the new tools I will be running.

Cell phones are strictly prohibited offshore. They seize them at the heliport. I have found a way to smuggle mine. I quite simply tuck the phone into my pants and hide it there until I reach the rig. The metal detector always chimes as I walk through, but no one will ask or search me. In this instance, I don’t mind taking advantage of being female in a society where everyone is afraid of females…. When you treat people with different rules, they abide by different rules.

This is the door to my room on this rig:

VIP

This photo was snapped illegally with a contraband cell phone.
I also spent some time today staring at the calm sea. I watched schools of fish swim in a line circling the rig. Occasionally, they would all flock to a point, and turn around to their place in line. No fish dwells on that spot, but they all go look at it for a second. I wonder what they are doing. Every once and while, a fish will jump out of the water.

I snap another illegal photo…

AlZubarah

The fish can be seen clearly with the naked eye. However, the cell phone does not capture the fish as clearly. Please note the red circle directing your attention to one of the fish.

This rig is operated by Qatar Petroleum. There is another Qatar Petroleum rig nearby. A fellow Whataberger crew is occupying that rig. Last night, we attempted to see each other by standing on our respective helidecks. It is just too far away to see a person. I am going to procure binoculars as part of a basic maritime kit for all the engineers so we can communicate offshore when our rigs are close by.