Tuesday, March 27, 2012

tuesdays not in turkmenistan: blending in

When I was last exiting Turkmenistan 11 days ago, the immigration officer asked me if I was American. Well, the passport and name would make most people think so, but he said I looked Turkmen. That's interesting because believe it or not, I have met many Turkmens and I don't think I look especially Turkmen. Now, the origins of the Turkmen people is quite mixed so to say someone looks Turkmen or not really means they look like they are from one of the main, historical Turkmen tribes. Still, I don't think I look proto-typically like someone from one of those regions, but que sera sera. On the other hand, a Kazakh colleague has told me I look exactly like her brother. What's more, I apparently talk and act like him as well. She finds it quite funny. She is also not alone in this opinion as another expat colleague told me that when he saw us at lunch, he did a double-take because of how similar we looked.

The point of all this is that, despite what I might think, I can blend in to Turkmenistan as long as I keep my mouth shut. My inability to speak Russian nor Turkmen is typically a quick giveaway to people that I am not local. However, one intern we had when he first heard me speak thought I was Turkmen with just really good English skills. Good enough. I occasionally walk around Balkanabat a bit just to see some of the city but mostly to get out of the confines of the camp and no one gives me a second look. Same goes in Ashgabat. I can walk around and simply not draw any attention to myself. It's fun. It makes me feel like I have become some low-budget master of disguise. (No Mike, I am not Burn Notice and I am not a spy and I am not a Chinese guy from Kazakhstan pretending to be American but secretly working for the Russians, but actually planning to triple-cross all of them like a James Bond super-villain. That would be silly since I don't even own an island fortress.)

This blending in makes me feel more comfortable while I am there. When I was in Hungary, I was very aware that I did not blend in. I don't look anything Hungarian and I was in a city where most everyone was Hungarian. Outside of Budapest, there are not many foreigners around the country. Congo and Gabon had the same issue, though in both places there were somewhat large numbers of expats around town. Still, you were always aware that there was this divide between locals and expats and there was no way to ever just walk around without being noticed. Even when I was in Texas and New Mexico, it's not that I couldn't walk around, but that something always felt a bit amiss in those places. I had no real issues living there and being around town, but I never felt all that comfortable there.

Back here in the Bay Area, I can blend in. Arguably, anyone can blend in. This is one of the things I really like about this place is that it feels comfortable. I feel like just another person and would never draw a second glance on the street, which I like. I like the feeling that anonymity on the street provides where I can just walk around and go about my business and watch everyone else go by and not be watched myself. What's somewhat odd is that I get that feeling even though I think very few people look anything like me and that despite all my doppelgangers people have met, I have yet to meet one myself. I blend in not because I look like everyone, but because for the most part no one looks like anyone. The diversity here is that great blanket of anonymity that allows anyone to blend in.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

sigur ros?

Come to Turkmenistan where Sigur Ros is both an Icelandic band and a Malaysian construction company.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

tuesdays not in turkmenistan: how i spend my days

When I am at work, most people I interact with know what I do since, well, I work with them. Admittedly, I still field questions on the subject from people in other segments who don't fully understand my job role, but I think they largely understand after a short explanation that usually involves a lot of unnecessary hand gestures. When I'm not at work, meaning back here or wherever I may be, I of course get that question a lot when meeting new people or just explaining to family and friends why I'm on the other side of the planet most of the time.

To start with the easier half, when I'm not at work, then I'm not at work and I'm doing what most people do when they are not at work, which is not working. Yes, that was a needlessly long sentence. However, work has far-reaching tentacles in the modern age with phone calls and e-mails only a few button presses and touch-screen swipes away. In the end, I do some work when I'm not actually at work. It's the inevitability of how things are and my job role and the wonderful burden of semi-management. Otherwise, I'm out attempting to cram in some semblance of a social life into my time while I'm in town or travelling or doing whatever else. For what it's worth, there's a good chance I'll be on the road for some of my next rotation off and not in the Bay Area very much.

Now, when I am at work, how do I spend my days? Well, there are meetings and phone calls and e-mails and talking and typing. It's a lot like many office jobs, sort of. I could arguably do a large portion of my job remotely like when I'm on days off or when I'm in the Ashgabat office. However, there is a certain human element that is inevitably missing that makes some things impossible and many others far less effective. My primary responsibility is to manage and oversee the other engineers in the segment I am in. But what does that entail? I am not sure. I'm part manager, mentor, teacher, reviewer, planner, whatever-er. A typical day involves a couple scheduled meetings, some phone calls (usually with clients), lots and lots of e-mails most of which are internal and semi-management/administrative, and many people who come by my office who want to know if I have a "few minutes" available. Most people misunderstand what the word "few" means but that's OK, because a large portion of my job is to help other do their jobs effectively. This meas a lot of time spent going over training, giving advice, providing feedback, and general mentoring. That's fine. Those are the parts of my job I find most satisfying because I can tell I'm making a specific difference when I help someone do their own job more effectively.

Does meeting with people get me through the whole day? No, not even close. I work for a corporation. A large and mostly faceless corporation. Anyone who has ever worked for a large company can tell you that corporations need process. It's vitally important to maintaining any sort of order and consistency throughout the company. It inevitably leads to interest in numbers and forms and steps and PowerPoint. This is what fills a good chunk of the rest of my day that is not otherwise taken up by meeting with people.

Then there is the "technical" aspect of my job that is in my job title. I can do most of that in relatively little time compared to the meetings and the process. Now, I need elements from the technical part of my job to meet with people and grind out process but in terms of actual technical work product, I don't spend as much time on it as one might think.

So what do I do all day? I'm apparently not sure.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

pi day yesterday, travel day tomorrow

Yesterday, being March 14, or 3/14 or 3.14 was pi day. If you didn't get a fancy t-shirt to commemorate the event, then that's a darn shame. Of course, the notion of pi day seems oddly American because most places write the date dd.mm.yyyy but in the U.S. it is standard to write the month first like mm.dd.yyyy which is of course silly since it confounds any ordering by date. The only time you should write the month before the day is if you are also writing the year before the month like yyyy.mm.dd. That's also the best way to label files that have a date component so that you can sort by title and get them in chronological order. To avoid all ambiguity, I have taken to dating documents which I sign in a year-month-day format but I use a three letter version of the month. Hence, if I sign something, I write 2012/Mar/15 as opposed to 2012/03/15 because the all-number form can still be misinterpreted if it is the 12th day of the month or earlier. Why am I spending time writing this? Frankly, I have no idea, but I just felt like sharing one of the many reasons I cannot sleep at night: my terrible fear that someone will misinterpret another person's date and then miss a meeting or get together or some grand soiree.

Anyway, the time is rapidly approaching for me to head to the airport. The airport with the four bag x-rays and three metal detectors. This time, I will be traveling with a bag within a bag. Due to what I brought out here last time for other people, I took two suitcases. Now, I have nested one inside the other like those Russian nesting dolls since I only travel with a couple days worth of clothes and whatever clothing I have determined I do not need here. This time, I'm bringing back socks. Why I had 20 pair here is a mystery I cannot fathom so the great sock reduction has taken place.

You're still reading this? There is no great insight in this post or witty commentary about Turkmenistan. Well, maybe a little bit. After Chinese food two nights ago, we had sushi last night. Seriously, sushi. I'll give them an E for effort, but it was clear that the fish, while not spoiled, was also not fresh. It lacked the color and crisp flavor and freshness that truly fresh fish has. I'm no fish/seafood expert, but I'd venture to guess that most of what we had was previously frozen which is somewhat understandable given the fact that Turkmenistan does not border an ocean. Also, I've been giving a lot of thought to what the Republican primary says about the U.S. Anyway, off the the airport soon. Goodnight.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

tuesdays in turkmenistan: where chinese food does exist

I am in Ashgabat and heading out in a couple days. I flew in from Balkanabat today and people on the flight not only sat in their assigned seats (which is not always the case), it was even more full of win since I scored an exit row seat. A few of us flew in together on our respective ways home, though I need to spend a couple days here tending to business before I go. One of the more seasoned expats, having spent eight years here, knew of a Chinese restaurant and it was great. It's not that the food was particularly fantastic, though it was relatively good except for the tepid and boring beef dish, but more that it was not food from the camp. After 7+ weeks there, you start to go a little crazy. Eat out you say? In Balkanabat you say? I have learned a secret. Every restaurant in town gets their food from the same kitchen. I know this because they all serve the same food. It's, well, it's just how things work here. New restaurant? OK, it's in a different physical location, but by golly they're committed to those same five dishes. In many ways, it reminds me of when I first went to training and stayed in Nottingham for six weeks and almost every pub-style restaurant served about the same 12 dishes. Yes, there were other options, but the most "British" restaurants all served the same food.

Anyway, we had:
* soup, which somehow showed up as the second to last dish
* rice (of course), which did not appear until the third to last dish which just goes to show that they are not a high volume restaurant always cooking rice
* cucumber with garlic veggie dish
* black mushrooms with peppers
* beef with green peppers
* chicken with cashews, onions, and chili (basically kung pao chicken, but not exactly)
* bread rolls, because this is Turkmenistan

Photographic proof! It was good except for the aforementioned issues with the flavorless beef dish. The black mushrooms were especially good. Amusingly, the menu had an English translation that listed them as "black fungus" which is technically correct, but somehow less appetizing sounding than just calling them mushrooms. I even have the leftovers. This is first-world success in a second-world country.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

a new laptop

I've been migrating over to a new laptop at work. The 4+ year old Dell D630 has given way to a new Dell E6420. Yes, the numbering is sort of silly, but it hardly matters. In the end, I'm now on Windows 7, have more RAM, and significantly more HDD space so at least I'm no longer bumping against the somewhat self-imposed free space limit I like to always maintain. The downside is that migration took nearly all of my Friday including the night and even well past midnight as I had to decrypt files, transfer files, re-install all in-house software, update security settings, migrate e-mail (including precious archive files), find printer/scanner drivers, and redo system settings to my liking. I still don't have several programs configured the way I would like, but I think I'm at a level that is passable for now. It irks me to not be "system ready" which is why I stayed up so late on Friday trying to get everything done in one night. The main quirk that this laptop has is a non-US keyboard. It's not the English/Russian keyboard, but it is not standard to the U.S. because I have strange pound and Euro symbol keys that led them to move the "@" and "#" keys which in turn led to a shift of the "Enter/Return" keys, that moved the backslash key to the left side which ultimately meant a half-size left-side "shift" key. Through years of non-standard typing, I only ever use the left-side shift key so for it to be half-size is quite annoying. Chalk it up as a first-world problem.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

planting some trees

We planted some trees this morning. Volunteers from work planted something close to 1000 small sapling pine trees as part of some national community service day. The trees, a water tank (old equipment donated by one of the segments), and yesterday's labor were donated as the company's gift to the city this year. We were actually supposed to plant them last week, but it was delayed to line-up with yesterday's larger service day (which was good because last Saturday was cold and rainy). All the holes were pre-dug and we probably had 50+ people from work there plopping the trees in and then filling them with dirt and then watering. Afterwards, we had lunch featuring plov with lamb along with some bread and salad.

It was a good day and a good chance to get out from behind the desk. However, like so many things here, it was a promising idea (planting trees) with an uncertain outcome. The climate here is rather unforgiving with temperatures that go from well below freezing in the winter to well over 40 degC in the summer with very little precipitation. And while we watered the trees this morning, the question is how often will anyone water them in the future. These pine trees normally grow in climates that have wet winters and while this past winter here was unusually wet, it was not normal. Furthermore, the soil quality was very poor. A good portion of the trees were hard to plant (even with holes already made) because of how rocky and sandy the dirt was. A year from now, how many of these trees will still be alive? There are the same type of trees in the base, but they are in much better soil and watered nearly every single day. The trees we planted are at the edge of town, actually, beyond the edge of town a few km out, and who will take the time to monitor them and water them. Perhaps it'll work out just fine, but it's worth a visit back there in a year to see how well, or not, the trees are doing.

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

tuesdays in turkmenistan: a visitor

We had an unusual visitor to the base last week. The U.S. Ambassador to Turkmenistan came to our base. Seriously. He was in Balkanabat for some civic events related to some U.S.-Turkmen programs and had some time in his schedule. And rather coincidentally, I was the one to greet him when he arrived. And not just because I'm an American. The week before, someone from the embassy called the main number at the base. Like all general calls, it went through reception and ended up going to me. It didn't go to me as an American. It more went to me because the particular set of people who might have otherwise taken the call were all out of the office at that particular moment. Thus, I ended up taking the call, trading some e-mails, and ended up as their point of contact prior to the visit.

Why visit us? Why not? We're here, largish (in a relative sense), foreign (and one could argue that we're foreign no matter where we are), and do have a couple Americans working here after all. What we discussed was a mix of business, industry, and regional. No specifics will go here like always. You know, because the six people who read this are undoubtedly corporate/government spies. No, it's just that while most of the conversation was mundane and I'll discuss it in person, it just doesn't feel right to put it into the internet. And to be clear, it's not like I hung out with the Ambassador one-on-one for an hour. He was here with a Public Affairs person and a local embassy staffer. And I was with two people who are from the set of people who, had they been in the office, would have fielded the original call. Mostly, we discussed some of the basics of what we do here as an oilfield service company since they were not oilfield people. Then, we discussed some of the challenges of doing business in Turkmenistan. The specifics are what I will not share, but like many developing nations, the lack of consistent rules and procedures makes it difficult to conduct business. A phrase I have taken to using to describe some of the difficulties is, "Not your house, not your rules." It is largely irrelevant where you are from and how things get done there because now you are here and this is not the system of law and culture that you are familiar with. This fact, as aggravating as it may be, must be accepted. You are not in your home country and things will not work the same way here. If you wanted it to be like home, then you needed to stay at home. Again, not your house, not your rules.

If you see me in person, I'll be glad to share more about the Ambassador's visit, but I won't post here for the inter-tubes to cache forever. Oh, and ask me about the minders if you see me in person.