Tuesday, August 28, 2012

tuesdays in turkmenistan: departure edition

I'm headed to the Ashgabat airport in about 2 hours. Between now and then, I'll be going back to the staff house, taking a shower, and pretending I need to pack. In reality, there's nothing to pack. It was already done in a semi-panicked state during the lunch break in Balkanabat. Now, I have about 28 hours between myself and arrival at SFO. Good old SFO. I will see you soon enough.

When entering the US on an international flight, the first thing you need to do after deplaning is to clear immigration controls (which is not the same thing as custom controls). You inevitably have to stand in line. Perhaps in rare cases if yours is the only international flight to have recently landed and you are one of the first ones off the plane and/or you run past everyone else, then you might not stand in line. (Pro tip: Running in an airport is generally a good way to draw lots of attention to yourself. Whether that is good or bad is a separate matter.) In the queue for immigration controls, there are some TV monitors that play a video that loops every couple minutes. It shows people of various ethnic backgrounds engaging in various activities and various jobs in various settings with scenery shots of various flora and fauna. Did I mention that it is all quite varied? Combined with the upbeat and Copland-esque accompanying music, it is classic Americana like the family portrait that is in the family home of one of my friends. If you're a member of this family, yes, that is your wonderful portrait to which I am referring. There's something about the video in its overly wholesome and charming way that I find so endearing, kind of like many people from the upper Midwest. Combined with being back on American soil, it puts a nice little smile on my face.

By the time it is my turn to hand over my customs declaration form, I'm feeling pretty upbeat and I'm much friendlier than normal with the immigration officer. For sure I'm incredibly tired and want to shower, change clothes, and stop sweating, but I'm always friendly. For starters, I'm back. This is the culmination of a semi-long trip involving an equal number of take-offs and landings. Second, the immigration officer deals with a lot of people all day long, most of whom are probably tired and boring. I might as well liven things up a little bit. And finally, I cannot actually be turned away. As a US citizen, the only requirements for entry back into the country are demonstration of citizenship (ie: my passport) and filling out the customs declaration. Of course I'm never snooty about this but just knowing this makes me happy.

Getting back to that immigration vs. customs distinction. Immigration is the first check, prior to getting your checked luggage. This is when they check to make sure you are who you say you are. Then you get your bags. Then you go through customs, which usually only consists of handing the officer the form on your way out. Perhaps if you're (un)lucky (or had previously been running through the airport and are very sweaty) then they might ask to see what you have in your bags and why you are importing seeds and other undeclared agricultural products.

See you all soon.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

no expiration

Related to the post earlier today about local and expat staff, I remembered something else that can create problems for local staff when they try to travel overseas. The older Turkmen passports have no expiration date. Almost every country issues passports with a 5 or 10 year validity. (In the U.S., passports are good for 10 years unless you are under 16, then they are good for 5 years.) Until a couple years ago, Turkmenistan passports had no expiration date. Not having an expiration date means some visa applications cannot be completely filled out which then means the application cannot be processed. We had someone who recently was rejected because he still has an older passport without an expiration date. One more hurdle for locals to conquer.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

sundays in turkmenistan: continuing from tuesday

I wanted to get this done on Wednesday and call it something clever like "wednesdays in the world: global business" but will settle for this knock-off "Sundays in Turkmenistan" which is barely acceptable to read and not at all alliterative. Plus, these thoughts were all tumbling around then and were somehow fresher and made more sense. Now, time has either confused me or at least weakened the apparent newness of the ideas in my own mind. Regardless, we shall continue.

We wrapped up very quickly on Tuesday with an idea about training local staff. It came on the heels of the idea of where qualified people come from and how the industry is very specialized. The basic idea is that sometimes we need to bring in expatriates to certain locations when specific experience and skill sets are needed that are not locally available. Generally speaking, any foreign worker needs to be justified to the government (immigration ministry) and explain why the position cannot be filled with a local resident. The general explanations are lack of education, training, experience, etc. Of course, some companies could continuously make this claim, especially if they never give local staff opportunities to get experience and training. The response in some countries is that many expats are given a hard cap on how long they can be in the country. I have been told be colleagues who have worked in Angola that there is a three year limit for most expat workers there. The reasoning is supposedly that you should be able to train a local replacement to do your job during that time. This type of policy can produce some unintended consequences, the most prominent of which according to colleagues is the generally poor quality and unmotivated nature of much of the local staff because they know they cannot be easily released. (Angola, specifically in Luanda, also has a reputation as the most universally disliked location amongst people who have spent time there.) Their policies regarding time limits may not even be necessary. Companies have a few compelling reasons to train and develop local staff:

1. Mobility. Local staff are generally more mobile within the country. Things like border passes, permissions, registration are largely unnecessary because in most countries, local people can move freely within their own country. (I should note that at least for border passes, this is not true in Turkmenistan. Anyone going offshore, local or expat, requires a border pass document.) The flip side to this internal mobility is that for some countries, there is a problem with external mobility. Generally speaking, smaller and poorer countries have fewer visa-free agreements with other countries. For example, the number of countries that Turkmens can visit without getting a visa in advance can be counted on one hand. Another example is that in post-war Iraq, as the industry was going back for oil and gas work, it was very difficult to get visas for local Iraqis to go to training centers in other countries.
2. Money. Perhaps this should be listed first to emphasize its importance. Maybe I will simply list it twice. Local staff in less developed nations are paid at local rates. This is generally much less than what expatriate workers are paid as those employees are paid at international rates which are comparable to the rates in the more developed countries. It is in the employer's interest to have qualified local staff instead of more expensive expats. The flip side of this goes back to this being a global business. Once many locals in places like Turkmenistan gain training and experience, they want to work internationally themselves. It can become a challenge to retain and motivate some local staff members since they can take their skills to a competitor or client who might offer a more attractive deal or an international assignment. This becomes a management problem in terms of knowing your people, understanding their goals and having a plan with them.
3. Money. There, I listed it twice. Locals are cheaper and this is a business after all.
4. Business climate. You could call this a couple different things, but in terms of community relations, government dealings, and procedural matters, being able to have and present a strong local work force matters. This is a very international industry, but it is important to have local employees familiar with the less well published business practices of the region. This is particularly true in countries that have largely nationalized their natural resources so working with state companies is very important.

The general philosophy about local and expat workers here is that the company should try to employ as many people from a country as there are positions within that country. Let's say we have 100 people working in country ABC. Ideally, that would mean we have 100 ABC citizens working for the company, the vast majority of which will be working as home-country employees with a few working internationally. Perhaps 90 would be at home and 10 would work overseas. This would imply 10 expat workers inside country ABC. This being the ideal case also means it is not the reality in most of the world. In practical terms, a perfect balance would be almost impossible. More broadly though, some countries, usually better-educated ones, are over-represented worldwide when it comes to the numbers of positions the company has back in their home country. (Also, some people are from countries with no current operations so of course they are over-represented by this metric.) This imbalance will likely exist for a long time. We can take steps to minimize the imbalance through scholarships and internships and developing local staff. However, we cannot fundamentally change the quality of education available in local high schools and universities nor meaningfully redistribute the wealth of the world. We will settle for more training and go from there.

An unrelated note:
When I first started this entry on Wednesday, I had added notes at the bottom of my draft about internet quotes. I have no idea what prompted it four days ago since it is unrelated to the topic at hand, but I will leave you with this:
"The problem with quotes from the internet is it is hard to verify their authenticity."
-Abraham Lincoln

wherein there was pork!

There was an employees only party at the base last night. Sort of an end of Ramadan party. Amazingly, there was pork in one of the dishes being served. This is a first. Previously, everything served at parties and the canteen in general has always been halal. Also, I am not capable of matching our local guys drink for drink. This is hardly shocking, but can be a source of much learning.

TUM air force

The Caspian Sea has a problem of definition. What exactly makes a sea a sea? When does a sea become a lake? This matters because of how maritime boundaries are defined. Currently, the Caspian boundaries are under dispute. There used to be a clear line of sorts in the Soviet era. The border was simply between the Soviet Union and Iran and the Soviet Union had the power to define the terms more unilaterally. Now, five countries border the Caspian and they do not agree on which parts belong to which country. And what does any of this have to do with the Turkmenistan Air Force? Lots. Maybe.

The Air Force has been flying their Balkanabat-based planes several times in the past several weeks. They have a handful of Sukhoi Su-25 aircraft based here. Why have they been flying these planes? Well, the weather has been good so perhaps they are taking photos of the countryside. Alternatively, some combination of training and a show-of-force exercise. After looking at a map, it should not be shocking that Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan dispute the portion of the Caspian that is between their two countries. Furthermore, there is an oil and gas operator that wishes to drill in a block that is in this disputed zone. This company was trying to conduct seismic operations there in the past couple months, but they ran into some problems with getting their work completed. This is hardly the first time some force or implied force has been used when it comes to oil and gas activity in the Caspian.

The uncertainty is bad for business. This operator needs to tender and solicit bids for services for the work they wish to perform. We are working on such a bid. That's not private or surprising information. We bid on almost anything possible that is related to our business. If an operator says they plan to drill a well, providing services for that is the business we are in so we will of course submit a bid. Perhaps there are cases where we may submit a bid, but then withdraw the bid or not really want to perform the work if the risks are too great or the legal climate is too uncertain. Nonetheless, a bid would still be prepared. But such a bid in this case needs to take into account the risk premium for being in a disputed area and the potentially uncertain and non-guaranteed security situation. These things push prices a certain direction and I can give you the hint that uncertainty and risk do not lead to lower prices. This is ultimately bad for the industry in the long-term because it raises the cost of doing business. This is where a stable and secure geopolitical climate, something that is very much taken for granted in the U.S., becomes incredibly important out here. The uncertainty here leads to me being able to hear from my office military planes flying around outside.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

tuesdays in turkmenistan: red stamps

Sadly, the red stamps I am referred to are not special edition red postage stamps bearing the Coca-Cola logo. These are of the variety that go in your passport as a warning (the first time) and a deportation (the second time). While I myself have not "earned" one of these illustrious stamps, a colleague recently did due to a simple mix-up of how long he would be on one of the offshore rigs. He's hardly the first person to receive such a warning stamp and I doubt he will be the last.

The rules here are quite peculiar. That is my word for many things here: peculiar. That, and the phrase "because Turkmenistan" are the best way to easily express the, well, peculiarity of the situation. The rules and procedures are ever-shifting, questionably published, and can be potentially "finessed" in times of need. Here, the catch is that the location of all international employees needs to be registered each day. Well, it needs to be updated if any changes are made meaning if you go to the rig or a different city for a night, then your registration needs to be updated with the immigration office. This makes sense to a point. We're all guests here and the government has an interest in knowing what foreigners are doing. (Hint: not fomenting revolution). If I go to Ashgabat for a trip to see clients, that move needs to be registered. In theory, the government knows where I sleep every night. In practice, I am not sure what they do with this information or if anyone really cares. However, we are warned not to fool around, both in a literal and metaphorical sense. A few years back, one employee was deported due to spending the night outside the camp and thus not where he was registered.

For the most part, my own situation is straightforward compared to the field employees. I am in the base. Occasionally, I am in Ashgabat. Then I leave. Or I arrive. It's not more exciting or compelling. For the field employees, they have to deal with a limiting factor of location registration. See, I am registered in Balkanabat since I am here most of the time. If I go somewhere else in the country, I cannot spend more than 15 days away from Balkanabat before either returning for at least 2-3 days or leaving the country. For the field guys (and gals), this can be a problem. They need to be registered wherever they work the most. In particular, the ones who spend significant time offshore, they need to be registered at the relevant port the client is based from. However, if they go to a different client's rig or are in Balkanabat for an extended period, then they either need to have their registration changed (which is a hassle) or need to leave and spend a token 2-3 days in their normal registration location city (which is also a hassle). From a business perspective, the whole system is quite maddeningly frustrating. However, from a local perspective, it sort of makes sense. But only sort of.

These registration rules, and many others like how long and difficult the LOI/visa process takes, are all part of a process designed to make it harder to have expatriate workers. The reasoning is obviously that fewer positions filled by expats means more jobs for locals. This sounds good on paper and is arguably correct in many countries. Where this line of reasoning hits a bump is with qualified workers. This is not just about the oilfield. This is about any industry that relies on highly educated, trained, and/or specialized skill sets. Let's say a company wants to bring in an offshore rig and drill a well. At any given moment, there are probably about 100 people on an offshore rig. If you figure almost all of them have a back-to-back (since it is very rare to have someone stationed full time on a rig for 365 days a year), then you arguably need 200 people for operations. Then there is shore support, office-based staff, managers, etc. Let's somewhat arbitrarily say that's another 100 people. (Just humor me on the numbers. They are obviously not accurate, but are for ballparking purposes.) These people don't all work for the operator or the rig company of course, but belong to the various service companies that have been contracted for the work. Now I need 300 people spread out amongst many companies to drill a well, though they will presumably drill several wells. Are there 300 qualified local people available within the country right now? For many of the positions, yes. However, for certain specialized positions, probably not. Now we have this dilemma of do we stop all operations and thus associated employment due to a handful of people who are missing? Or do we bring in the few people we need to finish off the job? The latter wins out more often than not, but the hoops jumped through during that process are a reminder that we need to be building up and training as much local staff as possible.

Saturday, August 18, 2012


I picked an e-mail address with Microsoft's new (more or less) outlook.com service. It is the same as my gmail account except it ends in @outlook.com of course. I haven't used it for anything except to send and receive test messages to ensure it is indeed the name I intended to choose. At this point, no services are signed up with the account so it remains pristine in the eyes of spam bots and marketers attempting to purchase my information. Of course, random people could sign me up for all manner of services or even get their own e-mail address wrong. I have definitely had people send e-mails to my gmail account under the mistaken belief that I was their friend or family member. Neigh, I am not.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

tuesdays in turkmenistan: which news to believe

I find the media coverage of Turkmenistan quite interesting. There's the obvious interest since I am here much of the time and ongoing events can potentially affect me. However, the disconnect between some of what is reported and what I can personally see and gather from the people I talk to is what I find most fascinating. Obviously it's not all sunshine and rainbows here, but the compelling question you should always ask yourself when reading anything is "Why should I believe the accuracy of this information?" Why should you believe anything I write here? Do we have a closer personal relationship built over many years that leads you to believe most of what I put forth? Do I seem genuine and interested in finding the "truth" of a situation? Is my writing crisp and professional (which it is obviously not) and thus carries more weight? I hope it is not the last one. A silver tongue is not the same as being truthful and honest.

A story about the abuses of the political leadership (original source) sounds very plausible. It follows with what you can reasonably expect in terms of behavior in a weak "democracy" and it matches with what you can hear "on the ground" from what people are willing to share. Of course, with no reasonable way to publicly quote sources without fear of reprisals, journalism cannot be as forthcoming.

I have seen a couple different articles (and now cannot find links!) discussing what how the Avaza (or Awaza) holiday resort area near Turkmenbasy along the Caspian coast is a failure and mostly empty. Most of these have come from .ru sourced websites, though most of the news aggregation on Eurasia.net comes from .ru sites originally. This conflicts with what local staff here have told me about how popular the resort is and that it is very hard to get a room at any of the hotels and that people like to go there on the weekends when possible. I don't see a very compelling case for why local staff here would lie to me about the popularity of the resort. You could make the case for some national pride, but on other subjects, these same people are not exactly flag-waving zealots. At the same time, why would a media site report the resort to be empty and abandoned? That is the question that makes you wonder. Do Russian or other media sites have a compelling interest in making Turkmenistan look bad? Perhaps they do or perhaps it is even a personal animosity at the reporter or site owner level. However, there is plenty of fodder for criticism and they do not need to misrepresent the situation. There is enough low-hanging fruit to feast on when it comes to critiques of the place.

More suitable for criticism would be the home demolitions in the fifth paragraph from bottom. And this is true from what I have gathered from people who have been here longer. Another anecdote is about the Presidential Hotel where important visitors stay and it apparently costs up to 400 USD/night. The front facade is very nice, but when it was first built, s shanty-town residential area was behind the hotel and visible from rooms that faced that direction. That residential area is no longer there and I will give you one guess as to who insisted upon its "rehabilitation". You could make the argument for ideas like eminent domain and urban renewal and the like. However, eminent domain rests upon the idea of fair compensation, and while that value can be disputed, it is certainly larger than zero.

Then there are stories about troubled airline maintenance which are particularly eye-catching for the simple reason that I fly on those planes. Is this a believable story or merely a baseless disparagement of the state airline? I'll let you know after my next flight.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

melon day!

Today was Turkmen Melon Day, one of only 24 public holidays in the country. We celebrated by going out and and getting a muskmelon from a local shop and then only managing to eat a quarter of it before calling it quits. The rest has been saved for later. It looked like the melons in the foreground of this photo and the inside looks and tastes much like a honeydew melon. Celebrations like this were not to be found in Balkanabat, likely only really taking place in Ashgabat.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

modern pentathlon?

The modern pentathlon ranks very highly on my list of current Olympic events that are unworthy of this honor. I have no doubt it is an athletic endeavor. A great many things are athletic endeavors and they are not sports at the Olympic level. Rugby, chess boxing, MMA, American football are all athletic activities, even cerebral as well at times, but none of them are in the Olympics. Of course, there are certain criteria the Olympics put forth for inclusion such as global appeal, but a handful of competitors from many countries does not equate to global appeal. Perhaps what I find most off-putting is almost any sport that involves a horse. If the horse is doing most of the work, I'm not sure why the human gets the medal. Now if a person jumped over barriers and ran through water, that would be fun to watch. Actually, is is fun to watch and it is called the steeplechase. If the person carried the horse, or perhaps a smaller animal like a wolf, that would be far more impressive. A combination sport like horse-back riding mixed with archery would be fun and not horse-centric. It would be about accuracy while moving. That seems like something the Mongolians and some Central Asian countries might do very well in. But things like dressage or any activity that involves a tax-deductible dancing horse seem out of character with the seemingly egalitarian Olympic ideals.

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

tuesdays in turkmenistan: mario kart

That's right, Mario Kart. Harkening back to memories from days of yore playing Mario Kart 64, we have been playing the more recent incarnation of the game for the Wii, aptly and very originally titled Mario Kart Wii. The originality blows me away. As I noted before, one of the items I lugged here from the States was a Nintendo Wii along with a handful of games and I was judicious enough to get extra controllers beyond the lone one that came with the console. Now we can kart about with 4 players throwing shells, dropping banana peels, and generally acting like the overgrown children that camp life almost demands we regress towards.

It helps to have a handful of other youngish and single engineers in the camp. Apparently, most of the ones with wives and children do something silly like call home in the evenings. I will confess to playing the single-player mode, but that's only to unlock additional levels. I swear that I do not have a gaming addiction. Frankly, I don't have time to have a gaming addiction. Work is super busy right now, but all work and no play makes a man something something. Go crazy? Don't mind if I do.

The video games are really a symptom of something else. Much like the nostalgic 80s and early 90s movie nights, living in the camp leads to this peculiar regression. I lived on my own, alone, for more than six years. Four of those years were in the U.S. with all the usual trappings of paying rent, dealing with utilities, obtaining food, laundry, etc. Life maintenance tasks. And while I obviously got by, no one would ever accuse me of living a well-cultured life. Two-plus years abroad prior to here still required a reasonable level of looking after oneself. However, here in the camp, well, hmmmm. Frankly, we're spoiled. Food is prepared, dishes are done, rooms are cleaned (though mine is so empty, there is nothing to clean), sheets are changed, laundry is done. Of course, this is all to encourage and free up time to work as much as possible. You cannot work at all hours of the day if you are busy trying to get ingredients to test out that latest recipe you found.

Regardless, or irregardless, work cannot become all-consuming. There is a point, and it can be reached very quickly, where the brain simply cannot process meaningful work anymore and there's only one thing you can do. Let's race!