Saturday, 30 May 2009

Another week goes by

Good morning, and welcome back to my world.

Yesterday was cup final day, and just like olden times, it's the last game of the overlong football season. Once upon a time, when the world was in black and white, the cup final used to be just about the only game live on TV, and the whole of the day was the build up to three o'clock when the game would kick off.
Grandstand was nothing but build up, maybe a special edition of A Question of Sport, live shots of the teams' hotels, the teams getting on the bus, shots from inside the bus, the bus arriving at Wembley, players walking on the pitch, the marching bands, the fans with their banners, fans climbing walls to get in without tickets, singing Abide With Me, the teams walking on the pitch, introductions of the teams, the national anthem.
Phew! And then the game. In truth, the game hardly mattered; you knew you were watching history. The cup had been played every year, except during war years since 1871, and was the came competition, just that at first it was groups of ex-public shcoolboys or army officers who contested the final.
Sadly, today, it's just another game; four days after the Champions League Final, it all seemed rather irrelevant to be honest; Chelsea vs Everton should have been a great game, and it may have been After Everton scored after 24 seconds, the quickest final goal ever, I snoozed, missed most of the first half. The 2nd, Chelsea fought back, having scored an equalizer sometime when I was asleep, they got the winner with a screamer from another multi-millionaire international dimwit. The fans were happy, and so the season ends in the sunshiiiine of north West london.

The new season is some nine weeks away, all the same games to be squeezed into less time due to world cup next summer.

Deep breath.

Yesterday was also National Get Britain Walking Day, or something. And we joined our local ramblers group for a 5 mile stroll around Lympne, east of Folkestone. The weather is really stunning this weekend, like high summer; all clear blue skies and hot sunshine.

The Leas

We stopped of in Folkestone as we were a little early, and I took some pictures of the grand Victorian town houses that rich merchant families used to live in, that are now hotels. The whitewashed houses contrasted wonderfully with the blue skies; I got some good shots.

Anyone for Chess?

The Tail of the Whale

Folkestone Water Lift Railway

We gathered in the car park of Lympne village hall. And soon about 30 of us were there. It was a gentle walk, criss-crossing some roads we knew well, but showing us more hidden corners we had passed right by; thatched cottages, timber-framed churches, and barn conversions; all before we ended up in a county park for tea and cake before turning round and retracing our steps.

Follow the Yellow Brick Road

In the evening we had a barbecue; it was wonderful, looking down at our garden, all full of plants that we had put there and the air full of the smell of spring flowers.

Friday, I spent the day in and out of the garden doing stuff; not that hard work, but at the end of the day, it looks like we have been here a while, and the garden neat and tidy. We have put slate chips around the plants in the front garden, and it looks really nice. The hedge is gone, and daylight fills the living room now. On the downside it means I have to be careful about coming down in the morning not wearing trousers!

Thursday, I went out to take some pictures of the new high speed trains that will soon be whizzing their way around Kent and into London. I know a place to get a good shot, and only had to wait an hour before a blue Javelin came speeding past, doing something close to 140mph.

Javelin at Tutt Hill

Next, it was into Tescos and braving the crowds that only come with half-term holidays. Kids everywhere. But, in truth it's not too bad, and once I got the shopping home it's no trouble to reverse the car to the door to unload it; not the 150 stagger with bags like it was when we lived in the flat in Dover. Small things matter.

I took Nan out to Deal in the afternoon. Nothing spectacular, we just drove in, dropped some stuff in she had knitted at a charity shop, then drove out to the cliffs to look at the ferries plying their way back and forth to France. Then back here so she could watch the tennis and stroke Sulu, as he gets demanding of attention after lunch. Nan was happy enough doing that.

As for work; I have had more sniffs, but nothing concrete. I think this is the week when things will happen. I could be wrong, but our old employer is to make a decision on whether to re-employ us. If I could avoid that, I would. But right now I would take anything.

More sunshiiine next week I think, and more job hunting. Life goes on

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Hello. And welcome to sunny Dover where the storm clouds are gathering, lightning flashes around, and the ever louder thunder has chased the higher strung of our cats to the depth of the wardrobe. It's been a bank holiday in England; one that I'm back home for, and one that the weather has stayed fine for too. Until this afternoon.
We're just back from a meeting with a photographer friend of mine called Bob, and we walked the couple of miles of the river in Dover from Temple Ewell into the town itself. Quite clearly not one of the longest river in the world, from where it springs out of the ground in someones garden, runs through the village, along a short valley and then through some ornamental gardens before flowing through the village of River (honest) before it reaches the outskirts of Dover.

Anyway, it's pretty enough in places, and a couple of parish churches were worth a visit and a couple of photographs.

Church of St. Peter and St. Paul, Temple Ewell, Dover

We called in at The Royal Oak in River for a pint when the first drops of rain appeared, but made it into Dover before the rain got too heavy and we phoned for a taxi to take us back to our car and then home.

Church of St. Peter and St. Paul, Temple Ewell, Dover



Since I last wrote i have had a few sniffs of a job, nothing firm as yet. The one in Oz was from a wrongly worded e mail and it turns out they are just collecting names and CVs. I have sent mine in and will know in due course. A move to Australia is not what we really want right now, but if it's the only offer of a job, then we will go for it. So, I have been to the job centre, signed on and all that. They try to make it a painless process, but it is grim. I hope to have a job within two weeks in which case I won't have to go again; we'll see. Thanks to Facebook and the net, we have all had numerous leads of jobs and have sent mails and applications in. It's just a case of waiting now.

The Time Ball Tower

Saturday, Jools had a bead class in Deal, and so I wandered around town for a while taking pictures and buying vegetables for the family dinner we had hilariously arranged for Sunday.

Brewer Street, Deal

The sun had come out, and the sea was flatter than a flat thing. People were out eating ice cream, a bloke was setting up renting out deckchairs, with plenty of takers. I wandered down the narrow lanes between the wonderful old fishermen’s cottages and decided I was thirsty. I went in the Ship Inn and had a pint of Scottish ale.

The Ship Inn, Deal

I joined in the conversation; old things were better than this new stuff and the like. I had another pint and a bag of pork scratchings. I sat beside the bar next to the open window looking onto the street and the people walking past.

Yacht race

The pier was full of people fishing, with some actually catching things; not that I would recognise what fish it was, but the guy looked pleased with himself anyway. A yacht race passed by the end of the pier; I snapped away and thought how wonderful it all was.

Superstructure 1

Once Jools had finished her class, we went back home and had rustic French bread with mature cheddar, smothered with the squash preserve we had been saving having bought it on our honeymoon in Tuscany. It wasn’t unpleasant at all; in fact we wish we had bought a bloody bigger jar. To finish we polished off the last of the handmade chocolates.

I watched some football, whilst we waited for a couple we know to come round for a bbq; the rain helpfully fell in the afternoon, and by lighting up time, it was clear, and the burgers, kebabs and wild garlic sausages and corn was wonderful. We sipped wines of various colours as the sun went down, and darkness crept over the land.

Sunday, we were going to walk, but decided that we did not have time, as the slab of beef that we had to cook was going to take an age. We ended up on the Prince of Wales Pier in Dover watching people getting off the cruise ships and either heading home or going by coach for a day trip to London. I don’t quite see the attraction of a cruise on something like a block of flats, where every port call will be crowded by other cruisers all doing the same thing. And then there is the endless eating. And drinking.

And through the round window........

OK, maybe that.

So, back home and put the meat in the oven, having calculated the cooking time. Prepared the veg, peeled the spuds and whizzed up the Yorkshire Pudding mix. All was set. I opened the wine; better just make sure it’s not corked.


That works. Anyway, with us panicking whether the in-laws would turn up at all, they arrived 5 minutes before serving time. It all went well, although not perfect, but good enough. Nothing quite like a good roast dinner with proper yorkie; a big one cut into portions, not made in a bun tin. We sat on the patio and ate strawberries and cream; the sun shone. Yes, life still is not bad.

Thursday, 21 May 2009

A job offer

Hi there,

Here I am all back home in deepest Kent, with France just a haze on the horizon again.

I have applied for jobs; updated my CV and generally did chores around the house; I am using my time fairly wisely. Yesterday saw the battle of shed roof rejoined.

Let me explain.

When i was away in Kazakhstan, Jools bought some stuff; one was a new shed as the one already here was rotten and falling to pieces. She wanted a new one, and she ordered it and it got put up. But she wanted one with a plastic roof that let the light in, like the one we had in Dover.

So, waiting for me was a pile of plastic and fittings, which was the roof. I opened the package last weekend, and found the instructions written in Ikea-ese. In a word, I gave up.

My brother-in-law was supposed to be coming round at some point to help. Well, do it. But I got thinking, how hard can it be?

So, Tuesday morning, I got the bits out, and it began to make sense. And thought I could do it. So, yesterday I drilled holes, attached struts and just got the job done. I did not put the fancy trimming on, my point being it's just a bloody shed; but so far the roof is still on and it looks right.

Yes man has once again triumphed over the evil that is poor instructions, and using the soft thing between my ears I have achieved something. It may just be a shed roof to you, but this is something. You should see some of my previous efforts!

And then we had a bbq. I lit the Weber, and waited for them to warm up. I drank ice cold Adnams; which was great. A friend came round; we all chatted, and then I played records whilst drinking more beer. It was great.

Just before bedtime, I turned the computer on for the first time all day, and there was a message;

a job offer!

Negotiable salary!!

A house!!!

In Perth!!!!


That sobered me up pretty darn quickly.

I had a Glenlivet to calm things down.

I had another to send after the first one to lend moral support.

I had a third because, why the heck not?

And so, we now have some serious thinking to do. As you can imagine, a move to the other side of the world, leaving friends and family behind is not something to do lightly.

I'll keep you posted.

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Last day in Paris

All good things come to an end, and so our time in Paris was coming to a close. We were woken by the usual early morning deliveries, but we really didn't mind. The sound of the city is fine, and we dozed until it was time to head down to breakfast.
After quickly packing we called a cab and headed to Le Gare de Nord and then to find the left luggage lockers. Not a hard task one would think, but it took us nearly half an hour, and then having to go through airport security before paying for the locker.

Now much lighter, we were able to head out back into the city; we had eight hours to kill before our train left for London; the question was what to do.

One of my favourite places in Paris is the cimitrie de Montmartre; maybe a rather morbid place, doubly as I wanted to take pictures, but it really is a city of the dead right in the middle of the city, and is wonderfully photogenic.

We got out our map and headed north west, which we thought was the right direction.
Now, most of the major tourist traps and railway stations are havens for the thief and fraudulent; one of the worse are the gypsies. (not real gypsies, but people from Romania who beg; that we saw the same faces around Le Gare de Nord as two years ago points to there being gangs controlling the best spots.) So, we dodge the beggars and head down the main street into what seems to be the wedding district, where almost every shop offers dresses or suit hire, and it went on and on.


Anyway, we arrived in Montmartre, right by Moulin Rouge, before heading up La Butte and up the narrow alleyways past boulangeries and cheese shops and choclatiers and the such.

J Pam

Jools decided to sit near the main gate and read the book she had been ploughing through the whole trip, whilst I headed off, cameras in hand to snap away. The cemetery is wonderful; full of tombs and mauseliums of the great, good and commoner.

Around every corner was a delight, some beautiful statues sometimes of angels, sometimes of mourning figures. And catching the occasional semi-feral cat scampering around.

cimitrie de montmartre

Sepulture Nijinsky

After an hour or so, my man-flu had returned and I thought a coffee woulddo the trick. We walked a short distance to Place de Clichy and found a place right on the Place. We got a window seat, and over espressos we watched the city go by and generally ignore road signs and traffic lights.

table with a view

I looked at the menu; mozzarella and tomato; calzoni; bottle of red; Warsteiner on draught. Yes, yes, yes and yes. I guess we were there over two hours working our way through lunch. We were under no pressure to leave, even though we had the best seats in the place. It was a real pleasure.

Up into Montmartre for some window shopping, and some real shopping as we got three quarters of a kilo of hand made chocolates (which we are still working our way through) and a pistachio topped sweet loaf of bread/cake thing. Thats gone now, it was very nice with cherries in the loaf too.

By then it was four, and were Paris'd out, and so we walked back to the railway station and settled down in a bar and nursed coffees and a beer until it was time to check in.

Gare du Nord

Right on time at a quarter to seven the train pulled out and glided out of Paris and then whizzed through Flanders and Normandie. We were served a vegetable risotto and a small bottle of red. All very nice.

All the while we were heading back home and to reality.

Monday, 18 May 2009

Creme Brulee; a French government statement.

Madames et monseurs;

As you are aware there has been a national shortage of creme brulee for a week now. I can now confirm from our immigration department tha the two people responsable for the situation, a Mr and Mrs Jelltex, left the country on Friday evening.
Over the weekend, our creme brulee scientists have been beavering away replacing our stategic stocks, and that supplies should be returning to normal within the next few days.
We would like to appologise to all those who have endured the Brulee shortage, but how could we forsee that the said visitors have our wonderful vanilla and sugary dessert for every meal?

Prime Minister Brown says the culprits are going through withdrawal due to the lack of decent French desserts in Kent. We hope this will serve them right and they will learn that creme brulee is not the only dessert.

Thursday in Paris

As was usual, we were woken before dawn when the first of the delivery trucks pulled up outside one of the shops in the street onto which our room window looked onto. Once in a while is fine, but once the third or fourth truck has pulled up, the driver coughed a few times, called out to his friend, or the owner of the shop, the novelty really began to wear off.

early morning boulangerie

So, we lay awak, or dozed, and watched as dawn's light crept into our room. We asked why the air conditioning was not working, only to be told that it would be switched on on June 1st; so we were left with either having the window open and the noise of the street or have it closed and to be in a sauna.

Not that it was that bad to be honest, but broken sleep is never fun.

Having walked a bit the day before, we began to realise that Pasis is not that big, and we decided to walk into the city and to the Louvre and see what the weather would bring to the day.

First up was to buy a raincoat or an umbrella; which should have been an easy task, but the opening hours of Parisian shops although it said on the door the shop should be open, quite clearly talking animated to coleagues was much more important than actually selling things.
After crashing out in a few sports shops; we found an umbrella in a tourist shop, and so now protected we set off regardless as to what the day would throw at us.

The wide boulevards and narrow alleyways were all abustle, shops opening, deliveries still taking place. Cafes had wonderful smells coming out of them, and having one every 50m or so, or so it seemed, meant that any sudden thirst or desire for coffee could be satisfied very quickly.

We came to another wonderful cathedral, all flying butresses and curves and carvings. It seemed the spire almost pierced the leaden clouds above, and it was only a matter of time before the heavens would open.

And indeed, the rain began to fall. We took shleter under a row of identical trees in a park under the shadow of the Paris stock exchange and got our some holiday reading, and inbtween paragraphs we watched the local and tourist walk by.

Even though it was less than a couple of hours since breakfast, it is always time for coffee, and we found a very swish place that served us expressos and bagettes with salted butter and cherry preserve. We dunked the bread in coffee and tried to look local.

After working out which way round to look at the map, and which palatial building that one was, we walked towards the Louvre down another wide boulevard. People were laying flowers at the statue of Jeanne d'Arc; I took pictures, because without us Brits she would just be another crazy listening to to voices inside her head rather than a national heroine.

Jeanne d'Arc

There was a bang, and a police van crashed into a parked truck, ripping it's door off; many more vans whizzed by, whilst the police in the van surveyed the damage. Dozens of tourists took pictures.

La Louvre

The queues outside the Louvre were huge, and we decided to forgo a wander round until the weather got really grim. I made do with taking many more pictures and listening to tourists as they wandered past.

La Louvre

We followed the wide boulevard up to L'Opera, a spendid guilded building, although it's spleandour ruined by the racetrack that was the road and junction below it's decorated walls.

It was by now lunchtime, and we headed into a side street to find somewhere to eat. We found a little family owned place and sat on a table on the pavement to watch the chic and great walk past. We ordered tandori chicken salad, and it came in a popadom bowl which could be eaten; it was light and tasty.

Little did we know that there would be some real entertainment for us; three ladies of the night tried to ply their trade in various doorways, trying not to look too obvious. They failed in that, but did get some trade. They had coffee in the cafe opposite. Not that I am an expert in such matters, but these ladies did seem rather old, ond the tallest and oldest was a dead ringer for Steve Tyler from Aerosmith, not my ideal looking lady, but she seemed happy enough.
That we were in a swish area, with posh shops and eateries around, and this other life was playing out under people's noses, and nobody batted an eyelid was something else.

We left the ladies to their work, and headed back to the hotel for a snooze as the bottle of wine had taken it's toll; as had the lack of sleep, and so in the quiet of the afternoon we grabbed 40 winks.

That night we went to a local place to eat, and had veal followed by creme brulee. It was all very nice, as was the burgandy and the conac.

Thursday, 14 May 2009

Adventure en France part 3; return to Paris.

We awoke to find we had slept long; the country air did is good. After a quick breakfast of rustique bread dunked in fresh coffee, we headed out back to town, where we said our farewells to Melonie.

A sort walk down to the station, and another quick chat with the machine got us two seats on the next TGV back to Paris. Time enough for a coffee in a cafe opposite the station; would we like a pain au chocolat? Mai oiu!

The train arrived; doubled decked and full of comfortable seats; it whisked us back into Paris in under an hour at speeds approaching 170 mph. The fields and villages flew past.

We returned to the hotel, got a shower and changed our clothes before setting out once again into Paris. We stopped for lunch at a Basque place just up the road from the hotel; we had a ham and cheese salad; doesn't sund exciting, but it was great, with a balsamic dressing, and loads of fresh bread, and a pint, sorry, hapfa litre of proper Stella

Notre Dame through the arch

We headed down into the Metro, and went to Le Trocadero, so to see Le Tour Eifel. With my wide angle lens, I got some great shots; whilst avoiding the Africans selling dodgy models of the tower, but entertained when police on bikes chased them down the Left Bank.

Reflection of Le Tour Eiffel

We followed them, and the sun broke through and it got very warm. We saw the river police rescue an old guy who had fallen in the river; and then dozens of other cars arrived, followed by two boats and a helicopter and countless motorcycles. The guy was already out and shaking the hands of the policeman who pulled him out.

We followed the river to Notre Dame, it was packed, and all around the cathedral was a artisan bakers fair. it made me think of money changers, and was it all really needed in such a beautiful place? Notre Dame is not really a church, the chattering classes go there and ignore signs banning flash photography and add it to the album. We walk away to a quiet historic quarter; and whilst nursing a dark beer, the heaven open, and we watch as a real rain washed the streets clean. Thunder echoed around, and lightning flashed. Free entertainment.

Back near the hotel we find a small place that has pepper steak and a cheapish bottle of red. We finish of with Crem Brulee and coffee.

Not bad for an unemployed bum.......

Adventure en France part 2; 24 heur sur Le Mans

And so, we will continue where the last blog left off; on a TGV whizzing through Normandy towards Le Mans.

TGVs at Gare de Montparnasse

The train was wonderful; it was very fast, comfortable and got us to le Mans in 57 minutes with no fuss, not breakdowns, no accidents. All in all, makes our British trains the 19th century things they are.

Le Mans tram

Le Mans is two towns really, the new moden one up from the station, and the old one around the cathedral. We were there to meet a woman Jools works with to get French business, and we were onvited to her place in the country for the night.

Republique Square, Le Mans

We walked up the high street, or whatever it's French variant is, up to Repulblique Square. We waited whilst Melonie came down to meet us; she and Jools chatted about work, and then at one we went to the bookshop for lunch.

Cathédrale St-Julien du Mans

Where else?

We had a wonderful, tasty meal with a glass of wine and a nice dessert all for a few Euros; and then armed with directions, Jools and I headed to the old town whilst Melonie went back to work.

As ever, the old town was narrow cobbled streets, wattle and daub half timbered houses, the occasional church, stunning views over what was fertile land, now downtown, all around a massive cathedral.

Le Mans old town

I took pictures, we wandered around; we stopped in a couple of bars, had beers, ohhed and ahhed at some pretty piece of carving. The sun came out and so I took the pictures all over again.

Cathédrale St-Julien du Mans

At six we went back to Melonie's office to then head into the country to her village and for a place to eat and chat and eat and drink wine.

There is nothing like the Frech countryside; it should look the same as the English, but isn't. Her house is just wondeful; a converted cottage and barn, full of cool wonderful spaces and outside multi-layered gardens. We sighed and said honest nice things.

We had roast chicken, roast potatoes and roast figs, followed by rhubarb tart and lots of wine.

we talked; Melonie's husband spoke no english; his English was better than my French. I knew I had had enough to drink when I laughed at his jokes.

We went to bed with the sound of many toads croaking for France in the garden and all around. We slept like logs.

Things Change

It all began as such a great day.

We got up, went downstairs for a healthy breakfast of cereal and fruit, and then after collecting our bages, left the warren of narrow streets on which our hotel is on and flagged down a taxi to take us to Gare du Montparnasse, to catch a train to Jools' friend in Le Mans.

We went to the automatic ticket machine, got it to print out in English, and got our ticket, found the platform and settled down in our very comfortable seat on the TGV.

Then the text message arrived; have you heard about the company?

It was from my friend, Dick.

Sensing something wrong, I called him international on my mobile, and the news was every bit as dreadful as I had feared.

The company had gone into recievership on Monday afternoon; we were to lose our jobs, and have to claim the money owed from the Kazakhstan job from the reciever, along with others who would be feeding over its corpse.

Needless to say, we're stunned. I got the phone call this morning from the MD to confirm my termination and where to claim my wages if there is any money. And that was it; enjoy your holiday.

So, I have sent a begging letter to my old boss, the Christmas killer, and am now waiting. We are not panicing, yet. We have saved some months mortgage payments, but all our plans for holidays and the such are now very much on hold.

All in all, this has been a bot of a downer, but we have tried to get on with the business of a holiday, even though we want to be home looking for a job for me.

Worse can, and has, happened.

Adventure en France part 1

Here we are, sitting in our room of our hotel in the 9th Arr. in north east Paris. We have just walked back from Artist Square in Montmartre, right by Sacre Ceur, where we have just had dinner at our favourite restaurant. It is dusk, the sounds of the city are coming in through the open window, and down in the street, the chic and lovely hustle to get to a bar for a well deserved drink.

Paris is just so darn great. It really is.

We woke this morning, bright and early, with just our packing to do. Just some cereal and cup of coffee before the taxi came at nine to whisk us to the station. The international station is just half an hour up the line; the downside is we come all the way back again. Oh well.

Once at Ashford, we check in, and are right behind a class or 5 of French schoolchildren; but they are so well behaved, and the three of four teachers don't seem at all stressed. We all get on the platform on time, and soon the sleek Eurostar is coming down the platform.

Eurostar to Paris

A friend has got us first class seats, along with free drinks and meals. We feel like royalty; just not as inbred. The Kentish countryside speeds past until we get back to Folkestone, and then we dive into a hillside and down we go under the Channel.

We are served champagne. We could have had tea, coffee or water, but we have champers; it seems the right thing to do.

France appears, and as we speed through Flanders fields we are served rools, croisants and coffee, followed by a small Engllish breakfast. France continued to speed past. All laid out before us as we sped up to 160 mph. The champagne did not get spilt, we noticed.

Le Gare du Nord is chaos, but organised, if that makes sense. We walk outside, dodging the Romanian beggars and queue for a taxi.Quickly enough we get to the front of the queue, and pile our bags in, and into the warren of narrow streets we dive, with the drive making small talk in Franglais

Our hotel is down a narrow street, identical to many around us. Over the other side of the street there is a boulanger and patisser, a short walk away there are bars and places to eat. The air is thick with a heady mix of cooking.

We love Paris.

We decide to go out for a walk. Looking at our map, we think we know the right way to Montmartre. But, we get sidetracked by the first cafe we pass and call in for a coffee and a creme brulee. The creme brulee is huge when it arrived. We tuck in, as Parisian street life goes on outside for our entertainment.

Sacre Ceur in the rain

An old gentleman sees us looking at our map and asks us where we are going. We tell him Montmartre; we think he tells us that was, a little left, a little right. We thank him and head off.

We walk up wide boulevards, past wonderful shops full of hand made chocolates, bread and other wonderful things. Sadly, it was drizzling, so not many photographs for me. Oh well.

Montmartre is the usual warren of cobbled streets and fantastic shops. At the foot of Sacre Ceur, we call in a bar for a beer; proper 1664, brewed in France. Tastes different. We sit in the window and watch the world go by some more.


We catch the fenucular to the top of the hill. As usual, Sacre Ceur is crowded, but the views, even on a dull day is fantastic. We walk down the cobbled street down to Artist Square; we go back to a place we have eaten in many times before. We have our favourite from there, onion soup, full of pain de champion and grated cheese. We follow that with a seafood salad and then Salade de fruits, all washed down by a bottle of house rose.


As darkness fell, we walk back; shops have re-opened for the evening, and the beautiful are posing whilst smoking outside cafes Crowds are outside Moulon Rouge, but people don't go in, not this early, anyway.

Police and Thieves

Tomorrow, we are visiting a friend in Le Mans, but I should be back in a couple of days time with more from our wonderful life here.

Saturday, 9 May 2009

Super Saturday

So, the plan this morning was to head into Canterbury for some shopping and then maybe head into the country where we know there is an old quiet wood where we hope to see some wild garlic in bloom.

Fat Tree

Leaving here just after eight gets us into Canterbury by half past, and well ahead of the crowds. We wander round some of the less known buildings and apparently endless parks and gardens. There was no one else around, and apart from a few hungry ducks we met few others.

Canterbury Cathedral

At nine the shops opened, but I spotted that the cathedral was open too, and there was no queue; I stumped up the £7.50 and went in, cameras in hand. It was wonderful, very few people, and the history was just everywhere. I took some shots of the structure and got quite carried away. Even though we live so near, this was the first time I had been inside. But, the entrance fee included a free re-entry valid for a year.

The Quire
The early start and walk had sharpened our appetites, and so we found a nice little place to eat and ordered smoothies and bagles with cream cheese.

Outside, the crowds began to thicken, and thoughts of delving into Marks and Sparks was out, and so after buying a lamp for our dining room table, we got back in the car and headed back to the coast.

A small diversion took us to a quiet semi-derelict church at Waldershare. We knew it well. A short walk through the overgrown churchyard took us out into a mature wood, and a short walk brought is a marvellous sight; the floor of the wood was white, thick with flowers, waving slowly in a slight breeze.
These were the wild garlic; and they went right out of sight the trees rising through them like the garlic was a drift of snow.

wild garlic
Wild garlic looks like Lilly of the Valley, has bright white flowers, and when stood on, or when a breeze blows through them, a subtle hint of garlic can be smelt. We were the only ones there, and had the whole wood to ourselves. Probably very few people know this is here.

Wild Garlic and Bluebells

We went back home and tucked into sausage meat puffs and something called plump pilgrims; a spicy kind of rock cake; very nice indeed. Doubly so with a nice cup of coffee.

The afternoon we worked in the garden, getting it under control. The sun shone, not quite warm, but pleasant enough in the spring sunshine. The cats mingled around us; I kept check on the football scores, and sorted through the pictures I had taken.

Evening came and we had diner, lit by our new lamp; home made breaded chicken salad with a bottle of Chianti. Another one of those wonderful days.

Friday, 8 May 2009

And it seems like such a good idea at the time

The question came on Tuesday night, did I want to go to Devon for the day to take some pictures of trains.

Now, I am aware that this is not the pastime of choice for the average person, but having been stuck on a rusty Russian, sorry Kazakh, tub for the best part of the month; the thought of seeing the English countryside in it's springtime pomp did appeal. And seeing one of the most spectacular stretches of track as the main line to Cornwall goes along the seawall at Dawlish was too good to turn down.

And catching up with a friend was a good thing too, I must add.

Of course, the reality of our plans is that to get from Dover to Devon and back in a day meant an early train to London and a late one back. And so it was quarter past four that I hauled my weary bones out of the bed and almost fell downstairs to get ready.

We joined the commuters on the 06:15 train from Ashford into Charing Cross, and as we stopped at stations nearer London, the train filled up; so that by the time we were rushing through the suburbs, the walls of the carriages were bulging with the bodies forced in.

Once at Waterloo, we waited for our train by buying everything bagels with cream cheese along with a gallon, or so it seemed, of tea, before taking our seats and then heading south west through leafy suburbs and then into the countryside.

Soon enough, we had the carriage to ourselves as we passed through ever smaller towns and villages; Wiltshire, Dorset gave way to Devon, and the coast was then in view.
We changed trains in Exeter, and headed out along the River Ex estuary, until it came to the coast, and in time we came to Dawlish, and climbed out with a local WI group, who had entertained with gossip as we passed through villages, enlightening us on local relationships.

Dawlish Station

And there before us, was the tracks, the pretty village spread along the coast and up the overlooking hill. As trains roared passed, we snapped away taking many, many shots. 

We went to a pub for lunch, and sat on the balcony with the tracks less than 25m away, and so could continue to marvel at Mr Brunel's brilliance of building a railway line through a fishing village cum seaside resort. 

Cross Country HST

Of course, at some point, we were going to have to retrace our steps, or tracks, and head back home. Sadly the train from Dawlish was the one with the rowdiest parts of Teinmouth Technical College, who took every seat on the two coach train, and so we got a multitude of ringtones, latest slang and who was 'shagging' who and where. They got off at the villages we had heard of the gossip about, us, secure in the knowledge that many of the children could be fruits of affairs we had heard rumours about.

Dawlish, Devon

One thing I did learn whilst we waited for the train back to London was that there is only so much tea one can drink in one day, before one reaches what could be described as the tea event horizon, and it stops to taste of tea, but you still crave it. And another digestive to dunk perhaps crosses your mind again.

Darkness came before we reached London, and our eyes had long given up trying to stay open. We waited for our train to east Kent, I couldn't face another tea, but baulked at £3 for a smoothie or £1.60 for a small bottle of water. I stumped up £2 for water that claimed to have a precise number of raspberries and blueberries in it. 

Frescoes; Exeter St. Davids Station

We arrived back in Ashford just as Thursday gave way to Friday; at least the car knew its way back along the M20 and then onto Dover. 

Tomorrow, I promised myself, I would lay in bed, read, sleep, but there would be no trains. But, I got the pictures.

Monday, 4 May 2009

Leaving Kazakhstan

Sunday 5th April.

In the beginning was the word, and the word was Borat. And the first rule of \Borat is don’t talk about Borat. It seems Kazakhstanis don’t have a sense of humour and have found the whole affair unfunny. We arrived at Almaty in the small hours and had a five hour wait for our flight onto Aktau in the morning. We had a two hour wait in the arrival hall; I call it arrival hall, it was just a small room, the only consolation was that there was a wifi available. And so we checked on the news and football scores as the wheels of immigration turned slowly round and our passports were stamped after the right amount of lubrication was applied.

Once through immigration we were shown into the VIP lounge, which turned out to look like a ballroom from imperial times, because that is probably what it was. We were allowed free drinks and food, and once stirred the barmaid did prepare the saddest of open sandwiches and some lemon tea.

The flight to Aktau was full to bursting, mainly of families with screaming children, and so the two hour flight seemed much longer than it was; doubly so as there was a screaming child just one seat away from me. I did have a window seat, and so got the full effect of the view of dessert for hundreds and hundreds of miles: broken only by dried up lake beds and the fast receding shoreline of The Aral Sea. Former islands poked up through long since dried silt, coated white is salt: it looked for all the world like the moon.

When we walked to the plane back in Almaty, the sun was just rising, casting golden shadows on the foothills of the Himalayas. Rising from mere hills, they quickly rose into snow-capped mountains, meanwhile to the south, the flat plain of desert or near desert spread to the horizon.

If the view from the plane was bleak, then the view from the coach window was even worse. As we trundled down a dirt track, the brown spread to the horizon without break. The bus slowed down every few minutes as passed over a larger pothole than usual. We turned onto the main Aktau to Bautino road; it wasn’t much better. At least on my side of the bus the Caspian Sea could just be seen, starting for no particular reason just down the steep cliff about half a mile away.

We stopped 90 minutes into the journey for a toilet break; the toilet turned out to be a concrete building with a hole in the floor. Tales from those who went in tell of it being like the entrance to hell with a smell to match; gladly we climbed back on the bus and headed north.

Roadside Services; Kazakh Style. Bautino is a port, and existed for the sturgeon industry, and now for the oil industry. It rises, brown out of the dirt, all cinder block houses thrown together with rough grey mortar, set back from the semi-dirt tracks that count for roads. We pass Muslim cemeteries, orthodox cemeteries, all built in the desert, rising out of the earth with crosses pointing to the sky of the occasional mausoleum to beak to lines.

We had an hour wait while immigration looked at our passports and visas again, and decided that we only had business visas and therefore could not work until more lubrication in the form of dollar bills was applied to the wheels. As our freight was stuck in customs, this was not of immediate worry. We headed off to our boat, ship; The Caspian Maria, to find our home for the next month would be the back deck of a supply vessel and several converted shipping containers. I was sharing with my mate Richard, and being first one in claimed the prized bottom bunk. I say bunk; these what you would buy for your children to sleep in, and didn’t look strong enough for burly jolly jack tars, especially if at sea with a keep nor’wester blowing.

Monday April 6th.

I awoke after some 14 hours sleep to find breakfast served, which was various pink bit of unknown animals; I had an orange. Lubrication applied, we can at least now work, if only our freight was cleared by customs. We settled down to wait; the sun came out and we sat on the back deck and read in the warmish sunshine. In the sunshine, the sea sparkles with a turquoise blue and looks wonderful. The truth is it’s polluted to hell. Kazakhstan has been a dumping ground of Russia for decades; they mine uranium round here, the Soviets exploded nukes up the road, they dumped chemicals in lakes and poisoned the water. There is a lake in the centre of Bautino that glows red; no one is sure what the Soviets left there.

Tuesday April 7th.

Still no freight.

A cold wind blows and we put on extra layers of clothes. Our clients come round to look at the ship and us, before we are bussed to one of the three hotels in town for a safety meeting and formal handshakes. On the way we bounce through the desert, see a couple of camels looking for food, before heading down into the town. Our client is Shell, and they have rules; lots of rules. They are all explained to us as if we are children, and the consequences of breaking them. We are allowed a sandwich each and a cup of coffee before being bussed back. But the good news is that the client is going to pay for beer for us tonight in another hotel where there is a bar with beer and food and stuff.

We are excited.

Freight has cleared customs and is being driven up from Aktau in the morning; we are told we are representing the company, lots of important locals will be in the bar, don’t drink too much, don’t say you hate the country, but above all, don’t mention Borat,

The bar is full of ex pats from all over the world, all in the oil industry. Smoking is allowed here, and soon the bar is thick with smoke and talk of work. A large screen TV shows a basketball game from Russia. We have three beers each and then we are herded out back onto the bus to be taken back to she ship before we turn into pumpkins, or worse.

Bautino Harbour Wednesday April 8th.

The freight arrives stroke on half nine. The crane arrives just after lunch. We begin to get the skids and equipment off the trailers and onto the quay. We lift the skids onto the ship and anchor them to the deck; it’s a tortuous procedure, as the crane driver speaks no English, we no local language and he is permanently angry. At three he packs up and drives off saying another crane will come later.

Thursday April 9th.

Thursday passed much as Wednesday did, with work from dawn until dusk. So much to do and we all did what we could. Hundreds of problems to solve, and all the while the cold wind blew from the sea. We got on with things, and slowly the plan came together.

Food is pretty simple here; most nutrition comes from dairy, with milk being either 3.5, 6.0, 10, 25 or 50% fat! Lots of cakes and pastry is eaten, I fear for my waistline; I eat more fruit and vegetables.

By the end of the day we are fit for nothing other than sleep, which we do.

Bautino Harbour Friday April 10th.

Good Friday.

The wind really howled today, and it was really cold, like a winters day back home. I tried my hand at soldering, which went well, considering. I only burnt four fingers, which was a small price to pay for three split computer leads.

One of the final pieces of the jigsaw arrives when the pillar drill turns up, and we get to the task of fixing the davits to one of the skids. Essential in the deployment of our kit, and one mistake would kill the job stone dead, as we have no spares. It goes well, and we lift the final skid into place; tomorrow the davits would be lifted in, and then we would see if the measurements were right and they would actually reach over the side of the ship.

Another good nights sleep.

Saturday April 11th.

Easter Saturday.

The job continues; most of it is now done; we just have to hope everything works now when we plug it in. Equipment is welded to the skids, leads connected, tomorrow everything will be turned on, and then we will see.

Another promised pub trip faded as the towns only bus is going to take some offgoing marine crew to Aktau to catch a train back for their three day trip back to Russia.

Another early night.

Sunday April 12th.

Easter Sunday.

The age old problem of too many chiefs and not enough workers reared it’s head again, with orders and counter orders given. Tempers frayed, toys were thrown out of cots. Work continued, and slowly it all began to work.

We get one 20 minute call home, and I take mine on Sunday; bliss.

The bus arrived at six, and soon we are bouncing off across the moon to the town and our few hours in the bar. The setting sun shines through the thousands of plastic bags caught in the dead branches of small bushes, more camels forage about. The bar is open.

The bar is a little piece of the west in the east. The price of a beer in here is several hundred times what it is outside. We get football on TV, pizzas to eat, and local gassy beer to drink, and three hours in which to unwind.


The drive back to the ship is so dark it’s like every light in the rest of the world has been turned off, starts twinkle above, and passengers snooze whilst the loud Australian tells bawdy jokes; we wouldn’t have it any other way.

Monday April 13th.

Bank Holiday Monday.

A final day of getting things to work; thankfully all our kit does, and most other systems do too. Although navigation is still crashing, and without that we won’t be able to run survey lines. People look at monitors and scratch their heads and swear. And computers makes our lives SO much better.

We work until dark to get everything done before we are told management are happy enough for us to rest. The chaos begins in the morning.

Tuesday April 14th.

We sail in the morning for a day of trials in which we have to convince the client that we can get the job done and the data would be good enough. It’s a glorious day, not a breath of wind, and once again the Caspian sparkles; the cliffs of the moon rise steeply about a mile away and the small harbour huddles in-between

We pass the tests and head back to port at nine.

Wednesday April 15th.

I had tried to sleep to get into shift pattern, but sleep would not come at all. But, lucky for me, that shift would be spent transiting to site. Although the site was just 100 Km away, we had to go almost double that to find the deep channel. In this part the Caspian is just 9m at it’s deepest, and just 2m in places, and yet is 100s of Km wide.

By the end of shift I was so tired, and as we arrive on site, my shift ends. And so, over to you, Richard.

Thursday April 16th.

After 10 hours sleep the world seems a better place, and I woke up to find that strong wind have stopped us from working; I spend a hard shift reading Morton’s ‘In Search of England”, it makes me homesick, and longing for places new to explore.

We watched the sun rise gloriously before breakfast, into a sky of pinks and reds. The wind still blew.

Caspian Sunrise Friday April 17th.

Day 14; two weeks ago I was packing, and now here we are, feeling like we have been here forever. I begin to read Jane Eyre, and so passed 8 hours of another shift.

After breakfast, the wind drops, and word comes that we are to start work. Not all that easy, we have to deploy the gear first and then get the digital stuff working.

First of all is to get the 600m long streamer all out and make sure it floats. Oh look, that four hours gone and shift change.


Saturday April 18th.

A shift in which we actually worked. For a while. Our sonar went down, water in the termination, and so we have to fix that before putting it back out, bit of a bodge job, but then, if it works……

Just after seven one of the guns goes down, and we have to get the array in. It had caught some nets; illegal sturgeon fishing is a real problem, and we have caught a huge net in our gear. In the net were five rotting sturgeon, stinking to high heaven, and weighing it down were bits of aircraft and half a breezeblock. Everyone came out to see what we had, but no one thought of lending a hand as the extra weight made the task of pulling the guns in just about impossible. But, we did it, and cleared the nets; bagging them up as evidence for the authorities.

Another seagull/sunset picture Sunday April 19th.

Easter Sunday (Orthodox).

When awake, my first task is to listen for noises of the deck and engine to see if I can guess what the state of play is. I usually get it wrong, but today there is no doubting the bang of the guns going off. Work it is then. And an untroubled shift unfolds. We do lines, gather good data and begin to get the job done.

Another stunning sunrise, the flat calm sea reflecting perfectly, and the swooping seagulls in our wake would have made a great shot if I had my camera with me instead of being in the cabin.

For breakfast there were multi-coloured boiled eggs, and several types of cake. Happy Easter. Again.

Monday April 20th.

The forecasted wind and rain had arrived; all the gear was onboard when we got up, and so another shift of reading and drinking tea spread before us. The sea broke over the side of the ship, and we spent a few frantic hours making sure everything was tied down and rain not getting into the lab, which is exposed on the back deck. Finished Jane Eyre, and enjoyed the language and description of life in the early 19th century.

Tuesday April 21st.

The wind and rain eased some, but not enough to work. That, and we have no chase boat to scout lines for nets. So we sit bobbing and waiting. I begin The Pillars of the Earth, although trying to limit myself to 100 pages a day, as this is the last book I have. We are beginning to swap books, and as yet I have resisted the lure of the DVD player, and so if get bored there is always 6 series of Shameless that Dick is working his way through.

Wednesday April 22nd.

We awoke before shift to find the wind a howling and the sea a rough. Etc. We looked round to make sure the equipment was tied down and then settled down for a shift of more reading and tea drinking. The wind dropped just after dawn, and so we slowly deployed the gear, only for the wind to drop to nothing and the sea to calm like a millpond. So, by the end of shift we were working away.

Thursday April 23rd.

St George’s Day

Awoke to find the other shift had snagged another net, abut going one better they had a long dead Caspian Seal caught up, and it stunk. It had wrapped itself around the streamer, ruining data, and so there was no option but to cut it all off. Of course it was right the other end of the streamer, and so the operation took some six hours. And now the weather has come down; and so we wait again, reading, tea drinking and snoozing. We begin shooting at breakfast, as the weather comes down quickly. The sunrise, once again, was spectacular, with flat bottomed fluffy clouds to the horizon turn golden by the rising sun. Must remember to bring my camera each day from now on.

One benefit from the diet is that I am losing weight, quite quickly. I can’t really explain why, but there can be no doubt as I am now using the forth notch on my belt, and all my clothes now hang instead of looking like spandex. Well, almost. If only the night chef would stop baking cakes it would be even better, Oh well.

Friday April 24th.

Another quiet shift as we near the end of the survey area. Sadly, we still have one more to do, but this is a major point, and thoughts turn towards going home. Paul is booked to fly out on the 2nd of May, so we could in theory fly back in the four days after that; if we get the job done. Many people are flying home as soon as we dock, which means just a skeleton crew doing the demob. I would have thought it better to have as many folks helping out as possible; but then if they are all as helpful as Lukaz then they may as well just go.

I am rushing through the Pillars of the World book, and now have just 250 pages left. And thoughts on that are what will I read next as I have now run out of books. Russell Brand’s Booky Wook is around; but am that desperate?

Saturday April 25th.

So, we take over shifts just as we begin to run lines on the new site. Straight away everything starts to go wrong; no water in compressors, noise on streamer and thermoclines on the sidescan. But it settles down, although our data is still rubbish.

Dawn breaks with the sea still as a millpond and not a ripple to disturb the surface. The sunrise was wonderful, and the reflections stunning. The day contuned with no wind and flat calm seas.

We have to avoid multiple nets, one with as many as eight dead seals in; how on earth will we manage at night going virtually blind?

Finished the book, The Pillars of the Earth just before lunch; and now I have nothing to read. So, after lunch instead of reading until three or four, I went straight to bed and sleep. Much better for that.

Sunday April 26th.

On shift to find we had just snagged a new net on one of the more distant birds, and so first job was to get the streamer in and clear more rancid sturgeon off. After cutting it off one bird, it slid down the streamer and snagged the last bird. So, do it again, without gagging on the smell of rotten fish. I swear I’m not going to eat fish again, and my caviar days are well behind me now.

Data still rubbish, and the word on the street is that the client is going to have to accept the sonar due to time as the boat is needed for a 3D job as soon as we have demobbed. I am so looking forward to going home; some coffee, some wine and just be back in Moordown again with Jools and them cats. Bliss.

And then, just before dawn, we snare the mother of all nets, right on the end of the streamer. So, we go out again, haul the streamer on to find several rancid sturgeons and probably a few dead seals all wrapped in nets on the end of the streamer. The smell was something else, and it took some strong knives and stomachs to cut it off, without it snaring on any other gear. We hope that that will be the final time we are on the back deck this shift.

The bane of any football support is hope. All week I have been telling myself Norwich are doomed, only for the results yesterday to go all their way; now all they need to do is win at home to Reading today and again at Charlton, and they are safe. Damn them, I was resigned to our failure and relegation, now I have to live with hope.

Monday April 27th.

Seems like I was wrong thinking the torment would be over today; Norwich play tomorrow night, tonight, Monday, and so I have another 24 hours of lingering hope to bear. Why don’t the overpaid useless tossers just get it over with and go down? And why do I still give two figs about it? Because I can’t stop, that’s why. Brian wants to be manager next season; he’ll have to make sure they win these two next games, then. I really don’t care as long as this never-ending struggle against relegation ends. Of course it could be a struggle against relegation from League 1, and just how bad would that be?

Thinking again about going home; it fills most of my quiet moments, and what we might do: Scotland, Europe on the Eurostar, Switzerland. Ther’re all train related of course, but I feel the need for trains, if I’m honest. Julie wants to go to Mallaig, of course; that might just work.

We are working, I am recording rubbish on the sonar; the client is livid, but if the conditions are awful, what can we do? We can’t change the laws of physics just to suit that squinting weasle of a rep-tile; go away and ask someone else some pointless questions. At least he’s going this week; immigration won’t extend his visa; maybe they don’t trust a man who looks like moleman from The Simpsons. We all hate him, and another day longer spent on here with him than need be we might just commit clientcide.

Rumors persist about the demob and possible date when we will be flying back. I know I shouldn’t listen, but I want to give Julie as much notice as possible. At the moment there seems to be just six of us for the demob, which is not enough if you ask me. I might just want to go home too.

Yes, the sonar data is awful; caused by a thermal layer in the water column; it reflects most of the signal back, and we get some kind of crap modern art instead of a picture of the seabed. It’s so bad I hardly watch the data come through now. The seabed is quite interesting, pack ice has scarred the seabed with lines and curves and is quite beautiful; when you can see it. In places it really is mesmerising, all concentric circles, curves and straight lines; but we haven’t seen that in four or five days now the weather has warmed the sea surface up. If things don’t improve, they might just have to accept what we have, or we’ll have to do the whole site again. Not looking forward to that.

Eleven AM: Well, the news is that the job could be over in less than two days, if Shell accept the data as it is. If not, we’ll have to re-shoot the sonar when the conditions improve. Guess which one we want? Plans to time off at home are in full swing, and talk is of beer and girlfriends and surfing. Although, not in that order. That’s the way it is sometimes, we just never know. We could be home in a week or a month, we just never know. Either way, we should know by tonight once the client and head office decide, whilst I will be sleeping, of course. Less than an hour to go now, and all the while the data slowly improves, damn it.

Tuesday April 28th.

And so, suddenly, it all seems to be ending. Woke this evening to find that the provisional flight details are in for our homeward flights; most are going home Saturday, the rest of us next Wednesday. The client is going to be happy with the sonar data we have, I should think so. And now there are nine days and counting to go. Amazing to think that a couple of days ago I was thinking I could be here at least another two weeks, and now plans are well under way for a return home.

It came as no surprise to find that Norwich could not manage a win tonight. After getting their fate back in their own hands, they had to throw it all away with yet another loss. 46 points from 45 games is just pathetic, and we quite rightly deserve to go down; not that it any easier to accept. Quite where the club goes from here is anyone’s guess. Not that we are quite down yet, a win at already relegated Charlton and Barnsley lose then we stay up; but to be honest, we don’t deserve to.

We are plugging away with work, two more lines done this shift, 18 plus the crossline to do, and then it will be ‘goodnight Vienna’ and tome to pack up and go home. Hurrah.

I almost spoke to see after seeing an e mail from Shell that they did not think the data was good enough, and there seemed a chance that we would have to re-shoot some or all of the lines. That would have meant another 4 or 5 days here, and with the weather closing in on Thursday, possibly another week on this tub. As it was, a couple of infill lines to do, and we’re good to go.

Wednesday April 29th.

And so when we came onto shift, just eight more lines to do, about 14 hours work; if nothing goes wrong. And the plan for the de-mobbing is in, and we’re being given three days to pack boxes. A little over-generous we think. The upshot is we could be home before Wednesday, which will be fine by me. Mike, the safety Shrek, has left, home via Almaty and Bangkok to Oz back home to his wifey. How we won’t miss the grumpy bear with a tab always on the go. Saying that he has been a non-smoker now for some 5 days, which may well explain his bad moods. One thing for certain it will be quieter around here without Mike. We just needed him to take the client with him and it would have been fine.

And so this is probably our last night shift together, the three amigos, the three musketeers, etc. More competitive cards, more cake and more moaning; all of which makes the shift pas quickly, until the rest of the ship wakes up around six in the morning. Those four or five hours when the rest of the crew sleeps, and we’re left along here are the best. As long as we don’t have to go out onto deck to pull the streamer in and cut two tons of rancid fish from it. Those are not quite so good nights.

It is ten in the morning, we just have one more line to do, a velocity dip and then we can head into port. Despite our best efforts to mess up so near the finish line, it seems that the finishing line is in site, the light is there at the end of the tunnel and the fat lady is clearing her throat. Yes, we have done it. All that is left is to pack everything away, and then load it in crates, drink some beer and catch a flight home. But, the last part could be some seven days away. So, plenty more work ahead and then home for tea and medals; sweet.

So, after trying to sleep in the afternoon, I get up and help to pack away the gear and such for a few hours. It seems strange to be doing it so soon, but the job went well and now the best bit; going home. The anticipation of home is fantastic, and every thought is of things to do, places to visit, and just the sights and sounds of springtime in England. So, in the morning, at seven sharp, the work begins for real. Get into port and really start ripping things to pieces and hopefully loading it all onto trucks. There is talk of a trip to the bar tomorrow, and beery thoughts will spur us on to greater work. Yay.

Thursday April 30th.

Pay Day.


And so switching onto days was never going to be easy, and at just gone four in the morning the whole of the old night shift gathered in the lab, bleary eyed and unable to sleep. Oh well, one last time. Breakfast time, and time for unleavened cheesy bread, strange sausages and omlette and then the work begins.

In the afternoon work really begins; and the desire to get everything done so we can relax over the weekend bangs right up against the Kazakh work ethic which is more relaxed. But, we crack on and by late afternoon most of our equipment is packed and over half the deck is clear, with just the davits to break down and then detach from the skid. We did well. However, trying to make the local transport manager understand, or care what we were trying to do, and getting him to provide the three trailers for Friday was something else. I think getting everything loaded for Tuesday lunchtime, when we begin the long trip home, could be problematic. But I could be wrong.

Our client took us out for beers and pizza last night; we have done a remarkable job this past four week, mobbed the ship, got the data and well on the way to demobbing it all in four week, under budget and losing just 0.7% of time through equipment problems; a company record. So, the beer flowed, the pizza kept coming, and we all got quite drunk. It’s a surreal experience though, being in a hotel yet in Kazakhstan, us spending in one evening on beer what the average worker here earns probably in a year. I looked at the waiters, and seeing them serve drunken oil workers and company executives; I wonder what they think. I guess they have good jobs, but it’s such a difference to the town and life outside the high fence that surrounds all hotels here.

At lunchtime today, half the crew will leave for home, we will all have our own cabins, but things will be a lot quieter. And we who stay will know that our job is coming to an end.

Five more days to go, come on legs, let’s get working.

Friday May 1st.

After a late start due to hangover, the sore heads begin to appear just after breakfast, and so begins more packing, re-packing and re-re-packing, just to get everything in boxes and ready for the long road trip back to England. Sadly we have to wait for the crane so we can begin to clear the back deck, so until then it’s hard to see how much progress we have made, really.
Just after lunch, half the crew leaves; the bus arrives and they take their bags and head off him the dusty road on their way west. And so Paul, John, Marek, Dave me and International Rescue are left behind to finish off. The crane arrives and we work until dusk, and amazingly, we have nearly done. Paul calls the office to arrange earlier flights home, and news arrives that we are to leave at half three tomorrow. The journey will be long and tiring, but we’ll be home at breakfast time on Monday, and that’s all that matters.

Saturday May 2nd.

And so, all things come to an end. We get up, me at the crack of sparrows again, but watching the sun rise of a still harbor and watching the turns wheel and dive is a simple pleasure. We pack the rest of the stuff and transfer the last of the boxes to the quay, and now have to wait for the trucks to arrive so we can load and then leave.
Everything is at a different pace out here, and you just have to accept that some things take time and happen when the happen, and no matter how angry you get, how much you want to go home, the two hour lunch breaks and smoke breaks every 15 minutes are just a fact of life.
Half an hour after the stroke of one, the trucks appear, and we get cracking. Everything fits on just the one, and although it all looks precarious to me, Paul declares himself happy and we pack our work things, say goodbye to the ship’s crew, and take our bags and climb into two waiting Land Cruisers for the three hour drive to Aktau to the north.

I get the front sea, and soon enough we’re heading out of Bautino for the final time, and out into the low rolling country of the Caspian coast. Since our arrival, some rain has fallen, and the once brown is now green, and we see herds of camels, horses, cows and donkeys grazing and moving over the grassland which stretches to the horizon. I plug the I pod in, and listen to some favourite tunes as the desolation rushes by.
The road is very rough, and evidence of past accidents are every few miles, cars of various ages and states of decay rush by as we safely head south. The emptiness which I remember from a few weeks ago doesn’t seem so empty; we pass shrines, houses, military bases and gas platforms and cattle and camels moving, grazing. It all seems so other-worldy.

Soon enough, we pass the airport, and on the horizon we see the towers of Aktau poking to the sky. Houses built in the middle of fields pass by, street lights appear, and the road widens, and soon we are driving through the mix of old and new that is Kazakhstan. Each junction has no road makings or lights, so the bravest gets to go first; but it all seems to work, although I cling on for dear life.
We pull up at a modern hotel and pile out. The bright light of the hotel bar greet us, and after checking in we go for a cool frosty beer. It tastes good, doubly so when someone else pays.
I am to share with one of International Rescue, Alessandro. We call them that because they have been no use in either the mob or demob, and for the most part have shied and shirked any work. He means well, but to be honest is a pain, and is very high maintenance. He says he is going to use the hotel gym; I think this is a good idea and decide to join him. Right on the top floor, the views over the town to the sea, stunning. 

Soviet era housing, Aktau

The pool looks great, but filled with the great, good and corrupt of Aktau society. I make do with the elliptical stepper and plug the I pod in and do half an hour. After a shower, and I take some shots from the top floor, I meet up with the other guys who have just changed bars since arriving and are now very happy and slightly drunk. Paul pays and one beer turns into a few and then many. We have a meal and I a huge Cuban cigar. At ten, most of the others head off into the night for a night of debauchery; Alex and I stay in the hotel; have a coffee and a nightcap before heading to our room.

Sunday May 3rd.

Sore heads began to appear at half seven, the bus for the airport is due to leave at half eight, and so require bedding to be pulled off and then being shoved in the shower. But soon enough we pile into a Soviet era bus and head out past grim looking flats and wide empty roads to the airport. The bus driver looks at us, some still drunk, with contempt, and turns up the Kazakh pop radio station all the way up to 11 to drown out our conversation.
More chaos at the airport as we struggle to find where to check in, but manage to in the end, and we are stung for 40 Kg in overweight baggage, and Paul just manages to make the flight after paying the bill for that.

A bus is waiting for us on the tarmac and whisks us into the busy streets of Almaty. We are to stay in a hotel for the 15 hours before I flight west leaves. We begin passing through leafy roads and quiet housing areas; but soon we are entering downtown. Grim housing blocks look down on pot-holed roads. Outside people have set up makeshift stalls and are selling what possessions they have. We look on from our air-conditioned luxury.

Aktau, Kazakhstan

We climb up what must be the main street past shops and stalls selling wonderful smelling grilled food. The traffic is chaotic, and we’re all on edge. All the time we are climbing towards the foothills. We pass many wonderful looking modern hotels, and as the city thins out again and we head out into the countryside again, the music from Deliverance plays in our heads. We drive through a gate into a national park, and grand hotels and restaurants nestle amongst the trees, while snow-capped mountains tower above us.

We are showed into log cabins and then we have time and space for ourselves before the cars are due to pick us up at eleven in the evening before our two AM flight.

I have a wander and bump into Marek, we find tables under some trees, cooking smells fill the air and we realise we are very hungry. After ordering beers, we look at the menu and I go for lamb kebabs cooked in tail fat on an open wood fire. It really very wonderful; thunder echoes around the gorge, and we take shelter around a table in a wooden shelter. Soon enough the clouds break, and hail the size of marbles rattle down, scattering diners and waiters. Our waiter wraps blankets around our shoulder as we eat.

I muse on how far I have come from being a giblet stuffer in a chicken factory to eating lamb kebabs in the foothills of the Himalayas; quite a way.

We take to our rooms; although some take to seats at bars, and the day passes. At eleven, the cars return and take us through the city, all quiet but looking modern as skyscrapers reflect streetlights and moonlight.

Back at the airport, our fixer arranges our exit visa, checks in our bags, and soon enough we climb onto a near empty Lufthansa plane, and we zoom into the night sky and towards lovely Frankfurt to change flights and then onto London.

Monday morning, bleary eyed we walk out into the arrivals hall; Jools is waiting, and just like that, the adventure is over. We shake hands, make promises to keep in touch and meet again; and then I’m walking with Jools towards the car park and then home.