Saturday, 23 June 2012

A Hike in the desert…….

Whilst seeking out new contacts and my getting to know more people living here in Riyadh, a South African contact suggested I come along for a desert hike on Friday afternoon last, so I brought along two other co-workers and fellow Irishmen and followed instructions to a meeting point to get a lift to the desert, and off we went, with lots of water, some snacks in anticipation of the afternoon ahead.
After a 40 minute drive out of Riyadh with a group of other ex-pats, we turned off the highway into desert on an old track and into the openness of the Arabian Desert, after some time we came to clearing and met some others who were preparing a bar-b-q for after the hike….
We took off on a 5km hike down into a Canyon into a stunning landscape unlike anything I had experienced before, except maybe from an old cowboy movie or “Star Wars”. It was a fantastic hike and great to get out of the city for a few hours. I have attached some photos here to give an idea of the scene, a bit different from the green fields of home !

Thanks a lot to our experienced minders who knew the hike and were fantastic hosts, after we returned to base, the bar-b-q was at full blast and we enjoyed the sunset with a few burgers and an ice-cold Cola !!.....very welcome…
We got back late after dark, and we are looking forward to doing it all again soon, and by the way a fantastic way to meet new friends in Riyadh, including a man from my own “Parish” back home in Clonlara !! It’s a small world ……………..enjoy the photo's............

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Stories from Home on Fathers’ Day……

Father’s Day was during the week just gone, well, what we know as the great “Hallmark” event. 

Such an event doesn’t exist in these parts and actually, I’m not one to get overly excited about such events as I have mixed feelings on the whole idea of “father” but more of that another day…..

I had a lovely message in the Inbox the other day from home, It was a Father’s Day card created by my sons Daithí and Oisín, being told you’re awesome by your kids is pretty cool !!, absolutely made my day !

Also attached to the message were the boys’ School Reports from the end of the year, We have been very conscious due to my absence from home overseas over the past year of the potential impact of it on the boys’ lives, and their education was just one of those concerns.

It was extremely gratifying to receive two glowing school reports from their teachers not only showing them improving year on year but excelling in some areas, in one instance in Maths which was a tricky area for one of the lads and actually a subject I struggled with when I was a child also, I spent some time on it with him when I was home last and he really is making progress , so well done Boys, you’ve made your Mom & Dad very proud this week, enjoy the movies and ‘Roller-Jam’ this week.

Huge credit must go to Laura for her increased effort with the boys when I am away, Its paying off !

Both of the lads excel in English, and love to read, Oisín actually loves to create and write stories from his imagination , I got some stories from him this week which are also illustrated and coloured as that’s one of his passions.

“How Bob got Tiny Legs” and “The adventures of Johnny Joe and Billy Bob featuring Monkey Man” complete with characters from his imagination with all the thrills and spills of a Star Wars adventure…..
Messages from home are so welcome in all forms and obviously creative messages from your loved ones are extra special…….thanks guys !!!

Thursday, 7 June 2012

The Road to Riyadh…..

The Impressive Kingdom Tower
So, I touched down in Riyadh on May 28th last, my first time in the Kingdom, tired and a little emotional after the sad goodbyes to Laura and the boys, we had a really nice time for the 5 weeks I was home.

The first obstacle was overcoming Passport and Visa Control at King Khalid Airport, which took three hours and going to the end of a few queues, it seems my hosts could do with some assistance in customer care and managing  visitors to their country , I’ve been assured since that this experience was the exception rather than the norm.

I am now based in the centre of Riyadh, right beside the impressive Kingdom Tower, and staying in a hotel on Ollaya St. nearby, for a few weeks while we sort out an apartment.

The Contrasts in my new job couldn’t be more different from my work in Afghanistan, I work as a Project Manager supporting a Saudi Company rolling out new Technical Buildings across the Kingdom, I am based at their corporate HQ at the Kingdom Tower Complex, air conditioned offices etc. a very big change from Afghanistan.

I took a trip this week from Riyadh to Al Hofuf in the Eastern Province by car, a journey of some 370 km each way, It was a great experience driving right across the desert, I am very struck by how influenced this country is from the United States, everything from driving Sedans & Chevrolets, to roadside diners and fast food.
Camels on the Road to Al Hofuf in the Eastern Province
I even came across camels on the road…..see photo....

I completed the journey successfully, negotiating the outskirts of Riyadh, including men herding goats along the motorway and the inner city where it seems everyone has learned to drive like Italians !

I also set out to discover the old and original part of Riyadh with two of my colleagues (I am one of a team of nine Irish here), we spent an extremely hot day walking through the wonderful smells and bustle of the Souks of Al Batha and discovering Musmak Castle , Al Safa Square and the impressive Grand Mosque.
Musmak Castle

We have also found ourselves a new Apartment Complex that we hope to move into in the coming days, looking forward to settling in to the area, complete with a little swimming pool, Gym and loads of small local shops…..

And so begins my Saudi Adventure, I look forward to posting more pieces here on Saudi Arabia………

‘Your normal freedoms do not exist over here’ – daily life in Afghanistan

I HAVE BEEN here in Afghanistan now for ten months after arriving in July 2011 to the bustle and surrealness of Kandahar Airfield. I had taken up a post working for a Danish construction and maintenance firm which works to support the forces within NATO/ISAF military bases in Afghanistan.

I took up the role of construction manager in our construction division. It was a massive challenge, but also an opportunity: given the perilous state of our home and business life over the previous few years, I saw this post as a genuine opportunity to help me and my family after a run of difficult years since the crash of “Lehman Brothers” in 2008, as we like many other small business owners back home were crashing and burning.

I have moved around primarily between the three southern provinces of Kandahar, Uruzgan and Helmand. On this particular deployment over here, I have split my time between Tarin Kowt and Camp Bastion.

At this stage, after spending so much time here, I really can’t wait to get home to Ireland in a few weeks to see my family and friends and walk around freely for 3 weeks. Lots of people ask about what the experience is like working in this military environment, and it can be hard to describe but I will attempt it.

Identity cards, observing curfews, and following the rules
First of all, military bases such as these are temporary by nature. Soldiers here live in anything from containerised units to tents.

We have a compound of our own on each base, and my room is a 20-foot containerised unit with a good quality, bed, wardrobe and desk. I have a TV here in Bastion so I can now tune into BFBS (the British Forces Broadcasting Service) and get the latest TV from the UK. Meals here are taken at the Contractors Dining Facility which again is very well run.

The daily experience of working within military bases is primarily that your normal freedoms do not exist to the same extent as they do back home any longer. You must appreciate that you are under the protection of a military force that is at war and does not have the support of the native population living here.

This means carrying identity cards at all times, observing curfews and observing entry control rules in and out of bases, among other things. This process is very understandable – if indeed tedious –  given the well reported attacks and protests that have been extensively reported in recent weeks both here in Helmand and also over in Kandahar. They have been very sad and regrettable events that only increases each side’s mistrust of each other.

Dealing with attacks and threats
I have experienced a number of heightened alert statuses during my time here, which can be stressful. Often it is the not knowing that can be most distressing. These can be events that last 20 minutes to up to 5 days (!).

An alert status can be an actual threat, where a rocket has been fired at the base, in which case an alarm and drill system is in place; or it can be raised threat status, where something may be expected to happen. Oon these occasions, you may be required to carry body armour or your restriction may be curtailed even further.

Working here, you are always in the “alert” state in your own mind. However stressful that may be, bear in mind that service men and women work outside the bases all the time where they are exposed to danger all the time and do not have the protection of the base, as do many contractor and transport personnel – not to mention the Afghan people themselves, who take risks each and every day.

Being a Westerner in Afghanistan
There is also an aspect of being confined that is also worth noting: as a Westerner working as a civilian contractor, you generally do not go outside the base –  well I don’t, at least, although others do but only with the required security involved.  Being confined to the same area, even though it’s quite big,  can become claustrophobic. You can’t just go for a walk in the woods to clear your head, for example, so that can be an issue and can take some getting used to.

Routine becomes essential: getting up at a regular time every day and eating at regular times is important. Long working hours are a big part of the lifestyle that can both help you but also drain you, and I have found that it is only when you go out on leave that you take a deep breath and appreciate how exhausted you really are; when you are here, you are always ‘on’ and always alert.

Working with Afghan people
There is also an opportunity to work with Afghans, who are essential to any construction activities here for supplies, logistics and labour. I have found this the most interesting part and have got to know some pretty well who will speak openly about their damaged land and the massive effort that it will take to rebuild the country. They will speak about their children, how they wish for the best for them and their education and their hopes for the future.

It has given me a chance to understand their culture a little better. They do have some way to go here in terms of education and rebuilding but I have absolutely no doubt they have the knowledge and ability to do so despite the huge challenges. More than thirty years of conflict and many power struggles from different political and religious beliefs have left a lot of divisions here that will take many years to heal, but my experience of Afghan people is of a warm welcoming people, focused on their families – though like any culture there are unfortunately those who spoil it for others.

Obviously, the most challenging thing of all is being away from home for long periods. When I next get home I will have been away for 16 weeks which is tough, and there is no way a Skype Call can replace what’s been missing (that’s assuming it works in the first place, which isn’t always guaranteed!).

Simple stuff can be the most cherished: having a meal at home, chatting with my wife, tucking my sons in at night, comforting them when there’s a problem, helping them with homework or just a good old ‘mess-fight’ with Dad when they can have the pleasure of beating 10 colours of shite out of me  - all simple but glorious things!

I am heading back home soon and looking forward to touching down at Shannon and meet smiling faces and open arms – and of course that long awaited pint…

Published on 13th May 2012 in - Ireland's online Newspaper