Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Balikpapan on final descent

Flying in from the south I took some photos out of the window with my iPhone. Unfortunately the iPhone camera app doesn't have a stitch mode so they didn't join together particularly seamlessly, and the plane was banking a lot which is why the photo undulates.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Somebody Really Hates Indonesia

In the last week we've had earthquakes and tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, and city-wide flooding in Indonesia. If you didn't know where the country was before, you'll probably know now because the devastation has been topping the news all around the world.

If anyone is worried about us (or more specifically Oscar) then don't, because we are safe. Here comes the science bit so pay attention: Borneo is geologically stable because it is situated on a continental plate and is well back from the subduction zone where the Indian and Indo-Australian Plates are sliding (subducting) under the Eurasian Plate.

That's not to say there is no tectonic activity on Borneo, but there is only one volcano on an island that is twice the size of Germany. Bombalai is way up in the north-east corner of the island, is only 500m high and hasn't erupted in 27,000 years. As for earthquakes, there are no major fault zones running through the island and the last period of mountain building (orogeny) was 11 million years ago.

Or perhaps it is all down to the dragon that is said, according to Indonesian folklore, to sleep below the island and perpetually guard it from disaster?

Friday, 22 October 2010

Away, Away On The Saipem 10K

This post comes live from the Saipem 10,000 drillship somewhere in the Makassar Straits.

Yesterday I took a 20 minute chopper ride (not my shortest by the way) in a Huey out to the Saipem 10,000 which is on location offshore Borneo. The purpose of my visit was to reconnoiter the ship to complete a pre rig-up survey, determine the lay of the land and see what facilities the ship has.

As my stay was only 24 hours I had complete the survey lickety-split, which meant 10 hours of cambering over pipework, climbing ladders, squeezing through crawlspaces and crawling along cable racks with a tape measure; so plenty of pictures, notes and sketches. The net result is that apart from having a clearer picture of what the rig-up entails, I got my coveralls dirty for the first time in months. And it felt good!

I also got incredibly sweaty because it's like a cauldron out here. The temperature was over 30C and with all the water around us, plus the lack of breeze, the humidity was 100%. I think I sweated out a couple of kilos, all of which ended up in my clothes. I've never perspired through my coveralls before - they weighed a ton when I took them off. I reckon I was more physically drained from the climate than the physical exertion, and I slept like a log last night.

The last few rig-up issues were completed with a face-to-face with the company man and rig superintendent and now I am ready to fly back home today - just in time for lunch. It was very strange feeling to take a trip offshore knowing I didn't have to work a twelve hour shift for several weeks, and it made me feel like a VIP to come out for one day.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Jakarta Happy Snaps

Here's a quick collection of some of the photos I took while in Jakarta on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Apologies for the low quality - blame Apple.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

One Night In Jakarta

Yesterday I had to pop over to Indonesia's capital city to meet with one of our clients to discuss the Saipem 10k. It was my first time in the city and I knew little about it, but the one thing I'd been warned about was the traffic and how it was necessary to allow yourself a few hours to travel a handful of kilometres. I scoffed at this notion, thinking it was just a newbie scare tactic and it was not possible for traffic to be as bad as everyone was telling me. So as my driver, Ahmad, hurtled from the airport towards downtown Jakarta at speeds in excess of 60kmph I knew it was all fibs.

Not ten minutes into the journey Ahmad bade me look forward to the "welcoming party" that Jakarta had laid on for me - a wall of cars, trucks and buses that stretched towards the skyscrapers at the heart of the city.

Thankfully it wasn't too bad and soon we reached breakneck speeds of nearly 30 kmph! It took us just over an hour to travel the 20 kms to the Geolog office, to pick up Adel and go for lunch at an upscale Thai-Indo fusion restaurant where I spotted an amusingly named dish.

The drive to the client's offices took 1.5 hours and I saw the worst of Jakarta's driving habits emerge when we were hit by a sudden downpour. One positive effect of the rain is that it forces the motorcyclists off the road and our progress was slightly faster at 5kmph. I likened the afternoon comgestion to London, at rush hour, during the 2012 Olympics - but the shocking fact was that there were still 3 hours to go before Jakarta's peak even began I couldn't begin to guess how far we travelled that afternoon because it was impossible to estimate in the stop/start nature of the traffic. At one point I asked Ahmad and he just laughed, saying "What does it matter how far it is when the journey is all about how long it takes?" A wise man that Ahmad.

One succesful meeting over, Adel and I went to Mall Ambassador (1.5 km/45 mims away) so I could do some shopping. Rather than stick to the congested main roads Ahmad took us through the marginally less choked side roads and alleys where cars, motorbikes and pedestrians brushed passed each other with the narrowest of margins. As glossy and sleek Jakarta presents itself as the true face of the city is in the parts only the locals know how to get to (and through). Our little detour probably didn't save us a huge amount of time but it was far more interesting and infinately more lively.

Mall Ambassador is a fantastic place for gadget geeks and I could have spent hours there. Wisely one of the girls from the office went and reccied the place a few days earlier and had located all the items on my shopping list so we just did a whistlestop tour. And within half and hour I had blown $300 on an A C Ryan HD digital media player, a 1Tbyte harddrive, an wireless access point for the player, bootleg copies of Mafia II and the new Call of Duty FPS, a VGA to TV converter and a nice leather case for my iPhone. All in all a good day.

And then it was back into the traffic for an hour long grind to get across the 6km of city that was between us and our hotel. And as luck would have it rush hour was at its peak. There's so point explaining how bad it was because I can't do it justice - suffice to say I know knew what a herd of elephants trying to squeeze down a mousehole looked like.

By the time we got to the hotel it was 8:30pm and our stomachs were doing their best to get our attention. All day I had been planning a raid on McDonalds or Burger King to fulfill my needs for greasy beef. Adel convinced me to try an Arabic restaurant instead, so I happily dined on hummus, lentil soup, pitta bread and (for the first time since leaving Saudi Arabia in 1989) a schwarma. Mmmmm.

So now my trip is over and I've spent an hour whittling down the flight back to Balikpapan by typing this up and taking (crappy) photographs out of the window. I can feel the flight crew getting the aircraft "ready for our initial descent" into Sepinggan Airport so I suspect I haven't got long before I have to switch this off.

I am going to use the remaining time to make a point about initial descents: I used to fly light aircraft and I understand the difference between descending from a cruising altitude to an approach altitude (this is the initial descent) but what is the point an announcing it as such when, to the passenger everything after the seat belt sign goes on for the last time, is one continuous decline in altitude? Is it to give us a falsified impression that the pilots do a little bit more that sit back while the autopilot software does all the flying? I think so, I think so!

Sunday, 17 October 2010

They're Here!

My carefully planned bachelor lifestyle was shattered with the arrival of Oscar and Rachel, who have respectively filled the house with toys and rearranged the kitchen. It's a small price to pay to have my family with me again.

Their flight to Indonesia was pretty rubbish by all accounts: little sleep, no children's food and total lack of sympathy or assistance from the Etihad cabin staff. They were pretty shattered when they got to Jakarta, but Oscar rallied and his rampage through the airport was part fueled by the excitement of seeing his Daddy and the thought of getting on another airplane. (I half believe it was mostly the latter.) But once on board the Garuda flight to Balikpapan he promptly fell asleep. By the time I got them back to the house it was nearly 11pm so everyone went straight to bed.

The lack of Zzzz on the way over meant that they crashed through jetlag, and by the end of their first full day they were through the worst of it. We've all had some cuddly lie-ins since then, and I've been showing the family the sights of Balikpapan - not that it takes very long.

Rae showed her fortitude by ably coping with a power outage. She put up with no TV or air conditioning for the first half hour before deciding the temperature and Oscar's boredom had risen to a critical point so I talked her through the process to fire up the generator. Amazingly she did it first time. Well done Rae.

So far we've all been on a few shopping trips to stock the house up with the necessaries and to give Rae and idea of the lay of the land and to see what the malls have on offer. I think she is quietly impressed, particularly by BSB (Balikpapan Super Block), the newest and grandest shopping complex in the city which has pretty much all she could want - especially Matahari which has a fine pair of orange Kicker sandals that caught her eye.

She is meeting with one of the ladies from the Balikpapan International Women's Association so I expect to see some new footwear tonight when I get home.

Monday, 11 October 2010

Only A Few Hours Away

By my calculations Rae and Oscar are three hours away now, which puts them somewhere over the Indian Ocean. In one hour I'll be going to the airport to catch my flight to Jakarta to meet them. I decided to tell Rachel that I was coming out - and I'm glad I did because I could hear her stress levels drop by magnitudes when she learned the news.

Sunday, 10 October 2010

Not Long Now

In 34 hours I won't be on my own any more as Rachel and Oscar will be here with me. It's been a long 4 weeks and it will be good to see them again, and have a family with me once more.

I'm running a risk posting this but I'm sure she doesn't read anything I write here so I'll chance it: I'm meeting them at Jakarta airport :D I can remember being pretty worn out by the time I got there and I didn't have to cope with a tired and excited Mr Pickle, plus two large suitcases, a pair of carry-on cases and a push chair so I'm sure they'll appreciate the extra pair of arms. Don't any of you, my thousands and thousands of readers, tell her of this surprise.

I have to admit that I'm getting quite anxious about their departure from Britain. Rae is a very capable woman but Oscar is quite a handful. I hope I haven't caused her too much stress during our phonecalls these last few days. Sorry if I have.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Food For Thought

You get conflicting reports about what is available in Balikpapan. Here are some of the Western items I have seen readily available in Hero, Hypermart, LotteMart (aka Makro) and Foodmart:

Weetbix, Smuckers jelly, porridge oats, Tim Tams, Oreos, rootbeer, cooking oil (not palm oil), bacon, hot dog and burger rolls, Campbells (tinned) soup, fresh pastuerised/homoginised milk, maple syrup and pancake mixes, processed cheese slices, Edam, yoghurt, whipping creme, French's mustard, corn/tortilla chips, mayonaisse, Worchestershire sauce, Kraft macaroni & cheese, crusty French bread, olive oil, baked beans, popcorn, Pringles, custard creams and bourbon biscuits, Betty Crocker cake/brownie mixes, Lurpak butter, hotdogs (beef only), chips, fish fingers, sausages (beef and pork) breaded chicken, scampi, self-raising flour, herbs, nappies, Lays crisps/potato chips (only two flavours though), monthly feminine hygiene products, taco seasoning and shells, jalapeno peppers, salsa, red kidney beans, Ariel washing powder, Heinz tomato sauce, whole frozen turkey, all kinds of pasta, bolonnaise/ragu tomato sauce, donuts.

Now, a lot of these items are very expensive (upwards of x1.5 of their cost in Europe) so it may be that when expats in Balikpapan tell you that you can't get X, Y and Z here they mean you can't get X, Y and Z at reasonable prices. Which is true, but if you hunt around you can find them up to fifty percent cheaper at one supermarket than they are priced at others. And there's no reason why we can't buy local brands or native ingredients instead of the imported stuff because, as long as the product hasn't expired (check the date), the local foods are fine.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

New Kid On The Blog

Rachel has started a blog about her big adventure to Borneo with Oscar.

If you are inclined you can read her shared thoughts and compare it to my experience.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Borneo, Baby!

I've pretty much settled in now that I have overcome my jet lag and the worst pangs of homesickness. At the moment I am really looking forward to getting Rae and Oscar out with me so that we can become a family once again. (Since taking the position as Operations Manager five months ago I have only had four weeks with my family.)

So, where to start? Balikpapan is a very busy place with somewhere between 500,000 and 800,000 people. I'm sure someone knows exactly how many people live here but it's not Wikipedia or the CIA Factbook.

What is certain is that motorbikes outnumber cars 3:1, and driving is an experience. While I was working in Milan this summer some of the guys at Geolog joked that driving in Italy was good training for Indonesia. They don't know how right they were. The road conditions in Balikpapan are pretty good (I've seen worse road surfaces in 1st world European countries) and main roads are all dual lanes with a central reservation. The one major pitfall to this road layout is that there are no roundabouts or junctions which means that to go in the other direction you have to do a u-turn. Unfortunately the designated u-turn locations are not strategically placed so you could find yourself driving half a kilometre or so in the opposite direction before you can turn around. There are no real rules to the road and the only code of conduct is that you keep traffic flowing - if this means stopping to let five motorbikes, three cars and a handcart do a u-turn in the middle of a busy highway then that's what you do. At first (and second and third, etc) glance it all seems very chaotic until you learn the two basic steps that allow you to get where you are going - stay in the right lane and don't worry too much about motorbikes. The bikers are much better at avoiding you than you are of them, and by staying in the right hand lane you won't get stuck behind the small minibuses that hover around the kerb (and pull out without a moments notice) like green hummingbirds. All in all driving isn't that stressful as the Indonesians are not rushy-rushy people and are happy to pootle along at 20 or 30 kmph, and once out of the more congested areas it is possible to get up to 60kmph. Despite all of this it doesn't take long to get your confidence and after a day or two I was driving like a local, albeit a little faster than the average Indonesian driver.

The city has four or five shopping malls, ranging from 15 years old and full of dated shops to new and shiny with all the main Western outlets. Groceries are affordable if you don't rely heavily on the foodstuffs imported from overseas, but good meat is hard to find and you have to be prepared to do a bit of butchering yourself. There is a huge variety of clothing here, from traditional Indonesian designs to the latest Western fashions and none of it is expensive. For instance, I bought a 100% cotton shirt with a batik print at the low low price of USD 20/GBP 13. And this was one of the more expensive shops!

Eating out is very cheap; the local Indonesian restaurants have great food that is palatable to expats and there are a number of fast food places (Pizza Hut, KFC, Doner Kebab and A&W) in the city too. On the outskirts a number of expat friendly bars and restaurants have sprung up but these tend to be on the pricey side in comparison to the average establishment, and serve as a night out destination to allow expats a flavour of home.

Houses in Balikpapan are hard to describe. Firstly there are two populations catered for: those designed for local residents don't have what we would recognise as showers or baths, have outdoor kitchen that don't come with fitted cookers, and lack hot water on tap. The houses that have been built (or refitted) for expats do have all the mod cons we would expect but are considerably smaller than a Westerner would be used to. Large houses can be found and in some cases, like my own rental property, have "gourmet" kitchens, luxury bathrooms and enough space to swing a tiger by its tail.

The electrical supply is a problem in Balikpapan. Despite having a huge amount of natural resources like coal, oil and natural gas at its doorstep, the power station is not capable of generating enough juice to supply the whole city and brown outs do occur. Each business and residence is limited the number of watts they can pull from the grid, and quite often it is not enough to keep a property comfortably cool and lit. Generally each hotel and office will have a small generator that is sufficient to provide enough power to run ACs, computer, etc, while private homes have small generators that can supply enough wattage for a couple of hours until the power is back up again. Fortunately my house has ample capacity (5500 watts) to run 3 or 4 ACs, the TV, a computer, the cooker and fridge and most of the lights before the fuse trips. However we only have a small generator (2200 watts) so if the power does go out we'd have to reduce consumption for an hour or two. Thankfully the area we live in has a stable electrical supply and power cuts are only limited to 2 or 3 a month, and last for less than an hour.

As for water, you are never going to get everyone to agree whether it is safe to drink the local supply. Most, if not all the residents of Balikpapan, use bottled water for cooking and drinking, while some use a mixture of bottled and tap water for their everyday use. To be honest I've used the local tap water since the first day I got here and have had no ill effects yet.