It’s the most difficult thing in the world, being a young (now youngish), black, single, educated Nigerian woman in a vastly male-dominated trade…thus said every young, black, single and educated female of her profession I’m sure. “It’s a man’s world out there”, we always say. This is true of course, but hopefully the world as we know it to be is changing. It may be doing so at glacial speeds but it is changing. That being said, the status quo is still more prevalent in some fields of work than others, and perhaps nowhere is it more so than in those trades requiring the most physically tasking efforts. Rightly so too, of course – all that testosterone being put to good use. The oil and gas industry, despite the myriad of technological breakthroughs and everyday advancements, still requires a lot of sheer muscle in many of its operations. At the same time though, the ladies are taking on a lot more jobs now that require more brain than brawn. The rest of the hardships that come with living and working in the desert, swamp, arctic or offshore as the case may be, we take as part of it all.
But this is neither a female inequality discourse nor a women empowerment speech. I work on offshore drilling rigs and am simply trying to illustrate my on-again, off-again love affair with it. It seems I can’t quite get there without touching on the gender situation perhaps because it plays a big part in how I ultimately feel about it. The men outnumber the ladies a hundred to one, literally. On a rig with two hundred men, there may be two women. A lot of the time it’s just me. I’m quite comfortable with that, but sometimes the varying responses I receive from the guys could sway me either for or against the entire experience. This will be expounded upon later in more detail. For now, I’ll just stick to the original plan and highlight some of what makes me sometimes love and other times loathe my oilfield job.
Here’s what I love about it:
1. Not wearing heels to work. Ok, so maybe this point is debatable when I notice dark bruises across my ankles from wearing safety boots, or when I attempt to wear high heels and fail awesomely for lack of practice. But imagine waking up, jumping in the shower (completely optional – I mostly skip it altogether :), not having to do hair or makeup, wearing un-pressed coveralls (hell, wearing the oldest, most torn and wrinkled t-shirt you own underneath the coveralls), fighting through zero traffic, and after a pleasurable 0 to 5 minute walk, boom! – you’re at “the office”. I’ve been doing this almost half a decade now, so that means I’m five years behind on bunion development, as compared to my office-based peers. That alone is as solid a reason as any to take up the rig life.
2. Serenity. Those moments when you’re off duty and you take a stroll along the deck, just soaking in that silence which simply does not exist where mankind does. Just water splashing against the vessel. Nothing to be seen across all compass directions save a couple of supply boats making their way to or from our location. The ocean, now seemingly calm; now tumultuous as though Poseidon were throwing tantrums. Water, sheer aqua, stretching into the horizon – that secret, unreachable place where sea meets sky. Speaking of sky, who knew blue had so many shades? All very picturesque; the stuff of poetry and paintings. But it’s not only the magnificent seascape that captures me. There’s action beneath the waves too. I’ve seen fish fight over a strip of watermelon rind (improbable and funny as hell – not so serene afterall), whale fins spearing the water’s surface (but never the whales themselves, dammit!), and manta ray couples out for a dinner date when the remains of the evening’s meal are tossed overboard. It’s pretty much the Discovery Channel unedited, and is quite magical to witness.
3. Helicopter rides. Now I’m supposed to have a fear of heights, but I guess it can’t be that bad if I find it thrilling to get whipped around in the air with what feels like just five inches of fuselage between myself and the elements – be they cotton-candy clouds or threatening thunderheads. Any vertigo-inducing activity is fun, right? But there are more perks. I daresay that aerial views of many developing nations’ rural areas are more a wretched eyesore than a visually aesthetic undertaking, and are photograph-worthy only as an accompaniment to a National Geographic article titled something along the lines of “Modern Suburbia: An Insight into Emerging Nations”. However, this situation is salvaged somewhat by the magnificent geographical features encountered along the delta (my usual route), as you proceed from inland to swamp to ocean. If you close your eyes to the vast amounts of refuse and oil spills slicking across the rivers like an oil painter’s abstract art come to life, you could appreciate the meandering rivers and oxbow lakes (picture perfect like in a geography textbook), marshes and swamps, before you hit the ocean itself.
4. Free gym membership. If you’ve ever been inside what is called a sixth generation (latest model), ultra-deep water (operating environment) drillship, you would appreciate the near-orgasmic moans I emit as I write about this. It’s akin to being in a luxury hotel. Note that I’ve always loved hotels – their polished woodwork (the smell of Mr. Sheen!), fluffy bath towels and spotless mirrors are a tonic to me. The magic of leaving a messy room and returning to find things fresh and laundered and tidy and smelling of lavender. Being aboard a new-age drillship elicits these same feelings from me, fueled by the usually well-equipped gym, and the option, in some cases, of a sauna, which I haven’t quite gotten around to using for obvious reasons. To have a cross trainer, rower, treadmill and a host of various lifting gear right at “home” with you is a fitness junkie’s dream come true. Not that I’m a fitness junkie – I’m more a health enthusiast than an Insanity Workout fanatic. Ironic really, because although I’m well aware of the risks associated with over-salting my plantains, I over-salt my plantains nonetheless.
5. Confusing cadences. As the oil and gas industry is rife with people from widely-varying cultures and societies, the hilarity that ensues as a result of communication gaps makes for some wild entertainment. And I’m not referring only to people’s ability or not to speak the common tongue. The American slang “bimbo” for example, is a name in Nigeria – female, no less. (Imagine an American performing roll call duty and coming across that name). Differing accents, slang terms and such, may contort and confuse seemingly regular words for the next person. For clarity’s sake, a lot of (considerate) people attempt to cut off their native jargon when speaking with foreigners; yet many others are incapable of doing so. The subsequent misunderstanding is potentially catastrophic, depending on what information is being exchanged. Most of the time however, it’s simply some much-needed comic relief for the third party observing the fiasco (Yours Truly). It truly is a privilege when one understands both the intended and the misconstrued – one can intervene and clarify, or simply empathize with the situation, or better still, snicker inconspicuously.
One rig I worked on was full of these thickly-accented Southern Americans who liked to wax lyrical at the daily operations meetings, completely certain that they were communicating to a ship full of Sierra Leoneans, Indians, Nigerians and a smattering of Europeans…which they certainly were for the most part. But on one occasion I asked a young Englishman what went down at said meeting from which I was absent, and he replied, “I don’t know. I didn’t understand a word they said”. I found it baffling and absolutely hilarious that I, an African who’d only visited a Western nation once prior, had no problem understanding those jolly fellas, and yet a self-proclaimed World Traveler such as the young Brit was completely confounded by the Texan Drawl.
One gets to stumble upon such amusing scenes when one least expects to.
Raucous radio chatter:
Angry Southern American drawl: “Y’all need to start listenin’ to your radios. I been hailin’ but y’all didn’t respond”.
Nigerian Igbo accent: “Ok. We need to stop listening to the radio?”
Me eavesdropping, cracking up.
Confusion in my cabin:
Phone rings, colleague picks up.
American Driller (I dunno, some generic accent): “I’m fixing to start up the pumps soon”.
Nigerian: “Okay”. Hangs up phone, turns to me. “There’s a problem with the rig pumps – the Driller says he is fixing it”.
Me, chuckling to myself. I know what the Driller actually said because he says it exactly the same way each time he’s about to start pumping.
Misunderstanding at the mess hall:
Azerbaijani: “I think that you are boring. You need to go for a smoke”.
French guy: “Well I’m sorry, I guess I’m not much fun”.
Azerbaijani chuckles a small, uncertain laugh, starts to say something but thinks again and keeps mum.
Me, doubled over, laughing in the corner.
You see, Azerbaijani meant that Francois was BORED and maybe needed a smoke.
Dearest Reader, as you can probably tell by now, it’s all fun and games working on a drilling rig. If you know of anyone considering taking up the rig life, do refer them to this post, as you will not find a more thorough insight as to the pros of doing so. However, we shall examine the downsides in my next post. Cheerio!