Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Gold Mining In South Africa (Part 1)

Whilst living in Cape Town in South Africa, I regularly had to travel and complete audits on the gold-mining projects which we had running. Many of these were in a town called Welkom, in the Free State. The name may have been welcoming, but a more frontier-like, dustier place you could not imagine. Sometimes the "town" used to experience earth tremors because of the instability of the earth below its crust, which was like a mille-feuille pastry after various mining companies had excavated around forty levels below the surface in the search for the precious yellow metal. Apart from the actual mining itself, there was very little to do in Welkom, apart from hold or attend braais (barbecues), and/or get rat-arsed in the hotel and bars.

So, having arrived the evening before and had the customary session with the lads in the local saloon, I arrived at the project with a classic case of dehydration. The project team were taking the piss out of the Project Manager, and had been taking bets as to whether he would actually go down the mine on our planned inspection, only ever having set foot down there once since the beginning of the project. They therefore let out an incredulous cheer as myself, the PM and one of the consultants made our way over to the changing rooms. There we donned the customary white overalls and rubber boots, and helmets. This is all you wear over your underpants in South African gold mines which are usually uncomfortably warm and humid. That, plus the two litre bottles of water you carry with you, because, dehydrated or not from the night before, you soon will be after the visit.

Off then to "The Cage", the lift which lowers you through the levels, alternately disgorging workers from the depths, and swallowing their shift replacements as the operation grinds on 24/7. When we got there, we met our "guide", Henny, the shift supervisor. Henny was a wiry little Afrikaner, not the usual man-mountain we had come to expect, and looked as fit as a fiddle. We were going down to level 36 in the cage, to then drop two more levels by other means (?) to level 38, where we would be approximately two kilometres below ground. Levels 39 and 40 were, by then, waste levels, where all the useless non-ore bearing rock was dumped without even seeing the light of day. For this was a mine near the end of its productive life, and they had dug deep to scrape out the gold. After descending two kilometres, we would hen be going IN horizontally four kilometres to observe the face advance. This was so far in that they had connected with the next shaft along in the goldfield.

This was my first visit to a working goldmine, which was deep by any standards, although nowhere near the East Rand mine in Johannesburg, at 3.58 kilometres. That requires huge air conditioning machinery to keep you cool enough to work and combat the almost 100% humidity. I am not a mining engineer, but I already had a horrible feeling of what to expect.

The cage (literally a cage about 10 cubic metres) was empty apart from the four of us, as we were going down in between shift changeovers to avoid the crush. Henny pulled the screeching inner cage door shut as the outer door closed. A feeling of claustrophobia crept over me, although I don't normally suffer from the condition. Henny communicated to the cage operator over the radio and grinned over at us.

Suddenly his face seemed to slide in front of my vision, and it seemed like we were in Dr. Who's tardis experiencing some kind of weird time distortion. I felt definitely light on my Welly boots, and my stomach seemed to be crawling inexorably upwards towards my throat. I grabbed the rails at my sides as my feet literally started to lift of the floor. I suppose now that this is what the "Towering Inferno" ride at Alton Towers must feel like (although it wasn't constructed then). Except here it wasn't such a jolly lark. Visions of floating to the top of the cage in freefall then reaching the bottom and plastering myself across the floor at 40 mph flashed through my head (this kind of turbo-lift must rarely be seen outside of the Starship Enterprise). The Project Manager had gone distinctly green around the gills by now, and he'd done this before.

I turned and asked him if it was always like this. He replied no, that normally they drop people off at different levels to change over shift crews. Because we were going from level 1 to 38 in one go, the cage operator had basically "dropped" the cage at full speed. Was this out of benevolence to save us time, I wondered? I suspected not, and that we were about to get the "Royal Tour" only experienced by "visiting dignitaries" who get their arse handed to them on a plate.

The P.M. related to me that one of our directors, whom we both knew, had also gone down a similar mine to this one during "rush hour". The cage had been very crowded and the director was crushed at the back between several men. Now this particular director had a full-on public school accent, which some man-mountain Afrikaners had taken a distinct dislike to. So, as if the discomfort of hurtling down a narrow shaft in a cage at a fast rate of knots, pressed between smelly, hairy-arsed miners wasn't enough, one of them decide to give the Director something to remember, reached between his legs from behind and squeezed his nads as they hurtled down into the Underworld. Apparently the director damn near fainted, and by all accounts his voice was two octaves higher as he stumbled out of the cage at the bottom. I couldn't help laughing, because I knew this guy, but I was extremely happy to have my own personal space at that point in time.

Eventually we reached the bottom and everyone sank at the knees as the cage operator abruptly slowed down our freefall, to the point where we were almost, bizarrely, in a skiing position. Henny, still grinning demonically, opened the cage door, and a scene from Dr. No greeted us…

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Mexican Hat Dance

Browsing through BBC news files the other day (how sad is that?), I came across an article about corrupt police in the Mexican state of Morelos. Apparently after two top officers had been arrested for allegedly protecting a drugs gang, all of the state's 552 policemen were sacked. The two officers in question were the Police Chief and his Operations Director. The drug gang was said to be the Juarez cartel. This article was as recent as April last year.

This brings me, inevitably to one of my Mexican reveries. One Saturday morning in Mexico City, me and my family had decided to go to Chapultepec Park, whose zoo once showcased disabled people in the times of the Aztecs, who did not consider them fit to mix with the "normal" people. These days, of course, it is home to more prosaic mammals and animals, and is a big draw for Mexicans on a Sunday.

On the way to the park, we pulled up at a kiosk in the street to buy a newspaper, the roads being deserted at that time on a Sunday. After paying for my purchases and turning around to go back to my car, a disturbing sight met my eyes. The Mexican traffic police have a type of vehicle called a grua (literally crane), which has two forks at the back, which are manoeuvred under the front of an offender's car in order to then tow it away. I looked in horror as such a vehicle was raising the front of my VW Golf with my wife and small son still in the back.

I walked over to the driver and asked him what he was doing. He calmly replied that I was parked in a no-parking zone, and that he would have to remove my vehicle to the police pound. I looked around and noted the complete absence of any signs to indicate a no-parking restriction on a Sunday, remarking this to the gentleman at the wheel. He shrugged and asked me for identification (here it was, the prelude to seeing how much money I had in my wallet). He grinned in anticipation. Surely a gringo would have a wallet full of notes. To his disgust, he found the equivalent of about £10 sterling in Mexican pesos. He cursed loudly about the "fucking gringo", and snatched half of the money in my wallet, returning the rest to me. After de-coupling his infernal machine, he drove off at high speed, probably breaking five traffic laws himself.

I smiled as the spawn of the devil drove off, and felt the rest of my cash stuffed in an alternative pocket. A Mexican friend of mine (yes, there are some good ones) had warned me of just such an eventuality, and told me never to keep all my money in my wallet. It was less the money that outraged me, as the fact that what he had just done to me was inexcusable by Mexican standards - he had disrespected me in front of my family. What this animal was displaying was worse in some ways than his compadres in Morelos, or those in the zoo, for it was a corruption aimed at the common man in the street who could least afford the consequences.

Then my smile became a grin and my grin a laugh as I thought about the article I had read yesterday in the English-language rag. A Mexican policeman had been stationed on foot outside a bank in the city (as was standard practice). Such postings were cushy numbers, the privilege of which had to be paid for internally (yes, these people even screw themselves). He had been twirling his pistol around "á la John Wayne" either in a fit of boredom or to capture the ladies' attention, and had caught the trigger with his finger and shot himself clean through his own foot.

Now that was poetic justice!!!!!!

Sunday, June 11, 2006

"Get yer stupid arse outta ma factory, Laddie!"
(or My First Project II)

So, here I was with my very own factory (well, from a project point of view, you understand). I was installing a control system with two supervisors. One, George, was around fifty years old and very slow to learn, and the other, Matty, was young, bright and pleasant. It was rumoured that before the consultants came in, George, who was on night shift, spent more time in the stores with Mary, his "bit of stuff" from the packing department than he did on reporting output and performance. Anyway, things were generally trundling along nicely, all things considered.

Then arrived another Project Leader. This one was a bright shiny thing from Belgium with a penchant for beige suits and light ties. Although basically not malicious in any way, he definitely stuck out like a sore thumb. Although a beige suit may be de rigueur in Mexico with a nice Panama hat, it didn't go well in a grimy factory in the North-east of England. There was also his foreign accent. He spoke very good English, but with a slight French accent. Not his fault, of course, but the hard-bitten, pressed-for-deadlines, aggressive Factory Manager immediately took an instant dislike to him.

One day Jean Philipe (let's call him) and myself were discussing how to solve a particular problem when Dan, the Factory Manager came in to the office to drop off a report. At this point Jean-Philipe made the mistake of trying to engage him in a conversation about the problem, and involve him in the solution. I retired to the corner of the office to watch the blue touch paper go off, recognising the murderous look in Dan's eye.

For the next ten minutes there followed a stream of invective, something like:

"Who the hell do you think you are laddie coming in to my factory to tell me what to do I've worked here twenty years and I've forgotten more about the job than you'll ever know why don't you just get yer stupid arse out of my factory laddie and don't come back!"

Then Bill strode out the door in a scurry of dust swirls, the metal factory door clanging behind him. The embarrassment of Jean Philipe was palpable, who although I thought was a bit of an effete twat, I still couldn't help feeling a bit sorry for him. If only he'd lose the beige suit! Anyway, rightly or wrongly, he left the project a week after to be replaced by the final (and last) Project Leader, Bill from the US, a mature guy who both the team and the client liked.

I was sat one day in a review meeting with Bill and the Divisional Director (whom Dan the Factory Manager reported to, when Dan came in to office. At this point my heart sank. What the hell was he going to say? Dan then pronounced: "I'd just like to say, TC (we were on familiar name terms at least by that point), how pleased I am with how you and Matty have installed the system. You've both done a good job". He then about faced and left the office.

As Bill looked at me with an amused grin on his face and I picked myself up off the floor in astonishment, the Divisional Director looked astounded. "My God, did you pay him to say that? I've never ever seen him do that before!" Even the Director was known to take a different route if he knew Dan was out for blood.

It just goes to show what stupid dogged perseverance and a notable absence of a beige suit can do.

Friday, June 09, 2006

S.H.I.T. (or 'My First Project I')

In the heady days of the eighties when management consultancy was at its peak (in volume terms, not necessarily quality), I got a job as a young ambitious consultant. That's to say I was young and ambitious - the company was going to train me as a consultant (or so I assumed). In the blinding fog of excitement I imagined a potential jet-set lifestyle travelling around the world to exotic places, saving companies from bankruptcy and receiving bucket loads of cash for doing it. What a plonker.

So one summer's Sunday evening I checked into a hotel in Newcastle to be whisked away in the morning to the client's premises. A large project I was told, with three factories at different locations. Ooooooooh! I said with my huge seventies lapels and kipper tie flapping in the Tyneside breeze.

My introduction to the Project Leader was rather strange. He was quite an ugly squat gargoyle who spoke with a heavy Glaswegian accent. In the course of our warm-up chat I mentioned that my father was Austrian, to which he exclaimed in his thick vernacular "ooh, es that reet? I'm Gerrrman meself!". I looked at him like a rabbit caught in the headlights. Was this some light-hearted joke with the new sprog, or was he just plain taking the piss? Should I deck him and walk out, or wait and see (patience was thin in those days). Well, laugh, I nearly cacked myself. Turns out he was indeed a German who had done his degree at Glasgee University and was now an honorary Scotsman. Patience IS a virtue.

OK down to business.
"What would you like me to do, Mike?"
"Well what you first need to do is complete the Sedentary Hormonal Internal Transmogrification phase, or S.H.I.T. as it's known n the business."
"Wow! Better than Dr. Who…. so what's that then, Mike?"
"Well, basically, you just go and see what they do!"
Hands me a form to get completed and off I go information gathering...

Two days later.
"OK, Mike, got that. So what's next?"
"Well now comes the Critical Rectification Ambulatory Process (or C.R.A.P. as we refer to it."
"Excellent! Erm, what's that then, Mike?"
"Well, basically, you just go and see what they do!"
Off I go in my space suit and tie with the forms...

Two weeks later.
"Phew, that was difficult but I got it done. What next, Mike?"
"Right, now this is a critical part. It's the Phase of Intense Structural Stratification (or P.I.S.S. as we like to refer to it)."
"So, what exactly….OK, I can see the pattern here, Mike. Just give me the forms and I'll go and see what they do."

And so it went week after week, after which I knew exactly "what they did". So it came to pass, under the wise tutelage of Mike the Project Leader I learnt to take as much SHIT and CRAP as I could and take the PISS out of everyone like the best of them.

One Monday morning, after the rise and fall of three subsequent Project Leaders after Mike in the space of about four months, I walked into the office and noticed that there were only three consultants (including myself), where once (i.e. last Friday) there were six.

"Hey, Gimli", I said, to the longest-surviving consultant on the team (a seasoned veteran of six months' service), "when do we get personal evaluations on this job?" with a glint of foolish youthful ambition in my eye which the aforementioned Mike had not managed to eradicate during his tenure.
"Well, sport, I think you've already had your first one."
"Yer wot?"
"Well, you're still here aren't you?"
"No, mate, there's been a restructure. It's just you, me and Gandalf in the corner there."
Hmmmm, where the fuck WAS Gandalf when you needed him?
"Yeah, mate, we've got a factory each now."
"So where are Frodo, Bilbo and Samwise?"
"Fired, mate, couldn't hack the pace."
"So this means…..?"
"Yeah, mate. Twice as much work with half the amount of people."

Nice to see we were practising what we preached!

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

The Bends

It was a crisp, dry Santiago Saturday morning in a time before blogs existed and dinosaurs roamed the earth. The jeep was loaded up with three sets of skis, ski boots, snow chains and assorted paraphernalia. We were on our way to a day's skiing at "Valle Nevado", or Snowy Valley, if you like. This is probably the highest ski resort within reach of Santiago city, with all of its runs above the tree line. This was a decided advantage given my skiing abilities. Amidst all the other things you have to concentrate on whilst throwing yourself down a slope with two bits of wood strapped to your feet, and only two poles to steady yourself (avoiding Brazilians and little kids who are already better than you're ever going to be), at least hitting trees was not one of them. Interesting - who would have thought that so many Brazilians could ski - I wonder how that works in the rain forest? Yet every season, hordes of them would flood the resorts during the Chilean ski season and rent expensive accommodation which we could never hope to afford.

Of course as seasoned locals, we were going to drive up there for the day, returning in the evening feeling and walking like John Wayne after a hard cattle drive. So we set off, luckily already living near the road which starts the two to two and a half hour drive up to the slopes. We approach the police check point which is there to ensure that you have snow chains before you venture onto the 45 degree roads leading to the slopes. You approach the carabinero, and it goes something like this:

"Buenos días, seňor - do you have snow chains in the jeep?"
"Why, yes we have, officer, and may I say how dapper your uniform looks today" (although a slightly bilious shade of olive green).
"Muy bien, have a good day"

And off you drive, because if you don't have chains, you can rent them at the roadside. So why do they "check" if they're not going to check? Just one of those little quirks of living dangerously in the fast lane.

The reason you can reach the ski slopes in such a short space of time is very simple. After a charming meandering road through the foot hills of the Cordillera, you then arrive at "The Bends". These are (I hope I've remembered this right) 49 hairpin bends which lead you up the side of the Andes to the glorious slopes beyond. So, although the going is not fast, you are ascending at a swift rate of metres up the mountain.

At this point you will have gathered that this is not a post about scuba diving.

So we ascend the heights, taking in the stunning views of the mountains and valleys as we go. Santiago valley is spectacular from these heights on a clear day, the city sparkling in the sunlight. Or if it's not a clear day, all you can see is a blanket of thick brown smog covering any discernible detail, but we won't go there. So, I should say, your passengers take in the views as you fight with the wheel all the way to ensure that you stay on the narrow road and don't go screaming down the mountainside to a metal-twisting horrific death down below. It's okay, though, the high tech crash barriers along the sides of the roads will prevent this happening. Oh, hang on, that must be Switzerland. Here there is nothing between you and the mountainside but a crumbling roadside and THIN AIR. The sight of the occasional crumpled car down in the valley which didn't make it does nothing to calm your nerves, but does elevate the adrenalin levels to hitherto inexperienced heights (bet he didn't have four-wheel drive).

Arriving at the resort, your breath is taken away by the sight of the huge, majestic slopes covered in what you hope is going to be prime, firm "skiable" snow. Too powdery and you're going to be spending a slow, plodding afternoon. Too icy and you're going to be spending the afternoon on your arse.

And so a pleasant afternoon is had by all. Elbowing the Brazilians out of the way at the ski lifts because nobody ever taught them to form a queue in the rain forest. Watching little kids pass you at high speed with consummate ease, doing leaps off the end of snow drifts and landing perfectly, because their centre of gravity is totally different to that of an adult. They speed along looking as though they are reclining backwards in an armchair, something guaranteed to send an adult flying backwards, arse over head with poles flailing wildly in the air. Chile Junior passes us by whooping with delight and looking like morph made out of Aero milk chocolate (lighter than air, get it? -oh, never mind), swooping down the slopes upside down, doing cartwheels and generally looking like something out of a "No Fear" video. I shall have to have words with the little show-off when we get home.

After packing up at the end of the day you head off for the return journey. Except this time your pathetically assumed machismo, probably exacerbated by close proximity to the Brazilians, flies out the window. It has started to snow heavily and you will be driving down The Bends in a white-out. Shit.

Such is the density of the white out that we could not see the edge of the road, even less the non-existent crash barriers (which we couldn't see anyway, because, well, they're non-existent as you will know if you have been following the story closely).

After about half an hour of inching down the "road", leaving a brown trail behind us, Chile Junior pipes up - "Dad, why don't you wear your ski goggles?"
"OK son, you've had your fun showing up Mum and Dad, now go to sleep in the back" (whilst Dad does his macho Dad thing and gets us all home safely).
"Only I was thinking - ski goggles are made to cut out excess glare and whiteness so that you can see clearer, so it should work here as well as on the slopes".
I looked over at Mrs. Chili as the dawning realisation hit us that it was worth a shot. (Where does he get this shit - I shall have to have words with him if we ever get home). So, Chili Junior rummages around in the back of the jeep and produces my ski goggles which I duly don. Irritatingly, he is right. Although by no means giving me clear visibility, I find that I can discern more detail amidst the white out, and the non-existent crash barriers become more existent.

So here we are, driving vertically down the Andes and I thank the Lord or whoever or whatever is up there that nobody can see what looks like a crazed World War I pilot hunched over the wheel looking as though he is intent on bagging the Red Baron at every Bend.

Needless to say we arrive safely at Santiago (albeit after five hours). Back at the ranch, pizzas and beer and self-congratulatory slaps all round, as we pride ourselves on having beat the Devil down the Mountain (OK, admittedly that was after a few too many beers).

"So, son, what do you want to be when you grow up?"
"A World War One fighter pilot, Dad"

OK, now he really is taking the piss, but I'm too pissed to argue. One day I really will have to have words with that boy!

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Moctezuma's Revenge

I was browsing through dooce the other day when I came upon a particularly fascinating post by HBA about constipation. What's so fascinating about that, you may ask? Well, not so much; indeed my "fascination", albeit an enforced one, concerned the opposite - the exacting revenge that Moctezuma could wreak on you in Mexico for little or, seemingly, no reason, at all. I am, of course, talking about the dreaded Squitters.

This was a condition with which all gringos were intimately acquainted at the time. In the late eighties, bottled water was by no means widely available in el D.F. , if at all. Water had to be boiled for at least twenty minutes to kill whatever hardy beasties were swarming around in the public water supply. This was then placed in the antique 1950's refrigerator to cool down. At the end of the cooling period, a sort of sludge developed in the bottom of the pan or jug, resembling something like the bottom of a pond. Needless to say, the clear stuff had to be siphoned off before you put it into your kettle, or your tea would resemble something like half-set Polyfilla. The fall-out of consuming any of this by-product I would not like to have guessed.

Nor did I need to, as it very quickly turned out to be an alarming reality. Although very resistant to most types of flu and common colds, my particular weakness lay in the gut area. This developed into quite a symbiotic relationship with the Mexicans. Whilst they were laid low in their hordes by flu and colds, just as they were in Cortez's day, gringos like myself constantly and simultaneously had their head in the sink and their arses over the toilet. Sort of poetic symmetry, don't you think, although it made things a little awkward for any kind of social intercourse.

I won't say we were "used to it", but the expat community was certainly no stranger to it. One of my friends ate a taco from a street stall once (admittedly not an astute thing to do) and ended up in a coma, on a drip, with amoebic dysentery. The record for instantaneous intestinal explosion, I think, was held by the poor wife of one of my colleagues, who, before even finishing her meal, was emptying the contacts of her tract at both ends in the toilet (and that was in an international standard hotel). The fact is that Mexicans are born with these amoebas in their gut, which quite happily co-habit with them. The beasties also happily co-habit the fruit and vegetables which are irrigated with half-treated sewage water. So you are a shoe-in for the Atkins diet: eat meat and drink water (although be careful with the water…in fact, just stick with the meat). "Eat salad and die" was our motto, never bloody mind "see Naples".

I think my worse case hit me just before I had to travel to Monterrey in the north of Mexico to visit a foundry project. Yeah, I had the best of all worlds - 36 degree heat in the shade, 45 degrees in the foundry, and the most almighty case of the squitters you can ever imagine! I invented that diet, you know the one "Shit Yourself Thin", before they even formalised it in a book. Every day I would shuffle under the sign at the entrance to the foundry (the one that said "Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here"), praying that my underpants wouldn't vaporize. Even the Imodium, or whatever it was that was available at the time, was instantly liquidising and requesting an exit visa upon ingestion.

So, after about nine days of this, I decided that enough was enough and I had to go see the quack. Now, if there's one exam that Mexican doctors generally ace, it's parasitology. They do know how to kill those little beasties inside you. Don't bother going for anything else. For example, they would happily tell you:
"Yes, you can go jogging amongst all this pollution, don't worry about it".
"Then why is my head banging, and I'm short of breath, doctor."
"Maybe you've got a parasite. By the way - what is j-o-g-g-i-n-g?".

If you preferred, there was a American gringo doctor in our neighbourhood who had been in Mexico for ten years. Only trouble was, if you were a female patient, every visit involved a mandatory breast examination, but we try not to think too much about him. Ten years over there can do terrible things to a man. Didn't do too much for his patients, either, come to think of it.

Anyway, I digress. So I gets to the doctor in Monterrey. He seems an educated guy, diplomas from the U.S., framed on the wall, yadda, yadda (well they are nearer the border up there).

"How long have you had this condition?" he asks.
"About nine days", I reply.
"What?" he gasps.
"Erm…nine days?"
"What colour is it?"
"What colour is your stool"
"Well, I wouldn't exactly call it a stool, more like a fucking sofa more like a never-ending stream of Guinness".
"Well…like I said…Guinness... but without the head."
At this point, I thought he was about to pull out a Dulux colour-matching chart and hold it to my arse!
"Never, ever, wait this long again", he said, "YOU COULD DIE!".

O.K., message received clear enough. He then gave me three pills which resembled dark brown Smarties. Hmm, nice, I hear you murmur. Except they were Smarties that only the JOLLY GREEN GIANT might eat. He also gave me ten teeny-tiny white pills.

"Take one of the ginormously big brown pills every day to coincide with one of the teeny-tiny white pills for the first three days then carry on with the teeny-tiny white pills until you finish all the teeny-tiny white pills and then hope for the best."

O.K. - think I got that!

Shazzam - next day the Guinness has got a head on it.
Day after that - chocolate mousse.
Day after that - hang on, I'm right back where I started the story now….

Monday, April 03, 2006

Twisted Chili

...so basically this is a Blogger account I keep open so I can comment on people's blogs who only allow Blogger bloggers to comment (on their blogs).

You can see my main blog at Twisted Chili Dot Com.

(It's a non-Blogger's blog).

Oh, and I may use it for re-runs of posts that people didn't see before I became famous...to all of my three faithful readers.