Adventure and Hardship

I heard something tonight that resonated with me. “Adventure is just hardship with an inflated sense of self.” I’ve spent the last three days constantly going over the topography, language barriers, cultural challenges, work-ethic challenges, and even the challenges of simple day-to-day living in Nepal. Yes, Nepal. Don’t hurt yourself. I’ll get there in a minute. Some moments my head is full of wonder at the idea of the personal challenges. Other moments it’s full of me trying to remind myself what a hell-hole the third-world can be if you’re used to your western amenities and have to do without them for a few years.

One of my clients, from time-to-time, does what other vendors do with our market; they roll us up into their own solution for an in-house out-sourced solution to solve problems. Huge construction companies have contractors galore, electricians, teams of electrical engineers and soil analysts, project managers, assistants to project managers, yet they absolutely never have their own internal IT infrastructure with which to make all the things work together. When needed, they simple hire an entire company, put ’em on the payroll, and then try to stay out of their way because they don’t speak the language.

You can have all those other things, but it’s like cornbread. Without the right mixture here and there, the right amount of each ingredient being controlled, and an understanding of how heat, convection, and cast-iron work together to make a masterpiece of culinary southern confection, you’ve just got some horrible tasting shit no one can make sense of; no cohesion, no dynamics. IT companies like mine make all that work together.

Maybe the human body is a better analogy. Project managers are like mind controlling the hands of the chef. They’re in everything and they have to be that way all the time. The hands “do” things. They make things happen.The IT teams are central nervous system and neuro-muscular systems behind those hands that handle the other 99% of things required to make things happen. We are almost always the only element in a project that works hand-in-hand with enough of the other industries on a regular basis to understand what each of them needs and can help provide it to them in a way that’s efficient. The PM exists to be sure you KNOW to get it done and that you’re on time delivering it. IT solves problems so you can do it more efficiently, faster, with less people, in more areas, or whatever the task might require.

The lungs are going to need blood, so we be sure to give the heart what it needs to pump it to them. The feet need to walk forward, which they can do perfectly well on their own, but we help coordinate the timing to make it work smoothly so no one falls down. Am I overly glamorizing what we do for a living? Not if you’ve ever done this in a third world country.

I’ve been incredibly blessed once in my life already to have some amazing experiences doing things no other American company has done. I had the pleasure to hand-select my team, work with them a year in advance in the US, and then take them to North Africa to Libya to build out a multi-million dollar infrastructure in a country where no American had ever done that in my entire lifetime.  Then I got asked while we were there to take that same skill and develop a system of fiber-optic and network topology spanning the largest mass of desert sands in the world, link it all back to a central government data center almost one thousand miles away, and then do it on satellite and microwave technology built and implemented before I was even born. The entire experience is somewhere between Raiders of the Lost Ark and an episode of MacGuyver.

I can literally say you’ve never met anyone that’s done the things our team has done. Never. Oh, there are overseas logistics companies that do it with hundred-million-dollar companies backing them, and billions of dollars in investment capital and that take twelve years to do it. Sure. There’s plenty of those.

What I mean to say is that you’ve never met a team that’s been dropped off in a country as civilians, with no government backing, no military oversight or logistics coordination, and had to pull all this off with a 13-man team while training hundreds of foreign nationals to do our jobs so they can support the system when we’re gone, all while managing to find their own housing, do their own grocery shopping, haggle for their own appliances in a foreign third-world country, and then somehow manage to do all that for almost three years solid while doing it under a military dictatorial regime that occasionally wants to shoot you, but ALWAYS wants to play you Kenny Rogers songs non-stop all day and night. And then let’s not forget that 40 day holiday where no one works for over a month, and the other days of the year when they HAVE to work but put forth the least-amount of effort possible so as to not get fired, but they know you can’t fire them anyway because they’re the cousin of the sister of the brother of someone related to someone in power, so you basically wind up paying them to go the hell away and the hire someone else to actually do the work the other guy is going to take credit for…. whew…

I look back on that and think- holy shit! I was 29 when I accepted the offer to take over that company and do that project. I’m 40 now. It’s been eleven years. You don’t remember the hard stuff when you look back. You have to really dig for it. The attrition rate? Horrible. The amount of grown men that simply can’t make it away from their girlfriends, or can’t take the heat, and I mean that literally. I mean it’s 150 in the Sahara on a good day. I can cook meat on the hood of my truck and hard-scramble eggs on the dashboard under the glass for lunch. But don’t worry, the temperature is going to drop about sixty degrees as soon as the sun goes down and you’ll be shivering under a jacket while its 90 degrees at night and it won’t make any sense to you at the time, but it’ll happen. It will happen. Then we have the sandstorms that can drop two to three feet of powder sand on top of everything you’re doing, strip paint off the cars on the road, and completely clog anything you had hoped to be working with that week.

Hemorrhoids. Oh hell, no. There are two kinds of people that do third-world overseas projects. There are the engineers that had hemorrhoids before they went overseas, and there are those that had them when they returned. There are NO engineers that didn’t have them afterwards. You suck it up and accept it as part of the dietary regime.  Yes, your western-cuisine-pampered ass will 100% guaranteed be crapping your brains out for days at at time in those countries.

Drink some water? You’d better fucking not! I’d slap that glass out of your hand so fast…. mmm.. no! Oh, you chased that ibuprofen with water, huh? Enjoy the  giardiasis, dumbass! Funny thing about that particular ailment? You’ll be crapping blood, vomiting water, and yet you’ll STILL probably be stupid enough to drink untested water again simply to put fluids back in your body, if only so you can crawl back to the toilet again for another round. You’ll excrete blood more than once, out of both ends. That’s another guarantee. At one point or another you’ll be huddled in the floor of your third-world bathroom vomiting blood out one end and crapping it out the other at the same time. Let’s not forget that. And the weight-loss associated with that? I went from 205 to 165 in about 4 days. It too me months to get back to weight again.

How about food? Are you tired of cous cous yet? Try eating it eleven hundred times in a row and tell me how you feel. Oh, fish is great too, unless that’s your only other choice and it’s caught in the sea which happens to also be the country’s only source of wastewater management. Public sanitation and sewage systems? Where the hell do you think you are, America? London maybe? I remember watching homeless people crawling on rocks at the water’s edge, prying oysters from the Med with their own bare hands, bashing them open on rocks and hungrily slurping the contents down only to heave them back up 5 minutes later because they’re still sick from the last batch they ate, but they have to keep eating because they can’t keep anything down.

I went back and found one of the photos. This is me standing on the rocks on the edge of the med while these people fish in front of me. You can’t see the ones to my right and left because I felt too ashamed to point the camera in their direction and take their photos. They were eyeballing us already, wondering why in the hell we were invading their space. We didn’t know it at first, but we quickly figured it out.

Don’t get me wrong. We had amazing experiences, but I’m trying to bring myself back to the reality of it and knock the gold-tone paint off my memory banks so I can consider doing it all again in another unknown terrain.

What’s the deal?

This isn’t a secret. It’s already published on various websites and the RFP has been out there for over two years, so its not like I’m letting any felines out of poorly constructed containment devices…

There is a project to build-out hydroelectric dams in key locations in Nepal. There isn’t one specific location, but instead there are four or five that will be going on at once. And like other projects of this size and scope, if you do a good job on these first couple, we have some ten times that size right down the pipe for you to do later on, but let’s see how you do with this one first.

What is my team’s job? The usual – take the SH out of the IT.

I’ll cover the logistical and technical challenges later. That’ll be a fun series of blog posts all their own I’m sure, but today I’m just thinking of the personal challenges my team will face. Only one of the current team has ever done this kind of work before. The rest of the team will be new to it. They’re all experienced professionals, but in some sense it’s like being in the military overseas. Those guys get shot at. We don’t (usually) but we also don’t have Uncle Sam being sure we’re OK, feeding us, giving us power, clean water, transportation, choppers, and building materials to make life tolerable. So I don’t mind saying that it’s just as hard if not harder than a military deployment – minus the life and limb dangers. That’s the part these guys will have to adjust to. You can’t simply tell them everything. You can try, but either they don’t believe you or they can’t wrap their minds around it. We couldn’t the first time either. It just isn’t possible to realistically imagine these things when someone tells you about them. The only thing you can do is go “Ooooh” when you finally get there and understand it for yourself.By then, if we “pros” have done our jobs well enough, you hopefully brought everything we told you to so you’ll get through it. But I’m telling you man… I’m not sharing my baby wipes! Bring Your Own!!

In Libya it was Tuareg raiders, camel spiders, rogue angry camels, and sandstorms. This time is the potential for monsoon rains that can cause landslides on mountains with 9,000 ft elevated slopes directly over our head the entire time, the occasional earthquake, the fact that we’re in a location so remote we have to provide our own power, water, and roads… yeah, roads. Did I fail to mention there’s no roads? It’s like Back to the Future except there are about 200 varieties of poisonous vipers and cobras in the region and no DeLorean to get you back home; not that you’d ever get to 88 mph in a country where no road is straight for more than about 1,500 feet and so rutted with dangers that experienced motorcycle drivers stay under 20 out of fear for their lives in the rural areas.

I’m getting ahead of myself. I’ll go into all the technical stuff later. Crap, now I’m repeating myself too. I already said all that.

Personal Challenges

My biggest challenges are the personal ones. How much money is worth giving up spend most every night in bed beside my wife? There isn’t an amount. None. Not any on this earth. I’ve grown quite accustomed these last seven years to her hand on my back each night when I come to bed after her. If I get in the bed after she’s already asleep she has this sixth sense and some sort of comforting need to touch me, which I absolutely love and adore. If I instead manage to slip in the bed quietly and lie on my right side, she instinctively knows I’m going to cuddle up behind her and pull her close, and then she lets me.

Bonnie, my Australian-shepherd, looks at me the same way each night, wags her tail once, and then puts her head back on her paws before I cut the lights out. That’s her regime. She mildly  acknowledges that I’m going to bed too, only because she has no choice because I woke her up. Hopefully her human feeder will shut up quickly and she can get back to dreaming of eating Beast’s food the next morning.

Ghost won’t dare go to bed without me. If I make a move after about 10 PM, she’s right on my left knee every time I change rooms. If I go to the bathroom, she stops at the door and turns her back so she can “guard the hallway.” She wants to walk down the hall beside me. It’s never in front and certainly not behind, but right at my left knee. She won’t come into the bedroom and curl into her bed until she’s 100% sure I’m not tricking her. She stays outside the door until I am obviously getting INTO the bed, not merely going to the bathroom or changing into comfy shorts. No way. She’s been tricked too many times into curling up early only to have to get up 10 seconds later because I walked back out of the room. I have to be firmly IN the bed before she’ll curl up and rest. Invariably about 30 seconds later she makes this moaning grunt/growl my wife says sounds exactly like the sound I make when I crawl into bed. Personally I think she’s full of it, but I always smile when I hear Ghost make that final comfort-noise of the night. It’s one more thing I live with that I take for granted.

What will it be like going 2-3 months without that? I have a hard enough time going one week and occasionally it’s been up to ten days without seeing my wife and my dogs. I can’t imagine ninety.

I’ve done it. I mean I did it before. But life was different. I was a different person. I was Indiana Jones and my translator was  Short Round. (Literally, that’s what we called Mohamed Torshi.. Short Round.) The millennials have no idea what I’m talking about right now. lol. That’ ok. Go play Pokemon or Angry Birds some more, kids.

I was dating April when I did all this before. We were a great couple. We loved each other and we had amazing friends, and still do! But we weren’t in-love. We thought we were for a long time, and then we were best friends that just slept in the same bed together for a few years. It’s OK. We’re both incredibly happily married people now. Neither of us regret where our lives went and both of us found total happiness and that’s wonderful.  I just say all that to say I’m not in the same head space I was back then. I realize that about myself. I literally go to work every day because I want my wife’s life and our kid’s lives to be better and easier. I do what I do to make that woman smile. And on some great days, I even succeed. Back then I went to work each day to save money, to expand my business when I got back, to buy a new Jeep. Everything was “me-centric” back then because I didn’t have a lot of other priorities in my life that needed my attention or that kept my heart aching when I was away from them.

How would I handle it at this stage in life if I weren’t here to see those rare smiles my wife gives me when I do something she’s particularly happy with?  Even better is that sincere “I-love-you-but-you’re-crazy” grin she gives me sometimes. Could I wake up and do ANY job without the promise of that smile at the end of the week? It’s a lot to consider. I owe it to myself and to my team to figure it all out before I go. They all have the same commitments on one level or another to handle for themselves.

Her? What about her? Pfft. Nah, she’ll be fine. My wife loves me with all her heart but she doesn’t need me underfoot every day of her life to reinforce that to herself. She’ll get lonely, but she has great friends and a job that she loves throwing herself into. It’s also fair to mention that things like me being able to say things like “Hey honey, we can pay off the house about five or ten years earlier if you wanted to” or “How would you feel about meeting me in Paris for a four-day weekend from time to time?” Those things go a long way towards making her OK with the situation.

The Cycle

Working overseas on a project like this will be a cycle. There will be days filled nonstop with new challenges, new headaches and new obstructions that need to be overcome. Those are the things I live for. Succeeding and finding the way through messes that leave others scratching their head or ready to come home are what give me my jollies. The last time I was hired to do this, back in 2006 – the previous three project managers had simply thrown their hands up and quit the project because there were no solutions to their problems and they couldn’t take it anymore. I can’t imagine that. That’s the total opposite of my mindset. There is NOTHING I can’t figure out if given the time, raw materials, and proper motivation to make it happen.

All my team leads think and perform the same way under these kinds of stresses.  Seriously, that’s my entire team. I mean here’s the challenge I gave them…

Ok, so it’s a one to three year project, maybe five or six if it gets continued or more get added mid-way through. We’ll be on our own for making our way there. From what I hear it can take two weeks to travel a hundred miles because of the conditions of the roads, and then there’s the part where there are no roads for the last 40 miles or so that I can see from satellite. But on the positive side, there’s lots of bamboo, and Ill be sure corporate gets us plenty of tarps and machetes. It’s bring-your-own-power/lighting/water/food/place-to-live kind of shit. Who’s onboard?

The only response was “When the hell are we going? How soon do we leave?”

That’s my team. We live for this shit. Drop me in a third-world country that normally only has power in about 60% of it’s locales, but in ZERO percent of our locales, and even those areas that DO have it only have it for about 8-11 hours per day. Otherwise it’s simply shut off due to lack of resources to provide it. We’ll have to fly in generators, trailers to live in, kitchens, food, water, and all the other necessities on chopper. PS: the contract says we’re on our own to build an LZ. No, seriously, I read the RFP earlier today. The government will assist with logistics, but we gotta make a place for the birds to land first.  I picture about eight of us out there haggling for the entire inventory of machetes this little shop-keeper has… and that’s after we hike 40 miles back to find a shop to purchase them from. Meanwhile, Chris… can you uhh, work on crafting some shelter and don’t get eaten by Tigers. No,  you don’t get a gun. You get a machete. Man up! Don’t feed the kitties, seriously..they’ll come back and eat you when the kibble runs out.

Making Maxwell House coffee with chemically-treated water for however long it takes to get a man-camp set up? Shit yeah! Sign me up! I’m over on military supply websites pricing cases of MRE’s because they’re easier to clean up than about anything else in that environment. Shit in a hole. Bury it. Dig another hole. Shit in a hole. Bury it. Dig another hole. Rinse, and repeat. Well, just repeat because we don’t have enough spare water for the rinse part of that concept, sorry.

Wait, wait, wait. How F-ing hot is it going to be? *insert Google search for historical weather trends* An average daytime high over there is about 74? Hell yeah!!!!

Wait, how cold at night? Is this going to be some freezing-arctic shit at night? *more Google searching, ok not really, just scrolling over the same page I was already on* Average nights are between 48-60? Shiiii-yit! I don’t even need an air conditioner! Just leave the windows open!

All that is great. It’s challenging, exciting, and did I mention that NO American-led team has ever done this in this country before? Oh wait, that’s TWICE I’ll have that that opportunity to be part of something like that in my lifetime? Wow!  I’m going. No, seriously, at this point if I have to kidnap some executive’s second cousin and hold him hostage in Panama until I’m BOTG, I’m going! I know people! It can happen! lol

But then comes the other side of the cycle… Projects like this will include endless days and sometimes weeks when nothing gets done. We’ll be low on fuel and conserving, or we’re low on water, so no daily showers. Maybe we’re waiting on some local mechanic to get a part for a broken bulldozer that’s been sitting for three days and we can’t make progress. Maybe we’re eating rice for nine-days straight because the only 1964 helicopter at the third-world terminal is down for repairs for three days. This stuff WILL happen. Murphy WILL take a big fat dump right in your fresh bowl of Cheerios from time to time just to remind you he’s boss. Just helo-support alone will be problematic. Some of these “airports” have a total of five charter craft. Actually that’s a HIGH number. (I know, I looked up all the airports outside the major metropolitan areas.) Of the five at that particular airport, three of them crashed so far in 2017. Twice they went down with all-hands on board. And it’s only, what, July?? At this rate, they’ll be at zero aircraft by November if they stay on track.

And those days when you’re trapped in a foreign place where no one speaks your language, shares your values, or eats the same food you do are killers when they start to stack up. Single guys are usually a little less impacted, but still get their heads scrambled. It’s the married guys that start to go a little crazy. When you’ve been keeping their minds, hands, and hearts occupied for 14-15 hours a day every day they can cope. When the have entire days with no major responsibility to keep their minds occupied, it fills itself with the things it’s missing out on. I’ve seen grown men go cry-it-off thinking about the thought of bacon and a hamburger. I’ve seen both young and old guys get lost in their heads staring at a photo of their wife or girlfriend, lost in a mind-fuck that no one but themselves can pull them out of.

This time it’s not a dry country either, so we can get alcohol, which is both good and bad. You get workers with high emotions and lots of free time and you wind up with drunks. Great, now the IT lead is also the camp Human Resources Grief Counselor until some such time as another body can be put in place to handle that particular problem. As the son of an alcoholic, I don’t deal well with drunks as a general rule. Living with them is another strain altogether, but it happens on these kinds of projects and you just have to deal with it and fix it or the camp mojo goes down hill. The camp is a dysfunctional family that must operate at somewhat of a peak level of efficiency or else certain cogs will get replaced by executives that aren’t on the ground. That further messes up the mojo.

It’s going to be both the hardest project I’ve ever done, and the most rewarding once it’s completed. How many small-business IT companies that are privately owned can answer the question “Where do you guys work?” with “Well, all over the US. That’s no problem. We’ve got some experience in England, Libya, Egypt, Nepal, Germany. What exactly do you need us to do?”

But I keep coming back to not holding my wife in my arms for days or months at a time, and not getting the love and affection from my dogs for months at a time. Ugh.

I’ll write more later. I’m going to go ahead and post this so I can get on to other things.

Have a good day y’all!


1 thought on “Adventure and Hardship

  1. Tommy, the stories alone will make it worth it.

    Cementing your rep as the best IT installation company in the world?
    You can raise your company into The top of the heap.

    Best of luck!

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