Where the clear stream of reason does not lose its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habits ….into that heaven of freedom, my father, let my country awake”, penned Rabindranath Tagore in his Nobel-winning ‘ Gitanjali . A decade ago, operating from a desert location in the West Asian country of the Sultanate of Oman as part of a contract team executing a 300-day oil field project, it dawned on me that the desert was, after all, not all that dreary.

DWELLING IN THE DESERT

After the award of a contract that is to be executed at an interior site where there is no permanent accommodation camp (PAC), the first milestone is the establishment of a contractor’s camp.

Once the plot is allotted, the camp set-up process takes place with a flurry of activities. The area is cordoned off and earth moving equipment roll in. Portable cabins, referred to as porta cabins, arrive on the scene and are installed. Services such as plumbing, electricity, air-conditioning, mess facilities and waste disposal system are put in place. The camp is inspected and cleared for occupation.

We now become the proud occupants of porta cabins — our cherished home in the desert.

Out we go every morning to work site and by dusk, return merrily to our camp, like a flock of birds returning to their nests. As early as 6 a.m. each morning, the camp breathes with life and energy as the staff and workers, clad in their coveralls, are all set to commence yet another hard day’s work.

BONHOMIE IN BARREN LANDS

No doubt, the desert is hazardous with its hostile weather, debilitating sand storms, incredible vastness and cruel calmness.

Steel towers and poles carrying high voltage transmission lines, the long, winding and criss-crossing oil pipe lines, monstrous beam pumps nodding their heads with slow and rhythmic movements and pumping out crude from the oil wells are our only companions at many places.

If someone had lost his bearings in the desert and still managed to trace back his route, he should be one of the luckiest few on earth.

Yet, when we stay in a desert camp, we start falling in love with the desert.

For self-introspection or reading of inspiring books, there cannot be a calmer locale than a desert camp. When we go for a walk, the tipper, tanker or trailer driver going past us slows down a bit to greet us. The imperial setting of the sun on the horizon mesmerises us each evening; the distant flame from the vent of the production station serves as a beacon light to those staying in and around the area; the elusive mirages symbolise the essence of life.

Iftar parties, Onam Sadhya, Guru Nanak day, Christmas or Pongal — all are celebrated with bonhomie in the camp.

AND THEN, THERE ARE NONE

When the project reaches completion, it is time to demobilise the camp. It is at this point that a strange feeling grips our heart. We tend to stay back and watch the course of the cabins being lifted and loaded onto trailers.

When the last cabin moves out and the area is cleared, the site is contractually declared as ‘restored to original condition’.

We step out of the barren land reluctantly with memories flooding and leaving us with a lump in our throats.

Perhaps, if Tagore had stayed in the warmth of a porta cabin in the middle of a desert, he would have opted for a different metaphor to describe ‘dead habits’.

(The author works as AGM, Powertech Engineering LLC, Muscat)

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