Marathon des Sables – Chapter 3 – The Magic Kingdom is Calling

The Magic Kingdom is Calling
1995 

 Saudi Arabia – sigh.

Thanks to “The recession we had to have” in Australia around 1993, a quote from our then Prime Minister Paul Keating, I must have been one of the last people in Australia to be retrenched.

Seven years previously my family and I had moved from Melbourne to Brisbane, with the hope of providing our growing family with a brighter future. Melbourne and Victoria had been struggling through a serious economic downturn for a number of years and, when a good job was offered to me in Brisbane, Donna and I decided it was an opportunity too good to pass up for a change to our family life. Besides, most of Donna’s close family were now living in the Brisbane area after moving over from New Zealand, so it was also a chance for her to be closer to them. After moving to Melbourne five years previously, Donna was missing her family.

It all seemed to come together in a neatly serendipitous manner.

Life was good. Sure, interest rates were going up and the mortgage payments were getting bigger, but I had a good job and Brisbane had a care-free atmosphere that matched its seemingly limitless sunshine.

The company I was with were going through a large growth period and were in the process of buying up smaller companies who were struggling with the crippling interest rates. You would think that meant that my job was getting even safer. Yes, so did I. However, many of us didn’t count on the strange way high level management see the world. So after acquiring companies, then reorganising, many of us found ourselves without a job. After the six hard years that I had given to helping the company rebuild its computer systems, this was a kick in the guts.

With mortgage interest rates running at a record 17.5%, three young children in primary school and all of the other costs and responsibilities of having a young family, our seeming good fortune had rapidly done an about face.

The next two years were a daily struggle to make ends meet and keep the bank happy. Donna, who had a wider range and more marketable set of skills than myself, was able to find a full time and part time job. She spent her days working in a mail sorting centre and her evenings behind a cash register at a service station. Meanwhile, I had found a job working in a factory making plastic parts for advertising units. On Saturdays, I was working on the gate at a trash’n’treasure market, hiring out display tables to stall holders and putting PAID stamps on the hands of customers. Exciting work it certainly wasn’t, but at least between us it kept food in the mouths of the kids. I was to find out years later that, during this period, Donna was going without food on occasions so the children and I could eat. She was well aware that, living with type 1 diabetes, going without food was not an option for me. But I was unaware she was doing this at the time.

It seems almost archaic now, but 1993 / 4 was before the internet had become available to the general public. I know, hard to imagine, isn’t it. We take so much for granted now, like instant access to available jobs, near instant contact through email, sending an application and resume online, but in 1993 / 4 this simply didn’t exist. Because of this, finding a job was done the old fashioned way, by buying the Saturday broadsheet newspaper and laboriously working through the job ads. This became a regular activity, but unlike sending off an email, it involved multiple steps.

1/  circle potential jobs in the newspaper
2/  adjust the standard application cover letter according to the advertisement
3/  make any tweaks required to the resume, to highlight a certain skill or experience
4/  print off the cover letter and resume
5/  go to the post office and buy a presentation folder, large envelope and stamp
6/  write the address for the prospective job on the envelope
7/  place the bundle of documents into the envelope, ensuring everything was correct and neat
8/  seal the envelope, stick the stamp on the front then take it to the counter for posting
9/ wait for at least a week before getting any response. Of course these rarely came. That part of the process hasn’t changed.

Over a two year period I completed this process over fifty times, sometimes posting off five applications, sometimes only one. Another surprising aspect to this process, looking back over those twenty years, was how expensive it was to apply for a professional job when you were unemployed. There was the paper for the printer, the large envelope, the presentation folder and the stamp, plus there was the petrol required to get all of this done and the time required. Back then, the post office was only open from 9:30am until 4pm, Monday to Friday. This made it exceptionally difficult if you had found a fill-in job, as I had.

Donna and I persisted with this laborious process for two years. Australia was deeply involved in the “Recession we had to have” as, to again quote our Prime Minister of the time, we were verging on becoming a “banana republic”. There was a lot of pain required for Australia to work its way through the bad times and come out the other side. Unfortunately my family, and many others, were caught in the mess, and had to do what was necessary to survive.

Then one day …….. ahhhh, what a day.

The telephone rang. No big deal; the telephone rings many times during the day. I picked it up and said hello, to be met by a silence with the telltale hiss of a long

distance call. Don’t forget that this was back in the pre-internet days, when mobile phones were rare and long distance calls almost as rare.

“Hello”

“Could I please speak with Mr Alex Williams”

“Speaking”

(Clearing of throat on the phone) “Some time ago you applied for a job in Saudi Arabia.”

This was news to me. Having applied for over fifty jobs over the past two years, I couldn’t be expected to remember each and every one.

(Clearing of throat by me) “Yes, that is correct.”

“My name is Brian (Forgotten) from Such’n’such Bank. I’m calling in relation to your application. Are you still interested in the job?”

Now let me see. I’m working in a factory during the week and stamping people’s hands on the weekend. Donna is working two jobs and we rarely get to see each other. And the bank is not far from knocking on the door.

“Yes, I’m still interested.”

“OK, good. I have a couple of questions.”

He then proceeded to ask me a few questions regarding my knowledge around the technical requirements for the job. Keep in mind that I had now been out of the computer industry for over two years, so my technical skills were either rusty or, even worse, out of date. I was able to provide the stock standard generic answers to the first few questions so, so far so good. Then he asked a question that nearly killed my prospects.

“What can you tell me about Endevor processors?”

I focused on the word “processORS”, thinking instead of the word “processES”. I thought this was an odd question, but proceeded to explain in generic terms about the processes surrounding the technical activity. “Endevor”, by the way, is a piece of software on the mainframe that I work with.

Then suddenly I had one of those flash moments. “Processes? Processors? Endevor? He’s not asking about processes you idiot, he’s asking about Endevor processors!”

“Hold on a moment,” I said “you’re asking about Endevor processors” and then proceeded to provide a two sentence description of what an Endevor processor was and what it did. I found out months later that it was that moment and that answer that had secured the job for me. My family’s and my economic and emotional welfare had pivoted right at that moment in time. I had begun to stumble, which would have blown my chances with the job, but at the last moment I had saved the situation and had given the correct answer.

“Thank-you Alex” said Brian, “Someone will be in contact soon.”

After going through the standard pleasantries, we finished the call.

“How did it go?” asked Donna.

“I don’t know, but I think it went well. We’ll have to wait and see.”

Three days later the phone rang again. There was the delay and the hiss indicating a long distance call. My heart leapt into my throat.

“Hello.”

“Hello. Could I please speak with Mr Alex Williams.”

“Speaking.”

“Hello. My name is Abdul (Forgotten) and I work for Such’n’such Consultants.”

My breath caught in my throat. I had no idea who I was talking to and had never heard of a company called Such’n’such Consultants. But I knew that I was talking to someone associated with The Middle East and so was frozen as I held the phone to my head.

“Such’n’such Consultants are acting on behalf of Such’n’such Bank and they would like to offer you the job of Operations Consultant.”

I felt woozy and my head went light. Could I really be hearing what I was hearing? Was I really being offered a job in Saudi Arabia?

“That’s good to hear.” I said.

“We will be sending you a letter with some details and a ticket for the flight to Dammam. The plan is that you will be spending some time in Dammam, getting to know the system, and will then be transferring to Riyadh. Does all of that sound OK?”

What was I going to say? I mean, really. I’d been effectively unemployed for going on to three years; I’d been working fill-in jobs to bring in some money and remain active; my wife had worked her fingers to the bone making ends meet. What was I going to say?

“Yes, that sounds good.”

“OK, then we will be in touch” he said, before ending the call.

“So …….. ?” asked Donna, who had been listening quietly from another room.

“They’ve offered me the job” I said, still dumbfounded from the telephone conversation I had just finished.

“What is it?” asked Donna.

“I’m not really sure” I said honestly. “It’s in a place called Riyadh, or Dammam, in Saudi Arabia and they want me there in the next few weeks.”

“Are you going to go?” she asked.

“Well, yeah. I don’t think we really have a choice.”

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