One morning, just to vary things, I suggested that that the three of us go out to the centre of the compound in the full sun with our French-Impressionist straw-hats that the camp-boss had bought for us in the market on one of his weekly shopping trips to Biskra, to discuss the meaning of life and stuff while we waited for the plane from Algiers to arrive.
What Dan would do was to pass low over the camp and dip his wings as a signal of arrival before landing the little seven-seat Cessna at the landing strip which was about half a kilometre away. As he passed over we turned in his direction, took off our hats and bowed gravely.
Meanwhile someone would grab a jeep and speed out there in a cloud of sand to meet it. This time the plane carried, as well as the usual inter-office mail and equipment, my boss in company with a vice-president of the company and his wife. This VIP from America was making a tour of inspection of the stations in the company of his wife. Oops.
My boss took me to one side:
– Tom, uh, what’s the status on the layoff of these, uh, nationals?
– Well Walt, as you know, the local Labour Unions are digging in their heels a bit on this one; they’re insisting that ex-freedom fighters be the last to go …
– Yah, well Tom, just try to convince them that as, uh, the Commissioning date is approaching, we’ll be needing fewer workers etc. etc…. meanwhile, Tom, while I take Mr. Davis down to the station to meet with the Chief Site Engineer why don’t you take Mrs. Davis in the jeep and kinda show her around the place.
So there I was sitting in the jeep with this pleasant middle-aged matron, showing her around the place. The high-lights of the tour, the mess hall, the electricity generator and the warehouse took approximately 10 minutes to cover.
Then I had a brain-wave – why not show her the water-hole. About three hundred metres from the camp, the track dipped slightly to reveal a rectangular stone-lined pool of dark water in the shade of some small palm trees.
There had been water in that place since time immemorial, but when the company planned to construct a compressor-station in this location, one of the first things they did was to drill down deep into the sand to re-bore and enlarge the spring so that it could supply water for the station and the camp. In the fullness of time water was piped from the nearest town to supply the site and the houses of the future operators of the station after it was commissioned and handed over to SONATRACH.
Anyway we edged quietly forward and parked under the trees. What we had come to see was this: a large crowd of men were waiting, mostly in silence, for their turn to fill up at the water hole. Local Arabs from the surrounding villages were mixed with tribesmen from the Desert. A few villagers had old battered pickups, but most had their mules or camels. What most of them used for containers were the inner-tubes of old truck tires, cut in half, then tied at each end like huge black sausages and finally loaded across the backs of the hapless donkeys or the patient camels. We watched them in silence for five minutes; I glanced at her to see whether or not she was impressed – she was. Then out came one of the most inane questions that I had ever heard in my life:
Gee, Tom, whatever do these people do all day?
I struggled to conceal my irritation and replied:
they are sitting waiting patiently to fill up with water – that’s what they do all day. The big question is what are we doing here, watching them?