Friday, December 16, 2005

Building Brazil

My last day on an audit with my current job. I am sitting in an office in Sao Paulo, Brazil. I spent just a week in this country but it showed me a world that is emerging and a nation that is very likely to be much more powerful and famous than it already is.

A super-power of the twenty-second century ? Possibly.

Brazil has great potential but also has many problems. It’s potential is that it is a young country with a young population. It has a sunny outlook on life but it has a drive that makes it want to be more than just a sun-kissed banana republic.

The people of Brazil are warm and welcoming. This sounds like a cliché but for once it is actually true. They are welcoming to foreigners but also not subservient to the current great powers. Brazil’s attempt to gain partial control of the internet from the US demonstrates a desire that one day it will be a great power also. President Lula’s refusal to roll-over at the WTO talks again shows this nation flexing it muscles.
Yet unlike some nation’s aspiring for greatness, I don’t think the world has anything to fear from a strong Brazil. It has no dangerous idealogy that threatens others. The writing on it’s flag is “Ordem e progresso”. Lula is an unlikely combination. On one hand a former metal worker and leftist. On the other hand the economic reality of Brazil is good. He has lead Brazil to pay off its IMF debts two years early.

My time this week has shown that it is quite difficult to point to a typical Brazilian. The uninitiated may expect a latino character but Brazilians may appear Japanese (the largest community outside Japan), Italian (more Italian descendents in Sao Paulo than current Romans), African, south American Indian, German and many more in addition to the language providing Portuguese.

Our host for this week’s audit was a Japanese Brazilian in his 50s. Let’s call him Pablo and say he’s a live wire, someone with constant curiosity, a comic but also someone good at his job. His job this week was to keep the auditors as happy as possible to soften up any report.
He turned out almost every evening to take us to dinners at barbeques, restaurants and similar.

He was keen for everyone to have as many “Caipirinas” while being mysteriously abstemious himself……

Pablo was no politically correct person himself. He whispered conspiratorially that the owner of a restaurant was “a black man”. He then described an older female member of staff as “fully depreciated”. Yet he conducted himself with such bon homonie that it would be difficult for people to take offence. Unique in my auditing career, I received a relatively serious job offer from Pablo. He knew I was leaving the company but "come and work for me in Brazil" he said. "Just let me know if you change your mind- your always welcome he added".

Brazil still has many poor, universal education is still an ideal not a reality.

Yet it’s spirit is hopeful and lively. This feels a land of opportunity and hope.

On this December summer’s day in Sao Paulo I am not over-excited to be returning to London, it’s safety and security and it’s cold winter. Yet that is where my love is and I want to go to her.
Still it is good to know that if London “burns” there is always a warm welcome to be had in Brazil……………..

Monday, December 05, 2005

Sick man working

Winston, our security guard is back. Last week, he was mysteriously and suddenly taken ill. He became violently sick but felt no stomach or head pain.
Charles, my Treasury colleague, excelled in the crisis. Normally, moving between Treasury screen, MSN Messenger, the web and keeping an eye out for nudes in the hotel opposite, he was transformed to help Winston.

Charles, is the office’s first aid officer. Cynics comment that he only took this for the 4 days out of the office on a training course that it allows. However Charles does take it seriously and given something to do that he feels has purpose, he is a changed man.

Winston was laid out in the first floor offices of a small oil company that shares our office building. Charles attended and when Winston’s symptoms had exhausted Charles’s limited knowledge, they contracted NHS Direct and then an ambulance.

The ambulance took 45 minutes to arrive. Maybe Winston did not sound the most urgent case, although for him and indeed those around him, it was a nasty time. Every move resulted in Winston being sick again.

Then Winston disappeared in an ambulance. I, along with the rest of the office, watched unheroically from the upper floors.
The incident was rather unsettling, if only because it reminded us of our common vulnerability and mortality. Winston, a big Nigerian man in his thirties deteriorated suddenly and for no obvious reason in the course of a couple of hours. He walked into work but left in an ambulance.

Also, the office hierarchy or order was briefly turned upside down. Charles, a not very career orientated, rather hedonistic treasury analyst became the only person who was genuinely willing and able to help in a crisis.

Winston returned today. He looked weak but his company only pays a maximum of three days sick leave to its employees. Winston wanted to come in. His mystery condition was diagnosed as Vertigo. I only knew this as a fear of height or a Hitchcock film. However I learn from Winston that it can also relate to a medical condition where the sense of balance is lost. This caused the unexplained sickness- for him it was like being at sea in a storm or a fairground ride that never stopped.

Winston is back today. He appears to be recovering. For me, it reminds me of our vulnerability and also that the guy who normally letches out of the window at naked women in the hotel may turn out to be the “Good Samaritan”. The rest of us, including me, would do well to not walk by so quickly in future. Next time it could be us suffering Vertigo or other sudden illness.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Don't steal the water

We have a Nigerian security guard called Winston. Winston is a friend to all who enter the office building and is always concerned for details such as whether the air conditioning is at the right level for us.

On occassion he has helped me out with spare security passes. He maintains a pile of the morning's Metro newspaper to give out to anyone who wants it. He makes the most of a rather dull job and tries to make life interesting for himself while helping others at the same time. He is an all round good soul and tries to make a small positive difference where he can. If nothing more he is friendly face first thing in the morning.

Yet Winston is not part of the office. He works for an external contractor. He is never invited to formal office events although is rarely excluded from a private leaving drinks when people choose to invite him.

Today he sneaked onto our floor to fill his water bottle from the water dispenser. He asked Charles and me, with a worried face, if Nigel our Purchasing Director was about. Apparently Nigel had complained that Winston shouldn't take our water from the dispensor. As a company we make £50 million a year. Some of our directors seem to think we cannot even afford water for our security guard. Christmas is coming to this company but the spirit of Scrooge still lives......

Friday, November 18, 2005

100 million 80 year olds

Working for an industrial company, one constant theme is the shutting of production, particularly in Western Europe and moving it East. Firstly this was to Eastern Europe but increasingly the "forward thinkers" take things straight to China.

China offers prime facilities for factories. Land is cheap, planning permission is easy, environmental controls are relaxed and most of all there is a huge supply of low cost and able labour.

However it is worth noting that China is currently in its population prime. There are relatively few elderly and also as a result of the Chinese Government's one child policy, relatively few children.

The "productive working" population is huge and the vulnerable who need care are quite few. However the future is not so certain for China and all those companies rushing out there.

China seems to be sitting on a demographic timebomb. Like all trends in demographics this can be reversed. However if things don't change China's current working population will turn into an army of pensioners. A recent study by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies predicts there will be nearly 100 million people aged 80 or over in China by 2050. The working population by then will have shrunk dramatically and the cultural obsession with male children is resulting in a hugely skewed population (120 boys for every 100 girls). China in a few decades may look quite different- full of pensioners as well as some frustrated young men !

Will the western companies who are currently rushing to Shanghai,Bejiing, Guangdong and beyond, be in so much of a hurry to pick up the massive pension burden of today's Chinese workers ?

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

I am leaving the office because................

I will soon be leaving my current office because I am tired of travel.

I am tired of 5am taxis, I am tired of airports, of security checks, of planes, of middle seats on aircraft, of forced small talk with foreign finance directors, of feigning interest in what they have to say, of bad hotels, of good hotels, of bad restaurants, of good restaurants. But most of all I am tired of separation for days or weeks from those who I love and care for. This blog is only about me, my thoughts and my experiences at work, but to understand me in this regard, I should say that I miss by beautiful wife, who I married this year.

I am no use to anyone but my company when I am sitting in a foreign field.

I sometimes deny where I am, shown by my watch that always shows Greenwich Mean Time or British Summer Time regardless of whether I am in the US, Europe or Arabia. I can calculate the local time in my head but my watch, at least, will be forever England.

Counting the hours away is never a healthy condition. Life is too short and precious to wish away yet I know all too well that 5 days is 120 hours, 4 days is 96 hours and so on. On my foreign trips that last a week I know that Wednesday afternoon always marks the second half (the beginning of the end?).

Even my colleague, Latino Lothario, jokes, “almost Tuesday”, when we arrive at lunchtime on Monday in some Polish industrial horror town.

With LL and the Prophet I have travelled around Europe often landing in forgotten corners.

There have been good times, funny moments and interesting characters along the way. But it is time to stop travelling for me. I will soon be going to a new office where they don’t expect me to jump on a plane all the time.

The return journey always shows me my real attitude and it is not always pleasant.

Quite understandably we are all keen to get to the airport on time. Taxi drivers are measured by one criteria- fast ones are good, slow ones are bad. At the airport we check in as fast as possible. Those in front of the queue who ask the check in girl too many questions automatically class themselves as “awkward squad” in my eyes. More “awkward squad” are encountered at security, taking ages to empty their pockets, setting off the alarm (sometimes deliberately in the case of letches in Scandinavia who take advantage of the opportunity to be frisked by a 6 foot blonde).

Then the gate rituals commence. Some airlines are efficient. Others are awful and still fail to realise how long it takes to board a plane with 120, sometimes awkward, passengers. Bottom place goes to SAS who routinely overbook their London bound flights, leading to unseemly auctions for passengers to take a later flight for a certain quantity of Euros in compensation. They then start boarding 5 minutes from take-off and claim to be surprised or disappointed when they miss their take-off slot.

On the plane the single most infuriating feature of aircraft travel is those passengers who hog the aisle putting baggage and coats away at a leisurely pace, while 50 other passengers queue behind them waiting to take their seats. Latecomers are another menace. I am sure we would all appreciate a plane waiting for us. However when you have made the effort to be their on time, it is annoying to wait while the shambolic few hold up the many who just want to go home.

Then the flight itself. If it is full there is a high risk of getting a centre seat. The other week I was between one sleeper who periodically tried to put his head on my shoulder and an obese man complete with laptop. This makes any flight unpleasant. Aisle or window seats are obviously better.

Heathrow on Fridays is a place of suffering. First the plane must often circle round various parts of London. Foreign airlines fare worst being forced to wait longer than BA. Sometimes you just want to tell the pilot to force his way down. “Land anyway- they’ll have to let you down rather than cause a crash”. It’s madness of course. On the ground anything can still happen. Plane jams, broken air bridges or just unexplained delays can all happen. The only form of protest available is to turn on your mobile phone earlier than permitted. “Don’t turn on my phone? Well- you get here on time, then I won’t!”. Such protests are futile and unseen.

At last the plane is open. Awkward squad members get bags stuck or just dawdle. Then it is every man for himself in a speed walk to passport control. Alarm bells ring if immigration officers are in pairs. This signifies a trainee and therefore slow inspections. I get in a queue where the immigration officer appears to be experienced. All this can be to no avail if the luggage is delayed. What do they do with luggage? Sometimes the belt starts and no luggage appears. Sometimes a few bags are sent through alone almost as if to tease the waiting passengers. I just want to call through the rubber curtain telling them to hurry up.
Lastly I pass through customs. That has never been a problem so far. I have nothing to hide but just don’t want to delay. I try to emit positive karma and so far it has worked. I’ve never been asked anything more than where I’m travelling from.

Then I normally get a cab and we slug through the Friday night traffic in London. This is a lottery but the worst is over.
At last I’m home. I am with my angel and it is good-bye to factories, hotels, planes and taxis.

That is why I am leaving my office. There is someone in London calling me home.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Advise for London Hotel Guests

Imagine the situation. You are staying in London on business or pleasure. You have had a long day and have travelled a long way. You are staying in a hotel, which being London, will almost certainly be expensive but hopefully will be quite comfortable.

What could be better than getting into your hotel room and have a nice hot shower or bath ?

On the surface, there is nothing wrong but the lessons from this London office point to hidden dangers.

Opposite our office in an expensive part of London is a quite an expensive hotel. It is not particularly well-known or special. However it is a good hotel where people stay if they are on business or maybe even on a high cost holiday.

This hotel provides regular entertainment for the “work-seekers” in our office. Guests in various states of undress naively think that no one is looking in through their third or fourth floor windows. Anyone who has worked in our office would realise this is a fundamental error. Lots of people maybe looking through the windows. In fact on occasions a whole office of people will be looking !

I have been out of the office for sometime but recently I exchanged emails with my Spanish colleague aka Latino Lothario. He informed me all was well but reported there had been a naked woman spotted in one of the rooms of the hotel. He wrote that everyone had been looking at her. LL stated simply she had been quite young and worth looking at. He suggested I contact Charles, our well-informed but slightly letcherous Treasury colleague for further details.
I emailed Charles, regarding the fact that I am soon to be leaving the office for another job (more to follow on this subject) and asking, in passing, about the hotel nude.

Charles responded that I had missed a good day in the office and expanded that there had been “lesbian action” in the room. This fact had not been noted at all by Latino Lothario. If there had been some tangible event it seems unlikely he wouldn’t have reported it.

I can therefore only assume that Charles was interpreting some feature of this girl to conclude that she was a lesbian. Maybe a visiting maid was seen in the room or maybe she just looked like a lesbian to Charles.

Anyway it illustrates the point that even as a completely unknown person, if you fail to draw your curtains in a London hotel room that can be seen from an office, you may well be shamelessly watched regardless of your state of dress. Also a conclusion, fair or unfair, will be made about you.

Not all hotel visitors are so alluring for the likes of Charles and Latino Lothario e.g. the portly middle aged man who emerged completely naked (and wet) from his bathroom only to dry off his back (all parts of his back) standing next to the window. Howls of agony could be heard from Charles and others as this flabby man dried his bottom, blissfully unaware that about 10 people were watching him. It was an unpleasant sight for all to behold.

An older woman appeared partially undressed. Charles announced she was not worth looking at (in contrast to the middle aged man above who was watched continually ??!!).

The most famous incident in our office which is now part of office legend was when a girl (said to be 18 by Charles) applied all-over body moisturiser to herself for around 30 minutes.
I missed this but saw her later sitting in a tracksuit looking out of her window.

The same afternoon and in the next room a bare chested man appeared in short tennis shorts, drawing back his curtain. At that point an element of fear crept in that this was too (good) unlikely to be true and as it was Comic Relief day it was feared that the office was being “set-up” by a camera trained back on the office to record the reactions of those inside to various hotel residents.

We never found up if it was a set up but it was certainly a sobering thought that the residents could fight back and film us watching them.
But unless you are planning to film the workers in an office react to you for documentary/artistic/personal purposes or unless you are an exhibitionist, remember that office facing hotels windows in London most certainly have eyes !!

Moving Home

The London Office is moving. This will allow any of you, my readers to make posts.... Back soon.