Full interview: Civil Engineer Around the World 2018-04-21T15:34:33+00:00

I thought Pete’s responses to my questions were so interesting that I’d post a separate page for the full transcript, in case anyone was interested to read more stories, specifics and background from his fascinating overseas career. So here it is!

Tell us a bit about yourself

I grew up in Yorkshire in the UK, with parents who were both GPs but then volunteered to go and work overseas themselves.  They worked firstly in Botswana soon after independence, and then in India and Bangladesh as part of the UN’s efforts to eradicate smallpox.  Bangladesh was the last place where smallpox was endemic, in the wake of the Indo-Pakistan war in the early 1970s.  So I have some very early memories of living outside the UK, but then I went to a boarding school in Yorkshire.  So they’re the sort of vague memories that probably made sense to a curious seven-year-old trying to understand the significance of the World Health Organisation’s work, why there were so many soldiers around and what the appeal of large sideburns, loud shirts and extravagant moustaches could be.

Now I work in London for a university and an NHS teaching hospital, in a joint appointment leading a team responsible for the redevelopment of their estate.

What travel experience have you had?

I’m a civil engineer by training and after graduating in 1989, went to work overseas almost straight away and only came back to live in the UK in 2002.  That wasn’t my intention at first, but the social and cultural appeal of travel grows on some people with every step, so I ended up living and working abroad for 12 years.

My first graduate job was with a UK construction firm, who sent me first to Northern Ghana to work on a road project between Tamale and Kumasi and then to a project to develop the international airport in Accra.  It was interesting to be working in Africa as the economic and cultural differences between countries – and their different development needs – really started to become clear in the minds of the developed world.  The Non-Aligned Movement’s meeting in Accra in 1991, for which delegates used my shiny new airport, took place in the context of a cold war ending after 30 years, and many non-aligned countries worried about how they could replace some of the influence they’d had over its major players.  And whether it was developing the international airport or improving communications (even in 1990, the only way to communicate our progress on the road project was by morse code to Accra, followed by a telex to London) it was striking to me that economic and social development go hand in hand.  Both are emotionally disruptive, and neither can be ignored.

As an enthusiastic graduate I was keen to understand the place where I was working, and became proficient in the Dagbani language of the Dagomba tribe around Tamale.  People were delighted when I tried it out, as I stood with my theodolite in the middle of the road under a baking sun.  But I quickly came to realise that most of the vocabulary was about animal husbandry or what the chief was up to, and the Dagomba never got much more than 20 miles from Tamale.  I sometimes think that if I’d started with a language that had slightly further reach I might have learned to pick others up quite quickly, as some people seem able to.  Trying languages without feeling self-conscious is a really helpful way of breaking down barriers to understanding, and I still remember the delight on the faces of people whenever I tried my schoolboy Dagbani, as you do.

In 1992 a group of us bought a Landrover and drove it across West Africa as far as the border with Morocco, in an attempt to get back to London overland.  Morocco refused to let us in despite our having made it across across Burkina Faso, Mali, Senegal, Mauritania and the disputed territory of Western Sahara – many of which had far greater issues with the rule of law.  We ended up having to drive back across Western Sahara and shipping the car to the UK from Dakar because the authorities wouldn’t allow us to sell it.  But I remember as we sat in a bar on the Moroccan border disconsolately sipping Tonica – Spanish tonic water was the closest we would ever get to Europe – that the main thing is the journey.  Although we didn’t make it home overland I still remember the trip incredibly fondly and shared it with some of the people I’m still closest to today.  On the way back across the Sahara, we picked up some people from the nomadic Touareg tribe.  We had been afraid of encountering the Touareg because of stories from other travellers of tribesmen stealing their vehicles and equipment as they tried to cross the desert by the Tamanrasset route.  In fact our passengers were lovely and wanted nothing more than a boogie to James Brown, which suggest that (a) we invented carpool karaoke, and (b) you should carefully check your sources.

As part of my graduate training programme I was due to have a secondment into a design firm for a year, but in the early 1990s with recession in the UK construction industry none was available.  So I was sent to Oman and spent a year building palaces for the Sultan of Oman in Muscat and Salalah, and a stadium in Nizwa.  I arrived in Oman on the first day of Ramadan and found myself missing home and struggling to settle in a place where you seemed to need to drive everywhere, and a society where social differences were quite stark.  Oman is a beautiful and welcoming country with a proud and resilient people, but mainly I was working on construction projects where most staff came from India or Pakistan, so in the 18 months I lived there I found it difficult to really connect with the culture and values of the place.  That illustrates one important thing about travelling – it takes time to get under the skin of a place, and if I had my time again I’d have worked harder in the early months to know the language and culture better.  It’s also important to acknowledge that sometimes it is lonely, and there are many times when you wish you were elsewhere.

Then my design secondment did come up, but it was in Kuala Lumpur on the development of the Light Rapid Transit system there.  Malaysia was growing like crazy in the mid-90s and the fact that they were developing four different public transit systems, none of which connected with one another or used the same kind of trains, was symptomatic of its time.  I spent two years on the LRT and two on a water supply project in Selangor – the state surrounding KL – and it was a fascinating time.  I was mature enough by then to take a greater interest in the interplay between the ethnic Malay, Indian and Chinese communities at a time of strong economic growth and firm governance under Mahathir Mohammed.  Almost every year my perspective and sense of understanding changed, and I left after four years with a strong sense that travellers can immerse themselves in any community – from Barnsley to Batang Berjuntai – and get that community’s perspective over time; but objectively understanding how and why they think that way and getting a regional and national perspective takes a lifetime and some serious academic study.

I had a call in 1998 from a firm recruiting people for a large water project in Trinidad, in the West Indies.  From the perspective of a Malaysian plantation it sounded fantastic and given the Caribbean’s proximity to the USA, colonial history and travel-brochure appeal I expected to find well-developed countries with balanced societies, and I was really surprised at how wrong I was.  My first project was to provide pipe-borne water to mainly ethnic Indian communities in Southern Trinidad, who had relied on standpipes up to that point, despite the dawning of the 21st century.  My work took me to a lot of rural communitites from Point Fortin to Guayaguayare, which were universally welcoming but hadn’t seen the benefits of the island’s economic development and had lost many of their young people to urbanisation.  It was really positive that the government was investing in their basic services, but sad to see the impact Trinidad’s position between South America and the US could have on small communities.

Then I was asked to manage construction of a building in Roseau in Dominica, an island state with a population the size of Harrogate but with many fewer carpenters.  Dominica is between the French overseas territories of Martinique and Guadeloupe, so a short boat ride takes you from a very small independent country with a modest economy built on bananas and tourism to metropolitan France.  It’s quite a contrast and I was very struck that the right fit for island states is probably somewhere in between.  CARICOM has been working on building a consensus about how to do that and make the most of their young and diverse population since 1973, around the time of that war in Bangladesh.

It’s a great region for travel and the islands are beautiful and welcoming but I was struck by one trip in particular.  We went to French Guiana, having contacted the European Space Agency to ask if we could see them launch an Ariane space rocket.  They were very welcoming and arranged a special place for us on some sort of VIP viewing platform – my sense was that they don’t get many visitors – in Kourou, where they have a space-port the size of Brussels.  It took several days to get there via Guyana and Surinam, and when we did it turned out that some important widget hadn’t arrived in time from Paris.  So they couldn’t launch the thing for another month, and we had five days before the flight home.  We killed time by visiting the space-port and the Papillon islands as you might expect, then got a bus into the equatorial rainforest without any particular plan in mind.  We found a lovely community descended from ethnic Cambodian and Vietnamese people who had been deported from IndoChina as troublemakers by the French colonial authorities.  As we ate a wonderful noodle soup, I was very struck that a few decades on from the trauma of leaving their communities and ancestral homes, they seemed to be surviving well and at least hadn’t had to deal with napalm and the risk of having their cows periodically blow up after treading on a discarded landmine.  That probably merits an international study on the relative value of travel since we’re all mainly descended from the beaker people, but it definitely illustrated to me how oddly connected the planet can be.

Our first son was born in Trinidad and our second while we were in Dominica, so we decided to come back to the UK in 2002.  It felt like a very big decision after so long abroad, but we were lucky enough to be able to choose where to work next and the UK is a very easy place to have small children.  I had anticipated hating the rain and dark evenings and thought we’d be desperate to work abroad again after six months.  Maybe it was something to do with good weather in that first winter; or remembering how beautiful the seasons can be; or perhaps the fact that much of the kindness and friendliness we found in people elsewhere in the world could also be found in the West Midlands if you knew where to look.  Whatever the reason, I’m glad I travelled when I was young enough to enjoy it to the full but also that I came back when the time was right.  I learned a huge amount in the process.

How did you come across these opportunities?

I got my first job with a UK-based contractor, Taylor Woodrow, who had a graduate training scheme which included some time spent working on their projects abroad.  After university I had applied to quite a few UK firms which were active overseas and had a surprisingly positive response – perhaps because I was able to show that I understood what they did internationally, why I was interested in it and how I could contribute – rather than just having a vague idea about wanting to travel as an end in itself.

People sometimes say those opportunities are rare, but 75% of UK FTSE100 companies’ earnings come from overseas and most firms now recognise the value of having a diverse and engaged workforce.  In my recent experience they’re keen to help people travel and broaden their mind, but they do need the candidates to be willing to put together the case for doing it in an objective way, and focus on the value they can bring in those roles.

What first inspired you to travel or see the world?

People are drawn to travel for lots of reasons.  Having been brought up in a seaside town the desire to get away from the smell of chip fat was fairly strong, but it wasn’t till much later that I really thought about my motives.  I think I travel because I find it interesting to get different perspectives and understand what makes us fall in love with a place.  Inevitably, it’s not the Sydney Harbour Bridge or the Tower of London, but the people.  In some places that can be difficult – in the 1982 film “the year of living dangerously” there’s a sequence at the beginning where a narrator describes the complexity of understanding Indonesian politics as being like the Wayang Kulit, where the audience see the shadow of events rather than the events themselves.  That is true in many places, but nowhere more than in South East Asia.

Above all I think it’s a personal thing. I was in Malaysia when it was fashionable for European students to travel on a gap year through the region towards Australia (it may well still be).  I saw many people on that journey who religiously followed the recommendations in their guide books, even though the guide books themselves said they should find what worked for them.  I met quite a few people who seemed to be doing it more because they wanted to be perceived in a certain way, even if they would have been much happier travelling in a different way, or staying at home.  I think the key is to find what genuinely works for you and make sure you’re doing it for reasons that make sense to you, rather than how you might want to appear.

What came first, the desire to travel or the job/course/volunteering opportunity?

I think it’s both – jobs, courses and volunteering can be interesting wherever you are if they suit your temperament and give you a challenge you think is worthwhile.  As it happened, I found that when I was young, working overseas gave me more responsibility and opportunities than I would have had in the UK, and that was what drew me to it.

Do you have any funny or interesting stories from your time abroad?

Too many, but let me share one – I was visiting Pnomh Penh in 1997 at the time Hun Sen and his followers were surrendering after many years of guerrilla warfare.  The town felt very edgy and some longstanding issues and resentments were surfacing that were completely unclear to us as visitors.  I proposed to my girlfriend there, and after a long night out to celebrate a group of us were getting motorbike taxis back to the place we were staying.  One of my friends was on a motorbike with my girlfriend and suspected they were being abducted, and was just about to throw her to safety from the speeding motorbike and tackle the driver, when she commented that they had just passed the restaurant near our hotel.  It could have been a short engagement.

Has your study/education impacted on how, where or why you travel?

Civil engineering was a good subject and gave me a numerate degree and a working knowledge of how to build a bridge, although I can’t think of a time when I’ve really used the technical content of the course.  I did find myself in Northern Ghana in 1989 needing to know the equation for the volume of a sphere, and had to work it out from first principles because I couldn’t explain what to write to the morse code guy.  That seems amazingly anachronistic in the age of the internet, but even now travel encourages you to live on your wits when there’s no wifi, which can only be good.

To answer the question, I’ve found that the main thing that attracts me to new places is wanting to understand how they value culture, respect and diversity.  Of course that often depends on the individuals, but I’ve often been struck that even in countries where a government seems despotic and malevolent I’ve benefited from many examples of kindness from complete strangers who had nothing to gain.  So that’s what helps me decide how, when and why to travel.

Do you think your travel experience has been valuable for your career?

Absolutely.  I was lucky enough to travel early in my career and was given huge responsibility for projects for which I was completely unprepared.  Now that I work back in the UK, I often find that people are uncomfortable dealing with work and social situations where there isn’t a rule book.  That happens almost every day when you travel, and often when you try to host a modest dinner party.  So the key is to get out there and have a go.  Employers recognise this as a skill, honestly.

And/or do you think your travel has impacted on your behaviour, outlook, actions etc

Particularly in an age of frenzied media and instant communication, travel – and travel to multiple places in particular – has helped give me perspective.

Would you do anything differently if you went back and did it all again?

I completely missed the 1990s in the UK, so it’s odd now when people sing along to songs I ought to know.  Although the main – the 1997 election, the death of Diana, the spice girls and so forth – was genuinely worldwide, I still thought that Coolio was a soft drink until recently.  In all my time travelling I never seriously thought I would retire anywhere but the UK, so perhaps I should consider why.

In my time travelling I never thought to save money or buy a house, which made it difficult but not impossible to move back to the UK when the time came.  In retrospect it’s understandable, because people seemed increasingly unhappy whenever I came back to the UK, but I was probably looking at superficial aspects of their lives.  I’ve also lost touch with too many people, but I’m sure technology will take care of that in future.

What would you recommend to someone inspired by your journey, wanting to follow in your footsteps?

I can’t offer any more suggestions than that travellers reflect honestly on their own motives, and Google the thing about always wearing sunscreen which is attributed to Kurt Vonnegut but was actually written by Mary Schmich in the Chicago Tribune in 1997.  As Vonnegut always said, so it goes.

Anything else you want to share with aspiring grads who want to travel or work abroad?

Good luck