12 September 2012

Erwin Balitaan: Engineering in Turkmenistan

Answer this one question quick: in which part of the world is the country Turkmenistan located? If your mind draws a blank, chances are that you are not at all alone. Turkmenistan, after all, is not exactly your average touristy destination and certainly not what one would quickly write down on a bucket list of must-see places.

That is why, if you look at things a certain way, the surname of Erwin Balitaan of the high school class of 1989 becomes almost prophetic. The surname, which in English means ‘to give news,’ seems now appropriate because Erwin is presently working in this Central Asian nation which used to be one of the now-defunct Soviet Union’s constituent republics.

In this article, he not only tells us about what he has been up to all these years but also educates us about this land far away that few have really heard a lot of.

Erwin is currently in Ýolöten, a southern city in the Mary Province of Turkmenistan, working for a European-owned engineering, procurement and construction company called Petrofac.

His contract requires him to work in Central Asia for eighty-four days; after which he enjoys a twenty-one day rest and recreation break that allows him to return to his family in Lipa City.

“Turkmenistan is a very young country,” Erwin says of the Central Asian nation. “It was only in 1991 that the country obtained its liberty from the Soviet Union. That is why, if you go around the country you will see that in many municipalities, it is like a throwback to the Soviet era – more particularly the sixties and seventies.”


Erwin also considers the locals very fortunate. “Everyone is given a piece of land by the government after they get married,” he says. “Everything is free: electricity, water, gas for cooking, hospitalisation and education but not including college.”
Ashgabat is the country’s capital city, which Erwin describes as beautiful, clean and well-maintained. The city is Erwin’s point of entry to Turkmenistan, after which he faces a one-hour drive to Ýolöten by road.

“I could not help but notice some buildings that were obviously new but mostly unoccupied,” Erwin says of Ashgabat. “One of the locals told me those were just for show. Hmmm… Interesting!”

The country is also sparsely populated, according to Erwin. “Just imagine,” he says, “their population is only four million! The ratio is a staggering eleven persons per square kilometre!”

Erwin gets to interact a lot with the locals; and mostly because it comes part and parcel of the job. “The people are hospitable and friendly,” he says. Communication with them, as can only be expected, was initially difficult.

“There is the native Turkmen language,” Erwin continues, “as well as the Russian inherited from the Soviet era. Some of the educated people can speak English.” By this time, Erwin has picked up some very basic Russian which allows him to communicate sufficiently with the locals.

Erwin also considers the locals very fortunate. “Everyone is given a piece of land by the government after they get married,” he says. “Everything is free: electricity, water, gas for cooking, hospitalisation and education but not including college.”

Knowing these things about Turkmenistan as he does, Erwin naturally cannot help but make comparisons with conditions back home in the Philippines.

“In the Philippines, people are always complaining about oil price hikes,” he laments. “Here, I was surprised to discover that oil is given away practically free to citizens by the government. Those who own vehicles are given a 120 litre monthly gas allowance!”

“There are also no malls here unlike in the Philippines,” Erwin continues. “Instead, they have markets. If you are thinking of buying signature items, there are none here. In fairness, the vendors in the markets are blondes!”

While Turkmenistan is primarily a Moslem country, it has a more tolerant outlook towards life than most other Moslem nations.

“Alcohol and pork are legal here,” Erwin explains, “and these are readily available in the markets. Things are different compared to, say, the Gulf countries which although westernised in many ways continue to take a rather hard stance against these commodities.”

Life in Turkmenistan is simple, according to Erwin. “I asked one of the local workers here about how they live,” he explains. “He said $300 to $400 will be sufficient for a family with two children to survive. And why not? Practically everything is free!”

But, one may wish to ask, how did Erwin end up working in Turkmenistan for Petrofac in the first place?

“It was almost an out-of-the-blue thing,” he describes the twist of fate that sent him working for the company. “I was in Abu Dhabi at the time working the night shift. One morning while I was sleeping, the phone rang and I was being invited to work for the company!”

“I never even discovered how they got my number!” he continues. “I thought about the offer for a couple of days then decided to accept it. I thus handed CBI, my employer at the time, my one-month notice.”

CBI is Chicago Bridge and Iron, a company that also engages in engineering, procurement and construction. The company is primarily involved in the construction of refineries, petrochemicals, oil and gas worldwide.

Erwin, a licensed civil engineer, tried roof contracting after graduation from Mapua Institute of Technology in 1996; but found the competition stiff. He stayed in the business for only a year.