Dealing with loneliness in the desert
Deep in the Sahara Desert is one of Neptune Energy’s gas plants. Fenced and gated, the secure plant is home to Marco, who works for 28 days at a time in the facility undertaking his role as Head of Health, Safety and Environment. Marco shared with us how physical isolation can make you feel disconnected, but the power of reaching out to others and uniting with peers is the key to keeping loneliness at bay.
Marco is no stranger to working in isolated environments. Having undertaken the role for over 20 years, he’s travelled across many a terrain, from the Middle East to North African deserts. His current place of living and work in the desert of Algeria, covers 1,300 km² and is guarded by security. It wouldn’t be possible or preferable to step outside the area perimeters. Even if you did, you’d be facing a day’s walk across the gruelling desert before you came across the nearest town.
With a 12-hour shift 7 days a week the standard routine for 28 days, it’s no surprise that by the end of a day’s work Marco enjoys nothing more than a walk in the evening sun then settling down to watch the news, a Netflix series or hunkering down to focus on some studies. As an engineer Marco describes his mind as busy and keeping the mind intellectually stimulated is crucial. He finds signing up for short educational courses is a way he can keep his mind occupied.
There's so few things to do, so people tend to pick up the same hobbies, which unites them.
Although resting in his own quarters can be relaxing, Marco highlights the importance of keeping active and getting outdoors, such as going for regular walks around the plant after work. His peers on the plant enjoy similar hobbies, with many choosing to spend their free time running or walking the perimeters of the plant. Exercise can take the shape of being up to an 11km run, or a more gentler stroll. With little to do, especially when there are sand storms, people unite by similar interests. Marco explains how many workers enjoy food together, which is a challenging but entertaining affair with no stove but plenty of herbs and spices. Other common interests include playing football matches together. It’s that connection of physically spending time with others than can really build that sense of belonging.
It's the simple but powerful question of a colleague asking me if I'm okay.
Marco explains that as well as having managers on site that are trained to spot the signs of a worker who may be experiencing poor mental health, it’s in the rhythm of daily life that workers ask each other how they are doing, and that simple question can make the biggest of differences. Marco shares that calling friends and family back home is sure to put a smile on his face, with 2 granddaughters back in the Netherlands, FaceTiming the girls everyday is a great way to bring a sense of home comforts to the plant. He finds the physical isolation of being disconnected and cut off from the wider world can soon be softened when family are just a phone call away.
The knowledge that you will soon have 28 days at home is also a sweet reminder, with Marco choosing to spend his time at home travelling with his wife and visiting family. The knowledge of knowing the date when you leave, that you can book that plane ticket, greatly helps people to feel less lonely and more in control. Marco told us that although he still feels physically disconnected from family at times, the feeling of loneliness was more greatly felt in the peak of the pandemic when the choice to see loved ones was taken out of his hands.
We really are like one big family.
Marco highlights that you can feel lonely anywhere, and loneliness also often works two ways. As much as his family checks in with him, Marco also checks in with his loved ones such as his wife, to check that she’s okay and coping with his departure, aware that his choice of work also affects those close to him.
Ultimately, Marco sees loneliness as a hurtful emotion that can affect anyone anywhere, not just in the midst of a desert, and especially when you don’t feel you have the control to do something about it. He reflects that although at times you may feel physically disconnected in remote areas, the connections you form can leave you with a sense of connection as strong as anywhere else in the world.
Learn more about Neptune Energy and where they are based around the world, by visiting their website.
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