Kidnapped IT bod Peter Moore: My journey to Iraq began in Guyana

How former hostage brought home all the tea in China

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The eXpat Files Regular readers of The Reg will know Peter Moore as the UK techie who was kidnapped by an Iraqi militia in 2007, before spending over two-and-a-half years as a hostage. But Iraq was just one in a succession of foreign postings during Peter's career.

He gave us the rundown on his travels before Iraq, and it's not hard to see some of the character traits that saw him through his time in captivity.

We know this story ends up in Iraq, but it started in China. How did you begin your ex-pat IT odyssey?

I started looking for international IT work while completing my Computer Science MSc in Norwich back in 2000. I had images of drinking piña coladas while sitting on tropical beaches in my head. Not surprisingly, these jobs were a bit thin on the ground, however through various contacts I was able to find some IT lecturing jobs in China, so I applied for them all.

I was offered work in two places, Beijing and Chengdu. I discussed these locations with some of the Chinese students on my course and all of them recommended that I go to Beijing as it would be the easiest city for me to fit in. My friends from my home city of Lincoln did not want me to go to China at all as it was still seen as a bit of an unknown. I ignored all of this advice and decided to accept the position in Chengdu.

What swung it?

No other reason than I had absolutely no idea where it was.

That could be a slightly cavalier approach to planning a relocation, but we’ll come back to that. What about the journey across - was it instant culture shock or a more gradual realization that “Hey, we’re not in Norwich any more?”

On the flight I was sat next to another English guy who was visiting his parents in Beijing, who were working in China. I was not feeling particularly sociable so I decided to just watch the movies instead. I think I must have watched the movie Lost in Translation at least four times during the eight-hour flight.

About eight hours later I arrived at the international arrivals in Beijing. The airport was fairly large, but all the signs were in English, so no major problems. Then I went into the departures for internal flights. All of a sudden everything was in Chinese, I had no idea where I was going. I headed for departures but was turned back by security. I showed them my ticket but I was pointed to another section. Apparently I needed to purchase airport departure tax, something that is actually very common in countries outside of Western civilisation.

Fortunately in the departure area (I cannot really use the word lounge) I met an American who had travelled to Chengdu before. More importantly he had some understanding of Chinese, so he was able to read the departure board ensuring that we got on the correct plane. There was a loudspeaker announcement system, but it was so distorted that I cannot believe that anyone could understand what was being said. It made those announcement systems on train stations seem very clear.

That sounds like a fairly abrupt transition. What were your first impressions of Chengdu itself?

It’s about fifteen hundred kilometres west of Beijing. For some reason, I was thinking that the distance was more like Nottingham to Blackpool. Mental note to self to check map scales in the future.

My first impressions were that it was very cloudy, very dusty, chaotic driving and that the people were very short. The myth is that people are short in the province of Sichuan due to the low clouds stopping them from being tall.

We’re all familiar with the space age developments in some parts of China now. But how were things back in 2000, particularly coming out your own student days?

The teacher’s accommodation was much nicer than I had expected. The most impressive part being the walk-in shower. This was much better living conditions than the shared student accommodation I had been used to. The salary I received was RMB3500 per month (about £370), which was basically the same as a local lecturer, plus the accommodation.

To be honest, I was surprised how developed China was. For some reason I had always assumed that China solely consisted of subsistence farming. Here I was living in a newly constructed apartment with satellite television and internet. The television stations were all in Chinese. There is an English-speaking channel (CCTV9) but that did not start transmitting until about a year after I arrived. This was actually to my benefit as it forced me to learn Mandarin Chinese.

And how did you find teaching - not least to a class who presumably didn’t speak English as a first language?

Once the academic year had started I soon got into the swing of things. The main subjects that I taught were Java programming, networking and conversational English language. I’d done an English teaching course while waiting for my visa. Coming from an IT background, I found teaching English to be the most difficult.

At weekends myself and (my friend) Liang would go travelling. It was very useful knowing him as he showed me how to navigate the local bus system, this also gave me an excuse to test out my Chinese language skills. More than once I ended up in a completely different place to where I wanted to be as the Chinese language uses tones, so one word can have four completely different meanings depending how you pronounce it.

One of the differences between working in a country and being a tourist (or “traveller") is that you’re actually stuck in one place for a period of time. Did you actually see much of the rest of China?

After working in China for 18 months, my appetite for working internationally had been fulfilled and I agreed to leave the job at the next national holiday. The holiday was a week long so I decided to take the train to Beijing, see the sights and then fly back to the UK.

The train was a sleeper train as it would take three days to get Beijing. I was able to see areas of China I otherwise would have missed. I was a little disappointed with Beijing. Sichuan is very open. Beijing on the other hand was very built up. I found the Forbidden City small in comparison to some of the other temples I had seen and my first observation about Tiananmen Square was that, well, it is not square, it is a rectangle.

The Great Wall was not much better. I had been to the North West of China where parts of the old wall can still be seen on distant mountains. The wall there is in ruins and it looks and feels like it is thousands of years old. The wall near Beijing is new - apparently it was restored in the 1970s. It’s impressive to walk along it but you do feel as though you are walking along something that has been specifically constructed for tourists.

After a week of touring around Beijing, I checked in my overweight bag at the airport which was packed full of Chinese tea. The flight home was completely empty because of the 9/11 incident.

Within a month of arriving in the UK I had secured a comfortable IT job with the Lincolnshire Ambulance Service.

That sounds like a job for life, but clearly it wasn’t. So what happened next?

I managed to hold down the Ambulance Service job for a couple of years, but I was itching to travel again. I applied to a number of organisations and I was eventually offered a place with Voluntary Services Overseas (VSO) who place international volunteers on assignments up to two years within developing countries.

I was offered three countries, Eritrea, South Africa and Guyana. Looking at a map of Africa, I could clearly see Eritrea and South Africa, but Guyana was proving a bit more difficult to find. After using Google, it turned out to be part of South America, but was politically aligned to the Caribbean. Images of white sand and blue water entered into my head [Again..Ed} . As I had never heard of Guyana, I decided that was the place to go.

Still after the pina coladas on the beach?

My first impression of [former UK colony] Guyana was that there was water everywhere. One of the main rivers is the Demerara which is where Demerara sugar comes from. Guyana is also famous for the award-winning El Dorado rum which, during my years in Guyana, I have consumed far to much of.

The population is around 750,000 people, of which three-quarters live on the coast, which is reclaimed mangrove swamp. Much of the coastal area is below sea level (so no white sandy beaches) and is protected by sea defence which runs along the length of the country. Additionally, Guyana forms part of the Amazon basin which is famous for its black water (so no blue sea either).

So, lack of tropical beaches and blue seas apart, what were you doing there?

My job was to assist with the development of databases for the Guyana Lands and Surveys Commission (GLSC), which is the equivalent of the British Ordnance Survey and Land Registry.

How did things compare with China? What sort of tech were you working with and under what conditions?

The system was being development using Microsoft SQL 2000 Server and ESRI ArcGIS. It has to be pointed out that there is no copyright law within Guyana and so most of the software is cracked. I was getting G$40,000 per month (about 170GBP), this was volunteering after all. Good for the soul, not the bank account.

The work was on schedule and things were going fine until 2005 when Guyana suffered from a huge flood. I was asked to develop a database to pay out compensation to those people most affected by the flood. I was told that it would only take about six evenings to complete the work. What they failed to mention was that it was going to take six evenings, every week, for the next year. This evening work was going to have to be conducted on top of my GLSC work.

In February of 2006 I transferred over to the Mining Commission with a simple remit to computerise the commission. I already knew some of people there through my work at GLSC. One of them, Danny, would go on to become a good friend and work colleague. Together we implemented various aspects of IT and GIS throughout the Mining Commission. Additionally I would go on to create an IT Section to support the technology.

So, no beaches, no pinas, and working all hours. Time for a change surely?

This was now 2007 and things had changed. My friend Koen had finished his VSO term and had gone back to Holland, so I felt a bit left behind. My bank account was looking flimsy and the interest on my student loans was building up. I started to look for other work and I was now receiving offers from international consultancy firms.

That is when I decided to go and work in Iraq, which is a whole different story... ®

Peter will be talking about his experiences in Iraq, including the two-and-a-half years he spent as a hostage in our final Christmas lecture. You can find out more all our lectures, and buy tickets here.

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