You only live twice: Once to start the installation, and the other time to finish it off

Who, Me? Ever opened a PC only to experience a sinking sensation when things don’t look the way you’d expected? Add a twist of international spice and you have this week’s Who, Me?

A reader Regomised as “Noel” told us today’s tale of woe, which has all the excitement of a Bond flick, just without the flirtations and gadgetry, but heavy on adventure in the world’s iffier places.

Our story takes place roughly a quarter of a century ago, when Noel was working for a well-known British broadcaster “building TV and radio studios in out-of-the-way places around the world – usually just before the war started…

“Said broadcaster had just discovered the delights of audio editing on computers – the latest whizz-bang 486 machines with as many as four sticks of 4MB memory in each. These computers had reassuringly expensive sound cards and interfaces so they could plug into a normal analogue audio mixing desk.”

A cautionary tale of virtual floppies and all too real credentials


Noel was tasked with setting up a new radio studio in Tajikistan, not long after the Berlin Wall had come down and the Soviet Union was beginning to open up.

Getting there was convoluted. Passenger flights were difficult, and freight wasn’t much better, requiring a loop through Moscow.

“For me and a colleague,” recalled Noel, “the only practical way to get there was to fly to Tashkent, get a taxi(!) at dark o’clock across the border to [Tajikistan’s second biggest city] Khojand, and take an internal flight down to [the capital] Dushanbe.”

The journey was delightful. Noel recalled the joy of sitting in the back of a Lada while the driver negotiated a bribe of a dollar or two with border guards (Noel had the best part of $50,000 in cash hidden about his person in order to pay salaries and get the bureau running.) Then there was the cancelled flight from Khojand because the operator had forgotten that fuel had to be paid for. And a 200km jaunt over mountains in that Lada…

“All in a day’s work, right?” he cheerfully told us.

“Being slightly hijacked by a soldier who wanted a lift to his home? A mere bagatelle.”

The duo finally made it and set about building the studio. A few days later several cubic metres of hardware arrived, although strangely in several discrete packages rather than the pair of big crates it had originally been packed in. Odd, but a swift audit showed it was all there, so the pair cracked on.

Soon, the area was starting to look like a studio, replete with sound desk and the necessary wiring. It was time to plug in those whizzy computers…

Oh dear. The lights all came on, but the monitor screens remained perversely blank. Ever the professionals, the pair broke out the screwdrivers and removed the lids in order to hunt for the inevitable loose cable.

Oh dear again.

“Some kind soul – presumably in Moscow Customs, where they’d broken down the crates – had removed the processors from the computers. Along with all the memory, the sound cards, and the hard drives. The memory had been ripped out carelessly enough to have wrecked the motherboards.

“Effectively we had two power supplies and two monitors…”

So home the pair came, leaving half a studio behind them.

“I lost the toss to come back a fortnight later,” recalled Noel. He made the journey once again, carrying the required components in his hand luggage, which he clung onto up the mountain and down in the Lada. “A couple of hours later and the job was done.”

Noel’s tale, alas, does not end there. Due to the byzantine nature of flights at the time, he found himself popping into the Delhi office on his way back (“that was a free flight from Tashkent,” he recalled). It would all have gone swimmingly had, 10 minutes after his flight back to Tashkent departed, a major (and, right then, unexplained) mid-air incident involving two other aircraft not occurred. He was therefore blithely unaware that officials might be a bit on edge.

Upon arrival at Tashkent, Noel was asked for his Delhi visa by the immigration official. “In my other passport,” he cheerfully replied. He was in and out of so many countries, all with their own esoteric visa requirements, that he had several passports. “He didn’t like that,” Noel recalled.

“He didn’t like it even more when he opened my hand baggage, which was stuffed to the gills with tools and useful components, curly bits of wire and the like…

“The sound of the security guards’ safeties being clicked is not nice.”

After some time in a special windowless room, Noel managed to convince the subsequent interrogator of his innocence and was on his way.

Ever undertaken journeys that might make Michael Palin say “Steady on…” only to find your luggage was not quite what you thought it was? Or mindlessly carried the tools of your trade into places where trigger fingers are ever so itchy? Take your own spin on the Regomiser with an email to Who, Me? ®

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