In Search of the House Special Burger
You can’t stump former APEGS President Steve Halabura, P.Geo. on the names or geography of Saskatchewan small towns. He’s been to most of them – and eaten in most of their diners.
eople sometimes have this glamorous image of geologists paddling canoes and living in the wilderness. My career has been more like a bad travelling salesman. I always say that the way to spot a geoscientist in a greasy spoon is to look for the scruffy, bleary-eyed person choking down runny eggs and bad coffee while poring over the menu to try to decipher the two-for-one burger deal,” Halabura says.
Even so, it was the more glamorous aspects of geoscience that landed Halabura in the profession – by default.
“I was originally trying to get into medical school. In a high school summer job in La Ronge, I saw geological bush crews heading out into the wilderness for the summer and thought that would be a cool way to pay my way through college. But then chemistry proved me too stupid for doctoring so I switched over to geology.”
A Farm Boy’s Dream
“I’m from a farm background. These days, you would call our family’s farm a sustainable, non-GMO, chemical-free, pesticide-free operation. In those days, we just called it being poor.”
“With Pacific Petroleum, they gave me a truck – that worked! And that you didn’t have to put oil into twice a day. And they gave me a credit card! As a farm boy, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. I decided then and there that I was done with bush work and would stick to petroleum from then on.”
Although he was out of the bush, Halabura preferred to remain in the field.
“I went into consulting work mainly because I didn’t like the idea of being tied to a desk job with regular hours, a suit and all that. I also diversified into potash to help even out the ups and downs of the oil industry.”
Halabura’s potash work started off consulting on mining and tailings projects for PCS. Then in 2005, he branched out further into potash exploration.
“Anglo Potash contacted me because they realized there were a bunch of expired potash licenses that had to be refiled. This lit off a new era in potash exploration in the province–and it introduced me to a whole new set of roach motels and diners.”
Steerage-Class World Traveller
Halabura’s exploration expertise also opened new doors for him for international consulting work. His travels took him around the globe, to Russia, China and Europe. It did not, however, make his lifestyle any more glamorous, and very often, this was by choice.
“Geologists tend to be back-of-the-bus people on these expeditions. You’ve got the executives and managers out front in the limos. Then you’ve got the engineers at the front of the bus. Then you’ve got the translators, geologists and other support staff at the back of the bus – but that’s the fun place to be.”
Likewise, Halabura has not been able to do much tourism in his extensive travels.
“People always ask me ‘Oh, you’ve been to that country. Did you get to see that famous museum?’ And, of course, I didn’t. I saw my hotel, the bus and the mine. The companies are watching their dollars so they don’t want to keep you there any longer than is absolutely necessary.”
From the Ground Level
While Halabura has had little time for sightseeing, he met many ordinary folk in the countries he visited.
“The one advantage that geoscientists have over engineers on these trips is that the companies want us to take some time to study the resource. Geoscience is a grassroots game. You can’t just take a core sample and take it back to the lab. You have to get right in there, study the natural environment and talk to the miners and other people in the area.”
This has given Halabura many opportunities to learn about local culture in ways that no tourist would ever see.
“I remember once talking to Russian miners out in the Urals, out where the gulags used to be. The place was 1,000 miles from Moscow but it was also like going 30 or 40 years back in time. I was sitting around with these old miners who were smoking their Red Star cigarettes and listening to Soviet-era military music.”
“When the conversation turned to politics, the old miners didn’t think much of the government and said ‘One day we’ll get back to basics.’ I asked them, ‘Oh, you mean back to communism?’ They said, ‘No, no, no. Back to the Czar!’”
In China, likewise, Halabura noted vast differences between the city and the country.
“Even after seven trips, China still amazes me on many levels. Beijing is an astounding city - it just takes your breath away. It’s so dynamic and fast-growing. But out in the country things are more rudimentary. I’ve always been amazed at how inventive Chinese farmers are. In Canada, farmers feel hard done by if they don’t have the latest and best farm equipment. In China, they’re happy to have an old lawnmower engine, a couple of bike wheels and some two-by-fours to create a makeshift rototiller. Farmers are inventors and creators the world over!”
Culture and Politics
Halabura’s experiences in Jerusalem helped him understand, at a gut level, the complexities of Middle Eastern politics.
“The stark fact is that you have a lot of people and not much remaining unclaimed real estate so people have been fighting for thousands of years over those last bits of unclaimed land. They all have their own story to justify why they deserve that land more than others. It was an eye-opener about how culture shapes one’s perception of reality.”
Halabura also encountered such cultural distortions, in a more humorous way, in his travels to Germany (a country that he regards as “der heimat” – the homeland – of potash).
“I had learned a bit of German to be able to read technical reports. I tried to use it conversationally, but the Germans implored me to stop. ‘Please, please, stop butchering our beautiful German language.’”
Traveller’s Life Hacks
During his time on the road, Halabura has compiled a lengthy list of travel tips and tricks.
“You can disarm a nasty drunk faster with humour than by confronting him.”
“You will never get food poisoning by ordering the house special burger.”
“Always watch the local news wherever you are staying, even if you don’t understand the language. It will give you a better sense of your hosts’ culture and values.”
“If presented with weird foreign food, take a big bite, chew it with gusto and say, ‘That’s delicious!’”
Halabura also learned some tricks peculiar to his lifestyle.
I don’t drink or smoke, which can be a handicap in countries that have strong drinking or smoking cultures. To avoid offending my hosts, I’ve had to learn to be an expert non-drinking, non-smoking drinker and smoker.”
His main trick was to discreetly ask the server to bring him something non-alcoholic that resembled what the hosts were drinking.
“I can’t count the number of times I’ve drunk my hosts under the table this way. The next day, they’d be, ‘Oh, I have such a hangover. But look at that weird geologist guy! He had more to drink than me. I don’t know how he can even stand – now there’s a man!”
As satisfying as his days on the road were, they also took their toll on him.
“When I was working full-time, I was spending up to 75 per cent of my time somewhere else – from New York to Moscow to Vegreville to P.A. I’ve been to Three Hills. I’ve been to Two Hills. I haven’t been to One Hill but I’m sure it exists somewhere. I’ve tried to write a geologist version of ‘I’ve been everywhere’ but the list is too long.”
Halabura still consults (“Can I put in a plug for Prairie Hunter Exploration Ltd.?”) but his travelling days are behind him.
“I don’t miss the travel. I missed home more than I craved the road. Today I spend my time sitting on my porch and tending my Ukrainian-style garden. If and when I get consulting requests, I’m pretty good at coming up with reasons not to leave home to do them – such as my cabbages need hoeing.”