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Monday, November 25, 2013

Coron: A Phoenix Rising

It was not a journey I was looking forward to. It was some ten days after the super-typhoon Yolande (Haiyan) had hit Busuanga Island in the Philippines’ Calamian group, where my house in Coron is currently being built. I had been out of the country when Yolande struck. The eye of the storm had passed directly overhead and bulletins on all the main TV channels were not very cheery, to put it mildly. Yolande had been classed as an “Extremely Catastrophic Super Typhoon” and was dubbed the most powerful Super Typhoon ever recorded.
The airstrip on Busuanga had been knocked out by the storm, but within days the runway had been cleared and communications were up and running with the result that day time flights were now possible once again.
The old terminal building was all but demolished; but the newer terminal that is the only one used anyway these days (it had been built with funds donated by the Koreans) was still standing, albeit that most of the glass had been broken inside and out, with the result that only a row of chairs separated incoming from outgoing passengers.
Outside the terminal, whereas there once had been a welcome sign from the local mayor, “Fems” Reyes…
Ms Reyes’ happy row of smiling molars was no more…
… which is perhaps a pity since by all accounts she has done a sterling job of leading the reconstruction and acting like you would want your local mayor to act – a one helluva lot better job than other mayors in other disaster struck provinces across the Phils have done, by all accounts.
There are countless postings on the internet about some really appalling stories doing the rounds – such as relief sent from Indonesia being repackaged with the logo of a Philippines relief agency on the covering before being handed out to the unfortunate recipients a day later than needed. Whether there is any truth in this story or not, it is symptomatic of the bad feeling and the mistrust that has built up between the haves and the have-nots.
Ms Reyes, on the other hand, is visible by what she is doing, and not just relying on slogans. She immediately set up a lost-and-found office for people to find their loved ones and identify the dead; she organised water and food distribution, and her Facebook site is well worth a look at what else she has been doing.
It is said that 90 per cent of all buildings in Coron had been badly affected by the storm, and I almost feel guilty that my concrete construction only lost one window. Along the waterfront it is still a total mess…
…while inland entire homes have been demolished.
But the residents of Coron are nothing if not survivors, and everyone has been quick to lend a hand – first to clear the roads for relief to be able to get through, and then for everyone to help everyone else rebuild shattered homes.
Each of the local barangays, or local councils, are organising the smaller scale clearup, following on from the teams that have cleared a way through the fallen tree trunks.
If this had been on a black-and-white TV newsreel on the BBC in the 1950s you would almost have expected a clipped upper-class British accent to be describing the residents of Coron as “plucky” – a word you rarely hear used nowadays, but somehow it seems to sum up the local attitude precisely.
And what a difference a fortnight makes. Here’s a view of the town from the top of Mount Tapyas before the storm…
and the same view after… (hey, that’s my house down there!)
The old Hollywood style CORON sign which dominated the west of the town before…
… is still there, but the waterfront properties are again badly battered.
And the old signature Coron cross which used to dominate the town from the top of Mount Tapyas …
… is now a pile of twisted metal, though our Mayor has vowed it will be restored in the near future. Such landmarks may not add to the functioning of the town, but psychologically its presence is highly significant.
Some of the after effects are not all bad, however. This was my view of Coron from the house a month ago…
…whereas now I can see down to the waterfront, and no doubt when everything has been cleared it will be a far better view from my bedroom window.
One of the largest diving centres in Coron, the Sea Dive Resort, looked OK on the outside before (though having stayed there three nights I was not a fan of its “service”)…
But now the outside is more fitting to the state of the accommodation you would have been offered before. Note that only one telecoms mast – the sturdy Globe mast – is still standing in front of Mt Tapyas. Smart Telecoms’ weedy structure has disappeared.
But wait - what is this? A small standby mast for Smart Telecom has also just been installed. Not bad going a mere two weeks after the devastation.
Down in the market place the street signs are neatly laid out waiting to be reinstated.
…while many properties that weren’t demolished are waiting for new supplies of glass to arrive from Luzon.
But glass can wait. Essential supplies are being shipped in and there are food kitchens, sheltered accommodation and aid getting to those most in need.
Meanwhile the electricity grid is being reinstated with teams having been flown in to erect new masts, such as this one in front of my house…
…up she goes…
… and there she sits waiting for the next team to come along and fill the hole with concrete…
…before yet another team climbs up and starts stringing up new cats’ cradles in the sky.
Meanwhile one of the local fire brigade wagons is dolling out water round the town. They fill their truck from one of the local rivers and fill up people’s plastic drums every second or third day. It’s not fit for drinking, but you very soon work up a sweat in this place with daytime temperatures hovering around 34 degrees.
Things are fast returning to normal here. The “supermarket” has goods to sell…
There’s fresh meat too, though prices for almost all food had risen by around 50 per cent; but prices are coming down again now that supplies are getting through from Luzon. These two piggies went to market (but are unlikely to have returned home again).
Fish stocks are returning to normal…
There’s even petrol available for your motorbike or trike.
...which means that the taxi service is practically back to normal...
Thanks to a generator working overtime, you can bop the night away (well, the evening anyway!) in the Hard Rock disco bar…
while for the more devout, only one of the half-dozen or so churches was totally demolished and the remainder are doing a brusque trade. At this one it is standing room only …
Why, even the local launderettes are back to business as usual!
In summary, when the world is learning from the world’s media how unprepared the Philippines has been for predictable disasters, and with relief efforts turning into tragic farce in some other areas of the country, it is indeed refreshing to see what a fantastic example Coron has been setting for others to wonder at.
Good old Coron. Good old “plucky” Coron! 

Friday, November 22, 2013

Karwa Taxis: Qatar’s National Disgrace

Regular readers of your favourite blogger will know that if there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s being blatantly cheated by those who think they are above the law. Of course, as the majority of the law makers in the Philippines firmly believe they ARE above the law, this makes living there somewhat paradoxical for me. But, back to the subject in hand.
I have been staying in Qatar for the past two weeks, enjoying the sumptuous elegance of the Ritz Carlton hotel, courtesy of my client. Great hotel though it undoubtedly is, there is one big problem with staying there. You simply cannot get a taxi for love or money (and I’m not counting the hotel’s very expensive limos) since it is stuck way out of town and unless someone is taking a taxi to the hotel, no self respecting taxi driver is going to go out of his way there on the off chance.
So I have had to walk about 20 minutes down the road until I reach the first roundabout from The Pearl and then wait an average of 10-15 minutes in the heat hoping for a taxi coming from that direction.
These taxis are known as Karwa taxis and can be immediately recognised from afar thanks to their Tiffany Blue paint jobs.
And of the 20-odd taxis I have taken this past fortnight, I have had the taxi drivers attempt to cheat me on 19-odd occasions.
Reading other people’s postings, not to mention an article in Doha News entitled Have you been ripped off by a Karwa taxi lately? it would appear that being cheated in a Doha taxi is the norm. And I have lost count how often I have had bitter arguments with the miscreants who happened to be sitting behind the wheel. Oh, OK. I have probably had 19-odd arguments in total.
There are a number of scams they employ and it becomes almost a game to see which of them they will try on your first.
The most common for me was the I’m-an-Airport-taxi scam. If you read the rules which every taxi in Doha is meant to have stuck on the passenger windows…
you will see that any journey that starts from the airport has a flag fall of QR25 as opposed to anywhere else where the starting price is QR4. Even if you are picked up on the other side of town (and you cannot get much further away from the airport within Doha than the Ritz C.) some of these drivers are dumb enough to think they can convince you that they are an airport taxi even if you are not even asking to go anywhere near the airport.
This is an easy one to demolish. I found that just saying “Rubbish” or “Don’t be ridiculous” or some such expostulation would result in the driver immediately resetting the meter to 4, even if you had been going for ten minutes and then asked why the fare was already in the 30s. Some are stupid enough to argue the toss; but again, take out your mobile and tell him that you are just going to ask for clarification from the Karwa HQ – Telephone 44588888 - and you will be surprised how quickly they will reset the meter.
The next favourite scam is the “My-meter-isn’t-working” act, followed by a suggestion that they will take you to your destination for a set fare. Only problem is that, apart from being illegal, the “set fare” is invariably a lot over what you would pay on the meter. Now, if you are built like Popeye with a spare can of spinach tucked away for good measure, you could play this the clever way; for if you read the small print on the window stickers you will see that it says if the meter is not operational, your journey is free.
So I guess you could threaten to ring Karwa up again and argue that the driver owes you a free ride. And in theory this could work. I found it much easier to insist the meter is switched on – since (and I know you will find this hard to believe) these magic words seem to repair a broken meter like magic. Mind you, on one of the 19 occasions the driver thought he would get his own back on me by switching off the air conditioning, locking the windows and turning the heat up full blast while driving like a demented hyena on heat.
Scam number 3: Is you “in” or is you “out”? There are two tariffs Karwa drivers can charge. If the journey is inside the city limits (usually taken to mean within Ring Road D) the rate is an extra 50 per cent for what it is if the journey takes you outside the limit.
For the majority of journeys you will be charged at the outer rate, unless you are smart enough to firstly notice that the meter is set at ‘O’ (for outer) instead of “I” (for inner). Again, try asking all innocently once you are halfway to your destination why the meter is set at ‘0’ and see how quickly the driver resets the rate to ‘I’ , especially if you take out your mobile again to “seek clarification” from Karwa HQ.
And if you are really smart, then try getting round the scam 3.5 routine whereby the drivers partly cover the meter with black tape so you only see half the ‘O’ and think it is a ‘I’, of even cover the I/O completely…
Scam number 4 is one practised by taxi drivers the world over. You want to go from A to B but the taxi driver decides to take you on a “scenic” route that adds an extra 50% onto the journey. In my 20-odd journeys this past fortnight this has been tried on me on at least five occasions. I would recommend anyone to have Google maps with them on their mobile phone (even if you only use wifi data downloads, there is a good wifi signal all over Doha and the Google map will happily show you where you are, even if you are not logged on to the wifi). Of course when you ask the taxi driver why he is taking you on an extra loop instead of taking the main road from A to B he will come up with some lame excuse that there are road works that have just started and he is simply avoiding the road works.
Well, on one occasion I had walked the exact same route the night before and there were no road works whatsoever; and on another occasion there were loads of other vehicles funnelling down the same route the taxi driver refused to go. Again my suggestion: if you think you are being scammed, simply say you are going to ring the control centre for clarification why there are no diversion signs in evidence along the route. When taken on a 15 minute detour by one taxi driver I told him I would only pay QR25 instead of the demanded QR45 and suggested he call the police if he didn’t like it. Amazingly he simply drove off and didn’t call anyone!
The next annoyance isn’t a scam at all. It is simply a flat refusal to take you to where you want to go on the basis that either the journey is too short, or because “there is heavy traffic on the route”. Well Doha traffic is invariably heavy during rush hours and this is exacerbated by the constant road works that will be ever present until 2022, so again these taxi drivers don’t have a leg to stand on. I always made a point of getting into the car before saying where I wanted to go and then arguing the case once I had closed the door.
By the way - the one occasion when I was not cheated was when the taxi driver was a Filipino. He used to drive taxis in Manila and I can honestly say I couldn't have had a better driver. What a wonderful change it was to experience!
To sum up, I think it is about time the powers that be in Qatar addressed this issue head on. There have been enough complaints about this for years, if you look up the postings on the web. This is truly a national disgrace and something the authorities need to do something about, not in the months leading up to their football shenanigans in 2022, but NOW.
But of course, I keep forgetting. When ministers – who all seem to be related to the royal family – are ferried everywhere, with the day to day traffic even held up for their chauffeured limousines to sail through without any hold ups, how can anyone be surprised that nothing is ever done about the taxi service that they and their cronies never use.
It’s akin to the time I heard a radio station in Dubai carrying the top news story – and I kid you not – that the transport minister was going to take a ride on the metro. Yes, that was really the entire story with live reports from the metro talking about the fact that he had actually used the service that his ministry was responsible for!
Sometimes I never fail to be surprised – and depressed – by what some of the Gulf countries believe is acceptable behaviour from the ruling class.