A Blogger's Guide to Beijing

You've read the blog... now get the book. The Blogger's Guide to Beijing is now available in eBook format in five volumes from Amazon. Click here for more details...

Monday, November 9, 2009

Floods in the Philippines

The recent deadly storms to hit the Philippines were an eye opener for the world. Ketsana and Parma resulted in widespread flooding, landslides, dams busting, houses and bridges collapsing and massive population displacement, and from what I understand over seven million people were affected. Yet to international news broadcasters this type of story is unfortunately becoming all too common day after day, month after month.
Within the Philippines the site of dead bodies being broadcast appears somehow to be acceptable; yet in Europe and America the networks work on the theory that such images might upset their viewers as they tuck in to their bowls of cornflakes over breakfast; so they edit out such awful scenes. And anyway with the constant coverage of bombs going off in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the reaction of loved ones screaming in anguish in front of the camera, you cannot just move straight into the latest football results without some “softer” news to counter the maimed and the walking wounded.
Indeed, to watch some of the international broadcasters such as BBC and CNN, you might be forgiven for thinking that this was a 48 hour wonder; that within a week the Phils would be back to its old self as the world moved on to yet more bloodshed in the Middle East.
But eschewing the big players and watching some of the smaller TV stations and web outlets gave a different perspective. Reading the blog reports describing the cleaning up operations – not just removing the mud, but allowing everything to dry out so as to prevent the build up of mould – I was moved by the amount of bloggers who were able to put things into perspective; who had lived through a tragedy but could, in the face of adversity, learn to be stronger and hopeful that their flood-damaged homes would once again be beautiful some day.
We were also able to gauge the reaction of the Filipino communities around the globe as the news came in about the extent of the devastation and the amount of people affected. Yet again the sense of community was there for everyone to see. Here in Dubai I can’t think of a single Pinoy friend – and I have several – who was not involved in some way with fundraising, awareness raising and garnering help in some way.
The local independent TV station, City7 which has many Filipinos on its staff, broadcast night after night in its news bulletins about the relief efforts being made across the UAE to send over to the Philippines. It was both touching and a lesson to the rest of the world as to how disasters can pull communities closer together – a bit like World War 2 brought communities together in the UK as everyone faced a common foe …. so we were taught in school, though such evidence is much harder to find now in the “developed West”.
Perhaps the most telling statistics that came from the UN are what so “little” money can achieve - $18 can provide a family with rice for 2 weeks. Weigh that against the obscene amount of money being poured into armaments in the Middle East and you start wondering what kind of a damned fool world we are living in.
Think of the amount of aid money being thrown into some of the countries of Africa where – dare one be so politically incorrect – many of the problems nations, such as Zimbabwe or Angola or Sudan or Nigeria etc etc, face are of their own making.
But Africa represents the new conscience of the West, whist the Middle East has its oil; so countries such as the Phils cannot hope to compete on such terms. Thank goodness they have a community spirit which is ready to be mobilised at a moment’s notice.
Yes, it’s a crazy world that we live in. And all in all, it does make you question what is news? And who decides?

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Wake Up and Look Around!

It often surprises me how little of the world people take in around them. When surrounded by the ordinary and the mundane it's so easy to take things for granted that curiosity is seldom stimulated … and that's a pity because I'm sure we all miss out on so much to enjoy.
I fear I'm as guilty as anyone else in this respect and it was brought home to me recently when a friend who was visiting me in the UAE, where I currently live, remarked what beautiful lampposts we have in Dubai. Lampposts??? I remarked in astonishment. I mean, can a lamppost be beautiful?
Well of course they can. And when I was next out driving to the other side of town I was amazed how I had routinely passed by these – dare I say it – works of art, without a second glance. They had flowing lines, beautiful curves and arches, needless decorations that someone had obviously taken a great deal of trouble over. And, yes, they were beautiful.
I'm lucky in that my work takes me to a number of countries. I love travel and have always thought of myself as having a curious mind. This past month I have been in the Philippines. Most of the time was spent in Manila – a dirty city where the residents seem to take so little pride in their capital. Yet pride of place must go to the city's lampposts. Yes, that's right. Forget the Coconut Palace. Forget Tagaytay. Even the likes of Antipolo pale into insignificance compared with the town's lampposts.
Drive down Roxhas along the filthy Bay View area and the redeeming feature is the plethora of designs stuck on poles for all to see, or more to the point, for all to see by. Some are grotesque, but in a fun way – a bit like the Victorian architects of 100 years ago used to smother their designs with filigree and twirls and baubles simply for the fun of it. I love them; and promptly started shooting photographs of every lamppost that took my fancy. I ended up with more pictures of lampposts than other more "worthy" monuments!
In a way it's a bit like the huge variety of gaudy designs on the city's Jeepneys: a utilitarian mode of transport which is transformed into a moving work of art. Sure, they're filthy, sleazy, unsafe and noisy and a load of other unflattering epithets could also be thrown their way. But there's a fun element there too. And I think this speaks volumes for the residents of this dirty city.
One day, however, I was taken through Marikina on the way to Antipolo and it was as if someone had taken a permanent marker and drawn a line in the street. On one side the debris, filth and sleaze of downtown Manila. On the other, clean streets, parking that was well thought out, and a river which was clean and appealing. It reminded me of the border fence between Saudi Arabia and Qatar where a visitor from another planet might well have concluded that the Qataris threw all their rubbish over onto the Saudi side.
Why is it that we all turn a blind eye to the unpleasant aspects of our environment? Both Qatar and Marikina amply demonstrate that it is perfectly possible to improve our surroundings by making the environment a nicer place to be in.
And Manila's lampposts show that although civic pride apparently disappeared a long time ago, there is still the propensity for beauty to rise out of ugliness. I can only hope that the residents of the Philippine capital can wake from their torpor and realise what they have been missing out on for all this time.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Manila Sauce

They say there's no fool like an old fool; and probably none more so than those who think "it" will never happen to them.
In this case, "it" happened to me….
I was riding on one of Manila's famous Jeepneys – those wonderfully painted and decorated icons of the Philippine transport system which ferry upwards of 20 passengers at a time along predetermined routes through the grimy streets of the capital city.

It was a hot, sultry afternoon and my friend and I were travelling back to the hotel when one of the other passengers pointed out that there was something sticky on my collar and the back of my shirt. Upon closer inspection I found I had been drenched in tomato sauce. "Probably one of the street kids throwing things through the window," remarked another passenger as people from all sides started finding scraps of material with which to rub me down. "They're always doing that. They obviously think it's funny."
I thanked my fellow passengers; and shortly after, there was a mass exodus from the Jeepney; and shortly after that I realised that I had had my wallet lifted. Expertly done. I had never felt a thing despite it being entrenched deep in my pocket. Almost all my money; my ID cards; my credit cards; nothing short of a disaster.
First things first – straight back to the hotel to ring the banks to stop the credit cards; and then, after a change of clothes, round to the Police station to report the theft; or in this case TOPCOP, which stood for Tourist Oriented Police, Community Oriented Police.
Below a sign reading MMP – Pride of the Community sat the station sergeant. Behind him was a cage which was filled with a motley collection of individuals who had been nabbed for some misdemeanour or other. He handed over a piece of paper and asked me to write my details down – passport, hotel, what was stolen and so on. And having filled it all up he then apologised that as it was a Friday evening, nothing could actually be done until Monday morning when the clerk was next in. Could we come back then?
But an hour later an SMS message appeared on the phone summoning me immediately. There was no clue as to who had sent the message, nor where I was supposed to go, so on a whim we returned to Topcop who said that they indeed had sent the message. Could we please report to the Chief Inspector, no less.
We eventually found the way – down to the very end of a badly lit corridor, and we edged into a seedy little room where the Important Inspector was questioning two people who, it subsequently turned out, were a security guard and a student shoplifter who had pilfered four bottles of shampoo and other essential lotions. It was all good natured.
Though the conversation was all in Tagalog, there were smiles all round and a lot of nodding of heads as the Inspector turned to us and pointing to the student advised that he'd be locked away in the cage until Monday when he would appear before a magistrate. He only hoped he had some friends who could bring him some food and drink since, because of budget cuts, there was no way they could provide any.
And then it was my turn. I was given special treatment, it appeared, as I was a foreigner. The locals had to pay for the sheet of paper on which he would make his report; but for me he would find a sheet, which he duly did.
A series of questions bouncing to and fro then started. Important Inspector would ask my friend in Tagalog about the details of the heinous crime. She then translated the question to me; I replied in English, she translated for the Important Inspector and there would then be a long pause before the next grilling.
Eventually all the details had been recorded – and we sat back as the Inspector composed his little essay, finally whipping it out of the printer and handing it over to me with a flourish. And there were all the details of the sordid little tale, all written in perfect English!
This is a new scam, he told me, now in faultless English. He had never heard of the tomato sauce caper … and he laughed at his little bit of humour. He would make sure this story was sent around the other Topcops though unfortunately this wouldn't help me.
Naturally I never expect to see any of the contents of my wallet again. And in terms of nuisance value alone in getting replacements for all those cards it struck me how perfectly stupid it was not to have removed any non essential contents and left them in the hotel safe.
But it's easy being wise after the event. At the time you just know it will never, ever happen to you. Which reminds me of another well known truism…. For, as we all know, lightning never strikes twice in the same place….. does it?

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Immigration Officers

Pity those poor people working in immigration. It must be one of the worst jobs going. All those frightful travellers whooping it up as they set off for their hols leaving these poor souls to face another day of passport plonking.
At least, I suspect that could be one of the reasons that almost without exception, these miserable plonkers at Dubai Airport are hard pressed to raise a smile, or even to look at you, let alone to say hello, goodbye or thank you. It's the same at Doha airport. Hand out; grab passport; throw a passing glance to make sure that the outstretched hand actually belongs to the picture in the passport and after a predetermined wait the passport is all but thrown back at you.
Try saying hello; or murhabba; even as-salaam-aleikum. It's the same. Blank look; stifled yawn; plonk, plonk, plonk; throw back passport.
Does it really have to be like this? I mean, fly out of Abu Dhabi and the chances are you will be asked how you are, offered a sweetie (peppermint or fruit drop) and wished a pleasant journey. Return to Abu Dhabi and you're asked if you had a good trip. Oh, and welcome back to Abu Dhabi, of course.
It's the same in Riyadh. Welcome back to Saudi, says a beaming immigration official. No doubt you are glad to be back, eh? Al hamdullilah. Very glad, say I; and with a wave and a smile I am on my way.
On a recent trip to Sri Lanka, I was welcomed warmly by an immigration lady. I was asked where I planned to visit in their beautiful country and immediately was given suggestions as to what I really shouldn't miss, while fellow travellers patiently waited their turn in the queue. Finally I was thrown a lovely smile as my passport was handed back with grace and charm. What a great way to start a holiday!
Even in Indonesia – not famous for the level of English spoken by their officials – yet again Asian charm wins through and despite having a $10 note released from the confines of my wallet, I feel as if I am a valued customer – a visitor actually made to feel welcome in the streets of Java.
Fly to the UK and though you might not see the tears welling up in their eyes as you are wished a pleasant onward trip, you get a firm unequivocal good morning, and what passes for a smile – which, at 5.30 in the morning is not bad going. And that's equally true of Manchester Airport and Heathrow – the one we all love to hate.
Amsterdam's Schiphol is in a league of its own around five in the morning. Presumably the bosses aren't yet out of bed, for how else can you explain the good natured remarks thrown at any reasonably good looking chick in the queue in what passes for a valiant attempt at a chat-up line in her own language.
Cómo está? Apa kabar? Ogenki desu ka? The girls blush as each of the officials tries his chances at hitting on the poor wench while the hormones fly around unchecked. (And there was I thinking this behaviour was more appropriate for the Italians and Spanish!)
Of course, in all fairness to the Dubai officials, you simply cannot beat the US in measurements of rudeness and general unhelpfulness at the immigration counter. It doesn't seem to matter at which entry point you arrive, as far as they are concerned you are a terrorist, a nobody, someone looking in from outside desperate to partake of the American dream. (Hey, they even ask you in all seriousness on the form whether you are a terrorist or even if you have any intentions of committing terrorist acts while you are on US soil.)
But please Mr Paul Griffiths [CEO of DXB Airport] if you would like at one fell swoop to improve the lot of your hapless travellers so they didn't so much resent having to travel through your airport, could you - nay, would you - kindly send your immigration guys on a course to learn the rudiments of customer care? It sure would make a difference to all of us.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Alex Beckons

There can be no arguing that summer has finally arrived and with it the time for vacations, gushes Bjِörn Näf – the outgoing CEO of Gulf Air – in Gulf Life... that shining example of inflight magazines that captures the very essence of what living is all about.
Gulf has introduced three new holiday destinations to its schedules, and I have been invited to sample Alexandria courtesy of Bahrain's national flag carrier.
I'm not one to turn down a freebie. Surely it is time for a break from boring old Dubai…a break from the relentless sun, sand and sea. What could be more tempting than … sun, sand and … errr… sea?
I find myself deposited at Dubai Airport (Terminal 1 – that's the awful old one, for those not in the know) three hours before departure. Clutching my eTicket, I stride up to the Business Class check in and am greeted by a charming lady called Cuckoo. No, seriously. I kid you not. It's written on her badge .
What is your name please, Mr Brain, she asks me. Playing along to her seeming lack of intelligence, I proffer my passport to put her mind at ease that the name on my eTicket really does match the handsome guy in the photo . Cuckoo does what she has to do and soon I am able to rush off through Dubai immigration and on to the Business Lounge .
Do you have an invitation, I am asked by a somewhat bored looking female. I'm flying business class, I reply. Yes, but have you an invitation? You need one to come in here. I'm on the Gulf Air journalists visit to Alexandria, I inform her. The power of the press affects a rapid change of attitude and I am offered a piece of quiche with an alcoholic beverage.
Shortly after that it is time to board. Within a matter of moments, a luscious stewardess wants to know if I would be happy to partake of some Arabic mezze after take off. And what would I like to drink with it? Red wine? White wine? French? American? I ask if the American wine comes from California. No sir, luscious trolley dolly answers. It comes from Napa Valley. <sigh> She has obviously gone to the same geography school as the people behind Gulf Air's breathtaking maps in Gulf Life magazine which place Dubai at the northern-most tip of Oman, Doha due west of Abu Dhabi, and Manchester on the west coast of England .
I settle down to read up my final destination. "For a city that was once the rival of ancient Rome, Alexandria has little to show for it," remarks Gulf Life obviously anxious not to oversell on expectations. "Anyone lucky enough to be staying at the Four Seasons has access to the hotel's own private beach created with tonnes of specially shipped in white sand. The other decent beach is at Montaza… Otherwise join the locals as they drive out of the city…" This is a refreshing new approach to marketing, I decide and avidly read on, only to be interrupted as the tyres bump down on Egyptian soil.
We are met by charming tourism officials who ask for our passports and within minutes they have visas affixed and we are whisked at high speed to a fleet of waiting limousines that take us Monaco-Grand-Prix-style the 30 kms to the Four Seasons Hotel conveniently located on the Corniche.

I'm impressed. It's only 5.30 in the morning, but the hotel's PR girl is waiting for us in reception wearing a smile that looks more than half genuine. Would we like breakfast? Would we like mango juice? Would we like to go straight to our rooms?

We go straight to our rooms – large palaces of luxury overlooking the seafront as the sun struggles awake to face another day .
A three hour top up of zzzzs reinforces the more hardy of us as we meet up shortly after 9.30; and then it's off on another whacky races ride in an old beat up Lada taxi to visit the Montazah Palace gardens – a stunning area which used to be the summer retreat of the not-much-late-lamented King Farouq .
Next we head to the National Museum before being rushed to the citadel; and on to the amphitheatre; thence to the Library. And finally back to the hotel for lunch which includes a local delicacy - sea bass, which surely would have no right in claiming to have given up its life in vain .
Another car; another dash to the other end of town – this time to visit the grand mosque, the opera house, and to experience the metro. No, really… experience is le mot juste. Think of a series of carriages that travel 100 metres or thereabouts before stopping for some five minutes before moving on another 100 metres before stopping another five minutes … and on and on all the way to the end of the line. We spend half an hour like this before jumping off and trying to flag down a taxi back to the hotel .
And thence to a restaurant enticingly called The Fish. Alex is famous for its fish restaurants.

Afterwards, we are invited to partake of shisha and drinks on the beach. As the moon goes down over the horizon, the grueling hard work comes to a close .
It's tough being a journalist, but, we keep on telling ourselves, someone has to do it .

Monday, June 15, 2009

For the love of a Kia

I have to admit to having a love affair with my car. Well, not the actual car itself, you understand as it is, dare I say it, one of those ubiquitous grey boxes churned out by the Kia Motor Company and which sells to cheapos like me who drive their wives crazy by trying to save a few dirhams on the cost of a new car.
She (her indoors, the boss, my better half – call her what you will) thought she had cured me of this terrible affliction when we went from the sublime to the ridiculous many years ago.
I had been the proud owner of a Fiat 124 Sports car, paid for after a windfall payout for some work I had thrown together back in the heady ’70s. It was classy; it was fun; it was even (on occasion) a babe magnet. It was my pride and joy until the day the garage forgot to tighten up the oil sump screw and I became the proud owner of a pile of twisted metal.
Distraught – nay, devastated – I determined never to fall in love again (with my car that is) and plumped for an economical motor which wouldn’t blanche at the ever increasing price of petrol, following Sheikh Yamani’s OPEC price hike. And I found one. A car that most of my contemporaries have never heard of, even to this day.
It was a Honda 360. Sure, it was small, but it actually boasted a rear seat which, we later found out, was more in the spirit of hope over expediency. It sounded like a sewing machine running in overdrive which, it turned out, was not far off the mark. My wife took one look as I drove it up the garage path and almost exploded; which was nothing compared to the time I tried to manoeuvre up a steep hill which the 360cc engine had great difficulty in coping with until she-who-must-be-obeyed had to get out and walk, with the promise that I would meet her at the top of the hill… if the car ever made it. (It did!)
Fast forward 30-odd years and I find myself in Saudi Arabia looking for a cheap set of wheels. My criteria were simple. It had to be four wheel drive to cope with desert conditions; it had to have A/C; and it had to be “affordable” (or, in wife-speak: cheap). A Jeep Grand Cherokee with sumptuous black leather seats and dominating everything else in the car park around it called out Buy me! Buy me! siren-like as I kicked its tyres (why do people do that???), admired myself in the rear view mirror and finally parted with some well-earned cash to a Saudi gentleman who appeared well resigned to the fact that I had used my well-honed bargaining skills to beat him down by a large percentage of his original asking price.

Within a month I was cursing the Jeep in language that I had previously used for my Honda. Certainly it was a monster on petrol, but given the fact that I could fill its entire cavernous tank for around SR25 (except when I drove it across the border into the UAE where the price suddenly shot up three-fold) this wasn’t too much of a problem. The continuous drifting to the right caused by badly adjusted wheel bearings was easily corrected by sitting hunched up against the door. And the steady drip drip drip of oil, which marked out the territory canine-like around my apartment was something I learned to live with. More problematic was the ever-present scrunching noise that occurred whenever I had the temerity to change up to fifth gear, and the suspension which felt as if I was driving a sofa down the King Fahd Highway.
One day, I decided to drive the 1,000 kms from Riyadh to Dubai across a corner of the Empty Quarter via the southern route through Al Kharj, rather than the well worn Dammam Road. It’s a beautiful drive on the Saudi side, through rolling dunes kept at bay by an army of workers from the sub continent spraying black oil onto the ever shifting sands. I would catch myself laughing out loud whenever I caught sight of one of the many signs that admonished the driver that there were sand dunes on either side of him…. Just in case he hadn’t noticed!
Another of my favourite signs awaited me as I drove through the farther reaches of Abu Dhabi. “Beware of Road Surprises” it read. I have always assumed this to mean “Be prepared for the unexpected”; but I always wonder who it was that thought it up; and further, why no one had the temerity to question it before it went into mass production wherever it is they make these signs.
On this particular run, I blew a tyre some 100kms from the Saudi/Emirates border; my battery went dead when I parked over night in Dubai and a sudden sand storm on the return journey frosted out my headlights to the point where it was almost impossible to drive at night time. I also had to top up the oil in four different garages on the way home. Beware of road surprises? I’ll say!
I got rid of the American monster soon after that and began my love affair with Korean boxes on wheels.

They may look boring, have zero sex appeal and struggle to reach 120 in under half a minute… but, by golly, they are certainly cheap.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Joys of Saudi Television

Saudi Arabia has changed a lot in recent years. I remember it was only in 2005 that there was an article in the papers about a man from Qassim who came home to find his wife watching TV. He filed for divorce on the basis that she had been able to see men on TV! Yes, really. The court had to explain to him that under Shariah law seeing a man on TV does not amount to infidelity! (Mind you, having coffee in Starbucks with someone you're not married to, does according to the laws of khulwa.)
I also remember watching a cookery programme on Saudi TV – a series in which the female chef was totally veiled and also wore black gloves (so she probably came from Qassim). It was so weird seeing a black blob hopping around the kitchen! The stove was absolutely filthy - probably afraid of getting her gloves dirty! Just the look of her cookery made you think you'd go down with chronic food poisoning!
Never did I think in those heady days that I would end up as one of KSA2's main English language news anchors. I was driving on the way back from Dubai to Riyadh – a 1000km journey - right in the middle of the Empty Quarter when my mobile phone went (the Saudis believe in being able to use their mobiles anywhere in the Kingdom, even if it is over 200kms to the next settlement). "Bonjour. C'est Monsieur Breeaaaaan Sawlteeer n'est-ce pas?" Well, luckily my schoolboy French came in dead useful and I was able to strike up a happy conversation with this guy who, it turned out, was responsible for making up the rotas on the English language TV station, even though he had learned French rather than English when at school.
It turned out that there were plans for KSA2 to go global, using satellites to beam their must-watch programmes into homes in Europe, America and Australia and someone had woken up to the fact that KSA2's news readers weren't up to much, certainly not on a par with other international broadcasters.
I was the Breeaaaaan Sawlteeer who used to broadcast on the BBC World Service yes? Yes I was. And you have trained announcers yes? Yes said I, forgetting to explain that they had been radio announcers, not TV. Good. Please come to our studios tomorrow morning.

So the next day at the allotted hour I blagged my way through the security apparatus and ended up in an office overlooking the TV Tower which dominated the old town.

Show me what your announcers are given to read, I requested and on doing so was in no way surprised that they made such a dog's dinner of the evening news. I spent the next three months training the newsroom on the rudiments of writing a news bulletin, and then started off training the announcers. It wasn't long after that that the inevitable request came for me to put in an appearance in front of the cameras.
Most of the equipment looked like stuff that had been discarded from the BBC over 20 years previously. (Not far out in my assumptions I later learned.)

Worst was the autocue pedal which regularly broke down while on air such that the words rushed up off the screen, or even started rolling backwards. Some of the newsroom staff insisted On TYPING EVERYTHING IN CAPITAL LETTERS which meant that many of the stories about American forces were a constant battle when trying to work out whether US meant 'us' or 'U.S.' and even to this day, if you want a good lesson in how NOT to read the news then tune in to KSA2.

I well remember one bulletin when the guy on the control desk was being let loose for the very first time. The 11pm news went OK and I think that’s when he started to get cocky. For the 1am bulletin – a 20 minuter – he missed the out cue of one of the VT inserts and let it play on…and on…and on until unceremoniously chopping it in mid flow. By then all the “timings” were well out. I then introduced a VT from Turkey. Nothing. Just my pretty face on screen.
“Go on” the editor said in my earphone. So I went on to the next story. Wrong! I was chopped mid sentence and the VT is played in. OK. I pick up at the start of the next story again and carry on. 15 mins later as all the timings are well out I get the message over the earphone “Cut all remaining stories.” So I drop the last three and lead in to the headlines.
“That’s all we have time for now, ladies and gentlemen. So to end the news let’s take another look at our top stories …..” and I sit…and wait … and look pretty… and continue to look pretty … and continue to continue to look pretty … and it dawns on me that the guy outside in the control room has no idea what is happening. The editor is obviously not up to much either (I found out later that he had given instructions to the rookie and then walked out of the studio leaving him to fend for himself.) And believe me it’s very lonely sitting on camera smiling at an unseen audience with nothing to say, having no idea what is going on and knowing the world is wondering also what is going on!
Eventually after 17 seconds – a lifetime – the headlines are faded in and I can continue to the end of the bulletin. The rookie is mortified and turns to face away from me when I exit the studio. The sound man has a good snigger and the VT guy has already disappeared. I smile and wave a hearty shukran as I walk out and go back upstairs to the newsroom which is deserted except for one of the editors who hasn’t even watched the bulletin as he is busy on MSN Messenger to a girlfriend on the other side of the world.
The next morning I went over to the TV station where, I was told, there was money waiting for me! This is the big moment I had been waiting for for over seven months. To actually get paid! Wow! Saudis, I should explain, hate parting with money, whether it is their own or somebody else's.
Now they have this system whereby you have to search for your name on hundreds of sheets of paper and find a number scribbled next to it. You then go to the cash office in the next corridor, quote the number and ask for your pay. So easy … you’d think.

Mustafa has given me a scruffy piece of paper (given its size, I think he was saving trees) with seven numbers scribbled on it. 867, 395, 410, 310, 775, 543, 109. And I was given instructions to go to the cash office where there would be a pile of money waiting for me. So I went along to the cash office where a scruffy bedou gabbled away in Arabic and shooed me away. What to do?
I went upstairs to the newsroom where the female (morning shift) editors were packing up. One of them offered to accompany me and translate. We went to the cash office. Wrong cash office! They had decided during Ramadhan that TV staff should get paid from a special TV cash office whilst radio and Information Ministry personnel could still get paid from the old cash office. We eventually find the new office back in the TV building.
The cashier bursts out laughing. “You’re not a woman!” he says pointing at me. You’re quite right, I reply. (What else would I have said?) “But now you go to the women’s cash office?” Turns out that someone “upstairs” has decided that keeping me waiting for seven months for my pay is a bit OTT and I should be fast tracked … and the only way to fast track someone is to enter them as a woman as they get paid quicker than men (don’t ask me why!). So I have been made a temporary woman!
I go with Tabasum to the female cash office. Ooops – there is a muttawah [religious police] raid on right at this minute so obviously I can’t go into the cash office. Tabasum goes in instead and comes out five minutes later to tell me that all of these numbers have already been paid out. Obviously the westerner is trying his luck trying to cheat the system but as the cash has been signed for (very sorry, we can’t read the signature!) I must leave empty handed.
Hoards of muttawah (oh, OK, three, but it still feels a lot) shout to Tabasum to cover her face and she turns away pretending not to understand what they are screaming. She takes me to see Mustapha, the newsroom fixer. He takes me to see Khalid, the cash office fixer. He bashes away at his computer and I am returned to male status once more. I am given a new number. Will this get me some money? Oh no. Maybe next week inshallah.
He bashes away on the computer again. Another number is produced. You take this to information ministry cash office and they give you money. Ahh. That’s better. I walk over to the Ministry building. “La la. Mafi hinah!” Back to Khalid. “Did I say Ministry? La la. I meant TV cash”. Back to TV cash office. “You’re not a woman then?” He opens a huge drawer stuffed full of wads of notes and lifts one out. This for you, he says. (A good feeling). And I am now led to believe that the other number that Khalid has given me will reward me with great riches next week (inshallah) – in fact possibly seven months’ worth of riches.
A few days later it was the visit of King Abdullah to the UK. I was on shift when he had his state banquet with Liz & Phil-the-Greek and because it was all happening right up until transmission, my long bulletin at 1am didn’t get the autocue script until seconds before going on air – in fact I was convinced I would have to read the whole thing off paper – but in the end up it came and I ploughed straight on in…with such gems as “the relationship between the Kingdom and the Queendom is..” (I was able to sidestep that little one!) and another: since the historic meeting between HM King Abdulaziz ibn Saud and Sirchil in 1945”. Sirchil? 1945? Ah. Easy (but they don’t ‘alf make it difficult when you’re least expecting it!)
Another time I had arrived back in Riyadh again, at a time the OPEC heads of state summit was disrupting traffic and the lives of the populace. The next day, I got home, made myself a lovely plate of mince and onions with macaroni and was just about to sink my gnashers in when the phone went. Saudi TV. “Hello Mr Brain. Keif Halik?” (oh oh they want something!) “Are you in Riyadh?” (they definitely want something) “Would you be available this evening at short notice?” OK. It’s a fair cop. Do they want me to read the 9pm or the 11pm news? It appears that one of their announcers who was due in at 9.30 is now not able to make it. Could I cover for him? (Ah. So it’s the 11pm.) Sure. No problems, say I feeling expansive. Is it both the 11pm and 1am or just the 11pm?
“La, La, you don’t understand, He was going to cover the OPEC summit. Now you can do it yes?” Er, what exactly do you mean “do it”? Do what?
“Oh you just have to introduce the programme, interview the guests, give some background about OPEC. That kind of thing. Mafi mushkillah. We know you can do it”.
Now just a moment there. You want me to present this evening’s analysis programme on OPEC? Yes that’s right. And when does it go out? 9.30pm (it’s now 6.30 pm). But I don’t know anything about this OPEC summit. I have been too busy to see the news today or yesterday. Mafi mushkillah we have a researcher for you. How long is the programme? Only 1 ½ hours! What !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Well against my better judgement I finally agreed and got changed into my glad rags. Pink shirt with a pink spotted blue tie. And though I say it myself I felt quite dapper. (In fact it was even commented on in the studio. “Not everyone could wear that and get away with it!” I was told.)
I managed to drive like a maniac and got to the studios by 7.30. Can I see what your researcher has got together for me? Answer: one page of the Saudi news bulletin. And this has got to fill 1 ½ hours????????? Are you mad? Ah we know you can do it Mr Brain.
I need to do my own research. I’m off to the news room. Oh sorry Mr Brain. The internet is down. But inshallah it will be back up again soon. What????????
So who am I interviewing? We have three guests for you. Yes, but who? They will be good guests. Yes, but who? Inshallah we will find out shortly (it’s now 9.10 and no sign of any guests.)
So I have the prospect of going on air in 20 minutes with no background to the summit and no idea whom I’m interviewing. Mafi mushkillah. We will tell you of course when we know. Don’t you know? Don’t worry Mr Brain. All will happen. Please to go in the studio.
I’m shepherded into the studio. 9.25. No guests. 9.28 no guests. We are told they have left the hotel. Inshallah they will be here soon. Just introduce the programme and we will bring them in when they arrive. Hey! No way! (I know what inshallah means in this place!)
9.30 comes and goes. At 9.40 an American Egyptian walks in. Do you know what is going on? he asks me? Nope. Nor do I. At 9.47 a Lebanese woman walks in. Do you know what is going on she asks us both? Nope. At 9.50 we are on the air. (Hey, what happened to interviewee no 3? He’s sitting in Cairo, I’m told with 10 seconds to go. No idea what his subject of expertise is. Come to that, I haven’t much idea what the other two can talk about either. But now we’re live!
Asalaam aleikum and welcome to a special programme yadda yadda yadda … say I and we’re off. Turns out we also have an ex Oil Minister of Kuwait on the line (kept waiting for 45 minutes as no one tells me he is there) plus there are three inserts from the Saudi Foreign minister and some vox pops etc.
And amazingly it all seemed to go OK. I dug right down into the depths of my memory and regurgitated Sheikh Yamani and the 1973 oil crisis (it helped that I had made a programme on this very subject some 30 years previously!); and remembered the book I’d read on the fall of the Shah in 1979 and was able to B_S my way through the programme. And before I knew it, 70 minutes had passed and I was wrapping up.
The interviewees said how impressed they were, and how well they thought it had gone. The producer who had avoided me at the start (wonder why!) came in to bask in reflected glory. And the biggest compliment came from the female interviewee. Not only was she managing editor of a business magazine in Beirut, but also of an events company in Bahrain. Would I be interested in chairing an international conference for them in the near future? She would eMail me with the details. (She never did.)
Ahhh. Saudi Television. Eat your hearts out BBC/CNN/Fox etc

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Delhi Diary

The Brain and his Delhi Diary
Another extract from Sushmita Bose's Blog that I wrote for her in May 2009

Are we at the airport yet? The taxi driver smiles, pointing out to Sushmita that we're still in Dubai. We won't be in Sharjah for a little while... and you'll know when we are.
He's right. Within minutes, as we cross the unmarked border into the second largest of the Emirates, the traffic snarls to the proverbial snail's pace, indicative of one of the biggest problems of trying to reach Sharjah Airport, which is home to the cheapo airline that I had the temerity to suggest to Sush we try out for our break in India.
To the uninitiated, Sharjah is known in some quarters as the armpit of the UAE - not unfairly, one has to admit. It's the only one of the seven Emirates which is "dry" and is renowned for its massive traffic jams, its hundreds of labour camps, its thousands of heavy lorries and equally heavy industries. Not a place one would immediately think of to spend a holiday.
But we've booked on Air Arabia to fly to Delhi, saving some 600 dirhams each (around Rs 8,000) on the Emirates price. Oh God - I won't last two hours here, Sush declares as she surveys the scene once we have finally arrived. Despite the traffic we have made good time and actually get there 15 minutes before the flight opens.

We are shown to a queue for early check in - but it's miles long and 20 minutes later we have shuffled only about two metres by the time I discover that by joining the Mumbai check-in we can be through in no time as they are happy to process us for Delhi.
The loos stink, Sush informs me, having checked out the plumbing once we are airside. Believe me, this will be the first and last time I come through Sharjah Airport! Even I have to admit that Sharjah's standards fall somewhat short of the dizzy heights of what Sush has come to expect of an airport. But there's one very good way of cheering her up.... We head for the food court. A choice of Indian, Chinese or McDonalds. No contest. With a reasonably good Dosa inside her insides, washed down by a coffee that appears to be the right colour at least, Sush is once more a happy bunny and heads for the Duty Free, where with obviously well practised ease she eventually returns clutching a number of plastic bags.
They sell booze in duty free! she informs me. (I am surprised, for as I think I might have mentioned, Sharjah is a dry state.) But there's a sign saying it's NOT for Muslims, so I guess that's alright. I wonder how they can tell what religion you are, she muses as we make our way to the gate.
We go through another security screening. Sushmita manages to set off all the alarms and is ushered into a tent where a cacophony of electronic squawks informs us that the female frisker is taking no chances with our beloved heroine.
Better check out the loo before we board the flight, as I don't want to be caught short once we're in the air, I am informed; and as she minces across the gate lounge, a hundred pairs of hungry male eyes avidly follow her route. One particularly greasy individual turns round to me and gives the thumbs up with a knowing leer, as if to say you've struck it lucky kid!
Air Arabia leaves on time and in our welcoming announcement we are informed that the cabin crew between them speak English, Arabic, Korean, Russian and Ukrainian, but alas... no mention of Hindi or Malayalam, so the vast majority of passengers have not the slightest idea what is being said.
We are given landing cards to fill in where it informs those interested enough to read the small print on the back that each passenger can import 2 litres of whisky or wine (no mention of gin, brandy or vodka) except for those under ten years of age. I half expect to see swarms of tipsy ten-year-olds being supported by their younger siblings when we arrive.
Time for a little sleep before landing in three hours' time. The crew turn up the heating to ensure the right soporific conditions are met and Sushmita curls up like a pussycat and is soon purring away contentedly.
In no time the lights come up again and we prepare for a bumpy landing. The stewardess informs us that mobile phones should not be switched on until we are in the terminal, but her announcement is drowned out by the Nokia theme emanating from every corner of the plane.
We wait for the HSBC-sponsored swing bridge to allow us off, but the HSBC controller is obviously still fast asleep and instead we climb down the steps into the cool of a beautiful Delhi morning and into an old beat up bus that struggles to make it into 2nd gear before depositing us around the corner at immigration.
Here we are met by a posse of officials wearing face masks and we all have to fill in forms stating our seat numbers and whether we have come from anywhere with suspected swine flu. Sush can't remember any of the flight details and puts down the first figures that come into her head. The medic affixes an official looking stamp confirming her details and I start to worry that should she go down with the dreaded disease, there will be no paperwork to show that I am the most likely passenger she passed it on to. Ah well, I must be brave!
I go to change some money. Four UAE bank notes from me exchanged for 117 notes depicting the Mahatma in a thick wad which I can scarcely fit in my pocket, let alone my wallet. I am reminded of that famous one-liner from Mae West: Is that a gun in your pocket or are you just pleased to see me? Well, I'm obviously pleased to catch up with our heroine once again as I discover her by the Duty Free (where else?) and together we set off into Incredible India.
Not a bit like I was expecting. I have been to Mumbai and also to Bangalore. Both those environments assault the olfactory nerves with their own strong characteristic odours, but not so Delhi. The traffic is a lot less manic too; and the cows wandering in the streets don't have their horns painted bright yellow as I witnessed in Karnataka. It feels almost like a different country.
Sushmita has persuaded one of her hapless friends - "Tiger" - to get out of bed at the crack of dawn and pick us up from the airport - a true gent and a saviour, and I am eventually deposited at a hotel I had booked just two days previously. The hotel can find no mention of my booking, but never mind sir. You can have an executive room and we will move you tomorrow into the room you think you booked with us. I get the impression that this is a regular occurrence with them and when I finally have to sign in to a massive tome that would be just perfect for pressing wild flowers, I begin to understand that computerisation of their booking system is not high up on their agenda.
I am shown to an executive suite - well that's what they call it ..."matchless in its understated elegance" ... (mine is the Greek Suite, so called, I suspect, because it boasts a picture of a statue with half its arms chopped off) and I begin to worry what their ordinary deluxe room will be like (perhaps a picture of a bar of soap?). Will its elegance also be understated? One of the tea bags on the beverages tray looks like it might have been used a few times too many, but I tell myself that as I'm paying only half the rack rate for this piece of real estate heaven in Delhi I'm in no position to complain.
Meanwhile a friend in Kashmir who was due to fly to Delhi to join us has discovered that a curfew imposed in the run up to the election means she can't get a flight out of Srinagar until the next day. Ah well, we can at least hope she will make it to Sushmita's BIG PARTY.
That evening I am taken to a slap up meal at Oh! Calcutta - the best Bengali restaurant in town I'm told. Don't ask me what we ate - Sush will have to fill that bit in, as I insisted she do the ordering. (The girl dun good!) But I'm left wondering if the restaurant is named after the town itself or after the 1960s Musical? I refrain from telling Sush what the origin of the musical name was as she is far too young and innocent to know about such things. (Hint for you ignorant shameless guys out there: try saying it fast and translating the resulting French into English!)
Sush, with Tiger's help, decides to teach me a few words in Hindi in the hope they might come in useful during my stay. When negotiating the fare with a cab driver, you should show him respect by calling him B.C., she patiently explains to me. (Of course, dear reader, it's not pronounced that way, but I have great difficulty spelling it in Hindi, and I am assured that it is normally shortened to this abbreviation). I try and commit to memory, but am sure I will forget by the morning.
The next day I leave Sush in peace and hire a car to show me the sights of Delhi. The driver decides he wants to take me on a tour of the factory outlets and promptly deposits me at a Kashmir carpet shop. No. No shops. I want to see Delhi, not carpet shops, I tell him. He starts to sulk and I wonder if I should use my recently gained knowledge of Hindi to cheer him up, but decide against it. What if he answered back, what would I say next?
So we take in the Bahai Temple, followed by the Qutub Minar, the Akshardam Temple -- (you want lunch now Sir? I take you to good restaurant, yes? No thanks, says I, wondering how much commission he has arranged with this particular joint... and he goes back into sulk mode) - Humayun's Tomb, Raj Ghat, Lal Qila (and all the time the driver stares ahead giving monosyllabic answers).
And then a miraculous thing happens. I get back to the car after seeing Red Fort only to find the driver has disappeared. He eventually reappears 20 minutes later with a load of shopping. He is 'devastated' that I have been kept waiting (do they get points deducted for not looking after their customers I wonder?) and when I ask to go back to the hotel he insists we go via India Gate. Of course I choose just that moment to forget my treasured new Hindi word, so instead of 'I say B.C. I insist on being taken to the hotel as I asked', I instead smile sweetly and come up with something along the lines of 'I say old man, would you be so good as to take me to the hotel as I asked?' We drive around India Gate and head for the hotel.
Good news awaits. My friend has arrived from Kashmir and is on her way over from the airport. Just in time for us to get picked up by Tiger and taken to where it is all happening. Sush has been working her fingers to the bone all day preparing for the party and we are let loose on scrummy biscuits topped with cheese, cucumber, tuna and tomatoes; the drinks flow freely;
Sush obviously chooses her friends from the best-looking people around (so great to know I'm in good company); the music blasts out to the night air. But alas like all good things it must come to an end and with tears in their eyes Delhi's beautiful people must be homeward bound. Tiger kindly insists on being a taxi driver (hey guys ... he's the best!) and at last I am snuggled up in my room of understated elegance dreaming of the morrow.
The morrow comes, but the Brain sleeps through the allotted hour of awakening and all his plans for the day go poof in a cloud of smoke. Instead he and lately-arrived friend make plans to cover ALL the must-see sites of Delhi that had been missed yesterday. Instead of an air-conditioned car with bolshy driver, we enjoy the open road in auto-taxis (note to non-Indians: these are the same as tuk-tuks in Sri Lanka and bemos in Indonesia, except that they run on gas and, it is said, are better for the environment!). We go to see the Tughlaqabad Fort ruins in all their splendid glory. We head for the India Gate, posing for pix, shoot up to the President's residence, pass the High Court, and go for some lunch in a restaurant that our auto-taxi driver takes us to. On to Safdarjang's Tomb and thence to the Jama Masjid. Surely we have covered everything there is worth seeing in Delhi by now?
No? No! For as we are at the Masjid, one thing I am told that should never be missed is the best Moghul cooking in Delhi - nay, India! Karim's boasts a continuous line of chefs dating right back to the days of the last Moghul emperor and it draws visitors in from far and wide. We take a rickshaw from the masjid and on arrival are shown to a grubby corner of a grubby restaurant and given grubby plates to eat off. But forget the superficial veneer. The grub (very un-grubby) is excellent. What a perfect way to end a first stay in Delhi.
So how did I find Delhi, your blog-readers are all agog to find out...... Weeeeell, it wasn't what I was expecting, that's for sure. There are some fabulous places, without a doubt, spread over a vast sprawl of a city with some beautiful areas surrounded by some not-so-pretty ones. The people I met were, as I just knew they would be, both charming and in many cases fascinating (and that goes especially for Sushmita's circle of friends).
But I wasn't expecting the blatant rip off-of foreigners in every conceivable situation, starting with the fact that almost all monuments charge, say 10/- for nationals and 250/- for foreigners. That's a whopping 2500 per cent for god's sake! AND they even charge an extra 25/- to take in a video camera to many of the monuments. Hotels have dual rates too; and the taxis, well I suspect the way they rip off visitors is similar to every other city in the world. But having a cabbie demand 800/- that costs anyone else 150/- (I end up paying 200/-) once again sticks in the throat. Even at the airport they don't accept Indian money from foreigners in the Duty Free shop (though it's OK for Indians apparently). And for me, this constant demand for extra money put a dampener on my entire stay in the city. When a city contrives to make its guests feel so unwelcome, one has to ask oneself why one would bother visiting it in the first place.
But a PS - when I came down to pay my hotel bill I was asked to fill in a questionnaire by a well heeled assistant in reception. I mention on the form that the food is well below standard and that over half the items on the room service menu are unavailable. At that point it descends into that famous Monty Python sketch where one person after another comes to apologise. First the sub manager is called, ringing his hands in woe; then the manager, promising he has never had ANYONE ever complain before. He simply cannot understand it. The Head of F&B is then summoned to explain himself. Can I give chapter and verse of EVERYTHING I found wrong with the food. (I don't have the time as I have a plane to catch!) And finally the owner of the establishment who is overwrought with guilt and contrition turns up and, I swear, looks as if he is about to burst into tears.
My bill is snatched back out of my hands and recalculated. Suddenly the room rate which had already been cut by 50 per cent has another 500/- taken off for each night's stay. A further 1200/- is deducted as a goodwill gesture. 250/- is knocked off my airport taxi bill.... (Maybe I should have mentioned the bathroom?)
Oh, and I never did get to find out what the picture with a bar of soap looked like as the hotel had waived the very idea of moving me to an inferior room. So perhaps all is not as bad as it seems in the state of India!

Thursday, April 23, 2009

The sad tale of trying to get an Indian visa…

The following is an extract from a blog of my friend Sushmita Bose that I wrote for her in April 2009.
Yesterday night at 9.54 pm, I got this email from Brian. Think I told everyone that Brian plans to visit Delhi next week and he's been trying to organise an Indian visa. I thought this was hilarious, so will leave you with this till I get back to Dubai. (He was nice enough not to call me up and complain, and instead sent me a hugely entertaining mail.) And please, please, let's just enjoy this and not detect racist undertones! Also, let's all pray that he DOES get a visa; he's supposed to fly out next Thursday night. Meanwhile, enjoy!

Hiya
Yesterday I set off for the Indian Consulate near the Creek which took me hours to get to in the heavy traffic. Parked in the grounds of the Saudi consulate (thanks Saudis!) and walked round the corner to the Indians who were totally unhelpful. Walked halfway round the building before finding a room at the top of a flight of stairs which said Visas. (Well, actually it didn't. A sign saying visas was pointing the other way, but as it was the only room which looked like it could be used for some kind of service I assumed it was this one.) Aha, thought I (well one does, doesn't one?) Is this the right place for tourist visas, asked I, eyes all a-flutter, broadest smile extended to a guy who was standing there, staring into space - or where he probably assumed space to be. No no. Not here. You must go Pose Offeece. But I've downloaded the forms from the web site. See. I have them here. No no. Pose Offeece. You go!
Well this didn't seem right somehow, so as I wandered yet more corridors I waltzed into one called Attestation and asked there. Tourist visas??? No. Upstairs, says Indian chappie pointing back the way I had come. Upstairs again. Visas?..... No. Pose Offeece. Go yes?
Brian goes yes. And out into the blinking sunshine again, round to the Saudis, retrieve car and wonder what to do next.
Brainwave. I will go to the Pose Offeece. (Now why didn't I think of that before?) I head to Media City where I know there is one. Hello. I'm trying to get a visa to visit India. Can you help? This is a Post Office. Yes I know that, but I was told you could help. No Sir. This is a Post Office. Goodbye. Oh OK. Goodbye.
I jump back into the Brainmobile and head for home. Get on the web. Indian Embassy in Abu Dhabi says residents of Abu Dhabi can get a visa in 36 hours. I fill out new forms with my old Abu Dhabi address (what a wheeze! No one will suspect a thing!) This morning I drive to Abu Dhabi. Park outside the Saudi Embassy and walk round to the Indian Embassy. (What is this relationship Saudis have with Indians?) A Filipino security guard assures me you cannot get tourist visas at the Indian Embassy. I assure him I know better as it says you can on the web site. Oh OK, he says, backing down in the face of my superior knowledge. That way....
I go that way..... No signs saying visa. Not even signs pointing the wrong way. I go to the Attestation office (thinks: what do they do in an attestation office???). I see an Indian version of Bruenhilde (ie you wouldn't want to cross her path on a dark night down an unlit alleyway). Tourist visas??? I ask with my number one you're-the-girl-of-my-dreams smile spread across my face. Ha ha ha. No no. You have to go to Empost, she explains to me. They changed the rules two months ago. Didn't you know? But the web site says I can get a visa in 36 hours here at the Embassy. Ha ha. Tsk Tsk. No no. Empost. You go to Empost. Geddit? Empost. I got it. Empost.... And off I toddle.
I head back home, only stopping for an obligatory Big Whopper at my favourite petrol station, drowning my sorrows in a regular coke with no ice. I get on the internet. Empost. Yes. There it is. Where it is? There it is not a donkey's shake from the Indian Consulate I was at yesterday. (I have now discovered that Empost and Emirates Post are two separate organisations. Strange, since as I found out later, they occupy the same building.)
I drive to Empost, entering the building which says Emirates Post and discover tucked right down the far end a small counter with an Indian skulking behind it. A sign says Incredible India. I take this to be a good omen. Tourist visas for India? I ask. Yessir, he says, brightening up now that someone appears before him who doesn't look like he is going to berate him for the machinations of the Indian Consular service. Please sit over there. I sit over there. 30 seconds later he invites me into the back office. How can I help you? I'd like a tourist visa for India. Yessir. What kind of visa do you want? A tourist one. Yessir. And what kind do you want? (hang on a moment. I'm getting feelings of déja vu.)
How many kinds of tourist visas do you issue? We don't issue them. Hmmm. I think we have a miscommunication problem. Errr, I'm here to apply for a tourist visa, say I proffering the forms to him. Yessir. Ah you want a six month tourist visa. Good. We're back on track. He fills in an electronic form getting the details from my form. Where did you get this form? Off the internet. But it's the wrong form. Oh you got it from the Indian Embassy web site yes? Yes. Oh you should have downloaded it from the Indian Consulate web site. They use a different form in Abu Dhabi. (I checked. They do. It says Abu Dhabi on top instead of Dubai!)
Never mind; my new Indian best pal pulls out another form from his desk drawer and asks me to fill it out for him. I fill it out. He asks for money. I give him money. It will be ready in three working days he says....which means you will have it next Wednesday. (huh? Three working days? Not sure I get the maths there.)
What happens if it is not ready by then? It will be. But what if it's not? It will be. But who can I call if there is a problem? There won't be a problem. Yes, but what if there is? Here's the phone number of the courier. But what if the problem is that the courier company haven't yet received the passport? They will have. I see this conversation going off into the sidings. Perhaps it really will be OK. But I'll be happier when I finally get the passport in my hot and stickies again!
And there was I thinking that US Immigration took a lot of beating!
Wish me luck!



Part 2:
Have you ever tried turning off the alarm clock only to find the ringing doesn’t stop? Happened to me this morning. At 7.30. (Ouch. Didn’t know the day started before 8 ). My phone was going (if I’ve told them once at the office, I’ve told them a thousand times….) But no, it wasn’t the office. That Mr Brain? Sure, says I, struggling to come to terms with there being daylight outside. We have your passport. Oh wow, says I… but it’s only Sunday today. Yes sir, It is Sunday (I can hear this guy wondering down the phone if this Mr Brain is thick or something.) Where are you today? I’ll make sure I’m here at home if you tell me when you are coming.
(Am I dreaming this? But no. The sun is still shining.) We will deliver to your apartment between 2 o’clock and 4 o’clock. Is that alright? It surely is, says I. I’ll be here.
Now, I’ve been trying to work this out ever since I handed my passport in on Wednesday last. I was told my visa application would take three working days … and that I would therefore get it back next Wednesday. Well, I finally figured that out. Three working days would include Thursday; not Friday, it being UAE weekend. Not Saturday nor Sunday (India weekend), so Monday and Tuesday and delivery Wednesday. Voilà. They don’t call me Genius for nothing (no I usually have to pay them first ). But now I was being told I would get my passport back today. Hang on a minute. They didn’t say I would get the visa, just that I would get back my passport. Worry, worry, worry. So much so that I couldn’t get back to sleep. And at 10 to 8 swung out of bed and into the shower. Six hours till delivery. Plenty of time to pop round to the office, dash into the supermarket and still be back with hours to spare. But first I can’t face the day without the obligatory poached eggs on toast; and coffee; and juice (not necessarily in that order) and then I check the eMails, and then find myself doing some research for the next article I’m writing; and before I know it half the morning has gone.
Ding dong. (I’ve never heard my front door bell before – only moved in to the apartment a month ago and no one has come round unexpectedly when I’m in before.) Good morning Sir. Your passport. (Hang on. It’s only 11.30. I wasn’t expecting you till 2. Ah well, no worries. I’m glad to have been in when you called.) Please sign here… and here…. And also here…. My signature becomes ever more illegible as writer’s cramp starts to set in. Thank you sir. Have a nice day. And you too, say I cheerily in the direction of a back that is receding fast towards the lift. I have been given a well-sealed see-through plastic bag. None of your cheap inferior quality plastic bags. No way. This would pass muster in a hospital, sealing some incurable virus from the outside world. Maybe they go to the same plastic bag supplier? Impossible just to rip it open. A pair of scissors is needed. I hack away, wondering what I will find inside.
And there, in my passport, affixed to the middle page of the passport (eschewing 15 empty pages before it and 13 empty pages after it) is my new Indian visa. Bliss. Relief. But what’s this? Not a two-visit visa as requested (and paid for). Not valid for six months as requested (and paid for). I had even told them I wanted to go back to India again in September. Nope. This is a multiple-entry visa valid for only three months. So I guess I will have to go through the entire process once again come the summer (I'll be older and wiser by then, of course!) But hey – I have my visa and I really am thankful for small mercies. So watch out Delhi…. here I come

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Concerto for Nokia and Orchestra

Is There A Local Word For Culture?
I was talking to an Emirati the other day about what in his eyes made the United Arab Emirates so special. His eyes lit up as he prepared to indulge in what appeared to be one of his favourite monologues.
The UAE, he intoned, has only been in existence for 36 years – yet in that short space of time it has given rise to one of the highest per capita incomes in the world whilst at the same time is a melting pot for nationalities from right across the globe. “Here you will find freedom of expression and huge opportunities for everyone, which is why there is such a huge influx of people and why so many people are making large amounts of money.”
I forbore to tell him that the money was in the main being made by the locals on the back of the hard work of imported labour – mainly from south and south-east Asia – who were becoming more and more disillusioned with the way ever rising prices were diminishing what was once an attractive get-rich-quick proposition but that now meant that many an Indian or Pakistani worker could in fact be better off if he found a job back home.
But his clincher really got me thinking. “You could think of the UAE as a cultural meeting point and here you will find cultures from right across the world are all well represented and embraced.”
Now, this was an argument that took me totally by surprise. I have lived in the Middle East now for nearly ten years – the majority of it in Saudi Arabia, where the local cultures are there for all to see and experience. Love it or hate it – and I have to say I am personally very enamoured of the Saudi traditions – you cannot escape the ever present culture of a proud people.
But the UAE? Apart from a few short dances involving Emiratis throwing model rifles in the air and waving their canes about, whenever there is a grand opening or a national day celebration or whatever, I had never thought of the Emirates as being cultured in any way whatsoever.
“Look what is happening in Abu Dhabi,” he continued, warming to his theme. “There they are building a new Guggenheim museum, which will stand cheek by jowl with a new Louvre. Go to the Emirates Palace Hotel where there is currently an exhibition of the works of Picasso. Or look no further than Al Ain where every year they have an international music festival which is vying for a place on the international music festival circuit.”
I could hold back no more. I have visited the Picasso exhibition three times and could count on the fingers of one hand the number of Emiratis I have seen there.
And this year I actually did go to the Al Ain music festival, unlike the majority of Emiratis. For nine days there was a series of concerts held in a variety of venues such as the Al Jahili fort – superb backdrops for what could have been some memorable evenings. But no, in fairness they were memorable, though not as high class cultural events, unfortunately.

On one evening, for instance, they had the first performance in the Gulf of Mozart’s Don Giovanni sung in Arabic. Singers had been imported from Lebanon and Egypt and the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra flown in from Poland to perform in front of the local sheikh, together with anyone else who cared to drop in for a bit of culture.
True to local tradition, the sheikh arrived about 40 minutes late, everyone followed in to take their places and the concert began. The sheikh appeared to enjoy himself and laughed at the bit where Leporello sings about the “conquests” of his master which include 1,003 seductions in Spain alone. (Could this have ever happened in Saudi? Well apart from the fact that concerts are banned in the Kingdom, who would ever dare perform an opera about a womaniser bent on seducing every female he meets?) But if said sheikh can laugh at the naughty bits, then it must be OK – so everyone else joined in the muffled laughter so as to be in with the crowd. With plenty of Yalla Habibis and Leporello hardly able to keep his paws off  Donna Elvira’s tits (got a good guffaw from Al Sheikh!) a good time was had by all.
No one minded when Don Giovani (also referred to as Don Juan in a couple of places and even Al Don - now that’s more like it!) laddered his pop socks when his sword got caught up in his costume. When the Commendatore was killed, they used a red sash to represent the blood covering his white tunic (no, not a dishdash!). Very convincing, until the red sash slipped off the body, and the body had to come to life again just long enough to move it back onto his chest!
It wa a shame though that come the interval the sheikh suddenly remembered a pressing appointment elsewhere and as he hurried off, so did the majority of the audience leaving the performers singing to a half empty house.
Fast forward two evenings to the first performance of بيتر والذئب - Prokoviev's famous children’s masterpiece Peter and the Wolf sung in Arabic. Here the rich tones of a famous Arab actor were accompanied by a student orchestra from Italy. He had a beautiful voice and it was quite poetic to listen to - he even did the duck and bird voices a bit like a tom and jerry cartoon!
But as the evening wore on, and as the next work to be performed was Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, a cacophony of mobile phone calls almost drowned out the strains of the orchestra. Concerto for Nokias and Orchestra might have been a better title for Beethoven’s classic. Emiratis, it appears, (and it was almost entirely the Emiratis who were behaving in this way) are inseparable from their phones, even when it involves interrupting a public performance to the detriment of everyone else.
So my conclusion from albeit limited experience here in the UAE is that the local tradition of throwing money at something, purely to proclaim to the world how cultured the Emiratis are, fools no one. And the relative handful of expatriates who actually bother turning up to these events only underlines how uncultured the place actually is.
A place on the international music festival circuit? Hey. Pass me my mobile phone. Just don’t make me laugh!

Monday, March 30, 2009

Driving in the Gulf

Driving in the Middle East has always been an adventure for me. I had my first taste of it when working in Jeddah in 1999 for the processed food manufacturer Savola (I was employed to install an intranet for them and to get their internal communications sorted out.)
They gave me a beat-up old Honda Accord. It had blood stains all over the ceiling and, I subsequently learned, had been stretched out after being crumpled in a fatal accident. "You learn to cope with Jeddah traffic in this, and then we will see about getting you another car," they said. I soon discovered why. In a city where it is considered sissy to move down from 5th gear when approaching a roundabout there are plenty of accidents occurring on a daily basis. Riyadh's driving is only slightly better, but it appears the further east across the Gulf that you go, the better the driving. The UAE is a beacon of good driving compared to that of Saudi – though it apparently takes the prize for having the most driving related deaths per head of population.
There are of course, many pluses – such as the price of petrol. In Saudi Arabia a litre costs you around 9 pence – reduced from a heady 12 pence by King Abdullah when he first ascended the throne. Over in the Emirates it is much more expensive. They sell their petrol in gallons still, but the price works out around 22 pence per litre. Servicing, too isn't astronomical, given they employ third world workers who are paid a pittance for putting in long hours. And although they eschew organisations such as the Automobile Association, that doesn't cause much of a problem, given the fact that if you break down by the side of the road, there is invariably someone who will stop to offer their help in a very short time.
One day I had an urgent appointment in Riyadh right the other end of town. I jumped into the car, turned the key and .....; I said, I jumped into the car, turned the key and .....; I SAID I JUMPED INTO THE CAR, TURNED THE KEY AND .... absolutely nothing.
Oh bother, thought I (a loose translation, obviously!) The beastly battery had died on me. What rotten luck.... or words to that effect. So I took my computer back into the apartment, returned to the car, dug out the jump lead and waited for a friendly car to drive along the road.
Now, dear reader, you should understand that in order to give the car maximum shade I (and all the other residents) parked at the back of the building rather than on the 'main' road (ie the side that used to have loads of dead palm trees since they had planted them before someone else had had time to install the watering system. Only when two of them had fallen over were they then dug out leaving no trees at all.)

This occurred during Ramadhan and what this meant in practice was that very few cars drove along this street in the morning since the vast majority of the neighbourhood were fundamental muslims and – like most Saudis – this meant that they slept during the Ramadhan days and only came out of their homes when the sun went down - a bit like Dracula, if you think about it. (Dracula with a thobe and ghutra?)
So there I sat and waited ... and waited ... and finally an old Nissan Cedric (a Middle Eastern classic) vroom-vroomed its way along the road and I jumped out and flagged him down much to his surprise. (What is this strange man doing up and about out of bed, he must have asked himself.) Unfortunately he didn't speak a word of English, but mafi mushkillah, on my waving the jump leads and pointing to the open bonnet of my car and muttering mushkillah, mushkillah kabir at him, he quickly understood, revved his Cedric round to my disgraced Kia and within half a minute two vroom-vrooms signalled all was now well. Off he drove after I had firmly shaken his paw and muttered my undying thanks, and I left the engine running while I quickly dashed back inside to grab my computer ... and off I drove to my appointment. Of course, by the time I arrived, all the people I had wanted to see had disappeared off. So I pelted off to a tyre workshop in order to get a new battery.(Well, where else would you buy one?)
The extremely friendly mechanic, who had been dozing in an old arm chair that had found its way into the garage (I obviously woke him up) didn't speak a word of English, and had obviously also been brought up in the think-of-a-number-and-double-it school of sales. Kam? asked I. He reached for his calculator (as they always do - for show I think) and punched in 360. La la, my good man, quoth I. Surely a mistake. Didn't you mean 200? Ah. Perhaps his digit had slipped a notch. Perhaps I would be happy to pay 300? How about 250? How about 260? Done. Shakes paw and said mechanic wields a bunch of spanners, extricates the old battery and throws in a new one with a seasoned alacrity that would have taken me ten times as long to achieve. Goldie growled once more into life and off I drove on a totally deserted road back to the apartment.
In stark contrast I had to visit a tyre workshop as one of my tyres was deflating every few days. It turns out there was a small nail embedded which they found when they removed the tyre, patched the inside, refitted the tyre, balanced the wheel and put it all back together again - 25 minutes which they sheepishly charged me SR30 for (about £4). You were ripped off, a Saudi friend told me over the phone later on!
The following week I had to drive to Qatar. I left Riyadh at 5am and got to the border quite easily by 10. And then it was time to run the gauntlet of the Qatari immigration. Perfectly charming as always - but oooooooh so frustrating. Last time I paid the visa fee of QR105 and all went well. Now they had a new procedure. You have to purchase a Qatari government e-card which you charge up with Qatari riyals and then it is used to debit the visa fee. All well and good - except you pay QR20 (£3) for the privilege of getting a card and then find you can only charge up in QR100 or QR50 amounts. Well, you've guessed it - as I had to pay QR105 I therefore had to charge it with QR150. So I had to pay out QR170 for a QR105 fee. Of course I could use the card next time I went to Qatar… in theory - but as there was only QR45 left on it, I would have to put QR100 on it and then there is only QR40 left after that visit. So nine visits more and it will have been paid off! You cannot use it to pay for some of the charge and pay for the rest with a credit card or actual cash. So I have never used it since then and it still sits forlorn and forgotten in my credit card wallet.

Leaving Doha the next day was very difficult with traffic chaos brought on by the closure of one of the principle roundabouts in the city, and I chuntered my way to the border through wind-swirled white sand throwing itself at the car. The poor girl in the Qatari immigration desk was obviously a newbie. You from where? she asked me as she thumbed through my passport. From England I replied. Why your passport it say 'Untied Kingdom' not 'Ingerland'? (What do you reply to that?)
Eventually she got herself sorted out, stamped the passport and I made my way over to the Saudi side, only to find a herd of goats had invaded the border crossing. I was stopped. Turned back in my tracks. It appears I had left Qatar the day before I had entered the country. At least, the stamp in the passport professed to that. They suggested I go back to the Qatari side and negotiate a new exit.
The Qataris found this wildly amusing. Passed my passport back and forth to one another enjoying the joke immensely. But eventually as the joke started to wear a bit thin they stamped it once more with the correct date and I returned to the Saudi side where the immigration officer waved me through with a big smile on his face. Such charmers those Saudi border guards!

Actually, Saudi border guards were always friendly. Not like some of the other countries in the Gulf. Maybe for them it was a chance to try out their English on the very few Europeans who drove through. Comments such as You know David Beckham no? were routine. As were Where your drink? (They really think people are stupid enough to tell them?) Now, to even think of importing alcohol into the magic kingdom is not something to be recommended to the faint hearted. Severe penalties are meted out to those who try and fail. But many do try their luck, given that the black market price for a bottle of bad whisky would set you back around SR700 (£110). In the UAE you can get a bottle of good rum for Dhs10 (£1.60) so the temptations are ever present.

Most Saudi border guards know all about whisky. Most haven't a clue about gin. So a story that might be of interest for the foolhardy…. BS drives up to the Saudi border post and amongst the usual pleasantries is asked Where's your drink? He points to the bottle of water on the centre console. No Sir. Where is your drink. He opens his cool box and points to the bottles of water therein. No no sir. Where your whisky? Mafi whisky. Oh. Alright. Off you go. And BS goes off, calculating his potential profits as he drives through the Empty Quarter on the way back to Riyadh.
Mind you, the Saudis do get their own back in their own kind of way. I was driving along minding my own business one day and a cop car pulls me over for ... I'm not sure what. He spoke not a word of English, demanded my licence and my istimara (car registration documents) and the next thing I know he hands me a yellow piece of paper and drives off. Well I know enough to understand that it's an on-the-spot fine but what for I haven't a clue. I don't know how much for either. And I was worried that I would need to go to the traffic police (no one there on my previous occasions when I tried to get a licence transfer speaks any English either).
Well, the next evening I went over for iftar to a friend's place - she had made some samosas with spinach & meatballs dripping in lemon juice. Luckily her Saudi friend Sallem was there too and he was able to make out what my traffic violation was all about - apparently I drove down a street the wrong way! Well, as I drive that same route almost every day I find this hard to believe, but it's just another example here of having to grin and bear it. So the next thing I have to do is to find out how much the fine is for. Easy. You ring a number, punch in your iqama number and you are told by an electronic voice how much you owe. So I did and found I owed nothing.
Luckily, before getting too cocky, I remembered that the iqama number on my driving licence is different from the one on my iqama as I had got the licence when I was with a previous company, whilst my present Iqama is registered to my present one. So I rang quoting the old iqama number and sure enough I owed SR300 – about £45.
Now the problem here is that if you owe a fine, you are barred from leaving the country. And as I had to go to Abu Dhabi the following night this could have been a problem. So how to pay the fine? Easy. you go to an ATM machine. Err, nope. SABB ATMs (part of HSBC) don't have the facility. Nor do Saudi-Fransi ATMs. You have to bank with Riyad Bank or Al Rajhi for that privilege apparently. So I spent the afternoon ringing round to see if any of the people I knew had those accounts. Nope. Mushkillah kabir! So finally in desperation I texted my sponsor – and he was delighted! I think it made him feel less of a prat for crunching his Mercedes in heavy Ramadhan traffic the day before even though I protested my innocence! Anyway, he did have a Rajhi account and promised faithfully to pay the fine for me if I paid him back within 24 hours. Which is what happened!
The following morning I off at the crack of dawn once more for the Emirates. As I approached Al Kharj the sun was about to come up over the horizon behind the water tower – a spectacular sight – and as I got into the desert, a large red ball appeared. Even more spectacular. An hour later a cargo train chuffed chuffed its way along the track sending up clouds of sand in its wake,
and then a whole load of camels followed it as if to say ‘what about us’!


Once again at the border the Saudi guards were very polite (and again I was asked if I knew David Beckham!) but on the Emirati side manners were visible by their absence and general lack of helpfulness and friendliness (quite normal as I found on all my encounters with Al Gubaibah border crossing and at Dubai Airport). And then, the lllllllloooooooooooonnnnnnnggggggggggg drive along the one boring road for 450 kms to Dubai. Every kilometre looked just like the previous kilometre. Excellent road; awful journey
I stopped at loads of lay-byes and drank loads of pepsi (which I’m assured keeps you hyper and stops you falling asleep. Actually Red Bull is even better if you don't worry about what it does to your insides.) I used to go to and fro over to Dubai and Abu Dhabi on an almost weekly basis, and with my imminent move to the UAE, had been shepherding the contents of my apartment across the border to put it in storage until such time as I officially started my new job.
Sometimes it was plain sailing down to Al Kharj (100km south of Riyadh), and then the winds would start up in earnest and a massive sandstorm would start blowing which at times meant you simply couldn't see the road which merged with the sand dunes. On one occasion I drove past the last petrol station without being able to see it and didn't realise for another 15kms until the tank was getting dangerously low. Luckily my GPS helped me out and I returned rather than risk running out in such awful weather. When I opened the window to say hi to the poor petrol pump attendant the car got a load of sand dumped inside!
When I started work in the Emirates. I had to get a UAE driving licence pretty quickly. My Saudi licence wasn't good enough. Mohammed (company driver) took me to the driving centre near the Mall of the Emirates where first I had to have an eye test. First I had to pass over my passport and UK driving licence (they didn't want to know about my KSA one) so that it could be translated into arabic - kerching. Dhs30. Then the eye test itself. Kerching Dhs 55. Sit here please blurble blurble blurble - {covers one eye} Sorry, I didn't hear what you said quoth I. That's fine {covers other eye} I now realise he had wanted me to read out some letters on the other side of the room. Which line do you want me to read? quoth I again. That's fine. I have now been rated with excellent eye sight (6/6 for both eyes) and in addition apparently have passed the Ishihara colour blindness test with flying colours (ho ho - my joke!) as well as being an exceedingly fit specimen.
So I am whisked into a HUGE room, given a number and told to wait ... and wait ... and wait ... for 3 hours! I finally get called and hand over my paperwork - a BIG NOTICE proclaims I need four photographs, a company letter to say I need a licence, and a few other things besides. Oops. But Mafi mushkillah. Only two pix required, no company letter asked for, eye test and translated documents barely looked at and the operator copied all the important info into her computer from my passport. Kerching Dhs110. Go other room, I am told. Sit down. Look at camera. Thank you. Wait. Mr Brain. Here is. One driving licence. Al hamdullilah - I am finally legal and am now allowed to buy a car.
A few weeks later I had to laugh. I went out to meet an Indonesian friend of another Indonesian friend who had returned to Jakarta a few weeks previously. This one is from Bali and very sweet. Finding her in Abu Dhabi proved to be a problem. I'm near the junction of Al Falah Street and 10th Street she said. Easy! thought I. Al Falah is also known as 9th Street which crosses Al Salaam (8th Street) whilst 10 Street is the main road that runs past Abu Dhabi Mall. Hah! Wrong. She was nowhere to be seen. After a lot of phone calls she said she could see the Etisalat building from her place. Clang! It means she had to be near Airport Road, alias 2nd Street alias Sheikh Rashid Street. The problem is that (according to my GPS) there are 98 10th Streets in this city and of course, being new here she had no idea about this and certainly had no idea which one. I passed eight 10th streets before I finally found the right one and we had to agree to meet at a McDonalds which we both could locate. It turned out she was nearer New Airport Road, alias 4th Street alias Muroor Street rather than Airport Road alias 2nd Street alias Sheikh Rashid Street. I wondered which was better – a town with many street names duplicated or a town like Riyadh where many streets had no names whatsoever. I'm still working out the answer to that.