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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.