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...

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Selling my baby - Dubai-style

I can’t imagine how I could have been so worried. I mean, I had four days left until my car insurance ran out. OK, so my car registration had expired and so technically speaking I was driving illegally, but that is par for the course in the Emirates, and only attracts a fine of 50 dirhams – or less than $14.

With no residence visa any longer in my passport, I was not able to renew the registration, so my poor baby would have to go.

My alarm went off at 8am. And it was the weekend! That’s how anxious I was. Before I even went to make myself some breakfast I thought I’d post an advert up for my poor baby; then I’d down some cornflakes and coffee, before cleaning her paintwork and readying her to take her over to the Mall of the Emirates where I would put her on display near the RTA car registration compound. 

It didn’t quite work like that.

Everyone who is anyone in the UAE knows that the way to sell things is to put adverts up on dubizzle.com and souq.com. Both web sites advertise for free, presumably to attract visitors in order to attract advertising.

At 8.45 I signed in to dubizzle and entered the vital statistics. Well, that is to say, I entered the information I knew. It asked how many cylinders the engine had and how many horsepower. As if I had ever checked! Sheepishly I ticked the ‘unknown’ boxes, determining to go and check on how many cylinders it had after breakfast.

I hit the ‘publish’ button and then entered the URL for souq.com. But before I had time even to enter the type of car on this second site, my phone started to ring. Have you sold the car yet? I want to buy it. Please take the advert offline and I will meet you in half an hour at the RTA.

Well, that wasn’t bad I thought! In fact how lucky was that timing? The caller sounded anxious to get it all done as soon as possible, and rather than lose a potential customer for the car I agreed to meet him, without even having any breakfast to send me on my way.

At 8.49 I took the advert offline as requested. That meant that it was online for four minutes. And my phone just rang solidly for the next three hours with everyone in Dubai seemingly wanting to buy my little beauty.

I hadn’t even removed all my junk from the inside of the car; hadn’t got round to washing it (there were sand streaks all over and it had a filthy windscreen); I hadn’t dug out my car registration documents or the maintenance record; or anything.

But I managed to get to the RTA at 9.15 and drove the car straight into the test bay area where I was met by Abdul. It was only at that point that I realised I had picked up the wrong file – my insurance file rather than the maintenance file. It doesn’t matter, he said. I’ll still take it.

Would he try to beat me down on the price? No. It appeared his word was his bond. He told me that he was a dealer and that he intended to export the car; as long as it passed its test, he would buy it.

At 9.27 the car was given a clean bill of health. Abdul had a word with one of the Emiratis behind the desk – I could see they knew each other well – and he told me that apart from my 50Dhs fine for late re-registration, I had no fines outstanding.

At 9.29 I was following him down Sheikh Zayed Road in the direction of Karama where we would ‘do the deal’. He drove a beat-up Nissan Tiida while I struggled to follow him as he skipped from lane to lane. We arrived in Karama at 9.45, parked the car in a lock-up garage and then I got into his car.

With no further questions asked, he started counting out a pile of 500Dhs notes, which I gratefully stuffed into my trouser pocket. (I thought of that well-worn joke… Female-to-male: Are you pleased to see me, or is that just a pile of 500Dhs notes in your pocket?)

We took off again in his car to another area in Karama and pulled in to a lay-by which was clearly marked Drop Off Zone Only. We parked and walked into a building where an Emirati was surrounded by piles of cash, piles of car registration documents and piles of Salik top-up cards.

It was here that I finally understood why the phone calls had almost all come from Pakistani-sounding voices. The Emirati obviously had a network of these people to scour the web sites for people about to sell their cars, jump in fast with an offer and then ship the cars out to Europe to make a quick killing. Abdul had already admitted that it didn’t really matter what type of car it was; they were always interested.

At 10.15 the paperwork was all completed, Abdul ‘generously’ said he would deal with the late registration fine and with a shake of the hand, I was out of the door and heading to the metro station. Just 90 minutes after first placing the advert!

An hour and a quarter later I was able to dig in to my cornflakes and coffee and outside in the street was an empty space where my poor beloved baby had been sunning herself for the past few weeks.

My poor baby. We had been through thick and thin together over the last three years. And now I would have to rely on the public transport system – at least until such time as I either got a new residence visa or left the country for pastures new.

Oh, and as a final postscript, I didn’t get asked by a single female on the way home whether I was pleased to see her. I guess that sums up my life right now!


I am grateful to my friend Irene for sending me the following pictures - it reminds me that one can cope perfectly well getting the shopping home without the need for a car...

oh, OK - maybe I don't normally go to Carrefour to bring home the bacon...

... but vegetables - well that's a different matter...

And of course, if I were to get lucky, the journey home could be quite fun as well...

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

It's ATM time ... yet again again again

Was it just me, or did anyone else this year find the Arabian Travel Market somewhat of a let down? The eight halls had a somewhat lackadaisical air of depression hanging over them and if ever there was a measure of optimism at an ATM show, surely the lack of giveaways this year gave the game away.

Sure you could pick up pens and chocolates, and pens, and, errr, chocolates, but no USB sticks whatsoever (is this a first, I ask myself) – no, not even shaped like a rubber map of Bahrain (see last year’s blog entry) – nor anything more exciting than a mouse mat from Hong Kong or a polo shirt from Sharjah. Oh ok, I admit it. I did get a keyring from Interlaken to add to my keyring collection.

The press room, too, looked an apology. No piles of press releases to tempt the scribblers with exciting stories to cover; but instead a never ending supply of Danish pastries to keep the stomachs from complaining. (Just how many Danish Ps can one eat in a day, I asked myself?)

The only real bit of excitement was when a German media hound turned away from the coffee table as a Lebanese hack pushed her way forward with the inevitable result of coffee stained skirt and trousers and a flurry of colourful language from the mutually non-comprehending natives.

Down on the exhibition floor, it was a case of searching hard for what took your interest. Yemen Tourism Promotion Board? No problem, according to the catalogue. Stand ME2490 in Hall 3. Unfortunately there is no stand ME2490. Never mind. How’s about a nice holiday in Chad? Stand AF350. I rush along in anticipation to see if I can put my name down for a journo fam trip. Hmmm. I have heard of being transparent in your dealings with the press, but isn’t this just a bit too transparent?

Maybe Tunisia will be more interesting? Well, it might have been if anyone were actually manning the stand…

But Iraq was still struggling to put on a brave face. They were delighted to have a visitor to their stand and I couldn’t get away for what felt like hours. You want to make a journalist trip to Iraq?  Of course we can accommodate you. Just tell us when you will fly over, where you will stay etc etc and we will be happy to help you. Hmmm… I’m afraid cheapo Brian was expecting something a little more from a Press trip guys….

Traditions still held up from last year, of course; but in a case of hunt-the-most-embarrassing typo the best I could come up with was a stand from Norway – or ‘Norwegan’ as it read.

And true to tradition, for the second year running, title for the most embarrassing costume had to go to the Dubai Shopping Festival…

…with Sharjah coming in a close second.

There were of course a plethora of eye catching costumes to, errr, catch the eye. As always Asia came up trumps with a Thai girl strumming some instrument

While the Malaysian stand spared no expense in bringing out their finery

Though this year, pride of place had to go to the Azerbaijanis

The Filipinos once again decided to promote their country with a relaxing massage centre on their stand. ‘Tips are welcome’ they hopefully suggested.

Well for what it is worth, here’s a tip: suggest to your masseuses that they get an early night tonight so they don’t spend the entire time yawning in front of their customers.

This year, too, there were a number of press  conferences being held, though much fewer than last year. As expected, Qatar Airways failed to disappoint. Well, nearly…. Because the exhibition’s opening ceremony, which included the red ribbon cutting, was unavoidably delayed, as the guest of honour apparently failed to make it out of bed, Qatar’s CEO, the irrepressible Akbar Al Baker, arrived at his press conference 22 minutes late. Just as last year, this seasoned pro soon had the assembled hacks eating out of his hand as he fed them one statistic after another, playfully putting down a Reuters scribbler who wanted to know more than he was willing to give away. Last year Qatar Airways introduced 15 new routes; this year it will be 14. There’s a new plane delivery on average every 18 days!

I remember at last year’s ATM, when QR was introducing its Buenos Aires route, it staged a mini floor show of a couple dancing the tango. This year, the Argentine stand also trotted out a couple of tango dancers who showed off their moves in the so-called Culture Zone.

There was no doubt about it – they were stunning dancers, and it was sad that the gawping Indians, of whom there were many present, seemed intent on getting their kicks from seeing flashes of the girl’s black knickers rather than from the amazing dance routines the couple trotted out. Certainly every time she raised a leg, their flash guns would explode in unison.

And finally, it just had to be the Australians, didn’t it, whose humour was verging on cruelty. As one passed their stand, it was impossible not to do a double take – and see this pathetic kangaroo strung up as if on a gibbet. I mean, how sad was that! Someone should have reported them to the animal rights activists who, I am sure, would have sorted the ozzies out. And doubled the number of visitors to their stand at the same time!

Monday, May 2, 2011

Emirates Airline - now I am beginning to understand why they are so expensive

I must be truly grateful to my dear friend Sushmita. Whenever she is able, she flies on Emirates Airline, paying through the nose for the privilege of flying with this second rate airline. She appears to love the experience, appears to love passing through the long retail corridor known as Dubai Terminal 3, and even upgrades to Biz Class when she wants to pamper herself… just a little more than normal.

I, on the other hand, am (normally) a die-hard Qatar Airways aficionado. I can’t stand the Emirates experience and cannot understand why anyone would pay well over the odds for second-rate service. (Example: Typical Dubai to Hong Kong return with Qatar = 2900Dhs; with Emirates = 4200Dhs.)

So it was so good this evening to know that Sush’s hard earned money was being put to good use: in this instance pampering my taste buds and filling my stomach with prandial fare from around the world.

On the evening before Arabian Travel Market kicked off, Emirates Holidays decided to have a shindig to which were invited.. what… nearly 1,000 people? I duly picked up Sush at the appointed hour and chauffeured her in the style to which she has become accustomed to the Asateer – that flagship offering at the outrageous Atlantis Hotel, a specially constructed tent that is normally put up for Ramadan iftars, but for which the Atlantis is obviously hoping to get its money’s worth by using it at other times of the year to pour alcoholic beverages down the throats of its partying guests.

No one appeared to worry for one moment who we were. There were no written invitations; no one wanted to know who we were, why we were there or what connection – if any – we had with Emirates. It was one of those grand receptions where no one really knows who is receiving whom. But no worries. Tray-loads of red (Chilean) beverage, white (Chilean) beverage, brewed beverage, distilled beverage and – yes, I’m sure I spotted some – zero-percent beverage were thrust under our noses as we wandered into the grand marquee which had ice sculptures liberally scattered around the place with large fans directing some of the chilled air conditioning in their direction to slow down their inevitable self destruction.

The place was filled with tables stretching to the horizon, each place setting boasting not one, not two, not three, but four glasses together with what must have been equivalent to Sheffield’s annual output of cutlery.

Of course, we all know there is no such thing as a free meal… and in this case we had to sit through an entire 10-minutes’ worth of prizes being handed out to Emirates’ sales reps and other notable worthies in the Emirates empire. First prize was an all expenses trip to Hong Kong to stay for three nights at the Island Shangri-La Hotel. Sush and I exchanged glances. How much better it would have been if they had sent them to the better Shangri-La on the other side of the harbour in Kowloon, (where, incidentally, Sush and I had first got to know one another on a press trip all those eons ago.)

The prize giving firmly out of the way, it was time for the real reason people had turned up – to stuff themselves as fully as possible thanks to the ill-gotten profits made possible by such hapless regular flyers as Sushmita.

We were told there was food from all corners of the globe, representing the myriad of locations served by Emirates. And as promotional videos showed off tempting holiday locations from the Emirates catalogue of far-flung places, we gorged on lobsters and steak and lamb and fish and loads of I-have-no-idea-what-on-earth-that-is-but-hey-I’ll-try-some-anyway-morsels. There was even a strawberry tree boasting gob-stopper sized strawberries from which one could help oneself;

or a marshmallow tree; or a meringue tree and sweets of every description. 

Being one to push his luck, I asked one of the poor waitresses, who looked like her feet could have benefited enormously from some TLC, whether we were able to get a cup of coffee to wash it all down. An embarrassed look – but only for a couple of seconds until she composed herself. I’m sure her training taught her that the customer must always be pampered and if he wants a cup of coffee, then she will find a way. She did find a way. About ten minutes later she reappeared with two cups of very tepid Nescafe (Had she had to go all the way over to the main part of the hotel for us? We would never know); so I thanked her with my devastating smile that has cheered up so many hapless waitresses over the years.

The ‘cabaret’ for the night (for want of a better word) was a band called Vibrancy which we were told was Dubai’s favourite band from the Jam Base Bar in Souk Madinat Jumeirah. (Did Jam Base have any other bands, I wondered?)

But the excitement was too much for Sushmita and me. We decided to let the young socialites trip the night away as we slipped out into the hot night air (my glasses immediately steaming up, necessitating a quick wipe over with my hankie)  and waited a mere four minutes as the valet parking attendant went to retrieve the car from 100 metres away.

As a marketing exercise, I’m not sure Emirates got value for money. But I’m sure the Atlantis’ bean counters will have been very happy from the evening. They, and a thousand stomachs of course.