Monday, December 29, 2008

Season of goodwill

The Goatmobile is back from its 120,000km service. That’s a major, and therefore expensive, event. I was delighted to get the car back on Christmas Eve, the same day I’d dropped it off. A lot less impressive was the unexpected Dh40 additional surcharge.

So why is the Goat bleating on about Dh40 after lashing out nearly two grand?

Because someone stole it. That’s why.

At service reception I was advised to remove the small change that’s been coalescing over the years on the console. It’s for feeding Dubai’s and Sharjah’s ravening Pay and Display machines. I was astonished to have accumulated about Dh80 in one dirham coins. Rather than rip my pockets to shreds, I concealed the cash in the car but out of sight of any potential self-help merchant. The service receptionist said that only the cash was an issue; I wouldn’t need to remove my off-road recovery stuff, camping gear and all the other useful odds and sods that live semi-permanently in the Goatmobile. This was just as well because I’d failed to bring my spare garden shed.

Picking up the car, I noted that half of the coins had grown little legs and wandered off. This was confirmed by the service receptionist who agreed that the the ‘after’ pile was only half the size of the ‘before’ pile. I announced in my usual stentorian style that there was a thief in the workshop, and was immediately ushered into the manager’s office where the other customers couldn’t hear of this embarrassing occurrence. Clearly the thief’s pathetic attempt at subterfuge – only nicking half the cash so it looked at first sight like nothing was missing – had failed to pay off. The manager was hugely apologetic, and said that he’d review the CCTV and check with the guy who’d serviced with my car to see if he was weighed down with an implausible quantity of loose change.

I pointed out to the manager that I wasn’t hard up for Dh40. I didn’t want the thief prosecuted: season of goodwill to ALL men and all that. But I did want him to know that he’d been caught. The manager said that he’d phone me to let me know what he’d discovered. I’m still waiting for the call. Big surprise.

Yes, the fault is mine. I was warned to remove the money and I chose to do otherwise. And no, I don’t want the cash returned. The thief can put it into a charity box. I find it beyond comprehension that anyone would risk possible prosecution, imprisonment and deportation for such a paltry sum. But the biggest issue, aside from theft being just plain wrong, is the betrayal of trust. I have no idea where to get the Goatmobile serviced in future. I need to find a place where I can actually trust the people who are doing the work.

I mean, how can I trust someone with my brakes if I can’t trust him with my cash?


Saturday, December 20, 2008

Vandalism is theft

If you were careless or foolish enough to leave your wallet lying around on your desk or in the street, you might not be surprised if some self-help merchant helped himself to the contents. The act would be theft: taking the property of another with intent permanently to deprive the rightful owner.

When I came back to Beloved Wife’s car in IKEA’s car park a little while back, I was very disappointed to discover a pair of deep scores across the bonnet. Evidently some overloaded shopper had staggered out of IKEA and used the bonnet as a handy shelf to put his or her shopping on while rummaging for car keys. Sliding the shopping off the bonnet left a pair of parallel scratches. I was incandescent with fury! After I’d tried and failed to deal with the scratches with coloured polish, the car eventually and inevitably ended up having the bonnet panel resprayed. Ouch, my wallet!

Is it reasonable to interpret the car damage as the same as theft? I think it is. Choosing to repair it reduces brass in pocket just as effectively as getting robbed. Failing to have the repair done reduces the car’s eventual trade-in value, making the financial effect much the same. Remember, this not fair wear and tear. It’s additional and unnecessary extra depreciation.

I see very little difference between someone nicking Dh1000 out of my wallet and someone else doing Dh1000 of damage to my car. Anyone who has ever had to fork out for a session in the automotive body shop will realise that Dh1000 doesn’t actually buy very much in the Departments of Panel Beating and Paint Spraying. The primary difference is that if you catch a thief, the full weight of the law drops upon him as if from a great height. Compare this with the victim of a vandalised motor vehicle, who is advised to go and get a life. Remember Jayne’s Hubs’ Harley? That was even worse than my experience: malicious damage rather than incompetence, and a hugely expensive custom spray job rather than a stock colour.

Motor vehicles can be a particularly emotive subject when damaged. But I ask the “Get a life” brigade, what if the target of the damage is your prize tomatoes or your recently repainted garden wall? What if a hacker trashes your website?

Incidentally, while randomly surfing the net, I found links to a product that, if it works, would be very useful.


Thursday, December 11, 2008

We've got you covered

After my recent experience at Welcare – the aching and numbness has gone now, thanks for asking – I made an appointment to see a doctor for a wholly unrelated medical issue. Let’s call it foot ‘n’ mouth. Only the name has been changed. And the symptoms. There are no lurid pictures from the Tropical Diseases House of Horrors either.

I turned up at Welcare and proffered my medical insurance card. Last time I did this, all medical bills were paid directly and painlessly by the insurance company to the clinic apart from a Dh50 deductible excess. This time, the receptionist looked down his nose at the card.

“Your complaint is not covered, Mr Goat.”

“Excuse me? I have already checked the list of specific exclusions on my policy and as foot ‘n’ mouth isn’t a self-inflicted injury, cosmetic surgery or a dental complication it’s not excluded. Please check with the insurance company.”

“There’s no need. Foot ‘n’ mouth is never covered.”

Anyway, having made the appointment I found out how much it would cost in full and I had the treatment. Ouch, that stings. And so did the treatment.

A week later I’d been through the medical insurance policy with a fine-tooth comb. I had the same argument at Welcare, but this time I managed to get, along with the invoice, a doctor’s note detailing the treatment. This I submitted to the medical insurance company who confirmed that foot ‘n’ mouth was indeed covered, and that I could expect a cheque for full reimbursement, less the Dh50 deductible.

A month later I have the cheque. As well as the Dh50 compulsory excess, the company deducted 20% “because you didn’t show your insurance card at the clinic.” Well I did, actually, but Welcare refused to accept it. They lied to me. They failed to check when I queried their disingenuity. And anyway, the small print says that costs at Welcare are 100% recoverable.

The foot ‘n’ mouth has now cleared up. Yet I am still battling to recover sums owed to me in accordance with my contract with the medical insurance company. What a pity that the clinic and insurance have together conspired to make the financial side of healthcare so unnecessarily complicated.


Thursday, December 04, 2008

Infamy, infamy

I see Michelle Palmer has at last spoken out concerning that 'beach romp' incident. It was, we're told, "...a stitch-up from day one."

All's well that ends well, however. According to this, large sums of money are likely to change hands for lurid "My Hell in Al Slammah" sensationalist journalism. But given the high profile of the case, wasn't this inevitable? Half a million quid each for Ms Palmer and Mr Vince Acors for getting boozed up and then not having sex. I wonder if there would have been nearly as much media attention (yes, including this blog) if the authorities had merely pursued charges of Drunk and Disorderly, Offensive Behaviour and Assaulting a Police Officer? I suspect not, and in any case there would then have been no accusations of a cultural schism; those three charges would probably earn an arrest anywhere on the planet.

Nevertheless, given that the deportation sentence hasn't yet been carried out, I would counsel Ms Palmer to keep her beans thoroughly unspilled. It is not too late to face new charges of perhaps 'showing the UAE's legal system in an unflattering light.'

I am irresistably reminded of Queen Elizabeth in Blackadder II when she advised Lord Percy: "It's up to you. Either you can shut up, or you can have your head cut off."


Tuesday, November 25, 2008

No lane, no gain

Bus lanes, those single lanes of highway pavement for the sole use of buses, perhaps taxis, and in some cases bicycles and motorbikes, are an inexpensive urban traffic management measure that can relieve congestion. If the buses aren’t being held up by other traffic, they can stick to their timetables and consequently offer an attractive alternative to the private car. Bus lane critics, including such luminaries as A. Tom Topper in his bookVery Advanced Driving’ (ISBN 0-7160-2127-7) are very keen to note with considerable envy the strip of asphalt that spends 80% of its time empty when it could be full of Land Cruisers. Actually, the envy is more closely related to “If only I, and I alone, were allowed to use the bus lane I wouldn’t have to queue.” What these detractors fail to realise is that a single bus can successfully remove up to around 70 cars from the road.

Of course, a bus lane can only succeed if it is always empty of delivery vans, cars parked just for a minute outside the shwarma shop, and the car driver who apparently believes that he’s driving a bus.

I applaud the decision and eagerly await a dedicated bus lane between Sharjah and Dubai. But what I await most is how other traffic is going to be kept out of it. Police presence perhaps? That’ll work for a week or so, until Plod gets fed up with standing around with a big bag of Black Points to dispense. A camera on a stick doesn’t seem to eliminate driving on the hard shoulder, so why should a bus lane be any different?

The only solution I envisage working is a dedicated lane, kerbed to keep other vehicles out, and with some form of smart barrier. There would have to be lots of “Buses only. No other vehicles allowed, on pain of getting your car kebabbed” signs. The bus has a transponder that drops the barrier, which shoots up the moment the bus clears it and impales any following vehicle. This video clip shows the deserving victims of such a barrier in England.

To be honest, I look forward to the Schadenfreude of seeing an impaled Mercedes, BMW or even Sunny.

Incidentally, I wonder how long it would take for the appropriate transponder to become available to any self-styled V.V.I.P. who fancied one?


Saturday, November 22, 2008


Regular readers of this blog will both notice that there have been some subtle changes. Thanks to Keefieboy for pointing me at the new Blogger template.

The system for adding Gadgets looked easy - right up to the point when I tried to reinstall the ClustrMaps map. I tried and tried to write the widget, but the HTML code wouldn't play. This despite my having cut and pasted the entire template of the old blog on to a text file first. Getting the disclaimer footer displayed at the bottom of the page was easy; why was the ClustrMap being so obstinate?

Eventually I discovered the correct Add A Gadget: One of them is for inserting Java/HTML. After pasting the HTML into there, the rest was easy.


Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Signs of the times

The commute from The Crumbling Villa into Sharjah used to be relatively painless, and even now certainly beats the Sharjah Schlepp past Al Mulla Plaza every morning. There are, however, a couple of hot spots caused by queues of cars on Sharjah Ring Road. The thing is, in order to turn right, loads of drivers seem to think that it’s perfectly OK to queue in the left-hand lane of the motorway and push in at the end of the diverge taper. From time to time, Plod stations himself at the diverge splitter, but this causes the four-lane traffic jam to merge into a single lane about 300m further upstream, just far enough away that Plod can’t read the number plates.

Thus Muggins, who does not wish to turn off, nevertheless gets stuck behind those who do.

And then at the north end of the ring road the situation is reversed. The population of Sharjah converges on Safeer Mall and makes a U-turn to head south and thence into Dubai. Both lanes are packed solid, plus two lanes of traffic on the service road, to say nothing (or at least, nothing polite) of the occasional imbecile trying to drive the wrong way up the service road.

Up until recently, I used a rat-run around the back of Safeer Mall, along with the small number of Sharjah-bound commuters. Then one day, I noticed new burqa-clad traffic signs on part of the rat-run. Inferring from the shapes under the bin liners that a one-way street was about to appear, I found an alternative route to work.

Sure enough, a few days later the signs were unveiled, and one of Sharjah’s constabulary was waiting at the junction with Al Ittihad Road to dish out tickets and Black Points to those who hadn’t noticed or had chosen to ignore the new road signs.

And, in keeping with local custom and practice, after a week or so the novelty wore off. There is now no police presence, and this pointless and malicious one-way street is being ignored. Once the signs disappear I’ll be back on that route.

Perhaps drivers simply don’t understand the traffic signs. This is very odd; as an educational feature the Sharjah Police website offers a multiple-choice traffic sign test that includes the following gems which are entirely appropriate for the Middle East.

In other news, I am at a loss to understand the reasoning behind the Sharjah Police recent decision to regulate the evening commuters’ merge on to the Emirates Road. I presume that somewhere there was a decision. My guess is it that came out of the same Good Ideas Lab that had National Paints Roundabout shackled with road cones apparently solely to see what would happen.

For several days last week the southbound carriageway of Sharjah Ring Road was jammed solid. Half an hour to travel 500m, except for those who used the breakdown lane with impunity or shoved in at the last moment. And at the front of the queue? A police car parked on the Emirates Road merge taper and a uniformed officer standing on the roadside waving vaguely at the traffic.

I am pleased to note that the novelty of this has also worn off. For the past couple of evenings there has been no police presence on Sharjah Ring Road, and no traffic jams either.


Sunday, November 16, 2008

Up, up and away

Beloved Wife and I finally managed to use the wedding present given to us by our friend Syl. I had known since way back that Madame was interested in going hot-air ballooning. Syl pipped me to the post, giving us a voucher for a private flight, good until the end of 2008.

The voucher had been pinned to the corkboard in the Crumbling Villa for months. We were too busy in the spring, and hot-air balloon flight isn’t possible in the UAE during the summer because the air outside the balloon is as hot as that within. Something about relative density, I believe.

Beloved Wife telephoned Amigos Balloons early in November and fixed a date, subject to weather. The air has to be fairly dry, cool and not hurtling along at twenty knots. We were kept on tenterhooks until after 9pm on Friday before getting the ‘Go’ message, because Friday afternoon had been a tad breezy.

Our pilot collected us from the Crumbling Villa at an unholy 5:30am on Saturday morning, and we drove to Tawi Nizwa to meet his ground crew who were busily inflating a 75000 cubic foot nylon bag with air, using a fan attached to a petrol lawnmower engine. Then the propane burner was lit and the air in the envelope gently warmed with a 3m long roaring flame.

Within a minute or so the balloon was upright, into the wicker gondola we climbed, the tether to the support vehicle was released, and the pair of us along with our pilot Tariq floated buoyantly up a thousand feet or so to see sunrise over Jebel Buhays (N25º01' E055º47' approx).

Apparently it’s possible to control, or at least to influence, the direction of a balloon’s flight by varying its altitude. Wind direction varies with height above the ground, and in order to go in the correct direction our pilot took a low trajectory, scooting level with and just to the north of Pink Rock (aka Qarn Maliha, N25º01' E055º44' ish).

So we got to see sunrise again, over Pink Rock. And then a third time, having dropped to merely a few dozen feet above the dunes.

Apart from the regular intermittent roar from the propane burner, the flight was uncannily quiet. We whizzed along at an average of about 9kph. Beloved Wife expressed a preference to this over dune-bashing – partly because of the view but mostly because of the smoothness of the ride, and of course you don’t get sand in all your bodily orifices.

LOST: Recently abandoned...

...and miles from anywhere

Our nominal one hour flight ended as smoothly as it began. The ground crew was waiting for us just on the Sharjah side of Tawi Nizwa with picnic chairs and tables laid out for a small buffet breakfast. See: I said the pilot could control direction. The crew grabbed on to the gondola, and as the hot air was vented we touched down on to the sand. Then after toasting the end of the flight with an anonymous fizzy drink that can only be described as ‘green flavour’, Madame and I had our breakfasts with Tariq, received our novelty Certificate of Ascension: “This is to Certify that Madame Cyn and the Grumpy Gaot [sic] slipped the surly bonds of Earth…etc” while the crew rolled up the balloon and put it all away. The whole thing: envelope, gondola, fan, gas burners and bottles all fit nicely into the back of a small pick-up truck.

I think we need to go ballooning again sometime. Thanks, Syl.


Saturday, November 08, 2008

My eyes are fully open

If I had the misfortune to live in a flat in Sharjah
Where a beer is not permitted, and the rent is getting larger,
Public transport's non-existent and my bicycle's illegal,
And to get to work on time I'd have to turn into an eagle,

I would leave at 5am, sit in my air-conditioned motor,
(A Ford perhaps, but probably more likely a Toyota),
And listen to the radio or maybe read the paper,
And learn about the latest, tallest, most expensive caper.

But it really doesn't matter (matter, matter, matter, matter)
But it really doesn't matter (matter, matter, matter, matter)
When transportation is the only thing of which we chatter,
If they make it any worse, it isn't really gonna matter.

The RTA's solution that is offered for the crisis
Is to get us all to understand that public transport nice is
If you never have to take an awkward package to Jumeira
And the bus is never late (a situation getting rarer)

And there isn't any problem walking to the metro station
Where you loiter in the heat with folk from every other nation.
Capacity exceeded on the first day of the service?
If I had thought it up, I would by now be getting nervous.

But it really doesn't matter (matter, matter, matter, matter)
But it really doesn't matter (matter, matter, matter, matter)
The RTA executives, all led by Mr M*****:
They know it all, and everybody else just doesn't matter.

There isn't any way you can avoid the toll called Salik
So you pay and shrug your shoulders in a manner that is Gallic.
You can pay again each year when you go off for registration;
You can pay to park the car - but there's no parking at the station.

If you want to share commuting costs, you'd better have permission,
For control by Central Government is all part of the Vision,
And if you've any money after paying this year's rental
You can buy some local real estate, assuming that you're mental.

But it really doesn't matter (matter, matter, matter, matter)
But it really doesn't matter (matter, matter, matter, matter)
You thought you'd get a visa if you went and bought a flat, or
Spent your money on a villa. Were you madder than a hatter?

This particularly rapid, unintelligible patter
Isn't generally heard, and if it is, it doesn't matter.

Idea, rhythm, tune and last two lines pinched from W.S.G. and A.S.S.


Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Petrolhead central

Believe it or not, marshalling a desert rally is rather more than simply turning up on the day. A lot of people spend many, many months behind the scenes agreeing routes, obtaining permissions and dealing with competitors’ applications from the GCC and abroad. This was my fourth consecutive year spent in Liwa for the whole event, and my third in an official marshalling capacity rather than as a groupie.

Ron, the Desert Challenge Chief Marshal, contacted me a couple of months before the event to ask if I’d co-ordinate the scrutineering marshals. He needed a responsible person and, because if anything ever goes wrong I’m normally responsible, I was the ideal candidate. I sent out several email lists at various times, and eventually had around twenty volunteers who would show up at Dubai Marina (DIMC) on the Saturday preceding the rally. Actually, there were more than enough marshals for most of the day, which was ideal for the motorsport fans who wanted to chat with the teams and take photos.

FIRE ENGINE: At the scrutineering. UAE style

During the week of the rally I was allocated to the Start Team. To tell the truth, I’d volunteered before realising that this entailed camping in the desert and getting up so early it felt like it was before bedtime. At least the Prologue was on Sunday afternoon.

Just a note here that this long and rambling blog is a ‘what I saw’. For actual rally results and drivers’-eye views you can check the teams’ own words from the hyperlinks I’ve scattered around. The final results are here

The Prologue is the opportunity for the general public to see an entire rally stage. This year the venue was at the Jebel Ali hotel on the off-road bike track where what used to be called ‘scrambling’ takes place. The circuit arguably offered a distinct advantage to the local bike and quad pilots who race there regularly. The track itself was very lumpy with plenty of chances to get airborne. With hairpin after hairpin it was going to be very tricky to negotiate in a car or a truck.

I ended up starting the whole thing. Consequently I was stuck away from the action and my camera, setting each competitor off. Bikes at 30-second intervals and cars every minute. The Chairman of the Organising Committee, the man who invented the UAE Desert Challenge, Mohammed ben Sulayem, actually waved the flag, but as he couldn’t see the official clock he took his cue from me. Mohammed commented that he liked my hat: a natty red and white number with embroidery and something to keep the sun off my neck.

Monday saw the start of the special desert stages. A ceremonial start occurred at Abu Dhabi’s Emirates Palace Hotel, after which the competitors headed down to the start of the first Special Stage, near the Al Wathba minus-seven-star resort and spa. Again at 30-second or one-minute intervals the racers were set off on a long zigzag route that would finally end near Hmeem at the eastern end of the Liwa crescent.

Meanwhile, after the last racer had gone, the Start Team packed away, collected the prodigious quantity of empty water bottles and other refuse, and set off by pylon track and road to see the end of the Stage. I briefly sneaked off to help an Abu Dhabi TV film crew who had mired their Land Cruiser not half a mile from the start. After pulling them out, I politely suggested that going and buying a tow rope might not be a bad idea.

Near the end of SS1, there was the opportunity to observe some nutter from the Magic Kingdom driving in the sand in his Lexus.

MAGIC DRIVING: From the Magic Kingdom. And completely stock vehicle too, apart from when the back bumper fell off

Special Stage 2 was due to start early on Tuesday morning about 30km up Madinat Zayed Road at the other end of the Liwa crescent. We just about found somewhere suitable to camp near the start before night fell with a dull thud.

Tuesday dawned about an hour after we were all up and at ’em. It transpired that my airbed had a puncture so I was in for an uncomfortable few nights. Attempted repairs with gaffer tape and vinyl glue were doomed to failure.

We had to be ready this and every morning at least an hour before the first competitor was due. And this meant that a five o’clock alarm call constituted a lie-in. Two people greeted each competitor and tried to get them all to queue up in their start order, two more operated the arrival time control (ATC) and a further couple ensured that each racer set off exactly to time, five minutes after entering ATC. This is as per the Rules.

We made a point of greeting each competitor every morning with a smile and a few words, and wishing them all good luck. It’s appreciated, apparently.

I learned that the Team Saluki was out on Day 1 after holing a piston, and Team FJ’s co-driver Tim had been hospitalised after crushing a spinal disc. Ouch! Tim had an operation on Friday to insert a shim or two and is currently out of hospital and walking wounded.

The silence is deafening after the last vehicle has departed and all the litter has been collected. We struck camp and headed off. I went to watch some of the racing in the hope of taking some photos. Then I headed to the bivouac at Moreeb Hill to use the facilities and to gas up. Then it was back up Madinat Zayed Road to camp prior to setting up the start of Special Stage 3.

An even earlier start on Wednesday. Special Stage 3 was a very long and hard route, heading west and crossing the Ghayathi road several times. Like SS2, it finished at the Moreeb bivouac. I managed to get a couple of photos, and then had to deflate the Goatmobile’s tyres to escape from a powdery bowl and get back on to asphalt.

AIRBORNE: The UAE's Ali Al Shawi and Yahya Al Amri get some air

Special Stage 4 started very close to the bivouac, and therefore entailed an exceptionally early start. Crack of sparrow-fart? Who was I kidding? The sparrows hadn’t even finished their refried beans. The preceding evening we pitched camp near to the start and headed off to the bivouac for some food. Not good food, but at least it was warm, nourishing and there wasn’t any washing up. Then back to the campsite for G&T.

As was usual every evening, all the Start Team sat and socialised. There was no moon, and in the absence of light pollution the stars were very clear. I haven’t had a decent look at the Milky Way for several years. Naturally, astronomy was one topic of conversation. Other topics were eclectic, ranging from the fuel management computers on an Airbus, through Beach Romps, to some extremely politically incorrect jokes that I can’t possibly reproduce here. I think we even discussed the rally itself from time to time.

We fully expected fog in the early morning and a consequent delay. You can’t race in the fog because it’s impossible to see where you’re going, and the safety helicopter can’t take off (or more importantly, land). Miracle of miracles: no fog! We finished by just after 9am, meaning that a quick trip to the bivouac got me the remnants of breakfast, such as it was.

NewTrix Racing later declared the stage as ‘faultless’, although there were certain confessions later involving having to reverse out of a bowl, and a minor dent to a Pajero. I finally had time to get my camera set up and took some photos.

BOWLER: Mr Bowler's Nemesis

FLIGHT: David Donald gets airborne

HOT PURSUIT: A Baltic Bug, (Corrected. Thanks Ian) being hotly pursued by Minky Botha and Peter Rutter

MORE PURSUIT: David DeSouza follows Sean Curnow

PANTECHNICON: Three vodka-fuelled Russian nutters

NEW TRIX: Giving it some stix

Sitting in the shade of the Goatmobile, someone approached me and asked if I was the Grumpy Goat. He’d recognised the snorkel and bumper from here. Outed in the desert! Hi. Thanks for the positive feedback.

As Special Stage 4 finished near Hmeem at more or less the same place as SS5 would start on Friday, the Start Team rendezvoused (that can’t really be a word, can it?) after SS4 finished. I took the opportunity to get out of the sun for an hour. I parked under one of the Hmeem Road underpasses in the shade – and the flies – and jotted the first draft of what you are now reading.

Thursday night was the last night of camping, and it turned into something of a session. It was just as well the start was over 100km from the bivouac because it took a while for the competitors to arrive. We had chance for a serious lie-in and didn’t have to be mobile until 5:45.

Special Stages 5 and 6 aren’t too exciting. They’re a means to get the racers back to Dubai. But they’re still competitive stages nevertheless. Immediately after breaking camp, I hit the road to be back at DIMC in time to help marshal the vehicles prior to the Ceremonial Finish.

FINAL FINISH: Cooling down at DIMC

After passing through the finish gate, I directed all competitors into a Parc Fermé. This is a fenced area where no-one is allowed to go until after the official scrutineers have decided whether or not they need to re-inspect any rally vehicle. The public, and more importantly the teams, aren’t allowed the opportunity to remove any illicit performance-enhancing goodies that might accidentally have stuck to their cars during the week. The Parc Fermé was finally opened at around 7pm, and I crawled off home for a shower and early night.

That was Friday. On Saturday evening Mohammed ben Sulayem hosted a party in his back garden on Palm Jumeira to thank the marshals. I’ve never been on the Palm before, and found the traffic signage extremely confusing. I finally got on to the relevant frond on my third attempt at driving up the trunk. Oh, and I wasn’t the only confusee, so it’s not just me.

As for next year, it seems unlikely that DC09 will be in October. Abu Dhabi is hosting a Formula 1 in November 2009. The Desert Challenge may therefore be preponed (is that really a word?) by half a year or so to March or April 2009.

My new air bed is poised and ready.


Friday, October 24, 2008

Mad rush

The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy explains the function if the Ident-I-Eze card like this:
    There are so many different ways in which you are required to provide absolute proof of your identity these days that life can easily become extremely tiresome just from that fact alone, never mind the deeper existential problems of trying to function as a coherent consciousness in an ambiguous universe.

    Just look at cashpoint machines, for instance.

    Queues of people standing around waiting to have their fingerprints read, their retinas scanned, bits of skin scraped from the nape of the neck and undergoing instant genetic analysis.

    Hence the Ident-I-Eze.

    This encodes every single piece of information about you, your body and your life into one all-purpose machine-readable card that you can carry around in your wallet, thereby representing technology’s greatest triumph to date over both itself and plain common sense.

The Emirates Identity Authority is administering this. In keeping with traditional local custom and practice, nothing happens for ages, and then an ambiguous piece of legislation suddenly pops into existence requiring instant action. Gulf News records the problems people are having trying and failing to register on line. And 7DAYS, under the headline threatening “Jail for false info” says that “Professionals such as doctors, lawyers, engineers and teachers will all have to have ID cards which will contain face and fingerprint scans, passport and driving licence details, their addresses and residency status.” Along with allergies, sexual orientation, political persuasion and religious beliefs. I might be making up these last few.

After paying the Dh100 tax fee, the card will have to be shown for “…any kind of negotiations with government departments or banks.” and when …“opening a bank account, visiting doctors, registering for a mobile phone or registering children into a school.”

There will no longer be a need to produce a passport and visa copy when registering the car, applying for a phone or electricity service, or renting a flat. Well, that makes it all worthwhile, doesn’t it? Assuming, of course, that the jobsworth behind the counter doesn't continue to demand the passport copy in addition to the ID card because he's not been instructed otherwise. And I bet every official will need a photocopy of the ID card too; whizzing it through a card reader will certainly not be inconvenient good enough.

As for the sudden mad rush, what’s wrong with including the ID card process with Residence Visa applications or renewals? To simple I suppose. Too obvious, and far too sensible.


Thursday, October 09, 2008

Armageddon outta here

The current headlong rush towards global financial meltdown and supposedly the biggest crash since 1929 provides expatriates with food for thought. My guess is that a lot of us are here in the middle east at least in part because the salary and benefits exceed those we could get back home. And this in turn implies a certain level of saving might be happening. Certainly there are plenty of investment opportunities, with financial advisers available to direct savings into what are touted as high-yield tax-advantageous investment plans. Bank accounts that are fully legal yet invisible to high taxation regimes may be exploited, and these are surely bulging with wads of everyone’s hard-earned filthy lucre.

What happens if a bank goes bust? Well the money vanishes, doesn’t it?

Apparently not. A rather alarming letter in 7DAYS reports that 75% of the first £20,000 is safe with HSBC. That’s alright then: of my one million dirhams (Ha, ha!), if HSBC experienced fiscal Armageddon I’d be sure to receive Dh102,000. Eventually.

I rang HSBC to find out the truth. There was no reply from the branch other than a recorded message advising that I should call the phone banking help desk. There I was told that there was, to the best of Ms Helpdesk’s knowledge, no structure in place to protect depositors’ savings. Despite promises to the contrary, no-one from HSBC has contacted me to allay my concern. None of these experiences has served to boost my confidence.

I suggest that unless a bank - any bank - can offer its customers some guaranteed security, depositors will inevitably withdraw funds to protect themselves against loss. If one bank offers security and another doesn’t, it isn’t rocket science to work out the likely trajectory of clients’ savings. Thus the prophecy of doom becomes self-fulfilling.
    This post edited on 13 October to add that on Sunday evening I heard reported on Dubai Eye (103.8MHz) that the federal government had undertaken to guarantee deposits on banks operating within the UAE. Although local banks only were explicitly included, the interviewee (whose name I didn’t catch – sorry) stated that international banks with a local presence were included. Offshore funds were not.

    In today’s press we learn that UAE banks are protected but that foreign banks are excluded from this government protection.

    No, wait! For a period of three years, foreign banks are protected.

    Different versions of the same rumour, as per usual. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
Maybe I should have bought real estate. Or, after reading this rather scary article in Gulf News perhaps not. Immovable property in the UAE is even more difficult than bank accounts to sort out after someone’s death, and getting a Will into a format that UAE courts recognise is complicated, time-consuming and expensive.

What possible incentive do I have to invest in this country without guarantees of financial security for either myself or my heirs? I might as well store the cash in old socks under a mattress, but I’ll obviously not state here which mattress. Or perhaps instead of saving for the future I should enjoy a riotous and profligate lifestyle today. I mean, if the bank goes bust I’ll lose my deposits so I might as well be up to my eyeballs in debt. If I die here, my estate will be frozen for years by the courts, so I might as well have nothing to bequeath.


Sunday, October 05, 2008

Bait and switch

We spent Eid Al Fitr in Cyprus. Having decided that it’d be a marvellous place to have our dream home, Beloved Wife made several appointments with various estate agents and land owners, I used a local contact to find a Cyprus contact, and off we flew. Business Class there and back (ouch my wallet) because those were the only available seats. Once I’d booked and paid for the tickets, Beloved Wife’s employer in his mercy then decreed that her office would be shut all week. I had to reschedule the outbound flight. Gulf Air wanted an additional fee to change the booking, “but you can pay this at the airport.” What no-one told us was that paying at the airport required an additional fee of Dh100 per person to be paid to DNATA as a service charge for doing precisely nothing.

Another thing that no-one had told us was that 1st October is Cyprus National Day, and everything would be shut. So our appointments to see all the land we’d arranged to view became rushed. Some holiday! We left the allegedly two- or three-star hotel immediately after our mediocre breakfasts and didn’t get back until well after dark.

Five days in Cyprus were extremely instructive:-

  • “Hotel has Wi-Fi internet access.”
    “There is Ye Olde Dial-Uppe computer in the foyer.”

  • “Hotel has all air-conditioned rooms.”
    “If you want us to turn it on there’s an additional charge.”

  • “Hotel has a swimming pool.”
    “Blue-tiled rectangular hole with some temporary fencing around it.”

  • “The plot is gently sloping.”
    “I’m trying to sell you a near-vertical cliff face.”

  • “Power and water are nearby.”
    “There’s an electricity pole about half a mile from the bottom of the aforementioned cliff face.”

  • “It’s this piece of flat ground as per the plan.”
    “The plan is wrong. It’s actually this cliff face overlooking the motorway.”

  • “The plot is 820 sq.m”
    “By the time the access road is built this 650 sq.m plot will reduce to 535 sq.m”

  • Cutting a long story short, we eventually found a perfect plot in a lovely location near Pafos. The land is fertile, a vineyard, reasonably flat, there’s decent road access and nearby power and water. It’s also big enough for our fantasy home with land enough for grapevines, fruit trees and livestock. It's close to a village but not on a housing estate. Beloved Wife and I discussed the finer details with the owner, developer and agent, after which I told them that we had a deal and would approach a solicitor to deal with purchase and transfer of land title.

    And then on Saturday morning as we were on our way to the airport the agent rang to say that there had been a ghastly mistake. Despite all financial discussions being in Euro, the published adverts being in Euro and the agent showing us a plot guided by our budget in Euro, we were told that the figures quoted had all been in Cypriot Pounds. A 71% increase. The C£ currency has been obsolete since January 2008. It took me about an hour to adjust to Euro; apparently it takes certain oleaginous and serpentine individuals more than nine months to make the adjustment.

    Apparently the adverts are all wrong and the land owner has tried to get the figures changed. But he never said so to our faces.

    Relating this sorry tale of the retail snake oil trade to the proprietor of a Larnaca taverna, his reaction was that the C£ is dead and, I quote, to “Tell him to piss off.”

    Quite. We’re still looking for appropriate land. Dependent on what the agent comes up with, I reserve the option to revise this blog with ‘name and shame’ hyperlinks. Their uppance will come.


    Wednesday, September 24, 2008

    The Omnivore's Hundred

    Keefieboy found this one chez Jayne. It's irresistible.

    1) Copy this list into your blog or journal, including these instructions.
    2) Bold all the items you’ve eaten.
    3) Cross out any items that you would never consider eating.
    4) Add comments to taste
    5) Optional extra: Post a comment at Very Good Taste

    1. Venison A big steak, with black cherry sauce. Mmmm!

    2. Nettle tea

    3. Huevos rancheros

    4. Steak tartare Yummy! A big slab of raw steak is better than mince, though.

    5. Crocodile

    6. Black pudding Straight from the fridge, or fried, and even à la thermidor.

    7. Cheese fondue I had to do something with that device off the Conveyor Belt.

    8. Carp

    9. Borscht

    10. Baba ghanoush

    11. Calamari

    12. Pho

    13. PB&J (peanut butter & jelly) sandwich Yes, but I hate the texture of peanut butter.

    14. Aloo gobi Not a fish dish.

    15. Hot dog from a street cart

    16. Epoisses A cheese I gotta try.

    17. Black truffle No, but I once had a very gritty truffle omelette.

    18. Fruit wine made from something other than grapes Lurgashall Winery

    19. Steamed pork buns

    20. Pistachio ice cream

    21. Heirloom tomatoes Probably. I've eaten some weird-shaped tomatoes in my time.

    22. Fresh wild berries Some blackberries even made it as far as jam-making.

    23. Foie gras

    24. Rice and beans

    25. Brawn Tried it; hated it.

    26. Raw Scotch Bonnet pepper

    27. Dulce de leche

    28. Oysters

    29. Baklava

    30. Bagna càuda Oh, no! Anchovies!

    31. Wasabi peas

    32. Clam chowder in a sourdough bowl Try it here. Half a point for sourdough bowl. Shellfish makes me ill.

    33. Salted lassi I prefer it plain. In a pint tankard.

    34. Sauerkraut

    35. Root beer float

    36. Cognac with a fat cigar

    37. Clotted cream tea With a Cornish father, how couldn't I?

    38. Vodka jelly

    39. Gumbo Full of seafood, innit? Not a chance.

    40. Oxtail Only in the eponymous soup.

    41. Curried goat Both knowingly and I suspect as alleged 'mutton'.

    42. Whole insects Only by accident while motorcycling wearing an open-face helmet.

    43. Phaal
    Obvious reference to this.

    44. Goat’s milk Full-fat, skimmed, and cheese. Yumm!

    45. Malt whisky from a bottle worth costing £60/$120 or more Only once, and only a teaspoonful.

    46. Fugu Poisonous blowfish? I'd not touch that even with your bargepole!

    47. Chicken tikka masala

    48. Eel Nassssty!

    49. Krispy Kreme original glazed doughnut Way too sweet.

    50. Sea urchin

    51. Prickly pear

    52. Umeboshi

    53. Abalone Seafood, innit?

    54. Paneer Also known as cottage cheese.

    55. McDonald’s Big Mac Meal Seldom. And only to remind myself why I don't do Mucky Dee's.

    56. Spaetzle

    57. Dirty gin martini

    58. Beer above 8% ABV Goodbye braincells, I must leave you...

    59. Poutine The Canadian cheese-curds-and-chips, or poutine râpée: potato and pork dumpling?

    60. Carob chips

    61. S’mores Like hot Wagon Wheels, no?

    62. Sweetbreads

    63. Kaolin With morphine. But not coming in Dubai on pain of four years in Al Slammah.

    64. Currywurst

    65. Durian Had to try it while in Singapore. Leaves me underwhelmed.

    66. Frogs’ legs

    67. Beignets, churros, elephant ears or funnel cake

    68. Haggis And neeps and tatties too. Washed down with whisky.

    69. Fried plantain

    70. Chitterlings, or andouillette No, but they're sausages, n'est-ce pas?

    71. Gazpacho "Waiter, this soup is cold!" - A. J. Rimmer, BSc SSc

    72. Caviar and blini Salty blackcurrant jam and pancakes? Not together.

    73. Louche absinthe Makes the heart grow fonder, perhaps?

    74. Gjetost, or brunost A goat's cheese I ought to try.

    75. Roadkill The pheasant was full of bone shrapnel and completely inedible.

    76. Baijiu

    77. Hostess Fruit Pie

    78. Snail Described by my host as "Garlic-flavoured India-rubber."

    79. Lapsang souchong

    80. Bellini

    81. Tom yum Only the seafood-free version.

    82. Eggs Benedict

    83. Pocky

    84. Tasting menu at a three-Michelin-star restaurant I wish!

    85. Kobe beef

    86. Hare Jugged, and just the once.

    87. Goulash Features regularly in the Crumbling Villa.

    88. Flowers Does cauliflower count? I assume the beer does.

    89. Horse

    90. Criollo chocolate

    91. Spam Straight from the tin, or fried, or deep fried in batter ex chip-shop.

    92. Soft shell crab

    93. Rose harissa

    94. Catfish

    95. Mole poblano

    96. Bagel and lox Half a point for bagels?

    97. Lobster Thermidor No, but how about black pudding thermidor? See #6.

    98. Polenta I have eaten and enjoyed grits and gravy, the North American version.

    99. Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee

    100. Snake

    Additional from Keefie:
    101. Deep-fried Mars Bar Try this once. Twice if you like it and three times if your arteries are still flexible.

    Additional from the Goat:
    102. Kangaroo Skippy, Skippy. Skippy the bush barbecue...

    Only 52/100 (or thereabouts) off the original list. Is that all?


    Sunday, September 14, 2008

    O Fortuner (Goddess of Fortune)

    Four cars met at Dragon Mart EPPCO early last Saturday morning for an impromptu bimble. The Yellow Box Of Doom, resplendent in its new Cooper STT boots, and with co-pilot was one team. Team Tumnus, comprising the Goat and his co-driver Madame Cyn were in the Goatmobile. The Glabrous Driver and his sister Lindsey and brother-in-law Sean were in a rally-prepared Fortuner with the rear bumper held on with luminous yellow gaffer tape. Dimitri and Ruth turned up in a stock Prado. Four cars in, all based on the same engine and chassis, and - eventually - four cars out.

    We deflated at Big Red and headed off in a southerly direction. My plan was to travel roughly parallel to the Maha Desert Resort fence line so that there would be a reasonably easy bailout if everything got too hot. We would gradually get closer to the fence until at 11am or noon we'd hit the track and drive easily out to the Al Ain road.

    Bearing in mind the relative inexperience of the party I deliberately avoided the high dunes, and instead wove the caravan of Toyotas among the low dunes. Everyone remembered what I'd managed on a previous ME4x4 outing and I was very keen not to repeat this, or worse.

    And then came the first stuck. The Glabrous Driver tackled a small bowl not quite quickly enough. The Fortuner was trapped and going nowhere. Wisely, the driver called it quits there and then, instead of spinning the wheels and digging the car down to its floor pan. This made the recovery much easier.

    Attaching a strap between the Fortuner and the YBOD, the latter's vigorous tyre treads got excellent grip on the hard sand outside the bowl and in 4WD (Low Ratio) the Fortuner crawled out.

    Sean then took over in the Fortuner's driving seat. He and Lindsey are in Dubai on holiday, and Sean was itching to have a go. I bore in mind his likely inexperience and tempered the route accordingly. There were a couple of inevitable minor crestings, easily handled through careful application of recovery kit.

    GOLDEN SHOWER: Of sand, of course

    For demonstration purposes only (yeah, right...) the Yellow Box stopped on a flat crest of soft sand and proceeded to use its extra-knobbly tyres to dig itself to an immediate and embarrassing standstill.

    MIRED: For demonstration purposes only...

    I towed the Yellow Box out, and was then treated to Dimitri impersonating Аэрофлот Российские авиалинии. Regrettably I wasn't quick enough with a camera as the Prado sailed across my bows over a metre clear of the nearest grain of sand.

    Then, with the Maha Resort fence mere metres away the Fortuner underwent complete electrical failure.

    JUMP START: The Yellow Box of Doom helps out

    Out came the jump leads. No effect. The battery was as dead as flared corduroy trousers. The Glabrous One protested loudly that it couldn't possibly be a dead battery because it had been replaced with a new AC Delco only six weeks previously. I disagreed, citing in evidence something about a witch's tit. We'd have to tow the car out. For those not in the know, it is nigh on impossible to tow a dead car through even small dunes without a balloon-tyred Unimog (or similar approved). The boys all crowded around the dead engine bay while the girls retired to air conditioned comfort. Not that the Goatmobile had any effective airconditioning, but more of this anon.

    Someone had the brainwave of swapping some batteries around to try to get the Fortuner at least on to the track. The Yellow Box was selected as the donor vehicle from a host of applicant, so was duly parked on the track, and the batteries were swapped. It was possible to drive the Fortuner straight out, and eventually to get the YBOD to go, even with a duff battery. Huzzah for big jump leads. The Hatta road was closer than the Al Ain road, so we headed north along the fence line, even stopping near the northern end to have a look at some oryx. Lindsey had wanted to see camels, but in my opinion (I'm biased 'cos I live 'ere) oryx trumps camels any day of the week.

    ORYX: Or in Arabic: al maha

    As we reinflated our tyres, YBOD reported that the allegedly new battery, still in his FJ, was definitely suspect. We all headed back to town, interrupted only by having to stop a couple of times to apply more gaffer tape to the Fortuner's increasingly moribund back bumper, before restoring both batteries to their original vehicles. I would have said, "Home for tea and medals", but as it was by then an early afternoon in Ramadan, I can't.

    Later that day and purely by chance, I ran into the Glabrous One in Yellow Hat. They had immediately swapped the offending battery, declared it dead, apologised profusely and agreed to provide a replacement under warranty.

    As for the Goatmobile's air conditioning, this works fine at highway speeds but is useless when stationary or at dune-bashing speeds. The car's booked into the workshop. It's likely to be expensive, and is regrettably most certainly not under warranty.


    Monday, September 08, 2008

    Dimensional anomaly

    Grand Cinemas in Ibn Battuta Mall has the first, and as far as I know the only, IMAX cinema in the UAE.

    So, when Journey to the Center of the Earth, a film that has been deliberately filmed in 3D, is released, it is screened by Grand Cinemas in the imax, right?


    Kung Fu Panda and The Dark Knight are screened in the imax, in 2D, and Journey is only available on ordinary screens.

    The local film review spots on the local radio stations made a big thing about Journey's third dimension, yet at no time did anyone mention that the film was only on release in standard format. "In 3D in selected theaters" says the poster. Yeah, right. Selected from a list entirely outwith the UAE.

    I don't expect wonders from Journey. Some of the Rotten Tomatoes reviews appear to suggest that it's a fairly ho-hum popcorn adventure movie, but that it really should be viewed through those special glasses.

    But I wonder how many punters paid for their seat, fizzy pop, nachos and popcorn and were then bitterly disappointed when the main feature started?

    What doesn't help is getting, as I did, a confession from the box office: "Well, I said it was in 3D, but actually, now you ask again I have to admit that it isn't. But the special effects are designed to look like 3D, which is more or less the same."

    Disingenuous tosh is alive and well. It has a job in Ibn Battuta shopping mall.


    Thursday, August 28, 2008

    Lord of the Pies

    Open any newspaper or magazine at the 'Lifestyle' page, and there'll inevitably some article about diet. It'll go on and on about healthy eating, explaining how to avoid those excruciatingly addictive chocolates, cream buns, doughnuts and Coca-Cola. Apparently it's impossible only to have one chocolate. "Just say no," the mantra goes in its attempt to steer the yoof away from addictive substances, or you'll clear the shelves of Dairy Milk, Ferrero Rocher or Quality Street.

    Now I enjoy a chocolate as much as the next Goat, but I personally can't see a good reason for troughing an entire box of Black Magic - both layers, and even the Coffee Cremes - while watching the telly.

    My weakness, for we all have at least one, is savouries. Pasties, flans, quiche and best of all: Pies.

    Keefieboy is a fan of steak and kidney pies, and I'm pretty much in agreement with him. A 'proper' pie consists of a lower layer of pastry, a delicious moist meaty filling and a pastry crust on top. So-called cottage pie doesn't really count because there's no bottom pastry at all and the top is mashed potato. What use is a pie that you can't pick up in your hand if necessary? I think those individual hot, ready-to-eat pies from Spinneys et al are excellent. Wrapped in alumininium foil and perched somewhere in the engine bay, after a couple of hours of desert driving a hot steak and kidney pie is a gastronomic delight.

    Fruit pies are a little different. I feel that a shallow pastry-lined dish full of fruit is more of a flan, or even a tart. However, I still refer to one of these full of cherries and covered with a pastry lattice a pie. By my definition, I suppose Beef Wellington (one of my favourite things, along with raindrops on roses and bright copper kettles) is a sort of pie. Check out The Fat Expat for a recipe.

    Although they fit my description, I feel that fish pie is some curious travesty. I'm biased because I'm allergic to seafood, but cracking open a pastry crust to reveal a piscatorial filling makes me feel as if some great blasphemy has been committed. The Stargazey Pie, in which herring heads poke out of the rim, is nevertheless a Cornish tradition.

    And this provides a slick segue into the Cornish Pasty. It's not made in a dish or tin, but nevertheless fits my rather arbitrary definition of a proper pie. Nanny Goat was born and bred Oop North, or at least in the English Midlands just north o't'River Trent and should in theory not be able to produce a decent pasty. But she learned how from her mother-in-law who was dyed-in-the-wool authentic Cornish. Until at last, imagining a kind of Cornish Yoda: "Arrr! Maaarrster the Apprentice has become."

    Nanny Goat has now left the Land of the Sand for the more temperate Mundane Kingdom. Evidence of her visit remains: a freezer full of pastiferous delights.


    Sunday, August 24, 2008

    Dodgy geezers

    When you see some of the ludicrous prices charged for designer goods, it's small wonder that poor-quality copies get knocked off in some sweatshop and offloaded on to the public at a fraction of the price. Dubai is full of them. I defy anyone, especially a westerner, to wander around the shops in Karama and not be constantly pestered by gentlemen offering "Copy Rolex. Handbag sir? (!) Gucci..." At least they're not being peddled as the real thing. No-one would believe a genuine Louis Vuitton bag for Dh50 anyway.

    Now most fakes are dead easy to spot. Mutant spellings on the Goach handbags, for example. The small print on the sleeve of a dodgy DVD can be downright hilarious. And if you compare a real Rolex against a dodgy one the difference in quality is often glaringly obvious. So I'm told. I own neither a real nor a fake Rolex. It’s like getting behind the wheel of a Bentley after driving a Fiat Panda. Counterfeit goods are par for the course in downtown Karama. Shop there only with a dose of caveat emptor (Catering size).

    Regrettably it's also par for the course in the Gold Souq. Here, dozens of blingmongers peddle high-value goods of precious metals and rare gems. Eighteen, or even twenty-two karat gold is commonplace. And it's all real. So, unfortunately, is the "copy watches" brigade.

    While exploiting the recent drop in the gold price, I became utterly fed up with dodgy geezers offering equally dodgy merchandise out of suitcases in alleys next to Dubai's world-famous Gold Souq. "No thank you" fails to have the desired effect, and when I become rather more forthright I get a glare from Mr Fake Rolex as if I just kicked his puppy. Not that this puts him or his colleagues off trying again a few minutes later.

    Why are fakes such a problem in the Gold Souq? Everyone in Dubai realises that the shops there sell pukka goods at appropriate and alarming prices, and only the back-alley bling-in-a-suitcase merchants will rip you off with counterfeits. But visitors to Dubai may well find themselves thinking that if fakes are on sale outside, they might also be on sale for high prices in the shops. And this is potentially harmful to genuine retailers, and to Dubai's reputation as a whole. Even news articles trumpeting that 291 tonnes of illegal products were destroyed seem to have little effect on the feculent flow of fakes.

    Something ought be done. Dubai should clean up the Gold Souq. Alas, one of the news articles points out that the dodgy geezers melt away if the authorities show up. So it's futile trying to control the street vendors with inspectors who look exactly like inspectors.

    What is needed is an army of Mystery Shoppers. The Police should perhaps commission deputies - Store Detectives, if you will - westerners who look exactly like tourists but who are in fact part of the constabulary.

    "Fake watches, perfume, handbags, madam-sir?"

    "Do you have Breitling or Rolex? Chanel? How about Louis Vuitton?"

    "I have Rolex sir. Is very nice. Two hundred dirhams."

    "One hundred only."

    "OK. One-fifty last price."

    "You're nicked, me old China! You have the right to remain silent. You have the right not to fall down the stairs on the way to the cells, You have the right to..."

    Exeunt omnes, the Accused wearing jewellery by Peerless.

    More selected references:

    Rising tide of counterfeits.

    PS: There is a reference to Dragon Mart in the above hyperlink. This rerminded me of the "Huan Qi" radio-controlled helicopter I saw on sale yesterday. Top quality, eh? It made me chuckle.


    Tuesday, August 19, 2008

    All Greek to me

    Beloved Wife and I are now back from a week in the birthplace of Aphrodite. After a pleasant and uneventful Gulf Air trip to Cyprus via Bahrain, we picked up the rental car and headed off down the motorway from Larnaca towards Limassol. We both tried to get used to bilingual road signs in Greek capitals. A very popular destination is ΕΞΟΔΟΣ. By a staggering series of fortunate guesses, plus having checked the location on Google Earth and selected the correct εξοδος, I drove pretty much straight to the hotel, We checked in before showering and heading into town in search of pork and beer.

    The two-star hotel was fully booked, so it was futile to complain about the air conditioning in our room. Unfortunately all the A/C's efforts were going into making itself sound like a small, unsilenced motorcycle instead of having any meaningful cooling effect. We also had to ask that the mattress be changed, as the original had all the support and texture of a marshmallow. Still, the hotel did have a reasonable swimming pool. It was not permitted to cut through the dining room to the pool, so everyone had to parade out of the hotel front door and down the street in their Speedos and thongs if they wanted to go swimming.

    Aphrodite's birthplace, at least according to local legend

    It rapidly became apparent that, apart from us and a Bangladeshi waiter, the entire staff and guests of the hotel were Russian. Yet I'd booked the hotel on line, using a UK-based website. No matter; there was somewhere to sleep, somewhere to have our disappointingly Spartan breakfasts, and even somewhere in the shade to park the car.

    Ah yes, the car. Ian The Dog had tipped me off that especially up in the mountains we might encounter unmade tracks. I upgraded the rental car to a small 4x4 in an attempt to get more ground clearance and to minimise the likelihood of chassis damage. The Daihatsu Terios was apparently powered by a sewing machine engine. Perusing the manual, I was forced to conclude that it must have been the 1300cc version. The relative powerhouse of ponies, the 1500cc 100BHP version, was clearly not in evidence. It was of course relatively easy to wind the vehicle up to the maximum legal 100kph speed limit on the motorway, but the poor thing had enormous trouble with anything resembling a hill. Commonplace gradients of 8% to 12% and an asthmatic Shetland pony under the bonnet do not match well with an automatic gearbox either. This minuscule car was however easy to park, and its equally minuscule engine returned around thirty miles per Imperial gallon. This was just as well, given the rather frightening €1.12 per litre (Dh29 per gallon).

    It appears that Cypriot petrol stations have a 24-hour system for automated dispensing of fuel. You select the pump, insert cash or credit card, and then pump gas. After filling up, you go back to the money machine and re-insert your credit card. The computer recognises the card as the one that just paid for petrol to, say, Pump No.2 and spits out a paper receipt. All instructions, including the ones to get the machine to display instructions in English, are in Greek. Rather alarmingly there is at no point any requirement to enter a PIN. This is probably just as well as I couldn't remember my VISA card PIN, but it does mean that nefarious types could potentially gas up with anyone's card.

    We both rather like Cyprus. After many consecutive months in the Land of the Sand, it was refreshing to see that, despite no rain for 14 months, there was still some greenery around. We were repeatedly told that it was usually a lot greener than this, and also sorry about the appalling heat and humidity. Frankly, after August in Dubai, 30°C was surprisingly refreshing. Up in the hills, above about 500m the temperature was a couple of degrees cooler. On the coast it was even possible to sit outside (in the shade) without impersonating the Wicked Witch of the West. So of course Beloved Wife and I both accidentally overdid it at the hotel pool one day. Whoops.

    English is widely spoken in Cyprus, although bilingual signs become scarcer the further one ventures into the boondocks. There is definitely a need to read Greek, and some ability to speak it would also be good. At this point it's worth quite emphatically pointing out that the indigenous Greek Cypriots are not Greek, even if that's the language they speak.

    The village of Laneia

    On our travels around the said boondocks we looked at various plots of land and even some houses for sale. There are developments all over the island, but Beloved Wife is allergic to living on a postage stamp in a housing estate. We found some massive plots of cheap agricultural land on which it would be possible to put a single house on typically 6% of the total plot area. But these were invariably miles and miles up mountain switchbacks and several kilometres from the nearest power and water supplies and civilisation. Certainly not the same as living on a housing estate.

    The tower of Omodhos monastery

    Given that we ultimately want an ecologically sensitive house, the concrete-and-blockwork-with-not-a-scrap-of-insulation buildings generally on offer in Cyprus, and indeed Dubai, do not interest us. The Crumbling Villa costs a fortune to keep cool during the summer. The A/Cs pump the heat out and more radiates in through the walls. It's like pumping the bilges of a sieve.

    Most Cyprus homes seem to have solar panels for water heating, but it's becoming possible to get electrical power from the sun. We're advised that it's even possible to flog unused electricity back to the power authority. And grey-water recycling - using shower waste to flush the loo - is also becoming such a popular water saver that the Cyprus government offers grants to build it into houses. These systems are difficult to retro-fit into existing buildings, meaning that we're starting to look at a self-build house with lots of insulation too. By the way, this is sooo much not yoghurt-knitting bunny-hugging, and sooo much keeping the household bills to an absolute minimum without having to live in a shoe box in t'middle o't'road.

    Some of the older property that we visited dates back many centuries. I've never seen proper, authentic ancient classical ruins before. Beloved Wife used to live in Naples so has seen Pompeii and Rome, and has also visited Athens. So she was mildly surprised at my enthusiasm for a very small archaeological site near Limassol.

    The remains of a Byzantine church at Kourion

    Amphitheatre at Kourion. Bring your own cushion

    The House of Theseus. He of the Minotaur, the labyrinth and the ball of wool

    I must admit that the ruins and mosaics on display at Pafos and at Kourion were much better. The mosaics even gave me an opportunity to demonstrate my somewhat haphazard ability to transliterate ancient Greek text. For all the sites, we left our visits to the late afternoon in order to avoid the seething mass of οι πολλοι. And with the sun lower in the sky, shadows make photographs more interesting, and the temperature's a bit lower too.

    The journey back was mostly without incident. Mostly? Well, on the Bahrain to Dubai sector the aircraft got clearance to take off, the pilot went balls to the wall and there was an immediate horrendous series of mechanical clangs from somewhere beneath the wings. We stopped, turned off the main runway and sat in the dark while presumably someone got out and looked at the undercarriage or leaned out of the door with a mirror on a stick. Our Captain declared that all was well and the Airbus still possessed the requisite number of wings, wheels and engines, so we trundled around to the end of the runway and had another go. Same mechanical clanging, but this time we got into the air. Obviously, we also landed safely in Dubai. Perhaps the noise was someone's luggage rolling around in the hold.

    It snows up here on Mount Olympus, although not in August

    As for return visits, we've been advised that February is the coldest month, so a visit then will reveal Cyprus' other temperature extreme. I spotted a ski resort 1900 metres up in the Troodos mountains, so it presumably gets seriously chilly. I wonder if I can get the leave?


    Monday, August 18, 2008

    Computer says, "No."

    Nanny Goat is in town for a fortnight.

    In keeping with Tradition, although she arrived on Friday morning, her luggage was still languishing in Heathrow. It was eventually delivered to the Crumbling Villa on Saturday night.

    Apparently, the baggage-handling computer at Heathrow's Terminal 3 went wrong on Thursday, and no bags were loaded on to any airline. Nanny Goat's suitcase was eventually loaded on to Virgin Atlantic on Friday night, and arrived in Dubai on Saturday morning.

    Bearing in mind what happened in mid August 2007, I'm astonished at the coincidence. Of course, no blame is attached to Virgin on this occasion. Indeed, delivering three hundred miscellaneous bags to the Emirates-wide diaspora of Virgin passengers is no mean feat - especially when it's done in a fleet of Nissan Sunnys. Load a bag, deliver it, return to the airport, load a bag... repeat 300 times.

    But given the coincidental luggage issues, I wonder how much Sir Richard would be willing to pay the Goat and his immediate family not to fly Virgin Atlantic in August?


    Monday, August 04, 2008


    My pocket digital camera went on the blink last weekend. On the eve of a dive trip I was very cross and annoyed to discover that the display of my ancient Sony Cyber-Shot DSC-T1 had suddenly ceased to be sensible, and instead resembled a very bad acid trip. So I'm told, m'lud. Removing and refixing the battery and memory card had no effect. Neither did poking the 'Reset' button with a small object such as a paper clip. Curiously, the 'Adjust time and date' screen was not similarly afflicted.

    So it must be the image sensor then, the CCD, I thought. Bummer, that'll be expensive, if spares are available at all. Maybe I'll have to buy a new camera, which will doubtless be better in all respects than a four-year-old DSC-T1. And I'll also need a new underwater housing. Buggrit, more expense. I felt all hard done by. It wasn't as if I'd abused the machine. If I'd clumsily dropped it in the bath I'd have c'ested la vie and eventually gone out and bought a new one.

    I spent Thursday on a camera-less dive, and then on Friday morning I whiled away a couple of hours surfing the Interweb, trying to find out what was wrong with my camera. Until at last I found a couple of forums that referred to a Known Fault with the DSC-T1. Apparently the CCD goes wrong on occasion, especially in a hot and/or humid environment (such as a Dubai summer, perchance?), and Sony will effect a warranty repair no matter how old the camera is. Oh Happy Day!

    Ah, but would I get such a warranty service in Dubai? Figuring that the only chance I had would be at the Jumbo Electronics main shop in Bur Dubai, I headed into town, only to discover a building site where the car park used to be, and a 'Closed until 4pm' sign on Jumbo's door. So it was off to the Mall of the Emirates. At least there, a car park is known to exist and the shop would be open.

    The Sony rep was intrigued when I produced my old T1. Intrigued, in the way that the expert on Antiques Roadshow is intrigued when someone produces a Tudor candlestick. "What's wrong with this?" I asked her without firing up the camera.

    "The CCD has gone wrong and the images are all wobbly," she replied without batting an eyelid, "But Sony will fix it under warranty."

    So I dropped the camera off, having been told it'd take at least ten days, possibly more if spare parts weren't in stock. (For a four-year-old, obsolete piece of electronica? Yeah, right. I won't be holding my breath...)

    Imagine my surprise and delight when, on Monday afternoon, I got a phone call from Jumbo. "Your camera is fixed, Mr Goat, and is ready for you to collect."

    That's a turnaround time of 72 hours. I am well impressed. Full marks to Sony and to Jumbo Electronics.


    Wednesday, July 30, 2008

    What a nerve

    I have had shoulder pains on and off for a couple of years now. I put it down to sleeping awkwardly when I awoke unable to turn my head to right of centre. In an extreme case one day, the only way I could get out of bed was to roll on to the floor and claw my way up the wall until I was on my hind legs. I always thought it was a strained trapezius muscle. It usually took a week or two to right itself.

    Anyway, push came to shove recently. Beloved Wife instructed me to go and see a neurologist after my right thumb went numb. You do know that the Goat has opposable thumbs, don't you? Over at Welcare Hospital in Dubai, I was poked, prodded with sharp instruments, had my blood pressure taken and was quizzed about my dissolute lifestyle, smoking and drinking habits and so forth. Incidentally, 120/80 is apparently a good, if not surprising, blood pressure for a middle-aged, lardarsed stress-puppy.

    Then it was off to X-ray to have my neck irradiated by röntgen rays. This was followed by something called a Nerve Conduction Test, in which up to 100mA was pushed into my fingers to see how much pain I could tolerate how the nerves in my hands and arms were performing. Apparently I have two pinched and inflamed nerves in my unnaturally-straight neck, all of which account for the aching shoulder, numb thumb and bouts of pins-and-needles in my right hand and forearm. The neurologist also said he reckoned I had carpal tunnel syndrome, although I don't believe it. He prescribed me some painkillers and also some new drug to bring down the nerve inflammation. The latter has a monstrous list of side effects that includes diarrhoea, constipation, drowsiness, sleeplessness, hunger pangs, loss of appetite, euphoria, depression... You get the picture. I was also prescribed a wrist splint to use whenever I bent my wrist: all day at work, and all night when asleep. Someone at the dive club noticed the splint and, for obscure and esoteric reasons, asked to borrow my DVD when I'd done with it. He mumbled something that sounded suspiciously like "winker's cramp."

    After three days I gave up on the wrist splint. I am annoyed to discover that I'm allergic to neoprene if I wear it for 23 hours a day. A nasty attack of dermatitis wherever the splint had been has been giving me fun and games for a week. Not wishing to risk an infection, I treated the open sores - yes, really - with Betadine solution. This seems to have worked, but I'm now on moisturising hand cream with added vitamin B12 to get rid of the squamous skin caused by the iodine.

    I trust wearing a wetsuit for an hour or two won't produce a similar effect over my entire body.

    Meanwhile my right thumb is still numb. Partly to appease the carpal tunnel syndrome theory, I have moved my computer mouse over to the other side of the desk, reversed the buttons, and I'm forcing myself to use the mouse left-handed. On-screen targeting is slow and haphazard, but it's gradually getting better.

    I'm rather hoping that a week away from my desk will relieve the pressure on my nerves - in all senses of the word.


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