Tuesday, January 29, 2008

At last, post

The ineffectiveness of the UAE postal service continues to astonish me. There are no doorstep deliveries; all the staff at the sorting office have to do is put postage items into the correct numbered PO Box at the Post Office to await collection.

Today, at last, the company driver was given more than the usual amount. Instead of the usual half a sack, he returned from Sharjah Central Post office with three bulging sacks of mail. I have finally received a Christmas card from my mother. It was posted on 7th December. I also received the December issue of a professional magazine, which should by rights have landed on my desk in late November. But my missing mobile phone, mailed from UK on 9th January has yet to arrive. It may be in one of the sacks, or possibly in someone's pocket. The 'Track & Trace' website says the package left the UK, bound for the UAE some time ago.

What has the Sharjah sorting office been doing with the mail for the past six weeks? Not sorting it, that's for sure. Have they been short staffed? Or on industrial inaction? Or just too damned idle?

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The best form of defensi?

Last Thursday afternoon, a guest at the Falling-Down Villa needed a taxi. Maffi mushkela; call Dubai Taxi on the mobile, and because they have the phone number registered with a physical street address, there'll be no difficulty for the driver in finding the place. At least, that's what's happened in the past. I didn't reveal the proposed desination. Previously Dubai Taxi had correctly inferred DXB Terminal 1. And we all know how important it is to get there on time.

"Taxi in half an hour," I was told. A round of coffee and an hour later, I rang again.

"Stuck in traffic. Taxi definitely within fifteen minutes. Promise."

Two hours after that, and unable to get past the 'Busy' tone at Dubai Taxi, I was forced to launch the Goatmobile into the Thursday evening traffic. Owing to bad planning and mismanagement, the Emirates Road was closed. Mughluq. All the northbound traffic was being diverted into Al Qusais. Meanwhile, Sharjah-bound commuters heading to the Emirates Road from Nadd Al Hamar and Rashidiya were prevented from joining and were diverted into Mirdif, and then into Al Qusais. Every road was chockablock.

Small wonder the taxi hadn't turned up. It was presumably snarled up in the gridlock, assuming that it had been despatched at all.

It eventually took me three and a half hours to get the 22km and drop off my guest, before sallying forth back into the evening mayhem to get back to Mirdif. My plans for that Thursday evening did not include travelling at less than 4mph. That delight is reserved for boating on England's inland waterways.

During one of the protracted sessions of stationary traffic where six lanes of cars and buses attempted to insert themselves into a single lane, I finally managed to get through on the phone to Dubai Taxi. "It's been four hours since you first told me 'thirty minutes'. Where's my ride?"

"Your taxi is soon coming, sir."

"I wouldn't bother. Four hours is too long to wait. Cancel it."

"Righto, sir."

This, then, is the state of public transport in Dubai. It all uses the roads that are in semi-permanent gridlock whenever anything (rain... Dubya... roadworks...) slightly unusual occurs. Buses don't venture out of Dubai and taxis are impossible to book. Believe it or not, I actually have some sneaking sympathy with taxi drivers who face the chaos all day every day, and I even understand a desire not to pick up a client in Mirdif on Thursday evening. But if that is the case, the controller at Dubai Taxi should explain that "because of the traffic we're sorry, but it won't be possible to get a car to you before 9pm." Deliberately and repeatedly lying to customers is completely and unutterably reprehensible. As indeed is showing a total lack of concern or remorse.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Umm Al Quwain rally

The Umm Al Quwain rally was last weekend. There was a Prologue on Friday afternoon around a dirt circuit. This was somewhere up at the end of the UAQ peninsula. The fifteen starters had to stay on the track and thereby avoid the motorsport fans, photographers and street lighting columns.

Racing against the clock, the times to complete the prologue dictated the starting order for the six special stages on Saturday. The first car was away from the Umm Al Quwain Motorplex at 11am, heading along the road to the start of the off road section. Special stage 2 squiggled around the dunes and ghaf trees between the Emirates Road and Barracuda Beach Resort for 20km or so. Competitors completed the timed section of SS2 and then immediately started SS3 that looped for 17km back around the same area of desert before finishing near the Motorplex for a 20 minute pit stop. Special stages 4 and 5 (and 6 and 7) were repeats of 2 and 3, so there was no excuse for getting a particular bend or dip wrong a second or third time. At least, in theory there wasn't. In practice, from the point of view of the driver and co-driver everything happens far too quickly.

So was I driving or co-driving? Nelly you're on not. I was taking photos. Having obtained the co-ordinates of the special stages and plugged them into my GPS, I joined up with a small group of rally fans from ME4x4 and we drove around the rally route. We identified spots that looked like good photo opportunities and took short cuts between the stages across the desert to get plenty of photos. Obviously we put our cars far enough off rally route so that they'd not be demolished if a competitor got it all horribly wrong.

Some teams drop body panels along the route. Is this a breadcrumb trail or an attempt to go faster by shedding excess weight?

As usual, watching rallying isn't always very exciting. You sit around chatting, and then get disturbed by some unsilenced V8 engine growling towards you. At that point it's all hands to cameras for a few seconds of intense and exciting activity before the silence of the desert is restored. Capturing cars that are airborne is more difficult than it looks. They don't spend much time in the air, and because the landing can cause damage, drivers try to avoid flight. A cluster of photograpers is, in the eyes of a rally driver, a huge neon sign that says "Warning! Flight Risk! Slow! Slow!".

Some magic driving from the Kingdom...

It's always more interesting to follow one or more teams. I was keeping an eye out for Ian and Sheila in their newly purchased Nissan Patrol.

The car has a good pedigree; it was driven by Andrea Mayer in the 2007 Desert Challenge, finishing (which is no mean achievement) sixteenth overall and fourth in the class for production vehicles. One careful owner... never raced or rallied... Unfortunately on this most recent outing there was a problem with the wheel nuts. Despite tightening them all at the service stops, a wheel fell off - twice - on the final special stage. Nevertheless, Ian and Sheila were allocated tenth place and awarded trophies.

Ian and Sheila are new to this game, and are looking for a sponsor. By the next rally (The 1000 Dunes) the wheel nut problem will, I'm assured, be resolved. The intention is to compete in the 2008 Desert Challenge. Make a diary note: DC 2008 is slated for 25th to 31st October.

Another team I was following was the Icon-Auto Unimog.

Chris, Streaky and Animal came in ninth. The 'mog isn't quick, but it'll go over pretty much anything.

There are more rally photos here. And the full results are here on the EMSF website.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Bon voyage?

On your trip, Mr Bush, may I speculate if
You expected Dubai to be closed?
You were told it was sunny and warm in the Gulf
Yet you needed your waterproof clothes.

There weren't any cars on the roads where you drove.
They resembled '28 Days Later'.
The curfew was thought up the previous day
As all panic decisions to date are.

From Mirdif to Sharjah was easy and quick
In the morning. No Dubai commuters
Were blocking my path on the Sharjah ring road:
No tantrums, rude gestures or hooters.

At my destination there's nowhere to park;
The residents all stayed at home.
I walked in the rain for a mile and a half
And the cold I've now caught makes me groan.

It wasn't allowed on your balc'ny to stand
To observe Mr President's jolly.
Were Plod thinking "Texas Book Deposit'ry",
Or perhaps something grassy and knolly?

Without any traffic on Sheikh Zayed Road
No customers bought any gas,
But the staff were all trapped at the ENOC and co.
Their transport was held up, alas.

The cost to Dubai has been estimated
At Dirhams point 432 billion.
I wonder where we should be sending the bill?
The suggestion 'The White House'? A silly one.

It's now a day later, and everything's back
To normality, 'cept for the rains.
There's gridlock of course, and the roads are a mess
Because of inadequate drains.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Kart racing

One of Beloved Wife's colleagues organised an evening of petrol and testosterone last week over at the Dubai Kartdrome. Around twenty wannabe racing drivers showed up with various aiders and abetters who would cheer the drivers on from the grandstand.

The format for the evening was to dress in the correct kit, including closed shoes, gloves and helmets. This was then followed by a pep talk about how overtaking was forbidden when marshals were waving yellow flags, and anyone who behaved particularly badly would get a black flag and have to retire. Driving Demolition-Derby style is a good way to get black-flagged. There were also dire warnings about how Turn 1 was full throttle, but failing to slow down for Turn 2 would mean an appointment with the Armco. The same would apply for Turns 9 and 10, hairpin bends following some fast turns and a long straight.

The first session was timed practice. The slowest driver would get five laps, but faster drivers could potentially get a lot more. Electronic timing established each kart's best lap time, and this would be used to decide where the karts would be lined up on the grid for the first, ten lap, race. A second race would then follow after a brief pee break. This would be in reverse order, with the slowest drivers at the front so that there would be plenty of overtaking opportunities. Twelve laps this time.

I've not been karting for over 20 years, and that was in Fuengirola, Costa Del Sol, on an oval track. The Dubai kartdrome vehicles were a lot quicker and on a much more interesting figure-eight track. The karts all have four-stroke lawnmower engines producing 13.5 ponies and are, on an absolute scale, not very powerful. Apparently top speed is around 60kph, but this can be quite thrilling with one's butt about one inch from the asphalt. There's no gearbox either: hit the gas with the right hoof to engage Drive and let the revs rise. There are only two permissible positions for the loud pedal, and one of those is tickover. The brake pedal is under the left hoof, which makes gentle application a mite tricky if you're used to using this one for the clutch. The brakes only work on the rear wheels too, so braking while cornering will inevitably provoke a spin.

Anyway, off we went for practice. Do karts oversteer? Is the bear a Catholic? The slightest twitch of the steering wheel caused rapid changes in direction, requiring opposite lock to prevent a spin. Even so I managed to spin and then get T-boned at Turn 2 on Lap 2 of the practice. Ooops. And then again at Turn 9 on the last lap of the first race. More oops.

Both races were a lot of fun, and I managed to overtake a respectable number of other karts. I think my main problem may have been applying the gas too early out of corners, resulting in oversteer and drifting which in turn kills off the speed. And being fat and forty-four, I was a little timid, at least at first. Although the track is wide, the racing line is about the width of a gnat's todger. Deviating from the correct line is a guaranteed way of getting slow lap times.

The kartdrome lap record is less than one minute. I bet it's not in one of the supplied karts! The consistent winner in our session was Joe, who turned in laps of around 1'17". I started with 1'30"s and got down to a fairly consistent 1'22". This represents an average speed of around 53kph. I came seventh. Joe, who weighs in at about 50kg dripping wet, has power to weight ratio and youth on his side, along with the fact that he races at the Kartdrome regularly. Practise practice...

The whole session cost Dh290 per person. This doesn't match what it says on the website, so I've no idea how our session was arranged. I must remember to bring my own leather-palmed gloves if there's a next time. The supplied woolly gloves provide no grip on the steering wheel, and my hand, wrist and arm muscles are still aching.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Planes, trains, automobiles and boats

New year fireworks in London. It certainly seemed like a good idea when first mooted back in August.

Beloved Wife and her Goat have done the whole marriage thing in an odd order. Following the August wedding, we had a December honeymoon in the Maldives (story to follow...), which was in turn hotly pursued by two weeks in Ing-Er-Land over the Christmas and New Year period. The Goat got his friend, Mr Lawful Good of Cowplain (LGoC) to arrange the venue for a post-nuptial shindig so that a crowd of those who couldn't make it to the States in August could meet up for beer and buffet.

Dubai Drama Group's Guards! Guards! curtain closed on 15th December. Goat and Beloved Wife headed straight off to the airport with diving equipment. A week later we were back in Dubai doing circuits and bumps. We dropped off our dive kit at home, grabbed our winter woollies and went straight back to the airport.

At six in the morning on Christmas Day we arrived at a damp Gatwick and picked up the rental car. I expressed the opinion to the guy at Immigration that he ought to be on double time. He smugly replied that he was on triple time plus a day off in lieu, and of course he wouldn't have to eat any Brussels sprouts. We took the pretty way to Plymouth, as defined by the GPS as the shortest route, passing through many small villages early enough to see some stirrings of small children keen to discover what Santa had left for them.

Then we stopped off briefly at Stonehenge in the rain to experience the full wet chalk experience. Stonehenge was shut apart from the loo, and security guards were there to keep the solstice latecomers out. I suspect Security reckoned that the besandalled couple in black were neopagans in a horribly wrong time zone. It finally stopped raining as we drove over Dartmoor and headed south into Plymouth. As I said, it was the pretty way.

Christmas dinner was scheduled for the evening because of our late arrival at Nanny Goat's. There was time for presents and even a brief nap before the traditional impossibly gargantuan pile of food appeared. And disappeared. What can I say? I was hungry, having only eaten aircraft food for about 36 hours! And contrary to popular belief, there are actually those who like sprouts, even if - nay, especially if - they've not been on the boil since Thanksgiving.

The next couple of days saw my young nephews playing with their new IR-controlled helicopters (ex Dragon Mart, and possibly the only ones in the country.) I hope the helicopters last longer than the polystyrene flying saucers did. An added Christmas bonus was that the kids got their artwork into the January 2008 issue of Dive magazine, courtesy of a hand-drawn birthday card from them to me and a suggestion from Beloved Wife.

Then we headed off to Gosport in Hampshire (where, as in Hertford and Hereford, hurricanes are seldom experienced). We went via Bristol. There is very little scope for entertainment in Bristol on a cold and soggy Friday afternoon, so we went on a pub crawl and took in some exquisite beer and food. Thanks to Simon and Clare for entertaining and accommodating us. I am fascinated by Simon and Clare's iPhones, but am probably too technologically incompetent to own one, even if they did work here in the Land of the Sand.

The Clarence Tavern hosted our shindig. Around twenty people showed up for beer and snacks. The brief of 'dead things on sticks' manifested as a vast cold buffet primarily consisting of curly-tailed products. And the beer was only excellent. Driving was clearly very unwise, so Beloved Wife and I stayed the night in the smallest and probably hottest bedroom in town.

Mr and Mrs LGoC own a boat. Jedi is a 32-foot cabin cruiser moored at Sunbury on Thames. She's their third boat, each being larger than the previous one. Jedi is powered by a pair of elderly Perkins diesel inboards that are older than Mrs LGoC. The engines are inevitably named 'Luke' and 'Leia' and are both reliable, but Leia smokes too much and, like most of the vessel, is in need of some TLC. That said, Jedi floats, runs and there's on-board heat, light and cooking. There's even a civilised shower and toilet head.

We set off from Sunbury at around midday on 30th December and headed downstream towards the City of London. In keeping with traditional custom and practice, all the locks were set against us, requiring waiting around at Molesey, Teddington and especially Richmond before we got on to the tidal Thames.

We had an appointment at St Kat's. The single lock gate to St Katharine Haven is open for fewer than two hours or so either side of high water. Unfortunately, and unbeknown to us, the lock gate had become broken and it would be impossible to get a boat either in or out. St Kat's chose to inform us of us this by leaving their phone off the hook and refusing to respond to marine VHF calls. We eventually ended up further downstream at South Dock Marina in Greenwich. Fortuitously, this turned out to be cheaper than St Kat's, mains electricity was included, and we were conveniently located for the Thames passenger ferries and a half-decent shopping centre. There were no decent pubs immediately apparent, but we'd brought a vast stock of Special Beverage for consumption on board, so this wasn't a major problem.

We set off upstream to Blackfriars on the ferry at about 9pm on New Year's Eve and found a spot on the Embankment to view the fireworks. The ferry wasn't allowed any nearer to the London Eye than Blackfriars; apparently there was a barge moored in the Thames that was chock full of explosives. The whole area quicky filled with revellers and, despite the cold and rain, by midnight the whole place was heaving with probably over a million partygoers. The spectacular fireworks display - and it was spectacular - was dampened somewhat by the mist and rain that caused thick clouds of gunpowder smoke to hang over the City and obscure some of the pyrotechnics. I love the smell of gunpowder in the morning... Getting back to the ferry proved problematic. There were so many people that the Embankment was standing room only and breathing by numbers, as we tripped and stumbed over empty beer cans, champagne bottles and miscellaneous inebriates.

The wet weather cleared up somewhat over the next day or so. New Year's Day involved the traditional lie-in and late breakfast. But clear skies mean cold, and the mercury only just crept above freezing, which is a bit of a shock if you've just come from the tropics! Beloved Wife declared that on 2nd January she wished to go shopping in London, so we agreed that she's head back to Cowplain by rail while the rest of us would take Jedi back to Sunbury and then meet her at the station. I treated the LGsoC to some diesel from the fuel barge moored near Tower Bridge. We bounced against the barge while fuelling up with red diesel at a rather frightening 50p a litre (AED17 a gallon) but nowhere near as scary as the £1.04 a litre (AED35 a gallon) petrol for the hire car.

On a clear day in January the Thames is a chilly place. There was little other river traffic apart from some nutters sculling on the non-tidal Thames. It is a curious thing how different rowers react to larger craft. Obviously a 32-foot Coronet cabin cruiser can produce an enormous wash, so it is incumbent on the skipper to keep the speed down. If you're rowing on the river, effectively sitting astride an overgrown matchstick, you will not appreciate being swamped by a big boat's wake. So when near scullers, I slowed to tickover, the absolute minimum possible speed that doesn't involve anchoring. One group of rowers wished us a Happy New Year and thanks for slowing down; another bellowed indignantly that we were going too fast. It takes all sorts. Finally back in Cowplain, we all had a massive chip-shop feast.

Beloved Wife and I did a little sightseeing in and around Portsmouth until our desperately early departure for the airport on 4th January. I stupidly managed to leave my mobile phone behind, and the new handset and alternative SIM card have both vanished from home in Mirdif. We have turned the villa upside down in a vain search for the Nokia that I specifically did not take on holiday. My enforced new year's resolution appears for the time being to stay away from mobile telephones.

Cheque you're working

That lovable Mr Jeremy Clarkson was recently fined £500 for being a cocky twunt*.

Mr Clarkson should be right when he contends that knowledge of someone's bank account number should only enable deposits to be made. How can anyone possibly suck money out of a bank account solely with the sort code and account number? The fact that someone did means that in theory anyone who ever received a cheque from you can use the information on the bottom of the cheque to set up a direct debit from your bank account to Diabetes UK, or even some other deserving charity such as The Grumpy Goat's Get-Rich-Quick Scam Scheme. A cheque is better yet: it even carries a sample of your signature.

Rather than having an attack of Schadenfreude at Mr Clarkson's expense, we should be asking why Barclays allowed it to happen, and what the banking industry is doing to prevent such a thing from recurring. Or possibly Clarkson is party to a publicity stunt to publicise why one should be careful with banking details. Or am I now being too cynical?* twunt. Portmanteau noun. Quoting an anonymous contributor to a UK-based magazine devoted to off-road vehicles. He used the term to describe Mr Clarkson.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Fantasy Island

I have returned after three weeks and eight international flights. So much for my carbon footprint. I guess I now have an almost infinite amount of low-fat tofu to knit and bunnies to hug as my carbon offset. The in-flight magazine ran an article about eco-tourism. Apparently you travel halfway around the planet in a paraffin-burning jet in order to live in a mosquito-infested mud hut for a week with no electricity after 9pm because that's when the 'environmentally-friendly' diesel generator gets turned off. The same magazine also ran a two-page advert for a liquified natural gas company. The ad included the phrase '...most environmentally friendly fossil fuel...' That would be like the 'worst paid company director' then, or the 'most polished turd'. With one exception, the flights were as reasonable as is to be expected by a cattle-class cheapskate. In the case of the Christmas Day flight to Gatwick the aircraft was almost empty and I was able to stretch out over four rather lumpy seats and get some sleep while inserting more than my fair share of carbon dioxide into Planet Earth's upper atmosphere.

Despite my efforts to the contrary, the airline catastrophically failed to provide Beloved Wife and me with exit row seats. This was despite my booking the relevant seats on line, then telephoning the airline to confirm the exit row, and being assured by Customer Service that yes we were definitely on the exit row. I wonder why "Your seats are definitely on the exit row" gets translated into "The exit row is two rows in front of you. Again." And I always get a big metal box beneath the seat in front of me so there's never anywhere to put my hooves.

The ill-logic of airport security is bemusing. Upon arrival at Gatwick I noted the signs stating that only one item of hand baggage was permitted. So handbags and cameras somehow had to be stuffed into cabin bags in order to get them through security. This only applied to transfer passengers, of course. With wry amusement I saw passengers having to discard the little bag containing toothbrush, headphones, socks and blindfold as issued by the airline. Apparently this represents some sort of security hazard, which is why the airline dishes one out to each passenger. On a previous trip, one of my friends had a whistle confiscated at airport security lest he use it in a futile attempt to hijack the plane. Yet each passenger is issued with a whistle: it's attached to the life jacket beneath the seat and should be used 'to attract attention'. Yeah, right. Like an Airbus hitting the sea won't attract any attention.

Another point is the current fashion to limit liquids on board. The rules appear to be that no more than one litre, split into maximum 100ml receptacles, is permitted, and all is to be contained in one clear sealed plastic bag. The practical upshot of this is that you can't buy a bottle of Scotch in Dubai Duty Free as a last minute Christmas present if your journey involves a brief stop at Doha. Security personnel at the Doha transit desk will confiscate this dangerous liquid. But that's OK, because you can buy an identical bottle at Doha Duty Free once past Security.

On my journey back to Dubai the flight was delayed at Doha by 'a minor technical problem'. After trundling around the taxiways and sitting for an hour on board a stationary aircraft while someone tried in vain to reboot the computers controlling the ailerons, all passengers were returned to the terminal via the transit passengers' entrance. "Deplane, Boss. Deplane!" Naturally, those folk who'd bought duty-free booze at Doha were given a hard time by Security because Johnny Walker exceeded 100ml and the plastic bag wasn't sealed and instead had 'Doha Duty Free' printed thereon.

Why do we get subjected to x-rays and searches as transit passengers anyway? Having just got off an aircraft and herded directly on to the bus to the terminal, from where are we supposed to have acquired those knives, hand grenades and firearms that the security staff are so desperate to find? I understand the need to inspect passengers' luggage before they arrive in the country of destination (although Mr Dallas Austin and others who enjoy certain pharmaceutical products might disagree), but why search transit passengers, who aren't even technically in the country?

I would have thought that a good way of dealing with a couple of hundred tired and delayed passengers would be to tell them, "Sorry folks, the aircraft is broken. We're taking you back to the terminal where we'll give you vouchers for some food while we move your checked bags into a different aircraft. Please watch the departures board for information about when you can board, and at what gate."

Unfortunately, the airline and ground staff have a different way of doing it:
"Please sit on the aircraft for an hour and listen to our execrable muzak."

"It's going to take an hour to mend the plane. We're taking you back to the terminal."

"We've already decided to change the aircraft, but aren't telling you this whilst we unload your baggage."

"Please go to departure Gate 10 for further details."

"No, not Gate 10. You need to go to Gate 5."

"No, not Gate 5. We don't yet know what gate. We'll feed you, so please show your boarding card at the cafe while we decide which gate we'll use."

"No, you need a voucher. Go over there and get a voucher before you can have food."

"No, not this tray. You may only have food from that tray."

"No, we still don't know what gate. Please watch the departures board."

"We're boarding. However, this is not displayed on the departures board and there's been no announcement over the Tannoy."

"Is Mr Mohammed on board the aircraft? If not, [Is he in the terminal, waiting in vain for the new departure time to come up on the departures board, perchance? Or maybe his mummy and daddy have taken him home to bed?] we'll have to delay the flight some more, while we find and unload his luggage."

The opinions expressed in this weblog are the works of the Grumpy Goat, and are not necessarily the opinions shared by any person or organisation who may be referenced. Come to that, the opinions may not even be those of the Grumpy Goat, who could just be playing Devil's Advocate. Some posts may be of parody or satyrical [sic] nature. Nothing herein should be taken too seriously. The Grumpy Goat would prefer that offensive language or opinions not be posted in the comments. Offensive comments may be subject to deletion at the Grumpy Goat's sole discretion. The Grumpy Goat is not responsible for the content of other blogs or websites that are linked from this weblog. No goats were harmed in the making of this blog. Any resemblance to individuals or organisations mentioned herein and those that actually exist may or may not be intentional. May contain nuts.