Thursday, December 30, 2010

Two little ducks

Registration number obscured to protect the guilty

The story is very familiar. Tailgated on the Emirates Road by the flashing 4x4, I move out of the left lane. The 4x4 pulls level and down goes the dark window to reveal two unbelted young male occupants. They hurl verbal abuse and make obscene gestures.

One of the disadvantages of having a easy-to-remember vanity plate on your car is that it’s, well, easy to remember. And that is how I was able to check on the Dubai police website that this particular 4x4 does not have the best record in the world. Fifty-two traffic offences since March 2010, over Dh30,000 in fines, and now the car is wanted for impounding. Yet curiously, there are no black points! Despite UAE law imposing 12 points plus a Dh1000 fine plus a 30-day confiscation for speeding at more than 60kph above the posted limit, no points have seen fit to appear. Frankly, anyone who continues to drive this offensively and doesn’t get any penalty points at all is a miracle of modern wasta. Insufficient, however, to prevent the list of offences from appearing on the internet at all.

Assuming a wave of the wasta wand doesn’t cause the fines to vanish at registration time, is the prospect of forking out Dh30,000 really going to worry someone who’s happy to spend millions on a Very Special number plate?

It is high time the traffic authorities - the RTA and traffic police - got all their ducks in a row so that “zero traffic fatalities by 2020” is even remotely achievable. May I helpfully suggest a couple of new year resolutions...?


    I’ve been unable to obtain any form of Highway Code for the UAE despite trying. There is clearly a need to devise and issue a rule book. This ought to be done at a federal level to ensure consistent traffic laws across the entire country. With 150 or so different nationalities all with their own ideas of what constitutes ‘correct’, different opinions inevitably cause a bunfight. All drivers should be issued with the rules when they take driver training, when they get their licences, and when they get their cars registered. Then ignorance of the law really will be no excuse.

    2. Meaningful enforcement

    Sticking cameras all over the highways can only detect speeds in excess of a posted limit or red light violations. It might provide the easiest and most lucrative solution, but almost by definition, the easiest method is the least effective. Perhaps more pullings over to discuss tailgating, speeding, driving on the breakdown lane, mobile phone use, lane discipline and seatbelts are needed, along with inspections of tyres, lights and window tints.

    3. Effective penalty points

    It occurs to me that it’s quite difficult to collect black points except by driving spectacularly badly. A driving ban only occurs after accruing 24 points, and anyway they disappear after a mere six months. I am therefore amazed to read in the news that some drivers even then somehow manage to get themselves disqualified.

    How about linking the points to the motor insurance? Someone who collects plenty of points obviously has a proven inability to stay within the rules and is therefore presumably a higher risk.

    4. Disqualification

    It’s simple really. Having driven so badly that you got yourself banned, if you’re caught behind the wheel you go to jail. Go directly to jail, do not pass ‘Go’, do not collect £200. If you can’t be trusted to stay off the road, the State can provide some assistance.

The alternative approach is to continue to permit mayhem and destruction on the Emirates’ roads. Use automated means to detect speeding and don’t chase up on the fines for up to a year. Don’t bother enforcing the wearing of seat belts; ignore drivers’ mobile phone use; disregard excessive window tints. Pay no heed to driving on the breakdown lane; overlook bald tyres and defective lights. Turn a blind eye to non-existent lane discipline; be oblivious to illegal parking. Rather like what seems to occur most of the time anyway.

And having completely removed all functions of the traffic police, it’s logical to abandon having the Force at all. Instead, the huge budget savings can be reallocated to ambulances, hospitals and funeral directors.


Friday, December 24, 2010

Merry Christmas!

Put the turkey
In the oven,
Mummified in tinfoil,
With an onion
Stuffed up
Its behind.

Sage and onion,
Roast potatoes;
Put the sprouts on to boil.
Friends arrive,
And ply them
With red wine.

Ten-thousand calories later...
I’m a man;
I’ve a plan:
Snore through the film on TV.


Sunday, December 19, 2010

Less than ID-al

The Pythonesque attempts to introduce an Identity Card in the UAE seem to have entered a new and even more frustraneous phase.

In the good old days, the Punter downloaded an interactive application form from the Emirates Identity Authority website (the ‘application application’ as Mr McNabb calls it over at Fake Plastic Souks). Then the Punter filled in the form and printed it off. All the data was coded on the printout as a 2D barcode. Then the Punter, if he had any sense, turned up at the EIDA office in Umm Al Quwain at the crack of sparrow-fart and landed at the front of the queue.

The nice lady behind the counter would read the barcode into the System, ask the Punter to clarify anything that wasn’t 100% obvious from his application form, and then send the Punter for his mugshots and dabs. The ID card would then arrive by EmPost and remain unused for all eternity.

Clearly this method was always going to be a problem for the masses of expatriates who did not have access to a computer, a printer, or either English or Arabic written language.

Behold the new system: The Punter now has to go to an approved typing centre and pay a professional typist to deal with the application form. The next step in the challenge is to find a typing centre that is on the official list and actually is processing applications. Good luck with this one.

Unfortunately, (and there is always an ‘unfortunately’ when dealing with the EIDA, isn’t there?), the poor lambs at the EIDA cannot cope with 80,000 erroneous applications. Either the Punter wasn’t clear with the typing centre or else the approved typist who works in the approved typing centre is an incompetent klutz. He and his 79,999 colleagues. Because many errors relate to the Punters’ contact telephone numbers, it’s not possible to summon a Punter to the EIDA to ask for clarifications.

Let’s get this clear. With less than a fortnight to go before the deadline to obtain an ID card, the EIDA announces that it has problems dealing with incorrect applications, most of which have been created by its own agents. Stand by for a further clarification that, although the deadline is not extended, applications made after expiry of the deadline will be accepted. This would be the second time the deadline has not been moved in this way.

And another thing. How is a Punter supposed to renew his ID card when the old one expires because of a change in residence visa?

[IRONY]Replacing the card is simple enough.[/IRONY] According to the EIDA website, the Punter trundles along to an EIDA office with his old ID card, his new passport and visa, and the payment. All the personal data – name, education, religion, political allegiance, inside leg measurement, fingerprints, etc – is already coded and can simply be transferred electronically on to the new card. There’ll be a new mugshot of course, and new residence visa details.

But wait! You have to hand in your old ID card when your previous visa is cancelled! So that means all data is lost and you have to start the whole process from scratch. Unless, that is, you held on to your old ID card which now carries incorrect vital statistics.

The solution to this poster child for bad planning and incompetent mismanagement is blindingly obvious. As the ID card is irrevocably connected to the residence visa, both should be processed in the same, erm, process. “Here is your passport and new visa; here is your ID card.” Simples.

Of course, that would take three years to implement fully. But as residence visas are shortly to expire after two years rather than three, all expats could have ID cards before the end of 2012. Instead, connecting the visa and the ID card is apparently to be phased in after 2012, once everyone is sick to the eye-teeth with the whole fiasco.

Actually, the solution is simpler still. Expats already have acceptable proof of ID. It’s called a passport. Nobody seems to want to regard the ID card as official identification; believe me I’ve tried. A photocopy of passport and visa page solves all the problems other that the fundamental one of needing to create thousands of new jobs in an invented and superfluous Authority.

Edited 23 December to add...
Hilariously, in Thursday’s Gulf News, we learn of an additional requirement to turn up in national costume. The missive, doubtless invented on the spur of the moment by a bored EIDA employee, is probably to get locals to turn up in kandouras.

The letter of the law is much more amusing. Stand by for queues of folk clad in kimonos; shalwa khamees; barongs; lunghis; plaid shirts and ten-gallon hats; lederhosen; hats with corks. I anticipate the sight of native Americans and Norwegians queuing up as if they’re auditioning for the Village People.


Tuesday, December 14, 2010

München Wurst

So what exactly are the official holidays? With UAE National Day falling on the ever-predictable 2nd December, it was reasonably safe to infer well in advance that Thursday would be a day off. Islamic New Year, on the other hand, was going to be a different matter.

As usual, the date of 1st Muharram would be subject to seeing the new moon on the previous evening around sunset. In the UAE, the astronomical new moon was going to occur on Sunday 5th December at 9:36pm. This is well after sunset and moonset as eny fule kno, therefore the new moon would surely be spotted on Monday 6th December and the New Year holiday would be on Tuesday.

Except the gubmint decreed about three days in advance that the public sector would have Sunday for New Year (making a four day weekend – huzzah!) That same gubmint instructed that the private sector would have Saturday off for New Year. Anyone who has a two-day weekend in the UAE will instantly realize that this is a chiz: having your holiday on a normal weekend.

It is high time that public and private sectors had the same official holidays. Come to that, publishing the holidays well in advance so that we can actually plan ahead might be nice. The date and time of the new moon isn’t magic: anyone reading this is surely connected to the Interwebz, small parts of which are dedicated to publishing the dates and times of movements across the celestial sphere.

On with the story, and Beloved Wife gleefully emailed the information regarding her long weekend. Having failed to get a holiday decision out of De Management, the Goat booked Sunday as annual leave and then booked flights and hotels. Goat and Wife were off to Bavaria! Dust off the winter woollies, and in the Goat’s case unearth a pair of chunky boots. These have steel toecaps and therefore go down well through airport security.

It was going to be more practical to fly from Abu Dhabi to Munich than from Dubai via Istanbul, so Etihad became the airline of choice. We were deposited in a sub-zero and snowy Munich at some obscene hour of Thursday morning. Once we’d figured out the cheapest way to get to the hotel by train, an all-day, all-zone family ticket for €18, we rolled into town past Christmassy scenery as the train filled with commuters. At the Novotel München Messe the receptionist was happy to let us have our room immediately rather than wait until mid-afternoon to check in, so we collapsed for a few hours to recover from the red-eye flight.

München Messe is a new, modern development on the site of the former Riem airport. The Novotel is astonishingly close to a metro station, which made travel in and out of town spectacularly easy, as we discovered once we arose at the crack of noon.

The primary purpose of the visit was to explore the famous German Christmas markets that spring up in clusters all over cities in Germany and beyond. It’s not only glass ornaments and wooden mobiles for sale.

One of the Wurst things that can happen

Street food is also very much in evidence, as are hot drinks. We both spent the days and evenings living on Bratwurst, Currywurst mit Pommes Frites, and various flavours of Glühwein and Eierpunsch. The latter is, of course, very similar to eggnog, and all beverages are gratuitously alcoholic. Beware the Kinderpunsch that looks and tastes similar but is disastrously devoid of alcohol.

Beloved Wife advised that there was a very large and famous Christkindlmarkt in Nürnberg (or ‘Nuremberg’ for those who don’t have an umlaut on the keyboard (which is a right pain when writing about Germany)), so one day we took a day trip through the magical snowscape of Bavaria in winter. Nürnberg was indeed very much as advertised, complete with oompah band and sub-zero temperatures. As in München, plenty of locals, expats and tourists were happy to engage in conversations in a mixture of English and German.

Hospice of the Holy Spirit, Nürnberg

From a railway carriage

Listen to the band

Many sausages, beers, Glühweins and Christmas ornaments later, we reeled unsteadily back to the railway station and caught the fast train back to München Hauptbahnhof. Despite the tales of woe on the TV about how this disastrous and unprecedented snow was affecting transport across Europe and completely halting all movement in the UK, our experience was that everything was working to timetable in Bavaria. Unprecedented? It snows every winter, and the only unusual thing about 2010 is that it came a bit early.

Marianplatz, München

The public transport ticketing in and around Munich is very similar to the systems we encountered in Rome and Naples earlier this year. You can buy a single ticket at a machine at the station or on the bus or tram, you frank it yourself, and then it’s good for a couple of hours. Or you buy one of a selection of all-day or all-week passes. There is no need to get yourself to the Hauptbahnhof in order to buy a smart card that you then have to preload with credit before you use public transport. Dubai, take note. The system relies very much on trust; it would be incredibly easy to ride for free. In all our travels only one metro employee produced an ID card and asked for Fahrkarten bitte. I conclude that the fines for getting caught fare-dodging are extremely punitive, or that Germans are incredibly law abiding, or some combination of the above.

It wasn’t all eating and drinking. I did something for the first time in my life: I walked on the natural ice covering Nymphenburger Schloß ornamental canal.

So the Goat can indeed walk on water – something he had hitherto only suspected.

Others were playing ice hockey or a game similar to curling, and in a random walk through Narnia a Munich park, we discovered children tobogganing.



My extolling the virtues of German organisation went awry when I tried to send the Nanny Goat a Christmas card. Could I find a post box anywhere? Eventually the unposted card ended up on the airside of Munich airport. I asked in the shop that sold postcards and souvenirs where I could mail a card, only to be told unhelpfully: “Unmöglich”. If it is indeed impossible, why do you sell the damned postcards? Beloved Wife resolved the problem by smiling sweetly at Etihad ground staff and asking the nice lady to post this envelope when she got off shift. And I’m pleased to report that the card duly arrived chez Nanny Goat less than a week later.

We both slept on the return flight to Abu Dhabi. This was just as well because I drove straight to work. Meanwhile, Beloved Wife had to get back to Dubai before reporting for duty on Monday morning. To my delight, De Management had finally made a decision regarding holidays and decreed that my office would be closed on Tuesday. I spent most of the holiday recovering from the ravages of time zones and tryptophan.


Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Fourth again

I always seem to come fourth. Pub quiz, kart racing, and now the Top Gear Fan of the Month.

The worthy winner for November is Alex from Rio with nearly 11000 votes. Congratulations, Alex, and what a terrific photo too.

Kirsty and Jack tied for second and third places with around 3000 votes each, and I came fourth with 2600 or so.

Many thanks again to everyone who cast a Vote for the Goat.


Friday, November 19, 2010

Vote for me!

In a blatant attempt at self-publicity, I am the only Dubai entry in this month's Top Gear Fan Of The Month:

Vote for me and let's put Dubai on Top Gear's map!

The Grumpy Goat is currently in 4th place out of 111. If you've not voted yet, (or even if you have(!)), please do so.

Many thanks to those who have already shown their support.


Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Three strikes and you're out

How hard is it to let your customers know when you change something?

Nanny Goat is in Dubai once again, and this time she declared her interest in availing Dubai Metro - until stocks last. So the Goat dropped into a Metro station a couple of days in advance to obtain a Nol card. It’s not possible to do this except by travelling to a station. Being able to buy a card when boarding a bus is too technologically demanding, it would seem.

And so we waited at the bus stop. And waited. And waited.

And then the Goat called the RTA, only to be told that bus route F4 – Mirdif West to Rashidiya – was cancelled at the end of August. In order to catch a feeder bus, the Goat and his frail, elderly, grey-bearded Nanny Goat, would have to walk to a bus stop on the F3 route.

Apparently the route changes were mentioned in the Gulf News (which the Goat doesn’t read every day) and publicised on the RTA’s website (in some obscure corner of the interwebs that the Goat can’t locate). Do passengers really have to check on-line every time they plan to use public transport?

How hard would it have been, when removing the timetable from the bus stop near the Crumbling Villa, to insert a notice to the effect that F4 was cancelled and F3 or F10 would have to be used? How about covering up the Bus Stop signs? The RTA hasn’t even turned off the bus stop lights, and the F4 stop nearest to Welcare Mirdif still has its air conditioning working for the benefit of the RTA’s non-existent bus passengers, awaiting the non-arrival of the non-existent F4 bus.

Thinking about it, feeder route F3 could just have been diverted around the old F4 route, but that also seems too difficult.

The Goats did eventually get to board a Metro train, two hours after originally arriving at a bus stop, and yes, the Metro was clean and efficient.

And returning home involved a long walk from the nearest bus stop, across a busy dual carriageway. The distance might be OK in November, but is likely to be quite nasty in August.

This is the third time the Goat has tried to use Dubai’s public transport system, and the third time the process has been fraught with difficulties. Small wonder he prefers to drive.


Sunday, November 14, 2010


From this week's quiz on the BBC's website. First time I've ever got full marks, and on my first go too.


Thursday, November 11, 2010

Bully off

This is a bit of a cathartic rant, brought about by recent exposure of the subject matter in the local and international media. Normal service will be resumed in due course. The reference to field hockey is a bit of an accident. While I was looking for a hockey-related picture I learned that ‘bullying off’ is no longer how a match is started. You can tell I’ve not played hockey in many years.

It’s pleasing to see that schools nowadays seem keen to publicise their Zero Tolerance to Bullies. Such a thing never existed when I was at school, all those aeons ago. In my day, back in the days of Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes, school bullies were simply a fact of life. I am nevertheless mystified about how bullying is controlled nowadays. Surely the “We’ll get you after school” syndrome remains unfortunately alive and well.

A whole series of big boys made my life in a succession of schools a form of purgatory for about 14 years. A side effect, perhaps, of my performing well academically but being a dismal failure on the sports field. Talking posh was never going to help; neither was being up to a year younger than my classmates . Torment was constant and unremitting, from physical assaults with fists, boots and hockey sticks, verbal jibes, theft of my personal property, to writing obscenities in my exercise books and on one occasion, vandalizing my bicycle so it had no brakes as I rode down the steep Dingle Road, unable to slow down for the A38 trunk road at the bottom.

“Stand up for yourself,” said my father, “Bullies are cowards. Hit them back and they’ll leave you alone.”

So I did. Unfortunately, in the real world, the proverbial Big Bad Wolf doesn’t run away never to be seen again. What actually happened is that I got into trouble for fighting, and then had my face filled in after school by the same gang of teenage thugs. So much for ne bis in idem. Trouble is, I always think beyond the immediate satisfaction of breaking the nose of my antagonist to the inevitable painful retaliation. Not fighting back doesn’t reduce bullying either; an unresisting target is an easy target.

It was all made worse by some members of staff. In front of classful of boys, a teacher once advised me that I was obviously gay for preferring badminton to soccer. Much derision followed. Another took apparent delight in destroying my self-esteem by ridiculing my work aloud in class again and again. Did he do it to others? Not so I noticed. Teachers’ taunts were parroted at me by my classmates for weeks, months and even years afterwards.

What did I do about it? I retired into a private and slightly unpleasant world of my own, submitted schoolwork on time, swotted for exams, and had few friends and no social life. It’s no little astonishment to me now that I didn’t simply give up and drop out.

What should I have done about it? Made friends with my tormentors, perhaps. Oh yes, that’s sure to work: the captain of the school soccer First XI and his knuckle-dragging cronies are sure to want to associate themselves with me. Given into my violent desires, perhaps, instead of suppressing them? I’d have become one of those same sociopaths who made my schooldays a misery. Telling a teacher or a parent produced little in the way of sympathy, and if a bully were hauled into the headmaster’s study he’d eventually catch up with me and wreak his revenge. All futile, then.

Thankfully the physical abuse ceased by 1980. To anyone who’s read this far and has suffered or is suffering as I did, I can confirm that things do eventually get better. Other than that, I’m afraid I don’t have any answers.

To my shame and irritation I can’t simply drop it and let bygones be bygones. Thirty years on, and very little is required to get a load of unpleasant memories flooding back as if they happened only yesterday.

The injustices systematically meted out on me and others are probably why I continue to detest injustice in all its various forms.


Tuesday, October 26, 2010

In memoriam

I attended a memorial service last weekend. Alistair, one of my old motorcycling friends, died unexpectedly in July but I couldn’t make it to his funeral in the States. But I was determined to go to the memorial in Cumbria. Furthermore, as the invitation requested tartan, Hawaiian shirts and motorcycle gear, I managed two of the three. A kilt doesn’t really go with winter motorcycling, does it?

Googling revealed that I could rent a motorbike from Hunts Honda in Manchester. This rather set up the other travel arrangements: Abu Dhabi to Manchester, with a short train ride between the airport and the bike shop. I maintain a reputation with the old Portsmouth Poly Motorcycle Club alumni, later Team Thrasher, that my preferred style of motorcycle involves a large plastic barn door on the front, shaft drive, and cavernous boxes on the back. But not a Goldwing. I rented a Pan European: the Honda ST1300, which is the bike Honda aims at exactly the same market that Kawasaki aims at with its Concours, 1400GTR.

Manchester was inevitably cold and damp. I’d brought all my own bike gear except for ‘waterproof’ winter gloves which I purchased from the bike shop. Getting cash out of the ATM proved a stressful and fruitless exercise as I had managed to forget my PIN. This sort of thing happens when you don’t use the card for many months. So I had to drop into Barclays to get the PIN reset. Luckily I’d brought a credit card too.

After picking up the Pan I was off oop north. The M6 motorway isn’t signposted anywhere in southern Manchester except towards Birmingham, and that is in entirely the wrong direction. Navigation was by keeping the sun more or less to my back until I spotted a sign advertising Lakeland. Ah, the M6 at last. And I didn’t need to resort to GPS: my navigation skills remain intact! And then came the rain.

I last rode a motorbike in the rain in the summer of 1998, and last rode in the cold in 1995. As the air temperature dropped from 10°C to 6°C, the dark and pendulous clouds dropped their load. Theoretically I could keep rolling and the barn door would keep most of the rain off. But as the rain came down in cats and dogs, I hit roadworks and was reduced to a soggy crawl, splashing through the poodles. I looked for a bridge to hide under, but these were Not Coming In Lancashire. Actually, there was one, but it was coned off and not accessible. ‘Waterproof’ gloves should not be confused with those that resist the ingress of water.

Further north, the Lune Valley is one of the wettest parts of the UK. Given that cars were racing past me in the rain and spray well in excess of speeds I was willing to do, perhaps a re-spelling of Lune is in order.

So that it was possible to get to the memorial in good time, and to mitigate any problems with delayed flights, volcanic eruptions or alien invasions, I had a spare day. I used this to head as far north as Hexham to see some other old friends for the first time in several years. Anyway, I still owed them a CD of their wedding photos that I took in the antediluvian Days Before Digital. There was a certain amount of reminiscing, and an appropriate quantity of Old Peculier was involved. Oh, and a proper breakfast before I set off for Kendal early the following morning.

I was glad of the Pan’s ambient air temperature display. When it shows numbers like 5°C, all the wet stuff on the road is at least known to be liquid, despite the ominous ‘Road liable to icing’ signs. And liquid water on the road at least offers limits to the lack of grip.

Truth to tell, I was even more pleased when the hotel appeared and I was able to get indoors and change out of my bike gear and into my Hawaiian shirt. More bikes appeared. Animal and DT both arrived on their current steeds, as did other friends, and through local contacts several more local bikers showed up for the memorial ride. Other old PPMCC members arrived too: Martin and Hedgepig. Facebook is marvellous for reconnecting with old friends, but perhaps we should keep in closer contact than once every 25 years.

Following the excellent memorial service, where we were able to look at some of Alistair’s superb photography and share reminiscences, anecdotes and other memories, as many as could donned motorcycle gear and headed off to a local beauty spot to scatter the ashes. The basic idea was to take Alistair on a final thrash up some bendy roads. We all went the pretty way; nobody got their pegs down or fell off. The cars took a more direct route and arrived before the bikes. There was no rain, and the view was spectacular.

The evening was spent chatting and commiserating with Alistair’s family and friends. And after another of those glorious unhealthy hearty breakfasts (I don’t think they’ve heard of ‘healthy’ in northern England...) the following morning I was off to Manchester to return the motorbike and head for the airport. The weather was cold, but wonderfully sunny.

It was an immense shock to lose Alistair too soon, and I extend my sympathy to those whom he had touched over the years. I am extremely glad that I made the effort to attend the memorial, and especially that it was possible to turn up on a motorcycle, one of Alistair’s favourite things.

Goodbye, buddy.


Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Attempted murder: Fine Dh500

I had the extreme misfortune to find myself on the wrong side of a 23 year old Emirati this morning. He tried to kill me.

Instead of the usual and illegal practice of tailgating in his gigantic GMC Sierra pickup in order to intimidate me and my Yaris out of the way, this gentleman rammed my car. Then he rammed it again and knocked it sideways. This is at high speed, in heavy traffic, in the left lane of the Emirates Road.

I wrestled to regain control and chased after the pickup, which was now making good its escape up the right-hand side of the road, and we pulled over on to the breakdown lane.

Eventually, two and a half hours later the police arrived. As I explained to the officer, “For one moment, I thought I was going to die.”

According to the Dubai Police website, my antagonist’s recent driving record is nothing to be proud of:-

  • Dh600 fine from Dubai Police on 29 August: Speeding.

  • Dh600 fine from Dubai Police on 01 September: Speeding.

  • Dh800 fine from Sharjah Police on 04 October: Don’t know, but it earned 2 black points.

And a Dh500 fine from Dubai Police on 19 October for attempted murder.

Less than a speeding ticket.


Monday, October 11, 2010

So much for the beautiful south

It could be Bani Yas, or anywhere;
Sweihan or Al Ain,
’cos after dark Arabia
All looks the bleedin’ same.

Is it reasonable, or am I completely out of order to imagine that, when heading towards Dubai, if I put my car in the lane labelled “Dubai” in white on a large blue signboard, then Dubai is the general direction I’ll find myself going in?

Apparently, it’s totally unreasonable.

I left Abu Dhabi on the wrong road last night, and instead of hurtling back past Raha Beach, I found myself on the Al Ain road. Obviously, for anyone who lives in the area, there will be a left turn somewhere to take me north instead of east. I missed the turning on to Airport Road because of a platoon of Ashok Leyland buses impersonating a train. But not to worry; there’s a junction on to the Emirates Road eleven kilometres further down the road. There were even numerous illuminated gantry signs confirming that a Dubai turning was coming up.

But at the last moment, it turned out that the new improved interchange 24°18.5’N 054°36’E is in fact not yet open for business. And covering up the deceitful direction signage is apparently beyond the wit of Man.

So on to Al Wathba. A further six kilometres to a junction. Now I turned in a generally northerly direction, which turned out to be another wrong decision. The road is a deceptive ram-rod straight dual carriageway (apart from one inexplicably single carriageway section), and at every roundabout the direction signage helpfully confirmed that this was an appropriate direction for Dubai. Until, after 13km, the road was blocked. Presumably the next section is still under construction. Street lighting stretched ahead and over the horizon, illuminated direction signs advertised Dubai as a place to go, yet I was now obliged to make a U-turn into a place called Al Shamkha.

Naturally, all direction signage now vanished and I ended up using the moon to work out my orientation. Eventually I ended up on the Sweihan Road. I don’t want to go to Sweihan! I want Dubai! They’re in different directions!

Four kilometres to an interchange. But, as I noted above, it was under construction and barriered off, so the “Dubai” signs were useless. An additional eight kilometres to a roundabout where I could at last make a U-turn and head back to Abu Dhabi.

Two and a half hours it took me to get home last night, with a 60km detour.

It was all my fault, of course, for making the initial slip-up as I crossed Maqta Bridge. But how about some helpful signage? And what’s wrong with covering up direction signs that are – temporarily – completely wrong?


Monday, September 27, 2010

Crossing the line

Here is a suggestion for an excellent moneyspinner that Abu Dhabi has yet to realise. Simply erect an enforcement camera that takes a snap of every vehicle driving on the breakdown lane approaching Maqta bridge.

Yesterday, my seventy-minute queue to travel five kilometres (at the dismal average speed of a 4.3kph walking pace) wasn’t in the least helped by the inordinate number of queue jumpers who razzed up the breakdown lane and pushed in at the end while the constabulary looked on. One of the overtaking masses clipped my door mirror. Somebody clearly doesn’t know how wide a Nissan Skyline GT-R is.

This morning I tried a different and improved route. Today the queue was only for ten minutes. In my boredom I counted cars. Three hundred. That’s one every two seconds, whizzing past me and the other queuers.

Given that driving in the breakdown lane allegedly costs Dh600 and earns six Black Points, some basic arithmetic suggests that fines of over a million dirhams could be collected in one hour on one breakdown lane.

An enforcement camera installation costs approximately Dh120,000 to install. It would pay for itself in under seven minutes.

Some sort of enforcement really ought to happen. Part of me is simply envious of those who don’t wait their turn and persistently get away with it. Another part recognises that shoving in actually makes the queue go even slower; queue jumpers are part of the problem, not the solution.

But my concern mainly relates to a friend whose wife was killed on a breakdown lane. She was changing a wheel and was hit by a car illegally overtaking on the hard shoulder. If these clowns aren’t dissuaded in some way, somebody will eventually kill someone.


Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Pet shop boys

Once more, the Goat has fallen victim to ‘Not Coming In Dubaitis’. This time it involves the tropical fish.

There is no shortage of shops selling fish tanks, air pumps, power heads, gravel, imitation coral, plastic skeletons and treasure chests, and fake Greek temple ruins. And neither is there any problem finding someone who’ll sell tropical fish. But what happens when some of the electric hardware goes wrong? Does anyone carry spares?

Guess. Go on; you’ll never guess.

An aquarium power head comprises an electromagnet in a sealed waterproof plastic box. This drives a tiny impeller which circulates and aerates the water. But when the impeller comes adrift from its magnet, it sounds like bricks in a tumble dryer. Obviously there is an urgent need to replace the broken part. It should not be necessary to replace the entire power head.

The first shop had some replacement impellers, and they were dirt cheap. But all the wrong size. Nobody else had any at all. I rode my motorbike all over town, to be regaled with variations on a theme of “No” ranging from “Sorry, Mr Goat...” to “Neanderthal Grunt.”

Eventually I was forced to throw away a perfectly good power head and buy a complete new unit in order to obtain an impeller worth a shilling. As usual, the electric box came with about half a metre of cable, which is nowhere near enough when electricity and water are involved.

The stinking shops in Satwa that sell tropical fish and ornamental birds were right at the bottom of my list. In addition to the odious Neanderthal Grunt, which was available in all the shops, these places are a continual reminder of the unspeakable conditions from which animals are offered for sale. I hate going there and seeing the wretched creatures and the atrocious conditions of their accommodation.

A couple of months ago, 7DAYS ran a front page that did the dirt on the Sharjah animal market. This was inevitably followed by a host of indignant Letters to the Editor concerning dying animals sold to unsuspecting punters with clean bills of health from the local veterinarian.

Unsuspecting? Why is anyone surprised? You can see the overstocked tanks of putrid water with dead fish floating; you can see the rheumy-eyed, runny-nosed kittens; you can see the pony with a ribcage that resembles a bicycle rack. Of course, actually buying any of these animals to rescue them only dooms more to the same fate, and even the most passionate animal lover can’t save them all.

How can people be so cruel? When you see (or read in the local papers) how some folk treat their housemaids, is it really any surprise, the treatment meted out to mere dumb animals?


Friday, September 17, 2010


There must have been some mistake. When I asked car rental companies how much it would cost to borrow a car for a fortnight, they all seemed to think that I meant ‘purchase’ rather than ‘rent’, ‘hire’ or ‘lease’. It was clearly not a sensible option to go swanning around Italy on a road trip, so Beloved Wife and Goat made some fundamental changes to the holiday plan. Instead of driving, we’d use public transport and stay for several days in each of three towns.

“Dear Diary, today the petrolheaded Goat chose public transport...”

This plan turned out to be a good one. We’d only have used a car every few days, and had to pay to rent it plus park it and not use it, and this assumes that we’d have been able to locate a parking space.

The shortage of parking is of epidemic proportions in Rome. It’s worse in Florence. And in Naples, double-parking appears to be the norm. Most private vehicles are scooters. They’re everywhere. Some traditional 1950s style Lambrettas and Vespas remain, but nowadays most are modern, plastic and very Japanese. Those tiny wheels must be a lot of fun on polished cobbled streets when it rains.

Cars are also titchy, with plenty of Smart cars and others of their ilk in evidence, and almost no larger-than-life bourgemobiles. A possible consequence, perhaps, of petrol costing €1.50 a litre. Equivalent to about AED7.20 or ₤1.25 and that’s scary! Choosing public transport over driving was looking ever better.

We found a bus from Rome airport direct to the centre of town for not too much money, and bumped our small-wheeled luggage across the cobbles to our centrally-located hotel. From here, it was an easy walk to the nearest metro station, and the main collection of ancient Roman sights was only a slightly longer walk. Having showered off our travel stains, Beloved Wife and Goat set off in search of things to look at, photograph or eat.

Beloved Wife had got on line and ordered a ‘Roma Pass’ for each of us. We collected the ticket from a desk in the airport. It basically provides three calendar days’ worth of public transport, admission to some of the exhibitions, and allows the bearer straight to the front of the two-hour queue to get into the Colosseum.

Having walked around the Colosseum, Capitoline museum, Forum, Palatine and Circus Maximus (or what’s left of it), we grabbed the first bus and ended up going unexpectedly to the bus terminus. Not to worry; the metro station was nearby, so we grabbed a train back to our hotel.

I have a sneaky suspicion that Rome’s metro is smaller than advertised. Rather than descending the steps to an underground station as one might expect, there’s invariably a great long dingy corridor to walk along. Passengers walk halfway to their desinations, apparently. The trains are, however, frequent and quick. The rolling stock is eerily similar to Dubai metro, complete with video screens and three-way poles to hold.

We exhausted our Roma passes, and with a remaining need to use public transport, we learned that ticketing is time-based. Having paid one Euro, passing the turnstile activates the ticket and it’s good for 75 minutes of travel. How far can YOU go in 75 minutes? You can grab the train, then the bus, then another bus. Repeat ad nauseum or until your time expires. Unlike the Dubai metro, there is no requirement to buy a multi-use ticket (although such a thing does exist for regular travellers), nor a need to swipe your card on exit so that the system doesn’t believe you stayed on the bus until the end of Time. Crucially, you don’t have to go to a major railway station to buy a ticket before attempting to travel; you simply buy a ticket for €1 by inserting a coin in the machine on the bus, at a bus stop, or in the metro station.

The system relies on trust, especially on the buses. The driver does only that, and it’s incumbent on the passenger to validate his ticket in a machine on the bus.

In Naples, we were eventually treated to the Great Neapolitan Floor Show, starring a wizened old man with a walking stick and an expired bus pass, and a ticket inspector who wished to fine him €500 for travelling without a valid ticket. There was a heated and animated Italian argument (with added Semaphore) until the bus stopped. At this point, the wizened old man grabbed back his bus pass and legged it through the open door like Linford Christie, with the inspector in hot pursuit.

The ticket validation thing is vitally important on the trains too. A cheap train ticket is valid for a month, and the passenger has to get it date-stamped in a machine before boarding. Failure to do so can cost €40, although smiling sweetly, pleading ignorance and “Sorry, non comprendo Italiano” provided a lucky escape.

The very fast Eurostar train from Florence to Naples, at €78 each, was a lot more expensive, but took only three hours instead of ten. And 300km/h is faster than I’ve ever been before without actually becoming airborne.

We spent one day visiting the Roman sites of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Both buried in the AD79 eruption of Mt Vesuvius, they were rediscovered in the eighteenth century and are now thoroughly excavated and open to the public. The rather rickety local train stops at both Pompei Scavi and Ercolano Scavi, and a €20 buys admission to both sites. I only bring up Pompeii in some words about wheels because of the eerie wheel ruts in Pompeii’s streets. Think how many heavy wagons ground their way along the stone-flagged streets.

Horse-drawn traffic remains in evidence in both Rome and Florence. We chose not to avail ourselves of this well-known tourist trap, selecting Shanks’ Pony instead.

The Isle of Capri is an hour’s fast ferry away from the Port of Naples. The boat trip made a pleasant change from the rather seedy streets of Naples. There’s a great view of Vesuvius too.

Capri was awash with other tourists too. We grabbed the funicular railway up a very steep hill, and spent the afternoon wandering around some very tiny paths. The only vehicles were miniature electric golf-carts used for moving hotel guests’ belongings, collecting trash, and even law enforcement.

A long walk around to the southern side of the island eventually yielded some splendid views.

There are roads on Capri, but not very many. Of course, the buses are necessarily titchy in order to negotiate hairpin bends. Overall, the lack of motorised transport and the Italian buildings (surprise!)eerily reminded me of Porthmeirion.

There are advantages of not driving, besides the expense, trying to find a parking space, and adjusting to the interesting Italian style. Beer o’clock, and no worries about drink-driving. All that walking – and trust me, we walked miles – is very thirsty work, and sometimes a Coke really isn’t sufficient. Cheers!


Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Return to the Yaristocracy

It seems that the Yaristocratic masses have mucked up Hertz’ business plan. Presumably there is an average rental income gleaned off each car before its residual value starts to get badly affected by large numbers on the odometer, and having the Goat and all the other Dubai to Abu Dhabi Yaristocrats each whacking 2000km on it every week does not suit the business plan at all. Consequently, despite a signed rental agreement to the contrary, Hertz changed the ‘unlimited’ part of its terms and conditions while the Goat was swanning around Italy, and capped the monthly distance at 4000km with any excess charged at 30 fils per kilometre. And that’s rather a lot of additional cost at the end of the month.

This is not good for the Goat’s finances, so following some fervent bleating, he got the 4000km changed to 5000km. Meanwhile, alternative options are being sought.

One of the alternatives is only available in Dubai. It’s a combination of bus and metro.

The Goat’s previous experience, reported here, was not altogether good, with the main problem being having to buy (as in hand over cash in advance of any actual fare) a prepayment ‘nol’ card and charge it with credit prior to embarking on the journey. Having done this, there were two dirhams of credit remaining at the end of the return journey and, it being late evening, there was no apparent way of recharging the card for next time. Another issue was the inane muzak on the train, although the Goat is pleased to note that this has apparently now ceased. Good riddance.

The Goat was recently invited over to Chateau Dogs in Arabian Ranches. He doesn’t drink and drive, so public transport was a compulsory option. The first problem was recharging the ‘nol’ card. Per Dubai RTA’s website, nowhere in Mirdif can do it. On-line recharge is, after a year, ‘coming soon’. So His Caprinity had to stop off at a metro station while Yarising his way back from Abu Dhabi.

Brilliant! You need to travel by private, personal transport in order to be permitted to use the public transport system. What genius thought that one up?

Having credit, the journey from Mirdif to Rashidiya to Mall of the Emirates to Arabian Ranches only cost five dirhams... and took two and a quarter hours. Most of this was in air-conditioned comfort; almost none was spent standing around awaiting connections. And here is a fundamental problem with the system in its current incarnation: it’s mind-numbingly slow. The Filipino crossing himself and kissing his crucifix when the Arabian Ranches feeder bus set off was also less than confidence-inspiring.

The taxi home took 20 minutes, cost less than Dh50, including tip, and deposited the Goat right outside the Crumbling Villa. Not that there were any buses or trains running in the wee small hours.

Despite Ibn Battuta mall being open until midnight, for example, the last metro finishes at Rashidiya terminal at 11pm, so you’ve got to finish your shopping, restaurant or cinema by 9:30pm at the latest in order to stand any chance of getting back to Mirdif. In a society where many families apparently don’t even consider dragging their children out to the mall until 9pm, it doesn’t make the metro the most convenient option, does it?


Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Gods and Heroes and Villains

The plans for a trip to Italy have been thwarted on numerous occasions. Most recently, the Revenge of Hephaestus kept Muggins in the UK. In the style of Ford Prefect, he “…came for a week and got stuck for fifteen years.” At least, that’s what it felt like. And being made redundant five days after bending over backwards to get back to work was to add insult to injury.

Anyway, it transpired that the new employer’s leave year ends on 30 September, and the policy is one of ‘Use it or lose it.’ The Goat had accrued just enough annual leave entitlement for two weeks off. Italy, here we come!

More blog posts will follow as the Goat meshes his detritus, but just for now here are a few sample photos from the extensive and eclectic collection amassing on the camera’s memory chip...

The Forum of ancient Rome - view from the Palatine

St Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City - Queuing to go through security, evrybody takes this photo

View of San Lorenzo from the top of Il Duomo, Florence

Cerberus (not at all Fluffy) - the inside of Il Duomo, Florence

Herculaneum Ancient and Modern - With Vesuvius ever present


Monday, August 23, 2010

Les Mis

Cruise control is brilliant. Simply get the vehicle up to speed and hit ‘set’, and with hooves off the throttle, the Goatmobile maintains that speed up hill and down dale. Of course, the Goat needs to keep both eyes open in case he catches up with a slow-moving Echo or a Sunnyman, and naturally there remains the obligation to keep his wits: both halves.

The technique for not getting speeding tickets on the daily commute whilst, as they say in the Institute of Advanced Motorists, ‘maintaining adequate progress’ appears to be to set the cruise at just a trace under the speed limit plus 20kph. And a two-tonne Goatmobile at 139.9kph is a lot of metal at a lot of velocity. The system seems to work. Both the Every Emirate Except Dubai and the Dubai (because Dubai is Special) traffic fines websites confirm no outstanding violations up to today.

Speeding tickets seem to be attracted to the Yaris like wasps to a jam pot. With no cruise control, the threat of a BMW-shaped dent in the blunt end encourages ever increasing speeds. Maybe the Goat should watch for the cameras rather than obsessing about that radiator grille filling his rear-view mirror. Or else dawdle along in the second lane at a sedate pace with the wobbly-wheeled pickups.

Why, incidentally, do the slowest drivers pick Lane 2? The Goat’s theory is that it’s because trucks are limited to 80kph and restricted to Lane 1, where they drive in convoy at that speed limit. The ancient van driver either can’t or won’t exceed 65kph, neither does he want a Mitsubishi Canter in his load bed, so he drives in Lane 2 and allows the trucks illegally to undertake. A side effect is that, in the absence of trucks, it’s theoretically possible to drive in a completely empty Lane 1 at R17 (which, as any fan of Douglas Adams will realise, is ‘no fixed velocity, but clearly far too fast.’)

Upon crossing the border into Abu Dhabi, it’s possible to go faster. Local legend has it that the cameras are set at 160kph, notwithstanding the 120kph advertised speed limit. The Goat was amused recently to read a letter in 7DAYS, the gist of which was a whinge that someone had been busted for 161kph whereas he’d allegedly been doing not a trace over 159. In the posted 120 limit; can you hear the high-pitched strains of the world’s tiniest violin?

Having calibrated his speedo through Clarissa the GPS, the Goat is confident that his oversized tyres don’t make the actual speed any less than that indicated by the instrument.

Picture the scene: Motoring at 135kph, not daring to go faster owing to the cameras, there regularly remains the very real danger of getting a three pointed star up the arse. In order to get out of the Merc’s way involves slowing to 90kph and moving into the slower traffic to the right. And the slowing is interpreted as a deliberate snub. Cue wild flashing of headlights, horn hooting and gestures that might get the Goat deported if he did them back.

So this morning the Goat experimented. The Goatmobile looks aggressive from the front, so today it was driven from Ghantoot to Shahama at exactly 159kph.

Initially the effect was startling, with the fast lane traffic parting like the Red Sea in front of a bunch of folk being pursued by Egyptians. Yet presently a black Pathfinder appeared in the Goatmobile’s mirror, and the usual tailgating and headlight flashing started. How many speeding tickets did you earn while catching up?

It did strike the Goat as amusing that a Land Cruiser with a vanity plate, for whom he vacated the left lane, was apparently being assertively piloted by Jean Valjean.

“Men like you can never change,
Men like you can never change,
No, 24601...”


Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Because we can

What are the requirements for buying a car? Hand over the money and, assuming you want to drive it on the road, ensure you have a driving licence and some motor insurance. Simples.

Not in Dubai it isn’t. At least, not when other emirates are involved.

Stage 1: Find out the rules.
    The very nice Big Cheese in Tasjeel advises that if you have an Abu Dhabi residence visa, normal procedure would be to register the vehicle in Abu Dhabi. But if you live in Dubai (because Abu Dhabi is way too expensive) there’s a workaround.

    Produce proof of a Dubai residential address. A tenancy contract is good. Then registering a vehicle in Dubai will be no problem.

Stage 2: Find a suitable vehicle.
    Enter Dubizzle, the small ads, the Goat who knows about cars, and a lot of weeding wheat from chaff. Eventually find one and agree a price, with terms and conditions. “The vendor ensures it passes inspection, and pays for any work needed to achieve this.” etc.

Stage 3: Check with the Goat who knows about cars that you have everything.
    The Goat suggests that, in addition to your UAE driving licence and a copy of the tenancy contract, the buyer should also bring his passport and visa copy (because his Emirates ID card won’t be acceptable), a letter of no objection from the Company confirming the buyer’s employment status, another letter asserting that he actually does live where he says he lives, and that it’s OK to buy a Dubai-registered car and re-register it in Dubai. All letters must be originals on headed notepaper with the stamp of a major, multinational Company that’s been trading in the UAE for 30 years.

Stage 4: Hit a brick wall.
    Confront the Official behind the counter who says that the paperwork is not in order.

    “Don’t blame me; I’m only a minor peon, flexing my minuscule muscles by blindly applying invented rules because I can.”

    The NOCs from the Company are essentially not good enough. The Official requires a DEWA bill in order to prove that the buyer lives where he says he lives. With a DEWA bill, or an original rubber stamp from the Real Estate Regulatory Authority (that is closed at 8pm, obviously), there will be no problem getting the car registered. It would be possible to deal with the problem today, but the Big Cheese is off sick and is therefore unable to waive this Official’s recently-invented requirement.

Stage 5: More brickwork.
    The following morning, the lady behind the counter says that it’s impossible to register a car in Dubai if the buyer’s visa is Abu Dhabi. It will shortly turn out that this assertion is in fact a lie. She initially suggests that the buyer and seller return at 3pm (when, because it’s Ramadan, the office will be shut). Then she says that if the buyer can produce a telephone landline bill in his name, it will be no problem.

    Returning with a phone bill, ...and a DEWA bill, ...and an NOC, ...and the tenancy contract, ...and the passport, ...and the visa, ...and the driving licence, another seat-polisher spends a good five minutes apparently scrutinizing every character on every sheet of every document before he starts to mistype the details into his computer terminal.

    Payment is made, and the buyer is now the proud owner of a Land Rover Discory. [sic]

As anticipated, each stage of the car-buying process is subject to many variations of the rules, regulations and requirements that are interpretations of the real rules, and occasionally made up on the spot. And having made something up, no matter how ridiculous or unreasonable, it’s impossible for Officialdom to back down again.

The Goat had explained that a one-stop shop where the vehicle is inspected, tested, and checked for ownership, insurance and any outstanding traffic violations is basically a very good idea. How embarrassing that in practice such a simple procedure required four separate visits to Tasjeel and about twenty separate sheets of paper.

The reason for this frustraneous experience is easily explained by Hanlon’s Razor: “Never attribute to malice what can adequately be explained by stupidity.”


Saturday, August 07, 2010


The local climate is hellish on tyres. Off-roaders deflate for sand driving, and this stresses and cracks the sidewalls, as well as heats up the air within. So it’s hardly surprising that we as drivers are encouraged to check the pressures and inspect our tyres regularly for damage and deterioration.

Supposedly, if the tyres are over four years old, when a vehicle is presented for inspection it will fail. The rule seems to be “no tyres over five years old”, and obviously if it’s over four at this year’s inspection, it’ll become a mobile traffic offence within a year.

How much of this actually happens in the Real World - or even here? Tyres have a date stamp on the sidewall that typically reads something like “1809” which means that it was manufactured in Week 18 of 2009, and it’s from this date that the five-year clock starts ticking. Did you check the date of manufacture when you last bought tyres? I did, and insisted that one of them be replaced with a newer version before it was even fitted. “Three summers” is the recommended life for tyres in the UAE, so says the manager over at Renaissance Tires. I wish my motorbike tyres would last three summers. Ten thousand kilometres maximum, if I’m lucky!

Tyres suffer an inordinate amount of abuse, and car tyres are usually cracked and knackered well before they’re down to the treadwear indicators. Yet we can still find tyres that are as bald as an American eagle. Apart from the legal aspect, worn-out treadless tyres have zero grip in wet conditions and can pop without warning. Check out the shredded rubber all over the Abu Dhabi – Dubai highway. Each one tells a scary story.

It’s also worth checking the speed and temperature grades stamped on the sidewalls. There’s some dodgy 4x4 rubber out there that’s only rated for 100kph, and because it’s mostly plastic it grips in the wet like a fried egg in a Teflon pan.

So it doesn’t rain in the UAE? Well, mostly true, but you often get spillages from irrigated landscaping flowing on to the roundabouts. Unexpected loss of grip on a sharp bend? Thrilling moment.

Making the unreasonable but inevitable comparison with the UK:-

    A lot of British roads are narrow, bendy, often damp, frequently covered with trees and lined with ditches and walls. Compare with the ram-rod straight Emirates roads, where running off the highway should merely involve a bumpy ride down a 1:6 gravel slope into the adjacent desert.

    Defective tyres contributed to 1% of all reported UK accidents in 2008. Defective tyres contribute to “more than half of road traffic accidents” according to Dubai RTA as reported in last Thursday’s 7DAYS.

    Dubai Police 2002 statistics say 13% of all accidents involved an overturned vehicle; in 2005 it was 7%. Compare with UK where in 2008, 3.8% of car accidents involved an overturn.

I have the 2002 and 2005 reports as hard copies, but the UK stats came from here.

Where is all this leading? Last week I was leaving Abu Dhabi and a car passed me, blew a tyre, and came to a steady halt on the verge. I stopped to see that the driver was alright, and offered assistance, which was much appreciated by the driver who would otherwise have had to wait to be rescued by her husband who was in Dubai. Hence the “Goat in Shining Armour” cliché. The spare was good, and all tools were available. The tyre was complete trash, shredded to rubberised string. I was relieved to note that the rotation direction was OK. It would have been twice the work to put the spare on the left and the left on the right.

When I had a tyre blowout a couple of years ago I wrestled the car to the roadside and changed the wheel without fuss, apart from whinging about the rain and the dark and having to find the wheel nuts by Braille.

So why did the truck that blew out a tyre in front of Beloved Wife on the Emirates Road spin through 540 degrees before stopping in the middle lane? Why do so many drivers seem to lose control after a blowout and put the car on its roof? Why did a minibus that had a puncture swerve into the concrete barrier and shower Beloved Wife’s car with loose gravel? Just as well there was a barrier between the main line and the service road...

And why does a “Tyre blowout in race for red light...” cause an utterly appalling fatal, multi-vehicle pile-up and fire on Al Sufouh Road?

I’m glad that’s sorted out: It was the tyre wot dunnit. Not racing on the highway; not driving without due care; not driving like a buffoon. Bad tyre! Doubtless the police and the courts will throw the book at it.


Sunday, August 01, 2010

Frantic corybantic antics

The Goat has been busy. Too busy, in fact, to put in writing those delightful little quirks of Life in the Lands of the Sand. The latest ignominies perpetrated by that old faithful Red Triangles Bank shall, for the time being, go unblogged. So too shall the Goat's most recent experiences with Itisalot.

Most of the Goat's frantic lifestyle derives from living in the Crumbling Villa and working in Abu Dhabi. This eats up about 14 hours a day, leaving six for sleeping and the remaining five for shopping, eating, cleaning, blogging and shoring up the Villa's most urgent crumbles. Yes, that does add up to more than 24, which illustrates the point.

Since commenting on a previous blog post about how the commute was made marginally more tolerable by having the BBC World Service on the radio, the Goat was astonished one evening to encounter classical music on 87.9MHz instead of 'Outlook'. He actually phoned the radio station broadcasting this music to be told that "We've stolen the frequency from the BBC. Shhh!"

It turns out that without notice, Auntie Beeb - or at least the Foreign Office, which apparently is the entity that funds the World Service - stopped renting the VHF band in the UAE, and listeners are obliged to use Short Wave on a variety of frequencies that change throughout the day. Meanwhile, Abu Dhabi Classic FM broadcasts on 87.9MHz in Dubai, 91.6MHz in Abu Dhabi and 105.2MHz in Al Ain. Although until last week the Abu Dhabi signal was so feeble it was amost inaudible even in the Capital.

Classic FM in the UK was once described by one of the presenters as "A rock-music station that plays classical rather than rock music." Is Abu Dhabi Classic FM essentially the same station? Certainly the station's theme tune is the same, and the playlist generally comprises bite-size chunks of mostly well-known pieces of music composed mainly by dead guys in wigs. Cue Monty Python's "Decomposing Composers" song.

Not that the Goat is complaining. It beats the pants off boom-tsch boom-tsch boom-tsch boom-tsch and tech-tech-tech-techno pop, and takes some of the sting out of the daily commute. Longer tunes mean a lower deejay/music ratio, and this is generally a Good Thing.

Some observations. Three-in-a-row plays take about 20 minutes, and then there's a distinct lack of back-announcing by the deejay. What was that tune? It sounded like Mozart, or one of that crowd (thank you Tom Lehrer), but from which five-act opera that he wrote when he was nine? It is immensely irritating to get to the end of a long series of pieces, only then to cut to the news or other public announcement.

And to the presenters: please, please, please note: Playing classical guitar is not something John Williams does while he's not conducting the Boston Pops. John Towner Williams wrote the music for Indiana Jones, Star Wars, Schlindler's List, ET, Harry Potter and Superman; John Christopher Williams is the guitarist and former member of Sky.

Finally, the cacophone is a theoretical musical instrument that should not be given any air time. Its name is derived from either of two origins; possibly both. Experimental music, including playing all the black notes at the same time, torturing tuneless scratching out of a violin, and beating a trombone with a hockey stick, have no place in the Goat's music collection.

Oh, and the Goat's musical taste is somewhat eclectic. Look at the screenshot from his Facebook page.


Friday, July 23, 2010

We've got the power

I'm ever so glad I no longer live in Sharjah. The daily commute to Abu Dhabi is bad enough from the Crumbling Villa. It would be intolerable if I had to do the Sharjah schlepp to Dubai too. In fact, I only ever lived in Sharjah at all because that's where I worked. And as Beloved Wife absolutely refused to live in Grumpy Goat Towers, I moved out a couple of years ago.

The past few years have seen increasing strains put on Sharjah's electricity system. The increase in numbers of residences and businesses has outstripped the electricity and water authority's (SEWA's) ability and/or inclination to provide more 'lectric or sufficient electric string to deliver it.

Result: rolling power cuts. An hour or two once in a blue moon might, in extremis, be tolerable. This is what happened with tedious regularity when I first moved into a flat in Abu Shaghara district, and I lived in perpetual fear of being trapped all night in the lift.

But now we have reports of huge power cuts lasting hours and hours. Frozen foods are ruined; people are trapped in lifts; traffic lights don't work. And when it's pushing 40C at night and close to 50C in the heat of the day, the lack of air conditioning is not trivial.

Massive numbers of the affected population live in apartment blocks. Unlike traditional houses, and exactly like modern, traditional-looking houses, the residences are not designed to function without air conditioning. With neither aircon nor insulation there's no way to pump out the heat that pours in through the walls.

What solutions are on offer?
  • Sleeping in your air-conditioned car is possible.

  • A paraffin stove in your high-rise might be the only way to get cooked food.

  • It might be possible to run a portable air conditioner off a petrol-powered generator.

But these solutions are fraught with their own set of problems:-
  • Carbon monoxide poisoning.

  • Food poisoning from putrid defrosted and inadequately cooked food.

  • Apartment blocks burning to the ground.

All these problems and more, available to Sharjah residents as a result of SEWA's inability or unwillingness to provide the services for which they charge.


Saturday, July 17, 2010

You can fuel some of the people all of the time...

The Gulf News recently published an article on how to save fuel, or more specifically, money, following the recent petrol price hike. For those readers who don’t keep pace with motor fuel prices in the UAE, petrol went up by 11% in April, and then a further 13% in July. Although, to be fair, the price of ‘Special’ did drop in January 2010 by 0.35% to my pleasant surprise.

A pity that the article seems to have been lifted word-for-word from Forbes. The only locally-produced word is the first one: ‘Dubai’.

Everything else relates to normal custom and practice in the States. Increased driving in the summer as suggested by the article does not match the Gulf tradition of emptying, with the remaining few priapic stallions limiting their travels to the bars of Sheikh Zayed Road.

And what of all these ‘miles’ and ‘gallons’ and ‘dollars’ and ‘ski racks’? ‘Ski racks’? Who in Dubai carries a ski rack? Is it too much to ask for some words, some practical fuel-saving tips, to be written for local consumption? Or maybe petrol at 30p, (or $1.72 per US gallon) is still regarded as ludicrously cheap. Given that with few exceptions (Antigua, Belize, Burma, Grenada, Guyana, Sierra Leone, E&OE), only the USA continues to dispense motor fuel in non-metric units, so some litres and kilometres might have been nice, as would have dirhams. Believe it or not, we don’t all mentally convert everything into dollars.

Even the metric-resistant UK now sells stuff by the kilogramme, litre and metre. Only on the roads do miles, yards and feet persist. Oh, and in pubs. Draught beer by the pint instead of the smaller half-litre. Huzzah!

Britain’s conversion from gallons to litres for motor fuel occurred back in the 1980s. Using the excuse that the old mechanical pump meters couldn’t handle more than one currency unit per volume unit, the oil companies switched to a smaller volume unit. How we laughed, way back then, at the prospect of unrealistically expensive £1 a litre. Oh, how Europe now yearns for the halcyon days of £1 a litre!

So Brits ended up buying petrol by the litre and burning it by the mile. Frankly, the ‘mile per litre’ unit of fuel consumption is an unholy hybrid; a spawn of two independent systems that will end in tears. As NASA found out in 1999.

Why did the UAE suddenly move from gallons to litres in January 2010? To align with most of the rest of planet Earth? Or to obfuscate the scale of impending price rises? The cynical might note that whacking 13% on the cost of a gallon of petrol (Dh6.91 for ‘Special’ becomes Dh7.82) looks like a gigantic increase, whereas sneaking 13% on to Dh1.52 to make it Dh1.72 is a mere 20 fils.

Precisely the same stunt was pulled in the UK, notwithstanding the mechanical metering excuse. Twenty pence on a gallon looks like a lot. Five pence on a litre looks less. Less is more. Freedom is slavery.

And I bet this is one reason for the public’s resistance to litres in the States: the suspicion that a change from customary units will inevitably be used as a means to rip off Joe Public.

Yet elsewhere in the automotive world, the metric system has been accepted with little or no fuss. Hardly anyone refers to engine capacities in cubic inches. There is a widespread understanding that a 50cc engine is for a moped, a 750cc motorbike will be acceptably rapid, 1800cc in a car is good for a family saloon and irresponsible when slung between two wheels (hee, hee, hee!). And a decent 4x4 wants around four litres.

But tyre pressures persist in pounds per square inch, even in metric-land. “Drop them to 15,” I’ll say, and everyone understands that I mean 15psi. Saying “one bar” or “100 kilopascals” or especially “10 newtons per square centimetre” will produce some strange looks in the desert; perhaps less so at the annual Mad Scientists’ Desert Campout. Newtons used to confuzzle me until someone told me that a 16 stone (i.e., well-built) bloke weighs about a kilonewton.

Brits over an uncertain age can’t do bodyweight in anything other than stones. To me, “245lb” is meaningless without doing mental arithmetic. It’s 17½ stone. That makes sense. Fourteen years of living in a metric environment means that to me, this “111kg bloke” also has meaning.

What should perhaps have happened in the UK was to go through the hell of instant metrication of everything. Instead of which, Brits have been drip-fed metric measures over nearly half a century, yet imperial measures persist on the roads and in pubs. Younglings get taught only metric in school, and then have to be bilingual in order to discuss quantities with their older relatives. Nanny Goat, for example, is keen to quote “a litre of water’s a pint and three quarters” and “two and a quarter pounds of jam weigh about a kilogramme” but she cannot apply these conversions while doing her grocery shopping. She converts petrol back into imperial gallons before being suitably outraged.

Boat fuel consumption continues to be expressed in gallons per hour when motor cruising at a particular speed. Perhaps ‘litres per hour’ produces scarily large numbers. Certainly ‘miles per gallon’ produces frighteningly low ones. Because knots – nautical miles per hour – are unavoidably associated with minutes of latitude, which is how distances are measured on nautical charts, there is a good and sensible reason for retaining nautical miles. I despair of those navigators who do their passage planning in nautical miles and then convert knots to kph because that’s what’s on the GPS.

Similarly in aviation. Logically, nautical miles make sense for the same reason that they do in the maritime world. I s’pose that’s why, “Ladies and gentlemen, we are cruising at 29,000 feet...” Perhaps “nine thousand metres” doesn’t sound high enough. A pilot friend of mine told me that the Russians use metres for altitude. Not enough metres: witness the elderly and possibly overloaded Antonovs desperately trying to gain altitude over the Crumbling Villa on those hot summer nights.

Everyone appears to prefer the term ‘mileage’ when discussing distances travelled by motor vehicles.
    “What mileage is your YARiS doing on your Abu Dhabi commute, Mr Goat?”

    “Oh, about 1800 kilometres a week.”
The trouble is, ‘kilometrage’ sounds less like a distance and more like an expression of truculent dissatisfaction with the metric system.

    Although the UK has officially adopted the metric system, there is no intention to replace the mile on road signs in the near future, owing to the British public’s attachment to traditional imperial units of distance, i.e., miles, yards and inches, and the cost of changing speed signs (which could not be replaced during general maintenance, like distance signs, for safety reasons). As of 11 September 2007, the EU has allowed Britain to continue using the imperial systems. EU commissioner Günter Verheugen said: “There is not now and never will be any requirement to drop imperial measurements.”

    In the US, the National Highway System Designation Act of 1995 prohibits the use of federal-aid highway funds to convert existing signs or purchase new signs with metric units. However, the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices since 2000 published in both metric and American Customary Units.

Friday, July 09, 2010

Lear, and present danger

The Muse strikes again. But which one? Not epic enough for Calliope, I’m aiming more at a combination of Euterpe, Thalia and Melpomene. And the picture from the BBC’s website on 17 June 10 was at least part of my inspiration.

The Client and the Architect went to work
On a glittering tower of glass.
With ink still damp from the company stamp,
The groundbreaking came to pass.
With blueprints approved, the Client then moved
The tower ten feet to the right.
“It’s better by far when arriving by car.
Particularly at night,
At night,
At night.
Particularly at night.”

They worked away for a year and a day
And the bills came rolling in.
“Some payment is needed,” the Architect pleaded.
Said the Client: “But my wallet is thin:
I spent all my cash on a speedboat that’s flash
And a diamond-encrusted new phone,
A villa that’s vast, and a racehorse that’s fast.
Why don’t you take out a loan,
A loan,
A loan?
Why don’t you take out a loan?”

The bills were unpaid, and the Architect made
The decision to go to a banker.
He borrowed, of course, for to pay his workforce,
’cos he’d got nothing out of his Client.
When the scheme was complete, he got to his feet
And he boarded a London-bound plane.
The Architect figured that he would be jiggered
If he ever worked here again,
If he ever worked here again.


Sunday, July 04, 2010


I should like to thank this week’s Xpress newspaper for the instruction manual on substance abuse. In addition to a full front page headline, there are four complete pages inside that include detailed information of the types of chemicals suitable for inhaling along with valuable instructions and diagrams showing some good ways to get stoned. *ahem!*

The issue of teenagers snorting butane, paint thinners, petrol, Tipp-Ex and EvoStik suddenly popped on to the local headlines following the recent tragic death of Anton Tahmasian. Since then, barely a day goes by without a related story appearing somewhere. The Xpress article suggests that solvent abuse is so widespread that business savvy teens are charging admission to parties in posh Jumeirah villas where less savvy teenagers abuse themselves into stupor on a lethal mix of vodka and butane. And here was I, believing that drink-driving was the traditional way of lethally combining hydrocarbons with alcohol.

In other news, another recent storyline involving teenagers and flammable substances concerned an explosion in a Mirdif villa that seriously burned four teenagers. Civil Defence (the Fire Brigade) is on record that investigations into the Mirdif blast are ongoing. The official line is that someone lit the oven, igniting a gas leak.

Interestingly, Xpress does not seem to believe this version of events. Last week’s issue included photographs that show no damage to the kitchen, cooking gas bottles outside remain untouched and almost full, yet the cellar looks like a bomb’s hit it. Big surprise, that. Methane leaking into the cellar from a broken septic tank in sufficient quantities to explode, yet no-one noticed the repugnant miasma of sewer gas? Another big surprise. Perhaps these noxious and highly flammable fumes were ignited by sparks from unicorns’ hooves. This appears about as likely as the rest of the hypothesis.

It was only a matter of time before someone connected the two stories. From Xpress:
    “I strongly believe that butane is the common thread that sews together the death of Anton, the four Mirdif teenage girls (whose faces were disfigured in a mysterious gas explosion inside a villa basement) and the poolside party gone wrong at our villa,” said the [anonymous] parent, who called on authorities “to do something before it’s too late”.

    A police source added weight to the parent’s statement stating there were indications that butane may have been one of the reasons behind the Mirdif blast.
The implication is clear. Mentioning the gas explosion in an article about substance abuse must surely be paving the way for some sensationalist “Shock! Horror! Snorting butane whilst smoking cigarette causes explosion” headline.

Incidentally, what does the parent expect the authorities to do “...before it’s too late”? Incidences of death and near-death indicate to me that “too late” is already upon us. Controlling one’s own offspring is apparently not an option. Neither, apparently, is Taking Responsibility For One’s Own Actions. It suddenly all becomes the government’s responsibility to deal with the problem. But how? Inhaling camping gas is clearly idiotically foolish, but is it actually illegal?

I anticipate the usual knee-jerk reaction: a ban. Extending this “Ban It” philosophy to its logical consequence, I shall particularly resent no longer being able to cook with gas while I’m camping, simply because some yoof believes that butane is for inhaling. No more cooking at home either, once all the guys in little red pickups are deported for purveying their Death in a Bottle.


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