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


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