Sunday, September 15, 2013


File picture: Gulf News
The Goat made a series of wrong decisions the other evening, starting with choosing the old coast road back to Dubai from Dreamland Aquapark in Umm Al Quwain with a fully loaded car. Roadworks directed him into the depths of Ajman where, after an evening of being cut off by other motorists, being forced to make a number of emergency stops, and being directed in unexpected directions owing to the almost total absence of road markings and advance direction signs, he ended up in the wrong lane and was pulled over and given a ticket by a motorcycle cop.

Oh, joy. Oh, delight. Insert appropriate profanities under one’s breath here.

A couple of days later, the Goat received an SMS detailing the traffic offence, with details of how to pay the fine by going along to the Ministry of the Interior website. This, it would seem, is where all traffic fines end up, except for offences committed in Dubai. Certainly, there’s nothing on the Dubai RTA website, where the Goat's driving record is shown as pure as fresh-driven snow.

The Goat found the offence listed on the MOI website and paid his fine. He was both fascinated and appalled to learn of another offence, apparently committed in Abu Dhabi in 2011. 

The trouble is, the Goat didn’t import his car from Qatar and register it in Dubai until 2012.

The Goat doesn't give two hoots that it’s “only” AED300. He will not be accused of something he didn’t do without fighting it. He phoned the MOI, and was led a long and merry dance to the tune of “This is the wrong number. You need to call this different number” until he’d gone full circle and ended up at Criminal Investigation twice. Here, the very nice officer apologised, and even asked for forgiveness on behalf of the ill-informing multitude.

Dubai RTA subsequently led the Goat another merry dance. Eventually, having arrived at Vehicle Licencing in the RTA headquarters on Marrakech Street, he obtained a letter to take to Abu Dhabi Traffic Police. His request was met with a cheery, “Ah yes, someone else’s fine against your vehicle? We get lots of those. No problem; we’ll give you a letter.”

What had happened is that the previous owner of the Goat’s licence plate committed some traffic offence in Abu Dhabi. Then the plate got recycled without first clearing all fines. This, in turn, was because Dubai RTA doesn’t have access to the centralised federal traffic offence database and gaily undertakes registration renewals seemingly only checking its own traffic fines database. There are two systems: Dubai has one, and All The Other Emirates have the other.

It was easy for the RTA to identify who owned the plate when the offence was committed, and the RTA’s letter simply asks Abu Dhabi Police to transfer the fine to the guilty party. How irritating that the Goat has to do all the running around, getting himself freed from a fine for an offence that he couldn’t possibly have committed. They can’t sort this out in Dubai because of the two separate databases.

Here then is the story of how to deal with Phantom Fines in Dubai. Go to RTA HQ (Block C, Floor 2, Vehicle Licensing) and they’ll either deal with it, provide a letter to get Another Emirate to deal with it, or (if you can’t absolutely prove it wasn’t you even if your car was up on blocks without a gearbox on the day in question) tell you to cough up.

Oh, and don’t pay the fine and subsequently attempt to get your money back. Goods once sold will not be taken back, and no requests for refunds will be entertained.


Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Pies in the skies

Here we go again. Airlines, seeking to increase their profit margins, are looking at fat passengers as a means to fill their coffers.

Euphemistically described as having ‘unique seating needs’, a fatter passenger is sometimes obliged to buy a second seat if he or she can’t get the armrest all the way down, or need the seatbelt extension, or if someone at Check-In decides he or she is a suitable target for additional charges. What an outrage! Imagine the scene in a crowded airport terminal. 

Now imagine that scene if it’s the choleric Goat who gets singled out. 

According to the World Health Organisation, the planet is suffering from an obesity epidemic. Translated into air travel, this means heavier planes, more fuel, and more drowned polar bears. Perhaps airlines shouldn’t persist with minuscule seats, and instead take a realistic view that the population as a whole is getting bigger. Charge more if you have to.

Cattle Class seating is tiny. Instead of providing luxury in the sky as promised by the adverts for the newer, larger airliners (The ads invariably show happy, smiling First Class passengers who almost certainly had someone else buy their tickets), we find more seats crammed into the back with minimal seat pitch and width. OK, so the Goat could do with losing a stone or three, and he’s currently working on this. But no amount of diet and exercise is going to decrease the distance between his shoulders or the length of his thigh-bones.

The Goat contends that picking out only certain passengers for weigh-in as if they’re jockeys at the Grand National is deeply offensive. If an airline is insistent on charging by body weight, then it should certainly not single out only the fuller-figured. Every passenger should be weighed, along with their carry-on as well as the checked baggage, and the fare decided based on the total weight carried by that passenger. Thus, some racing snake with a couple of massive bags in the hold, plus a gigantic carry-on holdall, plus a bag of Duty Free might well end up paying more than Muggins with his overnight bag and no checked luggage.

But that doesn’t suit the airlines’ Grand Plan, does it? Make fat passengers pay more, but don’t offer any form of discount for anyone travelling light. It doesn’t feel so good to be slim now, does it? Paying over the odds because you’re underweight. Rather like the current system with checked bags, where you have pay ‘excess baggage’ if it’s overweight but receive less than a brass farthing if it’s under.

Assuming that it’s unrealistic to boycott any airline that is going to charge extra to any passenger who looks a bit porky, there is a more practical solution, which is this: fly Business Class. One Business seat costs no more than two in Cattle Class, it’s certainly more comfortable; wider and longer, plus you get more baggage allowance, better food, and better service.


Friday, September 06, 2013

Norse saga. Part V – Norwegian Blues

Friday 16 August

Pining for the fjords
The rain started just as we arrived at the railway station. It was just as well we weren’t late, as our reserved seats were very much at the distal end of the train. This would have offered photographic advantages, had the rear window not been befouled and filthy. It’s a seven hour trip from Oslo to Bergen, but the journey passes through some spectacular mountainous scenery and glacial valleys. I’m given to wonder what the occupants of the tiny houses dotted all over actually do for a living, outside the tourist season. There were several nutters in the 8°C rain on mountain bikes.

Photo opportunities were distinctly limited because the train’s windows didn’t open and raindrops obscured the view of the low clouds obscuring the mountains.

Mountains and lakes in the rain from the train.
Low clouds and rugged scenery.
However, we rolled into Bergen as the rain just about stopped. It’s better to spend a wet day on the train than in attempting a walking tour.

After a meal that in my case included a pleasantly gamey and slightly chewy whale steak (they were fresh out of panda), we ambled down to the harbour and booked tomorrow’s fjord cruise. Good weather was forecast for tomorrow: I was hoping that this would hold true.

It seemed that schools, or at least universities, were back on Monday, so the town centre was populated by students in fancy dress. Even the hotel had a sign apologizing about the noise of boisterous undergrads in the street late at night. We scored a room whose window didn’t open to the street. The Place to Be seemed to be a nightclub just up the road where there was a massive toga party, if the huge queue of students in bedsheets was anything to go by. Not a single toga in evidence; plenty of chitons and exomides sported by hardy Norwegians clearly very used to standing around half naked in chilly weather.

Saturday 17 August

The alleged good weather seemed to comprise dull and overcast with spots of rain. Bah! Nevertheless, we boarded the MS White Lady, which set off on its fjord cruise spot on schedule at 1000. The upper deck had a retractable Perspex canopy that was predictably not retracted, leaving only a small space at the stern for up to 100 passengers to crowd and take photographs. Most seemed content to sit in the warm on the lower deck and either look out of the windows or play with their smartphones. I resisted using the GPS on my own phone until we were well on our way back to Bergen.

The sun fought a losing battle with the clouds, only appearing for a couple of minutes, whereas the rain was much more successful. Still, between showers I got some pictures of some of Slartibartfast’s award-winning work. The scenery really is stunning.

One of the countless waterfalls.
Fjord view.
Vike church. This is just about as far north as I have ever been.
(Flying over the North Pole doesn't count.)

Looking north along Ostresundfjord.
The cliff continues at the same angle underwater to a depth of several hundred metres.
Looking south along Ostresundfjord
Lonely house. Bet they don't get troubled by many door-to-door salesmen.
A longer cruise may have been a realistic option had the weather been better, but it looked as if most of the sightseers were glad to get off the boat after just over four hours.

Next came shopping in the ancient wooden Bryggen area, the oldest part of Bergen (reconstructed on the twelfth-century foundations after it was burned to the ground in 1702.) The place is all wonky and wobbly, and looks more like Diagon Alley than anything else. Beloved Wife added to her Christmas ornament collection, and then we walked back through the open market and I picked up a pack of sausages: Venison, Whale, Moose, and Reindeer.

Bryggen, or possibly Diagon Alley
Then a little bit of shopping in Bergen’s department stores, where shop assistants were helpful almost to a fault, and back to the hotel with our booty.

Neo-classical atlantes and caryatids adorn many old buildings all over Scandinavia. Here's one of each, clearly caught taking showers.
As the weather had by now improved a little, we sauntered around the old part of the town and eventually found the bottom end of Bergen’s famous funicular railway. It starts with fun and goes up from there. It was windy at the top, but the views were excellent. The souvenir shop was full of the same old tat available at all souvenir shops in Scandinavia: Vikings, trolls, silly hats with antlers, anthropomorphic reindeer, and pelts and antlers from real reindeer.

The funicular railway.

Funicular time-lapse, viewed from the top.

Winter is Coming.
Down the funicular again, and another wander around Diagon Alley and some more shopping, before we discovered a café on an upper floor that had decent views of the harbour but glazing to keep out the wind, rain, and fishy aroma. I had reindeer patties; Beloved Wife chose Norwegian meatballs.

And then we fell into the arms of Morpheus. 

Sunday 18 August

Aargh, rain! Stair-rods all the way from the hotel to the railway station. Just as well, then, that we were able to do our fjord trip and funicular ride yesterday, when the sights were actually visible.

As the train climbed east, the weather tried to improve. I was repeatedly frustrated when trying to take photos of the glacial valleys because, every time I hit the shutter release on my camera, the train dived into one of the countless tunnels. This happened on repeated consecutive occasions. It certainly didn’t feel like a coincidence.

The weather at Finse was completely rain-lashed and foul. Finse, elevation 1222m, is the highest point on the Norwegian (and possibly the entire Scandinavian) rail system. The place is inaccessible by road. Scott (of the Antarctic) and his team trained here.

Nobody stops at Finse except hardy mountain bikers and hikers, military types doing Arctic training, and the cast and crew of Star Wars “Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back.” Yes, in the winter the place was and is the Ice Planet of Hoth.

Mountain bikes to rent. Only the deranged need apply.

The sixth planet in the remote Hoth system is just there, on the right. Known locally as the Hardangerjøkulen glacier
On 18th August 2013, the outside temperature was 6°C.

The weather improved as we headed east, down the mountain towards Oslo. We were treated to some glorious views of huge valleys, lakes, fjords, clouds hanging among the trees in the valleys, and on one occasion a full double rainbow.

Seven hours after setting off, we rolled into Oslo station and found our hotel. Then we grabbed a bite to eat and activated our unused 24-hour public transport cards to explore Oslo’s suburbs by tram. Beloved Wife really didn’t fancy a chilly evening ferry ride. Maybe tomorrow: I’d discovered that our train didn’t leave until 1300.

Monday 19 August

Tram to the Town Hall, which is where the ferries dock and, incidentally, where we listened to Beethoven’s Ninth a few evenings previously. Our 24-hour passes would be good until 2110, so we took the ferry over to the Folk Museum and Maritime Museum stops, but didn’t get off. I was glad I’d previously taken pictures of Oslo fortress because today there was a massive cruise liner docked right outside the fortress, obscuring all views of and from.

We got to the train ridiculously early and boarded. Ended up chatting to an American who was funding her three-month tour of Europe by transcribing the scribblings of the first four US presidents plus Benjamin Franklin into text format. We chatted and offered possibly useful hints regarding where to go and what to see.

The train went as far at Gothenburg (Göteborg in Swedish) where there was about an hour to locate the next train that would take us to Copenhagen. We ran into the same American traveller, and unfortunately a couple of unruly children whose mother seemed incapable of understanding the fundamental meaning of “quiet carriage”. At last she got out and took her noisy brats away.

It occurred to me to check where the train would stop in Denmark. The train would stop at the airport on its way to Copenhagen central, but crucially would also stop at Ørestad, a few hundred metres from our hotel. I saved about half an hour of train and metro this evening, and a further 30 minutes tomorrow morning. A celebratory beer was called for in the hotel bar. Such a pity the room was so basic, minuscule, and with uncomfortable bunk beds and a dysfunctional internet.

Tuesday 20 August

Appallingly early start in order to ensure a timely arrival at the airport. The hotel breakfast was mediocre.

I should note a hard landscaping detail: rough granite flagstones look great and offer excellent skid resistance when wet or icy, but they’re appalling to drag wheeled suitcases along between the station and the hotel, and back again the next morning.

We got airside and tried to obtain our tax refunds on goods purchased in Norway and Sweden, only to be told that the receipts would first have to be stamped by Customs on groundside. This differs from the UK where all this tax refund business has to take place airside. I sent Beloved Wife without any luggage back into the depths of the airport. She was sent from pillar to post in an obvious attempt to avoid paying any refund of VAT, but eventually succeeded and reappeared with a receipt. Huzzah!

The flights were pretty much uneventful. At Dubai airport, the taxi rank has been moved.

And when we got home, one of our rickety air conditioners refused to fire up. Chasing the landlord: something else to add to my ‘To Do’ list.

Welcome back to reality.

Post Script

If we’d booked individual train and ferry tickets on line, cost would have been around $1261. Our EuroRail passes, plus reservation fees, plus cabins on the ferry came to $1168: marginally cheaper, but with Ultimate Flexibility.  We actually used seven of our eight allocated journeys. I guess you pretty much have to max out the ticket in order to make it financially worthwhile.


Monday, September 02, 2013

Norse saga. Part IV – Norway Horsey

Wednesday 14 August

Twilight moon through some rigging.
We had an early departure from our subterranean Stockholm hotel, whose corridors looked exactly like those on the ferry. We didn’t have time for breakfast, but as that wasn’t included in the room rate it wasn’t a loss. The train to Oslo was not a sleek bullet train, but it seemed to travel fast enough through some very pretty fields, forests, and lakeland scenery.

Unfortunately, some yoof sitting exactly opposite us could have been the star of all Swedish translations of Tom Stoppard’s Talking Heads plays. This motormouth didn’t let up for six hours. If it wasn’t his mates (who couldn’t get a word in edgeways) it was his telephone victims. Even the next carriage, full of screaming brats, was inaudible: drowned out by Monologue Man.

The hotel turned out to be rather further from the railway station than originally planned, and then owing to map-reading challenges, wasn’t actually so far after all. We checked in, dropped our bags, changed, and then headed out for an afternoon snack and to be amused by the buskers, who included a double-bass player, and someone playing Bach’s Toccata in D-Minor on a piano accordion. The Living Statues don’t seem to get the idea at all, especially the ‘statue’ bit.

Oslo Fortress is free to get in, which was just as well because the various exhibitions where admission is payable were shut this late in the afternoon. The setting sun offered excellent light for interesting photographs.

Main entrance to Oslo fortress. There's a bridge over a dry moat and a wooden drawbridge.
Looks like someone's only blown the bloody doors off.
Inside Oslo fortress.
Oslo fortress: sea view.
And down on the quayside, the Mazda MX-5 Owners Club was having an informal meeting, so we chatted to the owners. Beloved Wife thinks she knows what her next car might be.

The light blue Miata/MX5 looks like it does the occasional track day. The dark blue one is more desirable because it has a retractable hard top that doesn't use up any space in the boot.
A lot of people were strolling on the sea front, and there was some kind of stage set up. It turned out that the Olso Philharmonic was about to perform Beethoven’s 9th Symphony to an open-air audience, so instead of immediately heading for food, we hung around and listened. Additional soloists included Olaf Ericsson on the Harley-Davidson, and some yapping from Bark.

After sunset, which occurs just after 9pm in Oslo, the temperature dropped markedly. Immediately following the concert, we headed off to the nearest plausible restaurant. Chinese green tea, Hot and Sour soup, and Pork and Chilli were all extremely welcome, as was the 30m walk from the restaurant to the hotel.

Thursday 15 August

The hotel breakfast is comprehensive and excellent. At last, bacon! And fried eggs too. Then to the sea front for a ferry across the bay.

Ferry 91 is a bus for the purposes of public transport tickets. I headed off to obtain day passes from a machine on the quayside, only to be thwarted by the demand for payment. The machine didn’t take cash, would only accept a card with an embedded chip, and then wanted nothing to do with the six-digit PIN supplied by my Local Global bank. It’s four digits in Norway, or it’s no way.

I got day passes for cash from a manned booth, and got aboard the ferry mere nanoseconds before cast-off, and nobody checked the tickets anyway. We’re supposed to activate the 24-hour tickets by wafting them in front of a card reader on board, but no such device was in evidence.

After disembarking (‘debarking’ is what you do to tree trunks) our first destination was the Norsk Folkemuseum, a large partially wooded area of reassembled historical buildings from Norway’s past. The stave church has been dendrochronologically dated to 1212, complete with dragons in some conflation of Christianity and Nordic myth, and was refurbished in the nineteenth. 

Gol stave church, resited in this museum.
Stave church interior.
Some of the buildings were populated by Living History people in costume. A nineteenth-century schoolroom demonstrated those infamous Victorian values: one of the punters’ children was visibly disturbed when he saw a naughty schoolboy being given a simulated caning. They don’t do that in Scandinavia any more: it’s the law.
Schoolroom. The lesson was in Norwegian, but the map seems to indicate the lesson was about Palestine.
Other delights included the bread-making, and a 1950 farm with real, live animals. Well, a pig. While the girls on a school field trip went to find the animals, the boys all climbed aboard an ancient tractor.

I was assured by a re-enacting farmer that this lady will never find her way on to a dinner plate. She's got a lovely porcinality, and is ideally suited for a petting zoo.
My great uncle had one of these, and when I was that young I too used to climb all over it.
We didn’t bother with the horse and buggy ride. The horse was, I had explained to me because I know about 0.0001% of what there is to know about horses, a Norwegian Fjord Horse. Small, strong, low maintenance, good temperament, and a very old breed. The animal’s mane had been clipped to show off a distinctive and completely natural dark stripe. Here, at last, is the reference to the Norway horsey mentioned in the blog post title!

The stripe is emphasised by roaching(US)/hogging(UK) the mane.
We chatted briefly to some costumed musicians and I tried to play a ram’s-horn recorder, a musical instrument that probably suits me far too well. I couldn’t get Bach’s Bourée out of it (too many black notes) but was more successful with the Horses’ Bransle. Then the re-enactors stepped outside for some traditional music and dancing.
Traditional Scandinavian dancing.
Fiddling about.
It was a short walk from the Folk Museum to the Vikingskiphuset. In this apparently converted church are three Viking longships, funeral artifacts, and the mortal remains of three Vikings. These were all originally unearthed from burial mounds in the 1920s, unless you count the grave robbers in the ninth century who had it away with the gold and jewels and scattered the human remains over a wide area.

The Oseberg ship.
Exquisite carving work on the prow.
Further to matters maritime, the walk from the Viking Ship museum to the Thor Heyerdahl Kon-Tiki museum looked like a long one, so we returned to the ferry and caught No 91 for a very short boat ride. Kon-Tiki and the Maritime museums all shut at 1800, and it was now 1710, so we chose Kon-Tiki and spent fifty minutes checking out the photo galleries and both Kon-Tiki (1947: balsa wood raft that travelled from South America to Polynesia) and Ra II (1970: papyrus boat that sailed from Morocco to Barbados).

Ra II.
And there was stuff about Easter Island too. Did you know that the famous stern stone-faced moai are actually from the waist up and not just head and shoulders? For unknown reasons, most of the carved body details are buried. Heyerdahl’s team took a shipload of plaster with them specifically to make a cast of a full-length statue, and this full-size copy is in the museum. The moai are, in fact, huge.

Naturally, because all the museums shut at spot on 1800, the queue for the 1830 ferry back to Oslo centre was immense and the ferry left full with a large queue remaining.

It was sunny, and there was a bit of a breeze, so the rag-and-stick brigade was all out in force. One racing yacht was presumably practising as back and forth it sailed. Downwind with the spinnaker deployed, then tacking upwind, and repeat. The amusement of standing in a queue watching the boats would have been much reduced had the weather been wet.

Tacking upwind.
Running before the wind.
The next ferry was due at 1900, but the local public transport actually sent a special extra at 1845 to remove us, and most of the queue, back to Oslo city centre.

So back to the hotel for a short break, then we headed out for a most excellent steak dinner at the Nyborg Steakhouse right near that main railway station. Not cheap, but nothing is in Norway. Then back to the hotel, picking our way between the hen parties and professional beggars on their mobile phones, to a well-earned tryptophan coma.


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