A Travellerspoint blog

Strike 1

sunny 33 °C

Have you ever been let down by your imagination?? I have, on countless occasions, possible because my imagination can be somewhat over-active. For example, have you ever constructed a mental image of someone whom you only know by voice?? It could be from someone you have talked to over the phone, or heard on the radio etc. When you finally get to see them in person isn’t it always a bit of a surprise to see what they look like?? The reality often doesn’t match the mental image (I am much better looking in person for instance).

Why bring this up now?? Well I found myself disappointed today in a big way. So disappointed in fact, that I registered a strike against Dubai. Now I am a fair person and I give everywhere 3 strikes before I decide never to bother visiting them again. So far the only other city that has recorded a strike was Melbourne, Australia, and it got 2. At least it did until I realised that, as I am from New South Wales, I instinctively hate Victoria and everything about it. For there is still a decent rivalry between the states in Australia, and I finally understood that this was influencing my opinion of Melbourne. Once I realised this I had to, in all fairness, remove the strikes against this city. For Melbourne is in fact a lovely place, full of interest and history. It’s just a pity it’s also full of Victorians. Anyway what did Dubai do to deserve this?? Well I’m afraid it has no soul.

Firstly let’s go back to the start of the day. It all began with a rather pressing desire to get across the road, by any means possible that didn’t involve getting into, or possibly run over by if I could at all help it, a car. So I set off with a purpose in my stride and a plan. A jolly good plan to follow the road until I found a bridge, or crossing, or at the very least a hole in the fence I could squeeze through. I even eyed off a couple of those signs that span from one side to the other, usually advertising something simple whilst the speed cameras underneath collect money for the government (and they would be very busy in this part of the world). So after an hour and a couple of km’s or so I discovered a bridge, a beautiful bridge that allowed me to stroll safely beneath it. I was wrapped, and feeling very pleased with myself. It was, mind you, in the complete opposite direction to that which I had intended to travel, but it was there none the less. So, ticking that off my list of things to do that day (it was in fact the only item) I set about discovering what else was available. So I decided to find that pyramid, and strode purposefully off in its general direction.

The pyramid was in fact a hotel, and was decorated quite lavishly in large statues of Pharaohs and hieroglyphs. Quite stunning but also quite out of place, as the Egyptian empire at its most magnificent extent did not even come close to covering this part of the world. So I wandered in to have a look around and quickly wished I hadn’t. The interior was done in the same motif, and was a little too tacky for my taste. When I inquired at the front desk as to just why the hotel was decorated in such a manner and not in an Arabic style, the young lady stared at me for a short while before asking me who I was and what I was doing there. Non guests, it seems, are not really welcome to go strolling at will through the Raffles resort in Dubai. Nor, as it turns out, can you just look around in any of the more expensive places to stay. So it seems that this complex was decorated like this because they could. I should have seen the warning signs from this alone, but I was still in a jovial mood from conquering the road, and as such was keen to keep exploring. Las Vegas was beyond the reach of Ramses as well, and they have things decorated in the most extraordinary ways, so who am I to judge. I am sure some people like this kind of thing, but I can’t include myself in that category. So I wandered back outside, wondering what else I could accomplish that day, only to see a Big Red Bus come past.

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The Raffles Hotel - Dubai

I have taken the Big Red Bus in London before and can honestly say there is no better or more startlingly expensive way to see a city in a short period. My routine is usually to do an entire circuit, note down the areas of interest and then get on and off on the next go around to explore at my leisure. So for me, in a new place, this seemed a magnificent idea. I approached the rather stressed looking people selling tickets, handed over the equivalent of a years salary for anyone working in the textile industry in China, and boarded a bus. There were two routes from which I could choose. The red route, which goes through the old part of town, and the blue route, which explores the new. Now I have to admit that I am a sucker for old buildings, I truly am. I just love them, and spend hours admiring them much to my lovely wifes continuing dismay. Superman has kryptonite, I have old buildings. You could drop me off somewhere like Prague or Rome, come back in 6 months and I would still ask for more time to explore. They are just fascinating to me, I enjoy everything about them. So naturally I opted for the red route. Eager in anticipation of what was to come I boarded the bus, camera and mental notebook at the ready, and set off to discover the old Dubai.

Would you like to hazard a guess as to how many places I wished to explore on the second circuit?? How many areas intrigued me so much as to make me want to leave an overcrowded bus and a seat that had the consistency of somewhere between ironbark and granite and the comfort to match?? None, absolutely none. In fact I was so despondent that I put my camera away half way around and didn’t once regret doing so. Old for Dubai, it seems, is anything made after 1970 that isn’t all glass. (I may be a little out on the dates here but not by much). In fact I got the nasty feeling that the Big Red Bus of Dubai is there merely to get tourists to different shopping areas. We saw the gold souk (there are hundreds of these in town by the way, this was just the biggest one), various shopping centres and the river. That was about it. The tour also went through what was supposed to be the old part of town; however I lost a lot of interest in this when I noticed air conditioning units on the roofs. I could not have been more thoroughly disappointed if I was told that everyone else on earth was going to get to live forever and have lots of sex, except for me. In fact I questioned going back out to explore at all.

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Ancient cooling units and Gold Land in old Dubai

However after a little reflection I have decided to give Dubai another go. I realised that, much like the hottie on the phone who turns out to be a man with an effeminate voice, I had expected too much from Dubai. This was after all nothing more than a fishing village and international port city that decided to become something spectacular. And it is spectacular. It boasts the worlds biggest hotel, tallest building, indoor skiing, man-made islands in the shape of a palm tree and the world and more impressive and architecturally interesting modern skyscrapers than you can poke a stick at. Whilst these may not be my favourite things, they are Dubai and impressive none the less.

So I will venture out tomorrow and explore Dubai’s flash. This may not be the city I was hoping it would be, but it is Dubai, and nothing else can match that.

Posted by Dangermouse 09:40 Archived in United Arab Emirates Comments (1)

Why did the chicken cross the road

sunny 32 °C

There is a certain kind of excitement that accompanies a journey into a new country. For me this new place was the United Arab Emirates. I have a stop over here on my way to a new job and was quite looking forward to seeing what Dubai had to offer. I had heard a lot about it of course, and was quite looking forward to seeing it for myself, I was genuinely excited. My enthusiasm could not even be dented by a 2 hour struggle to clear customs.

Arabs it seems, whilst understanding the concept of queuing, do not quite grasp its complexities entirely. I noticed this only as I neared the front of our queue. As we were standing patiently awaiting out turn, a rather well dressed Arabic gentleman strode purposefully to the front of the line and planted himself there. The lady in front of me made some rather weak noises and then did nothing, so I tapped him on the shoulder and indicated that perhaps he should stand in line like everyone else. He looked at me, smiled, patted me on the shoulder and apologised before picking up his bag and moving into line behind me. There he had another brief but lively conversation in Arabic with the gentleman behind me, picked up his bag and moved into line behind him. This continued until he found himself in a position where nobody was asking him to move any further back and waited in line there, having now found his place in the queue. Once I saw this in action I started paying more attention to the lines around me. This was happening on a regular basis it seems, and partly explained just why it had taken the best part of 2 hours to progress the 50m to the immigration desk. As it was 0300 (that’s 3am for those of you not used to 24hr time) I had not been paying too much attention, and as such had probably let several hundred people join the queue in front of me.

So after finally clearing customs and having my bags searched (I always get searched by the way. Anyone looking for a reliable drug mule should probably make inquiries elsewhere, as I am pretty well guaranteed to wind up on banged up abroad quite quickly) I exited the building, found the most expensive taxi in Dubai and made my way to the hotel. There I slept for quite a while, roused myself in the mid afternoon and decided to go for a walk around. My hotel is in an area that seems to be poised for development, and from the hotel lobby I could see a structure that resembled a rather impressive glass pyramid. So, interest peaked, I set off to see what it was about.

I find that walking around is the best way to get a feel for a new place, and this was no exception. Though there was one slight problem. My hotel, it seems, is surrounded by motorways. Lovely, smooth, 6 lanes in each direction, motorways. The kind of thing you could comfortably drive a formula 1 car on without damaging it too much. Great roads, but not exactly suitable for pedestrian access. There were no over-bridges or crossings of any kind, and the local speed limit appears to be whatever your car is capable of, as the vehicles on these roads were moving along at something close to Mach 3. All this combined to make a crossing a rather suicidal undertaking. Added to this was a 7 foot fence on the median strip in the middle of the road designed to discourage anyone from foolishly attempting to cross it on foot. (I know it was 7 feet tall as I ran into it on my mad dash across the road, quite surprised to find there was a fence in the way that was a foot taller than me and quite spiky). There was, it seems, no way for a pedestrian to cross that road that didn’t involve a prior ability in high jumping or pole vaulting. So I wandered up and down its length for a while and then headed home, had a rather nice meal and a swim and retired for the evening.

And the building?? Well it turns out that it is a hotel, called Raffles, linked to a shopping centre. I will see if I can get in there tomorrow. If a chicken can get across a road then surely I can. Stay tuned.

Posted by Dangermouse 11:00 Archived in United Arab Emirates Comments (0)

All the little things add up

overcast 28 °C

There is something to be said for lifes little luxuries. I’m not talking about the things that people spoil themselves with, like massages, jewellery, trips to the Bahamas or sports cars. I’m talking more about things like taking a shower, wearing clean clothes, and sleeping in a bed. The kind of things that are almost considered a necessity in the west, or at the very least considered the basics.

The one thing this kind of job does is make you fully appreciate just how fortunate we are, how fortunate I was to be born into a modestly well off family in Australia. We did not have a lot while we were growing up (I can still remember the general excitement when Dad brought home a new colour TV to watch the cricket on. Setting it up, tuning it in and then standing back and beaming “Look at the colours kids”) but then again we never asked for anything. We were clothed, well fed, provided with sporting equipment and musical instruments, well-schooled and well looked after. In short it was a happy and stress free childhood. Well at least for us anyway, my parents may have seen it relatively differently considering they were raising 4 boys.

My point being is that a lot of the things we use every day are in fact a luxury. Running water in your house for example is a luxury item. So are electricity, cars, telephones, and pretty much everything else that is used on a daily basis by most people in the west. I am not pointing this out to make it seem like we are living a decadent lifestyle (though some are I am sure, lucky bastards) but more to say that I have learnt to appreciate a lot more all the little things that make my life so much easier. Working in the DRC is tiring, simply because there is nothing there that is easy. Any infrastructure that the country used to possess is now completely gone, leaving life to continue with just the basics. They may live in the remains of once nice houses, but they are living basically all the same. So we collect water and treat it for drinking and washing. Showering water (well actually it is more like splashing yourself out of a bucket) is treated with Dettol which has the added bonus of ensuring that you keep your mouth closed as you wash. Believe me when I tell you that Dettol does not taste good, nor is it particularly pleasant when it gets into your eyes. (Mind you if you swallow the water you are pretty well guaranteed to get very well acquainted with the toilet.)

Having said that we are not completely roughing it. I have a nice tent, we carry a portable generator and a satellite receiver to get basic internet so I can send my reports back into HQ (mine didn’t work, which has the added bonus of not having to talk to HQ at all, something I enjoyed very much). I also carry a satellite phone and HF radio for emergency comms. So we are not completely isolated. However the downside is that if you turn your back for more than 5 minutes the locals will make off with your fuel, chairs, tables, food, water, equipment and really anything that is portable and not nailed down. If the locals don’t steal it then the people working for me will. Everyone is out to make a quick buck, and they don’t seem to put together the fact that theft will lose them their job. Unemployment in the NW area of DRC is running at around 90% so there a lot of idle people lurking about. This means that you are constantly watching everyone.

I have never been happier to leave a country than I was to leave DRC for that reason. Never being able to relax can get quite too much after a while. That plus the fact that I realised I don’t get along with people who are out to save the world. I am not saying this is a bad thing, but the people who are aligned along these lines tend to be on the extreme end. They detest war movies because it glorifies suffering and killing, hate video games for the same reason, believe that all military personnel are a bunch of adrenaline fuelled knuckle dragging idiots that just want to destroy everything (close but not entirely accurate) and honestly think that all the worlds ills could be solved if we all gave each other a really big hug. I may be broadly generalising here but they generalise about us so I feel that makes it fair. Anyway let me say that we have rather different views of how things should happen. Add to this that the ones I have met have no real life experience and would be rather quickly out of their depth if they actually got into trouble. So I have decided to leave MAG for that reason, I will leave the save the world brigade to carry on their crusade and go back to a company where I can just concentrate on destroying things. I will be so much happier there.

But first I have a couple of days in Nairobi to wind down. I have decided to rough it in the Intercontinental Hotel, it’s basic but it will do. After a quick swim and a meal at the buffet I may stroll into town and buy myself an iPad. I have no idea how I have managed thus far in life without one.

Posted by Dangermouse 01:50 Archived in Kenya Comments (0)

A year in the life

sunny 30 °C

I have put together a short video of 2011.

Hope you find it interesting, it looks a lot better when viewed on full screen.

Posted by Dangermouse 07:04 Archived in Democratic Republic of Congo Comments (0)

We are the angry mob

storm 26 °C

We are the angry mob; we read the papers every day. We like who we like, we hate who we hate but we’re also easily swayed. The Kaiser Chiefs, look them up they are an awesome band.

So why am I shamelessly plugging the Chiefs?? Well that song was running through my head recently for reasons that I am going to tell you about now……..

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This is what an angry mob doesn't look like.

I have been extremely happy of late; I have been blowing stuff up again. It had been a while since I had to det up and to be honest I missed it. What’s more, the noise is amplified in the jungle which makes it even more fun. The last couple of weeks have been quite productive and we have been getting on with the business of making the world a little safer with the proper application of high explosives. Finally I have gotten out of the office, where well meaning people whose whole life revolves around paperwork tried to school me in the finer points of filling out request forms and asset registers. No more do I have to nod in understanding as someone drones on for what seems like forever on a subject which I care little about and I am not really paying attention to anyway. Finally I am out doing what I am good at, blowing stuff up. It is such a pity that I am only here for a month, I quite like working here. Still I will have to make the most of it.

Generally the items that we find are safe enough to move so we can take them with us and destroy them all in one big demolition, called a bulk demolition. These are my favourite as, let’s be quite honest here, the more explosive present in a demolition the bigger the bang. I may have been a little spoilt in Sudan as nearly all of my demolitions were of this bulk variety and going back to doing single items can be a bit of a letdown. But still it beats working for a living and I am still enjoying myself so life is good. Occasionally we will come across something that is not safe to move so we have to deal with it where it is. RPG’s are in this category for me, as is anything that is fuzed and has obviously been fired. Most explosive ordnance has safety devices built into the fuze to stop them detonating when you don’t want them to. They are usually a pin or something similar. If these safety pins are not in the fuze then it can possible function, generally not something you want to happen. This possibility can be increased if it is in the back of a ute being bumped along poor dirt roads. So being a big fan of safety first, I will destroy these items either where they are, or in a suitable site nearby if they are safe to move a short distance.

So on todays occasion we found a 60mm mortar nose down in the ground in a village. So long as nobody played with it the chances of it detonating by itself were pretty remote, however I carefully extracted it from the ground to find that it was fuzed and there were no safety pins present. Other things indicated it had been fired and as such I didn’t really want to take it with us. So I decided to destroy it where it was. The mortar was in town, but thankfully in a field that gave me enough safety distance on all sides to do the job there. It was also in an area that was easy to control access to, the last thing you need is to have someone wander through your dem site. So in order to minimise any fragmentation hazard I dug a decent sized hole, placed the mortar and disposal charge inside, covered it up and destroyed it in place. Nothing got damaged (except for the mortar of course) and everything went nice and smoothly. Then it started to unravel….

I will give you the following in a timeline so you can get an idea of how fast this moved.

1 minute after the detonation - A crowd had formed that was curious and wanted to see what we had done. The mood of this crowd was quite neutral and even thankful that we were removing the dangerous items from within their midst. They came running in from everywhere to have a look. So we packed up quickly, more so they couldn’t steal any of our stuff than for any other reason, and headed back to the car.

2 minutes after detonation - As I was approaching our car the mood started to change. Members of the crowd were starting to make loud noises about something and the general attitude of the group began to sway.

2 minutes 30 secs after detonation - The mood turned decidedly ugly. The previously happy and thankful group was being overrun by an angry mob, being spurred on by a man with a megaphone. They crowded around our cars and started yelling and hitting the vehicles.

3 minutes after detonation - A man reached in and grabbed me by the shirt front. Now I don’t appreciate people touching me at the best of times, and I appreciate even less being grabbed. So I took hold of his arm and pulled it forcefully into the car, causing him to smash his head into the door frame rather hard. I then pushed him away and started to wind up the window.

3 minutes 30 secs after detonation - Richard looked at me and said quite matter of factly “We go now” before gunning the engine and taking off, scattering people like 10 pins as he went, and grinning like a madman.

It all happened so fast it was hard to comprehend. So what turned this crowd so violently?? Well it is coming up to election time here in the DRC and the main protagonist was a local man who was running for office, the man with the megaphone. He started telling people that we hadn’t in fact destroyed the grenade like we claimed (it was actually a mortar but never let the truth get in the way) and we had only made a noise to scare everyone and get away with our prize. We were going to then sell it to the rebel army that is still holed up in the east of the country so they could start a campaign of terror on the good people of the DRC. That was all it took, a far-fetched story given by a ranting lunatic almost got us into serious trouble. The people of the DRC, it seems, do angry mobs quite well. People have been killed by such mobs for things as simple as traffic accidents that leave someone seriously injured. The police in general are either part of the mob, or do little to stop it. The favourite method of dispatch for the poor recipient it what’s called a Congolese necklace. A tyre is wedged over the victims shoulders and set alight. Not pretty at all.

The interesting part of this story is that we had to go back through this town on our way back to our campsite. I was a little reluctant about this however there was nothing to worry about. We were not greeted with any hostility on coming into town, at all. We even stopped off to get something for lunch and not a harsh word was said. There were no signs of aggression at all. It’s as if the entire thing didn’t even take place.

They may be quick to form, but the mob seems even quicker to disperse and the locals, thankfully, don’t seem to hold a grudge. I on the other hand would like to find that bastard with the megaphone. He certainly won’t be getting my vote.

Posted by Dangermouse 03:26 Archived in Democratic Republic of Congo Comments (0)

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