Sunday, August 14, 2011


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Tuesday, August 9, 2011

24 Hours in No-Man’s Land with a Filipina Moonie - the Hungarian-Romanian Border (1991)

As far as hitchhiking goes, it was the dream lift; Sofia to the front door in Munich without having to so much as extend a thumb. Talking to some local experts and consulting the map, it seemed that the drive could be done in less than 20 hours, which meant I could be sinking a Weissbier within two days, and earning some desperately needed cash within three. While the 20 hour drive was perhaps a little ambitious given the war that had just broken out in neighbouring Yugoslavia, the most direct route, it became totally unrealistic after spending 24 hours in No-Man’s Land between Romania and Hungary babysitting a middle-aged Filipina Moonie.

Hitchhiking with the Moonies

It had been an excellent summer – a month in Moscow nominally learning Russian, followed by a month in southern Bulgaria nominally teaching English with the Moonies – but now it was time to head in the gentle direction of home, via a month of hard work in Munich to earn money for the coming student year. Money was tight, and I had been fretting about how to get from the Bulgarian capital to Munich as I was now down to my last $30. By chance, I learned from one of the Moonie organisers over dinner that there was a camper van leaving for London in two days, and that he thought there might be room if I wanted a ride.

Perfect! A direct ride where I could relax with my thoughts and reflect on what had been the best summer of my life. My fellow passengers would no doubt be immersed in religious thoughts, and I would be a quiet passenger in the back, grateful for the free ride to Munich.

Linguistic Challenges

“Can anyone read Cyrillic,” asked Alex, the driver from the East End of London, shortly after we pulled out from the apartment where they had been staying in Sofia. It was 5am and I was one of eight people in the van, conspicuous by my lack of allegiance to Reverend Moon, but warmly welcomed nonetheless. As far as I could make out from the introductions, we had six Brits and a Filipino, which was further broken down into three married couples and Alex the driver, heading back to London to see his (Moonie) Korean wife.

Not famed for language ability, I wasn’t expecting any British volunteers to chip in with linguistic help, so I ventured forth, happy to put my Russian language skills to some use. I managed to negotiate our way out of the capital and we were soon heading north to the Romanian border. On the dashboard was a portrait of the Reverend and his wife, to whom we had all said a prayer prior to departure. They were a friendly bunch, but the constant references about their faith in the man from Korea, and their almost blind faith in everything he said and did left me somewhat grateful that our association would only last a day or so.

It turned out that all the couples had been introduced by the Reverend personally. He had deemed that the other was the perfect partner, and they had been united in matrimony in the infamous mass Moonie weddings. All professed to be blissfully happy, which seemed to be somewhat relative in the case of the Filipino wife, who didn’t seem to be able to communicate effectively with anyone, and whose husband did not seem the type who was proficient in any language apart from his native broad Geordie.

The journey to Bucharest was uneventful where we stopped for lunch. I was learning lots about the Unification Church and its contribution to changing global affairs, including helping Gorbachev bring down the Soviet Union. The more I listened, the more delusional they sounded, but they were pleasant enough and did not try and force their religion down my throat. I was polite and tried to feign sleep and willed for Munich to come into view.

The Popular Hungarian Border

The hitherto smooth progress ground to a grinding halt shortly before the border crossing with Hungary, and we joined what seemed a long queue, although it was impossible to judge how long, as it snaked round a corner. We sat patiently for perhaps half an hour without moving until I became restless and determined to at least find out what the problem was. Hopping out of our brand new white Mercedes van, a gift from some Unification Church fund, I ventured forth, happy to be away from the Reverend’s influence for a while, but keen also to find out how long this border crossing was going to take.

My research was more than a little disheartening. Walking past battered Golfs, Dacias and Yugos, as well as numerous trucks far too large for this relatively small road, it quickly became obvious that we were in for the long haul. I found a local who spoke German who told me the traffic was due to the problems in Yugoslavia – all the main transit traffic was now being re-routed through this border crossing, and the queues were endless. The border was more than two kilometres away. I asked him if he had any idea how long it would take to cross the border, and he nodded.

“About 24 hours.”

Hmmm. I needed a plan. We could pray to the Reverend, of course, but in case he wasn’t able to help, I had to come up with another way, or I could find myself indoctrinated and married to a woman I had never met at the next mass wedding.

Testing Moonie Flexibility

My news was greeted calmly by my fellow passengers and we paused in prayer for guidance and patience. Another hour passed, and I sense the patience wearing thin, especially after we saw a fat Mercedes on German plates overtake us and speed on past the static queue. I seized my moment.

“I have a plan,” I ventured innocently. “A plan to get us across the border within the hour.” The reception was enthusiastic and I proceeded with caution, choosing my words carefully.

“I am the linguist here, so leave all the talking to me. Basically we will put the first aid box on the dashboard. It has a red cross and so we say we are doctors working in an orphanage in Bulgaria. We have a brand new white van which we can say has been donated by some NGO and we have to get back to Vienna as soon as possible to pick up emergency medical supplies as some of the children are in seriously poor health, and they are depending on us. A small white lie to get us to the border. I can sweet talk the guards, all you have to do is pretend you are sleeping or do not understand. What do you think?”

There wasn’t a lead balloon big enough to greet my idea.

There was an embarrassed silence and, I sense, a little internal praying for inspiration. I bided my time and waited for the next car to fly by, before working on Alex, sensing he was the most willing of an unwilling crew to give it a go.

“What have we got to lose? At the very worst, we will be sent back to where we came from. We are not hurting anyone. And while that guy said it would be 24 hours, who is to say it won’t be 48? Or more?” Feeling as though I was making progress, I went for a walk, leaving them to debate. I came back ten minutes later to a beaming Alex, who greeted me with the thumbs up.

We Stop for Nobody

“Ok, great. So all we need to do is put the first aid box on the dashboard. Oh excellent, there is a red cross sticker inside. Let’s put that on the bonnet,” and I attached it before there was any hint of objection, “and let’s get moving. Just pretend you are tired nurses and doctors, don’t speak and we will be fine. And Alex, just drive, as fast as you can, and stop for nobody. Repeat nobody. Leave the talking at the border to me.”

“Okay,” he shouted jubilantly, the adrenaline pumping. “This is going to be fun.”

We pulled out and went round the bend, taking the curses of stranded drivers in our stride. Frustrated horns blared at us, but we had a clean run. We were doing perhaps 60 km/h and the length of the queue quickly became apparent as we had travelled for more than a minute and there was still no sign of the border.”

“And stop for nobody, ordered the boss,” laughed Alex, clearly enjoying his moment of fun.

“Yeehah,” proclaimed an enthusiastic voice from the back. I was pleased with myself, we were going to make it, and I would be in Munich tomorrow. I was enjoying watching Alex driving – he was clearly rediscovering a freedom from an earlier life. Until a sudden frown invaded his face.

“Shall we stop for him?” I turned from Alex’s face to the objection of his attention.

Ah. A Romanian policeman, left arm right raised motioning for us to stop, right hand on the trigger of his handgun.

“Yes, perhaps for him.” Shit. And I could see the border as well. We stopped amid frantic praying and panic in the rear – they hadn’t been in so much trouble ever.

Linguistic Challenges Part Two

“Let me do the talking. We will be fine,” I said, with more confidence than I possessed. If they sent us to the back of the queue, we could be here for a week.

“Guten Tag, Sprechen Sie deutsch?” He looked quite fearsome.

“Rumunjski.” Hmmm. He must do a little Russian, good Communist comrade and all that.

“Rumunjski.” Perhaps a little French; Romanian was odd for the region in that it was a Romance language.

“Rumunjski.” This was going to be tough, as the only word of Romanian I knew was ‘strigoi’ meaning ‘vampire’ a useful piece of info I had picked up in Transylvania the year before.
I could feel the faith of my fellow passengers waning. But I also felt the fruits of the team’s praying efforts as an irate Romanian got out of his car and came over, cursing us in German.

“Who the hell do you think you are, and what makes you think you can jump the queue,” he spat at me in German. I put my vampire speech in my back pocket – it was always going to be a tricky one.

“Hello and please don’t be angry with us. We are just some exhausted doctors and nurses working 24 hours a day to try and save some sick Bulgarian children,” I began, pausing for effect to see if he was in any way placated. He was. “And we need to get to Vienna urgently for more medicine or some children might be in serious danger.” His anger turned to grave concern and he explained all to the police officer who, unbelievably, waved us through with the flick of a handgun. The border guards had seen the confrontation, and we managed to negotiate our way through the Romanian border control.

I was elated, they were elated and, while I was ready to take all the credit, the real hero was on the dashboard in front of me.

“The power of prayer,” exclaimed one.

Whatever. We were there, and I was much closer to Munich than ten minutes previously. We approached the Hungarian post in fine spirits, and I handed over the seven British and one Filipino passports. The second serious frown of the day seemed to eclipse Alex’s, as the border guard scrutinised the Filipino passport.

The Benefits of Filipina Friendship in Hungary

“Where is the visa?”

“We were informed we didn’t need one for transit. We are passing straight through Hungary to Munich.”

“She needs a visa. She must return to Bucharest and buy a visa on Monday morning when it opens,” this being a Friday afternoon.

It turned out we were in quite an interesting situation, one which would take some special prayers to get us out of. Seven of us were free to proceed, leaving the Filipina lady behind, which would have been harsh. However, the suggested course of returning to Bucharest was not very practical for, while she could re-enter Romania with no problem, we Brits had used up our single-entry transit visas by entering No-Man’s Land, and so a Monday morning trip to the Romanian Embassy in Budapest would be required.

I sat in utter disbelief, the freedom of Munich once more cruelly snatched from me. The ensuing praying did little to add to my mood. Eventually, it was decided that I would stay with the lady, while the remaining six would enter Hungary and try and get some assistance from the Unification Church, Budapest branch.

No-Mans Land on a Friday Night in August

Terrific. Stuck in between Romania and Hungary with a woman I could barely understand who was praying to a man I wanted to strangle was not part of the plan. I watched in frustration as car after car passed through the border, noting in amusement the cartons of cigarettes and bottles of whisky that were proferred in exchange for a cursory glance at the contents of a car.

Time passed, and I hoped that my continued presence in the general vicinity might make them take pity on me, but I soon realised there was no possibility of that when I came across an Iraqi lady with no papers who had been there for three days; headed for London, it seemed her tactic of wailing uncontrollably was not enough to sway the Hungarians.

With a change of shift came renewed hope, and I approached the guards again with renewed hope. They listened, they inspected the passports, she prayed, before we were offered a glimmer of hope – a visa was indeed possible at the border. I relayed the good news to my Filipina lady, who in turn relayed her thanks to the object of her prayers. I asked how much.

“A thousand dollars.”

More time passed, and the British contingent returned with nothing positive to report. We sat, we prayed, we waited, we listened to the Iraqi wailing. And then the most depressing moment of all, soon after we passed 24 hours at the border – the car in front of us in the queue pootling through.

Eventually, the first shift came back on and, whether due to divine intervention, boredom or the chance of an easy buck, we managed to negotiate a visa for $100. It had been possible all the time. We drove on, exhausted but free at last, and ever closer to Munich, when Alex pulled up the van in the first village in Hungary and announced:

“Brothers and sisters, what we have just witnessed is truly a miracle, for which we are truly grateful. Let us pray now.”

Saturday, August 6, 2011

The Importance of Boarding Schools: Teaching English with the Moonies in Bulgaria (1991)

It has all started out so promisingly. Summer holidays as a student were about as good as it got, a chance to work abroad, travel and broaden horizons. The highlight for me was 1991, my first summer at Manchester University, and I was looking for something to fill in August; I had already arranged a course with homestay in Moscow to improve my Russian, and a month in Munich to earn some money before starting my second year.

Do You Love Jesus?

Walking out from a rare lecture attendance in search of my daily kebab, I saw a flyer on a notice board which caught my eye. Want to Teach English in Eastern Europe this Summer? Full training provided, volunteer positions in Bulgaria, Poland and Hungary, accommodation and small renumeration included. It sounded perfect – a month in Bulgaria or Hungary would be ideal. I took note of the address, some outfit called the Unification Church, devoured my kebab, bought some mints and headed to their nearby office.

“Do you love Jesus?” asked Tobias, a blond German youth, with closely cropped hair – friendly enough, but with a faraway presence, as though he was not totally with us. It was the fourth question of the ‘interview’ and a decidedly odd one I thought.

“I haven’t really thought about it. I am not that into religion. Is it important to teach English?”

“It is ok, we will give you some information about our church, and then you will see.”
Crikey, I pondered as I left with my best friend Alex, who was also looking for a summer jaunt, that was a bit weird. Three days later, we both received letters to inform us we had been accepted to teach in Bulgaria, pending an interview with the head office in Lancaster Gate in Central London – expenses would be paid.

Entering the World of Reverend Moon

We had assumed that the Unification Church was just a bunch of do-gooders, who had some funding to spread the Gospel in the heathen Communist hinterland, and so it was quite a shock to enter the very smart building and climb the stairs to our interview, to be confronted by a large picture of Reverend Moon. Moonies! The Brain Washers! We looked at each other in silence, our heartbeats increasing rapidly.

Margaret was a charming middle-aged Moroccan Moonie, extremely affable, and she put us at ease with her background about the teaching programme, its goals, and the practicalities of the job and accommodation. We would be teaching in the same town, a remote place called Kardzhali, not far from the Greek and Turkish borders, to a range of ages from a local school. It would be the first time foreign teachers had taught in the town, and we would get a flat to share, and a fee of fifty pounds a week. It sounded perfect.

“Are you interested in learning more about our Church?”

“Not really,” Alex answered bravely. And that was that, no brainwashing whatsoever. What were we so worried about?

We celebrated with an expensive pint round the corner. Bulgaria for a month teaching English, it promised to be an exciting summer. We were both surprised and relieved at the lack of brainwashing.

“Maybe they wait until we get to Eastern Europe before brainwashing us,” ventured Alex over a second pint. We debated over pints three and four, before the money ran out, and concluded that we were sane individuals and we had each other; we could not be brainwashed against our will.

In Search of Teacher Training

After an eventful month in Moscow, I was reunited with Alex in Sofia and we headed to Kardjali on the bus the next day, with Jenny, a cheery Moonie from the Home Counties, who lived with her French Moonie husband near Wembley (the Reverend had chosen them as life partners) and their three children. She was full of advice on life in Bulgaria and what to be careful about in Kardzhali – this was her third visit to the country and she was to be our friendly chaperone.

The brainwashing threat having diminished, the bigger issue for me was the promised teacher training. After numerous assurances that all would be provided, as the bus pulled into Kardzali, a dusty, forgotten Soviet-style backwater town, with a seemingly large Turkish ethic mix, the thorny issue of teacher training had yet to be addressed. All would be provided the next day, promised Jenny.

The apartment was more than adequate - there was electricity, water, the toilet worked and there was a fridge for beer, as well as a balcony where we would sit on the occasional evening we were home and look out at other couples on their Communist balconies. It wasn’t a pretty town, but it wasn’t ugly either, and we were both grateful to experience life in rural Bulgaria at a special time in its history; while the Iron Curtain had come down, the Soviet Union was still alive (indeed the August coup took place while we were there).

“Which part of England are you from?” asked a pretty brunette in her forties the next morning, as we were introduced to three teachers at the school. “I lived in Leeds for a year and adored it. We are so grateful you have come and the kids can’t wait to meet you. They have never seen foreigners before.” Her English was perfect and the welcome was warm. While the school was understandably not in the best physical shape, it was no worse than inner-city Britain. Tina, as we learned she was called, was full of information about our schedule (we would teach three classes a day, two hours each), and presumably she would be the source of the much-anticipated training.

Bulgarian Classrooms Have Children in Them

“Come this way, Paul, and I will show you the rooms where you will be teaching. Alex, have a look at this schedule and I will be back in a minute.”

It seemed strange that we did not go together, but I thought no more of it. Until we reached the classroom.

The walk along the corridor was full of friendly chat about reminisces from her days in Yorkshire, and I had a feeling I was going to like my time in southern Bulgaria. She motioned left and we entered the first classroom, which was conspicuous by its eighteen teenage students looking at me in curious silence as I entered.

“I am pleased to introduce Paul from Manchester,” announced Tina in English. “He will be your teacher for the month and I know you will have fun. Paul, do you want to say a few words?” Eighteen pairs of Bulgarian teenage eyes trained expectantly on me, eagerly awaiting their first live foreign communication.


“I will leave you in Paul’s hands now. Enjoy the course.” And with that, a deft sidestep to the left and a closing classroom door, I was alone. With eighteen Bulgarian teenagers.

Not only that, but eighteen Bulgarian teenagers whose expectations of a world-beating English language course was about to be shattered when they realised they had been fed an Englishman with no training or experience as a teacher. Those eyes were really expectant.

Lesson Planning on the Fly

“Ok,” I started uncertainly. “My name is Paul and I am from Manchester. Can anyone tell me something about Manchester?” which produced the most amazing reaction, eighteen heads shaking and nodding in equal number. It took me a while to understand they were all saying yes; Bulgarians shake their head when they mean yes, and the more progressive of them had adopted the Western way.

Manchester United became the Royal Family became British food and the two hours flew by and I had made new friends. Most of them were seventeen and keen to talk – I had as much to learn from them as they did from us.

“Who wants to meet for a drink later?” A mixture of eighteen nods and shakes. This was going to be a surreal summer.

Surreal indeed, and the daily routine revolved was remarkably simple: two hours with 10 year-olds from 0800, two hours with 13 year-olds from 1000 and then a large break for lunch, when the temperature soared to 40 degrees, before my favourite class of the day, my 17 year-olds, a class usually followed by a long night in the pub; with a beer just 3p a half-litre, it was hardly magnanimous of us to pick up the entire tab.

Days passed, and Alex and I had found our favourite lunchtime haunt, a fairly non-descript bar with a pleasant terrace, where we could people watch, read books and do the occasional marking. It was thirsty work, but we managed to keep our consumption down to three to four beers before the last class of the day.

Until one very hot day.

The Hot Afternoon Recess

I don’t recall if we both had bad days, perhaps it was even hotter than usual, but the first beer was quickly followed by the second and third, so that when Jenny chanced upon us at just gone half three, we were already three sheets to the wind. She tried a jovial line about drinking before teaching, but it was lost on us. Alex made her excuses and said she was popping to the flat and would meet me there. As for me, much to Jenny’s horror, I was feeling the thirst and on the point of being late for class. Ordering a couple of take outs, I sprinted down the street with a couple of open half litres in my hands.

Arriving in the school playground a little flushed from the exertion and with the bottles in tow, I must have cut an eccentric sight even by our high standards. Alex, loyal colleague that she was, failed to show, having (I later found out) passed out on the sofa, with key to all books and cassettes in her pockets. I beckoned everyone to cram into my class and, with the lack of educational material available, I assembled my resources on my desk, namely two bottles of chilled lager.

Alex’s students had never seen me teach, and so were presumably quite expectant. I had no idea how many people were in front of me as I tripped and fell off the rostrum, I was totally pissed, but the show must go on. My lesson planning thus far (there never had been any training) was limited, and I tended to just open my mouth and a topic would appear. It was a tactic which never failed with such a willing audience, and I opened my mouth once again.


Absolute silence. My mind went blank and I had no idea what to talk about. In order to buy some thinking time, I theatrically reached for a beer and took a large mouthful, amid much laughter.

“Right. Enough of me coming up with topics. Your turn. Can someone suggest a topic for today’s class.” Silence. “Come on, someone?” A hand from the geeky bespectacled girl in row two. Oh no...

“Can you explain the British education system to us?” I stared. I winced.

“Anyone else?” Silence.

“The British education system it is then,” I determined, slurping another mouthful. “Where to start? Perhaps with my own experience, is that ok?” Nodded and shaken assent.

The Importance of Education

And that is about as much as I can remember, apart from little snippets. I do remember becoming an enthusiastic user of chalk and going off topic. One example remains with me still and I was ribbed mercilessly for the rest of my time in Bulgaria thereafter – uses of the word ‘joint’ which came up in conversation, or rather my drunken monologue.

“But before we go further, there are so many interesting uses of the word ‘joint’,” I declared, writing the word illegibly on the board. I went on to explain joint ventures, joints of beef, smoking a joint and wrecking a joint, enthusiastically apply chalk to blackboard at every opportunity.

“So where was I?” No idea how I had gone onto the topic.

“You were telling us about boarding schools.”

“Ah yes, but before I do, the phrasing ‘wrecking a joint’ is interesting. Wreck can be used as in shipwreck, wrecking is a type of dancing ...” More chalk and more uses of the word wreck.

“So where was I?”

“You were telling us about boarding schools.”

“Ok but before I do...” And so the class went on until the beer was consumed and I let the poor souls go.

A rather sheepish English teacher met my regulars the following afternoon. Not sure what to expect of me, they followed my every move.

“So yesterday,” I began, in faltering voice, “I was a little drunk.” Laughter.

“Really?” came a sarcastic voice from the back. “We did not notice.” Hmmm.

“And I think I spoke a bit too much.” More laughter, as it was explained to me that the only contribution anyone had made for more than two hours to remind me my topic was boarding schools, a subject I ultimately failed to address.

“And so today, we are going to do something different. I need to check how much you are understanding when I speak, so I am going to go round the class, and I want you each to tell me something that I told you yesterday. Let’s start with Maria.” My attempt to fill in my blacked out memory was crude, but it might just work.

An Education Scrutinised

“You got 12 ‘O’-levels.” What a bizarre thing to say, never mind remember. The worrying this is that is was true.

“Good. Next?”

“You got 4 ‘A’s, 5 ‘B’s and 3 ‘C’s.” This was back in the day when people listened to me, but I hadn’t expected such level of detail – hell, I didn’t remember talking about this at all. How dull must I have been?

“Well remembered. Next?”

“You got ‘A’s in Greek, Latin, French and English Language, ‘B’s in German, Physics, Maths, Religion and History, and ‘C’s in Chemistry, English Literature and Geography.” My heart was pounding now. What the hell had I been doing yesterday?

“Excellent attention to detail. Next?”

“When you were fifteen, you got 16% in your biology exam.” ENOUGH! My most closely guarded secret revealed to a group of teenage Bulgarians.

I put my hand in the air, my other hand on my chest and offered a heartfelt apology. I would never drink again. Before four.

“But let’s go to the pub now – I owe you all a drink.”

Friday, August 5, 2011

Ford Luton (3m) Meets Alsace Bridge (2.8m) (1997)

I found myself driving a seven year-old red Peugeot 205 automatic in 1996, a nippy little number that helped me deliver cases of wine to customers in my new job. After years of aid work in Rwanda, Russia and the Caucasus, I headed home to try and forge a life in Blighty. As I had never worked there and lacked a skill set which fitted into a conventional box, I found jobs hard to come by and, but for one close shave with a Regional Manager’s position for ALDI supermarkets, I was lost and slowly eating through my aid worker savings.

A New Career as a Door to Door Salesman

Help was at hand with some fine claret as the family gathered for a weekend at my father’s. Recently retired at 49 after a successful sales career at IBM, he had started his own wine business, importing quality wines from small family growers too small to interest the big boys, and selling door to door in rural Warwickshire. We all thought he was nuts, deciding to be a door to door salesman after such a successful career, but what the hell, each to his own.

Wine flowed that evening. Nice wine from the vineyards of his suppliers. He was planning a trip to Burgundy and the Rhone Valley in a Ford Luton transit van the following week. That was how it started, I seem to remember. By the end of the evening, as claret number eight was eliminated, I was not only coming too, but a partner in the business.

The alcohol flow did not let up for the next five years, as potential suppliers would send bottles though the post, which we would demolish over a pork pie and pickled onion lunch. It was not uncommon to see off a Chateauneuf-du-Pape and a red Burgundy over lunch before loading cases of wine and delivering them around rural Oxfordshire and Warwickshire.

The ‘job’ was twofold – finding and dealing with customers, and finding and dealing with suppliers. New to sales, there is nothing like cutting one’s teeth selling door to door, and it was an experience that I was glad to have done, but not one I wish to repeat. Between us, during the five years we worked together, we knocked on more than 30,000 doors in the wealthy villages and posh parts of towns from Oxford to Birmingham.

Beware the Door to Door Salesman

I must have cut a foreboding figure in my blue blazer, shirt and tie as I traipsed down ever longer driveways in obscure villages, if the numbers of people who dived under sofas pretending to be out was anything to go by. I always had a low opinion of direct salesmen, invading private space to power sell a product nobody wanted, but now the shoe has been on the other foot, I have a different opinion.

Fortunately, the product I had was very much in demand, the only problem was that I knew little about it. I also knew little about selling, but was soon to learn a lot about rejection. My aim was to get a pricelist to the wine drinker of the house, with a secondary aim of asking for a phone number, so that I could make a follow up call the following week.

“Good evening, I am sorry to disturb...” Slam.

“Good eve...” Slam.

My first evening’s calling numbers, on a wintery housing estate in Wellesbourne, near Stratford-upon-Avon, were: 77 houses called on, 45 rejections, 27 people out (of whom at least 19 were cowering under the sofa waiting for me to go) and five precious pricelists distributed.

This wasn’t as easy as my father had said. It all seemed so easy over that second bottle of Sancerre. When I finally did get someone’s semi-attention, the clock started ticking:

“I am not selling anything today, but if drink wine, would you have 30 seconds to see how we might be of assistance in the future?” There were those who took me at my word, stopwatch at the ready, calling my bluff. My message of quality, service and value was polished after 100 attempts, and once I got that far, I knew I was in. It always amazed me how quickly one could go from door to door salesman hatred to walking out with a cheque for 200 quid and the promise of imminent delivery.

Learning about Wine the Hard Way

My father had done his research and his list was good, prices keen and service exceptional. Free home delivery and a full-money back guarantee from a small, local family business, it would take a mean-spirited wine-drinker not to give us a try. All that remained was a requirement for me to know something about the topic and, while I could drink for England, my taste buds (and wallet) tended to be at the cheaper end of the supermarket range.

I learned what I could as I went along and there was a certain amount one could learn about grape varieties to appear knowledgeable on the subject of wine. Nothing could quite replace a developed palette, however, as I was soon to discover.

“Impressive spiel, and looks like an impressive list,” said the posh accented over-achiever with the biggest drive in the village of Radway near Banbury. “I am a New World man myself, and will have a case of whatever you think is closest to this divine Shiraz. Here.” And a glass of Australia’s finest was shoved in my direction. I was internally proud that I knew that what the New World called Shiraz, the French called Syrah, but I had no idea what it tasted like. His glass was lovely and I nodded my approval.

“It is good, isn’t it. So what would you recommend from your list?” What indeed. Our list, initially just 17 wines, fitted on a single sheet, and was helpfully sorted by whites on the front and reds on the back. I was halfway there. Using a technique that has had varying success over the years – closing a mental eye and stabbing the page for an answer – suggested a case of Bordeaux Fronsac at ninety quid for which he duly paid on the spot. He never reordered.

Wine Deliveries in the Dark: Rogue Swimming Pools

While selling the wine was a challenge, delivering it was also not without mishap. Many sales were concluded over the phone, with free delivery hard to coordinate with busy households if a physical meeting was required. I learned over the years which doors were left open in various expensive houses (a list which is available for a fee), and I learned also where to leave the wine and where the cheque had been left.

The system worked well in principle, allowing us to plan deliveries around the precious door knocking hours of 1700-1830, which had deemed as the least offensive and most populated. A successful afternoon could include a couple of bottles of red over a pork pie or two for lunch, followed by a leisurely drive through the villages of Oxfordshire, before a session of character-building door knocking would be capped off with a gin-fuelled telesales campaign. Despite the drunkenness, it worked, although I was by far the junior partner in terms of success.

My finest hour occurred behind a farmhouse in the tiny hamlet of Murcott, at the end of a road to nowhere, somewhere north of Oxford. The client was not home and had told me to leave the wine in the shed at the back of the house and he would post a cheque. It was winter, a dark moonless night and I had forgotten the torch. I could barely make out the main house and proceeded with caution until my eyes became more adjusted to the lack of light. In my hand, a case of 1989 Rioja Gran Reserva, retail value £137.90.

Eyes adjusted, I moved round the back of the house in search of the shed, but no amount of adjustment could compensate for my right leg wandering into the family swimming pool. Ever the consummate professional, I swivelled mid-fall to save the wine and was fortunate that the protective cover was on and held my weight. I did get completely soaked, but the wine was saved. It is at moments like these that the owner comes home to find a would-be intruder grappling with a case of quality wine in the pool. Fortunately nobody saw the debacle.

The Romantic Tour of French Vineyards

While dealing with the customer brought its own challenges, finding the right supplier had its own highlights. The romantic notion of touring the vineyards of France, sampling the country’s finest wines soon gave way to the economic reality of running a small business; a five-day rental of a Ford Luton transit van from Rugby to Alsace, Burgundy and the Rhone Valley did not leave a lot of time for fun. Tasting the wines, meeting the growers and practicing my French were all great, but there was only a certain amount that could be consumed due to drink driving considerations.

Drink driving aside, the trips were planned with military precision; 8am start with one grower, 0930 with the next, 11am the next before a four-hour drive to the next region. There was little margin for error and the route planning was masterminded by my father, who knew the vineyards like the back of his hand. As long as he was in charge, nothing seemed to go wrong. It was fun to drive and learn more of the wines and the wine-making process, loading cases of wine into the back of the van for delivery to clients back home.

Stocks were short on both clarets and burgundies, so we decided to do a double trip, firstly to the Loire, Bordeaux and Bergerac, followed by a second to the Rhine Valley in Germany, Alsace, Chablis and Burgundy. I went on both trips on a seven-day rental, with my father on the Bordeaux run and as lead driver with Jerry, a Welsh friend from my Moscow days, on the second trip.

The Differences Between a Ford Luton Transit Van and a Peugeot 205

Nothing symbolised the military precision of the trip more than the route maps that were prepared for me. The entire route, including six collection points, was detailed on the back of a standard envelope, some intricate squiggles and some recommended times for each winery. It all made sense in a weird way and I was confident I could find the places with the directions I was given. Jerry was incredulous.

Driving a Peugeot 205 automatic is a little different than a Ford Luton transit, but I soon got the hang of it once I became accustomed to the higher vantage point and was able to judge my rear end more effectively. The trip was going well and Jerry saw the merits of our envelope map, as we hit our two German appointments bang on time and headed to Alsace with forty cases of German wine in the back.

Closing in on our Gewurztraminer supplier in the small town of Turckheim, I must have veered off the envelope route slowly, but we knew we were close. Stopping to ask a friendly local, it appeared we were only 200 metres away. Under the bridge and turn left was the advice. Perfect. We were only 15 minutes behind schedule and could still make the last appointment in Chablis.
Every time I went under a bridge or into multi-storey parking in my Peugeot from that day on, I have ducked.

I remember we were chatting about a plan to motorbike it round the Soviet Union as we approached the bridge. The sun was out, we were back on track and about to taste some nice wines. I may even have sped up a little. Never having had to think about bridges before I cheerfully headed under, focused on trying to find the left turn on the other side.

French Bridges are Too Low

It took me a few seconds to figure out what the loud bang was. More confusing was the fact that the truck had gone from 40 km/h to zero, and no amount of revving would get it to move. I looked at Jerry. He looked at me. We had hit the bridge.

We got out to inspect the damage. It looked as though we were 15cm too tall for the bridge, and my enthusiastic revving had cemented our relationship with its underside. I tried reversing. Nothing. I looked at the underside of the bridge and noticed scratch marks all the way through, so at least I wasn’t the first. We let the tyres down, conscious that this might mean our Chablis date was off. A gendarme appeared, cursing the English under his breath and setting up a diversion.

Eventually, with four volunteers jumping on the bonnet to force the truck down, I managed to edge the vehicle out in reverse with its four flat tyres. There was a nasty hole in the top of the truck, which made a howling noise as we drove, so a couple of hours were spent patching that up. We continued our journey, arriving a day late, much to my father’s consternation. When we explained what had happened, his reaction was somewhat different to the anger I had anticipated:

“But there was no bridge on my map. How the hell did you hit a bridge when there was none? If you had followed the map, there would never have been a problem.”

Satellite navigation is a wonderful thing.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Confessions of a Male Chambermaid

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Nine years of expensive schooling at one of Britain’s leading boarding schools, a school which had spawned literary greats such as Arthur Conan Doyle and military heroes with seven Victoria Crosses between them, should have led to better results. And yet, here I was twelve months later, dressed in a white lab coat, cleaning seventeen toilets a day, the only male chambermaid in a four-star hotel in an exclusive part of Munich.

It had all started out with such high expectation, as always. The lure of high-paying manual jobs for English and Irish students had persuaded my best friend Adrian and I to head out in search of untold wealth; the rumour was they were paying £10 an hour, cash.

An Introduction to Chambermaiding

Not for the last time in my life, I was cut short in my prime on the verge of financial greatness, this time by a security guard, who informed us that we were ill-informed and there were no jobs. Brilliant. With enough beer money to last the week and no plan B, it was time to for the alternative plan, over a beer. We headed to the British Consul to see if they had any leads.

“The Hotel Sheraton told us they are looking for chambermaids,” an officious bespectacled bureaucrat told us curtly from behind the glass barrier. Thinking we had finally discovered some German humour, we smirked and waited for her to get real. She already had.

Chambermaids. Wow! We retreated for another beer, teasing each other about how gay they would look in a maid’s outfit before we sank our pints, swallowed our pride and took the U-Bahn to Arabellapark.

Five-Star Accommodation with Hairy Italians

We were taken on immediately, and it was not too bad; there were dozens of other English and Irish chambermaids of both sexes, and we settled in to the routine of sheet changing, toilet cleaning and looking under the pillows for non-existent tips. Our light brown uniform was smart, and we even had some accommodation thrown in, one of the hotel rooms on the fourth floor, which we had to share with two hairy Italian male chambermaids.

All was going well and, while I would not have chosen chambermaiding as a career when interviewed by the Careers Officer a year earlier, free accommodation in a five-star hotel was infinitely better than the illegal camping in a leaky tent that had been our home before starting our new career. There were some good laughs with fellow student chambermaids working for the summer, and all was going well.

Until they moved us.

We had been put in the guest room as a temporary measure as the staff accommodation was full. To be very fair to the hotel, they had told us that we might have to vacate at very short notice, but we were a little surprised to be told that our things had been moved to a conference room, where we would be sleeping until further notice. We went to check our stuff, which had been casually tossed in the far corner by whoever had been allocated to move our things. Adrian’s baseball boots had not made the short journey, and he headed to the housekeeping office to complain.

The Python in a Luxury Hotel

“Where are my baseball boots?” he demanded. “They are not with my things.” The two German housekeepers shrugged and continued with their paperwork – just another temporary worker and not worth the time.

“So you don’t care about my boots?” Indifference. “Perhaps you might care about the open box with my things?” Indifference with a hint of puzzled curiosity. “The one with my pet snake in it. But you probably don’t care about that either.” And with that, he exited the room, leaving me facing some decidedly terrified Teutonic faces.

“Did he say he has lost a snake?”

"Pete the Python? Very friendly chap, doesn't bite… I don't think. Tell you what, I will leave a note on the board in English and German asking anyone who sees a snake to come and find me on the fourteenth floor, or Ade on the fifteenth." I was doing battle with a particularly stubborn toilet stain several minutes later when three housekeepers entered the bathroom in sombre mood. They wanted to know if the snake had surfaced. Not sensing their genuine panic, I replied that, although he was quite intelligent, there was no way that Pete would know which floor we were on. Seeing then that they were in no mood for joking, I reminded them that it was not my snake and they should really talk to Ade. They marched off and the next thing I heard was the sound of footsteps pounding the corridor carpet. A flustered Ade appeared, out of breath, red, half-laughing, half-panicking:

A Friend in Need...

"They have closed the kitchen. They are just about to close reception and then call the zoo for help. What are we going to do? If we tell the truth, we will be fired, if we keep pretending, this could be real trouble, although, I grant you, highly entertaining." Always one to support a friend in crisis, the only possible reply was:

"What's all this ' we' business? It's your snake." He traipsed off, deciding to uphold his public school virtues of honesty and taking responsibility. Highly laudable, except that we found ourselves living on the street that night, two failed toilet cleaners with three deutschemarks between us.

We parted ways, he back to England and ultimately a highly successful career in consulting, I back to the campsite to try and make another plan. My illegal tent was soon discovered and I was thrown off the site, but not before someone had stolen my only pair of shoes the night before. Penniless, jobless, shoeless, I headed for the train station where I got a reasonable night’s sleep.

A fellow chambermaid agreed to lend me a small amount of cash until I could get back on my feet, and we agreed to meet for a beer. I sat on a bench outside the hotel waiting for Andy’s shift to finish, tanning my toes in the afternoon sun.

A Chance Encounter

A middle-aged man in expensive suit sat down next to me and said hello in English. I nodded.

“May I ask why you are not wearing shoes?”

“Because it is Wednesday,” I replied. I really didn’t feel like getting hit on by some rich old German.

“That’s funny. Please, tell me, I am very curious.” I looked at him, clean-shaven, obviously successful and speaking perfect English in an almost flawless American accent. Ah what the hell, Andy wasn’t due for another 20 minutes, and we were in a very public place. I told him the snake story and he laughed hysterically. And laughed. And laughed.

“It was not that funny.”

“Oh but it was. You don’t know who I am do you?” and he reached for his business card. Managing Director of the four-star hotel across the road.

This was getting interesting, perhaps a job, something. He asked me where I was sleeping and looked genuinely horrified when I told him about the station, more so about the lack of shoes, money and general direction in life. He had to go, but said that he would be back in 30 minutes and then would take me for a meal and a beer, and I was welcome to stay at his apartment until I got myself on my feet. There was even a job if I wanted it; all his chambermaids were female, but if the Sheraton could employ males, so could he. And he laughed again.

“I am not gay, if that is what this is all about.” More laughter.

“I am not either, I just want to help you. You have really made me laugh today and you seem like a nice guy.”

“Well I have your card if you try anything. Ok, see you in 30.” True to his word, he appeared on cue (I had seen Andy briefly in the interim) and we headed off to a pleasant Italian for my first decent meal in days. We must have looked quite a pair, he the well-known managing director, I the barefoot backpacker. I had a bath and he even gave me pyjamas and I fell into deep sleep.

In the morning he woke me, again sharply dressed, and gave me a key, as well as money to buy some shoes and the name of the head housekeeper.

A Toilet Cleaner Once More

“Tell her I sent you, and you will start tomorrow. But please, buy the shoes before you meet her!”

Life was looking up once more. My uniform, a white lab coat, black trousers and shoes (both paid for by the boss) made me look more like a doctor than a cleaner, but I went about my job efficiently, engaging a little with my older female colleagues from Poland, Yugoslavia, Turkey and Morocco. I even found a place to live, renting a small room in an apartment of a dotty 77 year-old lady. With a rent of 210 marks a month and a salary of 1800, life was good once more.

My morning routine would invariably involve waking up late with a hangover and then rushing to the U-Bahn and arriving just in time. I rarely put my contact lenses in before departure as, although I am almost blind without them, it was a gentler introduction to the day. I would bend down over the housekeeping counter to find my list of rooms and keys, then retire to my ‘office’ and rehydrate with sparkling water and a ton of the complimentary chocolates. Only then would I insert my lenses and let the working day begin. It was a system which worked well, as long as I had remembered to put the lenses in the neutralising solution the night before.

Advice for the Partially Sighted

“Ow,” I screamed to nobody in particular as the acid on the lens made contact with my eye. Lots of water, the stinging sensation subsided eventually, leaving me with a very red eye.
And very blind.

My glasses were at home as usual and, as the pain subsided, the realisation that I would have to clean seventeen rooms blind set in. Time for more chocolate. On reflection, however, how difficult could it be? I would change the sheets, vacuum everywhere and clean the bathroom and toilets – I didn’t really need to see if I was doing a thorough job. I relaxed and opened another chocolate.

The protocol for entering rooms in the morning was simple: look first for rooms with the green ‘Please Clean Now’ sign – there were none; then peer through the keyholes and see if any curtains were drawn back (there were none, my eyes able to detect light); and if all else failed, choose a victim, knock once, knock twice, open the door with the master key and announce one’s arrival with a cheery “Housekeeping.”

Dispelling the Hot Chambermaid Fantasy

In my defence, I followed hotel protocol to the letter. There was no life in the room, no luggage that I could see (I had forgotten that I couldn’t see) and I crouched towards the bed, squinting to make sure there was nobody in the bed. It was empty, the large duvet a discarded heap in the middle. As I was wont to do on occasion to inject some energy into my shift, I elaborately pulled the duvet into the air.

I am not sure who was the more surprised.

The duvet removed, I did not need 20/20 vision to realise there was a naked man shrieking in front of me, having been rudely awakened by a fat Englishman in a lab coat. From his side, any lingering fantasy of being jumped on by a hot chambermaid had surely been dispelled, as he looked up to see a mad foreigner resembling a doctor holding his duvet.

I panicked. He panicked. I panicked more, fleeing the room without uttering a word, duvet still in hand. Retreating to the safety of the office, I sat there for a full hour, fully expecting the sack. It never came, but then there was no 2 DM tip under the pillow in room 2106 either.

I have never been to work without glasses since.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Saving Rwanda’s Children from Brussel Sprouts (1994)

During my time as an aid worker, I learned that not every donation was welcome. In theory, as a humanitarian aid agency, free donations of supplies should be gratefully accepted by its workers and passed on to needy beneficiaries, but things were not always so black and white.

Good Donations and Bad Donations

I fondly recall the chaos caused in remote parts of the former Soviet Union, as excess American military supplies were offloaded as aid; while there was no doubt that much of the donated goods were useful and provided a nutritional or practical benefit, one had to question the distribution of depilatory cream in Tajikistan, 4kg tins of tomato ketchup in Kyrgyzstan and X-ray holders dating back to 1957 in Uzbekistan. While I had worked under a much larger team in Russia, my current position as Project Manager for a Seeds and Tools distribution in eastern Rwanda involved a lot more responsibility, including dealing with potentially the largest shipment of vegetable seeds Africa had ever known.

Our director, a tall forthright Brit who had been my boss in Moscow, called me into his office to give me the news.

“Good news. I think,” he started (that initial hesitation should have given me a clue). “We have received a free donation of vegetable seeds from a large multinational. Suspect it is a tax write-off, but there is probably some good stuff in there. Can you liaise with Francois and then contact the Ministry of Agriculture to see how they want to play it?”

Having spent the last few months looking at fields of beans and maize, I thought the addition of some other useful crops would be embraced, allowing a variation in the diet. I voiced my approval and enthusiasm.

“Only thing is, the shipment is 20 metric tonnes. While I am not a seeds expert, I have been told that that is enough vegetable seed for the whole of Africa. Which could be a challenge as we are in one of the smallest countries. Anyway, here is the waybill with more info.” I glanced at the documentation, and a sudden panic emerged within.

“It says the shipment contains 1.4 million sachets of seeds. Do you have a breakdown of which seeds are included.”

“Ah,” smirked the director, “that is why I said I thought it was good news. Alas that is all the paperwork we have. That is, of course, until you have done a thorough physical count and listed each item. We can then go and see the ministry.”

“You must be kidding. You want me to physically count and sort 1.4 million sachets? That will take months.”

“Am sure a resourceful chap such as yourself will cope. Buy you a beer later, but must dash to a UN coordination meeting.” And off he dashed leaving me alone with my waybill.

Counting 1.4 Million Sachets without English

The good news was that the sachets were very light, the type you find in the supermarket. Although labelled in English, they had helpful photos of the finished article, so language would not be a pre-requisite. The bad news was there were 1.4 million of them. I took on some temporary staff to work under my warehouse manager, fifteen locals proficient in Kinyarwanda and with a smattering of French. All they had to do was sort the pictures, how hard could it be?

I had little time to supervise things over the three weeks it took to sort the sachets, as we were in the middle of an intensive distribution cycle - seeds, hoes and food to the returning refugees and internally displaced from the horrendous genocide a few months before. My warehouse manager brought me a report every couple of days, with a list of seeds counted. There were plenty of useful items – tomatoes, onions and beans – as well as some surreal ones, such as 8,000 sachets of catnip, the ultimate seed of choice for post-genocidal reconstruction.

There were plenty of carrots too, or so the list told me. I went to the warehouse one day to show my face and thank the team for their efforts, when I stood there in bemusement as the first worker was nonchalantly tossing the parsnips in with the carrots. When I asked him what he was doing, he pointed at the pictures of each vegetable, which were remarkably similar apart from the colour. He had just assumed it was the same vegetable. I told him to carry on – this was taking too long as it was.

Catnip to Solve the World’s Hunger

While the main beneficiary of the pak choi was the Thai wife of one of my colleagues, and while we queried what an emergency aid distribution site was going to do with ornamental gourd seeds, I became obsessed by the catnip. It seemed almost as though I was being directly challenged – someone had sent 8,000 sachets of catnip into the aftermath of one of the world’s greatest manmade catastrophes, and it had landed on my desk.

It became my main conversation topic in the pub to anyone who would listen, as I brainstormed with colleagues as to the best use for the catnip. There were some good suggestions, the best of which was from an Australian nurse, who suggested we work with the orphanages, grow the catnip and have the orphans make toys for cats, which could then be distributed through her medical and dental network in Australia. This toy was made by an orphan from Rwanda, please give generously – that kind of thing.

Discussing Vegetables with the Minister

A topic to discuss with the Ministry of Agriculture, as well as figuring out what they wanted to do with all the seeds. At least I had a list now and, while we had our own ideas, the ultimate decisions would be made by local authorities. I brought my list and some samples to give the minister an idea, and we sat down with juice in the hot afternoon sun and got to work.

I have never discussed vegetables with a minister before or since, and just as I was impressed at his vision of creating some model farms to test which seeds would adapt to Rwanda’s hilly terrain, so too I was amused by the little boy in the sweet shop. To be honest, there were some vegetables in there that I had never seen or heard of before, so his most common question –

“What does this one do and taste like?” - was perfectly understandable.

“And tell me about this one,” he said in French. “The brussel sprout. It comes from Belgium, yes?”

The brussel sprout. A shiver went through my spine as my mind flashed back 25 years to Sunday lunches in Manchester. There was no escaping those disgusting green balls, no matter how hard you tried. Mother tried to avoid giving them, but Father was insistent. Two each per child and there had better be gone by the end of the meal. Attempts to hide them in the mashed potato and claim to have eaten them got short shrift. They were always last to go down, cold, and after many tears. It was the least I could do to spare future generations of Rwandese kids from the same fate.

“Sprouts? No I wouldn’t bother with those. Am not sure if they are from Belgium, but possibly, as they thrive in damp coastal areas. Totally inappropriate for here.”

We moved on to other toys as the sprouts were discarded. I left Rwanda soon after, one large sadness being that the catnip project never got off the ground. I am sure there are 8,000 sachet of catnip in a warehouse somewhere in Kigali still, along with pak choi and ornamental gourds, if anyone is feeling creative.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Learning the Capital of Qatar the Hard Way (1998)

Buying plane tickets in 1998 was a different experience than it is today. The thought of physically sitting with a travel agent in an office and tediously going through options is archaic, and the savings that can be made with a little patience on the web has meant that the bulk of ticket purchases can be done online in the comfort of one’s own home.

A Stopover in Goa?

Back in 1999, however, the travel agent was king (or invariably queen, as most were female). Entering the office and looking at offers to Tenerife, Ibiza and Majorca, I felt a little exotic asking for a flight to Colombo.

“Colombo. That’s Sri Lanka, right?” she asked in a cheerful voice, her nails polished and hair immaculate. “We don’t get many for there, but I had a friend who went. Lovely.”

“Yes. I have never been but it sounds nice.”

“To be honest, I like this exotic stuff. It is so boring doing the same old places. Let’s see what we can find.” The perfectly manicured fingers tapped away and I slipped into a haze, looking forward to being reunited with my hosts in Sri Lanka, my former Californian boss Jeff and his lovely Rwandese wife Rose – we had lived together in post-genocidal Kigali. Tap. Tap. Tap.

“Direct or indirect? I have Heathrow to Colombo for £550 or one with a stopover for £425.”

“Where’s the stopover?”

“Dunno. Somewhere called Doa, I think it’s pronounced.”

“You mean Goa? Can I break my journey on the way out for, say, three days?” This was an unexpected bonus; Jeff and Rose were not going to be there to meet me, so a few days in Goa would be just the trick, a chance to travel somewhere new.

“You can, but it is £75 extra to break the journey on the way out, so that will be £500. It is not Goa, but Doa.”

Goa, Doa, whatever – I am sure it would be fun, so I told her to go ahead and book.

In Search of Doa

Parting with my non-refundable £500, she informed me that the system told her I had to get a visa for Doa, wherever that was. Not a problem, I replied, and headed to the travel section in the nearest bookshop ten minutes later, one Qatar Airways ticket to the good (who the hell were Qatar Airways?), determined to learn more about my unexpected bonus – three days in Doa.

My hunt for my prize took me a while, but I eventually tracked it down in Lonely Planet’s Middle East on a Shoestring, March 2007. ‘Doa’ was ‘Doha’, the capital of Qatar, wherever that was. The intrepid gene within came to the fore. I delved into the guide to learn more.

I have the book in front of me now.

Around the Gulf, Doha has earned the unenviable reputation of being the dullest place on earth.

Lonely Planet or Travel Agency Advice

Terrific. The Middle East, while boasting some amazing sights and places to visit, did have its fair share of dull, alcohol-free places, and it looked like I had chosen the driest and dullest of the lot. For three days. The disappointment soon passed – it would be a new experience and a chance to observe life and learn more about a country I wasn’t even sure how to pronounce. I moved on to the visa information section.

Nationals of GCC countries and British passport holders with right of abode in the UK do not need a visa to enter Qatar.

Good old Lonely Planet, always so reassuring – at least the visa issue would not be a problem. Who would you rely on more for information – a travel agent who didn’t know which country I was spending three days in or the world’s leading backpacking travel guide?

The flight was late on New Year’s Eve and I would be seeing the New Year in at 35,000 feet en route to the Middle East. My Dad dropped me at Heathrow in the snow and I looked forward to the imminent warmer climes. There were few people checking in and I was soon presenting my passport and non-refundable £500 ticket.

The Thorny Visa Issue

“Where is your visa, Sir?” asked the check-in lady after diligently checking my passport.

“I don’t need one, I am British.”

“I am afraid you do, Sir. British citizens require a visa. No visa, no flight.”

I smiled. Not wanting to tell her how to do her job or be too smug, I pulled out the Lonely Planet bible and was searching for the relevant page, when she cut me short.

“I know about the Lonely Planet guide saying there is no visa requirement. Unfortunately, the information is not current. It was written last year and the new rules came into effect earlier this year. I am sorry, but no visa, no fee.”

New Year in the Snow

It was early evening New Year’s Eve at Heathrow Airport, with snow outside and my Dad uncontactable fighting his way home up the M1 motorway. In my hand a worthless piece of paper, which had been worth a seat on a plane to Sri Lanka moments before.

“There must be something I can do. Is there an emergency visa procedure or something?”

“You can only get visas from the Qatari Embassy in London, but they will be closed until after the holiday.”

“So that’s it? I have lost £500 and am stuck at Heathrow with no way home.”

“Your travel agent should have informed you about the visa requirement.” Ah, those polished nails; while she may not have known where Doha was, her system was current, unlike the guidebook.

“But there must be someone I can speak to. Please! I have been saving up for two years and really want to see Qatar.”

“I don’t think there is, but I will call my supervisor. Take a seat and I will call you when I have finished with the check-in.”

Signing a Life Away in Arabic

I sat disconsolate for perhaps 20 minutes before my name was called. Quite apart from the wasted cash, I had been really looking forward to seeing my friends again and exploring Sri Lanka. The alternative, trying to find my way home in the snow on New Year’s Eve, I didn’t want to contemplate.

The supervisor reaffirmed the official position and I went into pathetic mode, pleading with him. Surely there must be something he could do, as this was hardly my fault – the agent had not told me I lied. He went away and came back a few minutes later with a piece of paper.

“There is a way we can take you, but you have to sign this disclaimer, that you knowingly took the flight without a visa and you take full responsibilities for any consequences, absolving the airline from any responsibilities.”

A ray of hope! I looked at the text to make sure I wasn’t signing my life away. Even if I was, it was better than being stuck here at Heathrow in the snow, surely? I looked at the text again, staring in disbelief.

“It is in Arabic.”

“Yes, that is all we have. It is just a standard form, releasing the airline from responsibility, as we can be fined.”

“But it is in Arabic. I have no idea what I am signing.”

“You do not have to sign, Sir, but this is the only way you can board the plane.”
Ah, what is the worst that could happen? I could be selling my kidneys and donating my brain to science, but it should be ok. Shouldn’t it? The thought of going out into the snow removed any lingering caution. I signed.

Locked Out of Qatar

The plane was full and I fell into conversation with a few. They expressed surprise that I was spending time in Qatar, as everyone else it seemed were heading on to Colombo and Bangkok. Qatar Airways was a new airline and it was cheap. A couple from Devon were also going to Sri Lanka for the first time, and were looking forward to a brief glimpse of Qatar in the 15 hours they had to wait in between flights, with the airline providing a room in a posh hotel so they could relax.

While the flight was very comfortable, the arrivals hall was worse than shabby, with little space or seating before immigration and a toilet worth avoiding (one can only imagine the contrast today with Qatar’s impressive expansion). I agreed to meet the Devon couple at their hotel later. While the plane was full, those entering the country were a small minority. There were seven of us, and I was the last to approach.

“Where is your visa?” asked the uniformed immigration officer?

I proffered my Arabic document, confident that I would be on the bus with my new friends in a few minutes.

“I asked you where is your visa. This paper is not a visa.”

“But it explains why I don’t have one, and I was told I could come to your country if I signed it.”

“You can come but you cannot enter. You must return to London on the next flight.” His job done, he turned and headed into his office.

Happy New Year to you too. Not a great way to start the year, locked out of Qatar. My first taste of the Middle East wasn’t making me come back for more.

Assessing the Options

I assessed the options. Clearly I was not going to get into the dullest place on earth. I could return to London or perhaps I could get on an earlier flight to Colombo. Spending three days locked out of Qatar was even less appealing than London in the snow. The official could see me from his office and I approached him again and asked if I could change my status to transit and head out to Sri Lanka that evening. He dismissed me, telling me to go back to London.

I sat, keeping my presence in his view and saw him joined by a colleague who began asking questions and looking in my direction. Emboldened, I approached them again to find the colleague more sympathetic. Or perhaps my presence was spoiling his view. He said he would contact the airline to see what could be done. Initial hope was soon dashed as he said they were full.

I sat there for an hour with no idea what to do when an airline official came over to inform me that they did in fact have space, and I would be treated as a transit passenger. No chance of the £75 refund, but the complimentary hotel room and imminent freedom was worth far, far more.
Having checked in to the hotel, showered and strolled around the bay, I had to conclude that the Lonely Planet’s description of Doha was if anything understated. Times change, and I can imagine it is now an impressive city. I never did find out what I signed and I doubt such an option is available these days, but if my trip to Doha taught me anything, it was always to check the stopovers and visa requirements first, something that was reinforced at Sana’a Airport in Yemen three years later, as I met a Somali refugee who had been living in the transit lounge for three weeks, after trying to board a flight to Frankfurt with no visa.