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.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

$430 Short of a Ticket Home - Rio de Janeiro 1989

In the heart of the Amazon lies the city of Manaus, the region’s largest, and an important settlement both for industry and eco-tourism in the region. About half the population of the Amazon live in the city, whose attractions include the meeting of the waters, where the dark River Negro flows side by side with the muddy brown River Solimoes without mixing.

There are also several man-made wonders, including the impressive Amazonas Opera House, a 700-hundred seat theatre constructed from European brick, French glass and Italian marble. It was at said opera house that the casual observer might have noticed a distraught young pink Englishman as the clock struck 2pm on October 4, 1989.

Backpacking in 1989 v 2011

Backpacking in 1989 was a different experience than 2011, especially with regard to communications. No Internet cafes to catch up on email and arrange meeting points, no mobile phones to arrange rendezvous with fellow travellers, just the trusty old American Express poste restante for mail delivery, and even that required advance planning. If I was distraught by being stood up as a naïve 19 year-old in the middle of the Amazon due to poor communications, arriving in Rio to find I was $430 short of a ticket home took things to a new level.

My South American sojourn had started comfortably enough with two months in Guyana as a guest of a school friend. I wanted for little and the realities of backpacking were shielded from me as everything was arranged and transport was always available.

From Male Chambermaid to Intrepid Traveller

The main part of my trip was to travel the continent in the company of Andy, a fellow male chambermaid in one of Munich’s posher hotels. Like me, he had decided to quit England and see the world, and we hatched a friendship whose basic pillars revolved around German beer, male chambermaiding stories and our plans to discover South America together.

Due to prior commitments, we were due to arrive at different times, I to Guyana and he to join me somewhere at a later date. We pored through the guidebooks looking for a suitably exotic, but practical meeting point, and after much debate settled on the Opera House in Manaus.

Realising that communications might be an issue, we decided to factor in a strategy to counter slight delays, and it was decided to meet on October 1 at 1300 and wait for an hour, a meeting to be repeated for the following three days. If the other failed to show by 2pm on the 4th, he was not coming, and the show would have to go on alone.

I received a postcard from Andy in Guyana, telling me that all was on track, and that he was due to arrive in Caracas a week before our meeting, plenty of time to make the journey.

Being Stood Up Outside an Opera House

It had been a great two months in Guyana, riverboats up the Pomeroon to Amerindian settlements, chilling on the great Dadanawa ranch near Lethem on the border, and a brief foray into Suriname. The trip to Manaus was straightforward, a bus ride from Boa Vista, and I was ready for the next challenge and keen to see Andy again.

October 1 came and went, as did October 2 and 3. Hope was springing eternal as I headed for the opera house once more on October 4, not allowing myself to believe he would not be there, since the alternative, alone in the middle of the Amazon with no idea of where to go and how to travel, was unthinkable.

The hour wore on and the realisation set in. He was not coming.

Two o’clock came and I was gripped with fear and panic. What now and where? How to travel? How to meet people? Having so vocally quit England, there was no way I could return, so soldier on I must. Although we had been over all the guidebooks, we had made no real itinerary, having decided to make a plan in Manaus.

Confused and lost, I headed for the bus station, unsure as to what to do next.

God Bless the French

“Excuse me, you speak English?” asked a heavily accented French voice over my shoulder. I nodded my assent to the heavily tanned blond. “Where are you headed? I am going to Riberalta.”

“Me too,” I replied, with no idea where or what Riberalta was; I was just desperate to latch on anything to not be so alone. A ticket was purchased, a chess set produced and some competitive chess followed, my abiding memory being watching Francois periodically removing tiny fish bones from his fingers, a by-product of his shrimp fishing off the coast of French Guyana.

My trip had begun and I was not alone. As for Andy, we met a year later and he confessed that he had been terrified at the prospect of me not turning up so, loyal friend that he is, he decided not to book his flight to Caracas, but headed instead to Morocco where he got mugged and forced to buy a very expensive carpet.


The ensuing months were spent on a fascinating trail, arching through the Andes into the Chilean Atacama Desert, Argentinian Lake District, Uruguayan steak houses and the unknown of Paraguay, and as the trip progressed and the dollars dwindled, the bravado of buying a one-way ticket to Venezuela to start afresh did not seem like such a masterplan. I had matured and decided to return to university and get a degree at least.

The Cheapest Flights are from Rio

The problem was I did not have much money. Backpackers kept telling me that Rio de Janeiro was cheap for flights, and I should be able to get back to London for about $500. Again, the Internet would have helped to evaluate this, but my only option was to hop on a bus and find out. I arrived 18 hours later with $610 to my name. It did not take me long to find a travel agency, with helpful flight prices to world destinations in the window.

Madrid - US$1030

For the first (but sadly not the last) time in my life, I had that stomach churning feeling of realising I did not have enough money for the next step in life. $600 was a long was short of $1030.

My only possible salvation was the American Express Office in Rio, which I had given as a mailing address. My French housekeeper from my toilet cleaning days was due to be in Rio with her Brazilian boyfriend and had promised to be in touch. I collected my post and devoured it over a beer - university application form, personal letters and a postcard from Isabelle. Perhaps she could help, although $430 was a lot to ask.

The Working of the Passage

I decided to try my luck first at the British consulate, to find out if they had a repatriation fund or some suggestions at least. I was given short shrift, obviously not the first penniless backpacker to appear, and was advised to try my luck at the docks to see if there were any ships heading to Europe.

After an hour, I found a freighter bound for Hamburg, whose burly captain was willing to take me in return for me working my passage. Delighted, I headed off for a celebratory beer at a nearby bar, where a Swede deflated my news by suggestion that a pretty boy like me might indeed have his passage worked away at sea for three weeks. It was back to square one.

Assuming Brazilian Citizenship

Having had a bite to eat and found the cheapest accommodation in town, I walked down the street and saw the strangest thing - a travel agency advertising flights to Madrid for $593! I was by now down to $600 and ran into the office, where my hopes were immediately dashed as I was informed by the pretty sales agent that the $593 price was for Brazilian nationals only.

I cried. I pleaded. I invented terminal illnesses for everyone I knew. I was so totally pathetic that she eventually relented, and asked me to sign some paper in Portuguese which would muddy the waters in the nationality issue. Five minutes later, I was one ticket to Madrid to the good and $7 rich in the world. I would figure out the rest later.

“And when does the flight leave?” I asked (this being a Friday).

“Not until Wednesday.”

That sinking feeling again. I would need the $7 for phone calls in Madrid to try and get home. As the despair once more set in, I remembered I had Isabelle, my former housekeeper. Fishing out one of the few local coins I had, I called and she excitedly arranged to meet me on the beach two days later.

Five Days in Rio on $0

She SHOULD be good for a $50 loan, but there was no guarantee, and I resolved to guard my $7 with my life, since getting home from Madrid with no money would be just as much of a challenge. I slept on a beach, a little scared due to the city’s violent reputation, but consoled by the knowledge that even the beggars were taking pity on me in my hairy, unkempt state.

I smartened myself up as best I could to meet the lovely Isabelle and she hugged me warmly and ordered two large beers. After a while I spotted my moment to ask her for money, but she got there just ahead of me:

“The one thing that is really annoying us though, is all Bernd’s family think we are loaded, and everyone is asking us for money. Fifty bucks here, 100 bucks there, I have just had enough of it. Sorry. I had to get that out. You were just about to say something?”

Ah. I kept my silence, accepted another large beer and tightened my stomach - this was going to be a long few days…

I kept meeting backpackers who had just arrived, eager to hear about the cool places to see. They would shout me a beer or two when I said I had no money, but food - there was none.

For five days.

Checking In for Madrid

Eventually the fateful Wednesday arrived and I almost missed my boss after a Dane insisted I had another beer before departing, but I got to the airport on time - hairy, smelly, hungry and exhausted, but I was there. And I was going home. Well, at least as far as Madrid. I handed over my ticket at check-in.

“I am sorry, Mr. Bradbury, but economy is full.” My heart, my life stopped. I had been ripped off, cheated out of my precious $593, and now I was truly screwed. “So we will have to upgrade you to business class if that is acceptable.”

Having recovered my sanity, I had to laugh at the irony of it. I had only just made economy and here I was in business class. As I accepted the first glass of complimentary champagne, I felt a little sorry for the pin-stripe suited British executive to my right who presumably had not bargained for such a travelling companion.

The starter, a main salad with salad, was wolfed down in one, and the buzzer pressed asking for more. I had two main courses and two breakfasts and a deep sleep in between, arriving in Madrid in fine cheer. Am sure my mother could book a flight with her credit card and I would be home in the morning.

The Final Leg: Madrid to Blighty

I strode confidently to the BA check-in desk where I found flight times and ticket prices. All was going well until I asked if I could get someone in the UK to pay for the ticket, only to be informed that this was only possible if the purchaser physically bought a ticket from a travel agency. As my Mum was housebound, this was not going to happen, and I could not think of anyone who could (or would) drop tools and run out and buy me a ticket.

Casting around for inspiration, I saw the Iberia desk and remembered dear John in Munich, an Iberian sales agent. It was time to investigate making phone calls with my precious seven dollars. There was an international payphone area where you could pay in several currencies, including dollars.

Discovering Who Your Friends Are

I called John’s home number, praying he would be there. He was.

“Paul! How the devil are you? Where the devil…”

“John, stop and listen! I need your help. Have you got a pen?”

“Just a minute,” and off he toddled, precious seconds elapsing as my $7 war chest was diminishing.

“OK, flight 604, Iberia - Madrid to London. Can you get me a flight, send through confirmation and I will pay you back next week? Sorry to ask but I am in a spot.”

A couple of questions and he agreed to do the deed. I hung up, $4 poorer.

Heathrow airport to Cheshire on $3. Hmmm. I called Peter in Pinner, a friend from university before I dropped out.

“Paul, how the hell are you? Where the hell…”

“Stop. Need a big favour. Can you meet me at Heathrow flight 604 Iberia at 8, bring £30 and will love you forever and pay you back next week.”

“Er… ok.”

“Thanks, see you then.” Clunk.

Worldly wealth - one solitary dollar.

But I had made it. I was home, by the skin of my teeth. Flight to London, beer and kebab with Peter, then the overnight bus to Manchester, a 3 mile walk and a full English breakfast would await. I began to relax.

One More Glitch

“Passenger announcement: would Mr. Paul Bradbury please come to the Iberia desk.” I swaggered across, the final hurdle overcome.

“Hello Mr. Bradbury, your confirmation is just coming through now,” beamed the sales assistant. I was beaming too, I was back from the abyss. And then I noticed a frown.

“And it has just been cancelled.”

“Why?” I asked, incredulous.

“I have no idea.”

“Can you call to find out?”

“Only if you pay for the call.”

“But I only have a dollar left. I need this ticket to get home.” The beam was long gone.

“In that case, we can’t help you.”

From Madrid to Manchester on a Dollar

And that was that, back to the sinking, stomach churning feeling. There is a reason why the book Madrid Airport to Manchester for Less than a Dollar has yet to be written.

I was emotionally destroyed. The hoping, the despairing, the champagne, the frantic phone calls, it was all too much, and I collapsed in a chair unable to think what my next move might be. I was there for perhaps 20 minutes, mustering up the strength to put out my trusty thumb and see where hitchhiking would take me when I heard my name being called again. I went back to Iberia where the beam was once more present.

“Mr. Bradbury, I am pleased to tell you the confirmation has now come through and here is your ticket. Have a pleasant flight.”

Confused and unable to believe this latest change in fortune, I staggered to check-in and was soon airborne for London. Weeks later, John solved the riddle, by telling me that he had booked the flight from home through work, and that they had then called him back five minutes later for some additional passenger info, hence the cancellation.

Peter, Bless him, played his part, and I was on the overnight bus to Manchester, three pints and a kebab to the good. Am unusually pleasant Manchester morning greeted me and the walk home was pleasant enough. Having not shaved or cut my hair in 9 months, I wasn’t sure how my mother would great me at 7am, but I couldn’t have guessed her actual reaction:

“Hello, can I help you?”