Friday, 31 January 2014

'A rose by any other name would smell as sweet'...

Sky news yesterday were running a special day long feature about the flooding on the Somerset Levels, which if you ask me is maybe not as descriptive a name as they could have had.  Maybe they should have considered 'Somerset just under Sea Level'?  Anyhey, suffice to say I now know a lot more about that region, which is not difficult as I hadn't heard the name 24 hours ago.

What I have learned is that the area was drained around the 12th century (or since before the Doomsday Book if you believe Wikipedia, and I often choose to..)  and up until reasonably recent times, has survived serious flooding since their creation by man made interventions such as dredging and pumping .  Which if you think about it must have meant that some people really wanted to live there back in the day when all that work must have been done by hand, maybe with a little help from an ox?  If I were a betting man I'd say they didn't have any choice as the landed gentry had nicked all the ground high enough to stay dry.  I'm sure once the poor had drained and cultivated the swamp the lords taxed them on the produce that came out of the ground, such is the way of things.  Oh no, I feel my French Republican side coming out, that's what happens when you spend ten years living the Entente Cordial.  Even now I can hear La Marseillaise playing the background, 'Contre nous de la tyrannie'... Anyway, according to an irate local councillor being interviewed by the Sky news reporter, and he was very irate, life was good there and the drainage was being taken care of efficiently by local people up until around twenty years ago.  They suffered minor flooding from time to time but this cleansing action was actually good for the environment, so a balance was being struck in the nature there.  Then up rocked the Environment Agency..

The government department decided that the whole thing would be better managed by them, relieving the locals of the bother that they'd had for the last nine hundred years or so.  I don't know about you, but the picture that springs in to my mind immediately is a patronising civil servant in a bowler hat and holding a brief case and umbrella, talking down to a smock wearing yokel with a straw in his mouth and holding a pitch-fork and jug of scrumpy?  After all what would the  locals know about it,  they'd only been living there for the best part of a millennium?  But I'm sure the guy with the suit had plenty of reports to show how much money they could save by centralising control of the area, besides, they weren't  giving anyone a choice in the matter.

So the first thing the EA do is stop dredging, the second is to take control of when to switch on the pumps.  Now I'm no scientist nor am I a mathematician, but I have a feeling that if you take a deep vessel and you take a shallow chalice, you can fit more fluid in the former? Eureka.  This has nothing to do with the vessel having a pestle being compared with a chalice from the palace, thanks Danny...  With less space to run in to the water did what water does, it found the route of least resistance and flowed where it wanted, mainly in to fields then in to people's houses.  At which point the locals started to call Whitehall and ask if they wouldn't mind switching the pumps on please?  'Don't worry we'll switch them on when it's necessary' came the reply, meanwhile in Somerset the cat floated by on a coffee table..

What really made me smile was that after an area the size of Bristol had been under water for a month, the Government emergence committee swung in to action.  Thanks for speedy response, the horse has not only already bolted, but it's in the 3.30 at Sandown..

This committee is called COBR and pronounced the same as cobra or /ˈkəʊ.brə/ for my CELTA friends (that means you Michael, Renate and Kati.  I don't know of any others who read this?), and it stands for the Cabinet Office Briefing Room. I'm sure the macho name resonated well in the ears of the officials who came up with it.  You normally hear it used when the group is being put together to combat a terrorist threat or consider military action, so the aggressive connotation with a poisonous snake is perhaps apt.  However when dealing with a flood it seems like overkill.  More of the frenzied Corporal Jones' 'don't panic, don't panic' to what would have been a more re-assuring response from Sergeant Wilson of  'don't worry we're on the case'.  I would suggest the government form a second committee for these internal, not threatening invasion type of crises and name it something more appropriate.  Nothing too soft like BUBBLES or BUNNY, but maybe CARE or RELAX.  These aren't acronyms of course, how much spare time do you think I have to write this?!  They could take the concept further and their hold music for when you call them could be Bob Marley singing 'Don't worry about a thing' or even better Bobby McFerrin and his 'Don't worry, be happy'.  (What is it about reggae singers having the initials B.M. and singing songs that begin with the word 'Don't'?  Is that common? They must have been well peeved when Brian May was on 'Don't stop me now', that ruined the run..)

What's the moral of the story then?  I would offer that the cheapest option is not always the best or don't always trust the experts,  oh and I would rename the area Atlantis, best be honest..

For those of you reading this via Expat Blog and expecting news from the UAE, I can only apologise.  Normal service will be resumed shortly, but as a quick update - everything is fine here, they are introducing National Service for the local lads, the weather has been warm and Carrefour are doing buy one get one free on Digestive biscuits.  Mustn't grumble, apple crumble..

Friday, 17 January 2014

Goodbye comfort zone, hello hospitality.

You often hear about how hospitable various nationalities are, but it's not until you experience it that you truly understand how enriching it is meeting people from different parts of the world.

You may know that Amélie is very keen, some would say obsessed, with: horses, mermaids, unicorns, princesses and Tinkerbell.  Looking through the list, there is only one thing that we can get her regular contact with, hence we take her horse riding when we can.  The first time we did that over here we went to a very impressive and professional stables, an Arabic dude ranch.  It was huge and clearly catered for a lot of horses that belonged to ex-pats and other wealthy people.  It had a walk-through pool for rehabilitation of the pampered mounts and an arena with an impressive VIP lounge containing seating in the Louis XV style, rather than the dusty plastic benches we were used to in the riding school we went to in the UK.

The problem was that they didn't do group lessons for her and she got a bit bored being on her own.  One of Domi's students then mentioned that her father runs a stables and we could go along with Amélie if we liked?  So up we rocked, and suffice to say it was the complete opposite of our first experience of riding schools out here.  For a start it was at the end of an unmade road, the sort I'd only seen before in Ewan McGregor and Charlie Boorman documentaries.  The kind of track with holes big enough to swallow a Toyota Yaris, in fact if they're still looking for Lord Lucan and Amelia Earheart...?  Anyway, at the end of which appeared our destination. 

This was not a dude ranch with pampered ex-pats posing about in their Burberry outfits.  It had a far more rustic appearance (read between the lines, I used to be an estate agent, I can only apologise...) and was a hive of activity with large numbers of local children and their parents obviously getting very involved with every aspect of the goings on.  Domi and Amélie felt at home straight away with the informality of the place, while I was (in my English way..) thinking 'but who's in charge, where is the health and safety, are there not strict start times to the classes, why are there people seemingly riding around all over the place, why is the car park not clearly signed,  where is the order????'.  You see I come from an environment where you turn up to attend a class at a certain time, where you are assessed to see what level you are, where there are lists, rules, regulations & systems for everything?  

This was far more organic.  It transpired that there was order, there were people in charge, there are systems, they're just hidden below a thin surface of informality.  Informality, we English don't do that very well.  Have these people not seen Downton Abbey?  We didn't build the Empire on informality, we did it with a stiff upper lip, a starched collar and a complete disregard for the opinions of anyone who had the temerity to already live there.

To the untrained eye kids were turning up, being given a helmet and then plonked on the nearest thing with four legs before allowed to roam willy-nilly inside a corral.  But after a little time you realised that the participants were quite happy about this and the Captain (the guy in charge) was actually being very efficient in matching the horses with the riders.  After introductions Amélie was helmeted, given a steed then led round.  She clearly enjoyed the fact that there was a lot of children doing the same thing, she felt part of the group rather than being on her lonesome.

We were the only non-Emerati family there, so would have fully understood if everyone had just left us to our own devices, but his is where the hospitality began.  While the place is owned by our host Salem, it is more of a co-operative than profit making organisation.  People started coming up to us to make conversation, offer us food and drink, to find out where we are from, to be friendly and interested.  My stiff upper lip was quivering, my in-built reserve assaulted like French cavalry attacking my regimental squares at Waterloo, 'why are these strangers talking to me?  Don't they know we don't do that?'.  I was Michael Caine in the Middle East version of Zulu but instead of throwing spears, the locals are sauntering up to my barricades and asking 'where are you from?  How nice to meet you, would you like some cake?'.   Maybe that's what the Zulus were trying to do when the first volley cut them down?  Perhaps they were using their shields to protect the scones they had made from the dust?  'Don't bother sending in the second wave with the jam and cream boys, I don't think the redcoats are interested.  Are you sure they didn't order Battenburg?'.  I know people in the UK who commute to work on the same bus/train every day and never speak to the person who sits next to them, even though it is the same person day in, day out.

It turns out people take along food and drink to share, and quite a selection it was.  'Try this drink, we call it custard, it contains saffron''It can't be the same as custard at home' I thought so gratefully took a small cup, it was custard like at home but thin enough to drink and very nice.   We had dates, cake, coffee, and when you tried to politely refuse (I hadn't drank coffee for 25 years until two weeks ago when I had a small cup foisted upon me on a boat trip, but that's another story..) they were equally polite in their insistence.  They desperately wanted to share with you and be hospitable, to make you feel welcome.

Suffice to say we've been back a couple of times since and the reception has been the same and we're grateful for the opportunity that fate has given us to see this side of local life.  I guess it's the same for lots of things.  Saying 'yes' opens you up to a world of possibilities, saying 'no' leaves the door closed.  My recommendation would be to say 'yes' as often as you can, even if it means braving the custard.  After all if that's the worst thing that happens how bad can it be?

Saturday, 11 January 2014

Who you gonna call?

Most visitors to Ras al Khaimah come for the sun, beach and excellent hotels.  It's around an hour or so from Dubai but far less hectic, so you can visit the big city then retire to our quieter surroundings to recuperate.

Being given the opportunity to live here for a while means that if you are so inclined, you can try to see and learn a little bit more about the history and culture of the UAE.  Yesterday we managed to experience some of both.

We had heard from friends about a couple of abandoned villages in the area, but details on how to get to these places were sketchy.  There doesn't seem to be an equivalent of the National Trust here so you don't see roadside signage saying 'This way to the derelict town'.  You have to adopt the attitude that part of the fun is getting lost while finding the place, which is why if you want to do that sort of thing you need to get the right car.  If I digress and explain what I mean by that, it will also give you an insight in to the Emirati way of lateral thinking!

Much of the road system here is excellent.  We have two motorways linking us with Dubai, one of which then continues to Abu Dhabi and beyond.  They are wide and smooth and often un-congested, until you get to the suburbs of Sharjah and Dubai when they become like any other city expressway, which is not very express at all.  Likewise the main roads around RAK are pretty good.  Some of the planning is a bit confusing when you first arrive, but once you get the hang of the thought process behind driving here you realise it all seems to work.

Here is the 'however' though..  However once you get off the main strip the situation can change in a couple of meters, and you can be on a rutted, sandy track or even just sand.  Sometimes excellent road surfaces can have sections of up to a couple of hundred meters of rough track randomly spaced along their route.   Hence a lot of people buy SUVs and 4x4s to give them the ability to get through the light off road sections you often have to negotiate.  However if you buy a really capable 4x4 it's not so comfortable on the highway, and if you get an SUV it can cope with the light rough but will get stuck when the going gets tough.  Your own personal usage dictates which side of the compromise you choose, but not if you've got a few quid.  The view is often that if the roads are not going to get better you need to consider cars as you would your shoes.  You have one for the country, one for the city, one for long drives, one if you're going on your own and another if the family are coming along.  It is not unusual at all for people to have five cars and think nothing of it!

Back to the ghost town..   We manage to find roughly the right location for the deserted village and kept going until the road ran out, then pushed on a bit further.  Firstly it looked like any other small suburb of RAK and clearly was predominantly inhabited by migrant workers from the Indian sub-continent, many of whom were enjoying their day off and playing a bit of cricket or hanging out with their friends.  There were the usual small shops and houses, nothing remarkable until we realised that immediately next to this scene of normal life were a collection of buildings which were ram-shackled, and then the fort appeared.

We tried to drive around what was now obviously our destination but it soon became clear that the design of the village pre-dated the popularity of the car, so we parked next to the fort (easy landmark to navigate back to!) and set off on foot.  The 'keep out' sign seemed only to apply to the fort, which was fenced off!

The first thing to strike me was that we were alone in the rubble strewn streets.  Just a few hundred meters away people walked past and carried on with their daily lives, but there was no-one else taking a tour of this part of town.  Some of the paths had the appearance of having been cleared but the smaller ones, which were passages in between the houses, were covered in rubble.  There was a mosque, shops still with stands outside where their wares would have been displayed, and a lot of houses.  We've been to a deserted town before, one which had a sad tale to tell, Oradour-sur-Glane in France. Hundreds of people had been massacred in Oradour during WWII so naturally it had an eerie feel, even though there were lots of visitors.  Jazirat also had this feeling. There is something strange when you are in a village and there are no people about.  You keep expecting someone to walk out of a house, or to hear a phone ring or dog bark.  The silence is unusual and unnerving.  On one trip to the Somme we stayed in a converted barn adjacent to a farmhouse, and if I was ever going to have a spiritual encounter I would have thought this would be the place.  Savage fighting had taken place in the immediate vicinity and during recent building work the owner had found human remains.  The poor souls who perished there would have had every reason to be restless, but my nature is to think they would not be malevolent, just sorrowful.

It soon became apparent why the buildings were is such a poor state of repair.  OK, they were not being maintained but why did everything seem to be falling down?  A closer look at the bricks and mortar gave the answer.  They were made out of sand and material from the nearby beach, there were shells and fossilised coral in abundance and without regular maintenance it was all returning to its natural state.  This meant that some of the walls were precariously balanced and others just fallen heaps.

It was getting late in the day so we headed back to the car and once home, I looked the village up on the internet.  This is where we learned the various rumors and speculation about why it is abandoned and how it is commonly thought to be haunted!  I'm normally an i's dotted and t's crossed sort of guy and tend to research places that we visit beforehand, so finding this out afterwards was a bit of a surprise!  Just in case you want to know more, here is one of the many websites which feature Jazirat:

Would we go back again, knowing the history of the place?  Probably, but in daylight!  I'm not sure if I believe in ghosts or not, never having seen one, and I have a sceptical view of mediums.  If a relative who has passed away wants to get in touch with me I kind of understand how the spirit world would only allow this through the talents of a medium.  But why they have to go through the whole charade of 'I think there is someone trying to get through...  Their name begins with B or it could be P? ..... It's something to do with paper and plastic....' is beyond me?!  If they said 'your recently passed away Uncle Brian says he's left a million pounds in cash in a plastic bucket under the sink' then I'd be easier to convince.  And before you send any begging emails, I didn't have an Uncle Brian and I don't have a million pounds..

Next week, Arabic hospitality.  How I fell out of my comfort zone and into the metaphorical arms of the most welcoming people I've ever met.