Category Archives: On the road

How Rotana made our blacklist

Disturbing stay

Disturbing stay

I’m 36 weeks pregnant so this two-night stay at The Cove Rotana in Ras Al Khaimah on their Ramadan special rates was booked to be our last dedicated weekend together as a couple. We were very excited.

After a two-hour drive from Dubai (in hectic Thursday afternoon pre-Iftar traffic) we arrived at the Cove at almost 6pm and proceeded to check in. I went to the bathroom while my husband started. I arrived back and asked if we’d been given the complimentary upgrade as per our reservation. She knew nothing about it and said we’d been given a classic room. I said we’d paid for a premium room but our rate included an upgrade from that and showed her our printed booking information.

She called reservations to check our booking (despite us having all details on our printout that we put in front of her) and many minutes later she said she’d give us a villa. We thanked her.

She asked if we needed non-smoking, I said we did, as that was what was booked. She said she didn’t have any but said she’d find something.

At that point, a colleague came up to her and said she needed her. She went with her associate and a male colleague, Bhakta, took over. He asked questions we had already answered. We said it was poor customer service for the woman to abandon us just as we are finishing, and said that she should see it through. She returned, but took our ID to scan and left him to it. He just stood there.

She finally returned and proceeded to finalize our check-in. After the problem with the complimentary upgrade not being recognised I went through the list of other items that were supposed to be included in the rate. She acted very put out and said of course we had a 30% discount on f&b and of course we had free internet, she would give us a code.

Free internet included, but not without a fight

Free internet included, but not without a fight

Still searching for a villa, she said she’d give us a premium villa. We thanked her.
Finally, Bhakta, pointed at something over her shoulder and told her to “just give them that one”. They gave us our key, told us the pool was closed for renovation, as was the main restaurant, but we could swim at the pool bar if we wanted, and dine at the cafe. At this point we barely even registered. She had neglected to give us our internet code.

We loaded ourselves into the golf cart and were driven down to the villa they’d given us. I immediately noticed it was a smoking room. My husband wondered if maybe it was just stuffy, when I pointed at the ashtray on the table. I also noticed that this premium villa had no soft furnishings, was all echoes and plaster, and had pictures that weren’t straight.

My husband called reception and asked them to fix it. They asked us to wait as they were serving others and he said that we would like this resolved now as we had already spent a long time at reception ourselves, were hungry and now just wanted to be in our room. He waited on the line to be allocated a new room and he asked them to said send a driver with the new room key to meet us where we were, to save me another bumpy ride back up the hill to reception and back.

After waiting in the smoky room for 20 minutes for our new key to be delivered, I was feeling sick from the stench. My husband had tried to straighten the picture but it stubbornly remained askew. We asked the driver to call and find out what the delay was. He could not reach reception. No one would answer. We took the golfcart ride back up to the hotel lobby and I stormed in demanding to know where our room key was.

Bhakta, the one who had said “just give them that one” (the smoking room) refused to serve us and told us to get to the back of the queue. I was not happy and did not move.

This is when the star of this tale, Iyad the manager made his grand entrance and told us to sit down. I said I didn’t want to sit here, I’d been trying to check in for an hour and I wanted to lie down in our room. He said he couldn’t help us if we didn’t sit. I said I didn’t want his help, I just wanted to know the room number from the desk who already had our details, so we could meet the driver who had taken our key there.

Iyad, in his creative genius, said his only option was to cancel our reservation and walked off. This is how he chose to deal with a tired, upset, hungry and obviously 8 months pregnant couple who had driven two hours to get there; who had spent another hour trying to sort out a reservation that had been stuffed up twice already; and who had been shuttled up and down the hill in a golfcart to a smoking room that had been allocated to them even though they’d been told they were being given a non-smoking room. The man is not a diplomat. Let’s say it did not smooth the situation.

I stormed after him, shouting that he would do no such thing, that he would honour our transaction and provide the service we had paid for.

He said he couldn’t while I was upset. I urged him to just give us our room number if he was concerned that I was upset. He said he couldn’t if he didn’t know what it was. I said that is why I wanted the front desk to deal with it, as they had all our details, to save us wasting further time recounting them.

He repeated that all he could do was cancel our room and said we hadn’t even given him our name. I asked why he had not asked for our information instead of threatening to kick us out. I gave him the reservation details I’d had in my hand and been waving at him the entire time, that he’d never taken from me and demanded he give us the number of our room.

He typed away and perceptively informed us that we’d already been given a new room and the key had already been sent. Our patience had been completely sapped. I repeated that all we wanted was the number of this room so we could go there.

He said “this room is also a smoking room, is that ok?” I said “no, of course it’s not ok!” We reserved a non-smoking room, and that is what we want to be provided.

He reverted to his default position, “all I can do is cancel your reservation” with the added flourish of, “you can call the police if you’re not happy”

I told him that is not all he could do, he could provide the service we had paid for and told him to find us a room.

He typed some more and said he had nothing at that level, and I said he’d have to give us a room at a different level then. He said it would take a further one to two hours so he would give us a standard room to wait in in the mean time. I asked if there was any food in the room. He said there was standard mini bar, chips and chocolate, and I said we would wait in the cafe.

He looked at me and sneered and with another textbook line of customer service gold he said, “All this because we gave you a smoking room? I’ve been nothing but polite and all you can do is shout”.

I said no, that is not all. We had arrived and our reservation was not recorded correctly. We had patiently explained the differences to the check in desk who had spent some time confirming these on the phone to Rotana’s central reservations department and were finally making progress when after about 15 minutes the woman we’d been dealing with abandoned our check in and handed over to a colleague who started asking us basic questions all over again. Then we’d been given two rooms that did not satisfy the reservation criteria, we’d been driven all around the property and left waiting when no one answered our calls, and then made to explain the situation again to someone who, rather than help, said the only option was a cancellation, implying we should turn around and drive home for another two hours. Finally, I said, “your attitude is anything but polite, it is rude, abrasive, unhelpful and after this last question, downright cheeky. Is there any wonder we are irate?”

We waited in their cafe and my husband received a call around 45 minutes later saying our room was available. When he went to reception Iyad regaled him with a bizarre lecture on how we cannot request a room that is non-smoking, because they have no control on what guests do in the room. He said “requesting a non-smoking room is just a wish, like wishing for a two-bedroom villa instead of a single”. Why on earth do Rotana offer the option on their reservation website? Why on earth do check in staff confirm the request? Another gem from the mouth of Iyad.

All sun and little terrace

All sun and little terrace

We finally arrived in the room and there was no food in the mini bar as he’d promised. We ordered room service. We had still not been given an internet code so ordered this too. We were told there was no internet in the room. They finally offered a LAN cable however. (It’s 2014 and you offer a rate that includes ‘free internet’, how can you not offer wifi?). The room was as beige as could be. Again, all hard surfaces, minimal comfort or decor. There were two white plastic chairs on the sun terrace which we’d discover in the morning was all sun, very little terrace.

Our food arrived, sans internet code. The food was fine. You can’t imagine they’d do much wrong with fish and chips and a chicken burger.

Another driver came with an internet code, and the login details said there was a 120aed charge. We said we could not agree to the charge, that he should speak to reception and fix it. The driver took the code away and said he could not leave it with us. Again we had to argue with three people that the rate included free internet and we finally got a code delivered.

Chamber of echoes

Chamber of echoes

We had tried to watch a film on television but the speakers on the TV were blown, so even at full volume Matt Damon was incomprehensible. I went upstairs to see if the bedroom TV was any better. It was.

At 9:30pm, the doorbell rang again. Turndown service. I asked my husband to accept the chocolates and let them go. There were no chocolates. They only turned the bed down and replaced towels. We’d not used towels and I’d managed to lift the corner of the duvet myself so their extravagant offer at that time of night was completely redundant.

We watched some television and went to sleep. I woke at 2:30am with the horrific combination of sore dry eyes and throat from the blustery air conditioning, but still sweaty because it wasn’t actually cooling the room.

I went downstairs to sleep on the sofa. My husband emerged and shouted off the balcony “everything’s better at home!” and we agreed we’d leave first thing in the morning, and not stay the extra day and night. We discussed the fact that we would forfeit our second night, but as my husband put it, that would be money well spent to get out of there.

The five-minute flood

The five-minute flood

Ingenious double-ended shower head

Ingenious double-ended shower head

Showering was interesting, more water came out the base of the shower head than the top, and the bathroom immediately flooded because the shower drain was blocked. By the time both of us had had 5 minute rinses, even the external drain in the bathroom was struggling.

When we were ready to leave we ordered a buggy to take us up the hill. It didn’t arrive and we had to reorder it 30 minutes later. We had the delight of dealing with Bhakta to checkout but had already decided that other than correcting any billing issues, we would not discuss any issues. Of course, we again had to get the internet charge removed because they’d added that to the bill. Bhakta then asked us to wait a few minutes while he checked if he could refund us the second night’s accommodation. We thanked him.

As we were waiting, a manager approached us, asking if he could help. I said last night his assistance would’ve been greatly appreciated but at this stage it was not worth our time to explain the extent of our experiences. We said Bhakta was in the process if trying to obtain a refund for us on our second night, so if he could secure that we would be grateful. He did immediately and I think our stay would’ve been entirely different had he been on duty when we checked in, rather than when we checked out.

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Lingfield Melts

“Mad March” splashed across Monday’s Daily Mail as “Britain was plunged into the worst spring freeze in more than 25 years” but the sun came out the following day and as the town of Lingfield melted, I took my first ever walk in the snow, filming as I went, without a tripod unfortunately.

The snow came tumbling down in the county of Surrey on what was labelled the coldest day in March since 1986. Reported temperatures dropped as low as minus-12 celsius, but here in Lingfield, I personally saw the gauge reading a relatively balmy -3.

It was the region’s first March snow in seven years and while unofficial reports put it at 12cm, the Met Office measured 7cm at nearby Charlwood.

Only 24 miles south of London, as well as being a dormitory suburb for London commuters, it’s home to a good number of residential facilities for the elderly and, of course, Lingfield Park Racecourse.

While racing officials at Cheltenham were bravely peeling off their thermal covers this week to say their show would definitely go on, it was just as uncertain if Lingfield Park will be able to host their scheduled meet this Friday.

A Big Day Out in London

Seeing as London is too chilly for a stroll right now, here’s my last visit, revisited…

10:20 Pulled into London Paddington

10:25 Purchased a Nero’s Americano. Got my coins confused. Told the edgy server he needed to order the chai latte for himself next time.

10:35 Asked man on tube to look out for his elbows with my coffee. His reaction implied I was trying to communicate to him in Klingon.

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10:45 Alighted at Oxford Circus

10:47 Man asked where I got my Nero’s coffee (???)

10:53 Gave a blind fiddler a quid. His box was empty. Has he been robbed? Is it clever marketing? Had he just started for the day?

11:10 Reached Primark Oxford St

11:45 Joined queue for change rooms in Primark
Numero Uno. That's just how I roll.

Numero Uno. That’s just how I roll.

11:55 Entered changeroom

12:10 Arrived at checkout. Spoke to Jujar about life in Dubai. We both agreed that my circumstances were infinitely better than his own experience of Dubai through no fault of either of us.

12:25 Coffee at Pain Quotidien to regroup (repack Primark loot) and plan attack

12:35 Set off for Macculloch & Wallis haberdashery

12:39 Saw quartet of LA porn star types soaking up British culture: looking for an Italian restaurant each carrying nothing but an enormous Victoria’s Secret bag.

IMG_242612:45 At Macculloch & Wallis can’t work out Simplicity patterns. Irony? Bought New Look. Irish cashier admired the pattern for sundresses. Talked about dress code in Dubai. She’s dressed head-to-toe in black and tartan but says not being able to bare her shoulders is the reason she wouldn’t live in the UAE.

13:43 Leaving John Lewis with nothing. Panic. Feet hurting big time. Did the embarrassing Dubai thing of waiting for the doors to open for me. With someone behind me and all!

13:50 Detour via Muji. Talked about Dubai with cashier. Yay for the soon-to-be-opening Dubai Mall store I tells her!

14:08 HMV. Sold out of both titles Robert had asked for “and we won’t be replenishing them”. Good for the creditors, I guess.

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14:15 Cloth house. Meh.

14:25 Kleins… Meh.

14:35 Liberty. Meh…

14:47 Feet hurting too much now to focus on anything else. Ow!

14:50 The Air St Cobbler’s insoles smack me in the face. He even cut the spongiest ones to my size for me. Yay! Cost me a fiver which is a ripoff I’m sure but there’s no way I could hide my desperation or relief.

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My saviour.

15:10 Waterstones. Collected pre-ordered books. Done.

15:20 Tescos chicken edamame salad eaten at a bus stop. Classy. 260cal

My saviour in form of machine

My saviour in form of machine

15:25 Faffing around looking for a meeting spot with John.

15:30 Aargh. There were onions in the salad!

15:35 Saved by the Extra dispensed by handy toilet vending machine

15:40 Subject arrives for interview.

18:00 I’m “tenacious”, he says. Wine has stopped flowing, the end must be imminent.

19:00 Arrived Paddington.

19:30 Guzzled a sandwich on the train…

20:00 Home. I will sleep well tonight.

My retail trek through London

My retail trek through London

Unglamorous travel

Growing up in Sydney and living as an expat for most of the past ten years, I’m quite used to the long-haul flight. I’m quietly amused when Europeans express how arduous they find a four or six hour flight. The key to surviving ten to twelve hours in the air (or five hours transiting inside an airport terminal) is not to peak too early.

As soon as I get in a plane I try to own my tiny little bubble of space (this girl is no business class traveller). Then, I assess what amusements are available: in-flight entertainment? Interactive or not? Magazines? English or not… If none of the above apply, I’m left to whatever novel and newspaper I’ve brought with me. Lucky I’m a good sleeper.

I’m not a fan of Air China. Before even taking off I had discovered grains of rice stuck to the blanket I’d been given. Then, upon opening the magazine, I realised it had become attached to me by the wad of crusty old gum stuck on the corner of it. Not impressed. It’s hard to own a space that revolts you.

Likewise, strategy is important in transit. I assess the smoking situation first, then coffee, then wi-fi capabilities as prerequisites: free? how strong? how much censorship?

Duty-free shopping rarely figures, I have to admit. Except if I’ve forgotten something, or to sniff around at local artisan-type stuff. I wasn’t going to sniff one item I discovered last night at DXB: a product packed with enough herbs and spices to make The Colonel envious. A product that goes some way to explaining why men in Dubai have the reputation of punching above their weight, perhaps.

Right now, I’m an hour into a four-and-a-half hour layover at Beijing International. It took me forty-five minutes to sign up for free wi-fi using a complicated passport scanning machine (the first one of which was broken). Then I discovered I couldn’t even get my social media fix as Facebook and Twitter are blocked. But to be fair, I did know this, and at least I was able to check-in with FourSquare.

Then to find coffee. There aren’t many airports in the world where you have to trek from one end to the other to find caffeine but there is a distinct lack of Starbucks, Costa, Pret a Manger etc at Beijing Capital. I don’t believe I even spotted a McDonalds in my marching. Lucky Lei Cafe came to my rescue, with a bitter cup of something I winced at with first mouthful. At least now I can think.

The smoking rooms here are not too bad here however, as far as those dens of iniquity go. Well-ventilated, with lighters on hand. Convenient, given that Customs managed to locate four lighters in my hand luggage and stole every one of them. Two unopened bottles of water taken too, that were purchased at the departure gate in Dubai. I don’t know what they think I could’ve done to them in the mean time to make them a threat. But then, I remember a strange instance in Shanghai a few years ago before boarding the Maglev train.

The surly guard told me if I wanted to keep the water I had to take a sip of it in front of him before proceeding. The logic is bizarre – obviously to prove to him it didn’t contain any chemicals of a poisoning nature. Not the time to crack jokes, but I do wonder what would’ve happened if I doubled over, gasping and clutching my throat.

So, this has taken up another thirty minutes. Onwards and upwards to the consideration of food. Maybe after another cigarette.

Day 1 – Kandahar

I flew from Dubai this morning and it was a smooth ride. I started getting a sense of where I was going when I saw guys checking in their body armour before the flight. We touched down in Kandahar Air Field just before midday and I had a rush of adrenaline for no particular reason. Maybe it was the barbed wire everywhere, maybe it was the signs saying what level of threat was current. Maybe it was the idea that I didn’t know what the hell to do next. But just at that moment a familiar face appeared at the fence and told me to join the queue to check my passport at the gate in exchange for an ISAF pass.

Then there were the rules.
– No walking unaccompanied
– No driving
– Head to the bunker with any rocket warning
– No photos of planes or ramps (runways)

Highlights:
*The hot pit – for ‘hot’ (with engine-running) refuelling of choppers. But, my luck, there wasn’t a single one to land while I was there.
* Jingle trucks – proudly decorated with sparkly colourful bling. No idea what for.
* ‘Cambridge’ for lunch – the British DFAC (mess hall?)
* ‘Niagara’ for dinner – US DFAC
* My UN Afghanistan mug
* My NATO ISAF cloth patch

Something I’m looking forward to tomorrow is seeing ‘Australia’… with its very own Australia Post mailbox.

Other random facts…

* It costs US$1500 to feed a soldier for a month (what recession?)
* The population here is 15-20,000 with an expected growth to 30,000 or more with Obama’s troop surge
* I’m not sure but I think Mark said it has about a 20km radius. It’s huge.
* Americans control this base and everyone else is effectively known as a TCN – third country national
* NATO has a rule that sleeves are mandatory, no singlets allowed

Preparing for Afghanistan

Tomorrow’s forecast in Kandahar is 13-29 degrees and I’m preparing to fly into Kandahar airfield tomorrow morning with an understandable mixture of excitement and trepidation.

Here’s a link to some blogs posts of a Canadian journalist who was embedded at Kandahar Airfield (KAF) earlier this year. It’s inspired me to do my own little video blog too.

The Ant Explorer

antWe were travelling out to Christmas Day at Bab Al Shams, about an hour’s drive into the desert from Dubai, and I started reciting a poem to myself that I had to learn in primary school, when I was about ten years old.

I looked it up, and here it is: The Ant Explorer by C.J. Dennis. I think there’d be a fair argument that I’d carried some of its sentiment with me in life.

Once a little sugar ant made up his mind to roam-
To fare away far away, far away from home.
He had eaten all his breakfast, and he had his ma’s consent
To see what he should chance to see and here’s the way he went
Up and down a fern frond, round and round a stone,
Down a gloomy gully where he loathed to be alone,
Up a mighty mountain range, seven inches high,
Through the fearful forest grass that nearly hid the sky,
Out along a bracken bridge, bending in the moss,
Till he reached a dreadful desert that was feet and feet across.
‘Twas a dry, deserted desert, and a trackless land to tread,
He wished that he was home again and tucked-up tight in bed.
His little legs were wobbly, his strength was nearly spent,
And so he turned around again and here’s the way he went-
Back away from desert lands feet and feet across,
Back along the bracken bridge bending in the moss,
Through the fearful forest grass shutting out the sky,
Up a mighty mountain range seven inches high,
Down a gloomy gully, where he loathed to be alone,
Up and down a fern frond and round and round a stone.
A dreary ant, a weary ant, resolved no more to roam,
He staggered up the garden path and popped back home.

The other thing I’m now reminded of is that we were taught to recite it with rounded vowels (picture my mouth: rOUnded vOW-Els), something else that has repeated on me in my adult life.

New to Dubai

It’s a crazy crazy place. I’ve been here just on two weeks now and haven’t stopped to write at all so my first impressions are now, first, second and third impressions.

So what are they? Over-engineered landscapes; lush gardens in what should be desert; building sites, construction; no footpaths; having to drive everywhere; few street names, no street numbers; bling, glitz and glam; mish-mashed cultures; public processes created on top of each other; a lack of forward-planning; gold, marble, diamonds, diamantes…

I’ve been living in a hotel. The Rihab Rotana is a really lovely place but I am tiring of it. The service is stiff and overblown, but well-intentioned and staff are indeed well-trained. I’d just prefer ‘how are you today’ with a smile to ‘how are you today ma’am’ with a bow.

Hotel life is strange, and it’s my first time but I imagine it is weirder here than anywhere. Take the breakfast buffet, for example. I’ve never seen so many tastes catered for. It’s enormous. For Aussies, there’s fruit and yogurt and cereal, but no spoon on the table, so you have to remember to collect one from the buffet table before sitting down. That’s because that’s the only fare that requires a spoon.

On the cold buffet there is a selection of savoury yoghurts (labneh) served with oil and lemon, or rolled into balls, with or without herbs. There are cucumbers, corn, pieces of haloumi and pickled vegetables. Then there is a continental type selection: sliced cheeses and meats (but no pig).

Then there is the warm stuff: an eastern dish called Foul Moudames which I often have: a kidney bean stew which is nicer than the westeren-style baked beans. There is also hash browns and scrambled egg and some beef or chicken sausages and some beef or veal bacon.

Then there is their selection of breads: I usually take the leb bread because it’s fresh and chewy and really nice. They also have small loaves of wholegrain, french sticks, squares of white and brown and some pastries too.

Other highlights? The Rihab has a lovely rooftop pool and gym, and lovely chocolate cake. Unfortunately I’m more familiar with the latter than the former. I’ve just been served a double slice for lunch. I expect it’s because the girls in the restaurant know how much I love it. Light and a little mousse layered into the sponge, with a wicked ganache icing.

I’m told some of the people at work don’t like the Rihab so much because it’s a dry hotel but I’ve discovered that there are too many opportunities to go out drinking so I don’t need access to it at ‘home’. I’ve never been one to need a drink with a meal or in my room on my own at night so I’m happy.

Getting around is supremely difficult. There is no such thing as a pedestrian culture. For starters there are few crossings. Roads are all busy and wide. To cross from my hotel to the Creek Club (maybe 200 metres as the crow flies) would take me 45 minutes to walk I’ve been told, because I have to walk a few hundred metres in the opposite direction to cross Al Garhoud Road then back again.

I say Al Garhoud Rd but that’s quite rare to be able to name it. To catch a taxi to someone’s house I have to describe it by its proximity to landmarks. Very very difficult for newcomers.

Morocco V – Over the Atlas

We set off at 7am for an 11 hour drive into the far east of the country, over the High Atlas mountains, to the edge of the Sahara. It was a spectacular drive and we honestly covered four seasons in one day.We travelled through Ouzzazarte [WAH-zah-zart], the desert Hollywood, where parts of Gladiator, and many other movies, were filmed. As night fell we stopped at a desert pottery cooperative that had some nice enough stuff but it was focused on quantity over quality. The children were little scoundrels too, grabbing for money. They explained how to dig the clay, dry it, form it, fire it and paint it. They also showed us some supposedly more environmentally kilns that German do-gooders had built for them, that didn’t actually allow them to use their traditional non-toxic techniques. If they used the German kilns they would have to use glazes that made the pots unsafe for culinary use. What a stupid gift!

Morocco IV – Joining the tour

The girls in their local garb

The girls in their local garb

I checked into the hotel in Marrakech alone, very excited about meeting the girls and couldn’t wait for them to join me in our room. They surprised me in the evening by knocking on the door dressed in full-length hooded woollen djellabas. It took me a few minutes to recover. They’d sensibly bought them in Fez to deal with the cold there and had decided the men’s version suited them better, but didn’t hear the end of it from locals. Every half an hour you could hear them explaining to someone, “yes, we know they are the men’s ones…”

We met our fellow group members – there were nearly thirty of us which was a surprise from the advertised 14. There were quite a few whingers early on but the tour guide, Merwane, did a great job at trying to please everyone.

I shopped at the supermarket for dinner: bread and used the internet cafe as long as I could stand its stink of urine. Then we got our fix of BBC World and discovered there’d been a bombing at the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai.

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