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PERSONAL BLOG - 2003 Q4: October – December

 

2 October 2003

Arrived in Istanbul for meetings. At the airport I changed $200 into Turkish lira, and received 266,000,000 lira in return. I went to get a luggage trolley and found that cost 1,750,000 lira. Thank goodness there was a guy there to take the money – for a moment I had visions of having to feed a machine with 100000 notes. But I think he may have short-changed me. It was confusing trying to differentiate the 1000000 notes from the 10000000 notes because there were no commas on the notes.

7 October 2003

Today I was taken to lunch at a restaurant near Istanbul Airport. On the way my hosts told me that they only served meat at this restaurant. That didn’t excite me at all because although I am not a complete vegetarian, I rarely eat meat and never for lunch. But it turned out to be one of the best meals I have eaten for a long time. I never realised that meat could be prepared in so many delicious ways, and every dish was so tender and tasty. It was an eye-opening experience for me. Not so for one of my Indian colleagues who was lunching with us. He doesn’t eat any meat at all. For most of the meal he just sat and watched us eat, but the kitchen did manage to rustle up an omelette so that he didn’t starve. I mislaid the name of the restaurant, but I will add it to my blog if I find it because I’d like to go back there one day.

14 October 2003

Today I flew to Germany for some meetings in Bonn. I disembarked at Frankfurt and took a taxi to Mainz where I would stay the night before boarding a train to Bonn the next morning. The taxi trip from Frankfurt airport to Mainz did not take long as the taxi was doing 200kph on the autobahn. That was the first time I had ever traveled in a car at 200 kph (I think 170 kph driving out to Arnhemland in the Northern Territory of Australia was about the fastest I can recall ever driving myself). Surprisingly I didn’t feel unsafe as the taxi was a large Mercedes and was quite stable on the road. It was late in the evening and not a lot of traffic around, and the cars that were on the road were keeping a sensible distance from each other at that speed (not like some countries where they tailgate even at high speed).

15 October 2003

Had a nice trip up the Rhine Valley this morning on a train that took two hours to make the journey to Bonn. The Rhine was much shallower than I expected, but I was told later that this was because of the long hot summer that Germany had just been through. The day was cold but sunny, and the views across the Rhine to vineyards on the valley slopes and castles perched high up on the escarpments were straight out of picture postcards.

19 October 2003

Today I had some meetings in Amman, Jordan, and at the end of the day my hosts insisted that we drive down to the Dead Sea to see it before it got dark The area around the Dead Sea is not very attractive – it looks like a big quarry with excavators and trucks everywhere carting the minerals away that are left by the receding waterline – but I suppose the fact that anyone can float on the water is the novelty that draws people to the Dead Sea. You cannot swim in the Dead Sea – the water is too thick and oily. If you try, and you swallow water, you are likely to choke. There have been quite a few tourists drowned in the Dead Sea. They float away reading a book, or fall asleep whilst floating, and then can’t swim back to shore. A lot of tourists go bathing in the Dead Sea at night, because it is too hot during the day, so if they float away at night, nobody can see where they are until their bloated bodies are found floating on the sea the next morning. The water of the Dead Sea is supposed to be good for the skin, so many people go there to bathe each day to make their skin smoother and more supple.

Near the Dead Sea is Wadi Kharrar – an area through which the Jordan River and where the Jordanians claim Jesus was baptised. The Jordanians claim Jesus was baptised on their side of the River Jordan, but the Israelis claim he was baptised on their side. I was told that the Israelis and Jordanians have “agreed to disagree”. By the time we got to Wadi Kharrar, the gates to the baptism site had closed, so my hosts spent about 15 minutes trying to persuade the curators to let us in because I had “come from the other side of the world and was only in Jordan for one day.” Somehow they managed to persuade them (I am not sure if any money changed hands!) and in the fading light a guide showed us around the archaeological diggings and the Arch Church where Pope John Paul II blessed the area in March 2000, not long after the area was first opened to the public. I saw the remains of the small church where John the Baptist used to hang out, and some of the ancient baptismal baths, which are quite well preserved. The

Arch Church is actually nothing more than a stone arch on a wooden platform – is where the Pope performed his blessing of the site. It was an amazing experience to look over the archaeological diggings in complete solitude, after all the tourists had gone home, and then stand where the Pope had performed his blessing and watch the sun set over Jerusalem (which is on top of the range of hills on the other side of the river). It was too late to see the actual baptism site – our guide muttered something about the dangers of wild boar and trigger-happy Israelis on the other side of the river!

After visiting the baptism site, we stopped at the Marriott hotel (a beautiful resort on the shores of the Dead Sea) for dinner. One of my hosts was a Palestinian woman, so I got a real ear-bashing over dinner about George Bush (boy, they really hate him in this part of the world). When we got back to Amman, I noticed a big temperature difference to the Dead Sea. Amman is at about 1,500 above sea level, whilst the Dead Sea is 400 feet below sea level and is very much warmer. I was told that Amman people regularly go down to the Dead Sea in the winter to warm up, but they avoid it in the summer when it is unbearably hot.

As we were heading back to the hotel at about 10 pm, my hosts insisted on driving up and down streets with a lot of very expensive looking houses. I was told that these were the ‘posh’ areas of Amman and were like what Jerusalem looked like before the ‘Israeli butchers’ occupied it. I was happy to see just one street, but we drove up and down endless streets which all looked the same in the dark. I was getting tired after a long day of meetings, so started hinting that I really needed to get back to the hotel to pack my bags for my early flight tomorrow.

As we approached the hotel about 11 pm, my hosts were talking about the fact that Amman was built on seven hills (which I had already noticed during the day as I was being driven between meetings) and suddenly they told the driver to go past the hotel and drive up and down some of the hills so I could see how steep they were! I felt like screaming, because all I wanted to do was go back to the hotel, pack my bags and go to sleep.

20 October 2003

I arrived in Cairo today – my first trip to Eygpt. Cairo is a city of 18 million people and I have never seen traffic so chaotic anyway in the world. It is a sprawling, polluted, noisy and disorganised city with police or soldiers on almost very street corner with machine guns or rifles and bayonets strung over the soldiers. There are more guns on the streets here than I saw in Afghanistan last month. The buses and taxis are all old and battered from frequent collisions in the traffic, and none are air-conditioned. In spite of that you see people dressed in suits and ties on the way to work – they must be feeling very uncomfortable in the heat. Cairo people don’t seem to have adjusted their dress to the heat as they have done in another Arab countries. Most of the men are wearing western clothes, and most of the women are wearing those drab raincoat-like garments with a scarf, like they wear in Iran.

On my way back from meetings at 6 October City, we passed by the Pyramids so that I could catch a glimpse of them, even though it was dark. The road to the Pyramids was closed so my driver said he would go around the back of the Pyramids and come in from near where the Sphinx was located. As we drove through some backstreets, I felt like I had been taken back 100 years. The streets were very narrow and there were more horses, donkeys and wooden carts on the streets than there were cars. Most of the people here were wearing traditional Arabian garb and I felt like I was in a scene from an historical movie, rather than the backstreets of Cairo. The Pyramids, and especially the Sphinx, were much smaller than I expected. I also had envisaged them being surrounded by desert, but the built up areas were very close. I took a photograph from some distance, only to be approached by a soldier who told me that I couldn’t take photographs from there. Apparently I was expected to go closer and pay an entrance fee first.

21 October 2003

I took an early morning walk up the road from my hotel, alongside the Nile, before preparing for my first meeting at 10 am. I stopped to take a picture of the traffic at one of the roundabouts approaching a bridge over the Nile and was approached by soldier who told me that photographs in that area were forbidden before 8.30 am. I asked him why, but all he would say was ‘forbidden’. After walking over the bridge I took another photograph looking down one of the main streets, only to find yet another solider waving at me to indicate that photographs were forbidden there too. I was getting very irritated not being able to take any photographs of Cairo. I was later told by someone that you are not allowed to take photographs of any areas were there are military buildings, and there were apparently quite a few in the areas where I was walking – but with so many soldiers on the streets it was difficult to tell which were military buildings and which were not.

When I arrived for the first of my meetings that had been organised for the day, I was advised that they had all been cancelled because the staff were all going to a funeral. I couldn’t reschedule because I had a flight to catch later that afternoon to Abu Dhabi to connect with a night flight to Islamabad, so the day turned out to be a complete write-off.

I decided to go out to the airport early to see if I could get onto the Internet to check my email, because the Internet connections at the hotel weren’t working (not much else was working either!). That turned out to be a mistake. Cairo airport has a telex and telegrams office, but that is the closest it has got to the Internet age.

When I got to the airport a porter grabbed my bags and wheeled them towards the security check. I knew he would want a tip. I didn’t mind that but what annoyed me was that after the bags went the x-ray machine, another porter picked up the bags and wheeled them towards the check-in counter, and the first porter demanded a tip for the 20 metres he had wheeled the bags to the x-ray machine. The second porter had only about the same distance to wheel the bags to the check-in counter, and he asked for 10 US dollars. I said you must be joking! He then said “10 pounds then” – meaning Egyptian pounds which are about six to the dollar. I said “I only have 4 pounds in small change and that is more than enough for a tip”. He took the 4 pounds but then starting asking for more money in other currencies like euros. Then a woman in the queue behind me turned to him and said he should be ashamed of himself trying to rip off tourists and told him to get lost, and he left. She turned out to be a US citizen of Egyptian descent and told me that the porters at Cairo airport were the biggest thieves in the world, and they made her ashamed to be an Egyptian.

As I was walking towards the passport control another porter came up to me and asked for some ‘Baksish’ money. He hadn’t lifted a finger for me so I just said I had no idea what ‘Baksish’ money was, and walked away.

For a city of 18 million people, Cairo airport has surprising few facilities and only a small number of drab looking shops. I hadn’t had any lunch so I looked for somewhere to eat. The only place seemed to be the Egypt Air cafeteria where they had some sandwiches and cakes on display – and an espresso machine. I bought a sandwich, a danish pastry and asked for a cappuccino. They said the espresso machine was broken down so I could only have Nescafe (which tasted like hot milk). The sandwich tasted so awful, I spat out the first mouthful, and the Danish pastry was stale, so decided to starve until my flight left at 4.30pm.

I went to the money exchange to change my surplus Egyptian pounds back into dollars, but found that they had no dollars. So I asked for euros instead. They said they had no euros. So I asked for UAE dirhams, and again the answer was no dirhams. So I asked what currencies they did have available, and was told none. They said they were out of cash. I asked whether there was another money exchange at the airport, and was told there was one outside, but I couldn’t go back through passport control. I asked him what happened to the cash that they received from arriving travelers who changed their money into Egyptian pounds. I just got a shrug of the shoulders in return. I got the feeling that this was just a ruse to prevent people from changing Egyptian pounds back into hard currencies when the leave Cairo.

I left Cairo feeling that this was a place that you have to continually battle against being ripped off. It’s the sort of place that once people have been to once, they will have little desire to return. Egypt was a country that I had wanted to go to all my life, but my two days in Cairo changed my perspective completely. As we took off from Cairo, my thoughts were “that’s one place I never want to go back to again”.

22 October 2003

It is about 3 am in the morning and I am on a flight from Abu Dhabi to Islamabad. It is full of Pakistani labourers returning home from the Gulf. The Pakistani man next to me has just returned from the toilet smelling of cigarette smoke. This is a non-smoking flight, but obviously the smoke detectors in the toilet are not working.

23 October 2003

Having had no sleep the night before, I was looking forward to a good night’s sleep at the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad. Shortly after midnight I was woken up by someone swearing and shouting outside of my room. He was shouting “Fuck you”, “Fuck Marriott Hotel” and “Don’t you know the customer is always right” over and over again. He was obviously arguing with one of the hotel’s staff who seemed to be trying to calm him down. After about an hour, this was still going on, preventing me from sleeping, so I put a bathrobe on and poked my head outside of the door. I couldn’t see the person shouting as he was around the corner near the lifts, but there were three security guards in the corridor. I asked one of them how long the noise was going to go on for. I am not sure if he spoke English and understood me, but he just indicated with his hands to go back to my room. After another half hour of this I getting pretty annoyed, so at about 1.30am I telephoned the duty manager to complain. He apologised for the commotion and said the guest was drunk. I asked him why his security people didn’t throw him out of the hotel, but he just said they were confident of getting him back to his room soon. After another five minutes or so I heard the commotion disappearing down the corridor, so it seems they did manage to do that.

In the morning I complained again to the hotel manager. I asked him why they didn’t call the police or have his own security people throw the guy out. He was very apologetic but said they couldn’t throw him out because the guest was a “VVIP”. He wouldn’t tell me though who it was or what the hotel had done to upset him so much.

24 October 2003

This is my first visit to Islamabad. It is a much quieter city than I expected. It was established as the capital of Pakistan in 1959 and has wide streets, many parks and government buildings. I got to see a fair bit of the city as I moved between meetings in different places. I was told that a ‘joke’ amongst the diplomats is that Islamabad is about the same size as Arlington Cemetery but twice as dead.

My two days in Islamabad were quite exhausting. My hosts had organised a heavy schedule of meetings, and two lunches and two dinners, each with 20-30 guests. They treated me like a VIP, with someone to carry my bags everywhere, but after arriving at 5.30 am on the first day, and then not getting much sleep on the first night, I had a hard time keeping my eyes open in some of the meetings.

After my meetings on the second day I asked if they could drive me over to Rawalpindi, so I could at least see what a ‘real’ Pakistani city was like. It takes only about 20 minutes to drive to the outskirts of Rawalpindi as the cities are adjacent to each other, but once there we got stuck in a traffic jam for ages and was not able to see much of it before dark. It was very much like many Indian cities that I had been to though, and we managed to stop a couple of times to take some pictures of the colourful buses and trucks on the streets in the fading light.

19 November 2003

Today I am in Seoul and had a meeting to go to in an office in South Korea’s Parliament building, but getting there was not easy as the Parliament building was surrounded by 35,000 farmers who were demonstrating against South Korea’s proposals to establish a free trade agreement with Chile (South Korea doesn’t have any free trade agreements with any countries yet). I have never seen so many riot police in one place before – I do not know how many thousands there were, but every street we traveled down to the Parliament building was lined with buses with metal grilles over the windows (these had obviously been used to transport the police there), armoured trucks and water cannons.

I read in the paper the following day that the farmers had successfully used a new ‘weapon’ against the riot police. The new weapon was a plastic bag filled with rotting starfish. Apparently the smell from the rotting starfish was so overpowering, that as soon as they threw the plastic bags in front of the police lines, the police had to retreat and disperse because they could not stand the smell.