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MY BLOG – 2006 Q4: October - December


Sunday 1 October 2006

Today is my last day in Madagascar, and as my flight to Mauritius doesn’t leave until late afternoon, I decided to hire a taxi for a few hours and go out to the ‘other’ Rova at Ambohimanga, about 20 km to the north of the city. I found a driver who spoke a little English, but he wanted 80,000 ariary for the trip (about US$40) which seemed a lot given that I had paid a total of 160,000 to hire a car and driver for the whole day yesterday to go to the national park. However, the driver said I could stay at the Rova for as long as I wanted and he wouldn’t charge me for any waiting time, and as it was not easy finding drivers that spoke English, I agreed to pay him 80,000. He asked for an advance of 10,000 so he could buy some petrol first. Just as well, because when we set off from the hotel, his fuel gauge was way below empty.

Ambohinmanga (or ‘blue hill’) is the old capital of the Merina royal family, and right on top of the hill, a couple of hundred metres up the road from the village, sits the Rova, which was the fortified palace of King Adrianampoinimerina. According to my Lonely Planet guidebook, the walls were built using cement made of egg whites, and 16 million eggs were used to build the outer wall. I wonder where they got all the chickens to lay that many eggs.

My guidebook also said that behind the palace were the baths where the king performed his royal ablutions once a year in the company of his 12 wives and some ‘honoured guests’.

Did that mean he only bathed once a year? If so, I pity his poor wives. I went and had a look at the baths. They weren’t that big - like small swimming pools. With the king, 12 wives and a few guests in them, there wouldn’t have been much room to move. But I’d guess his ‘honoured guests’ had a lot of fun, squeezed into the baths with his 12 wives.

Despite its proximity to Tana and being the weekend, there were very few people at the Rova. I spent an hour and a half there, and saw only half a dozen other visitors, so it was nice to be able to enjoy the peace and quiet of the place and contemplate its history without being disturbed by hordes of tourists.

I came across a couple of Malagasy guys sitting on the wall outside the entrance gate to the Rova, playing guitars and singing songs. At first I thought they were looking for money from tourists, but after observing them for a while I realised they weren’t taking any notice of the few visitors – they were just singing songs for their own enjoyment. It would be nice if I could say they were singing traditional Malagasy folk songs, but I don’t think they were. My guidebook told me that traditional Malagsay music is now hard to find. The music you are more likely to hear in Madagascar these days is “a cheesy blend of guitar rock, rough-and-ready rap and hip hop, and soulful ballads. Love songs with catchy choruses are the nation’s favourite, and songstresses such as national treasure Poopy (yes, that’s her real name) keep the syrup coming with a stream of indenti-kit, but irritatingly catchy hits.”

I sat and listened to them for a while. Then I asked if they would mind me taking a photograph of them – to which they agreed – and it turned out to be a really nice composition with the two of them sitting under the dappled shade of a jacaranda tree in front of the entrance gate (I would have loved to have been there a month later when the ground will be carpeted with purple jacaranda flowers). I will post the photograph to my TrekEarth gallery.

Monday 2 October 2006

I had two days of meetings scheduled in Mauritius, but after I arrived last night I was feeling queasy in the stomach, and at about midnight I started feeling quite ill and shivering. It didn’t help that the hotel air-conditioning had been turned down to ice-box levels in my room before I arrived. I asked the hotel if something could be done to warm the room up, but they said the air-conditioning only cooled, not heated. I thought about opening the windows to let some warmer air in, but the hotel advised me against that because of the mosquitoes. I was feeling too ill to sleep, and then at about 3 am I started throwing up. I have never been so violently sick before in the whole of my life. I must have thrown up everything in my system, and after it was over I felt exhausted.

In the morning I asked if my meetings could be rescheduled to start after lunch because I was still feeling very weak. My hosts had arranged a meeting with the Prime Minister after lunch, so they postponed my morning meetings to the afternoon and we went straight to Government House from the hotel. (It turned out that the meeting was with the acting Prime Minister, as the ‘real’ Prime Minister was overseas). There was a camera crew at Government House waiting to interview me, but when I arrived I was still feeling very washed out, so I had to force myself to appear normal for the interview and meeting. It was a struggle to get through the meetings in the afternoon, but I started to feel a little better in the evening.

My hosts speculated that it must have been something I had eaten or drunk on my last day in Madagascar that had made me so ill. They told me that it was not so many years ago that when they went to Madagascar that they used to carry their own bottled water, as they didn’t trust the water there. They said that even today, they still avoid eating any salad vegetables in Madagascar because of contamination of the water – even in the best hotels. I remembered that there had been a leaf of lettuce in a club sandwich that I had eaten for lunch in the hotel in Tana yesterday, so I wondered whether that was the cause.

Tuesday 2 October 2006

As I hadn’t been to Mauritius before, my hosts took me on a circuitous route from my hotel in Turtle Bay, north of the capital, Port Louis, to Curepipe, in the southern half of the island, so that I could see a little of the countryside on the way. We went around the back of some mountains in the middle of the island, through pretty sugar cane country around Montagne Longue and Nouvelle Decouverte that reminded me a lot of Fiji.

In fact there is quite a lot about Mauritius that is similar to Fiji. The landscapes of both countries are alike (both are volcanic islands), the vegetation (lots of sugar cane and bananas growing on the rich brown soil) and the people (a substantial proportion of the population in both countries is of Indian descent – 68% in Mauritius and 44% in Fiji). However, Mauritius is more developed than Fiji, having had a stable, democratically elected government since it gained independence in 1968.

Although Mauritius is part of Africa, it feels more like a mix of Asia and the south Pacific. Having been both a French and British colony in the past, many educated people speak both French and English, but a large proportion of the population speak just Mauritian Creole (which is derived from French) and about 20% speak Bhojpuri (which is an Indian language that is quite widely spoken around the world).

My hosts told me that sugar cane is grown on about 90% of the cultivated land in Mauritius and accounts for about 25% of export earnings, but these days offshore financial services are earning almost as much with a lot of foreign investment in India and China being channelled through Mauritius.

It seems strange that a little island in the middle of the Indian Ocean should be channelling money for Asia’s two biggest nations. I’m sure there must be good reasons for that, but not being bankers or economists, my hosts couldn’t enlighten me further. On the way back to the hotel in the evening, we stopped in Port Louis for a short while, and I noticed a lot of international banks occupying the best real estate in the middle of the city.

My hosts told me that the success of the financial services industry, combined with an expanding industrial and tourism base, meant that Mauritius now has one of the highest per capita incomes in Africa.

Tuesday 31 October 2006

I arrived in Beijing tonight for ten days of meetings. There is an Africa-China summit on at the same time and tomorrow they will close the airport freeway for a week to facilitate the transfer of all the heads of state who are attending the summit. Massive traffic jams are predicted when they do that, so just as well I arrived tonight.

Wednesday 1 November 2006

I read in the China Daily this morning that in order to relieve the traffic jams in the city whilst the Africa-China summit is on, a total of 400,000 drivers have “voluntarily” pledged not to drive their cars in the city for a week. I wonder how the authorities managed to find so many ‘volunteers’? I had visions in my mind of truncheon-wielding mafia-types going door to door asking “The Central Committee of the Politburo would like to know if you would like to volunteer to walk to work for a week? In the interests of your health” (tap, tap of the truncheon on one hand) “we would strongly recommend that you volunteer.”

Sunday 5 November 2006

It’s been nice autumn weather in Beijing for the past week. This is only the second time out of a dozen or so trips to Beijing that I have seen clear skies (usually they are a polluted grey) and temperatures during the day have been around the mid-teens. However, today a cold snap hit the city. The forecast was for northerly winds up to 40 kph and zero to 11 degrees temperatures, but the wind that is buffeting the city at the moment looks a lot stronger than 40 kph. The trees outside my hotel are bending like in a hurricane, although fortunately there is no rain to accompany it.

Tuesday 7 November 2006

The Africa-China summit is over and the Beijing traffic is back to its normal chaos. Someone told me that 1,000 new cars are registered every day in Beijing – that’s 7,000 a week. No wonder the traffic looks worse every time I come here. On the way back from a meeting in the city after dinner, I saw two bad accidents, one of which had resulted in a fatality with a pedestrian or cyclist (not sure which) lying dead in the middle of the road. I have lived in Malaysia for nearly ten years – a country where the driving is reputed to be bad – but I have only seen two dead bodies on the road in all that time. However, in China, even though I have only been visiting a couple of times a year for the past five years, I have already seen four dead traffic accident victims. I suppose that’s not particularly amazing given that over 100,000 people die on Chinese roads every year.

Tuesday 14 November 2006

I arrived in Bali this afternoon to speak at a conference here tomorrow. Since the Bali bombings, security has been tightened up at Nusa Dua where I am staying. The conference organizers are putting me up at the Westin Resort, which is very nice, and to get to it you have to go through one security checkpoint on the entry road to Nusa Dua, and then each resort has its own checkpoint on its entrance road. At each checkpoint the vehicle is searched and security guards check the underside of the vehicle with mirrors. The boom gates at the Westin are massive steel ones, which would need a 20 ton semi-trailer to drive through, so it is reasonable to assume that these resorts are safe from suicide car bombers. In fact, inside the resorts at Nusa Dua, you see no locals at all these days, apart from the staff, so the bombings have turned Nusa Dua into an enclave of foreigners.

The Westin was quite busy because of the conference on in the adjacent convention centre, but the resorts next door looked quite empty. There is a path along the beach that leads you from one resort to another (there are about a dozen resorts along the beach at Nusa Dua, from 2-star to 5-star, and a few more further up at Tanjung Benoa) so I went looking for somewhere different to have my dinner. The Laguna next door (a hotel in the Sheraton’s ‘luxury collection’) looked very nice but way beyond my budget, but the next one along, the Melia Sol, looked more affordable. It looked newer than the Westin (which is looking a bit tired on the outside) and had magnificent landscaped gardens. I had my dinner there, and it was quite reasonably priced, but there were only two other people in the restaurant, and the resort looked deserted. I asked one of the waitresses where everyone was. She said business was bad because the bombings had frightened people away. The bombings in 2002 had taken their toll on occupancy rates at the resorts, and many of the staff had lost their jobs, and then things were starting to recover when the second round of bombings hit Bali in 2005, and the resorts went back to being deserted again. It seems that this time the recovery is taking much longer to achieve.

I felt sorry for all the staff who had lost their jobs through the senselessness of the bombers who had done so much damage to Bali’s economy and destroyed the tranquility of this formerly peaceful island.

Wednesday 15 November 2006

Tonight I went into Kuta – where most of the suicide bombings had occurred – to see how the town was recovering. Rebuilding has been completed in the areas affected, and I had dinner in Maccaroni (formerly the Maccaroni Club) on Jalan Legian which was one of the restaurants damaged in the bombings – just across the road from where there is now a memorial to the people who were killed in the bombings.

Maccaroni has been rebuilt with massive concrete walls, and has cordoned off the area at the front of the restaurant so that vehicles can’t park there. The new building is a very trendy place with excellent food and a live band after 9.00 pm - and great music (sort of Buddha Bar cum electro-dance) before that. I had steamed seabass for dinner which was served in a delicious stock containing a concoction of local vegetables, onions and nuts – one of the best meals I have had for a while, and reasonably priced too. With wine, coffee and dessert (I was treating myself after a busy day of work) it came to 160,000 rupiahs (less than US$18). With good value on offer like that, it is a wonder that Kuta is not crawling with tourists, but alas it is very quiet. Again I felt sorry for all the shop owners along the street who were struggling to make a living with so few customers around.

Thursday 16 November 2006

I’m flying back to Kuala Lumpur today and am writing this as I wait for my flight in Denpasar airport. I have just been to the men’s room and was impressed by how nicely decorated and clean it was. Above the men’s urinals there are fish tanks on the wall with lots of colourful tropical fish. It makes a nice change to be able to watch the fish whilst relieving yourself, instead of staring at a blank wall – but I wondered how the fish felt looking in the other direction.

Saturday 18 November 2006

The local paper in Kuala Lumpur today was full of news from the last day of the General Assembly of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) – the dominant political party in Malaysia and the largest member of the country’s ‘Barisan Nasional’ governing coalition. One story that attracted my attention was about a delegate from the southern state of Johor, a woman by the name of Rahimah Idris. She was reported as saying that drug addicts should be marooned on an island instead of allowing them hotel-like luxuries at rehabilitation clinics. “Let them survive on the island’s worms and moss,” she was quoted as saying.

It is encouraging to see such contemporary and enlightened views being expressed by those that aspire to govern the country!

She also complained that the wives of some cabinet ministers were wearing clothes that were too revealing, and that there were too many foreign dramas on TV with ‘bad elements’ that distracted women from doing their chores.

Monday 27 November 2006

I have just transited through Bangkok’s new Suvarnabhumi international airport – the first time since it was opened two months ago – and was not impressed. I came in on Thai Airways flight at a gate at one end of the airport, and had to change to a Qatar Airways flight that was leaving from a gate not far away, but in order to get my boarding pass I was told to go to a transit desk at the other end of the airport. There are two transit desks at the airport – but each only handles certain airlines, and if your gates don’t happen to be near the transit desk that you have to use, you are in for a VERY long walk.

This is a problem that plagued the old Don Muang airport with its two transit desks being nearly a kilometer apart, and each only handling certain airlines. You would have thought that the designers of the new airport would have done something to overcome this problem which has given Bangkok such a bad reputation as a transit airport for so many years. But now it is worse.

The new Bangkok airport is now the second largest in the world after Madrid, but it is not nearly as user-friendly. Madrid at over one million sq m is nearly twice as big as Bangkok (563,000 sq m) but is much easier to get around. Madrid has plenty of travelators to help passengers cover the long distances between gates but incredibly Bangkok has none (at least none that I saw – maybe there are some in other parts of the airport). Hong Kong, which is nearly as large as Bangkok has plenty of travelators too, so why the designers of the new Bangkok airport chose to make people walk the long distances is beyond me. Maybe the slim Thais believe that foreigners are overweight and they need the exercise to trim down.

It’s not just the long walks that I don’t like about the new airport. The bare concrete and exposed plumbing (which I am told is part of its ‘contemporary design’) makes it look unfinished. And that impression is reinforced by the fact that the air-conditioning doesn’t work well in parts of the terminal (some of the departure lounges are uncomfortably hot because the mesh screen over the glass roof doesn’t keep out enough of the sun) and the aerobridges are like sauna baths. I don’t know whether they have built the aerobridges without air-conditioning (a crazy decision for an airport in the tropics if they have) or whether it is not working yet. The gate staff I asked didn’t know.

And I wonder what the logic was of naming the airport with a Thai word (Suvarnabhumi means ‘golden land’) that few foreigners will know how to pronounce. It is pronounced something like ‘Su-war-na-pom’. If you ask a Bangkok taxi driver to take you to ‘Su-var-na-bumi’, you will likely just get a blank look.

Tuesday 28 November 2006

My suitpack didn’t arrive on the flight from Bangkok last night. There was a message on my arrival from Thai Airways to say that it had been misplaced and that it would be sent on this morning’s flight, but it didn’t arrive on that flight ether. The guy at Qatar Airways told me that they’d had a lot of bags misplaced in Bangkok in the last two months. “They opened the airport too early and they haven’t got their systems operating smoothly yet,” he told me. I made a mental note to try and avoid Bangkok for the next few months.

I had to go to the shops to buy some toiletries, some underwear and a shirt, and was surprised to find that none of the shops – even a big supermarket like Carrefour – carried change for anything less than one rial (about 30 US cents). Whenever an item was priced at say 5.50 rials, the smaller shops would let you have it for 5 rials, whilst Carrefour would charge you 6 rials and give you a chocolate bar to make up the difference. One rial is the smallest note, so at least this is one place where you don’t have to bother carrying coins around in your pocket.

Thursday 30 November 2006

My suitpack didn’t arrive until tonight. I had to go out to the airport to pick it up and collect some compensation for the clothes that I had to buy. When I asked for my compensation, they told me I had to go upstairs to the compensation office. I asked for directions, they told me where to go, but as I was about to leave, the woman behind the counter added matter-of-factly “but it’s closed now”. So I asked when it would be open, and she said “on Sunday – it’s closed for the next two days”. It seems that Qatar Airways doesn’t want to make it easy for their passengers to claim the compensation to which they are entitled.

After dinner, I took a walk down to the Corniche (the boulevard along the bay). Thursday night is equivalent to Saturday night in the West, and the young Qatari men are out in force celebrating the opening tomorrow of the first Asian Games to be held on the Arabian Peninsula.

They are driving up and down the Corniche blowing horns, waving flags, screeching tyres and revving the engines of their top-of-the-range four wheel drives to a screaming pitch – and making them backfire. I’m not sure how they do that, but it can’t be doing their engines any good, and it sounds like there are gunshots going off all over the place.

Young wealthy Arabs in Ferraris, Lamborghinis and Mustangs are racing up and down the main roads making as much noise as they can with their modified mufflers, and there are dozens of Toyota Landcruisers (they all look brand new) with young men hanging out of windows, and sitting on the roof (some chatting away on their mobile phones) as they drive down the road. I took some photographs of them to post to my TrekEarth gallery as it was quite a remarkable sight.

There’s not a cop to be seen anywhere (they seem to be busy escorting all the motorcades of the VIPs arriving for the Asian Games). I was once chastised by a Qatari for saying in a photo caption on one of my earlier photo websites that Doha was the most boring place in the world – but it sure ain’t boring tonight!

Friday 1 December 2006

Tonight I went to the Opening Ceremony of the 15th Asian Games in Doha. It was a magnificent spectacle - possibly the greatest show ever produced on earth – and I felt very privileged to be there.

It was a mind-blowing three-hour long show that surpassed both the Sydney and Athens Olympics opening ceremonies in creativity and technical sophistication.

The organisers won’t say how much it cost, but someone who claimed to be ‘in the know’ told me it was US$160 million – whilst someone else said it was US$190 million. Whatever it was, it was surely the most expensive three-hour show ever produced anywhere in the world.

Apart from star performers like Jose Carreras, it featured three of Asia’s top singers – Jacky Cheung, Sunidhi Chauhan and Magida El Roumi – and was produced and directed by David Atkins and Ignatius Jones, who produced and directed the Sydney Olympics opening ceremony. They set out to produce something greater than Sydney, and tonight they achieved that.

On one side of the stadium they had constructed the largest LED screen ever built in the world. According to the media guide put out by the organisers, the screen is 157 metres wide and 38 metres high, and is about four times larger than the screens built for the U2 and Rolling Stones concerts. It is made up of over 20,000 LED pixel tubes attached 148 spine units. The steel structure supporting the screen weighs 2,500 tonnes and is anchored by 16 base plates, each weighing 16 tonnes. Each of the pixel tubes expands 7mm between the heat of the day and the cool of the night.

When I arrived at the stadium I was directed to the wrong gate, and as I was walking towards the right gate, it started to rain heavily. I could not see any shelter close by, so I ran towards a pedestrian bridge that I could see in the distance, as there were some people already sheltering under that, but by the time I got there I was soaked to the skin.

The rain eased off after five minutes, but after I got into the stadium it started raining again and it continued to pour right through the pre-show entertainment and I felt sorry for all the poor performers who got soaked as well. There was no cover on one side of the stadium, so all the spectators sitting on that side got wet (although a few had the foresight to bring an umbrella).

The rain stopped – amazingly – just as the Opening Ceremony was about to commence at 7 pm, but the downpour resulted in a number of the aerial sequences in the ceremony having to be deleted from the programme for safety reasons. A cameraman working on a platform near my seat told me that one of the aerial sequences featuring flying boats was the most spectacular part of the ceremony (he had seen it at the rehearsal two days before), but even without that sequence, it was surely the most impressive opening ceremony for any event ever staged. The Chinese will have a hard time producing something better in Beijing in two year’s time.

After the show closed at 10 pm, I headed out to look for a bus back to the hotel. I remembered the problems I’d had in Busan four years ago trying to get back to my hotel after the Asian Games opening ceremony – and this turned out to be almost as bad.

After waiting for half an hour at a bus stop (no sign of any buses) it started to rain again. I couldn’t see any shelter nearby, so I dashed over to a security man’s hut and he let me shelter in there for about half an hour. Hundreds of other people were dashing bout trying to find someone to shelter. We squeezed another three or four into the hut, but that was all there was room for. The rest just got drenched.

About 11 pm some buses came, and I got onto the first one that was not full. It wasn’t going to my hotel, but all I wanted to do was get into the city and I would take a taxi from there. A local guy sitting next to me said: “It hardly ever rains in Qatar and hasn’t rained like this here since Noah’s Ark.” I said it was really bad luck that it should rain tonight, but good luck that it stopped for the main show. He replied: “No, that was not luck – it was God’s will.”

After an hour we had only moved about 100 metres. The roads around the stadium were just one massive traffic jam. It was nearly 1.00 am before I got to the Sheraton Hotel, and there was a long queue of people waiting for taxis to other hotels. It seemed that many people had done the same as me – just taken the first available bus to get out of the rain, irrespective of which hotel it was going to. So I decided to have a late dinner at the Sheraton and then after that joined the queue for a taxi. I eventually got back to my hotel at 2.30 am.

Saturday 2 December 2006

I was having a coffee at Doha’s City Centre shopping mall at lunchtime when I noticed that the long white thobes that most of the local men were wearing is cut several inches above the ground (so you can see their feet – usually in leather sandals) but the long black abayah worn by most of the local women is cut to actually touch the ground (so you can’t see their feet). I don’t suppose that matters too much for the women when it is so dry in Qatar for most of the time, but after the downpours of yesterday, the dust on the sidewalks has turned into a sort of watery mud, creamy beige in colour, which has soiled the bottom of some of their abayahs.

I also noticed that about a third of the Qatari women who wear the abayah do so with a shayla (a black headscarf) that doesn’t cover the face, another third wear the shayla with a niqab (a square of black fabric that covers the face but has a small slit for the eyes), whilst the other third use the shayla to completely cover their head and face. However, the shayla that is used to provide a full face covering actually looks quite fashionable compared to the niqab (which I've heard many westerners say looks a bit sinister) because most of those that are worn by Qatari women are made of silk chiffon and finely embroidered with gold or silver. They make the women look quite elegant, almost ‘mysterious’ – definitely not sinister.