Monday, June 23, 2008

Durban, South Africa

Well, here I am sitting at floor nine of a lovely apartment block in Durban, looking out over the city roof tops, trees, roads, parks and skyscrapers. In the distance I can see the Durban Waterways and the unusual shape of a Hindu temple. A siren is blaring, birds are chirping, traffic is moving on the freeways and the sun is opening up another day. (No sand-filled skies here!)

As I type, Christina is lying on a couch reading a novel.

We are so fortunate; one husband and wife team that has dual lives in Durban and Al Ain met us at the airport and brought us to the apartment generously loaned to us by another couple who also live at Al Ain. How lucky can you get in one life time?

One day these and other friends will visit us and we'll be able to repay their hospitality, although Alice Springs is a bit smaller than Durban. But, a plus is that there is much to see of natural beauty, the Macdonnel Ranges, a Desert Wildlife Park, the Olive Pink Botanical Reserve and notable places such as Lassiter's Casino, the Overland Telegraph Station and our famous dry river bed, the Todd River.

Leaving Al Ain wasn't without its challenges, even at the airport. There had been a foul-up in our travel arrangements that caused a lot of grief ... I won't bore you with details, but my feeling at the end was that the last couple of weeks almost negated the three years of wonderful experiences and lovely friends we had made in the UAE and I just wanted to get my bum on an airplane seat and get out of the bloody place.

As my mental composure restored, I realised that in every life a little rain must fall and ultimately, I had enjoyed some of the best years of my life at Al Ain.

After a half hour on the jet and a restorative glass of red, all the trials and tribulations of the last few weeks seemed to simply fade away.

So begins a new era in our lives. One that has taken almost 50 years of work and 35 years of marriage for us to reach. The next 20 years should be glorious years as we count down to our unplanned adventures in some place that everyone is dying to get to. Maybe one day we'll see you there and we can lend you our apartment.


Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Counting Down - Two Days to Go

Well, we are almost at the end of our tour of the UAE.

Our "Permanent" Residence Visas have been cancelled and I have only two days to go to work and on Friday, we fly out to Johannesburg.

Last night we had a Last Supper for what has become affectionately known as the "Group of Eight" ... four married couples who spent lots of time together, visited Syria and other places in and out of the UAE together.

Christina and I are leaving, so the group will now be six. Maybe they'll find a replacement for us, who knows.

It's sad to be leaving our dear friends and colleagues, but nobody is permanent here as an expat. Some day we all have to leave. No job, no visa.

In our case, we have other things to do, places to see and after three years away, need to spend time with our kids and grandson.

In the future, I will place some photos of our South African tour and eventually will write about some of the great sights of Central Australia.

Hoping to keep in touch with you.


Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The Ass-about Alphabet Company Strikes Again!

When I first became aware of the Ass-about Alphabet Company, I knew deep down it would be a problem. But they offered car loans so cheap I couldn't afford not to take one.

My first insight into how banks operate in the UAE was when the bank's sales representative who attended the Nissan Car sales yard went blank when I mentioned the EFT word ... you know as in Electronic Funds Transfer. She had no idea what I was talking about, ignored me and told me how I had to sign and date 36 cheques.

After we overcame our astonishment, Christina and I sat in the Nissan Sales Yard with pens and cheque books furiously writing 36 cheques. It reminded me of the day I had arrested a fraudster on 54 warrants of apprehension for defrauding the Australian Government and had to write on the back of each warrant, "I certify that I have executed this warrant. Date. Robin Henry, Constable 8875" and sign them.

God, how I had longed for a rubber stamp. In any case, 36 was better than 54.

From there, everything worked like clockwork. Come the third of every month and a cheque would be posted to our account and the requisite amount of Dirhams transferred.

Well, the clockwork stopped when I paid out my loan and got a clearance letter ... you know, the one with the rubber stamp.

While trying to pay out the loan and get the clearance letter, I became aware that my firstname had been recorded as Rosin. As the UAE alphabetises on first names, everytime someone typed Robin into the database screen, nothing with Robin Henry appeared. Surprise, surprise!

And it got worse. When they eventually found me, all the data about me was wrong except for three details; lastname, date of birth and nationality. I was less than impressed.

Eventually, arrangements were made for me to collect:
  1. the clearance letter saying I had paid out the loan (so I could sell my car)
  2. five cheques that were still in the bank's possession, but were no longer needed

When I was called to get the clearance letter I asked for the cheques and of course, they weren't there ... "we'll call you when they are ready and you can come in and collect them". Huum, not my cockup, but I have to suffer the inconvenience.

Next, I found that even though I had paid my debt in full, a few days later a cheque had been issued and I now had 2,000 AED credit with the Ass-about company. Damn, so another trip to town later and they agreed they would repay the money. They would call me when the cheque arrived and I could drive into town and collect it. Again, my inconvenience.

Today I received a call asking me to bring in my passport because as my name was incorrectly recorded in their system, they couldn't raise a cheque until they could see it. "No trouble", I thought, it's a great opportunity to drive into downtown Al Ain again, risk life and limb and show somebody my passport.

I'm going tomorrow. No doubt I will need to go back later and get the cheque, anything for 2,000 miserable Dirhams and when you have been pissed about a lot, it becomes addictive. I mean, every time it happens, you go home and get pissed.

Not a hint of an apology which either means that it happens so often, staff is immune from noticing that there's been a cock-up, or it's all part of their standard operating dysfunction.

If you live in the United Arab Emirates, I can highly recommend that you NEVER, EVER do business with the Abu Dhabi Commercial Bank ... without a doubt the worst bank I have dealt with in 50 years and aptly named the Ass-about Alphabet Company.


ADDENDUM - ... And the ADCB strikes again.

Guess what? When I drove 10 minutes into the ADCB Al Ain branch this morning and expected to see Bilal sitting at his desk, there was a hijab-wearing woman in slacks and a nice top.

Without going into too much detail, she could make a photocopy of my passport and sign them to say she had sighted the original, but she couldn't possibly give my my cheques because, "That's Bilal's job and it's his day off."

Fighting to remain composed and civil I said, "Isn't there a file here with Robin Henry on the front that has copies of the cheques and a file not saying what's happening?" As expected, she gave me a blank look and said, "You have to come back tomorrow."

I asked what would happen if Bilal got sick and was off for three months. She didn't respond.

It was 8:30 am. I knew it would be a bad hair day. I stomped out muttering expletives under my breath and drove the 10 minutes back to work through the idiot drivers.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Cascading Sponsors, Leaving and the Dance of the Rubber Stamps

It might sound like a strange title ... but don't leave yet, all will be revealed.

Cascading Sponsors

Everyone who comes to the United Arab Emirates has either a visitors visa valid for 90 days, a permanent residence visa valid for up to three years or is an illegal immigrant.

For a permanent residence visa you need a job. Your employer is your sponsor. Once you have a sponsor, you can sponsor others.

I am Christina's sponsor. If we had children I would be their sponsor and so it cascades from one primary sponsor to numerous secondary sponsored individuals.

It's a tightly monitored system and a good effort at knowing who is in the country and having some control over what they do. Needless to say, you can't get a driver's licence, bank account, electricity account or anything much else without your sponsor's permission.

Your sponsor is responsible for you while you are here. That sends a shiver down the spine of most sponsors who are, therefore, more inclined to exercise control over their sponsored employees.

When you want to register your vehicle, you get a letter from your sponsor saying you work for them and have a contract etc. No letter, nothing happens. Period.

Rubber Stamps

Now, a letter here (also known as a certificate, clearance certificate etc) is not just a letter. To be valid it simply MUST have a rubber stamp imprint (like a seal) on the front of it and be an original. Anything without a stamped imprint that is not an original is just a piece of paper.

It's actually one of the few things done here that makes any real sense to me as it reduces the opportunity for fraud considerably. It also keeps thousands of Indians in jobs making rubber stamps ... and probably thousands more actually using them ... but I digress.

When you leave here you get an exit list from your sponsor and you have to get a stamped clearance certificate from places linked to your sponsor to show that you leave without any liability. This is my "Dance of the Rubber Stamps"!

Leaving the UAE (Harder than arriving)

Like you, I have a few Rules for Living that I try to abide by. Mine are based essentially on Buddhist philosophy and include doing as you would be done by (also a Christian/Muslim ethic). Therefore I always endeavour to:
  1. Treat others with courtesy and never be rude (especially to those considered underdogs)
  2. Be tolerant of others, even when they are the most stupid f%$#ing people on the planet (there's truck loads of them here!)
  3. Never unduly get my knickers in a twist over anything (based on the premise that if you wouldn't worry about it in 100 years, why worry now)

However, I have to tell you that even though I have been pissed about by experts for decades, restructured dozens of times, downsized, upsized, and dealt with more than a fair share of dickheads who were police clients, I've been very close to losing the plot recently. Probably closer than ever.

It's all because of he Dance of the Rubber Stamps.

When you leave, you have to cancel your various accounts like power and water, banking, have your house inspected, transfer the registration of your cars, cancel personal loans etc. This could and should be easy, but as is the way here, it isn't. In almost every case you need some type of document as proof with ... yes, you guessed it, a rubber stamp impression.

The problem is that nobody knows exactly what you want or how to do it. Even though tens of thousands of people leave the country and probably hundreds in the HCT leave every year, there is no solid systematic, fireproof procedure that anyone can tell you about.

Even the HCT staff responsible for these things give you a bum steer.

Most organizations tell half the story. So you go to one branch of the Al Ain Distribution Authority and can't finish your business because you didn't bring a photocopy of an identification document. You go to the another branch and nobody even asks you for such a copy, so you toss it in the bin as you leave.

In some cases the clearance document can't be made at the time, so you are asked to come back later to collect it. You've already driven for 10 minutes either way through Cannon-Ball Express traffic, risking life and limb just to visit the office once ... why would anyone sane do it again? But you go back and often go back again to pick up pieces of paper.

They can't be faxed, they can't be posted, you just have to go with the flow. At times it tests your mettle to the limit, as it did mine. On one occasion recently I had been to the office of a bank on five separate occasions. Finally, I had to collect a clearance certificate and five cheques of mine that had been unused. When I drove in the sixth time, the clearance letter was there, but not the cheques. When the "customer service officer" asked me to come back later to collect it that he couldn't possibly post it, I thought:

"Do you think I sit about on my fat ass all day just waiting for you to call me to come in an pick up a piece of effing paper?"

But fortunately said, "I don't know how you make a profit here. You aren't very good at what you do."

There are several other occasions I could tell you about, but I think you get the drift. The good thing is that it's almost done now and while I have gotten stressed and finished up with a headache, I have managed to remain dignified.

In the end, it's all part of the experience. And after all, wasn't that what we came for?

Only two weeks to go.