Saturday, November 18, 2006

Frabjous Day! Callooh! Callay!*

On Monday 13th November the news came that we had been waiting for, the Gnomadette's visa had been issued. Huzzah! Now to make arrangements to get Mrs Gnomad to the Magic Kingdom. We already had flights booked for the Gnomadette, booked, endorsed and endorsed again as things were delayed. Flights also had to be booked for the Gnomad. The rules of the Magic Kingdom are such that a woman cannot enter the kingdom unless accompanied by her sponsor (husband, father, etc). There are exceptions to this rule, nurses, teachers, certain western ex-pats depending on country of origin, etc, but none of these apply to Mrs Gnomad. The outbound flight to the Philippines goes via Island Gulf State (IGS), via Qatar and then onto Cebu. The inbound journey merely goes via Qatar.

“Since the Gnomadette must be accompanied into the Magic Kingdom, can I meet her in Qatar and travel with her for the last leg?” I inquired of the travel and visa agents. The reply was hesitant and the answer was something like this; “well you can but we advise against it”. “Why is that?” “We have had situations in the past were travellers have been refused boarding in the Philippines because the airline were uncertain that they would be admitted into the Magic Kingdom”. Apparently the airlines face heavy fines if a traveller arrives in a state were the traveller has no right of entry, so sometimes the airlines don’t take the chance. I, also, was not prepared to take this chance.

Only one option remained, the Gnomad must travel from the Magic Kingdom, home to the Philippines and back again in a weekend. So this is what I did.

Wednesday, 15h00, left work for IGS. There is a road link from the Magic Kingdom to IGS, but it is often very busy and, obviously, there is an international border crossing involved too. This can take anything from one to three hours, possibly more on occasion, so we left plenty of time. Boss Bill very kindly offered to drive the Gnomad on this stretch to ensure a smooth start to the journey.

16h00, arrived at IGS airport, greatly astonished. This was apparently the most rapid transit into IGS that Boss Bill, or indeed anyone as we subsequently found out, had heard of. Gnomad’s early arrival means that it isn’t possible to check in for at least two hours and there are almost no facilities. Only one thing to do; Head for the Qatar Airways office, waving the frequent flyer card and request somewhere comfortable to wait. Result “No problem sir, we’ll open up the check in just for you and you can wait in the first class lounge” Woohoo! Result! I do like my Qatar Airways Gold frequent flyer card. So I adjourn to the aforementioned first class lounge and wait, partaking of some rather pleasant light refreshments, not quite up to the standard of the Doha first class lounge but very jolly all the same. And I wait. And I wait. There are only so many delicate little dainties a chap can enjoy, and it seemed like ages to go before the flight was called. So I waited. And waited. The flight from IGS to Qatar was delayed. Eek! I only had 45 minutes turnaround time in Qatar! The delay got longer and longer and more and more worrying. Eventually the flight left 32 minutes late. Sweating all the way we got into Qatar 30 minutes late and I dashed off the aircraft as fast as I could. I headed straight for the meet and greet service (another frequent flyer privilege) and showed them my tickets. Phone calls were made, queues were jumped and I was escorted straight through to the departure gate in double quick time. I was aboard the outbound flight from Doha with four minutes to spare. Very relieved I settled down to my airline meal and my nine and a half hours in cattle class. If I had missed that flight the next was not for three days.

The flight was unremarkable in all respects except one. Despite a timely departure we managed to arrive half an hour late. The Gnomads live an hour from the airport, and we had only five hours of scheduled turn around time in the Philippines, so a half hour delay was significant. The Gnomadette was there to meet me at the airport. We hailed a cab and headed home to Dumlog. There a shower, and a fried chicken and roast meat (I wont say which meat, merely that it is haram –forbidden- in the Magic Kingdom) meal awaited. Fifty minutes later with both of these done and all last minute checks made the Gnomads headed back to Cebu International Airport. Arriving an hour and a half before hand the Gnomads checked in, said their farewells and aawaited the flight.

The accumulated air-miles earned in the Gnomads meanderings had proved sufficient to upgrade us both to business class for the inbound journey. As we boarded at the front of the plane and turned left instead of right, the stewardess invited us to “sit anywhere we liked, there are no others in the business class cabin”. A pleasant, peaceful and above all quiet journey ensued. Being able to actually lie down (once one has finished playing with the electrically controlled seat, of course) and sleep is a huge benefit of business class. The journey was as near to restful as a flight can be and the Gnomads were spoilt and pampered by the cabin crew who had little else to do.

Arrival in Doha was uneventful. Again at the meet and greet reception we were informed that since our stopover was in excess of eight hours we had a room at the Merweb Hotel. The hotel courtesy bus got us there is reasonable time, despite many unannounced road closures, and showers and food were able to happen again. The Merweb was not, unfortunately, up to Qatar Airways usual standards and I would not personally choose to stay there again. Our six am bus turned into a six-forty five bus and was grossly overloaded at that – all seats taken plus six children sat on adults laps and one adult sat on the floor! The aisle also lined with luggage. However we soon arrived back at the airport and had time for breakfast in the first class lounge again which did much to restore the Gnomad’s good humour.

The forty minute flight into the Magic Kingdom departed and arrived on time with the Gnomads on board. The queue at Immigration was vast, and since it was a Friday the crew was skeleton. The Gnomadette watched the progress of the queue with growing alarm. The eight other Filipinas ahead of us in the queue had their passports taken and not returned at immigration and were made to wait separately. We later found out that their sponsors had to come and collect them. They really were not admitted to the Magic Kingdom unaccompanied. As far as we know none were turned back.

When the Gnomads reached immigration, Mrs Gnomad was allowed through without delay. This is partly because I, her sponsor, was there too and not a little to do with the fact that we had thought ahead and Mrs Gnomad was wearing the abaya. This is not actually compulsory for entering the Kingdom, but it really did seem to help.

Sam, our taxi driver was waiting for us outside the airport (I learned from last time and arranged a regular ddriver to pick us up) and we are now nicely settling in to married life together in the Magic Kingdom.


* Title courtesy of Lewis Carrol and the Jabberwocky

Friday, November 03, 2006

A little faith restored

having arrived at the entry airport of my choice in the Magic Kingdom, I realised three important things, first that I had left all my relevant local currency in my desk in the Philippines, second that I didnt actually know how to get to where I lived from the airport, and that third I could not describe the same to a taxi driver. The first problem was relatively easily solved. I have very little Arabic, but mournfully waving an ATM card and wailing "Mafi felous" resulted in my being directed to a suitable ATM machine in the airport lobby.

The second problem was irrelevant as it was too far to walk in any case but the third was rather more, er... problematic.

The taxi rank outside the airport is an absolutely rigid "you will take the first cab in the line" system, and I couldnt make the cabby understand where I wanted to go. Two or three other taxis further down the line took fares and set off, but because this particular cabby was the one at the head of the queue when I got there this was the one I had to use. After a few minutes there were five various assorted cabbies all jabbering away, all except one convinced they knew where I wanted to go and trying to give my cabbie (the one who wasnt convinced) directions. Different directions. All at once. Very loudly. With manic gestures and wthout any English.

Then one of them suddenly asked me "You have number?" of course I have the number of the gate house on my mobile. he then rang the gate house of my compound, ascertained the correct directions, and then explained this to everyone all over again in much the same way as before. I guessed from the now apparently choreographed gestures and the syncopation in the voices that they were all now giving the same set of directions.

These various assorted gentlemen were all Arabs, all ordinary working men and all were genuinely keen to see that I got to the right place and that the proper cab driver got his fare, according to his turn. When I arrived at my compound, the fare was exactly what I had expected it to be, and not at all the usual hiked up fare yoou get from airport taxis the world over.

So it seems that good customer service IS coming into the Magic Kingdom after all, you just have to get lucky or know where to look for it.

Three steps forward, two steps back

Here I sit, admittedly in some comfort with my fresh sushi and cup of piping hot Darjeeling, in the Qatar Airways first class lounge at Doha international airport. Despite the many benefits of my frequent flyer card (I don’t ever actually fly first class, the Gnomad exchequer does not extend much beyond “cattle class”) I am not a happy bunny. The problem is that I am here on my own. I had really expected to have Mrs Gnomad with me on this journey. I am heading back the Magic Kingdom after the Eid al Fitr break, I spent the vacation at home in Cebu, mostly chasing paperwork for the Gnomadette’s visa. The Embassy of the Magic Kingdom in Manila is staffed by the most deliberately obstructive, arrogant, ignorant, incompetent and lazy individuals I have ever had the misfortune to deal with. Mostly they just refuse to tell you anything.

To give an example, here is a recent conversation;

“Magic Kingdom Embassy” said the voice of the Consular section of the Magic Kingdom Embassy in Manila
“A’salamalikum” Says I – this being a traditional Arabic greeting
“Thank you, we are close in half an hour”
(This means they are open right now surely?)
“Could you answer a couple of questions for me please?”
“We are closing soon”
“It won’t take long, I have a couple of questions regarding visas”
“I know nothing about visa”
(this is the voice of the Consular section, Visas are their main job!)
“Well could you put me through to someone who does, please?”
“We are closing soon”
“Is there anyone else I could speak to?”
“No-one here, we are closing soon”
“Could you tell me when you are open so I can call again later”
“You call tomorrow”
“When are you open tomorrow?”
“We are closing now”
“What time are you open tomorrow?”
You call tomorrow, we tell you tomorrow”

And so on….

When they do tell you something, it’s either out of date, incomplete, incorrect, or simply made up on the spot. It appears that the concepts of “Customer Service”, “Fair Dealing” and “Pride in doing a Good Job” have no direct translation into Arabic, or at least no translation into the dialect of Arabic used in the Magic Kingdom. This is odd because I have encountered all of these concepts practiced in other Arabic countries. Coincidentally, perhaps, in countries without massive oil or gas reserves.

We have had to resort to hiring a second visa agent to apply for the Gnomadette’s visa to Magic Kingdom, at an additional cost of over 10,000 pesos so far. Despite being told that we would both have to go to the Embassy to present our visa documents, as Mrs Gnomad is coming to the Magic Kingdom as my dependant, the Embassy does not accept personal visitors! The story now is that we must both be present to hand over our documents to the agent, who will then submit them to the embassy. Not any agent will do either, it must be an agent accredited with the Magic Kingdom Embassy. These only exist in Manila, hence the additional hire. The usual fee for a visa agent in the Philippines is about 2,500 pesos. Anyone smell baksheesh here?

The current state of affairs is that the visa documents are now in the hands of the Accredited Agent and have been for several days. The visa process should take about a week, or rather 5 working days. This might not sound so bad, apart from Fridays don’t count, as it’s a half day and the visa section don’t deal with visas on a Friday, Saturdays and Sundays are the weekend, the Embassy was shut for three days for Eid Al Fitr (24th, 25th and 26th October), the 31st October and 1st November are holidays (not actual legal holidays, just popular days off, so the Embassy was closed too).

The first attempt to submit the documents has already failed because the Gnomadette’s medical was not performed at the designated clinic. We have had the medicals done twice now, the first time with the Gnomadette’s family doctor. This was no good because he was not on the “approved list”, Ok we should have checked. We got the second medical certification done at Chong Hua hospital in Cebu. I asked beforehand if Chong Hua was an approved clinic and yes, they said, it was. This was after all where I got my medicals done without any hassle only five months ago. But no. In the meantime the rules have changed again. Chong Hua is no longer acceptable and there is now only one approved clinic in the entire Republic of the Philippines. As it stands now, the Gnomadette will have to go to Manila for at least a week to have the medical certification done all over again. It looks like it could well be another month before Mrs Gnomad can make an appearance in the Magic Kingdom.

As far as the Gnomad’s new habitat being called the Magic Kingdom is concerned, I do now have an idea. It seems to me that the task of finding an old English manor house owned by a geriatric, retired professor, then searching this house for a long forgotten room, in which can be found an old ornate apple-wood wardrobe, then going into this wardrobe, defeating the snow queen and in the process resurrecting a huge talking lion is a quicker, more practical, and far less ludicrous way of gaining access to a new country than dealing with Magic Kingdom bureaucracy.

Oh well, things could be worse, at least there is some progress. My immediate stresses are being further mitigated now by the arrival of more sushi with some fine wasabi, and a new pot of Darjeeling. It seems that, at least as far as air travel is concerned, my loyalties can be bought with comfy leather sofas,
complimentary Japanese sea-food and unlimited Indian tea.