Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Bureaucracy, buses and virtuality

The Gnomads have very recently had an astonishing encounter with bureaucracy in the Magic Kingdom, almost unbelievable after our experiences here.

As many of you will be aware, UK visa regulations have changed. There are now more requirements than ever before to secure a right of entry into the UK. The Gnomadette, being a citizen of the Philippines, requires a visa to go to the UK. Being the spouse of a UK citizen confers no privileges whatsoever in this regard. So the Gnomads must go through this process. One of the changes in visa requirements is that provision of biometric data is now a mandatory. To provide this biometric data (retina scans and fingerprints) one must present oneself before the proper authorities to have the scan taken.

Expecting to have to travel to have this done either to Magic Capitol City or possibly Magic Second City where Her Majesty's Embassy and Consulate are respectively to be found, it came as quite a surprise to find that there are now, in fact, three Visa Application Centres (VACs) for the Mundnae Kingdom inside the Magic Kingdom. The third and most recently commisioned of these is almost opposite the emporium of daily necessities in which the Gnomads habitually shop.

Good Heavens! Something convenient!

Having had to go through the visa application process before, Gnomad has a list of all the required documents. This list includes all of the items listed on the FCO website and the extra ones they don't actually tell you you need until they hand you back your application as incomplete. This list is however a year out of date, so was thoroughly checked. Apparently nothing new was required. An appointment was made and the appropriate form was downloaded and printed out, all 21 pages of it! Filling in the form was a simple matter of roughly four hours, multiple documents checks and several phone calls to the Philippines ("Just what exactly is Gnomadettes grandfather's inside leg measurement? Yes ok, we'll wait while you dig him up and measure him")

So, armed with all of the documents, photos, supporting evidence, bank statements, and what-have-you the Gnomads set off for their appointment at the VAC. Now unless you have lived in the Middle East or a particularly backward third world country you won't really understand the significance of what happened next.

the Gnome-mobile arrived at the VAC a few minutes early and the Gnomads waited until opening time. The VAC opened on time. To the minute. There was the usual security before the Gnomads showed their printout to the desk clerk showing the appointment time (due for 10h10), and were shown to some comfy seats to wait.

The Gnomads were called to be seen at 10h10!

Yes, the Gnomads actually had their interview at the appointed time.

Not only that, but the fully-veiled, locally-employed member of staff who dealt with the application spoke good English, read through all the documents, thanked us for presenting everything in order, took the money and actually had some change, and directed the Gnomads with courtesy and professionalism to the biometrics booth. The Gnomads had barely settled back into the comfy seats when, less than two minutes later, they were invited to have the biometric scans done.

The gnome-mobile departed from the VAC within 40 minutes of having arrived.

And to top of this truly exceptional experience, the Gnomadette's passport was returned by courier two days later complete with visa.

What a refreshing change.

It is, today, the 70th anniversary of Aramco. This may not mean a lot, dear reader, but Saudi Aramco produces 26% of the worlds oil. It is the richest corporate entity in the world and is based largely in the Eastern Province of the Magic Kingdom, really quite close the the Gnomad's place of work. A great many of the students at the Gnomads school live on the Aramco compound.

To mark the occasion the Magic King decided to pay a visit. The Absolute Monarch of the Magic Kingdom is so popular and so secure in his position that at the slightest hint of his visit the roads are closed off for miles around and no-one is allowed any where near where the King might go. Perhaps the King is allergic to adoring crowds?

Having had a couple of days of warning that this was likely to happen and involve the locking down (yes, just like a prison) of the Aramco compound, it was decided that the school at which the Gnomad works would be closed to students for the day. Not closed, just closed to students.

The board of governors are of the opinion that if the teachers are given the day off because, for example, it is completely impossible to move around the grid-locked city that they will have to work another day to make up for the lost hours. Now given the tortuous process one has to go through to get a visa to leave the Kingdom, and the swingeing financial penalties if any of the visa terms are breached, it is very difficult to have to deal with an extra day or two tagged onto the end of the term.

Why the governors can't just accept that sometimes sh#t happens and you have to be a little flexible is beyond the comprehension of the Gnomad. Absolutely none of the governors are money fixated, anal retentives at all. Not one. Definitely.

So to cope with this "crisis" the senior managers decided that there was to be a "Virtual School Day". This meant that all staff had to be in school but they all had to post on the school website sufficient work to keep the children gainfully employed in their studies for the appropriate amount of time (this was all done in advance)and the teaching staff had to be at their desks to answer email enquiries and accept pieces of work as they came in. Which of course they all did. No really, all the staff were in, because if you miss a day they dock one sixteenth of your monthly salary. Given the reliability of the internet in the Magic Kingdom (about as reliable as a chocolate teapot) there were actually more parents telephoning the school to say that their internet was inaccessible and their children could not do the work, than there were students responding to the work set. This was entirely predictable as it is widely held that it is a standard operating procedure of the King's security team to disable the internet and mobile telecomms in the vicinity as the King travels around the Kingdom.

At approximately 09h30 an email came round from the acting boss saying that the school had received details of the road closures and it was going to be impossible to move by motor vehicle after mid-day, so the school buses would depart at 11h30 and not make another run that day.

In the liberal and enlightened regime of the Magic Kingdom women are not permitted to drive, the school buses are provided to get staff from their compounds to school and back. This effectively meant that everyone had to go home at 11h30 or stay on site until the next day. So everyone went home.

The journey, normally 20 minutes, took almost an hour. The bus driver, a consummate professional, took a very circuitous route very different from the usual run and managed to avoid the gridlocks but not all of the traffic jams, but at least the bus kept moving. The occupants of the bus, Gnomad included, were treated to the spectacle of several astonishing pieces of driving, including a 50 seat coach mounting the meridian to make a U turn on a dual carriageway, dozens of drivers being too impatient to queue and driving up the sidewalk and so many near misses that there weren't enough fingers and toes on the bus to count them all.

Many of the staff on the bus were prepared for the delays and there was a kind of party atmosphere. Food and water was shared, people had brought a lot of supplies in the highly justified expectation of being stuck on the bus for hours and the journey was not, in fact, that unpleasant.

Turning into the compound the driver received a hearty and well deserved round of applause. Some, who had taken their own cars in did not arrive back until much later.

Perhaps someone may have learned something from the Virtual Day.