Wednesday, June 22, 2016

22nd June 2016 - thoughts from the edge

On the eve of the UK's referendum to stay in or leave the EU, I'm nervous and filled with trepidation.  I feel we're on the precipice of something terrible - a decision of monumental proportions looms.  Part of me wishes I had a pair of Wellies on, like the proverbial Welsh sheep on the edge of a cliff, not to push back, but to whack Cameron over the head with.  Hard.

Whatever the outcome, change will come.

If the UK votes Leave, the flood gates of a torrent of mini-tsunamis affecting millions of people will ensue: indeed affecting billions of people around the world.  If they vote to Remain, the UK will be viewed with a certain amount of suspicion in European circles for putting the entire Union through the mill and a confident chest-puffing UK could demand more changes from Brussels.

The debate has been riddled with inaccuracies and political gerrymandering of incomparable deceit, but on the other side, are people like me being too idealistic?

Too idealistic to think that 70 years of peace in Europe is in no small way thanks to the EU and its forbears the ECSC and EEC?  Too idealistic to think that the EU offers great developmental opportunities for former Soviet economies?

The EU is far from perfect - this is not the claim of those who support membership - and there are many things even the most ardent, Beethoven crooning Europhile would want changing.  The response to the refugee and migrant crisis in the Mediterranean was late and lackluster - not to mention murderous; the common agricultural policy still needs much reform and gobbles up far too much of the EU budget; and the democratic deficit which is personified in the faceless bureaucrat based in Belgium, is tantamount to government by dictatorship.

But it gives me hope of how countries can work together; how there can be benefits for all; how centuries of conflict can be consigned to the history books and we move forward as one.

Idealistic?  Yes, and there is nothing like it on earth - no other club or group comes close to what the EU has achieved since its nascent founding back in 1956.

This is not a zero sum game, either.  By being part of the EU, we don't cut off trading opportunities with the BRICs, of NAFTA or other big entities - in fact it's made easier by the sheer weight of the EU-28 members.  We can negotiate harder as 500m people as opposed to if the UK were alone - a mere 65m - barely 10% the size.

We should change from within...we certainly can't change from the outside, can we?!

The UK is now a post-imperial marvel; a place so rich in diversity that London has a Muslim mayor, we have black Lords in the House and chicken tikka is the country's best loved dish.  Why should we over-heat now that Poles are fixing our boilers - the same way Caribbean men were asked to drive our buses; or that Romanians are staffing our hotels - the same way as we welcomed Kenyan Indians shunned from their homeland; or that Lats are doing the farming jobs the Brits don't want the same way as the Irish gouged out our canals?!

We are a melting pot - and it's not something new - migration should be managed, but not stopped.  We're an incredibly adaptable country - indeed we've already had a Jewish Prime Minister (a claim I don't think anywhere else has, save Israel?) and we were the first "Western" country to have a female head of government - a darn sight earlier than the US - if things go according to plan over the pond in November.

Voting on something so complex as EU membership is not for the fainthearted and quite frankly, I believe we shouldn't even be having a referendum on it.  And if Cameron had had the steely determination of Disraeli and the antipathy to vox popular of Thatcher, perhaps we wouldn't be in this bloody awful mess.

But we are, and I have confidence, although it a bit wobbly from time to time, that the UK people will speak with that shared determination of a once immigrant; will vote for a positive and future full of hope; will show the world, that while we sometimes need to think we're still as important as we once were, the UK now relishes its part in a shared future and a common project.  A project that is the EU.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Review of 2015 and a look forward to 2016

First day back at work today and I'm taking a moment out to reflect.
2015 was a rather good year for me on balance.

Last New Year's Eve was spent in the most wonderful capital city on earth (London). I then had to make a difficult decision about a new job in KL. I accepted it, but was then offered something by the competition which wasn't planned, but something I couldn't turn down.

I thus moved to Dubai. After 6 months, I've met some fabulous people and had a whale of a time. I'm truly happy living in the desert. wink emoticon

Baxter and I had a stupendous year full of travels and merriment. We ticked off some new countries together (Finland, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia) and revisited some old favourites (France, UK, HK - OK China LOL).

I left Kenya, but have already been back (twice) to a place that will always be in my heart.

I got to see the Giant's Causeway in Northern Ireland and was suitably impressed at the region's sophistication, magnificent scenery and generous people.

I then got to visit Beirut, Riyadh & Jeddah with work and my preconceptions about many of these places (including the UAE) are being challenges, changed (for the good) and enhanced - mainly by the incredible people I've met - at work and outside of it.

Some friends had their personal challenges in 2015 and I hope they know I was there for them - and I wish them much happiness in 2016. You know who you are wink emoticon

For those of you who know me, you'll be cheered to learn that I've already created our Travel & Holiday Excel spreadsheet for the year and Baxter and I have packed schedule.
Oman, Malaysia, UK, Argentina, Chile, Peru, Kenya, France, Italy - are all in the offing.

This New Year's Eve was eventful with a gigantic fire at the Address Downtown Hotel, Dubai which had the potential to consume many lives - miraculously no-one died - nonetheless, it's not an event I want to repeat.

As I hurtle towards the grand old age of 45, I'm heartened by a recent Facebook app which indicated I was going to live to 117 or more. So I'm not even close to being middle-aged.!!

Hope to celebrate this fact with as many of as possible in Maryport, London & Dubai.

Happy New Year everyone - be blessed (as I know I am); be crazy (as I'm oft told I am); be healthy (as I mostly am, luckily); and be brave (as I try to be). We are this way but once - grab it tight and have a ball.!

Monday, May 4, 2015

The longest journey from A to B ever (part 1)

When a friend advises you of a flight change before the airline does, you kind of know things are going to be problematic. 
This is what happened with me and my award flight which made up the bulk of my trip from Nairobi – to Helsinki – yes you read that correctly – Kenya to Finland – what on earth?!  I hear you yelp – I know….but perhaps more on the why as opposed the how in another blog entry.
About 4 weeks before I was due to depart Nairobi (NBO) on Qatar Airways, I contacted their call centre to verify the supposed flight changes.  JKIA, the airport at Nairobi had communicated (rather poorly, it must be admitted) that they were to commence runway upgrades from 1st April and as a result no flights would be taking off or landing between 0000 and 00600.  Yes, I was calmly advised, your flight has been retimed.  I stress the “calmly” because I wasn’t at all calm.
So many airports I needed TWO luggage tags.

My original transit time in Doha went from 1 hour 40 minutes to a whopping 13 hours and then some.  I was, as you can imagine, a tad annoyed.  I couldn’t cancel my trip and rebook with someone else,  as I’d organised connecting flights with SAS to Copenhagen then Helsinki – are you still with me?!
After about 20 minutes she confirmed, that despite me having an award ticket (one I’d thankfully been able to get using my Qatar Airways miles online for a song) would still allow me a hotel in Doha overnight due to the connection being longer than 8 hours.  I sighed with relief and hung up.
On the afternoon of 2nd April I made my way to JKIA and boarded my flight.
Sitting in 1A can give you a false sense of security
Arriving in Doha, I did as was instructed and approached the stop over desk.  And the first response was a suspicion I had from the outset, but didn’t want to acknowledge.  “You’re not eligible for a stopover hotel, since your ticket was purchased with miles.”  “What?” I whimpered…..”I knew this would happen, I knew it!?”  I asked for the supervisor and said I’d been advised by the call centre weeks ago, that I was indeed eligible.
I escalated and then escalated some more.  I was getting know where; my emerald oneworld (platinum to you and me) seemed to be of little use.  Having travelled and been a committed advocate of Qatar Airways my loyalty was being sorely tested.
I was told about the quiet area in the lounge – yeah right!  The last time I was there not only was a man snoring so loudly the walls shook, but they were actually repairing a broken automatic door with drills – not exactly quiet – I can tell you.
Then the flustered supervisor offered me the customer services email – a red rag to an already enraged bull: “It’s not an email address that will deliver my wrath into a black hole of non-reply I need – it’s a bed for the night..!”

Rose champagne on board the brand new A350XB

I got nowhere and resorted to paying for a room in the airport hotel at my own expense – a nice room it was indeed – but that’s hardly the point.  I woke the next morning, boarded my delayed flight to Frankfurt – but was delighted to find myself aboard a brand new A350X – complete with a flat-bed seat, a screen larger than my TV at home – well almost – and service from a well-trained crew – all things I’d come to expect from “World’s 5 star airline”.  Pity the 5-star treatment is apparently confined to the air and absent on the ground.
My plane was just omen perhaps?
Disembarking in Frankfurt was easy, but then came the slog of navigating one of the worst maze-like airports I think there is on the planet.  I managed to find my gate, get my boarding pass, check my luggage was on board and then spring on to the bus to take me to my SAS flight to Copenhagen – oh, yes my journey was far from over.  I did have an emergency exit seat- which was nice and not one but two spare seats next to me – I was going to be thankful for the space for the wait that was in front of me. 

Friday, February 20, 2015

A non-customer-service customer service call

I've been a customer of my cable provider in Kenya, Zuku, now for 4 years.
And today I received my first ever "customer service follow up call".

Well that's how the politely spoken lady described it.

It didn't start well and accelerated downhill with alarming speed.

I see a number I don't recognise on my phone.
I gingerly answer with a simple "Hello."

"Hello," comes the reply then silence.
"Hello" I repeat."Yes, Hello, " she insists.

I'm adamant I'm not going to introduce myself first.
I salute her a 3rd time and perhaps then she gets it.

"Hello, I'm calling from Zuku, am I talking to Darren Stanley?"
"Yes you are."
I pause, so does she.  She called me, does she expect a rant?  Does she expect me to ask her questions?  The proverbial penny drops.

"I'm doing a customer service follow up call on your Zuku service."
"Yes, OK." I respond.
Then another awkward pause.  That seems to last forever.....

"How has the service been overall?" she pursues.
"Fine, thank you."

The longest pause of all ensues.
Am I actually taking this call?
Am I a survey guinea pig?
What is going on?!

Eventually, she realises I'm not going to say anything else without prompting or probing.
"Fine - that's good."  Then she stops and pauses again.
"OK," she continues, "Thank you for your feedback."
I interject: "I'm sorry but I have found this call very strange.  Aren't you supposed to ask me questions and probe?"
"Oh, Sir, I'm sorry the line is breaking, I can't hear you...."

In exasperation, I lose my patience: "Forget it, I'm eating my lunch, goodbye."
I hang up.

I know research is my metier, and I don't want to sound disingenuous, but this must be the weirdest most unstructured survey / service call I have ever ever encountered.

I smell a sales opportunity somewhere......

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Half way round the world and back

28,500km: that’s how many I’ve done this Festive Season; not on foot of course, and I dread to think about my carbon footprint, but...

Staggering and impressive; an eye-watering 9 flights on 7 different carriers, spanning 3 alliances, 1 budget & 1 non-aligned airlines; visited 4 cities (or towns); and proceeded through passport control on 3 continents.

It wasn’t your average Christmas / New Year break, really.  Thanks to airmiles, however, it was doable at relatively reasonable cost – and booking well in advance (for my Norwegian and BA sectors, at least) saved me a fortune.

My first journey was perhaps the most complicated in the sense that I skipped aboard airlines from SkyTeam, Star Alliance and one world.  But rather surprisingly and definitely welcomed, was the ability at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) with Kenya Airways, to check my baggage all the way to Miri, Sarawak, Borneo, Malaysia – a long list of geo-locations, but I like to be specific. 

I must confess I was a tad sceptical that my luggage would appear at the other end – and since I was headed for a wedding was also rather anxious.  My suit, tie, cufflinks, collar-stiffners and other “wedding accoutrements” could end up at my destination hours or even days after the nuptials had been completed.

But they were there – at the exact same time I was.  Amazing.  Thank you KQ (#kenyaairways).

Baju melayu, samping & songkok
The wedding was a Malay affair with a million blooms, elegant females in hip-hugging frocks and dashing men in baju melayu or batik shirts – a burst of colour, putting Notting Hill Carnival to shame. 

And yet, I was only there for a couple of days before driving to Brunei to catch my connecting flight in Bangkok on Thai Airways to Oslo – yes, you read it correctly, Norway of all places.

Eschewing the balmy C35° of Borneo, I stepped out of Oslo airport to collect my hire car with a brisk C-2° shooting up my ill-prepared nostrils.  They had needed half-an-hour to de-ice and warm up my vehicle and I was glad they had done it.

I grappled with the left-hand drive and manual gears, and headed south on the E6 towards Oslo centre – or sentrum as we say in Norway.

I was in town in about 30 minutes and began to get my bearings.  My parents joined me later that afternoon, so I had a little time to cram in some culture.  The Munch Museum was for me.  The famous and infamous (for being stolen at gun-point back in 2004) painting The Scream was hankered for.

I entered the gallery only to find the canvass I’d braved the Oslo slippery ice-fondant streets for, was being restored.  Bloody typical.  
Screaming for The Scream

Leaving the gallery, after succumbing to the obligatory mug and fridge magnet purchases, I headed back to the airport to collect mam & dad.  I was, unexpectedly, rewarded with a night sky show of the aura borealis – albeit a tad too far south and far less spectacular than in Trondheim or somewhere equally arctic-circle-ish.

Norway was super: great food, charming people, impeccable infrastructure & clinical efficiency.  It was, simultaneously, possibly the most expensive place I’ve been to on planet earth.  Move over Tokyo, Singapore & New York, Oslo will rape your wallet quicker than those pesky Vikings ever did in Northumbria all those centuries ago. 

Still, we enjoyed it – and it’s somewhere I’d love to see in the summer; the snow over Christmas was perfect, crisp and Bing-Crosby-ish – just as it should be.  ;-)
Welcome to the snow

We then proceeded to Cumbria and “home”.  I put it quotations, merely because it’s “real” home – whoops there I go again.  And I now officially have three of them.  Sigh.  Or should that be LOL?!

It was great to see the fells, the lakes, my school-friends, my family and the windmills.  Cumbria is awash with them – and these huge white giants, waving their arms about are a fixture on the landscape – so much so, you hardly notice their whirring purring presence.
Keswick and me
Finally, it was off south to the most impressive, fantastic, compelling city on earth: London.

My other half and I were scheduled for a front-row seat for the pyrotechnics to usher in 2015 and we couldn’t wait.  Following dinner, we scrambled outside to brave the plunging temperatures to get a ringside view.  And we were not disappointed. 

Perhaps the brightest, best-coordinated, most raucous show of fireworks I have ever seen burst above the river Thames, reflected in it and reverberated around it.

Whizzes, screeches, whirls, flashes, sparks and more lit up the London sky – so vividly and with such incandescence, you could read your newspaper in the nocturnal luminescence.  Oh, that rhymes – how quaint.
Just opposite the London Eye - eye-watering!

Selfridges, Peter Jones, the King’s Road, Regent Street, Carnaby Street – all saw far too many purchases.  While a theatre treat on New Year’s Day to see the new and provocative production of King Charles III, was especially wonderful.

We ate Italian in Knightsbridge, Indian in Fulham, Chinese in the West End, Gordon Ramsay in Battersea and English fayre in Piccadilly.  Friends and merriment were bountiful and the New Year started with a bang – as it’s supposed to I guess.

As I sit in the First Class lounge at Heathrow, about to travel “home” to Nairobi [thanks (again) to my other half] sipping a beautifully chilled kir royal, I’m thankful in so many ways and on so many levels. 

What a whirlwind Yuletide I’ve had; what a mesmeric hailing in of a new year; what a splendid marvellous cacophony of friends, family, loved ones, experiences and more I’ve had.

Thank you 2014 for being rather splendiferous and watch out 2015 – you have a lot to live up to.  
I rather think you will!

Friday, November 21, 2014

Do they care if it's Christmas?

And the stress on the headline should be "care".  Do they CARE?  Do they *care*?  Do they......-well you get the point, I hope.

I remember the first Band Aid hysteria way back in 1984 - I was a mere 13 and quite ignorant about where Ethiopia actually was and what the issues of food management were back then.  I mean let's be honest, the "dark continent" was a whole world away and bereft of any meaningful input to the world economy - wasn't it?!  I jest (in bad taste) of course - but nonetheless, sitting in my orange and brown living room of the mid 80s with Thatcher on her gilded throne and the miners' strike in full swing, there were perhaps a few hot topics vying for the social conscience of a pubescent teenager.

I didn't buy the single - despite George Michael singing his lungs out and Boy George giving it good face.

I didn't sense the need to donate my pocket money despite the image of flies hovering around the face of young child who hadn't eaten for days being projected every tea-time on our telly.

I didn't (in all honesty) think my 20p or 50p would actually get to where it was supposed to and didn't really think it would make any bloody difference either.

That was then and this is now.

The backlash our dear well-intentioned Bob Geldof (KBE) has unleashed recently with a re-recording of the famous hit in 2014 for West Africa Ebola sufferers is perplexing, understandable, symptomatic and disingenuous all at the same time.

Perplexing because I fail to understand the venom with which people have challenged the whole concept as condescending.

Understandable because the world has moved on and we're more aware; we're more critical; we expect people to do more for themselves and appreciate that actually the vast majority of folks don't want handouts.

Symptomatic of a liberal post-colonial unburdening of guilt that many Europeans feel necessary - often despite and in total neglect of the rather insidious occupation of the continent of Africa by Chinese clamours for natural resources.

And perhaps most disconcertingly, disingenuous because I challenge the critics to offer an alternative, to demonstrate what they have done, or to give credit (however misplaced) where it's due.

We live in an imperfect world with imperfect solutions delivered by imperfect institutions and individuals - but I applaud those who try; lament the fact more people don't try; and challenge those who may read this to try a bit harder.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Fancy a game of marbles, anyone?

The magnificent Parthenon atop the acropolis

Subtitled: how one can change one's mind.

I recall a rather heated exchange with a good Greek friend of mine - and you'll see why his nationality is important in a moment - about repatriation of artefacts and the like that are in museums around the world - as opposed to being "at home".  It ended acrimoniously, sadly, and we both vowed never to raise it again.

When two positions are so far apart it would seem there can be no common ground - the fact that I'd never really researched some of the points I had entrenched views on, didn't seem to matter to me too much.

We were of course, if you haven't worked it out yet, arguing about what the British call the Elgin marbles and what the Greeks tend to call the Parthenon marbles.  I took the position (as perhaps a majority of Brits do) that what happened under the Empire and sense of entitlement is not really our guilt problem and if the "booty" is on view for all the world to see in London, then please feel free to come and visit - but don't expect us to return any of it.

I think for most of what's been "ex-patriated", if I can use that phrase, I would still maintain there is very little benefit to either the original "home" or the new one to move everything back to where it was pilfered from.  I see one of the great benefits of the momentous museums around the world is allowing thousands and thousand of people access to great pieces of history in a safe and protected environment - think British Musuem, Le Louvre, The Hermitage.  

So, as I was in Athens just last week for a birthday celebration over the sea in idyllic Mykonos, I naturally clambered up the acropolis and took an obligatory selfie just on the front door step, as it were, of the Parthenon itself.

Me and the Parthenon - best of friends.
I must confess (perhaps with all major monuments one sees on the telly and in books) the actual temple site was a incy-wincy bit disappointing in terms of its impressiveness.   That said, just look at these pics:

The columns of the Parthenon - and a 21st century crane.

Columns restored after many an incident rendered the whole temple area a bit of a "bomb-site".
After the site tour, we skipped down (at a rather more speedy pace, unsurprisingly, than how we'd gone up) towards the (relatively) newly-built Acropolis Museum.  I was a tad anxious; what would I see; how would it affect my opinions; what is all the fuss about?

Tickets procured, auto-barriers passed, we entered a huge lobby full of pottery artefacts, exhibits and statues; the museum is a glass and steel monument to all things Parthenon.  I hadn't realised, I suppose, that even up atop the acropolis, that all the original statues and friezes had been transported down the hill and replaced with very good replicas.  

Indeed the marvellous female statues here, are not the originals, but they are in the museum below - which didn't, sadly, allow any photos - so don't have any of what was inside.

The statues holding up the Erechtheion - which is a bit ironic - but named after a King and nothing untoward.

There were six of these originally and in the museum (pictured below) you see 5 statues in various states of wear and tear.  The sixth plinth is empty and a tag advises you the missing lady is sojourning in the British Museum.  This was not to be the case for other missing items. 

So as I ventured onto the 3rd floor and a life-size representation of the Parthenon "roof" if I may call it that, is quite different.  The frieze and metopes are there in full splendour.  I turned right out of the lobby area to find the first 1/8 of the frieze and about 90% of this was original marble - in situ and intact.  The remainder was of cast material with notes showing which institution had current ownership.  The British Museum being abbreviated to BM.

I'm there, thinking the Elgin marbles fuss over 10%, really?

I turn the corner to see the west (I think) projection and my jaw drops when I see not 90% marble in place, but 90% plaster and the next corner the same and the next and the next.  The amount of "missing" marble replaced with accurate casts of the same was astonishing.  This wasn't taking into account the great statues missing from the "gables" - huge representations hewn from marble of Greek gods and heroes - absent.

The new (rather amazing) Acropolis Museum - Athens

I realised I'd come to a very slow pace; I was almost wanting to sit down and gape - but the museum-Nazis made sure you didn't sit, slouch, lean or touch anything you weren't supposed to.

So I slowly but surely completed the circuit and headed downstairs for a sobering glass of Greek wine.

I think of myself as being quite resolute in most things - most opinions.  But I must admit, my mind has been changed at seeing just how much was confiscated from one of the most famous hills in the world.  Whether Lord Elgin had permission to take, contractually, whether he should have taken what he did or not, whether the marbles left on that hillside would have eroded or been lost to theft and destruction is perhaps not important now - although I do believe they have been preserved better in the "BM" than they might have been up there amidst a country's strife - and we know Greece has had its fair share of 20th century (and 21st for that matter) strife.

That said, I think the time is right to open the dialogue on "sharing" the treasure.  Should we rotate the treasures and exchange what the Greek museums can offer?  Absolutely.  Should we perhaps think about long term loan - as the Vatican has done?  Certainly.  Could we set a precedent for more open sharing amongst the great museums of the world and allow even more people access to the greatest remnants of history?  Definitely.

I didn't think my mind would be changed before I went to Athens - but it was - and simply because of the scale of the "light-fingered-ness".

Book yourself a flight to Athens and challenge your own views...!

But perhaps the best thing about all this, is I can now revisit the taboo topic with my good friend and we will find that common ground that eluded us.