Wednesday, September 28, 2011

East End Animals

Years ago it was possible to say that one could see more “animals” at a West Ham home game than on a safari in the Masai Mara. That was back in the seventies, eighties and nineties. The rougher element of West Ham United Football Club’s so called supporters had a fearsome reputation as trouble makers and punch-up merchants. These days however, it must be said that a much more pleasant atmosphere prevails at their home ground in London’s East End.

I’ve been a West Ham United fan since 1966 when the club’s three star players Bobby Moore, Martin Peters and Geoff Hurst formed the backbone of England’s one and only triumphant World Cup side. That glory has faded somewhat nowadays and West Ham languish in the second tier Championship, having been relegated from the Premier League last year. Nevertheless, they remain a well supported club and last Saturday my wife and joined almost thirty thousand other fans at the Boleyn Ground in the Cockney heartland suburb of Upton Park. There were many more families, mums, dads and kids and far fewer police around than I’ve ever seen at the ground before. In fact it was only after the game had finished that we saw any coppers at all. There were two watching the good natured crowd leaving stadium and perhaps a dozen monitoring the queues to get into the tube station.

All in all it was a terrific day out with a fantastic atmosphere inside the ground, and I can thoroughly recommend a visit to any England Premier League or Championship football match. West Ham did not play well on the day as it happened, but they still won so I was happy. My wife was happy too thanks to a visit to her favourite markets – Queens Market in Green Street . It’s a big undercover conglomeration of south Asian, West Indian and British stalls where one can buy anything from saris to sugar cane and pork pies to plantains. It’s a great place to kill half an hour or so before a game. Green Street itself in fascinating. Take a stroll west from Upton Park station and you are immediately transported to Karachi or Mumbai. The further west you walk the fewer white faces you see and the shops and restaurants reflect the ethnic majority. However, walk east from the station towards the football stadium and white faces prevail, it becomes more like any other British street. It’s amazing, the transformation is so abrupt that it leaves you slightly disorientated.

The day after the game we flew to Prague. We’d both wanted to see this reputedly beautiful city for years, so we pounced on a three day window of opportunity when it appeared. We were not disappointed in the least. Our hotel was the Hotel Clement in a quiet street only a few minutes walk from the heart of the Old City. And what an Old City it is. Some of the architecture is stunning and there are numerous atmospheric squares in which to wander or to sit quietly with a cold beer and simply partake in a little people watching. There are churches and spires everywhere you look. There’s a magnificent fourteenth century bridge upon which to stroll across the Vitava River and a stunning castle and palace to explore on a hill on the other side. The food is tasty and the helpings large, though not particularly cheap. The beer is good and so is the wine.

I think it as at night that Prague really comes into its own. Many of the old buildings are spectaculary lit, especially the Church of Our Lady before Tyn which towers above the huge Staromestska Square and lends the entire medieval scene a definite fairy tale air. Please, do yourself a huge favour and visit Prague at the first opportunity. It really has to be on of Europe’s most beautiful and friendly cities.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Dubai Stopover

Dubai is a very popular stopover on the way to East Africa and many other places for that matter, so for those of you who haven't sampled the delights of this Emirate yet I will give you the benefit of my recent experience there; but remember, this is a personal impression. Try it for yourself one day and see if you agree.

I'd booked my accommodation through Emirates - the airline. Their land operator is Arabian Adventures and I found them to be super efficient. Passengers are met in the arrivals hall - before passing through immigration. Those passengers who require a visa (Aussies don't.) are assisted through the procedure. We were directed to the Arabian Adventures desk where we were handed our itinerary and an information pack and then given directions on how to find our transfer vehicle. It was all very impressive. What a shame the immigration department is not equally efficient. It seems to be the way of things these days. Australia's isn't much better and New Zealand's is worse still. No matter how many passengers are lined up waiting to be processed they only ever seem to have four immigration officials rostered on to deal with them. These officials are dressed in dazzling white robes that appear to have been bleached to within an inch of their lives. Each of their movements (and they are few and far between) are slow and deliberate. It seems to take an age for them to lift their rubber stamp and bring it down on your passport. It all happens in super slo-mo.

Never mind. Once we were through immigration the efficiency returned. On the other side of the customs hall we made our way to the Arabian Adventures office and from there we were led out to a brand new Audi for the transfer to our hotel. Within half an hour we were in a room twenty three stories above Dubai at the Pullman Hotel Mall of the Emirates with fine views over the dusty streets towards the spectacular Burj al Arab Hotel from who's helicopter landing pad on the roof Tiger Woods once whacked a ball into the Arabian Gulf. That was before his marriage fell apart along with his game. These days he'd probably miss.

We had a city tour the morning after we arrived. Once again the super efficient Arabian Adventures picked us up bang on time. The first half of the tour was mildly interesting. We were driven along the road that runs close the the beach, though we could rarely see it. There were many large houses and mansions and lots of smart cars. Dubai is a new city, so don't expect to see many old buildings. Before the 1960's it was a tiny fishing village. Then they discovered oil and ker-pow! The place exploded. One of the few old building is the fort which is now a very interesting museum. You'll enjoy that. It's very well done. We were ferried across Dubai Creek to the Gold and Spice souks. Don't expect anything like Fez or Marrakech. Both souks are relatively small and relatively uninteresting. The gold on sale there was the really bright yellow stuff and the jewellery that it had been made into was gaudy and tasteless. The kind of thing you might expect to find draped over the mistress of a Russian mafia boss.

The following afternoon a went on the Sundowner Dune Dinner Safari. This was fun. It's operated by Arabian Adventures. We were driven out to what they call the "Empty Quarter". except once we arrive it certainly wasn't empty. There were about thirty 4WD vehicles all containing up to six passengers. The expert drivers zoom up and down the desert dunes in what is quite a thrilling ride, but perhaps not one for anyone suffering from motion sickness. Finally the passengers are disgourged into a permanent camp amid some tall and very beautiful dunes. Here we were treated to a camel ride, a very good dinner and a particularly energetic belly dance show before being ferried back to our hotels. It was definitely worth doing.

One of the most interesting sights we encountered in Dubai was in the Mall of the Emirates. There amongst the designer goods shops was a four hundred metre ski slope with real snow. Yes, that's right. It was 42 degrees centigrade outside and -2 degrees on the slopes where women in black padded ski burqas were swishing down the slope at a rate of knots and Japanese tourists kitted out in indentical, specially hired snow gear were taking photos of everything and anything. Off the ski slope was a Swiss resturant called Cafe St Moritz. It served halal fondue and had an artificial log fire blazing away in the hearth. I couldn't help thinking that it summed Dubai up nicely. Artificial.