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Monday, 10 May 2010

Obituary to Chinese Impersonator!

It is with great sadness that I announce the demise of my trusty N82 Chinese impersonator. This great phone has spent 13 months nobly impersonating a Nokia before finally giving up the ghost and going to electronic heaven today.

The N82 became ill a few days ago - notably about 3 weeks after the 12 month warranty expired. At first, it had fits of rejecting all nourishment from the charger, then took a turn for the worse when everything happened at once and we had lights flashing and ring tones ringing all at the same time. The N82 then quietly drifted off into a sort of slumber.

Now slightly incapacitated it locked itself back to factory settings and refused to accept it still had a memory card. In its weakened state it seemed temporarily to welcome the daily feeds until last night.

All attempts to introduce any electrical current into the handset failed and finally this morning, at around 8.45am, the phone finally switched itself off having fought hard to keep itself going long enough for the alarm to wake me.

Attempts were made to revive this once wonderful and feature-rich item and everything possible was done to encourage its software to restart. Occasionally, there was a limited response which gave us all hope but, by this evening, even that hope had vanished and we had to accept the N82 has gone to its final resting place.


I had not really come across cheap Chinese mobiles until I came to Egypt. When I arrived in Egypt I had a Motorola that I had been using for around 4 years. Not surprisingly, some features started to fail and I decided on a new handset. By now I had 2 sim cards. On arrival I had purchased a Mobinil card because they were offering the best deals and cheapest calls - especially abroad so they were the cheapest option for calling friends back in the UK. Plus they were allowing non-residents to buy full pay-as-you-go packages. Everyone else was only allowing non-residents to buy a tourist package which forced you to buy a new package every 3 or 6 months. I dtched my UK Vodafone card and inserted the new Mobinil sim.

The Motorola was originally issued by Orange as a contract phone but when I took a job as a Holiday Rep I had to reconsider. I would be away for 6 months at a time. I didn't want to keep paying a monthly fee for something I didn't use and everyone except Vodafone needed me to make a chargeable call every 3 months to maintain validity. With Vodafone this was extended to 6 months. I therefore went to the local Sunday market where a very nice man unlocked my handset from Orange for not very much money. Then I bought myself a Vodafone sim.

My company also gave me a phone on a Vodafone contract because, when I arrived in Hurghada, I was the only Rep so my phone was also the resort emergency phone for guests.

I therefore gave my friends and family in the UK, plus a couple of special friends I made in Hurghada the Mobinil number and everyone else had the Vodafone contact. This meant always having 2 phones with me but I didn't mind.

About 6 months after I arrived the merger between First Choice and Thomson (to become TUI Travel plc) meant that things changed drastically for the Reps. The company phone was taken away and I was told to buy, at my own expense, a new sim card for my business line. The upside was that during my off duty hours I would no longer receive calls as they would be diverted to a call centre. The need to divert after hours meant I couldn't use my existing Mobinil number because I still wanted to speak to friends who called. So I bought a new handset (a very cheap one) and a new Mobinil sim for work. I started to give out the new Mobinil number but, about a week later, we all realised that call divert is not an option with Mobinil pay-as-you-go. My boss then ordered me to purchase another new sim on Vodafone which does allow this feature.

Eventually I left the company because I wanted to stay in Hurghada and they wouldn't guarantee any extension to my contract here. I handed in the Mobinil sim card which they had paid for on expenses and kept the Vodafone card. They hadn't reimbursed me for this as they said they wouldn't reimburse me for 2 sims. Also, I had given a lot of friends here in Hurghada the Vodafone number and hated the thought of the time and cost of sending them all an SMS with yet another new number.

Somewhere around this time my Motorola died (although I did not write it an obituary).

I now had 2 sim cards and a handset that only took 1. I set out to buy a new handset. That's when I discovered these too-good-to-be-true Chinese phones. I was quickly persuaded to part with a small amount of money for suck a swanky looking and feature rich item that took 2 sims. This phone didn't pretend to be anything at all except a Chinese phone and had no guarantee. Needless to say, after 6 months I started having problems.

Now Egypt is a resourceful place and you can get things mended that you wouldn't think of getting mended anywhere else. I had my phone mended and it went on for another 6 or 7 weeks before it needed mending again. I had it repaired a second time and about 8 or 9 weeks later it started switching itself off whenever it felt like it and needed another visit to the phone doctor. At this point I started to think that if this went on it would be cheaper to buy another phone.

I was again lured by a not so feature rich and cheaper Chinese phone which came with the promise of a 12 month warranty - the good old N82!! For the duration of the warranty period I have to say it gave excellent service and always behaved impeccably. Sadly, within a few days of the end of the warranty it started to throw little tantrums from time to time and, 1 month after the warranty expired so did the phone.

I have now excuse. I HAD heard the saying that if something seems too good to be true then it is too good to be true.

I have now bought a replacement. This also did not cost too much and does take 2 sims but does not have so many features. After all, I realised once the novelty had worn off with the previous 2 phones I didn't use the other features anyway. After all, how often do I want to watch Egyptian TV (choice of 2 channels only) on a miniature screen, or sit for hours playing a pointless matching game when the battery life is so short the battery dies before you finish the game? The other difference with the new handset is that I have chosen a well-known brand that is NOT CHINESE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I have, in fact, now purchased a Samsung. I have owned Samsung handsets in the past and found them to be very good. Also, the specific handset I have chosen has received good reviews and is supposed to be quite sturdy.

We'll just have to see. It's made in Korea supposedly. However, I am a little concerned to see that all the printed material in the box says it was printed in China????????????????? (have I entered some sort of horror movie or groundhog day perhaps?)

Watch this space.

Thursday, 8 April 2010

Reminiscences of a Byegone Age

I sit in my apartment here in Hurghada in Egypt and suddenly I hear the noise of a spanner being banged against the side of a gas cylinder and a voice shouting. I look down from my balcony and there's the small pick up loaded with gas cylinders for domestic cookers. A man sits on the cylinders rattling his spanner and shouting to let us all know he's arrived so we can signal him if we need to exchange an empty cylinder for a full one. He'll even bring the new cylinder up 4 flights of stairs for us for a small consideration.

An hour later there's a more musical call and I look out to see another pick up. This one has half the back covered like a chest and a man standing in the back. Someone stops him and buys olives, pickles and other items from him.

Another visitor is the man with the pick up laden with houseplants. Then there's the man with all the carpets (as in large rugs), and the guy who sells the wrapped candy floss and balloons for the children.

Seeing these people coming regularly to my area started me thinking about years ago back in England when I was a child.

I wonder how many of us remember the weekly visit of the Corona man or, for that matter, remember what Corona was and the flavours it came it. I know our week was regulated by the mobile shops that visited the street where I lived in Bristol. One day we had the mobile fish monger, another the butcher, then there was the fruit and veg man, the mobile library, the paraffin man and, of course, Mr Corona. In addition, during the summer, there was the regular visit from the ice cream van and the milkman called every day early to leave us our milk and again around lunch time on Saturday for his money.

This was a time before supermarkets. About a 10 to 15 minute walk from where I lived was a row of shops (still there although the stops have changed). One of these was a grocer's shop (as in grocery and no green grocery – green grocery was across the road) and I became a school friend of the manager's daughter. They had a big flat roof over the shop storage area that we used to play on. Shops were small and offered personal service. There was none of this grab a bag and help yourself business back then. You asked for what you wanted and had a conversation with the shopkeeper who would become a friend.

I remember in those days going on holidays. We didn't have a car so my uncle would lend my dad his car for a couple of weeks so we could go to exotic locations like Margate or Bournemouth in B&Bs. We didn't need to lock our house while we were away because the neighbours on either side would be popping in often while we were gone to make sure everything was OK. When we got back they would have prepared a meal for us. Naturally we would do the same for them when they went on holiday.

This was a time when you knew all your neighbours. IF you had a car, and not many people did, it didn't matter if you forgot to lock it or you left the keys in – it would still be there when you next needed it just as you had left it. Now, of course, in an era where most people do have a car you'd find either a burnt out shell jacked up on bricks or no car at all if you left it with the keys in for more than 30 seconds.

There was a lot about life that was downright inconvenient compared to today. For example, it is just SO much easier and quicker to go to the local hypermarket now and get absolutely everything from knickers to motor oil along with the food and drink. But somehow it was more comforting back then. I wouldn't dare leave my house unlocked even for a few seconds now, I don't know any of my local shopkeepers, don't get to have a conversation with anyone in the hypermarket and most people don't know their neighbours at all (I'm lucky enough to have wonderful neighbours who have become firm friends. Perhaps it helps that in the UK I live at the end of a cul de sac).

We seem to have traded comfort and community for speed and convenience in our lives. Possibly because most people work now whereas before women tended to stay at home with the children and had time to visit several shops just to get a day's groceries. After all, not everyone had a fridge back then although most houses had a larder (a small cupboard lined with marble [if you were rich] or stone with marble shelves and a small window to keep food cool). This was a time when there were only 2 houses with television in the street where we lived. I was 10 before we had a television in our house and when I tell people this they act amazed and question me endlessly about what on earth we found to do with no TV. They seem to find it strange that families actually sat and talked to each other, played board games or cards together, and read books.

Egypt right now is still in the comfort and community mode but you can already see things moving along in the same direction. In Hurghada we now have a very large (by local standards) 'hypermarket' and shopping is certainly becoming a more European experience. Even in the 2 1/2 years I've been here it has changed. About 2 years ago a Metro opened in Hurghada (there are 3 branches of Metro now) bringing the European shopping concept, on a small scale, to Hurghada for the first time. Now at least 2 of the larger Egyptian supermarkets are following this model and Spinney recently opened their 'hypermarket' on the edge of the town.

At the moment we still have a very friendly and open community where everyone knows everyone else and people look after each other. I do hope it stays that way and the society here doesn't move the same way it has in Europe where people only look out for themselves.

So for now I enjoy the noise from the mobile sellers and the colour they bring to our daily lives. I reminisce remembering a quieter and more trusting age.

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Do you worry about the company you work for? I do!!

Have you ever had doubts about your job?

Lately I've been having serious misgivings about mine.

It started with a feeling of simply not feeling comfortable. I work for a very difficult man for whom nothing is ever good enough. One day he will notice something you've done and get angry, asking why you've done that and telling you what a big mistake it was. OK, you get the idea and you make sure you don't do the same thing again. Then, a week or two later in different circumstances he's asking you why you didn't do this exact same thing and telling you what a big mistake it was NOT to do it! There is simply no pleasing him and he never ever says thank you for anything.

So you get the idea you should ask him before you do anything. You call and are spoken to like a naughty child. He goes on to say you don't need to call him to ask him these silly things and in future if you feel something should be done you should just do it. You follow these instructions and the next thing you know is you are again being spoken to like a naughty child and are chastised for not phoning and asking before making such a big mistake. Everything you do is wrong and no matter how big or small an error you have made it is ALWAYS a BIG MISTAKE. Also, whenever anything goes wrong it is never his fault because he is, of course, perfect – it is, by definition, your fault for making another BIG MISTAKE.

This is a man who wants you to be flexible in your approach to work but, when push comes to shove, is keeping a careful track of every extra minute of time that you owe him while failing to recognise the times you come early or stay late. This is simply expected and doesn't count.

Personally, I think he's a control freak and it's all about control. If you get your staff frightened enough they then have to ask you about everything so you control completely what they do.

He even tries to control precisely when you have free time. In January he went to Germany to BOOT 2010. I wanted some time off and asked if I could have 2 days together the first 2 days he was away. He said, "no", in case he wanted something in that time. So, I didn't take any time except a day I was owed. Then when he returned he was angry because I'd gone to work every day and had hardly anything to do so had wasted his (and my) time. He wanted to know why I hadn't taken the time off as my vacation???

Not long after this, he went to Cairo for a few days and told us all we should not come to work while he was away but would be paid. Now it turns out that this was our vacation. Notice we had to take our vacation at his convenience, not when we were ready or when we wanted and we were not given any notice. I was told as I was leaving the office after a day's work that I shouldn't come in for the next 5 days because he would be away. Well, really.

But this I can cope with. I even cope with his nosy intrusions into my private life. If he hears me saying anything about meeting friends he asks who they are, what they do, where they live, how long I've known them, why I'm friends with them, what sort of friendship it is and a thousand other questions. He's terrified it might be someone he knows and I might approach them for alternative work. He got particularly angry one time when I made a VERY BIG MISTAKE. I wanted an update on an article for a magazine and I actually emailed someone outside the company. He has all computers set up so all outside communications are automatically copied to him. He went absolutely ballistic when he saw this email because this organisation produces a magazine and he thought I would build a relationship with them and then leave him to go and work for them so I think he has a lot of personal security issues.

However, lately I have been having doubts about ethics in the business. It is a small business. This man owns 4 windsurf centres. He also does website design, printing and publishing. Altogether there are about 14 staff throughout the 4 windsurf centres, 2 graphic designers and me in the office.

I was originally employed to work on a diving magazine because it should be published every couple of months in English and he needed someone English to proof read and edit articles. He also employed me to answer emails in English. I'm beginning to think I shouldn't have bothered although I really needed a job (any job) at the time (that's another story).

Firstly, the magazine was going to be in German – this was to be a special edition for BOOT 2010 with subsequent editions in English. So, I edited and passed everything to a German lady for translation. However, he never liked my edits. I answered his emails and he argued endlessly with me about my own language. So, I was already feeling fed up. He speaks excellent German and good English but insists on using German grammar and punctuation when writing in English. He simply won't believe me when I tell him that's now how we write.

After his visit to BOOT in Germany we should have started work on the English edition of the magazine. So far, this has gone nowhere and we should have published 2 weeks ago.

Instead, he has me working now for the windsurfing side of the business. At first this was OK. I had to cold call on the larger local travel companies looking after guests on holiday here and trying to persuade them to add our watersports to their excursions lists. This was easier than it sounds. There are more and more repeat guests but everyone has the same excursions on offer year in, year out. They are desperate for something new and saw this as a real opportunity. However, they started asking about things like proof of public liability insurance. At first my boss tried to persuade me that all our guests are covered by the hotel insurance because all our centres are on hotel premises. Having worked as a tour leader/holiday rep and needing to be involved in setting up or checking excursions I knew that was not the case. So did the people I spoke to in these travel companies. In the end he told me to stop calling and found something else for me to do. I started to be concerned that maybe we don't have proper liability insurance.

Now he finds me one job one day and a different job the next so I never really know what I'm doing or where I stand. The latest is going round the windsurf centres checking up on what the other staff are doing and checking if they are looking after the equipment properly. This is when something else has come to light that worries me. When a guest completes a windsurf course and earns a certification (for which they have to pay) the centre staff have to get the certification from my boss with my boss's signature and stamp on. This seems odd. I am a qualified diving instructor and I have my own unique instructor identification number. When someone learns to dive with me I (yes, me – I) get the BLANK certification paperwork from the dive centre (as long as the guest has paid for it, that is) and I complete it and sign it with my own unique number. When I have asked around, it seems that our staff are not actually qualified instructors and the only qualified instructor who can actually sign these papers is my boss. So now I am having serious doubts about how the business is managed.

Then there's the little issue of pay. I started working for him in December. I worked 8 days in December. Just before he went to Germany towards the end of January he asked me if I needed to be paid then or could wait a week until he returned. This was on the date in January corresponding to the date I started in December so I thought this would be my regular pay day. When he returned from Germany I did get a full month's pay. However, it turns out pay day should be the 3rd of the month after the month worked so I was not being paid for December at all but for January. Sadly, since that first month, pay has been sporadic and drip-fed throughout the month. Now, at the end of the first week in April, I am still owed for the 8 days I worked in December, a small amount of money for work in February and the whole month of March.

Staff at the centres have the same issues with pay but their response is when guests pay to take the money owed for salary before handing it over. Sadly I don't have that option.

Thinking that money was perhaps an issue I recently asked if I could have 2 days a week off instead of just 1 and explained to him that a single day is not restful as I have to shop, clean, wash, iron etc etc etc and a 2nd day would be just for having a lie in, meeting friends, having a coffee somewhere and relaxing. I also said I would not expect as much pay for working only 5 days a week. His first reaction was to be very angry and accuse me of having a 2nd part-time job somewhere. He then said he'd think about it and, predictably, 10 minutes later told me it was an unacceptable proposition.

So, he is away at the moment and I really have nothing useful to do. He has me going round the centres trying to find something to do and I'm sure it's just to make sure I don't have time to myself. He rings whichever centre I'm in at least 3 times during the day to make sure I'm there and asks them what I'm doing. It has reached the point where I really don't want to get up for work in the morning.

Thankfully, when I started in December I agreed to give it 3 or 4 months to see how it goes and that time is now coming to an end. I am using my free time at the moment to search for an alternative employment. I am hopeful that I will shortly be able to give him my notice and do something where at least I am treated with respect and have something useful to do.

I'm sure no-one who reads this will be at all surprised that I will be leaving this man's organisation as soon as I possibly can.

Well, I feel much better for getting that off my chest. On with the job search now. Tomorrow is another day and the sun always rises. Must try to have a positive attitude. After all, there's a good side to every single day while we're alive – the trick is to appreciate it.

Thursday, 18 March 2010

A New Perspective

Gosh! It's been a long time since I was last here but recently felt like putting this on paper.

This topic came to mind when I was speaking with my boss the other day. He has me doing a lot of errands at the moment so I do a lot of walking and sometimes I catch the bus. I think I said something about having a car and he asked me if I could drive. He was genuinely surprised when I told him, “yes, I can drive". I have been driving for 39 years now, and I have driven here in Egypt when I first came as a Tour Leader because the company provided a car. It's possible you may have seen my earlier blog about the driving here which is based on my personal experiences.

This set me thinking about all the things I have observed, heard and learnt since I arrived in October 2007 that are very different to the way things are in Europe.

First of all, if you stray from the main tourist centres (and sometimes even within these centres) you won’t see many women around, especially in a working context. This does not mean that none of them work. It’s just that those who do work tend to be in a back office or a work situation where they are not on public display. For some this is a free choice but for others it is imposed upon them. Some women want to work but are not allowed to. In contrast, others don't want to work but are told they have to!

The majority religion here with over 85% of the population is Islam and within Islam the man is very much the head of the household and responsible for ensuring that the whole household follow the rules of Islam as laid down in the Qur’an and extracted from the Hadiths (these were written by the followers of the Prophet Mohamed [pbuh] and are either quotations of his sayings or notes of those things and behaviours he either approved or disapproved of). To quote the entry from Wikipedia: “Hadith are narrations originating from the words and deeds of the Islamic prophet Muhammad. Hadith are regarded by traditional schools of jurisprudence as important tools for understanding the Qur'an and in matters of jurisprudence. Hadith were evaluated and gathered into large collections mostly during the reign of Umar bin Abdul Aziz during the 8th and 9th centuries. These works are referred to in matters of Islamic law and history to this day. The two main denominations of Islam, Shi`ism and Sunnism, have different sets of Hadith collections.” Most Moslems in Egypt today are Sunni.

Here, in Egypt, women are legally allowed to work if they want to. However, there is often a great deal of pressure from husbands, fathers and other family members on a woman not to work. The husband’s word is still law in the home here, so if he says, “no” then it’s no! In fact, Egypt is the most liberal of all the Arab states and in some other states it is actually against the law for women to work in paid employment.

Certainly, Cairo is a very liberal international city and much of what I write does not apply there. In Cairo you will see a lot of women driving and working in customer-facing roles – something unheard of in other parts of Egypt. Cairo is Egypt’s showcase to the rest of the world that here, too, life can be as modern as anywhere else. You will see plenty of women walking the streets in western dress and behaving just like they might in London, Paris, Berlin etc. It’s when you leave metropolis and start to experience embedded local cultures that you notice the changes.

So we start to get a picture of women in general here. Most areas of their lives are governed by the men in the family and by tradition which plays an exceptionally strong role. In a really traditional household, women do not work outside the home. They have a job which is to look after the home, have children and bring them up. If they do work it has to be out of public view and in a situation where they do not have male colleagues. Women do not have male friends generally and friendships between the sexes, once puberty sets in, is strongly discouraged. In fact, from this age, the lives of the girls in the family change dramatically.

They go from being carefree children to becoming demure adults. This is the time when they will start to wear a galabaya (the long shapeless garment that covers them from neck to wrist and ankle) and headscarf. Again, in Egypt, by law the wearing of these items is a personal choice but peer and family pressure is usually brought on to ensure that a girl complies. Indeed, in the most traditional families, the women wear a headscarf that is also a sort of cape reaching down to the waist, so that the neck is fully covered, and then a face covering, leaving just the eyes visible, and gloves. The gloves are so that they do not actually touch a man even by accident while they are out. This may seem draconian to us from the west but many women here embrace this form of dress because they see it as declaring to the world how decent and respectable they are. If they are of marriageable age this declaration of decency and respectability is seen as an important issue by any potential suitors making them a more attractive proposition as a wife.

It is also necessary to realise just how important it is for a woman to marry here. A woman needs to be married so that there is someone to care for her during her lifetime. The extended family is very important – being married she will have children who will also get married and have children and they will all feel an obligation to look after their parents and grandparents as they age or if they become ill (Egypt is not a welfare state).

In Egypt there are supposedly no arranged marriages and a woman is free to choose her own husband. In practice that may not always be the case. Frequently, when a man reaches a certain age his parents will start to look for a bride for him. When they find someone, they will approach the girl’s parents about the subject of marriage. If both sets of parents agree then the young people are asked if they will also agree to the marriage. In most cases they will agree. They may not ‘love’ each other in the way we understand in the west but they trust their parents to have found them someone who has all the right qualities to fulfil the role they will need to undertake. In order to marry a man must be able to support his wife and have somewhere for them both to live. In a poor economy this often means you will see men in their late 30s and even into their 40s getting married for the first time to a young girl in her late teens. Whereas he needs to be financially secure and able to care for a family before he can marry, girls are encouraged to marry as soon as possible (again this does not apply in Cairo). It is considered important by both parties that they are both virgins when they marry. Much of the behaviour expected of women actually seems to be designed to minimise any sexual allure leaving no temptation for a man to stray.

So, what are the roles they have to play during this marriage?

Well, the woman has to be a faithful wife, available for her husband when he wishes, to bear and raise his children and to keep house. The man, on the other hand, has to ensure that there is somewhere to live and money for food, clothes, education, health care, and anything else they need. In fact, one area where Islam seems biased in favour of women (which is rare) is that if a woman has personal wealth or income from a job (if she is allowed to work) it is hers to keep. She is not required to share with her husband when she marries. The husband is required to pay his wife a dowry upon marriage and in the event of divorce he has to let her keep it. Thus she ends up with all her own money and whatever dowry she received.

Another visible indicator of the cultural differences can be seen in the holiday resorts. It is not just foreign tourists who visit places like Sharm El Sheikh, Hurghada, Makadi, Safaga etc. Egyptian people (the better off who can afford it) also like to holiday in these places. You will notice that, just like everyone else, they like to laze around the pool or on the beach, even getting into the water to cool off from time to time. Look at the women, though, and you will never see them in a swimsuit. They relax fully clothed. When they get into the water for a swim it's with all their clothes on. It's a bit like the UK in Victorian times or earlier when women would either swim fully dressed or change into a bathing costume that was virtually a dress. Some hotels make it difficult for them to use the pools as they ban the wearing of clothes (even so much as a T-shirt) in the water. This affects some tourists who like to wear a T-shirt while they swim as protection against the ferocious summer sun but the hotels will enforce the ruling. They will tell you outright it's to stop people getting into the water fully clothed for health reasons and if they allow a T-shirt it's only a short step to having to allow everything. Fortunately, here, on days when these women would want to swim (they have to use the sea) it's hot enough that everything will quickly dry.

In the home here, women are for the most part valued by their men folk and tend to be consulted on most issues with their opinions carrying weight. However, in public they keep quiet so that the men are demonstrably the ruling force within the household. In fact, they may not be taken out very often. It is more common to see men out alone leaving the women at home and only bringing them out on special occasions. However, the extended family is much stronger here than in Europe so you will often find the women getting together to socialise in each others' homes.

There are all sorts of other ways in which women are expected to demonstrate respectable behaviour. For example, they would not even consider extending a hand for a handshake with a man they don't know well and they would not normally speak directly to a man they don't know. This need for modesty even extends to some aspects of housework. For example, it is considered unseemly for a woman to hang her underwear out to dry where a man may see it in passing.

What is noticeable here is that there is a vast contrast between acceptable behaviour from a man and acceptable behaviour from a woman (some may have seen my earlier blog about what some people will do in public!). I have often queried this contrast and recently a friend of mine who has been living here for around 13 years put it very succinctly for me. She said that she has come to the conclusion the women are responsible for the chastity of the men because men have admitted they are weak and unable to keep their trousers fastened if faced with the slightest temptation. You may or may not agree but I thought she put it very well.

There are issues that have arisen as a result of tourism in Egypt. Tourism is very big business and brings in billions of foreign dollars a year. When considering tourism they talk in terms of tens of millions of visitors each year. Many of these visitors come to experience the Red Sea and/or desert so will go to the main tourist resorts such as Sharm El Sheikh or Hurghada. Therefore, behaviours in these resorts are not what you would expect in "real Egypt".

The tourist industry is labour intensive and demands thousands of workers to look after the millions of tourists who will arrive. Therefore, many of the Egyptians you meet in these resorts will not be local. They will have come from towns and villages very far away in order to work. Many of them will work for relatively low wages in hotels but have their accommodation, food and uniform provided for them. They send most of the money back to family in their home villages or towns. They find life in the resorts very expensive and tend not to go out socially very much because it costs too much. For example, a local bus ride that costs 25 piastres (about 3p UK money) would only cost 5 piastres for the same distance in their home towns. So while we may think life here is very cheap that view is not shared by the Egyptians who work here and look after us.

Now consider that these men are a long way from home and they are here alone. Their families remain in their home towns. They spend a long time away. Typically they will work 6 or 7 days a week for 5 or 6 weeks before having just 5 or 6 days vacation to go back home. They get to meet tourists and expats (like myself) and are quite amused by what they see because it is so different to what they are use to.

For example, many of them find it very difficult when they see women in very small bikinis in the hotels. This may be normal in Europe but the more conservative Egyptians will see this as absolutely outrageous behaviour from a woman. You can hardly imagine what they think if a woman is actually topless! Another thing they find extremely strange is when they find expat women living alone (there are quite a few in Hurghada). For one thing, they don't understand how we can cope because they don't really accept the ability of women to live independently. For another, they don't understand why anyone would want to live alone. Remember, this goes completely against the grain of the local culture. Therefore, if you are a single woman in Egypt and a man starts telling you how you need a man in your life, how it's not good to be alone and how you need a husband he may just be selling you a chat-up line but it's also true to say he genuinely believes this because this is, within his culture, how women are supposed to be.

In a tourist resort you will often find an Egyptian man dating or "married to" a foreign woman. These "marriages" are often just a paper affair barely enough to comply with a law that prohibits unmarried couples from co-habiting (if you're both foreign they don't care, it's only if one is Egyptian it's an issue). In the towns and villages that most of these men come from it's unthinkable to marry someone from another land. Traditionally they marry a cousin either from their own or a nearby village. However, in "touristland" they can get away with it and it becomes common. Many of these men, though, leave the "wife" behind when they visit family at 'home' and if you investigate you may well find another wife there too.

I did ask some local men why foreign women are so popular because I wanted to know if it was only a more liberal attitude towards sex and co-habitation that attracted them. In general, the response was that although these are positive factors for them more importantly is the behaviour of foreign women towards the men in their lives. They like the fact that foreign women will hold them like they mean it and want to be close to them explaining that most Egyptian women will hold their husbands like it's a duty they feel bound to perform.

So, if you visit a tourist area (this would include Cairo and Luxor) and get to thinking it's not so different to home, then think again. Once you wander off the beaten track it's another world with another set of rules where you will need a completely new perspective.

Monday, 15 February 2010

Doggy Doo on my shoe and other litter!!

I was walking from home to work the other day and almost stepped in some doggy doo. I was very lucky not to end up with doggy doo on my shoes. At first I thought nothing of it but then I came across some more, then some more, and then yet more!!

That set me thinking about the state of the streets here in Hurghada.

The area I was walking in is known as the Touristic Centre. Basically, it's a small development of mainly villas (please don't think grand or anything like you find in Spain and Portugal called a Villa). These are for the most part quite ordinary 3 bedroom terraced dwellings with very small front gardens and a slightly larger garden at the back. They are on 2 levels just like an English house. Many of them are owned by foreigners, quite a few by Egyptians and several are used as offices by businesses. It is to an office that I was walking at the time. It's a quiet area just off the main promenade of the "New Hurghada" or "Village Road". This is the most modern part of Hurghada and is quite some distance from the original fishing village of Dahar (where tourism here all began about 25 years ago) and the main tourist shopping centre of Sekala.

Just after I narrowly missed stepping in this stuff I saw a man walking his dog along the road. That set me thinking about WHO had left the doggy doo on the public pavement.

It is quite unusual here for Egyptians to have pets in the house. Some may have cats but not many have dogs. There is no welfare state here and most feel the money spent on pets is better spent on the family. That said, there are, as always, exceptions. However, I started to notice the dog walkers in this area over a number of days. I only saw 1 Egyptian with a dog. All the others (around 12) were ex-pats from somewhere else.

This begs the question of why the doggie doo was on the pavement even more. I know in Europe there are laws about this kind of thing. In England not only is it against the law to not clean up after your pet (it is accepted you cannot always stop the dog from producing the doggie doo in the first place) but it is also socially unacceptable meaning that the majority of people carry scoops and plastic bags with them when walking the dog. In parks and recreational areas there are often special bins for this crap (forgive the word used but I think it is appropriate here). I just wonder why someone would come from a country where they would be very careful to clean up after their pet and think they don't have to bother here – just because they're in Egypt. We are here as guests and should behave as such. Egypt is not our dumping ground or an excuse not to conduct ourselves properly. I had thought to be charitable and blame it on the street dogs but there aren't many of them in this area.

However, looking around I decided I wasn't really surprised. You should see the state of the streets here.

Littering abounds in Hurghada and the streets are full of it. It is commonplace to see an Egyptian come out of a shop with a packet of cigarettes, open them as he walks along throwing the packaging down in the street as he goes. Similarly, if they have a drinks can as soon as the drink is finished the can is discarded wherever they happen to be. There is no culture of taking things home to dispose of in the domestic rubbish nor any campaign to mirror the "it just takes a minute to bag it and bin it" promotion in the UK.

Part of the problem, I believe, is the lack of litter bins in the streets. The one thing the new promenade area has done well is place lots of litter bins around. Consequently, there is far less litter here than elsewhere in Hurghada.

In Dahar and Sekala, on the other hand, it is impossible to go anywhere without walking through someone else's rubbish. If you stray off the main tarmac street down the side-streets it can be like walking through your local rubbish dump. You have to appreciate here though that Hurghada is still very much a 'work in progress'. Building work started about 25 years ago when it was first discovered and is still going on. Don't be fooled into thinking this means that Hurghada is a hive of building activity. On the contrary, work continues but VERY slowly. A very large number of buildings were started and have been in a partially built state for more than 15 years now. The land, which was owned by the Government, was sold off exceptionally cheaply. The new owners put in some footings (that is if they could be bothered to do anything at all or if their contract called for it – there is still a lot of land lying fallow) and simply left them. Meanwhile land prices have risen astronomically so there are quite a few theoretically rich Egyptians around once they cash in on the land. This situation may now improve because the local Governorate recently passed an order that any land that was not substantially developed within a certain time from now will revert back to the Government at the original price. That has certainly spurred some of the owners into action.

However, the upshot of all this 'work in progress' is that streets are not finished because no-one wants to spend money laying expensive tarmac only for it to be dug up a couple of years later for new water mains, electricity cables, sewage pipes etc. to be laid. Therefore, they are waiting until buildings are completed and then finishing the roads.

This makes perfect sense but, in the meantime, we have the rubbish problem. Great piles of it are to be found in the dirt streets. For many, their local rubbish collection point is a street corner where everything is left in plastic bags which are then torn apart by the street dogs and cats looking for a meal – not to mention the crows.

To be fair, the rubbish collection vehicle (a much smaller version of those you see throughout Europe) does the rounds most days. Before they arrive a local Street Cleaner from Care Services (this is the branch of Local Government that looks after the streets) does his best to put everything into one huge rugged blue bag. The vehicle crew then try to heave this new oversize sac up into the hold. If extra rubbish has accumulated they toss this up as well. They normally have someone riding in the hold who helps by catching what is thrown up. Sadly, he often misses and then more rubbish is scattered back all over the street. They do not set about collecting this. It takes too long. They simply leave it and move along to the next corner. So, for a full week this rubbish blows around in the wind.

In some households the people are too lazy to take the rubbish even to the corner for collection and tend to leave it outside an adjacent building. I noticed they never leave it outside their own building – always outside someone else's. This rubbish is therefore overlooked when the collection vehicle comes and builds up, often smelling rather bad, until someone sets fire to it, a local answer to rubbish disposal. At least the fire gets rid of the smell and reduces the volume of the rubbish.

Sadly, a very large number of plastic bags do get blown into the sea and create hazards for the underwater flora and fauna. On the annual 'Clean Up Day' divers will retrieve hundreds of tons of plastic bags, discarded plastic and glass jars and bottles, drinks cans and some more amusing items. On one clean up a bed was found complete with a blanket.

Many groups, including prominent environmental groups, have been complaining about this for ages and campaigning for improvements. Their pleas seemed to fall very much on deaf ears until recently. There have been some recent developments that are definitely a move in the right direction.

Firstly, the Governorate has decreed that shopping should be presented in paper bags and that plastic bags are to be a thing of the past. This is very good news and is being implemented by the major supermarkets in the area. In Hurghada we have Metro, Spinney, Abo Ashara and Hamed Sons as the main players and they are all now plastic bag free zones. It can be a little more difficult getting the shopping home if you don't have a car because the paper bags are not as strong as the plastic ones and can't carry as much but it's worth it. Two of these supermarkets are using recyclable paper – not sure about the other two though. Also, there has been some opposition because the free paper bags do not have handles. They are similar to the paper grocery bags you see in American movies. If you want a stronger bag with handles you have to pay for it. It costs a whole 80 piastres – at the moment that's about 10p English money (0.10GBP). But you can, of course, use the same bag again next time as long as you remember to take it with you.

The second thing is that a local organisation called HEPCA (Hurghada Environmental Protection and Conservation Agency) has been given a contract to keep the streets of Sekala clean. This organisation already has a large waste collection and recycling plant in Hurghada and another in Marsa Alam. They have been busy helping hotels to sort and recycle their waste and even collect it from them. They have a lot of projects centred around protecting and improving the environment – both terrestrial and maritime. I read about this new contract around a week ago and was amazed, when I visited Sekala just yesterday, at what a difference they've made already. The main street (a properly made street) was certainly much cleaner. The area outside Macdonald's is usually pretty littered but was clear. I ventured up a side street expecting to wade through the rubbish only to find this street was also clear and much more pleasant. I wandered down a few more side-streets and it was the same story. It just proves that even with no proper surface the streets can be clean and pleasant places to be rather than an eyesore to be ashamed of. I just hope they will now extend this contract to take in the rest of Hurghada. It's such a pity when the first thing our visitors from abroad see as they leave the airport is a landscape full of rubbish. How much nicer it would be to see the pristine desert as it should be.

So, how does this help with the doggy doo? Well, I'm sure this is NOT top of the agenda. However, I'm hoping that as things move from better to excellent we may even start to see the doggy doo bins appearing here and then woe betide any who do not clean up after their pets. We can all do without the doo on our shoes.

Valentine's Day - what did you do?

So, what did you make of yesterday? It was, of course, St. Valentine's Day. In modern times this is a day for lovers to exchange special gifts but what does it REALLY mean today?

There is confusion about the origins of this day. In history there are several saints called Valentine (or Valentinus) who were martyred in Rome. In ancient times this was a common name from the Latin 'valens' meaning 'strong'.

However, there is one saint in particular who is the most likely candidate to have given his name to this day. This Valentinus was martyred for marrying Christian couples (thus supporting and allowing the spread of this new religion) and even, on occasion, for presiding over the marriage of a Roman soldier with a Christian woman. It is said his death was very drawn out – supposedly he was first beaten with clubs, then stoned, and then, as he still hadn't died, beheaded. The last one did the trick and he was dead afterwards. Dates are fuzzy but this apparently happened somewhere between 269AD and 273AD – either that or it took him 4 years to die.

I wonder what he would make of this festival today.

Of course, big business is overjoyed every time we have a 'special day'. The greetings card industry makes millions and florists look forward to them eagerly. Another winner is the chocolate industry. A traditional offering between couples seems to be chocolates and flowers for almost any special occasion. I just wonder how many billions are spent every year on these items. Of course, there are so many good causes in the world today it's easy to say the money could be better spent. However, can you imagine the workaholic father coming home, late as usual in spite of all the promises as he left in the morning, to the family he hardly sees (because he's always at work) and instead of presenting the anticipated offering to prove he remembered the special day and DOES want to say he loves his wife, telling her he would have liked so much to bring chocolates and roses but decided it was better to give the money he would have spent on these to the poor/homeless/children with cancer/etc etc etc. She would certainly NOT be impressed, I'm sure. So, he goes for the safe option and buys the necessary gifts on the way home - or, if he is lucky enough to have a secretary, gets her to buy them for him. At least that's one supper that is served with tenderness and a glass of wine rather than burnt or in the bin before he gets there. There is even the possibility of sharing a romantic dinner for 2 in an expensive (but overcrowded tonight) restaurant during which there are lame attempts to rekindle conversations not normally held because the couple hardly see each other.

Women, it seems, are not automatically expected to deliver a gift to the loved one. It's enough to cook a lovely meal for when he comes home or to be dressed up and looking one's finest ready on time (for a change instead of half an hour late as usual) to go for the romantic meal in the special restaurant he has chosen for this exquisite wining and dining experience.

In short, everything is done to try and ensure a state of peace and harmony to share this special day and try to rekindle the feelings that couples had for each other when they first met and which seem to have rusted with age. This day provides an opportunity to get them out and polish them – with any luck they will stay bright and shiny for a long time to come.

Of course, there are couples out there for whom this is a genuinely loving and moving experience whose feelings for each other have not yet become staid with age and I do not want to deter them. You love each other and you want to show it so do. In fact, show the world. Enjoy the meaning of the day.

And, of course, they are both expected to give each other cards. It would seem that the Valentine's Card was the original greeting card. It is all rumoured to have started back in 1415 when, after the Battle of Agincourt, a Frenchman called Charles who was the Duke of Orleans was imprisoned in the Tower of London and wrote romantic poems and rhymed love letters to his wife in France. Others got to know about this and the practice caught on becoming ever more popular. The first commercial hand-made cards were available in the early 1800s. The first manufactured cards arrived on the scene around the end of the 1800s/early 1900s.

Today, Valentine's Day is the second largest card sending day in the year with over 1 billion cards sent. The only day to claim more card sending is Christmas.

Yesterday led me to recalling some of my own Valentine's Day experiences. One that comes to mind happened when I was just 16 years old. I had sent Valentine's cards before that but this year was particularly memorable. I was dating someone. In common with most girls of that age, my feelings were particularly intense and I believed this boy, also just 16, was the love of my life, my knight in shining armour, the only one in the whole world ever. Just like many others of that age I decided I wanted to test him somehow. Therefore, on Valentine's Day I decided to send him two (yes, two) cards. Now back then, cards were always sent anonymously so the trick was to make sure that the card could not be traced back to you. It was common for friends to write the addresses on the envelopes for each other and the post could be relied upon in those days, unlike now, to deliver on time. Now this poor guy was in a "Catch 22". When I asked him if he'd received any cards he couldn't say "no" because he knew I'd have been certain to send him one. He also couldn't say he'd received more than one because he would think I would want to know who else he had been seeing when, in fact, he was innocent (or at least I think he was). But, if he said he'd only received 1 card I would accuse him of lying because I would know I had sent 2. So, he just couldn't win. He did present the necessary gifts (flowers and chocolates) and we did date for another 2 years before going our separate ways so I suppose it wasn't so tough after all.

I think the most futile Valentine's Day in my life has to be the year my son was born. He arrived on 27 February and will be 32 on his birthday this year. At that time I was still married to his father and we were living in Spain. On Valentine's Day my husband gave me a beautiful card, declared his undying love and anticipation of the imminent arrival of our son, bought me flowers and chocolate AND took me out for a romantic meal. The memory is, however, a little soured by the fact he left me 6 weeks later when he ran off to South Africa with the daughter of our best friends. She was only 15 and already 3 months pregnant by him – it seems the 'affair' had been going on around 6 months after she developed a teenage crush on him.

Probably the most poignant Valentine's Day was about 10 years ago. I was with someone I really loved and I know he loved me too just as much. We did all the normal things together on that day. We had been together for about 12 years and had the sort of relationship where we couldn't bear to be apart. For example, on the way to work each day we'd call each other, during breaks we'd call each other, at lunch (I had an hour and he had 30 minutes) I'd drive 20 minutes to spend 20 minutes with him and drive 20 minutes back to work. We were constantly reaffirming our love for each other no matter what day it was. A few days after Valentine's Day we went to a travel agent and booked a skiing holiday together for 4 weeks later. We never went skiing together. Just over a week after Valentine's Day he died very suddenly of a massive heart attack. I am lucky that we had such a good relationship with so many happy times together to remember; that we had not argued and I have no regrets about things I should/should not have said or done before he died.

This year was a very quiet Valentine's Day which I spent alone. I have been seeing someone on and off for a while. He always says the right things but does not back this up with the right behaviour and I've been disenchanted with the relationship for several months now. Yesterday I ended the relationship. He DID remember Valentine's Day but I am no longer interested in a false show of something that he does not feel inside. Believe it or not, I don't feel at all sad about this. I actually feel really good today and have no regrets at all about finishing things on Valentine's Day.

I believe if you love someone you should show it every day in every way. You don't need Valentine's Day to remind you. When my parents were alive my father brought my mother chocolates OR flowers every Friday without fail on his way home from work. Even after he retired he continued to buy her these gifts every week. I was very lucky to be brought up by a couple who loved each other so completely that every day was a Valentine's Day.

It just goes to show you don't need all the hype to show you care. Nonetheless, I hope everyone enjoyed the day.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

The Things People Do in Public!!

OK. I know this is an odd subject for a Blog and some may find it embarrassing. It came to mind while I was walking to work this morning. Don’t ask me what triggered it because I can’t for the life of me figure it out. However, it did come to mind and I felt I had to get it down somewhere. So here goes.

I would like to make it clear at this point that I do not intend in any way to insult anyone by this Blog. I especially do not intend to insult the religion of Islam for which I have a very high regard. I am not a Muslim myself but I have chosen to live in an Islamic country and I have a very high respect for the religion. Therefore, please do not read into this anything that does not appear in black and white here in this Blog.

As I mentioned, this topic came to mind while I was walking to work this morning. It did not come directly – more sidled in somehow. I was thinking about a day a couple of years ago when I lived in a hotel but was finding my way around and needed to visit a different district in Hurghada, a place called Dahar (when I left the holiday company I moved to this district and lived there for a year. I now live in an area called Mubarak 2 near the main tourist centre of Sekala). I had wandered off the beaten track, as we say in English, down a street rarely seen by tourists to take my shoes to have new heels. I was working as a Tour Leader/Holiday Rep and they were my uniform shoes so I had to take them on my day off.

You could tell this street was not intended for tourists. There was no English, German, Russian etc anywhere in sight. Everything was in Arabic. The shops were not like the conventional shops we have in Europe and we are used to. They were all very open to the street. The ‘specialists’ were also working in open fronted ‘rooms’ (never saw any access to a back room and toilet so Heaven alone knows how they coped with basic natural necessities). Their services were advertised in Arabic but you could guess what they did by the equipment they had on view. For example, the man with bolts of cloth, a couple of sewing machines, a clothes press and some new clothes on hangers was obviously the local tailor etc. I’m sure you get the picture. Of course, in this environment, no-one speaks anything but Arabic so being understood can be difficult. At this point I had only been in Egypt about 3 months and my Arabic was about 5 phrases – the normal; yes please, no thank you, good morning/afternoon/evening, how much is it, hello, good-bye! I was obviously going to do well here – NOT.

Anyway, cutting a long (yes, it can be even longer) story short I found the shoe repair man, made him understand what I wanted, managed to understand when my shoes would be ready, and set off back towards the area called Downtown which is the old tourist centre from when Hurghada first became a holiday destination. Walking along this sides treet approaching the roundabout which marked the return to polyglotism I had to pass a coach parked alongside the pavement. I noticed the doors were open and it was when I passed the side door mid-way along the coach that I saw the events that sparked this Blog.

There were three men on board this coach. One was sitting in the back, one was standing in the aisle and one was standing in this doorway (the side door – you know, the one where you have the on-board toilet). It’s a good job I am older and a bit worldly-wise because otherwise I would have been highly embarrassed by what I saw rather than highly amused (as I was).

This man was standing, as I said, in the doorway facing the street. He was holding his galabia (this is the local name for the long garment – the unkind among you may refer to it as a dress – worn by men in Arab countries) high around his waist with his left hand. His underpants were halfway down to his knees. He was using his right hand to knead his penis and masturbate himself!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Oddly, he did not seem at all perturbed that people walking past would see him. I guess this man to have been in his late 50s or even early 60s and certainly old enough to know better than to do this sort of thing in public. And – what were the other men thinking being on the same coach with him and letting him carry on like that???????????

BEFORE YOU ASK – NO, I DID NOT STICK AROUND TO WITNESS THE WHOLE PERFORMANCE but I did find the whole experience exceptionally funny.

Also, it is true to say I have not seen anyone else behaving in this way the whole time I have been in Egypt, so hopefully it was a one-off.

It was a surprise to find this in an Islamic country because masturbation is expressly forbidden within the Islamic faith.

I have read a translation of the Qu’ran since I have been in Egypt in an attempt to better understand the society I have chosen to live in. I did not find any specific reference to the prohibition of masturbation, at least not in so many words. However, there are references to guarding your chastity even from your right hand which scholars interpret as forbidding masturbation. Further evidence from the Qu’ran comes from a verse that urges those who cannot afford to marry to remain chaste until God (Allah) grants them his bounty. Scholars quote further evidence from the Sunnah or Hadiths (sayings of the Prophet Mohamed or records of his sayings, actions and things he approved of). I have not read the translations of these so cannot speak from first-hand knowledge.

That doesn’t really matter though. What matters is that in Islam this practice is forbidden, so what on earth was this man thinking of.

There are many Internet sites set up to inform about Islam and, here in Egypt, there are at least 2 Islamic TV channels broadcast in English – I watch Huda TV sometimes and I understand this channel is now available in the UK. Here you will find a regular forum with advice from a high level scholar of Islam (a Sheikh or Mullah). The question of masturbation arises in these sites – not frequently but often enough to be found easily – and advice is offered.

Certainly, all are advised to abstain from this practice. They are mostly advised to fast instead until the urge passes. Fasting is supposed to focus the mind on God (Allah) and away from worldly desires. I have to admit, I admire those who do fast. I tried fasting during Ramadan and barely lasted a single day so I really take my hat off to them for managing this for a whole month. I had wanted to fast as a show of support for my work colleagues but, having failed miserably, had to resort to simply making sure I did not eat or drink in front of them during this time. I would have felt really guilty enjoying my lunch or a Diet Pepsi while they watched knowing that they would not eat or drink until after dusk no matter how hungry or thirsty they were. Ramadan was during the hot weather last year making it even more difficult. This year will be yet more of a challenge because it will start in mid-August so will be hotter than last year and the days will be longer. It takes a great deal of will-power and, I am sure, help from God (Allah) to succeed. I can certainly understand this advice.

However, it seems there are extenuating circumstances where this practice is allowed.

For example, if a married couple are having physical problems in the bedroom then they are allowed to masturbate each other until they can resolve their difficulties. It is also permitted if it prevents the person involved from actually committing adultery which is an even worse sin.

Perhaps this is what the man I witnessed would claim except there was no-one there for him to commit adultery with.

Personally, I just think he was being a dirty old man. Thank goodness there aren’t too many of them around.

Still, I had a good laugh to myself at his expense and he has provided fodder for this Blog so can’t be all bad.

Let’s now sit back and enjoy the wonderful Egyptian sunshine.

Saturday, 30 January 2010

Recollections - Egypt as a Tour Leader

I’ve talked about Greece so I thought I’d have a go at Egypt now – especially as I decided to stay here.

Egypt is a very different place to Greece. Greece is part of Europe. Egypt is dry, hot, dusty and depending where you go you are either in part of Asia (Sinai) or Africa. Either way, you are now in the “Third World” and in part of the Middle East.

Tourism is handled very differently here. The Government is very aware of the potential tetchy situations that may arise because of other conflicts in the Middle East and is anxious to ensure they do not disrupt the tourist industry. Tourism is the main earner and the Government seems to know which side the bread is buttered and any potential terrorist activity is to be thwarted at all costs. You will often find regulations that cause problems, delays or hassles for Egyptians are miraculously wiped away if they start to pose the same problems for foreign nationals here. Many of us are, of course, immediately recognizable as foreign because we have different skin colour and features. It doesn’t always work – I have a friend who was in Egypt for quite a few months working who was from Dominican Republic. He was always treated as an Egyptian because he looked Egyptian. For example, sometimes while I was working for a Dive Centre in Makadi Bay the staff bus would be stopped and all the Egyptians asked for ID and to explain where they were going. He was always included in this group and had to make sure he always had his passport with him. As someone who is very white by local standards I was never asked any questions – nor to produce any ID.

Most of this is done in the name of “security” and of “protecting the foreign guests”.

This is understandable, I suppose, when you think back historically and find out just what a dent in the tourist industry was caused over the years by various terrorist activities in Sharm el Sheik, Luxor and Cairo. This is something the Government can’t afford, financially or politically, to allow to happen again.

Anyway, I digress. I wanted to talk about my experiences here as a Tour Leader.

When I arrived to start my posting I flew into Luxor. The plan was to spend 1 night on a Nile cruise boat to see what they were like as I would be receiving guests having a twin-centre break from one of these cruises. I would then spend 1 night in one of the company’s hotels in Luxor. In between I would see Luxor as the guests see it by doing the extended tours of the East and West Banks.

I have to say that Luxor is a really wonderful place. It is very lively and colourful. The monuments are a joy for anyone with even a small amount of interest in the history of the Pharaohs and Ancient Egypt. It has been described as the largest open-air museum in the world with 85% of the world’s ancient monuments assembled here. It does not disappoint.

However, the journey from the airport to the cruise boat was an eye-opener. After a long day travelling I opted to sit and look out of the window rather than trying to engage in conversation. This way I had a good look as the passing scenery. The Nile Valley is very lush and green (unlike Hurghada built on the edge of a desert it does actually rain here). The sugar cane, maize, rice and other crops are lovely to behold. However, you also have to be prepared to see the abject poverty in which the people are living. The ‘houses’ are often nothing more than animal shelters with the people living in the open air on the roofs. There are many donkeys on the streets of Luxor pulling the carts along with the various wares from the farms and other items for sale in the city. It makes it a very colourful place.

When I transferred to Hurghada we had to come in a convoy. This was, apparently, part of the tourist protection. Every convoy had armed police interspersed among the coaches and other tourist vehicles, plus 1 at the front leading and one taking up the rear. No-one was allowed to overtake the lead car. Also, if you were on a coach full of English or American guests you had your own armed bodyguard along (not all nationalities got one of these – depended on the political tensions at the time). The drawbacks to the convoys were that tour companies were not free to set their own departure times and you could have 300 or more coaches descending on Luxor or Cairo (same system applied to Cairo) at the same time causing problems for the attractions and overcrowding in some. Also, in the convoy itself, every vehicle was racing and jostling for position to be the first to arrive – in some attractions only the first so many could get into the ‘extras’ like the tomb of Tutankhamen in Valley of the Kings. This meant the driving was much worse than normal and the lead car would often be clocking up speeds of over 120km/h with the coaches following suit. There were always spare coaches at the back in case any broke down – passengers would simply transfer to the new coach and the operator could sort their own coach out later. However, the convoys proved to be very dangerous with extremely poor driving practices (yes, difficult I know, but worse than usual) and there were quite a few accidents, some of which were fatal. As the convoys were originally started in order to prevent tourists being killed it seems ironic that it was the convoys themselves that ended up doing the killing! Anyway, thankfully about 6 months after I arrived the convoys were stopped. So far they have not been re-started and I don’t believe there are any plans for this at the moment. The new ‘free travel’ arrangement seems to work well.

However, again I ramble on!!!!

I arrived in Hurghada and, as is usual for this line of work, proceeded to enjoy the main excursions on offer as part of my resort orientation. I visited Cairo and went inside a pyramid, went into the desert in a 4x4, experienced a semi-submarine, a snorkelling trip and so on. I’m sure you get the picture.

After a week in Hurghada becoming oriented it was time to start work proper.

At that time I was the ‘sole rep’ for Hurghada and El Gouna. I had to look after 3 hotels in Hurghada and 3 in El Gouna. This involved lots of driving (see earlier blog) but also gave me a wealth of insight into the travelling public. Here are my experiences.

It pays to remember that, unlike Greece, Hurghada and El Gouna do not have very many repeat guests. Over 80% are new visitors and many of these think in terms of a holiday in Egypt being a “once in a lifetime” experience.

It is also necessary to realise that the accommodation here is a very different proposition. There is very little self-catering. Most accommodation (and all my guests were in this type of accommodation) is in hotels. I’m not talking small either. Some of the hotels have 1000 rooms. My hotels tended to have around 300 to 500 rooms. SOME guests would be on bed and breakfast and a very few on half board (options only available at 2 of my hotels) but the majority were on the “all inclusive” package which is found everywhere here for all nationalities. It is, in effect, the norm for tourists to Hurghada. This covered all meals and, between certain hours which varied a little between the hotels, all alcoholic drinks as long as they were made with local alcohol. Now remember Egypt is a predominantly Muslim country. They make alcohol here but I don’t think anyone tastes it. If it looks the right colour when it’s finished and the chemical tests show the right alcohol level it’s bottled and sold. Some of it tastes really bad but, on the other hand, some isn’t so bad in small quantities with a mixer. Some of the local lager beers are actually quite OK and a couple of the local wines are really quite palatable but these wines are not normally available in hotels offering ‘all inclusive’ unless at an extra charge.

I found that there are several distinct groups of travellers – I wonder which one I fit into!

First, and perhaps for me the easiest to deal with, are the ‘savvy’ travellers or ‘experienced’ travellers. These travellers know what to expect. They have done research into the culture, the country and the accommodation. They have travelled enough to know that nothing is going to be like it is back ‘home’. They know how to behave and what is or is not acceptable. Some will have money and some will be less well off but either way they have done enough research to make sure they have enough with them – not just for the things they want but also for emergencies. They are usually well-insured.

They are easy to deal with because they don’t complain very much. When things don’t go according to plan they tend to chalk it up to experience and carry on – one more thing they’ve learnt in their travels.

However, easy as they are to cope with, they are not the rep’s favourite guest. As a rep you are not only supposed to ensure you guests have a good time. You are there to SELL EXCURSIONS. These travellers do not buy much. Those with less money are savvy enough to get themselves where they want to be. I had guests disappear for several days at a time. One couple used public transport to do the tours they wanted in Luxor and sorted out their own entrance into the various temples and tombs. Another couple made their own way to Aswan for 2 days fishing on Lake Nasser.

Fortunately, those with money will often opt for comfort so will buy from you. They may even pay extra for the more comfortable options such as visiting Cairo by flight instead of enduring 6 hours each way on a coach. But, in general terms you do not really see much of these guests. If they do complain then you can bet the complaint is justified and you really need to do something about it.

Next we have the well-to-do or ‘money no object’ traveller.

Fortunately, these are few and far between. They have money (in England we would refer to them as “new money” as they have earnt this. Well done for making this amount of money but the behaviour sometimes leaves something to be desired). They want everyone to know they have money and are constantly finding ways to tell you how much they have or are worth. They have made the money the hard way and are used to being brutal and getting whatever they want. Their behaviour is usually rather impolite and they tend to treat everyone around them as though they are somewhat lesser beings for not being so well off. This group expects, but doesn’t find, perfection.

These travellers will do a small amount of research before arrival, mostly checking out the hotel online and anything previous travellers may have written on sites like TripAdvisor. They rarely do any research around the country itself or the culture. Travel companies these days are very careful not to show a hotel’s star rating in the brochure. This is because there is no international standard for these ratings. However, hotels are proud when they are awarded 3, 4, 5 or even 6 stars (6 is possible in Egypt) and display this prominently on their web pages. Thus these travellers will immediately start to compare the hotel with hotels of the same star rating that they have experienced in the “First World” (OK, I made that up but, if we have a “Third World” stands to reason that somewhere there has to be a “First” and a “Second World”, or so my sense of logic tells me). Naturally they don’t compare. These travellers will then make a point of bringing every ‘discrepancy’ in perceived standards to the rep’s attention and actually expect the rep to be able to change everything for them.

This group may or may not book excursions. They do have the money to spend but haven’t got where they are now by parting with it too willing so selling to them is not easy. However, if they do book then you can certainly expect more complaints because nothing will ever quite match up to their expectations of perfection. We have to remember here, also, that each person has a different idea of what is perfect so where this group finds imperfection others find interest, enjoyment and local colour.

You will certainly know these guests have been and you may well be happy to see them leave.

Then there are the First Time Travellers. There are not many of these coming to Egypt. This group needs a lot of help but is usually very courteous and make you feel like you really want to take care of them. They are typically in their 30s and have never before left the UK. They have done some research but it didn’t make too much sense to them because they never travelled before. They have saved hard to come and are probably visiting in the low season when it’s cheapest. They will usually be on a budget but will have come prepared to spend some money on excursions. As a rep you tend to see these guests quite a lot during their stay. They have hundreds of questions for you from how to behave, what to wear where, how to get to places and even who to speak to in the hotel if they need certain things. They tend to be very accepting that things are very different to ‘home’ and sometimes don’t complain even when they should. These guests can be hard work because you have to ‘hold their hands’ a lot of the time but they also tend to be very nice people. You feel you want them to have the best time ever and you are often sad when they leave. They will usually remember you as part of their first experience abroad and will certainly thank you as they go.

A group of travellers that is fortunately a very small group is one I call “the miseries”. This group is made up of people who seem to like to have a really bad time. They pay a lot of money for a holiday and all they do is moan about everything the whole time they are away. Sometimes it’s hard to understand why they come away at all if everything is so bad. You will get many complaints from this group. Most of the complaints will either be not justified or about things that you cannot change so you will give them even more to moan about when you can’t do anything for them. But that is what they like anyway so perhaps you’re doing them a favour by giving them an extra reason to be miserable.

Another small group to whom you won’t be able to sell anything normally is the ‘quick tripper’. This group is usually financially well off and has money to spare which they don’t mind spending. If they want something that is ‘extra’ at the hotel they will have it and won’t complain when they have to pay at the end of the stay. If you engage them in conversation you will find they usually head for an extended break to exotic climes at least once a year but because the weather in the UK has been so bad they have just come for a quick ‘sun break’ to ‘recharge the batteries’. You usually see these people during the winter in the low season. Low season breaks in Hurghada are so cheap that they don’t even make a dent in these people’s pockets. They do not usually buy excursions but simply want to sit by the pool and soak up the sun. I have known people in this group who, after they arrived, never left the hotel until it was time to go back to the airport. The hotel, on the other hand, loves these guests because they do spend a lot of money on extras and a la carte meals which is all extra income.

Also unlikely to buy anything is the Specialist Activity Traveller. This guest has come for a week or fortnight indulging a favourite pastime. It is usually a sporting pastime like diving, windsurfing, kite surfing or many other watersports for which this area is famous. Reps are unlikely to have any problems with these guests and, more commonly, won’t see them at all until they are on the coach going back to the airport. This group have usually pre-booked everything in the UK with their preferred sports centre and have already arranged all their transfers. The focus is the sport and excursions are not even part of the equation. For divers there is the need for something to do on the last day but they usually already have that organised as well.

Last, but not least, we have the cheap Package Holiday Traveller. This is the ‘bread and butter’ of the travel companies like the one I worked for and a huge target audience for excursion sales. Depending on family (i.e. school attendance) and financial circumstances they come at any time of the year and have selected this holiday because it appears to give them the most for their money. This is the largest group and, like all large groups, there are good and bad. Some will have done research, others not. Most will have travelled before but the majority only around Europe. Many will be focussing on what they get for their money – especially the “all inclusive” benefits.

So much for the groups. That leads into the sort of complaints that arise. Of course, there are different complaints all the time. As I’ve said before, some complaints are justified and you really want to help. Other complaints, though, are either not justified or they stem from something the guest has done or not done or, perhaps, from a lack of knowledge of how things are in the destination country. I don’t want this to become a FAQ spot for complaints. However, there are a few that were so common I think are worth mentioning.

The first complaints here are all about food. The food in Egypt is very different to European food. There are dishes that even in a cosmopolitan country like the UK we don’t tend to find easily (if at all). Egypt is also a land of meat-eaters. There are plenty of dishes without meat but they don’t consider this too important. They tend to be without meat because the meat is too expensive and not because they don’t eat meat. They have hardly heard of vegetarianism in most of Egypt (Cairo is an exception) and as for veganism you might as well forget it. Some hotels do have a vegetarian corner but making them understand this means NO MEAT AT ALL is hard work and you often find that the green beans have very small pieces of meat mixed in with them even when they are intended to be served as a vegetable. The hotels offering the all inclusive package realise this and try to cook to European tastes. They tend to end up with what I call “international non-food”. Meals are open buffets with lots of choice but…..

There’s not enough choice/nothing to eat – these guests need to get real. There are usually pasta, rice, potatoes, at least 2 other vegetables, 2 or 3 meat dishes, 1 poultry, 1 fish, live cooking station, bar-b-q station, salad cart plus deserts and breads etc. What they mean is that it’s not what they eat at home so they won’t eat it here. It also means they can’t find burger and chips in the hotel.

There’s nothing for vegetarians or vegans – see above. However, most hotels are becoming more aware of these requirements and are quite happy to cook something specially for these guests at no extra charge if asked.

The restaurant times are not convenient – well really, how long do you need a restaurant to be open? In most hotels the restaurant is open for 3 hours for breakfast (some open 2 hours earlier for the ‘early light breakfast’), 2 or 3 hours for lunch and 3 hours for dinner. If those times don’t suit there are various snack outlets open for most of the rest of the time. In short, there is always something to eat somewhere between 7am and 10pm or even longer in some hotels. Do you really need to eat outside these times?

There’s no fresh fruit – this really depends if you know what you’re looking at. I was actually rude to one guest who made this complaint to me, possibly because I was becoming bored with hearing it. On the evening in question the guest complained there had been no fresh fruit available at dinner. I had just eaten my own dinner in this hotel and had eaten fresh fruit instead of desert so I know it was there. When I pointed this out to the guest he insisted there was no fruit. I then proceeded to name the fruits. I think there were guava, fresh dates, cape gooseberries, Sharon fruit and something else. I seem to remember thinking it had been a good selection. However, the guest replied by informing me that this was not what he meant. He meant there had been no fresh fruit that he recognised and he had expected that if the hotel knew the majority of its guests would be English they should serve fruit that English people would recognise. My reply was to let him know that he was able to purchase all the fruits on offer on the buffet back at home from his local supermarket – that I knew for a fact they were available at Tesco, Asda, Waitrose, Sainsbury’s and Safeway at least, if not more!!

We never get pork or more frequently there is no bacon at breakfast – these people need to do some research before they leave home. They need to know they are visiting a Muslim country and, if they don’t already know why that’s important before they leave, they should find out. I really got tired of having to explain that in Islam pork is forbidden. Some thought that although it’s forbidden for them to eat they should still prepare it for others and it could feel like batting my head against a brick wall explaining that it was also forbidden to touch the meat of the swine or even to keep pigs.

The water is out of date – of course everyone is advised to only drink bottled water and this is included in the all inclusive package in unlimited amounts. Also, coming from Europe everyone is obsessed with dates on products and aware they shouldn’t use things past the ‘use by’ date. So they receive the bottle of water and check the date. Thing is, though, it’s a bit different here. The date on the bottle is the production date and then in small print about as far away from the date itself as it’s possible to get there is a statement that the water should be used within 12 months of the production date. Most guests were happy once they were shown this and read it for themselves.

I’ve been really ill, it’s the food – yes, it probably is but not in the way they mean. They want you to believe that the food is infected and made them ill so what they had was food poisoning. In truth the food has made them ill because they have grossly overeaten on the all inclusive buffet. If you think what people normally have at home it’s usually a light breakfast, if anything at all, a light lunch and a main meal in the evening. Plus most people do not drink alcohol at every meal or every evening. Now put these people in a hotel with unlimited alcohol and food and watch. See the size of the breakfast, the lunch and the dinner they eat every day. Watch them at the bar, not only in the evening but throughout the day, and just see how much alcohol they consume. I don’t have any problem with this but they must realise when they change their lifestyle so much the short-term effect is bound to be an attack of the runs!! So, yes it is the food but there’s nothing wrong with how it’s handled or cooked and you DO NOT have food poisoning. Just don’t eat so much.

I didn’t get all my meals – this is because in most hotels the all inclusive starts at 2pm on the first day and ends at 12noon on the last day. Effectively, depending on flight times, people may have to buy their own lunch on the first day or their own dinner on the last day. They complain that this means they have not actually received a fully all inclusive holiday as advertised. I would refer them to the brochure. The small, yes, I agree, extremely small, print in the back does warn about the start and finish times of the all inclusive leaving you to work out for yourself that you may need to buy a meal.

There were, of course, complaints that did not revolve around the food. Again, it is a long list but here are a couple of the most common…..

The rooms is too small, we fall over the bed as we go in – this was a common complaint from groups who had booked 3 in a room (was a complaint in Greece as well). The rooms tend to be OK for two people but cramped with a 3rd. Also, the 3rd bed is often a camp bed and this is another cause of complaint. Much as I always had every sympathy with these guests and often questioned the practice of allowing 3 to a room in some hotels where we knew the rooms to be very small, there was little I could do. At best I could refer guests to the somewhat microscopic print in the back of the brochure which pointed out that where there were 3 to a room the 3rd bed may be a camp bed and rooms may feel cramped.

There is too much aircraft noise – yes, in some hotels there was. However, again I would refer to the brochure. The brochure clearly stated that the hotel was only a 15 minute transfer from the airport and, admittedly put a positive spin on this. However, logic says that it’s impossible to be that close to the airport and not have some disturbance in the form of airport noise. Just think of the people who live near Gatwick or Heathrow and have this disturbance when they are up to half an hour away. It is true that in the winter the planes are told to come in very low and 1 guest did say he felt he could shake hands with the pilot as he flew overhead.

There’s too much noise from the Mosque – again, not much I could do. Guests who had done their research were not surprised and the call to prayers 5 times a day quickly fades into background noise anyway.

I can’t spend my money - yes, a BIG problem for one guest. His bank at home had accurately advised him that the best way to bring his money to Egypt was in cash. It’s true. Using a credit card involves all sorts of commission and other charges back in the UK. If you change your cash into Egyptian money in the UK you get a much worse rate of exchange than you do if you change it here. So “bring cash” is very good advice. Sadly, this man lived in Aberdeen and the bank gave him all local notes. They were nice and new and had “Bank of Scotland” on them. He wasn’t to know these notes are NOT ACCEPTED here but perhaps his bank should have known better. This guest had actually emptied his account to bring enough cash because he was intending to go on just about every excursion available. In his case this really did ruin his holiday but nothing I could do for him.

And last but not least the thorny question of lost luggage. Have you ever heard the complaint, “my luggage hasn’t arrived”? This happened almost every week for some poor guest. We did, of course, try to get the luggage out here as soon as possible. Guests normally arrived on Friday. If they were lucky we could actually get the luggage here the following Wednesday so, on a 1-week holiday, they could enjoy their luggage for a whole day before repacking for the return journey. The worst of this was that it was guests who had actually paid us for an extra service that lost their luggage. They had all taken advantage of, and paid for, the “day before check in” so were effectively paying us to lose their bags!!

And, on that note I think I will have to leave it. I hope you enjoy these anecdotes.

Sunday, 24 January 2010

Recollections of Greece

Before I decided to stay in Hurghada, Egypt, I was working as a Holiday Rep or, as they call them here, in Egypt, Tour Leader. This was a total change of career for me quite late in life. I had spent most of my working life in an office as a PA/Office Manager working with Chief Executives and Managing Directors – even an MP who was also a Junior Minister. After a lengthy career I decided on a change and started to work with the homeless. Initially I worked with general homelessness as a Support Worker meaning that I supported clients who were homeless through addiction or family strife or refugees – don’t get me started on how the UK treats the refugees once they have their legal papers, save to say they end up homeless on the street. Eventually I decided to specialize in working with women and became the Manager of a Supported Housing Unit. As you can imagine, this is not without its stressful moments so there came a time when I decided I really needed another BIG change. There were also personal reasons for needing this and for feeling I had to be a long way away from home.

I searched the internet and noticed a holiday company was looking for Reps. I applied, went to the interview and got the job.

As a Holiday Rep, one of the jobs is to deal with guest complaints. There are some common threads and it can become very wearing having to deal with the same complaint from new people every week/fortnight. Here are just a couple of memorable examples of some of the things I had to deal with during my time on the beautiful Greek island of Lesvos.

Lesvos is a paradise for bird watchers and hikers. This is especially true in the spring and autumn months during the migration when large numbers of relatively rare species can be seen passing through. Then there is, of course, the resident flamingo population on the salt flats. There are many areas in the interior of the island that are totally unspoilt and provide amazing opportunities for enjoyable hikes with breathtaking views from some of the higher vantage points.

This is an island where more than 85% of guests were “repeaters”. In some cases they had been coming to the same island every year for over 30 years. They know what to expect, always stay in the same hotel and have often become a friend of the family who own it. This means that complaints about the accommodation tend to be few and far between.

Most of the accommodation is either Bed and Breakfast or Self Catering (although personally I couldn’t cater for a sparrow with the sparsity of cooking and kitchen facilities provided – generally only 2 rings, no oven, no toaster or grill, 1 saucepan, 1 plate per person etc. etc. I’m sure you get the picture. Good thing eating out was so cheap.)

As a Rep I was supposed to sell lots of excursions. That’s why we have the welcome meetings really. You can imagine that with so many repeat guests, most of whom had been to the island several times, there was little they hadn’t already done. Happily for me, though, I was able to sell a lot of car hire. Even that was fraught with difficulty at times because the big holiday companies tend to be contracted to the big car hire names which are expensive and there are very many local car hire ‘bucket shops’ offering vehicles at half price or less. If something goes wrong, though, the service is not so good (I would say that, wouldn’t I) – I have seen clients waiting at the roadside for over 12 hours for the bucket shop hire company to come and collect them after the vehicle has broken down.

Some complaints, of course, are totally justified. For example, if you’ve paid extra for a sea view you do expect to be able to see the sea and no matter how impressive the garden is it’s not what you paid for. In that case I would willingly do everything I could to make sure the guest was moved to a room that matched their booking confirmation. After all, the guest is not at all interested in the hotel’s point of view – namely that the travel company I worked for did NOT pay the hotel any more for a sea view room (even though they charged more for this in the brochure) but other companies did so they got the sea view rooms. However, even here there needs to be some caution. We have to remember that travel brochures are written by marketing professionals with sales in mind and vetted by lawyers with potential suits in mind! The wording is very careful and can often lead you to expect something it doesn’t actually say. Nonetheless, I think one of the best was a guest who complained about a lack of sea view having paid the supplement.

He was on the ground floor in the hotel. The hotel, without prompting, offered to move him to the next higher floor (there was only 1 higher floor). The guest went to look at the room (which was identical to the ground floor room) and decided he didn’t like it so would stay downstairs. He complained to me so I visited his room to see whether or not he DID have the sea view. From his raised terrace I could clearly see the sea. I checked with my HQ (aware I would be judged on customer satisfaction as well as excursion sales) who told me that if I could see the sea then the guest could not complain or have any money back. The guest was very unhappy with this. He agreed he could, in fact, see the sea. Even sitting up in bed he could see the sea through the patio doors. But the road along the sea front was lined by trees and the hotel was on the far side of the road (there were no hotels on the beach side). This meant he did not have an UNINTERRUPTED view – which is what he expected. He claimed his view was spoilt because the view of the sea was broken up by the trees.

Pedanticism cut in again with other complaints along the lines of:

‘The brochure says it’s only 300m to the sea but it’s more like 800’ – the guest was thinking of HIS walk from Reception to the sea but the brochure was correct in that the distance from the nearest point of the hotel property to the sea was only 300m. Another is ‘according to the brochure we should have a balcony but we don’t’. In this case there was a balcony (technically speaking). It was what is called a “French Balcony” which is effectively a big (double door-sized) window that opens inwards with railings outside and up close. There is no way you can go out through these ‘balcony doors’ and you certainly have nowhere to sit but it is, technically speaking, a balcony and meets the conditions of the brochure for legal purposes.

One of my hotels in another part of the island was really lovely inside with private courtyards and frontage onto the beach with a narrow but busy road at the back. This road was used by delivery vehicles from very early in the morning and was also home to a night-club which was open until the early hours. I think the space between the night-club closing and the deliveries starting was only around 2½ - 3 hours! The rooms were also very small and sometimes an odd shape. This is because the hotel was actually a converted olive press and the rooms were at one time the olive storage areas. I would always do my best to move guests who complained about the noise but there was not much I would do about the size or shape of the rooms.

This Greek island can be very cold in winter with snow and hailstorms which is why it is not a year-round destination. In contrast, it can be unbearably hot in summer with temperatures well over 40o on occasion. For most guests, therefore, air conditioning is considered a real necessity. Although it is true to say that all the accommodation I was visiting (except the Reps apartments!) DID have air conditioning those guests new to the island were always very ‘put out’ to find they had to pay for it. It is normal in Greece for a daily charge to be made for the use of the air conditioning unit in the room. You need a control to operate it which you have to collect from Reception and the appropriate amount is added to your bill every day until you return the control unit. There seems to be no sense to the cost. Some of the cheaper hotels will charge you up to €5 per day whereas the more expensive hotels may only charge €2. It was included in only one of my hotels. It was sometimes also included if you rented an apartment but the company I worked for did not have any guests in apartments. The need to pay for air conditioning was a regular complaint from those who had not previously holidayed in Greece.

In one case, guests did put a strongly worded complaint to my employer about me because they had to pay for the air conditioning. They had effectively tried to ‘steal’ this service. They were disgruntled that it was not included in the holiday price (they had taken a late booking and were getting a week bed and breakfast with flights and transfers for less than £200). They went to Reception and asked for the control unit. They then went back to the room and played around with the unit (they had to stand on the dining table to do this) until they found a way to override the control unit. They then returned the control unit to Reception claiming the system was not working. Reception sent an engineer to fix it. It was working so Reception returned the control unit to the guests. Guests once again gave the control unit back claiming it might be working a bit but not satisfactorily and they’d rather do without. They then manipulated the unit manually every day and left it on effectively all day. They claimed, to Reception, that it wasn’t on but from outside you could see and hear the fan going and from inside the housekeeping staff could feel how cold the room was. At the end of their stay they were asked to pay for the air conditioning and refused. I was asked to go and speak to them. My job was to get them to pay before they left. It was a long conversation where I had to adopt the ‘broken record’ technique with “I understand what you’re saying but you do have to pay it now before you leave and you can take it up with Customer Service when you get back to the UK”. Guests also used the same technique with “there’s no way we’re going to pay for this”. They did pay in the end when I pointed out that we could refuse to allow them onto the airplane unless the bill was settled. They really didn’t like losing and wrote the letter of complaint calling me ‘rude’ and ‘aggressive’ (you may agree!!).

In one hotel I had a guest who claimed to be an Engineer with expertise in Air Conditioning Systems. He told me in conversation during one of my visits that the air conditioning unit in his room was not working properly but neither I nor the hotel should worry – he’d fixed it! When he left the hotel complained to me that this guest had actually broken the unit which then had to be returned to Athens to be properly repaired.

As a Rep, it’s not only your job to support the guests and make sure they have a great time. Sometimes, it’s your job to support the hotels your guests use. Believe me, some guests can really cause problems. At one stage it seems one hotel or another called me regularly on my day off asking me to call in to sort something out. Here are the most memorable.

At one hotel a particular lady guest would come and see me during every visit. She would always ask me lots of questions about all the excursion, ask for recommendations and eventually, having taken up most of my visit time so that no-one else got to see me, tell me that she and her husband would be going on this or that excursion and they would see me together to book the next day. After all, the holiday was a present from him to her for a special landmark birthday. The next day sure enough she would come and see me, but without him, and we would start the whole conversation again. Early in their stay I did receive complaints from another guest about this couple. The guest was in the next room and claimed to have been kept awake all night on one occasion with lots of shouting and banging. The next day this lady was seen with plasters and bandages so you can work out for yourselves what conclusions were jumped to. The lady in question was known to like a few drinks so who knows? Anyway, we get to the weekend and it’s that special day. This lady is thinking lovely excursion, romantic dinner, candle-light and everything else. The husband is thinking laze by the pool, chill out, few drinks and bed. Somewhat a mismatch I think. The husband won! They did NOTHING on the day itself which greatly upset this lady. I already mentioned she liked a drink and the next day, which was also my day off, she decided to drown her sorrows.

In a state that I think could be described as ‘non compos mentis’ this lady then left the hotel headed towards the main town not too far away. At the entrance to the town the road is really narrow between two houses with just enough room for two cars to pass. It was here that she decided to sit/lie down in the middle of the road. You can imagine the chaos on what is quite a busy main road from one end of the island to the other. Her husband, realizing he was totally unable to get her to move, left and returned to the hotel on his own. The local Police were called but couldn’t move her and eventually the hotel called me to come and talk her into returning to the hotel. She did eventually return to the hotel and no charges were brought but I can’t say that she achieved anything by this display of rebellion.

A few days later, after another argument with the husband, this same lady went into town to conduct a bar crawl on her own. The next day the hotel called me again because she had been complaining to Reception that her handbag had been stolen the night before containing all her money and jewelry. She also claimed that someone in a bar had tried to sexually assault her the previous evening. I offered to help her make a statement to the police but she declined and asked only for a statement from me saying she had reported the stolen property to me. The husband didn’t seem to remember the handbag or even is she had one matching the description she had given.

It’s funny how alcohol seems to play a role. Here is another example where alcohol was definitely a factor.

I was called to this particular hotel because two of my guests (a couple) were screaming and shouting at each other and fighting in the public courtyard disturbing the other guests. It seems this was punctuated somewhat by visits back to the room when one of them would throw the other’s belongings out of the window. These belongings would be retrieved and returned to the room and the roles would be reversed.

By the time I got there the actual fighting had stopped and all possessions were now in the hotel room. At this point the man was in the room. He was refusing to leave the room in case the lady took it over. He was not letting her in under any circumstances. The lady was in the courtyard and had the key to the room which she was refusing to hand over. Now, the key was very important – it had embedded into it a device that you pushed into a socket in the room and started the electricity. This means the man may have been in the room but without any light, hot water, television, phone, fridge, air conditioning or anything else. She, on the other hand, had the key but nowhere to go. The only thing they agreed on was that they couldn’t finish the holiday together. They agreed that one should stay in the hotel and the other should move – they just couldn't agree who should do what. He insisted on staying saying he had paid for the holiday so it was his right. She wanted to stay because she didn't/couldn’t work (health issues) and had no money except what he gave her so couldn't afford to pay to stay elsewhere. Just getting to this point had already taken a couple of hours. Eventually the accommodation issue was resolved about another hour later and the lady left the hotel. There were problems with her retrieving her belongings from the room, the man insisting I stay with her while she packed to make sure she didn’t take or damage any of his things and the lady insisting the man leave her some privacy to pack on her own.

During my various conversations with both parties at this time they both confided in me to a large extent and it certainly seemed that the amount of alcohol enjoyed by both was a factor. Nonetheless, I was very relieved to have found a satisfactory conclusion to this issue even at the loss of most of my day off. I left the hotel with the man still in residence and the lady accommodated elsewhere.

The next day I called at the hotel even though it was not on my visit list for that day. I just wanted to check that the man was OK then I was going to call on the lady to make sure she was also alright. When I got to the hotel I found that they were back together and both in the hotel!!! About 3 hours after the lady left the hotel they had both decided that it had been a big mistake, they had both made a mountain out of a molehill and they really couldn’t live without each other.

I thought that was the end of it but there’s more. A couple of months later I received a phone call from this lady. She was back on the island on her own and asked me to go and have a drink with her. She had come with another holiday company and I knew the Rep who was responsible for her this time. He told me the booking had been for 2 people but only 1 had turned up.

I did go and meet her. She said she had left this man and wanted to stay and work on Lesvos. What she really wanted from me was help to find work which I was not able to give. During the conversation I let her know I was aware her booking was for 2 people so how come she was alone. She explained that the day before the holiday she had taken her partner’s passport, put it in an envelope, gone to the post office and posted it back to him second class knowing it would take at least 3 days and there was no way he could get a replacement in less than 24 hours! I met her a couple more times and she did find work as a waitress in a restaurant though she struggled with this because of her health problems (with her hips).

She didn’t keep the job for very long though. About 4 weeks later I was on airport duty helping my company’s guests who were leaving to check in for the flight. While I was there I spotted this lady in the check-in queue and, guess what, she was with her partner. It seems he’d come to the island especially to win her back and take her home!

Part of me wants to say, “so romantic” and hope that it will be a case of “happily ever after” but I wonder.....