Saturday, 23 February 2008

Good evening, Newark

I'm at Newark airport, which is my current favourite airport in the world, not counting Tokyo Narita which wins by default as it resides in my beloved Japan. Newark is good though, there are, even for an American airport, lots of shops. On top of the predictable newsagents, there are some great oddities - the Smithsonian museum shop, a couple of killer gadget shops, the "America" shop, which sells white house and FBI merchandise, and at which I bought a Barack Obama bumper sticker which felt somehow much more exciting than it probably was. Best of all, though, is the Maui Taco place. Five bucks gets you a frighteningly huge bean burrito and chips served by sassy, giggling and slightly scary New Jersey girls. There is no better way to wait for your connecting flight home.

I flew in from St.Thomas a couple of hours ago, have had my spectacular burrito, and now board the plane back to Gatwick, which is so much my home these days that I might as well rent out a shop unit and just move in. I take my seat on the plane, and become aware that the safety announcement is playing on the tannoy, but skipping and looping. Literally: "The oxygen mask will drop from the..oxygen mask will drop from the..oxygen mask will dr..oxygen mask will.." over and over. I think little of it, and arrange my water, magazines and playstation in the seat pocket in front of me with artfulness and precision, and I wait for take off.

Twenty minutes later and nothing has happened. Nothing, that is, except a man in blue overalls has boarded the plane and is talking to the cabin crew. Then an announcement tells us that there is an electrical fault and it will take around fifteen minutes to fix, during which time all the electrical systems will have to be disabled, so they won't be able to make any more announcements. An hour passes, during which the lights occasionally go out and come back on again, but nothing else works. The air in the plane becomes warm and stale. One becomes aware that much of it, to paraphrase an old Ardal O'Hanlan bit, has been in other peoples mouths, and some of it, in other peoples bottoms. It doesn't help that I'm seated between a single parent and his screaming young child and, honest to god, a teenage wannabe latino rap group who don't stop singing. I know the rap group sound like fun - and I do love me some rap, but trust me, they're about as pleasant to listen to as a group of college girls from the valley visiting a slaughterhouse while being told they're having their allowances cut. You know. Shrill.

Finally the power comes back on and the air starts to become breathable again. And another announcement. We're close to finding out what's wrong with the power, and will know in the next few minutes, we're told. The bad news is that either it's just a problem with the in flight entertainment system, in which case no movies today, or it's a big electrical problem, in which case no plane today. Another twenty minutes pass. The cabin crew give out free glasses of water. Seriously. For free. First class probably got lapdances.

Then a new voice makes an announcement. The captain. And this is what he says:

"Good evening ladies and gentlemen. This is the Captain. We hope you enjoyed these fun-filled one and a half hours sitting here on the tarmac at beautiful Newark airport and that you appreciated the view we gave you of the working planes taking off and landing. The good news is that the problem with the electronic systems has been resolved, and although there will be no in-flight entertainment during your journey, we are now cleared for take-off. Because of the electronic issues, the safety video cannot be displayed, so as a special treat, you'll have the pleasure of watching our talented cabin crew perform the safety demo unplugged and acoustically.

Also, there is no food on this flight.

I'm joking.

We're aware that we're leaving Newark an hour and a half behind schedule, so we're going to try to make up the time for you by flying extra fast, in fact, I'm going to turn on both engines instead of the usual one. Thanks for flying with us."

That is one witty pilot.

Thursday, 21 February 2008

Florida's largest mall, in three chapters

This all actually happened a couple of weeks ago, but I didn't get around to posting it until now..

Chapter 1
Shopping!

I'm sitting in the food court of Sawgrass Mills - Florida's largest outlet mall. When you have a day off, and the dollar is being reamed by the pound this comprehensively, it's only good sense to go shopping.

The shops themselves haven't quite opened as I arrive, so I wander around a bit, take in the satisfyingly American enormity, and navigate in the general direction of the food court, while grinning at the Segway-riding security guards. Long ago my wife instilled in me the rule that before a big shopping day, one must eat, or one will get grumpy and not like anything enough to buy it, which in a mall of such gargantuan proportions as this one, would be a sin.

So I currently wait for the shops to open, while eating the best breakfast I could find, which consists of has browns (small circles of deep fried potato), cheesy tots (small circles of deep fried cheese) and french toast sticks (which look exactly like fish fingers but are in fact, sweet. And deep fried). I feel no remorse for sucking down such suicidally unhealthy food - I've been shopping with me before, so I know I'll work it off patrolling these marble-floored boulevards of impulse purchase.

All the "food" I'm enjoying came from Burger King - the only place open thus far - but I am very excited to see a Taco Bell next door to it, gearing up for the day. Although I've been to this fine and bizarre country many times, I have never visited a Taco Bell. They never, to my knowledge, opened in the UK, so it's as close to fast food forbidden fruit as you can get, which is, in turn about as close to real fruit as you'll find in the Sawgrass Mills food court. So I have a plan - load up on fried carbs now, go shopping and wreck the US economy, then have Taco Bell.

Chapter 2
Uh-Oh

Well, the good news is that I'm back at the food court now awaiting delivery of my taco bell extravaganza. The bad news is that in between this paragraph and the previous one, it all kinda went to shit.

I was in such a fine, happy-go-lucky mood. Strolling around window shopping with a nice little mental list of things I needed that I knew I could get cheaper here. delightful. It all started once I'd found my first purchase, a pair of shorts. Card declined. And again. Weird, says the clerk, your pin is ok, but it's saying that the card isn't authorised to be used here. Luckily there's a cashpoint just outside, so out I go to the cashpoint. Card declined. To another cashpoint. Same again.This could be a problem. I call Lesley and get her to email me my bank's phone number and wait on hold for 10 minutes. From Florida. On a UK cellphone. Finally I get through and explain the situation. "Let me just see check that out for you", says the Alliance & Leicester drone, "No, there's no problem with the card". "That's all very well for you to say", I reply, "But you're not stuck in the middle of Florida without enough money for a taxi back". He says he understands and will try to find out what's going on, puts me on hold, and then hangs up. My temper isn't getting calmer. I call back, wait another 10 minutes on hold and get through to another Alliance & Leicester goon. I explain the situation, explain that I was just hung up on, explain that I'm calling from fucking Florida and am very very annoyed. No apology, that'd be asking too much. She checks things out and eventually has an answer for me. "Sometimes a card will be blocked, for security reasons". I splutter incredulously. "What does that mean", I ask. "Security reasons", she repeats. "Yes", I say, "I heard you, but what does that mean?", "Well", she says, "imagine if someone had stolen your card details..", "But that's not the case", I'm trying to see the funny side of this, "Because you're talking to me, and I'm here, in Florida, with the card you gave me so I could access my funds, and you're not letting me do that, and it's screwing with me."

I have two options, she advises me. I can try to get a much smaller amount out of the cashpoint, or I can find a bank. If I find a bank, any bank, and show them my visa card and passport, I'll be able to get as much money as I like. A few minutes of being told there's no way I can talk to a superior and I realise that I've got all I'm going to get out of her, so I say, sweetly, "I'm going to say thank you and hang up now, I obviously don't mean it, but only a foul git would just hang up, so thank you", and I hang up.

To the customer service desk, then, to find out where the nearest bank is. My enquiry is met with a vacant puzzled stare. There's no bank in the mall. Biggest mall in Florida and no banks. Peachy. I get directions to the nearest bank, which I am assured is within walking distance, and I set out, following the directions given to me carefully. This leads me through a car park, along a freeway and finally to a home furnishings warehouse, where I seek further instruction. The rotund, shiny sofa salesmen gives me simple directions - right out of the shop, right at the lazy boy shop, then right at the freeway and keep going until the crossroads and there it is. I set off again. It's getting hot, but I'm wearing sunblock and keep myself happy by singing Stevie Wonder songs to myself. I feel positive about this - clear directions to the bank, use my Hugh Grant-eque English charm to explain my predicament, then I'll get my money, then shopping, then Taco Bell. I turn right at the Lazy Boy shop. Feeling good about this. Ten minutes down the road and turn right at the freeway. Just like he said. There's the crossroads. Then, with a mental thud I realise that I'm right at the back entrance to the same home furnishings warehouse I started from. I stand there for a good twenty seconds unsure if I should laugh or just close my eyes and walk into the traffic.

Fine, I think. I'll just got back to the mall and try my luck getting smaller amounts of money from the cashpoint. As I walk back I realise that I've been swearing, quietly and - it has to be said - creatively, under my breath. Also occasionally muttering things like "I want to kill you all. WITH MY HANDS". Sensing that this might not be a good mental state to be in, I go back to singing Stevie. nobody can be psychotic while singing Stevie Wonder, it's just not possible.

I get back to the mall and approach a cashpoint. Let's be conservative. please can I have $100. No deal. Card rejected. Ok, let's try again. $80? Nope, get along now, limey. Last chance, $60. There it is, the satisfying mechanical churn of the cash-counting machinery and I have $60. Pushing my luck, I try to do the same again and get another $60. No dice. Well, at least I have enough for a taxi back now.

I walk back to the food court. If I use all the change in my pocket, I can get some Taco Bell, and dammit, that's what I came here for. So here I sit, in the food court, chewing on a bean burrito, which, it has to be said, is delicious, and was brought to my table by a very cool female security guard who is apparently friends with the taco Bell lady. It may not have been the best of days, but it's ending wasn't bad at all.

It was such a tease being in such a huge mall, but without the means with which to use it as it should be used. but the fact is that I'll be back here in a couple of weeks, so I'll make sure I come prepared. This isn't over. I'm coming back, and I'm going to go shopping.


Chapter 3
Post script

When I got back to England, I called my bank to see what the problem was. Apparently, they told me, there are some places that have a particularly high instance of credit card fraud, so rather than attempt to tackle that problem, my bank just bans all it's customers from using cards there. At all. For ever. I argued that this is the biggest mall in Florida, so statistically, there is going to be a higher instance of credit card fraud there, as there is a higher instance of credit card use there, but they didn't quite follow my logic. I asked if I could tell them when I'd be there so they could lift the ban for my card. They said no. I asked if I could be told in advance where in Florida I can go shopping and where I can't, and they said no. So if I want to go shopping in Florida, it's a complete gamble. Not really what I pay a bank for. This is, obviously, completely ridiculous - banning all credit cards just because some people steal them is as mad as banning all money because some people steal it, or as banning all liquids going onto a plane because once we thought someone might have made a liquid bomb, even though they actually never did and we were completely wrong. The dumbest and most shoot-yourself-in-the-foot reaction to a bad yet completely predictable situation.

I mentioned this while on the phone to someone who happens to work for another, larger bank, who told me that basically the Alliance & Leicester say they're a bank, but technically, aren't. How is that even allowed? Can I say I'm a bank then? I'll give you a card you can't use anywhere because once, at school, Steven Evans stole my rubber, but I'll keep hold of your cash for you. And spend it in Florida.

The moral of this story is that I am closing my account with Alliance and Leicester and going with a real bank. Partly because of all of the previously noted mullarkey, partly because of other previous problems I've had with them, but honestly - mainly because they have never apologised once, and with staff training that bad, no wonder they can't handle the complexities of finance, they can't even handle manners.

I am looking forward to doing this. I'm not a real financial adviser, in the same way that they're not a real bank, but I advise you to do the same.

Friday, 1 February 2008

Couple of pics from antigua and st lucia


Ups and downs in St Lucia

By the time I finally get ashore at St Lucia I'm not in the best of moods.The route to get from the dockside to the town is designed to you absolutely have to go through a small, twisty-turny shopping mall of tourist crap, a common and dirt-cheap tactic I've seen before. So having pushed my way patiently through hordes of tourists who simultaneously whine about the slow-moving queue while contributing to it by slowing to gawp at shop windows (and there's your parable for western civilisation right there), I finally make it out to the main street. And what a street it is. Horrible. Literally every step I take a different tour guide (i.e. taxi driver with a self-esteem issues and an old map) asks me if I want to go on a tour - "Four hours, all the beaches, special places". I run out of ways to say no and cross the noisy road just in time to find myself knee deep in people selling authentic Island souvenirs, which seems to mean Tupac T-Shirts, Marijuana leaf bandanas and baseballs caps bearing the slogan "It's always 4'o clock somewhere", accompanied by a picture of a cocktail. There's nothing like experiencing the culture first hand.

I am, of course, well used to this rubbish. There's a little busy wasps nest of it surrounding every stop on a cruise ships itinerary and, frankly, you can't blame people for wanting to make a living out of the influx of pasty tourists that the motherships bring, but when you're in a crappy mood, it can't help but depress you. I find the first road into town and away from the main street, "Always get away from the beaten path" I remind myself. And I do. Just a couple of blocks away I emerge from a little side street into what is obviously the real main street. A wide road with a park at one end and a church in the middle, full of people, but none of them selling anything, with the exception of the little smiling girl selling candy from a blanket on the corner. Best of all, it's quiet. There's just as many people but they all seem to be just hanging out, or having gentle friendly conversations. I walk on and find myself in a large town square lined with beautifully wonky wooden shops and houses, each one in a different pastel colour. Gentle pinks, light greens and candy blues contrast with the deep lush greens of the park that the square wraps around. A taxi driver stops his car and winds down his window just to tell the woman walking next to me how much he likes her hairdo. It makes her day, and very nearly makes mine too. And my bad mood has gone, just like that. I take a deep breath of the warm air heavy with the scent of freshly mown grass and keep walking.

I walk out of the town a little, up a steep winding road at the end of which, I surmise, might well be a nice view out over the harbour when someone that I can only accurately describe as a mad-eyes rasta, clambers out of a big bush that forms part of the undergrowth runs along one side of the street. Shirtless, wearing only a ragged pair of jean shorts he glares at me as I pass him. I avoid eye contact, thinking it's just the often-seen look that a tourist not in the tourist part of town gets. Then something hits me, or more specifically, hits my shoulder bag, hard. I turn around and see a brick by my feet. Looking up, I quickly deduce that it's not only the rasta's eyes that are mad, it would seem all of him is - he just threw a brick at me as hard as he could. And now those mad eyes are staring at me. I am, it would seem, for whatever reason, not his friend. Then I see the big stick in his hand and he starts to walk towards me. How wonderful.

I throw out a low, not particularly pretty crescent kick and knock the stick from his hand. If I'm being honest, I'd admit that I only planned to knock his arm out of the way so I could close the distance and twist the stick out of his grip, but it seems he wasn't holding onto it as tightly as he should have been, so I'm happy to let him believe I'm Jackie Chan. He is momentarily suprised by my fairly audacious counter-attack and looks at me angrily confused. I take a controlled step back, adopt a loose fighting stance and give him The Eyes (tm). What seems like 3 minutes but is probably more like 5 seconds passes and neither of us do anything. Then, suddenly, as if obeying a cue only he could hear, he dives back into the undergrowth from whence he came. I straighten up, feeling pretty good about myself, safe in the knowledge that I scared him off.Breathing out slowly, I glance around and see a few passers-by looking concerned and waving me away furiously, and it dawns on me. I didn't scare him off at all, he's just gone to get more sticks and bricks. Shit. Time to go. I leave, not running, but walking a little faster than usual, hearing myself say, over and over, "What the fuck?", while checking over my shoulder at regular intervals.

I get myself back to the town square and walk around a bit to let my heart rate slow back to normal. My first thought is to go back to the ship and never go ashore again because the Caribbean is clearly full of crazy people, but after a while I relax and am able to think more clearly. Then I'm at the far end of the tourist-hell street and from where I stand I can see both parts of town, and that's when I start to wonder. Is it one or the other? Either you just do the tourist stuff and have a mostly predictable time with the tiny chance that you might meet someone interesting or do something unplanned and cool, or you get as far from the tourists stuff as possible and just go for a walk and have a mostly adventurous and unpredictable time with the tiny chance you might meet someone crazy or do something unplanned and not cool? There might be some truth to that, I think, and anyway, now I can add St.Lucia to the growing list of countries in which I've nearly had the crap kicked out of me. Yay.