Thursday, 26 January 2012

An Unexpected Return to Wonderland...

When I imagined myself returning to Dubai, I imagined all kinds of things and how I would feel as I looked at the now-working Metro lines and the finished Burj Dubai...I mean Khalifa. What I never, ever imagined was seeing Dubai from the inside of a police van, through the bars of black caging.

I was flying to Cambodia with Etihad, via AD and Bangkok. There was supposed to be a 2 hour stop in each place. On my way to Manchester Airport my new company rang to say there was a long delay to the Bangkok leg, and it would be leaving 8 or 9 hours late. When I landed in AD the transfer desk gave everyone a hotel voucher and told us to go through immigration and get picked up for the hotel. I had no inkling that they would pull me. I do have a debt outstanding to a UAE bank, but had agreed a payment plan with a UK company. I have also been back to the UAE since I left in 2007, staying for 3 weeks in AD only last year. So it was a surprise when the immigration officer took more than one look at my passport and then told me there was a case against me.

I was taken to 2 different offices, where I sat around a lot, watching blokes in uniforms looking at computer screens. They said very little to me other than there was a case lodged by HSBC about a bounced cheque in 2009. I said this was impossible. Surely I would have been pulled last year, and there was this agreement I had in place as well. I was then lead to a goods lift and down to a grim deportation holding area in the bowels of the airport, where I say on a metal bench. There were cells down there, with a collection of subcontinental men lying on dirty mattresses. Water was available, but you seemed to have to share one chewed-up polystyrene cup with everyone else. After a couple of hours they told me I was going to Dubai via AD police station and wouldn't be allowed to fly to Bangkok. Nice. This was turning hellish, and after another emotional goodbye with my kids, I was close to screaming the bloody place down. They off-loaded my bags and drove me to AD police station in a caged van. They said they might keep me there for the night (in a cell), but then after another few hours of sitting around they took me to the main police station in Dubai, again in a caged van, with all my luggage squeezed between and onto the seats.

As I said, it wasn't how I expected to see Dubai again...through bars. We went along the Emirates Road so I only saw the Burj from a distance. I guess sight-seeing isn't on the agenda. Food was, though. They stopped at a service station to get bottles of Sprite and a Burger King drive-through meal. At the police station I was locked in a holding cell and after an hour or so a representative from the bank arrived to talk to me...well, I actually talked to the regional collections manager...and I was pretty much coerced into agreeing a new deal to pay back a reduced portion of what I owe in a short timeframe, despite already having an agreement in place. What choice did I have? I needed to get away and back on my way to my new job. So I was released after a 12-hour detention. The bank man was slightly apologetic but didn't explain how this police case had come about and why it hadn't shown up last time. All very strange.

I have been told it could have been worse, but some wonderfully helpful people kindly pulled a few strings and got the bank man to see me quickly. I walked out of the police station with all my luggage and no local currency, needing to get back to AD somehow. My company found me a room in the Crowne Plaza for the night (luckily, there were barely any rooms going), so I got a taxi (via Dubai airport to change some money) and I got the Etihad bus to AD airport early next morning and got the hell outta Dodge. I really don't know if I want to ever set foot in the Middle East again. And I certainly won't give HSBC any of my business again!

Still, I am now in Cambodia. I arrived pretty much 48 hours after leaving home. The accommodation is fine, the commute is a 100-yard walk, and the people seem really nice. I won't be too glowing about it...been there before and fell flat on my face. I'm quietly optimistic that this Year of the Dragon, and the project I'm going to work on is supposed to represent the Dragon and Health and Prosperity. Fingers crossed...

Sunday, 15 January 2012

The Journey writing and in life.

It has been a few days over six months since I self-published my first book, One Year In Wonderland, to Amazon using their KDP service. It has been an interesting half a year, there can be no doubt about it. I have sold 2,300 copies of the book, and now have 16 reviews on Amazon UK and US, with a further 3 on Librarything and 5 ratings at Goodreads, with an average rating of between 3 and 4 out of 5. As a first-time writer, I can't be too unhappy with that. My second book, "You Are My Boro", came out in December, and it has sold 300 copies so far.

The sales figures have been interesting to follow, with the huge increases I saw in late September and early October then a little dip before I redid my cover and blurb, which took me into another little climb. I trawled all over the internet looking for ways to publicise, using Twitter, Facebook and various forums and blogs to spread the word. Then there was the madness of the Christmas week, where I sold 200 copies in a week. For three months the book never left the top 1500 (UK overall) in terms of sales ranking, and has consistently been number 1 in the Travel>Middle East category.

Following the reviews has been interesting as well. I had one or two nice ones from on-line "freinds" who gave me glowing reports to get me going, as you'd expect, but soon had real reviews coming through. A couple of 4-star reviews with some constructive criticism were nice to read, including one saying I was a good writer who should travel more (well, I think I might be able to see to that soon...more later). Then there were one or two negative reviews. At first I was stung by them, especially when they were so dismissive and almost personal. I took it personally, and felt like making comments, particularly when someone said I was "racist and sexist". On a writer's web forum I was warned that this was not a good idea, so held my tongue/fingers. One has to develop thick skin and try and learn from these things, they told me. OK, thought I. I draw the line at people completely misquoting and misrepresenting my work, though, and have posted a comment after one very recent review showing the actual words I wrote, nothing more.

What I have learned and picked up is that the style I wrote OYIW is maybe a touch too informal and chatty for some. Whilst the light, bloggy style was OK for most, I think it jarred for a few people. Some were looking for a more serious and considered critique of Dubai, I think, and although I do talk about some bad things I saw, I know that there is far more to the place and far worse that could have gone into the book. I am currently in the process of writing something else about Dubai that will make OYIW seem like a glowing holiday brochure. It's not all my own work; it comes from someone else's experiences. I can't say too much at this stage until we decide how to bring it to the public eye.

I will also write about my time in Libya, where I spent 6 months in 2010. It will not be blog-based this time, so I hope I will be able to develop a more "mature" style or writing, although I'll definitely include some of the lighter moments of my time there.

And now there's the chance to use my career as a platform for writing material once again. More my accident than by design, I am going on my travels again. I have been unable to secure long-term QSing work in the UK, so have had to accept an offer to work in Cambodia for several months in Contracts Management...which CAN actually be a bit more interesting than plain old quantity surveying. In the family sense, it is far from ideal, as I will be leaving the wife and kids again (I am dreading the goodbyes already). The rotations aren't terrible (9 weeks on/2 weeks off), and I should be able to make some much-needed improvements to my finances...if my health holds up (that dreaded phrase I have been son fond of in the last decade). I have been to the Far East before (Taiwan in 2002/3), but Cambodia is a fascinating country with a troubled recent history, and I hope I will be able to craft some worthy words to describe my experiences there. Hopefully what I write will show that I am developing as a writer, if not (corn me up now) a person...

We shall see!