Thursday, October 20, 2005

Dangermouse

If you’re travelling abroad you will find that dogs can survive for a maximum of 3 days wrapped in silver foil and tucked into a wardrobe before they start to go off.

Happily mine enjoy a stay at the kennels.

S’funny, but I still forget things when I travel, I always seem to pack in a rush. There are certain bare essentials without which an Englishman abroad is simply lost. Dark socks, a toothbrush and an umbrella, (next on the list is a hipflask, but a sample bottle of good whisky hidden on one’s person will do at a pinch). Yours truly came very close to having his passport rescinded this week when he found himself ‘brolly less on a water taxi in the pouring rain in Amsterdam. There’s no excuse, bang goes my career in the diplomatic core.

I’ve always regarded myself as very lucky to have the opportunity to travel with most of the twists and turns that my career has taken. There’s plenty of opportunity now as a great deal of time is taken up visiting and “entertaining” clients, these days in places that you’d regard as legitimate business centres – which has not always been the case in the past.

There was a time that I used to keep my head down in the office when the next ‘destination’ was mooted. I was working with a company that outfitted hospital Intensive Care Units and Operating Theatres, and I would stay with the nursing staff, for weeks if necessary, to make sure that they understood how to operate all of the equipment. (The first time I did this I evaporated in a dead faint during a hip operation in St Thomas’s in London).

After a little while I was convinced that I was being chosen for some of these assignments on the basis that I was the ‘least valuable player’, a “who can we afford to lose” basis. It wasn’t so much the work as the location. I’ve spent weeks at a time trying to make myself understood to nursing staff in St Petersburg, Belfast, Jerusalem and Dundee (Dundee was by far the most difficult – and the hardest place to stay out of trouble in the evenings too).

And then when one day somebody mentioned Beirut, I just new it had my name on it. It must have been an absolutely beautiful place, perhaps it is again now. The Lebanon is a strip of land trapped between the mountains and the sea. Once a resort of the rich and famous, when I arrived the centre of the city looked as if a meteor had landed there. My cab brought me to the hotel at night, so it wasn’t until the morning when I stepped out on to the balcony that you could truly appreciate the extent of the damage. The hotel was on a square, on one side of a small ‘green’ (dust bowl), four tanks were parked there, three under tarpaulins, one uncovered. There were literally chunks of masonry missing from all of the buildings in site, it wasn’t so much a scene of dilapidation as of destruction, very immediate damage on a large scale. The stone balustrade of my balcony was chipped and scored, and when I turned back to go into the room it became obvious why, several strings of pock marks on the stucco wall were all to real evidence of gunfire in the not too distant past.

In fact the ‘violence’ had ended, Beirut was catching it’s breath after – what was it – 15 years of war? It wasn’t being rebuilt at that time, but consolidated, the people who lived there were testing the boundaries of previous ‘no go areas’. The hospital where I spent the next month was run, staffed and financed by nuns (except for the male doctors and surgeons). The ambulances arrived there with patients who weren’t accepted by other hospitals in the city according to their religious or ethnic prerogative – the nuns simply treated anyone that arrived.

The administrator of the hospital was a local man, he was a figurehead I think, required to legitimise their work – he was necessary to negotiate on their behalf with the Christian militia and their muslim counterparts who co-owned and ran Beirut at the time, who guaranteed the hospital safe passage to carry on it’s work.

For some reason he befriended me and wanted to show me his Beirut. It was one of the oddest times I’ve known. There were still night clubs and restaurants and drinking clubs (most of the intact ones were in basements). I’d be woken up with a telephone call in my hotel room at 1 a.m. to a “it is I Colin, I am the lobby, we go out!”, not a request but an order, issued in his best gravelly Hollywood henchman voice. Of course I went. After a while I began to suspect that his role at the hospital was a front for a more sinister position in the Lebanese Mafia. By the time I arrived downstairs he’d be sitting in the back of the limousine parked outside the hotel, as I came out of the door the window would wind down and an arm would beckon in a cloud of cigar smoke “hurry, we go!”.

And off we went, I remember one night in particular, down a set of stone stairs that opened in to a room so thick with cigarette smoke that it was like fog. It was a belly dancing club, absolutely packed with men in dark suits and the biggest bugger grips (side burns) I’ve ever seen. There wasn’t a seat in sight, hardly any floor in fact, but my friend spoke to the ‘gentlemen’ at the door, some dollars changed hands and almost instantly a group of men at a table by the stage were invited to vacate their seats with a few gentle shakes of the throat. We sat down, I’m sure he teased me. “you want girls to sit with us?” he said, shaking some more currency, and I was completely embarrassed when they did.

It was quite usual to get back to the hotel at five o’clock in the morning, we’d speed through the streets avoiding concrete and the occasional car (it truly amazed me that people who had survived 15 years of armed conflict drove like drugged up lemmings racing towards the cliff edge). Except for one night when several, almost clad in uniform, men stepped out from the street corner and aimed automatic rifles at the car (I think that’s what they were, I can’t be sure, but they had barrels and stocks and triggers and looked like they would shoot bullets and not peas or water). We stopped and they quizzed the driver and my host and then me, I had the opportunity to look right into the penny round black hole at the end of one of those barrels and hope that the owner of the other end didn’t sneeze of hiccough or suddenly slip off the curb. He asked me questions which I didn’t understand, and when my companion tried to help the barrel swung his way so he was quiet. In the end my friend asked me for my passport, it was mandatory to carry it, and handed it over. The man with gun passed it back to another who made a play of reading it by the light of a brazier in a shop door alcove where they must have stood when they saw the car coming…he shook his head and pocketed my documents.

We were waved on and drove off into the night. I was horrified, I’d grown up in the country so I knew (shot)guns, but I’d never been introduced to the working end of one before, and while everyone I’d met had been friendly enough I certainly didn’t want to spend any time here without proof of identity. The thought of spending time in a cell terrified me. My host shrugged in a universal c’est la vie gesture “shit happens, no?”.

He explained over a coffee and brandy in the hotel, (this man was a walking dollar shaking conjuror), that the militia had taken my passport, they would hold it ransom for maybe $250 (he’d offered $50 in the car), he would send someone to fetch it tomorrow.

The thing that I’ve always found about business travel is that it is so frustrating, you get to visit wonderful, strange exotic places, and all you ever get to see is the inside of someone’s office and your hotel?

(A few weeks after I came back from Beirut, there was a whisper that operating theatres in Johannesburg were nearly finished – well not Johannesburg proper, but Soweto, Baragwaneth hospital. I went and hid in the loo…but they found me)

9 comments:

Wendy said...

My goodness. This is a true tale?! I'd hide in the loo too!!

The scariest thing that ever happened to me was in 1987 - spring break in Acapulco. All my friends had some of that wacky tabacky and we were gathered on the beach. Something told me not to bring ANYTHING - I wore no jewelry (except a shell ring) and I brought no money). As we all stood there together, passing the cig about, a group of "Federales" came along with their guns and "bandeleros" and told us we'd go to their jail (for the tabacky) unless we gave them everything we had. Some of the crowd had gold jewelry and money. A couple had ALL their spending money. The men took it all. I must have sheepishly hid in the crowd and blended in ok, as they didn't press me to give anything - other than my shell ring. I didn't hang with that crowd for the rest of the trip. I steered clear of ANY Federales.

Miladysa said...

Fantastic post Colin. Really interesting and what a wonderful experience - I know it was quite scary but nevertheless absolutely great story to be able to tell!!

My favourtie quote? "bugger grips" roflmao!

Looking forward to receiving your resume and as your have already declared one hand on my blog you shall have to come up with another theme for the boys!

PS Did you sing the Beirut mafia the Wee Wee Song? *chuckling*

Deranged Doctor said...

I think you've found your niche as a songwriter, Colin. At least it seems to have caught on with the general public.
Lucky the dogs weren't along that trip.

Just Some Gal said...

Colin,
What an amazing piece! I can't truly say story since its your real life. You have had such a multi faceted life so far...and I'm curious to find out so much more.

Thank for sharing, once again, such an incredibly expereince.

AJH said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Romeo Jensen said...

message recieved... mission accomplished... keep me updated

hugs ya... well a guy hug... 2 feet apart

((((( hug )))))

Magpie said...

well you have had an interesting life, i would never have left the country again, i suppose thats why i'm not rushing to visit egypt or south africa any time soon...

this is why america is so good, its full of fab and interesting people just waiting to tell you their life stories...

p.s. i emailed you...

:0)

undercover celebrity said...

So, what's the deal? I get an urgent request for an email and then nothing back... what gives? Are you compiling a list to sell to email marketers? If so, you are such dead meat. :)

PBS said...

I just returned from a work trip but thank goodness it was nothing like your trip!