Thursday, December 20, 2007

Marrakech Here I Come

Tomorrow is the first day of the Eid holidays in Morocco. I will be visiting Marrakesh for a weekend getaway with Deepsixed. Woohoo.....!

On this day, muslims commemorate Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son Ibrahim to show his devotion to Allah. Instead of sons, muslim households will each sacrifice a sheep on this day. It is also a day for charity as 2/3 of the sheep will be given away to the poor so the meat doesn't go to waste.

About a month or so before this event in Algeria and Morocco, you can see a lot of sheep being traded by people just about anywhere you go. In Morocco, a sheep cost about USD300.

I heard that in Morocco, 1 million sheeps will be sacrificed tomorrow. Geez, that's like 1/3 of Singapore's population!

Sacrificial Lambs in Algiers: taken from a passing Corolla. Where's Little Bo Peep?

December 11 & Security Concerns

While we were busily moving houses on that day, Al Queda struck again for the 2nd time this year in Algiers. Read about it here.

The explosions happened nearby our office, about a couple of minutes drive away. According to Algerian coworkers, the earth shook violently when the bombs went off and a few seconds later, a big bellow of smoke was visible some kilometers away.

The attacked had taken a big toll. 62 were killed including a number of university students riding in a bus at the wrong place, wrong time. The students were from the university behind my office. I probably had seen them before on the way to lunch.

More than a week has elapsed since the terrorist attack so this is already old news. The international media has moved on to other news but the security concerns remain very real.

Despite the constant assurances of local management that Algeria is a very safe country, it takes a little logic and a bit of observation skills to know that it isn't true.

Obviously, the definition of safety is relative. For a group of people who had witness a bloody civil war and the atrocities people had done to other people, one or two bombings a year is nothing. For a Singaporean who has just ventured out of his tortise shell in these couple of years, a sudden tire screech could be interpreted as a terrorist attack.

The reason why I don't feel that Algeria is safe enough is because the Algerians do not place enough emphasis on security awareness and standards.

For example, I used to check in to Sheraton Club des Pins. Although being a 5 star hotel and probably the best hotel in Algeria, it doesn't have a good security check at the front gate where I was being driven in. Like many places, the security guard here just walk around the vehicle and do a cursory glance before passing it as safe. I used to quip that the Algerian security guards are X-men, because they have mutant powers to know from afar if there is a threat or not.

After the first Al Queda attack on the PM office earlier this year, Sheraton hotel improved their security checks somewhat. The security guards now attempts to open the bonnet and the trunk of the vehicle for inspection. However, they still stop short of physical checks or check under the vehicle.

The government security standards were not much better. Any traveller who passes through the Algerian airport is subjected to the cumbersome security checks. For the outgoing traveller, there are a total of 6 security checks excluding check-in and boarding! In conversations, some Algerian acquaintances proclaimed proudly that they are taking security so seriously.

If a traveller approaches the airport in a vehicle, there is a checkpoint just before alighting. Before entering the airport building, he/she has to go through the second checkpoint with a scanner. After check-in, there is a third check to validate one's passport and ticket. Upon clearing immigration, a fourth security checkpoint with scanner looms. If he/she clears this one, there is a customs check (the fifth). The officer will ask you to declare if you are bring local money out. After boarding, there is a sixth and final body and luggage check right outside the plane. Nobody could board the plane without feeling a little harassed after so many checks.

The question is, with so many security checks, are they all doing their jobs? On several occasions, I had observed the security personnel sitting behind the scanner monitor happily sms-ing away. The airport is a classic case of having quantity does not equate to quality.

I was scheduled to leave Algiers for Morocco on the 16th. As it was just after the December 11th incident, security airport was running at its peak. Traffic was jammed up along the road to the airport caused by the more stringent checks (however, still no physical checks) just outside the airport.

Sitting in the car, I realized that heighten state of security in Algeria is only a temporary measure. When you have tighter security, the normality breaks down. In this particular case, traffic gets into a bottleneck at the erected checkpoints. In a weeks or two, in order to expedite traffic and resume operational normacy, airport security breaks down again.*

It will take many years of transition before Algerian security becomes a norm, that is, when functioning, does not break down the routine.

*In pretty much all of Algiers, when there is a police checkpoing, traffic jam occurs or people starts to clusterfuck, becoming a non-moving crowd.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007


Haven't been blogging for a while because of a busy schedule after the Singapore holidays.

Anyway, we arrived back in Beirut first to apply for our visa to Algeria. On 9th December, we got back to Algiers on a night flight. On 11th, we were busy moving to a new guest house. After that, I prepared a presentation for the year end meeting on 14th December. Soon after, deepsixed and me departed for Morocco to apply for yet another 3 month Algerian visa. After getting the visa, we intend to fly to Beirut to celebrate the new year and spend January to do 2008 planning.

Life can be this complicated sometimes.

Bye Bye Cheraga

December 11 was moving day. Our group of young? expats (below 40) were transferred from the present guesthouse in Cheraga to another guesthouse in Palm Beach. After living in Cheraga for almost a year, it was a pity to have to move.

Relocating to Palm Beach could take a little of getting used to. In Algiers, it is already challenging to find a supermarket with a wide range of products to cater to the expats. To date, only three supermarkets in Algiers fit this bill: Opera, Galaxy and Carrefour. Even these are still below par compared to our neighbourhood NTUC or Cold Storage. So after moving, we would have to travel a longer distance to be able to visit the same familiar supermarket and grocer. With a Corolla issued to us, we could probably cope by planning weekly purchase trips.

Most of my stuff are in two categories: books and clothes

The second inconvenience has not presented itself yet. It is winter now but comes summer the entire route to the office will be crowded with traffic to and fro Palm Beach. The entire Palm Beach will be crowded with visitors during summer. Supposedly now, we are able to enjoy some seaside tranquility after moving here. Save for the fact that it is very cold and breezy out there now.

Algiers Palm Beach is similar to the resort-like Palm Beach in Florida only in namesake only. Palm Beach Algiers is made up of: a cluster of seaside motels, which are vacated during most of the year except during summer. Our new guesthouse is one of these motels; a few rows of seaside bungalows belonging to the Algerian high society members; small superettes (mini-marts) and restaurants measuring little larger than 5 meters square; and a kilometer stretch of undeveloped beach.

Because of Algeria's violent past, building are usually surrounded by high protective walls topped with concentina wires to ward off the unwarranted visitors. Palm Beach was no exception but it makes this little resort town look like a cluster of mini prisons amidst meter tall unkempt wild grass patches and a small beach (Read: escape is neigh impossible).

Takes a lot of imagination to picture this relatively unscenic place as the much touted place to be during Algerian summer.

Moving in: first glimpse of my new apartment

When I first arrived to my new apartment, I didn't like it at all. What was management thinking? The place resembles a cheap seaside motel. Wait, it IS a cheap seaside motel with very basic facilities as the company is going for cost-cutting. A big downgrade from our brand new Cheraga guesthouse, this place looks so used. Further more, Palm Beach is further from the office than Cheraga, and in summer the jams are a killer.

Unfortunately, we have no choice in where the company places us so we have to try to make do. The only plus point I could think of at present is that it has a view to the mediterranean sea. But now in winter, being near the seas can be so cold and the two small heaters in the apartment are hardly warm enough.

After the professional movers came with the furniture from the previous guesthouse, the apartment looks a little more furnished and homely. I would love to update you with more pictures of how the apartment looks like now but I got busy with work presentations and packing for my Moroccan business trip, so I have to postpone.

Currently, the guesthouse has 5 residents. Deepsixed and I occupies the two apartments in the fourth storey. The two latino guys occupies the third floor. Our Turkish coworker lives on the second floor. The remaining apartments on the second floor, one third floor apartment and the large penthouse are awaiting the 15 inter-company transfers (ICTs) from China, Syria, Japan, Egypt and Sudan to arrive in Feburary '08. When full, the guesthouse will become a bigger expatriate community. Hopefully then, everyone can get along with everyone.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Diesel Fumes Health Hazard To Asthmatics

According to this news article, exposure to everyday pollution from diesel-powered vehicles can be a health hazard for people with asthma impairing their lung function in just a few hours, a new study showed.

It's a wonder that my asthma hasn't relapsed after spending so much time in traffic jams in Algiers with the car windows down. Can someone explain to me why Algerian drivers have such an aversion to air-conditioning?

These Algerians like to feel the diesel fumes in their hair.... Ah~

Tuesday, December 04, 2007


Lucus, Lucien & Angus

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

At Home On Vacation

In case any of my non-existent reader wonders why I have not blogged for weeks, the reason is because I am on vacation in Singapore. This time I'm staying for 3 weeks and will leave by early December (Already I'm in the second week).

The pampering and comfortable life in Singapore provides a temporary repreive from the low standards of living in North Africa.

Take the example of water, tap water is safe to drink here. The quality of the water doesn't cause skin and scalp issues.

Or the water-heater. At home I get warm water for shower on demand 24 x 7.

At our guesthouse in Cheraga, the water-heaters had been conspiring to breakdown just when winter is coming. Freezing showers was becoming the norm because the hot water tends to get cut off halfway during the shower.

Before I left, I sent for the plumber who had no idea how to fix the problem. Meanwhile, the company deemed it cost ineffective to replace the unit. It just told us to share whichever heater is still working. They must think we are already very fortunate because the Algerians do not even get water everyday!

Interesting isn't it? A country that is steep in the Islamic faith and God seems to be turning his back.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Cest La Vie
Anyway, I've been busy, very busy. There are so many personal errants to run.

Personal financial planning issues requires some attention especially after being away for months. Islamic countries frown upon insurance and interest so the money never grows and life is cheap. Lebanon is an exception but interest rates there cannot beat inflation and insurance cost like hell.

I've also been exercising regularly to reduce a little weight. Back in Algeria, the environment was not conducive enough. There is no place to jog without being harassed by the jobless bumps hanging along the streets day and night.

Partly, I'm at fault for not keeping a healthy dietary regime and the weight has been piling up. My intention is to kickstart a healthy habit of regular exercise and dieting while on vacation and bring it back after vacation.

Vacation is about meeting up friends and doing enjoyable things together. After being a third world recluse for months, I have no intention of excessive partying and binge drinking. Probably because I find no lack of alcohol in my guesthouse inventory anyway.

I still enjoy feasting and dining with friends. I believe that a little management on the ordering side will not be detrimental to my weight reduction plan. Nothing beats sitting down for food and drinks with likeminded friends while we reminisce the good old days, speculate the future or sometimes just resort to plain o'bitching about things under the sun.

But the best of all, family time! It's nice to come home and play with my nephews. All three are growing up fast and full of life's energizing zest!

It's heaven to laze around the house and be in the midst of family and relatives and the world of free food and clean laundry on demand. =D

Life is good...

Friday, November 09, 2007

Freshmen Training Accomplished

Photo with group B

That's it, I have completed my part in the Freshmen Training Camp teaching 4 classes of about 30 students (31 Oct & 3, 4, 6 Nov) about marketing & TWSM.

I didn't want to lecture the entire day, so I planned the program to be a half day lecture and half day workshop. Still, it was exhausting as I had to talk almost the entire day. In the workshops, opposing teams sometimes can't see eye to eye and I have to play pacifier.

So workshops are just as tiring but they can be very fun too. There's a lot of brainstorming and teamwork.

Workshops are great for judging people too. Sometimes, I get a glimpse of occasional talent or leadership potention in several quiet and unassuming freshmen. Several of the better educated and outspoken ones ("You know I have a Masters degree?") seemed very self assured ("Don't I deserve more points for completing the task first.") but upon further evaluation, turned out to be just as clueless as the rest.

Next round, I'll plan a 2 hours lecture and workship for the rest of the day so that I don't have to work so much. Ha! Continuous improvement!

Marketing Workshop

Freshmen masterpieces

Class photos (Group C)

Monday, October 22, 2007

Back To The Middle Ages

Sometimes I feel that coming back to Algeria is like being back to the Middle Ages.

When I return to my apartment in Cheraga, I discovered these:

1) Heater for apartment and water spoilt and dismantled. The apartment is getting cold (20 degrees celcius interior)and I have to shower at co-workers apartment everyday. I felt very inconvenienced.

2) Wireless internet down. Router missing.

3) Cable TV down

It's back to basic living...

4) Housekeeping lady ate my pork Bah Kua!
I found few pieces of my vacuum packed bah kua missing. Only the housekeeping lady has been in the apartment since I'm gone and she has been known to eat our food and take our things.

Is it a sin if a Muslim ate pork, even though unkowningly? Well she deserves it for taking food without asking anyway.

2nd Freshmen Training Camp Begins!

So the 2nd company 'freshies' training camp has begun in Algeria from Oct 21 until Nov 15. Company has decided, following a successful season in Morocco last year, to increase the intake from 40 to 120!

The big intake was to provide a pool of TW-trained inductees to cater for our Algerian distributor's human resource problems. This is also the first year our regional training academy begins to train associates for our distributors/dealer in other countries like Egypt, Syria, China, Japan, Morocco and Sudan, which explains the huge intake as well.

I pity the 'freshies' who are used to creature comforts like me. Upon arrival, they were sent to El Bahir hotel, an enclosed compound that is pretty away from civilization (at the 'attractive price of USD21/night!), and immediately began facing water and food problems. The showers weren't working and food catering wasn't sufficient.

Nothing to shout about in the interior decorations area too. The furniture and room design is circa 60s.

I began to feel that my apartment in Cheraga is a paradise.

"Grand Opening Night"

So yesterday was the opening party of the freshmen camp on site at El Bahir hotel. I was invited.

As usual dinner started late so I took a look around at the facilities. The hotel features a swimming pool albeit it was drained during autumn and winter.

The design of the swimming pool is certainly one of a kind. A rectangle pool that is length-wise olympic standard, albeit narrower in breadth. Right at one end of the pool are two cylindrical pillars with each a tree growing in the middle.

I wonder very often what the Algerians are thinking?!?!

Lifeguard: "Swimmer in Lane 5, WATCH OUT for that tree!!!!"

The dinner portion of the event was in reality very short. The freshies were already starving because breakfast and lunch was light. When the late dinner started, everyone rushed to the food.

The picture did not do justice to reality. I had never seen a buffet spread suffered a more savage and brutal multi-pronged attack other than yesterday evening.

Algerian and Moroccan forces forced a decisive armored pincer push on poulet. Egyptian and Syrian troops launched an airborne blitz assault on poisson. Chinese and Sudan special forces struck at the rear on viande.

It took tops 15 mins for the dinner guests to clear out 3 large table spread of food! Even the dessert table was mopped up simultaneously. Indeed, the adage "Leave No Eclair Behind" was proudly upheld by the freshies last evening.

Highlights of Last Evening's Dinner?

1) Visited by the Japanese ambassador to Algeria at the dinner. He was invited by the chief executive of the local distributor since they are friends. Our core business is Japanese cars so maybe it was a good PR move on the CE part.

2) My first taste of Mattake (matsutake or pine tree mushroom). A luxury product in Japan it is reputed to fetch a high price of USD 1,000/1 kg. In Algeria, they told me that it is growing in abundance. It tastes quite good when barbequed with soya sauce which complement the fresh pine aroma very well.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Congratulations To Jackson Again!

Dude, you made it into the final 6! Yes!!!


All the best for the last part of the contest!

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Leaving Beirut

I'm leaving Beirut for Algeria on an evening flight today.

In the days before leaving, we got a celebratory mood going and spent some nights partying.

The pictures will do the talking.

Open Beer, Open Wings @ HRC

Me, Pablo, my Columbian co-worker, looking silly with HRC waitress

We partied with a group of Armenian guys and it was double the fun. Boy, were they were rowdy!

Bora wants to be the new Ghost Rider

Xinyi's Birthday Dinner @ Molly Malone's Irish Pub @ Gemayze

This cosy little pub got really crowded with people soon after our arrival

Gaelic steak; Xinyi said it was one of the steak she had tasted. I agreed after trying the taste.

Irish Stew; Disappointing taste and quantity. I like my stew hearty!

Happy Birthday! to Xinyi

Sunday, October 14, 2007

England Through To Rugby World Cup Finals

Josh Lewsy's early try

The traditional rivalry between the English and French was re-ignited in the Rugby World Cup semi-finals yesterday. The English must defend their championship title against the French on their own turf in Saint Denis.

France is the host country for this year's rugby world cup. The French had very high hopes of going into the finals and winning the the world cup for the first time.

The game was telecast live at The Celtic, an Irish pub along Monot Street (like Mohammad Sultan in Singapore). The mood was high as the pub was crowded with French and English supporters there to cheer their national teams on in this important match.

An Irishman told me, due to obvious reasons, he is sticking with the French. Interesting.

An early try two minutes into the game by Josh Lewsey brought England ahead by 5 points. Johnny Wilkinson's failure to convert the try to increase the score margin would haunt England for the entire game as both sides were neck to neck in their score throughout the game.

Both teams were so evenly matched, no more trys were scored for the first half. The French were able to capitalise on a couple of penalties conceded and led the score over England at half time. Half time - France 6:5 England.

French supporters celebrating their half time lead

The second half was nail-biting for me to watch as the French were slowly inching their way towards victory holding on to their 1 point lead. The British were unable to gain any points as the game will soon draw to a close. England supporters, undaunted, sang the anthem in support for their team both at the stadium and in the pub:

Swing low, sweet chariot
Coming for to carry me home
Swing low, sweet chariot
Coming for to carry me home

The bartenders were obviously not taking sides

Wilkinson back on par in the second half scored a penalty and a drop kick with 6 minutes remaining in the game and brought England to victory. Final Score - France 9:14 England

Oh Sweet victory! England supporters celebrating their team's win

World cup dream for les bleu is over. England will play either South Africa or Argentina in the finals on 20 Oct next Saturday.


Despite playing well, the English team lost to the South Africans in the finals yesterday. =(

No repeat victory for England =(

South Africa wins Rugby World Cup for 2nd time

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Eid and The End of Ramadan

In Beirut during Ramadan, things had not been difficult as initially thought. For one, food is readily available.

Several schedule changes occurred during the fasting month. Working hours were adjusted to facilitate the fasting month. Lunch hour is cancelled and Work ends an hour earlier so that the muslims can arrive home earlier to prepare to break their fast. For the non-Muslims, we still get our lunch and knock off with the rest an hour ahead of usual.

In the evening, muslims hang out and enjoy other social activities after the breaking of fast and evening prayers so restaurants and stores stay open until midnight to cater for these customers.

Save for these and some obvious changes to the routine, Ramadan in Beirut did not look that festive to me. In Singapore, muslim households compete with each other to see who can put up a nicer lighting display and glowing green giant ketupats dazzle passing motorists along the streets of Geylang and Eunos.

When I arrived in Lebanon and waited for the beginning of Ramadan, I had expected that the festive atmosphere in Beirut will be even more over the top, given that the Lebanese have a flair for being dramatic. However, I was utterly disappointed. The several nights that I had hanged out along popular Hamra street had not put me in the least celebratory mood at all.

Today is Eid, the first day that marks the end of Ramadan. The streets are almost empty of people and the majority of the stores are closed, saved for popular establishments like coffee houses and shopping malls. It seems that most Beirutians prefer to spend time with their family and relatives during Eid, some even return to their native towns and cities to do that. This is not unlike the Chinese New Year visiting that we do.

The ones that truly enjoyed the coming of Eid holidays were my hotel neighbours (University undergrads?) who stayed up late last night partying, drinking, making a fool of themselves and keeping me up.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007


Sometimes I cannot recognize my own name.

In the overseas Chinese context, family name (surname) is placed before name. But following the islamic convention, people in Algeria, Lebanon and the entire Arab world go by their first name and their father's name. So names are constructed differently.

In official papers, they do not only ask for family name and first names, but also for my father's name too. So officially my name will be constructed this way: (family name)(name)(father's name)

Suppose my name is Tan Ah Kow and my dad's name is Ah Niao. My name will be Tan Ah Kow Ah Niao.

So no blame can be put on me when I failed to acknowledge to an Arabic twist of Ah Kow Ah Niao, announced over the bank or government office counter.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Yet Another Update From Beirut

So I get to spend yet another week in Beirut.

I cannot return to Algeria because my entry visa isn't ready. It'll take longer than usual this time due to a new ruling.

In partial fulfillment of the Algieran visa application, it is now required of me to get a reference letter from the Singapore consulate in Beirut to certify that I am a Singaporean residing in Lebanon. It is not clear why I have to do so because I have a Lebanese resident permit as document proof.

Although this no longer came as a surprise because I have learned first hand that Algerians are masters of generating redundant paperwork in the universe.

Then the consul general of the Singapore consulate in Beirut (a Lebanese) had to add his own contribution into the paperwork fun. First he wants to know why he needs to issue the reference letter in his capacity.

So I had to fax the consulate (their email is not working) a request letter stating my purpose, attached with scans of my passport and Lebanese resident permit. On top of that I've also attached a sample letter issued by the Malaysian consulate to a co-worker , in case the Singapore consul general doesn't understand my request.

Then the Singapore consul general wants to find out if it is in his capacity to issue the reference letter by running it through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs first. I mean, dude, it is just a simple personal request from a Singaporean citizen overseas, don't make it a foreign affair issue please.

And all this while I am legally and physically residing in Beirut since the beginning of last month and had done so last year before being stationed in Algeria.

Meanwhile, my delayed return to Algeria is driving my paymasters nuts because they prefer to see me earn my pay slogging over there where most of the sales revenues are coming from.

USD/SGD Exchange Rate Hits Record Low

Speaking of my pay, which is calculated in US dollars, the recent decline in USD/SGD exchange rate had been very bad news for me.

My 2 year stint with the company has seen the USD weakening against the SGD. Last month, it broke through the 1.5o mark.

Today, the USD hit another bottom (US$1= SGD$1.472). It has reached the record low in 5 years
. With my pay pegged at USD 1 = SGD 1.65 in my job contract, today's exchange rate implies that I had kenna an approximately 11% paycut!

Why? God, Why?!

Hopefully, my paymasters will have mercy on me and revise up the pay to compensate for exchange rate losses soon. The pay package is beginning to lose it's attraction.

Monday, September 24, 2007

The Curious Incident About The Dog ... & A Wiimote

Although I was never a proud owner of a dog .... yet. I was able to experience the joy and tribulations in having a dog when I read "Marley & Me: Life and love with the world's worst dog" by John Grogan.

Grogan writing probably captured the essence of what it was like to have a dog, judging by the overwhelming responses by dog lovers on his blog.

The book is now and will be providing me with hours more of reading pleasure about the exploits of Marley the lab, when I am due to travel back to Algeria next week. It will make me more resolved to have my own pet dog some day after returning to Singapore. I would like to have an alsatian, although I wouldn't mind a labrador after reading the book.

Anyway, given my current fascination with the labrador, it was amusing to come across a very wacky news about a labrador that swallowed a Nintendo Wiimote whole. Now I cannot imagine what a labrador wouldn't do?

According to the news, a family in Colorado allowed their 3 year old labrador an old TV remote as a chew toy. Unable to discern better, the lab came across a misplaced Wiimote, thought that it was another chew toy, and promptly ate it!

When the lab started spitting up blood, the family grew alarmed and sent it to the vet. Upon an X-ray examination, it was revealed that the lab had swallowed the Wiimote. The vet was able to expel the wiimote after some medication and some belly massaging.

In punishment, the lab got an overnight stay at the vet for further observation. The son paid the ultimate price for misplacing his wiimote. He got two weeks allowance docked as a punishment to replace the chewed up wiimote.

Wish I could say "dog ate my missing PSP".

Can you spot the chewed up Wiimote in the X-ray? I can't

Another Update from Beirut

There was a bomb explosion last week, which killed a politician in Eastern Beirut. It was on the same day I was at ABC Shopping Mall in East Beirut for shopping and movie. I didn't learn about it until the next day but Xinyi and I was wondering the entire time, why there were scarcely any people at the mall?

"It was probably a weekday." was what we thought.

Political assassinations seem to be common in Lebanon nowadays. Yet no one is taking the responsibility for the killings.

The anti-Syrian faction, the ones doing most of the dying, are blaming Syria for the assassinations as revenge on the anti-Syrian faction for plotting an end to the Syrian political domination in 2005. The pro-Syrian faction alleges that the anti-Syrian faction is fond of using Syria as a scapegoat when killing off opponents.

The Lebanese people had grown rather accustomed to these political killings. At the expectant rate of one politician killed every few months, and except for a few unfortunate souls, who happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time, the Lebanese seems to be unperturbed by any of the violence happening around at all.

Unaffected they may seem though, the Lebanese are probably fretting about the long term impact of this political turmoil. Life goes on as usual but life may not be as rosy as before. Today, the taxi drivers are not bargaining as hard as compared to last year. They figured out that it is at least better to be paid less than to lose a passenger. Peopl are also complaining about the climbing crime rates. Tourism, I think, must be in shambles as tourist are giving Lebanon the detour

The tourist trade in Lebanon, a mainstay of the economy, was given no respite after being disrupted by the Israel-Hezabollah war in late 2006 . Followed soon after by the Lebanese political protest, although a peaceful sit-in demonstration, impacted the economy negatively in several ways, including the closure of downtown Beirut as a vibrant business and dining venue .

Mounting political tensions continued to keep tourists away as two anti-Syrian MPs were assassinated in separate incidents between late 2006 and early 2007.

Then in May of 2007, a bloody insurgency broke out between Lebanese security forces and an outlawed Islamic organization, Fatah al Islam. Ending only in the beginning of this month, it was followed by the explosion that killed the politician two weeks later.

If these events don't scare the tourists away, I don't know what would. If I don't have to stick to my business travel objectives, I wouldn't want to visit Beirut. It is going to take a long time and tantamount efforts before Beirut could regain its reputation as the "Paris of the Middle East".

On a different note, Xinyi and I had a great outing last week at the movies (Ratatouile, in my opinion is an excellent movie) and ate good pasta at Napoletana in ABC Mall.

Italy in your city, the restaurant promises on its slogan

Xinyi's plate: Spaghetti alla Carbonara. It looked pretty good!

My plate: Fusili alla Sicilliani which literally translates as Sicilian twisted pasta. It was an excellent choix.

Monday, September 10, 2007

An Update

All Quiet On the Middle Eastern Front

I will be working in Beirut for the entire month of September because I need to re-apply for my Lebanese work and residence permit.

Due to the unstable political landscape here, many stores and restaurants in the downtown area where I'm working, had relocated to other parts of Beirut. The entire area now resembles a cross between silent hill, minus the gloom and monsters, and an army camp, where you see troops, M113s and concertina wires everywhere.

People are hinting that the month's end election will foster a consensus between the clashing political factions. However, it seems that there were too many unrealized hopes in the past and it doesn't easily give credibility to this election as a resolution to the country's political problems. At least there had been no outbreaks of violence in the recent months.

News From The Home Front

Angus, my nephew, is able to sit up by himself and has begun to eat solid food. My sis has sent me photos of Angus celebrating his 'coming of age' with a foam party.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Fast Food & Algeria

There has been some speculation on why there is no proper fast food in Algeria. I'm talking here about big franchises like MacDonald's or Burger King with their standardized menus and ubiquitous restaurant outlets that are encroaching on the modern and traditional alike, thereby, ruining the historical picturesqueness of some places.

One plausible explanation was that there is a lack of freeze storage technology nor stable electricity supply that fast food chains like MacDonalds require to store their ingredients. Possibly also, there is a lack of trustworthy local ingredients supply (Algerian don't usually consider time nor quality to be essential).

Maybe it's a good thing that there is no MacDonalds or KFC. Academics has warned about the dangers of over-rationalization as exemplified by the rapid institutionalization of fast food and eating habits in society (see Weber's Protestant Ethics, 1958; Rizter's MacDonaldization, 1993; Schlosser's Fast Food Nation, 2001). Too much of something is obviously, no good.

Don't get me wrong, there has been fast food in Algeria for as long as anyone can remember. It is not difficult to get your hands on a hamburger with fries and coke from a local store, shamelessly named McMadrid or McQuince. The local fare is unfortunately sans taste and hygiene, in the "man, my burger is dripping oil and the meat patty looks suspicious" kind of way. (if you want a comparison, it's like Ramli burger sold along a ulu street enroute to KL BUT much much more awful tasting and messier!)

Anyway, depending on your perspective, it may be a bane or a boon when you cannot find the familiar golden arches everytime you turn the corner. For a person far away from home, I just want to sink my teeth into something familiar, something that is reminiscent of familiar times, with a predictable taste and quality.

I mean, a Big Mac should taste, smell and look almost similar whether purchased from an outlet in modern metropolitan Shinjuku or from an outlet in down-trodden, desolated slum of Southern Namibia. One can argue until the cows come home about the taste and quality of a Big Mac but we would be digressing.

So it is not an exaggeration to say that social change has finally arrived with the first opening of a Quick outlet in July 2007 at Ben Mhidi, Algiers.

Quick is a Belgian fast food restaurant chain similar to MacDonald's and has 400 restaurants located in Belgium, France and Luxemburg. It has made plans for 20 outlets in Algeria for the next 5 years, with the next outlet opening in Sidi Yahia.

Given the present situation, it wouldn't hurt abit if Algerians could learn a little bit more standards in food preparation and storage from the fast food MNCs. Food poisoning is a serious problem in Algiers due to lack of knowhow in food storage and the unhygienic way of preparing food. ( Every expat colleague of mine has experienced different degrees of food poisoning while in Algeria making the term halal food rather meaningless.

Often we encounter local restaurants that are simply no longer interested in improving their menu and customer service to woo customers anymore. The emergence of a fast food industry in Algeria will most probably drive competition up, forcing the local business to either level-up or go out of business.

Our Visit to Quick
Deepsixed, Pablo, Felix and me visited the first Quick outlet in Algiers downtown one evening. Was too busy to blog about it until now.

Like any fast food restaurant in other parts of the world, it was crowded with teenagers and families. Although the facade doesn't look like anything special but this IS the first burger restaurant brand owned by an MNC in the history of Algeria. (And we were there, Wow!)

We had to fight the queue in order to order our dinners from the counter. Algerians queue like the way they drive (me first! me first!). There is no respect of proper queueing, people are cutting queues and elbowing each other. It was so frustrating that I forgot to take a picture of the chaos at the counter. Since I grew up taking MacDonalds for granted and these Algerians had been waiting their entire lifetime to eat foreign brand burgers, I relented and allowed some of them cut my queue.

When it was my turn to order, the cashier was able to take my order for four persons correctly amidst the din the shoving crowd was creating (Incredible!). When she returned with our food, she had forgotten to give us fries, which is a typical Algerian habit of not delivering on promise. Anyway, deepsix reminded her and she quickily rectify the mistakes on the spot. A historical achievement for Algerian service industry!
Doesn't my burger and fries look neat or what? It has been a long time since I came across a burger that is nice prepared and neatly wrapped (if the ones in hotel restaurants are to be excluded). Interestingly, my colleague ordered Quick's signature burger, Giant, but it appears to be no bigger than all the other burgers on the menu. Giant is the name but do not necessary refer to the size, I was told later.

I saw a staff in the restaurant who was distributing balloons to children of the customers in the restaurant. Many patrons were approaching him to ask for free balloons, even asking for those that are not yet inflated. I presume that many of these people were asking for balloons for their kids, their next door neighbour's kids, their cousin's kids in the next wilaya, their former room-mate's kids or something.

Again, things that we took so much for granted, they are special here. I later heard that this is probably the first incident of free balloon giveaway in Algiers. Maybe the Algerians had never been able to buy balloons or get a free one before this.