GLOBETROTTER

Brief encounters

You can tell a lot about a country from its cab drivers, although when you fly into New York and jump into a lumbering yellow cab, you might be forgiven for thinking that you were in the Middle East, which is about as ironic as you can get, given the current situation in the world. Whizzing around the Gulf in recent days I was struck by the differences between the various states. In Dubai the man who drove the taxi to the airport was so proud of his country that he barely stayed on the road because he was busy pointing out new developments.

"Here are to be three tallest towers in whole world," he said. "Three! Very different now to three years past. Then, no tower. Now big change. Times is good."

A couple of hours later I was in Bahrain and the attitude was very different. The cab driver was a nice enough fellow. He was driving a great beast of a 1970s Buick at speeds for which it was not intended. I had insisted that he use the meter rather than having to haggle over a price. No problem, he said. The meter was covered up. He said it was going to cost me five dinars. I really did not care because five dinars would not get you far in a taxi anywhere in the world. I was curious to see how much he was stealing. When we got to the hotel he asked for five dinars and, as he did so, he subtly slipped his fingers down to the meter in order to turn it off, lest I asked to look. I glimpsed the metre. It began with the number one... The following day we went to the track by cab and had another glimpse of the same concept. This time the taxi driver said that he had no idea how to find the circuit. He had never heard of the university next door. He was about 60 and I am sure has lived his entire life on the island the size of the Isle of Man. With 24 hours experience I was able to direct him all the way to the track. Of course, if I had made a mistake he would have made more money...

Anyway, it is all part of the fun. We are in Bahrain to tell the world what a nice place it is so that thousands of tourists will come. Obviously having dodgy cab drivers does not help...

There is clearly huge rivalry in the region to be the place for foreigners go to spend their money. That is what the Grand Prix is all about. In Dubai I felt completely safe and in the newspaper the next day it said that in a recent survey Dubai was judged to be the safest city in the world. In Bahrain I felt fine but there were undercurrents. At the hotel the receptionist seemed almost offended when I asked to have my passport back.

"This is a free country," she said, rather insistently. "You don't need it."

Yes, I am sure it is, I replied, but I still want my passport. I might forget it. I did that once in Belgium...

At the airport as I arrived a rather friendly-looking man handed me a booklet called "A Brief Illustrated Guide to Understanding Islam". It took me about 10 years to figure out what I thought about Christianity so sorting out Islam was not going to be the work of a weekend. But I am happy to read it. I have already leafed through it and I must say I was intrigued because it has diagrams comparing the human embryo with a leech; cross sections of land masses; a diagram of a brain; a picture of the Lagoon nebula (in space); and an illustration explaining how clouds are formed.

I would like to see how they are all connected...

The day in Dubai was flat-out with things kicking off with an interview with the Sheikh. There are a lot of Skeikhs in Dubai and most of them seem to belong to the Al Maktoum Family. As a general rule the more Maktoums a sheikh has in his name, the more important he is. So when we were told we were going to interview His Highness Sheikh Maktoum Hasher Maktoum Al Maktoum we figured he must be quite important.

"I'm knackered!" he said as a means of introduction, explaining that he had not slept a lot because he was getting everything organised for his new A1 racing series. And he was off and running and we did not need to be convinced that he has boundless energy for his new idea.

After that it was time for lunch at the top of the nearby Burj Al Arab hotel, the extraordinary 1000ft high building which rises from the sea in the shape of a sail and features (of all things) an underwater restaurant. They tell me that it is the only hotel in the world to have seven star status and I have to admit that the views from the top were spectacular. But then the Sheikh was dragged off to open a garden fete or something and I headed off to see the new Dubai Autodrome and Business Park with a posse of photographers who were keen to fill their cameras with snaps of "local colour". Away from the bits where they do a lot of watering, Dubai is fairly monotone. It's sand-coloured. In the distance is more sand. There are a few trees but mainly it is just sand.

On the way there was much dispute about whether to stop and photograph camels.

"A camel is a camel," said the French photographer (in French) with a Gallic shrug. "I have many photos from the Paris-Dakar. I will let you have one. These camels, they all look the same!"

Not being a camel expert, I was not going to argue. On the way back the other two photographers decided that to be faithful to true journalism they must have shots of Dubai camels, rather than those which roam the Sahara. And so I sat there in an amused fashon, twiddling my thumbs, while some of the sport's most senior photographers ran around chasing camels in the desert...

Out at the Autodrome (which is sand-coloured because they haven't got round to grass yet) I had bumped into a very ugly thing in the new pitlane. It looked like a bright yellow cartoon version of a Porsche 911, but no decent hairdresser would be caught dead in this beast of a bolide. I discovered that it belonged to something called Futureracers, a new entry-level formula designed for Dubai. Then I bumped into Aussie legend Peter Brock (You meet the funniest people in the desert). I remarked that the car looked horrible and Brockie explained to me, in the nicest possible way, that you it grows on you over time. And then he mentioned that he had had a hand in designing it...

I was not at the track long enough to fall for the charms of the ugly little thing but I did manage to see the value of what Peter Perfect and his pals are trying to do for Dubai. The Middle East needs a crash course in motor racing culture and the cars are cheap and cheerful. There was a Sheikh involved in this programme as well but as he had only one Maktoum in his name so I figured he was only a cousin...

It was time to rush back for the official A1 launch with all the beautiful people of Dubai gathered along with Juan Pablo Montoya, Rubens Barrichello and Niki Lauda to unveil the Batmobile-like object that looked like a Lola Formula 3000 car in drag. Then there was a bit of chit-chat, a feast of finger food and it was time to rush back and do some writing before falling into bed for a couple of hours and then heading off to Bahrain.

I found that I was feeling quite excited. The F1 world tends to go to the same places time and time again. It is five years since we went anywhere new. The old discovery juices were flowing again and suddenly I was not worried about the political climate any longer. I wanted to explore.

I was whisked back to the days when, as a kid, I used to pore over maps, wondering what it was like to steam down the Zambezi or visit the iron mountains in the north west of Australia. I was one of those annoying childen who knew the capital of Chad (Fort Lamy in those days but now N'djamina) and the colonial name of Malawi. In time that developed into the urge to be a globetrotter and for a while war reporting sounded like my idea of fun but by the time I was old enough I concluded that the wars in Beirut and Afghanistan really did not appeal that much.

And so I ended up at the race tracks and a good life without mortar bombs, land mines and massacres.

The only time since then when I have gone anywhere where thre was potential for real trouble was one year when I took off to Fiji for the coup d'etat. I needed a holiday, tickets were really cheap, I had time to kill and the British High Commission in Australia (where I happened to be) said "Don't go!"

So I went.

And I had the best time. The hotels had been deserted. We named our own prices in the best hotels on the Coral Coast. We were pampered because the staff had nothing better to do. And because there is nothing like a crisis to create camaraderie, the four guests in the 200-room hotel had a great time. Nothing even vaguely dangerous occurred, except that I was once nearly killed by a falling coconut.

The British Government continues to suggest that going to Bahrain is a bad idea. The only way we are going to know is if we go and see...

Print Feature