Our man [formally] of Amsterdam


Last stop – Tahiti
March 5, 2010, 04:49
Filed under: Tahiti, Travel

‘Nothing’ doesn’t necessarily come cheap. Doing ‘nothing’, that is, especially when that ‘nothing’ takes place in an over-the-water bungalow on Tahiti’s Bora Bora lagoon; where lapping waves lull you to the most blissful sleep; where fish the size of footballs and the colour of molten gold can be seen directly beneath your glass-top coffee table; where the most arduous decision of the day is choosing between grilled mahi mahi fillets or marinated duck brochettes for dinner, and whether to try a glass of French rose or chardonnay.

Of course, you could scuba dive or kite surf, or jet ski, or sunbake or shop for pearls or float in a boat or paddle a kayak or read that book or watch that sunset or sip another cocktail or …

But that would be doing something, and we came to French Polynesia to do nothing. Thing is, it turns out that ‘nothing’ and ‘something’ fit together in Bora Bora as snugly as my ice-chilled Tahitian Hinano lager inside its neoprene bottle holder, where the neck is tapered tighter to hug the glass and keep your beer blizzardly cold.

Salut, juicht toe, prost, skol, au revoir and goodbye from the man formerly of Amsterdam.

Click image to see Tahiti Flickr set



Stoney-faced in Rapa Nui
February 26, 2010, 14:00
Filed under: Chile, Travel

Ever wanted to get away from it all, to really get away? Well, the one place on the planet that is furtherest from human habitation is Rapa Nui. Apart from its 4000 inhabitants and a steady stream of tourists, the nearest thing to a permanent civilisation is almost 2000 kilometres away to the west in Pitcairn Island, or roughly the same distance east to Chile.

Such isolation has its challenges. Lots of things have to be flown in (there is no port or ship loading facility), and this costs lots, as does maintaining basic infrastructure and providing essential services. Most roads are not paved, but are dusty rock-strewn tracks with potholes as big as tractor tyres. Packs of mostly friendly dogs either lie about in the molten humidity or bark wildly. Come to think of it, most of the humans on the island, including the tourists, did too.

Centuries of tribal warfare has left the island stripped bare of any forestation, leaving no trees for shade and a landscape more barren and infertile than most deserts. So everything has to be flown in, and this costs lots.

A common mode of local transport is on horseback, and piles of manure left on the streets of the island’s only settlement lend the air the scent of a stable. That’s why you need to take a torch with you at night because the street lights don’t always work, and you never know what you might tread on after dark.

Rapa Nui is a Chilean territory, so this means good ice-cream and tasty pisco sours are never far away. Neither are the stoney-faced statues (know as moai) that define the island’s international identity and provide its chief source of income. Most moai were desecrated  during prolonged internecine fighting hundreds of years ago. Apart from the free-standing monoliths at various stages of construction on the slopes of Rano Raraku (the volcanic quarry where the statues were carved), most other moai have been re-erected by locals, usually with the help of aid organisations or philanthropic initiatives, to not only preserve an integral cultural legacy, but attract tourists as well.

And it works. More than 50,000 of us turn up annually, and most of these during the ‘peak’ season from December to March, when the tradewinds abate slightly and the UV meter drops from Extreme to High. True, you can scuba dive or ride a wave or hike a hill or burn some skin while here, but you can do these elsewhere, probably cheaper and likely much better.

For us, Rapa Nui was a very convenient stopover, a neat midway rest stop on our long haul home across the Pacific from Santiago to Sydney via Tahiti. It’s a stopover, not a destination, which you could probably say about a lot of Asian or Middle Eastern cities (Bangkok and Hong Kong; Dubai and Abu Dhabi), but they are stopovers you could easily revisit, and Rapa Nui is definitely not.

Click here for Rapa Nui Flickr set …



In Patagonia
February 6, 2010, 17:58
Filed under: Argentina, Chile, Travel

Like Bruce Chatwin In Patagonia, we went to the southernmost town in the world:

Ushuaia began with a prefabricated mission house put up in 1869 by the Rev. W. H. Stirling alongside the shacks of the Yaghan Indians [the lowest form of humanity, according to Darwin]. For sixteen years Anglicanism, vegetable gardens and the Indians flourished. Then the Argentine Navy came and the Indians died of measles and pneumonia …The settlement graduated from navy base to convict station. The Inspector of Prisons designed a masterpiece of cut stone and concrete more secure than the jails of Siberia. Its blank grey walls, pierced by the narrowest of slits, lie to the east of the town. It is now used as a barracks.

That was in the late 1970s, when Chatwin came this way. Today, the prison come barracks is a museum, like Alcatraz, open to the public and meant to show how penal justice was dispensed a century or so ago. Mornings in Ushuaia began in flat calm for Chatwin:

Across the Beagle Channel you saw the jagged outline of Hoste Island opposite and the Murray Narrows, leading down to the Horn archipelago. By mid-day the water was boiling and slavering and the far shore blocked by a wall of vapour.

He also noted that, “The blue-faced inhabitants of this apparently childless town glared at strangers unkindly. The men worked in a crab cannery or in the navy yards, kept busy by a niggling cold war with Chile. The last house before the barracks was the brothel. Skull-white cabbages grew in the garden.”

Well, the men and women today are much more friendly, they’re reproducing and most likely work in tourism or hospitality, though the cannery survives, supplying the plethora of Ushuaia’s restaurants with the local King Crab delicacy, a crustacean sensation unequalled for size, taste and the wrangling, wrestling effort needed to separate its succulent flesh from the hardest shell I’ve ever tried to crack. Eating one is an exercise in resistance training.

Plus, we cruised the Beagle Channel, lunched at Estancia Harberton, rode the El Tren del Fin de Mundo (the train at the end of the world) as well as the Old Patagonian Express, trekked the Parque Nacional Tierra Del Feugo and ate more Argentinian beef than is humanly possible. Later, in El Calafate, we clamped crampons on and toured the Perito Merino Glacier, as well as criss-crossed the Chilean border into Parque Nacional Torres del Paine, perhaps the alpine highlight at “The Uttermost Part of the Earth”, with its rugged granite pillars soaring almost vertically to nearly 3000 metres above the Patagonian steppe. Welcome to the end of the world; where nature in all its glacial glory lies untamed and unfurled.

Click image for Patagonia Flickr set



Tango in Buenos Aires
February 3, 2010, 03:22
Filed under: Argentina, Travel

Click image to see tango Flickr set



For reasons of security
January 23, 2010, 14:30
Filed under: Brazil, Travel

Peter Allen and Barry Manilow have a lot to answer for because Copacabana is crap. Ugly high rise hotels line a long curved beach, and the tepid warm water is not that clean, nor is the sand. Haven’t seen a wave all week; and they call this paradise. Heavily armed tourist police patrol the beach, ‘for reasons of security’.

The city however, is extraordinary. The sheer physicality of its topography, with its high-density living, its frantic noise, its mega energy, its kamikaze bus drivers, its smouldering heat, its tropical downpours, its blizzardly cold beers, its poseurs and pretenders constantly parading along promenades, all make it feel like you’re living in a permanent fast lane with no drop-off zone in sight.

In one of the many little kiosks along the beach, a barman took a green coconut and held it upright in the palm of his hand and with a very sharp, shiny machete he lashed down at the top of the coconut and sliced off a section, then he did it again but from a different angle, taking another wedge off the top to make an opening, and if the machete slipped down the side of the coconut, his hand would have been separated from his wrist, but this didn’t happen. After that, he added some ice cubes and a straw and charged 3 reais (about $2) for a coco drink. It was not very refreshing, and so I only ordered caipirinhas after that (mashed limes, sugar syrup and cane liquor, shaken over ice) because they are extremely refreshing in the heat, but more than four can make you a bit tiddly, which is why it’s wise to have some acaraje (spicy prawn croquettes) as well, ‘for reasons of sobriety’.

Everyone wears Havaianas, probably for reasons of national prosperity or identity.

In the favela slums, the drug barons and their armies keep the peace (and everything else) because the police don’t go there, unless a gang war breaks out, which is usually for control of territory. The last ‘war’ was in 2004 and it lasted 40 days. Only marijuana and cocaine is traded; there is no heroin at all. The drug boss of the largest slum (120,000 plus residents) has a nickname that translates from the Portuguese to ‘baby’ in English; this according to Simone, the guide of the excellent favela tour I took. Apparently ‘Baby’ moves house every week or so, ‘for reasons of security’.

Rio’s Maracana football stadium holds 100,000 plus and I went to see a game between two arch rival teams in the local state league that was played in scorching temperatures, and fans where kept apart by polizia with batons the size of baseball bats. (These were different police to the ones on the beach beat.) You had to lift up your shirt at the security check point on entering to ensure you weren’t carrying firearms or other weapons.  Most males (and many females) took their shirt off, and left it off anyway, which had horrendous consequences on the trip home (more later). Fans with drums and horns and trumpets and trombones made more noise than a symphony orchestra, and sounded much better. Thankfully, the section I ended up in was the victor on the day (3-0), and it was the largest contingent by far, so I felt safe because there is safety in numbers, but there is also very bad body odour when the same numbers pack into the metro to go home.

The jockey club races 4 days a week (entrance is free) with about 8-10 races each day, and I only lost about $50, but that’s OK. Spent maybe $100 on expenses though, mainly rehydrating refreshments because it was about 35 degrees well into the night and there was still 2 or 3 races to go, but I didn’t stay because I wasn’t sure when the last bus from the jockey club back to Copacabana was, and I may not have had enough money for a taxi. There was a tiny  crowd, which was 95% white , 99% male, plus 1 gringo who looked decidedly out of place wandering around and carrying a camera, but the numbers attending slowly went up as the temperatures came down. The concierge gave me 2 tips before I left; the first one ran last and the second one was to don’t even think about walking back to the hotel at night, ‘for reasons of security’. See a Racing in Rio Flickr set here.

The roads, the beaches, the sites, the thronging metropolis, all feel crowded and stretched to bursting point now; so how will it cope with a Football World Cup (2014) and the Olympic Games just 2 years later? The city authorities may have to call a truce and enlist the drug barons’ armies, ‘for reasons of security’ and efficiency. Welcome to Rio; mind the irony.

Click image to see Rio Flickr set



Amsterdam ends
January 18, 2010, 18:07
Filed under: Amsterdam, Travel

There was a photo in the local press over the weekend of favela children cooling off under a hose (or fountain?) attempting to relieve Rio’s stifling heatwave, and the reality hit home that I was about to head home: Amsterdam has ended.

Most of my housemates at Grote Bickersstraat are here for a year, so they’re only half way through their stint as an international student, and I guess if this was the case, you’d pace yourself knowing the annual demands of seasons, subjects, borrel (drinking) sessions and semesters, which is what I think I’ve done – pace myself, that is – albeit subconsciously, but for only half that time.

And so now as Australia Day approaches, my time is nigh, and I want to move on, to meet Anita midway home in South America and trek through Patagonia. So with exams over (Distinctions across the board, with one HD), the goodbyes are done, the cell inspection passed, the housing bond refunded, the bike ‘recycled’, winter clothes donated and excess baggage posted. Ah, out it all goes, but not before a Cafe Thijssen double espresso. The last photo has been taken, the final tosti eten, and farewell drinks at Cafe De Gouden Reael, consumed. It’s goodbye cheap red wine and cans of tuna in brine; I won’t miss my feet freezing, but the wholemeal multigrain baguettes will be hard to beat.

All expectations (academically, professionally and geographically) thoroughly and chillingly exceeded.

Due to the obscene departure hour (8am), I stayed the final night at an airport hotel,  Citizen M, and it is a little bit Futurama meets The Jetsons. Take a look at the pics below. Eames and Vitra furniture everywhere. I was sure Scotty was about to beam me up at any stage throughout the shower, a cylindrical, transparent tube with a water faucet as big as a dinner plate and with more pressure than your average sports masseuse. You could check in, spend the night, watch movies for free on a big plasma flat screen, dine in the cafe/bar (portion control meals you heat in a microwave or dress your own salads), have breakfast and check out without ever coming into contact with a single staff member, for it can be entirely self serve, from start to finish. You just swipe your room card (issued from an ATM-like machine on checking in) and the tally keeps increasing, charged directly of course to your credit card, for there is no cash whatsoever in this establishment. Rest assured, there are staff if you do need assistance, but for the most part, they’re conspicuous by their absence. It was voted best new hotel/concept 2009 by the Conde Nast Traveler magazine.

Note loo at left (an opaque glass door slides around you), see the transparent cylindrical shower tube at right; mid frame is a pedestal basin, with bed and plasma screen beyond. Outside the window is the runway.

Funky foyer, one of 6 'rooms' that make up the ground floor. This one regarded as casual business; apart from the bank of check-in machines, other 'rooms' include formal business, children, TV, games, cafe and bar. WiFi free everywhere.

Strangely, I think I feel ready to return to work too, though that won’t be until after Easter, so there are still a few months remaining of wandering and wondering, of reading and dreaming … and then came the boarding call for Iberia flight IB 3215 to Rio de Janeiro, via Madrid, so I raised my arms as if held at gunpoint, but it’s only the full body scan treatment, although the woman in front of me was persistent in her resistance, she was eventually convinced the revealing technology was in all our interests as it was meant to deter the occasional terrorist.

Perhaps the final entry in this blog must wait, to allow some ‘distance’ before a closing reflection can be fully articulated, or appreciated, of the semester this man spent in Amsterdam.



Stopover in Braunschweig
January 15, 2010, 15:36
Filed under: Germany, Travel

I met Evelyn in 1988. She was waiting for a friend at London’s Victoria Station, having just arrived from her German home town of Braunschweig. I too was waiting for a friend at London’s Victoria Station, having just arrived back in England from Spain. We both had big backpacks and each of us noticed the other standing around, staring at the crowd in search of someone known. I think it was she who offered first to ‘watch’ my pack while I went looking for my friend. Not sure this would happen in our more security conscious times today. I must have accepted, failed in my search, and then returned the favour. We did this several times during the afternoon for each other, all to no avail.

That’s how we met. We have caught up many times since, both in Europe and Australia. And we are still in touch 22 years later. She is married with children and that is her and her youngest boy, Finn (below), getting some very fresh air late in the day in snow covered fields just beyond their back fence.

The bird in the picture below was one of many that were feeding in a tree in their yard right outside the window, so I grabbed the Nikon and snapped a few hundred shots during the course of a morning, while we sipped tea (Germans don’t do coffee well at all) and ate divine cakes in Remembrance of Times Past.



“Would you mind coming this way, sir?”
November 23, 2009, 01:43
Filed under: London, Travel

“Who me?” I said.
“Yes,” said the small, squat man wearing a thick coat that was way too big for him, as he stepped out from behind a temporary customs barrier in the international arrival hall at St Pancras station, London. He lead me down a corridor and around behind a series of screens before asking me to remove my aging backpack and take a seat on a padded bench with flattened padding. “Where have you come from tonight?”
“Like everyone else; on the Eurostar from Brussels.”
“Can I see your passport?”
I hand it over. After an uncomfortably long silence, only broken by the crisp flicking of pages, he says: “I see you’ve entered the UK through three different ports over the last, let me see, about, six or seven weeks. Once via ferry through Harwich, this one a few weeks ago at Gatwick airport, and now tonight by train. And all these trips look like they originated in Amsterdam. What is the reason for this visit, sir?”
“A seminar.”
“Where at?”
“Regent’s College in Regent’s Park.”
“A seminar on what?”
“Story.”
“Sorry?”
I wanted to say; ‘No need to apologise’, but chickened out and explained that it was a writing seminar by a famous screenwriting coach focussing on the art of story telling. Passport Man didn’t seem convinced.
“Story? What sort of stories?”
“Any story. It’s quite general from what I understand, but it looks at the craft behind telling a good story, whether for stage, page or screen.” That last phrase he seemed to like, and was from the marketing collateral of Robert McKee’s web site, the seminar’s presenter.
“Story?, like The Da Vinci Code?”
“Exactly. Dreadful writing but a half decent story.”
“Do you want to be the next Darren Brown?”
“If you mean Dan Brown; then yes, but hopefully with better writing.”
He continued flicking the passport pages so briskly that I thought he’d rip the paper.
“I’ve read all the Harry Potter novels,” he said.
“You must have liked the story.”
“Yes,” and the page flicking of my passport continued and when he got to the end he would lick a finger and start flicking back through again. Was he looking for something, for he seemed to be?
“And what is your business in Amsterdam?”
“I’m studying.”
“What are you studying?”
“Writing, which is why I’ve come to London for this Story seminar.”
“Where are you staying?” he continued.
“As it says on the arrival card, the Radisson Edwardian on Gloucester Road.”
“How many days is your stay?”
“Five.”
“Then back to Amsterdam?”
“Yes; I’ve got a lecture Monday afternoon.”

It was now well after 10pm. I had finished class at 3pm the same day (an autopsy of Hamlet) and rushed to Centraal to catch the Intercity to Brussels to connect with the last Eurostar for the day. It was just the two of us in this cordoned area of St Pancras station. Little noise was heard, and it was very bright. Passport Man tapped on a keyboard. He frowned often as he looked up with just about every key stroke to squint at the monitor.
“Is there a problem?” I asked.
This forced him to stop typing, answer “No,” then resume typing.
I checked my mobile for any messages. None, except the welcome texts from the local network provider. After another long uncomfortable silence, he closed the passport and handed it back, saying: “Thank you sir. Sorry to hold you up. You may go,” as he pointed to the way out.
“Thank you.” I gathered my pack, pocketed the passport and said: “Just out of interest, why did you pick me?”
“No real reason. It’s mostly random. But we have to patrol arrivees. Just part of the job.”

I then made my way into the bowels of the Underground and waited for a Hammersmith & City or Circle line train to take me to Baker Street and my hotel. While waiting for the train, a bedraggled, sodden beggar began his ritual, shuffling along the platform with outstretched hand. Must be raining. After the first few abusive dismissals he gave up and slouched his way past me to the end of the platform not bothering to bother anyone. After that he doubled back and stood right in front and said: “Spare some change?”
What’s with all this singling out tonight, I thought? I waved him away with a degree of  disdain that no man deserved. The train soon pulled up and I tried to squeeze on. Before the doors closed behind me, I alighted, walked over to the beggar, who was still on the platform, and gave him all the coins I had; it amounted to just over a pound.
“Thanks brother,” he said with more sincerity and gratitude than any man should be forced to convey.

“Welcome to London: mind the crap.”



Dear Grant, my name is Joy and I’ll be assisting you with your inquiry
November 16, 2009, 23:29
Filed under: Amsterdam, Travel

Below is a direct copy of an email trail between Optus (a mobile phone and Internet service provider in Australia) and myself. The first entry (that is, my initial inquiry in mid September after about 3 weeks away) should put you in the picture. There are 7 exchanges from Optus over many, many, many weeks, all from a different person each time. Not a single word has been edited, omitted, added or disguised to protect the identity of the innocent.

It’s worth reading, if you’ve ever been shocked by an outrageous or unexplained balance on an account, be that your credit card, bank statement, phone or utility bill. There may even be a moral to the story … but you’ll have to read each entry and make it all the way to the end to work that out. Fix a drink and sit down; it’s sometimes a long and bumpy ride in the world of corporate customer care. For the record, the disputed amount was just under $1000 (when my regular monthly spend is about $60).

———————–

Dear Optus, we have a problem.
Take a look at my history of usage and you’ll see something unusual for the last bill (# 0438 361 772).
Yes, I am overseas with the iPhone diverting all calls to voicemail. I have never accessed voicemail from overseas.
I have never made a call from it either here in the Netherlands – where I’ll be for most of my time away – and you can see from the statement the limited number of SMSs I’ve sent.
I never access email or use the Internet from the phone.
So I’m wondering what all these Roaming charges are??
Can you please explain. But before that, terminate all services, including whatever this roaming stuff is, but keep the number active. I have switched off the phone permanently, never to be used until I return to Australia in March next year.
But we need to sort this outrageous charge out, as I’m sure you understand.
Thanking you in advance for your prompt explanation.

Regards,
Grant Doyle

Dear GRANT

We have received your billing enquiry, and will get back to you within 5 working days.
As always, thanks for choosing Optus.

Kind regards,
The Optus Billing Team

Dear Grant

My name is Joy and I will be assisting you today with your International Roaming enquiry.

I can see that the charges on your account are not in relation to calls that you have made but rather voicemail, text and GPRS.

If a received call is diverted to VoiceMail because you do not answer or because your phone is busy, you will also be charged the international call rate for the applicable zone to divert the caller back to your VoiceMail box in Australia.

A review of your account shows that the majority of roaming charges are for GPRS data usage when accessing the internet with your iPhone.

These GPRS charges can also be accrued if you have automatic downloads in place such as Push Email.

As requested I have removed the Roaming features from your service and you will no longer be able to access international roaming. If you wish to change this please let us know and we can reactivate the feature. Your number will remain active and your monthly service fee on the $39 iPhone plan will remain unchanged unless you tell us otherwise.

Please note, roaming charges may take up to 3 months to appear on your statement as we rely on the overseas carrier to forward the details to us. This could mean you will still have some charges billed to your account from the period when the roaming was active.

While using International Roaming, your account would be billed according to the fees and charges for the overseas network you are accessing at the time. The rates charged depend on the network you access in each country. Details are available by visiting www.optus.com.au/autoroam.

I can confirm that the account charges are correct, it is not possible for charges to be passed onto your account other than by the use of your SIM card. Our representative has noted on your account 21 June 2009 that you were advised of the charges when activating roaming.

I can see that you have had your iPhone with Optus since August 2008 and your $39 cap plan has been a good choice for your normal usage.

I trust this information is of assistance and provides you with a solution to your International Roaming enquiry.

For further enquiries please reply by email or contact our Customer Care Centre on 133937 or if overseas on + (or the international exit code) 61 2 8082 5678.

Yours sincerely

Joy
Web Servicing Team
Optus

—————————————-

Thank you Joy,
A couple of points:

The phone was set up to automatically divert to voice mail, so as not to incur such fees. I can’t recall ever accessing voicemail in the 5 weeks I’ve been away. There is no need because the updated voicemail message says to contact me via an email, due to my extended absence.

These GPRS fees: I don’t have push email (whatever that is?), or automatic downloads set up, never have. I live online via my laptop due to my full time studies here in the Netherlands, so I have NEVER used the iPhone to do this. So why the charges now? No such charges occurred while I was using the phone in Australia, and as I’ve done nothing to the settings, why does it supposedly happening now?

These are the things I need answers to.

The iPhone was never intended to be used here while I’m in the Netherlands studying anyway. I bought a pre-paid SIM soon after arriving to use with an old Nokia handset I brought with me from Australia, and this works perfectly well for the few local calls and texts needed.

I use the iPhone primarily as a portable music player and travel alarm. That’s it. And you can see this from the statement, given the minimal texts I’ve actually sent from it.

So I hope you can still see my frustration and concern at these excessive charges. As indicated earlier, this account will not be settled with these ‘unknown’ fees.

I have turned the phone off, and never to use again while away. This is a major inconvenience, as you can understand, due to the reliance I have on many of the iPhone’s functions, apart from the actual phone.

So Joy, why and how were these GPRS charges accrued to my account when I did nothing to activate such a service?

Appreciate any other telecommunication insights you can add in resolving this very worrying matter.

Thank you again for your kind and considered response. Until next time …

Kind regards,

Grant Doyle

Dear Grant

My name is Alex and I will be assisting you today with your International Roaming enquiry.

I am sorry to discover that you have some concerns regarding your most recent statement, and I welcome the opportunity to clarify the issues you have raised.

Upon reviewing your account, you have not been charged any voicemail charges on your latest invoice. Please refer to page four of your latest statement, and you can see a $0 value next to your voicemail deposits.

After investigating the GPRS details you have supplied, I can confirm that these charges have been recorded and billed correctly. GPRS charges can only appear on your statements if the phone is turned on.

Please refer to the following settings where the iPhone automatically connects to GPRS, settings can be found at:

Setting > General > Network > Data Roaming > ON/OFF
iPhone Operating System 2.0 – Settings – Email – Fetch New Data – Set Push to OFF
iPhone Operating System 3.0 – Settings – Email – Fetch New Data – Set Push to OFF

For further information, please refer to your iPhone user guide which can be found online at the apple website.

Once again, please accept my apologies for the inconvenience caused and l hope this information has been of assistance to you.

I trust this information is of assistance and provides you with a solution to your International Roaming enquiry.

For further enquiries please reply by email or contact our Customer Care Centre on 133937 or if overseas on + (or the international exit code) 61 2 9342 5678

Yours sincerely

Alex
Web Servicing Team
Optus

————————————

Hi Alex,
Thanks for the update.

As I understand it, and believe me, I’ve done some research on this in the last week, data roaming can only accrue charges if you actually browse with Safari mobile, try to access Gmail or use other such data services from the iPhone. Yet I’ve not done any of these the entire time away, when the outrageous fees were apparently billed.

This is my confusion and continuing frustration. Maybe you can clarify the situation?

The push mail settings you explain below were already off, have always been off; as I never have, nor will have, any need to automatically fetch data. I performed this manually on occasion in Sydney. So how is it the phone may have gone into Push mode without me altering the settings?

This is my confusion and continuing frustration. Maybe you can clarify the situation?

Thanks in advance. Oh, Alex, one more thing: I seem to recall the account is due for payment in the next few days. I won’t be paying in full, as already mentioned. Certainly these contentious GPRS fees will be deducted.

So how do we avoid the ensuing ‘late payment’ reminders of increasing veracity until we resolve this accounting matter?

Again, thanks in advance for your prompt response.

Grant

Dear Grant

Thank you for your response. My name is Hayley and I am appreciative to be assisting with your account charges enquiry.

As previously advised, the GPRS charges incurred whilst roaming are correct and do need to be paid. I appreciate the concerns you have raised, however Optus are not able to remove these charges.

We are more than happy to assist with a payment plan if you require this, and our friendly Financial Services team can be contacted on 1300 300 418 for assistance.

I am pleased that you are now aware of how these kinds of charges can result when you are travelling, and if there is anything further we can educate you further on, simply respond to this email and we will be glad to clarify for you.
I have been reviewing your last few accounts and would like to let you know that you can keep a closer eye on your usage using the free iPhone usage application. The application is great because it is free to download and use.

With this new and exciting application Post Paid mobile customers are able to;

-view your unbilled usage for eligible iPhone plans
-view your last four bills
-pay your bill via credit card

If this application is of interest to you please visit the Apple website of www.apple.com.au or the App store on your iPhone for more information, or send us a reply and we can assist with any questions you may have.

For further enquiries please reply by email or contact our Customer Care Centre on 133937 or if overseas on + (or the international exit code) 61 2 8082 5678.

Yours Sincerely

Hayley
Web Servicing Team
Optus

——————————————–

Hi Haley,

What happened to Alex and Joy, I wonder?
I don’t really see anything new in your response Hayley.
The specific questions I’ve outlined have not been addressed at all.
Can someone look into this, perhaps?

Also, I would like you to reactivate the global roaming on my phone. I think Joy informed me at the outset that she managed this, so I’m guessing you can switch it back on. I want to test something, before taking this conundrum further.

Also, as I asked in the last email, what happens with my overdue account (for non payment of the GPRS charges)? I would expect you put some hold on the letters of demand and any threats before the issue is fully resolved to the satisfaction of both parties. And Haley, we’re not there yet.

Looking forward to meeting more of your team.
Please let me know when the global roaming is back on.

Thanks in advance for your prompt response.

Kind regards,

Dear Grant

My name is Wilson and I will assist you with regarding your concerns surrounding your Optus Mobile account.

I am sorry to hear of your ongoing billing difficulty, and I can appreciate the concerns that you have raised.

Please accept my apologies for the inconvenience caused in relation to the different respondents to your web enquiries. This is due to Optus responding to your enquiries in a timely manner. I can assure you our Web Servicing Team representatives review all contact notes to ensure your enquiries are addressed appropriately.

If customers wish to dispute any mobile charges on their mobile account, it is in the customer’s interests to pay any invoices in a timely manner. As unpaid accounts can incur Late Payment fees and collections process.

If the dispute outcome has determined mobile charges have been billed incorrectly, the necessary credit adjustments are applied on your mobile account accordingly.

In the event you are unable to make full payment, Optus is more than happy to discuss any payment arrangements with you.

I have extended your current balance of $755.23 which was due on the 7th October up until the 20th October. If you do require more time than this please contact our credit services team on 1300 300 418 to make a payment arrangement. They are available from 8.30am until 7.00pm Monday to Friday, and from 9.00am until 6.00pm Saturday (AEST).

As requested, I have reactivated Optus AutoRoam on your mobile service.

The roaming feature does not incur any additional access fees, and allows you to access networks from a large range of both popular and more unusual destinations.

While overseas you will be charged for outgoing calls and SMS from your service, as well as any incoming calls. You can view details of these costs, as well as the available AutoRoam destinations by visiting www.optus.com.au/autoroam.

These charges will be itemised on your monthly Optus account in Australian Dollars however as we rely on the overseas carrier to forward the details to us they may take up to 3 months to appear on your statement. These calls and messages are not included as a part of the included value of your current rate plan.

When travelling between countries and regions, you may need to complete a manual network selection to ensure your handset maintains a connection with the local mobile network. Normally this option is within the ‘Networks’ or ‘Settings’ area of your phone’s menu, however further information on how to do this can be found in your handset user manual.

As you have been informed of the billing charges surrounding Optus AutoRoam.

I can confirm Alex and Joy have been very helpful in providing assistance with deactivation advice to turn of data settings on the Apple iPhone handset.

After checking our systems, I can confirm the mobile charges have been billed correctly and stand as valid.

I trust this information is of assistance and provides you with a solution to your billing enquiry.

For further enquiries please reply by email or contact our Customer Care Centre on 133937 or if overseas on + (or the international exit code) 61 2 8082 5678.Yours sincerely

Wilson
Web Servicing Team
Optus

—————————————–

Thanks Wilson,
The one question I asked at the very start of this has not been addressed by you or any of your colleagues in all this correspondence.

What and how does a phone start to pulling and pushing GPRS data without any change in the phone’s settings? This is the issue at stake, it seems.

No such ‘pushing/pulling’ was active while the phone was in use in Australia. I do nothing to the settings, not that I even know how, I switch on the phone in the Netherlands, use it for a handful of texts (and do not change any settings), only to discover on my first bill while away the $700 plus of such charges. Please explain, is all I ask.

And for the record, it’s not a matter of not being able to pay. So the October 20extension is not warranted, but thank you nonetheless.

I am asking that the account be put ‘on hold’ or something until the matter has been resolved. So intimidating threats from you of late payment fees and collection services doesn’t help our reconciliation relationship, don’t you agree?

And just out of interest, hypothetically speaking, what happens to someone’s outstanding (unpaid) balance if they instigate actions with the telco ombudsman? Surely, that account is put on hold, or something similar, while the matter is sorted one way or the other. Surely you wouldn’t be sending late payment penalty notes or threats of collection services until the issue had been adjudged?

Maybe I’m wrong?

So 2 questions in this email. Could the next respondent please address those.

Thanks in advance for your prompt response because I’m sure you want to clear this query from your active list as much as I do.

Grant Doyle

Dear Grant

My name is Alison and I will be assisting you today with your enquiry regarding data roaming charges billed to your service.

I am happy to provide further clarification of these charges and how they vary when you travel overseas.

iPhone handsets have a setting which allows your handset to automatically roam and search for a Wi-Fi network where ever you are located. When in Australia, your national roaming and internet connection is automatically covered under the data allowance for your ‘yes’ $39 iPhone rate plan. Therefore, you may not have noticed that it is continually roaming for a data network.

When you travel overseas, if you do not turn the automatic data roaming setting off, your iPhone will continue to roam and automatically search for and access a Wi-Fi network where ever you are located. As you are overseas, this is no longer a national charge but rather, an international data roaming charge and not covered under the national data allowance provisioned in your plan. Therefore, your iPhone is continually accessing International data roaming and accruing data charges not covered under your standard plan.

When using an iPhone overseas, it is important to leave the setting for Data Roaming on the default which is ‘Off’. To change the International Roaming Data setting you go to Settings > General > Network > Data Roaming Option. You can set this to On or Off as you like.

Underneath this setting, there is a warning message which says ‘Turn Data Roaming off when abroad to avoid substantial roaming charges when using email, web browsing and other data services’. As the iPhone constantly uses data, switching this setting away from the default of ‘Off’ to ‘On’ results in the iPhone working in exactly the same way as it would when using your home carrier, Optus.

With regard to your query concerning your account status and payment in a situation where charges are being investigated or disputed, I can advise that, as per Optus billing terms and conditions, it is your responsibility to ensure that your account status is kept up to date. In the event of an outcome where it is deemed that charges are billed incorrectly, your account will be credit or adjusted accordingly once the dispute is resolved.

We do understand that there are circumstances where charges may not be able to be paid by the due date. In this instance, we recommend you contact our Credit Services team to make a suitable payment arrangement.

They can be contaced on 1300 300 192 and are available from 8.30am until 7.00pm Monday to Friday, and from 9.00am until 2.00pm Saturday (AEST).

Please note that failure to make a suitable payment arrangement, or to pay in full, may impact you on any future credit applications made within Australia. As a credit provider, Optus refers unpaid accounts to mercantile agents for resolution. If necessary, outstanding accounts may be advised to the credit reporting agency, Veda Advantage, for noting.

I trust this information is of assistance and provides you with an answer to your query concerning data roaming charges billed to your service.

For further enquiries please reply by email or contact our Customer Care Centre on 133937 or if overseas on + (or the international exit code) 61 2 8082 5678.

Yours sincerely

Alison
Web Servicing Team
Optus

——————————

Hi Alison,

Sorry I haven’t replied sooner but I’ve been away; first, Paris, and most recently in Bruges, where the chocolate is very good.

You say:

“If customers wish to dispute any mobile charges on their mobile account, it is in the customer’s interests to pay any invoices in a timely manner. As unpaid accounts can incur Late Payment fees and collections process.

So it’s pay up first and then we’ll sort out the dispute later? This doesn’t seem a very equitable relationship at all. Which has been part of my issue from the outset.

The other issue is this. After having spent many minutes on your help desk phone line prior to departing in order to work out what to do with my account etc during the impending 7-month absence, at no time did the Optus employee advise to switch the default date roaming off, which you seem to belatedly mention below. If someone didn’t know about this, then how are they expected to action the best settings. This seems to me to be a glaring omission in your advice to me prior to departure.

Beyond this though, your explanation doesn’t make sense. If my iPhone in Australia, ‘picks up’ a WiFi network, why is that data charged to me, when I’m ‘piggy backing’ so to speak, off the WiFi provider’s network? That’s nothing to do with me proactively and directly downloading email to the phone (or browsing) over the Optus network, which I fully expect to pay for. And which I have not attempted once since being overseas.

My home has a secure wireless network. The iPhone accesses this because of the password being set up. And I can surf the web on the phone via this network and not incur any charges because it’s piggy backing off our Bigpond wireless network? Right?

The same thing applies at my university library. If I so chose to use my phone there for email or web browsing, it utilises the university’s network, not my Optus account? Right?

So how is the Starbucks cafe in Amsterdam any different if my iPhone ‘picks up’ their free WiFi network for customers? If I did do this, the phone is simply ‘piggybacking’ off the Starbucks provided network; nothing to do with Optus or the partner carrier in the Netherlands.

This is my dilemma. And I don’t think we’re at the bottom of it yet; what do you think?

Regards,

Dear Grant,

My name is Kylee and I will be assisting with your enquiry today.

In regards to the charges you incurred while travelling please be advised that Data Roaming from your iPhone must be turned on by yourself.

As per the terms and conditions of the yes iPhone $39 plan you receive Free access, browsing and downloads in Optus WiFi hotspots. Within the terms and conditions it also states that the plan does not include International Roaming. As International data roaming and accruing data charges are not covered under your plan you have been charged for this access.

In the event that a customer has a billing dispute Optus does recommend that they continue to pay charges not being queried on their account. A protection can then be placed on the account to prevent any Financial Services action on any charges in dispute. Should you wish not to make payment on the charges you are querying you certainly have that option. However on this occasion, Optus is confident that the charges have been billed correctly and your iPhone would have provided you a warning prior to accepting data roaming ability.

Optus appreciates the opportunity to clarify this matter for you.

For further enquiries please reply by email or contact our Customer Care Centre on 1300768453 or if overseas on + (or the international exit code) 61 2 8082 5678.

Yours Sincerely

Kylee
Web Servicing Team
Optus

————

Hi Kylee,

Thank you for the prompt response.

However, I think it a bit presumptuous you suggesting that clarity has been provided with your email.
The confidence displayed in assuming that I was informed of all such data charges and ramifications for the default settings of an iPhone were most definitely not provided in the half hour or so I spent on the phone to the Optus help desk prior to my overseas departure.

I think there is an onus on Optus to fully inform customers of the potential that I seem to have  inadvertantly experienced through no active fault of my own. This is not ignorance on my part, nor deception on yours. I believe now that there is a more thorough duty of care expected of Optus, specific to the iPhone, in these very common and general circumstances.

It is for this reason that I wish to put a hold on, or protect, that outstanding amount of my account, pending further inquiry and investigation on my part. The financials:

I paid today all other non-GPRS data fees for the latest account due 06 November. That was $67.19.
This still leaves a total amount outstanding (and in dispute) of $957.43, by my records. It is this amount/component I want to ‘quarantine’ until a resolution is arrived at to the satisfaction of all parties. This you suggest in your email, seems possible.

Kylee (and all your colleagues I’ve met this past month or so), I realise and fully appreciate you have an important job to do, and that you work with templates to achieve strict outcomes. This is to be expected. But you must also appreciate my situation, to display a modicum of empathy, for this customer, which I acknowledge must be a mammoth task, given the vast Optus customer base.

So, in the short-term, please advise what I need to do to put the disputed amount on ‘hold’ or protection, “to prevent,” as you say, “any Financial Services action on any charges in dispute,” despite the confidence you express on behalf of Optus is being absolutely and unequivocally in the right.

Oh, one final thing: As a freelance journalist (you might have guessed from the nature of my writing? but I shouldn’t be so presumptuous), I’m working on a consumer interest story related to this very issue. So in the interests of professional courtesy, I will be quoting many of the responses from yourself and your colleagues in the proposed article. If Optus has an issue with this, could you please direct me to the appropriate media people for further discussion.

Thanking you again in advance for your prompt response to my 2 queries:

  1. How to protect or put on hold the disputed amount
  2. Direct me to your media people or general counsel if Optus has issues with me quoting freely from our correspondence in my proposed article.

Kind regards,

Dear Mr Doyle,

Optus Ref N#: 1883228

Thank you for your correspondence, regarding the billing of International Roaming Data charges and Optus Customer Service. Optus welcomes your feedback and the opportunity to address your concerns. Firstly, I would like to apologise on behalf of Optus for any distress or inconvenience that you may have experienced in connection with this matter.

Optus constantly strives to be our customer’s best service experience and it is of concern to us to hear that your expectations were not met by Optus in this instance. Optus Customer Service Representatives are trained to resolve the customer’s query on the first contact where possible and Optus sincerely regrets that your enquiry was not handled in an appropriate manner. I have forwarded your concerns to the Management of Customer Service.

As a Gesture of Goodwill and without admission of liability Optus will waive the current balance of $957.43 on your Optus Account Number 86357776000170.  As you have been advised the Data Component and International Roaming features have been removed from your service as such you should not receive any further charges for International Roaming Data. Please note that currently your account reflects a nil balance.

Should you have any further queries or wish to discuss this matter further, please do not hesitate to contact myself on 0280859082 or via return e-mail.

Regards

Paul Newman

——————————-

Paul,

How do you survive going through life with such a famous moniker? Sorry.

Anyway, I am extremely humbled by this outcome. Contrary to some of the earlier responses by your colleages, this was never about the finance or inability to pay, but rather, me seeking a thorough explanation of what happened, and how?  All my subsequent inquiries merely sought this clarification.

And if that had occurred promptly, efficiently and transparently, then I most likely would have paid the charges, and learned a very costly lesson.

So I sincerely thank you for this good news. My faith in Optus has been partially restored, but rest assured, though I am only a small-spend customer, I shall be an advocate for your brand.

Good luck and thank you again.

Regards,

Grant Doyle



Vague in The Hague
October 29, 2009, 09:52
Filed under: Netherlands, Politics, The Hague, Travel

This is copy of my feature article published by Crikey.com on 29th October. Here’s the link –  An audience with Radovan Karadzic – for those with access (you can see  comments posted by Crikey subscribers). Otherwise, scroll down and read on …

Crikey_screenshot_hague_cropped

Lead Politics story on Crikey home page - not too bad!

—————————

The women, mostly elderly, with worn faces framed by weary scarves, and wearing layers of long flowing clothes and thick heavy coats, sit around tables in the foyer of the Hotel Novotel World Forum, The Hague, Netherlands. Most carry small handkerchiefs, which are well used from wiping eyes, while some flick through family photos or drink coffee, as delegates to the ‘X Factor’ convention file by.

Occasionally, a short, stocky man with dark complexion and carrying a small camera case, ushers a few of the women outside the hotel, past the snaking queue of media vans with their satellite dishes, and onto the open grassed forecourt in front of the adjacent building housing the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), where the women stand hunched and have microphones thrust in their faces by television reporters from around the globe, and are asked questions – through an interpreter – while they hold up placards with shaking arms or point to the printing on specially made t-shirts for the occasion. One English sentence read: ‘It is our fault that we are Muslim.’

the_hague1

Muslim women from the former Yugoslavia head towards the crowded visitor's entrance amid the baying media.

The key players

The occasion that prompted their pan-European trek was to witness the prosecution’s long-awaited opening address this week in the trial of former Bosnian Serb leader, Radovan Karadzic, at the ICTY (more on the tribunal later). He with the wavy, silver bouffant and articulate voice of the Serbian Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina and commander of the Bosnian Serb Army in that bloody and brutal war that wracked the former Yugoslavia from 1992-1995.

He is not to be confused with Slobodan Milosevic, President of Serbia, who was also indicted by the ICTY, but died of a heart attack while on trial in 2006. The third ‘public’ face in this warring triumvirate was the always-uniformed Ratko Mladic, military chief of staff for the Bosnian Serb Army. Mladic has also been indicted by the ICTY, but is one of only two fugitives still at large.

Once done with their emotional displays for baying media, the women shuffle the 50 metres or so back across the grassed courtyard and return to their tables and chairs inside the cold, stark interiors of the Hotel Novotel. Some stop on the way and smoke several cigarettes in quick succession, alongside bemused KPMG workers doing the same thing, whose offices adjoin the hotel.

A heavily guarded convey of vehicles slips quickly through a side security entrance: “Too late,” says the Dutch policeman to the camera men and women who’d sprinted from the grassed forecourt down a narrow lane only to see the cars disappear underground. A group of children innocently cycle across the outdoor forecourt, the speed bumps of criss-crossing media and power cables not denting their boisterous progress one bit, and seemingly oblivious to the proceedings; perhaps they’ve seen it all before.

The Hague (Dan Haag in Dutch) after all, has a long history of overseeing international law. It became a seat of government for the counts of Holland in 1586. It hosted the world’s first international peace conference in 1899 and has been producing jurisprudence, so to speak, ever since The Court of Arbitration spawned the United Nation’s International Court of Justice in the aftermath of World War II.

Dutch houses of Parliament, alongside the Hofvijver (lake), The Hague. And a thank you to Mr Seagull for his timely arrival in my frame.

Dutch houses of Parliament, alongside the Hofvijver (lake), The Hague. And a thank you to Mr C Gull who kindly flew into frame at just the right time.

As the time draws nearer for Karadzic’s scheduled 2.15pm appearance in Courtroom 1, the hotel foyer empties as all interested parties, some already with public gallery passes, make their way to the visitor’s entrance, while many without such passes and other spectators gather on the forecourt, hoping to see what, I do not know. Several tourists wandering along Johan de Wittlaan, the main road leading from the nearby Gemeentemuseum, stop and linger to watch as many of the man and women who trekked from the former Yugoslavia gather at the gates, while packs of media people, with boom mikes protruding into the air like wheat sheafs bent in the strong afternoon breeze, squeeze and slide in and around the thronging mob.

And for a second day running, Karadzic does not front the trial, much to the despair of many who’d waited years to see him finally face his accusers in court. He is defending himself, and so claims he needs at least another ten months to prepare, hence his non-appearance. Presiding Judge O-Gon Kwon, was not impressed, again, noting in a very subdued but purposeful statement: “There are circumstances where the chamber may proceed in the absence of the accused [so] in light of the accused voluntarily and unequivocally waiving his right to be present … the chamber is of the view that this hearing can proceed in his absence.” And so it did.

When news of Kardzic’s no-show quickly filters to the crowd still gathered around the heavily guarded entrance (via the media watching a live feed in their satellite vans), many of the women become distraught and angry, shouting comments in their native tongue, but their outrage and frustration was palpable and understood by everyone.

“Why can’t the court just go and drag him in to appear; they’re holding him in their own cells?” I heard a man vent in broken English. It seemed a more than reasonable question in the circumstances. Cameras and microphones came even closer to some of the women, now kneeling and holding the steel uprights of the security fence, their heads bowed, the collars of their coats gathered high around their neck, their condemnations (of the court? Karadzic?) muffled with emotion and despair. You wonder what on earth could ease these peoples’ grief. The highest penalty the ICTY can impose is life imprisonment.

So with Judge O-Gon Kwon’s go-ahead , prosecutor Alain Tieger outlines the lengthy charge sheet against Karadzic in a five-hour statement, which includes 11 counts of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. The details relate to Karadzic’s alleged part in, among a long list of atrocities, the siege of Sarajevo during which some 12,000 civilians died, the massacre of up to 8,000 Bosnian men and youths in Srebrenica, and using UN peacekeepers as human shields.

Describing Karadzic as a “hands on leader who maintained direct contact”, Mr Tieger said, he “harnessed the forces of nationalism, hatred and fear to implement his vision of an ethnically separated Bosnia … In the course of conquering the territory that he claimed for the Serbs, his forces killed thousands of Bosnian Muslims and Croats, imprisoned more in squalid and brutal camps and detention facilities, and forced hundreds of thousands away from their homes”.

Interestingly, Karadzic, while denying all charges, has not entered a formal plea to date. As is the tribunal’s custom, a not-guilty plea was entered for all counts on his behalf. Like Milosevic, he has refused all legal assistance, choosing instead to represent himself. The two days this week were to air the opening address of the prosecution.  Karadzic has two days next week to do likewise in his defence. Then the prosecution’s case begins, which is expected to last the best part of a year. This projected period has been trimmed after the court’s judges requested the prosecution reduce the scale of the trial, which presently depends on more than a million pages of testimony, numerous crime scenes and hundreds of witnesses. Karadzic will then be allowed an equal amount of time to mount his defence. Meaning a verdict won’t be due until possibly well into 2012.

Where to from here?

Letters are flying backwards and forwards between the judges and the defendant’s legal advisors this week in attempts to ensure that Karadzic meets the court-appointed schedule in delivering his opening address next week, if not in person, then by a court appointed legal team. Summoning a team at such short notice presents a new set of challenges for the ICTY and its highest profile case to date, not least of which is the prospect of another delay. Other options include allowing the trial to continue until cross-examination begins or imposing an amicus curiae (friend of the court) to represent the interests of the accused in the absence of a lawyer.

As for the survivors and relatives of victims of the Bosnian war who’ve come this far, both geographically and emotionally to The Hague, you wonder how much longer their vigil in the Novotel foyer and outside the adjoining ICTY can last. Hafiza Ibisevic lost her husband, two sons and a brother in Srebrenica. She had a pass to the visitor’s gallery inside Courtroom 1, and watched in vain over two days for Karadzic to appear in the dock. She told NRC Handelsblad: “He continues to torture me … I wanted to get some closure today, but after my husband and children, he has taken that away from me too.”

International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) –
fast facts*:

  • A United Nations mandated body to prosecute war crimes committed in the former Yugoslavia since 1991
  • First such tribunal for prosecuting war crimes since Nuremberg and Tokyo
  • Has its own team of investigators but not its own police force; arrests can only be effected by police or peace forces of signatory countries
  • Operates with 1,100 staff and a budget of US$342m (2008/09)
  • President – Patrick Lipton Robinson (Jamaica)
    Vice-president – Judge O-Gon Kwon (South Korea)
    Chief prosecutor –Serge Brammertz (Belguim)
  • Prisoners are held in a detention centre (formerly a prison) in the nearby seaside resort of Scheveningen
  • Tribunal has concluded proceedings against 120 individuals, and has ongoing proceedings against 41 (including Karadzic), two of which are still at large (Ratko Mladic and Goran Hadzic)
  • Longest sentence passed – life, reduced to 40 years on appeal.

*Source and further information at ICTY.