Recently I had the pleasure of being invited on an official Press trip to the Madeira Islands, courtesy of the Madeira Tourism Board. I must say that my perception of the place changed once I arrived there. Prior to the visit my thought was that Madeira, also the birthplace of the famous footballer Cristiano Ronaldo, was on a similar status to, say, Ibiza, Majorca or some of the other Islands which usually attract your average 18-30 clubbers known for drinking (and causing trouble) etc. Thankfully my perceptions were very wrong. Madeira is a very up market destination and is perfectly suitable for honeymooners, young couples, hikers, families and even those who want to retire away in an affluent place. Why is this all so? Well, Madeira has the perfect warm weather all year around, plenty of fresh healthy food is available (seafood, especially Tuna, is in abundance), and lovely locally made wine (the famous Madeira Wine is known the world over). Apart from these core offerings, there are also plenty of opportunities to enjoy walking, diving, snorkeling, fly-fishing or just sun bathing on white sandy beaches surrounded by clear turquoise colored waters. Madeira is also host to the popular Madeira Walking Festival, organised by Terry Marsh (who arranged the whole trip with thanks).
Having been initially discovered by Portuguese sailors around 1420, and located around 500 miles on the south west of Portugal’s coastline is the country’s most beautiful island, Madeira. Although physically the Madeira Islands, which consist of the Island of Madeira and Porto Santo Island, are located close to the African continent (around 300 miles), they are nevertheless culturally, economically, geographically and politically a strong part of Portugal. The Island of Madeira forms the main part of the archipelago, while Porto Santo Island is smaller and quieter. Although tourism on the latter island is steadily growing annually. The Madeira Islands are blessed with spectacular natural landscapes that have earned it the nickname 'Pearl of the Atlantic'.
I flew Business Class with TAP Air Portugal from London Gatwick, and the pleasant non-stop trip took just under 3 hours. There are a few things which distinguish one airline from another, and TAP’s in-flight catering is just exceptional. The food was scrumptious, was provided at the right time and of a 5-star quality. The cabin crew and the rest of the staff (even at Check- In) were very professional. If you are lucky to have a window seat (usually you can specify for one at Check -In even if you are sitting in Economy class), and provided you have a clear view, as I did, then as you approach Madeira, you will come across some wonderful views of the Desertas and also part of the capital of Madeira, Funchal. On final approach, the tight 30 degrees right hand turning into the runway reminded me somewhat of Hong Kong’s former Kai Tak Airport- with the only exception that in Madeira (thankfully) you don’t fly over any residential areas!
During the 5 day trip, I was the guest of two five star hotels (both part of the same group of hotels, The Charming Hotels Group). The first hotel was the luxurious Quinta do Monte, a hotel with an ambiance which makes you feel as if you have gone back to the Colonial days of the British. With stunning views across to the sea and the town of Funchal in the distance, the hotel had everything you would expect from a five star residence. Upon entering my enormous room, I was greeted by the sight of a complimentary bottle of sweet Maderia Wine, some complimentary food and a tempting piece of Bolo de mel (Madeira honey cake). There was also a welcome pack which contained various important leaflets and promotional material for Madeira. One of my colleagues was even luckier to have the VIP Suite, which contained a Jacuzzi and a “living room” connected to his room! The other two days were spent staying at the equally exceptional Quinta das Vistas Palace Gardens, an oasis located near downtown Funchal. If you are arriving back after a long day hiking around places such as Pico Areeiro or Rabaçal, Risco waterfall and 25 Fontes (as I did!); then a good way to relax is to take one of the body massages offered by the highly trained staff at the Quinta das Vistas Palace Gardens. Its well worth it and you will for sure feel revitalized! I highly recommend that one tops this up with a dip in the Jacuzzi or one of the two swimming pools. There’s even a Turkish bath!
Madeira also holds the world record for the biggest coastal fireworks display during the New Year, and for this reason many hotels are fully booked well in advance (we are perhaps talking months before the New Year festivities’). Its only 3 hours away from London and with such good connections to the rest of Europe, there is really nothing stopping anyone who wants to experience a truly wonderful place. It is easy to understand why many European city workers who are tired/stressed from the hustle and bustle of metropolises’ such as Paris, London or Frankfurt, would love to escape for a short relaxing break to Madeira. Even in the winter, there is plenty of warm sun around. I know for sure that after my trip I am very much tempted to go back to Maderia for quite a many weekend breaks.
There are three main global events happening in 2010, two of them are in China (Shanghai Expo, and the Asia Games in Guangzhou), while the third is perhaps the world’s biggest stage show in itself, the FIFAFootball World Cup 2010 in South Africa. So it's game on then! Unlike most British people, I am not really a hardcore Football fan (well, maybe that’s because of my Indian roots- sadly a country with 1.3 billion people that cannot even produce 11 decent football players; anyways, I’ll leave that discussion for another day!). Nevertheless, it is the world cup after all and it’s the most watched event in the sports calendar, so I would be mad to miss it! I fondly remember staying up until 4am in my Beijing residence to Watch the 2006 World Cup; and oh yes, we still cannot forget that head butt by the great Frenchman Zinedine Zidane (Zidane was awarded the Golden Ball as the best player of the competition prior to the final game).
Hundreds of thousands of international fans will now be booking their trips to South Africa for the World Cup which begins on the 11th of June in the city of Johannesburg. The tournament is set to catch the attention of an anticipated 400 million television viewers globally. So as they say in Zulu Language: Ngiyanemukela! Here is a concise low down on a selection of sights visitors can expect when in South Africa.
World Cup 2010 Venues
Cape Town: The vast majority of users from the PR and Travel Company Holiday Check have put forward a strong recommendation to use the hop-on, hop-off red line bus service as a great way of getting around this bustling, modern city. Just like in London, Hong Kong, San Francisco, Dubai and other cities around the world, passengers are free to get on and off as they like in their own time. The ticket for the whole 2 hour tour costs 100 Rand (around £8.5 GBP) and includes discounts for a range of affiliated attractions. For those who have a bit more time on their hands, they can use the opportunity to wander out of town and head to the “Table Mountain” National Park.
Pretoria:Strangely many people think that Cape Town or Johannesburg is the capital city of this Rainbow Country, but no, in actual fact it is Pretoria. The official capital of South Africa has less to offer in terms of sights than Cape Town, hence why it’s not mentioned much on the international scene. But the matches that will be played in the city’s Loftus Versfeld Stadium will definitely put the capital city on everyones lips. Visitors will be amazed by the city’s Voortrekker or Pioneer's Monument- not as dull as it looks in the photos.
Port Elizabeth:Those on their way to see matches at the massive Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium, may like to drop in for a coffee or pre-match drinks at the much celebrated Cafe Brazilia on Humewood Road. The café will sure be busy if Portugal or Brazilare playing at this venue! Port Elizabeth also has some great places to see. For those who want to get a taste of the country's natural treasures should also check out the Tsitsikamma National Park. The park is around 150 miles to the north of the city, however if one has a couple of days to spare then its well worth it. Plenty of photography opportunities’ await you!
Bloemfontein:The beauty of this part of the country is that you can go Safari pretty much close to the town centre. Naval Hill doesn't just offer much of a stunning perspective over the provincial capital; but it's a place where the local giraffes and antelopes are likely to hang around, and greet your cameras. Plus the occasional ostrich will come and say hi to you! For some reason this reminds me of TV chef Keith Floyd when around ten ostriches helped themselves to his freshly fried ostrich omelets.
Pietersburg: With the city renowned for being at the highest altitude, at around 4000 feet above sea level; it will prove quite a challenge for players and the crowds. Another city which is popular with a very beautiful and splendid park, the Polokwane Nature Reserve is a local attraction worth checking out for its wealth of local bird life.
Johannesburg: The city’s two stadiums will host the opening ceremony (12th May) and the closing ceremony (11th July); and with just under 100,000 spectators the new Soccer City Stadium is going to be packed. There's a fabulous water park to help you cool off; while there are other attractions as well for children and adults. For those looking to gain an insight into the country's formative past one it is highly recommended that one takes a guided tour through the neighboring township of Soweto. Visitors will come across various pieces of evidence and 'the resistance movement that was eventually to overcome apartheid had its roots in Soweto'. Overall, South Africa has so much to offer in addition to playing host to next year's championships. Many people who come to this beautiful and modern country actually find it hard to realize that they are in Africa. Yes, the affluent areas lie alongside the deprived areas, but you have that in most countries around the world. South Africa is a fast growing economy and a great place for tourists to come and enjoy the beauty and lifestyle!
Like I said at the beginning of this article that I am not a die hard football fan, however since it’s the world cup, you bet your bottom dollar I’ll be on the next flight to Johannesburg to support England any day! :-)
During the time that I was working in China (for a Chinese company), more often than not I used to have my breakfast, lunch and dinner at one of the company’s fifteen massive cafeterias’ (each cafeteria can accommodate around 1500 people!). It goes without saying that I used to love the company’s Chinese food, especially the breakfast and dinner, however, sometimes in the evenings after work on my way back to my apartment I used to wander into the local Walmart or KFC to retain my western gastronomical interests- not that I was homesick or anything, but just wanted to remind myself of what western food is like!
So on one particular hot and humid evening in August 2005, I happened to set foot into the KFC in Shenzhen (near the Shenzhen Skekou Walmart). While I was waiting for my Chinese style “Chicken Tortilla Wrap”, an African gentleman, perhaps around 50 years old and of a stocky build, was standing in the queue and greeted me. As it goes that in an environment such as China, where all foreigners have something in common (in that we are not Chinese!), so when a foreigner meets a foreigner, you usually start chatting away to each other. I suppose the same analogy goes if two people from the same race or culture meet in any environment that is alien to their own.
So, during our initial conversation over a KFC meal, this gentleman told me that his name was “Jeesan” and that he was a retired South African politician who had come to Shenzhen after failing to contest Thabo Mbeki in the elections. I asked him for his full name, and his response was a bit vague. “I’ll tell you later, don’t worry about that”, he told me while munching away on his KFC Chicken popcorn. That initial meeting did not last long as I had to dash back home; it was already past 10pm (I worked late hours, and used to wake up early to go to work!). We exchanged our mobile phone numbers and parted our ways for the evening. This was probably the turning point of the whole story because later on I was to realize that I wish I had not exchanged mobile numbers with him!
The next day I got a call from Jeesan at around 9pm just as I was about to leave my office. There was nothing strange or wrong with the conversation, just a normal casual friendly chat about life as a foreigner in China. He told me that he was practicing astrology and that he is living with his Chinese girlfriend in Shenzhen. I did not make a big deal of all these things, even of the “practicing astrology” part. We concluded the conversation by agreeing to meet for a drink near the Shekou Walmart in a week’s time. Sometime during that week I decided to check on the internet if there was anyone by the name Jeesan who had resigned from the South African government- has it happened, there wasn’t anyone named Jeesan who had matched the description of what he told me. I even asked a South African friend of mine and he told me he had never heard of anyone in the South African government of that name. Quite rightly my friend just advised me to be careful in case this “Jeesan” was some scammer or even a fugitive. I brushed such suggestions aside as the guy seemed to pose no direct threat in any verbal or physical way.
For that one week I received no phone call or message from Jeesan, and so I again I was under no impression that this could be something out of the ordinary or weird. Indeed, I had no reason to believe or think in such a way (except that I could not find his name anywhere on the internet!). The following week, I arrived at KFC near Shekou Walmart at around 8.30pm as agreed with Jeesan. At that time KFC was the only real western restaurant which also doubled as a coffee shop, so therefore we ordered some brewed coffee (KFC Style).
I suppose I was taking a gamble when I politely asked him for his real name again, also mentioning that I could not find his name anywhere on the internet. He did not seem to get angry or defensive; instead he coolly and calmly told me that he was protecting himself by using an alterative name. I am not sure what he meant by that. Anyways, then he told me that the reason he wanted to see me was because he has a financial problem, and that when he practices astrology in his apartment, god told him to come and speak to me (Navjot). Now at this point I really wanted to just get up and leave because I just found it hard to swallow in everything he was telling me. Nevertheless, I was just curious, and thought maybe I could dig something up from his words…what was he after? I thought.
“Go on, what is it?” I asked him. At this point he said “Look, let me show you something”; he then took out a black colored rectangular piece of paper, about the size of a US $100 note. Looking at the paper, I could have easily thrown it in the bin if I had not known what it was. In actual fact he told me that it was a genuine US$100 note, but it was black on both sides because it was defaced for security reasons. I still was not sure what he was up to, and just kept observing and listening with curiosity.
Jeesan told me that when International governments transport large amounts of hard currency across the world, they deliberately deface the hard currency with a black colored paint so that if, say for example, the plane gets hijacked than no one can make use of the real money. “So how do you make it normal/usable again?” I asked Jeesan. He allowed me to hold the paper, and asked me to see if I could rub off the paint, and I couldn’t. In my mind I kept thinking if this guy is some kind of magician or something because why is he showing me all this? I don’t have time for this rubbish, I thought to myself. Of course, I did not tell him this upfront. Anyways, at this point he took out a small bottle, perhaps around 20ml in size, containing a colorless liquid that looked just like tap water. He gently poured some of this liquid on the black note, and within seconds the black color faded away on both sides to reveal a perfectly normal (and genuine) US$100 note. He (Jeesan) even took out a fake note detector (small UV Torch) to show me the genuine watermark, and to my shock it was a real note.
The most interesting bit of the conversation came when he told me that he has over US$5 million of defaced hard currency in Beijing (which is a three hour flight north from Shenzhen), and that in order to “clean” this currency he needs to purchase at least ten bottles of 5 liters each of this liquid, which he just used to clean the US$100 note, from the American Embassy in Beijing. I think like any other sane person, I immediately knew where this was leading to, and quite rightly as I had then predicted, he wanted me to pay at least 50,000RMB (About £4,500 or $5,600) so that he could purchase this liquid and then he will give me a share of the US$5 million. I wish I had a Dictaphone or a secret camera with me so I could record the whole demonstration that he was carrying out. Of course, if only I knew that this was the real reason why he called me over for a drink in the first place.
I told him I would consider this offer of his and will get back to him in due course. The following morning I contacted both the American and British Embassies to tell them the story, and neither of the consulates (as I had predicted) had any such information or ever heard of this person called Jeesan- it was confirmed that I had stumbled across a scam. I have heard of scamming e-mails or telephone calls from African countries, but never encountered a real scammer in person (until this moment!). This was so surreal and unexpected. After our second meeting, I received a couple of calls from Jeesan, asking me to come to Beijing and assist with this "Money cleaning" task. I recorded both of those calls and gladly handed over to the authorities; changed my number and prayed I never meet such a person again. I was shocked, and somewhat scared I suppose, because I have never come across this kind of situation before, and did not expect it in China.
However, later I found out that there are a lot of fraud cases of a similar description in China, and almost all of them are originated from African countries. It’s a worrying situation for the Chinese authorities, and by all means, of course, not all African people (or other Foreigners) are like this; but I just wondered why me? Was I an easy target? It’s a mystery to me…
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