Archive for December, 2012

Look boss – no hands!

December 27, 2012

Driver texting

In the eleven years I’ve lived in Valencia city I’ve used the bus no more than a scant handful of times – and if the experience of Ian Nicol is anything to go by I suspect I’ll be sticking to my ancient bike or shank’s pony for my trips around the city.

In early December Ian was taking the short ride on an EMT bus, Valencia’s metropolitan bus services provided by the city council, from near the centre of the city to the port. Usually a non-event of a ten-minute ride, this one kept Ian dubiously entertained, because during the whole of the time, the bus driver was sending text messages. At first Ian took a few photos, fortunately with time and date coding, but then realised that these could prove when it happened but not that the bus was actually in motion at the time. Thanks to the marvels of modern technology, he was able to able to make a video recording using his mobile, which shows clearly that the driver has his mobile phone in his hand and is intermittently looking down at it while touching the screen with the forefinger of his right hand.

Ian is obviously a much more tranquil short of chap than I am. I’d have been screaming and shouting what a dangerous pillock the driver was, but Ian simply went on recording.

Concerned at just how incredibly dangerous texting while driving is, even if you are driving your own car, never mind a public bus down one of Valencia’s busiest streets, he tried to contact EMT to complain. All he could get was a formulaic contact page asking for the usual name, address etc., and the reason for his complaint. Amazingly enough, someone from EMT did contact him by phone but showed no interest at all about seeing either the photos or the video, although they obviously were more concerned about him than he thought, because just before Christmas they sent him a Christmas greeting, sending their best wishes for 2013, which just goes to show how considerate people can be. Sadly, they still hadn’t done or said anything about Ian’s video, so he sent it to me.

After three weeks of silence, a mere nine minutes after I received Ian’s email he received one from Maria Carmen Álvarez López, Responsable de Atención al Cliente at EMT, which suggests that either his emails are being monitored or serendipity does exist after all. Sra. Álvarez had written to say that an enquiry was going to take place into his complaint.

Being a fair-minded sort of chap, (although rarely if it has anything to do with Valencia Town Hall), I phoned Sra. Álvarez at the number on her email. I spoke to young girl named Amparo, who refused to give her surname as it is the company’s policy not to do so, and seemed vague as to who the supposed Responsable was. I accept my Spanish accent isn’t perfect, but how many ways can you say Maria Carmen Álvarez without someone finally clicking who you’re asking for. Eventually Ms. Amparo thought on her feet enough to say that Álvarez wasn’t there, and when I asked when she would be, I was told that they didn’t know because she was having a few days off. Could I speak to a manager then please? No, I couldn’t because they didn’t take phone calls and would only accept written communication. Given that it was a very serious complaint, could I please leave my phone number for someone –  anyone – to call me back to discuss it. No they couldn’t, because they didn’t take phone calls and would only accept written communication. I could see a brick wall appearing for me to bang my head on.

So the result so far is that a concerned citizen made a video recording of an extremely dangerous act perpetrated a driver on a public bus on a busy main road, and despite saying that they are going to open an enquiry into said act the driver’s employees haven’t even asked for the photos and videos, never mind seen them, which makes you wonder how any serious complaint can be investigated – or is this going to be a typical Valencian whitewash?

But there again, given the amount of cuts and raised fares that EMT is undertaking, perhaps the driver was just applying for another job, and why not use his bosses time to do it in?

One semi-amusing point in an otherwise serious topic, the bus number in which Ian was riding was 7001, which is the International Standards Office number for Public Information Symbols. As no doubt we would all like to know when a complete fool of a bus driver is sending text messages while driving, I wonder what the symbol for that would be? Suggestions, rude or otherwise, gratefully accepted.


With thanks to Ian Nicol for permission to use this photo and video. (You can follow Ian on Twitter at @einspain.)

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Even the mules give way

December 27, 2012

View through ambulance windscreen of winding mountain road above Imlil, High Atlas Mountains, Morocco

A few days ago we heard the sad news of the death of Habiba Amelou, a baby little more than a month old, whose small body couldn’t cope with a winter freeze in the Middle Atlas Mountains. Many of the villages in the area are extremely remote, with sometimes little access to medical help. Imlil, a village in the High Atlas Mountains, the Association Bassins d’Imlil, a local association covering the seven villages of the Imlil Valley, have made a major difference in the medical services of their area.


In the remote, and even not so remote villages of the High Atlas Mountains, medical assistance of any kind is rarely close to hand. Because of this there have been a number of deaths over the years, particularly during childbirth, due to lack of transport to Asni, the nearest town with a maternity clinic, or on to Tahanoute or even Marrakech for more serious cases. One of the most important projects that the Association Bassins d’Imlil has instigated is the provision of an ambulance to reduce these all too avoidable mortalities. The ambulance has been a life-line to many, particularly those in the most remote valleys who might otherwise have to wait many hours for medical assistance. But there is another ‘ambulance’ that receives scant publicity, and fulfils a role that most of us don’t want to think too deeply about. It is a hearse, on call twenty-fours hours a day, seven days a week, just as the regular ambulance is, but, by the nature of its occupants, it fulfils a more discreet service.

The way Abderrahim Ajdaà handles his ambulance as he tackles the hairpin bends of the rough track that zigzags precariously up from Imlil to Armed, the highest and largest of the villages that form the Association Bassins d’Imlil, you would think he was still driving a taxi around the roads of Asni, seventeen kilometres away. After eleven years driving over some of the roughest terrain in North Africa’s highest mountain range, his confidence is built on experience. As it’s my first trip I spend a fair bit of my time concentrating on the Moroccan flag on its stand taped to the dashboard, and try to ignore the sheer slope of the mountainside, so close that I can’t even see the edge of the road from the passenger seat. Every pedestrian, mule, Jeep and truck gives way as the ambulance climbs the narrow road. After all, it may be someone in their family it’s on its way to.

We’re not on a house call or emergency today, but Abderrahim is demonstrating in a practical way his daily round. The road ends at a flat area of rough ground, where the Reyara River bubbles and sparkles languidly before picking up pace on its way down into the Imlil Valley below. Across an almost non-existent ford is Armed, a village of almost two thousand souls, and Abderrahim points out the pharmacy, closed for the last eight years due to lack of money.

If a helicopter is needed for a mountain rescue on Jbel Toubkal, the highest mountain in North Africa, this is where it lands, on a piece of flat land beside the river, with the patient being transferred to Abderrahim’s ambulance for the onward journey down the mountain to Asni or Marrakech. But ‘flat’ doesn’t mean ‘smooth’; the uneven surface makes for a rocky and tricky landing. When the river is in flood – and people shouldn’t be on the mountain anyway – there is nowhere for the helicopter to land, and Abderrahim has to gather a team of villagers to bring the injured down by stretcher.

In more general medical situations Abderrahim takes the first call. His main work is ferrying expectant mothers to the maternity clinic in Asni, or the hospitals in Tahanoute or Marrakech to give birth. One person is allowed to travel with the patient in the rear of the ambulance. The next most common is attending accidents, mainly motor accidents, where he’s often first on the scene, even before the police arrive. Abderrahim has been trained in first aid, but the ambulance has limited equipment and if he thinks the patient needs a nurse or doctor they will be taken to the clinic at Imlil. The resident nurse, Hamid Asbayo, calls the doctor if necessary, and the patient can be treated there. If there are complications, Abderrahim makes the sixty kilometre drive to the hospital in Marrakech.

When the Association Bassins de Imlil put forward the idea of buying a hearse in 2010, Hassan Bouyenbaden volunteered to be its driver; on call day-in, day-out, just as Abderrahim is. When Abderrahim is unavailable to drive the regular ambulance, Hassan steps in, but most of his clients are at the opposite end of their life-cycle to those of his fellow driver. At fatal road accidents, he is required to attend with the police, bagging the body and removing it to the morgue in Marrakech. Fortunately this kind of situation is quite rare, and the majority of the people he transports have died of natural causes. For those from the villages of the valley who die in Marrakech, Hassan collects the body from the hospital so that the deceased can be buried in his or her homeland.

Most of the inhabitants of the locality are strict Muslims, which means that no male outside the family other than medical personnel may touch a woman. Dispensation is also given to Hassan, as he is required to handle the body in order to put it in his ambulance. Sometimes family members are too distraught to deal with the death, and Hassan has to quietly seek help from others for the removal, without overstepping the bounds of propriety. What helps in this situation is that he has lived in the valley all his life, and many of the people he is called to attend were his friends.

“At first it used to upset me, seeing my friends dead, but eventually I came to realise that we all die, and surely it’s better to have a friend attend to you than a stranger. It’s no problem for me now.”

Women will be returned to the home to be ritually washed by their female family and friends, before being enshrouded in white cotton or linen cloth; men will go straight to the mosque, where their male family performs a similar service. Sharia law calls for the burial of the body, usually within twenty-four hours. After prayers at the mosque the deceased will be taken to a cemetery, although not one with headstones and mausoleums a westerner might recognise. In Imlil it is simply a square plot, only distinguished from the rest of the bare hillside by a fence to keep out wandering goats.

The ambulance on a mountain road

A bdellrahim in his Ambulance

Flying the Moroccan flag

High in the High Atlas Mountains

Even the mules give way

Helicopter landing spot

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It may be Christmas but it’s just another day

December 26, 2012


Christmas may be a big event for some people, but for others it’s just another day of getting on with business.

The green digital clock on the farmacia on Gran Via trips over to 22.00, and a few moments later it tells me that the temperature is 12º. What it doesn’t tell me is that the gentle drizzle of half-an-hour ago has turned into a downpour, so that when I take a photo I have to reverse my baseball cap so the peak doesn’t drip on my camera.

It may be Christmas night, but business goes on, or at least has gone on during the day. The take-away cubby hole on the side of the market is cleaning up, ready for home, but still has a few plastic containers of paella, fideua and pasta left. Everything is cooked fresh daily, and whatever hasn’t been sold by seven in the evening is let go for one euro a portion, a bargain-basement meal during these mean times.

A young indigent who has been wandering the barrio for the last year or so has taken his station outside the take-away. His demons cause him to rant and shout sometimes, occasionally bursting into tears, but he usually just wanders the area quietly or sits in a doorway for hours on end. I’ve never seen him accost anyone or cause the slightest problem, and, somehow or other, he keeps himself very clean. This evening he has stacked his fortune in rows on the narrow outside serving ledge of the take-away, neat rows of one- and two-pence coins piled ten deep. I buy a portion of paella for him, and ask the girl serving for a fork. He may be crazy, but he shouldn’t go hungry.

Around the corner, just beside the entrance to the underground car park, is the laundrette I use every alternate Sunday between two and four, Spanish lunchtime, when I can usually be sure of getting a washing machine. I take a book and a bottle of water, and have always found it an agreeable way to spend an hour, particularly when the sun is shining and I can feel its warmth on my back through the window. This evening a lady and a young girl have caught the last wash at nine-thirty, probably assuming that late Christmas evening will by as busy as I assume Sunday lunchtime will be.

On my way up to Gran Via, the dual carriageway that separates the working class barrio of Ruzafa from the chi-chi barrio of Ensanchez, I watch the manageress of Panaria on Plaza Pare Perera tilling-up. The bakery opened about eight months ago, and is part of a small chain in Valencia that seems to be flourishing on loaves of fancy bread for around three euros. I’m glad we have such upper-crust shops in the barrio, but my bread buying is limited to the anti-crisis barra for twenty centimos from a small stall in Ruzafa Market.

The staff at Panaria may be winding down for the day, but at the Horno de los Borrachos the baker has only just brought his first loaves from the oven. For sixty-one years, the ‘Drunks Oven’ has served bread, cakes, pastries and sandwiches to the vecinos of the barrio, the local residents, drunk or sober, every single night from seven in the evening until seven a.m. without missing a single day. During the main annual fiesta of Fallas they are open twenty-four hours.

Gran Via sparkles with the moving lights of traffic, still busy despite the day and hour. The ornate cast-iron lamps with their yellow globes cast a glow over the glistening pavement – attractive, but as every second one has been disconnected on many streets as a money-saving measure, cyclists complain that the intermitant pools of light are disorientating and dangerous.

Until a year ago the streets at this time of year would be decorated with bright festoons of coloured lights, but this Christmas austerity measures have cut deep. Gone are most of the fanciful decorations, replaced with in-your-face publicity. I can’t help feel that a string of lights advertising one of the national gas companies or a local brand of rice are not exactly in the spirit of Christmas, but there are so few decorations on display this year that I suppose it’s best not to look a gift gas company in the mouth.

As I loop my way home I see Chiu, the owner of the café on the corner of my street where I take my coffee every morning, lowering the damp umbrellas and stacking the chairs and tables. He’ll be back there tomorrow morning at eight, and I’ll arrive a few minutes later. The routine doesn’t change, even if it is Christmas Day.





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