Friday, October 31, 2008

Memories are made of this

Okay, no Memoriad for me. But my feelings of guilt about dropping out at the last minute are assuaged by the glorious prospect of four more whole days of rest and relaxation. I can't remember the last time I had that (yes, I've only been employed again for three and a half months, but my memory has trouble stretching back that far).

So let's stretch my memory back a week or so and remember the World Memory Championship, Bahrain 2008. It all started, for me at least, on the Tuesday night - having realised at the last minute that it's not actually possible to get a train from Beeston to Manchester Airport early enough in the morning to catch the flight I'd booked, I realised I was going to have to spend the night in a hotel. A little bit more internet research revealed that every hotel in Manchester and the surrounding area was fully occupied (that was the night of the Man Utd/Celtic game), and eventually the closest place I could find was an expensive suite in the Novotel in Sheffield, which was at least half way there and allowed me an early-morning train to the airport.

I've never stayed in a suite before - I don't see the point, personally. Surely the fun of a hotel room is getting to lie in bed watching the telly? Why would you want an extra little room with a settee? Inviting other people to come and hang out with you, you say? Sit on the bed, the floor, any chairs/desks etc provided! Sheesh, what kind of people book suites in hotels? Anyway, I resolutely ignored the suite part of it (and the hundred-and-something-quid cost), lay in bed watching Man U thrash Celtic, and got a good night's sleep. After a quick call to Etihad Airways, anyway, having just noticed in the small print on my e-tickets that they have a policy of cancelling bookings that aren't reconfirmed three days before departure. Still, the person on the phone put my mind at ease on that point quickly enough.

Next morning, I got the train to the airport without incident (except for a surprising announcement on the platform at Manchester Piccadilly station that the train to the airport, which I and my fellow passengers were already sitting on, had been cancelled. Someone had pressed the wrong button on the hi-tech announcements system, apparently, and the staff had to go around assuring people that yes, the train did in fact exist and was about to depart) and had time to hang around the airport and find another book to read on the journey (picked Animal Farm, seeing as I don't own a copy, to go along with the ones I'd brought along, Frankenstein and William Sleator's Singularity).

As for the flight, I think it deserves a quick glowing recommendation/advert: Fly Etihad - the airline of the United Arab Emirates! They have the best range of in-flight entertainment of any airline I've flown with! Lots of good films old and new, and a huge choice of sitcom episodes, plus a few decent cartoons. Also, they give you free socks (possibly they're special socks that prevent deep vein thrombosis, but I don't really care. I approve of people giving me free socks, and immediately swapped my holey ones for these intact (if a little small) ones) and a good meal.

Got off the plane in Abu Dhabi, which was extremely hot, and bumped into James Ponder (how typical, you go all the way to Abu Dhabi and the first person you see is someone you know) who'd just come in on a similar flight from London to catch the same plane out to Bahrain. Realised that I'd left my hole-filled original pair of socks on the plane. We flew into Bahrain, which was also baking hot, although it was after dark (the idea of holding the WMC later in the year was to make the temperature less uncomfortable for us poor Europeans, but I didn't notice any difference from last August. Still unbelievably hot and humid!) and my big rucksack was the first bit of baggage on the carousel! This is a very good sign - I'm always the last to get my bag, I think the workers in airports around the world see it coming and decide to hang onto it just for a laugh. Or maybe to ransack it for memory-champion souvenirs, I don't know.

Anyway, we split up again to get taxis to our respective hotels in different parts of Manama. James warned me in advance that there's a current scandal of taxi drivers ripping off tourists, and mine did indeed refrain from using the meter and try (and succeed) to charge me more than James said was the going rate - but since it was still less than you'd expect to pay a taxi over here for the same distance, I didn't mind too much. I was staying in the Ramada Palace Hotel, which was very nice, fancy-looking, not too expensive and air-conditioned. They didn't have a single room available for the first night, so put me in another big posh suite. I'm turning into a suite kind of person, I can tell.

So then it was Thursday morning, the day allotted in the schedule for press conferences, competitor briefing, arbiter training and a posh opening ceremony/dinner. I hadn't brought a copy of the schedule with me, so wasn't sure when exactly these things were supposed to happen, and hadn't brought a map or the address of the competition venue (the Gulf Hotel/Conference Centre) with me, so I decided that a good strategy was to just go out, walk around the city and see if I stumbled across the right hotel.

I walked out into the sweltering heat (it was just about bearable if you stayed in the shade, so I spent the morning dashing from shadow to shadow) and pointed myself in the general direction of a big pointy building that looked like it might be the Gulf Hotel. Actually, as it turns out, most of the big, glassy, expensive-looking buildings in Manama aren't hotels (I've possibly been conditioned to assume that by visiting Las Vegas), they're offices - lots of big companies have their Middle East headquarters there. I'm still not sure what the big pointy building I was aiming for is, since I got distracted on the way there, but I'm pretty sure it's an office of some kind. It certainly turned out to be in the opposite direction to the Gulf Hotel, as I found out later.

I really do love walking the back streets of an extremely foreign city, and I spent a good couple of hours seeing the sights, while still keeping an eye out for anything that might be a Gulf Hotel. Had an expensive can of coke in a rather cool and crowded market place (it's hard to pretend you're not a clueless tourist when you're the only white person to be seen and don't speak a word of Arabic) and an extremely cheap one in the cool shopping centre, then I wandered all the way down to the Diplomatic Quarter, where last year's hotel was, just to prove that I can still find my way to places and to have a drink in their nice Harvester's pub (just coke again - championship the next day, and going to an Islamic country and having a beer in a British-style pub by yourself is a bit sad) before setting out back to the city. Eventually giving up on the chance of finding the venue by random wandering (or, indeed, of finding my own hotel ever again) and went into the Sheraton, pretended I was staying there and asked for directions. It turned out that the Gulf Hotel was right out over the other side of the city, and the doorman recommended that I take a taxi, but I explained that I disapprove of taxis and would rather walk, and anyway I was already as hot, tired and sweaty as it's possible for a human being to get. So he gave me a map and I successfully followed it for what must have been about an hour's further walking to the Gulf Hotel, out near the big fancy palace.

The hotel is surrounded by a big stone wall with only one opening, and I managed to walk around three and a half sides of the complex before finding the entrance, but I eventually made my way into the conference centre. I was warmly greeted by Chris Day and the good people of MICE Management (which, incidentally, is the best-named company in the universe, especially when they're organising a memory championship and thus enable Tony to make a convoluted joke about elephants, memory and mice) who appreciated the way I'd arrived at exactly the right kind of time, about fifteen minutes before registration officially started, so as to avoid the rush. I didn't mention that it was equally possible for me to arrive six hours early or not at all, and just cheerfully took the credit.

I love the feeling of a memory championship just starting to happen - all the memory people you know and don't know gradually arriving, all the organisers running around trying to make things happen the way they should (Phil Chambers, as ever, was non-stop all weekend, much appreciated by everyone, Dominic O'Brien was always doing something and Jennifer Goddard had the job of shepherding a small army of arbiters around the place, telling them where to go and what to do). It's always fun to guess who's going to turn up and how many competitors we're going to get - reports of Astrid's return turned out to be greatly exaggerated, but Andi had definitely been seen (not at the briefing, of course, he never comes to those, but at the airport), and Ed, who wasn't on the list although he'd told me a month before that he was coming, had showed up assuming nobody was going to tell him he couldn't compete just because he hadn't filled in a registration form. The Chinese arrived in a big mass as usual, all dressed in identical Team China jackets - I can proudly report that I can now pick most or all of the top Chinese competitors out of a lineup and even have a vague idea of some of their individual personality traits; it's still a bit them-and-us, but I think we intermingled a little bit more this year. The presence of Hugh (despite the name, he's Chinese) the official Team China translator, helped with that somewhat. They want to invite me to China to give talks and things, but I don't think I can any time soon - I've only got three days of holiday left at work to last me till the end of March.

Daren and newcomer Heidi, not to be outdone, sported Team South Africa T-shirts. It's a little bit harder to be a team when there's only two of you, but they managed it. Idriz, the only Swedish competitor, was wearing his cap and shirt. Chester Santos, who finally won the US Championship back in March, came along to his first World Championship, we had Dagfinn from Norway, Dr Yip from Malaysia and the usual crowd of Germans were joined by junior champion Dorothea Seitz, who I decided after a moment's consideration to talk to as if we'd spoken before - I know we were in the same building at the 2007 German championship, but I couldn't be sure whether we'd actually properly met. She seemed to think we had too, so it was okay. Also there was nine-year-old Konstantin Skudler, German Kids Champion, who had written to a TV company telling them he wanted to go to Bahrain but couldn't afford it and got a free trip with accompanying camera crew following him around (as were his parents, who by all accounts he'd dragged along to the competition entirely of his own volition, rather than being pressured at all by them to compete). The Chinese team had the similarly-aged Zhang Dianshuo, who made a point of saying hi to me whenever he saw me. Since his English ran to three or four words, and my Chinese vocabulary consists of no words whatsoever, our conversations weren't very in-depth, but he still seems fun.

The introduction and briefing followed the same kind of format as usual, with a couple of additions - an extra-long speech from Tony emphasising how much work the arbiter/organiser team do for no money and out of the goodness of their hearts, and a long speech from Dominic about sportsmanship, fair play and how cheating is bad. The first of these was a deliberate attempt to forestall any protests about the last-minute schedule changes - the original schedule called for the prizegiving dinner not to take place until Monday evening, despite the event finishing at Sunday lunchtime, and despite loud protests that this meant everyone would have to spend at least one extra night in an expensive hotel, they'd insisted that it was necessary to do it that way. Then, five days before the competition, they'd been forced to reschedule the prizegiving to Sunday night when the convention centre told them they couldn't have the room on Monday after all, and had rearranged the competition timetable in an attempt to leave more time between the finish and the awards, thus proving that they could have done it that way in the first place if they'd really wanted to. Despite this, I don't think anybody was planning to complain at the briefing anyway - these things do happen, and the revised schedule was by no means unacceptable in and of itself, and anyway everybody had already complained over email in the days before the competition.

The cheating speech was to highlight that Dominic, in his capacity of chairman of the Ethics Committee, or whatever his latest title is (great job though the WMSC do, they have an amazing talent for forming new committees and sub-committees and giving themselves official titles, considering there's only half a dozen of them) was going to come down like a ton of bricks on anybody who showed the slightest inclination to look at the memorisation papers after they'd been told to stop, kept writing after the time was up, or made any attempt to cheat in any way. They even had two CCTV cameras, which he promised could pick up any unethical activity of any kind. I don't know if they actually worked or if they were just there to scare people, but I'm all in favour of making it clear that cheating isn't acceptable, even if we haven't really had any problem with it in the past (I heard rumours, possibly made up, that someone had been caught communicating with a hidden microphone up her sleeve - it all seems a bit far-fetched and unlikely to me, but perhaps some people really do think you can gain fame, fortune and glory by cheating your way to an above-average score at the world memory championships?)

I had a splitting headache by this point, possibly from sunstroke, so decided to skip the posh dinner (I really dislike posh dinners, although as it turned out this one was a non-posh, no-waiting-around-between-courses buffet which I would have really enjoyed, but never mind) and went back to my hotel for a room service snack (I also, generally, disapprove of room service as being unnecessarily extravagant, but the Ramada Palace has a really nice choice of inexpensive meals). Or at least I eventually went back to my hotel - not remembering how to get there, I walked right past it and all the way back to the Sheraton, where I asked the same helpful doorman how to find the hotel I was actually staying at, still without giving away the fact that I wasn't staying at the Sheraton. Having eventually got to my posh suite, I had a very early night and woke up bright and refreshed at exactly the right kind of time in the morning. Interestingly, while I often feel headachey or unwell immediately before a memory competition, I'm always 100% fighting-fit on the day itself, and this year was no exception. But I'll pause this account here, and tell you about the actual competition just a little bit later. Thanks for your patience and thank you for choosing Zoomy's Thing; we know there are other blogs out there and we value our loyal customers.


Anonymous said...

Shame you didn't mention the socks before Ben. They were free on my plane too but, I left them for someone that actually had deep vein thrombosis.

Did the pointy building you mentioned have three fans on it in between the two points ?


Chris said...

Part of me wonders whether it might be better to relax in Istanbul where the temperature is 25 degrees, rather than in the East Midlands where the weather is terrible, if you can make enough to pay for the trip, but the existence of that "if" may well make the trip far from relaxing.

Enjoying the travelogue and looking forward to more!

Zoomy said...

Dai: No, it was the big green pointy building just down the King Faisal Highway from that one - I know the one with the fans is the Bahrain World Trade Centre and Moda Mall, I had a look around there on the Monday, but I never did find out what the green thing is...

Chris: Miserable Midlands weather is actually quite a refreshing change after a week in the oven of Manama! And despite all the globetrotting I do these days, I relax much better in my own bed than in a fancy hotel in a warm country...

Anonymous said...

Ben won again, (sigh) crap... -- Inside Buzan's Mind