India’s Millennium City… plus a data researcher’s nightmare

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It’s been a while since my last blog post but, truth be told, I’ve been busy rushing around India, Nepal and Bangladesh as well as researching other upcoming data collection trips. Regular readers of the blog may recall that my first ever post, some three years ago, was from the chaotic streets of India. They may also remember that that trip didn’t end too well after I picked up a nasty bug which knocked me out for a few weeks. Well, this time I made it out unscathed and now find myself in a rather different place on the planet – French Guiana. I’ll be blogging about this place soon. However, I wanted to share photos and thoughts from my India trip with you first.

Cows are free to roam where they choose in India

Cows are free to roam where they choose in India

There are a lot of people in India, some 1.25 billion in fact, and there are seven cities with a population of over five million, all of which are covered by ECA’s Cost of Living survey. A recent addition to our list of Indian location’s is Gurgaon. The name derives from ‘Guru Gram’ which means Village of the Guru and if you look at a Google Maps image of India’s capital city Delhi, then you’ll be able to spot Gurgaon some 30 km to the south and east. The city is so close to the capital that it is part of Delhi’s metro transit system and is essentially a satellite city of Delhi.

Gurgaon was once a small agricultural village but since leading Indian car manufacturer Maruti Suzuki opened up a manufacturing plant there back in the 1970’s it has grown to be one of the most important and modern areas of the country. Today it is home to operations of over half of the Fortune 500 companies and the likes of Microsoft, IBM, Coca Cola and American Express have established their Indian corporate headquarters in the self-dubbed Millennium City. It has one of the highest per capita incomes in India and has become one of the world’s most important offshoring centres.

Galleria Market shopping area in Gurgaon

Galleria Market shopping area in Gurgaon

Although very new by Indian city standards, Gurgaon still has that essence of splendid chaos which I mentioned in my first ever blog post. I’m pretty sure that in no other country in the world would you be able to find free roaming monkeys, cows, dogs, goats, pigs, peacocks, horses and camels – all together! Well they certainly add to the unique smells and sounds of an Indian city. The ‘India trip’ which is carried out twice a year is usually one which we ECA international data researchers try to avoid. Magical and mysterious as India can be there really doesn’t seem to be anywhere else that wears you down quite as much: the chaos, noise, smells, beggars, being stared at, getting ill, the heat, the rain, the difficulty in tracking down shopping items – and  for the ladies there are additional troublesome aspects of travelling around India, as my colleague, Rachel, blogged about previously. However, I have to say this time around it was ok (not getting sick helped, of course!). Love it or hate it, India is certainly not a boring place, with seething humanity everywhere you look. Sure, I felt like a walking exhibit half the time, and when you enter a shop you get swarmed by the staff trying to get a commission on any sales, but outside of the monsoon season it’s not that bad a place really. Mind you, I was just visiting briefly. Expats and their families are there day in, day out, which, as you can probably tell, wouldn’t be for me!

Magson - great for imported foods in Ahmedabad

Magson – great for imported foods in Ahmedabad

This brings me on to the topic of home comforts for expats in India, in particular with regards to finding familiar day to day goods and groceries. Availability in Gurgaon and Delhi was, on the whole, good but then I moved on to the capital of the state of Rajasthan, Jaipur – an IDR’s nightmare! Let me explain: in all Indian cities there are several supermarket chains which can be found throughout the country. These include Big Bazaar, Reliance Fresh, Spencer’s and HyperCity. All of the outlets of these supermarkets will sell the staples such as rice, bread and pasta and will have local made versions of items such as cereal, biscuits, jam and ketchup but some outlets will have a ‘gourmet’ section where you can get imported foodstuffs. These outlets tend only to be in areas of cities which are home to the middle and upper classes, and where foreign workers live. In the cities where there are large expatriate populations there are also small grocery stores dedicated to selling imported home comforts. The chains vary from city to city but include Nature’s Basket, Modern Bazaar and Le Marche. Often these small shops will not look much from the outside but will contain a treasure trove of goods such as brie and Edam cheeses, Lindt chocolate, Bonne Maman jam and Heinz ketchup! Now, while Gurgaon and Delhi have many gourmet food shops, hunting around Jaipur trying to find any is a hopeless task. Even the outlets of HyperCity and Big Bazaar there only have the bare essentials. So, if you love your brie and Heinz ketchup then best bring it with you when heading to Jaipur!

Alpha One - Ahmedabad's premier shopping mall

Alpha One – Ahmedabad’s premier shopping mall

Thankfully, I had better luck in the next city I visited – Ahmedabad. Although the choice of imported foodstuffs is nowhere near as good as Gurgaon and Delhi there are at least a few shops selling some favourites from home, with Magson perhaps being the best bet. Ahmedabad is another new location in India for me. It is the sixth largest city in the country and was predicted to be one of the fastest growing cities this decade according to Forbes. In 2012, the Times of India named Ahmedabad as the best mega-city to live in in India. It is also an important location for the IT industry as well as pharmaceuticals and the automobile industry.

I know it’s been a few weeks since I left you with a teaser asking you to name six countries other than Angola which are officially Portuguese speaking. Well, congratulations if you came up with Brazil, Portugal, Mozambique, Guinea Bissau, Cape Verde and Sao Tome and Principe.

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Stuck in traffic in Angola’s expensive capital

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Two years ago my colleague Rachel reported on her visit to Luanda, the capital of Angola, in Southern Africa. She mentioned many of the issues which affect life in the city, including the disparities between rich and poor and the city’s continued transition to peacetime after the 27 year long civil war. For me, however, the two aspects which stood out head and shoulders above the others were the traffic and the cost of goods! I’ve visited a fair few cities in my time and I have to say that Luanda tops them all in terms of jaw dropping prices and horrendous congestion.

Belas Shopping Mall in Luanda

Belas Shopping Mall in Luanda

In ECA’s September 2014 Cost of Living Survey, Luanda remained the second most expensive city in the world for expatriates, behind Caracas in Venezuela.  Of course some aspects of business life are always going to be on the expensive side, wherever you are, but in Luanda if you want to entertain business colleagues in a decent top end restaurant you won’t get much change back from USD 200 for one person. If you want a reliable broadband connection at home it will cost you ten times as much as it would in the UK and should you want to buy an iPad Air tablet there, you can, but it will set you back something in the region USD 1500. Even a typical three star hotel  will cost over USD 300 a night and you can expect to pay upwards of USD 425 for a four star hotel. Once you’ve paid for the room the extreme costs don’t stop there. One evening I went to dine in my relatively simple hotel’s restaurant and saw before me a rather sorry looking buffet of cheese, stale bread and bruised fruit. I gawped when the waiter informed me it costs USD 75 – without drinks! So, like Rachel a couple of years earlier, I plumped for the USD 35 spaghetti Bolognese instead!

Much of Luanda is a construction site

Much of Luanda is a construction site

Unfortunately, I was pretty much confined to eating at my hotel because getting a taxi anywhere seemed like a bad option. The taxi drivers in Luanda must live a rather strange life. They spend most of their day getting bored whilst stuck in traffic but on the plus side they’ll be getting rich for inching along at a snail’s pace. Luanda is a big city of some five million people and the southern area called Luanda Sul is where many expats live and shop but often they will work in the city centre. The distance between the two is about 15 kilometres and with no train or subway system the only option is to drive. Because the airport is sandwiched between them there is really only one road to take and with hundreds of thousands of people – not just expats – doing this commute the gridlock is unbearable. Add to that the lack of air conditioning in my taxi and the fact that it cost almost USD 100 for the privilege, this was not a journey I enjoyed! This has been a problem for many years but although the city centre looks like one big construction site I couldn’t see any sign of better roads being built!

Luanda's Marginal waterfront

Luanda’s Marginal waterfront

Angola’s economy is one of the fastest growing in Africa and 50% of the country’s GDP is derived from the oil industry. The diamond mining industry is also an important part of the economy with Angola being the third largest producer of diamonds on the continent. Many assignees working for companies in these two industries will be spared the daily traffic congestion of the capital, though, as they are often based on an offshore installation or a mining facility. Mind you, although they get to miss out on the awful daily commute, the more isolated locations they’re in come with their own set of challenges (and if you are in International HR and reading this you might well be interested to read about the new remote location calculator ECA have launched.)

I haven’t ended a blog with a teaser for a while so here’s to the first one of 2015. Angola is one of seven official Portuguese speaking countries in the world. Can you name the other six?

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Guest blog: Male – the ‘other’ Maldives

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A happy 2015 to all our followers! The team and I are currently preparing for this year’s trips and will be back on the data collection trail shortly. In the meantime, my colleague, Shona, shares her experiences of Male. Best wishes, Mark.

Following a recent trip to India, I had the pleasure of a stop-over in the Maldives to collect data. The smallest country in Asia, and the smallest Muslim country in the world, the Republic of Maldives is made up of 1,190 coral islands which are grouped into 26 different atolls. Of these, only around 200 of the islands are inhabited, and another 80 are used exclusively as tourist resorts.

Hanging bananas on the streets of Male

Hanging bananas on the streets of Male

Despite being prominently known as a luxury holiday hotspot, with around 28% of the country’s GDP coming from the tourist industry, the capital, Male, offers a very different experience. Located on the largest island in the country, with a population of over 100,000 people, the island is the fifth most densely populated in the world, and a busy hub compared to the idyllic retreats most people imagine the Maldives to be.

It makes a nice change collecting data in a city that can be entirely traversed by foot- most of the roads are so narrow in fact that I was surprised that the local taxis managed to squeeze down them. A variety of small supermarkets and other stores are dotted around the island- some better stocked than others. Despite enjoying the freedom from public transport, I soon learnt the hard way that having a map is a must for newcomers here as the roads and so small and winding, it becomes very easy to get lost.

An alleyway in town

An alleyway in town

Converted from Buddhism in the 12th century, the islands of the Maldives now follow traditional Islamic law. This means that shops close for 15 minutes after the call to prayer (which, added to the fact that a number of stores close for up to two hours over lunch, makes data collection a test of patience!), and in the case of the Maldives includes a ban on bringing symbols of other religions into the country. This helped explain why the Thai restaurant I visited had pictures of Venice and other European destinations on its walls, rather than the Buddhist statues and paintings normally associated with Thailand. Bringing alcohol and pork into the country is also restricted as it is illegal to consume these in Male. This applies to tourists as well as locals, and those in desperate need of a drink will have to hop on a boat and travel over to Hulhue Island, where the airport is located, to get their pricey fix. Fortunately for the throngs of holidaymakers who visit, the island resorts are exempt from the ban.

Alongside the Muslim traditions in the Maldives, there also remains a strong belief in the powers of black and white magic, and the September 2013 elections made headlines across the world when police detained a coconut deemed to be acting suspiciously by a polling station. The police called in a white magician who confirmed that the coconut was in fact innocent and was later released without charge.

Hotel chalets over the sea

Hotel chalets over the sea

Whilst visiting Male, I heard numerous grumblings about the price of electricity here. Residents face paying incredibly high power costs as electricity is supplied through diesel fired generators. This makes it one of the most expensive places in the world for power, having the highest running costs in South Asia. Male also suffers from water shortages, exacerbated last year by a fire at the island’s only water treatment plant. Desalination plants provide the only form of drinkable mains water for residents and water supplies had to be sent over from nearby countries such as India, while international engineers arrived to try and tackle the problem. The shortages forced thousands of locals to relocate to nearby islands which were unaffected. Along with these ongoing issues, the Maldives is the lowest country in the world, with the highest point being just 2.4m above sea level, and therefore faces the very real threat of being completely submerged should global warming lead to rising sea levels. To draw attention to this issue, the then president Mohamed Nasheed held his 2009 cabinet meeting underwater.

The reality of life on Male differs greatly with what most imagine the Maldives to be. I did manage to squeeze in a visit to one of the famous paradise island resorts, and the 30 minute boat trip couldn’t have left me feeling any further away from the hectic capital.

ECAintl-International-Data-Researcher_ShonaShona is part of ECA International’s International Data Research team. She travels the world regularly, capturing price data for goods and services to assist with cost of living comparisons around the world.

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A year of travelling in review – highlights from 2014

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Between us we covered quite some distance this year, making around 250 trips! Here’s a sample of our most memorable experiences and discoveries. Season’s Greetings from all of us in the International Data Research team!

Favourite locations visited in 2014

Nick: Kigali, Rwanda – the ‘land of a thousand hills’ was a real eye-opener. The country is green, the weather was great and it felt safe to wander the streets of the capital. I wasn’t sure whether it would be insensitive to ask questions about the country’s bloody past but the locals spoke openly about the 1994 genocide and seemed optimistic about the country’s future.

St John’s, Canada is North America’s ‘oldest’ city and has some pretty colourful streets!

St John’s, Canada is North America’s ‘oldest’ city and has some pretty colourful streets!

Rachel: St John’s, Canada – North America’s ‘oldest’ city and the location where the first transatlantic radio signal was received. Friendly people, good food, historic areas and distinctive, brightly coloured houses. The city’s George Street reputedly has the highest concentration of bars in North America.

Shona: The Cayman Islands – I love a good beach and Seven Mile beach is pretty close to perfect. Add in the best fish tacos I’ve ever eaten, swimming with stingrays at Stingray City and fairly straightforward data collection, and it was probably my favourite location this year!

Hugh: Yangon in Myanmar is a beautiful city, with incredibly friendly people and surprisingly well stocked supermarkets. Also, I have to mention South Tarawa (Kiribati) – it’s a bit out of the way but if you happen to be passing through the sunset is incredible.

Eleanor: Muscat, capital of Oman. It was my first time visiting the Middle East and I really enjoyed it. Muscat is calm and clean with a beautiful seafront, dazzling white buildings and friendly people. I also loved Gabon. It’s peaceful, prosperous and has acres of unspoilt jungle perfect for gorilla-spotting and other trekking safaris.

Dan: Beirut, Lebanon. The people were welcoming, the food great and the atmosphere terrific. Oh, and the sun was out the entire time!

Mark: Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories of Canada. It’s a small but important regional town as far north as I’m ever likely to visit on the American continent. And it has my favourite ever license plates – shaped like a polar bear.


Memorable meals

Nick: Pork chops with grilled plantain and a sweet and sour barbecue sauce at ‘Hotel Rwanda’ – fantastic!

Rachel: During a 6-hour stopover in Buenos Aires bus station I used my broken Spanish to order a hot chocolate. The waiter didn’t understand, until he exclaimed “Ah! Submarino!” and brought me a glass of hot milk and a small tablet of dark chocolate, explaining the chocolate is the ‘submarine’, and should be “sunk” into the hot milk. It was delicious!

Conor: TGI Friday’s in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia – in an austere desert kingdom, I was surprised to find an all-American chain staffed by flamboyant Filipino waiters!

Shona: This is more of a day of eating than just one meal! I joined a food tour in Guadalajara, Mexico, which involved a walking tour of the city while sampling various Mexican delicacies including tortilla soup, tortas ahogadas (a drowned sandwich), and enchiladas.

Chongqing hotpot - a fiery communal broth

Chongqing hotpot – a fiery communal broth

Eleanor: In Chongqing, I went out for hotpot with two local girls. The dish is a fiery communal broth which is kept at boiling point and has all manner of things dipped into it: from crab sticks, tofu, mushrooms to and lotus root, duck gizzards, chicken’s feet. It was great fun but I can’t say I was a great fan of the chicken feet and I literally left in tears the hotpot was so spicy!

Dan: The vegetable biryani at the little green restaurant next to the Taj Club House in Chennai. Definitely a landmark if you like biryani.


Surprising locations

Nick: I wasn’t sure what to expect from Islamabad and was quite surprised to find a well laid out city which appeared, on the surface at least, to be calm and tranquil. The Margalla Hills which loom over the city are beautifully green and everyone I met was friendly.

Rachel: The UAE – it was a place I’d had no great desire to visit, thinking it would be a little soulless and that I would struggle being a woman travelling on my own but in fact I found it a very comfortable place to be and there were lots of interesting places to visit, not just designer shopping malls.

Conor: N’Djamena in Chad – I expected squalor and overcrowding, but the downtown boulevards were quiet and walkable and the garden cafes might have been in Thailand.

Palau in the Pacific Ocean is much more developed than you might imagine

Palau in the Pacific Ocean is much more developed than you might imagine

Shona: Koror, Palau – given its remote location (the Western Pacific), I expected it to be much less developed than it was. It was very tourist-friendly. I was even more surprised to find my taxi driver from the airport, who spoke no English, playing the Disney’s ‘Frozen’ soundtrack in his car and singing along.

Hugh: I was quite surprised by Apia in Samoa. Everybody was really friendly and it had a great, laid back atmosphere.  Driving through the little villages you see welcome banners made by the local schools with bunting hanging from the trees. Also, the policemen wear skirts.

Eleanor: Dushanbe in Tajikistan – I didn’t really know anything about the country before I went, but imagined it to be stark, grey and bleak. It’s true that it’s one of the poorest countries in the world and does have an element of ex-Soviet-ism about it, but I will never forget the sheer joy of arriving to find a backdrop of green Alpine mountains and a quiet city filled with tulips.

Mark: Kampala in Uganda – I was expecting a run-down, disorganised, clamorous, dirty city, typical of much of Sub Saharan Africa. However, the locals were possibly the friendliest I can remember ever meeting and the tree-lined avenues of the Kololo area were a joy to wander.


Favourite journeys

Nick: The taxi journeys in beat-up old cars through both Alexandria and Cairo were pretty terrifying, and crossing the road in Egypt takes a bit of practise.

Rachel: On a night flight home from Curacao opening the window blind to peek out and seeing Ursa Major (aka the ‘plough’). Plus the air hostess gave me a goodie bag full of treat-size chocs because I’d given up my seat so a couple could sit next to each other.

Conor: I like to explore cities on foot, but this was next to impossible in Saudi Arabia because of the 40-degree heat, urban sprawl, speeding traffic and lack of footpaths. The many security cordons criss-crossing downtown Manama didn’t help matters in Bahrain either!

Shona: The journey from the airport in Freetown, Sierra Leone – the airport is located across the estuary from Freetown so it’s necessary to get on a boat to reach the city. I arrived just after sunset so it was a slightly unnerving experience handing money over, climbing onto a boat and sailing off into the darkness.

Hugh: I’ve had my fair share of hairy taxi rides but one in Algiers stands out. The driver seemed to enjoy watching me squirm when undertaking cars along the hard shoulder at a ridiculous speed. I found myself praying for a traffic jam!

It's really quite surreal zooming through the countryside at over 300kmh in a Japanese bullet train

It’s really quite surreal zooming through the countryside at over 300kmh in a Japanese bullet train

Eleanor: The short train journey from Chongqing to Chengdu, is gorgeous. It passes through China’s amazing rural scenery – green fields, narrow conical hills and tiny, remote villages – which look like something from an ancient painting.

Mark: My favourite journey has to be travelling on the famous Japanese bullet trains. It was my first visit to the ‘Land of the Rising Sun’ and was quite surreal zooming through the countryside at over 300km/h.


Great for expat shopping

Nick: The tiny ‘Rue 9’ in Cairo is tucked away in a corner of the affluent Maadi district and stocks lots of forbidden fruit (pork and alcohol!), as does the Qatar Distribution Centre in Doha.

Rachel: The El Ateneo Grand Splendid bookshop in Buenos Aires – one of the ‘most beautiful bookshop’ in the world, and I can see why. Laid out in a former theatre, it really is splendid.  I wish all our expat bookshops were like that!

Conor: The Saudi shopping centres were impressive. Enormous, immaculately clean and with a product selection rivalling anything in Europe – except alcohol or pork.

The supermarkets in Port au Prince, Haiti, are surprising well stocked

The supermarkets in Port au Prince, Haiti, are surprising well stocked

Shona: Port au Prince, Haiti – I was surprised by how well stocked the supermarkets were compared to other Caribbean locations especially because Haiti is so associated with extreme poverty. The number of expats in the country ensures that the supermarkets are filled with international goods and remain very clean.

Hugh: The small port city of Lae (Papa New Guinea) appeared quite run down with not much going for it. I was therefore surprised to find Andersons Foodland, which had a great selection of imported groceries, and a better choice than was available in the capital, Port Moresby.

Eleanor: Bamburies in Bangalore was definitely my most exciting shop of the year. Pork and beef can be tricky to find in India but, after days of no luck, I walked into this unassuming butcher’s shop and found all the pork, beef, fish and good quality meat an expat could ever want. The owner was a bit nonplussed by my enthusiasm!

Dan: Esajee & Co in Islamabad, Pakistan. Tiny place, stocked with all sorts of expat comforts. Unfortunately, from a research point of view, not a price in sight!

Mark: After spending a couple of days in Bujumbura, the capital of Burundi, and finding little in the way of home comforts for expats I came across Le Café Gourmand. Stepping into it away from the chaos of the dusty, noisy city centre I found myself surrounded by expats and locals with their laptops making use of the free public Wi-Fi. Also, it surely has the finest pain au chocolat to be found on the shores of Lake Tanganyika.


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Guest blog: Shopping in the world’s most – and least – expensive city

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Some places are much easier to gather price data than others but Caracas, with its stock shortages and exchange rates, isn’t one of those. Below my colleague, Rachel, offers some great insight into life in the Venezuelan capital. Enjoy – Mark!

“You’re going to Venezuela? Will there be toilet paper?!” This is what most people wanted to know, after seeing shortages of this commodity hitting the headlines earlier this year. Well, you can be reassured that when I visited there was no noticeable lack of toilet paper! However, shortages of many other items are common and queuing for them is a growing part of daily life in Caracas.

With the last official reported inflation at 63%, food prices soaring and the official exchange rate fixed at 6.3 bolivars (BsF) to the US dollar, Caracas has become, by a long way, the most expensive city in the world in our Cost of Living survey when using the official exchange rate (more on that below). However, despite having the world’s largest oil reserves, life in Venezuela is complicated, with shocking shortages of staple goods, a flourishing black market and much government intervention.

Zara and empty shelves

Zara and empty shelves

At first glance, I couldn’t see anything amiss. Arriving into the Sambil Caracas Mall I saw a busy, thriving shopping centre, no different from those we IDRs experience the world over. Music was playing, there was a dance show in one of the main atriums and throngs of people clutching internationally branded shopping bags bustled past. Shortages? Pah. Seeing the window display full of mannequins dressed in the latest fashions, I entered Zara, confident of finding everything I needed. A scant two minutes later I ‘hung-up’ my voice recorder, having priced everything in sight. The shop was a normal-sized Zara, with shelves, rails, changing rooms and lots of staff but the stock was reduced to two singlerails of mis-matched clothing and a pile of shoes. This happened again and again: well-staffed shops, extravagant window displays, busy shopping centres, but empty shelves. This image stayed with me long afterwards and is an interesting analogy for the country itself; proudly displaying its finest in the window in a brave attempt to hide the fact the shelves inside are empty.

Before we go anywhere, a Cost of Living analyst at ECA will identify items we need more information about. Unsurprisingly, there were many for Caracas, one being coffee. It astounded me that a country in South America could suffer a shortage of coffee, but apparently it is one of the most-missed items, especially given its important status as a social lubricant. After visiting seven supermarkets and not finding a single packet, I was very pleased to find an entire aisle of coffee in a government-run supermarket. Commonly, when a shop did have stock of an item, it was of just one type, and that was the case here. But then, no price in sight! With constantly changing prices, retailers in Venezuela often eschew normal price ticketing; dated pricelists of every item in the shop/restaurant were a common sight, while supermarkets mainly rely on self-serve price-checking terminals. Unable to countenance returning to London without a price, I thought my only option was to buy some.

Price Lists were a common sight

Price Lists were a common sight

It wasn’t that simple. Hoarding is another big problem in Venezuela; a natural response to the lack of availability but ultimately exacerbating the shortages. Some people simply buy as much as they can, when they can, for their own use, but some items (rice, sugar, coffee, cooking oil and famously, petrol) are price-controlled by the government and a significant proportion of these items are bought cheaply in bulk in supermarkets then sold on the black market. To counteract this, the government has adopted a range of controls, first restricting the number of controlled items you can buy in one transaction and, more recently, needing to know your identity before you can buy anything. Venezuelans have an ID card which they hand over at the beginning of each transaction but I, obviously, had no such thing. Without one, the cashier said “I can’t sell this to you” until she gathered I was foreign, at which she said my passport would do, taking my name, date of birth, nationality and passport number before requiring an address. As far as I was aware it wasn’t illegal to buy coffee, but I felt nervous. Apparently they’re even thinking of installing fingerprinting machines at checkouts, which would make this feeling even worse!

Later, in a different shop, a security guard stopped me, gesturing at my bag. Fearing I’d be searched on suspicion of shoplifting, I was relieved when he simply asked where I’d got the coffee. I’d heard that the best way to shop in Venezuela is to keep your ear to the ground and as soon as you hear what you want is in stock somewhere you drop everything, rush to that shop and join the queue – the bush telegraph in action! Grocery shopping in Caracas today can be a full-time job.

As Caracas is a potentially volatile city, with a high crime rate, I had a car and driver the whole time and I offered my driver the coffee I’d bought (addicted or not, I couldn’t consume 2KG of coffee in 2 days). This turned out to be an inspired decision. Having previously accepted tips with all the impassive professionalism of the high-quality taxi driver, the coffee made his mask slip. He seemed genuinely touched, asking if I was sure I could spare it and spending ages chatting about the realities of shopping in Caracas before exclaiming happily, “Oh, my wife will be so pleased!” His response far exceeded the monetary value of the gift (the smallest of my tips would have covered several bags of coffee).

Of course, no blog about Venezuela could fail to mention the currency issues. It is common knowledge that Venezuela operates multiple exchange rates. What’s less obvious is which rate expatriates and visitors will have access to. When I was there, the official rate was 6.3 BsF to the US dollar, black market rate 92 to the US dollar and I’d heard much about the SICAD II rate of 50 but had no idea how to access it. This made budgeting mind-boggling – my taxi from the airport at 1500BsF could have been $240 USD, $30 USD, or $16 USD depending which exchange rate I could use! Regular readers of my colleague Andy’s blog MoneyMoves,  will know that currency concerns are one of the biggest headaches for expatriates and international companies in Venezuela; I’m glad I only had to budget for a 5-day trip! And I wish I’d known in advance that my UK credit card would get the SICAD II rate.

No Firearms

No Firearms

The currency concerns aren’t limited to expats either. With rampant inflation and a scarcity of goods so pronounced the government has stopped publishing its scarcity index, locals without access to the black market are finding it harder and harder to survive and are resorting to desperate measures, one of several reasons explaining why Venezuela has become the most dangerous country in South America. The government has stopped publishing its own crime statistics but the Venezuelan Observatory on Violence (an NGO), estimates that 24,000 people were murdered in 2013 alone, with nine out of ten homicides going unsolved. It is also a highly weaponised society – gun crime is a significant problem and all of the malls I visited had a “no firearms” sign. More than the currency headaches, more than the lack of goods on the shelves, it is security concerns that make Caracas a difficult place for expats. While I was there I saw nothing unsettling, I received nothing but friendliness and kindness from locals, the weather and scenery were beautiful, yet, knowing that danger could be round the next corner, that the next person I saw could be the one to rob me (or worse) and that I was alone in an unknown and dangerous place, was exhausting. In Curacao my hotel owner told me of her friend who was having trouble readjusting after a stint in Venezuela – likening it to post-traumatic stress disorder; nothing had ever happened but she had lived the whole time in constant, exhausting fear.

I don’t know what will happen to Venezuela. It feels like it must be nearing a tipping point and something has to happen. Especially with the drop in crude oil prices, it’s hard to see how the current situation can be sustained, despite the government’s best efforts to make the world believe otherwise. It’s sad, for this is a beautiful, welcoming country with so much potential.

Still, there’s some short-term consolation. As the festive season starts, the government is introducing some new “sweetening” measures as part of “Operation Merry Christmas”, including subsidised appliances, clothes and toys, the most popular of which has been the plastic “Barbie” doll.  So if you’re in Caracas this Christmas, I wish you luck and patience finding ingredients for your Christmas dinner, unless perhaps you fancy a “Barbie”?

Rachel is part of ECA International’s International Data Research team. She travels the world regularly, capturing price data for goods and services to assist with cost of living comparisons around the world.

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Guest blog: Visiting one of the world’s wealthiest countries – Qatar

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Our last blog looked at one of the world’s least visited countries. Here my colleague, Nick, writes about his time in a country with one of the world’s fastest growing populations. Hope you enjoy! All the best, Mark.

Arriving into Doha, capital city and home to 90% of the population of Qatar, the first thing that hits you (at least for anyone arriving from the UK like me!) is the heat. I visited during September when the average temperature is around 38°C. Luckily, both the taxis and malls, in which I spent a lot of time during my trip, have extremely powerful air conditioning.

Owing to the country’s oil and offshore gas reserves, Qatar has experienced massive growth during a relatively short space of time, becoming one of the most wealthy countries in the Middle East and one of the world’s richest by GDP per capita. This has in turn created some issues, the most noticeable being the congestion on the roads: a result of the huge influx of people, the general sprawl of the city, the lack of public transport and the availability of very cheap fuel.

In fact, the population of Qatar has more than trebled in the last 12 years and there has been a parallel increase in the number of vehicles on the roads – from some 287,000 vehicles in 2000 to 876,000 in 2012

Doha - growing faster than bamboo!

Doha – growing faster than bamboo!

No doubt accelerated by having been awarded the FIFA World Cup 2022, there are now extensive works in place to improve the city’s infrastructure. These include the introduction of a metro system, improved roads, plans for an extensive railway and improved housing and hotel options.  There is also the small matter of building nine new climate-controlled stadiums for the tournament of which the Lusail Iconic Stadium, to be located in a city being completely built from scratch, looks set to steal the show.

Winning the right to host the World Cup – the first Arab country to do so – has not been without its fair share of controversy and debate. There is an ongoing investigation into Qatar’s campaign to win the right to host the tournament fuelled by widespread allegations of bribery during the bidding process. In addition, questions have continued to be raised about the exploitation of blue-collar workers. Qatar was named home to the world’s fourth highest concentration of ‘slaves’ relative to its population in the Global Slavery Index.

However, the ban on child jockeys and the introduction of Swiss-designed robots to replace young migrant boys in camel racing has been one government initiative that has been widely applauded as a victory for both technology and human rights.

The best time of year to hold the tournament is also an ongoing topic and after nearly collapsing with heat exhaustion as I walked between shops in the intense midday heat in the city, I feel for Ronaldo, Messi & Co should they have to play in the Qatari summer. Controversy aside, Qatar looks determined to establish itself as a global sporting destination: in addition to being awarded the 2019 World Athletics Championships, the Qatar Olympic Committee has vowed to bid to become a candidate city for the 2024 Olympics.

The Pearl harbour

The Pearl harbour

The pace of construction is evident everywhere you turn in Doha with cranes a constant feature of the city’s backdrop. The view from the corniche which looks out over Doha’s imposing skyline (particularly impressive at night) showcases the relentless development of the place. An extravagant artificial island called The Pearl is also nearing completion which will create over 32 kilometres of new coastline. In contrast, the alleyways of the vibrant Souq Waqif, a centuries-old marketplace, provide a reminder of the country’s modest pearl-fishing past but even this area has been rebuilt and rejuvenated in keeping with the city’s furious expansion and development.

The demand for workers in Qatar has resulted in one of the fastest population growths in the world. It is estimated that a staggering 500 new expats arrive in the country per day. Currently some 94% of the workforce is made up of expats – the majority of these labourers – and I’m not sure I even had any interaction with a Qatari citizen during my stay!  However, the government have implemented a program called ‘Qatarisation’ which aims to increase the number of Qataris occupying posts, particularly in the Energy and Industry sectors. It was also noticeable how relatively few women there were. Because of the large influx of male labourers, women account for just about 25% of the population.

The quality and availability of goods and services in Doha is generally excellent. However, since Islam is the state religion, some people coming to live and work in the city will have to adapt. For example, the ‘Qatar Distribution Centre’ in the South of the city is the only place where expats can purchase, via a permit system, alcohol and pork. It is a fairly nondescript building from the outside but when I visited it was packed inside with expats filling their trollies with beer and sausages.

Qatar's blazing sun

Qatar’s blazing sun

In between price collecting I also popped into the Falcon Souq but wasn’t prepared to part with my cash: a prized bird there can reach 1 million Qatari Rials (USD 275,000). But I did find it interesting that Qatar Airways will let you travel with a falcon in the cabin!

When it comes to leaving the country (accompanied by feathered friend or not!)  anyone who has been working there needs to be aware of Law No. 4 of 2009. Although reforms to the ‘Kafala’ (sponsorship) system have been promised by the government, this regulation currently decrees that expat workers must obtain their employer’s consent should they wish to leave the country.

All in all, I enjoyed my stay in Qatar, felt very safe and was met with friendly faces and luckily, since I was just a short-term visitor, no-one demanded to see my exit permit upon leaving the country.

Nick is part of ECA International’s International Data Research team. He travels the world regularly, capturing price data for goods and services to assist with cost of living comparisons around the world. 

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Guest blog: Kiribati – one of the least visited countries in the world

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I’ve not yet had the opportunity to go to the Pacific islands myself but my fellow data collector, Hugh, was there recently. Below he shares his experiences and impressions of  the Republic of Kiribati. Best wishes, Mark.

My recent research trip around the Pacific took me to a country I have to admit I had not heard of before – Kiribati. My first reaction was to look on Google Maps to see where exactly it was located. This ended up being harder than I first expected since Kiribati consists of 33 atolls (coral reefs around a lagoon) spread over 3.5 million sq km! In fact, it’s the only country that spans all four hemispheres of the globe even though the actual land area is just 812 sq km – around the size of Hong Kong  My destination among all this was the island of South Tarawa, the capital of Kiribati. It’s located within the country’s westernmost group of islands, the Gilbert Islands, named after the British explorer who sailed through them in the 18th century. Kiribati was a British protectorate until becoming fully independent in 1979.

Now, before I continue I should point out that while it’s quite likely you’re pronouncing the ‘ti’ of Kiribati as ‘tea’, the pronunciation of the country is, in fact, more like ‘Kiribas’ and it’s said to be the local pronunciation of Gilberts – good pub quiz facts for you!

Bonriki International Airport

Bonriki International Airport

Given the remoteness of Kiribati, it is hardly surprising that the country is consistently ranked among the least visited in the world. The World Tourism Organisation estimated that the annual number of visitors in 2013 was just 6,000. I was therefore quite surprised to find my Fiji Airways flight was full to capacity when departing in one of its twice weekly flights from Nadi (pronounced Nandi by the way, while we’re at it!).

Arriving at Bonriki International Airport there was the usual hustle and bustle typically encountered when entering an airport that is just not big enough to process a couple of hundred passengers in an orderly way. However, I got through without much commotion and began hunting around for my pre-arranged hotel pick-up. After, rather optimistically, looking for a board with my name on without success, I began to worry my driver had not turned up when I noticed two girls looking at me giggling. Finally one approached to ask if I was staying at Mary’s Motel, before running back to tell her friend that I was indeed her passenger. This was my first experience of the shy but friendly Kiribati manner that continued throughout my stay and I found it very refreshing – particularly after some of the locations I’ve been to in the past year!

Turquoise waters, Kiribati

Turquoise waters

As you fly in and view the island from above, the turquoise waters and white sandy beaches make it look like paradise. What isn’t as evident from the sky is the overcrowding on many parts of the island. South Tarawa is home to around 50,000 people: around half of the entire population of Kiribati. The majority live in close proximity to the main road which runs the entire length of the island from east to west. It was really quite a surprise to realise how the island, so idyllic in one area, was overflowing with rubbish just a short drive down the road.

While overcrowding is causing problems for the island, an even greater challenge lies ahead which puts the future of the island and its inhabitants in serious doubt. Well publicised in the press, Kiribati is expected to be one of the first victims of the rising sea levels associated with climate change. During my time there it quickly became apparent how vulnerable it is to the ocean: you are never more than a stone’s throw away from the water and the island is incredibly flat – the highest point is a mere two meters above sea level. While the country temporarily gained fame when Caroline Island, renamed Millennium Island, was widely regarded to be the first place to experience the 3rd Millennium, there are now serious concerns that the islands will not survive long enough to see in even the next century: Kiribati’s president, Anote Tong, predicts that the country will become uninhabitable within 30-60 years

One Stop store, Kiribati - closed early for the day

One Stop – closed early for the day

There is no doubt surrounding the magnitude of the challenges which Kiribati faces, but what challenges face an expat sent there on assignment? What struck me hard was a feeling of isolation. I felt completely detached from the rest of civilisation. With very limited (and expensive) flights to and from the island, you’re a long way from home geographically and practically. An expat is also likely to miss the choice of restaurants and outlets for socialising they’re used to back home since these are very limited on the island. In terms of shopping, I was only able to locate around two-thirds of the items that make up ECA’s cost of living basket, and the choice for what was available was minimal. Walking into the very popular expatriate supermarkets, One Stop, I was horrified (in a professional sense!) to find the shelves almost completely empty. It turns out they get their shipments from the UK and these are only delivered every two months. They did have plenty of beer though!

Walking around the island, the attention you attract as a foreigner is constant reminder that this country rarely attracts visitors from overseas. The people are very warm and friendly and although they would stare at me constantly and often approached me, it was never the hassle you sometimes experience elsewhere. Despite its high population density, the island has a very peaceful and relaxing atmosphere. It was very hard to believe that this island was once a battleground where over 6,000 American, Japanese and Koreans died during World War II in the Battle of Tarawa, and beyond a Japanese defence canon and a discreet memorial there was little to indicate the event had ever happened.

Weighlifting competition in Bairiki Square, Kiribati

Weighlifting competition in Bairiki Square

Another demonstration of the friendliness of the Kiribati people (or I-Kiribati) occurred when I was in Bairiki, one of the largest towns on the island. I was looking into the sporting facilities available to expatriates, when a man asked me if I needed any assistance. We got talking and he invited me into his office for a drink. It transpired that he was Rota Onorio; the Secretary General for the Kiribati National Olympic Committee – I was delighted! He had recently travelled to the UK for the 2012 London Olympics and 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games. Clearly very proud of his athletes and passionate about sport, it was evident that he was very frustrated at the lack of funding and equipment at his disposal. Nonetheless, Kiribati took a team of three athletes to the 2012 Olympics. Of those, weightlifter David Katoatau was the first I-Kiribati athlete to qualify for the Olympics on merit and he went on to win gold in the 2014 Commonwealth Games – Kiribati’s first ever Commonwealth Games medal! Mr Onorio told me he hoped that this will inspire the next generation to follow in his footsteps. Later that day I saw a group of teenagers taking part in a weightlifting competition in Bairiki square, so maybe the next star is just around the corner!

ECAintl  data researcher HughHugh is part of ECA International’s International Data Research team. He travels the world regularly, capturing price data for goods and services to assist with cost of living comparisons around the world.

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Harare – a tale of two cities?

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Was Charles Dickens writing about Harare when he penned A Tale of Two Cities? Well, no he wasn’t – Harare was founded in 1890, some 30 years after his book was first published, but it’s certainly a fairly apt way of summing up the capital of Zimbabwe, with expats rarely venturing into the hostile city centre and sticking to the leafy suburbs.

According to The Economist Intelligence Unit Harare is a city on the up, but the stats still don’t make good reading. In 2011 Harare was ranked bottom of 140 global cities in the EIU liveability survey which takes in to account such factors as education, healthcare, infrastructure and stability. Fast forward three years to 2014 and while Harare has leapt past Damascus, Dhaka, Port Moresby, Lagos, Karachi and Algiers it still only sits at 134th out of 140. In our own Location Ratings research of over 400 locations the Zimbabwean capital fares just as badly. I must say that based on my recent visit these survey results surprised me. On the surface the city seems fairly pleasant, with blossoming jacaranda trees, tarmacked roads, working street lights and a lack of traffic congestion. This applies to both the city centre and the northern suburbs where expatriates spend most of their time.

Jacarandas in Harare

Jacarandas in Harare

I stayed at the Holiday Inn in the city centre and had plans to do a little data collection on foot as the streets didn’t feel intimidating at all but after a couple of meetings with estate agents I was told that this would be a very bad idea. Underneath the pleasant veneer lie hidden dangers – apparently. Petty theft, muggings, car jackings and numerous other nefarious goings-on are a common occurrence in the city centre. This, I’m sure, is one of the factors as to why the city is ranked so low in the EIU survey.

However, it seems that Harare is very much a tale of two cities and when you head north into the tree-lined avenues of the very British-sounding expatriate-favoured suburbs, such as Borrowdale, Mount Pleasant and Avondale, that threat seems to disappear. Still, one mustn’t get too complacent. A typical expatriate residence will have two metre high perimeter walls topped with razor wire or electric fencing, window bars and a 24 hour rapid response security alarm. These salubrious neighbourhoods are a far cry from the dusty potholed streets I was expecting and are a reminder of more promising times back when Zimbabwe became independent in 1980 and Robert Mugabe inherited the “jewel of Africa”. Throughout the 1990s Zimbabwe was seen as one of Africa’s brightest prospects and in 1997 the country had the fastest growing economy in Africa and its medical and education programs were the envy of most of the continent.

London? No, it's Harare!

London? No, it’s Harare!

Ten years later, though, and the fairy-tale had well and truly ended. The seizure and redistribution of Zimbabwe’s commercial farms and the participation in the Second Congo War began a spiral into decline. The economic collapse reached a peak in November 2008 when month-on-month inflation reached a staggering 79.6 billion % (yes, seventy nine billion six hundred million percent!). Prices of goods were doubling within 24 hours and the government were printing bills worth 100 trillion Zimbabwean dollars (that’s 100,000,000,000,000!). This Modern Money Theory blog-post explains in greater detail the specifics of hyperinflation in the context of Zimbabwe.

During the years of peak hyperinflation (2007-2009) Harare became a singles only assignee posting as expatriate families headed back to their home countries. Those expatriates who stayed behind had to face all sorts of day-to-day tribulations from no water in the taps and constant power cuts to endless fuel and bank queues. Most startling of all, for many, was the lack of many goods in the shops. Stories of trips to neighbouring Botswana and South Africa to stock up on loaves of bread were not uncommon.

This situation couldn’t continue and in January 2009 the government lifted a ban on trading foreign currencies. Initially there were many currencies which became legal tender including the US dollar, the South African rand and the Botswana pula but it was the US dollar which soon became the main currency, as it still is today. There are no US coins in circulation though and if your change is less than a dollar you are given South African rand, a rather strange quirk I came across often during my visit.

Harare airport

Harare airport

I met a couple of expatriates who had lived through the hyperinflation years and they said that although life is far from perfect nowadays it is far better than six years ago. Nevertheless, while inflation may now be under control there are still many disadvantages affecting the country – unemployment being one. Although exact figures are hard to pinpoint it is generally accepted that Zimbabwe has the highest unemployment rate in the world, with most figures being quoted between 60-80% and some as high as 95%.

On the other hand, a more positive, and somewhat surprising, statistic is that Zimbabwe has the highest adult literacy rate in Africa, according to the African Economist. A lack of education is usually one of the key reasons leading to a weak economy and high unemployment so let’s hope that the youth of the country will herald a turnaround in fortunes for the nation in the future.

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Guest blog: On not getting angry in Oman and other useful travel tips!

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My colleague, Eleanor, is recently back from Oman. Here she shares her impresssions of the country plus some tips to keep you out of trouble while abroad! Best wishes, Mark.

My most recent trip took me to Oman and its coastal capital city, Muscat. Once the three separate towns of Muscat, Muttrah and Ruwi, today’s city is a large but calm metropolis with a staggeringly high expat population: 62% as of March 2014. The influence of this sizeable international community is very clear, with a multitude of global brands available in the shopping malls, an influx of Starbucks and Costa outlets and restaurants serving all manner of cuisine from Indian to Lebanese to American. English is widely spoken and, though it is a Muslim country, pork and alcohol are available for non-Muslims to buy in specialised shops. With a good economy, over 1,700 km of largely protected coastline (fishing is one of Oman’s major economic activities), a hot and sunny climate and one of the world’s lowest population densities (an estimated 13.1 people per km²) providing a general feel of spaciousness, I could see why expat life in Muscat might be so popular.

Spices for sale in Carrefour

Spices for sale in Carrefour

Sunshine and sea views aside, I found that the welcoming nature of people living there made Oman a very pleasant country to visit – I encountered much friendliness and a warm attitude towards strangers from both Omanis and expats. I was interested to learn just before I went that it is actually illegal to display anger or even irritation in Oman, a law from which no-one is exempt and which may be difficult to adhere to in certain situations (while negotiating the busy roads, I was certainly occasionally tempted to display some frustration!). Anyone may file a complaint about a show of anger and punishments can include imprisonment. Although I can’t be sure to what extent the law is enforced, I didn’t witness any obvious displays of anger during my brief visit and on the whole the atmosphere seemed very relaxed and polite.

Learning about this law made me think about other countries in which unexpected regulations might be vital information for assignees, whether long- or short-term. Although certain cultural differences are often well-publicised, particularly those relating to business or social situations, many countries enforce lesser-known local or national laws which apply to visitors, expats and citizens alike.

Amouage - Oman's royal perfume house

Amouage – Oman’s royal perfume house

Displays of frustration may be against the law in Oman, but the Philippines takes a slightly different approach, making ‘unjust vexation’ of someone a punishable offence. Obviously, both of these crimes are somewhat difficult to quantify; more easily defined and accidentally contravened, however, are laws such as the prohibition of chewing gum on public transport in Singapore, or sitting on public steps or eating near a church in Florence, Italy. Shopping can be a hazardous experience in countries as diverse as Indonesia and France which have seen – or smelled – fit to ban durian fruit and epoisses cheese, respectively, from public transport due to their incredibly strong odours. And if you’re living in an apartment in Switzerland, take care to check your building’s regulations on noise restrictions: anything from mowing the lawn on a Sunday to flushing the toilet after 10pm can be considered an offence.

Old Muscat

Old Muscat

While I was in Oman I tried to follow local customs and wear clothes that covered my shoulders and legs, although it is a very tolerant country and I saw plenty of people wearing more revealing Western-style clothing. There is no punishment for displaying skin (though it might be frowned upon and isn’t permitted in and around mosques or religious buildings), but in some countries clothing style can be dictated by the law. For example, leaving camouflage clothing at home is a must if going to the Caribbean, as this pattern is reserved exclusively for police and military uniforms and the ‘impersonation’ of one of these officials, intended or not, could result in a hefty fine.

Other countries have import restrictions somewhat outside the norm: no items related to a religion other than Islam are permitted in the Maldives, if you’re going to Nigeria you’ll have to abandon your bottles of mineral water on the plane, and Japan outlaws some basic cold and flu medications commonly available in other countries – something which travellers might consider essential given Japan’s chilly winter temperatures. Customs restrictions don’t stop at imports, however: if you’re making a trip out of Ethiopia, remember to leave your local currency behind as taking more than 200 Birr (around US$10) out of the country is against the law.

Muscat's Riyam Monument - a giant incense burner

Muscat’s Riyam Monument – a giant incense burner

I found that driving was the only way to get around Muscat – given the spread-out nature of the city, lack of pavements and strong sun, it’s impossible to walk anywhere. The roads were slightly daunting, however, given the high speed limits and tendency of taxi drivers to have phone calls or text whilst behind the wheel! Although in theory the rules about not using a mobile phone or drink-driving apply in many countries, they often aren’t enforced as strictly as they are in the West – but some other laws might be, making driving another potential legal hazard for an expat. Some less common prohibitions include driving shirtless in Thailand, making rude hand gestures in Croatia, owning a dirty car in Russia and not using the headlights during daylight in Scandinavia, due to shorter sunlit hours. The world’s most infamous road rules are in Saudi Arabia which is the only country to make it illegal for women to drive. And not just drivers but pedestrians can come a-cropper too. In several countries including Germany, the USA, Australia and China, fines are imposable for ‘jay-walking’ (crossing the road at an undesignated point or when the lights are red); in Britain, jay-walking is not illegal but, according to a 19th-century London law, carrying a plank of wood along the street is.

Fishing boats in Mutrah Bay

Fishing boats in Mutrah Bay

Of course, laws change all the time and the ones I’ve mentioned aren’t the most major of offences – just some of the more unique ones! Moving to a new country involves lots of preparation of which reading up on local laws and customs is just one important part. Cross-cultural training and orientation sessions are designed to deal with this and documents such as ECA’s Country Profiles can provide country-specific overviews that make a good starting point.

I’ll end with one of my favourite laws which is the advisory in Denmark that would have car drivers first check under their vehicle for any sleeping children. Though there doesn’t seem to be a punishment for not checking, it’s a nice piece of common sense and one that I’ll do my best to follow if I ever end up behind the wheel in Copenhagen!

Eleanor is part of ECA International’s International Data Research team. She travels the world regularly, capturing price data for goods and services to assist with cost of living comparisons around the world.

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From Ghana to Mali – contrasting fortunes in West Africa

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Last week I arrived in Ghana’s capital Accra after a flight from Amsterdam. As expected I had to complete another Ebola health form but this time I didn’t have a thermometer gun pointed at my head like I did the week before in Malawi. In Ghana they have infrared cameras where you can see for yourself on the screen how hot you are! As well as the numerous posters and warnings of Ebola there seemed to be a real ramping up of the access to hand sanitizing gels. Be it at passport control, the hotel reception, a shop entrance or even by the taxi stand. The message is clear – keep your hands clean! Ghana has not recorded any infections of the Ebola virus but I had a bit of a surprise when I logged on after arriving at my hotel. A case of Ebola infection had been announced in Mali – my next destination! All sorts of thoughts came to me – Will I be safe? Will it spread? Will the airline still fly there? Should I cancel the trip?

Ebola alert

Ebola alert

Well, more of that later, but in the meantime I had some work to do in Ghana. As soon as I exited the airport terminal and was faced with a zebra crossing I knew that Ghana was going to be a bit different to the rest of West Africa. In the UK, a zebra crossing is a pedestrian road crossing with no traffic lights where the pedestrian has right of way. In Africa, the pedestrian also has right of way but they are always ignored and you end up having to inch your way through flying vehicles. In Ghana, though, the drivers politely slow down and stop for you – unthinkable!

Ghana has been a beacon of peace and stability in West Africa for quite some time. It seems that whilst trouble flares in surrounding nations Ghana stays peaceful and prosperous. In the past 20 years brutal civil wars have come and gone in many neighbouring states including Cote d’Ivoire, Sierra Leone and Liberia. Rebels and terrorists are causing havoc in parts of Mali and Nigeria, and famine and poverty on a large scale has taken many lives in Niger and Burkina Faso. So why is Ghana a relative success story then?

Accra's Liberation Road

Accra’s Liberation Road

One of the main reasons for this is the free media in the country. Ghana is one of the few African nations to have a free media and this combined with relatively little corruption and vibrant NGOs and civil society groups acts as a steady base from which the country is able to flourish. Don’t get me wrong, Ghana is not a ‘developed’ country by any means but it certainly has more going for it than the rest of West Africa. Of the 16 nations considered to be part of West Africa Ghana has the highest human development index, the highest GDP per capita and ranks highest in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index – better than both Italy and Greece! With over 95% of children in school it also has one of the highest school enrolment rates in Africa – vital for the nation’s future. General elections over the last couple of decades have also been relatively trouble-free with incumbent presidents conceding defeat and stepping down to allow democracy to take its course. In Africa this is all too often not the case as incumbent leaders try to change legislation to cling on to power – the reason for the chaos seen this week in Ghana’s northern neighbour Burkina Faso.

The fastest restaurant in the world?

The fastest restaurant in the world?

So Ghana’s future is looking good. There is an economic plan in place called Ghana Vision 2020 which aims to embrace science and technology, to use it to help Ghana become Africa’s second ‘developed’ country after South Africa. There is still a long way to go but certainly from the evidence I saw all around me whilst crisscrossing the capital, Accra, collecting data, the city is well ahead of others in the region. With many a tarmacked road, shiny skyscraper and a friendly smile the place ‘feels’ like it’s on the up. There are even plans afoot for an ambitious technology park, Hope City, to be built near to the capital. The project includes plans for the tallest building on the continent and will cost an estimated USD $10 billion, providing tens of thousands of jobs. It remains to be seen if this fully comes to fruition but it is clear that the will is there for such development to put the country firmly in the global marketplace. Next year Ghana is expected to overtake Côte d’Ivoire as the world’s largest producer of cocoa and with other natural resources in abundance (including petroleum and gold), and improving energy and manufacturing sectors, the future looks good and many West African nations will no doubt aspire to be ‘the next Ghana’.

Bamako's Avenue Al Quds

Bamako’s Avenue Al Quds

My visit to Mali was a different experience altogether. First off there was the news last week that a case of Ebola had been confirmed in the country – a child who travelled overland from Guinea and passed through Mali’s capital Bamako. The procedures in place to keep the virus from spreading seem to have worked, however. Although there were antibacterial gel pumps outside many shops and Ebola prevention banners everywhere there was no panic or hysteria about it, which could all too easily start if more cases were determined.

Secondly, on arrival in Bamako it was obvious from the outset that the country is years behind Ghana, most evidently in the infrastructure. The ride to my hotel involved a lot of bone-shaking and neck jarring as the driver tried his best to avoid pothole after pothole with only a 50% success rate. I was also aware of there being more mosquitos than I’m used to seeing in Africa. Hopefully insect repellent, a mosquito net and my malaria tablets will have done their job though.

Mali's Ebola warnings

Mali’s Ebola warnings

Thirdly, the francophone country has had to deal with rebel insurgencies which have paralysed the north of the country. The once popular tourist destination of Timbuktu (yes it is a real place!) is now a no-go area as is the whole desert region of the country. Bamako, in the south, has been largely unaffected by the troubles in the north and life for expats continues normally albeit with one ear to the ground. One obvious impact, however, has been the presence of the UN peacekeeping mission MINUSMA. The French-led mission has requisitioned two of the capital’s largest and most prestigious hotels and there are many a UN 4×4 rumbling around the city.

When I left Mali I flew back to London changing planes at Paris. I was expecting delays and commotion because I was arriving from an ‘infected’ country but not once before getting on the plane or in Paris, or on arrival at London, did I have to fill out any forms or have my temperature checked. After experiencing the complete opposite over the past month or so travelling within Africa I found this somewhat surprising. It’s a good job I spent half my time on the continent rubbing my hands with gel!

I’ll leave you on a less depressing note – and something I only discovered during this trip which I found quite interesting. The name ‘Guinea’ (as in Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Equatorial Guinea and Papua New Guinea) is derived from ‘Ghana’ which originally meant ‘Warrior King’, a title given to leaders of a medieval African empire. Well, this is one of a few theories but is also my favourite!

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