Friday, March 13, 2009

Escape from Lisbon

The next morning in Lisbon was free before lunch and most ladies opted for shopping in the Zara, El Corte Ingles or other shops near the hotel. Others went to the museum while I went for photo shoots along the city streets.

It was at this time that many frantic phone calls were made and we received many missed calls from my daughters back home. For some strange reasons, both mine and my wife's phone could not receive or make calls during this time. This added to our anxiety but luckily the SMS worked and from that we learned that Excellence Holidays, the tour company that we are under has folded up and went under themselves. By this time many of our tour members already knew what happened back home through anxious relatives and friends that have communicated the news from home but they kept to themselves so as not to upset the rest of the group who had not yet heard the news.

When the coach driver (whom we affectionately called Si Gumuk) arrived late with a worried look on his face instead of the usual smile, we all knew that something was not right. This was confirmed when he did not open the baggage compartment door to load in our luggage as was the normal routine. After some anxious minutes amidst frantic phone calls by Rome, our tour manager, and communication with Si Gumuk, he opened the baggage compartment and loaded in our baggage and we thought that all was well. This was not to be. We waited for what seemed like an eternity for the bus to start while Rome was making more frantic phone calls. Finally Rome boarded the bus and told everybody through teary eyes that the local tour operator has terminated our tour as they were now aware of the problem at Excellence Holidays and they had not yet being paid by Excellence. To continue the tour, they wanted 775 euros from each one of us to cover the whole cost of the tour and they even threatened to prevent us from leaving Lisbon. Rome decided rightly that this was too much to pay as we were already at the tail-end of the tour and we would continue on our own and she would stay with the group to make the necessary arrangement. Her main aim at that time was to get us safely back to Madrid since we already had our return air-tickets from there.

Everybody agreed with the decision and unloaded the baggage from the bus back into the hotel. All the ladies hugged Si Gumuk, the innocent victim, while the men shook hands with him as he bid farewell muttering in Spanish which we could not understand but which must be wishing us well. To get to Madrid, we could use the train, fly or charter another coach. In view of the many pieces of luggage and added baggage after many days of shopping, the most convenient option (though not the cheapest) was to charter another coach that would provide a door-to-door service. Since we were now on our own, we went around looking for our lunch while Rome made the coach and accommodation arrangement. Thus our fear on the added ingredients at the Chinese restaurant lunch did not materialize and this could be a blessing in disguise. Rome booked us into the 4-star Hotel Auditorium in Madrid more out of convenience than on price since this had free shuttle service to the airport as well as to the city centre and it was able to accommodate the whole group at short notice.

We left Lisbon at about 3.00pm and everybody was in high spirits and nobody made any complaints on the turn of events. Rome then informed us that she already knew about the problem much earlier and has kept it to herself and not informed the group (except for her roommate, a member of the tour group) so as not to spoil the mood of the tour. She has hoped that the local tour operator will not discovered the problem of Excellence as they did not have a local office in Malaysia. We were fortunate that they only discovered it with only two days of the tour left or we would have no choice but to fork out the whole sum to continue the tour if they had discovered it in the early part of the tour. Rome was also thankful for our amicable response to the situation.

However, the air-cond of the coach died shortly after departure so it became rather uncomfortable with the temperature nearing 30 Celsius. We had dinner at a rest-stop and many had the opportunity to sample the local tapas and we finally arrived at our hotel at 1.30am the early next morning as the Portuguese driver had missed the hotel earlier. I suffered another misfortune in that in his haste to unload my luggage, the driver snapped the handle but this is nothing as long as we were back in the safety of Madrid.

Thus we all had a good night's rest after all the excitement and anxiety in the day.

Ronald Kwok

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