Monday, April 28, 2008


Besides a brief scare that my baggage hadn't made it to the Sana airport, the assorted flights from Qatar were fine, and I arrived at my hotel in the old city around 1 am.

The next morning I looked out my window, and the old city of Sana is one of the neatest Old Cities I have ever seen. The houses are all light brown stone with white crenelation, have stained glass windows, and are eight stories high. Instersperced among them are various mosques and alleyways.

The Yemeni women are all in black, and the men are shy, polite, and honest. Many wear a ceremonial dagger, but since they're all 5'3", the effect isn't very ferocious. The vibe is about as far from 'terrorist' as you could possible imagine. Nobody hassles you at all, not even at the tourist shops.

Not that there are that many of them. Indeed, there's not much to do in the Old City except walk around, but it's really pleasant walking around.

I walked around for a while and then grabbed a taxi for the Tourist Police, a few miles away. 'New' Sana is in fact the capital of a very, very poor country, and looks the part. Still it's not very crowded, and the entire feeling is extremely laid back. The Tourist Police turned out to be a couple of friendly guys, who immediately gave me the Permit I needed to travel outside of Sana. Now all I had to do was to make a hundred photocopies to hand out at all the police checkpoints around the country.

I went back to the hotel, rested a while, and then decided to find a nice restairamt This meant going to the gate of the old city again and hailing a cab. The driver turned out to have an interesting story.

His American name was Mike and he had gone to the States when he was twelve to visit his father, who lived in Birmingham. He stayed there, illegally, went to school for a year, and then because he looked older started working at convenience stores. About three years ago a robber shot at him and missed, his adrenaline pumped, he grabbed the store's gun, chased the robber out into the street, and shot at him.

The police came and arrested him and threw him in jail with hardened criminals for firing a gun on the street. A year later his trial came, the DA said to plead guilty and get probation, he did so, and got probation. He also got deported for life. Now he's stuck in Yemen driving a really bad old taxi. He's only twenty.

We drove around for awhile not finding any restaurants. Finally we ended up at Yemen's only, and the world's worst, Pizza Hut.

The next morning I slept in again, and around noon I called Mike and he drove me out to Wadi Dahr, which is about 20 kilometers from the old city. It's a small town in a rustic canyon that puts New Mexico to shame, and its centerpiece is an eight story house built on top of a giant rock. In any other country there would be a big parking lot, gift stores, and restaurants. Here you get there on a beat up dirt road.

Having spent some time there we now headed back into town. It was time to buy some qat.

I had read about qat for years, but it was still quite the sight in the early afternoon on the first day seeing every single man in every single small store, taxi, wherever, with a giant chaw of qat in his mouth. When we were in Wadi Dahr I saw the spindly qat trees, which use up most of the fertile soil in the country. The qat leaves have to be picked fresh every day.

Mike took me to the qat market in Sana, where little men sat crosslegged in the back of old beat up station wagons with their big bags of qat. I bought a bag of high quality leaf, most of which I gave to Mike.

Sunday I had first gingerly eaten three leaves. Nothing. Then a few more. Then a mouthful. Still nothing. As usual I was now grimly determined to find out what the hype was all about. Especially since virtually the entire male population of Yemen and Ethiopia is addicted to it.

I retired to my hotel room and started filling my mouth with the stuff. Still nothing. Chew, chew, chew. Driblets of bitter juice trickle down my throat. Still nothing. After a few hours of reading, chewing, staring at the wall, chewing, etc., I finally gave up and spit it all out.

One beer would have given me a bigger buzz. Either I am not genetically predisposed or these guys have come up with the most amazing placebo high ever.

There's No 'I' In Team And There's No 'U' in Qatar

One day visa for $28. Rental car for $30 & airport tax of $11. $5 to go from Empty to Full on the gas tank. I had eight hours to prove the hypothesis that Qatar is the most boring country in the world.

It started out nicely enough. Alone among the Gulf States, Qatar had left 40 yards in between the 'corniche' road along the coast and the actual water, so that there was room for palm trees, grass, and a promenade. And there was less than a square mile of a mini Dubai, with impressive shiny buildings all being built.

The mall didn't open until 10, and that was going to be my only chance for real food. So I cruised around the older part of Doha, the capital city. It was solid middle class Arabian business district, neither fancy nor depressed. When I got to the mall at 10:07 almost every parking place was already taken.

Tha mall itself, which is supposed to be the high point of a trip to Doha, was not nearly as impresive as the other Gulf ones I had seen. So after finding a Subway and a Starbucks, I headed out to cruise the countryside.

Qatar is flat and stony desert, kind of like the pictures of the surface of Mars, but not remotely as glamorous. I was kind of going towards a 'quaint fishing village' at the north end of the peninsula. For the first time there were lots and lots of trucks. Slow ones. Plus for the first time the traffic was sort of dangerous and the roads were of very uneven quality.

I pulled off at a 'public gardens', which had parking for 1000 cars. I was the third one there. It consisted of some wilted grass and some wilted hedges, all in the hot sun. I then went to a small nearby town.

I then got totally lost trying to find my way back. Qatar is totally lacking in directional signs, except for the ones that lead you in the wrong direction. It took me over an hour and a half to become unlost.

I now had a steely resolve to get to that fishing village, and finally reached it at 3:15. It wasn't quaint and it wasn't a fishing village. I now had to get back to Doha and find the airport again all by 5:00.

The road back, like the road there, was surrounded by dirty, ugly industrial construction projects.

I did manage to get to the airport without any problems. Most importantly, the hypothesis had been proved.

Friday, April 25, 2008

You Can't Spell Bahrain without Ah

After the over the top intensity of Dubai and the strange backwardness of Kuwait, Bahrain was Just Right. Friendly people who speak English, warm Cinnabons, and gas at 75 cents a gallon: What's not to like?

I had learned my lesson in Kuwait, and upon arrival at the Bahrain airport I went straight to the rental car area. A nice Mazda at $33 a day, and away I went, heading for the Juffair district, where the directions posted on the internet 3 months ago said that the Youth Hostel was. And, look at that, but there was a directional sign on the main road, and I went straight to it! Only problem was that it had been closed for the past four years.

It was hot and pedestrian free in the area; a lone Indian workman walked by. But not only did he speak good English, but he knew exactly where it had moved, way on the other side of town. With his precise directions I headed off.

I got to the Geant hypermarket in the fancy mall suburb and looked to the only 'other side of road' available. Nothing. I went into a store and asked. Instead of 'youth hostel' I might as well have said 'schmerdwall'. He shrugged his shoulders.

I kept driving around and around the area, then back to the back side of the Geant, etc., etc. Nothing. I then went back to the original area and tried one last store. The Indian there said, 'huh?' Utterly defeated, I walked out the door.

He followed me, saying 'The Youth Hostel is over there', and he pointed to an old yellow building about 400 yards away. Now if I could just u-turn my way over. I got there and found myself the only customer of the day. But instead of dorms all it had were really nice singles with tv, a/c, desk, etc.

It was now 2:02, and, having awoken very early in the morning, I lay down on the bed to get some rest. At 2:04 the fire alarm sounded all over the building. Twenty minutes later it hadn't stopped, so I left the building and hit the road.

First stop, the Subway at the Geant. Then across town to the National Museum, which was pretty good. It appears that the place has been settled extensively since the Bronze Age. Then I drove through downtown Manama, the capital, and found it rundown, crowded, and empty.

So it was back to the mall, this time the fanciest one in the country. Really big, and filled with everything from Gucci on down. You might wonder why I would go halfway around the world to hang out in malls, but in these countries at least that is pretty much all the 'social' life there is, and that is always interesting to watch. Women's attire went from burka to a couple of Western gals in really ugly t-shirts and a couple of Lebanese types showing a lot of cleavage. None of the traditional types bats an eye at the western degradation, including a few pretty risque store displays. And, again, all the modestly clothed Islamic types were busy window shopping at all the swimwear and dress stores, etc.

By now I was pretty exhausted from my long day, but first I needed to go to the Geant for some food for the morning. By the time I had finished all that it was about 9, and as usual for around here the mall was getting really crowded. I was really tired by now, and came this close to backing into a parked car. Whew.

I thankfully slept in that morning. Then it was up and out to an old Portuguese fort, where I was about the only visitor. As I was leaving there were several security guys in dark suits and headphones and walkie talkies. I asked what was going on, and was told that we were soon to be visited by all 27 NATO ambassadors, who were in Bahrain for some meeting.

Sure enough, as I left the site there arrived 5 motorcycles and 10 police cars. Followed by 10 motorcycles and 20 police cars. Followed by 4 limousines, 6 ambulances, more police, and 3 darkened out buses. Whew.

I drove west along the coast and found my next target of tourism, the 26 km long causeway to Saudi Arabia. I drove on it for about 12 km until I got to the border, where I turned off for the visitor center. Since Saudi does not give out tourist visas, this was probably the closest I was ever going to get. Going up to the observation tower, I longingly gazed at the McDonald's across the border.

Then I noticed that right below me was the same police car entourage. The darkened buses all drove up, and out of them came many, many people in casual wear. They turned out to be the NATO party, and they turned out to be rather ordinary and friendly folk.

Back into Bahrain and on to ancient burial mounds, which were right in the middle of an urban town and were just 20 foot high piles of dirt with rubbish all around. Then to another fort, which was closed on Friday, and into the uninhabited south of the island, which is really hot and barren and is filled with oil wells and gas refineries.

A visit to a nice little Oil History museum, and then off to find the Tree of Life, which is a giant tree that is hundreds of years old that is in the middle of hot, barren nowhere. But I couldn't find it.

So I turned around and headed back. From this angle I could now see it off in the desert, surrounded by vehicles. Although there were still no signs for any turnoff. I took a dirt track and headed for it.

About 200 yards ahead of it on the left was a herd of over 50 camels. Along with others I stopped and took all kinds of camel pictures, went up and patted the sitting ones on the head, etc.

The tree was big and low and spreading, with all kinds of kids climbing all over it.

I had by now seen everything there is to see in Bahrain, and headed back for Manama. As I've intimated before, Arabs aren't that big with computers, and most who are have their own, so internet places are hard to find. But with only a fair degree of difficulty I found one.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008


Bright and early I got in my car and headed to the airport. I had paid close attention when the taxi had taken me the other day, and now I u-turned, went right, over to the right lane, into the tunnel, up to the airport, and... there was the 'car rental returns' in a lane I couldn't get to. Okay. Round the airport loop, back up, and... I was back on the freeway to Dubai.

Aagh! And rush hour traffic to boot. Patience. Ten minutes and a u-turn up ahead. And then I was back there and in the right lane.

Whew. Now into the airport, check in, and wait. And wait. By the time I got to Kuwait 6 hours later it would have been faster (if I drove at 100 and IF they would have let me go through Saudi) if I had driven.

Anyway, entering Kuwait was painless, and as I left the airport it was immediately apparent that Kuwait was a LOT more lowrise and lowkey than Dubai. Surprising, considering that it has more oil reserves per capita than anywhere else in the world. I took a bus into town so as to hang out with the 'real' Kuwaitis.

Which were mostly Indian, at least on the bus. And the neighborhoods we went through were almost decrepit. Strange.

When we got to the central bus station I got a slick city bus map and went to find the cheapest of the 'real' hotels. It was $110. So I kept walking and tried to locate a cheapo that I had read about. When I finally found it it was indeed a steal at $40, and though basic it did have a/c and hot water.

After resting I set out to get to a highly recommended museum before it closed. This involved taking a bus for about a half an hour to the middle of nowhere. I got off at the right stop, and the book had said to walk 5 minutes, turn right, and go another 50 yards. It was 14 minutes and 290 yards, but who's counting? When I found it it turned out to be really good, but now I only had 30 minutes to see it.

The museum was one man's lifelong personal collection of artefacts of the Muslim world, from Morocco to Kashmir, and it really impressed one with the history and depth of said culture. We in the West tend to think of Islam as the dumbest of the dumb guy religions, but the historical fact is that almost all Christians and Jews who converted did so willingly. And it is difficult to deny that as the result of this new religion in the eighth through tenth centuries, the previously uncivilized Arabs made some of the most beautiful things ever.

My favorite part was the Arabic calligraphy. It's the most incredibly aesthetic groups of squiggles ever, and it actually means something to someone. And my favorite part of that was a teeny tiny Koran done in the 10th century.

The ethnic wear and jewelry of the womenfolk showed that everywhere in the Muslim world women traditionally wore colorful and ornate stuff, so that the current black robe fad is an aberration. Incidentally, almost all Muslim women here are covered in black except for their faces, although a few of them have on the amount of makeup that would scream 'slut' in the West. Also, the stores all sell regular women's wear, so I guess that they wear that at home.

I found my way back to the center of the city and my hotel, which turned out to be in the center of the 'souk', or old market, area. And although not exactly old, it did have a lot more character than the rest of Kuwait. Most of the Kuwaiti men wear the white robe and headress, they all come out at night, and they like to sit around in open air restaurants eating with their friends and toking on giant four foot high hookahs.

The next day I started out again, this time to see all that was interesting in Kuwait. Armed with my spiffy new bus map, I hopped on the 15 and confidently waited for it to reach the Salfiya endpoint. At some point the driver looked at me quizzically, I looked back, and showed him my map. He said, 'That KPTC map, this KJN bus'. I got off and looked at the side of the bus... It turned out that there are about 5 competing city bus companies, each has its own version of each route, and this one was a mile away from where I wanted to go. I started walking in the hot sun.

A mile later I got to where I was going, the Kuwait Scientific Center, and spent an hour or so touring the adequate aquarium. Now it was time to head back along the coast towards downtown again. I took a cab for $6 to Green Island.

Nothing was happening there, so I decided to go to the Kuwait Towers, which are the country's biggest tourist attraction. This involved heading back inland for about a mile, but my trusty map said that once I did I would find the 505 bus, whose route went the exact rest of the way I wanted to go. I dutifully got to the place on the map, and there was a freeway. After standing there for 10 minutes in the by now 100 degree heat, I took the first bus that would stop.

After asking about the 505, I got off at the first place where there was any civilization, and kept asking. It turned out that the 505 didn't exist. I now took a taxi for $4 to the Kuwait Tower, which looked exactly like a Soviet World's Fair Exhibit from 1970. The concrete at the base was even discolored. I rode the elevator up to the top where there was a restaurant that was seemed to be the meeting place for every officer in the Kuwait Army. I rode it back down.

I realized that the whole place reminded me of a fairly prosperous city of 1970 that wasn't spending too much on its upkeep. And what was weirder was that the only 'good' part of its location was the shoreline, but that that was hardly developed with more than a busy road and the occasional Applebee's by the Sea.

LA is built more for walking than Kuwait. Of course, what idiot would want to walk in this heat? But I had something to prove to God and Nature, so I continued on for two miles to a Kuwaiti mall.

Outside of a little action in the Food Court, which took up over half of the place, the mall reminded me of one of those malls that cities build to try to spruce up their downtown, and then nobody goes there. For all the wealth that Kuwait is supposed to have, this was weird.

I couldn't help being underwhelmed by the entire place. If Dubai was like Shanghai on steroids, Kuwait is like a really hot, dusty Indianapolis. Except with less to do.

Oh, and all this time I was less than 100 miles from Basra. But there had ben no scenes left over from the first war, and no sense whatsoever of the current one. I suppose though that it's like when you're in San Diego, you really don't think about Mexico all that much.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Back Roads In A Small Car

The UAE is a collection of seven emirates, which are kind of like states in the U S of A. In Dubai Arabic is kind of an afterthought, whereas once you get to Abu Dhabi it becomes predominant. When I got to Al Ain English was non-existent. And so were the women. There were, however, still lots of Indians.

Perhaps because of the heat this culture is very night oriented, with 9 and 10 pm the busiest shopping hours. So the next morning when I crossed back from Oman there was nothing going on. I headed out of town and started to work my way east on the 'back roads'.

Of course in the UAE even these are at least four lane. I cruised along looking at the sand all around me, by now interesting because it was a nice reddish brown and even sometime formed dunes. Without further ado I made it to the small town of Hatta, which is one of UAE's tourist destinations.

It must be that because there are so very few of them, since it is small and, except for a nice small oldtime village recreation, has nothing going on. Well, almost nothing, since the Herax mountains start here. And they are pretty neat, being, again, reddish brown, desolate, jagged and jumbled.

I decided to try and get to the Hatta Pools, which are a little waterfall area in the middle of nowhere. Which meant taking a dirt track for about 10 km. In my tiny car with the minimal clearance. I bumped along for about 7 km, the road getting worse and worse, and found myself in the middle of desolate nowhere with no signage and the typically terrible Lonely Planet directions. I finally got too paranoid of wrecking my rentacar and/or getting stuck that I gave up and turned around.

Now it was further east over and through the dramatic mountains and to the 'ocean' coast, which couldn't help but be remote and exotic. But it wasn't. Instead it was humid and flat, and scrubby desert turning into a brown dirt beach. I stopped at a brand new promenade, with inlaid bricks, palm trees, etc., that went on for a couple of miles. I was the only person walking along it.

I got back in the car and headed north. First stop: Fujeirah, eponymous capital of my third Emirate. But I didn't stop, since it was ugly and hazy, and all the construction they were constructing looked like what they build in the poor parts of Turkey. I was actually aiming for the small town of Koor Fakkan, where there was another of the two real youth hostels in the country. This time finding it would be easy, since the LP said that it was right across from the major hotel in town.

But it wasnh't. This time it only took about an hour to find, since the locals kept calling the hostel to get directions. It turned out that it had moved 3 times since 2004.

And there was basically only one other hosteler there, a really cheap German investment banker from Malaysia. After spending another hour trying to use the LP directions to find a dam site, we had some mint tea and he talked my ears off. I walked on the beach for a bit and then it was dark.

I was the only person at a midscale restaurant having dinner and then I walked back to the waterfron. Deciding that it would be good to meditate a bit, I sat down on the beach, closed my eyes, and imagined my self at another beach. Ah, calmness.

I then went to one of the only two internet places in town, but the internet had been down in the whole town for the whole day. Funny, but the UAE is now the richest country in the world, and they have communications worse than Armenia or Senegal.

So, unable to think and write, I decided to shop, and went into the giant discount market across the street. Here there were a lot of women, but except for the Indians and Filipinos, they were all dressed in black. Although almost all had at least their faces showing. And the menfolk were all in white robes. Frankly, I'm all for modesty, but I think that they have it backwards: the women should be in white to show their purity, and the men should be in black to show the lust in their hearts. Interestingly, by the way, the store sold women's clothes, and the ladies in the black robes were shopping for them, so I assume that they get to dress up when they're home.

But now it was close to nine and the town was starting to wake up. But I needed to go to sleep, so I went back to the hostel. This night only cost me $15 and I just had to share the big dorm room with the one German, although these low prices meant that no towels were available. Period.

The next day I got up and started out bright and early and kept heading north along the east coast. Yesterday the air was relatively sandless, although a strong haze kept me from seeing much of the mountains. Today the haze was worse, and although the mountains were close to the shore, I couldn't really see them. And the beaches were unappealing when they existed. Although that wasn't keeping a lot of building from going on in Dibba, right at the northern border. What with the scrubby land to begin with, it had a feeling like that of the edge of newly developing Florida in the Sixties.

Back west for about 25 miles over the mountains, and then I was back to the land of flat, ugly brown sand with patchy weedy vegetation. The sandhaze was back with a vengeance, and as I got to FAK, the fourth emirate, it looked like construction does in the cheap part of Syria. And not only was there no wealth or taste on display, but there was only one crowded road through town.

I was back on the Gulf coast and driving north, since the guide book said that this area was mountainous and beautiful. It wasn't. Actually, it was a bleak, sandy industrial hell, filled with concrete plants and rock crushing works. And all the hundreds of trucks filled with concrete and rocks heading south to all the construction sites. By the time that ended I was at the Oman border (don't ask; look on a map) and had to turn around.

Back through RAK and down the hazy ugly sandy coast to the fifth Emirate, Umm al Qusain. This emirate's 'city' was way out on a peninsula, and was by far the most downscale place so far, hot and dirty and looking like a poorer part of Morocco. But I had had to see for myself.

Then south to the sixth Emirate, Adnar. The LP had said that this was the smallest and poorest of the lot, but that was four years ago. Now there were literally hundreds of 12 to 30 story building, most of them uncompleted. It did have the first (small) stretch of half decent beach in the country, but it was virtually empty.

Finally I got to Sharjah, the seventh and last Emirate, which is only a few miles north of Dubai. In its downtown area, which was very built up but not too fancy, there was a restored 'fort' and a 'heritage area'. Inside the fort were pictures of bygone times of 1943. Dwarfed by the city and the modern times around it, the whole thing was kind of sad and pitiful.

And all the other cultural attractions were closed, since it was between 12 and 5 in the afternoon.

So now all I had to do was find my way back to Dubai and the youth hostel. But from this point south there was an endless--and I mean endless--thicket and morass of high rise buildings and construction sites. After having been a while in a comparatively less developed area, the overwhelming intensity that is Dubai was hitting me. And, as I had intimated earlier, driving around the built up part of the UAE involves endless roundabouts and u-turns; traffic lights and left turns are few and far between. So if you guess wrong at any point you run the risk of never finding your way back to where you had been.

But I had been generally lucky, and once you get used to the roundabout dance you find that the traffic is pretty reasonable. And I was lucky once again and found myself back in the recognizable hostel neighborhood.

When I parked and went in it turned out that they actually were honoring my reservation, and I now had one of the few and prized private rooms. Now for only $50 I had the first halfway civilized accomadation of the trip: Cleanliness! A shower stall! Toilet paper!

Finally I had time to rest and contemplate. But I still had no answer to the question: Why? Why the hell is Dubai happening?

It's easy to see why it works for the Indians and Filipinos. Even those on the lowest rung have it better than back home. And not just in terms of salary. Indeed they would probably pay just for the privelege of living somewhere with a sense of order, plenty of free parking, and air conditioning everywhere.

But all these literally thousands of new giant buildings have to have realtively well to do people to live in them. How many rich Indians, Russians, and Iranians can there be? And what do they do once they get here, beside financing more building construction?

And why on earth would an American or European move here? The climate already sucks, and it's just the middle of April. The beaches are lame. It's hard to find interesting desert. In comparison LA is neighborly and easy to get around. And although I saw no Westerner save that German guy on my driving circumlocution, there were sure a hell of a lot of them in the Mall of the Emirates, etc.

Oh well. Maybe, like with the songs of Mariah Carey, I'm just not getting it.

I prefer to conclude, however, that everyone else involved is really, really lost.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Abu Dhabi Dubai Abu Dubi Dubi Dai Said The Emir To The Sheikh

I finished my blog, walked all the way back to the hostel and my room and ...realized that I had left my backpack with all the money and documents, etc., at the internet place. I hobbled as quickly as possible back over there and, once again, God and human nature were kind to me and the bag was returned.

The next morning I went back to the airport and negotiated a rental car for $33 a day. Gas is $1.70, the menu at Chili's charges the same prices as the U.S., everything here except the hotels is pretty reasonable. Dubai is a great place to live; you just wouldn't want to visit.

And today a sandstorm had blown in from Kuwait, so that after a couple of hundred yards visibility got really vague. With very few mistakes I found my way onto the twelve lane freeway west, and found myself driving along an 'avenue' of collosal buildings being built on either side of said freeway. And off to the side, misty in the sandfog, was the new World's Tallest Building, the Bur Dubai. It looked like the Empire State Building squeezed through a tube, and is so skinny that it must fall over.

A few miles later I turned right and headed for the 'beach' a couple of miles north. The water is beautiful aquamarine, but the sand is just a continuation of the rest of the country. And soon there was a quick misty view of the Burj Dubai, which is the famous hotel built like a sailboat with $7000 a night rooms. I didn't stop to go in for a look since that cost $200.

Then it was back to the freeway interchange and the Mall of the Emirates, the one that's famous for the indoor ski slope. I parked in the purple zone, went in, and dutifully gawked at everyone schussing and tobaggoning away. $80 for a daypass if you're interested.

Then I turned and checked out the mall a little. Forget the U.N. of yesterday: here 90% were Westerners, 8% UAE, and 2% 'other'. And this was about as upscale as any U.S. mall ever gets. Still, Starbuck's prices were about the same.

I got back on the freeway (which is quite a difficult thing to do in Dubai, what with all the roundabouts, turnarounds, exit ramps, frontage roads, etc.) and started the 130 mile run to Abu Dhabi. First there were about 10 miles of half completed high rise apartments and offices, then new industrial parks, with giant warehouses and factories a-buildin'.

Why is this all happening? The only explanation is that it was built and they came. After all, Dubai has no oil, and I have no idea what widgets will be built or where they will be distributed to. This is the middle of nowhere.

And what in the world brings all the westerners? After all, many of them are rich people who are just moving here to be here, and what will they do besides mall ski?

Oh well, that's their problem. Mine was getting to Abu Dhabi. The freeway narrowed to eight lanes and I cruised along at 75, while everyone else was doing at least 100. And after an hour or so of driving through the grass studded dirty sand I started entering the outskirts of the city. About 10 or 15 miles in, having passed the World's Most Collosal Mosque on the left, I got to downtown Abu Dhabi.

Which is clean, well to do, new and sparkling, and somnolent. The buildings are snazzy and all, but are all exactly eighteen stories high. I made it to the 'corniche', the freeway along the 'waterfront', parked, and walked around a grassy area for a while. There's absolutely nothing to do in Abu Dhabi, so I headed back up the peninsula that the city is built on, and back to the sand and the interior.

Since hotels are about $500 a night in Abu Dhabi, my plan was to head inland 100 miles to the town of Al Ain. Well, not Al Ain iself, but the tiny enclave of Oman called Bumeiri that is right next to Al Ain., and where supposedly hotels were a lot cheaper.

I got to Al Ain without a problem, but it turned out that Al Ain was a LOT bigger than I had foreseen. And when I finally got to the 'town centre' there were no signs pointing to where Bumeiri might be. Even though the Lonely Planet map made it look like it was right there.

Stop and ask people. Virtually no one speaks English. Start getting vague directions. Turn, get to the roundabout, go left to the next roundabout, turn right to the light...

I spent about an hour and a half trying to find the damn Bureimi. Finally the sun was down, I kept coming back to the same roundabouts, and I was starting to do stark raving mad with frustration. Part of me was convinced that all the Arabs were laughing at me, that there was no Bureimi, or that there was and they were deliberately lying to me, or that they were so stupid that it existed but no one really knew how to get there.

Finally, on my last attempt I took a left at the roundabout, took a right at the next roundabout, drove down about four miles, did a u-turn, drove back about four miles to the same roundabout, and ...there it was, to the right!

I drove about 100 yards to the 'police post', which wasn't manned, and I was in Bureimi, in the country of Oman. Now around these parts Oman is like Mexico is to the U.S., and I entered a world of cheaper buildings and Arab men in their white robes hanging out in the evening. The good hotel listed in the book was all full up, but the crappy one had plenty of rooms. I was now able to get a fleabag room with a horribly hard bed for just $33 a night.

I took it.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Howdy Dubai

For once there were no problems with connecting flights, and I was well on my 15 hour flight way on Emirates, an airline so classy that they give you all the movies all the time personal video screens way back in Economy. The staff had held me up for 5 minutes in Houston while they 'cleared my name', and I was paging through my brand new passport (They now have sepia toned 'American heritage' pictures on each of the pages; I thought the two gay guys making out on pages 15 & 16 highly inappropriate...) when I saw, stamped on the back page, 'This passport replaces a lost passport'. But it didn't! I hadn't lost one! Now I was really paranoid about what other wrong information was encoded on the new high tech pages, and I started to have visions of being detained at the airport at Dubai, thrown into a cell, transferred to Gitmo.

We landed. I stood in line. I ackwardly said 'Salaam' to the immigration guy and he paged through my passport. And waved me through.

It was around 8 pm and I took a taxi took me past a version of Houston/Miami and into the 'old town' center, which looke like a 1965 version of downtown Houston/Miami, but clean and with lots of neon. And tons and tons of East Indians and Pakistanis and tiny stores and eating places that catered to them. This was the cheap hotel district.

Unfortunately a cheap hotel in Dubai is now $80, inflated past the $60 it was a few months ago. Paying THAT much for a fleabag room was rather annoying, especially because all the other people paying it were from a much lower socioecomic class. But, hey, that's the American dollar these days. And I was also rather tired.

The next morning was Friday morning, which is Sunday morning in Muslim lands, and I walked out at 9 am to relatively uncrowded streets. I cruised on down to the 'creek', which is a half mile wide inlet from the Gulf, and took one of the 'abra' water taxis across to the other side. I was able to already notice the cleaniness and efficiency of the place, not to mention that all the East Indians were not bothering me.

Disembarking, I walked past a large mosque, where all the worshipper were lined up barefoot waiting to enter. Right next to it was the Hindu temple, with all its worshipper lined up barefoot. Nice and ecumenical.

Although that was also just about all that was going on Friday morning. So I walked along parallel to the waterfront, passing the small closed museum, the Sultan's house, large cargo 'dhow' boats, floating 'dhow' restaurants, etc. About a mile into it I noticed how hot the sun was getting and I remembered about forgetting to bring the sunblock. Fortunately I wasn't too far from another 'abra' dock. This ferry was bigger and air conditioned, and, it being Friday morning, I was the only passenger on the way back.

By now I had seen more than was interesting of Old Dubai, so I had a plan to relocate to the Dubai Youth Hostel. It would be cheaper and I might meet some fellow travelers. So I checked out, went down to the street and hailed a cab.

Which was driven by a nice Kashmiri man who spoke no English, had no idea of what a Dubai Youth Hostel was, and wasn't familiar with the major street that it was on. As we drove aimlessly in the direction I couldn't help but notice how Dubai is sprawling, relatively prosperous but not all that exciting, and completely lacking in street numbers. And the Kashmiri guy was hopeless, so we were wandering clueless through all these new and different but nondescript buildings.

All of a sudden I noticed that we were on the major street that he kept saying he had never heard of. Now he started wandering off of it into smaller streets, while I kept talling him to go back. Finally we stopped at a bus stop and a Filipino girl who actually spoke English pointed out that the youth hostel was right over there.

He dropped me off, nicely not charging me for most of the useless kilometers he had driven. The guy at the desk said he didn't have any singles, but I could have a bunk in a dorm for $25. I took it.

It turns out that, although there are a few backpackers, most of the tenants are workers and businessmen from India, etc., looking for a cheap deal. I rested for a little bit and then decided to go to the Deira City Center Mall.

The malls in Dubai are supposed to be huge and over the top, and indeed are just about the only thing there is to do in Dubai. The taxi dropped me at the door, and once in I could immediately see that it was pretty big, with aisles heading off and down to the horizon. But on the whole it was like a medium scale mall in the States, with just about every brand name store you could think of.

And it was packed with people. All kinds. Without setting out to, Dubai has created the most cosmopolitan city in world history, with every conceivable nationality walking around and shopping. And although the dress code is pretty much informal Western, you see everything from the occasional lady in burka to the occasional Danish girl with bare midriff and pierced navel. Escalators went up and down, restrooms were every 100 meters, and the food court alone had 19 eateries, with everything from Krispy Kreme to Burger King. Mmmmm.

But mostly everyone had come to shop. When it came time for me to leave at 5:30 I sauntered over to where the taxi stand was supposed to be. As I neared it I noticed this long, long line of people with shopping carts. As I turned the corner I saw that the line snaked back and forth off into the distance. And I then discerned that this was the line for taxicabs. Which arrived about once a minute.

A quick calculation showed that I would be standing there until 10. I turned around and left the mall at another location and went to take my chances on the street.

I was lucky and got a cab within a few minutes. And by now I knew all the landmarks that the youth hostel was near to. Including a 'hypermarket' that also had an internet cafe, the first one I had seen.

Which led to this.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

India: Don't Go There

So we were sitting in our hotel in Rishikesh trying to figure out how we were going to get back to Delhi. Sure, there was a bus at 1:30, and all we had to do was to hire a porter to wheel our bags for about a mile, then get a cab, etc. But the bus had no a/c, it was really hot out, and we wouldn't get there until about 10 pm. And I was just getting over my latest illness.

Alternatively, we could hire a car and driver, with air conditioned comfort and door to door service. Cost: $70. After much heming and hawing, I finally concluded that I was an old, tired, sick man, and I decided to go for it.

Our driver appeared about 45 minutes later and off we went.

The road back to Hardwar we already knew. Since Hardwar is a city of about 300,000, and is not only a major city of pilgrimage but the gateway to Himalayan recreation, one would think that it would be connected to Delhi with a half decent road. But, as with the rest of India, they couldn't even come up with an eighth-decent one. We snaked along at about 15 miles an hour on a barely two lane road, sharing it with the usual collection of bicycles, carts, bullock carts, motorbikes, buses, cars, autorickshaws, medium sized trucks and giant sized trucks.

All of which meant that even though we were only about 100 miles from Delhi, this was going to take a long time. And a very intense one. Because just sitting in the front seat watching our driver constantly and continuously moving around and through and passing all of our competition on the highway that was just a street was completely wearing me out. And I realized that this was the perfect metaphor for India itself: It's like the most intense traffic jam you have ever been in, every moment of every day.

We finally got to neer Meerut, and I realized that this was now also the road that went to Meerut and Dehra Dun, each with a population of 500,000. So now this one road was the only possible artery for several million people. So even if you were a billionaire and wanted to drive to Dehra Dun or Hardwar, this was the only way you could do it. And having used the road several times in 1971, I could see that the only 'improvement' in 36 years was to have about 10 times the traffic.

Right after the turnoff to Meerut the driver made another turnoff, this one on a one lane road going through fields and alongside tiny villages. The driver assured us that this was a shortcut, so as the sun went down we endured endless maneuvering around bicycles, motorbikes, pedestrians, etc., none of whom were remotely lit up.

After about an hour of this it was completely dark, and we finally got back to a 'real' road. This was the Main Trunk Route going into Delhi, with three lanes going in each direction and a concrete barrier in between. Although no one was driving in lanes and traffic was going at about 50 miles an hour. Now India drives on the left hand side, and Delhi was off to the right, so the obvious thing to do was to take a left and then find some place to make a u-turn.

Instead our driver immediately turned right into three lanes of traffic. Everyone slammed on their brakes and tried to weave around him while he crossed all three lanes and after about 100 yards found a hole in the concrete barrier, which he went through. Now all the traffic in the other three lanes had to slam on their brakes because he was in the fast lane and only going about twenty. All this was not out of the ordinary for India. And it served as another perfect metaphor for the country.

As we got to the outskirts of the Delhi metro area we passed the suburb of Gwalior, and I could see nondesecript high rise apartments and the neon lights of nondescript shopping malls and theaters. After four weeks I was finally seeing signs of the 'new' India. But at this point I had absolutely no desire to check it out further.