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.


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