Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Intrepid Travelers take on the Emirates and the Sultanate


Hey Folks,

I hope everything is well wherever you may be!

I have known Andrew since I was five. We became fast friends in England where we overlapped for a little over a year before my family moved back to Nashville and we have been able to see each other, as a conservative estimate, once every two years. He is easily my oldest friend. It is one of those natural friendships that requires little upkeep and one that we are both able to ease right back into even after years of being apart.

As some of you may know, Kenya just went through a rather important election, the first since the widespread Post-Election violence in 2007. Because many local schools were closing for the week to be voting stations and because of concerns about safety, the Academy moved our mid-February week off to the first week of March to coincide with the elections. Partly because it sounded like most shops and restaurants would be closed and that the Academy might have to go into lock down if anything bad did happen, which it thankfully did not have to do, and partly because of that looming threat of unrest, I decided to take the week to travel.

Fortunately for me, Andrew currently lives in Duabi in the United Arab Emirates, a mere 5-hour direct flight away. Funny thing about direct flights, though, is that they tend to be more expensive than those circuitous ones. So, naturally, I headed down to Ethiopian Airlines to book a nice cheap indirect flight through Addis Ababa for a very reasonable, and some might say outrageously low flight. I made sure to check their safety record online before departure and everything checked out.

It turns out that you do indeed get what you pay for, however, and instead of arriving in Dubai at 3 in the morning as planned, I did not arrive until 8:30. I was stuck in Addis for about five hours over the course of which it seemed Ethiopian was playing mind games with the passengers: the plane computer broke, the bused us back to the terminal, fed us cake and water for dinner, passed us through immigration to get a hotel and, before we could leave the airport, grabbed us at the last minute to board a new flight. So pleasant.

My first interaction with the local Emiratis occurred at immigration. Only men were employed at immigration and they all had a certain swagger to them, something I couldn’t quite place my finger on but something that felt very strongly like aloofness. They all wore impeccably white robes from their ankles up to their heads and were crowned with thick black rolls of fabric that held their ensemble in place. Their beards were equally flawless and looked as if they had been shorn by precision lasers instead of human hands. Their feet reflected a certain, shall we say, metro-sexuality; they were obviously very well taken care of and had been on the receiving end of many a pedicure. It was very apparent that these men spent a lot of time, and money, on their appearance. I later learned from Andrew that the Emiratis, especially the men, have it made and that even for a low level government position, like an immigration passport stamper, they make about 80,000 USD a year. It’s no surprise the Arab Spring did not sweep through the UAE like it did in other parts of the Arab world. My passage through immigration was painless, probably because of the cheerful, well-paid immigration officers, and I was through to the Duty-Free where I was able to purchase some small tokens of appreciation for my hosts.

As I had absolutely no access to Internet over the course of my delays, so Andrew, too, was caught in an elaborate dance of misinformation from the Ethiopian Airlines desk in Dubai. But, regardless, he was there patiently waiting at Arrivals. A quick picture to assure my mother I had arrived safe and sound and we were off.

Hey Ma

I can only assume I was poor company at the beginning of my stay in Dubai as I was almost twenty-six hours with out sleep. Andrew kindly showed me up the apartment and to the room of his apartment mate’s that I would be requisitioning for my time there (thanks Lewis!) and I promptly passed out for five hours while Andrew made an appearance at work. After I was roused by his return, we went out on his balcony to reminisce about our past trips. It was here that I got my first real, non-drowsy view of Dubai.

Andrew’s apartment is on the 27th floor which means it has fantastic views. It is so high up that my ears popped, not once, but twice on the elevator ride. The apartment looks out over, first, the parking garage and pool for the apartment, followed by a bustling road, a beautiful mosque, and a sprawl of two-story villas. Eventually the land runs out and the Gulf begins. We were out there at the perfect time, right as the sun was setting over the water, illuminating the distant waves and highlighting the skeletal scaffolding of the port.








Soon enough, Beth, Andrew’s other roommate, came home. Andrew knows Beth from home in the UK; I had just missed her after I left for the States. Two years ago, after I was returning from my study abroad, we had Christmas dinner at their house along with the Speers, Andrew’s family. So although, Beth and I don’t go way back, we still go back and it was fantastic to see her. After some great conversation, we headed over to Alex’s, Andrew’s friend from work, apartment for Ping Pong and Pizza. Alex is French, studied in Quebec, and now works in Dubai; he is an overall great guy and an international man of mystery if I have ever met one. It’s nice to see that Andrew is a good judge of character.

It was a great relaxing evening but soon enough we were heading home, across the bustling highway. Now is as good a time as any to talk about Dubai itself, as I was stuck by the combined absurdity, immensity, wealth and unnatural nature of Dubai at precisely this time as we were walking slowly back home. Massive skyscrapers claw towards the sky, lit haphazardly by office lights and residences; sleek high-class luxury automobiles zip along a perfectly crafted highway, eight lanes wife; a Space Age metro system soars above the road, its stations appearing like interstellar spaceports dotted rhythmically along the track. My immediate thought, I am not ashamed to admit, was that it looks exactly like Coruscant. For the uninitiated, Coruscant is planet from the Star Wars universe that is covered entirely by skyscrapers and industrial structure and is home to the Jedi Council among other administrative headquarters. It is a big ball of lights, sounds, and activity. The bizarre thing about Dubai is that it has not been around that long and the view you get from the main drag is all there really is. The huge buildings line the road obscuring all else, but once you go behind them, the illusion is broken for nothing lies beyond them, just low lying houses and desert. It seems illogical, but it makes you appreciate the power of money and the ludicrous things it allows you to accomplish.

The next day, Andrew and I drove down to Abu Dhabi, an Emirate just down the coast from Dubai that is apparently the more conservative, economically at least, version of Dubai and that is headed by Sheikh Khalifa, President of the UAE. He also lends his name to the Burj Khalifa, tallest building in the world located in Dubai. During the economic downturn in 2009, they had to abandon construction on the then Burj Dubai. Sheikh Khalifa knew a good self-marketing chance when he saw one and offered to pay for the completion of the tower under one circumstance, they chance the name from Burj Dubai to Burj Khalifa and, voilĂ , there you go. Here is what it looked like as Andrew and I drove by it:

Burj Khalifa

Our mission was to see the Grand Mosque, inside and out. Andrew had been once before, but it was dark and he was wearing shorts so he was not allowed inside. Poor planning. He must have been busy before hand. Knowing full well about the regulations now, and because we had a nice dinner with Beth’s parents that night, we came well prepared and looking dapper in our khakis and button downs.

The Mosque was stunning. It is made of pure white stone, I am assuming marble, and has four pristine minarets that shoot up at each corner of the building. A dazzling colonnade, replete with inlaid flowers of mother of pearl, surrounds the courtyard of the mosque. The entry way had some beautifully crafted tiles and intricate designs and Arabic calligraphy in the stonework. Inside the mosque itself, they had obviously spared no expense. The carpet inside is apparently the largest in the world and took two years to make. Enormous chandeliers hang from the ceiling. These, to me at least, seemed a little over the top. They are all sorts of gaudy colors and really do a disservice to the breathtaking pure white domes they dangle from. The Qibla wall is engraved with all 99 names of Allah from floor to ceiling. The mihrab is coated in gold leaf and has a serpentine movement that makes the viewer imagine it as some sort of eternal flame, ever radiant. The effect was increased by the beautiful muqarnas towards the top that scatter light and increase the incendiary feel even more. See photos with captions to help explain that Islamic architectural jargon!

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque






A little much, don't you think?


Mihrab

Maquarnas, see what I mean! 




After exploring the main prayer hall, Andrew and I set our sights on climbing up to the top of one of the minarets. After asking numerous security guards who all looked at us like we were nuts, we found a janitor who looked intrigued by the idea. He didn’t say no, and that was a good sign. He said ask a security guard, so we wandered away, and wandered back, and he looked at us with eager eyes. You could tell that he kind of wanted to show us up there, but in the end we unfortunately failed in our mission.

We left the mosque and grabbed a quick coffee with two girls that went to Vanderbilt and are teaching English in Dubai, small world, eh? It was pleasant enough, but we had dinner to catch so we sped off into the sunset.

Dinner was at Seafire. Seafire is at the Atlantis hotel. The Atlantis hotel is at the top of that utterly implausible and downright amazing feat of engineering that is the Palm Jumeirah. Yeah, I went there, and yeah, it is as cool as it looks.



Dinner was with the Kristies, Beth’s parents, and it was a truly enjoyable affair. The Kristies know how to enjoy life to the fullest and every conversation is full of laughter. I won’t even try to explain how delicious the food was, but I can safely say that I consumed the most tender, delectable steak I have ever eaten before. No description could do it any justice so I will just stop there. We headed our separate ways after dinner and Andrew and I began to prepare for the journey ahead.

Oman

Since Andrew and I hit adulthood, we have made a tacit pledge to explore as much as we can when we finally meet up. We travel extremely well together, and, at this point, have travelled to eight countries. So, naturally, we decided to go on a quick road trip this time around right down the other coast to Muscat, Oman.

Once we left Dubai, we were legitimately driving through the desert evidenced by the fact that Camels dotted the landscape every kilometer or so. All along the way little camps popped up, all fenced in and with ATV’s at the ready, all waving the UAE flag. It was strangely beautiful, if monotonous. It only took about an hour to reach the beautiful, if a bit unorganized, border with Oman. The border crossing coincides with a series of jagged mountains that rise from the desert like the fangs of some long dead dragon of old. Our American passports were tools of great expediency as we were quickly waved through when we showed them, while other nationalities were frequently stopped and searched.

Once in Oman, the drive was actually pretty dull. It reminded me of driving in Florida, lots of palm trees and small shops of a similar architectural style. The ever-present minarets looked not dissimilar to the church steeples that dot the Floridian landscape, especially if when you squint. What stuck me most was the amount of construction going on. Every ten kilometers a new roundabout or overpass was being fashioned. Each existing roundabout was adorned with an elaborate faux mosque or some other equally elegant structure with strong overtones of Islamic design. And, strangely, from the border all the way to Muscat, four and a half hours driving, the road was lined with streetlights. The entire way. It didn’t strike me until about a quarter of the way into our drive but once I realized it, and much to Andrew’s chagrin, I wouldn’t stop commenting on it. It was bizarre and indicative, along with the construction, of a major recent influx of money into Oman.

We arrived in Muscat in the early afternoon. I could not have imagined a city more distinctly different from Dubai. The city sprawls for well over ten miles along the coast, not because of a large population, but because of its location sandwiched between the Gulf of Oman and sharp mountains similar to those I described at the border. It is made up almost exclusively of square white buildings. The square, white or off-white buildings have all the potential to be clunky and sovietesque but are just stunning set against the jagged dark hills and mountains that stand in such stark contrast to them, while the buildings’ elegant pointed windows break the plain nature of their form.

To add to the architectural beauty of the city, there are small, rotund, cylindrical forts that are perched high up on almost every sharp ridge, ostensibly as look outs over the ocean. The Omani empire came into conflict with the Portuguese when the Iberians made their way to this part of the world. Just as the Portuguese had a presence in Mombasa, the Omani empire once held sway here. The Omanis militarized well and their remaining forts are truly a sight to behold.

Andrew had been down to Muscat for business before so we made a quick stop at the hotel he had stayed at for a quick drink and advice on where to go from the concierge. We decided to head in the general direction of the old town and soon found ourselves zipping around an old town that had obviously not been designed with cars in mind, which made it all the more enjoyable. We parked and decided to explore on foot. It was around 3 o’clock and the place was dead. Hardly a soul around. We quickly realized we were at the palace compound and had narrowly beaten a few busloads of German tourists to the spot. We noticed a small fort on a hill, as you do in Muscat, and decided to have a go at it. We hopped a fence and climbed up a poorly maintained staircase. We got a great view of the Royal Palace, there was no flag flying so I am assuming Sultan Qaboos was out and about. From our vantage point, we soon realized we could access the inner palace structure, so, not wanting to catch the attention of any guards, we scurried back down the stairs and over the fence, blending quickly into the crowd of Germans.
Cheesin in front of the Palace


            We followed a tour group along and tried to gain access to one of the larger forts but it was closed for repairs, I’m telling you, every thing in Oman is under construction. From our position outside the fort we could see the palace as it faced the sea. There are four rather imposing guns that point out towards the narrow inlet and speak to a time when assault from sea was a real threat to the Omanis. These guns were very modern though, so it appears the threat has not passed.




We wandered the old city for a bit more, and then hopped in the car and headed to the Souk, or market. The market began right by the ocean and, via a series of narrow passageways, wove its way up the mountainside. It was teeming with German tourists, just hordes and hordes of them. Whenever Andrew and I encountered two paths that diverged in an Omani souk, we took the one fewer Germans did, and that made all the difference.

The souk was packed with goods that were mostly unappealing to young twenty something American males. I had no pressing need for a burqa, no real desire to blow the bank on elegant gold jewelry, and certainly no craving for intense Arabic incense. So we ducked and wove through different alleys, until we emerged in a rather quiet lane farther back in the market.  This section of the souk was covered, giving it a more intimate atmosphere. There was a very small looking store with three sturdy, thick, ancient wooden doors resting against the storefront and an elderly Omani man sitting at a cluttered dusty desk through the entry way. This place had potential and we both knew it.

We eased inside, careful not to disturb any of the precariously perched curios. We noticed a rather cramped opening into what appeared to be a back room and the seated man gestured back as if to say, “go ahead, check it out.” We shuffled through and found ourselves in a veritable gold mine of Omani history. The back room was a good ten times larger than the entry way and packed floor to ceiling with all sorts of historical accouterment. Rapiers hung from the walls as did rifles and curved daggers. We were later to find out that the owner had obtained the weaponry from the local Bedouin. Cool. There were more ancient doors back there along with paintings, archaic locks, lamps (the proprietor held one up and said “Aladdin,” with the atmosphere in there, I half believed him), and other intricately wrought metal items. 



Hardly does it justice

 The air was heavy, dusty and dank; tomblike in the most exciting way possible. We poked around for a good thirty minutes before realizing we were unfortunately cashless and vowed to return the next day before we headed back. We grabbed a business card and made a mental map of our circuitous route back to this treasure trove.


We tried to make our way back to the road but got very turned around in the labyrinth of the souk and our reliance on our self-proclaimed great senses of direction turned out to be misplaced. We soon found ourselves high above the market in a residential area. Embracing our new adventure, we chose to climb higher up the steep inclines and increasingly ragged paths. Eventually, the paths and the houses ended and rock and scree began. In our boat shoes and khakis, we looked an odd pair, but we strove on undeterred, but not unnoticed. We finally crested a ridge and we treated to a continuing view of the white sprawl of Muscat. As the afternoon sun waned, the local kids emerged into the shadows of the local mosque onto the dirt soccer pitch to start their afternoon game.


About fifty meters away down the ridge, a circular fort topped the hill. New target for exploration. We scampered across the hillside, past clotheslines and houses and a particularly fresh dog carcass to the stronghold…. And found it bolted shut. Buzzkill. However, from our new vantage point, we were treated to a great view of the port and settled for a few pictures before our descent.


The Intrepid Travelers surveying the land

We were planning on camping for the evening but the area was very well developed, or rather extensively developed, so we settled on a relatively cheap hotel, certainly not Muscat’s finest. We hit up the local mall for some fine cuisine for dinner (we settled on the Roadhouse Diner, an instant favorite).

The following day we visited the souk again and I bought a really cool old lock (cooler than it sounds, I promise) from the cool shop at the souk. After a quick trip back to the forts to try to get access, which failed, we hit the road for the trip back to Dubai.

Dubai

One of the best parts about Dubai is its role as an international crossroads. I mention this because by chance my time in Dubai coincided with a visit by a Professor of mine from Bowdoin, Professor Shelley Deane. Professor Dean currently works at a company called International Alert where she basically jets between the Middle East and home base in London helping governments and other interest groups to negotiate peace settlements or avoid violent conflict. She was visiting her Mother who lives in Dubai so I joined them for Tea. Just goes to show, again, how small this world really is. A young boy from Tennessee who lives in Kenya drinking English tea with an Irish professor whom he met in Maine but who works in London but is visiting her mother in Dubai. Globalization embodied in an encounter. It was great to reminisce about Bowdoin, talk about what the future may hold for us both and discuss good old government stuff, which I haven’t really been able to do in a while. I had to head out in the late afternoon to get back to the apartment but was sad to go. I can only hope our paths cross again in the near future!

Andrew hosted a little get together at his apartment for a bunch of work friends and I finally got to meet Lewis, recently returned from Kabul, Afghanistan, who reclaimed his bed and forced me out on to my inflatable camping mattress in the living room. A big night out was in the works, which coincided nicely with my last night in Dubai. And a big night out it was, from an aptly named bar named “Rock Bottom” to other equally dubious places, we had a rousingly good time.

We woke up early, too early really, the following morning to meet Beth’s parents out at the Atlantis, but this time for the waterpark, Aquaventure. It was a great way to wash away the feeling from the night before and enjoy the Dubai climate before another arduous plane journey. My new favorite discovery, and word, from the experience is “burquini.” Burquini: origin- English/ Arabic, A burqa designed to be worn while swimming and participating in other aquatic ventures, covers all necessary skin with a thin polypropylene layer suitable for swimming. Antonym: Bikini. I felt rude taking photos.

After the fun in the sun, some stomach churning water slides and a few goodbyes, I soon found myself bidding farewell to Andrew and Beth at the airport. It was another hugely successful Speer/ Taylor adventure and the only thing to do now is to begin planning for a trip to Kenya.

The next few weeks look quite exciting on this end. Instead of the traditional “Spring Break, No Parents!” cry, I will be welcoming my folks to Kenya for a two week adventure. They just boarded the plane this afternoon! We have an extensive safari planned, a few days in Mombasa and a few in Zanzibar. Certainly worth writing about. Can’t wait.

Thanks for reading!

-Mzungu about to be reunited with the Folks in sunny Kenya

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