Tuesday, June 17, 2008


So after I get off the plane at Dubai International, and after immigration and customs (UAE's stamp is boring), a driver is waiting with my name on a clipboard. The spotless Lincoln Towncar takes me to Savoy Park Hotels, a place that would be fancy pantsy even if I weren't coming off a month of $6.11 a night rooms in India (yup, that's the actual average). As I'm signing in, a clerk rushes up with a glass of apple juice on a tray, sir. I'll show you to your room, sir. Right this way, sir.

That's my apple juice on the counter.

Waitaminute, waitaminute. Hold up. Drivers, fancy hotels, welcome drinks? What happened to the budget backpacker, stepping over homeless people to get to the rancid squat toilet down the hall?

Before that, I'd like to tell a kinda unnecessary but fascinating (I think) story, which, for the sake of brevity, I'm going to be skipping a bit and not checking my facts. (Having just read over this, I didn't write it well at all. Sorry. You'll just have to trust it was really engrossing when told to me over lunch.)

* * *

Britain used to control an enormous portion of the globe. Parts of modern America, Canada, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, huge swaths of Africa, Australia, New Zealand, parts of the Arabian Peninsula, all sorts of islands and outposts and kingdoms -- they all owed allegiance to the crown. Truly, the sun never set on the British Empire.

In the 19th century, needing workers to build infrastructure in British central Africa, Britain forcibly relocated tens of thousands of Indians to Uganda and Tanzania, Kenya and Sudan, where they toiled in horrific conditions to clear jungle and lay railroad. (Some Indians might call WWII's Death Railway a karmic atrocity.) Among those dislocated for forced labor were the Kotechas, a village family from Gujjarat.

Fast forward 80 years, and the Kotechas have established themselves as a middle class family. Indians living in Uganda, they have five children, all of whom go to school, eat well, and have a generally happy lot in life.

In 1971, just months before the seven emirates just northeast of Saudi Arabia join to form the UAE, a violent coup in Uganda put militant extremist Idi Amin in power. The dictator, whose self-proclaimed titles include "Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea," demands racial purity: all non-Africans will be purged. The Kotechas are given just days. Change is fast, and violent.

"There is nothing in this world like an African army. They killed men, raped women, mutilated children."

The Kotechas' eldest son, Ashok (ah SHUK), is shot in the leg by a soldier. The Kotechas are evacuated to an English refugee camp, but 17-year-old Ashok, being over 16, a fourth generation Ugandan, and without a British passport, slips through the UN's many sieves to evacuate those in peril. For weeks he tries to get the family savings out of the bank, to send possesions overseas. He is unsuccessful. Ashok is finally recognized by the UN as a refugee in danger, and is relocated to an Italian camp. He is alone in a refugee camp, without his family. Three times a day, he waits in an endless line for food. There is never enough. Nine months.

"When you are hungry, you think of nothing but food. You must keep yourself occupied, or you go mad."

Ashok applies, repeatedly, for permission to emmigrate to India. Eventually, he recieves an affirmative response, and is reunited with his family, who are waiting. Having lost everything -- money, possessions, home, country -- and not knowing what to do, Ashok takes out student loans to attend college. Saudi Arabian Glass Company, LTD, offers him a well-paying job in Dubai, which will soon be famous as UAE's most financially successful emirate. Ashok is good at what he does. He wears a suit, buys a house, and eats what and when he wants. He is not wanting.

* * *

When I was planning this trip, I learned a lot about geography. For example, if you fly from Mumbai to Alexandria, you pass right over Dubai. Hey, how about I stop there for a few days? I know, it's not exactly suited to the budget backpacker, but for 3 days, I'll splurge.

My parents have some wonderful friends, and when the Berlins heard of my itinerary, they said they had a friend slash business contact in Dubai; we should get in touch. Berlin Packaging is one of Saudi Glass's larger accounts.

This is how I found myself in Dubai, being taken to lunch by Mr. Ashok Kotecha, a Uganda-born former refugee, and story-book successful businessman.

Mr. Kotecha's good-humour and optimism belie the bullet still in his leg. He could have taken me to lunch. He could have been out of town, or too busy, or emailed me advice on Dubai. He could have done all sorts of things, but I never expected this.

Drivers at the airport, a luxury hotel with afternoon tea, lunches, dinners, tours, museums, desert safari and belly dancers. Mr. Kotecha's generosity exemplifies above and beyond. In an email he sent just before my arrival, he wrote "You have yet to have a taste of Indian hospitality." Backpacking, this ain't.

And it's a good thing, too: backpacking Dubai is near impossible. Even in off season, there simply are no budget options. And suppose you found a place for cheap, what would you do all day? Dubai may even beat Los Angeles for least-walkable city.

That photo is the most "Dubai" photo I have. It exemplifies being outside here. You are surrounding by huge towers under construction (they say the national bird is the crane), and decorated with ubiquitous "grand opening in 2009" signs. Or 2010, or 2011. On a clear day, even in a sea of 40-70 story buildings, I am told you can see the Burj Dubai from nearly everywhere. Still under construction, it is already inarguably the world's tallest building. It is now 400 feet taller than the 1,451 foot Sears Tower (ground to roof, excluding antennae), and is expected to grow another 500 feet before completion. It is unbelievable. It looks even taller because it's skinny. Or it looks skinny because it's so tall? I'm not sure. It looks like Babel.

The construction and summer heat make visibility awful, just awful. The sky is murky grey, and everything looks hazy, like it's underwater. The summer skyline is not among Dubai's strengths.

Everything in Dubai is air-conditioned. The bus stands are air-conditioned glass enclosures. While riding a jeep around the Arabian deserts yesterday (I know!), the car thermometer listed the outside temperature as 43C (109F). For this time of year, that's normal. In the next two months, it can reach 50C (122F). Malak, a constitutively chuckling man in charge of Saudi Glass's South African, Asia Pacific, and Australian accounts, tells me that legally, all sorts of things must close down if the temperature reaches 45C. So, for weeks every summer, no matter how hot, the official high will be 44C.

Dubai is not a democracy. The tribal chiefs of the 18th century have remained the rulers, even through British colonialism, independence, and the formation of the UAE. Dubai has very few limits on business practices -- it has a thriving money-laundering underground -- and there is no minimum wage. The construction workers I see everywhere, in their blue jumpers, make $200 a month. They live in company-provided labor camps. The wealth of the sheiks (pronounced "shakes") is difficult to overestimate. On the highway, you often pass huge walled compounds, and only near the gate can you catch a glimpse of a tower or spire coming over the trees.

What are those? Malak says this one's the summer palace of some sheik's neice, or something like that. It's tough to swallow. Compared to the sheiks of Saudi Arabia, Malak tells me, they are paupers.

Dubai's ruler and vice-president of the UAE, Sheik Muhammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, seems to be genuinely well-liked by the folks with whom I've spoken. But it can be hard to tell, because speaking ill of the ruler is crime.

On a bus tour Mr. Kotecha booked for me, the guide, Moustafa, apparently thought I was with the group of Ozzies, and started telling jokes making fun of Mr. Bush. I know they're just jokes, but the irony is not lost on me. Tell that joke about Sheik Muhammed and you'll be deported. I may have voted for the other guy, but I voted!

The more I travel, the prouder I am of my country. I know we're not perfect -- not at all -- but we got a LOT of things right.

Nijad's Land Cruiser has tinted windows. Dark, dark tinted windows. Even the windshield's top half is tinted. Nijad explains that it's a status thing: tinted windows are illegal, so having them means you know somebody. He doesn't get tickets. Even if an unmanned radar gun catches him, it's deleted from the computer, officially. How do you know people?

"I was born here," explains the 31-year-old. "You have to understand that Dubai was nothing when I was born. This place was camels. Sheik Mohammed's grandfather rode a camel, really! Then, in 1968... or '64, or something like that, oil was discovered in Abu Dhabi, and it was like 'Dad, get off the camel, the driver's coming around with the Rolls.' The sheiks [royal family members] all have an allotment of oil that they get for cost: like $18 a barrel. So if you have friends, sheiks, they'll sell you oil for under market rate, legally or illegally, maybe $100 a barrel. You can sell it for... what, today it's $133, and you make profit. And the sheiks are happy, even the brother's son's nephew's wife, because they make a lot of money. I mean, Burj Dubai and Burj al-Arab are owned by Sheik Muhammed. He owns half the buildings you see. But you should see the Saudi sheiks. What these guys make in a month, they make in a day."

I can't grasp the scale of these things.

On the bus tour, most attractions are simply not appreciable from anything but a plane. You'd never know it, from the bus-eye view, that we drove around one of the three man-made palm-shaped peninsulas. But whomever Sheik Muhammed put in charge of building the Dubai Museum deserves a cheers and a pat on the back. It was small but terrific!

Well-chosen artifacts not just in glass cases, but seamlessly integrated into informative, well-done diaramas that really gave a flavor of the way of Beduin life, and the fascinating, albeit short, history of Dubai. I know, diarama makes you think of 8th grade, but these were really professional. It was a treat.

The museum is spotless, just spotless, and admission is $1.

After the bus tour and the museum, Mr. Kotecha booked for me a desert safari (I know!). Dubai, you realize, can expand forever. The desert is endless.

We drove up and down and all around the dunes for an hour, and arrived at a campsite for dinner and a show.

(A small note to current and future belly dancers: Your art is amazing, so celebratory and exotic and erotic, but can we please, please stop it with the fake breasts?)

The shopping of Do-Buy is legendary, but nothing about the uninspiring stores are that fun unless you're a shopper.

Yes, everything you see there is gold. They have some of the ugliest watches I've ever laid eyes on.

In Dubai, a liter of gas is 1.5 dirham (40 cents), and a liter of water is 2 dirham.

At the hotel, I always double-take before finding the right button for the second floor. Who lays out buttons like this?

The zero-ith floor has a buffet breakfast and afternoon tea and internet, and the second floor is home to my beautiful, air-conditioned, sit-down toilet walk-in shower daily-delivered newspaper room. I'm full of buffet, and I think I'll relax a bit, afternoon tea downstairs, maybe watch some History Channel or National Geographic or something, and then the Kotecha's are taking me to a very fancy dinner.

This is really how to backpack!

(A special thank you to the Berlins, who let me into their network of fans all over the world. And obviously three cheers to Mr. Ashok Kotecha, who is one of the most fascinating people I've met all trip, and is spoiling me rotten.)


daddy said...

it's nice to know and be liked by good people, isn't it!?

Anonymous said...

Great blog about Dubai. The one thing you didn't nail though, is the aspect about the rulers.

Did you know that although it is not a democracy, the rulers are genuinely loved by their citizens. Why? Because they never leave their citizens. If ever in need, they can visit a Sheikh and get help. Whether it is financial or not, they are still assisted in all aspects of their lives. What do you get for being American? Taxes? Health bills?

They feed their hungry, and give to the poor. The indian workers you talk about, are making MUCH more than they would in India. At least the UAE is allowing them into their country. Look at how difficult it is for anyone to immigrate to North America. They are uneducated, have no experience in work, but the $200 they are earning in Dubai is putting food on the table for their families back home, and allowing them to provide security for their family.

The former President of the UAE, HH Sheikh Zayed was the most loved, generous ruler of the World. He built it from a desert, where they didn't have those lovely palm trees, roads, construction etc., to a hot vacation spot.

A little culture lesson: The locals used to train their falcons to hunt for them in order to eat. Many of them still use falcons for hunting as a passion. Their rulers are the ones who have civilized the nation. What has Bush done for you? Bring your country into a massive deficit in government spending, using a give-to-the-rich-steal-from-the-poor method.

The only thing the UAE does incorrectly, is give more respect than deserved to the Westerners and Europeans that use and abuse the country's successes, only criticize thereafter.

FYI, I'm not a UAE local, this is someone born in the US and raised in Canada, therefore I have no fear on speaking negatively about the rulers of the UAE, it is just the truth that the ignorant and misguided often criticize.