Archive for February, 2011
Sri Lanka Part One
I left for Sri Lanka in less than perfect conditions.
The only weather reports I had seen showed thunder and lightning in Colombo every single day of our stay. Our car rental company discouraged “self driving” — and I could hear over the phone the jaws of owners of hotels, rest houses and shacks drop when I asked for directions for myself. I tuned in to news about the island’s flooding… after buying tickets.
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Ski Dubai sucks.
Whatever you want to make it: it ain’t. Whether you are an old timer looking to relive those far away moments on the slopes or a polar bear lost and seeking shelter, you’re going to be as disappointed as the kid at Chuckie Cheese’s that realizes the good prizes cost 8,000 jackpots worth of tickets. And if you’re a first timer — forget it. The 400-ft. slope lacks all of the things that make first-time skiers want to come back for a second. No scenery (it’s indoors); no choice of trails (it’s in a mall), no babes in the lodge (it’s Dubai); no hot chocolate at the bottom (cause fuck you, that’s why).
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“What do you think about our revolution?”
“Freedom is beautiful.”
The university’s security staff is mostly Egyptian, almost exclusively supporting family back home, and quite openly champions of the overthrow of Mubarak’s autocracy. (Supporters, dejected, are less visible.) Engulfed in the politics of the Arabian peninsula, this American institution has made very evident the support for non-violent protesters, democratic ideals, and all Middle Eastern countries’ fights against their respective “the Man”.
But other than these interpersonal connections to the region’s groundswell, the UAE is barricaded in an impenetrable bubble — a piece apart from the line of dictatorial dominos that have fallen in rapid succession in recent weeks. A good reason for this: the word protest once meant, for Romans, to “assert publicly”. How could this be in the UAE when those most relegated are hardly even members of the public?
Transliterated Qur’anic phrases and Islamic benedictions make up most of the road signs on the straight highway out of Dubai. We headed towards the second stop in an epic three-part field trip that began early in the morning at the UAE’s only paper recycling plant and would end at its sole hydroponics farm, where veggies are grown without soil and taste like heaven on earth.
Our afternoon stop: Camelicious™, the largest camel dairy farm in the country, (and sister company Al Nassma, the elegant pioneering producer of camel milk chocolate) where farmers have harnessed one of the lesser tapped cameline resources in an experimental venture financed by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Prime Minister and Vice President of the UAE, and absolute monarch of Dubai.
Working with an American university, I am charged from time to time with the organization of a task hallowed by the wisdom of untold school teachers: the field trip. Exploring Abu Dhabi for educational purposes, we in the educational sphere seek out what has not yet been made obvious in guidebooks, not yet sacked and developed as a site just for tourists. Science classes are often particularly lucky — it’s easier to put your hands on hydroponically grown lettuce than it is on, say, Gilgamesh. One eye-opening day this term, I chaperoned students to two sites I had explored: a little-known, natural wetlands, home to thousands of birds in the middle of the desert; and, an endless, gushing river of human excrement.
At the Wathba Wetlands Reserve, I heard for the first time in the UAE frog sounds that were not the sound of someone’s iPhone ringing. Things were alive. The class gathered on a sandy promontory overlooking the vast (for the middle of a desert) network of shallow lakes and resilient shrubbery. All throughout the 5 square kilometers, birds gathered in stark contrast to the only other thing happening in the area — the Abu Dhabi–Al Ain Truck Road, where thousands of trucks chug single-file from the capital to the desert oasis. Visible from this, one of the busiest highways in the whole country, the Wathba Wetlands are still one of Abu Dhabi’s best kept secrets. It’s probably because seeing still isn’t believing; any water off the coast is usually a mirage, any lush hangout for thousands of colorful birds — that’s usually a hallucination.
Sir Bani Yas is not the name of a long lost Arabian Knight, nor of an Englishman hidden away in the caves of the Emirates’ Western Region. It is a sizable island 250 kilometers down the coast from Abu Dhabi, reachable only by boat, and just a short ferry ride off the one road to Saudi Arabia.
Check-in for the resort — it is (of course) a resort — is on the mainland, miles away from the 34 square miles of desert island that was once as barren as its neighborhood coastline. But in 1971, the late ruler and founder of the UAE, Sheikh Zayed, built a palace on a hilltop, imported his favorite African animals à la carte, and established the island as a national reserve. And that — as they say in these parts — was that.
When expecting anything from the organizers of the World Future Energy Summit, you are generally told that your energy will be better spent in the future. The global green technologies conference is coordinated by one company and subcontracted to another for general staffing, hosted in the national exhibition center but sponsored and organized by the real energy enterprise, Masdar, itself a subsidiary of a development company that is in turn owned by the government. The resulting backstage chaos is not only commonplace in the Emirates, it is essential to the expo experience, and the requisite favor-trading, blood clots, and temper tantrums administrators, assistants and the like could not feel whole without.
The key is to find someone who has stake — in anything. Generally, you are told to go over there, and when you get there, the word is still that the action is here. Here, there’s another there where you should be, and there, there’s yet another further there — that’s where you want to be. Except that it isn’t. Once you get far enough away, a misguided assistant (to someone so many degrees removed they don’t know the name of the company your contact works for) inquires gently if you’ve ever been to where you came from three hours ago. Yes, you’ll say, and collapse into a heap on the floor.