Archive for Chaos
Sri Lanka Part Seven
The day we left Tissa for Yala and Yala for Kandy, the former capital, was so long I remember only flashes and the dull impressions of strange and bad things. It started at three-thirty in the morning — I awoke before my alarm in a comfortable line of passed out cooks squished together on a smaller number of mattresses. Minutes later, pounding on the door, and others from the same bus hustled in to remind us we had to get going. They were so aware, as an entire group, of changes we had made to our “plan”, and were making damn sure we suffered no sightseeing consequence.
It was easier to get up than to explain the concept of the snooze. We were, of coursed, headed to Yala, which, as we remember, sucked.
As we got into the car to leave the compound, a stocky man in between two friends made motions for us to wait. “What?” I called from a cracked window. “Wait, wait,” he said.
It was four o’clock and we were running on fumes and the memory of grilled shrimp. “We have to go.”
He put his hands on the hood. I felt in my heart the sound of the door handle lifting. Fuck! Nothing. Chest-pounding, at least I knew the doors were locked.
We were trapped in the compound, with only one narrow driveway leading back on to the main road. Our only the safety of the car — but in those black, predawn hours, a few windows didn’t seem the strongest protection against someone willing to act crazy.
I still didn’t know how crazy he wanted to be.
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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.
“’Eid sa’iid,” we wish each other — happy holiday. It’s not Islamic New Year yet. It’s not Hanukkah (although it is). It’s not Christmas — even if the buildings all draped and merry in glittering neon suggest otherwise from outside every window.
On December 2nd, the Emirates come alive — as they tend to do at wintertime — for National Day. This year marked the thirty-ninth anniversary of the unification of the UAE’s seven emirates, a historical occasion commemorated by the only tradition befitting its supremacy in the lifespan of the young country: shooting silly string in strangers’ faces.
It’s chaos. Car owners en masse relieve their vehicles of their mufflers, burning rubber and backfiring (not supposed to sound dirty) on the busiest street in the city. The Corniche, which runs from the Port all the way through Abu Dhabi, past the beaches and up to Emirates Palace Hotel, is a standstill: thousands rev engines and blare music in cars painted with red, green and black, arrayed with faces of the Sheikhs, and overflowing with garlands and streamers. Exhaust pipes howl under pressure, letting out bursts that from the distance sound like automatic gunfire, and from up close, feel like it. Friends ride in pickup trucks or huge flatbeds, jumping and shaking them until it seems like they just might tip over. Others dance in circles in the street. Fireworks are exploding all the time. And everyone is shooting everyone in the face.
Some things just don’t make sense. Why would they make the European electrical plug exactly nose-width if they didn’t want you to stick it up your nose? In the vast cosmos of language and logic, there is shared perspective, and there are disjointed frames of mind that keep us from colliding with our “impossible”. Here on the Arabian Peninsula, for example, one can even haggle with reality.
“I’m 45 minutes away,” the man stated. Fact. Distance. Time.
The international crowd strives for tolerance, the pinnacle of mutual understanding, yet to tolerate is merely to accept — not the validity but the existence of something different. Anything short of plotting and pursuing a savage vendetta is tolerance. I think we can aim higher. We tolerate first, and then we use this impossible flexibility to our advantage.
“Could you make it 30 minutes?”
He was there in 15.
الجزء الاول — Part One
One bus carrying students from the airport arrived at around 8 AM. A colleague of mine (let’s call him America) decided that the best way to give out keys would be the tried and true read-names-from-a-list method, which, despite certain snags, is one of the world’s simplest ways of getting things to the right people. Bad choice, bro.
A “global university” offers two things: the first is an intellectually stimulating international crossroads that puts in conversation different perspectives, competing ideals, and opportunities for cooperation unparalleled in a more homophonic context. The second is hard to pronounce first names.
And on this bus populated entirely with students fresh from South Korea and China, we had that in spades. Usually a teacher might stumble on the pronunciation of one weirdly spelled version of “Kate,” but after a few Jihees and Haorans, America hit a Xiaomei and could tell he’d made an especially poor choice.
With a list empty of Bobs and Sams, America was stuck behind enemy alphabets without an exit strategy. And it was hilarious.
After seeing Inception two nights in a row, I feel qualified to make enormous statements about the theater experience in the Gulf. The first shock to the western movie-goer is the assigned seats. While something about choosing your exact place makes going to see Leonardo more like an outing, it forces certain stressful decisions not found at American first-come first-sit Loewses or AMCs. The teller shows you the layout of the theater and asks you to pick as you force yourself to imagine,
Will that be too close?
Next to fat people?
Behind the tallest building in the world? (The Emirates are unpredictable.)
Turns out not that many people are out at 21:00 on a Wednesday and it doesn’t really matter. Though Midnight the next night was packed full of an even more animated crowd laden with take-in from surrounding mall restaurants, answering their cell phone calls, and yelling warnings at Leo and Ellen Paige.
Leaving the mall at 1 a.m. after Inception Night One, we found shoppers steaming in the night heat and an hour-long cab line. But a friendly enough-looking Indian man stood offering a private car (a no-no in your mother’s book of Travel Safety Rules) like a scalper offering last minute tickets to your own house. So, like any smart shoppers, we weighed our life against our patience. Read the rest of this entry »