Sure, airfares have climbed a little lately, but in general, travel to inexpensive parts of the world has never been more affordable for most people. When Mark Twain traveled abroad a hundred and thirty years ago, travel was only for the rich. When airfares were deregulated in the seventies, ticket prices started to drop all over the world, and to this day, if you averse to work and don’t mind living like a beatnik or hobo, you can find someplace in the world where people will be more than glad to help you do so. Dubai is not one of those places. But there are many perfectly delightful spots in Southeast Asia and Latin America where a modern-day Thoreau could wile away the hours, gazing at dust motes dancing a sun beam and watching the clouds float across the sky.
I haven’t figured out how to post more than one picture on this blog, but if you want to see more pictures of sand formations, check out my Facebook postings. This one that I took today looks like an enormous breast. It’s about twelve feet high, and sits in front of a construction site where they’re building yet another apartment complex that will sit empty for God-knows-how-long, competing with all the other buildings that have been sitting empty for the last three years. But what an amazing subject for photography. After a year in Thailand, where everything was green this is quite a switch. I’m surrounded by sand, and the wind does the sculpting.
In addition to beautiful red sand dunes, there are really rough, completely bare, scary-looking mountains along the border with Oman and along the UAE coast near Fujairah. Those mountains also extend northeast to Muscat, Oman. I have never seen more desolate country, except in Nevada. Even in New Mexico the hills have some sort of vegetation on them, but here it looks like photos sent back from the Mars rover.
This picture was taken on Christmas Day (not a holiday here) just after some pretty substantial rains, hence the spot of greenery in the foreground. I’ve noticed some green fuzz along the roadside sand as well. I imagine that will turn into dust within a few weeks.
Speaking of dust, the sand here has the consistency of dust. It’s so old it has been ground fine. If they need sand for filtering, they have to import coarse sand. I talked to somebody who used to work at a water-treatment plant in Egypt, and he said they imported sand for that purpose from Muscatine, Iowa!
Like dutiful Joseph and pregnant Mary, we spent Christmas Eve day in the Middle East fulfilling a government requirement. It cost almost five hundred dollars and we didn’t get it all accomplished, but enough so that we’re still on track. Mostly we accepted the results and had a pretty good time, anyway. The high point of the day was when we left the car in the Immigration parking lot and took a bus to the Dubai Mall, where we hung out in a beautiful bookstore. I bought a book of Handel’s piano music. Even though you can download all that stuff for free on the Internet and print it out, it’s kind of nice to have it all in a book, rather than scattered around on xeroxed pages.
I recently went on a picnic with some Muslim friends, and they asked me how I could possibly believe in three gods. There is but one God, they asserted. Everyone knows that. Common sense demands that. But then I thought about the power of a story that God gave up his only son, and having lost a son myself, I know how hard a sacrifice that would be. And I thought of how recent a faith both Christianity and Islam are. One is two thousand years old and the other fifteen-hundred. There are graves here, near Dubai, in Al Ain, that are eight thousand years old! That’s earlier than the pyramids. Six thousand years before the birth of Christ.
Anyway, just some Christmas musings from the vantage point of Dubai, 100 miles from Iran, about 1,500 miles southeast of the Holy Land. Where camels wander at will over endless stretches of sand and there is no snow, ever, except inside the ski run at the Emirates Mall.
Dubai thinks of itself as a tourist destination, as well as a trading center, so they’re big on name brands. Right next the outlet mall, just a few miles from our apartment in Silicon Oasis, there’s the beginnings of a Universal Studios theme park. Like lots of things here, it’s merely been sketched out. The surveying lines have been drawn, there’s some lines on a map, and maybe the beginnings of some roads that have been blown over with sand since they were first scratched into the terrain with machinery.
So they’ve got the famous arch from Hollywood, the one that Paramount Studios in Hollywood had, and maybe Universal as well, though in my time in Los Angeles I don’t remember ever seeing a Universal Studios arch. But I can report that they have one here in the Arab Emirates, as well, just waiting for a theme park to sprout in the sand behind it. But there are a lot of half completed construction projects still waiting for the economic slowdown to speed up, and this one doesn’t seem to be going anywhere too soon. There’s a camel racetrack just down the road a bit that seems to be getting business, and the Outlet Mall next door isn’t doing too badly. But it seems positively spartan compared to the lavish Emirates and Dubai Malls ten miles north.
Today I went to the outlet mall, which is a few miles past the last ring road, the last highway that circles the city. We already live about 10 miles south of the center of town, say Dubai Mall, and there’s a lot of desert out here that will be filled in some day, but that day is still fifteen years in the future. As I prepared to leave the outlet mall parking lot, I spied a camel, just poking around in the sand. I later saw he was chewing on cardboard, as he was near the dumpsters out back. Then I realized there were about twenty camels back here, all eating cardbaord. They were raiding the dumpster behind the mall ,the same way bears do in Minnesota and raccoons do farther south.
The camels had a rope tying the front legs together, prohibiting them from running. So I guess that’s all their owners do to reign them in. Otherwise, it’s every camel for himself, and since the roads aren’t fenced, every driver might want to keep a watch out, as well.
Even though most of the capital cities of the world are full of people who speak a variety of languages, and come from a variety of places, I’ve never found a more international city than Dubai. There seems to be no dominant culture. I know there is one, it’s Arabic, and the true citizens of the country are called “Emirati” and are a close-knit group, who practice the Islamic faith and speak Arabic, but they do not feel like the majority here. The Emiriati are easily outnumbered by their many guests. They are, I estimate, exceeded by a factor of eight to ten times by Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Filipinos, Lebanese, Iranians, English, Americans, Europeans of various types, Arabs from countries other than the UAE, and a few Africans.
There seems to be little crime. Ostentatious displays of wealth abound, which makes Dubai seem more like Beverly Hills than your typical large city. Everything here is organized around the shopping mall. So in that way, it feels like a big city in the Midwest. There is absolutely no pedestrian traffic, for nothing is close enough to walk to. And for four or five months of the year, you wouldn’t want to be foolish enough to try. So despite it’s size and power and impressive display of architecture, Dubai isn’t even the capital of the United Arab Emirates. Abu Dhabi is, an hour to the southwest.
If you’re like me, you never really get a handle on geography unless you spend some serious time someplace.
The last two places I’ve lived, Chiang Mai, Thailand, and Dubai, UAE, have both claimed to be “the next Hollywood.” They’ve created commissions, done feasibility studies, and given someone of importance at least a part-time job soliciting film and television production. The local newspapers have dutifully reported the initiatives, and quoted experts saying that it’s only a matter of time that this comes true. But it’s only been a matter of time for a lot of places to become the new Hollywood. There’s no physical reason why film and television production needs to be headquartered there. The sunshine that was important in 1915 for film production hasn’t been necessary for quite a while now. And any kid with a three hundred dollar camera and a laptop can now make a pretty good-looking movie. But mostly they don’t. Mostly they log onto facebook and scroll through what their friends are talking about. Or they play video games.
There are only a coupe of hundred thousand people who make a full-time living in Southern California’s entertainment industry. The decision makers probably only number less than ten thousand. But their is a tremendous value in the networks they have created over time, and the fact remains that those networks of people who own homes and drive cars and support families are more important than the hardware or the occasional pretty face.
So everything seems to change but nothing really changes. If you want to work in movies or television, you buy a one-way ticket on that Greyhound bus to Los Angeles and get off when the driver yells “Hollywood Boulevard!”
It’s a demo commercial for the Mini Facebook page that Mini/BMW never posted. I see quite a few Mini’s on the street here, though giant SUV’s and muscle cars are more in style here. Bangkok is a Mini-Cooper kind of place