The Real Cost of Things

Here  in the United Arab Emirates, oil is plentiful and cheap. Water is scarce. Here are some UAE water facts.

Desalination costs the UAE about $18 million each day.

The per-capita water use in Abu Dhabi, the wealthiest of the emirates, is as high as 550 liters a day, or around four times that of an average European citizen.

50% of all the world’s desalination takes place in the Gulf.

The Fujairah desalination plant in Abu Dhabi has a freshwater generation capacity of 492 million liters a day, making it the biggest single producer on the planet.

Agriculture here uses groundwater, but 80% of the groundwater here is saline, often eight times as salty as ocean water. Pumping the salt water back into the gulf after desalination has increased the saline content of seawater here by 50% in the last thirty years. Groundwater levels are dropping quickly.

In general, most water consumed here has to be desalinated at great expense. It takes one gallon of oil to produce fifty gallons of drinking water. And it takes 700 gallons of water to produce one gallon of cow’s milk. So it takes 140 gallons of oil to produce one gallon of milk. (These figures may not be accurate. They may be high, they may be low. But you get the idea.) Milk here isn’t especially expensive, which means its true cost is hidden in subsidies for foods, but especially for water.) Actually, UAE residents receive water free of charge. Only foreigners are charged for it.

In the United States, we enjoy cheaper gasoline than in most places in the world (Arabia and Venezuela excepted,) but this is the case only because of indirect and hidden subsidies. If the cost of our frequent military interventions in the Middle-East were factored in, a gallon of gasoline would cost the end users many times what they now pay.

A government which buys votes through unsustainable spending is not doing anybody a favor, in the long run. The proper management of economies allows market forces to determine price, but unless the playing field is level, the game is rigged.

In the States, the people who crow about the wisdom of the marketplace are usually those on the receiving end of tax incentives or other artificial intrusions into the true cost of things. In the shakiest democracies, for example Latin American “Democracies,” the President for Life justifies his vote-buying subsidies by saying it’s a natural expression of his love for the common man, the little guy. Then, when he finally retires to a Villa in Miami, after having looted the state treasury for all he can, the real costs he left behind are reckoned and the economy lies in tatters.

In the Middle East, all decisions are made by fiat. There’s only one guy or family in charge, and if you criticize him openly, you risk imprisonment. They can afford to spend many gallons of oil for a gallon of milk, because at least for now they’re sitting on a subterranean petroleum ocean. Someday that will no longer be the case.


Why Dubai Will Never Be Arty

There is no alternative to big and expensive here in the UAE, which includes Dubai and its even richer neighbor, Abu Dhabi. This means there is no place for artists, beatniks or bohemians.

There are plenty of half-finished buildings, and seemingly abandoned construction projects, but there is no funky side of town. No place is arty. If they want art, they establish a department of art with a budget of hundreds of millions of dollars, under the direction of the Ministry of Culture, and staff it with Emiratis who work four hours a day, four days a week, and earn six figures for their trouble.

In Abu Dhabi they are building a replica of France’s Louvre art museum, and buying as much impressionist and classical art as they can get their hands on. But if you lived in Abu Dhabi, you would be hard-pressed to find a working artist. Recently, the Nation, a newspaper based in that city, showcased a new development in town. It’s a small business run by two sisters who want to encourage creativity. You can go there, or send your child there after school to watercolor or make pottery. What a zany notion!

Compared to most economies, there are precious few small businesses run by individuals or families. There are

no used bookstores, no alternative places in a low rent district. In Dubai there is a mainly Indian and Pakistani low rent district, Bur Dubai, but it is low rent in every sense of the word. There are businesses in that neighborhood that call themselves coffee shops, but they are not filled with graduate students writing in their journals or pecking away at their laptops. They are filled with poor people drinking instant coffee, who can’t afford to be “arty” because they’re too busy trying to stay alive.

So for a city to have an arty or counter-culture part of town, you have to have people who are rich enough to be voluntarily poor. You have to allow for a warren of drop-outs, retired college professors, young poets, folk-singers – all the things you can’t have if you will be deported in thirty days if you lack a job or a residency permit.

OK, now I really am leaving the country. Tonight!

It’s been a long wait. I’ve been waiting exactly a week. It took that long to cancel my work visa and to get paid. I don’t know why it took that long, but it did, and for most of that time I was on pins and needles, thinking “Tomorrow it’s gonna happen. Tomorow I’ll be in Thailand.” Well, tomorrow I’m going to be in Chiang Mai. There, I’ll sell my piano, close my bank accounts and send the money back to Iowa. Then, after I’ve hung out long enough to get bored, I’ll challenge myself further by hopping on a plane to destination undecided at this pont.

I just got my passport back and leafing through it, discovered the visas of Thailand, Cambodia, Viet Nam, Myanmar, and the United Arab Emirates. That’s a lot of travel in one year. And what did I learn from all that expense and effort? Most people in most places speak a little bit of English, enough so you can make yourself understood. If they don’t speak any, you can still communicate with mime.

Countries we’re not generous with treat us the same way when it comes to visas. People are pretty nice and generous all over, if you take the time to communicate with them. In the entire year I’ve been adrift, I haven’t been robbed or even lost anything of signficance. Maybe somebody shortchanged me, but if so, I didn’t notice.

I’m sixty-two years old and in the best physical shape of my life. I don’t smoke or drink and I get regular exercise. As long as I don’t do anything stupid, social security should enable me to continue living in places with a standard of living about a third of what it is in the States. There are a lot of such places, and many of them are really great.

So life is good.

Afternoon in International City

smaller bleak house


The sun is sinking low in the sky here in International City, a Dubai housing project so vast that just one of its many complexes holds tens of thousands of people.  I am presently staying in China, but I have stayed in Persia. There’s not much difference. Cheaply constructed buildings that will have to be torn down in forty years, meant in the beginning to attract a solid middle class, but now only a few years after construction, housing the working poor. Women are a distinct minority. Little restaurants and grocery stores that do tiny business, mostly at night.

Today is Friday, the universal day off here. Most people sleep late.. I’m going to set my camera up and take pictures in about half an hour, trying to catch the Fellini-esque quality of the place. Think of the opening scenes of Nights of Cabiria, the apartments buildings interspersed with dusty vacant lots. I keep expecting to see hunchbacks and dwarfs just out of my field of vision, and hear a soundtrack by Nino Rota.

Instead I hear the call to prayer, over the mosque Public Address system. The parking lot at Dragon Mart is filling rapidly with cars. On weekend nights, everyone here does some serious shopping. The rich go to Mall of the Emirates, the poor go to Dragon Mart.

Listening to Bix in Arabia

I had one of those moments where I didn’t know where I was and didn’t mind the sensation. I had been listening to Bix Biederbecke on Youtube and planning my return trip to Thailand. The curtains were drawn and I lay down for a short nap. When I woke up I realized I had no idea where I was. The streets of International City, Dubai were quiet, and it was unusually cool out. Long afternoon shadows. It felt like winter in Southern California.

Maybe space and time really are sort of illusory, or at least they don’t matter as much as they used to. Maybe they never mattered much to some people. The whole travel industry is based on the idea that going someplace is an important achievement, but now that the internet is full of images of any noteworthy place on the planet, how badly do you really need to go anywhere?

I can’t wait to get a hold of a keyboard and a trumpet again. That would give me something to do besides skim through facebook listings, which, let’s admit it, get pretty ho-hum after fifteen minutes or so, no matter how clever your friends are.




Thirty Year Olds Deserve Each Other

I was thirty once. That was over  thirty years ago. I was vain, cocky, and not as nice a person as I am today. I lacked experience and compassion.  Sure, I was better looking then, but so what? But from t his vantage point, I realize that those beautiful young people are welcome to have each other as much as they like, all night long, as long as they leave me alone. Advertisers target them and use their images in ads, because they have more spending power  than they do brains. So let them all skip merrily down the road to work enslavement and bankruptcy together.

When I was younger, I couldn’t understand why older people preferred the company of other older people, when they could hang around with the “it” crowd, on the beach, or in nightclubs. Now I know why.

Dubai is such a place, full of nightclubs and well-paid thirty somethings mingling up a storm. I wish them well, I really do, but I wish they would take their smart phones and their fancy cars and their fashionable clothes and drive to a different part of town than the one I inhabit. I’ll be here, in the quiet neighborhood, the one where nothing much happens, trying to watch television so I can stay awake until nine-thirty, even though most nights I can’t make it that late.

High-Rise Living

As I write this, I’m on the 20th floor of a 45 story high rise apartment building in Dubai.  That means there are 25 more floors above me, stacks of people doing what I’m doing, checking Facebook and email on their laptops, sipping coffee, glancing out the window to watch the sunrise over the desert. I just got an email from a friend in Turkey, who complained that in his  coastal city of a million inhabitants, there appears not to be even one single family dwelling. It’s all high rises. To us Americans, where most people live in houses surrounded by ample yards, this high-rise way of living seems….strange.

In this building the elevator system is super-modern, fast and efficient. You key in your destination when you initially summon the elevator, and then it remembers it so you don’t have to it again. But there above the elevator buttons is that same, familiar, ominous sign one sees in all tall buildings “In case of fire, use stairs.” None of the windows open to the outside. As long as the air-conditioning and elevators are running as intended, everything is great, if you’re idea of fun includes looking down at the city below you.

I remember being in an apartment in Water Tower Place on North Michigan Avenue in Chicago during the Pope’s visit in 1979. Looking down on all the people filling the street below me, I felt both artificially superior to and disconnected from the rest of the human race.

For me, that’s the biggest problem I can see in a city of high rises: the increased burden of loneliness. That, and being burned to death or asphyxiated. But what a view!

Inspiration Can Strike Anywhere

nice beach


A lot of people post pictures of perfect hotel bungalows on the beach, and it’s tempting to think “If only I were there, I’d know true peace of mind and finally be able to relax. I’d become inspired to undertake that major work, the one I’ve been preparing for my whole life to finally undertake.” Truth is, if I were there I’d probably drink one too many cups of coffee and writhe in anxiety about some imagined problem I left unsolved back home, wherever that might be.

Sure, I’d dive in the beautiful waves and swim around for a while, but then I’d want someone to pay attention to me, and that person would be busy with their smartphone, and so I’d start to sulk and then obsess about the aforementioned problem back home.

Yep. The problem with visiting paradise is you take yourself along on the trip.

The good news is there’s just as good a chance that inspiration and peace of mind will collide while I’m doing some kind of routine activity in a mundane setting. So there’s no reason to lose hope. And there’s no reason to not seek out paradise if you can find it.


Some Places Really Are Better than Others

Sure, a lot of differences can be chalked up to matters of taste, but let’s face it, some places really do suck, while other places are worthy of weeks, months or years of investigation. Places where there’s no potable water, where flies crawl all over you and people defecate in the open are not to be sought out. Boring places, where your only choice is which shopping mall to go to and which franchise business to visit, should also be low on your list. Many, in fact I will dare say “most” places that are really great don’t have much internet presence. Their charms are too subtle to withstand photography. When you look at the image from Google Earth, there aren’t a lot of tags cluttering the image, and Trip Advisor hasn’t got a thousand amateur travel writers posting their impressions. Even more reason to check these places out.

One thing I’ve learned, don’t ever use the Internet to book a hotel room in an under-developed place. You’ll end up paying three times what you would have if you’d simply showed up and scoped out the scene.  All the best places are highly affordable. That allows a variety of real people to live there. 

If you expect to go to Greenwich Village to see some working artists, you’ll find that artists haven’t been able to afford to live there for quite some time, but the place is rife with retired Orthodontists who always wished they’d been a little wilder and less practical when they were younger.

The real deal is out there, all over the place, tucked into a remote mountain valley in Ecuador, or Laos. If you go there you’ll find other people like you, not many, but some, and they can be your friends. The local people will smile and say “good morning,” but a great cultural and wealth divide will separate you unless you go to great lengths to leap across.