Thailand and Dubai – Polar Opposites.

I cannot imagine two more different places.

Thailand is inexpensive. It is three to five times more inexpensive than the States. Dubai is easily as expensive as the States, and in some ways, mainly housing and food, more so.

In the Middle East, gas is cheap, so people drive big cars. SUV’s are quite common, as are four wheel drive land rovers, jeeps, muscle cars and luxury sports cars. In Thailand, gas is expensive, and the poor cannot afford cars. Even if they become wealthy enough to buy one, they still don’t properly learn how to drive, but rather get a license and begin the process ad hoc. In Dubai, on the other hand, a drivers license in difficult to obtain without expensive and lengthy training and testing.

In Dubai, people drive fast and honk if you displease them. Even after the moment of danger has passed, they will honk to chastise you, to make sure you learned your lesson. In Thailand, almost nobody honks, ever, for it would display your lack of serenity. Since no one in Thailand really knows how to drive, or what the rules of the road are, they conceive of driving as a group process. Like extremely elderly drivers in the States, Thai drivers slowly drift in an out of traffic, expecting and hoping that those behind them will look out for them.

An aside: in Viet Nam, Thailand’s neighbor the Northeast, everyone honks his horn every two seconds. I rented a motorcycle, and the guy showed me where to insert the key and where the horn was. Otherwise, they drive like Thais, as a big group experiment, like fish in a school.

Women who appear in public here in Dubai are often completely covered, leaving only their eyes visible through a little rectangle cut in the fabric. Some don’t even have that, and peer through somewhat sheer black cloth. There are separate sections on the bus and metro for women only. Due to the large number of Indian men who are in Dubai without their families, men outnumber women in public by five to one.

In Thailand, men are almost invisible. Women are everywhere, shopping, selling, sitting behind desks and counters in offices. I don’t know where they men are. This is especially true after the age of fifty. There are almost no men over fifty visible anywhere. My hunch is they’re all back home in the village, taking care of their grandchildren.




The world’s largest rug in a very large mosque

It’s the Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, the Ermiate just down the road from Dubai. It’s an hour and a half bus ride, but it’s worth it to see the Mosque. Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about the rug in the main prayer hall:  “The carpet in the main prayer hall is considered to be the world’s largest carpet made by Iran’s Carpet Company and designed by Iranian artist Ali Khaliqi.[2] This carpet measures 5,627 m2 (60,570 sq ft), and was made by around 1,200-1,300 carpet knotters. The weight of this carpet is 35 ton and is predominantly made from wool (originating from New Zealand and Iran). There are 2,268,000,000 knots within the carpet and it took approximately two years to complete.”

There’s a whole lot of nothing between Abu Dhabi and Dubai.  Scrubby desert that’s as flat as a pancake. I hear there are some scenic desert areas, but I haven’t seen them yet. And then you come across the Wizard of Oz stretch of buildings longer than Michigan Avenue in Chicago, but at night, they’re all lit up in the most psychedelic ways…it’s really something.

Sure, not all the architecture here fits my taste, but it is pretty amazing what they’ve managed to do in a short amount of time. And oil wealth is only part of it. There are plenty of countries that have oil wealth who have done nothing but squander it. Nigeria, Venezuala. The Arab Emiriates used their oil wealth as a leg up to do what they wanted to do, which was to create a nation that invites outside investment. It seems to be working.

But this mosque is one of the most amazing structures on the planet.

Followed by Fast Food

In Oskaloosa, when I lived alone I ate all my meals at Hardee’s or Hy Vee. Needless to say, I was overweight, wheezed with the slightest exertion and waddled down the aisles of Wal-Mart like everyone else town. Since leaving, I’ve eaten more sensibly and greatly increased my level of exercise, mainly through swimming. Today I went to the food court at the local mall and found that my friends at Hardees are still trying to kill me. They’ve come halfway across the world to do so (grandiosity? Paranoia?) Can Hy Vee be far behind?

It’s raining in Dubai

I didn’t know that ever happened. The roof of our apartment building began to leak immediately, and we’re on the top floor, so now the kitchen is full of water. I suppose this happens so rarely that it isn’t worth worrying about. There are no storm drains alongside roads, so they may hold water, and I doubt if the local drivers have a lot of experience with driving in water, so maybe accidents increase. When I moved to San Francisco in January of 1976 it snowed. The whole city shut down. Nobody knew what to do with snow. It melted by the afternoon and never happened again during the twelve years I lived there.

English as a Second Language (or third, or fourth)

We just spent a year in Thailand, and even though I tried my best to learn Thai in three months of lessons, not much stuck. I spoke more Spanish after two weeks of lessons than I did Thai after twelve. And not many Thais speak English. It’s really hard for them, and their schools are less than rigorous, so English speakers just expect not to be able to talk to Thais about much more than how much something costs.

Here, in Dubai, everybody thinks they speak English, but most of them do so with a variety of accents that are so thick that they might as well be speaking Icelandic or Maori. I’ve never seen such a polyglot crowd as the populace of this place. I was going to use the word “cosmopolitan” but then I realized that wasn’t really the right word, for it implies sophistication. Never have I seen such a melting pot of races and tongues, and the only common language they have is English, though to the casual, untrained ear you’d never know it. I don’t feel I can smirk or feel superior, as I have limited command of two other languages besides English, and knowing any foreign language at all makes me a veritable oddity in my country. Where I come from if you talk English, you’re normal, and any other language is for weirdos, who are probably just putting on airs. We secretly believe if you wake them up in the middle of the night and ask them a question, they’ll forget their posing and talk normal.


A Damper on Discourse

Both of the countries which I have recently called “home” have policies that sharply limit the personal expression of ideas. Recently, the UAE passed a law making it a crime to use the Internet to criticize its rulers or institutions. See the following link

In Thailand, you can be jailed for years for on the mere accusation  of having insulted the King! After a few years they might let you out if they determined that you didn’t really insult the crown, but just lacked reverence. Needless to say, opposing political parties routinely accuse each other of such offenses, and the backlog of these lese majeste cases is clogging the courts.

What are the rulers afraid of? Are they that thin-skinned? Well, yes and no. The UAE is an area of relative calm and stability, in a part of the world where revolution can seemingly come out of nowhere one day and burn the whole place down the next. So despite their current liberal atmosphere, they want the legal framework in place to stop what happened in Egypt, Libya and Syria from happening here.

Thailand is another case, altogether. This intense devotion to the Royal Family only developed after World War II. There was historical precedence, sure, but nothing like what’s going on now.  So I don’t have an answer other than it seems a form of super-patriotism mingled with religious fervor.

To this observer, the strangest aspect in all of this is that the current rulers of Dubai and Thailand are enlightened leaders. They’re great guys, forward thinking, talented, magnanimous. The King of Thailand jammed with Benny Goodman. Sheik Mohammad of Dubai has helped craft a country that doesn’t rely so much on oil wealth as it does on the principles of unfettered market capitalism.

But these policies regarding public discourse make it almost impossible for anyone to take the risk to talk about these things, for fear of imprisonment or deportation.

The only reason I’m sticking my neck out is because I’m hardly saying anything revolutionary or novel here. I’m just trying to describe these places to the folks back home.

Walking to Work (yet again)

I’ve been walking to school for fifty-six years. I started the process in 1956, when I walked to kindergarten in Flossmoor, Illinois. Then I walked to school in Philadelphia, South Dakota, St. Louis, rode a bike to school in Columbia, Missouri and Iowa City, Iowa, took a break from school for ten years in San Francisco, but then the school addiction kicked in again, this time as a teacher, and I rode a motorcycle to San Francisco State, went back to Iowa for the longest stretch of all, then on to Thailand, and now Dubai. For somebody who keeps posting rants against education, I sure have spent a lot of time in school.

My latest walk to school is quite different than the others I’ve enjoyed. Here, on the edge of the city, it’s pure desert. Our apartment building is right across from the school. There’s nothing else out here. Most of the apartment buildings are empty, though some have been completed for years.




There’s a stray cat that lives in some refuse that’s settled along the outer wall of our building. It seems comfortably housed and I suppose it somehow gets enough to eat and drink. I said “hello” to it this morning and it meowed back.