Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Ten Things I Like About Abu Dhabi

1. The small scale of the city. Without traffic, you can drive from one side of Abu Dhabi to the other in fifteen minutes. The streets are laid out in a grid pattern, so even though every street has two or three names (take 4th Street, which is usually called Murour Street and occasionally referred to as Old Airport Road, or 11th Street, better known as Defense Street but labeled on signs as Hazaa Bin Zayed the First Street), it’s virtually impossible to get lost.

2. Great Asian food. From Pakistani and Indian joints with barebones décor that serve the most delicious curries you’ve ever eaten, to a tiny Nepalese place whose specialties are dumplings and an all-you-can eat platter of rice and chicken, to the logic-defying Asian Garden that does decent Filipino and Chinese grub while still managing to crank out the best Thai food I’ve ever had, to an Indonesian dive where the hygiene is dubious but the chili beef is mouthwateringly good, to a sushi bar in a dumpy hotel that even Japanese diplomats and oil wonks consider worth their time, to a simple Korean restaurant where the freshly made kim chee on offer changes daily according to the whim of the chef, to a Vietnamese spot with a mind-boggling menu of fresh juices and iced teas and wonderfully comforting giant bowls of phô soup, Abu Dhabi boasts an enormous and diverse selection of excellent Asian nosh.

3. The beach. I’ve never been much of a beachgoer, generally finding it preferable to spend the afternoon inside with a book and a cup of tea than to outfit myself in skimpy pieces of slippery cloth, slather on half a tube of SPF 50, and pass several hours lying uncomfortably on rough, hot sand and battling sun and wind to read the same book that I could have read much more easily indoors. But there’s something to be said for having beautiful, pristine expanses of beach only a ten-minute drive from your home, especially in a climate where warm temperatures and sunshine are guaranteed all but two months a year.

4. Cheap taxis. I complain whenever I have to pay for a cab, but to go all the way across the city for $5 is pretty reasonable.

5. Intermissions at movies. Having a few minutes in the middle of a two-hour movie to stretch your legs, use the bathroom, or refill your popcorn makes any trip to the cinema that much better. I don’t know how many movies have been ruined for me because I spent the last 20 minutes of them waiting desperately for a chance to relieve myself. Here I don’t have to.

6. Champagne brunch on Fridays. Okay, so the ubiquitous alcohol-sodden buffet brunches that a majority of hotels in Abu Dhabi and Dubai host each Friday except during Ramadan have become infamous for producing soused Westerners who stagger out at four in the afternoon and do inappropriate things in public places, but they really are a lot of fun. Heaps of fresh seafood, salad bars of Arab mezze, endless desserts (the brunch at the Intercontinental in Abu Dhabi has a chocolate fountain!), plus all the usual breakfast and lunch offerings, washed down with (in some cases) unlimited glasses of bubbly. Decadent, unhealthy, and expensive, and definitely not for every week, but oh so enjoyable.

7. The outdoors. For about half the year, the camping, hiking, and offroading to be found in the UAE and neighboring Oman rival anything in the American Southwest. Rugged mountains, jaw-dropping canyons, singing sand dunes, herds of half-wild goats wandering across the road—what more do you need? Not to mention the fact that you can camp anywhere, with no pesky National Park Rangers forcing you to relocate after you’ve already pitched your tents because you’re not in a designated campsite.

8. Diversity. The number of different nationalities represented in this country of 4.5 million is astonishing. In one day here, between friends, coworkers, and taxi drivers, store clerks, etc., I might easily interact with people from at least 19 different countries: Argentina, Australia, Canada, Egypt, France, Germany, Hong Kong, India, Lebanon, Pakistan, the Philippines, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Switzerland, Syria, the UAE, the UK, and the US. Not to mention those nationalities that I personally encounter less often but who still have a strong presence here, like Bahrainis, Bangladeshis, Ethiopians, Indonesians, Iranians, Irish, Italians, Japanese, Jordanians, Kuwaitis, Malaysians, Omanis, Palestinians, Qataris, Saudis, and Yemenis. Whew!

9. Safety. The occasional murder or rape makes the news now and then, but by and large the UAE is an extremely safe place to live. Despite the lack of a visible police presence in most areas, I feel comfortable walking around by myself in Abu Dhabi at any hour of the night.

10. The call to prayer. It can be annoying at times when you’ve just stepped outside the office to make a phone call or you’re trying to watch a quiet movie with the window open, but hearing the haunting, minor-key cry of the muezzin echoing through slumbering streets to summon the faithful to the first morning prayer at 5 a.m. is an experience never to be forgotten. God is great, God is great. There is no god but God, and I witness that Muhammad is His prophet.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Dubai the Ghost Town

Is Dubai's economy disintegrating before our eyes? Is the former boomtown only a few more failed investments away from bankruptcy? The NY Times seems to think so, although from my perspective here on the ground, I'm not so convinced. I was in Dubai earlier this week and I saw little evidence that the emirate is in trouble. The "mostly clear" roads described in the Times article were certainly nowhere in evidence as we battled traffic for 45 minutes on our way to dinner at a Sri Lankan restaurant only one neighborhood away from where we'd started. The brand new Dubai Mall filled up with shoppers as soon as the workday ended, and even if this can be attributed in part to the steep discounts (up to 75 percent) currently offered at many retail outlets in honor of the month-long Dubai Shopping Festival, it was still a sign that Dubaians aren't hoarding their dirhams so closely that they can't still indulge in frivolous consumerism. In the end, it may be exactly that enthusiasm to spend, spend, spend that Dubai is famous for that saves them, keeping their economy alive where that of the thrifty Americans failed.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Getting Away from It All

For much of the year here, high temperatures make any outdoor activity more strenuous than lying on the beach unpleasant, if not downright unsafe. Going jogging in 115-degree weather is a good way to give yourself heatstroke, not to mention a nasty sunburn. But from November through March, the Gulf transforms into veritable amusement park of natural wonders, many within half a day's drive of Abu Dhabi and Dubai. At the northern tip of the country, along a coastline owned by Oman, the magnificent rocky fjords of Mussandem are a prime spot for snorkeling, dolphin watching, and rock climbing. Southwest of Abu Dhabi, the Liwa Oasis has one of the most beautiful expanses of wind-swept sand dunes you'll ever see, perfect for offroading if you have the necessary motoring skills or for staging reenactments of Lawrence of Arabia if you don't (remember the part where the guy disappears into a pit of quicksand?). And east and northeast of the capital, a crest of craggy mountains, scarred throughout with deep flood-canyons known as wadis, offers ample opportunity for camping, hiking, and all sorts of au naturel adventuring. For five months a year, with the right equipment and a bit of initiative, the Gulf is a genuinely good place to live.

Last weekend, for instance, Chris and I and four friends packed tents, sleeping bags, and plenty of food into the back of two cars and headed into the mountains that straddle the Omani-UAE border east of here. We followed the paved road until it abruptly ran out shortly after we crossed into Oman, then rattled up a winding dirt road for 30 minutes, past tiny tin-sided houses inhabited by goatherds and up into a wadi hemmed in by jagged rock walls 200 feet high, until the trail became too rough for our Mazda and we were forced to stop. We pitched our tents and spent the night in the lee of a massive tumble of boulders that at some point in the not-too-distant past had been swept down by a rush of water from the clifftop above, carving out a secondary gorge much shorter and steeper than the one we had been following. Our guidebook warned us against camping in a wadi, especially in the winter months when flash floods can be sudden and devastating, washing away everything in their path, but like all overconfident novice outdoorsmen, we didn't listen.

In the morning we all piled into the second car, an SUV better suited for bumpy terrain than the Mazda, and continued up the wadi into the heart of the mountains. As we drove, we passed many more ravines like the one we had camped beside that cut rocky channels between the wadi floor and the cliffs overheard, suitable for traversal only by goats. Acacias, the only trees that seemed able to grow in this arid, high-altitude ecosystem, squatted crookedly along the flat wadi floor like hunchbacked old women with tangled hair.

We were on the lookout for the start of a hike described in our guidebook, so when we spotted a set of makeshift stone stairs climbing in short switchbacks from the road to the top of the cliff, we assumed that we had found it. A man in a faded tunic holding a large plastic water jug was standing at the base of the steps, so we asked him in Arabic if it was possible to go up here and how long it would take. After assuring us that it was only a ten-minute trip to the top, he beckoned us to follow him and began a swift ascent up the stairs. We were out of breath and sweating when we caught up with him where the stairs ended at a broad plateau, yet to our guide it was as if he had climbed nothing more challenging than the staircase in my parents'
home in California--and with several gallons of water on his back, no less.

The plateau where Muhammed lives was once inhabited by bedouins, who left after the nearby freshwater well dried up.

This friendly man, whose name is Muhammed and who turned out to be not Omani as we had originally thought but Pakistani, lives in a house made of stones without running water or electricity, where he tends a flock of goats six months a year for a rich man in the UAE. The other six months he spends in Pakistan with his wife and seven children, but since he is unable to find work in his native country, he is forced to return to the goats year after year. Every Thursday he travels to Dibba, the closest town over the Emirati border, to buy food and supplies. On lucky days, he hitches a ride from someone passing through the wadi; the rest of the time he walks four hours on foot to get there. He told us all this over cups of sweet tea lightened with goat's milk as we sat in the shade of a shelter he'd constructed from thatch and watched the goats nibble at the sparse patches of grass that dotted the plateau. Then he took us to see the cistern where he collected rain water for washing, the nursery where he kept the baby goats, and the ruins of a village built by the bedouins who had once occupied this spot.

The basic necessaries of life: a cooler, a propane water heater, baskets and bags for storing food, and two plastic stools.

Muhammed's solitude was startling in its absoluteness. Other than a battery-powered radio, he has no contact with the outside world. Days must pass without him speaking to or even laying eyes on another human being. His life is simple, governed by the habits of his goats and by making sure that his basic survival needs are taken care of: food, propane for his water heater, fresh water from the tank beside the road. It was hard not to make the comparison when we arrived back at our own posh digs in Abu Dhabi later that night. Just as sleeping on the ground for a night makes you appreciate your mattress at home like never before, witnessing another person's solitude that's so much more complete and unrelenting than your own can serve as a valuable reminder of how much worse off you could be. Muhammed didn't seem unhappy with his lot, yet I bet he would have given anything to have the weeks of leisure in a modern, comfortable apartment with a fancy TV, a video game system, books, well-stocked cupboards, and expensive furniture that I've so impatiently dismissed as a waste of my time.