Abu Dhabi and a Road Trip
Culture Shock: From Belize to the U.A.E.
I flew from Belize
to Portland on a Wednesday night, worked in my office on Thursday, and on
Friday I was on a plane bound for Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates
(U.A.E.). As I described previously, Abu Dhabi is the capital of the
U.A.E., a small, oil-rich country in the Middle East where Otak, my company, was
working on a large contract. I was looking forward to seeing Abu Dhabi
again and was traveling with a group of Otak folks who were running a workshop,
while I'd spend most of the week working in Otak's Abu Dhabi office. This was my second trip to Abu Dhabi in the past year; I described
my first trip at
Around the World in Eight Days. While my colleagues flew up front in
Business Class, I opted to fly in Coach once again, a $2,000 ticket instead of
ticket in Business Class. But hey, as I explained last time, I'm cheap.
Actually I'm glad I
flew in Coach, because I sat next to a nice woman named Amy, a grad
student at the University of London who was returning home after spending winter
break in America. We talked for several hours and at about midnight we
decided to watch a movie ("Vicky Cristina Barcelona") on the seatbacks. We
started the movie at the exact same time so we'd laugh at the same scenes, and after the movie we dozed for a while, had an exquisite breakfast (o.k., I'm
kidding -- this was Coach after all) and then resumed our conversation as we disembarked in
Amsterdam. I wanted to take her picture, but she was too embarrassed
about her "airplane hair," as she phrased it, so I can't show you what she looks
like, but she's about 5'-8" with dark hair and green eyes, if that helps. After a few
hours in the Amsterdam airport, I boarded another plane and arrived in Abu Dhabi
around 10 p.m. and made it to my hotel.
This was winter and
it was pleasantly cool outside that night and the temperatures during the day
would reach only about 75 degrees, unlike the 110 degrees with high humidity
that I'd endured during my first visit here last June. Abu Dhabi
understandably is a major wintertime destination for Europeans on vacation, and
as busy as it was here last June in the sweltering heat, it was absolutely crazy
now in January with throngs of tourists enjoying the pleasant temperatures and
After spending the
previous week doing service work in the rural villages of Belize, suddenly being
in Abu Dhabi with its excessive wealth was a real culture shock. I'd come
from one of the poorest countries in the world and was now in one of the
richest. The attitudes here in the U.A.E., especially among the elite,
were totally different from what I'd experienced in Belize a week earlier, a
difference that wasn't so much Arab vs. Central American culture, but rather a
difference between rich and poor, which you'll find anywhere in the world within
any culture, unfortunately. Our workshops that week were
held in the grand Emirates Palace Hotel, one of the most expensive hotels in the
world, with some suites costing up to $10,000 a night. But I left on the
first morning as soon as I could without eating the fancy banquet lunch
they had prepared and went back to the office and had a sandwich. After being in Belize where
villagers appreciate every small token, the gaudy wealth and excess in the Emirates Palace
was too much for me.
Along with the
emotional adjustment, I was also still dealing with some physical effects of
being in Belize. As I mentioned in my last update, I
was hiking in a dark, Belize river cave with my friend, Kelsey, a few days earlier and took a picture
of her, but I didn't see a submerged rock. My shin smashed into it and I tumbled
into the river. I got a nice picture, but it left a deep puncture wound that hadn't healed yet and I'd been replacing the bandages several times a day. Finally one day in Abu Dhabi,
I decided to have a doctor look at it, so I went to a hospital where a doctor
quickly examined it and said, "You're fine, you're fine," and then said,
"That'll be 200 dirhams, please ($70)." Gee… thanks doc.
physical effects, I'd also made the mistake in Belize of eating a slushy.
If you're not Belizean, you shouldn't drink the tap water there, something I'd
been conscientious about during both of my service trips the previous year.
But you shouldn't drink anything with ice in it, either, since they make most
ice from tap water, which I'd forgotten about. On a hot day in the village
of Succotz as we
were building the library roof, I saw a man pushing a cart selling slushies
(shaved ice) and
I ignorantly bought one and ate it. Bad move.
My stomach started
few days later and I was still having issues when I reached
Abu Dhabi. Nick, one of my ProBelize friends, euphemistically calls
this sort of thing a "tummy tickle" and while it wasn't a big deal, it was a tad
more than a tickle, Nick. I was running low on Imodium so one evening I
walked into an empty pharmacy and the pharmacist asked in a thick Arab accent if
he could help me. I said, "No thanks," as I scanned the shelves in vain,
but after a few more minutes, he said, "You are looking for… Viagra?" I
laughed out loud and said no, then I saw the Imodium. I still laugh about
The United Arab Emirates is about the size of Indiana and
has the sixth-largest reserves of oil in the world. The largest cities are
the capital, Abu Dhabi, and Dubai. Both cities are on the coast.
Oman is next to the U.A.E. at the end of the Arabian
peninsula. The population is about 3 million and most people live in
northern Oman, which is very mountainous. The southern part of the country is
flat, sandy and largely unsettled.
I opted to
fly in Coach instead of Business Class and I'm glad I did, because I sat next to
a nice grad student named Amy. We
talked during much of the 10-hour flight from Portland to Amsterdam.
After arriving in Abu Dhabi, I headed to the
Emirates Palace, one of the most expensive hotels in the world with suites
running $10,000 a night. No, I didn't stay here. Instead we had
several workshops here.
Here's one of our workshops at the Emirates Palace.
Hey, aren't those are nice maps on the wall? Yep, those are mine.
at the Emirates Palace Hotel, the most opulent restroom I've ever seen.
Someone told me that if you see anything in this hotel that looks like gold, it
Walking Around Abu Dhabi... for 31 Miles?
I worked late every
night at Otak's office in Abu Dhabi, often until 10 p.m., then usually got
dinner at an Indian restaurant and went back to the hotel, and it was pretty
much like that all week for me. The work week in Muslim countries is Sunday through Thursday with the weekend
being on Friday and Saturday. Friday
is prayer day and entire families often go to the mosque to pray, while Saturday
is more for relaxation, sports, and family trips. At the end of our work week
on Thursday evening, the Otak staff was treated to a luxurious banquet at
the expansive (and expensive) Shangri-La Resort on the mainland, one of the most
luxurious resorts in Abu Dhabi and one of the ritziest places I've ever seen.
About 20 of us Portland and Abu Dhabi staff sat outside on the patio that
evening having dinner and enjoying a spectacular view of the lighted Grand
Mosque with its massive white domes, right across the waterway.
Speaking of that,
before the Grand Mosque was constructed they planned to make it the largest
mosque in the world. This sort of thing is typical in Abu Dhabi where
"world's tallest," and "world's largest" are common phrases.
But the religious leaders in Mecca, the center of Islam, objected and said that
no mosque should be larger than the one in Mecca, in Saudi Arabia. The
developers of the Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi finally relented and scaled it back
a bit, thus making it the second largest mosque in the world. Meanwhile, a few hours north in
the city of Dubai, the world's tallest building is currently being built.
The banquet dinner was
nice but the best experience of my week in Abu Dhabi occurred on the weekend,
when I finally got to see the city up close and personal. On Friday
morning, after the dinner the previous night, I left my hotel carrying my daypack, camera and GPS and
walked around the city all day and well into the evening, covering 15 miles on
foot and visiting major thoroughfares as well as back alleys while taking
pictures and trying to
comprehend this enormous city. I returned to my hotel around 11 p.m. tired
from my hike, but I got up early on Saturday morning and hiked another 16 miles
around the city and shot another 400 pictures.
struck me during my long journey around the city. First, despite walking 31 miles around Abu Dhabi, I didn't feel like I really saw it, it's simply
that big. I didn't have enough time to visit entire sections of the city that I
wanted to see. This city is enormous and it's growing at a phenomenal rate.
But more than the city's size, what really struck me was the friendliness of the
locals. As I explained in my Around the
World update where I described my first visit to Abu Dhabi last summer, 90%
of the people in Abu Dhabi are foreigners imported to do mostly menial labor,
while the native Emiratis enjoy perks like free education, free housing, a
guaranteed job, and early retirement. Although the foreign workers make little
income by U.A.E or Western standards, they earn a lot more than they would in
their home countries and most of them are very grateful for their job. Still,
this situation creates a social stratification that made me uncomfortable during
my first visit to Abu Dhabi last summer and still does.
While I met several
humble and gracious Emiratis during the week I was in Abu Dhabi, I also
encountered several Emiratis who flaunted their wealth
and power. During the weekend as I walked on the streets, however, I was
much more comfortable, mixing with the middle and lower class folks from the Middle East,
India, and southeast Asia. They weren't used to seeing a Westerner
with a daypack and camera walking through their neighborhoods taking pictures,
and I got a lot of curious looks and smiles as they tried to figure out
who I was and why I was there. I met so many friendly,
warm people and to a person, they were courteous to me even after I said I was
from America. I talked to one fellow about 30 years old working in a rug
store who told me in broken
English that he was from Iran and asked me, "Where are you from?" I said
"America," and he said, "Oh, I love America! I want go to America some day but
I never will." I told him, "Maybe someday you will go to America." and he said,
"No, but I want to. I love America!" That conversation summed
up the dozens of encounters I had with the locals during my weekend hike
around Abu Dhabi. I loved it.
Abu Dhabi is a bustling city of a half-million people.
It's similar to Dubai, it's crazy sister city a couple hours north, but is a bit
more restrained and pragmatic.
Above center: About 90% of
the people in Abu Dhabi are foreigners, including many low-wage laborers from
countries like India and Pakistan. They earn very little by Western
standards but much more than they could in their home countries. The
treatment of laborers is an on-going political issue in the U.A.E.
These friendly Indian painters motioned to me, wanting
their picture taken. Dudes, you're famous!
Every foreigner I met in Abu Dhabi was incredibly
friendly, even after I told them I was an American. Many insisted on
having their picture taken, like these two gents on the corniche.
Above center: My favorite
drink -- and it's in Arabic.
The highlight of my stay in Abu Dhabi was on the weekend.
I walked 15 miles around the city on Friday and another 16 miles on Saturday,
yet didn't really see the city -- it's that big. This is on Friday evening
after walking all day and taking pictures.
A Turkish chef saw me taking pictures and eagerly spoke to
me in broken English. As I walked away, he gestured to me, then handed me
some fried lamb dumplings. What a generous offering. But that's the
way people are here.
Above center: After walking
for 10 miles, I was pretty beat, so I found a hole-in-the-wall Indian restaurant
where I had chicken marsala. It was incredibly spicy but delicious, and
one of the best meals I've had in a long time.
Meandering back to the hotel late at night with my camera,
I encountered these friendly guys unloading rugs. Everyone smile!
On To Oman
The next day,
Sunday, I checked out of my hotel and left for a three day, 1,000-mile road trip
around the neighboring country of Oman. I rented what was probably the
smallest car in Abu Dhabi, a three-cylinder Toyota Yaris, with a tiny back seat
and a super-tiny trunk (or "boot" as they call it in the U.A.E., a British term), but that was fine because I didn't need much
room. And I think it had an extra rubber band to wind up in case the
engine quit. Before heading out, I stopped at a Wal-Mart equivalent called
Carrefour's, a large store under the Marina Mall where they seemingly sold
everything, including lots of camping gear, which I stocked up on.
I left Abu
Dhabi around noon and took the modern freeway across endless deserts and
sand-filled landscapes for several hours east to the city of
Al Ain on the Omani border, reaching the border late in the day. I
figured the crossing would be simple like it is in the U.S. when going into
Canada, but I was wrong because I waited in line for a half-hour to get something
approved, then I waited in another line for a half-hour, and then another. The customs agents spoke little
English and I spoke little Arabic, which complicated matters, since they
couldn't figure out why a lone American driving a rental car would want to visit Oman,
but finally after about an hour and a half, I was waved through.
The sun was
starting to set and I had no idea where to spend the night, but I finally found
a dirt road leading off the highway, which I followed for a couple miles until I
discovered a flat area where I could set up my tent. I've camped in the
American deserts numerous times and don't think twice about it, so I didn't
think twice about camping in the Oman desert either, though maybe in
retrospect I should've. But no one bothered me even though a few cars drove by
on the dirt road that night, but they didn't stop to check out who was camping. If
they had, they probably would've been surprised to discover it was an American. In fact, during the three days I was in Oman, I didn't
see one other
It was pretty
chilly that night and I didn't sleep much since I'd bought a thin
sleeping bag, so I got up before sunrise, had a quick breakfast, packed up and
hit the road. I drove all day through Oman which, as I discovered, is much more
mountainous than the flat and sandy U.A.E. The mountains were mostly barren but
were expansive, some over 10,000 feet high. I also discovered that the drivers in
Oman are borderline crazy and I felt like I was the only person in the country
driving less than 100 miles per hour as I tooled along at 60, but I made it to the historic coastal city
of Sur that afternoon, where I checked into a modest hotel on the beach. The
desk clerk was in a good mood because, as he cheerfully told me after seeing my
American passport, "This is inauguration day for Obama!"
It struck me how much people in the Middle East,
and also in Belize, know about
America. In fact, many folks in the Middle East (and Australia, and New
Zealand...) know more about what's
happening in America than many Americans do. The election of President Obama
was no different and it was celebrated by many of the folks I met in the Middle
East, as they hoped for improved relations with the United States and not eight
more years of belligerence. I hoped for that, too.
On Sunday, I rented the smallest car in Abu Dhabi and
headed to the neighboring country of Oman. Gasoline in the U.A.E. was about $1.50 U.S. per gallon
and in Oman, it was about half that.
Above center: I got to
Oman at sunset, then pulled off the highway and camped in the desert. That's my $5 sleeping bag,
which I bought in Abu Dhabi. It was pretty chilly that night and I wished I'd
sprung for the $10 bag.
The next afternoon, I reached Sur on the coast.
Omanis are crazy about soccer and they'll play it
anywhere at any time. Those ancient watchtowers are ubiquitous throughout the
country. You see them everywhere.
Above center: A Sur
sunset. And if you look closely, you can see another watchtower on the far
My little Toyota Yaris got 45 MPG, so my total gas bill for my
1,000-mile drive was about... oh, six dollars.
An Amazing Race Around Oman
I visited Sur that
evening, walking through the back streets and then at dusk hiked up to a magnificent
watchtower overlooking the harbor, from which I saw
some of the dhows (sailing boats) that were built here, which is what Sur is
historically known for. The next morning, I left Sur for what I knew would be a
long drive. I had to be at the Abu Dhabi airport, about 400 miles
away, that evening for my midnight flight back to the U.S. but before that, I wanted to visit
Muscat, the beautiful capital of Oman. If you're going to visit only one place in
Oman, friends had told me, make sure it's Muscat. I drove all morning through the
desert mountains, and by early afternoon I reached the coast at Mutrah, a city on
the waterfront a few miles from Muscat. Mutrah was absolutely stunning, so
I parked the Yaris and spent a couple hours exploring the town, including the
very impressive Mutrah souq (pronounced "sewk," an open-air market).
through the scores of market stalls at the souq, I spotted a one kilogram bag of
frankincense, which I'd learned about on the PBS television series,
"Globe Trekker," one of my favorite shows. Megan McCormick, the main host
of Globe Trekker and a woman I would love to meet someday (o.k., I admit she's
my dream travel companion, but it probably won't ever happen), once explained that frankincense is resin from a certain
tree that grows only in Oman and people burn it as incense or chew it like gum.
In fact, Megan's show on Oman is what prompted my visit to this country, not just to see
the sights but also to buy frankincense, and I was determined to buy that kilo
bag. First, though, and in the Omani way, I haggled with the merchant for
several minutes. Never buy anything in an Oman market at face value, and instead, cut the marked price
by two-thirds and bargain up from there. We went
back and forth for a while and I finally walked away with the bag of
frankincense for about 10 dollars -- mission accomplished! I hope Megan's
proud of me.
I nervously glanced
at my watch and thought about my midnight flight, but I drove on to Muscat for a quick visit. It's a beautiful
coastal city that I'd first seen on the CBS television series, "The Amazing
Race," another show about travel with this one about contestants who race around
the world. If you've been reading my website, you know that "The Amazing
Race" was the inspiration last year for my visit to Kuala Lumpur, the capital of
Malaysia, just as "Globe Trekker" was the inspiration for my visit to Oman.
Muscat is at the end of a coastal road and is beautiful but, being the capital
of Oman, large sections of the city are closed to the public so you can't really
see much of it. After taking some pictures, I hopped back in the Yaris and
hit the road, and after a couple hours and what seemed like a thousand roundabouts, I turned
left and took the highway up into the mountains where I crossed the
U.A.E. border at sunset. A few hours later I skirted Dubai and could see
lights in the distance, then I made it to the Abu Dhabi airport by 10 p.m., a
full two hours before my flight. I was determined not to make the same
mistake I'd made last summer when I had to run through the airport and
almost missed my flight, so I checked in early and had
plenty of time in the terminal before boarding.
The flight back to
the U.S. was pretty uneventful because, by now, I was getting used to long
flights -- or I should say my backside was, and that's probably not a good thing. The plane landed at Amsterdam
around 5 a.m. and my flight for Seattle was leaving in five hours, so I thought
about going into Amsterdam for a few hours to see it. But it was cold and rainy so I
didn't go, and instead I settled for two huge slices of pepperoni pizza and a
Pepsi at the airport food court -- and for breakfast, no less! After another 10-hour flight, I reached Seattle and
after a short
flight, I returned home to Portland. It was a good trip and I'm glad I got my
work done, but the best part, by far, was my 31-mile hike around Abu Dhabi
and the 1,000-mile road trip around the spectacular country of Oman, albeit
without Megan McCormick.
And regarding that bag of frankincense? It made it through
U.S. Customs without
being confiscated (it is plant material after all, so I was a little worried).
So as with all my house guests, if you ever visit me in Portland, you'll leave
my house with a small bag of frankincense. And in that way, you can bring a
little bit of the wonderful country of Oman into your own home.
A roadside camel. I had to be at the airport in Abu
Dhabi that night and still had 400 miles to go.
Above center: This is
Mutrah, near the Omani capital of Muscat and probably the most beautiful city in Oman.
Those are dhows in the foreground.
A watchtower on the hill overlooking Mutrah. See, I
told you that watchtowers were everywhere.
I spent a couple hours in the eclectic and lively Mutrah souq. This place is huge and there's
seemingly no end to it.
Above center: I haggled
with this fellow over that bag of frankincense (front row,
right). Frankincense is resin from a certain tree that grows only in Oman,
and you can either burn it or chew it like gum.
My reflection in Muscat, the capital of Oman.
Heading back to the U.A.E. that evening. I had only four hours to
catch my flight, so I hustled.
Above center: But I got
to the airport with time to spare. Get ready for a very long flight.
And back in Portland. From the time I'd waken
up in Sur to the time I went to bed in Portland, I'd been awake for 52 straight
hours. I really wish I could sleep on planes! But it was a great
April 18, 2009:
Belize Trip #3 (Building a School with NYU)
January 5, 2009:
Belize Trip #2 (Two Schools and an Orphanage)
6, 2008: Around the World in Eight Days (Part 2: Abu
Dhabi to Portland)
6, 2008: Around the World in Eight Days (Part 1:
Portland to Abu Dhabi)
February 20, 2008:
The San Antonio School (San Ignacio, Belize)
February 17, 2008:
The Succotz Library (San Ignacio, Belize)
February 16, 2008: Old Friends / Belize it or Not (San Ignacio, Belize)
May 28, 2007: Oregon
Bound (Portland, Oregon)
August 7, 2005: Back To
Work (Redmond, Washington)
June 25, 2004: Life
in Bellingham (Bellingham, Washington)
December 7, 2003: The Greatest Generation (Bellingham, Washington)
March 28, 2003: My Father (Bellingham, Washington)
October 30, 2002 (Bellingham, Washington)
July 24, 2002 (Princess Louisa Inlet, British Columbia)
July 12, 2002 (Lake City, Colorado)
July 4, 2002: Life as a Ranger, Part 2 (Lake City, Colorado)
July 4, 2002: Life as a Ranger, Part 1 (Lake City, Colorado)
July 1, 2002 (Looking Glass Rock, Utah)
June 25, 2002
(Lassen Volcanic National Park, California)
June 18, 2002: Part 2 (Port Orford, Oregon)
June 18, 2002: Part 1 (Port Orford, Oregon)
May 22, 2002 (Bellingham, Washington)
April 7, 2002 (Sydney, Australia)
April 4, 2002 (Coffs Harbour, Australia)
April 1, 2002 (Hervey Bay, Australia)
March 28, 2002 (Airlie Beach, Australia)
March 25, 2002 (Port Douglas, Australia)
March 16, 2002 (Winton, Australia)
March 13, 2002 (Alice Springs, Australia)
March 11, 2002 (Ayers Rock, Australia)
March 8, 2002 (Coober Pedy, Australia)
March 5, 2002 (Port Augusta, Australia)
March 1, 2002: Part 2 (Robe, Australia)
March 1, 2002: Part 1 (Robe, Australia)
February 18, 2002 (Bega, Australia)
February 7, 2002 (Auckland, New Zealand)
February 2, 2002: Part 2 (Taupo, New Zealand)
February 2, 2002: Part 1 (Taupo, New Zealand)
January 25, 2002 (Hokitika, New Zealand)
January 20, 2002 (Geraldine, New Zealand)
January 16, 2002 (Te Anau, New Zealand)
January 12, 2002: Part 2 (Dunedin, New Zealand)
January 12, 2002: Part 1 (Dunedin, New Zealand)
January 1, 2002: Part 2 (Christchurch, New Zealand)
January 1, 2002: Part 1 (Christchurch, New Zealand)
December 24, 2001 (Wellington, New Zealand)
December 20, 2001 (Auckland, New Zealand)
December 16, 2001 (Auckland, New Zealand)
December 14, 2001 (Aitutaki, Cook Islands)
December 10, 2001 (Rarotonga, Cook Islands)
December 3, 2001: Part 2 (Bellingham, Washington)
December 3, 2001: Part 1 (Bellingham, Washington)
October 18, 2001: Part 3 (Bismarck, North Dakota)
October 18, 2001: Part 2 (Bismarck, North Dakota)
October 18, 2001: Part 1 (Bismarck, North Dakota)
October 6, 2001 (Fort Lincoln State Park, North Dakota)
September 30, 2001: Part 2 (Bismarck, North Dakota)
September 30, 2001: Part 1 (Bismarck, North Dakota)
September 15, 2001 (Bismarck, North Dakota)
August 30, 2001 (Webster, South Dakota)
August 18, 2001 (Watertown, South Dakota)
August 17, 2001 (Walnut Grove, Minnesota)
August 14, 2001 (Minneapolis, Minnesota)
August 10, 2001 (Battle Creek, Michigan)
August 8, 2001 (12 Days in Syracuse: Part 2)
August 8, 2001 (12 Days in Syracuse: Part 1)
August 6, 2001 (Manlius, New York)
July 23, 2001 (Middleton, Massachusetts)
July 22, 2001 (Boston, Massachusetts)
July 20, 2001 (Pomfret, Connecticut)
July 18, 2001 (Denton, Maryland)
July 16, 2001 (Cumberland, Virginia)
July 14, 2001 (Roanoke, Virginia)
July 9, 2001 (Sevierville, Tennessee)
July 8, 2001 (Fontana Lake, North Carolina)
July 5, 2001 (Manchester, Tennessee)
June 30, 2001 (Hohenwald, Tennessee)
June 29, 2001 (Corinth, Mississippi)
June 27, 2001 (Natchez, Mississippi)
June 24, 2001 (Austin, Texas)
June 20, 2001 (Canyon de Chelly, Arizona)
June 18, 2001 (Clay Canyon, Utah)
June 15, 2001: Part 2 (Zion Nat'l Park, Utah)
June 15, 2001: Part 1 (Zion Nat'l Park, Utah)
June 14, 2001 (San Diego, California)
June 11, 2001 (San Jose, California)
June 2, 2001 (Bellingham, Washington)
May 19, 2001 (Hillsboro, Oregon)
April 30, 2001 (Hillsboro, Oregon)
April 19, 2001 (Bellingham,
April 5, 2001 (Bellingham, Washington)