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Around the World in Eight(y) Days 

(Part 1:  Portland to Abu Dhabi)

 

The Journey Begins

For as long as I can remember I've loved to travel.  That's probably because when I was young, my father would pile my whole family -- my mom, four siblings and myself -- into our Dodge station wagon each summer and we'd go traveling for several weeks, if not months, across America.  My love of traveling, and a related and logical love of maps, are the main reasons that I decided to study geography in college and why I now do GIS (i.e., computer mapping) for a living. 

 

Above:  Here's the book that inspired my trip.  I read this when I was 10 years old and forever after wanted to fly around the world.

And as a traveler, geographer and self-admitted map-lover, one of my lifelong goals has been to travel completely around the world someday.  That fascination began when I was 10 years old and read Jules Verne's 1872 novel, "Around the World in Eighty Days," a book that's still one of my favorites with its wondrous and inspiring tales of exotic and distant places. 

 

The only person I've ever personally known who has traveled  around the world was my dad, who was an educational planner and, during his work in the 1960s, circumnavigated the world twice (via Pan Am both times).  For many years I've told myself  that someday I was also going to travel around the world -- if nothing else than to prove that it's really round.  And this year it finally happened.

 

I've been doing computer mapping work in Portland, Oregon during the last few years for a mid-sized engineering consulting firm called Otak.  A few months ago, Otak won a large mapping contract for the government of Abu Dhabi, the capital city of the United Arab Emirates, to create the framework land-use plan for the entire emirate of Abu Dhabi.  The U.A.E. is a small, bustling oil-rich country in the Middle East, probably best known for being the home of Dubai, a coastal city with a population of about two million.  Abu Dhabi, with about a million people, is Dubai's smaller and quieter sister-city two hours south, and is something like a Portland to its larger and more cosmopolitan sister-city, Seattle.

 

As the lead computer mapper with Otak, my first task on this project was to visit Abu Dhabi, meet with the client and start collecting data.  Otak had booked my travel arrangements for me, a round-trip plane ticket from Portland to Abu Dhabi via Europe, and then returning across Europe and back to Portland a week later.  But my jaw dropped when I saw my ticket:  my round-trip flight cost over $10,000.  I've always traveled frugally and felt that any round trip plane ticket costing more than about $500 was expensive, so spending $10,000 for a plane ticket -- any plane ticket -- was just plain ridiculous and a waste of money.  Heck, I wasn't worth that much and neither was anyone else. 

 

 

 

Then I realized why my ticket was so expensive:  they had booked me in Business Class, which apparently was the norm for such travel, since our client wanted to ensure that we traveled comfortably.  That was a nice gesture for an 18-hour flight to Abu Dhabi (and 18 hours back to Portland) but I still thought it was a waste of money.  What my company would be spending for my round-trip flight would be more than what most people in the world earn in an entire year, and to me that was ridiculous. 

 

You might understand my minimalist mindset better if you knew that every day at work for the past five years, while my colleagues went out at lunch to eat at fancy restaurants, I brown-bagged it and ate at my desk.  My lunch for the past five years has consisted of an apple and a bagel with a can of diet Pepsi.  Well O.K., I confess that I started splurging a few years ago by adding a small dab of peanut butter to my bagel.  As the joke goes, I'm not cheap, just thrifty.  Well actually, I'm cheap, too.

 

But getting back to my story:  I talked to my manager about the $10,000 plane ticket and asked him if, instead of flying in Business Class over and back via Europe, I could fly in Coach and fly around the world and stop overnight at any place I wanted.  After explaining to him that it would cost less than $3,000 to do that instead of the $10,000 they were prepared to spend, my manager agreed.  So that afternoon I pored over the Travelocity website, deciding where in the world I wanted to stop over for a night after working in Abu Dhabi, on my way back to Portland.  Like I say, I'm a frugal traveler so looking at a map of the world and knowing that I could go anywhere was a very strange (yet pleasurable) feeling, and probably the only time in my life that I'll be able to "pick a destination, any destination." 

 

Above:  Looking for my flight at the Portland airport.

I spent a couple hours doing research and thinking about where in the world I wanted to stop on my flight from Abu Dhabi around the other side of the world.  I finally decided on -- drum roll, please -- Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.  I'm not sure why I picked Kuala Lumpur, but its funny-sounding name that reminded me of a lumpy Koala bear probably had something to do with it.  Also, I'd seen it featured on the CBS television show, "The Amazing Race" a few years earlier and remembered a place there where the contestants had raced, called the Batu Caves. 

 

I looked at the price of my flight on Travelocity and realized that, even with an around-the-world ticket and an overnight stop in Malaysia, I'd still be saving my company over $7,000 compared to the original price of my ticket.  The ever-thrifty Del strikes again!

 

A few weeks later I packed my bags and drove to the Portland airport.  I had only eight days, not eighty, to circle the globe, but I was determined to make the most of it.  My plane left Portland late on a Thursday afternoon and by 10 p.m. I was flying over eastern Canada. 

 

Above:  Leaving Portland on Thursday afternoon.  Only 10 more hours until Amsterdam, and then an eight-hour flight to Abu Dhabi.

By looking outside you couldn't tell that it was late at night, because this was June and the sun was still shining brightly at these high latitudes.  Most of the other passengers were either dozing or watching movies, but like the true geographer that I am, I stared intently at the landscapes below and at one point could just make out the coast of Hudson Bay.  A few hours later, at around midnight, I saw the ice-bound and craggy coast of Greenland, which was the highlight of my flight.

 

A few hours later we landed at Amsterdam's Schipol Airport, in mid-morning local time.  I had a three hour layover so I stocked up on Dutch chocolates and souvenirs in the airport gift shops.  A few hours later -- I think it was about noon but my internal clock was totally messed up by then -- I boarded a plane for my eight-hour flight to the U.A.E.  After a brief stop in neighboring Qatar, we landed in Abu Dhabi late at night.  I had spent two full nights flying since leaving Portland and by now my head was both groggy and spinning.

 

I gathered my luggage, went through customs, walked outside the air-conditioned Abu Dhabi airport and instantly hit a brick wall.  Even though it was late at night, it was 95 degrees outside and very humid.  I gasped and then gasped again.  Then I found a taxi, made my way into town, and settled in at the Otak apartment around 11 p.m.  This was going to be an interesting trip.  It already was.

 

   

Above left:  Flying over Greenland with the moon in the distance and the wingtip illuminated by the midnight sun.

Above right:  This is the east coast of Greenland at midnight.  Finally seeing Greenland -- even at midnight -- was one of the highlights of my around-the-world flight.

 

       

Above left:  I spent four hours in Amsterdam, just enough time to load up on Dutch chocolate and souvenirs.

Above center:  And here's the next morning in Abu Dhabi.  This is the "corniche," or waterfront.

Above right:  Abu Dhabi is a bustling city and the pace of growth is frenetic.  It's like the Las Vegas Strip, but times 10.

 

   

Above left:  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 on the coast.

Above right:  Here are some historic photos of Abu Dhabi so you can see how much it's grown.  This is Abu Dhabi in 1958, the year that oil was discovered here.  Population then:  about 5,000.  Population now:  over one million.

 

   

Above left:  This is the Al Hosn Fort, the only historic building in Abu Dhabi that's been preserved.  I believe this was taken in the 1950s.

Above right:  Here's the Al Hosn Fort today, totally surrounded by skyscrapers and developments.  How oil changes everything.

 

   

Above left:  The fort and "downtown" Abu Dhabi in the early 1960s.

Above right:  This is an undated photo of the Zayed Bridge, linking Abu Dhabi Island (left) with the mainland.  Almost everything you see is now developed with resorts and high-rise buildings.  The village of Abu Dhabi is on the far horizon at the end of the island.  Today over a million people live on the island.

Life in the U.A.E.

I spent about a week in Abu Dhabi and the first thing that struck me was how enormous and modern this city was.  Glistening skyscrapers line the avenues, each competing for attention with the others with unusual, unique and sometimes even bizarre designs.  And even in the midst of the furnace-like summer heat, the city was buzzing with life.  That's all because of oil, of course. 

 

Above:  Mr. Shams gave me a great tour of Abu Dhabi.  He stopped and showed me the Marina Mall, one of the most popular sites in Abu Dhabi.

The United Arab Emirates is only about the size of the state of Indiana but has the sixth largest reserves of oil in the world.  The U.A.E. consists of seven emirates, which are something like states in the U.S., though the confederation is much looser here.  The most famous -- some would say egregious -- city in the U.A.E. is Dubai, which is about 100 miles north of Abu Dhabi and has grown tremendously in the last decade, due mostly to finance and trade, not oil, since the Dubai emirate has virtually no oil.  Almost all of the oil in the U.A.E. is located in the Abu Dhabi emirate, making it the wealthiest of the seven emirates, by far.

 

Winters in the U.A.E., from what my colleagues here told me, were pleasant with high temperatures in the 70's.  But summers, as I discovered first-hand, were blistering hot, with daytime highs often exceeding 100 or even 110 degrees Fahrenheit. 

 

And even though Abu Dhabi is in the desert, the humidity is extremely high -- like Miami on steroids -- because the city is located right on the Arabian Gulf.  By the way, this body of water is what Americans call the "Persian Gulf," but if you're in the U.A.E., you call it the "Arabian Gulf."  Persians live in Iran while Arabs live in the U.A.E., so Emiratis insist on calling it the Arabian Gulf.  I had learned this lesson a few months earlier after I made my first map for this project and ignorantly labeled it the "Persian Gulf."  The client politely but firmly corrected my mistake.  They were Arabs, not Persians.  But whatever you call it, the humidity in the summer months from the nearby gulf is absolutely stifling.

 

Above:  My computer mapping buddy, Mohammed.

Culturally, the U.A.E. is unlike any place I've ever been.  It's a Muslim country, of course, and over the next week I got a crash course in the the Muslim culture -- while committing probably dozens of inadvertent faux pas.  One of the first things I learned is that a man should never get on an elevator that's occupied by a woman or women.  That's a big no-no in this gender-segregated culture, but I learned as I went and everything worked out fine during the next several days.  There's a lot of fear-mongering in the U.S. about Muslims, almost all of which was totally dispelled for me during the week that I was in Abu Dhabi. 

 

The religion of Islam is totally ingrained in every aspect of society here and is constantly evident, unlike religion in the U.S., which is often practiced only on Sunday (if then).  For example, Muslims pray at least five times every day and the "call to prayer" -- a Muslim cleric singing in Arabic while reminding people that it was time to pray -- is broadcast over loudspeakers throughout the city, starting at sunrise.  The fifth and final call occurs well past sunset.  You can clearly hear the call to prayer inside your hotel room, and there are small, directional arrows on the furniture inside the rooms pointing to Mecca, in case you're not sure which direction to pray.  One afternoon I was working with my new friend, Mohammed, who does computer mapping work for the client agency and he interrupted me.  "Excuse me, Del, it's 4 p.m. so would you mind if I go pray?"  "Oh, of course not, Mohammed.  Please go ahead."  He left the office and came back 15 minutes later, then we resumed our work.

 

It took me a while to adjust to being in a Muslim country.  And while there's only so much a foreigner can learn or absorb in a week, I think I did pretty well and assimilated fairly easily.  Like every place in the world, if you show respect to the local culture and customs -- whether you're in Dallas, Denmark or Dubai -- you'll be fine.

 

       

Above left:  The inside of the Marina Mall, my favorite hangout in Abu Dhabi.  Uh... just kidding.  But seriously, because of the summer heat, the air-conditioned mall is one of the most popular places in the city.

Above center:  Starbucks is based in Seattle so I felt right at home.  Yes, there really are Starbucks everywhere.

Above right:  Walking along the "corniche" (or waterfront) after work.  By now it had cooled down to 105 degrees (seriously) with very high humidity.  Can you say "steam bath"?

 

   

Above left:  The Grand Mosque.  Emiratis wanted to build the largest mosque in the world -- like so much of everything else in the U.A.E. -- but the clerics in Mecca frowned on that idea.  So instead they built the second-largest.

Above right:  An Indian market on the street.  Because the U.A.E. is such a wealthy country, there are many more foreigners than nationals here, and many of them are from India and Pakistan.

 

       

Above left:  Sunset on the corniche.

Above center:  For some strange reason, the name "Butt Sweet House" makes me not want to eat here.  Talk about lost in translation.

Above right:  I walked around for four hours one night and didn't see one other Caucasian.

 

       

Above left:  My cab drivers didn't speak much English but were very friendly and curious.

Above center:  Hamdan Street is the heart of Abu Dhabi.  There are white taxis everywhere, including four in this photo.

Above right:  In the U.S., they play baseball in the streets, but here in the U.A.E., the Indians and Pakistanis play cricket in the parking lots.

 

   

Above left:  Michelle, an Otak colleague from Portland who moved to Abu Dhabi last year and is now my client.  She's holding a Portland magnet that I had sent her for her birthday.

Above right:  A bustling street in downtown Abu Dhabi.  This city is a real melting pot and there are people here from almost every part of the globe, all attracted by one thing:  oil money.

Things are Different Here

The demographic situation in the U.A.E. is fascinating.  The country has a total population of about eight million people, roughly the same as in Virginia or Washington state.  But the native Emirati population is very small, far less than a million.  Therefore the government imports large numbers of foreigners, mostly single men from Asian countries, to do much of the work here.  About 90% of the population are foreigners and they do most of the menial labor, such as construction and service work.  Due to the large number of imported workers, men in the U.A.E. outnumber women by more than 2 to 1, the largest gender disparity of any country in the world. 

 

 

Here's one of my favorite singers, Loreena McKennitt, singing Caravanserai, a mystical song about camel caravans crossing the desert.  The lyrics and video are here

   

As I learned, there's a distinct stratification (or "pecking order") here, with Emiratis at the top of the pile.  They're followed by Caucasians, many of whom are consultants or contractors from Europe, and mostly from England.  There's a much stronger British influence here than American influence, as I learned, and largely due to the country's colonial history.  Westerners are followed by Indians (from India, not Native Americans), who often have technical knowledge, and then Pakistanis and then Nepalese and so on down the line.  I've never liked class boundaries, so this very obvious stratification made me uncomfortable and I never got used to it.

 

The class system was apparent both on the streets and in the office.  A few times during the week, I saw a senior engineer at Otak, a British Caucasian, publicly berate a co-worker who was younger and from India, something that would never happen in the U.S.  One morning, I met with my client, an Arab woman dressed in a long, black robe, in a large and well-appointed conference room, when a young fellow wearing a white shirt entered the room.  I stood up, introduced myself to him and extended my hand -- then I realized that he was a servant offering me refreshments.  I sat down sheepishly, but being an American, I'm not used to being served by anyone except waiters in restaurants.  Offices in the U.S. don't have servants, which apparently is a holdover from the British colonial era.

 

Above:  The friendly folks in Otak's office in Abu Dhabi.

I was often treated with deference and respect simply because I was white, something I never got used to during the week I spent in Abu Dhabi.  But on the other hand, my American egalitarian attitude also ingratiated me with the foreigners, most of whom weren't used to being treated as equals.  As I approached the entrance to an office building one morning, I noticed how foreigners walking behind me rushed forwards to open the door for me -- but instead I opened the door for them.  They looked at me quizzically and then smiled with appreciation, apparently not used to having a Caucasian open doors for them or treat them with respect. 

 

Each night after work I walked alone around Abu Dhabi in the steamy heat with my camera amidst the throngs of Indians, Iraqis, Afghanis, Palestinians, and Filipinos.  Many of them looked at me with curiosity and shyness, apparently not used to seeing a Caucasian alone on the street at night taking pictures.  When, in broken English, they asked me what I did for a living, I first said, "Planner."  But they didn't understand so, since I'd been taking pictures with my camera draped over my neck, I simply said, "Journalist" and they smiled and gave me a thumbs up.

 

Above:  Having dinner on Friday at the Al Raha Resort.  I have no idea why I'm holding a pineapple.

The U.A.E. is a rich country and there's definitely a sense of snootiness and arrogance among some of the Emiratis I dealt with, given their extravagant oil wealth and the associated perks (for Emiratis, at least), which include guaranteed jobs, free education, free housing, and no taxes.  Because of that, I felt much more comfortable among the working class foreigners than among the elite Emiratis. 

 

Abu Dhabi is an extremely safe city.  I meandered each night through the streets and back alleys with my camera while taking pictures, but I never once felt unsafe, because personal crime in the U.A.E. is virtually non-existent.  That's partly because it's part of the Muslim culture but also because foreigners know that if they commit a crime, they'll be expelled from the country.  Many of them work in the U.A.E. to support their families back home in India, Nepal or the Philippines, so being expelled would be a catastrophe.

 

There's a common myth that everyone in the U.A.E., or any other Gulf country, makes a lot of money.  Let me correct that misconception by saying that most people here make more than they could in their home country, whether that be Nepal, Pakistan or the U.S.  That's why they decided to come here.  But the salaries in the Gulf countries (U.A.E., Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman, Bahrain) run a huge gamut and more than perhaps anywhere else in the world.  On the low end, construction workers and taxi drivers here make only a few hundred dollars a month.  That doesn't sound like much to an American but it's a lot more than they could probably make back in their homeland.  Likewise, salaries for Westerners are typically 30 to 60 percent higher than they would make in their home countries.  And when you add in the tax-free status of salaries here, that difference can be significant. 

 

But an American with few skills can't just fly to the Middle East and start earning lots of money.  First of all, you have to be invited (or "sponsored") by a company here that hires you and brings you over.  You can't just show up at the airport and expect to find a job.  Secondly, if you don't have the particular skills that are needed, the company will likely hire someone from India or Pakistan instead of bringing over an American, because workers from those countries are probably much cheaper.  Why hire a maid or nanny or clerical person from the U.S., who would charge a few thousand dollars a month, when they can hire someone from Iraq who charges only a few hundred? 

 

Above:  The pace of development in Abu Dhabi is frenetic.  They tear down one building just to build another.

Another interesting thing about this country is the political framework.  In the U.A.E. and in many Arab countries, political power is based on family relationships or someone's heritage or tribe, not a political party.  The leader of the U.A.E. is Sheikh Khalifa (pronounced "Shake Ha-LEEF-a)" and his likeness is seen everywhere.  It's a largely benevolent leadership relative to other countries in the Middle East, and most locals I talked to thought favorably of the sheikh. 

 

But what the sheikh wants, the sheikh gets.  My friend, Michelle, who was formerly a colleague of mine at Otak in Portland but who now lives and works in Abu Dhabi, told me a story that made me laugh.  The sheikh's limousine, with him inside, pulled into a petrol (gas) station one day and waited to fuel up.  The sheikh asked, "Why are we waiting?" and the driver told him that several cars were ahead of them, also waiting for petrol.  So the sheikh said, "Well then, let's build more petrol stations."  So that's what they did -- they started building more petrol stations.  You don't want to make the sheikh wait.

 

As you can probably guess, there aren't a lot of environmental regulations in the U.A.E. to limit development, like there are in the U.S.  If someone here wants to build something (like more gas stations) and they have political power, they just build it. 

 

But that being said, the government of Abu Dhabi is also striving to become a world-class city and a role model for the rest of the world, especially the Arab world.  They're well-aware that the country's oil reserves will dry up someday, so they're diversifying their economy, away from oil, in anticipation of that day.  They're also taking steps, like developing mass transit, creating sustainable systems and developing a detailed comprehensive land-use plan, to create for themselves a city unlike any other in the world, and they apparently have the will to make it happen.  And that's exactly why I was here.

 

   

Above left:  My Turkish buddy, Bee, in the Otak office.

Above right:  The "Happy Chicken" restaurant in Abu Dhabi -- though I'm guessing that after he was sliced up and fried in oil, he wasn't quite so happy.

 

   

Above left:  This park along the waterfront is one of the few places in Abu Dhabi where I saw actual grass. 

Above right:  Relax, everything will come out fine.

An Amazing Week in the Desert

I spent a week in Abu Dhabi and was mesmerized by everything I saw and experienced:  the frenetic growth, the oppressive heat, the kindness of the locals.  Being in a Muslim and multi-ethic country was a fascinating experience and I soaked it in.  The people I worked with were incredibly kind, which wasn't surprising because Emiratis, and Arabs in general, consider guests with high esteem and treat visitors with a great deal of honor and respect.

 

Above:  The U.A.E. government heavily censors the Internet.  This is what happened when I tried to read a forum on Nikon cameras.

At the end of the week, Colin, a British colleague in Otak's Abu Dhabi office, was kind enough to drive us around for several hours so we could get a better feel for the area.  The city of Abu Dhabi sits at the end of a flat, sandy island many miles long, but Colin drove us over to the mainland, with its large expanses of sand and desert, dotted with settlements and occasional resorts.  This remote area was a world away from the high-rises and fast paced lifestyle of Abu Dhabi.  Many of the sweeping expanses of empty desert here, though, would soon be developed, as well.

 

Gazing at the endless miles of sand on the mainland, it was hard for me to imagine that much of it would soon be filled with communities, golf courses, and swimming pools.  But I suppose they said the same thing about Abu Dhabi 50 years ago and look what happened there.

 

It was a fascinating visit and Abu Dhabi was unlike any place I've ever been.  I wouldn't want to live in Abu Dhabi because it's just too different, but I was grateful for the time I had here.  It had been an incredible week.  But now it was time to head back to Portland.

 

 

For the conclusion of this story (and to see if the world really IS round), please see my next entry:

July 6, 2008:  Around the World in Eight Days  (Part 2:  Abu Dhabi to Portland)

 

 

       

Above left:  Easy riders during Colin's tour of Abu Dhabi.  That yellowish-brown haze, from sand storms, is both ubiquitous and constant.  It never goes away, and there are no clear days in the Middle East.

Above center:  The freeways in the U.A.E. are ultra-modern, even more impressive than in the U.S.

Above right:  Believe it or not, this endless expanse of desert is the future site of Khalifa City with a projected population of well over 100,000 residents.

 

   

Above left:  I took this shot while strolling along the Corniche on Friday afternoon and sweating like a pig in the 100-degree weather.  Weekends in the U.A.E. and in most of the Muslim world are on Friday and Saturday.  Sunday is the first day of work.

Above right:  I was the only Caucasian walking around and, with my SLR camera, I got lots of curious smiles.  This sedate fellow pulled at my shirt and insisted on having his picture taken with me.  I guess I'm a star, just like Paris Hilton -- but with a sweaty shirt and no Chihuahua.

 

       

Above left:  Most signs here are in both Arabic and English.  Unlike English, Arabic is read from right-to-left.  Therefore, this sign actually says, "Pots." 

Above center:  According to the Arabic caption, Clint Eastwood is saying, "Go ahead punk, make my day." 

Above right:  So long, Abu Dhabi.  I hope to see you again someday!

 


 

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