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A Week in Abu Dhabi 


Culture Shock:  From Belize to the U.A.E.

I flew from Belize back to Portland on a Wednesday night, worked in my office on Thursday, and on Friday I was on a 22-hour flight bound for Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.).  As I described in my entry from last July after my first trip to the Middle East, Abu Dhabi is the capital of the U.A.E., a small, oil-rich country in the Persian Gulf where Otak, my company, has been working on a large contract.




Our goal was to develop a land-use zoning framework plan for the city and emirate of Abu Dhabi – in other words, determine the best places to build schools, parks, housing, and commercial developments for this rapidly-growing city of a half-million people.  Abu Dhabi had no land-use or zoning plan and construction was occurring here haphazardly, without any thought to the future.  Otak's goal was to provide the city with a framework plan to give them some general guidance, and I was in charge of the mapping for this $6 million, three-year project called DMAP, short for Development Management Program.


I was looking forward to seeing Abu Dhabi again.  This time I was traveling with a large group of Otak folks who were going to attend a workshop there that week with the client.  Meanwhile I planned to spend most of the week working in Otak's office in Abu Dhabi.  While my colleagues flew up front in Business Class, I opted to fly in coach once again, a $2,000 ticket instead of the $10,000 ticket in Business Class, trying to save the company some money.  Like I've said before, I'm thrifty (but certainly not cheap).


Above:  Killing a few hours in Amsterdam's Schipol (pronounced "Skipol") Airport on my way to the U.A.E.

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 to England after spending winter break in America.  We talked for several hours, then around midnight we decided to watch a movie ("Vicky Cristina Barcelona") on the seatbacks together.  We started the movie at the 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 Amy's picture as we were walking through Schipol Airport in Amsterdam but she was too embarrassed about her "airplane hair," as she phrased it, so I can't show you what she looks like.  However, she's about 5'-8" with dark hair and green eyes, if that helps.  After wandering around the Amsterdam airport for a few hours, and buying some Dutch chocolates, I boarded another plane and arrived in Abu Dhabi around 10 p.m. and made it to my hotel. 


This was in the middle of winter, so it was pleasantly cool outside that evening, around 60 degrees.  The temperatures during the day that week would reach "only" about 75 degrees – compared to the 110 degrees (with high humidity) that I'd endured during my first visit here last summer.  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 balmy breezes.


Above:  Stopping over in Qatar.

After the 22-hour flight across countless time zones – how many sunsets had I seen from my airplane window? – my head was spinning.  I was also groggy because, not being able to sleep on planes, I hadn't gotten much if any sleep during the previous 36 hours.  I checked into my hotel room, my head hit the pillow and two minutes later I was fast asleep. 


The alarm clock buzzed much too early the next morning and, after a team breakfast in the hotel, we all headed off for our workshop.  The workshops that week were being held in the massive Emirates Palace Hotel, a few miles away and one of the most expensive hotels in the world, with some suites costing up to $10,000 a night.  But I left the group as soon as I could, after a few hours and without eating the fancy banquet lunch that was prepared for us, then took a taxi back to the Otak office where I enjoyed a simple sandwich.  The gaudy wealth and excess of the Emirates Palace, with its golden gilt hallways, was just too much for me.


I had spent the previous week doing volunteer work in the rural villages of Belize, where villagers appreciate every small token, so now suddenly being in Abu Dhabi with its egregious wealth that bordered on the ridiculous was a drastic culture shock.  I had come from one of the poorest countries in the world and was now, a few days later, in one of the richest.  The attitudes here in the U.A.E., especially among the Emirati elite, were totally different from what I'd experienced in Belize a week earlier, a difference that wasn't so much Arab vs. Latin American , but rather the universal difference between rich and poor.  Certainly, I was glad that I came over to Abu Dhabi but boy, I sure missed Belize.



Above left:  I slept very well after my 22-hour flight.

Above right:  This is one of our workshops at the Emirates Palace hotel.  Nice maps, huh?  They should give that guy a raise.



Left:  The front of the Emirates Palace hotel, where the Otak team worked all week. 

This is one of the most expensive hotels in the world with suites running up to $10,000 a night.  Sadly, that's more than the average family on our planet earns in an entire year.




Above left:  And here's more ridiculous – a restroom at the Emirates Palace Hotel.  I've heard that if you see anything in this hotel that looks like gold, it probably is.  I couldn't help but laugh at this ostentatious display of wealth.

Above right:  I escaped the gaudy Emirates Palace and took refuge back at the Otak office, where I had a nice chat with Liz, an Otak engineer from Arizona.  She was very proud of her utility plan for a new city nearby.  But she also shed a few tears while telling me how much she missed home.

Warning:  Belize Can Be Hazardous to Your Health

Along with making an emotional adjustment to the Middle East, given the drastic disparity in wealth compared to Central America, I was also still dealing with some physical effects from the 10 days I'd spent working in Belize.  My legs were still splotchy and itchy from the chigger bites I'd gotten in the villages, and my foot was still recovering from being run over by Jonny's SUV. 


Above:  Jonny's foot-stomping SUV in Belize.

I didn't describe that somewhat-humorous incident in my last entry, but Jonny, the director of ProBelize, had been having some problems with his car.  When he braked to a halt, his SUV's engine would shudder and sometimes stop running, then he had trouble re-starting it. 


On my last day with him and the ProBelize staff, on Friday, I was riding with them, sitting in the back seat while traveling through San Ignacio, and I wanted to get out of the car to run some errands.  Jonny was hesitant to stop, though, so instead he slowed down to about five miles an hour, I opened the back door, grabbed my daypack and hopped out.  Despite my best efforts to avoid it, the rear tire rolled over my foot, which hurt more than a bit.  My foot was healing now, though, so it wasn't a big deal.


I was more concerned about the puncture wound on my leg.  As I mentioned in my last update, I was hiking in a dark, Belize river cave with my three women friends on my last Saturday in Belize.  While taking a picture of the cave, I didn't see a submerged rock (of which there are many).  My shin smashed into the rock and I tumbled into the river with a resounding "splash."  I got a nice picture but my close encounter with the rock left a deep puncture wound that hadn't healed yet, and I'd been replacing the bandages, which I'd slathered with copious amounts of Neosporin, several times a day.  Finally one day in Abu Dhabi, I decided to have someone look at it, so I went to a hospital where an Arab 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. 


Above:  Moments after I shot this picture in the ATM Cave, I stumbled over a submerged rock and went "splash."  I gashed up my leg (but I got a nice shot).

I had also made the mistake in Belize of eating a slushy.  If you're not Belizean, you shouldn't drink the tap water there unless you want to get sick.  I'd carefully avoided drinking tap water during both of my service trips to Belize the previous year, insisting instead on drinking only from the ubiquitous five-gallon plastic jugs of purified water that you can buy in just about any grocery store in Belize.   But you shouldn't drink anything with ice in it, either, since most ice in Belize is made from tap water.  Doh – that hadn't occurred to me.  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 to ache a few days later and I was still having issues when I reached Abu Dhabi.  Jonny euphemistically called this sort of thing a "tummy tickle" and while it wasn't a big deal, it was a tad more than a "tickle."  Running low on Imodium, I walked into an empty pharmacy one evening in Abu Dhabi 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 and said, "No," then I saw the Imodium.  I still laugh about that.



Above left:  If you're an American, don't buy slushies in Belize like I did.

Above right:  In search of Imodium in Abu Dhabi a few days later.

Walking Around Abu Dhabi... for 31 Miles?

I worked late every night that week at Otak's office in Abu Dhabi, often until 10 p.m., then usually got dinner at a nearby Indian restaurant and went back to my hotel.  The work week in Muslim countries, by the way, 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 – separately, with men in one part of the mosque and women in the other – while Saturday is more for relaxation, sports, and family trips.  Then the work week begins again on Sunday morning.  That seems strange to Americans, working in the office on a Sunday, but you get used to it.


Above:  The posh Shangri-La resort, where our group ate a banquet dinner on Thursday night.

At the end of our work week, on Thursday evening, the Otak staff was treated to a luxurious banquet dinner 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 from Otak sat outside on the patio that evening, dressed up in our coats and ties, having dinner and enjoying a spectacular view of the lighted Grand Mosque with its massive white domes, on Abu Dhabi Island right across the waterway.  The fancy banquet dinner with the boisterous group was fine, but I much preferred the solo meal I had eaten in Caye Caulker less than a week earlier, a cheap (but delicious) lobster in a simple restaurant that overlooked the Caribbean.


Speaking of the mosque, 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 superlatives like "world's tallest," and "world's largest" are common phrases.  Like Texas, another place rich in oil, everything is bigger in Abu Dhabi.  But the religious leaders in Mecca, the center of Islam, objected and told them 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.  Like I say, everything is bigger here – and if it's not, they'll certainly try.


Above:  The Grand Mosque once tried to become the largest mosque in the world, but the folks in Mecca put a stop to it.  Instead it's now the second-largest.

The banquet dinner was nice, like I say, but the best part of my week in Abu Dhabi occurred on the weekend, when I finally got to see the city up close and personal.  Early on Friday morning, after the grand feast the previous night, I left my hotel room carrying my daypack, camera and GPS and walked around the city all day and well into the evening.  I covered 15 miles on foot while taking over 500 pictures, trying to comprehend this jaw-dropping, melting-pot city of superlatives.  I returned to my hotel room around 11 p.m. exhausted from my hike, but I got up early on Saturday morning and hiked another 16 miles around the city, going the other direction, while shooting 400 more pictures. 


Several things struck me during my long journey around the city that weekend.  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 is growing at a phenomenal rate.


Above:  The highlight of my week in Abu Dhabi was my long trek around the city that weekend.  I walked 15 miles on Friday and another 16 miles on Saturday, yet didn't really see Abu Dhabi – it's that big.

But more than the city's size, what really struck me was the friendliness of the locals – not the Emiratis, mind you, but rather the foreigners.  As I explained in my Around the World in Eight(y) Days update, where I described my first visit to Abu Dhabi last summer, 90% of the people in Abu Dhabi are foreigners imported from poorer countries to do mostly menial labor, while the native and mostly-affluent Emiratis enjoy perks like free education, free housing, a guaranteed job, and early retirement. 


Although foreign workers (who are mostly from India, Pakistan, the Philippines and other developing nations) here generally 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 jobs.  Still, this situation creates a social stratification that made me uncomfortable during my first visit to Abu Dhabi last summer and still does.  By the way, another result of this influx of foreigners, who are mostly male, is that Abu Dhabi has one of the most unbalanced gender compositions of any city in the world.  About 80% of the people in this vast city are male.


Here's a Middle Eastern-themed song from Loreena McKennitt called Kecharitomene.  I'd bought this album before coming to Abu Dhabi and listened to it often while in the Middle East


While I met several humble and gracious Emiratis during the week that I was in Abu Dhabi, I also encountered several arrogant 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 lower-income folks from the Middle East, India, and southeast Asia.  They weren't used to seeing a Westerner with a 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 scores of friendly and warm people during my 31-mile hike and, to a person, they were courteous to me, even after I told them I was from America.  I talked to one fellow who was about 30 years old and was working in a rug store.  He told me in broken English that he was from Iran and asked me, "Where are you from?"  I said "America."  He replied, "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 foreigners during my weekend hike around Abu Dhabi.  I loved it.



Above left:  Abu Dhabi is a bustling city of a half-million people.  It's similar to Dubai, its crazy sister city a couple hours to the north, but is a bit more restrained and low-key.  This is in the ritzier part of downtown.

Above right:  And this is in the poorer section.  Quite a difference, huh?  The difference in salary between high-income and low-income wage earners is greater in Abu Dhabi than perhaps anyplace in the world.



Above left:  Old and new high-rises in downtown.

Above center:  Sheikh Khalifa and his sons, the rulers of Abu Dhabi.  You see their images everywhere.

Above right:  A sea of shoes outside a mosque at prayer time.  Muslims pray five times a day and no shoes are allowed in the mosques.



Above left:  These friendly Indian painters motioned to me as I walked by, wanting to have their picture taken.  O.K. dudes, you're famous!

Above right:  Abu Dhabi is a real melting pot and, because of the oil money, attracts people from all around the world, especially southeast Asia and poorer countries in the Middle East.  There aren't too many Westerners, though.  In fact, these were some of the only Caucasians I saw during my 31-mile hike around the city.



Above left:  Al Hosn Fort, which dates back to 1761, is one of the only historic buildings left in Abu Dhabi.  Almost all the others have been torn down.

Above right:  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.



Left:  You take your life into your hands when you cross the streets in Abu Dhabi, especially at night.  Pedestrians definitely do NOT have the right-of-way here. 

The attitude seems to be that if you can't afford to buy a car and have to walk, you must not be very important.




Above left:  A Turkish chef saw me taking pictures and eagerly spoke to me in broken English.  As I walked away, he gestured to me, then he handed me some fried lamb dumplings.  What a generous gift. 

Above right:  After walking for 10 miles on Friday night, I was pretty beat, so I found a hole-in-the-wall Indian restaurant and ordered chicken tikka masala.  It was very spicy but delicious, and one of the best meals I've had in a long time.



Above left:  Apparently $3 t-shirts are as common in Abu Dhabi as they are in Key West.

Above center:  Another sea of shoes, this one in a shoe store.

Above left:  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 left:  Meandering back to the hotel late at night with my camera, I encountered these friendly guys unloading rugs.  Everyone smile!

Above right:  C'mon, smile Del.  I returned to my hotel around 11 p.m. and was pretty wiped out, not just from walking 16 miles but from my various Belize ailments.  But I had a great time seeing the city.



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