Monday, October 31, 2011

Getting Laid Back in Vientiane, Laos

I step onto an old, worn down, sad looking bus, its driver’s eyes glazed over, on autopilot, his only purpose in life seemingly to ferry passengers from the Thai side of the Mekong River over to the Laotian, a task he's performed dozens of times per day for at least a decade straight.
My phone rings, I stumble slightly under the weight of my gear as I try to answer. “Careful! Careful mister!” a thin, withered, elderly man cautions with fear in his eyes. I look down at the floor, my shoe hovering only inches away from a large plastic bag filled with water, two fish swimming inside.
“Sorry, sorry,” I smile reassuringly, letting the fisherman know I’m aware his day’s earnings are literally beneath my feet.

On the other side of the bridge lies the Laotian capital of Vientiane, too big to be a town, too small to be a city. I check into my guest house, simple but adequate and costing all of $25 a night, which, outside a major hotel chain, makes it the most expensive room in the entire country.
Meandering through the streets, I stop to chat with a few fellow backpackers, who I discover later I will run into repeatedly during my seventeen day trek through the country. There is only one real road heading to the North, everyone making the same two stops along the way.

The tourist area is small. I quickly find what I am looking for, Green Discovery Laos, an eco-adventure tour company, where I book a trek through the jungle and one of several national parks Laos has created, my eco-dollars one of the few barriers to the chainsaws.
Outside, it looks like rain. Five seconds after making this profound observation the deluge begins, the volume of water falling is such that if I were taking a shower, I’d immediately attempt to decrease the pressure. Apparently I rotate the faucet the wrong way, the rain coming down even harder. There is no hiding from this downpour. I stand outside alone, my arms outstretched towards the heavens, my clothes completely drenched, enjoying every moment of it.

Check out the rainstorm which less than a minute earlier was clear skies

I find an Indian restaurant. A delectable three course meal, masala tea, and desert costs me all of ten dollars. Fifty dollars a day you makes you a veritable king.
Traffic is light, with the roads easily able to handle the limited number of cars. Few Laotians can even so much as dream of owning an automobile. In fact, if you make so much as $250 a month here, you’re doing extremely well.
I go for run on the waterfront, stopping to examine some of the few monuments and statues, with the exception of Buddhist temples, that exist in Laos.
First down and ten!
A mile later, the concrete riverfront road morphs back to dirt and clay. I run up the street away from the river, and find the city extending itself, like yarn being stretched too far, the economic well-being of the citizens becomes more and more frayed as I move further from tourist central.
The exhaust from the cars becomes stronger, choking me for a moment. It starts to rain again, I turn around and head back towards my guest house.
Chinese temple "Fu De Miao" on the waterfront- quite beautiful

At night, the city sleeps. Street lamps are distant, allowing an unusual amount of room for darkness. A few bars, generally owned by expats, serve liquor to the locals and tourists alike, as soccer games from the British Premier League play out on TV in the background.
I am told that not so long ago, the main products you could buy on the street corners were opium and prostitutes. While I am offered both at various points, its obvious that the sex and drugs that once made Vientiane's economy go are either much more hidden, or on the decline.
The vendors here are far less aggressive and more laid back than just about anywhere I've been. Perhaps because so few Laotians have money, the all-mighty dollar seems to have less meaning than in the West, the drive to accumulate not nearly as intense. In this capital city, there's a quietness and solitude not found in the majority of the world. I take a breath, hold it and exhale. That seems like one of the most productive things I could accomplish here. I'm okay with that.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Penetrating Prostitution in Bangkok, Thailand

Nana Plaza- Sukhumvit Road
Everything you can imagine is for sale here, from tailor made silk clothing, pirated DVD’s, flowers, and fresh fruit during the day, to the bodies of scantily clad Thai girls at night.
“Mister, mister, I go with you?” is a common offer heard walking these streets in late hours of the evening.
A stream of girls spills out of a crowded bar, I go inside to investigate the river’s source.
Thai hookers open for business
Hundreds of girls in their sexiest outfits line the walls and tables, hoping to “get lucky,” to make the 2,000 baht ($60 dollars) asking price for an hour’s worth of their time. The majority of these girls will earn no money tonight, but they’re likely accepting of that outcome. Even if they only find work one of two evenings a week, their earnings will still be higher than the average citizen of Bangkok, SE Asia’s wealthiest city, saying nothing when compared to the rural countryside where most of these girls come from, in an effort not so much to make “easy money” for themselves, but rather be the primary breadwinners for their families back home.

At the bar in the center of the room, an old Irishman in his late fifties drunkenly serenades one of the girls in his raspy voice. When he’s finished, she applauds, giving him the significance and connection he was after when he began, the likelihood of her making a sale increased accordingly.
In the corner, two young Chinese guys chat up one of the cuter girls. I can’t translate their words, but I can decipher the body language of someone pretending to be interested.
At an outer table, some old and fat British men with red noses nurse their beers, arguing over the English Premier League, enjoying the hopeful looks the girls offer them when they turn their heads and make eye contact.
Do you blame the girls? This business is like any other; it's all about getting paid. 

Walk down Soi 11 and you'll be propositioned numerous times.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

One Night in Bangkok

Bangkok’s Premier Night Club- the Q Bar
Walk down Soi 11 and you’ll find two of the premiere clubs in Bangkok. The trendy clubs where passports are needed to gain entry.
The Q Bar, just around the corner, which tonight has contracted DJ Marky from Sao Paolo, Brazil to play their venue. It’s 800 baht ($26) to get in, not cheap by any standards, much less Bangkok. The deal does however include two drinks which takes some of sting out of the price. “DJ Marky costs,” the manager tells me, “We’ve got to pay for him.”
Upstairs at the trendy Q bar in Bangkok
Looking around, there’s no surprise, the majority of gents here are foreign, with a smattering of their European girlfriends, the rest are Thai women. Some are here just to party and have a great time, some are here looking for work; the talent is pretty choice.
I get on the dance floor and just express, having fun. A half hour later, DJ Marky steps behind the turn-table and starts spinning. I have little idea what qualifies a DJ as outstanding, but I have the feeling he’s pretty damn good, and the reaction of the crowd jumping up and down backs this assertion. I groove to the sounds he’s creating, and as I watch his perfectly timed actions, begin to understand the skill and amount of practice it must take to excel in his profession.
DJ Marky- from Sao Paolo, Brazil in Bangkok
The Night Begins

At 2 AM Q Bar shuts down according to the law. I’ve ignored all the working girls, as well as a few that might have not been who gave me the thumbs up sign, and begin walking home. I pass by Levels and watching the trendily dressed foreigners and Bangkok elite exit. I look up and make eye contact with a Super Hottie standing on the balcony above. She’s dressed in white pumps and a light green mini-skirt, cut low enough to show her beautiful natural breasts. She has to be amongst the best looking girls I’ve seen in Bangkok.
“Hey cutie, are you the right guy for me?” she calls out.
I have to see where this leads. “Maybe,” I reply.
She walks down the ramp, and attaches herself to my arm.
“We’re going to go get something to eat, you come with us.”
“Who’s we?”
“Me, and my friends.”
She points, I glance over and see two other girls dressed to the nines with two older guys, in their late forties, maybe fifties. I’m in the mood for adventure, and agree.
Apparently my girl had been harassed by a couple guys earlier in the evening. “I’m leaving with my boyfriend,” she states, her arm wrapped around me, almost taunting them. Both the guys are huge, what have I gotten myself into?
As if on queue a valet pulls up in a new Mercedes. The German guy jumps behind the wheel, accompanied by his woman riding shotgun. There’s not enough room for four in the back, so Super Hottie sits in my lap. Beside her is her friend, and then a bald headed muscular American, (especially for being 50) who just won’t shut-up.
“I’ve been cast in a Viking movie shooting here in Bangkok,” he tells me. He’s been cast as the “King.”
“I did a reading for a smaller part, and the director told me, ‘You’re not getting this part, I have a much bigger part for you.' ”
I had no idea I had taken a plane home to Los Angeles.
“Great,” I respond.
Next he starts talking about real estate, and how much land he has bought and sold, how easy it is to make money in the profession. Meanwhile Super Hottie is grinding into my lap, teasing me, doing her “best” to keep my attention, which veers to her, angering the King.
His voice raises in anger. “I don’t get it, you have the opportunity to learn from a guy who’s made multi-millions in real estate, and you’re paying attention to everything else.”
“There are some distractions here man,” I state, thankful that there’s another girl acting as a buffer between us.
“That’s bullshit!” yells the King violently, “That’s just perennial background noise you’re letting distract you.”
I look around, the girls are seemingly too drunk to be fazed by his outburst. I look around, we’re in a major traffic jam at 2:30 AM, highly unusual, but I still have no idea where we are in the city. I’d just jump out and find a cab, if not for Super Hottie ...
Next the King starts talking about his former career as an elite special forces officer in the military, continuing by telling me that China is absolutely inferior militarily to the U.S., that their equipment is shoddy. “What, you think we let them have the good stuff?” he asks with a strong note of sarcasm.
“I still wouldn’t really want to tangle with them,” I offer.
“You don’t know how the world works! You don’t know ex-top KGB agents like I do. I worked on a movie with Jean Clause Van-Damme! You don’t know what goes on behind the scenes. You know nothing.”
Behind the scenes of what, world espionage or film making? Maybe I’m in a movie right now, or some kind of candid camera reality TV Show. Super Hottie wriggles in my lap ... so maybe that’s why she’s sitting there.
I’m actually getting excited to hear what’s going to come out of his mouth next … which is the fact that he’s also a krav-maga expert, and went through the course with the ultimate master faster than anyone in history.
I’m dead serious when I say this, I’m going out of my way not to insult this guy, not necessarily because I believe a word that's coming out of his mouth, but because he has the ego that would love the opportunity to prove itself if met with anything but rose petals laid before its feet.
“Wow, that’s very impressive,” I reply, hoping we arrive at our destination, and quickly.
“Fuck this traffic, maybe you should just drop me off at Nana Plaza, and I’ll pick-up a girl,” he states with frustration, then adding,“You know I’ve probably boom-boomed 2,000 girls in the last six years I’ve lived here,” he offers, “I’ve gone through so much money.”
I’m not that uncomfortable, I’m playing along, but I am glad when we finally pass the road block (an accident) and speed to our destination.
The six of us sit around a table, me as far away his Highness as possible. Course after course of Thai Food arrive at 3:30 AM, the majority of it being consumed by the King. Beef, a whole crab, pork, soup, and an entire fish, he downs it all, the rest of us nibbling like mice in comparison. The food’s absolutely delectable, and I imagine the bill at this late hour will be too.
At last finished with his feast, the King lets out a contented sigh and speaks in surprisingly good Thai, which I translated as, “The food was excellent, and I’m full. Now let’s talk about how great I am.”
Super Hottie looks at him, and says, with a straight face, but obviously kidding, “I don’t like it when foreigners speak in Thai.”
And the King takes it in and absorbs the statement, his face grows red with anger. Disrespect in his court. Oh fuck, please don’t strike her …
The King’s body convulses. “I need to speak Thai dammit!” stupidity and ego clouding the obvious, that if she didn’t mean it as a joke then she has her own problems. “I have a Thai daughter, and I need to speak Thai to her! … I don’t like the fact that you said that …” his face becoming swollen with red anger, “In fact, I don’t even want to be here anywhere near you! I’m leaving!”
And he gets up, and storms away, leaving everyone at the table in speechless.
“I was joking,” she explains, needlessly defending herself as everyone else already understood, only one us the least bit annoyed by the ramifications of her actions.
 “Why are you shaking your head?” Supper Hottie asks me.
“Couldn’t you have at least waited til he chipped in for the bill?”

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Landmarks of Dubai-- Jumeireh Beach, Burj Al Arab, Burj Tall Khalifa, Ski Dubai,

Dubai Landmarks. IE- If you go, these are probably the best things in Dubai to see!

Jumeireh Beach
The beach is so exclusive and the water so hot, you can pick fully cooked lobsters off the ocean’s surface. It literally felt like I had stepped foot into a hut tub, and had to dive down several feet before getting any relief from the heat.
Jumeireh Beach during Ramadan
It is normally way more crowded, I went during Ramadan.

Burj Al Arab
You'll notice the sailboat shape of the Burj, it is the world's first "7 Star Hotel," or so it is advertised as. 
The rooms run from "as low" as $1,000, to up to $60,000 a night! And people call me crazy!

The Best Way to get into the Burj?

What you think, you, a "commoner" can just walk straight into the Burj. Hahahah! Don't make me laugh. You need a reservation, which will cost you Monneeeyyyyy just to go see it. If you want to eat something, a non-guest breakfast costs about $65 a person, or afternoon tea for $70.

But, if you want to know the cheapest way to get into the Burj Al Arab, make an appointment for a manicure or hair treatment at the Frank Provost beauty salon inside the Burj. A manicure is only about $20.
Once inside you walk around and witness the beautifully designed hotel. 
Burj Al Arab- 7 star hotel

Fountains at the Burj

Burj Al Arab lobby

Bar/ Lounge area inside the Burj
Burj Tall Khalifa- World's Tallest Building

In what is architecture purely for bragging rights and ego, Dubai has constructed the world's tallest building. It's $30 and an advanced reservation if you want to go to the top. Being scared of heights, if I want to ascend to that elevation, I'd rather go a few feet higher and go skydiving!

Sky Dubai
Snowboarding in the desert. Mankind trounces the forces of nature once again, creating a refrigerated ski zone.
Ski Dubai
It is located in Mall of the Emirates, and in a lot of ways, kudos to those who created it, which took guts, no matter whether or not I'd rather be on real slopes.

For those of you who found us via search, please feel free to follow by email/subscribe/ forward links to your friends. Please feel free to check out the following Dubai write up, called Dubai- BIG MONEY, No Soul which has been very well received by readers.
and feel free to look around/ leave a comment :)

Friday, October 14, 2011

Life and sick TORTURE in Dubai (Part II) workers rights, abuse, and manners

Part II
We continue our discussion from Life in Dubai Part I <-- see part I here if you missed it)

Ali: Well, look, every place has its good and bad sides.
Jerome: For one, as I touched on earlier, there is discrimination. If you're from Asia you'll get a very low salary and you will not be treated nicely, but if you're from Western countries, you're considered superior.
Ali: I tend to agree on salary discrimination. Usually Arab countries and decision makers trust Western educated people and their skills/capabilities without even checking their backgrounds. Western people get higher positions and much better salaries due to their proficiency in English , work specialization , and better protection from their Embassies. On the other hand, often many of the Asian workers come with fake degrees, lousy English, and are untrained, so it is largely the corruption and educational system of their country to blame, and not necessarily the system here.
Jerome: What about the British?
Ali: Well, it’s definitely true that British citizens have the most influence of any of the expats, and are almost always on the board of any high profile corporation.
Me: Is that because the Emirates used to be a British protectorate?
Ali: That undoubtedly plays a part.
Me: Before we move on, Jerome, you stated that people from the Western countries are considered “superior?” In what way? Superior to Asians, superior to Arabs, or both, and why?
Jerome: Superior to both. People here see Westerners as more civilized, educated, moral, and fair.
Ali: This is mostly true. Most of us desire to work under American or British owned companies as well.
Jerome: Let's say for example you and I are applying for the same position. I have a bachelor's degree, and you are only a high school graduate. Employers will choose you over me 100% of the time, just because you're American. And if we’re working at the same company, with the same position, you will get a higher salary, even working fewer hours than me.
Ali: This is reality here in the UAE. It’s unfair but true. Some Arabs and Asians think British and Americans do nothing and get high salaries. But also, in partial defense, they do not understand that Europeans work more efficiently, and thus are more productive.
The Dubai Marina
Jerome: I can tell you a few more things. Labor rights for foreign workers are lacking, and the laws in this regard are inconsistent.
Ali: I have to disagree here. If a laborer respects local rules and labor laws no one will bother him. If he is sponsored to work without high qualifications in hand, then he should accept the deal offered upfront, of working for two consecutive years with the same employer before being able move on to another opportunity.
Me: Two years. That sounds like indentured servitude to me.
Jerome: If, as a foreigner, you have signed a contract to work here, it means you are tied to the company for at least two years, often three, because your employer is your sponsor, meaning they provided you your visa. You can't easily shift to another job if you found a better one. If you desire to change companies before your contract expires, you will have a labor ban and be unable to work for six months. If you want the ban lifted, you have to ask for a Non Objection Certificate from your previous employer which is very difficult to get, and even if you’re lucky enough to get them to agree to sign-off, you still have to pay a minimum of 5,000 dirhams ( $1,390).
Ali: This is the deal offered upfront, and made to protect local sponsors from being at a financial loss from paying to bring employees here from foreign lands, and then to find them leaving the next day.  However, I must state, this does not apply to senior manager positions with bachelor or master degrees.
Me: What about work hours?
Jerome: Most of the employer's don’t pay workers overtime. More work, less pay. In my case, once a week I'm working twelve hours a day, and fifteen during Ramadan, with no overtime pay. It's because my colleague is taking her day off, and vice versa for her.
Ali: C'est la vie, due to high competency rates here, an employer can easily find people to replace you, so if you start asking or nagging for overtime the day after you start, you could be fired easily. Working in any oil rich/wealthy country, people need to show great levels of sacrifice and extra effort to keep their job. However, this does not always apply to Westerners as sponsors usually count to ten before firing them as the worker is likely to go to court to demand all contractual compensations.
Me: I wish Tea Party members in the U.S. who think it’s best that corporations have completely free reign, and should the supply and demand of the free market dictate it permissible for companies to publicly flog their employees with a slave whip, that the S+P 500 should be allowed their "constitutional right"  to exercise their triceps in such a manner, would read this balanced argument and perspective on labor laws ... But, let me be fair to the the Tea Party who believe NO regulations are the only good regulations, companies should only be allowed should to do so IF employment opportunities in the free market are so scarce, that people would allow themselves to be subjected to floggings because they need to feed their families. After all, the wheels of capitalism must always be left to spin to their own devices.
A beat.
Ali: And I thought Jerome went on rants.
Jerome: Oh, don't get started! Most employers here abuse their workers, My Lebanese boss is always shouting at me, calling me a fool, and I find it hurtful.The owners of the company I work for have every desire for us to cheat customers to remain profitable. You’ve seen yourself firsthand Richard,  the outrageous prices we charge. There's nothing special about the items, and sometimes we are knowingly selling damaged goods at margins of 500%. I told you before our products sell well. that was a lie. Why did I tell you that? Because there is a live video feed in my store, and I was afraid my boss might overhear.
Dubai's 7 star hotel- from a distance
Me: And what is it like to live in the city? Living conditions?
Jerome: Very congested accommodations due to high rent.
Ali: This applies only to low income workers, anyone making below 4,000 AED a month. ($1,100)
Jumeirah Mosque
Me: What is the police force like? Are the Emirati?
Jerome: No, like any low to medium level job, they are performed by expats. Because police provide security, the royal family chooses to employ people closer to their blood lines, generally Arabs from Yemen and Oman. Most of the policemen speak no English, which makes it really tough for Asians like me here.
Ali: I have to step in, I believe Jerome's statement is inaccurate, perhaps not good English, but in general they speak some.
Me: Are the police fair and protective of everyone?
Jerome: Fair? Ha! Please.
Ali: Again, I'm a tad annoyed, I think what Jerome is saying is inaccurate. Police in the UAE  respect  all nationalities and treat everyone equally.
Jerome: Really?
Ali: Absolutely.
Jerome: Care to eat your words? Watch this.
The three of us huddle around Jerome's IPhone watching the following Youtube clip. 

Before you watch, know that is not for the squeamish. What you see here is a brother of the Crown Prince torturing and attempting to Kill an Afghan grain trader

Scary torture shown on ABC News of the Crown Prince's brother torturing an Afghan. THIS STUFF IS DISGUSTING be careful watching!!! Not for the squeamish!

Me: This is not something discussed in the UAE is it?
Jerome: Actually, it made the front page, it was disgusting, just swept under the rug, his defense attorney said he was drugged, and therefore not responsible for his actions. Despite that, look at us, we're clandestine, we both gave you this interview on anonymous basis, there's no real freedom of speech here.
Me: Hey, who are those guys looking at us.
We look over at what are likely plain clothed security officers. Or thugs, maybe the same ...
Ali: I thank you for your time, but if you'll excuse me, I must be going.
Me: I have plane to catch to SE Asia. Gentlemen.
And with a nod and a handshake we all walk briskly away.

Closing thoughts on the UAE
First of all, the more I travel, the more grateful I am to have been born in America, and for the foresight of our forefathers and founders of our nation who created the First Amendment, something most US Citizens can thankfully take for granted growing up.
When I see places like the UAE which look progressive, and actually are compared to much of the world, and then discover the fact that law enforcement was involved in the torture and attempted murder depicted in the above video, and that they got off, and the people who leaked the tape, and also shot it it, were the ones convicted, in absentia, and the royal family just sweeps this horrific act under the rug because it was some utterly sick member of the ruling family who was the perpetrator, I am doubly grateful to live in a country with the ability to bring this to light, where no one, except maybe OJ Simpson, could get away with this heinous crime with direct video evidence against them.

I also thank God for the Internet, and for Google and Youtube, where such a clip is stored and can be explored as more than just a 5 minute segment on ABC News, and discussed once at the dinner table.
I think it's safe to say, I have little interest in going back to Dubai.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Life in Dubai for Foreigners- Money, Crime, and Prejudice

I want to give you guys a flavor if what life is like for the largely imported work force in the UAE. Our cast for this episode consists of:
Jerome- a Bangladeshi working in one of Dubai’s malls
Ali- An Iraqi venture capitalist now living in Dubai and the UAE.
Me: Swashbuckling explorer extraordinaire who spends most of his time in front of his computer writing of late it seems. Now onto the show …

Me: Gentlemen, thank you for joining me.
Ali: It is my pleasure.
Jerome: Mine as well, though I do have one request before we begin.
Me: Fire away.
Jerome: I would prefer you not mention my real name if you are going to record this for security reasons. There is still a lot of speculation as to what happened to three local bloggers who wrote some articles regarding the U.A.E. and its sheikhs. As temporary workers/ guests in Dubai, it is considered "wise" to respect the host country, or at minimum, not criticize.
Me: You got it 'Jerome.' You too 'Ali.'

Heads nod around the table, we all sip some tea.

Me: Okay, you guys are both living and working in this foreign land for a reason, Dubai must have some draw for you, let’s start with that.
Jerome: Well, the number one reason most people come to Dubai are the superior work opportunities and salaries offered here compared to Bangladesh.
Ali: The money attracts many highly-skilled workers, and thus there’s far more professionalism than I would find back in Iraq. I also often discover myself learning a great deal from living and working in a multi-cultural arena, everything from languages, to customs, to outlook on life.
Me: How much more do you earn in Dubai as compared to what you might if you had stayed home?
Jerome: I earn four times as much here. $900 a month versus like $230.
Ali: Richard, they don’t even know what venture capitalists are back in Baghdad. The concentration of money in the UAE and the stability, which as you know is very much lacking in Iraq today, allows the money to be invested in companies with new and novel products. A job such as mine is unavailable back home.
Jerome: Dubai is also a super safe place to live, with very very low crime rates.
Ali: The country is one of the safest in the world, any major theft or criminal incident is almost certainly tied to and carried out by the Russian mafia, or those from former Soviet states.
Me: I’ve been to Russia. That country accounts for about 70% of the world’s unhappiness. Good luck finding a smile in Moscow … So, continuing, why do you think there’s so little crime here, and why would anyone let a Russian into their country to begin with?
Jerome: Crime rates are so low in part because no one need steal. There are enough jobs and money to go around. Also, most of the population consists of expats and laws here are fairly rigid, and austerely enforced.
Me: How does it compare to the Bangladesh?
Jerome: There's a higher crime rate in the Bangladesh due to lack of employment, government corruption, and laws that are neither strictly, nor uniformly enforced. For example, if you're a son of a government official or influential person, and you commit a crime, and even with direct evidence against you, you will not be prosecuted easily. People with any influence just aren’t afraid of the law. Take me for example. My Bangladeshi driver’s license expired five years ago, but I still can drive all around in my hometown without any fear because if the police catch me, I will just contact some of our family connections and that's it. *Poof,* all problems disappear. That's how things work in Bangladesh. I couldn’t get away with that in the UAE.
Me: What else makes Dubai a good place to live?
Jerome: There are a lot of cool and unique places here, generally built to attract tourists, which also gives locals more options and things to do.
Ali: Public transportation here is very convenient.
Jerome: Yes it is. Hold on, let me get my Android phone, I want to show you a picture. Check this out!
The Sheikh of Dubai riding public transport alone
Jerome (cont): That's the Sheikh of Dubai, riding alone. Multi-trillionaire ruler. Told you Dubai was safe!
Me: Wow! Cool shot. Maybe it's a PR stunt. That's not everyday is it?
Jerome: No, definitely not everyday. A lot of times it can be challenging to ride, because it stinks inside; a lot of body odor and poor hygiene.

Ali looks over Jerome a little surprised. 

Ali: You’re in a pool of Pakistani, Indians,  Filipinos, and Bangladeshi, what do you expect?
Jerome: Shut-up.
Me: Especially the Bangladeshis right? So, just how much discrimination goes on in Dubai?
Jerome: A lot, especially when hailing a taxi. When taxi drivers are choosing their customer, Bangladeshis rank at the bottom of who they want to pick-up since few us can afford to tip.
Me: If that’s as bad as it gets, that’s pretty good.
Jerome: That’s just a symptom of the underlying racism that exists. In restaurants, we are often treated as second class compared to other nationalities. One afternoon when I was walking down the street, and out of the window of a passing school bus flies a piece of wood which hit my feet and the boys are laughing and one shouting, "Go back to your country!"
Ali: Racism is expressed more easily by the young, it exists, but isn't as blatant among adults.
Jerome : Really, like the giant signs that were hanging on apartments a couple years ago that read, “NO ASIANS?”
A beat. Ali doesn’t reply.
Jerome: Another incident, at a bus stop, as I'm waiting with some passengers a school bus passes again loaded with noisy students, and one of the students spit on the face of the man beside me, while another threw an empty water bottle which hit him right in the forehead. Another one is in the basketball court, as we are playing, two local teens riding a motorcycle came onto the court and kept repeatedly coming through, knowing we were trying to play.
Ali drops his head, shaking it slightly.
Ali: It is unfortunate hear of such incidents, and though they do exist, they are limited.
Me: Okay guys, we got off track for a second. What else is good about Dubai?
Jerome: Well, in line with what Ali said earlier, you meet a lot of different nationalities. I also find myself learning a lot from them.
Ali: Dubai is a cosmopolitan city with more than 150 nationalities living and working in it.
Jerome: And although it’s a Muslim country, there are clubs and bars to hang-out every night except during Ramadan.
Ali: Not in all the emirates, but in Dubai and Abu Dhabi this is certainly true. Also, all emirates ban alcohol in Ramadan to respect Muslim’s feelings.
Me: Wow, money, the beach, a certain progressiveness in what is generally a conservative Middle Eastern culture, this seems like a pretty good place to live.
Ali: Well, look, every place has its good and bad sides.

Click here for Part II of this discussion!

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Dubai- Big Money, No Soul - Oil, High Priced Shopping + a Premium on Women

The Emirates Past
The year 1958--
Dubai- A sleepy pearl diving and gold trading outpost.
Abu Dhabi- 46,000 residents, four doctors, and five schools. The rich people lived in mud houses; poorer families built with reeds.
That’s the year oil was discovered in this former British protectorate.

United Arab Emirates- Present Day 
The seven formerly disparate emirates have joined forces to a create the United Arab Emirates (UAE), a nation size of the state of Maine, each emirate with its with own land and mineral rights, specifically regarding oil.

Abu Dhabi-
The capital of the UAE, it sits atop a vast amount of oil. How much? 10% of the world’s known supply (and nearly 90% of the nation’s reserves.) It’s the richest city on earth, in fact, there’s not even a close second. In 2007, the emirate's 420,000 citizens, had $1 trillion invested abroad, and were estimated to be worth $17 million apiece, the price of oil having only increased since. 
To think myself lucky to have been born an American.

Also graced with oil, though its reserves are estimated to be exhausted in twenty years. The emirate’s forward thinking rulers have used the initial capital betrothed to them by the dinosaurs, likely in a deal made with the devil, to turn their city into the business capital of the Middle East. Everything from the gold trade, to money laundering, to shipping, and the region’s dominant airline have expanded their base of wealth.
Dubai's giant, architecturally intriguing skyscrapers, often spaced at great distances to one another, seem as incongruous amidst the desert landscape as the green palms that line their exteriors. Dubai reminds me of Las Vegas, a city sprung up in the middle of nowhere, artificially built from massive infusions of money. 
Dubai skyscraper- nothing near it
Walking around on this blistering summer day during Ramadan, you’re as likely to spot a female as win the lottery. Almost everyone on the streets is of Indian descent, the work force imported to serve the ruling class, the wealthy Emiratis, who comprise less than 20% of the emirate’s population.

Dubai’s like a game of Monopoly, money the only goal. While the Emiratis are born into Park Place and Boardwalk, and its ultra-luxury seven star hotels, the unskilled labor force of Pakistani, Indians, and Filipinos scramble to pay the rent on Baltic Ave., and are grateful for the opportunity to do so. Even in low level positions, workers earn four times the amount in Dubai as they would in their homelands. Of course, living here comes with much higher expenses, and many cram together into apartments on Baltic and Mediterranean to save on rent.

The work force, aside of the prostitutes here from Eastern Europe and Africa,  is almost entirely comprised of men. In fact, in what is nearly an unbelievable but true statistic, 74% of Dubai's overall population is male. Women, thus, are in great demand, and prostitution, while technically illegal in this conservative Kingdom, is rarely, if ever, prosecuted simply because the men would revolt. The emirs enjoy their lives.

The Mall of Dubai
Dubai is by far the cleanest Middle Eastern city I have seen, and its public transportation system cheap, modern, and punctual. And thank God for public transport, otherwise I’d have to splurge on a 40 minute cab, passing through largely un-tillable land to reach the Dubai Mall, one of the few places there’s anything at all to do during the day.
The Dubai Mall is a magnificent and gigantic building, the interior spotlessly clean, amazingly decorated, and the displays of goods so beautifully and artistically arranged, the Japanese who so highly value presentation, are left to a distant silver medal.
It shouldn’t then surprise you that the stores in the Dubai Mall have prices ranging everywhere from truly exorbitant, to beyond ludicrous. $100 for a kilogram of chocolate, $4,500 for a bust of Dubai’s Sheik, and $15,000 for an odd looking lamp.
You can’t purchase any food until sundown, Ramadan strictly followed. Everyone but me has stayed inside to beat the heat, I seem to be the only customer in this billion dollar shopping center, but I’m not a good consumer, I don’t even find the chocolate tempting.

Inside a ritzy Chocolate store, check out what "normal price" means

Customers and Oil Money

So who does spend money here? The uber-rich, generally Saudis and locals connected in some way with the royal family.
About three weeks ago I am told the traffic into one of the stores started to dry up as the price of oil sank. “We are heavily dependent on the Sheiks and royalty of the Arab World,” the storekeeper tells me. I wonder whether it being Ramadan has also contributed to the lack of business.
“No,” comes the response, “Even at night we have fewer customers than before.”
When the sun sets, the mall begins to fill, people crowding into the food court to receive their first meal since sunrise, then meandering over to the state of the art cineplex to see the latest Hollywood blockbuster .
Outside, I finally see some actual Emiratis dressed in their traditional floor length, and for them, nearly ubiquitous white tunics.

Stone cold white tunics in the desert (Dubai Mall)

Everyone awaits the fountain show, the idea and technology originating unsurprisingly in Las Vegas, at the Bellagio.
The Dubai Fountains-- cool show

As I return to my hotel on Baltic Ave., and hear the buzz of the South Asians swarming around me, male honey bee drones with no queen in sight, I can't shake the feeling that Dubai seems more like a mirage in the desert, the bees attracted here solely by the flower known to science as "cash."
Everything about the city just seems unnatural and out of balance, from the ludicrously priced goods, to the overly masculine energy that pervades the city from such an unholy imbalance of men to women.
I'm not saying when the oil runs out, Dubai will disappear back into the sand, the buildings are too well constructed.
Until then I wish the Emiratis luck in setting out their flowers and harvesting their honey. It certainly is a sweet life. Maybe one day they'll have enough money to buy their city back its soul.

Monday, October 3, 2011

The Golden Hell of Dubai (United Arab Emirates)

Searing heat of 110 degrees (44 C), coupled with the syrupy like stickiness of 100% humidity makes the city a virtual steam room, and walking around it next to impossible. The signs read- “Welcome to Dubai.”
Welcome to what?
All restaurants are closed during the day, and as it is Ramadan, if you are seen drinking or eating in public you can be arrested. I literally hide in an alley, pressed up against a wall, my back to the street, uncapping a bottle of water and taking a swig to replenish my body’s fluids which are dripping all over the pavement.
To replace my electrolytes, I very carefully reach into my pocket, remove a couple salty cashews inside a tight fist, and without exposing them to air or sight, place them in my mouth, chewing slowly, as I furtively glance around to see who might be spying on me. “Pssst, buddy, want some cashews? How about some water?” I feel like a criminal.
There are literally one hundred men per woman walking around, it takes me two hours of searching the streets before I spot my first female. I feel proud at the sighting, like a tracker for National Geographic having spotted an endangered species in a foreboding land.
Of the men, 80% are of SE Asian descent. In confusion I ask someone if I’ve landed in India.

cool architecture in Dubai

The Souqs
The word, Souq” refers to a marketplace, in Dubai generally a geographical collection of stores, selling nearly identical products/ type of commodity. The competition obviously, is intense.
To escape the heat, I dive inside a shop in the Spice Souq run by a couple Iranians. The interior is meticulously arranged, and neatly labeled transparent drawers contain every spice I could name, as well many I had no idea existed, everything from saffron, which costs $1,000 a pound (no joke), to peppers, cassia, and cinnamon.
Like most shop keepers in Arabia, they greet me with cheer, and invite me to sample some of their wares (not saffron though.) I speak with them for upwards of an hour, guiltily sipping my water as they look on jealously. (I did ask permission)
Like many, they've chosen to set-up shop in Dubai because the economic prospects here are far superior to their homelands. There is money in Dubai- oil money; that draws people from all over the world. They inquire whether there are spice stores like this in America.
“Not like here,” I remark, imagining the interior of Walmart as I glance around comparatively and notice the prominently displayed photographs of Iranian Revolutionary Figures.
“What do Iranians think of Americans?”
“We like them,” states my new friend, perhaps trying to cajole a purchase out of me.
Unlike the majority of Persians I’ve met abroad, who don’t like any part of their government, they are actually big fans of the Ayatollah, though they don’t like their reactionary and holocaust denying President, Ahmadinejad. All told, they’d love to visit America, and dream of the freedoms and opportunity it offers. 
The Dubai skyline
Gold Strike
Machine gun toting security guards stand at attention in every store, thwarting any dreams I had of robbery. The Gold Souq is a glittering plethora of yellow shiny metal, Arabs and Indians alike working behind the counters, hoping to earn a nice commission from selling a pretty piece of jewelry. The attractiveness of the lustrous gold, even for someone who cares little for such things as myself, is undeniable.

The world’s biggest ring, containing nearly 64 kg of gold, sits on display in a protected chamber. It’s too big to fit around an elephant, and the reason for this utterly useless creation lies beside it- a Guiness Book of World Records Certificate. Does it really make you feel that much more important?
(also I suppose it helps draw people like me into the store)
The world's largest gold ring
I enter, and speak with a minority owner of one of the shops, a Yemeni named Ali. His English is poor, but he tries his best. We discuss gold, and its rapid ascent in price. Considering most of his net worth sits in front of him, he does his best to convince me that the metal will continue to rise, and would make an excellent investment, and I should hold onto it and sell under no circumstances, but if I'd like to purchase some of his gold, he'd be happy to part with it.
“What would happen if it went up to $4,000 an ounce,” I ask him?
“Then I would sell all the gold I own, even at a discount, and retire,” he replies, his eyes glassy at prospect.

Night Falls
Ramadan, coupled with the day's oppressive heat, makes Dubai feel and look like a ghost town.
When the sun finally sets, and the restaurants, mostly Indian- catering to Dubai’s majority population and imported workforce, open, the establishments are quickly flooded and the day's fast and silence, broken.
I ask what there is to do this evening, and discover that all night clubs and bars are shut down by law for the duration of Ramadan. I'm a little disappointed but I guess it's okay; I’m exhausted from spending the afternoon walking around the steam room anyways.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Small Child and the Remnants of the Lost Ark- Istanbul, Turkey

Bosphorus Bridge, Istanbul
The door opens and I’m greeted by bubbles of warmth, wide eyes, and an excited hug from Birgu, who is no doubt wondering who this strange foreigner her daughter has brought home is. I am welcomed so graciously, and with such excitement, it almost catches me off-guard.
I’m continually amazed by the hospitality and kindness Middle Easterners extend towards their guests. I used to think I was meeting the exception, but I'm starting to believe it’s the rule.

Birgu joyfully helps me with my luggage, her only seeming desire to make me comfortable. As we open my suitcase, which was hurriedly packed and stuffed to the brim, clothes and objects fly in every direction. I'd tell you that it was as if we had released a couple jack in the boxes, but the truth is it was more like "Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark" when the Germans finally opened their "treasure," and the evil spirits locked inside flew around and turned everyone to dust.

Birgu can't help herself, she starts laughing and pointing at the remnants of the Lost Ark, in utter disbelief that someone could live in such a manner.
Having finished laughing. (an hour later) she gathers all my laundry, and sets about to wash it. That evening my clothes are neatly stacked, ironed, and folded. I'm amazed, I didn't know such things were possible.

Praise be to Allah! Clean clothes!!

The atmosphere in the house is very warm. It is clear how much Mother and daughter love each other. They tease, cajole, and just plain have fun. Laughter is the house's primary sound, and being in the midst of it warms the heart.
As I have my messy tendencies, I am referred to as "The Small Child."
"You pack like Small Child," or "You eat like Small Child," are perhaps the only phrases Birgu knows in English. But we have fun with it.
A morsel of food from my fork drops onto the table, leaving a reddish stain on the cloth right in front of me. Birgu looks at me, trying to contain a laugh while pretending to look angry.
I point at the girl to my left,“It was Gamze,” I state, one hand over the Bible the other raised, “She eats like Small Child.”
And Birgu whacks Gamze with her cloth napkin, and we erupt with laughter. I blamed Gamze for everything, and seemingly got away with it every time. The only downside of this was the one time it actually was Gamze’s fault, she successfully convinced Birgu I was the culpable party. 
Me, Gamze, Birgu

Asian Istanbul
Though Istanbul is far cleaner than other Middle Eastern cities, it still lags far behind the West. The air is often dense with pollution, and trash and plastics lie strewn about. The cars and trucks here are generally old, and  spew particles visible to the naked eye. I cough a little walking around.
Little girls playing near Gamze's house

The Asian side of Istanbul is less wealthy than the European, and the poorer the family, the more likely they are to be religious. On this hot Ramadan afternoon, in the lower class neighborhood at the base of the hill, you'll find ten times the number of women wearing full burkahs than you will open restaurants. We walk twenty minutes down the road before we find a place to eat, with only 25% of the menu available.

A view downhill of the Istanbul neighborhood
Gamze is a secularist, and not a fan of the new Turkish President who is moving her country more towards Islam on a daily basis. He receives much of his support from the neighborhood we walk through.

There are no tourists here, only me walking with Gamze, drawing the usual odd look or stare. However, I never feel threatened.
Every few hours, the loud calls for prayer ring from the mosques, including 5 AM, which is far too early for my taste. At night, the minatrets are lit with pale green light to celebrate Ramadan.
Mosque lit in green for Ramadan
I spend a few days with them. Gamze and Birgu are sad to see me go, but it's time. While Istanbul is not my favorite city, the people are great. They'll treat you well no matter who you are, whether senior citizen, or just Small Child.
Gamze, The Small Child, and her cousin with his new girlfriend