I’ve stopped peeing on planes. In fact, I’ve stopped standing up altogether on planes, unlike the many Greeks on my flight from Larnaca to Abu Dhabi, who thought the whole ride was cocktail hour and wandered from row to row chatting up everyone who would listen. Regardless, I went straight to a bathroom upon landing in Abu Dhabi, and was surprised to find the pristine, clean bathroom reeking of mold and old sneakers.
Washing my hands, I glanced to my right. The man two sinks my neighbor had a bare foot fully in the sink and was washing and rubbing it down. To my left: two more bearded men doing the same thing. Yummy. Now, one person washing their feet in an airport bathroom might be a fluke, but three people doing this at the same time- it has got to be some sort of cultural phenomenon.
Anna, Cass’ best friend from childhood, waited patiently for me while I myself waited patiently to find out my bag, with tools et al, hadn’t flown with me. We were both starving by the time we united, and so it was off to the Lebanese Flower, a centerpiece of Abu Dhabi food culture. Curiously, this restaurant was hugged, on either side, by 3 other Lebanese restaurants.
This was a completely bizarre characteristic of Abu Dhabi that I noticed more and more during my visit- entire blocks in which every store sells the exact same thing, as if all the competition decided it would be best for their prices and success if they abandoned any concept of a turf war. I saw 3 Aquarium/Bird/Pet stores next to each other. 5 straight rent-a-car shops. The mobile phone district with 4 vendors, even a section of 5 jet-ski stores wrapping around the corner of a building. Perhaps most absurd, was a block of seven (I kid you not: SEVEN) consecutive tent stores. There is only one answer to “Do you know where I can buy a tent in Abu Dhabi?”
The Lebanese food was amazing, and gargantuan in quantity. Anna told me that this was typical of Abu Dhabi- huge portions of food were often thrown out untouched or uneaten, and that in some more formal settings it is considered a slight if your guests’ plates are not filled. How ironic, I thought, considering what this land looked like 35 years ago, before the much-revered (or maybe exalted or worshipped is more accurate) Sheikh Zayed united the Arab Emirates with the help of readily flowing oil.
This land was once desert. True, sandy, arid, desolate desert. But oil gets you money, and money can get you infrastructure. Oil can also be burned, and flames can boil and desalinate sea water from the Arab (Persian) Gulf, and desalinated water can be irrigated to grow vegetation. Nevertheless, it is absurd to look at a city that is less than 10% the age of Boston and realize that it dwarfs it by an order of magnitude. Dubai, which I passed through afterwards, is on an even greater order of magnitude.
I had arrived at night, and so I got the full effect of the view from Anna’s 50th floor apartment. So many blinking lights on so many towers, all encircled by roads lined with a street lamp every 50 feet. Running in the distance away from the city, I could see an empty highway, laminated in a dirty yellow glow, disappear into the darkness. Silhouettes of trees lined many of the roads, and they too were visible in the light, giving the sense that we were in the midst of a lush oasis.
Waking up though, this was obviously not the case. If humanity never gets around to colonizing Mars, this might as well serve as the movie set-sequestered areas of grass and vegetation scattered near the roads, often butting up sharply against vast expanses of empty, sandy acres between high-rises, roads, and rising construction projects- the same sands that have blown and whipped about for thousands of years. These serve a gentle but undeniable reminder of the natural order of things, and are scattered ubiquitously throughout the young city like hairless patches of skin on the face of an Arab boy trying to grow his first beard.
In reality, this effect is greatly exaggerated around Anna’s apartment, which is on Al Reem Island, one of the newest areas of government funded development. Still, I couldn’t help but ask- will this city still be here in 150 years if the oil ceased to flow or the demand for it has been replaced by renewables? Will the desert creep back in and turn this ambitious place into an graveyard of iron and glass? I often wondered if there could be a tipping point where the land might become self-sustaining, and rain would come more than thrice a year and without the need to seed the clouds. Or, would the planet continue to warm, droughts begin to lengthen, and the fight against the sands get harder and costlier while the blood of the land (oil revenues) gets thinner and thinner. It’s a grim but entirely plausible picture.
Our desert safari guide later told me that before the vegetation was planted, the oxygen level in the air was so low that construction workers would frequently die on the job.
This fact became especially horrifying to me when I learned about the scam that was used to lure workers from Pakistan, Malaysia, Nepal, India, and other impoverished Asian countries. Poor men promised a monthly wage of 3,000 Dirhams (about $850) might be flown out to the city, only to find out that their transportation was not actually free and that, in a disgusting form of indentured servitude, they would earn only half what was promised in order to pay back their “recruitment fee.” On top of that, unions are illegal in the UAE, so these workers have no power to express their discontent.
Abu Dhabi is a remarkable creation, and I loved my time there (primarily due to the ceaseless hospitality of my host), but I was less admiring knowing the city was built by the broken backs of the oppressed and manipulated. Anna’s apartment overlooked a camp of long modular trailers (9 men to each bedroom), from which flooded streams of buses filled with construction workers eager to carpe the mercilessly hot diem.
I mentioned the hospitality of my host, and this aspect cannot be overstated. Anna treated me to many things, but here are some specific highlights. I had my first camel burger- it was juicy and earthy and delicious. We also embarked on a desert safari, guided by Zehoor, the Pakistani ironically dressed in full Arab wear, who let out the pressure in the tires of our jeep and flung us along the dunes of the desert like the whole expanse was one huge choose-your-own-route roller coaster. He might have the best job in the world, and he knew it- his constant laughter betrayed him. When Zehoor stopped to buy gas, I did the conversion: $1.65/gallon.
One sunset, we wakeboarded on the Gulf along the Corniche. I had a “hahaha! yes!!” moment pulling behind the boat, holding on by one arm and soaking in the absurdity and utter modernity of the scene- floating on the gulf buoyed by my 30 mph speed, while diverse and imposing towers zipped by, reflecting down the red desert sun.
On my last day, I went to the Grand Mosque outside the city- a mosque or huge proportions (able to hold 42,000) and fully whitewashed to reflect the cruel summer sun. Removing my shoes to enter, I was shocked to find the sun-exposed marble floors of the courtyard to be cool to the touch. Inside the mosque, no expense had been spared- thousands of Italian-cut gems lining huge chandeliers, 100s of kilograms of gold scattered throughout, and the world’s largest carpet. I wished I could witness the magic of seeing the whole mosque full with the bowing heads of devout worshippers.
This day, I also visited the remote fish market area of city. In a reeking warehouse, hundreds of workers (dressed in jumpsuits colored according to their purpose) gather, sell, and clean a bounty of sea produce from the Gulf. Outside, multiple acres of wooden fishing boats are tied up in a huge floating field, each waving the UAE flag.
I saw no other foreigners, and thus no taxis. But to my surprise, as I was leaving, a cab came out of nowhere, the only one for half a mile. I told the guy “I never expected to see a cab here!” He replied “I didn’t think I find someone.” “I guess it was meant to be,” I joked.
The man turned out to be Nepali, and he knew my destination, Birendranagar, as one of the poorest areas of the country. I told him “ma timilai veti maya garchu, timi bhaene veste gardainu” and he laughed hysterically. It means “I love you so much, but you don’t care about me” and was the first phrase I learned, from a YouTube video. I had spent my time preceding the trip learning the Devanagari alphabet rather than phonetically spelled phrases, so there was little else I could ask him besides asking his name. He was Deuman, and we spoke for a few minutes before I paid him and we shook hands to say goodbye. It was a fantastic coincidence to immediately precede my arrival in Kathmandu, and it has gotten me fired up to finally arrive in Nepal and get started. Traveling to these cities- London, Paris, Athens, Abu Dhabi- has been a whirlwind of excitement and discovery, but has never been the purpose or mission of this trip. The true journey has yet to even begin, and I am exceedingly excited for my arrival in Nepal. Commence.