Episode 5 – Arabia

It is early morning and we are about to complete our cruising of the Arabian Sea to start our last great episode of this travel. We have completed a portion of Southeast Asia and sampled India…Now it’s Arabia.

Listening to the lectures onboard (…yes, we are being educated…), it reminded me that much of human culture, religion and history began right here. All that boring stuff they tried to teach us in junior high school about the “Fertile Crescent,” doesn’t seem so boring anymore.

We won’t be seeing the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, but we will visit the best concrete and glass cities that oil money can buy. Both of these images are totally different than the way most Americans view Arabia. I’m grateful to bring my impressions out of the “Trump Age.”

IMG_0304Editorial Note: Visual stimulation is sadly lacking in this blog post.  Your eyes are not failing you, nor is it the result of a mistaken conclusion that you would not wish to vicariously see Oman.  Rather, the Bear had a momentary lapse in his knowledge of technology and mistook his trusty iPhone for, let’s say, an Oakley watch or some other piece of technology that might actually enjoy a swim in the Arabian Sea. Or perhaps, the Bear, suffering from desert heat stroke, was so thrilled to see water that he neglected to remove items which, unlike him, do not enjoy submersion. Whatever the cause, the result is that my father has now definitively proved that even rice cannot cure an iPhone after a 30 minute swim. Importantly, you need not be concerned that editorial ribbing will make him feel worse for this lapse.  The Bear reports that he is over his anger at himself, noting “I have mentally adjusted to being a dufus.”

Muscat, Oman

Muscat is our first of four stops in Arabia, and the only one that is not one of the Arab Emirates. We entered a beautiful harbor of craggy, barren hills to a moderate city of concrete buildings and homes. I don’t remember much about the history, but Portuguese colonization, once again, played a major role. Its position on the coast of the Arabian Sea was important for trade routes to Africa. There is a small minority that still speaks Swahili, and their clothes have an African flair. Overall, I was impressed that Oman appeared to be a peaceful, laid back country. And why not???  They have enough oil revenue that the people pay no taxes, receive free health care and education, pay almost nothing for petrol, and receive land from the government to build a house. AND if you are poor, the government will build the house for you!!!  It didn’t seem to be a hotbed of unrest, despite the fact that all these countries are ruled by sultans, aka dictators. Lela thinks that this form of government is a good fit in this part of the world. We saw it work in Jordan a couple years ago. The rulers seem to be well loved and have the interests of their people at the front. But there are perks…We passed the Sultan’s personal yacht: the fourth longest in the world.

As you can imagine, it is a very male-dominated society.  It was the Sabbath, and because of the timing of 10 AM communal prayers, we did not see a single woman anywhere in the city.  We were told that they made an appearance in the city shops during the PM, but we were back within the clutches of our Mother Ship by then.

The temperature today was a moderate 93.  We were told that summer can bring temps as high as 130, but there are mountain areas that limit this heat to bearable levels. And the people do have a beautiful coastline and beaches to help them persevere.

A little more history…The Portuguese were big players here for a couple hundred years but were eventually expelled by the Ottoman Empire, which maintained control until the end of World War I. The area then fell under the protection of the British, which seemed to be ok with the people here. Unlike a lot of Arabia, which consists of federations of great area, these “Sheikdoms” are very small and vulnerable. They needed the protection. Back then, the big industry was pearl diving. Remember those stories, like the one by John Steinbeck, of the divers who would stay under water for 90 seconds or more to get a pearl???  I also recall Roy Orbison doing a song about needing to find a pearl for “Layla ??”  They say Abu Dhabi, tomorrow’s stop, is still the place to buy pearls.

Once oil was discovered and everything changed except the need for the British to continue their protection. The Brits, however, decided they were spread too thin, so they pulled out in the early 1970s. These seven Sheikdoms then decided to come together for mutual protection and interest, and the UAE was formed.  They are still pretty close to Britain and now to the USA politically.

This leads me to our activity.  We drove to a local harbor and got on a rather vanilla boat that held about 20 people. Except this craft had twin Suzuki 300 horsepower outboard engines and cruised like a bat out of Hell. It was faster than our ground transportation and could have pulled a waterskiing hippo (maybe even a bear). It took us out to observe the local dolphin pods, and later, to snorkel their coral reefs.  It was nice to actually be out in the water rather than 10 decks above it. The water was clear but the coral was spotty. Lela commented that the locals will need to learn conservation procedures to protect it, and my blog-assisting daughter would not have been pleased by the lack of relative distance given to the dolphins by the local boats. They could be a lot more respectful.

Editorial note: Turns out there are pictures of Oman, just not on Dad’s iPhone!

Fujairah

IMG_0750Fujairah was our first stop in the Arab Emirates.  Initially I thought we were going to Fallujah, which in my weird spelling and memory, and is actually a town in the news a lot from Afghanistan…So I was happy to find out we were actually in the Emirates.

Fujairah has an extensive coastline and rings of mountains, brown and craggy, that ride up immediately from the sea. We drove through them on the way to the desert  I mentioned to Lela that the ride looked like travel along our  Continental Divide, with no trees or greenery.

Our adventure today was to be a drive through the desert in off rode vehicles. So we look down from the ship and see a fleet of white Toyota Land Cruisers…I was immediately reminded of our “pony ride” through the temples of Bagan, except, this time, our horse and cart was a Japanese SUV with three rows of seats.

IMG_0744Our driver actually brought our ride over from Dubai which is our last destination. He said it was only 90 km away.  More on this later. He came to the AE from Bangladesh 22 years ago and now lives here permanently. Although legally a resident, he can not become a citizen because you have to be born here  The AE seems to have an immigration policy that works. Maybe we should send our politicians over here to live it for a year???

So we drive out to the desert and leave a packed, rocky road for the red sand.  The drivers then deflate the tires to 14 pounds and the drive, according to my wife, turned the desert into a DisneyWorld ride. Up…Down…Sideways…Banked Turns. So this is what these vehicles can do!

I told our driver that, in the USA, people buy an SUV and it NEVER gets off-road  I also gave him answer suggestions to my questions:

Question: How long have you been driving???  Answer: 10 years (true by the way).

Question: How Long does it take to be good at it??  Answer: 11 years!!

Question: Has anyone turned one of these over??  Answer: Not yet, today!!

He was actually quite good.  We only had white knuckles on one hand . . .

Editorial side note  – Initial impact of dead iPhone seems to be more pictures of mom!

A different side note. Despite being only 90 km to Abu Dhabi by road which is straight over the peninsula, it was something like 230 nautical miles by ship. It also requires us to travel though a very narrow piece of water that was in the news a lot in the not-so-distant past…Iran would threaten to blockade it to put a strangle hold on Western oil imports.  Anyone remember the Straits of Hormuz???  How cool is this???  We begin our travels in the Cambodia jungles and now we are in the Persian Gulf. That is a lot of Lela and my generation’s personal history.

So I’m going to end and go back to sleep because the REAL concrete and glass starts tomorrow.

Abu Dhabi

I feel like Henry the Eighth: Second Verse the Same as the First !!! But let’s return to this point in a bit and make some general comments about Abu Dhabi first.

Our lecturer told us that the UAE really begins and ends with Abu Dhabi and Dubai…”Furairjah is nice, but…”  And in scope, money, and ambition, he was absolutely right. Abu Dhabi is the largest of the Emirates. It has much more area than the urban center. And we really didn’t see any of the city other than driving through a section of it on the way to the desert. We did pass the second largest mosque in the world (next to one in Saudi Arabia) and the largest BMW dealer in the world…I was so amazed that I tried to rouse my BMW owner in the back seat and forget to snap off a pic.

IMG_0765This whole biggest, most expensive, or most outlandish, is a real Abu Dhabi vs Dubai thing. They seem to compete with each other for the best. And it is not entirely limited to these two players. Look at Qatar’s bribing of the soccer commission to bring the World Cup to the desert. Dubai will never live that one down. But then, Dubai is finishing a Louvre of its own that will open within the year…No word on what will be in it, but I can hear Mona Lisa screaming all the way from Paris.

Another great example are their respective airlines…Emirate Airlines vs Etihad Airways (In the left corner, Dubai…and in the right corner, Abu Dhabi…Shake hands and come out fighting)…Once again, we were blessed to fly with the number one contender: Qatar Airlines, which was just fine with us.

It all comes down to which of these Emirates will rule as the financial center of the Arab World.

OK, back to the second verse…the sand was a little different color here: a light brown, rather than the reddish sand of Fujairah. Personally, when the ride stops, the vistas are amazing. I wonder how much time it took the elements to dissolve the sandstone mountains into these individual grains ???

More conversation with our driver:

How long have you been doing this ???
“Five years, but I had training…”

How long does it take to get good at it ??
“Eleven Years !!!”

You mentioned training ??
“Yes…I was thoroughly trained…Or at least I was going to be until the others in my class all dropped out with injuries.”

Were they badly hurt ??
“Oh you misunderstand…They damaged our motorized stallions…I think they may have been hurt as well, but the stallions !!!!

I see…How have you done as a guide ??
“I am proud that none of my riders have died”

Died ?? What about accidents and injuries ??
I do not keep those statistics…Anyway, if something like that should happen, it was written.”

Is there anything we can do to improve our chances of having a safe ride??
“Are you Muslim?? If so, praying will help…and there is a very good hand hold I will demonstrate…Also, don’t take pictures while the stallion is rearing.”

Do you sell supplemental insurance??
“What is insurance??”

Somehow we made it to the end. Today’s ride was the Rolling Thunder in Frontier Land (not the new one we did yesterday in Fantasy Land). Instead of ups and downs, today focused on coming to the top of a dune and sliding down horizontally as well as vertically. You get used to it after the tenth time. And the grips do really help. In all seriousness, if we had know that these two adventures were going to be so similar, we would have opted out of one…But is was a unique and fun experience.

One more note: Abu Dhabi gets its name from “Father of Gazelles…” And it must have been some great deer, because Qatar Airlines has the picture of this same gazelle as their logo.

Dubai

We started the day by disembarking our ship, taking a last look, and driving to our hotel for the next 12 hours in Dubai.

FullSizeRender(6)Dubai’s name comes from a loose Arabic translation that can be interpreted as “Show Me The Money !!” And how appropriate this is. Dubai wants to the biggest, the loudest, the most ambitious, the financial center of the Arab world. We saw photos of this area, and 70 years ago, it was little more than a group of villages. Then oil came, and there was a realization that oil would also go. Oil and natural gas are projected to run out here in 50 years…And since they don’t want to go back to the tents and camels, Dubai had to reinvent itself for the future. And it has…We could have spent our day indoor skiing, of traveling upward to the vantage nests in the highest building in the word, or tubing the lazy river at their Atlantis resort, or visiting that Palm Leaf development of buildings in the reclaimed land that used to be part of the Persian Gulf, which they now say is sinking. Instead, we took a shuttle to this monstrous mall and managed to buy absolutely nothing other than a great lunch at ???  You guessed it…The most Arab restaurant we could find: the Cheesecake Factory…Where we were waited on by very nice hosts from the Philippines and Moldova. This was striking as neither were India or Bangladesh. In fact, only 20% of the population here are citizens. We haven’t actually had any contact with a citizen since we left Oman. All the drivers, supervisors, and people we saw at gas stations, restaurants, and shops, were imported help. The “citizens,” receive a financial bonus from the government’s oil production and it must be enough to live very handsomely.

And speaking of handsome, after not even seeing a citizen in Abu Dhabi (except for the passing of Beemers or Toyota Land Cruisers), we saw a bunch in the mall. Both genders, dressed to the nines in traditional clothing, and they were all incredibly handsome. The men had absolutely nothing out of place. Their beards look like they are trimmed hourly, and like the werewolves of London, their clothing was “perfect.” The women, at least what it was you could see, were equally as stunning. These people run the place and they look and act the part…Very impressive!

I have sent along some pics of the skyline. Every building seems to set their own style and half could be at Space Mountain. There is a lot of money and action in this town, and we escaped back to our hotel to watch from afar from the pool on the 19th story roof.
Signing Off for Now

I am going home in a few hours and will write last thoughts next weekend after I return to familiar confines and have a little time to have them.

Thanks for reading. It was fun doing the writing…And a special thanks to my editor, proofreader, and conscience, Malia, for taking the time and interest in her father (after all these years) to make this whole endeavor possible.

ASIA – Some Final Thoughts

We have been home for a week or so…Enough time to regain or sleep patterns and stamina. And this has led to an opportunity for reflection.

First, this part of the world is a long way away. It takes the better part of two days to get there. Give yourself a couple days to acclimate to the total reversal of your biological clocks. And be aware of the weather. We traveled in May, and it was still extremely hot. Our coolest day was somewhere around 95 degrees fahrenheit.IMG_4813

So, given the conditions, I was very impressed with the people’s ability to accommodate. Given the poverty we found in most of southeast Asia, the conditions facing the local population are demanding and impossible for most Americans to imagine. There are no obese people or pets in Asia. Everyone and everything struggles to survive on a daily basis. And yet, most of the people we observed seem to go about their struggles with a quiet dignity. They have an impressive work ethic, and I felt accepted as Lela and I walked through markets, temples, and roads. The people seemed accepting and intrigued by us. I’ll go back to the security guard in Cambodia as an example. I was absolutely shocked that he offered me his badge, and the reality that I had nothing of equal value to trade was a deep regret. It was also quite humiliating that so many of the people could communicate in my language while I didn’t even know a word of theirs. I liked the people we met, except for the constant pleas to buy small gifts for one Yankee Dollar.   IMG_4562

And we were also able to contrast this harsh reality with the gaudy demonstrations of wealth. Our first experience was the Qatar Airport Lounge. I asked a helpful attendant at the salad station how to say “Thank you” in Qatar. he mentioned politely that he was from India, and asked how we said “Thank you” in our country. He then suggested we use the English phrase. Later, we found out that there are more billionaires in India than China. And finally, as discussed earlier, we didn’t see many of the native citizens in the Emirates as all the work was being done by imported labor. Mel Brooks used to say that “It’s good to be king!” Now I have a better understanding of what he meant.IMG_4865

I found it very interesting that the locals were interested and confused by us. The customs are so different, and as a psychologist (an amateur anthropologist), I was intrigued by the cultural differences in attitudes and beliefs. It was amazing to find out that the intended conversations in the short precursor meetings to prearranged weddings were similar to the conversation topics I had with Lela on our first date. It was incredible to learn of the importance of family in the lives of Cambodians and Burmese. And I was forever impressed with the work ethic of the people we saw, even if it was the amount of effort they put into trying to sell a souvenir “for just one dollar.” Most of the Americans I know would never want to work this hard, or to fend for subsistence survival. And yet, there was a calmness to their work and effort…No tension or anxiety…AND a lack of anger display that I found quite impressive.

One more comment about the people we met. The crew of our Regent ship came from over thirty countries. They were polished and professional, and made our travels so much easier and enjoyable. Lela and I mutually adopted some of the staff in the various dining rooms, and felt that we knew them intimately by the time our travels ended. Cruising, in the circumstance of visiting ports that would otherwise never be visited, is a great way to travel. We are hooked, and are already discussing other exotic destinations in the not-so-distant future.

Thank you for reading, and I can’t wait to activate with reports from another travel destination.


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