Once in a while, the WordPress blogging software and I have a misunderstanding. That happened as I was trying to upload my post about our first two days in Dubai. For some reason, my report on our train ride last fall from Tibet to Beijing was republished. I have since removed it, but in case anyone is confused, we are NOT in China. We’re on the eastern edge of the Arabian peninsula.

Desert mirage

In the past two days, Steve and I have explored the world’s biggest shopping mall, gone almost all the way to the top of the tallest building on the planet, shopped in a gold souk, 

visited two mosques, bought a liter of camel milk in a grocery store (and washed down our M&Ms with it), 

ridden in the gender-segregated sections of the spiffy Dubai subway, 

and walked 22.6 miles (47,628 steps, according to my iPhone.) Yet I feel I little disappointed. It’s not that we haven’t had a good time. It’s all been great fun. But I still have very little clue about how things work in the capital of the United Arab Emirates.

Before this trip, to the extent I ever thought about Dubai (i.e rarely to never), I envisioned it as a sort of mashup between Shanghai (the outlandish architecture) and Las Vegas. It’s more evocative of Vegas, if missing the casinos and alcohol and scantily clad women; the searing heat, wild attractions, and sense of having sprung up just yesterday out of the lonely desert all feel familiar. I’ve seen men in white robes and headscarves crowned with coiled goat-hair rope in Vegas, and women in full black burkas too. You see more of both here — but not so many more. Most folks dress in standard Western garb. 

In an attempt to gain deeper understanding into the history and culture of Dubai, we signed up for a couple of activities sponsored by the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding. I particularly had high hopes for the “communal lunch” where we would have the opportunity to “ask questions and exchange  ideas with nationals while enjoying delicious Emirati food.” The complex in which the centre is located was built by the Persians around 100 years ago, and it’s been beautifully preserved and turned into an arts and culture district. A couple dozen of us foreigners sat on richly decorated cushions in an air-conditioned courtyard, and the food was tasty and filling, if not haute gourmet. While we ate it, our Emirati host expounded on local customs. But it was all very basic and bland, kind of Islam for Dummies (or a bit like learning about Abe Lincoln from Walt Disney). 

Far more tantalizing is the neighborhood where we’re staying (Deira, the old heart of the city). Our guesthouse once was the residence of a powerful sheikh. Parts of the large complex that contains is are still being restored. We love the open-beam, 15-foot ceilings; the stained glass windows; the beautiful stone courtyards. The maze of streets that surround us are jammed with what look like tiny retail shops selling every kind of good imaginable. But they’re actually wholesalers! So the casual shopper can’t buy anything from any of them. Nearby souks do sell gold and spices and household items. We strolled through them a bit this morning, then even though the stunning heat was already building, at 9 in the morning, we walked along the canal where a flotilla of dhows are docked. They’re laden with rice from India, saffron from nearby Iran, cheap clothing from China. 

One of the dhows being loaded.

We have no idea how all this commerce interlaces. We don’t have a clue what the different emirates in the UAE think of one another. We’ve read that something like 80% of the people who live in Dubai come from elsewhere: India and the Phillipines and Burma and similar places. Hordes of these guest workers crammed into the metro with us yesterday, but we know nothing else about their lives here. 

It’s a little frustrating. And in an hour or so, we’ll take a taxi on the short (30-minute?) ride to the next emirate down the road, Sharjah (dubbed by Unesco the Capital of Islamic Culture). We’ll also return to Dubai in about 10 days for a final afternoon before we head to Uganda. All we can do is continue to keep our eyes and ears open.

Here Steve photographs the five prayer times of the day. As if we could miss one. The Call to Prayer resounds from many many mosques.


On the road again

I could report that Steve and I are hanging out in the Korean Airlines lounge at LAX in honor of the 105th birthday Kim Jong Il, but that’s not what brings us here (although today is his birthday.) We also are not about to depart for Korea (which, in light of current events, is probably a good thing.) The truth is that in about two hours, we will fly off to the Arabian peninsula, where we’ll be seeing some of the sights in the United Arab Emirates and Oman for the next two weeks. After that, we’ll continue on to Uganda. In Africa, we’ll be on a mission — NOT the religious sort but rather, as emissaries of the Women’s Empowerment (WE) organization. WE provides funds for microloans that help poor Ugandan grandmothers, and Steve and I serve as liasons between the San Diego and African groups.

Steve is using the free wifi to research the availability of alcohol in the UAE and Oman. It looks pretty grim.

We’re in the KAL lounge because when I got a Chase Sapphire credit card last winter, one of its benefits was the used of a “Priority Pass” that gets you into a variety of airport lounges. The only one in the Tom Bradley International Terminal here in Los Angeles is this KAL facility. (It’s not dazzling. But it is a whole lot nicer than than regular terminal waiting areas.)

As usual, I will make every attempt to report on our adventures as they unfold.