Thursday, February 7, 2019

United Arab Emirates

My vacations nowadays are opportunistic, prompted either by overseas visitors who give us an excuse to see something new in Australia or by a conference that may or may not be in a destination I would choose on my own, but hey, I'll never not make the most of a free flight somewhere new. So that's how I ended up with a 6 day vacation in United Arab Emirates, after an excellent APESA conference at NYU Abu Dhabi. Miscellaneous notes:
  1. The basics: In case you're not already aware, UAE is very modern and cosmopolitan; you can wear whatever not-too-scanty clothing you want and go about your life as you would in any western country, no problem. Emiratis are a small minority of the population; the rest come from all over, which means English is the lingua franca. Almost everything is in both Arabic and English, and among what isn't, more of it is in only English than in only Arabic. What surprised me is that not only is it the modal language, everyone speaks at least some English. The only Arabic word I know is "al" ("the") and I had no trouble at all. It's a perfectly reasonable place to live, if you place less emphasis on climate than I do (most people do). My indifference curve would probably pass through Abu Dhabi and, say, Oslo.
  2. There are seven emirates that differ about as much as U.S. states from what I can tell; in one you can't buy alcohol, for example. These united to form the country in 1971. I don't know the prior history but the map indicates some complicated geopolitics; most emirates are in several pieces, and there are also two Omani enclaves in the mix, one of which has its own Emirati en-enclave.
    The mess of Emirates and Omani enclaves
  3. Abu Dhabi (and presumably other places, but this is where I wandered around downtown aimlessly) has a bizarre vibe. Because of the climate, it's quite pedestrian-unfriendly. The streets are empty of people before dark, the buildings look shut down from the outside since most have shades or reflective layers on all surfaces, and entrances are often hard to identify (I don't have an explanation for that one, but it was consistent). Add to that construction everywhere and I felt like I was trespassing in a deserted work site pretty much everywhere.
  4. If you're not into malls or ridiculously expensive theme parks, there's not much to do in Abu Dhabi. The mosque is the main attraction, and it is indeed impressive. Muslims really figured out art and architecture (obviously) and this particular example puts it on a grand scale. It has the largest hand-made carpet in the world, with over 2.5 billion knots. As an ignorant western tourist, I also appreciated the fact that it was constructed intentionally to be an Attraction - it's overtly welcoming of anyone regardless of nationality, race, etc (as emphasized repeatedly by the guides); they provide appropriate layers in case you come without sufficiently respectful attire (my standard-issue Grey Silicon Valley Start-up Hoodie was enough cover); they have hourly free tours in English; and they have clear signage and locations for taking pictures so you don't have to guess whether you're doing something accidentally offensive.
    Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque
  5. Dubai, on the other hand, is a surreal alternate universe version of Las Vegas if Nevada were a Muslim country, right down to the desolate desert setting. The Dubai fountains, a giant choreographed-to-music attraction in front of the Burj Khalifa, was even designed by the same person who did the Bellagio fountains. Instead of casinos there are uber-fancy malls, and instead of prostitutes there are Victoria's Secrets with no softly-pornographic ads or any lingerie on display at all, but in either place you will be blinded by opulence and easily parted with your money.
  6. The one novelty I was willing to part with so much cash for was to visit the top of the Burj Khalifa. I was surprised to learn that not only is it the tallest building in the world, it's over 30% (almost 200 meters!) taller than 2nd place. Standing on the 125th floor skydeck it looks like there's still a normal skyscraper above you, and all the skyscrapers below you are babies. Plus, it's very cool design, definitely no regular box.
    Looking down and then up from the observation deck of the Burj Khalifa
  7. Getting out of the two major cities is when things get more interesting (if, like me, you're mostly interested in learning about local history/culture/nature). On the other hand, there's just not that much there... I recommend a desert safari to the empty quarter (most of the country is a never-ending empty sea of sand dunes, which are gorgeous and unlike any other desert I've been to, but you can experience it in a few hours), the Mleiha archeological site (which contains the oldest known human remains outside of Africa, from the late Paleolithic at least 130,000 years ago), and the traditional camel market in Al Ain (where you will be accosted by friendly men who want to show you around to take pictures and will then ask for money at the end, but that's par for the course, and it's worth it - just bring only a few dollars with you).
  8. I visited an assortment of historic sites in Ras al Khaimah, Fujairah, and Al Ain, which were all small and quick and at most $2 and I was usually the only one there. It's like what you would expect to see in an underdeveloped country that's taking a first stab at a tourism industry (they collectively reminded me of tourist attractions in Gabon or East Timor or Haiti, for example). I say this all descriptively rather than judgmentally. It was a fascinating contrast with the ultra-ritzy attractions in Dubai.
  9. Speaking now judgmentally in addition to descriptively, the outdoorsy attractions (except for the desert safari) were really not worth going out of your way for. I had some nice views and fun experiences but you can have just as much fun in a better location almost anywhere else. One interesting natural phenomenon is that there is so much dust blown into the air that the cities look like they're extremely polluted. It took me a few days to conclude for sure that it is dust rather than smog. The sun gradually fades behind the muck instead of setting, and even way out in the desert the night sky is underwhelming.
    The desert of the empty quarter; hundreds of miles of surprisingly colorful dunes
  10. Culturally, great emphasis is put on hospitality. All of the history museums mentioned hospitable customs such as offering the largest camel and fanciest bedroom to guests, and this clearly persists today, to such an extent that it feels downright oppressive to an extreme introvert like me. I ironically started avoiding going into businesses and keeping my phone out to credibly avoid eye contact to avoid unnecessary backs-and-forth of "no really, I'm fine, I don't need anything, I don't want anything, I know where I'm going". Yes, I realize that this approach is entirely contradictory to the goal of getting to know local culture.
  11. My research ahead of time made me pretty nervous about driving there, since drivers are described as FAST and they have one of the highest traffic fatality rates in the world. It honestly wasn't bad at all, pretty similar to the 5 between LA and SF. The exception is that people tailgate really scarily closely until you get out of their way. The exception in terms of really stupid design is that there are highways where the speed limit for cars is 140 and the speed limit for trucks is 80. There's nothing wrong with 140 on a desert straightaway (that's the same as the speed limit in west Texas on the 10, for example) but good god don't mix the two.
  12. Did you know that the black band that Emirati men wear to hold the ghutra (the white head covering) in place are also, traditionally, camel locks? You put one loop around a front leg and the other loop around a back leg, and they can't run away. Also, did you know that camels have clear third eyelids to wipe away sand, and can drink 200 liters of water in 3 minutes (more than one liter per second)! You can also breed a male Bactrian (two-humped) camel with a Dromedary (one-humped) and get a bigger, stronger, and faster camel with a single giant hump. Kinda like a mule of the Artiodactylae.
  13. I did have a few strange encounters with people that I still don't understand. In a fort that I was alone in, a guy came in and without saying anything indicated he wanted a selfie with me. And then 15 more selfies. And then an extra dozen with me holding the phone, for good measure. White tourists aren't that uncommon, even though this was in a smaller city, and he wasn't hitting on me, so what the heck. More nerve-wrackingly, the last day I was about to get in my car in a dark parking lot at 6am to drive up a mountain for sunrise. An SUV pulled up behind me, blocking me in, driven by two Emirati men. One rolled down the window and asked where I was going, I said I'm going to Abu Dhabi, he seemed to ask if I wanted him to come along, so I said no thanks and quickly got in my car and locked the doors just in case (it's a very safe country, for the record). I waited for them to unblock me, but instead he came to the window and kept up with the "you go Abu Dhabi? I go for you! What you need?" and other equally unintelligible phrases until I said "no thank you, bye" enough times for him to give up and let me out of my parking spot. Bizarre. If you can tell what this was about, let me know for future reference...
  14. Another funny but interesting incident happened in a museum in another fort. I was the only tourist there, among many workers doing some renovations, and I took some pictures in the courtyard and then went upstairs for a bit. About 15 minutes later an employee came up and asked if I was a regular visitor. Yes? "Why were you taking photos of the fire extinguisher?" I had no idea what he was talking about, so he led me to the extinguisher and I realized it was next to a windowsill where there had been an enormous grasshopper that I spent several minutes photographing. That would understandably look pretty suspicious if you didn't know what was there. I showed him the photos and he seemed quite relieved and then apologized profusely and made a show of telling his colleague about it as well, who also apologized and said I could photograph anything I wanted to, even them :)
  15. One last random story, from the airport on the way out of Abu Dhabi: If you travel anywhere touristy you've surely encountered the quintessential Chinese Tour Group, the organized tours for people who don't speak enough of the local language to be able to get around on their own, usually-but-not-always from China (you can call me racist if you can suggest a better name :). These groups are characterized by the practice of obnoxiously taking over an area without any regard for other visitors, by getting in the way of traffic, cutting in front of other traffic, taking an hour to take every possible selfie before moving on, ignoring signs asking for quiet or for no photographs, etc. When multiple CTMs collide they usually just kinda merge since they have aligned goals, but have you ever wondered what happens in a true collision? This is approximately what happened when I stepped into the airport bathroom and encountered a pack of around 15 Indian women all wearing identical abayas and identical hot pink "travel mart, Kerala India" headscarves and stashing their identical photo-personalized travel packs in the sinks while they took turns using the stalls. This seemed innocent enough at first, if annoying for sheer numbers. But the toilets in UAE all have shower sprayers attached to them, presumably as a hand-held bidet system, and it turns out they were going in the stalls and using them as showers, leaving the floor and seat and everything else drenched, and then taking up residence at the sinks to slowly dry off with paper towels. This gradually became apparent to the team of Chinese cleaning ladies at the other end of the bathroom, who started shouting at them "down, down, you go down! not allowed!" to the non-English-speaking Indian ladies. One by one they were physically moved back out of the sink area while one or two stragglers snuck into the stalls between the remaining Chinese cleaners who were playing defense. Since by now there's of course a line backed up out the door, they can barely squeeze out at all. This is about when the rest of the line finally realized that the stalls were in an unusable state, so we joined in the cluster@#*$ of the exodus. Good grief...