Wednesday, May 24, 2006

22 Hours in Dubai

A short jaunt out of the African Horn took us to the opulent desert city of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. The population of Dubai is made up of 20% citizens, (Bedouins who struck it incredibly rich when the oil started spilling) and 80% foreign laborers (Indians, Filipinos and Westerners who will never be granted citizenship even if they live and work in the UAE their entire lives.) Lately city planners have launched a massive PR campaign to try to put this modern Shangri-La on the map.

We arrived at the airport at 2AM with a 22 hour lay-over and we knew that we had to make the best of every waking minute. We booked a $90.00 hotel room, which was decent, but while Sierra showered and I shaved, the drain in the bathroom exploded with salty fecal water. Sierra reminded me that Bedouins have only been harnessing the power of water for personal use for a little while and not to get too bent out of shape. I calmly and politely called the front desk and told them that our bathroom was filling up with shit. They gave us a deluxe room. Now there’s something that you have to understand about Dubai, we’re talking about the most opulent places on the planet, home of the world’s only Seven Star Hotel, so our room went from a $90.00 room to maybe a $500.00 room, at no extra charge. Sweet.

After a quick snoring session, we got up and tried to walk downtown. Looking up from our perch on the side of a daunting multi-lane highway, it became obvious that Dubai is not so much a city at this point, as it is an idea. The vast majority of the city is under construction, and giant concrete skeletons fill the skyline. Making matters worse is the fact that there is no downtown, so we spent an hour baking in the desert sun before finally hailing a cab and asking to be taken to the mall. And that’s when we left the most steaming desert I’ve ever experienced (hotter than the Israeli, Egyptian and Mexican Baja deserts combined) and entered a gargantuan mall housing a 32 story, -2 degree, indoor ski hill.

After a two-week stay in amenity-starved Ethiopia, we spent many delightful hours shopping and gorging on food and sensory input including an amusement park with an indoor climbing wall.

Then we donned rented winter gear and headed to the slopes.

That evening, after wasting 15 minutes trying to crash our way into the Seven Star Burj Al Arab Hotel by pretending to have dinner reservations, we decided to continue our quest to find a place to take a walk and get an outdoor visual of Dubai, but again we failed. In a charitable effort to help our plight, a taxi driver ferried us to the smallest beach I’ve ever set foot on: a tiny patch of sand and waves, crammed in between 2 construction sights. With nowhere to walk and much foreign currency to burn, we decided to head back to the airport (which houses its own lavish mall) and go on a two-hour shopping spree.

With the hardships of Ethiopia now a distant memory, we took off for India with full bellies and a fleeting sense of overwhelming materialistic bliss.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Last Day in Ethiopia

On the morning of May 12th, I awoke in my bed at the Taitu hotel in Addis Ababa to the very proximate sound of a large explosion. At the time I thought that maybe a constructions worker at the building site across the street had dropped a wheelbarrow full of bricks from a few stories up. It wasn’t until mid-afternoon that a taxi driver told us that nine synchronized blasts had rocked Addis that morning and that one of them was in the Piazza neighborhood, a stone’s throw from our hotel. A little over two weeks since the Dahab Bombings, the terror had finally caught up with us on our last day in Ethiopia. “The government wants to turn our country into another Rwanda or Somalia.” Exclaimed our distraught driver, who went on to describe how the situation in Ethiopia was going from bad to worse. Over the last few moths--since the election that they lost--the local government has imprisoned any vocal members of their opposition (ie: they arrested and incarcerated the guys who the population voted in) and the army has killed dozens of protestors. The bombs 6 days ago, which killed four innocent civilians, were only the latest in a recent series.

On the plane over the United Arab Emirates that evening, Sierra says that we’re just experiencing culture shock, coming from our peaceful cocoon in Canada, but I find the proximity of murderous terror rather unnerving and painful.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Zanzibar and Ethiopia

After three lovely days on the mystical island of Zanzibar, we left Tanzania and flew to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia via Africa’s central hub and one of my least favorite places in the world, the Nairobi International Airport. Ethiopia’s capital city, Addis, is quickly beginning to creep onto that list as well, but luckily we only stayed here for two nights before embarking on a swift two week journey around rural Ethiopia.

After meeting Trish & Kevin, a lovely Irish couple and later our new French friend Laurent, we traveled in a clump to the quaint town of Bahar Dar. We spent the first day cruising around Lake Tana exploring the many ancient island churches. After another day in Bahar Dar of biking around and taking it easy, we pushed off for Gondor.

Apart from some intestinal troubles… and finally some self-prescribed antibiotics, we had a grand time walking around Gondor’s “Great Enclosure” fortress from the 1600s.

After a few days of haggling with teenage-con-artists-cum-travel-agents we finally settled on an overpriced trek in the Simian Mountains… but the fog was so thick on the peaks that we could barely keep an eye on our machine-gun totting scout and guide, so we bailed out early.

From there, Sierra and I said our goodbyes to the rest of our group and headed off to our northernmost destination, the high-altitude town of Lalibela. For four eventful days, we made the rounds of the many thousand-year-old rock-hewn churches, the highlight of which was at the top of a mountain 45 kilometers out of town: A church hidden in a cave called, Yemrehanna Kristos, which housed not only two intricate buildings, but also a sprawling open mass-grave. The piles of half decaying pilgrims gave us the creeps, but combined with the altitude and my reading of the (soon to be published) manuscript of my father Andy Karr’s new book on contemplative Buddhism, it was a visceral opportunity to consider my own mortality.

Now, a few days later, we’re back in Addis Ababa. Tomorrow we travel to Dubai where we arrive in the middle of the night for about 20 hours and then on to Mumbai, India. We are thoroughly sick of Injera and Doro Wat and can't wait to reach India and chomp into a lamb Big-Mac or at least a camel burger in the Emirates.

(Next Post: Waking to the sound of explosions, as nine terrorist bombs go off in Addis Ababa. Two of them a stone's throw from our hotel...)