Tag Archives: middle east

Go Big or Go Home

What would a person do if they were walking in the desert and found a golden coin? Would they keep the new found wealth for themselves or share it with others? Would they purchase extravagant baubles and shiny trinkets to impress less fortunate friends and neighbors? Would they spend lavishly on short-term necessities or might they invest for the future in an attempt to prolong the benefits of their good fortune?

What if that person was a leader of men, who felt a responsibility for the welfare of others? What if instead of a single gold coin, they found a treasure trove of many coins? What if the citizens in their charge, while proud of their heritage, had never known the life of privilege and luxury that great wealth brings? Might that leader attempt to give the present generation everything they had ever desired or dream big and attempt to grow their tiny slice of sand into a grand scale futureland that could generate wealth for not just the present generation but all that might follow?


Burj Al Arab Sunset


I imagine these questions occupied much of the thinking of the leaders of Dubai when oil was found in 1966. This dusty hamlet along the Dubai Creek known mostly for its small harbor and port and as a former pearl diving center was suddenly rich beyond their wildest dreams. Difficult questions needed to be answered. Complicated questions that not many countries have been lucky enough to be asked and even fewer have been successful in answering. The world often seems filled with wasted wealth and more people looking to take advantage than do the right thing.


Burj Khalifa


Dubai certainly seems to have chosen to build for the future. Surprisingly Dubai does not have that much known oil. Perhaps only enough to produce for another 20 years. Diversification and investment in alternative sources of income seem to be their chosen solution for continued success. Massive building projects have already taken place and more are planned, seemingly announced daily. Perhaps no other place on earth has produced more “world class” projects in such a short amount of time. Airports, ports, entertainment venues and transportation infrastructure projects are easily visible everywhere. Trade, tourism, banking and real estate are all booming. The development accelerator has been pushed to the floor. Anyone seeing Dubai just 5 years ago may have trouble recognizing it today.


Sheikh Zayed Road- Dubai


We were excited to get an opportunity to visit Dubai. So much has been written about the city and its gaudy development. The tallest building in the world, largest man-made port, worlds biggest mall and a massive airport have all been built. Towering skyscrapers that create a dizzying skyline and beach resort developments with wide beaches and endless sunshine are popular subjects of breathless travel writers. Desert dune bashing, camel racing, indoor ski resorts and skydivers soaring high over man-made palm-shaped islands have all been topics of glossy magazines and websites. While not the normal place that slow paced budget travellers such as ourselves are often found, it seemed impossible for us to pass up a chance to visit.

We found our apartment on the outskirts of town in a huge development called International City. Created for the workers who have been imported to fill many of the jobs created by the building boom, International City is not the glamorous world pictured in airline seatback magazines. It is filled with Indian, Pakistani, Filipino and other nationalities that have come to take advantage of the employment opportunities created by the building boom. Nine out of 10 people in Dubai were not born here. Probably not a neighborhood of the city seen by many visitors, this is definitely not an area of trendy dance clubs and glitzy Michelin starred restaurants.


Burj Al Arab- Dubai


We found it convenient for the necessities of life. Barbers, markets and even a mall were all nearby. What we found challenging was transportation. Dubai has generally good, if crowded, mass transit. Boats, trams, buses and subways connect most areas of the city. What we didn’t anticipate was the gigantic size of the entire city. The bus conveniently departed from just outside our apartment building but didn’t connect to the subway system until after a nearly 45-minute commute through the desert. The well organized and modern subway is then 48 kilometers long, so depending on our destination, some one-way commutes exceeded 2 hours long. A good way to see a lot of the city, but not the most conducive way to enjoy our daily explorations.


Dubai Mall


Nevertheless, we made our way out to see as much as we could. As common for most visitors, one of our first stops was the “Downtown Dubai” area of the city. Featuring the Dubai Mall, Dubai Fountains and the Burj Khalifa, it is probably the most written about area of the city. The Burj Khalifa, as the tallest man-made structure on earth, reaches the jaw-dropping height of 2717 feet. Although impressively visible from everywhere in the city, viewing it from the fountain area below is awe inspiring. Several buildings nearby are over 1000 feet and look positively dwarfed in comparison. Dubai Mall, also the biggest in the world, is uncomfortably huge also. Featuring an aquarium with a 3 story view window, full-sized ice rink, food court with more restaurants than most fair sized cities and every store you can possibly imagine (and more), it could possibly fill a week-long visit for any dedicated shopaholic. It actually has its own taxi service-inside the mall!


Business Bay- Dubai


We spent another day touring the original downtown area of the city. Bur Dubai and Deira are areas on either side of the Dubai Creek that contain what is left of the original city. We enjoyed touring the Dubai Museum. Housed in (and below) the Al Fahidi Fort, the oldest building in the city, the museum recreates some of the history of the tiny desert port and tells the very interesting story of different eras of the development of the emirate. It was a smoking hot afternoon and we were grateful for the airconditioning inside. Afterward, we journeyed across the creek to the Deira side. We travelled via the traditional small ferries, called Abras, that ply the route. On the other side, we toured the many souks found there. Gold, textile and spice souks offer visitors and locals traditional items associated with the cities past. Ancient wooden dhows still line the creek where they are loaded with all manner of trade good destined for India or other Arabian Sea ports.


Dubai Marina


The best way to view the development of the city is to get high up in one of the many cloud touching buildings of the city. Of course, many visitors choose to visit the viewing deck of the Burj Khalifa, the highest in the world. The high cost deterred us and we decided to do some research to find decks we could visit for free. Several restaurants along Sheikh Zayed Road have outside seating and we timed our visits to coincide with sunset so the crowds were small and the lights of the city were at their best. A benefit of not going in the Burj is that you can get the massive tower in your photographs. Also, you can use the money saved to have a trendy cocktail while you enjoy the nightly light show as the city comes to life. Open air sunset views over the city from more than 40 floors up were truly breathtaking.


Dubai Marina


We made day trips to some of the more famous beach areas of Dubai. We enjoyed Jumeirah Beach and the area around the super exclusive Burj Al Arab Hotel. Most of the beach areas here were private but we managed to wander the grounds of some of the hotels. Like window shopping in designer stores, it was fun to imagine ourselves enjoying the 7-star luxury that these hotels offer. The harps in the atrium and smells of exotic scents in the lobbies made it easy for us to imagine the life of luxury the guests must be enjoying.


Dubai Marina


Another day we made the long commute to the Jumeirah Beach Residences beaches and the Dubai Marina. The JBR, as it is called, is the largest single residential project ever completed in a single stage. The towering residences line a spectacular beach and boardwalk where, of course, they are just finishing the worlds largest Ferris wheel. The nearby Dubai Marina is a massive man-made waterway with multiple 1000 feet plus towers surrounding 7 kilometers of walkways lined with restaurants, shopping and grandiose yachts. A modern tramway whisks visitors in air-conditioned comfort through the canyon-like streets.


Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque- Abu Dhabi


Dubai is one of 7 emirates that make up the UAE. We made a long day trip to its most famous neighbor, Abu Dhabi. Equally as well off and almost as flashy, Abu Dhabi is about a 2-hour bus ride through the desert from Dubai. The highlight of the trip was our visit to the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. Easily one of the most spectacular religious buildings we have ever seen, the Grand Mosque features domes, minarets, courtyards and chandeliers that top any Arabian dreams you could ever have imagined. The mosque is said to hold 40,000 people and has the worlds largest carpet which weighs more than 35 tons. Witnessing the sunset over the majestic domes as the mosque magically illuminates in perfect soft light was a highlight we will not soon forget.


Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque


Dubai is an interesting place to visit. We were glad we had a chance to see more than just the tourist side of the emirate. It felt as if we were witnessing something that had never been attempted before. In one of the harshest climates in the world with almost no natural water, they are busily creating a mega city of over 3 million people in a very short period of time. The achievements are incredible but not without some noticeable problems. Workers living conditions and wages were not great. Much has been written about the environmental effects of so much building in such a fragile landscape. The energy requirements to make this harsh land livable is immense. The environmental hazards of construction of artificial islands and desalination plants have been reported. However, Dubai is at least addressing these issues.

Dubai has set huge goals. There is a true go big or go home spirit that is easily felt. Much has been done and much more is planned. Dubai has set the lofty goal of being the happiest place on earth in the near future. In the short amount of time we visited it seems that perhaps they still have a ways to go. But looking at how much they have achieved in a short period of time, I wouldn’t bet against them.


Choosing Sides in Jerusalem

Throughout my travel life I have always felt that it was important to maintain, as best as possible, an observational attitude towards the places I have visited. I don’t feel it is my place to interject my personal feelings towards the customs, culture or political and religious climate of the places I have chosen to visit. After all, I think one of the wonders of travel is seeing things that are different from your own world. It is what makes travel such a rewarding thing for me. Most travelers would agree that the world is becoming too generic. Inserting your own beliefs or customs can only alter the local culture and contribute to global sameness.

I say observational and not objective because it is not always possible to be objective. I know that some things are wrong. I have seen poverty, racism, class division and a host of other things that were uncomfortable to observe and at times outright offensive personally. I think that most people have an ingrained desire to help others that they perceive as less fortunate or treated unfairly. I understand the desire to help children or animals or anyone that is a natural underdog. However it is my belief that at some point you are practicing activism, not tourism. I often have to remind myself that I am an outsider and because I do not have to live with results of the actions that are taken in a place I am visiting, perhaps I should not interject my opinions.

Damascus Gate


At the same time I have always had trouble with tourism that alters the reality of a place so that we don’t have to see what is really happening. It seems to take away the general purpose of travelling. I’m not sure that living in a gated community or staying in some fenced off all-inclusive resort that does its best to hide the reality of an area serves a visitor well. Frolicking in some white sand Margaritaville that was created solely based on some Disneyesque version of reality is not for me either. It is true there is an Eiffel tower in Las Vegas. It is attractive and fun to see, but you can’t be confused that it is the true item. I do understand that suspending reality for a few days could be seen as just taking a break from your normal routine. I enjoy a few nights disguised as a high roller in Vegas or a couple of nights of room service in an enchanted palace-like hotel pretending to be a Raj era sultan as much as anyone.

I find that by attempting to remain observational you often begin to see an issue from both sides. It has served me well and has created learning experiences from some unpleasant situations. It helped us get through and not feel overwhelmingly frightened in our last few days in Istanbul. We were involved in a tear gas incident near Taksim Square during a protest. A major suicide bomb attack that killed several German tourists happened literally 20 feet from a bench we had lunch on just a week before. I understood a good number of the reasons these things occurred which made them easier to comprehend. I still found them unpleasant and regrettable but because I understood the situation, these experiences gave me a unique opportunity to see the world from a different perspective. Because I stayed observational, I was better able to control the fear and panic that might have overwhelmed me otherwise.

Mount of Olives


We arrived in our new city of Jerusalem after an adventurous, but short journey from Istanbul. Security was strong in Istanbul but even more so at the Tel Aviv airport. Guns are displayed everywhere in the airport. The wall that separates the Palestinian Territories from Israel is clearly visible along the road from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Much of the conversation between the tourists in the shared taxi (called a Sherut) was about the recent increase in terrorist attacks throughout Israel. I was well aware of ongoing troubles in Israel but, to be honest, I was not familiar with the recent stabbings of Israelis that have taken place almost daily in the last few months.

We found our new apartment just after dark after quite a search. The neighborhood is old and not well marked and locating our address in the fading light was not easy. We had not put too much thought into where we were going to stay in Jerusalem. We basically selected an apartment based on price and location within walking distance to the Old City. We live in the Musrara neighborhood about one block from the original division line between Palestine and Israel. The neighborhood was originally founded in the late 1800’s by wealthy Arabs who wanted to live outside the confines of the Old City’s walls. When Israel was founded in 1948 battle lines were drawn between East and West Jerusalem in this neighborhood and most of the original occupants moved out. Since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war both East and West Jerusalem are one area under Israeli control. Many of the once grand houses have been transformed into apartments and the neighborhood has a bit of an art colony feel.

Jerusalem Alleys


Walking through the neighborhood the next morning, bullet holes were clearly visible in some of the cement block houses near ours. Scars from the past no doubt. The ultra-modern tram line marks a clear line between predominantly Arab East Jerusalem and predominately Israeli West Jerusalem. West Jerusalem is much nicer developed with modern stores and apartment buildings. Sidewalks are wide and cafes are busy with well-dressed people enjoying their day. East Jerusalem is much poorer in appearance. Stores are smaller and cafes are less trendy. The streets are dirtier and the streets and sidewalks are not well kept. There seems to be a clear economic division between the communities.

We spent our days wandering the Old City. The relatively small walled area is holy ground to 3 major religious groups. We enjoyed visiting the highlights from each over our days. Visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, considered by many Christians to be where Jesus ascended to heaven was amazing. Seeing the Temple Mount where the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque are located gave us a unique look into the lives of Islamic residents of the area. It was awe inspiring seeing the Jewish people worshipping at the Western Wall, which is as close to the location of the Solomon’s First Temple as they can be, and considered their most holy spot on earth. All of these areas are within a 5 minute walk of each other.

Old City Walls


The Old City is divided between four quarters, Jewish, Armenian, Christian and Muslim. There are no signs to distinguish the different areas but they are easily identifiable. The Jewish area is nicely constructed with recently renovated buildings surrounding nicely excavated sites of Roman Era ruins. The Armenian area is smaller and mostly walled from tourists. The Christian area is filled with businesses and religious organizations. The Muslim area seems rougher and not as nicely restored with tiny alleys and tiny houses stacked in every formation on top of each other. The ancient markets are located here as well as most of the tourist souvenir shops.

The city is filled with soldiers at many corners. They are heavily armed and number in groups of 2 to 10. We saw our first uncomfortable incident when the soldiers grabbed a young looking Palestinian teenager and proceeded in roughly searching him. It was difficult to watch as it did not seem provoked and went on for some time. An older Palestinian man commented to us while shaking his head that “they treat us like animals”. The boy was sent on his way.

Muslim Quarter


A couple of days later we were sitting outside the Damascus Gate enjoying the late evening sunshine with families and shoppers in the area. We went up the steps when suddenly many soldiers went running past us toward the gate. Sirens went off and it was apparent something had happened. We continued on our short walk home as more sirens blared as police rushed to the area. We looked at the news and saw that an Israeli teen had been stabbed by two Palestinians right in front of where we had been sitting just moments before. It was difficult to imagine such a peaceful scene getting so bad in only seconds after we had left. Luckily the young man was only slightly injured.

We were having our lunch next to the Western Wall on a sunny Friday afternoon. A local Jewish man was explaining to his visiting family that the reason so many soldiers were present was that the Muslim prayers were taking place on the Temple Mount and when they were through the worshippers needed to be “controlled” so they wouldn’t start a riot. It was disturbing because of the contempt that he said it with, especially since children were in his group.

Old City


We have had many discussions in the evenings about the situations that we witnessed in the short time we have been here. It seemed like each day we witnessed something that left us feeling uneasy. The tension in the city seems palpable. People appear and act uncomfortably. Smiles and laughter are not common. We asked an un-busy cab driver we were talking to on the Mount of Olives when tourist season picks up. He told us sadly that it never gets busy anymore. The tourists don’t come now.

Yesterday was our worst day yet. At Jaffa Gate we decided to go on the Rampart Walk along the Old City walls. The route leads from Jaffa gate around to Herod Gate on the northern side of the walls. It was a pretty day and we were enjoying the excellent view from the top of the wall. As we neared New Gate we began to hear lots of sirens. We could hear gun shots followed by explosions from the direction we were going. Within second more sirens could be heard coming from nearly every direction. We continued on toward Damascus Gate. The roads outside the walls were being blocked and police and soldiers were everywhere. As we continued, it was apparent that that everyone’s attention was focused outside the gate. Guns were drawn everywhere and people were blocked from the area.

Old City Graves


As we continued to approach we could see from our birds eye view the tragic scene below. 3 Palestinian youths were lying on the ground in pools of blood. A young female soldier was being rushed to an ambulance. Hundreds of police were everywhere and photographers were hurrying past us on the walls to get the best views. Hundreds of bystanders were gathering in the street below and curious residents were peaking from nearby apartment windows. To be honest, we didn’t know what to do. We stood and watched the scene from above. I can’t really say we were scared. It just seemed unbelievably sad. The three dead boys looked so young. They didn’t look evil. Later we learned that the soldier girl had also been killed. She didn’t seem old enough to be in uniform, much less to have lost her life.

I have read the story of what happened. I suppose the conclusions are different based on who is telling the story. I understand the issue from both sides. I feel compelled to pick a side. I am having a hard time being observant. What I saw was tragic and someone must be to blame. Someone must be right and someone must be wrong. What I do know is correct is that 4 very young people are not going to live full lives and that is very sad.

Dormition Abbey


Much of the current troubles in the world seem to radiate out from this area of the world. I am trying my best to be a good traveler and stick to my goal of being observant. It is hard to be objective. I see wrong on both sides. It is difficult for me to see any good in any of this.

I do know that Jerusalem has a unique opportunity to set an example of how the rest of the world could live. If they could figure out how to get along within the tiny confines of the walled Old City then surely the rest of the world could use them as an example and find a way themselves. I know that the situation is difficult and we all feel as though we must pick a side. I hope for the young people here that the people in charge at least make an effort.

As I write this, many sirens are passing outside our house and are headed toward the old city again. It doesn’t seem as though they have figured it out yet.

Jerusalem Old City