Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Arabian Nights.

"I speak of Desert without repose
Carved by relentless winds
Torn up from its bowels
Blinded by sands
Unsheltered solitary
Yellow as death
Wrinkled like parchment
Face turned to the sun."
  "Landscapes" - Andree Chedid.


Another long adventure, another experience is winding down.  I am in my last night here in the deserts of Arabia.  It is always a strange feeling to leave a place that has been your home.  I have not just visited the Middle East.  I have not just passed through the isolation of the Western Region of the UAE, but I have lived here.  This has been my home for a year, and I know I am leaving now.  I am leaving my home.  I am leaving forever.  This is not the first time I have left a home, nor will it be the last.  It is a different feeling than before.  It is perhaps the absence of a feeling.  When I left Arizona, I was sad.  When I left Utah, I was sad.  When I left California, I was sad.  When I left the US, I was sad.  When I left Korea, I was sad.  When I leave here, I will not be sad.  I am not sad now.  I have lived here, but perhaps I should rephrase what I said before, this has not been my home.    This has been so different from other places I have lived.  I have had some unique and fun experiences while living here, but the living here seems to be defined by the absence of things.  I miss living in a place where I can just take a walk outside.  I miss living in a place where I can see something beautiful and find some peaceful spot.  Here, there is no place to walk to, no beauty for miles and miles, just an emptiness of flat sand, smoggy air, and electric lines. 
  Living in a labor camp is an interesting experience.  Yes, this is a labor camp, but do not get visions of WWII camps stuck in your mind, or us poor starving souls out digging ditches.  This is a camp for day laborers, most of them from poor Asian countries who come here and work long hours in the HOT, HOT sun for $200-$300 a month.  Yes, some do make more than that, and we westerners make considerably more than that, but there is a huge inequality in these countries.  There is a definite class or caste system.  Nationals are automatically superior to everyone and anyone else in the whole of the world, followed by other oil rich GCC countries.  Western expats are next on the list, and we are treated well.  After us westerners, other Arabic countries, then falling far below comes in the Filipinos, the Pakistanis, the Sri Lankans, Nepalese, Indians, and so forth.  The Indians are down at the very bottom of the barrel.  This is a country of indentured servitude.  Many of the people here are only a rung or two above being slaves.  It really is awful how they are treated, disrespected, and looked so down upon. Many of the people at the camp fall in to those lower categories, though those falling in to the very lowest are crammed in to camps and living conditions FAR worse than what we have here.  Our camp is not entirely bad, though the atmosphere here does strange things and seems to suck the life and will out of you.  It is not a good place to be.  Other than a very small handful of us English teachers, the only westerners at this camp only stay for a couple weeks until their company finds them better living arrangements, or they are here on short assignments only.  Those I have told I am here for a year have this mixed look of pity and respect.  Perhaps we are at least a little deserving of both. 
  There are perks to the place.  We do get our clothes washed, room cleaned, and free food at scheduled times.  The room is not always extremely clean, but clean enough, and not too many cockroaches and bugs to really bother you.  It is a basic room, as I mentioned in an earlier post, but basic is good enough for me.  I can honestly say that I have stayed in guest houses in Asia for between $5-$8 a night that are better than this room, but again, other than the horrible, horrible mattress, I am content with the room.  The food is well balanced, but not well prepared or particularly good.  We have chicken nearly every night, and it is like chewing on an eraser.  I rarely find myself excited about a meal time here, but eat because I know I need to and am hungry.  The meat here is so incredibly dry.  I feel like I need a gulp of water with every bite.  The good nights are when we have these small miniature sized steaks, that are also pretty dry, but not near as bad as the chicken and not as caked in fat as the lamb.  Still though, it is better than shopping and cooking for myself, though sometimes I don't really believe that. 
  There has only been one social event this whole year living here at the camp.  There was a basketball tournament between some of the companies who had employees here.  We got a team together and played.  Most of the games, I was the only white person and the only westerner on any of the six teams.  The last two games we got another American guy who lives at the hotel about 30 km away to join our team, but other than those two games, I was it.  My team was all Lebanese guys and one Filipino and then me, and all the other teams were 100% Filipino.  We did win the tournament.  Yep, we are may as well be the basketball champions of the whole Western Region.  We weren't the best team, but when you are playing all Filipinos you tend to have a height advantage, and we really capitalized on that advantage. 
  The rest of the time at the camp you feel like you are in lock down.  I think I mentioned this before.  I call the camp "prison with a paycheck."  We get our work release and we all meet in the dirty cafeteria at meal times, and other than that, you stay in your room the rest of the night.  There really just isn't much else to do.  I leave every weekend, usually just to the one hotel that is 30 km away, though sometimes I head to Abu Dhabi or Dubai and I actually find it shocking to see a woman out there.  Unless I go to the hotel, I don't see a woman where I live, not at work, not at that camp, and not even out walking around.  Where I live, the only place to walk on is the dangerous highway, and people in this area are notoriously bad drivers and there is a high traffic fatality rate here. 
  This really is an interesting country, crippled by their wealth.  The government gives the locals everything, free houses, free money, free everything, and because everything is handed to them, most of the people here are quite possibly the laziest and most incompetent people in the world.  It is sad really.  It is not the Arabia I hoped for.  It is not at all the Arabia I envisioned.  Eighty percent of the country are expats, mostly from India and Pakistan, and then the Philippines.  The locals often complain about too many expats in the country, but they could not survive without these expats.  They would not be able to pump, drill, and refine the oil, and in fact, I don't think they would be able to pump their own gas at the petrol station.  This country is entirely dependent upon expat labor to do everything.  It is good for them they have all this oil. 
  It has not all been bad.  I have had good experiences and done fun things.  I have gone out to the desert, gone dune boarding and dune bashing, been on camels, swam in the sea, taken great and amazing vacations to new and exciting countries, seen the tallest building in the world, dined in the world's most luxuriant hotel, toured the world's most expensive mosque, visited old souks and bazaars, bartered and bargained, bought Arabian frankincense and myrrh, and made new friends, and most of the year, the weather here is quite fantastic.  Yes, in the summer it can be horribly hot and extremely humid.  It was about 122 degrees the last couple days, and very, very humid on top of that, but most of the year the weather is not so bad, and much of the year it is extremely pleasant, with wonderful evenings and warm days.  Yes, I will miss those Arabian nights when after working out at the hotel I would stroll the grounds of the hotel out in the dark alone and the weather would so sublimely sift across my body and soothe and settle upon my skin.  Those were my peaceful moments, my Arabian nights. I did enjoy that.    I have certainly had my moments here, and those moments are coming to an end.  I will likely never again be in this country, will never again teach a Bedouin child, or spend hours driving through the blank desert.  I am leaving it all.  I am leaving it forever, and yet, I am not sad for this.  This is not my home.  I have had several homes, and this will not be one of them.  I am heading soon to one of them. I do not get excited about many things.  I get excited about traveling though, and always get excited about going home.  I wonder what it will be like this time.  I know I cannot top my last visit home and that great surprise.  I will not hitch hike home, skinny and starved and tap on my mother's surprised shoulder.  Still though, I am excited.  I am always excited to see family, and living abroad makes me far more excited.  I am not just seeing my family.  I am seeing my home.  I am seeing my country.  I suppose Utah will always be my home, even though I have no home there myself, and have not lived there myself for 6 years, but it is where my family is, and I will always keep a large part of myself there.  I will always be a Utahn with a lot of California in me and room left over for Arizona and Korea.  I cannot say when I will live in the US again, but I know I will live and die an American and will be proud of that. 
  Anyway, there is in fact a lot more I could say, but I wake up early for a long day of traveling and still need to finish with packing and wish to write at least a paragraph about my last little venture out of the UAE, my venture in to neighboring Oman.

We had a long holiday weekend not long ago, and I took advantage by heading over to Oman for the holiday.  I do typically prefer to travel alone, but I did invite a South African fellow living at the camp to join me, and he did.  He has not done much for traveling before, and I think this was his first trip without his mother he has been on.  It turned out be a great little holiday. 
  We left right after work and took a bus to Dubai and spent the night in old Dubai at the cheapest hotel in town.  Early in the morning we hopped a bus for Muscat, several hours out east on the sea.  We spent a few nights out there just meandering around the city.  Muscat is an extremely spread out city.  it seemed to be three or four town in one, all separated by mountains.  The mountains there reminded me of the mountains on the Sinai Peninsula, though not as large, still they stood tall and craggy and popped up unevenly and chaotically like pointed gopher mounds.  The roads curved and swayed and the whole city seemed built with the mountains in mind, from the color to location.  Muscat is a beautiful city, far more unique than anything in the UAE.  Old Muscat was wonderful.  All the buildings were Arabic architecture and the mountains curved around the sea with splendid views.  The buildings seemed to be placed mathematically and precisely to accentuate and blend in with the mountains around.  I don't know how to describe the city except to say that everything seemed to fit.  Nothing was out of place or called too much attention.  The city seemed conscious of itself, of its surroundings, especially the mountains and the sea.  We spent nearly all our time in old Muscat walking up and down the streets, staring at old forts and watch towers on top of rocky, jutting mountains with brick that blended in to rock.  We walked the old souk and shopped and ate and feasted on delicious juices, much needed in the heat and humidity.  We saw the Sultan's palace and his yacht, which I mistook for a cruise ship.  We drove out to a beach lying in an alcove and sat secluded and peaceful in the sun, surrounded by a desert that seemed so much more alive than Ruwais. 
  I did quite like it there, and was even fascinated by little things such as having locals work as cab drivers or hotel attendants.  In the UAE, locals only work in plush government jobs.  They hire poor Asians to do everything else, so you would never have an Emirate cab driver or hotel attendant, so I found it refreshing in Oman to see the locals working and providing a living for themselves.  I instantly gained more respect for that country, and the city did seem more genuine and more authentic and it offered a more cultural feel and vibe to it.  Dubai can be a fun city with many things to do, but it does not have a genuine Arabic feel to it.  Muscat had that.  I loved it, the very feel of it.
  Anyway, for any of you who read.  I am finished.  I am finished for tonight.  I am finished with my travels, at least for a short time.  Soon, new adventures will start, the first being a reunion with my family.  I do not know when I may write again.  I am never entirely sure if I will write again, but I'll make the effort, and hope to find more to tell than I have been telling thus far. 

"O land of ours where our childhood passed
Like dreams in the shade of the orange-grove,
Among the almond-trees in the valleys--
Remember us now wandering
Among the thorns of the desert,
Wandering in rocky mountains;
Remember us now
In the tumult of cities beyond deserts and seas;
Remember us
With our eyes full of dust
That never clears in our ceaseless wandering"

  "In the Deserts of Exile."  -Jabra Ibrahim Jabra.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Top of the World.

"The highest of the world's mountains, it seems, has to make but a single gesture of magnificence to be the lord of all, vast in unchallenged and isolated supremacy."
George Mallory
Mt. Everest.
This entry will be short, and it will be celebratory. After finishing this entry I will finally be caught up and current in my blog, which also means I will be back to my not so frequent writing.  I doubt my entries will be greatly missed or wanted.  I’ll be going back home to the US for a short visit soon, and after that starting another year abroad in a new city and new experiences, so still there will be some things  to write about, and perhaps I’ll be inclined to begin writing again not just about travel and adventure, but upon my own pointless musing and introspection.  Perhaps I will begin my confessionary tales again, things I find it odd I would write in a public space when all my life I have been such a private man.  We shall see what happens.
  I don’t anticipate traveling this summer.  I had planned on it, but now my brother is getting married, and I will give up any vacation to be a part of his wedding, and I will want the few weeks’ time I have to spend with family while I can.  I’ll have opportunities to travel in the following months, and I will use those opportunities wisely.  
  After Chitiwan I headed back up to Kathmandu for the last couple days.  Most of my time in Kathmandu I spent aimlessly wandering the city, stopping at local bakeries and enjoying all the sights and sounds of the frenetic city.   I stayed in a cheap guesthouse, just over $3 a night for a private room with a private bath.  I tried to get the room for $2 a night, but it was booked up, so I opted to splurge and really spoil myself.  The room was better than what those with little experience in backpacking across the less developed countries of Asia would expect for $3 a night, but for anyone with experience, it was exactly what you’d expect.  It was a small cramped space with a thin and stained mat lying on top of a plank board and a tattered and old blanket.  It was all I needed and slightly more, so I was completely content, and the location was perfect for my last couple days. 
  I loved the shops in Nepal.  They called out to my former hippy self, a part of me that still loves to climb out and play in full regalia.  The clothes were fantastically amazing for me, and the women’s clothes were exceptionally groovy and interesting.  I bought little, but found myself a few small things and two very large spools of hemp to make necklaces and bracelets, which my young students in the U.A.E. have all clamored for.  The city was busy and noisy and dirty and many of the streets winded around the deteriorated buildings in a maze indistinguishable avenues and shops.  I found myself pleasantly and expectedly lost on many occasions.  I enjoyed walking around, perhaps my favorite thing to do in any city, to walk with no purpose, to go nowhere at all, and yet, I always go precisely where I want to go.

My last day in Nepal I woke early and took a flight in a small plane over the Himalayan Mountains and flew over the top of Mt. Everest, the highest point on earth.  If I could say I have stood on that spot, at the top of the world, it would be an invaluable claim, but merely saying I have flown above it, is that worth anything at all?  It must hold at least some value, for I have seen Everest, far above clouds and cloaked in the glisten of snow, a sparkling whit pluming over the cold gray of boulders.  I have seen Everest and the more impressive peaks standings shorter in a royal march of mighty mountains.  I may never stand on its top, wishing to tackle other adventures first, but at least I have seen its very tip high in the cold and cloudless air.  At least I have that. 
  After the flight I walked to the main Hindi Temple in Kathmandu.  It is called Pashipatinat, no idea on the spelling, but that is about how it sounds.  I walked around looking for Krishna beads like those I use to wear 15 years ago that I bought when I use to visit the Krishna temple back home in Utah to enjoy the Sunday feast and celebrations.  The beads at the temple back in Utah were much more to my liking, and during my visit this summer I will have to go back to that temple and see if they still have the same beads and the same Sunday celebrations. 
  Inside the temple grounds they have a crematorium where they burn the bodies of those passing on to a new stage of a reincarnate life cycle.  Those bodies that I saw, slowly surrounded in flames, what will they be in their next life?  Did they live their calling well?  Will they progress one step closer to a final end of reincarnation and a dissolving in to the oneness and nothingness of all things?  Will they become my newborn neighbors?  Will they become some poor begging child I pass in some African country ten years from now?  Will they remember any of their beliefs?  Will they remember their goal and desire of Nirvana, of a blending in with matter?  Will it be easy for them to progress if they do not remember, nor any longer believe what they were hoping for?  While I do not personally believe in reincarnation, it is a fun thought to let your mind be carried away on, and at moments, I can let myself believe in anything at all. 
  I specifically went to that temple to see the Holy Men of Kathmandu who hang outside the temple with long beards and longer hair and painted faces.  At times in my life I have not looked so different from them.  They have a little hippy inside them as well.  In pictures they always looked so fascinating, but when I saw them in person, I did not even want a picture myself.  At first sight of me approaching they rose from their squalor and stood as tall they could.  It was almost like a line up in a massage parlor when a man chooses what woman he most desires.  They beckoned and begged and wrapped their hair as interesting they could.  These men made their meager living by looking disheveled, and in photos they seemed wise and devout and pure, but in person they were merely homeless beggars living in rags outside the temple, eager and competing for photo opportunities with tourists, charging a fee for a picture of them or a picture with them.  They were like the hounding shopkeepers all competing for your business, only these Holy Men competed for the flash of your camera and the required donation.  It seemed posing in their straggly hair was their only trade, and I saw nothing holy in it, but instead a sad reality and disappointment.  They did not seem like a great indigenous people or religious gurus, but only beggars wasting the day by smoking hash, unshaven and unclean.  I do not doubt their devoutness.  I do not know it, but like the long neck ladies of Thailand, they seemed to keep up their “authentic” look more to be a tourist site, so I passed up my photo op with the men I had come to the country hoping to get a picture with.  I was not disappointed in my decision. 
  After the temple I went about Kathmandu looking to spend the last of my rupees, and that evening I took a flight back to Abu Dhabi, arriving at night.  Once again my entire bag was searched.  This country loves to single me out.  They unfolded every piece of clothing, turned out every pocket, unscrewed the caps of my toothpaste and deodorant, patted down my body, and even flipped through the individual pages of my journal.  It is becoming habitual for this to happen, and it takes over 30 minutes just for the search.  That is what I call hippy profiling.  Perhaps it serves me right showing up in airports the way I often do.  I certainly do look to be exactly what I am not, a pot-smoke, drug smuggling hippy. 
  I arrived back at the camp at 2:00 a.m. and got to bed near 2:30 a.m., waking up for work at 4:45.  That was over three months ago, three long months of life back in Al Gharbia, back with the Bedouin kids and the blank emptiness of Arabia.  Soon though, soon, I will be somewhere beautiful again, the mountains of my home.  We will talk of that soon. 

Mt. Everest.

THE ENERGY OF THE PLACE SLAMS LIKE A SHOCK wave... Kathmandu is so overwhelming, so packed with images, that succinct summaries seem almost impossible- certainly inadequate. I'm tempted to say ‘You'll understand when you get there....’It's a dream. I've never seen anything 1ike it.”
-David Yeadon, The Back of Beyond

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Next Time, Ride That Rhino.

   Chitiwan is a large national park in the plains and hills of Nepal with a small town outside the park mostly catering to park goers.  There are several guesthouses staffed with friendly Nepali people eager to share their beautiful scenery and life.  I met many people there who when finding out I work in the U.A.E. had told me they wanted to move to this country for work also.  They wanted to give up their jobs as guides in beautiful national parks and amazing nature to come and work as indentured servants in an ugly and barren wasteland for only $200-$400 a month.  However, in Nepal they were only making about $40 a month with little to no time off, so the meager wages and not so pleasant life of the U.A.E. was a life that most of them could only hope for, hoping for a way to provide for their parents or wives or children or siblings.  It is amazing to me sometimes how blessed I have been simply because I was born and raised in an English speaking country.  My whole life of the last 3 years, my work, my travels, my adventure, all of it is possible simply because I speak English and have a university degree from an English speaking country.  Something I had no control over at all is providing me with what I love most in life. 

  One night in Chitiwan after dinner I went to a Nepali culture performance.  A couple men played drums while about 20 young men danced around beating sticks in rhythmic unison, pounding sticks with the person in front of them, then to the rear.  There were several dances, one with a fire stick, one called the lady boy dance with a young man dressed as a woman doing a courting dance for another young man.  It was an interesting show.
  What I really went to Chitiwan though was the national park.  I began one morning and walked down to the river and jumped inside a long traditional canoe and slowly sifted through the calm ripples of the river for the next hour and a half.  The water was shallow and our dug-out canoe carved from the trunk of a local cotton tree scraped the bottom in several places.  Lilly pads and moss dotted the water in forest of kiwi green and birds chirped and whistled and cackled and walloped.  For bird watchers, it was an ideal canoe trip, with red and blue and white King Fishers and Igrits and Peacocks, and Hornbills and Swallows and dozens of others that fluttered and flew and sat in hanging branches. 
  After the slow traverse on the canoe and along with four other people, I began to walk through the park.  We walked around the marshy river spying on 15 foot crocodiles and walked through forest ducking under low hanging branches and spotting fresh signs of rhinos and sloth bears and Bengal tigers, but not the animals themselves, just claw marks in trees and fresh foot prints at watering holes and dung still warm.  We walked through tall grasses and marshes and past mud holes and prairies and spent hours on foot in the park with the sound of wind and birds and the light snapping and crunching under our own feet.  We didn’t see much wildlife, just the signs they were not far away.

 We broke for a long lunch and after hopped in a Jeep to make it deeper in to the park, out to the forest, then through the forest and alternating between grasses and trees.  We were more fortunate with the Jeep and saw many deer and monkeys and wild boar and more crocodile, none of which is what I had hoped to see.  I hoped to see wild one-horned rhinos, Chitiwan being one of the few places in the world to do so.  I got my wish, and we ended up spotting 10 rhinos in the wild foraging in the tall grass for a late afternoon meal.  I wanted to jump out and sneak my way up closer, but had to restrain myself and be content with staying in the Jeep and watching them run through the plains or munching on grass.  I also saw a large sloth bear, its black body running through a field and hiding behind fallen trees.  I had come to see the Rhinos, the bear was added bonus.  Bears have always been my favorite animal, and while sloth bears are not the great brown bears of North America or wild Russia, still they are bears and seeing them roaming freely in the hillsides of Asia was a thrill nonetheless. I really do need to do a proper African safari.  It is high on my list, and perhaps if I stay in the U.A.E a while longer I will.  Flights to Africa are cheap from here and not too far a distance.

  It was a long day in the park, canoeing, walking, jeeping, and returning late for a pleasant mill and some friendly chat with people I met at the guest house.  In the morning I was back at it, up early to head back in to the jungle.  I found a ride out to another part of the park I had not yet visited and sat myself on top of an elephant trodding through the jungle for about 2 ½ hours.  We went through the thick mass of trees in the park, crossed over a river with swimming crocodiles and into a dim jungle of tall trees and light shyly filtering in through the leaves and branches above.  It was morning calm and quiet and animals foraged for breakfast and seemed only half interrupted with the trod of elephant feet through the jungle, as though an elephant were natural there and not to be feared.  True, they do have wild elephants in the park, though I do not think they are a common sight. 
  The jungle was still, with the only noise the crackle and thud of elephant steps on damp fallen leaves and snapping branches and rustling of an elephant’s trunk with the occasional huff and guff of elephant breath.  We rode out to a dark and shaded pond where a large rhino stood in the water soaking his skin in the muddy brown pool.  He turned and twisted his head and fluttered his ears in photogenic fashion, but his body was ice still.  He seemed curious at the gawking hump on an elephant’s back, though not at all concerned.  It was the highlight of the ride. Next time though, I want to ride the Rhino.  I have now ridden elephants in three separate countries.  I have ridden camels, horses, and water buffalo.  Now I need a real adventure and try riding something like a moose or an elk and really show up my old man, or perhaps I’ll go for the gold and ride a wild bear or shark.  That would be the kind of thrill I’d be up for.