Carved by relentless winds
Torn up from its bowels
Blinded by sands
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.
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;
With our eyes full of dust
That never clears in our ceaseless wandering"
"In the Deserts of Exile." -Jabra Ibrahim Jabra.