Oblivious in Dubai: Part 11

JFK Airport; New York, New York.

The delays in Dubai caused me to miss my connecting flight. The kind old man in Dubai who changed my flights warned me that this was a possibility.

We land; de-plane, and start going through customs. There are hundreds of people in front of me; many families, many children; all brown.

This is what I worried about; I didn’t want to believe that racial profiling exists. Unfortunately it does; and at this particular airport; it was in full force. Hundreds of non-caucasian people lined up ahead of me.

At customs; there were three lanes starting on the right; US Citizens; Diplomats; Non-US Citizens. There were almost no Americans on the flight; nor diplomats. While travelling; I always wore my NATO badge and passport around my neck. The Department of Homeland Security agents started at the front of the line and began working their way back. I watched them checking the identification and bags of children and families. It didn’t appear friendly; at all.

One of the men makes his way to me. “What’s that?” he says as he grabs my badge. He reads it.

“Where you coming from son?” he asked.

“Kandahar, sir.”

“How long?” he asked.

“Three months so far, first trip home.”

“Where you headed?” he asked.

Halifax, my flight’s in about 30 minutes.

“Go there, someone should be there in moment. Tell her you’re connecting to Halifax and she’ll show you where to go. You’d better hurry.” he pointed to the Diplomat queue, which was empty.

I go over; she doesn’t even look at my passport. He must have called someone to meet me there. She knew exactly where I was headed and who I was.

“Go down there, quickly.” she points, “Take a left and check your bags. You’re going to have to get on the airport subway.” she says. “When you check your bags; ask for directions.”

I thank her and start running.

Turns out that travelling through JFK Airport while on leave from a theatre-of-war is a pretty smooth experience; despite the racial profiling I’d witnessed.
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Lost on the airport-train; I missed my flight. Two flights missed in two days; I’m quite good at this.

I get to the gate and have to go through security again after slipping outside for a cigarette. There are uniformed US soldiers; armed to the teeth; standing by some of the exits.

Little extreme, no?

I’ve got hours laid over; to sit and wait in this airport. This trip home was only for a week; really only five days.

I search for a power outlet to plug in my laptop. I find one beside a series of elevators; no benches or seats in site. I set up camp with my back against the wall and my legs across the floor; beside the electrical outlet.

Can’t get on Wi-Fi; pain in the ass.

I give up, get up; and walk through security for one last time in search of food.

Coffee; Sausage ‘n’ Egger, hash browns. A feast fit for champions and scholars.

Part Twelve

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Oblivious in Dubai: Part 10

Plane delayed due to technical difficulties; not the most comforting of thoughts while preparing for a fifteen-hour transatlantic flight.

Sitting at the gate; an hour past the call for boarding; watching the plane sit on the runway with workers and hazard-lights surrounding it. The men outside peer into the engines and shine flashlights on obscure parts of the fuselage; thank God I stopped for whisky.

I strike conversation with an American woman and her baby. The baby wasn’t much of a talker.

As is customary with single-serving friends that you meet en-route; we discussed our lives and how we got there. We talked of where we were from; the journey that led us here; and of our families.

She smiled when I told her I was on my way home from Afghanistan.

Her brother was a member of the US military and had served tours in the Middle East. She told me a wonderful story about how he found a puppy in Iraq. His squad carried the puppy around with them on patrol; in their backpacks. He would sit quietly during firefights beside his adopted squad. After his deployment; her brother loaded his new best-friend in his backpack and took him to freedom in America.

We laughed and cried; and I talked to her child in a drunken-immature-uncle baby-like voice.

Emirates Airlines planes are the most lavish and beautiful in all the world; as much of the world as I’ve seen anyway. Sitting in coach; you even feel like you’re travelling in style. There are two types of flight experiences when flying transatlantic with Emirates Airlines – a full plane and an empty plane.

We’re either packed as sardines or have an entire row to ourselves.

When I first embarked on this journey; three months previous; we were packed like sardines. I was sitting in the middle of three rows; each row having five seats. A full plane from Toronto to Dubai. A man beside me lifted the armrests and laid down with his bare feet kicking me during his night-terrors. I pushed; shoved and slapped this mans leg every time – to no avail.

Going back home though, Dubai to New York and then onward; there was hardly a soul. Granted that while sitting at the gate waiting for the plane to be ready; it seemed like a lot of people. But, when we actually boarded I had not only an entire row to myself; but what seemed like almost an entire section of the plane.

I lifted all of the armrests up and turned my series of airplane seats into a grand, luxurious, turbulence-driven rest-receptacle (aka a makeshift bed). At one point, a flight attendant wakes me and asks if I need anything. In her hand she is holding a large wicker bowl full of Mars, Twix, Oh Henry!, salted peanuts and sandwiches.

“Yes, absolutely; how much?” I ask.

“No charge, sir. Anything you like.” she says.

I take some peanuts, a king-sized Mars bar, a sandwich and some Coca Cola. I also order two beer.

She brings me Coors Light. No charge.

A large chunk of this flight was a nap. I watched some in-flight movies and television – but my regular channel to check-up on was the map channel. It showed us where we were in the world; what we were flying over. It moved so slowly; but every time I’d switch back we had inched closer to the North American continent.

How fortunate I was to catch a red-eye.

In the hands of the pilots, I was. At this point they were glorified and specially skilled airborne taxi-drivers that I couldn’t converse with.

I bet a rickshaw would be fun.

Part Eleven

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Oblivious in Dubai: Part 9

Sitting in an Irish pub; in an Emirati airport, drinking Scottish whisky and American beer. In come some soldiers I know.

We have a few drinks; they’re on their way to Thailand. Thailand I thought; oh the possibilities.

A bunch of Canadians, just being Canadian. Havin’ a time; havin’ some drinks. They take off one way; I down the other. I’ve still got many tens of gates to walk past. I walk into a drug store and tell the guru behind the counter that I feel sick.

He no doubt can smell the whiskey and the fatigue. He sells me a package of strange red capsules. The guru assures me that the ginkgo biloba gelatin inside was just what the doctor ordered; all that I needed to cleanse my mind and body.

Fifty dollars later and he’s cleansed my pocket change; bloody persuasive hippie.

He also sold me some Tiger Balm. I’ve only ever heard the term on Seinfeld, but that was all the credibility that a purchasing decision at that point required.

Fuck it; you only buy ancient-mystical-Asian-healing-balms once in a while.

Give me some Viagra too.
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I take a seat further down the airport beside a man wearing a shalwar kameez. I love Islamic culture; it’s beautiful. Unfortunately I knew that my stench of liquor and debauchery would offend this man; but he was very kind to me anyway. Just as everyone I met in Dubai or from Afghanistan was. Kind, peaceful, respectful and honest. They always seemed more concerned that I was okay; than anything else. 

He was from New York; visiting family back in Pakistan.

Drunkenly, and with the utmost honesty, I ask the man, “They must give you shit at the airport in New York, eh?”

You have no idea.” he said.

I sit at the gate with this man as we watch the people gather for our flight; conversing casually. He eventually excuses himself to go grab something to eat.

People-watching with strangers is the oddest thing. If we didn’t happen to be sitting beside one another; we very well could have each been having an oddly similar conversation with other people – observing one another in some perverse alternate dimension.

Part Ten

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Oblivious in Dubai: Part 8

We spend several hours at the ‘tourist village’.

We eat atop cushions in the sand, sitting around a circular stage. I drink cans of Budweiser – as per protocol.

A female belly dancer and a man dancing in the Sufi whirling fashion take turns on the stage entertaining us tourists.

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We finish our meal; take photos with the entertainers; then load up in our vehicles to head back into civilization. I, relatively full of Budweiser; take my spot in the front – beside the driver. Because, why not?

The night is dark and humid; the stars are bright. I am drunken and near-sleeping as we rip and roar through the streets of Dubai. Flashes of neon signs and the night life of the city are burned in the back of my brain. My eyes half-cocked; taking in a small percentage of the visual stimuli present around the vehicle. I’d really like to spend more time with that man’s wife. Nice lady, I thought.

The couple and their friend get out of the SUV at some uncertain location; the driver tells me we should be back to my hotel within 20 minutes.

We get there; and I disembark to the warm embrace and welcome of the friendly security guard who arranged my impromptu adventure. He was delighted to hear I had such a good time. I thanked him warmly and repeatedly for suggesting the tour.

A quick chat with Salazar; and then up to my suite to shower and pack my things for my flight. Drunken and ridiculous, I make my way to the lobby. Beautiful and dark walls of stained wood fill the elevator and reception area.

They give me back my passport; and they hail me a cab. This was no ordinary taxi, there wasn’t a meter or a rooftop sign. This was some guy’s car who said he’d take me to the airport. Most of the rest of the past 24 hours had transpired in a similar fashion; so why not?

I make sure to take a business card from the hotel. This is the best way to ensure you make your way back to a place you have once been.

He takes me to the airport; I thank him and make my way through airport security. I check my bags; get my boarding pass; and make my way through the endlessly commercial international circus that is the Dubai International Airport.

Diamond stores, electronic stores, fashion stores, drug stores and liquor stores; a shopping plaza primed for international travellers. Inflated prices (though the booze was moderately priced) and exclusive designer clothing filled the miles of commerce.

I locate the general direction of my gate; and stop at one of the many pubs along the way to have a stiff beverage – the undying friend of a weary solo traveller.

Part Nine

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Oblivious in Dubai: Part 7

The perfectly matched convoys of SUV’s, full of tourists, rolled around the sand dunes; somewhere on the outskirts of Dubai. We stopped for photo ops at picturesque and scenic spots that only locals could find on their own.

Wild camels; a goat farm; a high ridge from which to look off and enjoy the endless red hue of the desert sand. The lady riding with us was beautiful; she said she was from India. Her husband wasn’t a fan of mine. All I did was make polite conversation; I asked her to use my camera to take a picture of me.

Unfortunately a gust of wind came along. I got a brilliant picture of my gut; on a background straight out of Lawrence of Arabia. After basking in the late-afternoon heat of the Arabian desert; our convoy loaded back in to our white Range Rovers and were told we were headed for supper at the “tourist village”.

We drive in a straight line. Up and down; up and down the dunes. We hit a perpendicular strip of pavement; turn ninety degrees; and head down a two lane highway.

Suddenly we take a sharp-left. A path clearly beaten by other vehicles; we were on our way down. We arrive at a sand-bottom parking lot that leads under an arch and into a bazaar-like atmosphere with a stage in the centre.

“This is where we eat.” the driver said.

Families; foreigners; couples; and camel rides. In hindsight I should have rode the camel.

I walk under the arches and into the ‘village’. To my left; kiosks and mini-shops with trinkets and souvenirs. To my right; a hookah bar and a regular bar.

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I approach the hookah-master and ask what flavours he has. He says, “Double-apple is most popular. If you want to use hookah; use double-apple.”

He gives me a plastic contraceptive mouthpiece and instructs me to pick a seat. I choose the back wall of the circle de smoke. Having my back against the wall allows me to fully observe my surroundings; spotting danger and having multiple exit strategies – just in case.

This caution wasn’t a result of any sort of conditioning I gained while living in theatre; this was an introvert defensive strategy. I also enjoy people-watching. Observing people, while acting natural outside of their natural habitat, is infinitely intriguing and interesting. The way they interact with one another and their environment; I’ll never understand. I’m fairly certain that I’m not of this planet. I think that a lot of moderately-insane people feel this way.

It’s not us that are strange for being different; it’s all of you that are strange for being so alike.

Part Eight

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Oblivious in Dubai: Part 6

From hoards of cars and people; to a lonely two lane highway in the middle of endless miles of sand.

Plenty of room; sitting in the back of a beautiful white Range Rover in mid-afternoon. There was a couple, a dude; the driver; and myself.

We stop at a strip mall beside a white-and-blue billboard in the middle of the fucking desert. There was a restaurant; clothes shop; and a shoe shop.

After ordering coffee, I try on some local clothes (which, in hindsight, should have been purchased); take pictures of the shoes, and take a picture of the white-and-blue sign. I then wait for these slackers to eat.

We’re met with a whole convoy of similar Ranger Rovers.

Oh fuck.

After a moment I realized that this is not dangerous at all; I’m over-reacting. This is a tourist destination.

Neat; it’s relaxing not to be doing stupid, dangerous shit.

The drivers of each of the white Range Rovers take out tire-gauges; flip them over; and start letting a bunch of the air out of the tires. I learned something very valuable that moment; if you’re ever stuck in sand… let some air out of your tires.

Not all of it. Just a bit. More traction.

For the purpose of trying to drive hits to the site. I’m going to post some of the pictures that I took that day under this line of text.

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I’ve been to Dubai six times.

The city of Dubai is beautiful. It’s industrial and it’s a ‘boom-town’; but it’s beautiful. I’ll contrast it to another oil ‘boom-town’ that I’m familiar with as a Canadian – Fort McMurray, Alberta.

Both cities built on the back of the oil industry; one of them a beautiful tourist destination – the other is an industrial wasteland. Maybe we just don’t hear about the cancer rates in that part of the world.

It struck me as the Vegas of the Middle East. It was the place to go; it was the place to be. Flights land there from every country within the distance of an air-plane-gas-tank.

We scale sand dune after sand dune. Our convoy of white SUVs; other convoys of SUV’s.

Idiot locals on quad bikes. I hate loud noises; can’t handle them at this moment in history.

Loud noises.

Safe mode

Cover mode.

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The problem with loud noises is that for the past three months I’d lived with air conditioners; generators; planes; helicopters and vehicles running around the clock. My auditory system had adjusted itself to the beautiful and constant, military-flavoured white-noise that was our existence while in-theatre. Anything aside from the constant hum of the ebb-and-flow of life on a military base was not something my mind was prepared for.

A sudden, loud, and unexpected noise was usually bad.

Most of the time it meant a rocket.

Many times I could feel the impact; we all could. Then we took cover. Then we heard the alarm. Then we heard the voice over the loudspeaker, “Rocket Attack! Rocket Attack!“.

The rhythmic wailing of the alarm became the most exciting time to be alive; knowing that there was a slight chance that all could go wrong; right then; right there.

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Part Seven

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Oblivious in Dubai: Part 5

“What’s wrong with being American?” I asked.

They have the illusion of freedom and a population educated enough to push buttons without drooling on them. But how does any of that matter to this Egyptian man in Dubai?

“There is nothing wrong with American people. People are just people, everywhere in the world. But, American foreign policy and meddling in the affairs of sovereign nations causes a lot of grief to those that see themselves as oppressed. As that grief, frustration and anger builds; those suffering and those standing in solidarity with those that are suffering – get angrier and angrier.”

The sight of a seemingly privileged American – drunk and lost in a country that frowns upon such predicaments – was just another assumption made true about the indifference of American society to anything outside of its own bubble.

Once we cleared up the fact that I was not American; the taxi driver looked at me and said, “You don’t want to go to that hotel. Too expensive. I’m going to take you to a hotel that is near to it; if you do not like it, I will take you back to your other hotel instead.”

Now in hindsight; nineteen, naive and with no bearings whatsoever – agreeing to have a man I’d just met drive me to an unknown location was probably not what I should have done.

But, I did it. And it was one of the most fruitful of drunken judgement calls to date.

This kind Egyptian man took me to a hotel; near to a bank and across a parking lot and some buildings from Burger King. He gets out and talks to the doorman; and then they hail the bellhop, Salazar.

The taxi driver tells me he will wait while I check out the room. If I don’t like it – he will take me to the other hotel.

In hindsight – I probably should have taken my bags with me.

Salazar and I go up to the sixth floor; he shows me a room with a balcony – facing Burger King.

We head back downstairs to the front desk.

“Looks great – how much for the day and most of the evening?” I ask.

“Eighty five US, sir.” says the man behind the counter.

I accept; thank the taxi driver; and Salazar helps me with my things.

On the way to my room, while in the elevator, Salazar asks me if I want a woman to visit.

“What you like? Nubian girl?”

After my experience the night before; I knew not to ask if he was serious.

I laughed, thanked him for the offer, and reassured him that I was ‘okay’.

“Okay sir, if you change your mind just call front desk and ask for Salazar.”

I showered and then decided to go for a walk. On my way out; I stopped to chat with the door-man who greeted the taxis and tenants. He offered me the opportunity to go on a ‘Desert Safari’. At this moment I was still very sick and hungover – so I decided to continue my exploration of the neighbourhood.

Nothing exciting near by; I visited a local corner store that was a few hundred metres from the hotel – purchasing some shisha and a power-bar-converter so that I could charge my laptop.

I made it back to the hotel; went inside; and tried to nap. No such luck. The anguish of a hangover mixed with the euphoria of opportunity kept me primed and ready.

I think it’s time I go on that safari.

Down the elevator and outside to the reception area; I approach the door-man and ask him to book me for the desert safari.

I pay him, which was odd for me. I later came to understand that this is how some transactions are conducted in some parts of the world. He arranges it; takes payment; takes a cut – and later on that day an SUV would come pick me up.

I trusted him; hell, I trusted the cab driver. This was an extension of the trust paid to my driver.

Why not get into an SUV with strangers and let them drive me out into the middle of the Arabian desert?

Part Six

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