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Hotel Entrance, Abu Dhabi


Tuesday & Wednesday, November 25/26
Abu Dhabi

Up early to do the final packing, a last look out from the balcony of my room in Hotel Garuda, and it was downstairs for breakfast with Rob and Andy. As we waited for our porridge, except of course Andy always had the mega breakfast with eggs and toast and potatoes in addition to porridge, I took them to the stairwell to see a framed silk banner, I guess you would call it. It had the Mountain Madness logo, and was signed by team members, including the leader Rob Fisher. And up a couple of flights, a photo signed by Rob Hall. These were two central figures in Into Thin Air.

We got the doorman, who always saluted us, to hail a taxi. Rob gave him a tip for all the saluting and good humor. We jammed into the taxi and headed for the airport, to begin what would be a 30 hour day. It started in Kathmandu, of course, where a dead cow in the road snarled morning traffic. It continued to Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates. And it ended in London. It was an interesting cultural cross section.

Once at the airport, it became clear to me yet again how valuable Rob's experience was on this journey. It was a big confusing airport, of course. We were flying Gulf Air and there already was a line forming at their counters. But Rob directed us away from them, to a bank window, or what appeared to be one, where we paid our exit tax. Then we put our bags through security. And then we got in line at the Gulf Air window. People who waited in this line and got to the counter without having paid the tax first could not check in.

At the counter, we picked up a valuable piece of information. Because there simply was no way around it, we were going to have a 9 hour layover in Abu Dhabi. We had discussed renting a room at the airport hotel because we really didn't want to spend that much time in the airport. But the Gulf Air representative told us that for layovers over 6 hours they would provide us with free rooms and meals. Once checked in, we went to the departure lounge and watched BBC news.

Flying out of Kathmandu I felt ready to leave, but still it was like leaving a friend. Partly because we had friends there and partly because the country had become more familiar. I had a window seat and watched as Nepal disappeared behind us and the breadth of India passed below. There was a river that we followed for a long time. There were villages and farms and towns, just like any place, maybe not as rigidly organized as some. Then we flew over desolate mountains and desert., all very dry looking. Finally we were out over the Mediterranean and then a desert coast, very pretty mountains shrouded in clouds, and landing in Abu Dhabi.

It is a country that obviously has a lot of money. The airport itself is all nicely landscaped, with birds nesting in shrubs in the lawn beside the runway. But beyond the irrigated and manicured lawns is the brown sand of the desert. And so it is with the new subdivisions that we flew over, being claimed from the desert with a liberal sprinkling of water and money.

The Abu Dhabi airport is architecturally unique, kind of like being inside an ornately tiled flying saucer with an Arabian theme. We found the Gulf Air service desk and, along with a group of fellow travelers, got instructions for how to get the free hotel room. The first step was to go through customs and get a visitor's visa. I had one of those experiences of no matter what line I got in it was the slow one. And when I finally got to the immigration officer, he gave me a hard time once he saw my passport. Yes, it was a little damaged from being in my pocket on the trek, but I got the feeling he was making a political statement, too.

Eventually I joined the others waiting near the entrance doors of the airport. I found a place to sit on the floor and people watch. It was interesting to be immersed in a culture so different from the one we had just left, where all the women wore sarees. Here they wore burkas and long dresses. I told Andy, who was sitting beside me, that an alternative would be for the men to all be blindfolded, so the women could wear anything they wanted.

A big shiny white bus pulled up outside and we were invited to board it. It took us on a half-hour ride on a superhighway to the city of Abu Dhabi. It was early afternoon, and everything seemed to sparkle in the light, dazzling in its spotless cleanness and newness. New expensive cars were on the divided multi-lane highway with us, Mercedes and Pontiacs and Hondas, etc.

The city itself looked like Miami Beach in the distance, with high rises and freeways. And in fact, there was an upscale resort area on the water, but that's not where our hotel was. We turned through a business section and Rob and I joked about having to pin Andy to his seat when we passed MacDonald's. And there was Pizza Hut and Starbucks and every other American chain restaurant as well. We pulled up at the hotel, modest compared to its neighbors, but it provided lodging, food, and service that would be more than adequate by the standards of any city in the world.

We checked in, and were told there had to be two to a room. Andy and I got a room together and Rob took one with another Brit we had met waiting for the bus, Steve, who was a police officer. We went to the rooms and left our things and met in the pub downstairs, where the three of them had beers. It was a very convincing pub.

Steve had been in Nepal, too. He had gone on the trek that Rob originally wanted us to try, the Annapurna Sanctuary trek. According to Steve he had encountered rain and snow among other hazards. It was a two week trek (more or less) without the convenience of the villages. As we sat there in the pub, I noticed that all the help was from Asian countries, the poor ones like the Philippines and Thailand. And the desk help had been Asian, too. In the center of the room, which had booths against three walls and a bar along the other, there was a column with a table built around it, the kind you stand at. And there stood two pretty young Asian girls, looking frustrated and bored. They gave definite "I'm available" signals when I looked their way. Then I realized that the people who had set up this hotel had included in the staffing that they imported these bar girls or prostitutes or whatever you wanted to call them. It struck me as an odd thing. Not that there aren't bar girls in most cities, but the premeditated staffing of the hotel with imported Asian bar girls.

We went to a buffet lunch, which was quite good and I felt as if I could eat anything and not worry about getting sick. So I enjoyed salad and fresh fruit for the first time in weeks. Afterward, Andy wanted to go back to the room, but Rob and I didn't want to miss the opportunity to see a little of the city, so we went out walking.

- - - - -

It was late afternoon and the city was reasonably busy but not packed with traffic or people. I shot up the last frames of film in my last disposable camera. The city was almost totally new, modern, and it was immaculate. It was such a contrast from Kathmandu, an ancient city. In this city there were no dirty places or smelly places, no beggars, no poor people, really. Nobody without shoes, like the old woman on the trek who might never have worn them in her life. Probably nobody without indoor plumbing. No old faces etched by a hard life. The air was clean, the traffic orderly No cows wandering, no tuktuks or bicycle rickshaws. No din of honking horns. No beat up 1978 Toyota Corolla taxis with slipping differentials and iffy brakes. Instead there were traffic lights and shiny new cars. No shopkeepers sweeping yak dung off the street in front of their shops, no street vendors, nobody standing in front of a shop trying to get you inside. It was all bright lights and polite service staff.

We walked for many blocks, passing an interesting mix of shops. A Rolls Royce dealership. Western chain restaurants, of course, which were heavily patronized by the locals, the men wearing the traditional white sharwal kameez and kufiyyah, with the women in burkas. They drove the nice cars and their children dressed in traditional garb or western garb as they patronized the designer label stores and other western outlets. In between these western stores were sprinkled little eateries that sold Arabic foods or Islamic clothing. And the teenage children of these Arabic locals hung out on the streets and in the parks. Everywhere the service people were imported from poor Asian countries. Some of the local kids seemed very arrogant in purposefully throwing their trash or unfinished drinks onto the sidewalk, with an aggressive air. As if to say, somebody come and clean this up. The city was decked out for Ramadan with festive lights adorning the huge buildings, much like Christmas lights. We stopped at MacDonald's to use the restroom. There were families and groups of kids eating there. It was in a building that also housed a movie theater showing western films. We had coffee at a coffee shop. Like my assessment of the menu in the hotel pub, they offer pretty much anything you might want, but prices were high.

Mostly people were indifferent to us, but on at least two occasions the Arabic teens were openly hostile toward us. One hit me with a shirt he was holding, as if by accident, except it wasn't. And walking by a park, Rob said hello to some passing teens and one of the boys spat at us. Although I understood the hostility toward Americans and Brits (although they did not know our nationalities), the duality of the situation seemed to me contradictory. We flew on their airline in a Boeing jet and watched an American film in flight. They were driving western cars, eating in western restaurants, shopping at western stores, and yet they were spitting at westerners. They were enthusiastic about much that came from the west, but not westerners. Not their politics. But then, as I asked Rob, what else do you do with money? The west seems to have defined what you do with wealth. You hire people to do all the work and then, what? You build a big house and buy a bunch of things and spend more on entertainment. It would be interesting to see a culture where they do something different with wealth. It was strange to note that in Nepal, one of the poorest countries on earth, even including the Maoists, I had never sensed hostility toward us. Yet here in one of the richest countries and one with much more influence from the west, I felt it over and over. Of course, reasons could be argued.

And the other thing that really gnawed at me was the bar girls. The Islamic view of women and the burkas,etc., seemed so at odds with the very idea of importing prostitutes. I guess the same was true of alcohol-was the pub just for westerners? Were the prostitutes just for the western businessmen staying at the hotel? It was a sickening thought, that this was their assessment of how one set up a hotel to be appropriate for western travelers. And the worst part was, when we got back to the hotel, I looked for Andy. First I went into the pub, and now that it was evening, the place was full instead of practically empty as it had been earlier. The two bar girls were there, and several others as well. And each one was being chatted up by a western businessman. I wanted to yell, "Stop it! You're doing exactly what they expect of you!"

They had dinner for us, but it was too soon after lunch. I just ate some fresh fruit. Then I went to the room. Andy watched soccer and snoozed (he does snore) and I read Cold Mountain. Our flight left about midnight, so that night the bus returned to pick us up and whisk us out of the city, back along the palm lined freeway. It was none too soon for me.

- - - - -

Back at the airport, we had to wait for the passengers to disembark before we could go into the departure lounge. Among those getting off were two wealthy looking Muslim men in traditional dress, each carrying a hooded bird of prey. I'm glad I wasn't on that flight, I told Andy.

There was a security check at the entrance to the room that was the lounge for this flight. Passing through the metal detector, you basically had to remove stuff until the alarm didn't sound. I had it down to a science: remove boots, belt, glasses, watch, and anything metallic in my pockets. If a woman set off the alarm, she was taken into a little room by a security woman and searched.

It was a late night flight but nevertheless a full one. We sat watching the room fill up. This flight was a little hop to Bahrain. There were lots of young Asian people on it, connecting to Bahrain to continue on to places of employment, I guessed. And there were some interesting people. A young Asian woman who sat in front of us and talked on her cell phone the whole time. To who, I wondered, and where was the person at the other end? There was an old British man with a very young Asian girl, very probably a mail order bride. Rob said it was pathetic, and in a way it really was. But mostly they were young, attractive, ambitious men and women. I thought it was very courageous to leave home to work in another country, another culture, using a different language.

And speaking of languages, once we did get on the flight, I was reminded again of the linguistic accomplishments of the Gulf Air stewardesses. Not all of them were from Muslim countries; some were from Europe. But they all spoke Arabic and English and French and possibly other languages.

It was a flight of maybe an hour and we touched down in Bahrain. 90% of the passengers got off. We were staying on the same plane in the same seats to continue on to London, but a Gulf Air guy came around telling us we had to get off and re-board. Rob argued with him but we had to do it. And we had to go through security on the way to wait to re-board. But the security guys were friendly and good natured. They were in total sympathy with us over the absurdity of the whole thing. It gave us a very different impression of Bahrain than our experience in Abu Dhabi.

Once back in our seats and headed for London, I was reminded of how pleased I was with my decision to book vegetarian meals for all the flights to and from Nepal. The food was certainly no worse than the default meals with meat, and probably better. For example, on British Airways one meal had been bangers and mash. Not what my stomach needs on a trans-Atlantic flight. Plus the vegetarian meal, being special ordered, is prepared separately, usually first, and they bring it straight to you. So it is somewhat fresher and you don't have to wait. You can eat and then try to catch some sleep.

The next day

this travelogue is part of the subside travelzine
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