& Wednesday, November 25/26
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,
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
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
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
- - - - -
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
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.
travelogue is part of the subside