04 November 2015

Dubai, United Arab Emirates 2013, 2014

Approaching Dubai from the Persian Gulf; the mist often precludes a good, distant look at the skyline.
A couple of brief visits to this preeminent Arab city covered a few major attractions, but the lasting impression is of NEWness. Twenty-first century new. Like many cities in the Gulf area, Dubai sprang to life suddenly, it seems, with the advent of oil riches. Its "modern" history dates back only about sixty years.

I don't care for the skyline architecture, what I see as mainly a competition for outlandish design and dubious taste, but of course other progressive cities do the same (Shanghai comes to mind).
There's little in the way of history among the prevalent business power and super-consumerism. The town existed previously as a fishing village, gradually becoming a central trading point for the Gulf region. Dubai "heritage and diving villages" show something of its pearling history and craftsmen at work - oddly not featured on most tourism websites. Outside the city's flourishing progress and standard of life, the arid desert does not change.

The souks are not the mediaeval warrens of ages-old Middle East cities elsewhere. Here, all is fresh and sumptuous, like the gold souk.

Mind you, camels are evident in one form or another (breeding and racing are big business). Runaway camels are known to disrupt highway traffic but all I encountered were these sculptures at a roundabout. Alas, a tour of the racetrack or a farm was not on our schedule.

A visit to the beautiful Jumeirah Mosque was a tranquil moment in a busy city.

Two things stood out for me. I loved the museum, especially the life-size tableaux of Bedouin life. It sits within the city's oldest building, the (1790s) al-Fahidi fort. A small museum by any standards, it carefully showcases some archaeological finds and cultural arts.  

Where are the women, eh? ;-)

My Number Two highlight was something I felt I should do rather than something appealing or interesting. Even with a pathetic, whimpering fear of heights, I went up the tallest building in the world. Burj el-Khalifa. It's barely visible in the first skyline pictured above. It was the tallest in the world then; maybe an ambitious architect somewhere has surpassed it already. My tactic was to latch onto a friend as sturdy as a Brinks truck who wouldn't notice if I stumbled dizzily into him or who would surely break my fall should I pitch a faint.
Into the here and now:
Our guide is a communications failure. She does not have the voice projection for the job and we find ourselves in puzzled clusters after the bus unloads us. Where we are, we don't know. What we know for sure is: we have tickets for 11:30 to ride to the top of the famous building. Are we here? Or is this a temporary stop? Are we at the aquarium, is that something she mentioned? After being hustled along the sidewalk and up numerous escalators we enter a large building. Then discover that thanks to dear guide's misinformation, several people must race back to locate the bus and their backpacks because this is indeed our destination. She taps her watch pointedly; we are in danger of delaying the schedule.

It dawns on me about this time that we are in the famed Dubai Mall. The entrance to the Burj tower is here, deep within its glitzy bowels. Hello, we are passing an aquarium. A couple of gigantic viewing windows. Otherwise of course the mall is enormous with all the ridiculous high-end shops that could be Bloor Street in Toronto. The schedule allows for a bit of shopping so we dive into a souvenir shop, just the thing for gifts.

Then I spy a Tim Horton's and explain its significance to my fellow travellers, all of whom are Brit and rolling their eyes.
Our 11:30 timing comes. Just whisk us up and down and get it over with, I think. The strict procedure involves lining up for a security check, word filtering back that no lighters are allowed. Lighters like the ones several of us just purchased as souvenirs. More confusion, holding up the line. Our dithering guide collects the lighters for safekeeping, then returns them because she remembers she is going up in the elevator with us. Thank goodness a sensible person learns a bag can be stowed at the security point to pick up later. This lineup and fuss occupy almost an hour of painfully slow inching toward the security people. Like airport scans but no hint of body searches.

Our 11:30 timing comes. Just whisk us up and down and get it over with, I think. The strict procedure involves lining up for a security check, word filtering back that no lighters are allowed. Lighters like the ones several of us just purchased as souvenirs. More confusion, holding up the line. Our dithering guide collects the lighters for safekeeping, then returns them because she remembers she is going up in the elevator with us. Thank goodness a sensible person learns a bag can be stowed at the security point to pick up later. This lineup and fuss occupy almost an hour of painfully slow inching toward the security people. Like airport scans but no hint of body searches.

Once approved to enter, are the elevators just around the corner? No. The same long line is in front of us, shuffling through endless corridors. At least they show scenes and videos of how the edifice was constructed. Somewhere way ahead, the elevators are taking small groups at a time, people relieved to be finally moving. Am not letting myself get separated from Brinks truck.
Move we did. Up 189 floors! In contrast to snail's progress on the ground, we shoot to the top in sixty seconds, so the flashing digital readout tells us. Popping ears. Stepping out, clutching my companion's shirt, when I have the nerve to look up, it's not scary after all. We are on a wide enclosed platform and thankfully not a glass floor! Photo opps galore, although it seems like taking pictures from an airplane window, not quite real. Then we have to line up in a slow march again to descend. The entire process for a sixty-second ascent was almost two hours.

Oh, wait. A third thing! 
The best thing about the Dubai Mall is the outdoor dancing Fountain (yes, capital F). We have a brief taste, catching the end of the first show. Classical and world music accompanied by the incredible water performance. Very very pleasing. Even in the blistering heat. In the evening dusk with added lights and colour projectors, it would be thrilling.
The beam of light shining upward from the fountain can be seen from over 20 miles away, and will be visible from space making it the brightest spot in the Middle East, and quite possibly in the entire world. [1]

                    ~ Dubai does not do anything on a small scale ~

And this. A trash can for recycling. Because I like it.

POSTSCRIPT: I note a recent climate change report warning that this region, already in one of the planet's most extreme heat zones, could become uninhabitable for humans in less than ninety years at the rate we are going now.[2] Ironic: the air conditioning that provides relief is powered by fossil fuels, source of Gulf riches, and the burning of those (not inexhaustible) fuels contributes mightily to global carbon emissions. With all the riches and technology at its disposal, will the U.A.E. apply itself soon to that problem?

1] "The Dubai Fountain," The Dubai Mall (http://www.thedubaimall.com/en/Entertain/TheDubaiFountain.aspx).
[2] "Space + Science," CNN (http://edition.cnn.com/2015/10/27/world/persian-gulf-heat-climate-change/index.html?eref=edition).

© 2015 Brenda Dougall Merriman

24 October 2015

Alexandria, Egypt 2008

Fabled city (in my mind), highly anticipated. Alexandria on the Mediterranean, former seat of empire-builders and scholars. Our departure from Cairo is ill-timed at rush hour; it was a relief, though, to leave the worst day of brown fog pollution and rush hour traffic. Our guide Sameh gives us an occasional perfunctory comment on the passing scene. Which happens to be the rich delta lands of the Nile. We figure out ourselves that the odd towers scattered in the countryside are pigeon-cotes, long cultivated in Egypt. The three-hour bus trip turns into five (why did we not take the train?!).

Well after dark we arrive at our hotel steps away from the seafront and across from the main park. The Cecil is a faded Euro-style hotel with some nice touches of grandeur leaning towards the seedy side as if against its will. So well situated, and the ambiance pleases us. Many past celebrities stayed at the Cecil in its heyday, something like the Shepheard in Cairo judging by their signatures displayed on a wall, lots of Brit and Swedish royalty.

The two elevators are small and quaint, reminding me of a favourite hotel on the left bank in Paris. Travel buddy and I get crammed into one elevator with fellow travellers Marty and Ken and our baggage. Way too much to handle, apparently, because elevator decides to descend to the basement and stick there, door firmly closed. Marty panics, pushing every button and sweating. It's a bit soon for claustrophobia as our whereabouts are obvious to dozens of people waiting, but it seems like a good idea to talk calmly to him; he's using up all our oxygen. Some hotel official bangs away outside in the rescue effort. We doubly appreciated a late drink on our tiny balcony overlooking the Corniche, a boulevard along the sea typical of most Mediterranean cities.

Out in the morning for our condensed day of tourist sites. Traffic is just as insane here as in Cairo. First spot is the fort, Qaitbay Citadel on the harbour, where we get ten minutes “free time” for photographs, no time to visit the museum inside! This is where the famous lighthouse Pharos of Alexandria once stood. One of antiquity's Seven Wonders, the advanced engineering feat was constructed in the third century BC by the Ptolemies who succeeded Greek rule. It fell to the devastating earthquake of the fourteenth century. Underwater ruins and statuary are still being recovered. The fort was built in the fifteenth century, probably with some of the salvaged lighthouse stone.

I manage to get into the citadel courtyard with some others for an extra fee. Someone takes a picture of me but who's that? Marty has latched onto us and won't go away. Maybe because we were cool in the face of (a mini-) crisis. I scramble up the huge stone stairs looking for the seraglio rooms but I’m out of time. A gaggle of school children going the other way delights in chorusing hello to me.

Photo: britishmuseum.org
Our bus whizzes past a statue of Alexander the Great although no-one tells us that (and then who is the substantial man depicted in bronze wearing a fez?). Whither Alexander ... what traces have you left us?

Alexander died in Babylon (324 BC); his preserved body was taken to Memphis, Egypt for burial; years later he was re-interred in Alexandria. The location of his tomb is still unknown and debated. 

Photo: Supreme Council of Antiquities
Our second visit is to Pompey’s column, tallest Roman structure in Egypt. A memorial to the Emperor Diocletian built in the late third century AD, it was believed that the remains of the great General Pompey were placed at the top. Local female guide cautions us not to descend on the ancient stone steps which are dangerous and crumbling for want of restoration / protection. Hordes of tourists ignore her and clamber down, chipping the friable stone, raising dust, and stumbling all over themselves.

Number three is a Roman amphitheatre, well excavated and reconstructed. It was discovered beneath a later Muslim cemetery. This city clearly has more Roman ruins in evidence than Greek or Ptolemaic. Thus ~ alas ~ little evidence of the extraordinary Alexander.

A display and a video show how huge toppled artifacts were hauled out of the sea. This is more like it! My inner archaeologist comes to life. That earthquake was a real monster, destroying so many periods of civilization.
Our guide at this venue (and her guide friends) does not have a lot to say here thanks to so much explanatory evidence at hand. Typically dressed for their age, they keep their hair and arms covered but faces (mostly!) exposed.

On to the world-famous Bibliotheca Alexandrina. World-famous once for collecting every known writing of its times and as a centre of erudition — all lost — not from earthquake, but by fire. Famous again now, as the second largest library in the world (in number of books) after the Library of Congress in DC. We must wait for a special library guide. Tourists are slowly funnelled through the security-conscious interior entrance. We mill around in some confusion as no guide shows up and we get sent to an exhibit area to mill around some more.

 Three or four separate buildings make up the complex; they are all totally different architecturally from each other and I’m not impressed with the designs except for this one. The reading room is impressive, accommodating 2,000 students! Also impressive is the video demonstration of their eminent digitization program. The fascinating gift shop then pulls us like a magnet.

Those were the highlights of our quickie visit. Otherwise we had a little free time to walk the city, braving the killer traffic. How fire trucks or ambulances ever reach their destination, I can’t imagine.

A bit of window shopping (in case you wondered what's underneath a burqa) and shisha experimentation. There is much more to the city, of course; regrets at not seeing the extensive catacombs.

Photo: M.A. Waring, 2008
All unattributed photos by BDM, 2008

© 2015 Brenda Dougall Merriman

12 October 2015

Road Trips - U.S.A.

Forty-nine states and counting. By car on highways and byways. Many trips on those byways. Back then who thought to take photographs? Rarely I, she said. And sometimes when she did, the context was lost, like this:
Any clues to this geographic location? Willing to accept all suggestions.

Thus, no fond photos of Santa Fe, NM; St Louis, MO; Fort Benton MT; Portland OR; El Paso, TX; Sturgis, SD; Lime Rock CT; Sandpoint, ID. Also missing: The biggest-ever, red moon rising on the Kansas prairies. The amazing evening flight of hundreds of parrots coming to roost in the trees in Brownsville, Texas. The Sonoma Valley vineyard towns with a seldom-seen dear friend. Staying up all night in Vegas (groan).

But a few memories captured:
Carlsbad NM - Looks like I'm about to pass out, right? No, but my friend had terminal claustrophobia.

Los Angeles CA - Woodland Hills, motion picture and television retirement community now called Wasserman Campus. We were given a tour as goodwill reps from Performing Arts Lodges in Canada. We have a long way to go to emulate some of their services.

Savannah GA - Waking to all-enveloping summer mist dumbfounding, palpable humidity so thick you couldn't identify someone ten feet away. It cleared up enough to explore Bonaventure Cemetery, not quite midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.

Minnetonka MN - Delightful summer home of extended family.

Florida - Somewhere near St Petersburg. Aren't all Florida restaurants crazy?

New Orleans LA - doesn't everyone take this picture in the French Quarter?

Dollywood TN - Overcome at the wondrousness of it all.

Canyon de Chelly AZ - Much more wondrous, one of many explorations of Native reservations.

London Town MD - Colonial history, reconstruction, gardens, and a tour guide with invested interest.

Eureka NV - Also happens to be the windiest road.

Gallup NM - Once known as Drunk City; El Rancho Motel, beloved of bygone movie stars and film sets.

A few (un-photographed) important moments:
§ Sweetwater TX - Breakfast at a greasy spoon and a local cowboy invites us to the rattlesnake festival. Looking at our licence plate he asks, Is Ontario one of those northern states?
§ Hope AR - One of those your car just croaked its death rattle, you are screwed moments. Overnight in Bill Clinton's birthplace while guys at Jimmy-Bob's mechanical services did some miracle patching. Not to ignore same expert assistance in Grand Junction CO where plucky old car needed a coronary bypass after climbing the Rockies.
§ New Hampshire - Small town to remain anonymous, filling my tank with gas and driving away. My mind was on genealogy of course (thanks, American-Canadian Genealogical Society ...). So mortifying to reappear half an hour later and sheepishly pay.
§ Clear Lake CA - The algae. OMG the algae.
§ Brady TX - Imagine being in taxidermy heaven. No, I couldn't either, till I was there. What a fascinating shop. Managed to leave with only a lynx skin and no stuffed animals.

More quiz: Help, where am I here?

© 2015 Brenda Dougall Merriman  

01 October 2015

Tozeur, Tunisia 2012

Tozeur is a small town built around a desert oasis. One of its notable features is the distinctive brick-pattern designs in buildings all over town. The oasis is large and well-managed; we learned about the seasonal stages of harvesting and maintenance of the life-giving date palms.

After some free time in the peaceful medina streets we plunged into the contrasting fray of the morning market. The butchers customarily display the head of the meat they are selling; it signals that their meat is fresh.

By now I’d already happily acquainted myself with a few camels in this country. Time for my specially arranged ride. Jelel drives me to the rendezvous that turns out to be at the edge of "downtown." Two guys we meet. One is there to ensure the arrangement, probably the owner, and disappears almost immediately. Misbah is the camel handler, age indeterminate, since he is very weathered and has few teeth. And speaks a French mixture at machine-gun speed, but we learn to communicate. He's had tourists from Quebec so "Montreal" is his reference point for Canada. 

I mount a white beauty called Ali Baba. I check for blue eyes: nope. And away we go along a curving back street that skirts the oasis watercourse, behind and below the tourist hotels. It's quiet and pleasant but the South Arabian saddle arrangement may become a problem. I see places where palms lining the watercourse are black and dead; our guide Sami tells me later there was a fire. The water itself looks polluted and refuse has been dumped in spots, so at odds with the pristine oasis we saw this morning. 

Then we pass a semi-grungy local bar getting primed for business — no question the source of last night's lively music. Wave to the guys! They cheer for me (“John Wayne!”) due to their cowboy interpretation of a Tilley hat. Misbah picks some jasmine and bougainvillea from passing vines and makes a little posy for me. Touristy but nice.

After twenty minutes or so of stately pace the vista opens and we approach signs of other activities. A golf course entrance, and an amusement park of sorts. One or two families are about. Misbah is very aware of photo opps and he knows the park. Ali Baba too is obliging and accustomed to posing; I swear that camel is a born actor. 

Misbah places us in front of a giant replica of a man's head. In vain I try to catch the Arabic name of the celebrity. Now I know it was Tozeur's favourite son, "one of the first poets of modern Tunisia,"Abu el Kacem Chebbi (1909-1934), born in the area where our hotel sits. 

After that to my surprise, we change camels. Reason unknown, a momentary blip in our franglais. Maybe something to do with leaving the cobblestoned street to hit dirt and sand underfoot. Now I am riding black Mavroud who is older and (forgive me) a little moth-eaten, with less conceit than Ali Baba. Maybe the switch is to give the poor old guy some exercise! We fuss at adjusting things so I am not totally behind the hump.

Misbah and I agree emphatically that building golf courses in the desert is regretful. Nevertheless we are traversing part of it on paths, apparently following a familiar route. He waves his arms describing new projected tourist plans. I’m quite happy there are no golfers in sight. Then, at last. We reach the desert. Desert with tufts of the grassy stuff camels like to eat. Away from civilization for a bit. But the saddle is truly uncomfortable. Misbah understands we need a conference. Stop, dismount. When I say "sore bum" he repeats BUM delightedly. His new English word. 

He carefully rearranges the blankets. Then he says "Montez!" pointing to Mavroud's neck. I pose astride the patient camel's neck, another tourist trick I guess but what the heck. Old Mavroud is gentle as a lamb. Set off again toward the waning sun and I wonder if we are going all the way to the old Star Wars set. Misbah gives me the nose lead and walks behind, switching the camel and commanding him. A little trot, I wondered? Could I hope for a canter? Whatever it was, it didn't work. My supplementary proddings are ignored. Mavroud is simply not up to it today. We continue into the sunset, already way over the allotted hour.

I ask Misbah what is the smoke coming from the left (what on the desert could possibly burn?!) ... with intense concentration I translate it’s from the brickworks. He is eager to show me so we dip into a fold between gentle hills to see acres of this walled open air factory. Once there, he insists on taking photos of piles of bricks as he explains the manufacturing process. The site is almost deserted at this hour; it’s easy to see over the walls on camel back. We poke back and forth along the enclosure. This place is likely the town’s biggest employer.

Misbah seems keen to go on forever but by this time my sitting bones are very sore from the unrelenting saddle. The man has done all the walking cheerfully and loquaciously, some of it barefoot. We take a route through a different part of the golf course (still deserted) with great views toward the town. We chatter a bit and he blows me a kiss after some remark I make. Seems to me a sophisticated gesture from a small-town small-time entrepreneur who may or may not even own a camel himself.
Back onto the watercourse and eventually into the corner of the town we departed from. No Jelel. Misbah decides not to couche Mavroud yet. We turn the corner, parade along a main street (more John Wayne fans) and there's Jelel. I could have walked to the hotel from here. As we part, we probably would have had a discreet hug but for prevailing convention; others were watching. 

Probably the best ever.

© 2015 Brenda Dougall Merriman