Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Travelogue 675 – January 20
Land of Opportunity

He’s Afghani. He’s taking me to the airport. It’s 530am, and there are people strolling the streets like it’s an afternoon in spring. I remark to him, and he nods. This is a city that never sleeps, he says.

You like it here in Dubai, I say to him. Of course, I do. Everyone does. There is work. There is money. It’s safe. People have a nice time. They work hard and then they enjoy. He doesn’t come up with the words, ‘Land of Opportunity,’ but they hang there in the cab’s stale air. This is Dubai. People are flooding in from all over the world for a chance at Sheikh Mohammed’s dream.

And how do they get along, these people from all the hot-headed races of the planet? It’s safe, he insists. No one acts out because the rule of law is strong here. Do anything, you’re caught, and you’re fined. There are people from all nations here, but they never fight. Try to start a fight, he challenges, looking at me in the mirror. See what happens. No, no, I demur. I believe you.

Despite his call to arms, he’s a mild man. He’s polite. He’s bearded, well-groomed. He seems content. He drives like there might be a tomorrow, which is refreshing. We will arrive at the airport in peace.

And what about the heat? Oh, it’s not so bad. In summer, forty, forty-five. He shrugs. That sounds pretty bad to me. He smiles. You don’t feel it, he says.

It is an international city. You see that right away. If you squint and cover the Arab script with one hand, if you turn away from the flashy skyline, if you ignore the occasional Arab in full garb, strolling by like a happy overlord, if you judge only by the people on the street, you wouldn’t know quite where you were in the world. The residents are remarkably diverse.

People follow money, and there is plenty of money here. I’ve seen some of it during my sightseeing, seen the money congealing into high buildings around the Marina, buildings shaped by fun innovation and ambition. Two of them feature storeys-high portraits of Sheikh Mohammed and some other bearded luminary.

I’ve taken the ferry from Bur Dubai, spending an hour on the waters of the Gulf, peering out the shaded windows. We pass the artificial shores of the Sheikh’s islands, the World Islands, and then the Pearl. These latter lie just off the Marina, long and curved islands shaped like the fronds of a palm, and surrounded by a circular breakwater. We pass the spreads of several luxurious resorts and behind them rows of posh houses. At the furthest point from shore, you see the five-star Atlantis Hotel, a pink Aladdin’s dream, two wings separated by an enormous arch, a suggestion of unseemly wealth.

About sixty thousand people live on the Pearl Islands. It was projected to house double that number, but apparently the engineers have irritated Mother Nature by stirring the muddy depths of the gulf. The waters trapped among the islands have become fetid. Property values are sinking into the silt.

The ferry enters the tame waters of the Marina, and we are encircled by the clean buildings among their sunny walkways and fringes of grass. I’m thinking healthy lawns in this desert city are like Persian carpets, expensive and rare beauties. They are expertly manicured, lushly green.

I am happily quit of the ferry. I walk the streets of this Arabian Bel Air, back in the sunshine and the fresh air. I so enjoyed the morning’s tour of old Dubai that I am eager to see the new one. Ultimately I am disappointed. It seems as though I am often let down by the deployment of wealth. I expect something more. There is a surprising genericism to the sensibility of the rich. I expect more. Something more challenging than innovations on the skyscraper, more exciting than the many variations on lounge and finger food, something more than pretty women smirking at pretty men in pretty cars, everyone showcasing brands and tame body art as though they were born to advertise.

I make it to the beach. This one is behind the Hilton. It’s a narrow ribbon of sand, with a view of the gulf that is compromised by more construction on more islands and by the hazy prospect of the decadent Pearl Islands. The waves are small and lazy. There is a camel offered for rides. There are so many bodies, they seem like litter. A beautiful woman in a blue bikini turns in a slow circle, recording video with her phone. I’m in long sleeves and baggy pants. I turn away when the lens comes my way. I feel no interest in turning back. I stroll through the sensuous Hilton back to the street that parallels the shore. I’m looking for somewhere to eat. I seek out a patio above the street, within sight of the gulf, where whole families are indulging in shisha together. I eat humble humus. I look only at the water.

I go home by way of the Metro. It’s a long ride back to Deira on the east side of the city. Much of the way the Metro is on an elevated track, and I can watch the city roll by. Between the districts of the Marina and the Burj Khalifa lie miles of flat city blocks, something like the real city, developed but subdued. This probably represents the experience of most people here, the simple houses among the mundane round of errands. It’s a comfort to them that the rich are out there, like a promise, lacking all imagination but spending prolifically. They embody the opportunity.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Travelogue 674 – January 19
Tangent About Rome

People complain about the cold, and still there’s a skip to their step. Northerners like the cold. Batu doesn’t. She seems stunned and slow. We disembark from the tram at Central Station. She asks, ‘Is this it?’ in a small voice, though she’s been this way dozens of times. I’m concerned that she never seems to retain anything. Maybe it’s just a lack of confidence that makes her ask. We’re here to put her on a train. Twice now, she has missed her stop when travelling alone, on the same trip. Her station is the third stop. They announce the stations. She’s equipped with the time of arrival. Still she gets disoriented.

We walk from the tram stop to the train station. She shuffles slowly and unsteadily. Her eyes peer out from between coat collar, coat’s hood, and scarf. She follows me into the great hall of the station. I guide her through to her platform, and I wait with her. I remind her of her stop, her schedule. She listens vaguely, proudly. I watch her board and make her distracted way down the aisle until she finds her seat.

With the help of a friend of ours, she has been investigating affordable treatment options in Belgium. It’s a long shot. Is this the ‘medical tourism’ we hear about? If so, it’s rather more than a euphemism, really a romantic term for something degrading.

It would have been easier if she had been undocumented and seeking asylum. Medical care would not have been refused. As it is, they say she has to go home for treatment, forcing an honest family to break their rules. No one will send a family member home if treatment there is risky.

There is in this a sort of keynote to the refugee crisis in Europe. Problem-solving begins and ends with national citizenship. Citizenship becomes something like Willy Wonka’s golden ticket. It occurs to me that the Roman Empire is still alive. Of course we all want to be Roman, I mean German. And how precisely did this become the solution to the long algebraic problem that starts in, say, the Arab Spring? If only you would become me …

But they don’t. Most sink under prejudice and dejection, and commit their families to several generations of marginalization. No one is shocked by this eventuality in 2016. And many think the refugees deserve it. It is an odd chain of logic.

The chain of events started in crisis. Do we have reason to think this will be the last crisis? Are war, famine, disease, and environmental crisis endangered species now? We don’t prepare for them. We just whip out the golden tickets once a generation and despise the recipients of the tickets. It is a bizarre response.

If we accepted crisis as part of the human condition, and if we believed in world citizenship, would we imagine different solutions? Would we properly fund world-wide response systems? Maybe refugees would not have to walk thousands of miles in pursuit of a chance to be gardeners for Roman patricians?

Some American politicians seem to have caught the Roman imperial fever, forgetting the roots of the country’s identity and vitality.

I have to travel to an unlikely harbour of hope to be reminded of that pioneer spirit. It’s a taxi driver in Dubai who voices the closest thing I’ve heard in years to the old spirit one might have expected in New York, (if not in Berlin).

Monday, January 18, 2016

Travelogue 673 – January 18
Persia’s Out There

Finally we have some ice on the ground. It’s refreshing to see. And at first, the sub-zero C temperatures are refreshing. Batu’s train leaves early. We’re starting hours before the sun rises. I’m used to that. Batu reels when the cold wind hits her. She pulls the kerchief tightly over her mouth and nose. We walk to the tram station. I tell her I like the cold. The air is crisp. The night is clear; we can see stars. She isn’t convinced. I’m not sure I am, either. Secretly, I’m relieved that this mission, delivering my mother-in-law to the train station, saves me the early morning trial of cycling into town. This morning’s ride would have been painful. I wouldn’t have thought to bring a scarf. I put too much faith in first impressions. When I first leave the flat, I quite enjoy the brisk air of winter. But after twenty minutes in it, battling North Sea winds in my thin windbreaker and fingerless gloves, I come to my weary senses. And then I resolve to be smart. The next day I forget, and I resolve again. It doesn’t seem like I get to decide to be smart.

Batu is on her way to Antwerp. Our very good friend Chuchu lives there. He is helping Batu navigate the strangely obscure medical systems of the Benelux. She has been circling around hospitals and aid agencies, trying to finish her treatments. It would have all been so much easier if she were an asylum-seeker. There are no rewards for honesty in this milieu. So be it. We work harder.

I’ve been back in winter for a week. It wasn’t so long ago I was tasting of the resort life in Dubai, strolling beachside in the bright sun. I’ve been travelling too much; there’s nothing jarring or unnatural about beach sands one day and ice the next.

The beach sands come at the end of my free day in Dubai. In the morning, I have toured the Bur Dubal Market. I have broken the heart of an innocent young cashmere salesman. I have seen something of old Arabia. Deira and Bur Dubai are what is left of historical Dubai, straddling the Creek, as the sniggering Brits have called it, the River Zara as the Greeks once called it. This area now comprises the north-eastern extremity of the city. Growth has extended miles west along the Gulf. And near the westernmost extremity is the posh Marina area.

I have left the market, and I have ventured farther north along the Creek. There’s a Metro station, and there’s another dock for tourist boats. There’s a big one anchored there. It is seaworthy. This one will travel down the coast and take me to the Marina. The ferry will chug up to the mouth of the creek and out into the Persian Gulf. (My hosts in Dubai would rather I call it the Arabian Gulf.)

We navigate up the winding Creek. passing the long breakwaters made of piled rocks and concrete blocks shaped like cones and anchors. On the right we’re passing the huge plot of new land being developed for city expansion. It feels like Holland here, with chunks of land being reclaimed all the time.

Once we make it to the Gulf – arriving into the big waters with a rocking motion that makes many of us find our seats, -- we will pass by several of these ambitious polders. First there are the ‘World’ islands, islands dredged up out of the sands below, buttressed by rock, arranged in a rough shape of the world map. Of course, from water level it only looks like another shore to starboard. On the port side we have been passing by the glamourous city proper. The majority of the passengers have piled out of the cabin to take pictures of the Burj Khalifa, spire dedicated to Arabia’s new ascendance.

I don’t blame them for wanting to get out of the cabin. The seats are comfortable, but the windows are polka dotted with a sort of protection from the sun, making it hard to see out. Strange dilemma on a tour boat, wishing for an unobstructed view. The open deck aft is tiny. People are forced to crowd together for a breath of fresh air to calm their tummies.

More than the sights of the city I’m enjoying the view of the water. This is why I paid the ticket price, to see the Gulf. I love bodies of water. I enjoy the open space, the simplicity of only air and water.

I’ve seen the Gulf years ago from the northern shore, in Kuwait. I’m not so disingenuous as to say I can tell one body of water from another. Maybe a sailor could. So why does it matter which one I visit? Maybe it’s enough to believe that places do have unique qualities. Maybe it’s my ongoing naïve belief in history. This water washes up on the shore of Persia. Alexander marched alongside it. (Or was that the Gulf of Oman?) Maybe I enjoy playing with subtle impressions I know better than to trust. I say, the Gulf is gentler than the Mediterranean. The colours are lighter. Maybe I say, the Persian Gulf is big brother to the others in the region. Maybe I say, the Red Sea is darker, leaves an impression of wine, has a primitive taste.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Travelogue 672 – January 11
Cashmere and Abras

‘Come see, come see,’ they call as you pass. You stroll the length of the narrow, shaded concourse, the market, lined with nearly identical shops the entire length, and the whole way you are accosted by salesmen. They hold out scarves and drape them over your shoulder or over your head as you pass. If you pause, they count you as sold, and there will be a struggle to disentangle yourself. ‘I have something to show you,’

I remember this pleasure from days in Istanbul many years ago. Westerners always walk briskly, aggressively through, with sour expressions. They hate this sort of assertiveness. I find it entertaining. I find a kind of honesty in the brazenness, even as the sale is a gambit and a lie at heart.

While I was in Istanbul. I devoted a day or two to the carpet shops, spending hours haggling over cups of tea. It was enjoyable, the cycles of hospitality and chit-chat, punctuated by vigorous argument over the value of pieces of great craft. He’s angry; he’s insulted. I am unmoved. We settle into more mild conversation. It’s a relationship.

I don’t have the time on this trip, though I stop to haggle over some cashmere pieces, anyway. In half an hour I talk the salesman down more than half. Judging by how readily he gives in, I see that I could have gone farther. It just isn’t worth it unless you have the time to discover rock bottom, and properly that should be an investment of hours.

I tell him I have to go. He begs. He wheedles. He seems genuinely broken-hearted that I would leave. He has told me how he loves America, offered it without hesitation or blush, though I know it for double speak. He means it; he lies. For my sake, he loves America. I apologize. I walk away. He’s watching me and pining.

This is the Bur Dubai Souk in Dubai, set right on the Creek. It’s worth the visit, picturesque in its several hundred metres of historical architectural styling, the narrow alleys among squat buildings of stone, alleys trellised above and fluid with crowds below. You can bargain for cashmere or traditional lamps. You can stroll the quaint little alleyways in meditation over what old Arabia might have been like.

You even have an opportunity to daydream about old India, pushing through the impossibly constricted alleyways of the Hindu Market, where people pass singles file and sideways between the severe walls of buildings, and where shops are sudden doorways leading into crowded warrens lined with the bright colours of Indian foods and Indian brands, rammed into displays, hanging from the walls.

You can sit creekside at the outdoor tables of the sunny café. You watch the abras and the dhows drift by. The Creek is crowded with traffic. There is every manner of trading vessel navigating the Creek, and every one of them unique, all of them wooden and all outfitted with eccentric cabins on deck. The abra is the tiny passenger craft with peaked awning. People cram in side by side, sitting around the edge of a central platform, and everyone pays one dirham. When the boat is full it departs, motoring across the Creek from Deira side to Bur Dubai. This was the highlight of my day, riding out on the water. No doubt it was the Brits, so fond of the slighting misnomer, who dubbed this the Creek. Where the abras cross, it’s nearly as wide as the Maas in Rotterdam.

I make an industrious day of it, walking and walking around this city on the Persian Gulf. Maybe I want to work out the grief at disappointing the cashmere salesman. I’m haunted by the look in his eye when I told him I had to leave. Even tourism is tragic.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Travelogue 671 – January 10
When Christmas Never Passes

Temporarily the sky is clear. I ready myself quickly, and run out to the bicycle. It’s a perfect Sunday morning for a ride. The ground is wet, like it will never dry, but up above behind the clearing clouds is an early dawn sky glowing with a dark and hospitable blue. It’s already past 7:30am, but the day is only now dawning.

It’s not even a full twenty-four hours that I’m back in Rotterdam, and I can’t resist getting out to pedal the bike paths, where the remnants of rain glistens ahead of me. I remember I must switch on my little white headlamp. It’s the law here. I see no police out. Only a few cars, slow and tentative as though they are lost.

In Ethiopia the sun is full and blazing by now. In Ethiopia, it’s the Sunday after Christmas. I realize that I’m allowing a Christmas song to roll through my head. I’ve had to endure two Christmas seasons this year, one in Europe and one in Ethiopia. That meant a second round of Christmas music everywhere I went. Even Shimeles had them looping in his taxi.

My experience of Christmas Day in Ethiopia itself is detached. I’m travelling that day. I’m hoping for a good night’s rest before travel, but holidays in Ethiopia start early. My first impression is actually of the dogs whining. It’s 6:30am and the dogs are making those high-pitched sounds that are impossible to sleep through. Those are the sounds they make when there is someone friendly in the yard. It’s a steady appeal for food and attention. I’m awake.

When I look out into the yard, I see that indeed members of the landlord’s family have begun the preparation for the holiday. Surprisingly, the sheep that spent the night tied to s stake in the garden, plaintively bleating has already seen its violent end. Its rumpled brown hide has been tossed aside in one corner of the yard. A selection of its guts are piled beside the dogs’ cages, along with its bloody lower jaw. No wonder the dogs are whimpering hungrily. Whole berbere peppers have been spread on a tarp in the yard to dry in the sun. Fortunately, that is the aroma that predominates, rather than the sheep blood. I could wish I had time to stay and enjoy the holiday. I have invitations to several houses for Christmas dinner.

Instead, I finish my packing and I’m riding in Shimeles’s taxi toward the airport, listening to the Christmas sound track. In the streets, people are walking leisurely toward families’ and friends’ houses, walking hand in hand and smiling, many dressed in traditional gear. I’m suddenly envious and wishing for another Christmas, after all. What has happened to me?

I’ve arrived at Central Station, where I park the bicycle downstairs among the thousands of others in the cavernous hall. I turn off the little headlamp. I turn the key in the bike lock and very carefully withdraw it again. It’s the last key for this lock, I remember. One day too cavalierly I unlocked it, left the key in the lock while swinging the chain around and into position, and sent the key flying across the hall. Lose another key and I forfeit the bike, I think. The fastidious attendants would ask for proof of ownership before cutting the chain. I haven’t licensed or registered the bike. I always manage to be an outlaw here.

In the café, there is a selection of Elvis playing. A few days ago, I was overlooking the Persian Gulf and sitting among whole families smoking shisha together. Now I’m listening to Elvis Presley in a Dutch café. But I’ve transcended culture shock, or maybe sunk beneath it, like a seedling under a tractor tire. Maybe it’s more like that. In either case, I’m not feeling much. I’ve been back and forth to Africa three times in the last three months. One music, two suns, three seas, four planes, five fingers counting one sun, two seas, three planes, four singers …

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Travelogue 670 – January 6
Above the Stadium

There is that striking view of Addis from the road that passes below the Prime Minister’s compound. The compound occupies the top of a hill, separated from the city by a stone and iron fence dating back to the Emperor’s day. Through the fence one sees nothing through the trees. But the road sweeps along beside the fence, turning as though to circle the hill, and the view out the other car window takes in much of the centre of town, from the high mountains behind us to the near, irregular summit of Piassa and down through the shantytown of Irib’kuntu then to the high buildings around the train station and the stadium. and the ancient Ambassador Hotel.

It’s down there in the district called Stadium where they built a new office building that houses, among other happy government offices, the Charities and Societies Agency (CSA) that regulates all NGOs in Ethiopia.

The air is so clear this morning. It’s chilly. Shimeles the taxi driver has donned his heavy leather jacket and scarf. Often, the view over the city is obscured by morning mists or by a brown fug of morning fires. Today the view there is refreshing, lending everything a tint of morning blue or pink. There’s a brand new building going up with an arch in the highest roofline of metallic tiles that reflect golden in the morning sunlight.

It happens that the CSA’s building is almost next door to the high, arched one. They occupy a building that is also new, but that is more prosaic. The first floors are dedicated to a shopping mall. Because Ethiopian Christmas approaches, they’ve hauled some man-sized speakers out front and are blasting Ethio pop that doesn’t strike me as particularly seasonal. Vendors have lined up in the entryway to sell jewellery and kitchenware and shoes from their tables. Once you’ve cleared the guards, you have to squeeze through all the product and the customers to reach the elevators. Back here you feel the truer nature of the building, new, cold concrete rising in harsh angles. Once you’ve reached the seventh floor, the building becomes colder yet. It’s been furnished with rickety wooden partitions that look like they were moved from their last residence, and moved with special care unless they disintegrate from age in their hands. The chairs and desks are definitely vintage. They have made the new building look already beat.

Once past the Prime Minister’s estate, you turn right and cruise down the long hill toward Meskel Square on a wide street divided in the middle by attractive parkland, fenced off with gates locked most of the time. This is some of the most pleasant real estate in Addis, the big tree-lined boulevard, passing the staid Foreign Ministry, the stately old Hilton, Selasse’s palace with stone gate pillars carved with representations of his warriors and of noble lions.

Halfway down this long slope, a busy road crosses. Turning right, you will pass alongside the palace and roll downhill toward the historic hot springs. There you’ll find that sweet old bar and restaurant, the Finfine Adarash, where so many memories from the Tesfa Foundation era have been absorbed into the abundant woodwork, absorbed like the pungent odours of fine cigars shared in imagined triumph. On the weekend, I treated a few staff members to kitfo and tibs in gratitude for work well done. A few had never been inside, and marvelled at the preserved atmosphere of old Ethiopia.

Walk past the Finfine and past the stadium, and you will also arrive at the CSA Office. Today, Yenebeb and I will have to revisit the CSA offices. Stopping by this office has been a daily task. We sit at the desk of our team leader, and he scowls at us. He sits in the corner of an office with four others. The others are looking on with some sympathy. Yesterday, the team leader was in meetings and while we waited, the others in the office commiserated with us. ‘I admire you,’ one of them says. We are persistent.

I stand at the window of the miserable office. They have a nice view of the stadium. You can see half the pitch. I can see players in red practicing down there. I have tried to engage our team leader with talk about football. I say we’ll watch a game up here some time. He is able to smile, but he does seem to derive more pleasure from his esoteric interpretations of the NGO Proclamation and the rules of NGO law. Who am I to begrudge him this satisfaction? He was meant for theology. His recitations have the air of improvisation, and there’s a perverse beauty to them. I wouldn’t have the heart to interrupt. There is too much soul in his persecution of us.

And so we continue to compile documents. We will send staff hither and yon on senseless missions, delivering documents and inspecting library furniture for the proper seal. We will torment the U.S. board for more and more paperwork that requires the stamp of state officials and ambassadors and John Kerry himself. And our team leader will weigh each sheet of paper against the feather of his logic, and he will pronounce learned judgements. We are his captives, his acolytes.

Monday, January 04, 2016

Travelogue 669 – January 4
Dry Solidarity

I slept through the change of years. I was in my bed in Addis Ababa. My compound was quiet. Menna has reported to me about the horrors of New Year’s in Rotterdam, where the youth take their celebratory duties very seriously. They ignite explosives in the streets all night. Baby jumps at noise, and I can imagine how scary it might have been. I feel for her.

Baby’s daddy slept soundly, meanwhile, so soundly that when he awoke he didn’t know where he was. It’s winter. Opening one’s eyes on the persistent darkness has become routine. I glance around among the shadows of the tiny bedroom and try to place myself. I can just about hear the clicking of the mind’s computer as it processes. Maybe a more appropriate metaphor would be the sound of a lonely night clerk in the mind shuffling through files, trying to find a match. The file containing rooms where I’ve slept is extensive. It takes the poor clerk a while to find a match. ‘I’m in Addis!’

Why is morning starting so late here, I wonder? I was, after all, looking forward to full days again, sunlight for the right amount of hours. I glance at the phone’s clock. It’s after six, and it’s still dark. Not night time dark, but the gloomy blue of sunlight’s very slow advance. The sun hasn’t risen yet over the ridge of mountains to the east.

I know I should get up and check the water. I need to take any opportunity for a shower. But I know the odds are slim that there is water, and I don’t want to face the chilly morning air.

I think about the dry sink in my bathroom. I think about the whining hiss my tap makes as it reaches for water, unsuccessfully, the violent clunking in the pipes. I sigh, and I stay where I am.

I think about the millions of Ethiopians suffering the effects of drought even now. There are communities in the north of the country where all the animals have died, and even children have succumbed. There is no water. Without water, there is little food. Government and aid agencies are scrambling to help. We have been contacted by concerned donors. They can’t be sure that communities they care about are being reached by the broad federal and international efforts.

I have discussed with staff what we can do. The advantage we small agencies have is that we can focus on specific communities. We can help with immediate relief, while also trying to create capacity that will alleviate future crisis, making sure schools have tanks for water, for example. I need to make clear this only supplements the large-scale efforts by the experts. I may enjoy bashing the ‘big boys’ in international aid from time to time, but we could not do without them.

And so I master the morning’s trivial struggle. I force myself out of bed. I check the tap. With a terrific clank, it does deliver water. The stream is weak. I quickly fill my little, blue plastic pour-jug. I flush the toilet with the first of the precious water. I fill the jug again and leave it by the sink for washing hands, and then I try the shower. As I suspected, water power is too weak for a comfortable shower. The stream is just strong enough to trigger the water heater, but ironically, it’s by varying the flow that one adjusts the temperature. With only enough to start the heat, it comes out too hot. I’m left with too cold or too hot. As I deliberate, the stream slows and dies. The decision is made for me. I’ll be dry and dirty today. My consolation is a few more minutes under the covers.