Noi6 means "the 6 of us" in Romanian.

We are five, you are the sixth one.

We thank you for joining us in our trip around the world...

Monday, August 20, 2012

The Richest City in World

We flew from Cape Town to Dubai on Emirates. It was quick and comfortable. Then, too fast for me, the girls took a right and disappeared behind some door toward the transit area. They would take a plane to America, by themselves for the first time in our lives. The three of us took a left and got on a long line to immigration. We had all the time to study the young men working there. They were all in long white dresses, spending inordinate amounts of time arranging their scarfs on their heads, walking around, taking a sip of water, occasionally checking a passport or two. It was 2 am and they were in no hurry!
Apparently this is too small and they'll built another one


These are elevators, in the arrival section of the airport

They were waiting for us at the hotel, the restaurant was open, some people were having dinner. We just went to bed and woke up around noon. I studied the travel brochures and got excited about a couple of options. Luckily or not, Ileana and Ioan were not interested in anything. They agreed to come with me to visit the center of Dubai, but no day trip to other emirates. They also agreed to try for me the pool, the sauna and the restaurant at the hotel.

Around 4 pm we all left to visit the city with the goal of eventually making it to the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world. We used a free shuttle, the subway and a bus and got to the new mall. It was the last day of Ramadan, it was somewhat surreal to see lots of people passing by numerous closed food stores. In one place we noticed what must have been a staff briefing, before they opened the restaurant.
Just one hour to go

In other places, the servers were just trying to find something to keep themselves busy, but nowhere was anything served, not even water. The mall was full of people from all over the world. Tons of Russians and Chinese, many europeans and the obvious Saudis out for fun. Some locals. I bought a charging cable for the iPods and some postcards, but we have to admit it: we are incapable to understand and appreciate the logic of these gigantic places called malls where members of the human race go to waste their time and their money. With no interest in shopping we just passed by fast until Ioan noticed the Dubai skating ring and he gave it a try. A couple of inside waterfalls were interesting, before we knew it it was 7 pm, every food stall was open and mobbed by huge crowds. Hundreds of tables were occupied, ravenous people eating huge portions of every imaginable meal. We settled for Burger King, it was the shortest line and found a place to sit on the floor.
Getting ready for iceskating

Three stories waterfall

Last night of Ramadan

Reserving admission online to Burj Khalifa you can visit for $20, if you buy tickets at the entrance it costs $100! (thanks, Stephan!) It is the tallest building in the world, more than 800 meters high, but access is only given to an observation platform at around 400 meters. It is high enough, one can get on a balcony or watch from inside. It is an impressive feat of engineering and the cityscape at night is beautiful. On the ground floor there is an exhibition detailing the international collaboration involved in the construction, but learning about it on Wikipedia I found some disturbing data. Officially there was one casualty, but this is because of the way they keep statistics, it is a gross misrepresentation. The 20,000 workers were paid about $7 per day. Just being outside in Dubai is stretching human limits, I cannot put a price on working in this weather for 16 hours per day. There was no mention in the exhibition about the human and material costs involved. There is no explanation of the commercial logic of having such a building in the dessert and apparently because of the Dubai financial crisis of several years ago the building is half empty. Behind it there is the biggest water fountain in the world, copying the Bellagio in Las Vegas. We watched the water show twice on the ground and once from above. It was beautiful, but we found it too short and not as impressive as the original. Yep, we've seen Dubai. For more, check Ileana's post.

Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world

The biggest watershow in the world

Expensive imitation of Bellagio

Next morning I am up early waiting for my trip. I booked a full day trip to Abu Dhabi, the main city in the Emirates. The driver, a Pakistani, speaks good English and is fairly pleasant. He brought his wife and two year old son along for the trip. No explanation is given. Over the next hour he collects the rest of the tourists from various hotels in the city, a young couple from India, two African-American ladies from the States and a family of three from some other Arab country. There would be no interaction between any of us during the next 8 hours. Being first I got to chose my place, right behind the driver.

The first seven star hotel in the world

The second biggest round building in world

I learned about the history of the seven Emirates, with emphasis on Abu Dhabi, which holds 10 percent of the world oil reserves and is clearly the leader of the bunch. In the Emirate of Abu Dhabi there is the city of Abu Dhabi considered by some statistics the "richest city in the world." How come? I don't know, I think they counted the total wealth of the residents. For the next hour, driving on the highway, the driver-guide spilled countless trivia. I admired his fine irony. Foreign workers do all the work in the country, the locals are born with a golden spoon, there is no way for a foreigner to become naturalized, they only get renewable two-year working visas. If the employer terminates them they have to leave within 28 days. They have no rights, the system is created to keep all the wealth for the natives. If a local would choose to work he would do it only so he doesn't die of boredom, he would set up a business that matches his hobby and he would "work" for 2-3 hours per day. Foreigners are not allowed to invest by themselves, they have to have a local who owns 51% of the business, so typically the foreigner would put all the money and the work and the local would just collect his profit. There is some religious freedom, much more than in any other arab country, and women have some rights. The advisory council will have half it's members indirectly elected at some point.

The smart leaders of the country are preparing for the time when the oil would run out setting up Abu Dhabi to be the cultural capital of the world. Louvre and Guggenheim museums are scheduled to open in the next few years, concert halls and conference centers are being built. Trying to learn from Dubai, an oilless country that became rich because of tourism, they are building numerous high rise hotels and trying to beautify the shore and the beaches. There are two seasons, a hot one and a very hot one. We are in the middle of the very hot one, the sky and the ground are melting, we cannot be outside of the air conditioned van for more than a few minutes.

Initially scheduled in 2013, Louvre AbuDhabi is opening in 2015 (so they say - there in nothing behind this board)

Huge palaces are planned, just drawings on the wall now

The reason I came on this trip was to visit the Sheik Zayed Mosque. The sixth biggest in the world, a recent construction, a beautiful one. As we approached, I learned that is the biggest mosque than can be regularly visited by non-believers. Except today, when it is a holiday! What? When did he find out about that? It turns out it is the end of the Ramadan, the day is called Eid, one of the two most important days of the year. The mosque is open only for services. Surprisingly, there seems to be nobody inside, I take some pictures from the front and have fun watching a western lady directing her husband how to take good pictures of her. Women are not permitted to be photographed in front of the mosque unless they are dressed in black, so she came prepared!

"Do I look fat?" - she asks!

Right side

Front view

Sheik Zayed Mosque

The driver tries halfheartedly to get access inside, obviously he has no chance and he apologizes for the inconvenience. He takes off toward the next objective, the second most expensive hotel in the world. Behind high fences and perched far away on a hill, it was some palace that nobody wanted. It was converted in a hotel. He says there is no chance to get inside unless somebody has a room booked, nonetheless he goes to the front gate and tries to get in, maybe just to prove to us that he told us the truth. Again he apologizes and he turns the car to start driving about the city.
Maybe they'll let us visit?

The second most expensive hotel in the world

Doesn't look any cheaper from the back


The father of the country had at least 30 children and now on the third generation there are thousands of members of the royal family each with his own palace. That makes for an interesting subdivision, we drive around only to see high fences that hide something behind. He turns the car in front of the palace of the queen. One of them, apparently the sheik is only allowed to have four at a time.
The Queen's Palace...

We get to glimpse at a nondescript building for a second and we are off to the next thing, a "special store". We get inside, there are two vendors who rapidly start to unfold gold carpets! They are nice, they glow in the dark but one square meter costs about $25000. There are a lot of other expensive artifacts, I admire the craftsmen but I cannot understand why human beings would be interested in any of these objects. A wall carpet just like what one can buy in a Romanian market for $20 costs $75000. A salesman comes to me: "Wouldn't you like something like this in your house?" I choose to surprise him "I don't have a house right now!" I like the air-conditioning and the darkness inside and after half an hour we move on to the next attraction.
Some gold carpet

A quick stop in a bus refuge to take pictures of the beach and the cityscape behind.
The Cornishe, Abu Dhabi

We pass the second biggest flag pole in the world. That cannot be closed, but with no wind, there is nothing interesting. After all I've already seen the tallest one, in Malaysia, and the only thought I have is "who cares? Do we really need flags in this world?" There are a few more stupid inventions of humanity but this comes close to the top and nobody realizes that because we are programmed to think they are important. Anyway. We drive some more in the city, we are not the only car around. At some point a cavalcade of black limousines passes at high speed, we might have been lucky enough to see the car of the ruler!

Black limousines

Then, the Emirates museum where we are scheduled to have lunch, sorry that is not included in the cost of the trip. Open buffet, $23, I guess I won't have lunch today. I start to visit the museum, a pitiful collection of low level buildings which are supposed to display the traditional life of the locals. It is closed! It is a holiday... Even the toilets are locked. I brave the heat and sneak behind one building, it is right on the beach and in three steps I get to touch the water of the Persian Gulf. It is hot. Unpleasantly hot water, but it is clear and the sand is white and fine. My shirt is wet, sweat is dripping in my eyes, the heat is unbearable and I return reading panels with poems dedicated to the sheiks. When I see such things it reminds me of dictators and yesmen, but it seems that Sheik Zayed was really a larger than life monarch who oversaw the change from a collection of bedouin huts to one of the richest countries in the world.
The spot where I touched the water

The museum is closed. Guarded by cats.





I wait in the air conditioned restaurant building for a couple of my fellow travelers to finish their lunch. The indians did not have lunch, I helped the guy use the vending machine to buy a bottle of water. Apparently it was the first one that he ever used. He was from Mumbai. We are off to the next objective, the dates market. There are hundreds of types of dates and we will have a chance to buy some. To nobody's surprise, when we get there the driver observes that it is empty! Maybe it's because of the holiday? The driver apologizes for the inconvenience and takes off to the last objective of our visit, the Ferrari park. It has the biggest and fastest roller coaster in the world and people ride it in carriages that look like a Ferrari. The entrance costs about $100, his company organizes special trips if we are interested. We can only spend 20 minutes and only get inside up to the ticket booth, but at least that is open and not totally empty. As we drive away we notice that there is one car on the roller coaster.
Inside entrance to Ferrari park

Look, a Ferrari!

The fastest roller coaster in the world


I am sorry for them, nothing they'll do will make this a beautiful country, in Abu Dhabi even blue ocean water and white sand looks bad because there is no sun, no trees, no birds, no clouds, no color, no people. The light is too strong, it hurts the eyes. When your eyes hurt and you cannot breath, there is no beauty.
There is no beauty here. The soul is missing.

It really is as bad as it looks!

The return, 160 km, passes fast, I might have dozed off, there is nothing to see in the desert besides the sand dunes, the pathetic artificially sustained vegetation and the heaps of concrete poured in one form or another from place to place. I am the last one dropped at my hotel.
They use names like Danube, Trojan and Eros for their construction companies.

Real live humans walking on a street 

The van for our trip. 

I am two hours early, happy because I went and happy because I didn't drag my family with me. Ileana enjoyed the sauna, Ioan liked the pool, they had a good lunch and some rest. We checked out of the hotel at 6 pm and in a few minutes we got to the airport. The taxi driver was from Bangladesh, I made his day with my knowledge of their inside politics and he vented to his heart's content. The airport is beautiful, huge and empty. We spent our last dimes for dinner, used their free internet and at 2 am we got on our flight to London. Overall we spent 49 hours in Dubai, more than enough. It was nice. It was reassuring to see the Islamic culture mixed without any obvious conflict with everything else in the world. It was encouraging to see the results of some smart economic policies. It was disturbing to witness such wealth and waste when just a few weeks ago we were in Madagascar or Lesotho.
It is not a fair world.



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