Saturday, January 12, 2008

So far in Dubai… Update I (day one)

To all friends and family,

So let's start at the beginning. Michelle and I left Denver on Friday the 28th of December 2007 and arrived in Dubai International Airport late on Saturday night. Our first obstacle had been packing our luggage and checking it on the airplane. After I was informed in Denver that I would have to pay $500 in fees due to my overweight luggage, I simply bought another bag at the airport shop and filled it up, thus rendering all my bags under 50 lbs. We checked six bags in total and had two each for carry-on… so ten bags to keep track of.

After a somber and heartfelt good-bye, with my mother holding back her tears only slightly better than the Iraqi army held back Shock & Awe, we got on our flight to Washington D.C. That flight was nothing new, but our next flight was on Qatar Airways and we were actually heading to Qatar. This is where we first really understood what we were doing.

Almost everyone on that flight looked different from us- different races, ethnicities, religions, manners of dress, and, of course, smells. Apparently, deodorant has not yet been discovered in India (Rahul, you've always smelled nice, of course). This was truly an international flight, and people heading to all corners of the world were sitting right next to us. What really got our attention, however, was how nice the plane was! As Americans, we consider ourselves to be at the pinnacle of modernity, luxury, and status. Yet, this airplane, from a Middle Eastern nation most people haven't even heard of, politely, and with a brand-embroidered silk napkin, slapped us across the face. United, Continental, Frontier, American Airlines… these airlines are all utter crap compared to Qatar Airways. This plane was brand new, shiny, and full of fun features. The crew was prettier, better dressed, and actually slender enough to fit through the aisles (or perhaps the aisles were just wider… either way, my point is made). Every seat had its own TV, with entertainment software and a control that allowed us to access movies and shows from a library large enough to compete with a small neighborhood video store. I could watch the entire Bourne Identity trilogy, I could watch Lord of the Rings, I could watch any of the five Harry Potter movies. I could watch shows and documentaries. I could even play video games. All for free. If we had to spend 13 hours on a plane, this was the one on which to do so.

An inspiring and enlightening thing happened on that flight to Qatar. In the airport terminal I had decided to purchase a new book to read during the long journey, entitled "The Kite Runner." The book is a NYT best-selling novel about a young Afghanistan boy and his experiences growing up in Afghanistan in the early 1970's. I bought it to give me a taste and some context for the exotic region of the world that I was about to make my home. I am increasingly interested in the people and history of the Middle East, and this book seemed an enjoyable first step. As the plane was taking off and I settled into my seat, I started reading the first pages. Just then, I looked across the aisle to the two Indian men sitting in the seat across from me. They were very Indian- very dark skin, very coarse "English," and also had yet to discover deodorant. And as I'm sitting in my seat reading about Afghanistan, I see the two of them- one reading a Ken Follet novel and the other reading the Financial Times. Suddenly, all that college talk about globalization, all the headlines about the world shrinking, and of course Thomas Friedman's bestseller "The World is Flat," all became real. I was moving to Dubai and reading about Afghanistan and these two Indians were enjoying an American novelist and catching up on the U.S. financial markets. For one brief moment as we were taking off, two opposite sides of the world were exactly the same.

After many hours/screaming babies, we landed in Doha, the capital city of Qatar. The airport was modern, clean, and comfortable and had more designer watches and perfumes per square foot than I'd ever seen. We had a couple hours until our connecting flight, so we walked around, had some food, and pretended we actually had enough money to buy some of the products on sale around the airport. As I was walking down one particular hallway, I noticed a sign which read, "Female Prayer Room" and then, "Male Prayer Room." I thought to myself, "So, here starts the Muslim segregation!" A little further down the hallway I saw a sign reading, "Female Restroom" and then one reading "Male Restroom." Perhaps it was my lack of sleep, but there were then about 30 seconds in which I was thinking, "damn, they even segregate the restrooms in this part of the world!!!" I thought that was quite backwards, quite politically incorrect, until I realized that of course we segregate restrooms here in the U.S. as well! I had an embarrassing internal chuckle and wondered if there was any cultural understanding I could gain from that delirious oversight.

After taking off from Doha I had barely enough time to eat my in-flight snacks before we started our descent. The flight from Doha to Dubai was only about 50 minutes. It was night-time (at least according to any objective time-measuring device) and as we approached our new city we began to see city lights popping up all over the blackness. We approached Dubai from over the Persian Gulf and the lights were very beautiful indeed. I tried desperately to pick out the areas of Dubai I had become familiar with, especially the Marina, which is where I would shortly be living. I soon realized that I had gotten completely disoriented. The Dubai coast, which I thought we were flying alongside, was actually the coast of the Palm Jumeirah, the first (and smallest) of three man-made palm tree-shaped artificial island mega-constructs which Dubai has become famous for. So quickly confusing Mother Nature and Mankind was an honest and wonderful introduction to Dubai.

My smiles ended there, however, as we now had to land and get through immigration, customs, and baggage claim before finding our way to our hotel. Thankfully, immigration and customs were a breeze, though I KNEW KNEW KNEW that the airlines would lose some of our luggage. There just doesn't exist anywhere in the world an airline competent enough to deliver our bags as promised. So I was expecting it… but then when we actually arrived at Baggage Terminal X and waited for 45min watching the carousel spin perpetually empty-handed, I got angry. The airline had lost ALL SIX of our checked bags. Then, when we tried to speak with the baggage claim people at the airport, I got even more angry… because they were completely incompetent. Indeed, the only thing worse than their English was their usefulness. As we filled out two tedious claim reports (in which they asked us to detail every item that was in the bags, as if knowledge of the contents would help in the locating of them) I just thought to myself, "what utter awfulness this is… what an uncalled for inconvenience," but with significantly more very-called-for, utterly awful language thrown in for good measure. The fact that the airline didn't even know where our luggage was located didn't help, either. For all we knew, 80% of our material assets had just become 100% lost in the Atlantic Ocean.

So by this time, late Saturday night Dubai time and late/early Friday/Saturday day/night our time, Michelle and I were cranky, tired, and asset-less. We found our way out of the airport and got in line for a taxi outside. At the taxi pick-up point outside the airport, there is a "controlled" chaos of taxis, tourists, and whistle-blowing taxi-herders. "Transportation Administrators" would be the best euphemism I can muster, but they blow on their whistles, it seems, whenever any thought passes through their mind. They whistle to signal a taxi, they whistle to signal a pedestrian, they whistle when they're hungry or tired, they whistle whenever they breathe in and then follow it up with a whistle when they breathe out. Unlike Snow White's seven dwarfs, these guys don't just whistle while they work, they whistle FOR their work, and it was driving us crazy!

Several thousand whistles later we got in a cab. We told the driver our hotel and, just like any foreign cabbie, he seemed to know exactly where it was, though I was pretty sure he had no idea. One thing which I'm sure I'll report on later is the sheer recklessness and rudeness of drivers here in Dubai, which we got to first experience in our state of exhausted baggage-less frustration. The drivers here cut everyone off and then honk at everyone that cuts them off (exactly like in L.A., if you've ever had the privilege of driving with one of the locals in that city). But forget the driving for now; just like my airline baggage intuition, I was right to suspect the driver's knowledge (or lack thereof) about our hotel location. We got out, as he assured us we were in the right place, and went into the lobby. There, they kindly informed us that there are two hotels with the same name (similar to a Marriot and a Marriot Courtyard). Fortunately, our real hotel was just down the street and we were able to walk… thank goodness we didn't have any luggage (save our carry-ons)!

Our room was actually nicer than we expected. We had opted for one of the cheapest hotels we could find on, yet the room we got was a suite and it was very comfortable and relatively clean. We think they upgraded us to their best available room because we checked in so late. We passed out quickly and slept with the deepness of the Atlantic ocean- the same deep ocean which, I feared, may be hosting our luggage at that very same moment.

We woke up around 10am and ate the complimentary breakfast at our hotel. I took a shower and that is what I must comment on now... Perhaps the best things about Dubai are the showers because there is no law mandating water "efficiency" standards. In the United States, the government tells us how many gallons per second of water we are allowed to pour on ourselves using our shower. In Dubai, there is no such nonsense and showers feel wonderful!!! It is like swimming upstream in a Jacuzzi of cotton candy and soft down comforters. As long as I pay for the water, why shouldn't I be allowed to use as much of it as I wish? Many people will say, "because water is a limited resource!," which, of course, is utter nonsense. We have more water on this planet than we could ever use because gravity keeps it stuck here. There is just as much water as there was before man invented the bathtub. What is limited is CLEAN water and, thankfully, in places like Dubai you can take a shower so wonderfully relaxing that your mind can't help but wander until it thinks up something like desalination… which is where Dubai gets all its fresh water. This could be done in America also, if people just had the courage to politely ask the government to get out of the water business…

Anyway, water marketization aside, Michelle and I left our hotel in search of our apartment. We first had to stop at our real estate company's office, located in downtown Dubai. After seeing downtown Dubai, one would understand what all the construction fuss is about. The buildings in the downtown area are stunning, to say the least. Beautiful, modern, shiny, accented with colored glass and designed by architects who must take great pride in their work, these towers are, in many ways, why I came to Dubai. So upon seeing them, one can understand why people throw around those amazing construction statistics about the building boom going on here. That is, until one realizes that the construction taking place in Dubai isn't even occurring in the downtown area at all! Downtown is but a small fingernail of the projects here, and it must be one of the most beautiful fingernails in the world.

The main project occurring in the downtown area, however, is none other than the BURJ DUBAI. This building warrants capital letters any time it is written and a booming baritone voice every time it is spoken of. The BURJ DUBAI is currently the tallest structure in the entire world. It is taller than the CN Tower in Canada, taller than the Sears Tower in Chicago, and taller than the Taipei 101 in... Taipei. It is even taller than the KVLY-TV mast in North Dakota which, until this BURJ came along, was the tallest structure on the planet. Furthermore, the BURJ DUBAI is not even finished yet and it already holds these records. It currently stands at 158 floors and still has another 50-60 floors to go. It will be over 2,600 ft tall when it is finished (the final height has not yet been released to the public…)

After getting all the paperwork signed with Vakson (our real estate company), we took a taxi to the Dubai Marina, the area of Dubai in which our apartment building, Marina Crown, resides. As we travelled along Sheik Zayed Road (the 12-lane freeway that runs through the entire Emirate), we saw all sorts of wonderful western-oriented advertising. Indeed, the sides of entire skyscrapers have enormous 40-story advertisements printed on the glass. Some of these advertise new multi-tower construction projects and some advertise basic $200 digital cameras. If the entire world has become one marketplace, then Dubai has become its billboard.

As we approached the Marina, we passed 20-30 more skyscrapers being built along the highway like roadside convenience stores. The Marina itself is the world's largest man-made marina. It consists of an inlet channel that cuts into the land, turns 45 degrees, travels about 2 miles down the coast, then turns 45 degrees again and goes back out to sea. There are 200 towers built around it, ranging from 15 to 120 floors. These are at all stages of completion, from empty lots to finished gleaming buildings. There are cranes and construction equipment everywhere for about 2 square miles. Across the highway is Jumeirah Lake Towers, which has another 80 towers going up. At the north end of the Marina is the entrance to the enormous man-made Palm Jumeirah island, billed as the eighth wonder of the world. On this palm there is room for about 200,000 people to live permanently. I believe the Marina itself will house about 100,000 people.

Who is going to buy all these apartments, you ask? Well, there are very few that haven't been bought already and those are only in the towers that haven't yet started construction. In every tower that's at least one floor off the ground, every single apartment has been bought from the developer. Many of these buyers are speculators, of course, but the fact that our apartment had three different owners before us illustrates the kind of real estate market this is (and we're the first of all the owners to live here!). Most of the buildings have about 20-50% occupancy levels and this number has been steadily increasing over the past year as the Marina fills with residents who bought their brand new apartment second, third, or seventh hand.

Finally arriving at our tower, which looked incredible but was hard to fully appreciate when there were 20 other incredible towers right next to it, I took a moment to appreciate the situation. This was my new home. It was in a strange place, on the other side of the world, with strangely-colored people walking all around and Arabic written over the entrance, but damn were the windows shiny! Before stepping a foot in the door, I knew I would have no problem making this my home for a while…

{end of Update I}
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