Thursday, October 30, 2014

Observations: UAE

Background reading: Here, Here and Here.

Upon exiting the metro station closest to my hotel at around 11 pm, I found it immediately disorienting being surrounded by people mostly from the Philippines and Thailand. Where was I again?

Had known about the significant expat population but experiencing it was entirely different.  All of a sudden those population numbers (1.2 million Pakistanis, 700K Filipinos, 600K Thai etc.) really meant something.

Even by the end of my stay, I found it difficult to get a real feel for Arabic culture.  You have to really make an effort to search it out.

This locale was added to my schedule not as part of my original year's plan but as a fairly last minute add on.  In the end, it's timing couldn't have been more appropriate.  

Having just been to Bangkok for the first time and now to observe the significant numbers of young Thai women working in the Dubai was an eye opener.  Had I not visited Thailand prior, my views would have been much different.

The only woman I met that seemed happy sat beside me on the bus, having just arrived herself.  Everyone else I encountered who were working, had an edge.  This contrasted widely from how things felt in Bangkok, even amongst the poorest people we saw.  It saddened me to feel that. 

The Filipino workers seemed much more buoyant.  And their cultural styles came through in the way they interacted with customers.  In an effort to provide "service" by placing numerous numbers of workers in restaurants, cafes, high end stores, you cannot help but encounter the startling result.

An example:  I had had enough of the giant mall experience after not even an hour and was on my way back to the metro when my eyes fell upon a slice of cake at a cafe.  Thinking a treat was in order, I greeted the young man and asked for what was the last slice of black forest cake "to go".

He had no idea what I was talking about, even though there was signage and pointing.  He, who spoke great English, only knew the coffee end of things.  No matter, he found someone else to help me, a friendly Filipino girl.

This was at a cafe that charges the equivalent of 12 USD for a slice of cake (it was delicious, best I've had outside of France).  When she punched in my order on the computer and told me the amount, I couldn't help but notice the look on that fellow's face.  It was a lot of money to him whereas the young lady who helped me didn't bat an eye.  You can tell she has worked there longer and are used to foreigners and locals going there to shop, eat and drink up a storm.

It was a surreal experience to be served at restaurants, shops by foreign workers who weren't really able to be truly helpful outside of general service.  I noticed a lot of:  Almost embarrassment when having to say the "script" to try and "up sell" a food order, almost apologetic when mentioning the prices.  And with a few I encountered, almost contempt when being asked what may have been the same question over and over again.

Even the oldest parts of Dubai were mostly populated by people from India, Pakistan etc. working really hard.  It was a good education, something I hadn't expected.  A very different view on "expat" life as my views have been of the highly skilled and educated, rather than a basic definition of someone living in a country they are not from.   

I found Dubai tough to assimilate to as I do not find pleasure in having a whole host of people at my beck and call. Who are unable to really tell me about a product or give me personal experience with it or in some cases, read.  The disconnect was glaring.

You can buy all the luxury brands you could want there.  But I couldn't help feeling like you'd be missing out on the real experience by not buying it from their respective countries, being helped and educated by local people.  It isn't an ego boost for me to be helped by someone whose monthly income is less than the item I'm considering.  I got the feeling it was for many.

And I surprised myself in wanting to return.  Even though I didn't attain much learning of Arabic culture on this visit, it gave me good insight into a unique set of circumstances, in a city that has a reputation of being "artificial", "over the top".  It has its own cultural mosaic and provides opportunity for expat life both freeing for some and oppressive for others under the guise of "progress".  

Friday, October 24, 2014


Had no idea how many varieties of dates there were.
Am personally not a fan (reminds me too much of giant Brazilian cockroaches).

First of many construction sites.

Couldn't keep my eyes off those workers.  The sun was searing.
Thought I'd be prepared with all the hot weather travel I've done this year,
but was burnt in the first hour.  Could not walk even a hour outside.  Had to take metro.
Contrast that with Bangkok where we walked for hours in temperatures that 
were in the high 40s C.  When here, temps were in the high 30s.

Burj Khalifa
Tallest building in the world.

Neat art installation, Dubai Mall -- Largest mall in the world.
Am not much for shopper any more but wanted to get a sense of its scale.

Beautiful metro stations.

Most city bus stops are enclosed and air conditioned.

First sights of the abras.

On my way to Abu Dhabi.

Chicken is most popular meat.

Sheikh Zayed Mosque

Got off at the wrong bus stop and ended up having to walk all 
the way around to the main entrance.

Trying to show scale between the abra and the dhows behind.

These dhows carry goods to Iran, Somalia, Pakistan, India.  
Everything is moved by hand.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

People I Meet

  • The gentleman whose extra bus ticket I purchased in Geiranger to head up to Mt Dalsnibba.  It was a bit of a race to get seats and he sternly sat in the middle of the first row to hold one for me.  Told me later he was prepared to tell people I was his wife should he be challenged.  I think he was in his 70s.  From Mexico and was encouraging me to practice my Spanish with him.  Very successful business man who had been retired for over 30 years.  Has 3 children and from the way he spoke about them, can very easily feel the depth of love he has for them.  One lives in Paris, one in Canada and one in the States.  All of them educated abroad.  He has had some operations to remove cancerous growths from his lungs and the remaining few have been somewhat controlled.  His wife decided not to embark on the bus ride as she is afraid of heights.  Why meeting him has stayed with me is because he continues to not let life stop him.  He is more curious than ever.  Wanted to know if I've seen a polar bear in person yet.  He has driven across the States 4 times in an RV (which he loves) and once with his son who accompanied him on his motorbike.  While we were waiting for the bus to leave, there was a scene just outside where an RV and a motorcyclist were side by side and he quickly snapped a photo so he could send it to his son because it reminded him of their trip together.  The way he spoke about the families his children stayed with on their various school exchanges.  How when those families visit, they call him Dad, just like his kids.  It was very touching to hear these stories and feel the depth and warmth of his emotion.  It was like receiving a hug.  His family is so very fortunate to have him.
  • The couple I met in the last hour of the 2nd day of the Halong Bay cruise.  Because I joined this 1 day group as the new person, I didn't know anyone.  To get away from everyone else for a bit, I braved it on the upper deck where it was really sunny and hot.  They were thinking the same thing.  When I said hello to them, I immediately caught their accent.  Turns out they were from Norway and Sweden respectively but own an apartment a couple hours outside of Bangkok.  After being forced to endure my loving Norway speech, we chatted about their travels and experiences and shortly parted ways.  A couple of days later in Hanoi, myself and a couple from the UK were walking around with our guide on a 4 hour street food tour.  All of a sudden I heard my name.  Remember the video I posted a while back about crossing the street in Hanoi?  Well, the city is that loud all day.  So we all stopped and looked around and couldn't see who it was.  Then we heard it again, and again.  The wife of the couple in my group started pointing and it was the Norwegian - Swedish couple calling down from the balcony of their hotel!  Earlier, just when the tour was about to start, the Austrian girl I met before I left for Halong Bay came running out of the same hotel.  Turns out she did find where I was staying after all and booked herself in as she had told me the place she had was horrible.  So the tour guide (who has now become a friend) thought I knew "everyone" in Hanoi.  When you think of the population density of that city, what are the chances?
  • CEO of a biotech company.  Very soft spoken guy.  We met while trying to use one of those check in machines at Dubai airport to do our obligatory passport scans.  He was hoping I knew some kind of special trick to make it work, but I didn't.  We laughed about how not modern the airport procedures were compared to how the city would like to portray itself.  It had been a while since we both had to line up for a counter at an airport.  He is actually quite well known in his field and knows some seriously adventurous people.  Spent our 3 hour pre-flight wait in a lounge chatting and eating.  Asked for my email and send a newspaper article of how he and his future wife met.  Fascinating story.  Both of them very highly skilled.  Emotional guy as well.  He was quite moved by my stories of Cambodia as his company is getting involved with technology that has played a pivotal role in helping reduce human trafficking. 
  • My local shawarma spot in Deira, Pakistani owner.  A couple of the young men that worked there remembered me after only one visit.  Unbelievable considering how busy they are and how many guys work there.  There is free delivery with orders so there is always a flurry of in and out, motorbikes back and forth.  I was "the girl from Canada" to the one cook and "sister" to another fellow.  The one would hold his right hand over his heart when greeting me.  Because I had recently read a couple of books set in Muslim culture, those gestures surprised me and didn't surprise me, if you know what I mean.  
  • The Swiss backpacker (late 20s/early 30s) I sat beside on the flight from Ilulissat to Reykjavik.  Talked a lot due to being pumped up on Red Bull and cigarettes and was flirty.  He did have a serious side (was Swiss after all...) and we had a good conversation about the career he left behind when his engagement got cancelled by his fiancee.  That was 1 1/2 years ago and having traveled all that time since, was ready to go back home and re-integrate into society.  We were analyzing my approach to life and coming up with ways of optimizing it even more.  I appreciated his input.  I think he thought I was playing "hard to get" and didn't believe D was going to be really waiting for me at the airport as he knew I had an apartment rented in Reykjavik and he didn't have reservations at the hostel yet...I hadn't filled D in on all this prior to him noticing a stern look from a stranger and wondering what that was about. 
  • A guy from Toronto (early 30s) who let me go ahead of him at the hotel washroom/change area the arrival morning in Sapa.  Really Friendly and was disappointed we weren't in the same trekking group.  Couldn't get over that half way around the world, he managed to find someone from a similar place.  I later realized he thought I was there on the same package trip organized by the youth hostel he has staying at in Hanoi.  I thought he was staying at the same hotel whose facilities we were using.  In Vietnam, all sorts of organizational confusion exist.  When in reality he was doing a home stay and I was coming back to the hotel and we weren't hiking the same routes either day but did end up at the same lunch spot once.  While he was trying to sort all that out and communicating it to me, all I was trying to do is get changed and ready as I knew what I was supposed to be doing.  At lunch, I deliberately sat far away when I noticed his buddy elbow him and gesture at me which made me immediately think "Are we in high school?".  He did come over and asked me how my morning went and if I was staying overnight and that he'll see me later.  There was nothing inappropriate there and he did eventually figure it out the following day.  When I told D after the first night, his reaction was "Are you Not wearing your ring???!!!", "What is it with those Toronto guys?!" and "I am going to get a T-shirt made for you that says 'Ask me about my Husband'...".  
  • All this solo traveling and observing has made me aware of how easy it is to get swept up in all of it.  I never had the experience of backpacking through SE Asia, Europe or South America and getting involved in the culture that comes with hosteling.  I can see just how intense it can be emotionally and how the set up of limited time in places and nothing to really worry about outside of finding places to go, eat and party at, can be conducive to frequent hookups.  I'm part of a Sorority so I'm no stranger to partying etc.  But to be thousands of miles away from home for a longish period of time...That's much different.  Couldn't help but think of how I would feel as a parent knowing my teenage or 20s daughter was embarking on such an adventure.  Would hope that she would have grown to be strong enough in her Self to make sound judgements.  Even though I am quite independent and would want them to be as well, I think it would be tough to let go having a tiny idea of what they would be walking into. 

Saturday, October 4, 2014

How to Grieve?

I believe that the extent of grieving is proportional to the depth of the relationship.  Know of people who will go to every funeral, no matter how remotely they knew the person.  I only feel comfortable attending ones that celebrate the lives of people I am truly close to.

Because I come from a fractured family, I can honestly say that the deepest relationships I have are not with my blood relatives, but with others who have come into my life by choice.  I am still grieving (7 years) the loss of the woman who in many ways has been more of a mother figure to me than the one who gave birth to me.

I cannot think of her without tears welling up because I miss her so much.  Whereas I can't say that about anyone I've lost from my genetic family.  The night the voice mail message arrived, my stomach and heart plummeted. When the news was verified, I completely broke down for hours, over days, weeks, months.  D had never seen me lost in grief like that before.  I had never seen me like that before.

We had just moved into our current house.  I had tradespeople all around working on stuff.  We were supposed to head up to the cottage that night and to Nice the week later.  But all I wanted to do was go crawl in a hole.  My biggest supporter had been torn from me and I didn't know what to do.  I had such great plans for us, now that we had moved closer.  Even now, I will find myself thinking how much she'd love seeing these places I've been...

So how do you grieve someone who has pushed you away and deserted you?  Who wouldn't let you in unless you concede to being "wrong"?   How that type of control and manipulation creates a barrier and robs both of you of something inherently human. Some things may not be reconcilable, even at time of imminent death.

In my case, I realized that I grieved the loss of that person a long time ago at the pivotal event when I was pushed away.  And though some tears broke through at the news of their death and was shaken from the reality of it, the depth of sorrow wasn't there even though it "should have been" or was "supposed to" or "ought to have been" as they had technically been "in my life" since I was born. 

I can't help but feel bad or embarrassed for not having an "expected" relationship with certain family members and thus not be able to even act "normally" in times that routinely bring people together.  It's a terribly ungrounded feeling and very difficult to go about your daily routine with that script running in the background.

I've shed many tears of frustration for all I could have done and are capable of giving but am prevented from. Impossible for me not to feel guilty for not "being there" even though you know you are not welcomed. 

Knowing how others will label you as a "deserter" or "unfeeling" when they have no idea how much you've suffered from not having a decent relationship to begin with. And how that lack of support throughout the years has meant growing up without the type of reliability and security you'd expect from the people closest, charged with your care. 

Taking a broad view of life, I believe those challenges existed to shape me, my thinking and my resolve. To force me to learn to stand up strong and fight for things I believe in.  Necessary to overcome in order to create a life I can proudly call my own.  To not assume that everything that was taught or had to do with "family" is automatically "right", "kind" or honorable.

I cannot begin to express how grateful I am that my childhood did not permanently damage or rob me of being able to feel love, empathy and compassion.  My upbringing felt unbearably harsh.  It was extremely difficult living with consistent unreasonably frank disapproval of who I was as a person.  I've always felt very deeply and am easily hurt.  On the other hand, very easily moved by beauty.

How differently would I have turned out had I been born into a family unit that is stable, full of love, compassion, kindness and honest guidance?  I cannot know.  But it is certainly within my power to create that environment now.