Sunday, August 10, 2008

it's like Vegas, on crack

I left the rich, dark soil of Ethiopia and landed hours later in the steamy desert, pearl-diving village of . . . okay, scratch that and jump forward 40 years . . . I actually touched down on some of the highest priced sand on the planet.


My first time in the Middle East, if you don't count Cairo, so I slept three hours and got up in time for the once-a-day mosque tour and discussion of Islam.

It was well presented, and I learned quite a bit, and certainly feel more comfortable now vising a mosque than a did a few years ago when I went to the one in my home city.

I only have the day to see as much as I can of Dubai, so after the two hour lecture/tour, I headed straight to the museum of history. There, I noticed the similarity in jewelry design to what I've seen in Ethiopia. I also got to see the early and later wind tunnel construction, which, living where I do and not using AC in the summer, is something I'd like to try building - wondering if the chimney is wide enough for a vent into the house.

From there, I grabbed a cab to the spice and gold souks, where I felt like I was back in Delhi, treated like a tourist. Top favorite phrase is "where are you from" followed closely by, in second place, "excuse me ma'am, purses-handbags-Gucci-Prada?". I did barter for a piece of cobalt (fabric dye), henna in powdered form so Sarah and I can try doing designs, some saffron (for rice), some sulpher (for skin allergies)and a crystal deoderant thing.

I also walked around where the normal people (mostly expat Indians, Pakistanis and a mix of Asians) live and shop. I took a water taxi with some of them. Picturesque old boats and hand carts are used here to move goods around the city. The local currency is pegged to the dollar, so everyone had a complaint about the rising cost of living. Especially maddening to the cab drivers was the price of fuel - now over ONE dollar per gallon!

I felt I should go see something insane, so I took a cab to the Emirites Mall to witness the indoor ski slope. In case you have trouble believing such a thing exists in the 112 degree, ultra-flat desert, this is their web site. Here, one can sip coffee in the lodge while watching the flat screen fires in big stone fireplaces, then go shop for some new mittens at the ski pro shop before snowboarding down one of the four slopes.

After the mall adventure, I went to the area of town where the Burj Al Arab, an exquisite building that resembles a ship's sail, looks out to sea. I wanted to take a photo of what many say is the world's best - seven star - hotel. It stands on it's own island, built just for the hotel, but you can reach it by car or by the helicopter pad at the top if you prefer a more discreet entrance. Here is a link for more info. You can also send postcards to your friends from their website. I took a cab that direction and ended up in a hotel next to it, where I got some nice shots, and then I decided to go to the beach, but got stopped by security because it was a private beach, and he said there is a public access after the hotel, you can walk there.

Well, he must have meant, after EVERY SINGLE HOTEL on the beach, because now I feel very sorry for whomever has to sit next to me on tonight's flight because I sweated through everything I own walking to it. It was worth the walk, though, to put my feet in the Persian Gulf surf and take pictures of people swimming and playing soccer and women wearing head to toe black playing with adorable kids, and shoot the big hotel and find a cowrie shell.

It seems like most of Dubai is under construction. I believe the idea is to make it a tourist destination so when oil money evaporates, there will still be ways to live well. The newest version of the world's tallest building is going up behind the new metro system (see photo to left).

I had some good talks with taxi drivers about the city and also what it is like to live far away from family in order to make good money. Most of the drivers work six months here, then go home for one. One cab driver from way "out" in Pakistan told me about how he had to fly home recently for a week because the Taliban came into his village and demanded that all the girls quit school and everyone smash their tvs, radios and cell phones. The village elders met up and asked the army if there would be reprocussions if they just killed the Taliban if they got aggressive with their demands and the army said, "no, go for it." No way were these guys giving up their cell phones, tv's and radios!

My final stop was to visit a grocery store, a family tradition when we visit a new country. A bag of dates for the trip and I was off to home.

First class, of course, how else can you leave Dubai??

Dumpster Girls

I'm not going to say too much about these girls, because I plan to make a video about them to try and raise money to get them out of the dump and into school. But, here is a condensed version I felt I should put up because every day is one day too long to live like they do. Please contact me if you want to help them, or contact Hanna at her website,

These girls, and four others, saw a posted notice about Hanna's work helping orphan girls, so they came to her office to see if they could get help. Some are biological sisters, but all treat each other as family, sticking close together for protection and companionship. All completely support themselves. Some live in plastic houses - houses made of tarps hanging from sticks stuck into the mud, and a few live with extended family in meager surroundings.

Hanna has not yet had the resources to help them, and it haunts her. She asked me to go with them one day as they work so I could record and show others.

They picked me up at her office and we walked a long way to their neighborhood. During the walk, they asked me to stay behind them and pretend I didn't know them. This was for my safety, they explained, as the big boys that work in the dumpsters will take cameras from tourists who try and snap photos. I saw these boys - men, really - riding atop garbage trucks, leering at the girls and yelling to them as they walked past.

The girls told me they would take me to someplace safer than their normal dumpsters to show me their work.

First, we went to one girl's home, which she shares with two sisters. Inside, it is the size of a twin bed. They had lived in a plastic house, but were able to get this one for 50 birr, about $4.80, a month. They will have to move out at the end of the month, though, because the landlord just increased the rent to 60 birr. Looking around at the out-of-work men gathered in the street, I asked if she felt safe at night. She told me they use sticks to block the door and that it helps. None of the girls travel or stay alone.

She is 11 years old.

I asked her what her very favorite food was. Her eyes glowed and she smiled as she said softly, "potatoes."

We went to the dump and I taped them digging for metal (see photo above of nails and other dump discoverd metal), which they sell for half a birr per kilo. Usually, five of them working can find a kilo each day. They also gather pieces of plastic grocery bags to use as fuel to cook cabbage, their main meal.

At his "suggestion," I ended up paying one of the men there to "protect" me as we shot.

The girls didn't get enough metal to sell that day, so I bought them some potatoes, onions and a bag of coal from this lady in the photo, who agreed to hold things until the youngest came back from accompanying me home, which she did. This little girl had a horrible, nasty looking infection in her ear and could not hear, so I took her back to Hanna's and sent her to the doctor.

Hanna and I talked that night about how we could help them with their job - gloves, a tool to dig . . . but it was a depressing discussion as we don't want to help them dig in the garbage all day every day, we just want them OUT of that work.