Tuesday, 12 July 2011

That time of year

Travellin Bob is off on holiday tomorrow.

Ania and the kids are already away, and I'm off to join them tomorrow.  We've rented a cottage a couple of kilometres in from the Baltic coast here in Poland.  So tomorrow morning I hop on the 11:10 express train to Gdynia, a long seven hour ride I've done several times in the past, armed with sandwiches, something to drink, some magazines and books and the trusty iPod for entertainment, relax in my comfortable First Class window seat and watch the country slide by.  I'm looking forward to relaxing for the journey - and especially meeting up with my beloved family after nearly 5 weeks apart.....I can't wait!

We have bikes with us, a little tent to put up in the garden that no doubt the kids and I will sleep in some nights, and Ania has already pinpointed the best value bars and ice-cream parlours and restaurants  in the nearby village.  The beaches will all be good - there don't seem to be any bad ones on the Baltic coast.  All we have to hope for is good weather - July in Poland can be a little mixed, hot and sunny one day, pissing with rain the next (and sometimes both in one day).  But it will be good anyway.

So I'm taking a break from writing this for a couple of weeks.  I'll be back on line in August, with a holiday report.  Back to Abu Dhabi for a couple of weeks then, so expect more Gulf News, then a new destination - Cyprus - for a few months.  The football season starts, too, and my club are looking forward to a decent season for once after a difficult few years.  My little man Kuba is off to proper school in September, and my little Princess off to playschool, so there is a lot to look forward to in the second half of the year.

And of course, plenty of travellin'.....

Happy days.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Gulf News Part 4: Weather, Wealth and Weligion

So my visit to AD ends this weekend and I return home.  I can’t say that I’m sorry – 4 weeks away from my family is too much…..I miss them terribly!

But it’s been interesting, and I’m back for another two weeks in August.

                                                                        *          *          *

The last two weeks have been quite unpleasant, actually.  I have no objection to hot weather – give me sunshine, a nice sandy beach and a sea to splash about in and I’m quite happy.  If there is a bar close to hand serving cold beer and food and ice cream then so much the better.  Scantily clad ladies wandering around is the icing on the cake.  I’ve had all that at my hotel – but it’s just been TOO hot, at least for me.  Up to maybe 35C I’m fine – I’ll gladly take that any day of any week.  Trinidad was great largely because for the entire 8 months I was there the temperature hovered around the 30 – 32C range and never below about 26 even in the middle of the night.  But here, even though AD is at a higher latitude than Trinidad, and thus further from the Equator, it can be an absolute furnace at this time of the year.  Most of the time I’ve been in town the temperature has been in the mid-40s during the day, and the high 30s at night. It’s been a stifling, dry heat and with hardly any breeze to cool things down.  Indeed, what wind there has been seems to have been blowing off-shore from the desert beyond the city and thus a warming rather than cooling breeze…..there is certainly no detectable wind-chill factor here!  To me at least it’s been unbearable and certainly put me off spending a lot of time here.

The lack of wind has caused other problems too.  There is a huge amount of building going on in the city, with massive and beautiful sky-scrapers going up everywhere.  Even across from the hotel beach, on another small off-shore island linked to the main city (which is also island-bound) by a causeway, there is a big development of 4 Canary Wharf sized towers that is labeled “The New Business District at the Heart of Abu Dhabi”.  The causeway runs right alongside the hotel, so there is a constant stream of huge trucks going back and forth, ferrying building materials to the site and excavated soil and crud away from it.  This in turn ensures that the beach is never particularly peaceful and there is a constant cloud of dust kicked up.  Even at night the work continues – fortunately the double glazing in the hotel room shuts out the worst of the noise.

Add to that heavy city traffic – cars and taxis and buses everywhere, trucks and mobile cranes and motor bikes.  It’s a small city, and this huge volume of traffic is concentrated in a quite compact space, so the petrol and diesel fumes are all-pervading.  So with the dust from desert and building site, mixing with this pollution and the lack of a purifying breeze, the atmosphere for the past week has been very unpleasant indeed.  There has been thick smog everywhere that has closed in the views, shut out direct sunlight (but without reducing the temperature at all) and left a layer of dust and grime over everything.  Across the other side of the bay from the hotel, not far away – half a kilometer, no more – stands yet another tower-block development on its own little island.  Much of this past 10 days it’s been visible as only the vaguest shadows through the haze.

This weather has made sitting on the beach or by the pool less than enjoyable, at least to me, so the sun-tan has not come on as well as I thought it might – I was looking forward to getting it nicely started before my holiday next week, but that hasn’t happened.  I brought a bottle of factor 15 sun-spray with me and I’ve hardly used it.  Even my head hasn’t gone its usual radio-active red.  The atmosphere has also played hell with my health.  I’ve never had so many splitting headaches as I’ve suffered the last week or so, and the dryness and pollution in the air has made my eyes constantly dry and sore.  I know I need new glasses, so my eyes tend to get tired anyway (staring at a laptop screen all day at work doesn’t help), but these last days have been awful.  I’ve lavished moisturizing cream on them to try and ease the soreness but it hasn’t really helped.

So in a nutshell, I can’t wait to get home to a Warsaw that is currently (as I write) a mere 20C and wet.  The forecast is for an improvement over the coming days, to mid-20s and sunny, so hopefully by the time I get to the coast this time next week it will be just about perfect!

                                                                         *          *          *

The people here though have been without exception very nice and friendly.  I wrote previously about the mix of peoples here and the pecking order that seems to exist in AD society.  The bank is an Islamic bank, so it has a lot of mysterious and confusing rules that it needs to follow in order to comply with the teachings in the Koran.  I don’t pretend to understand the logic or reasoning behind the ones I’ve come across – for instance substituting the word sukuk for bond, or profit instead of interest on certain (and numerous!) screens in the system (the functionality and processes are unchanged, it’s merely labeling but nevertheless takes up a lot of time to change in a system as wide ranging and complex as ours) but we have to do it to comply with Shari’a law.  Apparently.

Most of the employees I’ve met have been either local Arab or ex-pats from Pakistan, and as far as I can tell all Islamic.  There is a wonderful selection of beards on the men, and for the ladies of course burqas abound.  There are employees walking around in western dress – business suits and ties – and the traditional flowing white Arab robes and head-dresses, and I have absolutely no clue why some dress differently from others.  I’m sure there is some kind of hierarchy involved, but I can’t figure it out at all.  Why is this guy wearing white robes and the guy at the next desk green?  No clue.  In the streets and malls there are the usual mix of jeans and t-shirts, combat trousers and shorts as well. 

I know there are areas in the East End of London and many other cities where there are huge numbers of Muslims, of all nationalities, dressed in a similar way to the people here, but they are all viewed with some suspicion and mistrust and even fear by the (dare I say it) white population – especially since the 9/11 and 7/7 atrocities in New York and London respectively.  France and Australia, amongst others, have recently passed laws restricting or even making illegal the veil.  In one sense I can understand that, on the basis that al Qaeda and other Arab fundamentalist groups do indeed represent a clear and present danger (as Tom Clancy would say) but I also firmly believe that the extremists are very much in the minority.  It concerns me that all Muslims are essentially being tarred with the same brush, when their beliefs and the Koran itself (despite some of its wilder laws) are largely preaching peaceful co-existence and a belief in a God little different to any other Christian religion.  I’ve spent a month now in a Muslim country (albeit a very Westernized and moderate one) and it’s made me view Arabs and Islam in a different light.  At some point, I must read more.  I know Tony Blair reads both the Bible and the Koran every day, and insists that that there are plenty of similarities in the values preached in both books, and it’s fair to say that for a thousand years or more both Christianity and Islam rubbed along nicely side-by-side, at least after the Crusades.  It only seems to have been since the late 1940s and the creation of the state of Israel (see my earlier post Israel from last year) and again for the last 40 odd years from the rise of Arafats’s PLO and its descendants, that Islam – as a religion and culture – has been really getting bad press (not entirely undeserved I have to say).  But again, I firmly believe that the majority are good and friendly and loving people.

It’s fair to say I have seen many more smiling faces in the streets here – and for that matter in Beirut, whose population is a similar Arab-dominated mix, though with a Christian majority – than I saw last time I was in London.  I have not felt in the least bit threatened, even surrounded 24 hours a day by people that many British (and other Caucasians) would view with at best suspicion and at worst loathing.

                                                                        *          *          *

The other thing that has set this bank apart in my experience, as well as the dress code I mentioned above, is the provision of prayer rooms.  I’m used to seeing signs in airports the world over for chapels and mosque facilities, and of course the Islamic devotion to prayer at set times of the day is well known.  It’s truly a way of life: I flew on Gulf Air once, several years ago, and on the seat-back entertainment system, no matter which channel you were watching (tv shows, Hollywood movies or moving map) a little airplane symbol in the top right hand corner of the screen showed its direction of movement with respect to Mecca, the spiritual centre of Islam.  It would be like all planes on Alitalia having a display pointing to Rome, or BA to Canterbury, or any US airline to Wall Street.  In my hotel room, and I suppose all the others here too, there is a little arrow painted discreetly on the ceiling above the bed pointing to Mecca.

And in the bank, in this big open plan, typical office, with workstations and hi-tech equipment, conference rooms and offices, there is a sizable room set aside for devotions, including prayer mats spread on the floor.  It’s in use regularly throughout the day, packed at the official prayer times and of course there is a separate facility for the women (who aren’t allowed to pray in the same room as their men).  It’s another clear example of how important the Muslim religion is to its followers, and it shows just how far Christianity has fallen in importance in the world at large – I read somewhere there are more Muslims worldwide than Christians now.  With population trends, there will probably be more Hindus and Sikhs and Janes or whatever too, before long.   Who knows, if China continues to liberalize then perhaps Buddhism will undergo a resurgence there…..then Christianity will really slip down the pecking order.  Could happen….

Maybe in a hundred years or less, Christianity will no longer be a major religion but merely a minority sect.

                                                                *          *          *

The place screams “Wealth”.

Despite all the robes and traditional Arab shops and bazaars that abound even in this most modern of cities, I’ve yet to see a beaten up old car.  Lorries, yes, plenty of them on the building sites.  The buses too have mostly seen better days – although there are a good number of new air-conditioned vehicles too.  But the taxis are all late model Toyota or Nissan sedans, very comfortable and air-conditioned, not a bit like the Toyota and Nissan mini-cabs you see around the London suburbs and elsewhere in the UK.  Pull up outside the bank on any given morning and there is a double row of Lexus and Mercedes and high-end BMW limos, dropping people off.

On the roads, amid the taxis, the standard car is again BMW or Lexus, many of them big 4-wheel drive off-roaders, plenty of Range Rovers, Jeep Cherokee, Cadillac and Chevrolet saloons – the big American jobs, not the crappy little four-doors they hawk around in Europe that used to be called Daewoo.  And Porsche of course.  Not seen a Rolls yet, which is a bit of a surprise.  But all late model, all sparkling paintwork and not a dent or a scrape in sight.

Then there is the architecture.  I walked from the bank’s Head Office to my hotel a couple of times last week, and it was liking walking through midtown Manhattan – 20 and 30 storey blocks on both sides of the road, Dunkin’ Donuts outlets and Ben ‘n’ Jerry’s ice-cream parlours.  Only the costume, of course was different – white Arab robes instead of Brooks Brother suits, black burqas instead of Prada.  The Crowne Plaza hotel surrounded by international banks.  All that was missing was the Yellow Cabs.

Even on the Corniche, a six lane boulevard that runs along the coast road from the city centre to the Marina Mall and the 7 star Emirates Palace Hotel on its own island at the southern tip of Abu Dhabi’s main island, there are sparkling new blocks going up, soaring 40 and 50 floors into the sky.  There are some beautiful looking designs, ultra-modern glass and steel pinnacles to match anything neighbouring Dubai has to offer (and far exceed anything in New York or London, frankly).  And mostly these are signed as “Residential” – God knows how much a top-floor penthouse is going to cost!

It’s oil wealth, of course.  But it seems as though it’s being put to good use, creating an extraordinary city out of an open desert.  The oil won’t last forever, but the Emirate’s rulers are clearly diversifying – both AD and Dubai are regional financial centres and all the world’s biggest banks have a presence here.  CNN has a hub in AD, as well as Atlanta, London and Hong Kong.  Just up the coast is the Yas Marina Circuit, home to the season ending F1 grand prix that features a 5-star hotel built across the main straight by the Start/Finish line and a marina for the sport’s high-rollers to park their boats.  Right next door is the Ferrari World theme park, with its motor museum, exhibition centre and the fastest roller-coaster in the world (featuring cars shaped like Ferrari cars and reaching speeds approaching 100kph).    Admission is a slightly pricy AED200 (about GBP35)…but frankly I’d pay it to have a go on that ride!  Maybe when I come back next month……