Monday, January 27, 2014

Travelin' Love

I'm so unspeakably fortunate that I get paid to do something which I would be PAYING to do in another life. I've always loved travel and longed to do more of it, but I expected the opportunities would be limited and would cost me dearly. To be well paid to circle the globe is hardly short of winning the lottery.

I spent yesterday in Dubai and now find myself back in Germany. A free day in Cologne and then back to Philly and homeward after a full two weeks on the road.

As I walked around Dubai during my 29 hour layover, I found myself on a kind of continuous cloud of amazement, and I've felt this before on these Dubai layovers. I've chewed many times on why this should be so. I have similar feelings about Hong Kong and--I realize yet again--about Cologne, but each place has its unique pull. And the pull of Dubai is maybe the strongest, perhaps because it's the most unexpected.

First, there's the question of extremes. The poor of Dubai are not poorer than other places I've visited--I've seen no homeless in Dubai, for example--but the rich sure seem richer. The big stuff is bigger, the expensive stuff is... expensiver. The opulence of the architecture, the extravagance of the shopping, the profligacy of the water usage in an arid desert, just the sheer ostentation of the place--it's like Vegas, but 10 times the size and encompassing every facet of life and not just adult playtime. Highways are wider, buildings are taller. That's one part of it. (A sign in the airport says that in 1970 there were 5 skyscrapers in Dubai; today there are over 900.)

Also in the 'extremity' category is the climate. Flying in from every direction one crosses an arid moonscape (or water) to get to this oasis--from the East it's an ocean of drifted sand like scenes from a David Lean film. It's just the most unlikely place to have a major city, since it has no indigenous food or water needed to sustain that city and little natural shelter; if you take away the man-made structures, people would bake to death in no time. (OK, it has access to energy, but even then there's irony: the oil of this region fuels the planet, and yet there must be no place better suited to solar energy). Flying in, the city gradually appears like a mirage, everything baked white and shimmering in a heat haze and almost indistinguishable from the surrounding eternity of sand. I grew up in Minnesota, where we regularly saw 30- and 40-below ambient winter temps. If you've never known anything different this seems normal and manageable. And I suppose the 120° summer temps of Dubai are looked at by the natives in exactly the same way. But to me the heat is mesmerizing and a little terrifying. You just feel so vulnerable to it; get away from your support structure and you wouldn't last long. (But this is true in the MN winter too, no?) Cars have to be parked in covered spaces; vehicles left uncovered age VERY quickly; greenery shrivels and disappears unless watered profusely (which is no easy task in a desert); everything is bleached of its color. The extravagant architecture of Dubai needs untold gigawatts of electricity to keep the air conditioning running--I cannot imagine what kind of electrical grid is needed to keep this place humming--and constant maintenance to keep buildings looking fresh. (I marvel at the army of guys making deliveries on little scooters--hundreds of them. You see them on the freeway, covered head-to-toe to protect them from the sun, driving in the hot blast like riding into a massive hair-dryer, baking in their helmets. I always wonder what would happen if they crashed; if they fell to the ground they would literally cook on the scalding pavement.)

On our end, the airplane pulls into its parking spot and is met with an air conditioning truck which immediately hooks up and pumps cool air through the airplane to keep things from overheating. It stays hooked up and running the whole time the airplane is on the ground. An overheated airplane can cause all sorts of mechanical trouble, and getting it cooled back down with onboard systems may ask too much of them. (Again, we make similar use of heat carts all the time in the Midwestern winters and I don't bat an eye. But here it seems somehow like SO MUCH ENERGY to keep the blistering sun at bay.) On the other side of the field the massive and ever-expanding passenger terminals keep a football-stadium's worth of atmosphere comfy-cool, passengers ferried from air-conditioned car to air-conditioned massive terminal to pre-cooled jumbo jet. That huge fleet of Emirates jets is pumped full of cool air at the gate just as ours is while people fuel and stock and maintain the fleet in the crushing heat. The whole business is just so... improbable.

And then there is the service culture. I generally dislike being singled-out for special treatment (not least because so many of my coworkers feel it is their due and I so strongly disagree with this sentiment). But Dubai is a place designed in its bone marrow to cater to people as if they were royalty (especially if they have money or if they're, you know, actual royalty). We stay at the Fairmont in Dubai, widely considered the best hotel in the layover database (it is one of a great many high-end hotels in Dubai), and the staff there almost appears to be under the influence of some kind of service-producing drug. We are so well-treated that it's almost suspicious. The staff remember our names and our preferences, and we are routinely upgraded to nicer rooms (even the broom closets at the Fairmont are Leona Helmsley nice). The porters seem actually eager to drag our bags for us, and everyone makes conversation with you like they actually care what you think. Our food is deeply discounted and the TVs in the room always have a personal greeting when you check in. Everyone is addressed as "Captain" (it must irk the captains to hear a co-pilot addressed that way). It's hard not to look forward to a Fairmont layover.

Out on the street the vibe is a little different. I've never been threatened or cat-called or mumbled at or even looked at askance particularly, and yet as a Westerner one is definitely a visitor (a lot of Aussies and New Zealanders and Brits and Germans work here, though they seem to live... elsewhere; I'm typically the only Westerner wandering off the beaten path). Where the Chinese are cheerfully oblivious to a fat white guy wandering in their midst, there is a subtle sense here that everybody knows I'm a visitor. I've never been badly treated, but neither is there any sense that anyone (other than the Fairmont staff) is glad to see you.

I have no problem with this whatsoever. I'm perfectly happy being no special commodity to the residents of Dubai--it's my preference, actually. My coworkers often bitch about how the airport staff treat us "like they're better than us," oblivious to how often WE project that impression to almost everyone we come into contact with the world over. Indeed, the very complaint implies that it's somehow wrong to treat us like just anybody.

My point here is not to bitch (yet again) about my coworkers. My point is that even in how we are treated Dubai is a place of extremes. There's a sense that a (presumed) Christian in a Muslim country is a distinct minority and a (presumed) American in the Middle East is not a treasured entity. Add to this the differential treatment of women--though even this is far from universal--and you end up with a place that's impossible to put your finger on. And that makes it intriguing almost by definition. It's simply not reducible to a single substance. Even as I completely understand those who dislike the place, and especially my wife's reticence about visiting a culture that treats women so badly; even as I agree with many of those sentiments; yet there's just something about the place that stays with me. I try to put my finger on it and I fail. But there's something.


Germany is much less mysterious. I've flown in here enough that the accents of the controllers (who after all speak very good English and use top-shelf equipment) are nearly invisible, and I've grown used to the Germany way of doing air traffic control, so that it's almost like the drop in blood pressure one feels when one flies back into the US and returns to our oh-so-easy ATC system.

And there is the city itself. Cologne is a perfect mixture of big city and quaint small-ish town. And I simply love everything about it: the people, the dress, the food, the festive atmosphere, the public transportation, the cleanliness and order of everything, the shopping, on and on and on and on. It's a place I would be eager to live. Maybe someday I'll grow tired of the place, but that sentiment is nowhere on the horizon presently.

In fact, I'll be back here in just over a week. Even as I sit at my desk at the Maritim typing this, I'm already looking forward to coming back. How cool is that?


dbackdad said...

You seem to have the perfect synthesis of vocation and vacation. It's nice to see someone that appreciates the cool opportunities to explore that you get, while being smart and humble enough to understand that it doesn't mean you are better than those you see in those places (like I fear your co-workers do).

William Stachour said...

One of the great values of travel, it seems to me (and it is a benefit of reading too) is to give us a glimpse into the lives of other folks. We quickly learn that many people--most of them, in fact--lead lives that are utterly different from our own, they see the world very differently than we do. I'm always grateful for the huge advantages that sheer chance and an accident of birth have landed in my lap; we're so fortunate to live where we do. To internalize those advantages--"it's *my* doing; *I'm* responsible for my good fortune--seems incredibly myopic. It falls to us to take advantage of what is available to us (and I fall very far short on that accounting), but so much of it is happenstance.