Entries in Dubai (3)

Friday
May202011

Dining Alone in Dubai

What I should have said was, “Are you dining alone? Yes—then let’s eat together, because I am as well.” What I did say was…nothing.

And so we sat, two business travelers in our hotel restaurant—a fairly elegant place: white linen table clothes, a chef overly taken with reductionism (but thoughtful in presentation) and fine service.

Whereas I’m normally outgoing with respect to engaging people while traveling, I’m fairly tired at the moment. Lots of running around and long days. So when the waiter brought my wine, it went straight to my head—fatigue compounded by not having had a drop in a week because I was in dry Kuwait. The inclination to chat up the young woman seated across from me appeared for a moment, and then vanished.  

I could tell she was unprepared for solo dining, having put on a lovely dress, looking quite cheerful and lacking any distractions whatsoever. I had on a t-shirt and khakis, with iPad in tow. I knew to have myself seated by a window, facing away from the majority of the restaurant. She obviously let the staff seat her—to watch everyone else in the packed place eat, including me…who she looked at directly.

The awkwardness between us—because I could play Scrabble on my iPad and she could only stare across the room at the side of my head—was accentuated by an inverse sort of awkwardness nearby: a group of traveling coworkers.

Polite jokes among a mixed table of eight. Laughter too loud, followed by silences in the conversation. Tepid discussion of sports and careful conversation of non-present colleagues. A hotter hell I cannot imagine.

But the young woman by herself remained cheerful. She made a few phone calls to bide her time, but didn’t get through. She left messages describing her trip, from Ireland to Australia and how this was her first time in Dubai. I could hear it all—said to no one but voicemail. When once her phone did ring, it was a salesperson she tersely dismissed. And then on she looked, contemplating the contemporary flatware and rolling the legs of her wine.

I finished my desert and departed.

When traveling, the inclination is to make the most of every moment—as it is rare to be in a different place that offers exposure to different experiences and different people. Sometimes, though, it is just nice to act like you belong exactly where you are and passively absorb all that's around you. I think I'm having one of those trips.

Wednesday
Mar022011

Edward Hopper's Middle East Peace

Edward Hopper would have painted Dubai. Yes, the light and structures lend themselves to the sharply lit geometry of his work. But it’s more about relationships.

The emirate—which mainly extends a narrow strip 15-plus miles in length with two distinct urban centers, one commercial, one residential—traverses as well from the ancient to the contemporary, from Istanbul to Las Vegas. It does so as much architecturally as culturally and socioeconomically.

Hopper painted a post-Depression, pre-World War II America—one that was moving quickly into the modern age. When not focused on the sober structures and landscapes that defined an America trying to comprehend its new place in the world, he displayed how people grappled with the interpersonal issues within it all—at the theatre, at restaurants, at home, or just taking in the sun.

His subjects were contemplative, rarely making eye contact, with each other or the viewer. To me they look like they’re suffering from a hangover, one induced by the highs and lows of a society moving too fast, of keeping up with expectations.  

As I sat with the sun worshipers on the Leisure Deck of the new Bonnington Hotel in Jumeirah, I recognized similarities in scenes and emotions. Dubai is dealing with a post-financial crisis world, while its visitors and residents still bask in the awkward glories of the idea of what Dubai is supposed to be—all amidst a rapidly changing Middle East.

From my seat I noted a host of nationalities, starkly lit people tentative in their presence. The Europeans on vacation. The Asians conducting business. The Indians working for a better life. And all were interchanging these roles as well. Each deeply internalized with their own purpose. The paradox was that while I felt disconnected from the individuals around me, I had never felt more a part of the world at large.

Hopper would have seen this and conveyed it in oils: everyone looking to each other for how to define themselves, but no one looking at each other to see that we're all up to the same thing—just making our way in a world whose ceaseless pace is what connects us all.

Amidst all our methods of communications, there may still be a place for painting yet, and it is in Dubai. 

Tuesday
Mar012011

Friend for a Moment, an Indian in Kuwait en Route to Dubai

The large crowd began to move quickly with people shouting and some running away. Because everything being said was in Arabic, which I do not speak, I could not tell what was going on. Something was happening though. Chaos ensued—more shouting and shoving—and I tried to keep up with the throng so I wouldn’t get trampled. Then, amidst the tumult, our eyes connected: a friend.

From recognition came relief, and it felt as if we actually were old buddies. Although we had only met an hour earlier while waiting in line, a bond had formed—the type of strong but temporary connection that is made by a mutual acknowledgement of situational vulnerability. We met at ticketing—both alone and lost—and together had braved the masses.

As a result of the holiday, thousands of people filled the Kuwait airport pressing the airline desks, no ropes, no rules. Just hot, frustrated people of every origin and seemingly with every item they owned crammed in their luggage. I despise lines, and this was the worst I’d ever seen.

To the young Indian fellow behind me, whose ticket I spied and knew was on the same flight, I said: “If you wait here and save my spot, I’ll find out whether the online check-in desk is legit. I’ll wave you over if it is.” He understood what I was doing, but I could tell was doubtful about my motives. When the airline desk proved to be taking only our type of ticket, I signaled to him. He cut through the crowd. We established a trust.

Once past that point, we parted ways without words—until later when hundreds of people, angry from a delayed flight, bolted upon finding out the airline changed the gate at the last minute. My new Indian friend and I slipped easily into conversation about our shared confusion, and so we stuck together.

Interestingly, due to the panic, people were gathering based on nationalities. Pakistanis found Pakistanis. Kuwaitis found Kuwaitis. Emiratis found Emiratis. I could not identify any Americans, but my new companion brought me into the Indian fold. A group of them had formed a splinter line ahead of a random security check. And for that, I made my flight.  

“We have been speaking a while, and I do not know your name. I am Rony,” he said to me later. Turns out he was there to deliver his nephew to his sister. He had never met his sister’s son before, a two year old who was raised by his grandparents in India. Ronny spent three days with him, and then the two boarded a plane for a thousand mile trip from Karivellur to Kuwait. “He bit me in the arm once,” Ronny confessed, adding: “I don’t think I’m ready for children.”

At the point of our meeting, he was headed back to Bengaluru, where he lives and works as a systems integrator for an IBM subsidiary. He made clear throughout our conversation his determination to succeed. He lives alone, works the night through—while it is daytime in the U.S.—and spends his free time learning more about his job. As a 25 year old, he is on his way professionally. As one of more than a billion in his country, he seemed isolated, kept company by only the Hollywood movies he downloads. Work now, the rewards would come later. It is an ethic I can respect.

But from bike accidents and broken bones to stories about epic dusty bus rides, it turned out we had a lot in common. Traveling can be lonely and confusing, and at times life can be too. If occupied or encumbered, however, I would have missed this momentary connection—a couple hours in an airport on the far side of the world. We were just two friends chatting while the world around us on almost every level swirled in disorder and discontent. No work, just waiting. And that was reward enough.