Posts Tagged 'Dubai'

Khaki

Before my departure for the airport I was called to a debriefing at USAID. I had not seen the US compound since I left nearly two and a half years ago. The sight (and site) was astonishing. We are building a city inside a city, more city than it was before. Several enormous buildings have gone up to house God knows who and what. Maybe the short termers will finally get proper rooms rather than the hooches they sometimes had to share with several others.

Once inside the section across from the embassy, the place had turned into a city with lanes, balconies on the two-story hooches gave the place a flavor of New Orleans if you imagined the balconies to be wrought iron rather than plain metal. Enormous 16 x 32 feet (?) photographs of the most beautiful places in America adorned the (now painted) concrete walls and you could pretend you were looking out over a misty coast of Maine or sunny Hawaii. I wonder whose idea that had been; whoever it was had recognized that some things of beauty were badly needed to save the souls of our compatriots making difficult decisions from a place that was steeped in ugliness, having little to do with the inherent beauty of the country that hosted them.

The entrance to the US compound was thick with melting snow mixed with mud, the famous Kabul khak. By the time I arrived at my seat in the airplane I had left a thick trail of chunks of mud and my shoes, boot and pants had taken on the color of khaki (named after the Dari word of mud, indeed). I cleaned them up with kleenex in the plane’s bathroom, a messy affair which had to be repeated in another bathroom in Dubai.

I managed on my own the trail through various security checks (none as stringent as getting into the US compound) until we arrived in Dubai where I had requested assistance as the walks can get rather long. A young Nepali man wheeled me through backstage doors, with security waving me through without having to take my boot off. I felt a little undeserving of the sympathy but it was nice nevertheless to transit so painlessly.

And now I am in Amsterdam waiting for the homestretch to start. I hope to outrun the snow storms that are raging around the east coast as I am not interested in any further delay to my homecoming.

Grateful one, two and three

Air France still has a first class. I think most of the American airlines abandoned this class years ago. On the Boston flight there were four seats and on the Dubai flight eight. Each first class pod is the size of a New York City studio. All of the seats were empty, even the business class was half full. Yet these two classes together take up a sizeable chunk of the plane’s real estate. Maybe one first class passenger every other flight pays for it all?

The seats, even when fully extended, slant downwards, making me slide down – the foot not really up, but definitely an improvement over economy. I couldn’t have managed the toilets from there. My crutches were put away someplace and each time I needed them someone had to go fetch them. And then the tricky walk up or down the aisle. My biggest fear was unexpected turbulence and the biggest challenge opening the door to the toilet and keeping it open while I hopped inside. I was immensely grateful for the clean toilets and for the absence of lines in front of them.

In Dubai my handler was Alfie from Kenya. I gave him a very big tip because he had to do a lot to get me squared away for the Kabul flight. It goes into his kitty for studying engineering when he gets back to his country. I learned more about the intermediary scoundrels who recruit poorly educated people in Africa and Asia and then keep most of their paychecks, a variation on indentured slavery. Alfie just got our of their tentacles and is now employed by Emirates which will pay his fare to Kenya for leave.

When in a wheelchair you get to go through all sorts of areas that are roped off or closed to the public. This is how one circumvents the stairs and find the elevators. We occasionally went through metal detectors that went off, what with all my metal, but no one seemed to care.

Safi airlines didn’t know anything about wheelchair services, supposedly arranged by our travel agent back in DC. I was not surprised. I was asked whether I could get up the stairs as the plane is not parked at a jetway, otherwise they had to get more sophisticated machinery and lift me into the plane. I said yes as long as someone carried my bags and spots me. So that was unwelcome news – no jetway entry; a bus to the plane (as it will be, no doubt, on arrival).

I was very grateful for Alfie who did all the legwork to get the wheelchair assistance arranged. He parked me on the concourse and walked away with my passport and itinerary. I am a trusting person and had no reason to distrust Alfie, but there was this nagging little voice that said, what if he never comes back? I suddenly felt very vulnerable and realized how hard it would be, from my low sitting position with my handluggage, coat and crutches, to find the right official, and then not have any papers to prove my existence. The place is staffed by lethargic underlings, sitting behind high counters, and who don’t display any recognition that customers are ultimately the ones that keep them employed. It’s not a clear cause and effect diagram in their minds, I gather.

For Safi Airlines wheelchair assistance is an extra, another 100 dollars on top of the already steep fare. Unfortunately, the rules about how the payment was to be done, and where, had changed and the people Alfie was dealing with didn’t know the answer. After much telephoning Alfie was given a slip and we were directed to a ticket sales office, minutes before midnight. The cashier, clad top to toe in black, the uniform for females not wearing airline dress, had a midnight task to do first: adding up the transactions of January 9, 2014 and stapling a thousand little pieces of paper together. Luckily she was fast. Five minutes after midnight she attended to us and I had purchased my wheelchair assistance in no time at all.

And now I am in the Marhaba lounge, available to me because of my business class ticket. I asked Alfie what he would have done with me for the three hour wait if I not had the business class ticket. He told me there is a place where the handlers park their charges, somewhere off on the side. I am trying to imagine that place and am once again grateful, this time to the US government for helping me out.

I have never flown business class to Kabul and wonder why anyone in their right mind would for such a short flight, except when you are very big or, like me, have one very big leg. The economy seats are so close together that even I often had to sit sideways. I wonder who I will be sharing my upper class with: big and crippled people? generals, ambassadors? Ministers? Warlords? More about that later.

Westwards

Having stopped the explosive activity in my GI tract with horse pills, I was able to travel in peace from Karachi to Dubai to Amsterdam where I took my allowable rest stop.

I left Sheraton land for the airport earlier than the bell captain suggested, not wanting to add stress to my exit from Pakistan. I learned soon enough there was another reason to leave speedily: the young chief of one of the more active Al Qaida parties was mowed down by a drone in the northern region of Waziristan. This news was conveyed to me through a whole bank of newspapers neatly displayed in the airport lounge where I wiled away these extra hours before boarding time.

The lounge was the only one that ordinary mortals could join temporarily for small change, rather than requiring high bank or miles account balances. I was a cheap client, drinking only tea and coca cola.

The trip to Dubai was smooth and short, the trip to Amsterdam long and bumpy and the long walk between terminal 3 and 1 in Dubai endless and painful. Both flights had all seats filled, may be not surprising for a weekend flight.

In Amsterdam I arrived before 7 AM and, reluctant to call my hosts on a Sunday morning before 7 AM, I placed myself across from the opaque arrival doors at an airport café and watch family and friends cheer and cry as long or short lost relatives and friends appeared from behind the doors. At that hour of the day all the long haul flights come in from Asia, Africa and Latin America. It is wonderful to watch this reunion business. A large red machine next to the door allows one to print welcome home banners for a price, adding to the festivities.

I arrived in Holland in weather than can be seen or inferred from the Dutch masters, heavy and fast moving clouds, rain and a stiff wind. For the Dutch no reason to stay indoors–the large lake across S’s house was full of windsurfers racing at tremendous speeds across the lake. It is one way of making lemonade out of lemons – at least for a certain subset of the Dutch population.

Dubai-Karachi

From Amsterdam to Dubai I made good progress on a piece of embroidery that has been in the works for two years now, while listening to books on tape downloaded from the Manchester library on my iPAD. It made for a very fast 5 hour flight.

Dubai was quieter than I had expected, with nearly as many sales people, trying to get us to buy things we don’t need, as passengers. Dubai is full of memories of our many trips in and out of Kabul. Despite its bad rap, we have always liked the place (though not necessarily the airport). If you can let go of the rampant materialism you can marvel at the mingling of races, (life)styles, ideologies, traditions and dress that are stirred together in this ancient crossroads. I had dinner at midnight in a restaurant chain that serves fried seafood next to raw seafood. It is the same chain in which I had one of my last meals in South Africa about a month ago, only this time there was no beer or sake served alongside the sushi.

The flight from Dubai to Karachi, which I had dreaded, thinking it would be like the flights to Dhaka, turned out better than expected. The people who travel to Karachi are quite different from those who travel to Dhaka – more western dress, more English speakers and more cosmopolitan. I also had three chairs to myself and slept through most of the short flight (1.5 hours).

The airport in Karachi was jam packed with long lines at the immigration hall. One young American woman was sheparding 23 American/Pakistani kids into the country, apologizing left and right as she was figuring out how the immigration officials handled groups (they didn’t). I thought she was brave to have volunteered for the job and wished her well. There was a special line for unaccompanied ladies and children, which I joined, bypassing hundreds of men, many apparently coming back from a pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia.

The nice young man from the Sheraton greeted me inside the arrival hall, which was wonderful once I left it and saw the packed crowds outside with rows and rows of mostly men, pressing on flimsy gates.

Outside the air smelled of roses. The ground was covered with red rose petals. My young guide explained that it had something to do with the pilgrimage. I love arrival halls at airports mostly because of the happiness and affection that is displayed as passengers are greeted by family, friends and well-wishers. This place was no difference except for the added carpet of rose petals and the thick rose fragrance that overwhelmed the usual smell of jet fuel, hot asphalt and car exhaust fumes.

Once we left the airport, the traffic jam dissolved and we drove into town on nearly empty roads. It was dark and I couldn’t get a good sense of the city. What I saw reminded me of Dhaka but also of Abidjan and Entebbe, a generic developing country metropolis. The bill boards for luxury items, the high rises, the McDonald strategically placed across from the arrival hall, as well as my Sheraton pick up man, with his dreams of getting an electrical engineering PhD in Australia are of one world; black-clad veiled women, clustering around their menfolk dressed in traditional garb with their wild and sometimes henna-ed hair and beards are of another world altogether; still, all of it is Pakistan. I sympathized with those who try to govern this place.

The Sheraton hotel is hidden behind a high wall guarded by men in uniforms with guns and equipment to detect bombs. Once you are let in you can believe you are in a small town with a short but quiet road passing small shops. More security to get into the hotel itself, though the metal detector didn’t detect my metal ankle brace. Since our workshop is in this hotel we may actually not experience all that much what Karachi is all about.

Homebound

I poured over all the typed up post it notes all day Friday, looking for patterns, duplications and common understandings that would produce, as if by magic, a framework – the rationale for the alignment meeting. There is something like trusting that the process would produce the desired products, even if the shape and form of the product wasn’t clear at the beginning, not in my mind and not really in the mind of the people who had hired me. All of us were engaged in a leap of faith, though their leap may have been bigger than mine – we were all trusting that something good would come out of a vision of someone long since gone from the scene, 8 months of preparations, countless hours, headaches and even more dollars.

I interrupted my writing and thinking for a massage up the street, organized by one of my local counterparts. The three of us had a massage room to ourselves and three Thai ladies working on us. It was just what my body, having been hunched over a tiny netbook, needed.  All oily and massage-brained I returned to my hotel desk and finished the thoughts that had floated through my head while being kneaded and slapped. Creative thoughts happen when you least expect them. This I learned from reading the book Imagine by Lehrer, opening me up to suggestions to interrupt work for a massage any time.

In the evening another, and last social event was planned, making this the 7th dinner engagement in 8 days. We met at a Chinese restaurant around a large lazy Susan, my local and Baltimore colleagues and the founder of a Bangladeshi firm involved in research and communication – I have now entered this new world of communication organizations – a creative bunch, more so than the management and leadership folks I am usually hanging out with – design versus control. I do like this new universe and the people who inhabit it.

Back at the hotel I packed my few possessions in my small carry-on luggage while watching a documentary on the BBC of 50 years James Bond cars, car chases, car stunts, all illustrated with car related snippets from all the Bond films. It made me want to see all the old ones again, as well as the new one which also had car chases in Istanbul. We have a family visit to Istanbul on our wish list so this will be like a hors d’oeuvre.

Saturday morning was reserved for breakfast at the American club (a bagel with lox and real coffee), next to the pool where an aquatics class was underway and a grassy field with small boy scouts building something out of bamboo poles.

With a colleague from Baltimore, new to Bangladesh and looking for giftsfor the women in her life, a visit to a pearl vendor was called for. Bangladesh appears the place to buy real pearls for very little money (something like 8 dollars for a string). But I already have two sets of pearls, one from my grandmother and the other a gift for my 18th birthday.  I never wore or wear them much; people always seem to be surprised when I wear them, as if they are out of place around my neck.   May be it is because I don’t wear a twin set over a tweed skirt – the pearl necklace uniform in my mind.

After our pearl purchases we had fifteen minutes left for a quick swing through BRAC’s Aarong store, a required visit for anyone new or old to Bangladesh. My luggage limitation allowed only a very small purchase, two soft toys for Faro – I now no longer skip the baby/small children’s section – that could be stuffed into a side pocket.

We completed our stay in Bangladesh with a visit to the local organization that emerged out of a completed USAID project ten years ago. It has since flourished and diversified its funding in a way my own organization could learn from.  We toured their brand new building, all 6 stories, including lodging for 8 people, a roof restaurant and a training room with moveable furniture and plenty of wall space. Maybe I will be back there one day. After the tour we sat around a table and learned about what everyone in the room was working on while nibbling our fried chicken sandwich from an unofficial KFC outlet, and drinking our cokes.

And now I am in Dubai waiting for leg number two (Dubai-Amsterdam) of the three leg trip home. I was able to retrieve my good seat that the Emirates airline man in Dhaka had ignored and exchanged for a lousy seat way in the back on night flight to Amsterdam.  A nice Air France lady got it back.

Transit

The strike was over and with that the streets clogged again. Fatima had promised to take me out for a farewell lunch. It took an hour longer to get to my hotel.

We decided to find a place within walking distance despite the heat. We found a Japanese/Chinese/Korean restaurant. I suggested we try bi-bim-bap so that Fatima could sample the food of the country she will be visiting soon for a consultancy. But first she has to pass her bio statistics exam.

And now I am in Dubai again where I ran into some Afghan friends; now a couple, he a former colleague she one of the leadership facilitators I trained. Small world.

Eight hours later Amsterdam, with a searing pain in my shoulder and an achy left ankle. I am not in great shape to travel another eight hours.

Time’s Up

My countdown gizmo on my computer now says ‘Time’s Up’ and so I find myself in Dubai.

The early morning ride, at daybreak, through a still mostly deserted Kabul was fast and eerie. This was a different kind of parting. Who knows when I will be back? I continued to feel both elated and sad, remembering the sobs of desperation that my departure caused. I hope the desperation has turned into resolve because otherwise all the struggles will have been for naught.

After a flight that could have been called the ‘cry-baby-express’ with too many crying, shrieking and generally undisciplined Afghan kids, I was relieved when we landed in Dubai. Actually the sigh of relief came when it was wheels up from Kabul airport – as I am aware that a complex attack on the airport remains a possibility. It would certainly be spectacular and media-genic. Ever since the failed attack earlier in the summer I have been conscious that this might (will?) one day happen.

The gate area at Kabul International Airport was full of Afghan soldiers, hundreds of them. Continuing my pondering of an attack I wondered whether they would be of any use – they didn’t look like they would. I never found out where they were headed and didn’t get a chance to ask as they stuck together like bunches of grapes. Why they weren’t flying on military planes was a mystery until someone murmured that Ariana got the deal.

I found myself soon in deep conversation with a USAID employee in charge of health and education programs in Paktya, where she is stationed at the FOB (Forward Operations Base). We had several acquaintances in common, including the person who will be my new boss at MSH.

In Dubai I checked into a hotel a block away from the Dubai mall that is one of the more exquisitely decorated places I have stayed in. Axel and I stayed here on our way back from the wedding, a year ago. It is the place with the glassed in bathtub in the middle of the room with a TV that swivels to allow viewing from the bathtub (while one’s roommate – if there is one – can view you taking a bath, allowing for full transparency!)

On the way to the hotel I made an appointment for a massage at my habitual place in the mall (Feet First), then a pedicure next door, and for desert sushi in one of those places were the color-coded dishes work themselves like a train between the tables and you can be totally impulsive. Although the quality was not the best (but in line with the cost), it was still sushi and I was in seventh heaven, relaxed and with shiny toe nails, filling myself with sashimi, edamama and sushi rolls.

Back at the hotel I quickly deleted about 5 emails announcing escalating trouble in Kabul – I don’t want to know about these tings right now. They were about demonstrations related to the continuing parliamentary mess. So far they have stayed peaceful but they do tie up traffic in knots. I am glad I had taken the early morning flight to Dubai.

And now I am looking out over Dubai at sunset and getting myself organized for the next leg, to Paris, which is supposed to start just after midnight.


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