Thursday, December 22, 2005

Welcome to the land of the Bengal Tiger (or the other reason why that Nike T-shirt cost you £20 instead of £50)

Tourists? What tourists?

Well, I’m finally here, welcome to Dhaka, capital city of this tiny South Asian country we call Bangladesh. On arrival at the airport from Dubai I was slightly amazed by the doubling of terminal space especially at Immigration because its usually pretty crowded. I however wasn’t surprised at the different tourism board (not the one above) billboards practically begging the occasional pleasure-seeking tourist to ‘avail’ the city’s tourist facilities. I’ve got to admit if there’s one thing this country is really good at its institutionalized begging!

If its not the tourism board it’s the government asking foreign countries for financial assistance. Hell, Bangladesh is home to the largest Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) in the world (in terms of staff numbers) which more or less does what the government should be doing – developing the country!

I’ve tried promising myself that I won’t verbally abuse this country by pointing out all that’s wrong with it whilst knowing very well that its still in its infancy – the country only gained independence from Pakistan in 1971 – visit this link for a concise history of the country. But what else is there to be said for a country that’s been voted the most corrupt not once, not twice but five times in a row.

Here’s an interesting viewpoint: Due to what appears to be the extreme backwardness of the country, one must learn to do without certain things we take for granted back home. For example, if your skin colour is a considerably lighter shade of brown (i.e. you look foreign) your best bet to not be picked out from the crowds on the street (probably by pick-pockets or street-side hawkers or worse...kidnappers) is to take a plunge in your fashion-sense (what IS fashion anyway?) and wear very crappy clothes be they hand-me-downs from the cousins here or the crappiest trouser-shirt combination. I guess it’s the same old story in many developing countries cos’ almost everyone’s an opportunist on the street!

I’m just so frustrated with the pace of change here, every time I come here its like going back to the 80’s if not the 70’s and I don’t just mean the local equivalent of elevator music (or ‘Muzac’ to give it its proper name) or the upscale stores all still playing Chris De Burgh’s ‘Lady in Red’ or something of that era (yuck)!

Still, things are changing albeit at snail’s pace, I was here back in 2002 and I guess very few things have changed in Dhaka city, of the few the most noticeable must be the absence of the black and yellow three-wheeled ‘Baby Taxis’ or tuk-tuks as they’re known elsewhere in Asia. I remember just how much noise and air pollution they’d produce and how dangerously ill-balanced they were.
Now, all of these baby taxis have been replaced by green-coloured larger three-wheeled ‘CNG’s (or Compressed Natural Gas) baby taxis. They run much cleaner and quieter than their predecessors. This still hasn’t had much of an impact on the smog situation in the city but it’s a definite improvement. Most vehicles in the country are slowly being converted to CNG as its proving to be more efficient than petrol or diesel and its cheaper.

About my visit to Bangladesh this time around, I’ve made it a point to visit as few relatives as humanly possible as I’ve planned to travel around this allegedly beautiful country. Staying with the ‘rellies’ – as I like to call them, is the social equivalent of sinking sand, once you step in you can’t step out! Hence my previous decision. Of course there will always be the initial chorus of gasps from them but I’ve managed to hold my ground so far with the further aid of Mother dearest who usually has her way of smoothing over the cracks my explanations leave behind (my Bengali leaves little to be desired and it can get me into sticky situations with people here).

So the shortlist of places to visit this time around is as follows:

- The Tea Gardens of Sylhet in the North East of the country

- The dizzying heights of the Hill tracts of Chittagong in the South East

- The worlds longest uninterrupted sand beach in Cox’s Bazar and hopefully the
beautiful Island of Saint Martin in the Bay of Bengal

I sort of had an idea to go to the protected forests of the Sundarbans where you’ve got the best chance of spotting the native yet highly reserved Royal Bengal tiger and possibly the world’s largest mangrove forest but that plan got shelved due to the lack of time. In fact the whole trip to Oz has been shelved because my best friend from school Mo won’t be in Melbourne in time, so I’ve had to reallocate the time spent there to here in Bangladesh and to Singapore and Malaysia.

Oh well like the stand-up comedian Steven Wright once said, ‘You can’t have everything, where’d you put it?’. I’ll be posting more of my views as and when I get time and as usual they’ll not always be of much informative significance, just my usual two Pence (or Cents depending on where you’re reading this from).

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

In the land of Syriana doing the the Touristy thing

Just got back from a desert safari that I felt almost compelled to go on as I was so damn bored towards the end of my stay in Dubai. It was interesting, amusing and damn cheap to say the least! Our driver and guide, Jasim came around to my place at 3pm just like the company said he would the day before when I booked the tour.

In Jasim's Landcruiser I met Amanda and her mom from London and we went to pick up 2 more passengers at DragonMart, a huge series of warehouse-looking buildings arranged in the shape of a Chinese dragon when viewed from the air. You’ll find just about everything Chinese at DragonMart and our last 2 passengers were no exception!

We waited for them outside the complex for what seemed like half an hour and Jasim was getting restless as we only had about 3 more hours of daylight left. When they finally did show up they could barely speak a word of English – not surprising as many of the people who work at DragonMart are ‘fresh-off-the-boat’ Chinese – so they stayed quiet for pretty much the whole time and kept smiling a lot as you do when you don’t know any other line of communication.

Whilst en-route to the dunes I did ask them what their names were and they politely asked me if I wanted the Chinese version or the English version, I knew I’d never be able to remember the former so they said ‘call us Jefferson and Lawrence’, not in so many words of course!

Once at the dunes we stopped briefly to deflate the tyres to spread the weight of the car on the fine sand so we don’t sink. The dune-bashing itself was to put it plainly KICKASS! Rollercoasters don’t even come close to it simply because they’re a little too predictable, but with dune-bashing and other extreme pleasures in life you just don’t know whether or not you’re going to tip over or get stuck. We did, however get stuck in between two dunes and Jasim’s brother who was in one of the other Landcruisers bailed us out.

I should be getting some kind of royalty for this pic shouldn't I?

We stopped at the top of one of the bigger dunes to take in the view of the miles and miles of auburn sand around us and then we messed around with some old snowboards and did a little sandboarding down the side of the dune before we meandered our way down to the camp.

On a side note: Readers may be interested to know that most parts of the new George Clooney Political thriller Syriana were filmed right out here on the outskirts of Dubai city and the desert. After watching the film I recognized the buildings in the marina area and it just seemed so damn surreal to be out here.

About the film well, I think by now most people know what my current tastes in films are so you’ll also know that this film is totally highly rated by yours truly! And the fact the George Clooney is the executive producer of the film which definitely puts him in my very short list of favourite Hollywood actors who have any kind of moral credibility.

Bottom line…go support this film (preferably by watching it!) and its creators because they work for a Film house called Participant Productions which is (hopefully) working to promote towards noble causes around the world! For a quick run down of my favourite films of probably all-time – even though they all seem to have come out in 2005, are and in no particular order:

The Constant Gardener
Lord of War
and Syriana

Back to the desert safari…

At the camp some people chose to go for a rather subdued camel ride whilst some others went on the quads for a bit of dune-bashing of their own. Suffice to say I shelled out the 50 Dirhams (friggin expensive if you ask me) for the 15 minutes of amateur petrol-powered 4-wheel action. Word of advice when riding on dunes with a motorized vehicle: Scout the ridge of the dune you want to jump off of or go over before actually doing so, and NEVER HESITATE when you’re at the edge. I, however found this out the hard way and got bucked off my quad.

After all that crazy tourist activity we sat down at camp for some shisha, dinner and some belly-dancing by a very pasty looking Eastern-European lady (so much for authenticity eh?).

(belly dancing with an obviously inept and uncomfortable-looking German tourist)

I didn’t let my investigative (some might call it being nosy) instincts go by the wayside just because I was enjoying myself, I got to know some of the people working at the camp who were answering to our every whim thus making it a memorable day for us tourists. I found out that most of them were from Bangladesh and the Indian subcontinent (surprise, surprise). I asked them about their life out here in the middle of nowhere and I found myself enthralled in their stories of the day-to-day hardships they face.

They seem to live on a salary of about 400 Dhs a month, that’s £30 or $55 - I spent half of that on the whole safari!, and they’ve got to sleep rough in the flimsy sheltered areas of the camp site come rain or shine. Venturing outside of the camp area to, say the city is not prohibited but with the amount that these guys are paid its financially impossible, that coupled with the fact that roughly half of what they earn usually gets sent back home to help their families build a proper house or put their siblings through school.

Here’s the result of the least I could do ‘for’ them:

That’s right, I could only take a photo with them to give them the recognition they deserve lest I should forget the hardships people go through for the comfort of others. I had nothing to offer them but words of comfort and understanding and yet I wish I could give them something of tangible benefit.

I could go on about all this for another few web pages but I’ll spare you the unnecessary heartache you may feel for people you don’t even know and hence who hold no particular significance.

This’ll have to be my last entry before jetting off Eastwards to Dhaka, Bangladesh. Once I’m there and if I get a decent Internet connection I’ll put my introductory entry with interesting facts about the country.

And finally I leave you with this, a breathtakingly beautiful desert sunset…

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Remember that rental car?

Hey everyone how's life I know not much has changed in the space of a few days, and if it has I hope its for the better. Does anyone remember how I was whining about that crappy Nissan Sunny all them moons ago (...actually it was the last entry), and does anyone remember how I was going to hopefully upload some pics of that banged up piece of you-know-what? Well the thing decided to die on us the day before yesterday not once but twice that same day! It wasn't the battery, it wasn't the lack of fuel, it WAS however the lack of servicing of the alternator and dynamo that charges the battery for the next time you start the car.

The worst thing is that the rental company doesn't seem to see things from our point of view, people like them make me sick, they expect us to sort out the problem and take the car down to their office instead of them coming to us! Can you imagine the nerve?!! Rental companies like this wouldn't last a second in the UK, watchdog agencies would be all over them. Infact its not even a matter of where in the world these people would be held accountable, its the friggin principle! Why do we (people who are completely new to Dubai or at least don't know the roads at all) be expected to be responsible for taking the car back to the rental office for the second time?!!!

Anyhow I've come to the conclusion that I want to limit the number of pictures I put up on my blog as I believe it 'cheapens' the quality of my overall material and does nothing more than make it look like the countless number of cheesy cloned personals or friend's networks sites out there.

I hate to disappoint but for those who know me through my blogging or just those who know me, I'm sure you'll understand where I'm coming from. Ok I'm hopefully suppose to meet up with Jaco to go to Jumeirah beach at noon and its noon now so I'm running late so I'll be back soon, hopefully I should be able to sort out some kitesurfing whilst we're all still here so if I get pictures from that I'll put them up despite what I just said about flooding this blog with photos.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Dubai on four wheels

Finally I got my first taste of what its like to drive in this place even though the car that we rented was on the serious side of abused to say the least. It’s a 6 year old Nissan Sunny with horrible wheel alignment so I keep veering too the right if I’m not too careful in compensating for this dirty little snag. The breaks squeal like (not squeak) and they’re as sensitive as hell. On the upside its an automatic and we’re paying about £10 a day for the…ahem ‘privilege’ as its next to impossible to get around this city without a car.

Getting a UAE license was pretty simple given the horrendous load of bureaucracy you’ve got to go through in this part of world for anything that’s remotely official. Dad and I just had to show our UK licenses and the traffic department officials did the rest on production of some moolah (approx £17). As I’m not a resident of this country I can only get a 6-month license, Dad’s already a resident so he gets a near-permanent 10-year license, no driving test no nothing for both of us…brilliant!

Since the car’s an automatic, I don’t need to worry about shifting gears but even so I find myself reaching out with my left hand only to find out that I’m in an automatic jalopy that takes a decade to shift up a gear (plus I think the exhaust’s gone) - the steering wheel’s on the left side like the rest of the world I guess, I thought I’d have trouble staying on the right side of the road but it was fairly straightforward.

When it comes to the national pastime of driving I think this place is pretty much up there with the likes of Qatar where I grew up and any other country in the Arabian Gulf (or ‘Khaleej’ as its know in Arabic). Also you’re pretty much roadkill if you don’t drive certain models of vehicles or at the least, you’re asking to be treated like crap. So you can imagine what the driver of a banged up old Nissan Sunny must be feeling like when crawling down Sheikh Zayed road during rush hour surrounded by brand spanking new BMW 7 series’, Ford Mustangs, Toyota Land Cruisers and Range Rovers. (Sigh) Some day eh?

Ok, ok now the actual driving experience of this region goes something like this:

- Expect to get cut up, a lot!
- Don’t expect anyone to give you space to manoeuvre from lane to lane
- Don’t expect people to indicate which way they’re turning
- Expect to cuss at the crappy driving/walking of your fellow road users…
- …Don’t expect to be heard or noticed though

I knew I’d expect all this as I recognize it from when I was in Doha. It’s the kind of driving experience that you can either bravely fight against or like the 99% of everyone who settles down here ‘do what the locals do’ as I guarantee you, you will lose your sanity if you try and maintain the former!

A lot of westerners (ok white people, there I said it) live in my area and I’m constantly amazed at how ‘localized’ their driving habits have become, I really can’t tell them apart from the Emirati arabs. That reminds me of a point I don’t believe I made the last time I was in Dubai. There’s not a single local arab person on the streets, ok I exaggerated so you see one or two but that’s it! Most of the people here tend to be Indian, they should rename this county the United Indian Emirates, after all most of this country’s present wealth (be it in tourism, property or any other industry) is being generated by them! Oh well I shouldn’t complain too much seeing as I could be seen as a pretentious moron living in an upmarket residence dispensing his idle thoughts on all the wrongs of the world.

I’d rather not be seen in that light, so if a member of the Inland Revenue is reading this I am just a poor humble University student carrying out research work on the social and moral decay of the modern Middle East for my final year Journalism thesis and am not just lazing around poolside soaking up the rays and squandering the tax-payers cash. Infact I'm not squandering any money (seriously), I'm too skint and I just managed to scrape together enough for this trip.

Oh my will ya look at the time and cousin’s here to pick me up to go to the beach…to review the ills of a proposed designated nudist area of course, must dash.

(I hope to put some pics of the rental car for your amusement in the next entry, actually by British standards it could be seen as a luxury...)

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

IKEA’nt believe its here!

Before going further here's a random pic of the balcony from where I write my blogs whilst in Dubai, there's really no particular reason why I put this here but I thought I'd just stick this up here.

Although I can pick up around three wireless hubs in the vicinity of the apartment, the signals are usually too weak to piggyback on so strictly speaking I don't directly blog from the balcony although that would be a nice thought.
Ok bad title not to mention its probably been used a million times, but I’ve got mixed feelings about the furniture we ordered. First the plans that my sister and I meticulously drew up for the furniture and design layout were almost trashed by mom and dad’s unbelievably infuriating frugalness in the face of the masses of potential this apartment has when furnished and furnished well!
Also, the high ceilings in the living room and bedroom have some major cheapo bulbs in very basic bakelite sockets. I couldn’t stress enough how important lighting is in a place you eventually want to rent out. Suffice to say that my idea for some nice low hanging ceiling lights in both rooms never even got a decent hearing.
We still haven’t got any curtains and if it wasn’t for the old man’s ever-changing moods about whether or not to furnish the apartment in the first place I’d still be sitting on the floor writing this friggin entry.
Ok I’m seething…again, I’m going to start thinking about the millions of people on earth who have nothing over their heads and nothing to eat, hopefully that should calm me down.
Right I’m still mighty pissed off, this is definitely the last time I help them out when it comes to choosing stuff for the house…any house!! Here, enjoy some photos I took while I go apeshit thinking of the numerous ways my spirit has been crushed time after time by my parents.
The living room, it looked small when we first got here but now its growing on me and it all seems fine and dandy

This is the other corner of the room looking from the couch to the small dining table and chairs, yeah I know it looks very bare but its suppose to be a blank canvas for whoever moves into the apartment

The Ikea bed all dressed up so it looks good enough for a brochure or something...

By the time I got to uploading this bathroom photo I thought to myself 'I really don't know why I'm sharing these pics, they have no particular value to anyone who reads this' oh well at least you can see that I dressed the bathroom with - thats right you guessed it, an Ikea shower curtain and I must say it does certainly go with the scheme.

Well that more or less should give anyone who thinks that the UAE or indeed other Arab states are very backward and that these people are too busy riding camels and making tents to be in the real estate business let alone the oil business.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

And the pool’s great too…

This entry goes out to all the dudes at VMC (Mr. Bloyce I do believe you’ll be a tad bit displeased and I truly hope this does not affect our working relationship…). I ventured out the central courtyard swimming pool, gym and playground area. I took my trusty camera with me to take some choice shots of the area. I was tempted to snap away at a couple of chicks on the poolside but I restrained myself (probably to the detriment of all the people at work watching over Simon’s shoulder as he reads this!

Thats the view from my front door, looking into the courtyard and pool and gym area

Boy that tripod sure came in handy...

I don't want to rub it in but the weather really is this good even in December (approx 30c)

As I know no one around here - and I didn’t want to trouble anyone to take photos of me (which I never like taking) I brought my little tripod down for some nice poolside shots. While I was setting this all up a friendly South African girl (steady now boys…) came up to me and offered to help me take some photos, I declined because I figured I had the tripod and I didn’t want to bug anyone. A few seconds later I thought to my slothful self ‘hey maybe I can capitalize on this here situation and make some friends while I’m here stuck a million miles from civilization as it were.

So I went up to her and a guy who seemed like her boyfriend lazing on the sun beds and just struck up a conversation explaining why I was taking the pictures. As it turned out they were both visiting their parents from South Africa and they just happened to meet at the Rugby Seven’s tournament that was held here last week They only became friends as they found out they both lived in the same apartment complex. I introduced myself and they did likewise as ‘Jaco’ from in between Pretoria and J’burg and Natasha from Cape Town.

So I spent the better part of the afternoon chilling by the pool with them, I didn’t expect much to come of it so I proposed we meet up at the pool again the next day and plan a day out or something seeing as we’re all here for limited amounts of time. Since communication is a problem here I told them my apartment number and gave them my email address as that seems to be a rather lasting way to keep in touch these days.

Ok that just about all for now but I’m trying to sort out a bit of a desert outing and dune bashing with my cousin Eaymon (who I forgot to mention earlier) this weekend so I guess I’ll have more pics then.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Dubai Dubai Duplicitous Dubai (part Deux)

Just arrived at our new one-bedroom apartment in a nice but mostly deserted part of the overall new ‘upmarket’ housing developments in Dubai called ‘The Greens’. Its not that far from ‘The Springs’ villa which we bought into just over a year ago. ‘What about the weather?’ I hear you ask, its absolutely ideal this time of year for anyone more accustomed to European Summer temperatures, during the day the mercury hits the lower 30’s (that’s centigrade) and in the evening it gets to around 25C plus, the calm and cool breezes blowing in from the Arabian Gulf make for a nice pleasant climate especially as I write this from the 3rd floor balcony (pictures to follow).

The city’s as a whole is under constant change and development and if you think a GPS navigator could help you out over here, think again. The road layouts here change faster than you can say ‘Slave Labour’ (for more on what I think about life in this part of the world click here ). We’re thinking of renting out a car as it works out a lot cheaper than hiring a taxi to go anywhere at approximately £8 a pop. Considering we live about 15-20 miles away from downtown Dubai where groceries and general shopping tends to be cheaper because the newer developments like ours on the outskirts tend to fall under the category of what I like to call a ‘Freshly Arrived Lamb to The Slaughter’ or FALTS ( I just made that up as I type this!).

Anyhow the surrounding area as I’ve mentioned is still under construction so it pretty much looks like a bad weekend getaway to a sleazy hotel in Majorca when you look out the balcony or just have a wander around outside. But apart from all that the actual apartment complex where we’re at is pretty nicely manicured and peaceful.

Ok I’m sleepy now as I’ve usually been towards the end of my entries lately so I’ll call it a day.