Wednesday, January 19, 2000

TR UAE & Malta

1/11 – 1/19/00

I wasn’t planning on a trip to the Middle East until H.H.Sheikh Ahmed bin Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum sent me an invitation to run the inaugural Dubai 2000 Marathon. So I figured “why not”- ‘haven’t been there, haven’t done that yet’!
However the Sheikh only sent me an invitation –he didn’t send me the $65 entry fee for the marathon or the $50 fee for a visa to enter his country. He also didn’t meet me at the airport at 1:30am to provide a red carpet or even assistance to enter the country when my visa wasn’t waiting for me as it should have been. And even though UAE is probably the most liberal Middle East country to enter with regards to visas, you do not get into the country without a visa which must be sponsored by an individual or company. The tour agent was supposed to meet me at the airport with my visa. Fortunately he had faxed me a copy and I was eventually able to convince customs to let me go to my hotel after they confiscated my passport and told me to return within 24 hours with the original visa. I did get it straightened out quickly the next day but it was just another example of how useless and unreliable travel agents are on this side of the globe.

The travel agent did give me a free private city tour the next day to make up for his error. And I started my education. UAE was founded in 1971 and is a federation of seven emirates. Abu Dhabi is one of the emirates and also the capital. Each emirate is still ruled by the original sheikh and his family. The sheikh above is the ruler of Dubai. The city of Dubai has a population of 700k, which is about 30% of the total population of the country. Dubai reminds me a bit of Dallas because they have torn down almost all buildings older than 20 years and replaced them with new modern skyscrapers. But the landscape is more like Vegas since there is virtually no grass or green and all vacant lots or ground is desert or sand! The only public transportation is a bus system that is not very efficient. But taxis are very cheap- you can go across the city for about 10 Dirhams or $3.
There is a mosque on every block and the Muslims must pray five times a day. And believe me, everyone in the city has to listen since the prayers are broadcast over loudspeakers at each mosque starting at 6am! You do not need an alarm clock in Dubai!

I was fortunate to end up with private tour guides for both tours I took so they opened up to me when I asked questions about the social and political climate. And everything you have heard or read about the Middle East is probably true! There are two classes of ‘locals’- the Arabs who are born there and are the only ones that can be citizens and the Immigrants whom are brought in to do all the work. The immigrant locals can become residents but never citizens and are only allowed to own one car and personal belongings. The immigrant locals are divided into the following social structure: executives (oil and financial) that are normally Caucasian and there are not that many. They enjoy many privileges not offered to the other classes. Customer service employees such as tour guides, shop clerks, waiters, bankers, etc are usually from India or Sri Lanka. Manual laborers are from Pakistan. The police and army are brought in from poorer Arab countries such as Egypt and Morocco because they speak Arabic and are Muslims.
The citizens do not work! Work is beneath their status! They may occupy top-level positions like the chief of police or Director of the hospital, etc but they do not work! They own the Emirate. All buildings, apartments, hotels, homes, etc are owned by citizens. Non-citizens cannot own property -they must rent forever!
One tour guide opinioned that the Arabs (Emirites?) made these rules to keep absolute control of the country and to be able to expel a resident quickly and without recourse when they felt like it. He also believed that eventually the oil money will dry up and the country will implode because the Arabs won’t or can’t run the infrastructures such as electricity, transportation, banks, etc.
I never did meet any Emirites because there is no opportunity. Yes I saw lots walking around and shopping –they are easy to spot in their bedsheets; white for men and black for women! The women got screwed (again or still?) because black has got to be real toasty in the summer when the temperatures exceed 50 degrees Celsius! The men wear a headdress that is held in place by a band. The color and type of band signifies which tribe or region they come from. The women also wear a headdress that includes the expected veil. When they come in contact with a stranger, especially an infidel, the veil goes over the face immediately. Normally there is a small slit left over the eyes but in several cases the veil completely covered their face –I don’t know how they saw through it?
Since no Emirite made an effort to start a conversation with me I figured it was impolite to initiate a conversation- and besides I was afraid if I did they might cot off my tongue (or some other appendage) for making improper advances?
So when I state that I found all the locals very friendly and courteous you now know whom I am talking about. And I was pleasantly surprised to find that they go out of their way to provide friendly and good customer service. What a pleasant change from Europe!

But enough about culture. What are Dubai and UAE like? Thought you would never ask.
Dubai is a major trading city of the Middle East. It has a tidal saltwater river from the Gulf called Dubai Creek that splits the city in half. This area is the hub of the city with all sizes of Dhows moving up and down the river and being unloaded. There are even small Dhows that are used as water taxis that take you across the river for 10 cents. There are three Souks or markets located close to the river: the Textile Souk where the locals buy textiles or cloths imported from all over the world; the Spice Souk that contains hundreds of small stalls or shops with barrels and bags of spices –what a great smell walking through here; and the Gold Souk. In fact Dubai is often called the ‘City of Gold’ because of the Gold souk. There are hundreds of shops with gold jewelry displayed. I have never seen so much gold and jewelry in my life. There were necklaces and belts of such intricate design and so BIG that I can’t believe people wear stuff like that? And it is very cheap! Of course they start out at a high price and will gladly take your money if you don’t object but if you negotiate the price comes down to the spot value of gold plus a small fee for a ‘making charge’. And the shops were very busy. The locals, both citizens and residents, view gold as a prestige item to own and a sign of wealth so they buy lots of it.
The other interesting attractions in Dubai are the buildings-if you are interested in architecture. My guide took me past the Jumeira Beach Hotel that was built by the Sheikh. It is a spectacular building. It is supposedly rated the #1 hotel in the world. I only saw it from the outside since a room starts at $850/night and there is a $50 charge to visit the hotel (but they do include a snack and beverage for the $50!).
Then we went to the camel races. The camels are the one-hump variety and the racing camels are young and small. There are about 40 camels in each race and they race an 8-Km course. The drivers are all young (10-12 years) residents. Gambling is illegal in UAE so you cannot go to a betting window. However the spectators do bet among themselves and that is overlooked by the police.

Friday, which is their main religious day, was race day. The marathon started at 7am because of the heat. Even though Dubai is 4 hours ahead of London, I didn’t have any difficulty getting up because my morning prayers started at 6am. After prayers I took a taxi to the start/finish area which was at a Sports Club on the outskirts of the city. The marathon ran through and around the city to finish back at the Club. There were only 200 runners. Half were runners whom came to Dubai just for the race, and the other half appeared to be Caucasian residents since I overheard some of them talking about local politics. I don’t know if there will be second race if they don’t get a better turnout. The temperature was a mild 70 degrees F at the start but had to be in the mid-80s when I finished. It’s the first time I have been truly warm since I left Dallas!
I started out with a running friend from NY city –a member of the 50+DC club -but had to let him go at 3 miles when my leg started to hurt. At 10K I felt a sharp pain and thought someone had run up from behind and stuck a dagger in my right leg! Needless to say I had to stop, stretch, massage and walk for about 5 minutes. Miraculously, all of a sudden it felt like the dagger had been pulled out and replaced with a –huh- knitting needle! And any old fool can run the last 20 miles with just a ‘little ole knitten’ needle sticking through his leg! Heck, I even managed to drop the pace down to a blazing 9 min/mile which allowed me to finish in just under 4 hours! (3:58:24)
This race is not high on my list of great courses. The course is not scenic nor pretty and traffic control varied from good to I almost got ran over twice by cars! But all the volunteers along the course including the police were enthusiastic and supportive. There were very few spectators with only 200 runners.

After the race my friend and I walked around the Souks and I helped him negotiate the purchase of a solid gold chain necklace. He paid spot value plus a making charge of $15!
The next day I had a tee time at the Emirates Golf Course where the PGA Desert Classic is played. It is a beautiful course, similar to an AZ desert course except more water, higher sand dunes and probably more grass. There were only two holes that had long desert stretches off the tee. The last time I held a golf club was in Ireland so the first 5 holes were disasters. My lowest score was a six as I lost two balls to the water Gods and one to the Sand dune God! Since I had only taken six balls with me I figured that I had better settle down and concentrate or it would be a short game! Fortunately I got my game back together and should have broken 100 but fell apart again on the last hole. But who cares – I had fun!
Golf is one of the few things that are not cheap in UAE. Green fees, rental clubs and cart were about $160.
The other things that are not cheap in UAE are international hotels. Rooms, food and booze are all expensive at these hotels. And unfortunately you can only buy booze at one of these hotels! For example a hamburger at the Intercontinental costs $21. The same hamburger at a local restaurant costs $1.25! Not hard to guess where the oil and financial businessmen stay on expenses?

My final day in UAE I spent walking around in the morning while waiting for my desert tour in the afternoon. At 3pm my guide picked me up in a Toyota Land Cruiser and we drove about 30 miles out of the city into the desert. Then we went sand dune bashing. We drove like hell across and over sand dunes and he scared the crap out of me the first time he flew over a dune and I realized that it was an 80 to 100 foot drop down the other side –at a 60-degree slope. I thought for sure we would flip over but the car just sinks into the sand and slides down the slope! After a few more I decided it was fun and was urging him to go faster!
After an hour of bashing dunes we joined a group of German tourists at an oasis where we all rode camels off into the desert to watch the sun set. A few teenagers were snowboarding or should I say ‘sandboarding’ down a 100-foot sand dune next to the camp. Then we sat in Bedouin tents, ate, drank beer, and watched a belly dancer while we smoked a bubble pipe. Boy, there were a lot of firsts for me on that tour!

All in all it was an enjoyable trip and a new and great adventure. I now know for sure that I wouldn’t want to live there but I am glad I visited! Now it was time to move on to my next country and adventure.

But I didn’t expect to get a third country thrown into the trip for free? I thought that I was flying direct from Dubai to Malta but the Air Malta flight stopped in Bahrain. I was only there for an hour but from what I could see Bahrain is just a smaller version of Dubai. Then we flew for 2 hours across Saudi Arabia and believe me it is the biggest sandbox that I have ever seen.

Finally six hours later I arrived in Malta. Malta is composed of the islands of Malta, Gozo and Comino all of which are inhabited, and the smaller islands of Cominotto, Filfia and St Paul. Malta is the largest island and most densely populated. The islands look like typical Mediterranean islands, rocky and rugged. The islands are limestone so there are lots of cliffs with caves and rock formations carved out by the sea. There are only a few sandy beaches. The official language is Maltese – a mixture of Phoenician and Arabic but the second language is English. Everyone spoke English but the only English station I could find on TV was Euro Sports! The people are very friendly and helpful. When I got lost and needed directions to some ruins a gentleman insisted on getting in the car and driving to the ruins with me since it was only a few blocks out of his way?
My first day I just drove around to get the layout and find a hotel. I finally settled on the resort village of Sliema. Because it was off-season, a 3-star hotel with a sea view was only 15 LM ( 1Maltese Lire = $2.50US). It seemed strange converting currency the other way and prices were strangely low: a beer – 40 centsM, pasta dinner 1.60LM, etc. I rented a car because I wanted to be free and flexible but I would not recommend this approach unless you have left-hand driving experience. There are few roads and they are narrow and in bad shape –I think the Romans made the last road repairs? And there are even less road signs and you can’t understand the ones you do find –so driving was not fun! I got lost a thousand times in 3 days but fortunately the islands are so small that you just keep driving until you recognize a landmark.
Malta has been inhabited for the past 5000 years but the country’s history seems to focus on two periods: the Neolithic period and the period of the Knights of St John. I found the former to be the most interesting!
The country’s symbol, the eight-pointed Maltese Cross was the emblem worn by the Knights. If you are interested in history you could easily spend a week or two in Malta instead of the short 3 days that I had.

And as usual I had to use half of the second day to run the Malta Marathon. Because of limited roads the course was laid out on an 8-mile loop from the capital city of Valletta along the sea to the resort village of St Julians. I ran the loop three times and finished with a two-mile loop around Fort St Elmo on Valletta. The weather was sunny, cool but very windy. It didn’t really matter because with only 3 days rest and not knowing how my leg would stand up I started slow. But surprisingly it only hurt about the same level as the last 20 miles of Dubai so I was able to run a 9 minute pace to finish under 4 hours again. (3:54:24)
Now it was time to explore again.
As I mentioned previously the Neolithic period interested me the most. There are numerous Neolithic temples and catacombs spread over the islands and I wanted to explore them. I will describe a few of the most important ones. The Temples of Mnajdra on Malta were constructed and oriented according to the equinoxes using only stone tools –similar to Stonehenge but 1000 years earlier!
The megalithic temples of Ggantija on Gozo are recognized as the oldest man-built freestanding structures in the world. They were built circa 3600 BC in comparison to the pyramids of Egypt (2800 BC) and Stonehenge (2400 BC).
Also nearby on Gozo is Calypso’s Cave, assumed to be the cave referred to by Homer in the ‘Odyssey’. This is the cave where the beautiful nymph Calypso kept Odysseus as a ‘prisoner of love’ for seven years.
Don’t you love it when a story, legend and history all come together?
There are many many other attractions to see on Malta but I just want to wet your appetite so that you can visit and enjoy them yourselves. I would guess that the spring-to-fall seasons are the prime time but I would hate to think how crowded it could be then?

Malta was certainly worth the visit but now it was time to head back to England. However when I stepped off the plane at Gatwick and saw my breath and heard the temperature was only 2 degrees Celsius I almost turned around and headed back to Dubai. Hopefully the folks in Dallas will greet me with some warm weather next week?

I now have three weeks to rest my leg up before the next marathon and I think I need all of it. Stay tuned for the next adventure. It should be a good one!

Wednesday, January 05, 2000

TR Vatican City

Italy and Vatican City

Well, contrary to all published concerns we did not notice or experience any Y2K problems in Italy!
Millennium celebrations are well under way in Italy, particularly in Rome where most of the scaffolding has come down from all the ancient ruins. If the mass of people and tourists in Rome over New Years are any indication of things to come during the year, I pity those that are to follow!
But there were not as many as expected because they had jacked the prices up to ridiculous heights. The marathon organizers had expected 30,000 runners –there were only 5,000! Maybe if they hadn’t charged $500/night for a hotel they would have attracted more runners!
I had to arrange our own air and hotel to circumvent the high prices that they were charging. I think that it hurt them but they came to their senses at the end because we checked a 4-star hotel in Central Rome while walking around and the prices had dropped to $225 and rooms were available for New Years!
The weather was pleasant, sunny, but cool during the whole week. Nicole, Chris and I arrived on Wed afternoon. We discovered that our hotel, the Sheraton Roma, was located about 5K from central or downtown Rome, which caused some inconvenience. But they had a free shuttle to the Piazza Venezia and there was a metro station only a quarter-mile away. But it is definitely much easier if you are located in central Rome.
We spent the rest of that day exploring Rome on our own. From the Piazza Venezia which is in the center of Rome you can walk to almost all the other main tourist sites except the Vatican and the Catacombs. There are two metro lines but they only get you to the edges of the old city and the Vatican and you must walk to most of the sites anyway.
The next day we took one of the Get-on, get-off bus tours to learn the layout of the city and where all the major attractions were. Rome reminds me of Athens in that no matter where you walk you seem to run into an old ruin or column sticking up out of a vacant lot. We saw old ruins that we could not even identify with the Guidebook!

There is too much to see and do in Rome in a 4-day visit. You need at least a week to visit the city. But we tried very hard and toured for 10 to 12 hours each day! We walked by all the sites but only spent time in the Coliseum and the Vatican. Since 2000 is designated a Jubilee Year by the Vatican there are many special programs going on and many ‘pilgrims’ visiting Rome. The Pope had opened the Holy Door at St Peter’s Basilica on Christmas Day and it will remain open through 2000. Apparently it is only opened on special occasions. The last time was about 25 years ago! We got to pass through the door during our visit to the church. We also visited the Vatican Museum that includes the Sistine Chapel. They had just finished 20 years of restoration work on the paintings in the chapel so it was very impressive! But we only spent a few hours in the museum whereas you really need at least a day. Chris and I were impressed with the Coliseum. It still puts a lot of modern-day coliseums to shame! I could describe all the other tourist sites, the Trevi Fountain, the Roman Forum, etc but it wouldn’t do them justice. Rome is truly a city that you must visit personally to enjoy the many sites and culture!

It is a bustling city and the traffic is crazy. Like the rest of Italy there are no traffic rules and everyone drives or crosses streets based on the ‘chicken principle’ –the bravest one wins! It took a few days before we were ‘brave enough’ to step out in front of cars going at 30 mph. Some you have to dodge, others stop! It is almost impossible to get a taxi and if you aren’t going in a direction they are going they won’t take you! Prices were equivalent to those of a big city in the US –expensive but not as bad as most cities in Western Europe.

New Year’s eve turned out to be a bust for us unfortunately. The main problem we had was lack of information and thus where to go and what to do. There was zero/zilch information in English on what activities were happening on New Year’s eve. I tried asking at the tourist information booths. Nicole asked the guides at the Vatican (they only spoke Italian and French). Even the clerks in the hotel were not much help! But we did determine that there was a concert in St Peter’s Square as well as concerts or festivals in almost every major piazza or square in Rome. But we couldn’t get solid information on how to prepare for these events –do you go early, do you eat there, can you buy booze there or do you take your own? As a result we winged it and took nothing! And that was the wrong decision.

I also decided that since there were going to be millions of people/drunks/thieves in central Rome that we should take as little as possible with us because there was a strong probability that we could lose it! Boy was that a right decision! So I put all our valuables, passports and extra money in the safe deposit in the hotel and took only enough cash to get us through the night plus one credit card for back up. That decision saved the day and trip for us but I made one small error! Instead of carrying the day’s cash in my trusty money belt I felt it would be wiser to carry it in my jeans pocket so it would not be so obvious every time I needed to access the money. Wrong decision! That money never even made it to St Peter’s Square which was our initial destination! It was picked/stolen before we got off the metro! I wasn’t even upset because I just had a feeling that such a thing might happen but I was really surprised at how easy it was and how helpless I was to stop it during the act! When we arrived at the main metro station to change lines there were thousands of people trying to get on and off the trains. Everyone was shoving, pushing, etc and your main priority became survival. If you fell or got pushed down you were dead! So you had to push back etc while hands and bodies were pushing you all over. Several times I felt hands pushing and probing and was able to keep one hand near my pocket/money. But when the final push came to squeeze people on to the train all hell broke loose and we literally had to fight and push back to prevent from being knocked down or trampled. That is when it happened! After we were on the train and the doors closed I realized the night’s cash was gone! Fortunately the credit card was hidden in a jacket pocket and survived. But barely. I felt a hand inside my jacket! Yep, the guy squeezed between Chris and I was trying -damn not trying, he had his hand inside my jacket! I couldn’t even get my arm up to hit him so I shouted at him to get his GDAMN hand out of my coat. Chris later said that the same guy tried twice to lift his jacket to get access to his jeans pockets! When the doors opened at the next stop he was gone like a flash!
Hopefully my story will give you some insight into how easy it is to rob you and how helpless you can be. But I could have prevented the robbery if I had just used my money belt. But I believe that even that has to be concealed because it would have been vulnerable had it been exposed!

But that was only a temporary setback because the credit card replaced the money at the nearest ATM and only $10 went into the jeans pockets this time! Upon arriving at the Vatican we quickly determined that almost all the restaurants were closed and the few that were open would not let us past the front door without a reservation. So much for dinner! Even more surprising was that only a few bars were open. Everyone in Rome including those who worked at the bars were partying! So much for buying a drink! We walked around St Peter’s Square for awhile trying to figure out what the agenda was for the evening. It was 8:30pm, cold and the band was not even on the stage yet. It would be a long, dry and cold wait!
We decided to take the metro back into central Rome to check out some of the other Piazzas. When we arrived back at the metro station we discovered that they were closing the metro down completely at 9pm. All the notices stated that the metro would close at 01:00am but they decided to close it early! So we caught the last train back to central Rome which meant we had to taxi home. But that also meant that 2 to 3 million other people would be fighting for the same taxi!
We did find a few of the other Piazzas with hundreds of thousands of partygoers in each and several hundred thousand flowing out into the side streets. The police had essentially cordoned off Central Rome to traffic and there were over two million people partying in the streets.
We decided: a) we weren’t in the mood for partying-especially with no booze; b) we didn’t want to stand in the cold for another two hours watching everyone else get drunk; c) we didn’t want to have to wait until 3 or 4am to get a taxi after the party broke up. So we made our way out of the downtown core and caught a cab back to the hotel where we watched the concert and show at St Peter’s Square on TV and the fireworks from the comfort, warmth and safety of our room. We must be getting old!
And I mustn’t forget –we enjoyed our New Year’s Eve dinner –Mars bars and coke!

The upside of that evening was that I didn’t have the expected hangover for the marathon the next day. I left Nicole and Chris sleeping off their Coke hangover and made my way to the Vatican. The marathon started in St Peter’s Square. Like everything else the Italians do, the race organization was chaotic and screwed up! About the only thing that happened as planned was the blessing by the Pope at noon and he even gave a special blessing to the runners. Then it was off! The weather was sunny and cool –great running weather. The course was fairly flat and passed by all the main tourist attractions to finish next to the Coliseum. It should have been a good day. Unfortunately I had torn a muscle in my right hamstring two days before Christmas and in spite of massages and a week’s rest to let it heal it had not! I started slow and at 3 miles had to slow down. By 5 miles I was visiting my first medical station to get the hamstring wrapped. And it only got worse from there. Had the race not started in Vatican City I would have dropped out for the first time in my life. But the rules of the 50+DC Club state that if the race starts and finishes in different countries we can pick either (but not both) to count as the country of the race. Thus even though I only ran 200 yards in Vatican City, I intended to count the country as Vatican City since it is considered a country. And since there may never be another opportunity to do so –I had to finish this marathon! So I jogged, walked, stretched and visited medical stations for 26 miles –but I finished (4:17)! My primary goal was to finish without causing further damage to the hamstring. Time was not important. I hope I was successful in my goal but I have not tried to run in the 4 days since the race. I am now starting to get concerned because I have two more marathons in January. I go for another massage today and then I will try to run tomorrow. Keep your fingers crossed!

Now it was time to move on. Although we would have liked to spend more time in Rome we were looking forward to getting out of the city and the crowds. On Sunday morning we picked up our rental car and headed for Sorrento. We stopped in Pompeii so that I could give Chris a quick tour of the ruins. It was much easier walking around in Jan than last Aug when the temp was 100+ degrees.
Finally we arrived at our hotel in Sorrento. The Bel Air is a 4-star hotel built into the cliffs overlooking the Bay of Naples with fantastic views of Sorrento and Naples and a 200 foot drop from the patio into the Tyrrhenian Sea. (Do I ever spoil my family –I am not used to this luxury on my travels!)
Surprisingly there were lots of tourists in Sorrento and Capri but most were Americans on excursions from Rome. The next day we took a hydrofoil over to Capri, a funicular from the marina to the village of Capri, a bus up a very windy and steep road to the village of Anacapri and then Chris and I took a chair lift up to the top of Mount Solaro for some fantastic views of the island and Sorrento across the bay! Capri is a very scenic island but you had better be in shape because all the roads on the island only go up or down!

Finally it was time to head home so we drove the scenic route along the coast through Amalfi to Solerno to pick up the motorway back to Rome. What a beautiful but scary drive! It is basically a single lane road with multiple hairpin curves which become really challenging when you meet a tourist bus! Then you hit the motorway where you damn well better get out of the way if you are only driving 100mph!

But all in all a great trip with lots of history, lots of scenery and interesting things and even some exciting stories to tell our grandkids –someday?

Take care and stay tuned. Hopefully the next trip and marathon is only a week away?