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!

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