Wednesday, September 13, 2006

An Afternoon in Dubai

What does one do with 8 hours to kill in Dubai? Dubai is one of the world’s great shopping paradises with malls so large and opulent that one even has indoor snow skiing. I hear stories from my associates about visits to the malls during layovers and of the great spas and messages than one can get in the large hotels. Given my distaste for shopping and stiff back from flying, the choice might seem obvious. But, my trip to the bazaar in Kabul has whetted my appetite for something more in keeping with my fantasy of what a Middle Eastern market ought to look like.

My fantasy is somewhat fulfilled with the ancient souks of the old Al Ras section of Dubai, adjacent to the Dubai Creek. It did, however, have a inauspicious start. My first taxi ride from the airport was to one of the modern malls. It was truly grand (as malls go). There were all the shops that you would expect in any upscale mall in the US, with a scattering of specialty shops catering to the local need for Arab dress. Except for the sight of the occasional couple in flowing Arab garb, you could be in Passaic, NJ. I couldn’t get out fast enough.

The next taxi ride is to the Spice Souk. My Indian taxi driver (this is a city filled with guest workers) assures me that this is the “old city” that I am looking for and provides some sage haggling advice as we drive. One block off the main thoroughfare, he is proven right. Under the ancient wooden arches, that protect the streets from the blazing sun, are spice shops whose smells overwhelm the senses. I work my way down the main streets and small side alleys that house lesser shops selling “dollar store” merchandise. I buy spices after the appropriate haggling (though not as skillful as a true professional shopper). I continue on to another of the storied areas of the old city, the Gold Souk. If the Spice Souk overwhelmed the sense of smell the Gold Souk attacks the sight with windows covered floor to ceiling with bright gold chains, necklaces and bracelets. Store after store display their shiny wares for the shoppers who stroll the shaded streets. I am duly impressed by the shear scope of this display of wealth but refrain from temptation and make no attempt to press my haggling skills.

But, the souks have fueled my interest in exploring this part of the city. I continue on to the working class shopping areas that are adjacent to these famous souks, where locals purchase their day-to day needs. I also walk the length of the docks along the Dubai Creek. Here, one can observe the full spectrum of Dubai life. Ancient wooden commercial boats, some ornately decorated, load and unload their cargos of lumber, generators and auto parts. Small water taxis crisscross the creek, from designated stations, loaded with locals and adventurous tourists. Beautiful wooden tour boats offer moonlight dinner cruises and 100 foot luxury yachts are moored two-deep at the large hotels.

The water taxi ride across the river and the dinner cruise on a moonlit night are both tempting (no offers from the yachts,) but I have a rapidly approaching flight home and blisters rapidly developing on my right foot. Maybe next time.
A Haiti Flashback in Kabul

Driving down Jalalabad Road, with the sun beating down on a line of shops thrown together with cinderblock, corrugated metal and abandoned shipping containers, my mind drifts to Haiti. If you focus on the bustling street and not the faces, you could just as easily be driving down the airport road in Port-au-Prince. The sun beats down on tired looking vendors, who scrape a marginal living selling jerry cans of cooking oil and a strange combination of odds and ends. Bicycle parts hang from shop awnings and small stacks of wood for cooking, actually not much more than branches, line the dusty streets which are home to a mix of battered autos and donkey carts.

While the streets lined with ragged shops is reminiscent in one way of Port-au-Prince, I am also aware of a striking difference. Today's trip was rescheduled after a suicide bomber, using an IED, attacked a military convoy along this road just the day before. It killed four Afghans and a British soldier and closed the road for a day. Unlike Port-au-Prince of the early 90's (and recent years) with its regular nightly automatic weapon fire becoming part of the almost unnoticed background noise of the city, Kabul is comparatively quiet. Gunshots near where I am working, when they occur, are infrequent enough to catch your attention. But Kabul is part of the new world where the deceiving nature of the relative calm can be shattered at any moment by a violent explosion.

My trip is uneventful but for those who must patrol the city, yesterday's events are another reminder of uncertainty of life in Afghanistan.

Monday, September 04, 2006


I am not a shopper by nature but in my travels I have felt the need to collect some tangible reminder of my stay. I also have created expectations from family members that they will find themselves presented at Christmas with some strange artifact from a far off land that no one on their block can claim to have. So, the non-shopper, who couldn't be forced to go to an outlet mall at gunpoint, heads to the much talked about Friday bazaar.

I would have like to have found myself in an exotic bazaar like one sees in the movies - Casablanca or Marrakesh style. However, as an American in Kabul, one must settle for the next best thing - a bazaar in secure area. While the surrounding environment in not as authentic as strolling from your hotel to the historic old quarter of a city, where you can explore the narrow alleys and grand open squares, it does offer exposure to Afghan artisans and local crafts from remote cities. I buy a hand crafted knife with camel bone handle, scarves from Kandahar, and a traditional rug. I buy some jewelry made from Afghan lapis, in a beautiful shade of blue, which could have come from mines that provided it to the Egyptian pharaohs.

I never knew I had so many friends in Kabul. Every vendor is my "good friend." Because it is morning I am offered the special "morning price" or "my first customer price." Both, I am told, are very good prices. I speak to other shoppers who tell me that the same line is used in the afternoon for excellent "last customer" prices. I haggle, as required, but not to extreme. I walk away at least once from every sale and get the next lower price. Everyone is happy.

Packing my loot for the trip home will be daunting but a problem for another day.

Making the approach to the airport in Kabul, one flies past jagged toothed, snow capped mountains that look as desolate as the face of the moon. Below the snowcaps is a dry and barren slope leading to a dust covered valley. It is little wonder that finding someone in these mountains can be virtually impossible. It seems like every valley could swallow you up forever.

Landing at the airport in Kabul offers a much more social experience. It was reminiscent of arriving in Port-au-Prince or many other developing nations. A large number of people squeezing into a constricted place with systems ill-equipped to process the amount of traffic that multiple international missions can generate. Even newly installed high-tech passport readers seem to operate at their own pace or perhaps it is they just ever present coating of dust that makes eight or ten passes through the reader necessary.

The streets of Kabul are dry and dusty and colors seem to fade in the intense sun and heat. Even the dominating mountains, which should look majestic from the city, sit in a muted haze. Traffic is chaotic, testimony to the apparent abundance of petrol, the presence of so many internationals and the enterprising nature of the locals. As I sit in my seat, flying through traffic in a jet lagged state, my consciousness adjusts to the familiar chaos of war turned to fragile peace.

While my movement is restricted, I am pleasantly surprised at the opportunity to enjoy magnificent hospitality and local cuisine in the home of an Afghan American family returning to their former country to work in the reconstruction. Another pleasant surprise is an Italian restaurant, run by a Croatian couple, that served a very acceptable pizza. My previous experience with the Italian tourist influence in the former Yugoslavia is that fine pizza is available from Zagreb to Pristina. This tradition seems to have found its way to Kabul.

I look forward to Friday, the traditional Muslim day off, when I will have the opportunity to shop in a bazaar and collect my hoard of souvenirs. An Afghan Christmas is in the offing. (August 30, 2006)