Friday, April 1, 2011

Abu Dhabi, conversations with taxi drivers, and the S&D Oyster Company in Dallas

I remember an arresting cartoon from the nineties offering a birds eye view of toilet stalls in a public men’s rest room, each stall occupied by a seated businessman busy at work on a laptop.  The Johns of today are the airline seats, and some of the laptops have morphed into e-books, ipads, and smart phones-- I notice on a flight from Dallas to Chicago, en-route to Abu Dhabi.  It is an impressive display of the power and scalability of modern electronics.

Less than 24 hours ago I had had a memorable meal at Dallas’ best oyster restaurant, the S&D Oyster Company on McKinney St.  It  has a New England ambience, set off by pink checked tablecloths and a Texan American clientele-- ladies in perfectly coiffed hairdos, men beefy and sun burnt, crows feet crinkling their eyes.  The oysters, on the half shell, were delicious and comparable to the best that the Northeast has to offer, the large fried shrimp brought in from Galveston a bit too heavy.

The Etihaad flight from Chicago to Abu Dhabi picks up a lot of sub-continental traffic headed to India and Pakistan.  Waiting at the check-in line, I see modern suitcases built with 21st century polymers, reinforced with unnecessary rounds of hand tied nylon rope;  large sheets of paper taped to their sides with names and addresses written out in large handwriting.  Such is the power of tradition, what we did thirty years ago at Howrah station—to aging canvas or leather suitcases at high risk of disintegrating.  I read the addresses to spend time.  Immigrants in small towns buried in the depths of the Midwest, headed to busy, bright sunny streets in Madras and Rawalpindi.  On the face of it, it does not to cease to impress me that a human transports himself in 24 hours between such apparently distinct and different cultures.  Yet this compaction of transport demystifies the exotic, banishing the adage that cultures are very different—they are not—the differences at best are to second order, with characters that slip in and out of the two worlds perhaps not seamlessly, but not with excessive effort either.

Landing in Abu Dhabi, the first thing that strikes me is that almost all service personnel are from the sub-continent (along with some others from the Philippines, or Africa).  The clerk at the airport money changing station is from Bangladesh; the driver who takes me to the hotel is Malayali.  I chat with him on way to the hotel.  He has been in Abu Dhabi for 20 years.  His family lived with him till about three years back, but they moved back now that his son goes to engineering college in Trivandrum.  He has three more years to go, after which he too will retire and head back. 

The hotel and its surroundings are opulent.  The flat desert is lit up, with giant soaring constructions in smooth, curvy lines, roofs broken up in truss patterns.  The freeways are wide and well sign posted.  The sodium vapor lamps and the dust make it look like Delhi, but the flow of the traffic makes it feel like a western US metropolis.

The place I am in, Yas Island, is a macho man’s delight. The night that I drive in, the scene is unbelievable.  The entire place is bright, shining like the sun, the glow drifting gently into the darkness outside.  The air fills with the sounds of racing cars.  We cross a bridge over a Formula 1 racetrack and three cars bent upon destroying each other, swoosh by meters below.  Less than two hundred meters away sit a number of streamlined yachts, moored in a marina.
The next morning I have breakfast at the hotel restaurant.  A large number of workers from the sub-continent mill around us: cleaning tables, making omelettes, coiling up a watering hose after use, shining stainless steel fixtures.  Oblivious to this flurry of background activity, a couple of Americans are in deep discussion regarding a Ferrari show.  Outside a flag flutters near a large yacht in silent repose dockside; a clear sky rains down on the green and blue empty Formula 1 track surface. 
I am here for only a few days.  The night before we leave a colleague and I rent a taxi to go to Dubai for dinner.  The driver is a young man from Barisal in Bangladesh and he has been here 6 years.  We chat in Bengali and I translate for the benefit of my Spanish friend.  He feels homesick but plans on sticking it out for a while.  In  three to four years he would like to go home and get married and has aspirations of trying to make it to Europe after that.  He takes us to the Burj Khalifa a nearly mile high building that you have to arc your head all the way back to take in.  It is an impressive construction, the tallest in the world that was scaled by a French daredevil the day we visited.  Dubai Mall, adjacent to the Burj has a grand bookstore--The Kinokuniya—the kind that makes you want to visit a city.  With nearly 70,000 square feet of space and a half a million books, it approaches the  dimensions of The Strand in NYC, and Powell Books in Portland.  This is a fancy mall and as in malls all around the world, there are teenagers hanging near its entrance.  As we walk out and wait for our driver,  a foursome of teenagers out for the evening, slip out of a Porsche Panamera and into a Rolls, five hundred thousand dollars of wheels between them.
Our taxi driver looses his way, insisting all the while that things are under control.  We drive through anaconda freeways, past metro stations with aerofoil shapes, a sleek, glittering sculpture of a city with enormous buildings, a city that is probably the most international in the world.  There is a sadness to this city though, a transient feeling, a Las Vegas without alcohol, a ghost city with lights and a sifting populace.  It is not the organic, collective feel that Tokyo exudes, a city that matches Dubai in the enormity of its constructions.
We end up at a popular hangout, the Jumeirah Beach Walk, a km long strip of restaurants and stop for dinner at the “Sarai”, a Middle Eastern restaurant.  If there is something bracing in the Middle East, it is to sit outside on a pleasant night, with a gentle breeze, dipping soft bread into hummus moist with pools of olive oil, and baba ghanoush.  Alas there is no beer (of the alcoholic kind) for this is only served at select hotels, or sold to those with a personal liquor license (such as expatriates).  Sarai specializes in kebabs and offers an entire assortment—with nuts, with orange sauce, with yogurt, with tomato sauce.  We ordered a couple of plates: the lamb kebabs were good, not great, of the kind that you can have at a decent Middle Eastern place in the US. 

Folks of all nationalities were out for a stroll.  The women were varied in fashion: from those who would not be out of place in an American glamour magazine, to ones fully clothed in the abaya, covering all except for meticulously made up faces, the object of their focused attention to fashion. 

A day later I was headed back to the airport, this time in the hands of a Pakistani taxi driver with light eyes.  It was the same story: his family consisting of his parents, a wife and small child were back in northwestern Pakistan.  He used to be in the medical business but he made more here, and needed to send money back for his parent’s medical bills.  He missed his family, the situation in Peshawar was bad and the schools for girls had been closed because of the violence.  The cricket semi between India and Pakistan was looming.  He was an enthusiast and we spoke of cricket and cricketers, past and present, and of the camaraderie of ordinary Indians and Pakistanis notwithstanding the three wars between them.

There is a vast and omnipresent sub continental workforce here, of single men or men apart from their families that keeps the machinery of this place going.  This is not a place that they seem to view as an end to their journey, they are transients rather than the immigrants.  They come here with a goal, and for a length of time during which they hope to firm up an economic situation before moving on elsewhere or returning home.  My memories remain of the Ashok Leyland bus that I glimpsed on the road to Dubai that evening, full of sub-continental workers getting bussed home.

No comments:

Post a Comment