Friday, April 04, 2014

The Last Shangri-La

The Last Shangri-La

Bhutan, March 2014

by Metty Pellicer

As my Drukair flight took off from Paro, Bhutan, one of the most dangerous airport in the world, I made sure I was seated for the best view of the Himalayas en route. The take-off was the most exciting ever. I leaned with all the pitch and turn that the plane took to avoid the mountains that hemmed the narrow and short but deep runway. It barely avoided the sloping rooftops of the traditionally built houses with their intricately carved wooden eaves and rafters, small arched windows, and colorfully painted frontages of auspicious Buddhist symbols; dragons, elephants, monkeys, beribboned and hairy phalluses and swastika images.  It tilted severely left then as we seemed headed to strike the side of the mountain it tilted right then left again like we're sashaying, then as it advanced to a solid wall of pine and fir-covered forest the plane lifted and cleared the top of the ridge into the clouds and open sky. The ice-peaked Himalayas glistened above the clouds and flying over Kathmandu, the familiar silhouette of Mt.Everest came into view. The vast Himalayan range provided the scenery until we crossed into India. Breathtaking! 

I arrived in the capital Thimpu, a day after the whole world celebrated International Day of Happiness on March 20. The UN General Assembly established the event in 2012, inspired by Bhutan’s philosophy of measuring the nation’s development progress in terms of GNH, gross national happiness, instead of GDP, gross domestic product. I was intrigued to see for myself if this tiny Buddhist Himalayan kingdom, the Land of the Thunder Dragon, sandwiched between China and India, was for real. I became curious after accidentally coming across articles about the country during my 2011 research of Southeast Asia, in preparation for traveling in the region. Its crown prince, Jigme Wangchuck, charmed the whole county during his visit to Thailand in 2006, to celebrate King Bhumibol’s 60th anniversary on the throne. The youngest among twenty-five royal guests, he was dubbed Prince Charming and all the young women swooned and fantasized meeting him. After the visit travel to Bhutan from Thailand became very popular. He had the same effect when he went to Japan in 2011, in spite of being accompanied by his new bride. Tourism from Japan surged. From there on each article I came across became more delicious than the last. In 2007, he sold his BMW at auction to raise funds to start a radio station for youth, Kuzoo FM. He was educated in Massachusetts and England. He got married to a Bhutanese commoner in 2011 in an elaborate ceremony that went on for days. They were in love and lived together before tying the knot and he proclaimed, unlike his father  who has four wives,  all sisters, that he will only have this one wife. Polygamy is legal in Bhutan, as polyandry, though it’s becoming rare due to the expense of supporting each spouse equally. Women and men in many ways are equal in this medieval feudal society which began modernizing only in the mid-fifties. Men and women work together in the fields, in road work, in construction. Both can receive education. In the fifties during the construction of Bhutan’s first road, foreign labor was prohibited. Each household was required to provide a worker, regardless of sex to build the nation’s highway. Nowadays labor is contracted from Nepal or India and governed by strictly enforced temporary work permits.

The story of Bhutan is the story of the Wangchuck dynasty, which consolidated power in the first king in 1907. The landlocked kingdom was isolated to the world until the reign of the third king in the fifties. He was educated abroad and started the change from a feudal society to a modern one. He got rid of serfdom and slavery, built roads, hospitals and schools. He died of a heart attack and the fourth king took over at a tender age of seventeen. The fourth king moved towards democratization, introduced the philosophy of GNH to guide the country’s development and promoted tourism. He allowed TV in 1999 and the internet and telephones. He did not want a repeat of his experience of suddenly having to rule without preparation, and so he abdicated in favor of his son in 2008, which stunned the nation. The fifth king, the former Prince Charming, will preside over the transition from absolute monarchy to constitutional monarchy, and oversee the democratization transformation.

Bhutan is undergoing growing pains. It only debuted in the fifties. It seems to sincerely want to accomplish its lofty goals of democratization, of balancing development and the well-being of its citizens, of preserving its culture while pursuing modernization, and of preserving its environment while harnessing its natural resources. The ruling body has transmitted these ideals into a slick marketing of the Bhutan brand and the philosophy of GNH, but it had adopted contradictory autocratic and repressive methods. To preserve its culture, it purged the ethnic minority of Bhutanese residents of Nepalese origin, who had been in the country since its founding,  and which constituted ten percent of its 700,000 population. Initially granted naturalized citizenship in the first Nationality Act of 1958, the law was amended in 1985 and disqualified their status. Subsequently they were stripped of their property, positions in government, and expelled as illegal immigrants. It mandated that the national dress, the Kira for women, and Gho for men should be worn in public places, citizens cannot criticize the monarchy, and though theoretically there is freedom of religion and separation of religion and state, Buddhism is the state religion, and the monastery and government assembly are housed in the same building complex in every state. Buddhism informs the daily life of the people. The monks are consulted in every significant decision, and the religious hold a strong sway in how people think, act, or vote. The fourth king has four sisters for his wives because the monk’s prophesied it would be auspicious. The coronation of the fifth king was on a specific date that was also auspicious. And so on, with elections, travel, marriage, purchase, etc. There is so much superstition and magic and contradiction in the practice of religion. It frowns on killing but many eat meat, except they relegate the slaughtering of animals to Indian and Nepalese butchers. The simplicity and beauty and mysticism that the Buddha preached is lost in the hoi polloi. The remote villages are still difficult to access. There is one East-West artery and radiating roads are skimpy. Travel even on short distances can take up a long time because the mountain terrain is tortuous and often interrupted by landslides. Surplus produce cannot be transported to market except by walking several hours to reach the road. The government has built road-side covered sheds above these valleys so farmers can sell their goods to motorist. There is universal if inadequate health care, free education until the tenth grade, and competitive scholarships can be won for advanced study abroad. During the reign of the fourth king, the last absolute monarch, he distributed land. No one is homeless in Bhutan. Every farmer has a home, the traditional chalet style architecture with sloping hand pressed mud walls and intricate carved wood trims   and painted frontage. The villagers erect these homes for each other, a cooperative venture. No one goes hungry. The farmers are self-sufficient. The rare homeless or hungry, exclusively found in the cities, will find their way to the monasteries. There’s hardly any crime, or drug use. Marijuana grows wild, but it is used to feed pigs to increase their weight. Selling tobacco products is illegal and smoking in public is banned. In the cities the widening gap in income and culture is visible. The young generation change into T-shirts and jeans after school or work, and hang out in bars and shops, and watch English, American and Indian TV. They listen to foreign hit songs, surf the internet and use social media. Mobile phones are status symbols. They know about Sex and the City, wear brand apparel,  are learning English, and dream of one day going to America or England, and live the life they see on TV and pirated blockbuster movies. When they realize the constraints their government have on their freedom and opportunity, and the gap in their incomes with the developed world they yearn to visit and to be part of, let’s root for them to find the right path, and for the government to be enlightened. Tourism is tightly controlled and limits the numbers by imposing a $250/day tariff and by the limited seats on Drukair. Every tourist must be accompanied by a tour guide and booked by a tour company. Destination and tourist movement is checked at strategic posts. The antiquities are impressive, the legends of the lamas spell-binding, the mountain scenery is majestic, and in early spring the deciduous magnolias and mountain rhododendrons are profuse with bloom, trekking is challenging and perhaps could provide spiritual contemplation, while the terraced hills and farmhouses give a peaceful, settled vibe. The air is fresh and the streets are swept clean. Food is organic and trendy, locally sourced from farm to table, and ema datshi, a chili-cheese dish, which had accompanied my meals throughout had become a favorite. The women are beautiful in their elegant Kira,  a full length wrap-around held with jeweled pin at the shoulder and topped by a silk jacket. I did not become a fan of the gentlemen’s Gho, a knee-length woven kimono or bathrobe-like wrap worn with knee high black socks and dress shoes. There are no touts and hotel, restaurant and tour staff are still shy about accepting tips. In another generation there will be no more Shangri-La, but hopefully there will be a young and vibrant nation which truly can balance  the traditional with modernization and liberate GNH from artfulness.

Monday, February 03, 2014

The Road to Mandalay

Myanmar, March 2012

 In spite of having all my papers in order, I had a delay in processing my visa in Yangon. The officer spoke very little English. He refused to accept my cash to pay for the $30 fee. I had to get my tour guide to interpret. The problem was that my money had a fold in it. It was a fresh bill without any blemish or tears at all, and still very crisp. I only folded it once to fit into my wallet, but apparently he wanted a pristine one just off the press. I had him go through all my bills to select what was acceptable. He reluctantly picked one, and stamped my visa. Later, when I tried to exchange for the local currency, the Myanmar Kyat, all my bills were refused because the serial number did not start with AB. Apparently it had something to do with counterfeit $100 bills. My tour guide said, not to worry, he could get my $ converted in the black market, but of course I’d get a lower exchange rate. I could not use my credit cards and my ATM debit card. The banking system we take for granted, easy loans, financial products, interbank operations, credit, bank cards, corporate banking, they’re non existent here. The country runs on cash basis. The locals just shrug it off. There's the black market that deal with it, and life goes on, why sweat the details. Aung San Suu Kyi is beloved and popular. People were holding their breath and preparing for the worst in anticipation of elections next month. News a few hours ago said she had fallen ill with vomiting, had to get IV drip, and that she had suspended her campaigning. 
MOTORBIKES ARE BANNED IN YANGON! Nada, not a single one of these ubiquitous and affordable transport in Southeast Asia were on the streets. One version about the ban is that a person on a motorbike made a threatening gesture to a military general. Another is that a motorbike rider distributed pro-democracy leaflets, and yet another is that a general’s son was killed while riding a motorbike. And the official line, that they are used by criminals for their activities, and that they pose a public safety hazard. Yangon downtown looked half in ruins, from old decaying buildings and deteriorating unfinished new structures.There are high rise luxury condominium developments that are uncompleted because investors halted financing the project. They gave up rather than put up with the powers who keep on changing the rules. The military government however built an opulent new capital city, moving from Yangon to Naypyidaw in 2006. It is off limits to tourists and ordinary citizens. It is populated by government workers who can’t afford to live there, so it is abandoned at night and becomes a ghost city, according to my guide. It is rumored that bomb shelters are underground, reserved for the military. Facebook and many websites are blocked. But the people find ways to go around that, in fact I was able to log into Facebook at The Strand Hotel. However there are very few who own computers, internet cafes are sparse, and the country is not hooked up throughout except the major tourist cities, plus there are frequent blackouts, and pfft! There goes your email before you could send it. New cars are unaffordable, in the hundred thousand dollar range. So many cars are gasping along that go way back into the 50’s. Well, Myanmar was never a Havana so they don't have those colorful vintage beauties on the road, just clunkers. The people still wear traditional dress for everyday. The men wear the sarong-like longyi. The women wear no modern make-up but the pasty cream thanaka. It is made from the ground bark of the namesake tree, yellow-ochre in color. It cools their skin, tightens the pores, and controls oiliness.  They paint it on their faces in circles or like a mask, and on their arms, and it also serves as a sunscreen. Many smiles feature red teeth, stained and decayed from chewing kun-ya, red areca nut laced with lime and folded in a heart-shaped betel leaf. The practice is said to be part of the culture for thousands of years, common in Southeast Asia. My paternal grandparents chewed nga-nga, as it is known in the Philippines. As children we vied with each other, to prepare the concoction for them. It is spicy hot, and produces a lot of saliva. Ptoo! You can hear the spit traveling in a precise trajectory, landing as a red stain on the pavement. I was careful to avoid stepping on a fresh one. Street food is everywhere, and very cheap. My favorite was mont lin ma yar, a crispy snack with a rice flour pastry base that is topped with a quail egg, green onions and tomato. Other toppings can also be requested.
Having said those, the people smile readily, are easy to approach, eager to help, children are happily playing, and the city has a bustle and vibe of energy. And the antiquities are spectacular, magical, stunning, priceless, really treasures. The 2500-year-old Shwedagon Pagoda complex easily tops all the pagodas I've visited, until I got to Bagan.

Breathtaking Bagan
It is beyond words. Even pictures do not do it justice. It is more impressive than the Ginza pyramids, Angkor Vat, or Machu Picchu. It overwhelms with its vastness and the sheer number of stupas and pagodas that cover the plains, all the way to the Irrawaddy. Ten thousand during its golden age, from the eleventh to the thirteenth centuries, were erected , and over two thousand survive today. From the humblest stupa to the opulent and gleaming golden Shwezigon Pagoda, each temple is a specimen of masterful craftsmanship. Even those that are in ruins retain a grandeur and elegance that stood the test of time.
I visited at sunset. Climbing on top of a pagoda, I was overcome by the encompassing perspective of a high perch. Around me was a boundless display of beauty that seemed like from a fairy tale. Just before the sun began to descend the plain was visible in broad daylight up to the Irrawaddy and under a cloudless blue sky. The temples are like conical mushrooms sprouting from the ground, in varying heights and sizes, with the patina of aged brick, reddish-brown to rose, peaches and ochre. From my view above they are surrounded by green grass, small shrubs, and a sprinkling of red hibiscus and multicolored bougainvillea. There are few trees and they are crowned with graceful spreading branches that let light through, like a lacy veil. My only company was my tour guide who was unobtrusive and allowed me solitude. As the sun began to touch the horizon, the light had become softer, and the distant mountains on the other bank of the Irrawaddy began to dim. In a moment the sky was no longer blue and the whole scene appeared washed in a hazy gray-green monochrome, obliterating the color of the stupas, and outlining them and the trees and shrubs in shadow. When the sun hit the mountains and sat on the horizon, balancing like a big red cherry, the sky burst in color. Bands of yellow, pink, peach, violet and magenta blended like watercolor, while the stupas, now in silhouette fringed the base. The air was warm, but there was a light breeze, and bird twitter can be heard from their roost on the trees, while a dog scurried beneath a shrub, as an ox cart ambled by. The hibiscus gave up its scent in the cooling night and wafted to where I sat, enthralled by the wonder of it all. Bagan is a Buddhist pilgrimage center. It is a spiritual place.

Inle Lake
I was met at the airport in HeHo by my Shan tour guide, an articulate young lady who is a member of one of the illustrious tribes in the Shan state. The Shan people are very proud with their long history and would like to restore their royalty to rule the region, which occupies about one-third of Myanmar’s area.  There is a strong movement for independence. The military regime of Myanmar has difficulty suppressing armed resistance in the region. Myanmar has just opened up for tourism barely a year when I visited. For fifteen years it was closed to the world until sanctions began to be lifted in 2010.  To experience this region in its unspoiled state, before tourism corrupts it, was a thrilling opportunity.
We took a motorboat to reach my accommodation, a resort hotel on the lake, with individual cottages on stilts, built with local materials and technique. The cottages are reached by meandering connecting bridges, and lit by candlelight at night. I have unobstructed views of the hills surrounding the lake and the expanse of the water. Inle is a highland fresh water lake, about 900 feet above sea level, and surrounded by mountains and villages of hill tribes. I arose at sunrise and saw the birds who call the lake their home, circling above, noisily squawking and trilling as they dove to catch their breakfast. Through the morning mist I watched fishermen throw their nets into the water, their graceful silhouette framed against the light. Their boats are slender and shallow, carved from teak. On one end the fisherman stands on a leg and paddles with the other wrapped around the oar, so that his hands are free. His net is inside a conical shaped frame made of bamboo, lining the inside with the opening on top. The frame has a wide base and tapering to the top, and about twice as tall as a man. The lake is shallow in most parts, so the net with the open bottom is lowered to trap the fish, then the fisherman takes a spear to haul the fish up. It  is most enchanting to see these boatmen paddling one legged standing on their boats as they go about their occupation on the lake, fishing or gathering seaweed, or tending their floating gardens. Once a year, at the end of September or early October, there is an 18-day festival during which the five Buddha images of Paung Daw U Pagoda are ceremonially rowed around the Lake in a colorful barge towed by the Inle leg rowers. Accompanied by pomp and reverence, the barge with the Buddhas would visit fourteen villages. There is a fierce race competition of leg rowers held in conjunction with the festival.
Life on the lake is much as it was a century ago. It will not be for long.

The Road to Mandalay
Uninspired 70‘s buildings, bamboo and thatched huts, vendors crowding and littering the avenues, and food stands cooking and washing dishes right on the street, and patrons scattered around, eating on low plastic stools and tables, appearing unwashed, un-groomed, and sweaty in the scorching 104 degree F. This scene killed all the romantic nostalgia I have about this land I’ve read and dreamed about. The Irrawaddy, that great river that sprung from the Himalayas and cuts through the length of the country to empty into the Andaman Sea is wrapped in noise from motorboats and unable to claim back it’s tranquility. It’s banks are strewn with plastic bags and aluminum cans, and dolphins that played in its waters will soon be just a memory.

The road to Mandalay is a swirl of dust and careening Toyota pick-up trucks converted to buses groaning in the heap of passengers, produce, swine and fowl. Where the dawn burst out like thunder in the east, now is a mellow red ball muted by the haze and smog of slash and burn agriculture and motorbike exhaust. But on Mandalay Hill you can still see the golden magnificence of the Mahamuni and the grandeur of the Kuthodaw. And  a sweet Burmese lass, her cheeks painted with thanaka, still awaits her soldier to claim her and take her away to a land of milk and honey.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Fifty Shades of Light

Fifty Shades of Light
Arctic Winter in Iceland and Ice Hotel, Jukkasjarva, Sweden
By Metty Pellicer

At nine AM it is pitch dark as the night. Imperceptibly the contours of the landscape begin to develop like the slow appearance of images on photographic paper. The ghostly faint light takes on a fluorescent luminescence as it is intensified by its reflection on the bright white snow. At ten AM the diffuse light concentrates in the southeast horizon and outlines with backlighting effect the spilled milk splatter clouds, and reveals the blue sky behind. The sun slowly peeks out of the horizon, and throws off low-lying rays that fail to burst in exuberant energy. But the rays are caught in the sky in soft shades of pink, lavender, peach, lemon yellow, and muted reds and oranges, appearing in swatches between the spilled milk splatter clouds and when it met the blue sky, magentas and eggplant shades and deep blues cool the rays further. At eleven AM the sun is just above the horizon and its rays shine on the landscape, rendered featureless by snow covering in all white, frozen lakes and rivers and mountains. There are no forests to break the white spread. The land long denuded by glacial thaw and volcanic ash and man, had given up growing trees. Briefly the oblique slant of sunlight strike against the obstacle of mountains and the rolling slope of the terrain, and it breaks into pigments, draping the landscape with a coat of many colors. Before the sun could rise any higher it began to set, and dusk entered stealthily at three PM and illuminated the scene as if by moonlight. At four PM night falls. Most days the spilled milk splatter clouds converge and block the sun completely. Light manifests as a frosted dome over the white landscape, white on white, landmarks are indistinguishable, perspective obliterated, time disorienting. It is dusk all day, but there is no mistaking the night.  
The aurora borealis will remain hidden. The magical transformation of energy, from the collision of protons and electrons with the earth's magnetosphere, into light requires a cloudless sky to make visible its spectacular display, of dancing waterfalls and undulating curtains of green, purple, red , blues and all the rainbow in between.

Saturday, October 26, 2013


by Metty Pellicer

I have not met another Filipino on this trip, and I’ve tried to find them. I’ve asked my expat contacts, their cleaning lady, storekeepers, taxi drivers, random people I happen to chat with, waiters. They’ve known Filipinos in other places, but not here In Oaxaca.  Filipino overseas workers (OFW) are important contributors to the Philippine economy, accounting for 13.5% of the country’s GDP. I’ve met them in all of the countries I’ve visited, even as remote as Antarctica and in Easter Island. In Dubai, where I’ve been most recently, they are so ubiquitous I thought for a moment I was in the Philippines. Why are they not in Oaxaca? This piqued my curiosity about Filipino immigration to Mexico and prompted a scholarly research through Wikipedia. I found no direct link to my question, and overall, there was a dearth of information about modern immigration. It can’t be because of the economy and security. There are Filipino enclaves in Pakistan, even Iraq, and Syria. Is it because of proximity to the US and that was the preferred destination? I suppose with all the problems of Mexican illegal immigration to the US, it would be foolish for Filipinos to enter from Mexico. Canada would be the obvious choice. But I got excited when I found a blog by a Filipino tourist about a chance meeting with a clan in Oaxaca who descended from a Filipino who settled in the area during colonial times. Their great, great, grandfather, Lorenzo Paulo was a sailor who jumped ship off the isthmus of Tehuantepec in Southern Mexico, a fugitive from Manila in 1854. He met their great, great-grandmother in Tijuana (near the U.S. border). As the trans-Pacific railway was being built, Paulo sought and got employment there. He and his wife moved south and finally settled in the coastal town of Salina Cruz, in the state of Oaxaca. In 1859, Benito Juarez, who became Mexico’s first Indian president , who was then governor of Oaxaca, appointed Lorenzo as chief of security of the port of Salina Cruz. He developed a reputation as a tough hombre and was referred to even by his descendants as “patron Lorenzo.” I found another article about a researcher coming across a park named Parque Reyna Maganda in Espinalillo, near Acapulco. Maganda is a Tagalog word for beautiful. He discovered  that the great grandmother of this large clan indeed came from the Philippines. I was excited to find these gems of information but also wondered why there seems so little connection between the Philippines and Mexico in modern times. My father-in-law, who’s father was a Spaniard from the continent, married a Filipina, and had 6 children. Four remained in the Philippines, a sister, returned to Spain, and a brother went to Mexico and started a family there with a Mexican wife. They consider themselves Mexicans and I suspect may not have factored their Filipino ancestry at all in their consciousness. I think they will consider themselves Spanish-Mexicans, if pressed to consider their mixed heritage. Unless I’m not entering the correct search question, there’s very little Filipino immigration to Mexico in modern times. Most occurred during colonial times, and again after the Spanish-American War when the Philippines became a US territory.

 When Mexico started its fight for independence in 1810-1821, colonial governance of the Philippines was transferred to Spain. Prior to that Spain administered its colonies through its Viceroy in New Spain, in Mexico. Filipinos stopped arriving in Mexico when the Manila-Acapulco Galleon trade was terminated in 1815. The Manila-Acapulco Galleons did not only carry porcelain, ivory, silk, and spices from Asia to Mexico but it also transported culture and language and flora and fauna and religious practices between the two ports. I was so amazed by the similarity of religious festivals, and to find similar fruits and plants, and familiar words. The mango was brought to Mexico, and mais (corn) was brought to the Philippines. I was in Oaxaca the week before Dia de los Muertos, and the preparations and graveyard festivities bring back childhood memories of similar practices in my mother’s barrio. It was a big deal. We clean the grave site, plant flowers, bring food, and socialize with neighboring grave visitors. Children scare each other with ghost stories. The weekly markets are called tianggui, and palenque, balimbim, calachuche, guayabano, nanay, tatay mean the same. When I joined a Tai Chi class at Parque Jardin Conzatti, the teacher introduced his namesake as tocayo. Our barong looks very similar to the Mexican shirt and many dances and music are done the same way. I didn’t know that La Paloma was Mexican rather than Spanish. That was a required piece in many piano teachers curriculum and one of the earlier challenge in my hard journey on the keyboard. 

With 250 years of shared Spanish colonial history and culture I’m puzzled that there is no visible expression of this relationship in both countries in contemporary society.  And there is more. There is the common experience of conquest by the US. In the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848 the US annexed the whole American Southwest from Texas to California. The Philippines became a US territory after the Spanish-American War in 1898, together with Guam, and Puerto Rico, and remained its territory after the Philippine-American War of 1899-1902, until July 4,1946. When I speak to the youth in both countries, and also true of youths in the US, there is little familiarity with the common bonds that tied these three countries together in history. When once we were brothers, we had become strangers. Some may even harbor contempt for each other.

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Dubai/Abu Dhabi

I felt I’m in the Philippines as soon as I landed at Dubai International Airport, after a fourteen hour flight from Washington Dulles and a one and a half hour connecting flight from Atlanta. It’s eight hours ahead so I arrived mid-afternoon of the following day. The staff greeting arrivals and directing them to the Passport Control Area are all Filipinos. The 2000 plus passengers  simultaneously deplaning from Qatar, Bagram, Bahrain, Muscat, Riyadh, Oman, Kuwait, Doha, Amman, Addis Ababa, Hyderabad, Kish Island, Cairo, Karachi, Mumbai, Jeddah, Singapore, Bangkok, Prague, and Washington DC, were processed in 40 double-staffed stations by kandura-clad Emiratis, who were unhurried and unsmiling in their tasks. US citizens are automatically given thirty-day tourist visas on arrival, without paperwork or fees. I was en-route with my tour group to our hotel in less than 2 hours. Arriving at Royal Ascot Hotel, I was checked in and shown to my room by Filipino staff. As we were on our own until the start of our guided tour the following day I decided to check the place without delay and took the Metro to Dubai Mall. The Dubai Metro, operational since 2009, which at 75 km holds the Guinness record of the longest driverless rail system in the world, is a sleek and efficient transport system that takes you to the important tourist destinations. It has two lines currently with plans to expand into three more. The forty-five platform edged air-conditioned stations are housed in ultra-contemporary oyster shaped gold structures. It has two fares, the regular and Gold class, costing from 2 AED to 28 AED ($0.54- $7.60) based on zones traveled, plus approximately one-third more for Gold class, which has more room and uncrowded. The interior is luxurious with airplane-like seats done in a calming sea palette of royal blue, turquoise, and blue-grays. There is a separate coach for women and children only. There are uniformed attendants, mostly Filipinos, who travel up and down to make sure you are using the appropriate compartment.

Dubai Mall boasts as the world’s largest mall with 1200 stores, cinemas, restaurants, play areas, an ice rink which can host hockey games and many more. It has a Bloomingdale’s, Galleries Lafayette, PF Chang’s, California Pizza, Starbucks, and every other US, European and British establishments. The sales staff are mostly Filipinos. In the Mall of the Emirates, which looks like Milan’s Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, only bigger, there is a snow park and skiing run. In the Madinat Jumeriah, billed as an Arabian Resort, which has a lagoon and gondolas like in Venice, there are opulent souks that sell mainly goods from India, China and Egypt. In the man-made Dubai Marina, architectural wonders and breathtaking skyscrapers vie for world records.  In the man-made Palm island, so called because of its shape, the opulent Atlantis Resort sits at the apex of the palm, which is the duplicate of the original in the Bahamas. The palm’s side branches are dotted with million dollar villas that can be purchased by foreigners except the land which is leased for ninety-nine years. The Burj Khalifa, with one hundred sixty-four floors looks down at New York City’s Empire State which is a mere 53% of its size.  The Burj Al Arab, the only seven-star hotel in the world, is very exclusive, with rooms ranging from $2000-$25,000 per night, the latter comes with a butler and 24-carat plumbing. If you can’t stay for the night the only other way to gain a peek of the hotel is to book a reservation in one of their fine restaurants. I had friends who took me to dinner at Al Mahara, their signature restaurant. The dinner tab was a month’s mortgage payment. The food was fine, but I had similar fare in Atlanta’s Bacchanalia and Eugene’s for one tenth of the cost.

Why do people pay these absurd prices in Dubai? To spend like a Sheik, is an irresistible come-on that speaks to everyman’s vanity, and is a stroke of marketing genius.

Dubai and Abu Dhabi is on a roll again with construction and development, after a brief pause during the world financial crisis, which saw Dubai overstretched and required a bail-out from neighboring uber-rich Abu Dhabi. Abu Dhabi, following Dubai’s example is developing Saadiyat Island into a luxury resort and cultural district, which will hold the Louvre and Guggenheim Museums, the National Museum and Performing Arts Center.

The Bedouin lifestyle is no longer visible.The remaining symbol of cultural identity and where you can differentiate Emiratis, the UAE native born, from expatriates is in the dress. They can be identified by the elegant white kandura worn by the men, teamed with the checked head cover keffiyeh and held in place by the cord agal. Their women in black abayas, with hijab or niqab for head and face covers, or the hide-all black burqa.

There is hardly any opportunity to interact with an Emirati. They comprise a mere twelve percent of the population, and the rest of the eight million are expatriates mainly laborers, service workers, experts, business partners, and consultants from India, Pakistan, Egypt, Russia, the Philippines, and from Great Britain, US and Europe.

The UAE, formed by a federation of seven kingdoms and independent since 1971, started as feuding nomadic tribes and incredibly transformed itself into this modern megapolis in a matter of a generation. Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the founder of United Arab Emirates, was raised as a desert Bedouin, scarcely had any education beyond the basics of Islam, but with a clear vision and wisdom, guided the development of his country to benefit all citizens, using the wealth created by the discovery of oil. He built roads, bridges, hospitals, schools, housing and distributed land to all citizens. The Bedouins, still familiar with the harsh existence of living in the desert had held him in great affection and he ruled until his death in 2004 at age eighty-six. Compared to other Arabian gulf countries he promoted a more liberal social and political policies and tolerance for other religions and cultures. These polices however has not kept pace with the dizzying economic and infrastructure and visual transformation of UAE.

The UAE is dependent on labor and technical expertise from expatriates who comprise 88.5% of the population. They have no stake in the country and remain as guest workers. If they lose their jobs they are deported. Children of expatriates born in the UAE may be deported unless they are in school or has a job. Though there are no taxes, expatriates are not eligible for social security, or free education for their children , or health care. There is no pathway to citizenship, except on the rare occasion of an Emirati man marrying a non-Emirati woman, then their children are citizens but not vice versa. A man may have up to four wives if he can afford it but not women. With increased female education and participation in the labor pool, women are marrying later, or choosing not to marry Emirati men, certainly fewer are giving consent to multiple marriages. The ruling body encourages large families. In Aijam, a 63-year old Emirati with 92 children, is on the news, about to take his eighteenth wife from Pakistan. One of his wives was a Filipina. He promised the Sheik 100 children, and the Sheik in return takes on the financial burden. Many still follow traditional patterns and marry their cousins. Congenital diseases have a high incidence, particularly, hemoglobinopathies, autism, and Down’s syndrome. There is inadequate services for the disabled, due to lack of expertise and education. The disabled are kept at home and families are left to deal with it. There is no election and the legislature is only advisory and appointed by the ruling class. There is increasing discrepancy in economic status, as the business and financial sector  is dominated by the powerful merchant families and the royal family and contracts are awarded based on personal relationships. The ordinary Emirati, prefers to work for the government and has avoided the more competitive private sector, prompting the ruling body to institute Emeratisation policies, which required foreign companies to have hiring quotas for Emeratis. However, this is a thorny situation as Emeratis do not have the needed expertise and do not possess the work ethic needed in a competitive workplace.

The expatriates live in a parallel universe of their national affiliations, separate from other foreign nationals and the Emiratis. For those in the lower salary rungs, there may be exploitation and physical abuse. There is no sense of community between groups, and as one can be deported easily after one’s employment ends, even after decades of toil building the nation, there is no civic engagement. It is incomprehensible, but for many who came from poor developing countries, working in the UAE permits one’s family to survive.

I was jolted to attention by the notice, about abiding by the dress code posted at the mall entrance ; no shorts or skirts above the knees, no figure-hugging or cleavage-exposing attire, and shoulders should be covered. In the mosques, the dress code is more stringent, covered up to the wrists and ankles, and the head and neck under a veil or scarf.

It’s ironic, as the fashion displayed in the malls violate these rules. Despite the ultra modernity of its infrastructure and skyscrapers, and the abundance of material goods and luxury items and entertainment in the malls, and the appearance of Westernization, don’t be fooled. There is no pork in the menu, alcohol is only available in hotel restaurants and bars and is expensive. You are awakened by the prayer call at dawn and at sunrise, and you’ll hear the call again wherever you are, at noon. In the gloaming, and at night when the last prayer call is heard, it is hypnotic and calming, a pristine moment for reflection. The weekend is Friday and Saturday, and the work week begins on Sunday.

So, on the surface the UAE looks like any developed Western country in its display of material and consumer wealth, but at the end of the day it is still a Muslim country ruled by Sharia law and is an autocratic state.

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Saturday, June 15, 2013

Why Travel

Why Travel?

As soon as we got our US passport Johnny and I started traveling even before we could afford it. We were also independent travelers, carving together itineraries from scratch and exploring our destination on our own. It’s amazing that we were able to do this before the era of Google, Kayak and  Danger, theft, or being swindled or mugged or facing terroristic threats were not of concern to us then. We went to see the sites and the museums, but after touring a few palaces and cathedrals, we got the idea about these places and their role in history, and we opted to spend most of our time discovering the nooks and cranny of the land or the city and imagining what’s it like to live there. So we’d hang out in public places and allow ourselves to be open to meet locals. I’d say it was more fun when I traveled with Johnny because he was more adventurous, more spontaneous, more approachable, and having skills physically that I did not possess, he could think of more exciting possibilities, and he was a man, so we had access to places that women may not necessarily be welcomed. When we were in France, in NIce, he thought it would be great to drive to Monaco, so we rented an open roadster, a stick shift, and zipped on the Grand Corniche at breakneck speed, high on the exhilaration of adventure and without a care. While on a cruise of the Greek Islands, we rented a scooter in Rhodes, and toting a picnic bag, we drove away from the bustle of the tourist areas, and explored the beaches and bays and unnamed fishing villages along the coast, and settled on a secluded cove to lay out our picnic and make love.

After Johnny died, I continued to travel, and people always ask, who I traveled with and many find it incomprehensible that I travel alone. Most inquiries are from women. I suppose men do not find it unusual to travel alone, they do it all the time. I haven’t given it a thought at all. Since I live alone, it’s logical to me that I travel alone. These reactions however have led me to ponder the question, why do I travel? and what’s contained further in women’s reactions to my traveling alone.

I see traveling and going on a vacation trip as separate. I prefer to travel alone, but I go on vacation trips with friends. Vacation trips are to the beach, to golf holidays, to do theater and sport events, to celebrate holidays and life milestones, or attend festivals. I love the company of friends around these mutual activities. I’m thinking that inquisitors who suggest that it must be lonesome to travel alone, are referring to taking vacation trips, and they need not pity me. I began to differentiate traveling from taking trips when I found out that I could not travel with another person the way I had traveled with Johnny, and it had nothing to do with the fact that we were married.

Traveling is like beauty, it is in the eyes of the beholder. It’s joys are subjective and must meet a match with another, or be understood with empathy, in order for it to be shared, and to fulfill its promise of wonder and life’s enrichment.

I was reading before I entered first grade, that was the beginning of my wanderlust. There were other lands beyond the languid coconut lined beaches and nipa huts of my youth. When my father went to work for foreign owned companies in the lumber and mining industries, my awareness about a bigger world  grew. My mother opened that world concretely by taking us on trips to Naga, the provincial city and then to Manila, the big, bustling alien metropolis, where she took us to see, the awesome movie, Ten Commandments, and to the big Circus, with exotic animals and performers from the other side of the world. We took the train on these trips, there were no commercial flights then, and we paid 3rd class fares.The trip took the entire day or overnight. We sat among sacks of rice and bananas, and crates of chickens, and bought food from food vendors on train stops. I love trains, they promise something wonderful at the end of the line.

 My father’s employer was an American company  doing business with a Japanese company, and Japanese ships docked regularly to load the harvest of iron ore to Japan. We were privileged to visit the ship and I still feel the excitement of being transported in fantasy to that mysterious land. Every Christmas we would receive a basket of persimmons, ham, oranges, grapes and apples from Japan. When my father went on a business trip to Japan for the first time, he came home loaded with unbelievable luxurious presents we’ve never seen before, Mikimoto pearls and Diorissimo perfume, Imari porcelain tea set, silks, canisters of exotic teas, and compelling stories that never left their excitement with me. We lived in communities established by the company for the workers, and as my father was in the senior management ranks, we mingled with foreigners, and met their children who spent summers with their parents. The rest of the year they were in school in the states. They regaled us with descriptions of a land with snow, and wheat fields, and lakes as big as oceans. When we were invited to their homes, they ate different foods, and many of their ways were different. They had Santa Claus who brought gifts at christmas, whereas we had the Three Kings fill our stockings with candies on the Epiphany. When in high school, I learned in world history, of the ancient lands of Mesopotamia, Egypt, Baghdad, Persia, Jordan, Anatolia, Istanbul, and rolled the names of Tierra del Fuego, Scheherazade, Sulaiman, in my tongue, I was hooked. One day I will visit and see for myself all these lands, and see the world.

For me traveling is experiencing this wonder and awe and discovering something new and different from my world and enlarging my world in the process. Discovery is a uniquely personal and solitary experience. In group travel one eats catered meals or at recommended restaurants,  one is cautioned from eating food from local vendors fearing contamination, one is led to familiar entertainment, to shop the same goods, hotels are selected to be as similar as possible to what’s one is accustomed to, and private transportation is provided, and everyone gets more or less similar experiences from these trips.

The journey towards the destination provides the main excitement of travel for me. I prepare for this journey by reading and research. I’m interested in knowing some history, the culture, the people, the food, the beliefs, the lifestyle, how ordinary people move around, earn their living, the social classes, what’s important in living, how they define happiness? I use public transportation, go to local restaurants, eat street food, find out the local entertainment, walk or hire local guides to see cultural sites, explore the local market and shops, chat with people, and if I get lucky I connect and make new friends.

I’ve made friends from unexpected quarters traveling alone, which I’m positive would not have been possible otherwise. I had a friend I knew from youth in Sydney, who introduced me to a friend, and from there new friends were made exponentially as I met their friends. I ended up staying in their homes in Port Douglas and Melbourne and one became a travel companion to Tasmania. In Munich I was about to have dinner alone in a small out of tourist way neighborhood restaurant, when a woman asked permission to join me and we talked until the restaurant closed. She invited me for lunch in her home then introduced me to her family, took me to a concert in a palace where her niece is the solo flutist, and met her 80-year old mother who is a poet. She gave me a poem in German which I had translated to English by a friend when I returned home and sent the translation to her. It made her mother very happy. She paints and knew the Brucke expressionists and told me about this wonderful museum, the Buchheim, one hour by train outside of Munich which I would not have known about otherwise. I had an authentic experience of the Passover in Kissufim, a kibbutz in Israel, when a friend I met in Spain invited me. On this trip to Israel I met a couple from Brisbane who invited me to their home when I traveled to Australia. In Bogota, I met a gay couple who informed me about programs in a Senior center they go to in Atlanta, and I’ve been taking classes in Spanish and painting there since. They’ve invited me to their home and also gave me access to the flowers and produce from their garden. Now, they have moved to live in Mexico, I have friends I can visit there.

Some consider traveling without a complete itinerary the hard way, or the scary way. I’m often asked, aren’t you afraid? They consider me very brave to travel alone, especially for a woman! What if you get lost? I never get lost, I just take a different route :). On the first day of walking the 800 km Camino Santiago de Compostela I took a different route from the French Pyrenees on my way to Roncesvalles, in the Spanish Pyrenees. It was a 4-hour deviation, and since it was getting dark in the mountains, I decided to call for help. I wasn’t afraid. If help didn’t come before dark I had a plan. I would retrace my steps to where I deviated, but I will wait for the morning for it would be dangerous to walk the mountains in the dark, with its cliffs and steep grade and unmarked pathways, and I’m exhausted after walking 8 hours with a 20-lb load on my back.  I had a sleeping bag, I had water and leftover sandwich from lunch, and I knew there would not be predators in the mountain, as no man had crossed my path all day. But help did arrive, the wonder of cell phones, I could speak some Spanish, and since I didn’t know where I was, I was fortunate to stop in this unique landscape, which my correspondent was able to identify from my description, and she prepared to send the fire truck to pick me up, but I suggested a taxi would be a better option, and instead of camping in the wilds, I had a comfortable bed and fine meal  that night, and an adventure that I can recount to my great grandchildren one day.

Did you meet somebody? I am asked too often. Women’s heads are filled with fantasies about a  dashing Romeo rescuing a damsel pining in loneliness. They pity a woman who has no man, like she’s no longer having a life. But I believe they are also sincerely excited and will be happy for me if I fulfill that fantasy, it validates what’s important in their life.

But that’s it, a fantasy. I admit I want to fall in love again, but my experience with Johnny is a hard act to follow. He was my first love, and I was knocked off my feet when I first saw him, and literally there was a tunnel of light between us eclipsing all those around us when we met. The first experience can never be repeated. I will have to come around to another idea of being with a man, for my life is full and free and unfettered by compromises. It’s not companionship I need, I can have a dog for that, it’s not financial security, I have a healthy 401K, it’s not for being lonely, I have family and friends who love me, it’s not for sex, it is overrated (I do not make unfounded conclusions :), it’s not for being afraid to be old, or of death, for those you face alone. Like travel, it has to fill me with wonder and discovery, enrich my life and expand my world.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

PRISM, etc.

Musings on US431
Road Trip to Santa Rosa Beach

It always amazes me how an unfocused mind can go in all directions. On the way to Santa Rosa Beach FL , after Eufaula AL, where your eyes delight in its main street lined with charming Victorian cottages and mansions,  there isn't much to see on the road except a long  unrelieved stretch of McAdam concrete, I find my mind wandering along with the boring scenery. This wandering thoughts also occur during my enforced 3-mile walks around Atlantic Station and the GA Tech campus. The walks however had been productive of creative ideas when I am involved with projects like fundraising or planning a trip or a party, or when I have some problem to analyze and solve. I am thinking that this same  process  is applicable to a mind plotting horrible acts of terror, criminal activities or reckless behavior during idle moments when there is nothing exciting to focus on. And so while driving on this long boring stretch of road I am mulling over this US government surveillance program expose by the Guardian and  Snowden that's all over the news and the Comedy Central show with Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert last night. The media and Fox news are in a tizzy and having almost orgasmic excitement about this most recent scandal in the Obama administration. JayJay is driving and I am listening to Mack update us on the progress of the tennis semifinals match at Roland Garros between Nadal and the Djoker. Rah is hooked to her iPod and periodically annoys Mack and there is a brief good natured poking between the 2 in the rear of the car, and my thoughts are held up temporarily. It appears the cyber surveillance is approved by Congress and the Justice department during the Bush years, designed to hunt down terrorists after the 9/11 attack, continued by Obama, and said to be successful in thwarting several terroristic plots. And Snowden exposed this whole plan by publishing the powerpoint data about this program, code name PRISM. This involves  monitoring any citizen through sophisticated analysis of huge amounts of data from internet sites such as  Google Facebook YouTube Yahoo etc. essentially prying into each and every citizen business without its consent or knowledge. This came in the recent revelation of the administration also seizing the emails of AP correspondents after the leak of security information after the Boston shooting. The ACLU is now suing the government for breach of free speech and unlawful surveillance.  It is very gray. On the one hand I recall the witch hunt for communists during the McCarthy era and the paranoia that's connected with Edgar Hoover's term in the early days of the FBI. Meanwhile there was the endangerment of government secret agents with the blowing of their covers in the Valerie Plame case, compromising their mission and ending Valerie’s career as a CIA agent. And now I just learned how tiny Estonia is all cyber connected, and does its governing pretty much through the internet, and the citizenry carry their ID in computer chips, pay their parking via smart phones, etc. Mind boggling, efficient, requires less government employees, therefore financially sustainable, but also vulnerable to cyber attacks and the whole system is paralyzed. This is like an apocalyptic scenario from a FX movie. This cyber technology and  communication the internet and social media is just awesome. The PRISM technology is incredible. As I’m in the car and could not type much on my iPhone to put my musings down, I am dictating using my Dragon app, then I will send it to myself via email, save it to my Pages app, then edit and finalize the whole article when I get to my desktop. I use Facebook for the facility and convenience of exchanging information and sharing in the activities of friends and family . Is there infringement of citizens’ rights if the government monitors patterns of activities analyzed from terrorist patterns to identify individuals for surveillance, to protect the nation? Do journalists violate national interests by publicizing classified information? How is that different from providing national secret to enemies, which is treason? Are journalist in it to inform the public, and how do they decide what’s good for the public to know, or are they seeking the Pulitzer or Peabody? or increasing circulation and prestige for their papers? I wish I could consult Solomon to resolve this dilemma.

So here’s Mack to update us that the Djoker lost to Nadal, and he’s not amused, and we’re making the turn to Calypso Pointe, in Santa Rosa beach, and it’s sunny and the warm Gulf is beckoning.