How does one write something, much less a note about something mostly unserious, after last week's devastating news? Trite maxims such as "if you don't go on with your life, the bad guy wins" don't come close to sufficiency. Yet as I sit outside my hotel room listening to the 36th hour of near-monsoon rains since my family has arrived on the other side of the planet from home, I am reminded that life does have methods of washing away at least the superficial signs of even the most horrific events, often leaving more permanent but less plentiful reminders which we all must come to terms with, as some combination of lesson and warning, in our own ways. I suppose, like many things on this earth, if it were any other way, life would be less worth living.
On the spectrum of ailments, jet leg earns somewhat more sympathy than excessive ear wax and somewhat less than a bad case of toe fungus. But even though I have traveled a lot — now having visited about 60 countries and six continents — I have never had jet lag like this.
A week into our "trip of a lifetime" family vacation — a welcome break from the early winter snows of the Colorado mountains we call home — I am yet to sleep for more than three hours at a stretch. Nearly halfway around the planet from the Rocky Mountains, our bodies and minds can't seem to grasp that bed time is not two hours before lunch. If you often feel like having a 3 PM catnap, try it when 3 PM is 1 AM at your house. Then when you do take that nap, you will sleep for several blissful hours, only to realize that you have made it that much harder to adjust to the time zone because when you try to sleep that night, your body will think that is time for a short nap. And thus I type these words in a pitch black night-morning, listening to falling rain and waves breaking on the shores of Sri Lanka, feeling a strange combination of awake and disoriented by the unsteadiness of persistent sleep deprivation.
Sleep issues were not particularly helped by arriving at the first hotel of our journey, the Sheraton Abu Dhabi (that city being the capital of the United Arab Emirates), at 3:30 AM after 35 hours of travel and being told that no room would be available for us until 8 AM. Apparently, every room in the hotel was booked except for the unaffordable presidential suite, listed at $600 per night more than the total of the two regular rooms we had already booked. (It was shockingly difficult to find a hotel that would allow two adults and two kids in one room.)
After about two hours of waiting restlessly, watching TV and playing Bananagrams in a typically hyper-airconditioned UAE building, the front desk guy, taking something like pity on us as well as maybe having been happy to hear me say nice things about his home town of Mumbai, came up to offer us the presidential suite for only $180 per night more than I had already spent. Out of desperation to have something, anything, done — more to pacify my understandably anxious-to-hit-a-bed wife than out of my own impatience, which was tempered by my distaste at spending an extra $700 — we accepted and thus had several nights in what seemed more like a large two-bedroom apartment than a hotel room, complete with giant living room with sofa, chairs, tables, and a big flat panel TV on the wall.
The room overkill turned out to be a godsend, if a pricey one, because our mass jet lag had different people awake at different times, and yours truly awake most of the time throughout the night, entertaining the wide-awake kids, so my wife could at least attempt to sleep. So when one kid dozed off, I could put her (usually my daughter, as my son was more like a pinball bouncing around the place) in her own bedroom, king-size bed and all, where she had neatly arranged her art supplies and two small stuffed animals on the desk. She looks like me, but takes very much after my well-organized artist wife.
Driving into Abu Dhabi from the airport, even — or maybe especially — in the near solitude of 3 AM, one can't help but think that this was an urban planner's dream: a nearly blank canvas and a nearly unlimited budget, allowing beautiful wide roads with landscaping nicer than most homes have, pristine buildings housing government ministries and private offices and luxurious hotels, and miles of beautiful park, called the Corniche, along the ocean front. I am told that Dubai makes Abu Dhabi look small and cheap. Is it not amazing what barrels of liquified 300-million year old plants can be transformed into?
The other thing one notices as a tourist in Abu Dhabi, where you're mostly seeing those who work in service industries like hotels, taxis, and restaurants, is how many people who live and work there are not from there.
I did not meet, as far as I know, a single Arab working in any of those places. Instead, we met dozens of people — mostly men — from India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan, with the women, especially hostesses in the hotel restaurant, being mostly young Filipino women. (The omelette bar at the buffet breakfast included lobster as an omelette ingredient option, after which retiring to the presidential suite seemed oh so appropriate.)
It seems that locals are either too rich — either through birth or through pacifying subsidy — or "above" taking such jobs and I imagine, though without any basis in knowledge, that that's just how they feel.
Another observation: Everyone we met was remarkably friendly to our kids, as if patting a kid on the head brings good luck like rubbing Buddha's belly is thought to in other cultures. But on the street, locals (as identified by their traditional Arab garb) would rarely look my wife or me in the eye, and even more rarely smile.
Our experience was different in Istanbul, Turkey, where we spent several hours during a 9-hour layover between flights. There, although one might be reasonably tempted to ascribe it to trying to sell us things, people were effusively friendly to all of us — though again especially to the children. We wandered the spice market and bought something similar to the Egyptian spice mix dukkah, which my wife is very fond of. We were warned away from the Grand Bazaar as overly touristy, though I was still tempted as it was the place where I first practiced intensive negotiation when I was there in the early 1970s at the ripe old age of eight. It must have rubbed off on me permanently, because I negotiate the way others golf: for the fun of it, and with great satisfaction at feeling as if I've won — or at least not lost.
We also visited Hagia (pronounced roughly as eye'-uh) Sophia, which was a major church from the 4th century to the 15th century, then a mosque until it became a museum in 1935. It is a remarkable place, and it is good to see its long Christian tradition not ignored in the Muslim country's presentation of Ayasophia's (the Turkish spelling) fascinating history.
Istanbul is an incredible city that deserves weeks, not hours, and we hope to return there one day, not least because its Business Class airport lounge is a place I could gladly stay for several days as it is full of good food, good drink, and interesting conversation such as the one we had with a man who works for the Austrian embassy in commerce and trade development and was recently transferred out of his posting in Damascus, Syria.
As Arab — and thus Muslim — countries go, the UAE is not extremely conservative; it is perceived as relatively "open" and tolerant. But while we saw a fair number of Arab men (as distinct from those from the Indian subcontinent) in Western garb, Arab women who did not have at least a head scarf were utterly absent. At least a third of the Arab women we saw wore full burqas, something that our children strangely never seemed to notice.
From the "21st century meets 9th century" files: As I was watching my son go down the Sheraton's kids pool waterslide several dozen times, I noticed two young women in burqas — the only visible bits of skin were hands, toes, and a one-inch high rectangle across the eyes — sitting on chaises next to the pool. I guessed them to be in their late teens or early 20s as they sat there playing with their smart phones.
Then, as an Indian pool attendant walked by, they called him over and each had him take her picture with their phones, two utterly unidentifiable shapes clad in all black, looking for all the world exactly like each other and like thousands of other women we had seen in the city. But apparently still worth a photograph to show, or at least claim, that they had been to the pool at the Sheraton.
It is perhaps a Western conceit to think that these women must be at least somewhat unhappy, stripped of public identity and individuality. Yet these two colorless and functionally identical creatures seemed mostly to be behaving like any other iPhone- and social media–addicted girls. Not only do I not know whether they will ever taste a more complete freedom or something akin to equality, I don't know whether they hope to.
As we watched CNN and the BBC one evening, we heard the devastating news from Newtown, Connecticut, where 20 children, mostly 6 or 7 years old, were executed by a madman who should have suffered a fate much worse than death. As parents of a daughter who is also in first grade and whose seventh birthday was the next day, the news hit us, and especially my wife, very hard; Kristen has been in tears several times in the days since, expressing the horror and anger that are being felt, particularly by parents, around the world.
We have not spoken to our children of what happened in Newtown, and we don't plan to. While we want to inculcate safe behaviors in our son and daughter, childhood should not be unnecessarily laden with fears of madmen and murder. The burden of worry is mine as a parent, and a good parent does not share that burden with his young children.
Although our overwhelming jet lag caused us to miss most of the few highly recommended sites in Abu Dhabi, including the third-largest mosque in the world (the largest outside of Mecca and Medina), we did have one memorable Middle East adventure: a whirlwind three-hour "desert safari" including hair-raising and slightly nauseating high-speed driving on and over sand dunes in a Toyota Land Cruiser, with plunges down steep sides and precarious balancing along infirm shifting ridgelines.
The "safari" also included a camel ride, which turned out to be two people at a time getting into the saddle of a kneeling camel that then stood up and was led around for less than a minute by a bored-looking Arab. Disappointingly short but it made for a few good photographs. There were a couple of snowboards leaning on a fence, so I grabbed one and trudged about 30 feet up a sand dune — much further effort-wise than it sounds, with every step ending by sliding down half of the distance just covered — only to find that I couldn't get going for more than a few feet, or a few miles per hour, on the snowboard before coming to a halt even on the steep sandy slope. Again, disappointing but an amusing photo op.
We celebrated our daughter's seventh birthday that evening at a restaurant at the hotel — which is not to say a hotel restaurant, as it was independently owned by a Lebanese man who was renting the space from the hotel. He is a Catholic who left Lebanon about a year ago. When I asked him if he thought, as I do, that all Christians will leave Lebanon, he responded "That seems to be the plan for the whole Middle East, does it not?"
The food was passable, but not great, which was probably to be expected at a place named the al-Mayass restaurant. Two items of particular note: One, a main course called assafir, which sounds as if it should be an unpleasant smelling layer of air above the troposphere, consisted of a small clay pot in which, in a bittersweet pomegranate sauce, were sautéing six tiny, headless, disemboweled bird carcasses, each not much bigger than the first section of an adult's thumb, to be eaten in one crunchy bite. I have to say it was not particularly delicious, with a slightly liver-like taste whereas I was hoping for something more like quail, but at least it was expensive.
Upon further research, the bird is probably a kind of bunting, called an ortolan, or another small song bird which mostly feeds on figs, and is thus called, in French, bec figue. You may learn from my mistake and not order this for yourself should the opportunity arise.
Much better was my daughter's Lebanese/Armenian birthday cake which looked like a pile of white hair but was in fact extra yummy, with the "hair" being some very sweet stuff — precisely what I still cannot say — covering semi-sweet cream in between two crunchy sheets of pastry, on top of all of which we poured some clear sugar syrup. Needless to say, with two young kids, that plate was all but licked clean, after one of the most memorable birthday "cakes" of all time.
As the owner of al-Mayass pays quite a high rent (perhaps inspiring the restaurant's name) the food was overpriced in a town where good food can be found, outside of hotels at least, for less than I'm used to paying at home. But although I am not Christian, I was happy to spend a few extra dirhams to help a displaced Christian who is working to be a success in the Muslim world. I wished him well in his business as I departed.
Sifting through news online that night, as my jet lagged son played a game on my iPad at 2 AM, I was disappointed to read that the President of Gun Owners of America, a group I was and may still be a member of, had talked about gun control supporters and advocates of "gun-free zones" as having the blood of children on their hands.
His underlying point may have a grain, or many grains, of truth, but I found his comments, or more precisely how soon they followed the massacre of children, to be reprehensibly insensitive. I say this as someone who believes strongly in the Second Amendment, who grew up shooting, who has a fair number of pistols, rifles, and shotguns, and who understands that various anti-gun politicians and groups wasted no time in blaming guns rather than mental disease for the killer's infamous actions.
A few hours after sunrise, staring out over the Indian Ocean just south of the town of Hikkaduwa near the southwestern most point of Sri Lanka, I watch my children run joyfully through the shallow foamy water of just-broken waves. And I am reminded both of the unquenchable pain engulfing Newtown, Connecticut, as well as my tremendous good fortune in the challenging blessing that is parenthood.