Hear Ye! Since 1998.

Archived Posts for November 2005

Please note: The posts on this page are at least 3 years old. Links may be broken, information may be out of date, and the views expressed in the posts may no longer be held.
29
Nov 05
Tue

Auction – everything priced to clear!

It is a sad day. In a little over a week, my fantastic flatmate of five years is moving permanently back to the humid shores of Malaysia. Unfortunately, his funds have been seriously depleted after a budgeting mishap stemming from alcohol abuse last Friday. In an effort to rejuvenate these funds via high-risk high-return investing, a further, uh… mishap, at Star City has eliminated whatever vestige of hope he had of paying his bus fare to the airport next week.

Accordingly, he is having a firesale of his remaining assets on eBay with rock bottom starting prices. Check out the stationery grab bag – it’s a true bargain!

Bid now!

25
Nov 05
Fri
24
Nov 05
Thu

Before the gallows

Nguyen Tuong Van is an Australian who will be hanged by Singaporean authorities on 2 December for trafficking almost 400 grams of heroin. It will be impossible for anyone in Australia to not have heard about his case, though a quick search on Google News reveals that media coverage outside this country is sparse. This is the latest in a series of Australians being caught overseas with drugs, but this is a wholly different story to the Shapelle Corby affair where what at question was the reliability of the Indonesian justice system.

In the past few weeks, desperate attempts have been made to save Nguyen’s life and the whole affair has become quite confusing in terms of what rationales people have been using to justify their respective opinions.

Most Australians believe that he doesn’t deserve to die for his crime, either because they think the death penalty has no place in a developed country, or that it is not a proportionate punishment to a crime such as drug trafficking (especially when Nguyen claims to only have trafficked in an attempt to bail his brother out from debt).

The result is the Australian public urging the Australian Government to do all it can to pressure Singapore into showing clemency and sparing Nguyen’s life. However, as Prime Minister Howard has pointed out, there is only so much diplomatic channels can do and it is unrealistic to expect the traditionally authoritarian Singaporean government to do an about-face now.

It is important that we should lobby as much as possible to save the life of this man who we do not believe should die for his crimes. However, it is wrong to resent or hold anger towards Singapore should our efforts fail and should the execution proceed. It is wrong to request trade sanctions be imposed upon Singapore, or to take recent events into consideration in the deal concerning Singapore Airline’s rights to fly the trans-Pacific route as Bruce Baird has said.

As they say, the law is the law and everyone entering Singapore knows – via the scary red words, written all in capitals, emblazoned on the immigration card saying “DEATH TO DRUG TRAFFICKERS” – the consequences of their actions. That was the law at the time when Nguyen was discovered at Changi Airport with enough heroin to make over 20,000 hits strapped to his back.

Despite the strictness of the Singaporean State, and various questionable legal instruments like the Internal Securities Act, academics have reported that Singapore has performed relatively well when it comes to adhering to the cornerstone concept of the Rule of Law. To all our appeals for clemency, Singapore has rightly said that if they were to go easy on Nguyen, that would breach that fundamental concept – why should Nguyen be treated differently from a local, or any other national? What would it say about their justice system then? After all, it’s not as though they enjoy sending people to the gallows, nor do it with haste and without due process. It is also a matter of respecting the laws of the country one visits. It is a pretty arrogant thing to expect foreign visitors to our country to follow our laws, but yet request that the same not happen for our citizens who travel abroad. We can all hope for clemency, but an illusory hope it is.

Of course, the major sticking point is that a “so-called civilised nation” like Singapore shouldn’t be using a death penalty in the first place. There is a great deal of literature in international jurisprudence which has more or less debunked the validity of using capital punishment. One of the most common views is that to take someone’s life is a brutal response and our society is “above that”. However, there are clearly more arguments to the point than this. First, there is the issue of the finality of killing someone in a system which is periodically prone to miscarriages of justice (for example in the US, a disturbing proportion of people on death row have subsequently been exonerated following the production of additional evidence, such as DNA evidence). Secondly, empirical studies have shown that the deterrent effect of capital punishment (especially in countries where executions are not carried out in public) is no more effective than a maximum punishment of life imprisonment without possibility of parole. Thirdly, there is a theory called the brutalisation theory that states that executing criminals actually promotes violent crimes because:

First, potential killers are stimulated during the period following an execution … Secondly, the drama accompanying executions arguably incites some to seek notoriety. Finally, some people already predisposed toward violence seek this fate as a substitute to suicide … Data analyzing the number of homicides committed ten weeks before and ten weeks after an execution reveal a significant increase in the number of overall homicides.1

Fourthly, the argument that capital punishment in murder cases satisfies the requirement for proportionality in punishment is invalid because it is rare in our system to “seek an eye for an eye” – for instance, we do not “rape rapists, assault assailants, or burgle the home of burglars”.2 Fifthly, as a pragmatic matter, the cost of a case culminating in capital punishment is said to exceed that of one where life imprisonment is levied. Sixthly, there are worrying signs about how capital punishment is unevenly distributed in racial terms. In the US, jurors with anti-capital punishment views are routinely challenged (that is, removed from the jury panel). A black defendant is also more likely to be sentenced to death when the victim is white. Finally, it goes against the principle of everyone having a right to life.

Of course, few of the above reasons are directly applicable to the case at hand, but the imposition of a death penalty on a drug offence – one that is “less” than murder – seeks to strengthen the case against such a penalty. The body of legal research on the matter is hugely in favour of abolition of capital punishment.

The problem is, however, as much as capital punishment is regarded as an outmoded form of punishment, it is still a valid law in that it was passed validly in a democratic system (we’ll leave international law issues aside for the moment). Australians are within their rights to lobby for the abolition of the death penalty, though it is a stretch to hope that such an abolition, if implemented at all, will be implemented retrospectively by the Singapore legislature.

What’s troubling to me though is this: where was the outrage before an Australian face appeared before the gallows? Why do we not stand up for the “basic human rights” of all prisoners currently on death row in Singapore? They are not merely basic Australian rights, but basic human ones.

People complain that this latest incident is more evidence that Singapore is too strict and authoritarian – repressive, even. But why then is the media devoid of comments from readers about how the United States should also abolish the death penalty? After all, of all the nations to retain the death penalty, the US stands with some unfamiliar company – countries such as Russia, China, Japan, Nigeria, India, Indonesia and Pakistan – countries which are not known for their sterling human rights records (and neither is the US, in recent times). Granted, the US does not execute for drug offences – but remember, we are not talking about letting the punishment fit the crime here – we are talking about how the death penalty is a breach of fundamental human rights.

It will be interesting to see if the lobbying for clemency for death row prisoners continues if Nguyen is executed. To some, this may be shutting the barn door after the horse has bolted, but why should it matter to us if it is an Australian or a Singaporean staring at the hangman’s noose? If capital punishment goes against fundamental human rights, why should nationality be the basis for such strong efforts as displayed by the Australian people? No wonder the Singaporeans accuse us of having double standards.

One view that holds more weight might be arguing that capital punishment is a disproportionate punishment to levy on a drug offence. Especially concerning an offence in which the mandatory minimum sentence is to end the life of the convicted – just look at the Weldon Angelos case in the US, where a drug dealer was sentenced to 55 years in gaol for three counts of possession of a firearm (as a result, the judge imposed only one day of imprisonment for the multiple counts of drug-related offences). Mandatory minimums do not allow for the consideration of possible mitigating factors – such as, it is claimed, that he entered a plea of guilty immediately (though it is hard to see how he could plead otherwise, being caught red-handed with the stuff strapped to his back), that he co-operated with police, and that he was only doing it for his brother. However, again this falls foul of the same problems as above – the Singapore government is within its rights to levy such a punishment as distasteful as it is to us.

I think that the only avenue of appeal that has a reasonable amount of legal validity behind it – besides trying to pull on the heart strings of the Singaporean government and getting a pardon – is international law. However, this is difficult because a ruling by the International Court of Justice is only really binding if both parties voluntarily submit to its jurisdiction (just look at how the US refuses to recognise the International Criminal Court where its nationals are concerned). And even then, Singapore must be found to have breached some international treaty or customary international law by having a death penalty in order for the court to order favourably for Nguyen.

Nonetheless, a stay of execution would offer comfort of some kind if Singapore were to agree to have the ICJ hear the case. Strangely, a decision adverse to Singapore also offers it a valid reason to repeal its law without being able to be criticised for having double standards – though this is at the expense of having acknowledged it violated international law in the first place. Further, only States can utilise the ICJ and a decision by the Australian government to pursue this in The Hague is no doubt hampered by diplomatic considerations given the low probability of success.

Sadly, things do not look up for Nguyen. But one can only hope that, should he die, people will continue in their efforts to get governments around the world to abolish capital punishment as an unacceptable form of punishment in today’s international community.

1. John Truskett, “The Death Penalty, International Law and Human Rights” (2004) 11 Tulsa Journal of Comparative and International Law 557, 588.
2. Claire Finkelstein, “An A Priori Argument Against the Death Penalty” (2002) 32.

MapWorld

I walked into a store called MapWorld on Pitt St. I’m a bit of a map geek (through osmosis, I have an unhealthy knowledge of world capitals) so I found it really cool. They have some really big world maps you can buy there and they sell some of them laminated, although the lamination often costs more than the map itself. They also have a wide, but overpriced, collection of travel books, atlases and globes. There’s a good quality large map going there for about $100 which would fit my wall very nicely!

17
Nov 05
Thu

The city of Dubai (6 Sep 05 – 10 Sep 05)

I wake up to an SMS from an aunt in Singapore. It was only yesterday that she discovered I was going to Dubai alone and decided to send me the contact details of a friend she has there called Sanjay. “He’s abt 25. Met him in New Orleans in June. Nice guy. 1 of us insurance pple. doin VERY well,” says the message.

I grab a quick breakfast at the buffet restaurant downstairs and give Sanjay a call. He is all too accommodating and after a brief discussion about my plans over the next three days, we decide to meet up for lunch since I’ll be near his workplace in the Bur Dubai region.

My first destination is the Dubai museum, built in the two-century old al Fahidi fort. There are a few artifacts lying around the courtyard, including a cannon, a model of a dhow, musical instruments, old weapons and a nifty windtower structure called an al Barajeel. Windtowers were an ancient form of air-conditioning in which a tower several metres high channelled air down to a room via four openings. As the air moves down it speeds up which has a cooling effect. By convection, this cooler air pulls in the hotter outside air, which is in turn cooled as well. The effect is a refreshing, light breeze wafting from the tower base even when there is no detectable wind outside.

However, the real show is downstairs, where well maintained displays detail the history and development of Dubai, and the various aspects of its rich cultural heritage. There are exhibits about the Bedouins, Dubai’s relationship with the sea and fishing, Islam, camels and so on. Particularly uncanny was the use of holograms combined with models – in one, detailing the composition of an old grave, the grave’s dome cover faded from opaqueness to invisibility to reveal its contents, and then back again.

Around the corner from the museum is the old Bastakia Quarter. But even old Dubai doesn’t look that old anymore and extensive restoration work has produced a block of freshly painted and well-maintained historical buildings. Still, it is an interesting site where you can see both the crescent topped minarets of mosques as well as modern skyscrapers framed between narrow alleys lined with centuries-old windtowers.

I get in contact with Sanjay again. He tells me he’ll pick me up on a nearby corner and to be on the lookout for a white Mercedes. Apart from this and knowing from his name that he’s Indian, I have no idea who to expect. A gleaming new Mercedes 350SLK pulls around the corner driven by a man in sharp business suit. It has to be him. I’m more than a little sweaty after walking in the humid streets for an hour and I apologetically climb into the car, sinking into the convertible’s low seats as Sanjay gives me a hearty handshake.

I have lunch with his family at their apartment. Two “helpers” – otherwise known as maids in Asia, but male – serve a mixture of Indian and Chinese cuisine and I learn that Sanjay and his father operate an insurance brokerage business. It turns out that Sanjay’s specialty is life insurance – the same field as my aunt. As with most successful salespeople, Sanjay’s personality makes him instantly likeable and he offers to take me for a bit of a drive through Dubai after lunch, since actual lunchtime in Dubai extends for several hours in the afternoon, much like for the European countries bordering the Mediterranean.

Minutes later we’re cruising down Sheikh Zayed Road, an eight, sometimes ten, laned highway forming the backbone down the Gulf coast on which the “suburb” of Jumeirah hangs. Replete with its expensive condominiums, plush office towers and horde of cranes working on the next big, ambitious property development project, Sheikh Zayed Road hosts Dubai’s modern, dynamic, and constantly growing skyline. The exciting thing is that none of this existed just two decades ago.

Going back several centuries to the time when the colonial powers of Portugal, France, the Netherlands and Britain were present in the region seeking to control the trade routes, Dubai was a sleepy fishing village on the south-west shore of Dubai Creek in the part of town which is today called Bur Dubai. By the time Dubai had expanded across the Creek in 1841 (today’s Deira district), the British East India Company had finally established a presence in the region. These links to Britain, combined with a tax exemption for foreign traders instituted in 1894 started the growth of Dubai as a trading port. Free trade is still an aspect of Dubai which remains today. With the arrival of the Great Depression in the 1930s, Dubai’s pearl diving industry collapsed and the focus moved more or less solely to trade.

Dubai engaged in a lot of re-exporting – the importation of goods for the purpose of exporting them again. In 1947, India, in an attempt to stabilise its volatile currency, banned the importation of gold. Consequently, Dubai became infamous for being a gold smuggler’s staging point. Gold prices in Dubai were half as much as in India and smugglers, operating legally in Dubai (but obviously not in India) pocketed some hefty profits. The construction of new ports and trading facilities saw Dubai eventually surpass neighbouring ports as the trading centre of choice.

In 1971, after Britain departed from the region, the United Arab Emirates was formed – the only federation of Arab states to date. Dubai took its place within the federation as the largest emirate apart from Abu Dhabi. Under the federation, emirates are left largely autonomous and Dubai remains a free economic zone.

Sanjay dismisses the old part of town, Deira, as quaint but mostly irrelevant. Jumeirah is where it’s at today. In fact, he tells me he hasn’t been across the Creek for several months. As we drive further down the coast, business and commerce give way to pleasure and entertainment as the first of a crop of five star hotels and beach resorts begin to materialise on the skyline. Sanjay inquires if I’d like to see the new house that his family will be moving into soon. Of course I do, so we turn into a residential suburb filled with nothing less than streets upon streets of mansions.

There are Indian construction workers crawling all over the house we arrive at. Sanjay has a quick chat to one of them to see how work is progressing and invites me upstairs for a better look. From the balcony, the famous gigantic sail silhouette of the Burj al Arab looms in the distance. Although the Emrati nationals own virtually all the actual land in Dubai, that hasn’t stopped affluent expats from renting out land for their own needs. That’s the case with Sanjay’s family and despite having only a five year lease, they’ve decided to make extensive renovations to the house, including installing a pool, pool house, jacuzzi and snooker room.

The Middle East is a part of the world long plagued with instability. Together with the recent focus on terrorism and Muslim extremists, people tend to paint the entire region with a broad brush. This brush normally colours Arab governments as theocratic, stringently conservative and severely strict, in line with a restricted interpretation of Islam. Friends back in Australia even went so far as to query whether I would be targeted in Dubai as an infidel and treated accordingly. While it may be true that certain parts of the region are more “traditional” than others, it would erroneous to brand everything Arabian as such.

I remark that Dubai, even from the short time I had been here, seemed quite progressive and relatively liberal. “Oh yes, it’s very liberal here. As long as you maintain a respect for certain aspects of Muslim culture, people are pretty much free to do what they want. For one, alcohol is allowed, though it is quite expensive.”

As we exit the residential estate, Sanjay points out a particularly large mansion to me. It’s the Sheikh’s house, or at least, one of his houses. It is the leadership of the Al-Maktoum ruling family that has made Dubai the place it is today.

In 1966, Dubai struck oil. Sheikh Rashid, the emir at the time and regarded as the “father of modern Dubai”, put the oil to good use. Oil revenue was poured into infrastructure and development. It also enabled the elimination of personal income tax, free health care and free education for citizens. Sheikh Rashid’s work has been continued by his son, Sheikh Maktoum and the current Crown Prince, Sheikh Mohammed. This rapid development has earnt Dubai the moniker of “Dubai Inc.” by some and even The Economist has remarked that “Dubai is run like a family business by a benign autocrat”. Sometimes it’s referred to as the Hong Kong or Singapore of the Middle East.

Only about 6% of Dubai’s income comes from oil. Oil supplies are forecasted to run out within a decade so it is not all that surprising that Dubai is not fuelled by oil, but by services, trade and increasingly tourism. The royal family-owned and profitable Emirates Airlines, combined with events such as the Dubai Fashion Week, Dubai Shopping Festival, Dubai Desert Classic golf tournament and Dubai International Racing Carnival have all helped to put Dubai on the international map.

Accompanying this capitalism success story is an extraordinary level of multiculturalism in Dubai. Sanjay’s father arrived in Dubai shortly after the UAE was formed and slowly built up the family business from there. At some point during lunch, I mentioned that I’d booked myself in for a desert safari. Sanjay’s father interrogates me about who I’ve booked with and how much it will cost me. He turns to Sanjay and after a quick exchange in Hindi, he tells me to cancel the booking because he could net me at least a 50% discount. I ask if he also knows how to speak Arabic and am surprised to discover that he didn’t. “There are so many expats here, the Arabs better learn how to speak something else if they want to do business!” he says.

Emrati nationals only comprise 20% of Dubai’s population, the rest being expats. The majority of expats hail from India, with a sizeable chunk coming from Iran, Pakistan, and, strangely enough, the Philippines. It is the expats that provide a cheap labour force and fill Dubai with a rich mix of religion, dress and language. As is so often the case where people speak different languages, English has become the de facto language of commerce and Dubai is no exception.

As multicultural as things were, there didn’t seem to be much blending between the different peoples, with communities seeming to mix predominantly among themselves.

Unfortunately Sanjay has to head back to work to close off a deal with an international client. I bid him farewell and he drops me off at Mercato Mall to check out the shopping scene. Shopping is a big pastime in Dubai, and the shopping malls are certainly impressive. Even though the rest of Dubai has shut down for the afternoon (for a Mediterranean-style siesta), the malls are one of the few places that remain open. It’s buzzing despite being a Wednesday. Mercato Mall is relatively small, but it has some wonderful architecture modelled on an Italian style. I also manage to visit Wafi City Mall and Deira City Centre that afternoon. Wafi has a fair amount of affluence flowing through it and I was strongly advised by Sanjay to only look, and if the temptation to buy should arise, I should strongly think it over. Boutiques line the corridors of Wafi and the price tags dangling off the little bits of cloth and stones displayed in the storefront windows had an impossible number of digits written on them. On the other hand, Deira City Centre is more a mall for the masses. It’s pretty darn big. Despite being only three levels, it encompasses a fair chunk of real estate. Carrefour has built one of its “Hypermarkets” inside which features over fifty checkout counters… all of which were in use when I visited.

Multiculturalism is especially evident in the shopping malls. Sitting in one of the rest-stop cafes, I found it fascinating to observe Arab men in traditional white robes and Muslim women swathed entirely in black burqa and hijab walk alongside caucasian girls with miniskirts and low cut tops. Stores are staffed by a multitude of Indians and a liberal sprinkling of Asians – mostly from the Philippines. One thing I found particularly noteworthy was the quality of talent in those malls. I’m sad to say that while in Singapore it was a tough task finding the attractive people, in Dubai it was a tough task finding unattractive people. Maybe I was just there on the right day, but it was quite a sight nonetheless.

On the way back to the hotel, I pass by a bus station where a crowd of Indians had gathered around a small television set which was screening the fourth Ashes test. I inquire about the score and am disappointed to learn that England, batting first in the first innings, was in the middle of a sizeable partnership. “You’re Australian? That Shane Warne is really something,” one Indian remarks to me. “He is, isn’t he?” I replied. (Unfortunately, despite the heroic efforts of Warney, Australia later went on to lose the Ashes series 2-1 and British news featured nothing but the victory for the next few days.)

The next day I arrive at Jumeirah Mosque for their 11.00am “Open doors, open minds, mosque visit program,” a Sheikh Mohammed initiative. I arrive early to find the mosque doors shut. There’s only a handful of other tourists milling around, similarly wondering where to go. However, as 11.00am draws nearer, a sizeable crowd has formed at the mosque entrance. Finally, a decorous woman emerges from behind the door and welcomes us. There’s a little delay while everyone removes their shoes and the more immodestly attired among us get additional clothing distributed to them. Then we are ushered into the thankfully air-conditioned mosque. Like any typical mosque, its floor is empty, save for several pillars. There is no central point of worship, like a Buddhist shrine or Christian altar, with only a marker (mihrab) on one wall indicating the direction to Mecca. An electronic board listing the day’s prayer times, a stack of books, a couple of microphones and a seat for the Imam are all that fill the mosque apart from the fifty or so tourists which have invaded and are now scampering around taking photos of themselves in their new burqas.

Our tour guide introduces herself and explains the tour is not so much a tour as it is a lecture with a Q&A session. She decides not to use a microphone because the group is smaller than the one or two hundred visitors that normally attend. A quick survey via a show of hands reveals that there are two North Americans, a couple of South Africans, some Asians and a rather sizeable contingent of Australians comprising the crowd. The remaining half are European. This included our tour guide, who explained that she was originally a Swiss born in Lausanne who was raised as a Catholic before she converted to Islam. She moved to Dubai several years ago.

The talk is aimed at clearing up the misconceptions commonly held about Islam. Our guide quickly explains that shoes are not allowed in mosques for the practical reason that Muslims pray with their faces to the floor, and who wants to do that with a dirty floor?

Some time is spent explaining the five pillars of Islam: the Shahada – an expression affirming the monotheistic nature of God and the prophethood of Mohammed; the Zakat, essentially the necessity for charity; fasting during Ramadan; the Hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca for those able to go; and the Salaah, or the five daily prayers.

Our guide explains that praying towards Mecca acts as a focal point. Interestingly, because I had not visualised it in this way before, Muslims take heart in knowing that everyone else praying around the world at the same time as them are all facing towards one central location.

Prayers are performed five times a day, the first being at dawn. An Azan, or call to prayer, is sung out from loudspeakers on mosque minarets to remind people that they have to pray soon (that is, they don’t have to drop everything immediately). A muezzin (person who performs the Azan) comes out and gives us a demonstration and the Arabic is translated into English for us.

“What if dawn comes at 5.00am?” one woman asks. “A bit early to get out of bed, isn’t it?”

Our guide agrees, but notes that there is nothing to stop someone from crawling back into bed after dawn prayers. However, getting out of bed for the few minutes of the prayer is a sign of dedication to the faith. She adds with a smile that the Azan is slightly modified at dawn: the sentence, “prayer is better than sleep” (repeated twice) is added to it.

When the floor is opened to questions, they come in thick and fast and all seem to be probing at the status of women in Islam. Most people are concerned. Most of these things are explained away as merely cultural developments, as opposed to religious ones. Traditionally, there is Muslim men and women (presumably outside of the same family) do not mingle. Veils and full-length garb are all about hiding women’s features, helping them feel comfortable while walking down the street and not being stared at. Similarly, separation of genders during prayer is not a matter of segregation (women are not disallowed from using the main prayer room) but comfort. In terms of why all women’s clothing in the region is black, black is chosen due to its neutral status as a colour, but other cultures do wear other colours – for example, the colourful abbeyas of Malay women.

Perhaps unfortunately there is little discussion about the beliefs of Islam, with the focus mainly on rituals and customs. It comes as a surprise to many that Islam and Christianity share many commonalities – acknowledgement of Abraham and Moses as prophets, acknowledgment that the Old and New Testaments are relevations from God (although Islam believes the Qur’an replaces the Holy Bible) and so on.

I do discover, however, the answer to a question I have had for a long time, and that is that “Allah” is used as the Arabic word for God by Christian Arabs too.

It is certainly an interesting morning, but I still have reservations that other States in the region employ a view as permissive as Dubai’s. Nonetheless, the Jumeirah Mosque visit program is an excellent thing to have, especially in this day and age. I remain a steadfast Christian, but found the talk very instructive.

Nearby the mosque is a public beach where the brilliant azure waters of the Gulf lap gently onto the shore. The peak of summer had past about a month ago, but Dubai was still incredibly hot and humid. I test the water and find it to be surprisingly warm. Unfortunately I have brought no clothes to swim with and besides, I have a lunchtime reservation at a restaurant to keep, so I find alternative relief from the heat in the comfort of an air-conditioned taxi.

“It’s a hot day isn’t it!” my Iranian cab driver observes with a chuckle as I wipe my face down with a tissue. For some cruel reason, all the taxis in Dubai seem to be equipped with outside temperature gauges, and the one in this taxi is reading in the mid-40s. “But don’t worry,” he reassures, “if you came one month earlier, it is over 50 degrees.”

My next destination is the Burj Al Arab. Modelled after a billowing sail, the Burj is a central icon of Dubai. Although debate continues on whether the hotel is, on the official scale, a 7 star hotel, or merely a “5 star deluxe” one, with rack rates for its suites (there are no regular “rooms”) starting at around US$2000, it’s probably beyond debate that it’s the world’s finest, and tallest, hotel. (Incidentally, I had stayed at the world’s second highest hotel – the Baiyoke Sky, which is 13 metres shorter – in Bangkok only a week earlier. It was much less extravagant.) So rarified is the Burj’s air, that it is built on an artificial island several hundred metres off the coast “to protect the privacy of guests”. Entry is usually restricted to hotel guests, unless you pay a US$55 entry fee. It’s rumoured to have cost so much money to build that the hotel will have to run at full occupancy for several centuries in order to be paid off. This would make the building an Emrati landmark rather than a viable commercial venture.

After a while my driver asks if I am staying at the hotel, to which I promptly answer, “I wish!” This multi-billion dollar structure was a must-visit, but since the rates for a night’s stay would fund my backpacking trip for about a month, I was visiting via a lunchtime restaurant reservation, which was only a marginally cheaper proposition.

“She’s beautiful isn’t she?” he rhetorically asks as we drive up the driveway. I can’t stop staring. It actually looks that much better in real life. We are stopped at the front gate by a security guard, who lets us through after satisfying himself that I am on the restaurant reservation list.

Inside, I feel very out of place, expecting someone to rush out and toss me back onto the street. An African bellhop approaches me. “Are you staying here, sir?” he asks.

This time, I resist the urge to blurt out “I wish!” and tell him I’m headed for the restaurant. He directs me up the escalators which are flanked by two gigantic tropical aquariums and an elaborate fountain with a mesmerising jumping water display. At the top of the escalators, the roof opens up into an opulent, soaring triangular atrium. Each level is painted in a different colour, and the result is a gradient of rainbow colours stretching up towards the top of the building. It’s actually all quite gaudy, but everything in this part of the city is so ostentatious it looks perfectly acceptable.

Al Muntaha is the restaurant at the top of the Burj and in addition to serving food it offers great views of the city. Through one window you can see The Palm, a famed property development built on reclaimed land in the shape of a palm tree. The Palm is just one example of the myriad of large-scale property developments in progress. (Sanjay had joked the previous day that the national bird of Dubai was the crane.) Another, larger Palm is scheduled to be built soon after, and yet another reclaimed land project called The World will also open. (Locals joke that when The World is completed, you can live in Paris without leaving Dubai.)

The foundations are already in place for the Burj Dubai, a skyscraper slated to be the world’s tallest upon completion. Developers are keeping the building’s final height a secret, but it is expected to reach over 700 metres and possess 160 floors. A deal being financed by the Chinese government will see a 2 kilometre long shopping mall called the Dragon Mart being constructed as a foothold for Chinese exports into the Middle Eastern market. There is also Dubailand, a massive US$5 billion “tourist city” covering 45,900 acres, aimed at tripling the number of people visiting Dubai by the end of the decade. Almost ludicrous in scale, it will contain 45 theme parks, sports centres and discovery zones, including an indoor ski-slope, an equestrian centre, three sports stadiums, a zoo, and an artifical rainforest. All this being built in the middle of a desert, mind you.

Later in the afternoon, I make my way over to the souks which have begun to reopen. I take an abra across the Creek for the measly fee of 50 fils and hit the perfume, spice and gold souks. Expecting the open air markets of Asia, I am somewhat disappointed to see that the layouts of souks have been modernised. They are all basically covered walkways, lined by merchants hawking their wares in air-conditioned shops. Nonetheless, the gold souk is amazing. By tradition, weddings in the region require brides be given gold which is new, so this ensures a fresh supply of gold flowing through the market. And there is a lot of it. Most of the gold on sale is 24 carat, which is a very deep yellow-orange colour. Window front displays are laden with copious amounts of gold chains, bracelets, rings, pendants and countless other trinkets in a bewildering array of designs and the light reflecting off them radiates a bright, warm glow.

Interestingly, I do not notice any visible security around the gold souk – a testament to the low crime rates in the emirate. It is soon twilight, and I decide it is time to leave the glow behind and take a stroll along the creekside and past the dhow wharfage. Thousands upon thousands of boxes sit on the wharfage. They are filled with goods of all descriptions and from all manner of places. Some sit on the wharf unguarded for weeks.

On my final morning in Dubai I have a stroke of good luck. I had only been able to book my hotel for two nights and was without accommodation for my final night. It is low season, but mysteriously all the hotels in the area seem to be booked out. So, just as I am in the process of checking out, backpack in hand and wondering where on earth I am going to go, I decide to ask if any vacancies have opened up overnight. After a bit of tapping on the computer, the receptionist hands my key straight back to me and tells me that I can stay for another night.

When the afternoon comes, it is time to go on the desert safari. A four wheel drive picks me up at the hotel, shared by a British Indian mother-son pair, two Irishmen and a South African living in Zambia with a particularly wry sense of humour. The first activity is sand-duning. We drive about an hour out of the city, past a Sheikh’s compound surrounded by a 2 kilometre wall, and into the desert where we meet up with a convoy of at least ten other four wheel drives – all run by the same safari company. Our driver gets out of the car to have a chat with a friend but leaves the engine running. All of us are nervously eyeing the fuel gauge, which is sitting on empty. We had stopped at a service station earlier, but it was only to let some air out of the tires (a lower tire pressure helps when driving on sand).

Five minutes later, our driver is still chatting and the car stalls and dies. Hopefully, it’s not due to the lack of fuel. Meanwhile, the first vehicles in the convoy have started to leave. We look over to our driver, who is chatting with another driver whose car’s bonnet is open. The South African remarks, “They’ve got to be concerned. Their bonnet is open and no one’s fixing it!”

By the time our driver finishes socialising, we are one of only two cars left. Our car refuses to start, but after a few attempts, the engine splutters back to life and everyone breathes a sigh of relief. Then it’s off to the dunes.

“Ok everyone, you might want to buckle up!” our driver tells everyone as we leave the dirt road. There is a barrage of clicks as everyone dons their belts. Then Dave, one of the Irishmen sitting in the backseat calls out, somewhat frantically, “Um, my belt’s broken… it won’t clip in!”

Seconds later we hit the first sand dune and Dave goes flying.

“Well, unfortunately you’re just going to have to hang on tight!” our driver replies, only half-apologetically.

Sand-duning is fun. Really, really fun. Basically it involves going for a hoon around the sand dunes at high speed. It’s like an hour long roller coaster ride in first gear. The cars wrench violently in the sand as they mount a dune and then dive sharply down the other side. Sometimes they decide to drive along the side of a dune and we’re all trying to grab a hold of whatever we can as the car shudders along, tilted at some unnatural angle. The wheels spin rapidly as the car attempts to cling to the dune, throwing up large masses of sand and the engine roars between the creaks and crunches of the car’s suspension.

Then in the middle of it all, our driver gets a phone call on his mobile. And answers it. So there he is, one hand holding a phone, and one hand alternating between the stick and steering wheel, with his knees occasionally helping out with the steering. This guy’s a real pro – the rest of us are hanging on for dear life (especially Dave) and he’s handling it all like it’s some Sunday afternoon drive through the neighbourhood.

The cars take quite a beating and I learn that the average lifespan of them is only three years. Ours is fairly new, but apart from Dave’s broken seatbelt, the speedometre has already ceased to function.

The convoy pauses for a while so we can catch the sunset, and all the bonnets are popped open so the cars have a chance to cool down. Then we’re back to sandduning again.

Eventually we arrive at a campsite which is where dinner is being served. Dozens of candlelit tables surround a large carpet in the middle. To the side, there are several tents. One allows people to try on some local clothing. Another demonstrates henna painting for women. A rich, fruity smell wafts from a third tent – inside this one tourists get to sample sheesha, a water pipe used for smoking flavoured tobacco. Outside, a bored looking Arab leads two camels around in circles while tourists clamber on and off them for their minute-long camel ride.

The campsite is meant to emulate a typical Bedouin desert encampment, but the whole thing is so touristy and tacky that any resemblance with a genuine Bedouin campsite must be purely coincidental. The food is pretty decent, though, with a mix of regional cuisines.

As dinner begins to wrap up, a large group of men start to congregate on the carpet in the middle of the camp, reclining on some large cushions. I didn’t know what was happening next, but I could guess. And I was right.

Enter a belly-dancer.

She is pretty good at belly-dancing, but nothing particularly special. More interesting is the exhibition of what I can only describe as enthralled lasciviousness by the horde of men encircling her (with their wives sitting a short distance away at the tables, mind you).

Mandeep, the Sikh in our four wheel drive, turned to me and said, “This is like the biggest sausage-fest ever, dude.”
“Yeah man, I was just about to say that,” I agreed.

She calls someone from the crowd and Mandeep and I are amused to see it’s Dave. She rolls up Dave’s shirt and ties it in a knot. Now that his gut is exposed, she gestures him to imitate what she does. He makes a good effort, but is no match for her supple, undulating tummy. We’re all in stiches.

After the show is over, she invites everyone to take the floor and join in with the dancing. About fifty men immediately leap to their feet, all jostling to get beside her. Luckily she is used to the attention and knows how to take control. Then it’s a case of monkey-see, monkey-do as the men try to mimic her moves and fail horribly. It’s morbidly fascinating.

Finally it’s all over, and it’s back to the car. We all take the piss out of Dave for his sterling belly-dancing performance. He can only plead, “Hey guys, whatever happens in Dubai stays in Dubai.”

Our driver finally stops to fill up the petrol tank, and an hour later I am at Dubai International Airport for my 2.00am flight to Europe.

16
Nov 05
Wed

We’re through to the World Cup Finals!

Woohoo!! Bloody thrilling finish to tonight’s football game! Mark Schwarzer’s a hero!

  11:13pm (GMT +11.00)  •  Sports  •  Tweet This  •  Add a comment  • 
15
Nov 05
Tue
13
Nov 05
Sun
12
Nov 05
Sat

Chez Panisse, Berkeley

Berkeley’s across the bay from San Francisco, but it’s worth the hike out to this quaint restaurant. Similar to Gramercy Tavern, it’s split into a cafe downstairs and a restaurant upstairs. The ambience is a lot more intimate than Gramercy, with bright but warm lighting, smaller tables and much less noise. It’s a good choice for a date.

Service was largely flawless, but in a clinical sort of way.

Chez Panisse runs a different tasting menu each day of the week and on the Saturday we were served with a 5 course one. It was pretty good, but by way of comparison, I found Gramercy’s to be better. It’d slot into the one or two hat category back in Sydney quite nicely. Damage was USD75 per person, plus a mandatory 17% service charge (which is effectively the tip) and an 8% state sales tax.

Asking if the tea and coffee is free
When the desserts are cleared, normally a waiter comes around and asks if anyone wants tea or coffee. The thing is, at some of these types of restaurants it’s free, and sometimes it’s in excess of $20. Being more than a little cash strapped by this stage of the trip, it was important to figure this out. However, it didn’t seem quite appropriate to ask, “Mate, is that free?” One alternative was, “Does that incur a supplement?” but I would have choked on the pretentiousness. I settled on asking, “Is that complimentary?” (It wasn’t.)

Chez Panisse

Gramercy Tavern, New York

Since most of the fine dining restaurants in New York seem to have some sort of dress code requirement (“jacket required, tie recommended”), scruffy backpackers like myself are relegated to some of the less stuffy joints around the city. As the name suggests, the restaurant is located in the Gramercy district in Manhattan. After arriving on time at 9.00pm, we had to wait about 15 minutes for our table to be vacated by the previous seating.

Gramercy is split up into two sections – a noisy, bustling tavern section at the front serving drinks and lighter meals, and an only slightly less noisy dining section at the back. Gramercy seems to cater for a lot of larger groups of people. The lighting is dim – a little too dim for my tastes – but not so dim that I couldn’t see that despite the lack of dress code we were definitely slumming it in the clothing department … not that I really cared. (If you see the Chez Panisse review, you can see I’m even wearing the same shirt!)

Perhaps it was because everything was really busy, but service was somewhat patchy. We had to request certain things twice before they followed through, and the timing between courses was erratic (at one point we caught the head waiter, who was hovering behind our table, angrily and frantically gesticulating at his staff to clear our table with a horrified look on his face that said, “these plates should have been cleared hours ago!”). They also tend to serve courses to their own schedule. I’m not sure if this is an American custom, but if people were absent from the table (in the bathroom or wherever), they didn’t wait for them to return. They go ahead and serve and put a silver serving cover over the plates.

On the other hand, the food at Gramercy was fantastic with creative combinations that mostly worked. We had their 7 course seasonal tasting menu. The appetizers were light dishes of seafood, followed by heavier mains of bacon and really succulent lamb, and two dessert courses laden with chocolate. The meal was USD95, but keep in mind that this doesn’t include an annoying state tax nor the standard minimum 15% US tip which, all told, adds about 25% to the bill.

Gramercy Tavern

Michelin recently started rating New York restaurants using its famed, and sometimes controversial, three-star system. Gramercy received one star. It was also chosen as the surveyors’ favourite restaurant in Zagat’s 2006 NYC Survey.

11
Nov 05
Fri

Backpacking trip entertainment review

U2 Vertigo Tour Concert (Madison Square Garden, New York)
After almost getting arrested by the NYPD (that’s a story for another time), I went to the October 8 U2 concert in New York. It was awesome. Keane supported. Here’s the set list. I don’t have any photos unfortunately, but there was one moment when they switched off the lights and Bono asked everyone to bring out their mobiles and the stadium lit up like a night sky.

U2 will be touring Australia in March next year.

Wicked (Oriental Theatre, Chicago)
When we tried to see Wicked in New York, we were told tickets were sold out over a month in advance. Luckily, the Chicago production wasn’t so overbooked. Wicked is based on a book which recounts the “real” story behind the Wicked Witch of the West. It’s a lovely take on the Wizard of Oz which amusingly relegates the role of Dorothy to historic irrelevancy and explains how the “Wicked Witch”… wasn’t wicked after all, being a victim of a malicious propaganda campaign undertaken by the xenophobic Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Very entertaining (I liked the Loathing and Wonderful pieces), but to me not as memorable as other classic musicals which have made it big on Broadway.

Wicked

25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (Circle in the Square Theatre on Broadway, New York)
Spelling Bee was an excellent small scale production about a group of kids and their involvement a Spelling Bee competition. It’s hard to explain beyond that what it’s about, but it’s entertaining and very funny all the way. They even had audience participation, pulling up several members to join in the competition – including one Mr Tejani who appeared to have won a few spelling bees in his time because he kept spelling words correctly where he should have got them wrong. I’m not entirely convinced that he wasn’t planted in the audience. There’s some improvisation thrown in as well. Highly recommended.

Spelling Bee

Second City Reloaded (Second City, Toronto)
I’ve never been to a comedy club before, but it’s pretty fun. Toronto’s branch of Second City is famed for being the place where Canadian actors like Dan Aykroyd, John Candy, Mike Myers and Eugene Levy honed their comedy skills before making it big. A lot of the skits are hit and miss, but happily most of them are hits. The two hour show is followed by a free half hour session of improv, and it’s fascinating how people can think on their feet so rapidly.

  8:48pm (GMT +11.00)  •  Travel  •  Tweet This  •  Add a comment  • 

Al Muntaha, Dubai

Al Muntaha, Arabic for “The Highest”, is the restaurant at the top of the Burj Al Arab, offering “contemporary European cuisine”. The food is made under the guidance of michelin-starred chef John Wood. After spending some time gawking at the ornate hotel atrium and staring at all the multi-millionaires walking around the lobby, I stepped into an glass-walled express lift which took me swiftly to the top floor.

The staff were very welcoming, and if there was any distaste at ushering a sweaty, scruffy backpacker into their establishment, it was well-hidden. Like the rest of the Burj, the interior of the restaurant was colourful in a slightly gaudy way, but otherwise the decor was very pleasant.

The views are naturally spectacular, though the ocean aspect is a little boring even though the sea is a rich, pale blue. (At night, the view would probably be non-existent because there are no lights on the water.) On the other hand, the views through the side windows to the north-east and south-west show the shoreline and cityscape of Dubai. To the south-west you can make out a section of The Palm, the gigantic property development built from reclaimed line. It’s huge.

Service is excellent and the waitstaff are well-drilled, always addressing people by surname. They could perhaps smile and relax a little more, but that’s probably my Aussie preference for some informality.

The food is solid, although perhaps not the most innovative. I ordered scallops for an entree and got the fattest damn scallops I’ve ever seen – terrific. The main of “Rossini vs Wellington” beef was accompanied by generous servings of foie gras and relatively large slices of black truffle but was otherwise unremarkable. For dessert they served up a fantasticly fluffy lemon souffle (thankfully for me, alcohol free) and sorbet. Petit fours and some lovely little raspberry maccarones to round everything off were complimentary. I was incredibly stuffed after the meal and, unfortunately not having any company to share the meal with and pass the time, was content to just sit and stare out the window until I could walk again.

The damage to my budget was significant, eradicating a good deal of the money saved from coming under budget in South-East Asia. Lunch was 600 dirhams (A$220), including tip and an exorbitant A$10 bottle of Evian water (only to be beaten by the A$11 bottle of Santa Vittoria water at Est. back in Sydney). Tea and coffee is not complimentary. Yes, it is horribly expensive, but if you’re only going to be in Dubai once and you don’t earn telephone numbers, splurging here is a great way to see the Burj.

Reserve and turn up early to get a window seat. Meals are à la carte and I was not aware of any degustation menu. Al Muntaha serves a cheaper seafood buffet lunch on Fridays, but apparently this is mass produced fare which, while good, is not great.

Al Muntaha

  8:45pm (GMT +11.00)  •  Food  •  Tweet This  •  Add a comment  • 
3
Nov 05
Thu

United’s last kick in the pants

So everyone’s sitting in their seats at 10.00pm and the 14 hour United Airways flight to Sydney is due to depart San Fran at 10.15pm. The captain gets on the PA system and says, “Good evening, we’ve just done our pre-flight check walkaround and noticed that there’s fuel leaking from one of our engines.” Big groans all around. He continued. “Obviously that’s not a good thing. So what we’re going to have to do is disassemble the engine, have a look around to find out where the leak is coming from and then put everything back together again. United apologises for the inconvenience, and we will keep you posted.”

One minute later he gets back on the PA and adds, “On second thought, it’s probably going to be quicker if we just swap planes so we’re going to have to get you to deplane in a moment.” Pause. “Uh, you might also want to bring your pillow and blanket with you to the new plane.”

“Quicker” meant several hours while we waited for the crew, food, luggage and 360,000 pounds of fuel to be transferred across. But at least it’s nice to be home in one piece.

1
Nov 05
Tue

The final night

Spent an interesting night watching the Halloween festivities in Castro – it really is a Huge event in America. Anyway, this is the final 24 hour period of the trip. As they say, all good things must come to an end. It’s been an extraordinary four months and I’m sure I’ll suffer a bit of that period of surreal depression you get after returning from a prolonged period of travelling and falling back in to the relative routine of everyday life. As always, I’ve learnt a lot about the world around me, about myself, and probably more than I wanted to know about my travelling companions (for better or worse…).

See you all back in Sydney!



ARCHIVES
2017: Jan
2016: Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec
2015: Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec
2014: Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec
2013: Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec
2012: Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec
2011: Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec
2010: Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec
2009: Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec
2008: Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec
2007: Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec
2006: Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec
2005: Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec
2004: Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec
2003: Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec
2002: Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec
2001: Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec
2000: Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec
1999: Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec
1998: Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec
s