Friday, May 2, 2008

"Not I - not anyone else, can travel that road for you. You must travel it for yourself." Walt Whitman

It's a tricky thing describing life in a Middle-Eastern luxury villa -on an Island touted as the eighth wonder of the world. One is tempted to to say "You have to be here", but that is taking the easy road and would imply that I am a poor raconteur. Before proceeding, I have been pondering how I ended up here. Not as in, "Emirates via Heathrow", but the circumstances and means. This is a necessary aside. When informing of my plan, I often receive inquisitive and often bewildered looks. I want to ensure all that I am not here due to the ill-gotten gains of selling crack to school children.

I suppose it is a combination of hard work, good fortune and a lot of luck, but mostly this: My father taught me how to save money and my mother taught me how to spend money. I remember being given a calf as a child and told if I would care for and feed it, a tidy profit could be achieved upon sale. Even at ten or eleven years old the possibility of such a thing intrigued me. I don't recall a whole lot of caring and feeding; I left that to the professionals. The odd visit to the barn to check on my investment was enough to allow me to sleep at night. Nor do I recall if I named the calf. I do remember I had a pony named Jimmy, but to this day my father claims amnesia of this.

The months passed and the next thing I know Dad presented me with a check. A very nice check. This all happened in the late 1970s when interest rates were above 20%. The miracle of compound interest kicked in and I was hooked. I still have my first bank book.

I negotiated my first wage like a New York Teamster. I believe the opening offer for helping unload a wagon of hay was twenty-five cents. Although I was young and scrawny, and because I could imagine a million things I would rather be doing, I could smell Dad's desparation as a rain storm loomed, so I negotiated the insulting offer to somewhere in the neighbourhood of $1.25 per load.

My job was essentially to kick, push or otherwise move the bales to where my father could place them on the escalator to my awaiting brother in the stifling loft. My previous reference to my hard work embarrases me, because Dad's and Brian's pictures would be in Webster's under "hard work". The same could be said of any farmer. However, I would like to point out I am the one with a villa in Dubai for a month and they are still unloading wagons of hay. But we are all happy so everything has worked out.

I won't bore you further with the financial details, like how I would have become a stock broker had I not been stoned on Gravol for my interview, but let's just say I got a good running start and it has all been up hill from there.

To arrive at a villa on the Palm Island and be greeted by your house boy is just about as good as it gets. To share that with friends cranks it up a few notches. Until you step outside, the villa could be anywhere - Sea Cow Head or Summer Haven. It's just bricks and mortar...and a lot of marble. The first indication that we aren't in Kansas anymore is the heat that hits you like a tsunami when you step out from the villa's air conditioned comfort.

Then there's the view. To the South, another row of villas with the iconic sail-like Burj Al Arab peeping behind them like a mother goose watching over her goslings. A glance to the left are the construction cranes running twenty four-seven, manned mostly by Asian workers.

An early morning coffee on the linen room's balcony reveals the maid across the street sweeping the front step. Other workers are cleaning the already immaculate street of Frond E. In the distance - Atlantis. Not yet open for business, it stands like a crown at the top of The Palm.

A journey beyond The Palm reveals a world like no other. It is as if Saudi Arabia and Las Vegas hooked up one night and the result: Dubai. Never has the word "kingdom" been more apt. Part fairy tale, part fiefdom, a Sheikh with a vision and more money than he knows what to do with, it is a city and an Emirate, sourrounded by conflict and war. Yet it is safer than Charlottetown on a Tuesday night.

It is a place where Emirati women wear head-to-toe "burkinis" to the beach. The men wear immaculate white robes and either white or red-checkerd head scarves, all flowing gracefully as they sweep through the malls, holding hands with their male companions. And if you run out of gin, you need to book a flight out of the country and re-enter.

There is a sense that the development cannot continue. Twenty-five percent of the world's construction cranes are in the city of Dubai. The Guiness Book of World Records must spend a lot of time in this manic city to keep track of it all - world's tallest building, world's largest land reclamation project, and the world's largest airport (still under construction, it will be five times the size of Charles de Gaulle in Paris). The list goes on and if anyone threatens to knock them out of their prize standing, no problem. The Burj Dubai, the tallest building in the world, can be 'topped up', as required.

Yesterday, the gang went to the Palm Jumeirah Mosque and to the Souks. The souks are one of the most authentic Emirati experiences. It was Thursday, so the locals were doing their shopping for the weekend. Friday is the Muslim holy day. They bartered for souvenirs, spices and Dave was pleased to finally purchase his straw hat. Upon their return I demanded to see their wares. I asked what the opening bid was and what was the final sale price. Good deals were made by all, especially as they were barter virgins.

Tweny years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn't do than by the things you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbour. Catch the tradewinds in your sails. Dream. Explore. Discover. - Mark Twain

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