Dulling of the Senses to Violence

There used to be a time when the faintest whiff of violence or social disorder would send people into a panic: schools would shut down, airports close, tourist facilities dry up, travel agents go out of business, and red alerts seal off national borders. Today all that is ho-hum, business caries on as usual; let’s just mourn the dead, make speeches to gain political capital, arrest a few people (if they haven’t killed themselves already), let loose emotions on social media, then pick up the pieces, and carry on. The lingering signs of tragedy would only be that of decaying flowers on a site where blood had recently been spilled.

I remember the disruption following 9/11. Even the economy went into recession, leading to two regional wars in the Middle East and the excuse for one of the largest government spending sprees focussed on anti-terrorism, with oil and commercial contract grabs on the side to compensate the spenders. They said the world changed on that occasion, and it did. Canadians needed passports to travel to the USA for the first time, deadlier terrorist organizations emerged making the Taliban look like boy scouts, countries like Iraq and Afghanistan became dysfunctional and still are, and the Arab Springs blossomed, leading to more dysfunction in those areas and to floods of refugees pouring in through cracks in foreign borders that once protected the western world and kept the poor at home.

Today we have a new sport: lone gunmen, bombers or truck drivers who can do as much damage collectively than those 19 men who orchestrated 9/11. By October I had lost count of the number of mass shootings in the US for this year alone (mass shooting defined as more than 4 people killed per attack) – Google reminded me: 273, by the 274th day of the year; and if you cut off the “mass” and extend that to just shootings, that number exceeds 46,000. And around the world, bombers, knifers and truck drivers are taking out civilians willy nilly. How can you police everyone on the street, anyone of whom could be a deranged killer? Is the person in the subway seat next to you a mass-murderer?

Others—gun-lobby supporting politicians, for instance—try to capitalize on the carnage and say that this mayhem is the price we pay for freedom. What freedom? The freedom to carry anachronistic guns in a developed society? These politicians advocate that everyone should have a gun (so that their sponsors can sell more guns) as a deterrent to any madcap shooter firing at random. But the proliferation of guns has only seen the proliferation of the number of shootings. Welcome to the Wild, Wild West(ern World)!

This total loss of control, or rather the surrendering of control by the masses, is what leads to the “I don’t care anymore” attitude and this attitude may eventually, and ironically, weaken the mass-murder’s hold on us. When everyone just picks up, dusts off, and carries on, it will be the killer who will be asking himself, “Why the hell am I doing this? The only person getting hurt is me. These people just don’t give a shit.” We may be seeing that already: Las Vegas resumed its 24/7 -365 days per year party just two days after the worst mass shooting in recent US history.

I am reluctantly looking forward to this dulling of the senses to reduce the violence, since nothing else has worked. All other forms of anti-gun lobbying, demonstrations and protests have not shaken the resolve of the gun manufacturers, their clients, and their political toadies. When bullets keep bouncing off people’s emotional hides, making no dents, that’s when the neutralizing will happen. But what does that say of what we will have become? An insensitive world. And what will the bad guys go in search of next? Something more shocking, something to cut beneath our thickening skins and continue to raise the age old attention-seeking cry: “Look at me!”

What if Goodreads, Amazon and Facebook went out of business?

Hard to imagine, but what if these behemoths of data went belly up? Sure, a few banks might fail, a few cities go bankrupt, perhaps even a few countries; a whole bunch of employees would be made redundant, and that vast treasure trove of data would be on the auction block.

It’s the data that I am concerned about. Between these three entities, all the information on me has been stored, mined, and exploited. They ran a fairly good privacy model while in business, but what if the new buyers at the auction are from Russia or China or North Korea or some Middle Eastern kingdom anxious to acquire western assets at bargain basement prices? I remember the time Yahoo was hacked and e-mails went from “me” to the whole world selling them Viagra, Costume Jewellery and asking them to click on links to spurious spyware. Luckily Yahoo, under its new management, decided to take sterner measures to protect its members’ privacy, two years later.

Data is the new gold, like oil once was. Knowledge is power. And we plebes gave up our power willingly in order to have free publicity and extend our reach to places we could never reach on our own for free, which in the past would have required lots of money for publicists and traditional media advertizing. If these guys go bust,
Armageddon will be nigh.

So what can we do? Here are a few options:
(a) Pray! That always works.
(b) Hope that western governments will declare these companies NATO assets in case of a stock meltdown, or declare them “Banks” (after all, they bank data) and add them to the “too big to fail” category of the economy.
(c) Buy shares in these companies, especially if and when their stock price tanks, in the hope of a rebound and the making of millionaires of all of us.
(d) Delete our data and go back to those days when no-one knew who or where the heck we were, and no-one really cared (we wonder if anyone really cares today, despite us keeping them posted of our every life event, meal, and bowel movement).
(e) Shrug and carry on as before, comforted by the premise that whoever gets their hands on our data will continue to make us famous or infamous, and both of these states will attract attention in these attention-deficit times.
(f) Build tighter spam filters for the barrage of nuisance e-mail that is bound to head our way.
(g) Get ready to lose all your friends and followers in social media when they have been inundated by spurious email from YOU.

Ah, well – it’s a good problem to ponder, or a scary nightmare to wake up from.

Private Prisons & Private Medicine

I was reflecting on these industries that reside south of the border that are constantly threatening to move north like a fleeing refugee, and wondered whether they aren’t built on the most oxymoronic of business models.
Let’s take private prisons first. The aim of society is to produce as few felons as possible, and where they sadly and inevitably manifest themselves, to incarcerate and rehabilitate them for life on the outside as quickly as possible. Therefore the KPI (key performance indicator) should be 0% prison population for a society to be judged as progressive and successful. Well, the private business model is based in growth in customers and consumption.

Therefore, in the prison case, we need more prisoners, and each year that population must grow to attract shareholders. The private model is based on increasing prices (costs to the taxpayer) to meet profit targets. And if demand declines due to increased progress of that society, then more criminals must be created in the interest of demand stimulation. I have often wondered whether private prisons are sponsors of street gangs, prostitution and drug trafficking – hell, you gotta feed that demand pipeline!

Now let’s take private medicine. The same healthy demand pipeline is necessary. What is more, we need repeat customers and long term customers to provide for some form of stability to the base. We must never totally cure a customer in case he doesn’t come back. He should be left in a chronic state of dependency on pharmaceutical drugs. And if a supplemental market can be created for secondary drugs that alleviate the side effects of the primary drug, all the better. I know one patient who is on six drugs to counteract one medical condition: one for the primary condition and five for the side effects and the side effects of the side effects of the first drug. Barriers to entry must be created with patents so that drugs can be exploited for maximum profitability. Integrated and alternative forms of preventative medicine should be shut out for they inhibit demand or create demand elsewhere. Product obsolescence must be built in so that drugs can be supplanted with stronger drugs. Viruses become stronger over time they say and therefore the drugs must increase in potency robbing patients of their natural immunity, reducing them to being ever more dependent on pharmaceuticals. I wonder whether private medical providers are secret sponsors of smoking – hell, you gotta feed that demand pipeline!

I’m sure the public versions of prisons and medicare have created their own bloated bureaucracies leading to the accusation that governments would be better suited sticking to passing legislation and getting out of operations. But the public funding tool can also be used to make these institutions better, by allocating to real needs and re-allocating from the bloat, and by holding administrators to measurable and actionable goals. The public version still comes ahead because it is based on zero profit and on the allocation of scarce resources towards the welfare of the community rather than on maximising profits for a small group of shareholders.

And then I reflect on our southern cousins and wonder why the majority of them still don’t get it? Is it because they have never had it before so they are scared of change? Have scheming politicians, minions of the private sector, scared them silly with the “failed” experiments in other countries that have led to long wait times for service, conveniently ignoring the fact that back at home, for some, there is no service at all when it comes to medicare? And in the case of private penal systems, that law enforcement forces rely on fines and penalties to keep their budgets balanced? That despite this privatization, they still have the highest per capita prison population and the highest cost of medicare?

This is a conundrum that I do not have an answer for. Perhaps the path to enlightenment lies in gradual evolution at the state level, until someone hits on a magic bullet that everyone latches on to and the revolution happens. Until then, we wait, and hope like hell that these two systems get stuck at the border and never creep north.

Drones for Company

I’m getting ready for when drones will dot the sky and obliterate the little sunshine we have these days. It’s a magical time to be alive, also a nightmarish one.

Just think to when the technology has been perfected so that drones can transport goods and deliver them safely to consumers. The big trucks will become fewer on our highways, highways will stop being expanded to the relief of municipal planners, for everything will be travelling in the vacant airspace between the tops of our heads and the lowest lane of current commercial air traffic (we hope!) But this will require new air traffic control rules for currently vacant space: safe flying corridors, stacking, flight plan approval, drone traffic controllers, licensing of operators, certification of equipment. Also, some new taxes could be imposed! And the birds will go extinct as they will be dodging drones and even colliding with them.

Will I have the right to request that drones don’t fly over my house and pollute me with their droning sound? What happens if a drone malfunctions and falls on my roof, or heaven’s forbid, falls on me?! Who pays? What happens if a drone is kidnapped by a Smart Technical Operator (STO) who cracks it’s code, and what happens if this STO is a terrorist? What happens if a drone is used to spy on me? Would I have to keep the windows in my house closed and the curtains drawn all the time in case a particularly pesky “fly” keeps buzzing outside threatening to come indoors through any crack? What happens if a delivery drone shows up when I am not home; would it jettison my goods in the rain on my doorstep and fly away? What happens when bad weather prevails, would these fragile aircraft be grounded, and what would that do the logistics business?

Would kids on summer break have drone wars in the park? Or go drone hunting to brag to their buddies, “Hey, I bagged two today, One was even the neighbour’s drone!” Would there be drone air shows? How big could they become before they start carrying the odd passenger and encroach on existing civil aviation?

A brave new world with a brave new set of issues to resolve. I’m sure we will get there eventually and solve this one as surely as we are going to solve driver-less cars. Talking of cars, would the early drone operatives create barriers to entry and try to milk the market by keeping drone prices high, just like the battery operated car operatives tried to do and left it a bit too late only to got run over by the electric car and the fast-approaching driver-less car?

Well, we shall wait and keep this one in perspective as it evolves.

Mixing Genres in Fiction

I have always felt boxed in by the definition of “genre” when it comes to writing fiction. Why be bound by the rules of a craft when that craft itself is in a state of evolution, and where tomorrow’s rules may be today’s exploratory scribbling?

When I sat down to compile my new short story collection, Crossing Limbo, I drew from stories written over the last ten years, written with long time intervals between each piece. Therefore, the stories didn’t resemble each other. When I wrote each piece I hadn’t the intention that they would ever become part of a collection, which usually requires a common theme and genre. I guess I had been scanning too many book stores which had “mystery stories,” “YA” and “fairy tales,” categorizing the shelves, and reading copious quantities of Alfred Hitchcock’s terror magazines to draw the conclusion that stories accrete to specific genres. I wrote my pieces whenever something had intrigued me at the time, and I selected the appropriate voice and genre that gave my subject matter the greatest expression.

Therefore, when I wanted to write about greed, I thought I would make the narrator a dog who is observing this weakness in humans; when I wanted to portray an Arab Spring, I put myself in the shoes of the bad dictator to understand his take on the approaching “bad season”; when I wanted to check out the seductive world of swingers, I had an inexperienced housewife naively enter the club to experience its shock impact; when I wanted to explore predation on the internet, I created a fictional chat line; when I wanted to write about disadvantaged immigrants, I chose the voice of one who had fallen on the wrong side of the track through no fault of his own; when I thought “ romance,” I thought how neat would it be to explore this ephemeral state with two candidates at extreme ends of the game of love: a tantric sex instructor and a sexless corporate executive. You can see where this is going… Before long, I had a mixed bag of stories that included the genres of magic realism, suspense, crime, erotica, romance and everything else that I could lump under the broad umbrella of “literary fiction.” Who was going to buy this?

Then I said to myself, had I written a novel, I wouldn’t have been able to cover such a broad expanse of human experience without writing the next War & Peace. With short stories, I could get in deep and get out quickly and move onto the next, and readers would take that as par for the course. Besides, in these speeded-up times, the short story is supposed to be the replacement to the novel, just as the 140-byte Twitter line is supposed to replace the 420-byte Facebook post. Neither of these things have happened yet, but we are told to anticipate them. So I pitched my collection with this “deep and quick” angle in view and my publisher bought it. The editor added that even though the genres varied, the theme was consistent: dark literature about people traversing their personal limbo towards redemption. I hadn’t thought of that!

So I have this cocktail of a book coming out shortly, and I am hoping that readers will appreciate the different genres, although I suspect that some form of selection will take place and the audience will divide and gravitate to different stories based on individual taste. However, I am hoping that bibliophiles, who devour everything, will find a smorgasbord in this collection instead of just Indian Curry, Japanese Sushi, or Italian Pasta, and that it will satisfy their diverse tastes. And I look forward, somewhat in trepidation, to the reaction afterwards from all camps. Any book, once released, takes a life of its own. All the writer can do is reflect on the hours of engagement he had with it, akin to raising a child, and wishing it well when it leaves the nest.

Hey man, it’s Cayman!

This is a place that has long been on my bucket list, and I finally went. I went with my wife not as a fat-cat tourist to soak up the artificial and luxurious world of Seven-Mile beach north of George Town, but to rent an apartment in the more modest settlement of Bodden Town (formerly the capital), drive a small rental car to get us around, and eat in local restaurants, even cook food purchased from a supermarket occasionally, and occasionally – yes, occasionally – splurge on a meal in a tourist restaurant that set us back many meals in Canada.

Is this an expensive place? Yes! With a currency that gobbles up US$1.22 to each CI$, my Canadian$ was chump change. Add to that the high import taxes that makes food, drink and gas expensive, and you are looking at twice (or thrice) the price compared to an all-inclusive Cuban vacation. What do you get in return? A relatively quiet holiday devoid of mass tourism (except when the mega cruise ships dump their passengers by the tender-load in the narrow streets of George Town for the day), high quality accommodation, great snorkeling and dive facilities, good food, clean streets, the absence of poverty and crime, and a country that has hit the jackpot with its open financial services offering to the world. There are more registered companies here than people: 100,000 companies vs. 60,000 residents plus 20,000 expatriates. Tracks of land outside George Town are being sold for luxury villas and condominiums, and plenty of beachfront property is still available. The development is now spreading inward from the coast as subdivisions are opening up to cater to every type of pocket book, and one wonders when the fragile ecosystems of these islands would be adversely affected.

The island of Grand Cayman, where all the action seems to be taking place, along with sister islands Cayman Brac and Little Cayman are low lying (highest point 72 feet above sea level) limestone outcrops along the Cayman Ridge that falls off into the deep Cayman Trench (which at 25,000 feet is second only to the Mariana Trench in the Pacific), the dividing line between the North American and Caribbean tectonic plates. As ocean levels have fallen and risen with each expanding and contracting ice age, the Caymans have either had more land than at present or been completely submerged for several years. The islands are protected by coral reefs all around them that provide calm beaches and the opportunity for snorkeling and underwater sightseeing to observe the bountiful marine life feeding off the reefs. A tip: wear protective beach footwear if you are swimming in shallow water, for the ocean bottom is covered in corral, seaweed and shells and can be a bit rough on bare feet. For the less adventurous who prefer not to snorkel or scuba dive, there is the Atlantis Submarine ride that takes you down 100 feet below sea level to inspect the marine world hugging the wall of the Cayman Ridge.

Inland, the Mastic Trail takes you on a two-mile trek through wetlands and dry lands to observe the myriad of birds that have made Grand Cayman their domicile (50 species), or like us tourists, make it a stopover on their annual migrations between North and South America (400 species). The flora is equally interesting. I counted 30 varieties of trees, some also found in my native Sri Lanka: Indian Almond, Mango, Guava, Mahogany, Tamborine, Royal Palm and Calabash. Some plants have funny names like Headache Bush and Fever Grass (a.k.a. Lemongrass). The national tree is the Mastic Tree, after which the trail is named, and comes in two varieties: yellow and black. My guide politely advised me not to get too close to a majestic tree full of tiny apple-like fruit; it was a Manchanilla, an extremely toxic tree where even the raindrops falling off its leaves can burn one’s flesh. I looked up Manchinilla (also known as Manchineel) in Wikipedia and found that literature has used this tree quite liberally in the past, with references in Swiss Family Robinson and Madam Bovary among other classics. Given the various periods the islands have been underwater, the ground is covered in rugged and eroded limestone, with patches of red sand reputed to have blown over from volcanic eruptions in Africa. If you are uncomfortable or unfit to make the three-hour trek along the rugged Mastic Trail, then the Royal Botanical Gardens provides a similar overview, along with some large, endangered Blue Iguanas housed in captivity.

The Cayman’s share a history with Jamaica when for a long period they were an appendage of the larger Island. But when Jamaica decided to go independent in 1962, the Caymans chose to remain a protectorate of Britain. That decision to stay has proven to be a wise one, for the Cayman economy has grown since, and Jamaicans form the largest expatriate community, migrating to their smaller cousin for better job prospects. And Jerk Chicken is plentiful! Another point in common with Jamaica is the history of hurricanes that have swept the islands. Unlike Jamaica that has more land to weather the onslaught, the Cayman’s have taken harder tolls. Hurricane shelters ring the islands now and regular drills take place to prepare for the next Big One.

Despite its vulnerability to nature, from air and sea, this is a very restful place for a non-traditional break. I’m glad I did it this way without going for the packaged deal, where I got time to walk the deserted beach for miles daily, drive down to the expatriate Czech guy’s Jerk Chicken stand for a sandwich, or to the Caymanian woman’s shed on the beach for fried “catch of the day,” drink my booze bought from the local liquor store at either of those two establishments without paying corkage or having to buy drinks at inflated restaurant prices, drive off to one of many public beaches carved out from among the tourist and expatriate beachfront properties, and discover the peace to reflect and write, something that I need increasingly as I get older.

Of course, there is always an unforgettable experience on any trip. This time, it came after my wife and I stepped out of a fancy restaurant (one of those occasional splurges) that was built like a lighthouse and where the staff served you dressed in naval uniforms. I had left the lights of our rental car on (the silly things don’t knock off automatically when the engine is switched off like I am used to in Canada), and after out wining and dining, the car battery was dead. I stepped back into the restaurant for help but all the naval uniforms were busy, but a brown-skinned cook manning the pizza oven immediately smiled and said he would bring his car around with booster cables. Something in his accent made me raise my eyebrows. True to his word, he appeared in minutes in his car and got us started with one crank of the engine. I had to ask, so I boldly spoke in Sinhala and asked him whether he was from Sri Lanka. “Yes, sir!” came the beaming reply. I discovered that he was not the only Sri Lankan, there four of them in the restaurant, including the chef. “No wonder the food tasted so good, “ my wife quipped as we drove back to our apartment.

Hey man, this place may not be for every man, but it’s Cayman! And it worked for me.

Back In Dubai – Part 2

Off the boat, we took a break at one of the many open-air restaurants that now dot the creek’s boardwalk, running from opposite the Carlton Tower up to the Radisson (formerly the Intercontinental). The coffee was excellent; just don’t ask for beer—alcohol is still quite a challenge and comes at a steep price within the larger hotels that serve it. And talking of the Radisson, a place I used to hang out once upon a time with visiting Air Lanka crew members who were friends, it now had a range of restaurants, the best being the fusion Emirati one that gave you a sense of how subsistence Bedouin food had been elevated to haute cuisine with money and imagination—we ate there twice during our brief stay and the food was excellent.
I walked into the bazaar area, where I had once lived after my time at the Carlton Tower, and my money, had run out, back in 1980. It had been a warren of narrow streets overflowing with single South Asian men, the working class who were unable to bring their families across, who, dressed in baggy pants and flowing kaftans, held hands and stood chatting, or were busily shopping, or who frequented the many restaurants in the vicinity to partake of masala, khorma, thaali and kababs, accompanied by pickles, onions and lassi, the local diet that my westernized stomach could no longer handle but which had been my staple food back then. In those days, the shops had been filled with electronics, accessories and appliances that every expatriate loaded up on to take back home—the raison d’être of living and working in Dubai, and for some, a side-line import-export business. Well, the shops, the electronics, accessories and appliances were still there, on a larger scale now, and the streets had become more orderly, but the restaurants had vanished—perhaps zoning had come in to separate merchandize from food. And the single men were still holding hands and thronging the place, especially as it was a Friday, the weekend.
My old apartment building, in the heart of the bazaar, where I had shared rooms with two other expatriates, had now been converted into a hotel and was looking in better repair then when I had lived there. I walked past the various offices that my brothers and I had worked in and they had all changed names, but their buildings were still standing—a way of life had vanished but trace-lines of the past still remained, like embers after the flame has died out.
Emerging from a side street, I fell upon Baniyas Square, once a signature destination, a park with the twin peaks of the Deira Tower on one side, the British Bank of the Middle East on the other, and a host of other bank towers lining the third side of the grassy catchment in the centre into which Al Makhtoum Road fell and circled after heading in from the direction of the airport. This was the place I used to drive first-time visitors directly upon their arrival, to show them the glittering lights and clean streets of the emirate, before spinning around and heading back to my apartment (the second and last apartment I lived in) beside the Deira Clock Tower. I wanted to give them a favourable first impression of Dubai, and that detour always helped. Well, today Baniyas Square was less well-illuminated (LED street lighting, I guess) and the buildings were a bit worn (they were 30 years older, I had to remind myself), the banks had been replaced by hotels—banks add stability, security and modernity, while hotels bring transients, clutter and sin, I’m told. I realized why some of my friends who still lived in Dubai did not come out to this place anymore: this was the old Dubai, this was the equivalent of the downtown Sands Hotel area in Las Vegas; everyone preferred the uptown Belagio, or in Dubai-speak, “the world’s biggest this and that” areas. And yet, as I walked around Baniyas Square, I recalled shopping here with my family, especially for clothes, as my son outgrew his once a month, a pastime we also indulged in as there wasn’t much to do in Dubai in those days, and popping into Baskin Robbins (lo and behold, it was still there!) for one of its 32 flavours at the end of those expeditions—fond thoughts to wrap myself in as I walked in this city-state that had undergone several incarnations since I left 30 years ago.
On our last day, I took a final walk along the creek at dusk, past the municipal building that now sported the pictures of the rulers of both Dubai and Abu Dhabi, and I wondered whether the dual representation of power, that had never previously existed, had something to do with Abu Dhabi bailing out Dubai in the last financial crisis; I mean why had Burj Dubai suddenly changed names to Burj Khalifa? I concluded that I knew nothing about the labyrinthine world of Emirati politics just as I didn’t understand its society, and that is how it would remain—heck, I couldn’t even figure out why Americans had voted for Donald Trump!
On my walk, I met this lad bicycling towards me. He must have been in his early twenties. He promptly stopped alongside and said. “Sir, can you get me a job?”
I was taken aback by his directness. I explained that I was a visitor from Canada with no such powers of creating employment, even though I had once lived and worked in Dubai.
“Can you get me a job in Canada, then,” he asked, unfazed.
“I’m afraid, I can’t do that either. Do you have a job here?” Everyone usually had a job in Dubai, especially if they belonged to the migrant labour class.
“No, Sir. I’ve come here on a visit visa to look for a job.”
I found out that he was a nurse back in Pakistan, earning 20,000 Pakistani rupees per month, a wage slightly higher than the minimum.
“In Dubai I could earn ten times more, Sir.”
A familiar bell rang for me. I had also come to Dubai, a lifetime ago, at his age, to earn ten times more than what my home country had been paying me. Over seven years in the emirate, my tax-free “enhanced” salary had helped me raise a family, build a nest egg, immigrate to Canada and start a new life comfortably. His was not an unrealistic expectation.
“What’s stopping you from applying to the hospitals? I see a pharmacy on every street corner, there must be a lot of sick people here.”
“I need a special government nursing certificate, Sir. And for that, money has to change hands back home, many times, before I get it.”
“ I see.”
“And I don’t have that kind of money, Sir.”
I didn’t know what to tell him, except to wish him well and move on. The last glimpse I caught of the young man, before twilight got in the way, was of his swaying bike as he peddled it vigorously. His was a different world and a different time to mine, I guess. But he, like me, had gotten out of his world and come seeking, and I was sure that by some combination of determination, effort and luck he would land on his feet somewhere in this Emirate. I knew that he was not going back to Pakistan with his tail between his legs, that was for sure, he was not the type, not with that direct approach of his. I bet that even to get out here on this “exploratory” visit, money must have changed hands many times back home.
As I returned to the hotel to pack my bags, take a nap, and head out to the airport, I realized that many like that young man, like me once, had come to this place, built nest eggs and moved on to enrich other countries and themselves. And through it all, Dubai, like a faithful investment bank, has soldiered on, giving birth to these immigrants while gathering strength over the years despite the occasional financial slump, despite being surrounded by warring and hostile nations all around it, nations that seemed scared of touching this oasis in the desert and destroying the hope for humanity that somewhere in the world there was still a place to make a fresh start with no questions asked (and no answers given). Perhaps the rulers of those hostile nations regarded Dubai as their “out” in case things got bad at home. There were a lot of things that didn’t sit right here, they never have, but coming from the developing world as I did, I cannot deny that Dubai gave me the launching off push to the First World that my home country never did, and for that I am grateful.
I was also glad that I spent my time on this visit in the rustic part of town where everything had begun for me, in my Dubai, not in the artificial one that is splashed in the tour brochures.

Back In Dubai – Part 1

In the 30 years since I left Dubai to reside in Canada, I had returned to the emirate only once, eight years ago. But on that occasion, my host had focused on introducing me to the “world’s biggest” attractions that had sprung up in the intervening years and made Dubai the Las Vegas of the Middle East: Palm Island, Burj Dubai, Burj Al Arab, Dubai Mall, the theme parks, and all the “cities within the city” like Computer City, Sports City and Medical City. We had travelled down massive highways and traversed the urban sprawl that now connected Dubai and Sharjah, and Dubai and Jebel Ali, where once there had been only white sand desert between those points. None of these new places, monuments and concrete jungles had any significance for me on that trip. So when I returned this time in January 2017, I wanted to be right at the heart, where it had all begun for me, at the Carlton Tower Hotel in Deira by the abra boats that crossed the creek and had taken me back and forth to work twice-daily.

The airport is a bit of a shock—massive, is an understatement. Transferring from an arriving flight to the arrivals terminal can take 20 minutes by apron shuttle. The insides of the airport are opulent, littered with duty-free shops and built to carry expanding traffic for the next 20 years. On the outside, the airport stretches way past Al Ghusais which was once the outback for us. The airport taxis come in different flavours: metered, limos, and liveried with female drivers for women passengers and families. We took a liveried taxi with a courteous female driver who efficiently delivered us to the hotel, at a fare that was only a few dirhams more than the fixed rate of 30 dirhams we used to pay the stern, uncommunicative, male Emirati drivers burning rubber in Mercedes Benzes.
The Carlton Tower, where I spent my first two weeks in Dubai back in 1980, had been my initial refuge because Ramadan was declared a couple of days after my arrival and finding food during daylight on the street was impossible; the restaurant in the hotel had been most obliging. Today that restaurant had been supplemented with a coffee shop and two nightclubs, Thai and Russian, testament to Dubai’s growing diversity and boldness. Outside my window, the creek still bustled with dhows and smaller boats but many of the dhows, once used to carry cargo up and down the Gulf, had been converted into “dinner and show” sailing boats for tourists. The temperature in January hovered between 15-20 degrees Celsius, pleasant, compared to my initial entry on the hottest day of the year (48 degrees Celsius), in July 1980, when they fried eggs on car bonnets, and the exhausts from air-conditioners blowing out into the streets made a walk outdoors feel like stepping through Dante’s Inferno.

I walked over to the abra dock, formerly a flight of stairs leading down to the water where you jumped off the last step into the boat and hoped you didn’t fall in the drink, where the captain sat in the central well of the vessel and banged his fists on the floor boards midstream, demanding that the twenty passengers seated around the gunwale toss their 25 fils coin at him as passage fare (those who threw larger coin were frowned upon and those who didn’t throw anything were tossed overboard, or so the legend went), and where the smell of diesel fuel was so overpowering that you disembarked on the other bank with a petroleum high—the mark of living in a petrodollar state, the legend also said. This time the abra dock was secure with gates, and steps led right on board the many boats that came and went in rapid succession. The price for crossing the creek had climbed up to a dirham (still cheap!) and the captain courteously collected his money by walking around, handing out change where necessary, and doing all this before we took off. And now, an overabundance of gulls followed us, a population that had seemingly thrived over the years, diving in riveting formations whenever anyone threw food overboard—a spectacular show of aerial acrobatics during the ten-minute crossing.

I had learned by now, when visiting places after long intervals of time, to follow the road, for the road never changes, the buildings around it do. I decided to revisit the Souks, following the familiar pathways that had once taken me to them. The Textile Souk on the Par Dubai side covered most of the streets radiating out from the abra station. I remembered bargaining for silks to take back home as gifts that the relatives painstakingly tailored into saris, pants and blouses; now that practice was inconvenient, for we only bought disposable garments ready-made in China, sold with American brand labels. And yet bales of cloth in all colours and textures stood proudly displayed inside shops in the souk, manned by Indian merchants armed only with a pair of scissors and a calculator, ever-ready to “cut a deal.” And while we walked, the muezzin called loudly from loudspeakers in the many mosques that dotted this neighbourhood. On the opposite bank, in Deira, the Gold Souk and its companion Spice Souk, another set of narrow streets with canvas overhangs in the old days, had become tourist attractions; groups descended from boats and busses and flocked to these souks that were mazes of well-marked and illuminated streets glittering with the precious metal displayed in fragile windows and overflowing with bags holding rare spices from around the world. I wondered whether the Three Wise Men had stopped here en-route and stocked up on gold, frankincense and myrrh while following that elusive star—they had surely missed out on the red saffron that seemed to be everyone’s hot favourite!

The Dubai Fort had been a crumbling relic of the time when the Trucial States guarded the waterways of the Arabian Gulf and extracted tolls from merchants. Today, the outer fort remained the same, and yet below-ground was a vast museum: an array of subterranean displays built to depict the life of the Bedouin who had settled this area, including a room with artefacts from the Ruler’s private collection that provided clues to this civilization’s connection to the classical Abbasid caliphate, artefacts uncovered from archeological digs in nearby Jumeirah.
As I had no interest in Dune Bashing or Sandboarding, two popular tourist activities for the more physically agile, we decided on a sedate creek cruise. Back on the Deira side now, and after a brief bargaining session which satisfied both buyer and seller (one always bargained here – it was a cultural requirement), we took a water taxi for a ride down the creek in the opposite direction to the earlier abra rides. As we neared the Al Makhtoum bridge, I recalled that my two road accidents in Dubai had been on this very bridge—one while crossing Deira into Par Dubai and the other while returning in the opposite direction—results of the manic speeds that everyone behind the wheel of a vehicle in the emirate had to follow lest they be run over or side-swiped. I remembered the little park by the bridge on the Dubai side beside the British Council Library where I had tried to teach my son to play cricket; that attempt proved unproductive for he was snatched up by baseball instead when he got to Canada a few years later. There were newer bridges across the creek now, in addition to the Makhtoum Bridge, the more distant Al Gharoud Bridge and the Shindaga Tunnel of the past, but our boat had to turn around at the newer Floating Bridge as it was closed to water traffic during the day.

As we sailed back, the world’s tallest building, Burj Khalifa, rose like a needle piercing the heavens, rising behind the very private, late-Qatari Emir Sheikh Ahmed’s palace (one of his wives was the daughter of the former Ruler of Dubai) that graced the banks of the waterway, a vast property secluded now as it was then, making me realize that for all the years I had lived in Dubai, I had never been offered a glimpse into the lives of the Emiratis. We expatriates, who vastly outnumbered the locals, then as now, had led compartmentalized lives within our ethnic enclaves, meeting for exchange and intercourse only when engaging in some kind of forced business or social transaction. The locals had always lived apart and had been our bosses and sponsors, whose assent gave us permission to reside and work in Dubai, and for some of us earning a sufficient amount of income, the opportunity to bring our families along with us.

(To be continued…)

Sri Lanka Revisited – part two

An ultra-modern “village in the jungle” (with apologies to Leonard Woolf) is how I would describe the Cinnamon properties (the Lodge and the older Village) situated in the middle of the Habarana wilds. While monkeys roamed the vast grounds, guests enjoyed peace and quiet in semi-detached chalet-style apartments, replete with every type of modern convenience.

Habarana is a great jumping off point to the attractions in what is now known as the Cultural Triangle that includes Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Sigiriya and Dambulla, each situated within short drives from the hotel complex. In this part of the country, the well-paved roads are less crowded and the traffic is more likely to be stopped by a straying wild elephant (and we saw plenty of them by the side of the road as we toured).

The historic sites have been restored and cleaned up since my last visit 8 years ago. There was also a conscious effort being made to portray the religious side of these sites, in particular, their Buddhist aspects. Where once upon a time all visitors had to remove footwear prior to entering hallowed premises, now women, especially tourists, had to additionally cover necks, shoulders, arms and other revealing skin.

The water tanks, built by far-sighted Sinhala kings, that had been allowed to languish in colonial and post-colonial times had been restored, for there was actually water in them now; the Sea of Parakrama was actually a giant body of water helping to irrigate farmers’ fields in the vicinity. Gone, I hoped, were the droughts of my childhood, or the excuses of droughts, when whatever rain that came was supposed to have fallen outside the catchments of the tanks, leading to the lack of food, to power cuts, and to other shortages.

Onto Trincomalee, a place I had visited in my childhood and youth. I remember taking a never-ending boat ride around the giant natural harbour, walking through the streets of the old town, and vacationing at my great-uncle’s sprawling estate home where everyone was welcome, where the food was plentiful, where there was no electricity, where we sat outside at night under the stars and swapped stories while listening to a battery-powered radio.

My great uncle and his family emigrated to Australia a long time ago, and the great man himself had since passed away, and so I decided to experience another side of Trincomalee – the beach. We spent two days on the beach outside town and it was a restful break from the constant travelling of the last few days. The seas were rough but the water was warm and the beach was strewn with dive shops, guesthouses and sea food restaurants. The local fishermen conducted a daily ritual of running a giant net out into the water, without a boat, and then hauling it back very slowly, the lead fisherman bobbing out far in the rough seas as he towed the net out and in. The sorting ceremony that was performed on the beach opposite our hotel after the laden net came in resulted in a battle between the gulls and the crows for the spoils left behind by the fishermen – a raucous event, and you had to watch out for falling offal from the sky. The unevenness of the beach became clear after while: this entire strip had been washed away in the giant tsunami that ripped the island in 2004.

I observed another phenomenon in Trincomalee, a town that has always been predominantly Tamil and Muslim: the burqa had replaced the salwar khameez. I wondered whether moves by the previous government to firmly entrench the nation as a Sinhala Buddhist one had resulted in religious minorities retaliating and staking out their own turf, and whether a subtle polarization was taking place – again. Or were returning housemaids from the Middle East wearing their work clothes to avoid buying a second wardrobe to wear at home? When the driver advised me that in the recent census, Muslims instead of Tamils were now the dominant minority in the country, I raised my eyebrows even more. And talking about politics, I realized why the common man was still enamoured with the last regime, corrupt or not; he had witnessed visible signs of progress with the last gang: roads, infrastructure, and price controls on essential goods, on a scale never seen before. The common man did not care that the new guys were saddled with the former guys’ bills, or that the new guys were still trying to figure out how Green and Blue (traditional rivals since Independence) could work together, or that they were trying to reduce – yes reduce, not increase – Presidential powers that lead to dictatorship.

Last stop: Jaffna. I have been trying to get to Jaffna since 1978. On that last occasion, I had turned back on my bike due to the “troubles” that were brewing, especially as my pillion rider was an American friend with a powerful camera who could have been mistaken for a CIA spy. But this time the rebuilt highway (and railway track) ran uninterrupted into the northern city with scarce traffic accompanying us. I saw the signs of the recent war immediately: military camps in every major town en-route, police check-points spot-checking motorists (we were stopped twice and my driver said that the cop was disappointed when he saw two tourists in the car, preventing him from collecting a customary bribe), the bombed out water tank in Killinochchi lying on its side as a stark reminder despite reconstruction going on around it.

My old school teachers used to tell me that Jaffna was a hot place where they only grew chillies and garlic. Well, if those pundits are still alive I’d like to inform them that they are wrong. Many tanks and ponds accompanied us as we entered the peninsula, and paddy fields, coconut estates, palm and corn fields ran right up to the outskirts of the city. Jaffna itself is a smaller version of Colombo with its teeming Pettah-like centre, the fishing harbour, the stately colonial buildings, the Fort (a military one unlike the commercial one in Colombo), and the temples and churches (make that Hindu temples and Catholic Churches). There were no Buddhist shrines to be seen, unless I missed them. But the signs of “We beat you, now buckle up and behave” were everywhere: the army’s foot patrols that walked the town, bullet-scarred houses of those who fled or died crumbling into decay beside modern structures of those who survived rising beside them, and hotels with management staff who spoke only Sinhala and English, sent from head-offices down south to manage lower level local Tamil staff. Temple Road leading to the famed Nallur Temple, once dubbed NGO Row had lost all its NGOs as those benevolent organizations had packed up and returned home when the war ended. Our Tamil tour guide lamented that now they had no help in the reconstruction as the foreigners had left and the government in Colombo was wrapped up in its internal conflicts. Testament to his lament is the state of the Jaffna Fort, slated for reconstruction but only with its outer walls restored, the inside is still a mass of bombed out structures with cattle grazing in the tall grass growing amidst the rubble. The only sign of hope was the fully restored Public Library, burned down twice in recent history by those who have no appreciation of history; I now only hope that its sparse collection of donated books and periodicals would increase and multiply over the years. Unlike in the Buddhist temples where we had to cover up, I was asked to remove my shirt at the Nallur temple, and I wished I had been permitted to take a selfie – darn!

We took the train back to Colombo. And we travelled “local” this time: second class. The CGR (Ceylon Government Railway) is still the same as it was 40 years ago; its rolling stock, its railway lines, its stations; the toilets still stink and there are no garbage pails so you are encouraged to throw your refuse on the track outside. Vendors ply their trade on board between stations, and railway guards turn a blind eye because there is no restaurant car. But we left and arrived on schedule, 7 hours later, something unheard of in the old days.

Before I left the island, I had to revisit my old home in Nawala where I had lived for 18 years. I had learnt by now that old landmarks are useless after 40 years, only the narrow, un-expandable road remains constant. The turns, inclines and declines in the road were my markers, except that over-construction in the once open land on either side had shrunken distances. I followed this road to my old address, but it had vanished behind a giant wall, even the number on the gate read differently. After much jumping up, ferreting, and snooping like a thief, I discovered that our former garage had now morphed into the main building and the old house was just an annex. Over the top of the wall I caught a glimpse of the American-style bungalow roof that my mother had picked out of a magazine and my father had charged the contractor to build for us. I could not proceed further; I did not know the new residents, and to all intents and purposes, I was an intruder. However, I was lucky to find my former neighbour, a retired octogenarian doctor and an eminent writer, at home, as well as a former teenage buddy (now retired, sobering thought!) who came rushing home from wherever he was as soon as his wife phoned him to announce that I had arrived unannounced. And their instant showers of Sri Lankan hospitality, replete with fish cutlets, patties, cake, tea and Lion Lager beer, all magically produced from the recesses of their kitchens and the kindness of their hearts, were… well, heart-warming.

And then it was time to leave Sri Lanka. However, I left with optimism. This country may not be my home anymore but it is a place where I feel extremely comfortable, in its hustle and bustle, its polluted traffic, its mouth-watering food, it’s side-splitting humour, its social contradictions, its irreconcilable political differences and its incomparable beauty. It is a place to return to, again and again, because HOME, after all, is only a state of mind.

Sri Lanka Revisited – part one

One always runs the risk of upsetting someone when recounting a visit to the old country, especially when viewing it through the eyes of a westerner. My visit back to Sri Lanka this Christmas, after eight years, was a pleasant surprise, especially since my last one after a longer 21 year-gap had been during the height of the civil war when movement had been somewhat restricted. This time the country was finally in motion, going in the right direction for a change. And everyone was engaged, even if it was in criticizing the government (which is a national pastime, no matter which government is in power).

There are still two Sri Lankas, I realized: one for the tourist and one for the local; and for people like me, I get a pass to both, for I speak the vernacular; I am a product of the “Sinhala only” days of the Bandaranaike dynasty. In the tourist world, the experience is top notch: great hotels, vast arrays of food served by world renowned Sri Lankan cooks with signature Sri Lankan cuisine now totally outshining standard western fare, ancient cities, fantastic beaches, wild life, night life and a gentle climate. The tourist wishing to experience this Sri Lanka has to commute in air conditioned cars along new highways or in private airplanes between city centres, and on prescribed routes and itineraries. Step off this path and you wind up in the other Sri Lanka where the now well-paved roads, especially in the southern half of the country are clogged with traffic and the air is stifling in leaded exhaust fumes, where the teeming hordes spill over sidewalks, where the tuk-tuks appear to be on hara-kiri missions, where every town is a garish parade of shop signs lining narrow main streets, making them all look the same, except for the size and age of the bo tree that sits in the middle of the main intersection. The contrast between these two extremes is evident in the Colombo Fort, where York Street acts as the physical and metaphorical divide between West and East: the West heads towards developed, touristy city blocks with shopping centres like the Dutch Hospital complex, hotels and restaurants like the Kingsbury, the Stuart and the Ministry of Crab, and office towers like the Trade Centre and the Bank of Ceylon; the East draws in the sprawl of the local bazaar crawling in from the nearby Pettah replete with the detritus and smells of night dwellers who squat in prohibited places, hollowed out structures like the Ghaffoor Building, and motorcycle parking lots on Lotus Road where once I used to catch the bus home from work. The country will have “arrived” when these two worlds coalesce. And help is around the corner, for a huge land reclamation project, almost the size of the present Fort, is underway on the western end of the city to ease congestion. Hopefully, it will also bring prosperity in the way of jobs to the man on the street, so that he too can enjoy the pleasures currently affordable only by the tourist and the local 1%.

The hills of Nuwara Eliya were a welcome respite from the heat and the pollution but the switch-back roads through beautiful vistas looked perilous to the older me. The town itself was just another crowded, sign-plasted warren of narrow streets, although colonial bastions like the Hill Club, the Grand Hotel and the Golf Club still communicated grace and genteelness. I recalled fondly how I had travelled down the Ranboda Pass in a rainstorm on my scooter with a madcap CTB bus driver on my tail all the way down to Kandy back in the ‘70’s. Now being in a car, in dry weather, with no such mad bus driver to distract me, the journey looked far more dangerous – age makes one cautious! The tea estates were in good repair – a national treasure not to be squandered in wartime or peace, and the estate workers’ dwellings had improved, some were even two-storey concrete structures now. The Kandyan lass who sang out her commentary on the workings of the tea estate reminded me how much English had deteriorated in the country over the intervening years. There is an attempt to introduce English in the schools at present and students must study all three national languages now, but an entire generation has lost its opportunity for global advancement due to political expediency. This gave me the added impetus to practice my Sinhala on the locals, an effort that paid off handsomely – I didn’t get charged tourist prices when I frequented local dives and chimed “Keeyada? (How much?)”

Descending to Kandy threw us into an unbroken circle of traffic whizzing around the lake and I wondered why the authorities could not divert motorists elsewhere like they had around the Dalada Maligawa area which is now a security controlled pedestrian zone. I took in a cultural show next door to the palace and watched the Kandyan dancers exert gymnastically to the drums; then the fire-walkers trod on hot coals before my eyes and I felt the heat – this was pretty serious stuff, not an illusion. The water level was low in the Kandy lake – drought, said my driver – and I couldn’t see the fish or the myriad of coins that used to lurk below in the old days as the remaining water was murky. But a drive along Upper Lake Drive at night for dinner in one of the many cosy restaurants overlooking the lake gave us a break from the pollution and offered a bird’s eye view of this picturesque city. Arrack had become my staple drink by now, one I hadn’t tasted in years – it was cheap, available in different flavours and strengths and had even infiltrated new fangled cocktails. And a good rice and curry was always welcome, three times a day if necessary.

The stop at Sifani Jewellers was a no-pressure visit, unlike the one in Colombo where the salesman had pressed me to buy a precious stone lest his family starve for the lack of him earning a commission. The Sifani lady was gracious, giving us a history of the gem industry in the country and letting us loose in the showroom where we were free to browse and/or buy, or not; the sheer variety of stones only made me gasp. The same no-pressure approach held true at the Batik factory where we got the run down on that garment’s 8-stage creation process, and at the Ayurveda farm where we got to sample various native treatments and received a massage to boot. The no-pressure tactics worked, for we bought from these places.

Walking around the lake one evening I saw a middle-aged gentleman with brief case in hand standing for his bus. As the crowded vehicle roared by with no intention of stopping, he deftly ran into the middle of traffic and jumped onto the footboard and pushed his way inside. I used to do that in my youth, and it came to me as a shock that I could have been that man, one who had decided to stay and not roam the world like me.

The deeper I went, the safer I felt. Yes there were warts and everything was not perfect but this was an imperfection I had been raised with and come to expect as normal. Maybe it was the imperfection that made the journey comfortable and familiar. ( to be continued…)