Mike digs into a bowl of hummus at Hashem in Jordan.
"Welcome to Jordan," shopkeepers, waiters, perfume sellers, and taxi drivers called out as we walked down the streets of the capital, Amman, on our first evening in the country. If we stopped to say "Shukran!" ("Thank you" in Arabic), we might get the follow-up questions "First time Jordan? Where you from?" When we said we are from the U.S., we were always welcomed again. "America good," with a thumbs up.
This is probably not the reception most Americans expect from a Muslim country bordered by Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Palestine. But Jordanians are renowned for their hospitality. Many of the residents are of Bedouin descent. A traditionally nomadic ethnic group, the Bedouin have long endured life in a bitterly dry and hot landscape, in part through their honor code of diyafa. Every traveler, even an enemy, must be offered shelter, food, and protection if she or he approaches a Bedouin tent in the desert.
In the modern city of Amman, diyafa showed up in a handful of salted melon seeds our taxi driver passed back to us without a word. On our walk to dinner, a vendor gave us a free taste of a freshly cracked almond--he broke the shell with his hands--and a dried fig covered in powdered sugar. At the outdoor eatery Hashem (where I had the most creamy, garlicky, spicy, delicious hummus of my life), the table next door passed over a falafel ball stuff with onions and peppers. They hardly paid attention as we ate it, as though we were already members of their family. The waiter, Said, wearing a muscle T-shirt and a big toothy smile, shook my hand. "Welcome to Jordan," he said.
To get to Dubai from Muscat, we bused through northern Oman, past flatlands of bone white desert and scrubby, half-dead trees. Outside it was about 115 °F. If heat had a physical form, it would be this landscape. Once in the United Arab Emirates--which consists of seven independent city-states, including Dubai--we passed a road sign indicating a camel crossing. Far in the distance of this dry, hot world, I saw two tall, golden, humped shapes nibbling on the shrubs.
Dubai surfaced from the emptiness like Las Vegas does. All of the sudden, freeways snaked around us. McMansions fronted the roads. Shopping malls hulked. Silver-paned skyscrapers watched over it all with cool, elegant indifference.
It wasn't until sunset, when we explored the area around our hotel, the XVA, that I realized I might actually enjoy this city. Dubai is divided by a "creek," which is really a large inlet from the Persian Gulf. Walking along it, we watched the criss-crossing of water taxis, each one filled with a collection of women in black-robed abayas, men in the long white shirt-dresses called dishdashas, and tourists in their mishmash of T-shirts and sports sandals. Old wooden dhows crowded the banks, and behind them stood the blocky modern buildings of banks, including one from Iran, located just across the Gulf. People from all over the world passed by us, wearing colorful saris, headscarves, floppy hats, and taqiyah (Muslim caps). With the skyscraper lights starting to glitter on the water, the scent of jasmine and frankincense perfume in the air, and the sound of the call-to-prayer undulating from the nearby mosque, I felt I had been transported to the capital of another planet and another time. The Mos Eisley Cantina from Star Wars might have been just around the corner.
There's a reason why Dubai feels so otherworldly. More than 80 percent of the city's population is foreign-born, with especially large groups of immigrants from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and the Philippines. The result is a cosmopolitan mix that centers more on the East than the West, unlike in other bustling international cities like London and New York.
After wandering down the textile souq, where rainbow piles of fabric lined the stores and vendors called out "Pashminas! 10 dirhams!," we had dinner at Bait Al Wakeel. The food was expensive and poorly prepared, but the the view was worth it. Sitting on a balcony overlooking the creek and its busy boat traffic, we felt we were in the middle of the water, with the alive, awake energy of nighttime Dubai swooshing around us.
On our way back to the hotel, we followed a stream of people turning down a small alleyway. Suddenly we were in a tiny corridor, filled with Indians and little shops selling fragrant garlands of jasmine and marigolds, hundreds of tiny statues of Hindu gods, and smoky incense. Piles of shoes rested at the foot of several staircases, which led up to a temple. There were no tourists around. We had found a passage to India, a street named Hindi Lane, in the middle of the Middle East.
That's when I thought, I love Dubai.
Since the movie night in Malawi (last post) in March, I've gone on a walking safari in Zambia, river rafted the Zambezi in Zimbabwe, navigated the waterways of the Okavango Delta in Botswana, slept under the stars in the desert in Namibia, road-tripped through South Africa, pony-trekked in Lesotho, gotten a speeding ticket in Swaziland, boogie-boarded on the beach in Mozambique, and bought frankincense in Muscat, Oman. It's been an absolutely amazing trip. Unfortunately, wireless Internet access, which I need to complete a blog post, has either been very limited, very expensive, or very slow throughout most of this journey. I think a blog should cover relatively current information, so I've decided to begin my writing again with my most recent travels in Dubai. I'll look for another way to publish stories about my adventures in southern Africa.
Thanks so much for reading! It's been such a pleasure to share these travels with you.