Week 14: Dubai & North Island (NZ)


Dubai was a last minute addition due to an airline ticket that gave me a free stopover to explore the city for a little over 24 hours. This was my second time visiting the Gulf, I was in Doha way back in January. I stayed in the neighborhood called Deira, which is across the Dubai Creek from the rest of Dubai. It is close to the airport and, more importantly, way cheaper than anything downtown.


view of Dubai from Deira

I wandered creekside late at night when I arrived and even though it was past 11pm, there were tons of people (mostly men, admittedly) walking around as well. It was the only cool part of the day. Dubai is hot, like 100°F+ hot. When I awoke, I took a water taxi that cost one dirham to the other side of the creek. These boats are called abras and fit roughly 20 people on them. The old town is supposed to give visitors a taste of what Dubai was like in the past, but it’s got a Disneyland feel to it, more shops and art galleries than authenticity.


Dubai creek, abra – water taxi, light installation outside art gallery

I did have the most expensive breakfast I’ve eaten on this whole trip. I knew it was going to be way more than I could eat, but I ordered an Emirati breakfast anyways: balaleet (vermicelli with cardamom, cinnamon, and saffron topped with an omelette), fava beans, white beans, date molasses, melted cheese, cheddar cheese, watermelon jam, and a couple different types of bread. Later on at the mall, I got my first taste of camel milk in the form of a saffron milkshake.


spiced tea, Emirati breakfast, saffron camel milkshake

The biggest thing to know about Dubai is that everything is over-the-top. The most obvious example of this is the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world at 2,717 ft (829 m). I’ve never seen anything anywhere close to this tall. (Trivia fact: Saudi Arabia has started building an even taller building that is supposed to top out at 1000 m, but construction is currently on hold). This is what oil money can do.


Burj Khalifa – day, evening, night

Everything in Dubai seems to have a normal experience and a VIP experience. It’s class segregation at its finest. Like Qatar, the UAE ships in immigrants from the rest of the world to do all the jobs the Emiratis themselves don’t want to do. In the course of a few hours, I talked to workers from Bangladesh, Pakistan, Kenya, India, and the Philippines. These folks have retail and hotel jobs with long-term work visas (with no chance of ever gaining citizenship) which allow them to make more money than they would at home. This is the nice immigrant story that the UAE would like to present to the world, but immigrants in other industries have their passports taken away and live in terrible conditions, stuck in a foreign country with few options. This modern day slavery has been well-documented. Its oppression of basic rights is what has allowed such technical achievements to be built.


baby skyscrapers from the normal viewing decks on floors 124 & 125 of the Burj Khalifa

Continuing on the theme of doing the most, the Dubai Mall has an entire dinosaur skeleton in one of its atriums


Diplodocus longus skeleton in the middle of Dubai Mall

and a floor-to-ceiling aquarium with a walk-through tunnel


cuttlefish, jellyfish, glass fish

and an impressive fountain show.

Dubai has sold its soul to capitalism and the result is a garish, pretentious elitism that I struggled to enjoy. It’s a booming place of industry, financed almost entirely by oil revenues and the future cost of our planet’s health. The country is superficially fascinating, but deeply disturbing under the shiny facade.


North Island

Dubai was just a stopover on my way from South Africa to New Zealand. After crossing eight time zones, I arrived in Auckland at 4:30am, exhausted and confused. I drove around aimlessly for awhile and eventually the sun came up and I had a huge breakfast. I checked into my hotel and promptly slept most of the day away. Jet lag is a mess. As you can imagine, I saw very little of Auckland. It was Easter, so almost everything was closed on both Sunday and Monday, so maybe it wasn’t so bad that I slept so much. On Monday, I drove on to Rotorua to enjoy a nighttime treetop canopy walk in a redwoods grove and a dip in some hot springs.


Easter morning sunrise from Takapuna Beach, Rotorua tree canopy walk, New Zealand cow grazing


view on the drive to Rotorua from Auckland

Then it was time to experience the biggest reason I’d come to the North Island: a pilgrimage to the Shire. The original set from the first three Lord of the Rings movies was torn down, but they rebuilt them for the Hobbit movies and Peter Jackson is still taking a cut from all the people who come to visit them today ($50 per person). All of the buildings only go back a couple meters and the hobbit holes come in various sizes based on whether wizards or hobbits were being filmed next to them to give different size perspectives. The biggest surprise was that apparently almost 40% of people who come have never read the books or watched the movies. In our tour of about 30 people, I was one of five who admitted spending several hours of my life reading the whole series of Tolkien’s tales of Middle-Earth.


top: Bilbo & Frodo’s house, me, Sam Gamgee’s house
zoom in on the rest to see what kind of work the hobbit who lived there did

After reading The Hobbit for school (Thanks Mr. Hawblitzel!), I at first struggled to get into LOTR. I finally read them one summer, going through all three of them in about a month. I think part of the reason was that the books are such male-centric novels. Yes, there are some powerful females with bit parts to play, but by and large it is an epic bro adventure. The Shire, nonetheless, was a place I imagined in my head when I was younger, so it is incredible to see it in person. It’s also nice to see how much the fantasy genre has opened up since then. I’ve read so much this year and this has included stories about deadly nuns,  a gunslinging desert woman with some hidden talents, and an African girl who is thrown into an epic adventure to free magic again in her world. Tolkien was one of the first, but fantasy is just getting better over time.

My last stop on the North Island was to see the glowworms in Waitomo, which were as spectacular as I hoped. I chose to go on a mini-caving and tubing adventure that was quite a bit of fun. I have never before floated down a freezing-cold river in a tube before (thank goodness for super thick wetsuits). There was one magical moment where the guides pulled all of us down a tunnel and all we had to do was sit back and look up at the blue specks on the ceiling. Bioluminescence is awesome. This is one of those things that just must be experienced in person, but here’s a brief glimpse at what it looks like.


Week 1: On the Road Again & Doha

I’m on the road again for the spring semester. Here’s the map of my planned travels, but it is four and a half months of movement so things may change over time.

The Plan



My first stop on this trip was a long layover (by design) in Doha, Qatar. It’s a tiny little country on the northern side of the Arabian Peninsula. You may have heard about it in the news, because a bunch of other countries cut ties with them awhile back for supporting terrorism. This BBC article is a good read on the subject.

Qatar is oil rich and only 88% of the people who live there are actually Qatari. It’s a nation of immigrants, and walking down the streets you are as likely to hear Tagalog and Hindi as you are to hear Arabic. Immigrants are imported to do all the jobs that Qataris don’t want – waiters, fishermen, maids, nannies, construction workers, even tour guides! English becomes the lingua franca because so many people are from somewhere else.

After landing at the airport, I hopped on a bus into the city and walked along the beautiful La Corniche since it was still quite early in the morning and nothing much was open. There’s a huge developed skyline across the water that contrasts intensely with the old dhow fishing boats lined up along the harbor.


dhow on the harbor, view of the skyline, the Pearl monument

One of the highlights of Doha is the spectacular Museum of Islamic Art, which is a collection of art from the Muslim world, stretching from China to Spain. Because of Islam’s prohibition on representing figures in religious artifacts, geometric patterns feature prominently in the work. Muslim artists were not only fabulous artisans, they were also mathematical geniuses. I particularly enjoyed seeing how a tessellated shape can be entirely transformed when crafted in different styles of woodwork.


Can you see the same pattern in all of these?

The room where I spent quite a bit of time was the one showcasing art and science. (Imagine that. Ha ha.) Astronomy was a huge source of interest for Muslim scholars, partially because prayers that occur five times each day are set according to the rising and setting of the sun. After collecting years of data and making observations, Muslim scientists had some deeper understandings of the universe than many others around the same time. I just saw this decolonizing infographic showing how so much of what they knew was “discovered” by later Europeans.


astrolabe used for calculating latitude, a description and model for how eclipses occur, celestial globe of constellations

For being a huge city, I was surprised by how many animals were hanging out in the area. There’s a random pen of very unhappy camels right off the main road and a huge stable filled with Arabian horses. In addition, there are rows of shops filled with falcons for sale since using them to hunt other animals is a tradition among Qataris. Falcons cost anywhere from $1,500 to $15,000, which explains the need for the falcon hospital nearby.


camel in the middle of the city, falcon (with eyes covered) in the falcon souq, Arabian horse

Some folks have requested more food photos this time around, so I’ll do my best to provide. For breakfast I had giant Yemeni bread with beans and a spicy cheese sauce, chased down by sweet milk tea. I picked this restaurant solely on how delicious the food looked when I walked by and I was right. The guy who ran the restaurant was so happy that I spoke some Arabic. I learned the Darija dialect when I lived in Morocco, but Gulf Arabic is quite different, so I needed to look up some words. As I was leaving, I heard people speaking Spanish and after finding out they were from Peru, Argentina and Chile, we talked for a short time in Spanish about my recent travels. Then I went to the counter and told the man how delicious the food was and how full I was in Arabic. It was a strange small-world polyglot moment.


breakfast in Qatar, afternoon treat of thabakath juice (strawberry, avocado & papaya), beautiful Turkish lamp fixture

One last photo of the beautiful skyline from the outdoor patio at the Museum of Islamic Art.


After Doha, I headed to Addis Ababa in Ethiopia. Internet has been a bit challenging here and my phone was stolen (again!). Apparently it has become a right of passage for me to lose my phone the first week I embark on a long journey. Fortunately, the rest of my time here has been great so far. My photos weren’t backed up, so my fabulous museum and church visits from the past few days are not visually documented. I’m safe and happy and having a wonderful time!