I’ve travelled far and wide (from Egypt to Malaysia, from Singapore to Dubai) for work in the last couple of months. Plenty of material for the blog! Read about my fascinating visits to Middle East in today’s post.
Rather appropriately, I’m writing this on a plane. Did you know on Emirates you can now can get wifi in the air? Well, sort of. But I’ve managed to get an email to my Grandad to say Happy Birthday – I figure that it will be one of his more unusual greetings (Happy Birthday again Grandad!).
I’m flying from Thailand to Abu Dhabi. 24 hours ago, I returned from Dubai to Thailand. I’ll admit, I didn’t expect to turn around and come back quite so quickly – I just managed two sleeps in my own bed. Not enough…
An Embarrassing Silence
I was a bit shocked when I started to write this post about how long it’s been since I last posted. After a schedule where I posted once a week for a year, and then once a fortnight for 6 months, I’ve left it nearly two months. Ouch.
But in my defence, I’ve launched an entirely new brand in that period, as well as my first ‘digital product’, The Complete Self-Care Toolkit (it’s beautiful, it’s on special offer at the moment and you should buy it for yourself and as a Christmas present for anyone in your life who needs a little TLC!).
Now I’m fit to burst with stories from the last couple of months and there’s almost too much to wrestle onto the page. A country at a time? A lesson at a time? A picture at a time?
I’ll start with the Middle East; with Egypt and Dubai. Places I’ve spent a good few weeks in over the last couple of months. Two places that clearly share some of the same cultural norms and history as each other, and yet are quite different in feel.
Dubai: The More Luxurious Side of My Work-Travel
Dubai is a glittering modern city. And one that hardly existed 20 years ago. A conversation with a taxi driver, who’d been there for 22 years after he moved there from Pakistan (where he’d been a farmer), included a litany of places that were empty or didn’t exist when he’d first arrived. His was a fascinating story, and not an uncommon one – he’d started life in Dubai as a labourer, and worked his way up to taxi driver in his 22 years there. His wife and family still lived in Pakistan, and he spends 6 months a year in each location.
I’m lucky enough to be treated well when I visit Dubai for work, and I stay most frequently in the Fairmont, a bastion of luxury. I’ve even been there enough for the staff to recognise me now (weird feeling when they greet you with ‘Hello Miss Bard’).
For most of my recent stays in Dubai, I’ve delivered the work, a training course in the last two cases, in the hotel itself. I spend a lot of time in the hotel. Too much really. This last time on different evenings I managed to get out to the mall; go for a walk, and have supper in the poolside Turkish bar. Oh, and I even went to the gym a couple of times.
My stay there made me think about ‘social credit’. The hotel made a mistake this time with room service – a bit of a saga, but it included forgetting the order entirely, then not delivering the drink when it arrived 90 minutes after first ordering, and then the meal itself being a chicken pasta rather than a vegetarian one. I’ve been a veggie now for over 20 years, so that was rather unfortunate as it took a mouthful for me to work it out. Euuuw.
It was on an evening where I had a migraine, and for the first time in my life, had ordered room service in my dressing gown. So, given the fact I’d already had three telephone calls about the meal and the room service waiter had been up twice already, the fact that the on-duty manager himself bought me the pasta didn’t actually impress me that much, as all I wanted was to be left alone.
Despite all that, the fact that they’ve been so great for all the other aspects of my stay, this time and others, meant I didn’t make a big fuss. I wasn’t as angry or even as upset as I thought I might be. After a sleep, a personal note from the daytime manager, and a fruit basket (less sure about this – what’s wrong with chocolate?!), my composure was regained and I moved on. A great example of social credit – they’ve built up such a store of ‘good experiences’ that when the bad stuff happens, it was easier to see it as a simple mistake and move on.
This made me think of one of my values, or aspirations in life, to be a ‘beneficial presence’. An idea I first heard at The School of Life, it’s simply the concept that you leave everyone you meet a little happier, a little better off, than they were before you spent time with them.
Am I a beneficial presence? I don’t think so. But it’s a good aim to have, and when I’m in a sulk, or tired from travelling, or frustrated with the language difficulties I sometimes have (all my fault, I don’t speak more than hello and thank you in Arabic/Thai/Chinese etc), it’s a good reminder to remember that everyone is travelling their own hard road, and that a little kindness goes a long way.
One unusual and lovely moment at the hotel was when I was grabbing a cup of coffee during a break in the training course. Standing and looking out over old Dubai, on the 33rd floor, I realised there was a bird sitting on a protuberance from the wall. Looking more closely, I thought it might be a bird of prey. Later on FB, friends confirmed it was (probably) a kestrel. The bird and I stared at each other through the glass, both curious, and it was a good reminder of why I try and look out and up even when my head’s buried in my day.
Egypt: A Grande Dame Who’s Fallen on Hard Times
I went to Egypt directly from Dubai, and the two were in stark contrast. Both in the Middle East, but so very different. Egypt has a faded grandeur. Ancient in origin, its people are proud of their history, and that history is everywhere. The rooms I ran the training course in, for example, were named after various ancient Egyptian gods – we were in ‘Ra’ (the sun god).
I’ve visited Egypt before, in my ‘year out’ (aged about 22) when I lived for 4 months in Kuwait with my (very kind) aunt and uncle. They are teachers there, and helped me to get a job as a teaching assistant. I became friends with another teaching assistant around my age, an Australian-Egyptian who lived in Kuwait, and during the school holidays the two of us went to stay with her family in Egypt. My memories of that time are of welcoming people, amazing antiquities, being treated like royalty (because my friend’s family had a tour company and gave us our own transport and guide) and food I perhaps wasn’t so keen on.
This time, I stayed in the Conrad Hilton, one of the nicest hotels in Egypt. But after the Fairmont, it had a slightly faded feel. Perhaps it was the decor. Or perhaps some of the things I mention below.
The food was good though. Egypt has the best falafel I’ve ever had. I ate a lot of falafel in my week there.
Egypt itself has had some troubling times recently. Tourist numbers are down. And whilst I felt safe on one level, there was another part of me that felt very slightly uncomfortable the whole time.
I guess when there aren’t many visitors to a country, those who do come are going to get more attention than they want. But there’s another aspect to some Egyptian culture which I hadn’t experienced on my last trip when essentially my friend and I had a minder with us the whole time. Unwanted attention.
Never have I been told so many times how beautiful I was, or asked whether I had a husband or a boyfriend. By men at every turn. Porters, waiters, tour guides, market vendors. Starting with the man who met me off the plane to take me through immigration and customs, and ending with my last taxi driver to the airport. Really.
Whilst it sounds almost nice, it didn’t feel that way. It’s not something I’m used to, and I’m not sure my responses were especially graceful. I tried to balance my line of assertive disinterest and beneficial presence, and I’m not sure I succeeded.
I couldn’t tell whether the attention was because I was a woman, an obviously western woman, a woman on her own, or a combination. But that, more than: the recent revolution; the fact that the hotel suggested I didn’t leave the hotel without a driver; the need for the car entering the hotel to be checked for bombs; or the fact I had to go through a scanner to get into my 5-star hotel, contributed to my sense of discomfort.
Nonetheless, I had some amazing experiences there too. I took a day to sightsee, and went to the Pyramids. Truly one of the wonders of the world, and because of the aforementioned issues, there weren’t many tourists there.
I practically had them to myself, as my photos will show. I had an excellent tour guide round the pyramids, a guide I picked up there, whose story was inspiring. He spoke 5 languages – his English was excellent – but hadn’t really had an opportunity to go to school. He’d been brought up in and around the Pyramids, his father a tour guide before him, and had learned languages by being around the people who spoke them. He had a wife, who he loved very much (he didn’t hit on me, hallelujah), and five children, all of whom were girls. He worked hard, and he was focused on getting them an education. He was the same age as me, which took me aback slightly. The same number of years on earth, but such different lives.
And I also managed to have supper with a colleague who was there at the same time, and so include some socialising. Oh, and not to forget the visit to the material shop where I spent over an hour choosing new material for my mum’s new career as a seamstress <ahem>.
So a mixed experience in Egypt. This is just my experience, and so isn’t a judgement on a country going through hard times, and that has 83 million people, many of whom are welcoming and wonderful. So please don’t send me hate mail 🙂
I will say that Egypt has the scariest driving I’ve ever seen. There are no cars without dents (that I saw), and as I was leaving the hotel for the last time I actually saw a car hit one of the hotel porters as he was crossing the road. He was ok, it was ‘just’ a glancing blow that tore his trousers and gave him a bloody gash on his leg, but it shook me a little. Perhaps more than.
Dubai and Egypt then. The old and the new Middle East. And two cities which on their own show the huge diversity of culture in an area which I think sometimes the west groups into one big mass. As I mentioned, I’m on my way to Abu Dhabi now, and I am scheduled to work in Saudi Arabia in the new year, so that will give me yet more insights into the area. I look forward to sharing them with you.
Have you visited Dubai and/or Egypt? Are you from there? Do you live there? What are your experiences of the countries? Tell me in the comments below.