I’m currently reading China Mieville’s The Scar. It’s good, a nice blend of literate intelligence and the unpronounceable names that mark the sci/fi fantasy shelf. It stands out at this moment, though, because it’s Mieville’s version of a sea adventure. It begins with a ship leaving the biggest city in Mieville’s world of Bas-Lag to a wild, Australia-esque colony on the other side of the world. On the way, pirates hijack the ship and all on board are brought to a gigantic floating city built out of hundreds of old ships. After that, vampires show up, the main characters travel to a land of mosquito people, and a giant beast is raised from the depths (I’m only about halfway through, so I don’t yet know how all of this comes to a head).
The sea quest, or just sea stories in general, are incredibly common. Herman Melville probably jumps to mind first, as does perhaps Joseph Conrad. The Old Man and the Sea counts, and I suppose we can’t forget the Odyssey. There tend to be tropes that surface (har har) in each version; typically there is a symbolic big beast, either chased or chasing. The narratives tend to be episodic, as well, with action and adventure being broken up with passages of travel and characters waxing philosophical about the beautiful terror of the sea or something like that.
There aren’t many stories about airplanes. Obviously our ubiquitous flying machines do not have the history of our sailing ones. Even so, it seems like most of the airplane-relate stories I can think of fall into the realm of science fiction—Nightmare at 20,000 Feet, The Langoliers, Lost—and while many narratives feature airplanes, they typically are solely means of transport, often reduced to a moving line on a map—Indiana Jones—or a means to a finale—Casablanca.
The reasons behind this are pretty obvious. Planes are fast, rarely traveling for more than a day. They are removed from the walking world by altitude and all that is inside is contained. If being at sea exposes you to a great natural power, airplanes coddle you into ignorance of where you actually, physically are. It may be that sea travel is more natural to humans; we have a natural ability to travel through water, but not through air.
However, the sea is the more mysterious, and rationally should be scarier. Note the trope above of big beasts, and their prevalence in sea stories. We have access to such a small part of the ocean—we literally only skim the surface—and all else is inaccessible, blocked to us by darkness, pressure, and lack of oxygen. It’s been said before, but the ocean is the only place that still hold mystery; they are the only place where our imaginations can still swim unfettered.
What does this have to do with this unused blog, that was ostensibly about travel? I don’t know. I’m not even sure why I am thinking about this. Maybe it’s a sort of disappointment with modern travel, how low-stakes it is and it’s lack of mystery. That doesn’t seem exactly right, though—travel is such a romanticized idea that it never meets the expectations it carries (it can transcend them, though). I’m well aware that typical sea journeys are long and dull, and sea beasts and cities of ships are the stuff of stories—but maybe it is the creation of those stories I feel like I am missing. It used to be the journey, not the destination, but these days the journey takes five hours, and you spend most of it watching Parks and Recreation re-runs. It’s opened up so many places, but now instead of even skimming the surface, we fly high enough to ensure we can’t see it at all.
“But oft, in lonely rooms, and mid the din/ Of towns and cities, I have owed to them,/ In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,/ Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart.” William Wordsworth, “Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey”
Sometime during the winter, when I traveled back to Connecticut for Christmas, I told someone I lived in Abu Dhabi. “Lots of material to write about, I bet.” He responded. I can’t remember who it was, or in what context, but the words stand out.
I think my first instinct is to question “material”. I think having material doesn’t come from being in a specific place, but instead is a conversation between a place and the person. I talk to my friends and co-workers here, and short of the major observations about Abu Dhabi, our eyes are drawn all over. Food, sports, architecture, labor, the state of the arts, education—each person is drawn toward their own fountain of material. I’ve always found that the interests that are natural are usually those that produce the best writing.
But there is something else. I haven’t been able to write anything about Abu Dhabi yet. This is a part of the reason this blog has been so quiet. I am here, and I am experiencing, but I am not writing.
What is missing I think, is distance, both temporal and spatial. I find myself thinking and writing more about my home, or New York, and feeling that I understand those places only now that I am so far away from them. My feelings are settling, and now I can look at them, instead of looking through them.
The distance is dangerous too. I have a slippery memory, and remember sentiments and meaning, as opposed to details and dialogue—note my non-anecdote above. When I try and write about something that has happened in the past, then, it is impossible to ignore that everything is a half-truth. I think this is why I like writing fiction, because it frees me from trying to capture a true scene that I’ve lost. Sentiments and meanings are all I hope to get across, anyway.
Anyway, I hope to write here more, perhaps now about the beginning of this trip that is only now reaching its middle. As for capturing the whole, well, I’ll just have to wait until I feel its “sensations sweet” when I am someplace far away.
The Burj Khalifa opened in January 2010. Originally called the Burj Dubai, it was developed by the Emirati Real Estate company Emaar properties. Famed architectural company Skidmore, Owings and Merrill—designers of the Willis “Sears” Tower and the under-construction One World Trade Center—designed the tower, which rises 828 meters above the desert. That is 2717 feet, a height that makes the Burj the tallest building in the world. The next tallest, Taipei 101, is a baby at 508m/1667 ft. The aforementioned Sears Tower—the tallest building in the United States, comes in a pathetic eighth on the list at 442.1m /1451 ft. In the realm of giant towers, the Burj sits on the throne, and there are no pretenders.
Besides being pampered in a five-star hotel or shopping in a behemoth mall, the Burj Khalifa is, as far as I can tell, one of the main things to “do” in Dubai. If I was talking to a generally educated person about the city, he/she would probably know to say “Oh did you visit that giant building?” Sort of like how a generally educated person would think to say “Did you see Big Ben?” about London or “How cool was that giant Jesus statue!” about Rio. The Burj, although new, is an easy way to frame Dubai as a travel destination. That’s what traveling is, anyway; going to far away places and doing the things that define those locations as places. Right?
In order to get to the observation deck of the Burj, tourists and visitors must enter a special “At the Top” exhibit entrance in the Dubai Mall. The Mall is a monster worthy of its own post, but for now keep in mind that in order to reach the entrance to the “At the Top,” you have to walk past an Aquarium Tank that features glass bottom boat rides and scuba diving, a Rolex store with prices in the six figures, and a Chili’s. Once past the ticket desk and past a glowing white model of the Burj itself and past the metal detectors, you are ushered onto a moving walkway that moves gawkers along a wall of pictures of deserts and falcons and other general Emirati symbols.
At the end of the moving walkway you are dumped into a stark white room, which curves around into an escalator. There is a skylight on one side of the room with a plastic rod hanging down in front of it. At the end of the rod there is a ring, and supposedly you can line up your camera and take a cool picture of the tip of the Burj. I wasn’t able to test this feature, mostly because there was a line and I am impatient.
After the escalator you follow a series of hallways, the walls of which are adorned with sketches and schematics of the Burj that are presumably much neater than the actual planning schematics and sketches were. These hallways lead to a spinning glass door, which people are sent through in groups of about ten. Each group is then put into one of two lines two elevators, which alternate going up and down. The elevators are sleek, you barely feel the movement, etc., but this writer was slightly unnerved by the high, screeching noise they made as they arrived and left. In the elevators themselves, you are treated to a John Williams-Lite score that reaches a crescendo as you come to the 124 floor, the observatory.
I’m not yet convinced that the major landmarks that come to define cities—like the Burj or Cristo Redentor– are ever actually fun or interesting. I always hear New Yorkers note that they have never been to the Empire State Bulding, or Lady Liberty, or Ellis Island, or whatever, and sometimes they laugh and say “I must be a bad New Yorker.” I don’t think that’s why. I think they don’t go because they know that the Statue of Liberty sucks. It’s crowded, takes a long time to get to, and I don’t even think you can even go up to the top.
But travelers—tourists to the residents—still go. They go and they see the things that are not as impressive as they have been built up to be, so when they get up to the top/see where gladiators fought/look at how big ben really is, what they feel isn’t this sense of wonder or awe, but the absence of those things. The Burj Khalifa is the tallest building in the world, but because I had heard about it so much, because they talk it up in the hallways and moving walkways, because they show so many models of it, because of the music the elevator plays, because everyone has seen Tom Cruise crawl up its side, because you spend more time thinking about how awesome it will be than on the observatory itself, when you do actually look out there is no chance that it can match the mental picture in your mind.
And this feeling, of expectations for emotions not being met, bothers us. I wrote a couple posts ago about photography and Susan Sontag’s argument that taking pictures is a way to “shape experience” when a person is unsure what to do with what is in front of them. I think that is sometimes the case, but I think that we also use the camera when we know exactly how we should feel, but don’t. That is, you’re at the top of the world’s tallest building, and taking pictures is a way of faking the excitement you expected to feel. “This is so great I am taking a picture.” And we share those pictures, too. We post them on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, because we get a little bit of the excitement we wanted when ten people like our photo, that girl we have a crush on retweets it, or when our best friend comments “o shit dude that’s awesome!” It makes up feel less guilty for not having enjoyed the thing in itself.
Of course, what we need to realize is that the thing in itself is probably just not very exciting, despite what the hallways and elevators and Mission Impossible 4 tell you.
I can see roughly seventy five buildings from the window of my apartment. About a half-dozen are sky-scapers of the look-at-me variety. The Etisalat Tower—Etisalat being one of the main communications companies in Abu Dhabi—has a large cellphone tower on top, disguised as a giant golf-ball. Off in the distance to the east there is a group of three towers that I have been unable to identify through either Google or asking cab drivers. Two buildings, also east, look as though they were originally triangular, Flatiron like towers, but were sliced diagonally by some sort of knife wielding giant. Finally, the two tallest buildings within my view—the so-called World Trade Center Abu Dhabi Residential Building and the Landmark tower—are both still under construction. The Landmark is closer to being completed, at least from where I sit, but the busy elevators and cranes on the WTCR hint that it is not far behind.
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If you asked me what the most beautiful building in the world was, my inner-New Yorker would instinctively react blurt out “The Chrysler Building” or “The Woolworth Building” or “The old Penn Station, before those bastards tore it down.” I probably wouldn’t agree with these after careful consideration; the Chrysler Building is a bit of a cliché, the Woolworth building, while nice, is nothing to write home (or to blog) about, and the old Penn Station was demolished over thirty-five years before I was born.
If I had to be objective about it, I would consider historical and architectural significance, beauty/grace/aesthetics, context, grandeur, and maybe a few other characteristics. How cool it felt to be on the top floor looking out, maybe. What the building would look like with King Kong perched on top. How likely it is that the building is actually an alien spaceship. I guess to be really objective, I would have to measure every major sky-scraper in the world. Actually, this seems like too much work. Chrysler Building it is!
* * *
The Landmark, which is in the western portion of my window, closer to the Corniche—the park/road/beach that runs along the northern coast of the main island of Abu Dhabi—is slated to be 324 meters tall. That is 1063 feet. Roughly 160 Lebron James. There is minimal information online about the tower. I think it is going to be residential—hello views—but that information comes from a website called “Emporis,” which I have never heard of. I like to think it’s just going to be one giant laser-tag arena. Buildings are usually most awe-inspiring when we are kids, anyway. After living in a city for a while, we get used to having these massive metal and glass monsters closing in around us, just as I imagine the pharaohs feelings about the pyramids developed after years of living near them. From “Look upon my works, ye mighty,” to “Oh, that’s just my father’s giant tomb,” to “they could have painted it purple or something, make it stand out from all the sand.”
It makes sense, then, to have the inside of the building be really fun for the kids too. They’ll get the most out of it.
* * *
I’m not even sure the Pharaohs lived near the pyramids. My knowledge of Egypt comes primarily from movies and that time I was in Aida (Elton John version) my Junior year of high school.
* * *
The World Trade Center Abu Dhabi Residential Building is slated to be 382 m. That is 1253.28 feet. About 188 Lebrons. The entire complex—and all information is from the official WTCAD website—will house a mall with 150 shops, 20 restaurants, and 8 movie screens, a market with 250 vendors, an office tower, and a Marriot. I don’t know how to convert all of that into basketball player units. 500 Dennis Rodmans, maybe? It is unclear, both from shallow internet research and the perspective from my window, as to if the residential tower is going to be the tallest or the second tallest tower in Abu Dhabi. The great Wikipedia lists it as the second tallest, but on its list of “tallest buildings in Abu Dhabi,” it fails to give a building that is taller. The official WTCAD website does not boast about the height of its main tower.
Given the position and surroundings of both buildings, however, the Landmark looks to be the more little-kid-awe-inspiring one. Again, my laser tag idea makes sense.
* * *
At some point I should wrap this up and make some sort of point about why people like sky-scrapers or how super-towers reflect the human condition or something like that.
* * *
Nope, I got nothing.
* * *
I guess the one thing I could say is that it is pretty damn cool to be able to see two defining towers being built. I mean, when we look at the Abu Dhabi skyline in three years, the Landmark and the WTCAD Residential will be two defining structures. They’ll be the buildings you say use to get your bearings. “Look kids, there is the Landmark, which means that is the oldest fort in Abu Dhabi right next to it.” Or, “oh, there is the WTCAD Residential tower, which means that is the Etisalat tower with the golf ball on top.”
* * *
Feel free to use those skyline facts to impress your children, or to show off on a first date. You don’t even have to give me credit.
* * *
Of course, towers and buildings come and go in Abu Dhabi. According to that awful Wikipedia article, after 1993, no building has held the title of “City’s Tallest” for more than four years. Maybe eventually some sort of hyper-tall Burj Khalifa will be built in Dhab-city and will sit on the Iron Throne for a long time. Until then, I’m just going to watch these towers go up, and imagine how much fun they could be on the inside.
For whatever reason, NYU flew all thirty-one fellows out to Abu Dhabi on business class. In addition, the majority of us were on an Emirates flight, which, according to the almighty Wikipedia, is considered one of the higher-end airlines. I have never flown/trained/been driven in business class, ever, so this whole situation was exciting for me. Some excitement stemmed from curiosity, but the majority was from that “I cannot wait to be pampered” feeling.
So here’s the set up. You arrive at the airport, and an Emirates employee is waiting for you at the curb. He loads your luggage onto a porter, and leads you to a Business Class line. This line is much shorter and less stressful than the so called economy line, although not as short as the First Class line, which is empty.
After briefly waiting to get your boarding pass and checking your luggage, you are ushered toward security. There is, again, a separate line than Economy, and you skip ahead about twenty people. When you’re finished joking with the cute girl behind you about the inconsistent standards of the FAA, you follow the signs for the Emirates Lounge. They lead you to a staircase, which leads you to a hall which has the entrances to your lounge and two others. You go to the front desk, show the woman there your passport and boarding pass, and you walk in.
You pass the fountain at the front, and the room opens up before you. It is large and divided into three sections. The smallest section, to your left, is a telecom/internet room. This room is empty. In front of you is the room where the actual lounging is done. There are about twenty sets of four leather chairs arranged to face one another. Back and to your right is the food area. In addition, on the glass wall that separates the telecom/internet room, there is a fully stocked bar–self serve.
While enjoying your whiskey and one last piece of New York Cheesecake, you finally notice the gate. At first it seems strange that the gate is in the lounge—are there stairs that connect it to the main gate? Then you realize that the plane is, in fact, a double decker, and you and the other business class/first class people are on the top deck. This means that not only are you sitting in a different section than the economies, but you won’t even see them during the flight.
They call all passengers to board and you finally get to see the cabin in which you will be spending half of a day in. The flight attendants direct you right, towards the tail, although you manage to sneak a peak at the first class cabin on your left. It looks magical; it appears that each person has their own small room which they can completely close themselves off in. But that is for another day, maybe, and you turn your eyes towards the present. Your seat is three rows back; Each row is four seats across with two aisles running through them, giving a 1-2-1 set up. Your seat is an A, so you are in the port-side one-seater.
Later, to yourself, you will run through different terms for the seat, unable to decide if it is a cubicle or a pod. The seat is divided from the aisle by a side table, which, when sitting, comes up to mid-bicep. There is a mini-bar on top of the table, with a selection of juices and waters. The chair itself looks like any other airline chair, until you recline and find that the chair becomes, quite easily, a bed. There is a cleverly cut out section of the lower part of the seat in front of you that fits your feet quite nicely. There is a touch-screen television right above that, which comes with both a remote and a smaller, remote-esque touch screen gadget. Later a friend will mention the massage function of the seat, and you will be upset that you missed it.
You are offered champagne immediately.
The food is delicious. You eat, over the course of twelve hours, tomato soup, beef fillet, a mushroom omlette, greek yogurt, fruit, a salad, and potatoes. You drink one and a half glasses of red wine. You watch the Big Sleep, fall asleep for ten minutes in the middle, and then watch the ending not quite sure who any of the non-Bogart/Bacall characters are. You sleep restlessly for an hour, and then like a baby for another five. You wake up twice, once over Ireland, once France. You try to get some reading done. You wander back to the bathrooms. Stretch your legs. Talk to a nice British woman and an incoherent Scottish man. Go back to your seat. Space out until landing.
At the Dubai airport you are met by another Emirates employee who brings you to a fast track immigration line. The guards there take a picture of your eyes, stamp your passport, and send you on your way. The Emirates employee then guides you to the Emirates car service lounge, which is less swanky, especially to you, having spent the past twelve hours wallowing in swank. As you drive away from the airport you turn around in your uncomfortable van seat and gaze behind you.
This post is getting lengthy, so perhaps I should say two things and then let the above weird second person narrative speak for itself:
The amount of alcohol available on business class flights is astounding. In the lounge there is an unattended fully stocked bar, and on the plane you can’t take a sip of anything without the attendants asking if you need a top off. Other than the aforementioned incoherent Scottish man, no one on the flight appeared smashed, bombed, slovenly, or white-girl-wasted. I am struggling to think of any other situation in which free alcohol is available and people are so in control of themselves.
Most of the perks in business class are the sort of hoity toity, easily mockable things we associate with out-of-touch CEO’s and morally bankrupt millionaires. However, having an on-plane lounge absolutely changes the dynamic of the trip. I’m a nervous flyer, constantly alert to turbulence. When I was sitting with my friend in the lounge, though, I forgot I was 30,000 feet in the air. The movies are nice, but give me a small area where I can sit and chat face to face over a back-of-the-seat-screen any day.
In her essay “In Plato’s Cave,” Susan Sontag decries photography and the effects photographs have on the way we interface with the world. The vehemency with which she argues against pictures and the people who take them is, after a certain point, grating; she never concedes any points to the pro-photography side, nor even discusses the positive qualities of photographs. She does make good points, though, about photos and travel:
“Most tourists feel compelled to put the camera between themselves and whatever is remarkable that they encounter. Unsure of other responses, they take a picture. This gives shape to experience: stop, take a photograph, and move on….Using a camera appeases the anxiety which the work-driven feel about not working when they are on vacation and supposed to be having fun.”
For Sontag, photographs are not representative of reality, so when people forgo an actual travel experience to take a picture of that experience, they are exchanging reality for a fiction. Basically, the claim is that taking a photograph destroys your chances of seeing the very reality that you futilely hope the photograph will capture.
The reason I am starting off with this essay is because, in starting a blog to write about my traveling, I worry I am doing something similar to the photo snapping tourists. Will writing a blog about traveling to the Middle East get in the way of me actually experiencing travel in the Middle East? When I am standing on the Burj Khalifa, will I be too busy thinking of what to blog about to actually take in the view? Am I going to be too busy trying to shape my experience to actually experience it?
The reason I am choosing to blog anyway is that words, I think, are different than photographs. A blog post takes an (admittedly short) period of post-trip reflection. After seeing or eating or doing something new, writing about it (and this is true of journaling too) forces me to pause and consider; having an audience (however small—Hi Mom!) forces me to dig deeper and find the interesting parts of what I’ve seen. I think if I manage the reflection and the digging—by keeping in mind that I need to experience first and reflect and dig later—I can have fun and learn, while also having a repository for memories, thoughts, and feelings.
As this is my first post, I probably should explain the why/how. I am Matthew J Flood, and I am a Global Academic Fellow (GAF) for NYU Abu Dhabi. I am going to spend the better part of a year in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, tutoring and teaching in writing to undergrads. I leave in the middle of August, after training at NYU NYC, and I stay until the end of May next year.
I have all sorts of plans for this blog, but like most things, it won’t be what it is until it’s actually finished. Expect pictures (sorry Ms. Sontag), stories, thoughts, unintelligible nonsense, quotes, reviews, fears, hopes, wishes, dreams. Comment, say hello, talk to me; I’m probably missing the US and all of my people there. Let me know if I’m boring. I don’t know if anyone will read this, and I may just be sending my words into the abyss of the internet. But nonetheless, when the dust settles on my experiences, this is where I plan to come to wipe them off and look at them anew.