A few hundred years ago the United Arab Emirates was nothing other than a few sand dunes, a couple of camels and some guys spending their entire lives searching for water. The British ruled plenty of countries in the area and were trying to get some kind of import export business going. The Portuguese ruled what is now the Emirates, but it was a country of banditry and often British ships would get robbed whilst in the vicinity by pirates. Finally getting pissed off with being robbed, the British rocked up and chinned the Portuguese, the country was re branded as the Trucial Oman and things calmed down. The British soon got bored and so bailed, they left behind an arid desert with an inhospitable climate and not much going on in the way of nightlife. They had no idea that within a century The UAE would be one of the richest countries on earth, with a GDP of almost $50,000 per individual the British sailed away into the night drinking Port and eating cucumber sandwiches thinking they were slick.
In the 1960’s the Americans turned up and struck oil. Within a decade schools had replaced palm trees, cars had replaced camels and people arrived en masse all keen on a slice of the action. By the 90’s half of the population were immigrants working for anything they could get paid and within half a decade the United Arab Emirates had transformed their once arid nation into one of the most advanced countries on earth. Whilst the British still looked to the 1966 World Cup Final for a reminder that something decent did once happen on the Island, the UAE looked to the future. They envisaged a world decades beyond themselves and set about creating a nation borne of wealth from a natural resource. Something so precious it would reach beyond that wealth, and whilst the UK was slapping backs and shaking hands of the EU the King of the Emirates was creating the GCC. The Gulf Cooperation Council is essentially most of the countries of the Arab world all working together as a united power. Whereas the EU threatens to stop trade the GCC can stop oil, with a GDP of about $1.5trillion over only 42 million people it is a force not to be reckoned with and probably the most powerful collective of countries on the planet.
The Emirates is therefore a magnet for people all over the world, it is perhaps one of the most prestigious destinations globally. It’s a place I love, the relaxed attitude of the Arabian people, their amazing history, their culture, their country.
It was the next (albeit short) stop on our journey, but still I looked forward to being there once again whilst the kids looked forward to Dunkin Donuts.
You have to understand that flights leaving the Western World are very strict on most things. I am not the one to judge on airline policy which is a reflection on safety – But anyone that has flown in Asia will know things work a little differently. For instance the seat belt sign means nothing. Seeing someone get up to grab a last minute munch from their bag in the overhead locker as the plane is hurtling down the runway is not uncommon. As is hearing someone on the phone as it takes off.
A couple of months back I took Jack to Poland for a few days and on the flight back (Ryanair) a guy was getting shirty with the stewardess, it was something to do with her not serving him any more alcohol and it kicked off. He was shouting and swearing and upon landing the police were waiting. Yet, the flight from istanbul to Sharjah was much worse. I was sat chilling watching a movie on the iPad about an hour into the flight and Charlie got my attention telling me something is kicking off at the back of the plane. Now, I am the sort of person that follows the mantra of ‘if it doesn’t involve me then it has nothing to do with me’ and so usually I just walk away from havoc. But on a plane what can you do. Turns out some guy decided the no smoking didn’t apply to him and was puffing away in the loo. The alarm had gone off and the crew had opened the door, he had pushed the woman away and was holding the door shut. The male cabin crew was shouting at him in Arabic and eventually someone helped him grab the man out of the toilet. An argument ensued 38,000 feet above Iraq and it looked like it might get messy. The funny thing is, and I wonder why but the argument was in English. This is not the first time I have heard this either, for some reason arguments always seem to be in English? Anyway the guy took his seat, a bit of air spray was squirted and everyone got on with life. No police on landing, nothing.
I got back to my movie and the kids asked if we were eating, it was tea time(ish) and I said we would wait. The movie finished and I was winding Charlie up when the pilot made an announcement. He said something along the lines of the time and Iftar?? I think. Anyway suddenly just about every single light went on to call the crew. It became very quickly apparent that it was Ramadan and now was the time people could eat. Knowing we now had ages to wait Charlie commented “nice one dad”
A little later I was chilling out looking out to the darkness, I was looking at all the oil rigs over the gulf, their flames shining like eyes in the night. Suddenly I am disturbed by a commotion at the side of me, Charlie is arguing with an Arab boy, neither could understand each other but the boy had been kicking Charlie’s seat, he’d asked him to stop and so the boy had done it harder. I got involved and the boys mother was laughing, she told me he was a “problem” when his father was not around. We chatted for about half an hour about life, kids and reasoning. As we spoke she removed the Hijab covering her face, it felt so human, so normal. Personally I believe all people equal, regardless of colour, sex, faith or sexual orientation. But it is easy to see the Hijab as a sign of male dominance and often you forget that underneath the mask is a person, a human being.
The plane landed and sure enough people were up grabbing their things before we’d even slowed down off the runway. Customs was a breeze and I bagged some Paracetamol for my headache from a guy at immigration, we hit Dunkin Donuts and grabbed the bus to King Faisal st in Sharjah. It was almost 10pm and 40 degrees. We head back to the UAE soon and so will talk more about transport then, but it’s cheap. We checked into our hotel and slept until our alarm at 4am. We had an early morning flight to Kathmandu, Nepal some 2000 miles away. In the lobby of the hotel a bloke offered to give us a lift since he was headed to the airport himself. Within minutes we were heading to the airport, 90 miles per hour, darkness, amazing.
The flight to Kathmandu was half empty, it was a bright morning with clear skies. Eventually on our left was the Himalayas, their peaks almost as high as the plane itself. On the right was the plains of Northern India. The flight took about four hours and as we descended through monsoon clouds the kids had their hands in the air as usual feeling every drop and bump of the plane and loving it. I am convinced some people no doubt had the death grip but we’d been on a plane being thrown all over the skies many times before. To the kids it was fun, to me it was a case of ‘I hope there isn’t a mountain in that cloud’
As the plane touched down at Kathmandu, I felt a tinge of relief. Not like we had just arrived at the capitol city of one of the poorest countries on earth, but almost like we were home, back amongst people we loved, a culture we adored and a lifestyle we appreciated and tried hard to understand. We were firmly planted deep in Asia, and as I saw my name on a placard amongst the chaos outside the airport I smiled, it was hot, humid, absolute chaos, the seat belts didn’t work, the smell of incense in the air, the sound of horns was deafening and cattle filled the street amongst motorbikes and ancient vehicles. People begged for life at the road side and children kicked about balls laughing. We had left one of the worlds most advanced and richest countries, to one of the worlds poorest and yet still people smiled.
The driver asked “First time in Nepal Sir…” I smiled as I remembered just how much I loved this place.