05 August 2011

Are we there yet?


My first visit to Dubai came and went in a 12-hour blur.

A sign reading "Mr. Sussman" greeted me at the gate, and I left the glistening airport for the near-empty roadways and a nearby hotel. The night air was desert-hot, but I wasn't outside the deep chill of air conditioning long enough for it to actually sink into my skin. I found myself instinctively searching for context, and came up with Miami meets Las Vegas. To be fair, I hardly saw the city itself. Though when faced with a new environment, we always look for familiar markers to give context to experience, an inner voice that says: I understand; I know what to do here. The Arabic road signs were like math equations I did't understand. There's an inherent order, but an abject foreignness. And then we whizzed past the requisite Chili's and TGI Fridays.

This trip is distinctively different from most of my other OLTW travels: it has far more of a cultural navigation than an environmental one. Instead of researching things like GPS coordinates and radio carbon dating, I've wondered "should I be wearing a head scarf?" As I contemplated what it is like to be a woman in this culture, and whether or not I should dare swim in the hotel pool in just my skivvies (a resounding no), a ridiculously phallic "fruit basket" arrived -- two bananas jaunting upward out of an undulating crystal bowl, and apple and an orange nestled at their base. I laughed out loud and set my alarm for 4:45am.


The storm over the Indian Ocean was fierce but brief. The sky is still a heavy gray, and it's just as sultry as before the downpour. The waves reach up to the rocky sea wall, and I'm drinking coffee amidst the other guests at this partially restored colonial hotel. Yesterday I sat with an Indian man on holiday here (his wife wanted to go to Europe, and had opted to simply stay home), who told me that both JFK and Marilyn Monroe had stayed here when it was at its prime. He was quick to add that they hadn't stayed here together, as if I might somehow be scandalized.

The past day or so went by in a haze. I thought about leaving the hotel for a walk yesterday, but was met with so many warnings about getting scammed, not to mention the mid-day heat, that I scarcely got half way down the Galle Face Green (more like a fallow soccer field than a "green" per se), that I turned around and came back. I haven't felt particularly comfortable thus far, and it dawned on me why: I feel more like an interloper than a guest. There is a cultural language as much as a spoken one that I'm not privy to. Thus far I feel like a tourist, not a traveler.

But later today I'll dip my toes in the water and start meeting people: first, Suranjan, a university contact via the Thilo Hoffman, preeminent conservationist and uncle of the incomparable Tina Roth Eisenberg, and the later, I'll visit the home of friends of my cousin Laura and her husband Wijitha.

And tomorrow I head out to Anuradapura. I'll let you know when I get there.