July 2014


20140525_154902After four intense days of work in Dhaka, I boarded an early morning plane with colleagues just hours after the closing awards ceremony for our young entrepreneurs. The flight was delayed taking off, but I simply tried to nap, eager to be home in time for Memorial Day. We had a couple hours to make our connection in Abu Dhabi, so I wasn’t too worried.

It turns out that since they set up a U.S. Customs station in Abu Dhabi, so you actually need to make it to the “gate” about two hours before departure to go through U.S. immigration. We got there 40 minutes before take off because of the delay; customs had closed over half an hour before. The airline got us on the next day’s flight and booked us into the airport’s hotel. Suddenly, we had 24 hours surprise visit in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

After a lovely 90 minute nap, I was ready to see what there was to see and to see how it compared to Dubai. After the humid heat of Dhaka, the dry heat of Abu Dhabi was a welcome change although Thor and Jim (my colleagues on the same flights) didn’t agree with me. Jim chose to keep sleeping while Thor and I went exploring.

First stop we decided was the 2014-05-25 17.11.27Emirates Palace, the 7 star hotel in Abu Dhabi that has a gold vending machine. (In Dubai, the 7 star hotel is the Burj al Arab that I’ve had tea in.) Which is exactly what we did at the Emirates Palace, where I was awed by the splendor and enjoyed “blue” tea that looked as “blue” as white tea does “white.”  The chocolate cake was so rich, we didn’t finish it. I know, for me, that’s almost a defeat.

Our next step was to walk to the Cornishe,  a curve on the western side of the main Abu Dhabi island that accesses the water. Just like in Dubai, no one walks, especially not in the heat, but we did. Once we actually sunk our toes in the sand, I noticed another similarity to Dubai: the public beach was not immaculate.

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The Sheikh Zayed Mosque was a quick taxi ride away and simply breath-taking, particularly at sunset when we were there. Constructed between 1996 and 2007 by the late president of the UAE, it is a very modern mosque with an amazing floral theme. Materials and artists used to create and decorate the building come from all over the Muslim world because a goal of this mosque was unity of Muslims, who are quite diverse. The main carpet is Iranian, and the chandeliers are German. Below are some photos that begin to do it justice.

One final word about souks. As many of you know, walking through souks is one of my favorite pasttimes in the Middle East. I love the experience of being overwhelmed first by spices, then by the butcher stall, then by gold jewelry store, only to come upon a fruit stand that beacons. So I feel I should share that while the Souk at Qaryat al Beri is lovely, it is actually a modern mall. It has a fabulous view of the mosque and good restaurants, but it is not where you should go if you are trying to experience a traditional souk. However, it is a welcome oasis of air conditioning in Abu Dhabi.

 

All of which is to say that my day in Abu Dhabi was truly amazing.

 

(Photos in the gallery at the end of this post are (c) 2014 Kathryn Pharr.)

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(c) 2014 Kathryn Pharr

The wheels of the plane had almost touched the ground when I realized that this trip marked the first time I would actually be on the continent of Asia. Despite trips to Asia Minor and southeast Asian islands, I’d never been to the mainland although places like Thailand, India, and China have been on my bucket list. With added enthusiasm, I embarked on another work adventure. I was un-surprised to learn that my checked bags hadn’t made the tight connection through Abu Dhabi. It was reassuring to know that my carry-on had the requisite change of clothes in it.

Bangladesh isn’t a place that attracts that many American tourists, but like everywhere I go, I was intrigued. Bangladesh has the world’s longest natural beach and is due to go underwater by about 30% with rising sea levels from climate change. As one of the most densely populated countries in the world, this brings up a few looming difficulties. Bangladesh was separated from India under the British in 1947 and declared East Pakistan. Bangladesh’s war for liberation from Pakistan occurred in 1971. At night in Dhaka, there is a lovely colorfully lit monument to the seven heroes of the civil war that you can see on your way to the airport (since most flights leave in the early hours this is almost something you can’t miss, even on a work trip).

Be sure that you never confuse Bangladeshi briyani with that dish from India. The local food is wonderful, spicy, and focused on rice and fish with some excellent beef dishes. I was amazed at the number of burger joints throughout Dhaka.

As always, it was exciting to watch the science and tech entrepreneurs pitch their solutions to what they see as the greatest need of their city, country, or region. It’s important to understand that Bangladesh has more to offer than the sad realities that people focused on during the garment factory collapse last year. Several of these local entrepreneurs wanted to make sure that I knew Bangladesh had more to offer as they began telling me about their ideas and startups. The Bangladeshis have a strong “can do” attitude that is inspiring. The photo at the top of this post is of a local attorney teaching entrepreneurs about intellectual property rights (IPR).

Although this trip was almost exclusively a “see hotel room, see conference room” four day trip, I was able to meet up with a friend and take in a full hour of the local scene: a rickshaw ride and help buying pearls. There is a trick to riding richshaws: you should prop your feet on top of the edge of the footrest and not settle it into the plank in case the driver suddenly stops. (Don’t worry; I’m not sharing a first-hand experience.) Riding in an open richshaw gives you the chance to see the locals and experience the life in a way that is simply impossible from inside a car. It’s the difference between watching a movie and walking down the street. I also picked up some tricks buying pearls: 1) you can rub them against your teeth and if they feel gritty, they’re real or 2) real pearls don’t melt so use a flame to heat them up. I vastly prefer the latter, both for sanitary and pyromaniac reasons.