Van: Among Black Machines

[The travel writing continues! I know I ended the Dubai piece saying I found some better places eventually, but I think I’ll be getting to them much further down the line. For now we’ve got the city of Van, in Turkey.]

“No bus”, said the bus driver, leaning against his bus.

“…what?” was all I could come up with. I could see the bus right there, looking like something that had been dug up rather than built. I gestured meaningfully at the driver with my ticket while he took a short drag on his cigarette.

“No bus. No bus two days. Thursday, there might be bus… maybe” he said.

I looked at him while readjusting my backpack. These things have a tendency to get heavy all of a sudden. Had the driver forgotten how this worked? Planes and ships get delayed. Buses don’t. Some force was penning them in. Wondering if I was missing something, I looked around.

The city of Van didn’t have a bus terminal. Instead, the buses, minibuses and coaches of the town all lined up on one side of one of the main street, choking and spitting amongst themselves. What else was there to see? This was a still town, with flat buildings that made canyons of the streets. The only other structures I’d seen on the way here had been shattered stone castles and crumbling monasteries that lay like shipwrecks throughout the rolling, dark grasslands of Eastern Turkey. Ancient constructs built to last, long since twisted apart by wind and war.

The bus driver finished his cigarette and clambered back into the vehicle, and I wandered down the street to more idle drivers. Between them they had enough English to tell me how all public transport in this part of the country had been grounded for the country’s election, which was happening that night. Whatever was going to happen next, the government wanted it contained.

But I’d find a way out, and onwards, I told myself. There’s always a way.

I had the true extent of my shit situation outlined for me in the overwhelming beige and battered surroundings of a nearby travel agent. The man who worked there didn’t look like he knew anything about moving, let alone travelling, and was dressed like he hadn’t even seen someone wearing a suit properly in a movie.

“These are serious times,” he said. I heard from him that the radical Kurdistan Workers Party, aka the PKK, had that week issued death threats to some of the political candidates in Van. The PKK opposed EU membership and Turkey’s reform, and weren’t to be fucked with. They had training camps in countries across the region, followed a Maoist ideal that cities should be seized by force, had a long history of taking hostages and back in the 90s had even managed to get cyanide into the water tanks used by the Turkish air force. Would I like a hotel? He knew many fine hotels.

Leaving the travel agent I heard a distant rumbling, which turned out to be coming from a very different kind of bus.

Down the street from me was a monster that spanned the entire street. It was a riot bus, a black hole of a vehicle that could barely manoeuvre through Van’s boxy streets. About half of the synapses I’d built in my brain from years of playing videogames fired at once. The thing had tight metal grating over its tiny windows, a carapace of armour plating, a massive black snowplough, remote-controlled machine guns and a crown of three-pronged tubes that could be used to throw grenades. Destroy it! went my brain. Hide! Stand your ground! Run away! Look for a weak spot!

In response, the loudspeakers on the machine barked out a warning, the syllables hitting the street like hailstones. Astonishingly, no-one else was paying any attention to it. The few pedestrians I could see were all crammed against the glass walls of Börek shops and cafés, craning to try and see the coverage of the election on TV.

I went over and joined them, but it was pointless. The newscast was all in Turkish, punctuated with numbers and initialisms that meant nothing to me. This wasn’t my world. I heard the riot bus rumble past behind me and I felt its dark gravity.

As much as we might associate danger with the doomsday scarlet of blood and sirens, danger is not red, and it’s not loud. Danger is quiet, and it’s the same colour as ignorance and boredom; it is no colour at all. Danger is a void, or at most a hormonal uneasiness.

Standing shoulder to shoulder with those hairy men, trying to glean anything at all from the television, I felt that the sirens in the distance were a little too close together and that the distant shouts you can always hear in a city were carrying a different urgency. Then I noticed that the dusky guys around me seemed completely unaware of my presence, the attention a tourist usually draws now absent. I felt unimportant and unprotected, and began pacing back to my hotel.

Five minutes later I was walking down a smaller road, picking my way over roadblocks constructed from barrels and signs that hadn’t been there two hours ago. Were the sirens and shouts around me getting louder, or was I blindingly walking towards them? Towards the epicentre of.. whatever it was. My foggy comprehension of this scene had me picturing packs of furious men whose political ideals began and ended at blood, and lots of it. I pictured the government forces priming their menacing engines of pacification, eager to send any number of teeth rolling down the roads like dice.

Two men, bold in bomber jackets, emerged from around the corner. For all of my evil daydreams I only spared them a glance, so it was only when I got closer that I saw their lazy poses included the couching of black guns against their shoulders. They asked if I spoke English. I said yes. They were barely twenty feet away, which I calculated was a good murderin’ distance.

“You don’t go this way” said the shorter of the two, the taller one casually glancing back the way they came. “It’s dangerous.”

“Why? I need to go back to my hotel.”

“Go another way,” he said, pointing back the way I came with the barrel of his gun. I turned away from them and walked back the way I’d came. Where had they come from? Where do any of the men who grow up to wear bomber jackets and carry guns come from? I imagined thousands of them, squatting professionally under the manholes of Van.

So I went looking for another way. The streets I’d come down were even more empty now, lending themselves to Hollywood disaster movie level despondency. Loose newspaper pages blew back and forth between those tightly packed concrete buildings, the only colour coming from faded posters and peeling billboards, the only noise the distant orchestra of urban unrest.

By this point all curiosity in me was gone. If I was going to get the shit kicked into or out of me by a mob advocating national isolationism, or taken hostage by a terrorist organization in the excitement their finest hour, it was always going to be in a crap town on an uninteresting night like this.

I was half expecting to find said mob directly outside my hotel’s front door when I turned the corner, but there was nothing there. In the distance the roar of a crowd persisted, tinted with victory and zeal, and the sirens were multiplying. I scuttled through the door into my hotel, up the stairs to my room, and dumped my pack and myself on the bed with equal carelessness.

The springs squeaked their own protest as I rolled onto my back. Then I looked up at the ceiling, and I waited.


Dubai: Tower of Arabia

[I’m going through some of the travel journalism I wrote back in 2008. This week, I’m going to be touching these pieces up and posting them here.

Let’s start with Dubai. I used to work in Dubai. Let me tell you about it.]

And then it was Monday, and it was half nine in the morning and I was running late for work. Which isn’t to say I was actually running. That would have been crazy. The hot summers that Dubai seems to spend all year incubating will squeeze the moisture from you like mannish hands twisting a grubby dishcloth. Lest ye forget, this land is a desert, and it has killed more people than you will ever meet.

I was walking, slow and steady, trying to delay the onset of sweat through will alone while I searched my neighborhood for a taxi. This was making me stressed, which was making me sweat.

I bumped into James in the sandy alleyway between two tall, bleached hotels. One was lemony yellow, the other was sickly pink. Someone had laid down planks of wood here to make traversing the sand easier, and our shiny black work shoes made nice clomping noises as we made our way towards each other. James usually got up early to catch our company bus, so it was strange seeing him here.

“Missed the bus”, said James.

“Right” I said. “Want to get a taxi?”

“No, I’m going back to my room to get my camera. There’s a huge fucking fire over towards the city.”

“…Right” I said again, my brain dancing around a few Middle Eastern worst case scenarios. “A fire, huh? I’m gonna go take a look.”

Sure enough, the moment I emerged from the alleyway I spotted the huge spear of black smoke. I brought a flattened hand to my forehead and squinted through the sun. At this distance the smoke was moving slowly enough to seem like a giant beanstalk, curling once or twice and dwarfing the skyscrapers at its base.

I was still trying to figure out how far my office was from the site of the fire when a taxi pulled up next to me. As Dubai mornings go, that’s the jackpot. The driver rolled the window down and asked where I was going, a question I cooly ignored until I’d scrambled into the passenger seat. Traffic in Dubai is often so bad that cabs will drive off instead of taking you to an unprofitable location, and there are two ways around this. You can tell the driver you want to go somewhere way out in the desert, then abruptly change your mind a minute into the journey, or you can climb inside the cab before you announce your destination and then flail your arms over their legal obligation to satisfy a customer once you’re physically inside the cab.

This is just one problem the Dubai cab-surfer has to deal with. Other problems include the lack these cabs, the lack of spoken English among the drivers and the lack of local knowledge among the drivers (“You want to go where? The bank?”). If you’re being whiny, there’s also the problem that most cab drivers will have gone from passing their driving test at age thirty to being inserted straight into their cab like a battery into an RC car, so you’re probably in for a bumpy ride.

And so it is that riding these cabs often transcends into an art form.

“Chilli’s restaurant in Garhoud,” I told the driver as I dropped into his sexy-filthy air-conditioned vehicle. Employees of my company learned to navigate to work through use of the Chilli’s quickly, since taxi drivers might not know road names, office buildings or even districts but they could read a huge neon sign as well as anybody. “Take Garhoud bridge.”

I liked Garhoud bridge not only because I reckoned it was a faster route but because it was a toll bridge, and toll gates are the funnest part of the Dubai taxi dance. There’s a button on the cab fare ticker that puts 3 extra dirhams on the fare to account for tolls, and if you’re not careful your driver might employ some legerdemain to hit that button twice. But if you feign distraction and then catch them doing this, you can threaten to call the company number on their dashboard and get a discounted fare or maybe even ride for free.

But there was no trickery that day, and soon I was pacing up the hot stone steps to my company, to my desk and my job.

I was working as a scavenger. That’s what I called it. The website I worked for was a regional technology and business news portal, but regional PR left a lot to be desired and our company’s budget left us with a staggeringly tiny staff. So my job was to scour the internet for relevant stories and rewrite them so we could give as little credit to the original source as possible. Most of the time I’d steal a picture too, and finally all of the magazines that our company also produced would visit our site and steal the content I’d already stolen, occasionally letting us steal an article in return.

I was positive this larceny would get to a point where all of the region’s news sources would be slyly bootlegging news off one another to create a perfect closed cycle of aging information, but despite me accidentally coming close to stealing my own stolen articles on several occasions (news which had been stolen from our site by other sites, after I’d stolen it) this never actually came to pass. Not while I was there, at least.

On that morning my job did at least give me a nice excuse to find out more about the apocalyptic fire that was still raging a few miles away. The story developed over the course of the morning across a few Dubai news sites, and eventually the truth came out. The fire had been caused by an accidental explosion in an illegal fireworks factory. I wrote an email to James asking him to send me a photo of the smoke stack, edited together what everyone else had written and got it all uploaded in record time. This was more than cause for a victory cappuccino, which is like a regular cappuccino plus enough sugar to stop everything from mattering.

The rest of the day passed slowly. My boss disappeared to a Samsung press conference in the afternoon, came back with a shiny new mobile phone and threw up a story on the exciting new range of Samsung TVs that would be hitting the region later that summer. Soon it was time for the taxi dance again, and then I was back in my hotel room with the kitchenette and the generic art and the trippy TV that only ever showed anything in lime green and purple. I cooked a boil-in-the-bag curry, and I ate it. And that was Monday.

You can wash, rinse and repeat that stuff for Tuesday through Friday. Weekends I spent hanging out at the Mall of the Emirates, where I’d enjoy movies, books and fast food franchises that had been dreamed up elsewhere. It was either that or getting some friends together to partake of a world famous (not world famous) Dubai brunch, which is offered by every one of the hundreds of swank hotels in the city. It’s like a regular brunch, except it costs around $50, lasts until four in the afternoon and features all-you-can-drink champagne. These are your choices. Shopping mall, or oblivion in a meal.

Before I’d come out here, back when I was wondering whether or not to apply for the job, a friend of mine had told me it was “like the Wild West out there” in Dubai. This had pushed all kinds of buttons for me. I imagined Dubai as a frontier town, dusty and dangerous, where good men with brass balls could carve a life for themselves by bringing civilisation to the wilderness. Even if a young hack like me couldn’t get involved in a strange scene like that, I could at least observe it.

It wasn’t until after I’d gotten out there that I understood what my friend had meant. He hadn’t meant the buzz-word, all-American, Hollywood Wild West. He’d meant the actual real-life Wild West that existed in America 200 years ago. Dubai is predominantly sweaty men, most of whom live in terrible conditions, trying to build a city without ever having done it before. While in America this resulted in two dozen different flavours of the same city, Dubai doesn’t even have a template to work from. It has no idea what it’s trying to build, and it shows.

But I was surrounded by people who loved the city. Or rather, people who loved the abundant pools and private beaches, the sun, the cheap labour and their own tax-free status. But while I was making more money than I knew what to do with, and had even made a few friends, I was also a part of the city. This was starting to feel overwhelmingly pointless.

More than anything, Dubai wants respect. But it doesn’t know how to get this beyond spending money to make bits and pieces of the city that much bigger and more ostentatious. Think about what Dubai’s famous for. The billion dollar bridges, the trillion dollar hotels and the unfathomably costly Burj Dubai, which is one of several buildings under construction around the world that has a shot at one day being the world’s tallest building. Nobody actually knows which will be tallest because – and I love this – while precisely how many floors each of these buildings will have is well know, the pointless spikes that sit atop them are constructed in secret, in an aircraft hanger in Germany or someplace, to later be transported to the building.

Back to the point- these projects Dubai is famous for are vulgarities, prestige projects for rich architects that more often than not have been turned down by other, more prestigious cities for being too expensive or too dangerous prior to being accepted by the government of Dubai.

The Burj Dubai has been behind schedule for a while now. Its problems include (but are by no means limited to) the company that was contracted to provide the windows going bust, the construction workers rioting and destroying all of the Mercedes and Porsches in the Managers’ car park with sledgehammers and the entire half-finished structure physically sinking into the ground because the thing is literally built on sand.

I spent Saturday at my favourite mall. Dubai has lots of malls. More per capita than anywhere else on the planet, in fact. Then I spent Sunday sunbathing, although the warnings of modern medicine had driven me to a protective sunblock so strong that my efforts to get a tan on the roof of my hotel were equivalent to holding a piece of bread up towards the sun and hoping it toasts.

And then it was Monday again. Statistically the city would have received 5,740 new immigrants since that Monday before, the Monday with the fire. I hadn’t met any of them.

That next Monday when I got home after work I figured I’d go swimming. This was a sneaky process that involved paying a visit to the classy Dhow Palace Hotel next door to my own hotel, then riding the elevator to the top floor, changing in a toilet and finally making my way to the beautiful rooftop pool. That day as a warmup I decided to take the stairs up to the Dhow Palace roof instead of the elevator, and was only just starting my climb when a frosted glass window caught my eye.

Now, this stairwell was located in the dead centre of the building, and the Dhow Palace didn’t have anything resembling a courtyard. There was no reason for a window to be here. Stranger still, it was pitch black behind the glass despite the sun not having set.

I checked to see I was alone. I was. I tested the window’s handle. It was unlocked.

The second I tugged the window open the air in the stairwell turned violent. A blast of desert dust exploded in from the window with such force that, for some eight seconds, I was blind. Eventually the dust eased and a low howl began. I had opened a window to hell, I was sure of it.

Creeping forward, I peered through the window to find a dark, narrow, vertical shaft, some four feet by three feet, containing nothing but a ladder and some pipes. My portal to hell theory was still holding steady. It was only by sticking my head through the window and peering in both directions that I saw the ladder did, in fact, have a beginning and end. The shaft ran from a tiny patch of sand at ground level, all the way up fourteen stories to the roof of the Dhow palace. You could just see a tiny, fingernail-sized rectangle of orange sky through the gloom.

About two months before this I’d heard a rumour that to keep up Dubai’s phenomenal rate of construction, buildings were often built around the cranes erected in the centre of the building site. When the job was done these cranes would supposedly either be dismantled or pulled out of place by an even bigger crane, and the purposeless hole would be left behind. It was just easier that way. This was what I’d found. This dirty little architectural secret, this grotty dead space, was evidence of that procedure.

It was, all told, an extremely bad moment for that uniquely male impulse of needing to climb what’s in front of you to strike. But that’s what happened. After a couple of seconds spent tugging at the ladder to test its sturdiness I hoisted myself up and through the hole and onto the ladder, shut the window behind me and began to climb.

I emerged at the top a few minutes and fourteen stories later, hot, dusty, achy and scared. The section of the roof I was on was separated from the pool by a hive of nonsensical machinery, a mess of gratings and fans and satellite dishes all painted the same flaky beige and connected by humming conduits. I wiped some sweat from my eyes and saw, to my surprise, that from up here and with the sun behind me I had a perfect view of the city. Most of Dubai’s skyscrapers are lined up on either side of Sheik Zayed road, the city’s main highway, formerly known as Defence Road back when the Emirates had a less friends. This arrangement means that if you catch Dubai from exactly the wrong side (looking down the Sheik Zayed road) the city’s fabled skyline is made up of only two buildings. But from the West side of the Dhow Palace Hotel’s roof, it was the other way around. A perfect row of glittering superstructures, lit up by LEDs and spotlights and money.

Yet what I was seeing was also hopeless. I had the best possible view of the city’s proudest achievement. There was nothing else.

The way the city insisted on growing made it seem positively cancerous to me then. The urban sprawl in front of me was continuing to bulk up as if the problems the city faced, the upward spiral of living costs, the non-existent public transport, the horrific violation of the immigrant working class, the various damaging aspects of a theocratic plutocracy, as if all of it would be somehow solved with the arrival of another half a million young men. Dubai was growing like it was going out of style. Joke is, growing actually was going out of style and Dubai didn’t know it.

And I was contributing to it all, to this parody of a city. This wasn’t what anybody was meant for. This was no destiny. It was a wrong turn that had to be corrected as soon as possible.

I handed in my notice at my job that week, but it wasn’t enough. It wasn’t anything, really, except an embarrassing confirmation that I’d failed to work for my minimum employment period and would therefore get charged by the company for the flight tickets they’d paid for, the visa fees, hotel subsidies, medical test fees (Dubai sends any HIV-positive immigrants home) and mobile phone rental. I spent the last ten minutes of my last day at the office working out how much I’d actually been paid for my final month after these damages. It came to 28 American cents an hour, or $13 a week, which I figured was more than generous considering the service I was actually providing the world. $13 a week is also a figure in the same ballpark as what the South Asian immigrants who make up most of Dubai get paid to this day.

Awesomely, the guys and girls at Human Resources shut down my company network account the very second the clock hit 6pm on that final day, causing Windows to cut away from the goodbye email I was writing to demand a login request. Five minutes later when I was writing the same email again on a friend’s computer, a member of security arrived to escort me out of the building. Dubai officially didn’t want me anymore.

Four hours later I was perched in the departure lounge of Dubai International Airport and looking up at the massive golden palm tree that dominates the hall. I’d seen it before but it was only then that I spotted with a deep kind of terror that this palm tree was, in fact, built out of hundreds of bars of gold bullion, which due to the structure of the thing couldn’t have been anything other than painted plastic. It was like a clumsy metaphor for the entire city and made me desperately happy I was leaving. As a departure lounge objet d’art it had succeeded in that, at least.

I had no idea where I was going, but ‘away’ was good enough for me then. In Dubai I’d found a place which was doing everything wrong, which meant there was a chance a place might exist that did everything right, which in turn meant that by traveling I wasn’t just circling a drain. There was hope for our species after all.