Apr 30, 2008

The Souks Of Dubai

Dubai could very well be the upscale shopping mall capital of the world but its consumer roots are souks, the Arabic word for market. You can find some of the more traditional covered souks near the creek.

Lined with hundreds of vendors you’ll find plenty of bling in the Gold Souk on the Deira side of the creek.

Not far from the Gold Souk is the Spice Souk. Used for millennium you will find an abundance of Frankincense and saffron here.

The Bur Dubai Souk on the other side of the creek has many textiles and every day items. The glittery Arabian slippers caught my eye on more than one occasion. In fact a pair is housed in a closet not far from where I sit.

Apr 28, 2008

London You’ve Changed

It had been more than three years since I last stepped foot in London, a city I once knew well. In that relatively short time there has been major changes. I don’t find the changes surprising so much as how quickly they took place.

--London has never been cheap, but the cost of living or traveling there is now astronomical. Sure the value of the dollar has gone the way of Monopoly money in recent years but I’m talking about inflation. As an example the cheapest single ride tube fare in 2006 would have cost you two pounds sterling. Today that same ride will cost you four pounds ($8.00). London’s public transport is now the most expensive in the world. This photo of an HSBC ad campaign taken in the bowels of Heathrow Airport sums up the cost of living.

--The iconic Routemaster double decker buses have been replaced with a redesigned modern version. The Routemasters, produced in the 1950s and 1960s, were phased out on all but two routes in central London, which are frequented by tourists.

--Many Mom and Pop shops have closed and been replaced by chain stores and coffee franchises. I’ve seen this happen in New York City in recent years. Real estate values have risen to record levels and so have rents pushing independent merchants out of business. I only had a little time to wander in London but noticed this distinctly in Notting Hill. Some of the vintage home furnishing shops I loved checking out on regular basis, for example, have bit the dust.

--A large Eastern European community has emerged following the expansion of the European Union. What’s unique about this group is that many won’t necessarily immigrate to the U.K. They will work in the U.K. for a few years, where there are far better wages and employment opportunities, before returning home. In some respects they are the new migrant workers, skilled and international.

--The best part of Camden Market, The Horse Stables, has been demolished (more on this later).

--There is construction everywhere due to the real estate boom. The global credit debacle has already started to slow this down.

Some things were exactly as I left them:

--The local lives. Pub culture is still alive and well (but smoking is no longer allowed).

--The extraordinary amount of languages you hear when walking down the street.

--The tube stop closest to where you need to go on the weekend will no doubt be closed due to track work. A bus replacing the route will turn a 15-minute journey into an hour-long odyssey.

--London cabbies are the best in the world but at a price (see above).

--My old neighborhood Little Venice hasn’t changed a bit (more on this later).

Apr 23, 2008

City Icons-Dubai

The Burj al Arab is the ultimate example of contemporary Arabian decadence and luxury. But the concept of its shape is true to Dubai’s roots, the sail of a dhow.

The hotel sits on a tailor made island in the Arabian Sea. At 1,060 feet tall it’s just a few hundred feet less than the Empire State Building.

While official hotel ratings go as high as 5 stars, the Burj al Arab bills itself as the only 7 star hotel in the world. You can arrive in style from the airport, either by helicopter (the hotel has its own heliport) or in one of the Rolls Royce’s in its fleet of the luxury wheels.

Unfortunately I do not have photographs of the inside. A search of rates for the low season in August, when temperatures soar, showed the least expensive room at $1,089.20 per night not including tax.

Apr 21, 2008

Street Scenes: Sadhus Varanasi India

Strolling along the ghats on the banks of the Ganges River in Varanasi I came across these Sadhus chewing the fat. It was mid-morning and they had chosen a quiet shady spot to relax.

Sadhus are Hindu holy men who give up the material life to seek enlightenment. You’ll see them all over Varanasi, one of the holiest cities in India. It is visited by millions of religious pilgrims from all walks of life. At sunrise they take part in ritual bathing in the sacred Ganges.

Varanasi is also a place where the devoted come to die and be cremated along the banks of the river where their ashes will be released and returned to the earth.

Apr 18, 2008

London Bound

I’m taking a red eye to London tonight for a short-ish business trip. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve transited through Heathrow in the last few years without leaving the airport.

London was a big part of my life for about a decade. In addition to living and working in London for a year I would travel there frequently for business and thanks to a long distance romance (I never had a knack for falling in love with men in my own backyard) to see my beau at the time.

While 90% of this trip is for business--I’ll be wearing my journalist hat--there will be a little time to visit my old neighborhood and other places I used to haunt. Can’t wait to see how it has changed and to spend a little time in this city that I love. London I’ve missed you.

As always I have posts lined up for next week.

Apr 16, 2008

Warsaw Ghetto Wall Poland

In a quiet residential neighborhood are the remains of the Warsaw Ghetto wall. Except for a few plaques the wall is discreet. Tucked within a courtyard it would be easy to miss if you weren’t looking for it.

Hundreds of thousands of Jews were imprisoned within the walls of the ghetto before being transported to concentration camps. Most of the wall was leveled following the month long Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. It was the largest Jewish resistance during World War II. This month marks the 65th anniversary of the uprising, which began on April 19th 1943.

The wall is not too far off the beaten path. To get to it you need to pass through an archway of an apartment block. If the gate is closed ring the bell. The residents don’t seem to mind. You can find the wall at 55 Sienna Street, close to Warsaw’s main train station. Here is a map.

Apr 14, 2008

Ancient Air Conditioning Dubai

Air conditioning without electricity? Now there is a concept that would sit well with today’s green movement.

Long before Dubai’s state of the art skyscrapers started sprouting traditional architecture featured built in air conditioning. Architects incorporated wind towers to help cool the blazing heat.

The necessity of dealing with the harsh climate led to functional architectural detail. Ingenious and attractive the structure of the wind towers catches the breeze and funnels it down into the room below cooling it. If only the rooftop air conditioning systems of today looked so good.

A large concentration and perhaps some of the best example of wind towers in Dubai cab be found in the Bastakia section of Dubai near the creek. I’ll be writing more on the charms of Bastakia, where I stayed. Funny how a section of a city with some of Dubai’s lowest buildings makes you want to look up.

Apr 11, 2008

Mosques From Around The World

Some of the world’s grandest mosques are not ancient. The landmarks below have all been built within the last 30 years. Let’s take a tour of these houses of worship featuring stunning modern Islamic architecture:

The Mohammad Al Amin Mosque in Beirut, Lebanon was built at the beginning of the new millennium.

The Jumeirah Mosque must be the most photographed house of worship in Dubai. It opened its doors in the late 1970s.

The Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca, Morocco was completed in the 1990s and can hold up to 25,000 worshippers.

Apr 9, 2008

Burj Dubai World’s Tallest Building

The design of Burj Dubai is so modern it makes Tokyo’s Shinjuku look retro. It was the first thing I saw out of the airplane window after landing. Like a mountain on the horizon it always appears closer than it is.

The torch for the world’s tallest skyscraper race has been passed from Asia to the Middle East. Burj Dubai, also known as the Dubai Tower, surpassed Taiwan’s Taipei 101 as the world’s tallest building last summer. Still under construction its final height is being kept top secret. According to reports it will be higher than 2,275 feet with about 160+ stories.

Dubai Tower is the centerpiece of the still under construction Downtown Burj Dubai. The skyscraper will include residences and commercial and retail space. It was originally expected to be completed the end of this year but that date has been pushed back to early 2009.

Who knows how long it will keep its world’s tallest status. Plans have already been drawn up to build the Mile High Tower in Saudi Arabia. If completed as currently planned it will be more than twice as high as the Burj Dubai scraping the sky at 5,250 feet.

Apr 7, 2008

Blogger Censorship Dubai

Dubai’s government doesn’t like blogger. It appears the government has been intermittently blocking blogger altogether, which explains why my posts were a bit sporadic last week.

The censorship is somewhat random. One of the agencies I recently started submitting photography to is blocked while the others are not.

I’m writing and posting this from Heathrow Airport where I have a layover before flying home to New York.

Plenty to follow on decadent Dubai, where I spent a fabulous week. It’s a place of diversity-80% of the people who live there are expats. I wore my feet out exploring it and some of the surrounding emirates but dipping them in the clear waters of the temperature-perfect Arabian Sea perked them right up.

Apr 3, 2008

City Icons: Antigua Guatemala

Antigua’s icon is a sleeping giant. And you don’t want to wake it up.

Dominating this small charming city’s landscape is the 12,000+ feet Vulcan Agua. You can see it from virtually any of Antigua’s many cobblestone streets.

Fortunately the volcano, one of three surrounding Antigua, has not erupted since the 1600s. Its cousins are Vulcan Acatenango and Vulcan Fuego. The latter is still active and erupts regularly.

You can hike up Vulcan Aqua but if you do it's best to take a guide as muggings do occur. It takes about 4-5 hours to ascend. I’m told the climb is strenuous but doable for most in reasonable shape. When climbing volcanoes wearing sturdy footwear is a must. Volcanic rock will shred the soles of your shoes like a misshapen cheese grater.