Monday, June 12, 2006

City changed

I'm finally ready to write something more substantial about Abu Dhabi, after having been here for a few days, getting my visa papers straightened out, and taking care of a tooth that started acting up right after I had arrived.

I tried thinking back to when I had first arrived here as a child. I knew only a small part of this small city. There were slums here. Not poor slums. Rather, houses in the middle of the city that looked like shacks, complete with corrugated sheets. Only that there was this one I had spotted with a Rolls out front. All that is now gone.

Near where we lived, there was a sandy open space. It wasn't quite a playground, but it had become one. We used to play football (not the American kind), cricket, whatever else we could. That playground sprouted buildings before I had left for the US. Now those buildings look rather old and run down.

The housing market here has always struck me as odd, but I think that's a reflection of the overall economy. Buildings are put, or rather squeezed into improbable corners and spaces. There is little consideration given to, say, planning or quality of life. Having a car is practically a necessity, and parking is impossible. Housing is priced at levels that are unaffordable. But that's OK, because it's paid for by employers anyway. At least if you've got a job worth having. Now they've started trying to sell properties here too. An apartment costs here as much as it would in Chicago. I'm not sure why I'd pick this place over Chicago.

Luxury is expensive. Coffee (as in coffee shops one finds in practically any major US city) is a luxury. So coffee is expensive. Take a trip to a mall, spot a coffee shop. Say a Starbucks, or a Seattle's Best. Instead of going up to a counter and getting something quick, you sit down at a table. You get table service. You pay twice as much for a regular coffee as you would in the US. Spend some time there, relax, only the relatively well off will be found at such an establishment. Having a coffee is partaking is something special and excusive.

Abu Dhabi is overrun with concrete and steel and glass construction. It is a place that fantasizes of Manhattan, reminds me most of the Gulf coast of Florida. It is an improbable city, supported by oil and gas. I was out this morning for a walk, and started thinking about how this city could possibly be sustained without that oil money. I had visions of all the greens turning to desert, all the buildings becoming run down and dusty. It seems unlikely that the economy can be transformed to be sustained without oil, and support everything they have built here. I hope this is more than a temporary dream in the desert.

Speaking of taking a walk, doing so is rather difficult for any extended period. The temperature during the day seems to hit 100 F quite regularly. I want to start running here again, the only time to do so seems to be before the sun comes up. Before 6am. I've never been one to get up that early. I'm right now riding on my jet lag. As expected, there were many others out taking their morning walk. The sun wasn't yet up, the air was heavy with humidity and still far from cool. It all felt very familiar. Only that the path I was walking on had been water the last time I had visited Abu Dhabi.