Monday, March 23, 2009


This post relates to India, specifically to the news I heard today that Tata is prepared to begin sales of the world's cheapest car. This could someday be looked back upon as one of those genie out of the bottle or Pandora's box kind of moments.

The news report I heard explained that some analysts see the introduction of this very affordable car as leading the way to an environmental nightmare in India. Just imagine the millions upon millions of cars that could be added to India's roads within a few years' time.

Will road infrastructure possibly be able to keep up with this? Imagine the amount of additional air pollution this would create. The most striking statistic was a comparison of the percentage of cars owned today in India with that in very developed countries. Maybe I misheard the statistic--7 in 1000 people own a car in India today, compared with 600+ in a thousand in, say, the US, for example.

Correct me, someone, if I heard this wrong. If this is true, however, then introduction of this affordable car in India could mean an increase in the number of cars by 10, 20, 30, 40 times or more in the coming years. I can only imagine that this would create a nightmare scenario that would cause any existing problems in the country to fade to insignificance by comparison.

Congestion, parking nightmares, pollution and worst of all increased traffic accidents--the $2000 car in India could really become one of the most unfortunate developments that any industrializing country has ever experienced. If we look at this in today's terms, this is a case where government needs to sternly regulate free enterprise and say NO to Tata--for the greater good of the larger society.

As nice as it is as an individual to be the owner of a car, the value of that possession only exists where there is suitable infrastructure, traffic rules and all the other things required to support it. In a nation with a population of 1 billion plus already, increasing car ownership by 10x seems to be a certain recipe for disaster.

India really needs to forge ahead with a different model of industrialization, one that develops public mass transit systems instead of going the one family, one car route.

The introduction of an extensive train network was perhaps an equally pivotal event for India, but an extremely beneficial one, which is perhaps one reason why car ownership is so low today. India is one of those lucky countries where there is a legacy of public transport, inadequate as it may be by today's standards.

I hope India's government officials, MP's or whoever is responsible for looking after the public well-being will see the folly in Tata's new initiative.

Friday, March 20, 2009


The funny thing is that I can hardly remember the year much less the exact date--of my death. I'm sure many people, like me, have had a close call or two. Had only one thing been different I would not be alive today to tell the tale.

My death day was a pleasant, UAE late summer's day, in September or October of 2002. There was little out of the ordinary. I was riding along on my bicycle, as I had often done on daily commutes and trips around Abu Dhabi to wherever I needed to go.

On this morning I was out on an errand at the military base where I worked. There was little traffic to speak of, especially on this off day. Riding my bicycle, I had decided to cross from one side of the road to the other, while at the same time an SUV was approaching from behind.

I judged the speed of the car and its distance away to be safe enough to cross, but the driver, it would seem, had decided to rev up and zoom past me. Midway across the road I heard the car's engine and before I could turn back to see it, I was in the air and soon thereafter on my back.

There was the sound of the collision and the warmth of hot pavement as I lay on my back in the middle of the road. That, as it were, was my death. It was quick and painless.

Of course, I didn't die--I'm here to tell the story. What saved me quite simply was my bicycle helmet. Although unknown to me at the time, my head had hit the pavement before I landed on my back. This was reported by a witness and evident in the crack on my helmet.

As far as I was concerned I was in the air then on my back. In reality, I had experienced a collision between my head and the concrete road!

The helmet lesson is less mine to learn than for others who read this story. I had always worn a helmet, perhaps 98% of the time that I was on the bicycle. The lesson for me, however, as I ponder this instance is to not take life for granted.

I don't mean this so much in the sense of the cliché to smell the roses. What I mean is that we ought to be more aware of the second and third chances we get in life.

We easily forget what are even quite pivotal events in our lives. That cycle accident was a pivotal moment for me, but I can't even remember now the exact date. The passage of time of course, causes things to fade from memory.

After the accident, I was in hospital for a week with a minor back injury. Then I had to pay the driver 2500 dirham for damaging his car! (I'm reminded now of my distrust of the UAE legal system and resentment toward the driver and his ilk!) In time I returned to work and resumed life as normal.

The second chance the helmet had given me quickly receded from memory. Since then there have even been more pivotal moments but these too have quickly faded from view.

Perhaps we should pay tribute to these pivotal moments--enshrine the date in a plaque and hang it on the wall--to be reminded that we got that second, third, fourth... chance to experience more of life.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Dubai 2

Why Dubai?
I can earn more money here than at home. I get some nice perks like free housing. I can save money because schooling for kids and other allowances are provided. What more is there to say--earn more, save more.
No, these are not my reasons. It isn't so much about money. It isn't even just about money for those coming from, say, a less developed country where the wages for work might be far lower than here in the UAE.

For those who do come for the money there are often other factors at play. For example, if the salary on offer in Saudi Arabia were higher, one would more likely choose Dubai for its liberalism. Many also choose Dubai because they have immediate family, relatives or friends here who precede them. Some also come for the vocational and professional experience that is perhaps more available in Dubai with its more dynamic, diversified economy.

I am not here for the money--I want to make that loud and clear! There are a host of reasons why someone might choose Dubai, which relate to personal factors as much as to economic ones. For me there is on some level a buzz or excitement about Dubai--and I don't mean for getting rich or making more money!

New York of the East

I arrived in Dubai from Sri Lanka in 2000, coming to look for a job--yes, money was a factor. I had not been to Dubai before so had few preconceived notions of what it was like. It was a coolish March when I arrived--just as it is now, the weather was great! What really caught my fancy was how international and vibrant the city was.

In those days--in Dubai years, 2000 was a long time ago--the life and activity of the city were centered around the Creek. All of the color and activity on the streets and on the Creek itself were sort of magical. I spent two weeks in Dubai on that first occasion and loved it. Fortunately I got the job I was looking for, unfortunately it was not in Dubai but in Abu Dhabi.

But it was those two things that hooked me--the buzz and the international flavor. It was also the particularly exotic flavor of the international element that intrigued me. It wasn't just a mini version of New York City, which probably vies with Dubai for having the greatest variety of nationalities represented in a single city. There was definitely something different and special about Dubai.

Luke Skywalker Meets Chewbacca

For those who have seen any of the Star Wars movies, my first visit to Dubai was like when the space travelers enter the crowded bar on this or that odd planet. As a Westerner, even one who had already lived in different parts of Asia, I had never seen so many people on the streets in all variety of dress, wearing tunics, robes and all types of head pieces, in addition to the men having beards, mustaches and all variety of facial features.

Then, there were also all the different languages being spoken, varieties of shops and restaurants, and so on. Two weeks in Dubai and I was sold on a city that was unique and exotic.

During the same trip I visited Al Ain. I had heard this and that about the garden city. I also visited the capital Abu Dhabi, with all of its wide, tree-lined boulevards. But these places did nothing for me. It was Dubai that had caught my fancy.

Now, year 2000 is ages ago. I don't think one can say the Creek is the center of Dubai anymore. I rarely even visit that part of the city now. Still, the buzz and international flavor are here. The once very exotic mix has become more Western, but it is still a mix of everything with even more nationalities than were here in 2000.

If not the exotic clothing anymore, what excites me about Dubai today is how it has transformed itself from an old Singapore-style trading city to an ultra-modern urban experiment on the cusp of 21st century development. Again, there is a kind of Star Wars symbolism here, but of a very different kind. When one sees the cityscapes in the newer Star Wars films, one can sense a bit of Dubai 2008 or 2009.

So Many Places

I have lived in other notable cities, one of these Honolulu, Hawaii. Without a doubt, that city and the Hawaiian islands have to be among the most pristine and beautiful places to live on earth, and Honolulu is also a very international city--mostly Asian and Pacific.

I also lived in Kyoto, Japan--for 10 years. It is a city where all of Japanese history and culture are in a sense preserved and still alive. Even though now overlaid with concrete dwellings and roads, the city is still a treasure trove of the most beautiful gardens and temples and is surrounded by mountains which change their colors with the seasons--from deep summer green, to autumn yellow and red, to winter white and then to bright green with the new growth of spring.

Last on my list of notables is Colombo, Sri Lanka. Now Colombo was--and is--a pot-holed, dusty and smelly-in-places, traffic-clogged third-world city, yet it has its charms. The people are ever so warm and friendly toward Westerners, the green cover, where it exists within the city and definitely on the outskirts, is of a glorious tropical variety, and one can quite simply experience life's simpler pleasures there. One of my favorite of simple pleasures was the shade of a tree--any tree or grove would do, which for Sri Lankans was sufficient to keep body and drink cool. Who needs air-conditioning or refrigeration?

A Personal Choice

Those fascinating and charming experiences aside, Dubai is still my city of choice. It is a city that dares to be first and dares to welcome all of every stripe (well almost every--sometimes in a don't ask, don't tell sort of way). It is in a way no one's real home (the local Emirati population sometimes feel alienated) yet domicile for anyone who wishes to make it so. I am still very much looking forward to the trails Dubai will blaze in the year 2009 and beyond--global economic woes notwithstanding.

Those are my reasons. What are yours?

P.S.  Just noticed I had already written a piece entitled Dubai in 2007.

Monday, March 02, 2009


So what is the public bus system in Dubai really like? Well, for one, a sweeping generalization is probably not really possible. It seems there are lots of complaints by regular users, yet on some level the bus system is pretty impressive. If nothing else, I don't think anyone can deny that it is ever improving.

On the upside the new buses are quite amazing and there would appear to be a great number of them. Most it would seem are either those long double-buses--buses with long appendages--or genuine double-decker buses of an ultra-modern variety. Who can complain when one of these pulls up and it's your bus!

But therein lie two of the problems. Does the bus actually pull up? Buses often seem to zoom past without any intention of stopping. Presumably they're full, but one wonders, and one can get extremely frustrated when bus number two, three and four zooms past without stopping. The second problem is is it your bus. Another great frustration is seeing that second, third and fourth bus pull up but it isn't your number.

Now again on the upside there are an increasing number of air-conditioned bus shelters. It would seem there are dozens, probably over a hundred around the city. I haven't heard many expressions of appreciation for these, but it is only now, since the shelters were first erected, that the weather is starting to get really hot. I think bus riders will soon start to count their blessings.

So, you've got some incredibly modern and impressive buses on the roads and air-conditioned bus shelters. Why then all the long faces?

An Unsystematic System

There is a bit more to the downside than the anecdotal reports of long waits and buses that zoom by. There is very little information to assist riders at either the bus stops or on the running buses. What routes exactly do the buses take--how about a decent map? What are the upcoming stops, for passengers sitting on the buses?

If not a frequent rider then it's all guess work. Worst of all is the fact that the posted timings at the bus stops appear to be in large measure fiction. Somewhere there appears to be a serious system breakdown, where drivers couldn't care less about schedules, supervisors don't monitor or control anything or the posted schedules are, in fact, just fiction. This, it seems, is where the greatest frustration lies among riders. This is what makes the bus system still in many ways impracticable.

Now, interestingly there is one issue that I seldom hear bus riders talk about--prices. It costs a flat 2 dirham to take any bus to anywhere. It's simple and reasonably cheap. That's 54 US cents. There is also an unlimited use bus pass which costs US$27 per month. So cost is not an issue.

The Big Picture

Those who do complain are often regular users, so they would seem to have valid issues. That said, one should look at the bigger picture. From a bird's-eye view what you have is a very scattered city, sort of Los Angeles-like but probably worse. There are two older sections of the city which straddle the Creek--a wide, water inlet that bisects the older part of the city. This consists of a traditional city layout which a normal bus system might easily serve. Beyond these two districts, however, is where the problems begin.

One source of problems is the great Sheikh Zayed Road, which starts at the edge of the traditional city and stretches on for 40+ kilometers before finally reaching the city iimits. Not only is this 40 kilometer stretch an issue, but the two sides of the highway are, practically speaking, as cut-off from one another as if the highway were a grande river. SZR is basically a super-expressway, but unlike the traditional superhighway, it is lined on either side with tower blocks of residences and offices, shopping centers, showrooms, etc. which means that one is always going to have something to do on one side or the other and more commonly both. Yet there is no way to traverse the two sides by bus--and certainly not on foot. If without one's own car then one can look at spending $5-10 just to get to the other side in a taxi.

The other problems are due to the numerous far-flung sections of the city, those along SZR being only one set among several. This is perhaps very much like Los Angeles. One's errands are likely to be scattered about 30 kilometers in one direction, then 40 in another and then another 50 to get back to where you started. When it comes to the daily commute between home and office, 50-70 kilometer runs each way is the norm for the many workers who can't afford to live in Dubai and have to travel cross-emirate. (My own daily commute is 150 kilometers each way.)

Under these circumstance the bus-network is severely challenged. Thankfully, the opening of the first metro line is but a few months away.