April 6, 2008 lia

The scale of authenticity

Abu Dhabi’s an excellent place to have young children, but for an imaginative 20-something, there’s little to do except work. And I’ve been working 10-12 hour days for almost 2 months straight now. 

Abu Dhabi is a peaceful, island city where activities and places are controlled in order to maintain the peaceful status quo. There are no real spontaneous, organic, cool places to discover, no quirky cafes opening, or room for interpreting public space.

I went to Nepal for an extended long weekend in March, and we spent most of our time hanging out with the owners from our hotel — an ultra-cool couple from Seattle — and their ultra-cool friends. The couple met in Seattle and returned to the husband’s homeland a few years ago to re-build his childhood home into a guesthouse, and they enjoy hosting their guests as if they are old friends at home, and they have all sorts of funky ex-pat friends who own restaurants and bars around Kathmandu. One evening, we were sitting around a fire at an open roof Korean resto-bar, having drinks with the American Embassy crew, talking about how much we appreciated having all these stylish and interesting places to go to in Kathmandu:

– Yah, but this is not the Kathmandu experience.
– I disagree. This is a Kathmandu experience, and something I have no guilt enjoying, because it’s still something I cannot get in Abu Dhabi.
– Yah, but this is not the real Kathmandu.     Look around you — we’re all ex-pats.
– I totally get what you’re saying, and if I hadn’t just spent half the weekend staying with the family of our tea boy in his village, then I would probably walk away from this long weekend feeling rather empty about my experience in Nepal. But, on the scale of authenticity, sitting on this rooftop in Kathmandu, drinking Black Russians with a bunch of Americans, Koreans, and one Napalese person still ranks many notches higher than anything I’ve managed to find in inauthentic Abu Dhabi.

I think I spend very little time really “in” Abu Dhabi. It’s not a bad place here, in fact, I think it would be heaven to raise small children here. And I hate it when people complain that there’s nothing to do, because we have everything we need here, and people leave you in peace on the streets, and we’re given space. But the truth is that Abu Dhabi is just too chill, with a focus on families. And 5 months of the year it’s too hot to go outside.

Largely because of this simple climatic fact, much of life in Abu Dhabi feels very manufactured. Most urban activities were designed to avoid the reality of the outside world — air conditioning runs all year round, and they even tore down the old central souk in order to build a ‘modern’ indoor one (ah, when you build a souk indoors, it’s called a ‘mall’, and there are already plenty in Abu Dhabi!)

Mostly I lead a very domestic life. Topics of conversation revolve around work (almost my entire social circle are people I work with), buying furniture (I’m in the midst of my second move already, and there are always new people coming who inevitably talk about furniture), and cars (I just bought a pimped SUV – the most fuel-efficient SUV available in UAE, by the way). I lead more of a Burnaby life now than I ever lead in Burnaby!

The real world only bullies its way into one’s life here when something goes wrong — such as finding accomodation. My move has been filled with drama — I was kicked out of my flat by building management because they want new tenants so that they can ask for more bribe money, then the roommate turned on me and displayed her un-humanly selfish and victimized attitude in its full glory, it took 2 months to find a new place to live (which we’re paying $50,000 per year in rent for by the way — Abu Dhabi is ridiculous for housing!!!), and now I’m homeless until the new pad is ready for moving in.

Even in family-oriented Abu Dhabi I seem to find some authentic drama to keep me entertained.