Saturday, July 6, 2013

I THOUGHT ASIA WOULD FEEL MORE FOREIGN. I was sure the chaos of night markets and the uncharted foodstuffs would wreak havoc on my brain. I thought horn-honking and a dense language barrier would overwhelm me, and I was prepared to cut short our visits to major urban centres. I can get overstimulated (to the point of discomfort) fairly quickly, but didn't. In fact, our visits to large eastern cities were some of my favourite stops on the trip so far. Singapore, Bangkok, Saigon and Hanoi are places to which we'd happily return. I was surprised; most felt a lot like the Asian neighbourhoods and districts in any of the big North American cities I've visited. Obviously with fewer traffic laws and less food safety regulations, but surprisingly familiar. This trip has proven just how intrinsically multi-cultural Toronto (and Canada) really are. 

But the Middle East is different, unlike anything we've ever seen. Geographically, topographically, and culturally, we don't really have a good point of reference as North Americans. While there is a huge Middle Eastern contingent in Toronto (and across Canada), we don't exactly have a Sauditown or a Little Dubai. And if we did, it wouldn't feel like the actual thing, what without muted stone structures, expansive mosques on every block, and sandstorms whipping up out of nowhere. Unless you've stumbled into the outskirts of Arizona or woken up in a Nevada desert, North Americans just don't set up in these places. In Bahrain, regular life happens in the real and true desert, as a more temperate or leafy neighbourhood isn't an option. It's not the stuff of adventure movies, a camel-ride across an impressive dune, but just everyday life in a relentless and rather disagreeable climate.

The heat in Cambodia was nearly unbearable at times. Gusts of wind so hot they'd wrap around your face and choke you, forcing you to turn away to catch your breath. A humidity so high your sunscreen would reject absorption almost immediately, rising up through your pores and running down your arms and into your eyes. There were days when more than 30 minutes outside were impossible, when you'd fall into a swimming pool or retreat in exhausted-silence to the breeze of an oscillating fan.

But then we went to the Middle East. There the heat is dry, as if you're being baked alive, your internal temperature rising faster than your cutaneous receptors can even calculate. Before you know it you're just fucking hot, but in a dizzy, cartoonish way, as if Wile E. Coyote has lured you into an oven, the  fever-dream somehow substantiated by your surroundings, which look like one of his impressive murals. But unlike Southeast Asia, in the remarkably-ostentatious Middle East you can escape to icy blasts of air conditioning with ease. In Dubai, expansive pathways stretch for miles, moving sidewalks luxuriously set to 15°C. The only people stupid enough to even be in the actual outdoors during midday were these two white dudes.

It was the first time in a while that we felt like we were somewhere. We'd gotten used to Asia, and even beautiful rice paddies and frenzied markets had become commonplace. I was sick to death of the food and my body was starting to, uh, resist it. I was growing more homesick, too, and worried I might be tiring of travel in general. After all, five months is a long time. But with our arrival in the Middle East, things shifted. Somehow, in a blast of hot desert air, I was refreshed.


1) The Bahrain weekend is on Friday and Saturday. Good nights to go out are Thursday and Friday. Saturday is considered "Family Day" and most people are home.

2) Saudi Arabia is connected to Bahrain via a long marine causeway. Saudis work and play in Bahrain. While the Bahraini weekend is Friday/Saturday, Saudis are off on Thursday/Friday.  So Bahrain's party culture explodes on Wednesday nights as Saudis flood the city to let loose. Alcohol is illegal, after all, at home. Bahrain is considered extremely liberal by Middle Eastern standards. 

3) There's a fastfood chain called Jasmi's in the Bahrain which is a blatant and direct ripoff of McDonald's. The food (yes, we ate it) is precisely the same and the signage, design and overall experience are exactly like McDonald's. I don't know how they get away with it.

4) Go to Wendy's Cafe at Bahrain Gulf Gate Hotel for a great gay scene. A super talented Pilipino cover band plays everything and the place is lousy with secretly-gay Arabs. It's a great combo. Follow it up on Fridays at Muju at the Dragon Hotel in Amwaj. It goes all night, but doesn't start until 2, 2:30am. 

5) I found the quality of light in the Middle East startling. You can never really see the horizon, as a dome of dust and diffusion enrobe everything, making it seem as though the world ends just a few kilometres away. On a "clear" day you can see a city skyline in the distance, looking almost like an abandoned space station on another planet. It would be a brilliant place to shoot portraiture outdoors, with only the gentlest shadows and warm light.

6) Everything is a hierarchy in the Arab world. In Bahrain (and other Arab countries) even license plates are a chance to create a caste system. The lower your number, the closer to the King. If you have repeating digits (eg. 4333) that's even better. People spend tens-of-thousands of dollars on "good" license plates and they are often given as elaborate gifts. We became obsessed with looking at numbers to determine "how important" people are. It's kind of sick, really.

7) There's a remarkable amount of money in the Middle East, obviously. Kids in most countries pay nothing for their higher-education and can choose any school in the world. A Saudi friend went to school in San Diego and received an additional $1800USD a month from his government while enrolled internationally.

8) Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that prohibits women from driving.

LOCATION: Istanbul, Turkey
DATE AND TIME: Saturday, July 6, 2013 6:00PM Eastern European Summer Time/Saturday, July 6, 2013 11:00AM EST


Location: Dubai, United Arab Emirates
Accommodation: Hilton Jumeirah Residences 
A nice hotel, but the service was lacking. Wifi was $USD30 a day (!!!), but free in the lobby. Cheaper than many others, but it was definitely off-season, with temperatures over 50°C during the day. This property shares waterfront with its "Beach" hotel, so a second pool and the beach are just across the street. 

Location: Amwaj, The Kingdom of Bahrain
Accommodation: Our friend Joe's apartment 
Our generous friend Joseph hosted us for a week at his lovely apartment. Amwaj is a newly built island neighbourhood to the northwest of Bahrain's international airport. It's heavily populated with ex-pats and is really quiet and relaxed. There are restaurants, shops, and a beach. 



  1. Jason your way with words never fails to move me. I'm glad the middle east was able to refresh you - I've enjoyed following along on your travels and am looking forward to continuing on this journey with you.

    And, as always, your photos...stunning.

  2. As always, so interesting! I am hoping you will elaborate on the gay scene in the Middle East as you had hinted at how surprising it was.

  3. Love hearing your thoughts ont he middle easte - my home away from home for four years!