Finally, Dubai

This is the story of how I accidentally wound up in a brothel in Dubai, part of a series that starts here.

Toni was very serious.  She was a teetotaler.  She didn’t get my sense of humor.  She was divorced and her kids were out on their own, so she was seeking.  She had grown up somewhere in the boondocks of western Canada and was fascinated by eastern traditions like meditation.  I was an on-again-off-again meditator but she was seriously devoted and would go on to live in an ashram in India and become a follower of some swami rami someone or other.  Like most Canadians, she made a point of telling people she was Canadian so they wouldn’t mistake her for an American.  Since I had fled the US, in part, to escape the George W. Bush era, I couldn’t really blame her.

When we arrived at our hotel I realized why the package had been so cheap.  When most people think of Dubai, they probably picture phantasmagorical hotels like these:

dubai burjhotel-dubai

Our hotel was in the old part of town and was a concrete bunker something like this except the windows were slits:


I suppose all that concrete kept out the heat, and in retrospect we were staying in a more authentic part of town, if anything about Dubai can be called authentic.

The first thing I did was go to the bar and order a beer.  The two bartenders looked at each other sideways, clearly uncomfortable.  One disappeared, maybe to consult with a manager.  He came back and wordlessly opened a beer bottle, then wrapped it in a cloth napkin and slid it across the bar to me.  Message received: I was a whore and an alcoholic, possibly both.

Toni disapproved too, and after pointing out the maple leaf on her back pack to the bartenders, left to go to the room.  “I don’t drink alcohol,” she reminded me when I showed up with my beer wrapped in its shroud of shame.  “But if I did, I wouldn’t drink it here out of respect for their culture.”

“They sell beer here,” I said.  “So what you’re saying is that you respect their culture of treating women unequally.”

Toni harrumphed furiously and shot back, “I don’t know. I’m going to have some silent me time now.”

Our package included some free tours.  I had bought a beautiful scarf in the airport to drape around my head.  Not like a hijab, more like a glamorous, Audrey Hepburn-style nod to being in a Muslim country. I thought it advisable to leave my Star of David at home.

When I stepped outside, a wall of searing heat descended on me.  I started sweating profusely and the glamor wilted.

Toni made up and were picked up at the curb by a guy in a giant gas guzzling vehicle—the only kind allowed in Dubai, apparently.  He drove around and pointed out the sights.  It was mind boggling, as you would expect if you’ve seen photos of Dubai.  Then he took us to a “museum.”  I was excited to learn about the history and culture of the Emiratis.

The museum was gleaming and glitzy, with crystal chandeliers, marble floors, and sleek escalators that might have been designed by Lamborghini.  Strangely, the displays reminded me of shop windows in New York or London.  Wait.  They were shop windows. These weren’t historical artifacts or objects of art, they were items for sale.  All of them were labeled as originating in Iran or Egypt or other places that actually had cultural traditions, and nothing was going for less than $1,000.

Back at the hotel, I went to check my email at the computer kiosks in the lobby but Yahoo wouldn’t load.  What the hell?  I Googled “weather in Dubai” and a local site came up that claimed it was 85F.  That was weird.  I had checked Dubai weather in Dublin and had expected 110F today.

It didn’t take me as long as it had in Cuba the previous year to realize that the Internet was controlled by the government.  I was in for a six-day involuntary Internet sabbatical.

To be continued …

Having Some Good Craic Despite Being Cracked

This is part of a series about living in Dublin and accidentally eating a club sandwich in a brothel in Dubai.

I had moved to Dublin from Oxford, and after a rough landing I was settling in.  My flat felt safe.  I reckoned that, since the addict had broken in shortly before I moved in, odds were that the flat wouldn’t burgled again until long after I had moved on.  Magical thinking, I know.

Dublin did feel like a magical place, but not in a good way.  The flat was close to some old castle that was a stop on the Haunted Dublin! tour. I don’t believe in ghosts or paranormal anything but there was something dark about Dublin.

And Dublin was ugly.  I had moved from Oxford, city of dreaming spires:


To Dublin:


As usual I am exaggerating.  Oxford is beautiful but it is swarming wall-to-wall with crowds, like some science fiction movie about overpopulation.  Dublin has some lovely buildings, but unfortunately too many like the one above.  It too was heaving with crowds, tourists but also EU newcomers from Slovenia and asylum seekers from Nigeria.

I thought about how the English had subjugated the Irish, taxing them, viewing them as sub human, and doing nothing while a million Irish died during a succession of famines.  The architecture says everything about who was the conqueror and who was the conquered.

I didn’t have much in common with my new friend, Toni, except that we were in our 40s while everyone else in Dublin seemed younger, and we were both determined to take advantage of being “over the pond” to travel as much as possible.

The Sunday papers advertised great deals on travel packages.  “See Sunny Spain!  Only 400 € for 5 nights inclusive!”  Inclusive meant airfare, hotel, some meals, and drinks in a resort populated by English speakers who would never be made uncomfortable by having to speak Spanish.

Sunday morning.  I texted Toni.  “Wanna go to Dubai?”

“Tell me more,” she responded immediately.

“Only 500 € for five nites inc airfare & hotel,” I read from the ad in the Irish Times.

“Wow thats cheap lets go!” She was in.

But first I went to St. James Hospital to have my collar bone x-rayed.  I was no longer on the National Health System; in fact I was uninsured, so I would pay cash.

I walked down Vicar Street to Meath Street to Bellvue to Marrowbone Lane to Robert Street, on to Newport Street, to Pim Street, past the Guinness Storehouse, followed the curve of Grand Canal Place to Echlins Street and finally to James Street.

Total distance: 1.6 kilometers, or just under one mile.  That’s Dublin.  There may have been a direct route but now I knew I could stop at Guinness on the way back— and use my right arm to lift a pint.

The hospital reminded me of a Mexican bus station.  The waiting room was furnished with a motley assortment of worn plastic chairs, the windows and linoleum floor were grimy.

I paid up front; I think it was 80 €.  I was called in after the x-ray was developed, and the doctor said, “There’s been no progress. It’s still broken and you’ll have to keep it immobilized for another eight weeks, at least.”

I was shocked.  “But it’s been six weeks!”  I didn’t mention that I hadn’t exactly been resting and taking it easy, that I’d been climbing a ladder up to a top bunk at a hostel, then washing windows and scrubbing floors in my two-story flat.

“How old are you?” he asked.

“46?”  I expected him to say, “Wow! You look so much younger—I never would have guessed you’re even 40!”

Instead he said, “Well at your age, things take longer to heal.”

My age?

“If it doesn’t heal after eight more weeks, you’ll need surgery to screw in a plate to hold the two ends together.”

Surgery?  A plate? F— that!

There’s nothing like someone telling me I’m in a bad situation to make me come out swinging, to declare that things are great.

I was going to Dubai, and it was going to be a blast!

Incense and Sensibility

This post is part of a series about living in Dublin and winding up in a brothel in Dubai.

Eddie’s house was so tiny I expected a hobbit to jump out of a closet.  The floors were slanted, the stove looked like a toy, and the door hung crookedly off the bath so it wouldn’t be any trouble for him to keep an eye on me in there.  I hadn’t been attracted to Eddie in a dark smoky pub, and seeing him in daylight didn’t change anything.  He painted a picture of the house sharing arrangements.  “I go out every night, and when I come home in the early morning I blast me music and drink a few more pints.  It’s my house, so I’ll smoke in it.  If you’d like to cook for us, that’d fine with me.”

I observed myself doing mental gymnastics to convince myself this would all be fine.  I wanted out of the hostel.  The serenity and confidence I had banked in England was gone.  The fact that it was gone made me feel like a weakling.  I had become a female Woody Allen, worrying, analyzing, fearful, neurotic. I was so afraid of being ripped off that I hid my watch—a Movado—in a zipped pants pocket, then promptly forgot about it and threw the pants in the wash.  The watch had been given to me by a jerk boyfriend but was the one beautiful piece of jewelry I owned, and it came out in bits.  Stress does funny things to the mind.

I listened to meditations on my MP3 player: “Sense a soft shower of shimmering light …” said the soothing voice, as the woman in the bunk below me hacked a tubercular-sounding cough.  I attended meditations at the Sri Chinmoy Centre and went to Alanon. But I just couldn’t shake the anxiety.

Eddie kept saying things which indicated he knew sharing the house would be a disaster, such as “I’d probably end up hangin’ meself when yerself didn’t love me.”  Like many men in the British Isles, asking a woman out on a date was not in his playbook, and he wasn’t yet drunk enough to just grab me and snog me.  He must have sensed I would have reacted negatively to either approach.  We sat at his wobbly kitchen table and he slowly drew me a map of Dublin and advised where else I could look for flats, stalling for time.


I admired his engineer’s pencil sharpener, which he gave me and which makes a great eyeliner sharpener.

After two weeks I landed a room in a spacious maisonette.  It had a living area and kitchen on the first floor (in America, the second floor), and three bedrooms and a bath on the third.  I shared it with a French guy who was building a website to help football fans find pubs in real time to watch specific games.  He only emerged from his room when his girlfriend, a Canadian, came over.  The other flat mate was an English guy who worked for Google.  I only saw him once or twice, but several times a week I would come down to breakfast to find a young woman hanging about—someone he had slept with and was done with, but who wasn’t done with him.  “So what time does Paul usually get up?” they would ask.  Or, “How does Paul like his tea?”  I would grumble, “I dunno,” until they took the hint and left.

It took a while with my arm in a sling, but the flat was very nice once I scrubbed it from top to bottom and painted my room, which overlooked some sort of friary.


There was a methadone clinic on the other side; the flat had been burgled recently by an addict who kicked in the door.  There was a primary school on the other side of the flat, and Christchurch Cathedral was nearby, so I heard children playing and bells ringing throughout the day.

Things were looking up.  I met a Canadian woman at a travel agency who was game to go anywhere.  Because, once my anxiety ebbed away, it was time to travel.

To be continued …

Down and Out In Dublin

In my last post I wrote about the river of “what ifs” going through my head about my upcoming trip.  After writing it, I thought back on the worst things that have ever happened to me in my life.  All of them have happened at home.  The worst things that have happened to me while traveling?  Well, they’ve didn’t turn out so bad in the end.

For instance, I accidentally wound up in a brothel in Dubai.

But the story starts in “the other DUB city,” Dublin, where I was working for Oxfam Great Britain on contract for the summer.

Everyone thinks Ireland would be a great place to live, and that’s what I had expected.  But I hated it.

This was at the height of the inflationary period they called the Celtic Tiger—right before the Great Recession hit—and everything was colossally expensive.

I stayed in a 12-bed dorm in the Four Courts Hostel until I could find a flat.  The other 11 beds were occupied by immigrants from Poland and the Czech Republic who were almost out of money and facing the prospect of going back home as failures.  One woman was so depressed she stayed in bed all day with the blanket pulled over her head; I never actually saw her.   The only good thing about The Four Courts was the talking elevator that announced, “Turd Floor” in an Irish accent when it reached our floor.

I could go to the Oxfam Ireland office to work, but they didn’t really have space for me, so I worked out of the hostel dining hall while everyone else was out hustling during the day—except for the woman under the covers.

The streets were full of drunks, Irish and otherwise.  Lots of Brits and Dutch and Germans came to Dublin for their stag parties.  One morning I literally stepped over a drunken man vomiting in the gutter.  I don’t know how they afforded it, because a pint of unremarkable beer in a pub cost $8.  And maybe because Ireland’s economy was roaring, it seemed like the Irish were over being friendly to travelers.  The only friendly overture I had from an Irish person in my first few weeks was a shopkeeper telling me to “Have yourself some crack, now!”  That freaked me out until I realized he meant craic—which means “a good time” in Gaelic.

I had pictured myself working away in a cozy pub and making all sorts of new Irish friends, but I was bored and lonely.

In the UK and Ireland, it is much more common for people to share a flat or a house than it is in the US.  Having roommates is not just for young or poor people.  I would go to look at a flat and there would be a dozen desperate potential renters crowded around the front door.  When the landlord deigned to let us in, we would find a dingy, dirty, little hole with a bedroom featuring a sagging twin bed and a window looking out on a brick wall.  The rent for that bedroom and sharing everything else with two or three strangers was $500 a month each, easy.

Every night I climbed up to my top bunk and hunched over with my head against the moldy ceiling to read, hoping this would be my last night at the Four Courts.  Oh, did I mention I had broken my collar bone in a bike accident in Oxford a week before, and my arm was in a sling?

Everyone used a website called Gumtree to look for flats and jobs and probably to sell their bodies to pay rent.  I arranged to meet a potential landlord in a pub rather than go to his house alone.  It was love at first sight, for him.  Eddie was a good 10 years younger than me and at least a foot taller.  His teeth were brown from smoking and crooked from not being an American.  I wasn’t attracted to him and I knew it would be a bad idea to move in to the room he had for rent, but I agreed to come and see the place the next day.

To be continued …

Fears of Flying

Here is a photo that summarizes my trip-planning progress:


I depart in 15 days.  I am in full-blown “What if?” mode.

What if I get pickpocketed in Rome (not a far-fetched scenario—my nephew’s wallet was stolen in Rome last year).  What if I’m packing too much into this itinerary and I won’t be able to appreciate it all?  What if I miss a flight/train/bus?  What if people feel sorry for me, a woman traveling alone?  What if I forget my phone charger?  What if I show up at a hotel and they have no record of my reservation and no rooms? What if I rent a car in Spain, and I forget to ask them to give me an English-language GPS, and my Spanish isn’t good enough for me to follow the directions?  What if my son doesn’t water my plants while I’m gone and they all die?  What if I fail to blog along the way, which means I’ll have schlepped my laptop all over for no reason?  What if I trip and fall into a cistern at Pompeii and it gets dark and no one knows I’m there and … are there wild jackals in Italy?

So you see, I have been busy.  I really should have pursued a career in disaster planning.  I would have been a natural at it.

I laugh kindly at myself as I observe the endless chain of what ifs come and go. I will prepare as well as I can. I will resist the urge to over prepare, because that would allow no space for spontaneity. I will deal with anything unexpected as it arises.

On Friday night my sister joined me and some friends for happy hour.  Long-time readers of this blog will remember that while my son was in prison, there was plenty of additional excitement in my life.  It’s never just one thing, is it?  There was a plumbing problem in my apartment which caused me to have no kitchen for six weeks. I tripped and sprained a knee ligament and was on crutches for about the same six weeks.  My mother was her third major car accident, which caused micro fractures in her spine and led to her giving up driving.

And then … my sister was battling Stage 4 colon cancer. She went through hell.  She’s been cancer free for a year and a half but she’s still dealing with the lingering effects of it all—the  surgeries, chemo, radiation, and all the other aspects of life that are affected by a life-threatening illness—finances, keeping up with a house and yard, two teenage kids, getting her strength back.  The list goes on.

How is this connected to traveling?  Because at happy hour we talked about the phrase “You’re so strong.”  My sister hears it a lot.  I used to hear it a lot when I was a single mom pulling myself up by the proverbial boot straps.  Other friends had been through trials and had heard it too.

We all agreed that we hate the phrase.

“What choice did I have?” my sister asked.  Right.  I had thought the same thing many times when people had said “You’re so brave!”  What choice did I have?  I admit I had occasional fantasies about dropping my son off at my mom’s and running away to Florida. I know there are people who abandon their kids, and people who avoid getting treatment for serious illnesses because they’re in denial or afraid.  But the vast majority of us just do what needs to be done because the alternative would be hurtful to ourselves or others.

“Being strong is when you are afraid of something,” said a member of our group, a psychotherapist who is also a cancer survivor.  “And you do it anyway, even though you could choose not to and there wouldn’t be any consequences.”

And that’s how this relates to travel, especially for someone like me who travels solo a lot.  I do have anxious thoughts about getting lost, being swindled, being disappointed.  But I go anyway.  The fear of regretting that I never saw the Amalfi Coast is stronger than the what ifs.

Red (and White) Flags

In one month I’ll be in Malta, a tiny country most people have never heard of.

Here is a representative sampling of travel books available in the library for the three countries I’ll be visiting: Italy, Spain, and Malta.  There was a whole shelf of books about Italy, a half shelf for Spain, and one slim volume about Malta.  This should have told me something about what a hot (not) tourist destination Malta is.  But once I get something fired up in my imagination, there’s usually no turning back.


Of course Vatican City is technically a country—the smallest in the world.  I’ll be visiting the Basilica of St. Peter and the Vatican Museum and I’m sure there are entire books about them, but I don’t need books to tell me I’ll be seeing a lot of paintings of the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus.

Someone at work laughed about me going to Malta and suggested that since I would also be visiting Vatican City, I could make this a grand tour of tiny countries.  You know, the ones that send one athlete to the Olympics—an athlete who doesn’t stand a chance?  I could have gone to San Marino, which is surrounded by Italy; and Monaco, which is on my bucket list.  Liechtenstein would be a bit further north in Europe, but not as far as the other five that round out the Top 10 List of tiny countries, which are all tropical islands: Nauru, Tuvalu, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Maldives, and Grenada.

The lack of interest in Malta may have something to do with how difficult it is to get there.  I will be leaving from Sorrento, where I will have spent three days seeing Pompeii, the Amalfi Coast, and Capri.  You would think, from reading the one book about Malta, that you could just hop a train to Naples and fly right to Malta.  Boom—easy!  But alas, this was the same book that told me I must see the underground, 5,000-year-old catacombs on Malta, the ones that are closed for renovation until 2017.  The book also said it would be “easy” to take a ferry from Italy to Malta.  However I need to get to Madrid afterwards and it would take two days to get to the coast of Spain by ferry.

All the flights from Naples left at either 6:00 in the morning or 4:00 in the afternoon.  They all connected somewhere else, which meant that reasonable-sounding 4:00 p.m. flight would get me into Malta at 11:30 at night.  And the 6:00 a.m. flights were much faster; I seriously considered one that had a 6-hour layover in Paris.  Finally, I decided to fly from Rome. This will require me to get up early—but not quite as early as the 6:00 a.m. flight—catch a train to Naples, then connect to Rome, then catch the express to the Rome airport, then fly at 11:00 a.m. to Catania—which is on Sicily, then finally arrive on Malta at 3:30 in the afternoon.  That is, if nothing goes wrong on any of the five legs of the journey.


Another puzzle has to do with baggage.  The flights to and from Malta are cheap—if I am willing to travel with only a carry-on bag weighing no more than 22 pounds.  I spend some time researching ultra light bags; I could get a nice one for $70.  Or I could just pay RyanAir $75 for the privilege of bringing a real suitcase with me.

I toy with the idea of traveling light.  It would be easier to get on and off all the trains and buses and planes. I’d be less conspicuous, since my regular suitcase is purple.  It could be kind of a cool challenge to wear only two outfits for a month, to say “no” to buying clothes in Italy, and eschewing souvenirs.  Plus I would be doing my small part to save the planet!

Nah.  I’ll bring my purple monster.  I like to have options.

I contemplate these “problems” knowing that countless refugees are attempting the crossing to Italy in rubber rafts before the sea gets too rough in November.

Prison as Trauma

Most people never get to go to an event about prison.  I went to two in one week.

The first was a phone-a-thon to ex cons.  It felt like a worthwhile use of my time and I would recommend doing something similar if you are depressed, angry, or frightened about some issue.  Like oh, let’s say … a presidential election.

Two nights later was an event I organized at my workplace, the Center for Victims of Torture (CVT), and co-sponsored by Jewish Community Action.  It sounds complicated, I know.  What does torture in foreign countries have to do with prisons in Minnesota?

A lot, it turns out.

It was a small event, just 18 of us, but to us Jews the number 18 is a mystical one symbolizing “chai,” the Hebrew word for life.

I was a little concerned that the topic might be a tough one for Vince, my son, who had actually experienced some of the things we would discuss.  My childhood friend whose son is in prison came, and I was worried it might add to her worries.

Our first speaker was a CVT psychotherapist who described quite viscerally how trauma happens and what its effects are.  She had us close our eyes and imagine a baby.  Assuming he has a loving parent who holds him and meets his needs, he learns to trust people and look to them for help in times of need.

Trauma happens to almost everyone, eventually.  It could include abuse and neglect in childhood, a serious illness, the death of a loved one, or a car accident.  Normally, we turn to other humans for comfort.

Torture is intentionally perpetrated by one human being against another under “color of law.”  In other words, it’s authorized or at least there’s a “wink and a nod” from some type of government official.

Usually, there is no one to turn to for comfort because you are locked in a cell.  Your torturers may have your family locked up too; in fact one of the most common forms of torture is to force someone to watch or listen to a loved one being tortured.

Much of the abuse that takes place in US prisons every day—assaults, rapes, solitary confinement—would likely be legally ruled as torture if we ever investigated it fully, in my opinion.

Torture destroys trust.  Rebuilding trust is at the core of recovery.

The second speaker was a CVT volunteer who is a practitioner of Rolfing Structural Integration.  I don’t know jack about rolfing, but she does it for our clients for free and it helps them.  She talked about the physical fallout of trauma, which starts in the brain.  When someone feels threatened, the first thing they do is look for other humans for help, as the psychotherapist had said.  If they are being threatened by those other humans, the right side of their brains “light up” and they go into flight or fight mode like an animal.  I think we’ve all heard about that, right?  What I didn’t know is that the left side of the brain shuts down.  That’s the organizing, verbal, and thinking side of the brain.

And so people who have been tortured, for example, cannot put into words what happened.  On the witness stand they come off as not very believable.

One thing I also didn’t know which I found fascinating was that people kept in small spaces actually stop being able to see beyond the parameters of that space.  Someone kept in solitary for a certain length of time, when they get out, cannot see farther than six feet in front of their face.  They regain their vision eventually, but!

Vince was the third speaker.  He and I read excerpts from blog posts he wrote in solitary, where he was kept after being transferred to Moose Lake—because they didn’t have a regular cell ready.  They told him it would be temporary.  How long would you assume “temporary” meant? Six days, as it turned out. He described the cell and his experience in great detail. I felt myself getting outraged again.  We haven’t talked about it, but I wonder if it raised feelings for him too.