A Tale of two cities

Updated: Oct 24, 2019

After a 16-hour long flight out of Los Angeles in the December of 2015, I set foot on uncharted ground. Jet lag started to set in as the turban-donned immigration officer stamped my passport with Arabic ink. It said United Arab Eremites. Dubai. The land of the tallest building in the world: the Burj Khalifi. Google it if you haven't seen Mission Impossible-Ghost Protocol or haven't kept up your architectural wonders!  The building is so tall you can watch the sunset from the ground then ride the elevator up to the 124th floor and watch the sunset again. Watch the sunset. Twice. When gazed upon, this building demands your respect. It owns the sky. It has been said that Dubai is similar to Las Vegas. It is. Not in the sense where Elvis impersonators and skimpy cocktail waitresses troll through smoky casinos. It’s more in the sense that the air is thick with wealth, with lights, with a fancy water fountain shows. As I walked through the Dubai Mall (which is the size of my hometown of Lehi, Utah) and gawked at stores like Alexander McQueen, Oscar de la Renta and Prada, it made my bank account cringe. But this was "normal." Seeing an Arab man hop out of his yellow Lamborghini appeared to be just second nature here. I thought at one point I actually saw $50 bills dripping off the palm trees. I didn't say much as I walked around the city. Just watched. Observed. Tried to soak it all in. Very slowly. Nobu is world-renowned Japanese restaurant that you can find in major cities like New York, London, Tokyo and of course, Dubai. It has won five Michelin stars. In 2015 it was awarded the title "Restaurant of the Year." Not Nobu in general. The one in Dubai. The very one that I sat in and stuffed my face with rock salt tempura shrimp and blackened cod that caused an out-of-body experience. Let us not forget I also consumed a sinfully delicious cronut. If you don't know what a cronut is, imagine a dessert that is part croissant/part doughnut with equal parts chocolate and magic. Just thinking about it makes my pants get a little tighter and my soul a little happier. I ate there? We paid over $250 for just dinner? Yep. And I enjoyed every morsel.

Being an Arab nation, I was delighted to see the streets lined with ancient Mosques and loved hearing the call to prayer booming over loud speakers five times a day. These are the things that I will remember and absorb (that, and, let's be honest, the many calories consumed at Nobu.) It was the incredibly different things that made me feel alive. I quickly discovered that those "Now, there's something you don't see that every day" moments were the ones that would change me. And I had no idea how true that would become with what was up next. With my hand-painted bowl and Arabic spices packed neatly away, I was wheels up and cruising to my next destination. Kathmandu, Nepal. 

When the big earthquake hit Nepal just eight months before, I never thought in a million years I would EVER be able to go there. That dream was dead. I wanted to go for such a long time and had fought tooth and nail to get myself on that plane to Nepal. And finally, there I stood. Breathing in the air that swept down from the Himalayas.

I was not in the United Arab Eremites anymore, Toto. The first moments in Kathmandu, were a lot to take in. The airport is very cold and rundown. Was it ever "up and running?" Probably not. No Prada shops here, that's for sure. Rather, the bare minimum to get my passport stamped, get my bags and leave. Chaos hit me as I walked out of the airport and a tidal wave of taxi drivers shouting in Nepali to get me to hire them for a ride. I soon hailed a driver and hopped into a taxi cab that resembled a tuna can on wheels. Every car on the broken-down street looked like someone had put a quarter in a pinball machine. No lines, no rules, no method to this madness. Just hold on and gun it . . . and try not to hit a stray dog or cow while you're at it. There is no such thing as a "green arrow to turn left" or "the street we are now driving on is “Mt. Everest Avenue." It's just pure chaos.

It is "normal" for the power to go off for several hours a day throughout Kathmandu. I knew that going in. But, remember, it is still December when I found myself walking into the Tibet Guest House. A dull chill surged through me as I stood on the stone-cold lobby floor and studied the chart telling me when I would be able to turn the heat on in my room and for how long. 10 PM to 4 AM.  Check.

I dumped my bags in the icy room and headed down to the lobby for a bite wearing literally half of my suitcase. This meant sweat pants, leggings, tall socks, jacket, puffy vest, beanie and finger-less gloves. Don't judge; I needed every last thread.

"Namaste! Can I get a Coke and some Mo Mo's?"


"Namaste, ma'am. We do not have enough fuel to cook the Mo Mo's, but I can bring you a room-temperature Coke."

Wait just a second. You mean that news article I read on CNN about the fuel crisis that was going on was a real thing? Yep. A restructure of the Nepali constitution was causing governmental discord and as a result, they were rationing off the fuel supply into Nepal and anyone who came in its path would know it. Even when it came to my delicious Mo Mo's. The lights in the restaurant flickered and I swallowed my American pride and ordered something else. Not a soul-expanding blacked cod cooked to perfection, but rice, a side salad and a room-tempeture Coke. I went up to my room and once the clock hit 10 PM, I was delighted to snuggle myself in my bed and thaw out.

Those are the moments you can't expect to have when traveling. When they happen, you adjust and say to yourself, "It's all part of the experience." You soak it all in.

Very slowly.

The rest of the time in Nepal was spent in a remote village working with an NGO on the construction of a 13-room schoolhouse to replace the one that was destroyed in the earthquake. Yes, those CNN articles I read were coming alive too.

The women in the village were not only educators, but they were pillars of wisdom, strength and friendship. While hauling rocks, they would teach me how to count to five in Nepali and, in turn, I taught them to sing "You are my Sunshine" in English. I asked them very gingerly if their homes and belongings survived the earthquake. They answered me with one word: Gone. They had to dust themselves off and start over. My mind floated back to Dubai for a brief moment. If my Arab friend found a snag or a tear in her Chanel bag, she could hop in her BMW and her driver would take her to the mall to get it replaced. Swipe the Visa. Sign here. Done.

These polar circumstances begs the following questions: How is it possible that in this day and age two extremes such as these can exist side by side? How can such wealth change to extreme poverty in a blink of an eye? Is this normal in the world I live in? This is not to say that one is superior to another. Let me make that extremely clear. One person does not have more value or worth than the person sitting next to him. And this trip, all of it, made that crystal clear.

It also brought another point into the limelight and one that I am eager to share. Riddle me this: Picture the Arab walking through the Burj Khalifa. He is an executive on the 94th floor. He drives that yellow Lamborghini and has a lovely annual salary and a table at Nobu whenever he wants. A textbook example of wealthy, right?

But what if I told you that the wealthy could possibly have something they lack. Something that they are in desperate need of. What would that be? Lack of connection, maybe? A sense of not being able to have enough or to keep up? Chew on that for a moment.

On the flip side: Picture that taxi driver at the Kathmandu aiport. Picture where he works and the new cost of fuel he has to deal with daily; with no foreseeable end in sight. In his home, he sleeps with his wife and two children in the same room. Their power has been off for 14 days and they cook with solar power. They do not have internet and the two kids wear coats inside because there is no heat. The kids share the one toy they have and it only causes giggles. When the children are presented with a new deck of Uno cards as a present, their faces light up like a Christmas tree.

Textbook example of poor, right? What if I told you that the poor can have great abundance? Something they are "rich" with. What would that be? Connection to family and community, maybe? Being content with less. Again, keep chewing. 

So, what is "normal?" Here is what I discovered in my little take of these two incredible cities. Humanity. Living how we live in whatever circumstance we find ourselves in. Day in and day out trying to make the most of what we have. With every rising and setting of the sun. Even if that means twice.

The End.

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