THE KAERU KID: The Kaeru Kid ventures into the Middle East (part 1 of 2)

While I have visited the Middle Eastern countries of Saudi Arabia, Israel, Egypt, Cyprus and Turkey in the past, there were still many other countries in that area that looked inviting. Regional conflicts, however, seemed to make certain areas too risky. I wish I had visited Iraq when it was still safe to do so.

This is a region that has experienced turmoil and violence in its past. Yet, since there was no imminent warning, I made my move (this visit was before the Arab Spring erupted in early 2011).

Dubai has been in the news as having the most spectacular architecture, rivaling anything Las Vegas has built, and consequently was on my bucket list. They even opened a casino in January 2011, but had to close within a month after protests by conservative Muslims.

THE OLD — The Crusaders’ castle in Byblos is among the sites the Kaeru Kid visited during his adventure. photo by the Kaeru Kid

I scanned for hotel prices in Dubai, and as one might expect, they ranged from high to ridiculous. Fortunately, Girish Shivanand, a couch surfer of Indian descent, agreed to host me. Indian hospitality rivals the Hawaiian aloha spirit. His apartment was located in an area where many Indians have settled as evidenced by the supermarket being stocked with foods from their country and the neighborhood restaurants catering to this group. Dubai’s largest mosque was located here before the heavy influx of Indians, since few Indians are Muslims.

I arrived around 8:30 p.m. and my host insisted on taking me for a quick overview of Dubai. We drove by the world’s tallest building and then had coffee at what he said was the world’s largest mall. When we left the coffee house, he had forgotten his wallet at the table and he calmly returned to retrieve his wallet. He said crime was generally low in the city. I noticed many shuttered shops and was told that the economic downturn had taken its toll here, too.

The next morning we had a typical Bangalore vegetarian breakfast consisting of dosa, a rice pancake, which in this case, had a spicy tomato sauce.

Fortunately, a Big Brown bus tour ($70) had a stop across the street from my apartment. It was similar to bus tours in London and Paris, but the audio system with private earphones did not work properly. The modern buildings scattered around the city were very impressive. The highly publicized islands made in the shape of a palm tree, and one shaped like the world, each with multiple million-dollar homes boggled my mind; who would pay so much for homes located here? Talk about real estate bubbles, these have to rank near the top. I saw a modern monorail system, but did not have time to ride it.

AND THE NEW — The hotel shaped like a sail with heliports is among the sites the Kaeru Kid visited during his adventure. photo by the Kaeru Kid

Architects must have had their dreams come true being able to design buildings with an unlimited budget. There were buildings with indoor ski lifts in this country where summer temperatures range in the 100s. Another building was built like a gigantic sail with rooftop heliports. Of course, the world’s tallest building (Burj Khalifa) is here. It must have presented some unique engineering problems.

There was a charge of $108 for an hour-long tour to the top (124th floor) of Burj Khalifa. The visitor is then allowed to wander around the lobby area at leisure. Tickets for the tour can be purchased online for an advance date, which then drops the cost to about $27.25. I had not purchased advance tickets and was unwilling to spend the higher figure so did not take the tour. If you take or have taken the tour, let me know if it was worth the cost.

A friend, whose parents are of Iraqi descent, recommended a restaurant in Dubai that served the Iraqi national dish masgouf, consisting of an open cut carp grilled with spices. This dish was also a favorite of Sephardic Jews. He told me it was the best he had ever tasted. I searched for the restaurant for an hour and inquiries in that area drew blanks. Another restaurant said they had to have an hour notice in order to prepare it.

Addresses are difficult to find because of so much new construction, and directions are usually given in relation to well-known landmarks. For example, a location would be described as “two doors north of the Marriott Hotel” “or across the street from the Toyota dealership.”

On my visit, it was warm but the temperature had not yet climbed into the 100 degree range with high humidity. There was not much else that enticed me to stay for a longer visit, so off I went.

My next stop was Beirut, Lebanon. Both Dubai and Lebanon have free visa entry, and immigration officers just stamp your passport, making tourism relatively easy to these countries. Taxi drivers in Dubai were honest because they all used meters, but here in Beirut, the taxi drivers are sometimes less than forthcoming.

I read a brochure about a tour. When I asked the desk clerk to make reservations he said he could arrange a private car to take me on the same tour for the same amount of money and I could leave at any time I desired. Too late, I discovered the driver spoke only limited English and he could not provide any information about sites or answer any of my myriad of questions. As an example of his services, he would point toward the ocean and say, “Beach.”

He did take me to all the places listed on the tour brochure and I was able to linger or leave as I desired, rather than adhere to that of a tour group’s rigid schedule. The first stop was at the Jeita Grotto. Jeita is the name of the nearby town and means “roaring water” in Aramaic. Lebanese tourist officials are hoping the grotto will be included as one of the new Seven Wonders of Nature. It is the largest cave system in the Middle East containing stalagmites and the largest stalactite in the world and draws many local visitors and foreign tourists. Many formations are named for resembling other objects such as the Parthenon. If you been to other caves in the world it is not unique, although a boat ride on an underground river in the lower cave system was interesting. This river supplies Beirut with fresh water.

The company in charge of the grotto has done a good job of providing a safe modern experience and provides transportation to the entrance on cable cars and return on a miniature train on wheels. There are also interesting sculptures scattered about outside the grotto. No cameras or cell phones are allowed inside so I could not take photos, but you can view grotto pictures at www.youtube.com/watch?v=FlicX8W1hUs.

The next stop on the brochure was the town of Harissa, for a tram ride up a mountain for a scenic view. I elected to skip this because it was a hazy day and did not feel the amount of time involved was worth it. This was one advantage of having my private car tour.

Byblos (23 miles north of Beirut) was the next destination. It is reputed to be the oldest continuously occupied city in the world having been founded around 5000 B.C. This was an important port city and one of the products imported was Egyptian papyrus (paper) that the Greeks called “bublos.” The word Bible is based on references to the bublos (papyrus) book.

An archaeological site near the port contains ancient Phoenician temples (2700 B.C.), Byblos Castle built by Crusaders in the 12th century, St. John the Baptist’s church, and an adjoining area for souvenir shopping and restaurants for pleasant dining. The Byblos Fishing Club used to be frequented by famous celebrities such as Frank Sinatra, Marlon Brando, Brigitte Bardot, among others who have their photos on the walls. It is relying on its illustrious past to command high prices for seafood of average taste.

Casino du Liban is about halfway between Beirut and Byblos and naturally, I had to investigate. Smart casual dress is required for the slot machine area and suit and tie for men and formal dress for women in the table games area. It was late afternoon and the table games were not yet opened. However, it was apparent from the payouts for slots and the table games that high house advantages existed. This casino’s claim of having a sophisticated atmosphere would draw a smirk from anyone who has visited Las Vegas.

Interestingly, the majority of Byblos dwellers are Maronite Catholics. Lebanon, to its credit, is a secular society and tries to accept all religious beliefs. It is said to be 60 percent Muslims (mostly Shia) and 40 percent Christian with many other smaller religions. Because it is a secular society, one sees very fashionable and attractive women in the main shopping areas of Beirut but it was still a far cry from its glory days when it was known as the Paris of the Middle East.

(To be continued as I visit Syria.)

 

Las Vegas Tidbits

Ultra-frugal travelers should be aware of the free shuttles available.

Here is a good Website:  www.lasvegas-how-to.com/free-shuttle.php.

Strip hotels are not allowed to offer free shuttles from the airport, probably because of a strong taxi and limo protest.  However, off-Strip hotels such as M Resort, South Point, Stations Casinos, do have some, but you have to tailor your plans to their schedule.

Travel from hotels to the Strip or elsewhere are available. There is also a shuttle from Golden Nugget to the Charleston Outlet Mall for a dollar.

Coast casinos offer shuttles from their downtown hotels to Sam’s Town that is worth a visit if you’ve never been there.  The buffet is not good there, but the animatronic show is worth staying for a drink.

 

The Kaeru Kid lives in Las Vegas and hopes readers will send him comments at KaeruKid@yahoo.com.

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