Much of what we see about Dubai focuses on the flash, the glamour, and the city’s opulence. Yet, that is only possible because of the tens of thousands of working class folks who brave Dubai’s scorching heat and brutal humidity on a daily basis, all in the hope of scraping together just enough money to survive on. These folks are often hidden from sight as locals and tourists alike frequent the city’s grand malls, wide boulevards, and awe-inspiring structures. Despite being nearly invisible these hidden people are the foundations upon which the city survives and thrives.…
2012 was one of my best travel years to date. In it I added two new continents, four brand new countries and scratched some pretty major destinations off my bucket list. In addition to completing my first year in Copenhagen I made it to the United Arab Emirates, Scotland, England, Germany, Sweden, Zambia, Botswana, Italy, Turkey, Canada and the Czech Republic. Experiences ranged from my first time back in North America in 15 months where I came nose to nose with wild polar bears to an incredibly awkward Turkish Hamam experience to a week spent cooking over a charcoal brazier in rural Zambian villages. 2012 also saw me upgrade from my trusty Canon G11 to a Canon 600D, my first ever dSLR.
I feel like you have all been there with me throughout my many adventures. Your readership, support, comments, feedback and advice really means a lot and is part of what makes the hours, money, blood sweat and tears I put into this blog worth it. So, thank you.
Without further delay, I give you 42 of my favorite photos from 2012 in no particular order.
Lion cubs relaxing – South Luangwa, Zambia
The Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmed Mosque) – Istanbul, Turkey
A Lilac-Breasted Roller – Chobe, Botswana
Full moon setting as the sun rises – Churchill, Canada
A large leopard in the grass – South Luangwa, Zambia
One of many beautiful streets – Stockholm, Sweden
The last of my big three – Victoria Falls, Zambia
A young male pausing to stare us down in South Luangwa, Zambia
Spices at a traditional souk in Dubai, United Arab Emirates
Children clowning for the camera in a small village in Luapula Province, Zambia
A Zebra relaxing just before sunset in South Luangwa, Zambia
One of my favorite marble statues – Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin, Germany
A mosque at sunset during Istanbul’s worst storm in 25 years – Istanbul, Turkey
Children showcasing their zeal for life – Luapula Province, Zambia
A particularly beautiful street – Perugia, Italy
Hamish the world famous Highland Coo (Cow) – Kilmahog, Scotland
Fishing boats in Antalya harbor – Antalya, Turkey
This beautiful male leopard has survived with only one eye – South Luangwa, Zamiba
Dancing or fighting? Perhaps a bit of both – Churchill, Canada
Dubai from the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building – Dubai, United Arab Emirates
A large leopard warning a nearby hyena not to come closer – South Luangwa, Zambia
The famous rock chimneys that decorate and define the Cappadocia region – Goreme, Turkey
A moment of love and companionship – Orvieto, Italy
The historic streets of Gamla Stan – Stockholm, Sweden
Elephants posturing near a watering hole – South Luangwa, Zambia
Fishermen at sunset – Samfya Lake, Zambia
An elephant convoy walking single file – Chobe National Park, Botswana
Polar Bears play fighting while waiting for the ice to freeze – Churchill, Canada
View out over the Quirang – Isle of Skye, Scotland
A lioness chewing on a baby hippo’s head – South Luangwa, Zambia
A Swedish bike with a traditional twist – Stockholm, Sweden
The night sky over the village of Chisunka – Luapula Province, Zambia
A lion casually stalking alert Impala – Chobe National Park, Botswana
An abandoned boat – Isle of Skye, Scotland
Looking down on Perugia’s beautiful rooftops – Perugia, Italy
Polar Bear tears – Churchill, Canada
A baby Baboon preparing for launch – Chobe National Park, Botswana
A mother and her babies resting – Stockholm, Sweden
Hard at work preparing and seperating corn kernels for sale – Chisunka, Zambia
A close up of a beautiful piece of art in the Antalya Archaeological Museum – Antalya, Turkey
A very alert Impala – South Luangwa, Zambia
d’Artagnan, my brother’s cat – Luapula Province, Zambia
It was nearly impossible to select 42 of my favorite shots from the last year. There are a lot which I absolutely love that didn’t make this post. If you enjoyed these shots, please head over to my flickr albums and continue browsing. You may have noticed that this post only includes one photo from Berlin, and does not include any shots from England, the Czech Republic or Denmark. I wasn’t doing much shooting in England or Germany and I have not edited my photos from the Czech Republic yet so you’ll have to stay tuned for those! I chose to exclude Denmark because it is my current place of residence. I’ll be doing a special post featuring 10-20 shots from the past year dedicated specifically to my life here in Copenhagen.
The photo at the start of the post (technically #43) is from the traditional spice markets in Dubai, UAE.
Most of the photos in this post were shot on a Canon T3i (600D) while using either a 18-135mm lens, 55-250mm lens, or a 50mm f1.4 lens.
I would LOVE to know which of these shots is your favorite, or if you have other photos I’ve taken over the past year which you think should have made the list but did not.
Thank you again so, so much for all of your support. Your comments mean a lot to me! I cannot wait to see what adventures 2013 brings!
I began this series of posts with a piece exploring the topic of race. In the 2nd I tackled disease, HIV and hypochondria. In this, the third in the series, I will continue to share the concerns, uncertainties and revelations that led up to and culminated in my visit to Zambia. I do this in the hope of helping many of you better understand your own fears, paranoia and to perhaps answer questions you might otherwise be uncomfortable asking or discussing. The topics in this series are delicate ones, many of which are considered off-limits or too embarrassing to discuss openly. As I seek to express, analyze and discuss them, please keep this in mind. A more in-depth introduction can be found in the first post in this series: Travel Fears: Africa – Revelations as A White Traveler. You can see part II of the series here: Travel Fears: Africa – Disease, HIV and Light Hypochondria.
I was 24 when I learned a shocking fact. People take two approaches to using toilet paper – some of us fold, while others scrunch. Both work well and have their uses but what really shocked me was that it wasn’t until I was 24 years old that I learned there was another way to wipe my bum. That comes to about 8,760 days spent going about my business without the foggiest clue I had a whole different set of options. I find this to be a perfect illustration of just how taboo the subject is. It also strikes me as an interesting example of just how unoriginal we can be when servicing parts of our daily routine. Which, in part, is probably why westerners find the thought of using squat toilets terrifying.
For those unfamiliar, a squat toilet is…well…a hole in the ground. If you’re lucky that hole can be quite fancy with slightly raised foot rests and at times even a sanitary hose for bidet-like cleaning. At the end of the day though, it’s just a hole in the ground. A hole that you have to squat over to use while praying that your aim is good, that you don’t fall over, have your phone slip out of your pocket and into the hole, and that you don’t spray paint your shoes.
Despite traveling in quasi-squat countries for years they terrified me and I managed to avoid them. I would walk into a restroom, throw open the stall door and then issue a stream of muttered profanity when greeted by a squat toilet’s open maw. Then, after a nervous and awkward staring contest I’d eventually give up, reverse my route and then commence the tourist’s squat toilet dance. You know – that dance which resembles that of a small child who needs to use the restroom but refuses, instead walking stiffly around the house, sweating, and shooting daggers at anyone who tries to talk to them in the process. If you’re observant you’ll find a lot of western tourists doing this same dance in squat toilet countries. It’s a comically uncomfortable experience and one that can be more than a little embarrassing.
Worse than just the dance though is the behavioral change that goes with it. While a lot of us are hesitant to admit it, I know more than a few travelers have actually structured their schedules around safe toilet breaks. That’s a pretty fundamental behavioral factor in a trip not to talk about….right? As an individual that is lactose intolerant and whose stomach has a fairly resilient but temperamental disposition, I’ll admit that strategic toilet thinking has definitely shaped more than a few day’s itineraries. Which left me nervous…which in turn…well…left me in need of a porcelain perch that much more often.
No longer! Zambia finally forced me to confront my fears, take a squat and I’m happy to tell you all I survived…barely. Fellow travel bloggers LOVE to sing the praises of squat toilets. How they prefer them, how much healthier they are, how comfortable they are, how they’re natural and even how much more sanitary they are. The wikipedia page for squat toilets is basic, but still manages to read as a public service announcement noting they:
- Make elimination faster, easier and more complete. This helps prevent “fecal stagnation,” a prime factor in colon cancer, appendicitis and inflammatory bowel disease.
- Protect the nerves that control the prostate, bladder and uterus from becoming stretched and damaged.
- Securely seal the ileocecal valve, between the colon and the small intestine. In the conventional sitting position, this valve is unsupported and often leaks during evacuation, contaminating the small intestine.
- Relax the puborectalis muscle which normally chokes the rectum in order to maintain continence.
- Use the thighs to support the colon and prevent straining. Chronic straining on the toilet can cause hernias, diverticulosis, and pelvic organ prolapse.
- A highly effective, non-invasive treatment for hemorrhoids, as shown by published clinical research.
- For pregnant women, squatting avoids pressure on the uterus when using the toilet. Daily squatting helps prepare one for a more natural delivery.
Squat Toilet Strategy
Every time I use a squat toilet I feel like I’m participating in a timed military drill. Get in. Get down. Rescue the prisoners. Get up. Get out. Why? Well, let’s just say it really sucks when your knees start to burn, the muscles in the arches of your feet start to cramp, you’re dehydrated, and you’re still trying to take care of business. All while trapped in a tiny thatched mud hut in the middle of nowhere aiming for a small square cut into the cement floor. No rope to support yourself, oddly stained brick walls you don’t dare touch just out of reach, and nothing to prop yourself up on. Oh, did I mention the giant spiders staring down at you from the roof? Yes. Giant spiders. Meanwhile praying you’re not accidentally and embarrassingly re-decorating your paints or shoes in the process. All of which makes resting lazily on a porcelain standing toilet look REALLY good.
What I’ve realized is that a primary source for many of the issues we have with squat toilets stems from basic cultural body dynamics. In places like Zambia, Dubai or India you’ll regularly see people casually relaxing in a squatting position. For many it’s a comfortable alternative to sitting cross legged or in a chair. Even more important though, they’ve been squatting in this position since they were kids AND when they do it, they do it flat footed.
As you’ll note in the photo above I definitely can’t squat flat footed and if you’re having a lot of issues with squat toilets, you probably can’t either. My tendons are too tight and i’m not flexible enough. This is partially due to my height, but it is largely just because I’ve never needed to. When I squat I’m squatting on the balls of my feet. The rest of my foot is completely off the ground. As a result I’m far less stable and far more prone to cramping than a more flexible or flat footed squatter. In turn this means that my body weight isn’t as well settled which puts added strain on my already weak knees causing increased discomfort. I’ve tried to squat flat footed, but have a lot of work to do if I’m ever going to manage it. I think in my particular case it is especially bad because of the muscles I’ve developed during 9 years as a salsa dancer….a dance which is danced predominantly on the balls of one’s feet.
If you’re nervous about squat toilets my advice to you is to experiment and to see if you can squat flat footed. If you can’t and you have a few weeks left before your trip starts, begin stretches and exercises designed to improve your ability to squat flat footed. You’ll be doing yourself a huge favor. Even if you can squat flat footed, consider pausing to squat for 3 minutes straight 3x a day in the lead up to your trip. It’ll be good for your thighs, and help refresh the muscles you’ll need!
To reduce risk of splatter damage it’s advisable you take a wide squat base. This should improve balance and more importantly keep you cleaner. If wearing pants or shorts keep them above the knee when squatting, just mind what’s in your pockets. The temptation is to lean forward and rest your body on your legs, but you’ll be far better off if you can keep your spine straight as this should help reduce…shall we call them, “explosive projectiles” … or you can take a slightly different approach like my buddy Mark over at Migrationology who just takes his pants off completely.
This is still the part of the process I’m less than comfortable with. The toilets in Dubai had fancy hoses and nozzles. The more traditional or basic versions around the world often just provide a small bucket with water or a water tap. Unfortunately, it’s as straight forward as you’re afraid it is. Take the water, in whatever form it comes, and rinse yourself. If water alone is insufficient use your left (not right) hand to help clean yourself, and then use the water to wash your fingers further.
But, that means you’ll be squatting there with a wet bum, right? Yep. Unfortunately it seems that’s not a concern. No pat dry necessary (allowed?). Just shake off as much water as you can, and then pull your pants up and go about your business.
If, like me, you find the concept of touching a hose/handle/cup/nozzle that everyone else has touched…shall we say…suspect? Then you can plan ahead and take a pre-filled plastic coke bottle in with you for use as your own private water source. The locals will likely see this as “less clean” but we’ll agree to disagree. If your trip is shorter, you can also pack in your own wet-wipes or toilet paper. Just be mindful when disposing of the paper, as many toilets can’t handle it. If you’re not able to shower on a daily basis or expect to have food-related complications I highly recommend you have wet-wipes on hand. They’ll make a huge comfort difference and do wonders for your mood.
It’s also interesting to note that use of water/toilet paper seems to vary from country to country. Not all squat toilets lack toilet paper. In Zambia, there was rarely water available and always toilet paper to be found. In Dubai, however, a mixture was often present.
Final Thoughts and Tips
You’re not always going to be able to avoid squat toilets. However, you will be able to avoid them far more often than you think. When trying to seek out a traditional western seated toilet make sure to keep a close eye out for handicapped bathroom stalls. Even in bathrooms that were almost exclusively squat toilets, the handicapped stall was typically a traditional western toilet. Other bathrooms (such as the old wing of the Dubai Airport) alternated between squat and sitting toilets every other stall.
Unfortunately, you’ll find that many of the toilet seats in squat-centric countries are cracked, missing or damaged. This is because toilet anxieties go both ways – an oddly re-assuring fact. Traditional squatters don’t like and are at times unsure how to use our seated toilets. So, many will actually squat while perched on top of the toilet seat. This ends up damaging the seat or breaking it free altogether.
If using rural squat toilets it can be immensely useful to take a brick, or stick in with you. The brick to help brace yourself if you’re having stability issues, and the stick to help balance yourself.
I hope this post helps alleviate some of your fears, answer some of your questions, and better prepares you for your next face-to-face encounter with squat toilets.
If you’ve got an added piece of advice feel free to chime in!
Gentle waves rocking old Dhous as they line historic quays. The soft sound of bare feet on salt cured wood as old deck hands wander from sliver of shade to sliver of shade. The muttering putter of over-sized and oft-repaired engines pushing flat topped estuary taxis from shore to shore. The occasional -click- of camera shutters quickly capturing the moment. The metallic clink of 1 Dirham coins in an old metal box…the humble fare (about 27 US Cents) charged to pile onto a tiny barge with a long central seat and no railing. A brief five minute water taxi ride across an estuary alive with small craft and stoic people. Sweltering heat and humidity. These are the images and sensations that surrounded my recent visit to the Dubai Estuary. This photo captures unused water taxis lined up, waiting for their captains.
If you find yourself in Dubai, make sure to set aside the time to escape the towering skyscrapers and endless malls. Sneak your way through the winding warrens that mark the old souks, and then enjoy a quick water taxi ride across to the other side of Old Dubai.
You know that moment when the doors close, the hustle/bustle/rush of getting on to or into somewhere passes and you you look around only to realize you’re not where you should be? It’s an awkward moment. One I generally try and avoid but tend to experience often while traveling. Perhaps this says something about me, though I’ll go ahead and just attribute it to the nature of travel in general.
Dubai is an interesting city. On the one hand it is saturated with everything new, flashy, and western you can image. After all, where else can you get your skiing in, then turn around to snag lunch at an American Chinese food chain, before shopping for a Gucci burqa and then catching a cab through the 120 degree heat back to your hotel? On the other hand the heavy hand of traditional conservative religious culture and theocracy is ever present and visible.
My story starts on the Dubai metro. A beautiful set of raised facilities which sit perched over the desert sands, are heavily air conditioned and beautifully decorated. My folks – still sticky from the heat and humidity outside – had just boarded one of the city’s tram cars. It had been painless enough, though it did take us a moment to figure out that we wanted the general cars, not the 1st class “gold” metro cars or the cars reserved exclusively for women and children. Slightly delirious from the residual heat we stared out the windows and floated along above the city enjoying the view and keeping our eyes peeled for the Burj Khalifa. Our destination was the Dubai Mall, the world’s largest, and a sprawling complex located at the foot of the world’s tallest building – the Burj Khalifa. As we drew closer to it, we noted the stop marked on the metro map associated with the Burj and mustered all our will power to descend into the heat once again. Disembarking from our subway car we wound down a series of walkways that reminded me more of an airport than a metro, and then were spat out into the summer furnace.
As with many aspects of Dubai, the tram line connecting the Dubai Mall and Burj Khalifa to the main metro is under construction. In its place a free bus shuttle was available. So we aimlessly wandered around the small space near the bus stop looking for shade, snapping photos of the Burj, and complaining of the 110+ degree heat and 80+ percent humidity. And then a small bus arrived. Well, not necessarily a small bus, just one that wasn’t big enough for all the people waiting.
Confident after a year of daily bus riding in Copenhagen, I fell into my automatic routine and lead the way: Line up at the front of the bus…hope your ticket works…avoid eye contact with the bus driver and then stand with a blank stare on your face trying not to fall on top of anyone as the bus zig-zags its way to your destination. All of which seemed to work fairly flawlessly. We got on board, as did the three other tourists who had been standing near us. We were sandwiched in, standing room only, but it was a lot better than walking the mile or so to the Burj in the heat…so, I was hardly in the mood to complain.
…and then I started to look around. I quickly noticed that there was a bar separating the front 1/3 of the bus from the back 2/3s. The back 2/3 was – shoulder to shoulder – with men. The front section on the other hand had three men in it. My Dad, the other tourist, and myself. The rest of the space was jam-packed with a mixture of women and children, most of whom were covered head to toe in black. Then, as I continued to survey just where I’d led us, I quickly realized we were in the family/women and children only section. To make matters worse, the Emiratees aren’t the world’s tallest people. Which meant that the three of us towered a good foot over all of the women and looked blatantly out of place.
So, there we are with half the women glaring at us, half smiling at us, and all the rest of the men – who are sandwiched in the main part of the bus – looking at us with a mixture of “if you touch my wife I’ll beat you” and “you’re the a-hole that uses the turning lane to cut traffic jams, aren’t you?”. Meanwhile, I start to worry we’re about to get fined, or somehow penalized for violating the purity of the women’s cabin. After all, isn’t one of the cardinal rules in ultra conservative Muslim areas don’t touch the women? But hey, we’d walked right by the driver who was busy issuing tickets at the time so I suppose it wasn’t ALL our fault.
Luckily the bus pulled into the mall parking lot a few awkward minutes later and we quickly disembarked making a quick exit and getting ourselves lost in the winding mega-maze of shops the locals casually call a mall. We were no worse for wear, and short of accidentally ruffling a few feathers, hadn’t done too much harm.
So, that’s the story of how I manage the cultural equivalent of walking into the women’s restroom. When you find yourself in Dubai, just remember that the front entrance to the buses aren’t like buses elsewhere. Make sure to read the signs and enjoy the adventure!
While Dubai is most famous for its skyscrapers, luxury resorts, and incredible malls there is another side to Dubai which is equally impressive and enjoyable. While most of what you picture as Dubai has been built in the last 20 years the city actually has a long and rich history. One of the most enjoyable ways to dive into that history is to head down to the local Souks which are outdoor markets. Despite the brutal heat and humidity we decided to check out the local spice market. A winding warren of small partially covered streets the spice market, clothing market, house supplies market, gold and silver markets all blend together in a wonderful mixture of goods, people, smells and experiences. Each spice stand is overflowing with tubs and 50kg sacks of dried goods, spices, and minerals. Each a vibrant but distinctly different color ranging from rich blues to rust-colored oranges. The vendors were mostly fairly polite, though some still fall back into the attempts at high-pressure sales that you might expect.
Dubai’s old souks are a must-see part of any visit to Dubai. Not only are they enjoyable in their own right, but they serve as a wonderful way to frame the contrasts between Old Dubai and New.
Dubai is also a convenient stop over location if you are visiting the Indian Ocean. I recently swapped stories with Charles Duncombe, director of Holidays Please as he went to Dubai and the Maldives on his honeymoon. He said, “Because Dubai is relatively modest in size we crammed loads in within just a few days. There is so much variety, as one day I was sand dune surfing and the next I was indoor skiing with 90 degree outside temperatures! It’s also pretty affordable at the moment with the number of hotels that have been built recently. At the risk of a shameless plug our site has found Dubai Holidays starting under $100 a night on an accommodation only basis.”
Located in the heart of a brutal, nearly inhospitable desert is a shining oasis of water, steel and light. It’s a place full of wonders…tributes to all that man can accomplish, build and create. Beyond the indoor ski slopes, ice rinks, and aquariums there’s one feat in particular that quite literally stands above the rest – the Burj Khalifa, more commonly just called the “Burj”. You probably know it simply as the tallest building in the world. During a recent layover in the United Arab Emirates (Dubai) we made our way to the Burj, ascended to the 124th floor (which is only about 2/3 of the way up) and enjoyed a spectacular sunset. After watching the fountain and light show below us from the observation deck we headed back down to ground level and spent some time staring skyward. The Burj is lit at night. The result is a giant shining beacon that is 2,723 feet tall and holds a wealth of world records. One of the most interesting of which is its 144th floor night club.
I snapped this black and white night shot to capture the moment. I hope you enjoy it – for me it feels like something straight out of a 1920s or 1930s poster. What thoughts come to mind for you?