Visiting Dharavi — the largest slum in Asia

A staggering 55 percent of Mumbai’s population (12.4 million people in 2011) lives in its dozens of slums, nearly seven million people. The largest of these is Dharavi. More than a million people live in an area half the size of New York’s Central Park, about 0.8 square miles. Let that sink in for a moment. A million people, less than a square mile.

The slums of Mumbai are desperately poor, but they are not a place of hopelessness. In fact there are thriving industries within Dharavi, and an informal economy estimated to be worth about a billion dollars.

It’s hard to find the right voice to write about slums. A group of us in Mumbai for an education seminar took a tour of the Dharavi slum, which of course sounds voyeuristic. Reality Tours has been conducting tours of Dharivi for about 11 years now, giving 80 percent of its profits after taxes back to the densely-packed slum in the form of education programs and job training for school-age kids up to adults. The photos you see here were taken by Reality — we were asked not to take any photos out of respect for the people who live there.

Perhaps the most striking thing about Dharavi is the industry. People work in this slum. It shatters the image most of us have about slums — that people are lazy, uncaring drug addicts who cannot help themselves. In fact there’s a chance the your computer’s plastic housing came from there. There’s business in this slum.

Dharavi slum seen from the rooftop

The slum is divided by a busy four-late street. On one side are the “toxic” industries. Most of these involve recycling. Dozens, maybe hundreds, of business run out of shacks ranging in size from cargo container to boxcar. Plastic of all sorts are brought in massive Tata refuse-hauling trucks– bags (which have recently been banned in India), toys, bottles, casings for all sorts of equipment — in huge bags that are toted on the backs of workers through narrow, one-person wide passages to deep within the slum.

The plastic is sorted by color, shredded, washed, dried, melted, extruded into long, thin wires, and chopped into pellets. These pellets themselves are bagged, carried out of the slum and sold to companies to become, again, housing for your electronics. OSHA does not exist. The workers are in t-shirts, shorts, bare feet and flip-flops. There is no head covering, no eye protection. They may earn two or three rupees a day — three or four cents (yes, cents) depending on the job or how dangerous it is. Some of the shops are two-story. Steep metal ladders are the only way up or down, sometimes with 100-pound bails on one’s back.

Dharivi thrives on recycling — plastic, cans of all sorts and sizes, wood, and cloth.

Aluminum cans are melted in white hot kilns that burn charcoal and magnesium to achieve the high temperature needed to melt the scrap. The aluminum is poured into molds to form ingots about a foot long and four inches wide. The only way to get the ingots to the buyers is by carrying them out through the labyrinth of passageways. The men tending the open kilns, and pouring the molten aluminum, wear absolutely no protective clothing. There are no fans, no air conditioning, no windows. In the feels-like temperature of 101 degrees, it’s unbearable.

Large 10-gallon industrial paint cans cause special concerns. The paint first has to be heated and burned out before the cans can be crushed and processed somewhat like aluminum. Not so much as a cloth mask was visible among the workers, who breath the toxic fumes for hours each day.

One of our guides told us most people in the toxic side of the slum don’t work past their mid-40s, and are frequently too

ill to work past 50.

A lot of the workers here come from outside the slum, and outside of Mumbai. They are themselves from desperately poor families in rural India. They come to work for nine or ten months at a stretch, earning money to take back home. The owners of these micro-factories may let the workers live in a corner of the tiny building rent-free. Some of the owners themselves live in the slum, but some have managed to afford housing outside, and leave the day-to-day operation to their workers.

A heart-stopping dash across the busy road leads to the “clean” industries and the more residential part of the slum, although “residential” makes it sound bucolic. It’s not. The clean industries include textile work, leather fabrication and pottery. There used to be tanneries in Dhavari many years ago, but it was outlawed because it’s so toxic. Skins are still collected and stored in a particularly smelly quarter of the slum and shipped south to Chennai. The leather is then shipped back to Dhavari for finishing into coats, brief cases, purses, wallets and bags. It’s here many of the knock-off Louis Vuitton and Gucci bags, shipped all over the world and sold on the streets of just about every major city on earth, are made. But a few years ago, slum resident Wahaj Khan opened a shop (the only air conditioned spot in the slum), and began selling those goods with the Dharavi brand on them.

Skilled pottery workers turn out thousands of images a day, for mere rupees — a few pennies. They’re sold around the world.

The slum is dense, and on hot, humid Mumbai monsoon days, nearly airless. We walked along passages only a few inches wider than our shoulders. Electric wires scalloped above our heads, but often dipped low enough to have to duck. We had to watch that while also paying attention to our footsteps — holes in the walkway were common. People coming the other way had to step into doorways to pass — there wasn’t enough room for two people on the walkway. In other places, the walkways opened up onto a courtyard-like enclosure of two-story hovels, and even a rough, dusty lot with kids playing the national game of India, cricket, using a plastic bat and balls.

The electricity is expensive, and not every home has it. Water is available three hours a day at leaky faucets sprinkled through the slum. A handful of toilets is scattered around Dharavi. Most people use these. Kids use the great outdoors, usually down by the river in more wooded areas. Virtually no one has a bathroom in his or her residence.

But here’s the thing: it is not shameful to live in the slums. People are not sitting around feeling sorry for themselves — the men work. The culture allows Buddhist and Christian women to work, often in hot, cramped bakeries earning 1 rupee (about a penny and a half) a day. Muslim women are confined to the home by their religious culture. Children are allowed to work starting at age 14, but many start sooner. And the kids go to school. In early afternoon the passageways were speckled with boys in their gold-brown uniform shirts and ties coming home from their studies.

Many who live in the slum work outside, in government and industry. They live in the slum because they just don’t make enough to afford housing in this densely populated city on the Indian Ocean. There is no embarrassment — nearly 7 million of their fellow residents do, too.

We stopped for lunch at the house of a woman who does this for the tour company. The “living room” of the place was bare except for, of all things, a refrigerator, quite rare a in Dharavi. The lunch of chapati bread, sprouts, curry chickpeas, rice and dal (lentils) was simple and spectacular. And we learned that she has been to the United States, to visit a daughter in Phoenix. Both of our guides were born and raised in the slums, and still live there, but the brother of one is earning his Ph.D. in sleep study and is studying the Cayman Islands. Growing up in the slum is not a life sentence, but escape is neither guaranteed nor easy.

I’m sure there are drugs and alcohol. I didn’t see it. I honestly wonder if there is much theft. There is more a feeling of community, if one can get a sense of that spending less than three hours there. But listening to the guides, one gets the feeling that people watch out for each other, their property and their kids.

If it sounds like the Dharavi slum is a complex web of contradictions, I’ve conveyed the experience accurately. It is a slum. Mumbai would like to clean it up along with all the others. But a million people live and work there. It’s their way of life, and for some it has been for a generation or more. It’ll take more than a bulldozer and a concrete high rise to deal with the problem — the issue. I’m glad I took the tour. I was happy to leave. I have a lot to sort out. A lot to think about.

Wayand Khan in his leather goods shop, the coolest place in Dharavi.

Unmissed opportunities…

I almost missed one of the coolest things ever because of my unwillingness to ask a question.

Last Saturday I had a free day. I ate a leisurely breakfast, showered, changed and considered what to do with the day. I had no plans at all. I toyed with the idea of see a play in the evening, visiting some of the remarkable museums, walking to some new part of the city and exploring markets, or sitting in Russell Square reading a book.

And suddenly I knew. I wanted to go to York. I wanted to see York Minster. It was getting on in the morning, and I wavered going at all. I didn’t know if I’d have enough time. But I grabbed a jacket and an umbrella, walked to King’s Cross station, stood in line for a ticket, and took the chance. The train boarded at 11:15, to arrive in York at 12:45. 

Let me just say that riding on a train is an unbelievably comfortable experience. I chose a “quiet” car — cell phone ringers off, no noisy children, no loud conversations. I watched the city roll by for the first 10 or 15 miles, then the open green countryside of rural England. I was on an express, so we flashed by towns and villages, passed grazing cattle and sheep, and flew under scudding dark clouds. The threat of rain followed us all the way to York. The Virgin train was fast (about 70 mph), smooth and quiet. What is was not is cheap. British train travel, while wonderfully civilized, is expensive. British village from the train

York was founded by the Romans in 71 CE, the northernmost outpost of the empire. It is at the confluence of the Ouse and Foss rivers, and was prone, not surprisingly, to flooding. Nonetheless, it became a busy trade center. Christianity came along sometime before 300 CE. It is an unbelievably beautiful Medieval city that retains most of its city wall. In fact there is a walk that includes the wall, and stairways lead up to the top, where anyone can stroll.

York’s ancient city wall
I was there for one main purpose: to see the enormous York Minster. A minster is a sort of super-cathedral. Think of Westmister Abbey, seat of the Church of England. By 311 York already had an archbishop, but work on the minster didn’t begin until about 627. It was a wooden structure that eventually burned to the ground. Several other attempts did too. When the Romans left, the Angles settled. Then the Vikings came along, then Anglo Saxons, William the Conquerer and so on. It was batted about by various invaders and settlers, and its fortunes rose and fell with them. 

In the 11th century York became an important religious center, with a number of abbeys of friars and monks located there. They all ended in 1435 when Henry VIII broke from the Catholic Church and declared himself the spiritual leader of the new Church of England.

The current minster was started about 1080, still a Catholic outpost. It was declared completed in 1472 when it was consecrated as a building of the Church of England. This is the church I set out to see.

I walked through the Micklegate and the narrow road led me toward the river. The Micklegate to York. Half-timber buildings can be seen beyond.

I chose to sit outside a pub for lunch, but just as I ordered the rain began. We all retreated inside until it stopped, and by then, after fish and chips, it was nearly 3:00. The last train to London was at 8 pm, and I had an opened-end ticket but I had to use it that day.

I had no idea where the minster was, and I didn’t want to ask, so I just began walking. I came upon the remains of the 11-th century castle and the castle museum. By the time I finished those it was after 4:00, and the sky opened up. The umbrella gave me a moving cocoon of dryness, but from the knees down I was soaked. Then I found a map and figured out I was in possibly far from the minster, I couldn’t figure out the buses, I didn’t want to ask, and I gave up trying to see it. I had come all that way, and would miss York Minster.

Somewhat miserably, feeling terribly sorry for myself, I started back the way I came, but I took a detour. This led me to another ancient church, a busy shopping center, and another map. And this map showed me I was about three block from York Minster. And then I did that one think I had been reluctant to to. I asked a local, who confirmed it was just up the street. I quickened my step and arrived at the Minster to see a young guide standing in front of the closed entrance. I glanced at my watch. It was 5:15. 

“Closed?” I asked.

“Yes, we’re closed for Evensong. You can join Evensong if you like, though. It just started.”

“How long will it be?”

“An hour.”

“I have to catch a train by 8:00,” I said.

“Oh, plenty of time. When you come out just walk straight down this street, through the gate in the wall, and you’ll be at the station. It’s no more than 10 minutes.”

So I walked in. An usher showed me to a seat — there are no pews, mostly folding chairs — and handed me a program. The choir was in full voice, the pipe organ filled the air and my soul was warmed.

And here is the unmissed opportunity. Had I found the minster when I first arrived, I would have paid admission and walked around with a guide book and my camera. I would have marveled at the stained glass windows, the soaring heights, the crypts of  the archbishops who lay buried nearby. I would have admired the carvings, the immensity of the structure itself, the history of the place. I would have enjoyed every moment I was there.

But this was more, because I got to not only sit in one of the grand structures in Britain, but I got to experience why it was there. I got to experience not just the church, but the purpose of the church. I listed to the sung psalms, some accompanied by the organ, some a capella. The choir was mostly male. A few females supplied the upper ranges, but most of the soprano and alto voices were those of boys. The gravity of the readings that separated the psalms echoed through the church almost lost in their own reverberation, but the chants and intonations of the choir were clear and crisp. 

I walked out so happy that I had found it after it had closed to tourists. At the conclusion, we were not hurried out into the street. We were allowed to walk around and take all the photos we wanted. No one came to shoo us away. I got the best of both. Fourth-five minutes earlier, I would have missed the true meaning of York Minster.

There is an old saying that says the early bird catches the worm. The corollary to that, of course, is that the late worm does not get eaten. I was the late tourist last Saturday, and I got the entire meal.

I strolled back to the station, got something to eat on the return journey, boarded the train 15 minutes later, and headed back to London in the steeply-slanted sunlight of a late British evening. Clouds still lingered, but broken enough to let through golden rays. 

And as I looked out the window opposite to me, a rainbow arced into the heavens. A sign? Nah. Just a coincidence. I settled into the comfortable seat and watched night fall on England.

York Minster

When a bomb explodes

I’ve been to Kabul, Afghanistan, four times in my life. The first three times a suicide bomber blew up something and took innocent lives somewhere in the city. The first time, in 2010, it happened on a road I had been on just two days earlier. But in none of those cases was the bombing anywhere near where I was. The last time I was there, last spring, there was no bombing. It had taken place the week before, killing 60 people. 

Those bombings were not really close to where I was. I mean, they were in the same city, but not near where I was staying or working. I didn’t brush them off, but I realized them for what they were — targeted at a specific sector of the population,not random. I have developed an attitude toward bombings. I know I have never been involved directly in a bombing or lost anyone to one. And I realize people who have may have an entirely different attitude. 

I have a group of eight college students here in London with me. We fly home Saturday. The bombing in Manchester caught our attention, the attention of the university administration, and of course the parents of my students. Manchester is at least two hours from London by train, not really in our neighborhood. But somehow it seems close. So far 22 people have died. This was also targeted — at young people attending a concert in a large auditorium. It was staged for maximum injury and maximum attention. It accomplished both. 

So this morning I sat down with my students. Troupers that they are, none of them appeared to be nervous about the bombing. I gave them a chance to talk it out. I urged them to call their parents if they felt a need to — I’m sure just about everyone did. One of them said her parents were putting some pressure on her to come home, but she didn’t want to, and I offered to drop an e-mail to any of their parents they wanted me to. No one took me up on the offer.

I told them that 22 people had died. But that same day seven billion people did not die. The world sometimes seems like a dangerous place, but the truth is most of us are quite safe. And I said the same thing I say to everyone who asks about all these things: If we flee home in fear without finishing what we came here for, the terrorists win. We can’t let them win. Take precautions? Be vigilant? Absolutely. But as the British are quoted as saying, Keep Calm can Carry On.

With that said, we all stood up, walked out of the hotel to our appointment, and carried on.

I was THIS close!

Brasenose College, one of the 35 colleges that make up Oxford University, has produced a few distinguished alumni, and probably more dubious ones. Among the more impressive are an Archbishop of Canterbury, a prime minister of the UK and one of Australia, the alleged inventor of rugby, a couple of minor playwrights, some poets, a World War II codebreaker, and one of the physicians to King George III, who lost the United States to the revolution.

Brasenose is a Harry Potter-like setting, all ancient stone buildings, heavily timbered ceilings in the dining hall, a soaring chapel with a massive pipe organ, a closely-clipped fine grass central green, and stolid academic reputation that dates to its beginning in 1509. The history oozes from its walls. Students on our trip to London get to make a brief tour of the college (which it charges for in an effort to raise cash any way it can), and it’s impressive. At least the first ten or 12 times you walk along the preordained path. By the 15th time a certain sense of sameness sets in and one finds one’s self standing at the door-within-a-gate entry into the college not really wanting to go through it again, even with one’s favorite guide leading the way. 

So I didn’t. I watched my students walk into the stately grounds, and I hightailed it around the corner to a covered market that I knew of. Perhaps I’d find a bit of jewelry to bring home, or a cute, tiny baby outfit for my granddaughter for her birthday. Maybe I’d sit down for a cup of coffee and a great pastry. Or maybe I’d just do some browsing and look at all on offer. 

As I neared the market just the next block on, I noticed traffic cones set outside of the opening. As in Omaha, traffic cones are a common sight in Britain during the summer. But there were a couple of police cars, a very classy silver Jaguar, and people milling about as well. There was also a flatbed tow truck whose driver was hooking a cable to the front of a an offending Kia or something like that sitting outside the market.


I walked around all this unchallenged, and sauntered into the market. I was at the grocery end of things, so I took my time passing by the fruit and vegetable stands, the fish mongers and the butchers. One of the butchers boasts of owning the oldest ham in exhistence, a blackened hunk of meat shriveled to a hard slab that looks like an instrument used in some sort of fraternity initiation ritual. Yep, on display, with the whole story, in one of the chill cases. I wandered back toward the clothing stalls and I rounded a corner to find a mass of photographers and two videographers. Being a journalism teacher, I realized someone impressive was visiting the Oxford Covered Market. I strained to see who, but I couldn’t see through the somewhat shabbily dressed journalists and the impeccably-dressed aides, all of them men, everyone men, surrounding the dignitary. I figured it was a foreign ambassador, perhaps from Japan, the Congo, maybe Belarus, come to see the right way to do a covered market. Or perhaps a movie star like Brad Pitt, Gwyneth Paltrow or Meryl Streep looking for the proper gifts to take home after filming a few scenes nearby.

I visited a few other spots, then came upon them all again as I returned to the front. Again I strained to see. Nope. I last saw the press amoeba moving past the cheese seller, and I almost stopped to  ask who the dignitary was, but the look on their faces warned me against that. Besides the mass was moving toward me and I didn’t want to be absorbed into it and swept away. One last time I tried to see who I was missing. Nada. Oh, there was one young woman in the group, though, and she was the one doing all the explaining to the mystery guests. 

So I left the mob and glanced at the Jaguar as I did to see a tall, thin gentlemen dressed in the most splendid blue and red livery, gold tassels hanging from braided ropes looped about his shoulders, pointed hat perched perfectly atop his head. He should have been sitting on a golden carriage holding the reins of a team of horses. Instead he was climbing into the right side (this is Britain) of the Jag only to grip the leather-wrapped steering wheel.

My students arrived at the the university bookstore about 10 minutes after I did, several blocks away from the market. They bought some souvenirs and we all got back on the coaches to drive on to Stratford-upon-Avon, birthplace of William Shakespeare, to have a tour of that very spot (I went an had lunch — I’m familiar with that place buy now, too), thence on to Warwick Castle to conclude a full day’s adventure in sightseeing. 

About five miles down the road, our guide, Norma, whom I’ve known now for 17 years, said, “Did you see all the traffic around the market?” 

“Yes,” I answered, “I was there.”

“Really,” she said. “Did you see who was there?”

“No, I never got a good look.” 

“Well one of the shopkeepers told me it was Prince Charles and Camilla.”

“No kidding,” I said. “Nope, I never got a good look. I saw all the press around them. Never saw them.” I was that close, and I didn’t actually see them. I wish I’d tried harder, but I didn’t. I just wasn’t that interested in seeing the ambassador from Belarus. Damn.

But here’s the thing: I was dressed in casual slacks, a slightly rumpled UNO polo shirt, a red and black field jacket that’s been around the world but still holds its own, and New Balance shoes. The heir to the throne was in the covered market. There were a couple of officers outside. Nothing was blocked off. People were coming and going, as I was. There was no security checkpoint, people were carrying bags and purses, women and men were transacting business, all while the next King of England was looking at stinky cheese. No one panicked, no one over-reacted, no one brandished any sort of firearm in defense of the prince. No one had to. 

The English are so dignified.

I’m back in London after a two year absence. This is my 15th time here, each time with a group of students. I have eight with me this time, the fewest since my first year in 2000. It’s expensive, and although the cost of coming here for two weeks for the class is quite reasonable, it’s still expensive for students.

I have unfairly compared London to New York. It does neither of them justice. Of course, there are many similarities: both are centers of industry with global corporate headquarters; both are media and entertainment capitols, both are international banking hubs, both have about eight million people.

London, of course, is much older. Just outside the Tower tube stop is a part of the London wall. It was built by the Romans when this island was an outpost of the Roman Empire, and was called Londinium. It was built 2000 years a ago — just about the time Jesus walked the earth. You can walk right up and touch it, and there are other spots around town where the wall is still visible. 

Along Fleet Street is a pub called the Cheshire Cheese. The sign above the door says “Rebuilt in 1667.” Let that sink in for a moment. Rebuilt in 1667. The original publ was destroyed in the Great London Fire of 1666, that one that killed all the rats and ended the last great period of the plague. It was actually one of the first buildings rebuilt after the fire. Why? Simply because the workers of the day who were rapidly putting the crippled city back together again had to have a place for lunch and a pint of ale. First came the pub, then came the city, a somewhat vulgar version of “form follows function.” Now, 390 years later — 390 years — the Cheshire Cheese still serves up fine ales and excellent food, like steak and ale pie.

The city is dotted with squares — Russell Square, Bloomsbury Square, Tavistock Square, Brunswick Square, Lincoln Inns Field — finely tended square block parks of grass, flowers, benches, fountains and statues to this historic person and that. On warm days people flock to the squares. Families have a picnic or at least some ice cream. Kids run, shout, kick a ball, and laugh with mom and dad. Young adults spread blankets or mats, kick their shoes off and sit back with friends, sharing a bottle of wine and some cheese with bread. The elders sit on the benches, often with a jacket even on warm days, and watch younger versions of themselves decades ago. Some smile, some doze, some sit with the wives of many years in contented silence and enjoy the activity around them. 

Russell Square on a Sunday morning.

The noise of the city seems to disappear in a square. And believe me, London is a noisy city. It is choked with traffic. Older double-decker buses roar when the traffic light turns green or when they pull away from a bus stop. But it is a very walkable city, and I find myself walking five or ten miles a day. If at all possible I avoid the city buses, the tube (subway) system, and taxis. The best thing to do when one walks down a London street is to look up. The storefronts at ground level are everyday storefronts, nothing special. But upwards you see the great architecture of the 20th, 19th, 18th and 17th centuries. 

The streets are lined with restaurants of all sorts, Indian restaurants abound — Indian food, after all, has become British food. But London is a global city and immigrants have come from around the world to live and work here. I met a Portuguese man and an Argentine man both serving from from their kiosks in an open-air mall. Here in the Royal National Hotel, if you stand in the lobby for an hour you will hear at least a dozen languages. The Royal National calls itself the largest hotel in Europe, and it may well be. There are 5,000 rooms here. And I’m not kidding about that. Pensioners on holiday to London and grade schoolers on class trips swarm the lobby and the courtyard. 

The global nature means global menus. There are jokes made about British food, and indeed you can still find things like boiled beef and jellied eel. But every ethnic food has also found a home here, Many of the restaurants are fairly small, long bowling-alleys of tables and chairs. Young immigrants are often your server. And if you can’t find an ethnic food to your taste, pub grub is a fine alternative. Pubs are quite proud of the food they serve and especially take pride in their fish and chips. Believe me, there is no fish and chips like the fish and chips made from freshly caught, never frozen cod.

“When you’re tired of London, you’re tired of life,” Samuel Johnson once wrote some 400 years ago. It’s even more true today. Even after 15 years of bringing students, often on their first visit to a foreign country, I still love life, and I still love London.

A blanket hangs over New Delhi

New Delhi is in trouble. It is desperately trying to reduce pollution, and some of the steps its taking are admirable. But they don’t seem to be making a difference.

One can see the pollution hanging in the air. Worse, though, one can taste it. It’s grit on the tongue. It’s a scratch in the throat. It’s a tickle-cough. It’s a smell.

The Hindustan Times reported that the air quality in Delhi reached the “very poor” level on December 29, and was forecast to worsen on the 30th. For those interested in numbers, the PM10 was recorded at 304, and the PM2.5 at 197 micrograms per cubic meter. The normal levels are 60 and 100 respectively. PM stands for particulate matter. The EPA describes it as “a mixture of solid particles and liquid droplets [including acid] found in the air. Some particles, such as dust, dirt, soot, or smoke, are large or dark enough to be seen with the naked eye. Others are so small they can only be detected using an electron microscope.”



Morning in New Delhi

PM10 is especially dangerous because it can get sucked deep into the lungs and even work into the blood stream. People with heart or lung diseases like congestive heart failure or asthma are advised to avoid any exertion in this weather.

In 2015, more than 6,500 people died of respiratory illnesses, one of the leading causes of death in India. Many people who work outside wear masks over their mouths and noses, but most don’t. A colleague stepped out of the hotel the other morning and asked one of the doormen if he smelled the smoke that was quite obvious to us in the air. He considered the question and replied no, everything smelled normal to him.

I use a CPAP machine at night for apnea. At home I sometimes forget to change the filter. On my old machine it was a nylon cube about ¾” square, and after a month or so it looked pretty much white and new. Three years ago when I was here in Delhi I took the filter out after two weeks. It looked like a piece of coal. Jet black and sooty. At the time we were staying in a guesthouse with no air conditioning. This time I’m in a good hotel with a ventilation system. This year after five days the filter on my CPAP is the color of a fine charcoal suit. The hotel’s system isn’t doing much to stop the pollution for us here.

The reason? There is, of course, not just a single one. Delhi is a city of 20 million people. The Hindustan Times says the government reports there are 10 million cars registered. That’s one car for every two people, including children. A government report estimates car exhaust fumes contribute 25% of the city’s pollution.

Farmers in the rural areas surrounding New Delhi also contribute to the deadly haze. The only way they have of clearing stalks from the rice paddies is to burn them. Smoke from thousands of fires shroud the city and combine with vehicle fumes and dust from constructions sites. Open wood and paper fires line the streets at night as homeless people struggle to stay warm.


The result is literally a choking, acrid pall that settles over the city, and in a temperature inversion as Delhi has had for the last few days, it does not dissipate.

The city is trying to make changes. It has banned trucks that belch black smoke into the atmosphere. It has tried road rationing, in which cars with odd-numbered license plates alternate with even-numbered plates on the road each day. It’s trying to get rid of cars more than 15 years old, in poor condition and with less pollution control. But it doesn’t seem to work.

Public transportation is woefully inadequate here. In a city of 20 million people there are fewer than 5,000 buses. They are unreliable because they can’t get through the traffic jams created by the cars people drive because the bus is unreliable. The train system is already at capacity. There is no other way than autos, motorcycles and tuk-tuks, the three-wheeled motorized rickshaws, to get around. Interestingly, though, many of the autorickshaws are powered with compressed natural gas, which emits less pollution than gasoline, or would if the engines were tuned. Really, the motors on those things aren’t much more than a garden tractor.

I’m relatively healthy, if a little chunky around the middle, and I’m only staying here two weeks. The pollution is going to annoy me, but not kill me. I’m going home to the clean air of a Midwestern city. I’ll cough out the soot in my lungs over a few weeks, try to remember the pollution I left behind in New Delhi, and I hope I remember to say a prayer of thanks every morning.


What is Dubai?

What is Dubai?

Dubai is planted firmly in the Middle East. It is the most famous of the seven emirates that make up the United Arab Emirates. The UAE is a founding member of the once-powerful cartel OPEC which controlled oil prices for nearly 40 years. It is now weakened by in-fighting and by a defiant Saudi Arabia, which is determined to set its own course in deciding oil production quotas based not on its own economy or those of its coalition partners, but it’s enmity of Iran.

Dubai is Arab. It is Muslim. But step out of its spectacular airport, climb into a taxi, and drive toward the city, and you don’t see Arabia. You see a city that could be planted in America, Canada, Europe, Japan, China, Australia or parts of Africa. You see steel, glass, marble and granite. You see construction cranes and rebar and cement. Shopping malls that house ice skating rinks, an indoor ski slope, and miles of stores with European couture names.

You see six- and eight-lanes highways that carry a lot of foreign automobiles. You see an elevated tram that scoots along the highway, crammed with people. Automobile dealerships selling BMWs, Audis, Mazeratis, Bentleys, and Lamborghinis down to the lowly Toyota, Ford, VW and Chevy. Hyundai and Kia bring up the rear.

You see people from all over Southeast Asia. They come from Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Afghanistan to find work. They come from Africa – Kenya, Nigeria, Egypt and Sudan – and send money back home. Business people from around the globe work here in every sort of business. The executive and technology jobs are filled with suited or casually dressed expatriates from America, Canada, Australia, Germany, The Netherlands, China, Japan, and Thailand.

Yes, Dubai is Arab, but it is minority Arab. By some estimates, only 10 percent of Dubai’s population is actually from Dubai, an no estimate puts it above 20 percent.

Dubai runs on an expat population. Emiraties – citizens of the United Arab Emirates, own many businesses and ventures. But it’s the expatriate population that runs them. Unlike in neighboring Oman, which is two-thirds to three-quarters Omani, very little Arab is heard spoken here.

There is almost no oil left in Dubai. The largest of the emirates, Abu Dhabi, has the remainder of the oil here. It is the richest of the emirates, a fact that Dubai would just as soon you don’t know.

A friend of mine was dining with an old classmate, and the classmate leaned over the table and said what he had to say had to be whispered because he wasn’t sure who might be listening. Dubai, he confided, is in a recession. Hardly surprising news to anyone who’s been following the price of oil as it crawls along at drastic lows from five years ago. But why the big secret?

The only things that keeps Dubai going are global business and tourism. Oil, which once seemed unlimited and lucrative, is depleted and cheap. Dubai has to keep up the façade of a forward-looking, economically progressive city that is still growing, still vibrant, still vital and still relevant. The fear is that if global businesses scent an economic slowdown, they’ll start to flee. And if they flee, there is no replacement for the lost revenue any more. If businesses flee, the money leaves, the tourist attractions will begin to deteriorate, and Dubai will return to the sand.

That is the fear, of course, and like many fears it is probably over-blown. Dubai is not going away any time soon. It is still an economically progressive city. It is still relevant. But the floor is much thinner, more precarious that it has been for the last 50 years. The Middle East has been important to the global economy precisely because of the oil. But as the world moves away from oil as its energy source, the Middle East in general will become less important, less a place that business feel they have to be involved in to protect their interests. Politically the region will change as well. Staying on the good side of Gulf countries in the name of world economies will become less important. The region will still be part of the global economy, but a smaller part, and with less influence in the economy than it has had by controlling the price of crude.

It will affect the Arabs and the expats alike and Dubai needs those expats.

Executive and technology workers have offices in the steel and glass towers, sitting in air conditioned offices, suites and cube farms. The construction workers build those towers, laboring in 95 degree heat with visible heat waves shimmering off the concrete and steel. Taxi drivers drive a couple hundred miles a day.

Some of them get to work in air conditioning. Service workers in hotels, restaurants and office buildings make sure everything looks great for the hordes of tourists and business people who make trips to this glitzy, money soaked spot in the sand.

But in Dubai, the money is showing the first signs of drying up. The question now is not What is Dubai, but What is Dubai’s future?

Leaving Oman

(This was written the evening of August 6th in the Muscat International Airport. I wasn’t able to post it until today, August 7th).

Leaving Oman is hard. It was hard four years ago. It was hard last year. It’s hard tonight.

My seven students feel the same way. They’ve said it. I can see it on their faces, too. Yes, I’m sure they’re eager to get home. But I also know they have come to love Oman as I have.

It’s gratifying as a teacher to be able to introduce students to an experience like this. For some of them this is their first trip outside the United States, the first stamp in their brand new passports. With the huge help of Zainab Jones, our in-country coordinator who runs Inspire Oman, we’ve given the students as broad an exposure to Oman as possible.


Sea turtle laying her eggs

They’ve learned about the great things this country has. They’ve seen the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian see. They’ve skirted the desert. They’ve hiked the Balcony Trail and peered into Oman’s Grand Canyon that splits Jebal Shams, the country’s highest mountain. They’ve watched green sea turtles laying eggs in the sands of Ras al Jins, and even carried a hatchling too exhausted to complete the journey into the foamy sea.

They learned about Oman’s long history with the United States. They got a lecture on Oman’s culture of religious tolerance, not only among the various Muslim sects but also among Christian religions, Buddhism and others. They visited the World Health Organization office, the only one in the Middle East region.


Dr. Obaid Al Shaqsi, secretary-general of the Oman Human Rights Commission

They met with the secretary general of Oman’s Human Rights Commission. They visited a business incubator and met with young and old entrepreneurs, all hoping to build their businesses and add to the employment sector.

One of the young entrepreneurs was a student of mine four years ago when I taught at Sultan Qaboos University. Despite that, Mohamed Al Harthy, Mustafa Al Awati and one other have built their film business into a 15-person operation. They’ve had at least two productions aired on Oman TV, along with other


Mohaired Al Harthy, center, and Mustafa Al Alawi, filmmakers in Oman

commissions. Their three years at the incubator were up this week, and they had to move out. A business development counselor there said they’re ready; they’ll succeed. We saw a sample of their work – incredible.

They met with a DJ from an independent English-language radio station and heard their names mentioned on air. They sat with an American journalist working at an English-language newspaper and heard about the difficulties covering news and issues in Oman.


Chris Fisher, afternoon DJ on Merge FM

Our students met with young members of a think tank, and visited the factory of Amouage Perfume, the most expensive perfume in the world. They saw how dhows, the ancient sailing boats of Oman, are still built by hand. They cruised on the Arabian Sea and swam in the gulf.

The tour of the Royal Opera House stunned them. The intricacies of the inlaid wood, inlaid marble, plush carpets and expansive auditorium rocked them. At the far end of the stage in the opera house is one of the world’s largest pipe organs, with 4,600 pipes.


Looking directly up at the 8-ton chandelier in the dome of the Sultan Qaboos Mosque

Just as impressive was the Sultan Qaboos Mosque, a spectacular example of Persia and Arabian architecture and design. Its carpet was hand woven in Iran. It took four years to make, was shipped to Oman in 56 pieces on two Boeing 747s, and woven into one complete carpet. For a while it was the largest single carpet in the world, until the Sheik Zayed Mosque was built in Abu Dhabi. Its carpet is approximately one square meter larger. After gaping at the soaring dome with its blue-themed mosaic the welcome center provided coffee, water, dates and conversation. And lots of laughter.


Meeting with members of a young persons’ think tank

My students have experienced the worst of roadside toilets, truly dreadful, and spent the day at a seven-star resort. They’ve shopped in souqs, bargained with shop owners, bought pashminas, abayas, khanjars (the Omani-style dagger featured on the flag and national seal), coffees, saffron, t-shirts, key chains, and just about any other souvenir one can imagine.

They’ve visited a village that probably has never seen an American. They were treated in Omani style to coffee, water, juice, bananas, apples, oranges, dates, and plums. They ate tuna that had been spiced, wrapped in foil and grilled


Omanis welcome guests with a tray of fresh fruit…

on hot coals. They ate lamb kababs and Omani rice. They also went American once or twice. Shawarma, a wonderfully spiced wrap that is standard fast-food fare here, became a favorite. An early morning visit to the fish souq let them see how the local Omanis bargain with the fishermen, their day’s catch impressively displayed on counters.

They come away from Oman with knowledge of a country most had never heard of nine months ago. They also come away with some new impressions of a region that is continually wracked by bad news. Oman is peaceful, gentle, friendly, open and hospitable.


And then follow that up with rice and, in this case, lamb.

What did I get out of it? I got to go along, offering whatever guidance I could, answering their questions. I got to see the wonder in their eyes as they saw, smelled, tasted and experienced new things. I got to be the recipient of their enthusiasm. I got to watch them grow into new areas of thought and appreciation. I got to go where they went. I got to re-experience all the things Elaine and I did four years ago. I got to return to Oman.

This whole thing was made possible only with a grant from Nebraska University that subsidized the cost of the trip. Otherwise it would have been prohibitive. I don’t think any of them could have afforded it. But after two years of subsidy, there is no guarantee that the money will be available next year. The NU administration may decide to spend it on trips to other parts of the world, and to be honest, that’s not necessarily bad.

And as KLM flight 450 gets ready to board, I’m sitting here with one enormous fear. I don’t know if I’ll get back here without a class to bring along.

This may be my last trip to Oman.


The crowded fish souq in Seeb on Friday morning.


Bar al Jissa Resort for a day of swimming in the pools, or in the Gulf of Oman beyond.

The physics of sweat

Last week was pleasant here in Muscat, the capital city of Oman. The temperature was in the high 80s to low 90s, and the heat index was barely above 100. Maybe 105, but not much more than that. Here is Muscat in July, that’s heaven. When I talk about the heat in Muscat, people say it’s a dry heat, though, right? Well, no. Muscat is a port city. It has ocean all along one side, and mountains that trap the humidity from all that water on the other. It’s an urban pressure cooker. A giant oriental steam basket.

Therein lies the problem. The humidity of the air makes the heat especially dangerous. With dew points easily in the 70s, and even into the 80s at night, Muscat is a dangerous place to be hot. At 7:00 am today in Muscat the temperature was 99F. The heat index was already 107F. Within moments of stepping outside one starts to sweat.

As we all learned back in elementary school, the reason we sweat is to cool off. It didn’t make much sense back then, and it didn’t really seem to our unformed minds like it worked. But of course it does. Evaporation is an endothermic process in which heat is absorbed as the water turns into gas. The air absorbs the heat and our skin is cooled.

This is great in the interior regions of Oman like Nizwa, the one-time capitol, or Buraimi, a once disputed area on the Northwest border with the United Arab Republic. In coastal cities like Sohar, Muscat and Sur, however, the humidity is often so high the sweat does not evaporate. No cooling takes place. The moisture just drips off, or soaks your clothes. There is no exothermic reaction. Your body just gets hotter and hotter, and the sweat rapidly dehydrates you.

Thus the admonition to visitors who are not used to such heat and humidity to drink water constantly. It’s not an issue of rehydration – its an issue of constant hydration. If you begin to feel dehydrated here, it’s too late. You have to find a cool place, rest and drink. A good test is actually urine. If one’s urine is dark, drink. Drink a lot of water. If it’s light, everything’s ok. One must constantly have a bottle of water, everywhere. It doesn’t have to be ice cold water. It can be chilled or room temperature (remembering that an un-air conditioned room is 100F or more).

Coffee and soda don’t figure into the equation, especially colas. While they are not taboo, they actually aid dehydration, so even more water is required until the caffeine is out of the system. But in fact, even water may not be enough in this extreme heat. It only replaces fluids, not electrolytes.

“Electrolytes regulate our nerve and muscle function, our body’s hydration, blood pH, blood pressure, and the rebuilding of damaged tissue,” according to “Our muscles and neurons are sometimes referred to as the ‘electric tissues’ of the body. They are reliant on electrolyte movement between extracellular, interstitial and intracellular fluid (fluid inside, outside or between cells).” These electrolytes include potassium, bicarbonate, sodium (or salt) and calcium. The loss of electrolytes can cause muscle cramping, tics or twitches, and in extremity seizures.

That’s what Gatorade and PowerAde were designed for. Those drinks, however, are virtually unknown here.

thumb_DSC_0406_1024Here in Oman they drink a product called, somewhat unappealingly, Pocari Sweat. It is not, in fact, refined from anyone’s sweat. Admittedly it does take some getting-over to actually pop the top and drink up. It contains sugar, but not in the quantity or cloying sweetness of the American drinks. Pocari Sweat, and yes, it’s just as fun to say out loud as it looks, was developed by Otsuka Pharmaceutical Company of Japan. It’s manufactured in India and imported in huge quantities to Oman.

A can or two a day is good for moderate outdoor activity. Just walking from the air conditioned car to an air conditioned building and back probably doesn’t require anything more than water. But if the shirt is damp, the sweat is running down one’s legs, and the socks are like wet sponges, Pocari Sweat should be part of the day’s routine to supplement the water.

By the way, Omanis are very good at air conditioning. Most modern houses have an individual unit in each room rather than central air conditioning. Older homes and window units, but the modern ones are mounted toward the ceiling in each room. They are usually turned off until the room is used, which saves a lot of energy. Every single village in Oman has electricity, something the Sultan has accomplished in the 46 years he’s been in power. So even in the smallest towns in the most remote areas air conditioners are often in use.

One more note on the effects of evaporation. In olden days, and even today in the villages, Omanis used evaporation to chill water. Large unglazed clay vessels, holding about a quart, are filled with water and suspended from a window with rope or twine. These vessels are porous, and water soaks through. The surface water evaporates, cooling down the vessel and the water inside. Although it isn’t cold, it’s cooler than the surrounding air, and thus quenching.

Evaporation! It’s cool!





Morning on Jebel Shams

We left for the mountain about 20 minutes late. Last minute dashes for extra bottles of water put us behind schedule. We were headed for Jebel Shams, Mountain of the Sun, in Oman’s interior, next to the desert. We piled into two SUVs at 6:20 a.m. and started the heart-stopping climb up a winding dirt road, to the trailhead in a tiny village of about 6 homes.

The idea was to walk along the Balcony Trail, which skirts the rim of Oman’s version of the Grand Canyon. The American Grand Canyon, of course, is a mile-deep, mile-wide chasm created by eons of erosion by the Colorado River. Oman’s grand canyon, on the other hand, is a massive collapsed cavern system. It looks a mile deep, and it looks a mile across, but I can’t be sure. It is impressive and beautiful.

Elaine and I walked this trail with our friends Bernard and Ramona from Sultan Qaboos University more than four years ago when we lived here. Since it’s a collapsed cave system, there is an end to the canyon and we hiked all the way in. By the time we got back to the trailhead all four of us had some sort of minor injury – twisted ankle, tender wrist, scrapes and bruises. It’s a difficult trek over rocks and boulders on an unimproved trail that is exhausting and arduous.

I started on the trail with my students fully intending to go as far as they went. But about 1500 yards in my knees reminded me that they are nearly five years older than last time, and that my frame is about 20 pounds heavier. A sat myself on a rock overlooking the vista and wished my students and their guide a happy hike.

They moved on down the trail, and I could watch them for quite a distance. The sun was hazy, just over the edge of the mountains across from me. “Look at Dr. Allen,” I heard one say quite clearly, “he’s just a dot up there on that rock.” I waved at them, and they waved back. A few hundred yards later they were around the corner of a ledge and out of my sight.

I sat there on that rock, and suddenly experienced something most of us don’t.

The sounds of nature, completely unbroken by any manmade noise. Not a jet plane passing overhead, not a car engine or tires on a road in the distance, not an electric motor, not the squeak of a wheeled cart, not the tick of a clock, no music, no water pump, no phone, no alarm no clang of a gate. Nothing.


My early morning companion on Jebel Shams

The songbirds on the mountain took center stage. Above me I heard a few rocks falling and I looked to see a mountain goat making his unconcerned way along a ridge the width of a yardstick. Below me another goat popped up over the edge of a cliff from some tiny foothold it had, and stared at me. I said good morning to it, and my voice was tiny in that vast silence of nature. It bleated back, and its voice somehow sounded more appropriate than mine just then. The goat looked away across the canyon, then back at me, took a few steps and laid down to enjoy the morning sun.

I sat and absorbed the silence.

Eventually the sun became too hot to just sit. My students were hiking their way deeper along the trail into the canyon, and I wasn’t going to join them. I turned the other way, back toward the trailhead, and within a few hundred feet began to hear the sounds of humans. In the parking lot I found the car we had come in. The engine idled with the air conditioner running and the driver napping, his front seat reclined. I got in the passenger side, laid my seat back, and closed my eyes.

But I didn’t sleep. I thought about that silence, and I thought about fortunate I am to have heard it. Not many people do.