Evidence, Toto, we are not in Kansas anymore:the captain of our Boeing 777 announces that the flight to South Africa from Dubai will be longer than usual because we must fly around war-torn Yemen.
You begin to understand you are in a part of the world where things are not quite the same. You are a little closer to the day’s headlines than you were before.
Dubai, part of the United Arab Emerites, on a map, no more than an afterthought attached to the vastness of Saudi Arabia. Iran glowers just across the Persian Gulf; Iraq rips itself apart at the far end of the gulf, a little more to the west. Looking at a map of the region to get your bearings does not calm the nerves.
My seatmate en route to Dubai is Reza from Toronto who is setting up an office for an Iran power company in anticipation of the loosening of the international sanctions that have hobbled the country for years. Does he really believe the recent U.S.-Iran agreement will bring an end to the restrictions?
“To some of them,” he says. “My company wants to be out in front of this, and not be left behind when the sanctions end.”
He left Iran twenty years ago, fed up with the repression. His brother owned a pool hall in Montreal, and although he seems the most unlikely person in the world to do it, with the help of his brother Reza got into the pool hall business in Toronto.
But now, given the shift in things, he finds himself working for the very people he tried to get away from two decades ago. He flies to Dubai every three months. They have rented an apartment for him and offices close by.
The South African authorities aren’t so concerned about the amount of money you are bringing into the country as they are in making sure you haven’t been anywhere near an Ebola outbreak. To reassure them, you fill out a page-long questionnaire. They may feel better, but it’s a slightly unnerving reminder for the visitor.
These days, it seems, the East never sleeps. That has its good and bad aspects. In Dubai at four o’clock in the morning, the airport is hopping. Apparently, there are no noise abatement laws forcing a cessation of flights after midnight.
Passengers throng the science fiction movie-ready concourses. Everything is open, the duty-free shops selling five thousand dollar watches, the boutiques hawking designer purses, fine restaurants complete with hostesses working to entice customers for a very late meal. All the peoples of the world appear to have gathered at this time of the morning, distinctly Arabic, but at the same time very Western, too, a melting pot of cultures.
Not far away these cultures clash violently. Here they intermingle and shop.
The flight to Cape Town seems endless, the plane going east to bounce off the toe of the Arabian Peninsula to miss Yemen and then more or less following the east coast of Africa south, far, far south—down through the Equator, further south than the visitor has ever ventured before.
Even though we dodge Yemen, we do manage to fly past sometimes notorious hotspots: Mogadishu in Somalia and Mombasa in Kenya. Not so much further west lies Rwanda and beyond that the troubled Congo. These places simmer thirty-five thousand feet below, out of sight, but somehow close by and certainly not out of mind.
The troubled world evaporates for the moment with the first look at the rugged sandstone beauty of the South African landscape coming into Cape Town from the north. Out the right side of the plane, fabled Table Mountain overlooking the bay and reducing this city of nearly four million, to no more than a jumble of toy buildings scattered around the base of the mountain.
Up close, Cape Town pulls into clearer focus enough to understand we are being transported to Burgundy Estate, one of the northern suburbs. Our apartment is lovely, but the compound in which it is located is surrounded by a high wall, topped with wire and signs warning “Danger Electric Fence.” More evidence that we are not in Kansas anymore. But then, that’s the idea.
The adventure has begun.