DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — The circumference of the Earth at the equator is 24,901 miles. My family and I traveled a distance a tad more than that over the last two weeks to Cape Town and other cities and towns in South Africa, along with a five-day visit to Dubai.
Our odyssey began a few months ago when my wife Katie asked me how I felt about visiting South Africa over the holidays. To this day, she can’t recall the origin of the idea to visit South Africa or, for me, why my instantaneous response to her question was, “sure, why not, sounds fun.”
It was less than a week later when I got a follow-up question from Katie: “Any interest in spending a few days in the Persian Gulf, too?” Since most flights between Boston and South Africa connect through Dubai, my wife proposed compelling logic in combining these two disparate destinations.
To their credit, our two teenagers, Zack and Cammy, were as eager for exploration as my wife and I.
So, two weeks ago we boarded an Emirates Airlines flight at Logan and landed in South Africa some 28 hours later. After a day in Cape Town, we traveled north to a conservation game reserve for three days of photo safari, which was amazing.
Twice a day we traveled with a licensed guide over thousands of acres of protected land, where we saw lions, elephants, zebras, rhinos and dozens of other species, all roaming the open spaces. We also saw one of the fewer than 7,000 cheetahs left in the world.
Seeing thousands of these beautiful animals in a natural habitat makes it hard to understand the mindset of “trophy hunters” who derive joy from killing these animals just for sport. Gandhi was right: “The greatness of a nation can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”
Friends shouldn’t encourage friends to trophy hunt – not just for the sake of the animals, but for how that impulse defines us and calibrates our overall humanity. I can’t imagine a person spending 30 minutes watching the living connection between a mother zebra and her 2-month-old baby, like we did, and not being repulsed by the thought of someone shooting either animal just for fun.
Another experience in South Africa relates to the country’s deep-rooted history with slavery. We visited The Slave Lodge in Cape Town, a museum within the building to the 1600s, where slaves were bought, sold and housed.
It was a solemn and somber experience to be in the same place where tens of thousands of people were dehumanized and devalued in what became an import/export hub of human suffering. I left The Slave Lodge with a greater understanding of this element of history, along with a deeper empathy and sensitivity for the many issues relating to race, in South Africa and in the United States, that remain today.
The contrast was stark in Dubai, which in just 30 years has grown from a small desert outpost into one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world. Everything in Dubai is the biggest or best.
Fueled by, well, fuel (oil), Dubai boasts a roaring economy with all the iconic features; world’s best airport, world’s tallest building, new skyscrapers and epic infrastructure popping up daily.
Around the clock, the roads of Dubai are seemingly jammed with Rolls Royces, Lamborghinis and Ferraris, all racing to a marina filled with a flotilla of the grandest yachts in the world. With shopping malls that feature shark-filled aquariums, ski slopes and ice skating rinks, Dubai is the epicenter of consumerism.
Though we’ve felt safer here in Dubai than in many areas of New York City, it’s still a bit disconcerting to look at a map and see that Iran is less than 100 miles away.
Within just a few hundred miles in all directions, actually, Dubai is surrounded by some very rough neighbors that are home to some of the most horrific, violent and sad stories of this century. But, to date and by outward appearance, Dubai’s powerful economic system keeps itself well-insulated against the geo-political problems of the region.
Now I’m happy to be heading home to Maine. I’m also grateful for this experience over the last couple of weeks to visit two very different, and very special places – with new friendships and lessons learned along the way.
While the speed and scope of global economics continue to pull us all closer together, with both force and opportunity, dark forces of global ignorance threaten to keep pushing us apart. We should all resist those forces through deeper understanding and greater empathy.
Steve Woods is from away, but fully here now, living in Yarmouth, working in Falmouth, traveling the world, and trying his best. His column appears every other week. He can also be heard Saturdays at 11 a.m. on WLOB 1310 AM and 100.5 FM.