Saturday, March 6, 2010

Fountains, Fotos, and Fools

Had to turn off the spell-checker for this one.

Let's do the Fountains first.  Abu Dhabi is filled with round-abouts.  This wouldn't otherwise be so bad if it weren't that they all have at least three lanes.  There are dozens of these little "Dupont Circles" all over this city of one million+ people.

If you are able to take your eyes off of the big SUV in the lane next to you long enough (a very dangerous thing at night), you might witness one of the biggest arguments for having round-abouts in the first place.


There are dozens of them, and each is a work of art.

And they come in all sizes and shapes.  Which is what leads us (well, me) to the second part of this post.

Fotos.  It is a bit amazing that in my fifteen months in Abu Dhabi, I don't think I shot a single image of an outdoor fountain in daylight.  But I spent hours at night going after a few.  

My experience in the UAE as a photographer wanna-be taught me that it is low humidity there in the day, and high humidity at night.  I remember two false starts getting the image below because I had taken my Sony DSLR out of my climate-controlled apartment out into the night air, only to find that everything was fogged.  Viewfinder, lenses, shutter mirror.  On the second try, I turned the heater on in my car and attempted to "de-humidify" my gear by holding them up to the A/C vent.  So if you wanna take pictures in Abu Dhabi at night, I suggest you first put your Sony DSLR on the balcony in the early evening to avoid the condensation.  Forget about desiccant.  I kept six packs of it my bag at all times.  No help.

Anyway, this photo was taken near the entrance to Zayed Sports City.  The fountain lights up like an Olympic torch at night.  Just beautiful.  And if you get hungry looking at it, there's a KFC nearby.

But cool fountains in Abu Dhabi are not limited only to the outdoors.  Gorgeous fountains can be found inside Marina Mall.  Whether you are sipping your Starbucks or Cafe Moka, there is a nice fountain nearby to entertain you.

But I am sad to say that my collection of fountain photos is far from complete.  Someone suggested that I create a book, or print a poster of all the pretty fountains in Abu Dhabi.  Since I liked the idea of the poster, I set out to find what would be the centerpiece.  And it didn't take long.

While driving around one night, I spotted it.  Three tiers, gold leafing, and spectacular water action and colors.  I couldn't wait to stop the car and capture the image.  But there was a problem.  A big problem.  Across the street from the round-about (remember, round-abouts are for fountains), there was a visible sign that read "NO PHOTOGRAPHY."  I couldn't believe it.  Here was the grand-daddy of all fountains, the very jewel that would complete my collection, and somebody decided it would not be so.

I had no idea what this place was, but it appeared to be guarded, and had a long drive leading to a large gate.  The entire place had walls so high, I couldn't see what was behind it.  I decided that there would be no photo taken on this trip so I headed to my apartment.

A few weeks later, while without a rental car, I hailed a cab from our main office.  I decided that, being sharply dressed, that this might be the day to make my pitch for getting the photo I so desperately wanted.
When the cab driver came around the circle, I asked him to stop in front of the long drive.  His English wasn't very good, but he made it clear that he wasn't stopping in this spot.  Before I could get any words out to convince him to wait for me, a bright light shown inside the cab.  No, this was not a supernatural or extra-terrestrial encounter, but I think I had just entered the Abu Dhabi Twilight Zone.  It was daylight, and a spot light was now shining on us.  I asked the cab-driver, who was now visibly freaking out, to let me out and wait for me up the street.  He did.

Now let's just pause a minute.  We have already covered the first two parts of the title of this post.  Why did there need to be a third?  I could have simply directed the driver on and forgot about the fountain, and that would have been the end of it.  I could see the armed guards near the gate, but proceeded in that direction anyway.  A fool?  Maybe.  Read on.

My mind was made up.  I wanted permission, a waiver of the restriction imposed by the sign.  I came to ask for it, and wasn't leaving until I had at least asked.  But even at this point, I really didn't know what this place was.

I began to walk up the sidewalk toward the gate, and all eyes were on me.  I wasn't bothered by that.  But the sobering thought came to me when I noticed a guy previously out of plain view, now occupying a gun turret on the back of what was an obvious military vehicle.  And the gun was now tracking me up the sidewalk.

Sidebar.  If only I hadn't seen all those Middle-eastern themed movies.  I might have been thinking different thoughts at this point.  The thought of sharing a cell with Billy Hayes or that "Rifke" guy has never appealed to me.  But I never panicked.  That would have been a very bad thing to do.  I maintained my smile and kept walking. 

As I got closer to the gate, one of the armed guards came toward me, and was obviously questioning me--in Arabic.  I smiled and asked if he spoke English.  Another armed guard approached, and he was packing real heat across his chest.  It (the heat) was now within six inches of my body.  But in very polite (and surprisingly good) English came the question.  "What is it that you want?"  "I have come to ask for permission to take a picture of the beautiful fountain."  I intentionally avoided pointing.  That too seemed like a bad idea.

He and the other nice man exchanged a few words, and then another question.  "Why do you want to take a picture?"  Without hesitation, I summonsed a logical response.  "Abu Dhabi photo contest."  This was a logical response because the contest is no small thing, and highly publicized.  "I promise to keep my back to you, and I'll be done in 30 seconds."

Another exchange in Arabic.  But I could now see from the change in countenances, and hear in the tone of voices, that this wasn't going to happen.  The final judgment came sternly.  "Absolutely not."  I smiled and thanked them both, and slowly began to make my way down the sidewalk.  I suppose for all the right reasons, the guy on the gun turret brought the gun back to attention quickly, and was clearly tracking me again.  The mechanical sound it made coming to this position is one I will never forget.  At the end of the sidewalk I waived at the cab driver, and in less than a minute, we were gone.

A few parting comments.  Fool?  Probably.  But I have given great thought as to why I went this far for a photo.  I suppose the desire for that one special shot played a major role.  But why did I continue well beyond what most sane people would have considered reasonable?  For me, the answer is simple.  At the time I did this, I had been in Abu Dhabi for almost a year, so my view of the people, the police, and the military had already been established.  Here is the answer.  I never felt threatened.

I am certain that, had I made one wrong move, appropriate action would have been taken.  But I have learned this one thing about the Emirati people that I encountered during my stay in the UAE.  They love peace.  These men were doing their jobs, and they did it well.  Even when a fool came up the sidewalk of what I now know is a facility of such great importance, they were not hostile, nor did they threaten me.  And also based on what I now know, it is indeed and right to post the "NO PHOTOGRAPHY" sign.

So let me close this post with a message to other fountain-chasing paparazzi.  If the sign says no photography, you may want to think twice about asking. 

This may have been a better post for one of my other blogs, "Bought Experience."

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