Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Stopped by the Police

Embassies area 037
If I was trying to sneak around unnoticed,
I wouldn't wear this color.

Today Waldo and I got stopped by the police. And no, I am not writing this in jail.

Here’s how it went. I decided to take a morning ride toward the convention center (ADNEC) and the Capital Gate tower. I needed to think about the tragedy of the Villaggio Mall fire in Doha, Qatar, where 19 people died, including 13 children.

Doha is only about 380 miles from Abu Dhabi. The fire is believed to have started because of faulty electricity, and the firefighters were hampered by incorrect maps of the mall. What’s worse is they were unaware, when they arrived, that there was a daycare center in the mall. People in the mall were not informed of the fire, the sprinklers didn’t work, and some fire exits were chained shut.

You can read about it:

Reem Island 023
You have to see the construction here
to believe it.
I was thinking, if malls can be unsafe, so can the towers, and schools, and . . . The sheer magnitude and frantic pace of construction that I see has often caused me to wonder: how safe are these places, really? What are the building codes? How do they all get inspected? How well are they maintained? Are the elevators safe? How many critical flaws are buried within the malls and skyscrapers? And now I wonder, do the documents on file show the floor plan and evacuation routes correctly? Are the emergency doors locked? Is the security staff trained to assist in case of fire or other emergency?

Embassies area 002
They're building a mall
in front of our compound.
I recently read an article about Dubai by San Francisco travel writer Bill Fink.

Fink went to the malls, and left with the impression that they were empty. “You are here too early,” he was told, and so often that he began to doubt it. It’s easy to see why an American could get that impression, especially if he is looking only superficially. But, I can tell you that it is true – he was there too early. Malls open at 10:00 a.m. but many shops are closed from noon until 3:00 or 4:00 p.m.

The malls come alive at night. People come out en masse at dusk; malls are typically open until 11:00 p.m.  Families gather to shop, socialize and relax, take refuge from the heat, walk for exercise and sit around the many fountains. Every mall has at least one kids’ attraction, and most have several. As for the shopping, people are buying. So, in light of the Doha tragedy, how safe are they? 

I decided on a route across several busy streets and through some neighborhoods which I wanted to explore, to end up at 30th Street, the western Corniche.
Embassies area 006
This school looks good, but some appear to be in disrepair.

The shot I wanted to get was more interesting than
this one from

After winding my way through a school zone, I found myself in the embassies area across the street from the American Embassy. It's a really odd shaped building that I would love to take a photo of, but it’s forbidden to take photos of government buildings.

I rode through the 30th Street pedestrian underpass and along the Corniche as far as I could, photographing the Capital Gate tower, which fascinates me almost as much as the Zayed Mosque does.

Embassies area 028
Neighborhood mosques are often coupled
with little grocery stores.

Doubling back through the underpass, I found myself behind ADNEC, where I could see the tower looming behind a lovely mosque, and off to my right . . . the U.S. Embassy. I got some good shots of the mosque and tower, glanced longingly at the embassy, and rode off. Tempted as I was, I observed the rule. I knew that somebody could be watching me.

As it turned out, they were.

Embassies area 030
When I see this fountain I know where I am.

I emerged from the ADNEC section and had to navigate through a large roundabout to get into my own neighborhood section. I know this particular roundabout very well as a driver, and it was fun to go through it as a bicyclist. I was at the last and busiest crossing, patiently waiting for the traffic to clear, when a car came around with emergency flashers on. Just as it pulled up beside me, I realized that it was a police car, with three men dressed in military uniforms inside. They gestured for me to come over to the car.
I knew why they were stopping me, so I did what came naturally. I smiled. They greeted me cordially, and then asked me if I was taking photos. "I am photographing fountains and buildings, but not government buildings," I said. "I know that’s not allowed."

It’s always a process to communicate, even if everyone is speaking English. Accents and differences in syntax cause misunderstandings. They told me in so many words that they knew I was in the government area. I said yes, and I had been to the U.S. Embassy and would have liked to take a photo but I knew it wasn't allowed. I guess the officer in the passenger seat thought I was telling him I had taken a photo of the embassy. He asked to see my camera, which I pulled out of my pocket and handed over. Would he take it away from me, I wondered? I didn't think so. I had heard stories of people landing in jail because of photos, but Terry and Pete had told me a story where they just got some pictures deleted. I wasn’t worried; I felt that I was ok, as long as I cooperated.

Embassies area 010
Police officers respect teachers.

The passenger side officer began looking at my photos of fountains, the Capital Gate, underpass, mosque, and schools. He said the word “school,” and that’s when I played my “I'm a teacher” card, which always softens up the police.

He finally said “Where is the embassy?” “You will not see it, because I do not have it,” I told him as the other two officers nodded. “I have no photos of government buildings.” Ah, now we understood each other. “Ok,” he said, and handed back my camera – without deleting a single picture. We all smiled, and I said thank you and gave them a thumbs-up as they drove off.
Embassies area 031
Cars wait for traffic to clear, then enter. This makes it hard to
find a gap when you're on foot or bike.

All this time, traffic was swirling through the roundabout all around us.
Riding home, I reflected on how glad I am that I didn’t test the law. I always told my kids that life is a lot easier if you’re not worried about getting caught or covering up a lie.
Emirates ID & camera 002
Don't leave home without 'em.

I was surprised that the police didn’t ask me for identification. I had my Emirates ID card in my other pocket, clipped to my cell phone, ready for just this kind of situation. Isn’t asking you for ID the first thing police do in the U.S.? In fact, I recall a time when a police officer threatened to arrest me for vagrancy as I was riding my bicycle home from the sail loft for lunch without my ID. Ah, but that was in Venice Beach, California, it was 1978 . . . and that’s another story.
Meanwhile, my heart is so sad for the families of the precious children who lost their lives. As with any tragedy, there will be a reaction and an evaluation. Lessons will be learned, and hopefully changes made to ensure that malls, and hopefully all buildings, are safer.

Thanks for reading. Stay safe and sane, play by the rules, and have fun.

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