الشعور الخلط و في طبق خزفي
(Translation: Feeling Confused, Confuddled and Like I’m in a Casserole).
Mate, I have been fizzing to report from the moment I landed.
Dubai. Unlike any place I have ever been before. It’s just so futuristic, so intricate in both design and make up, so almost abnormal; it reminds me of my keyring collection, all different types of nationalities and ethnicities and lifestyles and cultures all knitted in together. It’s a big goldfish bowl, like an avant-garde human experiment where everyone and everything has been chucked in to see if it works. I just can’t seem to make bonce nor appendage of it (I.e., “head nor tail”) – I don’t know if I like it, dislike it, hate it or love it.
It’s really confuddling me.
So thus the “word” I have decided as its descriptor: Casserole. Because it’s like a big dish full of these assorted ingredients that are stewing in the oven, merging and meshing to create what is currently seeming to be a culinary coup, but I feel has that slightly small potential to perhaps sink in at the middle or serrate along the topping.
But before I barge on into my endeavours in the emirates, a brief(ish) background. (I twas rather confused as to what were cities/countries/what not, so this is just in case you are of the same ambiguity).
So Dubai is the most populous city in the United Arab Emirates (which is a country). There are seven “emirates” (sort of similar to states) making up the UAE, which are Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Ajman, Fujairah, Ras al Khaimah, and Umm al Qaiwain.
What makes Dubai quite the success story is that at the beginning of the 20th century it was pretty much a fisherman’s village. Truly. Its income mainly came in the way of pearl fishing and the entireness of the place made up a mere one km by three.
The 1960s saw development starting to be, well, developed, the economy based on revenues from trade. Then in 1966 the goldmine was stumbled upon (well, “found” is probably more fitting; explorations were underway); oil. Starting to flow in 1969, the finding accelerating Dubai’s advance and it emerged as a global city and business hub of the Middle East, further strengthened by its 1968 union with Abu Dhabi.
Today Dubai has a Western-style model of business which has driven it to become deemed as the richest city in the world, its main incomes coming from tourism, aviation (mate, think Emirates airlines; see previous post), real estate and financial services. It is the worlds “first vertical city” with its innovative architecture such as the world’s tallest building, the iconic Burj Khalifa and is renowned for its luxury shopping (honestly, you should see these malls). In 2012 it was judged as the 22nd most expensive city in the world (Dubai, not the building) and 2014 saw it said to have the second most expensive hotel rooms in the world after Switzerland’s Geneva.
The UAE is home to 9 million people, with a good 2.5 of them residing in Dubai. And of this number, 90 per cent are expats, the majority being from India (40 per cent or so), Pakistan, Philippines, Nepal, Bangladesh, Egypt and Iran. So when you’re making your way around the city, be it by metro, tram, bus or abra (that is, traditional wooden boat), coming across a true “Emirati” or “Dubaian” is really rather rare. (And the city has captured eons of censure for it supposedly being built on the backs of poorly paid foreigners flocking there for funds).
Papa Henio (or “Hunk” as he termed himself in the insert-name-to-forward box) sent me through an article on Dubai the other day. In it the journalist had kicked off with the line, “On the surface it’s a city lacking soul, a monotonous mashup of money and incongruities”. (Once I had looked “incongruities” up – not often I come across a word that I am unable to define, so when one arises I feel indignation and the immense urge to know its meaning instantly); for those of you also in the dark, it is along parallels with such as absurdities, incompatibilities, clashes and bizarreness) I mulled over it for a while to see if I fist pumped or squinty-shaked the description. Having been in the so-called “Sugar Daddy of the Middle East” for a handful of days at that stage I had to say in some ways I agreed whole heartedly while in others I was in total adversary.
Sure, it lacks soul in the sense of friendliness and salutation of strangers. I am most certainly one for heralding out my howdy-heys to all and sundry, sending smiles to all my paths cross and having chin wags with staff at shops and stations. So it really saddened me – and I mean, sent me fairly downtrodden, to find that downcast looking to avoid eye contact, bumps and bustles left unacknowledged and no small talk between someones in everyday exchanges is the almost-always go. And a “monotonous mashup of money and incongruities”? To some degree, yes indeed. Everywhere you go you can see the expense, the cash splashed on the flash, often so much so as to border on ludicrous (I felt the men standing at the top of the Burj Khalifa polishing the door handles after each and every person passed through to the observation deck a tad oh-tee-tee, but I could clearly see how the city has the classification as being the cleanest in the world). But in other ways, it is the complete converse and counter.
My teeming in timing with the city in Ramadan (to come later on here) has meant I have seen the city in solidarity in the face of fasting. The support for the people abstaining all day is all around, with every second, if not every, shop window proclaiming “Ramadan Kareem!” (“Generous Ramadan”) regardless of the beliefs of those in ownership. There is soul in the nestlings of the different cultures, pockets peppered throughout the expansive city space where culture kins have collaborated to set up shared systems for celebrating their nationalities. And of course, the soul of the city abounds in the man-made makings, such as the Fountain (capital F there because it is so fabulous) at Dubai Mall, which sets of jets and a light show all choreographed to music every half hour from 6pm to 11.
But I just don’t know. Even writing this now as I sit in the (Emirates of course) plane taking me away from the place, I haven’t formulated a full gone conclusion as to my favourable thoughts to it. In the way of living there (I always consider such any place I go) would it be full of fun, or out-and-out boring? Is the city ground-creakingly beautiful or is it a big concrete block of obstructing the sky? Are the people gracious in their gatherings, or insolently impolite to unknowns? I don’t know. What I do know is that it’s confusing, confuddling and – above all – a casserole.
Anyway. To my daily doings.
Now, the plan was always to stop off here on the way home. You see, my Uncle Adrian (older brother of the father Henio, though he claims to be Papa’s much younger sibling) works for a company with branches around the globe, meaning he is contracted to different countries around the globe. Last year it was LA, before that Shanghai, and since two months ago he and his wife Therese have been residing in Dubai. So fitting in with all my plans was a definite flit to the UAE to see the two.
It just so happened that matey Katie from Contiki got asked to head on over for a job interview in early June as well. She rung me up when the invitation came to see if I was keen to tie in and have a couple of days in the plentiful place, with a number of nights at a hotel as we dithered round the desserts. I was all in, so booked it in with a good six days to see the sights – Sunday through Tuesday eve with Katie, and tying in with the uncle’s return from New York for that night to Saturday AM with him and the missus.
Having flown in the evening previous and being such a chum, Katie greeted my 6.30am arrival (which ended up being 7.45, what with the delays) at the examining exit. It was decided a taxi was for the taking (between us there was a lot of luggage; what with me being on the homebound and her going on to Singapore, Malaysia and a bust through to Bali, the packs were plenteous) and upon walking out the sliding doors to the outside it was like having a hair dryer blown full force in the face.
See, Dubai peak season is its winter, when the torrid temps are in the early 30s. What with us two landing in the summer, with the warmth hitting the early to mid-40s (and onto 50 next month), we were in some serious swelter. But it was so glorious; both of us are totally on point with brilliant balminess, declaring the sun’s surge of heat that engulfed us sensational.
Our taxi driver was a lad, giving us the ins and outs of the city as we drove along the motorway towards the Marina area where out staying place was situated. Being a Sunday I was astounded at the volume of traffic edging along the roadways, where the cabby chap surprised me; “In Dubai the working week runs from Sunday to Thursday,” he explained. “So Friday and Saturday are the weekend and our Sunday is your Monday. So, we are in beginning of the week rush hour.” It struck me rather dumb – I’d never come across anywhere else in the world (so far) that takes such a tune (even in places where work is seven days, the S&S have still been regarded and referred to as the week’s end and days of rest). Thinking about it later though, it did make sense; I mean, a predominantly Muslim country, it was God of the Bible who supposedly set the Sunday as the one of respite, recreation and relaxation. And in a city and country where all is in the stages of adolescence, why not have the days deemed different?
After an expeditious empty of our belongings in our (upgraded to a two-bedroom apartment) hotel, we set off for the train line to head to Dubai Mall. What with the city only having been built up in the last 25 or so years, the public transport has learnt its lessons from the rodenting (I.e., “Guinea Pigs”) of other places – the metro system is totally on track, with uniformity in every single station in the shape of a golden bullet-type structure at each stop, and the roller-coaster like layout from the front running right through the middle of the metropolis (to clarify; the tracks don’t loop-de-loop or any such lark, I just mean so that upon standing at the very front of the first carriage and looking ahead it looks like the road of a roller coaster on a straight stint). There is also the option of the front two to three carriages being for women and children only (likewise for the front rows of seats of buses and first few carts on trams), with clear signage stating that any men found within one of the ladies-labelled will be subject to a 100aed fine.
Dubai Mall. A byzantine building of more than five floors hosting a good 1200 outlets`, including an ice rink, an amusement park and of course the aquarium (in line with those in many Asian countries, a mall extends far beyond just the standard shops to take on the function of being like an activity arena). When you read Dubai is set up for shopping it’s not at all an exaggeration; while Dubai Mall is said to be amongst the, if not the, biggest shopping centre in the world, there are many, many malls all around the show that boast significant sizing as well, from the Mall of the Emirates to the Marina to the Burjuman Centre to the Al Ghurair Plaza. (And plans are in the making to build the full on largest one n all the lands to be deemed “The Mall of the World”, three times bigger than the current contender at 7km long).
But the Dubai Mall complex is titanic in scope, so much so that Katie and I meandered around it for three hours and only went into four different shops. It has all you could think of in abundance; homeware, kids’ clothes, souvenir shops and accessories. After we were done with our awe, we escalated down to the first floor and went to the first proper stop on our Sunday sight-see; the aquarium.
Honestly, there is something fantastic about fish and the Dubai “underwater zoo” really did it right. First we traversed through a tunnel not unlike the one at Auckland’s Kelly Tarlton’s, where we spent a fair while attempting to take selfies with the sharks. (Some on point, as pictured). Then we ventured up to the next floor display, taking in (through sight, not in our arms I shall clarify) an immense array of aquatic animals, from leopard print sting ray (not their actual name; I just thought they were Outrageously Forutne-d with their coats) (gettit?) to mushroom jellyfish (ditto) to the gigantic King Croc. We saw dark display featuring geckos and chameleons and scorpions and hedgehogs, before getting one of those green-screen enactment photos of Katie falling into a crocodile’s mouth to dose our delight (the only beings over the age of six or so to do so).
With an hour to execute we decided a drink was in order and headed to the third floor and TGIF’s. But alas – in our ignorance and not giving a thought to the Muslim ways, none of the cafes nor restaurants in the actual mall actually sold alcohol! So we sipped back some mocktails (never, ever thought I’d be one to order such a beverage) then headed to a next door hotel to have a liquored-up liquid.
At 4pm we took the elevator up to the 110th floor of the highest building in the world, the Burj Kahlifa. (Although soon it shall be in third place; Saudi Arabia and Shanghai are currently constructing more colossal cousins). Its erection was designed as the centrepiece of the new development dubbed “Downtown Dubai” in a bid for the city to gain international recognition. Only opening in 2010, the BK is pretty remarkable – it gives an incredible view over the construction site of Dubai and has good groundwork with its wooden floor boarding above. I couldn’t believe the dust though; it was like a mosquito net was draped right around the city centre, not quite opaque but having a major miasma as to not let the eye extend as far as it would should there be no atmospheric earth.
After we had made the rounds a number of time we hurtled back to the ground floor and embarked on a boat into the middle of the man-made (because aside from the dessert, it all is) lake for the 6’o’clock showing of the Dubai Fountain. It was incredible; I truly recommend that if you do come to watch the waterworks to do as we did and clamber onto one of the floating vessels to see it go off from close proximity. I was mighty impressed; on being told of a water show I had pretty low expectations, but this drenching demonstration (not that we got wet – I’m just sick of saying “water”) was bloody brilliant. I did get the giggles however; the capering cabaret of the cascades reminded me so much so of a long line of firemen’s hoses gone AWOL and I couldn’t keep in the giddy glee of gurgles.
We trained home to the hotel, arriving after a few fuckups on the tramline (I blame the security man who downright told us the wrong way). Once there we attended to some admin, then proceeded to die quietly in preparation for a teeming with to-do’s Monday.
And just to end this insight on a few good notes.
- Dubai has named the areas so as to clearly convey what they are. There is Healthcare City (the site of four hospitals and many a doctors’ practice), Business Bay (a CBD), Internet City (an information or technology park) and so on. So you know exactly what the region in regard withholds! Just on point.
- Many adults bear braces. Seriously! I fully avow that for a full fifteen minutes every person I came across had on some teeth training tracks. I don’t know why it seems much more the go here – perhaps the availability more so for the expats coming out at an older age? – but chopper buttresses are very much the incisor encasements.
- As an illustration of the prosperity of the place; Katie and I were determining if a taxi or Uber would be more inexpensive (not “cheap”; we don’t use “cheap” anymore) when the option came up of catching an Uber chopper. Seriously. Hailing in a helicopter by way of the driving to a new destination app. We wanted to see the fee but – alas! – it would not load to let us. (Probably a good thing; knowing me I would’ve accidentally hit request and would have been heading to the airport in a Budgie brother with a rather hefty toll on the old CC.
- Dubai is said to be the safest place on earth, and on being here I can clearly see one of the foremost factors why. While actual officer presence is not overly abundant, the city is heavily policed in the way of warnings and consequential chastisements plastered around for all to see. Every wrong or against the law is emblazoned upon billboards so you know the go, also citing the penance – or price – to pay. Trains have “no eating or drinking” and “no chewing gum” stating the 100aed castigation fee if caught doing so, and signs along the roading such as the below stand along the streets. I believe it works wonders to deter offences as the corollaries are clearly set out and seen. There’s even one for “no loud voices” – though the penalty for such a prohibition is not particularised.
- I loved it; on walking past a café there was a sign declaring “crepes” with option for topping listed under the words, “Enrich it with”. Doesn’t that just sound grand? Because that’s what additions such as sprinkles, cream, banana, hail, or the ever-present Nutella do don’t they – enrich the original. I took note just in case one day I ever own a café (not going to happen, but I always have backups) and I could enrich my menu wording myself.
- Extremely overtired and a bit out of it, I found myself saying some rather dumb things throughout the afternoon. One of which was upon boarding the tram, I looked out of the – very obviously – blacked out windows and remarked, “It suddenly got very dark”. Another – which I later totally proved was actually a valid pronouncement – was on staring out straight into the “sun” I said about how glories its golden hue was. Katie fell about laughing; “That’s not the sun, it’s the moon you knob! You couldn’t look directly at the sun.” And I felt chastened. But the next dusk I looked up and saw a skinny crescent to the left and realised I had in fact been right in identifying the big bright light as the sun. We figured out later (through asking others and Google) that on account of the dense dust in the air, it sort of shields the sun’s blaze. Not such a knob now, am I?
- As I mentioned a little earlier on, I was in the UAE during Ramadan. What is this time owned tradition? Well, put simply, Ramadan is the holiest month of the Islamic year. Always the ninth month of the calendar (which differs annually so as not to always fall on the same dates; while the western calendar is solar and runs in line with the sun, the Islamic one is lunar and is in tune with the moon), it is traditionally a time of strict fasting from dawn until sunset, reflection and prayer.
On giving my dates to Uncle I realised my flit through coincided with the heritage, with it starting my second day there. Unsure of exactly what to expect I did a little reading into it to ensure I was respectful of the sacred time and not unknowingly step out or offend. You see the Muslim faith is made up of five pillars of which Ramadan is one (the others being…), where most Muslims believe that the Qur’an was first revealed to the Prophet Mohammed.
During the month-long custom practicing Muslims must abstain from eating, drinking (even H20), smoking and having sex between dawn and dusk every day, with a general air meant to be one of abstinence, penance and clarity. While as a visitor or local of an alternative (or no) faith you are not obliged to show any religious fervour, it is of mass importance that you show respect to the tradition and do not tempt those undergoing the fasting. This means that modest dress is called for even more so than usual; as little skin as possible on display with knees and shoulders covered up in loose-fitting attire is the way to go. While you will not be reprimanded for not doing so, some may make comments or haughtily tell you off. Also, eating and drinking in public before 7pm when the call to prayer comes and dusk falls is a big no-no, one that – if caught – can be punished with a fine (up to 2000dhs, that being…) or even jail time (in 2008 a Lebanese male resident ad a Russian tourist were shipped off to court after being caught drinking juice in open sight at a petrol station during the day).
Business hours are cut back so the working day runs from 9am to 3pm instead of 5pm. Children under 12 years old, the elderly, pregnant or breast-feeding or the sick are exempt from observing the fasting, and women are discharged (awful use of the word in this context, many apologies) when menstruating, having to make up the days off after the month has finished.
So to clarify; fasting persons have an early morning meal called the suhoor which is eaten just before sunrise. When dusk comes on it is time for the iftar, or evening meal, and restaurants and cafes and what not that close for the day are opened up for all to flock in and get feeding. Malls open much later, usually until 1am, as crowds congregate to partake in shared meals together.
So this meant throughout my time in Dubai water had to be discreetly swilled in backstage bathrooms, any eating had to be done in set out places hidden from open view and all singlets and shorts were a no-no when out in the exposed arena. A couple of people had warned that being Ramadan it was not the ideal time to visit the area but I found it to be quite the contrary; I was fascinated by the ritual, relished getting to see it in action and was really quite warmed at how the whole country was obligated to respect and honour the people in practice.
So day one had me all Dubai-ous about whether or not I liked Dubai (like what I did there?). But anticipation was overriding all other sensations as the next afternoon I was booked in to get all deserted with a camel, so I sunk into slumber visualising sand and two-humped creatures.