Published: November 22nd 2007October 24th 2007
Sunset in Dubai
Exiting the arrivals hall of Dubai International Airport, Angela and I jumped in a taxi, wondering what the United Arab Emirates would have to offer.
Our short one-hour flight from Qatar had been initially interesting. Apart from being the only Westerner’s aboard, we noticed something else too. It was the amount of empty seats even though all passengers had boarded. But not everyone had boarded. Five minutes later, a troop of Arab women entered the aircraft from the front all wearing traditional black abayas and veils covering their faces. A member of the cabin crew was leading them along the aisle, stopping to chat with several male passengers on the way. It appeared that the men were being asked to move to different seats to cater for the women’s wishes not to be seated next to a man. As the by now full flight taxied for take-off, Angela whispered, “I don’t mind sitting next to you though.”
“Good,” I replied. “Cos I reckon I could get quite a few camels for you in Dubai.”
It was sizzling in Dubai, but thankfully nice and cool inside the taxi. However our driver was still hot and bothered. More
Persion Court of the Ibn Battuta Mall
or less as soon as he’d pulled onto the main highway, he’d been caught up in a traffic snarl-up stretching as far as the eye could see. Beeping horns and wild hand gestures were the order of the day, with our driver being a particularly bad offender. As a truck squeezed into our lane in front, he almost had a thrombosis, shaking his fists and ranting in Arabic. When he’d calmed slightly, he turned to faced us. “Traffic very bad. Few years ago, journey across city maybe take fifteen minutes. Now take one and half hour.”
Angela and I sat back in our seats as we inched closer, bit by bit, towards our hotel in the Deira district of the city. Thirty minutes later, we arrived safe and sound.
The next morning was hellishly hot so we decided to visit Wild Wadi, a massive water park in the western part of the city. Once inside, we claimed a recliner in the shade then went in search of fun activities. We weren’t the only ones. The place was packed full of fun-seekers, including we noticed, a large contingent of Russians - the woman all pouting and gorgeous, the men
Burj Al -Arab - posh hotel
older and mostly overweight. Getting wet and wild ended up being quite good fun, and as a further distraction, we spotted famous Yorkshire cricketer, Darren Gough there with his family.
To escape the temperatures, we walked to a nearby shopping mall called Madinat Jumeirah. On the way we couldn’t miss the world-famous Burj Al-Arab Hotel, a self-proclaimed seven-star hotel shaped like a traditional Middle-Eastern sailing boat known as a dhow. It certainly looked magnificent, but we headed onwards to the mall.
Recreated in the style of old Arabia, Angela and I wandered its souqs and galleries, before stopping for a drink in a waterfront café. “This is nice,” commented Angela, taking a sip of her fruit juice. “But I think it’s time we visited another mall.”
For once, the thought of more shopping didn’t fill me with dread. In fact, heading over to the Ibn Battuta Mall had been my idea. Named after a 14th century Arab explorer, the mighty mall is split into six themed courts, each reflecting a chapter of the great man’s travels. Finishing our drinks, we left Madinat Jumeirah to find a taxi. Five minutes later, we were caught up in another horrendous traffic
Appraching the Bastakiya District after our tour of the Creek.
Our driver was getting visibly agitated, tutting and shaking his head. As we edged slowly forward, we eventually saw what was causing the jam.
“Water!” said the taxi driver. “No good!” We’d been in the taxi for over twenty minutes but at least we could see the cause of all this misery. About half a kilometre in front, water was covering the road. Deep water. Construction work going on either side of the road was clearly to blame for the sorry mess.
Sighing deeply, the taxi driver switched off his engine. “Not get through. Ibn Battuta over there. Not far to walk. You go.” We nodded, paid the man, and stepped out along the highway. And then we saw our second problem. Our path to the mall was blocked by knee-deep water. As we stood pondering our plight, hundreds of Indian workers appeared like ants. They were all wearing the same green overalls and all clearly excited by the impromptu disaster zone created within their work area. Most stood by the side of the road, well away from the flood, grinning as they watched the traffic attempting to negotiate their way through the deluge.
U.A.E. Dirham - the local currency
beeped incessantly and sirens could be heard in the distance. Truck drivers leaned out of windows, gesturing at the madness of it all, and to our right, perhaps at the epicentre of the flood, an abandoned car stood with water sloshing around to its windows.
Angela and I walked on, trying to work out how to get to it. There was no point going back to the taxi, it would be stuck in a jam for many hours. We decided to bite the bullet and cross the river that used to be a road.
“Bloody hell,” Angela said as she stepped into the water, allowing it to spill up to her knees. “It’s really hot!”
She was right. It was like wading through a hot cup of tea. And as we did so, vehicles swerved around, probably wondering where the hell we were going. Fifteen minutes later though we were inside the mall after finding a way around the flood.
“Wow,” said Angela as we stepped inside the Chinese Court of the Ibn Battuta Mall. A large Chinese boat sat in the middle of the floor, and all around, right up to the ceiling, decorations added
to the theme. The other courts (India, Tunisia, Andalusia, Egyptian and Persian) were just as appealing, with my favourite being the latter, its centrepiece being a fantastic tiled interior that resembled a mosque.
We spent a good few hours wandering the shops, buying the occasional item of clothing (all at reasonable prices) before heading outside to find a taxi. “Let’s hope the flood has gone,” I said to Angela as we flagged one down.
Almost two hours later we arrived back at the hotel. The flood had caused chaos with the roads, causing gridlocked most of the way. The taxi driver had quickly grown angry about this. “Road no good!” he seethed, shaking his fist. But at least it was cheap. Sat in his car for two hours only cost us about ten pounds.
Back at the hotel, the lack of alcohol was finally getting to us. Our hotel had no bar and in Dubai it simply wasn’t possible to nip into a shop and buy a bottle of wine let alone visit a bar to satisfy a thirst. No, the only option was to go to an upmarket hotel. “You stay here,” I said to Angela, since
McDonalds - Arabic style!
she’d already got changed for bed. “And I’ll go over the road and see if I can get my hands on something to drink.”
So off I set to the nearby Radisson SAS. Wandering into the lobby, I hoped I gave an air of a man about town as I nonchalantly strolled into the dimly lit bar. It was a small room and I headed straight for the bar. “Hi, do you sell bottles of wine?” I asked the barman.
“Of course,” he replied. “200 Dirham.”
I quickly worked out that this was about twenty five pounds. A bit steep for a single bottle of wine, but I didn’t care. I nodded to the man. “That’s fine.”
“Will you want one or two glasses?”
This question stumped me. I thought for a moment. I couldn’t smuggle out glasses as well as a bottle. I finally answered the man. “None. I just want to take the bottle to my room.”
The barman looked at me quizzically. “I’m sorry, I don’t understand. If you want wine in your room, you can order room service. All drinks served in this bar have to be consumed in the
Madinat Jumeirah - a mall
bar itself. You understand?”
My heart fell with a thud. How could this be happening? I was so close to the wine I could actually taste it. The bottle stood on the bar with tiny bubbles of condensation forming on its exterior. I cursed my predicament and then looked imploringly at the barman. “Please. I want the wine for my room in another hotel. It doesn’t have a bar. My wife is there. She can’t walk.”
The man smiled. Perhaps he understood, but my hopes were dashed with a shake of his head. “I’m sorry, we must follow rules. Besides, security wouldn’t allow you to take it into the streets. Against law.” He picked up the bottle and removed it from my sight. Crestfallen, I left the hotel and wandered back to our dry hotel. Angela was waiting in the room with the corkscrew poised. We had some water instead.
The next morning, Friday, it was bright and sunny but unfortunately it was our final day in Dubai. Friday also meant the start of the weekend in the Middle East but we knew the souqs and malls would still be open. Before this though, we decided to
Mosque in central Dubai
wander down to Dubai Creek, an inlet of the Arabian Sea that bisects the city down the middle.
There were very few people about, only the water taxi drivers. “You want tour of Creek? Yes! I give you tour! Only 100 Dirham!”
We decided to take him up on the offer, especially since we had to get across the Creek anyhow. So for the next thirty minutes, Angela and I had a tour of the creek aboard a rickety open-sided water taxi called an abra. The driver’s seat had obviously been commandeered from a car. And his wasn’t the only one either. Every other abra we saw had a car seat as well.
The headwind on the water made the journey very pleasurable, a highlight of the trip in fact. And being the only passengers, we had the freedom to roam the small vessel at will, crossing side to side to see the best sights. Eventually we were dropped off on the other side, at a jetty near the Bastakiya district, our next port of call.
Up until the mid-90s, Bastakiya was a run down area with foreign workers crammed into poor accommodation. In 1996, restoration
The Old Souq
work began, transforming the area into a quaint little art district. Its wind towers are a famous feature, some rising to a height of almost 50ft. The open sides of the towers catch the wind, sending breezes into the rooms below. They were an early form of air conditioning.
Next we ventured into Dubai Old Souk, made up of endless textile shops. Making eye contact with any of the men in the doorways was a fatal error. “Ah, hello! Come in my emporium! I give best price! Best Price!”
We did go in one shop. It sold, among other things, belly dancing outfits. As soon as we stepped inside we were told to feel the quality of the material on offer. “And I give best price!” the man told us. “No cheaper anywhere!” Angela eventually opted for a black belly dancing outfit, complete with golden jingly jangly bits.
In another store, I wanted to buy a dishdash (traditional white floor length robe) to go with the Arab headscarf I’d bought in Qatar. “How much for this,” I said to the man in the shop.
“One hundred fifty Dirham,” he said without pause.
No chance! I
shook my head. “Too much money.”
“But this is best price!” I turned to leave the shop. “Okay. One hundred Dirham. Best price! I have to feed family!”
“Fifty,” I said, letting my steely gaze reach his. I wanted him to know I was not a man to be trifled with in the ancient art of haggling.
The man pretended to cry. “Cloth worth more than fifty! You put me out of business! I sell for seventy-five Dirham. But that is best best price!”
I paused before answering. “Okay, I’ll give you seventy.”
The man nodded and smiled before wrapping up my dishdash. Angela and I left the shop satisfied at a job well done. That was until we saw exactly the same dishdash in another shop for thirty Dirham.
Instead of getting a water taxi back across the creek, Angela and I decided to walk around the northern tip of the city. There was a tunnel there, and on the way we could have an amble along the water’s edge.
Being a Friday though meant that foreign workers were all off work. Hundreds of Indian men were being bussed into the city, and most were hanging around in huge groups talking or else browsing the shops. Whenever we approached them, all would stare at Angela. If one man spotted her, he would soon tell his companions, until crowds of men were openly gawping at her.
“Jesus,” I whispered to Angela as we squeezed our way through them. The men moved to allow us past, but every one was staring and smiling. It was as if they had never seen a woman before. One man even leered, showing Angela some blackened teeth.
“This is what it must be like to be famous,” said Angela, clearly embarrassed, trying to keep her gaze fixed forward.
I, on the other hand, was being totally ignored. And this gave me an opportunity to gauge just how much attention Angela was getting. As we walked towards the tunnel, I watched the men watching Angela. After only a few hundred yards, it seemed as if every single man was staring at her, young and old, it didn’t matter. She was the centre of attention.
As we entered the tunnel, the crowd of men compressed and the heat soon became oppressive. It didn’t take long to realise that we were the only Westerners in the tunnel which at that precise time must have been accommodating hundreds of Indian men. Angela was the only woman.
“I suppose it must be like prisoners,” I commented to Angela as we made our way through the underpass. “They’re cooped up all day long and hardly ever see a woman. And the ones they do see are covered from head to toe in black. So now when they see you in your shorts, they’re going ape-shit. Who can blame them?”
We were soon out the other side of the tunnel, and by now, the spectacle of fifty pairs of eyes all swivelling towards Angela in unison was almost comical. Even Angela accepted the stares. “I suppose I should feel flattered.”
Across the road was the famous Dubai Gold Souq. We wandered through what is reportedly the biggest gold market in the world, eyeing up the white and yellow gold on offer. Next we wandered through the Spice Souq, but being Friday, many of the shops were not even open. One thing that was open for business however was the fake watch stores. Hawkers were out on force rushing up to anybody passing by. “You want fake watch? Rolex? Come with me! Best price!”
And then it was time to head back to the airport for our flight back to the UK. I asked Angela which place she’d preferred - Dubai or Doha?
Angela thought for a few seconds. “Doha seems more exclusive. And it was cleaner and quieter. Less manic too. So I preferred there.”
I knew exactly what she meant. Dubai was loud and brash; in your face, whereas Doha was more reserved and quieter. The streets of Dubai were a circus of noise and bad driving. “I’m glad we came though,” I said. “The creek is gorgeous. But I wouldn’t want to rush back.”
• Cheap food
• Impressive malls
• A trip on Dubai Creek
• A heart mixture of Arabia and the West
• Haggling in the souks
• Lecherous men everywhere - and I mean everywhere!
• Hard to get hold of alcohol
• Traffic jams
• Oppressive heat