Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Fame at last!

I got a mention on the Guardian website. I don't know how, but thanks to whoever submitted it for inclusion!

Guardian Abroad

Shame they're using the old link.

Update: They're now using the proper link.

The UAE Highway Code

Someone (cheekily) wrote in to 7 Days and asked if there was a Highway Code for the UAE. I've had a quick go at writing one. Tongue firmly in cheek, of course...

The UAE Highway Code

1: Vehicle condition

You MUST ensure your vehicle and trailer can at least move, whether using motor, camel or donkey traction. Wheels would be nice too. If you are driving a Heavy Goods Vehicle, be sure to adorn it with coloured lights. This might help make you more visible, especially as the vehicle’s proper lights don’t seem to work.

2: Before setting off

You should ensure that:

  • you have kind of planned your route and only allowed enough time to get to your destination if you travel at just under light speed. With a tail wind.
  • clothing and footwear are from Harvey Nich’s
  • you sort of know where all the controls are but have no idea what they do.
  • your seat are adjusted correctly to ensure comfort, at least partial control and maybe, just a little bit of good vision. Don’t worry about the blacked-out windows. Position the mirror for optimum self-admiring glances.
  • head restraints are properly adjusted to reduce the risk of neck injuries in the event of an seeing an attractive woman
  • you have sufficient fuel before commencing your journey, especially if it includes motorway driving. The car might only make 50km on one tank, so be careful.

3: Seat Belts

Drivers in the front seat: That black strap thing might look a bit silly across your nice designer clothes, and may even crumple them. It also restricts the driver’s movement to the other seat, to the rear of the vehicle to get your CDs, or out of the sunroof. Don’t bother.

Children ages 3 and under: These should be restrained fully by bouncing them on the knee of a passenger, or even the driver, depending on your mood. Hanging them out of the window at 140kph is a good laugh.

Children ages 3 to 12: These children should sit on the roof.

4: Signals

Signals are made with that stick thing behind the steering wheel. Pull it towards you to make people move out of the way. In combination with the horn, this is the only signalling you require. There are these things called indicators as well, but they only cause confusion and actually, it isn’t anyone else’s business where you are going.

You should also

  • watch out for hand signals given by other road users and ring the police immediately if they give you the bird.
  • Watch for other drivers using indicators. If you see them doing so, you should speed up to prevent them from manoeuvring.

You SHOULD REALLY obey signals given by police officers and signs used by school crossing patrols. Aw, go on

5: Traffic light signals and traffic signs

Traffic lights are simple. Green means go very fast. Amber means go even faster. Red means go really, really fast, unless the idiot in front has stopped for some reason. As soon as the lights go green again, give the driver in front 3.5 nanoseconds to move before honking angrily and at length.

Traffic signs are there to be knocked over and will probably send you in the wrong direction or give you incorrect information anyway.

6: Flashing headlights

Only flash your headlights in an attempt to intimidate other road users. Do not flash your headlights to let other road users know that you are there.

If another driver flashes his headlights MOVE OUT OF THE WAY IMMEDIATELY. This rule does not apply to White Nissan Sunnys.

7: Hazard warning lights

These marvellous thingies are great for telling other road users that you are a moron. Switch them on when it gets foggy or when it rains in order to remind other road users of what they are already painfully aware of, and keep them guessing as to where you might be going. Everyone else on the road with a brain is more nervous than usual, but that’s a good thing. It galvanises the senses.

Also use your hazard warning lights when you need to inexplicably stop in the road and obstruct all other road users.

8: Speed Limits




9: Lines and Markings on the Road

They look nice, don’t they? Give a bit of symmetry to the roads and roundabouts. Anyway, Yellow lines are to be crossed whenever possible. Chevrons painted in an area designate taking-over and pushing-in points for large 4x4 vehicles.

10: Mobile Phones and other technology

Mobile phones are compulsory. They should be stuck to one ear at all times. You might want to keep one hand free for smoking, shaving, applying make-up, reading or selecting a play-list on your I-pod.

11: Overtaking

You MUST get to your destination before everyone else. Don’t let Dastardly and Mutley win. End of. Only move away from the fast lane 5 metres before your turn off. Without indicating, naturally.

12: Being Overtaken

I know. It’s a mad concept, but it might just happen when you’re coming onto a fast road. Don’t worry, you’ll be in the fast lane soon. Anyway, should anyone in the lane beside you put on their indicator, it means they want you to get closer to the car in front as quickly as possible.

13: Pedestrian Crossings

You’re having a laugh, aren’t you? Those zebra-patterned things? Nah! If you see anyone stop at them, refer to the last part of the instructions for traffic lights. Anyway, watch out for men in night-shirts running across highways. They could well give your car a nasty dent.

14: Cyclists

Cyclists will come the wrong way down a highway towards you, wobbling around with the weight of whatever it is they have in the huge baskets. They particularly like doing this at night. Without lights.

Monday, February 26, 2007

The Art of Posing

Posing is big in Dubai. But there are different types of posing depending on who does it.

1. The Locals.

The local men like nothing better than cruising up and down Dhiyafa street (linking the Sheik Zayed Road to Jumeirah Beach Road via Satwa) in their ridiculously expensive, stupidly fast, garishly flash sports cars. If you sit in one of the numerous cafés or restaurants lining said street you will see them cruising past ever so slowly, going over the huge hump at the pedestrian lights, then turning round and coming back. They can do this for hours on end.

The local women also like to pose, but do so in shopping malls and even at work. They wander round in groups of 2 or 3, wearing abbayas, often decorated with sequins, that leave only their faces and hands visible, and wear the largest designer sunglasses feasible and carry the most expensive handbag they can lay their hands on. They breeze about the place with an air of quiet, gracious aloofness. (Is that a word?)

2. The Western Expats.

Western Expats like to dress up as if they are on holiday (and, yeah, it does feel like a holiday sometimes). The men wear knee-length shorts and flip-flops, the women wear summery, light dresses, and they all wear designer sunglasses either on their eyes (strangely enough) or perched atop their perfectly-coiffured heads. They then park their 4x4s along the Jumeirah Beach Road and head to the Lime Tree Café, where they order something healthy from the glowing counter staff, then lounge lazily in the comfy chairs, preferably on the terrace or balcony for (maximum pose factor), sip their soy lattés and eat some poncey bloody frittata with rocket salad or (the admittedly superb) carrot cake. They will often bring their hideously photogenic children with them, making sure they are dressed in Osh Kosh B'Gosh or something similar, and sit them in IKEA high-chairs with a traditional wooden toy. This looks a bit strange with children over the age of 7.

3. The Lebanese (men).

Think heaving, darkened nightclubs with strobe lights and richter-scale music. Think tight, white tops and copious amounts of hair gel. Enough said, really.

4. The Subcontinental Expats.

They pose by pretending to watch everyone else pose, mostly at the public beach, or from their spluttering, dirty Nissan Sunnies as they bumble along the SZR in the middle lane at 25kph. Those who can't afford a car pose like nodding dogs in the spluttering, dirty buses taking them to and from the building sites. Others pose at the side of main roads, waiting for the chance to dash across between the Land Cruisers, 4x4s, Nissan Sunnies and buses. I really wish they would strike a Bruce Forsyth pose after risking death or serious injury by succesfully crossing the Al Khail Road. I am yet to see it happen, however.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Back to life...back to reality

The MIL and SIL are home now. I conveyed them to the airport last night to catch their flight. Over their last few days we have really lived it up. We had a super afternoon tea at the Ritz Carlton, then spent Thursday on the Big Bus going round Bur Dubai, under the creek through the Shindaga tunnel and a jaunt Deira before returning over the Maktoum Bridge. It was strange when the tour guides told us about the buildings all around us, giving us dates of construction from the last 20 years.

We alighted at the Dubai Museum, which is based in a proper old building (a rare sight round here) stop to have a look round the Museum, and it was excellent. I had thought it was just a few minor exhibits above ground in the grounds of the old fort it is located in, but there is a huge underground gallery with some fascinating exhibits on Dubai and Bedouin culture. After the museum visit we had lunch in a café in the "historic" Bastakiya area. I had a taste of camel meat, and it was much like beef for me.

That night, the WIFE and me took the opportunity to go out on our own, and went to the BiCE restuarant at the Jumeirah Hilton. It was terrific. Great food, superb service and a lovely atmosphere made for a really pleasant evening. We also had a nightcap cocktail in the BiCE skybar on the 10th floor to finish off the night on a sophisticated note. Well, we tried to be sophisticated. Our broad Yorkshire accents kind of jarred with the whole atmosphere. "Aye, lad. Git us one of them there fancy drinks, chuck. Manhattan? Ee bye gum, ecky thump. That's some backwater over t'pond, isn't it?"

So Friday - yesterday - was the visitor's last day. We had an easy, lazy day, cumilating in a drive along the Jumeirah Beach Road to catch the sunset and a final meal out at the Dhow and Anchor in the Jumeirah Beach Hotel. They have a lovely wooden terrace area to sit out and watch the world go by, with views of the nearby Burj Al Arab through the trees. Like with most places round here, the best time to go to them is just before sunset, in my opinion. The light fades quickly, the sky goes a lovely mix of colours, then the lights all come on around you. It felt like the last night of a holiday for all of us. Following the meal of average pub food (all the food I've had at JBH is average) we wandered down to the waterfront and took in the magnificent views of the Burj Al Arab, as the lights around it changed colour and searchlights swayed to and fro from the helicopter pad.

On the way out, we saw a papparazzo waiting with his camera for some celeb or other, but after a quick call on his mobile, he disappeared in a large car. Our car was delivered to us by the valet, and we bundled in as quickly as we could before driving off amongst all the Hummers, beamers and other expensive-looking vehicles, filled with expensive-looking women.

An hour or two later, I was on the way to the airport with the in-laws. The BOY came with me while the WIFE and the GIRL stayed at home. The GIRL was in bed by the time we set off. The MIL and SIL were quiet and pensive as we sailed along the Sheik Zayed Road, taking in the bright lights of the Marina, the various building called Burj and Trade Centre for one last time. The traffic built up over Garhoud bridge, but we got there in plenty of time. The airport was a manic muddle of faces preparing to fly all over the globe, dressed in a million different ways, all clutching a bewildering variety of luggage, but all getting ready to fly somewhere. The MIL and SIL said their goodbyes and melted into the crowds and through to the departure areas. The BOY and I set off for home, thinking that we will soon be greeting my own parents and the BRO very soon. Less than 6 weeks now, and we'll be doing all this again.

On the way home, I had a bit of a brush with what I will call LAND CRUISER MAN. I came back round the Garhoud way onto Garhoud bridge. Even at 11pm last night it was ridiculously busy. The road feeds in from the right onto the bridge, and as you get towards the bridge, there is a small chevron-painted hard-shoulder to the left. As I moved along, a red car pushed in front of me from this area, just in the nick of time. I let it go. Normal standards round here. Then a white LC (blacked-out windows) with an Abu Dhabi plate pulled alongside. No chance, thought I. There's not enough room. He would have to drop in behind me. But not this one. He (I assume it was a he) was DETERMINED to get ahead of me. I wasn't about to be bullied, so kept moving, thinking that he had to give in. But NO...he dived across the front of me, clipping my wing mirror as he passed, and flipping his to the flattened position against the side of his door. I was utterly astounded. Flabbergasted. Astonished. And fucking angry. As we crossed the bridge, he was the car in front of me all the way, and had saved all of 2 seconds, if that, by his actions. I think he was hovering in front of me hoping that I'd give him the bird. I kept my hands down, even if I swore quite a lot. The BOY slept through all of this, though he admitted he had heard my astonished swearing at LAND CRUISER MAN and had hugged his teddy bear a little tighter.

Today, the house feels empty. We went food shopping and just kind of floated around. Tomorrow I am back at work and the BOY is back at school. Good old routine. My diet needs it, I can tell you.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

The Tourist Trap

I'm off on holiday / leave / vacation (call it what you will) this week, so have been taking the chance to do a few more of the touristy things, and take the in-laws to see a few places before they head back to the UK on Friday night. It has certainly been an experience for them. Different people from work have still managed to call me almost every day. The place is falling apart without me. Well, canteen takings are down, that's for sure.

We spent the day at a beach resort the other day. It was in the Marina area, and we had to drive through a massive building site (even more of a building site than usual) to get there. The dust was really bad that day, as it was quite windy, and it was even worse around the Marina area, where they are building the massive, monolithic, and frankly ugly towers that make up the Jumeirah Beach Residence. All kinds of lorries, cement mixers and construction plant was whizzing around or parked in stupid places (with the obligatory hazard lights on). We got lost, or should I say misdirected by poor road signs, but eventually got there.

Once inside the hotel, we made our way to the private beach, paying a fee for the privilege, of course. But that's OK, becuase the beach in this place was a world away from the Jumeirah Beach Park. The litter was minimal, and there were free towels, plentiful sun loungers and parasols, and good catering facilities. Nearer the hotel itself there were swimming pools, and between the pools and the beach, there was a lush patch of grass, again covered in loungers. Near the end of the beach we moved to, there was a big play area for the little ones, and to one side, near the gentle, turquoise waves of the Gulf, there was a Water Sports booth, with kayaks and dinghys and giant inflatable bananas. The best thing about it was the lack of airborne dust. The beach was quite well sheltered from the elements (apart from the sun, which contrived to burn me, the swine).

So we lounged on loungers, paddled in the cool sea, and generally soaked up the whole holiday atmosphere. After an hour, I hinted heavily at my hunger levels, so we headed up to the outdoor restaurant by the grass area and had a reasonably good barbeque buffet lunch. I think we were on the menu as well, because the WIFE was bitten several times on her legs by something under the table. It must be said, the flies were annoying, and there seems to be increasing numbers of them.

After lunch, we moved to the pool area to let the KIDS have a good splash and play in the kiddie pool, until the GIRL decided she'd had enough, and filled her swimming nappy with something slightly less pleasant-smelling than a dead rat with B.O. We took that as our cue to leave, but had had a good few hours there in the sun. My red head and shoulders were testament to that.

Then on another evening, we went to the Marina promenade area, just as the sun was setting, and ate a pleasant, if slightly chilly al-fresco meal at an Italian restaurant. As darkness fell, we watched the towers around the Marina light up in their many different colours. Even the cranes light up round here, and we watched them as they beavered away on their 24/7 mission to finish Dubai.

After the meal we walked back towards the water feature on the walkway between the Main towers, and the BOY and GIRL took great delight in jumping in and out of the water jets in the pavement as they danced to their pre-set programmes. They got soaked, but had good fun. Luckily, the WIFE had come prepared with changes of clothing. The MIL chose to abstain from getting wet again. I took a seat at the nearby promenade cafe and ordered a shisha and watched the kids enjoying themselves. When they'd finished, we all sat down and the shisha was passed around. After a bit of spluttering and the odd comical expression, we headed home again.

Today, we decided to go for an Afternoon Tea at a nice hotel. We ended up at the Ritz Carlton, which is also in the Marina area. I got lost again, mainly due to bad signs again, but got there in the end. We had wanted to do the tea thing in the Burj Al Arab, but when we'd phoned them to enquire, they told us we weren't nearly posh enough. Or maybe it was because they were fully booked until the end of the month.

Either way, the Ritz Carlton did not disappoint in the slightest. Scones, cakes and sandwiches galore were brought to the table on tiered trays, and we polished them off with little moans and exclamations of pleasure. The food really was top notch. The surroundings were superb as well, with massive chandeliers hanging from a dark varnished wood ceiling, massive plush sofas and chairs to sit on, and a lady on the piano in the corner playing a mixture of inoffensive, instantly forgettable music. Through the windows we could see the Arabian Gulf, looking particularly clear today, with a few white-topped waves rushing in on the landward breeze.

Tomorrow we're going to go on a Big Bus ride, which is an open-topped bus that tours the city. I will definitely be putting on some sun-block tomorrow.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

On Safari

The weeks continue to fly by. Early last week, I met up with a friend from my days in Taiwan, and ended up drinking a fair amount of gin and talking rubbish all evening. Just like the good old days. Later in the week I was given a pay rise as a reward for my efforts in my first 6 months here. Somehow, I seem to be doing a good job.

So this week, I have taken the week off, and am in the middle of showing the MIL and the SIL the sights and sounds of Dubai. Well those sights and sounds other than the insides of shopping malls. A desert safari was always on the cards, as none of us had been on one yet, so I booked one for Saturday with a company called Arabian Nights Tours. We were told that we would be picked up at just after 3pm on Saturday afternoon.

After a little bit of confusion over our location (the Springs is like a maze to the uninitiated), our driver arrived in his shiny silver Toyota Land Cruiser. Named Kashmir, our driver was an amiable chap from Tanzania, who made sure we were all comfortable and looked after us well. With everyone squeezed into the huge vehicle, we set off from our villa at about 3.30pm, and headed out of town, towards the Hatta road and the desert.

After 45 minutes we reached a rendezvous point at a small group of shops and cafés, where a large gathering of other Land Cruisers from various was building up. Kashmir told us we had a few minutes to visit the shops and answer the call of nature and so on, so I took it as an opportunity to get some drinks. I was invited to buy all manner of trinkets and foodstuffs and drinks by the many shopkeepers stood around, and by the time I left, I had a new hat and a bagful of goodies for the rest of the journey.

We ended up staying at the rendezvous point for a good 20 minutes. By the time we set off again, there must have been 30 of the giant 4x4s parked in front of the shops. The Arabian Nights group set off as one, executing a swift U-turn before turning off the main road onto a smaller provincial road, then turning onto the sand itself, and we were treated to a little taster of dune bashing as the car dipped and weaved around a few small dunes. Not too bad, I thought to myself. We stopped again, right next to a camel farm, and everyone was ordered out of the cars while the drivers adjusted the air pressures in their tyres for the dune bashing to come. As we milled around and had a peek at the camels in their pens, a man with a camera wandered round, taking what we thought were still pictures of everyone in their individual groups. There were people from all around the world in the various cars, most of them unaware of what lay ahead. The MIL showed me how the sand here was different to that on the beach. It was smooth, fine, almost like powder, and blew off our hands easily.

Then we all climbed back into the vehicles and set off into the desert for real. A procession of white Land Cruisers in single file headed into the real dunes of the real desert, and soon we realised that this wasn't a game any more. We climbed up enormous dunes, then drove along the smallest of crests at the top before sliding sideways down the other side. There were steep descents and climbs, and the car lurched left and right as it navigated its way through the sand. It wasn't too rough, being on the smooth, fine desert sand, but it was pretty...well, invigorating I suppose. The oohs and aahs carried on for a while, and the BOY sang songs and basically didn't shut up all the way, while I soon fell silent, trying to swallow my increasing trepidation as the dunes got bigger.

The fear levels were increased when we got stuck on the side of a dune, after sliding down sideways from the crest. The wheels just wouldn't move us, and we soon realised why sensible people always come out into the desert in groups of cars, rather than one. The cars behind stopped and aided our driver, digging his wheels out and barking instructions until we were on our way again. Then Kashmir had problems with a particularly steep dune, taking four attempts to climb it. Sensing my rising panic, Kashmir patted my shoulder. I felt like a right wimp. In the back, the BOY chattered and sang, the SIL cackled insanely, the wife sat with a fixed, macabre grin, and the MIL did her best impression of someone who wasn't trying to stop herself from barfing all down my back. The quietest, calmest person was the GIRL, who sat there in her booster seat as if it was just another ride to a shopping mall. All the while, we barely noticed that we were getting deeper and deeper into the desert, and all signs of civilisation were disappearing. There were no road signs, no pylons, no tarmac roads. We were truly in the wild now. The only signs of life we spotted were the other cars and the odd group of camels.

Thankfully, just before the BOY's increasingly hysterical singing and squealing had driven me to distraction and potential murderous intent, we stopped, and everyone left the cramped confines of their cars again, massaging hands aching from holding on for dear life. We were able to climb up the nearby dunes and take in the views all around. It was then that I appreciated where we were; high up in the middle of the desert, with no sign of a building all around, and very few signs of vegetation. I had the feeling of magnificent isolation, and half wished that I had been all alone there to witness it in complete solitude.

A small drink of water was offered by the drivers, and then we headed off again. The dunes soon petered out and we were driving along flat desert plains. Patches of greenery materialised around us, and I realised we were driving in dry wadi beds, and we couldn't have been far from the camp we were heading for. At least, I hoped so.

We stopped again just as the sun was making its way towards the horizon. A light haze sat above the distant dunes, but the red colours we were expecting never came. Instead, the suns orange disc slowly dulled as it sank, and then disappeared altogether in the haze.

The final leg of our journey took us onto the first tarmac road we had seen for seemingly miles. It's hard to tell out there. The road was an unfinished new one, being built right in the middle of nowhere. Pieces of construction machinery stood idly by the new road, like sleeping robot cattle. We drove along this incomplete road for a short distance, then veered off into more dunes, round a corner, through a gate, and the camp appeared ahead.

We pulled up and Kashmir smiled at us all knowingly. We all smiled back, glad to be out of the woods, or the dunes, even. The camp was a fort-styled structure, with wood walls and towers on each corner. Inside, bedoiun-style low tables and floor cushions waited for the guests. A log fire set in a pit was just getting going, and a falcon swooped overhead. In one corner the barbeque was smoking away, tended to by 3 men preparing our feast, in another a souvenir shop with gaudy lighting attracted the visitors like moths to a lamp. The best thing I spied was the little window surrounded by cable lights selling something I was more than ready for - BOOZE.

So a cooling, calming bottle of Corona Extra later, we sat under the darkening skies of the desert and watched a belly dancer twirl and shimmy in the middle of the camp. Men watched admiringly and women shook their heads, and the dancer proceeded to humiliate a procession of tourists. Been there ,done that. I'm glad I had the foresight to choose a seat away from the middle and avoided being dragged up.

Then they served the food, and it was actually pretty good. It was hot and tasty and everything else that food should be, but it's always a gamble on these occassions. After eating, a few of the party decided to get henna tattoos done by a very skilful lady sitting in one corner. The final piece of entertainment was a the showing of a film depicting snippets taken by the cameraman we had seen earlier at the camel farm, mixed with shots from the desert , various landmarks of Dubai and the odd bit of clichéd stuff with camels and belly dancers atop dunes and the like. The bright lights of the camp were lowered while the film played, so I finally got a chance to see the much-vaunted starlit sky in the desert. It was definitely clearer, but with all the lights round the camp, even when they were dimmed, I wouldn't call it spectacular. I felt like walking away from the camp to get a better view, but soon the film was over, and we were called back to our cars.

The drive back was a relaxed affair. We were all pretty tired, and glad that Kashmir decided against taking us back through the dunes. I don't think it's an option anyway, in reality, and we were soon back on proper roads heading back to the city and the bright lights of Sheik Zayed Road. We floated past the twinkling skyscrapers as the GIRL slept soundly in the back, and got home just before 10pm, feeling that we'd had a real adventure.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

And now for something a little different.

A few pictures from last week's escapades on and around the Creek. Unfortunately, I didn't have the camara out when the MIL fell in.

Oh, look. They have lifebelts...

The "Pregnant Lady" of Deira.

Bur Dubai side.

A real souk.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Making a Splash.

So the in-laws are here. They've been here a week already, and I think they're enjoying the experience. The MOTHER-IN-LAW (MIL for short) has had her first ever plane rides, and her first ever trip outside the UK, so I imagine it's all very strange and exciting for her.

Of course, things are even more exciting when you end up doing the unexpected. The picture above gives a clue.

It all started on Friday. I decided to take them to the Marriott over in Deira for their marvellously mad 12-hour brunch. I'm regretting it now, because my self-control went right out of the window (or should I say overboard?), and I ate far too much. Me and the WIFE even tried oysters for the first time, and they were surprisingly...OK. Like salty snot, really.

The best feature of the brunch is the ability to go back for more later after a rest. We ate till about 2.30pm, till we were merrily stuffed, then headed to the creek. I thought a little ride on an Abra would a good experience for the visitors, and for us, before heading back for a second shot at the brunch buffet. So we parked in a scruffy multi-storey car park on the Deira side and walked to the Old Souk Abra Station. As soon as we got close, a little man was all over us, beckoning us to his vessel. I said we just wanted to cross the creek, but after a little bit of haggling and conferring, we decided to accept his offer of a short private cruise up and down the creek. It was a good decision. The little man sat back in his chair and steered with his foot as we sauntered lazily along the creek, taking in the changing views on each side; the Deira side with its glass-fronted towers and Architect's wet dreams, the Bur Dubai side a hotch-potch of mosques, souks and warehouses. On either side of the creek itself, wooden dhows sat along the quaysides and wharfs, unloading their goods. The sun shone, the water sparkled, a gentle breeze played across our faces, and thousands of gulls swooped and dodged around us as we chugged along. I turned to the MIL and remarked that while this was very pleasant, I wouldn't want to go in the water here. Prophetic words, or what?

Eventually we turned back and headed to the Abra station on the Bur Dubai side. We disembarked, thanked our little man, and headed straight into the hustle and bustle of a real souk. Crowds of subcontinental men swarmed through the darkened, covered alleys. Other men stood next to their stalls and shops, calling out in various languages depending on who was passing by. Westerners were greeted with the enthusiastic cries of, "Special price! Very nice! You like?"

We passed through the souk, then turned back to look at a be-jewelled, orange shoulder bag that the WIFE had spotted earlier. I couldn't resist the chance to have a good haggle, so took charge of affairs, and managed to secure nearly 20% off the original price for tbe bag, after assuring the vendor that I was not a tourist.

With our purchase secured we decided to head back towards the Abra station and back over the creek. This time we didn't take a private charter, and sat on a little boat with about 30 other people. As we set off, the Abra drivers hooted horns at each other to avoid any undue collisions. Just like on the roads, really. And all was good, until we reached the other side.

As we disembarked, or attempted to in amongst the throng, the little Abra was bobbing about and moving towards and away from the jetty. The MIL helped the BOY onto the jetty, and just as she went to step across, the boat moved, and she lost her footing. I won't forget the look of horror on her face as she plunged into the creek between the boat and the jetty, and I won't forget the panicked scream coming from the WIFE's mouth as she watched her mother (who can't swim) creating a splash. Luckily the gap wasn't really wide, and the MIL managed to hold onto each side. Me and several other men swooped down and plucked her out of the creek. I actually had hold of the GIRL before this happened, and let her hand go momentarily as I bent to help the MIL. In the back of my mind, I hoped someone else had taken the GIRL's hand. I imagined myself having to jump in the creek to rescue more people. Luckily, the SIL was right behind me and grabbed her.

The MIL was fine. The WIFE threw protective arms around her, and looked pretty scared by what had happened. The MIL turned round towards me and started laughing. She was soaked from the waist down, and had a few scrapes under her arms, but she was otherwise fine. We checked the shoulder bag she was carrying (waterproof, luckily) to make sure the passports were still there, and it wasn't till later that we realised that she had lost her glasses when she fell in. Somewhere in the creek, there is a fish wearing them.

After a fruitless wander around the shops near the creek, we ended up driving to Marks and Spencers near the Marriott, and the MIL bought herself some new clothes to put on. Good job there was a sale on. By the time this was all sorted we were ready to head back to the buffet, and a few stiff drinks were had. To her credit, the MIL found the whole episode pretty funny, and by the end of the evening we were all making cheap jokes about swimming and splashing and fish wearing glasses. The WIFE and the BOY were the ones who seemed most upset about it. The BOY thought it was his fault somehow, because it was him being helped off the boat when it happened. I think the idea of the fish with the glasses on cheered him up.

That night, after driving home from the Marriott, we were all worn out, and everyone got an early night.

Yesterday, we headed for the Madinat Jumeirah. I realise now, after doing the Creek/Souk exploring bit, that the Madinat is just the safe, Disney-fied version of Dubai. It dresses itself up as an authentic Arabian experience, with the souk-style covered alleyways, sand-coloured wind towers, and even the little waterways and Abras transporting people hither and thither. But you soon recognise that it's all fake. The souk is air-conditioned and the crowds are much smaller. The people in the crowds are different as well; well-fed, well-dressed, white-faced westerners, with money to burn, and don't they know it.

Antique shops and fashion boutiques selling expensive wares line the alleys, alongside charming stalls selling genuine trinkets made in China and other up-market tat. Starbucks and Costa coffee joints invite you in at every turn, and on the lower promenade levels, flashy, well-presented restaurants selling foods from all over the world beckon to the tourists wanting to sit out in the fine weather and experience the lifestyle. All very safe, all very clean, all very surreal. A greater contrast there could not be. I would implore anyone coming to Dubai to see both sides of the souk experience. It tells you everything you need to know.

Friday, February 09, 2007

The Road to Heck

So this morning, on my drive to work, I am quite pensive. It may well have been all the wine I drank at last night's BBQ.

My drive of around 30 minutes takes me along the Al Khail road, Sheik Zayed Road's calmer sibling, and I drive past ever-shrinking patches of desert that probably won't be around for much longer, stark electricity pylons marching along the route of the road, a variety of tower cranes emerging from the midst of numerous new developments in the distance,and concrete factories surrounded by fleets of dusty concrete mixers.

As I leave the industrial estate of Al Quoz behind on the left, the half-built towers of Business Bay and the enormous Burj Dubai development shimmer into view. On the right I pass the Nad Al Sheba racetrack, and if I'm lucky, I might spot small groups of camels galloping along in their awkward but fluid style, training with their R2D2-sized robot jockeys on their back. Then I turn off the Al Khail Road and head towards the Oud Metha side of the creek. The road sweeps past the Ras Al Khor widlife sanctuary on my right, where the creek shallows and widens, and thousands of flamingos stand in the water amongst low, thick copses of trees as the traffic rumbles by.

A little further on, I pass the newly-opened man-made extension of the Creek, and spot the towers at the Trade Centre end of Sheik Zayed Road sprouting from a dirty brown blanket of smog, and then the huge pyramid of the nearly-complete Raffles hotel which is near my office appears, and after another five or so minutes, I'm in the office, starting up my computer and waiting for the e-mails to flood in.

The city in the sand. There's nowhere quite like it.