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.

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