The Dubai Diatribes

Travelling with one’s mother is always a pain, but when it is someone like my mother, it tests a saint’s tolerance. Although perfectly reasonable human being at normal times, she metamorphoses into one of those creatures who demands that the world adepts around her when she travels, instead of even trying a little to do vice versa. Although scorching heat and winds more suitable for Biblical Egypt were apparent, my mom kept insisting that we need to rent a car ‘to enjoy the scenery’–this, mind you, in the United Arab Emirates whose landscape you get if you can imagine a barren Star Wars planet.

Thankfully, neither of our international licenses worked in Dubai, and I was spared of driving along the treeless boulevards of Dubai and of the reckless drivers try to live up to engines of their Ferraris. (There are no police either, but more about that later). Instead, we took the metro, which was recently opened ridiculously on 9 minutes 9 seconds past 9 p.m on–you guessed it–September 9th 2009. Since the financial crisis hit, the further construction of metro system, originally planned to have 320 km–ambitious if you consider the size of the emirate–is halted. To raise funds, Dubai metro is getting corporate sponsors: elsewhere, they honor famous people on metro names, but Dubai may be the first to so honor Louis Vuitton or Heinz.

When we exited out of the station, it was a little disappointing. The skyscrapers enhanced that Star Wars look, but the city looked more like a dilapidated Las Vegas sans lights and dancing fountains. Instead of Steve Wynn, we have Mohammed al-Maktoum, the absolute ruler of the emirate grinning down from every other building with an equally false smile.

We booked our rooms in the sailing boat-shaped Burj Al-Arab, something made possible and cheap because (1) of the recent downturn, (2) no one wants to spend Christmas in a barren desert with 120C heat and most importantly (3) there are a lot of unoccupied, and never-before-occupied rooms. The people of Dubai (who treasure style over substance so much so that they not only staged a tennis match on the helipad at the top of the hotel but also put its silhouettes on the number-plates) forgot that the demand for ‘7-starred’ hotels is, well, not that high. True, there are some expats who high salaries enable them to live in luxury, but the exorbitantly expensive and gaudy rooms remains–surprise, surprise!–a niche market. I was flabbergasted at the price-tag of 650 million dollars–an amount which will take years if not centuries to recoup–but our tour guide nonchalantly mentioned more pricey Atlantis Hotel as if there was nothing strange or unusual about spending billion dollars on a hotel.

The atrium of the Burj was beyond nice–it was indescribable. It is not something you can stare at forever–its gaudiness hurts your eyes after a while–but it is the Arabian Nights met Guggenheim Museum. Once I was in my liveried and mosaic-ed room, I switched on my computer, only to find skype banned because it is not ‘consistent with religious, cultural, political and moral values’ of the emirate. Yes, because we all use VoIP to talk with our mistresses about inciting revolts in Whereveristan while performing a striptease. To add insult to injury, when I went for a walk that night, I saw no less than 20 prostitutes. Open that Chateau Y’quem! I found a place where pornography is outlawed but not prostitution! No wonder they all take it in the rear.

Dejected, I switched on the television. Apart from the usual Arab movies, where the performers do what can only be loosely described as ‘act’, there was very little going on. According to the TV guide–which I found instead of some Islamic variant of Gideon–not only Friends but also Knight Rider was still running–at this rate, I mused, my evening entertainment would be Columbo.

I heard there is very little to do in Dubai at night–very little for me anyway. There are a lot of clubs, but they are either private (probably full of the sheiks eating dates, drinking hookahs, having camel orgies) or really expensive (full of businesspeople and gold-diggers). A girlfriend of mine partied in Dubai and got half a dozen free drinks from an unseen gentleman who watched her from the private upperdeck through a mirror. My response to that was a long “Yuuuuck!” followed by “Damn, blondes have all the fun!”

Simon Grantley, a business colleague of my mom’s had been living there for three years and we embarked on an adventure to see him. We took a taxi in a bad, last-minute decision. Like in many Middle Eastern nations, there is no address system in Dubai. On forms, in addition to an address line, they also have a box where you are supposed to draw a map (this I noticed on the plane while filling out the entry forms). Instead of names, (newer) roads have numbers and the houses have the occupants’ names. They all use PO Boxes since it is impossible to deliver mail. Most importantly they don’t think this lack of address strange at all.

This is a quaint system which I would have liked in a small village, but Dubai being a sprawling metropolis and our taxi-driver being a Filipino nitwit, we spent an hour and half in a poorly-ventilated and smelly taxi (we dared not to open the windows because of hot air and sand) finding the house. After a few exasperated calls to his company, the driver asked us to call Simon (You call friend. I hear, he said eloquently). Simon, a 6’-tall Scotsman who spoke Arabic with the thickest of Inverness accents, gave him the directions (something he grew very accustomed to doing over past two years) which went something like this: “You have to go about ten minutes to U-turn and then turn again. Eleventh house on the second street after yellow cinema..”

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