Dubai may be a humming modern metropolis but they’re not totally down with computers here yet. On the day I arrive, there’s a great long queue at the passport-stamping desk, because the system’s down. The white-robed guy behind the desk looks relaxed, much as I guess the doorkeeper to heaven must be. Hey, you want to get in here? Well just wait your turn – you can fuck off to the Other Place if you’d rather…
The line almost stretches out to the tarmac. It’s boring as hell, nowhere to sit, general atmosphere of ‘think yourself lucky we don’t whip you back to your country of origin you filthy infidels’, lots of fat sweaty British matrons…perfect.
But then – entertainment, in the form of a pre-teen kid who faints on the airport floor. For about 20 minutes the kid is surrounded by concerned tourists and his Chinese-looking dad, while white-swathed officials sweep past looking at him with an ‘ewww’ expression. I’m also watching with interest the progress of a human kewpie doll – a short woman in an all-enveloping but swanky looking (we’re talking gold-embroidered sleeves) black outfit, a head almost as tall as she is (I’m guessing high-piled hair under the blacktop), a perfectly enamelled little face and a trail of heavy perfume a la Arabian nights, sort of like a walking Middle-Eastern air freshener.
Sweeping part of the robe aside for a moment, she reveals a dog tag and I realise that those sharp battery-generated squawks she’s been emitting from time to time are her communicating on her walkie-talkie. I’ve never seen an airport official who looked so like a female version of Chucky. At this rate my day in Dubai will be spent between the little metal posts and red herding tape.
Still, eventually I’m in! Clean and brushed, I go down to the palm-infested hotel café for a coffee and cake, to find that a cappuccino costs $40!! Whereas, luckily, a boring old ‘American coffee’ (which turns out to taste distinctly Turkish) and a plain croissant together are only $30. This place(the Novotel) has huge diet potential! Interestingly, I find next morning that breakfast consists of, among other things ‘foul mesdames’. And I thought I was one of those.
Get totally lost in the Dubai Mall. I walk about 100 miles on shining white tiles, past shops filled with diamond-studded chocolate boxes and Prada hijabs. Couldn’t buy any of it, as I’m not currently married to a billionaire. But hey, there’s a huge aquarium complete with sharks embedded in the wall (it’d be funny if someone threw a rock and they came out – you could have a Hollywood blockbuster ‘Jaws IV – The Mall). AND there’s a huge tiled lake out the back (more a swimming pool, really), with fairytale white marble bridges over it and Moorish colonnades and more mysterious Oriental shops selling strange perfumes and gold dust and so on.
Another wall of the mall is a sheer grey rock slope with water running down it and silver statues seemingly hanging in mid air as if they were diving into the pool below. Black-bearded, impeccably laundered Emirati everywhere, each followed by two or three daleks, carrying plump brightly-coloured offspring.
The pinnacle of the Dubai Mall is the Dubai Fountain. It follows a track in the swimming-pool lake thing and is all coloured lights and jets of water dancing and racing through the illuminated night, with stirring classical music accompanying the whole thing. Everyone lines up on the fairy bridge and gasps and cheers. It really is WOW – no other word for it.
The ACTUAL pinnacle is the Burj Khalifa. I went up it to the top (124 floors, I believe) and from there looked down at the top of Dubai’s many skyscrapers, which are all decorated with neon flashery. I wanted to share a romantic pash but there wasn’t anyone available and I suppose even if there had been I probably would have been ejected if I’d tried (hopefully via the lift).
In Dubai they have buildings of absolutely ALL shapes and sizes, no building need feel alone and rejected. Ones shaped like pyramids, with sphinxes out the front. Ones shaped like inverted triangles with the fat bit down the bottom. Ones shaped like the top half of tennis balls. One like a dolphin with a concrete ball on its nose. One like a knitting needle (several, actually). Another one like the sail on a dhow, and another like the taj mahal, if Akbar had decided to convert it into office blocks instead.
All the taxi drivers are Pakistanis. Most are sweet but some are broodingly silent (fill in the gaps as your self-esteem and prejudices direct, either ‘I will take you to your destination NOW, degenerate Western she-dog, but when the revolution comes..’ or ‘God I hate Dubai and these bloody arrogant Arabs! I want to be back in Karachi SO bad!!’.
All the souk owners (note the many baseless generalisations here) are Indians, selling Kashmir shawls and shoes with funny curled up pointy ends like fools wore in the Middle Ages, and wholesaling silks and sequins in tiny offices. They run out of their shops and waylay you and follow you with offers of cheap shiny things and cups of tea. That’s the way travel should be – foreigners running about trying to win your custom and treating you like the rich bastard you are, rather than looking down their noses and ignoring you through block-out sunglasses.
The sky here is a faded blue, I expect because of the smog. Cranes and dirt pits are almost as common as actual completed skyscrapers. Construction is evidently the nation’s main hobby.
And there’s a ‘creek’. Just as I was getting homesick! How the hell did Dubai end up with a creek, though?? Next they’ll be offering dhow rides on the billabong. Dhows – funny flat boats with a bench in the middle – any pitching and you’d just fall right off, which must add to the romance of it all. As have gone on one in Qatar, I didn’t bother this time.