Saturday 19 May 2012

Dubai days one and two

Many's the time I've castigated the England cricket team (and other sporting emissaries from the UK on fruitless trips abroad) for their poor performance in locations such as Sri Lanka and India and Australia, unaware of just quite how debilitating it is to walk, let alone attempt to play sport at a high level, in 40-degree heat with a touch of humidity thrown in.

Well now I know. It has been incredibly hot here in the UAE, to the extent that doing nothing, or at the very least doing something in the safer and cooler confines of an air-conditioned interior, is the preferred option. We arrived after an extremely comfortably overnight Emirates flight from Heathrow (but with a minimum of sleep) and were processed through the first of many brand, spanking new buildings at Dubai Airport. The first taste of heat, at 0730, was as we left the terminal and moved to the coach for the transfer to the Madinat Mina A'Salam Hotel, part of the Jumeirah resort, looking out to the distinctive sail-like structure of the Burj Al Arab Hotel, the definitive landmark of Dubai tourism.

The drive from the airport along the Sheikh Zayed Road took us past the fabulous towers lining that 12-lane highway: tall, narrow structures fronted with tinted glass and subtle variations in angles and skeletal infrastructure but all dwarfing the street-level life that scurried around their roots. The unbelievable dimension of the world's tallest man made structure, the Burj Khalifa, rose behind them like some science-fiction space-port, growing ever narrower and climaxing in a needle-like mast that pierced the clouds some 828 metres above sea level.

More mundanely, we breakfasted by the channel that circumnavigates the Madinat hotels, realising how hot the day was becoming. Our rooms weren't ready till the afternoon, so we killed the time on the beach, sweltering under shades and trying to sleep without waking up roasted. "Ye's'll be like rashers," our Cork air-stewardess had pronounced succintly on the flight over. I dozed and sweated and got grumpy. Sharon just dozed and sweated. Some swam in the sea, which was a bit like swimming in warm soup on subsequent days but quite refreshing on this first day, exhilirating in the pounding surf. I didn't swim. I didn't want to even move. I got burnt in the few minutes heading to the toilet from the shade and the sand was liable to singe the flesh on your feet.

Eventually we got our room keys and moved tot he sanctuary of air-conditioned five-star hotel life. It was some 20 degrees cooler in the rooms. Opening the doors to the balcony was like opening an oven door, a thick stew of Arabian air challenging the cold air of the room. However, we didn't stay there for long (and besides, the hotel had misplaced our luggage) so we took a taxi with Anne-Marie to the Mall of the Emirates, the smaller of Dubai's vast shopping malls, to the Carrefour supermarket. Sharon was conscious of being underdressed (due to our luggage misplacement) having moved from private beach to public retail outlet and received a few disapproving looks from the white-clad Emiratis. As ever, the supermarket had a splendid selection of fruit and veg but elsewhere the mall displayed some very familiar names: from Next to Debenhams! Once loaded up with snacks and mixers, we queued for a taxi back to the hotel.

Our luggage finally appeared. After a brief rest, we dressed for the reception dinner. Despite the sun having gone down around 7pm, the air was no cooler. We crossed the road in front of the hotel entrance to the Fort area which was reminiscent of a Legoland Arabian-themed area set in a very warm climate. It's no use pining for authentic, quaint, original buildings in Dubai - the oldest structure in the city is reputedly 32 years old. The roll call of achievers was run through, with Hannah the top points earner and Tracy, another of Sharon's downline and a first time trip achiever, second. There was the usual exhortations to bigger and better things next year and then we attacked the buffet. Fortunately I was on water (and have been for some time, owing to the prevalance of gout attacks) as to drink alcohol in such temperatures would be to invite illness, in my view. Sharon didn't quite see it that way. In Dubai you cannot buy alcohol outside of hotels. There are no off-licences nor non-hotel bars as such, hence everyone had arrived with a healthy quota of duty-free purchases as the only places to drink were in hotel bars and restaurants or in private.

We had a great sleep in our vast bed. The air-conditioning was reasonably quiet and the temperature control was spot on. We met others down in the Mina A'Salam for breakfast then got on an abra, a small wooden boat holding about 8 passengers, for a tour of the resort. There are wonderful villas and gardens in our section of the Jumeirah resort, as well as two Hotels, the Mina A'Salam and the Al Qasr, a souk (market) and anywhere between 29 and 42 restaurants, according to the literature.

We alighted at the Madinat souk and once more escaped indoors. The high, vaulted ceilings of the interior meant the winding marketplace was pleasantly cool but I was still feeling rather worn out so I retired to the hotel room after a brief browse around the shops. Sharon went on and had a salad lunch. I dozed. Our next appointment was the "Old" Dubai tour, leaving the hotel at 3.15pm. We crossed the Dubai Creek to the older part of town, to the Gold Souk. Here we entered the darkened, L-shaped market where upwards of fifty jewellers and goldsmiths sell some of the 20% or so of the world's gold that is traded through Dubai. Many hawkers, vast choice of jewellry, no women to be seen; only men. To be honest, there is so much stuff it would be impossible to browse, even if you had the time, which we did not, being marched through at a fair lick. You really would have to know what you were looking for. The Gold Souk sells 18, 21 and 22-carat gold, the last being unusual and generally not to Western tastes, as it looks more yellow and "fake" than the paler, lower carat gold preferred by Europeans.

We moved on to the Spice Souk next which was more to our liking. Again, a couple of dark alleys full of shops with sacks of spices and dried fruits and herbs, a wonderful aroma filling the narrow lane. There were wonderful dried, black lemons which, when puncutured, released a deep citrus scent. We didn't get far before Sharon was in and conversing with a salesman who fairly shovelled the curry powder and vanilla pods into bags. A little obligatory bartering, which Sharon loves and which I, of course, can't stand, and then we were on our way. Another short walk in the afternoon heat and then we were on an abra across the creek. The short journey to the other bank and slightly down-creek was reminiscent of what I'd imagine Venice (the destination for next year's trip) to be like. From there we made our way past shuttered shops, Friday being the holy day and many places closing up, up to the Dubai Museum. At first sight this was a paltry offering, but moving down from the sun-bleached open-air entrance arena to the darker, cooler interior shifted the level of interest, although parts were too dark to actually see in. It was a bit like Ailwee Cave in County Clare! The last port of call was a restaurant called "local restaurant" or something similar, that sold camel burgers. None of that for us, but a refreshing drink and chance to lounge about in cool rooms on rugs and have a chat. Eventually some ice-cream which may or may not have been made from camel's milk did arrive. It was a very relaxing hour or so.

From there it was back to the hotel and a quick turnaround to get in taxis and head back towards Downtown Dubai, to a restaurant called Fazaris at a hotel called The Address. Unfortunately our taxi driver wasn't quite sure where he was headed and a massive traffic jam caused by the breaking at the end-of-the-holy-day delayed us from getting to the restuarant in time for the booking. This wasn't a problem however, and we made our way through the very stylish hotel to meet up with the others, including Pete and Tracy who had booked the meal.

It was good to see the pair of them, ex-pats now based in Sharjah, looking in fine fettle. The food was good and the added bonus was a middle distance view of the fountain show at the foot of the all-conquering Burj Khalifa, towering above us into the hazy night sky, the ultimate statement of manmade Dubai City. Sharon enjoyed sashimi and a Goan prawn curry, while I had tomato soup and lamb rogan josh. Afterwards we returned to the Mina A'Salam, me to bed and Sharon to someone's room for a late snifter. A busy couple of days!

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