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Date: 27 Feb 2013 19:44:14
Title: Tuesday 26th February – Arabian Nights and Days

Tuesday 26th February – Arabian Nights and Days

We are shockingly late with a blog update and have had a few enquiries as to whether we are still alive.  We haven’t drowned though at times we have felt a bit swamped by the number of tasks needing completion on Arnamentia.  The girl is now out of the water having ‘stuff’ done.  But, she didn’t come out of the water until we got back from the UK on 15th January.  So, that’s a different story and one to which we will return in due course.  Let’s now fill in the gap between our departure from NZ in mid December and our arrival back here in mid January.  

We flew back to the UK on 19th December having encountered a 24 hour delay in Auckland airport because the aeroplane supposed to be flying us from there to Shanghai had been hit by lightning on the way to NZ.  There were no casualties but they weren’t about to let it fly again without doing a few checks – making sure the loo lights worked and that sort of stuff.  So, we had to await a different aircraft and were re-routed to stage in Hong Kong.  Chris Austin very kindly accommodated the change in plan and met us at the amended arrival time at Heathrow with Carol’s Freelander.  He and Ann put us up overnight in Shrewton and we collected the large box of boat spares that had accumulated Chez Austin over the previous weeks.  Thence, the next morning, to Lymington to re-occupy our bolt-hole cottage temporarily, chase yet more suppliers for yet more spares and try to get VAT exemption on them (mixed success here – it’s deliberately complicated and suppliers don’t have to offer the facility if they don’t want to). 

Christmas was spent with Pen (Carol’s sister), John and Alys in Pembrokeshire.  Sadly the Preseli Hills weren’t covered picturesquely in snow this year – it hardly seemed to stop raining so mud was everywhere.  Alys and her friends braved the torrents at the Boxing Day meet and we followed on foot for about 30 minutes ending up about as wet as we did crossing Biscay (the bilge rats (remember them?) may require some persuasion that this is not just hyperbole – Ed).  Moreover, there was a handy warm and dry pub in Wales – not many in evidence mid Biscay.  And, one can only imagine that any foxes around the place on Boxing Day were snugly abed.  They’d be musing, perhaps, that whilst mad dogs are often an issue in any number of places and climates not very obviously at the front of Noel Coward’s mind when penning his well-known lines, Englishmen aren’t the only nutters one is likely to encounter, from time to time and particularly around midday,  abroad in wholly unsuitable clothing and intolerable weather.  The Welsh are just as bad.  Ho, hum; roll over and back to sleep. 

The next day Jon met up with his brother, Roger, and they drove to Enniskillen in a white van to carry out the sad task of going through their mother’s possessions (following her death, aged almost 91, in August), recover some important bits and pieces, get them back to the Salisbury area and resolve a number of other issues with her estate.  That had all been accomplished by New Year’s eve and the following week was a bit of a frenzy of appointments with medics, dentists, opticians, hairdressers (the last not required in Jon’s case since he’d encountered in Whangarei the only barber in NZ from Galway before flying back to UK and had substantially failed to convey the idea of the relative lightness of touch he sought), spare parts suppliers and the like interspersed with flying visits to those friends we could realistically reach on the days we were in their vicinities.  Many apologies to those we missed – some of whom we’d specifically agreed to make contact with.  But, stuff just insists on happening particularly when it would really be very convenient if it didn’t.

So, that more or less gets us to Heathrow on 9th January (again courtesy of Chris Austin who has been the most wonderful one man shore-side support team) and ready to fly out to Dubai (Club Class, if you please, courtesy of Carol’s Airmiles).

We last saw James and Mira, who both live and work in Dubai, as they were boarding the ferry in Bora Bora to go across the lagoon to go to the airport.  For those of you who are a bit geographically challenged it has to be said that Dubai is not a lot like Bora Bora.  Obviously we were aware that this is Blingland.  What we didn’t understand was quite what that meant.  It’s bling on bling, outrageous ostentation allied to mega consumption and numerous 24 hour city building sites manned by small armies of foreign workers accommodated in camps and unseen except when at work.  The aim appears to be to ensure that everything looks about as OTT as it can be.  But, as you observe what’s being thrown up around the place you do rather wonder what you might discover if you prised the odd veneer off here and there.  That feeling is not limited to the physical infrastructure.  The emphasis on the maintenance of the veneer is, one suspects, the reason one experiences such glossy service pretty well everywhere.  But, we felt wary of scratching the veneer, not knowing much about the structure and resilience of the substrate.  Nor, let’s face it, the devotion and methods of its guardians.

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                            The view from James’s flat – rather hazy - a sand storm had blown up in the desert

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                                                      One of the more unusual skyscrapers – The Twist?

So, we had been prepared to be amazed by this city thrown up in the desert within the last 50 years ago and we definitely were.  Where do we start?  Well, let’s try somewhere we wouldn’t normally hang out.  The Dubai Mall is probably one of the main reason Dubai invented the Shopping Festival – an event designed to encourage locals, ex-pats and visitors to part with even more of their cash.  Regrettably we were unlikely to qualify for any “Customer of the Year” award – all we bought in four days were a basic digital watch (very hard to find amongst the diamond encrusted models), some shorts from Marks & Spencer and a fridge magnet!  Rather than spending money, we spent time gazing at the inhabitants of the extraordinary aquarium inside the mall (the sharks are fed so well they have no need to eat the fish that are in such close proximity), admiring the indoor street art and trying out $20,000 massage chairs!  Unfortunately, there is little space aboard Arnamentia for items even as obviously important as these.

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                                                  The Dubai Mall at night (picture from Google Images)

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                                            Absolutely stunning- West Quay, you have a lot to live up to!

Dubai currently boasts the tallest building in the world – the Burj Khalifa and on our first evening we ate in a Thai restaurant overlooking the artificial lake that surrounds its base.  There is always a spectacularly lit fountain show every evening but since it was holiday period, special performances involving jet flames and a somewhat bizarre dance/mime artist were being given – the result was a modern take on a “Son et Lumiere” performance.

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                                                                            Fountains at full strength

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                                                            Man commanding the flames, perhaps

We squeezed in a trip on a grockle boat around the Dubai Marina and out to the Jumeirah Palm Island – from the air the artificial island looks like a palm tree.  All the houses built are now occupied though there were initial problems with the water flow making each house’s private beach very smelly.  The Jumeirah hotel is a tad(!) ostentatious and apparently modelled on a more modest edifice built in pink marble in the Bahamas.  We didn’t visit the Burj al Arab further along the coast– the world’s only 7 star hotel – apparently that is even more over the top!  We saw very few sailing boats but a good handful of dinghy sailors appeared to be enjoying themselves at their week-end races just of the beach.

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                         The view from Mira’s family’s flat overlooking the Jumeirah Hotel and the Palm

The Dubai museum, though small, was very well worth a visit.  How else are you to understand this place and quite how fundamentally life has changed since the 1960s and the discovery/exploitation of oil?  The difference is quite astonishing.  Whoa!  In the early 60’s there was just a small settlement around the creek which supported fishing and pearl diving and acted as small trading station.  Houses were made of woven palm leaves and everyone lived hand to mouth as we have witnessed in so many places on our travels so far.  The transformation is breathtaking.  Nonetheless, several souks – gold, spice, textiles - still exist around the older area of town area and it was a fairly full-time occupation when there to fend off the merchants who wanted to sell us everything we didn’t need (including, obviously, genuine Rolex watches for not a lot of dosh – not sure how we had the willpower to resist!)

Whilst James attended a 24 hour business trip to Riyadh in Saudi Arabia, Mira and her father, Yasser, took us to Abu Dhabi, to see one of the largest mosques in the world.  It was built about 15 years ago at a cost of £360 million pounds; the Taj Mahal appears to have been an influence since the mosque has been built out of eye-searing white marble with exquisite floral inlays.   Inside, the carpet inside is the largest in the world and the chandeliers come close to breaking world records.  There seems to have been some sort of problem in interpreting drawings and so on between the builders and the carpet-makers.  As you enter the mosque (chaps dressed in dishdashas/kanduras, chicks in abayas, obviously) you pretty soon notice that the pillars inside the mosque nearest the entrance and the holes in the carpet designed to accommodate them don’t match up by some way.  In less relaxed times one can imagine that one or other party – perhaps both – might have found it expedient to find a very speedy camel pretty quickly.  It was also interesting to note that the impressive-looking decorations at the top of the marble pillars in the cloisters around the central courtyard were not gold.  A not very close inspection revealed them to be plastic.  Veneer/substrate; style/substance.  But, let’s be clear, this is a very impressive-looking building indeed.

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                                                                        Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque

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                                                                               The central Courtyard

 

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                                                      Pillars in the cloisters – not quite all it seems atop

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                                                                  Chandelier in the Mosque entrance

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                                      Mosque interior showing part of the largest carpet in the world

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                                                                        Exquisite marble inlay

There were more new experiences for us that evening.  First, a trip to the cinema to see “The Life of Pi” in 3-D – an incredible production even if we weren’t totally sure what it was all supposed to mean.  A short holiday on a different planet might have aided interpretation – felt much the same having read the book a few years ago.  But, you don’t have to understand it all to enjoy it and you are probably not intended to.  After that came a drink in a bar overlooking the indoor ski slope – it doesn’t bearing thinking about how much it must cost to keep the snow frozen.  It seems a bit bigger than the slope in Milton Keynes (we MK toilers know these things) but also offers tobogganing and zorbing.  On our way back to the car at 11:55 in the evening Jon managed to buy the magnificent Timex, utterly rubbish, throwaway waterproof watch he was looking for.  All it had to do was tell the time, work when wet and be visible at night.  Bling entirely optional and a bit discouraged.  The shopping mall in which the cinema was sited was still open for business and doing a good trade.

Our final day was pretty packed as well.  James has a Toyota Land Cruiser and it’s not very far to the desert where one can “play” to one’s heart’s content, bashing dunes and launching into space.  We took a picnic (thank you, Dubai branch of Waitrose – yes, honestly!) and enjoyed the far reaching views before being invaded by a party of Germans on dirt bikes.  Next time we’ll rent those!

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                                                      James putting the Land Cruiser through its paces

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                                                               If it’s a desert, you’ve got to have camels!

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         Picnic at Fossil Rock – note German biker probably annoyed at not being first with his rug on the sand!

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                                                                            View from Fossil Rock

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                         The way down with tracks looking remarkably like those to be found on a ski run!

Very, very early the next morning we were to leave for Auckland but first had a great curry sitting at a rickety table on the pavement in the Indian quarter.  After that, as a complete contrast we went for a drink in the bar on the 122nd floor of the Burj Khalifa.  You can’t just walk in, you have to book and spend a minimum amount in the bar – rather more than one normally would but there are some things you are only going to do once in your life.   The bar is as high as the general public can go – the next however many floors are private flats and the top several (possibly, many) floors belong to the ruler of Abu Dhabi (according, at least, to Wikipedia).    The view, needless to say, is fantastic.  The normal skyscrapers appear jaw-droppingly far beneath and the fountains and lights of the lake below are a stunning sight.  The bar, restaurant and the hotel within the Burj are managed by Armani.  Naturally, the entire front of house staff comprises exquisitely blackly clad young female stick insects.  Doubtless with masters’ degrees in something very impressive.

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                                                                               Burj Khalifa by day …..

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                                               …. and at night, dwarfing the other sky scrapers

Life in Dubai is definitely different.  One of the first things that struck us was the cars.  First there were more Ferraris, Lamborghinis, Porsches, Rollers, Bentleys and all that than we’d ever seen in one place before (actually, ever seen in our entire lives before – Ed).  Second, there are no old bangers – it is apparently against the law to have a car more than 10 years old.  This is apparently for environmental/pollution reasons.  Yeah, right.  Third, trucks aren’t allowed on the main highway through the middle of Dubai – they have to go on a parallel roadway a little bit further inland – perhaps they should try that on the M27.

One wonders how long the expansion of Dubai can be sustained.  We saw desalination plants stretching for a mile or more along the shore.  We understand that many of the buildings may not last for more than a decade or so – dismantling them when it is no longer economical to maintain them looks to be a phenomenally difficult task bearing in mind how closely they have been built to one another.  The future, post oil?  Dunno but that is one of the reasons why Dubai has tried to create itself as a centre of a quite different sort in the Middle East.  The contrast with, for instance, Sharjah next door could scarcely be sharper.  Sharjah is, equally, one of the 7 United Arab Emirates but is backed by Saudi Arabia.  No bling there, nor alcohol nor anything much else.  Well, not quite true – there is quite a lot of sand and a largish number of laws.

This really was a most worthwhile diversion to a place we would not normally have thought of visiting.  We can’t thank James and Mira enough for giving up so much of their time to show us around and to James for accommodating us in his spectacular flat.  Mira’s family were also wonderfully hospitable and that added greatly to our store of memories.  We had a wonderful lunch prepared by her mother, Janine and sister, Reem, at home in the flat in the city.  This was followed by a meal in an outstanding fish restaurant during our trip to Abu Dhabi.  Yasser treated us to a spectacular lunch here as well as acting as a most informative and entertaining guide for a thoroughly educational day.  To all we reiterate; it was absolutely great, we loved it and we thank you all very much indeed for making it happen.


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