Friday, October 02, 2009

Return to the Cape, Day 1, Beijing to Dubai

For our return trip to South Africa we decided to fly on Emirates via Dubai, rather than on Singapore or Cathay. Emirates offers really good deals from Beijing to Africa and Europe, and it would give us a chance to visit our friends Rich and Liz, who have been living in Dubai for around a year and whose daughter, Alexandra, we had not yet met.

The flight leaves very early from Beijing, so we were up and out of our apartment by 5am, our poor driver showing no outwards signs of fatigue or distress at having been rousted at such an early hour. Having checked in on line we were able to avoid a very lengthy queue of slackers who had not bothered to do so, and who thus were thronged at the check-in counter. In the end we were through to the airside of the terminal in no time at all. There is next to nothing to do in the Beijing airport, unfortunately, and the powers that be have decided that lighting the passenger seating areas near the gates is a bourgeois affectation that has no place in the workers’ paradise so we were unable to do much other than listen to our iPods while we waited to board.

The flight was pretty much full, but it was not too uncomfortable, and they offered a wide range of films and TV shows to watch during the 8 hour flight. The meals they served were also not too bad, even in coach, and the service was very friendly. Definitely would fly with them again, based on this flight. Not long after take-off two ladies sitting near us got into a huge fight over I know not what, with them cursing each other out in Chinese like fishwives. I brought this to the attention of the crew, and surprisingly when one of the Arabic flight attendants tried to calm the instigator down, it turned out that she also spoke Arabic. I never did figure out what had happened, but that was it for excitement on this flight. I’m not complaining.

As we approached Dubai, and as the land became more visible, we were both immediately struck by one thought--why would anyone in their right mind have ever decided to call this place home? Surely when ancient hominids found themselves in the area of the UAE on their treks from wherever they were coming from to wherever they were going to, they must have thought to themselves “this place has nothing but sand as far as the eye can see; let’s keep going, there’s got to be something better a bit further along”. And yet, someone at some point clearly decided that this was good enough and opted to settle down. What a dusty, unwelcoming sort of place you see from your Airbus as you approach the airport! And what a contrast with what you see as you exit the airport and drive in air conditioned splendor to wherever you’re staying for the night! It’s a city built out of nothing in the middle of nowhere, with gleaming skyscrapers, lush landscaping (which, legend has it, is replaced nightly by unseen hordes of Sri Lankan workers, since there just isn’t enough water to keep the plants alive for more than a day or two) and throngs of expatriate workers enjoying the good life. 90-93% of the population of Dubai is foreign, and the 7-10% that is Emirati doesn’t do much of anything, other than complain about all the foreigners, and drive their expensive cars at too high a rate of speed along the city’s roads.

Interestingly, while our flight was pretty much full, only about 8 passengers from that flight actually were making Dubai their final destination, the remaining people apparently using Dubai only as a transit point. Thus our bags took no time at all to get off the carousel and we were out of the airport in no time at all.

On our drive from the airport to our friends’ place we noticed a silver Nissan 380Z sports car being drive rather erratically; as we pulled along side it we saw that the driver was our friend Rich, rushing to get home in time for our arrival. What’s the chance of that!?

We got to their apartment complex, the 2-kilometer long Jumeirah Beach Residences, shortly after 1pm, and had a quick change into lighter clothes more suitable to the 107 degree heat before going out to lunch at a place near their house, a Lebanese fast food chain called Zaatar W Zeit, where we had really excellent Middle Eastern sandwiches before hopping in their car for a bit of a look around.

Among our stops was the over-the-top Atlantis resort, located on the over-the-top Palm complex, an artificial series of atolls built on reclaimed land off the coast of the city jutting into the Gulf and that, from the air, is in the form of a palm tree with an arc of protective atolls in a sort of halo formation that provides protection from waves. The trunk is lined with apartment complexes, while the fronds (romantically named Frond 1, Frond 2, etc) are private residences accessibly only to owners and invited guests, and the arc is home to hotels, with the Atlantis at the pinnacle. The Atlantis is owned by the same South African Jew who owns the Sun City resort in South Africa and the Atlantis resort in the Bahamas (which I visited often while working there). It is home to an enormous Dale Chihouly glass sculpture in the lobby and a huge fish tank that is now the controversial home of a recently captured whale shark that the hotel argues it rescued after it was injured in the wild while PETA and Greenpeace insist that the hotel injured it while capturing it. Whoever is right the shark is an amazingly beautiful creature that does frankly seem pretty content in its new surroundings.

Rich had a meeting to go to so we decamped to the Madinat Jumeirah hotel complex, a really beautiful series of buildings done up in local style with a modern souk (market) connecting the various hotel buildings. While he had his meeting J2, Liz and I sat down at a Costa coffee outlet (outside, in the 107F heat!) and admired the view of the Burj al-Arab 7-star hotel in the distance while chatting about Liz’s impressions of life in Dubai. She apparently moved there kicking and screaming a year ago but has come to really enjoy the lifestyle (what’s not to like about a place that is sunny 363 days a year and where domestic help is readily available and cheap?) while at the same coming to new appreciations of Gulf Arab culture that unfortunately have had the affect of causing her to dislike it intensely. Oh, well, you can’t have everything.

When Rich was done with his meeting we returned to their apartment (which, by the way, is on the top floor of their building, and has views down the beach and onto the Gulf), changed into bathing suits and headed to the marina to take their boat out for a little cruise. We had hoped to see the sunset but the sun sets very quickly here and by the time we actually got on the boat it had descended below the horizon, so instead we just watched the lights of the city come on while enjoying a bottle of wine before returning to town.

After returning to the city we did a quick trip to our new favorite Spanish clothing store, Desigual, to see if we could find some things to buy (we did), and then we had dinner at Sarai, a Syrian restaurant a short walk from the apartment along The Walk, a long shopping and dining strip that runs along the Jumeirah beach. Dinner was excellent, consisting of a selection of meze (hummus, mutabbal, stuffed grape leaves, etc) and some kebabs for main course, along with fruit cocktails to drink. We treated our hosts to the dinner (as well as to some wine that we brought in from the Dubai Duty Free shop on arrival, since they don’t have a liquor license and thus cannot buy their own wine), while they treated us to dessert at a newly opened gelato place along the same walk. Once we got back to their place we managed to stay awake until around 11pm before finally calling it a day and heading to bed.