Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Next Stop: Dubai or, The Kindness of Strangers

I landed in Dubai at about 8am, twelve hours after leaving New York. I had a 10 hour layover and I wanted to see a bit of the city before making my connecting flight to Colombo. So off I went, out the doors and into the heat. The taxi line was absurdly long and since I had inquired about the bus routes before I exited the airport, I went to the bus stop, got on a bus, and started inching through traffic. Going a couple of miles on that bus made the 520 commute seem like doing laps at Indy and there was no gorgeous lake, trees, or mountains to take the edge off – just a lot of concrete. I finally got off the bus with the intention of taking a taxi the rest of the way to the Burj Al Arab Hotel (“The World’s Most Luxurious Hotel” according to the brochure; rooms start at $3,000 per night). My plan was to eat lunch at one of the 8 restaurants in the hotel, look around the lobby, get a glimpse at who the hell pays $3,000 a night for a hotel room, then catch a cab back to the airport. It didn’t quite work out that way. After getting off the bus and walking for a while in the heat through a landscape covered with concrete and more concrete, I was starting to wilt. I walked a few blocks to a hotel thinking that would be a good place to hail a cab… I waited and waited, hand out, sweat running down the back of my legs, and my shirt sticking to me. There were simply very few cabs about, and the few that passed were either taken or seemed to be in an awful hurry to get the hell away from me. There was a guy standing half a block up from me also trying to get a cab and I realized that if any did plan on stopping, they’d get to him before me, so who knew how long I’d be out there. I was wondering exactly how long I was going to stand out there and concluding that I truly had no other options, when another person came by who was also trying to get a cab. She was rather stunning, African, and friendly, and she came over to commiserate about how awful the taxi situation in Dubai is. I told her I’d been standing out there for over half an hour and I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to do. She asked where I was going and I told her; she said she was trying to get the World Trade Center where her car was parked and which was on the way to the Burj Al Arab. Without really discussing it, we both understood that we’d share a cab if either of us could get one, and then finally, FINALLY one stopped for us. We both got in and she directed the driver to where her car was in her flawless English, which was smoothed over by a French accent, and topped off with a slight African lilt, giving her that sense that Africans who speak perfect English have, which make them seem as though they have a much deeper understanding of the words than anyone else. She told me she had only been in Dubai for 6 months, that she had moved there with her husband and two kids from London to take a job with Barclays Bank, and that she was originally from Senegal. She also mentioned that the Al Arab was in the direction of her house, and that she’d be happy to drop me off at the hotel when we got to her car as opposed to me continuing on in the taxi. Dubai is hot and oppressive; the landscape is harsh and jagged and monochrome; I felt a little like I was in Wall-E, and there was no way I was going to quickly give up the company of my nice new friend, so I thanked her and accepted. When we got to her car, she absolutely would not let me pay the cab fare; I kept insisting but she just wouldn’t let me do it. “Save your money for the taxi ride back to the airport” she said. She also mentioned that she wasn’t sure I could even go into the Al Arab since I wasn’t a registered guest, and mentioned a complex near it that would maybe be a better option for killing time. I thought the hotel website said that non-guests could dine there even if they didn’t have a room booked, she said it was worth a try, so we got in her car and started heading toward the hotel through a whole different part of the city which was also concrete on concrete, giant buildings, and the same depressing, unnatural, lifeless landscape which was all of Dubai, as far as I could tell. She gave me a little tour along the way pointing out various buildings and talking about how the city is laid out. It was a good 15-20 minutes of being chauffeured in her brand new SUV before the Al Arab came into sight, and I have to say, it really is ridiculous. I’m sure it’s spectacular in some sense... but, I mean, really? It just seemed like one more indication of excess beyond my wildest imagination. Of course that wasn't going to stop me from trying to get in, I mean, a girl's still gotta eat. We drove up to the gate and the nice security guard asked if we had a reservation. I said “No, but I was hoping to eat at one of the restaurants.” He told me that only people with reservations could go through the gate, but he handed us a brochure and said that I could call right now and make a reservation at one of the restaurants and then I could go in. It just seemed like too much at that point, and my new friend suggested that she take me to the complex just down the road which had a huge shopping arcade, lots of restaurants, and a nice view of the water. I said that sounded great. I asked if she had to get right home because I would have loved to buy her lunch, she said she wished she could join me but her kids would be home from school soon and she had to get going. When she dropped me off at the round-about in front of the building complex, I noticed that there was a taxi rank in front and said “Oh fantastic, I won’t have to worry about getting a cab back to the airport!” and she said “Yes, that was one of the reasons I thought this would be a good place for you.” I thanked her profusely, shook her hand, and headed in for a nice lunch and a quick perusal of the shops. I didn’t buy anything; at that point, I was pretty sure I already had everything I needed from Dubai.

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