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And there were limbs…

My friends and I were wandering the alleys of Bastakia Quarter in the dark, peeking in at every opportunity when there were open doors, curious of what we may find. It was a breezy evening and the salty air of Dubai Creek was never far, making it pleasant for aimless stroll after a substantial dinner.

We turned a corner and spotted another door. We stood outside for a minute or two. The face of a screaming woman adorned the low settee for one, and on the wall, a turban-wearing man with haunting eyes and disfigured face stared at us intently. As we stepped across the threshold, above our head, something didn’t quite fit in…

Happy Halloween everyone!

Dubai: not miniatures

I visited Eve and Pras today, and my do they have apartments with views! One on side, there’s the skyline of downtown Dubai and a slight shift to the right, Burj Al Arab stands proud of its own and a little further afield, Atlantis at The Palm. On the other side, the view of Bur Dubai and beyond, and another slight shift later, the floating hotel aboard QE2, now permanently docked, yet another luxury sleep in The City of Gold.

However, with the changing season comes an unavoidable feature – fog. It makes it just that bit harder to photograph the city. The position of the sun at that time also meant it was hard to see Burj Al Arab (gotta squint a little) and Atlantis was hidden from sight, so photographic attempts for these buildings failed rather miserably.

So far, I have only explored a small part of Dubai given limited time and opportunity (Eve and Pras did take me out on a city-wide introductory car tour one night), but there’s always something to be discovered. I’ve been to and visited some of the landmarks including Dubai Mall (next to Burj Khalifa), Atlantis and The Palm, Madinat Jumeirah (to peek at Burj Al Arab), Dubai Creek, Dubai Museums and Bastakia Quarter.

However, there are more things that I’d like to do, such as a visit to the Jumeirah Mosque, the various souqs (I’ve only been to one), have a traditional Emirati meal at the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding… but so often, they’re time restricted. E.g. a tour of the mosque begins at 10am, but to try to travel from Sharjah to Dubai in the morning is just asking for sitting in the traffic for 2-3 hours. Not ideal.

I could try to stay over in Dubai one night with Eve, but magic time scheduling will be required, since we have wildly different kind of timetable to observe. I was lucky to have nabbed both of them on the same day to hang out a bit today! In any case, the next day we are all free, we reckon we should go to Oman together. Road trip!

The question is, will that happen before I fly back to Europe?

Never without books

I have been away for too long. Case in point – I have now a big stack of books on the nightstand. Three of them newly purchased. You must be wondering, why aren’t you going out and experience more local stuff? I do, but since this is a work-related trip, much of my time is tied up and the intermittent breaks during the day are usually not long enough to justify heading out somewhere. Come evenings, the options are limited to shopping, eating, and errrr… reading? (It’s dry where I am so no bars to go to meet locals.)

I consider books as part of my travel essentials. I never leave without packing a book or two. When I’m done with them, I replace them with either books from exchange shelves (hostels are great for this) or new ones from the nearest bookshop. This trip, I’ve topped up my reading materials three times altogether.

It does create just a wee bit of a problem – I can’t, and usually don’t, bring them home with me. Those I’m done with, I leave behind. This is more for a practical reason than me not loving the books. For one, I travel light so there’s a lack of space to carry all of them back. Secondly, chances are, I may not re-read them again so why not let someone else have it? Thirdly, like many young adults of today, I am renting and if it teaches me anything, it’s that I should not have too much belongings. Each move creates a problem, since I already have more books than clothes right now!

A friend reckons I should get a Kindle or an iPad, so I can read ebooks and never have to leave any book behind. He advises, “the gadgets are light, slim and easy to carry everywhere.” But of course, any damage or theft to the gadget means I’ll stand to lose a lot more than just one or two small paperbacks. Besides, I think I’ll feel better if there are less things of expensive nature in my bag. Apart from my laptop, camera and iPod nano, everything else’s two a penny. Without actual books, I would also have nothing to contribute to the book exchange shelves, where present, and I’ll feel really guilty taking one out for nothing in return.

What do you think? And what’s your travel dilemma?

Don’t you mind the taxi driver…

To get from one place to another in the UAE, unless you drive (or have a host/ friend driving you), you’ll most likely be travelling by taxi. Public transport like buses can be infrequent and irregular, and the last thing you want is to wait out under the hot sun without knowing for certain when the next bus will come along. I have been using taxis to travel within Sharjah and Dubai, and between Sharjah and Dubai.

I am quite a chatty person and I’d quite happily talk to anyone, even random strangers. Taxi drivers? Sure. There’s nothing wrong with making some small talks and discuss the weather. Normally, that’s not a problem, but in the UAE, it can be. It can be misconstrued for something else altogether, e.g. you’re interested in him.

My first couple of taxi rides, the drivers tried to engage me in conversation and I obliged, being friendly like I normally would back in Europe. As a result, I have taxi drivers who were very interested in knowing when I would be free and if I would like to (a) go shopping with him – he promised to buy me a present(!), (b) see him when he’s off work, and (c) tour and sight-see the city with him.

Of them all, the last is quite possibly a genuine and innocent proposal – as I was obviously a visitor, naturally this would be an opportunity for the driver to make a bit more money by offering taxi tour. Fair enough. But the other suggestions, downright dodgy.

I learned quickly that I should be courteous but never friendly with taxi drivers. In a firm and no-nonsense voice, I conveyed my destination and checked that the driver knew where he was going (you’ll be surprised at how some of them can be quite clueless – by chance or by design, I have no idea). Then, it was staring out the window and not engaging in conversations at all. On arrival, I paid, said my thank you and got off. Khalas. No funny propositions, no ambiguity of intention. And also, I was cautioned by a friend to never ride at the front of the taxi when I was on my own.

There is also something called Ladies’ Taxis available in Dubai (I’m not aware of it in Sharjah). The fleet is pink in colour, of course, and should be booked ahead as they don’t normally drive around looking for fares. However, they are present at the airport and some malls where females frequently visit. They do cost a bit more though but if that’s what you’re more comfortable with, go for it.

Lessons from TAR

Two versions of The Amazing Race are currently being aired – The Amazing Race 17 and The Amazing Race Asia 4. I have been following the shows quite faithfully for quite a few seasons now, and these are little things that I have learned from watching the contestants travelling under tremedous amount of pressure to be a step ahead at every turn from their fellow competitors.

1. It absolutely pays to travel light. It’ll get you in and out of the airport quickly while minimising the issues of missing luggage, tampered content, worrying if it got transferred between flights on time etc. Definitely no waiting at the caroussel for the luggage to appear, not that anyone would choose to check-in anything in TAR!

2. Look after your belongings well, especially when it comes to passport, wallet and travel tickets. Ideally one should not lose anything at all, except the sense of the unknown, when moving from one place to another.

3. Knowing random words/phrases in local language goes a long way. If you don’t speak it at all, then make an effort to pick them up. Please, for goodness’ sake, don’t talk in English loudly and slowly with an incredulous look on the face as if the other person is imbecile. That’s just rude.

4. Be gracious. Not everywhere you go will live up to your expectation but muttering loudly “this place totally sucks” will not endear you to anyone in the vicinity. And don’t follow up with “these people are idiots” or the likes. Have you realise that you are the one right now behaving like an idiot?

5. Ladies, especially the blonde ones, stop kissing random strangers in gratitude. Or use that as a trade-off for them to help you. Sure it’s a “strategy” to win tasks and all, but you’re just reaffirming the stereotype that blondes/foreign women are “easy” and it’s not doing you or fellow (blonde) female travellers any favour.

6. Conflicts on the road are sometimes inevitable, even between family and/or the best of friends. For non-TAR folks, it is perfectly alright to do things individually and meet up again later. No two (or more) travellers are attached to the hips like Siamese twins.

7. Don’t do a round the world trip in 20 days. Don’t even do 5 countries in one continent in 10 days (such tour groups should be banned). You will be exhausted and hardly have time to enjoy anything at all. You’ll end up paying a fortune for the privilege to spend more time getting from one place to another than experiencing the country and its offerings.

First Impression: Sharjah

If I am the superstitious kind, I am beginning to wonder if this blogling is jinxed. Back in April, when I started embarking on this project, it was halted after a mere six blog posts. Yesterday, barely 2 posts in following the restart, I had to cancel a trip planned for today due to work commitment.

Oh well, never mind. I’ll just reschedule the trip for another time. Let’s continue with my mini adventures in the UAE.

While most visitors thronged the modern city of Dubai, I made my way to Sharjah, the emirate just to the north of Dubai. The most conservative among the seven emirates in the UAE, I was a little apprehensive on my first trip here. A last minute travel arrangement mix-up meant I would be arriving straight from my summer holiday in Malaysia and I was woefully underprepared wardrobe-wise. I had a suitcase full of shorts, skirts and tank tops. Plus 2 pairs of jeans. Luckily, I also had just that one long sleeve blouse and a pashmina, so they were essential pieces whenever I went out.

Sharjah lacks the glamour and glitter of Dubai, but it makes up for it aplenty by way of heritage. I normally began my exploration in the morning as the museums and baits typically open their doors at 8am. I like to be able to look around while things were still on the quiet side, not that I think these places would be overran by visitors in any case – Sharjah has been underappreciated in this sense. Visitors in the neighbouring Dubai almost never step foot into Sharjah. In any case, it was also cooler to be out early in the morning. By 9am, in July, the mercury registered some 42°C/108°F! Otherwise, visits would be relegated to later in the evening and there were risks I’d run into the after-office traffic of residences in Sharjah returning from Dubai. (Cheaper rent in Sharjah means a lot of workers commute between the two cities.)

My visits had largely been confined to around Al Khan Lagoon as well as the Heritage and Arts Areas. Most of the attractions are small in scale but interesting all the same. In any case, anywhere else beyond these mostly falls within 3 categories – residential housing areas, industrial areas or desert. There are a few shopping malls around too, boasting many brand names not unfamiliar to international visitors. Had it not been for the Arabic name overhead next to the English version, I could have easily been in a mall in Europe. Or South-East Asia.

What was a tad disconcerting was the stares I received everywhere I went. It seems women in Sharjah (or the UAE, or in the Arabian Peninsula for that matter) simply don’t go out on their own, all alone. I must also emphasise, however, that at no point did I feel threatened although I did wish I wasn’t getting that much attention. I like to blend in wherever I go, but I’m afraid I stuck out like a sore thumb even if I was wearing long sleeve blouse and jeans and not showing much skin at all…

First impression: Dubai

Just because I say “I am flying out to Dubai on [insert day/date]” it doesn’t mean I am actually going to be in Dubai. In fact, in my recent trips to the UAE, the only time you’ll find me there would be (a) to meet up with a good friend of mine who does live in Dubai, (b) to shop, usually at Dubai Mall and you’re most likely to find me in a corner somewhere inside Kinokuniya, and (c) to eat – I was invited to a couple of high-end dinners and the food was amazing.

Dubai feels almost like Las Vegas in parts. Both cities flourishing in the middle of arid desserts, stretches over miles of land with gigantic buildings, wide avenues to accommodate multiple car lanes, opulent (if not clichéd) display of wealth, and in cities where imagination is the limit, spectacular feats have been achieved.

However, in Dubai, big casinos with neon signs are not lining the avenues. You don’t get married here by Elvis impersonators. Alcohol consumption is uncommon whereas hubbly bubbly won’t be missing from the table side. The main driving force of the labour market is an enviable troop of expats from India, Pakistan and Arabian Peninsula, so numerous are they that less than 20% of the population are Emiratis. Not only that, men also outnumber women at a ratio of about 3:1.

Identifying the locals is not difficult as they normally adhere to conservative dress code. The men wear kandura (white ankle-length shirt) and ghutrah (headdress, also in white) which is held in place using agal (accessory of black cord). Some also wear ghafiyah (prayer hat) underneath the ghutrah.

The women typically wear abbaya (black over-garment robe) and hijab (headdress) – mostly shayla rather than niqab or burqa (which I admit to not have seen here so far). If you think the ladies’ garments are boring, think again. Often, the abbaya have beautifully embroidered sleeves, collar and hem, and even styling the shayla is an art of its own – check out this article on the latest hijab fashion! In addition, underneath the abbaya, they’re likely to be wearing chic designer offerings or top and jeans combo that you and I are accustomed to.

I believe the skyline of modern Dubai can give Manhattan a run of its money (I’ll let you know for sure what my view is when I get to see it for myself). Burj Khalifa towers over all structures and can be seen miles away when travelling towards Dubai. At 828m in height, it is no wonder the other buildings seems dwarved in comparison, even when over 50 of these are each taller than 200m – that’s at least 126 of me stacked one atop another. As I’ve said right from the start, this city is built based on a very large scale!

Don’t count on admiring the famous sail-shaped Burj Al-Arab from most part of Dubai city. It is located off the coast of Jumeirah, to the west of Dubai. Unless, of course, you’re driving out to The Palm Jumeirah and wanting a peek at The Atlantis Dubai, or taking a tour on the hop-on, hop-off buses (blue route, folks). Then, you simply can’t miss it, to your right when travelling towards Jumeirah from downtown Dubai.

Personally, I have not yet been on the hop-on, hop-off buses so I can’t tell you if it’s worth taking. It doesn’t come cheap, at USD60 (~AED210) for 24 hours, adult ticket. However, do consider that this is a city that’s hard to get from one place to another without a car if and taxi fares are not going to be cheap either if you’re darting all over the greater Dubai area.

A renewed start

I can’t even begin to tell how crazy the last 6 months have been. I am away a lot – perhaps a bit more than I care for – and hardly have the time to see my family and friends. Even with regular Facebook updates, many are still confused of where I am and where I’ve been. In addition, I have put aside part of my personal life on hold, and by extension, this blogling too. Ops.

My schedule is still pretty erratic and busy. I also know that this is going to continue right up to the end of the year. And then some. This blog will end up going nowhere if I don’t just start writing. Something. Anything. Hopefully interesting stuff. A few more pictures. This and that, you know.

But first, I must renew my commitment to write.

There are a couple of pages around here that I have not yet work on and for the time being, will most likely remain neglected. Baby steps. As much as I’d love to launch this only once the entire site is completed, I must be realistic. It’s going to stay work in progress for a while more and I’m learning to live with it. For now, baby, I’m back!

Ps: meet Hope, my current constant companion on the road ;)

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