Monday, 30 April 2012

The Big Adventure – Dubai and the Dawn of Teenage




We had left New Zealand and our main adventure behind us, yet there was one last chapter, and the one that E had perhaps most been looking forward to – her 13th birthday in Dubai.

She has been obsessed with palm trees and turquoise water for as long as I can remember. Her best friend had been to Dubai and she was desperate to see the place. We had glimpsed it through the large glass panes of the airport windows on the brief stop-over on the first leg of our outward journey. Seeing the skyline in the distance, I thought how we would be there in a few weeks’ time, with a whole load of yet-to-be-had experiences now under our belts. Now here we were, the time had come. We were back.

We arrived at 5.30am after the big schlep through the skies from Auckland to Dubai, feeling a tad worse for wear. It was still dark when we reached the hotel down by the Creek area of the city (the old beating heart of this now changed-beyond-recognition Emirate). Faced with the prospect of not being able to get into our rooms for some hours yet, we were persuaded to buy access to the Executive Suite so we could have breakfast and hang out for a while. We even managed a quick dip in the rooftop pool with its magnificent vista of the cityscape stretching onto the horizon.


The view from our hotel window
By late morning we had settled into our rooms and washed and brushed up (mercifully) and were ready to hit the streets. Having last been to Dubai on a press trip in 1993, I was keen to get to the sights, sounds and smells of the Old Town to see if they were as I remembered them. It was a longer and hotter walk than we had intended, yet grabbing a cab was out of the question as the traffic was at a standstill. I was impressed that not one child complained as they all must have been cream-crackered after the long hours of flying and too much film watching rather than sleeping (the good and the bad aspect of Emirates' rather excellent in-flight entertainment!). I can only guess that being somewhere so different and exciting was keeping them going.

We eventually cleared our heels of the large main road choked with cars and started to lose ourselves in the hubbub and maze of small streets and squares of the Old Town. I was keen to show everyone the Gold Souk and the Spice Souk, if nothing else. After the odd consultation of the map we eventually stumbled across the long arcade of shop fronts glittering with everything gold, with a few bits of silver, platinum and diamonds thrown in. Gold is not my colour, so N was untroubled by unreasonable demands, yet my eyes did alight on the most exquisite platinum necklace with a gentle cascade of single diamonds in a string, like falling raindrops. Sigh...

And so we sat down gratefully on a bench and watched the world go by as we rested our jet-lagged limbs. There were locals and couples holding hands and families of various nationalities. Jaunty flags were strewn between pillars and warm air caressed our skin bringing with it hints of musty exotic scents from the alleys of the spice souk nearby. This is my favourite spot in any souk, and I will happily spend hours wandering around filling my nostrils, taking photographs and then deciding which taste or smell to bring home in my suitcase. My mind fills with images of me relaxing in candlelit baths while sandalwood, frankincense, myrrh, rose and cinnamon turn my High Peak bathroom into an exotic spa....Of course what actually happens is that you lug all this stuff home in your already overweight suitcase and it languishes at the bottom of the cupboard because you never actually have time to indulge once home, and those same exotic scents now seem rather silly as you watch the rain lash against the windows and see the sheep huddled against the dry stone walls. Still, it's good to dream and that's what holidays are all about, aren't they?

And so, from the dark headiness of the spice alleys we re-emerged into the bright sunshine and the larger streets and caught a water taxi across the Creek to the oldest part of town beyond. The water was bustling with small vessels and on the short journey across we spotted a traditional looking restaurant with large wooden balcony overlooking the watery scene, so this was where we headed once we'd disembarked. A relaxed lunch ensued with a large selection of mezze, salads and breads washed down by an avocado smoothie (no alcohol here).


My next plan was to get to the Old Fort and our searches took us past more ancient alleyways, some wider, some narrower, some busy, some empty. Huge wooden carved doors were set into stone walled buildings and the sun created a dance of light and shadow. We were sucked into a shop selling beautiful pashminas and I could not resist the finest cashmere at such reasonable prices. A memory to add to my frankincense and myrrh, but one I knew would be used rather more.

The Old Fort proved elusive and when we finally found it we arrived at the split second three enormous tour buses disgorged their touristy contents and that was that for us. We could not even get near the doorway for the queue and chaos, so I took a quick photograph and we hailed a taxi to take us towards the skyscrapers and the sister hotel to ours on the beach. It took longer than we thought down long two-lane highways where once there was bare desert. I could not recognise a thing. The Dubai I remembered from two decades ago has disappeared under a staggeringly relentless and ostentatious display of material weath and power, set in stone, literally, by their extraordinary building programme. You speed through a jungle of hotels, apartment blocks, offices and, inevitably, shopping malls. Dubai has long been known as the place to go for designer fakes, but they have taken consumerism to extraordinary new levels. Twenty years ago I remember a rather scruffy area of dodgy looking shops selling, to my eyes, dodgy looking goods which I had  no desire for anyway. Apart from a load of pirate music tapes which I was foolish enough to buy which, when I got them home and popped them into my tape player, I had to wait a good five minutes before any music actually started to play and the quality was, predictably, appalling.

Times have moved on and now shopping has become the Holy Grail of life in Dubai. Malls which make Manchester's Trafford Centre look pathetic are heaving with consumer excess as people arrive in their hoards to eat and shop, and shop, and shop. While beautifully done (the dancing fountain show at the Dubai Mall next to the ridiculously tall Burj Khalifa tower is certainly not to be missed), and impressively over-the-top, my soul felt empty and saddened that this western obsession has so taken over the eastern parts of our world, seemingly crushing their own identities, customs and religions. If Bangkok had the wealth of Dubai, I am sure it would be going the same way. The seeds of materialism have been sown, though. That is for sure. That is globalism. It is only a question of time till they grow and choke Eastern civilisations like a weed, as they have done our own, all in the name of progress.


And so we finally reached the turquoise shores that once were barren and are now hidden behind a barricade of concrete and glass whose talls shadows strew the beach where sunlight once was. We walked through the lavish interior spaces, out past the pool (in shade) and down through steps, paths and palm trees to the white sandy beach. The sun was sinking, a few people were still in the sea and pool but most were gathering noisily around the terrace bar and restaurant for an evening of revelry. E adored it, of course, and we agreed we would come back there tomorrow for her birthday lunch, before finding another taxi and heading, a little wearily by now, back to the comforts of our own hotel, some quick food and a very appealing early bed.

To be continued...

Friday, 6 April 2012

The Big Adventure - Auckland and The Book of Revelation


We had one final stop before we would be leaving the Land of the Long White Cloud, possibly forever (so hard to get your head round that one – best not to dwell on it). We were returning to Auckland where we had been briefly on 23rd December for a night. On that occasion we had met up with a very important person in our lives – the vicar who had married N and I, christened our three girls and buried both N’s father and my grandmother. He now resides in Auckland, being from there originally prior to many years in England pretending to be English (his words, not mine) and in denial of his New Zealand roots.  He lives there with his German partner in a house opposite the one where he grew up. Life coming full circle. The most interesting thing (and slightly unsettling one when you consider his role in our lives) is that he has, with the advent of old age, when most are turning to the church, completely turned away from it. The vicar has become an atheist! 

As we chewed on the roast chicken he had thoughtfully and carefully prepared for us (L loved his mash with chives), I ventured to pose some challenging questions. He did not want to be much drawn beyond the fact that he went into the Church mainly because he was a frustrated actor and liked being centre stage and hearing the sound of his own voice! Honest, at least. He now appears to spend his days reading and playing bridge and will never set his foot inside a church again. 

Personally, I lean towards agnosticism rather than atheism only because this suits my artistic-scientific mindset and logic requires it. However, I have always enjoyed and taken comfort in the rituals of religious services around the fundamentals of Life and Death and, in particular, I always appreciated the words which flowed from our vicar’s mouth. True they were not always conventional, but they were thought-provoking and, as all good actors, he had a marvellous, though mercifully understated, delivery which was easy on the ears if not on the intellect. I have to admit to feeling more than a little sad that the one religious presence and ‘theme’ in our lives, has turned his back on it all. A crumb of comfort has been removed. 

And so we found ourselves on the 3rd January, after a detour to see some glow-worm caves (rather beautiful), pulling up at the Copthorne hotel by the harbour in Auckland. Unfortunately it was also right next to one of N’s company’s offices! You couldn’t do it if you tried…

We had chosen it for its views across the water to Auckland’s famous islands and all the busy boat life around the harbour. Sadly it was raining so hard that we saw nothing beyond the first bit of slate grey sea. Once settled, we popped out for a late supper at one of the quayside restaurants and we gawped at some of the extraordinary lavish and enormous and beautiful yachts moored up there. A man sat in a white robe, reading with a glass of red wine in his hand, the shiny wooden decks of his vessel arrayed with fairy lights and a Christmas tree in fairy lights adorning the impossibly tall mast. Russian tycoon, apparently.  He looked lonely, it has to be said, and I felt no envy. In complete contrast, a racing yacht was also moored up, pared down to the bare essentials of sailing fast in the high seas. Functional, fearless.

And now I am reminded  of something:  the yacht we had hired in the Bay of Islands was called ‘Tough Life’. Obviously this was an ironic naming, based on the fact that it is wonderful to be able to sail and own a yacht. Sadly though, and with further irony, the name of this yacht is actually no longer ironic but literal: the owner’s wife died of cancer shortly after they retired and had planned to spend a lot of time sailing together and enjoying the fruits of their labours. Life can certainly be tough – and so we need to grab every opportunity which comes our way and enjoy it to the full. You never know when it might be cut short and it is too precious to waste. Carpe diem.

 And Carpe Diem is indeed what we tried to do with this family adventure in New Zealand. N had tried to postpone it once again. I had said ‘No’. Very emphatically. We had to do it now, while we could, while the girls were young enough yet old enough to enjoy it and appreciate it. The Sands of Time slip past so quickly and you must grab the grains you can before they are lost forever. 




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