Flight status: successful. Good ol’ Emirates managed to get us from Dublin to Dubai without too much fuss. I had experimented with ordering a vegetarian meal for the flight, thinking it would avoid the fish-always-seems-to-be-the-entrée situation, and rather enjoyed being served my ‘special meal’ before anyone else. You can just imagine how smug I was feeling when I saw that the ‘normal’ entrée was salmon and potato salad. You can just imagine how betrayed I was feeling when I lifted the lid of MY entrée and discovered a salad containing raw tomato… Gah. The curse of the raw tomato always strikes when you least expect it.
We arrived in the Dubai airport and promptly joined the biggest queue to enter a country that I have ever experienced – and at this stage of the trip, I have queued for country entry quite a lot. Slowly but surely we made it to the front of the line, and were let in to the UAE without too much hassle. No sign of Irish friendliness though…
We got ourselves some dirham, and then we got ourselves a taxi to our hotel, where we were able to leave our suitcases until check in time. We wandered the Bur Dubai neighbourhood, which is the older area of the city, and found plenty of places to buy mobile phones, cameras, printers, fake watches and handbags, and plenty of people keen to sell such items to us.
Eventually the hour of check in arrived, and we responded by going to sleep. Don’t judge us – we’d been awake for over 24 hours, and it was considerably hotter than it had been in Ireland. You would have slept too, I guarantee it.
Feeling more refreshed, we headed out to explore the less technological aspects of our neighbourhood. We started with the Dubai Museum, an absolute bargain at 3 dirhams entry (about $1.20). It proved to be a good overview of the city we had found ourselves in, and was the first (and possibly the last) museum I’ve visited to have a floor covered in sand. The other tourists seemed to come in waves (probably coinciding with bus tours), and as usual, the people watching was good. Damn good. I’ll set the scene – American mother with her 10 year old son, wearing white linen.
“What are those things people wear over their faces here?”
“It’s a mask, Mom.”
“No, no, they’ve got a special name, it’s called a scimitar, yeah, that’s it, a scimitar.”
I don’t know about you, but a scimitar is the last thing I want near my face. It continued…
“Can we get a falcon here, Mom?”
“No but you can get a falcon in Australia if you learn how to raise it and read a book about it first.”
Wow. Just wow. Some days this blog just writes itself…
After that enlightening experience, we found ourselves a spot of dinner which was well accompanied by karak tea which I’m fairly sure contained more sugar than an entire doughnut shop. Tasty, though.
Sleep was next on the agenda – we had our alarms set for very bright and very early, and even set the alarms on BOTH of our phones (to be sure, to be sure) in order to be up and ready for our desert tour that was departing from the city at 5.30am. Alas, alack, the sleep did not come until nearly 3am when the nightclub underneath our hotel finally shut its doors. And then it was not our alarms that woke us, but our room phone.
It was our tour guide, wondering if we were coming.
After swearing a little bit and looking at our phones in total confusion, we were told that we might still be able to make the tour if we jumped in a taxi to a petrol station en route to the desert. But we would have to leave NOW. So we did. I got dressed in such a hurry, it’s a wonder that the relevant items of clothing actually made it onto the correct body parts. But somehow they did, and then the taxi arrived, and then he stressed us out by going around the roundabout and saying he didn’t know where we were going, and then he destressed us by getting us to the petrol station in time to meet up with the rest of our crew and we were soooooooooooooooooooo relieved to have made it that we didn’t even notice Kush the Kestrel sitting on the console of the Jeep for the first ten minutes.
To cut a long story short, the desert tour was totes amazeballs. There were twelve of us, split between three Jeeps driven by South African falconers who took us to a conservation area in time to see the sunrise over the desert. Noice. We wandered across the sand dunes, saw some baby wild desert eagle owls nesting on the ground, spotted gerbil tracks and generally attempted to flatten the batteries of our cameras. We got to see Tesla the peregrine falcon, Cersei the desert eagle owl and Rogue the kestrel in action. And we were able to see them up very close indeed – let’s just say that Cersei needs to work on her conversational skills…
Birding complete, it was time for tree planting. The ghaf tree is the national tree of the UAE, and we were able to plant and name our own tree in the conservation reserve. Hopefully Nink will grow to be a very healthy, desert-loving ghaf in the years to come!
After all that hard work, we settled down on a carpet in the desert beside the sheikh’s manmade lake. It all felt very Aladdin-esque, and I wouldn’t have been surprised to see a genie appear… Instead of a genie, it was brunch that appeared – definitely a good alternative. After availing ourselves of the labneh, olives, sesame seed buns, hummus, boiled eggs, pomegranate syrup, za’atar and all sorts of other goodness, we had crostolo. A fruit and pastry dessert. Yes folks, we did it. We ate dessert in the desert. Life goal achieved.
Feeling content, we drove back into town, and bid our new friends farewell. We caught the metro in to the Dubai Mall for a wilderness experience of a different kind. It was huge. And I mean huuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuge. How many malls have you been to where there is a waterfall? And an indoor theme park? And an ice skating rink? And an aquarium that you can see into from three different floors? And goodness knows what else was there that we didn’t find because we were just wandering aimlessly…
Outside the mall, we saw where the Dubai Fountain would be if we had timed our visit differently, and admired the Burj Khalifa from outside. The sparkling water, the towering skyline, the overt displays of wealth – all quite the contrast from our desert experience.
We metro-ed back to the hotel to chill for a little bit, and then the next tour began. We arrived at the designated meeting point about half an hour early (to make up for the morning debacle) and embarked on an epic food marathon. We started with The Best Ever Falafel, followed it up with a pastry that made pastizzi seem boring and flavourless, continued with a chicken and onion dish of Palestinian amazingness, and then headed into the kitchen to watch the chefs make knafeh. For those of you unfamiliar with the joy of knafeh, it is made with noodles, cheese and sugar syrup and is a very very tasty dessert. Get on the bandwagon.
We moved on and enjoyed some baklava and coffee, before arriving at an Emirati restaurant where we sat on the floor to eat lentil soup. We were instructed in the fine art of eating goat stew and dried fish with our hands, and Simon impressed the tour guide (and the other participants) with his appetite. Elsie, our new Singaporean friend, lost my friendship by complaining about the jetlag and the ’long flight’, but then gained Simon’s friendship by pulling goat off the bone and making sure Simon had enough food.
On the way to our last stop, we chatted with Leah and Deb, the couple from England, and compared the Italian and Indian attitudes to food. The night finished with saffron icecream and more noodles, and then we were given little snack packs of slices and chocolates to take home – just in case we were still hungry!
We waddled towards the nearest metro with Daria, who had been on the two tours with us. She was a psych nurse from Belarus, working in Geneva, stopping in Dubai on her way to visit her parents in Seychelles. Unfortunately, we missed the last train on the red line – but there was one more train running on the green line, in 15 minutes. The green line metro station was a 16 minute walk away. So we ran. I’m not known as a runner at the best of times, but after a four hour food bonanza I was particularly unhappy about the running situation. Somehow, we managed to get there with at least 30 seconds to spare, and got ourselves back to our hotel to roll into bed. Sleep, glorious sleep.
The final day of ninking started with a late check out, and a relaxed lunch. From there we ventured to the textile souk, where Simon was practically mobbed by the very enthusiastic traders. “Johnny my friend, come into my shop, my friend you try, my friend, my best friend, perfect for you!” We pulled the old “non parlo inglese, parlo italiano” trick on one, who responded with “Apri la porta! Mi piace spaghetti!” which at least distracted him from plying his wares on us.
We enjoyed the relative peace of watching the happenings at the Creek, and sipped on iced coffee and iced saffron karak tea while watching the comings and goings of the abras (the water taxis). We lashed out and caught an abra across the Creek for 1 dirham each, and braced ourselves for the spice souk. We discovered more of “Johnny’s” friends, but managed to make it through the market without buying anything from the sacks of spices and nuts on offer. The smells were fantastic, and I didn’t mind the aggressive selling tactics too much because they targeted Simon and left me fairly well alone. It was a good chance for Simon to practise the Art of Saying No.
Out of the souks, we had our first public toilet experience in Dubai. At first glance, I thought maybe I had misread the sign and had walked into something other than a toilet cubicle, but I quickly worked out what to do where. Ah, the joys of travel…
We splashed out and hired an abra to ourselves for an hour long trip up and down the Creek, which was the most perfectly relaxing way to spend the afternoon. We tried (unsuccessfully) to understand the rules of the waterways, and tried (very successfully) to enjoy the sunshine and the gentle breeze. The skyline of the city could be seen in the distance, with Burj Khalifa and the other city buildings looking like cardboard cutouts.
After abra-ing, we sat on some park benches and snacked on our sweets from the food tour, and I really appreciated the opportunity to sit somewhere in the shade without having to buy anything for the privilege. Being able to just sit in a public place to eat and watch the world go by without being rained on or getting sunburned was a rare treat that we experienced less often than I would have liked during the year, and the fact that this one had a scenic backdrop was an added bonus.
Our final act of tourism was going to be the Coffee Museum. We had a vague address for this, and vague opening hours, but we set off on our quest. It took us into an old part of the city, and we eventually found the place tucked in amongst a philately museum, an architecture heritage museum, one of many mosques in the area, and various other buildings with official sounding titles. Alas, alack, it was closed when we arrived, but we had enjoyed our walk anyway.
We headed back to the Creek for a cold beverage and falafel wrap, and watched the sun set over the water. Tough gig. We reflected on the differences between Dubai and Dublin – we found that Dubai had fewer homeless people (we had seen a grand total of zero people begging on our travels) and the streets were much easier to navigate for pedestrians, as the pedestrian crossing lights actually went green more frequently than once every two hours. I guess in Dublin they assume you won’t be sober enough to adhere to the road rules anyway…
Back to the hotel to collect our luggage, into a taxi and we weaved through the traffic to the airport, tooting all the way. Someone famous appeared to be in the airport, as the Emirates staff all rushed to get photos, but we didn’t recognise the man in question. Simon and I had one final argument over who our favourite sheikh was, and then checked into our final flight for the trip.
We did some duty free shopping, made all the more ‘free’ by using our Skywards points to pay for grog instead of money. Amazing. We boarded the flight, and felt at home immediately – surrounded by Aussie accents. The Qantas safety video had me chuckling to myself – gotta love a safety briefing that features a window cleaner in Sydney demonstrating how to do up your seatbelt, and the Bangarra Dance Company doing the brace position with grace, and fire twirlers at Mindil market to reinforce the no smoking rule. Oh, Straya…
The next 14 hours were not unpleasant. We had sat next to a friendly French couple, and behind a woman and her three impeccably behaved children. I managed to eat an entirely fish-free meal, and recharged my Australian music batteries. Oh how I had missed Australian music!
We arrived in Melbourne, collected our luggage and our free duty free purchases, dodged the Channel 7 Border Security filming process and found Di and Sam waiting for us on the other side of the customs desk. Triumph!
The holiday officially ended in much the same way as it had started – cups of tea, and Di’s patty cakes. Gotta love being home…