I apologise in advance if this is not my most inspired or chuckle-inducing chapter. I am 41000ft in the air on my way to Brisbane, reflecting on my visit to Dubai.
I was very happy I added an extra day of sightseeing after the race before getting on the plane to Australia, but to be honest after a few days I was left feeling empty, stranded and well… uninspired. The speed at which the place seems to be growing is nothing short of fascinating, as is the mix of cultures and outward open-mindedness. Yet beyond the impressive buildings and endless shopping options the city was beating to a rhythm I couldn’t quite match. A little as if it had a mind of its own, cold and unapproachable, an agenda and ambition which was on a scale totally beyond the (my) human grasp.
Its sprawling size, lack of cohesion, pseudo-centres linked together by speedways, gargantuan building sites and a single metro line whose stops are twenty minutes’ walk from whatever sight or company they’re servicing, all contributed to my general feeling of unease. Not on a personal level – I actually felt very safe wherever I went and people seemed extremely friendly and helpful. I was just way out of my depth in a place which seemed too caught up in its own growth to take note of the soldier ants feeding it.
And it seemed I wasn’t alone. Wherever I tried to go, no one ever seemed to know where it was, or how to get there. If you hop in a taxi intending to go anywhere but to one of the malls, the Burj Al Arab or the Burj Khalifa, make sure you have a map handy!
My theory was confirmed once again on Saturday afternoon. After a morning swim in the hotel pool and packing my bike (I didn’t bother wrestling the case open on the minimal available floor space this time: it went straight up onto the bed, which was a much cleverer idea in the first place), I made plans to catch up with a friend from Ireland who happened to be in Dubai that weekend. Her and the friends she was staying with were heading downtown to grab some food in one of the more “traditional” places – i.e closer to the real, original Dubai – down by the river. It sounded great to me!
With Laura in old Dubai
It probably would have been, if we hadn’t gotten lost on the metro and made off in the wrong direction. Our appointed tour guides were admittedly a little hungover from the night before but were on par with the taxi drivers when it came to navigating the city they lived in. We did eventually make it to destination however (only about 2 hours late…) and the hour we spent walking through the textile souk and tasting local food had a distinctive oriental feel to it. Little wooden passenger boats warred with tourist cruisers on the river against a backdrop of commercial buildings and tourist traps. Again I was struck by the contrast of several different worlds cohabiting. I would have enjoyed wandering round a little longer but all too soon I had to leave to retrieve my bags from the hotel.
Lunch on the river
My stay at the Metropolitan ended as it had started, in a flurry of goodwill and inefficiency. They were all very sweet but couldn’t have organised a piss up in a brewery. Running a 4* was going to be a challenge. I had reserved the hotel before the flight and was a night short, however they were fully booked and couldn’t accommodate me any longer. I didn’t particularly want to stay anyway and was lucky enough to know a couple of French athletes: their coach was leaving and they had a spare bed, I was welcome to have it for my last night. Awesome, sorted.
I caught a taxi there after the afternoon’s escapades; another lesson in navigation and international communication. I particularly liked my driver this time round. He had a heavy right foot, an impatient attitude and a sense of humour. I particularly enjoyed the moment when a mat black Dodge rudely forced its way into the queue ahead of us; there was a (very) close bumper fight and a lot of horn blaring but the Dodge won.
“Syrians!” My driver spat. “Little brain.” Interesting; so that was who had most of the money in this place. Maybe not so tolerant and open-minded as a naïve tourist would think after all. “Big car, little brain?” I suggested. That made him laugh a lot. Two sets of lights further up he got caught behind a hesitating BMW, which stopped in front of him blocking off two lanes.
“Woman!” He said in disgust, shaking his head and miming applying lipstick. Yeah, well, that’s pretty universal, I felt like confiding. Phone in hand, I directed him to where I was going and gave him a tip.
Lucas, Sébastien (two young French athletes) and Fabrice (coach / manager) were waiting for me and we headed straight back out to check out the tallest building in the world; I hadn’t made it there that afternoon with all the rambling around metro stations and souks.
We walked around the Dubai mall, saw the massive aquarium in the centre of it (basically a lot of fish, sharks and rays in not a lot of water), watched the musical fountains show played out every half-hour at the foot of Burj Khalifa, and the light show on its facades. Again there was a falseness to it all which just didn’t sit well with me. It was a show of wealth and possibility, with no tangible identity of the like you would find in Vegas, for example.
Burj Khalifa by night
We were all knackered and didn’t stay out late. The coach left to catch his plane and the three of us athletes headed back.
It turned out that although the apartment was huge there wasn’t a spare bed, but rather a spare space. Looked like I was going to be sharing the sheets with a half-naked 22-year-old. Nothing like feeling like the proverbial cougar to remind you you’re thirty. Thankfully the bed, while not quite on the scale of my Metropolitan double queen, was more than big enough for two skinny athletes; I had my own duvet and could stretch out with no danger of playing unintentional footsie under the covers.
I didn’t really know what to do with my last day. I felt I’d kind of seen all the stuff I didn’t need to pay for and wasn’t overly enthusiastic about taking out a bank loan to go downhill skiing indoors or skydiving.
In the end Sébastien left for an early flight and Lucas and I spent a chilled afternoon chatting our way round the Dubai marina boardwalk, taking pictures of the skyscrapers and drinking coffee. There wasn’t anything else to do unless you wanted to go on an expensive boat ride and chat, take photos of the skyscrapers and drink coffee. To a pair of European villagers it was interesting and impressive, yet at the same time sterile, characterless and frankly unwelcoming.
Dubai Marina in tourist mode
We caught a taxi back to the apartment and sat in the lobby for a little while catching up on social media before deciding it was time to make a move to our respective airports. I had an hour and a half to get to the Etihad Travel mall for my 6.30 bus. Reception assured us they would order the taxis so we rounded up our bags, headed outside onto the pavement and waited. And waited… The receptionist eventually ran out looking a little panic-stricken and said she was so sorry but it was shift change time at the taxi desk and no one was answering the phone. Also, no one was likely to answer for another hour. Excuse me? Who changes shift in the middle of rush hour?! And it was the end of the day so the taxis were very busy, she said apologetically.
Lucas and I looked at each other. I could feel an Emma situation coming on and from what I’d gathered from his travel stories, he was just as incident-prone. At least it would provide some blog entertainment I thought as one lone taxi stopped, took one look at our bike boxes and took off again shaking his head. His loss, our pain. There was nothing for it but to start walking, two laden yaks lost in the maze of Dubai backstreets.
We hit a busier road, got lucky and I gave Lucas the car, figuring he had further to go, was more pressed for time and I could get one just after. Of course I didn’t. There wasn’t another taxi in sight and, starting to feel the pressure but not quite panicking yet I decided to head to the Mall of the Emirates. It was a good kilometre down the road but had numerous taxi stands.
I pushed, I pulled, I swore the bloody bike box up and down pavements which clearly weren’t designed with travellers in mind. In floods of sweat I made it to the mall entrance, where I was forced to stop. The front wheel which had been getting dodgier each time I got on a plane was clearly broken. It wouldn’t spin. Nor would its counterpart on the other side. All I could do was lift one end of the box and drag it on the remaining two functional wheels. It weighed more than half my bodyweight and I had another massive trolley bag and a large rucksack to contend with. The queue at the taxi stand was a mile long: queue of people, not taxis that is. The wait must have been close on thirty minutes. Close to tears and clearly struggling to manage my huge bags, I was starting to get some very funny looks.
My final option was the metro. I had a bit of a walk to get to the station linked to the mall but once I was on it would drop me off almost on the Etihad Mall’s doorstep. There was nothing else to do. I took a deep breath, hoisted the end of the bike box with one arm and the bag with the other, and set off again. I made it about 20m before having to set it down again, shaking out the cramp in my right arm. No way was I going to make it. Out of the blue some kind stranger with a phone glued to his ear appeared took pity on me, and I accepted his offer of help with unconcealed relief and gratitude. As I handed him the trolley bag the bike box spun and I realised it would actually roll if I turned it round and pushed it backwards. Oh the small things! He left me at the metro station – thank you a million times, whoever you were!
Shaking, drenched in sweat, tears still not far away I stood in line to get a 6-dirham metro ticket which I of course couldn’t pay for at the machines with the stupid 50-dirham note I had left. Finally grabbed my travel pass from the cashier, shoved my bags through the automatic gate and into the lift, and straight onto the waiting metro just as the doors were closing. Did I mention it was rush hour? There are women-only compartments on the Dubai metro but I didn’t have time to be choosey and ended up in a mixed – i.e. predominantly male-filled – carriage. I was wearing shorts and a strapless top in a Muslim country, had sweat dripping down my face and had run over half a dozen toes as I barged in at the last minute with my load. To say I made a scene was putting it mildly.
Thankfully it was a less that 10-minute ride. I got to the Travel Mall at 6.10pm, dropping my bike box in middle of the pedestrian crossing for good measure, only to find that half of India seemed to be getting on the 6.30 bus with me and the check-in queue was longer that the one back at the mall taxi stand. There seemed to be even more bags and trolleys than people; It was absolute, total mayhem. I picked a line, opened a bag of dried fruit and tried to eat some of the stress away.
In the end I understood there weren’t three buses leaving every half hour as indicated on the timetable. They checked people in, loaded them up and sent each bus off when it was full. I got to the airport a relatively relaxed hour and a half before my flight, wondering what all the stress had been about.