Welcome to Ramadan

26 July 2013, Dubai

Our very last day of holiday. You know it’s been a good holiday when you can’t even remember the password for your work email. The thought of checking email crossed my mind last night, sitting in the hotel’s ‘e-corner’, but I genuinely couldn’t pull the password from the recesses of my mind. Probably a good thing.

Dubai. Couldn’t be more different than Italy. Where Italy is ancient and cramped, Dubai is modern and spacious; where Italy was dirty or smelly, Dubai is clean and vanilla-smelling; where Italy was a foot-accessible sightseeing mecca(!), Dubai is a car-and-air-conditioning only, motorway-dominated commercial hub.

And it’s Ramadan.

Before I got here, I knew that Muslims fasted in daylight hours during Ramadan. I also knew that Ramadan was roughly a month long. But I didn’t realise quite how much impact Ramadan has on everything. Let me elaborate.

Firstly, this is the middle of summer, and the weather is like nothing I have ever experienced before. When we arrived on Wednesday at midnight, it was 36 degrees with humidity so high that it may as well have been raining. Walking from the air-conditioned terminal into the outside air results in instant blindness, as glasses suffer immediately from CAT IIIa fog. During daylight hours, the temperatures are routinely above 40, and, reportedly, recently got to 51 degrees. Hence outside activities are a no-go — and now I understand why Ramadan is also a month-long holiday for all Muslims. It seems no work and no eating during daylight hours. So I am assuming that all of the people I see working are imports of some non-Muslim origin.

We are in the Novotel, Mall of the Emirates, in the Jumeirah Beach area. It’s about a half-hour drive on the motorway from the airport. After a late-ish breakfast, Dave and I decided to check out the mall yesterday, arriving at about 0950 (which required about 10 minutes outside in the heat). We got odd looks from the workers opening up the shops (not because we were inappropriately dressed — I had my shoulders covered, and an ankle-length skirt on), but because we were the only customers in the place. (This was a welcome and relaxing change from the bedlam that is the tourist hordes of Italy. AND the toilets are extremely clean and FREE!) While the acres of overstaffed shops were open, there was nobody to buy anything until after about 2pm.

All of the food-eating outlets were closed because during Ramadan it is against the law for everybody, Muslim or not, to eat or drink (even water) during daylight hours in a public place — except in hotel restaurants (and these are curtained off from outside view). But it is permissible to buy takeaway food and eat it in private if you are not Muslim. When the fast is broken at sunset (iftar, I think), then all hell breaks loose, and there is gluttony on a scale befitting a Valentine’s buffet on a teenage boy’s birthday.

But during Ramadan it seems that it is not only food outlets that do not operate to a normal schedule; many other things have different opening hours. And, even if they are advertised as being open from, say 0830, they aren’t really.

Initially, we had thought we might do the Big Red Bus Tour. It’s a hop-on, hop-off double-decker bus that goes all over Dubai, allowing tourists to get off and see whatever they choose at a variety of spots. It costs 220 dirhams per adult, which translates to about $NZ75 at current exchange rates. So it’s not cheap.

On the surface it sounded like a good option. The first bus from Mall of the Emirates is listed as 0930 and the final bus at 1900. Bus frequency is half-hourly, and the ticket is valid for 24 hours from the time of issue. However, we started checking it out on Trip Advisor. It seems that the ‘blue loop’, around Jumeirah Beach (where we are) takes three hours; and the city loop takes about another hour and a bit. The bus only travels one way around the loops, so we would have to be on the blue bus for about an hour and a half before we could connect with the city loop (to see the old part of town, in which we are interested. The Dubai Museum has great reviews.) Multiple reviewers also said that the bus times were entirely unreliable and bus stops were not well marked. The bus stops are outside, so missing a bus and having to wait half an hour in 45 degrees at 99% humidity is a real possibility. Not only is this potentially health hazardous (when it is illegal to drink water in public) it significantly impedes upon a successful sightseeing expedition, for which one has paid handsomely.

Given that there were only a couple of things that we really wanted to go see, it seemed that getting a taxi there and back is the far more sensible (and cheaper) option.

Taxis are not expensive. Yesterday, after buying lunch in the (gigantic) supermarket and eating it in our hotel room, we decided to visit the Dubai Mall. The taxi trip took about 15-20 minutes and cost 33.50 dirhams, or about NZ$11. At home, a taxi journey of this distance/time would probably set you back about NZ$50. Not sure what the petrol price is here, but I’m guessing it’s just about free…

Now I need to digress: the supermarket. The Carrefour in the Mall of the Emirates was an experience in itself. It is not just a supermarket, but an American-style supermarket and K-mart-type retailer. It is huge, and has a fantastic array of goods. But the best bit was the ‘spice aisle’. Sacks of spices — 40 or more, easily — and a variety of dried fruits and nuts and pulses like I’ve never seen before. We got some (festive-looking, for Ramadan probably) stuffed-and-covered dates: cashew nuts inside, with chocolate or yogurt coverings. Very yummy. (Added to my ‘holiday waistline’.) There was also an impressive selection of baked goods — many familiar to us Westerners, but others of Middle-Eastern origin. And the prices were very reasonable. Dubai-ians clearly like their tucker.

And as well as groceries, shoppers can purchase anything from luggage to children’s clothing all in the same shop. (This was pretty much the only place in either of the malls that we saw budget clothing.)

Enough digression. The Dubai Mall. This is possibly even bigger than the Mall of the Emirates, and it has a two-and-a-bit storey fish tank in the middle of it (as well as an ice-skating rink, to rival the ski slope in the Mall of the Emirates.) Being not so interested in the latest runway fashions of Europe (and wearing un-ironed clothes because the hotel room doesn’t have an iron!) we decided the aquarium was a good option. It wasn’t that dear, and was actually very impressive — for a mall. A walk-through tunnel like Kelly Tarlton’s (but a tiny fraction of the size), and then upstairs to view more fish and aquatic creatures in tanks. Tried to take some photos, but the low light again made it tricky. (My iPad is now full, so I can’t download any more images to manipulate or view!)

After an hour and a bit wandering around the aquarium, we continued to wander aimlessly around the mall. We gawped at (including the Mall of the Emirates experience earlier) Gucci, Armani, Tiffany’s, Breguet, Brioni, Breitling, Bugatti, Burberry, Bulgari, Chanel, Christian Louboutin, De Beers, Diane Van Furstenberg, Dior, Jimmy Choo (a frumpy-looking Western lady was actually buying some Jimmy Choos!), Louis Vuitton, Marc Jacobs, Michael Kors, Montblanc, Porsche Design, Prada, Ralph Lauren, Rolex, Patek Philippe, Versace, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. And Bloomingdale’s. (The shop assistants kept a close eye on us. I guess we didn’t look like their regular clientele.) We also gawped, in somewhat more astonishment, at the ‘junior’ versions of all the designer labels. One entire floor of the mall was covered with designer fashion for toddlers. Nuts.

There were also ‘normal’ clothes on offer. I’ve now been into a Marks and Spencers (and bought some reasonably priced sensible and comfortable shoes), and one shop of budget shoes (better-quality budget than Number One Shoe Warehouse.)

We elected to eat dinner in the mall, as we’d been told that iftar occurred at about 1915. We also wanted to see the famous fountain, which was reportedly supposed to start operating at 1830 on a half-hourly schedule.

At about 1823 we braved the outdoors. I had carefully sealed my camera inside a ziplock bag in an attempt to avoid internal condensation with the radical change in temperature. The idea is to let the camera warm up to the ambient temperature before removing it from the sealed bag, which I duly did. (Knowing how long to wait is a guess, and I didn’t wait quite long enough. I had to fight a bit of external lens fog, but luckily seem to have avoided any internal fog.) And then we waited, watching the sun get lower in the sky. And we waited. And the fountain didn’t go off. Finally, we sat down on a spare bench (marble, VERY hot) next to an Australian lady… who’s husband then came back with the news that the fountain was supposed to go off at 1930. But the couple then added that they had visited previously and the fountain never displayed. So, by this time melting, we went back inside. The air-conditioning gave me goosebumps, such was the change in temperature.

So we went looking for somewhere to eat. The mistake we made by waiting till just before 1900 was not anticipating the sheer masses of people that would show up to eat when the fast ended. Where the mall had been deserted, it was, within half an hour, a teeming mass of hungry humanity. We counted ourselves lucky to get the last two seats in a Mexican cantina about 1930… and then realised that the surge was greatly reduced by 2000 hours, and free tables began to reappear all over the place. It made me think of a tsunami: the empty, eeriness beforehand, the short-lived bedlam, and then the receding waters leaving behind a variety of detritus.

Looking for a taxi on the way out we were approached by a guy who said it would be 75 dirhams back to our hotel. Luckily, we a) asked for the price before accepting his offer; and b) knew this was way too expensive! We got home for preciously 33.50 dirhams again.

So today, having made the decision last night not to do the Big Red Bus Tour, we’ve had a chilled morning — in the spirit of Ramadan. It’s now 1241, and not too long before we will head off for the Dubai Museum, which we have confirmed is open from 1400 hours to 1700 hours, this being a Friday in Ramadan.

More later.

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