I've been to Dubai, I've been to Mumbai
I crossed the ocean for a heart of gold
Better late than never, a quick recap of the May 2014 trip to the Middle-East and beyond.
DFW to Dubai is a 15 hour flight. That is an energy sapping, play with your head time-zone buster. We left Texas in the evening and got in late the next the day. Twenty-four hours evaporated aboard a tin can, although I did catch up on several good movies, like (somewhat appropriately), American Hustle... great film by the way.
The airport in Dubai is massive and was curiously empty. It is like they built it with the year 2200 in mind. That was the case for much of the city's structures: large, imposing, modern but cold and under-utilized. Our hotel - the Sheraton on Sheikh Zayed Road - was comfortable and well appointed and despite the jetlag we slept fairly well but woke at all hours.
On our first full day we tried to see the Burj Al Arab - the cool building that looks like a dhow or sail boat. Fail. That one is private. Next we checked out the famous Emirates Golf Club and we could have played around - but it was already close to 100F at 10am and hardly anyone was there. Instead I opted to buy a golf shirt as a souveneir. We ditched our non-English speaking cab driver for the Metro. Super clean, quiet but brought a moment of awkwardness when I boarded the car reserved for women and children and an Arab female was quick to usher me out before some sort of public beating was meted out. I did not like being separated from Fiona but when in Rome...
We went to the Mall of the Emirates - largest in the world, complete with indoor ski-slope and all the main European and American fashion houses (Versace, Cartier, Ralph Lauren, etc.). Again, modern, big but almost desolate. We happened on a good book store where I bought - what else? - "Revolt in the Desert" by T.E. Lawrence. Their section on how the UAE has become modernized was impressive to the point of being propaganda... Also picked up a pocket Qur'an for good measure. Next was our appointment to the top of the Burj Khalifa - tallest structure in the world. It is an imposing spire of glass and steel and a pain in the rear to find the actual entrance but well worth the effort. The view of the desert to the southeast and the man-made Palm Islands and The World to the west was incredible.
That afternoon we battled the heat - even Texans will admit is was fierce and tried to find an elusive souk or market in the old part of town. Our quest was in vain. We found a tourist trap alley where we were harassed by hawkers but did stumble upon a cool public art gallery near the Al-Shandagah watch tower by the Dubai Creek. When we emerged into the sunshine an Imam was calling the denizens to prayer and the few men - no women anywhere - that were out were hustling to the mosque. We had no business left so we we went back to the hotel.
I don't recall much of our second day, we flew to Mumbai that evening. I was happy to leave. Usually I am enamored by new cities, new countries and cultures. Not so Dubai. We never felt welcome. We got either looks of suspicion or disdain. For all its wealth and grandeur, it lacks soul.
|View from the Burj|
|Himself and Herself|
|Art Gallery Fare|
|Burj Khalifa Tower|
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Flying into Mumbai gives a good feeling for the vastness of the city and also the dichotomy that exists. There are gleaming glass and steel high rises butting up against tarp covered shanty towns. The first surprise was the level of security. Ever since the terrorist attacks in 2008, the ante has been upped. Just on the quick jaunt to our hotel, we encountered barricades, armed guards, a search of the taxi, etc. Not a minute out of the airport we were treated to several quintessential Indian experiences: beep-beep horns, crazy drivers and of course, a small cow in the middle of it all. We loved it.
Our hotel, a Hilton near the airport, was perfect. Food was excellent, staff so friendly. From our room was a view of a four lane thoroughfare and I swear, I got up early in the morning to watch the chaos that is Mumbai traffic. It is a veritable free for all - and yet no accidents!
The morning of the wedding, we made a quick trip to a local mall to find Fiona some native dress. Not a full blown sari but close! The wedding was beautiful, in an old Catholic church. That is what was so surprising about Mumbai - Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Muslims, Bhuddists... all inter-mingled everywhere. Not saying they all get along but it is certainly a melting pot.
The wedding reception was terrific, especially when the distant cousins, their acquaintances, villagers and others began to show up late in the evening. We met so many warm and friendly people. Unfortunately by about 10pm we were exhausted and had to hit the hay and no doubt missed most of the action. It went on well into the wee hours!
Next day we took a whirlwind tour of the city and visited Mani Bhavan, the home of Gandhi from 1917-34. We saw the most expensive house in the world, Antilia, valued at $1B plus - 27 floors and a staff of 600 for four residents!!! On the other hand we saw the Dhobi Ghat, a huge outdoor laundromat but a model of efficiency. We went to a magnificent Jain Temple, the Shoe House in Kamala Nehru Park, seen the Taj Hotel - still under repair after the aforementioned 2008 bombing - and the Gateway to India arch.
The highlight of the day was Elephanta Island and the cave sculptures. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the caves were carved and tunneled into a massive rock hill between the 5th and 8th centuries. It is a huge complex of rooms, each with ten to sixteen foot stone carvings of Shiva, Parvati, Yogishvara, etc. in various poses with all kinds of watchful guards and animals. It is simply extraordinary. Most of it is in great repair but some of the massive stone carvings are missing chunks - 17th century Portuguese soldiers used them as target practice. The island itself is typically chaotic. Huge crowds visit, hawkers abound and the monkeys are brazen.
Our last day full day in Mumbai was spent with Sheldon and Limora and we took in some of the more fashionable parts of the city, including Bandra and Juhu Beach, home to the many stars of Bollywood. Which reminds me, we loved their TV. It was either crazy Bollywood movies, cricket or politicans yelling at each other. Prime Minister Modi was sworn in while we were there and the general feeling of support for him was very evident.
We loved Mumbai and being only a slice of India, means I would love to see more of the country. The history and diverse culture with influences from Europe, the Middle-East and Asia is simply staggering. It would be incredible to get out into the country, travel by train and see the small towns and other regions. We loved the food and the people were so friendly and welcoming.
|Yield to the Cow!|
|Entrance to the Elephanta Caves|
|Inside Gandhi's home in Mumbai|
|Sheldon, Limora, his mother and grandmother|