Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Take Me to the Wadi

Water, water.

Well, it has been quite hot here.

One gains respect for the devout who have just embarked on a summer Ramadan. Not only is it more of a burden in the 45+deg heat to observe the dawn-to-dusk ban on liquid refreshment and food (let alone sex, gossip, slander and cursing, any of which can render the fast ineffectual), but of course the days are an hour or two longer than when the movable month-long festival falls in winter. Then there are the 14 Common Mistakes that the website of Dubai's Department of Islamic Affairs and Charitable Activities reminds muslims to beware of during the holy month. These include watching too many popular Ramadan TV programmes; falling asleep all day; breaking the fast with a cigarette; spending too long in the shops; for women, wearing too much perfume and making too many excuses to get out of religious observance, whether menstruation or pressure of kitchen duties; and indeed, overdoing the preparation of lavish Iftar feasts.

The after-dusk Iftar get-togethers might appear to the casual expat eye to be at least as much what Ramadan is about, as are fasting and devotions. Hotels and restaurants compete to advertise the most sumptuous experience, at many hundred dirhams a head, and you could jump to the conclusion that it's more like a month of night-time parties; but we presume this wouldn't be a daily indulgence for the average family. There is an equal emphasis on charity, with leftovers being saved for distribution to the needy.

Us infidels only have to remember not to scull that can of coke in view of the faithful, after the long hot trudge across the car park from the cool of the shopping mall, but just hang on until we get home. No food shops are open until sundown, but the hypermarts carry on with normal hours, all-day chanting of the Q'ran on the PA, lots of Blessed Ramadan Special Offers, and the proviso that one should be patient with the shop assistant who may be dehydrated and a bit out to lunch (in his/her dreams perhaps).

I never felt hotter and sweatier than in the few hours trekking the pavements and malls of Abu Dhabi on our first two brief visits so far. Two weeks ago I took a minivan ride with Angela and other Cognition staff down to the capital, where they spent the day cloistered in Le Royal Meridien hotel for their induction conference, and I hit the streets armed with guidebook and water bottle. Judging that the 1km walk to Fotouh al Khair mall, which has a Marks & Spencer, was survivable as well as worthwhile (for the several other recommended malls and souqs on the way), I strode off in vaguely the right direction.

Most of the water bottle later, the goal was almost in sight, but I hadn't allowed for the inadvertent detour around the maze of construction sites which will one day be the rebuilt Central Market. I couldn't seem to find my way into what I think was the nearby New Souq either, but the remainder of the water just got me safely to the cool of Marks & Sparks (where Ange's beloved custard creams were in stock, so the journey wasn't wasted). It's a smallish mall, no food court as such, but after a juice or two from the M&S fridge and a half hour slump on the seating in the quiet atrium I was ready to face the return trip.

Though the shopping was disappointing (being a Monday afternoon, many shops were closed; the Liwa Centre was just one store, the Home Centre; and there was no sign of the recommended second hand bookshop in the rather tatty Hamdan Centre), at least the mall-hopping kept my boiler from busting (it still took me an hour in the cool foyer lounge of the hotel to stop sweating); meanwhile I did get a few acceptable cityscape photos on the way.

It's different from Doha - you get a sense, which is reinforced as you get to know more of this leading state of the UAE, that things are less frenetic and more settled here. There are normal sidewalks for a start, with more zebra crossings (that's not to say the average driver takes any more notice of them than his Qatari cousin) and even some underpasses.

Instead of the two-headed Doha layout of the old City Centre with its maze of somewhat crumbly, mainly low-rise buildings, and the separate craneforest eldorado of West Bay, it's more homogeneous.

High-rise offices (with lots more being built) mix it with apartment blocks posh and not so posh.

In keeping with Abu Dhabi's green image (a reported billion trees planted to date must offset the unthinkable Gulf-standard carbon footprint at least a bit), there are more and better-maintained parks

making life a bit nicer for the rubbish-bin cats.

Just like Doha there are the trademark decorated roundabouts - this central strip has cannon, coffee pot, oud (incense) cup and I'm not sure what the cone thing is.

(But you have to go to Al Ain to see this art form taken to the limit. The plethora of roundabout art up here where we live was bound to inspire someone to this labour of love - saving me the trouble, thanks BSS & BRN - which makes as good an introduction as any to the Garden City I guess. Feast at your leisure).

Meanwhile, back in Abu Dhabi: a week later, recovered from the heat stroke and sore feet, I was back for another go. Ange and her colleagues are in the bizarre position of having no kids to teach until October due to Ramadan and the Eid holiday that follows it, but instead are required to spend a month doing PD (for NZers not up with education lore, that's not Preventive or Periodic Detention, but Professional Development). By the end of it there will surely be no better-prepared group of teachers anywhere. Sessions are held at various schools and staff residences, and last week they got together in Le Royal Meridien again. This time we stayed overnight at a vast and nearly empty Cognition apartment in a slightly upmarket building a few kms from the scene of last week's trek. Here's the view of more apartment blocks from the bedroom window:

and two views out the front. People are living in at least half of the house with the partly collapsed roof; the vacant lot was a school which was demolished (perhaps to be rebuilt?).

The buildings on the skyline are where I was the previous week. You begin to realise: Abu Dhabi is (a) quite big, and (b) in many ways, just another city, though it still has big dreams and the means to realise them.

Having sussed the nearby bus route (buses are 1 dirham anywhere in the city), I made a bee line for the universally recommended Marina Mall which is on an island off the Corniche along with the Heritage Village which I didn't get to. Marina Mall is on the big side, features a 100m tower which you can only go up if you want to eat in the posh restaurant, a small artificial snow slope under development, and a crazy fountain which reputedly aspires to demonstrate what rain looks and sounds like. Computerised rhythmic rain, that is - fascinating in the mindless way of such things. I'll get a video of it next visit. Meanwhile here we're looking out the back of the mall at some of the marina developments on the island, and further on to the waters of the Gulf.

Even though it's a light airy tent of a building, the humidity that day was a juggernaut that the aircond couldn't cope with - even the locals I spoke to complained about it. After two or three hours of sweaty window shopping (watching our pennies at this early stage) I was glad to escape to the honest blazing heat of the bus stop, and after three unwanted #5 buses, at last the cool of the #9 back to the apartment.

The next day I intended to take a look at the intriguing exhibitions in the art galleries in the Emirates Palace, reputedly the most expensive hotel ever built (whatever that means), but the day got taken up sorting out a rental car, with eventual success (after several taxi rides at wildly differing prices - always go with the cheap guys, the drivers are marginally more likely to have some idea how to get there, let alone how to drive).

There's plenty more of the big city to explore on on future forays: more big inescapable shopping malls, souqs when we can find them, galleries, museums (they are building a Guggenheim among many other Doha-rivalling projects like the Performing Arts Centre), and the tour of the Grand Mosque is a must. And then there's Dubai to get to grips with (they say don't bother to turn on your GPS as the roads are all dug up just like Doha, just enjoy getting utterly lost).

But for now it was into our new Tiida (just like the old one) and homewards along the 150 tree-lined km to the hills and oases and dry wadis and beautiful red sand dunes of Al Ain, which after a slightly iffy start we were beginning to decide we rather like living in, but that's another blog post.

No comments:

Post a comment