“Mummy! Daddy’s plane, Daddy’s plane,” we screamed from the balcony at 7:00 that morning. That was the ritual every year. Daddy was landing from Dubai where he worked. He was arriving for his annual vacation back home in Delhi. He always arrived before my birthday. You could say summer vacations, but I prefer saying he came for my birthday.
Our house stood below an air route and from our balcony the airplanes, showing off their tails, were visible up close. Gulf Air, back then, had a brown, green and red tail and it crossed over at 7:00 A.M. Back in the days when the phone was an instrument of power reserved for the well connected, this was our system for time tracking.
My sister and I would wait in the balcony at 6:45 A.M. If the Qatar Airways carrier flew by at 7:00 A.M., Daddy would reach home by 9:30 A.M, after all the clearances. The delay in the flight’s arrival overhead helped us form a pro rata estimate for the honk of Daddy’s taxi below our first-floor balcony. Of course, we had our ears stuck there all the while we brushed, bathed and had breakfast indoors. In case of any delays in arrival, Mom would wait for half hour tops. After which, she would walk over to meet the lady in the corner house, whose husband worked in some Ministry and had a phone, and would make calls to trace Daddy. This happened only once in Daddy’s tenure in Dubai, though.
Like many Keralites of the 80’s, my father worked in the Gulf while my mom and us siblings lived life in India. Like many of these many, our only sighting of “Gulf” was the brown, green, red tail of an airplane. Well, back then, the visiting visas to these countries were difficult to procure, accommodations were difficult to arrange and such other logistics, so we were told.
Thus, decades later when I stepped down in Dubai as an adult, I had a strange sense of Déjà vu, like I knew this place, like it was part of my history, something that helped shape me as I am today, and I was hungry to explore it. Explore the new malls and skyscrapers, the old city, the old world of Dubai, its charm, its deserts or is it just one desert, its origins, the origins of life in this once marubhumi, what it was like for my father who perhaps roamed similar streets. Thus, began my vacation in Dubai, with expectations.
At the outset of our trip, at the Dubai airport I realized I was only one among 42% Indians in the UAE. We were everywhere and we were neither special nor shunned. We were accepted. We, Indians, had made this place our home and the Emiratis had welcomed us in hordes.
The days of our vacation, we stayed in the modern city and were recommended tours and travels showing off Dubai’s modern architectural marvels, to which we succumbed. We headed to visit the Burj Khalifa. It was the night before December 31st, the most sought after day of the year for the Burj.
A queue started from the middle of The Dubai Mall, which we knew not was the queue we were to join. We searched for the Burj Khalifa counter and reached there walking along this serpentine queue of people lined up for God Knows What, we thought. At the counter, we were politely told to join the queue and walked half the mall back. Let’s just say, the wait till the top took four hours standing in the belly of that serpent of humans without food or water for what turned out to be a little slice of the sky. The same view you see from an airplane before it lands. Ok, I’m being mean here, but it was an excruciating wait for what turned out to be nothing.
The only whoa! moment was the elevator floor display. Straight out of a James Bond movie, the display was a digital image projected onto the door of the elevator. The floor numbers kept increasing at a speed of nearly a floor per second. It also displayed the height reached in meters and the seconds covered in travel To the Top. This was a sight that welcomed us after we had been standing in queue for four hours already. And we were just at the elevator, by then.
The actual ride up To the Top, 124th floor, took us a mere 60 seconds. But the expectations built up in the four hours preceding the final second were washed over when we realized there were no activities on The Top. A 360-degree view of the Dubai skyline through the glass walls of the Burj Khalifa, though pretty at night, but a dampener considering the wait. A miniscule slice of the sky. With kids, a look at the crowd at The Top was enough to get us worried about the journey back down. We contemplated spending the night At the Top, if we could.
The journey back was faster. In an hour. Once down, we rushed to eat because there was no restaurant or coffee shot at the top. If there was a deck at a higher floor with better facilities, we missed that. It was not part of the standard package provided by our travel agent. If you’re planning to visit the Burj Khalifa, check out passes with better facilities at the counter. That’s, if you can manage to reach the counter in The Dubai Mall.
With such an experience at the Burj Khalifa, we decided to avoid the modern and head to the old. The next day, we went straight to Deira and the cab stopped in the center of the old Gold Souk. One foot out and we were greeted by vendors inviting us to check out their “copies.” Watches, bags, shoes, ask and you shall receive. But that was not our target. We left, not without asking whether all the gold that glittered from the glass windows of the stores around us were copies as well. To which, we were given a vehement and hurt “No.” The people of Dubai are proud of their gold.
The Dubai City of Gold or the Gold Souk as its popularly called was a crowded lane in the Deira area, something like Delhi’s Chandni Chowk. Vendors, buyers, sellers, salesmen and window shoppers like us thronged this area, some buying, most posing in front of the tonnes of gold on display. The lane with small to big gold shops on either side was about 150 meters in length. Through this length, it had a wooden structure to provide shade and, perhaps, also to hang buntings for festivities. The gold shops displayed immense amounts of gold, in free abandon, no fear of thieves. It was amazing, and everyone was in celebration of some sort.
The ornaments, I can’t wait to describe. If you’re thinking necklaces in filigree designs, you’re not ready to read further, as yet. These were vests in filigree designs, or bustiers in filigree designs. There were models of mausoleums in gold on display and giant rings as replicas of their tiny, human versions. Some held Guinness World Records for the heaviest in the world. The bigger shops lined the main street and tiny shops dotted the crowded, narrow bylanes that angled at perfect right angles. Sandstone buildings with flat roofs marked the lanes. A public telephone housed in another sandstone room with filigree architecture. People of all nationalities, Asians, Africans, Caucasians, Emiratis in pathani suits, salwar kameez, pants, shorts, Kofia caps, thronged these clean streets.
As we were carried through by and in the crowd, we got a sense of the window shoppers who had descended to see this marvel of marvels. Foreigners, like us, posed shamelessly on the windows besides these gold vests and bustiers. "Look no further, those are mannequins," I wanted to shout out.
We could not buy such gold; besides they were not for sale. The smile, the glee on our faces as proof of our pompous, penurious joy standing next to unsurmountable chunks of another’s wealth.
The Gold Souk led on to labyrinthine lanes selling perfumes, where you could create a fragrance in a tiny, magical bottle. There were lanes selling spices, nuts, cardamom, rose petals, medicinal herbs; lavender, red, orange, green, yellow. There were bylanes selling wooden artifacts, clothes, crockery and much more.
We looked for a memento from this magical land. We entered a crockery store and I spotted a tea set similar to the ones that Daddy had brought home from Gulf way back in the 80s. I looked at the salesman with his oiled down patch of hair parted from the side. I looked out of the glass door at the people walk down the street. I saw a man from Kerala carrying a white polythene stretched at the handles, weighed down by take away food. He wore brown wide-bottom trousers, a fitted white T-shirt with horizontal stripes and pointed collars and chappals. He was probably heading home. For him, this was home.
I imagined my Dad walk the lanes.
From the store, we bought a steel tray with gold plated inlay work, our bit of glitter from this land that held my childhood wonder.
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© 2017 by Donna Abraham