We went to Dubai a few years ago, taking several days as a stopover to break up the lengthy flight between Australia and the UK. While there, we opted to stay in the older part of the city, our hotel looking out at the creek, a mosque and the oldest building in Dubai, a towered mud brick fort (which is now a museum).
My husband had a school friend who lived on Palm Island and he was kind enough to take us for a drive on our first day there – however, lack of sleep and a long flight meant we were drooping in the desert heat, and all I remember of the Atlantis Hotel is a glimpse through half closed eyelids, my daughter asleep against me.
On subsequent days we wandered through the textile market and along the banks of the creek in forty degree heat, my heart in my mouth as I saw the flat topped boats ferrying passengers across the water, thinking of the impossibility of holding my then two-year-old steady if we went on board. (We decided not to, in the end). We did go to Jumeirah beach, the famous Burj Al Arab Hotel like a white sail against the blue waters of the Gulf, then sped along the motorway past gleaming towers, the unfinished Burj Khalifa towering over everything.
On our second last day there we once again walked along the creek, to where it curved like the letter ‘U’. At the apex of the curve stood what was once a Royal Palace, now restored and opened to the public as The Museum of Traditional Architecture. Intrigued, we decided to pay a visit. The thick walls and long verandahs provided welcome respite from the heat, and its position at the curve of the river meant it caught the breeze as well. Inside, the rooms all opened onto a central courtyard, so you had to exit into the courtyard to enter each room on the ground floor. The white-painted walls were almost a foot thick, and one had been left unfinished so we could see the mix of sand and seashells and stones that went into their construction. The decor was neither glittery nor opulent, as you might have expected – instead it was simple and beautiful, with varnished wood, painted walls and carved stone panels, cool stone floors that echoed as we walked through.
The other thing about the Palace was that we were essentially the only people in there, other than a security guard. We did see one other tourist, but he left not long after we arrived. So the security guard took it upon himself to give us an unofficial tour. I remember him taking us into a room where there were two scale models, one of Dubai in the 1950’s and one in the present day – he was obviously immensely proud of what had been accomplished to create this glittering city in the desert. I also remember thinking, as he unlocked one massive wooden door after another, leading us through the palace, that he could just as easily lock the door behind us and no one would know where we were. An uncharitable thought, I’m sure – he was a very nice man and nothing in his manner indicated he would do such a thing. I think it was more that we were the only people in the place – something I found a bit unnerving.
Finally we had seen both levels, sat in the shaded terrace overlooking the river, wandered up and down the open staircases and across the dusty courtyard. As we went to leave, another man appeared. A cleaner, still holding his broom. He came up to our group and held out his hand. ‘Baksheesh,’ he said with a smile. The security guard looked at us and nodded, also smiling. So we hunted around for dirham coins, not wanting to give too much or too little, conscious of wanting to do the right thing. We counted our coins into the cleaner’s still outstretched hand and the security guard inspected our gift, poking it with his finger. Then he smiled and nodded once more. ‘Thank you,’ he said. It seemed we had managed to give the correct amount. Then we exited through the double doors and back onto the riverbank, the noise and bustle of boats and markets surprising after the cool solitude of the Palace.
I found Dubai a fascinating place. Of course it is known for luxury shopping and modern resorts, a gleaming jewel on the shores of the Gulf creating land from water and building ever taller towers. Yet beneath all the glamour the spirit of the original place remains, the people we encountered friendly, welcoming, and immensely proud of their city. I realise that there can be a dark side, as there is to most places, yet in our time there it was not apparent, though we took care to dress and behave appropriately in public, as did the majority of foreign visitors we saw.
So this is my Wednesday Wander for this week – thank you for coming along with me.