Thursday, 29 November 2012

Do-buy Part 1: it's the people that make the city

The mark left by the travel bug's bite has started to itch of late. I tried to subdue it with a trip to Europe, but it got much worse. It did subside a little after visiting India. And now after a day trip to Dubai yesterday, it's become latent, at least for now. It will never heal.

Like most GCC residents, I've been to Dubai a few times but only twice alone, both times for work. The first time was in April to attend a comic con (the post is overdue hence irrelevant, but it may still come). The second was yesterday, to attend an exhibition and seminar at Dubai's World Trade Center. On both occasions, I naturally booked the earliest flight out of Kuwait and the last flight in, offered by Jazeera Airways, to use the time after the event ended to explore the city. On arrival in Dubai, visa formalities and immigration can take well over an hour, so it's best to take the earliest flight and allot time out of your day for that if, like me, you're visiting the city for less than 12 hours and need a visa.

Obtaining a visa on arrival on both trips has been mildly entertaining. The visa officials (who are possibly all Emirati) at Dubai International Airport differ greatly from the rest of their cold-hearted kind (speaks experience, not stereotype). They're jovial, lightening the atmosphere with inconsequential banter. Perhaps it's their way of welcoming visitors into the emirate or making the daily grind of seeing thousands of travelers a little less monotonous..

I stood in queue at Passport Control for an hour (note to self: get in line as soon as visa application is in hand and fill it while in queue, do NOT waste time filling it on a table top). When my turn came, visa official number 1 (let's call him VO #1), returned my passport and the form I'd handed him, informing me I had to go to office 1 (the office with a big '1' over it) and convey the word 'manual' (I heard 'Emmanuel') to the man there (VO #2). I did so with a tinge of irritation, wondering what was up but not bothering to ask; there seemed little point in it with 30 or more people waiting their turn.

VO #2 did whatever he had to do and directed me to go back to VO#1 and say 'finished'. Again, I did as I was told without comment. VO#1, smiled at me when I announced whatever it was had 'finished', and said, 'Gul khallasti', Arabic for "say, 'finished'". His attempt at making a foreigner speak a little Arabic made me smile back. The long wait forgotten and the irritation dissipated, I walked towards the exit with a pleasant feeling, all vigour returning.

The security guard at the taxi stand pointed me towards the pink taxis - cabs for women, driven by women. I love this initiative. It's so empowering for women and makes the hassle of conveyance safer.

Dubai is a glamourous city, never failing to entice the tourist with a new attraction. It's renowned for its events, concerts, restaurants, parties, nightclubs, the next biggest or best something, but none of this is what really makes the few hours I have in the city so pleasant each time.

'The soul of a city is in its people.'

In April for instance, I was ferried around by the nicest taxi drivers I have ever met. En route to the airport from the Mall of the Emirates, I wanted desperately to see Burj Khalifa up close, but was apprehensive of being late for my flight (immigration takes FOREVER).  The taxi driver kindly assured me I had time and that it wasn't too far away. Since there is no parking right in front of the world's tallest structure, he asked me to get down, asserting that he would drive around the circle and return. I gazed at the magnificent structure, awestruck.

Burj Khalifa, Dubai.
The picture does it no justice.

The cabbie returned in a couple of minutes and we launched into a conversation about the sights and his family in Pakistan. I was grateful towards him for drawing my trip to such a memorable close.

At the exhibition yesterday, a couple of sections of the hall were cordoned off so different presentations could be held simultaneously. Quite a few of the attendees sat strategically on the aisle seats, so they could move on if the speaker or topic wasn't particularly interesting. By doing this, they were of course blocking way to the seats in the middle and for a couple of lectures I had to stand at the back. I finally got an aisle seat myself at one held in the afternoon. Some time into the presentation, I noticed a man come in and stand at the back as almost all the seats were filled and there was nowhere to go without disturbing someone. I moved to the seat to my side. He came and sat down beside me, thanking me. As soon as the speaker concluded he turned to me and said, in a classy British accent, "thank you very much for moving, that was very kind of you." This expressive form of gratitude was very new to me.

On exiting the Dubai World Trade Center, I waited for a cab with a number of other trade visitors, who left before me as they'd been waiting longer. Ten minutes later, it was just me, a young woman and an older gentleman. The man hailed a cab for the woman who hopped into it gratefully and left. He hailed another cab and as it halted, turned to me and said, "This one's yours!"

That's the thing about Dubai. The people, irregardless of nationality, religion, level of affluence or education, are well-mannered, polite and considerate, and stand as a prime example of how humans should behave towards one another. Strangers extended similar courtesies to me in Europe. None whatsoever from strangers in Pune, all people do there is try to fleece you. Why do people in India feel only apathy towards their fellow countrymen?

What stood out most for me is that, in Dubai, if you smile at a stranger, he/she smiles back. Strangers in Bombay or Pune don't deign to smile back at you, unless you're a potential customer in a store, restaurant or hotel. Somehow, somewhere in the process of adapting to the change in lifestyles brought about by the immense inflow of money, we lost our sincerity and humanity.

Will we ever realize the enormity of this loss?

Sunday, 11 November 2012

the dazzling affair & the unquenchable thirst: Kuwait's Record Breaking Fireworks Display

For the past couple of weeks, K-town has been abuzz with a singular numerical figure.
Four million KWD (Kuwaiti Dinars).
For those of you that lead your lives elsewhere, that's the cost of the fireworks display that was held to mark 50 years of the issuance of the Constitution of the State of Kuwait.

Having witnessed last year's fireworks display in awe, we naturally planned to join the throngs of people heading towards Gulf Road to watch the extravaganza that took place last night, from Green Island all the way to Kuwait Towers. It looked like half the country turned out for the breathtaking show.

Sparkly! So sparkly!

We parked in the expansive lot between the Indian embassy and the Third Ring Road, dropped off the father at Burj Al-Hamam, and then the mother, sister and I walked to Kuwait Towers, attempting to buy water on the way there. I was so incredibly thirsty - we walked the whole length of road from Burj al Hamam to Applebee's and every single restaurant and ice cream cart we came across on the way was out of the precious resource. Restaurants like Abdel Wahab Lebanese Restaurant adamantly stated '"they did not give 'take away water'". I'd read that there would be volunteers handing out water like there always are in walks and marathons, but there weren't any.

Discouraged by the crowds laid out in camp chairs all across the beaches after Applebee's, we decided against going up till Kuwait Towers. We halted there (Applebee's) and found a decent enough standing spot on the sand, looking out onto the dark Arabian Gulf. There were screens set up in the middle of the water with moving show lights and far away into the distance, dotted lights shone from a string of boats lined up in the periphery of the sea, with blinking blue lights indicating the presence of the Kuwait Coast Guard. I envied them all their view, it was bound to be spectacular. The show was scheduled to begin in thirty minutes.

By this time, I was almost deliriously thirsty and didn't feel like I could stand any longer. I kicked myself for my lack of foresight for not getting a couple of bottles from home and thought longingly of the carton of pure unadulterated mineral water in the kitchen. I had never wanted water so desperately.

Which brings me to quote the classic and apt lines from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner -

Water, water, everywhere
nor any drop to drink.

You have to appreciate the irony.

Then, the show finally commenced after a countdown from 50 down to 1, thankfully taking my mind off my parched throat for the next hour.

It's not a great video, but note the 'squiggly' fireworks! The first time I'd ever seen them.

A couple more short and crisp videos:

This last one exhibits Kuwait Towers in a dazzling display of explosive colour:

After the last of the record breaking fireworks exploded (77,282 in totality) and the glorious colours quite literally went up in smoke, we started walking back. I was reminded of my dry throat. I have now truly come to appreciate this God given gift and the meaning of the word 'scarcity'. I kept trying to mollify myself with words like, it's okay, pretend you're fasting, but it didn't really work since I don't exactly walk 4-8 km when I'm fasting do I? It's not like I'm in the Gobi desert (even if this still is desert country). Kuwait has a production of 3.1 million barrels of oil per day (October 2011) and has one of the highest standards of living in the world. There is a fireworks show on that cost 14 million USD, that also secured an entry into the Guinness Book of World Records. And there is absolutely no water to drink on a stretch of 4.4 km of the more popular side of the coastline. Kinda makes you wonder what the point of all that oil is, when with all the money in the world, you can't get water when you want it!

It was a frightening thought - suddenly, pictures from CNN of kids walking for miles to procure water from wells in India and Africa began playing in my mind and I started getting flashes of what the world would be like if we ran out of water. Chaos, anarchy... the post-apocalyptic scenario of my ill-timed visions was little short of horrifying.

We stopped at KFC to try our luck there. A conversation that ensued with the cashier:

Me: A bottle of water please.
Cashier: We don't have water.
The sister: Can we have a glass of tap water?
(The sister drinks it all the time in Europe.)
Cashier: We can't do that, Ma'am.
The sister: Can we have a glass full of ice then?

Yes, we could, but that wasn't enough for me; I needed to feel the liquid gushing down my shrivelled insides and assuaging them. Finally, conceding defeat, I ordered Pepsi, knowing full well the sugar in it would dehydrate me further. Perhaps you can fathom how parched my throat was. The gas-less Pepsi was the most disgusting thing I'd ever consumed in a long time, and it incensed me that it cancelled out the good our walk did for me, but I drank more than half of it anyway. Made up for it by guzzling down a litre of water as soon as I got home.

The mother made a valid point: More and more of this country's residents are being diagnosed with diabetes, and all anyone could find to drink at this phenomenal event was Pepsi.. and other gross aerated drinks.

I now leave you to mull over my post with the pictures I salvaged from the blurry mess of photos taken with my iPhone:

and so, it begins

Second best firework on my list - for the brilliance of colour
(it follows the squigglies)

The sky lights up!

and my personal favourite.. The Illusory Exploding Tree.