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?


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