Monday, 31 December 2012

Do-buy Part 2: sharks, spiders and pythons, oh my!

Once the seminar ended, I ventured out on my own.

My last trip to Dubai in April, I didn't do my homework (old habits die hard) on what to do and where to go. I just stopped by the Mall of the Emirates, did some quick shoe shopping (TWO pairs of shoes my size on SALE! ah bliss) and admired the Burj Khalifa as I passed it on the way to the airport. The tower was awe-inspiring and I thought the next trip I'd marvel at the view from the Observation Deck. It didn't happen. I would have loved to see the sunset. It must be a heavenly sight; why else would the online tickets for the sunset time slot be sold out two whole weeks before the date I pick? A weekday at that!

So I stuck with checking out Dubai Mall, its Aquarium and Underwater Zoo. Which in retrospect, is good enough. I didn't have time to see the famed Dubai Fountain or 'the beam of light shining upward from the fountain' that is supposedly visible from space. I dislike being rushed; everything splendid must be done justice to. I downloaded the Dubai Mall app on my phone and freaked over it. It was very convenient and helped me locate all the shops I needed to go to instantly.

I had it all figured out. It was 5 pm when I reached the mall. I gave myself three hours. Half an hour dedicated to making the required purchases - shoes and a couple of books. Two and a half hours at the aquarium and zoo. I was all set.

After buying a pair of shoes, I set out to find the mall's only bookshop, Book World, with the app guiding me. I finally spotted it beside Virgin and...

Oh. Mein. Gott.

It was the biggest bookstore I have ever seen.

This is just half the travel section.
I was too busy gawking to take more pix.

I thought Landmark in Pune was big. It's got nothing on this place. Book World by Kinokuniya (headquartered in Japan) is MASSIVE. A bibliophile's fantasy. My eyes widened like Belle's did when she saw the library for the first time in Beauty and the Beast.

"I've never seen so many books in all my life!"

(For readers living elsewhere that have seen so many books in all their lives on numerous occasions, you are fortunate to live in places where books are valued.)

Shelves and shelves stuffed with books of all genres imaginable, neatly categorized. Customer service assisted me by finding the book I asked for; less than two minutes later it was waiting for me at the cashier on the other end of the store. Talk about efficient.

And of course my timed plan went awry. The sheer vastness of the place and the number of books around me were overwhelming, even intoxicating, and I squandered precious minutes there.

Finally, I tore myself away, consoling my grieved heart with buying a book on writing, and dashed off to find the aquarium. It wasn't too hard to find—you can't really miss the signs or the gigantic panel if you're in the right section of the mall.

After twenty minutes (the thought that there would be a queue didn't occur to me), I finally got my ticket and went in. Before stepping into the aquarium, a photo session takes place in front of a green screen; you can collect the photo (I heard the attendant say it would cost 200 AED!! I'm pretty certain I heard wrong.. 200 AED for a lousy Photoshop job?!) once out of the aquarium.

The aquarium was actually a glass tunnel going through the tank. At one point in the tunnel, a ray had parked itself on the roof, inspiring tourists and visitors to make silly poses under it.
It was quite breathtaking, watching the sharks lurk past you and the rays and schools of fish swim by.

On to the Underwater Zoo.
So many colours!

Dory! Marlin! NEMO!

Water rat nibbling on a carrot =D

The not very fearsome looking lion fish, dressed in all its finery.

I love this colour on fish.

The 'Creepy Crawlies' section had plenty of ominous looking reptiles and a few roaches (ugh!) and spiders.

The Burmese python.

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

A shy iguana? Or maybe it was fed up. It never showed its face.

I half-expected the chameleon to change colour. Wish it did.

Now that's Stoicism and poise for you.

A gecko imparting the cliched lesson: 'If at first you don't
succeed, try, try again.'

This little fella kept trying to climb the glass walls it was confined in, refusing to believe that its feet, so adept at grasping at branches and scurrying through sand, were quite useless here. Its determination reminded me of the story of King Bruce and the Spider. When it saw me approach it scuttered away, almost embarrassed, eyes peeled for when I would depart and it could return to its half-baked but commendable attempts at escape.

The Arabian Toad (below) seemed a bit starved for attention. As soon as it noticed the glint of my camera lens, it hopped out and posed, almost regally, with its head in the air, as if it were the king of beasts. Disgusted with my inability to get my camera to behave and take a decent shot of it, it turned its back to me. It allowed me to click a couple of pictures of its backside, and then, deciding it had humoured the stupid human long enough, disappeared into the darkness with a hop.

"Buzz off, you half-wit."

Somehow I missed the penguin colony and the octopus. And a lot more. I think I accidentally skipped two sections. Pity.

There was a 'Fish Feeding' included in my ticket package; I assumed it to be a tank feeding with divers involved. Turns out you get to feed the fish yourself from a platform above the tank with the stinkiest bits of whatchamacallit. I tossed the pieces at the sharks but there were smaller, quicker fish that darted in and out, devouring the food in the blink of an eye, unafraid of coming within so close a proximity of the sharks' jagged teeth.

The Aquarium also offers cage snorkeling, shark dives and diving lessons for people who aren't certified divers for AED 875 (cost of lesson + dive). I think this is reasonable, but I would much rather go scuba diving in the open sea than in a claustrophobic tank with insipid tourists all around, furiously clicking away on their smartphones (yes I belong to the same class).

I also took a ride in a glass bottom boat! It was slightly unnerving to have just a pane of glass separate you from the sharks and rays. After watching some of The Glass Bottom Boat (1966) on TCM a few weeks prior, I was a little fascinated with the idea. It definitely wasn't the same, for one thing the glass was quite scratched (wonder if any of the sea critters are responsible for it—mental image of a shark going berserk and attacking the glass). For another, it was odd to bob on controlled waters in such a cloistered environment, with a roof on top of your head. It didn't deter me from enjoying the wonders of nature beneath my feet. The sharks skulked by the boat and below it, tolerating the mortals trespassing on their territory.

Next day trip, the unexplored areas of the zoo and the Dubai Fountain.

Part 1

Tuesday, 25 December 2012

my birthday gift to me.

Sixteen years ago, when we shifted into a new apartment, I got a spanking new study table for the room I was to share with the sister. It comprised of a desk, a shelf and a small cupboard. I lovingly arranged my Enid Blyton's and Roald Dahl's on the shelf and thrust some encyclopedias into the cupboard. When I had to 'study', I'd place one of Blyton's many adventure books into the pages of my text book, leaving the cupboard door ajar while reading, so as to conceal my transgression from my parents if they happened to pop in to enquire of my progress.

The study table underwent a startling makeover as it bore the brunt of our transitions, from childhood all through the teenage years. For one, half the Blytons, were replaced with the Harry Potter series. The smooth pine colour was scrawled upon with names of all the awesome men I or my sister crushed on over the years-the Backstreet boys, John Stamos (Full House), Gareth Jones (How 2), Tulio and Miguel (The Road to El Dorado - No. 1 on my list of all-time favourite animated movies), Aragorn and Legolas (The Lord of the Rings), even a couple of Bollywood actors at one point-in blue permanent marker. One entire side of the cupboard was covered in names of all our favourite witches and wizards from Harry Potter in whitener. Later, half the names were shrouded with a poster of The Emperor's New Groove (that'll be No. 2) from a teen magazine called Young Times. We were young; we were fickle.

After school, we moved to Pune and I shipped all the Blytons, Dahls, Potters, classics, novels there-I don't EVER let go of my books. I designed a study table cum bookcase for our room there, the mother got it made, but the sister hijacked it. When we moved back to Kuwait after MBA, I decided the table here had to go. I was a mature twenty-three year old and this embarrassment in no way validated that. I needed a new bookcase to house the books I'd bought in India (you may think I'm crazy carrying books back and forth across the Arabian Sea, but do you know how hard it is to find decent books in this country??).

I also wanted a writing desk. I actually really wanted my paternal grandfather's which was in Hyderabad. Ever since I learnt of its existence, I demanded to have it sent to me. I've been told it's a huge, beautiful, classic piece of teak furniture. I've never seen it but I'd like to own a tangible piece of family history, especially one that's akin to writing. I was also told it was just not practical. So I conceded to buy one.

Two years went by; my inertia coupled with my dislike of every piece I saw in Ikea inadvertently put off the purchase. The books however, kept coming in, mostly from clearance sales at bookstores closing shop, and would end up stashed under the bed and in every corner of my room because there wasn't an inch of space on or in the superannuated study table. But then, a couple of weeks before my birthday last Monday, I finally set eyes on this secretary desk in a furniture shop in Farwaniya:

and was enamoured with its antique appearance. I bought it instantly.

Kuzco took the words right out of my mouth.

I also found a bookcase to go with it. The two pieces were delivered to me after a week, during which I finally tossed out the aging study table, after painting over the names of my old flames and erasing all traces of my teen years.

I kept my tattered poster though.

I spent a happy weekend organizing my books and other bits and bobs that I've held on to, into the shelves.

Twain, Tolkien,
longer refugees looking for a home.

The postcard is a print of Caspar David
Friedrich's La Tonnelle. Google it, it's gorgeous.

My first thought when I bought the desk (besides that it was soo bee-yootiful) was that every night, I would spend an hour or two writing narratives and articles that had Pulitzer Prize-winning potential (just potential - eligibility to the relevant category is limited to American citizens) but the universe has been conspiring against me, I barely get to rest my elbows on it for an hour the entire week.

I may not have a lot of time to use my desk at the end of each day and there may not be any masterpieces drafted upon it smooth surface, nevertheless, just seeing it first thing in the morning makes me, as Kuzco puts it...sooo happy.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

The Watch Tower on Vetal Hill

She met them after spending a year abroad, greeting them in excitement. Friends of old, the three had decided to spend the early morning hours with a short hike up one of the hills in the city. Paths connected the hill to others, as well as to an abandoned quarry. There was a pool of murky water lying at the bed of the quarry; the three had once skipped stones there. She had failed miserably.

Ye olde abandoned quarry. 

They trudged up the trail that ran through thick shrubbery, listening for faint calls of the peacocks that lived within, reminiscing about other times spent there.

"There's a tower on this side," one of them said when they came to a fork in the path. "It has an awesome view."
"Is that where we're going?"

An image of a turret immediately flashed into her mind. Two recent summer trips in Europe and watching Disney films since infancy had conditioned her imagination. She drew a mental picture of a high, (no not too high, she thought, the top would show from above the trees), of a medium-sized (she had no reckoning of height) tower, made of stone, with a pointed tip and a window - no glass of course. The kind of window from which Rapunzel would toss her hair down. There would be a wooden spiral staircase inside.
She wondered how they'd never stumbled upon it on earlier trips there. Then, she knew why.

"Here we are!"
The mental picture shattered.
"This?" she said, almost hysterically. "You call this a tower?"
What stood before her held no resemblance to European architecture. It was a rickety structure (high, not medium-sized), the frame was made of rusted steel bracing crisscrossing in the style of X's, over and over. Planks of wood ran up all around it at angles. It was leaning slightly on one side, as though the wind was commanding it to bend.
It looked like a dilapidated water tower. Without a tank of water at the top.

She said so in great disdain.

The other two looked at each other.

"Are you coming up?"
"Of course not! I have to attend a wedding in two days and I'd like to be there in one piece!"
"Come on! There's nothing to it, even my sister went up this. We've been up lots of times. And the view is just amazing."

She did want to see the view. She'd missed the hills.

"How am I even supposed to get up this thing?" The first step was at a height of about five feet, there were no stepping stones. Heaving herself onto it was out of the question, the plank looked like it would disengage with excessive force.

One of them hoisted himself up to one end of the 'tower', strode across the bracing at the bottom and onto the steps, comfortably ascending them. He waited at the 'first floor' stair deck, which comprised of a single plank of wood nailed across the ramshackle frame on either side.

She followed suit, gingerly climbing onto the frame, walking across while hugging the structure for dear life (she was three feet off the damp ground), and then advancing onto the first plank of the steps. She took another step up, and felt the entire structure lean to one side, as though it was being weighed down. She screamed and retraced her steps back to the safety of the earth.

"Dude! Come on! We thought you were more adventurous than this!"
"I'm telling you, the view is to die for! And the wind is just amazing!"
"I have to go back to work in a week, there isn't enough time for me to recuperate if I fall from this thing!"

A group of young trekkers stood some distance away, watching. She waved a fist at them.

The two beguiled her into trying again with fabricated anecdotes of the structure's safety and promises of the awesome view and wind. The rigmarole was repeated in its entirety.

"I can't do this! Just go up, I'll wait down here until you return."
"I'm telling you man, nothing's going to happen! My sister is the biggest darpok* and she went right up to the top!"
"Fine," she snapped, making her way to the steps again. "But if I die, my mom's going to kill me."

When she got to the first step, she ordered one of them to go on and the other to wait until she'd reached the first 'platform'. She went up slowly, there were spaces between steps where a plank had fallen through. She held the round railing tight and wished there was another one on both sides, running between the sole rail and the flight of stairs, so as to reduce the wide gap that a person could easily slip through.

She cursed the added kilos that had leeched onto her in Kuwait, and the wretched gym membership she had spent so much on. She deigned to work out once a week or two but apparently one had to be more regular for there to be an adequate effect.

Twice, she looked down. Bad idea. She had a sudden visual of slipping through the wooden boards and dashing against the steel. She forced her head up, muttering a prayer and concentrating hard on getting up to the platform atop the structure and back down with all limbs intact. There was more safety in bungee jumping, she thought crossly.

Finally, they were at the top. A lone rail on each side was all that separated them from certain death. The platform was missing a plank and she refused to go any further, declaring she could see perfectly well from where she stood and that the sights wouldn't improve by taking another three steps.

That isn't her foot. In case you thought so.

The trees of the surrounding hillside were still a lush green, courtesy of the departing monsoon. She was glad she hadn't risked her life for a browning view. The clouds rode low, shrouding the sun, and the morning mist threw a haze over the city that looked so distant from where they stood. There was a slight wind, although it wasn't as 'amazing' as promised. The view had been worth it after all.

Civilization obscured by the morning mist.

The derelict 'tower'.
After a few pictures, they descended, making their way to the bottom. There were no incidents except one, when the structure shook slightly. The climb left no physical evidence on her, but for jittery knees and a strong reek of rust on her palms.

She went to the wedding and enjoyed it. A week later she was back at work in Kuwait, a longing for the hills buried deep in the recesses of her heart.


*darpok [dar-poke] - fraidy-cat

Based on actual events that occurred at the watch tower on Vetal Tekdi (hill) in Pune city. 
Dedicated to the two maniacs that took me up that tottering pile of planks.
Narrative and dialogue may have been embellished (just a little) to increase reading pleasure.