We travelled through Asia on the way to Australia and New Zealand in 2010, and our first and only experience of Asia was a short stopover in Dubai: but I have to tell you, this was enough to make me feel that we shouldn't skip this vast continent, full of cultures, landscapes, peoples and climates, languages and cuisines to go – where? - to Australia??? A parochial Little Britain on the Indian Ocean? What were we thinking about!
We arrived in the middle of the night, dazed after a long flight from Glasgow, and the Dubai airport was ablaze: white, possibly marble columns covered with what appeared like glitter, and (this time for sure) marble on the floors, everywhere.
Airport officials and security are all male, all dressed in long, white thobe (Arab robes), with heads covered with ghutrah (the rectangular scarf kept in place by a black rope, similar to Palestinian keffiyeh). The guy that stamps our passports speaks English, but it's serious, sombre even and I feel a whiff of the police-state feeling that I remember from my childhood in Poland. After that it's the minibus to the hotel and a normal – even too normal, for our expectation of the exotic – hotel.
It's hot, hot, hot, though. At two o'clock in the morning it's close to forty degrees, and even just walking between the (air-conditioned) airport and (air-conditioned) hotel mini-bus and then the mini-bus and the (air-conditioned) hotel is actually quite difficult to cope with.
Our room is comfortable and spotless, and the staff in the hotel (which, as pretty much everything in this emirate) is adorned with a photographic portrait of its Sheik are polite, competent and emphatically non-Emirati. As anybody who seems to do any visible work here, they are Indian or Filipino.
The next day we go for a drive (in an air-conditioned car). Our driver is a Pashtun from Pakistan, and in addition to Pashto, Urdu and Arabic he speaks a little bit of English.
Over the course of the day we are taken around the city, which is still very much a building site (although not as much as a few years ago, when 20% of world's building cranes were estimated to be located in Dubai). The prosperity of this place is not from oil as much as from transport, trade and retail. Shopping is everywhere, and our driver can't understand we don't want to shop. But as we refuse numerous offers to be taken to one or another shopping mall, we get a tour of Dubai instead.
It's hot, hotter than one would think possible outside a sauna or a steam room, so hot that the air vibrates in front of our eyes, and in combination with the smoggy mist (or misty smog) enveloping the skyscrapers of Dubai, the heat gives it all a slightly sinister feel. The children get excited by a sight of a beach at Jumeirah, but the beach is empty – it's too hot to come out (unless you are one of the Indian labourers, and even they sit on their heels under the date trees and rest in this midday sun). After ten minutes outside the kids are red-faced and tired and we can't think of anything but going back to the air-conditioned) car.
The city is empty (apart from the labourers), the beach-side promenade and the public parks deserted. We see many mosques in all the areas we drive through and I even go into one, as the smaller child needs a loo and it's apparently a place to go – not sure of the etiquette, I scuttle through the male section to the women's part at the back, assuming that as in all cultures, small boys belong with mothers rather than grown men.
The residential buildings are very similar to what is known from the Mediterranean countries – pastel pale, square, with shuttered windows and awnings, all designed to keep the heat out.
We drive out onto the Palm Jumeirah, and on the way get a glimpse (and a photo-op) of the iconic sail-like landmark of Burj Arab, the famous seven-star Dubai hotel, out in the sea. The Palm (and artificial island) doesn't look any different from the ground level, apart from a rather eerie emptiness of every road and pavement around us. The massive arch of the Atlantis hotel, and the pseudo-traditional architecture of the residential blocks don't really appeal. We get out in a lay-bay, and look on the greyish-blue waters of the Gulf, the shipping channel buoys bobbing on the choppy surface.
From Jumeirah, we go back (around interminable motorways, surrounded by interminable skyscrapers in various phases of being built) to Dubai Creek – to have a look at Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world (we don't go up, as we didn't book in advance and it's much too expensive to do it on the day) which is – surprisingly – rather beautiful as it raises above the city and disappeared up in the sky over 800 meters above us. It also has a worrying (or maybe it's entirely accidental?) similarity to the Tower of Babel as depicted in the classic European iconography.
We are getting tired and hungry, so it's now just a quick run through the Chinese Dragon Mall (a shopping centre, where we buy nothing, but marvel at the locals buying) and then we eat – the driver takes us to the truckers' restaurant, where I am the only woman (unless you count the older child) but where everybody treats us politely and without undue attention. The food is cheap and edible, and after that it's back to the hotel, where the children can – at last – do what they wanted to do all day: swim in the pool on the roof, with the lights of Dubai spread in front of us as far as we can see.