Monday, March 31, 2014

DAY ONE HUNDRED FIFTY - A day in Bur Dubai (Old Dubai)

When people hear the name "Dubai" they typically think of a very new, modern and glitzy city. I usually describe it as a mix of Disneyland, Vegas, and Fifth Avenue. It's a city of over-the-top malls that sell everything under the sun and house indoor hockey rinks, aquariums, and even a ski slope. There are the man-made islands, The Palms and The World, and the iconic hotel Burj al Arab which is shaped to evoke a dhow's billowing sail. But there is another Dubai, Bur Dubai or the Old City, which sits along the banks of Dubai Creek where it meets the Arabian Gulf. 

During two previous trips to Dubai I'd caught tantalizing glimpses of the Old City, and I have been wanting to go back to explore ever since. So when Doug announced that he wanted to take a road trip this past weekend, I suggested we make a day of it in Bur Dubai, and he said, "Let's do it!"

Saturday morning we took a quick taxi ride to the main bus station in Abu Dhabi and then boarded a bus for Dubai. The buses here are clean and comfortable, so I have no hesitation in riding them. I noted that the first few rows were reserved for families and women which is quite customary because it is considered inappropriate for a woman to sit next to a strange man. If the seats go unclaimed, then men are free to sit in those seats.

The ride took about 1-1/2 hours, and I wondered where we'd be dropped off. I wasn't worried, though, since Dubai is not as sprawling as most large cities in the US, and taxis are very inexpensive. Entering the city I could see the Burj Khalifa, the world's largest skyscraper, which marks the center of the business district and towers over the sprawling Dubai Mall. We kept on driving, and I thought, "good!" because per my so-so map the Old City is on the other side, towards the Dubai Creek. 

Our bus approached the city from the top part of this map. As you can see, Dubai Creek is not a creek or river as we think of it. It's more like an inlet or estuary, and it terminates in a wide, shallow marsh, The Ras al Khor Wildlife Sanctuary, where Linda and I went birdwatching in January. The area Doug and I explored was around the curve near the the mouth of the creek.

The buildings got shorter and older, and when I finally stepped off the bus I had a feeling we were very near our destination. As it turned out we were a mere 10-minute stroll away. How absolutely perfect! I told Doug our first order of business was to find something to eat. I'd slept in and had not taken the time for breakfast, so I was starving by this point.

I consulted my map and saw that we'd found our way to the Dubai Creek right near the entrance to the Shindagha Heritage Area, so it made sense to start our day exploring this part of Bur Dubai first. I peered up the wide, brick walkway and saw colorful umbrellas in the distance. Experience tells me outdoor umbrellas equal a cafe, and my feet took off in that direction.

The umbrellas turned out to be in front of The Heritage Guest House. Sadly there were no tables available outside, so we walked on in.

The entrance to the Barjeel Al Arab Restaurant

It was pretty simple inside with tile floors, high thick white-washed walls, and the usual heavy, dark wood furniture.

The menu was traditional Arabic food - hot and cold mezzas and main dishes of either lamb, chicken or seafood. I do love seafood, and there are always prawns on the menu in this country, and they are enormous. These had been seasoned with some kind of herb mix, grilled, and were served with a garlic spread on the side. They are the best prawns I've eaten to date. I do wonder about the french fries. They cannot be Arabic, but you find them everywhere. I think they have become the Universal Side Dish. 

I've mentioned Um Ali, the traditional Arabian "bread pudding" in earlier posts. This version was made with phyllo dough and LOTS of sliced almonds, raisins and sultanas. 

While we were waiting for our check I spotted this dhow outside the window, so I dashed out for a photo. It was immediately apparently this was a "party boat" as I could hear the music blaring. As you can see, the Creek is pretty wide. 

After lunch we headed into the heart of the Heritage Area. The sky was clear blue and the temperature just perfect in the lower to mid 80's, it was an early Saturday afternoon, and the place was almost deserted. I didn't understand it. I figured this place should be teaming with people. Where were they?

Then Doug spotted this sign, and there you have it. On weekends the place opens at 4:00. 

It is not uncommon in the UAE for businesses and shops to close at 1:00 or 1:30 and then open again at 5:00 when it's cooler. But I honestly don't understand why this place would be open all day during weekdays, yet on the weekend be open for evening hours only. Doug and I decided to explore anyway. We'd come all this way, after all, so why not.

We almost walked by this little alley, but a museum attendant appeared and ushered us through an almost hidden door into what turned out to be The Architecture Museum, a renovated courtyard home. 

It was a self-guided tour. There were displays and the occasional flat-screen TV with a short, informational movie. I learned that because privacy is paramount in this culture, there is a main entrance that opens into a common room for guests, but the family entrance is usually off to the side. 

The building material in the mountainous areas of the UAE (the border with Oman) is primarily stone; in the desert the Bedouins use palm trees and weave carpets out of sheep, goat and camel hair to cover the sand floors; and along the shore coral, ocean rocks and mortar are used.

A diorama of a traditional souq

As we wandered around the upper level of the house, I opened a door and peeked in and almost had a heart attack. I heard hammering sounds and conversations and thought I'd walked into a space where conservationists were working. Well in a sense I had, but the men were fake and the sounds were recorded. 

Looking down one of the many staircases

Most of the courtyard homes of this period were two stories. Residents lived and slept on the ground-level floor during the cold months and moved upstairs during the warmer months. Everything is done design-wise to maximize air flow and provide shade. This home does not have a wind tower (A/C of sorts), but many did. I will need to write a blog post some day on wind towers because they fascinate me.

This palm-frond shade structure is on the roof, providing a lovely place to sit and relax

As we were leaving the attendant asked for my iPhone so he could take some photos. I thought that was so nice of him..... and then he outright asked for a tip. I was a little surprised because it is not a tipping culture here. People graciously accept tips, but I have never encountered anyone actually ask for one.

I had to snap this photo. The place was closed, but I was impressed that there is a "house" devoted to poetry. Poetry is highly valued in Emirati culture. A traditional form of entertainment among Emirati men is to recite poetry that they have composed.

The Sheikh Saeed Al-Maktoum House - the courtyard house of the grandfather of Dubai's current ruler, Sheikh Mohammed, built in 1896. These houses are simple on the outside, but once inside they are more lavishly decorated. Did I mention how deserted this historic area was as Doug and I strolled about? I'm assuming things picked up once it was actually opening hours for the Heritage Area ;-)

I loved happening upon doorways like this that opened onto..... what? So I had to walk through, of course.

I came upon a reconstruction of an oasis village, complete with camels. I am warming up to camels these days. I mean look at this middle camel - doesn't she look content with her heavily lashed eyes closed and a smile on her face? I love the little bit of hay hanging out of her mouth. The baby was tugging at that red strap tied around her neck.

Once we'd reached the end of the Heritage Area we doubled back and headed toward the Bur Dubai Souq and Abra (water taxi) stop.

Unlike the Heritage Area, this part of town was alive and hopping. Cafes line the banks of the Creek, and as I walked by I caught the sweet scent of sheisha, the water pipes that are commonly smoked in outdoor settings. We rounded a corner and I spotted the entrance to the Bur Dubai Souq.

The traditional souqs I've come across so far have a similar entrance to this one: wooden, with a tall arched and open entry. They aren't wide, and you could walk right by, but when you look down the souq you can see that it extends for several blocks, and is packed with stalls. 

One skill I have yet to acquire is bargaining. Other than in the malls where the prices are fixed and bar-coded on tags, the vendors expect you to bargain. It's just how business is done. But I am intimidated, and I know that is silly, and as a result I haven't purchased much in these souqs. The other thing is that as you stroll along you are "accosted" by vendors from every side, holding up pashminas (although I am sure many of them are acrylic and not wool), inviting you into their stalls to try on slippers, or regaling you with a list of all their designer handbags and high-end watches. I am good with saying "No thank you!" as I stroll along, but it is quite daunting. At least thus far. I need one of my Shopper Friends to come visit me from the States because I think I'll do better if I'm not on my own, and it would be more fun. Do I have any takers??? 

When we were done strolling the souq we headed to the abra station so we could cross the Dubai Creek. 

Years ago during one of Doug's annual visits to Abu Dhabi, he'd been taken on a little tour of Dubai. Specifically he'd been taken across the creek via abra, which he loved, to tour the spice and gold souqs. He was adamant that I should visit those souqs as well.

An abra coming into the dock

Dubai does have water ferries that are more like what I see on the Hudson River going between NJ and NYC, but they are few and run infrequently. What is most commonly used are abras. An abra is about as low-tech as it gets. The boat pulls in, the passengers get off, and then people file on, seating themselves on two long benches facing out. The driver takes 30 seconds to quickly walk by collecting one dirham from each passenger, then he hops into the cockpit, throws the engine in reverse, and in a cloud of fumes you head off. As we putt-putted along I had visions of Bogie and Hepburn in the African Queen, only the Queen was a larger and more sophisticated boat ..... if you can imagine!

After a five minute ride we arrived at the Deira Old Souq Abra Station. Doug could not remember exactly where the spice and gold markets were, so Doug-being-Doug, he pulled out his smart phone and managed to pull up a map and walking directions. We finally stumbled upon the Spice Souq, and this time instead of being offered pashminas, vendors walked up to me with pods of some sort that were cracked open and held them up for me to smell, which I dutifully did each and every time. There were barrels and sacks of spices lining the souq as well as piles of incense, and the place smelled quite exotic. 

When we exited the labyrinth, Doug was determined to find the Gold Souq. He knew it was somewhere in the vicinity and once more pulled out his Samsung and proceeded to fuss with it. As he was mumbling to himself, "blah blah blah Gold Souq" a man overheard him and simply pointed us in the right direction. 

The entrance to the Gold Souq. You can see me in the lower right (blue dress) waiting while Doug took this photo.

As with the other souqs, this one goes on for blocks, has side alleys, and is lined with shops. But unlike the Bur Dubai and Spice Souqs, these shops were glass-fronted and had doors, making it more like a strip mall. I assume it was for security purposes.

I have never seen so much jewelry in one place in my life! Shop after shop, window after window, was filled with mostly gold jewelry.

Judging by the jewelry shops I saw here in the Gold Souq as well as in Abu Dhabi, the taste is jewelry in the UAE is for the larger, ornate pieces. Some are downright gaudy. If you live in a Harem, I think some of these pieces would be perfect!

These necklaces are the size of bibs!

The shops varied widely in the quality of their goods. Many sold costume jewelry pieces and others sold beautiful, high-quality jewelry with diamonds and gem stones. It was truly overwhelming. We had no intention of buying anything, but as we peered in one window I spotted wedding bands. 

As it happens, many (many!) years ago Doug lost his wedding band. He left it on the dresser one day, and it was never seen again. I assumed it had fallen behind the dresser or was lost in a drawer somewhere. Doug said I'd probably vacuumed it up one during one of my fits of cleaning, but I refused to believe that. I kept searching. Years went by, and every now and then we'd talk about replacing it. I considered buying one as a surprise for our anniversary, but I didn't know his ring size. 

Now here it was, two decades later (I did say many years, right?) and we were looking at rings. I suggested that maybe here and now was the time to replace that long-lost ring. I mean how cool? Because when he looked at it he'd remember our time in the UAE and strolling through Dubai's Gold Souq, and that would make it all the more special. I love jewelry with a story.

The shop did not have the ring on hand in his size, but they were able to get it in an hour, so we paid for the ring and then walked back to the Creek to kill some time.

The view of the Creek from the Deira side. I believe that white minaret and dome are part of Dubai's Grand Mosque. Unlike Abu Dhabi's Grand Mosque, it is open to Muslims only. 

My Hoboken and NYC friends will appreciate this photo. We are used to ferries, barges and party boats on the Hudson. Well here you see ferries to the left (an abra), a freighter in the middle, and then a dhow party boat to the right. 

And along the edge of the creek some random debris....

Along the Deira side of the Creek old, wooden dhows like these dock to load and unload cargo. I could not believe how unseaworthy these dhows look, appearing to be held together with duct tape and bungie cords. They were all packed to the gills, inside and on the decks. I saw cartons labeled "refrigerator" by one boat. I was told these boats go back and forth to Iran. Honestly I don't know how they manage to stay afloat tied up at the dock, much less out to sea on the Gulf!

We stopped at a little cafe for something to drink. Doug had fresh coconut juice (or water), and I had mango juice. 

When we got back to the jewelry shop we were told that their driver was stuck in traffic and would not be there for another hour. With still more time to kill and realizing we wouldn't be home till well after dinner, we asked for a recommendation for a place to eat. We ended up at Baharestan, an Iranian restaurant. 

It was dark outside by the time we returned to the shop for the second time. Doug's new wedding band: brushed white gold in the middle, banded with shiny yellow gold

We found our way back to the abra station and rode back across the Creek. The reflection on the water was magical. I really felt like I was in a different world as we chugged along, my feet inches from the water. 

When I posted on Facebook that I'd gone to Dubai's Gold Souk, it was assumed that I'd gotten myself something. Well...... turns out I did. When we got to the jewelry shop the second time they needed 5 minutes to polish up Doug's ring for him, so we sat down to wait in their very compact space. With a jewelry counter underneath my elbows, I noticed some earrings and pointed them out to Doug. I have been saying for years now that "someday" I would like a simple pair of hoops with diamonds on them. And for years he's said, "send me some links with pictures so I know what you mean". Now right in front of me were a pair of earrings like the ones I'd been describing, so I said, "See - these are the kind of earrings I want someday". The attentive clerk overheard me, and being the consummate sales person that he is, immediately gave Doug a discounted price if he got them on the spot. Honestly, I wasn't' fishing for earrings - I was just showing Doug what I wanted someday.

Some Day has arrived!!! You can't see them very well, but they are simple white gold hoops with little diamonds, and they are my early birthday present. Yes, it was a very good day in Bur Dubai!


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