When our daughter was selected to do the practicum for her degree in Uganda,
she announced that if her mother and I were coming to visit, she wanted us to visit on
separate trips (more in the Uganda chapter). It was against that background that I was
flying to Uganda and had one stop with no extra charges, I chose Dubai. That would
make the trip to one of the richest countries I have visited and one of the poorest.
I landed in Dubai at 1:30 am and the airport was like a Canadian shopping mall
the day before Christmas, it was as crowded and everyone moving like they had to be
there yesterday. I collected my suitcase and made my way to a kiosk labelled ‘Hotels’.
That is what I needed so let’s start there.
The attendant dressed in traditional garb could not believe I had landed in Dubai
without a reservation. He confirmed I needed a hotel for that night and asked how much I
was willing to pay.
“100 dollars, US” I said, knowing things were expensive in this country.
“You have no reservation? You want a room for tonight?” I was tiring of this
question now turned statement, “It is impossible,” he said. I thanked him and turned to
the exit, I would have to find a cab.
Suddenly he was beside me, “Come with me.” We walked to the taxi queue, he
waved the driver third in line and indicated for me to get in. I told the driver my needs
and price range and we raced off into the Arab night. In a few minutes we were in front
of the Hotel Moscow. I told him I would go and check the rate, I would leave my baggage
in the car for security, but I was going to check the hotel before I paid him.
The lobby was draped in heavy red velvet curtains, with an even heavier scent of
a blend of perfumes, and a group of ladies in seductive clothing.
“How much is a room for tonight?”
The clerk told me it was $200. I said I did not want a woman.
“It is $200 with or without the woman,” he said. I felt we were not going to
negotiate, and went back to my cab.
“I said 100 dollars,” he threw the car in gear and drove to the first corner and
turned right, in the middle of the block he stopped at another hotel. I offered the same
security, and went in and booked a room for three nights at $100 a night including
breakfast. I got my bag from the car and headed up to my room, the adventure had begun.
I went down for breakfast the next morning to find what had been a nightclub
when I checked in was now the breakfast room; except for the odour of smoke any trace
of the previous night had been removed. It was a dining experience in an ashtray. As I
had my second coffee I asked what was available for tours or sites to visit.
“It is the Holy Day, and nothing is open,” said my waiter, who looked a lot like
the fellow who checked me in last night. “You can go to the beach, we have a free shuttle
to the beach.” I was not interested, I had not travelled half way around the world to do
something I did not even do at home. I was and am not interested in going to the beach. I
checked with some other sources on the street and got the same answer. Half an hour later
I was on the shuttle to the beach.
I had no intention of acquiring sunburn in the UAE so I found a table with an
umbrella a bit back of the water, opened my journal and began to plan my attack for the
next few days. I glanced down to the beach and saw a young woman in a full Hijab and
jeans walking to the water. I thought “What a great picture, a juxtaposition of culture, this
lady in traditional attire among the almost nude bodies littering the beach.” I picked up
my camera and put it back down, I try very hard to respect people’s religious beliefs and
not take photos that might offend them. It would be a great photo but sometimes respect
for people’s beliefs trumps my need for a great photo, and I went back to scribbling.
“Excuse me, would you take my photo?” I looked up and there she was—coming
up from the water and holding out her camera.
“Only if I can take one with my camera, too,” I replied. We walked down to the
water, took the picture she wanted and the one I wanted with people in the background.
She ended up sitting down with me, explaining she was travelling with a group so it was
acceptable to be with a man: “Otherwise it would not be proper.” She clarified the
reasons for some of the customs of her religion and the rules that applied to the situation.
We spent much of the day together with me asking a question and she taking the time to
patiently help me understand. She was from Iran, travelling with a group from her
country; she had two degrees and worked in the communications business. I voiced
surprise at Tehran, the capital of Iran being nine million people. “Western people know so
little about my country and most make no effort to learn,” she said.
The day I feared would be wasted at the beach turned into a wonderful travel
experience, a learning experience as travel should be.
When I got back to the hotel I asked about tours or a guide for the next day. A
guide is a good investment, because I want to maximize my experience in a country in
the short time I have. I can never understand people who spend thousands of dollars to
get to a country, and then save 50 bucks in exchange for not experiencing the country. I
am sure they do not understand my methods, so we will leave it there. The fellow who
manned the front desk still looked a lot like the waiter of the morning, he recommended a
guide and he would make the connection. I agreed.
Abdu arrived at 7 next morning, “the best time to visit the market,” and we were
off to the fish market to start the day—not for the weak of stomach but I loved it. Paired
with my newfound guide/translator we attacked the marketplace and all the sights, sounds
and smells it had to offer.
We visited a few shops and ended up on the dock where the day’s catch was
already coming in. Clearly the boats were staffed by immigrant workers, most were North
African or Indian, and they lived under some difficult conditions as evidenced by one of
the fishermen, having a shower with a plastic pail during our visit.
Next stop the Spice Market and while the smells were different it was just as
aromatic as the fish market. The display of various spices and substances experienced by
one’s nose and eyes was overpowering—it was difficult to tell which sense was more
My research indicated there was a camel racetrack in Dubai, and Abdu, by now a
confidante, told me there was no racing today but we could go to the track and see the
animals being trained. That was better for me—fewer rules and greater chance to get up
close to the athletes.
Camel racing happens at a facility similar to a horse track and there is money
being exchanged but there the similarities end. Camels do not have the line of breeding
that thoroughbreds do, camels do not have the smooth gait of a horse and look like they
are going to tip at any time. They do have a better sense of direction than greyhounds in
that at least they are all going around the track the same way.
The camel track in Dubai was everything it should be, opulent beyond any of my
expectations. Outdoors, spectators could watch from the comfort of padded seats with
adequate room to accommodate large individuals. Though officially closed, the indoor
restaurant offered fine dining with a view of the track, and since alcohol was verboten in
the country, there was no bar (visible to the public). Abdu told me there were about 1,000
camels housed at the track in various stages of their career, from training to racing in
I spent some time down at track level, took more pictures than I would ever need
and we were off to the next stop. On our way out Abdu said, “Here is something you
might find interesting” and turned into a strip mall. “These are the stores that supply the
racetrack—and this is the veterinarian for the track,” he said, pulling up to a small feed
Inside was everything that you would need to equip a stable of racing camels
including the robots for training. The veterinarian/owner explained that robots were used
as jockeys for training, since a previous practice had been outlawed.
“We used to use boys of seven or eight years old to ride for training but now
regulations require they must be nine years old,” he said. “The robots are used and they
can be programmed to include the whipping action.” I was amazed at the opportunity for
young boys to get involved in the racing industry; he went on to tell me they were often
boys of poorer families and some were imported from neighbouring areas.
A good guide is a great investment and works as hard at reading and recognizing
the client’s interests as reciting the required facts and figures at each momentum. I have
had great experiences with guides; they have probably saved my life a time or two in
places where tourists do not normally enter.
We pulled into the Falcon Heritage and Sport Center, which I had not found in
any tourist information. Falconry, a part of Arab life for centuries has helped Bedouins
survive desert living conditions. This modern facility had a huge dome room and shops
around the perimeter that sold everything related to the sport.
As we entered, the fellow who had been working a bird in the arena said he was
just closing down. A few words from my guide and he asked if I would like to see the
bird hunt—how could I refuse? We made our way to the ring where he released a rabbit
that was happy to scamper around the arena, then removed the hood from the bird on his
wrist and unleashed it. The bird immediately flew to the top of the dome and dove. It did
not end well for the rabbit. If you were keeping score, the score was: Falcon 1 Rabbit 0.
The falconer invited me into the ring and offered me the glove the bird would land
on. I was terrified but by now Abdu had my camera and was lining up a picture. I was not
comfortable with this bird landing on my wrist, and I did not think a flash going off when
it did would be a good idea. Things worked out and I fared much better than the rabbit—I
am still typing.
Evening was upon us and Abdu insisted we needed to make one more stop, an
amusement park with various pavilions showcasing the countries of the world. He was
sure I wanted to see the Canada pavilion but really, I was familiar with maple syrup and
the dress uniform of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police . . .
We arrive back at the hotel, I am securing Abdu’s services for the remainder of
my trip and we agree on a price, “If you could meet me a half block from the hotel, that
saves me paying commission to the hotel.”
Done deal, see you tomorrow.