Friday, 26 February 2010

Abu Dhabi

Master Cabbie of Taking Shortcuts, and Cutting Corners

sunny 30 °C
David B had some good things to say about Abu Dhabi - the capital city of UAE - with its tree line streets. So we picked up a brochure from Holiday Inn Express, and rung up for a private tour. We were attracted by the tour destinations in the brochure, which includes:
  • Marina Mall
  • The Corniche
  • Heritage Village
  • Sheik Zayed Mosque (aka The Grand Mosque)
  • Emirates Palace Hotel
  • Presidential Palace
There were a few more sights, but I only list the major ones.
When we got up this morning, Dubai was blanketed in dust storm. Right from the start, it didn't bode well for our trip. We could only hope that either the dust/sand storm didn't hit Abu Dhabi or it would die down by the time we get there. The odds of the former happening is pretty slim. Dust/sand storm, like rain, spreads over a large area, and Abu Dhabi is only a little more than an hour drive from Dubai. So we could only pray for the latter. There's a sign pointing to the direction of Mecca (aka Qibla(h)) in the hotel if we wanted to pray. Since I'm not a Muslim, or indeed a religious person, so I just pinned my hope on some amorphous, nebulous omnipotent being in the sky who looks Chinese or Aussie. Female, no beard, preferably.

The Fraser Suite staff warned us that this dust/sand storm signalled the start of something bad, otherwise known as Summer. Or I would like to call the Hellish Season. I spent more than 2 months in Bahrain during the Hellish Season, and it was unforgettable. Yep, the sand/dust storm were common occurrence. It occurred every 3 weeks or so while I was there. Regular as clockwork.
The tour operator sent a driver/tour guide to pick us up at our hotel. Once inside the car, as per usual, we broke the ice with the time honoured tradition of swapping personal background details. Once again, I didn't mind. Especially today when we stuck with this driver cum tour guide for the better part of the day. It's good to find our more about him to keep the ball rolling, and chased away the uncomfortable silence in the car. He came from New Delhi, India, and have been living in Dubai for 12 years. I didn't ask him how long he had been working for the tour operator. I didn't think it was a germane.

When we crossed the boundary between Dubai and Abu Dhabi, he pointed out that the asphalt on the road had changed. I noticed that the Dubai asphalt was the usual black, while Abu Dhabi's is brown in colour. We chatted happily on various topics, especially about the bail-out of Dubai by Sheik Khalifa, Emir of Abu Dhabi, which automatically made him the President of UAE. I think.
Whenever the car exceeded the speed limit of 120km/hr, an alarm coming from the dashboard would sound, and I lost count on the number of times it went off. He seemed to have developed selective deafness on the alarm over time. Sometimes, he let the warning bells go off as long as 15 mins in a stretch (instead of easing his lead foot on the gas pedal). I found the alarm bells distracting. Maybe he found it soothing, like Santa's sleigh bells. The alarm bells were never mentioned in the brochure. Another driving manner he had was tail-gating cars while the alarm was going off. The while the gap between him and the car ahead was less than a car length (2.5m). You could fit a horse between the two cars, and it wouldn't fall off. I was sitting at the edge of my seat. Can't complain this tour was a yawn.
The chauffeur/tour guide seemed friendly and knowledgeable enough even if he drove like a maniac. And so I thought. I had a number of taxi dramas in this Dubai trip (described in glorious details in "Dubai - Day 3", and "Dubai - Day 9" entries). I thought I wouldn't get any more taxi drama in my last day. I had completely forgotten about the special presentation of a 6-hour final episode today. This episode is titled, "Like Sands Blowing thru the Desert, this is the Day of His Lies".
Of course, he wasn't a taxi driver, but a tour guide. As we shall see, the tour guide title could be appropriately dropped.
Crossed a large bridge, the glistering white marbled Grand Mosque loomed in the distance on our left like a mirage in the desert in one of the tales in the Arabian Nights. He said we would visit the mosque after lunch on the way when we returned to Dubai . Although the dust storm had died down somewhat, but the visibility was still not very high. I was quite happy to see it later when the sky cleared further. We both looked forward with anticipation.
Just as David B said, the streets were lined with palms, apart from embellishing the streets, and giving shades. It actually helps to mitigate the sand storm, even if it's only by a little. Every bits helps. Coming from Dubai, the office buildings here look very old by contrast. It was only because most of the skyscrapers in Dubai are half my age (ok, I'm giving away my age). And being young, the skyscrapers in Dubai are also flashy and loud. They all scream in unison, "Look at me! Look at me! Look at me!".
Our first stop was the Marina Mall. Although this is only a shopping mall, and I wasn't the slight interested, since it was in the itinerary, I may as well get off to stretch my legs after the ride. As this was a Friday, most shops were closed. But we didn't care.
He pointed it out the Corniche as we drove past. When asked if we could get off and had a closer look. He said that wasn't much to see. "It's nothing but a beach. You can see it from here". Ok. At the end of the Corniche was the Heritage Village, which I didn't realise then. I saw some interesting traditional structures. And it turned out to be the Heritage Village when I asked the driver. He drove past it and had no intention of stopping. I insisted to stop there. As Atta wasn't too interested in this kinda thing. I stayed for 2 mins, took a few quick snaps, and hopped back into the car.
Drove us past a impressive palatial building, and he indicated that this is the old Presidential Palace. We shouldn't visit the old one, we should visit the new one, he explained. At this point, I wasn't too convinced, and regretted that I didn't do a lot of homework on these destinations. Ok, next to nothing. That's why we hired a guide. To guide us. We put our trust in his hand. So I couldn't argue with him, and let him drove us to the new Presidential Palace, which was very close to the old one. He explained that since this is a Presidential Palace, no visitors were allowed. He dropped us at the iron fence so that we could take some photos from there. It wasn't a good angle.
I headed back into the car, and thought to myself that what had I seen so far up close? Well, a shopping mall. Drove around the fence and past the front gate, I saw a small group of Western tourists with cameras talking to the guard at the gate. I told the driver to stop at the front gate. Even if I couldn't get in, at least I could take this building from a more decent angle. As we got off, Atta explained that this isn't some Presidential Palace as the tour guide said, but the Palace Hotel that David B had told her. I was somewhat perplexed. Whom should I believe now, David B or a knowledgeable tour guide?

We approached the front gate. the sign at the gate clearly marked 'Emirates Palace Hotel'. The guard explained to the foreign tourists that they weren't allow to visit today because of a special function. A sheik had passed away, and a function was being held there. He pointed out the flag that was flying half mast. The guard suggested we should come back to visit another day.

Well, there you have it. Either our chauffeur was clueless about the itinerary, or worse he took us for a couple of chumps. My lack of research on the itinerary, which happened rarely, left me quite clueless about his intention. We found out soon enough.

Got back into the car, I tried to explain that this is a hotel. His boss called him on the phone, which I first thought he was checking on how we doing. After some exchange on the phone with his boss in his native tongue, he handed me the phone and said that his boss wanted to talk to me. His boss told me that we insisted on going into the Emirates Palace Hotel, and we shouldn't able to get in because it was a Friday. I explained to him that we couldn't get in because of the hotel is holding a special function. But he insisted that because it was a Friday. After got off the phone, I told the driver that we would like to go to the Presidential Palace that we had missed. We pointed out the destination on the brochure. Once again, he exercised his selective deafness, and rambled on some unrelated subjects. He drove further and further away. I finally gave up.

The only major destination left on the itinerary was the Grand Mosque. We decided to take a lunch break, and visited there on our way back to Dubai. Headed in the Dubai direction, and with a large lunch, we both nodded off in the car. But our internal clock alarm woke us up just in time. The car had just drove past the Grand Mosque. I said nothing yet because he may be looking for an exit to get off the highway. Although we were anxious to see the Mosque, which was the highlight of this trip, we patiently waited, and waited. 15 mins had past. I finally asked if he was looking for an exit to get to the Grand Mosque.
He asked, "Do you want to see the Mosque?"
What a very interesting question! It's like I ask a tourist if he/she wants to see Sydney Opera House while they're in Sydney. He may have suffered from selective deafness, but my memory was fine. He told us that we were going to the Grand Mosque on our way back. I wouldn't forget thing like that. This was the highlight of the day trip.
"Yes." I said resignedly.
"But this is Friday. There're prayers. You can't get inside." He said, still hoping to perish my enthusiasm.
"That's ok." I said. If I didn't go to the Grand Mosque, I had no good reason to go to Abu Dhabi at all. In fact, I prefer the outside photos than the interior where lights aren't strong. I had an overwhelming urge to wrestle him to the ground, locked him in 3/4 nelson, and farted while I was at it. Nah...I'm too much of a gentleman to do 3/4 nelson. I'm a full nelson kinda guy (full nelson gives people a head massage in Thai style).
The Grand Mosque wasn't disappointing. I snapped away over 70 photos just from the outside. I had at least 70 reasons to come here.

On our way back from the Grand Mosque, he drove in circles, having trouble getting out the tangles of circular fly-over as he tried to head in the Dubai direction. After about 30 mins of riding in a marry-go-around of flyovers, he finally gave up trying to head the Dubai direction. Instead, he headed back to Abu Dhabi's city, and then head home from there. All in all, he spent over 1 hour trying to get back to the point on the highway where he entered the Grand Mosque. He took less than 15 mins getting to the Grand Mosque from the highway.

I was quite exhausted after today's trip. It wasn't a relaxing tour even though I hardly did much. I was tired from having to fight for every single promised destination in the brochure (except for the shopping mall where he probably enjoyed walking in air-cons indoor). What did we actually sight see up close? The shopping mall, and the Grand Mosque, which we could have missed if we didn't wake up just in time. You can tell that the driver had the intention all along of letting us watched the whole of Abu Dhabi from his car windows if we didn't raise any objection. He should be given a trophy for taking shortcuts. Not on the roads (he was hopeless at this), but on the job. His safe driving, professional competence, and work ethics were all got blown out of his car windows during the dust storm.

We left the brochure in the car, so we can't tell you which tour operator should be avoided like plague (I don't have high hopes for others in Dubai). Outside the cab, you get hustle and bustle. Inside the cab, you just get hustled. The Dubai traffic and tourism authority should get their act together, and take tips from their PR department.

I guess catching cabs (or being driven in a car) in Dubai adds a lot of colours to our Dubai trip, even if the dominant colour is red. "I see red" as in a 1978 song sung by the Kiwi group Split Enz. Other colours being black and blue.

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