Monday, February 8, 2010
It's a Small World: From Mumbai to Dubai
I have a secret. Shall I share it now or tease you till the end? Hmmm, decisions like this are all that plague my mind as I sit poolside at the Fairmount Dubai on a sunny February afternoon overlooking the Arabian Sea and the famed Port of Dubai in the distance. Yeah, you remember the controversial Port of Dubai. The contention over the proposed purchase of a US port by the Emirates last year in early 2006-there it is before me, clutching the coastline. The Al GHUAAIR Printing & Publishing House sits low and unassuming to my right just across the Satwa 4 lane roadway. It’s a bit industrial park meets downtown where I’m located. I can see traffic is light at 3pm, give it another 90minutes and Dubai’s Sheik “someone royal” roadway will rival I-5 in LA or I-76 in Philly. See we have so many things in common already- traffic congestion.
Like the horizon of Miami’s S. Beach, the Arbian Sea is dotted with barges waxing and waning. The coastal business community laid out before me is saved from predictability by the dual mosque minarets directly ahead and another just off to my left peripheral-the elevated surround sound speakers are evident on that one. This reminds me of my goof ball inquiry just yesterday at the gold souq. It was call to prayer at a quarter till 4pm- we were making our way, by car, out of the narrow shop lined back streets to the highway. When I first sat in the car, I registered one Imam’s call to the people “Allah U akbar…” By the third turn of the wheel I registered another town crier, a much sweeter melodious voice- he seemed to be filling in the gaps. I thought I had hit on yet another innovative undertaking here in this odd little kingdom- duets call to prayer! Call to prayer in rounds-that’s what’s up baby! Alas, it was two distinct houses of worship that happen to be very near in proximity. Maybe I should propose this avant guard style, but whom would I approach? UAE isn’t that forward thinking- yet.
The Burj al Arab and The Wave mega hotels rise majestically in the distance to my left betraying all notions of a sandy hot dessert Bedouin pre-technology age. As a matter of disappointment to me, 4 days and not one camel or sand dune to be seen, not even a patch of dirt! Every inch of earth here is occupied or soon will be. No really, as a matter of fact they are importing dirt to build on. They call it The Palm Jumeirah, which the entire time I have been unable to pronounce, as far as I can utter it is called Jeremiah. My brain is still adjusting to the time zones, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. Ok, so this is a man made town built on the sea fashioned into a palm tree with sixteen leaf branches, eight to each side, with each limb increasing in length. It is encircled by a halo outer rim and two small islands to either side of the trunk. The leaf branches are where the mega villas and Mac Mansions are housed. The likes of Tiger Woods, David Beckham and Rod Stewart are a few of the notable neighbors awaiting occupancy of their pre-purchased domiciles. The trunk is for the mere mortals, with diminutive Durham’s (UAE currency).
Still not sure whose bright idea this was, but earth was reclaimed and filled in off the coastline of the Jumeirah Marina designed to resemble a palm tree jutting into the ocean. It is clearly visible by satellite from outer space. These people are off the hook! Ambitious is too puny a word to describe the scale of this architectural engineering feat. Having just seen the Discovery channel documentary on the Salklin Island pipeline and oil refinery project, I’m thinking my visit will be somewhere on the scale of that magnificence, with perhaps a few less possible environmental disasters at stake, maybe.
Our driver took us onto the trunk of the new city. It’s a four lane causeway, two north and two southbound lanes, both sides are lined with plot after plot of large scale analogous edifices. The Fairmont will add their contribution in the form of The Kingdom of Sheba, a Yemeni inspired district of town homes, villas and timeshares. Many others have staked their claim as well. There will be another Atlantis, from the makers of Atlantis Bahamas and Sun City in S. Africa. Donald Trump is building his egg shaped glass shrouded ball of confusion in the center of the madness. Now, considering that the land is manufactured, thus prime with a capital P, I’ll allow your imagination to insinuate the asking prices for a piece of this action. Let me offer that the trunk is sold out and properties have already reached, many exceeding, 100% equity position. Wow! I just need to stop for a minute and drift into Monguito Santamaria’s Afro Blue resounding from my iPod for a moment………..
Our friend from Bahrain, the other odd fiefdom down the sea, has brought me back with a little 1970’s “Get on the Floor”. I just love Off the Wall, that was genius manifest! I digress; the point of this narrative is to fill you in on my expedition and revelations in the Far and Middle East. This journey began in Wash, Dc in route to Mumbai, India.
Let’s see, three hours on the Acela from Union to Penn station, followed by the freakiest scene- a quiet Manhattan. I guess 6am on Saturday is the time to move about Gotham city with facility. Twelve and a half hour flight to Dubai on Emirates Air, taken in stride. I was surprised to see the international cast of stewards and stewardesses in attendance, but it was merely a prelude to the international population of Dubai. Service was good, but like most American airlines, Emirates departure times are capricious. The satellite onboard movie/video system was enviable. I swear there were at least 500 hundred channels. I could choose from Hindi, Arabic, French, Japanese, and American movies translated into a variety of dialects- too bad I was exhausted and only caught a couple flicks. Thank you for Smoking and Robin Williams’s most recent Presidential movie were great time passers- the Bollywood cinemas were absorbing as well. It wasn’t until the trek home that I burrowed into those often exaggerated, but far from indolent cinematic constructions.
It was well after 11pm, dark and muggy compared to the recycled conditioned air I had become accustomed to over the past 18hours. Our friends, the engaged couple, received us with smiles. The family arranged for drivers to tote everyone around for the wedding week. Our luggage load was lighter than when we boarded at JFK. Emirates lost my luggage! I was too tired to be enraged at the thought of being across the world with just the clothes and shoes on my person and a few toiletries, iPod, books and purse contents. Just get me to a hotel, I smelled stale and I’d grown hairier in the time it took to get to India. Other than the bus ride from Narita airport into Tokyo, I’d never experienced such a long ride; make that long and frightening ride from the airport to our hotel.
The roads of Mumbai were jam packed with people walking, women balancing baskets of goods on their heads- quite gracefully I might add, cows pulling cargo, other teeny little cars with no sense of lane distinctions. I couldn’t look straight ahead. Our hosts kept me distracted with interesting tidbits of the city’s history, its resurgents, its inhabitants and low and behold Mumbai’s 1st big time luxury mall. Hello, look what America has brought to town. I laughed at the fact that India exports entrepreneurs, Yoga, doctors and computer programming gurus while we import the all American mall- conspicuous consumption- yeah baby! Hey, now Indian’s have some place to go and dull their senses the next time Mumbai is blown up by radical fundamentalist, let President Bush connect the dots. Wow, it just occurred, this is far from home and India has suffered far more homeland attacks, primarily in Mumbai - the New York City of India. Gotta keep my 6th charka clear, aside from time and chance, it is often obedience to instinct that makes the difference between the quick and the dead.
We ended up booking two different hotels, apparently Feb is wedding season. On the never ending journey to the Taj President in S. Mumbai, or “Mumbai proper” as another of our host informed us, I saw a lot of construction to old buildings in progress. Oddly enough the scaffolding was composed of sugar cane or bamboo bound together by twine! Ok, so no- the Indian race isn’t the tallest or heaviest on the planet, but these were 30-40 story buildings! Talkin’ about workin with whatcha got- Go India!
Our 1st full day on the continent, we walked and explored about. I was mesmerized by the colorful and vibrant sahri’s. They are functional and fashionable, many sumptuous fabrics and detailing, no matter what caste or class, all the women wore them. It was rare to find a lady in jeans and a t-shirt, it seemed sort of inelegant and out of place here, but with the mall invasion the mini skirt is on the rise. There’s a new movie launching called Saleem al Isq- the promos and billboards are everywhere. Then there is TATA, the billionaire industrialist, whose companies manufacture everything from cars to the telephones in our hotel rooms- he was everywhere as well on TV flying a newly purchased F-15 for the Indian Military, kinda like Donald Trump. Three days then four days pass by and still no luggage for Ieshia. It was a test. Could I keep my cool and detach from “my stuff,” valuable and beautiful articles of adornment collected over many years, from a variety of retailers around the world-Exhale.
Let’s just say, my sexy girl, Italian made gemstone heels that I splurged on in Athens last year were in my luggage- deep Ujjay breaths and lots of meditation-Ommm. What is lost will be found and if not then something better will come my way. I refused to spend my precious little time in the East shopping for replacement clothes and shoes, so I spent seven days with 2 pair of undies, 1 pair of pants, 2 shirts, 1 pair of shoes and 1 sun dress. I followed my instinct and packet these few random items in my carry-on bags. Hand washing became a daily chore. I could hardly get mad about it, I saw many people washing their wears in puddles in the streets, children frolicking about barefoot thru sewage- far from the likes of my suite at the Oberoi hotel, butler included for the price of the room- I love India!
A few days before the wedding I received an in-depth Oriental rug education at a famous Crawford street carpet dealer. Note: Bill Clinton purchased 3 rugs from these guys; his photo was on the wall with one of the brothers who was probably giving the same spill. Much of the information was not new. We have a few hand woven silk goodies at home from Persia. The Kashmir varieties were particularly stunning. We drank tea and Mohammed showed us almost every carpet in the place- I spotted a few fantasy carpets to work towards:o)- they felt like walking on butter, well I guess that’s what walking on large silk artwork is about. I bought a modest one for a soul sister. Her new marble floors in Miami called out for a special treat.
The next evening was the Mehende festival at the groom’s family home with the women folk. The grooms mother, aunts, cousins and sister were gracious and easy. We sat in sukhasana (known as Indian style in the West- translated into easy crosslegged pose Sukh’ Asana in the east), chatting, munching on vegan edibles, watching Hindi soaps and perpetuating an ancient custom. The hired artisan, talented as all get up she was, painted intricate variations on our hands, arms, and feet. The bride was at her home with her female family members and girlfriends conducting the same ritual. The henna went on quickly, like I said our artist had skills, dried rather quickly- first it was a dark paste then it dried and crumbled away leaving a reddish hue design on the skin. Mine lasted well over 3 weeks- she used the good stuff on us. The bride was having her hands, arms and feet henna’d. As a part of marital custom, the husbands name is skillfully hidden in the henna work and part of the getting to know you ice breaker is for the groom to “discover” his name tattooed on his bride- Freaky time! (Traditionally most brides and grooms only spend alone time for the 1st time on their wedding night).
The state of Maharashtra was aglow in weddings, over here over there everywhere. The weather is perfect this time of the year. All night long the Arabian Sea was outlined by flood lighted and garland decorated wedding fields (many ceremonies were taking place outdoors). Interesting note: my hotel room faced the bay which S. Mumbai wrapped around and at 11pm the once Manhattan looking city goes dark- lights out- Conservation in action. I can't imagine NYC, CHI, SEA skyline's going dark overnight.
The groom’s family outfitted me in a gorgeous silk traditional sahri- maroon and gold loveliness, I looked like a little chocolate Indian. The groom’s sister provided for every detail. Mrs. Joshi, groom’s mother, took me to the tailor for a final fitting of my shirt; it was constructed in one day- the little half top that goes under the sahri. The groom’s sister, Mukta, gifted me the matching jewelry- including tika. With my wedding wardrobe somewhere in the world in my long lost luggage this was a most welcome blessing! This family was grace personified. The day of the actual nuptials the groom’s family dressed me, I felt like the bride. Turns out my husband and I were the “most honored” guest. Sopan, the groom, was given his first job out of graduate school by my husband and they became business partners. His bride is in a similar field and will join her man in the Northeast U.S. this spring.
The actual nuptials were long and the actual event went on for days. At the final event, the presiding priest walked the couple and family members thru a laundry list of rituals called out in a beyond ancient tongue that most Indian’s don't even understand. The fiancé of another business partner and I chatted about Ayurvedic beauty secrets, like turmeric and yogurt face masks and chopped almond body scrubs. Zoink! it was then that I realized the true purpose of the British invasion and occupation. Since first learning of England’s thirst for India’s spices, it seemed odd that England would place such a premium on salt, pepper and tea. The more my new friend and I spoke it became apparent that the Vedics had developed what we now know as the pharmaceutical industry tens of thousands of years ago. There were no long named chemical active ingredients combined in a tube to stave off the weathering of time, or to combat the injustices we heap on our western bodies. This land was graced with a cornucopia of fruits, herbs and spices that were/are thoughtfully blended and methodically applied to keep the inner and outer self harmoniously balanced and beautiful. The Indian grocer is as much the Indian pharmacist. America made its founding wealth on Sugar and Cotton with African slaves. The British colonized India for its resources. The sleeping giants are stirring.
I definitely needed to break up the wedding day with a nap. The family driver obliged, we trekked across town back to our hotel where on the way we passed the Haj Ali mosque in the sea. It is build on a patch of land in the ocean connected to the mainland by a long footpath. On this jaunt we were stopped by the traffic constable. He was on foot mind you, just reached out and tapped the car, while we were in motion on the congested street. Turns out uncle was sitting in the back left passenger seat- British system here-without a seatbelt. I fell out laughing. Up until that point, I fathomed there were no rules of the road. Women sit sideways in their sahri’s’ barely holding tight to the male carting them on their motorized scooter and mopeds. Frequently there were entire families on one little scooter. Baby up front, male driver, small child behind him and female on the end- all with no helmets! Car seats- forget about it. But, we get pulled over, six people riding in a minivan; the front seat passenger was fancy free.
For a city with at least 15million inhabitants, the vibe is astonishingly at ease. The incessant horn blowing of the automobiles isn’t from a place of anguish or hostility, like New York, more just a notice that their auto is very close and has no intention of stopping. It is synchronized chaos on the roads each and everyday. The night before the wedding I did have to break down and purchase an outfit for the wedding dinner. I was given a suggested location by the hotel concierge. A shop called IDA. When I first walked in, my mind collapsed briefly from the vibrant color and strident sequence overload. I was in the market for an elegant tank top, long skirt, and shawl combination (more traditional wear). Suffice it to say, by the looks of the upscale shop, earth tones don’t sell well here in Mumbai. My eyes couldn’t register the copious and brilliant choices before me. Unbelievable.
By this time, I was completely indigested and fighting a nagging persistent low-grade headache. Not only no luggage, but a strange illness to boot. I briefly contemplated the idea that I attracted these conditions by long ago energizing the thoughts- “I better pack a few things in my carry on just in case my luggage is lost and I better get a prescription of cipro (antibiotics) incase I get the bubble guts, like in Cabo San Lucas.” Long ago someone planted the seed that going to India results in guaranteed gastric challenges. Hmmmmm……well whatever the truth is, I have no luggage and am braving apples to help relieve the tension in my digestive system.
Turned out that IDA was a capital suggestion. The Indian’s are serious salesmen. They were not letting me leave that store without a dress. I was cranky and indecisive, but they plugged away until we hit the magic outfit. They even talked me into a few bits of jewelry- I’m such a sucker. The dress required a few alterations and the wedding was the next day. I was a bit concerned about their ability to manage the task- why was I ever. They promised the dress to be delivered to my hotel by 4pm the next day. It was lying on the bed by the time I made it in that night at 11pm- India I like your style!
The remainder of the trip included a tour of the city by yet another co-workers father who has since retired from pharmaceuticals and loves life as a tour guide of wineries- yep, Indian wine- new to me too. We chilled at the Gate of India, built to greet the British royals upon their arrival as well as usher them and the military out upon their departure from India. There are a lot of private clubs around Mumbai- like country clubs, Navel club etc. and they did not allow Indian’s in. Not the case today, but still very exclusive.
We cruised the Kala Ghoda Arts festival. I even bartered my way into a few original paintings for the studio. I contemplated one for a while before adding it to the pile. The artist wouldn’t give me a price and just asked me to pay what I thought it was worth-The Man from Rajasthan- the haunting painting I couldn’t leave without. Of course he wasn’t satisfied with my combo of dollar and rupee payment, but he was humble and graciously packet his labors of love for their long journey to their new adopted home. On the way back from the festival my husband asked our driver, Nayek, what was a good pub in the area he would recommend? “Pub sir?” Nayek was puzzled, and then replied that he could not honestly recommend one over another. I asked was he Muslim- his reply, yes. No pubs for Nayek.
It struck a chord that although all Indian, this land is diverse with many Muslims, Hindu’s and to my surprise Indian Christian’s. Yes, several really cool bartenders we met, Christopher and Paul- I had to ask where their names stemmed from- are Christian. Both gave me presents as well. Paul turned over his awesome iPod mixed CD that played softly in the background at the Wink bar in the Taj Presidente hotel and Christopher had his wife come and bring us “sweets” to take home on our final night with him at Indian Jones restaurant and bar at the Oberoi. He was also the only bartender I ever met who discussed his financial portfolio with us, actually hipping us to a few twists in the game. India is on the rise! Like Cuba, the service industry staff tends to be highly educated, but unlike Cuba, India is receiving massive investment from the capital markets and they all speak English- the international standard for business. The numbers are in their favor, stay alert.
You may have noted that while in Mumbai thus far there has been relatively little yoga on this journey. Aside from early am viewings on the Astha channel, I didn’t make it to any studios or local practices. My hosts and hostess weren’t big on the asana of yoga, but pranayama (breathing exercises) seemed to be a favored practice. Ayurvedic practices were habitual like the sun rising and setting. Eight days post arrival, and it was back to Mumbai international to bid India a fair ado. Still no luggage for me.
On the way back to Dubai I had the pleasure of sitting between two moms and their infant babies. Being a mom I could relate, but I really just wished for a nice peaceful hop over to the Middle East. I noted like the Hindu mom sitting to my left, many of the ladies in my generation and the one proceeding had smaller families, two tykes at best and live further away from their families,. My seat mate was from Ahmdabad, living and working in London, was in her mid thirties with her first born. The woman to my right was from Mumbai, Muslim and in her mid thirties as well, with 4 children and one on the way. Another glaring difference between the east and the west, western birthrates are declining while, most specifically, Islamic populations are increasing.
Back in Dubai for 5 days of lux relaxation. I noticed there were many expatiates from various counties of Western Europe, mainly England- the English seem to be everywhere with their ridiculous pound sterling :ob, and many Italians. Dubai airport is a study unto itself. Busiest airport I've ever been in- ever, even at 2am. I stood for 15 minutes in a line and observed the crowds flowing around me. I have never seen so many nationalities represented in one place. I pride myself on knowing a little bit about a lot of cultures- there were costumes and dress that shocked and amazed me, like where are you from? Before exiting the airport we gave the luggage thing another stab at Emirates baggage claim. No luck, but the the Lebanese blond was very helpful. One driver took us for a tour of the Marina area and noted that several hotels have large guest quarters to accommodate the largess of Arab families. They tend to still have larger families with servants in tow as well. This of course is more the “royals” which there are numerous. But as different as things seems there was always something to bring me back to the actual- the similarities are greater.
Hanging out near the Jemeriah hotel, out of the corner of my eye I notice a white Ferrari Spider pulling up to the valet. A young royal, I suppose, in his dishdash (white dress and head gear) disembarks and hands over the keys- the odd thing is what was blarring out of the speakers- “they’re hatin, tryin’ to catch me ridin’ dirta, tryin’ to catch me ridin’ dirta….” Yes, hip-hop trumps all the political and cultural divides. Locally produced and internationally acclaimed. We hit the Wild Wadi waterpark and points between. Dubai is a party city in deed. I was still carrying bubble guts from India, so no wild nights for me, but my powers of observation are still keen. What did my eyes see in the city that plays Big? I found it odd that there weren’t many “locals” to encounter in everyday work environments. Imported aka, immigrant, workers run the town. I met some cool Russians, Indians, Phillipinos and Somolians, no Arabs. That said a lot to me. The wealthy government generously subsidizes the indigenous population, and this is the first place I’ve been in the world that I didn’t make a local friend. Good thing they have amazing shopping!
I poke fun of the malls of Mumbai, well Dubai, as with all things real estate has elevated the mall to another dimension. We hit only two and that was plenty, Dubai Mall, the uber blackhole of limitlessness excess and Emirates Mall. The latter has a ski slope built inside. Yep, I had a cocao at the St. Moritz bar and looked on as fully cloaked mothers head to toe in Black Abaya’s and Burqa’s kept up with little one’s on the ski slopes. What is going on here?! This seemed dangerous at best. It was cold and slippery in there. Speechless. The shops were amazing and could get someone into trouble, beyond New York and Paris. Everyone seems to be descending on Dubai like it’s the new Pot of Gold. Christie’s Art House opened this weekend. Tennis, Horse Derby’s and Golf are all the rage here now. I chucked as I passed the ladies fully covered with just a hint of their personal style peeking thru, Christine Louboutin “CFM’s,” dark coal lined, long lashed luminous eyes and wrists lined with 22k gold. Don’t be confused these ladies have another story to tell behind closed doors.
There are too many contradictions to go on about. The energy seems conflicted. The merging of cultures that are diametrically opposed and the world is watching. There is an underground subway system being built under the sand- yes, the sand. The Indian’s are making it happen in Dubai. I see school bus loads of imported laborers working thru the night in shifts. They're only here for a little while, when the work is done and the visa’s expire there is no “immigration” as such. Three years or thirty, it doesn’t matter, when your work term has expired, unless your father is Arab and/or native to the Emirates you must relocate. Unless…. You have the cash to buy into the real estate market. That entitles world players to a 99 year Visa that is transferable *smile*“cash rulz everything around us,” WuTang Clan. I like to think it’s all an illusion. Dubai seems to be one big Disney illusion. In the real world, Hamas and Fatah reached the Mecca agreement brokered by Saudi Arabia and Diane Sawyer interviewed the President of Iran. That was a shocker.
On our final day we toured a few palaces on the “under.” Slowly proceeding up the path of the Prince’s driveway we are careful to observe and not hit the random peacocks preening about the lush grounds. I haven’t seen peacocks since my childhood in California. They are magic to observe. I took a bit of video footage, but was urged repeatedly to keep the camera low and hidden. As we make the slow exit, back down the pathway, my mobile rings, it's Emirates Air- my luggage was secure and at baggage claim, just in from Istanbul- wrong Aicha I guess-lol! Even funnier than that, I marveled at an equally magnificent palace under construction directly across from the Prince’s pad, inquiring minds want to know, “who lives there?” I ask the driver. He replies, “ the Prince’s new wife, she is from Jordan, the daughter of the late King Hussein.” I go further, “why doesn’t she live over there with him?” The driver, “his 1st wife lives there.”
Wahe Guru (it’s all an Illusion)! That’s the secret.