Much Ado in Abu Dhabi

Seeking out the most economical airfares sometimes requires taking an indirect route, and making a stop in some city we hadn’t planned to visit otherwise. And unless we’re rushed, we sometimes figure that as long as we have to stop in a place anyway, we might as well spend a couple of days there, or more. Thus it was that we ended up laying over for two days and three nights in Abu Dhabi, capital of United Arab Emirates.

After touching down on the evening of May 29, our first business, as usual, was to acquire the coin of the realm from an ATM. That would be the dirham, which is not the same as the dirham we spent in Morocco. While the latter translated to about one U.S. dime, the Arab Emirates dirham is about a quarter — more accurately, 27 cents.

Armed with cash, we were ready to hail a taxi to our Airbnb (the only transportation option we had available except for a bus system that we hadn’t yet made sense of). En route, we passed the largest and most famous mosque in the city, the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, bathed in blue light in all its Arabian Nights splendor.

It took a little time to locate our Airbnb, and once we did, we almost wished we hadn’t. We’d had our misgivings about this place, but the pickings were slim. And our misgivings turned out to be pretty much on the money.

The biggest problem was that the owner had 8 guest rooms, each of which he’d divided into two “rooms”. The division was done only with paper-thin sheets of plywood, which did not go all the way to the ceiling, and therefore did not block out the light or sounds of the neighbor. Any time the guy next door turned on his light, it flooded our cell — oops, room — as if we’d opened a window onto broad daylight. Which we couldn’t have done, not having a window to open. The “room” was so cramped that we barely had room to step inside after opening the plywood “door”. (As Dennis’ dad and grandpa used to say, there wasn’t room to cuss a cut without getting hair in your mouth.) There was nowhere to sit except on the floor or the bed — which was barely big enough for one person. At least there was air conditioning.

Worst AirBnB ever?

Note the bed that was advertised for two, is just a smidgeon wider than a standard single.

There was also a bit of a kitchen, which is something we always look for in booking accommodations. But this one was also tiny and quite busy, with the hosts cooking at all hours of the day and night. We suspect they were running a side business out of the kitchen. There was a constant odor. And there was no storage space in the packed refrigerator for us to store anything — just a little bit available in the separate freezer unit.

The toilet/ shower, by the way, was the first of many we’d encounter on our tour that was not equipped with toilet paper, because people in this part of the world don’t use it. They rely instead on a hose next to the toilet. If you want to use tissue, you bring your own, and you’re expected to dispose of it somehow because the plumbing system supposedly can’t handle it. (Helpful hint: it can, if you don’t overdo it.) In order to access the facilities, one had to cue in line and then, wade through water and dodge drips from the ceiling.

With this kind of cozy home life, we naturally spent as much time as possible out roaming around, even though the temperatures a bit sultry. It occurred to us that if it got this hot in May, we should thank our lucky stars that it wasn’t August. (As it turned out, we’d be spending the entire summer in India, which was probably just as hot, and more humid.) The first order of business was to round up some grub for our cramped little kitchen. Since there were no good grocery stores or produce stands in the vicinity, we headed to a mall about a block away, where there was supposed to be a good-sized supermarket. One thing we noticed right away was that virtually all the streets in the city were named after either a Sultan or a Sheikh.

On the way, we took a little detour to the bus terminal to inquire about tickets and schedules to get back to the airport so we wouldn’t need to spring for a taxi again. There we found a most helpful agent who assisted us in using the machines to select and acquire our tickets — which had enough additional fare on them to take an excursion or two around the city as well.

At the mall, we were met at the entrance by a security guard who demanded to see our green cards. In the UAE, a green card does not denote immigration status but pandemic status. In order to be classified as Green, you need to pass a PCR test within the past two weeks. Fortunately, a green card is not required to enter the country, but it is required to enter certain businesses and buildings. We didn’t want to pay the fees to get one, since we were only going to be in the country a couple of days. But since we did have our vaccination cards to show, the guard caved in and let us enter, telling us that it would be the only time he’d do so.

Inside the mall, we found that the supermarket was an excellent choice, offering pretty much everything we’d need (even toilet paper). The produce section featured a jaw-dropping selection of fruit, with a dozen varieties of apples, even more varieties of oranges, and at least 25 varieties (who would have imagined it possible) of mangoes, yes mangoes — a “kingdom of mangoes”, as the display was labeled.

At some locations in the mall, you could look out at the adjacent soccer (“football”) stadium, and it was clear that folks in these parts take the sport very seriously. Not only because of the size and state-of-the art quality of the facility, but also because you’d have to be a rabidly devoted fan to watch a game in an open-air stadium, even at night in this kind of weather.

The next day, we put our brand new bus passes to use, taking a ride out to the shore of the Arabian Sea. The bus had special seats designated for female passengers, just as the bus station had. But there were no partitions separating them, so the segregation would not have prevented hanky-panky. And female passengers were also allowed to sit with the male passengers; but theoretically, the reverse was not the case – there were seats reserved for women only. In practice, however, everyone pretty much just sat wherever they wanted to.

We strolled along the shore with the distant Emirates Palace looming in our sights. No, it’s not a real palace; it’s a palatial hotel, a castle-esque edifice that appeared to have been lifted right out of Las Vegas – but minus the casino, no doubt. Our intent was to walk all the way there, and check out its magnificent design at close range. But as we walked and walked, it didn’t get any closer – it was either much farther away than we thought and/ or much larger.

So we stopped at a beach instead. The turquoise water was most inviting, and made us wish we’d brought along our swimwear. But hey, being theatre pros we know how to improvise. So we just emptied our pockets and jumped in fully clothed. And the water felt every bit as refreshing as it looked – it was just the perfect temperature.

But we didn’t get to enjoy it for long. After 10 or 15 minutes, the lifeguard came over and informed us that it was against regulations to swim there in clothing – we’d need to put on beach attire. Thus, we had to get out, scratching our heads. It would not come as a surprise for someone in the UAE to get busted for exposing too much skin. But here was someone telling us that we were covering up too much.

So, we headed back home, dripping wet – though not for long in the blaring sun. After we were back at our spartan digs and making preparations to leave the following day, it came to our attention that we’d need to fill out and print a health declaration form before entry into India – a detail we’d somehow managed to overlook until then.

After filling out the paperwork online and placing it on a jump drive, we headed to a copy shop about 20 minutes away. By then the sun had shown some mercy and gone down below the horizon, so it was actually a pretty pleasant walk.

Along the way, there were at least 3 or 4 typist parlors, where people could actually come and get documents typed up. Who would have thought there’d be a market for such a service in this age of the PC? But they were all doing a brisk business.

As was the copy shop, which was quite unlike anything we’d seen at Kinko’s/ FedEx or Office Max. There was one long counter with about a dozen men seated behind it at their computers – and there was at least an equal number of customers. Either people in UAE have a great deal of red tape to cut through, or there was just something in the air.

In any case, we successfully completed the mission of negotiating our own red tape, and we were all set for our departure the next day for our next volunteer position.

March 28-30, 2022

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