Sunday, February 20, 2011

Part 20 - Al Ain...

We had the choice of going to Al Ain fun city or the Al Ain zoo - fun city is an amusement park with plenty of rides; since it was something that I'd been to in my school days a few times and since my bro-in-law wasn't enthusiastic about rides, we opted for the zoo. We had lunch in a mall (Al Ain is a smaller city compared to Dubai and it has only 3 malls; it is kind of equi-distant from Dubai and Abu Dhabi; around 2 to 3 hours drive) - a combination of some Indian food and junk food. One of the advertised attractions was the presence of white lions which are almost extinct. The zoo was now called Wildlife Park and Resort.

We took the open top train ride to get a feel of the place; you'd certainly have a good amount to walk but it wasn't that huge; around 2 hours to cover by walk but with children it will take longer. The birds area was very nicely done - you could view the birds from outside through the nets or you could walk up the stairs, onto a wooden plank which went straight through the huge net within the birds area; I guess the birds in this enclosure weren't the ones that fly - there was a netting high up but the birds could certainly reach the pathway via which we walk. My nephew refused to walk the wooden ramp in the enclosure and when I went I was the only one inside with at least about 60 birds on the ground below me. Each seemed busy in their own daily routine and were hardly worried about the human stranger in their home. There were beautiful peacocks but even they didn't seem interested in flying up to the wooden ramp. It was a nice feeling, walking in that enclosure but a little scary as well when I recollected thoughts about Hitchcock's movie "Birds". A trainer was feeding a bird with some fishes - a bird that had a flexible mouth; check out the video.

The afternoon sun was beating on us. My niece got tired walking and so she and my bro-in-law halted in a rest area; it was good to have an air conditioned area in the middle of the zoo where people could take some rest. We drank some strawberry milk during the pit stop. In between we had some hide and seek with my nephew since he suddenly got angry and refused to walk - kids sometimes get into strong moods; I guess even adults are similar - don't you get into those up and down swings in emotions? We saw the white lions peacefully roaming about in their glass enclosure and then we came to the gorilla zone. There was this huge gorilla that had some fruits and a chicken leg lying near it. I guess it preferred non-veg food because it picked the chicken piece first in one hand and seemed to relish each bite. It ensured that what was left was only a bone and not a single piece of flesh - I don't think I've seen any person eat a chicken leg as clean as it did. It sat leaning lazily on to the glass panel and we had a good view of it enjoying its snack!

A new feature in the park was the dinosaur trail - it was like a mini Jurassic park and the dinos looked real; they were mechanical devices which had some movement along with a speaker that emitted some noises. The trail hardly took 15 minutes to complete; at the end there was a remote controlled little dino that visitors could play around with.

Next up was the bird show. There was a small open air amphitheater - we were the first ones to arrive. Slowly a little crowd filled in as the commentator started announcing about the show. The show was great - there were these bird trainers demonstrating the specialized ability of predatory birds. The birds flew from one checkpoint to another, from one trainer to another as the trainers used some kind of whistle and food to direct them - there were falcons, vultures and hawks. The show was certainly worth watching. And at the end we had the chance to take snaps with some of the birds.

Next up was Jebel Hafeet - a mountain around 1200 metres high, in the outskirts of Al Ain. The road up Jebel Hafeet was beautiful - even from the base we could see the road lit by lights in the darkness of the night. There are plenty of corners but the road is nice and wide. On the way up there is a hotel and right at the top is just an open air parking lot with a restaurant. My sister wasn't well; she had a stomach upset. It was nice standing at such an altitude and looking down at the lights in the city. After walking around the perimeter of the parking lot once, we began the descend downwards. Since my sister wasn't feeling good we stopped for the night in the Hilton in Al Ain; we did have a hard time finding it. After putting the stuff in our room, me and the two kids went down in search of dinner - it was around 10:30pm and well past dinner time. Some of the restaurants had already closed; there was an Italian one that was winding up for the night. The lady at the counter welcomed us even though it was clear that she was done for the day. I glanced at the menu and searched for something cheap - we settled on some pizza with fries. I appreciated the fact that she didn't try to rush us or decline our request. I signed the bill to charge it to our room; there was another outdoor Arabic restaurant beside a pool that was still open. We took a look at the recreation complex - but unfortunately for tennis we had to have our own rackets; in Fujairah they lent us a racket and tennis ball for playing.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Part 19 - Pandemonium in a developed world!

The shoe hunt concludes!

It's an age old saying that we've heard over and over again; try try try again! And I kept trying for my shoe in shop after shop and there was finally a suggestion from one salesman to try out Dubai Outlet Mall. Unfortunately this mall wasn't within the city limits and so getting there by metro or bus would be pretty difficult. So one evening we drove to the Outlet Mall, following the few sign boards and my bro-in-laws instincts. It was past 7pm when we started and quite dark when we reached the mall. It looked huge from the outside and there were a line of taxis waiting to pick up people leaving the mall.

Being so far outside the city meant that this mall didn't have the huge crowds like in other malls - the first shoe shop we went to was the outlet store for Reebok and some other lesser known brands. We asked for size 12/13 and the cashier directed us to the backside of the store. Wow - they had 2 racks for size 12 and higher. I tried on plenty of shoes and walked around in each one to see which felt comfortable. Its been years since I had the chance to try out different sports shoes in a shop - most of the times there will only be 1 or 2 pairs available!

Finally I picked a pair that felt good; seemed like an unknown brand and it cost only about Dhs. 90 - that was the best part; most of the shoes I saw, even the branded ones, were reasonably priced. For Dhs.90 this was cheap - I surely won't find one at this price in India. My nephew was looking at some Reebok shoes that cost more than double of mine! To see if we could get something cheaper for him, we went up to a Nike outlet store to see what they had but in vain. My bro-in-law and niece went to the food court while the rest of us wound up with buying the shoes. By 9:30pm most of the shops had pulled down shutters since it was a weekday and even in the food court there were hardly a couple of stalls open. I rushed up to the last stall and placed my order for junk food - was just in time!

Dubai World Cup

The next day I didn't do much - I wasted time lazing around at home playing computer games and PS2. At night, we decided to go to the Dubai World Cup - the world's richest horse race. My sister and niece stayed at home. It was being hosted in the Meydan race course which has a 5-star hotel attached to it; there were directions around the city pointing to the racecourse. There were no entry charges. Even from a distance we could see the blue illuminated top of the Meydan which resembled a mini-roller coaster. We made our way to the car parking and there was quite a crowd judging by the number of vehicles pouring in. The parking ground was away from the Meydan and there were buses arranged to shuttle people between the parking area and the Meydan. The race course looked grand - this was the first time that I was going to witness a horse race; there were a series of races scheduled through the night.

The stands were packed to capacity and overflowing. Hardly any place to stand, forget about sitting! By virtue of my height I was able to see the main track comfortably - the turf was a beautiful green. There was a contest for the best dressed person and also for the best hat in the audience - so what you saw were ladies sporting weird hats - some that had large bouquets on them! We snacked on shawaramas (the canteens had run out of food; it was a humungous crowd) and returned to watch a race. The race was like it usually is - the guy who is behind in the first half of the race tends to surge ahead in the final stages of the race. The horses and jockeys were visible from the stands.

Crowd gone crazy

We left the place after the race; the final race was scheduled for late at night. To go back to the parking, we had to take the bus. There was a huge outflow of people coming along with us and the buses were limited. Just as we came out 2 buses departed. We joined the queue that was lined up waiting for the next bus. After a few minutes, people started getting irritated - no buses were in sight. People started agitating about and when a bus came into view, people started pushing around trying to get ahead of the queue. You won't believe it - this was a developed country and you wouldn't expect to see the kind of pandemonium that ensued. People pushed others; gone was the courtesy and respect for fellow human beings; all that mattered was getting into the bus. The bus had two doors and people flooded onto the two doors. Just then another bus came behind and a crowd from the back of the queue rushed towards that. Even once the bus was full people still tried to squeeze themselves into the buses. The security guards tried to restore order but they were not heeded to - most of the hustle and bustle was by Asians and Africans. The Europeans weren't part of this melee. It was as if the crowd was possessed by the devil and when the two buses left, some order was restored. Fortunately there weren't many women or children in the queue - there could so easily have been a stampede with injuries. The scene showed the primal nature of man which is generally under control but sometimes when in crowds might express itself!

Back in the parking lot we had a hunt for the Pajaero - we didn't know where it was parked! The parking lot was divided into sections labelled by alphabets; we didn't remember the alphabet where we parked it! We thought we knew the where it might be and started searching; after 30 minutes the effort proved futile. We asked the guys who guided vehicles to the parking area what sections were open an hour back; still no clue. We then started searching in areas which we had ruled out earlier - and finally after 45 minutes or so we found it; there was now a barricade which was placed at the entrance to that area because the parking was full!

(fireworks - this was taken from outside the stadium)

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Part 18 - The rocky Emirate Fujairah

It has been a while since I updated the travelogue - excuses are that I was doing some freelance writing and also working on a novel; but the reality might just be Newton's first law of motion - inertia (translate that to laziness for humans!) Anyway, am back and here we go...

SAFARI gone wrong

We had booked for a desert safari ride - something that I had never been on even when I was a kid. There are numerous operators who arrange desert safaris and it helps doing your research on the rates that each one charge. In fact there are some that might not be advertised; so ask around you shall get information! Get the list of prices from all operators, some give discounts for group bookings, rates might be higher on weekends (Thursday and Friday) and you need to book in advance if you want to go on a weekend. After my bro-in-law returned from office, we packed up and headed for the Pajaero that was sent to pick us up for the desert safari. We were in for a surprise - there was a European couple who had occupied 2 seats; well, that meant 4 people would have to squeeze in the middle seat and the 2 kids would need to sit in the back. We protested and called the operator - he asked us to adjust; uh, "adjust" - Indians probably are the ones who are used to this 'adjust'ment always. My bro-in-law complained to the operator and we told that we're dropping out; what's the point of paying money and travelling uncomfortably for an hour.


Since we had already packed up, my bro-in-law said we'll drive to Fujairah on our own vehicle for the weekend. Picking up some more stuff (like beach shovel and bucket), we started out. We had to go through Sharjah. There was a lot of desert during the drive and in some places we could even see camels walking at a distance. First point of interest was a tall obelisk that seemed like the Washington monument. There was a path going towards the structure and we took it. And guess what - this was called 'the Sharjah Monument'! It isn't as tall as the US monument - just a fraction of the height but it still stood out on the Sharjah Dhaid highway. The sun set was beautiful, it was 6pm. Fujairah was arond 3 hours from Dubai and our plan was to reach there at night, stay in a hotel and continue the journey in the morning and by evening head back to Dubai. At 7pm, we stopped at a road side veggie and fruits souq (a souq is a commerical market). There were plenty of fresh foods to snack on.

Hunt for the elusive hotel!

Around 8pm we were into Fujairah and had to find a good hotel. My bro-in-law preferred staying in one of the reputed hotels like Hilton or Meridien. I had a small map in hand which I tried to use to map out the direction we were going in. The board signs were few, and so we went by the map and finally did reach Hilton - it was beside the beach. My bro-in-law tried to get a corporate discount but they didn't have any offers. Since according to the map, the Meridien was supposed to be nearby further down the same road, we thought of checking that out. Just past Hilton was the Sandy Beach resort - we went in but the rates were pretty high and the only extra facility they had was a swimming pool. There was a board which said "JAL resort" - following that got us nowhere - the board was there in 3 places or so but nothing led us to the JAL resort! The problem is that you don't have any roadside shops or taxi stalls where you can ask someone for directions. After an hour of hunting for JAL we gave up; next destination was Meridien. On the way was the beach to our right and we had our dinner in a restaurant on the beach side. They had some crabs and lobsters on display, stored in ice; you could pick what you wanted and they'd cook it for you! The place had a weird stench on one side; the stench of fish or something. I wondered how people sat in that area; maybe they had got used to the smell!

Searching for the Meridien which was straight down the Hilton road took us somewhere to Khor Fakkan (a scenic coastal city). Scenic in the day; at night there wasn't much to see. Fujairah had a port and we could see these huge containers along the coast which were used for storage in export operations. The UAE mainly exported oil and my bro-in-law said that those huge containers were used by the oil industry for storage.

As we drove on and on we came to a road that went straight into the darkness though it appeared that there might be a bend to the left - on our right was a railing beyond which was the sea and there were hardly any street lights up front; on our left there was a small building in the rocks - it looked grand in lights. At this point we felt it better to turn back - it did seem risky continuing and it was 10:30pm!

Scenic drive

We headed back to the city to a hotel called "Siji". In the morning we had a sumptuous complimentary buffet breakfasst - i even tried a couple of fruits whose name I don't remember! We played in the bowling alley for a while - for my nephew it was the first time and he was excited about it. We had lunch outside and then checked-out of the hotel. In the reception there was some type of black coffee kept; some form of Arabic black coffee which tasted very odd; my bro-in-law liked it but none of us did. We went to an archaeological museum (be
side the Fujairah fort) and most of the items were jewellery! Really, most of the artifacts were rings and bracelets! My nephew practiced using the camera by clicking at every artifact that was on display.

As we went further down the Hilton road, we noticed that the structure we saw at night was the Bidiya mosque - the road didn't seem too scary now! It fact it looked beautiful in the day. From Fujairah you head to Khor Fakkan and Dibba Al Fujairah. We went on a boat ride in the beach and then played in the sand making castles. The city had statues on every roundabout and there were plenty of roundabouts! Fujairah is one of the seven Emirates that form the UAE (an Emirate is a main city) and its surroundings are filled with rocky mountain ranges instead of deserts. It was a 2 hour drive back home in the midst of the desert sunset and plenty of transmission lines.

We ended the day with a game of monopoly at home - my nephew said before the start of the game itself that I would win and that is exactly what happened! Fun weekend but tiring for my bro-in-law with so much of driving; the only good thing is that you can take advantage of cruise control available in the Pajaero in the highways; by setting cruise control, the vehicle will travel at a constant speed and you don't need to keep the accelerator pressed. Very soon maybe no drivers are needed!