Glutton Onboard: There will be shopping

Arabian coffee and dates by the ferry in Dubai

In the movie “There Will Be Blood”, the discovery of oil turns Daniel Day Lewis’ protagonist from a humble prospector into a rabid, ever-hungry force of greed, capable only of dominating and consuming, Western capitalism personified.

Oil has changed the Arabian peninsula, too, but in different ways. It is less about a rapacious need for one’s own dominance, and more a case of making sure everyone is taken care of — for, let’s be honest, better (free education and healthcare for citizens) or worse (“protecting” women by restricting them from working on weekends). Case in point: Oman, which makes Singapore look like Manhattan’s Lower East Side in the ‘80s. In Muscat, the streets are clean enough to eat off of, the landscaping and lawns alongside so well-attended that one wonders exactly how many gardeners are employed by the government. Maybe it’s because it’s Ramadan, maybe it’s because it’s midday, but the impression is very much like a Sim city, with very few NPCs other than the shopkeepers and cafe owners catering to your various whims.

A fruit stall in Salalah

When people (okay, racists) say things like how the discovery of oil turned a bunch of desert dwellers without a culture into millionaires overnight, they are demonstrating a huge ignorance of history. Oman has a long multi-cultural heritage, represented by the patchwork of different people that comprise it. Clothes and jewelry differ in accordance with region, as do the hilts of the ceremonial daggers that men wear (a peaceful man wears his dagger on the right side in order to make it more difficult to draw). In the spring, the country’s famous Damascus roses are picked and made into rosewater for desserts; lockets carrying phrases of the Koran are worn around the neck to protect the wearer, much like Thais wear certain Buddhist amulets. But the product that Omanis are most proud of is their frankincense, taken from the sap of trees and prized most from the inland regions for their light green-yellow color and intense fragrance. These buds of resin, or “tears”, are lit on charcoal in ceremonial burners (the symbol of Omani hospitality), their smoke used to mark every celebratory occasion that you can think of.

There is one more thing Omanis can be proud of, and that is their dogged salesmanship. In the main souk in Muscat, I make half-hearted stabs at negotiating and fail at most of them. All the same, I make off with bags full of souvenirs for family back home (okay, mostly for me), even in the height of the Omani heat. 

Dubai is a similar story. Many people — including me — have come to Dubai, explored the “biggest mall in the world” with its very many attractions, and called it a day, leading most to conclude that Dubai is basically one big mall. The truth is that, once you leave this sprawling complex (and all the other malls that may come your way), you will have an enjoyable adventure, even in the sizzling heat. There is the “new town”, yes, but that means there is also an “old town”, and that is where the bulk of the fun is for both foodies and shoppers. A litany of souks awaits: textile, perfume, spice, gold, as well as the different ways to find them: bus (the bus stops are housed in little cabanas with AC!), subway, even by boat for a mere dirham. And if you were to accuse me of simply buying a luggage-load of spices and calling it a day, you would absolutely be right (give or take a fluffy beanbag cover or two and a couple of pairs of camel pants). Once again, I am an abject failure at bargaining — so much so that the shop owner gives me a free bag of chocolate-coated almonds and a couple of chocolate-covered dates filled with pistachios (which come in handy on an empty stomach in the heat).

The “Dubai spice mix”: 8 layers including sumac, saffron and turmeric

But yes, the mall is fun, too. Besides the aquarium and the much-ballyhooed ski field, there is the walk to the Dubai Mall subway stop, a good 20 minutes away via a covered bridge that I discovered later is the longest walking bridge in the world. A shame I was wearing my sandals, though, or I would have enjoyed that walk (and the subsequent trek to the restaurant from the subway stop) much more. Because it was Wikki’s birthday, our destination was Gazebo Restaurant, which serves a wide selection of Indian specialties, but is perhaps most famous for its biryanis. We ordered chicken and lamb, as well as a spicy chicken that made people cry.

Chicken biryani with bread topping
Biryani without

In Abu Dhabi is where my story ends. When I first arrived, in around 2009, it looked a lot like how Salalah, Oman looks now: dry, dusty, a little barren. It seems to have woken up in the decade-plus since then and realized that, oh yeah, it is actually the richest sultanate of the UAE; just about every part of Abu Dhabi now hosts cranes and construction and scaffolding.

Aside from that, I have no thoughts, since I spent nearly the entire day and most of my afternoon trying to persuade my son and my nephew to leave Ferrari World (the world’s “largest indoor theme park”, no less) or the ship would depart without us. What can I say? We had fun and were sad to leave — especially the good Wifi.


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2 responses to “Glutton Onboard: There will be shopping

  1. Yes, we left-handed men are far more peaceful than those “righties.”

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