November 18, 2004

Too much is not enough

I arrived on the heels of a seven-year storm. Desert country, my ass, I muttered to myself as I sloshed through the inch-deep water flooding Dubai International's arrivals and baggage halls. The water had shorted out the baggage conveyor systems, leaving my planemates temporarily stuck; I, who travel with carry-on only, left them behind and hopped a cab, trying and failing to squelch a sense of soaring moral superiority. The rains had shut down all but one of the highway's outgoing lanes. Two BMWs and one Mercedes were trapped in a gigantic puddle that had swallowed the other two. I found a decent cheap hotel and crashed.

Yesterday I explored Dubai, which is an interesting place and worthy of its own, more analytical post, which shall hopefully come in time. But today I want to tell you about today, which was one of my rare splashout travel days, in part because I'm flying out of here tomorrow and didn't have time to wander 'round on the cheap, in part because...well...

(actually I'm describing yesterday, and flying out today, but let's not quibble, it's 1AM and I can't sleep.)

If annoyed or offended by detailed descriptions of conspicious consumption, read no further.

Breakfast on the street, lunch in Oman, dinner in the Burj Al-Arab

For breakfast I had an omelette sandwich with tomatoes and cucumbers in greasy Indian bread, with tea, at a sidewalk cafe. It was tasty and filling. It cost me one U.S. dollar.

Then I joined my day trip, an intimate little ten-4WD sixty-person convoy into the desert and Oman. We drove down empty groomed four-lane highways for awhile, past scrub that slowly turned into desert, where the fun began. 4WD roller-coaster dune-bashing, the grizzled veteran drivers (including Babylon, the giddy Kenyan at the wheel of our Yukon) carping in an amused way about the tyros who kept overestimating their own abilities and getting stuck. Thence to a camel farm; I retain my opinion that they're nasty, stinky, loathsome creatures, but I admit they're cuter than I remembered.

And then a really amazing drive that - and I really don't say this often - I wish I'd had a camera for. (Was going to pick one up in the morning, but the souq wasn't really open yet.) We drove for a good fifteen minutes down a kilometre-wide black gravel wadi (dry riverbed) flecked with African acacia trees, through a herd of camels coming the other way, with the folded braided furrows of endless red-gold sand dunes to our right, and an impossibly forbidding wall of Mordor-esque jagged black mountains (the Hajar Mountains) to our left, with, the crowning touch, Elvis Presley crooning from the tape deck. It was incredible.

We stopped in Oman for lunch (sandwich, salad, a really bad apple, Coke) in a shockingly green oasis by another wadi, this one swept by groaning, howling wind. Then, unexpectedly, back without warning onto another perfect highway, as if it had grown yesterday out of the desert. No customs or immigration; borders are pretty amorphous around these parts, especially when you have a 4WD. In Hatta - pretty ghetto, for the UAE - we paused to treat ourself to another gorgeous panorama; red scalloped triangular mountains, above a band of pale white marble buildings culminating in the graceful minarets of a mosque, surrounded by the green date palm and mango trees of another oasis, surrounded by more highway-fissured desert.

Back in Dubai, I found a cheap and cheerful gym decorated with heavily rusted but entirely functional weights, picked up a couple necessities for the night, and made my way to the Burj Al-Arab - but wait, before I start in on that, I have a shameful admission to make. I only went there because they didn't let me in.

Slight aside. Five-star hotels are the budget Third World traveller's best friend. They provide oases of comfort, free newspapers, bathrooms well-stocked with toilet paper, swimming pools, and insanely helpful concierges who almost never ask if you're actually a hotel guest until it's too late. In part because of this, in part just to see, I've made a habit of dropping by the Really Nice Hotels of places I go to. Despite my often repellently scruffy look, they let me in, thanks to reverse racism, a practiced air of confidence, and - in a pinch - a claim that I'm staying in Room 405. Until yesterday, only one hotel had ever turfed me out; the famed Raffles, in Singapore.

(Which is kind of like Dubai, come to think of it. Although not as much fun. I'm not saying Dubai is fun - it's actually no fun at all - but Singapore is actively anti-fun).

The Burj Al-Arab proclaims itself "the world's only seven-star hotel." Yes, seven. It does have certain advantages; for example, it's as big as the Eiffel Tower, and it stands on a purpose-built artifical island connectd to the rest of Dubai by a dedicated 200-metre causeway. Yesterday, heading nearby (ish) to book my tour, I thought I'd drop by, blag my way in, look around and have a drink. To their credit, I didn't even make it onto the causeway: hotel guests, invitees, and confirmed restaurant reservations only.

And so I found myself getting into a taxi tonight, wearing just-purchased one-time use shoes and dinner jacket (fortunately, both are very very cheap in Dubai), and instructing the cabbie: "The Burj Al-Arab, please." And then, seconds later, as he sat in traffic, I started to panic.

Well, not really. I don't know what it was. Feverish blood rushed to my face, my heart rate doubled, my limbs were trembling, I was acutely and uncomfortably aware of every fold of my skin(!), my whole body was telling me that something was wrong. I was sick, possibly badly sick; there was no doubt. My thoughts flashed accusingly back to breakfast and I leaned forward to tell the driver to stop, no sense going to the Burj with food poisoning - and then I stopped, because I've had food poisoning, a few times, and its onset doesn't feel like that.

I said "panic" because it occurred to me that this might be what a panic attack felt like (though I didn't feel any particular fear other than the to-be-expected my-body-feels-badly-wrong-in-an-unfamiliar-way kind). Then it occurred to me that what it most felt like was the onset of certain psychoactive drugs. Then it occurred to me that I had recently taken an extremely powerful psychoactive drug.

No, not like that. Yesterday morning I purchased and popped a pill of mefloquine, better known as Lariam, an antimalarial drug which many people have strong adverse reactions to. Except that group of people doesn't - didn't - include me, I've taken it for six months at a time without noticing a single side effect.

Anyways, I let the driver continue. During the twenty-minute ride, and for the subsequent hour or so, the same something-badly-wrong sensation came and went in diminishing waves. Theories: 1. it was something weird and my body fought it off. (In which case: Yay, Immune System Of Doom!) 2. it was food poisoning and I have an unhappy morning waiting. (In which case: Blah. Though seeing as how I feel a whole lot better now than I did four hours ago, that seems unlikely.) 3. it was Lariam (which takes a while to work its way into your system, which is why you're supposed to start on it a week before you travel), I've lost my immunity to its side effects, and I am now going completely mad. (In which case: Hmm. Interesting.)

The Burj al-Arab, a review:

The whole seven-star thing sounds eye-rollingly pretentious1, so I decided to arrogantly and arbitrary give it my own star rating, starting with five stars (pretty much default in Dubai. I mean, not in the kind of US$30 souq hotel where I stay, but along the coast or Boulevard Sheikh Zayed) and count from there.

1Which, appropriately, is the point at which this post also becomes eye-rollingly pretentious.

Plus one star for scale. The thing is immense, and its architecture is undeniably striking. Plus another for the interior. The Rolls-Royces parked outside are a nice touch. I was expecting Versailles-style incredibly-tacky excess, but the 200-metre-tall atrium/foyer manages the trick of being simultaneously cartoonishly over-the-top (apparently everything that looks gold actually is gold, which is kind of mind-boggling) and yet does in a way which is actually tasteful, and even - dare I say it - elegant. The staff were friendly and inviting. That's seven stars. I was really quite impressed.

Being a half-hour early for my reservation, I took the elevator up to their 27th floor restaurant/bar, at which point things began to go seriously downhill. For one thing, it's one of the most aesthetically ghastly places I've ever been, with some kind of incredibly wrong-headed tech theme. You walk through tunnels lined with huge circuit-board patterns - I'm not making this up - into a room whose walls are full of LEDs that blink in L-shapes, and whose ceiling consists of garishly coloured 2001esque wannabe-Art-Deco-but-actually-really ugly panelled lights. The view is OK but nothing special. Down to six stars.

Then I sat at the bar, ordered a Laphroaig, and they didn't have it. In fact their Scotch selection consisted of Johnny Black, Johnny Red, and Chivas. Yes, yes, Arabic country, but also a massive tourist destination with bars all over the place. Dumbfounding and unforgivable. Docked two stars. Down to four. Had a fifteen-dollar whiskey sour, which was fine, and headed for their flagship restaurant, Al Mahara.

To get into Al Mahara - remember, this is the flagship restaurant of what bills itself as the world's best hotel - you wait in a room decorated like the inside of a gigantic solid gold clamshell, and then a faux-airlock door opens, and you get into, I kid you not, one of those incredibly tacky pseudomotion theatre-on-a-stick things with a dozen seats and video screens on the wall that rocks and rolls a little in a futile attempt to persuade you that you're actually moving. As the video screens try to convince you're moving fify metres down and two hundred metres further into the ocean, the "captain" of this unbelievably kitschy "submarine", in this case a guy named Mohammed, wearily recites dialogue about being sorry for the picture of the shipwreck to the left, he'd been drinking last night and crashed. Did I mention his name was Mohammed? Did I mention it's probably not a good sign when your primary emotion as you enter a restaurant is no longer anticipation but a kind of appalled sympathy for its staff? Three stars. If they're lucky. At this point my attitude towards the place is "nice building, shame about what they put in it," and I'm beginning to wonder if I should have stuck with the sidewalk cafes for taste reasons alone.

The restaurant itself is a disc which surrounds a vast (well, 40-foot diameter, 20-foot-high) aquarium full of various colourful tropical fish - I recognized a leopard shark, black-tip reef sharks, Maori wrasses, Moorish Idols, and moray eels, and there were dozens of others - swimming in an artificial but quite convincing coral reef. It's actually quite cool. And, as a bonus, it helps eliminate the occasional social awkwardness of dining alone, as you can always stare at the fish between courses.

The service was excellent, attentive without being in the least intrusive. The staff were impressively well informed - my waiter answered an at least somewhat technical marine biology question (there was a moray eel swimming around(!), which they never do; when I asked why, he explained that of their twelve moray eels, this one was new, and it hadn't worked out its territory yet) in a unrehearsed manner. The tables and chairs and silverware and so forth were fine, whatever. The wine list was thick and I'm sure impressive; I stuck with sparkling water.

The menu, not surprisingly, focused on seafood, but had plenty of other divertissements. I skipped the 650 dirham (approx. US $180) tasting menu in favour of a bowl of hot and sour seafood soup, hold the scallops - I have a recent suspicion that I'm allergic, and I never liked 'em anyhow - and wok-fried lobster with rice (total 445 dirham/US $110).

The meal began with a small amuse-bouch of shrimp and tuna in a thick creamy sauce that managed to be simultaneously a) incredibly bland b) so cloying that it leeched all the taste out of everything else. Not a good beginning.

The bread was nothing to write home about, though the foccaccia blackened with squid ink was at least interesting.

Then the soup arrived. It was in a bowl about four inches/10cm in diameter and 3 inches/7cm deep. It was full of the usual hot-and-sour soup stuff, plus a variety of seafood, plus spices. It rested on an elegantly folded napkin. It look quite unprepossessing.

Oh. My. God. It. Was. So. Good.

I feel almost embarrassed about the praise I'm about to lavish on a bowl of hot and sour soup, but really, it was a religious experience. Every mouthful was absolutely exquisite. I want to take up poetry again, for the first time in ten years, just to write an ode to this soup. A world that contains soups like this cannot be all bad. I would vote for this soup for Prime Ministor (or Sultan) and I would stand by it no matter what scandals were accused. To those who ask if there is a God, I would answer with: "Who else made this soup?"

It wasn't soup. It was divine.

The lobster was OK. Merely very good. There was a lot of it, dressed with pesto sauce, which was interesting but unsuccessful. The rice, though, was perfect, big, light, fluffy, tasty, decorated with pine nuts - after finishing the lobster, I ate the whole bowl of white rice with just as much pleasure.

I turned down dessert, but they brought me a trayful of petits-fours; they looked good, and the chocolate bits were superb, the rest didn't really work for me (but they never do anywhere else either.)

Final note: with two bonus stars for the soup, and one remedial star added because the bathrooms were excellent and didn't have an attendant, and because you can take a simple elevator back to the lobby instead of going through that cringe-inducing "submarine" ride again (although it remains an option), we reach a grand total of six stars. I'm so glad you agree.

(Side note: As usual, I brought a pen and paper with me, and was scribbling between courses, about a story idea which occurred to me last night and which is fun but so insane that I honestly don't dare describe it here for fear that you'd take up a collection to send in a crack team extraction team of psychotherapists. Come to think of it this is another argument in favour of the mefloquine explanation. Anyway, it has since occurred to me that they might have taken my constant note-taking as indicative of some kind of reviewer, which might explain the free petits-fours - which other tables who turned down dessert did not receive - better than "my natural charm". I oughta try this trick in future.)

The Burj al-Arab's clientele, both hotel and restaurant, was, I'm disappointed to say, mostly incredibly boring; loud, pudgy, and dull, or wrinkly and anxious. There was one redeeming couple - a bona fide sultan/sheikh/emir in full s/s/e garb sitting on a lobby couch with his arm around a drop-dead Russian-supermodel type, but mostly, I fear the world's interesting rich (rooms at the Burj start at US$900 a night and go way up in a hurty) stick to boutique hotels. Can't say I blame them. But it's a nice place to visit, as long as you have the soup.

One-time-use clothing for expedition99 dirhams
Cab fare to the Burj40 dirhams
Whiskey sour60 dirhams
Dinner500 dirhams with tip (no, I wasn't cheap, the 445 mentioned above included a 10% service charge)
Cab fare from the Burj40 dirhams
Inability to ever again call myself a budget traveller with the slightest shred of credibilitypriceless.

Thin justification of a US$200 dinner when I have an uncertain financial future: hey, once I leave Mumbai, I expect to be be living for a month on $20/day, so it balances out, okay?

Rather thicker justification: Available evidence indicates you only live once.

Tomorrow, Mumbai, insh'allah.


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