November 30, 2004

And on this pedestal these words remained:

Hampi, Karnataka

Hampi, despite its unprepossessing name, is like another world. Its old name - "Kishkinda", a city out of legend from the Ramayana - would be more appropriate. The landscape here is unearthly, dominated by vast jumbled ridges of colossal boulders, balancing and leaning on one another in seemingly unnatural ways, somehow looking crystalline and water-warped at the same time. Roads and villages are built in the shadow of these boulders, like handfuls of fifty-foot-high pebbles dropped by the gods, and it's hard to shake the notion that this place was meant for creatures of far greater scale than us. (It reminds me a lot of Matopos in Zimbabwe, for those of you who have been there, though leafier and a little less stark.)

And then there are the ruins. The bones of the once-mighty Vijayanagar kingdom are visible all around the fields and valleys here, and doubtless hidden beneath as well. Hampi itself is built around an ancient temple to Vishnu dominated by a hundred-foot-high ziggurat carved with figurines and birds and filigree, some of its features worn away by the centuries but still enormously imposing. Other ruins are everywhere: temples carved with figurines of Hanuman and Ganesh and Nigiri and Durga and nagas; elephant stables; sets of kilometre-long pillared colonnades; the crumbling remains of a massive stone bridge that once spanned the palm-tree-lined river. The crude modern(ish) buildings, roads, fields and banana plantations look wildly out of place. This land clearly belongs to history.

Not that it's been overrun. Hampi has a population of maybe five hundred people, twice that if you include Hindu pilgrims and Western backpackers (mainstream tourism hasn't discovered it yet); Karamapular, four klicks to the north, is only a little larger; and between them, and to the east, where most of the Vijayanagar ruins lie, there's nothing but the river, a few modern temples, and the odd plantation. The whole area has a deserted, postapocalyptic - or maybe "first colony on a new planet" would be more accurate - feel.

The river is wide, fast, and very pretty, especially at sunset. Both the centuries-old stone bridge, and an incomplete decades-old concrete one five klicks downstream, fail to cross it. Instead, coracles, basically shallow ten-foot-diameter inverted-dome baskets, covered with plastic and lined with some kind of baked mud, ferry passengers, motorcycles, and goats from one side to the other. Beneath Hampi's Vishnu temple, ghats (steps) worthy of Varanasi descend to the river. They are almost deserted.

On the highest ridge, just north of the river, a temple to Hanuman has been built. The whitewashed stairs that lead up to it are steep and hard in the midday sun, but the views are spectacular. Somebody forgot to tell the monkeys about the temple built to their god; there are a few, but far more cluster around the Shiva temple across the river. A few entrepeneurs near the temple sell cool-drinks and fresh coconuts. Hampi does well with pilgrims and tourism, but the villages north of the river are as poor as any I've seen in India, concrete pillboxes with corrugated-aluminum awnings for the rich, thatched huts for the poor, and the women dress not in the vivid colourful saris or, um, the other Indian woman's outfit (pyjama pants, long blouse, shawl) you see nearly everywhere else, but in simple, ragged clothes in which they work the fields. They were threshing grain today, a busy communal task. It looked fun, at first, and then like a whole lot of hard work.

Sadhus, holy men, in saffron robes with painted ash-smeared faces, chant namaste at you as they pass; unlike almost everyone else in India, he said cynically, they don't want money from you. White floral and crystalline patterns are drawn in chalk on the pavement in front of most households every morning. Wandering through the thorny-grassed fields (OK, fine, getting completely lost in an attempt to find a short cut between roads), it's easy to find rocks with straight edges and regular carved patterns jutting from the ground, as-yet-unearthed relics of Vijayanagar.

All in all, an exceedingly cool place. I've met several people who came for a couple of days and stayed for a couple of weeks. (Mind you, one reason is that one can plausibly live on US$5/day here, and comfortably on $10. When your travels are limited by money rather than time, that means a lot.) Me, I've got a ticket for the night bus to Bangalore, but I'm very glad of my last-second whim decision to come here.

November 28, 2004

Goa with the floa

Palolem, Goa

Here it's all about the beach. The single most perfect beach I have ever seen, two headlands anchoring a pale wide mile-long sunset-facing crescent. The thick fringe of coconut palms behind the beach shelters dozens of lodges and cafes-bars-restos, and the road behind them is full of shops and travel agents and Internet cafes, but it doesn't feel oppressively built up; the locals have kept a close eye on development here, and there are no two-story buildings or hotel complexes, and most people stay in simple thatched bamboo-stilt huts, rustic but civilized with fans, mosquito nets, electricity, and reliable if communal running water. The beach is big enough to swallow us all up and still leave plenty of space for solitude, if that's your thing.

Or activity. There's a lot of activity. Swimmers and traipsters and sunbathers, of course, and mostly-placid dogs and cows wandering by, and Frisbee, soccer, volleyball, and cricket. That last is played almost exclusively by intra-Indian tourists, who, as at all Goan beaches, make up a hefty percentage of the population, which I like: de facto whites-only bubble enclaves make me uneasy. There are a few boats, outrigger fishing boats and canoes, but not many. People are reluctant to leave the beach. It's understandable.

I've basically spent the last week hopping from one idyllic beach to another. I understand that your sympathy to anything further I say will now be muted, but really, this has highlighted the fact that chilling-out places like Goan beaches are an exception to my always-travel-solo rule: I'm having fun, and have met some cool people, but places like this would be best as part of a couple or a group. Still, you know, as work goes (yes, I said work. Research, remember? A new book, remember?), this ain't been so bad.

The Party Beach

Long ago, in the vanished mists of yesteryear - about ten years ago - Goa's beaches were host to massive raves featuring thousands of people every night. This is no longer the case (the scene, I gathered, dwindled for awhile, and was all but killed, other than at Christmas and New Year's, by a law which forbade amplified music on beaches between 10PM and 7AM. India being India, this doesn't actually make the music illegal, it just makes the required bribes uneconomically expensive except for big special occasions) but the last few vestigial traces of the Goa-trance party scene can be found at Anjuna and Vagator beaches. Nowadays, from what I saw, it's just a couple hundred people dancing barefoot in and around beach cafes to relatively improvised sound systems, but it's a very fun, laid-back vibe. Half the local touts and vendors offer you drugs in hushed voices, and you can't walk down the beach at night without smelling pot. It's like the nineties never ended, man. Although this did make me wonder about the night traffic; like all Goan beach cities, Anjuna/Vagator is so spread out that renting a motorcycle is near-necessity, and I'm not sure I like the idea of stoned/tripping Israeli bikers at midnight. OK, points for comedy, but I don't wanna be on those same streets.

Anjuna also hosts a huge Wednesday market, which is both annoying, as the touts and hustlers are out in force, voluble, and persistent - especially the ear-cleaners, who I gather are near the bottom of the tout totem pole - and cool, because it is a great market, all manner of colourful things and trinkets and cloths and sculptures and carvings and food and Goa-trance CDs and retina-scarring Om-decorated clothing for sale, although it does suffer a bit from the usual Third World market problem: sure, there are eight hundred stalls, but they get there by basically having forty copies each of the same twenty stalls. Oh, and there was a really good ashtanga yoga place, and I'm pleased to report that I went through a moderately tough session and my knee didn't even twinge.

The Package Beach

In the last decade, as the party scene dwindled, the package scene exploded, and every weekend nowadays, charter airplanes descend on Vasco de Gama airport and disgorge hordes of European tourists who then flood into Calangute and Baga (Goan beaches come in twos; Palolem, similarly, has Patnem just south). The beach is enormous, a good five miles long, and spectacular, and is cambered for great bodysurfing, and still replete with big fishing boats piled high with nets despite the thousands of tourists. The town has outstanding food and at least one good place to stay (the Villa Fatima, where I stayed. Mind you I have a real soft spot for vast crumbling once-luxurious places; a more objective reviewer would be more harsh.)

Uh, that said, I kind of hated it. The hassle - you literally can't walk down the street without twenty people trying to crudely sell you a taxi ride and/or a souvenir trinket. (The usual annoying sales tactics, too; they try to shake your hand, look appalled if you refuse, and pull you into their store if you don't. Or they cry out "Remember me?", taking advantage of they-all-look-alike-ism. Or they just refuse to take no for an answer and follow you for thirty seconds, hoping you'll suddenly change your mind.) The noise - the city has grown too far too fast, and the streets are overcrowded, and Goan driving is more about correct (that is to say, extremely frequent) use of the horn than it is about, say, motion, and you risk deafness or at least a headache walking down the street. And it's ugly, all cheap concrete packed too close together, the usual Indian dirt and unfinished look times two, and aside from eating, swimming, reading, sitting on the beach, and going to expert but pointless copies of Western bars, there's not actually much to do. So my second day there I hopped on a bus to

The Vanished City

Old Goa would be plenty creepy enough without the centuries-old corpse on display. Once upon a time, this pleasant riverside spot was the capital of the Portuguese colony here, a city of several hundred thousand; but then, struck by the tripartite blow of cholera, malaria, and the end of colonial empire, it went away. Now only the churches remain, distant from one another, connected by new roads lined with market stalls selling cold drinks and coconuts and religious paraphernelia (candles, rosaries, flower garlands, stickers and pictures of Krishna and Jesus and Ganesh, etc.)- and all around, where hundreds of thousands of people used to live, the jungle has returned, leaving no other sign of human habitation.

It's busy this month because of the every-ten-year display of the remains of St. Francis Xavier. I wasn't actually going to see said remains, but the lineups were much shorter than I (and I think they) expected, so I went. Like everything else in India, the festival had a hastily-crudely-slapped-together school-play feel which is either engagingly amateurish or infuriatingly incompetent, depending on one's mood. A covered walkway to the cathedral had been erected to protect pilgrims from the sun, but it was sagging and at one point half-collapsed. You had to pass through several sets of metal detectors, but having erected the detectors, the security guards then proceeded to completely ignore the fact that approximately fifty per cent of the pilgrims set them off, and just carelessly waved people through. After about ten minutes in line, serenaded by the constant chirping of metal detectors, I entered the cathedral, where, in a glass coffin, half-covered by an ancient filigreed shroud, St. Francis Xavier lay.

The story goes that months after he was buried, he was dug up, and despite having been interred in quicklime, his body was as fresh and warm as at the moment of his death. Maybe so. I can report that he has gotten very much the worse for wear since then. I can also report that he was very short. Other pilgrims kissed the glass coffin, or draped (Hindu-style) flower garlands on it, which attendants quickly whisked away. I did neither. I found my way through the jungle-taken vanished city to an unexpected riverboat, which took me back to the coast, from where I continued to

The Perfect Beach

...but I told you about this one already, didn't I, right at the start. Palolem. Perfection.

And now in two short hours I'm off to the hills of inland Hampi, to visit the relics of the long-ago Vijayangar kingdom, and thence Bangalore. Further bulletins as the proverbial events warrant.

November 21, 2004

Dubai Mumbai Konkan Railwai

Arumbol, Goa

Ah, the time dilation of travel. It's hard to believe I left Paris only six days ago. Feels more like a month. Being on the road actively extends your life, I swear, at least in terms of perceived time, and that's probably what it's all about, innit?

Well, "extends" only if not "shortens". Today I hired a motorbike and bombed down Goa's coastal road for an hour, incidentally violating every motorcycle-safety law known to man other than "no headstands while in motion": no helmet! no protective clothing! first time on a motorbike in 18 months! unreliable Indian bike with unfamiliar gearing system! narrow Third World rutted pitted roads, occupied by pedestrians, oxen, dogs, autorickshaws, oversize pickups, and worst of all, other backpackers doing the same damn thing! Gorgeous, way-fun ride though.

(Dear Mom, if you ever read this; uh, just kidding, in fact I've never been on a motorcycle in my life, okay? Great. Thanks.)

Arambol/Arumbol/Harmbol (never trust a country that has only one way to spell a town name) is a classic backpacker paradise: spectacular beach lined by laid-back banana-lassi-and-chocolate-pancake cafes, spartan but livable hostels, fantastic expat-run restaurants, book exchanges, Internet cafes, stores selling knickknacks and saris and sarongs and other tropical wear, yoga ashrams, a paragliding school, and the inexplicably ubiquitous didgeridoo workshop1, all yours for as little as US$10/day - though at that price you'll be living in a rather spartan bucket-shower-and-outhouse place, and will be doing no paragliding.

So far Goa feels a whole lot friendlier than Northern India. The locals seem to live in a kind of bemused harmony with their visitors, and while vendors may desultorily hassle you, they're just going through the motions, they don't really mean it. The backpacker crowd is a slightly uneasy mix of twentysomething Israelis, for whom a few months bouncing around India/Nepal is a post-military-service rite of passage, and who, not surprisingly, tend to be exceptionally fit, in a trim-tattooed-dreadlocked way, and exceptionally full of devil-may-care-I-don't fuck-you attitude; low-key thirtysomething Europeans who come back every year (some with children, it's a family-friendly place); the Brits-and-Aussies-on-Parade type you see the world over; and Others like me.

Mind you I'm still on the fringes. The grand techno extravaganzas ended years ago, but the beaches further south have a package-tour-party reputation. We'll see. Also further south, this month, is one of India's more macabre and bizarre tourist attractions, which is saying something - the every-ten-year display of the dessicated corpse of St. Francis Xavier. How can I possibly resist?

But for now let me look back to far-ago yesterweek and tell you about:

Dubai bai bai

There are a lot of cool things about Dubai. It's probably the only country in the world whose population is 80% expat; this gives it a great polyglot feel, as the crossroads of Arabia, India, Africa and Europe, a dozen languages and cultures all jumbled together and feeding on one another. Women in full chadors shop for lingerie in Western department stores, Africans stop work for a cup of tea at a break cued by a muezzin call, Indian employers hold job interviews at a Second Cup(!). It's a wealthy, First World nation, whose highways and hotels and shopping malls put America's to shame, but the best way to cross the Creek that divides it is still to jump on an abra, an old wooden boat powered by a rattling 2-stroke engine that leaves when it's full (my longest wait: two minutes) and on which two dozen people sit cheek by jowl. Other, much larger wooden boats - dhows - still prowl the waterways from Dubai to Mombasa and Mumbai and Iran, carrying huge boxes and barrels of wholesale goods for re-exported, and are loaded and unloaded on the Creek, just across from stores selling Armani and Pierre Cardin.

The city is impressively if artificially green. The one public beach is terrific. The sheer quantity of bling-bling in the Gold Souq is jaw-dropping (though the rest of the markets don't even begin to hold a candle to those of, say, Marrakesh or Cairo.) The skyscrapers look cool. All that said, it does start to feel kind of like a giant shopping mall after a little while. If commerce is not your thing, the rest of Dubai's delights are quickly exhausted. Comfortable, civilized, gleamingly modern, yes. Soul? I didn't see any.

Back-to-Bom!, for the first time

Mumbai: not so much a city as a raving, screaming, all-guns blazing full-frontal assault on every one of your senses, the physical ones of course but also those of taste, decorum, dignity, proportion, decency, wonder, and awe. Bright lights and tall towers, six million people living in the biggest trash-strewn bamboo-pole-canvas-ceiling or mud-brick-aluminum-roof slums in Asia, mutilated (darker-skinned) beggars weaving past designer-jeans cell-phone (generally lighter-skinned) yuppies, heat and noise and dirt and dust and smog, howling car and bus and motorcycle horns, neon-lit Victorian architecture, Ambassador taxis and air-con BMWs and cows and feral cats and dogs, street-food stalls and chic valet-parking cafes, and the masses, hordes, throngs, seething churning masses of people, people people people, everywhere everywhere everywhere, a colossal overwhelming fog of noises and smells and sights that threatens to redline every sensory organ - other words, yep, your basic large city in India. But far more alive than the other two I've seen (Delhi and Calcutta). Also far wealthier - my Rough Guide reports the fairly amazing statistic that Bombay's 1.5% of India's population produces a good 40% of its GDP. And for all its horrific poverty - which is so mindnumbing that you quickly stop noticing it - it's, dare I say it, kind of fun, in its vestigial Raj architecture and signage, in Chowpatty Beach with its brightly lit stalls and mini-rides and children of all ages playing and blowing bubbles and enjoying themselves, in the constant churning unexpected sights the city throws regularly into your field of vision. It helps that it's on the ocean; the air is better than Delhi's, and the sea, dark and calm as an oil slick at night, helps you mentally shape a city that otherwise might be too immense to navigate.

Do bear in mind that I spent all of 36 hours there (am flying out too, so there'll be more) and first impressions are often misleading, but it's easy to see why Bombay is the setting for most of the Seven Great Indian Novels2; for all its wrenching downsides, it's a fantastic place, in the literal sense of the word.

The Konkan Railway

I managed to purchase a next-day Mumbai-to-Goa rail ticket despite warnings that people usually had to wait a week and despite the usual Kafkaesque Indian bureaucracy, hurrah for me. I wasn't particularly looking forward to an 11-hour train journey commencing at 7AM, and I picked up two books (Naipaul's India: A Million Mutinies Now and Welsh's Ecstasy, both of which seemed appropriate) to go with my half-reread copy of Midnight's Children, figuring I'd have plenty of time to read all three.

Boy, was I wrong. The Konkan Railway is an absolute delight. Sure, Indian Railways' hygienic standards seem to have slipped some in the last four years, but it's still the only way to travel. I - we, actually, they tend to cluster people with Western names together, so I rode with two Spaniards and three Brits - sat in "3-tier A/C", one of IR's giddying profusion of classes, read, chatted, napped, and ordered from the constant flow of wallahs. There was a chai-wallah, a coffee-wallah, a samosa-wallah, a dosa-wallah, a cold-drink-wallah, a sandwich-wallah, an omelette-wallah (though he dropped out after noon), and (only once) a ticket-wallah, all of them marching up and down the length of the train, bringing food and drink to its needy passengers. Or - and this took up a whole lot more of the journey than I expected - we headed to the doors between cars, opened them, leaned out, and stared at Mother India, for a long, long time.

I'd forgotten how beautiful this country can be. Red earth, golden grass, deep green forest, winding shimmering rivers, all luminous in the tropical sun. Warrens of high rocky ridges, birds soaring above. Madman's checkerboards of small ox-tilled fields. The chemin de fer, the railway's iron road, carving a neat narrow line through Maharashtra, and the twenty-car train itself hovering at either edge of my vision, and the long rows of other faces, both pale and dark, peering out of the train's other doors, and the hot wind in all our faces. Eleven hours passed in a flash. I tossed my just-finished copy of Midnight's Children to a fellow-traveller, doubtless earning oodles of much-needed karma, grabbed my pack, and hopped off the train just before it started moving again, into the Goan tropical heat. There are worse places to disembark, believe me.

1I just don't get it.

2Rushdie's Midnight's Children and The Moor's Last Sigh, Mistry's Such A Long Journey and A Fine Balance, Roy's God Of Small Things, Seth's A Suitable Boy, Forster's A Passage To India. Am ruling out Paul Scott not due to any quality shortcomings but because he wrote about the Raj rather than India. There are presumably others I haven't yet read.

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.

November 15, 2004

I am delighted to report a slew of good news:

  1. my next book has a final title, BLOOD PRICE; the same name on both sides of the Atlantic, this time. The UK hardcover is scheduled for July 2005, paperback in March 2006. US and Canadian release dates have not yet been set, but probably summer 2005 as well.

  2. even better, Hodder & Stoughton have signed me to write two more thrillers over the next two years. Hodders has purchased the rights to publish these books in the Commonwealth excluding Canada; movement towards Canadian and American deals has begun.

  3. as a result, I'm off to India to research book 3, which is very, very tentatively titled BLACK BLOC.