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A Massive, Fucking Queue

I blink and four days have gone by. I kept telling myself that I would get back to writing, but it has been a few long days and very little time to get my thoughts together. We have now left India and moved onto Dubai. It is the first time that we have been here and it is safe to say that we have avoided coming here in the past. Not because it isn’t an exciting place, but because there doesn’t seem like there is much to do except to shop and sunbathe. Well, if Mumbai was a huge traffic jam, then Dubai is a massive, fucking queue.

I’m British. We are fond of queueing when the result of the queue is worth it. Going to a gig, getting some food or catching a bus are all acceptable reasons to join a queue and they are generally well organised and routine. Not in Dubai. Here, there is a queue to enter buildings, to leave buildings, to get into elevators, to get out of elevators, to get into taxis, to get out….you get the gist. There are only 3 million people that live here, but it seems like they all are standing in front of me.

Our first impression as we reached the hotel is the sort of thing you vaguely remember from that George Clooney movie about tomorrowland. Incredibly flat and fast, as soon as get onto Sheik Zayed Road, the various skyscrapers and hotels pop into view as if you were driving on a car simulator in a service station. Slowly but surely, the tall isolated skyline is visible like an oasis in the middle of the desert. Well, it is an oasis in the middle of the desert. All of the grass is imported from Brazil and it is maintained by fountains – the water has to be imported because the climate is too dry to sustain plants.

You would think that this is unnecessary. However, this place is built for the preposterous grandiose. From gold Rolls Royce cars to the tallest building in the world, nothing is done by halves in this live-in amusement park – a haven for the über rich, a plaything to be moulded by the gold-plated Emirati. The 600,000 citizens here (no one is allowed citizenship anymore) are provided with free healthcare, education, housing, amenities and jobs, with the bill being paid by the millions of tourists that visit every year. That’s right, you. When you check into your hotel here, you have already paid your dues.

The sparkling attraction is the Burj Khalifa, named after the current president of the UAE. Standing at over 830m in the air, it is a spike in the every growing skyscape of the Dubai horizon. Taking over $1 billion dollars to build, it offers amazing views of the entire city as well as housing luxuries like the Armani hotel. God, I sound like a brochure. What they don’t tell you is that the £25 ticket includes a complimentary set of queues and checks totalling two hours. Before you have even got in the world’s fastest elevator (are you seeing the pattern here?) you are so tired and your feet feel like lead. Then you see the view and whilst stunning, it really doesn’t live up to its name. Oh and there is a queue back down too.

I forgot to mention the 45 minute walk through the Metro station, through the Dubai Mall that would make Marx turn in his grave. If there was ever a monument to capitalist consumerism, then this would be the high temple. I like a mall as much as the next person, but this place stands like a giant at an ant’s view – apparently it takes three visits (15 hours) to conquer the mall – we swiftly exited for the first time.

If this place is an oasis in the middle of the desert, then for me it stands as a mirage. Not a good start, we hope for a better (less expensive) day tomorrow.

The “Fixed Price” Myth

You would think that after the wedding, all of the gifts had been given and it was time to move away from incessant shopping. You would be wrong. Whenever you are in India, there is a need to buy a gift for everyone there, back home and some people you don’t even know. As soon as you walk past something, there is a committee meeting with three distinct questions: 1) can we make use out of it or give it away? 2) is it something that we have seen before or unique? 3) can we afford it? If two out of these get an overall yes, then the process begins. If you didn’t know it already, Indians love a bargain.

We decided to stay in Baroda for a few more days after the wedding considering we hadn’t spent enough time with our family. It had been so hectic that we hadn’t really had the chance to relax with them. However, part of this bonding experience meant exchanging gifts as well as finishing off any last minute shopping. And if you walked around any market, you would be surprised what you can walk away with for 350 rupees (about £3.50 at this current moment).

The most laughable part about the process is the “fixed price” signs that they put in each of the shops. It is an unwritten rule that there are absolutely no fixed prices in India, unless it is unlucky enough to have a barcode – although to be honest, the most persuasive person could probably do the job. If you are trying to buy a sari, for example, then you can assume that they are charging you 20 percent more before you have even sat down and it has been unfolded in front of you. The so-called NRI (non-resident Indian) or foreigner tax. Then you can probably shave another 20 percent off if you have a little more chat, and the more items you buy, the bigger chunk you can get off the overall bill. By the end of it, the original figure seems like a fairytale and however upset the vendor looks, he or she knows for a fact that they have got as much out of it as you have. Just be ready to walk away if the price isn’t right.

When prices are so flexible, you start to get an eye for quality. The street markets in India are generally better than those in the UK, but you have to be careful, and it means shopping around. Whenever you enter any showrooms here, with stacks and stacks of clothes delicately placed behind the counter, it is no mistake that there is a huge mattress on the floor. You don’t look through the clothes here, they are presented to you. A salesman will get our sari after sari, shirt after shirt, until the entire white surface is covered in a heap of colours and material. If you are lucky, he (all of the sari vendors seem to be men) will try on the sari in front of you so you can see what it would look like. The first time it happened, I can’t tell you how many glances were exchanged between my brother and me.

As much as I hate shopping, especially in the intense heat, it is interesting to see the performance every time. It is always the same routine as I have described above, and it is amazing the effort that each vendor will go to in order to sell his wares. Everything is in fashion, a good material, with some sort of quality certificate and an absolute steal…whether it be 100 or 10,000 rupees. We seem to be spending a lot of money out here, but I can see why.

There aren’t many good shows in the world that are cheap.

Eleven Times

It was time to leave Jamnagar. The wedding was in a day or so and we needed to make it to the other side of the state before we ran out of time. There was still some more shopping to do (it seemed a never ending list of cloth and jewellery) and we needed to stop in Rajkot again to finish things off. The funny thing was that I had an assessed essay due at the same time.

The next two hours was spent frantically writing the last few sections of an essay on whether wealthy citizens were responsible for the plight of global poverty. Apt considering the previous post that I wrote and how it has made such a big impact on my time here. However, trying to write on a laptop on a campervan in the middle of India when you are bouncing around with every hole in the road is not ideal. It leads to a considerable amount of nausea. The aftermath of which was left in a plastic bag on the side of the road before reaching Rajkot.

Feeling thoroughly awful, the rest of the family dropped me to a nearby hotel where I could access the wifi and send the essay off whilst they finished their shopping. There was nothing that I wanted to drink that would get me the password to stay in the hotel restaurant, so my brother settled for some ice cream to satisfy the waiter who was looking to close when we walked in. The next two and a half hours, we nursed two small drinks and a bowl of kulfi before they finally turned the lights on and kicked us out. I think it would have been a lot sooner if they didn’t feel sorry for the state of the two of us when we came in. India was starting to take its toll.

49 minutes before the deadline, the essay was submitted and I was relieved just to stop staring at a screen. The hours that I had spent procrastinating the week before seemed a lot more valuable now that we trudged back to the campervan for another journey…another four hour drive. Roads in India are not built for plump British Indian boys with sensitive stomachs – quite the opposite actually.

I must have thrown up eleven times. It got to the point where even the water I was drinking, because I couldn’t eat, was being deposited at every truck stop on the way as I couldn’t take more than an hour at a time. We visited an extremely religious place called Sarangpur that was really important to my aunt, but all I remember is the neon lights outside – I was woken up by my brother after falling asleep in my lap on the steps. I could barely walk and I wasn’t making much sense when I talked. I couldn’t breathe without feeling the left side of stomach shiver with a stabbing pain.

It was only two days later that I realised that is was gastroenteritis. When I say realised, I mean diagnosed after being in bed unconscious for twenty solid hours. In that time, I had lost over a litre worth of fluids from my body, had four biscuits to eat over three days and could barely stomach a soft drink without being bent double in the bathroom. I had never gotten this ill before, always being careful to avoid local water, before cursing myself for not checking at a relative’s house a few days before.

It must have been a small snack or a sip of water that had made my body refund everything that I had put into it, like a department store after Christmas. Everything must go. I couldn’t remember much and there were times when lifting my head felt like trying to move a medicine ball.

I had heard of Delhi Belly, but this felt like an atomic bomb. At least now it was over and I could eat solid food again. Just in time for the wedding.