Travels with John Smith
Chapter 48 year 7 (2018)
Dunes, Dubai and Wuhan
-The Burj Khalifa view
-tallest building in the world
- fountains and desert
-$24,000 for a room
-The Palm Jumeirah
-I wanna live in a Mall
-‘no skin rules’
-writing a song with Key
-Simon and his music
-Prom and 1 BC forever!
-An arranged marriage
Travels with John Smith
Chapter 48 year 7
Dunes, Dubai and Wuhan
The car tips, almost on it’s side, but feels like it’s sinking at the same time. It rights itself and I see the vehicle ahead of us take a nose dive over the edge of the cliff. It’s backside is straight up behind itself and it is headed down the dune’s slope at a 45 degree angle. It disappears from sight until a few seconds later, as we are close behind, sliding in every direction and I wonder if our driver will be able to control it enough that we won’t rear end the car in front or flip on our back or side. My fingers are sore from holding on tightly to the crash bars above me, my stomach is lurching and I feel a little dizzy.
I am sitting in the middle of the back seat, so I can see everything as it’s about to happen on this ‘Dune Bashing’ ride. John is to my left and there are 2 little boys screaming in the seat behind us. The kids mother is sitting to my right and their Dad is in the front with the driver. This family is is from Switzerland and are speaking German non stop to add to the frenetic energy in the jeep. The boys squeals are encouraging the driver to swoop and drive a little crazier, riding so close to the ledges of valleys and cliffs of sand, we feel in constant danger of falling off or tipping over. And they are tall, sleep cliffs. I am as silent as I can be. I don’t want the driver to think I want him to pick it up a notch.
It is fun though and even though it’s been described as a rollercoaster in the sand, the swooshing the jeep does as it navigates the dunes is soft, like being tossed or rolled around on a giant bean-bag ocean.
We left the hotel about 4 pm, so the light in the desert is a rose golden colour and the wind is blowing little gusts of sand around the shadows and peaks of sand waves. It is still about 35 degrees C.
We stop so our driver can put air back into the 4 by 4’s tires (they need to take air out before the dune bashing as I guess the tires would burst otherwise) and I try to imagine what it might feel like to be lost here. There is literally one tree and everything else is miles of undulating sand in every direction. How would you know which way to go? I take a step and my foot sinks in the sand and its a struggle to get it out and take another step (like walking in deep snow). There are some dunes that are very high around us and we watch some of the other tourists sink up to their knees as they try to climb up to the top. I try to imagine being lost here and having to cross the desert like that, like you see in the movies.
She tosses her head back and her long, chestnut brown hair is caught by the wind. As it falls around her face, she shrugs her shoulders, shaking her upper body and the sequins on her skimpy outfit catches the light of the camp. She faces a balding, older man who is now standing up, mirroring her every move. He exposes his round belly by pulling up his T shirt and tries to mimic her graceful hand movements. She spends some time making fun of him by looking like she is disappointed with his dancing and begins to move towards us. I am getting this on camera. The belly dancer on the small stage is moving from table to table, teasing the male tourists at each table. I know John is next and I am in video mode. She shrugs her shoulders and tries to get a reaction from him. He smiles, looking a little embarrassed and doesn’t join in so she gives up and moves on to the next guy.
We are at a Bedouin camp in the desert, re-created for tourists as we learned earlier that no one here really lives like that anymore. We did pass a camel farm on the way here and there were long high stone walls, presumably to keep them in. We passed some areas where the camels were kind of grazing (the equivalent to seeing cows in the prairies) in the desert which added to the surreal feeling of being here. Earlier there was a kind of Sufi dancer who was spinning non stop and he lit the bottom of his ‘skirt’ on fire and continued to spin while the fire encircled him. That was pretty impressive.
If you want to, you can ride camels or take a picture with a hawk or smoke a shish-a pipe (all things that are traditional things to do in the desert and/or Dubai). We were told by our Swiss friends that the people who are organizing the camel rides were not very nice to the camels so we avoid this and the hawk picture. The meal we are eating was advertised as a barbecue but is more of a disappointing buffet with a couple of middle eastern food items but more functional than a taste sensation.
We are on the 28th floor of the Shangri-la hotel in Dubai and the view is spectacular. The room has a window on each side of the corner of the room, that runs from the roof, almost to the floor. We are like Giants looking down on our tiny kingdom. The freeway system below is like a bright ant colony, streams of lights moving in ‘crazy eight’ directions in an orderly manner. The city is tall and sparkling and directly in front of us is the tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa. The needle point at the top of the elegant structure looks too small to climb from here but we were told we can go up to the 148 floor (even though there are 154 floors), which we will do do but for the moment, we look out at yet another ‘Blue Mosque’ moment. We have seen pictures of this amazing structure and here it is, almost close enough to touch.
Dubai started out as a small fishing community and became an important port mainly famous for the pearl trade in the 1930’s. When they discovered oil in the territorial waters there in the late 1960’s, it developed into what it is today, even though there isn’t a lot of oil any more. The economy now relies on tourism and trade and they are obviously doing well. They seem to be very competitive too, always building the biggest, the best of everything.
Dubai is also known as the City of Gold, because a major part of the economy is based on gold trades. One of our colleagues at Maple Leaf, who is from South Africa was jealous that we were coming here as she said it was the best place to get gold. I prefer silver but am curious, so we are headed towards the Gold Souk (market), where there are meant to be 250 gold shops, along with other markets and old Dubai.
I don’t see anything I’m in love with so start to barter, picking out some gold chains but I’m out of my element. I am used to bartering in China, where they expect you to bargain. This is real gold. They are weighing it. There must be a regular price and maybe I will offend him if I offer too little. “How about some earrings?” he says. I hear a little “oh, oh”in my head (or is it John?) as he shows me some gorgeous hoops. He gives me the price for everything together. II get him to translate it to American dollars. I can’t. I don’t even wear gold. This is the 1st shop!
We make it out of the shop and decide to window shop the other Gold places. We see a shop that sells dried fruits and lamps and go in. That’s more in our price range. There is a fast talking guy putting fruit in a bag, then some special tea, some blue lamps and what? That’s the price? Maybe I should of bought the hoops. We decide this is a dangerous place and go back to the hotel to sit by the pool.
We are sitting on the ground, on the 138th floor of the Burj Khalifa looking at the Dubai Fountain which is meant to be the world’s largest choreographed fountain. There are thousands of lights and it shoots water up to 500 ft (152 metres), dancing in time to all kinds of music down below. It apparently cost a couple million dollars to build. Our shuttle bus driver and every taxi we have taken has told us we have to see it (even when they themselves haven’t seen it yet), so we thought we’d be clever and came up here late in the day so we could see it from above, but it’s quite far down. The crowd gathered below, standing directly outside of mall are probably getting a better view.
We booked our tickets online to come here, and in doing so, avoided the lineups to buy the tickets (we learned our lesson from when we were in KL), and we bought the ‘deluxe’ tickets so got to go up to the 148th floor which is the highest they will let tourists come to. The elevator on the way up only took a minute and a recording told us which world towers we would be level with at various points, until we got to the ‘top’ of the Burj Khalifa. The view is magnificent. From here, it is clear that we are in the desert on a couple sides and the ocean on the rest. We can see our hotel in a small cluster of tall buildings (that look small from here) in the main part of the city and in the distance on the ocean the hotel shaped like a sail called the Burj Al Arab. Beyond that there is another cluster of tall buildings where Dubai’s marina is. The rest is covered in mostly low or flat buildings and large stretches of land with nothing on it.
We are in a speed boat jumping along the waves. I am holding on and at the same time bracing myself with my legs for the jolt in my back each time the boat lands back down on the water. It is a very hot day (as usual) so being out on a boat and the breeze that comes with it, is nice. I am covered in sunscreen. We go to a couple places along the water so we can take advantage of the best photo ops. One place is in front of a hotel that is called Atlantis and now we are in front of the Burj Al Arab Hotel. Our guide tells us it is a 7 star hotel. That there is a suite that costs $24,000 American dollars a night inside. She says that even to go there for afternoon tea will set you back $500. I think if I had that much money, I could think of other ways to spend it.
Earlier, we took the skytrain to the marina, which is the series of man-made islands called the Palm Jumeirah, that looks like a palm tree in the water (from an arial view). The Palm Jumeirah extends into the Persian Gulf so there are boat trips for tourists where it is possible to see Dubai from the ocean and the many hotels built along the islands.
It is the 2nd time we have tried the skytrain here. It’s very organized and clean but because we are in a Muslim country, there are cars that are only for men and some only for women. We got on the train and noticed one side was really crowded but the other was almost empty so we both sat on the empty side. Then we noticed were was a line on the floor with arrows pointing one way, with large white letters saying ‘Women only’ in English and Arabic pointing to the side where we were sitting. The guys crowded together on the other side of the line were looking at us. John got up and stood on the crowded side, about a metre away from me, for the rest of the trip.
There appears to be blue see-through fish swimming in the air. We get closer and see that they are real. It is a wall made of glass with water almost up to the ceiling. An aquarium wall with one kind of fish and inside is a children’s store with touristy fish-related trinkets to buy. It is in front of the top floor of the huge 3 floor aquarium in the Dubai Mall. This mall has a huge skating rink, where John took a spin earlier today, a massive cinema with ultra modern cinema ticket and refreshment vending machines, a virtual reality ‘hall’, stores you would find in the UK, America and and pretty much anything else you want (though we heard there is a ski hill in another mall in town). This mall is one I could live in (borrowing John’s daughter Elizabeth’s words; “I wanna live in a mall”).
It has everything and lives up to the idea that Dubai is a shopping heaven for some. The aquarium has a collection of fish that rival the one in Sydney. There are loads of restaurants so you can find any kind of food you want. The mall is frequented by loads of tourists and locals from every culture so inside we could be anywhere in the world.
There is a shuttle bus that goes from every major hotel in Dubai to this mall, so you don’t even have to try and figure out where to get a cab. There are probably more shuttle buses than taxis. Which is a good thing, because no one seems to walk here. There are few sidewalks and even if there are stretches of sidewalk, it is hard to actually cross the street, unless you walk to a skytrain.
Dubai’s culture is Arab and Islamic so the locals lifestyle, dress, etc revolves around it so five times a day we hear the call to Muslims for prayer. Despite this being an Islamic culture, Dubai is known for its nightlife though clubs and bars are found mostly in hotels because of liquor laws. Emirati attire is women wearing a long black robe with a hijab, some with a niqab (which covers the nose and mouth as well and the men with the long white robe and white or red and white headscarves. We were told this is not compulsory and that wearing ‘western’ clothing is ok, as long as it isn’t ‘indecent’ (showing too much skin. so when I packed to come here, I brought mostly loose cotton clothing that covers everything but here in the centre, and especially the mall, there are many people with short shorts or shoulders bared, etc so I guess it’s not heavily policed in tourist places, even though I read that it was expected that visitors should conform to to ‘no skin rules’.
We are back in Wuhan, getting ready for the last Teahouse of the year and Grad. A student named Key who is very good at music, asks me to write a song with him for the Grad ceremony. I ask him questions about how he feels about graduating, leaving etc. and get him to play some chords. We come up with a song called “Our Time”. We will perform it at the Teahouse and also for Grad with the ‘Zhou en Lai’ class, which is a class of kids who are gifted academically, socially active, etc.
My right hand guy from last year’s Teahouse, Simon is back from University in America and he helps us record the song as well. Simon arrives on the day of the auditions for the last Teahouse. There are kids who arrive saying, “Our piano player can’t make it” and I ask “What song are you doing”? They answer and I look at Simon, “Do you know it?”. He says, “I think so” or “I can work it out” and he saves the day and ends up playing with 8 different acts. Simon is equally talented on guitar or keyboard and is totally in his element.
He loves playing music-it’s in his bones, and it is always about the song. The thing that really separates him from the rest is the fact that he knows all this old rock music (from the West), especially from the 60’s and 70’s, lots of Clapton and other guitar ‘Gods’ and he really likes country music (which delights John).
He has kept in touch while he was in America, sending clips of music he is playing and funny clips of him doing an American accent. He has been recording a lot too and says he will help me record some of my songs.
The Teahouse is one of the best yet, with several talented Alumni students arriving to complete the evening. Most of the evening is upbeat with a high standard of music but 6 of us also perform ‘Tears in Heaven’ to honour a boy who died (of a heart defect) a couple months ago. He was a talented musician who graduated last year and while he was at the school he had organized many music events so was well known. His death affected quite a few kids in the school and the alumni kids who are performing so it is an emotional moment.
As I mentioned before, this year Grad is special for me because the last classes I taught, are finally graduating. The classes I taught were foundations in English but were also referred to as ‘1 BC’. I feel like a parent, proud that they have made it to this place, gratitude that I have been able to see them grow and pleased that I get to see a lot of them in the library and my relationship with them has continued as they sometimes ask me for help with stories or essays or just have conversations about what’s happening in their lives. During the Prom evening, I get lots of pics with them and at one point, several of my former students form a big group to get a group photo of ‘now’ and one of them shouts “1 BC forever!” So sweet.
I do a head count and pass out the exams. There are some interesting names, as usual, including a CHARK (pronounced Shark) and a Beer. In the room are the new students, who need to pass this exam to get into Grade 10. If they don’t pass it, they might need to do 2 more years before they can get into Grade 10 so it’s really important for them. I got here early and set up the room and turned on the air conditioning as it is 35 degrees C outside.
I tell them they can start and as the words leave my mouth, the power shuts off. The lights go off and the air conditioner shuts down. We have no choice but to keep going and I feel for them as the room becomes heavy and hot in a small amount of time. There is light coming through the window, but any direct sun is unbearable so I have to draw the blinds. The kids start to fall asleep with the heat and and I go around lightly tapping on desks to wake them, handing out candies to help keep them awake, I give one girl my paper fan, others tissues for runny noses, etc.
It is 2 hours later and I am finished my shift but the power is still not back on. I am back in the library and it’s a little cooler here but quite dark. People are saying the power won’t come back until 5:00-5:30. Simon is here, helping me to record some of my songs, so we both pick up guitars and start writing a song. It’s pretty silly but appropriate. We call it the Hothouse blues.
Amy (the Librarian I work with) had an operation a few weeks ago and shouldn’t lift anything so I have been almost single handedly been collecting, processing and re-shelving both textbooks and reading books. I also had 7 exams to invigilate as well so am really exhausted and done with this school year! Despite all of this, Simon has produced and recorded a few of my songs and in-between getting my work done, I have done the vocals.
China has been like an arranged marriage. It wasn’t an idea, I had thought about before coming here, apart from a vague notion that I should explore different parts of Asia, but not China specifically. When John suggested we come here, I really had no notion of what it would be like here.
China is like the husband or wife that has good qualities and bad, and living here means accepting all of that . We have grown into the love, loved the craziness, to a point where it all feels familiar and comfortable.
We are forever grateful for the travel opportunities working at the school has given us and there will always be places we haven’t seen yet, that we want to experience, but it really does feel like the time to move on. We will come back for one more year of adventure…