Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Hello Dubai? It’s Blair from America….

My First Afternoon in Dubai

Stares and Transport: First-Hand Psychological affect staring has on a person in a wheelchair and the futile effort in some places to break visual stereotypes in order to get service in regards to public transportation.

Question: Do you need to have a “companion” in order to get places where it geographically isn’t accessible and the taxis refuse to pick you up because of some preconceived stereotype with the wheelchair? Must you stay in a high priced hotel where no one will turn you down? Does Money=Service every time?

I arrived in Dubai around 10pm their time yesterday. The airport is beautiful. I was grateful once I got off the plane to be greeted my an airport employee who only needed to be told once that I didn’t need help. We travelled beside each other though this massive airport, taking three elevators, fast-tracked through two security checks then to the main concourse. I told him I needed to make a money exchange, but not Dirhams-Ruppees and Pakistani Rupees at that. I felt bad telling him I needed Pakistani money, this after he told me he is from India and he moved here a few years ago. He likes living and working in Dubai so when I saw the look on his face I felt I needed to explain to him why I was seeking a oney exchange for Pakistan. I told him I was a student and I also told him about my Thesis, he shook his head as to say he understood. We made our way to the taxi port and once we were outside I felt the Dubai heat. Not humid but a dry heat like you had the sun on your face or arms and there were no clouds in the sky. It was interesting I had three layers of clothing on so that I could save room in my carry-on, but I didn’t feel like I would pass out from the heat. All of a sudden another man approached me smiling and pointing and held a sign up with my name on it the hotel name. I smiled and was relieved. I called to my friend from the airport who was trying to bypass everyone else in line and get me a cab. The man with the sign with my name on it thought I was yelling to a companion travelling with me. He walked up to this white man getting into a cab, I yelled not him, him: and pointed to my friend from the airport. They met and walked towards me. I told my friend from the airport this was The Guy from the hotel. Then all three of us went to the Holiday Inn Dubai Downtown Hotel Van. My friend from the airport would not take a tip. He smiled and said farewell. The Guy from the hotel was also kind but quizzical about how to get me in the van. English is spoken here but it isn’t the first language. Arabic and Punjabi are spoken more frequently. The Guy from the hotel was also from India, which I would find out on my van ride with him to the hotel.
So I took it slow. I asked him to move the van closer. He did. As I went to transfer he made a big move to help me up grabbing me under my arms. I know in my heart when people do this it is to help. But most of the time they aren’t ready to lift a person. Luggage you can drop if it is too heavy or awkward. I also I didn’t want this Guy from the hotel to put his back out. So I turned around, smiled and told him I can do it, just watch me, I gave him an activity so I wouldn’t insult his offer I asked him will you hold my chair? I lifted myself in quickly then I turned to him and he was staring quizzically at the wheelchair. I said watch. And I showed him how the tires come out, right then left. I then showed him how the frame folds a little in the back. I took my cushion and he put the chair in the trunk and we were off.
We talked on the ride there about Dubai. I mistook Dubai for a Democracy, The Guy driving the Hotel van said it is ruled by a King. I asked how the economy is doing, he said very good, they are building many things now. He said he has lived in Dubai for sixteen years. I asked if he ever gets back to India he said maybe every two years and then he went on to tell me about his vacation package he has with his boss. It seemed quite fair, two weeks unpaid and two weeks paid. We arrive at The Holiday Inn Downtown and I notice their ramp. It was very steep and narrow, but they made an effort. The Guy from the hotel van got out and started to put my chair together and another hotel employee came out and started to help. Funny thing everyone wants to jam the axle into the hole. I said no watch you push the button in, he said, OOOHHH….I had one of them push me up the ramp but not before I gave the Drive 10 Dirhams as a tip. He was very happy. Was that too much or to little? Approximately 100 USD converts to 400 Dirhams. So four bucks I guess? I always tip a lot if I can because I feel that when I am get service from a person we build a very close physical and intellectual relationship because of the chair and the chair becomes this mean of communication regardless of any language barrier. You must figure out how to put it together, or I must show someone how, and they are usually willing to help. I can tell who someone is right away when I see how they communicate and relate to the chair, to me, and me in the chair.
I enter the air-conditioned Lobby and this tall man already had my Hotel contract for my stay, he gives me a pen and asks me to sign. The rate went up from 400 Dirhams to 480 Dirhams per night. I asked him why and he said the rate on this paper is all inclusive tax and everything. I said 20% tax each night? He said yes. I said but don’t you guys tax at the end? He said no. I told him that wasn’t what I was quoted. Sometimes it’s best to pay the extra 100 bucks. Otherwise I would have to leave and search for a hotel at 11pm in a country I don’t know yet. So I agreed and made a note to email my Travel Agent when I got in the room. I had to pay 40 Dirhams and hour for internet service because the business office was closed. So the Guy at the desk took my signed contract, a bell man took my one carry-on, I took my red cheeks hot from the dry Dubai night air and we went up to the 3rd floor to my room.
My hotel room, 317, looked pretty accessible. Dubai is energy conscious, at least at The Holiday Inn Downtown. You must put your hotel card in a reader in order for the electric to come on. One of the hotel’s brochures boasts about Dubai’s City Electricity hardly ever going out. I noticed the bathroom had no shower bench and there was something else that reminded me exactly where I was: a simple white hose next to the toilet for washing your feet. I am in a tourist city, but the heart at this city beats Muslim and it is now Ramadan. I understood. I wanted to get smaller Dirhams so I wouldn’t run out. I asked the bell hop if he could wait a little for me to come down stairs for his tip. He said no problem Mam and he left. Mam here is their Madame. It is funny how in the U.S if you say Mam to a woman in her thirties she gets offended and says how she’s not that old. Here it is meant as a simple respectful term for all women, who do not speak their language.
I put my clothes out and set up some things I looked at my rosy cheeks in the mirror. I cleaned up a little I tried to wipe the British Airways recycled charm and air off my face and ventured down stairs to look around. Nothing much was in the lobby except the Guy from the front desk, a scary security guard with a blue Fischer Price walkie-talkie, and a concierge. I went back upstairs. I did some work, figured how much money I didn’t have and went to sleep.
I woke up and saw the clock read 7:43. The front desk Guy said Dubai was eight hours ahead of the U.S. Was that 7:43 pm or am? How long did I sleep for? It looked light out from my Holiday Inn bed. I called down to the front desk and a young woman answered she said it was 11:43am Mam. I said thank you. I got ready and looked at Dubai’s version of “Time Out”.
The sections in their “Time Out” weren’t as complex as New York’s or London’s especially in regards to theatre. In fact there was no theatre section. I found many ads for the Iftar: the Feast each night after Ramadan fasting and where you could get the best deal after sunset for your celebratory meal. There was an article that said many Fast Food Restaurants were marketing to Dubai’s Muslims offering them great deals to eat for cheap after sunset, but that this was not good because Dubai already has an Obesity problem.
I went to the Lobby to get a cab: this new security guard, very tiny and smiley and a new bell boy who possessed this giggle after he spoke to you. They tried hailing a cab for me. One pulled up as I was being helped by the concierge down the ramp and the cabbie looked at me and started yelling at them. All I understood was Petrol. The cabbie drove off screaming. Sad thing was he had a station wagon. My chair would have fit if he just took two minutes so I could show him how to take it apart. I wanted to go to the Dubai Museum and I figured out quick I wasn’t getting a cab, at least not this way. I looked at my scene partners; The Concierge, The Bell-Boy, and The Security Guard. They apologize but even in their broken English and my zero knowledge of Punjabi or Arabic, I looked at them and I said No petrol and then I pointed to my wheelchair and made a gesture saying no. I then smiled and said right, yeah? They hesitated and laughed and agreed with me. We all went back inside. The security guard helped me up the ramp as the bell boy ran around to open the door for me. For the next hour the concierge tried to get a cab for me. I noticed a female Dubai Tours Employee sitting quietly at a desk in the lobby. She sat at a wooden desk in front of this huge window curtain, or was it a curtain covering up a wall? I took her brochure for Desert Tours and City day/night tours. Basically you rent a driver for a few hours and they take you to a maximum of three places in Dubai for three hours. I asked her if there was anything around the hotel to go to and she said there was a mall a half a mile down the road. I decided to take a stroll. The bellboy wasn’t sure about this he said what if I need help what will happen? This time a nervous giggle of his followed his question I told him it is alright. I left for the mall.
I was upset I was in Dubai and I was going to the mall. I wanted to see the city but no cabs would stop for me. As I walked down the street people stopped and did triple takes. I know for Ramadan there is complete fasting, no alcohol, no loud music, no women can be scantily dressed, and no chewing gum or swearing. I wondered if my wheelchair was on the list. I got to the mall via the street since there sidewalks were constructed Tunis style-nicely bricked and paved but no curb cuts. This wasn’t to out of the ordinary. Many cars stopped for me to pass. As I went down the street I saw a man walking hand in hand with his daughter. She must have been five dressed in electric blue pants, heeled silver jellies, and a half shirt hanging off her shoulder. I wondered if she would get a ticket for being too young and too scantily dressed. I wanted to stop her and you know it’s Ramadan.
At the Mall it was like any other except 60% of the stores were closed for Ramadan. People sat at the food court with no food stations opened, some slept others just looked bored. I noticed all the shops selling these beautiful, hand made black Burkahs and scarves. The shops were expensive. All I needed was a pharmacy but that wouldn’t open until 7:30pm a young man behind the Information desk told me. I rolled around for an hour chillin’ then got tired and decided to head back to my temporary home. I noticed more and more people stared. One man followed close behind me and I tried to dip on him before he asked if I need help. I said no thanks smiled and kept going. I found myself rolling down the busy street this time into on-coming traffic, but I had no way of getting up on the curb. People stopped, some beeped at me, and others just kept going. The article in “Time Out” also warned people about speeding cars around sunset. It reminded tourists that people haven’t eaten for over twelve hours and they really want to get home.
As I wheeled back to the Holiday Inn Downtown something happened I will never forget. On a speaker somewhere in the distance, flooding the air as if the wind carried the sound was The Call to Prayer. There were no instruments in the background just a beautiful voice and he would sing then there would be silence and then he would sign again. I pulled over in my chair wedged myself safely between a parked car and a curb and fumbled for my new 99.00USD camcorder the Radio Shack guy in New York told me was for college students and their friends. I tried to figure out how to press record and I couldn’t. I then pulled out my digital camera. I wanted to capture this beautiful voice above me in the sunny clear sky. People walked by staring, I started to film the sky and the prayer with my camera and then I stopped. I put it away. That was rude to do. Beautiful moments like this don’t have to be recorded with some camera I thought. I didn’t want to draw anymore attention to myself. I just listened. And then it stopped. I told myself I would write the experience down later. And I have. It will always be a positive memory of a Dubai Afternoon.
I went back to my hotel and went to book a dune buggy tour but exchanged it for a three hour drive to The Gold City. The lobby shift had changed; new employees. Hello Dubai? It’s Blair from America. I’m going to sleep.


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