Friday 12 April 2013

UAE Hints and Mosque Manners

Herewith a few hints to Lady Travellers visiting the UAE on their own.

First of all, I didn't experience any particular problems as a woman on my own in Abu Dhabi.  Everyone I met was courteous and friendly and, as far as Western women are concerned, the rules concerning dress are fairly liberal.  I chose to wear tops that covered my arms and trousers - but this was partly as protection against the sun.  However, I've found that when you are on your own, dressing more conservatively offers some protection against unwanted attention (though it didn't stop two guys from making kissy faces at me outside the souq - for them I employed my Cape Town Mean Face).

The one exception to the dressing rule comes when visiting a mosque.  The Sheikh Zayed mosque helpfully advises visitors as to appropriate clothing:

Briefly, upper arms and legs need to be covered for men; hair, arms and legs for women - and clothing shouldn't be too tight.  Clothing with profanity on it is also a no-no. I wore cotton trousers and a long-sleeved cotton shirt and had brought a scarf with me and this proved to be entirely acceptable.  (I'm frowning with the effort of photographing myself.)

BUT, but, but, if you turn up not wearing suitable clothing, Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque will supply you with a robe to put on over your clothes (I imagine this is not the case with smaller, less tourist-friendly mosques, however).

You will be required to take off your footwear before entering the mosque proper.  I also noticed one couple who were being photographed by a friend (not a problem) being politely asked not to touch inside the mosque.

Apart from that, the same rules apply as when visiting most places of worship: be respectful and think twice before photographing people at prayer.

Thursday 11 April 2013

Abu Dhabi: A Mosque and a Souq

I stopped off in Abu Dhabi on my way home from Australia because a) it's a long journey and it's more pleasant to get off the plane and go to a hotel than to get straight onto another plane, b) because I was curious to visit the UAE and c) because I'd never visited and could count it as my new country for 2013.  (These reasons are in no particular order.)  

With only 48 hours in Abu Dhabi (and being fairly jet lagged) I focused on a few key things I wanted to visit.  The first was the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque which we passed on the way from the airport to my hotel.  In the sunrise all of the domes and minarets were tinted a rosy pink.  When I visited later in the day, everything was blindingly white - I literally had to put on my sunglasses to see properly.

The building of the Mosque was initiated by Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan, the 'father' of the UAE, and he is buried in its grounds (though access to the mausoleum is limited).  It is one of the largest mosques in the world and a great source of pride to the Emiratis I met.

Inside, there is lavish attention to detail.  Flowers inset into the marble floors,

and floral motifs creeping up the walls, not to mention the windows.

The carpets were equally stunning - and because, it being a mosque, all visitors have to go barefoot inside, you really experience the thick pile first hand.  First foot?

The scale of the Mosque is fairly breathtaking and visiting was a fascinating experience - although I found its size overwhelming.  It would be interesting to see whether, as it ages, it develops a patina like, say, the Taj Mahal.  But sadly none of us will be around in 400 years to compare notes.

After leaving the Mosque, I went downtown to the Souk/Central Market, a Norman Foster-designed reimagining of the traditional souk.  There's a nod to tradition in the use of materials, the latticing and the play of light in the interior.

Inside, there are clothes shops, many jewellers, several souvenir shops and, my favourite, an emporium of spices, teas and dried fruit.  I particularly loved the baskets outside - look how beautiful this display is.

I had a real wow-I'm-really-in-the-Middle-East-now moment when I peered at this (greyish, unappealing substance) and realised that it was frankincense.  It smells (forgive me for any inappropriate smell-association) like all the incense burners of all the Catholic masses of my youth.  When I looked into it, I discovered that frankincense is often used for incense in Catholic churches.  So there it was - exotic and faintly nostalgic, all at the same time.

Slightly less exotic, but amusing to see, was the shop next door to the souq:

Apart from these two iconic experiences, I wandered around a little, taking in the newness of it all - both new to me and new in the sense that a great deal of downtown Abu Dhabi is very new.

I thought I'd hit upon an ancient monument when I saw this:

But sadly it was on a hoarding covering the building within and access to the actual fort is currently forbidden owing to building works.

So I called it a day and went back to my hotel to watch camel racing on tv and to marvel at the intricate and stylish ways in which the female tv presenters on the local and on the Saudi Arabian channels arrange their hijabs.  

Wednesday 10 April 2013

Overseen: Matchy Matchy

Overseen in Marseille, March 2013.  Oh those French, with their matching vans and window treatments.

Monday 8 April 2013

The Red Rock

Here's my confession.  Sometime during the five-hour drive from Alice Springs to Uluru, I became thoroughly grumpy.  I decided that the rock was probably overrated - I mean, it was just a rock, right?  (It's true that my grumpiness may have had something to do with lack of sleep, but I was still very disinclined to be impressed by anything.)  And my first sighting did nothing to disspell that thought: yep, there it is, a big red rock in the middle of lots of red desert and scrub.

It is in fact an inselberg, an isolated sandstone rock formation standing in the middle of a flat plain.  Its fame comes not from its height (it's not particularly high - 348m) but from the fact that it is, literally, monolithic.

Still, picture me looking out the bus window, unimpressed.  And then, THEN, we got off the bus and up close and personal.  Despite the 40 degree heat, this is when I started to understand why the traditional owners refer to Uluru as a living thing.  Because it isn't just a big hunk of rock - it's full of life.  And it isn't just monolithic - all its nooks and crannies and crack and crevices are full of interest and colour and delight.

From the long black tunnels carved by rainwater (which, during the rainy season, is supposed to pour down the rock in sheets),

to the cave paintings adorning its multiple surfaces,

Uluru has many stories to share.  One of my favourite of all the things I learned was that the rock art is virtually undatable because it has been continually added to over hundreds of years.

One of the most surprising things about this legendary red rock is that it's actually quite green, in places.

Tjukurpa is what the traditional Anangu owners call the creation period, but it also refers to the spiritual and cultural laws they use to guide their lives.  One of the creation stories relates to Kuniya, the sand python, who did a ritual dance across the rock.  You can see her eye at the top of the ridge here, and her body moving across the rock.

Another story recounts how Uluru was formed by two mischievous boys who were playing in the mud.    First they piled it high (forming the rock) and then they climbed on it.  If you look carefully, you can see a foot- and a handprint in the photo below.

I've subsequently noticed that the patch of blue in this next photo looks like a small boy doubled over while he crows with laughter ...

One story I had heard about Uluru before I visited is that the rock changes colour throughout the day.  This proved not to be a myth - and I was so enchanted by the different colours that I regretted I wasn't staying over so I could see the sunrise the next morning.  But still, the journey proved to be anything by disappointing.  I think the problem with Uluru is that words don't really do it justice; I'm not sure if photographs really do either.  But I'm going to finish with three, taken at different times during the day.

Oh, wait - one more thing.  It's Ul-ur-ooo (BIG emphasis on the final syllable) or Oo-lu-roo (emphasis on first and last syllables).  Any other attempt at pronunciation rendered me unintelligible to Australian listeners.