Saturday, December 16, 2017

Dubai Revisted

I had written this after our return from Dubai in 2010. Since then many friends and relatives have asked me to email it to them, especially if they are planning to visit Dubai. So, I decided to put it up on my blog and share it will all those who would like to know a bit more about Dubai than its Shopping Festival, Gold Souk and Burj Khalifa.

DUBAI  REVISITED                                                                                November 2010

“The east is east and the west is west, and the twain shall not meet.”
This may be true of the times when Rudyard Kipling lived. But certainly not true today. And it certainly doesn’t apply to Dubai!  Dubai is a wondrous blend of modern western & Japanese technology and eastern enterprise & labour.

Dubai has risen virtually from a sand dune some 40 years ago to one of the most modern metropolises and free ports, not only in the Middle East but in the world as well. Much of this change has taken place in the last 15 years, with most of it happening post 2002. Built with Arab money (never mind if most of it was borrowed), British and American town planning & administration, Japanese & Korean construction & engineering, Asian labour, and above all, the vision of one man: Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Makhtoum, the current Sheikh of Dubai.

Dubai of 1998, when we visited last, has totally changed. And changed for the better!

We had heard and read so much about the construction boom in Dubai, the 7 star hotel and the tallest building coming up there, that Shefali and I decided that the next destination on our trip planner would be Dubai. I had also read about its new Airport Terminal 3 which was exclusive to Emirates Airlines, so we decided that Emirates is what we would fly to Dubai.

Next, was the choice of accommodation. We decided to try out a studio apartment instead of the usual hotel room. Here I must give full credit to Google Earth for helping us choose the Grand Midwest Hotel Apartment in downtown Bur Dubai. With its proximity to the Metro station, the bus stops and the ease in hailing a cab, commuting from the Grand Midwest to any place in Dubai was quick n easy. Besides, it is very well maintained with good facilities and reasonably priced vegetarian food, if one chose not to cook.

We began our 8 day trip on Sunday, 31st October 2010 with a delayed flight, but were thankfully in time for the desert safari scheduled that afternoon. After stopping for a photo-op at a camel farm, we headed for a Bedouin village styled desert camp where we were welcomed with tiny cups of strong Arabic black coffee and dates. But the most awaited program that night was the belly dance. Surprisingly, it was not sensual (may be because many young children come for these safaris).

The notable feature about our city tour the next day was the Serbian guide, Dejan. He not only gave us a glimpse of the city but also of its history, culture and politics. But the day wasn’t done and best was yet to come – Ski Dubai. Just imagine, snow in the desert! Akshay & I had great fun there though we did not ski. Instead we came sliding down the snow in rubber tubes & flat plastic trolleys. I was amazed to see young Emirati kids ski down the slopes like pros. Come to think of it; these kids have snow throughout the year to practice on, whilst those poor blokes in Switzerland and Austria have to make do with just 3 months of snow on the mountains! It has a 400 mts long slope with a ropeway taking skiers up to the top. Ski Dubai is in the Mall of the Emirates which is one of the largest malls in the world!

The next day, our 3rd, we set off for Abu Dhabi. And our first stop was the breathtakingly beautiful Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. Built using the finest of materials, be it marble from Greece and Italy, precious and semi precious stones from around the world, stunning chandeliers from Germany, endless one piece carpets, all put together by equally fine craftsmen of different nationalities, all creating a modern masterpiece. A guided tour of the mosque made the visit all the more interesting.

The next stop was Yas Island which is poised to host the 1st FI motor race in the Emirates on 14th of November. The Yas Marina Resort too, is a very fine Hotel only to be outdone in its opulence by the Emirates Palace Hotel in down town Abu Dhabi. This hotel is dripping in opulence. Sadly, we could not take the guided tour but were able to move around in the Hotel and have a glimpse of its suites via the  LCD displays kept in the lobby. After a  wrap of the citycovering the Corniche, the creek, the Heritage village and the Marina Mall, we headed to a friend's home for dinner. We returned to Dubai by the intercity bus that night covering a distance of about 200 kms in 1hr.45mins.

Back in Dubai, we went up the tallest building in the world, Burj Khalifa, to its viewing gallery on the 128th floor in the world’s fastest lift, climbing at the rate of 10mts per second, reaching there in 60 seconds flat. The viewing gallery offers a 360˚view. And you can see the curvature of the earth on the horizon 9.5 kms away! We also visited the breathtakingly beautiful 7 star hotel built in the sea, the Burj Al Arab. But what we enjoyed the most was Aquaventure at the Atlantis Hotel. It brings out the child in you. We floated in flowing water in tubes, swirled in the rapids and torrents, took ‘Leaps of Faith’ and went through the shark tank. After 4½ hours of nonstop fun, though tired, we had to reluctantly drag ourselves out for lunch. The adjacent Lost Chambers and the Ambassador Lagoon are nothing to write home about. We then went around window shopping in the Atlantis Hotel, gaping wide eyed at those exclusive but very expensive branded watches, jewellery, porcelain and apparels. But we did some hard core shopping at Festival City, the Dubai Mall and the Mall of the Emirates.

From the Atlantis Hotel we took a return trip on the monorail which offers a wonderful overview of the Palm Jumeirah and its famed fronds. Then we spent the evening at Palm Jumeirah with our friend and enjoyed a stroll on the Jumeirah walk that night.

We went around old Dubai too: the souks, Meena Bazaar and the Museum. When I last visited the museum in 1998, history of Dubai went back to about 200 years. But recent archaeological excavations have revealed much earlier settlements. And many artefacts dating back to over 2000 years are now displayed. We also had the good fortune of visiting the Krishna Temple (Haveli) on Diwali Day. Dubai, when it comes to religious freedom, is more liberal as compared to the other six emirates.

Like Singapore, Dubai has a well integrated, modern and efficient transport system. The metro and the buses complement each other very well. There is also the very reasonably priced inter-emirate bus service. I used this to travel to Sharjah.

 Sharjah is a poor cousin of Dubai.  Yes, there are pockets of affluence but overall unimpressive. It is neither as clean nor as modern as Dubai. Sharjah too has its own creek, museum & cultural centre, souks and Qannat al Qasaba, its hotspot.  As accommodation is cheaper in Sharjah, many people stay there and work in Dubai.

Our 8 day stay in the UAE afforded us the time to visit friends. We met up with our friends over lunch and dinner. It afforded us an opportunity to see homes in Dubai and the lifestyles of people living there. However, there is a vast difference between the lifestyles of the expat and the Emirati Arab.  With a very low native population of 950,000 in the entire UAE, most of whom stay in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah, the government cares for them from cradle to grave. Education and healthcare are virtually free, generous grants for marriage & accommodation and to top it all, assured jobs with generous pay packets for those who wish to work. And for those who don’t, they can be ‘sleeping’ partners of expats wanting to do business in Dubai. How very convenient!

Our visits to Singapore and Dubai made me realise that if there is a visionary at the helm of affairs in the government, it makes such a vast difference. A small fishing settlement has grown into a modern metropolis attracting trade and tourism from the world over. Of the over 1.6 million residents of Dubai, more than 80% are expats controlling over 70% of the businesses.

Sadly, due to lack of vision in another part of the world, a global city has been ‘ruralized’.

What we saw on this trip was not just Dubai city. But Brand Dubai. And Brands are Expensive!

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Those halcyon days in the Mahableshwar of yore.

Mumbai, 13 October, 2017

Those halcyon days in Mahableshwar.

As the pace of life has quickened, it has also changed the way we holiday.

When I reminisce about my childhood holidays spent at Mahableshwar I am reminded of anecdotes recounted by my parents and grandparents  as to how they enjoyed a long summer vacation at the bungalow in Mahableshwar and realised how different it was the way people enjoyed their holidays then.

First up, a summer holiday at the bungalow meant moving house for two months or more. School & college examinations would be over by mid to late March and the family would head to Mahableshwar with servants, driver and cook in tow. Leaving early in the morning in an open-air saloon with a folding hood, luggage firmly strapped to the back of the car, chrome water jugs filled with drinking water and Eagle thermos flasks brimming with piping hot tea, the journey would take 6 to 7 hours including a few stops, not only for tea, snacks and to stretch one's legs but also to let the car's engine cool down. It would be noon before the family reached the bungalow albeit covered in red dust as many roads were not metalled then. As the bungalow was fully furnished and well equipped with most of the amenities and kitchen appliances, it was not difficult to set up the place.

Once the family settled in, it was time for guests, friends and relatives along with their families to arrive. A large bungalow had place for everyone. Oh, it must have been so much fun for the children to spend time with their cousins. In the absence of television..... playing games, reading books, going on long walks and cycling was enjoyed to the fullest. Pony rides, boating in the lake and seeing magicians perform the impossible added to the bouquet of fun activities. Large open spaces with trees, shrubs and flowers meant that children could enjoy the open outdoors in activities such as picking jamoonsshetur and amboli, something that was not usually possible in the city.

Speaking of trees and shrubs, one had to be careful of snakes and scorpions. Mahableshwar, even today has thick forest cover. Besides these venomous creatures, wild animals like tiger, leopard, deer and wild boar roamed freely in the forest, and we have had one such tiger pay us a surprise visit early in the morning, in search of water. 

Coming back to the bungalow, the ladies generally busied themselves with managing the kitchen, shopping for groceries and attending to the refurbishment of household linen, if required. Not that they did not have their 'me time'. With other members of the extended family, the afternoons were spent in gossip before the siesta. Evenings meant going out with the family, and to the bazaar for shopping before returning home to a hearty meal prepared and kept warm by the cook. On birthdays and auspicious days, a visit to the temple in the bazaar or at Kshetra Mahableshwar was followed by a special meal. The daily routine was not much different from home in the city, except that the pace here was much more relaxed and the surroundings, quiet and pleasant.

Grandfather obviously couldn't spend the entire two months away from the office. So he would spend a few days with the family in Mahableshwar and then return back to Bombay, and the office. But even in Mahableshwar it was not all fun and relaxation for him. Though he too had his fill of rest and leisure in the company of family, friends and relatives, and also enrolled at the local Gymkhana for a game of tennis and bridge, there was work to be attended to. Official work relating to the bungalow and the property meant visiting the government or municipal offices, interacting with the house agent and attending to repairs, renovations and the issues raised by our gardener cum caretaker. With the joys of owning a second home come the responsibilities of maintaining it.

Work aside, he as well as my parents and relatives would love to go for a morning walk, especially to Wilson Point to catch a glimpse of the sunrise or to Babington Point which was a longer walk than Wilson. Post breakfast or afternoon tea the family would be deciding and planning where to set off, either for a walk to the lake or to a point, a garden or someplace in the vicinity for an outing; to see another place once more, and absorb the beauty nature has to offer. A late evening visit to the bazaar would mean meeting up with other bungalow owners and exchanging notes and pleasantries, and some more shopping too!

Besides the regular bazaar, there was a weekly market every Tuesday. People from neighbouring villages would come with fresh farm produce, locally made metal and clay utensils and other sundry items of interest for sale. There would be ironsmiths who would repair sigris and kitchenware and do tin plating inside brass utensils. Cobblers would sell chappals and mend old foot ware. Ground masalas and locally grown spices added a strong, pungent aroma all around. I  too have pleasant memories visiting this weekly market with my mother and grandmother.

This brings me to another, now almost forgotten bathroom utility, the wood-fired boiler. It was called the Bambaa. The Bambaa was a tall copper container with a round cavity in the center and a tap at the bottom. Firewood was inserted into this cavity which when lit would heat the water in the Bambaa. A bath with water heated in the Bamba would leave one with a light aroma of burnt wood. Sadly, along with the Bambaa,  petromax lanterns and oil lamps too have disappeared now that electricity is available on almost all the days of the week.

All in all, it was an extended period of rest, both for the mind and body. And though every summer was spent at Mahableshwar, I have never heard my parents or uncles or aunts complain of going to the same place, year after year. It was only with the onset of monsoon towards the end of May or in the beginning of June that the urge to return to Bombay would set in.

Today, in spite of having the bungalow, we as a family are not able to go together for long stays with friends and relatives as we used to. Now, with everyone making their own plans, it becomes difficult to co-ordinate. Besides, with the quickened pace of life and demanding work commitments, long annual vacations are no longer an easy option.

Today we visit different places in India and abroad and stay in luxurious hotels and resorts. We visit all touristy sites and eat at fine dining restaurants. Yet, the happiness that comes from long relaxed stays and  enjoying the simple joys in the company of family, friends and relatives elude us.

Sandip Merchant
with inputs from

Prabodh Merchant.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Self-in-stone Discipline

Self-in-stone Discipline

The current tragedy at Elphinstone Road Station has led to an outpouring of anger and grief from people in all walks of life, irrespective of whether they use the suburban rail services or not. But rest assured, such tragedies will continue to happen. Why? Because we just lack discipline.

Stampedes happen because people don't wait; they rush headlong. Can we as Indians wait for others? Can we stand in a queue and wait our turn? Can we wait for the green signal before we move? Do we let passengers alight from the train before we board? The answer is a big NO!

For us Indians, the other person does not exist. We just want to have our way. We are forever wanting a bigger share of the pie. Our personal conveniences come first. Others don't matter. We cut corners. We are prepared to risk life and limb than exercise caution, understanding and patience.

Sadly, every time there is a move to stop people from going their wayward ways, there is a hue n cry. The liberals speak of restrictions on our freedom. Politicians fear losing their vote bank if laws are enforced. And, we the people swear by the "chalta hai" motto.

The bottom line is, as long as we are tolerant of indiscipline in our personal life, things will not improve.

Time to ponder.
Time to change!


Satyen was a conscientious employee and had spent close to a quarter century in a private bank. A devoted family man, he found solace in his...