The ever-present legions of opportunists standing at street corners – eager to jump at the chance to be a tour guide, procure goods, carry them or even find a whore – does take a bit of getting used to. Eventually one comes to terms with the underbelly of society and begins to admire the finesse with which its weaved itself into the larger fabric.
The negotiations do get tiresome at times, but there’s always some sense of accomplishment and satisfaction that goes with it too. And knowing that you’ve bettered the previous negotiation either indicates that your skills have improved or that yesterday you got taken for a fool.
Just four weeks since leaving the continent [Africa] and I’m already starting to miss those street-smart hustlers.
If you’ve ever been to Dubai, you would have noticed a different type of social underbelly – the working class imported population. Their daily toil ensures that the well-to-do don’t ever need to know what it’s like to scrub a toilet, empty the garbage or work twelve-hour shifts in the searing heat.
Things work more or less like clockwork, albeit under the guise of gainful employment – some call it modern-day slavery – but I’d settle for exploitation en masse.
Expectations in Dubai are different, everyone conforms to the “done thing” and doesn’t really bother with injustices conducted in plain sight. Dubai: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly did present a rough overview of the conditions, but realistically, it was just scratching the surface.
If you can ignore those underbelly realities, for the fortunate well-employed expats, life is very easy here. Even in this conservative society most things are possible and usually straight off the shelf, including the whores. If you aren’t happy with what you’ve got, bin it, and go shopping for something new in one of the mega-malls. Consumerism gone mad.
“Maybe you’d like some gold with that,” is the going joke among some of my friends.
Dubai loves its gold trim and marble even more than Chauchesku ever did; although construction worker safety statistics probably aren’t dissimilar. But I digress, back to the topic at hand.
It was getting close to 10pm and we were standing at the end of a very long line. Things could be worse, I could be hungry and standing at the end of a very long line. Luckily, we’d had some IKEA meatballs before entering the marathon shopping circuit and there was enough energy reserve to last at least two more laps.
Twenty lanes and all moving at the speed of a turtle climbing a dune. The whole cashier section was awash with people pushing trolleys overloaded with flat-pack furniture. It reminded me of rickety Chinese trucks filled, three stories high, with used cardboard on their way to recycling plants.
Hang on a second! Are you saying I have to find my flat-packs, lift them onto the trolley(s) and then somehow manage to weave back to the cash register without assistance? Surely there’s been some terrible mistake? Where are the street-smart hustlers when I need them most?
I stood there stumped and at a loss for words. Is there nobody who can take my shopping list and fill the order? What do you mean IKEA is a Self-Service Shop? Where’s the Premier Gold Priority line that will have me out of here within minutes instead of hours? Gold just isn’t what it used to be.
This isn’t the Dubai way, what the hell is going on here? For a moment there I thought I’d taken a wrong turn at Living Rooms and ended up in some parallel universe. This had Scandinavian intervention written all over it — those damn Swedes are trying to destroy a well-established social structure, where gold and gold cards decide where one fits into the hierarchy — they’re creating a social experiment amid the the larger Dubai experiment.
Indians carrying pots and pans rubbed shoulders with Emiratis pushing carts filled with pot plants and curtains. Russians with sofas and chairs rubbed shoulders with Chinese holding salad spinners and lampshades. And all of us engrossed in watching a Nigerian family fumble their way through a transaction involving glassware and a large pile of US dollars.
The whole experience was rather eye-opening and the first time I’d seen this type of cosmopolitan integration in Dubai. Take away the gold cards, the status symbols, the nepotism and all of a sudden we’re experiencing the world on an equal footing.
Imagine, that evening, IKEA did more to bring about social cohesion and equality than any politician, human rights watchdog or activist. Who would have thought that flat-packs would have such a profound effect on humanity? I think the United Nations should shop here too — it couldn’t hurt their dismal success record.
But social breakthroughs aside, it took us an hour to make it through the cash registers followed by another thirty minutes at the delivery counter.
There’s only so much social upheaval I can deal with in one day, and the long line at the taxi stand was the straw that broke this camel’s back.
“Let’s go,” I said, as I power-walked through the parking lot to the other side of the building. Far away and out of sight of those waiting patiently in line, my frustration and fatigue compelled me to look deep into my entrepreneurial spirit and setup a Gold-Express taxi stand right there on the corner — from which I wasted no time in waving down the first available cab. It was the Dubai thing to do.
[Photo credit: Iain Masterton – and yes, I paid for it with real hard Euro-Gold]