PART FOUR: Dubee, Dube, Dubai

My feet looked like they belonged to a hairless Hobbitt – swollen beyond recognition, and painful. But, I had chosen this flight so that I had the time to meander around Dubai’s souks, and by golly, that was what I was going to do. I hobbled through to the bathroom – the first stall I walked into was definitely going to prove to be too much for me to handle in my current sleepless state, but fortunately, Dubai knows they need to cater for international visitors and the next stall had more familiar plumbing.

No. No, I am not using that.

No. No, I am not using that.

Then, walking the 15 miles to where I could leave my carry-on luggage. (On my return later that day, it turned out to be only a few meters, but at the time…), and I was on my way towards the taxis. The driver navigated his way through extraordinary traffic more like Johannesburg rush hour to Old Dubai and dropped me off at the souk I wanted to go to. It was the second market on my list, but my feet were not going to carry me along the far longer adventure I had planned.

The first couple of vendors were amusing, but I quickly tired of seeing every vendor selling the same thing, and trying the same harassing tactics – and clearly not recognizing me from the less than 5 minutes I had passed by previously. I stopped for a smoothie, sitting among a clientele of mainly women, dressed in everything from western clothing, to full burkas. All the servers were men, as were the vast majority of people on the streets.

The spice souk would have been much more fun if not for my feet and my exhaustion, but breathing in the rich scents of exotic spices and flowers made me wonder if a return trip would be worth it. It turned out the spice souk is very small, and I made it through quickly, on my way to the Dubai Creek.

The abras were filling up and for a Dirham, I hopped on board to be ferried across the gorgeous creek to the old historic sites. It is truly gorgeous - modern buildings glistening in the sun, the Creek's sapphire blue waters lapping against the abra.... and just the few minutes provided some relief to my poor feet, now blistering badly despite the comfortable shoes I was wearing.

I limped through the old souk – again, with every vendor selling the same pashminas and ornaments. Stop at one and you've seen them all, and after that, there seemed little need to keep walking. I'm an idiot: I kept walking, finally reaching an ancient-looking building which turned out to be the Dubai Museum. I tried to enter the exit and was sent on another 1000-mile hobble around to the front of the building, and found that it was actually worth the visit. If I ever return to Dubai, the museum would be on the itinerary: it looked like it was an interesting view of the country and its history. A tourist from one of the Asian countries took much of my attention as she stopped every few feet with her Wand of Narcissus, and took pictures, without once reading the information plaques, or studying the exhibits.

My feet carried me through it, and I longed to study the exhibits in greater depth, but the pain and exhaustion didn’t allow me to linger - all I longed for was a shower and comfortable seat back at the airport.

Click on pics to see them all:

On the way back to the old souk, I stopped to check out my feet, and they were covered with blisters and blood. Nothing for it, but to find the abra, and then a taxi to get me back to Terminal 3.

The abra was easy. On the passage across the creek, I asked the man sitting next to me where I could get a taxi to the airport, and he suggested that I rather get the train.

I followed him through the streets until he pointed towards a large building and said I could get a train “down there”, or a taxi – he waved vaguely – “over there". I thanked him for his helpfulness, hoping my sarcasm was lost in translation, and pondered the options: I’m probably never coming back to Dubai. I’ve already caught a taxi. So, in the interest of a new experience, I made my way to the train station. As I got closer, I started to think that it really didn’t look much like a train station, but rather more like a mall. I asked a couple of people on my way in that direction, and it was only the final person who pointed away from the large building, currently at my 12 o’clock, to my 9 o’clock, and a small glass pyramid-shape nestled in trees.

It was only another block. I could make it.

Down the escalators and into the subway, towards an information/ticket counter where the man rattled off the names of the stations I needed to get to. You know, when one lives in a place, names are familiar, and the idea that they sound like gibberish to a foreigner doesn’t occur. I hoped I’d caught enough syllables to make it.

The trains in Dubai are fabulous: smart, clean, fast, and safe. I suspected any effort to graffiti even the smallest item would result in severe punishment. I changed trains from Baniyas Station to Union Square and a quick change to land happily at Terminal 3. Considering my ability to get lost on a bridge (yes, that happened), I was amazed and wondered if I shouldn’t do more navigating when dead-tired, since alertness clearly doesn’t work for me. More on that later.

I fetched my carry-on and started the very long trek across the terminal to find the showers. Up escalators, down lifts, follow maps, guess at directions, and eventually I made it. A lovely spa on an upper level, that charges a pittance for about an hour of freshening up. They provide everything you need, including a robe. I stood under that shower for a very long time. It’s not that Dubai was hot or dusty, as one might expect in a desert city. The day had been warm, but perfect. It was more that I was so tired, I didn’t know what else to do but let the water run over me… and my poor feet, which were now adult hairless Hobbitt, with injuries.

And then to check in. A diligent official stood guard at a scale, weighing all carry-on that he deemed suspicious.

I was suspicious.

And double the weight of what was allowed.

I had made it virtually around the world with nobody checking my bag, and now, on my final leg, I was stopped.

I tried arguing, but could feel the emotions start to get the better of me so relented and walked all the way to the counter where I had to check the bag, then all the way to the opposite side of the terminal hall to pay over $200 for my “small” bag, and then back to check in. It was Wednesday night; having been awake since Monday morning, I just knew that the overnight flight to Johannesburg would be the perfect time to sleep.

A little duty-free shopping, venturing to the restaurant and foregoing the free meal option for something that sounded more appetizing, and I was able to sit for a while. Blessed relief. Sadly, even with the condition my feet were in, I’m really not one for sitting too long, so I did another walk or three around terminal 3, a little more shopping, and eventually the small rejuvenation my shower and meal had provided started to wear off, and I found my seat near my departure gate, closed my eyes and tried not to drop off. I closed my eyes, and listened to the men nearby, chattering away in strong, South African accents. I felt all warm and fuzzy. Pretty sure that's because I knew I was close to home, and now the fog that had taken up residence in my addled brain.

Finally, it was time to board, and as I found my seat – another 2-seater aisle I thought would leave me space – hopes were dashed as a rather large South African sat down next to me. I breathed deeply, prepared for a bad trip. Tall men in planes that are designed to fit the maximum of bodies are not a good combination.

He was next to me for less than 5 minutes when an attendant came by and asked if he’d like to move to the front seat in the bulkhead, where his legs would have more room. I wanted to kiss her.

Popped a Melatonin, always guaranteed to give me a 4-5 hour sleep, and tried to decide whether I wanted to eat. I did. I wasn’t hungry, but I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to try the food on this flight. I ate about half and left the rest: not that it was bad per se, I just felt myself getting drowsy and not feeling very well.

I closed my eyes, leaned back in the seat, tried various positions, failed to find comfort, leaned back in the seat, felt drowsy, shifted around, and after an hour, gave up and started watching James Bond.

Having been awake since early Monday, heading into Thursday morning and the start of my new life, I felt more irritated than I wanted to feel at this point in the journey. I had been anticipating a lump in my throat, a feeling of excitement, waves of optimism. All I felt was exhaustion, frustration, and pain. Not the way to start a new adventure.

I barely remember getting off the plane in Joburg. SA time was 5:20am – and I was not in a frame of mind to breathe deeply that special scent of Africa. I hobbled across to get my luggage. In America, luggage carts are chained and bound, only being freed by the insertion of coins. In SA, you get one and go. It’s part of the service.

I had planned to get the fancy and impressive Gautrain through to Sandton where my niece would meet me. However, somewhere over Ethiopia, my 3 suitcases had gained several pounds and I suspected the Gautrain would present a set of challenges I was in no state, mentally or physically, to cope with.

I hauled the bags onto the cart clumsily, and headed towards the exit. I tried using my US phone to text or call my niece, but couldn’t get through. The Vodacom store opened it up, saw it’s a wi-fi phone with no Sim card, and offered to sell me a phone. I declined, and went for a shot of caffeine instead. After years of varying qualities of American coffee, from the godawful crap they call coffee at Starschmucks, to some excellent local roast that almost persuaded me to move to Portland, Oregon, the excellent cup served at the airport was a sign of things to come. Since I've been in SA, I have not had poor coffee, or food. More on that later.

Pushing my cart of luggage through the terminal, I paused to look for a phone and a security guard approached me. I would say they should change “security” to “hospitality”: he rearranged my luggage for me so it was more secure, led me to a phone booth, took coins from my hand (since I had no idea what was what), dialed my niece’s number, and stood by ready to insert more coins. I didn't need much persuasion to avoid the Gautrain - a quick discussion and the idea didn’t making sense to either of us. Instead, he led me to where taxi drivers lingered, rejecting three before settling on Sipho – who promptly loaded me into his car, took my niece’s number and called her for me so I could tell her I would be arriving at her office by car. Sipho was simply, warmly, wonderful. A fantastic help and driver through the insanity that is Johannesburg rush hour. How there aren’t more accidents continues to bewilder me.

Sipho was all ready to haul my luggage up to Tracy’s office, but I stopped him, tipped him what I hoped was generously, and sent him on his way. T settled me into the boardroom, where I spent the morning pretending to be mentally competent.

A trip to the spa for a mani-pedi-leg wax was spent laughing and chatting with the delightful Lucia, who rewarded me with a big hug when I left, wishing me well with my Hobbit feet.

It was that warmth that started me thinking it reflected the general mood of this country. The optimism, the hopefulness, the welcoming embrace of a country righting itself. Slowly, gradually, finding its feet in a monumental shift that may still take a couple of generations, but it feels well underway.

After nearly 2 decades in America where “friendly” is skin deep, and guarded suspicion (with an unhealthy dose of neuroses) is the norm, it was a welcome culture shock. My visit a couple of days later to one of the very many malls that dot every neighborhood made me feel like I had been living in a third world country, and had returned to a South Africa very firmly planted in the 21st century. I was impressed. Or gobsmacked, really.

Welcome home, Leigh.

Part Five: The long, strange trip begins