Saturday 11 May 2019

Abu Dhabi on the outward leg

The flight from Sydney to the administrative centre of the United Arab Emirates seems endless but it’s not, although it means spending 15 hours in the air without a break.

It’s five hours just to the Indian Ocean, and then the long haul to the southern tip of India and then further west across the ocean to the Arabian Peninsular. Despite Abu Dhabi’s status as a major metropolitan centre, most passengers who fly there do not stay, and the number of people who head straight for the transit lounges and gates that lead to other destinations is much larger than the number who go through immigration. One guy in a brown uniform even asked us if we had gone the wrong way as we were walking down a corridor to the immigration counters.

There is no visa requirement for Abu Dhabi if you have an Australian passport and the immigration staff deal with you pretty quickly with a photo captured on a file, and then you get your hand luggage scanned by a machine with an operator. After that the luggage carousels beckon and we didn’t wait long before our suitcases emerged from the depths of the building. We then headed for the exit where a man with a sign was waiting for us. He put us in a clean black Audi sedan driven by a Pakistani in a neat white shirt and black trousers who naturally enough liked cricket, which I don’t. He did pick my accent though.

It’s about 35 kilometres and 20 minutes’ driving from the airport to the hotel we had booked. The roads were surprisingly empty, although the driver excused this by remarking that it was Friday, the traditional day of prayer. He mentioned one hotel run by the Hyatt in the city that is the curviest building in the world (according to the Guinness Book of Records) and we admired it as we drove past at 100km per hour. I was more intrigued by a building that had “Canadian Veterinary Hospital” on the side of it in big red letters.

The city is full of big, glossy buildings at any rate and with the emptiness of the streets – there are signalled pedestrian crossings but no-one walks anywhere, and in any case traffic at the busiest times is scanty by international standards – the place has something about it of a science fiction dystopia where the people have all disappeared and there’s only the gleaming infrastructure left to bear witness to civilisation. All that luxury and you are often confronted by a vacuum.

It has an Aston Martin dealership on the premises but someone in the hotel had made an error with our bookings, and to straighten things out a phone call had to be put through to Australia, by a man in a rather conspicuously frayed grey suit named Ronald who I would have sworn was Filipino. Someone from the Sydney travel agency then called me rather breathlessly on my mobile phone as we were on our way to the lifts to ask if we had managed to get rooms for the night.

Then we couldn’t work out how to use the lift. You have to use your access card on a sensor panel inside it then press two different buttons for your floor – a “3” and a “2” in our case – then the lift obeys your instructions. The rooms are filled with similarly incomprehensible electronic gadgetry. To open the curtains you need to go to a user manual that describes how to operate the remote control that you find next to your bed. Using the right buttons results in a mechanical contraption pulling back the curtains to reveal the wide vistas stretching away into the permanent haze beyond the windows.

Turning on the TV is another problem and for this you have a second remote control. For power you can use your devices without a voltage converter but the plug has a different pin configuration than ours has. You can buy the right plug adaptor at Officeworks or at Jaycar Electronics before you leave. Finding a suitable store in Abu Dhabi to get this kind of gear I imagine would be a bit of a trial as there doesn’t seem to be a single commercial area that serves as a centre of gravity for tourists. People seem to tend to stick close to their hotels and when they have time go to attractions that are open. Be careful in this regard about Fridays for reasons already discussed.

For brunch later in the morning we went to the restaurant on the floor below the lobby. Here, we found a range of different options on a buffet, including Indian, Asian, eggs, salads, cold meats and cheeses, fruit, cereals, and standard Western breakfast offerings. It was a good meal that set each of us back 165 dirhams (AED). The hotel’s front desk had changed US$150-worth of local currency (520 AED) for me to use during the stay but brunch went on the room tabs. Room service at the Jumeirah at Etihad Towers features the same kind of diversity as their breakfast buffet, with offerings from India (butter chicken, chicken tikka masala), Asia (nasi goreng, pad see ew), and Arabia, as well as such regular Western staples on the menus as burgers and fish and chips.

The challenges the technology used in the hotel poses for guests was reinforced in my mind at dinner, after I phoned in an order selected from the room menu. When the staffer arrived with the meal he saw that my “do not disturb” light was lit and had to call me on his phone from the hallway to get me to open the door. I had not consciously turned on the indicator, which is activated by a switch next to the front door of the room that looks exactly like the switch used for the room’s main lighting. This is dumb design and like the lift buttons is very confusing for people who don’t understand this peculiarity beforehand. The cost of room service in the hotel is not dissimilar to what you’d pay for similar dishes in Australian hotels of the same grade.

We found out that money goes further outside the hotel. The taxi to the Louvre, where we headed after brunch, came to just on 31 AED, or about A$12. I gave the driver 50 AED and told him to keep the change. The trip had taken us right across town and ten minutes with no traffic. The entry free to the museum is 63 AED per person and I would say that this was the best value we had all day.

The galleries inside are stunning but the first thing you notice about the place is the security scanners that dominate the entrance. You put through on trays your bags and your mobile phones, then walk through a second type of detector. The regular exhibition is wide-ranging and takes in a broad variety of times and cultures, from ancient Egypt to Tang China to the Maya of central America. There is a separate room for religions in different places at different times. The museum seems to me to be a good way for a place like the Louvre to improve its standing in the international community for little cost. In any case they must have many more items than they can ever show in France at any one time, so having extra floor space gives administrators in Paris a way to better monetise their collection while at the same time improving relations with many different communities.

We spent a good three hours contentedly browsing through the exhibits, which culminate in 20th century Western art, some of it very good,  and we didn’t even get to the special exhibition of Renaissance Dutch art, which I had anyway probably already seen in Sydney the previous year. Our feet were sore by this time and jetlag and the lack of sleep due to the flight were making themselves felt.

The building, which was a brand new construction, is just as striking as the collections on display. When you exit the main galleries you enter a kind of artificial jungle with a canopy covering the space that is made of webbed concrete and that reflects in its design the types of intricate interlacing matrices you see all over the city, from the decoration on the sides of taxis to the mirror that sits behind the bed in your hotel room. The light filters down through the webbing and even though outside it is stiflingly hot and humid at 3.30pm there is a sense of serenity about the place that makes you feel comfortable. People linger in the shade after leaving the galleries. The visitors inside were a mixed bag of locals and tourists, young and old, families and couples, and friends out for a day together. All the guards speak English.

When we exited the gates at the back of the enclosure, the sense you have of being welcome was amplified when a man at the wheel of a golf buggy pulled up and told us to hop on so that he could take us to where the taxis are ranked in the parking area. If he hadn’t been there we probably would have ended up walking around for 15 minutes, in a warm funk. The taxi driver who took us back to the hotel was a woman with very dark skin who wore a pastel-pink hijab and a striking red-and-black check skirt, and her fee was about the same as the previous driver had charged. I gave her a 50-AED note and told her to give me change for 40.

Above: The city skyline from the hotel. Artificial islands are numerous on the coast.

Above: The entrance to the Louvre in Abu Dhabi. The permeable "roof" over the whole thing is visible from the street in the city's Cultural Centre.

Above: Once you have visited the indoor galleries, the large enclosure shelters visitors "outside"

Above: Me in front of a series of nine panels by Cy Twombly, 'Untitled I - IX'. The paintings are dated 2008, so they are late works. For some reason the label for the works said Tombly was Italian, though he was in fact American.

Above: One of two Japanese screens dating from about 1690. This one shows the archipelago and the other one shows the rest of the world.

Above: 'Woman Smoking a Tombac' by Emile Bernard, 1900. The label says Bernard was born in Cairo.

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