Dubai

There are no two ways about it: Dubai is a thoroughly weird place. It’s a sort of Arabian Center Parcs for the super-rich, a giant pleasure zone in constant competition with the rest of the world to do the implausible. Tallest building in the world? Obviously. An aquarium in a shopping centre? Why not? ATMs that dispense gold bars? Well, of course.

Dubai doesn’t feel real, especially to a Londoner. For a start, the metro works seamlessly, and it has air conditioning. But the journey from the airport into the centre shows a city under constant construction – it feels as though you’re in a life-sized lego set, or an episode of the Jetsons.

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The world’s tallest building

Dubai is one of a number of cities that’s perfect if you have a long layover. Here’s how you do it.

 

If you’re travelling through Dubai Airport and have 6 hours or more, then that’s plenty of time to get out and see the Burj Khalifa. If you have more than that you can probably fit in a second activity, if you choose carefully.

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  • Book your Burj tickets in advance – tickets are both limited and more expensive on the day, plus the concept of queuing is sketchy at best, so if you’re British you’ll have a breakdown before you’ve even made it into the lift.
  • If you’re from the EEA, US, Australia, Saudi, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman plus a few others you don’t need to get any kind of visa. You just get stamped in by the very sombre-looking chap on the immigration desk. Nationals from many other countries will need a visa but can get it on arrival. The immigration queue at Dubai Airport is pretty slick so you won’t have to work in much time to get to the other side – it took us ten minutes.
  • By far the easiest and cheapest way to get into the centre is the Dubai Metro. It’s brilliant. The machines have an English option and take cards. If you’re going to the Burj or Dubai Mall, take the red line in the direction of UAE Exchange – it takes around 30 minutes
  • You’ll come out at what claims to be the Dubai Mall, but the mall itself is about a further fifteen minutes’ walk through a shiny, futuristic walkway that feels somewhat other-worldly. Do have a look at the mall if you have time – it has the sort of things every mall needs, like a giant waterfall and an ice rink. The Souk area in particular is lovely. We also had breakfast out on a terrace overlooking the impressive fountains (or rather, they would have been impressive if they had been on. But we to the general idea.)
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What British malls are lacking: a giant indoor waterfall
  • When you get to the Burj, don’t be wedded to the time on your ticket, because nobody else is. We arrived half an hour before our allocated time and were immediately directed to the queue, which was really more of a free-for-all of people of all nationalities, inexplicably taking pictures of themselves with selfie sticks standing in a line in what was basically a shopping centre basement. It took 40 minutes for us to get in the lift, so plan your time well if you’re on a short layover!
  • The lift journey of 124 floors in 60 seconds was probably the most impressive part of the trip, but the views are also pretty good, though it’s very hazy so we could only just make out the Burj Al Arab, even though it isn’t really that far away. What was most eye-opening was probably the sheer amount of construction work – Dubai will probably look good when it’s finished, presumably in around 2060.
  • A little tip – there is a fairly well-hidden staircase up to the 125th floor from which you get admittedly the same view as from the 124th, but which at least allows you to say you went that bit higher. It also has its own lift, so you can get down without queuing.
  • If you have more time and want to tick off something else, Deira is on the same line and near the airport (the Spice Souk is worth a look) and you can take a cruise down the Creek – again, it’s only a short taxi ride back to the airport from there.
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Libraries in Langa

On a recent trip to Cape Town I was asked to take over some books for the fledging library at the LEAP school in Langa, the oldest township on the Western Cape. The school educates children from local, high-need communities, preparing them for, in many cases, university entrance and life beyond Langa.

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In the entrance lobby at LEAP School, Langa

On our flight on the way back, an elderly white British couple were horrified that I’d visited a township. “Were you safe?” they wanted to know. They had been staying with family further up the coast, who apparently would rather take a longer route than drive somewhere beside the townships. “The people there will steal anything,” confided the woman who had gone out of her way to avoid such places during her three-week stay and had presumably based this statement on hearsay.

Well.

I was a little anxious about visiting, not for safety reasons, but because there can potentially be something uncomfortable about what my husband, who did not come with me, called “poverty tourism”. There can be a fine line between curiosity and contributing to the local economy by visiting (township tours are now very popular)  on the one hand, and gawping at a way of life that is unimaginable to our own pampered existence on the other. But the school had meticulously arranged my visit – the chance to meet and talk to students and see the school and also the area it serves.

Langa, like any other place, is a jumble of contradictions. To describe it as “poor” and move on is as meaningless as describing London as “rich”. Like any place, it has its wealthier residents – its teachers and nurses who live in very pretty, brightly-coloured permanent residences on the edge of the settlement, with their proud, well-tended gardens: my guide Lungiswa told me that it’s impossible to buy one of these as people hang on to them, and there are never any for sale; and like any place it has its poorer residents – the ones we think of when we think of townships – in their temporary, corrugated-iron shelters built practically on top of each other in no discernible pattern. In between the two are the modern, rather faceless blocks of government-built apartments – as characterless as anything you might see in Dalston or Dagenham. Do people prefer living in these, I ask, (hoping it isn’t a stupid question) or in the shacks? Yes, Lungiswa says, because they have heating, and so are warmer in the winter, and yes because they have inside toilets, but they are very small and anonymous. She is scathing, however, about some of the new housing. It was built, she said, because of the World Cup. “The government didn’t want tourists to see our houses,” she says, “so they built some new homes to hide us, because we are bad for South Africa’s image.” The driver argues that it doesn’t matter why they were built, it’s a step in the right direction and the new homes are a great benefit for the area. They argue a little as I sink into the back seat and decide not to offer an opinion.

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But Langa is not devoid of facilities. Like anywhere in sports-mad South Africa there are quite a few sports pitches; there is a supermarket; there are bright and enterprising local shops, carwashes and other services operating out of people’s homes or roadside stalls; and there is a wonderful library that felt so identical to my own in Burnt Oak that I felt a strange sort of deja-vu for a moment. The library – a community facility with computers and internet access and a range of groups and services operating from it – is just the kind of local resource our own government is closing down back in the UK.

Even the shacks are not necessarily what they seem as you drive past them from a distance on the main road, bemoaning poverty from a safe distance. Walking past one, I’m surprised to see it’s fitted with what looks like an IKEA show kitchen; others have solar panels and satellite dishes; many have little but clearly lovingly-tended flower pots around them.

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The school itself radiates pure joy, and pupils and teachers alike are obviously justifiably proud of it. The library is growing but they are very keen to increase the number of fiction books available – they have a lot of text books donated by various schemes and projects, but to encourage children to read and engage they need fiction. I had brought over, spread carefully across suitcases and hand luggage to max out the luggage weight restrictions, a donation of books from one of their visiting teachers and a donation of original novels from London-based author of teen fiction Miriam Halahmy. Visiting an English class first hand, I was excited to see the children striding up and down the dusty yard as they enthusiastically enacted scenes from a play, which would not have been possible without donated books.

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Students explore the new books in the school library

As part of my visit I visited two classes. The first, a serious group of budding accountants, journalists and nurses studying for their matriculation, listened with disconcerting attentiveness while I talked about London and the UK education system, aware that there are very, very few scholarships for undergraduate students, putting it out of their reach for the time being but making postgraduate study an option for the future. The second, though, 13 and 14 year olds, gifted me one of the most enjoyable 15 minutes of my life, leading to an impromptu, passionate discussion about football, (“your team beat Chelsea? But I have not heard of your team!”) and my connection with the school, the teacher who had donated the books. “We love Miss Lindsay!” chorused the class. “She is our favourite teacher.” “Miss Lindsay was my favourite teacher too, around twenty years ago.” One girl’s eyes widen. “Twenty years ago? You are SO OLD!” Before I can stop them my phone is taken out of my hand, and eventually returned five minutes later with about 20 selfies added to the memory. “Will you put us on the internet?” It would be my pleasure – so here they are:

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I would very much like to go back to Langa in the future and see how it’s doing. I would like to follow the careers of every single one of those bright, intelligent, enthusiastic children. I was touched by the wonderful welcome, privileged to have been invited, impressed by the teachers and their hard work and dedication. I wish them all the best in their small corner of this wonderful, complicated, beautiful country.

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