Sunday, May 26, 2013

A day for the souk

"Isss no problem, no problem. Madame, please, you come see this. No, come. You like!"

This is the typical hawker line in the souks in 'old Dubai' - aka The Creek. Here is where they try to move as much money as possible from your pocket into theirs.

A souk is the Arab term for open-air market or bazaar. At The Creek, which is the oldest part of Dubai and the location for the city's port, you are immediately lost in a maze of winding, jumbled alleyways and streets overflowing with musky smells of frankincense, myrrh and sandalwood, mixed with pungent spices that permeate your senses - the cardamom pods, cinnamon bark, curry mixes, paprika, cloves, peppercorns, ginger, garlic and more.

The souks here are famous for three main categories of goods: gold, textiles and spices. Sure, there are the odd plastic floatie things for poolside fun, and the pots big enough to cook a stew for 500 people, but generally they stick with the ancient trading items. I've never seen so much gold in my life. Oh. My. Goodness. It was pretty amazing to see shop after shop with gorgeous pieces in the windows, many individual pieces far outweighing my entire gold inventory.

The textiles are mostly cloth from India to Italy, with every vendor trying to sell you the same scarves and shawls. The spices were the most special to me, not just because of my love of food, but how interesting they looked! I mean, black limes, really? Wow.

The shops are all run by men, and each one competes for your attention. It's a nonstop vocal assault as you take less than five steps before they grab you, and they promise you the best goods you'll get in Dubai if you just follow them.

"Watches, t-shirts, shoes, handbags - Rolex, Gucci, Ralph Lauren, Louis Vitton, Fendi, Chanel, you come, come, come with me!"

You enter a small building, climb up a narrow staircase and land in a diminutive yet packed 'showroom' featuring all the designer knock-offs. 

Greg encouraged me to just follow a few of these shopkeepers for fun ... and it was. We never intended to buy any knockoffs, but it was great to see their "no problem" skills hard at work, talking about the first sale of the day, and how they can do a great price. They take out the oversized calculator and punch the keys, making it look like they are performing a mathematical miracle while we try not to giggle at the tactics. 
But then we found something we wanted to buy - a lovely Indian dress. And so we engaged in one of the most ancient and greatest sports of all time: haggling. Greg started his bid at 20% of the asking price. It took nearly 40 minutes to wear the guy down to the point where we knew we paid a fair price while giving the shopkeeper profit - and allowing him to pay a small commission to the "friend" who led us there.

In that time, however, I was offered the amazing opportunity to marry a man who spoke little English, except to say, "You must get me a visa to live in Texas."

Uh, no thanks. I know you can have up to four wives here, but I'm good with my one husband. He might be goofy but he's awesome. All set.

To get between some of the souks, you have to take the water taxi, which is called an abra. The abra is a simple boat used on Dubai Creek - you hop on, give the pilot one dirham, and off you go. You bob in the waves and cough a bit from the noxious exhaust, but it's GREAT. And one dirham is 27 cents, so that was quite the bargain.

Since this is a port, the other type of boat you see a lot is the dhow, a traditional wooden boat built for transport or more recently for sport racing. The dhows we saw in the port were carrying everything from fruit to fridges to Fiats. They're tres cool.

This adventure reminded me that it's important to immerse yourself in the local culture without fear. Just do it!

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