24 hours in Dubai

I’d never really been interested in going to Dubai. The idea of a desert filled with ostentatious skyscrapers and blingy luxury hotels didn’t excite me. Then again, since we were passing through on our way from Sri Lanka back to Belgium we figured we may as well give it a look, if only to break the journey.

The most ostentatious of all the skyscrapers was clearly visible from our hotel room window.

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We were staying in a part of town where shiny futuristic towers alternated with patches of bare ground (presumably soon to be the sites of newer, even shinier and more futuristic towers).

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We did manage to locate an older, decidedly less shiny part of town: the souks next to the creek.

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But even in this area the modern monoliths dominated the skyline.

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I didn’t go into this shop.

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So there it is: the Burj Khalifa.

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Cleaning the windows is apparently a continuous job, and the cleaners are out every day except when high winds make it too dangerous.

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Which reminds me of that scene from Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol.

In the exhibition prior to taking the lift you get to see various photos and videos of the construction, but the one that caught my eye was the one about Google Earth’s mapping of the entire complex. Check out the part where the woman has to dangle off the very top of the building. Nutter.

At the top people were taking the inevitable selfies, as well as using something I’d never seen before: real-life Instagram frames.

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Now I always used to love going to the top of tall buildings to see the view, but over the last few years I’ve started to get more nervous about it, and this time I wasn’t at all comfortable. I was ok in the elevator, but as soon as I stepped out I started hugging the wall and feeling jelly-legged. This was in fact only the lower of the two viewing points, on the 124th floor. There’s another, with luxury lounges, on the 148th. I didn’t go anywhere near the windows, and wouldn’t have gone out onto the open-air terrace if you’d paid me, so I took some shots through the windows with my zoom while keeping my back to the inner wall. Any of the shots here looking downwards were taken by my wife. In this one you can see the lake surrounding the tower. The dark patterns are the jets for the large fountain display which takes place every evening.

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In this one you can just about see our hotel, at right.

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Now it’s a perfectly fine view if you’re interested in looking at other, slightly shorter skyscrapers.

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Or at construction sites.

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Or at empty, flat desert which will probably some day be filled with more skyscrapers.

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But as views go it’s not the most fascinating in the world, in my opinion. The attraction is that it’s the tallest tower in the world, and I think that as soon as a newer, taller tower opens somewhere else the crowds will all go there instead.

Back on terra firma we looked around the large mall at the base of the Burj, which contained an aquarium in case you needed to rest your eyes on something soothing after a hard day’s shopping.

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And then we went outside to the lake surrounding the tower, as seen in that photo above.

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The aforementioned fountain display. The jets can reach 150 metres, which makes them the highest dancing fountains in the world. Obviously.

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So if you like tall, shiny things, Dubai is the place for you. There are other things to see besides skyscrapers, if you take the time to dig a little deeper, and I wouldn’t rule out spending another day or two here at some point, during a stopover on my way to the far east, but I still don’t think there’s enough here to distract me for a full holiday.

Brussels Toy Museum

Last weekend we paid a brief visit to Brussels toy museum with our smallest child. A couple of years ago we went to the one in Mechelen which is a lot bigger and has a wider range of stuff on display, but the Brussels version has its own charm. It’s chaotic and dusty and haphazard, and concentrates mainly on early to mid-20th century toys. It’s more like stumbling into a large attic full of old and unsorted toys than a real museum, although there are glass display cases and the occasional explanatory note.

This gigantic, limbless, featureless baby doll welcomes you after you’ve paid your entrance fee.

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In one corner of the ground floor there’s a toy kitchen area where a lot of the kids played. In fact quite a lot of the toys were scattered around on the floor and were available to play with.

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The bus, in the centre of this photo, was also a popular seat.

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A display on dolls notes that the first attempts at making racially diverse baby dolls simply involved taking standard white babies and painting them black.

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Another toy kitchen. These dolls are about six inches tall.

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There were a lot of toy shops and kitchens, and I was struck by the detail and craftsmanship of the individual items.

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Fish and squid.

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The religious toy display. Who among us has never wanted to play at being nuns?

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Don’t ask me why this boy has a transparent cage torso. The girl on the left seems to be wondering too.

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The glorious Raj.

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Shadow puppet theatres.

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I remember watching Bonanza on TV as a child, but I never knew there was a toy line.

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Lorne Greene!

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Back in my day we couldn’t afford individual baths, so we’d all pile into the tub together. With a fish.

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There’s a lot more than this on display – it spreads over three floors – and it’s worth and hour or so of your time if you’re in the neighbourhood.

Sri Lankan fauna

They had some animals in Sri Lanka. Some you might expect (elephants, monkeys); some you might not. There are wild dogs everywhere. Mostly pretty mangy and sad-looking. Not especially dangerous or aggressive, although a few of them did persistently follow us up and down the beach one evening.

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Yes, monkeys. Again, pretty common and usually safe, although you’re discouraged from feeding them. Cuter and more photogenic than flea-ridden mutts, in my view.

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One big surprise: the Royal Botanical Gardens in Kandy were infested with ginormous, screeching fruit bats. Fortunately they kept their distance. I also saw on more than one occasion dead bats hanging from electrical cables. They obviously grab hold of one with their feet, then dangle down and unwittingly touch the parallel cable below them with their head, closing the circuit and ZAP! Fried bat.

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Wild elephants usually stick to the jungle, although we were lucky enough to see one creep up behind our broken down jeep one night and cross the road (at the zebra crossing, obviously).

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Later, on safari, the road signs prepared us for the increased likelihood of sightings.

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Recent floods meant that many of the tracks in the national parks were difficult to pass. But there weren’t many alternative routes through the jungle so we usually just had to blast through, getting pulled out by another jeep when we got stuck.

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Peacock. In a tree.

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Monitor lizard, keeping an eye on things.

Monitor. Monitoring. Oh, forget it.

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Slightly larger reptiles, bathing.

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And then we hit the jackpot. Leopard! What do you mean, where? Look, right there. In the middle of the photo.

Ok, let’s zoom in a little, shall we?

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In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the leopard takes a mid-morning nap.

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After 20 minutes I was getting a little bored of this lazy cat, but fortunately she then woke up and started doing some stretching. Or perhaps it’s pilates.

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And all of a sudden she was up and walking straight towards us.

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Here’s the video shot by our guide while I was snapping photos.

Later we saw a group of four lounging on top of a rock. This is as close as I could zoom.

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Wild elephants. Still exciting in spite of the fact that we’d already been for a ride on a tame one.

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This tusked version is apparently quite rare in Sri Lanka. Note how it likes to play with clouds of butterflies.

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Note how close it’s getting to our jeep. Doesn’t appear to be slowing down.

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Breathe in…

We ran into (not literally, this time) the same beast later that morning. It walked very slowly in front of us, blocking our path. Then it shat and pissed on the road in front of us.

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Somewhat better behaved were the teensy tiny babies at the turtle sanctuary.

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They’re usually released into the wild shortly after being born, but some injured or malformed specimens are kept in order to give them a better chance of survival.

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I was surprised they let me hold one. Heavy and not particularly cuddly. The long-suffering expression on its face testifies to how many times it’s been unceremoniously manhandled in this way.

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Sri Lankan flora

I saw some pretty plants and flowers in Sri Lanka. Some in the temples:

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Some in the Royal Botanical Gardens in Kandy:

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Some in Brief Garden, a private residence near Aluthgama whose grounds are open to visitors.

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This was my favourite. Apparently it’s called a Black Bat Flower.

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And some we saw on safari. Our guide pointed this one out to us. It’s called Glory Lily and it’s highly toxic and is often used by people wishing to commit suicide.

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Oh, and this particular species is in the genus Littonia

An island full of Buddhas

Before going to Sri Lanka I knew it was 75% Buddhist, but that still didn’t prepare me for the profusion and size of Buddha statues you find all across the country. Our tour included stops at several temples and archaeological sites, so we got to see a wide variety of them. Perhaps because of the particular branch of Buddhism popular in Sri Lanka they were all fairly slim and serene, compared to the fat, laughing version you often see decorating Chinese restaurants.

The weather was unseasonably rainy during the first week of our stay, but at least it was a warm rain so we didn’t catch a cold or have to huddle, shivering, under our umbrellas. In fact it wasn’t even that big a deal getting wet as you dried off again pretty quickly due to the heat, so my umbrella was mainly used to keep my camera dry.

Remember: shoes and hats off when you enter the temple grounds.

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One of our first visits was to the ruins of the ancient city of Polonnaruwa.

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Within this site is a granite hill called Gal Vihara, out of which several Buddha statues were carved nearly a thousand years ago.

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I love the interaction between the design of the figure and the grain and pattern in the stone.

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Other statues are clearly designed to be seen from a distance, like this one, visible from the top of Sigiriya rock.

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Another highlight was Dambulla, which is famous for its cave temple. Near the entrance a golden Buddha watches over the museum.

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But the real excitement is inside, in a complex of five natural caves filled with statues and painted walls and ceilings.

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Our guide told us that one of these statues was recently completely repainted. Apparently it was considered to have been defiled because a tourist decided to climb up onto it and sit in its lap in order to have her photo taken. In fact all temples in Sri Lanka ask you, out of respect, not to have your photo taken with your back to a statue of the Buddha.

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Ceiling detail.

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Another temple in the town of Kandy.

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When I build my own temple you can bet the columns will be topped with golden elephant heads too.

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But I think possibly my favourite was the Kande Viharaya temple which we visited just outside the beach resort of Beruwela. And incidentally this is my favourite of all the photos I took on holiday:

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It’s the tallest sitting Buddha statue in the world (48 metres), and appears to have had a fairly recent paint job, as in all the other photos I can find online it looks rather faded. It was a hot day and the floor tiles scorched our bare feet, making us scurry across the complex looking for shade, much to the amusement of the harder-soled locals.

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Offerings.

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Buddha’s bum! I was puzzled by what look like windows or trapdoors in its back. Is it hollow?

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Of course if you want to get an idea of what Sigiriya, Polonnaruwa and other sacred Sri Lanka sites are really like, you could just watch this:

Little boy lost

I remember a family outing to a forest in Devon with a river running through it (broadly similar to Tarr Steps). I was probably somewhere between 6 and 9 years old at the time. I was there with my parents, siblings, grandmother, aunt and uncle.

We were heading back towards the car park and I had run on ahead. Just before the car park I stopped and decided that it would be a funny joke to head up the hill a little and hide behind a tree. As family members gradually arrived back at the car park I watched from my hiding place as they started to look around for me. After a few minutes they started to get more worried and a couple of them headed back they way we’d come to search along (and in) the river. The more serious things got the less keen I was to venture down from behind the tree and to reveal myself, fearful of the inevitable tongue-lashing. But at a certain point it became unavoidable so I meekly trotted down the hill to where my uncle and gran were waiting while the others had gone off looking in various directions. These being the days before mobile phones we had to wait until they’d all come back before they knew I was safe and sound.

And this was back in the 1970s when parents were noticeably more relaxed about their kids wandering off on their own. I’ve experienced a couple of occasions where I’ve ‘mislaid’ a child and it doesn’t take long for the cold feeling to grow in the pit of your stomach and for your mind to leap to the darkest conclusions. Somewhere between thirty and sixty seconds.

So…yeah. Sorry, mum.

Life in the future

Recently I read a collection of articles by Arthur C. Clarke called The View From Serendip. Here’s the review I posted on goodreads:

I finally picked this off the shelf because some of it is about Sri Lanka. Unfortunately for me, not very much of it. It’s a random collection of articles, most of which have Clarke speculating on where technology, and specifically space exploration, will go during the last few decades of the 20th century. But his prose style is quite irritating: by turns dry and smug, with the occasional stilted attempt at humour.
Having said that, some of the predictions are remarkable. While he misses the mark on some things (he couldn’t have imagined the stalling of the space programme) he also basically predicts – in the early 1970s – the Internet, email, RSS feeds, social media and smartphones. For that alone it’s a valuable piece of history. It’s just a shame there wasn’t more about his life in and around the Indian Ocean (apart from a couple of snorkelling trips).

Yesterday I was driving the 10yo to an appointment and she put on the car radio. Some 60s-style jazz full of Hammond organ noodling came on and we listened to it for a bit. We had a conversation about how old-fashioned it was; how music has changed; whether old people (i.e. me) can like modern music too. Then she asked me what I had thought the future was going to be like when I was a child. I was stumped for a moment so I told her that I’d read and watched a lot of science fiction and that I was probably expecting things like a colony on the moon within my lifetime.

She said that she imagines flying cars will happen in the not too distant future. Then I explained about all the unexpected ways in which life has changed since I was young, and what things were like before mobile phones and the Internet.

Her final comment before we arrived at our destination was that she thought technology made people lazy, whether it be because they feel they can duck out of appointments at the last minute by sending a text, or because they don’t feel they need to learn facts or arithmetic because devices can provide the answer with a quick click or swipe.

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