It was early 2005, a mild winter in Vegas. I was waiting for a friend in at Firefly, a tapas lounge on Paradise, near the Hard Rock. A lady with teeth like rainclouds sat next to me. I was sipping one of the best mojitos in town, waiting for this eternally late crony, and to be honest, I was fairly spooked by this chick. For one, she kinda looked like vampires do in movies with shockingly shiny black hair and vitrified skin. Oh: and she had enormous hands. These things were serious meat mittens, they were the size of dinner plates and had my brain harkening back to the TV Monster in Aphex Twin’s Come to Daddy video. But I face my fears. So I decided to have a little conversation with Rainclouds.
“So. . .you live in Las Vegas,” I ask.
“No, I just come here every now and then.”
“Hm. Work or pleasure?”
“Both,” she replied sultrily as she stirred her drink and blinked her eyes slowly making me shift in my chair and swallow entire mint leaves.
“Awesome. What do you do for a living?”
“I’m in the adult entertainment industry.”
I knew. I mean, I knew right away, but I didn’t want to admit it. So I tried to be savvy and smooth. “Cool. Video? Internet?”
“There’s only about one field isn’t there?”
“Ha,” I slurped the last of my beverage. “I guess so.”
Just then my friend walked in.
I woke up late my second day in Dubai and immediately went to the pool.
After a short time I could not bear the heat. This place was ridiculous.
I put my sandals and shorts and headed to the Mall of the Emirates.
Walking through the mall, once again I felt like I was home. Growing up a suburbanite youth in the 90s, malls were a somewhat integral part of my adolescence. I learned about sex and drugs from the dirty birthday cards and black light pot leaf posters at Spencer’s, about social and economic classes from Abercrombie, PacSun, and Macy’s, and about complementary marketing from the placement of high end and low end boutiques, and about the importance of location in real estate from the Orange Julius right by the exit. Most importantly, I had my first life lessons in how to talk to girls one doesn’t know from hanging out by the fountain and trying to look tough.
But this Mall was different. I was not so concerned with appearances, more with getting a sandwich and some snow.
A KFC mighty zinger did the trick for the former, and I paid my fare gladly for the latter.
My boots were buckled, my skis were in hand and I walked right up to the entrance gate.
“I’m sorry sir, you have to have pants.”
For a brief moment I panicked. Then I came to my senses. “I am wearing pants. Short pants.”
“You need a jacket too.”
“It’s what, minus one degree Celsius in there? Try ten below zero Fahrenheit in January in PA.”
“Fine. But I am not letting you in without long sleeves.”
I looked at this little Polynesian girl standing up to me, fully realizing she had conceded to only one article of clothing. What was she thinking? Me, a large, raucous, Yank crazy enough to go skiing in summer clothes. I growled. She scrunched her mouth sideways in defiance. She had mall security and I did not want to get into trouble in Dubai. “You suck,” I muttered under my breath, but was stoked I didn’t have to wear ski pants.
I tried to buy a long sleeve t-shirt in the gift shop, but there were none. I walked up to the equipment counter and grabbed a jacket with the look of defeat in my eyes.
Walking through the turnstile, with the red and blue jacket in hand, glaring at the diminutive lady manning the gate. “You’re killing the free spirit of the sport.”
“Whatever,” she retorted.
I held my tongue and rode up the escalator, noting that I’d never been on an escalator in ski boots, but that it beat the hell out of stairs in ski boots.
When I used to be a line cook, the best way to cool down during a lull in the weekend evening rush was the walk-in. After cleaning your tickets off the board, taking five minutes to find some more demi-glace was better than shotgunning a Red Bull.
Walking into the Ski Dubai arena was much the same. After thinking I’d missed my first ski season since ’88-89, I couldn’t’ve been happier to be on a slope, even though it was inside a mall.
I tied the jacket around my waist and started up on the lift.
“Safety bar! Safety bar, Sir!” the attendant called after me.
I had honestly just forgotten about in the midst of the excitement.
I could barely contain myself waiting for the poky quad chairlift to take me to to top. I was kicking my skis back and forth and squirming in my moving cage, thinking back to the last time I had been skiing, at the Las Vegas Ski Resort in March 2006. I had gone with a college buddy working at the Venetian who was teaching himself to snowboard. After a few runs with him, I decided to let him eat snow, and had gone off riding on my own, between coniferous trees and jumping off cliffs into untouched powder. I met up with some stoners and they toked in a hut made of branches and they showed me some serious glades.
Ski Dubai would be a little different for sure, but there’s that whole beggars/choosers thingy. The lift crept to the top and I glided off, taking a second at the crest o the slope to take in the experience.
Then it was down the hill.
I had forgotten cold.
Egypt was a bit chilly in January, Scotland was sweatshirt weather the previous August, and London damp and grey last April. Ski Dubai prides itself on being -1°, and as I rode down in my t-shirt and shorts the cool air and the adrenaline from speed gave me a rush. The slope turned once, was smooth and actually soft. With such precise temperature control there was not a bit of ice and I hockey stopped at the bottom and turned to get back on the lift.
“I’m going to have to ask you to put your jacket on, sir.”
“You’re not serious.”
“What is this? Sharia skiing?”
“Please. Just put on your jacket.”
“Next thing your gonna tell me this is a non-smoking facility.”
“It is non-smoking.”
I shook my head, and sat down in the chair.
“Please put the safety bar down, sir!” he called after me.
I skied non-stop for about two hours. The run was short, I mean, it was indoors. It eventually got cold, but it was only my fingers that I could not feel. Ironically, gloves were the one item of cold weather gear that Ski Dubai did not provide.
Capitalism can be a bitch.
On the various trips up the lift, I met various people:a guy from South Korea who was taking a break from a business trip; a young british fellow who had taught himself to snowboard on the indoor slope but had been to the alps once; a 12 year old girl skiing by herself who ahd never seen real snow and was very well spoke for her age, but not understand how I was comfortable not being all bundled up; a young professional from Abu Dhabi that was in IT who avoided my eyes; and an adorable redhead who could not have been more than 19 and surreptitiously tried to get me to go to a birthday party that night. I told her after living in Vegas, it wasn’t worth going to clubs anymore. I said I wanted a place where I could get a cold beer and meet some cool people.
She mentioned a little place called Rock Bottom.
Given the eternal summer I’ve lived for the past year, I had not only forgotten the cold, but I’d forgotten how much I loved it. To see one’s own breath is like visible proof of life. Part of the inherent beauty is that cold doesn’t really exist: it is simply the absence of heat. Though still, the deficiency of heat seems to make vacuous the air; as if the existence of warmth is only tangible and noticeable in its own dearth. My speed turned the stagnant, hollow air into bitter wind that clawed at my cheeks, and breathing it in was euphoric, ‘whooing’ as I passed the snowplowers and spraying snow with fast stops at the bottom of the slope.
At one point I was riding the lift on my own looking out at the TGI Fridays that jutted into the arena. I wondered if it had a bar, since in Dubai bars were only allowed at hotels. I thought how I had never been to a Friday’s without a bar. Then I thought about how I was in the middle of a desert, on a ski lift, freezing my fingertips off, pondering whether or not I would go to Friday’s, and that my attendance would ultimately depend on the extent of the remnants of Sharia Law. I cracked myself up for the rest of the ride, laughing like an idiot.
Just as my time was running out, the attendant said I couldn’t get on the lift cause I was wearing shorts.
“Dude. I’ve been skiing for two hours.”
“The security cameras just caught you, sir. It’s a liability issue.”
“Like if I skin my knee on the snow?”
“No, if you got sick because of the cold.”
“But it’s a not a liability for my fingers since you guys don’t provide gloves?”
“Uhh. . .”
“My time’s up anyway. Thanks.”
PJ O’Rourke said, “Skiing consists of wearing $3,000 worth of clothes and equipment and driving 200 miles in the snow in order to stand around at a bar and drink.” Indeed many people ski for the aprés; wearing vests or sweaters with reindeer and beanies indoors only for the night to end up much like the Dumb and Dumber dream sequence.
I was never one much for the aprés. I always liked to ski my face off to the point of utter exhaustion and pass out, saving the party for late night. But I do enjoy putting normal shoes on again. This, however, was the first time I took off ski boots and put on flip flops.
I briskly walked out of the arena, through the mall’s hotel and outside into the sweltering heat of the Middle East. My fingers tingled back to life as I basked in the fervency of the afternoon. To experience such extremes was so beautiful I nearly cried in elation, standing by the bell stand at how utterly awesome it all was.
Once I warmed up, I remembered I was a hotel, and I’d only skied two hours, so I decided I’d do a little aprés for once
I walked into the hotel bar and ordered a manhattan. Not too soon after I arrived did three folks walk in and sit at the three chairs lining the bar. One gentlemen was very involved with the attractive Asian lady, and the other guy sat sipping his beer silently.
I struck up a conversation with the taciturn fellow sitting next to me. JP was his name and he was a boat captain. A Brit by heritage, he was an army brat born in Germany, but had lived in Dubai for the past 28 years. He was silent, butonce I got him talking he had some stories.
We talked for a good couple hours, the guy at the end interrupting only to call me ‘Taff’ since he had gotten it in his head that I was Welsh.
“Does Taffy want another drink?”
“Eh, Taff, you look barely old enough to be here.”
I humoured him, as I was really enjoying speaking JP. We covered the standards of the random bar convo: life, love, travel, racism, prostitution, cheeseburgers, and champagne.
Among other things.
He called Dubai ‘The Unholy Babylon’ since it was smack dab in one of the most traditionally and socially conservative areas of the world, but was rife with commercialism, sex, booze, and drugs.
He motioned to a guy at the other end of the bar in the full get up, who was obviously dressed very muslim, but enjoying a beer. I was all, ‘good for him: not like Catholics follow all the rules,’ but JP pointed out that in many other places in the middle east he would not be allowed to do that at all and neither would we.
We talked about my skiing earlier and he told me Iran had skiing. I called shenanigans, but he maintained that it was even segregated. Women on one slope, men on the other. I’m still not sure if I believe the guy, but he did go on to say the water park in Dubai has a ladies’ nights where it’s closed to men.
“Now that’s something I’d like to see,” he chortled. JP went on to talk about how some women would often wear the most expensive designer clothes and most elaborate make up under their burqas.
Walking around the mall later, I saw a large group of women exiting a lingerie shop in full gear.
“Maybe the slutty muslims just wear lace and stuff under their burqas,” pondered the InMo.
I bought some underwear myself and a couple t-shirts since I had run out of clean clothes over a week ago. Finding a shirt that fit was tough as they were all European sizes, not meant for large American frames.
I grabbed a snack of 4 McNuggets, and an foot-long subway sub for later (that makes the Score (KFC II, Subway II, McD’s VI).
“Maybe that’s why you can’t find a shirt that fits.”
I punched the InMo in the jaw.
I took a taxi back to the hotel, did some writing, watched some TV and showered.
I arrived at Rock Bottom, walking in with a group of people the bouncer waved in without a cover charge. A live band hopped about the stage playing American pop songs. I was reminded very much of Macau, where I sang Baby One More Time with the Skywalker Lounge’s House band.
Thinking of The Girl, I held back the urge to attempt to get up on stage and sing, instead I staying with the crowd, leaning on the bar with one elbow, nodding my head to the music.
The guy standing next to me ordered a beer and offered his glass for a cheers. We drank in relative silence. After a few minutes, I said, “You wanna a shot?”
He shook his head, ‘no,’ but says, “I’ll buy you one.”
Perplexed, “Please. I offered.”
He smirked and said, “I’ll let you buy me one if I can buy you one.”
I shrugged in agreement and with motion of his hand there were four shots of sambuca on the bar. Then he paid for both rounds.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa, my friend! We had a deal.” I motioned for two more from the bartender.
Ehab, as he shall be known, shrugged himself and knocked em back.
We did some introductions, the ol’ ‘where’re you from what’re you doing here’ routine. I commented how there were so few girls around this palce that was supposed to be a happening spot.
“Yeah. This place used to be packed all the time. I don’t know what happened,” offered Ehab in lax explanation.
“Some chick on the ski lift told me this was a cool place,” I said.
“I know a better place. You want to come along?”
It was at this precise moment I sized Ehab up. Did I trust him? Not really. Did he seem like a thug? Not really. Could I kick his ass if it was so needed? Sure. Could I win a fight against him and three of his friends? Perhaps. Did I really think this guy was anything other than someone who liked to party? No.
We climbed in a cab and Ehab told the driver where to go.
I have no idea where it was, or what it was called but, Ehab was not kidding. It was packed, people were dancing, there were beautiful girls everywhere.
Ehab got the cab, so I bought the first round. He knew the bartender, so complimentary tequila accompanied the brews.
We did a lap about the place, and a striking woman approached me. “You’re cute,” she said in a strong eastern European accent, sliding a hand from my shoulder across my chest.
And just then, the sambuca hit my cerebellum like a Jay Z Album. We chatted a little and she laughed at just about everything I said.
“Hang on a minute,” interrupted the InMo. “That wasn’t that funny.”
“Good point, InMo.”
She looked confused, “Who?”
“Never mind, love. So, uh,” I stumbled, “I don’t really know how to say this without sounding rude, but may I be so bold as to ask you a personal question?”
“Sure,” she replied, not phased at all.
“Um. Please don’t be offended. . .”
“Ok. . .
“. . .But how much?”
She smiled as if I had just told her she had nice dimples, but the muscles in her faced relaxed quickly. “800 dirhams.”
“Oh. Ok. that’s like, uh—”
“230 US Dollars.”
“Well. Um. Actually, I think I only have—”
“Huh. You know, that’s a bit expensive—”
“You can think about it.”
Her dark irises consuming her pupils, she looked up into my eyes steadfast and unwavering as if she were trying to eat my soul through my corneas. Her hair hung loose about her chin and her lips parted as if she was going to say something, but then she turned away.
“Expert negotiator my ass. She ate you for breakfast.”
Shut up InMo. I wouldn’t’ve bought her at any price, so I was not gonna negotiate. Rationalizations aside, that was one astute courtesan who looked a lot better than Rainclouds.
I found Ehab again and met some of his friends and a few more members of the world’s oldest profession. To be honest, I don’t remember that many details of the evening. There was more beer, more tequila and women everywhere.
I do remember putting a three-quarters full beer down on the bar and saying goodbye to everyone. All the bars close in Dubai at 3am and it was well before that.
I have a hazy recollection of ducking into a cab, stumbling into my hotel, fiddling with the key in the elevator and collapsing into the king sized bed in my cool, AC pumped room.
As the room spun around me, I fell asleep realizing that between the pool, eating fast food, skiing, and meeting incredibly interesting people, that this had possibly been the single greatest day of 2007.
This place was indeed the Unholy Babylon.
And it was awesome.