Saturday, 16 June 2007

Dubai Summer Surprises - Lift Surprises

I am daily reminded of the joys of unfettered multiculturalism. I’m not sure if there are many places on earth that are quite so polyglot as Dubai, the city that, more than any other, sits on the cultural tectonic between East and West. It is here that cheap sub-continental and Asian labour rubs shoulders with Western White Collars, where retail staff earning $200 a month serve shoppers earning $200,000 a year and more and where Indian labourers working for Irish contractors build Australian designed towers for Arab companies to sell to Indian investors.

And, let us forget the important stuff that is the lifeblood of this odd multinational mixture, we’re all of us better off for being here. Tens of nationalities co-exist here, at times uncomfortably but at least in broad consensus. The oddities and differences, however, can provide fascinating anthropological material.

Take lifts. In this part of the world, lifts often have mirrored back panels. This can provide much amusement for the amusedly inclined.

If you are ever moved to touch a Balinese person on the head, restrain yourself. It’s the worst insult and you’ll end up, if you’re lucky, with a black eye. If you’re Dutch, you’ll likely end up with a rice sickle buried in your chest. A strong veneration for the head appears to be core to Bali’s animistic Hinduism, as well as forming something of a preoccupation for Hindus in general.

So, when in Dubai, do expect Indian chaps entering a lift to notice the mirror, admire themselves fleetingly and then whip out a comb and start to re-shape the super-cranial keratin (hair). Perhaps amusingly, this ritual grooming invariably takes precedence over selecting a destination floor, leaving one’s fleeting travelling companion impeccably groomed but unfloored.

For some reason, many people from the East see the process of calling a lift differently from Europeans. In Europe, and many parts of East Asia, one presses the ‘up’ button if one wishes to go up and the ‘down’ button if one wishes to go down. In Asia, particularly India, it seems that one presses the ‘up’ button to summon a lift up and the ‘down’ button to summon a lift down.

So, if on the ground floor of a 10 story building, many people in Dubai press the down button to call the lift down to them. If you’re on the 8th story of a 10 story building and aiming to go down, the best thing to do is call the ‘up’ button on the grounds that the lifts are more likely to be below you than above. Often people press both ‘up’ and ‘down’ buttons as this increases the statistical likelihood of the lift coming more quickly. Because this is at odds with the way lifts are programmed, this results in many people being transported in the contrary vertical direction to that desired.

All of which explains why, occasionally, I call the lift from our basement carparking to find it already filled with people grinning out at me as I gape at them. Then the doors close again and they are taken away from me. Which, as summer has arrived and the humidity has rendered the air moist, thick and soupy (I swear I saw a wadi fish swimming past my head the other day), is lucky because people can become subject to violent irritability in these conditions.

Incidentally, I declare Summer upon us with some trepidation as Gulf News has not marked its official advent with a picture of a pigeon drinking from a standpipe or labourers resting in the shade. But I do feel I'm on the right lines and offical confirmation should come soon...

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