I’ve got a bubble friend called June,… lovely woman – likes purple, friends with Stephen Fry, and a complete bubble head.
Anyway, June (the month) is proving to be a bit crazy and it’s only 5 days in. It’s the beginning of season for me and the start of my summer bubble madness that tends to take me all over the UK as well as parts of the world – at the time of writing, I’m en route to 6 bubble shows in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, to open their Summer Festival this weekend.
But it all kicked off last weekend with Wychwood festival in Cheltenham, UK. (Read a review on UK Festival Guide here - http://www.ukfestivalguides.com/review/wychwood-2014-review).
Our first festival of the season and the first of our new 2014 bubble toys for sale - see http://www.bubbleinc.co.uk/collections/new-arrivals
Not a massive festival, but fluffy enough and worth doing if only for the fact that it gives us a chance to dust down the stall, see what needs fixing and come out of it with a list as long as your arm of stuff to be done. That way, by the time it comes round to July, we’re organised.
It also happened to coincide with Reuben’s 4th birthday so plenty to keep my hands full (as ever!).
So, now it’s Saudi for the next 5 days, then next week I’ve got a gig for high ranking members of the British Royal family (hush-hush on that one), and the following week is chocka with a whole set of daily gigs for Microsoft and the various subsidiary’s (did you know it owns Skype? And Nokia?).
They’re doing this whole equal opportunities drive at the moment, culminating in a big presence at London’s gay Pride parade at the end of this month, which we’re performing in too.
And in between all that, there might be a weekend off! Probably going to be my last one for a while so I plan to make the most of it and do absolutely nothing but hang out with Roanne and the kids J
In the meantime, back to Saudi - this gig was unusually late confirmed . Once it was booked, there was only about two weeks to go, and Saudi Arabia requires a fairly extensive visa process. The clients (Hamza and Abdul) suggested I use a visa assistant company to help me get it organised and someone called Maria sent me the various forms. Alongside the various letters and documents I had to prepare, there were some unusual questions on the visa application form which I didn’t expect – “Religion” was one, and “Sect” another.
Religion,… religion… what should I put?
You may not know this about me, but I studied World Religions at college (in Bath) and unsurprisingly, learning about such a variety of different religions (a new one every 3 weeks) left me feeling agnostic, so that’s what I put.
Now,… sect… sect? what the hell do they mean? I googled it, and nothing came up except a lot of pages about what to put under “Religion”
It became clear that apparently Agnostic was out. And Atheist – they just won’t let you in. Less surprisingly, Jewish was out - the Government of Saudi Arabia wants to support the Palestinian Government.
I ripped up the form, printed another copy and started again.
It came round to the Religion question again - what to put? I put Christian, and under sect – CoE.
Something didn’t feel right. I just felt uncomfortable about it. I ripped up the form and started again!
Third time lucky, and I decided on Buddhist and Nichiren Shoshu (for those of you who don’t know, it’s a very western friendly form of Buddhism where you chant the first line of the Lotus Sutra and imagine the things that you want – then you get them and realise they don’t make you happy so you start chanting for nirvana instead).
Took me half the day
At least they let me in!
Nam Myoho Renge Kyo, Nam Myoho Renge Kyo…..
The One Show –
Originally the call came in a couple of months back and they wanted me to shoot a short film about Marty, their presenter, trying to break the record for the biggest bubble – I was supposed to train him, and help them out and there was going to be a feature on me too.
Annoyingly when they eventually set the date for filming, I was already booked to perform in Bahrain for the Formula1 Grand Prix. It was typically last minute and they couldn’t change their date. So I had to let go of it. Welcome to the world of TV! They eventually went with a bit of a bubble legend - Cyril Isenberg, University professor and author of the science of Soap Films book from the 1970's (a bit hard going, but an essential part of my bubble library!)
Then a few days ago, they called me back and said that it was airing this Thursday and would I come in and add a bit more bubble action to it. They had Guy Martin, a motorcyclist on the show and were asking if I could do something bike related with bubbles. I threw a few ideas at them, including having him cycle through a bubble, and they eventually confirmed yesterday (!). At least this time I was available.
Taxi came and took me down to Broadcasting House at 3 and upon arrival things got straight into gear with a decision on location for filming. They film immediately outside their studio on the street regularly, so if you ever find yourself in C. London, you can just walk by and catch a glimpse of their show being filmed. If that’s your thing…
All systems go – decisions were being made on what we were going to shoot. It was raining and windy and outside and some of it was going out LIVE - that’s a bad combination for bubbles – live tv in itself is NOT bubble friendly, as I learnt back in 2006 during my first stint on BBC’s Blue Peter . I’d just broken my first GW Record putting 19 people in a giant bubble and hadn’t been on telly before Suddenly I was shooting live in Shepherds Bush studio 1. Nerve-cracking!
Anyway, back to the One Show - Thankfully it was decided we’d do some of the shots pre-recorded but still, time was so short that it was literally bang bang bang. One shot to get it right! A few umbrella bubbles, some Wonderweb bubble action and some tiniest bubbles in the world. Frantic! I knew it would be like this so had resolved to go with the flow. I put the presenters in a bubble and then the guy on the bike – it was non-stop! The show was supposed to end with an interview and me making a giant bubble. I was all set up to do so, but the show had run out of time and the giant bubble was cut whilst we were filming the interview - it was a snap decision and I didn’t even know till the credits were rolling. I’m there thinking “is that it?”
They were happy with everything, and so was I. These things ‘wrap’ up and everyone is out of there within about 20 minutes. Unfortunately, one of their crew threw away all my bubble mix in this 20 min grrr… don’t they know how long it takes to make? Actually that’s only every happened once before and that was the BBC too - at Glastonury festival coverage in 2005 – I’d just put Phil Jupitus in a bubble (no mean feat) and their crew took out my bubble mix and threw it away! They agreed to pay for it at least.
So that’s live tv! I wish I’d been able to shoot the short film too but you can’t do everything I guess, though I give it my best shot!
There’s always one duff gig… in a run of 50 or so, there’s likely to be I guess. Yesterday’s 5pm show was it. To start with, 5 minutes before I was due to go on, I was informed of a tv crew wanting to interview me. I like doing interviews normally, but I prefer to be told that they’re happening in advance.
The interview went ok, although I noted I felt a bit off my bubble (nothing to do with going out the night before…. !)
Then the gig began and everything seemed to go wrong in it. My solution which I use for doing ‘hand’ bubbling (using hands as a bubble tool) had turned and all the bubbles popped. What can you do? I carried on best I could, smiled and shrugged it off.
In the next section I do this trick with an umbrella – I use it like a blade or fan to waft the air and manipulate the bubbles to move around or twist them into spirals. So this time, I grab the umbrealla and do my first move … plonk. I catch the rim of my hat and it flies off and lands on the ground in front of me. Audience laughs. Ho hum.
Next there’s this little boy, I think his name is Justin. Actually he’s very sweet little kid – I put him in a bubble last week, and now he comes to every show he can persuade his mum to bring him to. He must have learnt my show backwards and now he starts to shout out what was going to happen before every trick to everyone he can, as loud as he can! I think he’s doing it because he’s proud he knows something the rest of the audience don’t, or wants to tell me how much he’s learnt from the shows. Or maybe he just wants to show off to the other kids. Who knows ? I try to tell him to shush but when I go to pretend to drink my bubble solution (so I can try to blow bubbles out of my ears!), he gives away the punchline and shouts out “IT”S ONLY WATER”
The People in Bubbles routine was a bit shabby it was fine,… the kids I chose weren’t as much fun as I thought they’d be when they were jumping ;up and down to go in a bubble, and I couldn’t figure out how to make it funny. Just one of those days I guess.
Into the last section, the Bubble Party where we get lots of kids dancing in thousands of bubbles. I get them warmed up and just as the music kicks in, I go to grab the first bit of kit, and slip on stage, falling flat on my bottom!
And the tv crew caught every unglorious moment of it!
My family come tomorrow! Can't wait to see them!
Shows are going really well – great feedback from the locals and the mall say that their attendance figures are way higher than they’ve been for years! Nice!!!
I did a show at a school on Friday which was fun.
Also, it’s only 2 days till my family arrive and 4 days till Will, Bubble Inc’s very own Worlds’ Tallest Bubbleologist arrive, so I’m kinda frantically trying to get everything organised for them. Then come Tuesday it’s holiday time!
In the meantime, whilst setting up my show on Sunday I checked my light table ( I do a whole ambient lit-up-bubble- art thing set to music I call “BubbleVision”).… uh-oh… it would only flash blue! It’s built to have all kinds of led light functions where you can change colours, make it flash or smoothly slide from one glorious colour to the next but this intermittent flashing wouldn’t work in my show. “Masalah” I said to Cisco (my liason).. means “problem” in Bahasa
Thankfully, I’ve learnt to carry spares over the years and I had a spare part for this, but when I changed it over, the thing still wasn’t working. It did at least eliminate most of the options and I figured it had to be the power supply – I had a look at it and could see some evidence of bubble solution inside one of the plugs.
I started off with a trip around the shops in the mall.. computer shops, electrical stores, hardware stores… none had the right kind of adaptor. Cisco bought down a couple from his office which looked the same but had different specs.. from computers he told me.
This kind of electrical specialist is not easy to find in Jakarta, and I knew it would be a bit of a mission to sort it out.
So after a bit of advice from friends on Facebook, I ended up with a couple of leads, and yesterday Cisco and I went off to find a place called Glodok to try and fix the adaptor or replace. From the moment we arrived, this was clearly going to be a bit of an adventure! There’s so many sides to Jakarta, and I generally get sheltered from most of them – nice hotel, smart venue, etc etc. It’s all kinda provided for me, but I’m much more interested to get off the beaten path when I travel, and this was certainly a lot less touristy!
It’s hard to say what the building itself actually looked like from the outside – I think it was a block, filled with narrow little walkways, and 100’s of booth style shops… a market place selling all kinds of electrical items, from speakers to fans to amplifiers to cameras and vcr’s… a hustle and bustly sort of a place which oddly smelt of cows poo. Cows poo? That can’t be right…
Wires hung loose from the ceiling and steel girders holding up the building stood cheek to jowel with the be-sandled shop owners. A blind man was guided through the labyrinth singing charismatically into a mic with a speaker round his neck and a container to receive money.
Upstairs I came across a room stuffed floor to ceiling with black market cds – their team of 4 workers had moved their desks outside and were packing the dvd’s into their sleeves with a regularity and rhythm that told me without question that these guys have packed A LOT of cd’s… the sound of it was like a machine rhythm.
It seems rare to experience the ‘black market’ happening so openly, and I was concerned that they might not like me taking a picture, but nothing could be further from the truth! They loved it and wanted pictures with me too!
We trawled around the shops there getting sent from one place to another to another, but felt we were getting closer, and indeed about an orange juice, a few blackmarket dvd’s and an hour and a half later, we eventually found it! We stumbled on this tiny place which had a proper investigation of my adaptor, calmly pronounced it D.O.A (it was proper grimy and bubbled inside!) and sold me a new one.
And it works!
Gotta dash – more bubble mix to prep
My days at the moment are quite indoors-y. I get picked up from my hotel (in the middle of nowhere some 4km from the venue) about 3pm and my shows are at 5 and 7 so by 8.30/9 I’m done and I eat some dinner at the mall, before heading back to my hotel. Pre show time, I generally catch up on emails and mix my bubble solutions.
I did go out with some locals last Sunday, but the down side of this is that I haven’t really been out much.
The only other time I’ve really explored was on Tuesday when I had a quick trawl around the mall’s proximity to find a closer hotel. Traversing Indonesian pavements and road systems by foot is no easy task in itself. The highlight for me was giving my days per diems away to a young woman with 3 children begging at the side of the street. Not so much money to me, but it was a lot to her, and her face when she noticed was a picture and made me want to do this kind of thing every day.
Then last night I met up with George from Churros Bros – a fellow festival stall owner from the UK who lives out here with his wife and child during the winter months. He was hanging out with James, his brother who is currently on a slow round –the-world trip. I was just putting some 'foam boobs' on the grown up i chose to go in a bubble (one of my favourite parts of my show) when i look up and see George and his brother - nice to see a familiar face in the middle of a bubble show! Also great to get a chance to get out of the mall for the evening and go and see another side of the city.
George, on his night off from Daddy-day-care, decided to take us over to Jalan Jacksa – the Koh San Road of Jakarta. It’s the travellers area, except there’s not an awful lot to do or see in Jakarta, so most of the ‘boulay’ (foreigners) are probably just passing through on their way to Bali or back again.
I haven’t seen where they live, but his wife works as an English teacher at the British International School here which not only commands a decent wage, but lots of benefits and I know they live very comfortably over here. So we were picked up by their driver and drove past a million motorbikes, and got stuck behind a pick up truck with a thousand chickens as it’s passengers.
Arriving at our destination, a seedy street full of bars and street-food, we found a restaurant and I was glad of the chance to have food ordered for me and try something new.
Passing musicians collected money along with someone in a colourful and slightly freakish national costume that looked like something between Day of the Dead and a Christmas tree.
We followed on to a bar, pausing briefly to be interviewed by a group of students on a project about boulay.
The bar, was great! Full of little tables everyone packed with Westerners and a mix of Indonesians, young and old A live band playing covers surprisingly well. The back wall filled with books rammed to the brim.
We managed to find an empty table right at the back, and ordered some large local beers, Bintang (means Star). I’m not a big drinker – I haven’t really got the build for it! So after a few of these, I was feeling decidedly jolly. But not as jolly as James who proceeded to get up and dance with the local Indonesian equivalent of Tina Turner, who in turn took to the stage and sang her guts out brilliantly!
The band slowed and we moved on to another place – this time an open bar with a more rock/reggae/punk/motown band playing underneath the hot dusty palms. George found his spirit too, and the next thing I know, he’s grabbed the microphone and is leading the audience singing an old Motown track.
The evening was drawing to a close, and George offered to drop me back.
Now Jakarta is a bit of a undeciferable code when it comes to getting around. Aside from the lack of any organised public transport, there’s no such thing as a Metro system, let alone “the knowledge” here. Taxi-drivers don’t tend to know where somewhere is unless it’s a major destination, so I was fairly relieved at George’s offer.
James had met Luci, a local lass who, once James made certain of her intentions, jumped in with us and we set off.
George’s offer (and perhaps patience with his brother?) were running a bit thin however, and about 2/3rd’s of the way back, he realised his need to get back to his wife and baby, and politely suggested that I get out here.
Drunk and without local knowledge, I was a bit concerned at this suggestion, but I figured Luci might be helpful, and she helped explain where I was going to a taxi driver and they drove off.
The taxi driver drove off in a direction I wasn’t sure about.. and 15 minutes later pulled up outside the Grand Asian hotel. Not where I’m staying…
Feeling a little lost I wondered how am I going to get out of this one?
25 minutes later, we pulled up at another hotel I’ve never heard of and I got a bit panicky!
Another hotel and an hour later, at the point of me saying ‘I give up’ and ‘take me to another hotel for the night’, my driver suddenly chanced upon it and I was there.
I crawled exhausted into bed at 4.30 in the morning.
Might have a night in tonight… wonder if there’s a good film on?
Tomorrow - school show at 10am!
Sitting in my car driving to the venue for Day 3 of my bubbleshows. I’m stuck in what Jakartians affectionately refer to as “Matchet” (traffic like marmite), wondering what to say for my first blog of this trip.
It was hectic as ever leaving the UK, with the Bubble Inc stall going off to Lincoln Victorian Christmas Market, for the first time without me, and we’ve hired a new person in the office, Deborah, who is helping putting up all the new items on our website! These include a new spinny bubble illusion and our very own party bags to accompany your kids parties! You can check them out in the online shop at
Plus,... check out this funny video clip from Wilderness this year showing our latest Bubble gadget! SMOKE BUBBLES!
But, back to Jakarta!
It’s always hard doing the first blog of a big set of shows, because the first few gigs tend to be fraught with issues and obstacles to overcome and i get writers’ block till it starts to take some shape. Generally it’s the most intensive ‘work’ of my trip. For example: they were still building the whole stage area during rehearsals and someone trod on some of my kit and broke it... whoops! Also, I should have instructed them to build the backstage area big enough to fit “Barbara” (my giant inflatable crack-a-jack roll-a-round ball); and Indonesian customs decided that my bubble solution was a good opportunity to make some money so they want to charge 24 million rupiah (£1400) to release it, claiming it doesn’t have the right documents...
Also, a bit confusingly, this client (Taman Anggrek) didn’t appoint an Event Organiser, saying they do it all in house, but as a consequence some things have not been done – no publicity, no MC, and as yet, no dedicated assistants. It seems a bit strange to me that they bring me all the way over here, and then don’t publicise my show. Isn’t the point to attract people to their venue?
Anyway, they are fixing my broken bit of kit, building a new Barbara friendly back stage area, have made the Indonesian Customs Officers a bit richer, are putting pics of my up on their giant screen, and fingers crossed they bring in a proper MC! They currently seem to be randomly choosing members of their staff in the hope that one of them will have some stage presence or undiscovered talent at talking with a microphone… no joy yet on that front! Their attempts at MC'ing are kinda sweet and funny (as well as my attempts to try and pep them up!)
And the first shows are going ok. First show is always a bit of a ‘mare – a few technical problems, but, the audience is increasing in numbers and enthusiasm, and the atmosphere is fantastic! Especially the Bubble Party - see https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10152057915365295&set=a.88312825294.115572.740155294&type=1&comment_id=12261318&offset=0&total_comments=3
These shows are a lot more central in Jakarta than my previous shows, so people are a little more guarded, like you get in most cities and it takes more to get them to shout and scream. But they are warming to me, especially my attempts at speaking Bahasa (!), and I predict that before long, they’ll all be in touch with their inner bubble. Pics are on my Facebook page and hopefully on here if i can get some decent res versions!
And how is it being back in Jakarta? I love the Jakarta characters, and i have friends out here now and i do love performing here, but what takes precedence this time is my family are being flown out to join me in less than two weeks time! So not only do they get to see me perform out here, but afterwards we are staying on to take a Christmas break.
I always get asked whether I take my kids with me, and to be honest, it just never works out that way. Either the kids are in school, or I’m working every day, or something, but this time, it’s all come together! They come out for the last 3 days of my show and then we have 3 weeks on a beautiful tiny island surrounded by coral reef so beautiful that various Turtles have made it their home.
I am vaguely aware of some knocking at my door.
It's dark. I ignore it, and smile knowing that it will go away soon. My bed is soft and warm.
It continues and gets louder, but I’m not worried.
But it’s not to last. The door unlocks and a bright bright light is switched on, and someone is in my room
“Good Morning Sir! I am the hotel’s “Experience Manager" – someone is waiting to have a meeting with yoooou”
“ARGGGHHHHH! TURN IT OFF! I’m NOT having a good experience! LEAVE ME ALONE!”
“Sorry sir, sorry sorry sorry...”
Now I’m awake though. I search for something to tell me the time. 10.40.
My “not good experience” continued well into the day. Both my bags were missing in action and no-one knew where they were. Elaina finally got the message I could not perform without my bags, and they bought in a juggler to cover my first shows.
Then I hear that my bags had been located in London and were on their way to HK, but wouldn’t be here till at least 3. Stress. Elaina more so. We stress back and forth at eachother like a game of barbed wire table tennis.
The 1pm show came and went. Ben, the juggler did his stuff. Then a call from BA – only 1 bag had been found. Which one? One is square and flat, and the other is a big tube…. The big tube.
We wait and wait. No bag! I eventually decided to replace a couple of things from my kit (a baby bottle and a measuring jug!) and took them back to my room, only to find the big square bag sitting there! They’d got it wrong and now I have to plan a whole OTHER show with all the other equipment.
Can it be done? I guess… if we miss out this, and that, I can add some smoke bubble tricks to my set and do a couple of other things… we’d missed the second show by now, but I could put it together for the 3rd show at 7pm….
I prepped my kit.
7pm arrives, and my music began. I step out onto stage. But once i'm on stage, i have to put everything behind me. It doesn’t matter how tired I am, once I'm there, it’s like a motorbike starts inside of me.
The intro is just a bit of fun with me making a few melon sized bubbles and doing some hand bubble tricks. All good. Moved into the 2nd section, and did a display of some Guinness Record tricks – it’s a GWR show, so I figured that would be a good space filler. I had to miss out my favourite section and the Bubble Party, but I had enough kit to put people in bubbles, and I left the stage with a sigh of relief. Not my best show ever, but Elaina is happy, the client is happy, audience happy!
Somehow, an hour or so later we had another call – my other bag had turned up in HK and would be delivered immediately.
We took the opportunity to do a rehearsal straight away and though it was 9pm now, there were still plenty of people at the mall. It was actually the nicest thing ‘cos it was like an informal show which I could start and stop whenever I liked!
Watch out BA… you are soooo in for it when I get back!
I’m now sitting in my very swanky hotel bar on the 32nd floor enjoying a well deserved and needed pint! They definitely know how to do swanky in Hong Kong, though no massage available at this hotel regrettably. I’ll have to do with my pint. And maybe a gin and tonic.
So the swanky bar… it’s called Sugar and there’s a dj playing uber cool dance tunes. It’s filled with young professional guys and their pretty super-stylish girlfriends. Fashion here is big on the agenda, and this place oozes style! It overlooks HK harbour and it’s million lights.
I’m a bit out of place in my braces and hat, thankfully. I’m not sure if I can talk to people without them thinking I’m some kind of nutter, or am trying to hit on them, but who cares? I’ve got my beer, my diary, and best all, all my equipment back! [turns out they actually thought i was a writer 'cos i was scribbling all this in my diary!]
It’s stormy tonight and the view from here is pretty spectacular.
There are basically ZERO huses here in HK, but like a million tower blocks, ranging from seriously impressive hotels and LED decorated office blocks, to your plain old blocks of flats, but they they’re all 30+ stories high, and are literally EVERYWHERE! Each one of them is lit up, and I have to admit, it’s an impressive sight.
It just so happens that I bought my new sparkly specs with me. They’re like the 3d glasses you get except these ones put a rainbow heart around every light you see! (soon to be a Bubble Inc product! – watch this space! www.bubbleinc.co.uk)
I put them on and marvel at the skyline, but here in this swanky bar in my braces, I instantly know I’ve gone too far. Self consciousness swallows me up and after a minute or so, I remove them. The only answer to this is to pass them around, and before you know it EVERYONE’s talking about them and I’ve made lots of new friends! Especially with the people who work here – one of whom was literally jumping up and down with laughter at the sight of their city covered in hearts! My G&T was whisked away and zooped up somewhat…
I love the HK people. They’re so British,. but cute-er.
Spread the love!
Day 3 coming up!
I’m always excited to be getting on a plane to some far away place and present my bubble show. Even now, at the end of my long summer season, to do gigs 85 – 100 of my mini world tour there’s something very gratifying about checking in at the airport.
However… things this time, were not to go to plan.
My initial flight was cancelled at the last minute due to ‘technical’ reasons and I was squeeeeezed on to the only other flight to HK that day. The BA lady told me that she wouldn’t recommend BA at the moment, not until they get their new fleet. Apparently this kind of thing happens to them every day at present.
The new flight itself was a bit strange – it took off around 10pm, and they basically treated it as a night flight all the way through the 11 hours to our destination. What made this bizarre was then landing at 7pm when the airline attendants had just woken all the passengers up and given them breakfast.
Somewhat bleary eyed after notching up a 19 hour journey, I stumbled to the conveyer belt to collect my luggage.
1 of my bags came through… I waited.
I spotted a couple of other people from my initial cancelled flight in the same predicament and joined them at the queue for baggage enquiries.
All my equipment – disappeared. My outfits too, some of which are irreplaceable and over 100 years old. I filled out a form and they gave me a pink slip. I met Fenris who was collecting me on behalf of my client,Elaina, and explained what had happened. We then spent a further 2 hours at the airport, as we tried to figure out where the luggage was with the BA customer service managers.
There was of course nothing they could do beyond putting out a search for my lost bags and giving me a paltry £35 to cover any costs incurred as a result of my missing stuff. The other couple were given £60 each, which I was told was because they were in a different class to me. Now not only have you lost my bags BA, but you’re telling me I’m not worth as much as these other customers? Just what I want to hear now, BA, thanks a bunch.
Now I have to deal with the loss of all my equipment AND a panic-y event manager who’s worried about how to appease her client.
Personally when I arrive for a gig abroad, I generally just get straight to my hotel, take a shower, and rest up for a few hours at least. Then I want to prep my kit and take everything in my stride with as much time as possible. It all helps once I actually get up on stage…
So we walk away from the terminal and Fenris casually mentions we’ll be getting the bus to the venue. The bus? Where’s my car, like it says in my rider? No, no he tells me. Bus is much more quick and comfortable… yeah, right! I’m too tired to argue so we get the A12 bus and watch the taxi’s speed by as we drive into Kowloon and beyond. Once I arrive, Elaina meets me and I’m immediately whisked to the stage. As the ‘middle woman,’ it’s kinda understandable that she was freaking out, but at the time, that was the last thing I needed! She rushed me off to a toy shop in the mall where they bought me whatever bubble toys they could find and requested I put something together for the lunchtime show tomorrow which they also inform me is the Press Show too.
No pressure then!
I didn’t know what to say, so I said I’d think about it, and try my best and they took me to the hotel.
I look at the stuff they’ve bought. I had fairly scant equipment in my one bag that arrived, mostly personals. I can’t do it. There’s not enough here to do anything, I can’t even mix my juice properly.
I don’t want to risk looking like an idiot in front of the HK press too, so I sent them an email saying I couldn’t do it. I receive one back insisting I put something together and requesting a meeting with her client at 8.30am.
No way, I say. I politely inform them that if they need my show, they should take it up with BA, and that I need my rest & shall not be available till at least 10.30 tomorrow.
Then i turn off my mobile phone and take the hotel phone off the hook.
Grand Mosque Sheikh Zayed Mohammed
Sheikh Zayed was the founding father of everything that we know the UAE to be – modern, cosmopolitan, towers, malls and exuberance. He took the country forward when the British ended their rule here and he came with a vision that began to take shape in the early 1970’s.
Aside from turning the desert Bedouin lifestyle into a millionaire’s mansion, he also had one of the grandest Mosques in the world built – comparable with the Taj Mahal so I’m told, and apparently one of the top 25 places to visit in the World according to one well known travel website. Building started in 1996 and took 11 years to complete.
Hopefully you know me well enough to know that shopping mall’s are not for me – I don’t mind taking bubbles there, actually I quite like it. But I never go to them, unless for work.
But this,.. this sounds interesting.
I do a bit of research and decide to join in with the 11am tour. I fill up on water before I go to stave off the dehydration of being outside during Ramadan. Typically I later discover, my taxi overcharges me telling me he forgot to start his meter. I bet that happens en route to the Taj Mahal too.
At 11 am, the heat is in it’s normal oppressive state – this is the only place I’ve been where you can take a bottle of water from the fridge to the outside and drinking it 5 minutes later you find the centre is still cold, but the water around it going into your mouth is hot.
Getting to the entrance is a mission. But wohhh… I immediately know I’ve arrived somewhere special. It’s so white! I want to wash in it!
How they keep it such a colour is beyond me. The huge vast construction has been entirely built out of enormous slabs of marble and radiates a sense of peace and purity from every square inch. 82 Moghul domes of varying sizes, all capped with a gold spear, reminiscent of Neptune’s moons.
The building itself is surrounded by water, and beyond the pools, a large open colonnade: you can lose yourself simply gazing between the multitude of stunningly elegant mosaic columns, photogenically ending in a single arch, far far away. They are decorated lightly with the most serene mosaics – stems and flowers made of Lapis Lazuli, Amethyst, Mother of Pearl, and Jade wind up towards the inside of the domes. It’s almost Art Noveau, and their lofty interiors are patterned in off-white spirals, circumnavigated with golden Qu’ran quotes.
What makes this place so stunning is the immediate sense of space. It’s minimalist, and the shadows appear and disappear as though gliding through the waiting rooms of paradise.
Our guide Amina, walks us through the wonderful courtyard that fits 20,000 worshippers come night time. She tells us it’s ok for us to drink water outside of the main building, contradicting all that I’ve been told about consuming anything outside in the daytime during Ramadan.
Into the main entrance, we remove our shoes and place them in gold painted shoe racks, careful not to step on the darker marble slabs as the heat of these is truly intense and will literally burn the soles of your feet. Inside we are immediately met with a chandelier of epic proportions – inhabited by beautiful light blue and green glass and a thousand Swarovski crystals. They hang down like the point of the spaceship in Close Encounters of the Third Kind…
Into the main prayer room, we are greeted this time by a somewhat more busy chandelier, just as impressive, though slightly more… Las Vegas. Gilded fantastic almost celtic designs make up the majority, with a centre piece of green and red lit balls hanging from it’s centre. Somehow I think of Christmas. Amina explains to me that the centre-piece actually drops about 1 meter to reveal a small staircase to aid cleaning!
The carpet is the single largest carpet in the world covering 5700 square meters, and took 1200 Iranians to make. It’s so beautiful, I feel as if my body could meld with it’s colours.
She also explains how the devotees pray towards Mecca and enlightens me to a curious plaque I’d noticed on the ceiling of both my hotel rooms. I had assumed it hid some kind of fuse box, or pointed to how to get out of the hotel in case of a fire, but no. It’s the direction of Mecca, so that Muslims know which direction to pray in.
They pray 5 times each day. Each prayer has a name, and the mosque houses a strange looking digital clock that points out the exact times. I’m curious about why 5, when most other religions pray just once, or even once a week, and she tells me that God initially asked Prophet Mohammed to request they pray 50 times a day, but he haggled him down to 5. Well… she didn’t say ‘haggled’ but you get the point. It’s kind of extreme right? And many things here seem that way. Why for example do they fast for 30 days, when most other religions might be just 1. Not just religion either,.. what makes them so extreme? It makes my Agnostic brain wonder, what event could have caused this to become part of their national identity?
The clock also points out the Moslem calendar date which is 12.09.1434 – theirs is a lunar calendar like the Chinese and their years are 10-11 days shorter than ours, which explains why the dates of Ramadan change each year.
She goes on to tell me how the Mosque is frequented almost entirely by Men. There is a Ladies Prayer room (they worship separately from one another – apparently the women normally worship at home, but if they do come to the Mosque, they don’t want to be seen prostrating).
After the tour, I decide to explore a bit and soon find myself in the library. Amongst the many Arabic texts and huge old books on Arabian textiles, I find a beautiful book of International children’s illustrators and their drawings of the mosque. It far outstrips the photographic equivalent. How often I find that the world of a child’s perspective holds so much more life than that of the adult world.
I drift through the columns, not knowing where I’m going and find myself in one of the corners of the colonnade, met by an escalator going down to the “South Ablutions.” A security guard tells me that it’s the Men’s toilet.
I don’t need to ‘go,’ but curiosity gets the better of me andI figure it might be worth a look, and I have to say, it takes the biscuit! If there was ever a book entitled “The World’s most Spectacular Toilets” this would be surely in the top 3 at least!
At the bottom of the escalators, I remove my shoes. The marble continues and I find myself in an octagonal room facing a drinking fountain, once again wrapped in the most wonderous blue/green mosaic arch. It’s light source is another spiralled dome, this time made from glass, which drops a spider web of light onto the ground at my feet. I wonder how bubbles would look in this light? Reflecting the spirals twice onto their surface, I dream.
2 open arches lead into the most unbelievable wash-room: The Centrepiece is a gentle fountain of alabaster that trickles into moon pools reminiscent of Turkey’s Pammukale, and below that sit scores of taps side by side, extending out from vertical green marble slabs. I sit at a stone stool in front, and copy the locals, washing my hands, arms and feet in these glorious bowls. The light inside comes from above. It seems to be made of honey and milk and a sense of peace and serenity engulfs me.
How must it be to come and wash before prayer here? 1000’s of worshippers coming together in joint devotion,…community….communion.
As I take the escalator back up to the exquisite columns and domes at ground level, I feel as if I’m being transported to heaven, like David Niven in “A Matter of Life and Death.” (highly recommended!). A place of worship designed to such inspiration, it’s hardly surprising it’s such a place of spiritualism. A few birds sing and flutter in the rooftops and I feel for a moment as though I am in heaven.
It’s kind of rare to actually meet the Emirati’s so I mostly meet expats, who tend to stick together. I am fortunate to have met with one group of Emiratis (see below) and had a positive experience. I met them in the lobby of my first hotel, a band of 6 or 7 men in their 40’s who meet each night, Ramadan style, to eat, discuss and socialise late into the night. After the second night I passed them, I decided to say hello. They clearly are glad to meet me, and immediately welcome me into their gang, sharing all their food as well as funny little pipes, which they lovingly keep in velvet bags with a bottle of something I believe is a kind of strong tobacco. One hit wonders. Their hospitality is genuine and extensive.
They also greet me by touching the tip of their nose to mine and making a kissing sound, which they explain to me is a sign of honour. Most wonderfully, Ahmed without warning begins singing so beautifully that it seems all the other sounds in the hotel stop to listen to it.
They work in the army, police and offices, and we communicate just about enough in eachother’s languages for them to be highly curious about my unusual profession.
I was lucky enough to meet with them a few times before I change hotel, and now I have to say I miss our midnight feasts! It’s the best (and only) contact I’ve had with the locals, and from what I hear from Craig and Sarah (who live out here now, but I put in a bubble at a private show in the UK a few years back), is something that doesn’t happen to them at all. One time, a huge plate of Chicken and rice is bought along and although initially given a spoon, I am quickly encouraged to eat communally with my hands as they do. I’m never quite sure about this – I like joining in with the local people and customs f’sure, but is it really hygienic? I didn’t see anyone wash their hands. Of course, it’s not enough to stop me, and I make sure I eat with my right hand (left hand’s a big no-no – you know why I hope!), but I do wonder if this is not better done with cutlery.
But also, I have to tell you I hear some pretty shocking stories in the newspapers, from the internet as well as the Expat’s. They make me wonder about the attitude of the Emirati’s - it seems like they can be pretty superior and intolerant. Not to mention judgemental and very harsh disciplinarians.
It’s hard to know where to start…
For example, apparently they don’t tell the accurate temperature in the tv weather forecast here, as if it goes over 42 degrees, the Indian and Philippino construction workers are allowed to put down their tools. Instead they announce how a few days ago, it hit 50.
The English speaking newspapers have stories of expat’s being fired from their jobs, once they’ve been successfully treated for cancer, because they are now considered a liability. If a cheque bounces here, you can go straight to jail. Do not pass Go.
Sarah was telling me how she works in HR, and found it really shocking when she arrived – people are paid depending on where they come from in the World, so someone from UK get’s paid a lot more than someone from India, who can get around a pound a day, working in one of the top mega expensive 7* hotels in the UAE.
Weirder than that, she tells me laws have recently changed here and in the past few years, it’s been declared that all companies must hire a percentage of Emirati’s. This is fine, she goes on, if they want to work which some of them do. But many of them have no real reason to do so, other than that it’s kind of expected. The UAE Government shares out a percentage of the oil money and none of them have to work. So they come to work, but don’t do anything. What’s more, they are paid massive salaries for this. The company has to keep them on to keep up their numbers. Sarah tells me it’s a frustrating, but what can you do? Either you like it, or leave she tells me.
This money that they share.. it’s pretty incredible. When they marry a local, they are given a 5 bedroom house and a couple of hundred thousand dollars to get them set up.
Kind of amazing that they share it out at all. That’s not something I bet would happen in the UK, or many places. Apparently when the Arab Spring first happened, the Government increased all Emirati wages by 50%. Seemed to do the job….
In the last few days, since I originally started writing this, a couple of stories have come to light, which I have to say really shock and bewilder me. One is a man who video’d an Emirati beating up an Indian driver in a road rage incident. It turns out the Emirati was a Government official and the man who filmed it is now in prison with charges of breach of privacy laws. The Emirati is also in prison.
Worse still, a story came up on the internet this week about a Scandanavian woman who went out with a work colleague last March and was then raped by him. She went to the Police and it has exposed massive injustices in their legal system. She is now in prison. For 16 months. Why? Because a) she can’t prove a rape charge unless 4 other men witness it (and testify), and b) they say she had sex under the influence of alcohol out of marriage.
I don’t want to appear negative towards my hosts. And maybe I don’t know the full story. But I have to say, what’s happened to this woman seems so tragic.
For those of you who want to know more about this story, please read this
and sign the petition: