Monday, August 15, 2016

Get thee to soft play... and other summer expat commandments

It is the middle of August, which means we have officially "broken the back" of summer in Dubai. The countdown is on for when it's bearable to venture outside without arriving at your destination looking like you have stopped on the way for a fully-clothed sauna.

When I first moved here, I was asked quite a lot about how I manage in the summer heat. The short answer to that is box sets. There were summers when Him Indoors and I debated moving to Scandinavia and joining the police force, such was our familiarity with the fictional procedures of Wallander, Sarah Lund and (my personal favourite) Saga Noren.

Then Desert Baby arrived, and surprisingly, she is less keen on patiently unscrambling the fictional gruesome crime wave that is currently blighting the capital cities of Sweden and Denmark, and the need arose to actually leave the house.

So, what the heck do you do in summer with a toddler when it's 50C outside?

Well, those who have the kind of lives that allow such things, disappear for up to two months to escape the heat. Or, pack the children off to relatives or friends in cooler climes. I couldn't face the weeping, home sickness, separation anxiety and sleep regression that would result from that (and Desert Baby would not have been much better, boom boom) so that was out.

So, there is quite a lot of this:

Soft play is your friend, people. This is the first commandment of surviving the summer with a child in the UAE - "thou shalt go to soft play until you want to climb into the bottom of the ball pit and weep silently to thyself".

Love 'em or hate 'em, you're going to be there a lot. You need to take socks for you and offspring - something easily forgotten for the newly arrived expat who has just got used to schlepping around in sandals and can often be seen weeping next to the sign at the entrance which says "no socks, no play".  The savvy UAE parent carries socks for themselves and child along with the 500 other essential baby items in your giant detritus-filled bag of doom.

Desert Baby is pictured above at the mother all soft plays in my view - Cheeky Monkeys in Etihad Mall, Mirdif. There are several branches across Dubai and it's one of those places that makes me think, "crikey, children here in the UAE and in the 21st century really don't know they're born". Sponge ball guns, a set of four trampolines (which I may or may not have bounced on rather a lot), the "roller coaster" (see above) arts and crafts, ball pit, slides, giant jump-onable piano, it has the lot.

It doesn't come cheap - 50dhs per hour (more than GBP10.50 at current exchange rates) but thankfully it's on Him Indoors' employee discount scheme so it's doable. In common with Extreme Fun, Motor City, it has a cafe, serving kid-friendly food and coffee, which, unusually for such places in the UAE, does not taste like it has been vomited through a steamer and left to stew with rat's urine for several weeks before being served.

Soft plays in Dubai are excellent on the whole, clean and with good facilities. They would have to be, because they are they are the core of all summer child-tiring activities here. I have found cheaper ones - Fun 'N' Learn in Fun City, Arabian Centre, Mirdif, for example, is 30dhs to stay as long as you like.

One of the things that I like about living here with Minime is that Dubai is, in some respects, heaven for small children. Everyone seems to love rugrats. Desert Baby is cooed over and talked to by total strangers everywhere we go, from other mums to sales assistants and waiting staff to random blokes in sensible business attire. I have never been made to feel uncomfortable or asked to leave anywhere when I have her with me, tantrum or not. And there are child-friendly indoor amusements in most shopping malls with wide selection of flashy, noisy, games, cars, motorbikes and tiny buses to sit on and shout, wave fists and demand money to load on a swipe card to make them work.

Then there are things like Jump Boxx, a trampolining centre, the record-breakingly massive Dubai Aquarium at The Dubai Mall, Ski Dubai at Mall of the Emirates, which sometimes offer summer discounts and packages to keep your children busy.

Then there's the hallowed ground of what has, over the years, become a Dubai tradition - the mighty Modhesh World. It's a giant indoor fair which opens up in the Trade Centre over the summer, full of fairground type activities like shooting galleries, spooky ghost houses, enormous slides, those water orb things that you climb inside and float on, bumper cars, and more. If you go with an under two, it costs next to nothing as they are happy to run around and goggle in amazement at the sheer scale of this insane kid-paradise, but if you go with children old enough to understand and demand, be warned, you could be in for a pricey day as each attraction is charged separately.

I enjoyed going just to see the "Dubainess" of it. You know those little automated cars/boats/buses they have outside supermarkets in the UK, that you put a coin in and the jig your child around? There are HUNDREDS of them, brand new of all shapes, sizes and descriptions, and that's just the start, there's a regular parade of brightly dressed and made up dancing stage school types, two food courts, a soft play and the feeling that you've stepped into a Willy Wonka-style wonderland of child-attracting technicolour. We went in the morning when it was fairly quiet. I suspect in the afternoons and evenings it is actual mayhem.

Modhesh and other activities are pretty hard on the pocket, though, so bearing in mind that Desert Baby's parents are in retail and journalism rather than oil and gas or banking, we find ourselves seeking out cheaper alternatives.

So here is the second commandment of Dubai summer parenting -

"Thou shalt head north to Sharjah, and find child-friendly activities that are so cheap in comparison to Dubai, that it would not matter if they were total pants, but are actually on the whole pretty good."

The hands down favourite of the Sharjah-based activities is Arabia's Wildlife Centre which is home to a collection of animals native to the region including the incredibly cute sand cat, cheetahs, leopards, wolves and baboons.

The centre is educational and has decent explanations of all the species in English and Arabic and the enclosures are well constructed in a naturalistic way. Most importantly, while many of the animals are outside, you view from indoors, so you can go there at any time of year and not be troubled by the heat. There is also a restaurant, along the lines of one of those roadside places you see everywhere in the UAE, serving fresh juices, icecreams, tea, and "local" delights including byriani, "zinker" (zinger) chicken burgers and the like. If you're one of those crunchy, organic, gluten free parents, you're probably better off taking your own food.

As you can see from the above map link, the site is also home to the Natural History and Botanical Museum, which is another place to run round inside and look at some educational stuff, a "children's farm" (petting farm) and a breeding centre for endangered species. I'm not sure about the breeding centre but the cost you pay when you enter the main gate (15dhs per adult, free for Desert Baby until she's two at least,) covers you for all the attractions. Bargain.

For other Sharjah attractions, I recommend visiting the comprehensive Sharjah Museums website. So far we have visited the Discovery Centre, and the Aquarium, both are cheap as chips and occupied Desert Baby for a good couple of hours. The Maritime Museum, which is right next to the Aquarium, was closed for refurbishments when we went, so it's worth ringing ahead. Don't, repeat, don't, order the coffee at the cafes. I'm still traumatised by it.

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