Recently a friend, desperately trying to get an art project finished, embarked on a shopping spree to find the fabric she needed to make the dress for a mannequin she'd created. Well, it wasn't just a mannequin. Like every piece of art nowadays, it had a long, wordy description to go with it - about hidden meanings and symbolism and other waffle, picking to pieces what was essentially a mannequin in a pretty dress. Which meant that she had to get exactly the right texture and colour of fabric if she was going to get the grade she was going for.
She couldn't find any in the mall, so she ended up asking us whether we'd like to tag along and go shopping with her in Karama. From the road, the area looks like any of the old districts of Dubai, with nondescript buildings and a lack of parking spaces. Enter the heart of it, though, and among the blocks of dull, whitewashed flats and plastic shop signboards, there is a thriving, humming atmosphere of people bargaining for everything from fish to gold jewellery. We began with a shop where, it seemed, you could get clothes tailored to suit your size. The salesman began by showing us a black lacy fabric, which Danni had told him she wanted. "Nope, too flashy, too Baroque, I want it to complement the body, not draw attention away from it." Another one was brought out, which was dismissed as too understated. Yet another was "better", but the wrong shade of black.
We must have gone through at least 50 fabrics before Danni marched out in frustration with us following, yawning. The next shop we went to had a dazzling collection of different materials, but Danni, determined to try bargaining, quoted a ridiculously low price, so the salesman shook his head and went away, leaving her stranded.
She finally found what she wanted at the shop next door. We were all quite relieved when it was over, even though the fabric she chose appeared absolutely no different, in colour or texture, from the first one we'd looked at that evening.
Having achieved our objective for the trip, we had a couple of hours left to explore Karama. I am extremely grateful to the person who conceptualised the miracle known as the five dirham shop. Although the stuff we bought might not be particularly useful, we couldn't help buying it simply because it was so affordable. There were glass keychains with dead bugs embedded in them, which sound unsavoury but could pass for exotic amulets from a far-away north African country, once attached to your bag. Our plastic bags bulged with no end of costume jewellery. There was a lifelike toy lizard made of rubber, which produced a very satisfying scream when planted on Emma's shoulder.
Stepping outside and walking around, we were greeted by a new, novel experience at every new street we wandered along. We found dozens of little trinkets and psychedelic scarves at throwaway prices that would do nicely if we're in a particularly indie-dressing-up mood.
Teenagers can't survive for too long without refuelling, and hunger pangs soon set in. Fortunately, there were rows and rows of restaurants to choose from, and we settled for a restaurant called The Calicut Paragon, which served south Indian coastal cuisine. We opted for two battered crabs and gravy with paratha bread. Knives and forks weren't provided, but the waiter planted a tongs-like contraption next to each of our plates. "Er," we looked at him, waiting for him to provide an explanation. He looked back. "Um, how do you eat with this?"
"Break the crab with it," he advised, so I smashed the crab on its head with the tongs. Or maybe not the head. The body. The round bit. You know what I mean. It didn't work, and he advised, "No, the legs." We grabbed the tongs by its legs, but it turned out he meant the crab's legs. After 20 minutes of trying to teach three rather slow teenagers the nuances of crab eating, the waiter wandered off to get another order. In the end, we just used one arm of the tongs like a spoon to scoop out the meat. It was delicious - a very satisfying conclusion to our trip.
Far removed from the gleaming interiors and spick-and-span, high-end stores of malls, the alleyways of Karama are a treasure trove of things just waiting to be discovered - and bought. You just never thought of asking the parental taxi service to take the right turn and deliver you to it.
The writer is a 15-year-old student in Dubai.