The Haunted Ice Rink in Deira

HAPPY HALLOWEEN! Creep it real.
Lots of love from team TCK TOWN
x x x

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I wish this was the start of my first thriller novel, I really do. Though this is not fiction, it comes close. Our Halloween was anything but traditional in Dubai.

Home, for us, was the Hyatt Regency. My dad worked at Dubai Drydocks in the Middle East, about half an hour’s drive from where we lived—though the commute was considerably longer when traffic was backed up through the gloomy underwater Shindaga tunnel—the most convenient way to cross the creek. His job came with a generous (insane) package that included accommodation—he didn’t have to pay a cent for our rent while we lived in Dubai.

It’s unreal that most of our childhood was spent growing up in a 5 star hotel. We never considered it so because we were young at the time and because we were in the ‘residential’ section, where families who had a parent or two working at Dubai Drydocks lived long term. The ‘hotel’ side was the second building in the complex for international guests who stayed for a few nights or so. Their lobby was white marble and gold, had higher ceilings and access to high-end restaurants and stores—like Focaccia—where they served roasted garlic, handmade bread and high quality imported Italian olive oil before your meal was brought to your table.

Our building had dark copper mailboxes, a playground with a soccer pitch and a colourful jungle gym. Where the ‘hotel’ side had two housekeeping services a day, we had staff come in twice a week to change our linen and clean the apartment. Our mum was always worried about gossip amongst the hotel staff, since many other employees from my dad’s company lived in the same residence, so we often had to clean up before housekeeping got there each week.

The buildings weren’t really worlds apart, even though we thought they were at the time. Even so, the ‘hotel’ side and the ‘residential’ side were connected in a few ways: both shared access to two tennis courts, a spa and a very well-equipped gym. Both had room service available to them (the nasi goreng was my favourite dish to order, with it’s crispy rice crackers and creamy satay) and both were connected to the cinema (yes, there was a cinema on the ground floor of the building I lived in). Both also shared access to the ice rink. As a young Sri Lankan girl living in the middle of the desert, I started ice skating lessons when I was 5.

The ‘residential’ building was 31 stories high. The thirty second storey was a revolving restaurant called Al Dawar. In the time in took you to finish dinner, you could do one full rotation with 360 degree views of Deira and the Arabian Gulf. We lived on the 14th floor, with large double glazed windows that stretched the entire length of the living room, our bedrooms and my parent’s master bedroom. Their room and the living room looked out into the ocean, the Corniche (a long, rocky, sandless walk along the water) and the large, local fish market. Our rooms saw much of the sea as well, while peeking out over the expansive hotel car park and the dusty buildings and streets of Deira. My little sister and I used to stand on the windowsills, our noses pressed along the warm glass till someone spotted us and hollered about climbing off our lofty perches.

It’s completely ludicrous, it really is. Sitting in Melbourne today, in a tin and brick warehouse co-working space that took an hour to travel to in two trams, it’s hard to comprehend that my first few years on the planet started out this way. If you can believe it, we were good, down-to-earth kids. We made friends with the staff we encountered every day and with many other kids in the building. We didn’t have fancy toys or nanny’s, shared what we had and spent most of our time in the playground creating make-believe worlds and playing hide and seek. We took full advantage of our privileged living situation when it came time for Halloween, though.

The entire ‘residential’ building celebrated the holiday. Every year, there was a Halloween ice skating disco, where we would all dress up in costumes, deck ourselves out in make-up (if we weren’t wearing a totally terrifying mask that year) and haunt the frozen ring by skating in squealing circles. Ghouls, goblins, tiny witches, furry black cats, white sheet ghosts and green monsters would all descend that evening, while our parents stood behind the railings along the rink’s edge, eyeing us carefully between their conversations and catch-ups. We played games on the ice, held hands with our friends and siblings and took part in the annual costume competition—which my sister and I often won thanks to my mum’s crafty ideas.

The golden part of the evening, though, was trick-or-treating. For those of you who may have already thought ahead, yes oh yes, that meant the building became a 31 storey candied lolly-land, with at least 20 apartments on each floor to choose from—though chose we did not—we made sure to pay a visit to every single one. We gathered in gaggles, rang those doorbells, hooted “trick or treat!” and huddled patiently around the doorway for our loot. Almost every apartment had sweets, gummies and chocolate to give out and some shared traditional treats from their home countries too, which were a whole other kind of thrill to unwrap. A few parents went the extra mile and organised games we could play when we stopped by. I distinctly remember bobbing for my first candied apple, which I had read about in American books, but hadn’t come across yet in a Dubai Halloween. I couldn’t understand why they had coated a perfectly good fruit in that much sugar.

The residents who had unfathomably forgotten about the biggest day in our social calendar handed out effortless 5 or 10 dirham bills instead of sweets. One year someone offered us 50dhs, which we turned down quickly in alarm. We’d mouth “oh my god!” at each other while Mr. Smith or Mrs. El Saad was reaching into their purse and titter about our earnings in the corridor once their door was closed.

We’d collect bags and bags of candy and our Halloween stockpile always lasted till at least February the following year. That was when we’d glumly finish the last HartBeat or Monster Munch bag of crisps while dolefully doing the math: 6 months till we get to trick-or-treat again.

It was a far cry from the traditional Halloweens we read about in other suburbs around the world. Sometimes I wondered what it might be like to walk past that haunted house at the dilapidated end of the street, like the children in our British storybooks did, and imagined carving pumpkin lanterns with our parents on those porches from American cartoons. Before I knew it, though, I’d be sitting on the damp bench where we rented our skates, pulling my laces tight under the metal fastenings and flat footing it over the rubber floor to the ice, ready to haunt the ice rink for another year.