Yes, it’s true. On Monday, April 29, Ramon and his wife Nallely and I flew from Beijing to Dubai and hung out there for a week. It’s also true that the night before we left, I lost my bank card and still hadn’t made certain reservations in Dubai that we needed in a few short hours and had my credit card blocked, but it’s true that we overcame all of that, as well.
Quick facts: Dubai’s population is about two million, only 20% of which are native Emirati. Location: southeastern coast of the Persian Gulf, north of Saudi Arabia. It’s not very big. Languages: Arabic! But most people spoke English to us. And, of course, Dubai produces between fifty thousand and seventy thousand barrels of oil each day. A few barrels short of my face's output in seventh grade, but still noteworthy.
Dubai, I think, was not my type of place. There are sweet places to go and amazing things to see there, and since this is some dude’s blog post and not a calculating persuasive argument, the following text will mostly be about those sweet places and amazing things. But I did not love Dubai.
When we got there, we went to an architecturally old, intentionally preserved area of Dubai and to the Gold Souk. We took a few pictures as we wandered around what appeared to be Dubai's infrequently-visited “Old Town” area – the Bastakiya District, and Ramon bought a full get-up of Arab clothing in the gold market to fit in more with the locals. Was the get-up made of gold? No. Why was it in the gold market? I’ll leave that to your imagination.
Another place we stopped by was a mosque – the Jumeriah Mosque – and it was closed to we non-Muslim visitors but tastefully constructed nonetheless. The number of mosques which I have been to this year has increased, like, 800% from the rest of my life combined. The percentage of increase for days on which I have heard the call to prayer is about seven times higher than that. Thank you, Turkey and Jumeriah Mosque.
Shopping seems to be a hit in Dubai, and while we did not shop, we did find our way to a few of the huger malls that exist within the city’s sizable limits. One was The Mall of the Emirates; it is well-known because of its size and because of the fact that it has a ski run inside it. We took a gander at the skiing but settled for Coldstone instead. The mall I hated the least was The Dubai Mall. It was even huger – obviously, because it’s the biggest mall in the world – and not only was it very new, but the décor was actually sweet. And I am not a person who usually gives a crap about décor. There was a wing designed with traditional Middle Eastern architecture, there was a huge aquarium dominating one stretch (does that count as décor?), and there were also some more artistic ceiling designs looming over shoppers and non-shoppers alike.
Next to the mall is the Dubai Fountain. It is a big pool that shoots water up into the air in time with music and tints the projected water with colored light, and it is pretty beautiful. The pool is overlooked by the Burj Khalifa and countless other new, slick skyscrapers and buildings, and it is quite a site. I didn’t take any photos of the fountain in action, but here is one of the Burj Khalifa scraping the sky above it, along with some friendly dust particles.
The Palm. Arguably the most ridiculous in Dubai. So ridiculous, it cannot be captured in photographs. At least, not by me. The Palm is one of three? four? man-made island complexes that were built off the coast of the city. The Palm is in the shape of…a palm tree. There is a main road that goes down the center, and then there are strips of land that jut outward into the sea that form the palm fronds. It’s huge but looks pretty normal if you don’t know that you are actually driving out onto a big, artificial, palm tree-shaped chunk of earth and concrete.
The world’s only seven-star hotel is the Burj Al-Arab. Obviously, this was our first choice for lodgings, but, it was full during the week we visited, so we stayed in some shack, the staff of which had no clue where anything was in Dubai or how to get people onto the correct tour bus. Our hotel room did have a nice shower, though. Anyway, we stopped to take a closer look at the Burj Al-Arab, and after we had a look at it, we left and never thought about it again.
But easily the coolest thing in Dubai was the Burj Khalifa. It’s the tallest building in the world. There’s 829 meters of it. It has 163 floors. It cost $1.5 billion dollars. On a day of optimal visibility, you can see the thing from ninety-five kilometers away, which in miles is about the distance from my house in Rock Rapids, Iowa, to the cabin at Spirit Lake! I do not even know what is inside it. Shaq, maybe, and Manute Bol. The observatory and the accompanying amenities are all state-of-the-art, tastefully constructed, very attractive to the eye. We went up, of course, and it was cool, but the BK was constantly in our line of vision from ground level, so I found my awe was more when I was below than when I was up in it. It did not look real. Really.
Oh, yeah, and: the food was awesome. Diverse. Not native to the UAE. But delicious. We had meals from Yemen, Lebanon, Ethiopia, and a Dubai supermarket, in addition to a few meals of generic (but still tasty) Middle Eastern food (falafel, French fries, etc.).
But soon we found that there wasn’t much more to do in Dubai other than the places we visited during the first two days, which were the things listed above. Of course, there were more places to shop that we could explore, but we weren’t there to shop. Or spend money. So we ventured out for one day into the desert on a tour.
Getting to the desert was, in all actuality, a venture. We were ushered onto a bus by the tour coordinator dimwit from the hotel with a bunch of other tourists, and we confirmed that we were on the right bus. So there we happily sat with twenty other folks as the bus headed out, into the middle of nowhere. Abruptly the driver got a call and pulled over. He was speaking on and on in Arabic when suddenly a passenger turned around, looked at us accusingly, and said, “Are you three getting down from the bus? The driver is saying that he is throwing three people off the bus.” No, that was not our plan. But, the bus driver insisted, we were to get off the bus.
Sadly, the story was merely that we’d been put on the wrong tour bus – and not that I and my spying accomplices were Western Christian infidels with a brand new death sentence – and had to switch to…a Hummer. Not as interesting as it could have been. But maybe that’s okay. Eventually we got in the Hummer and went out to this designated desert tour area where we did the following: 1) dune bashing, in a Hummer, with a weaksauce driver who seemed like he was either a complete rookie or a wee bit afraid to really let loose on the dunes 2) camel riding, where Ramon split open the crotch of his pants, I bonked heads with some dude I was sharing a camel with, and, combined, Ramon, Nallely, and I spent less than one minute on the camel 3) turban wearing; some dude just came and put one on me (I know you wish this would happen to you at your job at Travelers Insurance, Inc.) 4) belly-dancer/tanoura dance watching, the former being mediocre and blonde, and latter being excited and hearty of stomach (he literally spun in a circle – in place – for at least five minutes) 5) some other random things that people do in the desert, like handle falcons, dress up in traditional Arab clothing, sandboarding (like snowboarding – although my first attempt at explanation was “waterboarding”) down dunes, henna tattoos, and die of exposure/dehydration.
When we grew weary of the city of Dubai and its surrounding desert, the three of us took a day-trip to Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates. It was much the same as Dubai: clean and rich. The dude who took us stopped at a variety of places, including a Ferrari theme park, an art shop, an expensive place to eat that had a cool beach view of the skyline, a museum dedicated to the founder of the UAE, a hotel that we weren’t allowed in, and, after the Burj Khalifa, the sickest structure we stepped foot inside: the Sheikh Zayed Mosque.
I do not know what to write about the Sheikh Zayed Mosque. A fusillade of short sentences will have to do. It was really, really white; it was really, really bright. There were massive chandeliers within. There were cool pools of water without. It was giant. It was busy. It was obviously frequented by tourists, tourists like myself who wore shorts, which are generally not allowed in mosques but which seemed to not matter in the least here. It was really, really white. Really. White. Really.
By the end of the fourth day we were in Dubai, Thursday, there was not much we hadn’t done. Had we had another day, I am not sure we could have filled it with meaningful activities.
So, anyway, as I was saying, Dubai was not really my type of city. Yeah, I do love huge buildings and stuff that is different from my normal life, and Dubai had that. But it was very much driven by money. Everything was so nice, and it had to be so nice. Or people probably would not go there. Very slick, very clean, ultra modern; this seemed to be the culture.
Yet, the city is in the Middle East, where the world began, where civilizations have risen and fallen, empires and people groups have flourished and then disappeared, and then reappeared. Dubai didn’t seem to fit in; the place didn’t seem to have character other than the glitter of its architecture and size of its buildings. It’s a super new city; oil was discovered there in the 1960’s, and so then the place started to take off. So it makes sense that we thought it difficult to experience Dubai’s culture. I think, actually, that we did experience its culture, but its culture is just not what I think of when I try to define the word “culture.”
Which doesn’t make it a bad place. It is just not my kind of place. And, all this is not to say that the trip itself was not super fun. As is most often the case, the people with whom I went – Ramon, Nallely – made the experience memorable. We laughed a lot, whether it was at random dudes yelling, “My passport! My passport? My passport!” at us on the plane in Beijing before we’d even taken off, or at old ladies on the escalator who didn’t understand that stopping at the top of the escalator is a stupid idea, or at unlucky taxi drivers who happened to pick us up. And deeper talks, too, believe it or not. Always better when we’re together.
Probably won’t go back there, but! It was the taste of the Middle East. It still beckons. There is a lot more to it than some new kid on the block. More depth, more history, more food. More, more, more. I’ll be back.