March 26-29, 2016
Arriving in Dubai
We arrived in Dubai to find ourselves in a largely empty airport. We anticipated a quick pass through customs but, as it turned out, we were the only people from our flight to have our bags checked. Scott and I stood next to each as different customs officers scoured our backpacks. The woman checking my bag was dressed in a burka and had a nice sense of humor as she diligently rummaged through my bag. The officer checking Scott's pack had a much more serious demeanor as he scanned Scott's medicine bottles. Scott held his breath, hoping there wouldn't be an issue (The UAE has a lot of regulations about medication and a regular doctor's note often doesn't suffice. You can be arrested for traces of certain substances in your body upon entry to the country without even having the substance in your possession.) As the officers scrutinized our bags, we watched our watches, quickly realizing that we were going to miss our bus. We would have to wait another hour and half for the next bus, to then catch the metro and finally walk to our hostel.
On the metro we watched the city glowing against the black of the desert in the distance. We also noticed extreme diversity among the metro passengers. Dubai is easily be the most diverse city we've visited. It's a highly transient city and seems to have more transplants than locals. (Dubai's tax free income attracts people from many other countries- especially from India and the Philippines.)
We exited the metro and found our hostel. The hostel was actually an apartment and consisted of 4 beds rented out in a room of 9 - the other beds were occupied by men living in the apartment. One of the men greeted us and walked us to our bedroom. We walked into the apartment through a dirty and cluttered hallway with closed doors branching off of it until we reached an even smaller and more crowded hallway leading into our tiny crammed room. The man, we never caught his name, dropped us off and left- we didn't see him again. When we inquired about keys he said that the door is always unlocked, no need for keys! How comforting... Our beds did not have sheets, all trash cans in the apartment were overflowing, and there were cigarette butts all over the floor. Hopefully we can rectify this disappointing (uncleanly) hostel situation with Airbnb.
After dropping off our bags we just about ran out of the apartment into the mild night air. To our surprise, at such a late hour-11pm- almost every restaurant on the main street was open and people were out and about. We strolled in the warmth of the perfect weather and checked out the main strip. Dozens of Indian restaurants lined the street. We later came to the conclusion that we were staying in a predominantly Indian neighborhood. We had some great, cheap, authentic Indian food for dinner.
What to Wear?
The next morning I contemplated what to wear. I wanted to be respectful of the culture while attempting not to melt in the 90+ degree weather. I settled for jeans and a long sleeve shirt to be modest. Needless to say I was very hot and moved in slow motion most of the day, but I was happy with my decision to cover up. Later while walking the city I noticed women in a variety of clothing. Some women wore full black burkas, others had their faces covered completely in a black veil or partially covered in a gold and cloth and mask. In stark contrast, some women were wearing shorts and tank tops (mostly tourists and expats). The style of dress is really all over the spectrum! Dubai seems to be a rather progressive and tolerant city. Before coming to UAE, I read that its appreciated when you dress conservatively-shoulders covered down to below the knees- I also learned that it is forbidden to hold hands or kiss in public, share a room with a member of the opposite sex unless you are married, or drink alcohol unless you are a patron of a hotel that serves it.
We set out into the dry heat of the city, reminding us that despite the presence of grand skyscrapers we were in fact in the middle of a desert. From our hostel we walked to the old quarter of town of town which boasted the remains of the old city wall dating back to the 1800's- we weren't too impressed, American history can compete with that! In the old quarter we took a pit stop at Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding to make reservations for a cultural breakfast the next morning. The breakfast was to include traditional Arabic food and a 90 minute information session about Arabic and Muslim culture. Scott and I were both excited for the opportunity to learn more about a culture we were largely unfamiliar with.
From the historic district we hopped on a metro to visit some other areas of town. Dubai is huge! It is absolutely not a walk-able city. While standing in line for the metro we observed designated waiting lines for women and children only sections (men can be fined for being in this section) Chewing gum, eating and drinking on the metro also come with a fine. We took the metro to Jumeriah Beach where we walked down a posh pedestrian street and found our way to a beach full of sunburned tourists. Dubai has a large expat population. On the beach there were girls in bathing suits, such a contrast from the women covered head to toe! There was also a lot of construction. I think Dubai may be in a constant state of construction in an effort to make it even bigger, better and more grandiose. But honestly, aside from its large skyscrapers and few incredible feats of architecture, we found many buildings and parts of town to be largely unremarkable. A frustrating observation we made were the presence of landscaping and flowers adorning entrances to buildings and road dividers. This landscaping is irrigated with rubber piping and strictly cosmetic, but, hello, Dubai is a dessert- flowers are not supposed to grow here! Please save the water and try some zenoscaping! I find this practice of landscaping with nonnative flora (in a desert) terribly wasteful.
Escaping the Desert Heat
We hopped back on the subway to escape the heat and watched the scenery of 12 lane highways from the metro car. Dubai is pretty much built up along large highways with not much but desert in the distance. Our next stop was the United Arab Emirates Mall. Some of Dubai's biggest tourist attractions are their incredible malls. The metro stopped at a long corridor that connected directly to the mall. No need to go outside in the heat! In the one full day we spent in Dubai we probably walked several miles inside these man-made air conditioned passages ways between malls and metros- it is truly an artificial world created inside the desert. United Arab Emirates Mall includes an indoor ski resort, Ski Dubai. We were able to watch people skiing down artificial slopes covered in artificial snow through a wall of windows in the mall. It was unreal and super lavish, but, hey, it's Dubai! We walked around the mall gasping at the number of American chain restaurants- Elevation Burger, Shake Shack, TGI Friday's, Subway, IHOP, Johnny Rockets, Philly cheese stakes- just every american food chain imaginable.
The Dubai Mall
From United Arab Emirates Mall we took another Metro to the Dubai Mall near the Burj Khalifa (the tallest building in the world).
Another mall- why not?
In the Dubai Mall there was an indoor ice skating rink and an entire floor selling electronics. Scott had his fun playing around in the Sony Store and after we stopped for frozen yogurt. After depleting our tolerance for shopping, we headed outside to the see water show in the lake in front of the enormous Burj Khalifa. It was packed! People from all over speaking numerous languages crammed against the fence to see the three minute show. When the crowd dispersed we walked around the lake in what we thought was the direction of the Burj Khalifa- we had hoped to climb to the top for some panoramic views of the city. But, we were in a maze and stuck inside some kind of gated hotel community. With every turn we stumbled upon another beautiful and over priced hotel restaurant. These restaurants, associated with hotels, are the only ones allowed to sell alcohol- very over priced alcohol at that. We gave up on reaching the Burj Khalifa when we learned that tickets to the top were $35-$95.
Traditional Arabic Breakfast at the Cultural Center
The next morning we walked to the cultural center for breakfast. We took off our shoes and found seats on pillows circling the communal meal. The speaker began the conversation with warmth and a sense of humor joking about how he keeps his white dress so clean. He was the owner of the nonprofit organization and described himself as a business man who wanted to bridge the gap between religions and cultures, opening the door for honest dialogue, "open minds, open hearts."
He talked about his style of dress and the historical practicalities of it- protecting from the sun and sand, light weight in the heat, and most importantly it provides modesty. (Interesting fact: the black cord that keeps his head cloth in place was once used to tie up the feet of camels) He spoke in great detail about modesty as a major Muslim value. He said that when everyone dresses the same, removes their shoes to prey, and doesn't adorn themselves with jewelry or tattoos no can can be judged on the basis clothing, wealth, beauty or success. The rich and the poor become equals. One is judged by the content of their character, not their appearance or material possessions. I found this message of modesty to be very beautiful. I like the idea of eliminating the distinction between social classes and evening the playing field. However, I'm not sure that in the modern day it's honored in practice the way it is in theory, as the day before we saw many women at the mall covered head to toe (modestly) wearing heavy makeup and carrying bags from all different name brand stores. And the owner himself even spoke of owning a Porsche...
The cultural breakfast began on a positive note and we were served chick peas, different types of breads made sweet or savory by adding cream cheese or date syrup, lentils, fried dough balls, vermicelli noodles mixed with eggs, and Arabic coffee. Dates are very common in Arabic cuisine because they can actually grow in the desert and chickpeas and lentils historically provided protein and lasted dried and boil for long periods of time in the desert heat.
As conversation continued, the owner firmly expressed his belief that men and women have different roles and skill sets, but he believes that these skills sets compliment each other. He believes that a women's role is to take care of the household and raise children- he himself does not think he would be nearly as successful in that position. He believes a man's job is to work and provided financially for his wife and family. If a man and women fulfill these roles they can be successful. I respect his beliefs but, I feel this mentality limits women.
He did speak proudly about Muslim economics. He spoke about how a man takes his job to provide for the woman very seriously and is even required to continue to support her financially if she divorces him (until she remarries). Women are allowed to divorce their husbands..
Overall the cultural breakfast was an insightful learning experience. We concluded that a day and a half was enough in Dubai. It is a city full of diversity, tall buildings, interesting architecture, and a grand personality, but not much authenticity.
Arriving in Abu Dhabi
To reach Abu Dhabi we took a bus an hour and half south from Dubai. From the bus station we were picked up by a friendly Nigerian cab driver and brought to our hostel. He, like so many others, moved to UAE for the work opportunities. After saving up enough money he brought his wife to Abu Dhabi who now works as cab driver too, but only provides transport for women or families. He said that he likes Abu Dhabi despite the heat and that it has "too many Filipinos." We arrived at our hostel in the late afternoon and ventured out to the beach front promenade on Corniche Street. We walked for several miles down the strip ending at several regal hotels. Too exhausted to walk back, we took a cab to yet another mall and tried to find some inexpensive dining.
The following morning, at the recommendation of a woman working at our hostel, we tried an Indian Restaurant for breakfast. She had showed me the menu online but when we arrived at the restaurant and asked for a menu they shook their heads and said there was no menu. They communicated roughly with us through broken English and we managed to order some Chai tea and some kind of spicy chicken wrap. The food was delicious and very inexpensive.
Still a bit hungry we found a bakery nearby. The man working in the bakery had seen us taking pictures, and invited us into his bakery. It was an Arabic bakery with several Arabic treats and he talked to us about each of them appeasing our curiosity and he even let us sample each of them for free! He was curious to learn about us and asked us where we were from. He was from Syria and talked about the conditions there and his disappointment with the current state of the country. He talked about his dream to be a writer his extended family (many of his family members were displaced or staying in camps in Jordan)
What a Headache
We wanted to spend our day visiting the Grand Mosque- the largest mosque in the world. So, we found a bus whose destination read 'Mosque.' Figuring that that must be the bus we needed to take we waited and hopped on. We rode the bus far out of town and finally saw the enormous White Mosque came into view. We admired the mosque from our window and then watched it get smaller and smaller and the bus continued driving right by it! The bus continued farther and farther out into desolate desert suburbs until finally stopping in between two developments in the middle of the sandy desert. The driver, noticing we were still there asked us what we were doing. We told him we had intended to go to the Mosque. Turns out the bus waited in this location before turning back to do the same route. By the time we reached the mosque the second time we were too tired, hot and irritable to even go. What a bummer. We wish Abu Dhabi had better public transit!
A Beer to Cheer Us Up
That night, we decided a drink would really cheer us up. We evaded the no alcohol rule by going for a fancy dinner at a nice hotel. As expected the drinks were incredibly over priced and the food was sub-par. All in all, we were largely unimpressed with Abu Dhabi, though I think our views are a bit biased because of our bad luck with the bus.