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The Middle East: Indubitably Dubai

Written on: Monday February 16th, 2009

At 7:30am, local time, I arrived into the Sharjah airport on the outskirts of Dubai, United Arab Emirates.  It had been a long night.  The transfer from Hikkaduwa began at 10:30 the evening before.   Four hours and 2000 rupees later I was at the Sri Lankan airport north of Colombo.  Two hours after that I boarded the plane that brought me to UAE.  It had been a long time since I pulled an all-nighter, and I wanted nothing more than to quickly find a cheap hotel and take a nap.  Instead, I met Peter from Sweden.  He was wandering the airport baggage claim, same as me, and we started talking.  Turns out he was just here for the day, transferring on to Istanbul that very evening.  But he was looking to go into Dubai proper and explore, so we split a cab and headed to Deira, the business district in downtown Dubai. 

After inspecting eleven hotels, I finally accepted the fact that I was going to blow my budget here.  I conceded to paying 200 dirhams a night (~$55US) and went to room 105 at the Royal Prince Hotel, where I resisted the urge to lie down for a few minutes rest.  Instead I packed a daybag and set off with Peter to explore the city.  He had water parks on his mind, so we boarded the X25 bus to Wild Wadi, the first water park in Dubai.  The location of this park was the primary reason we chose it over the others: it was straddled by the opulent Jumeriah Beach Hotel (on whose grounds it existed) and the extraordinarily famous Burj Al Arab (the world's only SEVEN star hotel!).  Consequently, spectacular views were offered from every angle of the park. 

With our hair still wet from the water slides and wave pools, we started on our way back to Deira.  While doing so we met a couple guys on the bus who've lived in Dubai for several years.  After they helped Peter flag down a cab for the airport, I was invited to one of their local eateries.  The three of us sat barefoot in a Yemeni restaurant and ordered soup, roast mutton with saffron rice and tea.  The food was delicious and the conversation intruiging, and as I walked back to my hotel, two thoughts crossed my mind: what an unexpectedly fun first day I had in Dubai and, boy, was I ready to go to sleep!

The next day I toured through the Old Souk Abra Station, which was a simple boat transfer across the Dubai creek from where I was staying.  Here I was able to view the Arabic Architecture Museum, see a presenation on the history of Arabic coins, do some shopping and even bag a cache, all of which was a distraction for the most anticipated activitiy of the day: a desert safari!

As the 4x4 made its way out of the city limits toward the open dunes, I found myself one of six toursits ready to experience a bit of desert life in the middle east.  The other five were a group of young, chic, male Londoners of Malawi descent.  Together we arrived at a vast stretch of sand and waited for a few other vehicles to join our caravan.  Once seven such SUVs were ready to depart, we headed off with mild aggression over and through the dunes.  Hats off to our driver, who voluntarily took the final position in the group, allowing us to get a visual from the others of how the terrain handled, as well as dictate our own speed as we launched over one peak after another.  It was great fun and afforded some fantastic scenery and photographs.  Upon completion of this portion of the tour, we drove toward 'camp', where we all took turns on a short camel ride.  It had been a few years since I had done this, and I had forgotten how large camels really are!  While the guys continued to explore the vast array of tents in camp, I ventured off alone in search of a nearby cache. Climbing through a barbed-wire fence and heading into the open desert, I was quite happy to have the GPS with me.  Sure, I could probably still see my footprints on the return to camp, but you never know what might happen in the desert.  A half hour and several photographs later I arrived at the coordinates and eventually bagged the cache.  This was a fun one: all alone in an environment in which I rarely get to cache.  On the return to camp I popped in my earphones and listened to the enchanting voice of Ofra haza as she sang about a desert much like the one I was currently walking across.  Back at camp I immediately downed a ice cold orange soda and headed to the henna tent.  Here the tatoo artist asked what my name was so she could paint it onto my arm.  She was surprised to see me write my name in Arabic (thanks, Sami!), and even more shocked to learn that we had the same name!  Quite a coincidence!  Afterward I joined the Brits under a tent smoking shisha and drinking tea, which is how we passed the time until dinner was ready.   The dinner was brilliant: a buffet of pastas, salads, breads, hummos and tabouli to go with the grilled lamb chops and chicken, beef or lamb kabobs.  As we attacked our food the first entertainer stepped onto the stage adjacent to our table.  She was touted as the best belly dancer they had, and understandably so.  She danced all around the 12m circular stage, sometimes even off of it and onto the dining tables!  When she was finished a gentleman came out to perform his act: a perpetual spinning dance coordinated with cape movements, further highlighted by a light show illuminated from within his cape.  He spun and spun for more than ten minutes without stopping, all the while keeping excellent balance and body control as he manipulated his torso and cape into different positions.  We opted to skip the last belly dance exhibition and chose more shisha instead.  When the driver finally dropped me off at the hotel I was exhausted...I climbed into bed with a smile on my face, reminiscing of all the wonderful things I experienced today. 

The next day also had its fair share of adventure: I walked around the city and found a couple caches en route to one of the many malls in Dubai.  Why would a trip to the mall be considered adventurous, you ask?  Well, this particular mall, the Mall of the Emirates, housed an indoor ski hill in the middle of the desert!  Yup, you'd probably seen it on Discovery Channel or Travel Channel, and it was very cool.  It was well thought out, with a single fee covering not only your lift ticket, but also equipment rental AND clothing rental.  All you needed were gloves, and fortunately for me those had already been purchased for my tour of the Great Wall of China.  The hill itself was understandably nothing that would challenge an experienced skier or snowboarder, but it was fun to ride down the three runs, one of which had a slalom course set up, while another offered a bit of a terrain park!  Two hours for approximately 50USD allowed one to escape the heat and have a little time in the (man made) snow: not a bad excursion.

My final full day in Dubai was mostly spent with electronic commitments.  I planned out and purchased the next couple legs of the trip; I returned emails and caught up on my blog; and I hunted down something to do on my final evening in town.  Being a Muslim country, there were no bars or liquor stores to be found; however, I eventually learned that nearly every hotel in town also featured a pub or discotheque.  So tonight I went out for fish and chips at an English pub, and washed it down with a ridiculouly over-priced pint of ale.  Afterward I found a Filipino bar and caught the second set of a twelve person band singing covers of English songs.  It was fairly entertaining and I somehow justified spending another $23 on two more beers (oh, how the perspective changes after traveling in India).

My final morning in Dubai was spent contemplating the city.  It reminded me a lot of Hong Kong, with plenty of large hotels that often served as permanent residences for the thousands of foreigners that lived here.  The people came Kenya or India or China or Egypt or dozens of others places, and they all came for the chance to earn more money here than they could in their native lands.  Most of them were involved in a trading company.  For example, every morning I stepped off the elevator of my hotel and passed Kenyans and Cameroonians arguing and yelling over costs or deadlines or something as they packed cell phone paraphenalia into cases which were placed into large boxes which usually covered every square foot of the hotel lobby.  And it appeared to be the same on every block in every other building in the district.  But the diversity of people added a pleasant touch to this area of the city: it was alive!  You never knew who you would meet next or from where they would be. 

I also pondered other aspects of the city.  The traffic was slow...it was congested and difficult to get from A to B.  But the obnoxious horn honking so prevelant in India was almost non-existant here.  The disrespect for traffic laws and other motorists that I experienced in China most certainly did not occur in Dubai.  It was simply slow.  Additionally, the structures that existed in the city caught me off guard.  I was so looking forward to seeing the mega-structures of Dubai!  And they were here: the brand new sky scrapers gleaming in the night, the islands of reclaimed land created literally out of blue, the elegant hotels along the coast, and even the Burj Dubai, now in construction, but soon to be the world's tallest building at (I believe) 800m.  But these were the stars...the novelty structures of the city.  The rest of the town was filled with concrete boxes.  Lots and lots of plain, old, boring concrete boxes.  But that was to be expected, I supposed.  After all, this was an ancient city in the desert, and until just a few decades ago, very few people had even heard of it, and even fewer had seen it.  The glamour of Dubai was still quite new.  But it had taken off with a vengance, and I am happy to have visited it before it had gotten too commercialized and over-the-top, as it surely appeared to be headed in that direction.