It’s not every day that you land in a new sub-continent for the first time. I had been dreaming of coming to the Middle East from very early on in the incubation phase of my travel bug, but unfortunately didn’t take advantage of it’s closer proximity when living in Europe. And so I found myself a few weeks’ shy of my 38th birthday landing at Dubai Airport with my boyfriend, Matt, complete with those tingles that accompany me on every foreign adventure but have rarely been triggered since my last long term travel in 2010.
As usual, I eagerly anticipated that first moment one leaves the airport. I wanted to smell the air, and feel the temperature engulf me like a warm embrace. Feel the palm-bending sand-filled breeze blow into my face and bid me welcome. And as it did, a big smile crossed my face and I knew I was ready.
A little more than 24 hours later I find myself despite jet lag pulling at my eyelids eager to encapsulate my first uninformed, potentially disrespectful and doubtless politically incorrect impressions of this Islamic Arab state. Which I will state for the record, are as unequivocally influenced by my own values (arguably Western and Christian-centered) as any Arab visiting my homeland would be by his. For any offence I might cause, I profusely apologize.
Our adventure started with a very clear message regarding the absolute separation of gender roles, rules and expectations in the UAE. Lining up to get into a cab, Matt was informed that we would need cash for this journey to our hotel. Upon returning from the ATM, I happened to be the first member of our two person party to approach the cab rank, only to be ushered to a different section of roadway where pink-roofed cabs lined up patiently waiting for female passengers looking for a female cab driver. I was fascinated. Our driver’s name was Raquel and she was from the Phillipines. She explained that many women arriving in Dubai do not feel comfortable getting into a cab with a male driver, and so this service is naturally provided, with no difference in fare. Thinking this was an anomaly, we were later again surprised when Matt was politely but firmly ushered out of the subway car we were riding in the next morning because he was sitting in the “Women Only” section of the train. Red-faced he quickly retreated, and the woman gave me a kind smile and gentle head bob that let me know it was ok, we couldn’t have known any better.
Throughout this first day, as I’ve watched women in this city – who’s appearance and behaviors have a greater scale of extreme than perhaps anywhere else I’ve ever observed: from the flesh-baring, heavily made-up, skin tight mini-dress wearing, high heeled women that walk the same halls of shopping malls alongside their “you only get to see my eyes” burka-clad fellow citizens – I’ve wondered if this separate treatment and service for women stems from their own fear for their safety, or is it more heavily based in religious and moral standards? What is life like for the women all in black who patiently walk alongside their pristinely white robed, red headscarf wearing husbands? How do they feel about their small daughters they carry in their arms wearing pale yellow knit cardigans, and Mickey Mouse ribbons in their hair, knowing they too might face a future where their face must be covered in public? And how much is this a personal choice vs. an obligation created by family or husband?
I don’t know the answers to these questions. Matt and I talked about the possibilities. But we both agreed that this feels like the first and only place where access to those answers might be limited to what one reads in books. Actually opening up a dialogue with an Emerati just feels like it’s off-limits. They don’t make eye contact. They don’t engage foreigners. At least in the little time I’ve observed them thus far. It will be interesting to compare what I sense is true here to what I witness in Abu Dhabi tomorrow.
Other than wonderfully rich social observations and people watching, Matt and I have enjoyed a wonderful albeit exhausting day in this oh-so-modern metropolis of wealth that has blossomed right out of the desert like a layer of mushrooms sprouting from the forest floor. Dubai, though settled many centuries ago by merchants and fishermen, was not even a town or city until the 1970’s. Since then it has experienced break-neck expansion into an almost unreal Disneyland like concrete urban oasis that blasts the senses with excess in all forms except those incongruent for the locals to their Islamic faith. This is a city it’s easy to get trashed in, but many restaurants do not serve alcohol. The “real” and still operated market “souks” are now copied in a version made more appealing to tourists with the modern amenities of air-conditioning, refreshments and a lack of hawkers.
Today we wandered the Clothing, Spice and Gold Souks, and rode the water taxi, sweat pouring down our backs in the punishing sunlight. We visited the Dubai museum which provided us with the story of Dubai, complete with wax models and stuffed camels. I had my first taste of that glorious selflessness that usually accompanies tourists when they descend like barbarian hordes on an attraction such as a museum. G.P as my friend Christine used to call it – or dealing with the General Public. I was trying to get a photo of a re-created scene of a typical early settlement, where a woman was sitting in her kitchen weaving. Two women were standing and reading about the exhibit taking up the space that four persons could comfortably share. I politely enquired if I might squeeze between them to get a photograph and I was informed “No, I’m still reading because it’s very interesting” as if that were a reason she couldn’t move one foot to the left and let someone else be interested also.
For lunch we headed to the Marina Mall and planned to head to the beach for a bit after. Having read that public displays of affection were strictly forbidden here in Dubai, especially between unmarried individuals, Matt and I had opted to don “wedding bands” in an attempt to avoid causing offense to the people we came into contact with, such as when we checked into our hotel. Walking through the Food court, Matt put his arm around me and I reminded him that we should be more careful to which he retorted “come on, we’re married AND we’re passing a Cinnabon-that’s gotta make it ok.”
The extent to which Dubai has been built up into a concrete skyscraper jungle is most clearly visible from the beach itself. The miles of white sandy beaches and azure water is back-dropped by miles of glittering, numerous and modern architectural high-rises…and the odd camel. It’s a wonderfully unique world and a constant crash of the traditional and the current.
It was the current that entertained us both evenings thus far. Last night we dined al fresco at the Souk Madinat Jumeirah on Persian food overlooking a man-made canal all lit up with fairy lights, overlooking the Burj Al Arab hotel. We followed that with $25 cocktails at a bar with bean bags situated outdoors in an amphitheater bar, and even got to smoke a few rounds of sheesha that a waiter inexplicably brought to us without our ordering it. This evening took us to the Las Vegas-like wonders of the Dubai Mall, beginning with a tour of the observation deck of the world’s tallest building the Burj Khalifa.
I was a little underwhelmed, especially after the mile-long pedestrian tunnel that we had to walk through to get to the mall from the very clean/efficient subway system. The elevator ride to the 124th floor was impressive (10 meters per second) but the view from the deck was mostly obscured by the hundreds of people there and while it was a really long way down, I think my brain lacks the ability to distinguish the height difference to other skyscrapers I’ve visited, such as the Sears Tower.
Next came my highlight of Dubai thus far – the Fountains! These were modeled after the fountains of Bellagio in Vegas and they did not disappoint. I can’t quite pinpoint what it is about a wonderfully emotive and powerfully broadcasted piece of music juxtaposed with jets of water shooting into the sky – but for me it’s a potent combination and I find it very moving. For an extra spot of luck, we managed to secure outdoor seating overlooking the lake and caught 4 shows during our delicious meal. Speaking of food – you can get any kind you want in this city. So far, the most local items I’ve identified have been mint lemonade and Rose Milk. Yes, milk that tastes like Roses.
The city is modern. It is vast and was built upon sand. All the freshwater comes from giant desalination plants. Only a few green palms sparsely dot the landscape.
I cannot imagine a life here. A day or so? Yes…I can imagine that quite well now.