I feel like the slowest storyteller second to George R.R. Martin, I’ve been back from this holiday for over a month, and I have another one in a few days and I’ve still got 3 days of Dubai to share! Thanks for hanging in there with me. 🙂
Arriving in Dubai
My flight out of Jordan was an overnight, so I got into Dubai around 9am. Knowing that my hotel was unlikely to let me check in until 2pm, I decided to take care of some shopping errands and check out the city’s fancy metro system. And boy is it fancy. I got a “day pass” for about 7$ so I could hop on and off at my various errands. The stations are all large, air-conditioned and very clean. There are shops with meals and snacks at reasonable prices. There are also separate cars for women (and children) only, as well as VIP cars for an extra fee.
When I got on at the airport, the cars weren’t very full. A man who had started talking to me at the platform invited me to join him on the ride, but I went to the women only car instead. I’m really glad I did because the cars got just as full as any Beijing subway, and I did not relish the idea of being sardined in with a bunch of GCC men. The women on the metro seemed annoyed that I had a backpack, perhaps it’s a breach of metro etiquette to carry on large bags? I also looked really scruffy from my last two days in Petra (with no shower), but no one was outright rude to me.
When I got off at the Dubai Mall stop, I soon realized that the station wasn’t actually all that close to the Mall. There is a 1 mile long skybridge that connects the metro to the giant mall with moving sidewalks and beautiful views of the city and the Burj Khalifa. I think on another day, I might have found this really cool, but after my Petra hike and overnight flight, I just couldn’t understand why in the world anyone would put a metro station a mile (about 2km) away from the main attraction of the stop. Reminding myself that finishing my shopping that day would free the rest of my stay for fun excursions, I stood sleepily on the moving sidewalks as tourists and shoppers used them to walk speedily by.
Relaxing and Unwinding
I finally got to the hotel around 2pm. I’ll say more about that place in my accommodations post, but this was the fancy almost beach front hotel I’d gotten a 60% discount deal on, so I was pretty excited. They chided me for checking in “late” (between 2 and 3pm) and had already given away my room! To make up for this, I ended up in a 2 bedroom 4 bathroom suite. It was freaking huge. I think 2 families could have shared it. But the water was hot and the bathtubs were deep. I tossed all my laundry in the washer, and settled in for a cleansing soak.
There is a serious problem with washer/dryer combo machines. They take FOREVER. Even after my bath and nap, it wasn’t done. I wanted to go out, but the hotels around the Gulf all require the room key for power. It took me a really long time to convince the front desk to give me a second key so I could leave the room with the dryer running.
After some google searching, I found a beach front bar walking distance from the hotel and headed for it. The Barasti Beach Bar was quite nice. There was a happy hour special and I got a frosty daiquiri and headed down to the lounge chairs on the waterfront. I chatted with some random Scottish dudes but they had to take off because the club was doing ‘ladies only’ from 6-9pm. Eventually, I spotted another lone guest and wandered near to say hello. She was quite open to company and we soon discovered that we were both from Seattle, our homes being only a couple miles away from each other!
Maiya has a rather amazing story, but I won’t tell all of it here because it isn’t mine to tell, but here’s the gist. She was born in Bangladesh and adopted into an American family. When I met her she was returning from a visit with her birth mother in Bangladesh, which was her last, as her mother has passed away since then (send her family some good mojo, prayers and thoughts). All of the servers and cleaners at the bar were Bangladeshi and they were fascinated to learn her origins, and gently teased her about not speaking their language.
We sat on the beach drinking too much and talking about our adventures until we were hungry enough to move up to the restaurant. (the food at Barasti is really good, by the way. I got a giant hamburger because I hadn’t had one in half a year, and she got a Cesar salad which actually had fresh anchovies in it). During dinner she told me about the village in Bangladesh that she had been born in, and how she came to be American, how she had found her birth family and been welcomed back by them. She’d started a non-profit organization to raise money for the schools in the village, for a playground, for materials, and for subsidies to pay the children so their families could afford to have them come to school instead of going to work.
Turns out she’s a little bit geek too, so we bonded over some nerd stuff as well as our love of travel, and have vowed to get our next drink together in Seattle when I come home.
When we finally decided to call it a night, it also turned out we were staying in the same hotel. So we walked back together and wandered into the Carrefour. My room had a full kitchen, so I decided I’d pick up some food for breakfast at the store instead of ordering room service. Maiya wanted to pick out some “exotic” candy for her son, who’s burning question for her travels had been, “Mom, what’s the candy like?” (this is pretty standard, I personally remember my childhood time in Japan primarily through the lens of strange candy).
Seattle has a really good selection of imported candy, though, so this is actually a little challenging. Finally, I spotted some Kinder Eggs! For those poor deprived Americans among you who have never had one of these, I’m sorry. I remembered them with great fondness from my time as a child in Germany, and although I had seen a few places in Seattle with Kinder bars, I had never seen the eggs. I told her as much, so she got several for both her kids. I have no doubt that if they survived the flight, they were much enjoyed.
It just never ceases to amaze me that we can travel around the world to meet people from down the street, and that everywhere I go, the universe finds a way to put amazing people in my path. Thank you Maiya, for sharing your time and your stories. I look forward to that beer in September!
The first time I went to Dubai in December of last year, I got a one day pass for a hop-on-hop-off tour. It turned out to include many many admissions and attractions that I didn’t have time to do then, so this time around, I got myself a 2 day pass, and used the map from my first trip to plan out what I wanted to see and how best to get there. The new line that had been added had a stop just down the street from my hotel, and although the hotel had no idea, and there was no bus stop sign, I did manage to catch it anyway. I used their google maps feature to GPS myself, but even that turned out to be a little off. Fortunately, the driver saw me running for the bus and waited.
My organizational brain has me considering writing a proposal to the company to hire me for a short term project to update all the information on their app with directions to and from each stop/attraction as well as photos of the stops that aren’t well marked. I can’t tell if this failing is in the company (which also operates in Europe) or just because the people in the Middle East haven’t gotten used to doing everything with a smartphone. Either way, I don’t think it would take more than a couple of weeks to ride to every stop and collect the information for future riders and it would sure make the trip easier (especially with photos for those who don’t speak English or Arabic).
The Marina Boat Cruise
My first stop that morning was for the Marina Boat Cruise. Last visit, I’d done the Dhow Creek Cruise and enjoyed it, so I wanted to see another part of the city from the water. Sadly, the bus dropped us off only a couple minutes too late to catch the 10am boat, so I had to wait there until the 11am one. So, I found a cafe to get some coffee at and sat down to chat with an Irish man who’d been living and working in Dubai for several years. I’m still not sure where the actual native residents of Dubai are. I’m pretty sure everyone I met both times I was there was an expat worker or a tourist, but logic says they must exist somewhere.
The boat ride was really quite beautiful. It took us past the marina hotels (so I could see my hotel and the Barasti Beach Bar), through an area of very tall skyscrapers with quite unique architecture, under some bridges and all the way out toward the Palm Island so we could see Atlantis and the Burj Arab before turning around. In the end, I think I liked the Dhow Cruise better, but it was an excellent and relaxing way to spend my morning, and the ticket had been included with my tour bus ride. (more pictures)
On our way back up from the docks to the bus stop, I noticed that one of the ladies had on my walking shoe of choice, the Converse high-top, so as I walked past her I commented, “nice shoes”. She looked a little confused, so I pointed at my own and grinned. We laughed a little and struck up a conversation. Her name is Urška and she is from Slovenia (where I now plan to visit later in the summer). She was also travelling alone, since her husband was back at the hotel and not feeling well. We compared our plans for the day and realized we were going to all the same stops on the bus, so we decided to hang out and be travel buddies for the day.
Driving Through Dubai
I had given some thought to stopping off at the JBR, or Jumeirah Beach Residence, because my students last term told me it was quite excellent. However, since my cruise had been delayed an hour, I no longer had time if I still wanted to do the aquarium and desert tour. But we did drive through the JBR on our way out to Atlantis. It was a very beautiful shopping district along the beach. I’m not overly fond of shopping, however, so while I was glad I got to see the famous area, I wasn’t sad at all that I wouldn’t be spending any time in it.
Urška was very friendly on the bus ride. She had brought a bun with her for a snack and insisted that I take half of it, so I broke out the fruit I had brought for my own snack and shared that with her and we both had a nice little blood sugar boost on the way. Because Atlantis is on the outer edge of the palm island, our bus route took us all the way up the main trunk where we could see the ultra luxury condos and vacation homes on the huge man-made island. (more pictures)
The Atlantis Aquarium
Atlantis is a branch of high end super luxury hotel resorts. It’s also one of the more famous landmarks in Dubai. It’s all the way out on the outter edge of the man-made palm tree shaped island and includes it’s own water park, a Dolphin Lagoon (where people can buy a visit with the dolphins), a plentitude of shops and restaurants, and the Lost Chambers Aquarium. Our ticket to the aquarium was included in our bus tour ticket, so Urška and I snapped our landmark pictures of the hotel as we drove up, then disembarked to check out the aquarium. It was a little tricky to find our way from the bus, since we had to stop at the Big Bus stand to trade our bus ticket stubs for an aquarium ticket voucher, then again at the aquarium ticket office to trade in for an actual ticket.
I read a lot of reviews about the aquarium before I went, and wasn’t really sure what to expect. Dubai has a tencency to do everything over the top. I’d already seen the huge aquarium tank in the Dubai Mall, and several reviews said the displays of fish weren’t all that at Atlantis. That’s sort of true, but incredibly misleading. The Atlantis aquarium is Atlantis themed. It’s less about showing off a variety of marine life (as you might expect in a normal aquarium) and more about creating a sense that you’re walking through the ruins of the sunken city of Atlantis.
We started out at a large cylinder full of silver baitfish, the ones that travel in huge swarms in the sea, flashing silver as they all turn in unison. The tank was lit with blue light and the fish circled endlessly, like a living lava lamp. Unfortunately it was too dark for me to get a good picture, but Urška was kind enough to share hers (credit!). Then we moved into an area with some smaller displays, the backdrops were carved stones, like sunken ruins. As we steped into the first large chamber, we were greeted with a wall sized view of the main tank that we would see in several chambers from different angles. The room also had Atlantean relics, suits of armor, statues and some “technology” that looked somewhere between steam punk and sci-fi.
We walked through a tunnel that was constructed of strange metal shapes and inhabited by lobsters, again giving the impression that we were walking through the ruins under water. The main tank contained much larger blocks, walls and pieces of buildings. There was also a huge cauldron in the middle that would burst up bubbles every few minutes, looking like the smoke of a sacrifice ascending to the heavens.Watching the variety of sharks, rays and other fish swiming alone or in schools through the ruins was enchanting.
Each room had traditional Arabic seating on the floor in front of the display tanks allowing people to sit and enjoy the view without blocking those behind them. I took as many pictures as I could, but it was very dark, and I’m afraid most of them did not turn out well. Urška took some as well, and was kind enough to share them, so now I have double memories!.
Room after room circling around the main tank and showed off smaller tanks full of mysterious ruins or imagined technology. Carvings of an unknowable alphabet graced many of the displays. There were vast vaulted ceilings and elaborate lamps and fountains. In one of the last views of the main chamber there was what looked like a small space-craft, or at very least an air-craft. So yes the fish are not much more than you could see at any aquarium, but the setting makes you feel like you’re walking through the ruins of that lost city. Definitly a worthwhile trip.
On the way out we passed by a small scale model of the Atlantis compound, stood under the most beautiful ocean themed ceiling murals, and nearly got lost in the mall maze of shops. We also took a picture together in the giant Atlantean Throne. In the end, we made it outside just in time to catch the next bus which would take us back to Wafi where we would embark on our desert sunset tour.(more pictures)
Desert Sunset Tour
Wafi is another one of Dubai’s high end shopping malls. It has an Egyptian theme, so there is a large pyramid, and the outside is decorated with huge replicas of famous Egyptian statuary. At the bus stop itself is a beautiful little Arabic garden with all the lovely geometrical patterns, a fountain and pathways through the flower beds. We had only a short time before the desert tour bus left and we were ravenous. We ran into the mall to find a bathroom, but couldn’t see any fast food places around. Fourtunately, Paul’s (a fancy french restaurant chain) had their bakery open as well as their restaurant, so we grabbed some goodies from there to munch on the bus.
The bus was so full that by the time we got on, there weren’t two seats together so we split up for the ride. It took about an hour to get there, and the bus guide fed us little tidbits of information on the way. Among those was the fact that we drove past the villas where the Emeratis live, spending huge amounts of money to preserve their lifestyle of 50 years past. When we finally arrived, it was … a place that had clearly been specifically built as a tourist representation of a desert fort. It was almost comical after seeing the real ruins of Madain Saleh and Petra. It was like the whole village recreations of colonial or old west times that are found on the American coasts.
There was a little red tent that we all passed through to be offered dates and Arabic coffee. I wondered for how many of the tourists here it was their first (or maybe only) experience with this tradition. After that, we all had the opportunity to pose with a hawk. There was a (ostensibly) Bedouin man who had a hawk perched on a sort of mit that he would place on the hand of each tourist while we posed for pictures. There were also camel rides, but like in a little circle maybe 10 feet (3 meters-ish) across. I did pose with the hawk, but did not ride a camel. As we walked up into the “fort” we passed a little meadow with some beautiful white (yes gray whatever) horses. The fort itself was full of more shops, mimicing the souq style with bins of spices and hanging skeins of cloth, but still selling tourist stuff.
We picked up some complimentary juice and tried to avoid the sales pitches as we headed over to the seating area that faced west toward the impending sunset. There was also a lovely lady doing henna hand art. It was included in the price of the ticket, but I did make a point of mentioning to the tourists around that tips would be appropriate. I somehow got to be an official photographer for a group of nordic tourists, which was kind of fun, and also gave me a chance to delicately let the others know that they should avoid showing her face if they took their own photos. I could tell a lot of the people there just didn’t know what the appropriate behavior was, being new to Arabic culture, so I was trying to find a way to let those who wanted to know know while not lecturing anyone on their behavior. She was astonishingly fast, creating detailed works of art, each one unique, in only a matter of minutes! I can only imagine how many thousands she must have done to be able to turn them out so perfectly with such variety. It was just as fun to watch her work on others as it was to take my own turn.
With our hands hennaed, we sat down on a squishy cushion to await the sunset. As the sun drew nearer to the horizon, I suggested we walk out a ways and up a nearby slope for a better view. Each type of landscape has it’s own special sunset qualities. In Seattle, we get mountiain sunsets which are beautiful in a completely different way from desert sunsets. There’s something really cool about the vast flat horizon meeting the glowing orb of light. The dry air also changes the perception of color a little as well, giving a much more golden quality than pink or red. I think I’ll get tired of the desert a long time before I get tired of desert sunsets. There was also a little rivulet of water draining out from somewhere in the fort. It created a tiny river that turned into a silver thread against the darkening sand as the sun sank lower and lower. Urška joined me for a duo-selfie with the sun right between us. I think it might be my favorite picture from the whole group.
After the last golden sliver sank below the horizon, we wended our way back toward the front of camp, taking a few more pictures of the fort lit up for the night. (this one is also courtesy of Urška, since she captured a much lovlier night view than I)
We rode back to Wafi and there we parted ways. The bus tour stopped running around 6:30, so we were done with that part of the day. Urška was headed back to her hotel to check on her ailing husband, and I was planning to catch a ride out to the Global Village for the rest of my evening. On the ride back we made sure to trade facebooks so we could keep in touch (which we have done). I’m pretty psyched to visit with her in her home country later this year. (more pictures)
A lady friend from Facebook who lives in Dubai had given me a long list of cool things when I was planning my December trip and I obviously couldn’t do all of them then, so I put a few more on the list for this trip. One of them was the Global Village. I’d researched it last time, but just couldn’t fit it into the scheudle, so I was determined to make it out there this time around. The Global Village only operates during the “cooler” months because it is mostly outdoor, or open air buildings. Each region or maybe country has its own pavillion with very … sterotypical national decorations. The only way I can really describe it is Disney meets Model U.N. It’s mostly a shopping place, but there are many restraurants, food kiosks, an entertainment stage and an amusement park. I really only meant to stay for an hour or two, just to check it out and not to do any shopping, but I ended up staying until after 1am! There was just so much to see!
The entrance fee is actually really cheap, only a couple bucks. When I first came in there was a “Bedouin Camp” display. They had made a little brick hut in the desert scene and there were actually men dressed up in thobes and shemagh sitting around having tea and cigarettes but clearly part of the display. I moved further in to the park and saw a huge bright glowing globe off to one side, like the Epcot globe. I still have no idea what it’s for. The first region I came across was “Africa” which somehow incorporated every sub-Saharan African stereotype ornament in one giant facade, as if designed by very un-PC Disney Imagineers.
I went inside and there were rows and rows of tiny stalls, each saying the name of the shop and the country of origin. There didn’t seem to be anything country specific about the goods they were selling as there were booths with animal bone and hide ornaments, carved wood ornaments, jewelry and even Bob Marley/Rastafarian stuff (I guess slave colonies count as Africa, right?). I was greeted very quickly by a nice young man running a booth near the front. Maybe he was bored, or maybe walking around looking scruffy and carrying a backpack means you’re broke, either way he didn’t try to sell me anything, he just wanted to talk. He invited me to sit with him in his booth and we traded stories. I tried to help him with a few sales, but it was pretty slow.
Since the Global Village is only active about half the year, all the shopkeepers will return to their home countries when it’s over each spring. Muhammad, like many people I meet travelling, dreams of a better life. He asked about improving his English, but I felt like his grammar was fairly good, so I told him to check out videos on voice coaching for actors learning accents. I’d had a long day, so sitting and chatting was nice, but I’d only just started to explore the village and soon had to move on.
Next I came across China, which ended up looking like a cheap Chinese knock off of the Silk Market in Beijing. Of all the countries represented, I felt it was the most accurate at least in terms of how China represents itself to the world. I found one inestimable treasure however. Haw fruit! This small red fruit is very sour and I’ve never seen it anywhere outside of China. Some import shops sell haw flavored candy, but it’s not the same. One of the most ubiquitous treats in Chinese street food is the sugar coated haw on a stick. Among the food stands selling what is basically Middle Eastern fair food there was one stand that had a display that drew me in.
I actually asked the shopkeeper about the haw fruit in Chinese, but I don’t think he heard my words, because he started explaining them in English. He got as far as “this fruit is called” when I interrupted with excitement. He was equally excited though, since I was the first customer he’d ever had who knew what he was selling. I explained about my time living in China and how much I loved the treats (in Chinese) and an Arab man who had also been standing at the booth blinked in bemusement and said (in English) “well, that was unexpected”. They were a little pricey, but I guess it’s not cheap to import a fresh fruit that has no real demand in an area. Yum!
I wandered and wandered and wandered. I discovered that most of the pavillions were just full of shops, after the first few I stopped going inside them and just admired the huge facades that represented each place. Jordan, of course, was a smaller than life model of the Treasury of Petra. Egypt had replicas of Luxor. Cambodia showed off the beautiful temples. Some were more abstract. Kuwait was a scalloped pattern, I’m not really sure what was up with that. Europe was funny, sticking France, Germany, Spain and England together, but Italy got it’s own separate facade. I think there was a small Notre Dame. Spain was for some reason represented by windmills (which I have always seen associated with Holland). It took me a while to understand, but eventually I spotted a statue of Don Quixote and Sancho and it made more sense.
I noticed that there was some dancing on the main stage so I headed over. They had a troupe of dancers doing what I *think* was a Turkish style (maybe Greek, there was some “opa” going on), but I only caught the tail end of the show. Here’s a link to a short video. There was an intermission and the entertainment resumed with a “Circus Circus” act, sort of a highly stylized dance routine with circus costumes and “acts”. They were quite entertaining to watch and I probably killed close to an hour between the two shows without meaning to.
Around one side were some “pay extra” exhibits. Most of them were not terribly appealing to me, but there was one called “Illumination World” which caught my eye. So for a couple extra dollars, I was allowed in to see the array of larger than life paper lanterns. It was beautiful, but kind of funny to see what represented each country. There were mushrooms and butterflies for Holland, dragons and pagodas for China, the Sydney Opera House and boxing kangaroos for Australia and many others. The Middle East was represented by a scene from Aladdin’s Lamp, some pyramids, and of course… camels. France had a beautiful Eiffel Tower, and America was a Statue of Liberty… flanked by a cowboy and an Indian. No I don’t mean Native American, or First Person, this was super old-school red-indian kind of sterotype. That’s America: liberty, cowboys and Indians. Thanks Dubai.
It made me curious, since I realized at this point that I hadn’t seen any pavilions for the western hemisphere. Asia, the Middle East and Europe were all well represented, and although all of sub-Saharan Africa was relegated to a single pavilion, they at least had something, but where were the Americas?
I set off to find out, vowing it would be my last stop because it was well after midnight already and I wanted to get an early start in the morning. But I was hungry too, so I paused at one of the “heritage” food stands I’d seen around. It turned out they were making another kind of food I really love, although I did not know it existed here. Its a kind of huge crispy crepe made on a massive round skillet. In China, these skillets spun, but here they were stationary. The fillings were also different, I got egg and cheese where in China it would have been egg and vegetable. But it was really delicious and nice to find. It reminded me that I’d seen a similar wheel skillet in a shop in Tabuk and clearly needed to investigate further.
Finally, I found the pavilion I’d been searching for (although I had to go to a reference map to do so). There was only one for the entire western hemisphere, and all of both North and South America were lumped together, seemingly represented by Brazil. The shops inside were clearly struggling with a theme and no surprise since there aren’t a lot of tourist type goods produced in North America and I guess they don’t really understand Latin America at all because there was just nothing from that country bloc. Most of the goods for sale were very generic and probably made in China for “American” companies, however there was a whole big store full of crocs (yeah the shoes) and that said a lot about our image overseas too.