dubai & abu dhabi

After spending a week in Cairo, my dad, stepmom Thuy, stepsister Katie, and I flew to Dubai for the New Year holiday. One of Katie’s roommates from UC Santa Cruz lives part-time in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, so we decided to follow her up on an invitation to visit since we were already in the area. Our flight was at nine o’clock the in the morning out of the Cairo International Airport. I tend to get to the airport unnecessarily early, especially when the trip involves Egypt, so we left my apartment at around 5:30 AM. You never know what airport security, your taxi driver, or traffic will be like!

So, at 5:30, the family worked on getting all of our luggage down to the street, and I ran around the streets of Dokki searching for a cab that could fit all of us. My options were somewhat limited. Van-size cabs don’t really exist in Cairo, especially at these odd hours of the morning, and most of the taxis that drove past me already had people inside. Weird! After wandering down a couple of major streets, I finally flagged down a cab with a big rack on top of it. The driver spoke almost no English, but I managed to tell him that I wanted to go to the airport, but needed to get my family at my house first, who had a lot of bags- all in Arabic! AND he understood me! I directed him back to my apartment, where my dad, Thuy, and Katie were waiting outside.
Yet again, the majority of our bags were launched onto the roof of the cab and secured with a single piece of twine. We climbed into the car and set off towards the airport, all silently hoping that our bags would survive the ride with us. About halfway through the ride, it started sprinkling. It NEVER rains in Egypt. I was relieved to recognize that we were close to the airport, but still a little nervous about our uncovered luggage above us. And then we realized that the cab’s windshield wipers didn’t work. The visibility through the windshield got more and more questionable, until finally the driver pulled onto the side of the road and wiped down the glass with an old rag. Off we went…for another few minutes, before he paused to wipe off the windshield yet again. Luckily, we soon entered the gates to the airport, survived its many speed bumps, and pulled to a stop in front of the International Departures terminal- all of our luggage intact!

We grabbed our things, made our way inside, and checked in successfully. EgyptAir is always kind of a toss-up. I’ve heard it referred to as “EgyptScare”, and have personally experienced its less-than-pleasant staff, but every once in a while, it’ll surprise you. Case in point: our Dubai flight. For the 4-5 hour trip, we had personal television screens with a selection of movies, TV shows, music, and games, along with a meal and semi-friendly stewards. It was great! Our flight was even delayed for about an hour and a half while we were sitting on the plane, but I didn’t mind because I was busy catching up on all of the movies that I’ve missed over the past year or so.

Upon our arrival in Dubai, the differences between the UAE and Egypt quickly made themselves apparent. Everything was spotless and beautiful- even the airport had palm trees inside! We made our way through customs, and I got my first glimpse of the strange dichotomy of people there. A few men walked around in white gallabayas and traditional headwear, yet the majority of the population is made up of expats- mostly Indian, Filipino, and British. I’d heard that anywhere between 60 and 85% of people living in Dubai are not local Emiratis. The country itself is a very recent construct, which provides some explanation for its unusual appearance. The Emirates were formed out of seven tribes who decided to bond together once the British reduced their influence in the area, only a few decades ago. Today, the area is marked by its warp-speed development and wealth, due to the discovery of oil in the 60’s and increased presence in trade. Dubai and Abu Dhabi are also noted for their monopoly over superlatives- they boast the tallest building in the world, the most expensive Christmas tree, the largest plate of glass, and biggest indoor ski slope, among many other achievements.

Nonetheless, our trip was mostly one of relaxation. It was a welcome refuge from the chaos of Cairo. After exiting the Dubai airport, we were relieved to find an organized taxi system (complete with meters, English-speaking drivers, and GPS!), clean streets, and an impressive skyline. Our hotel was no different. It was gorgeous! The four of us shared one large suite, complete with a balcony with a priceless view of the Burg al-Arab (the sailboat-shaped building), the Atlantis, and the beach. We were also treated to free breakfast, afternoon tea, and happy hour daily. I would have been perfectly happy just remaining in the hotel for our entire trip! Nonetheless, that evening we actually left our room and met up with Katie’s roommate Karina and her family for dinner. Karina’s family lives in Dubai, where her younger sister still attends high school. We drove to a beachside hotel, where golf carts then transported us along a small pathway to our restaurant. The eight of us enjoyed appetizers (including tempura and calamari) and drinks before exploring the rest of the restaurant. Even the bartender was consistent with the rest of Dubai’s population- he had recently moved there from London. It was a beautiful waterside place with a white tent for a roof, and welcoming sofas to relax on while enjoying your dinner. Dubai, like Cairo, is definitely a night-owl culture. Dinner usually doesn’t start until at least eight or nine o’clock, and early morning is reserved for sleeping. So, we ate until around midnight before crashing back at the hotel for the night. When in Rome, right?

The next morning, Katie and I slept in before deciding to check out our hotel’s beach area. It was an absolutely beautiful day- not too hot, but perfect for some early afternoon sunbathing. We laid out on the sand, explored the clear water, collected seashells, and people-watched. The beach was littered with tourists, from small children to older men (most of which should not have been wearing Speedos). Karina eventually met up with us for awhile, and we watched the sun make its way towards the horizon before deciding to check out one of the many malls in the area that night. After a quick wardrobe change, Karina drove us to the Mall of the Emirates, or MOE. There, we stopped by a bookstore (I wanted to pick up some light reading for the vacation), tried to buy tickets to visit the Burg Khalifa (the tallest tower in the world- unfortunately, it was sold out until after Katie and I left Dubai), and wandered around a few shops. The mall visitors varied tremendously in their dress. There were the usual shoppers, mostly in shorts, t-shirts, or dresses, but then there were a good number of traditional Emiratis, in long gallabeyas and abayas. Still, nobody seemed to mind this huge discrepancy. It seems like anything goes in Dubai.

Before heading back to the hotel, we caught the fountain show outside. Picture the water show at the Bellagio in Vegas…on steroids. The mall basically had its own lake filled with fountains, which put on a show every 30 minutes. We couldn’t resist staying to watch, and I’m glad we did! Water shot into the air, accompanied by bursts of fire and dramatic music. Throughout the show, the Burg Khalifa (the tallest tower) glittered with light right next to it. It was like watching a movie! As if the show itself wasn’t enough, we soon learned that the fountains put on a different routine at each showing. We had planned to go to dinner with Karina and her parents again that night, so we rushed back to the hotel to change before heading out again. This time, we went to a place that can be found back in the States- Trader Vic’s, although this location had been Dubai-ified in that it was ten times more extravagant than anything I had seen before. We ate delicious food while a live band played nearby, and after dinner, admired the view of the Burg al-Arab on our way out. While the parents made their way back home, Karina took us to a friend’s house to meet some of her high school buddies. They ended up being from all over the world, true to the typical Dubai population. Some were British, others American, South American, and Canadian. I even met one boy who had grown up in Santa Barbara, who was wearing UC Santa Barbara shorts! The one thing that most of them had in common was that they had been brought here by their parent’s jobs. It was a really interesting, diverse group of people.

The next day, we slept in again before returning to the beach. Katie and I stopped by some street market booths to browse the jewelry and trinkets, and ended up buying matching bracelets for the two of us and Karina to thank her for being our guide for the week. The booths were selling some really cool stuff- mostly the traditional Mediterranean ‘evil eye’ and ‘hand of fatima’ good luck charms. I could have easily bought everything, but Dubai isn’t anywhere near as inexpensive as Cairo is, so I resigned myself to the one purchase. Back at the beach, Katie and I read and eavesdropped on a British family who had set up their towels in front of us- we couldn’t help it! What would have normally been an annoying presence became an entertaining one, solely because of the fact that the little kids had British accents. We giggled as a young boy (he couldn’t have been more than three or four) hollered about wanting to ride the banana boat, and his sister dumped sand on everybody’s heads. One thing that I really ended up appreciating about Dubai was actually its lack of tourist attractions- aside from the Burg Khalifa, Burg al-Arab, and indoor ski slope, all you can do is relax on the beach and eat great food!

That night was New Year’s Eve, so after enjoying the afternoon tea, we showered and got ready for the festivities. We had decided to stay in and watch the fireworks from our own hotel balcony. All of the events in the area were ridiculously expensive, and we had such a great view, we had to take advantage of it! Katie and Karina ended up lending me an outfit for the night, as I only had Cairo-appropriate clothes (which basically consist of conservative, drab clothing that makes me look as masculine as possible). With a couple of hours to go until midnight, my dad, Thuy, Karina, Katie, and I decided to take a short walk along the street closest to the beach to check out the crowds. Again, the dynamic between traditional and modern dress made for quite a scene. Girls pranced down the streets in mini-dresses and sky-high heels right alongside men and women in traditional dress, some only showing their eyes. There were also women in conservative abayas (covering their hair and bodies in loose, black fabric), who were wearing 5 inch red heels and dramatic makeup. Now THAT I don’t really understand, but whatever floats your boat, I guess!

As the clock started ticking towards midnight, we grabbed some ice cream before returning to our hotel. Karina had also brought us all McArabia’s- the Big Mac of the Middle East. We turned on the TV in our hotel room to try to find some sort of countdown, and ended up finding the Dick Clark of Dubai- a young man in the traditional Emirati outfit (white gallabeya, head turban held down by black ropes) and a women covered in henna who were hosting a New Year’s event. We put on our party hats (literally- the hotel had provided us with “Happy New Year” top hats), popped the non-alcoholic date wine (also hotel provided) and observed the view from our balcony. As soon as the clock struck midnight, we were literally surrounded by fireworks. Our own hotel put on a show right outside of our window- we could almost touch some of the sparks! There were also four other fireworks shows going on simultaneously along the coast, including at the Atlantis and Burg al-Arab. For the next half an hour or so, some shows stopped, while others started- we counted eight separate shows total. It was an incredible view. We must have looked ridiculous just standing there oo-ing and ahh-ing at the fireworks, but it really was a once in a lifetime sight.

The next day, we slept in one last time before getting ready to check out of our hotel. The Hilton that we had been staying at was completely booked for the remainder of our trip, so we had to pack up and switch to a Marriott right down the street. I had really enjoyed everything that the hotel had to offer, but whatever disappointment I had felt when leaving the Hilton quickly vanished as soon as we saw our place at the Marriott. At first, our rooms weren’t ready yet, so we had a couple of hours to kill before checking in. So, we decided to check out the indoor ski slope at one of the malls around town, and wanted to try to take the Metro there. The Dubai Metro was recently completed, and, like every other recent development there, it’s beautiful. Each stop is like a miniature airport- after buying your ticket, a series of escalators takes you to a windowed, football-shaped structure. The ride takes you on a tour of Dubai above ground, revealing views of green grass, tall buildings, and fields of flowers. After a few stops, we exited the metro and were led down a walkway that fed us directly into the mall.
The mall had a diverse array of shops, including such Western favorites as Coldstone Creamery, H&M, and Forever 21. We wandered around for a bit before finding the ski area. It was a pretty impressive sight- the “mountain” was contained within a thick wall of glass, which was surrounded by restaurants with tables overlooking the scene. Kids frolicked in the white snow, climbing play structures and riding on sleds. Older skiiers made their way up and down the mountain as onlookers wearing shorts and t-shirts watched through the glass. Despite its appeal, I just couldn’t see how the structure could be very practical- it was pretty expensive to ski for just a couple of hours, and the mountain wasn’t actually that big, reaching the height of only a story or two. As a tourist attraction, and a way for the kids of Dubai to see some snow, it was great, but other than that, it didn’t serve much purpose.

After a quick lunch at a Chinese restaurant overlooking the snow, we hopped back onto the Metro and returned to our new hotel to check in. We had heard that the Marriott had previously been used as an apartment building, but I didn’t expect what we would see once we stepped into our room- we had an entire apartment to ourselves! It had everything that we could ever need: a kitchen, dining room, two bedrooms, four bathrooms, a laundry room, balconies, and even a few books in a bookcase. It was a great homey place with a nice view as well. We settled in before getting ready for our last dinner with Karina’s family.
This time, we ate at a Lebanese restaurant, true to Karina’s heritage. Her father ordered us an assortment of plates, including kofta (spiced lamb meat), shawerma (a type of meat sandwich), and hommos (a dip made of chickpeas). We feasted and talked about the time her family spent in Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, and the States. After dinner (and dessert!), we returned back to the hotel to get to sleep.

The next day, we had planned to drive to Abu Dhabi for the day. My dad got a rental car, and we piled in at around nine in the morning. The drive only took a little over an hour, although I was asleep for the majority of it. We hadn’t planned much more than the fact that we were going to Abu Dhabi in general, so it was a bit of an adventure. Our first stop was at a hotel next to a shopping mall, where we luckily happened to find a stand with advertisements for double decker bus tours of the area. We quickly snatched up their free maps of local sights and climbed back into our rental car. The first sight that we wanted to see was the Emirates Palace Hotel, which was known as the sight of the world’s most expensive Christmas tree. We happened to find it almost by accident, after assuming that we were driving past the Presidential Palace itself, not the hotel, and asking if we could go inside. After parking and walking up to the front gate, we finally realized that this was the hotel itself! It was quite a sight. The place itself was huge and almost entirely decorated in gold. Portraits of the sheikhs (or rulers) of the United Arab Emirates decorated the walls, along with tall columns, domed ceilings, and intricately detailed decorations. After wandering through the main hallway, we realized that there was no major Christmas tree to be found, and were soon told that it had been taken down the day before- it was after New Year’s, after all! Not to be discouraged, we decided to have afternoon tea at the Palace while we were there. They offered a wide variety of teas, from Moroccan to Peppermint. We settled down in plushy chairs next to a live harp player, and were soon served with personal silver trays filled with teapots, teacups, and bite-size treats. Sheikhs know how to live! After tea, we made our way back out to the front of the palace, past the pigeons bathing in the ground fountains, and into our rental car. Next stop: the Sheikh Zayed Mosque!

The route to the mosque proved to be a little bit more challenging than that to the palace. The maps that we had picked up didn’t have many street names on them, and Abu Dhabi, like Dubai, was wrought with confusing roundabouts. Eventually, we found the long oceanside road that would eventually lead us within sight of the mosque, and we excitedly ventured towards it. A couple of wrong turns later, we were finally in the parking lot, ready to enter the mosque, and the closer we walked towards it, the more impressive it became. From the street, it was a huge, white gem right off of the main road leading into Abu Dhabi. As we walked nearer to the entrance, the cleanliness and detail of it was astounding. Its pure white surface revealed more and more intricacies as we got nearer to the entrance. Raised white floral patterns surrounded the main doorways, and teal and gold outlined its columned walkways. Large rectangular pools lined with deep blue tiles formed a kind of moat around the mosque. Once you looked down upon the ground in the main courtyard, gigantic flowers had been formed in tile amongst the pure white. It really was an astounding feat of art.

Once we entered the compound, we made two major mistakes. First, we took pictures of the tomb of the Sultan. To us, it just looked like a beautiful additional compartment to the mosque itself, but its security guards knew otherwise. They quickly ran up to us, explaining that we could take pictures of anything but that building. So, we made our way to the mosque itself. There, we tried to walk in the entrance, only to be stopped again by security, who this time argued that we were not covered enough to enter. I asked if they had scarves that we could borrow, as most major mosques do. The friendly guard nodded and pointed me, Thuy, and Katie in the direction of a small room off to the side. My dad waited at the front as we followed the guard’s lead. We soon found a group of three Filipino women covered in the traditional black burqa, surrounded by black fabric in this side room. I was surprised to find that they had “loaner” burqas for visitors- usually the mosque will only provide strips of fabric or old scarves which other visitors had left behind. These were high-quality outfits! So, we put the black long-sleeve dresses over our clothes, and the women were happy to help us wrap the black fabric around our hair in the form of a hijab. Now, we were ready to go!

We entered the main courtyard of the mosque and immediately began taking pictures. This place was huge! The courtyard was surrounded by four walls- one lead to the prayer room area, while the opposing wall was a series of columns which overlooked Abu Dhabi. The two remaining walls had seven domes lining their ceilings, and we assumed that these symbolized the seven tribes which came together in the formation of the United Arab Emirates. Each of the four corners had a tall minaret protruding out of it. We wandered across the open, white courtyard, across the flowered tile and through the gold encrusted, columned halls, taking photos and admiring the structure. After awhile, we decided to explore the various prayer rooms. Katie, Thuy, and I slipped off our shoes and went inside the women’s prayer room, which had flowered carpet, colorful wall designs, and a white floral design across the length of the ceiling. Flower-shaped lights shone through gaps in the handiwork. There were a few women praying while we were there, and a cart full of Qurans in the corner. We soon moved onto the main prayer room, but not before a group of helpful female attendants rushed up to us to readjust our head scarves, which had become loose over the course of our stay. This was a pretty common sight- it was obvious that some of the visitors weren’t used to wearing hijabs! Soon enough, our scarves were tightly back in place, and we were allowed to venture into the main prayer room.

Needless to say, this room was quite a bit more extravagant than the women’s prayer room. We were first lead into an entrance room, which was my favorite part of the entire mosque. Colorful pieces of marble had been arranged in the form of a field of flowers creeping up the walls of the room, and the floor was yet again covered in floral decoration. Glass windows had been decorated with blue floral stained glass and metal designs, overlooking the rest of the open courtyard and columned halls. Electronic clocks displayed the official times of each prayer that day. Not a single detail had gone overlooked.
We wandered into the main prayer hall, which had three main sections. Each section had a gigantic chandelier constructed out of colorful bulbs of light. The main center section had its main back wall covered in different words in Arabic, which were placed within large flower frameworks. I’m pretty sure the words were all names, but I couldn’t decipher the significance of them all. The floor was my favorite part- it was covered in plush carpet with a colorful paisley design. We all wandered through the length of the room, admiring the decorations and people inside. Men in traditional Emirati dress answered questions and made sure that the general rules were being followed- no shoes inside, women covered, and a respectful attitude. The entire place was a work of art.

After exploring the entire mosque, we were told that visiting hours were coming to a close, so we made our way outside, leaving our borrowed burqas in a “laundry pile” at the front entrance. We hopped back in the car and headed back towards Dubai. It was a perfect day trip to Abu Dhabi- we experienced some great works of architecture, enjoyed high tea, and were exposed to a beautiful mosque. At that point, we had to get back to the hotel- Katie had a plane to catch that night- but not without one last adventure: McArabias! We were intent on getting one last McDonald’s visit in, only because McArabias don’t exist in the states. This proved to be a little more challenging than we expected. Dubai must be the only place in the whole entire world that doesn’t have a McDonald’s on every street corner. After driving up and down the main strip next to the beach, around our hotel, and down the freeway, we resorted to asking random men on the street. None of them gave us very helpful answers, until I ran into a hair salon to ask for advice. A hairdresser gave me complicated directions that involved getting back on and off the freeway and making a few vague turns. So, after getting back on the freeway, we took a random turn, and ended up running into a McDonald’s anyways! Who knows if that was the one that we were being directed to- either way, we all got our McArabias (Thuy even persuaded them to make her one with a vegetarian patty), and happily went on our way.

Once back at the hotel, Katie packed her bags and the girls met up with Karina and her mom for one last visit. We enjoyed Coffee Bean drinks and Johnny Rockets burgers (in Dubai- go figure!) before heading off to the airport to send Katie off. The rest of the night and next morning were dedicated to sleep and packing, as I had a flight back to Cairo the next day. After one last meal near our hotel in Dubai (Lebanese food- always delicious!) I was back at the airport and ready for my flight back to Cairo. The entire trip was a great mini-vacation from the chaos of the city, and it was endlessly entertaining to witness the dynamic between tradition and modernity in the UAE. I had about ten days to relax before setting off to London and Morocco- what a start to the new year!

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