Hello! It’s Ellen here – filling in for Marilyn while she’s in Chile! Please sit back and enjoy MY travel musings…
On our return from India last fall, my co-worker, Whitney, and I excitedly planned a two-day stopover in United Arab Emirates. We figured that we are already on that side of the world anyway… why not seize the moment and spend a couple of days in an Arab country!
Neither of us had been to a Muslim country before, so didn’t know what to expect. Based on the stories we’d heard in U.S. media, we were a bit worried to be women traveling solo. Whitney spent a day in Abu Dhabi on the way to India and wandered around by herself without any kind of fear or unwanted attention; she said she felt completely safe. When we both arrived after the India trip, we found the exact same to be true, as well. I have actually felt much LESS safe in many US cities than I did in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Of course, just like we did when traveling in India, we were respectful of the culture and made sure to dress conservatively – not showing too much skin or the body parts that they deemed to be overtly sexual: back, arms, cleavage, stomach.
Honestly, I expected an Arab country to be far more exotic than it was. India was extremely exotic to me – so different than any place I’d ever experienced. As for the UAE, while it was amazing and I most definitely want to return, I would not consider it exotic in the same way. In India, the majority of the people walking around the streets were Indian – dressed in traditional Indian attire, speaking native languages, and practicing native traditions and practices. In the UAE, the population was extremely diverse – a melting pot of people from South Asia (Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka) – roughly 50% of the UAE population, the Philippines, Iran, Egypt, China, UK, Africa, etc. As a matter-of-fact, most data indicates only approximately 15% of the population of the United Arab Emirates are actually Emiratis!
A few fun facts about the UAE:
*There are no taxes – no sales tax, no property tax, no luxury tax, no fuel tax, no employment tax… none, zilch, nada!
*The UAE was established in 1972 – a country less than 50 years old.
*The government is a monarchy – referred to by locals as a “benevolent dictatorship.”
*There is very little crime, as their laws are extremely tough – even minor crimes result in deportation.
*UAE boasts the world’s tallest building – Burj Khalifa – at 160 stories tall.
*The UAE government currently has a $2 trillion dollar surplus – yes, SURPLUS!
In our two day whirlwind UAE adventure, Whitney and I fit a lot of activities in…
We visited the world-famous Sheikh Zayed mosque, dressed in our abayas (robe-like cloaks) and hijabs (head scarves) – in obeyance of the Muslim culture that requires women to be covered when in a holy place. There were very strict rules of behavior evidenced by the sign, below. Not mentioned on the sign, but soon to be discovered by yours truly, was the restriction of taking photos of men dressed in traditional Arab attire. The security guard asked to look at the photos on my phone, and as I scrolled through, stopped me at the one of the man and said, “delete.” However, I was able to snap a few that he didn’t see – the one, below, has a bit of a grainy “big foot” kind of quality, but you get the gist of it.
We visited a few hotel properties and like everything else in the UAE, they were beautiful, opulent, and completely over-the-top luxury. Seems like everything in the UAE just drips of affluence and wealth. And clean… That’s an understatement – the whole country was SO clean! The roadways were pristine, the city streets were tidy and well-maintained, no trash anywhere – such a contrast to the chaos, clutter, and poor air quality of India.
From Abu Dhabi we took the 60 minute drive to Dubai where we checked into our hotel, which was attached to a small shopping mall which housed an unenclosed ice skating rink right out the rear entrance! I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised, this was, after all, the country that boasts such features as an indoor ski resort; huge, man-made islands (two shaped like palm trees, the other like a world map); several skyscrapers that defy physics and traditional engineering practices; and the world’s largest shopping mall – among numerous other engineering feats. An ice rink at the center of a small shopping mall – c’mon, that’s child’s play!
That evening, we were off to the desert where we were treated to a four-wheel drive dune bashing experience. Our driver, Sam, was an interesting guy of Pakistani descent, born and raised in the UAE and a wealth of information. He indulged us in our urgings to “go faster!” and provided wonderful photo ops, as well as a stop at a camel farm where I got to temporarily satiate my pet longings (this is the first time in my life I’ve been pet-free… it’s tough) and give a camel a cheek rub and neck massage. According to Sam, camels are mostly bred for racing and a good racing camel starts at about $55,000 but thoroughbreds can go for a lot more. Back in 2010 an Emirati camel-racing fan spent $8 million on three camels!
Following our four wheel drive experience, we enjoyed dinner at a Bedouin oasis resort tucked in the dunes. The food was fabulous and we were entertained by fire breathers, whirling dervish and belly dancers, and traditional Arab music. While it was a tad bit touristy, it was a treat for Whitney and I to semi-recline on the tapestry covered pillows and relax after a crazy, busy, non-stop 24 hours.
Our next day in Dubai began bright and early with a trip to the various souks (marketplaces). We visited the gold, spice, and tapestry souks and came away with fun trinkets and treasures. Of course, the gold souk was a bit out of our price range and, quite frankly, not quite my style, but definitely created a feeling of awe as one walked past store after store with ornate, finely-crafted gold jewelry filling the large display windows. The thing that baffled me was the fact that, even though the shops were not open yet, there were no bars on the windows or security guards stationed out front. Apparently, the penalties for theft are so severe, that they serve as an effective deterrent to would-be thieves. Furthermore, I was baffled by the fact that there were, in my quick estimate, at least 50 shops, side by side (and those were the ones that I could see)… I wonder how they all stayed in business with such stiff competition right next door!
The spice souks were abuzz with locals doing their shopping. The sounds, smells, colors, and textures provided a feast for the senses! There were spices and herbs for anything and everything that ailed you! And the textile souks made me think that I’d actually find some place to wear a handmade, vibrantly-colored, beaded, embellished abaya or gown! The fabrics were so incredibly beautiful, I almost bought a yard or two just to own something so gorgeous! Of our tour through the souks, my only purchase consisted of some cheesy little tchotchkes and a table runner made in India! If I’d only had a little more time, I could have done some major damage – I guess it was a good thing we were on a tight schedule.
Next activity was a tour around Dubai Creek (which is really more like a small, busy harbor) in a beautifully refinished wooden Dhow, ending up close to the Dubai Creek Golf & Yacht Club where we enjoyed a fabulous lunch overlooking the Dubai skyline. It was then on to check out Burj Al Arab, one of Dubai’s engineering feats and a seven star property with a breathtaking view of The Palm Jumeirah (manmade palm-shaped island). Apparently, opulence looks a lot like a really gaudy Vegas hotel – bright, geometric print carpets, tons of mirrors and neon lighting, floor-to-ceiling aquariums, and lots of gold fixtures and accents… and for only $2500 a night (of course, each basic “room” is a one-bedroom, 2-floor suite with full-size Hermes toiletries)! It definitely wasn’t my cup of tea, but apparently, it appealed to many as the place was hoppin’!
Our day ended with cocktails and appetizers at a lakeside restaurant on the grounds of the iconic Palace Downtown Dubai Hotel with a front row view of the famous fountain and Burj Khalifa light shows – changing music every half hour from show tunes to Michael Jackson to Whitney Houston to Andrea Bocelli. Once again, it is similar to the fountain show at the Bellagio in Vegas… but, in typical UAE style – bigger and better! The fountain show alternates with the Burj Khalifa show, which provides a stunning colored light show with fantastical music, giving the illusion that the building is a dripping, crumbling, flashing kaleidoscope of color and patterns. It provided a fitting, dramatic end to an amazing 48 hours!
While I would never recommend a two-day jaunt half-way across the world, I would definitely put United Arab Emirates on your bucket list! It is is like Disneyland, Vegas, Rodeo Drive, and Miami Beach all rolled into one, but with a wonderful Arab flare! This destination is not one to be missed and I, for one, will DEFINITELY be back!