Dubai. I had never even given a thought to this city. Then one day a few years back we ran into someone at the airport in Frankfurt who was connecting from Dubai to somewhere. Elliott was surprised at the time to learn we Americans could travel safely to Dubai. The man we spoke to went on and on about the amazing things in Dubai. We put it at the end of some long, unwritten list of places to visit one day; a list that only lived in the back of our heads.
Fast-forward to the beginning of February this year. We’re leaving Africa and we know for sure at this point we can’t go to Egypt. We start throwing out ideas for what to do for the two weeks between our time in Israel and the next stop on our itinerary. Jordan, Turkey, Cyprus, Dubai… where else? There aren’t a whole lot of places you can go to from Israel, close-by, that are safe for Jewish Americans. In the meantime, I was re-reading one of the books I brought with me, 360 Degrees Longitude, about a family of four who traveled around the world a few years ago. And as I’m reading, I come across their travels in Dubai. Hmmm. Once we had decided on Turkey, and I started looking into award flights to Turkey from Israel, I noticed something: many of the flights had connections in… Dubai! I remembered United allows free stopovers, and voila, within minutes I had figured out how to add a free stop in Dubai to a United award ticket to Istanbul. It was the sign we needed.
Dubai is impressive indeed, and came at a welcome time during our travels. It is decadent. Shiny. Abundant. Record-setting. Indulgent. New. Golden. Dubai has a collection of things that would be difficult to find most places in the world. It is a place, it seems, where anyone’s dream can be made a reality. Unfortunately for us, some of our “Dubai Dreams” did not become a reality, since I was sporting a very nasty cold the entire time we were there. (On a side note, some dreams did become a reality, such as my dream of eating a bag of Cheetos. I had been craving them for over six weeks, and had not been able to find them in any of the countries we had been in; not even Israel, who tries to disguise cheese *puffs* behind the Cheetos brand. But this was the real thing. Mmmmmm. One might even say they made the perfect cold medicine.) We made the best of things and still had a great time with the sights we did see.
On our metro ride from the airport to our host’s condo, we immediately noticed several things. The highways surrounding the metro were six lanes on either side, twelve lanes in total. There didn’t appear to be enough traffic to fill them! The metro was super smooth, and completely automated (no driver). And the cool buildings were EVERYwhere. I’ve never seen so many cool, unique-looking buildings in one place! It’s as if there’s a rule in some book in the city mayor’s office that says you can’t build a building unless it looks cool. The coolest one of all, of course, is the Burj Khalifa – presently the tallest building in the world. As it came into view, we found ourselves craning our necks to look out the window and try to see the very top.
There also appeared to be, in this city, perhaps… a desire to be like America? English is everywhere. There are all the American chains you see in many countries – Starbucks, McDonald’s, KFC, Marriott. There are American sounding places – American Mattress, Western Furniture, California Hotel, “Toys & Us” and “Four Guys.” And then there are places you almost never see outside of America – like The Cheesecake Factory?! One might argue it’s not surprising to see so many American-ish places in the Western World, but here, in Dubai, in the middle of the East – it is surreal.
Overall, the city appeared clean, new, and incomplete. We’ve read and been told that Dubai’s “goal” is to become the top tourist destination in the world, and it appears to be well on its way. It has the world’s tallest building, the world’s largest water park, the world’s largest indoor ski resort, and the world’s largest mall, among many many world construction, architectural and size records. There was lots of new construction, which ironically reminded me of Arusha in Tanzania, but clearly Dubai does not have Tanzania’s infrastructure issues. If anything, Dubai has more infrastructure than it knows what to do with.
Our first afternoon, we visited the Dubai Marina. Our host lived very close by so we were able to walk to the marina and take in the surroundings there. There was a sign that said something about boat rentals, and I excitedly thought maybe we could rent a canoe or rowboat or something. As we got closer, I noticed the marina was filled with very large yachts, and I realized a “boat rental” might not be within our budget. Elliott excitedly pointed in the direction of the famous Palm Jumeirah – a man-made island in the shape of a palm tree. We were seriously hoping to get a good view of it from up high, or to walk on it, or something! But we did not have luck. To get on the island, we would have to take a very long walk that I was not up for with my cold, and then take a monorail on the island itself. But with the exception of Atlantis, a huge hotel complex, the island is “exclusive”, all residential and gated communities, so it just didn’t sound like much fun anyway. After a few days of research, we found the high-up viewpoints were mostly expensive restaurants and the view was often too hazy to see much anyway. Elliott was a bit bummed. So far, our best aerial view was on Google Earth.
That first night, we went to the famous Gold Souk. I have been to a few different gold districts in different cities in my life, but I’ve never seen anything like this. The necklaces, if you can call them that, were fit for Egyptian Pharaohs. But they were just the beginning. There were gold tiaras, necklaces, and belts. And in addition to gold, there were plenty of diamonds. Necklaces made with huge diamonds that looked so heavy, one’s neck would get tired carrying them around. As we walked, everyone tried to discreetly offer us knockoff products: watches for Elliott and handbags for me. The less discreet tried endlessly to sell pashminas. In China a few years back, our mantra was “No iPhones!” Here, it was “No Pashminas!”
After the Gold Souk, we went searching for the nearby Spice Souk. On our way, we found many markets – a ceramics market, a utensils market, a toy market. There seemed to be a dedicated cluster of stalls for everything! When we finally found the spice market, I had a grand time taking photos of the barrels of spices while Elliott got a “tour” from one or two shop owners.
Our second day, we went to the Dubai Mall for a few hours. WOW. I thought the Mall of America, in Minnesota, the *largest* mall in America, was pretty crazy. But we’ll tell you more about it in our next post!
Our third day, sadly, was spent indoors. Sigh. Going out day after day, even for just a few hours, was proving NOT to be the road back to good health for me. I’m not even going to mention the planned activities we had to forgo, and hopefully one day we will make it back to fulfill them. I sent Elliott and Carlos out for some local exploration of the Jumeirah Lake Towers, the community in which our host lives. The community is enormous, with many skyscrapers, all different from one another in design. It seemed fitting that our host lived in a one of the buildings in a cluster surrounding a small man-made lake, on the 37th floor with a view of the Dubai Marina and a sliver of that palm tree island. Here’s Elliott’s report:
Thanks, Stephanie. I’m coming at you live* from the Jumeirah Lake Towers where I’ve just taken an extensive, 3-hour** walk around the central lake. From what I can see, most of the buildings are residential, and several of them have an unfinished look about them. There are a few shops and some restaurants with awesome names like “Sheikh & Shake,” where you too can get an American style burger and fries. Local reporter, Carlos, however reports preferring an Arabic Subway to the Five Guys knockoff. Reporting live*, This is Elliott Segelbaum. Back to you, Stephanie.
* not really live
** more like 30 minute
On our last day, FINALLY, we got to do the thing that was most important to us – we got to go to the top of the Burj Khalifa – the tallest building in the WORLD!!!! I had hoped to do this on our first day, but tickets sell out so quickly that by the time we made a reservation, our last day was really the only option. We’re just so thankful we were able to do it at all.
At 829 meters (2722 ft), this slender skyscraper shatters about a million architectural records. The elevators feel like they barely move, yet they shot us to the 124th floor in less than two minutes. Up until now, the highest we’d ever been was in the Sears tower on the 103rd floor. We took our time taking photos, but Elliott was in for two more disappointments. First, it was still too hazy to see the palm tree island – even from this far up. Second, we were a few months too late to check out the famous gold bar vending machines. They’ve been removed from the Dubai Mall *and* the Burj Khalifa! Supposedly there is still one left in the Lafayette Gallery, but we were headed to the airport directly from the Burj Khalifa and we didn’t have time to go look for it.
We took the metro to the airport, and sadly waved goodbye to Dubai. Yet it held one last surprise for us, a surprise that was extra special for Elliott. Not only was our plane almost completely empty, but one of the airline attendants told us we should all grab window seats on the left side of the plane for some great views. He told us we’d have amazing views of the city sky scrapers, the Burj Khalifa… and the palm tree islands!
And there was almost no haze.