Saturday, February 19, 2011

Two Days in Dubai

It was a really short trip, just enough to get a taste of the sister city to Abu Dhabi. We had a long weekend, and decided to stay close to home. The intercity bus was only 15 dirhams per person to Dubai, and we booked a cheap hotel on, so it was a perfect two-day getaway. Mark and I had been saying we needed to get over there (a mere two-hour bus ride away) for months to check Dubai out, but we just never felt like we had enough time on a regular weekend. Some people jaunt over for just the evening, I know, but we did want to spend a bit more time. Plus, when you're dependent on public transportation, everything takes a bit more planning.

We packed light and left with our backpacks on our backs on Wednesday afternoon. The bus passed right by my new school in Al Rahba, so I got to point it out to Mark and Abby. We came into Dubai just as the sun was setting, reflected in the thousands of glass windows on hundreds of highrises. Although we had studied the map of the city, we didn't realize just how spread out it is. There are at least three different concentrations of skyscrapers. The first as you come in from the Abu Dhabi road is near the Jebel Ali industrial area. It's where the Atlantis Hotel and the Burj Al Arab are located. We could see the Burj Al Arab (most expensive hotel) from the highway, but the Atlantis is too far out, built on a palm-tree shaped island. There were many beautiful buildings at which to gawk, and then we went through a more residential-looking area. Soon we were passing futuristic, raised metro stations and the second concentration of tall buildings, including the Burj Khalifa (tallest building). That one was originally called the Burj Dubai ("burj" means tower in Arabic), but when Dubai's economy crashed and it couldn't be paid for, the sheikh of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Khalifa, stepped in to pick up the bill. That fact delights Abu Dhabi residents, who have a bit of an inferiority complex in relation to Dubai.

Finally, our bus hit some heavy traffic in the oldest area of Dubai, near the bus station and Port Rashid. This area is known for the Dubai Creek, a waterway that runs through its center that no Texan would ever term a creek. It's wider than the Rio Grande. But whatever, it's very picturesque, with the water taxis called "abras" flitting from shore to shore and hotels lining the sides. We wandered around for a few minutes at the bus station, looking for a taxi, then finally made our way with some difficulty to the Rainbow Hotel on Khalid bin Waleed Street. It was really close to the bus station, but apparently not familiar to the taxi driver. We had already planned to head to the Dubai Mall that first night for some American food.

Now, expats in Abu Dhabi are always talking about how great Dubai is, how comfortable they feel there, etc. I am convinced it's because of the number of American food outlets in Dubai. Sure, in Abu Dhabi we have Fuddrucker's, Cantina Laredo and Chili's (in addition to the fast-food chains like McD's, BK, and KFC), but you have to go to Dubai for Tony Roma's and Macaroni Grill. So that's what we did. We rode the very clean and fast metro to the Dubai Mall station, and walked right past the Burj Khalifa, stopping for Mark to get an awesome picture of the tower at night with the full moon next to its tip. Inside the massive mall, we found the Macaroni Grill right next to the Dubai Aquarium. I was excited to find my favorite meal, lobster ravioli, on the menu, but experienced crushing disappointment when I tried to order it and was told that it wasn't available. Of course. The same thing happened in Abu Dhabi at Cantina Laredo, when I tried to order the mole enchiladas. Sigh! Anyway, the chicken milano was pretty good, and definitely familiar Italian fare.

That was all we could manage for the first night, so we headed back to the hotel. The next morning we had a buffet breakfast with a decidedly Indian flair, then headed back out- to the mall again. You know, shopping at malls is the national pastime of the UAE. Forget camel racing. It's too sweaty. (They actually have robot jockeys to ride the camels these days!) This time, though, we went to the mall to get tickets to go to the top of the Burj Khalifa. Unfortunately, they were sold out for the whole weekend. Since we were already at the mall, we decided to visit the aquarium instead. For 50 dirhams each (less than $14) we walked through a tunnel under the huge tank and toured the zoo upstairs. In the tunnel, we came face-to-face with several kinds of sharks. I really enjoyed looking into the sharks' mouths from a position of safety, and staring them in the eyes. We also saw goliath groupers, rays, and many other fish up close. It was the best such attraction I have ever visited. The zoo had penguins, freshwater fish, bugs, and other animals. It was great, too. One thing I love about the UAE- there are apparently many fewer lawyers, because there are exhibits that would never be allowed in the US. Like the open tank full of piranhas with a sign that says "Please do not place your hands in the water."

After the aquarium, we went to the food court, where Abby was delighted to have Taco Bell food. Then we visited a store called Candylicious. We bought gummi bears, chocolate covered nuts, and sour powder, but I searched in vain for caramel apple pops, my favorite candy. On our way to the taxi stand, we passed a Starbucks, and the smell drew me in. It was in a part of the mall that looks like an outdoor street with sidewalk cafes, but is really indoors and air conditioned. It felt just like Las Vegas. Abby and I relaxed at Starbucks while Mark looked at the Harley Davidson store nearby. We repacked our purchases into our day pack, and prepared to go to the evening's main event- Global Village.

Wow. Global Village was wonderful. If you are ever planning to visit Dubai, be sure to come between December and the end of February, when Global Village is open. It's like a huge world's fair for just Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. There are pavilions for each participating country, except for the African pavilions, which were two for the continent. Each pavilion has booths for vendors of goods from that country. We saw so many amazing things! We could only stare and take pictures, because unfortunately, we don't have a house in which to use and display such treasures. In Pakistan, Abby and I touched all of the hand-made clothing that shimmered and sparkled. I love it that those fabrics are everyday wear. In Lebanon, we smelled all of the spices and bought a mixture called zaatar that includes sumac and sesame seeds. In Yemen, Mark bought a khanjar (curved dagger) and Abby got some honey and a free bracelet and keychain thrown in. Abby and I got matching silver hair barrettes in Afghanistan that have bells attached. We looked at purses made from soda bottle caps and carved wooden utensils in Africa, carpets from all over, silk and satin dresses and shoes from Vietnam, gold in thousands of designs, stacks of henna three feet just went on and on. As the sun went down, the crowds got huge, and we were pushed and shoved by people from everywhere, dressed every way, and smelling every how. Wonderful.

There were some funny observations to be made. One was the abundance of Spongebob merchandise. Apparently, he is loved in every corner of the globe. I don't think we entered a single pavilion that didn't have something with Spongebob's visage on it. He was much more in evidence than Hello Kitty. The other was that the line in the food court area in front of KFC was the longest line. We opted for shawarmas at Beit Jeddee (My Grandfather's House) instead. Many times throughout the night we were asked where we were from. When we said America, the reponse was always the same: "Oh, America, very good." These people do not hate America or Americans.

We left before the majority of the crowds did, and found the line for the taxis. As usual here in the UAE, there was a line for families and a line for single men, maybe a hundred people in all. The people in the lines kept trying to jump into taxis before they got to the front of the line, but one man in a khandoura and a ghutra (national Emirati dress) kept them all in order. It was so typical of the UAE. From seeming chaos, order emerges on the strength of charisma and symbols of authority.

We left pretty early the next morning and were relieved to get back to Abu Dhabi to relax for the rest of the weekend. My impression of Dubai is that it is sprawling, glitzy, and fun. I saw only a few Emiratis there, so it seems more like an expatriate haven. I was trying to think of a parallel in America, and I think Dubai is a bit like Los Angeles, compared to Abu Dhabi's more genteel San Francisco. Work happens in Abu Dhabi, and movies get made in Dubai. I know I prefer the real life in Abu Dhabi, but we'll definitely go back to Dubai. We haven't made it yet to the Wild Wadi Water Park!