A Day in Dubai Part 2

Is there any such thing as too much money? It’s doubtful that I’ll ever know. If it is possible, then the physical incarnation of that status is Dubai, U.A.E.. Dubai is a principality of the United Arab Emirates, a collection of territories ruled by dynastic families. They do “richer” bigger, better and flashier than any other country. Their grand wealth originates with oil, likely not a surprise to anyone.  Upon my return from Kenya, Africa I had reserved a “layover tour”. It was designed to allow onward bound passengers a quick overview of Dubai between connecting flights to other destinations.  In the article previous to this I wrote about the first part of my tour which started in the desert and had the unexpected bonus of meeting a caravan of camels. The second part of my tour introduced me to the city of Dubai.  It would be a private day tour: It was affordable, it would be tailored to meet my time constraints and I would be able to focus on what I wanted to see. A driver and tour guide were my city escorts. I hopped into the back of a black Mercedes Benz to start the 5 hour whirl around Dubai.  Rising from the desert much like you would imagine the city of Oz, it is the wealthiest city and also the cleanest city I have visited. The city is so new it still sparkles.Image result for mercedes benz in dubai

While money may not be able to buy you love, it can buy the biggest and the finest of almost anything on the planet. My tour started with the Zabeel Palace, home of the Royal family. I assumed no one was home as I didn’t see anyone who resembled a King or a Prince, so we just did a drive through. It was for the best though, as we had a tight schedule to keep. Our next “stop” was in front of Emirates Towers, the financial center – a further reminder of how rich they are and how “rich” I’m not. The Burj Khalifa is indeed impressive, a modern skyscraping building 163 floors tall and currently the tallest building in the world. When offered the opportunity to visit the observation deck on level 125, I declined. Not for fear of heights but as a time-saving option and a preference to see things on the ground in real perspective. We continued to the legendary shopping malls for a peek into how the rich and famous live and shop. Burjuman Mall is a 3 story mall with all the finest retailers represented.Image result for Burjuman mall You could pop in to Chopards and pick up a $36,000 watch on a whim or visit Bvlgaris next door for a jeweled necklace at $52,000. How do you choose? On a much larger scale, since it clearly doesn’t snow in the desert, the people of Dubai have brought the snow inside the Mall of the Emirates.  A 242,000 square foot snowscape is complete with indoor ski lifts, 5 slopes and wait for it – a black diamond run providing an artificial day in the Alps!  During this incredible “couldn’t afford anything” shopping experience the need arose to use the restroom. Modern in every way, it was also immaculately clean. That’s thanks to the employee whose only job is to keep the facility sanitized which includes a full “brush swishing” each time a stall is used. I was impressed. The third window shopping extravaganza brought us to the Dubai Mall. This is the mall for the less wealthy. What it lacks in diamonds in makes up for with the multi-story aquarium that houses a variety of aquatic creatures including sharks. The animal rights person in me doesn’t approve but I do have to admit that it gets your attention. This was a far less authentic retail experience than visiting traditional outdoor markets. Our next stop was to visit the spice and gold markets, which are known locally as “souks”. The souks were located in the Deira District across the Dubai Creek. My touring team and I boarded an Abra, a traditional wooden boat, to cross the main waterway. Doubting the stability of the vessel I put my faith in my guides (who surely wouldn’t get a tip if I drowned) and the other locals, who also were headed to the markets. We entered the marketplace and without even seeing the merchandise, knew immediately that we were in the Spice Souk. The heady aromas created an exotic experience mixed with tasting options. Stalls packed with both locals and tourists crowding the aisles were made more challenging each time bags of new merchandise were ferried to its intended seller. The merchants called out to passersby, each vendor trying to encourage potential customers to enter his or her shop. Fresh herbs were plentiful and depending upon how much you wished to purchase, your selections were hand measured and scooped into small brown bags. The gold market had almost as many options but was less frenzied. Perhaps, like me, the other shoppers were dazzled by this incredible display of wealth. The window shops glittered with the sparkle of thousands of pieces of gold jewelry. This was not jewelry as we know it – bracelets, necklaces or rings. Nestled on the velvet pillows in the display windows you could find gold cuffs, gold head pieces, and elaborately detailed full bodice draped necklaces that sparkled from a woman’s neck down to her waist, often used as a bridal accessory. If you aren’t a fan of gold, no worries, there were plenty of diamonds, gem stones and platinum from which to choose as well. I do like a market that has something for everyone, yet I still came away empty handed! As always l tried to squeeze in more things than time allowed. There’s always one more thing to see or do and we found ourselves running a bit behind. I urged my driver to go a bit faster and was informed that it was not wise to exceed the speed limit.  I remarked on the performance level of the car they were driving and questioned their restraint at not exceeding the speed limit. Politely but with a hint of humor they explained that most locals do not speed. The Police would not only catch up to us but would likely spin circles around our vehicle, pass us and wait for us to catch up to them.  Police squad cars are a mix of confiscated Aston Martins, Bugatis, Lamborghinis, Ferraris, and McLarens, some of the fastest cars on the road. I’m happy to report that we didn’t get pulled over and I arrived at the airport on time.Image result for police cars dubai

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A Day in Dubai (Part 1)

After 9 incredible days in Kenya, Africa it was time to say “goodbye”.  Squeezing in one final early morning safari prepared me for the long ride back to the airport.  My return flight was on Emirates Airlines with a connecting stop through Dubai. Having a choice of several layover times, I did the opposite of what most would have chosen. Instead of the shortest layover, I chose the longest. My research showed that “layover tours” were not only available but were a very popular option for a day in Dubai. It wouldn’t be a comprehensive tour during those 10 hours between flights but would provide enough time to see the major highlights and the storied excesses of wealth. There was no need to commit to additional hotel bills or unpacking and repacking. There was no extra time away from home or work required. It was a perfect arrangement to allow me to see just the right amount of this fascinating country. The red sand dunes were particularly alluring and also at the top of my wish list.Image result for dubai sand dunes

I wanted to see the sun rise over those dunes and that meant an early start. My flight arrived into Dubai at 4:45 am and my prearranged private tour would depart from the airport at 5:30 am. The guide was wide awake and a bit too energetic for someone like me with jet lag and sleep deprivation. It was dark when we departed the Dubai airport and the sun wasn’t expected on duty for at least another hour.  We drove to the desert in less than an hour and the soothing motion of the easy ride lulled me. Drifting in and out of a light sleep it was physical proof of how tired I actually was. Despite the guide’s attempt at conversation, I wasn’t good company. Regret quickly crept in about overestimating my stamina.  How could I possibly withstand 9 hours of additional touring?

My singular request had been to watch the sunrise over the desert. I rarely get to see a sunrise in my daily life and imagined that this had the potential to be an extraordinary experience.  We arrived at the desert as darkness began to fade and give way to the first signs of color. Horizontal bands of violet melted into pink before blending into orange and then finally, golden yellow. At the center of this grand prism of color was a small but brilliant circle of light, the sun.   We watched in silence as the sun rose and appeared to grow in size. When my guide started taking photos too, it was proof to me that this was more than a nice experience – it transcended to spectacular. The early morning glow on the dunes was worth every mile.  It was quiet and still and easy to feel like we were the only people on the planet, until, the “crowd” arrived.Image result for sunrise over desert

The dunes are a home base for camel rides. It was not something that interested me and at that hour of the morning they weren’t open for business. Several camels were standing in a holding pen. They were hidden behind silk panels to either prevent them from seeing out or tourists from peeking into the pen. As always, I’m drawn to animals so I approached the pen and pushed my hand past the material walls. The camels were eager for interaction][=-++ and I obliged with a few pats. My driver was waiting and the sun was rising. My attention was redirected to watching the sky and returned to stand with my driver. Apparently word spread fast that an animal lover was in their midst. Almost silently, the dromedaries left their stockade and we were soon surrounded by a caravan of camels. Twelve curious creatures, who likely were looking for a snack, were just as satisfied with a few strokes on the head. They were gentle, they were smelly and I could not have been happier. Camels come in two makes and models. The Bactrian is the two humped camel and found mostly in Central Asia. It has a relative called the Wild Bactrian Camel which, unfortunately, is critically endangered.  Those that remain are found in Northwest China and Mongolia. More than 90 percent of the world’s camels are of the Dromedary variety the same as my new “friends”. But there was nothing common about the experience of meeting them. Eventually, they decided to move on. There was something mystical, even ethereal about watching them cross the sandy slopes silhouetted in the light of a new day.

With the day officially started it was time to return to the city for more touring. I didn’t want to leave this place of peace, sunlight and camels but I boarded the SUV. Having been very explicit about not wanting to bash dunes, my driver insisted it was something that I needed to experience. I disagreed. As a frequent victim of motion sickness, I have a pretty good idea of my level of motion tolerance and politely declined. He was driving – we bashed dunes. Lightly. Dune bashing can be best described as a roller coaster using an SUV as the vehicle, without the security of being attached to rails. Your experience is completely dependent upon the driver’s skills and level of bravado. Similar to a rollercoaster you ride to the top of a dune. Once you crest, the driver controls the speed and direction of the descent, often sliding sideways before continuing an ascent of the next dune. Sometimes you are moving forward, sometime sideways, before swooping down to the base and starting again. I didn’t enjoy it – wouldn’t do it again (never say “never”) – but at least now, I have bragging rights.Image result for dubai dune bashing

It was hard to leave the serenity of the desert but the day was just starting and we had many miles to cover. We headed back to the city of Dubai in daylight and morning work traffic to where my tour of the man made landmarks would continue.

The dunes were covered with the tracks of daredevils that preceded me. It seemed like a violation of the beauty and delicacy of the sandy hills. Then you remember that mother nature always reclaims what is hers will eventually wipe away the tracks left behind by humans.

Common at our Cores

I frequently mention that I came of age in New York City. People often shrink back when you mention the Bronx, unless of course, you’re speaking with another person who grew up in the Bronx. They will understand. They get it. The Bronx was different in the 60’s and early 70’s. It was a nice cultural blend.  As I reminisce over childhood photos, I now notice what I failed to see back then. My friends and I didn’t look alike. There was definitely “variety” of the cultural type and that variety was – is good.  The people smiling for the camera from the front stoop of our apartment building were just my “friends”. Yet, now I know that we differed in color, religion and languages. It didn’t matter. What mattered was whether the older boys would block us from the playground with their game of stick ball or if it was hot enough for the water sprinklers in the park to be turned on so we could cool off. These memories came to me as I sat in the departure lounge of the airport..

I wondered what the cause of this nostalgic flashback was and recognized that it was fear! Fear of the unknown about the journey I was about to undertake by myself.   As I sat in JFK Airport with three long hours before departure, I felt uncomfortable I was ready to embark on a long journey into areas where my appearance, language and style of dress would be different from the local people. Very different. I had chosen Emirates Airlines based upon their excellent reputation. Emirates is an airline lauded for its service and owned by the government of the United Arab Emirates, known for their wealth and excess. Perhaps you’ve seen a well-known sit-com actress emerging from the shower in First Class aboard one of this carrier’s planes?Image result for emirates airline

This would be the first leg on my journey to Africa. Due to the home port of this particular airline, our first destination and my connecting point, would be Dubai, a city in the United Arab Emirates. The passengers gathered in the waiting area offered a brief glimpse into what would soon be the majority population. Both by being a female travelling solo and skin tone, I was now in the minority.Image result for dubai airport

The flight was a very pleasant experience and most of my fellow travelers were returning home after a visit to the United States. As we began our descent, I noticed that several women made their way to the restroom. Not an uncommon happening but many returned to their seat wearing traditional attire, having packed away their casual clothes, We exited the plane and as I entered the terminal I quickly realized that as a light-skinned female unaccompanied by a male I was an oddity. However, I was treated with courtesy and allowed myself to explore the features of the terminal.  The airport of Dubai is unlike any other airport I’ve experienced. Immaculately clean, high tech with amazing design features that include a multistory waterfall, pristine public restrooms and shops where, if the need should arise, you could quickly grab a new Fendi bag or replace your diamond bracelet for something more glamorous and not miss your connecting flight. Many travelers sported Western attire but there was a noticeable increase in the number of men dressed in Thobes, an ankle length cotton tunic over matching pants. Some wore hats or a keffiyeh scarf, a traditional Middle Eastern headdress. The variety in women’s style was broader. Many women wore street clothes with a fashionable hijab, a scarf worn to cover their head.Image result for dubai women headscarf

Others wore an Abaya, a loose, black robe that covered their street clothing. I spotted a few women in a traditional Burqa which completely covered their bodies except for their eyes. It was an incredible contrast to the high end fashion available for sale in the stores at the airport. As I boarded my connecting flight to Nairobi I was less conscious about my gender and more so about my complexion. Likely, it was more of a personal interpretation as the attention I received appeared to have more to do with curiosity than prejudice. The airport in Nairobi is best described as primitive and similar to the smaller airports in the Caribbean. A bus transferred us from the tarmac to the luggage and immigration area. The economic disparity evident in equipment, facilities and lack of sophistication of service presentation. There seemed to be no one in charge, no organized plan for moving the arriving passengers to the next stage of the journey. Yet, it works. Eventually, we all made our way through the terminal and I to my pre-assigned driver. The percentage of people who look like me had shrunk to under 1%. I am now in the minority population.  As an unofficial “ambassador” of the United States, I do my best to appear friendly, respectful and to fit in, eager to embrace Kenya. The financial disparity between Kenya and Dubai is impossible to ignore. The poverty in Kenya glaringly obvious, the desire for a clean city is pushed to the bottom of a long list of needs. At the top of that list are food, shelter and a regular income, enough to provide for a family. I had engaged a private driver to meet me at the airport. Riding through the city past stores and hotels I noticed that every establishment had some form of security. Public facilities were gated requiring that all visitors be screened and recognized before gaining admission. Yet, during the daytime hours I was comfortable enough to walk from my hotel to the convention center. I found that if I greeted the local citizens, they always responded with courtesy. I began every query with the local greeting of “Jambo!” It’s familiar, shows respect and indicates that I know something, even a tiny bit, about their culture. When I needed to ask for directions, the people I approached were reserved but helpful. Were any of the locals uncomfortable seeing me or interacting with me? Perhaps, but no one indicated such. I experienced warm hospitality, national pride and courtesy. I also learned that despite our outward appearances and material coverings, at our cores, we all have much in common.

If you enjoyed this article, head to https://embassytravelny.wordpresscom/ to read my previous  Southern Dutchess News articles.