It was the afternoon of December 25th, 2014. My wife and I were cuddled up at home, enjoying the day off. I was listening to music, while she held her phone, scrolling in an upward motion aimlessly looking for something to catch her attention on Instagram. Suddenly Sara leans towards me and says, “Do you want to go to Dubai?” In what can be said to be a knee-jerk reaction, I burst out in laughter and answered her question with one of my own. “What are you talking about?!” She tells me tickets are $179 (USD) for a roundtrip flight. I brush off her excitement and deem her gullible. I’ve seen enough of those fake Instagram accounts, advertising that the first 50,000 people to follow @JetBlueAirlines wins a free flight to anywhere in the world. Yeh...right. Sara yanks at my arm one more time in an attempt to persuade me otherwise. “It’s not a scam Kenny!” Fine. It wouldn’t cost me anything to check Orbitz and see if this “thing” was a hoax or not. We put in some dates for April/May that were confirmed by some our of friends to have worked for a flight to Abu Dhabi and to my surprise, we were successful! With no hesitation whatsoever, we booked our flight to Abu Dhabi for a total of $433.00 after taxes, fees, insurance, etc. You can never be too careful.
We knew absolutely nothing about Dubai or Abu Dhabi. All of our preconceived notions about these cities were based on hearsay. “The roads are paved in gold!” “Everyone drives a Bentley out there.” After an hour of consulting Google, we were experts about life in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Which included the fact that Dubai and Abu Dhabi were not the same place; they're separate cities in the UAE. We had a little under five months to prepare for our trip and yet, we still chose the day of departure to pack and run errands before our 10:40pm flight. I really think our melanin is to blame. Nonetheless, after running shoeless---I had no time to put on my shoes after the TSA scan---for what felt like a mile inside the airport we arrived at our gate minutes before takeoff. I sat back in my chair and smiled at that fact that I had more than enough time to sleep on this 13-hour flight.
The following day, we safely landed at Abu Dhabi International Airport, eight hours ahead of our folks back in NYC. I was instantly amazed by the modern structure of the airport. Clean architectural lines, candescent lighting and technological amenities (like free-Wifi) had me drooling already. With no pressure to speak or read Arabic, we freely communicated in English to the helpful airport staff and was quickly directed to the car rental area. With the keys to our Chevy hooptie, we got on the road en route to our hotel in Dubai. The highway was virtually devoid of any traffic. It took some time to adjust to smoothness of the pavement. There were no potholes, bumps or any kind of chasm in the asphalt. For a New Yorker like myself, this was a driver's paradise. However, after witnessing cars fly past me to my left and my right, I realized that driving 95 kph (approx 60 mph, for my fellow Americans) was burdensome to the other drivers heeding and exceeding the 120 kph (75 mph) speed limit. Adjusting to the ways of the road felt strange at first, as if i was disobeying the law back home, but the thrill of driving a car to its potential made so much more sense. An hour and a half later, I was handing my car keys to the valet, checking in at the front desk then plopping down in the bed of our hotel room; which was serendipitously upgraded to an executive suite for free ninety-nine. The room had an air of affluence that was befit for individuals who are privy to the perks of a six or seven-figure salary. We’re talking about a view of the marina, a shower unit separate from the tub, a living room adjacent to the bedroom and a plush pillow weaved from a cotton my brain had yet to comprehend as I fell fast asleep.
To be honest, I didn't fall asleep until four in morning and was wide awake by 10am. Jetlag terribly skewed my circadian rhythm for the first two nights in Dubai. My wife and I stayed up at night and slept during the day, as if we were acquainted to midday siestas. Our listlessness could've been partially attributed to the hours we spent galavanting in 100 degree fahrenheit weather. But we still found the motivation to explore the city in the evening. This led us to Ravi Restaurant in Satwa. There, we came to the unanimous decision that we had eaten the best Indian cuisine ever!
Within 48 hours, I began forming some opinions about my experience in Dubai. Through my observations, whether on foot or driving, it was clear to me that this was a fairly modern city. There are buildings lined up side by side on each block. Banks, hotels, trade centers, and more hotels. All of them of five-star quality, with the most luxurious hotel boasting a seven-star rating. My friend Brandon described Dubai by comparing it familiar cities in the United States. "It's like Vegas meets Miami." I've never been to Vegas but from its depictions in the media, I could understand and agree with his analogy, especially at the sight of Dubai's statuesque palm trees. And the more I saw the city, the more disillusioned I became by the lack of Emirati culture that existed. We visited the marketplace (souks) and wandered around Old Dubai hoping to find something distinctly foreign to what we're exposed to in America. To our dismay, examples of Western influence were more prevalent than we expected. From fast food chains like McDonalds & KFC to name brand products that originate in the USA. I can comprehend how such familiarity does well to quell nostalgia for tourists while providing an exotic experience to natives but I did not readily welcome remnants of home when I traveled 6,853 miles to get away from it.
The conversation that led to the above rant about my first-world problems ended with Sara and I, unexpectedly joining friends on a yacht sailing the coast of Dubai. Being at sea, helped me to reflect on my blessings and further appreciate where I was and who I was with. We watched the sun gradually find rest on the west side of the horizon; dazzling us as its slumber smeared the sky with soft shades of orange and red. At the end of our cruise, we parted ways with our group of friends to embark on the road to Abu Dhabi.
The drive back to Abu Dhabi took longer than expected due to traffic congestion in Dubai. I counted about four car accidents on the way to our hotel. Up until now, I doubted the statistics of the high rate of motor vehicle accidents in Dubai. I thought that the residents had mastered the art of driving fast and erratic. Clearly, I was wrong. Thankful for us, we made it to the Fairmont Bab Al Bahr unscathed. The hotel entrance was buzzing with guests who tacitly competed for the award of "Most Ostentatious" as they arrived in vehicles representative of their wealth. It seems that luxury is a common necessity in the UAE. On our way in, we could hear and feel the sound of music thumping from a lower region of the building. Evidently, there was an exclusive party taking place and the crowd was just arriving. We made a beeline to check-in and went up to our room for some shut-eye.
In Abu Dhabi, the weekend starts on Friday so that explained why the scene at the hotel was energetic at our arrival. However, the morning after was marked by a calm quietude. Despite having every desire to sleep for the 10 hours I thought I desperately needed, I was up by 6:45 AM watching daybreak over the serenity of barren streets. Most places don’t open until later on Saturday, leaving us to venture out for breakfast an hour before noon. We dined at the popular and Yelp-approved, Cafe Arabia. Upon entering the restaurant, we suddenly felt transported into a hipster sanctuary that bore the resemblance of cafes in the neighborhoods of Park Slope and Fort Greene in Brooklyn. It had an eclectic decor featuring a library of books, hanging lights and reupholstered furniture among other things. Staying firm to our determination to try something out of the norm, my wife and I chose a Palestinian egg dish. I don’t recall what was in it, but it was incredibly delicious.
Later that evening we reconvened with our friends, who were now also in Abu Dhabi, for a dance party at their hotel. The DJ impressed us all with a vibed-out mix of contemporary and nostalgic hits. For the first time in a long time, I was drenched in sweat from contorting my body to the rhythms played throughout the night. I mean, one simply cannot refuse to do the “dougie” when “Teach Me How to Dougie” vibrates through the speakers. This time, we’d definitely be exhausted enough to get ample rest for next day.
I woke up with unbridled excitement, aware that today was day set on our itinerary to tour the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. We had seen photos of the architectural wonder online and were taken away by its beauty. To see it in person could only wow us even more. Out of respect for the place of worship and its dress code, Sara and I wore traditional garments encouraged to be worn when visiting the mosque. Our eyes feasted on the white marble covering the entire structure. Intricate gold-plated leaves decorated the pillars of the courtyard. While the top of all 82 domes were crafted with 24-karat gold detailing. Inside the mosque, luminous chandeliers, handmade carpeting and floral designs create a uniquely sublime decor. I could go on about my time at the mosque but as cliche as it sounds, you had to be there to see it.
By contrast, Abu Dhabi has a slower pace than Dubai. As the UAE's capital, there seems to be a keener awareness to preserve Emirati culture. To be noted, however, was the strong sense community that permeates among the residents of the UAE. The immigrant population is made up of individuals from countries in South Asia, Africa, the Philippines and others areas across the globe. Their ethnic enclaves operate as a support system aiding to care for the needs of one another. I did not see any kind of homelessness or poverty during my stay. I feel that the employment opportunities in a land that continues grow at a fairly rapid pace has improved the quality of life for many of its inhabitants. And, that is something to be praised.
On our final day, we ditched the city to journey into the desert. The boundless, desolated land provided a panoramic view of mountainous sand dunes. I was reminded of how insignificant I am in comparison to the vastness of the earth. We engaged in a number of activities while outdoors. This included dune bashing, quad biking and riding camelback. It was a satisfying end to a well-spent trip. Until the next adventure!