Largest, Tallest, Fastest, First

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES: May 28-June 1, 2013

Leah: Why read about the Persian Gulf in the news when you can swim in it?! When we looked at flights to Istanbul from Bangkok months ago, we noticed that quite a few were actually routed through Dubai and we got a little excited at the fact that even as grungy backpackers we could make it happen. After some discussion we decided it was meant to be, so we scheduled a stopover for a few days, sent out some Couchsurfing requests and got ready to check out one of my travel bucket list destinations where even the police cars are outrageously over the top. I couldn't contain myself at the thought of finally seeing the convergence of nationalities (over 190 at last count), architectural wonders, food and in-your-face consumerism and one-upsmanship that define this cosmopolitan metropolis. Dubai doesn't disappoint; it's absolutely unlike anywhere else in the world I have ever seen.

We arrived late at night via our layover in Colombo, Sri Lanka (I won't talk about it, but let's just say that not staying there a while--which we had debated--is now my second biggest regret of the trip, the first being skipping Antarctica). We had successfully locked in a Couchsurfer (CS) host, Manu, who grew up in New Delhi, India but has been living here for over 3 years, so we were thrilled at being able to get an inside perspective from one of the city's most recommended hosts. He had asked up in his acceptance email if we wouldn't mind picking up a wish-list worth of alcohol for him at duty free and he'd pay us back. Thus, we dutifully grabbed his items, gasped at the 95 degree heat at 10:30 at night, poured ourselves into a cab driven by a Sudanese father of six who went by "Tom Hanks" (because he likes the actor so much) and tried to adjust to hurtling down the right side of the road after being on the left for four months.

Manu greeted us at his 3rd story apartment, where we were ushered in with cheek kisses and greeted by more of his CS friends who were enjoying a late night Pakistani take-out meal together. There was his girlfriend Samin (Iranian), Osama (Pakistani), as well as another Indian and Pakistani whose names we forgot. We quickly moved past the introductions and delved into the joys of CS and basic information about Dubai. Manu informed us that he always begs his CSers to pick him up duty free alcohol because there is a 40% markup on all alcohol in the city, especially because any bar which sells it needs to be affiliated with a hotel. Additionally, you can't just walk into a corner store and grab a beer, as only very specific stores sell alcohol and in order to purchase it you need to have a purchasing license and background check, as well as an employer endorsement, all of which allows you to spend up to a certain percentage of your monthly earnings on alcohol. If you exceed that limit you're automatically denied the ability to purchase booze until the following month. All of a sudden it was very clear to us as to why our acquiescence to help Manu out was so appreciated on his end! We all sat around talking for quite some time until someone realized it was after midnight, after which the guests trickled out the door and we curled up on our mattresses in the blessed air conditioning to get some rest after our long day of travel.

Our first day was pretty chill, except that it was actually a skin-melting 102 degrees. We were both pretty miserable but braved the unrelenting sun and heat to scope out this modern marvel of the world, which actually felt and looked a bit like Phoenix due to its muted color tones and architecture. But overall, I was just thrilled to be back in the Middle East; my first time in the general vicinity was in 2009 when my sister and I traveled through Turkey, Syria and Jordan and I had loved every minute of it. Now I was just giddy that I was once again surrounded by mosques, Arabic signage, men in keffiyeh headdresses and woman in beautifully embroidered abayahs, (check out picture-accompanied Middle Eastern vocabulary here). In fact, I'll admit that I even told Steve that of all the countries I've ever visited, there's something about the swarthy, stubbled, dark-haired men from this region of the world that makes my pulse race. Fortunately, Steve meets all those criterion as well, so I was simply surrounded by ridiculously good-looking men!

Manu's apartment is located in Bur Dubai, the central and older part of the city, so we were perfectly located to head down to Dubai Creek, a waterway to the sea which bisects the city and helped create Dubai as the principal port on the Gulf Coast as far back as the 1870s. We hopped on a dhow, or small wooden boat, which would ferry us across the breezy waterway for about $0.60 roundtrip and allow us to stroll through the spice and gold souks, or markets, on the other side. Stroll we did, as an increasingly cranky Steve succumbed to heat and sweat and the last thing either of us wanted to do was move quickly. However, that was also counter-intuitive to what we needed to do in order to successfully dodge the persuasive and smiling (and oh-so-attractive) omnipresent salesmen who begged us to please take a look at their fragrant saffron, softest pashminas and shiniest jewelry. In fact, one was even so successful that I had a luxuriously soft scarf wrapped around my neck and Steve had a black and white keffiyeh tied around his head (and looked dashing) before either of us knew what had happened.

Back across Dubai Creek and purchase free, we gratefully devoured a lime snow cone in the dappled shade of a palm tree before moving on to check out the Dubai Museum and Al Fahidi Fort. The museum included tons of information about how small fishing communities over 4,000 years ago evolved into the steroid-driven  powerhouse locale of today. It's simply unreal to think that mere decades ago Dubai had a few thousand residents and got by on the trade provided by the souks, as well as its enterprising pearl divers who risked life and limb to gather oysters. It's simply unreal to think how a tiny desert blip on the world map in the 1950s morphed into one of the globe's ultimate tourist destinations and business centers. Later that evening we headed out with Samin for the Dubai Couchsurfer group's weekly volleyball night, where we sweated it out on hard and sand courts. Steve and I both earned some scrapes and sore muscles for our efforts, but as we walked by the infamous Ski Dubai (the indoor ski slope) on our way to the metro, we remained incredulous at the fact that we were actually here and had just spent an evening with fellow CSers originating from every country you can imagine who now call Dubai home. Unreal.

Morning brought us heading out the door to make it to the Jumeirah Mosque's morning cultural program; there's only so much I know/remember about Islam and mosque conduct, so we figured it would be best to get a full run-down from people in the know. But first we had to get there without being fined. Dubai actually reminds me quite a bit of Singapore in terms of local laws and misconduct you can get fined or jailed for, but it's so much more intimidating here! We just reached the platform as the metro had arrived and rushed into the first open doors we saw, only realizing a few seconds later that we were in the Gold Cabin for those who pay much more for first class travel. Since it's an instant fine if you're in the wrong car, we bolted out just in time and barely made it to the next car before the doors closed. Thinking all was well, my stomach plunged when a few seconds later as the train picked up speed a woman said, "Excuse me, this is the car for women and children only." Fortunately we were able to move to the next car while the train was in motion but I was sick at the thought both of being fined and intruding upon the women and children-only areas that dominate this city. Even the buses have the first six rows or so reserved for women and children with an actual physical barrier between them and the rest of the bus. That doesn't mean women can't ride wherever they choose, but it's simply a measure put in place to ensure that there are always options in terms of public transit where they don't have to be pushed up against or sandwiched between men.

Steve: Dubai's efficient and sparkly clean metro got us to our stop in no time at all and soon we were standing in front of the Jumeirah mosque for our morning tour. The Sheik Mohammed Center for Cultural Understanding, a non-profit group which aims to promote cultural understanding among the many cultures that converge in Dubai, puts on a tour and question and answer session for non-Muslims to get a first-hand look into a mosque and Islamic practices. As Leah said it was my first time in a mosque so I wasn't sure what to expect. After checking in all guests went through a line where those not suitably dressed were given clothes to properly cover up; for the most part this was scarves for women to cover their heads and robes for the few that were showing way too much skin.

After making our way in we took our seats and took in the decor of the mosque. As we would find out from our host, all that is actually needed for a place to be a mosque is four walls and a floor, therefore while some mosques may look the same to some people their adornments and architecture can very widely by region. This mosque in particular was not one of the grandest examples of mosque architecture but it still had its charm and artistically attractive details. The speaker for our presentation was a Muslim woman who subtly took everyone a bit off guard when they realized she was speaking with a London accent. It turned out that she converted twenty-some years ago after marrying her husband and moving to Dubai where she later found that Islam was her true calling. The well-spoken presenter gave a rundown of the Five Pillars of Islam as well as the daily prayer practices performed by every Muslim. She ended with a question and answer session where she tackled the not-so-comfortable issues of Islam's role in modern-day terrorism in addition to easier topics such as why dress varies in different regions. Albeit short, our session in the mosque was welcoming and informative and left me with a desire to learn more about this major world religion and its place in society.

We left the mosque and hopped a bus several kilometers down the street to the Jumeirah Beach Park, which as you guessed it is a park...at the beach. Although it wasn't as hot as the day before it was still somewhere in the high 30's (or the 90's for our American counterparts) and the turquoise waters were a welcome find. A beach attendant quickly set us up with an umbrella and a couple of beach chairs (which unknowingly cost $10 but was so worth it) and we were good to go. Minutes later we were both in the refreshing (but could've been colder) waters of the Persian Gulf, a place you couldn't have told me I would ever be ten years ago. Our routine for the next four hours would be to swim, lounge in the shade, read, and repeat. The beach was beautiful, clean and well-maintained so I could see how Dubai would be a beach destination. But don't worry Pacific Ocean, you will always be my number one.

Craving some air-conditioning we stopped at the Mercato Mall on our way back and on a whim decided to check out a movie. Lo and behold The Hangover: Part III was set to start in ten minutes and nothing else would have worked out, so The Hangover it was. Like Thailand this would prove to be another memorable movie-going experience, however, for all the wrong reasons. I'm pretty sure this installment of the Hangover franchise was just not funny but it didn't help that the movie was heavily censored to comply with the UAE's strict standards. All cussing and many random non-curse words were bleeped out or changed (they couldn't say "cocaine" or "Jew") and who-knows-what-else was cut out of the movie. For anyone who has seen any of the Hangover movies you know this probably constitutes 75% of the dialogue. Oh well, live and learn.

We capped of our busy second day by joining Manu, Samin and two other Couchsurfers (who we had graciously turned down as hosts) at several CS parties. We met another myriad of non-Emerati who now call this place home and shared story after story about work, life and travel. The last party found us at the Barasti Beach Bar which was a lively DJ-driven club attended by party people young and old. After the club closed we were able to successfully convince Manu to skip the after-party seeing as how he had to work the next day (most Dubaiers work Sunday through Thursday but Manu was on a Monday through Friday schedule similar to ours). Many a goodbye hug and cheek-kiss later we cabbed it home in time to hear the 4:30 a.m. morning call to prayer from our beds.

Leah: The next several days found us soaking in the modern marvels that are the Dubai Mall (largest mall in the world) and the Burj Khalifa (the tallest building/man-made structure/free-standing structure ever built). We had purchased tickets a few days earlier to check out the Burj; while all the sunset slots were taken, Manu had assured us that the views were best at night as opposed to the day so we were all set for our 8:30 p.m. viewing with plenty of mall time beforehand. As we mentioned in a previous Thailand post, neither one of us are big mall people at home but while traveling there's no better window into a culture than a stroll through a mall. Nevermind that a "stroll" of the entire Dubai Mall would cover 12 million square feet, take in 1,200 shops and includes an ice rink, aquarium, movie theater and theme park. Needless to say, we just putzed, only popped into a few stores and frequently found a seat and just people-watched. Nothing like a little voyeurism as abaya-clad women wearing full face veils, or niqābs, tried on 4 inch heels at the Christian Louboutin store while Western women strolled by wearing tank tops and short skirts, a clear violation of the suggested modesty policy plastered over all mall entrances (the policy also said no hand holding or kissing between couples).

Our Burj Khalifa time approaching, we ran outside to catch a few viewings of the Dubai Fountain at the base of the Burj, which would remind many of The Bellagio's fountain in Las Vegas---water set in time to music. With a stunning urban backdrop, the fountain show was spectacular enough that we stayed through 3 rounds on the ground before proceeding to the elevator in the Burj that would take us to the viewing deck on the 124 floor; while well short of the 163rd floor at the top, the views were nonetheless incredible. The history and architecture behind this modern marvel was amazing to read about and the panoramic evening cityscape sparkled like gems across the desert floor. We even managed to take in a few more viewings of the fountain from above, the last of which was Michael Jackson's Thriller and blew us away. Quite the experience!

The final day in Dubai upon us, we lazily decided to head back to the mall for a day of gluttony and aquatic viewing. We checked out the aquarium (the admission price alone was worth it to see living shark embryos pulsing inside their egg sacks and still attached to their yolk nutrient source) and even watched some pythons gulping down their (already dead) feathered lunch in the creepy crawly exhibit section. And of course in typical Dubai style, the largest aquarium acrylic viewing panel in the world can be found here. Our food consumption was a bit off the charts as well...curry french fries, Baskin Robbins ice cream, Baja Fresh fish tacos and an assortment of goodies from the grocery store. We made it back home in time to meet Manu and some friends down the street at a shisha bar, where we puffed away and I officially became re-obsessed about wanting to visit Pakistan after talking to Manu's Pakistani friend, Osama. Too soon it was time to pack our bags and catch a cab to the airport.

Our brief time in the UAE was certainly an experience we won't forget. I was enthralled by the convergence of cultures and religions, as well as by the fact that there are hardly any locals here, since most people are transplants from around the world. I found it fascinating that about 45-55% of residents are from India and supply manual labor, while the next highest population is Filipino and supplies most of the service industries (waiters, retail workers, etc.). Poverty does exist and there are designated work camp areas provided for the laborers who help create Dubai inch by inch, but we never saw that side of this city. What we did see was a modern day example of how people can live and thrive side by side in the Middle East while simultaneously maintaining their own bubble-like version of the United Nations. There is so much still to see and explore in this part of the world and I'm sorry we didn't allocate more time to explore the Gulf area, but we remain grateful to our generous CS host for providing a crash pad and crash course in Dubai life!

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