I left Abu Dhabi feeling unsure how I felt about Abu Dhabi. I suppose because when I travel, I’m always looking to connect with locals. In this case, the journey was just different. I took time to learn about the Emirate’s cultural heritage and to see its ornate architecture, but also dedicated significant time to explore Abu Dhabi’s luxurious side. David and I stayed at an opulent hotel to recharge our batteries before embarking on a humble and challenging journey ahead in India. Now in India, as we stay in hotels with leaking, reeking toilets (one on a trash-lined street), The Anatara Hotel in Abu Dhabi feels like a golden beacon in my memory. Continue reading
I slipped on the black burqa, pulled its hood over my head to conceal my hair, then exited the change room to follow the Ladies Only path. Enshrouded in black, women punctuated the white Grand Mosque appearing like shadows floating about under the hot Arabian sun. Even though the Emirates boast California-esc weather during the winter, it was still hot under the garb.
Abu Dhabi’s famed religious monument — the biggest mosque in the world — enforces a strict dress code, especially for women, but there are other rules I only learned by mistake.
“Excuse me,” a very officially dressed woman summoned me. “I saw you earlier taking pictures with your male friend, and he had his arm around you. Hugging is strictly not allowed.” She shook her finger in my face. Embarrassed, I looked at the ground as I slipped my burqa off just before exiting the mosque. Traveling here means being aware of social customs different to those of my home country. I learned fast, but simply in this moment felt naive.
From great eats to money savers, here are my tips on traveling between Dubai and Abu Dhabi:
1. Don’t eat on the subway, it’s a 100 Dirham fine (I got busted for naively snacking on a pack of almonds, but they only gave me a finger wave and a warning).
2. Shop for snacks at the grocery store. An entire can of hummus only costs 30 cents and a whole loaf of flat bread, 75 cents! Note also, hummus is pronounced, “Who -moose” and it’s not found in the refrigerated section.
3. Purchase your tickets to ascend the Burj Khalifa online the day prior. This way you’ll pay 100 Dirhams instead of 400 upon arrival … quadruple the price!
4. Always carry your swimsuit; you never know when you’ll take a break out from the city sites to swim in the Persian Gulf.
5. If you don’t want to pay for the Burj Khalifa, sneak into a tall hotel for great views. We crept into the Princess Tower for an amazing panorama of The Palm on the 97th floor, no questions asked. This I can’t guarantee, but it’s worth a shot.
6. If you venture to Abu Dhabi, which I definitely recommend, take the bus! Renting a car or hiring a taxi is super expensive. Buses leave from the Al Ghubaiba Bus Station every 20 minutes, and tickets go for 25 dirham (less than 10 dollars), which includes free wifi. The metro will easily take you to the station. For a bus schedule, here’s the timetable: http://www.rta.ae/
7. Eat lots of dates and labneh (yogurt), they’re delicious.
8. Some will argue that Dubai lost its conservative nature; I, however, didn’t find this to be the case entirely. You could get away with knee-length skirts and a tank top, but I wouldn’t go any skimpier than that. Religious centers will not let you in if you’re wearing tight pants. Flip flops also seem to be a no-no, but mostly because they’re not “luxe” enough. For Mosques, pack a shawl, for rooftop drinks at a nice hotel, pack a pair of nicer shoes.
9. Travel during the Emirates’ winter. The weather is perfect.
10. Fly Emirates Airlines. I can now officially add them to my roster of best airline companies … flying coach feels like being in first class minus the champagne and extra leg room. My boyfriend says the A380 is sexy — a brand new double-decker aircraft.
11. Bonus tip: if you know people here or know someone who knows someone, they will make your experience. Otherwise, Dubai can feel a bit lonely.
On a bus from Dubai to Abu Dhabi, a woman in a black burqa screams Arabic into her phone as the desolate desert whooshes past us. I have this undeniable, mysterious feeling that I am suppose to be here. The dusty Emirate sands in the distance feel flat, dry, and shapeless. As I observed in Dubai though, these sands form the potential foundation for something grand. Here exists the greatest buildings of them all: the Burj Khalifa (tallest building in the world), the Princess Tower (tallest residential building), and the Dubai Aquarium (largest acrylic viewing panel).
Nothingness propagates the ideal condition for construction, no matter how brutal the climate, how barren the landscape. Dubai is construction, purely. I learned that Dubai has become this grand estate in just over 50 years. That’s it! Before, the Emirates were vacant territories manned by Arabian tribes (the Bedouin people). In 1966, oil was discovered in Dubai, which indefinitely changed it’s geographic and economic landscape. Ruler Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum is often accredited as the juggernaut for Dubai’s modern development.
Today, cranes hang over every distant sky. The atmosphere buzzes, screeches, taps. Your head aches from the overwhelming bustle to build. Foot traffic, conversely, remains sparse. Where, I wonder, are all the people this grandeur was created for? So far, we have met citizens from all over the world, but few residents native to Dubai. There’s also international sectors of town where companies transplanted to run their businesses and operate under their home country’s rules and regulations. They’re called Jebel Ali Free Zones and include both Internet City and Media City. In stride with international climate, some friends told us that the government shuttles in laborers from neighbor countries and grants them two-year work contracts to construct these buildings. They have housing settlements and transport them to and from work everyday in curtain-clad buses. While here, ask people where they are from. So far, I’ve gotten France, Kuwait, Greece, Holland, Switzerland, Pakistan, and India.
Structures can spring up in the matter of years, but building a society, perhaps, takes much longer. I hope the IHOP and Cheese Cake Factory lure them in. If not, you will find every other restaurant here that brings the comforts of home, New York’s Magnolia Bakery included. If not, they’re probably building it.
I lugged The Beast 2,777 miles across the United States from New York City to Los Angeles. He never complained about the long journey, although I heard him groan and wail under the strain of his own weight. The airlines staff had too much to say about his unshapely figure. “That Beast will not make it on this aircraft unless it is at least 25 pounds lighter.” Panic! I pulled the gargantuan suitcase to the side and apologized to it before exposing him in public.
From the maw of my over-sized suitcase, I flung items right and left in search of the heaviest things: I slipped on two coats, shoved rain boots into my guitar case, threw out a bath towel. Sweating, I ran back to the counter as everyone in line glared at me. The Beast remained twelve pounds over weight. More panic! I repeated the aforementioned process — slipped on another sweater, shoved books under my armpits — until finally, The Beast qualified to fly.
How clever I considered myself, hiding away possessions in pockets, but I must have had a shifty eye when I boarded. Upon embarkation, I was sited for toting too much stuff and was asked to check some of it. Sure, I agreed. Then, I proceeded to slink onto the plane with excess baggage in tow hoping no one would notice. Shoulders aching, neck clammy, I plunged into my seat at last feeling sly and relieved. The intercom wailed, “Passenger Megan Snedden, you were asked to check your guitar, but failed to do so. Please push the call button and we’ll retrieve your excess baggage.” Caught. As everyone rubbernecked in my direction, I returned their scowls with an unforgiving look at my neighbor and shook my head. Sheesh, some people.
Travel is inconvenient. Even now I write to you from Dubai at 5 a.m. unable to sleep because I haven’t yet adjusted to the 12-hour time difference. On top of that, I spent half the day yakking in public at the Dubai Marina after I consumed some bad shwarma. Outside right now, as the sun rises, a monotone male voice calls out in Arabic, summoning society to morning prayers, perhaps this is what I was meant to enjoy at this moment. Another cultural anomaly.
It’s these inconvenient memories, though, we look back on with nostalgia. The ones we laugh about. Misery eventually gives way to something fond. This is what we travelers set out into the world looking for: blissfully unaware circumstances.
Two days ago, I took a leap and set off on a journey around the world from the Arab Emirates to India to Australia. I know not what the road ahead has in store, but the choice to circumnavigate the world for the first time means a lot of things for me. At the beginning of the year, I met a boy (and I say that in the most school-girl way) who changed my perspective on love. At one of the toughest, most unlovable-feeling moments of my life (one in which I waded through the treachery of grief) he stayed by my side and showed me the light. So when he asked, ”Will you come with me around the world?” Undeniably I said, yes.
There are definitive moments when we make decisions that shape the rest of our lives. Do I turn left or right? Should I go back and grab the umbrella? A series of revolving doors we walk through at every crossroad, every decision sending us somewhere. Decisions. Decisions. Who knows where I would be at this moment had I not said yes to this trip.
I have found that making yourself vulnerable to love means broadening the frame. Letting someone in can be scary because of the uncertainties, but the reward is exactly that: love. And it is worth it.
Now, onward friends through the Arab Emirates.