Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Dubai: A City of Contrasts

I recently had the opportunity to spend a few days in Dubai. I was there for a workshop on creativity (cool right?), and it's hard to think of a better place to discover that there are truly no limits on what can be accomplished. I have to start out by saying that it is an amazing place, like no other in the world. It's as though pieces of successful businesses have been siphoned into this new creation. But it seems as though it will never be done. The powers that be will never be satisfied because something bigger and better will always be on the horizon, and so they build.

The city is a mass of construction sites and cranes making it difficult to find your way around by walking. Everyone takes taxis and likes to spend time in the air conditioned buildings. I do not. So on my first afternoon I decided to walk to the beach. I knew it wasn't far, and the concierge at my hotel, Marina Byblos, told me the direction to walk. "It will be right there," he said. But when I got there, all I saw was a wall with construction equipment on the other side. I knew that if I could find an opening in the wall I could get to the beach, but I didn't want to be traipsing around active construction sites to get there. So I walked. And on my walk I passed many fast food restaurants that one would see in the states. I saw huge hotels and apartment compounds with stores galore selling fur coats of all things. I must mention that it was about 85 degrees Fahrenheit the whole time I was there. I was so close to the beach, but I just couldn't find a way to get onto the sand. Finally I reached a Hilton that surely had beach access. A man pointed me in the direction of a small space between construction sites through corrugated walls to finally arrive at the sand. By that time I was quite tired, so I plopped down on the sand just in time to see a magnificent sunset. What a contrast it was between beach and development. There were working cranes silhouetted by the sinking sun in front of me and the construction sites that made it so hard for me to find the sand behind me. It was one of those highly disturbing yet utterly beautiful moments. Does progress really help us progress? I'm not so sure.

Dubai as part of the U.A.E. is only forty two years old. They just celebrated their national day before I arrived. They are such a young country, but they have done so much. It seems that many things about this nation were well thought out. I don't necessarily agree with them though. Status is extremely important, and it can be seen in many areas of the city. People's salaries are dependent upon their nationality. Emirati are paid the highest (they only make up about 19% of the population interestingly enough), next in line are U.S. and U.K. nationals, and it goes on from there. Teachers are also among the highest paid workers in the nation. They seem to have their priorities straight on that one. The license plates are also a way to show status. The fewer the numbers, the higher your social standing. The sheikh has just one number. But the average joe expat will have five numbers.

I must say that I think I will be more likely to travel in the Middle East after this trip. I met people from Saudi Arabia, Oman, Egypt and other countries in the area that could be considered risky for travel. I have become a bit fascinated with the cultural contrasts especially with the women. Dubai is not strict when it comes to traditional dress like other areas of the U.A.E. or surrounding nations. It is very common to see Russians in very short and tight outfits looking very comfortable among women wearing burqa. But for the Emirati women, it is abaya (long typically black dress) and hajab (head covering also in black) all the way. Walking around the malls one will see these women with their abaya dripping in crystal or diamonds for the extremely wealthy. And that's just part of the show at the malls.

These malls (there are too many to count) are not just for shopping. They are full days of entertainment. At the Mall of the Emirates you can go skiing while at the Dubai mall you can go ice skating or visit an aquarium. While I was at the Dubai Mall I saw a fountain show in front of the Burj Kalifa (tallest building in the world). It would be difficult to find someone who wasn't impressed by the show. But besides all of the unique architecture and never ending malls, there is a somewhat hidden gem. It's called Old Dubai. Now, I know what you're thinking. Just a minute ago I said that the country is only forty two years old. It's true, I'm not talking about old as in Delos in Greece B.C. old. I'm talking Dubai old, but it's still pretty charming, and a respite for the wallet because everything is much cheaper here.

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The first thing to do is visit Ravi Pakistani restaurant. For lovers of the hole in the wall local establishment, this is heaven. The food is fantastic and authentic and soooo cheap. Four of us ate for what it would have cost for one of us somewhere else in the city. Pakistani food is pretty similar to Indian food, so things like butter chicken and balti are on the menu. Once bellies are full, it's time to visit the old souks. To get there, hop a dhow (type of boat) to go across the creek. It only costs one dirham which is pennies if you convert to USD. Sunset is a perfect time to do this. I was lucky enough to have a friend who lives in Dubai and speaks Urdu (more widely spoken than Arabic because of the majority of Pakistani and Indian people who live there), so he did all of the negotiating. Don't be afraid to haggle, and spend some time in the little shops. Have a cup of tea with the shopkeeper; it's completely safe. The best things to buy there are spices, gold and textiles like scarves. It can be incredibly overwhelming, but if you take your time and don't give yourself a time limit, it can surely be one of the highlights of the trip. It was for me.

Dubai was a city of polarity for me, but perhaps that is what makes it so special.