Back in September, we had the opportunity to go on an unforgettable trip to a couple places in the Middle East, one of which was Dubai.
When you think of Dubai, you may think of the palm tree-shaped islands or the Burj Khalifa (the tallest building in the world), but there’s so much more to experience that I’ll share with you in this post.
The Emirate of Dubai is 1 of 7 emirates that make up the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.). It’s located on the Eastern part of the Arabian Peninsula on the outskirts of the desert, bordering the Persian Gulf.
While Dubai is comprised of many ethnicities, it’s population is largely Indian. Other ethnicities include Emirati, Pakistani, Filipino, Bangladeshi, Westerner and others. The most popular religions in Dubai are Islam and Hindu (On our second night while in Bur Dubai, we stumbled upon a Hindu celebration where groups of people were gathered around an elephant-headed god, burning incense and chanting. It was a moment where we realized we were very far away from home!).
Arabic is the official language here, but many people speak English. In fact, most people we came into contact with spoke English. This was very surprising to me and made me think how far behind we are in the U.S. in requiring students to learn a second language.
I was also surprised by how modern and “Western” Dubai was. The city features countless skyscrapers, a metro system, expensive cars, luxurious hotels and a sprawling mall.
Because our visit was during the latter part of August when the average temperate hovers around 106, we were able to stay in a 5-star hotel for dirt cheap (because no one else wants to visit during that insanely hot time of year!) We also retreated to that sprawling mall I mentioned earlier to escape the heat and bask in the glorious air conditioning.
But let’s jump back a bit to the start of our trip.
We decided to fly out of D.C. because the flights were cheaper. We enjoyed an evening in the city walking around the National Mall and through the campus of George Washington University where I snapped the below photos of some cute townhouses.
We spent the night in D.C. and woke up early the next morning to board our 13-hour flight to Dubai! When I was in high school I had the opportunity to visit Spain and Morocco for a school trip. The flight to Madrid was only 8 hours, which felt like nothing compared to our flight to Dubai.
Our plan for the flight was to stay up the first 6 hours, then sleep the remaining 6-7 hours, so that by the time we landed in Dubai at 8:00 a.m. their time we’d be well rested. The first half of the flight we watched movies and ate a couple meals. I was actually really impressed with the meals Emirates served on the flight, and they seemed to get better and better with each passing meal.
About 6 hours into the flight Daniel and I popped a melotonin, snuggled into our neck pillows, cocooned ourselves under our blankets and fastened on our face masks. I leaned my chair back as far as it could go and was ready to snooze. Enter two very loud talking Indian men engaged in a lively discussion that lasted for about two hours. Needless to say, I slept zero hours by the time we landed in Dubai. Perfect!
It was 8:00 a.m. in Dubai, but our body clocks said it was 11:00 p.m. Our strategy was to force ourselves to stay awake the entire day so that our bodies would adjust to the time difference and then sleep that night. It turned out that powering through that first day and setting our bodies to Dubai time worked really well. By the next morning our body clocks were completely adjusted.
Once we had gathered our bags at the airport (no one’s bags had gotten lost, hooray!), we took a taxi to our fancy-shmancy hotel so we could freshen up before we hit the town.
Side note: I don’t think I’ll ever get over the way people drive in Dubai. Every time we got into a taxi I gritted my teeth. Everyone drives incredibly fast and rides the bumper of the car in front of them, so basically Nashville times 10. I closed my eyes several times when I felt like we were getting too close to another car. Somehow, the traffic flow seemed to work just fine because I never saw any car wrecks.
Our short taxi ride from the airport to our hotel left me white-knuckled. Once we arrived at the hotel, the front desk person told us we could freshen up in the spa upstairs, which was an included service with the room rate (hey-o!). The spa featured a hot tub, sauna and a fancy relaxing room with peaceful music, dim lights and what looked like a Himalayan salt chandelier.
A couple other awesome features of the hotel was the rooftop pool with views of the city and the expansive buffet breakfast that had about every type of food you can imagine. I’ll never forget the yogurt and granola station that had an entire slat of honeycomb for anyone to stab off a piece for their plate!
So, if you ever plan to visit Dubai, just wait until the “off season” when it’s super hot and nobody else wants to visit, and take advantage of the low hotel rates at the Sheraton Grand Hotel.
After we changed clothes, washed our faces and brushed our teeth, we headed out. The first challenge was to navigate the metro. The metro ran all the way from our hotel to downtown and appeared to be the cheapest way to get around. The guys tried to figure out how to purchase metro cards from the machine, but didn’t have any luck. After several minutes, they talked to the worker stationed in the ticket booth and successfully purchased our reloadable cards. We took the metro to Dubai Mall, which is crazy in itself because it has indoor snow skiing (what) and a place you can scuba dive. If you haven’t caught on by now, Dubai is extra.
Once inside the mall, we found a restaurant to have lunch. Our meals in the Middle East almost always consisted of lamb, babaganoush, falafel and hummus and pita bread. And we were not mad about it.
After lunch, we headed to the Burj Khalifa which is the tallest building in the world at more than 2,700 feet — an architectural phenomenon! The view from the observation deck reveals the sprawling cityscape before giving way to a hazy view of the Persian Gulf and the desert beyond.
P.S. How much water do you think it takes to keep those patches of grass alive in the middle of the desert?
After looking straight down for a while, I started to feel nauseous and had to step away from the windows. At this point, we all started to feel the jet lag. We headed back down the elevator to the mall and staked out at a coffee shop to let the jet lag pass.
Our coffee pit stop gave us enough of an energy boost to make it back to our hotel where we grabbed a snack and, again, freshened up before taking the metro to dinner at the Dubai Marina. Long flights, no sleep and hot weather make you feel super icky.
Our ride on the metro was longer than anticipated, and by the time we reached the marina, we were exhausted and, dare I say, hangry (I was definitely hangry, but won’t speak for everyone else). We strolled up and down the marina walkway before grabbing a quick dinner and heading back to the hotel for a much needed snoozle.
Ten glorious hours of sleep ensued before we woke up the next morning and made our way to the breakfast buffet. Over breakfast, we decided to beat the heat and have a “lounge day” at the hotel until the evening hours when it cooled off a bit. After breakfast we spent the rest of the day at the spa and the rooftop pool.
For our evening activity, we decided to take a taxi to Bur Dubai (Old Dubai) where we would explore the souqs (markets). Our friends told us our experience at the souqs would be rather memorable, and they were spot on.
As soon as we opened the taxi door to the entrance of one of the souqs, the shopkeepers wasted no time attempting to whisk us away to their booth to buy something. Their tactic was a hilarious one — they attempted to lure the guys by called them generic American names. They’d say something like:
“John! Mr. John, what can I help you look for today?”
They called us girls “Julie,” “Marie,” and my personal favorite, “Big Shakira” — no doubt a nod to my height. Not sure if that was a compliment or … ?
As we walked down the narrow path of the souq, we kept our eyes straight ahead and tried not to look at the items in the booths because it would only egg them on even more. Regardless, they walked up to the guys and draped scarves around their shoulders and told them how nice they looked to try and sell them. No one ever touched us girls, but I would often see out of my peripherals Daniel walking behind me and his arm stuck out to block people from getting too close to me. So sweet 🙂
I never felt unsafe, it was just a wild experience. I honestly couldn’t help from cracking a smile and laughing at all of the ridiculous things the shopkeepers said to us as we passed by their booths.
One man couldn’t let us pass by without at least saying something and mustered up a, “Hello! I am here!” to try and get our attention.
We jokingly quoted him the remainder of the trip!
We finally reached the end of the souq and were practically bent over in laughter at how wild our walk through the souq had been. We left the souq with nary a souvenir, but the experience itself will remain a mental souvenir I won’t soon forget.
We walked around Bur Dubai a bit more to take in the scenery and beautifully-tiled buildings. I felt like we were getting a true taste of Dubai — the real, authentic part as opposed to the shiny, flashy city we experienced the day before.
Next up was dinner. Our friend told us about a restaurant in the area he’d been to before that sat along the Dubai Creek. We had to walk a short distance back through the souq to a quiet, narrow passageway that opened up to the restaurant, Bayt Al Wakeel (House of Wakeel).
The hosts led us to what looked like a floating deck with tables and chairs and clear plastic panels that trapped the air conditioning. After sweating through the souq for the past hour, it was refreshing to be hit in the face with that cool air. Our table sat in the corner overlooking the creek where we watched dhows (boats) travel up and down the creek delivering passengers from one side to the other. We sat down right at sunset and could hear the call to prayer going off throughout the city. In that moment, everything felt so surreal. I couldn’t believe we were thousands of miles away from home eating dinner in Dubai!
We ordered babaganoush (puréed eggplant — so much tastier than it sounds), hummus and pita for an appetizer. The babaganoush was the best I’ve ever had! They topped it off with pomegranate seeds and what seemed to be some sort of balsamic drizzle. Or main meal was a hearty mix of meats, mostly lamb, with french fries on the side. For dessert we tried camel milk ice cream, which didn’t taste that much different than cow milk ice cream.
After our feast, we walked back down the narrow alley toward the souq. By this time, it had gotten dark and the alley was lined with colorful lanterns to light the way. It was a nice little retreat from the hustle and bustle of the souq.
We hung out here for a bit while they guys devised a plan to negotiate the price for some hand-painted plates we spotted in one of the shops. We tried to act nonchalant as we stole glances of the plates and silently determined how much they were worth.
With our plan in place, the guys took the lead and approached the shopkeeper. Surprisingly, he didn’t pounce on us (metaphorically) like the previous sellers had when we walked through the souq earlier that evening. He calmly led us to his shop where, for the next half hour, the guys went back and forth on the price for two plates.
The pictures below feature the guys’ victory to secure the plates at what they thought was a reasonable price. The shopkeeper wasn’t thrilled to have lost the negotiation as he wrapped up our plates in bubble wrap.
With souvenirs in hand, we made our way back toward the creek where we would board a dhow to the other side where the gold souq is located.
The boarding area for the dhows was where we came upon the Hindu celebration I mentioned earlier. There were so many people around and it was very loud with all the singing and chanting. I never felt unsafe, but I felt very out of place and wanted to get away from the congested area.
After a little confusion about which dhow boat to board, we were finally ushered onto a platform where we quickly hopped onto the dhow and handed the driver a coin, which I think was equivalent to about 50 cents (pictured below are dirhams, U.A.E.’s currency).
The dhow system was organized chaos. No sooner would a dhow pull up alongside the dock than passengers would rush onto it and flip a coin to the driver. It was a really cool way to get around and less exhilarating than a taxi ride.
While our dhow toodled along the creek, we passed other dhows and several dinner cruises with string lights strung from the bow to the stern.
When our dhow pulled up to the dock across the creek, we got off and walked toward the gold souq. Even though it was late at night, it seemed everyone was still out and about. The souq was packed and we walked by several window displays filled with shiny gold jewelry.
Being the tall, pale Americans we are, we received a lot of stares and double takes from locals in the souq, but way less, “John! Mr. John!” yells. Probably because they knew we couldn’t afford anything there 🙂
Once we reached the end of the gold souq, we were sweating through our clothes and tired. We decided to head back to the hotel and rest up for the next day when we would fly to another part of the Middle East.
I’ll wrap up this travel post with my favorite quote of all time:
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” – Mark Twain
Although life in Dubai and other parts of the Middle East may look vastly different from ours in the U.S., I’m so thankful we got the opportunity to travel there and experience it for ourselves. If you’re ever offered the chance to travel to a part of the world you’ve never been before with people who have been there before — say yes! A HUGE thank you to our friends who so graciously showed us around Dubai, recommended new foods to try, taught us words in Arabic, gave us a glimpse into the culture and let us tag along with them on this trip.
Travel brings to light the things we take for granted and helps us become more thankful. It can also help us form compassionate toward others when we see first-hand the way they live and what they endure on a daily basis. Travel opens doors and it opens eyes. This trip surprised me in many ways and was without a doubt the most incredible trip I’ve ever been on.
I pray you seek out opportunities to see the world from a different perspective and experience a culture other than the one you’re accustomed to. In my opinion, the benefits of travelling cannot be replicated any other way.
Don’t let the fears of others or their opinions keep you from travelling. Sometimes, those who hold such fearful opinions are fearful because they simply don’t know. So, make it your mission to find out for yourself. You may find your previously held stereotypes of a certain group of people or region of the world are simply untrue or greatly exaggerated. Or, maybe not! But at least you found out for yourself and can form your own opinions rather than mindlessly adopting someone else’s views that are rooted in fear and not truth.
Travelling doesn’t have to look like a trip to the Middle East or even outside the country. In fact, those who live just one state over (or even down the street!) may live very different lives than your own. The important thing is to not silo yourself in such a way that you brush off someone else’s way of living just because it doesn’t look like yours. This is what leads to that narrow-mindedness mentioned in the above quote and endangers our ability to respect and love people who are different from us. And praise God there are so many different types of people in the world because how incredibly boring would it be for us all to think, look and act the same? We all make up a beautiful tapestry that puts our Creator’s handiwork on display.
There’s so much to learn from other people and so much to see, so get out of that little corner of yours and go see it!