Arabian Nights… and Days
From Kenya we were looking at flights to Morocco. All reasonably priced flights either went through Doha (Qatar) or Dubai (United Arab Emirates). So, we booked ourselves a six night stopover in Dubai at no extra cost… to stop there that is. You can actually book four and five star hotels at a decent price in Dubai. We used Hotwire (as we often seem to) and booked a Secret Deal. With these deals you do not know what hotel you are getting but are given an area of the city, the hotels amenities, and the Tripadvisor rating. I spend some time comparing the known information about the secret hotel with the known hotels and in most cases can predict the hotel we end up with. I feel like I am cheating but it usually gets us a good discount. In this case, we wanted an apartment rather than a hotel room. We wanted a room that had a washing machine so we could wash all of our clothes. We got a one bedroom apartment with a kitchenette and living room… four stars on Hotwire and 3.5 on Tripadvisor… for $57/night. It is in an area of Dubai called Internet City and it was about a 30 second walk outside to the Metro station…. which turned out to be very important.
Dubai is clean and opulent. It reminds me a lot of Vegas without the drinking, gambling and debotchery. Why go then you may ask? They have gone to great lengths to make Dubai this pearl of an oasis in the desert. The UAE is oil rich and has been for many years. It has about another 90 years of oil and in fact the oil is not in Dubai… more in Abu Dhabi. About ten years ago, there was only 9 high rise towers in Dubai… now more than 900. They are creating a place where people want to come to work and live as well as a place where businesses want to operate. We were told that the population of Dubai is over 1.5 million but I read somewhere else that it is 2 million. Only 8% of people living in Dubai are Arab. That means that there are huge numbers of immigrants and expats living here.
We had lunch on our first day here with Rona and Colin Fleming. Rona is friends with Nic’s mom and Nic knew Rona as a child in Scotland. They have lived in Dubai for 14 years and the day we had lunch was their last day living here before moving to Bali. It was nice to actually get to meet them before they left. They were staying in a hotel at the airport as they had already sold their Villa and were just finalizing some paperwork before their flight. Colin is a geophysicist and came here to do surveys related to finding oil. 14 years later the work options were slowing down here and opening up more in Singapore. They gave us a list of things to do in Dubai which served to be very useful.
They also taught us a lot about Dubai… rules, culture, etc. For example, in the UAE public displays of affection are against the law. Women are supposed to keep their knees and shoulders covered while a man can wear whatever he wants. They told us a story about a 14 year old girl who got gang raped and she was put in jail for having sex outside of marriage. A German couple decided to have sex on the beach and after three months in jail they were deported. It is illegal to have debt in Dubai. When expats move here for work they are required to pay their rent for the year (all at once… no monthly rent payments). They are making a lot of money and so they take out a loan for their rent and a second loan for a fancy car (there are porsches, ferraris, etc. everywhere here). Sometimes when they leave for a holiday they come back and have been fired (pink slip on their desk). The company is obligated to inform the bank that they have no income and they are arrested for having debt. So, when it happens they often drive straight to the airport, get on a plane, and abandon everything they have in the UAE. In 2008-2009, when the world economy took a dive, many people just abandoned their homes and cars to never come back. The government impounded 30000 cars (I mean nice cars) from the airport that had been abandoned. Needless to say, things are very different in Dubai than anywhere else we have ever been.
After having lunch and a swim with Rona and Colin at their hotel, we went to the Dubai Mall. This is the biggest mall in the world. Inside the mall there is a large aquarium with a window that is probably as long as a football field and three stories high that opens into one hallway of the mall. You can watch amazing fish swim by that seem so fantastic to me. It makes the Sea Lion pool in West Ed seem boring. There is an outdoor fountain that was created by the same people that designed the fountain show at the Bellagio. The show goes off every half hour starting at 6pm to a variety of music (3 different musical themes… we saw them all). There is a large waterfall wall in the mall that is about four stories high. Shopping in Dubai is a draw because there are no taxes. We were not really looking for anything though and even though there are no taxes, the prices are not really cheap cheap. Malls stay open until 10pm Sunday to Wednesday, till midnight on Thursday and until 1am on Friday and Saturday. In UAE, the weekend is Friday and Saturday. Sunday is a regular workday. Many things do not open until 1pm on Friday. Right beside the mall is the Burj Khalifa… the tallest building in world. It is a very cool sight to see at sunset and at night.
Since there are so few Arab people in Dubai, most people working in stores and restaurants are from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, etc. In fact, as Rona informed us, when people talk about local food in Dubai, they are quite often referring to Lebanese type food. So, if you are looking for an authentic Arabic meal, it might not be so easy to find in Dubai. You can find every fast food place and chain restaurant you ever heard of in Dubai. McDonalds, Wendy’s, Burger King, Subway, etc are plentiful. The strangest thing I saw from the Metro as we passed by was a large office building and on the two corners facing the street was an advertisement about 20 stories high that made the corners of the building look like a Tim Hortons coffee cup. On the street level of the building on one corner there was a Timmies. On the other corner (under the giant Timmies cup) was a Starbucks. There seem to be dozens of Tim Hortons Coffee and Bake Shops. How come in Canada they do not say Coffee and Bake Shop? Or do they… I have never noticed? It is more expensive than in Canada so beware.
On our second full day in Dubai, we booked a desert safari. It is in the Lonely Planet and on Rona’s list as a must do. We were picked up from our hotel at about 4:30pm in a Toyota Land Cruiser and there were four other people with us plus our driver. The desert safari takes you about 45 minutes out of Dubai into the desert. Once out there, our vehicle converged with about 20 other vehicles from the same company. While we get out to take pictures, the driver lets air out of the tires to reduce the air pressure in the tires. Apparently, the vehicles have better traction in the sand with lower pressure. After a short stop, we proceed to dune buggy (in our land cruiser) through the sand dunes. Nicola has been in two accidents in which the vehicle rolled so she was scared to death. I have never rolled in a vehicle but I was certain we would roll on this ride. The vehicles would drive to the top of a large dune which would look like it had a peak and then drive along the top and then suddenly go on the side and drive sideways and finally turn like you were plunging on a roller coaster. This went on and on until the driver was rightly convinced that we had all soiled ourselves. We stopped again with the other vehicles for some sunset photos during which time the driver re-inflated the tires to full pressure.
We were back on the road and after a short drive went off road again. Not as hair-raising this time as we headed to a Bedouin camp. At the camp, we had a camel ride that lasted about two minutes. There were other things to do there as well but we did not do them all. For example, you could sand board (like snow boarding but on sand – the hill was very small); smoke a sheesha (some places call them hooka – tobacco cooled through water and flavoured); henna tattoo (Nic got one). We had an amazing buffet dinner followed by a dance show. The first dancer was a man who came out in a very elaborate costume and he basically spun in circles for ten minutes. As he spun the dress he was wearing spun in circles and it looked pretty cool. He even made it light up at one point. The next dancer was a belly dancer who I am not certain was Arabic. Following the dancers, we returned to Dubai and were dropped off at our hotel. It was a very cool tour that lasted about 4 hours and cost $80 each.
Day 3 was a bit quieter. We did not rush out of our apartment. We did some booking for Morocco. We had bought a bit of food and ate breakfast in our apartment. We left our apartment in the early afternoon. That is never a good idea. No one goes out at that time. On Day 2 we decided to try to walk to the Marina at around noon and I almost melted. The heat makes me sick and Dubai is not created for outdoor pedestrians. A maze of highways and roads make it almost impossible to get anywhere by foot. It is too hot I guess… you are meant to take the Metro or taxi. On day 3 however, we got on the subway and headed for the Mall of the Emirates. If you have heard much about Dubai or watched the Amazing Race then you probably know of the Mall of the Emirates. It has an indoor ski hill. We did not ski but got a good look at it. It was about $60 for two hours and we decided it was not a priority for us. It is cool though. We had lunch in the food court and then went to see a movie… Grown Ups 2. After the movie we decided to have a nice dinner. We ate at the Cheesecake Factory. It was much more expensive than we have been used to on our trip… about $100 for two of us.
We had now crossed off several of the items on Rona’s to do list. Day 4 would be a day when we would do a bunch more. We took the Metro to the Dubai Museum. We are not really big museum folks but I actually enjoyed this one. Set in an old fort, the museum tells the rags to riches story of Dubai. It is amazing how it has been built up in the last twenty years. According to Collin however, some of the construction may be a problem in the future. They are built on sand but below the sand is a layer of salt. Under pressure (for example of a skyscraper), salt turns to liquid. Some buildings have to have pumps working continuously to pump out salt water from the basements of buildings. Nevertheless, these are amazing buildings with unique architecture.
After the museum, we took an Abbra across the creek. An abbra is an old wooden boat that shuttles people back and forth. It cost 1 Dirham (3.5 Dhs = $1). On the south side of the creek is a maze of souks (markets). The first we encountered was the spice souk. We wandered around and were asked every couple of seconds to come and see my shop. In another souk we almost bought a beautiful lamp. It is a large glass blue ball with fabulous tiling on it. Unfortunately, they had no boxes and we had no way to ship it back. We wandered through the gold souk as well. This is a pretty amazing area if you are looking for gold. It did not seem cheap at all to me but what do I know about gold. Nic looked at a gold bangle for a friend that asked her to get one. It was about $350 for this skinny bracelet which seemed crazy.
I broke my sunglasses in Africa and so had been wearing none. Throughout the Souks we were continually asked to buy copy watches, bags, and sunglasses. I decided to have a look at sunglasses. I had looked at some in the malls but I am too rough on sunglasses to spend big money on them. A guy lead us to a back alley and up an elevator. Got buzzed into a secret shop. It was filled with all the fake stuff you could ever want. I bought a pair of Oakley’s for about $25 although I am sure in China I would have paid a quarter of that.
Our final activity for day 4 was a Dhow Dinner Cruise on the Creek. We had not booked one but we just went into a travel agent and she booked it for us. It was about $25 each for a two hour boat cruise on the Creek. It was a good buffet however we had decided to sit upstairs on the deck. We were wondering when dinner was so Nic went to check it out. Turns out that everyone inside the boat were already eating. Not sure why we were not told. After dinner there was another show with the spinning man and the light up dress. Seems this is a common thing. After his spinning show, two men dressed as a horse did a show. Not sure exactly what it was except this horse going up to people and making them laugh. Rather bizarre actually.
Our final day in Dubai was slow getting going. We did not leave our apartment until 4pm. When we did leave, we decided to get a day long Metro pass and jump around to several places. We did not go to too many places but enough to make the day pass worth it. We went back to try and find the marina… this time on the Metro not walking. We found it but there was not really anything to see there. Nic wanted to go to the beach again but I swear they do not make it easy. We went to the beach for a few minutes on day 2 and stuck our feet in the Arabian gulf. It was too bloody hot though to stay. We never got to the beach on our last day as she had hoped. We then took the Metro to the Dubai Mall. We had dinner in the Mall, watched the fountain again, and had a look in some electronics stores. We were back at our apartment at around 10pm.
Our flight from Dubai to Casablanca was at 7:30am so we were up early. After a long day of flying (8 hour flight) we arrived in Casablanca at just after noon local time. We will spend three weeks in Morocco but only a couple of days in Casablanca. My next post will come from Fez I expect.
The fountain show at the Dubai Mall