Mr. HalfFull and I arrived in Dubai at 4:25 AM for the start of our 36-hour whirlwind tour of the United Arab Emirates.
You may be wondering why we spent less than 2 days in Dubai. Valid question.
We wanted to minimize airport layovers during the 30/40 World Tour. But sometimes there are no direct flights. Usually, we were able to make week-long layovers in a separate country, as we did in Fiji and New Caledonia. But sometimes it just didn’t work out.
International flights only entered and departed Mauritius on Wednesdays, so that was a limiting factor. The original plan was to fly from Mauritius to Munich to visit my cousins, and the best flight was via Air Emirates with a layover in Dubai.
We really had no intention of visiting the desert in the middle of the summer. But my mom’s cousin, Sir Expat, a British gentleman (in the most chivalrous sense of the word) living in Dubai was willing to host us! He has lived there for years, speaks Arabic, and has a car and an extra bedroom. What more could we ask for?
We figured we could handle 104° temperatures for 36 hours and booked the layover. It turned out to be a great decision!
We experienced one of our best flights on Air Emirates and arrived in Dubai very early in the morning. The UAE customs agent was perhaps the least friendly we encountered. He didn’t seem to think traveling around the world was a valid reason to visit Dubai. Perhaps it was because we were spending such little time in his country. But after some stern looks, he stamped our passports.
The airport was expansive and modern with cultural touches. For example, there were huge rugs with cushions and trunks in various locations like baggage claim.
Please don’t blow up the picture and look at my sleepy expression after our red-eye flight. I kept wanting to cuddle up on those cushions while waiting for my luggage. But after the encounter with the customs agent, I thought it was probably best to wait for an invitation before sullying a ceremonial area.
Despite being before 5 AM, Sir Expat was waiting for us at the airport to shuttle us back to his flat. As we stepped outside the heavily air-conditioned airport, the blast of heat hit me. The sun wasn’t even up and we were in a covered parking garage. What had I gotten myself into?
Sir Expat asked if we wanted to drive with the top down. Ordinarily, this would have been a rare treat. But it just seemed too hot. How does anyone drive with their top down in Dubai??? I guess they can only do it in the dark before 5 AM in the summer.
Thankfully, Sir Expat invited us to nap for a few hours before setting out to see the city. The city is filled with skyscrapers and lush manicured lawns surrounded by desert sand. It is decidedly non-environmental. But it’s an architect’s dream.
One of the trends in the UAE is land reclamation. Basically, they create more land by filling in the sea. But they don’t just dump the rock and sand in a circle or rectangle. Of course not! This is Dubai. They do things big.
Dubai is home to the Palm Islands, where each man-made island is in the shape of a palm tree — a tree trunk with a crown of fronds surrounded by a separate crescent-shaped island. The original plan was to create 10 islands, but the real estate bust hit and they only completed 3.
Sir Expat drove us to the first palm island — Palm Jumeirah. The trunk is populated with apartment buildings, while the fronds are filled with private villas. We drove through an underwater tunnel to reach the crescent island that surrounds the palm and is home to Atlantis, The Palm Resort.
The next artificial island project in progress is World Islands, which will be a map of the world in the ocean. How crazy is that? We were able to see some of the progress looking down from the top of Burj Khalifa — the tallest building in the world. But I wasn’t really able to make out any specific country. Pretty soon, I guess you will be able to say that you live in Japan — Japan Island off the coast of Dubai!
Next on the tour, Sir Expat shuttled us to Souk Madinat Jumeirah, a traditional Arabian souk with wind towers and lantern lit hallways. It’s filled with boutique shops and restaurants throughout the beautifully adorned hallways. We sat down to enjoy iced coffee and a snack before proceeding on our 36-hour whirlwind tour. Plus, it provided a great view of another architectural icon — Burj al Arab.
Remember how I told you about the heat? It’s so hot that it’s illegal to labor outside between noon and 3 PM. Sounds a bit like Spanish siesta time, but I’m not sure that’s the custom. I’ll tell you more about my Spanish siestas when I update you on our trip to Spain in a post to come.
Sir Expat also took us for a drive along Dubai Creek where we were able to see the import/export business. We saw fleets of decrepit multicolored boats that didn’t look especially seaworthy. But apparently, these ships travel back and forth from Dubai to India carting all sorts of goods including refrigerators, car parts, and sacks of unknown goods. It was crazy to see stacks of all these items along the shore. I was only out there for a few minutes before I was too hot to move — and I wasn’t even lifting goods!
Since it’s so hot in Dubai, malls are a favorite hangout. These malls are magnificent…if you like that sort of thing. I don’t really find malls to be exceptional havens of culture, but when in Dubai, do as the Emiratis.
We visited a couple impressive malls over our 36 hours. One had each section decorated in the style of a different part of the world – China, India, Persia, Egypt, Spain, etc. It was almost like a museum. We saw ships, elephants, and impressive tile mosaic work. Don’t worry, the mall has stores and restaurants too. I even saw appropriate Muslim swimwear for women.
Matt wanted to hold my hand in the mall. Ordinarily, this would not have been an issue, but Dubai has fairly strict PDA rules. In fact, Sir Expat told us about a recent case where a British couple was jailed for kissing in a restaurant. I only had 36 hours; I couldn’t end up in jail! When Mr. HalfFull tried to be funny and touch my booty in the mall, I just about lost it. Why is he such a rule flaunter?
What trip to Dubai would be complete without a desert safari? Sir Expat booked us on a tour at the hotel next door. He knows about everything!
Mr. HalfFull, Sir Expat and I piled into a Land Cruiser with our driver, Ahmed, for the drive out to the dunes. First there was a stop at the gas station so we could caravan to the dunes with the rest of the fleet of Land Cruisers. Little did we know how important it would be to have those other cars with us.
Before driving on the dunes, each SUV pulled over to let air out of the tires for optimal sand driving conditions. Of course, I sat in the front seat to truly experience the thrill of the drive. It was a bit like a roller coaster, but without the safety features. At any time, this SUV could flip over. I’m not sure my already battered neck appreciated the ride, but how could we not do it?
Remember how I told you that my mom would have freaked out on the narrow, curvy roads along cliffs in Australia? I’m not sure she would have survived the sand dunes. She’s the type of person who would grab the “oh sh!t” handle in a car on a normal drive and use her pretend passenger brake pedal. But even I was grabbing the “oh sh!t” handle on the sand dunes. I’m not sure I would have been able to stay in my seat otherwise!
A few paragraphs ago, I mentioned how being in a fleet of vehicles turned out to be a good thing. Our driver had only been driving the dunes for 6 months. One of the keys to driving on the dunes is never, I repeat NEVER, drive along the top ridge of the dune. Or you will get stuck! Like we did.
Our Land Cruiser was straddling the top of the sand dune with the undercarriage resting on the sand and the wheels touching nothing. Ahmed tried several times to move, but we were stuck. Fortunately, another vehicle from our group was nearby. We all hopped out while they towed our Land Cruiser (in case it tipped over). The first time, the belt came loose. But eventually, our wheels were back on the sand.
We drove further into the desert until we reached the camp. There, Mr. HalfFull and I rode a camel together. It was pretty much what I expected until it was over and the camel made an abrupt drop down. Perhaps they should have told us to hold on. But this was more about adventure than safety.
The camp was also our dinner location at low tables surrounding a stage. Apparently, the camel knew where the food was too. After we all got through the appetizer line and the camel rides were over, the camel decided he would enter the walls of the camp and help himself to a few hors d’oeuvres as well!
I also got a henna tattoo in the camp. My original idea was to get my name in Arabic, but the woman doing the tattoos didn’t know Arabic. Instead, she had her own style of tattoo swirls. It all looked fine and dandy until she got to the end of my finger close to my nail. Instead of a nice elegant line, there was a blob of paint. For the rest of the trip, Matt called it “poop finger.” Of course, “poop finger” was the darkest and therefore, the last part of the tattoo to wear off.
Sir Expat made us a reservation to go to the top of the Burj Kalifa on our final day. Yes, it’s the same building of the Tom Cruise stunt in Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol. We only went on the inside of the building, Tom was on the outside. Minor difference.
Have you ever seen a gold vending machine? We encountered one at the top of the Burj Kalifa. It only takes cash and this one contained gold nuggets in the shape of the building. So it’s a souvenir AND and an investment! No, we didn’t actually buy gold to cart around in our duffels.
The entrance to the Burj Kalifa is actually in a sprawling shopping mall. So after our building tour, we walked around our second mall of the trip. This one had a wing of super high-end stores, an aquarium, and a skating rink! One of the most interesting things for me to witness was women in full veils, with nothing showing but their eyes, eating in restaurants. I’m not sure I would even want to eat out if I was so encumbered.
Apparently, we also exported Kim Kardashian to this Dubai mall. There was a larger-than-life poster announcing her appearance at the grand opening of a new milkshake shop in the mall. Aren’t they lucky!
After our final mall adventure it was time to grab our bags and head to the airport for our afternoon flight. Dubai reminded me a bit of Vegas. Both are deserts filled with skyscrapers and the craziest things. When considering if they should build the next outlandish feature, they probably ask why not rather than why.
- Excluding airport-only layovers, what’s the shortest amount of time you’ve spent in a country?
- Have you found customs agents to be generally friendly or gruff? Did the length of your stay matter?
- Have you visited super hot climates? How did you fare?
- What crazy things have you seen in a shopping mall?
- Have you ever required a tow out of an unusual place?
- What atypical item have you acquired from a vending machine?
- What American “exports” have you been surprised to see overseas?
- How do you feel about turning a desert into a lush, green oasis with air-conditioned skyscrapers?