Saturday, October 14, 2017

United Arab Emirates

The above is what I woke up to this morning so I think it's a good day to talk about Dubai. Take me back to that stifling, almost unbearable (even for me) heat. By now the snow has melted but it was still a bit of a jolt this morning. I went for a run anyway, just to show the snow that it's not the boss of me. I will still take snow over earthquakes, tsunamis, or hurricanes.
I don't think it's possible to overstate the contrast between India and Dubai. I would make a Venn diagram to help illustrate the differences but the circles would barely even touch.
Things that were the same: It was hot (although even the heat felt different).
Things that were different: Everything else.
I was surprised to discover that in most ways I preferred the colour and character of India. Yeah, it was dirty and loud and chaotic, but it felt more vibrant and real than the fabricated streets of Dubai.
However, one good difference was that we could eat wherever we wanted. In India, we were strongly encouraged to eat only at our hotels so that we wouldn't get sick. I love going to local places that are less touristy but since I also love not throwing up or having diarrhea, I played it safe. When we got to Dubai, it was a relief to be able to eat wherever we wanted. So fresh off the plane, Dale and I found a little cafĂ© near our hotel and had some delicious shawarma on the outdoor patio. The guy working there was super friendly and the food was delicious so we went back again the next day with my parents and sister-in-laws. The same guy was working and he was so thrilled that he even put a picture of us on their facebook page.
I love the Arabic writing on the Pepsi can.
Dubai is definitely something to see. It's kind of like Las Vegas on steroids: very cool to see but I wouldn't have to go back for a while. The thing that makes Dubai so incredible is that the oldest high-rise was built in 1979. Before that, it was just tents in the desert. So it's all new and modern, shiny and clean, and all-out over the top. They pride themselves on having the biggest and best of everything. They build the world's biggest mall/tower/man-made island and then they hear another country is building a bigger one, so Dubai announces it will build an even bigger one. As stated by our tour guide, "No one remembers second-best" (yet he also talked about how "humble" the people of Dubai are, which caused a few raised eyebrows).
The Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world. It was connected to the Dubai Mall, which is the largest mall in the world, based on area.

View from the 124th floor of the Burj

Aquarium in Dubai Mall where you can swim with sharks.

Fountain show outside the mall

There was another mall right by our hotel called Mall of the Emirates. This one had an indoor ski slope because sometimes you just want to go skiing when it's 45 C outside. When you walked into the ski area, it looked exactly like a "real" ski lodge. It was hard to get good pictures through the window but you can get the idea. You can also check it out here. 
Shops you don't see in Polo Park.


Hanging out in the mall

While in the mall, we came across this model display of a housing development that's currently being built (below). It's being built in the ocean, like the Palms, and it's ridiculous! It's called the Heart of Europe, consisting of different European-country-themed islands. There's Switzerland with the world's first climate controlled streets, where it snows at various times throughout the year. Real snow. In "London," it rains. The units you see at the bottom of the picture have a "basement" that's underwater. When you look out of the floor-to-ceiling window wall in the bedroom, you are literally in the ocean. Not only that, you can choose what kind of coral to plant outside your window so that it attracts the kind of fish you want to see. It's a crazy world. Units start at $350,000 which isn't even that bad and the company does all the work if you want to rent it out. The environmental impact of these man-made islands are pretty negative so we didn't buy one.
We took a little boat ride on the Dubai Creek, which is the "old" part of the city. We went to a spice market and a whole street of gold shops.
Camel milk gelato in the market. It was first thing in the morning or I would have tried it.

Spice Market

The gold souk (market)

yup, it's all real
The beach in Dubai. The water was as warm as a bath.
In the background is the 7-star Burj Al Arab Jumeirah, the most luxurious hotel in the world. You have to pay just to go inside. There's a heli-pad on top where they've had a tennis match. Read more about the hotel here.
My parents getting an ice cream at the beach.
The guy put on quite a show before he handed over the cone, including lots of bell-ringing.

We did a dinner cruise along the Dubai Creek.

This is on the Palm islands, which were way bigger than I had pictured.

There's an Atlantis hotel on Palm Island. I think the guide said the suite on the bridge on top is $20,000/night.
Not sure if that includes free wifi or a continental breakfast.
Also on Palm Island, the cell towers are disguised as palm trees. I thought that was a nice touch.

The next two pictures are at the marina, where a lot of ex-pats live.


The most fun thing we did in Dubai was a jaunt to the desert. We were picked up in 4x4 SUVs and driven about an hour away to the desert. Pictured below are two of the drivers - I tried to be discreet when taking his photo. I failed.


We had a crazy ride through the sand dunes. Again, the environmental impact is probably horrific, but it sure was an adrenaline rush. The vehicles had roll bars and there were times I thought they might be put to use. It was pretty wild tearing around the dunes and sliding down hills. It got a bit rough on the stomach for some people; one poor woman in our group was in the very back of the vehicle and she started heaving. Luckily nothing came up but I can't imagine that was fun for anyone involved. Getting out from the back wasn't easy - you had to wait til someone in the middle row got out so that the seat could be flipped forward.

We stopped a couple of times to get out and see the desert. It was just before the sun set and it was gorgeous! The pictures don't do it justice but the lighting was incredible.

Before the dune-driving begins, the drivers let some air out of the tires, but one of our group's vehicles still blew a tire. 

How many Arabs does it take to change a tire?

Our driver, whose name I wish I could remember so I could give him a positive Trip Advisor review.

Eventually we arrived at a camp in the middle of the desert. It was billed as a traditional Bedouin camp (Bedouins are the desert dwellers of times gone by). There was a meal of BBQ skewers and other food eaten on pillows at low tables, camel rides, henna, shi sha (hookah), and entertainment. I was picturing a more intimate experience but it was pretty chaotic. There was a huge group of about three hundred Black & Abroad young adults (which is a travel group, kind of like Contiki). And let me tell you, watching them was entertainment enough with their jaw-dropping outfits, hairdos and everything else. I think it's safe to say they took the United Arab Emirates by storm.

At the risk of sounding like a senior citizen, the music was insanely loud and I was sitting right by the speakers so there was some sensory overload going on for me. But the food was good and the entertainment was impressive. They had a belly dancer, a guy who twirled in a circle - with props that lit up - for so long I was almost nauseous for him, and a fire-breathing dude. There was some shi sha smoking happening by people that you would not normally associate with shi sha smoking. (I'm not sure who would normally associate with shi sha but it's definitely not this person!).

The 30-second camel ride was long enough for me.
After three nights in Dubai, we headed to Abu Dhabi. Half the group stayed in Abu Dhabi for two nights, and the other half came for the day then headed back to Dubai to fly home that evening. It was not the original plan for the non-extension people to come to Abu Dhabi for the day; our guide offered it without discussing it with me first, and it caused an uproar with some people who only paid for the extension to see Abu Dhabi. If they had known there would be an option to just go for the day, that would have been enough for them. But in the end everyone relaxed and enjoyed the extra two days.

It was about a two hour drive to Abu Dhabi from Dubai. The main thing we saw there was the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. It's a pretty impressive building with an opulent interior.

As you can tell from my beautiful outfit, women must be covered from wrist to ankle, including the head. And I mean COVERED. If your top is the least bit see-through, it's not good enough. The guide rented some abayas for us, so I was okay. Several of our people were turned back even though they were very well covered. Men on the other hand can glide through security without a care in the world (as long as their shorts covered their knees).

The world's largest Swarovski chandeliers were stunning. The guide told us the chandelier is not lit by electricity or other source - it lights up strictly by reflecting the light around us. However, I found nothing online to support this claim so don't quote me on this.


I said goodbye to Dale and my parents along with half of the group, at our hotel in Abu Dhabi. I booked it to the pool and basically stayed there for two days. The pool area was awesome and there was also a beach, where the ocean water was so warm and so salty that you could float without moving a muscle. That was my favourite. We had our own little supply of refreshments and the time just drifted by way too quickly. It was so hot that there was nowhere else I wanted to be. The day we left it was 50 C with the humidity. People in the UAE have one of the world's highest rates of Vitamin D deficiency because it's too hot to spend time outside.

One night, we went to the Emirates Palace Hotel for cappuccinos and cake. Their claim to fame is a $30 cappuccino embellished with 24k gold flakes. Now that I've acquired a taste for gold, I can't stop. It's getting expensive. Just kidding, you can't tell it's gold; it's probably just gold tissue paper. But it was a cool experience.

As I alluded to a few posts ago, I was disappointed with our tour guide in Dubai. We've always had such excellent guides on our trips, including in India, but this guy was in a category of his own. He was late, promised us things that never happened, was rude, impatient, and very defensive when I tried to discuss our issues or make suggestions. He didn't talk much about everyday life in Dubai, which is what everyone loves to hear about. Two weeks later, I've mostly let go and moved on. It definitely didn't ruin our trip, but our United Arab Emirates experience would have been so much richer if we'd had a better guide.
There is a darker side to Dubai that was never addressed. To make all this construction possible, there are foreign workers who are housed in terrible conditions and paid very little. For some reason, the foreign worker villages are not on the tourist sightseeing circuit.
But yeah - Dubai is larger than life. You have to see it to believe it. 25% of the world's construction cranes are there. We were told that huge skyscrapers and giant construction projects are always completed on time or earlier. They know their oil won't last forever so they are constantly coming up with new ways to attract tourists. They have Ferrari World, water parks, and Lego Land, with a complete Lego city of Dubai as well as the seven wonders of the world. Speaking of the seven wonders, they're building a theme park with the seven wonders of the world built in actual size. They have Uber for helicopters, called UberChopper. People have tigers as pets, which sadly we didn't see for ourselves.
And then we were home. The kids seemed to do well while we were gone and didn't miss us much. Actually I don't think they missed us at all. Apparently Skip the Dishes was a frequent visitor. The stories are starting to come out; this is one that was revealed recently. (I wrote it in dialogue form).
Chloe: let's order Skip the Dishes!
Neve: Now? It's 10 pm on a school night and I'm sick. I have to go to bed.
Chloe: Come on - let's do it!
Neve: But I'm tired.
Chloe: Then go to bed and I'll wake you when the food comes.
Neve: zzzzz
Chloe: Wake up! The food's here!
Neve: zzzz No, just let me sleep.
Chloe: Come on, get up! the ice cream is going to melt!
Neve: (gets up)
I suppose it's fun for them to live their Pippi Longstocking dreams, unsupervised and spending their (my) gold coins. But for now, they are back to having parental supervision and involvement. Until next time.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

A little more India

I said I was going to write about Dubai next, but in the meantime here are a few signs we saw along the way.

It's not every day you see a road sign pointing to the Taj Mahal (the Trident was our hotel in Agra)
Apparently even his diverse skill set - from key-making to chair repairing - doesn't keep him busy

Kind of like KFC (and who needs that "e" in chicken? It doesn't fit anyway)

There are no beef burgers in McDonalds but you can have a corn & cheese patty on your Maharaja Mac! For the record, we didn't eat at McDonalds; we were just curious. But someone in our group did and they said the fries tasted exactly like they do at home.

Also at McDonalds: "Cold. Warm. Munchy. Now that's three much!"
Something seems to have been lost in translation.