Dubai, United Arab Emirates
I was wide awake again at 5:00 a.m. so I watched the sun come up while I had some tea on my balcony. The view from my hotel room really never gets old. (As I mentioned before, I think I should just live in this room.)
After breakfast I grabbed a cab and went to the Sheikh Mohammad Center for Cultural Understanding to do a walking tour of the Bastakiya neighborhood in Old Dubai. The area we walked through was pretty small, and we ended up spending about a half hour inside the adjacent Bastakiya mosque discussing Islam and its traditions, including the reason why men and women have different prayer areas. I had heard the reason before (too distracting to men if they have women bending down in front of them, and too uncomfortable for women since you have to stand foot to foot with the people beside you). However, our guide (who was a fascinating, funny and very open fellow) required all of us to stand as Muslims do and then kneel in prayer. After participating in the exercise, the rationale made a whole lot more sense… I really didn’t like getting cozy with the fellow I just met from Hong Kong.
We ended the tour with dates and coffee and a Q and A. I had a number of questions and I won’t bore you all with them, but suffice is to say my guide and I had a very interesting discussion about religion.
I left the Bastakiya area and wandered down the street through the fabric district to the Dubai Old Souk. Now I have been to some pretty cool souks in my travels (with the best being Khan el-Khalil in Old Cairo), so the bar is pretty high. Needless to say, this souk did not measure up. I even felt sorry for the vendors who had no snappy lines like many of the vendors have in souks around the world. I think that part of the problem is that the folks running the stores are not native to Dubai. They all appeared to be of Pakistani or Indian decent, and I really don’t think their hearts were in it. (I even found myself missing the witty comments of Tarek in Cairo … “Lady, Lady Lady… I don’t know what you’re looking for, but I know that I have it right here.”)
In fact, as near as I can tell Dubai is a city of immigrants. There are very few people who are actually native to this region. The vast majority of folks you have contact with appear to have been hired to run the country. Lots and lots of Pakistanis, Indians, Thai and Filipinos. Because this region is so wealthy (thanks to oil), the folks who are actually native to the area are so rich they don’t need to work so the service sector is teeming with immigrants.
Anyway, after the disappointment of the souk, I headed to Dubai Creek and decided to take an abra accros the water from Bur Dubai to Deira. (An abra is small boat with an engine in the middle and a lowered platform beside the engine from where the driver steers the boat – seating was around the perimeter of the boat.) One UAE dirham (about 34 cents US) and ten minutes later and I was on the other side of the little waterway. The driver kept after me to go on a private half hour trip around the creek for 60 dirham, but I wasn’t interested.
Once on the other side, I wandered around the Deira area past many ethnic shops, perfume stores, vegetable stands and the gold and spice souks. The air had a mixture of incense, perfume and spices that you only find in the middle east. It was heavenly.
After the walk, it was time to head back to my hotel to change for my 4:00 p.m. reservation for afternoon tea at At.mosphere – the bar on the 122nd floor of the Burj Khalifa. And talk about high security. The elevator to At.mosphere is also on the same level as the elevator to the upper level corporate office floors so there was a great deal of security to even get to the check in desk on the lower level of the building.
Now a little bit about the Burj Khalifa. It took 5 years to build, was completed in 2009 and is 829.84 metres or 2,723 feet high and has 163 floors. The top floors as I mentioned are used for corporate offices, with the highest floor occupied by the ruler of the Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum (it’s good to be king!) FYI – Dubai is not a true democracy as the ruling Sheikh is a direct descendant of the original founding family of Dubai. The “crown prince” is selected by the ruling Sheikh, and he may or may not be the eldest son. The only elections in Dubai are for a parliament that appears to answer directly to the Sheik.
Anyway, once I cleared security I was wisked straight up 123 floors (and when I say wisked I mean wisked … it took under two minutes to get to floor 123). Once I got off the elevator, I walked down one flight of stairs staring down at the tiny dot that was my hotel, and was once again checked in. A hostess then took me to my table where I was clearly going to have a magnificent view of the sun set.
The bar was very modern with lots of glass (obviously) and chrome, but at the same time was cozy and comfortable with lots of cushions and low backed upholstered chairs. The service turned out to be absolutely impeccable. And the afternoon tea was delicious. First up was fruit skewers and a delicious passion fruit and apple mocktail followed by an array of finger foods including an organic chicken and mushroom quiche, waygu beef and cheese on a roll, and tiny finger sandwiches, including the best egg sandwich I ever had (with a hint of truffle oil). I told the manger how much I enjoyed the egg sandwich and 5 minutes later three more appeared in front of me. It was awesome! There were petite cakes and some mini scones with warm raspberry jam and pot after pot of tea. Yummy. And to top it all off, the view was spectacular and the sunset beautiful. It was a wonderful, peaceful, decadent experience and I loved every minute of it!
After the sunset (around 6 p.m.) I left At.mosphere and wandered back towards my hotel. The walk took me through an area called Burj Khalifa Lake, which is a series of pools on 30 acres surrounding the Burj Khalifa containing a fountain system that goes off every half hour between 6:00 p.m.and 11:00 p.m. on weekends and 6:00 p.m. and 10:00 p.m. on weekdays. The fountains are so large I can see and hear them from my hotel balcony. Anyway, the walk took me past the fountains and over a series of bridges that allow pedestrians to walk over the pools. My timing was perfect because I was just crossing one of the bridges when the fountains and the music began. The fountains are a real tourist attraction and there were hundreds of people lining the walkways and bridges to watch the show. It was the Ballagio Fountains on steriods! (In fact the company that designed the Bellagio Fountains also designed the Dubai Fountains.)
After the 5 minute show, I headed back to my hotel and decided to take a trip to the Gold and Diamond Mart. I had done a bit of research on line (primarily through TripAdvisor) and found that the number one shop appeared to be “House of Windsor” run by a gentleman by the name of Mehul. I grabbed a cab and fifteen minutes later I found myself wandering into the House of Windsor shop. I was introduced to Mehul, told him what I was looking for and presto, I was shortly draped in a girl’s best friend. I am not going into the details, but suffice is to say, Mehul made my night and I made his.
So after we reached an “agreement”, Mehul ordered a driver for me and I was back to my hotel by 8:30. At this point, I decided to make an early night of it so I sat on the balcony with some fruit juice, watched the fountains and called it good. Unfortunately, my body didn’t think so and I tossed and turned. I am having a tough time adjusting to the time difference and am feeling rather sleep deprived. Hopefully, another day or two will cure the problem.
Sunday morning I grabbed some breakfast (more yummy middle eastern goodness) and decided I needed to have a “date taste test”. The restaurant in my hotel displays an assortment of dates to choose from each morning, and I wanted to figure out the difference between the various dates (sort of a middle eastern version of a wine tasting …). Anyway, after tasting all five, the hands down winner was the Kohalas date … toffee coloured, chewy, not overly sweet, but with hints of carmel. It was so good, I went back and got five more.
And another funny thing I learned at breakfast. The gentleman who sat next to me in the restaurant was reading a newspaper printed in Arabic. Now I always knew that you read Arabic from right to left (as opposed to left to right in English), but what I did not know is that newspapers and books are printed the same way. I watched this man read the paper and he started reading the paper at what I would have thought was the back page and proceeded to the front. The only thing was that as he turned the pages I could see the pages also had been numbered in western numerals and the numbers were increasing as he turned each page. So newspapers printed in Arabic are read from back to front (at least from a Western perspective). Weird and cool all at the same time! (And I am not sure why I did not know this from prior trips to the middle east….)
After breakfast, I grabbed a cab and went to the Jumeriah Mosque for a tour and educational talk. The tour was sponsored by the Sheikh Mohammad Center for Cultural Understanding (which is the same group providing the Bastikiya tour I took the day before). The mosque was quite nice inside, but surprisingly new having been completed only in 1979. The talk and tour were very interesting, and I learned a great deal about the prayer service and the ritual bowing and chants that make up the prayer service.
After the tour, I headed back through the traffic (which was rather strange since it was Sunday, but in this part of the middle east it was their Monday) and packed up my bags. I did not want to leave my lovely hotel room, but my stay in Dubai was coming to a close. Since my flight was not until 6:45 p.m., I checked out of my room, stored my bags and headed across the street for a quick visit to the Dubai Aquarium.
The visit was well worth it and included a “shark” tunnel, which consisted of a glass tunnel that allowed you to be surrounded by water and sharks (as well as a myriad of other fish). However, it really weirded me out – the only thing worse that crocodiles are sharks. Anyway, I started to walk through the tunnel and I was so freaked out I ended up running through it. Once I reached the end, I got mad at myself for being a chicken so I turned around and walked back through a part of it, but it really gave me the creeps. So I gave up and took the stairs up to the tank areas and wandered through an amazing display of marine life. It was a pretty cool way to end my stay. (Oh and for those of you wondering why I didn’t do a desert safari … I did one is Jordan a couple years ago and the experience was so fabulous I didn’t want to end up tarnishing the memory or feel let down by a lesser experience. Plus, there is no way I am getting on a camel again … once was enough thank you very much! And I did not want to do a jeep safari over dunes – not my “cup of tea”!)
So … next stop … Iran.