Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Dubai, United Arab Emirates

I think the first time I heard about Dubai was about ten years ago. One of seven emirate states of the UAE on the Persian Gulf, Dubai is the most populous by far - though the vast majority of the population are immigrants from other places in the world who've come to work.

Dubai is a city of excess in nearly every way. The wealth on display is unbelievable, jaw-dropping. We saw incredibly expensive cars, families with a nanny for each child, and new buildings and roads going up everywhere. There are huge construction cranes in nearly every direction you look, and everything seems designed to make you feel like you're surrounded by glamour and wealth. It's like Las Vegas without the vice.

And it has the (current) tallest building in the world: the Burj Khalifa.

I should note here that Dubai has come under much criticism for human rights abuses of its immigrant workers. Many construction workers from Asian countries are reportedly little more than indentured servants, and apparently work under difficult conditions. There are also many stories of sexual abuse of female domestic workers. So as much as I enjoyed my time there, all of it is colored by the knowledge that all is not quite as bright and shiny as it seems. And it's certainly true that Dubai is not the only place in the world at which such a criticism could be leveled - nor is it the only place we've been to this year where this was this case.

That said, we had a lot of fun. We had originally planned to spend four nights in Dubai and then go on to Egypt. With the troubles in Egypt this year, we canceled those plans and considered going to Athens instead. But by the time we got to Dubai and our beautiful room at the Conrad Hotel, we realized we didn't want to leave quite that quickly, just to fly all the way back to Jordan in a few days. And so we decided to spend a little more than a week in Dubai in order to relax after a rather quick and busy hop through Europe. It turned out to be a fantastic decision.

The Conrad had just opened the month before, so we were able to get a fantastic deal on a very nice room. The hotel had a beautiful pool, a great executive lounge, and several good restaurants, and it was not far from all the places we'd planned to visit. It was right next to a light rail stop, though we quickly realized that the price of a taxi was almost always the same as the price for three train tickets, for most of the places we wanted to go. Taxis were much cheaper here than in Europe. I suppose gasoline is cheap?

We were in Dubai over Halloween, and I'd hoped to find a way to celebrate it while we were there. One of  the fascinating things about being out of the US this year has been that we don't see any of the holiday overload that we'd see at home. Holidays come and go with fairly minimal notice in so many parts of the world. The timing of Mother's Day and Father's Day vary depending on the country, and Valentine's Day, Easter, and Halloween are not the huge commercial holidays everywhere that they are in the US. When they are observed, it's in such a low-key manner that it's easy to miss them altogether. (I think Christmas is the exception to this rule, as we'll soon see.) 

I wasn't sure if Halloween would be celebrated in a Muslim country at all, but considering how international Dubai is, I thought we could probably find something to do. Of course, without the buildup we'd have at home, we could have just quietly ignored it and Carter wouldn't have known the difference, but it was something I wanted to observe anyway. It's such a big kid holiday at home, and I could imagine Carter asking next fall what he'd been for Halloween last year, and us having to 'fess up that we'd just skipped it. 

So I searched online and found that a kids' play place at the Dubai Mall was hosting a Halloween party with trick-or-treating around the mall. It was expensive, but so is everything in Dubai, so we signed Carter up. It turned out to be a lot of fun. 

There were crafts like making a treat bag, face painting, and so on.

And of course, we didn't have a costume for Carter, but I rifled through his suitcase and realized that we had his safari pants and hat and a safari-themed t-shirt we'd bought in South Africa. And so he went as a safari guide! Ironically enough, these were the exact clothes he wore while on safari in Africa, but hey - it worked, and he was happy with it.

The trick-or-treating was an interesting experience. Employees from the playplace led groups of kids in costumes around the mall to participating shops, and everyone would say "Trick or treat!" all at once. The shops handed out gift bags and balloons, and the occasional massive handful of candy. It was an unusual Halloween haul!

It was really interesting to watch the other shoppers try to figure out what was going on.  

One toy store had a cotton candy machine. This sounds like a fantastic idea, but ten minutes later the entire group of kids was pink and sticky!

Overall, Carter had a lot of fun, which was the idea. I think he had a memorable Halloween experience in Dubai.

The next day was Friday (the first day of the Arab weekend) we went to one of Dubai's famous brunches. It was at a hotel on the beach, and the view was lovely.

I had a brief twinge of regret that we hadn't stayed on the beach, but I think the location our hotel was in was far more convenient.

The Halloween theme was still going strong. Everyone got light-up horns.

The pastry chef was particularly inspired!

Check out the brain cake below!

The brunch featured free-flowing champagne, beer, margaritas, and mojitos. Alcohol is very expensive in Dubai due to the high taxes levied on it. One of the hotel staff told us that only hotels in Dubai can get liquor licenses, and that in order to be served in hotel bars, Dubai residents are required to have an alcohol license. (This is apparently sort of like a driver's license.) However, if you are from Emirates or another Muslim country, you can't get such a license (since Muslims aren't supposed to drink alcohol). Many Muslims do drink without a license, of course, but if they're caught, there is a heavy fine to pay and they have to attend several weeks of classes about Islam!

Muslims don't eat pork, of course, so there was a special room at the brunch just for pork, so as not to offend Muslim guests.

The grounds of the hotel were beautiful.

There were sea turtles in the lagoon.

I believe that the sail-shaped building you see in the background here is the hotel that has the famous underwater suites.

The Conrad wasn't on the beach, but it had a beautiful pool and we really enjoyed it. The temperature was in the 90s, perfect for hanging out in the pool every afternoon. One of the women who worked poolside befriended Carter and they had great conversations about dinosaurs, microbiology, and so on. Carter drew pictures for her and she drew pictures for him, and it was really sweet. (I think she's following this blog, so hello and thank you!)

This was intended to be a picture of our lovely room, but I especially adore this image of Carter. He was so engrossed in whatever he was reading that I was able to get a rare candid shot. This really captures him, though - he's always working, learning, studying. Even as I type this, he's searching for YouTube videos about prehistoric mammals and reading all the names and facts to me.

One of the things I've wanted to see every since I first heard about it was Ski Dubai, an indoor ski resort in a shopping mall. The very idea of it just sounded incredible to me, and it seemed like something I had to see for myself! So one day, we visited the Mall of the Emirates and had lunch in a Swiss-themed restaurant overlooking the ski slope.

How crazy is that? We returned a few days later to go sledding (see below).

The thing Carter had most been looking forward to in Dubai was seeing the Burj Khalifa. He's been drawing pictures of the tallest buildings in the world for months now, and the idea that he could see and go to the top of the tallest was something he was nearly giddy with excitement about. We tried to go the first day we were in Dubai, but it turns out you have to buy tickets several days in advance. Lucky for us that we'd decided to stay in Dubai longer than we'd originally planned; otherwise we would have missed our chance!

When the big day came, we were first ushered to a waiting area that had a huge mural on the wall showing a scale drawing of the ten tallest buildings in the world. We were all amazed because this is exactly what Carter has been drawing for months! He has notebooks full of drawings of all of these buildings, labeled with their names, locations, and heights in both feet and meters, and here was a huge mural showing exactly the same thing. 

When it was finally our time to board the elevator, we were all excited. It turned out that the observation deck was on the 124th floor (out of 200+ floors), so we only went up about two-thirds of the way. Carter was a little disappointed about that, but the view was still amazing.

The islands you can see off in the distance below are the artificial islands of "The World" development. I think that basically went bust, but it's still interesting to see.

Carter really wanted to do the crazy special effects photography at the top. It was insanely expensive, but it was fun and we have some cool photos to show for it. (I keep telling myself that, anyway!)

That same day we decided to visit the Dubai Aquarium, also located in the Dubai Mall.  It's a smallish aquarium compared to many we've visited this year, but it has a huge shark tank.

This is about as close as I ever want to get to a shark!

This ray was HUGE.

There was a tunnel through the giant shark tank, of course. Those are always fun.

The rest of the aquarium was interesting, if small.

Lionfish are a favorite of mine.

This is a shark egg with a fetal shark developing inside. One side of the egg husk had been removed and we could see the tiny shark wiggling around inside.

Huge crabs!

Dubai is such a strange mix of cultures. on the one hand, it is incredibly western, with every American fast food chain you can think of dotting street corners, and shopping malls full of familiar clothing stores, all selling the latest fashions. People-watching in the malls was very interesting, with every possible style of dress on display. I was particularly fascinated by the Emirati women in flowing black robes, with perfectly pedicured feet peeking out from beneath in very expensive shoes, perfect make-up, ridiculously large jewels dripping off their hands, and talking on a jeweled cell phone while Malaysian nannies trailed behind with their children. Whatever those women were wearing under the robes they wear in public, I'm sure it was expensive!

So yes, there are some extremely rich people in Dubai.  These were parked outside our hotel one day. His and hers Lamborghinis, perhaps?

These personalized pacifiers in a baby shop in the mall really struck me Some things are the same everywhere.

There is a Hard Rock Cafe in Dubai (at yet another mall), so we had to have lunch there one day.

We decided to spend a day at Ski Dubai to go sledding. (We'll teach Carter to ski one day, but today was not that day.)

It's actually a really interesting set-up. With the price of admission you get to borrow snow clothes and boots and all the equipment you need. We got changed into snow clothes and walked into a winter wonderland.

Carter had a blast stomping around in the snow and riding sleds. There were several small slopes you could ride inner tubes down.

There was also a hill you could roll down in a giant ball. This was something I've always wanted to do, I have to say. It was pretty fun!

Carter loved it too!

We rode the ski lift up to another sled run.

And we found a spot to have some hot chocolate!

Overall it was a lot of fun. I just tried very hard not to think about how much energy it takes to keep a building this size at -5 degrees Celsius in the middle of a desert that reaches 50 degrees Celsius in the summer. 

The Burj Khalifa by night is definitely spectacular.

At the base of the building there is a huge fountain that has water and music coordinated shows every half hour at night. The music ranges from traditional Arabic music to classical to pop, and is really is spectacular. Here is a video of one of the shows we saw.

Dubai is a really interesting place, and one I'd like to go back to sometime. Just not in the summer, I think. ;-)

1 comment:

  1. Are you guys ok? I haven't seen an update in awhile :-)

    Kim S in Houston