Saturday, August 18, 2007

Dubai [July 10 to July 14, 2007]

When we were planning our trip, we struggled with whether or not to include Dubai on the itinerary. It was expensive to get to and expensive to stay in, but we and are glad we added it. It was great to see first hand what all the fuss is about. It is essentially a fabricated community in the desert. Dubai is the modern commercial capital of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which is a very small country that borders Oman and Saudi Arabia, and sits just opposite from Iran on the Persian Gulf. Dubai Creek divides the city, which sprawls into the desert.

Given all of the publicity that Dubai seems to get, we were expecting a glistening sea of high-rise buildings. What we found was different - it is a combination of somewhat dirty low-rise streetscapes and clustered groups of skyscrapers - most of which are still under construction. Really, a street in Dubai does not look that different from the ones that we saw in Egypt and Jordan. The food is traditional Middle Eastern - schwarma, falafel, kebab, etc. - OK, but not too exciting. The picture of food (and the essential Diet Coke) was a dinner that Karen was particularly proud of herself for having eaten most of. It was chicken kebab (kind of like spiced ground-chicken globs on a stick, with some strange soup, a salad, a plate of hummus, and some tomato and cucumber garnishes - very typical.

Although the local language is Arabic, most people speak at least some English (given that it is more or less an expat haven full of Westerners). Generally, it is fairly easy to get around. Matt thought about going into this "saloon" to get his hair cut (partially because it was well over 40+ degrees C), but decided to wait.
As for the temperature - it was HOT! Intense, persistent and exhausting heat was everywhere, everyday, all day...amazing really. We looked it up on when we were there and it said 'feels like 115 degrees F' for the daytime high.

This city seems to have been made by and for people with lots of money that like to throw it around. There are countless high-end hotels and hotel/office/retail developments. It has quite a night life, but you really need to be prepared to pay for that. The airport looks like a luxury shopping center and kind of has a Vegas feel. Dubai makes a big deal out of duty-free and the fact that it is a tax-free locale. There are some local shopping spots and a lot of street markets.

This was a small market down by the creek. Since we visited mid-summer, we had the misfortune of the heat and the benefit of it being 'low season' in terms of crowds. We also visited the spice souq (market), gold souq, and others. The gold market was paritularly impressive - gold, gold, gold, and lots of other jewelry. Apparently it is one of the biggest gold markets in the world. We found human-sized cooking pots at one booth. Generally, street markets are cheap and are good for practicing the old haggle-game.

We went to the Dubai Museum, which provides some good history on the city and country and arabic culture/life. There is a well-preserved neighborhood called Bastakia, which was apparently the place with rich, Iranian merchants lived. Now it is a tourist area, but you can still see the traditional architecture. This was (the top of) a home at one time.

The tall tower is actually what they used to use for air conditioning interior spaces. The tower is open at the top on all four sides and there are two tall pieces of fabric sewn together at their middles to form a criss-cross. The wind, coming from any direction, is caught and routed down into the house by the V formed in the fabric criss-cross. These houses look a bit different from the Dubai that we are used to seeing on TV - such as the Burj al Arab, the big building that looks like a sailboat and is right on the water. We tried to go look at it, but it is highly secure and unless you are going to go up for a meal or drink at the top (you pay some huge cover in advance, which gets applied to your bill) you can't get in. So, we settled for a few pictures from a distance.

Overall, our reaction to Dubai was mixed. It was too hot. Culturally, it is interesting, but it is pretty Westernized (which is probably OK because the culture in Arabic countries is fairly strong). The prices for most things you would actually want are quite high. It has lots to do, but the activities are very contrived and aren't cheap - indoor skiing, desert camping, camel riding, amusement parks, desert jeep tours, and super-shopping. One sort of interesting thing that we tried to do and (fortunately) failed was to go watch the camel races. It is something like horse racing, but with camels and in a much larger track. A particularly vocal cab driver shared a little more information about the 'sport' that made us glad to miss it. Apparently the practice of smuggling children in from Pakistan and Bangladesh to be the jockeys is common. They are desirable jockeys as they are cheap, small and light, and can be made to cry so that the camels are scared and run faster. The problem is that they often fall off and can be injured or killed - not so nice.

This is a shot of the city and Dubai Creek. Looking back, Dubai was a worthwhile stop, but after a few days we were ready to head further East.

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