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Everyplace in the world has its claim to fame. Paris has its crepes. Thailand has its Pad Thai. And Alaska has its Xtra Tufs.
However, what if I told you that you could find all this and more in one humble little city? OK, so it's not that little, nor humble, in fact. Make no mistake about it, there is no place more different, more bizarre, more extravagant than the the Middle East's very own Dubai.
A city of excess to the extremes, Dubai is the Vegas of the world. Part of the United Arab Emirates, Dubai road on the back of an economic growth wave in the Arabian Peninsula (largely fueled by the discovery of oil in the region) to burst forward from its humble beginnings into becoming the poster child of excess. A city of large hotels and larger checkbooks, Dubai is largely associated with glitz, glam, and grands ... hundreds of thousand grands that is. And it was this very jungle of modernity that I set out to discover during one long weekend.
So, yes I sold out. I traded my rough and tumbly shoes for some stylish loafers. And yes, I was given a severe rebuking by my travel friends. But here's the deal: a true traveler sees all sides of life. The real traveler doesn't just stick to experiencing one type of culture he or she knows, the real traveler discovers everything, from the most rudimentary train stations in Africa to the chicest restaurants in Europe. And it was on this premise that I set out, with my fellow travel companion, Dina, to discover just how exactly Dubai is not like our home. And here are six reasons why.
1. Multicultural melting pot
Dubai is hardly the Middle East. Nor is it more Western, Eastern, up or down. Dubai is a world created from colliding others together. I think my first hint of this was when our airlines "Fly Dubai", offered translations in Urdu, Hindu, Tagalog, and English long before its own national language of Arabic. Truth be told, I encountered on a daily basis way more people from Pakistan, India, Philippines, Africa, Eastern Europe, and Asia than the actual Arab Emirate citizen.
2. Soirée snootiness
From the moment Dina and I took our first humble steps out of the airport, we were met with towering buildings glowing with neon lights of all pigmentations, fast-moving stylish cars and technology to the utmost supreme.
However, our starry-eyed stares were soon melted away when we made our first foray into a night club for a taste of the Dubai night scene. It was here were we, two American volunteers straight from the roughneck of Africa, were made painfully clear of one thing - we were not that cool.
Whenever I tried moving about with my drink, the moment I even brushed passed a fellow club-goer I was immediately given what Dina liked to call "the stank eye". For all of you who don't know what that means, the "stank eye" is equivalent to the look someone gives the piece of gum they step on in a subway car.
3. Burger stands with Pagers
Deflated but not defeated, we set out the next day to truly integrate ourselves into the classy Dubai scene by spending the day at... Wild Wadi Waterpark. Okay so it still didn't really give us the hip edge, but there is nothing better than racing down a water slide with the Persian Gulf glimmering in the distance, skylined by the famous towering Burj al-Arab hotel (known for its design of a sailboat). However what gave me my biggest surprise about how intense Dubai's "customer service edge" can become at lunch time. I ordered a burger and fries from a little booth at the park, and was given an earnest apology by the server because there would be a "3-minute delay" in preparing my fries. They then handed me an Olive-garden style pager so I could go sit at my table about 4 feet away to wait on my fries. Three minutes later on the dot my pager rang, and it was then I realized that I was definitely not in Kansas anymore.
4. The big fix for the shopping junkie
Later that night Dina and I decided to take a peak at what actually does represent Dubai culture: a shopping mall. Now as I am not so much the connoisseur of name-brands or labels, this part was Dina's territory. And by the way her eyes darted about like an over-caffeinated infant, and from her self-described panic attack of "option overload", I'm guessing that this mall was unlike anything she, in her 28 years of east-coast sophistication, had ever seen. Myself I took refuge in a movie theater. I was just tickled to find that not only did the ticket print the exact start and stop time of the movie, but the moment the movie hit the 2 hour 13 minute mark the ticket had printed, the screen turned off, the lights went on, and the custodians came in to clean. Talk about impeccable punctuality.
5. Souks of splendor
For our second day we set out to explore the various souks of Dubai. The economic base of the city resides in several areas: import/export, tourism, construction and merchandise. This last one places so much a factor in Dubai that the city is actually divided into sections (often labeled 'souks') based on what you were looking to buy. There were some souks devoted to selling electronics, others for fabric, and some still for gold and silver. I decided to pretend being a true Dubai tourist and see what exactly it felt like to live outside my means and try a hand at bargaining for gold. "$7,000 for a 24 karat gold necklace? Hmmm... thats a little out of my price range" ... how about the 12 karat?" Needless to say, I didn't get it.
6. Everything you could ever need and more
After some serious exploration of the Dubai market scene, the rest of the day was slated for relaxing. We detoxed our shopping nerves out while reposing on a boat tour of Dubai Creek (more of a river really), where we got to marvel at all the very large and very modern skyscraper skyline. Afterwards we made sure to wind down our last day spending adequate time enjoying meals at the many multicultural restaurants, catching another movie, and partaking in some late night shisha at one of the many swanky shisha cafes (each table had its own call button on it to ring a server).
I have to admit, despite my best efforts, I found that I quite enjoyed myself in the city of no limits. Dina and I even caught ourselves wishing we had a few more days to experience the other many marvels like camel racing, skiing at the indoor ski mountain and, of course, more beach time along the Persian Gulf. However, we also quickly realized that our wallets would never match our ambitions in this place.
One thing for sure, is that Dubai is not trying to be just a tourist city, or a business city, or even a glamorous city. It's trying to be an "everything and anything" city, and it is for these reasons that this city is not, nor ever will be, like your home.
Philip Dierking is a Juneau resident working as an International Foundation for Education and Self-Help volunteer in the east African country of Djibouti, where he teaches English at the only university.