In the midst of this literally freezing week (month, really), I wanted to throw back to one of the warmest places I've ever been: Dubai. I visited the "City of Gold" in 2012 and had a lot of mixed feelings about going. I was excited to see my friend, Jeff, who'd recently moved there for a job, but had a lot of reservations going to the United Arab Emarites as a Jewish woman. I'd just traveled to Israel and was told that I might not be able to enter the UAE if my passport was stamped with an Israeli stamp. That was Strike 1. Strike 2 were the rules: no physical contact between sexes in public (including hugs and holding hands), no dancing in public (watch Ang defy the laws!), and no alcohol … unless of course you're in a hotel and can make the country money. Disobeying these laws could land you in jail. Our traveling companions, Allison and CJ, went so far as to get fake wedding bands in order to safely share a room. Strike 3 was the opulence. Oil money being thrown around by teenagers and flaunted in the form of Lamborghinis and Bugattis just isn't my jam.
In spite of my misgivings, Jeff, as always, made sure that we all had an amazing time. He showed us around the city, took us to the beach, and even planned a desert safari (my favorite part). As we explored, I noticed a few strange things.
1. There aren't any addresses. When riding in a cab, you have to give directions in the form of landmarks. This is impossible if you've never been to the city before. Good luck finding your hotel if your driver's never heard of it! I'm still confused about how anyone gets mail there.
2. No one walks anywhere. Every time we ventured out, cabs would try to pick us up every five minutes. Since the subway doesn't run a lot and is sort of unreliable, this is understandable, especially in the summer months.
3. The city is a futuristic ghost town. This part of the desert was empty so long for good reason. It's not really an ideal inhabitable environment. But alas, after oil discovery sometime in the 1960s, a city was born. Now, giant glass buildings shoot up from a desert wasteland. Most are either half complete or completely empty. Why are they still building these skyscrapers?
4. Dubai feels like a city within Disneyland. It felt like how people think a Middle Eastern city should be. It just didn't seem authentic. I didn't see one art gallery or concert hall and finding "authentic Dubai food" was nearly impossible.
5. Everything is inside of a mall. Everything -- meaning full-sized amusement parks, an enormous shark aquarium and a giant ski slope. Even the entrance to the Burj Kalifa is…you guessed it, inside of a mall. I understand it's necessary to house things indoors because of the weather, but do they have to be in mega malls?
6. There's a dark side to the "City of Gold." Like a lot of big cities, Dubai is reliant on migrant workers. They're recruited from impoverished towns and brought to Dubai after paying up to $4,000 under the pretense that they'll be able to repay the debt within 18 months. Instead, they're crammed into overcrowded shanty towns on the outskirts of Dubai and are paid a measly wage, essentially imprisoning them in the city. If you'd like to know more about this, check out this BBC report.
That last fact made it really hard for me to fully appreciate anything we saw in the city. That's probably part of the reason that I enjoyed our desert safari so much. About an hour's drive outside of Dubai, is exactly what you'd expect: desert. A beautiful, untouched, golden desert. Jeff arranged a tour for us that included dune bashing, an awesome dinner, and a belly dancing show. There were also camels, henna artists, and a hawk present.
To be fair, there were a few things I did like in the city like the souks, dancing fountains, canal, and beaches. Plus, their attitudes towards Western women were pretty lax (i.e., I could wear a skirt above my knees without feeling like I was being disrespectful). I don't think I'll ever be fully on board with Dubai, but I'm glad that I visited so that I could discover that for myself.