As part of my blog, I have a series called Traveling with the Travelers in which I recount adventures on my various travels. The blog series name comes from my book – The Travelers. My goal is to provide a writer’s perspective on a location. This time the series takes me far away from the US to a completely different continent and a place I never thought I’d get to go – The Middle East.
An American Author in Dubai – First Glance
The nerves in my stomach waved and dipped with the motion of the airplane. I was about to land in the Middle East and the thought made me a little nervous.
I hated to admit it. I fancy myself adventurous, bereft of xenophobia and able to withstand common prejudices. But, as we drifted down to the tarmac I was scared. Despite all I’d read about Dubai, this was the Middle East and I was a free-talking, feminist touting American woman, currently traveling alone.
Preview of Dubai
Before I left, I spent countless hours researching Dubai. Travel blogs and articles about what to wear, what to eat, customs and laws painted a picture of a city with a split personality. Resort areas encapsulated visitors in a world of European-like glamour, bursting with designer clothes, champagne-filled restaurants, nightclubs and beach life similar to the French Riviera. Outside those sprawling multicultural oases, the rest of Dubai was described as a mosaic of a rich, but modest Arab culture with strict Muslim laws.
I didn’t quite know what to make of these descriptions. Some sites said to wear a wedding ring if you’re a woman traveling without a husband; cover your shoulders always; if you need to ask a question, ask a woman; don’t curse; don’t use your left hand when eating; don’t sing or dance; holding hands can get you thrown in jail. Other sites said not to worry about such things and just be respectful to the people and all would be fine.
This conflicting advice left me feeling more confused than calmed.
This conflicting advice left me feeling more confused than calmed. So I needed to wear an haute couture bathing suit at the hotel, but I shouldn’t leave the hotel premises in shorts? Did I need to constantly change my outfits? As a woman should I leave the hotel alone at all?
I wanted to respect the culture but I also didn’t want to spend my entire visit worrying I might have done something wrong.
Love at First Sunrise
My nerves continued to flip and bounce in the taxi as it bolted across the highways, soaring towards downtown Dubai. I pressed my forehead to the hot glass and searched the picture outside my window for something to grasp onto and hold me steady. Through arching overpasses, a skyline formed in the distance, a thin, hazy silhouette. Its color deepened in the morning sky, building into peaks pointed upward like a metallic mountain range, mysterious and beautiful.
My chrysalis of nerves morphed into butterflies, fluttering around with excitement. I was here. My feet had touched Dubai soil. This was no longer a concept. I was in a place I’d never imagined I would go. I suddenly wanted to see everything.
The Linguistics of Settling In
“Bonjour!” said the tall man in the tan suit who opened my taxi door.
While my French was limited to mostly “hello”, “how are you” and the very important “my cat is black,” that was far more than I could speak in Arabic. So, I pulled my rusty French out of the back of my head and said to the bellman, “Bonjour! Commet allez vous?”
The man responded with a questioning grin as he rolled my bag to the front desk. I’d arrived at my home away from home for the next five days, a French hotel chain called the Sofitel.
“Bonjour,” said the front desk clerk.
The bellman stood next to me grinning, the handle of my bag tucked into his fingers as if he were waiting for instructions. I turned my attention to the front desk clerk, a small woman in a scoop neck dress with shiny black hair. She looked as if she hailed from a country in Asia rather than the Middle East or France. Still, this was the Sofitel, so I gave her the same response, “Bonjour! Commet allez vous?” Again, I received the same blank smile.
A little confused, I handed her my passport and she tapped at the computer, “Welcome to the Sofitel,” she said in a clear, unaccented English.
It took me longer than it should have to realize that although they worked at a French hotel, the staff knew less French than even I did. This was my first lesson. In this highly international city where over 80% of residents are from other countries, there’s one language everyone seems to know and it’s not French nor Arabic. It’s English. This is why every sign has English subtitles and every sales associate, every taxi driver can at least speak a halting, passable version of English.
The other part of me looked around and wondered if instead of exploring a new and interesting culture, I’d just traveled 12 plus hours over a vast ocean to a place that wasn’t much different than home.
The part of me that let anxiety tumble around in my stomach rejoiced. This would make the trip so much easier. The other part of me looked around and wondered if instead of exploring a new and interesting culture, I’d just traveled 12 plus hours over a vast ocean to a place that wasn’t much different than home.
Give in to the Reverie
The gold-lined elevator greeted me with the sultry voice of a woman belting out a pop song, the kind with a good hook and mass appeal.
The song followed me to my room, wafting out of the TV speakers the moment I entered. Before I could find the remote and figure out how to use it, the song played and replayed at least five times. I soon learned this song played on a loop in the hotel. In the elevators, when you enter a room, it was always on, inescapable.
During my stay, I’d go through several stages of emotion in response to this song, from interest to annoyance, to hatred and finally acceptance. The lyrics repeated, “Give in to the reverie.” Under the influence of that hypnotic chant, I did.
My first glimpse of this reverie came when I entered the hotel room. The plush fabrics, swirling carpet, and sleek cabinets created a whimsical, opulent atmosphere. I fell into a giant, bright yellow chair that spun around, circling and circling as I noticed all the features of the room. The high-tech light and temperature panel, the bubbling tube chandeliers, a giant dressing room with two full walls of closets, the bathtub looking out over the skyline. I spun and spun, falling into the day-dream.
A Very Tired Explorer
Rousing myself from the clutches of sleep, I slid off the chair and changed into a long dress with a linen shirt over top. My eyes felt heavy. I splashed water on my face and then covered it with a good swipe of sunscreen.
The key to acclimating to a time change is to stay awake. Don’t let yourself sleep until it’s bedtime. I’d landed at 8am Dubai time, equivalent to only midnight on the Eastern side of the US. My goal was not to sleep for at least another 12 hours.
If I stayed in the room, sleep would overtake me. It was too calming, too cozy, too easy to fall back into that yellow chair and spin into a dream.
So, instead, I grabbed my purse and I went out to explore, completely unaware of the wondrously odd world of dichotomies I’d soon find…
…Stay tuned for part 2 of An American Author in Dubai…Coming soon…