wAs 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. And this is part 3…(Check here to read parts 1 and 2.)
An American Author in Dubai (Part 3) – Last Day in the City of Sand and Glass
When last we left our adventurous traveling author (me) she was rushing back to her hotel with only dreams of sea creatures to keep her cool. In a hurry to escape the clutches of thick desert air, she nearly slammed into one of the clear sliding glass doors of her hotel. No one saw her blush though, her cheeks were too red from the heat. As her skin returned to its natural color thanks to the icebox cold lobby, she didn’t realize that the sun wouldn’t scorch her skin again for a long time…
Trapped in a tower….
Once she stepped foot inside the hotel, it latched its cool fingers around her and didn’t let go. The modern castle of the Sofitel trapped her inside its walls for days, refusing to let her out to explore the richness of Dubai, like a princess in a tower.
During her seclusion in the hotel, our adventurous lady sometimes felt as if time stood still. This was thanks to the constant hum of a single song that followed her through every floor and every room. The thought passed through her mind that the music must have some sort of hidden hypnotic properties because she never actually felt trapped or unhappy, despite not leaving the hotel for two days straight and barely sleeping.
The thought passed through her mind that the music must have some sort of hidden hypnotic properties because she never actually felt trapped in the hotel, despite not leaving it for two days straight and barely sleeping.
Sometimes she roamed the halls, mouthing the words to the song and drinking in the strange, whimsical beauty of bubbling chandeliers, bright blue couches, and futuristic circular reading pods. Paintings from an avant-garde female artist popped out from the walls, daring the conservative culture to look again at the role of women in society. The hotel had a hint of Alice in Wonderland nestled inside a very trendy 2001: A Space Odyssey.
(To be fair, and less dramatic, she was in Dubai for work and the purpose of this visit was to help organize and run a 2-day meeting at the Sofitel. So she really couldn’t complain. It was a fantastic, informative meeting, especially if you’re a complete nerd who loves medicine and science combined with writing and editing, which she is.)
Free to roam…
Finally, on the last day of the meeting, the doors of the Sofitel burst open and men and women filtered out like fish let open in an ocean. She too had been set free to float away into the city.
For the first time since she’d arrived, she went to the top of the hotel and stepped out into the open air of the pool. She cast her eyes out across downtown Dubai. Glinting towers, each with their own unique architecture, pointed into the sky connected by a spiderweb of building cranes. She half expected to see flying cars fluttering through the modern buildings like butterflies.
She stepped back into that elevator, that same song playing, and plummeted down to the street level. A taxi carried her out of the central downtown area and into a new world of low sand-castle structures that climbed up out of the desert as if someone planted a seed and they’d grown from it.
This was Dubai as she saw it, modern from above, a homage to historic Arabic culture below. This strange juxtaposition confounded her, sand meets glass, organic meets steel. It was an odd place, two different worlds layered on top of each other.
After spending days in a luxurious hotel, she wanted to feel the heat of the street soak up through her soles. She wanted to smell and taste and feel what it meant to be in Dubai. So, with two fun-loving work friends in tow, the first stop on the last day tour was The Gold Souk.
Souk: an Arab market or marketplace; a bazaar.
The souks of Dubai are not located in towers, but rather weaved between blocky sand-colored buildings that betray the age of Dubai. (They look a lot like the buildings you might see in any US city built circa 1960.) This is probably because (as the Big Red Bus Tour explained on her first day and Big Red Bus Tours don’t lie, right?) Dubai had its first big explosion of wealth in the 1960s. Not that long before that, Dubai was better characterized as a fishing village, best know for pearls. The discovery of black gold turned streets into 24c yellow gold.
She walked along canopied streets, trailing her fingers along glass windows that separated her from millions, maybe even billions of dollars, of extravagant custom jewelry. No piece looked exactly the same, regardless of the store. She had never seen so much sparkling gold in one place. The largest gold bracelet on earth, the largest gold chain on earth, dresses made completely out of gold, all tucked inside narrow alleyways and winding up squat buildings.
Hundreds of retailers hidden in air-conditioned glass pods displayed their gold and diamonds in eye-catching windows.
“Oh my look at that. Oh, no wait, look at that,” she exclaimed as her head swiveled around with a dizzying sense of wonder.
Men waved “30%” discount signs when she peered at the treasures or beckoned her down side streets to get the latest Gucci bags.
She had no interest in gold or Gucci, though. She just wanted to see the opulence and wonder, which again seemed to encapsulate the odd dichotomy of Dubai. Beneath stark, utilitarian buildings with clothes lapping in the wind on the balconies, lay a tiny city of gold and riches.
The spices of life….
After turning down several sellers trying to entice her to buy their golden wears, she ducked down a narrow, covered alleyway that split off from the gold souk. It was barely wide enough for two people to walk through side-by-side. This twisted into another and then another. The alleyways turning into something she might see in Chinatown in New York. Each time she passed one of the small refrigerator box sized retailers she’d note discount retail clothing or purses or beaded shoes.
She wound through the labyrinth streets so many times that one of her friends remarked, “Can we not go down another alleyway that smells like pee?” Unfortunately, it was those types of alleyways that pulled the strings of her adventurous side. On these streets people dressed in white linen or t-shirts and jeans rested on their stoops, nodding and smiling. They didn’t look like they drove Lamborghinis. This was what she wanted to experience. In her head she now affectionately calls this area P Street.
Her companions were less fond of pee, though. Taking into consideration that she wasn’t traveling alone, she used her nose to lead the group out of the “pee” streets and to a place with a much more pleasant smell.
If the Gold Souk was easily spotted by its glitter, the spice souk was easily spotted by its scent. Filled with colorful merchants, in more ways than one, scoops of coriander, packages of dates, tins full of teas were thrust in her direction. Spice stores looked more like toy shops with their rainbows of bright colors and hidden surprises.
Smiling vendors offered up strange fruits and spices, always being sure to provide a smell or a taste along with advice on how to use the spice, this one helps with headaches, this one is good for digestion, this one ensures health and longevity. The spice souk was part supermarket and part apothecary.
One last meal…
A bag full of dates, spices and chocolate in hand, she watched the sky as the sun started to graze against the tips of the buildings, coloring them with a red film. It was time for dinner. She didn’t want it to be time yet. There was still so much to see, but her flight was in just 5 hours.
A kindly taxi driver took pity on her and her friends. He drove them on an impromptu tour through the city, pointing out sites and contextualizing the rapid growth, noting that just a decade ago the road they were driving on was just sand.
He stopped along the road so they could at least glimpse some of the iconic aspects of Dubai, mosques, barges, the Knowledge Village. (In Dubai, areas are named things like this, medical village, technology village, which all aptly describe the areas.)
Then he suggested that they go to the River Walk for dinner, explaining there were an abundance of options and a beautiful view. The River Walk outlines a portion of the Palm, a man-made string of islands created in the shape of you, you guessed it, a palm tree.
The walk along the River Walk provided a strange view of the city. At night, dark half-finished buildings hid behind their sparkling sisters.
On the expansive walkway that could hold thousands, she only saw a few people. It felt a little like an abandoned city, just no one bothered to tell someone to turn off the lights.
A string of restaurants hugged the edge of the walkway, all fitted with giant outdoor air-conditioning units meant to entice the few groups of people strolling by. Empty white boats bobbed in the dark waters and a single tiny river cruise waved past.
Men and woman stood in front of restaurants displaying large menus filled with pictures. They greeted her in German, making assumptions based on her pasty white skin and blond hair. (Apparently it’s not uncommon for Germans to visit Dubai.)
Her group chose a restaurant because it had at least three other people inside (the Dubai version of a Zagats review) and the person trying to woo patrons could point out the things on the menu that were gluten-free. It also had a wonderful view of tall buildings and a glowing mosque along the river walk.
She sat back, ate some falafel and hummus and soaked up the last rays of the city of glass and sand.
Saying goodbye to Dubai…
As she left duty-free at the airport, stuffed to the brim with candy-coated dates, she took in the last little hints of Dubai, the oddities that made its extravagance quirky and cute: the abundance of cappuccino machines, the clocks inscribed with “Rolex”, and bobblehead figurines of the Dubai royalty. A small sense of sadness settled into her stomach as the plane drifted up into the sky and back to the US. Although our adventurous traveler’s experience in Dubai was short, she and Dubai were fast friends. And like any brief friendship, it’s likely she only saw the best parts. But it was enough though to make our traveler want to keep in touch and return again and maybe write a few love letters.
Goodbye Dubai…until we meet again.