Saturday, May 3, 2014

Everything You Need to Know About Dubai

Working a comic book convention doesn't leave much time for sightseeing, but we were determined to fit in as much as possible and maximize our time in this unusual city. On the first day of the con, we broke away for a couple of hours in the afternoon and headed north into the historic quarter with the Dubai Museum as our destination.

In Dubai, taxis are the way to get around. There is, apparently, a light rail system - you can see the massive, ultra-modern elevated stations along the main highway in the downtown high-rise district - but it only has a couple of lines and limited stops, perhaps more symbolic than actually useful. Taxis are cheap - the longest ride we ever took across town only cost about 30 dirhams, just over 8 dollars - and ubiquitous. The drivers we encountered were mostly immigrants (like everyone in the service industries), and often seemed unhappy, or at least indifferent. We had read that there are pink taxis designated for women passengers only, but never saw one. We did, however, see a woman trying to hail a taxi by herself on the street near the Grand Mosque, and none were stopping for her. It occurred to us that perhaps this was because regular taxis aren't supposed to pick up unaccompanied women, and they must wait for a pink taxi? Unfortunately we never had the chance to ask a local whether this was true, or if she just had really bad luck.

The Dubai Museum is located at the Al Fahidi Fort, the oldest building in Dubai, built in 1787. Most of the museum in actually in an annex next door, but there are some artifacts and displays in the fort itself. The fort is either in amazing condition or has been restored, because it's unclear which parts are original and which have been rebuilt. There wasn't really any information available to clarify the history of the place, and that turned out to be a theme of the entire museum. There were a lot of interesting looking historical artifacts - from weapons to clothing to musical instruments - on display throughout, but very few of them were labeled with dates or context. The best section of the museum was a reconstructed desert house in the center of the courtyard inside the fort's walls. It was delicately built, with lovely details and very comfortable rugs carpeting each room. The most amazing feature was a tower built atop the living area, designed brilliantly to channel the breeze downward into the room like a natural air conditioner. It was so pleasant to sit under this tower that we didn't leave for quite a while.

But after that, it started to become apparent that this place was less a museum in the way we would expect, and more of an exercise in feel-good state-sponsored propaganda. The annex contains a series of life-size dioramas illustrating life in old Dubai and traditional desert culture (the timeline was murky, so we weren't sure exactly what time period it was meant to reflect). The displays were vaguely interesting, but the scenes were so sanitized that you'd think you were walking through Disney's Dubai Adventure or something. The working class dock hands were all cheerful and smiling as they labored in eternally frozen effigy, as were the generous merchants, modest women, and wise Bedouin. It really was all just sort of creepy instead of being educational. We felt as if were given a whitewashed bragging session about the virtues and triumphs of Dubai. Which was too bad - we were both genuinely interested in learning about Emirati culture and history. We walked away having only garnered a few scattered tidbits instead of a complete and balanced picture of this fascinating part of the world.

The next morning we got up before dawn and grabbed a taxi to the Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest building. Most people are familiar with it from Tom Cruise's mad stunts climbing, jumping, and running straight down the face of this 828 meter monster. We had booked sunrise tickets, meaning that we had a special pass to enter at 5:30 in the morning and catch the sun coming up over the desert. Unfortunately, it was very dusty and hazy, so the sunrise wasn't as dramatic as it could have been. But it was still a very special experience to be up there, 124 stories above the ground. That's not even near the top, but it still feels like a dizzying height. When we stepped out onto the wide, wooden-planked observation deck, Shannon marched straight up to the plexiglass barrier and started snapping pictures and enjoying the view. It took me a good ten minutes to be able do the same! The height really got to me at first. There are long horizontal gaps between the plexiglass plates, set at varying heights so that visitors can lean on the metal railings and look through and take photos without any obstruction. Every time someone put their camera or phone up to those windy gaps to the open air, my stomach would drop a little. I couldn't help it, and I guess I'm still afraid of heights, more than I thought I would be.

The views are gorgeous, mainly toward the north and east towards the desert, the city, and (in our case) the rising sun. Before 6:00 am, it was still twilight and so the city was still lit up. It was beautiful, and quite amazing to be above the rooftops of even the tallest highrises in Dubai. The twisting shapes of the Dubai Mall and the shallow lake at the foot of the Burj looked strange and fascinating from straight above. We could see little maintenance boats moving about on the lake as they prepared to activate the fountains in the center. From this vantage point, it was clear how much of Dubai is still under construction. There were building sites and huge undeveloped plots interspersed everywhere below us. I found myself caught by the mystery of the desert in the distance. The city thins slightly and then just drops away suddenly, and all one can see is a hazy, flat expanse stretching off and disappearing in the dust. There were no suburbs or highways or anything that you'd expect to see on the fringes of a city in the west, just an empty landscape.

Inside the observation level, you can walk around to the opposite side of the building from the outdoor deck, and get a brilliant view through floor-to-ceiling windows to the Persian Gulf. The water looked beautiful, a jewel-like blue under rapidly dissipating haze as the morning sun rose and grew in strength. Looking southwest we could see the Burj Al Arab rising up at the edge of the water, and the Palm Jumeirah, an artificial island built in the shape of a palm tree. More directly west, a little difficult to make out through the haze, we could see the pale shapes of The World archipelago, another set of artificial islands built even further out into the gulf than the Palm (which is connected to the mainland). The World is constructed in the shape of a map of the world, with clusters of little islands representing some major countries, forming the shape of each continent. The islands aren't developed yet, but Wikipedia says that there are resorts planned, including an Irish-themed resort on the island that represents Ireland. Hopefully they staff it with sunburned Irishmen for full accuracy, but I suspect it will be staffed by underpaid Filipinos dressed as leprechauns, forced to Riverdance by drunken sheiks.

Portraits of the Leaders adorn the central building
During our experience at the Burj Khalifa, we noticed an air of propaganda about the place. The journey to the observation level begins on the ground floor of the Dubai Mall, where you're treated to displays bragging about the incredible feats of engineering that went into the construction of the tower (this is justified, it's an amazing modern wonder, but there's just something over-the-top about the presentation), and a moving walkway flanked by projections of stern looking Bedouin men catching falcons on their arms, all to the glory of Dubai. Next, the super-speed elevator lifts you up to the 124th floor so quickly and smoothly that you can barely feel the motion. But the elevator goes dark as you ascend, and ultra-dramatic music swells to a crescendo as you pull to a stop and the doors open. It's as bombastic as a theme park ride.

So, looking down on a giant poster of the Leader plastered across the entire face of a nearby highrise (these are everywhere), we felt entirely surrounded by the carefully tailored version of Dubai that we, as tourists, are meant to see.

Burj Al Arab from the 360 island club
Later, we saw another side of the city - the club scene. The convention had given guests and VIPs at the show free entry to two clubs after hours. On Thursday night, we checked out this one place that was, literally and figuratively, a circus. It was a horrible place, packed with drunk expats and rich Emiratis, so choked with cigarette smoke that our clothes smelled for the next two days. They had some kind of vaguely offensive carnival theme, with performers subjecting themselves to varying levels of humiliation. Apparently, most of the place was reserved by some rich sheik or something, who was surrounded by at least six tall, blonde-haired women. The main source of entertainment while we were there seemed to be a group of rich jerks pouring champagne over the head of one of the carnival performers. Well, we got the hell out of there.

The next night we spent a little while at a club called 360, which is built on its own little man-made circular island a few hundred feet out in the gulf, connected by a snaking landbridge back to the Jumeirah Beach Hotel. It's also near the Burj Al Arab, the famous sail-shaped hotel. This club was a lot classier than the previous one and packed with well-dressed and seemingly well-heeled expats. Still, we only stayed for a while. One drink with our colleagues and then back to our hotel for some needed rest.

But, prior to that drink at 360, we had experienced an entirely different side of Dubai. Shannon had been tipped by a local con attendee that one could find authentic working class food over on Al Muraqabbat Road. One of our friends is an accomplished foodie so we invited him along. We ended up at a restaurant named Bait Al Mandi, which serves simple Yemeni food and clearly was catering to locals rather than upscale tourists and expats. There were definitely no Europeans or Americans in the place. Upon entering we were directed to the "Family Room", which we suspected may have been because we were a mixed-sex group - two men and a woman. See, the Family Room was comprised mostly of individual stalls, each with slatted doors that closed for full privacy. This, we deduced, was to allow women to remove their face or head coverings while eating with their families. There were no tables in these stalls - the waitstaff simply laid disposable plastic sheets on the floor and the diners would sit in a circle around the platters of food. We chose to sit at a normal table near the windows instead of using one of the stalls. But we could see the little moving feet of children under the privacy screens, as they ate happily and dropped kernels of rice on the plastic covered floor.

Our table was also covered with plastic, and the slightly bemused but tolerant waiter brought us the very simple menu. Every dish was based on the same template - a platter of rice topped with different meats. The waiter suggested we try the chicken and the mutton - he was particularly enthusiastic about the mutton, saying it was his favorite. After putting in our order, we were each quickly given three small containers - one of lettuce and cucumber, one of a fresh tomato salsa, and one of a very mild and creamy yogurt. These were quickly followed by big family-size platters of the two rice dishes we had ordered. We craned our necks to look at the other tables to see how the locals were using the sides and saw that they were spooning the salsa onto the rice and meat, and then just eating the yogurt and salad between bites. We followed suit and really enjoyed ourselves. The rice was perfectly cooked and flavored, savory and delicious. We actually all agreed that it was the best part of each dish. The chicken and mutton were both very tasty as well, flavored with colorful but mild spices, but we all kept coming back to the satisfying flavors of the rice. Another interesting note was that alcohol wasn't offered on the menu, so we stuck with water.

It was a wonderful experience, eating simple hearty food on a modest street, surrounded by locals going about their daily lives. It felt far removed from the artifice and garish display of wealth encountered in other parts of the city. We felt that, perhaps, we had found a small corner of the real Dubai.

A few other random observations about Dubai:
- There are prayer rooms in all of the public buildings we saw - the airport, the convention center, etc. They are separated by sex, and there are signs around the building to make it easy to find the prayer rooms wherever you are.
- People use Instagram more than Facebook or Twitter. It is, according to locals at the convention, preferred in the region.
- There really are portraits of the United Arab Emirates ruler, Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, everywhere you go. Big billboards on the sides of buildings were most common, but we saw some smaller portraits indoors as well, like at the airport customs area. And we never heard anyone refer to him by name - when there was a rumor that he might attend the convention on Friday (he's known to make random appearances like that), people referred to him as "the Leader".


Our journey home to Berlin was pretty much a disaster. We had an early flight out on Sunday morning (Sunday is like Monday in this part of the world, so the convention ended on Saturday). I set the alarm on my phone, but stupidly did not back it up with an alarm on Shannon's phone or a wake-up call from the hotel desk. So, I suppose we were both too exhausted from the pace of the last few days, and we slept through that crucial alarm. When we woke up, it was already too late to make the flight. We headed to the airport anyway, of course, and waited to get on the standby list for the next Emirates flight to Munich, scheduled for that afternoon. The first clue that there was more trouble ahead was when the Emirates ticketing counter was able to book us through to Munich, but not able to book the connecting flight to Berlin, because it was with Air Berlin and his computer wasn't allowing him to reserve the seats for us. He worked on that forever, but finally just gave us some paper receipts and said we'd have to arrange that with Air Berlin in Munich once we landed. That didn't sound like a very solid plan. So, we tried to get the convention's travel agent (who had booked all of our travel) to help resolve it. After some back and forth, we were told again that we'd have to deal with Air Berlin in person in Munich. Yikes.

However, we forged ahead. There was a very stubborn woman working the Emirates desk that handled standby passengers, and she insisted that she couldn't officially put us on the standby list until 60 minutes before departure. Considering that we were still in the check-in lobby, we were obviously concerned that 60 minutes was barely enough to get through security and make the boarding time. But this woman assured us over and over that it would be enough time, and that we'd have to wait. So we waited. And periodically bugged her just in case she was able to bend her 60-minute rule. Maybe this would have been fine, but as that 60 minute deadline approached, she was helping another customer. We were standing there waiting, and she knew we were there, but didn't stop to help us.

Finally, with only like 50 minutes left, she got her colleague to handle our situation. He was much nicer, and assured us that he'd get us to our flight on time. We were worried, but he seemed totally confident. That is, until he started to have a problem on his computer that prevented printing our boarding passes. Then he started to sweat. He rushed us over to the ticketing counter, and then to another check-in counter, and finally got us our passes. Man, we were not feeling good at this point. But he said "follow me" and escorted us through the first security check (where they check your pass and your luggage before you go to the customs exit and metal detectors and stuff). This saved us a couple of minutes but then the guy's power stopped - he left us at the customs desk with a vague "just go through security and take the tram". By now, there had to have been less than 30 minutes left before departure.

So, we got through customs and the security screening, and finally made it to the tram. The ride seemed to take forever, and once we finally were deposited at the departure terminal, we rushed out, hoping to see our gate. Nope. First we had to take an elevator to the upper level. Then we had to walk through the duty free shops. Then we had to run through the cafes and other gates, because of course our gate was at the very end of the terminal. Finally, we see the gate number and breathe a sigh of relief. But wait, what's this? You have to go down a level on the stairs. And through another smaller lobby. And then down another corridor. And into another lobby. And finally, we were at the actual gate. Needless to say, there were just a few minutes left and we were the very last passengers down the gangway. I'm frankly surprised that they hadn't closed the gate. But we made it. Whew!

Once we made it to Munich it was already after 10 pm, and we were prepared to have to wait for the next morning's 6 am flight to Berlin, since the last Air Berlin plane had already taken off. We thought we'd either tough it out in the terminal or grab a hotel room. What we weren't prepared for was that both the Air Berlin and Emirates desks in Munich refused to book us on the 6 am flight. Apparently, all the seats in our special discount fare class were sold out, and they weren't allowed to put us in the seats that were available unless we bought entirely new tickets at full price. And this wasn't just the case for the 6 am flight, but for all of the rest of the flights for several days into the future. So, basically, they were saying we were screwed unless we bought new tickets.

After some research on our phones, it turned out to be far cheaper to grab a night train back to Berlin, and we'd arrive at 7 in the morning instead of waiting who knows how long in Munich. So, with some sense of relief that we would be home sooner than expected, we bought train tickets on our phones, grabbed an S-Bahn over to the Munich train station and got on the midnight train along with other night owls and backpackers. We grabbed fitful bits of sleep under the harsh lights of the train (for some reason they were switched on at 2 or 3 am and never turned off again, I guess that was considered "morning" by the conductor). Uncomfortable and aching, unshowered and longing for home, we finally rolled in to Berlin Hauptbahnhof at about 7, and we were home by 7:30. We fell into bed with Flash, who was super happy to see us, and slept for the rest of the day.

Although this travel experience was horrendous, and Dubai seemed to lack the kind of substance we were looking for, we still are glad to have attended a comic book convention in another part of the world, and to have met interesting people from places we've never been, and to have had our first encounter with the Middle East.

More pictures from our phones below. Photos from Shannon's camera to follow in another post!

Outside the Dubai Museum

The Burj Khalifa entrance lobby

These are the windows Tom Cruise was leaping around on

One of the many extravagant beach hotels

A glowing mosque in the distance

Soooo bright at 3 AM!!!

1 comment:

  1. Great recap of the trip. The bragging about their engineering sounds about right. They built 10th seat outdoor arena for a UFC event then tore it down the next. Better looking stadium then most in the US.