I am geographically and culturally the farthest from home I’ve ever been – Dubai, United Arab Emirates on the continent of Asia. Eleven hours ahead of family in the US (12 after the time changes Sunday morning) and three ahead of Amsterdam. Work brings me here, but I’ve had two days to explore before the four work days begin.
I arrived just before midnight Thursday and took a taxi to the hotel. The first impression of Dubai from the back of the taxi was a lot like the US. Wide highways, tall buildings with lots of lights, and sprawling. The next day I didn’t make it out until noon and went straight for the metro to Burj Khalifa – the world’s tallest building. (You may have seen it in the most recent Mission Impossible movie, or in the little clip where Tom Cruise idiotically sits at the top with is feet dangling over the edge. My stomach turns just thinking about it.) If my first impression of Dubai wasn’t American enough, walking through the Dubai Mall to get to the entrance of the Burj Khalifa only reinforced this. It could have been Vegas or South Coast Plaza. Expensive shops and pristine everything, planned developments, bright and shiny buildings, hot and palm trees everywhere. But then I left the mall for Bur Dubai and suddenly I knew Vegas was nowhere close.
The map the hotel provided is awful and not to scale so I was quickly turned around after exiting the metro and trying to find the souks (markets). Instead of touristy markets, I was near the fish market and bus station where I was THE ONLY white person and the only female, possibly for miles. I wasn’t nervous and I didn’t feel unsafe, but I have never felt so out of place in my life. Everyone looked as I walked by and a few young guys perched on a railing along the Dubai Creek stopped me to ask for a picture. It’s not every day they see a white girl in shorts and a t-shirt walking this area alone I guess. Before long I found the fabric souk and was at least able to get lost in the crowd a bit. Of all the places I’ve been, this was the furthest I’ve ever felt from anything I’ve ever known. What an amazing and intense feeling.
Walking around Dubai the last two days I’ve noticed the people in their traditional dress, especially the fully covered women and men in their flowing gowns, the small cultural differences like men holding hands as a non-sexual sign of affection, and the way that people look at me – probably equally intrigued by just how different we are. Of course, Dubai is very culturally diverse and I’m sure much tamer than other places in the Emirates and surrounding countries. It’s not a place I would have particularly picked to visit and I doubt I’d put it high on the list of places to come back to, but it has been such an interesting experience in a short period of time.