Right now, we’re flying over Tanzania on our way to South Africa. I’ve already watched two remake movies (The Man from UNCLE and Mad Max), so I thought I’d take a break and write a blog post. With 8 hours and 20 minutes in the air, I should still have time for another movie before we land. Maybe I’ll try one of the dozen Christmas movies available. I can’t decide whether to do my annual watching of ELF now, or wait until we’re back in the air on December 22. Decisions, decisions.
As much as it seems like an out-of-the-way place for Canadians, you might be surprised how many people visit to the UAE these days when they’re flying Emirates Airlines through Dubai or Etihad Airways through Abu Dhabi. Over the past few months I’ve met several people who’ve made such a stop - including Ursula and her father when they were going to India a few years ago.
When we arrived Tuesday evening in Abu Dhabi, we immediately drove the 100+ km to our hotel in Dubai. We stayed in a small industrial park on the edge of the city in a newish Premier Inn. As we drove in, we easily could have been arriving at a Holiday Inn Express in Markham or Mississauga (except there was a lot of sand around). The room and facilities were ideal. The only issue was that an international men’s rugby tournament was in town, and Ursula found all the muscle shirts and shorts a little distracting during breakfast.
Hard as it may be to believe, we’ve all felt that these past few days have actually been like a short break from our foreign travels. That’s because, on a superficial level, the UAE feels (and is) more familiar than most of the places we’ve been on this trip - including Western Europe.
First of all, Dubai and Abu Dhabi are completely dominated by very new and very high end construction. There aren’t many building more than 30 years old, and while all this new architecture has an obvious Middle East look to it, modern buildings all over the world share many characteristics. Whether it’s airport malls in Asia or major casinos in Las Vegas, these places all seem to display a certain fit and finish, which is light and bright and very comfortable. In my opinion, buildings from the past 20 years are simply nicer than most older ones.
On Wednesday, we spent most of the day visiting the two biggest shopping malls in the city. In the morning, we went to the Mall of the Emirates - the original super-mall made famous by its indoor ski hill. While inside, we could have easily been in an upscale mall in California or Hong Kong. We had lunch in the food court: George had a Shake Shack burger, while Molly, Ursula and I had Korean. (After more than 100 days on the road, we don’t feel at all guilty eating whatever we want whenever it’s available.)
After going back to our hotel in the afternoon to swim in the rooftop pool (it was 32 and sunny), we spent the evening in the Dubai Mall. Like casinos in Vegas, the newer malls in the UAE are bigger, better, more spectacular and more expensive. We watched the dancing fountain show (a la Bellagio’s), gazed into the largest aquarium in the world, and watched skaters enjoying the ice. For dinner, we visited an even bigger and better food court where George and I had Mexican, while Molly and Ursula shared pad thai. Afterwards, George and I visited the Ferrari store (with a real F1 car) and SEGA World while Molly and Ursula went clothes shopping. Unfortunately, we didn’t get a chance to have a coffee or donut at the only two Tim Horton’s locations we’ve seen since leaving Canada. (There was also a Second Cup in the other mall.)
Yesterday morning, we left Dubai to drive back to Abu Dhabi. As we were entering the city, we visited the city’s biggest tourist attraction - the Sheikh Zahed Grand Mosque. Wow, what a place. After the ancient religious facilities we’ve seen elsewhere, this place is gleaming white and gorgeous. Built 12 years ago, it looks like a cross between a traditional mosque and the Taj Mahal in India. We also appreciated that it’s open to all visitors, not just Muslims. It’s amazing what unlimited money and good taste can create.
After checking into our hotel, we all enjoyed a dip in our second rooftop pool. As it turns out, I made a mistake when booking this place. At the time, I thought I’d found an unbelievable deal for a one bedroom unit in a 5 star hotel. After I’d made the non-refundable booking, I realized I’d mixed up the currencies. It was still a good deal (C$250), but more than double our daily budget. To make matters worse, Molly has now determined that the only place to stay is a one-bedroom corner apartment on a top floor of a luxury 5 star hotel. As such, she can’t understand why we had to sleep in an (almost) windowless basement in Istanbul for 6 nights. (Maybe she’s not absorbing as much as I'd thought of the budget lessons I’ve been giving…)
Anyway, back to why Dubai and Abu Dhabi felt more familiar than anywhere else we’ve been. I think it’s because the dominant language is English. You see, the vast majority of workers we encountered were from somewhere else, such as India or Pakistan or Malaysia or eastern Europe. In fact, I think the only native UAE citizens we dealt with were the immigration staff at the airport. For the dozens of nationalities to be found working in every hotel, store, restaurant, and gas station, their only shared language is English. In some ways, it made me feel like I was back home in Toronto or Vancouver - lots of people speaking English with a foreign accent!
In a broader context, I sometimes hear people complaining about how American culture is taking over the world. You know, McDonald’s and Mars bars and all that stuff. I disagree. I don’t think it’s American culture invading foreign countries, I think there’s a 21 Century global culture emerging everywhere - especially in big cities. While many parts of it are American, others are not. (We saw an IKEA store in Abu Dhabi.) In many ways, the big international cities of the world now share more with each other than they do with smaller cities and rural areas in their own countries.
At other times, I hear people (including myself) waxing nostalgic about how great things were in the past. While I agree that it would have been great to live in Paris in the 50’s, or London in the 60s, or San Francisco in the 70’s, or Hong Kong in the 80’s, or Tokyo in the 90’s, I’m still glad to be visiting these places now. While I initially wanted to see Europe by train and hostel as I did in the 80’s, this time we had a great time using discount airlines and airBnB. While Abu Dhabi and Dubai no longer offer camels and Arab tents, they are now dazzling modern cities. And while I wrote the odd letter or postcard home, now I get to share all of this with all of you every day.
Like Woody Allen’s classic film ‘An American in Paris’, I think it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that all the great stuff happened in the past. In my opinion, we are living in an amazing time now, so get out there and do some travelling! To make my point, last night we walked from our Thai owned hotel to an Indian owned restaurant where we were served excellent Chinese and Indonesian food by Filipino servers with a German family at the next table - and what a wonderful ‘global’ experience it was.
Anyway, looking down the road this week, we’re off to South Africa. After the 30+ and dry conditions in the UAE, we’re expecting 30+ and thunder storms in Johannesburg. Our raincoats are on the top of our bags, and I’m getting ready to drive on the wrong side of the road for a couple of weeks. For all of us, this is our first visit south of the equator. It feels weird to be flying into mid summer in December.
Finally, thanx for sticking with me to the end. I just reread this posting, and realized it’s almost as long as our visit to the UAE! Fortunately, Lorry Brandon will be reading this on Saturday morning, so she won’t be late for school (for the first time in her career).