Every billboard, and most shop windows, contained the line “Ramadan Kareem” in some form or another since it was Ramadan when I visited the UAE. My favorite (I wish I had a picture) said “Muscle up this Ramadan” over top a bright yellow Camaro. While cynical people would shake their heads over such blatant consumerism, I had to laugh because that’s such a modest car compared to the McLarens and Bentleys on display in showrooms along Sheikh Zayed Road.
Dubai is certainly a place that relishes being over-the-top. While there are some links to the past left (my favorite experience was riding an old wooden abra—an integrated part of the transit system—across the Creek), this is an emirate that likes to show off both its modernity and wealth. I’m not a big fan of fountain shows but the scale and quality of the one at the Dubai Mall (not to mention the location right next to the Burj Khalifa) made it worthwhile to see. A shiny, clean Metro takes you to many parts of the city if you don’t feel like driving. There’s even a special “Gold Class” car should you feel like taking transit but don’t feel like interacting with the masses. I thought such a luxury was ridiculous…until the time I was shoved into half a seat with an armrest jabbing my side because a guy wanted to give a (young, pretty) woman a seat but didn’t want to actually stand up. (Fortunately, he managed to spread out enough to seem completely comfortable.) As for the desert safaris where you ride a Land Cruiser over dunes, ride camels (hold on when they sit down since they do so violently), and watch a show — sure, they’re touristy, but they are also lots of fun.
Abu Dhabi, where Shona, one of my teammates from UMBC, lives, is just as wealthy but more understated. What’s a Scot doing in Abu Dhabi working as a dolphin (and chinchilla) trainer? The real answer: oil money buys anything and there’s lots of it here. Since she had a day off, she took me to see the Heritage Village to learn more about the history of the area and then walked me by Emirates Palace. We had such a good time talking about her work (my favorite tidbit: the dolphins will play tricks on new trainers to size them up) and our swimming days that we didn’t really notice the 40 degree Celsius heat.
The nice thing about spending time with locals is that they know where to eat. Shona (very kindly) treated me to lunch at a nice restaurant that had a partition so that non-Muslims could eat (many restaurants just closed until sunset). The sandwich and the dessert I had were both delicious though the water was part I was most pleased about. It’s nice to see friends, especially when they are involved in such interesting endeavors.