Friday, October 5, 2012

Outside the City Gates

It's easy to get a false sense of security in downtown Dubai with the five-star resorts, trendy bars, and high-class restaurants.  We tend to forget that we are living in the Middle East and that things aren't as rosy on the other side of the horizon.  After a full month in Dubai, it was time to get out of the city and explore some of the area in which I live.  The week took me from one extreme to another, from dining with the nation's elite to staring down the barrel of a sniper.

The week started off as any other with a series of uneventful classes and days at work.  On Sunday, I went to an office party at a coworker's apartment; it was an interesting night hearing about the others' travels through the Middle East.  It was cool to get a firsthand account of what's actually happening in places like Syria and Bahrain, names I'm used to only hearing in news reports.  It's pretty cool how diverse the staff is, with everyone having incredibly different backgrounds and interesting stories to tell.  I decided that I needed my own stories to tell and thought that a visa run to the border would be a great place to start.

Bur Dubai - not quite like the glitzy downtown area
Iranian Restaurant, complete with live birds
On Wednesday night, the study abroad mentors organized the weekly CRF night (Cultural, Reasonable Food) to an Iranian restaurant in the old part of the city.  I ended up getting off work much earlier than I anticipated and got a ride to the right neighborhood with one of my coworkers who lives in that direction.  I arrived at the metro station meeting point an hour before we were supposed to meet, and, since the rest of the group was still a 45-minute train ride away, I decided to do a bit of exploring on my own.  Like I said, this was the old part of town, and for the first time since I've gotten here, I was the only Westerner on the street.  I entered an old mall and thought I had entered the opening scene of a horror film.  Most of the shops were closed except for a laundromat and a store full of gold and silver trinkets in the back; the halogen lights flickered as a few people roamed around the joint, fading in and out of the dark corners of the mall's main hall.  In the background, a young girl was on a mechanical car ride that sang "Frera Jacqua," but instead of the usual lyrics, the song got stuck on "mother's coming; run away.  Run away."  I was more than a bit spooked and decided it was time to go.  I walked the couple blocks back to the metro station and noticed a few oddly dressed middle-aged Asian women on a street corner.  As I walked past, I caught the eye of one of them, and it didn't take me long to realize what she was doing there.  I hurried along as she followed after me, hearing another man discussing prices with the woman.  I continued walking toward the metro station, found some M&M's, and sat on a bench inside the station, wondering how this could be the same city, just 15 stops from my dorm gate.  Side note - the Iranian food was really good once everyone finally got there!

At  the Atlantis Resort Aquarium
By Thursday, I'd had enough of Dubai's less-touristy side for the moment, and we decided to explore some of the more up-class areas of the city.  We took a cab from campus out onto the Palm Jumeirah to the Atlantis resort.  While there, we had desert and drinks at a Moroccan restaurant, complete with dancing and live music.  Though I had no idea what I was doing with the dance and instead elected to take pictures, it was a really cool place.  After we took some time to explore the incredible aquarium, amazing city views, and interesting clientele at Atlantis, we drove downtown to meet some of Mary's cousins at a bar under the Burj Khalifa.  The restaurant was all outside, situated next to a lagoon, with palm trees lining the sitting areas, and the Burj Khalifa standing tall across the water.  After a fun, chill evening, we headed back to the dorms.  I ended up going to sleep a bit too late that night, and five hours later, I was awake again for our trip to Oman.

Hiking up the Hatta Fort Foothills
I'm in the UAE on a temporary 30-day tourist visa, meaning that every 30 days I must leave the country or provide a two-week notice to AUD officials with a detailed itinerary prior to leaving.  Rather than having to plan ahead and have AUD all up in my business, a group of us decided to leave the country to get another 30-day tourist visa, a rather quick road trip through the desert to the Omani border.  Friday morning, Tom, Sid, Oliver, and I got a ride to the airport where the cheapest car rental agencies are.  We rented a car, met up with the rest of our group, and and began our drive through the desert.  We drove through small outposts, mini sand storm cyclones, and incredible sand stone mountains.  We got through the first two checkpoints without any problem - just flashed our American passports and we were on our way.  At the border crossing, things got a bit dicey.  We pulled over at the passport control office at the UAE exit gate, looked around, and I realized for the first time where I was in the world.  Passport control was housed in a run-down trailer next to a series of small concrete buildings that looked like they'd been burned down years ago.  Half of the road was blocked due to a collapsed overhang whose metal roof lay crumpled in the road  I was glad to get out of there quickly.  We drove into Oman and stopped 100 yards into the country at the visa office.  After an obligatory picture in Oman, we got back in the car and drove right back across the border.  On the outskirts of the UAE, we stopped at a resort, the Hatta Fort, and had a great dinner at a pool-side cafe before hiking up one of the nearby foothills to watch the incredible desert sunset.

A desert sunset at the Omani border
After enjoying the sunset and the first rain shower we had seen since arriving in the Emirates, we got in the car and began our journey back to Dubai.  The first checkpoint was similar to the one on the way - just flash our passports and on we go.  The second, however, was a bit unnerving.  We pulled up to the checkpoint guards who had AK-47s at the side, ready to go.  The guard took each of our passports and took his time going through each of them, looking for issues with our visa statuses.  We sat in the car, watching as cars in the other lane zipped past, while the armed security officer scrutinized our entry.  With a nasty look and a wave of his gun, he tossed us back our passports, and we were home free.  After the sketchy checkpoints and border crossings, I was really glad we were back in time for happy hour at our go-to local standard.  It was a fun night, just relaxing at the rooftop restaurant next to campus and hanging out on the beach walk.

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque
Chillin' in the palace
As if we hadn't done enough the day before, the study abroad mentors had arranged a day trip to Abu Dhabi for us on Satuday.  I crawled out of bed at 9:30, completely exhausted from trip the day before, and headed out for a new day of exploring.  Abu Dhabi is about a 90-minute drive from campus via a huge highway, so there wasn't much to see on the way there which was good since I spent most of that time catching up on sleep.  Our first stop was at the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, an incredible building that looks like something straight out of 1001 Arabian Nights.  All of the men had to wear long pants and sleeved shirts, and the women borrowed abayas from the mosque to wear as we toured.  The courtyard was huge and seemed celestial, made completely from white stone and highlighted with gold on the minarets   Inside the main hall, there were three domed sections, each with elaborate chandeliers hanging in the center.  The floor was carpeted with one enormous Persian rug, the largest in the world.  In all, the mosque and courtyard can hold 50,000 people when completely filled on the holiest of days.  After a quick lunch, we made our way to the Emirates Palace Hotel.  Years ago, some of the royals lived in this palace, but it was converted to a hotel after the royal family upgraded to a nicer palace.  It's actually the same hotel featured in the Sex and the City movie.  I don't know if I'm more amazed at how opulent and luxurious places here are or at the fact that it's incredibly easy to get into them for free.  Though we of course didn't have a room, nobody questioned us as we roamed about the palace hotel, sat in the plush lounges, watched performances, took pictures in the porticoes, or gazed in amazement at the gold ATM -- yes, this ATM seriously dispensed pure gold.  I thought back to 24-hours before when we were at the dilapidated border buildings and couldn't believe how two such different worlds can exist so close to one another.

Our Group at Sheikh Zayed Mosque
Dubai is an amazing city, full of some of the world's finest resorts, restaurants, bars, malls, and countless other attractions, but to truly get a sense of the UAE and the Gulf area in general, we had to get out of our comfort zone and leave the tourist areas.  Though many visitors choose to ignore the old city and other less-refined areas of the country, these places offer some of the most incredible experiences and can be even more exciting than another fancy meal or another beautiful beach.  This week, I set out to get my own Middle Eastern adventure stories; it never occurred to me that all it would take is a quick trip outside the city gates.

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