What we did in the United Arab Emirates
Downtown Dubai & City Walk
Dubai is such an impressive city. The United Arab Emirates was founded in 1971 (let that sink in!); now the UAE boasts the tallest building, biggest malls and largest souks in the world, as well as a slew of impressive mosques, beaches, resorts and more. Expats make up more than 80% of the UAE’s residents and represent over 200 nationalities so, needless to say, it’s a thriving, multicultural community. On our first day there, we took in all we could of Dubai’s glitz and glamor. Now, seeing the entirety of the malls alone would take weeks, but we spent the majority of our day wandering through the Dubai Mall, after first visiting the City Walk and its street art. We were able to get a taste of the mint lemonade I had so been pining for (impossible to find outside of the Middle East!), take in the crowds at the mall, snap some pictures of street art and catch a glimpse of the Dubai Fountains before getting ready for the evening’s New Year’s Eve festivities. Absolutely make sure you set aside at least a day to explore Downtown Dubai and the City Walk!
Arabian Desert Tour
The next morning, we checked something off of the bucket list: dune bashing in the Arabian Desert. Not sure what dune bashing is? It’s essentially a 40 minute rollercoaster where you buckle into a van for a death-defying ride over the dunes. At times, you’re just sure the car is going to flip. When we made the reservation with Oscar Knight Tours, we were actually told not to eat for at least two hours before the trip because they didn’t want us to vomit; and yes, we did drive by multiple cars that had to stop so that people could jump out in a hurry! It was quite the adrenaline-inducing experience, but we were glad when it was over because we were both getting more than a little queasy. They do break up the 40 minute ride with a break in the middle of the desert, so that you can keep in the contents of your stomach, while also snapping pics in the gorgeous Arabian Desert.
Our tour with Oscar Knight was an all-day affair. Our guide, local Emirati Mohammed Al-Salam, teamed up with the two of us and a delightful family from South Africa; we “got through” the dune bashing together, while also having the opportunity to drive ATVs and pet desert camels (we even saw a herd of wild camels!) When the sun began to set behind the desert dunes, we were treated to a performance that included falconry, fire-breathers and belly dancers, while snacking on dates, sipping Arabic coffee, then enjoying a traditional Emirati dinner. They were, perhaps, capitalizing on the parts of Arabian culture that tourists chalk them up to be (i.e. Aladdin), and though we didn’t necessarily feel like we had delved into the true culture of the people, we did have a lot of fun during our day in the Arabian Desert! The understanding Emirati culture would come next.
Cultural Exchange @ The Sheik Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding
On Day 3, we woke up and went right to the Sheik Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding. We were going to be served a traditional Emirati breakfast, while also partaking in a Q&A session with native muslim Emiratis. The food was incredible! The flavors were mild: we especially loved the egg dish that was mixed with tomatoes, and their version of pancakes that came with your choice of a cheese spread or fig syrup. But our favorite was the balalit! The sweet pasta (made of vermicelli noodles) was topped with saffron omelet – it was so unique and paired perfectly with the rest of the meal. We’ve made it our mission to find balalit somewhere here in NYC!
After breakfast, our hosts taught us about Emirati culture and history, the garments the men and women wear, Islam, and how religion and progressivism are both a part of their country. They talked about how there are so many different ways to live, and how travel is the best tool for learning about and respecting those lives. It was an inspiring event, and one that we would recommend to everyone who is visiting the UAE. Delving into Emirati culture can be difficult when you’re in the midst of a country that houses people from over 200 nationalities, so attending the Sheik Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding with an open mind is a great way to learn.
The Rain Room
On our last evening in Dubai, we rented a car and drove to our second Emirate, Sharjah (driving in Dubai is a separate blogpost in itself!) We actually did this for one reason: The Rain Room. The Rain Room is an art exhibit that had literally toured the world until the UAE bought it; when it came to NYC, lines were 12 hours long. Only 5 people can experience the Rain Room at one time: when you enter into the dark room, you are immediately greeted by a loud, rushing and steady downpour of rain coming from the expansive ceiling. Across from you, on spotlight pierces through the dark, the light reflecting off of the dancing rain. But it’s an immersive art exhibit, so you aren’t just supposed to watch it, you’re supposed to walk right into it of course! In the Rain Room, you can walk through the downpour without getting wet thanks to a tracking system installed on the ceiling; even if you put a hand out in front of you, the rain that would otherwise hit your hand and arm immediately stops. The constant sound of the rain in the dark room is lulling, and walking slowly through the downpour is a solitary and meditative experience. If you make it to the UAE, put Sharjah on your list so you can experience the Rain Room!
The Sheik Zayed Grand Mosque
Our last Emirate was Abu Dhabi – we were going to be flying out of Abu Dhabi to Cairo, so we snagged a temporary room near the airport, and made it our goal to experience the famous Sheik Zayed Grand Mosque. If you want to feel as if you’ve truly entered Aladdin, visit this stunning mosque. The sunlight gleams agains the solid white building, highlighting its gorgeous Islamic architecture; then, at nighttime, blue lights emulate from its base. If you’re lucky enough to visit during a call to prayer, take in the meditative moment and acknowledge the wonders of the Middle East.
The only thing to be aware of: the Grand Mosque will require women to cover up and it can be an uncomfortable experience. There are men situated at the end of the line that you have to get through in order to enter the mosque, and those men are the ones that point out every woman that is not wearing suitable clothes. I had read that women were allowed to wear pants, so I wore loose pants and a loose, long-sleeve and high-necked dress-shirt over those loose pants, but I was still forced to put on an abaya when the man watching us with hawk-eyes decided I wasn’t dressed appropriately. Just remind yourself that you’re respecting a culture and be prepared for the male gaze; it’s worth it to get a glimpse of this gorgeous building.
Other things we did:
First and foremost, we ate a lot of good food. Our other favorite experiences include a visit to the Dubai Opera, a chat with the calligraphers at the Centre for Cultural Understanding, a swing by the souks (they have both the largest spice and gold souk in the world!), and a day at the beaches. If you love art, our favorite public exhibits included the Dandelion Lights Sculpture installation at the base of the Burj Khalifa, the Human Waterfalls at the Dubai Mall, the Dubai Walls at City Walk, and our favorite mural in the Al Fahidi district of the Old City. There’s so much more in the UAE that we’d love to explore, but 5 days there simply wasn’t enough time to do it all! Have you been to the UAE? What unique sights or experiences did you have? Leave us a comment below or connect with us on Instagram: @ourworldcanvas