After leaving the Browns Marisela just wanted to go home. Saying goodbye in Riyadh felt like saying goodbye in Juárez all over again. It was like ripping the scab off a healing wound and although we all felt it, the kids felt it most keenly, I think. The only thing that kept Marisela going was the promise of more shopping.
When I had booked hotels for our trip (a few months in advance), I found that between our first single-night stay on December 21 and our five-night stay that would include New Year’s Eve hotel rates skyrocketed. So while we paid more or less the same amount per night for both visits, the first time around we were in a two-bedroom suite in what I would call a luxury hotel and the second time around we were in a single room in a very clean, efficient, and pleasant but decidedly non-luxurious “economy” hotel. So the accommodations were a bit of a let-down for Marisela but the advantage of this second hotel was that it was directly connected to a mall. And not just any mall. It wasn’t as vast as Dubai Mall. It didn’t have an indoor ski hill like Mall of the Emirates. But it was lavishly decorated and had all of Marisela’s favorite stores. It even had a Borders Bookstore and a cinema complete with a near-life-size figure of Newt Scamander, so as malls go it was even tolerable for Isaiah. But it was unlike any mall I had ever seen. The Mesilla Valley Mall of my childhood did not have anything on this. Not even the Sunland Park Mall.
The only thing we’d seen even remotely close to this mall in terms of over-the-top, ridiculous ornamentation were the malls on the Las Vegas strip. Like the malls of Las Vegas, this one had periodic shows and game-show type events. We’d turn a corner and find a row of people in robot costumes performing a dance number, or we’d see a clearly British young man decked out in full Arabian garb hosting an elaborate scavenger hunt game for a group of children. The mall was named for an adventurer named Ibn Battuta and had wings decorated to evoke the areas of the world where he traveled. When we left for this trip Marisela had quite a stash of birthday and babysitting money. That’s all gone now. And so are several hours of my life spent wandering the Persia, India, China, Andalusia, and Egypt wings of Ibn Battuta Mall.
I start with the mall because in significant ways it encapsulates our Dubai experience. Dubai has mastered the art of manufacturing impressive experiences with little or no connection to anything genuine. I admire this, actually, in ways I don’t think I would have or could have, say, in my idealistic 20s. Not at all unlike Las Vegas, Dubai has created a space in which an incredible array of people from many different cultures and walks of life can come and feel completely removed from everyday life. It is an escapist destination par excellence, an environment engineered for spectacle, entertainment, and little else. I can enjoy places like this now in a way I did not before. I watched a movie on one of our flights called Puzzle. It was slow-moving, character-driven, thought-provoking, and a bit heartbreaking. As a family we all went to see Aquaman at the Ibn Battuta Mall. It was larger-than-life, noisy, largely pointless, and fun. I enjoyed both movies. Dubai is like Aquaman.
It even has its own Atlantis. On our first day we did some shopping, got the lay of the land, and paid a visit to the Atlantis resort. This vacation behemoth includes a mall, a water park, a private beach, an aquarium, several celebrity-chef-associated restaurants, and goodness knows what else.
The Atlantis is located at the furthest reach of the Jumeirah Palm, a true feat of engineering (and, let’s be honest, environmental havoc-wreaking). The Palm is an entirely human-created island/complex of peninsulas covered in luxury housing and high-end hotels and resorts. An elevated train carries hotel guests and tourists out to Atlantis and back (it’s also possible to take a taxi, but where’s the fun in that?) It is, in fact, shaped like a palm, and condominiums that line the fronds have their own little manufactured beaches, with the condos the next frond over sharing the same bay. Marisela’s money would definitely not stretch far at the malls on the Palm and the attractions carried hefty fees or were reserved for hotel guests, so once we’d eaten and gawked a bit, we headed back to our hotel and ended our day with a movie and a shockingly high-quality meal at the mall.
The next day was dedicated entirely to a hit-the-highlights tour of Abu Dhabi, the emirate neighboring Dubai. United Arab Emirates became a nation just a few days after I was born, and it’s a union of seven emirates, Dubai and Abu Dhabi the largest among them. UAE’s founding father and first president was Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan (though, despite the democracy-evoking sound of that title, the ruler of UAE is not elected; the nation is an absolute monarchy). His son, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed, is now president, and will eventually be succeeded as president by another son, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed.
Abu Dhabi is the capital of UAE, and among our sightseeing adventures was a drive through a portion of the presidential palace grounds. It was, as one would expect, enormous and elaborate. And no pictures were allowed. Our guide made it clear that someone is always watching in the UAE. The highway is dotted with pillars that encase speed-tracking radar equipment and cameras, ready to send tickets to speeders or to drivers talking on mobile phones. The cab driver who took us to the elevated train for the Palm had shared similar stories, and warned us that plainclothes police officers are at the ready to issue tickets for jaywalking and other minor (to us) infractions. The order, efficiency, and cleanliness was impressive, but it definitely comes at price.
Our tour was a bit of a whirlwind, as we could have spent a week seeing sights in Abu Dhabi. We made brief photo-op stops at Ferrari World (which we accessed via a view of Abu Dhabi’s formidable Formula One racetrack) and Abu Dhabi’s Louvre (the name purchased and artwork sent from Paris’ Louvre at a price right around a billion dollars). We had a bit more time at Heritage Village, a museum intended to showcase the pre-oil, pre-tourism traditional lives of people in the region. Marisela particularly enjoyed watching artisans carve designs in wooden chests, weave kilim style rugs, hone knives and swords, and work with ceramics. The replica fishermen’s huts made us a bit nostalgic for Ghana.
We had a few skyline photo stops and drove by an enormous (and apparently incredibly expensive) hotel, and finally landed at the crown jewel of the tour: the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. According to our guide, there’s no record of how much it cost to build this mosque because it was funded entirely by the Sheikh’s family as a gift to the people. It took years to build (completed in 2007) and is impressively vast and opulent. It’s also an absolute tourism machine. The crowds and lines reminded me of Cowboys games at AT&T Stadium – they move a lot of people through this place.
It is a mosque that’s used by the faithful (there were several areas visitors could not enter), but it’s also an enormous tourist draw. And even here I was struck by the prevalence of fake authenticity. Though here I had to wonder what constitutes authenticity. Is it age? Can something new be as genuine as something old? I’ve been to the Blue Mosque in Istanbul – 400 years old and breathtakingly beautiful. Beside that, this did not feel as real, but that might say more about me and my interpretation of authenticity than it does about the mosque.
It is, unquestionably, a beautiful place and the level of intricacy and artisanship was awe-inspiring. It’s home to the world’s largest hand-tied carpet, covering more than 60,000 square feet, weighing in at 12 tons, made by a team of hundreds in Iran, and flown to Abu Dhabi in its own airplane. The same room also contained an enormous German-made chandelier encased in Swarovski crystals. Although our tour guide touted it as the largest chandelier in the world, I felt a bit cheated to discover it’s only the third largest in the world. It does, however, contain something like 48 kilograms of 24-karat gold. Sheikh Zayed and family truly spared no expense. (The flowers in the picture below, by the way, are not painted. They are stone, and they’re inlaid in the marble walls and floors. It is truly spectacular.)
A quick word on attire for the female members of our family during this trip. In general, I felt more comfortable wearing an abaya (fully-covering robe) and head scarf when I was in public and outside the diplomatic quarter in Riyadh. I just felt less conspicuous. In general, though, I felt more conspicuous with my head covered in UAE. It’s an incredibly diverse place (more than 80% expats – the workforce of the nation) and while it’s not unusual to see women entirely covered, it’s also not unusual to see women in sundresses or short shorts. Most days I chose long skirts and shoulder-covering blouses, but female visitors to the mosque did need to be covered to the wrists and ankles and to keep their heads covered. Marisela was not a fan of the dress code, and you can imagine her relief when it was confirmed that she is young enough to be exempt from that particular requirement. We were just queuing up to enter here, and some women waited until the last minute to cover up.
We didn’t get home from Abu Dhabi until fairly late, so it was a quick dinner (room service pizza for the kids and a trip to a fantastic Indian restaurant in the mall for the adults) and off to bed. Life tends to be very nocturnal in this part of the world, I’m guessing due to the fact that for many months out of the year the outdoor temperatures are nearly unendurable. When we would find ourselves eating dinner at 8 or even 9pm we were definitely still among the earlier diners.
We went to bed as early as we could that evening because the boys had to get up at quarter to six the next day – they had 7am tickets to go up in the Burj Khalifa, which at the moment is the world’s tallest building (a new world’s tallest building, topping a kilometer, is planned for construction in Dubai this year). Marisela had no interest, so the girls slept in. The boys enjoyed their ride (smooth and quick, they report) and their view.
The main event of the day was the pinnacle of fake authenticity: a bit of tourist-drawing showmanship typically called a desert safari. There was no wildlife involved (only decidedly domesticated camels), but it was enough of an adventure to perhaps merit the name. We were picked up mid-afternoon at our hotel by a guide who very much dressed the part. The vehicle was a Land Cruiser reinforced with roll bars – I’ll get to the need for those in a moment. Three other guests were already in the vehicle: guys in their mid-20s, we’d guess, on vacation from Azerbaijan (which was one of the posts that could have been, actually – had it not been for MED saying no).
It was a slow start to the afternoon for the Calderón family. One of the optional (i.e. offered at an extra charge) activities was quad biking – basically riding the dunes in an ATV. The three young men were all over that opportunity, but we opted to just watch. There were, at least, camels to admire.
Once our Azerbaijani friends were back (elated), we moved on to part two. Our guide released a good deal of air from the Land Cruiser’s tires and we headed out onto the dunes for a ride that had us clutching the roll bars in no time. For about 20 minutes we careened over, around, and along the top of the dunes, spraying sand, tilting at improbable angles, and plunging downward only to turn and nearly as quickly arc back up. The kids were terrified, but exhilarated. Once we had survived the experience they decided it had been incredibly fun. The Land Cruiser parked, hood popped, and coolant topped off, we spent some time admiring the view from the top of a dune. There was a snowboard available for sliding down dunes (ah . . . reminds me of childhood trips to White Sands!), and our guide engineered what may be my favorite family photo ever:
The thrill you see on the kids’ faces here expresses their true joy at having survived the dune bashing. I was not appropriately attired for sliding down the dunes, but everyone else enjoyed that, and the guys even managed to remain standing all the way down (it’s steeper than it looks – I was really impressed).
A few more photos, a few more sighs of relief, and we were back in the Land Cruiser. The route back was not quite as acrobatic as the route there, but there was still plenty of sand-spraying and tight turning. Grips on the roll bars were a bit looser this time around. We stopped long enough for our guide to vacuum out the car and reinflate the tires, and then we were on our way, as the sun set, to the final event of the tour: camel rides and dinner at a fake-authentic Bedouin camp.
We didn’t ride far on the camels, but for a day already filled with adventure, it was far enough. Getting up and down was the real ride . . . to my great surprise camels are not equipped with smooth pneumatic lifts. To sit down, first they buckle their front knees (or whatever you call that part of the body on a camel) and the front part of the body crashes down. Then they do the same in the back. Reverse that process for standing up. So while it was fairly easy to hold on as the camel stood, we had to keep our wits about us and our grips tight when the ride was over and the camel sat down again. (Isaiah is pictured here with one of our tour buddies from Baku.)
The day’s only real disappointment came right after the camel ride: our camp lost power. This is probably not something that would have posed a problem in an authentic Bedouin camp, but this version definitely needed the juice. After about a half hour of waiting and hoping, the guests at our (relatively small, quaint, and charming) camp were reloaded into the waiting Land Cruisers and moved to a camp that was definitely more of a machine, and clearly not lacking in electricity.
We enjoyed a Vegas-caliber show that included belly dancing, fire-related stunts and acrobatics, and a whirling dancer. Food was plentiful and tasty. Marisela and I had our hands painted with henna.
The entire day was a series of manufactured events, packaged to send tourists home feeling like they’d had a culturally relevant experience. I don’t believe that for a minute, but we did have a lot of fun.
And when we got back to the hotel we had more fun ahead. Andrés had booked us entrance to the hotel pub’s New Year’s Eve party, an all-you-can-eat, all-you-can-drink event complete with live music. We were even able to help out our new pals . . . in what might be typical 20-something male fashion, they knew of plenty of parties going on around town but hadn’t taken any steps to make sure they could get in, and the city was *packed*. Our guide seemed quite uncertain as to whether they’d even be able to get close to the Burj-Khalifa-centered fireworks and party due to closed roads. We mentioned that our hotel had an event going on, so when we were dropped off, they checked it out, were satisfied that it would be a good time, and stayed on.
Andrés and I said goodnight to the kids and headed for our hotel’s fake-authentic British pub, Mr. Toad’s. (If the kids had it in them to make it until midnight at all, the early start to the day for Isaiah and the sheer nerve-wracking excitement of dune bashing had taken it right out; they didn’t put up a fight.) An aging British rocker kept the crowd-pleasing tunes coming while we sipped drinks that were surprisingly not watered down (it’s not Vegas after all!), nibbled food that was surprisingly tasty, and enjoyed an atmosphere of multicultural conviviality.
We shared our table with Bogdan and Julia, whom I assume hail from Central or Eastern Europe. Our Azerbaijani friends took up one table. There were a few tables of Africans (and we also had a Kenyan waitress, who was both surprised and delighted by Andrés’ Swahili). A few tables of Brits. One family I couldn’t place – the kids sounded 100% American, while the parents were speaking Arabic, if I’m not mistaken. Everyone was happy, everyone was singing and dancing, nobody was rude or drunk or out of control (yet another pleasant difference from Vegas). And when we rang in the New Year together there were warm greetings all around (and Andrés and I were luckily not nabbed by plainclothes police when we shared a new year’s kiss . . . public kissing is illegal in Dubai, we later learned).
We had one more day remaining. When we were planning the trip I had gathered lists of things to do and places to go, building a tentative itinerary based on recommendations from other foreign service families who had visited. And then, before finalizing the agenda, I asked the kids if there was anything in particular they wanted to do or see. To my surprise, Isaiah piped up (he is not usually the one who pipes up). “There’s a Legoland in Dubai, isn’t there?” Indeed there is, and it had been my mistake to think that our boy, now firmly into his teen years, would no longer be interested. He was very, very interested, and in fact that was (other than seeing the Browns) his single wish for the whole trip. He was perfectly content to join us for sightseeing tours and go up the Burj Khalifa, and he was even patient enough to go to the mall a few times (if the bookstore could be part of the deal), but what he really, really wanted was this:
And so we spent our last day in Dubai at Legoland. We saw LEGO re-creations of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque and the Burj Khalifa and even of a “desert safari.”
The kids built LEGO cars to race down ramps and did a programming session with LEGO robotics kits.
We rode a number of rides, and Isaiah even went on his first roller coaster (the tiny one he preferred at the Texas State Fair does not count). He bought two LEGO sets, one of the Burj Khalifa and one a Doctor Who melange. It was a delightful time, and a great way to end our time in Dubai. It was early to bed that night, and up at 4:15 the next morning to catch our morning plane home. We were in our house right around 1pm . . . though 4:15am Dubai time is 12:15am in Accra, so it felt a lot later. Still, it wasn’t long before I stepped into Isaiah’s room and saw this:
I guess one is never too old – or too tired – for LEGOs.
A few days at home now and our suitcases are unpacked, our lives largely back to normal (well, Christmas vacation normal – the kids aren’t back at school until next week). On Sunday, Epiphany marks the end of the Christmas season and we will have our little Calderón family Christmas celebration, opening the gifts we couldn’t pack and take with us on our trip. But as we sit around the tree opening our gifts we will have this gift from the Browns, nestled between the chile from New Mexico and the cross sent by friends in England, to remind us of the first day of Christmas, and the joy we shared in another corner of the world. Nothing fake about that.