MANILA, Philippines – When I told people that I was going to Abu Dhabi and Dubai in the UAE, someone thought it apt to immediately warn me about ISIS and that I should dress conservatively lest I incur Muslim wrath. It’s fairly common knowledge that the two are open cities and are home to many expats. But I guess there is still a strong prevailing skepticism regarding how open Muslims can really be, especially in the Middle East. A friend who had been working there a few years assured me that such concerns were silly. “You can wear whatever you want! Bring a bikini. Let’s go to the beach.” In any case, I’m glad I got to see it for myself.
We flew into Abu Dhabi via Philippine Airlines, and the first thing that struck me upon landing, aside from the intricate frames of the new structures they were building, was how gorgeously featured Middle Eastern men were. I knew of this prior to my trip, but to see so many of them, and in the flesh, well…
After going through the motions at the airport, including a currency exchange promo that would change our money back with the same rate at the end of our stay, we rode straight to the JW Marriott Marquiz in Dubai. The tallest hotel in the world would be our home for the next five days. And after a nine-hour flight, their buffet dinner, plush rooms, and intuitive staff were a source of great comfort.
Luxury in the middle of the desert
When in Dubai, it’s easy to forget that you’re in the desert. Luxury cars are the norm on its smooth, wide roads. Vast malls come complete with all the luxury brands. Their bus stops and overpasses are fully air-conditioned, and the latter are equipped with walkalators. Some five star hotels have figured out how to play soothing music underwater in their pools, so that you have a soundtrack as you wade around. Architecture seems to compete against architecture, and there is a generous spread of landscaped greenery — each tree with its own sprinkler, according to our tour guide.
We took a 45-minute drive to the Al Awir desert for dune bashing. Drivers with special licenses took us on a rocky ride over and along the steep edges of gigantic sand dunes. And after having our requisite “I’m in the desert!” shots taken, we headed to the Al Awir desert camp for dinner and a dose of Middle Eastern culture. Dates and Arabic coffee were served at the entrance, and there were sections for shisha smoking, henna tattooing, and souvenir shopping. At the center was a spread of carpets and low tables surrounding a raised platform. We took off our shoes and left them off for the rest of the evening, as the sand was cool and felt very fine on our feet.
During our barbecue dinner, we were entertained by a Tanoura dancer. The Egyptian folk dance involves a man performing various feats as he whirls around in big, colorful skirts. At some point his blurs start to resemble a carnival ride, among many other forms. He plucked out a few volunteers to take turns whirling in his skirt, and they understandably got dizzy after a few turns.
Meanwhile, the men in our audience clearly enjoyed the belly-dancing portion of the show. I spied white tourists eyeing our busty and full-figured dancer lustily, as she shook and isolated every muscle from her hips to her head. My eyes shifted to their typically pretty skinny white girlfriends beside them, and despite our shared gender, I could sort of understand their male longing for more exotic, otherworldly territory.
View from the top
First on the agenda the following day was to take an elevator straight up the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world. From the 124th floor, we had a 360-degree view of the entire city. We were also told that the surrounding hotels are fully booked every New Year’s Eve, as the fireworks that erupt from the area, coupled with the famous dancing fountain in the courtyard, are astounding. The building was also conveniently connected to the Dubai Mall, where I failed to meet a friend for coffee due to communication glitches. Exhausted (it was a big mall) and defeated, I settled down to have coffee by myself and people watch.
The baristas were Filipino. There are so many Filipinos in Dubai, and in every professional level, that they don’t even blink when they see a fellow kababayan. They just instinctively switch to Tagalog when they speak to you. On a related note, it is advisable to avoid speaking Tagalog in order to make secret commentary about foreigners within earshot — because chances are high that they will be able to understand you. Some of them even know how to flirt in Tagalog while gently wrapping a checkered turban around your head. True story.
Sitting alone at the coffee shop was the first time I really got to take in how diverse Dubai’s population was. There was a French couple at one table and a Chinese couple at the other, with two little daughters who kept coming up to me. There were men in suits, men in traditional Arab clothing, women covered up in abayas, and women flaunting their lively curls and toned arms.
Most places have a singular culture that presses down on you if you’re new — something that feels exotic, exciting, and at the same time excluding and a bit daunting. In Dubai, you don’t feel that. There are so many colors (210 nationalities to be exact, with foreigners outnumbering the locals), and you are just one of them. Over the course of our five-day trip, I met Hungarians, Egyptians, Asians, Indians, Emiratis, and many other people whose origins I can only haphazardly guess. I saw buses pulled over by the road at sunset, with their Muslim drivers kneeling on the cement to say their prayers. I met Arab men, who apparently are very respectful of women. I had weird Caucasian tourists walk over to manually move me out of the frame instead of saying excuse me. It was a good kind of confusing.
We wound down one afternoon at the Jumeirah open beach. Yes, Philippine beaches are still much better. But this one was just a 15-minute drive from the city. Entrance was free, and the atmosphere was chill. It was populated by an assortment of decent people, from surfers to families. Most importantly, it was clean. Imagine being able to instantly retreat to something like that every time you had a rough day. To have the therapeutic breeze, sound and scent of the sea just minutes away from your high-powered job. It made me wonder whether I’d choose the most breathtaking scenes of nature, or a place where people simply took care of whatever they had. We proceeded afterwards to dinner, which we had on a Dhow cruise along Dubai Marina, watching expats drink and dance themselves silly on passing yachts.
Understanding the abaya
The highlight of the entire trip for me was visiting the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi — a massive white structure set against the expanse above. I was still breathing in the sight when a friend interrupted my trance-like state of admiration. “They look like marshmallows!” she said of the domes. Funny comments aside, it’s interesting whenever I try to recall the design. Intricate carvings and patterns of all sorts covered the domed ceilings completely. There were murals and painted images of foliage running along the walls and the courtyard floor like vines. There were tranquil blue pools outside, which by night reflected onto the mosque’s façade. It also housed the largest single carpet in the world and the world’s largest Swarovski crystal chandelier. There was so much detail squeezed into every crevice and space. And yet, whenever I think back on it, my first instinct is to say that there was nothing there. That it was just this wide-open white space that opened itself up to the sky. It was that rich, and yet that elegant.
Women were required to wear abayas on the grounds. At first I found this a bit disappointing, since I already had an outfit planned for the wealth of photo opportunities ahead. I had also always thought of the abaya as something that restricted a woman’s self-expression. But as I walked around silently absorbing my surroundings, I slowly started to grow into my shapeless black cloak. The abaya, or at least my experience of wearing it, had a very distinct kind of femininity. To wear it was to be beautiful, but at the same time shrouded in mystery — to perennially be smiling to one’s self. In the end I was sorry to have to leave and to shed this intriguing new persona. I wished to explore her further.
Overall it was a very interesting trip, which I shared with chosen Philippine travel agents. And the staff of tour operator Superjet Travel and Holidays Dubai and Destinations Unlimited took very good care of us. They answered all of our questions, moved heaven and earth to meet our needs (including requests to squeeze in trips to outlet malls), and made us feel right at home.
We spent our last day doing an ocular at Atlantis, The Palm — the famous man-made island shaped like a palm leaf. It was a lazy hedonist’s dream, with vacationers idly floating along river-like pools or lounging around on their own private beaches; drinking in the glory of empty days while housed in palace-like accommodations.
We then headed to the gold and spice souk (market) to buy our pasalubong. We loaded up on dates (they had all kinds; I especially liked the chocolate-covered ones with almonds at the center) and pistachio nuts. The latter were quite cheap, at just P600 for half a kilo.
I didn’t buy any gold, but when I took a few pictures of the jewelry on display, one of the Indian sales men approached me to say that they charged for taking photos. I pretended I couldn’t understand his accent (which wasn’t entirely untrue; Indian accents are quite difficult to decipher).
The Indian vendors, who comprise the majority at the souk, are hilarious. They’re aggressive, but they carry out their aggression in a very charming manner. They will practically court you to walk into their shops, calling out to ask you what you want, where you’re from and to “just try it out,” in a tone that makes you wonder whether it’s their wallets or their hearts on the line. At one point I coughed, to which the vendor calling out to me apologized. “Oh, I’m sorry, miss. Come, I have water.” It was flustering, and I loved every minute of it.
Being in Dubai feels warm and familiar because of the strong and ubiquitous Filipino presence. But at the same time you encounter everything else in the world, from people to cultures to design and cuisines. You feel like you’re in your comfort zone, but at the same time you’re out there, doing your best to navigate the unexpected. If that’s not a great place to live, I don’t know what is.
Originally published in The Philippine Star’s Travel and Tourism section (7 December 2014)