Saturday, July 13, 2013

Five Random Thoughts I Had During My First 24 Hours in Dubai

1. People in the United States who complain about the "One nation under God" bit that was added to the then 62-year-old Pledge of Allegiance in 1954 probably wouldn't be able to handle life in the United Arab Emirates, a country where the state and Islam appear to be inextricably linked. The holy Muslim month of Ramadan is taken very seriously and its daylight-hour restrictions vigorously enforced here, so arriving in Dubai during Ramadan means you have to play along -- at least in public. There are loopholes, though. An Argentine guy I met who works for the InterContinental Dubai hotel told me that when he was in the mall the other day, he was able to buy bottled water, but he had to go into the bathroom to drink it. When the Subway at the Dubai Mall sold me a foot-long tuna sub ("take away only!") after my excursion up to the top of Burj Khalifa, I opted to go back to my hotel and eat it there instead.

2. Unlike Abu Dhabi, where white, beige and clean lines dominate the skyline, Dubai's modern city is a hodgepodge of geometric shapes. Architecturally, the clusters of skyscrapers along Sheikh Zayed Road look a bit like an '80s fashion flashback -- all futuristic designs (from back when we still thought the 21st century would look like something out of The Jetsons), asymmetrical on top -- without the neon hues. Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark was the perfect soundtrack for my arrival.

3. Dubai might be the most grandiose city I've visited so far. What great irony to be here during Ramadan, when devout Muslims are fasting during the day, surrounded by such visual excess. If only Dubai's architecture and morality could work in tandem to provide nourishment for the body as well as the soul I would have spent more hours admiring it in one afternoon excursion. Towering above it all, Burj Khalifa, billed as the tallest building in the world since it's completion in 2009, is a grandiose nod to modernity and luxury that defines the skyline and the philosophy of this city by the sea (technically, the Persian Gulf) at the edge of the Arabian Desert.

Some interesting factoids that I discovered after paying 125 AED ($34) for a sky-high view of Dubai from the 125th floor of Burj Khalifa, a "vertical city" with homes, offices, a hotel, a public observatory, retail stores and fitness and recreational facilities (though you'd have to go to the Mall of the Emirates across town to find the indoor ski slope):

  • There are a record 200 plus stories from the bottom up.
  • A person can see the tip of the spine from a distance of 95 kilometres away.
  • At the height of its construction period (2004-2009), 12,000 workers from more than 80 countries toiled on the building.
  • There are 57 elevators moving at a speed of 10 meters per second operating in the building.
  • Winds of up to 198 kilometers per hour can gust by at the top.
  • The entire structure is covered by 28,601 glass panels.

4. Is white the new black, or is Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Dubai's constitutional monarch and the Prime Minister/Vice President of the United Arab Emirates, whose portrait hangs in five-star hotel lobbies and on the side of buildings all over town, not bad looking? After a few minutes inside the Dubai Mall, billed as the world's largest, turning my head to get another look at men decked out traditional Lawrence of Arabia-style, guys I probably wouldn't have noticed had they been wearing suits and ties, I decided that white cotton robes and white keffiyehs topped with black halo headpieces for pseudo-crowns conceal a possible multitude of imperfections, giving the faces framed by them a uniformly handsome appearance. I couldn't wait to try on the look for myself (tomorrow, during the desert safari).

5. Maybe my 12 hours in Abu Dhabi lowered my expectations, but I'm digging Dubai a lot more than I thought I would, which is especially surprising since shopping and clubbing, the two things the city is best known for, aren't really my things anymore. I could spend hours just staring at Dubai -- a curious mix of metropolis, desert and sea, that's unlike any urban center I've ever experienced -- from street level or from up above. Though suffering from Ramadan- and heat-induced discomfort, when I returned to my hotel, Subway sandwich in hand, to gain relief from hunger, thirst and the cruel Persian Gulf summer, I could have sworn I did so reluctantly.
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