Sunday, July 14, 2013

I'll Be Back!: Parting Shots of Dubai

Although the blistering summer sun and the limitations imposed by Ramadan cramped my travel lifestyle -- I never knew how much of an outdoors person I actually am until I couldn't greet the sun without practically melting in it -- I was still surprisingly and thoroughly charmed by Dubai. The next time I come here (and yes, I suspect there will be a next time), I'll have to plan my visit for a non-holy month when the sun's heat isn't quite so brutal that I can't walk around in it, and I'm free to enjoy at least two meals a day sitting (or standing, or walking) al fresco.

I gladly would have given up those two meals for the chance to spend more time walking through the city and enjoying its unparalleled architecture from ground level rather than mostly from taxis, the Metro, or 125 stories up, on the observation deck of Burj Khalifa. Why spend all days indoors, wandering around massive shopping malls, buying things you don't need that you can probably get back home, when you could be experiencing Dubai under the blue-gray sky (preferably, when it's a hazy shade of winter)?

One of the most impressive aspects of Dubai from outside is its layout: It's like a vertical city and a horizontal city rolled into one. The vertical portion is most prominently represented by two clusters of oddly shaped skyscrapers that sprout from the flat earth of Sheikh Zayed Road in columns, underscoring and then capping Dubai's relatively recent emergence as the ultimate modern city. Like the skyline of most major metropolises, the geometric theme is columnal and rectangular, short sides on top and bottom, but there are some intriguing variations, most notably, a half moon (or half egg)-shaped skyscraper whose name I didn't catch, and another tall building, Cayan Tower, that looks like it's doing a pilates core twist.

Sprawled out below Dubai's vertical city but hardly crouching in its shadow are the historic white and beige buildings of the horizontal city, which covers most of the landscape. Before arriving in Dubai, this was the visual image I'd always associated with Middle Eastern cities going by what I always saw on the evening news growing up, and it's this part that makes me feel like I'm in true Arabic country and not just another bustling urban jungle.

The rectangular architecture (long sides on top and bottom) of the horizontal city is simpler, more functional than in the vertical city, with less of a deliberate look-at-me quality, but it's no less of a formidable presence, especially viewed from above on the Metro's green line on the way to and from the Melia Dubai Hotel near Port Rashid and the Dubai Marina up the coastline. I couldn't decide whether to focus on the skyscrapers that were practically screaming for my attention on the side furthest from the gulf or gaze at the modestly appointed constructions extending from the other side of Sheikh Zayed all the way to the water.

With domes of mosques punctuating the horizontal skyline, it can almost be seen as the architectural representation of Dubai's devoutly Islamic side, while the vertical skyline reflects the city's more secular interests (money and power). It's a stunning dichotomous urban design in which vintage (the horizontal portion) and futuristic (the vertical area) intersect and complement each other without actually mingling (architectural segregation?).

Wide open spaces enhance Dubai's aesthetic scheme, but many of them seem to be under construction. I'm not sure if this is a shame or cause to be excited about Dubai's future. I'm pretty sure the city's planners will be adding to its collection of skyscrapers because size matters here: Bigger and more grandiose seem to be Dubai's contemporary architectural philosophies. I only hope they continue to dot the cityscape rather than growing exponentially until they swallow it up, tipping and eventually toppling Dubai's unique balance of modern and historic that distinguishes the look of the city more than any half moon-shaped office building, or even the tallest building in the world, ever could.

Going outside of Dubai's city limits for a five-hour desert safari was an equally interesting visual experience, particularly the 22-kilometer trek though the sand dunes to the camp site, which, according to the GPS on my phone was in the neighboring emirate of Sharjah. As the four-wheel drive, one of about 10 that made up Lama Desert Tourism's caravan of vehicles, sand blasted its way through the dunes, up, down and sideways, the drivers appearing to be competing to see who could pull off the most daring sand stunts, I felt like I was on the world's longest slow rollercoaster. Thrilling!

The short less-than-5-minutes camel ride at the camp entrance wasn't nearly as scary as it looked when the ladies on The Real Housewives of New York City climbed aboard the humped-back beasts of burden in Morocco, but I still can't figure out how four spindly legs managed to hold my weight without buckling.

The only disappointment of the safari, aside from the removal of the belly dancing (and alcohol) from the evening's entertainment menu due to Ramadan and the palatable but hardly foody-caliber Arabian meal, which didn't make me forget about Thai dining, was becoming an exception to my own theory about the beautifying effect of white robes and white keffiyehs. Either white is simply not my color, or I need to just stick to my drab Western attire.

I nearly gave in to the pressure of the five salesmen who tried their best get me to drop 160 AED (roughly $44) on one of the outfits, presenting me with an assortment of keffiyehs in different colors and lowering the price in increments of 10AED (all the way to 120 AED, or $33) to sway me, but in the end, my resolve not to add to the weight of my check-in luggage triumphed. I mentally thanked them for reminding me why I hate shopping and headed for the dunes.

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