Thursday, July 11, 2013

My 10 First Impressions of Abu Dhabi: The Bad, the Better and the Burning Up

The view from the front entrance of the Oaks Liwa Executive Suites
Since it's always better to accentuate the positive, which is perhaps best accomplished by ending with it, I'll begin by going up on the downside.

The Bad:

1. The heat "How do people live in those sweltering meteorological conditions?" That's the question I asked myself the day before my departure from Bangkok when I checked the current temperature in Abu Dhabi on my iPod Touch, and it was 117 degrees Fahrenheit (47 Celsius), some 30 more than it was at that very moment in Bangkok, which was testing my resistance to heat stroke as it was. The fear of a black hole red summer sun returned when I landed in Abu Dhabi at 11.32pm on Wednesday, and the flight captain announced that it was 37 degrees Celsius (99 Fahrenheit) outside. Suddenly, I was in no hurry to exit the aircraft. 

2. In this day and Wi-Fi age, shouldn't Internet access in hotels be complimentary? A friend who used to work behind the scenes at a major hotel in Melbourne once told me that one of the biggest holiday rackets going are the exorbitant fees hotels charge for making in-room telephone calls. If we knew how little they actually pay to provide the service, we'd slam the receiver down and leave it there -- or stick to our mobile phones, which in recent years have rendered land lines, including the ones in hotels, virtually obsolete anyway.

So has the Internet, which, I suppose, is why so many hotels in Australia and the one I chose in Adu Dhabi, the Oaks Liwa Executive Suites, nickel-and-dime paying customers hoping to get online. Nothing this side of a dead cockroach on the bathroom floor makes a swanky one-bedroom suite start to feel a little like a hovel faster than being charged Emirati dirhams for Wi-Fi by the hour (AED 15, or $4), the day (AED 60, or $16), the week (AED 300, or $82), or the month (AED 600, or $163). On the plus side, the Liwa offered free Wi-Fi in the public areas, and thanks to may having booked my stay there through Agoda, using my accumulated points, I paid only $10 for my five-star pad. 

3. Could my timing possibly be any worse? Once again, I arrived in a predominantly Muslim country (as I did two years ago when I first visited Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia) in the middle of Ramadan. While I was in KL that first time, the only noticeable difference between Ramadan and any other time of year was the increased number of sold-out hotels. There were still massive crowds everywhere, only bigger. Abu Dhabi, though, seemed strangely deserted, from the airport terminal all the way to the Tourist Club Area, where the Liwa is located, and the receptionist prepared me for what was to come. "It's Ramadan," she warned, "so there are very strict rules. You can't consume food or any drinks, even water, in public. No smoking. No candy. Not even chewing gum." Since I'd just made a point of requesting a non-smoking room, I wasn't sure why she mentioned that restriction, though it's good to know I won't be annoyed by anyone blowing smoke in my direction this weekend. But no chewing gum?! I wouldn't dream of indulging in such a crude habit, but can they really regulate what happens inside of my mouth? 

4. Colorless color Maybe one should never judge a place by how it looks 'round midnight, but in my experience, some towns (Buenos Aires, Melbourne, Paris) positively glow in the dark. In Abu Dhabi, riding in the taxi from the airport, all I saw were wide open spaces (always best if it's not so hot that pedestrians can't negotiate them on foot) and lots of white and beige. Clearly, I thought, if this ends up being a colorful travel experience, it'll happen inside those white and beige buildings -- and not just because, in the immortal words of Cole Porter, it's too darn hot out. 

5. Will pay for food -- if I can find any! I suppose that when you arrive in Abu Dhabi during the Ramadan month of daylight fasting and stay in a part of the city called Tourist Club Area, you get what you signed up for. But surely there must be other non-fasting tourists who wake up at 6 in the morning here craving something more exciting than an American Breakfast from room service. You don't miss Bangkok street food -- or 24-hour 7-11s on practically every corner -- until you go to bed hungry somewhere else and wake up famished in a fasting city that's still fast asleep.

The Better:

The cool view from my hotel room… in Dubai
1. The heat Perhaps it was the fact that the six-hour Etihad Airways flight from Bangkok to Abu Dhabi went by like that, or the cute, friendly Irish guy beside me who was reading German and speaking Russian to the flight attendant (in the process, making sitting in 29B, the middle seat in an exit row, less excruciating), or the lack of a line at Customs (I assumed that most people arriving in Abu Dhabi during Ramadan are connecting to somewhere else), or the fact that my luggage was already on the revolving belt when I got to baggage claim No. 7. But I didn't even really mind that I nearly choked on the heavy, humid night air as I stepped outside the airport. When 37 degrees Celsius at midnight is the norm, you're almost guaranteed working AC everywhere. And unlike Buenos Aires and New York City (but much like Bangkok), you don't have to pray for a taxi that's cranking it because there's no other way to travel when it gets this hot. After I asked the receptionist if the bus form Abu Dhabi to Dubai has AC (because at 25 AED, or $7, one-way, you can't assume that it does), she looked at me as if I'd lost my mind. "Of course there's AC!" Of course.

2. So far it's not as pricey as I was expecting it to be. For a capital that's billed as one of the most expensive cities in the Middle East, 70 AED (or $19) for a 20-minute ride in a private luxury sedan from the airport into the city felt like a bargain, though nearly half of the 350 baht ($11, fare plus tolls) that I had paid some eight hours earlier to get from Sathorn in Bangkok to Suvarnabhumi Airport. And my driver got me to my destination without once spitting out of the window or pulling over on the side of the highway so that he could unload. 

3. As in Bangkok, you don't necessarily have to be able to read the language to get around.  Arabic looks even more like hieroglyphics to my eyes than Thai script (which at least uses the same numbers that we use in the West), but the information on all the signs is repeated in English using the Western alphabet. As an added bonus, I had very little problem communicating with the first seven people I spoke to, even if a few of them didn't seem to know Abu Dhabi any better than I did. 

4. I'm not a United Arab Emirates fashion disaster. I expected to feel totally out of place because all the guys would be wearing flowing cotton robes (with or without matching pants) that could double as pajamas. Some of the guys working in Customs were decked out in full traditional garb, but as long as I refrain from wearing my "Mr. Sexy" t-shirt for the next few days, my Western wardrobe should just work just fine here. 

5. Breakfast is breakfast. After a month of dinner food first thing in the morning (the norm in Bangkok), a cheese omelet at 8am was a welcome sight. In the end, I opted for room service's American Breakfast, which was delicious and huge, more than worthy of the 58 AED (or $16) price tag. It was delivered by a beautiful young lady who could have been the Russian Etihad flight attendant's sister, making me wonder what other surprises are in store.
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