It began as an impossible dream, a desire to display my modest winter beard to the greatest purveyors of facial pubage in all the lands of men, the wise and whiskered beardmen of Arabia.
Unfortunately, as a white American male, my safe travel options in the Middle East are tragically limited. As an additional hurdle to carefree travel, I am afflicted with a most vexing drain of resources, both financial and temporal. A foul harpy dedicated to the flattening of my wallet and the death of my dreams. An amoral succubus intent on total domination of my very existence. I have a girlfriend.
Being the savvy modern gentleman that I am however, I knew how to overcome both obstacles. The first was solved by choosing our destination. We would go to Dubai. In Dubai, the dollar is worshiped above all other gods, so western tourists are welcomed with open arms and grudging access to alcohol. The second solution was only slightly trickier. I had to convince Mistress that my decision to go to Dubai was actually Her decision.
To do so, I loaded myself up with a suitable tribute of donuts, pumpkin spices lattes, and a blind white goat. With severe trepidation, I brought my sacrificial offering to the door of what had once been my bedroom, but had, as is the way with women, swiftly become our bedroom, and then ultimately her lair. Pausing with ear to door, I could hear the muffled thumps and hideous snuffling breathe of the gigantic and not altogether sane beast contained inside. Good, she was home.
“Mistress?” I called softly.
“Cookies, and pastries, and candies, and pies….” I could barely discern the horrid ramblings of the foul creature.
“Mistress?” I dared again, a little louder.
The mutterings ceased, and were replaced by the sound of a vast scaly bulk dragging itself up to the door.
“I deserve moneyyyyy,” the monster gurgled from the other side of the door.
“I’m…I’m sorry,” I replied, “I don’t have any money. You took it all already.” To forestall the sudden growling, I continued swiftly, “but I did bring you a little snack. You like snacks, right? Yeah, sure you do.”
Careful to keep my eyes averted, since it is certain death to look a girlfriend in the face, I cracked open the door, and shoved my offering into the inky blackness beyond the threshold. Sweating and shaking, I re-closed the door as quickly as possible, and fought a sudden up welling of nausea relating directly to the sounds of gluttonous feasting now escaping from the girlfriend’s lair. After the crunching and slurping subsided, I tried my ploy.
“Mistress… you know how you’ve been working really hard lately? And how it’s been so cold and snowy? It’s just that, I remember how you said you wanted to go to the beach, and how you said that the weather in Dubai is always perfect. And I think you’re right. You’re always right. You’re such a genius, and pretty too. Anyway, since you had such a good idea, I went ahead and booked us some tickets. And I took the liberty of cleaning out your travel cage, and filling it with fresh sawdust. So as soon as you climb on in there, we’ll be able to go on that trip you wanted!”
We actually lucked out concerning the flight. We found relatively cheap tickets flying from JFK to Zurich and then down to Dubai via Swiss Air. There were even cheaper tickets available if we chose to fly Aeroflot through Moscow but…you don’t fly scare-o-flot if you don’t absolutely have to. The Swiss Air flights operated with smooth efficiency, and the friendly Swiss stewardesses were a pleasant change from the vicious flight trolls employed by Delta and most of our other domestic airlines. My only potential criticism is that they served an overabundance of cheeses throughout their flight, and the plane ended up smelling like the inside of a fart by the end of the trip.
We got to Dubai late Tuesday, the 17th, and had a gratifyingly quick passage through customs and passport control. Basically the Dubai security personnel saw us in our glorious whiteness, pulled us out of a giant line of Indian and Pakistani visa applicants, brought us to the front of the line and said welcome to Dubai, please feel free to spend all your money as soon as possible. Mistress had a brief hiccup in the airport bathroom, when she was momentarily bamboozled by the traditional squatting floor toilet. After peeing all over her own ankles, she was somewhat chagrined to discover that all of the other stalls in the bathroom had normal western style toilets.
Since Mistress and I had failed to do anything as adult as book a hotel room or find a place to stay, we were met at the airport by our dear friend Sara, who is currently six months in to a two year teaching contract at an international school in Dubai. She graciously accepted the role of hostess during our stay, and became our local guide, social coordinator, and secret lover. My first impression of Dubai, on the taxi ride from the airport to Sara’s apartment was that it was a very warm, very shiny, but very unfinished city. This impression was further solidified after we unpacked at Sara’s apartment, and took to her balcony for drinks and revelry. She, along with many of her international teaching coworkers and friends, resides in a beautiful residential skyscraper, in accommodations that would be considered positively posh on a teacher’s salary elsewhere. Luckily for her however, her employer provides this housing free of charge. Sara’s balcony, while small, had sufficient room for lounging and enjoying the view of the city. Like everywhere in Dubai, the view was a mix of bland desert, glittering cityscape, and unfinished construction projects. In fact, the two buildings beside and behind Sara’s were under construction the entire time we were visiting, and during the day were swarming with unskilled Indian and Pakistani immigrant laborers. These men in their hundreds and thousands appear to be the grease that keep the cogs of Dubai’s blue collar industry turning.
After an indeterminate amount of whiskey drinks numbering somewhere between ten and two thousand, I decided that this strange and wonderful city would benefit from my governance, and I committed myself to becoming the new Sheik of Dubai. Just as soon as the room stopped spinning.
I’ll admit it. I overdid it with the drinks. The next morning Mistress and Sara got up, went to the gym, and then headed out to the beach before I did more than roll over in bed. As soon as I was semi-mobile, I puked in Sara’s toilet, and shuffled up to the roof of her building, which has a pool and observation deck with lounge chairs. That’s where I installed myself for the rest of the day, periodically moaning and scaring the young foreign pool attendant. (side note, I discovered that the pool attendant was on duty 9am to 9pm six days a week, and that these hours are normal for most of the foreign labor in the city. That’s like a half step away from slavery, Fuck that.) I did enjoy a few paddles in the pool, and I did appreciate warming my cold New England bones in the Arabian sunshine, but I could have done without the throbbing headache and roiling stomach. By evening I was more or less human, and I was able to choke down the burger that Mistress and Sara brought home for me, even when they gleefully told me that it was Camel meat.
The next day, Mistress and I took a Dubai Big Bus tour, which traveled to most of the notable touristy destinations in the city, like the Atlantis Hotel out on the Palm Jumeirah, and to the Burj Al Arab, the only seven star hotel in the world, as well as to the Dubai Mall (biggest mall in the world) and the Burj Khalifa (tallest building in the world). After the bus tour, we returned to the mall with Sara, and we explored the Dubai Mall Aquarium (probably the biggest mall aquarium in the world, I don’t know, the Emirate people love having the biggest of shit).
Particularly exciting to me was our visit to the Burj Khalifa. We were able to get a reservation for a table at the At.mosphere Lounge on the 123rd floor. (the period isn’t a typo, its really called the At.mosphere). From this lofty height were able to sip our overpriced drinks, and laugh at the puny mortals living out their humdrum lives a million miles below our feet. When I say that this building is big, I mean it’s BIG. Looking out over the city from the lounge, even the other enormous skyscrapers of Dubai look like little toy Lego buildings. The building is so tall that attendants give you candies before you enter the elevator, so that you have something to suck on as the pressure changes. The building is so tall that if I were to lie down naked on the ground outside and compare it to my boner… nobody would notice because they’re all too busy looking up at how tall the building is. After a gratifying, but pricey meal in the burj, we returned to earth and took a cab to a beach bar. It’s name currently eludes me, but I was served the biggest beer in the world, and then we rented a hookah and a lounge chair, and passed a particularly pleasant evening smoking shishah and watching Emirati males get kicked out of the bar. As foreigner’s, we were welcome to purchase and consume alcohol in the few bars which exist in the city, which are mostly next to or inside of resorts and hotels. Since the Emirates is a Muslim nation however, the locals have to adhere to Islamic law, and they aren’t generally allowed to drink. Young Emirati often get around this by getting rooms in the resorts, changing out of their traditional Arabic garb into Western clothing, and then trying to pass as Westerners at the bar. As we saw however, this process sometimes meets with imperfect results.
After our magical night out, I was feeling positively Sheik-like, so we went back to Sara’s apartment and I thoroughly enjoyed my miniature harem.
The following couple of days were a bit of a bummer, because a bad sandstorm kicked up out of the desert, so travel in the city became nearly impossible, and relaxing on the beach was out of the question. While I’m glad to have experienced a real life sandstorm, I was sad to lose the potential sunshine lounging time. Sandstorms for that part of the world are like blizzards for us back home. The wind driven sand reduces visibility from miles to feet or inches, and it drifts and piles up making roads impassible and travel highly dangerous. To pass the time, we were still able to enjoy ourselves by further exploring the Dubai Mall, and taking in a movie (Kingsman, pretty entertaining). By the second full day of Sandstorming however, we were becoming bored, and my people were clamoring to me, their Sheik, for succor.
I knew what I had to do. I had to go into the desert.
Packing lightly, Mistress and I departed Dubai city in a taxicab with the vague directions to our confused driver of “go into the desert.” Eventually he got us far enough out into the shifting sands that we were able to bid him farewell, and walk on into our new nomadic life. To speed up the process, I rented a KTM dirtbike, a 2015 300 two stroke, for those who understand such things. While I rode into the desert, Mistress settled in to our new home.
While I swore an oath to never share the full details of what befell me in the Desert, know this. I went into the Desert. I conversed with the Djinn. I did what I had to do to stop the sandstorms and save the city. I…saw things meant for no mortal eyes. I returned from the desert a changed man. Also, Camels! Hooray!
I grew up riding. I love motorcycling, both on and off road. I still spend nearly as much time on two wheels as I do sitting comfortably in cars. And I was pushed to my limits with this ride. It was awesome, and alternately exciting and terrifying. I had never ridden sand like this, and the magnitude of the desert surrounding my guide and I was humbling. This was by far my favorite part of the trip. I mean, how could it not be?
After returning from my ride and collecting Mistress from her tent of wonders, we hitched a ride back into town with some friendly Polish tourists, and went out to the beach. While my actions in the Desert had stopped the sandstorm, it was still cloudy, breezy, and chilly, so the beach visit was less about enjoyment and more about stubborn persistence. I had come this far, I was going to play in the Arabian Gulf damn it. As you can see, that plan lasted about twelve minutes.
After my sojourn into the Desert, I realized a sad truth. I am not meant to be Sheik. The powers and responsibilities of this position were too much for a simple tourist from the States. As such, I was able to throw myself back into tourist mode, and enjoy the rest of our trip in a more relaxed fashion.
We enjoyed the Dubai fountain show (biggest fountain show in the world naturally). We went to a Karaoke bar in old Dubai. We had a pleasant dinner in an Arabian Souk (marketplace). We had a romantic gondola ride in the shadow of the Burj Al Arab.
At the culmination of our trip, as we limped back to the airport for our return to the states, tired, sore, and noticeably poorer, I tried to express my feelings about Dubai to Mistress.
The thing is, Dubai is a new city. Forty years ago, it was a podunk fishing port, with nothing to brag about. With the formation of the U.A.E. however, and the business leadership of the multi-billionaire Sheik Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the city is growing exponentially into a capitalist paradise. Sure, it has impressive buildings, and mind-boggling man-made islands. Sure ostentatious palaces line the beach, and exotic super cars clog up the enormous roadways. Sure, it’s a city of “ests”, the richest, the biggest, the tallest, the newest, etc etc etc. My criticism is, it’s all glamour, no substance. It’s got no soul. When I travel, I like seeing the achievements of ancient peoples. The ruins of the Romans, the Egyptians, the Mayans and Inca. The religious sites of Jerusalem and Istanbul. These are what interest me. I’m an American, so I’ve seen plenty of new cities. All we’ve got are new cities. I like experiencing older ones, cities with crooked little streets bent by the weight of centuries. Cities with secrets older than my family line. Dubai is beautiful. Dubai is glamorous. Dubai is also very new, and very unfinished. I was hoping to find a dusty, loud, crowded, bustling Arabian jewel at the heart of Dubai. Instead I found that the beating heart of Dubai is the Dubai Mall, with its Forever 21, and Cheese Cake Factory.
Dubai is a city of Paradoxes. It’s a burgeoning shrine to materialism and excess, where rich Emeratis show off their Bugattis and Ferraris and Range Rovers while Muezzin still recite the Adhan five times a day over mosque loud speakers, calling the faithful to prayer. (haunting and beautiful BTW) Devout Muslims wear traditional garb everywhere, but their robes proudly display the logos of western brands like Dolce and Louis Vuitton. It is a playground for the rich and beautiful, built on the sweaty bent backs of mistreated foreign labor.
I liked Dubai. I’m glad we went. I’ll treasure the memories we made there forever.
I’ll probably never go back.
Oh, also, they really liked my beard.