Location // Dubai, United Arab Emirates
Length of stay // 5 days
Travel companions // Me, myself and I
Purpose of trip // Work, with a bit of extra time to explore
A solid veil of night time heat engulfed me the moment I stepped outside of Dubai’s international (air-conditioned) airport. The heat was accompanied by a cloud of swirling cigarette smoke that gathered at the ceiling of the taxi rank. I waited, in a queue of other travellers with their cling-wrapped suitcases, to be whisked down the highway by a sleek white car to my modest hotel room for the next five nights.
In the morning, I woke up to dust-coated windows. Below, a small silver circle indicated the Qiblah – the direction of Mecca, to which Muslims face to pray.
Outdoors, the sky was the colour of clean concrete. It stayed that way for five dusty days and had been that way for months. It extended down to the dry earth over the sprawling flats of the old city built in a similar hue. The latest and tallest glass skyscrapers reflected the same tone.
With just a few hours break, I spent my first afternoon at the Dubai Mall to escape the high temperatures. It was like being back home in London or New York: Victoria’s Secret, Hamley’s, Tim Horton’s, Pottery Barn, Fudruckers, Texas Roadhouse Grill, Coldstone Creamery, Cinnabon, Express, Top Shop, and so on.
Plus a giant aquarium. And then a call to prayer and a group of women in traditional black niqabs followed by a pair of tourists in short sundresses. Go outside and squint up at the Burj Khalifa and you’re sure you’re not in Kansas anymore.
The Mall itself didn’t really do much for me. I wanted to see the other side of the city, the real back alleyways and tiny corner shops. Hailing a taxi, I was hurdled down the massive Sheikh Zayed Road by a Pakistani expat who was blasting “Who Let The Dogs Out” on his radio followed by the Spice Girls.
Leaving behind the American shops, American cars and American restaurants that were everywhere in this city of expats, I sought out the vibrancy of local life.
And, after asking the taxi driver to take me somewhere tourists rarely go, I found it in the souks and the streets that wove around behind them.
They were teeming with life, men shouting their wares: “Madam! Fake watches, copy handbags – Gucci, Prada, Fendi, Madam. Take a look.” All male vendors, all very friendly and eager to be photographed. But there was barely a woman wandering about. Unfortunately this half of the population, minus the expats, for the most part remained a mystery to me.
Colourful lanterns, shisha pipes and bric-a-brac filled the stalls.
I walked slowly, swishing by in my long skirt, through the fabric souks, the gold souks, the spice souks.
I ate a piece of dried camel milk cheese at the persistence of a vendor. It looked exactly like a stick of chalk. It was bitter, crumbled on my tongue.
I felt eyes on me when I explored the back streets around the souks where barely a tourist strays, but I felt safe. They watched me, curious, silent. And I watched them. Curious, silent.
I photographed a man with one eye. Though we are quite possibly as polar opposites as two people can get, we forged a small wordless connection.
And when I wasn’t taking photos, I wandered around Safa Park because I was craving nature, a bit fresh air, grass. I sat barefoot on a Friday afternoon – the day of prayer – under a palm tree, near a pond, reading a book.
And then the haunting sound of the call to prayer settled over the city, echoing out from all of the mosques surrounding the park. And I put my book down and listened because there was something calming in it, something comforting.
Maybe it’s a bit Big Brother, but then maybe it’s an exercise in unity, a time when everyone purposely and regularly takes a few minutes out of a busy day to reflect.
I met a friend later that day and we took a relaxing boat ride through some pretty waterways.
Then we had a lovely Lebanese lunch overlooking the water at the beautiful Madinat Jumeirah.
I met Jane again another day for coffee at the Dubai International Financial Center where I stumbled upon an amazing little gallery. The Empty Quarter was showing some stunning photography taken by Middle Eastern women. The whole area nearby has plenty of other little galleries, shops and cafes which, along with people watching, kept me busy for a full afternoon.
Photo from The Empty Quarter’s Facebook page
Another interesting place to people watch, though more touristy, is the Bastakiya in Bur Dubai where I wandered through the old quarter and around the side streets where locals live and shop.
I met an expat couple from the Philippines who were knocking swirly green fruit off of a tree. They shared some with me, insisting I join them. We sat on upside-down buckets in the middle of a shady courtyard and talked about travel.
In the same place, I also met and photographed another man who only had one eye. He was a shop keeper, selling local artisan goods, catering mainly to those looking to pick up a souvenir to bring home.
I asked him if I could take a photograph and he nodded. He carried a stick with an arrow attached to the bottom. I pointed at it curiously and he started whacking it against the ground like a madman. Then he looked at me and laughed a deep belly laugh and calmly nodded and smiled.
From there, I walked down to the water, past a bunch of overpriced tourist cruises, until I found myself a place on an old rickety wooden boat at the other end. It was filled up with local men with dirt beneath their fingernails and worn out sandals.
They were going to work in Deira, and I went along for the ride deciding to explore the other souks across the river.
While I was there, I wandered through various areas away from the market, trying to get lost, looking for interesting photographs, watching life unfold until the dull but hot sun faded into night.
I tried to search for street art in Dubai on Flickr, but the search term was banned. I didn’t find much on my own either, just a few scribbled sentences like “No Peace with Police” and “Don’t Spit Here”.
My last afternoon, I went down to the beach in the sweltering heat and waded into the sea up to my knees. The sun was filtered through the dust, casting bright rays against the water, the skyscrapers of the city rising up behind me.
There was a man and a woman fully clothed with a child, waist-deep. The water was vibrant blue and as warm as a bath.
Dubai was, all in all, beyond the shiny invasive skyscrapers, underneath that oppressive concrete sky, and past the Americanisation, a beautiful city to be explored, full of smiling faces and welcoming local people.
More of my Dubai photos on Flickr.