Dubai: Part 1/3

Caught with nine days off and no budget or visa to visit Turkey (the schools here wait until days before a potential holiday to tell you whether or not you’ll actually get those days off), me and a few friends decided to hit up our neighboring city, Dubai.  We got a cheap as chips hotel (Thanks, EasyHotel!) for under $15 a night, and spent our days doing things most city-dwellers take for granted: going to cafes, yoga classes, movies, malls, and tourist destinations.  Here’s a an initial impression I got on the touristy features of the city.  Check out parts 2 & 3 for the yoga and dating impressions!

The Touristy Run-down

No one can deny the ambition of the world’s latest ode to capitalism.  Overflowing with shopping options, brand new concert halls popping up all over the city, millions of ex-pats have gathered for business, education and service, the world’s first man-made islands formed and sold – on top of all that, the government is making big moves to attract artists and performers to the desert oasis getaway of the future.  As far as architecture goes, monstrous skyscrapers line Sheikh Zayed road for miles, and where most cities have a specific area for the mammoth, the eye-popping structures of modernity, Dubai’s aren’t confined to the financial district.  The big boys are EVERYWHERE.

All this being said, beneath the sheen of new money’s splendor lurks concrete doubts as to Dubai’s positioning as the international hot spot destination.  Theatre shows have been cancelled due to religious censorship, as just one sign of the many faults with a theory that one could actually import culture.  On top of that, the economic down turn has left scores of buildings empty and leased luxury vehicles abandoned like redheaded stepchildren in mall parking lots across the emirate.

Although the latest headlines here claim a quick recovery of the market, outsider doubts seem to have more solid grounding than the Dubai skyscrapers themselves, erected in the hasty hope, “if we build them, they will come.”  The consecration of desert ground with the country’s newly made oil money has brought nowhere near the reputation or reverence of other destinations with a rich lengthy history and subsequent artifacts of culture.  Dubai’s residential crème de la crème, the Jumeira Palms, have even been called more of an ‘eighth blunder’ than an ‘eighth wonder’ of the world – especially since the reality of closely built homes and practical slave labor became ever more apparent.

Yes, it’s real!

Don’t get me wrong, the UAE has done some incredible things with infrastructure, architecture, education and a massive green movement that will pave the way for a very bright future in the emirates.  Dubai, specifically, however, from the perspective of a young yogi tourist, still has a lot of growing to do!  From what little I’ve seen in one week, and this is still open to debate, Dubai is the perfect city for a day of shopping, pretty good yoga, a bit of beach action and some mainstream clubbing.  And that’s about it.

I sometimes wonder what Mark Twain would have said about Dubai … “Never have so many riches been squandered on so little substance.”  “As though the ghosts of dinosaurs past have been conjured back to earth through the gushing blood oil on these unending sandy shores, the city is haunted by the hallow cry of extinction.  And not necessarily of the dinosaurs’.”  Or something of much more eloquence and hilarity, I’m sure.

To drive down Sheikh Zayed Road, the city’s main artery, the average tourist isn’t exactly handed beauty on a silver platter.  I was expecting each and every building to be a vision of distinction, a testament to the new city’s dedication to humanity’s glittery new future.  But you really need to explore each building in detail for that special feature that made it worthy of such highly coveted – and highly priced – real estate.  A wrap-around layer of ornate metal cascades around the crust of one building, flying arches crown the top of another, giving it a bit of a lotus top vibe.  True, there are gorgeously creative buildings to see … but as with most cities in the world, Dubai’s skyline really only boasts a few gems amidst a sea of mediocrity.  For every feat of modern architecture, there are two glass and steel rectangles that say nothing more than “Hi, I like money.” Uh huh.

Tallest building in the world – pretty damn surreal, especially in the heat!

Architectural expectations smushed, I was determined to find something really stand-out about this city.  Surely there must be something more to this vast man-man atrocity.  There must be some history, some culture, some depth to the story.  I began my journey as a typical tourist, on the lazy man’s BIG BUS TOUR, thinking I could at least get a lay of the land, for future explorations.  Stops included the Jumeira Mosque, the Gold Souk (closed that day *sigh*), the Dubai Museum and the Sheikh Zayeed Al Maktoum House.  They all sounded “worth seeing,” as suggested by the knowledgeable host of our bus tour recording.  But after respectfully stopping at each and every cultural pit stop, I can’t say I quite agree with our jaunty British tour voice.

The Dubai-est thingy on the tour – the Burj Al Arab

The Dubai Museum is a tiny underground reenactment of life in the desert before oil.  The kind you’d see at a natural history museum where plasticy mannequins make traditional jewelry in a cave-like poorly-lit “store” for tea-sipping “customers” sat upon his traditional Arabian rug.  Although my travel homey liked it, for me, its best quality was probably the AC.

The Sheikh’s House was basically an empty smattering of rooms, boasting nothing more than a few sun-damaged photographs.  And the “best souk” in Dubai was actually a brand new indoor mall with cool imports from India and Africa.  Where are the rugs, the spices, the shisha pipes and bartering owners?? I wanna get sweaty and I want a good deal!  Ah well, I probably just didn’t do my Lonely Planet homework properly, but frankly, I wasn’t all too impressed.

On the plus side, the river cruise was relaxing and gorgeous.  Many of the city’s coolest buildings line the river, and we passed by a busy intra-city trading port where small boats of men and goods zipped left and right around us.  I now feel pretty comfy navigating a Dubai map, which was the main goal of the day, really.  As for “vibe,” I’m still not entirely sure…

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