So my last big trip to Dubai involved a long fabulous week of yoga, ladies nights, and touring the must-see sites. Jumeira Beach, Sattwa, the Burj Al Arab, a Dhow Cruise on Dubai Creek, the Dubai Museum and Sheikh Saeed Al Maktoum’s House – a venue which boasts the lamest collection of sun-damaged photographs this side of the Tropic of Cancer. I left the city feeling like I’d done quite a bit, but hardly scratched the surface of what real Dubaians experience as life there.
Seeing as the last several weeks have been full of company-sponsored trips out to Dubai, I decided to make an effort to see more of the world’s latest addition to the ‘Cities You’ve Gotsta See’ list, even if it did mean a four-hour commitment on a less-than luxurious bus. And besides, after all the hard work for Japan Aishteru, I was ready to get out and enjoy some creature comforts again!
The Epicenter of City Life in the UAE: The Mall
But not just any mall. Dubai Mall. The fourth biggest shopping center in the known world. “Come find everything” reads the mall’s fairy-tale promise. As though you’d just rubbed the right bottle, and out pops a mustachioed genie, dancing behind eye watering oud smoke, cloaked in a musky cologne. Everything, you say?
Well, if it takes three visits before you even feel right writing a blog on the subject, then yes, the mall has just about “everything.” An Olympic-sized ice rink, twelve banks, a travel agent, a gold souk, an aquarium, a dancing fountain, and the tallest building in the world. Yes, that’ll do.
Coming from America, and having lived in Thailand and Japan, I thought I’d seen most of what the shopping world has to offer. Huge malls are common in Asia, and the boutiques and markets in Paris or London are unparalleled as far as I’ve seen. But Dubai Mall is hardly a mall at all – it’s more like a ‘consumer life center,’ an ode to indoor leisure.
My first experience here was brief – and I was thankful for it. The crowds descend upon the AC-megalith at 7pm sharp, making a leisurely stroll about as enjoyable as an obstacle course in a military training yard. Groups of abaya-ed women float down the aisleways in wide rows, like slow motion Rocketts. German tourists sip espresso at the mid-aisle Italian-style standing café. Indian families, eight people strong, crowd onto escalators, mouths agape at the circus we’re all a part of.
– I refrained from random mall shots of people to respect the Muslim rules against photographing women’s faces that some, though not all, women follow –
I put on my game face and booked it from the front of the mall where my taxi dropped me off all the way to the opposite end of the monster. I wanted to catch the dancing fountain in full effect, even if it did sound an awful lot like the Belaggio fountain in Vegas.
The second trip was much less hectic. We arrived at the civilized time of 2pm and had a nice little shop before indulging in some Japanese soba noodles – served cold with a simple sesame green onion garnish – and a few plates of kaitenzushi. Oh, how I missed eating off a conveyor belt!
Perusing the shops, I saw many of the same shops I would back home: H&M, Forever 21, New Look, Top Shop, as well as a quite a few Middle Eastern and luxury names in fashion . .
I found myself particularly enamoured by the candy stores. Not simply because of my infamous sweet tooth – what’s left of it – but the artistry of the wrappings and the clever interior design of the spaces. Is this a chocolate store or a jewelry boutique?!
My third and probably last visit to the mall was more of a functional endeavor. Preparing for a two-week detox, I wanted to hit up the organic supermarket to stock up. A big group of us also took the opportunity to head over the Burj Khalifa and make our way to the top(ish) of the tallest building in the world.
The view was pretty damn mint.
So that’s it, all that bloggin’ dedicated to a big fat mall. There’s a part of me that feels a little shamed by my mall-lovin’ leanings – what can I say, I spent a lot of time at Pearl Ridge, Ala Moana and Kahala as a kid!
Don’t get me wrong, I do prefer supporting up and coming artists and designers at markets, and love a touch of boutique shopping. But these trips were about a lot more than shopping. These hyper massive centers are fast becoming the dish of the day in countries with a growing middle class – the day trip of choice for most families and friend, especially when the weather is just about as friendly as a desert viper caught between a rock and a cactus tree.
If I had my way, I’d be spending my free time hiking up green mountains, teaching and experiencing fabulous yoga classes, buying local/organic, and sippin’ soy lattes al fresco in the sunshine. But that’ll have to wait for the next adventure . . .
Beyond Mall Life
More than anything, I wanted to see some art in Dubai. Unfortunately, company trips are always on a Friday, the one day galleries are shut. So, instead of going to a fancy shmancy art gallery, we went to … a rugby game!
Japan vs. UAE
Can you guess who I was rooting for?
I’ll give you a hint: I’m nearly half Japanese, I was born and raised in Hawaii, I lived in Japan for 18 months, I speak Japanese, my favorite food is sushi and I recently raised over $2500 for the victims of the Japan earthquake and tsunamis. And did I mention living in the UAE has hardly been a walk in the park?
Well, the score quite accurately reflects my wishes for the night … 111 to 0. Yup, that’s a zero.
Between the three of us, I’m pretty sure we drank the stadium dry, and as if that weren’t enough, we decided to hitch a ride home with a busload of equally tipsied ruggers boys from England. It made for a rather entertaining ride!
Spicin’ it Up
With a few lovely ladies to adventure with, the Spice Souk was another must-see on the final rounds of Dubai-town. The market is a handful of labyrinth walkways, covered by a wooden roof, lined with tiny shops teeming with tastes from around the world.
Each shop is manned by a pair of salesmen, more than happy to meet your every need, and provide you with an armful of new ‘needs,’ should you give them the time of day.
Most of the shops were closed for our little jaunt, and crowds were non-existent. Translation: hyper-desperate sales approach from the shopkeepers. We meandered our way in and out of most shops until we finally found a spot where we didn’t feel quite so harassed. I got a good deal on some teas for my detox and even found a Cadbury’s to keep me standing til dinner.
Next up . . . a 2-dirham (65 cent) boat ride across Dubai’s traditional money-maker, before the oil boon . . . The Dubai Creek
Though it ain’t no Portabello Market, the Pakistani Souk does have a few interesting shards of shopper’s delight, just behind the crap souvenirs, to the left of the pile of dresses you wouldn’t be caught dead in. Quilt-style hippie skirts, hoochie tops for beach bar flirtations, scarves of every color and quality, baby clothes galore, and just enough people to keep things lively, this long covered walkway of a market is more eye-candy than the average visitor may be prepared for.
I noticed quite a few Western tourists in unabashed awe of all the hustle and bustle, but relative to markets in India or Nepal, or even Thailand for that matter, this souk is a piece of (date) cake.
Both attempts to visit the Gold Souk were shot down for various reasons, and a trip to the indoor ski slope ended up being another FAIL on my tentative agenda. But you can’t see all of the city, not even in handful of visits.
Boasting 400+ skyscrapers (there was only 1 as of 1991!), 1600 square miles, a sprinkling of man made islands, and only 1.7 million people, Dubai is an enigma you’ll need quite a few days to explore in depth. It’s a brand spankin’ new city, and its residents are in the process of defining what it means to live here. No matter how long your visit, I have a sneaky suspicion you’ll be left with the feeling that … something … intangible … is … missing …