In late February for Crocus break, the boys and I traveled to Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates. I love the name “Crocus Break”, and here in Holland with our more-than-mild winter this year, the name rang true– there were crocuses up all over our yard. They came up right after the ‘sneeuwklokjes’, with their dainty white bell-shaped flowers. My Dutch teacher told me they are the true harbingers of spring in the Netherlands:–a picture for my Mom(s) and sister, my gardening buddies.
So anyway, back to Dubai, and our trip for some fun in the sun. Many ISA families had recommended this perpetually sunny destination as a break from the (usually) cold and rainy Holland winters, and Chris would be in Canada for meetings. With the boys and I flying solo I was looking for something ‘easier’… and then I found out a good friend from ISA with two boys would also be there. Perfect!…. maybe. The boys were very excited about this trip, and I was……well…….I was …’conflicted’??….for lack of a better word.
I tend to be a person who processes/analyzes/reflects about things… (no shocker there), but as we headed to Dubai, I was being just down-right ridiculous. Dubai represented too much for me, and I had many questions and criticisms for this place to which I had never been….: my environmentally-conscious side was having a hard time, as the UAE is an oil/petroleum-based mecca; my “we need to experience CULTURE (damn it)” side was also having a hard time…. What would the boys gain there? How can they get ‘culture’ in a place that has been built primarily in the last 43 years? 43 YEARS! That’s my life span!! With our adventure as expats in Europe being time limited, were we ‘wasting’ a trip if we went? Finally, instead of being a defensive mess every time someone asked us where we were going for break, I just thought: “Shut up, Laura, and get on the plane”. I am pleased to report it proved to not only be a great trip, but a fantastic cultural learning experience. (but, I guess, so is everything…..)
Flights into Dubai are at strange times, so we arrived very late. Going through customs the boys immediately noticed the men and women dressed in traditional Arab clothing, which they don’t see as often in NL or the USA. Everyone was very quiet and serious in the customs line, and it took a LONG time to process our passports. Jack asked if he could take a picture of his passport stamp that said United Arab Emirates…I recommended he wait until we were OUT of the official screening area ….(?!)
It was midnight as we traveled by taxi to our Airbnb condo, but we could already get a sense of the enormous development in Dubai. Modern buildings and new roads, alongside many, many cranes and construction barriers…..an indication that still more newer roads and buildings were to come.
Heading to bed, we told each other it didn’t matter what time we got up in the morning, and it felt great to have no plans. The next day we caught up with Carolyn and her boys –William and George– at the pool, and had a pretty lazy day.
Carolyn and I’s biggest achievement that day was a cab ride to the grocery store to stock up the pantry. It didn’t take us long to realize we were a bit of an ‘oddity’ for this country’s culture….: not only were we women traveling alone with children, but our questions about costs (like the odd cab fares) could’ve been viewed as ‘assertive’, and we carried our own groceries. The bellhop (is that word still used?) at the door looked at me strangely when I hefted two bags in one hand. “I’ve got it”, I assured him, but thanked him for holding the door. Independent women, hmm…. Despite our attention to modest clothing recommendations from Dubai travel guides, we probably stood out a bit. Regardless, mission accomplished: we had some food for the week.
The next day was one we were all looking forward to: a trip to Atlantis, the famed all-inclusive water park at the tip of the ‘palm’.(**) It was an impressive place. Very clean, well-maintained, and well-run (we had waterproof wrist bands to access our lockers). The smiling lifeguards in their matching rash guards looked more-than-capable –in fact they were running test drills while we were there. Because it wasn’t crowded, we also had access to sun loungers and inner tubes whenever we wanted them. Fantastic! Speaking of inner tubes, you really never had to get out of one if you were so inclined. A ‘river’ system connected the whole park, and you could be pushed along from one ride to another all day long. There were more daring rides on bigger rafts (with bigger drops), and those involved hiking up stairs,…. but we spent a good chunk of the day exploring the different inter-connected runs together. Thankfully even though George was in Kindergarten, he was tall enough for the big stuff, which he was eager to try out with his older brother and new buddies. This one is called ‘Shark Attack’, where you finish the run literally inside a tank full of marine life. I loved it, but my boys said it wasn’t ‘fast enough’….(the family expression became: “The Bonds are going big!!”)…. There was one big ride that they didn’t do –the 9 story “Leap of Faith” drop , but we had already decided we were coming back later in the week, so that was put on the list for next time. (**please excuse the stock photos in this section. Since I was riding in a tube all day, I didn’t have my camera with me!!)
The Schweitzers and Bonds went hard all day, and were two of the last families in the locker room showers. It was a fantastic day. Long-time swimmers often acknowledge that there is something about being in water that triggers hunger, and all of the kids were starving (and tired) as we explored the options at the Atlantis Hotel…. Dubai reminded Carolyn and I of Las Vegas, so we weren’t surprised at the high-end shopping and restaurants available. However, since we were weren’t dressed ‘high end’ enough, we decided on a small Asian place, which turned out to be delicious. Our younger sons were almost sleeping at the table in between devouring wanton soup and spring rolls. Carolyn and I ordered a glass of wine, and I savored mine like a hot commodity….(the UAE doesn’t sell alcohol in stores).
After dinner we caught a bit of a second wind and headed to Cold Stone Creamery. This particular establishment had a following for incorporating ‘tricks’ into their sundae-making, and ice cream was being thrown across the room like fish at Seattle’s Pike’s Place market Fun, yet difficult to catch on film…. George was hit at one point by a flying ice cream scoop (without injury–).
We found a minivan-type cab back to our condo, and then hung out that night together –playing cards, talking, checking Facebook and mine’crafting’. I could go on and on about how great it was to have Carolyn and her kids there with us, but I will simply say it is fantastic when you travel with someone that is flexible, understanding and genuine. Someone that is willing to say, ‘my kids/family can’t do that’, and then understand completely when you need to say the same– without offense, and without guilt. This made the entire week so much more enjoyable, and relaxing.
The next morning we slept in a bit, hung out by the pool and then headed to the Dubai Mall to tackle the Burj Khalifa, which at 828 meters, is the tallest building in the world. The Dubai Mall itself is colossal: I was told it is about a mile long, and people at times will take a cab to get from one end to the other to retrieve their car. We used maps and asked at information counters, and then finally found the entrance for “At the Top”– the entrance to the Burj Khalifa tower. (Side story here: while we were in line at one of the information counters, a young girl in front of us asked: “If I ride by bike to the mall, is there a place I can park it?”. The woman at the counter looked a little befuddled, and then said, “No, we don’t have that”… meaning bike racks…!?! Being that our entire crowd resides in the Netherlands, we laughed for a quite a while about that contrast in culture…!).
Back to the record-breaking tower…like Atlantis, everything was new, clean, and ran like a well-oiled machine (pun intended)….. We printed the tickets we had booked ahead at kiosks, and got in line around a beautiful, sparkling model of the building.
The exhibit was extensive and very well designed–providing information on the vision of the project, the construction, and of course all of the records/superlatives the tower owns…: tallest structure, highest outside observation deck, and so on…. There were several interactive videos that the boys enjoyed, and we really didn’t feel like we were waiting in line as we moved through security, past displays, and onto escalators that took us to the elevators up…the part that I (we?) were a little nervous about.
A pleasant man in uniform briefed us about the elevator experience before we got on, explaining that the ride is very smooth but very fast (fastest in the world, of course): “You will travel 10 meters per second in your vertical ascent”. Wow. He also told us to pop our ears, and to relax. OK then. The inside of the elevator was dark, but as we moved there was a laser light show with relaxing music– The only visible evidence that we were going ‘up’ were the small numbers changing by the door (look closely for the 77)
The ride was exactly as he said, smooth and fast. I did pop my ears, but it didn’t feel like I was going anywhere. No jolting, no swaying, no ‘dropping’ feeling when you settle at the top floor. Surreal, actually.
The boys enjoyed the interactive ‘telescope-screens’ that provided information about the surrounding area on a touch screen. Jack seemed amused about the warning that dropping a phone, (or a shoe?) is possible through the open spaces.
With my ever-present ‘cultural norms radar’, I noticed this couple:It is unusual for Arab men to show affection in public, (in fact it is forbidden to kiss, it says so in the Dubai Mall guide!). This, I guess, was an affection exception.
Some views from “At The Top”:
We headed back down, through the gift shop (where we purchased a deck of Burj Khalifa playing cards, a most appropriate souvenir for our euchre-obsessed children) and into the mall….a crazy place even without the tallest building in the world. Anything and everything you every wanted is in this mall, including an aquarium and an ice hockey rink…. kind of nuts….
We visited an enormous toy store, and enjoyed some well-made shakes. Then we made our way outside for the music and light show in the fountain (again, the largest in the world….). It was difficult to take photographs of the show, but Cooper has a video if you would like to see it.
The tower is so enormous that it is also problematic to get a photo ‘in front’ of it (especially in the dark: (I am pretty much on the ground with a wide-angle lens for this one– not the most optimal conditions, but still fun to say we were there
We were all exhausted, and even passed on cards this evening. Carolyn and I agreed to meet for coffee in the morning (which became a fantastic routine!), and we went to bed.
I took the boys for lunch at the hotel next door, and we spent some time observing the stark contrast between women fully-covered in black burqas, alongside women in string bikinis. This made for some interesting discussion about modesty, roles of men and women, commerce through tourism, and other things….. (all of course, during a milkshake)
Next day, being already familiar with the Atlantis ‘system’, the boys knew what they wanted to accomplish. Lots of tubing, a few bigger drop rides, and some hide and go seek in the massive childrens’ play area with George. And the big task: both Bond kids were determined to do the “Leap of Faith”. A 9 story solo drop from the Tower of Neptune into the shark tank. Here we go! William was my ‘spotter on the bridge’, so I could get the camera ready when the boys were in the shoot. The whole descent takes only a second, so I knew I had to be quick. Jack went first….
The next day was our last day, so we decided to be mellow–pool, beach, and then a trip to the other enormous mall (The Mall of the Emirates) to see the Lego Movie in 3D.
There was an indoor skiing facility at this mall. I tried not to be too negative/critical….. but really?– a ski resort in a mall in the middle of the desert? Can you say “carbon footprint”? Alright, I guess I was ready to go home. Home to some green, to some natural landscape that you can ride a bike through, and to pull a few weeds that were probably growing around the crocuses in my garden. The movie was fun, by the way…..(especially for kids that have been “Lego-crazy” a good chunk of their lives.
Carolyn and I both agreed that Dubai looks prettier at night. The lights make everything sparkle, and you are less aware of the construction, and the concrete/asphalt everywhere. At this point, I don’t have to be defensive though, I can truly say I thought Dubai was fantastic. Of course it didn’t have the history of a place like Rome, or the natural beauty and landscape of Austria, but it was an experience. One that involved culture, learning, and a ton of fun.
And that is what this whole adventure is about. What a gift (again).