Bye, Dubai!

During COVID, flights and border closures have unpredictable and unexpected, but basically we´ve learned to stay put. I had already surrendered to no more traveling for the rest of 2020, but the chance to go to Dubai on a work trip for New Years eve was impossible to say no to. What did I have to lose? For even the 1% chance that covid tests were negative, airplanes flew and borders stayed open between Reykjavík and Dubai, I would have taken the chance.

face mask tan – a real first world problem

And I did, and I made it, and I came back a new person. It was physically, emotionally and mentally rejuvenating, to feel the sun on your skin, meet strangers and be in a foreign place with new and exotic things. We played proper tourist, and I saw more of Dubai this time around than the last 2 visits I made.

Global Village

I was with my roommate Guðný, and we were assisting a paralysed man from Iceland meet his girlfriend for vacation. We spent most of our time third-wheeling their dates, and keeping her a happy tourist. We went to the ´Miracle´botanical gardens, the Global Village, the Palm Jumeirah and Atlantis, also visiting the Lost Chambers Aquarium.

We went on a desert safari, let the girlfriend do some quadbiking, and had a bbq buffet watching a belly dancer, fire dancer and a yowla spinning dancer.

yachting in Dubai

On our free time, we were able to rent a yacht for a cruise around the Dubai Marina and the Palm Jumeirah, we met friends, old and new, and networked with some couchsurfers. We dined and wined and watched the fireworks at midnight on New Years eve from the rooftop of our hotel, taking in the Atlantis and the Burj Khalifa from a distance far away the noise and smoke was tolerable.


The highlight was definitely riding a crazy Arabian stallion from sunset and into the night through an open, sandy desert nightscape. The owner didn´t think I could handle him, and I enver quite let him go 100%, but we teared that desert up. Just another perfect piece of the therapeutic experience of finally traveling again.

The Palm Jumeirah, take two

I went to Dubai six years ago, which made the UAE my 100th country at the time. Since then, I also visited Abu Dhabi, which was nearly as impressive as Dubai, but what Abu Dhabi has in malls and mosques, Dubai has in buildings and beaches.

the Burj Khalifa doesn´t even fit in the frame

I stayed on the very tip of the Palm Jumeirah, and getting there in a taxi is a bit indirect. First you head northwest onto the manmade, palm-shaped island all the way to Atlantis, before swinging around east and curving down south to the Aloft hotel. The coast on one side had windy, rough seas, with a perfect boulevard for marathon training, and inside the palm, we had a perfect, sandy beach with calm, blue water perfect for stand up paddle boarding.

catwalk at the Atlantis

I was there for a joint 60th birthday party, and we dined our way through some exotic meals. The food itself wasn’t the exotic part, but the locations – once we dined at Atlantis, strolling past an underwater world of sharks and Manta Rays, and another night at the base of the Burj Khalifa, currently the tallest building in the world. It sparkled in the night sky, and every 30 minutes, the lit up fountains danced to music to make everything even a bit more fantastic.

champagne and sunset cruise

The other parts of Dubai were extravagant in different ways. Traveling around the palm and into the Dubai Marina by yacht with champagne in plastic wine glasses made me feel like a rockstar. The Waterpark on the Palm was endless fun, especially for adults, where we could finally run and play and splash around like children and feel normal. There were enough slides and tube rides to fill a whole day without ever riding the same ride twice, and going on an overcast day meant there were no lines and no chance of sunburn.

the waterpark, under Atlantis, and me and my Freewaters

It rained twice in the short time I was there, which was also fascinating. For a desert city in the Middle East, it was hard to imagine where all the water for the waterpark could possibly come from, plus the showers and pools of every hotel. But perhaps that’s the charm of Dubai, a mysterious mega city where nothing adds up, but it doesn’t really matter, because it doesn’t feel like a real place; how can a real-life Disneyland for grown ups really exist?

Another side of Abu Dhabi

It’s been a disappointing pain not being able to travel overland through Saudi Arabia, but when I finally got to the Emirates, it was possible to go overland to Oman. I visited Dubai a few years ago when an Australian friend of mine worked for Emirates Airline, but had never been to Abu Dhabi, and the flights were cheap enough that I decided to fly to Muscat instead, saving the time of driving thru no-mans-land to enjoying the open nothingness of Oman’s countryside.

Abu Dhabi

Abu Dhabi

Abu Dhabi, the real capital of the UAE, was similar to Dubai, full of those tall and shiny buildings towering over the old and dusty classic buildings. The new and artificial feeling of a mega-city has stamped out the old and traditional, but tiny mosques still sit humbly between glass and concrete, even between highways and parking lots.

I couchsurfed with an American English teacher named Jackie, on the up-and-coming Al Reem Island, a man-made development project of highrises only 30% completed. Her 30 or 40 storey building had a pool that no one visited, but I thought the water was quite perfect. There are also public buses that no one I met had used, but eventually it only took one bus card and a little googling to figure out the system and avoid using taxi’s for everywhere.

Zayed mosque's chandelier and carpet

Zayed mosque’s chandelier and carpet

My to-do list for 4 days wasn’t huge, but the places were. The World Trade Center was a commercial building, a residential building, a mall, and a souk, and the Grand Mosque can fit 40,000 worshippers under their multi-ton chandeliers and single carpet weighing some forty tons.

At Marina Island there was another mall, and a ferris wheel and some dhow boat cruises. At Yas Island there was an even bigger mall, a water park, and Ferrari world, with the fastest roller coaster in the world. There were desert safari tours and sand dune buggy tours, camel rides and horse back tours, and shisha and tea to lure in any stop-over tourist, but none of the local expats (which are more than 50% of the population) seem to have explored too far.

Some would say I didn’t either, but I felt very far and away from the glitz and glamour of Abu Dhabi when I visited a bachelor Pakistani work village, a sort of high-rise slum, where the 26 storey building 5 blocks from the WTC had 8 apartments on each floor, each with 1 bathroom, 1 kitchen, and 7 rooms of 3 triple bunk beds. This meant that 9 men lived in the space of about 9 square meters, them and all their stuff, and had to share one squat toilet which was also the shower, and cook meals communally and share them on the 2 square meter floor space each evening. I was invited to stay there, sharing the space of one bunk bed (not even a bed but a sheet of wood) with the only white guy in the entire community of 1,680 men, a Canadian couchsurfer, and would have stayed expect for the fact that I was the only woman in the entire building and had lied by saying I was his sister just to enter. The cultural and/or religious insult of sleeping in the same room of a bunch of men, married or not, made me feel just a little more uncomfortable than the dog-sized rats crawling around, so I returned back to Jackie’s and slept alone on her couch.