A couple of years back, I went on my first large trip for four and a half months with one of my closest friends Johnny. We had both just finished our bachelor’s degree and wanted to experience a world of different cultures, food, languages, sights and men 😉
We planned to travel around Europe, but from Australia, that is a long long way to go in just one flight! The journey began with a stereotypical social media photo at Tullamarine International Airport in Melbourne, along with the standard upset mum’s crying before we gave our final goodbyes.
Lord have mercy. So many crying babies, such a cramped space. After 16 hours of flying with a stop over in Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei we eventually touched down in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. We’d had just two hours sleep during the journey, and you’d assume one would want to pass out from exhaustion on the nearest flat surface when getting off a plane at 2am in the morning. However, Dubai is very in your face. You can tell from photos of Dubai in the 90s, the city has benefited and flourished from oil money and avoiding conflict. They have gone all out to try and make Dubai one of the most eggravigant cities in the world. The flashing lights, bustling streets and mosaic designs from water fountains around every corner can really get one’s heart racing.
However, 16 hours of flying and a 3:30 am sleep time won’t stop me from being an adventurer and getting up early to explore. One thing about any country in the Middle East, is it’s HOT! We left the hotel at barely 9am and the thermometer was already hitting 30 degrees celsius (86 Fahrenheit for the American’s out there).
This was my first experience in the Middle East, and the media has often unfairly given people a perception that this part of the world is unsafe or dangerous. But this perception is very narrow minded, and misleading as the people are lovely, friendly and want you to experience their culture. It is unfortunate that a few with extremist views give a bad reputation for millions of others.
We stayed in a standard hotel, nothing glitz and glam as we prefered to not splash all our money on accommodation, but on activities and experiences to enjoy, as in my personal opinion (you can take this with a grain of salt) I would only really using my hotel as a place to store my stuff and sleep.
We began the experience by exploring the streets of Dubai. From where we were staying in comparison to central Dubai you can see a clear difference in where the city spends their money to present to the tourists. You find the big, extravagant hotels all clustered in the center of Dubai, while we were on the fringes where the locals live. That is part of the experience for me. Being with the locals, trying the street food and fully immersing yourself in the local culture. The streets were battered and messy but we felt safe and took every opportunity to see the street art, variety of different sized mosques as well as enjoy the sun before it got to midday when it would really get hot. The UAE has some of the wealthiest individuals in the world, a lot of the Emiratis make their money from the oil industry. To no surprise, in their own backyard you can enjoy malls (shopping centers) that are over the top and filled with every designer label you could dream of. We had to check them out, especially as the temperature began to hit 40 (even for us Aussies, this is hot and there was no way we were going to be sweaty messes, you’ll have to keep reading for that part of the story).
These malls did not disappoint. I had seen large shopping malls before when I lived in Jakarta, Indonesia – however, these were next level. The Dubai Mall has walkways that stretch for hundreds of meters for its shoppers to come from all directions, has industrial sized air conditioners to keep everyone cool. The Dubai Mall is perched under the Burj Khalifa and contained an AQUARIUM within it! There was no way we could afford anything within this mall with four and a half months left in our trip, but the experience of seeing the hustle and bustle of tourists and locals taking photos on their day out shopping was eye opening. You could see your stereotypical tourist in their shorts, sleeveless tank tops and flip flops among Emiratis in Kanduras and Abayas.
Dubai really is a multicultural hub of the Middle East, where all cultures and people of all walks of life mix together and in a respectful manner, and show no judgement towards others from across the globe. However, Johnny and I did see one British woman who was wearing the shortest shorts I have seen in a long time! Most people know that when you visit another country, you must try to respect their culture and way of life, and the Middle East is known for their views on how women should dress in public. This woman was definitely pushing the boundaries of what is culturally acceptable here in the UAE. Luckily, she was in the safety of a shopping mall, as if she decided to walk down the street in a non touristy area she would definitely have risked being arrested by the police.
I am not one to judge anyone on anything – from what they wear to who they love – but not everyone in the world takes this same approach. This is a word of caution to all to be vigilant and careful when travelling – do not put yourself in a situation in which you could be harmed or harassed based on what you might think is normal back home.
The Burj Park by Emaar is an outdoor area that sits just outside the Burj Khalifa and the Dubai Mall that is beautiful to sit back and enjoy views of the fountains , and is a great spot to get photos with the Burj Khalifa in the background.
Now, I am known for getting a photo of myself in front of a tourist spot where ever I travel – my social media is filled with them. This was going to be quite the challenge to fit it all in. The Burj Khalifa, stands at 2,722 ft, and is the tallest free standing structure and building in the world. It took six years to build and can be seen from up to 95 km away (closes Wikipedia). The struggle was real trying to ensure the entire building was in a shot and the best you can do is get some unique angles of the building in the background. It is stunning, and certainly an iconic sight to see when you visit Dubai.
While the Burj Khalifa and the city of Dubai is an amazing place, during my trip the best experience I had in the UAE was the desert safari. Now one might think, Safari? In the middle of the desert? There are no trees or animals to see! And you would be correct. However, a desert safari in UAE is something I recommend to everyone I know that passes through the country. You set out in a jeep on the open road heading out to literally the middle of nowhere with nothing in sight but sand for miles. Eventually your driver turns off the safety of the concrete onto the sand and that is where the fun begins. I have to say, the journey became a roller coaster with the jeep going up and down, side to side over every single sand dune. Johnny and I were sitting in the back seats of the jeep, and my lord we felt every movement. This was the day when I learnt I can get car sick thankfully it only manifested as nausea!). However, even with my stomach feeling like it was on the roof of the car and immediately on the floor I had a blast.
The driver stopped the Jeep and you could tell this was picture moment. The sun was setting and we perched ourselves on a sand dune as we watched the day end. Spectacular! Sunsets are always beautiful but watching the colours of the sky light up a bright tinge of orange and yellow as the sun began to set behind the dunes was one of those moments where nothing needs to be said and one can just sit and reflect. It would be hard to take a bad photo in this situation, and a photo taken of the sun setting in the open desert with nothing but sand dunes and orange sky is a piece of art that I have framed at home.
Once the sun was no longer a part of the skyline, the drivers took us further into the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve (DDCR), which is the UAE’s first national park, to a campsite where there were camels for us to ride (so much fun, but the smell ain’t that pleasant), a full meal of traditional UAE cuisine and countless performances from belly dancers to traditional Egyptian Tanoura spinning. Tanoura is when a male dancer wears multiple layers of colourful skirts (Yass honey!) and they spin and dance to music and various speeds.
The dancers we saw were very talented and the performance was exceptional. the colours and the lights on the skirts looked really beautiful and the thought of spinning that fast for that long (I’m talking a good 10 minutes of just straight spinning) would make anyone dizzy. Like all performances they looked for volunteers, and of course Johnny decided to volunteer me to try out Tanoura (Thanks a lot Johnny)! That skirt was HEAVY! and I only had one on! It made me appreciate the dancers’ abilities, even more knowing how heavy those skirts were to spin around for over ten minutes. Among those chosen to go up and give Tanoura a try, I will toot my own horn and say I lasted the longest spinning around, even though by the end of it I almost fell on part of the crowd (sorry!!!).
Now I really want to plug this – go on a desert Safari tour if you visit the UAE. They range in price but it is totally worth it. To this day it is in my top 10 experiences of travelling.
On our final day in Dubai, after the high of the night before, we wanted to see the sights and streets of Dubai one final time before we flew to Europe that night. We set outto see the Jumeriah Mosque, followed by the Jumeria Beach, and to do this we thought ‘why not walk from the nearest train station, what could possibly go wrong?’. The weather… that was what we underestimated. A lot of people assume that being Australian we can handle the heat. Unfortunately, we are from Melbourne and as other Australians will tell you, we love to tell everyone we experience four seasons in a day, and sometimes the heat gets too much! I now know that 45 degrees is that threshold, especially when walking for hours on end searching for a mosque which we seemed to be unable to find, even with google maps (I have a great sense of direction I promise). Sweating like a pig in a blanket, walking endlessly in the streets of Dubai not knowing where we where was frustrating and tiring with the heat beating down on us.
We managed to find two other mosques, neither being the Jumeirah Mosque we were looking for. Instead we managed to see the Imam Hosein Mosque and another smaller mosque. We did eventually find the Jumeirah Mosque, and from the outside it was elaborate and stunning. However, our luck hadn’t fully turned for the better as it was time for prayer and entry was prohibited to all non-Muslims. So, we decided to make our way to Jumeira Beach to catch some (more) rays. Again, it wasn’t our day and the beach was closed due to renovations… something you don’t see every day or think is even possible. We could no longer handle the heat and took the first taxi we saw to the Dubai Mall to cool off.
It was getting late in the afternoon and we wanted to see the sun set from an iconic spot… but because we couldn’t get tickets to go up the Burj Khalifa at that time, we went for the next best thing and took a shuttle train out the to The Palm Jumeirah, which is one of Dubai’s man-made islands that jets out from the coastline in the shape of a palm tree. The Palm Jumeriah is home to the Atlantis resort which has its own water park! As touristy as it is, Dubai’s heat certainly calls for a water park visit, which will be on the to-do list next time I visit the city. On the furthest tip of the palm, there was a walkway filled with tourists either going for an evening stroll or snapping away photos of the Atlas hotel iconic arch design or the sun setting. It was a pleasant way to see our final sun set in Dubai which you could see many wanted to capture by stopping their cars sporadically and causing traffic jams and cars to honk their horns nonstop…
With the countdown to our flight to London ticking away, we knew time was tight, but really wanted to try to go up the Burj Khalifa if we could. As an Australian I am not the biggest fan of queues and have a very low tolerance for people who are slow when they don’t need to be, and the people at the Burj Khalifa hid the little piece of information that at times it could take up to one hour to even get to the elevator to go up halfway. This started to concern me, however, Johnny was relaxed so we stayed patient.
By the time we got up the Burj Khalifa it was already nightfall, but Dubai did not disappoint. The over-the-top flashing lights that I saw when I first arrived in this city really looked like a spectacle from above. You couldn’t see all of the man-made islands along the coastline, but the intensity of the brightly lit city was beautiful, especially with total darkness for miles beyond as you look out over the desert and the Persian Gulf. Unfortunately my phone camera was not of a high standard so photos from this experience didn’t turn out as well as I would have hoped.
This is where the fun (for you as a reader, I was a total mess) begins. Little did Johnny and I know that the dates we were visiting Dubai was actually Eid Al-Ahda. For those of you who haven’t heard of Eid, this is Muslim festival marking the culmination of the annual pilgrimage to Mecca and commemorating the sacrifice that Abraham made.
This celebration means everyone goes out and by everyone I mean EVERYONE! The mall was so crowded you could barely move, and coincidently everyone was heading in the same direction as us! Being a man we unfortunately had to walk to the train station outside while the women got to walk in the air-conditioned walkway. Now normally I wouldn’t be mad but those couple of hundred meters felt like miles in that heat. It was so hot and compacted with people that you couldn’t help but sweat, and SO MUCH (I know, eww). By the time we got the station hours had passed and I was getting extremely nervous about making our flight.
The drama continued when we got off the train no taxi driver wanted to take us to our hotel, so we ran. I ran as fast as I could in jeans and chelsea boots and made sure the concierge hailed us a taxi. There was no way in hell I was missing my flight because I had to run to the airport with 20kg on my back.
The fairy godmother was on our side as we made it to the airport with literally minutes to spare before the luggage drop-off closed. However, I felt so disgusting and I could wring out my t-shirt with sweat *gagging noise*. With a quick change into a fresh set of clothes we were set to go.
Experiences like that at the end of a trip have the potential to ruin your memories of somewhere you’ve visited. However, it is always important to not dwell on the negatives and tell yourself that for all the trouble you went through, at least you got a story out of it. All of us that travel had experienced downs and negatives alongside all the positives when it comes to exploring the world, but don’t let these experiences put a sour note on a country and stop you wanting to return (I myself have fallen for this and with time I have learnt to get over it), as you can’t control everything down to the last second with travel, it’s what makes it invigorating and inspiring. That is why I chose to tell my story to inspire others with all my ups and downs.