Saturday, October 20, 2012

Dubai

It was difficult, but my dad and I managed to pry ourselves away from butler world at the Burj Al Arab in order to experience some of Dubai. Between my seat mate on my flight here who's been living in Dubai for 3 years, the dozen or so people I've spoken to who work here, a very informative local tour, and wikipedia, here's what I've found most interesting about Dubai, and hopefully some of this is accurate, or not, depending on where you live.


My seat mate called Dubai, Middle East Lite, just like the last location he lived, Singapore, he calls Asia Lite.  They're both pristine cities, plunked down and made easily inhabitable for anyone who's interested, especially ex-Pats. The population in Dubai has grown to 2 million, but only about 20% are local Emirati.  The rest are from all over with up to 75% being male expats.  No, I'm not moving here because most men are married with families left at home, and the others think they can get the milk for free as one Filipino woman told me.  I asked her about online dating and she said it's actually banned here, but people find a way.  Prostitution is illegal, but still exists, and on the other end of the spectrum, public displays of affection are not allowed in public.  There's little talk of HIV because evidently it doesn't exist.  Our tour guide said it's actually very easy to get a visa here.  Pretty much all you need to do is take an AIDS test which you have to repeat it each year in order to get your visa renewed.


Our guide said Dubai is a successful dictatorship and everyone loves the leader, Sheikh Maktoum. He often drives his own car with no security detail. He'll ride the metro to make sure it's working properly, and will go into a grocery store to check the quality of food and prices. After one such visit, he mandated that no food prices rise until the end of the year since the people were struggling.  A few more reasons why people love him:  there's no taxes, just on a few things like alcohol being a big one at almost 25%.  You can only drink in hotels and they have a zero tolerance for drinking and driving.  If you're found to have as much as one beer, you'll go straight to jail for 3 months with no trial and then be forced out of the country for 3 years.  You can only buy as much alcohol as dictated by your salary.  And you thought Bloomberg was bad for eradicating the big gulp.


Electricity, water, schooling and health care is all paid for.  You're paid almost $25,00 for marrying a woman under 30 years old, and $30,000 for marrying a woman over 30 years.  I like to think that's because an older woman is more valuable, and not because she requires more maintenance.  The government will help you with a 2-3% loan to buy a house and after a few years if things are going well, they'll simply pay off the loan.  Obviously this is just for the Emirati who are the only one's able to hold national jobs like police, passport control, and security.  They will never work in a shop, restaurant or at a company.


With that said, the ex Pats basically run the country as it pertains to any business done here, though the ruling family approves everything and even owns a percentage in one of the two construction companies doing all the work here, but they did approve an indoor ski resort in a mall, so I'd say they're pretty open.


I was told to dress somewhat conservatively with a skirt to at least my knee, and my shoulders covered at all times.  The local women need to cover themselves entirely so as not to entice the men, but evidently they are not troubled by this.  Men and women don't typically dine together so the women can then dress however they like around other women.  My friend from the Philippines thinks she's discriminated against.  She said she wore a skirt an inch and a half above her knee to a grocery store and the security guard wouldn't let her in.  Meanwhile, she had just seen a blond with a spaghetti strap tank top waltz in without a glance.  I have heard there is some discrimination among the different nationalities living here as there is a class structure within the ex Pat community.


If a woman arrives at the airport after 11pm at night, she needs to take a special pink taxi driven by a woman since she can't be seen alone with a man at night.  The hotel has a separate gym for the women, and of course the locker room and restroom are segregated.  There's a sign that says boys under the age of 4 are not allowed in the women's room, and they also recommend appropriate attire in the women's lounge area.  I was perplexed on what to do in the steam room, but luckily had the place to myself.  I had to wear special under garments for my massage and could only be worked on by another woman, and likewise only a man can massage another man - much to my dad's dismay.


We visited the world's tallest building, Burj Kahlifa.  It's actually quite narrow and stands over 2600 feet high with over 200 stories. 


They actually have an open terrace where you can admire the view, which is one of the most interesting one's I've ever seen. 


The buildings are all tall, mostly mirrored, and in unique shapes, but then beyond them, there will be nothing, like the Truman Show where they haven't finished the set.  I thought it was a bit like a giant Lego set with elaborate structures built and plunked down next to a river they thought they'd build next to it. 


The water near Burj Kahlifa has a pretty spectacular fountain, water and light show every 30 minutes, bringing me back to Vegas again.


Business came to Dubai with the discovery of cultured pearls in 1957 and trade followed in and out of Dubai Creek on large wooden boats that still operate today.  We saw some being loaded for a few week trip to India and a shorter trip to Iran to drop off textiles.


Some of these boats I'd be nervous to go on for even a river crossing like we did in one of the wooden taxis.


Oil was discovered in Abu Dhabi around 1959 and Dubai followed with a smaller amount a few years later, which explains the inexpensive gas at about $1.50 per gallon.  It's simply remarkable to see how quickly the city has transformed from desert to metropolis.


We visited some souks here, which were really just sellers of various imports from China.


They do have a spice market, as well as an area selling gold, but there's not much merchandise actually from the UAE. 


Dates are one of their specialty and they're not afraid of using camel milk.  I tried the camel milk ice cream which tasted like a light vanilla, not very sweet.  The camel's milk chocolate is supposed to be divine as well.


We visited an open mosque which allows non-Muslims to enter, and they even took questions so as to help people understand them and their traditions better.


It's been a very interesting visit, and next time we have to go out on one of the desert safaris, riding over the dunes. I'd also like to see Abu Dhabi which is only about an hour away.  They're trying to serve as more of a cultural center, though many from there are actually choosing to live in Dubai.


An interesting glimpse into a different world on many accounts!

The next post will be a bit delayed as blogging in the bush is going to be difficult to do, but hopefully it will be worth waiting for.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Dubai - Burj Al Arab

I'm stumped.  I don't know whether to begin this post with an apology, an invitation, or a lie.  This is my personal blog, so I see no reason to lie.  Therefore, I'm sorry.  I'm sorry for this next post, but if you're anywhere near Dubai, please let me know so I can invite you to share in this unparalleled opulence that I've never experienced anything quite like before, and can safely say, will never again.

How did I end up in Dubai?  My dad and I decided to go on safari, that's how.  It had to do with flight coordination to S. Africa, and how my dad said, why don't we extend the trip somewhere, and then suddenly all roads led to Dubai.  With my travel agent hat on, I gave my dad a rundown of a few nice hotels where we could stay and threw in an aside laugh at the end about the over-the-top, alleged 7 star hotel, Burj Al Arab.  My dad stopped and said, have you ever stayed in a 7 star hotel?  I should note that technically they're a 5 star, some say 6, but Spinal Tap fans and followers of a British travel journalist who first reported on this hotel, know that sometime you have to break the scale.  So here, I am, staying at the scale breaking, many starred, "most luxurious hotel in the world."  With apologies and invitations extended, let's get into it.


I was met at the Dubai airport by a hotel representative who was dressed in a finely pressed white suit, shoes and hat.  If that seems out of place to you, you should probably stop reading now because then he handed me a bouquet of pastel colored roses while opening the door to his matching, white mega Mercedes.  There was a plethora of drinks to choose from and then he handed me a list of music so I could select what I wanted to listen to on the way to the hotel.  Yup, just an average Wednesday for me.

I was accosted greeted at the entrance to the hotel by 4 different people calling me by name while each handing me something different and taking my bags.  Soon there is wet cloth (the first of about 7 to come) in one hand, local delicacy date in the other, and am on the inside, a place tourists aren't allowed in without a meal reservation or pre-authorization from a hotel guest.


The Burj Al Arab is the 4th tallest hotel in the world, coming in at a little over 1,000 feet high.   It's just a little shorter than the Empire State Building.  It sits out at the end of a man made island and the building was designed like the sail of a ship, which I tried not to think about while I was sleeping, perched on the corner of the mast, flying high in the air, suspended above the Arabian Gulf. 


There's a large fountain at the entrance that releases fire balls in the air up to 26 feet high, and more fountains inside with choreographed spraying and lights between huge fish tanks along the walls.


As I was being whisked along, my head was craning up and around, trying to take it all in, and next thing I know I'm sitting in a large, high ceiling room at an enormous desk. They checked me in and when we were done, I get up to go and come to realize we're in my room, or rather suite, or 2 story home.


My "butler" then arrived and spent about 45 minutes touring me around my place and showing me how all the gadgets work like the TV where you can see who's at the door and let them in with a click of a button, because of course it could take you upwards of 10 minutes to get there yourself. 


There are 14 phones in the place, an office, living room, dining room, bar, spiral staircase, bedroom, sitting area and bathroom that my entire apartment in Paris could fit in, complete with party tub jacuzzi.  That invitation is only extended to "special" friends.


Then there are the sweeping ocean and city views in floor to ceiling windows that go from the ground floor seamlessly to the bedroom.  The impossibly long drapes go up and down with the push of a button, in about 10 minutes.


There's butler service 24 hours a day with someone sitting at the entrance to my floor (as well as on call) who always stands and greets me by name when I come or go.  With every shift change, everyone still knows my name, where I'm eating that night, what pillows I like and which fruit I prefer.  Someone just came by asking if I'd like a leek tart and welcome cocktail.  Bien sur!  There's an 8:1 ratio of personnel to guests.

I sat out at the pool today with ocean views and luckily breezes too.  Everyone says how great the weather is now that it's cooled off to a paltry 96 degrees with what I have to guess is about 90% humidity.  I will tell you that running along the beach this morning was not as good of an idea as sitting by the pool and drinking smoothies.  They set up a little cooler beside me with ice, water, and washcloths.  They came by every now and then to refill ice or handout a random icy, peach sipper.


And you can imagine that the food is super sized too.  I ordered the "healthy breakfast" this morning and it filled my entire dining room table.


They have buffets in several of the restaurants here and there's probably 75 choices like tonight's Asian cuisine that encompassed Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Thai and well, chocolate fountains are a favorite in any country.


The Burj Al Arab's fish restaurant Al Mahara is the most notable not only for the cuisine, but also for the room centerpiece of a giant floor to ceiling aquarium.


All tables are positioned around it in a circle so there's not a bad seat in the house.

 

They also gave us a book of all the fish represented, which luckily was different than the fish on the menu.

 
They also have a great panoramic bar on the top level of the hotel, which is a nice place to start or end an evening, with amazing views of Dubai, and a very interesting cocktail list.


As I head upstairs to bed, I end with another apology, a standing invitation, but no lies.  More to come from Dubai.