We’ve found at our age that there is no greater pleasure in life than seeing your last suitcase pop up on the baggage carousel at an airport thousands of miles from home. Especially when the rest of your luggage arrived thirty minutes earlier.
The Dubai airport looked much like any international airport anywhere, with one notable exception: all the agents at passport control wore ghutra and egal, the long white robe and white flowing headdress held by a braided band. Think Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia striding on top of that train in the desert. After our fourteen-hour flight from Atlanta, everything seemed a bit surreal to us anyway, and this just made it plain that we were now in a different world.
We arrived in Dubai at night, so our first sight of its renowned architecture was truly memorable. The downtown buildings were lighted in colorful and artistic designs which set off each one’s unique features. The spectacular Burj Dubai, the tallest building in the world at 206 stories, seemed to spiral skyward without visible support like the horn of a unicorn. The very top floors (134 to 160) other than mechanical floors are reserved for luxury residences, so I assume the people who live in them don’t suffer from vertigo.
Instead of touring palaces and shops and mosques, we chose to spend our only full day in Dubai taking a dunes safari in a four-wheel drive vehicle, since this would be our only chance to experience what everyone thinks of when the Arabian Peninsula is mentioned – the desert. It was an unforgettable day, a roller coaster ride over hills and valleys of fine golden sand sculpted by the wind into elegant patterns. We saw small deer, ibix, and a group of female camels and their nursing babies, none of whom seemed afraid of us at all.
We stopped for soft drinks and dates at a Bedouin campsite, where I was able to fulfill one more ambition: I rode a camel. He was quite a nice camel, clean and brushed and not inclined to spit or bite (although his owner took the precaution of equipping him with a knitted muzzle just in case). Getting into the saddle while the camel hunkered down on the sand was fairly easy, and then the adventure began. Camels get up rear legs first, pitching the rider forward over their ears unless you hang on and lean back. Their gait is a sort of rolling lurch, making their nickname “ships of the desert” very appropriate. Then at the end of the ride, they kneel front legs first, again jolting you forward, where if you’re lucky, you are rescued by the camel’s owner from knocking yourself out on the saddle. I loved every minute!
En route to and from the desert, we drove past a camel-racing track (I am not making this up). Apparently, it’s a popular sport in this part of the world – the camels run on a ten-kilometer track, and there are grandstands for the spectators at the finish line. Horse racing is, of course, very big here, and we were sorry that we couldn’t see the newly-completed Meydan racetrack, where the Dubai World Cup is held in March.
That afternoon, we took the ship’s shuttle into downtown to explore the famous Dubai Mall, one of several incredible indoor shopping venues in the city. This one has a regulation-size European ice hockey rink, which the public uses for pleasure skating. (Another mall has an indoor ski slope – with real snow.) The shops in the malls represent all the best-known international boutiques and brands, from Debenham’s to Bloomingdale’s, Armani to Cartier, French couturiers and Japanese electronics stores, even a full-size (British) Waitrose supermarket. There is an Arabian quarter, where small shops sell beautiful handmade clothing, silver and gold jewelry, Aladdin’s lamps, hookahs, and all things Arabian. The Gold Souk is a long street inside the mall lined with extremely high-end jewelers and goldsmiths. One two-story fountain was a sheet of falling water fifty feet wide, with metal sculptures of divers frozen in midair above the surface.
But to us the most interesting feature of the mall was the incredible variety of the people shopping there. There were western tourists like us, Muslim women in full regalia (abaya, a long black robe; hijab, a black headscarf; and sometimes a niqab, the full veil that covers everything but the eyes), young Arab women in miniskirts or shorts and high-heeled sandals, men in business suits or white Arab robes or jeans and T-shirts, and foreigners of every nationality. Dubai is clearly a cosmopolitan community with a western-influenced lifestyle. I found it interesting, but unless I wanted to shop nonstop, I don’t think I’d want to spend much time there.
Next installment: Fujairah and Sharjah, two other members of the United Arab Emirates, and some of our observations about life in a Muslim country. I realize that I haven’t said a word about our ship or the cruise itself, but I’ll get there. Just know that we’re having a wonderful time, despite our continuing jetlag, and we love the Nautica.