First Prize, One Week in Dubai. Second Prize, Two Weeks


DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES — The boat from Bandar Abbas left a good five hours late, but I was too relieved to have successfully gotten myself and the Hamburglar aboard to care. Laurent and I chatted with our fellow passenger Matthias, a German guy working in the oil & gas business in the UAE, and his French-Canadian girlfriend, who had spent a few weeks tooling around the Iranian desert in their Mitsubishi truck. As far as I could tell, we were the only non-Iranians on the boat — apart from the crew, that is, which seemed to be mostly of Indian extraction. Matthias and his girlfriend gave me the lowdown on where the fun was to be had in Dubai in the coming week while I’d be twidddling my thumbs and waiting to fly to India.

Our Iranian-flagged vessel wasn’t exactly the fastest boat crossing the Strait of Hormuz that night, and it took a good 14 hours to cover 200 kilometres. It was approaching lunchtime by the time we neared the port of Sharjah, a 45-minute drive northeast of Dubai proper. A forest of skyscrapers appeared in the 40-degree haze, and I had it on good authority that somewhere in there, among the tangle of glass and steel and concrete, there was cold beer for sale. I planned on drinking one as soon as the importation procedure was over and I was settled in. After a month in Iran, a person’s priorities change.

The ship docked, and Laurent and I went down to the hold to load up our bikes for disembarkation.

Sooo greasy

Men, women, and children were first off the boat, and the German, two Canadians, and Swiss guy were last.

We drove our vehicles to a quarantine pen and then were corralled into a shockingly well air-conditioned immigration shed. All the authority figures present were either in police gear or kandoura, the traditional Arab white robe. We cleared immigration after an hour or so, and then we started the vehicle importation process. The first office we visited was again staffed exclusively by Emirati guys, and one clerk in particular stood out: the ghutrah atop his head was so blindingly white, his skin so smooth, his beard so neatly trimmed, that when he langourously flicked his head cloth over his shoulder, he looked more radiant than any bride I’d ever seen.

Details of the rest of the importation procedure are nugatory, but suffice to say it kept the four of us in the port of Sharjah for 10 hours. It also cost an incredible amount of money, with multiple trips to conveniently-located bank machines dispensing UAE dirham. After about the tenth office — this was cutting into my valuable beer time — I nearly lost it on the poor Indian guy whose job it was to compare my gate pass with the chassis number on my Vespa. Showing him the number required some dismantling of the bike, and I peevishly undid all the nuts and bolts and showed him. Again, there was a problem with the last digit, which wasn’t quite clearly a ‘3’ or an ‘8’.

Eventually, though, we were all clear, our carnets stamped in, and we and all went our separate ways. I plugged my friend Chris’s address into my GPS unit, which I have lately renamed the CRM-114 Discriminator, and bombed southwest down the Shiekh Zayed Road. This road — a misnomer, really, because it’s more like a Los Angeles crosstown freeway — didn’t exist thirty years ago. Dubai was merely a dusty fishing port back then, surrounded by nothing but desert; and then, riding profits from an oil boom, the native Emiratis went on an insane building spree. This 16-lane road forms the spine of those results.

Everything came as a shock after Iran. The driving, for one. It was fast, but not insane; people signaled lane changes, and held a steady 120km/h going through the city. Luxury vehicles of every stripe appeared, with an emphasis on four-wheel-drive SUVs, and I was suddenly in a very tiny minority on my two wheels. I crossed Dubai Creek on a vast, sweeping bridge that felt like it’d just been finished yesterday. Soon I was going full speed down a canyon of skyscrapers, and I struggled to come up with something to compare them to. Nothing came. On my right, not one but two 2:3 scale models of the Chrysler building whizzed past; on my left, a very-top-heavy and extremely tall office tower, with a bulbous clock that took most of its design cues from Big Ben, rolled past. A bit further back from the main drag loomed the glittering, glass-and-steel stalagmite of the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building at just shy of a kilometre in height. Even while I was booking down the road at 95km/h, my view of the thing didn’t really move. It was that huge. I then realized that I’d seen this all before, in Blade Runner.

And at street level, it was a constant flow of illuminated food-chain logos. They were everywhere, unlike in Iran, where they were nowhere. Subway, McDonald’s, Applebee’s, TGI Friday’s, Hooter’s… They even had a frigging Chili’s on every other block, plus something called a California Pizza Kitchen. (Later on I learned that one of the malls even had a Second Cup, but alas, no Tim Horton’s.) It reminded me of childhood cross-border shopping trips to Detroit, where I’d see all these exotic delights we were deprived of up in Canada: Little Caesar’s Pizza, Cracker Barrel, White Castle. Meanwhile, the CRM-114’s screen filled with hundreds of little logos indicating the location of these establishments, and I had to turn that feature off just to see the street names.

I pulled off the highway at the Mall of the Emirates, which is famous for its indoor skiing, and the exit sent me soaring up and down and through its vast parking lot before ejecting me into Barsha. This was recognizable as a normal city neighbourhood, more or less: 6- and 7-storey buildings, gridlike streets, sidewalks, stores, restaurants. I was meant to find my friend Alex at the Seven Sands Hotel, and then meet up with my friend Chris.

Longtime readers of this blog might remember Alex as the guy I stayed with earlier in the trip in Bucharest and in Constanta. He was in town on business, and sure enough, when I entered the hotel he came sailing through the hotel lobby as if on cue. Shortly thereafter, Chris, an indie-music-lovin’ Austro-Filipino I’d met in Barcelona earlier this year at the Primavera Sound Festival, rocked up. Chris had been living in Dubai for going on three years now, and he generously offered to put me up at his place.

Oh hi guys!

First order of business was having a beer. Alcoholic beverages are tricky to come by in the UAE, but not near-impossible and definitely illegal like they are in Iran, and Chris had filled up his fridge with cans of Heineken. Thank you, Chris. Thank you.

THAT'S where you've been!

Even though it was small, and came in a can, and was a Heineken, it was, no foolin’, the best beer I’ve ever had.

WE HAD A LONG NIGHT OUT at Barasti Beach Club, and we got there in a taxi — which is, it turns out, pretty much the only way to get around Dubai. Drinks were chasteningly expensive, but I was happy to be back in a place where men and women — women, with their hair exposed and everything — could congregate in public. The place was packed with a well-heeled crowd of expats and tourists from Europe and the Middle East, with most of the yelling and carrying-on being done by the well-represented English crowd. Downstairs, in the club space, it was salsa night; upstairs, two guys with acoustic guitars did covers of ’90s tunes like “Wonderwall”, “She Talks to Angels”, and so on. Despite Barasti not being part of any resort complex, it had that mass-market blandness so common to beachside holiday spots: during breaks in the live act, “Hotel California” and “Brown Eyed Girl” came on, and nobody seemed to mind.

Well into the next day, I learned that, owing to a series of badly-timed holidays and the generally glacial pace of Indian bureaucracy, it’d be two weeks before my tourist visa would be processed. I flirted with the idea of riding over to Oman to pass the time, but with my bike acting up, I didn’t want to risk it. I instead planned on overhauling the Hamburglar when I got to Delhi, with its many Vespa mechanics and large supply of spare parts. That gave me plenty of time to give Dubai the old college try.

I very quickly learned one of the most important things about Dubai: anything that needs doing, gets done in a mall. Now, don’t get me wrong — I have nothing against shopping malls. Whatever they lack in character and some slippery idea of “authenticity,” they more than make up for it in the triumph of 21st century retail, that being, delivering to the consumer the greatest choice and most competitive pricing in a single convenient place. My mall of choice was the Mall of the Emirates, which is, embarrassingly, the 2nd largest in town, second fiddle to the Dubai Mall, which is the largest in the world. Even though it was literally a stone’s throw away from Chris’s apartment, it was very tricky accessing it on foot; there’s no entrance for pedestrians, and to get inside I had to clamber over a series of ramps and concrete dividers while security guards eyed me suspiciously. I got set up with a local SIM card, bought some tools for my toolkit, ate some Japanese food, and contemplated hitting the slopes just around the corner from Bed, Bath & Beyond. I thought better of it and had a Krispy Kreme doughnut instead.

The mall is a better place than most in Dubai to see how society works. The city essentially has three different castes, all living and working side-by-each but never really interacting. At the bottom of the pile is the imported labour, mostly from the Philippines and India and Bangladesh. They build the buildings, do the unpleasant jobs, and run the shops. They tend to live either in what few poor-ish neighbourhoods you can find in Dubai, or out at the edge of town in the work camps, which I’m told can be appalling. Next up are the western expatriates. They’re brought into the city with the lure of money and a high quality-of-life, and they basically manage and design everything: the architecture, the public transit, the banking, the advertising, the airport. There’s a sort of revolving-door in operation there, with very few of them staying for more than a few years, and Dubai folklore is full of stories about refugees from the last recession: the suddenly-unemployed had to skip town in the dead of night — a UAE residence permit is only valid if you have a job — and it was common to see dust-covered exotic cars abandoned in Dubai’s many enclosed parking garages. And finally, at the top of the pile are the Emiratis themselves. Thirty years ago they were riding camels; since then they’ve ridden their oil boom all the way to the bank and are now being chauffeured around in Phaetons.

And it all comes together in the mall. Western expats and tourists do their shopping and family entertaining — the shark tank at the Dubai mall, incidentally, is pretty awesome — and to see it, it could be any upmarket shopping centre in the United States or Europe. Meanwhile, cheap imported labour keeps the mall running and the prices low. And this is where you see Emiratis doing what Emiratis do best: spending money. They roam the cathedral-like spaces of these modern-day souks, usually clad in spotless traditional kandoura and ghutra but sometimes including a nod to modernity in their getup by sporting an immaculate flat-brimmed gangsta baseball cap. Their children tag along, begging their parents to buy them this and that, like normal kids, but they appear to always get what they ask for. It’s here where you see proof of the burgeoning epidemic of diabetes afflicting this newly rich country: most of these kids are fat. Like, seriously fat, and doughy too, as though they’ve never had a lick of exercise or manual labour in their brief lives. These little butterballs waddle around the mall in their flowing white robes, staring with glazed eyes at a world of material wealth and comfort and ease that they know, deep down, is their birthright, and the sight of it is almost unutterably sad. It’s hard to not feel sorry for these kids.

After a few particularly arduous hours at the mall, I always had to get the hell out of there, and I’d flee to what became my friendly local café. It was on the ground floor of a small midrange hotel, and had Wifi, and brunch, and friendly staff, and big bay windows looking onto the street. I ended up spending a lot of time in there, watching the world go by from my windowside perch. One afternoon, an Emirati customer had taken one of the outdoor tables, and worked on his coffee and smoked cigarettes. He also steadily, compulsively, flung garbage from his table onto the sidewalk: sugar packets, straws, napkins, cigarette packs — and once the pile reached a critical mass, one of the Indian guys manning the café would hustle outside with his dustpan and scoop it all up. So prodigious was Emirati guy’s litter output that the Indian with the broom was outside sweeping up his mess every few minutes. Neither party appeared to think there was anything wrong with this relationship.

And then there were the ninjas. This is what many Dubai expatriates have taken to calling the black-niqab-clad local women, and they’re spoken of in hushed tones. Everybody knows a guy who knows a guy who once dated one on the sly, but apart from that they remain a mystery. In this, they’re like ninjas in more than appearance: they’re silent, stealthy, and very hard to get to know. I took the appearance of so many ninjas in my midst to mean other things, too, most notably that the UAE is a more conservative place socially than Iran; there are no hejab laws in Dubai, unlike in Iran, and yet Emirati women don the head-to-toe covering in far greater numbers than the Persian ladies across the Gulf. (Over in Iran, most women go around in public wearing the bare minimum of hejab dress required by law, and even that’s open to interpretation.) Anyway, I never did manage to talk to a ninja during my time there. At no point did it seem like an option.

THERE WAS A MASSAGE PARLOUR across the street from Chris’s apartment building, named, vividly enough, the Kung-Fu Spa and Wellness Center. Chris had never been — in fact, he claimed he’d never noticed the sign till I pointed it out. My self-inflating air mattress on his floor just wasn’t cutting it lately, and after many nights of fitful sleep I decided to go in there and sort my sore back out. It was a pretty deluxe operation, with the lobby pleasantly done up in modern east Asian chic and the lounge hits of the Orient playing softly in the background. I opted for the one-hour relaxation massage of the head, neck, and back.

I’d secretly hoped it wasn’t going to be administered by a dude, and was relieved when my impossibly small masseuse appeared from behind some curtains. Her name was Angel, and she was from somewhere near Hong Kong. She led me down a hallway to her little studio.

“I do kung-fu massage! Haiii-yah!” she said, karate-chopping the air. “Ha, ha. Funny joke. Lie down on back.” I complied, and she went to work on my head first, dribbling oil all over it and massaging my temples. It was great. She did this delightful thing with her fingernails, and I started to doze off.

“You not dumb guy,” she announced, apropos of nothing. “You smart guy! I can tell.” Obviously, this woman knew the score. She continued, with the assuredness of someone who’s seen it all before: “But that your problem.”

“My problem?” I said. I didn’t know I had a problem.

“You think too much. That why you got no hair on your head.”

Maybe she was on to something. I thought about that, probably too much, as she worked more oil into my scalp.

ALEX WANTED TO GO TO THE DESERT on his day off, so we opted for a package tour. This meant piling into a 4×4 with some excited Chinese tourists, driving on an immaculate 4-lane highway, stopping at a souvenir stand in the middle of nowhere, and then pulling off the road and bashing through the dunes for an hour or two. It was terrifying at first, not to mention stomach-churning after all the rum-based cocktails the night before. Then it was just fun.

Every once in a while the driver would stop and let us take pictures.

This was followed by some ATV riding:

…some camel riding:

…and then some half-assed attempts at sandboarding, which never really worked.

This was all polished off by dinner under the desert stars, followed by some Arab dancing.

And then it was back into the truck for the ride back into Dubai’s air-conditioned cocoon. I’d normally include a little spiel here about how lame and phony these package tours are, but frankly it was a pretty reasonable way to spend the day. And it was easy.

Speaking of easy, Dubai also has beaches. Food and drink down at the Dubai Marina was served at a sterile kilometre-long promenade of chain restaurants all carefully standardized and organized in a way to suggest a food court in a nice airport — and the prices suggest an airport too. But you can get eggs benedict there, and smoothies, and sushi, and a decent cappccino. After that, you walk past all the Maseratis and Lamborghinis in the parking lot, and hit the beach.

We're a long way from Constanta

... and Vienna, too

Every once in a while, there’s a massive party out by the Palm Atlantis Hotel, built on one of Dubai’s famous palm-tree-shaped islands, and half the town’s young and beautiful set congregates there for some thumping club music and energy-drink cocktails. It’s mostly a European crowd there, including many British tourists who specifically flew there just for fun, and by all appearances it’s pretty much like any other beachside DJ party. With one exception: bouncers have the unenviable job of breaking up men and women who are dancing too suggestively, or God forbid, kissing.

Let's go party in the shadow of this insanely huge hotel on this equally insanely huge manmade island!

At one point, Chris and I were cornered by some Irish expat who was too drunk to stand, let alone lean on the bar. He was in a bad way, having gotten into a fight with his Egyptian girlfriend earlier that day, and had stormed off alone and was drinking to take his mind off things. He kept repeating himself, but he seemed like a nice enough guy and Chris and I gave up trying to ditch him. He got pretty worked up about all the a-holes in this town, as he put it, and didn’t have many kind words for the people in Dubai in general.

Eventually, the drunken Irishman downed his last drink, paid his bill, and emphatically shook our hands. “Thank you,” he slurred, “for actually talking to me.”

IF MOST PEOPLE IN DUBAI ARE A-HOLES, at least four of them definitely aren’t. Nancy, from suburban Chicago, works in advertising (despite being more of a writer, really) and has made Dubai the most recent stop in an impressively itinerant career. She showed me that there are some proper out-of-the-way dives in this town, including a down-at-heel shisha bar she frequents, and a neighbourhood Thai restaurant that’s miles from the nearest shopping mall. She’s also a big fan of The National. It was great to ride around in her car with their most recent album playing, the nighttime backdrop of downtown Dubai not fitting the soundtrack at all.

And then there’s Mr. Medland and his lovely wife Jeanne and their brand-new baby Olivia. I’d known Andrew for years, having last seen him at a wedding in Toronto in the mid-2000s, and last I’d heard he was running a pilates studio in Montreal. He’d been based in Dubai for a few years now, and is busy raising his young family there. For this sort of thing, he claims, Dubai is an excellent place, and I don’t doubt that. Jeanne, meanwhile, has found her career in environmentally sustainable engineering taking off in wildly ambitious ways, and before the 2008 crash she was busy designing a massive canal that was to run a hundred kilometres inland from the Persian Gulf. As it stands, she can now lay claim to several very large holes out in the desert. Anyway, best of luck to the three of you!

THE END OF OCTOBER ROLLED AROUND, and my Indian visa was finally approved. I rode my bike north towards the airport, and along the way stopped for a picture of the Burj Khalifa. As I crouched on the sidewalk with my camera, a security guard or cop of some sort walked up.

“You can’t take pictures of that here,” he said.

“Why not?” I said, incredulous. We were out in public, in broad daylight, on a sunny day, with camera-wielding tourists all around. “That’s the world’s tallest building.”

“You can’t take pictures,” he said more firmly, and reached for my camera. I snatched it away from him, got on my bike, and rode around to the other side of the tower. I couldn’t figure that one out. Anyway, I got the picture.

My ill-gotten photograph

Next stop was the airport’s Cargo Village, a sort of one-stop shopping for all your shipping needs, and as luck had it my bike broke down about half a kilometre from the main gate. The rear brake drum had been stripped out again, and I was thankful to be sending my bike to India, where Vepsa brake drums grow on trees. After I pushed the bike the last 500 metres to the shipping agent, the crating and shipping process was remarkably painless, if not shockingly expensive. After only a few hours the Hamburglar was in a wooden box, my carnet was stamped out, and I was good to go. Along the way I went for lunch with a shipping agency guy who’d helped me with my papers. He was from the southern Indian state of Kerala, and after fifteen years in Dubai was actually moving back home in only a week’s time. I asked him if he was happy about this, and he could barely contain his glee. He gave me his email and told me to look him up when I got there.

I tried to like Dubai, really I did, but it ain’t for me. They say it’s a sunny place for shady people, and while the weather sure is nice and I’m sure it’s crawling with tax-dodgers and al-Qaeda financiers and Russian hookers and Balkan thugs and all sorts of other interesting people, what you see of the city is utterly whitewashed and spic-and-span and sterile. Faced with a mountain of oil money and the ultimate blank slate — a flat expanse of nothing but sand — the shiekhs went and built this city-sized monument to wretched excess, mass tourism, and international air travel, all covered in a veneer of Islamic propriety but with everybody looking the other way. It’s Las Vegas, without the gambling; Frankfurt, without the charm. As blandly pleasant as my stay was, I was glad to leave.


52 Responses to “First Prize, One Week in Dubai. Second Prize, Two Weeks”

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