The days in China, which I had expected to be the most challenging ones on this around the world trip, are now behind me. Everything should be so much easier here, in the United Arabic Emirates. Not only am I back in the Islamic world and hence in a culture that is much more familiar to me, not only are there many fellow Pakistani people who live here, but this is again one of those destinations, where I have relatives waiting for me. Getting to my relatives' place should be easy, I conclude once I check the metro map, which is a big relief after trying to deal with an ultra complicated looking metro map of Beijing. Here, you only have one line, and I know exactly where to get off and where to go to find my cousin's place. All I need to do before entering the metro is to withdraw some money. Easy!
"Transaction failed" - What? Why? I insert the card again, try it a second time, and again it does not work. It is impossible that I spent all my money. The guys who work here do not seem really enthusiastic about helping me with my problem, and don't even seem to know what to do about it, so apparently I have to figure this out by myself. The maestro card that I use has worked in every country so far, no problems in the US, in Australia, Malaysia and not even in China. So, why is it not working here in Dubai? I look at the card, and I am shaking my head thinking about the fact that my entire trip around the world depends on a small, red-coloured piece of plastic with a chip.
Not knowing what to do after unsuccessfully trying to withdraw money a third and a fourth time, I sit down on a bench, eat some Oreo cookies and analyze my current situation. It doesn't even make any sense to look for an internet café to contact my relatives, because I have no cash to pay for that either. Now I really need a miracle to happen. Maybe the only thing that can help me in this futile situation is divine intervention, I begin to fantasize while reading some Quranic verses of the book that my brother gave me. Maybe, if I just believe in it, no matter how crazy it sounds, maybe, just maybe, there will be this magical moment, when I ask God for help, then walk over to the ATM and suddenly it just starts working and everything will be fine. So, after forgetting everything around me and only focusing on God and myself for a while, I get up and try to withdraw money again. Of course, it does not work. What a stupid thought, so many people pray five times a day and get nothing but war, hunger, pain and agony, and I expect that reading a few verses is supposed to change anything about my little problem with that freaking ATM here? So much for "divine intervention". Out of frustration and because I don't know what else to do, I do the exact same thing that I have done five times already, when for whatever reason cash comes out of the machine. I don't understand why, but decide not to ask too many questions, just head to the metro station and not much later reach my relatives' place, where I am being welcomed with a delicious dinner, nice talks and a comfortable bed.
"Bigger is Better"
"Do you know why nobody is driving on that lane over there?", my cousin asks me while showing me around in Dubai. He is right, the sixth lane is not even being used. "It is only reserved for the Sheikhs", he explains. Talk about lavish. This reminds me of a joke dealing with the clichee of super rich Arabs, which pretty much sums up my very first impressions of Dubai: The son of a Sheikh is in Europe for the first time to study. "How do you like it?", the rich Arab asks his son on the phone, who then confesses that he feels a little bit uncomfortable driving around with a Ferrari, because all the other students come by train. "No problem, I will take care of this!", says the Sheikh and buys his son a train.
"Bigger is better", seems to be the motto here in Dubai, and I am not only talking about Dubai Mall, the world's biggest mall, which - among other things - features an underwater zoo and a ski resort with a size of over 20000 square meters. Whatever I do, wherever I go here in Dubai, everything is just so much bigger than I had expected it to be, the mall, the buildings, as well as the pizza that my cousin orders for us. But there is nothing that I underestimated more than the artificial Palm Islands.
When I was exploring the city all by myself earlier today, I decided to take a taxi to check out the palm-shaped islands. "Where do you want to get off?", the driver asked me. - "The Palm Islands." - "Which islands, there are three, Jumeirah, Deira or Jebel Ali?" - I had no idea that there are several of them, so I just said: "Whatever, the first one". Soon I started to get a little bit impatient, because the ride seemed endless and still I just couldn't spot those artificial islands. "When will we arrive?", I asked. - "Where do you want to get off?" - "You already asked me that. I told you, the first of those islands that you named", I said a little bit annoyed, because I felt like he was trying to rip me off. - "But where in Palm Jumeirah?" - "Anywhere, I don't know. How long does it take? I still cannot see them." - "We are already in Palm Jumeirah", he replied and I looked at him confused; because all I saw while looking out of the window were busy streets. "But I want to go to the islands!", I reiterate. "We are driving ON those islands right now!" - "Oh..." - Finally, I understood how big Palm Jumeirah is and that you cannot look out of the window of a car and spot the island's shape of a palm just like that.
Scraping the Sky
In recent years, Dubai has become very popular among tourists. I still don't know anything about Dubai, but the pictures that I checked were really impressive and so unlike what I would have expected from a small gulf state that for the most part only consists of deserts. While exploring Dubai on my own, I quickly concluded that the most eye-catching buildings are usually hotels, most notably the Atlantis Hotel and Burj Al-Arab, one of the most luxurious hotels in the world and one of the very few seven star hotels in the world, which I have a closer look at while having a walk on Jumeirah beach.
In Dubai, as I had already heard, things are more liberal than it is usually the case in the Arab world. Apart from nightclubs and bars, which I have decided not even to check out here in Dubai, you notice the state's more liberal policies especially at the beaches and in the malls. I remember this sign that I saw in front of the entrance of Dubai Mall, reminding visitors to dress respectfully, only seconds before a girl with a short, pink minidress walked out. "To me, living in the US seems easier for a Muslim", my relative who moved from the New York to Dubai told me last night. "Here you hear the Azhans from the loudspeakers of the mosques, you see all these signs in Arabic, and yes people pray, but practicing our religion in New York still seemed easier to me", he said. As I walk in the streets of Dubai, I am impressed by all the luxury that is surrounding me on the one hand, but at the same time I just feel like this place might be more appealing to the super rich people, to the celebrities and models. With that said, there are certain things I still want to see and do here in Dubai, and much like in the previous countries, there are moments that I seek to create here, with which I will forever associate this place. So what will these moments look like?
Already while sitting inside the airplane, before landing in Dubai, maybe a thousand feet above, I saw this gigantic skyscraper, this one place I have been looking forward to visit here in Dubai the most, a building that only opened a few months ago, a building that is 828 meters tall, a building that is now officially known as the tallest structure on the planet. Ten years ago, in 2000, when I was standing on top of the World Trade Center, the twin towers were still known as the tallest structures in the world. And now, in 2010, the fastest elevator in the world takes me to the skydeck of the tallest building in the world of today, this time offering a view on an Arab cityscape, whose components look like toys from up here. When looking farther, you can see the wide desert landscape, reminding me of my next and final activity here in Dubai.
The locals in the desert must be wondering what all those tourists from the West find so interesting about a place that is so unbearably hot and dry, where there is nothing to see but sand. But it's not only Westerners, who are enjoying the adventurous jeep ride, the views on the desert landscape, and who are looking forward to ride a camel. Inside the jeep I meet Sangita from Malawi and her soon to be father in law, who are part of the group that has booked the desert safari. As we arrive, the locals approach us, waiting for us to sell their souvenirs, and I assume that the most annoying part of the tour is about to begin. I have heard so many times that the Arabs in the desert can be way too pushy and stubborn and tend to rip people off. To my surprise, at least here in the desert of Dubai it is quite on the contrary, and the locals are pretty reserve and friendly.
Sangita, her soon to be father in law and I hang out together for the most part, having dinner and being entertained by the show in the desert that includes a belly dancer and light shows with traditional Arab music, in which traditional items such as Arab swords are being used in an artistic way. Some travellers are having a good time trying to ride a camel especially those coming from the Western world, as they rarely get to see these creatures. It reminds me of how I was riding on a camel once when I was a child. It was in 1996, the last time when I was in my country of origin, in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. A long train ride took us to the coastal city of Karachi, where we spent a lot of time at the beach. I have to chuckle, as I remember another moment in Karachi, when as I child I went to my brother and my mom, who were expecting me just to collect some shells. "Look what I have found!", I said excited, and my brother quickly kicked that scorpio that I was holding in my hand quickly away while both were scolding me. As we are driving back late at night, I continue reminiscing about many different moments that I had experienced in Pakistan when I was a kid, especially the moments with many of my relatives, whom I haven't seen ever since. How will it be now that I am grown up? I am less than 24 hours away to confront my past. Nothing on this around the world trip makes me more nervous than the upcoming destination, which to me is not just a travel destination. This will be beyond sightseeing, this is going to be the most personal part of the world trip, returning to my country of origin and reuniting with my countless relatives that I haven't seen since I was a child.