Every trip I take, I always take notes as I move through a country. I file these away to serve as the backbone of an eventual blog post. Sometimes I end up with a lot written down, and shaping them into a blog is simply a matter of editing. Sometimes I end up with less, and need to flesh the notes out with other memories from the trip.
This is the entirety of what I wrote down in Dubai:
Truth 1: Dates are a calorie rich and inexpensive vegan foodstuff widely available throughout the Arab world.
Truth 2: There is a strict limit to how many dates you can eat before you involuntarily shit yourself.
Let me stress that I don't know that to be literally true, exactly, but when I got off the plane after a long night of eating Yemeni dates on the flight over from Cairo, this distinction was academic and I very badly needed to find the kind of awesome bathroom you rarely find while traveling overseas. Instead, I found a bewildering thicket of airport prayer rooms, rooms for washing your feet, rooms for ladies only, family rooms and other assorted rooms with mysterious symbols over the doorways. In time I found the actual men's room, which I noticed because of the massive line of men leading into it. Arg. Once I finally got inside and discovered the squat toilet in the stall, it was tragically far too late to negotiate a different set of circumstances with the universe.
This is a family blog so all you need to know is that I survived this experience.
I was in the United Arab Emirates entirely on accident. I realize this sounds like a joke or a gross overstatement, but I sincerely did not intend to go to this country at all. This was probably bound to happen sooner or later, as I'd already discovered once while walking through an airport that I was not in the country I thought I was in. So this is the natural next step in the progression to becoming a pantsless vagrant yelling at the clouds.
After being stuck in Yemen for an extra night unexpectedly, I'd missed my flight from Cairo to Muscat, Oman, and had to buy a new ticket at the literal last minute before we boarded our flight to leave Yemen. The internet was only working for twenty seconds at a time, so booking a ticket was a true test of wits and thumb dexterity. I was going to have to save Oman for another trip and there were no direct flights to my destination in Kuwait, so I was hoping to score a flight with a layover in some country I'd never been to before. When an Air Arabia flight popped up for a good price I booked it in a flash as the internet timer ticked down to zero. Cool, I'm going to Saudi Arabia!
On the bus to the airport terminal, my friend Raoul asked where in Saudi I was going to be spending my layover. Riyadh? Jeddah? No, I don't remember the name of the city, but it wasn't one of those. Raoul frowned and expressed surprise that Saudi had another airport he'd apparently never heard of. Yeah, that's weird, I agreed.
Sitting in the Cairo airport waiting to board my flight, the Saudi Arabia eVisa website kept rejecting my application when I put in the name of the town where I'd be staying. Again and again. This stupid website! I looked up at the flight board. My flight to Sharjah's about to leave! I tried again. This time I decided screw it, I'm going to click on the little map icon and just pick a hotel and tell them I'm staying there so this stupid visa will go through. Click. Huh, they don't even have my hotel listed, that's weird. Zoom out. Zoom out. Zoom out. Zoom oooooooout. Oh my God. Sharjah is in the United Arab Emirates. I'm not going to Saudi Arabia at all.
Well, good thing I didn't pay for that visa.
So now I had the better part of a day to kill in Sharjah, the capital city of the Sharjah emirate and the third-largest city in the United Arab Emirates, after Dubai and Abu Dhabi. I was still getting a new country under my belt, though it felt like a bit of a waste since I was booked to come back to Dubai in April on my way to Somalia. Little did I know then, that entire trip would never happen. Thanks covid.
Sitting on the runway in Cairo, I had booked a rental car on my phone for Sharjah. Now I was at the counter to pick it up, but they didn't have any cars. They'd have to send away for one. As I sat and waited, I texted my cousin's wife Linda to ask her were I should eat while I was in town. Sharjah is thankfully close to Dubai, and Linda was occasionally in Dubai for work and knows her food.
"Well, the buffet I just had for breakfast was really good."
What? Why do I care what you had for breakfast back in Florida? Linda, you weirdo.
"But there are a couple of new places I've been thinking about trying this week."
Then it very, very belatedly dawned on me. Ohhhhhh holy shit, Linda's in Dubai right now! How crazy.
After 90 minutes of the least efficient rental car pick up ever, I was driving across the desert to Dubai and picking up Linda from her hotel. We set out to check out the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, and, more importantly, lunch.
The Burj Khalifa is a skyscraper in Dubai that is 2,722 feet high. It's been the tallest building in the world since it was finished in 2009. I had to hurry up and write that because the Jeddah Tower in Saudi Arabia will be taller if it's ever finished, and who gives a shit about the second-tallest building in the world? People were so disappointed in the Sears Tower for not being the tallest building in the world any more it had to change its name.
I've explained the Burj Khalifa to anyone who has asked about my trip to Dubai by saying it's the building Tom Cruise climbs with his janky tech gloves in Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. This is met with a glassy look because not one of those goddamned people has seen Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. If you've also avoided seeing that movie just so you could piss me off in this exact scenario (well-played, I admire your long game), just know it's a real tall building and we can move on.
The Burj was built because Dubai wanted to branch out from its oil-based economy and kickstart its having really fucking tall buildings economy. Burj means "tower" in Arabic and the building was originally called the Burj Dubai, but then the developers ran out of money part-way through building it and had to ask the president of the UAE, Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, for more money to finish it. And so the name was changed to the Burj Khalifa, because the Burj Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan wouldn't fit on the side of the building, no matter how tall it was.
Linda hopped in the car and made quick with the bounty of vegan snacks she was traveling with, because that is Linda's superpower. Followers of my blog may remember Linda from our trip to Japan in 2017. I'd had nothing to eat but dates for a medically inadvisable number of hours so all of these assorted snacks were lifesaving.
The first surprise of the Burj was that it's at the heart of the massive Dubai Mall (second-largest in the world by total land area) that you have to navigate through if you want to go up in the tower. After leaving the car in a gigantic and featureless parking garage, we made our way through this really excessively swanky mall.
"Sean, how are we going to find the elevators for the tower?"
"Follow the white people."
And so we did, and they led us inevitably to the tower entrance. Inside, you lined up to buy the really, really expensive tickets to go up the tower. There were the regular slob expensive tickets, which for $40 took you up the tower to level 124 so you could hang out with your fellow NASCAR fans and look at birds and shit flying by. Or, for a mere $145, you could go all the way up to level 148 so you could look down on the $40 people and see that they totally were not pulling off that comb-over.
Yeah, that's cool, but we'll take the $40 tickets.
Well balls, Dubai. I guess we'll go to the top floor with the other baby-eating reptillians and pretend that pomegranate juice is really good.
It turns out level 124 was the original observation deck, which was the highest deck in the world when the building was completed. But then in 2011 the Chinese opened the Canton Tower, which had a higher observation deck, just to be dicks. So the Burj had to add the outdoor deck on floor 148 in 2014, to take the title back. Whew! Then the Shanghai Tower was opened in 2016, which has an even higher observation deck. Dick move, China.
After chilling in a waiting room with the other marks and putting on our VIP stickers (nothing makes me feel more important and wealthy than stickers on my clothing) we were led past some exhibits explaining that the Burj Khalifa is really freaking tall and a window we could look up through to confirm that, yep, that there is a tall dang building.
The real reason I'm including these photos is because to my great shame, I forgot to take a photo of the tower from outside where you can see how tall it is. In truth I'm not sure how I would have done so without pulling over into the freeway breakdown lane on my way into town. Take my word for it, it looks like a big needle stabbed into an orange. The orange is the Earth.
In the middle of all of this I managed to somehow get into a line that was just for women, as is my speciality.
We were led into a large elevator that, as it climbed, projected images onto the elevator walls showing what other famous tall things we were passing as we wooshed upwards. There goes Big Ben! There go the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur! Later, losers! There goes Skylab- Jesus we're high up.
The one advantage of the uber-pricey tickets, aside from not having to deal with the cognitive dissonance of traveling to the tallest building in the world and then only going almost all the way to the top, was that we got an outdoor observation deck to look down at satellites and shit from.
The overall experience was about what you'd expect, as we looked down on a lot of buildings from way high up. And then walked to a different side and looked at a bunch of buildings from way high up. That's about all you can do ever since they took down the machine that stretches souvenir pennies for you to kill pedestrians with.
My one regret is that I didn't get into a foot chase with an international terrorist, that seemed to make the whole thing more fun in the movie. Though I'm not sure how Tom Cruise ran out of the Burj and into some kind of Turkish bazaar directly outside the building, since in reality he would have run into a Starbucks and then another Starbucks and would have had to stop to have his parking validated.
There was some other shwag inside, like a floor screen you could walk on that showed what was below us, as if you were skywalking right off the edge of the tower. This was fairly lame but spiced up by shattered-glass cracks that would appear on the screen at random intervals, as if the imaginary skywalk was giving way beneath you. This didn't make it any less lame but Linda and I were both completely amused by a couple who were carefully walking across the screen like deer on a frozen lake and holding each other's hands for support. Let me stress that this was a completely unconvincing TV screen floor in the middle of the building. These people were hilarious. This was like the people in the first movie theater who dove out of the way at the first sign of an approaching movie train. But only, like, if people did that shit today, after 100 years of experience with movies.
After we felt like we'd soaked up our $145 worth of highness as much as we possibly could, we wooshed back down in the elevator and wandered through the huge mall until we finally found the restaurant we were looking for.
We strategically ordered as many things as possible to share to get the fullest picture of what was going on at Gypsy Food Dubai. The highlight for me was the graham cracker crumb cheesecake, which was baller.
I looked at my phone and realized I had stretched my airport return time to the utter limit. Quick goodbyes and I was off into the guts of the mall, where I immediately walked all the way across the whole mall in the completely wrong direction and had to double back at a jog before I found the right parking garage and my car.
I had one of my weirdest car rental returns, as I had to call the car rental guy on his cell phone as I was approaching the airport on the freeway, so I could hand off the car to him by the side of the road like the baton in a relay race. But it worked out and I made it back to the airport in spite of stretching the limits of what a digital gas gauge would register as "returned on full," since I hadn't had time to stop for gas.
Final call for my flight was announced while I was standing in the slow-ass security line, where people were taking their shoes and pants off and then putting their pants back on because come on guys you don't need to do that to get through security. But in the end I hit the gate with three entire minutes to spare before takeoff, and I made my flight onward to Bahrain, where everybody knows your name. Wait, shit, that's Cheers. Why in the hell did I go to Bahrain again?