Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi
My most recent traveling adventure is definitely a unique one. This month I was sent as a representative from my high school here in Prague to visit the New York University (NYU) Abu Dhabi campus. The well-known private American liberal arts college has recently expanded to add degree-granting campuses in Shanghai and Abu Dhabi. The latter is recruiting heavily to increases their class sizes and consequently inviting school counselors to visit the campus and learn more about the programs in order to inform their students. As my school doesn’t have an official guidance counselor whose job it is to help students apply to international universities, I was chosen to represent our school. It will be my responsibility to conduct meetings to educate potential student candidates, nominate students to NYU Abu Dhabi via the established procedure, and help them through the application process. Lucky for me, the entire trip was paid for by the university, which is funded by the U.A.E. government. All that oil money has to go somewhere, I guess.
Thursday morning I headed to the airport early, not really knowing what to expect once I arrived on the other end. Packing was interesting, to say the least, as the weather called for 95 F on Friday and yet I was told in the evening we would be in the desert, where it was likely to be “chilly.” However, I had managed to pack an adequate range of items and felt prepared for just about anything. Following a short delay in departure, a six-hour flight in an uncomfortable discount seat (no, I didn’t get to fly on Emirates), during which I was intrigued to watch the flight path on the screen avoid two war zones in Ukraine and Syria/Iraq, and a stressful search for my driver at a very warm and crowded airport, I was in the car and headed to the capital of Abu Dhabi from the larger and more well-known city of Dubai.
My observations of Dubai, frantically written on a small notepad as I sped through the city in the back of an air-conditioned van:
– There are huge brightly lit billboards everywhere, but they are parallel to the road and at street level instead of perpendicular and high up on posts.
– Everything is written in both Arabic and English.
– Despite all the cars, there appears to be an impressive modern railway system, similar to the elevated trains in Chicago, except the stations are beautiful modern architecture with huge indoor platforms equipped with escalators.
– The cars are more American-style than any country I’ve ever been in outside North America. There are large SUV’s, full-size sedans, and even pickup trucks.
– A six-lane highway goes right through the heart of the city. I could see all of the famous skyscrapers, including the tallest building in the world, while we whipped by at 70 mph.
– I had a strange feeling that we were in a very humid Chicago. As we drove west along the coast, with the gulf on our right, it almost felt like driving from Chicago to Milwaukee – from a big city to a smaller city.
– The highway eventually leaves the city and then becomes a well-lit road through the desert. Along the way I saw road signs that made me do a double-take, including a “Camel Race Track” exit. The next day I saw it in the daylight. It’s for real! Racing camels!
– The variety of “western” restaurants they have are mind-blowing – way more than in Prague. For example, I saw a Popeye’s Chicken and a Hardee’s. Really? I definitely wasn’t expecting that.
– After all the fascinating things I saw during that ride, the one thing that kept me smiling all weekend was a van that passed us with a big “Butt Tourism” logo painted on the side. *Giggle, snort.* Who thought that was a good idea?
Burj Khalifa in Dubai – tallest building in the world
After my 90 minute ride between cities, I arrived in Abu Dhabi and took my first of many trips across a bridge to get to the main island of the city. I stayed in the Sofitel, a fabulous hotel on the Corniche just a few hundred yards from the beach. As we drove through the city I observed the diversity of the city’s population, which I had read about in my brief research. Abu Dhabi residents are around 80% expats mostly from Asian countries like India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and the Philippines, as well as Europeans and Africans. Many of them are poor migrant workers hoping to send money from their jobs in construction back to their families and eventually return home. Others work in the tourism industry or in businesses connected to oil. The only place I saw Emirati people working was in customs at the airport. Those were all men wearing the traditional robes and headpieces. Otherwise, every single employee was an immigrant.
One thing I noticed immediately was that English was the language most frequently spoken. It makes sense, as the city is composed of people from dozens of different countries. I should be used to English being spoken as a second language by now, but it was still a little strange to hear such a wide a variety of accents and levels of English all being spoken simultaneously, both in person and on mobile phones. Culture shock was in full swing at this point.
To summarize, here’s a rundown of my main activities throughout the weekend.
– After arriving at the hotel quite late, I quickly went to catch the end of a reception organized for all the school representatives from Europe and Africa. I was famished, so felt very relieved to see plenty of appetizers and small desserts laid out for us. It was the last time all weekend I was hungry.
– Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to settle in for a relaxing night’s sleep in my luxurious bed because first I had to deal with an emergency back home. When I had left that morning, the water in the school (and my flat) wasn’t working. Well, apparently in my desperate attempt to get a couple of drips out of the faucet in order to brush my teeth and rush out the door, I had left the faucet on. My roommate came home that evening to find my bathroom and a significant part of my bedroom under water. She was an absolute saint and dealt with the mess for me basically all on her own, but I still felt it necessary to call my administrator and make sure everything was going to be taken care of. It turns out that everything dried out before I got home Sunday night, but it was quite stressful to know I had caused such a hassle and wasn’t there to do anything about – a control freak’s nightmare.
– After what seemed like a light nap, I was up early for a buffet breakfast and headed to the bus on our way to the NYU campus. We spent the morning and most of the afternoon observing sessions for the candidate students. After another fabulous meal of succulent Middle Eastern cuisine it was hard to sit through sessions without nodding off, so it was a welcome change to take a tour of the campus. It is brand new, officially opening for the start of classes in fall of 2014, and I’ll admit I was impressed by the modern designs and high-tech features.
Dorms on the NYU Abu Dhabi campus
– Next we headed back to the bus for a 90 minute ride into the desert. Our cultural evening program consisted of tasting dates and other sweet snacks, climbing sand dunes, riding camels (I opted for just petting one), getting henna tattoos, and eating more traditional local foods while sitting on pillows around low tables. I believe it was intended to be a glimpse of the Bedouin lifestyle. I was a little too exhausted to take it all in, but the pictures I took look nice.
Don’t worry, he didn’t spit on me.
Luxury dining in the desert
– The following day started back on campus for a chance to meet the president of NYU, John Sexton, and ask questions at a current student panel. After yet another unbelievable lunch, we had one more session with the students, then headed out to the city to explore a bit, stopping at a date market, the heritage village, and an optional trip to the seaside mall, which I opted out of. Instead, I met up with my cousin back at the hotel. I didn’t realize until the night before leaving that he lived in Abu Dhabi, but was so glad that I did and was able to get in touch. He is actually my mom’s cousin and has been living overseas for almost 20 years, but it was great to meet up with him and experience the city through the eyes of a local.
– After our brief free time, it was time for the women to dress in appropriate attire for our visit to the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. We had to wear a traditional “abaya” (a loose black dress covering from head to toe, wrist to ankle) and head scarf. In any other case I would have felt uncomfortable, but it felt almost like a uniform you’d wear for a specific activity, like a helmet to ride a bike, or a parachute to jump from a plane. The mosque was magnificent, especially all lit up in the evening, and we had a great tour guide.
Swarovski crystal chandeliers imported from Austria
The abaya was actually quite comfortable, but I didn’t really like the head scarf.
– Our last evening together ended with a trip to the most ridiculous buffet I’ve ever seen, which was held at the restaurant of the Shangri-la Hotel. I seriously felt like I had eaten a week’s worth of food in three days. Despite feeling ready to bust, I just had to indulge in a small scoop of cookies-n-cream ice cream with a side of chocolate fondue-covered red velvet cake bites. Seriously?! Yes.
What’s better than a chocolate fondue fountain? THREE chocolate fondue fountains!
There’s nothing like a room bigger than your whole house just for food.
– After a somewhat more sufficient night of sleep, I was up early Sunday to try to find my way to the beach before meeting Dave and Loren for a day out in the city. While most of the other educators had left early that morning, my flight wasn’t scheduled until 7:30 p.m., so I had almost a full day to explore. As luck would have it, though, I was apparently given a one-in-a-thousand chance to see rain in Abu Dhabi. The clouds had rolled in and sure enough, as soon as I stepped out of the lobby, the drops started falling. Bummer. Well, never mind. We still had a good time exploring different parts of the city in the car and the sun did come out off and on. It’s probably for the best. My pasty white European winter skin would have fried under direct sunlight so close to the equator.
Meeting family on the other side of the world was the highlight of my trip
– Following a quick stop for souvenirs and a surprising treat for lunch (Papa Murphy’s pizza!!!) it was time to head back to the hotel and get ready for my ride to the airport in Dubai. I got to see everything again, just in reverse and in the daylight. Once again, my flight was delayed and I arrived back at my flat at 1:30 a.m. and fell into bed, regretting the fact that I had agreed to teach my normal full schedule on Monday starting at 8:00 a.m.
In some ways, the trip seems like a strange drug-induced hallucination, but my lingering henna tattoo, a half-eaten box of dates on my counter, and the pictures on my phone tell me it really happened. It was an experience that I am not likely to repeat any time soon.