Ramadan--Muslim or not, here it comes!

“Hands in the air!  Step away from the water bottle!”  During Ramadan in the UAE it is a minor offense to drink or eat in public during daylight hours.  Ramadan is a month-long fast observed by Muslims around the world.  The idea is that during this month, Muslims will turn away from secular concerns and focus on their commitment to Islam.  They are also encouraged to be more charitable toward others during Ramadan.  

In Dubai, the fast is imposed on everyone--at least publicly.  You can eat what you’d like when you’d like in your own home, but restaurants are closed during the day.  Some will do take-out for you, but anything that would require immediate consumption (aka-ice cream) won’t be served.  Even eating and drinking in your car is off-limits.  If there are people fasting in the workplace, it’s expected that no one will eat around them.  On the bright side, employers are required to let their employees leave after six hours of work as opposed to eight during Ramadan.  

Many people choose to just stay home all day.  The malls, which are usually bustling and busy, are deserted.  Those fasting are exhausted and those not fasting find it uncomfortable to be out and about without food and water.  Gotta feel sorry for the retail business during Ramadan.

Since no one is eating during daylight hours, dinner after dark is a huge deal.  The restaurants start serving at sunset which has been between 7 and 7:15 this year.  However, if it’s a popular restaurant, you’d better show up at 5:45 to get a table at sunset.  We went to Texas Roadhouse recently and by 6:15 there was a long line winding from the entrance.  Also, the ghost-town mall food courts by day come alive with packed crowds by night.  Many restaurants and other organizations hold iftars.  Iftars are buffets put on during Ramadan; some serve traditional food such as lamb kebabs and some serve whatever they want (we’ve heard of a few Chinese iftars).  No matter where you eat after the sun sets, they serve you a plate of dates according to tradition.  Some places also give their customers rose water.

Ramadan may put a wrench in tourist plans, but it has been an interesting experience for me.  You’ve gotta respect those who are truly fasting for an entire month.  Ramadan started July 8th and tomorrow is the last day.  So I’d better say it while I still can, “Ramadan Kareem!”

 

Whitney holding our much-craved ice cream cones from McDonald's.  Please note the crowded food court. 

Whitney holding our much-craved ice cream cones from McDonald's.  Please note the crowded food court. 

Whitney and Jeff holding our place near the front of the line at Texas Roadhouse.  

Whitney and Jeff holding our place near the front of the line at Texas Roadhouse.  

The growing line.   

The growing line.   

Traditional dates and rose-water.  If you like drinking perfume, you will love rose-water.  

Traditional dates and rose-water.  If you like drinking perfume, you will love rose-water.  

Shop 'til you drop. Then shop some more!

How many malls are in your town?  I’m talking multi-level, hundreds of stores types of malls.  Two?  Maybe three?  We have been to five so far in Dubai, and there are more that Whitney hasn’t had the chance to invade, ahem, I mean visit yet.  Guys, I highly recommend you bring a substantial shopping budget for your lady when visiting Dubai.  I’m going to change up the format of this post a bit.  You’ll see some pictures from one of the malls and then a few of my comments.  I know what you’re thinking, “It’s a mall.  Why would I want to look at pictures of a mall?”  Trust me, you want to see these.

 

The 4 levels of the Dubai Mall

The 4 levels of the Dubai Mall

Dubai Mall Underwater Zoo--in the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest single acrylic panel in the world!

Dubai Mall Underwater Zoo--in the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest single acrylic panel in the world!

Dubai Mall Ice Rink

Dubai Mall Ice Rink

Thousands of paper butterflies hanging from the ceiling.  

Thousands of paper butterflies hanging from the ceiling.  

The Dubai Mall

Dubai Mall is the largest mall in the world.  When you get off the metro, there’s a sky-bridge that takes you into the mall in the comfort of air conditioning.  It also eases the long walk with a series of what they call “travelators” (moving walkways that are similar to what you’d see in an airport).  When you actually get into the mall, you’re met with four levels that are approximately ¾ of a mile in length.  The stores are somewhat grouped according to category--shoe stores in one area, home stores in another, children’s fashion, etc.  If you can’t find what you’re looking for here, give up.  Dubai mall also has an impressive aquarium, an ice-skating rink, hundreds of restaurants and cafes (not including the two large food courts), is in close proximity to the fountains and Burj Khalifa, a movie theater, an indoor amusement park, Kidzania, and the Souk Bahar across the lagoon.  Whitney spent many days just exploring the Dubai mall.

 

Ski Dubai at Mall of the Emirates

Ski Dubai at Mall of the Emirates

Ramadan decorations at Mall of the Emirates

Ramadan decorations at Mall of the Emirates

Mall of the Emirates 

We live five minutes away from the Mall of the Emirates and it’s our closest metro stop.  This has proved to be extremely convenient because within the mall there is a huge Walmart type store called Carrefour, several places to exchange currency, restaurants, and every type of store you could possibly want.  One thing that is very unique about the Mall of the Emirates is the indoor ski resort.  Yes, you can go from 105 degrees to 30 in a matter of minutes, strap on your skis or snowboard, and hit the slopes.  Inside the mall.  Whit and I have little interest in winter sports; we just watched others from the windows of T.G.I. Fridays.

Main entrance at the Dubai Marina Mall

Main entrance at the Dubai Marina Mall

Dubai Marina Mall 

The marina mall overlooks the marina, has hundreds of stores, and Whitney bought her favorite new purse there.  The end.

 

Mercato Mall

Mercato Mall

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Mercato Mall

Whitney absolutely fell in love with the look of this mall.  It has more of a town square feel than a modern mall.  However, the stores are perfectly modern in every way.  Not as plentiful as Dubai Mall or Mall of the Emirates, but enough to keep the ladies busy and the guys bored.

 

Wish it was real... 

Wish it was real... 

Ibn Battuta Mall

Ibn Battuta Mall

So, I'd like to buy your boat.   

So, I'd like to buy your boat.   

How did they make the ceiling look like the inside of a kaleidoscope?

How did they make the ceiling look like the inside of a kaleidoscope?

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Ibn Battuta Mall 

Ibn Battuta is the world’s largest themed mall.  It’s modeled after the famous Arabic traveler (Ibn Battuta) and is divided into six sections based on where he traveled.  Each section has decor reflecting that region.  From the clouds painted on the ceiling to the life-size (albeit fake) elephant to the large ship that Jack Sparrow would love to commandeer, Ibn Battuta Mall is pretty cool just to walk around.  Even if you’re not shopping.

 

Desert Road Trip

Problem: Visitor visas in Dubai only last for thirty days.  My visa had met its end and Whit's would soon as well.

Solution: Visa runs with Go Tours (a UK company dedicated to making their fellow relocated countrymen, and anyone else for that matter, legal in Dubai).

Our experience in twenty words or less: Van. Desert. Dubai exit stamp. Oman entry-exit stamp. Goats in the parking lot. Dubai entrance stamp. Thirty more days.

 

Camel sighting!

Camel sighting!

And to your right you will see more sand...

And to your right you will see more sand...

Slight change in landscape (thank goodness) 

Slight change in landscape (thank goodness) 

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Ooooo...that's pretty!

I’m from eastern Texas--the Bible belt at its finest.  In the South you’ll see some type of church on practically every street corner.  Similarly, Dubai has a mosque on practically every street corner.  Though there are usually some common elements, they vary in size and architecture.  We had the amazing opportunity to visit the Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi which is an hour and a half from Dubai.  Gratefully, our friend Jeff was willing to be our driver and tour guide.

Half the adventure of seeing the Grand Mosque was finding it.  There are very few signs on the main road telling you where to go.  I was the navigator, and I failed Jeff miserably.  By some miracle, we made it and immediately began enjoying the beautiful architecture and grounds.  The photographs will speak for themselves, but Whitney and I were mesmerized by the gorgeous white and gold building.   

Before going inside, we had to remove our shoes.  Whit also had to cover up with a long-sleeve shirt and head scarf.  There are actually security people checking the women’s attire before going in.  If you’re not dressed appropriately, they’ll give you an abaya to borrow.  Whitney’s outfit passed.  She said she wasn’t too fond of the look, but I thought she pulled it off well.  

The details inside the mosque were exquisite; the walls, windows, lighting, furniture, flooring--everything was magnificent.  There was a popular photo spot inside and we witnessed an interesting incident there with a couple taking a picture.  By instinct the man put his arm around the woman for the photo.  One of the security men immediately rushed over and asked them to stop.  He also, in a very polite way, demanded that they delete the photo from their camera.  The lack of PDA is a requested form of respect.  Not only was the Grand Mosque beautiful because of how it looked, but also because of the fierce reverence others had for it.

 

The Grand Mosque

The Grand Mosque

From the outside, looking in. 

From the outside, looking in. 

Whitney (pre-head scarf) and I

Whitney (pre-head scarf) and I

She's ready! 

She's ready! 

Make sure you wash your feet!

Make sure you wash your feet!

No shoes allowed! 

No shoes allowed! 

Light fixture

Light fixture

Inside the mosque

Inside the mosque

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Copies of the Quran

Copies of the Quran

Jeff, Whitney, Me--Thanks again, Jeff!

Jeff, Whitney, Me--Thanks again, Jeff!

Burqas or Bikinis

Burqas or bikinis?  Which will you see at a beach in Dubai? Whitney and I sunscreened up, grabbed a taxi, and spent a few hours at Umm Suqiem beach to find out.  Upon arriving our attention immediately went to the great view of a hotel that I'm quite certain we will never ever have the funds to stay in.  The Burj Al Arab is a seven star hotel.  No that was not a typo.  Seven stars, my friends.  The cheapest room available for this weekend is $1,300, if you're interested.  No worries though; you'll have access to a butler, fleet of Rolls Royce vehicles, helicopter pad--the works.  

Anyway, out of luxury dreamland and back to the beach.  We saw burqas AND bikinis; the whole spectrum.  Technically speaking, they were abayas--not burqas (that's another post for another day).  Whitney felt confident at this point that her one piece swimsuit wouldn't offend anyone, so we decided to take a dip in Persian Gulf.  The water was clear and bath-water-warm.  We swam around for about two hours before calling it quits.  There's only so much 110 degree sunshine one can take.  Overall, a wonderful day at the beach.

One last thing.  Our deepest apologies to the taxi driver who brought us back from the beach.  The seat was a bit wet and a bit sandy!

 

The closest I'll ever get to staying in the Burj Al Arab.

The closest I'll ever get to staying in the Burj Al Arab.

Is that a supermodel?!  Whit at the beach.

Is that a supermodel?!  Whit at the beach.

Umm Suqiem Beach

Umm Suqiem Beach

Under the Sea

I’ve talked a lot about how Dubai is a “blistering hot desert,” so let’s cool things off by going with a water-themed post.  First, Whitney and I visited the Dubai Marina.  The Dubai Marina is a manmade canal surrounded by residential buildings as well as shopping and restaurants.  It’s home to the tallest apartment building in the world.  The Princess Tower stands at a royal 101 stories and houses 763 units.  Another cool piece of architecture is the Infinity Tower which appears to “twist” as it extends upward (see photo below).  I remember Whitney saying, “I like this area.  I would want to live here.”  That’s interesting because many Westerners tend to agree with her; this is one area of Dubai where Westerners are the majority of the population.  

Though we were right next to the beautiful water, it was still insanely hot outside.  Luckily, Dubai Marina has a plethora of water taxis that will take you from one end to the other for next to nothing.  Whit and I enjoyed a nice water taxi ride through the marina and avoided what surely would have been a sweaty, less-than-enjoyable hike around by foot.

After our time at the Dubai Marina, we decided to head out to one of Dubai’s most famous landmarks.  The Palm Jumeirah is an artificial island that is aptly named because it is, in fact, shaped like a palm tree.  At the very end of “the Palm,” is the spectacular Atlantis Resort.  The main lobby is gigantic and pulls you into its underwater world with its towering, coral reef-inspired statue; oversized clam fountains with oversized pearls; and bronze palace-like doors featuring images of all kinds of sea creatures.  We jealously gazed out the windows onto an oasis of a pool before beginning our search for the world-famous aquarium.  The aquarium was indeed awesome and even came with some familiar faces.  Patrick and Spongebob Squarepants were visiting Dubai as well.  Who would’ve thought?  After treating ourselves to a four dollar soda and taking in the display that rivaled even the best scenes in The Little Mermaid, we concluded our aqua-adventure and headed back to the mainland.

 

The Dubai Marina

The Dubai Marina

View from the back of the water taxi

View from the back of the water taxi

The Infinity Tower is on the left and the Princess Tower is the tallest one on the right.

The Infinity Tower is on the left and the Princess Tower is the tallest one on the right.

Waiting for King Triton to swim out at any moment... 

Waiting for King Triton to swim out at any moment... 

Doors at Atlantis

Doors at Atlantis

Patrick and SpongeBob

Patrick and SpongeBob

Clam fountain

Clam fountain

Atlantis lobby

Atlantis lobby

Wishing I had my scuba gear

Wishing I had my scuba gear

Gone Souk-ing

Despite its new age personality and obsession with modern luxury, Dubai still has areas which reveal its intriguing past.  Whitney and I spent some time in the Dubai Museum educating ourselves.  The museum itself is in the Al Fahidi fort which dates back to the 1700s and is the oldest building in Dubai.  We saw every kind of artifact from dwellings and clothing to weapons and boats.  Below the fort are a whole bunch of galleries depicting life in Dubai’s pre-oil era through wax figurines.  Whitney has a minor phobia of wax people so we didn’t photograph too many of those.

After the museum we rode a boat called an “abra” across Dubai creek.  It cost one dirham (27 cents) and the abra is a traditional mode of transportation in Dubai.  Once across the creek, it was time to hit up the souks (aka the markets).  You can find anything and everything in the souks.  I had experienced markets like this in Cairo before, but Whitney had not.  I decided to let her get the full effect by not warning her about the insane amount of pressure people put on you to buy stuff (to be honest, I’d act similarly if the souk was my livelihood).  Within seconds of entering the souk Whitney had been laden with “cashmere” scarves and whisked into one of the shops.  Despite my veteran experience, I even fell victim to a few ambitious sellers.  Their main tactic: put a kafia on my head and tell my wife to take pictures (see below).  Though it greatly contrasts the rest of the city, we thoroughly enjoyed our day in “Old Dubai.”

 

Entrance to the Dubai Museum

Entrance to the Dubai Museum

Traditional dwelling.  I'm not seeing an AC unit...

Traditional dwelling.  I'm not seeing an AC unit...

Courtyard of the fort/museum

Courtyard of the fort/museum

Abra

Abra

More boats

More boats

Dubai City of Gold Souk

Dubai City of Gold Souk

Whitney's first experience at the souk and my first kafia of the day

Whitney's first experience at the souk and my first kafia of the day

My second kafia of the day

My second kafia of the day

Not sure what's spicier.  The stuff in the bags or the lady standing next to them ;).  

Not sure what's spicier.  The stuff in the bags or the lady standing next to them ;).  

Welcome to the souk!

Welcome to the souk!

It's a bird. It's a plane. It's the Burj Khalifa!

Close your eyes and picture a blistering hot desert with sand as far as the eye can see.  Great, now add two or three baby skyscrapers (make that fetal skyscrapers).  Voila!  You are looking at Dubai twenty-five years ago.

To be fair, it’s still a blistering hot desert.  However, there are now approximately 911 highrises comprising the city skyline--one of which is THE TALLEST BUILDING ON THE PLANET.  The Burj Khalifa is the first thing you will see (besides sand) as you fly into the city.  And though it is stunning from a distance, it is breathtaking up close as well as inside.  

The Burj Khalifa is more than 800 meters tall.  Whitney (my incredibly fun and beautiful wife) and I rode the ridiculously fast elevator to the observation deck on level 124, which put us approximately 452 meters up from the ground.  Once there we embarked on a photo frenzy that attempted to capture the sheer coolness of  what we saw.  Enjoy some of our favorite pictures at the end of this post.  You will also see a video of one of the fountain shows held at the base of the Burj Khalifa--who doesn’t love impressive water choreography to a classic Whitney Houston song?

Whitney and I at the base of the Burj Khalifa

Whitney and I at the base of the Burj Khalifa

View from the top.  The Address Hotel and lagoon.

View from the top.  The Address Hotel and lagoon.

Gulf-side view.

Gulf-side view.

Yours truly at the top

Yours truly at the top

Waiting at the base of the Burj for the fountain show.  This is the Souk Bahar and lagoon (which is completely tiled by the way).  

Waiting at the base of the Burj for the fountain show.  This is the Souk Bahar and lagoon (which is completely tiled by the way).