Spring Break in the Middle East
By Venise Grossmann
As I moved into position atop the nine-story Mayan temple, the Muslim attendant said, “Don’t worry, ma’am. You can do it.” With my arms crossed on my chest and my feet crossed at the ankles, I plunged down into an acrylic tunnel surrounded by sharks in a lagoon. I’m afraid of heights so I’m not sure what inspired me to drop 60 feet in one second on the Leap of Faith water slide in Aquaventure, the water park on Palm Jumeirah in Dubai.
Perhaps it was the same impetus that prompted me--a 27-year veteran high school English teacher--to make a spring break trip to the Middle East. At the end of March, I spent four days in the United Arab Emirates and four days in the neighboring country of Oman.
After a 14-hour flight from JFK Airport, I arrived in Dubai. The taxi ride from the airport allowed me my first glimpse of the city. Although it was still morning, the heat was a stifling 95 degrees. Dubai’s first skyscraper wasn’t built until 1979. Now the main throughway, Sheikh Zayed Road, is lined with them, including the world’s tallest building, Burg Khalifa with 160 stories. Residents, 90 percent who are foreigners, live in huge villas surrounded by high walls for privacy.
My plan was to visit the Burg Al Arab, the city’s 7-star hotel. Unfortunately, the closest I was able to get was the view of it from Jumeirah Beach, the only public beach in Dubai. No one is permitted to enter the front gate without a reservation. I tried to book the two least expensive options to no avail: a $100 minimum for two drinks in the Skyview Bar or High Tea for a similar price. Room rates run from approximately $2,450 to over $18,000 a night. In addition to having a private butler, the perks include either getting picked up from the airport in a Rolls Royce or being transported by helicopter to their own heliport.
What I could easily afford was a visit to the Mall of Emirates. During the ten-minute walk from my hotel, I didn’t encounter any form of harassment, and the locals I asked for directions were very helpful and respectful. Of course, I was dressed appropriately making sure my shoulders and legs were covered. While many in the mall were dressed in western wear, the Emiriti women were dressed in the traditional one piece black abaya, and the older men wore the white keffiyeh headpiece held in place by the agal while many of the younger men wore red and white keffiyehs. Periodically, the Call to Prayer could be heard, and the locals made their way toward the designated prayer areas. Many of the 466 stores sold the same brands as we do at home, and there were many familiar restaurants such as the Cheesecake Factory, only this one overlooked Ski Dubai.
Later in the weekend, I also visited the Dubai Mall, home to more than 1,200 stores and services. The supermarket on the ground level had a separate room that sold pork with a sign that read, “For Non-Muslims Only.” There was also an Olympic-size ice rink, the world’s largest gold souk and an aquarium that contains over 400 sharks and rays housed within the largest viewing panel ever created.
While I began taking taxis, I switched to using the Metro when I realized how easy and safe it was. The two lines offer compartments that cater to mixed sexes or separate ladies cars. One western male tourist inadvertently found his way into our compartment, and after seeing the disapproving looks from the local women, moved sheepishly to the men’s compartment.
One of the highlights of my visit was a trip to Palm Jumeirah, the collection of man-made islands, where I visited Atlantis Hotel. In the adjacent Aquaventure waterpark, I spent the afternoon riding rapids with the locals, zipping down water roller coasters through dark tunnels, and swimming in the warm Persian Gulf. Later in the evening, I strolled around Madinat Jumeriah, a re-creation of ancient Arabia, a resort filled with 40 restaurants and shops as well as spa and two luxury hotels with a wonderful view of Burg Al Arab.
Since the emphasis in Dubai is on over-the-top glitz and glamour, the majority of the buildings in the city is new and showcase eccentric architecture, such as the twisted building near the Marina. The only historic area is Al Bastakiya along Dubai Creek. Dating back to the 1890s, the buildings in this residential area, the buildings have wind towers that created natural ventilation. I also visited the Dubai Museum, which is housed in Al Fahidi Fort built in 1787, the oldest existing building in Dubai. In order to visit the fish, spice and gold souks, I took an abra, the traditional wooden boat across the creek and then stopped at a local restaurant to enjoy a shawarma (grilled chicken with hummus wrapped in pita).
Although I could have spent several more days enjoying the attractions in Dubai, I had booked a five-day tour into the desert. Our first stop was the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque outside of Abu Dhabi. Equivalent in size to five football fields, it can house 41,000 worshippers. It was the only time during the trip when I was required to wear a head covering. The design was opulent: 1,000 columns, 82 domes, the world’s largest hand knotted carpets and chandeliers covered in 24 carat gold.
In the late afternoon, we went “dune bashing” through the desert in a jeep. We rode to the crest of the dunes and then slide down the side at top speeds. Once we arrived at our Bedouin camp, we took a camel ride and dined on some local specialties: chicken and beef kebobs, hummus, rice and salad, and then camped under the stars.
The next morning we crossed the border into Oman, which has only been open to tourism since 1979. We drove toward through Al Ain toward Ibri, which used to be one of the stops on the ancient caravan routes. In Ibri we stopped at a local restaurant and enjoyed a lunch of kingfish with tandoor spice, rice, salad, fresh salsa, and a freshly made mint and lime juice drink, a national favorite.
Continuing along the caravan route, our next stop was Nizwa. With a population of 70,000, it was one of the first regions in Oman to accept Islam in 630 AD. In the midst of the city is Nizwa Fort, built in the 1650s to protect the caravans. Invaders were burned with boiling oil and water that was poured through hidden shafts. After dinner, I strolled around a residential area with beautiful villas shrouded amidst palm trees with the Al Hajar Mountains as a backdrop. The Muslim men did not meet my gaze but their wives smiled shyly at me as I passed.
After a brief stop to visit the ancient mud village of Al Hamra, we were met by guides in 4 x 4 vehicles who drove us up on winding roads into the mountains of Jebel Shams. At the top, we had an amazing view of the Wadi Ghul, Oman’s Grand Canyon and after a sunset hike, I slept in an Arabian tent. The next day while droving through the Wahiba Sands Desert, we passed wild camels and a man transporting a camel in the back of his pick up truck. Passing through Ibra with its old market and historic palace, we saw a frankincense tree, considered the most important tree in Oman.
Once we arrived at Surs on the Gulf of Oman, we took a tour of a boat yard where locals were making wooden dhows in the same manner that they had done for centuries. We also saw many of the town’s carved teak doors and saw the beach where green sea turtles come to lay their eggs.
We took a brief hike at the Tiwi Wadi, an oasis at the bottom of a gorge and running out to sea before taking a drive through the village of Tiwi where men drank tea in small cafes and women walked along the beach in abayas.
In the evening we arrived in Muscat, the capital of Oman and strolled through the souk, enjoying the nightlife along the Corniche. After breakfast, we drove amongst the white buildings that Muscat is famous for, visited the Sultan’s official residence, Embassy Row, the Fish Market and enjoyed a coffee as we frolicked alongside the Omani on the beach. Our final meal in Oman was an amazing lunch at a Turkish restaurant—fried calamari, grilled shrimp and hamour fish, hummus, salad and fresh bread.
After lunch, we drove to the border and crossed back into U.A.E. where I boarded the plane for a 15-hour flight back to JFK. I had taken the plunge into the Middle East and was so grateful for the experience. I loved the land, the culture, and the people and couldn’t wait to tell my students all about my Arabian Adventure.