A ten-day UAE experience with my favorite people
After what felt like an eternity of numerous discussions, contemplation, planning, waiting, and then finally being on that direct flight to where our older sister, Ate Ava, had been based in for a third of our lives now, in the United Arab Emirates, my older brother—I call him Kuya Basil—and I finally landed at Dubai International Airport for our first vacation trip abroad that almost never materialized.
A little background: like in most Filipino families, having a close relative working overseas, though normal, is a reality that one can never fully get used to. They leave home for two years only come back for two months. And every time it happened, the ones on a standstill could feel more homesick than the migrant it seemed. Being the eldest in the family, this has been our cycle with my dear sister, Ate Ava, since 2004. So after many attempts of visiting her and then failing, we finally did it, last February, my birth month. We were going to relive our younger days talking about The Beatles, Back to the Future, and our funny cousin, only we would be 7,000-kilometers away from where the first conversations took place.
A short background—UAE has a total of seven Emirates, which came together as a federation in 1971 (my sister’s older than the country!), comprising of Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Dubai, Fujairah, Sharjah, Ras al-Khaimah, and Umm al-Quwain. (Thanks, Wiki!)
Scheduling our adventure in nippy February, we rolled our bags with uncontainable excitement to the airport and endured the long nine-hour haul to lead the elaborate Mideast life according to our sister and her awesome husband, Mo, for less than two weeks. It’s a lot to take in such a limited time, so allow me to take you to some of our favorite stops that involved skyscrapers, safaris, souks, and of course, sumptuous Arab cuisine!
Even though we were only able to spend roughly two days in the country’s capital, catching a glimpse of what Abu Dhabi had to offer to first-time tourists already had our senses indulged to the fullest. Not to mention we were also in the middle of a day-long rare freak weather composing of sand storms and intensely cold bone-chilling weather, which according to my sister, “RARELY happens,” so imagine our absolute shock physically more than culturally.
No stress goes unnoticed and any Filipino in his/her right mind would easily try to solve this with a hearty meal. For this, my brother-in-law cum tour guide recommended a mean Arab dinner at Bait el Khetyar, a much-raved-about restaurant in the area. Talk about the best shawarma mixed plate fix in town, this place also had tasty falafel, well seasoned Arabic salads, hummus, and freshly baked pita bread. In my opinion, Arab cuisine is one of the underrated ones out there, so one of the things I was really looking forward to doing in UAE was trying out as many local dishes as I could. We’ll go back to discussing food in a while.
Absorbing such vibrant culture accented by the modernity of the surroundings piqued my interest even more about the city folk—oh, what must it be like to walk these bustling and blinking streets on a daily basis? Not that Abu Dhabi had lost its tradition or anything, as the arresting presence of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, the biggest place of worship and arguably the most significant landmark in all of UAE, certainly suggested how the people still very much honored their rich culture even in these contemporary times.
Just by standing in front and outside the opulent white structure enclosed by four tall towers on each corner and numerous domes at the center, an overwhelming feeling would already take over. It was a relatively busy and crowded day when we got to the mosque, which usually only occurred during Islam’s most significant celebrations.
Thousands flocked the marbled halls, adorned with gold, precious stones, and chandeliers made of crystals, as they took turns for a photo opportunity with the pristine walls and columns as their backdrop.
And did I mention the mirror-like pools that would turn your photos of them into vague records of the whole experience? The image just fails to capture the majestic view.
After about two hours or so we left the crowded mosque with our eyes still reeling in amazement. The largeness of the infrastructure and the diversity it represented—if this was a sign of things to come during this trip, then we’re in for one truly grand Emirates experience shared best with family and closest friends. Conveniently, I had the best of both worlds in my sister and brother.
About 30 minutes from the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque was another stop I’d been anticipating since we booked our flights last year: the Ferrari World theme park!
All I can say is WOW. If Disneyland had an older badass cousin, the Ferrari World would be it.
Opened in 2010, it’s impressive how the place had kept up-to-date with the countless activities one could do there. From the Ferrari car collections to the VR shows that took us floating high above Italy, the main features, of course, were the big roller coasters.
Though Turbo Tracks was under repair, we instead got to test out Formula Rossa, apparently the fastest roller coaster in the world. But by far my best roller coaster ride yet had to be the Flying Aces, another world record-holding Ferrari World roller coaster having the highest loop, and the most times I screamed “Oh my god!” on.
From one larger-than-life attraction to the next, we moved on to the biggest and most populated city, Dubai, which had them in spades. Several days were spent here especially, as I told my sister how much we wanted to see the old and new Dubai to really appreciate its stature a bit more.
Like any enterprising coast city in the world, Dubai is dotted with more tourist spots that showcased its affluence in recent years. From the famous landmark infrastructure in the neo-futuristic 211-storey Burj Khalifa (the world’s tallest!), the iconic Burj Al Arab hotel, and basically all the towers in Dubai Marina, the massive Global Village, the ritzy Palm Jumeirah, and the ultra-efficient Dubai Metro system, we couldn’t help but envy the Dubai locals. We sure could use such advancements in Manila.
On my birthday eve, I also got the chance to hang out with my Filipino friend, who had been working in Dubai for about five years now as a graphic artist. She’s well adjusted to the life overseas and I could tell she was extremely satisfied with the move. We went out for a few drinks and caught up on our own lives. On a side note, the thing I found amazing and comforting had been the number of Filipinos present wherever you were in UAE. That familiar accent and warm smile were enough to not miss home all that much.
Interestingly, all the neck-straining sightseeing around the business district gave the more modest activities some added personality to them. We’re pertaining to our colorful dune bashing, desert safari, and old Dubai tours that left us laughing and appreciating the place and its people more.
We capped our last few moments in Dubai with some picturesque sunset views by the sea at Jumeirah Beach. Being a constant visitor of our famous tropical beaches back in our Southeast Asian abode, taking all the golden scenery in was something I was used to. We got to frolic in the sand and take photos of sunbathers and of ourselves in the cool ocean breeze. It was the day after my birthday and if there was something to be thankful for, that brief period with my two best friends was it.
A one-and-a-half-hour drive from the busier Dubai and you’ll get to the more suburban Ras al-Khaimah. Being the northernmost emirate and closest to the mountains, the RAK lifestyle was particularly slower from the other states, but that’s only one of its many charms, I must say. Personally, I like the laid-back yet adventurous vibe of the region. Plus, this was where my sister and her husband lived and the majority of our stay here was accentuated by my brother-in-law’s mouthwatering home cooking. Memory had failed me on how many Arab dishes they had us try (Because I remember a bunch of sweets, too!), but a couple of them left a long-lasting aftertaste in my mouth and mind—first, that Arab breakfast wrap, as described by my sister, was layers of labneh, olive oil, zaatar, and mortadella cold cuts wrapped in freshly baked Arabic bread—and second, the Jordanian mansaf dish, which was lamb, lamb stock, yogurt, rice, nuts and herbs. The mansaf was our very last supper in UAE, but it certainly was not the least of the dishes we had. I still dream about it to this day, in fact.
As I was trying to delay the impending travel flu that I would blame mostly on the cold weather, we found ourselves making our final stop on the morning of our flight out atop the Jais Mountain.
This was particularly delightful for my brother, who’s fond hiking, and I just have to say that the view from above, over the great barren land was truly one-of-a-kind, being so used to rain-forested sierras in the Philippines.
There was no uninteresting sight at the view deck, which gathered all sorts of tourists, from European backpackers to big leather-wearing local bikers, to yes, fellow Filipinos, who always seemed to stand out in a mixed crowd no matter the situation.
My UAE trip was utterly warm like its deserts, but it definitely was neither empty nor isolating. For in a gamut of strangers I found affinity in the random “kabayan!” greetings on the streets and a home, sweet home in the company of my siblings. I can’t wait to go back!