Have you ever been kissed by a camel? Well, I have. And let me tell you ... those lips are big!
We were enroute from the busyness of Dubai to Al Ain, an oasis city of green in the otherwise camel-coloured desert of the United Arab Emirates (UAE,) a Middle Eastern country just east of Saudi Arabia on the Persian Gulf. Here, you're quite likely to see camels off in the distance, just as we see deer and antelope scattered about the countryside in Canada.
But suddenly, a few camels came close enough to get excited about. They were no longer just dots in my camera's viewfinder. For a moment, an otherwise conservative- natured, John, became a four-wheeling free spirit - despite the fact that we were in a Honda Civic - and left the safety of the pavement, making a short cross-country ("cross-desert"?) trek over the sand and onto a smaller road, where we could get close to the camels.
John and his wife, Mary-Anne, are 50+ Winnipeggers who have been living in Dubai for nearly a year while John
works on an engineering project in the construction capital of the world. Many professionals accept contracts in Dubai because wages offered are considerably higher than in North America.
"I didn't come for the money," says John. "I came for the life experience of being immersed in a completely different culture. And it's certainly helped develop my patience! You really need it here because of the cultural differences."
I am their first guest from Canada, and they are determined to help me see the best of Dubai (and area) in the short week I have to enjoy it. What a way to start! As a nature lover, getting this close to free-roaming camels is an incredible rush.
At first, we didn't realize that the camels were under the care of a shepherd, nowhere in sight. But as we approached the half dozen or so animals, a sporty little black pickup truck came into view and out of it emerged an Arabian man dressed in brilliant white with an equally white smile. He motioned for me to come closer and suddenly, we were up close and personal with some of the tallest animals that walk this planet. Where else could you enjoy an experience like this, but in the UAE? (I didn't actually let the camel kiss me, but let me tell you - he tried!)
Mary-Anne was right in telling me that I'd be wowed at every turn in Dubai. It has the only seven-star hotel in the world (the Burj Al Arab,) the tallest free-standing structure in the world (the Burj Dubai,) the world's largest indoor snow park (Ski Dubai at the Mall of the Emirates,) the world's largest single storey mall (Ibn Battuta,) the busiest airport in the Middle East (Dubai International) and the fastest growing
international air carrier in the world (Emirates Airlines.)
Incredibly, it is quite clear that Dubai isn't satisfied with the current records and it intends to continue building more of the biggest and the best. When complete, Dubai World Central (situated minutes from downtown near the Jebel Ali Port) will be 10 times the size of Dubai International and will capture the crown as the world's largest airport.
The boom of Dubai looms at every turn. You cannot find a view in the city where there's not a crane or two (or ten) in sight - even if you look out to sea! The Palms and The World are condominium developments that have been built on land that wasn't there a few short years ago, built on and into the waters of the Persian Gulf. A new Atlantis Resort (which appears of similar design to that of the one in Nassau, Bahamas) is under
construction on reclaimed land as well. I am told that 25 per cent of the world's cranes are in use in and around Dubai, and I'm sure I saw most of them.
All that hustle and bustle was a little hard for this country girl to take, but Dubai enjoys a lovely, accessible beach (Jumeirah Beach) on which Mary-Anne and John's 46-storey apartment tower is located. I was surprised - at both the beauty and the cleanliness of the beach.
The dirham is the official currency of the UAE. At an exchange rate of 3.63 dirhams to the dollar, a money exchanger in the mall gave me 726 dirhams for $200 Canadian dollars. For the most part, prices are very high in the hotels and hotel restaurants, so those dirhams went quickly.
At present, there is a shortage of mid-priced hotels in Dubai, and most properties are four stars or higher with corresponding price tags.
A night in one of the nicer four-star Dubai properties runs from a few hundred to well over a thousand dollars per night for a five-star, but there are deals if you check the discount websites. Plan well in advance, as availability is a factor.
Housing is also expensive in Dubai. Mary-Anne and John pay the equivalent of $3,000 per month for rent on a spacious one-bedroom apartment and utilities.
Because the sale of alcohol is limited (the UAE is a Muslim country and Muslims do not drink alcohol) you have to dine at a hotel restaurant to enjoy a glass of wine with your meal - and it's expensive as there is a 30 per cent tax on liquor. There are a few independent restaurants with liquor licenses such as The Hard Rock Café.
Learning about Islam was one of the pleasures of visiting Dubai. I enjoyed the tour of the Jumeirah Mosque - one
of the most beautiful and authentic Arabian buildings in Dubai, until recently, the only UAE mosque in which non-Muslims were permitted to enter.
There is now a mosque in Abu Dhabi that one may tour. No mosque in Dubai rivals the magnitude and grandeur of the Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan Mosque of Abu Dhabi, capital of the UAE. This mosque took more than 10 years to complete (still not finished, it now allows visitors.) Also known as The Grand Mosque, it was named in honour of the founder of the UAE and holds enough space for 10,000 worshippers.
Abu Dhabi is to the UAE what Ottawa is to Canada, with Dubai being the equivalent of Canada's Toronto. Considerably smaller, the former is the political centre; the other, much larger and considered the business hub of the country, which is probably the reason why I liked Abu Dhabi more than I did Dubai with its quiet and natural beauty minus the skyscrapers and urban congestion.
That may soon change, as plans are underway to create a stunning Cultural City within Abu Dhabi. A Louvre (the only outside of Paris), Guggenheim (designed by legendary architect Frank Gehry), marine museum, Arabian history and heritage museum (named after Sheikh Zayed) and a contemporary performing arts centre are all slated for development along the city's waterfront, definitely worth a return visit. But can it match the thrill of sharing that camel's breath?
Doreen Pendgracs co-authored the Manitoba Book of Everything published by MacIntyre Purcell Publishing Inc. Periodical work has been published by numerous North American magazines and websites. See more published work at:
http://doreenisthewizardofwords.blogspot.com. Doreen lives in the resort community of Matlock, Manitoba on the shores of Lake Winnipeg.
Transportation, visas, health, maps and temperature
Airlines (Wikipedia): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_airlines
Embassies/Consulates (Embassy World): http://www.embassyworld.com/
Health precautions (WHO): http://www.who.int/ith/en/
Google interactive map: http://maps.google.com/
Temperature (Temperature World): http://www.temperatureworld.com/
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