Oops – Was That a Social Norm? Sorry Dubai!

The Burj Khalifa in Dubai

You know that moment when the doors close, the hustle/bustle/rush of getting on to or into somewhere passes and you you look around only to realize you’re not where you should be?  It’s an awkward moment.  One I generally try and avoid but tend to experience often while traveling.  Perhaps this says something about me, though I’ll go ahead and just attribute it to the nature of travel in general.

Dubai is an interesting city.  On the one hand it is saturated with everything new, flashy, and western you can image.  After all, where else can you get your skiing in, then turn around to snag lunch at an American Chinese food chain, before shopping for a Gucci burqa and then catching a cab through the 120 degree heat back to your hotel?   On the other hand the heavy hand of traditional conservative religious culture and theocracy is ever present and visible.

My story starts on the Dubai metro.  A beautiful set of raised facilities which sit perched over the desert sands, are heavily air conditioned and beautifully decorated.  My folks – still sticky from the heat and humidity outside – had just boarded one of the city’s tram cars.  It had been painless enough, though it did take us a moment to figure out that we wanted the general cars, not the 1st class “gold” metro cars or the cars reserved exclusively for women and children.  Slightly delirious from the residual heat we stared out the windows and floated along above the city enjoying the view and keeping our eyes peeled for the Burj Khalifa.  Our destination was the Dubai Mall, the world’s largest, and a sprawling complex located at the foot of the world’s tallest building – the Burj Khalifa.  As we drew closer to it, we noted the stop marked on the metro map associated with the Burj and mustered all our will power to descend into the heat once again.  Disembarking from our subway car we wound down a series of walkways that reminded me more of an airport than a metro, and then were spat out into the summer furnace.

As with many aspects of Dubai, the tram line connecting the Dubai Mall and Burj Khalifa to the main metro is under construction. In its place a free bus shuttle was available. So we aimlessly wandered around the small space near the bus stop looking for shade, snapping photos of the Burj, and complaining of the 110+ degree heat and 80+ percent humidity.  And then a small bus arrived. Well, not necessarily a small bus, just one that wasn’t big enough for all the people waiting.

Confident after a year of daily bus riding in Copenhagen, I fell into my automatic routine and lead the way:  Line up at the front of the bus…hope your ticket works…avoid eye contact with the bus driver and then stand with a blank stare on your face trying not to fall on top of anyone as the bus zig-zags its way to your destination.  All of which seemed to work fairly flawlessly.  We got on board, as did the three other tourists who had been standing near us. We were sandwiched in, standing room only, but it was a lot better than walking the mile or so to the Burj in the heat…so, I was hardly in the mood to complain.

…and then I started to look around.  I quickly noticed that there was a bar separating the front 1/3 of the bus from the back 2/3s.   The back 2/3 was – shoulder to shoulder – with men.  The front section on the other hand had three men in it.  My Dad, the other tourist, and myself.  The rest of the space was jam-packed with a mixture of women and children, most of whom were covered head to toe in black.  Then, as I continued to survey just where I’d led us, I quickly realized we were in the family/women and children only section.  To make matters worse, the Emiratees aren’t the world’s tallest people. Which meant that the three of us towered a good foot over all of the women and looked blatantly out of place.


So, there we are with half the women glaring at us, half smiling at us, and all the rest of the men – who are sandwiched  in the main part of the bus – looking at us with a mixture of “if you touch my wife I’ll beat you” and “you’re the a-hole that uses the turning lane to cut traffic jams, aren’t you?”.   Meanwhile, I start to worry we’re about to get fined, or somehow penalized for violating the purity of the women’s cabin.  After all, isn’t one of the cardinal rules in ultra conservative Muslim areas don’t touch the women?   But hey, we’d walked right by the driver who was busy issuing tickets at the time so I suppose it wasn’t ALL our fault.

Luckily the bus pulled into the mall parking lot a few awkward minutes later and we quickly disembarked making a quick exit and getting ourselves lost in the winding mega-maze of shops the locals casually call a mall.  We were no worse for wear, and short of accidentally ruffling a few feathers, hadn’t done too much harm.

So, that’s the story of how I manage the cultural equivalent of walking into the women’s restroom.   When you find yourself in Dubai, just remember that the front entrance to the buses aren’t like buses elsewhere. Make sure to read the signs and enjoy the adventure!


The Dubai Spice Market – Friday’s Weekly Travel Photo

Traditional Souks - The Spice Market

While Dubai is most famous for its skyscrapers, luxury resorts, and incredible malls there is another side to Dubai which is equally impressive and enjoyable.  While most of what you picture as Dubai has been built in the last 20 years the city actually has a long and rich history.  One of the most enjoyable ways to dive into that history is to head down to the local Souks which are outdoor markets.  Despite the brutal heat and humidity we decided to check out the local spice market.  A winding warren of small partially covered streets the spice market, clothing market, house supplies market, gold and silver markets all blend together in a wonderful mixture of goods, people, smells and experiences.  Each spice stand is overflowing with tubs and 50kg sacks of dried goods, spices, and minerals.  Each a vibrant but distinctly different color ranging from rich blues to rust-colored oranges. The vendors were mostly fairly polite, though some still fall back into the attempts at high-pressure sales that you might expect.

Dubai’s old souks are a must-see part of any visit to Dubai.  Not only are they enjoyable in their own right, but they serve as a wonderful way to frame the contrasts between Old Dubai and New.

Would you like to see previous Friday Photos? View past travel pictures here. This photo was taken on a Canon T3i (600D) Camera.

Dubai is also a convenient stop over location if you are visiting the Indian Ocean. I recently swapped stories with Charles Duncombe, director of Holidays Please as he went to Dubai and the Maldives on his honeymoon. He said, “Because Dubai is relatively modest in size we crammed loads in within just a few days. There is so much variety, as one day I was sand dune surfing and the next I was indoor skiing with 90 degree outside temperatures! It’s also pretty affordable at the moment with the number of hotels that have been built recently. At the risk of a shameless plug our site has found Dubai Holidays starting under $100 a night on an accommodation only basis.”

The Tallest Building in the World – Friday’s Weekly Travel Photo

Black and White Burj Khalifa at Night

Located in the heart of a brutal, nearly inhospitable desert is a shining oasis of water, steel and light.  It’s a place full of wonders…tributes to all that man can accomplish, build and create.    Beyond the indoor ski slopes, ice rinks, and aquariums there’s one feat in particular that quite literally stands above the rest – the Burj Khalifa, more commonly just called the “Burj”. You probably know it simply as the tallest building in the world.  During a recent layover in the United Arab Emirates (Dubai) we made our way to the Burj, ascended to the 124th floor (which is only about 2/3 of the way up) and enjoyed a spectacular sunset.  After watching the fountain and light show below us from the observation deck we headed back down to ground level and spent some time staring skyward.  The Burj is lit at night. The result is a giant shining beacon that is 2,723 feet tall and holds a wealth of world records.  One of the most interesting of which is its 144th floor night club.

I snapped this black and white night shot to capture the moment.  I hope you enjoy it – for me it feels like something straight out of a 1920s or 1930s poster.  What thoughts come to mind for you?

Would you like to see previous Friday Photos? View past travel pictures here. This photo was taken on a Canon T3i (600D) dSLR Camera.