Spin the Globe

Middle East


Dubai, United Arab Emirates

I made it to Dubai!!! Exhausted, but in one piece :).

Believe it or not, the 15-hour flight from Orlando wasn't as bad as I imagined. The seat I had in coach on Emirates wasn't any more spacious than a domestic coach seat, but the cushioning was definitely more generous. I had a window seat in a 3-seat row with no one in between me and the "aisle guy," so we had some extra room to spread out. Easily the most difficult thing about the flight was getting to and from the restroom. I strategically picked my seat to be a close as possible, but it was still a challenge to get in and out of the row--especially when two of the seats in the row in front of me were reclined. Either way, I managed.

For my arrival, I arranged for a concierge service to do a meet-and-greet and get me through immigration/customs, handle my bags, and provide a car service. They were extremely courteous and helpful, and well worth the money. As for the airport itself, it's like Las Vegas--but shinier, newer, and bigger. Lots of Roman-style columns, mirrored columns, and shiny floors. The airport was also my first glimpse into Dubai culture. This is a very international city, and only 25% of the population here consists of native Arab Emiratis. However, there were plenty of women wearing head scarves and full-body abaya dress, and men wearing the white robes and headdress.

That being said, once you're out of the airport and driving through town, you can't help but gawk at everything. It's like a combination of Vegas and Disney World. Not much is older than 20 years, and there is high-rise construction EVERYWHERE. The buildings themselves won't settle for being plain OR rectangular. Many of them twist as they rise, or are created in oval or almond shapes. There's a constant tan haze of desert dust, but that didn't diminish the awe I felt when I first laid eyes on the Burj Khalifa--the tallest building in the world--from the distance of the airport. Driving to meet my friend Rebecca at the American University here, we drove through most of the city. Almost everything--ads, billboards, store signs--are written in English, with few Arabic translations. All the street signs are bilingual. The wealth is evident everywhere; I lost track of how many Ferraris, Maseratis, and Porsches I saw on the highway.

My initial plan for getting around was just to work with my electric scooter, but we had to nix that idea in the bud. As incredibly handicap accessible as Dubai is almost everywhere, the sidewalks all around town, for the most part, don't have cutouts (the little ramps at the corners that allow you to roll to street level). The curbs (or kerbs, as they call them here) are also incredibly high in some places, making using elbow grease to force my scooter down or up and over a non-starter. So, for only US$88 I rented a manual wheelchair to use for my trip. Looks like I'll be getting an upper body workout this week :).



After my friends Tom and Rebecca got home from work, it was time for us to head out to the tallest building in the world! To get there, we decided to take the metro, which has been hailed as the most handicap accessible place in Dubai. Whoever said that wasn't kidding. There are even small metal ovals and circles on the ground that lead directly to elevators, kiosks, and train doors for blind people using walking sticks! Really amazing.

From there we had to walk/roll a looooooong way to the Dubai Mall, then through the Dubai Mall, to get to the bottom of the Burj. I barely have the words to describe the vastness of this mall. You could easily spend days walking around just to get to every store. There are even two sections of high-end designer stores (like Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Valentino, etc.)--one section for haute couture and one section for ready-to wear. Unbelievable.

After some window shopping, walking, and navigating, we made it to the bottom of the Burj Khalifa--all 168 stories of her. It's not like the building just squeaks by as the tallest in the world; it's a good 40 stories higher than the second tallest and dwarfs the Empire State, Petronas Towers, and Sears Building. The observation deck is at the 126th floor, so you don't actually go to the top (even though the attraction is called At the Top), but whatever. I've been to the top of the Sears Tower, so I had some expectations of the elevator ride. I can't explain how blown away I was by the fact that you felt ZERO movement for the 60 seconds it takes to get you to the 126th floor. ZERO. NO acceleration or deceleration AT ALL. Unbelievable.

Once we got to the deck level, we were led to the observation area. I had no idea it was open air! High glass walls of course, but no ceiling! Before we got there, I was a little disappointed we had to go at night because I had seen so many pictures of the view during the day. No way; the nighttime view FAR surpasses any photo I've ever seen of the mostly tan-hazy daytime views. We of course did a pass through the gift shop for souvenirs,

the got to see some really cool displays of the steps engineers and builders went through to put this puppy together over the course of five years. As I mentioned in a previous blog post, the construction here is EVERYWHERE, and it is non-stop. I learned from Tom that a full 80% of the entire world's construction cranes are located in and operating in Dubai.

After the Burj, we passed by a gorgeous fountain show--very similar to the Bellagio show in Las Vegas--on our way to Karma Cafe for a late dinner. The food was absolutely incredible; easily one of the best steaks I've ever had. The bar inside was very nightclubby with low lights and dark music; I loved it :). Just one more thing that reminded me of Vegas. After a wonderful 3-hour meal, the three of us we beat and headed back to the apartment.


As Westernized and relatively liberal as Dubai is as a city, it's still located in a Muslim country. Last night for the first time in my life, I heard the public call to prayer. We were in a very crowded public place with lots of noise, and I probably wouldn't have made much of it if Tom hadn't mentioned it to me. No one stopped and dropped, so to speak, so we just went on our way. I'm a big Coke drinker, and it was cool to see the bottles Rebecca had picked up for me with Arabic writing on one side. Video streaming services like Netflix, Amazon Prime, and even iTunes are restricted here, so you have to figure out a workaround if you want to see any US shows that way.

As for dress, we saw the gamut last night. One thing I didn't mention about the mall was that the high-end designers have separate stores just for kids' clothing. Seriously. If you want to dress your 5 year-old daughter from top to bottom in Dolce & Gabbana, this is the place to go. I saw the most beautiful little girl in an elevator, maybe 3 years old, with darling gold earring studs and a lovely dress. After passing by all those stores--and noting the elegant detailed brocade on her mom's abaya sleeves--I couldn't help but silently ask her, Who are you wearing?

I tried to do my homework with regards to customs and courtesies here, but I don't know that it was much use. The people working in the service industry are mostly non-local, and the locals who do work here are accustomed to catering to Westerners. I feel like a fish out of water because I really enjoy being pleasant and charming with cashiers, waiters, door people--whoever. I've gotten very mixed reactions to my American-style friendliness--from stone faces to strained smiles. Other people have been more gregarious, but it's been a crap shoot. All that being said, almost everyone (workers, people around us, etc.) have been extremely courteous with regards to holding doors for us and my wheelchair, and generally making way for us to pass or enter elevators first. And that cute little girl in the elevator? She wasn't shy about smiling or waving at me :).

This is also not a place I would go looking for high culture. There are few museums here. Big musical acts do come here to perform, and the soon-to-be world's largest opera house is currently under construction near the Dubai Mall. There are plenty of mosques, and even one that caters to tourists interested in learning more about Islam. However, because the native Emirati population is so small and everything in Dubai is so new, there is very little historical and profound Arab substance here. I think during part of our desert safari on Saturday, we'll get to experience some of the Bedouin culture, which will be really neat.

So moving on with my day, around 6:30pm we headed by taxi to the Souk Madinat Jumeirah. It's basically a big indoor market with lots of restaurants, nice shops selling local clothing, rugs, jewelry, and souvenirs. We were hungry, so first we went to went to eat at a Texas BBQ place called P&Bs. I can't tell you how bizarre it is to walk into a restaurant in the Middle East and see huge Texas flags everywhere. But hey, anything goes in Dubai. Except for pork, of course. Plenty of pulled brisket and beef on the menu, but no pulled pork ;).

dinner, we went to take some pictures around the Souk, and I honestly felt like I was in the middle of an Epcot country. Everything is so new and clean and perfect that it feels utterly fake. However, we got a gorgeous view of the lit-up Burj Al-Arab, a beautiful hotel that looks like a sail and is the only 7-star hotel in the world.

From there we did some shopping! I bought some stuff for the boys, some beautiful beaded tunics for myself, and plenty of locally crafted items for family and friends. After shopping was done, we went to Left Bank for some drinks and more awesome conversation before cabbing it back to the apartment.


Today was an up-and-at-'em kind of day. Tom had the day off from work, so we left around 11am to play tourist. But before we left, I learned some very interesting things about Dubai and the UAE.

When I spoke to my best friend Erin a couple of days ago, she asked me if I had seen any obviously poor or homeless people. I told her I hadn't thought about it, and I guess that's the point. When you fly into Dubai, they take a picture of you at passport control and conduct a retinal scan. There are thousands of cameras all over the city, and you never notice them. If you're a tourist, you can stay for 30 days. If you have a work visa, you can stay for that duration. If either expire, they will actually come find you and send you home. The local Emiratis have money; it's the foreign workers who make up the service industry, and you basically can't be unemployed and live here. To get a job here, you have to be sponsored by a company, and all companies here have to have at least 51% Emirati control. Even the lowest paid workers (generally in construction) have housing camps where they're put up for the season.

As for crime, this is one of the top ten safest cities in the entire world. The #1 city is Abu Dhabi, which is a two-hour drive from here in the UAE. There's a reason for this. If you get caught driving drunk, it's life in prison. I kid you not. If you get caught dealing drugs, life in prison and possibly a death sentence. I'm not saying there's absolutely zero crime here, but it's pretty damn close. Many of my family and friends were/are worried about my safety due to terrorism concerns. While the UAE provides generous aid to Syrian refugees, they don't let any in. Or Afghans. Or Iraqis. And I'm guessing no Yemenis either. Try getting away with that in the US :). But between the cameras, crime laws, and border control, the UAE is locked down pretty tightly.

So off we went (with my scooter this time to give Tom a break from pushing, and because we only had one curb to deal with) to the metro and headed to the Dubai Mall. The walkway to get from the metro to the Mall itself is at least half a mile long; it reminds me of the Phoenix airport :). We walked through the Mall to the Burj plaza and I got to see the Burj Khalifa again in its full daytime glory! The day was as gorgeous as it could possibly get--maybe high 70s or low 80s with a cool ocean breeze. We watched the fountain show with an amazing front-row view this time. Tom explained to me that the sheikh of UAE went on a trip to Las Vegas and watched the Bellagio fountain show. He wanted something bigger and better for Dubai, so he hired the people who created that show and paid them a ton of money to make "improvements." That's what we saw.

Afterwards I had a craving for Lebanese food, and we had a meal that may have actually topped the steak dinner I had a couple of nights before--tabbouleh, hummus with pita, and shrimp on a skewer almost bigger than my hand. Afterwards we headed back into the mall to see the free part of the indoor aquarium--the second largest in the world I'm told, and I've been in the Georgia Aquarium, which is reportedly THE largest in the world. This one was still very impressive.

Then it was back to the metro to hit the Mall of the Emirates. While the Dubai Mall is bigger, newer, and more imposing with nicer shops, the style of the Mall of the Emirates is infinitely more stylish, with high glass domes decorated in wrought iron in a way that made it feel like an old French train station.

But the real reason we were there was not for the design and decor; it was to see the indoor ski slope. Yep, for a mere US$120, you can ski inside a mall for half a day while it's 120 degrees outside in July. Plus, you get all the gear you need. They also have a little tobogganing and play area for little kids, which was super cute.

After seeing that, we needed to head back because my scooter battery was dying. Fortunately the walk back to the metro station wasn't that far. However, I did want to stop to capture this cool almost-sunset picture of the hazy Dubai Internet City skyline over rush hour traffic.


Today is brunch day. I know; a whole day devoted to brunch? Our American idea of brunch is going to a nice restaurant, maybe in a nice hotel, around 11am for a big meal with some mimosas or bloody marys and heading home about two hours later. Here in Dubai, brunch is an event. They start around 12pm or 1pm and last four hours. They are expensive--ranging anywhere from US$65 to US$150 per person--but include all the food you can ingest and all the alcohol you can drink. And the food isn't your average scrambled eggs and waffles. We're talking seafood, crab legs, cuts of meat, oysters...like, really high-end food.

The locations for brunch can also vary, and Rebecca sent me a list of places to choose from that had well-reviewed brunches. I'm all about go-big-or-go-home, so we're having brunch today at the Atlantis Resort on Palm Jumeirah. This is the ginormous man-made island off the coast of Dubai (but attached) that looks like a big palm tree with a circle around it. Each palm "frond," as it were, supports either private residences with beachfront property or one of roughly two dozen hotels. The island took five years to build, and has experienced its fair share of controversy. The water between the fronds started getting stagnant, and engineers had to create breaks in the outer circle to encourage water flow around the fronds. Geological surveys have also confirmed that the Palm Jumeirah is sinking by 5mm per year, although it seems no one has reported any structural damage as a result. The 5-star Atlantis resort on Palm Jumeirah is the first resort that was built on the island, and pretty much looks like the Atlantis in the Bahamas, if you've ever been.

Fun facts aside, today was absolutely insane. It actually reminded me a LOT of South Beach, and my fellow 305 peeps will understand why shortly. We arrived at the Saffron restaurant inside the resort, and it was already insane. Easily over a hundred people were waiting in line to get in, and servers were handing out champagne to everyone in line. It was kind of a cattle call once they opened the doors to let everyone in and find their assigned table. After we got settled, it was time to do the walk-through to explore our options. If you think you've done brunch, you haven't. This much food in one place exists nowhere else on earth. Then there's the free booze--a Jamison stand, a vodka stand, beer stands, and wine poured at the tables. I can't put it into words. But seriously, the food was incredible, the service impeccable, and EVERYONE was extraordinarily polite in making way for me and my scooter, even as crowded as it was.

Then there's the nightclub atmosphere. There's a DJ playing the whole time, so the indoors seating is treated to some really great 80s and 90s dance music. And the people...this is where all the young, beautiful, half-naked, and plastic people in Dubai come to brunch. Most are foreign tourists, with a large chunk of them being Brits. The dress code is South Beach nightclub all the way, and you don't have to adhere to standard UAE clothing restrictions. We saw a LOT of lady parts this afternoon. There were at least 300 people both outside and inside the enormous dining space. By 3pm, everybody was ranging from buzzed to completely plastered. Large groups were celebrating birthdays loudly or jumping on benches and chanting soccer (football) rallies. Women were stumbling in their 6-inch platform stilettos, and security guards even chased a couple of them who managed to "escape" into the pool area. About 15 minutes before the end of brunch, everyone started hoarding the free drinks from the stands, so people would be returning to their tables with their arms full of half a dozen beer bottles, champagne splits, and trays of shots. Just. Insane.

We were at brunch for a full four hours, and only because they started kicking everybody out. To say there was a lot of eating and drinking going on at our table is an understatement, but we were mellow compared to a lot of people. One guy had to be carried out because he was, well, mostly unconscious, and it wasn't from eating too much dim sum. The bathroom lines were insanely long because all of us brunch peasants were restricted from leaving the brunch area and mixing with the legitimate hotel guests. Our party of five got a VIP pass because I was in a scooter and had to take the elevator (outside the area). Thanks to that, we were able to go to the lobby and take some great pictures with a stunning Dale Chihuly blown glass sculpture (he's the same artist who created the glass sculptures in the Bellagio) in the atrium. We were also able to take the main exit and glimpse the Persian Gulf. Some people think a body of water or an ocean view is just an ocean view. But it's a little bit alien to see a gulf or sea or ocean with your own eyes that's SO far from home.

At this point, it was 5:30pm and we had to figure out what to do. Brunch after-parties are all the rage, so we went for it. We headed to the Westin hotel that has a nightclub that plays 80s and 90s pop, dance, and hip-hop. It was packed, but Rebecca had a connection that scored us a VIP corner with tons of space. Her friend gave us free champagne, and we danced (yes, I rock it like a boss in my scooter seat) for probably three hours. I won't lie; it was weird to be clubbing in the late afternoon, but hey...anything goes in Dubai.


Today was my sixth day in Dubai--desert safari day! The three of us slept in, and we got picked up by Orient Tours at 2pm for the one-hour drive to the staging area. We were the first SUV to arrive, but soon we were joined by a dozen other Toyota Land Cruisers. We took a couple of pictures and chatted since it was going to take several minutes for the drivers let enough air out of their tires (from about 35 psi to 15 psi) for the dune bashing portion of our tour.

Finally, it was time to go! Earlier this morning, Tom asked me if I liked roller coasters, to which I replied no because I don't like the feeling of my stomach dropping. That generally doesn't happen in a car, so I wasn't sure why he was asking. I only needed five minutes of the dune bashing to understand why he was asking. Imagine a big group of dune buggies riding up and over sand dunes along a beach somewhere. Then make those dune buggies big Toyota SUVs and triple the size of the dunes. We went up and down very steep slopes, slid/drifted sideways at a slant while kicking up massive amounts of sand. We were also driving at a pretty good clip (by request). It was such a huge adrenaline rush! But I will say, dune bashing isn't for the faint of heart; if you get the slightest bit car sick, you had better pop some Dramamine before hand. We were twisting and turning and rising and dropping almost non-stop for 45 minutes!

At the end of the ride, all the cars went to a high dune so everyone could take pictures. I assumed I would stay in the car since going up a sand dune isn't really in my physical wheelhouse. But did I mention we got the most awesome driver ever? He helped Tom carry me up the dune so I could see what everyone else was seeing! I won't lie; the view was pretty awesome :). But the courtesies of our driver Javeed didn't stop there.

We left the photo stop early so we could get to the camp before the rest of the crowd. The first thing we saw was the camels ready for riders. Yes. Yes, I did. Once again, Tom and Javeed carried me to place me on top of the camel (whose name I didn't catch). I freaked out a bit when the camel got up and held on to the handle in front of me for dear life! But soon we started walking, and it was pretty much like riding a horse. I think I had a permagrin on my face for the whole five minutes it took us to ride around the circle :).

After the ride, Javeed drove us around to the other camp entrance so we could get settled before the rest of the tour group arrived. It was a small group, so we actually had an entire bungalow to ourselves. But the most unbelievable part? Out here in the middle of nowhere, they had a separate handicap accessible bathroom! And one of the most functional I've ever seen, with grab bars everywhere at just the perfect height, a higher toilet seat, and even a grab handle hanging from the ceiling! I just couldn't believe it, and it made the evening that much easier.

Since we were the only ones in the camp for around fifteen minutes, Javeed and Tom carried me to a central location so that the people who were part of the camp could come to me. I got a beautiful henna tattoo on my right hand, and even got to hold and pet a falcon! We went back to our seats to relax for a bit, and then the first show started. Have you ever heard of a whirling dervish? It's a dance performed by a Sufi order in Turkey, and basically involves a man spinning non-stop for several minutes. This particular dancer was wearing a costume that lit up, which was super cool!

After that was dinner, which was good, and a belly dancing show. When that wrapped up, it was time for us to head back to the apartment. As I mentioned earlier, our driver Javeed was so incredibly kind and helpful when it came to getting me closer to things and helping carry my anywhere I needed to go. At first I thought he was doing it because it was just his job. But while we were driving back and the car got quiet, he said to me that I remind him of his daughter. I thought it was maybe because I look like her. But he tells us this story. A huge tsunami hit India in 2004, and killed 230,000 people in 14 countries. The tsunami killed Javeed's sister and her husband, leaving behind two children. Javeed and his wife took the children in as his own, and they know Javeed and his wife as their parents. So it turns out that Javeed's neice/daughter has polio and can't walk. She's in a wheelchair too (she's now 26 years old), and as he put it, always wants to "do and go." He said because of me his mind and heart had been in India all day because I reminded him so much of his daughter. It took everything I had not to start crying on the spot. Here's this man who's just supposed to drive us around and treated me like the queen of the world for a day, just because I remind him of his daughter's strong spirit. Connections are made in parts of the world where you least expect it, and despite the AMAZING things I did today, that conversation was the absolute highlight.