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To the Infinity Pool and Beyond! Dubai arrival

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Dubai is a city that has been on our back burner for years but never entered seriously into any of our travel planning. That changed suddenly when my brother Michael decided to leave China after twenty-five years and move to Dubai. The city immediately became much more to us than a quirky place to witness the extremes of twenty-first century excess. If we went there now my kids could see their cousins for the first time in five years. Once the spark was there and I began to do research it became clear that Dubai was much more than skyscrapers and malls. My “things to do” note on the Travellerspoint planner grew so quickly that I had to split it into several parts by category. There were also countless great activities for kids, from theme parks to science museums to aquariums. Dubai would easily keep us occupied for two weeks if we had that much time.

Of course we didn’t have two weeks. For spring break the kids had one school week off bracketed by the two weekends. Fortunately their school cooperated by making their final Friday a teacher planning day and then I made an executive decision to take them out a day early and return one day late. They’re all doing well enough in school and even though I hate for them to miss classroom instruction I was confident we could quickly catch them up. Another really cool discovery was that there are direct flights from Miami to Dubai departing at nine in the evening. This was an ideal time because it meant Mei Ling and the kids would sleep for most of the fourteen hour flight, and perhaps even me if I had the guts to take a sleeping pill after the previous year’s fiasco on the flight to Istanbul. The return flight at three in the morning was less than ideal but at least we could relax at my brother’s place in the evening before heading to the airport. The flights were also much cheaper than I had expected, less than most flights from Miami to Europe.

Once we had the flights settled and we had ten full days to work with, the next question was whether we would spend the full time in Dubai. I hate to give any city short shrift but my brother will probably be in Dubai for years and we will try to go back at least once to clean up on any sights or activities we would miss on this trip. Some options were Abu Dhabi or one of the other small countries on the Persian Gulf. Eventually I decided to spend the last weekend in Oman, a country that hadn’t been on my travel radar at all but looked quite manageable for a two day visit. My brother would join us with his family and we would spend Saturday exploring the capital Muscat and Sunday being driven back to Dubai stopping in some historic sites in the interior of Oman. Hopefully we would get back to Dubai late in the evening, enough time to get fed and organized before heading to the airport for our pre-dawn flight back to Miami.

Since we are always half-dreading the challenges and stress of travel, our departure day came roaring up to meet us. Evening is the best time to depart as it gives us the whole day to review our packing and plans and be sure we haven’t forgotten anything. Since I committed my travel checklist to document form a few years ago we have done very well in avoiding the tragedy of forgotten items. As usual we sailed through check-in and security smoothly and settled into the departure area with almost two hours to spare. I spent most of the time browsing a couple of decent bookstores in Miami’s international terminal while the kids naturally went for their iPads.

The flight took off on time and I had a pleasant night time view of Miami from my window seat, minimally obstructed by the wing which was a few rows in front of us. The Emirates airplane was similar to the typical transatlantic flights we take although I rather quickly noticed that the seat had unusually poor cushioning. The other annoyance was that it took almost two hours for them to serve dinner, by which time Cleo had already conked out in my lap. I would have liked to try sleeping once our trays were finally cleared but it was very difficult to get to my bag with the contact lens case and the sleeping pills without waking Cleo up. I decided to browse the movies instead but as usual there were zero that excited me out of about two hundred on offer. I tried watching an Emirati comedy with English subtitles that was unspeakably awful, then a depressing and maudlin French movie about a homeless old woman who makes a pet out of an ant. The American movies were beyond unappealing. For the thousandth time I tried to figure out if it was the movie industry that’s changed or my own mind and concluded it was probably both. Eventually I managed to take out my contacts and closed my eyes for a couple of hours, although I never fell fully asleep.

Ian woke up after about five hours, sooner than I would have liked, and Cleo a couple of hours later. I figured that sleeping less on the plane made it more likely they would sleep through the night after we arrived in Dubai. I killed the rest of the time following our progress on my flight tracker app and playing with a couple of new games I had downloaded on my phone. I felt guilty opening the window shade when people were sleeping but once Cleo was up I began sneaking it open to check out the view of the ground. Hungary and Romania looked pleasant and rural although I was a little disappointed we didn’t pass over any major cities I was familiar with. The real dagger was when thick cloud cover stole my view just before we crossed over the Black Sea, but fate made up for it with amazing views of the snowy mountains of western Iran.

The views were great landing in Dubai after dark. I couldn’t see any of the iconic skyscrapers but the city looked like an enormous field of twinkling lights, brighter than any I could remember having seen before. As groggy as I was on disembarking I could still appreciate the effort that had been put into making the first impression of Dubai a memorable one. The immigration area was filled with gleaming silver pillars that made us feel more like we were in an opera house than an airport.

Mike and his son Drake met us in the arrival hall and it was great to see the kids hitting it off again immediately. Mike doesn’t have his own car but they helped us find the taxi line and then we were off to the hotel. There was nothing particularly distinguished about Edge Creekside but it was the best value in our desired location of Deira and quite satisfactory. It was a typically sleek tower and our suite was much more spacious than what we typically get when we use hotels.

A bonus of Edge was that we were within walking distance of Al Rigga night market, one of the few food markets I’d identified in Dubai. It was about a ten minute walk through Deira which went quickly as our heads were on swivels the whole time. The market turned out to be a collection of mini restaurants which was fine with us. Most of the stalls were Filipino and of the ones that represented other Asian cuisines, most were also run by Filipinos. The large majority of the customers were Filipino as well. There is a huge population of Filipino immigrants in Dubai and Al Rigga was clearly one of their favorite hangouts.

Once we were sated we browsed the brightly lit stalls at the side of the market that sold cheap items such as T shirts and jewelry but everything was predictably generic. On the opposite side of the street was the entrance to another market that was labeled as both a "Winter Night Market" and "Ramadan Kareem". Winter was already over, not that it means much in Dubai anyway, and Ramadan Kareem referred to the Islamic holy month which we had arrived smack in the middle of. Ramadan celebrates the revelation of the quranic scriptures to Mohammed and takes place during the ninth month of the Islamic calendar every year. Since the Islamic calendar doesn't match the 365 day Gregorian calendar, the beginning of Ramadan advances about ten days each year. This was the second time I had experienced Ramadan in a Muslim country with the first being a trip to Indonesia in September of 2007. One of the foremost principles of Ramadan is the absolute fast between sunrise and sunset each day of the month. I had been somewhat concerned about feeding the kids during the day prior to our visit but my brother had assured us that we would be able to find many open restaurants that discretely fed non-Muslims during the daylight hours in liberal Dubai. Once sunset has been officially announced, Muslims flock to restaurants and Ramadan markets for a fast-breaking meal called iftar and often stay out for hours. It seemed that this winter market had now been repurposed as a Ramadan market and it was even larger than Al Rigga with numerous restaurants and pop-up stores. The food looked even more appetizing that some of what we had seen at Al Rigga but we were already full and had no interest in shopping so after absorbing some of the local energy we walked back to the hotel and crashed.

Friday morning we decided to forego breakfast at the hotel even though it was Ramadan. We assumed there would still be restaurants open even if it meant eating inside with the curtains pulled. We figured we had enough energy to walk about an hour to the souks of Deira. Despite our hotel having "Creekside" in its name, we had to walk two blocks and then cross a pedestrian overpass over a busy highway to get to Dubai Creek. The gleaming, architecturally adventurous hotels that truly bordered the creek were clearly a couple of levels above Edge on the glamour scale.

Dubai Creek is a natural saltwater channel that extends about nine miles into the city from the Persian Gulf. In the 1950's the creek was deepened and widened to accommodate transport and trade. In the 2010's the Dubai Canal was constructed to complete a semicircular course of the creek with a second outlet into the gulf about seven miles south of the original. This effectively turned the Bur Dubai area south of the creek into an island although it's not generally thought of this way. The neighborhood of Deira where we were staying is considered the old quarter of Dubai and has the most authentic old souks, which was the main reason I chose it as our base for our visit. Before Dubai began to undergo rapid development in the 1990's, Deira was considered the commercial center of the city and boasted the first major hotels and skyscrapers.

The overpass deposited us at the old dhow wharfage, where the brightly colored wooden boats that transport goods as far as Somalia still unload their cargo. Not much was going on this Friday morning in Ramadan but we saw a few sailors chatting with each other, most of whom appeared to be Filipino. We followed the creek for a while hoping to find a waterside restaurant but the only place we passed was closed. It seemed like we might have made the wrong choice passing up the buffet at the hotel.

Once we reached the busy downtown area we turned inland and found ourselves in an area of sleek, avant garde residential apartment buildings and office blocks. I've never studied architecture but my head was on a swivel as I tried to absorb the unfamiliar and adventurous contours of the enormous buildings that surrounded us. A line of window washers dangling vertiginously from cables scrubbed a wall of glass that made up the facade of an office tower.

Turning west from here the area became noticeably older with narrower streets and lower buildings. All the buildings had shops on the ground level and then two or three levels that were residential. The markets were all selling dry goods, from holiday decorations to gold, and there were very few customers around. It seemed that most of the locals weren't very interested in being active during the day on Ramadan weekends. We explored the area for a while but it was hard to get excited about the souks when there was no food or produce in sight. We didn't see anything to eat at all except for the unappetizing packaged food in the little convenience stores. We asked a few shopkeepers if there were any restaurants open but apparently everything in that area was closed from dawn to dusk. Even the hotels in the area catered only to regional businesspeople.

The kids were already jetlagged and it seemed like they were starting to sag a little. We headed back towards the creek to take the abra boat to Al Fahidi, a more touristy area on the southern bank. The tickets for the short ride were just two dirham apiece, less than a dollar. Soon enough a pleasant little boat with brilliantly polished wooden benches showed up at the dock and we set off. Between the rippled greenish-blue water and the minarets on shore I was reminded strongly of the Golden Horn in Istanbul. It was a quick and delightful ride and then we were deposited on the southern bank of the creek.

From the dock we headed to a cluster of sand-colored buildings that had a classic Arab appearance yet appeared newly constructed. Most of the buildings were occupied by shops with extensive displays of clothing and crafts. As we passed the employees would come to the doorways imploring us to come inside and shop. The area was much newer and more touristy than I had expected from Al Fahidi and I quickly realized we had gone in the wrong direction and we were in Al Seef instead. Al Seef is a creekside strip that was just opened in 2017 to replace an old neighborhood that was demolished in the 1980’s. The developers had done a good job of recreating the typical nineteenth century Arabic style but the area was obviously dedicated to tourism with countless souvenir stores and generic Middle Eastern restaurants. There was no sign of any fasting here as tourists ate at outdoor tables and walked around with ice cream cones. We quickly found a cafe where we fed the kids tea and croissants.

I had realized by now that we had completely forgotten to bring gifts for my nephews so we browsed a few stores looking for leather wallets. Unfortunately we only found low quality, flimsy items but Cleo came across a very cute shoulder bag that we bargained down to a reasonable price. Another store sold faux antiques including the ubiquitous daggers in metal sheaths and I regaled our kids with a story about my brother ruthlessly bargaining for a dagger with a vendor in Morocco when he was fourteen. I took a flight of stairs up to the patio of an upper level restaurant that hadn’t opened yet. The patio had a beautiful view over the creek and the high rises on the Deira side. By now the Japanese ramen restaurant the kids approved of had opened and we were finally able to fuel up.

I consulted the map and saw that Al Fahidi was just a minute’s walk from the restaurant. This area was somewhat similar in appearance to Al Seef except that it appeared to be a genuinely old neighborhood that had been restored rather than a completely new development. It was more fun to explore as there were narrow alleys that would end in unexpected open squares that were often quite beautiful. The area was also quite congested with tourists, some of them being led around in large groups.

I had expected to spend the morning in the Deira souqs and the whole afternoon in Al Fahidi and Al Seef but none of these had proven worthy of long visits. Just as I was contemplating where to head next my brother messaged me to ask if he could send my nephew Drake to join us. Drake and his older brother Ralph regularly travel around Dubai on their own using a taxi service called Careem. Ralph hadn’t recovered from his cold so Drake would be on his own. I had been thinking about going to the Aquarium in Dubai mall but Drake had already been there so we decided to head to a kids' museum called Children’s City instead. I had the Careem app on my phone already but there were so many taxis around we decided to try that option first. I thought we might need to take two cabs because taxis in China and Europe usually refused to take all five of us. However the first taxi that pulled up didn’t blink when Mei Ling and all three kids squeezed into the back seat.

Children's City was located in a large park on the Bur Dubai side of the creek a few miles inland from Al Fahidi. I was very surprised to see how low the taxi fare was, considering how expensive Dubai was otherwise. If all the drivers were amenable to taking the five of us then taxis were looking like a pretty good option for getting around town. We had to wait a very long time for Drake to arrive. My brother lives in a residential enclave called Mirdif and it seems it takes the taxis a long time to get in and out when there's traffic. Ian took a nap on a bench while I explored the park with Cleo and Spenser.

Children's City was somewhat of a disappointment considering the high rating it was given on online review sites. The exhibits were sparse and very basic for a children's museum. Fortunately my kids were so happy to be hanging out with Drake that they would have had fun anywhere. While they were playing I looked at the online reviews a little more closely and saw that most of the highest ratings came from accounts with just one or two reviews and had a weird tendency to mention staff members by name. I figured that employees were encouraged to create accounts for themselves and their family members to submit five star reviews. This proved to be a common tactic in Dubai which rendered sites like Google Maps and TripAdvisor almost useless for the purpose of reviews. I'm actually surprised this tactic isn't more common in the west given the lack of quality control employed by the websites for dealing with fake reviews.

We only hung out at the museum for a couple of hours and then all six of us piled into a cab back to our hotel, again with no objection from the driver. Drake headed home from there while we took a nap before dinner. My brother had insisted that we meet him at a Pakistani restaurant in Deira called Butt Karahi. We weren't tremendously thrilled about this since we only had seven more evenings in Dubai and my research had uncovered so many amazing restaurants, night markets, and food halls. However I had to give Michael his due since he had been living in Dubai for months and we'd never eaten in a Pakistani restaurant before. Butt Karahi specialized in a stewed meat dish called karahi, named for the pot that the food was cooked and served in. The menu offered chicken, beef, mutton, and vegetarian versions so all the karahi bases were covered. The food was good although I'm not the biggest fan of the texture of stewed meat. It was also the kids' first time seeing Ralph on this trip, who had braved the outdoors despite not being fully recovered from his illness.

After dinner we walked a rather long distance down a busy commercial avenue in Deira. During Ramadan the evenings were much more noisy and energetic than the daylight hours. We were searching for a dessert place I had identified on Google Maps but when we finally arrived at the designated address there was no such establishment to be found and none of the neighboring shopkeepers had heard of it. Defeated in this final quest, we split from Michael's family and returned to the Edge where we were more than ready to collapse into bed.

Posted by zzlangerhans 02:50 Archived in United Arab Emirates Tagged road_trip family dubai uae united_arab_emirates family_travel travel_blog tony_friedman family_travel_blog al_rigga al_fahidi al_seef children's_city

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