Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates
The 30 minute flight from Tel Aviv to Amman, Jordan was the shortest flight we had taken on the trip (not including the unexpected border flight from Belize to Mexico) but it was one of the worst. Because the distance was so short we flew at low altitude and hit a huge amount of turbulence for most of the ride. Even the captain tried to calm passenger nerves both in Arabic and English when he told us to “please don’t worry, this plane is just like a bird..” Hmmm not sure of birds are as heavy. But like always we made it and landed early evening in the new Amman terminal before sitting around for another hour to board our second Royal Jordanian flight to Abu Dhabi.
Now this was the red eye flight, getting into the city around 1am the following morning taking an additional 4 hours flight time from Amman. On check in we realised we weren’t sitting together and trundled off to take our seats. Now I had the pleasure of sitting right between an Indian and Arab women. The Indian lady adorned in a beautiful light blue sari liked to talk and consistently asked where the “Indian” movies were on the entertainment system and of her favorite Bollywood stars. I mentioned I had been to Rajasthan and would love to see the Golden Temple – Amaritsa. “Ahhhh you know Amaritsa!?” she chirped. On the other side, the Arab grandma dressed in her burka yelled at her grandchildren, handed them cakes and being fairly large, couldn’t see where to plug her earphones in to which we both prodded around her portly waist before finding the correct hole. “Ahh Shakrun!” she yelled and then offered me some gum. But again there was turbulence and the Indian women continued to prod me in the ribs as she cackled away while pointing to the Arab women who had her head in her hands on the back of the seat praying to Mohammad that we would survive. All I wanted to do was watch “Life of Pi” but clearly there was too much cultural exchange going on. However it was nice to know I had some understanding of where both of these lovely ladies were from.
We landed 30 minutes early at Abu Dhabi International airport to which looked much smaller than Dubai. We approached customs feeling a little apprehensive and gearing ourselves for any questioning around our time spent in Israel. I had the Abu Dhabi Australian Embassy page opened and ready to go on the laptop clearly stating that “Australian citizens, no matter what stamps are in their passport, are allowed entry into Abu Dhabi”. So, moving up to the counter together the immigration official looked us up and down, smiled, asked the usual “first time in …?”, told us to look at the camera and then, , waved us through. Yes! customs was next and with nothing to declare we breezed through the airport and jumped in a taxi.
Along the side of the highway was the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in all its extravagance. Its gigantic bell curved tops and towering white marble minarets looked spectacular against the night sky. Passing a few high-rise buildings in various modern shapes and sizes we finally came across The Royal International Hotel with its technicolor signage to where we would spend the next 4 nights. The hotel decor was a kinda “Arab meets circus tent” with bright red carpet and curtains and funky modern art. Our room was huge and there was a beautiful oasis of a pool and gym on the top floor, all open aired and overlooking the city-scape.
This capital city of the Emirates is the the second largest in terms of population at nearly a million. Perched on the opaque waters of the glimmering Persian Gulf, the city apparently generates something like 56% of the GDP for the Emirates. In fact, I read in one book that each citizen is worth a whopping $17 million based on the states GDP…fairly impressive no? Most of the concentration of the city was in the medium and high rise buildings comprising of banks, gas and oil companies..all that capitalistic good stuff and filled with hard working expats. And outside, as we approached the summer months, the heat of the day climbed into the 40s. Unfortunately for the tourist, the city wasn’t so well connect without any form of light rail or air-conditioned walk ways. So taxis were the only way to get around, and were cheap, or you could brave the outside heat and walk.
So we spent two days in the Marina Mall, a 10 minute drive along the cornich esplanade, past the central gardens, a few beach clubs and opposite an actual marina where some beautiful boats were moored. The Mall had everything at fairly reasonable prices and we spent hours getting lost in the beautiful air-conditioning and sipping cappuccinos. There was also a secondary mall appropriately named the Abu Dhabi Mall just around the corner from our hotel which we braved the heat and walked too. The city streets were set out in a grid pattern while most of the buildings looked kinda empty in the middle of the day due to the heavy tint on the windows. Below each building were small businesses selling spices, take away, cheap Chinese shops with names such as “Butterfly Gifts”, women’s beauty salons and mens hairdressers. But due to the heat there really wasn’t too many people on the streets and it all felt a little apocalyptic as you crunched through pavements with broken concrete sitting on the hot sand.
With a high population of Indian migrants, there was also excellent Indian cuisine to be had. So each night we would walk up the main road smelling the spices wafting in the hot breeze at night to a beautiful Indian restaurant. Decked out in gold and burgundies it served the most delicious lime mint juice and thick curries. Another little gem to which our concierge pointed out was his favorite was “Sponge Bob Shawarma cafe”. Walking into the little cafe with one plastic table at the back and the cartoon Sponge Bob designed walls we chow-downed on the best Shawarma either of us had. Mmmm delicious!
Abu Dhabi didn’t have as many tourist attractions as Dubai but the most impressive was the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque to which we visited on our last evening to check it out at sunset. Now this mosque was one of the most opulent architectural delights we had ever seen. Initiated by the late president HH Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan who was fondly thought of as “the father of the UAE” the design and construction reportedly ‘unites the world’. So many counties were involved in this one sourcing materials from crystals to build giant chandeliers to marbles to carpets from Italy, Germany, Morocco, India, Turkey, Iran, China, United Kingdom, New Zealand, Greece and of course the United Arab Emirates. More than 3,000 workers and 38 companies took part in the construction starting in 1996 and still finishing off some 17 years later. Entering the mosque I was led to the ladies section where I had to gown in the full burka before our sunset tour commenced by a young lady. She told us that the maximum capacity was something like 41,000 people, yup, they could all enter and sit on the gigantic carpet made in Iran and pray within the 22,412 square meters of the halls. Apparently today the mosque was valued at over a billion dollars. Mind-blowing to say the least and very very beautiful.
It was time to head to Dubai and the plan was to catch the bus 1 hour away. Taking a taxi to the central bus stop and probably looking a little out of place with out backpacks, a friendly security guard guided us to the counter where an even friendlier ticket officer told us what tickets we required and showed us to the outside terminal. Then another extremely friendly security guard walked us too the seat outside in the 40c heat and told us a bus would be coming shortly. It was such a nice change to not have to worry about people acting dodgy, here the Arab hospitality was first rate and the extremely low rate of crime (probably due to both Islam and heavy penalties) meant you could actually trust people again. Sure enough, our bus showed up to
which we hoped on, ordered a nice cup of coffee and sped across the desert plain passing a few warehouses until the city-scape of Dubai, shimmering like a mirage, appeared on the horizon.