Hear about travel to United Arab Emirates as the Amateur Traveler talks to travel writer Zora O’Neill about her recent trip to these small states on the Persian / Arabian Gulf.
Zora says of her trip to the U.A.E, “I found it fascinating because most Arab culture we get, in America especially, is Mediterranean facing Arab cultures. We get Lebanese food. We see lots of pictures from Egypt. What I found totally unexpected and cool in the U.A.E. is that’s all oriented toward India. Iran is right across the Persian Gulf, which incidentally in the Gulf states they call the Arabian Gulf. India is a really short hope across the Indian Ocean. It wasn’t until I was there and saw the people there and ate the food that I realized that. I mean objectively I knew it because I’d looked at maps, but I had never thought about how it manifested really. Practically speaking this means fantastic super interesting food. What I find most interesting about the Emirates is the huge cultural mix you can find there. In a way, it’s like a really efficient trip. You can drop yourself into all these little enclaves.”
Zora visited the U.A.E. as part of a larger journey to re-learn Arabic which she documents in her new book “All Strangers Are Kin: Adventures in Arabic and the Arab World”.
We start in the very modern Dubai where we talk about visiting the tallest building (Burj Khalifa) in the world as well as malls, indoor skiing, and musical fountains. Dubai has the fewest Emirati of any of the states of the U.A.E. so Zora finds it a great opportunity to interact with many of the other cultures in the region. Zora recommends a food tour to taste your way through the various cultures that work and live in Dubai.
In Abu Dhabi, we visit the beautiful Sheikh Zayed Mosque, but in the future, you will also be able to visit the Louvre and other world museums which are opening branches as part of the new Saadiyat Island project. We also talk about getting out into the dunes and the desert on a 4 wheel drive vehicle and seeing some of the more traditional culture including the Liwa Oasis.
Then we visit Ras al-Khaimah (the RAK) which the British used to call the “The Pirate Coast”. Zora recommends a side trip into the part of Oman that juts out into the Gulf.
The U.A.E. is not like anyplace else. See if you add it to your list after listening to Zora’s adventures.
All Strangers Are Kin: Adventures in Arabic and the Arab World
Travel to New Mexico – Episode 106
Travel to the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico – Episode 163
United Arab Emirates
Visit Abu Dhabi
Burj Khalifa (world’s tallest building)
Frying Pan Adventures – Dubai Food, Restaurant & Culture Tours
Ski Dubai: Hitting the Slopes in the Desert
Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding
Sheikh Zayed Mosque
Louvre Abu Dhabi
Chris: Amateur Traveler episode 513. Today the Amateur Traveler talks about mosques and pirates, the world’s tallest building, and indoor skiing, as we go to the United Arab Emirates.
Welcome to the Amateur Traveler, I’m your host, Chris Christensen. Without further ado, let’s talk about the UAE. I’d like to welcome back to the show Zora O’Neill; travel writer, guide book author, and recent author of the book “All Strangers are Kin.” Zora, welcome back to the show.
Zora: Thanks so much for having me. It’s great to be back.
Chris: And I say back to the show, Zora’s been on twice, by my records. Once, talking about New Mexico, and once talking about traveling around the Yucatan. Zora, I do want to say officially here, that since you have been on, I have taken your advice and we did that trip we talked about to the Ruta Puuc and Merida and all of the wonderful things outside of Cancun in the Yucatan, and had a wonderful time.
Zora: I’m so glad to hear that. It’s always gratifying for a guidebook writer to hear when someone follows their advice and it actually turned out well, so, thanks.
Chris: Now, this time we’re talking about some other place that is hot, but we’re going a little further afield. We’re talking about the United Arab Emirates today.
Chris: And it’s said plural? Emirates?
Zora: Yes, it is. And it’s funny because before I went to the United Arab Emirates, I had to do some Wikipedia reading, I admit, because I was totally not clear on what Dubai is as an entity and what Abu Dhabi is as an entity. I really had to clear that all up. So, forgive me if I’m repeating what people know by now, but I was not clear on this a few years ago. The UAE is seven emirates which are kind of like city states. Each emirate has a major city and then varying degrees of inland territory.
Abu Dhabi and Dubai are the ones you’ve heard of. Some people in literary and art circles have probably heard of Sharjah, which is right next to Dubai. And I say literary and art circles because they hold some publishing conferences and art events there that some people go to. And then there are these four other emirates that…please don’t put me on the spot and make me name the other ones. I will tell you a couple of them, but off the top of my head, I’m frozen. Test anxiety.
And you don’t hear about them because they don’t have the huge ports and the huge wealth that Abu Dhabi and Dubai have. But they have amazing dessert terrain. And it’s really the difference between the emirates. It’s very, very interesting. So, I spent about probably six weeks there in total, driving around. Maybe more like five.
But still, when I went, I was like “I’m gonna get the gist of this place really quick and run out of things to do. And then I’ll go to Oman, and then I’ll go here and go there.” I ended up spending pretty much all of my time in the UAE, and it’s really, really interesting.
Chris: Well, I can name the other four emirates, because of course I’m cheating.
Chris: If you can help me with the pronunciation.
Chris: So I’ve got Ajman.
Zora: Isn’t it Ajwain
Chris: I’m looking at Wikipedia here. A-J-M-A-N.
Zora: Oh. Sorry, I’m conflating something else. Yes, Ajman.
Chris: Fujairah, okay. And Ras al-Khaimah.
Zora: Ras al-Khaimah.
Zora: Which means top of the tent, because it’s up at the tippy top of the land mass there. Everyone just calls it RAK.
Chris: The last one being Umm al-Quwain.
Zora: Oh, yes, Umm al-Quwain.
Chris: I am amazed I got that close.
Zora: I know, pretty good. Yes, I was mentally switching Ajman and Umm al-Quwain together.
Chris: Excellent. Well, let’s start with the obvious question. I know why you went, and you went as basically a quest to learn Arabic or to relearn Arabic, but why should other travelers go to the UAE?
Zora: Well, I found it fascinating because I think the most Arab culture we get in America especially, is sort of Mediterranean-facing Arab cultures, so we get Lebanese food, we see lots of pictures from Egypt. All this stuff is more oriented toward us. And what I found totally unexpected and cool in the UAE is that’s all oriented toward India. And Iran is right across the Persian Gulf, which incidentally, in the Gulf states, they call the Arabian Gulf. So, just a little etiquette point there.
So, I’ll call it the Arabian Gulf while we’re talking about it. So, Iran is right across the Gulf. And then India is a really short hop across the Indian Ocean from the Arabian peninsula. It wasn’t until I was there and saw the people there and ate the food that I realized that. Objectively, I knew it because I had looked at maps, but I had never thought about how it manifested really. And practically speaking, this means fantastic, super interesting food.
I feel like this doesn’t get enough play in all the coverage of the emirates, because travel magazines are all concerned with the latest luxury blah, blah, blah. And what I find most interesting about the emirates is the huge cultural mix you can find there. So, in a way, it’s a really efficient trip. You can drop yourself into all these different little enclaves and be like, “Oh, it’s like I went to India. It’s like I went to the Philippines.”
Chris: If someone had less time than you took, say a week or two, to explore the area, what kind of itinerary would you recommend? They’re not going to see everything, obviously.
Zora: Right. The convenient thing is there are not a lot of obligatory sites to see in the emirates, so you have a lot more free time to just hangout. I’d say you do a few days in Dubai, do a couple days in Abu Dhabi, make sure you go out into the desert in Abu Dhabi emirate because that’s where the real super cinematic duney, gorgeous rose-colored sands are. So you want to see that.
And then I’d recommend going way up north to the emirates you never hear the names of and checking that out just for contrast and getting a bigger picture of the country. And it’s not a big country. It’s really easy to drive around, and you can also arrange to be picked up and driven places for day trips and things like that. So it’s really feasible to feel like you got a full sense of what’s going on in a week.
Chris: Well, and you say drive around. A stupid question here, but we’re right near Saudi Arabia and you’re a woman author, are you able to drive around without restrictions in the UAE?
Zora: Oh yes, definitely. And actually, that’s a reason I ended up going to the UAE. I’m really interested in the really old classical poetry in Arabic and the pre-Islamic Arabic poetry. And it’s all set in the desert in the Arabian Peninsula. And there are real landmarks you could go see, they were talking about. Unfortunately, it’s all in Saudi Arabia.
I think, internally, you can travel around Saudi alone as a woman, but you can’t just arrive at the airport alone as a woman; you have to be met by somebody. I didn’t want to go through that hassle. The UAE is totally chill. They do not have a lot of restrictions. I mean, you can’t buy alcohol everywhere, you can only buy alcohol in hotel bars. But otherwise, you can pretty much be a tourist the way you would anywhere. I mean, don’t take your top off.
Chris: And I’m gonna say that a Muslim country is probably not the best place for a topless beach outing or a bachelorette party or some place like that. If that’s what you’re looking for, perhaps not the best destination.
Zora: No, there have been some really awful cases in the UAE where they had to be like, “That’s not how we want you to be behaving on our beach.” And common sense you would think would dictate this, but they had to lay down the law. But in general, it’s a pretty open, super easy to travel place. I know tons of women who live and work there, single women who live and work there, and really, really like it. Plenty of freedom, tons of professional respect, people are very polite. It’s great.
I certainly have no problems traveling around or driving around by myself. I mean, people did look at me strange because you don’t normally do things by yourself in Arab culture, or most of the world really. It’s only pioneering Americans and northern Europeans who traipse around by themselves. But logistically, that part is fine and pretty easy. And you can rent a car. The roads are all in really good shape because lots of money is poured into car infrastructure.
The one hazard, however, is be ready to deal with traffic circles. And I know Americans especially have very little experience with traffic circles. And in Abu Dhabi especially, oh my God, so stressful. Full disclosure, I did get in a small accident. So yeah, when you go, assign your strongest driver with nerves of steel to do the driving. The roads themselves are great, but some of the traffic is a little unsettling.
Chris: Personally, I find traffic circles, once you get used to them, especially the one-lane ones – the two-lane ones or three-lane ones are crazy – aren’t that bad. In fact, they may actually…I see the rationale for them. And the one thing to remember is, you have to get on. You don’t have to get off right away. You can always go around again if it’s going to be too tight to make that turn. Just go around again and get off next time you come by.
Zora: Yes, they’re very forgiving that way. Don’t make any sudden movements out of the center lane. That’s my advice. Oh my God. Anyway, don’t panic.
Chris: Excellent. So, you started us in Dubai. What would you recommend we do and see in Dubai?
Zora: Dubai is like huge city of malls. I mean, there’s much more to it. But it’s the city of malls and the world’s tallest buildings. So you really have to go to the Burj Khalifa, which is the world’s tallest building. And of course at the base of the building there’s this humongous mall, which frankly, for me, malls are much more about people watching than about shopping. I mean, I could have spent a week there just hanging out at the mall and marveling at this parade of people from everywhere in the world. It’s so great. At the base of the Burj Khalifa there’s this giant musical fountain which is also the world’s largest musical fountain.
Chris: Is there a lot of competition for the largest musical fountain?
Zora: Exactly. We’re all keeping very close watch on that competition. Basically, anything you think is kind of big in the emirates does turn out to be the world’s largest. They’re really, really into that. And it’s really beautiful. At sundown, they start the fountain and it’s all lit up, and everyone gathers around. It plays pop songs and Arabic pop songs. It’s a little goofy.
My brother-in-law actually, when I was getting to go, he had actually gone there a couple times. He lives in the Netherlands, so it’s a very short flight for him and his family. They go there every winter for a little beach vacation. So he had a lot more experience there, and he was like, “You have to go to the Burj Khalifa at the fountain.”
It’s a very Star Trek planet feeling. Once I got there, I totally understood, because everybody is wearing national dress. And the lighting is very…I don’t know, it just feels like you’re on some other planet. I mean, all of Dubai really feels that way. Anybody who’s interested in urban planning will have a field day there. There are egregious mistakes and brilliant innovations and slightly dystopian things.
Chris: Did you want to put something in those two categories? What you were classifying to as an egregious mistake and what you were classifying as a…
Zora: Well, egregious mistakes, they can’t really help it. But the whole city is strung out laterally along the coast, so there’s very little town center feeling. There’s no single place in the city that feels like “This is the place to be.” But on the plus side, there’s a super efficient metro that zings up and down that stretch.
I mean, it’s a little slow, but it’s very efficient and it’s running frequently, and inexpensive. So, you can get around. You don’t necessarily have to drive around within Dubai. I would actually recommend maybe don’t bother driving in Dubai and don’t rent a car until you’re planning to leave Dubai, just because it spares you a lot of stress.
Chris: My impression with Dubai is, Dubai is not where I want to go if I want to connect with traditional Arab culture.
Zora: No. And I don’t want to diss on Emirati culture because it gets dissed a lot and people are like, “Oh my God, there’s nothing there. It’s so cultureless,” which is not really fair. Well, first of all, it’s sheer numbers. Actual Arab Emirati population is maybe like 10% of the population, and almost everyone else is guest workers or otherwise super long stay foreigners.
Chris: Yeah, I was seeing a little higher than that, but 1.4 million out of 9.2 are actually citizens. That’s still a pretty small percentage.
Zora: Yeah, just numbers-wise, you’re not going to run into a whole lot of Emirati Arabs. And by nature, they’re all upper class, and you, as a traveler, are kind of interacting – unless you make real efforts and have some contacts – with the service class. And those are all guest workers, Pakistani, all over India, tons of Indonesians, Malaysians. It’s really, really interesting. And if you take that as an opportunity for cultural interaction, it’s a great time.
And what I was saying too about being able to visit all these enclaves and the food, is there are so many awesome, super authentic places to eat, because there are restaurants that are cooking for guest workers and they’re not dumbing down the taste to get the most customers in the door; they’re cooking for homesick people. So, there are really, really good restaurants. There’s a great food tour called Frying Pan Food Adventures that actually does a walking tour around old Dubai and goes around to a lot of these super intense places to eat, which is awesome.
Chris: And you say super intense, and I’m a little scared because I know you’re from New Mexico, and we’ve talked about hot peppers before. So when you say “super intense,” if I was from the Midwest, you’re saying lethal.
Zora: No, no. I’m not even talking about…there are potential, insanely hot foods you could eat, if you’re into that. But I’m just saying super intense in that you might not be given a fork to eat with, unless you ask. You might have a lot of people circling around you, being like, “Oh, my God, what are they going to do when they eat this?” Like, waiting for your reaction.
But I think that is a great opportunity. And people are so happy to interact. This is a cool thing about the Emirates that should’ve been mentioned at the top. English is the lingua franca, so you can communicate with pretty much everybody. This was a huge detriment for my Arabic studies, but I should say, for my book, because I went there being like, “Oh, I’m sure I’ll just hangout and talk to my Emirati Arabic teacher,” and of course Emiratis don’t teach Arabic.
My Arabic teacher was Lebanese. She was fantastic, and I was delighted to meet her, but it was kind of funny that I was like, “Oh, right. I don’t have this instant entree into Emirati culture.” But I could get around the city great and talk to everybody about pretty much everything. So yeah, Dubai, I’d say go to a crazy mall. You can also go to the crazy mall with the ski slope inside it.
Chris: We’ve got an article on the Amateur Traveler about skiing in Dubai.
Zora: Yeah. I mean, you have to see it. It’s heartwarming actually, again, seeing people from 80 countries all skiing on this crazy, fake mountain. There’s something kind of Utopian, distopian about it. It’s awesome. So I say, Dubai, really focus on the international aspects. Although there is one thing, if you can plan ahead and schedule a little bit, there is a place called the…whichever the sheikh of Dubai is, whose name I can’t remember because I can’t remember all the sheiks of the different emirates, his name Center for Cultural Understanding.
They do these little cultural breakfasts and lunches where this guy gives a talk about Emirati culture and basically will answer every question under the sun. And then they feed you amazingly delicious Emirati food which in general is not really easily found in restaurants. So it’s this sort of two-level “answer all your burning questions” and have a great meal of this food that you otherwise couldn’t buy.
Chris: You might be embarrassed to find out that it’s Sheikh Mohammed.
Zora: Okay, thank you.
Chris: As in when in an Arab country, always guess Mohammed.
Zora: Yes, no disrespect to the fabulous Sheikh Mohammed. Anyway, so I’d recommend that certainly in Dubai, and the Frying Pan Food Adventures are both just great ways of getting a little bit inside the city. Which can honestly, the way it’s spread out and the way it’s all malls, can feel a little bit impersonal. But those places are little ways in.
Chris: Excellent. I think you moved us on to Abu Dhabi next.
Zora: Yeah. So, Abu Dhabi, in contrast with Dubai, just feels like more of an Arab city. Abu Dhabi is the capital of the Emirates, so all the government is there. I think proportionally there’s just a larger Arab population there. And unlike Dubai, it’s a more compact city. And there is a central gathering point that is not a mall, and that’s the Corniche along the sea front.
And again, it’s all about the people watching, for me. You just go up to the Corniche after sunset and everybody is out strolling. There are people selling things. It’s like the public space that you don’t see a lot of in Dubai. And even when it’s boiling hot out, because it’s the desert, in the evenings, it cools off a little bit, so you can go out there and hangout in a way that you can’t hangout elsewhere.
Chris: When you say boiling hot, that reminds me of the question of what time of year would you recommend that we go?
Zora: A lot of Northern Europeans who are starving for sun go there in the winter time. I was there in February, and I still found it quite cold. Basically, people who live there say they have the air conditioning on pretty consistently from mid-April to mid-October.
But I would say, like, March, April would be lovely. It’s not totally paralyzingly hot. And then sort of the same for the fall shoulder season. I mean, if you want the full on experience, you could go in the middle of the summer. And I have been through there on a layover, when it’s boiling, and it’s like, “Okay, reality check.”
But you have to slow down your itinerary, slow your role a little bit in the summer time. I wouldn’t be fond of it, because I don’t really like air conditioning all that much, and the popping in and out of the air conditioning. But you’re not going to be sweating because basically everywhere, even the bus stops are air conditioned. So, that gives you a good idea of how much heat you’re dealing with.
Chris: Well, and I was looking, and it looks like our high temperatures are going to be, if we’re in Celsius, 40 to 45. And that, for those of us who think in Fahrenheit, it’s going to be over 100, at like minimum.
Zora: And let me just add, it’s not necessarily a dry heat. You think it’s the desert, but you’re on the water and it can get kind of muggy. And in the winter, when it’s much cooler, you can feel a little clammy cold because the buildings aren’t built to be warm necessarily. So you get this sort of chill. It’s not terrible. But ideally, you want to go at a time when you can be outside a little bit. In Dubai, there’s a really nice Cafe by the Creek, which is the old part of Dubai. You want to be able to sit outside and enjoy that and not feel totally flattened.
Chris: Are there other recommendations of things to do or see in Abu Dhabi?
Zora: So, in Abu Dhabi, I’d say the one absolute must site, in all of the Emirates really, is the giant mosque there in Abu Dhabi. It’s the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. And it’s amazing just on the face of it. If you have any kind of background in Islamic architecture, you can go in there and nerd out on how all these elements have been put together in a single building. Basically, they built this thing that’s huge, and they built it not just for scale but also to use the best artisans from around the Arab world.
So there’s the world’s largest single piece of hand woven carpet that women wove in Iran and then they brought all the women over to weave it all together seemlessly inside the mosque. They’re the world’s largest chandeliers, which are these amazing glass things, and beautiful mosaic inlay. It’s great because it’s open to visitors. It’s a huge tourist attraction.
So you go and you get led around by a native Emirati tour guide who, again, is happy to answer all kinds of questions. Again, it’s like a rare opportunity you get to pick the local’s brains. And they’re super nice, and it’s just a beautiful, super relaxing space.
Chris: It looks like something out of the Arabian Nights, or at least the Disney version of it.
Zora: Yes, it is a little bit like that, because they’re using this very Indian style domes. It’s like this weird synthesis of all these styles. It’s pretty great.
Chris: Cool. Anything else we should do while we’re in Abu Dhabi?
Zora: Actually, there’s a whole wing of Abu Dhabi that has been built since I was there, this area called Saadiyat, which is a new district. It’s the cultural district where they’re putting in all these museums, a branch of the Louvre, and a branch of…I can’t even remember what else. But it’s like every famous architect meets every famous museum, and they’re building it all there. And I honestly haven’t checked up on it to see how soon…I think one of the museums was getting very close to opening, but I haven’t checked recently.
So, that would be something to look into. I went there when nothing had been built and it was just this big…I think one luxury hotel had opened, but it was just this big open sandy expanse. And then there was basically the installation of what the place would be like, a big display on what was being built, and scale models of all the museums and things like that. And it’s kind of amazing to come from somewhere…in America, we don’t do large scale building anymore. We’re kind of just maintaining what we have, and there’s not a lot of huge visionary work happening. So it’s pretty amazing.
Chris: You need to tell that Apple apparently, who are building the New World headquarters.
Zora: Oh, okay. Well, good. But it’s interesting because that’s totally private money, right?
Chris: Sure. Absolutely.
Zora: But in Abu Dhabi, it’s top-down the Sheikh has said, “We’re going to be world class in all these things.” And what I find really interesting is, of course this is all fueled with oil money, but they know the oil is running out. And basically all their investment now is to make a city that is sustainable, that has other economies functioning, once the oil goes away. There’s many problematic things about how things are being built ecologically and with the labor force and things, but overall, it’s astounding to go somewhere and just see that kind of vision at that kind of scale.
I imagine it’s happening in places in China too, but I haven’t been there. This is the closest I’ve gotten to like, “Oh, you’re building all of that from scratch, and it’s going to happen.” So that’s kind of amazing to see. And I’ll be very interested to go back to the Emirates and see how it has totally changed since I was there in 2012. So, that pretty much covers the city. And then outside Abu Dhabi, the city, but in the Abu Dhabi Emirate area, that’s where I said you should definitely go out into the desert.
There’s a tiny little town called Liwa, which is way out close to the border with Saudi Arabia. There’s a beautiful resort out there that is not crazy expensive. In the realm of luxury resorts, let’s just say, that’s not crazy expensive. I briefly considered staying there, so it can’t be that insane. But it’s worth just going to have lunch and enjoy the view.
And you can just drive this road out past Liwa, like out to Tel-el-Kebir [should have been Tel Mureeb], which means the big hill, which is the understatement of the year because it’s this giant dune in the middle of nowhere. And you go out there at sunset and you’re like, “Oh my God, there’s nothing.” It’s so beautiful. You really feel like you’re in a movie. So, it’s worth going out there just to get that vast expanse.
Chris: Excellent. I’m wondering if you had a chance to get out while you were there to – and I’m going to butcher the pronunciation I’m sure – Al Ain?
Zora: Oh, yeah, Al Ain. That’s right on the border. I think that’s technically in the Dubai Emirate. And it’s right on the border of Oman. They’re speaking of beautiful roads. There’s this mountain at the edge of Al Ain, and you can drive up to the mountain. And the road up there is one of these…I think the Germans built it. It’s this beautifully smooth, perfectly curved and banked road. You feel like you’re in a car commercial.
You feel like you’re in a car commercial for most of the Emirates. But it’s this beautiful view over the desert. And down at the base of the mountain there’s this neat zoo nature area which I didn’t get to spend enough time in. It was really, really neat. Very low-key zoo. Not like stuff all in little cages.
And it’s just interesting, Al Ain is also really the second city of Dubai, and it’s where I think traditional families still keep a house in Al Ain and use that as their inland hangout. There’s a bit more old history. There’s a big, old fort there, and the Sheikh’s former home is there as a museum.
And that’s really beautifully done. You can go around from room to room and there are portraits of all the Sheikhs and the whole royal family on the wall. I don’t know, you get more of a sense of where the emirates are coming from, culturally, when you go to Al Ain. Although that has some terrible, terrible roundabouts. Some terrifying traffic circles, oh my God.
Chris: Well, and the reason I was asking is, the one UNESCO World Heritage site is the cultural sites centered there, the oasis areas around there. I saw that there were vestiges of civilization going back to 2500 BC. So, really getting back into some of the much older human inhabitation in the area.
Zora: I’m embarrassed to say I did not go to those.
Chris: That’s okay. There’s always so much time.
Zora: Right. I was too busy admiring the old neon signs and downtown Al Ain. It’s funny, Dubai is super modern, latest technology, and Al Ain is like two-story buildings, at most, and three-feet old neon and everything. So, you get this like, “Oh, that’s what things were when they first got stuff in the ’70s, when they first started building up the infrastructure in the Emirates.” And that’s froze in time. I think, the Hilton there is such a throwback. It’s awesome, if you have any love of weird retro ’60s stuff.
Chris: Excellent. And then you wanted to take us up to the northern part of the Emirates before we finish up here?
Zora: Yes. So, there’s much more to do up there, and I’ll just tell you what I did, but I feel like it’s a representative sample and you can probably go deeper into the natural stuff. But I went to Ras al-Khaimah, or R-A-K, as they say. I went up there because I had somehow frittered away all my time driving around and around in traffic circles, and I was like, “Oh, I meant to go to Oman also.” And there’s this funny little part of territory that is this non-contiguous piece of Oman, the very tippy point of what would be the Emirates, the closest point to Iran, which is just across the Gulf.
That actually bonds to Oman and not the Emirates, and it’s this beautiful territory of just this…if you look on a map, it’s like all these little disparate island…it looks like shredded fabric or something. It’s just this little patchy pieces of land. And it’s super clear and beautiful water. And basically, you can go to Ras al-Khaimah and do a day trip to this little patch of Oman and take a little boat around.
And it’s a very common trip, but once you’re out there, it’s so beautifully remote you’re seeing these villages that the Omani government wanted to keep people in villages and not have them all desert their villages and move to the city and go broke and stuff.
And so, the Omani government ran power to all these places, but not necessarily roads. So there are these villages that are on the water, that are traditional fishing villages. And they’ve got power and they’ve got the basic amenities they need. And to keep them there, actually a further incentive to stay there, they gave them very good fishing rights. So they’re these villages that are kind of like they’ve always been, but people aren’t totally miserable in them. You cruise around on these boats, and we saw big schools of dolphins, gorgeous fish in the water.
You don’t necessarily think of that desert water area as having teaming with life, but it was fascinating. You’re cruising around on this traditional wooden boat. It was really great. I think that’s a great antidote to the huge new city building. It gets you back. It reminds you that people have been living there since, whatever, 2500 B.C., whatever you said. This is a lot of the way they’ve been feeding themselves and building up culture for all that time. And if you’re at all into desert…I’m originally from New Mexico.
So, some desert stuff, I’m like, “Yeah, yeah. I’ve seen it before.” The desert territory in the Emirates, both that huge, dunny, sandy desert and the really rugged mountain parts up in the north part the Emirates, like in Ras Al Khaima, are really striking and just gorgeous. The rocks are gorgeous colors. It’s great, and it’s just nice to see a contrast to the cities.
Chris: And to see the desert, is there a particular place you would recommend we go, or is it all around us, or what?
Zora: It’s kind of all around you. The Emiratis really see the whole desert as their birth right, and everybody owns a full-wheel drive car and everyone just feels as though they can drive wherever they want and camp wherever they want. There’s no great regulation or anything. There are a couple designated nature parks. I mean, that’s not a total crazy free-for-all, but in general, that was what I found most impressive, was people do feel free to drive off road and go do their thing. Obviously, don’t do this if you have zero experience doing it.
But there are lots of guides to driving around the desert in very good detailed guidebooks with recommended really rugged trips you can do. Sort of laying out landmark by landmark how you would drive, and certain dirt tracks and things like that. So, if you’re up for that kind of adventure, it’s awesome for that because you really can do it on your own, if you want to, and just strike out. Put the supplies you need in your car, and take off. I know a lot of people who live there do that pretty regularly.
In Dubai, there’s a company called Platinum Heritage that does these really nice desert trips. The standard tacky trip is something called the dune bashing trip where they take you out and dune buggy things. And you drive around, you make a lot of noise, and then kind of hang out and you come back. There’s nothing particular about the place in those dune bashing trips. And they might be fun. I haven’t been on one. But the Platinum Heritage trips are very much like, “We’re going to show you what Emiratis have always done in the desert.”
They take you out in these old Land Rovers and take you way out there. They have an old, traditional bedouin camp set up. They feed you really traditional food. It’s a very nice sedate thing to do. It’s not very far from Dubai. You drive an hour and a half and you are out there.
So, that’s the nice thing, is it’s all very accessible, those wilderness. And up further in the northern area, I’m pretty sure there are one or two certain nature parks up there. Although, because I committed this little Oman day trip, I didn’t end up following up those other leads, so I can’t say specifically. I can say that Oman day trip was awesome and I totally, totally recommend it.
Chris: As we start to wind this down, what’s going to be the biggest surprise for me when I finally get to the UAE?
Zora: I think the influence of India is one of the huge things, and it’s not just because there are a ton of Indian guest workers there. Although that kind of keeps it alive. You really see it historically and you understand that’s how the spice trade was happening. Stuff was coming from India to the Arabian Peninsula and getting…there are these trade routes that you see and dotted lines on maps. And then you see how they played out and what they built in this area. I’m saying that in a very broad strokes way. I think a lot of the spice stuff happened in other parts of the Arabian Peninsula.
Dubai, specifically, was very wealthy from pearl diving in the Gulf. Actually, that reminds me of one of the things that really surprised me. I went like, “Oh, it’s the desert. It’s desert Arabs that bedouins.” This is a thing I describe in the book, “All Strangers Are Kin,” where I went to the Dubai Museum and I’m kind of going through there and seeing all these displays about the old pearl trade and all these different things. I happened to pass this little tiny room, and there are like [inaudible 00:36:37]. You know, the sign was like very cryptic and they’re like [inaudible 00:36:41]. They’re very strong and very honest, and this mythical language.
It said “They” and not “We.” I was like, “Oh.” I hadn’t really thought through all the terminology before, and how people see themselves. I think what was most surprising, I stood there and put it all together, “Oh, Dubai faces the water. That’s the seagoing culture and the pearl diving culture.”
And it’s still really alive, these beautiful, beautiful wooden boats that are still being built and used to ship stuff across to Iran and stuff like that. And there are more there along the creek in Dubai, and people are loading stuff on them, boxes on them of ovens and refrigerators. I mean, they all say made in China. It’s like this crazy collision of different levels of trade and stuff like that.
Chris: Speaking of that, the RAK, which I will not attempt to pronounce again, in the late 1700s, very, very early 1800s, to the British, that was the piracy coast. And so, yeah, they were definitely sea facing, and not all just pearl divers.
Zora: Yeah. I think, one of the early Sheikhs in Dubai was totally unapologetic about that. He was like, “The Emirates was part of the British Empire for awhile.” I mean, they were part of it, but they weren’t an official state or anything. And the Sheikh was very unapologetic. He’s like, “Yep, we made our early money on smuggling. We’re legitimate now. But at the time…” I actually have a friend who did that Oman day trip I was talking about, about the little boat trip.
She said when she was up in the town, in the little tippy point end up there, before they were getting on the boat, she was like, “We’re sitting there waiting to get on the boat. Meanwhile, the next boat over is being loaded with cases and cases of cigarettes and things like that.” She was like, “How dubious.” Actually, the guide on her boat trip was saying there’s tons…because, like I said, there’s this strange little patch work of land and sea and stuff. And everybody has a boat, and Iran is right over there. So there’s a lot of back and forth.
Chris: Not all officially sanctioned trade, is the impression I’m getting.
Zora: No. Some of it involves livestock. There was some story about people are trading certain consumer goods from the Emirates for very good sheep, very tasty sheep from Iran. This may be something they tell tourists. I’ve no idea. But I do love the idea that like, “Under cover of the night.” These little boats are going out filled with cigarettes, and then they come back filled with goats or whatever.
Chris: Excellent. Before we get to our last four questions, anything else we should know before we go to the UAE?
Zora: Well, I would say everybody always asks “How do I dress in a Muslim country? What do I do?” Dress conservatively and…
Chris: So, cover shoulders and no decolletage, and cover your knees.
Zora: Yeah. Of course you go and you’ll see plenty of cleavage all over the place. For me, this was something going to the UAE really cemented for me. The Muslim clothing stuff comes out of a very specific environment, and that environment is blazing sun and terrible heat. And you are so much happier if you are covered from the sun.
If you go out in your normal summer apparel and your tank top and shorts, yeah, it’s a little culturally tacky but it is also incredibly painful when you get this terrible, terrible sunburn. And the wind kicks up and suddenly you have sand blowing into your sunburn. There’s a reason people dress like that, and you see it very, very clearly.
There was a terrible sandstorm when I first got to Dubai. You couldn’t see for like three days. I was out in Al Ain actually driving around and there was this other horrible sandstorm. And I got back to the hotel and I was like, “Ah!” like, gritting my teeth, bracing to run to the door of the hotel. And these women were getting out of the car next to me, and they’re in head-to-toe black, you know, the traditional abaya.
They’re wearing their head scarves stitched down super tight and face veils, and I was like, “They’re not getting sand in their teeth. They’re not getting sand in their hair.” So you don’t have to go that extreme, of course. There’s no expectation that you need to dress like that, but just remember you’re going to a desert and you want to keep the sun off.
Chris: Well, and probably bring in a scarf if you’re going in any mosques.
Zora: Exactly. Although the one in Sheikh Sayed, the one in Abu Dhabi I was talking about, they have scarves and robes for women to wear.
Chris: When we did the Amateur Traveler trip to southern Morocco last year, we learned how to tie our…I want to say turban, but that seems a little more Indian when I say it that way. And then how to pull the one part of it down so you could use it over your face. And there was one point, it was just before we went out into the desert, and the wind was blowing and we all thought we were going to be needing that.
Zora: Right. You’re like, “Actual concrete, too.” Not just a salesman stick. It really is useful.
Chris: Exactly. You’re standing in the prettiest spot that you saw in the whole UAE. Where are you standing and what are you looking at?
Zora: I think the Sheikh Zayed Mosque. The internal courtyard, and the stone inlay, and then you see little glimpses of the colorful hand woven rug inside. The scale of it is so dramatic, the arches are huge, and the people are all quite small. And there’s this great aesthetic thing traditionally in the Emirates where men wear white and women wear black. Period.
And some people play with that a little bit. The women have all been given their official Sheikh Sayed Mosque robes to wear on the tour and stuff, that kind of cements this image. You look around and it’s this very serene, little pops of color from the rug and the stone inlay. But there’s basically the white stone and then everybody standing around in little black robes and things. It’s gorgeous. It’s really relaxing.
Chris: One thing that makes you laugh and say, “Only in the UAE”?
Zora: Oh my God, there’s so much of that. I think I said that every time I went around a traffic circle. I stayed with a woman in Abu Dhabi who I found on Airbnb. A lot of the Airbnb stuff is just condo rooms, but this was a room in someone’s house, very middle class house in Abu Dhabi.
She was wonderful, and she would not almost let me leave. She and her husband were like, “Oh, no. Stay for lunch.” And then I was like, “But I have to get on the road.” And they’re like, “No, no. Stay for lunch.” And then as soon as I ate lunch, they were like, “Wait, wait. We have dessert,” and sort of pinned me to the couch and gave me huge servings of dessert.
And then they’re like, “Oh, it’s just not safe to drive after you’ve eaten a big meal. You really need to stay and take a nap.” I was so tempted. I was like, “I could stay here and have you feed me things forever.” And then when I left, she spritz me all over with perfume and gave me a big hug.
The whole story of meeting her and her husband is in this book I wrote. What a treat. Anyway. The exchanges you do have, because people speak English and because they’re all in this place by choice, most people have decided to come to the UAE to work and are open to new things by definition, so, you meet some really, really interesting people.
Chris: Excellent. Finish this thought: You really know you’re in the UAE when, what?
Zora: You really know you’re in the UAE when you see a total girl gang striding through the mall, super girl squad, and they’re all wearing black abayas, or big black robes. And they’re sort of billowing out and they have them kind of unzipped so you can see a little bit of their super couture clothing glimmering underneath. The style with these women is they put their hair in these huge beehives, and then put the loose head scarf draped over that.
And usually huge, heavy black Amy Winehouse eye liner. So, these girls just look…I mean, it kind of gave me slight flashbacks of the girls who wanted to kick my butt when I was in middle school. I was like, “I’m back at the mall in Albuquerque. I’m going to get my butt kicked by these girls.” It’s just, the fashion, it’s fantastic. You think like, “Everyone wears black, everyone wears white,” but there’s some fantastic style.
Chris: And if you had to summarize the country with three words, what three words would you use?
Zora: Diverse, serene. Once you get out of the traffic and into the desert, it’s like you pulled the plug and all you hear is this little breeze and the sand slightly blowing. It’s amazing. Okay, diverse, serene, and commercial. It is unapologetically this is what happens when capitalism is given 200% free rein. It’s just a really interesting thing that has been built there. It’s really over the top and fascinating.
Chris: Excellent. Our guest again has been Zora O’Neill. And Zora, you mentioned the book a couple of times. Tell us a little more about your latest book.
Zora: Oh, sure. It’s called “All Strangers Are Kin: Adventures in Arabic and the Arab World.” It’s coming from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. It’s the publisher. It’ll be out in June. It’s basically about my experience. I studied Arabic all through college and graduate school, and I studied very academic Arabic, like the Arabic of literature.
And I studied it mostly for reading and writing. I never got really good at speaking with people or very comfortable. So, my mission with this book was to go back to the Middle East and study only spoken Arabic, and finally use Arabic as an actual communication tool. Also, use it as a way of talking about the Middle East.
This is totally separate from political stuff, the stuff you read in the news, and just as a way of sharing. My previous experiences there had all been super positive. You meet and you’re just like, “This matches nothing I see in the news.” So, I really wanted to share that.
And traveling with the language at the forefront gave me a great opportunity to meet fabulous people who spritz me all over with perfume and held me down and made me dessert. There was a lot of that. It was a book with many scenes of extreme hospitality and many other very funny things.
Chris: Well, and we should say that while we focused in on the UAE, your travels were more extensive than that. It’s just we wanted to focus in on a smaller region just for the purposes of this show, because it’s already going to be a long show and we just talked about the smallest country you went to.
Zora: Right. I did go to one smaller country. I went to Lebanon, which is teeny weeny, but there’s a lot to talk about there. Yeah, the book cover is Egypt, where I had the most experience and where I previously studied Arabic and lived for awhile. So, Egypt, and then I went to the UAE and did a little side trip to Qatar while I was there. And then Lebanon and Morocco.
And I picked all those four countries because I really wanted to talk about what was…the phrase is “The Arab World,” and it makes people think it’s a single place when in fact it’s a collection of all these countries where people happen to speak Arabic but don’t necessarily have a ton of other things in common.
And in fact, the Arabic they speak differs widely from country to country, which, you know, high jinks ensue, when you try to study in one country and then move to the next one and try to learn that dialect. By the end, my Arabic was very, very broken, but I felt like I had learned so much more than I even anticipated.
Chris: Excellent. Well, Zora, thanks for coming back on the show and sharing with us your travels, a little piece of them, and your newfound love for the UAE.
Zora: Yes, my pleasure. Thanks for letting me talk about it.
Chris: I think we’ll skip the community section today with news from the community. I am on the road. I’m actually traveling today in Corning, New York, where among other things today, I was blowing glass, learning how to make glass at the Corning Museum of Glass. And you’ll be hearing more about that on the blog and maybe sometime later also on the podcast.
But for now, let’s wrap this one up. If you have any questions, send an email to host at amateurtraveler.com. Or better yet, leave a comment on this episode at amateurtraveler.com. And before we start talking about where to go next is the time to join us at amateurtraveler.com/trips, our private Facebook community. And as always, thanks so much for listening.
Transcription sponsored by JayWay Travel, specialists in Central & Eastern Europe custom tours.