I was a little bit nervous about this tour after last night’s difficulty with people being able to enter the port. Also, there have been people not showing up for tours and if that happened on this tour, we would have to pay for them anyhow. This made me very nervous. Some people had their luggage with them because there was nowhere to store it at the port; others had just arrived and were dropping off their luggage. There were so many things that could go wrong. I had asked everyone with luggage to clear it with the tour company ahead of time to make sure there was enough space for it, but not everyone actually did so.
We left the ship at 8 am; the tour was supposed to start at 9 and I had asked everyone to meet me by 8:45 at the latest because I had to collect funds for the tour ahead of time. The port terminal building was now divided into two groups – those leaving and those arriving. The ship’s staff tried to direct people to one area or the other but most people ignored them. I kept going outside to see if I could find our tour guide and bus but had no luck. There was no one holding a sign with “Phillips” on it, nor could I find a bus with my name on it. I asked a couple of other tour operators if they were familiar with the company. I had been corresponding with Abu Dhabi Sightseeing; they told me that was not the name of a tour company. Not good news.
Clayton had been finding people around the terminal building and having them sit in a group. We met a couple that will be on the cruise with us all the way to Hong Kong. I kept looking for people that were arriving for the cruise (we had met some of them at last night’s safari) but couldn’t find them. It was already hot and I was getting worried. I decided to call the contact number for the guide that I had been given. He assured me that the bus was either there already or would be in 2 minutes. Great news. About 5 minutes later I still hadn’t found anyone from the company so called again. While I was on the phone with the guide I located a man with a sign that had my name on it (sort of – not spelled correctly, but close enough). Whew!
I started to collect money for the tour. Additionally, there was an optional Arabian buffet lunch that some people had signed up for, so I collected for that as well. The bus driver then led people to the bus while I continued to scout for the remaining people. I spotted one woman across the parking lot and directed her to the bus. The last couple arrived by taxi so I collected their money and we headed to the bus together. I had 23 people on my list; the tour company thought there should be 24. I have no idea if there was someone else that should’ve been there, but since I did not have any additional names, I told them we would be paying for the 23 that I knew, not 24. They had managed to cram all of the luggage into the luggage holds (an engineering marvel considering how much there was). I was relieved that they were able to make it work.
We pulled out of the parking lot. The bus driver didn’t talk; if he was our tour guide, it was a strange way to start a tour. Once we left the port, he pulled over and picked up the man that was our guide, Mirza Mahmood. He filled us in on some information about the UAE (United Arab Emirates). There are 7 Emirates; each has its own ruler (Shaikh). The Emirates were federated on December 2nd, 1971, so December 2nd is celebrated in the area. There were some decorations up already. We even drove down a street called December 2nd Street!
The largest Emirate by far is Abu Dhabi which makes up 83% of the total area. The ruler of Abu Dhabi presides over all of the emirates as well as being the ruler of Abu Dhabi. The flag of UAE has four colors: red represents courage, green Muslim, white peace and black oil. The national language is Arabic, but English is the primary language for communication (secondary is Hindi). Of the 8.5 million people in the UAE, 30% are native (Arab); 30% are Indian and the remainder is a polyglot of races.
There were taxis everywhere. All were a beige color but had many different color tops. If the driver is a woman the top of the cab is painted pink. We saw one pink-topped taxi in our 6-hour tour. There is a great public transportation system that includes a driverless metro. The red line of the metro is the longest metro track in the world. Do you know that there are air conditioned bus stops here? They are enclosed (obviously); if you want the bus to stop for you the bus stop lights up to let the driver know that there is someone inside waiting for the bus. Of course, it can reach 120 degrees F during the summer it makes sense.
Our first stop was the El-Fahidi Fort which contains an amazing museum of Arabic history. Unlike other museums we have visited, you could take pictures here. I took plenty of pictures! Upon exiting the museum Mirza (our guide) wanted some clarification of how the afternoon would work. I had emailed the company regarding people visiting the Burj Khalifa and had been told that if they bought tickets for 2 pm that they would have enough time to go to the top and return and that we could be back at the port by 3 pm. Mirza said that this would not work. He was also concerned about what people would do that did not participate in the buffet lunch. I didn’t have a good answer for this since I didn’t know where lunch was. He drew me a map to show me that the plan I had in mind would not work. I told him that we had been told that those of us not going up the Burj could go to the Dubai Mall.
When we got back on the bus I handed over the large wad of cash that I had collected earlier. I was happy to hand that off! We rode a boat across the creek that divides Dubai into old and new to visit the spice souk and gold souk. These are both located in old Dubai. The small ships that I took pictures of turned out to be cargo ships that are small enough that they can enter the city (via the creek). These carry goods to Iran.
We walked through the spice souk as a group. Because we didn’t have any free time it was not really possible to buy anything. Same with the gold souk (just think of the money I saved!). We did see the world’s largest gold ring with the Guinness Book of World Records certificate next to it to verify the claim.
We stopped at the Jumeirah Mosque for a photo stop. I thought we were supposed to go into the mosque but Mirza said that we should have set that up ahead of time. I am pretty sure that it was on our itinerary, but he didn’t seem to think so. Not worth arguing over, so I let it go. This particular mosque is a copy of a mosque in Egypt, the El Patmia Mosque. There are 1000 mosques in Dubai. Mirza talked about the call to prayer (Azan). We have been in enough Muslim countries that some of the information was familiar, but he did mention that the times for prayer vary because they are based on the time of sunrise and sunset. Also, if ablution (ritual cleansing of hands and feet) doesn’t take place, the prayers don’t count.
Mirza also told us about the traditional dress that some Arabs here wear. I have no idea how to spell any of these, so bear with me! The long white robe is called a kaddurah; white is worn by most but any color is acceptable. A white scarf is worn with a roll around it to hold it in place. I wrote down that the roll was white, but I think I have seen mostly black, so I probably wrote the incorrect information. Women must be covered in a loose, long, black dress (abbiyah) so that you cannot see the shape of their body underneath. If the face is also covered, the covering is a burka. There is also a long, colorful dress that some women wear (gelabia??).
Dubai is known for being a very rich area. The crime rate is zero (I doubt it, but that is what we were told), there are no taxes, and it is very clean (we saw no graffiti; a homeowner can be fined if the exterior of their house is dirty). Mirza’s thoughts as to why the crime rate is non-existent is that the natives are rich (so no need to commit crimes) and the immigrants are here on work permits. If they commit a crime, they will be sent back to their home countries. The government provides free housing and education for native Arabs.
The government gives 140,000 Dirhams (about $38,500) as a marriage gift to newlyweds. As an inducement to increase the population, each child the couple has make them eligible for an additional baby bonus. Though up to 4 wives are allowed, each wife must be treated equally.
Next up was a stop at the beach (Umm Suqeim). In the background, you could see the Burj Al-Arab Hotel (the famous sail-shaped building); a 7-star hotel. The cheapest room there is 10,000 Dirhams (about $2750); the most expensive is 60,000 (about $16,500) per night. The hotel is 321 meters tall (almost 1000 feet) and provides an excellent view of the 4 man-made islands (Palm Jumeirah and The World). Apparently, you can buy a drink there that costs 25,000 Dirhams ($6850) that is served in a solid gold glass. The good news is that you get to keep the glass as a souvenir. Too bad there isn’t time on the tour for us to stop there; I could buy everyone a round! If you happen to drink too many of those excellent 25K drinks, a driver will be provided to drive you home in your own vehicle. The driver then takes a taxi to get back to the hotel. On a much smaller scale, I saw delivery motorcycles for McDonalds (also Burger King and Sbarro); I guess if you have a Big Mac Attack here, you are in luck!
The beach was beautiful. I am sure most of the people there were tourists. I couldn’t spot anyone in a burkini but did see some women in traditional dress. We were very hot dressed as we were; I can’t imagine how warm you would be dressed in black from head to toe and covered with a headscarf. If you crossed the Arabian gulf you would be in Iran. If you were Iran looking towards Dubai, you would call the water the Persian gulf rather than the Arabian gulf.
If you are not familiar with Palm Jumeirah, it is the palm-tree shaped island that is completely man-made. 94,000,000 cubic meters of sand from the Arabian Sea and 7,000,000 tons of rock were used to create it. The “trunk” of the palm tree is where the high-rise hotels are located (20 of them); this is 6 km (3.6 miles) long. There are 16 palm fronds; 2-story villas, each with its own beachfront, are built on the fronds. Foreigners are allowed to buy these. Many are owned by Russians, Asians, Indians, and Pakistanis. There is an 11 km (6.6 miles) long crescent that wraps around the top of the fronds; this is where the Atlantis resort is located (a penthouse here will run you 100,000 Dirhams or about $27,500). In order to reach it you must drive through an underground tunnel. The tunnel is decorated with drawings of the 4 man-made islands. Palm Jumeirah is the smallest of the 3 palm-shaped islands; “The World” is a representation of a globe (go figure); I believe Mirza said it has not been completed yet. Our group passed on the opportunity to stop to take a picture of the Atlantis resort. Some were concerned that we would not make it back to the port by 3 pm.
At some point on the drive, people requested an airport transfer rather than being taken back to the port. One couple had pre-arranged this with the tour company ahead of time, but 7 more people wanted to see if it would be possible. They assumed that the bus could take them to the airport after dropping the rest of us at the port (it seemed logical). A negotiation took place between one of the men on the bus, Chris, and Mirza. Mirza then had to call his boss to discuss it. It was decided that a smaller bus would be sent later in the day to pick up those needing to go to the airport and the rest of us would ride back to the port. This meant that the luggage would have to be switched to the smaller bus. They did offer a very fair price for the service and were willing to work with everyone to try to accommodate their needs.
It was now lunch time. Those of us eating at Danial’s were dropped off in front of a small mall; we took the escalator up to the restaurant. Three people decided to take a taxi back to the port because they were concerned that they would not get back in time. The remainder of the group was going to buy fast-food at the mall where the restaurant was located. The buffet lunch was absolutely incredible. It was by far the most varied buffet we have ever been to. There was a large array of Arabian food, but also many Indian dishes. There was seafood, chicken, lamb and beef dishes. There were multiple salads and pickled items. Many different types of fruit were offered. And, there was a dessert selection to die for. I wished my stomach had a larger capacity because I was barely able to scratch the surface of all of the wonderful dishes I wanted to try.
Our final stop today was the Dubai Mall. One couple had pre-purchased tickets to go to the top of the Burj Khalifa (Burj, by the way, simply means tower). Somewhere along the way it was decided that instead of moving the luggage to a new bus that it would make more sense for those of using going back to the port to move to the new bus. I felt sorry for our Mirza; we did not make this an easy day for him. Between the group splitting (some leaving early) and the airport transfers (including one woman that needed to catch a bus to Abu Dhabi instead of going to the airport) as well as needing to provide enough time for the couple to see the Burj Khalifa, we really made it a bit of a challenging day for him. Mirza walked us to a meeting point in the mall and told the couple how to get to the Burj (it was very close by).
The Dubai Mall is enormous (12,000,000 square feet); it contains 1200 stores spread over 3 levels. The fountains on the exterior are the ones that Bellagio patterned its famous fountains after. There is an indoor gold souk, huge waterfall, ice skating rink and massive aquarium in the mall as well. The parking garage can house 14,000 cars. You get my point; this place is huge! We had an hour to look around and were hopefully going to meet up with the couple after they saw the Burj. We wandered around the mall. There was most excellent people-watching there. The shops looked to be much the same as the ones we see at our local malls, but we only scratched the surface of what was there. We had to go outside to view the Burj Khalifa. By now the haze had lifted so we were able to see the entire building. The fountains were not turned on, unfortunately, so could only imagine what it would look like if they had been. We returned to the mall for a bit. One very nice touch was finding some chocolate samples to nibble on by the Dubai police display (as if I needed more to eat!). The police car and cool motorcycle were popular with tourists (including us).
We waited awhile for the “Burj couple” but they did not return, so we opted to head out. We were originally supposed to be back to the port by 3 pm; it was already 3:40. I emailed the couple to let them know that they would need to take a taxi back (they had been pre-warned by our tour guide that this might happen) and we headed back to the bus. We split the group and those heading home from the cruise loaded up the big bus to head to the airport while the rest of us went to the smaller bus to head to the port. On the way, we spotted some fancy cars (a Ferrari, 2 Lamborghinis, and a Rolls Royce). Frankly, given Dubai’s reputation, we expected to see more sports cars than we did. I noticed that the school buses were very fancy – they were tour buses painted yellow. The kids at home would be so jealous! We did spot one bus stop that did not have air conditioning and felt sorry for the woman waiting for the bus there.
The bus driver dropped our guide off near his home and drove us to the port. We saw some amazing sites today. This is one more port where there just was not enough time to see it all! I guess one of the things we like about cruising is to be able to see so many places in such a short amount of time, but that is also one of the most frustrating parts. There is never enough time to see any place in depth. But, it does give you a good idea of where you might want to return some day!
We have two more tours arranged with the same company; one in Abu Dhabi and one in Fujairah. I am hoping things will be a bit more smooth because we will not have issues with a mixed group of people embarking and people disembarking, nor will anyone have to go to the airport.
One final note regarding Skyroam: It does not work in many Middle-Eastern countries. It did not work in Oman, nor has it worked in Dubai or Abu Dhabi. The wi-fi at the port in Dubai did not work, either. Fortunately, the wi-fi at the port in Abu Dhabi is great so I can get caught up on posting to the blog.