For 40 minutes, I stood in a line 20-people deep at immigration behind a guy I assumed was an extreme sports athlete. The officer we’d lined up for was ignoring our line and was helping his neighboring officer take care of his. It was curious, but no one got annoyed. We all waited patiently for the 30-second interaction.
Nitin and I finally met at about 10pm and walked out to his car. For the next several hours he drove me all around Dubai, taking me to the mall at the base of the Burj Khalifa, then the Palm Jumeirah, the Burj Al Arab, and many places in between. I stood in awe of Dubai’s three separate skylines, walked the foyers of incredible hotels, and explored Bastakiya and the southern shore of Dubai Creek.
We started at the Dubai Mall, which touts itself as the largest in the world. It reminded me of a more civilized Vegas Strip, but with all the pomp and grandeur. But on a much grander scale.
Nitin lead me through the mall to the Fountain for the last show of the night. We perched on the Souk Al Bahar Bridge, the Burj Khalifa towering over us, and the Address Hotel, which recently made headlines for catching fire, at our backs.
I held my GoPro up to record the show. It’s on the 24-acre Burj Lake (burj means tower) and shoots water up to 450 feet. While the Bellagio in Vegas shoots water ten feet higher, this fountain is the world’s largest, and it was beautiful. It was set to Aa Bali Habibi, and one of my favorite parts was listening to the water rocket out of the jets. It made a kind of popping sound, and I smiled the entire time.
I smiled until I realized I didn’t actually record the show. Oops.
After the show ended, we walked back through the mall, and returned to his car. Nitin explained the real estate crisis that has hindered the city: Dubai has a history of great intentions, starting incredible projects and real-estate ventures, and then abandoning them. Much of the issue is because of the influx of foreigners who buy property, or fall into debt another way, and then flee the strict courts of the UAE. In this country, you don’t just declare bankruptcy and hope for the best. If you have debt, they intend to collect.
The vast majority—around 90%—of Dubai’s population is made of foreigners, and they’re largely responsible for Dubai’s explosive growth, and then its near bankruptcy a few years ago. Of course, Dubai’s government isn’t short of blame, and has a history of financial problems.
The Burj Khalifa, for example, is named after the ruler of Abu Dhabi and president of the UAE (the same man). It was originally named Burj Dubai, but after Abu Dhabi and the UAE governments lent Dubai money to pay its debts (tens of billions USD), Dubai figured it’d be a good idea to name the world’s tallest building after the man in charge.
At one point, Nitin and I stood at an overlook and took in the view of the Burj Khalifa and its surrounding skyscrapers. He asked if I wanted to pull out my tripod, which was in my suitcase in the trunk.
“Nah. I don’t want to deal with it.”
And that’s why most of my night pictures from Dubai are terrible.
The night continued on, our conversation largely about the country and its history. At 2am, after he drove me around the Palm Jumeirah, we went to a small restaurant in the Jumeirah Marina and ate a delicious Mediterranean food: foul masri, zaatar manakeesh, and falafels.
I know what we ate because I made Nitin type it out: After we sat down, I looked at the menu, but basically told him to order away. It’s a habit I have with friends I visit in foreign countries, and it’s only been dicey once, when I ended up eating a boiled chicken testicle back in 2010.
Walking back to the car, we came upon a snowman on the beach. Naturally, I had to take a picture with it.
We drove past the Burj Al Arab, which seemed like it was in the middle of nowhere. I found out later that morning that it’s actually in the middle of everything, but I was so turned around that night that I was grateful for Nitin’s knowledge of the city.
A couple of hours before dawn, Nitin suddenly pulled to the side of the road.
“If we leave now, we can go to Abu Dhabi to see the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque,” he said. “We wouldn’t have much time there, but we could do it.”
I’d asked him months before if going to the Grand Mosque was a possibility. It’s the largest mosque in the country and can hold 40,000 people. Marble, gold, semi-precious stones, crystals, mother of pearl, and ceramics are the primary building materials, and after Nitin showed me pictures months ago, I really wanted to go.
We sat in his car.
“I’m awake now, but I’m worried about the drive back. What if we get tired? I mean, I could drive us back if you needed to sleep, but what if we hit traffic?”
Nitin smirked. “I don’t think there will be much traffic.” He had a point. It was about 4am.
I thought about it for a while, then made an executive decision. We stayed in Dubai. The spontaneous side of me was disappointed, and I was worried I’d regret my choice.
“I’ll just have to come back to see it,” I said, trying to make myself feel better.
We headed to Dubai Creek and Bastakiya and wandered around an older part of the city.
It was here, walking along the creek and watching the sky slowly lighten, that made me feel more at home in the tall city of excess.
I saw the Al Fahidi Fort (the oldest building in Dubai).
Nitin led me down sleepy streets where mosques stand sentinel among blocky buildings.
At one point we were in a tight walkway full of worshippers going to a temple nearby.
Our parking expired at 8am, so we got back in the car and drove to the Burj Al Arab.
In the daylight the city looked completely different, and I could see the three skylines and where everything was in relation to one another. A city that felt like it was sprawling and disconnected was actually pretty easy to navigate.
And there were mosques, some of them identical, as often as there are 7-Elevens in Taiwan or gas stations in a suburb in the US.
We walked around the Souk Madinat, a nice, open-air shopping area in the shadow of the Burj Al Arab (souk means market). Nothing was open, and it was quiet, with only Nitin and me wandering around and a few workers setting up for the day. And I completely forgot to take pictures until we were in the car heading back toward the Burj Khalifa.
So I took one with my iPhone as we drove away.
Nitin was on the phone with his friend Amit, and we planned to pick him and his wife Abigail up and go to breakfast. We headed back to the skyline featuring the Burj Khalifa.
Having never met me, Amit and Abigail had offered me a place to sleep, shower, and eat if I’d needed it during my layover. I was astonished by their hospitality. So when we stopped to pick them up, I was happy to meet them.
The conversation with Nitin never stopped throughout the night. We’re polar opposites in a number of ways, but we enjoyed talking. When Amit and Abigail climbed in the car, the conversation cranked up and we all laughed and talked nonstop. It felt like the four of us had been friends for a long time.
Three Indians and one American went to an authentic Indian breakfast food restaurant in a low-key area of Dubai. We talked photography. Amit educated me on the difference between heat and spicy. I tried pani puri and a few other dishes for the first time. It was a cheerful breakfast.
Nitin, Amit, and Abigail made me sad to leave Dubai, and happy we didn’t go to Abu Dhabi—I never would’ve met the others if we had.
The three of them had a quick discussion, and the four of us ended up going to a subway station, clean and shiny like the rest of downtown, and riding to a souk near Dubai Creek, where Nitin and I saw the sunrise. It was warm enough to wear our short-sleeved shirts, and the sun was getting stronger.
As I trailed the others through one alley in the souk, the vendors tried to get our attention and sell us various spices and wares. We passed one vendor with a shop on the right, and he looked at me.
“Oh, my GOD,” I heard him say. His tone was a mix of shock and disgust.
Curious, I asked the others about his reaction in the next open area.
“It’s your tattoo. And the fact that I have long hair,” Amit explained, shrugging his shoulders.
“Does that mean we’re rebellious?” I asked excitedly. He snorted. I’d actually expected a bigger negative response to my visible tattoo, but no one else seemed to care.
I needed to be at the airport two hours before my flight, so we made our way back to the subway, returned to the car, and Nitin drove us to my terminal. I realized I was disappointed my time in Dubai was over. I hugged Nitin and Abigail, and Amit walked me in to show me where to go; before he left, he gave me a bear hug, too.
I stood in line to check in and had a brief rush of emotion. A familiar feeling of anxiety, which I get before every flight, passed over me. I didn’t want to leave the comfort of where I was. I had friends here. I was comfortable here. And Nepal was a scary unknown.
The feeling passed, as it does. My gate was in a crowded area of the terminal, and I sat down. I had a few minutes to charge my phone, message my family and Nitin, and go to the restroom. The gate next to mine was full of men and women dressed all in white, and I couldn’t figure out where they were going or why they were dressed that way.
Then we got on a bus, rode it to the plane, and then climbed stairs to board. I met a woman from the UK who was going to Nepal to backpack with her husband, and saw a number of other backpackers.
The funny thing about traveling to Nepal is that you know the foreigners aren’t going for luxury. They’re dressed in hiking gear, and most of us expected to go without showers for days. I’d never been surrounded by so many low-key, adventurous people.
Once I was settled in my seat I pulled out my journal and began writing all the details of my trip so far. I planned to write every day so I didn’t forget anything, and on the flight, save for the 45 minutes I slept once the sun went down, I filled several pages. I started with my time in DC and interjected with thoughts I had during the flight.
That would be the last time I seriously wrote in my journal on the trip. Nepal proved to be too exciting, too full of conversations, hiking, coloring, impromptu soccer games, carom board, fireside chats, and games to spend time journaling.
I don’t regret it. I may not remember every detail. But it was worth it.