Monday, January 3, 2011

Day 1

I just want to say this whole program was a fairly expensive endeavour, so unfortunately my wife couldn't come with me due to expenses. I was also lucky enough to receive a scholarship from one of Jenn's old bosses' organization that actually paid for half the program for me. So that was pretty amazing of them and extremely helpful to us. And just a note before hand, with day 1 coming to an end i have over 50 pictures already and no way to get them on my computer unfortunately. So i will either try and figure it out while i'm here or you'll have to wait till i get home to see the pics. (since writing this, i have a way of posting my pics and am now including them). I really need my wife here on these types of trips cuz i am horrible at taking pictures. I always take them of really dumb things. My wife told me to make sure i or someone else is in the picture. I would say the majority of them didn't go that way. Also, there will probably be a lot of spelling errors. This program has spell check, but with where i am, it says the whole thing is spelled wrong because it is basing it off Arabic. Weird, right? And one last things; these posts will be quite long. At least this first one will be.

Anyway, I flew out from Phoenix, AZ on New Years Day on a direct flight to London. I had about an 8 hour layover in London and was able to go see the city there, but i want to devote this strictly to Dubai. London was very cool and i will get to see more of it on my way home, but the majority of my time will be spent here in Dubai. Besides, i know a lot of people who have been to London, but only a few who have come to Dubai. So i will focus on that i think. The flight to London was about 9 hours and the flight from London to Dubai was another 6 1/2. I left at 9:15 PM on the 1st and arrived in Dubai at 8:30 AM on the 3rd. Needless to say, i am a little messed up on sleep right now with all the time changes. I hope to make up for that tonight by sleeping in a real bed. I don't do well sleeping on planes, regardless of how long the flight was.

The flights were smooth, no real bouts with turbulence, and it really didn't drag too much. I don't want to linger on the flights, but just mention that i wasn't hating my life the whole time the way i thought i would. Landing in Dubai felt a little unreal. The airport there is quite large. Either that, or just really spread out. It seemed like it took forever to get out of there. Once we had our bags and were ready to leave, i stopped and exchanged some money. The local currency is the AED, or simply the dirham. The exchange rate was pretty kind to me. $1 will give me 3.6 dirhams, so i exchanged $200 cash for 721 dirhams. It seemed a little weird to me still, and i asked the lady at the counter if that was a lot of money. She just looked at me, almost annoyed, and said, "yeah, that's a lot of money." It is still taking time getting used to the conversions. Everything is priced really high, so i am trying to figure out if it's a good deal or not based on the dollar. For example, when we left the airport we were met by a company contracted through ASU to pick us up and take us to where we are staying. When we got dropped off, i tipped the guy 20 dirhams. It seemed pretty fair to me. Then i went to the store to buy a tooth brush. It was 18 dirhams. So i basically tipped the guy a toothbrush, and that made me feel kind of bad. Some locals we met insisted that was a good tip. I guess tipping over here isn't a big priority. Still, doing the math, 18 dirhams for a toothbrush equals $5. Is that too much for a toothbrush? i don't know, i don't buy them that often. I mean, it's a pretty sweet toothbrush and all, but... anyway, the point is i am dealing with making sure i am getting good deals and not paying too much for simple items. And i still feel bad only tipping that guy a little over $5.

We are staying at a place called the Emirates Academy. The rooms are actually really nice. They are small, single occupancy dorms and everyone in our program gets their own room. We have a small table and chairs, small TV, and small kitchen that is stocked every morning with breakfast stuff. Fruit on the table, eggs, bread, milk, cereal, etc. It's all covered in the program fee. Quite nice. The Emirates Academy is a school based entirely on tourism and hospitality, so all the students here are studying how to manage hotels and run tourist attractions and what not, as well as learning several languages at a time. We've met several of the students, which has been an enormous advantage to us. They are indeed very hospitable, offering to drive us places to save money on cab fare, telling us things to see and things to skip, letting us know how much to spend on certain things, etc. They are very cool and very nice. I guess i should do a run down of the people i have met so far before talking about the day:

Leonard and Mariella - my travel companions. There are about 14 people in the program including the two instructors and we were given a suggested itinerary that the instructors were taking but told that we could get here anyway we wanted as long as we got here by the 3rd. Most people found there own ways here, and i collaborated with a few people via email to fly into London with long layovers so we could see the city. Leonard and Mariella were two of the people who came on the flight with me from Phoenix. They are both 19, Mexican but could pass for Middle Eastern, live in the west valley and have known each other for a while now. Leonard told me they aren't dating, but you wouldn't guess it from watching them. Anyway, they have been very cool so far. Leonard is really talkative and not afraid to engage people. He is the one who first met the students here at the Academy. He's a decent dude, generous, easy to talk to, very agreeable and willing to go with the flow, but also always looking for ways to make the most of the time we have. I can appreciate that. He works as a service rep for Honda, so he is constantly looking at the cars here in Dubai, and with good reason. I've seen more Porches, Mercedes, and Ferraris yesterday and today than i have in 2 months in Phoenix, and there are plenty of them in Phoenix. Mariella is really sweet, a very pretty young girl and truly lovely. She's also easy to talk to and has a good sense of humor. After our night wound down tonight and we were walking back to the Academy, she turned to me and said, "hey Jon, we're in Dubai," sharing the sentiment that this all still seemed so unreal. Leonard and Mariella seemed attached at the hip. They've been a lot of fun and i have enjoyed spending time with them.

Jill - our 4th travel companion. The four of us flew from Phoenix to London, but Jill's flight to Dubai left earlier than ours so she had to split from the group a little sooner to make her flight. Consequently, she got in to Dubai earlier than us as well. She is Persian. Her family comes from Iran, so she is excited since the coast of Iran is within about 100 miles from Dubai. She is also 19 and looks very similar to Jenn's cousin Tyler's wife Lauren, for those of you who know her. I think the two of them would get along very well because they have a lot of the same mannerisms and interests as well (from what i know of both of them, which is very little). She's vegan, which is boo, but she is very nice and willing to go along with things fairly easily. At least she's not a preachy vegan.

Shaheem - the first person we met here at the academy. Shaheem is not really a student here, and i don't really know what he does around here but he knows EVERYONE. He's a local, or what they call a "national", even with family ties to the ruling family of here and neighboring cities. The fact that he is a national is actually kind of rare, as Dubai's approximately 2.3 million people are made up of 85% foreigners. Being a national gives Shaheem a lot of advantages though. He is 28, has a cushy government job, a free house and sizable piece of land given to him by the government, and drives a new Dodge Charger. Shaheem is very friendly, not short but not very tall, and he's got some weight on him. He, like almost everyone else here, smokes like a chimney and speaks fluent English. He's very proud of the fact that he's a national. I ask him if people here like the government, and he replies, "They love it. Why wouldn't they?" It's true. A good job, free house, and no taxes does sound pretty sweet.

Daniel - a Romanian student. He's been here for over a year now and is one of the only people we have met so far who doesn't smoke cigarettes constantly. No one we have met doesn't speak at least very good English if not perfect English. That combined with the fact that everything is written in Arabic and English makes it very difficult for anyone around here to try and learn Arabic if they don't already know it. It's really not necessary, "unless dealing with the police," Shaheem tells me. Daniel also works (or worked) for the Jumeirah Hotel. Jumeriah is also the name of the area around which we are staying, and is pronounced "Jew-mare-ah". Took me a little practice to get it right, because they all say it so fast. I want to call Daniel "The Man". He's 21 and he's so eager to please us and use his hotel connections to get us deals and privileges, so far not coming through very well. But he tries so hard. He is indeed very hospitable. He plans to visit Lake Tahoe and Los Angeles this summer to meet up with a friend. It will be his first time in the states and he's excited. Eventually, he wants to end up back in Europe when he's done with school.

Modji - i am sure i have this name wrong, but he is another student we met here. Modji is 21, he's from Saudi Arabia, a smoker, wears glasses, has thick black hair that he keeps buzzed, and a muscular build with a pot belly. He's very nice, but we didn't get to spend much time with him. He was flying home to Saudi today to see his family since his sister just had her second baby a month ago and he hasn't been back yet. When he left for the airport he had a guitar strapped to him. I think he might have spent some time going to school in the UK as well. He has traces of an accent and says a lot of things Brits say, like "dodgey".

Yassoff - another student that also goes by Yaz, which makes me think of the birth control that causes cancer or whatever. Yaz is also around 21 or 22, short and pudgy, wears glasses, and i think he said he's from Oman, just south of the UAE, but he looks East Indian. He spent quite a bit of time going to school in London, but has been here in Dubai for several years now (around 10 or so). He plays the part of being very jilted and angry, but in a funny way. Really though, he is very nice and likable, cracks the most jokes and usually keeps conversations rolling, making fun of his friends as well as himself. He swears just as much as he smokes, but we have had some good conversations already. He likes to get into the meaty stuff, like what Americans perception of Arabs is. I tell him mine is just based on movies i've seen and asked how accurate he thinks the portrayals are. I list movies like The Kingdom, Syriana, and Body of Lies. He tells me they are definitely accurate in their isolated cases, but that doesn't apply to all Arabs, which i didn't think they would. But he's very candid and open about all of that. Most of the Arab students we have met come from Muslim backgrounds, but are not very devout. I think Yaz falls into this category.

Alex - i think that's his name, but Alex had a reputation before we met him and he lived up to it. He's also around the same age, 21-22, and comes from Serbia, speaks English, Russian, a bit of Arabic, and a bit of French. He's a big boy, muscular, tall and intimidating, but very nice and very talkative. The other students told us he is a martial arts master and not to get on his bad side, which would be very hard to do in the first place. He doesn't disappoint by showcasing some of his moves for us while talking with his friends. I'm not very impressed. I mean, he's big and i am intimidated by him, but i don't think he's ready for the UFC any time soon. I like hearing him speak Russian though, or even more hearing him impersonate a thick Russian accent while speaking English. It's funny and he has some good stories to tell. He also smokes and swears constantly.

There are more people we've met, but these are the ones we have spent the most time with and talked with. So the events of the day go like this: after arriving at the Academy, i set up my laptop right away.
I told Jenn i would skype her as soon as i got in and it took me way longer to get through customs than i had expected. She was over at her parents' house using their computer and i told her it would be around 8 or 9 PM her time, but it wasn't actually until about 11:30. We talked a while about London and everything i'd done so far and worked out a schedule to talk for the remainder of the trip. Then i unpacked, took a shower and met up with Leonard and Mariella. We all tracked down Jill, who had been here long before us, and went over to the "diner" for some lunch. The Academy has a lot of amenities right here on campus, like a small gym and a pool, a convenience store with some basic items, and the diner where it seems the students like to eat because it's very good, very cheap, and good portions. They have all kinds of dishes to choose from, and i get a philly cheese steak sandwich with fries for 16 dirhams. I'll have plenty of time to eat local food, i'm just hungry at this point. The sandwich doesn't disappoint. It's very good. We sit out in the sun and breezy 75 degree weather while we eat. This is the time when we meet all of the students i listed above. They all come together throughout the time frame of about 3 1/2 hours, one by one, and we all sit at the table and just talk and get to know each other. It was a good time, just hanging out and getting to know people. They want to make plans for dinner with them for tonight, so we do. A Mexican place they want to take us to. I am skeptical, but willing to go along. I love Mexican food. Just not sure how well it translates in this hemi-sphere.

We decide after sitting and talking for hours that we need to go do and see something. Most of the other people in our program haven't even arrived yet. It's around 3 in the afternoon and they probably won't be here until around 11:30 tonight. Nothing officially gets started till tomorrow, so we have the day to just explore. Daniel gives us some suggestions of things to go see. We decide on the Mall of the Emirates, which is close by, and Shaheem offers to drive us there in his Dodge Charger. The Mall of Emirates isn't the biggest mall around, not by a long shot. Regardless though, it is huge. It's very elegant as well, reminding me a lot of the Chandler Mall in Phoenix (or technically, Chandler). There isn't much difference as far as shops go. There are tons of fancy clothing stores there, like Gucci, Prada, Burberry, etc. as well as plenty of regular American shops like H&M, Adidas, Cold Stone Creamery, Star Bucks, several fast food joints like McDonalds, KFC, Burger King etc. Really, it's not much different from an American mall. Nothing that weird or unusual, except there is a mosque on the top floor and they play a call to prayer over the PA system while we are there. It's actually very neat to hear. Muslims have 5 calls to prayer a day where they must get to a mosque and join. Makes sense there would be one at the mall too i suppose. The thing that sets the Mall of Emirates apart though is the indoor ski slope. It's very large and the distinctive shape can be made out from far away outside the mall. They have tons to do in Ski Dubai, which most of us intend to do during the trip. I think we'll wait for the rest of the group though because they wanted to do it as well.

Shaeem drops us off at the mall and gives Leonard his cell number. Leonard has his iphone set up so he can make calls while here, something i thought about but neglected to see if i could do. I don't think my phone is new enough to do it though. We spent a good amount of time looking a
t Ski Dubai through the windows and all it has to offer. In addition to the slope and chairlift, they have a snow park area that they a bobsled-like track, kids area, and yes, even a giant hampster ball you can roll down the hill in. It looks a lot more interesting than it probably really is. the rest of the time it seemed like we walked to whole mall over and over and over (and it's a big mall). We also got some soft serve yogurt that i wasn't all that impressed with from a place called Pink Berries. Jill was ecstatic when she saw it and said how much she loved it. I guess it's a chain in California or something. I probably won't go back again. We went to the Walmart-like store where i bought my 18 dirham toothbrush (that was in the mall), and other than that we just looked at things and took pictures of everything we liked. Leonard called Shaheem when we were ready to leave, and he came and picked us up and took us back to the Academy. At this point i was completely wasted tired from all the time changes, jet lag, and lack of sleep, so i crashed hard for about an hour.

I woke up to my in-room phone ringing around 7:30. Leonard and Yaz were calling to see if i wanted to go to dinner. Jill decided she would rather stay home, so Leonard, Mariella and i met up with Yaz, Shaheem and Daniel and piled into Yaz's GMC Yukon. He drove us down Jumeirah Road to show us some of the sites around. Directly west of the Academy is the Burj al Arab. "Burj" apparently means "tower", and many building use it in the name. The Burj al Arab is the sailboat shaped building featured in the picture i have choosen at the top of the blog. It's a hotel and it pretty well known for it's unique architecture. I chose that picture specifically because it shows the Burj al Arab and the wavy building next to it, which is the Jumeirah Hotel. The Academy is directly across the road from the road in the picture running parallel to the beach. If the picture extended to the right just about an inch or more, you would definitely see the Academy. So we can see the Burj al Arab prominantly at all times. Most people i know have seen the famous pictures of the hanging tennis court at the top. I asked the students if anyone could play tennis up there and how much it would cost. They told he it was a helipad, not a tennis court. It was only set up as a tennis court during the opening as a promotional gimmick. Kind of a bummer. I wanted to keep thinking it was a tennis court.

On the way to dinner, the final call to prayer began playing on the PA systems lining the road and Shaheem asks Yaz to turn off the radio during the call to prayer. Yaz, makes a point to let us know he's not a big follower, but he's respectful of Shaheem's wish to not take away from the importance of the event. So far, this seems to be the prevailing attitude we get from most people we talk to here in Dubai. They are fine with people who have different beliefs than them and are even willing to conceed at times when it doesn't harm or upset anyone else. No one was offended that the radio got turned off, no one made a big fuss, and although none of the rest of us in the car were Muslim in theology or practice, Shaheem was able to have that event not be sullied. I don't know how devout he is because he didn't ask to stop at any of the several mosques we passed on the way to the restaurant, but i wasn't concerned about it. It was just an interesting observation of what's important to Shaheem.

I can't remember the name of the restaurant, but my skepticism was met with pleasant surprise. The food was actually very good. Good enough that i would eat there if it were in Arizona over several of our other options. We sat and talked about a lot of different things, just life, and culture, and plans. This is were Yaz and i had our meaty discussion on Americans and Arabs. We also talk about gas prices, and i am astonished when he tells me they spend about 30 cents for a gallon of gas in Dubai. I knew it would be cheap, but i didn't realize it was THAT cheap. He said if you go to Saudi Arabia, it's about 10 cents a gallon. Pretty amazing what we're willing to pay for it. It's around $3 a gallon in Phoenix right now, and we think that's a decent deal. The sun had set and the air was cool and just a touch humid, but not uncomfortable at all. I had a hoodie on and it was quite nice. We all had a really good time, and i was feeling generous and picked up the tab for everyone. They protested, but i told them i had all this colorful money that i didn't know what it was worth, so it was easy enough for me to just take care of it instead of splitting everything up. Plus, i was really thankful for their help with everything, telling us places to go, giving us rides everywhere, etc. I didn't do this intending to have favors to call from everyone, but it ended up turning out that way. So maybe to those looking to go to Dubai, you should befriend some locals and buy them dinner because they are all clamoring to pay me back now. Not that i want them to or anything, but they have such a gracious and hospitible culture here, especially the tourism and hospitality students. The meal for all 6 of us ended up being about 410 dirhams, about $114, and i left a 50 dirham tip which all the students assured was very generous.

Yaz brought us all back home and then had to take off to run some errands. Leonard, Mariella and i decide to walk down to the Burj al Arab to get some pictures, They light it up all different colors at night. Daniel and Shaheem decide to tag along and we head down. This is when Daniel tries to come through as "The Man". He tries to use his hotel connections with the Jumeirah Hotel to get us on to the property and perhaps inside the Burj al Arab, which only those spending the large fees to stay at the hotel have the privilage of doing. This doesn't work out, and we move down to a string of huge and small buildings just south of there. This, Daniel tells us, is called the Modinot (spelled phonetically, i have no idea how it's spelled really). It is a huge resort consisting of three enormous hotels and smaller subset villas, a giant "souck" which is like a merchant house (or basically, a mall), and lots of beach properties, bars, and entertainment. Alcohol is prohibited by Islamic law, but is allowed to be served on hotel property. This is the only places people can go to drink in Dubai. We walk into the first big hotel area and just see how it's so ornately decorated. It's a five-star resort, and it shows. Behind the hotel is a string of canals and waterways with small gondola-like boats called something like abbracks (that's probably not right though). They will take you on a ride around the resort grounds for 50 dirhams per person, which Daniel and Shaheem assure us is a blatant rip off. Again, "The Man" tries to get us a free boat ride, but is denied. He's getting frustrated and feels bad. His last suggestion is to just walk along the path the abbrack would have taken. We are again denied entry to the walk way, and Daniel is told we have to be resort guests. He's upset at this point because his mother came to visit not long ago from Romania and he was able to work all this out for her. Apparently there has been a policy change with the new year since the system has been abused. Daniel feels terrible for making promises he can't deliver on. We tell him it's really no big deal and that we appreciate him even trying, but he insists he needs to take us out to dinner later to make up for it. He has something up his sleeve that he wants to treat us to. Works for me.

We end the night at a sheesha bar. It's basically the exact same thing as a hookah bar, which there are plenty of in Tempe where ASU is. I was unsure though if by sheesha, they meant hash-eesh. As Shaheem smokes from his hookah, i ask him what it is exactly that he is smoking. He tells me it's just fruit flavored tobacco, which is what it is in Tempe. I asked him if people are allowed to smoke weed there. He gives me a stern look and shakes his head saying, "No no no no no! It is highly illegal." I ask him if he means just weed or all drugs, and he confirms that all drugs are illegal there. I know they have a problem in this area of the world with opium and heroin, but he assures me it's all drugs. Dubai is a big smuggling port because there are no taxes and it's duty free. He said you can find anything you want there, which i am sure is true of most big cities. He tells me however that if you are caught using drugs, you get sent to rehab or deported. If you get caught trafficking drugs, you get the death penalty. There is zero tolerance for it. He said people don't do drugs there cuz it's too risky. Those who do are playing with fire.
The hookah bar is kind of a neat experience. Everyone is sitting outside on fluffy bean bags or comfortable couches, smoking hookahs and chatting while club music plays in the backgroud. There are young kids around as well, 9 and 10 year olds playing with an ipad, and even a kid that can't be older than 4 sitting with what have to be his grand parents smoking a hookah. It's a funny scene, but also a cool atmosphere. The five of us walk back to the Academy about 30 mins later and head for our seperate dorms.

from left to right: me, Shaheem, Daniel, Leonard, Mariella

I heard my instructors come in a while ago. We have some meetings to go to tomorrow, but not till around noon or so. There doesn't seem like much structure to this program and the instructors say they want to spend as little class time as possible and most of the time out there seeing and doing. That works great for me. After day 1, i already feel like i've learned a ton. I'm really liking what i see of this city so far, but i can also see how you'd need a good job to stay here and do the fun things we've been doing so far. It can all add up. Anyway, i am off to bed for the night. Hopefully i can make this a nightly occurance, but also hopefully, not make it this long.