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24 Hours in Abu Dhabi

March 31, 2011

Work unexpectedly landed me in Dubai for Easter weekend and the following week. Although I hardly count myself among the most devout Catholics, I couldn’t fathom the idea of working Easter weekend in a sad Dubai hotel, alone. For me, the religion of holidays is important, but the time spent with Family and friends is the main event.

So I politely told work I was happy to stay in UAE, but I’d see them on Monday. In Dubai, I only know work people. And for this reason, the city really has no attraction for me. Although an architectural and developmental marvel, Dubai has zero lustre in my eyes. So I took the free Emirates Airlines bus to Abu Dhabi. The only requirement for access to the bus is that you have a ticket to prove you are flying into and out of Dubai. I had a ticket proving I flew into Dubai, but none to prove my exit. I did something I hate that I can do, but which always works, and played the indignant-American card, “I always take this bus. I’m traveling for business. Here, look at my passport and my Emirates gold card.” Blah blah blah, It’s disgusting how much I can get away with by utilizing the prestige of being a white business traveler in the East.

I arrived in Abu Dhabi at 4:30 on Friday afternoon. I’ve only been to Abu Dhabi once before, on a similar layover, and was excited to see more of the city. I also have two very dear friends here- My friend Gaar and Jon Marsh. 

I had to leave a number for work to contact me, and I was pretty sure I’d get judged for staying with *gasp* a BOY, so I very sneakily left “Marsh”s number, knowing they would probably think it was my friend Marsha! We had a lot of laughs teasing Jon about being my girlfriend Marsha. He even looks the part , huh?

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Friday night Jon had to do some work, so Gaar and I went to Emirates Palace, a huge hotel cum convention space cum restaurant hub. It is literally one huge palatial building housing multiple restaurants, a museum area, cigar cafes, presidential hotel suites…the works. I felt underdressed…but I think I would have been underdressed in anything other than a crystal-encrusted burqa and Louis Vuitton bag.

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Gaar and I grabbed drinks at the Hakkasan restaurant. Literally, it was like a swanky New York bar, and I felt totally at home for an hour! His description was that it was the “Sex and the City Restaurant” of Abu Dhabi- a place to dress up and be seen. We had cocktails- one in particular was LIFE-CHANGING: Vodka, grated ginger, pressed apple juice,and almond sugar. The bite of the ginger paired with the apple was divine, but I wished I could have tasted the almond more.

We ordered another round, and I got a drink I cant remember the name of. But the bartender was either very impressed with me, or my drink order, because he told me it was a “Beautiful, Beautiful drink. Perfectly balanced. Beautiful” Gaar maintains he was talking about my bod, I think he was actually just in love with the drink. Gin, fresh grapefruit juice, lime and limeo soda water. It WAS well balanced, but a little strong for me!

Gaar and I had a great time chatting about living in the UAE and India, the differences in our lives versus college, how hard it is to explain to our families what it’s like to live here….all the things you need to chat about to someone who “gets it”. We also discussed how talking about these things can seem “complain-y” but really its like, I love my life right now and I’m really fascinated by the experiences I get to have everyday.

Gaar is someone I’ve known almost two years, but always as a friend of a friend- so going to drinks on our own would typically be something that would make me a little socially nervous- but Gaar is also someone who is a particularly skilled conversationalist, and genuinely excited about life, so you NEVER run out of things to talk about.

After drinks we met Jon, their friend Peter, and two other people from the NYU-AD program for Margaritas and Mexican food at El Sombrero restaurant in the Sheraton Corniche Hotel. In UAE drinking publicly is not allowed, and many Muslims do not drink at all. So imbibing is typically done in hotels and hotel restaurants which are “free zones.” Dining with their NYU-AD friends was hilarious because all together, the five of us were SO New York….cynical, acerbic, awful. But to be back in this social pattern for a night= REFRESHING.

Saturday Morning Gaar made us turkey-bacon and toast (no pork in UAE!) before heading to the private beach at Corniche. Holy hot sand….the bottoms of my feet are STILL a little burned! So there are two beaches at Corniche- the public beach and the private beach. On the public beach, there are “Decency Police” who will ask you to leave if your bathing suit is too revealing, if you are wearing shorts too short, AND if you are a man dressed in street clothes

Men in street clothes, it is assumed, are not on the beach to partake in beach activities, but to oggle ladies, so they are not allowed in! Jon and Gaar warned that on the public beach my blindingly white skin would be a subject of great interest to everyone, so we would be more comfortable at the private beach. 10 AED (~3 USD) to get in, and 25 AED to buy a chair and umbrella spot, which was completely necessary in the strong Arabian sun.
After the beach we went to Cafe Arabia which was just written up in the New York Times travel section “36 Hours in Abu Dhabi” It’s a fairly new restaurant, which goes for the restaurant-gallery-art space vibe. Here are two articles about  It was beyond adorable, and our food was great. Gaar, who really knows his Arabic food, ordered Fatteh with Meat, which was chickpeas, yogurt, mint leaves, herbs, pomegranate seeds, pine nuts, and ground beef with some pita chips. I had a bite and wished I had also ordered that! But my grilled Haloumi and tomato caprese sandwich was also divine

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One of the greatest things about Café Arabia was that they had really made an effort that your entire experience in the restaurant be special. From clubs-heart-and speades shaped sugar cubes to local Arab artists’ work on the walls, to a personalized menu from the owner with comments like “My Mom’s Recipe!” and “Sister Halan’s Favourite”.

The integrated concept store/restaurant idea is new to this part of the world, with Le Mill being the first in Mumbai and Café Arabia one of the only ones I am aware of in Abu Dhabi. Where Le Mill failed in Mumbai is that the store doesn’t seem to invite you into the lifestyle they are selling- you feel very much like you are in a store and buying an aspirational lifestyle. Café Arabia, however, is more inviting and makes the customer feel like a part of what is happening in the store and café.This place is a winner and I would definitely recommend it to all who visit Abu Dhabi

Unfortunately, after our lunch in the adorable Café Arabia, it was time to head back to Khalidiya to catch the 4 pm bus back to Dubai…back to work and back to the real world! But not before Jon and Gaar played me THIS VIDEO– a hilarious take on national geographic soundbites!

23.5 hours in Abu Dhabi- great food and really great friends. Im really so lucky to have friends from college so closeby (well, relatively close!) with whom to share the experience of working in another country, adjusting to language and lifestyle,missing home but not in a I-wish-I-were-there sort of way, getting lost in every new country I visit….all the things that make life interesting but are hard to describe to my friends and family at home.

Jon, especially, is an interesting soundboard for all of these things because before taking the job in Abu Dhabi he had only left the US once, whereas most people in his position were already avid travelers or had studied abroad. His cultural adjustment therefore has been twice as significant in quantity of things that are different for him, but his “try anything” attitude has meant, at least in my opinion, that its also twice as significant in quality of experience versus his peers in the leadership of the NYU AD program. Hearing him talk about his first trip to Europe (Netherlands, France, Italy) over spring break made me yearn for my first days in Europe too! When everything was new and different and glamorous! In that way, I think European travel is comparable to the idea of a gateway drug- people say don’t do pot because you’ll eventually be looking for a stonger, harder hit, and end up taking different drugs. Europe was amazing, but once I saw it, I was looking for a more intense and challenging travel and living-abroad experience. In that way, I’d say India is a pretty serious dose of different!

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3 Comments leave one →
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