So one sunday in August, after attending my oldest school friend’s wedding, I made my way to the Middle East. Stepping on the plane, I believed that after a fun filled year in the sun, I’d be back in my beloved London. Little did I know then, that five years would pass before I would ‘properly’ return home.
Living and working in Dubai - an ambitious emirate in the UAE – was an experience like no other. On the one hand, Dubai resembles the land of bling (not for nothing is it described as the ‘Las Vegas of the Middle East’) extending a welcome as warm as the weather to footballers and reality TV stars (Mark Wright was recently papped on The Palm) who delight in the hip hotels, top notch dining, chic bars and modern shopping malls crammed with luxe labels. The mega Mall of the Emirates houses all of the aforementioned and more – namely Ski Dubai, a ski slope complete with 6,000 tonnes of real snow and a 400m slope you can slalom down in between bouts of shopping and snacking – under one roof.
Throw into the mix, blue skies, a sparkling sea and sand whiter than a dentist’s chair - and it’s easy to see why sun starved Brits such as myself were flocking to the emirate in our droves, back in 2005-06. It’s equally easy to see why devout Londoners (like my friend Rhona) were quick to pour scorn on the sunny emirate believing it to be all about plastic surgeons and shopping malls.
But there’s more, so much more, to Dubai than sun worshipping and shopping. Scratch beneath the shiny surface and you’ll find another side to the ‘city of gold’. Alongside iconic modern skyscrapers like the Burj Al Arab (the seven star hotel shaped like the sail of a dhow) sit historical sites such as Bastakia and the creek – arguably the heart beat of Dubai. Here you can watch abras and dhows (traditional Arab sailing boats) weave their way across the water, as they have done for centuries.
For further local flavour, I used to enjoy taking a tour of Jumeirah Mosque (Dubai is after all an Islamic state, even if it isn’t quite how you’d envisage Arabia) on Beach Road, before sauntering through the bustling souks. These traditional market places are alive with vibrant stalls selling everything from art and jewellery to pashminas (a necessity given the Arctic air conditioning levels that you’ll find in Dubai’s myriad malls), batteries, bananas, spices and other seasonings. All are sold out of large open sacks, making for sensory overload.
For more glimpses of the ‘real Dubai’, I’d explore ethnic areas such as Satwa and colourful Karama where you get to mingle with the melting pot of cultures that make up modern day Dubai.
Make no mistake, Dubai could and would frustrate: despite the introduction of salik (an electronic toll system designed to ease road congestion), traffic problems continued with traffic as aggressive and chaotic as anything you’d find in India. Yet while the UAE fascinated and infuriated me in equal measure, life in Dubai was never dull. A favourite local saying was ‘Miss a week and you’ll miss something major’ and it’s true that in Sheikh Mo’s bid to build a dazzling desert kingdom, change was the only constant.
I was in the UAE- based in Dubai but travelling frequently to the conservative capital, Abu Dhabi, and neighbouring Gulf states (take a bow Bahrain, Qatar, Oman and Jordan) - for close to two and a half years. I covered everything from restaurants to retail therapy, spas and sport and made some fantastic friends for life (special shout out to Di, Jess, Holly, Heath and Ananda) with whom I used to lurch from brunch to beach to bar on a Friday (weekends in the Arab world fall on Friday and Saturdays) before I felt that I had my fill of desert life. A big part of me yearned to return to London, but the recession was in full swing- andjob opportunities were few and far between.
So instead I headed east, having accepted a job on a real estate and luxury lifestyle magazine to Grand Cayman (pronounced kei-man) - a place of sugar white beaches and waters so clear that you can see every crevice and crustacean.