What it's really like to live in Dubai

Dubai, by far the best known of the United Arab Emirates’ seven states, is a popular destination for Brits dreaming of a fresh start and an escape from dark dreary winter days. And for good reason: year round sunshine, tax-free salaries – as job adverts go, it’s an attractive one.

But what is it really like to live in the ‘sandpit’? Our former expat spills the beans…

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Dubai is an Islamic state, even if it isn’t quite how you’d envisage Arabia

Dubai is often described as Las Vegas without the casinos but, scratch beneath the surface, and you’ll find it’s nothing like that other world-famous desert-city destination. For while the emirate may outwardly seem as ‘western’ as anywhere, it’s also a police state where a hard-line interpretation of Shariah law can land expats in jail for acts that few would even dream were illegal.
I was out in Dubai during the Michelle Palmer and Vince Accor furore (the British duo who discovered that sex on the beach isn't a cocktail, but a way to end up in jail). Perhaps you’d expect sex in public to lead to arrest but acts as innocous as kissing or simply holding hands outside of your home, can land you in jail in Dubai.
Elsewhere too many former colleagues and comrades to mention had brushes with the law for dancing in public, swearing (the F-word “disgraces the honour or the modesty” of a person, according to Article 373 of the UAE Penal Code), being inebriated, promoting a charity, posting anything anti-government on social media, being gay or living with a member of the opposite sex. Case in point? I flat-shared with a Kiwi chap called Guy who had no choice but to pass me off as his ‘cousin’ during my tenancy,  because the Dubai authorities couldn’t comprehend that was possible for different sexes to live together if they weren’t family.

Change is the only constant
Change is the only constant in Dubai and this commitment to change is reflected in the dazzling skyline. The world’s current tallest building, the needle thin Burj Khalifa, was still being built during my Dubai days. Fast forward to 2019 and it soars 2,716m into the sky, not that the emirate’s leader Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum is content to rest on his laurels: construction is well underway on the Dubai Creek Tower which will become the world’s tallest tower and tallest man-made structure upon completion in 2020.
Factor in the world’s second largest shopping mall, the $20 billion Dubai Mall that’s home to an Olympic-size ice-skating rink, a virtual-reality theme park and an aquarium, and you’ll need to be prepared to hear the phrase “the world's biggest” on a daily basis.
“If you build it, they will come” is a line that works just as well for the horseracing-mad Sheikh Mo as it did for Kevin Costner's character in Field of Dreams.

Living your best life
I touched down in Dubai having grown tired of the daily grind of London life – of cramming myself onto the tube to get to work, of sharing a bathroom with four strangers, of being permanently skint and stressed – to discover that living in the desert city is incredibly easy.
Friendly petrol pump attendants filled up my car, supermarket assistants bagged my shopping with a smile and, instead of waiting for a night bus home in the cold, I’d hop in a ridiculously cheap taxi after a night on the town. Weekends meanwhile were spent brunching or beachin’ it with friends who knew what it was like to start over.
Dubai isn’t only a convenient destination, it’s also an incredibly safe one – so much so that my housemates and I would happily leave the door to the rented villa we shared unlocked, reassured (and alarmed in equal measure) by the presence of closed circuit TVs on every corner of the city.

The city has a traditional side
You’d be forgiven for thinking Dubai is all about skyscrapers and super-sized shopping malls but you’d be wrong. Dig underneath all the glitz, glamour and gold and you’ll discover historical sites such as Al Bastakia and the creek – arguably the heartbeat of Dubai. Here I used to watch dhows (traditional Arab sailing boats) weave their way across the water, as they have done for centuries.
I also enjoyed strolling through the souks (Arabic market places) browsing and bartering for everything from juicy dates and Indian sweets to Moroccan slippers, silver trinkets and colourful scarves (shopping malls and cinemas are cold owing to Arctic air conditioning levels, so you’ll need a cover-up).

Dubai also has a dark face
The world’s image of Dubai is of five- star hotels and indoor ski resorts, a place where – as Sheikh Mo once said – “the word impossible doesn't exist”. That’s all very admirable but less laudable is the way in which the migrant workers, who helped transform Dubai from a sleepy fishing village into a futuristic city, are treated.
A large percentage typically arrive in the UAE deep in debt, having paid employment recruiters (who promised them the Dubai dream of great jobs and accomodation) substantial fees for work visas and plane tickets. On arrival, their passports are confiscated (despite this being illegal) by the construction company they are working for and they are forced to toil 14 hour days in the desert heat – which can hit 55 degrees in summer (when western tourists are advised to stay inside). At the end of their shift, the workers who build Dubai are then bussed to cramped labour camps on the edge of town, out of sight of the tourists. For the foreign migrants who are conned into coming and unable – without their passports and promised wage – to leave, Dubai isn’t heaven: it’s hell.

Money matters
Yes the words “tax-free salary” sound appealing on paper to most westerners but, if you work in a mid level job, you won’t have as much spare money as you think. As a writer on Time Out, I earned approximately 12,000 dirhams (£2,645) a month which is more than a similar position pays in the UK but certainly not life changing – especially when you consider that rent has to be paid annually (and not monthly) and you’ll probably want/need to fly back to the Motherland once a year. All of which means it’s not unusual for expats to start their Dubai days in debt (a criminal offence).
That’s not to say Dubai isn’t an attractive place to work for sun-starved Brits but the days of lucrative British expat contracts – when companies offered annual return flights home, all expenses paid accommodation and covered shipping costs etc – are long gone.

It’s a proper melting pot
Dubai might be a favourite holiday haunt of footballers and their wives but happily the city’s residents are a much more diverse crew.
Dubai prides itself on its “melting pot” of cultures and it’s not a myth. At various stages I lived with Antipodeans, Egyptians and Filipinos before being taken, by a Bangladeshi born taxi driver, to work – where I’d mix with colleagues from Lebanon, South Africa, Syria, Jordan, Canada and more. Make no mistake: nearly all nationalities are represented in Dubai making it one of the world's most culturally diverse destinations. Very few places on the planet open their arms to so many.

But you can’t stay
If I had a dirham for every time I met a newbie western expat who insisted that they were “only staying for a year”, I’d be a rich woman. The 24/7 sunshine (nobody ever misses the dismal British weather) and sheer convenience ensures that one year turns into two and so it begins… A caveat: don’t get too comfortable. If you lose your job (as many of my friends did during the financial crash of 2008), you’ll have to exit the emirate within 30 days. Reaching retirement age? The government recently announced a visa programme for people aged 55 and over whereby applicants can be granted a five-year residency with the possibility of renewal – providing that is, you’re able to prove you have savings of at least one million dirham (£220,409) or Dubai properties worth at least 2,000,000 dirham (£440,819). There’s no alternative but to leave which is what my friends the D’Souza family, who had called the emirate home for some 30 years, were forced to do.
Now back in India, Mark D’Souza tells me that he enjoyed certain parts of his Dubai expat experience and will always be grateful for the employment opportunities that didn’t exist at the time back home, he is in no rush to return to the “adult Disneyland that’s riddled with double standards.”
Having escaped the emirate’s claws myself, I know exactly what Mark means. In Dubai, not everything is as it seems.

Puerto Rico for your pleasure

In the wake of Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017, many of Puerto Rico’s business and hotels were forced to close – some for good.
Fast forward two years and the island (that Americans don’t even need a passport to reach) is back on the Caribbean travel map, with its promise of winter sun which won’t cost a fortune.

Here’s eight things you need to see, eat and do in sun soaked Puerto Rico.

Meet me in San Juan

Meet me in San Juan

Get lost in old San Juan
Old San Juan is arguably the jewel in Puerto Rico’s already overcrowded crown.
Expect charming cobblestone streets, pretty pastel painted colonial buildings, flower bedecked balconies, elegant plazas and majestic fortresses (step forward St Christopher’s Castle and El Morro) all juxtaposed against a backdrop of the sparkling Atlantic Ocean. Simply put: Old San Juan is sure to cast a spell over even the most jaded of travellers.

If all you want to do is laze on golden sand and top up your tan then rest assured, my friend, that Puerto Rico won’t let you down: the small island boasts some of the most spectacular stretches of sand found anywhere on the planet.
Take your pick from Playa Flamenco over on the island of Culebra (approximately 90 minutes from Fajardo), Playa Santa in western Puerto Rico which stands in front of a splendid 19th century lighthouse and Luquillo. The latter, celebrated for its surfing, is popular with sanjuaneros (San Juan locals) so, if you want to avoid the crowds, try to visit on a weekday.
Regardless of which beach you for, look forward to soft sand, rolling waves, and endless sunshine. What’s not to love?

Lovely Luquillo

Lovely Luquillo

Fill your boots
Puerto Rico’s food is the Caribbean’s best, a tantalising blend of influences, but if you only try one dish make it mofongo. This Puerto Rican staple is made from plantains that have been mashed and cooked with garlic, pork and plenty of spices. This delicious dish is so popular among Puerto Ricans that bananas are often imported in from the neighbouring Domincan Republic to meet the demand. A great place to sample mofongo is at Los Kioskos De Luquillo, Luquillo’s famous line of kiosks.
Locals are also mad about their meat and to say that they adore Lechon asado (roast suckling pig) is akin to calling Champagne a fizzy drink: a major understatement. Puerto Ricans’ passion for Lechon asado will see them make a pilgrimage to Guavate (at the edge of Bosque Estatal de Carite) at the weekend for a plate (or two) or pork.
Mofongo and Lechon asado are invariably washed down with, what else, rum… the island is, after all, the home of Bacardi (the world’s largest producer of rum).
Buen provecho!

Make time to try mofongo – your tastebuds will thank-you

Make time to try mofongo – your tastebuds will thank-you

Get ready to salsa
Jamaica may be famous for its reggae but Puerto Rico shakes it hips to a different beat… salsa.
The dance may have originated in New York (by Puerto Ricans living in the Big Apple) but the island – more specifically it’s colourful capital, San Juan – is the  spiritual home of salsa.
Shake it like Shakira in nightclubs and bars where bands play until 4am (and not just at weekends) or, our pick, in La Placita de Santurce. The vibrant barrio’s most famous market, La Placita, particularly rewards a visit on Thursday and Friday nights when Puerto Ricans flock to the plaza to meet, eat, drink and dance salsa into the early hours.

Seek out the central mountains
For a different take on the island, away from the Caribbean beaches and condos, head up high into the central mountains to town of Aibonito (pronounced Ei-bo-nee-to) which is situated some 2,401ft above sea level and holds the record for the lowest temperature ever recorded in Puerto Rico so yes, be sure to pack lots of layers.
It was while in Aibonito that my friend Karen and I met two sisters who shared with us what life was really like – read no running water and electricity for two months – after Hurricane Maria struck describing it as “the scariest experience we have ever been through.” Their US based children sent constant supplies but alas, they were stolen in transit.
Close to Aibonito lies the dramatic Canon de San Cristobal, definitely one for the ‘gram.

Mountain life

Mountain life

Get a caffeine fix
While Puerto Rico (correctly) continues to be associated with salsa, the country is fast earning a reputation for producing some of the best coffee in the Caribbean.
Caffeine addict will, ahem, be full of beans about the prospect of visiting one of Puerto Rico’s historic coffee plantations which allow an insight into the various stages of the coffee production process, as well as offering the chance to enjoy a fresh cup of Joe.
Haciendas (coffee plantations) worth heading to include Hacienda Pomarrosa,  Hacienda Tres AnglesHacienda San PedroHacienda Buena Vista.

Add the Luquillo food kiosks to your “must-do” list

Add the Luquillo food kiosks to your “must-do” list

Hike Reserva Forestal Toro Negro
Most travellers head straight to El Yunque National Forest, and for good reason: this soaking rainforest, which spans nearly 29,000 acres, is one of Puerto Rico’s top treasures offering both easy and arduous treks. 
However if you’re after a quieter, less touristy alternative to El Yunque, we have the answer: take a bow the Toro Nego Reserve, home to the island’s highest peak (Cerro la Punta) and some of Puerto Rico’s most memorable hikes.
One caveat: Toro Negro lacks El Yunque’s finesse so don’t expect an army of staff, food stalls and toilets.

Exploring Toro Negro

Exploring Toro Negro

Play ball
If you want to experience Puerto Rico like a local, make a beeline for the Hiram Bithorn Stadium in San Juan to catch a baseball game. 
Puerto Ricans are crazy about baseball and the bleachers at beisbol (baseball) stadiums are invariably packed (perhaps helped by the fact that tickets are dirt cheap ranging from $5-18 with kids qualifying for a 50 per cent discount). 
Teams play during the winter (from November to February) but, in San Juan, the two teams garnering all the headlines (and fans) are the Cangrejeros de Santurce (Santurce Crabbers) and Gigantes de Carolina (Carolina Giants).
Even if you aren’t a fan of baseball, going to a game is a great (inexpensive) way to meet locals. More than that, it’s worth watching a game for the raucous atmosphere alone.

Words and pictures: Kaye Holland

London's best new restaurant and bar openings

The person who can dominate a London dining table can dominate the world, or so said Oscar Wilde. And boy, does the city have a lot of tables to choose from.

Here is our round-up of the best new bars and resturants from August, each one tried and tested by Telegraph Travel experts, including a pub brought back to life with contemporary dining, a rooftop bar in Brixton with South American flavours, and an egg-focused food joint straight out of Los Angeles:

Currency Chronicles: what I spent on a last-minute city break in Tbilisi

Welcome to the third installment of our new series Currency Chronicles, in which travellers reveal every penny they spent while away on holiday. Last time we looked at a weekend at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe with friends. This week it's a two-night break in Tbilisi. The total spent is at the bottom…

Back at the beginning of the summer, I booked three days off from the Telegraph Towers which I planned to spend being a tourist in my hometown: London. Alas as the time drew closer, the weather looked as though it wasn’t going to play ball – which is how I found myself on Skyscanner booking a last minute flight to Tbilisi (Georgia), where temperatures were reliably in their 30s. Was my last minute trip to Tbilisi a budget break or a bouji-blow-out? Read on to discover what I spent...

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Airports are off their trolleys

As a seasoned traveller, it goes without saying that I love – nay live for – travel. Indeed I’ve taken jobs not because I was angling for the role per se but because they offered me the chance to jump on a plane and immerse myself in a different culture.

From the Middle East to South America via Asia and the Caribbean, I’ve repeatedly relocated in my quest to become intimately acquainted with different destinations.

Yet as much as I love travel there is one thing that I loathe. It’s not the constant packing and unpacking, airport security or even hours in the air. Unlike my colleagues, I am quite partial to a plane meal or two and have yet, touch wood, to be seated next to the flight companion from hell.

No, my biggest bug bear is reserved for airport trolleys. If you ask me, every self respecting airport should offer an array of trolleys but alas trying to find one can prove as elusive as a taxi on New Year’s Eve.

Should you succeed in tracking down a working trolley – one with fully-functioning wheels and whose brakes aren’t broken – you’ll find that in London at least, passengers are charged £1 to hire the trolley, a fee that has to be paid for with a clunky one pound coin. 

Cash is old-fashioned, sometimes awkward (case in point, it can’t be used on a public bus waiting to whisk you away outside the airport terminal’s door) and in today’s cashless society, no one – be it a Brit newly-back from a foreign holiday or a stranger who has just touched down on UK soil – can be expected to have local coins in their pocket to pay for said trolley. Really, how hard can it be to make a trolley that can be released with the tap of a credit card?

Not that, in my mind, airports should be charging passengers for trolleys anyway. Make no mistake: they make more than enough money from extortionate airport parking drop-off charges (here’s looking at Luton and Stansted) to fees for plastic security bags to shop rents, airport taxes and the inflated cost of food and drink in the airports’ outlets. Do they really need to fleece every passenger on arrival, too?

After all we’re not talking about a fancy porter service here – simply a trolley you can lay your case on and make getting from the luggage carousel to the car/ taxi rank/ tube station that bit more bearable.

Yes rolling luggage (suitcases that can easily turn 360 degrees, enabling their owners to glide through immigration smoothly) makes travel easier. However I maintain that if you’re elderly, travelling en-famille, or laden-down with golf and ski equipment, you’re still going to need a little help with your luggage.

It’s a situation that my friend James Drummond, a returning expat, recently found himself in. After 16 roller-coaster years based in chaotic, colourful Argentina, James made the decision to swap Buenos Aires for his native Britain.

The 50-year-old packed his South American life into five suitcases and checked them in at Ezeiza International Airport without any issues – at least that is until he landed in London to learn that while he had plenty of Argentine pesos in his pocket and a wallet full of credit cards, after 16 years of living overseas he had zero pound coins.

James’ description of the endurance test he faced in shepherding five suitcases from bag collection to arrivals made for an amusing dinner party story, but has it really come to this: charging £1 – only coins accepted! – for the privilege of using an airport trolley?

Welcome to Britain? Please. We can do better than this.

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