The sliding glass doors opened.
Out of the corner of my eyes, I watched as each one of us stepped forward to shake hands with the night. After some moments were spent hammering out the last details of our transportation to the hotel (provided by our airline, Emirates) we were finally getting out from underneath ceilings and light fixtures, doorways and walls, human-made structure. We were walking into the outer world. The air that finally hit me, plumed in waves around me, really took me aback.
Mmmmm. So this is Dubai.
It’s a whole other universe to behold.
We were officially in the desert.
Whenever Seattle experiences uncommonly hot summer days (which seem to be more frequent within the last couple of years…) the heat reminds me of a razor sharp ray of falling light, projected through a magnifying glass. It’s strong enough to pierce right through you and can be utterly miserable once you couple it with our humidity. The air is so clean in the Pacific Northwest and this seems to aid in the heat’s piercing strength. Dubai, however, has a much different character. On the plane I could see a red colored, orange haze creating a barrier between land and sky. It made it difficult for those on the ground to actually see blue beyond the sandy horizon.
That’s trippy, I was busy thinking to myself just before the plane jolted onto the tarmac.
Now, in the dead of night, this haze could no longer be seen…but it could certainly be felt.
The air instantly moved to settle around us.
It not only felt musty, but thick, thick with age; as if it had a certain ancientness that only it could possess.
Perhaps I am being silly.
This is what landing in Dubai felt like, and this is what its heat felt like, too.
They both gave a welcome; Dubai opened its arms to us all.
But it was an expectant welcome, interwoven with new rules to live by and behaviors to follow. It was up to me to figure these things out and I knew this right off.
We aren’t in Kansas anymore, my dear Toto.
Each of us responded to this heat in our own way. I couldn’t help but laugh at one of my team-mates who stopped in shock, his eyes round and his grin wide, exclaiming, “Ooo-hoo hoo! That is warm!”
Warm is an understatement.
I’m still smiling to myself at this very moment. What a way to experience the desert for the first time.
It’s something I wont soon forget.
As with any big group traveling within a different country, mine tended to move in halted and confused waves. Should we get in this van? Two steps forward. Or that one? Stop. Or maybe…?
We eventually figured it all out and climbed excitedly into the interior of one of the company vans. People watched as my team-mates congregated near the door and peered inside. Someone claimed that there wasn’t enough room and I turned around in my seat, trying my best to look somewhat sensible underneath the curious stares, as I counted the seats around me.
“Yup!” I called out, hanging a bit out of the van. “There’s enough! Pile in!”
It was interesting to note that people in Dubai drive on the same side as in America. I briefly wondered at this. But we were soon pulling into another parking lot that was coated with light. The source of this light was from two highly polished glass doors that lead into a bright foyer.
This was where we were staying?
The hotel itself was only three stars, but for my imagination it was a royal five. I felt very spoiled. The floor below me was shiny and waxed. The reception desk ran clean and smooth against the back wall. Golden lettering topped off the wall, spelling out Emirates Customer Service.
Real gold? Eh. Probably not.
Yet, just to the left lay a number of comfy sofas and chairs; enough to sit the entirety of the SASA Crew. You can imagine how priceless those were to us, at that moment. Everyone collapsed onto the cushions with a contented sigh.
Ha. Compared to this luxury, gold could go take a hike.
After my professor checked in up front and gave us our keys, we were free to relax a spell before we sat down to dinner.
And who was to treat us to dinner?
None other than my professor’s Sudanese acquaintances. This group of men, women, with a few of their children were some of my prof’s past students and great friends. There was a bit of a mix up with the meeting place and, because of this, we did not go out to dinner. But I wish all of you could have been there to witness the very first moments they all met my professor, eye to eye, hand to hand.
Save for one of my older sister’s recent marriage, I do not believe I’ve ever seen more emotional and profoundly satisfied smiles, in my life. Their hugs were so deep, so telling, and each person clapped my professor on the back. If I wasn’t looking hard enough I may have missed the overwhelming appreciation settling into each of their faces, enough to make their eyes water.
There were no tears to be found. But there could have been because this particular joy, one that was left untouched in the absence of each other’s presence, was that strong.
I was deeply moved when these brothers and sisters of Sudan unraveled enough of their loving connection to my prof to include us, all 15-college students, eagerly into its folds. As if we were family. As if we had just arrived into our second home.
I’ve never felt anything on this magnitude before. And…
I’m laughing at myself because I don’t know what else to say.
In the end, after each of us hugged the other twice over, it was time to say goodbye. I watched my prof stand in the hall as they left. His eyes trailed their departure, never leaving their side, and his hand was raised in a moving, farewell gesture. When I showed him the photo and asked him about it later, he told me, “It’s a traditional thing to do in Sudan.”
Almost like seeing each other off.
I remember surmising that a night like this could not get any better.
I missed that target by at least eight trillion miles.
“Oooohkay,” my prof said, rubbing his hands together.
After taking in a deep, calming breath (his friends had only just left minutes before) he looked at each of us in turn, his expression contemplative.
“I know that some of you want to explore the city! Others may be tired enough to want to head to the rooms. We haven’t had dinner yet, so we should keep that in mind. What would you all like to do?”
I didn’t answer right away and watched as others piped in.
“Let’s see the city!” “Yeah, I really want to walk around.” “We could eat after…”
It was unanimous. It really didn’t matter that the time was 10:52pm and we were all reeling from a 14.5 hour flight. Or that it was a smoldering 100 something degrees outside. This was Dubai baby! We need to explore!
We made a decision and all started to meander outside. The ever present heat let us know that we weren’t in air conditioned housing anymore and dutifully followed our steps as we wandered. A couple of men outside the entrance eagerly tried to convince us to go on a tour of the city.
“It would only be two hours of your time!”
But we scheduled to catch an 8AM flight the next morning, and needed to be at the airport three hours prior to that.
Sorry guys! That really isn’t going to work.
Yet, we quickly realized that the streets surrounding the hotel lead to very little. The city was more than a “walk” away (we would have been dying in the heat) and the most exciting discovery made was a single bus stop shelter.
You wouldn’t think something so mundane as that would be worth mentioning.
But this wasn’t just any old bus shelter.
We would all learn how precious Air Conditioning was in Dubai, and this tiny lesson would be accomplished by this public facility. Not only was this shelter encased in light reflecting glass, but it also possessed its very own fully functional AC system.
Inside its walls.
At first, we couldn’t believe it. Why did this thing have a door?
But then we went inside.
Our minds were blown.
“Whaaaat is this?!”
“Peeps! It’s got air conditioning!!”
“Oh my god!”
The entire SASA Crew and I were so dumbfounded that our excitement literally bounced off the charts. Someone took out their phone to snapchat this bizarre and heavenly experience. And we were screaming and laughing at it all. I felt sorry for these two girls sitting to the side. I didn’t turn to look at them, but they certainly looked at us.
They just never saw us coming.
We didn’t stay too long and this newfound discovery buoyed us happily back to the Emirates hotel where we, you guessed it, eventually agreed to a city tour that we convinced the guides to cut back to one hour and only charge $10 per person.
Alright. I know that I’ve been tugging you along for quite a while now. I promise that I’m wrapping up! There’s just a lot to say! And in this next bit…what will I say? About everything?
Dubai has some crazy, intricate architecture. The guide didn’t run out of hotels to point out to us, and, believe me, these hotels were incredible. At some point, we were given the chance to stop on a beach called Jumierah and this lovely waterside took my breath away.
It was hard to see fully, in the dark, but the sand was as soft as clouds. The water, when you touched it, didn’t seem like an ocean at all. It was warm, warmer than the Puget Sound would ever become in her 3 month long summer heat! And it was bizarre to touch. But touch…I did!
Just behind me, your eyes instantly take you to the ship sail shaped, glowing structure.
That, ladies, gentlemen, and those who identify otherwise, is the Burj Al Arab, the only seven star hotel in the world. Boasting of floors residing underwater, this exotic hotel charges persons only interested in visiting its magnificence (it’s quite expensive to room in, believe me) approximately $300.
I’ll have to remain satisfied with my distant observance! I can’t complain, though. The view was actually quite fun!
The most impressive sight to see, however, was the wonderful, the extravagant, the grand, the amazing!
Burj Khalifa itself.
There are honestly no words to describe how breathless you feel looking up to its very top, standing at its feet, and knowing, purely knowing, that you are maybe ten feet away from the tallest building in the world.
I will admit. It seems, ever so convincingly, that someone photoshopped the Burj Khalifa behind me! But if you were there to see how we had to maneuver in order to get each of us and the Burj Khalifa together in one photo (my crew member had to lie on his back with me leaning over him to get this shot!) you would understand that it is, indeed, not photoshopped!
The excitement of the night, of knowing that I was seriously standing in another part of the world, was intoxicating. When we returned to the hotel, I couldn’t sleep. Too many images, smells, and feelings were running around in my mind. I couldn’t settle.
But I didn’t mind because I had just experienced something wild.
I had gotten to know Dubai in the night.
And our hand shake was a warm one.
Stay tuned for: My First Week!