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Sunday, August 14, 2011

Dubai – Day 02: Of Open Minds and Desert Safari

My second day started with noticing that Jacky’s already up. He was probably waiting for another round of rope war (on which we scored 2-2 the night before). I call him a CSI dog as aside from playing, he likes to sniff on my luggage and he makes it a point to observe what you are doing and where you are going. Too bad, no playtime for Jacky in the morning as we had to rush for the 10am “Open Doors, Open Minds” talk at Jumeirah Mosque (regularly done on Tuesdays and Thursdays, if I remember it right).

We had a quick Mc Breakfast (with two Pinoy crew in the house) then we reached the mosque on schedule. I don’t remember if we paid for the entrance but if we did, it’s probably around AED 2 to 3 only (including a complimentary mineral water in a small sealed plastic cup). We took our shoes off and entered the mosque which has a very peaceful vibe. For the record, as mentioned in the book (DK Eyewitness Top 10), that is the only mosque that is open to non-Muslims (the rest of the pictures here).

Latifah, the in-house guide, then asked us to sit comfortably on the floor. She, by the way, is a Caucasian who came from England and was once a Catholic before marrying her husband who is a believer of Islam. As a disclaimer, Latifah told us that she’s not a scholar or something so difficult questions may not be addressed well. The talk is primarily about the five pillars of Islam, which, in general, have similarities to Christian faith. First pillar, for instance, is about believing that there’s only one God. Second to fourth is about prayers and duties while the fifth, the most unique one I may say, is a visit to Mecca at least once in their lifetime. After the pillars and after a demo on how they pray inside the mosque, questions were entertained. The questions varied from the women’s all-black attire, men having four wives and the different factions in the Muslim community. In gist, Latifah was trying to erase the gritty images we see on CNN and the like. She’s trying to emphasize that Islam is not synonymous to suicide bombing and terrorist attacks, and I’m pretty sure that her point was not put in vain (at least for me).

The talk was over at around 11am. We had enough time to kill for the desert safari at 4pm so we headed to some short stops. First was at Mercato Shopping Mall (more pictures here) which is just near the mosque. It’s an Italian-themed mall complete with old Europe flooring and ambiance. I don’t know if it’s a bad thing that I visited a Virgin Store (that’s where I spent my old USD bill). I ended up buying some Arabian films on DVD, a CD and an Angry Bird shirt. Good stuff so no regrets.

From the mall, we drove to the beachfront then to Jumeirah Hotel and took some snapshots of Burj Al Arab from there. Then we passed by at Wild Wadi and Madinat Jumeirah and made a quick stop at the IT area. That was the time when the concept of “area” in Dubai was starting to make sense. The city is designed a la SimCity where all the offices are grouped by type or category. For instance, the IT area has Mc Afee and Oracle headquarters in the same way that the TFC office is just beside CNN or BBC. Pretty neat, I should say. I attempted to surprise my ex-Manila officemate Charrie but she was working from home that time. More pictures here.

By lunchtime, we were already at Ibn Battuta Shopping Mall (pictures here). In case you haven’t noticed it yet, all the malls that I’ve been to have a theme (probably due to competition). Wafi Mall is Egyptian. Dubai Mall is record breaker, period. Mercato Shopping Mall is Italian. For its share, Ibn Battuta Shopping Mall is conceptualized with all the places that the Arabian traveler where the mall is named after had been to. It’s one straight mall divided into different sections for China, India, Persia, Egypt, Tunisia and Andalusia. We had lunch at KFC somewhere in between those countries.

We waited for the Desert Safari guys to call us for pick-up at 4pm. From Ibn Battuta, we went straight to Emirates Towers (where Mike’s office is located in the office building of the twin towers) and had a frap at Starbucks there (more pictures here). We got a call at close to 4:30pm and had us picked up in the hotel lobby part of the twin building. I remember seeing a silver camel artwork there while one of the passengers was taking a picture of it. We were a total of seven clueless passengers in the SUV: the driver (which I forgot the name), two young Danish ladies, us, two Pinoys, plus two more ladies (Japanese) who we picked up at a hotel.

Our driver is a fun guy. He should be, especially for those who are just dragged to take on the desert adventure. All throughout the trip going out of Dubai city center, he was making us feel at ease with his techno Arabian playlist. I’m not sure if he was hitting on one of the Danish girls but I enjoyed the wit. Roughly after 20 minutes of driving from the city center, we stopped at a junction to freshen up and flatten the tire a bit for a more sand-friendly drive (most of the SUVs for the desert safari were there, too). From there, it took only five to 10 minutes to reach the first part of the desert. Just like the other SUVs (from other tour agents), we stopped again to take pictures of the area and be really ready. I took that as a sign for point of no return.

Mike and I were seated at the back part of the car, the Danish girls in the middle plus the Japanese girl then the other Japanese in front (check out the video here). I don’t remember how fast the drive was but surely seatbelt is a must. Then we drove through the desert, going uphill or the opposite, in an unimaginable speed as if you’re in a rollercoaster ride. Let me rephrase that, as if your car is about to turn upside down! It’s a total experience, something that I haven’t felt in any theme park ride. In one instance, the driver even got his upper body out of the window with his right hand still on the steering wheel. We did stop again after 30 minutes, this time in the middle of the desert. That was a call to take pictures and gather self after a dizzying ride (a 360-degree video here). The SUV ride wore down one of the Danish girls on which the driver took a chance to poke fun and comfort her at the same time. I shared a picture with the Japanese, complete with that famous Asian sign.

(Snapshots from the desert)

After 15 minutes or less, we were already on our way to the desert then back to the highway. From the highway, we turned right somewhere leading to another sandy area only with some plants and all, had a gentler version of the crisscrossing drive then finally, a Bedouin village where we had our final stop for the trip. That’s where I had my first camelback ride, my first sheesha, my closest encounter with a falcon and my first desert sunset. There are, of course, other things happening in the village. There’s a free Henna tattoo (where I had a scorpion on my right arm), a buffet dinner, some beer and a cultural show with Tanoura (a video clip here) and a belly dance (check out the video here). All six passengers of us were sharing the same table while sitting on a mat, eating, chitchatting and most of the time enjoying the breeze. The experience is simply for the books and I can conclude that the desert adventure is the highlight of my Dubai trip (proof here).

We got back to the city at past 9pm and strolled for a little bit in the financial district (same location as the Emirates Towers). Mike reminded me about the film shoot that Tom Cruise did in one of the streets for the upcoming “Mission: Impossible” franchise. Back to the apartment, it’s playtime once again with Jacky.

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