Around the world in just 21 days

The wages of a too-ambitious itinerary is a major case of jet lag

Our recent trip to Dubai and Abu Dhabi and safaris in Botswana and Zimbabwe was both exhausting and fascinating.

Hopping from two tiny, ultra-rich emirates along the Persian Gulf to two vast, but largely untouched, nature preserves in Third World Africa was a jarring contrast between man-made wonders and natural wonders man can just admire but never hope to imitate.

Did I mention it was an exhausting itinerary? Need to check a world atlas before we travel again.

Our first stop was Dubai, a fifteen-hour flight from Houston that’ll wear you out despite all the comforts of Emirates Business Class. Our interest in visiting Dubai arose from our first safari in South Africa five years ago. We flew from Houston to Dubai and then to Johannesburg—a nearly 24-hour-plus, straight-through flying marathon. Friends had travelled to India, with a stopover in Dubai, where they spent a couple of days to recover from jetlag. They suggested we do the same.

Jethro, that there building is 160 stories high!

The emirate of Dubai, essentially a city of about three million— up from 20,000 in 1950—turned out to be something like an apparition, an Emerald City rising from the desert, thanks to tens of billions of dollars invested by the ruling emir.

Contrary to what we had assumed, Dubai didn’t get its riches from oil—petroleum exports account for only about one percent of its foreign earnings—but from the vision of a sheik who beginning in 1958 borrowed tens of billions of dollars to build a world center of luxe tourism and commerce fueled by trade-free zones, tax incentives and such. He succeeded grandly.

When Stew and I looked out the window of our hotel room on our first night, we felt like the Clampetts when they first laid eyes on Beverly Hills.

Extravagant architectural inventions—a hotel shaped like the sails on a boat; a round “museum of the future” that looked like a donut standing on its side; a combination observatory, museum and monument that resembled a huge picture frame, “the biggest in the world” and appropriately called the Dubai Frame; plus the 160-story Burj Khalifa, by far the tallest building in the world. All of this emerged from the desert during the past 60 years.

For a video clip of the stunning light show at the Burj Khalifa, click HERE.

One of Dubai’s main tourist lures is the Dubai Mall, an ultra high-end shopping mall with Bloomingdale’s, Paris’ Galleries Lafayette and literally hundreds of chichi boutiques we’d never heard of. Should your credit card swoon in the middle of a shopping spree, the mall has dozens of restaurants, plus an indoor ice skating rink, aquarium and “underwater zoo” to let both of you recover—and maybe call your bank back home for a refill.

Two kids from India watching the fine art of giving a falcon a manicure.

Still jet lagged, numbed by all the retail glitter and basically uninterested in shopping—Stew and I must be the only gay men missing the shopping gene—we grabbed a cab and went back to the hotel to have dinner and prepare for a one-day jaunt the next day to Abu Dhabi, the emirate next door and capital of the seven United Arab Emirates.

The training of falcons for hunting has been around for thousands of years but it has disappeared in most of the world except among ultra wealthy sheiks and emirs who in some cases will pay as much as $100,000 dollars for a trained bird.

Accordingly, the emir of Abu Dhabi set up a full-service, air-conditioned hospital that can trim your falcon’s talons, fix a broken wing, treat a respiratory infection, and provide room and board.

Even to two hard-core animal lovers like Stew and I, this facility seemed just a tad over the top, a millionaire indulgence, that was probably better equipped than the vast majority of hospitals serving people elsewhere in the world.

Staring contest between a falcon and Stew. The falcon won.

We observed a bird being anesthetized before its claws were trimmed, and were invited to hold one with a leather glove. Judging by the look in its eyes, the show falcon was not amused; it looked like it was ready to claw out someone’s eyes.

Stew, naturally, stepped forward to pose with a saker falcon which he said didn’t weigh much more than a chicken, about two pounds.

In addition to the medical and boarding facilities, the falcon hospital, which offers tours twice a day, also had a museum of falcon memorabilia, a coffee shop and a life-size painting in the lobby of the late Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the founder of Abu Dhabi, and his two sons, in a pose reminiscent of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

If Dubai is rich, Abu Dhabi is even richer, with a per capita income of $130,000 and a sovereign fund—something like a national piggy bank used to invest throughout the world—of somewhere around a trillion dollars, one of the largest, mostly derived from oil reserves estimated at 92 billion barrels.

The interior courtyard of the Grand Mosque can hold about 4,000 worshippers.

Perhaps as the crowning ornament of Abu Dhabi’s wealth, the ruling emir in 1996 began construction of a monumental, four-minaret mosque that would become one of the largest in the world. It took 12 years to complete and cost nearly $700 million dollars.

One of the Grand Mosque’s four minarets.

Even from the entrance to the visitors’ center located about a mile away and connected with the mosque by a series of underground moving sidewalks, it is a truly breathtaking vision.

It has 82 domes with gold finials, and is sheathed in acres of white marble from Greece and Macedonia that supposedly take on a heavenly blue hue in the moonlight.

The three prayer halls can accommodate 10,000 people, and have the largest Persian carpet in the world, hand-knotted from New Zealand wool by a team of hundreds of weavers in Iran. It is so large it had to be imported in sections and pieced together in place.

“Go crazy,” the emir must have told the architects. “We’ve got the cash to cover it.”

On the way to the mosque you walk through a vast, and rather tacky, shopping mall, selling mostly tourist trinkets and several restaurants, including the Canadian fast-food chain Tim Hortons. There you can enjoy a lamb burger under the gaze of a large ubiquitous photo of the emir. A truck by the exit of the mosque complex sold camel milk protein bars and ice cream.

On the taxi ride back to Dubai Stew and I coincided that our flash visit to two of the Arab emirates had left us with mixed reactions. The concentration of wealth and the conspicuous display of it was undeniably stunning.

But for all the spectacle, the two emirates we visited seemed strangely “charmless,” in Stew’s description. Dubai Mall dazzled but did not lure us like the chaotic souk of Marrakesh or Istanbul’s enormous Grand Bazaar, with their myriad sights and smells. Dubai’s efficient urban layout buzzed but seemed forbidding compared to the labyrinthine medinas of old Arab cities like Tangier, where you’d lose track of time. Abu Dhabi’s Grand Mosque was undeniably awesome but it lacked the patina that hundreds of years of history and worshippers’ footprints had left on mosques in other Arab countries we’ve visited.

Such comparative impressions may be unfair: We were still in the fog of jet lag and one-day visits in each is hardly enough to pass judgement on two cities that compared to their ancient Arab counterparts are practically brand-new.

Our minds were boggled but our hearts curiously unmoved, exactly the opposite reaction we would have after the following ten days in Africa. That in the next post.


Here are a few more pictures of this portion of our trip:


13 thoughts on “Around the world in just 21 days

    1. This was our second safari and that’s probably it for that sort of trip. As for Dubai, as I mentioned to Karen, I would go there as a stopover on the way to somewhere else farther east, but not as destination itself.


  1. Karen Quinn

    Loved your post…So interesting! I’ve never been tempted to go to those countries but that light show on the Burj Khalifa was pretty amazing…is that alone worth a visit there tho? I’m with you in being more interested in the sights in Istanbul, etc.


    1. The Burj Khalifa is pretty amazing not only because it’s so tall, a third taller than the Sears Tower in Chicago, but because it sits in an open area all by itself. And it’s a beautiful building, not as boxy as the Sears Tower. I would visit Dubai as a stopover, say, on the way to India like our friends did, but not as destination in itself. How about the Faroe Islands or the Outer Hebrides? What happened to that idea? That sounds really neat, though getting there would be as exhausting as going to Dubai.


  2. Joe Rider

    For being jet lagged you were able to take some fabulous pics! The experience to juxtapose the ridiculously wealthy areas with areas of Africa was brilliant.


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