Ben of Arabia — New Year’s 2016
New York to Abu Dhabi
Mom and dad dropped me off at JFK on their way home from Connecticut. Emirates wasn’t open yet, so I walked around for a bit before sitting down against the wall. Sometime later someone else got the same idea and sat by me. Her name was Ashwag, returning home to Abu Dhabi from Denver. We got to know each other in broken English and when the airline finally opened, she got me through the short line with her, calling me her friend, and telling me to trust her.
We went to our gate, found a seat and waited. Got up and wandered around some stores together to pass the time. Maybe we will meet at Burj Khalifa on New Years Eve. “See you, Ben. In Dubai.”
She boarded first and we separated. When I boarded, my seat was occupied by a young boy whose mother asked me to switch seats with her. I said sure, because they would be making more frequent trips to the bathroom than I. The boy, around 10, had Autism, and would not stop singing and bouncing and kicking for the first 4–5 hours of the flight. I wondered how his mother had done it for 9–10 years. He’s asleep now, so I figure it’s my best chance to get some myself. We’re over Ireland right now. I tried watching Self-Less, quit early, then watched Tangled. A quality film.
Moments after passing out, somebody opened a window to the risen sun. I had skipped half a day. Sleep totaled about 30 minutes. I remember waking up at one point with the boy’s leg on my head. I was in for some serious jet lag.
The rest of the day was a blur, but several things happened. Jared and his brother Eric picked me up at the airport. I passed out in the back seat before and after stopping for a Royale with Cheese. I was introduced to Jared’s parents in their 10th story flat in Abu Dhabi. I had a shower. Jared and I joined some of his friends at a mall for pizza and a birthday, and I remembered some names and faces. Then I slept for 12 hours.
What happened on the desert safari
I tried Meneesh for the first time and Ashwag sent me a WhatsApp asking how my trip was going.
Jared had made arrangements for a desert safari and our driver picked us up at a mall across the street at 3:30. We shared a van with two fashionable sassy Aussies pushing thirty, and a quiet Finnish couple. Jared got us all talking. The Aussies were on their way to see Motley Crew in Los Angeles and Jared reminded them of Justin Timberlake. I asked them why they didn’t just fly over the Pacific? Apparently it’s cheaper to fly three quarters they way around the world.
Our driver stopped to let some air out of the tires before following another van off into the desert sand. He was Indian, and didn’t talk much but to issue polite commands. We joined up with a caravan of around ten white Toyotas and went dune bashing. The sensation was like a roller coaster with the added fear of the potential for human error.
Our van stopped at a camel farm where about forty camels encircled a trough of sorts, unrestricted by ropes and fences. There was a traditionally dressed Arab man holding a camel, posing for photos, adding that authenticity. We saw a string of camel drivel glide about twenty feet through the air onto an Asian woman’s face, and her subsequent reaction of disgust. Another camel got spooked by a clicking DSLR and knocked over a tourist and the Arab man, stomping its feet.
Some more dune bashing before we arrived at the campsite, where we joined several dozen more Toyotas worth of tourists. We drove mopeds, tried sand boarding, and I took a photo for a German family. The sun went down and everybody had a buffet dinner. Jared and I sat four with the Finns, Annie and Timo, both ex competitive swimmers from Helsinki in need of a warm vacation. We talked world politics and about other places we’d been.
The Grand Mosque and our drive to Dubai
We offered to drive the Finns back to their hotel in Dubai. We met in the morning at the Grand Mosque, a massive white billowing structure rising up from above the palm trees. Women required covering, so Annie waited in line for an awkward black wizard robe, and we all had to take off our shoes. Inside, endless marble work, colored glass, and a single continuous floral carpet custom made in New Zealand. Never before had I experienced architecture constructed this century that in every regard prioritized beauty.
Nasser rode with us to Dubai, Jared’s cousin who I’m struggling to describe. You’d have to see a picture. We stopped halfway for snacks and Nasser and I got to know each other while the others were in the WR. Driving through Dubai, my neck grew sore peering out the window at the farm of skyscrapers. I caught glimpses of Burj Al Arab, and Burj Khalifa, structures that had fascinated me since doing a research project in high school. We dropped the thankful Finns at their hotel and explored The Mall of the Emirates (where the indoor skiing is). I had ice cream with lunch and bought a shirt that resembled the one Timo was wearing earlier.
We had free lodging at Jared’s cousin’s flat on the 20th floor of a 75 story tower while he was visiting Lebanon. Nasser was with us, and we chilled for a couple hours before meeting Jared’s cool aunt at a rooftop patio bar. She was single, ordered every appetizer on the menu for us, and liked that I was drinking Lebanese beer.
New Year’s Eve and what happened during the fireworks
A cold shower woke me up better than my bottled Starbucks. In the morning Jared and I drove around Jumeira Palm and took some pictures at the break wall looking up the coast at the two towers. In the afternoon we planned our evening carefully to avoid a million people’s worth of traffic.
The Metro was packed and we rode four stops from Jared’s parked car to the Burj Khalifa and Dubai Mall (where the indoor scuba diving is). Security guards sorted us bachelors through a disguised exit out onto the street, only letting families into the mall and ideal viewing sites. Our crowd of rejected stags wandered the perimeter for over an hour looking for another entrance only to find more security security guards with conflicting stories. Jared and I were hungry and needed wifi, so we ate outside at a nice barbecue restaurant and talked about how we could get inside. We threw around ideas like finding some white people and faking a family. I tried Ashwag, thinking she and her friend could pose as our counterparts, but they were at Burj Al Arab.
We never got “in,” but we got close. We saved a great spot on the sidewalk by the fence with an unobstructed view of Burj Khalifa, whose 200 or so floors seemed to curl back over our heads. Two Muslim women born and residing in London sat on our left, and a young, pious Pakistani man with two buddies sat on our right. Jared talked to them and I caught up on my journal from the previous day.
Then we heard an explosion and flames tore up the side of a building across the plaza. It was the Address hotel, whose topsail I remembered thinking was very iconic when I had walked by it earlier. Fire hoses couldn’t reach the higher floors, and eventually the flames turned inward to carpets, furniture, and crept around to the adjacent facades. Everybody wondered if the show would go on, and how different scenarios would play out on the world stage. It made international news, and a few friends texted me asking if I was ok.
The show did go on, but I felt uneasy watching a celebration and a tragedy simultaneously.
Then a million people sprawled out onto closed off ramps and highways. Public transportation was screwed, so we just walked with the crowd for over an hour down some of the tallest blocks in the world. People broke barriers, climbed fences, took backlit selfies, and celebrated the new year, most without a drop of alcohol. I picked up a meaningful piece of wood, and when we got back, I lay a blanket over a passed out Jared as he had done for me the night before.
We slept until 1:40pm and ate breakfast at the Hard Rock Cafe. Leaving Dubai at sunset, the Address Hotel had finally stopped smoking.
On the way back to Abu Dhabi, we decided to check out Global Village based on recommendations from the Aussies from day one, and Romeo, our waiter from the Hard Rock. We shopped and picked at stuff, bought a couple gifts from different country’s shoppes, but didn’t eat anything yet. We were saving ourselves for Abu Dhabi shawarma, which I ate while watching the the Fiesta Bowl with fellow Buckeyes, Anwar and Julene Sawaya.
The first day back in Abu Dhabi
For breakfast the next day, Anwar made pancakes and fried eggs for everyone. We talked in the kitchen about his accomplishments as a childhood tennis star, and he told me how he came to know the Lord through a volleyball teammate. At noon, Anwar treated everyone to a fine lunch on the water with a panoramic view of the Abu Dhabi. While he prayed over the meal, I admired a faith not at all motivated by convenience. I am so thankful for Anwar and Julene’s love and hospitality.
Jared and I dropped his family at home and drove up to Zayed Sports City, where the annual Mubadala Tennis Championship was taking place. I had impulse-bought the tickets one night in Dubai after seeing a billboard. My first professional tennis tournament! Under the lights, Ferrer came back to beat Wawrinka, and Nadal took Raonic in two after going up a break early in the second. Vamos Rafa! shouted the Spaniards in the crowd. Rock solid entertainment.
We stopped for shwarma on the way home and I bought some gifts at a corner store. I had joked with my grandfather about bringing him back some sand when I spoke to him on the phone on Christmas. “Or oil!” he laughed.
The last day with Jared’s family, and my gratitude toward them
It rained, so we did what people in UAE do in adverse weather conditions: go to the mall. Jared made me try on skinny jeans and I bought a new backpack because an Emirates Airlines chocolate cake had exploded in my last one. Between the two cities, I went to five mega malls, and could tell you the names of five more we missed.
We broke from shopping to get me a coffee at a cool little mall cafe whose furniture and radial floor plan intrigued me. Jared ordered a Moroccan mint tea and we talked about the state of education in the music industry and girl probs.
Then we received word Jared’s Lebanese grandmother already made lunch for us, so we went up to her apartment down the street. She took us into the kitchen where a young Ethiopian woman was washing something and I inappropriately felt American guilt toward a quite ordinary situation for this part of the world. I met Jared’s other Aunt, and her five-year-old, Maggie, who had the time of her life playing hide-and-seek with Jared and me. In fact, we all did. Before I left, Jared’s grandma handed me a travel proof container of the cookies that I had earlier expressed my approval of.
Just when I thought I had seen the height of hospitality, there was more! That evening, I was invited out to dinner with the whole family at a nice Lebanese restaurant. We ate and smoked and capped off an amazing week with friends and family. My flight is tomorrow and, oh! Anwar made arrangements and paid for my taxi to the airport.