Sometimes it’s good to break the mould and get out of the city, and the emirate. Northeast of Dubai is Sharjah, a more traditional and conservative state. About a month ago the study abroads went there to visit some cultural museums, like the Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilization which houses coins from the Umayyad caliphate and a recent covering of the Ka’aba. There’s also the Sharjah Calligraphy Museum, but Krishna and I skipped out on that one to take an adventurous ride across a river on a dinky boat. Then we ate hummus.
We also visited the Blue Souk, but Krishna and I ended up wandering off again, where we came across a farmers’ market.
One day in Sharjah just wasn’t enough, so Krishna and I went back for round two, this time in the surrounding desert. Probably among the top three touristy things I’ve done here, this excursion was hilarious and surprisingly fun. We were picked up by a driver at our university who drove us two hours into the middle of nowhere, which was admittedly pretty sketchy. And then we hopped into another car which zipped off to the sands for dune bashing, which felt like a rough old-school wooden roller coaster ride to me and hanging from the precipice of death to another tourist, who was shouting exclamations of panic in Arabic. The camel ride later that night was a little boring in comparison.
While the traditional dancing and local food were good, the best part of the overnight desert safari was stargazing and sleeping in a worn out tent. Believe it or not stars are actually visible here once you’re outside city limits. And the sunrise the following morning was National Geographic worthy.
The city has been good to me, but it was fun to go back to my roots and camp in a more remote location. The peace and quiet at this makeshift B&B helped me get some much needed R&R. My time in Sharjah taught me to be adventurous and do the cheesy tourist things. Just make sure to bring along a street-smart friend who speaks Hindi.
Week 5 in Dubai, and I haven’t shared much about the one thing that consumes most of my energy here… FOOD!
Contrary to popular belief, this city has more to offer than simply shawarma, grape leaves and dates. I love Middle Eastern food, but it can be challenging to find amidst all the tourist food chains. And if you thought I had a meal plan here au contraire mademoiselle.
The nice things about this city when it comes to food: (1) this place is meant for foodies, and (2) almost every restaurant delivers. My problem: not many understand the concept of lactose intolerance. But thanks to expat vegan forums, here are my go-to places to get dairy-free food:
1. Urban Bistro
Just a short walk from campus, Urban Bistro is a cute little café in the CNN Building. For my Fayetteville friends, it’s very similar to Arsaga’s. They serve coffee for here and to-go, but it’s more of a restaurant. Their brunch menu is delicious, and the servers happily accommodated my needs with almond milk. It’s also fairly priced.
Urban definitely has a relaxed, Western expat vibe – perfect for a Saturday morning. I was able to study there, which is a huge feat when it comes to Dubai, and most importantly, there’s free wifi. The playlist ranges from the latest pop songs to classic artists like Eric Clapton. I guess they don’t mind cocaine.
2. Taqado Mexican Kitchen
When I left the US, I left a piece of my heart there with Chipotle. Surprisingly Dubai has several Mexican restaurants (or at least, Mexican-inspired) with plenty of guacamole to go around. Taqado is my favorite. With locations in Mall of the Emirates and Dubai Mall it’s a go-to on-the-go burrito bar. The friendly servers seem to enjoy their jobs, and they never pressure me into adding cheese and sour cream.
3. Uber + Magnolia Bakery
For Uber Dubai’s third anniversary its drivers delivered free Magnolia cupcakes. Okay, so these weren’t dairy-free, but they were so worth the pain and the few lactaid pills I brought with me. 4. Freedom Pizza
Freedom Pizza for the win!! William Wallace would love it.
This place is a game-changer. Not only is their delivery super fast (for a pizza place), but they also can substitute any cheese for vegan cheese. Oh and they have vegan ice cream!
A little tucked away café in the Asserkal Avenue art district, this place is the perfect stop for espresso in between exhibits. It’s one of the few places I’ve found (aside from Starbucks) where it’s socially acceptable to buy just a latte and stay. I hope to make this cute coffeeshop my study hideaway.
When the going gets tough, the tough learn how to cook. With limited reasonably-priced dairy-free take-out options, I’ve resorted to Pinterest recipes for my everyday hunger. Turns out I can make a mean vegan spaghetti with the help of Divine Healthy Food and Eataly.
Growing up is rough, especially when you’re expected to be a fully functioning adult as a foreigner. Here are some life skills I had to learn the hard way:
After moving in the time came to do my laundry. (No, I didn’t pull the classic freshman move of washing reds and whites together.) Nowadays laundry is a tedious chore, but it’s easy… when you can find the laundry room. I tried accessing it through the kitchen, the lounge, the study room, and a random bathroom before I realized I would need a miracle – or the Marauder’s Map – to find it. So I finally broke down and asked someone. Turns out it’s outside. And it’s a sauna.
If only that were the end of my troubles. Then I realized the machines only take coins, but there was no bill exchange in sight. ATMs don’t give out 1 AED coins; it’s like dispensing US quarters. So I went to the other girls’ dorm laundry room to find a way to turn paper dirhams into loose change. When that didn’t work, I bought a water bottle in the vending machine with a 10 dirham bill and got 9 coins back. Ka-ching! Life skill #1 hacked.
Like every American adult, I have a crippling addiction to caffeine. And like every broke hipster, I’m not about to spend $5 on Starbucks every day. It’s so mainstream. So I decided to buy a cheap, simple coffee pot to satisfy my morning needs. Maybe I just have no idea where to look, but after two supermarkets and three home stores in two different malls, I discovered coffee pots aren’t a thing here. I finally broke down and bought my first French press.
No one told me I was joining a cult. There is no other way to make coffee.
Getting off ‘off-the-grid’ status
How to get a SIM card as a tourist in the UAE:
Unlock your phone. No, I don’t mean entering the passcode. Your carrier has to do this in their system, and you should have them do it before you leave your home country. It will be 10x easier!
Buy a tourist SIM card at Etisalat or Du for 50-100 AED.
Insert SIM card with a complimentary SIM tray key.
Enjoy complimentary minutes, SMS, and data. (And coupons and vouchers if you go with du!)
How I got a SIM card as a tourist in the UAE:
I skipped the most important step (#1), and blazed smoothly through #2.
Then I got stuck at #3 (for which I bought an unnecessary SIM tray key) because I had skipped #1.
I went back to #1 online, and then proceeded to wait two days before I could use my new SIM.
Sidenote: you cannot buy prepaid plans with a tourist SIM card. I have to get my residence visa before I can purchase more data. However it is possible to add minutes, so call me.
This is the true struggle for all millennials. The person who discovers the secrets to waking up – and getting out of bed – will be richer and more loved than J.K. Rowling.
Yes, I did bring a real alarm clock here, and yes, I set it each night to go off the next morning. No, it doesn’t work. I woke up to the cleaners coming in…twice.
Have you ever watched Julia & Julia, No Reservations, Burnt or Ratatouille and thought, ‘I could be a chef!’? Lies.
Unlike some people my age, I have experience cooking. For awhile I wanted to be a pastry chef, so I’ve baked pretty much any dessert you can think of. I’ve seen every episode of Ace of Cakes, and I’ve honestly thought about pulling a Maggie Gyllenhaal from Stranger Than Fiction and dropping out of school to start my own bakery. But none of these rookie activities prepared me for this:
The ovens in my dorm kitchen are not only in Celsius, but they’re also ancient. I didn’t know you could select the temperature with a knob! I’ve always used a digital oven, with several nice little buttons. After waiting 20 minutes for the oven to warm up to 200 degrees Celsius (which I had to convert from Fahrenheit with help from Google) it dawned on me that I hadn’t pushed the preheat button. Why? Because I stuck my hand in the middle of the oven, and it was room temperature. And there are no buttons!
So like any introverted millennial beyond her depth, I googled it. And by “it” I mean five different searches with slight variations in the wording because nothing helpful was coming up. When I thought all hope was lost I found a random blog post from the UK explaining the different symbols on this knob:
It worked. I was finally able to cook my tofu in peace.
In other news I’ve been mistaken for a freshman a couple times, and people on campus keep asking me if I’m a visiting student.
Everything’s bigger in Dubai. Sorry Texans. Even the celebration of Eid al-Adha is bigger here. This eid, or holiday, celebrates the provision of a lamb when Abraham went to sacrifice his son. Much like religious holidays in the states, it’s also marked by fireworks, shopping and time off. With three days of class cancelled this week I was able to explore more of the city around 2,716 ft (828 m) above the city.
Six years ago the world’s tallest building was completed. Six days ago I went up to the 124th floor at 1,820 ft (555 m) nbd. From Sheikh Zayed Road, the main highway, Burj Khalifa doesn’t look that impressive amidst the other skyscrapers that make up Dubai’s skyline. But once you step out of Dubai Mall, it strikes you that it is a giant – slender and sleek, but a giant nonetheless. And it’s shiny. From the observation deck, it’s even more obvious that this building is big.
Just in case you didn’t realize, Burj Khalifa is kind of a big deal. To give you an idea of the elevation, if you look closely you can see a slight curvature of the horizon.
Bigger is better.
At least that’s what Häagen-Dazs likes to think. They are having an Eid special – three scoops for the price of two – and it is my weakness.
This city is crazy. That’s all I can think to say whenever I learn something new about Dubai. Just 30 years ago this place was straight up desert, and now it’s home to the world’s tallest building. I can’t wait to share more of it with you as I discover all the unique things it has to offer.
I know you’re wondering, so I’ll cut to the chase. Yes, it is hot and very humid here, but I think spending a summer in LA has helped me adjust to the climate easily.
One week in Dubai just isn’t enough, especially when you spend most of your time settling in, getting a student visa and starting classes. The campus here is small but very nice and modern, and the people (students, staff and professors) are so welcoming and friendly.
I share a cozy dorm room with an Egyptian who is so sweet. She and I are having a fun time bonding over how much we have in common. I’ve also had the chance to meet other visiting students (mostly from the US) and a good number of cool locals. I can’t wait to get to know more people, especially native Arabic-speakers.
This semester I’m taking Middle Eastern Studies courses:
Introduction to Middle East History
Islamic Art and Architecture – we actually have art projects as a part of our class!
The Qur’an: History, Text and Meaning – with everyone’s favorite professor
Iraq: Reinventing the Nation – I’m the only American taking it
Arabic Proficiency – by far the hardest class I have this semester, considering most of the students are native Arabic-speakers
Actually there’s a funny story about that last class. It’s pretty obvious to everyone here that I am a visiting student (I’m white with dark blonde hair) so everyone speaks English with me. Well I showed up a little early, and some girls in my class introduced themselves to me (in English). They were surprised that I’m studying Arabic and Middle Eastern Studies but also very encouraging. Then they turned around and continued their conversation in dialectical Arabic. It was the first time in a few years when I didn’t understand most of what was said. When it came for me to speak in posh, old school Arabic I was still disoriented by the constant bouncing around of different dialects and jokes I must have missed the punchline to. But after class the same girls approached me in awe. “We didn’t know you can speak Arabic! Where did you learn?!” When I told them I’ve only been studying it for two years they were shocked. s/o to U of A’s Arabic department.
Also, s/o to the Dubai Mall and Burj Khalifa,
…and the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding, which welcomed us in true Emirati style.
I even got to try on the traditional women’s clothing: an abaya (long black dress),hijab (head scarf) and niqab (veil). We normally call this outfit a burka, but (who knew?) that’s actually incorrect. A burqa is a gold face mask, like the one Krishna is wearing in the second photo.
And s/o to family friends who have been generous enough to show me around and help me get settled in.
So far it’s been a good start to the semester and such a blessing to meet new people and have new experiences. I’m excited to continue exploring this crazy city that I live in. And by crazy, I mean crazy in a good way. There’s no place like home (for four months). No place like Dubai!