The United Arab Emirates: a culture shock

The United Arab Emirates: a culture shock

By boat to another world

We take the ferry from Iran to cross the Persian Gulf to the United Arab Emirates. At 5 a.m. we are at the port because, we were told, if you get there later you won’t be able to board. When we arrive, everything is still dark, and only a security guard is to be seen. He speaks no English but tries to make it clear that we must wait. How long? A few hours it turns out… A little later we see two other early risers, a couple from Switzerland. They have also cycled as far as Iran, but they are now traveling on without their bikes. We have a lot to tell each other and marvel at many of the same things. The bikes are loaded into the cargo hold around 9:30 and we board.

On the boat, which sails for about 6 hours, we are given a final helping of yellow rice with saffron. And we are briefed extensively on the sights in Sharjah and Dubai by the curious young women in front of us. When we go to take a look on deck, Audrey’s glasses immediately fog up from the humid heat. Several women in chador (robe that covers the body) join Audrey and try to strike up a conversation, but unfortunately Persian/Farsi remains a stumbling block. They find it amusing that they can use Google Translate to find out some things nonetheless. When they learn that Audrey is 31 and has no children yet, they are shocked, raising even more questions. Slowly, after a day of sailing, the skyline of Sharjah comes into view and the captain calls for us to go inside.

Arrival in Sharjah

Sharjah is one of the seven United Arab Emirates, has a population of 1.4 million and is about the same size as our province of Limburg. The much better-known Dubai, another Emirate, borders Sharjah. We see that the bikes are quickly loaded off the ship, but we have to wait a few more hours before border controls are over. First we are (literally) locked in a waiting room for a while and then the registration system for European passports turns out not to be working. So we get to spend some more time with the Swiss cyclists. Meanwhile, we are already staring our eyes out at the Arab costumes. The men wear a long white robe (kandora). And after several weeks in Iran, it feels strange that again we see many women without headscarves or hijabs, since it is not mandatory here.

As soon as we cycled out of the harbor around 10 p.m., we were shocked. Old wooden fishing boats, with next to them the tallest apartment buildings we have seen in our lives. Palaces, expensive cars, thousands of lights, color-changing apartment buildings, and wow, bike lanes! The heat and humidity (the temperature does not drop below 30°C at night!) are the only things that remind us of Iran now. Cars follow the rules, stopping at traffic lights, and while cycling we have to readjust our assertive Iranian behavior in traffic to a normal level. Every time we cycle into a traffic circle we think we will be besieged from all sides, but soon we realize that cycling in this crowded area is very different.

“Welcome in the concrete jungle, welcome in the U.A.E.”


Indian hospitality

We cycle in Sharjah to Yash, his wife and their 2-year-old daughter Prakruti. We are the first cyclists to stay with them for a few days. They have previously hosted other travelers, but 2 cyclists bivouacking in the living room is new. They live in one of the many apartment buildings and the bikes go in the elevator. Yash explains that 480 families live in this tower alone! Almost all apartment buildings also have their own multi-story parking garage. Yash and his family are of Indian descent and not much later we discover that almost 40% of the population in the U.A.E. has Indian roots. There are many Indian restaurants and their holidays are also celebrated in abundance here. We learn a lot about Indian cuisine and eat (non-spicy) couscous for breakfast. When Audrey thinks she is putting a green bean in her mouth (which turns out to be a pepper) and then her mouth and lips are on fire, we realize again that non-spicy has a different meaning here :-). Despite the differences in our taste buds, the Indian food is delicious and Yash takes us to different places in town to taste the food. In addition to their own dialect, the family speaks very good English, which immediately makes communication a lot easier.

Extreme, more extreme, most extreme

One of the first days we end up in a mall because of the heat outside. Suddenly we see a roller coaster racing through the mall! It turns out there is an entire amusement park! Coffee is unaffordable, almost 8 euros. We wonder how these prices compare to the incomes of residents of this part of the Arab Emirates.

The Emirates runs mainly on the strength of migrant workers from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. They make up as much as 80% (!) of the population and a large proportion of them work day and night in the construction industry to complete the gigantic building projects. Apparently, 1 out of every 4 cranes in the world is in Dubai…. However, salaries are usually far too low to make a reasonable living in the Emirates. It feels uncomfortable to walk around this hard concrete chic-looking world with such awareness.

A world where in the sandbox, sand is swept off these carpets…. (next to the carpets in the photo below, someone stood daily with a broom sweeping away the sand).

Together with Yash and the family, we visit the largest mall in the world, Dubai Mall (502,000 square meters, and 14,000 parking spaces!!!). They tell us that they have been here several days now, but they still haven’t been able to visit every corner of the mall. Simply because it is so gigantic! There is a huge aquarium with all kinds of tropical fish and sharks, in which we see divers swimming around. You can even take a boat out on it. Above the aquarium is the world’s largest digital screen. Around the corner is the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa. This extraordinary building stretches 828 gleaming meters into the sky and features a daily projected light show. For Belgian readers, a replica of the Burj Khalifa was made of Belgian chocolate in 2014. It is the tallest construction ever: 13.5 meters high and a whopping 4,200 kg (!) of chocolate. Hard to imagine, but in Dubai anything is possible for a certain price….

A few more little details: there is a ice skating rink with stadium in the mall, a giant fountain with light show, and a real skeleton of a 155-million-year-old dinosaur (flown in from the U.S.). We are short of eyes in this bizarre world.

Flying with bicycles

Yash’s family is incredibly helpful. He drives with us through the city looking for bike boxes, which turns out to be not at all easy. We browse several bike stores, but each time they are out of boxes. Finally, we find a bicycle store in Dubai, 30 km away. The only problem is that bike boxes are huge and apparently are not allowed on the subway and bus. We take them into the metro anyway and then carry them on our heads for 5 km. Then we have to pack the bikes and the fact that the bikes are only allowed to weigh 20 kg (including a 5 kg box), it means we have to strip the bikes of almost all their body parts. The tires, saddles, stands, handles, locks, etc. go in regular luggage. One tip for flying with bikes: check the airline’s rules in advance and read all the fine print. The airline we flew with kept referring us from case to case. A lesson we learned. It caused us both a lot of stress and a huge extra cost just to transport a bicycle. The lady at the check-in counter probably thought we were a bit pathetic and fortunately deducted a few hundred euros from the price. Special price for you…

Little India

Despite not being in India, we learned a lot of Indian culture in 5 days. But we also found that the more we saw of the Emirates, the more questions arose and the less we understood of it. Now we are ready to fly back to Central Asia specifically to UZBEKISTAN! The reason we can’t go by land: the border between Iran and Turkmenistan is still closed.

See you in Uzbekistan!

Eloy and Audrey

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