I’m currently reading my friend Becky‘s first book, about her adventures in Dubai, aptly titled ‘Burqalicious: The Dubai Diaries’ and it got me thinking. All the experiences that she mentions in the book – from the boozed-up brunching, the binge drinking, the weekend getaways, the crappy jobs and the broken hearts – can probably be quite overwhelming and difficult to comprehend to those who’ve never been, let alone, lived there. Those who have, know that there is a certain ‘art’ to living in Dubai.
Dubai isn’t for everyone. If you have a tough skin and an ability to see the humour in everything, you’re off to a good start. Despite all the supposed glitz, glamour and parties, it feels like from the moment you arrive to the second before you leave, the higher beings are secretly conspiring against you to make aspects of your life there as inconvenient, unpleasant and long-winded as possible. There are so many unnecessary obstacles in your path when you want to get anything done. Ask anyone who’s lived there about the processes of renting an apartment, finding a decent maid, changing jobs or even just getting internet connected and you’ll be met with a rolling of the eyes and a massive sigh as they recall the pain of dealing with a dodgy landlord, unhelpful bank staff (I’m glaring at you, HSBC), or Du customer service. And regardless of whether you are patient or demanding in any of these situations, most of the time the customer doesn’t win. It’s just an aspect of life there and you quickly realise its futile trying to fight it. Dubai = bureaucracy gone mad.
One of the other biggest barriers to get over is the heat. When I mention to people I’ve lived in Dubai, almost everyone screws up their face and asks curiously ‘but how did you cope with the heat?’. Most of the time I just shrug, because, well, you just end up dealing with it. From May – September the heat is pretty unbearable. And I mean the 4-showers-a-day, glasses-fogging, sea water-burning kind of heat. However, you find yourself acclimatising pretty easily after the first few months- “Oh, its ONLY 38 today!”. With all due respect, the city has been quite clever in minimising the heat impact on its residents. Air-conditioned oases are found everywhere. From your home, to your car, to your office, to the shopping malls. In fact, I have a theory that the 50 or so shopping malls they’ve built are actually purposely built refuges from the harsh weather. The shopping is just a bonus (does anyone actually buy anything at Ibn Battuta mall? ). Even some bus shelters are air conditioned. Power cuts occur frequently in the summer as the stations are overloaded from all of us seeking respite by having our air-conditioners set at 18º 24/7. Last summer, half of Sharjah (the neighbouring emirate) had no power for weeks, where temperatures soared to 50º, resulting in hundreds of heat-related illnesses – even deaths. One thing is certain though.. you will never complain about heatwaves in your home country ever again.
It goes without saying that Dubai makes you a very spoilt brat. If you had the means (and a lot of people do), you needn’t lift a finger – you can have a cook, cleaner, babysitter and driver. All you have to do is show up. In a place where breakfast can be delivered to you in bed from the coffee shop downstairs, the petrol is pumped while you sit in your car with the engine on, cigarettes and chewing gum fetched by a delivery boy on demand – you start to take a lot of things for granted. When the cleaner doesn’t show up, you get annoyed. When the petrol attendant doesn’t clean your windscreen you refuse to tip. When the delivery boy brings Marlboro Lights instead of your usual Davidoff Ultras you scold him. It turns you into a very nasty, demanding person indeed. This goes for travelling too. It just so happened that I worked for an airline, in a city that was based, apparently, at the geographical centre of the world. Not only did it benefit my long distance relationship (for a while), but also my never ending wanderlust. I was a spoilt little traveller and soon enough, for me, aeroplanes became just another mode of public transport.
Maybe that’s why everyone binge-drinks in Dubai – to relieve the stresses of the heat, the crappy customer service or just to get out of the flat while the cleaner’s in working their magic. I have never partied so hard in my life; the infamous Dubai Friday brunches became my specialty and I couldn’t go so much as twenty four hours without a visit to my favourite bars for a cocktail or five. Every day of the week there was something on – in fact my girlfriends and I discovered we (as ladies) could drink every night for FREE at various establishments around town. It did start to become a whole other world of ridiculous. Social drinking in this town was pretty much accepted as an excuse to catch up with friends, meet new people or perhaps to try to reel in a rich Arab millionaire who could buy you unlimited Prada handbags.
But when you come to grips with the social aspect of an expat community (and believe me, it doesn’t take long) you begin to really find a unique experience. The diversity of people who I’d befriended was the best part of living there. Brits, Africans, Americans, Europeans, Aussies, Arabs. You become each other’s family, security, towers of support. Some are still there, some have since moved on, like me. But I always knew that if I had a crappy day and wanted to vent, there was always someone around to lend an ear (most likely over a bottle wine or several tiki puka pukas). There’s no attitude or politics. No bitching or backstabbing (okay, maybe a little) but I know these people will be my friends for life. But despite the boozy brunches, fancy bars and delivery services, my favourite memories of Dubai are a lot more simple. A day at the beach with my friends complete with bbq and inflatable toys. A beautiful road trip through the mountains of Mussandam in Oman. Dancing the night away in the dodgiest bar in town, in shorts and flip flops. Watching the sunset while sipping a G&T from the back patio of a villa I lived in. Being mesmerised by the Dubai fountains as the towers of water sway to the rhythm of the music. Intimate dinners at quirky restaurants tucked away in forgotten corners of the city. Nights in with my flatmate watching DVD’s and singing our favourite songs on Singstar.
So, after all that…what is the art of living in Dubai? For me, it was a mix of patience, perseverance, tolerance and light-heartedness. Dramas and complications unfold every day but its best not to take the place too seriously (everything in hindsight, huh!). My best advice is to leave your prejudices and misconceptions at immigration, befriend as many people as you can, and be ready to have the time of your life.
All photos in this post were taken by the author and subject to copyright.