Dubai & My 30th Revolution Around the Sun

The flight attendant announced our jet would be landing in Dubai International Airport and that it was time to buckle up. This was my cue to wrench my body in half and reach under the reclined seat ahead of me to grab my tiny backpack. Unzipped, it revealed the necessities for the desert that had been packed away when we were in The Alps and The United Kingdom. Sunscreen, sunglasses and my new flip flops beckoned! I slipped the leather Merrell sandals onto my feet and tucked everything back underneath to prepare for landing.
At the baggage claim Jason looked down at my feet and said, “Whoa.
That was a fast transition.”

The women's waiting area outside the airport is separate from the men's.

I was ready for some sunshine! We first noticed this sign outside the terminal, noting that this would be quite a unique experience. If women and men couldn’t even wait for arriving passengers together, how could this place really hold up to its “advanced, new-age” reputation? We were curious to see the balance of Dubai’s infamous expatriate fun factor and local Emirati culture. My university friend, Danae, spotted us and waved both of her arms, a huge Greek smile on her face. We had studied in Germany together in 2002, graduated together in 2004, and met up in London and Greece in 2008. Danae is from Thessaloniki, but has lived and worked all over the world, earning the reputation as one of my most international and colorful friends. Her boyfriend Giannis had recently moved to Dubai as well and we were looking forward to seeing their new life here in The United Arab Emirates.

After we handed over a double pack of family-sized Rice Krispy Treats from the USA, Danae was even more motivated to show us around the city! We spotted the Burj Al Arab and the Burj Khalifa on the skyline. This is Dubai’s most famous hotel and the tallest building in the world, respectively. We drove past the Dubai Marina, wide-eyed and grinning at the beach scene and festive restaurants on the strip. Meeting for lunch with Giannis, we made a loose plan for the week, involving lots of time to catch up.

"Atlantis" in Dubai was part of our first day's tour by Danae.

My birthday came out of nowhere, and before I could say “thirty,” Jason announced that we’d be leaving for a surprise ASAP. “Um, do I have to look good!?” I said as I jumped into the shower and mentally mapped out my birthday outfit– a black dress I had brought for the occasional dress-up event. My most elegant attire was currently stuffed into a mesh bag inside my bursting-at-the-seams backpack. Classy. Or as we like to say, “backpacker chic.”

Twenty minutes later, my hair still damp, we were dressed “smartly” and scurrying out the door and into our cab. Jason clutched a tri-folded mystery paper and directed the driver to an address. As we got closer to the Burj Al Arab’s shape on the horizon, I understood why Jason had suggested dressing up! This was the only seven-star hotel in the world and we as backpackers were trying to get in?! Haha!

We entered the posh lobby and Jason flashed his mystery paper. We were directed up the escalator which slid us past a rainbow-colored waterfall. Looking up, beaming, gold walls towered around us.

The view of the fountain looking down on entrance to Burj Al Arab

My birthday surprise unfolded as we were lead to our white-clothed table at Sahn Eddar, overlooking the pristine sand and glistening water. Jason and Danae had collaborated to make us a reservation for what British English speakers call “an afternoon tea.” But this was not just a cup of earl grey with a choice of milk or lemon. No, this was a seven course lunch, starting out with our choice of tea or champagne. I don’t need to inform you about which beverage we chose. But does this mean I have to say we had “an afternoon champagne?”

Dressed up at Burj Al Arab in our "backpacker-chic" best...and a few things borrowed from Giannis!

As the second floor restaurant’s musicians began softly playing behind us, our courses were served. We dined on the following:
1. Champagne and mango mochi with berries. For those who haven’t tried mochi, order it at a Japanese restaurant or buy it at Trader Joe’s. It’s a sticky pastry filled with ice cream and then frozen. Because I love ice cream, this was the perfect way to start my birthday meal.
2. Tiny finger sandwiches. These were filled with tuna, salmon, ham,
chicken, roast beef, and veggies. Each one was on a unique bun with a sauce of its own. That’s a lot of work for a two-bite sando!
3. Salmon Wellington. This was my fav course, with a light cream sauce on top.

Salmon wellington was my favorite birthday course.

4. Lime sorbet, to cleanse the pallet
5. Coffee and scones with jam & cream. By this time, I could not
breath and resorted to a bite or two!
6. Our choice of desserts.
7. Homemade Chocolates. Brought out on a platter for our choosing.

Chocolate birthday cake at Burj al Arab

Bonus Round! A piece of chocolate birthday cake, served as a harpist played happy birthday quietly in the background. If we look stuffed in the pics, you now know why!

After marveling at the gem stone fountain and intricate architecture one last time, we got a feeling for the massive materialism present in Dubai. We felt a bit conflicted, seeing the extravagance that surrounded this city and the poverty that oppresses many other countries. Dubai definitely didn’t fit our typical style with its glitz and glam, but it was a noteworthy break from our backpacker life. And well, nice things are nice once in a while!

We returned to Danae and Gianni’s studio, a serviced apartment in the Mariott. Another birthday surprise popped up: a facial and massage from Mom, Dad and JV! “Wow, this is royal treatment,” I said to the staff, truly feeling like an Emirati princess.

Having said many thanks to my parents and husband for the amazing day thus far, we then met up with Giannis and Danae for some socializing, dancing and locally made alcohol at Trader Vic’s. The drinks were called tiki puka puka and the recipe will appear in the recipe page on this blog shortly! Thanks to everyone who made my day special, from the emails and phone calls to the in-person hugs. Can I have a 30th every year?!

Jason, Giannis and Danae get caught up in Dubai's Marina District

For the next few days, we spent quality time with Danae and Giannis, laughing and chatting as if we had never been away. We always say that the true sign of good friends is being able to pick up right where we left off! As we chatted along the board walk, we watched flashy Lamborghinis cruise the strip. Women, subserviently walking behind their men, were fully covered from head to ankle and revealed peaks of designer shoes and handbags. Many of these citizens are considered the “new rich” since oil was discovered here in 1966. It’s amazing what oil money can buy. We had to wonder: without the world’s massive energy consumption, would any of this be possible?

The Burj Khalifa is the tallest building in the world.

We had a lot to celebrate our last night in town, with the paperwork for Danae’s new job offer at Bvulgari coming through. Her new boss, Fidaa, met with us at a Lebanese restaurant called Zahr El Zeymoun. Upon his recommendations, we tried an array of delicious cuisine, from rose flavored drinks at the start to sweet Middle Eastern puddings, topped with pistacios to finish. Across from the restaurant’s porch location, the Burj Khalifa cast a shadow that only the world’s tallest building could produce. Underneath the masterpiece, the world’s largest fountain sprayed to the tune of “Thriller” by Michael Jackson, coaxing a mighty applause from a crowd of locals and tourists.

The highlight of the evening was Fidaa’s generous tour of the Burj Khalifa and his two bedroom pad on the 73 floor. Normally, a tour of this building cost around $100 USD each and needs to be booked in advance. Fidaa guided us through the lobby where we switched to a special elevator for residents only. Ears popping, the elevator took only a few seconds to rocket us to a serene lounge on the 123 floor. Coffee and tea were served, with a view of the tinker toy city below. then we wandered to The private residences. As expected, his place was spectacular and classy, just like Fidaa! We stayed for a drink and a photo show from his travels and gave him big hugs for enabling us to see this masterpiece of architecture from a local perspective.

Fidaa's tour of the Burj Khalifa was amazing!

Early the next morning we crept quietly out of Danae and Gianni’s apartment, leaving them a note and a jar of peanut butter to remember us. At the airport, we had a few Dirham coins to spend before leaving the country, so we splurged on a very (un)healthy breakfast at Coldstone, ordering our creations from our reception: “Jason’s chocoholic chow down” (complete with peanut butter of course) and “Erin’s late night bake-a-thon.” The treat was Rich. Indulgent. Fun.
Just as Dubai had been.

Next up: stay tuned for the unexpected way we supported great white shark conservation!

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