A lot can happen in 24 hours. But when you’re trapped within the confines of an airport, exhaustion can settle in pretty fast. The grueling time spent sleeping in corners with your luggage as your makeshift pillow and eating cold, stale vending machine sandwiches can dampen the excitement of your trip. It is undoubtedly a draining experience, yet it is something of a rite of passage for those who love to travel.
Before heading back to university, I always find myself in that same situation somewhere in the Middle East. Qatar Airways does not have a direct flight to Madrid, so whenever I have to fly back to Spain to catch the first day of school, most of the time, I am waiting at Doha airport for my next flight. The story I am about to tell you, however, plays out a little differently from my normal circumstance. Instead, I found myself waiting in Abu Dhabi, fighting heavy eyelids and hunger next to my two best friends.
After hours of waiting for each of our transit visas, we were finally released from the airport and on our way to the shuttles that would bring us to our designated hotels. Thankfully, the airport staff booked us a place to stay for the night due to the duration of our layover. We all figured it would be a great way to explore at least a part of the United Arab Emirates.
The landscape was vast and the sky presented itself in a different form. Its usual bright hue turned into a muted baby blue, stretching across the desert towards what seemed like oblivion. The palm trees, still and tall, were not the usual variations, I am used to here in the tropics. They were dry and sparse, but seemed much sturdier than the swaying bushes we are used to in the Philippines. It was a culture shock from the moment I set foot on Arabic soil.
The hotel we stayed in was made to accommodate mainly lengthy layovers like this one, but it did not disappoint. Its ceiling was made purely of glass, letting the sun reflect and leak into the building, making its dome-like structure look like a glittering gem.
First on our short itinerary was food—something we could easily get our hands on in the hotel. The buffet offered a spread of Arabic cuisine: lamb, yogurt, different types of hummus served with pita and crackers, Tabbouleh so green it would make the garden of Eden envious. It was just what we needed to refuel. But full bellies and tired eyes can only lead to one thing: sleep. We all passed out in each of our rooms, snoring, wasting the day we had assigned to explore a country we had not yet seen. Fortunately for me, Moe, my reckless and outspoken travel buddy, was born in Saudi Arabia, a ways from the UAE, and he still had family in the area.
I began daydreaming about the things I’d be eating. More falafel, perhaps? Or maybe some lamb and Tabbouleh
With my eyes half closed, I groggily opened the door to his non-stop pounding. He was standing there, bright eyed and bushy tailed, like a kid excited for his first day in kindergarten. He told me he had booked a car for us to go meet his family and spend some time with them for the day. Great, I thought while getting dressed in something more appropriate. This will be a nice way to get to know Abu Dhabi a little more.
I could feel the excitement inside me and the adrenaline begin to kick in. I was in the UAE for the first time, and would already be meeting new people. It was the best possible scenario I could have been in. As I was ready to leave, I began daydreaming about the things I’d be eating that day. More falafel, perhaps? Or maybe some lamb and Tabbouleh.
By the time I realized that Moe’s smile was a tad too big for a simple stroll around the city, he said, “Yeah, my family lives in Dubai.”
I was a pretty sheltered kid. I had to ask my parents for permission every time I went out with friends and had a strict curfew every night, just in case I dared to go out during those hours. Needless to say, spontaneity did not come naturally to me. But all that was thrown out our car window as we approached the gleaming city of Dubai. It took a minute for our eyes to adjust to the forest of skyscrapers, and the supercars speeding past us. The towers were partly hidden by passing clouds while the rest of the structures twinkled down on us, mocking how minuscule we were.
As we picked our jaws up off the floor, Moe had a smile that stretched from ear to ear. He beamed with pride and a sense of belonging that tourists can only dream of having. This was his territory, and he could not wait to share it with us, and for that, I was so grateful.
We only had about six hours left at this point, so we were on a mission to experience as much of this city as possible. I heard a car engine roar behind me, forcing more and more adrenaline to surge through my veins. I could feel myself slowly begin to panic, wondering why the car was heading straight towards us. Did we break some sort of driving law? Did we accidentally run a red light? My mind was racing until Moe shuffled into the car, gesturing at us to get into the backseat. Now I was a different type of confused. The vehicle smelled of new leather and had interiors dripping with class. Its dim lights exuded a sense of sophistication. It was a car made for a CEO, luxurious enough for them to feel their executive title when no one was looking, but also efficient enough to get them to where they needed to be. It almost felt blasphemous for me to be sitting there in my sweatpants and T-shirt.
The city was like a coal mine—except all the lumps of coal had already been made into diamonds. Each building we sped past simultaneously knew the ground and the sky, standing firmly on the soil yet socializing with the clouds. The streets had no corners left unlit, with lights laced from tree to tree. It was its own kind of majestic, something I could not quite comprehend, yet had a wonderful time trying. The city itself is intimidating but is complemented by the elegance of Dubai’s traditional architecture and culture. The perfect balance of metropolitan and customary blows your mind.
The smell of Turkish desserts and the sight of a glowing lake added to the symphony the city created for us
I was having the time of my life speeding through the city, staring at the scenery for as long as my view would hold. But once we hit downtown, the urge to jump out of the car became hard to resist. We agreed to meet the chauffer at the end of the block in 30 minutes—more than enough time to explore, right?
The unfamiliar sound of buzzing people, socializing and chatting in Arabic, was the main sound we were hearing. The smell of Turkish desserts and the sight of a glowing lake, reflecting each twinkling building, added to the symphony the city created for us. It was a beautiful performance that seemed to be put on solely for our short stay here.
By the time we reached the end of the road, our stomachs hurt from laughing. The whole situation we found ourselves in was just so bizarre, it was comical. Nevertheless, we all had immense gratitude that day, knowing that this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
We ended the trip with a nightcap with some of Moe’s family. We met in a restaurant at the edge of the city called Pickle, charming and intimate, with a modern atmosphere. All of us broke bread with one another as we talked, exchanging stories about what it was like living in the UAE and how it differed so much from my own upbringing in the Philippines. We spoke about politics, religion, feminism—every topic you would avoid when meeting someone new. But somehow, the conversation kept flowing and bonds were being forged in the process. It was as if the clock on our rushed escapade stopped, and we were stuck in a moment in time. Two worlds, two different realities colliding at a beat-up table-booth in Dubai—exchanging not only stories, but parts of each other we would have never shared if not for that moment. It was glorious.
The memories made in those eight hours still live in my head. The concrete jungle that is Dubai made its mark on me, leaving me with a melancholy feeling of nostalgia, knowing that trip may have very well been my first and last time there. That thought alone haunts me to this day. But whenever I retrieve those memories on rainy days, on days when I need a little sunshine, I remember the spontaneity that fueled our laughter. I think of the light that reflected on the lake, as if it was winking at us, aware of how impressive it looked. I think of the butterflies in my stomach and the utter obnoxiousness we must have exuded while ripping through the city.
Dubai is more than a usual stop for layovers. It is a city that reminds you of both how fast and slow time is—an international hub for people, a place that seamlessly combines camels and Ferraris, all while shaming the ignorance out of your mind.
To come to Dubai is a draining experience, one that will leave you wondering which is up and down, and if anything is even real. It is a different reality that will put in perspective how minuscule you are in comparison to man’s undying need for evolution. It is a humbling experience, yet one I think is a rite of passage for everyone who loves to travel.