It’s my second day in Dubai and I’m at the breakfast buffet at the Al Manzil Downtown Hotel. My eyes scan the pastry selection, but I opt for a green juice and a few dates. Our first day was full of feasting and I know that today will be, too.
It’s Ramadan, the holy month in which Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset, so breakfast is served discreetly behind a divider. There’s no music playing, as entertainment is not allowed during the Holy Month. We’ve got a busy itinerary, so I make sure I have my camera and my mobile charger and that my shoulders and knees are covered before I hurry into a wave of humid heat as I walk the few steps from the hotel to the bus. Inside the bus the air conditioner is blasting and it’s a welcome relief from the desert summer.
Dubai is not strict on the dress code of visitors and Westerners, but during the month of Ramadan it’s respectful to adhere to the general rule of not showing too much skin. I quite enjoy the opportunity to wear black tights under colourful tunics and anyway (plus I used my trip as an opportunity to stock up on a few before I left South Africa).
We’re starting the day off with a visit to the newly-opened Dubai Coffee Museum. The museum is housed in the old part of the city, where the buildings are made from an orange coral stone. This part of the city really appeals to me and I feel like I am being transported back in time as I walk through the maze of corridors. By the time I step into the coolness of the Coffee Museum, my tunic is pasted to my body.
Inside it is dark and cool. The room is cooled by the distinctive and traditional wind tower on the roof of the building. This age-old structure allows rising hot air to escape, while sucking in cooler air. It’s a basic, yet interesting and effective system and I’m reminded of just how different it must have been living in the harsh desert climate just a hundred years ago.
To my left is a traditional set-up for Arabic coffee drinking; Bedouin cushions and a gorgeous rug spread across the floor. The smell of coffee beans roasting is in the air and I take a deep breath, inhaling the smell. The museum is a beautiful homage to this celebrated bean, with both ancient and new coffee grinders from around the world displayed on long tables.
We sit down to experience freshly roasted, traditional Arabic coffee. Custom dictates that you never turn down the offer of coffee in Arab culture. Once someone has offered you coffee, it means you are welcome, and turning it down would be the height of rudeness. The coffee is served in tiny porcelain cups, decorated with desert scenes drawn in fine golden lines.
It’s completely different from the milky Latte I normally drink. First of all, it’s light in colour. It’s served without milk and infused with cardamom. And I slurp a tiny sip and it tastes quite bitter, obviously a little spicy from the cardamom and strangely, it has a tannic, tea-like quality. I bite into one of the cold soft dates served with the coffee and the sweetness spreads over my tongue. I decide that I like Arabic coffee.
It’s lunch time and we are at The Palace Downtown Hotel. As I’ve come to expect from the hospitality industry in Dubai, it is beautiful. Tall palm trees line the entrance as we drive past an enormous blue pool. A real desert oasis. There are only a few people in the reastaurant – Westerners and visitors who aren’t fasting. I select a few local foods from the buffet; hummus, flat bread, olives. Mouthwatering.
Our next stop is the one I’ve been looking forward to since I received my itinerary. I hand over my passport to the Seawings staff and take a seat for a quick safety briefing. Soon we are out in the sun walking towards the water and my heart beats a little faster as I spot our seaplane. A tiny vessel with wings, floating on the water. I take my seat and strap in. My hands are sweaty and I’m not sure if it’s from the brief time I spent in the heat or because, you know, I’m in an aeroplane that’s floating on the water.
The engine sputters to life and we move off, slicing through the water as our wake trails behind us. The plane bumps over little waves and we pick up speed and then suddenly, we are airborne. I watch out the window as the water is further and further below me. For the next 40 minutes I get an idea of scope of Dubai. What it means to be a modern to the point of borderline futuristic city in the middle of the actual desert.
We swoop over the impossibly tall skyscrapers of Downtown, while the even more impossibly tall Burj Khalifa towers far above us into the heavens. We circle the iconic Burj Dubai and I try to imagine the colossal undertaking that has resulted in the beyond impressive Palm Dubai. That kind of project and vision and wealth is immeasurable and indescribable. Just beyond the borders of the city lies the empty nothingness of the desert, veiled by a haze of dust. It reminds me of a post-apocalyptic movie. Our landing is smooth on the water and as we hurry back to the hotel to freshen up for dinner I can’t stop flicking through the pictures on my phone.
The dress code for dinner is Elegantly Casual and I try to glam up my uniform of a tunic and tights with heels and more glamorous makeup. We arrive at Atlantis The Palm and pull up to the valet parking, where gorgeous men and women dressed in perfectly white Kanduras (the white robes worn by men) and dazzling Abayas (the long black cloak worn by Emirati women) are stepping out of gleaming luxury cars.
Hundreds of people are filing into the Asateer Iftar tent, which is only around during Ramadan. Inside, it’s like walking into the most elegant and sparkly wedding you’ve ever been to. Glittering chandeliers hang from the billowing ceiling of the tent and tables are laden with a feast of traditional and Western food. All around me people are finding their seats, waiting to break their fast.
The call to prayer finally comes and together, over one thousand people break their almost 15 hour fast with water and dates. I haven’t even been fasting but the food looks so good that I pile my plate high. I dish spoon fulls of hummus and tzatziki and somehow accidentally find flatbread stuffed with cheese. Call it a happy accident.
I am struck by how intimate the experience is. Families and groups of friends taking the time to sit together and eat together. There are lots of other Westerners who sit with groups of Emiratis and I don’t feel like an intruder. I feel happy and so grateful for the opportunity to experience Islam and the Muslim culture in such a special way.
*My visit to Dubai was sponsored by Visit Dubai South Africa. The trip was an initiative to learn more about Dubai and visiting during the holy month of Ramadan. I was in destination for three days. This is the telling of my second day.