I am sorry this article has come in late. I have tried to write about my trip to Dubai a number of times, but every time I sit down to write, I fail. So last night I sat down on my computer and decided to give it another go. Perhaps this time, my words would not betray me. The only problem is that it has been two weeks since I came back from Dubai, and so the freshness of the trip has washed away. Frustrated, I sit on my favourite side of the couch with the ending credits of The Outlander rising in front of me like specks of loose dust from, obscurity to oblivion.
The uniform of the Emirates air hostesses. Their uniforms are light brown, just like the sands of a desert. Red hats and even redder lips that curve to reveal a set of teeth neatly arranged like books on a shelf. A white cloth that has not yet decided whether it is a regular scarf or a hiqab or a curtain, hangs freely on the side of each of their faces. It falls from the right side of the hat, then quickly changes its mind around the chest, then comes back up like a roller coaster onto the left shoulder. Big smiles that do not get tired. High octane glamour that is maintained at 30,000ft above se level.
It is my first time outside East Africa. I sit by the window, seat number 45A, looking outside. My focus is on an airplane wing as it cuts through the balls of intangible cotton before rising above them again. I watch as the wing fades into darkness, as the sun dips in far away distance, painting an orange line across the sky.
Then a dot at the edge of the wing.
Looking at the window I see myself and the two girls sitting next to me. I remember the first time the one immediately next to me asked whether we could go to Dubai. It was such a long time ago, I cannot even remember the details of that conversation. All I can remember is me telling her to stop being ridiculous. How could we even afford to go to Dubai? Where would that money come from?
“But babe listen. You remember Michi? My friend from Boma?”
[Boma is what Kenya High students call their school. Ati Boma. You can tell where a school is based just on their nicknames. The ones from the city are called Boma, Changez, Patch. The ones in the bush had no nicknames, because what moniker do you even give to Akoko Secondary School? The original name is already a nickname.]
“I told you about her. The one who lives in Dubai?”
“Anyway, she has agreed to host us. All we need to get is airfare, VISA and money for kuzurura.”
“And how much is that?”
“You want me to spend 200k on a vacation? Are you mad?”
I have never spent 200k on anything. She knows this. I make money that is only enough for my rent, food and internet. I depend on my sister to bring me new shoes every Christmas when she visits. Yet here she is, asking me to take 200k and spend it on a whim. To Dubai, no less. Wait, who even decides to go to Dubai? Normal people go to the coast or to Naivasha. That is, people whose bank accounts are set up to think of going for trips. Me the only trip I can afford is a guilt trip.
“Well, technically, if you consider travel insurance, VISA and buying stuff, it will be about 250.” She adds, imagining that she is making things better.
“Nope. Never going to happen.”
“Listen, G. We will save. We save for a year and then go next year.”
Clearly, I must have said yes. But I must have only agreed to get her to drop that story. You know the way someone nags you about something and you say Sawa, thinking that it is just a wind that will blow away? Well, this one didn’t. Every time she knew I got paid (oh, they always know) she nicked off a percentage. We saved in her bank account. Of course we did. If that money would have been in my account, it would have found legs before she could even spell Dubai.
The other lady with us is Winnie Muthoga. Ex model. Ex air hostess at Kenya Airways. She was in also school with Madam KRA above. She now runs a tours and travel company called WAVU that takes university students on 2 trips: an Asia Trip in April and a Euro Trip in the summer. Euro Trip goes through 8 countries, including Portugal, Spain, Monaco, Andorra, France, Belgium, The Netherlands and UAE (Dubai). Of course, every year, there is always that a student who tries to disappear into Europe. These guys are the ones who planned for this trip and paid for my travel insurance.
Despite what people might think, I am not a well travelled person. Or rather, I do not consider myself a well travelled person. There is still too much of this world I have not seen. I am naive about almost everything past Mlolongo to the East of Nairobi and The Great Wall of Waiyaki Way to the West. That is why I had ridiculous expectations about Dubai. I thought of Dubai through the lenses of stories that I have heard…stories that are not really about Dubai, but about the entire Middle East. For one, I thought Dubai was a country. It is not. It is one of the city states that make up the United Arab Emirates. Second, I think we have all heard stories of Africans who go to the Middle East to become househelps and then end up in the hands of vile Arabs who burn their buttocks with lighters. I swear I have even seen a video of this doing laps on WhatsApp groups.
So of course I was terrified at the thought of going to that neck of the woods. I was even more terrified of going there with the girlfriend, and more than once I blocked images of her being violated like that. I did not tell her about this, though. I did not want to be the one to pour cold water on her excitement. Men have been left for less – and the wilderness that is singlehood is not a dry spell, it is a fucking desert.
Speaking of deserts, Dubai (and pretty much the whole of UAE) is a desert. That much I knew even before we left Nairobi. Which brings me to my third preconception about Dubai – that it is hot. I thought that the moment I stepped out of the plane, I would be obliterated into oblivion by the heat. That I would be bathed in hellfire and I would feel my blood evaporate from veins. Sometime last year I went to North Horr (Northern Kenya) on commission with Safaricom from which I barely survived. North Horr is a part of this world that our Maker overlooked when dishing out His graces. The heat seeps into your skin, brings out sweat, and makes you stew in your own perspiration.I remember being served soda, as a guest, and I could not turn it down because that would be rude. Lakini, have you ever drank hot soda? Not warm, but hot. Like boiled soda. It tastes like a bad memory.
I thought Dubai would be worse than this.
I have never been so underwhelmed in my life.
Dubai is hot alright – I mean, it is a desert – but being there in October feels like walking around Kisumu on a sunny day. That is because they have air con everywhere. They have air con the way Nairobi CBD has MPESA shops. Bus stops, shops, the streets, every two steps in a mall, buses. At some point I almost went down with a nasty homa. Imagine catching a cold in a desert. That would be a paradox of biblical proportions, wouldn’t it? That is like dying from friendly fire in a battle.
Look, there is a lot about Dubai that many of you have heard. Some of it is true. Some is not. I asked around. Those stories about househelps being scalded in the buttocks are from Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and some parts of Jordan. Yes, Dubai is full of Asians. You know the way kuyus are everywhere in Kenya, and Nigerians are everywhere in Africa? Same thing. Asians are the Nigerians and Kuyus of Dubai. You find them in waiting in restaurants, guiding people in malls, directing traffic, driving cabs, constructing roads and buildings. Yaani, everywhere there is a business, there is an Asian. Their descendants came in to build the Dubai skyline a long time ago and settled.
Actually, in hindsight, the largest number of people in Dubai are immigrants and tourists. The locals, the Emiratis, are a feature of Dubai you do not even get to see that often. You will just spot a few them from their special number plates, or when they walk around in black and gold-lined kanduras. When I asked, I was told that many Emiratis do not work. They do not even need to. There are about 600,000 of them, sustained by the oil economy. The moment an Emirati child gets to 16, they start getting a salary from their gava. Ati a starting salo of 25k Dirham. That comes to kitu 700 Gs. Dude, most of our fathers lived more than half of their lives working in government institutions, doing the same job year in year out, and I am pretty sure their salo never came to 700k a month. Me if you gave me 700k a month, my friend, I would buy loyalty. Hell, my ass would hurt when I sit down because of the size of my wallet.
And then listen to this, to ease marriage costs, the government gives Emirati men 70,000 dirhams ($19,000) when they marry an Emirati woman. I shit you not. I read that on Google. And if it is on the internet, then it must be true. Guys, are you listening to this? There are places in this world where men are paid to marry women, and yet here you are suffering in Nairobi chasing after a chick who won’t even call you back. Boss, you are not broke (or single). You were just born in the wrong country.
The Palm Jumeirah is one of the only man made features visible from space (and they are building bigger ones). The Burj Khalifa – tallest building in the world. There is another one that China is building that was supposed to be taller, something that must have really gotten under Dubai’s skin, and so they are also building another. Khalifa is also the tallest free standing structure and the highest outdoor observation deck in the world.
The Burj Al Arab – the only seven star hotel in the world. The J.W. Marriott Marquis is the world’s tallest hotel. Dubai Mall – the biggest shopping mall in the world. Shopping mall is in bold because another mall was built in Asia, and so Dubai is taking back its rightful title by building yet another mall that will span 8 million square feet. (All that land? Shit! That is Ruto’s wet dream!)
Ski Dubai was the first ever indoor mountain resort in the world. Which also houses the world’s largest snow park spanning 32,000 sq. ft. Jumeirah Sceirah – the tallest and fastest free falling water slide outside North and South America. Oh, and get this. A bar in Dubai, The Huddle Sports Bar and Grill, holds the record for the longest domino dropshot ever done, with nearly 6000 shots. The Dubai Dancing Fountain is the world’s largest choreographed fountain system set.
My favourite one is their metro line. It is the world’s longest driverless metro-line. But that is not what impressed me. What impressed me was that this metro was launched 9 minutes and 9 seconds past 9am on the 9 of September 2009. This one is not even some brilliant jedi shit. This is just what happens when you have too much wealth while suffering from a case of OCD.
That is just with the records.
The Dubai skyline is otherworldly. A skyline on crack.
The lavish architectural splendor of Dubai is not the kind that mocks money or wealth. It mocks imagination. Here money is not a problem. This place is the true personification of Bank Otuch! Buildings are not just expensive, they are exceptional. So they keep pushing the envelope with their architecture. Jumeira Beach Hotel is built in the shape of a tidal wave. Dusit Thani is built in the image of palms held together- the traditional Thai greeting. Piccolo Mondo is a sheesha joint built to resemble a bong. Wafi City Mall (styled after Ancient Egypt) is built in the shape of a pyramid, with Sphinx-like statues, massive ancient pillars and inscripted obelisks to boot. And the Palm Jumeira, that man-made island visible from the moon, is built in the shape of a palm tree, with a crescent moon surrounding its fronds. The Burj Al Arab, set on an artificial island, was designed to mimic the sail of an arriving ship.
And The Burj Khalifa? Well, this one was not built to look like anything. It is the centerpiece of Dubai’s skyline, rising high with a pointed tip that tickles the sky’s underbelly. This one was intentionally created to be one of a kind, to defy mankind’s conceptions of just how high a tower can reach. To crush odds. To urge our limitations to try a little harder. The Burj Khalifa, tallest building in the world, was built simply to prove a point.
You know what is so incredible about this place? It is that about 15 years ago, none of these things existed. The place was nothing more that a huge swathe of dust and nothingness. Then they began to build. True, they had extremely cheap labour (borderline slavery), but you cannot deny the fact that they rose to the top by show of mere pluck and struggle. That is one thing you cannot take away from Dubai.
You know what you can take away, though? The culture. Having been invaded by people from all over the world, it is difficult to pick out what is uniquely Dubai. What it is that existed before all the glitz. Not even money could save that. This place may be a hot desert, but it is cold. Interpersonal relationships, dash. For me what makes a country beautiful is not the architectural perfection and fancy lifestyle. It is the people. It is how you meet a person and they smile at you, not just with their lips, but also their eyes. How their faces come alive in genuine happiness when you meet a neighbour in an elevator. I saw very little of that. People in Dubai are caged animals, living by themselves, minding their own spaces. I did not feel that kind of community that you feel in Nairobi. The kind that causes madness, because some yuppies will stop in the middle of traffic to greet each other from their car windows.
You know the way in Nairobi you can catch a drink anywhere, even at home, without even worrying? Well, in Dubai, it is illegal to drink at home without a licence from kanjo. What is that even? Ati drinking police? This, however does not mean that people do not drink. There is always a Kenyan named Wanjiru (no surprises there) who went over there and learned how to beat the system. You just call Ciru and she brings you your poison. But I still would not be able to drink in peace.
To be fair, I was in Dubai for a week only, so I could be wrong about its personality.
Listen. Living in itself is a journey, because you get a free annual trip around the sun. But life feels much better when you sit at the 125th floor of a restaurant in Burj Khalifa, watching the sun set like a plummeting red ball of fire, drinking something you can barely afford next to the woman you love. You look down at all the things that hold world records, and how from the top of the tallest building in the planet, they cower like small men in the presence of a gorgeous woman on heels.
Watching the world from that high reminds you that indeed, God has the best seats. No need to take my word for it, though. Take yours. But only if you can promise WAVU that, if they take you on the next Euro Trip, you won’t vanish into Andorra – wherever the hell that is.