I’ve never been intrigued by the Middle East due to their conservative perspective towards women and the blistering dry heat, but my childhood best friend has been living in Abu Dhabi for 4 years and raving about it. That alone was my incentive to explore this mysterious land.
My friend was working during my stay so as a solo traveller I took this as an advantage to explore on my own. It’s a different experience being shown places versus discovering them on my own. My first day in AD I decided to seek out the waterfront. There is no public transportation here, so I was limited to taking taxis (which are surprisingly affordable) and walking. As I headed out around 11am, I realized there were no women outside. I saw loads of men who were workers, covered due to the sun. I thought ‘I got this, how bad can this sun be?
After a short taxi ride I decided to hop off and walk the waterfront. I made two big mistakes – I didn’t carry water with me and I got off on the opposite side of the road. AD is not a pedestrian friendly city. There are no sidewalks, and crossing the road doesn’t exist. After a few minutes of panicking and wondering how to get to the other side, I found an underground walkway that was both cooling and beautifully decorated with a mosaic. It was also equipped with video cameras, making me feel safe since there was no one around (albeit it was the middle of the day, however it was still creepy).
I was grateful to get a view of the shimmering turquoise water, I finally understood how a desert wanderer felt after spotting an oasis! From the waterfront I could spot the flagpole (a major sight and place to hang out in the evenings) and Lulu Island. Most of the islands on the opposite end of the waterfront were under construction, making it a sore sight.
Port Zayed harbour is on the other far east end of the harbourfront (where I had mistakingly gotten out of the cab from) and walking west on the boardwalk brings you to Corniche Beach, a gated beach where you can lie on the beach in your bathing suit, for a fee.
I soon discovered no one walks or explores this city until after sunset. I was beginning to get sense of sun stroke (I blame it on having to dress conservatively in 30+ heat!) so I seeked out the nearest hotel and drowned myself in delicious middle eastern food. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that biriyani was an official dish of the Emirates.
I soon met a couch surfer who lived in Egypt but was originally from AD, and he was visiting home. He was more than happy to hang out and show me his city. First stop was the Sheikh Zayed Mosque (also know as the Great Mosque), the most important mosque in the country. It was definitely a feast for sore eyes, and my first ever visit to a mosque. They have abayas you can rent for free and the ambience inside was very peaceful. It reminded me of being in church, a sense of calm just overcomes you. The marble white is stunning against the blue skies.
The next day he took me to Corniche Beach and I finally got to dip my toes in the Persian Gulf! We were the only people on the beach. Although the beach is filled with beach loungers, it didn’t have a fun, relaxing vibe. Personally I would be scared of the oogling eyes to enjoying swimming or hanging at the beach. It’s really a shame though, since the views of the gulf are mesmerizing.
I also had the opportunity to visit the infamous Taj Palace which is known for all gold everything! Unfortunately I didn’t have my camera since it was an impromptu stop for tea, but my mouth was wide open in astonishment as I walked into this elaborate 5+ star hotel. In the lobby there was a gold vending machine, just in case you felt the need for a bar of gold in the middle of the night. I had some masala chai and a chocolate lava cake sprinkled in 24K gold!! I have never felt more like a princess!
The rest of my days were spent living the Abu Dhabi life – shopping! The city is clustered with shopping malls filled with various international brands. Using taxis to get around, I visited several malls, and also watched a Tamil movie in the theatre (a huge perk about being in Abu Dhabi is that Tamil is a main language due to the swarm of workers being imported from South India).
It was definitely one of the most luxurious travel experiences I’ve had, and the best part of course was catching up with my friend, meeting her co-workers and learning a bit about expat teacher life in another country. However I found it difficult to be in a country where you can only drink alcohol in designated bars/hotels. Life seemed a bit controlled and too conservative for my liking. And the lack of public transportation is stifling! The Emirates is home to oil so its no surprise that cars are abundant and no one seems to care about changing that part of their lifestyle.