Week 14: Dubai & North Island (NZ)

Dubai

Dubai was a last minute addition due to an airline ticket that gave me a free stopover to explore the city for a little over 24 hours. This was my second time visiting the Gulf, I was in Doha way back in January. I stayed in the neighborhood called Deira, which is across the Dubai Creek from the rest of Dubai. It is close to the airport and, more importantly, way cheaper than anything downtown.

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view of Dubai from Deira

I wandered creekside late at night when I arrived and even though it was past 11pm, there were tons of people (mostly men, admittedly) walking around as well. It was the only cool part of the day. Dubai is hot, like 100°F+ hot. When I awoke, I took a water taxi that cost one dirham to the other side of the creek. These boats are called abras and fit roughly 20 people on them. The old town is supposed to give visitors a taste of what Dubai was like in the past, but it’s got a Disneyland feel to it, more shops and art galleries than authenticity.

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Dubai creek, abra – water taxi, light installation outside art gallery

I did have the most expensive breakfast I’ve eaten on this whole trip. I knew it was going to be way more than I could eat, but I ordered an Emirati breakfast anyways: balaleet (vermicelli with cardamom, cinnamon, and saffron topped with an omelette), fava beans, white beans, date molasses, melted cheese, cheddar cheese, watermelon jam, and a couple different types of bread. Later on at the mall, I got my first taste of camel milk in the form of a saffron milkshake.

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spiced tea, Emirati breakfast, saffron camel milkshake

The biggest thing to know about Dubai is that everything is over-the-top. The most obvious example of this is the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world at 2,717 ft (829 m). I’ve never seen anything anywhere close to this tall. (Trivia fact: Saudi Arabia has started building an even taller building that is supposed to top out at 1000 m, but construction is currently on hold). This is what oil money can do.

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Burj Khalifa – day, evening, night

Everything in Dubai seems to have a normal experience and a VIP experience. It’s class segregation at its finest. Like Qatar, the UAE ships in immigrants from the rest of the world to do all the jobs the Emiratis themselves don’t want to do. In the course of a few hours, I talked to workers from Bangladesh, Pakistan, Kenya, India, and the Philippines. These folks have retail and hotel jobs with long-term work visas (with no chance of ever gaining citizenship) which allow them to make more money than they would at home. This is the nice immigrant story that the UAE would like to present to the world, but immigrants in other industries have their passports taken away and live in terrible conditions, stuck in a foreign country with few options. This modern day slavery has been well-documented. Its oppression of basic rights is what has allowed such technical achievements to be built.

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baby skyscrapers from the normal viewing decks on floors 124 & 125 of the Burj Khalifa

Continuing on the theme of doing the most, the Dubai Mall has an entire dinosaur skeleton in one of its atriums

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Diplodocus longus skeleton in the middle of Dubai Mall

and a floor-to-ceiling aquarium with a walk-through tunnel

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cuttlefish, jellyfish, glass fish

and an impressive fountain show.

Dubai has sold its soul to capitalism and the result is a garish, pretentious elitism that I struggled to enjoy. It’s a booming place of industry, financed almost entirely by oil revenues and the future cost of our planet’s health. The country is superficially fascinating, but deeply disturbing under the shiny facade.

 

North Island

Dubai was just a stopover on my way from South Africa to New Zealand. After crossing eight time zones, I arrived in Auckland at 4:30am, exhausted and confused. I drove around aimlessly for awhile and eventually the sun came up and I had a huge breakfast. I checked into my hotel and promptly slept most of the day away. Jet lag is a mess. As you can imagine, I saw very little of Auckland. It was Easter, so almost everything was closed on both Sunday and Monday, so maybe it wasn’t so bad that I slept so much. On Monday, I drove on to Rotorua to enjoy a nighttime treetop canopy walk in a redwoods grove and a dip in some hot springs.

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Easter morning sunrise from Takapuna Beach, Rotorua tree canopy walk, New Zealand cow grazing

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view on the drive to Rotorua from Auckland

Then it was time to experience the biggest reason I’d come to the North Island: a pilgrimage to the Shire. The original set from the first three Lord of the Rings movies was torn down, but they rebuilt them for the Hobbit movies and Peter Jackson is still taking a cut from all the people who come to visit them today ($50 per person). All of the buildings only go back a couple meters and the hobbit holes come in various sizes based on whether wizards or hobbits were being filmed next to them to give different size perspectives. The biggest surprise was that apparently almost 40% of people who come have never read the books or watched the movies. In our tour of about 30 people, I was one of five who admitted spending several hours of my life reading the whole series of Tolkien’s tales of Middle-Earth.

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top: Bilbo & Frodo’s house, me, Sam Gamgee’s house
zoom in on the rest to see what kind of work the hobbit who lived there did

After reading The Hobbit for school (Thanks Mr. Hawblitzel!), I at first struggled to get into LOTR. I finally read them one summer, going through all three of them in about a month. I think part of the reason was that the books are such male-centric novels. Yes, there are some powerful females with bit parts to play, but by and large it is an epic bro adventure. The Shire, nonetheless, was a place I imagined in my head when I was younger, so it is incredible to see it in person. It’s also nice to see how much the fantasy genre has opened up since then. I’ve read so much this year and this has included stories about deadly nuns,  a gunslinging desert woman with some hidden talents, and an African girl who is thrown into an epic adventure to free magic again in her world. Tolkien was one of the first, but fantasy is just getting better over time.

My last stop on the North Island was to see the glowworms in Waitomo, which were as spectacular as I hoped. I chose to go on a mini-caving and tubing adventure that was quite a bit of fun. I have never before floated down a freezing-cold river in a tube before (thank goodness for super thick wetsuits). There was one magical moment where the guides pulled all of us down a tunnel and all we had to do was sit back and look up at the blue specks on the ceiling. Bioluminescence is awesome. This is one of those things that just must be experienced in person, but here’s a brief glimpse at what it looks like.

 

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