Instead of a direct flight to Dubai from Beijing, which no doubt exists, I go the cheap route on Sichuan Airlines via Chengdu. Little do I know that there is another layover in Yinchuan on the next leg, and that the Chengdu layover only gives me a few hours there in the middle of the night. 'At least I won’t have any really long flights,' I tell myself, but this is almost certainly going to be a long, restless night and day as I dive into the next leg of my journey.
In Chengdu, the airport closes and I sleep on the tile floor in the transfer lounge after all of the couches are taken. There, I also sneak into the first class lounge, past the guard, only to get caught just before I pop open a free Coke. In Yinchuan, I have an hour which I spend talking to a woman from Zambia who taught English in Chengdu and is now returning home. Talking to her I completely forget that I was going to buy some Duty Free gifts for my hosts in the UAE. When the plane starts boarding, I run to the Duty Free shop and buy two bottles of wine despite old Chinese ladies shamelessly cutting in front of me. The woman from Zambia and a flight attendant stop by to tell me that we are boarding just as the cashier starts ringing me up. Against all odds, the wine gets bought and we’re on our way.
Upon landing, I forget the Duty Free bag on the plane and have to run back from immigration to get it. Since having nothing other than my carry-on has become an integral part of who I am as a person, I do not even notice I am missing something. Thankfully, immigration is quick and I am on the metro to my friend’s apartment before I know it.
I am texting the two friends whom I am supposed to meet, of whom I first made the acquaintance on my tour of the 5 Stans. When we meet in the hot Arabian afternoon and hug sweatily before seeking refuge in the air conditioning. Both friends are teachers here in the UAE, and not only am I here to travel, and to travel-write, but to do my own research as well. I am planning on teaching abroad, English of course, in the coming year and so I am eager to catch a glimpse of what life is like for expat English teachers here in the Middle East.
When we come to my friend’s apartment, I find that the lifestyle of experienced English teachers here in Dubai can only be described as “extravagant.” Christina, who taught for six years in Saudi Arabia and has come to Dubai for a “change of scenery” has a two-bed, two-bath apartments in a high rise a block from the beach included in her pay. She is in one of the wealthier parts of the city, only a few blocks from “The Palm,” a man-made peninsula shaped like a palm tree that juts out into the Arabian Sea. If Jay Gatsby were Emirati, he would live somewhere around here. But alas I have to ask myself “is this who I am?”
Am I a person who wants to live a gaudy life in the bubble of expat Arabia? No. But do I want to live in relative poverty, teaching gradeschool English in Anglophone America? Also no. As I wander around the Middle East in the coming weeks, I make a mental note to find a place that pays well and allows expats to integrate more into the culture. Perhaps Dubai isn’t to my liking, but another nearby country, or a place in more suburban UAE would be more suitable.
Regardless, in the night the three of us explore the extravagant world of downtown Dubai. We see the water fountain show at the Burj Khalifa, eat an overpriced Asian meal at a dark, classy restaurant, and walk through the Dubai Mall. There, a completely different assortment of delights await, from watching visitors and locals skate around the indoor ice rink, to watching a group of Saudis bang drums and dance in celebration of their national day, to seeing sharks swim in the mall’s public aquarium. Over the top doesn’t begin to describe the night, and if I were someone who was attracted by the shinier things in life I surely would move here in a heartbeat.
But I have a lot of questions, too. English teachers here have a lot of perks, but they certainly don’t get paid much more money than they would in the United States and living here is far from cheap. Christina explains how vital it is to live on the many promotions that restaurants and stores offer in the area to corner the expat/ worker market. Discount and promotion compilers like Groupon thrive in this market where restaurants have to offer buy-one-get-one-free deals to even get a steady stream of customers. Drinking, for instance, is especially pricy in this country due to high taxes on alcohol. This is a Muslim country, after all. Visitors and locals should expect to pay Manhattan prices for everything, which makes life challenging since nightlife is such a key part of the expat culture. That said, the Emiratis typically don't take part in drinking, as doing so would be haram.
That night, we sip wine at my friend’s apartment before I collapse from travel exhaustion into her air mattress. I haven’t slept since Beijing, four airports ago, and I am out for 12 hours straight before I have to get on another plane and see another country. Thankfully, though, my schedule permits my return to the UAE for a longer period of time after much of my Middle Eastern romp. During this time I am to spend a week in the UAE and Oman, crashing on my friend’s air mattress a bit more and delving into the expat life more extensively to try and discern whether I really could start a new life here in the Gulf.
But first: Bahrain!
Victor Bernabei is just another millenial travel blogger. But here's the twist: He isn't a millenial! His goal is to see as many countries as he can, and spread the message that the world is not as scary as the news wants you to believe, and that there is beauty in all people, places and things.