We spent several nights in Dubai – enroute from Johannesburg to Europe. Our initial plans had us routed from Johannesburg to Egypt and then to Milan.
We had hoped to spend a week in Egypt learning about Egyptian history, visiting the Great Pyramids and the Valley of the Kings but the political instability there made us change our plans. Anne had always been keen on seeing Dubai after reading about the extensive construction that has occurred there over the past 10-20 years. We rerouted from J-burg to Dubai and then on to Barcelona.
Literally, Dubai is a city that has arisen from the desert in a very short timeframe. Filled with gleaming new skyscrapers, Dubai is reputed to be a shopping paradise with 7-star hotels and one-of a kind attractions including a mall with an indoor ski slope, man-made residential islands, and the world’s tallest building. We thought we should give it a look.
We enjoyed the visit but frankly, I found the city to be a bit “soulless”. Having spent a good part of the previous year in developing countries – the blatant materialism was a little off-putting. While we have traveled we have tried to teach the kids the difference between “wants” and “needs” – and found 3rd world countries to be an ample classroom for understanding how all people are the same – despite material wealth. I worried that those lessons were being lost amidst the glitter of Bugatti’s and Rolls Royce’s. Moreover, I (somewhat awkwardly) found myself just as awestruck by the parade of luxury cars and really enjoying the excellent service at our swanky hotel.
The highlight of our short trip to Dubai was actually away from the city lights. We booked a day in the desert and spent the morning driving ATV/4 Wheeler’s over sand dunes.
Afterwards we climbed into SUV’s (Toyota 4-Runners) and set out into the desert as the sun began to set. For an hour we bounded up and down massive dunes on a zigzag course through the desert. We arrived at a desert camp for dinner and saw some Arabian dancing as the sun disappeared behind the sand.
How did we reconcile our position that individual material wealth was unimportant when compared to one’s generosity and kind-heartedness while simultaneously staying in an ultra- luxury hotel and gleefully gawking at cars that cost more many people earn in a lifetime? I don’t know if there is a perfect reconciliation, but we visited Dubai and saw what it had to offer. We enjoyed seeing the flashy and expensive cars and very high end stores – but we did so informed first-hand that these items and stores are out of reach for all but a very few people in the world- and that included us. Anne and I also know that acquisition of material goods is not the key to happiness. Hard work that enables you to have enough discretionary money to make some choices in life is an ingredient to being content – but the money itself provides no intrinsic joy and the shininess of new acquisitions quickly fades.
In short – we appreciated Dubai for its newness and its vision. The aspirations of this country, manifest in the spectacular buildings and the changing of a desolate landscape into a lush garden, are admirable. In Dubai, a destination has been created where a harsh and desolate landscape once existed. Like Las Vegas, it is an interesting place to visit – but not one where you expect to learn any real profound life lessons. But maybe that isn’t the case. Upon arriving in Barcelona, I noticed that after I made a purchase (subway tickets, soft drinks, etc.) Lee kept asking me for the change. I suspected he was adding to his collection of foreign coins. However, as we made our way around town, I noticed that he was quietly and repeatedly dropping coins into the cups of homeless people and street performers. Seems that the vast material wealth on display in Dubai, while scintillating and attractive, had also made Lee MORE conscious of those who had little.