For a year and a half, I have worked full-time as a copywriter for a digital marketing agency based in Dubai. Each week I write around 10,000 words for clients that are mainly concentrated in the MENA (the Middle East & North Africa) region and whose businesses range from crane hire to luxury spas, AR/VR development to financial institutions, political think tanks to keto diet supplements. In other words, I have gallons of random knowledge swimming around in the crevices of my cerebrum and a significant amount of confidence that I can write 1,000 words on any topic. (Never once have I had to ask my editor for a topic idea! Slow clap for me…thank you very much.)
I tell you this for some necessary background into why — before even touching down in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) — I could talk with some degree of authority all about the country’s new VAT law. As well as the required steps for starting your own business in a Free Zone (it is best to work with professionals who like to spend lots of money on high-quality online content), and where you can find the best restaurant/spa/yoga studio/desert safari, etc.
Never before had I been in possession of such copious amounts of knowledge about a country before ever stepping foot into it and, therefore, wasn’t necessarily sure how that would impact my experience. Would I be less curious than usual because I felt I “already knew” the answers? Would I attract fewer random encounters or magical moments because I was less observant of the small things? Or generally, have little amazement about the glaring cultural differences? Alternatively, would my appreciation for those fine points be amplified due to my solid foundational understanding? There was only one way to find out.
Back in November, just at the beginning of my time in Dubai, I wrote about wanting to intentionally change the way I travel to create a more fulfilling life (overall) and a more engaged and stimulating manner of traveling. Instead of going, going, going and always forgetting where I was waking up each morning, I wanted to have the time before a trip to read and study the destination and then reflect and write on my experiences afterward. Dubai seemed like a good place to get started with that. Eager to meet those with whom I work with each day but only know through Slack (weird remote working situation) and curious about a place that I know intimately from a distance, I boarded my flight from Oslo ready to see how the image I had generated in my mind resembled the reality.
The first thing I noticed was the prevalence of English offerings at the airport (Boots, Costa, Giraffe). Similar to restaurants pledging their allegiance to either Coke or Pepsi products, countries tend to favor either English enterprises or American ones – another random thing that I attain delight from noticing. Dodging past the prevailing “meal deals,” I entered a small grocery store and indulged in a bag of samosas – the first indication of the UAE’s significant Indian population.
I had no idea that around 2.62 million Indian expats are living in the UAE, a number so significant that they constitute over 30% of the total population and comprise the second largest population shift (ever!!!) between any two countries, second only to the number of Mexicans in the USA. It is not an exaggeration to say that 90% of the people I saw walking around were from the Indian sub-continent and I ended up Couchsurfing with an Indian expat who also had an Indian housekeeper which brought up plenty of conversations and insights into the power dynamics that exist both for and within the Indian diaspora. Given that Emirati nationals are outnumbered by expats by almost six to one and, in general, tend to keep to themselves, you are almost guaranteed to only encounter one when getting your passport stamped in the airport.
There were some things my work-related-research had informed me about: the presence of female-only train carriages, a seemingly never-ending appetite for development (cranes are everywhere), and an economy that was initially built on fishing, farming, and pearl diving that was conducted by men on dhows (traditional sailing boats).
Other things were entirely new knowledge. Walking around alone at night I was surprised by how safe I felt, which now doesn’t seem so remarkable considering that the UAE is consistently ranked the second safest country to visit in the world due to the lack of crime and the widespread presence of security cameras. Without stopping by Arabian Tea House, I could never have believed just how full-bodied Arabic coffee is with its added blend of cardamom and saffron nor that you traditionally consume it with dates dipped into a sauce akin to peanut butter.
But the most significant discrepancy between what was initially insight and ultimately understanding was that while I knew how I wanted to occupy my time there, I couldn’t have foreseen what activities I would relish the most or how things would play out. Hands down, crossing the Dubai Creek on a dhow to wander around the traditional souks was my favorite experience but not necessarily what I would have predicted before my week there.
Instead of booking a desert safari, my experience in Dubai’s most arid area came in the form of helping out my Couchsurfing host’s friend with a photo shoot for her line of couture dresses (not predictable). Obviously seeing the Burj Khalifa (the world’s tallest tower) and the Dubai Fountain was on the itinerary, yet I didn’t know that I would be witnessing their extraordinary light shows on UAE National Day (not expected). While that holiday brought a special atmosphere to the Emirate, it also meant that many restaurants and museums were closed, hindering me from spending time at The Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding which was what I was the most excited about. Plus, could I have anticipated that my only purchase at the Dubai Mall (again, the world’s largest) would be a pack of contact lenses? I will answer for you, no!
What I am trying to say is that there is knowing and then there is comprehending, and the distance between the two is connected by experiencing – all of which requires you to play an active role in the happenings. Bringing some prior knowledge with you to a destination helps to bypass initial shock or extreme emotion (whether good or bad) while also reducing the likelihood of finding yourself too overwhelmed to think – leaving you in a better place for more thoughtful analysis and insightful questioning. However, no amount of learning can adequately brace our senses for what is to come. So, next time, there is no need to worry; the awe was still very much there in full-force.
On that note, I am off to write more copy!
+ For more of my Dubai experience, watch my Dubai vlog!