Dubai – A City (and Experience) of Extremes


Oh, how I’ve missed the hustle and bustle of moving crowds, the never-ending spectrum of lights, and the warm glow of life that bursts from the hearts of big cities!

After the longest duration of time that I’ve ever spent away from the States (almost three months), the sight of the Dubai International Airport immediately brought tears to my eyes. I clung to the moving handrails of the escalators and stared at the colorful shops and throngs of people that hustled past me – stared as if I had never seen such things in my life.

As the impatient crowd pushed past me and moved me forward, I felt oddly shy and timid. Nothing around me was new, but the sights, the smells, and the noises conjured memories of a world I had once known before I came to Kigali. Something seemed strange and unsettling about the lavish displays of extravagance around me, but I couldn’t process the conflicting emotions that I felt. Fear. Relief. Sadness. Happiness. Displacement. Wonder.

View of Dubai from my room.


If the airport almost made me cry, the Dubai skyline certainly made the tears flow. I had my nose pressed to the window of the car as I gazed open-mouthed at the wide expanse of Dubai’s towering, magnificent splendor. 

I only spent three days in Dubai, but I did everything a person could possibly do in 72 hours.


Lydia’s Recipe for an Incredible 3 Days in Dubai:

  1. Obtain a free round-trip plane ticket from Rwandair to go to Dubai.
  2. Stay with a friend of a friend (who actually turns out to be an old acquaintance) in an apartment with a $3 million view of the city.
  3. Shop for shoes at the largest mall in the world and meet an Egyptian Burberry model who insists on being your tour guide for the next 2.5 days.

Yeah. So maybe I was a little lucky.




You must be wondering how I scored that free ticket.

Context: Solid’Africa had 150 t-shirts stuck in Dubai, which we desperately needed in order to sell and raise enough money to serve food to hospital patients the following week. Nobody seemed to be making any breakthroughs with the situation, so I figured I’d see what I could do.

Remember that incident with the netbook charger way back in December? [Here’s the link to that post to refresh your memory:]


Desert safari camel-riding!

Well, I decided that if United Airlines could check-in a box for me from Chicago to D.C. for free, then Rwandair should be able to do so too. I made a couple phone calls, pushed Solid’Africa’s mission in public hospitals, stressed urgency – and, voila, Rwandair agreed to airlift the two boxes for free!

BUT BUT BUT … A Rwanda Revenue Authority (Customs) rep claimed that I would have to pay 50% of the value of the t-shirts for import fees. *Rolls eyes* Absolutely ridiculous. I went directly to the Kigali offices of the RRA and spent an entire day speaking with the directors who assured me that the import duties should only be 25% for non-profit organizations. I connected THESE directors with the conniving rep who had told me 50%, and … Yes, the RRA fees shrank from 50% to 25%.

BUT THEN … a cargo company in Dubai insisted that I would have to pay over 60% of the value of the boxes which were already designated as a FOC (free of charge) shipment. Basically, they wanted to charge me $213 for “labeling” and “handling.”


In a rapid exchange of over twenty-five emails between myself, three Rwandair representatives, RRA, and this ridiculous Dubai cargo company, I expressed my incredulity and suggested that Rwandair either: 1) book a one-way flight for the boxes, OR 2) have one of their flight attendants check-in the boxes to evade the “labeling and handling” fees.

Of course, the Dubai cargo company had problems with my proposal. The rep stated: “Due to security reasons, we cannot label [the boxes] as Crew baggage or Company mail and unaccompanied baggage is not permitted.”

I found Chicago in Dubai!!

Really annoyed at this point, I wrote the following email:


Hi [Rwandair rep],

If this is the case, would it be possible to book a round-trip flight for me (or another member of Solid’Africa) to pick-up the two boxes and accompany them back to Kigali on Saturday morning?

Or do you have other suggestions on the most efficient way to proceed?



And Rwandair said … YES!

12 hours later, I was buckling my seat belt on a complimentary round-trip flight to Dubai. The earliest flight back to Kigali was in three days, so I had arranged accommodations with a friend of a friend and packed half a suitcase knowing that I would have to bring 40 kilos of t-shirts back with me.

Isn’t it nice to look back and see how that misadventure in December ended up teaching me some very valuable lessons? 🙂


Dubai: City of Perks … and Elitism, Prostitution, and Racism?

After two months in Rwanda, I’ve learned to accept that waiters may take one hour to bring me a cup of tea. I’ve become accustomed to being ignored and dismissed as a customer and a hospital patient. I’ve grown used to repeatedly reminding waiters about my order only to still receive the wrong dish and wait another half hour while two waiters dance in the corner (clearly high). I’ve given up trying to get restaurants to change the three clubbing songs that keep looping over and over while customers try to converse over red wine at dinner.

Boy, was Dubai a shock in customer service.

My first stop in Dubai: The largest mall in the world! I was so excited about shopping at The Dubai Mall that I couldn’t sleep the night before and I got up one hour before the stores opened in the morning. I probably walked around the building for two hours gaping at the sheer enormity of the complex before I realized I hadn’t eaten, and then decided to stop by the Dean & Deluca Cafe (based in NYC).

The moment I entered, the waiter greeted me and gave me a tour of the terrace, and asked if I would like him to take pictures – YES. Then, when I couldn’t decide what to order, he winked and offered me items that were not listed on the menu AND sent me an additional meal on the house! I was so blown away by his kindness and generosity.

As I sipped my fresh strawberry juice and peeled away at the most sinfully sumptuously almond croissant ever, I suddenly realized that living in Kigali had conditioned me to view customer service as a rare extravagance instead of a necessary component of one’s dining experience.


After brunch, I wandered around the mall some more. The Dubai Mall is, in reality, a city within a city – I mean, come on, the mall has 1,200 shops, the largest aquarium in the world, the largest candy store in the world, an indoor ski slope, an indoor hockey rink, a runway arena, a cinema, a kids’ amusement park, a gold market, etc. I allowed myself to drift near the windows of shoe stores, but would then quickly back away with a stern reminder: No shopping, Lydia. There’s no room in your suitcase with those 150 t-shirts.

But … I couldn’t resist Kurt Geiger.

Those mirrored reflections of four-inch platform heels were too irresistible. I decided to take a quick look, and immediately told the sales associate (at least I thought he was a sales associate): “I can’t buy any shoes, but I just wanted to take a look.” A half hour later, I left with two complimentary pairs of Kurt Geiger heels plus a new best friend/Dubai city expert – the sales associate, who was actually a manager of Kurt Geiger’s UK, Italy, and UAE branches (and also happened to be a former Burberry model).


The next 2.5 days flew by quickly – dinner accompanied by a beautiful evening fountain show (definitely beats Vegas!), a desert safari followed by Arabic dancing and camel-riding, a boat tour along the creek, a trip to the top of Burj Khalifa (tallest building in the world!), a visit to the Dubai Museum, a walk through the silk and tapestry market in Old Dubai, a night out at Dubai’s poshest clubs – not to mention amazing Lebanese and Egyptian food!


Overlooking Dubai from the top of Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world.

It was an incredible experience.

And yet – I have mixed feelings about Dubai.

Dubai is a city of extremes, an adult Disneyland of sorts where dreams are not merely conceived but physically realized and constructed. There’s this constant pulse in the heavy heat that demands the city and its citizens to exhibit the best – the tallest, the fastest, the newest, the biggest, the costliest, the fanciest, etc. I was astonished by the deliberate and, oftentimes, ridiculous displays of wealth and extravagance that were paraded on the streets (i.e. a hot pink Ferrari further embellished with precious jewels), displayed in buildings (i.e. gold ATMS that dispense gold), and masqueraded in public (how is that woman able to stand up with all that gold around her neck???).

Elitism in Dubai was a given. Here was a place where people had more money than they really knew how to spend, so all they did was … spend it.

But I was surprised and very disturbed by the extreme racism and racial profiling that I witnessed – and eventually, even experienced.


Let’s first talk about prostitution.

Prostitution is rampant in Dubai. And, according to my friends, it is the very people who run Dubai – the Sheikhs – who are also the facilitators of prostitution. Apparently, the Sheikhs regularly import attractive young women from Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia, keep them for two or three months, and then pimp them out to the rest of the city. Most of the hotspots in Dubai are filled with prostitutes, and at some of the more exclusive clubs (like Armani or Cavalli), prostitutes can charge as much as $1000 a night. I didn’t realize (or believe) at first that the beautiful young women around me were prostitutes, but as my friend narrated hypothetical dialogues, I watched an entire transaction occur right across the bar:


  1. Man approaches woman and stands next to her but doesn’t look at her.
  2. Man sips drink and slides money under Woman’s drink.
  3. Woman lifts drink to lips and spreads out the money with one finger.
  4. Woman turns and walks away, drink in hand.
  5. Man puts money back into wallet.

[For more on the irony of prostitution in Dubai, read:]


That same night, I was denied entrance to a club for the first time in my life.

The bouncer coldly refused to let me enter, and when I told him my friends were in the club, he said that they would just have to join me outside.

Fortunately, my friend’s friendship with the manager resulted in a rather awkward resolution when the manager ushered me into the building and apologized for the bouncer’s “mistake.”

His “mistake,” as it turns out, was that he had thought I was a prostitute.


That was a first as well.

Turns out some clubs are designated only for Eastern European prostitutes whereas others have a more Filipino demographic. Unless you are extremely well-connected or with someone well-connected, it can be difficult to get into some clubs if you are Asian or your skin is dark. It’s not that I haven’t experienced racial profiling before, but … I guess it’s been a while, and I definitely did not expect it in Dubai where 85% of the population is ex-pat.

The largest aquarium in the world!


Dubai took my breath away.

Half the time I was there, I was asking “How is this possible?” But I suppose that is the point of Dubai; after all, it is a booming city with everything you could possibly imagine and more in the middle of a barren desert. I gaped at the man-made islands and sprawling beaches, the grandiose architecture, the extremities of wealth that adorned cars, clothing, restaurants, and night life.

But in the end, it was a relief to return to Kigali where life does not exactly take your breath away, but it gives you air to breathe.

It was Dubai that served as a catalyst for my post about beauty and superficiality – the obsession with physical appearance and, especially, material possessions, go to whole new extremes in Dubai. Whereas all that is “beautiful” in Dubai correlates with cost, in Kigali, you can find beauty in the natural sloping and fertility of the hills, the diversity and abundance of its wildlife, the large wedding gatherings on Saturday afternoons, and the small town charm of good local food.

Here, in Kigali, social status and physical appearance matter too, but the culture does not link a person’s value to the car he drives or the clothing brands she wears – instead, there is greater emphasis on one’s place in society, the role one serves in the community and the personal connections one maintains with others.

And so I call Dubai a “city of extremes” – a city where one can experience the greatest highs and lows of wealth and grandeur, but a city where one will not easily find the steady, calm pace of breathing that belongs to a life of moderation.