The ship docked in Oman for a short day so we booked a three hour dolphin watch, half an hour each way and two hours on the boat. Our bus guide lived in a small town about 90 miles away and commuted into Oman five days a week. Twenty-five, single and he claimed he never had a girlfriend. One day he hopes to have one, who of course will be the woman he is about to marry. Other than that, he pointed out a few sights along the way and gave some brief commentary about Oman.
We were on a 20-passenger boat. It took us about 15 – 20 minutes to get to the dolphin area. The viewing was incredible. There were hundreds of dolphins in groups of three – five, swimming, jumping, playing and hunting all around us. We thought that our last whale watching trip off of Maui was incredible as we saw a half dozen or so active whales. If that whale watch was a ten, this dolphin watch was a 30.
We arrived in Dubai for an overnight stay. We purchased a “Big Bus” hop on, hop off 24-hour pass but got a late start because there were torrential rains that morning. Roads were flooded and traffic a nightmare. The shuttle took us from the ship to the Dubai Mall to pick up the bus. But first, we had to see the mall with its indoor skating rink. The skaters looked like they were having a great time. As I was trying to guess who was local and who was a tourist, it was clear that the locals were the best skaters.
It seemed there were 100+ jewelry stores in this mall. Each window had a display containing hundreds of karats of diamonds. To say it was dazzling would certainly be an understatement. (Of course, being the shopper/window shopper that I am, I was done after the first two stores. Someone else saw way more than I did.)
We found our way to the food court for a quick lunch and happily found a Tim Horton’s! No turkey sandwiches to be found. Instead it was falafel and shawarma. If you click here and go to my Facebook page you can see the pictures. Yes, a taste of Buffalo and Canada in the United Arab Emirates. Put the skating rink together with the Tim Horton’s and I think the Buffalo Sabres have found their new development league.
Finally, we hopped on the bus and began our tour. That day we did the whole city route. In addition to the regular recorded tour we had a live tour guide. I finally switched to the recording when I got tired of hearing how everything in Dubai was the biggest, largest… or was when it was first built. They do seem to have a size fetish.
Back on the ship that evening, someone asked me to describe Dubai. It was easy. Dubai is the Epcot or Las Vegas of the middle east. Except for the world’s tallest building and perhaps one or two others, most all the architecture was describe by both the live guide and the recording as replicas of buildings in other countries. There was Big Ben (without the clock), a hotel from Singapore, skyscrapers from Europe, the Far East and of course, a boathouse which was a replica of the Sydney Opera House.
The second day we were back on the bus (this time no live guide) and took the beachside route which began at the Mall of the Emirates. No skating rink here. Just an indoor ski slope and luge run.
In both malls, we were struck by the way people were dressed. The majority were dressed in western garb. Some men wore the traditional white or brown robes. Some women wore head to toe traditional robes but most in non-western dress just wore a hijab. However, in both malls were high end fashion stores that sold fancy women’s robes with elaborate embroidery, gold filigree and other decoration. I didn’t see anyone actually dressed in one but the stores were filled with shoppers.
We decided to go for high tea at a nice hotel on Palm Island. While there, I realized that most of the workers we had met in Dubai, including at the hotel were not native to the UAE. After tea, we met the front desk manager, an American, and asked her if there were any workers native to the UAE in the hotel. She pointed to the security guard. “Just him?” I asked. She replied: “No, the night security man as well.”
Before I write about that day in Abu Dhabi and the flight home, I need to talk about leading Chanukah and Shabbat on the ship. I have been the chaplain on several cruises and gone to Shabbat services on many others. However, this was a totally different experience for me. The ship was incredible. They provided 4 dozen latkes and 4 dozen donuts for every service, not to mention for challot for Shabbat. The staff of Celebrity bent over backwards to make sure everything was perfect. That’s not the unusual part.
This was clearly a cruise that did not have a lot of Jews on it. I only met 8 Jews on the ship. Even assuming that those 8 Jews were 5% of the Jews on the ship, there would only be 160 Jews out of 2000+ passengers. That is not the norm. Actually, the 8 of us were probably 10% of the Jews on the ship. At most nights of Chanukah there were as many non-Jews as Jews in attendance. On Shabbat, we had more non-Jews than Jews. I assume this is not a cruise itinerary that is popular with Jewish passengers. Given my hesitations, I certainly understand. Given my experiences, Jews should feel comfortable traveling this itinerary.
The next day we were back in Abu Dhabi. Before we left on the trip we had pre-bought tickets to the Louvre - Abu Dhabi. Yes, they have a Louvre which is a partnership with the Louvre in Paris. Again, you can see some of the pictures on my Facebook page. The architecture is marvelous and totally different than the original. The artwork was well chosen and presented and the exhibits contained works from pre-historic times to the present. There were only three mentions of Jews that I noticed, all in the world religions gallery. One was on the introductory sign. Second was in the exhibit of tombstones. A Jewish tombstone stood with a Muslim stone and a Christian one. The third was a book bound, illuminated manuscript of the Torah. While there was no mention of Israel, I felt that from a religious standpoint there was no animus in the exhibit toward Jews or Christians.
We had a wonderful last dinner of the trip and were up at 4 am to go to the airport to catch our flight. The flight home was long, uneventful, long, and boring. Did I mention long? This coming spring I am co-leading a trip to Israel although because of B’nei Mtizvah, I am flying separately from the rest of the group. Again, I’ll be on Royal Jordanian, through Amman to Tel Aviv. As we were boarding in Amman to come back to the states, there were a few dozen people who had flown into Amman from Israel on their way back home. They were speaking openly of their time in Israel and no one gave them a second look.
So, even though I had no initial desire and several reservations about going on the trip, I am glad I did. It shattered many of my negative expectations. Helped me expand my horizons, and added three more countries to the list of places I’ve been.