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Dubai Aquarium, Burj Khalifa, Jumeirah Beach Walk — Did I Mention How Uber-Rich Everyone Is?

Nduku has three sisters, each with at least one child. Najwa has a total of seven first cousins if you include my brother’s three children. She has dozens more second and distant cousins since Nduku has 20+ aunts and uncles. Family tree? Najwa has a family forest!

Of all the first cousins though, Alexander is the first one she met. Not that either of them will remember this moment, but it was good to introduce Najwa to her first first cousin. When we landed in Dubai around midnight, Alexander was asleep. The next morning when the cousins met, let’s just say they weren’t as excited to meet as we were for them to meet.

First Impressions

I was upstairs, shaking off jet lag, when I heard two impossibly loud explosions, two screaming children, two ear-piercing shrieks of two cousins who have no idea who the other was. We had no idea why they were yelling. We had even less of an idea how to calm them down. We gave up and separated them before child services showed up.

It was hilarious, to me. We had to get crafty in distracting them from each other, but they both wanted the same toys, the same spot in the house, the same undivided attention. When we got one to calm down, the other would whimper, then the other would cry, then the other would scream, then the other would explode…

Eventually, they got used to each other. Or ran out of energy to keep crying. We sure did run out of energy trying to soothe them!

But the calm didn’t always last. Nduku changed Najwa’s clothes, getting her ready for the day but when they came back downstairs, the cousins started competing in who can make the neighbors hear them first again! And they compete hard and loud. I had to take Najwa outside and work on my jetlag later.

One of Najwa’s favorite things to do was also one that was kind of unnerving. Back in Washington, DC, we don’t have stairs in our home. And the floors are either carpeted or hardwood floors which has a little give when she falls. In Dubai, not only do they have stairs, the stairs and floors are made of marble. There is no give with marble. But this morning, it was either let Najwa climb the stairs or look for some earplugs.

Finally, we headed out. Nduku’s sister Mutethya took the rest of the week off so no Big Bus today. Instead, two little ones in the backseat just a whimper away from throwing tantrums. For the most part they behaved. Something about riding in cars calms kids down.

Though it was serene in the car, listening to 1980s American pop music, I was a bit uncomfortable. In DC the streets are no wider than 4 lanes, two in each direction, with a citywide maximum speed limit of 35 mph on most streets. Sure, some people go 55 on N. Capitol Street until they’re approaching a speed camera, but there’s so much foot traffic, turning cars and red lights/stop signs, that it’s useless being a speed demon.

Driving in Dubai

In Dubai, though, there are 12-lane speedways, no red lights/stop signs, no foot traffic, nothing to encourage anyone to drive at a safe speed. And since most people have enough horses to start a cavalry, cylinders for a science class and feet made of lead, the average speed is the last number on the speedometer. As soon as you enter the highway, it’s 60 mph. After another 10 seconds, if you’re not pushing 80, you’re being tailgated, lights flashing in your rear view and no one seems to think this is rude or unnecessary. Actually, it’s so common that if you didn’t honk your horn or flash your lights, you were the one getting punked.

But I’m not shaken by the suppressed road rage. It’s the fact that car seats appear to be optional. Najwa’s in the backseat romping around as if she’s in a McDonald’s PlayPlace. It’s as if she’s extra excited not being strapped down while in a moving vehicle.

Look it up: Dubai has one of the highest accident and traffic death rates in the world:

Whilst Dubai has a great road network with 8 and 10 lane highways (or more on some stretches), the standard of driving in Dubai can be abysmal at times. The death toll on Dubai roads is one of the highest in the world per head of population, no doubt this is exacerbated by the prevalence of powerful expensive cars and opportunities to drive them fast. It doesn’t help that 80% or more of Dubai is expatriate with a wide range of nationalities represented – anyone who has travelled out of their home country will immediately notice that driving standards and habits vary the world over. Assume that every bad habit you’ve ever seen is imported into Dubai and you’ll get the idea. Road accident statistics for 2006 are about 1 death and 8 injuries per day for Dubai, or 20 deaths per 100,000 population (compared to about 6 per 100,000 for the UK and Sweden)

A school bus on the roads of Dubai

Pizza Hut ad in Dubai?

Dubai Mall

Our first stop was Dubai Mall, home of over 1200 stores. That’s over one thousand and two hundred stores! But what really stood out was how much it felt like I was back in America. I’m not sure I saw a single Arab store, except the ones selling Arab clothes. There aren’t many abeya stores in America.

Pizza Hut, of course.

And so we’re in Dubai, thousands of miles from home, and what do I get to eat? Why, KFC, of course. I was reading the menu and chuckled when I saw my meal came with a “bun.” Can Arabs not say biscuit? I’m not sure what KFC puts in those biscuits, but I couldn’t wait to sink my teeth into it. KFC is a popular place because it took a minute to get my food. And when I did…

When KFC says your meal comes with a bun, they mean it!

Seriously? A bun!?

Dubai Aquarium

After eating in what felt like a food court in Anytown, USA, we sauntered off into Dubai Mall. And Dubai Mall is huge. Huge is an understatement. I mean, Dubai Mall is HUGE! And there’s more to do than just shop. There’s an aquarium and little zoo with little animals in it. Inside the mall. Snakes, frogs, lizards. Even penguins. And a plethora of every type of fish out there. Even sharks. Three stories worth of aquarium and little animals zoo.

Nduku and David, wearing a “I <heart> Korea” t-shirt, at Dubai Aquarium.

Nduku and her sister Mutethya

Nduku and Mutethya with their little ones, Najwa and Alexander, at Dubai Aquarium

Burj Khalifa

As huge [huge is an understatement] as Dubai Mall is, there is one main attraction that wouldn’t fit in it. Sitting atop the mall is the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building. Originally named Burj [which means “tower”] Dubai, it was named after Sheikh Khalifa, the sheikh of Abu Dhabi who poured money into Dubai’s coffers when the financial meltdown hit several years ago and almost brought the city to a standstill. Essentially the most expensive naming rights deal ever.

How much money does Sheikh Khalifa have at his disposal? How about a few months ago he paid off $544 million worth of debt of the citizens. And the government has already announced plans to invest $1.6 billion over three years to improve living conditions in less developed northern emirates and a 70 percent rise in military pensions among other measures.

That’s ridiculous money.

Nduku and David at the Burj Khalifa in Dubai

Nduku standing half a mile below the tip of Burj Khalifa.

And then I took this photo of some towers being built not too far from Dubai Mall of this couple. I just thought it was a cool picture.

Jumeirah Beach Walk

Later in the night, pushing into midnight, we took a stroll to Jumeirah Beach Walk. This is when it first started to sink in how much money people have in Dubai. Since we landed we’ve seen so many Porsches, Maseratis and Mercedes G-Wagons that I was more amazed to see a Kia or a Hyundai. Lamborghinis. Ferraris. Bentleys roll by in Dubai as often as Chevys do in DC. Someone asked if I was going to take a picture of any of the cars. “Nah, I’m not really a car person,” I say, before I saw my dream car.

If you don’t know Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren, educate yourself here. We’re talking about a car with a base price of $750,000. And, yes, I took a picture.

Ok, these kids are rich. Uber-rich. Who in the world buys a McLaren? And just when I sobered from my punch-drunk love for the McLaren, another one drove by. Did I mention uber-rich yet?

Jumeirah Beach Walk reminds me of South Beach, not that I’ve ever been there. I just saw some footage from a documentary called, “Scarface.” The only differences are skin is replaced with robes and alcohol is replaced with tea. Jumeirah Beach Residences, another larger-than-life development, is a forest of apartment towers overlooking the strip littered with expensive cars. Before your imagination starts to paint a picture of just a bunch of tall buildings, know that it’s 36 connected towers, some if not most stretching 50 stories, with 25,000 residents [well, before the financial meltdown]!

Money. Danny DeVito once said in Heist: “Everybody loves money. That’s why it’s called money.” Dubai is where you go on honeymoon with your money. But right there, on Jumeirah Beach Walk, being circled by six-figure vehicles and uber-rich people, what do you see?

KFC? Seriously!? They don’t even give biscuits with their meals!

Definitely an eventful day. Still getting over how uber-rich these rich folks are. They’re not CEOs or internationally known talk show hosts. They’re the locals. And I’m still getting over how much of a western influence there is in Dubai. It’s everywhere you go. I was thinking about getting an English-Arabic dictionary, but more people probably speak English here than people who speak Arabic.

Speaking of western influences, how about the water fountain show at the Burj khalifa…

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