Through the Sand: A Driving Lesson From Dubai

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“I posed a million-dirham ($272,260.72 into today’s US dollar) question: “Do the children of Dubai play in sandboxes?” Our family, newly transplanted from the Washington, DC area where sandboxes had provided our children with hours of fun in earlier years, mulled over this question the summer we moved temporarily to the desert metropolis of Dubai. Even with all of Dubai’s development, if one catapulted high enough above the impressive skyline, Dubai seemed not too unlike one massive sandbox with ribbons of various roads lying thickly near the coast and rapidly thinning out in numbers the further away from the sandbox’s edge of the Arabian Sea, until only interminable sand remained.

The subject of driving, however, quickly claimed our attention as it rapidly morphed to the level of top priority. This critical arena of living required quick-study because learning this new turf involved navigating Dubai’s roads, roads which often betrayed the foundation they were laid upon: sand.

From our company apartment’s location, we easily realized that we were isolated without a car. As urbanites, we had associated walking with city living. Going to a coffeeshop or grocery didn’t require a car. Walking the kids to school? No problem. Bike trails and sidewalks connected neighborhoods and ultimately, people. Not so in Dubai, where pedestrians were merely walking to their cars, that in and of itself often life-threatening because Dubai was built with cars, not people, in mind.fullsizeoutput_294

Additionally, Dubai had grown so swiftly that very often there was just one route to a destination. Thus, sometimes the only way to reach a destination took one in the wrong direction before it backtracked toward the desired direction. Seasoned expatriates warned us that if that particular road required construction, then the dip into the sand would demand a 4-wheel drive vehicle. Well, that certainly eliminated the less expensive economy car we thought would work for us so we decided instead on a 4-wheel-drive SUV. We never looked back.

During the intense summers where temperatures averaged 108 degrees, Dubai’s residents mostly remained in air-conditioned homes and malls, getting from point A to point B in their air-conditioned cars. As rookies in the Middle East, we followed the steps of the experienced and boarded our car. If we wanted to take a walk, we drove. Areas such as the Dubai Marina where pedestrian strolling was possible called for logging in approximately 30 minutes by car.

Once inside the car, the scenes out of the window required acclimation too. Driving on desert highways yielded a wash of beige right up to the horizon, an occasional camel, acacia tree or perhaps a hut, evidencing toughness and independence. What type of person could thrive in this environment? I wondered. Today’s locals, who comprise just 13% of the entire kingdom’s population, would likely consider cleaning their own bathrooms a day’s work. On its face, one could detect more differences than similarities between the Emiratis of today and their desert forefathers.

By implication, the desert doesn’t suffer fools. Annals of sheikhdom history stored away somewhere would reveal a disposition of obstinacy and a knack for survival to spite the desert. The records would recount tales of life and death, of marriages and of children and grandchildren. Of personal triumphs and crushing losses, of military victories and cruel disastrous defeats. And finally, of oil in 1959 and independence in 1971.

Read in full at The Manifest-Station.

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