3 Months in Dubai: Notes of a temporary expat

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“Caveat lector” – Latin for this is free advice, take it or leave it.

According to Google, there does not exist a threshold amount of time for which you need to spend outside of your native country, to be considered an expatriate.

Currently, I have been living in the United Arab Emirates for three months. Thus in my capacity as a temporary expatriate, I am qualified (solely by this token) to give you some personal notes on living in Dubai.

Getting started

Language barriers

Conveniently, there are none. Everyone speaks some level of English and signs are in both English and Arabic. Modern day Dubai was built for the expats and tourists, so you will find that the city is quite accommodating and people are generally friendly.

Directions

I have many talents so I am not ashamed to admit that I am mildly geographically challenged. Luckily, one of my talents is resourcefulness so Google maps and I are good friends. I feel that Dubai is a very big city, so you should consider this friendship too. Maybe even consider an app like City Walks, which visually tracks your movements on a map.

Alcohol

Unless you’ve received your liquor consumption license, don’t make the mistake of consuming alcohol in places where they do not sell it. I will not make any comments on what you should do with your duty-free contraband (because that’s exactly what it is).

Scary stuff aside, Dubai proves to be the perfect environment to damage your liver, especially as a woman. I will expand on this in the “Non-touristy social activities” section.

The Dubai stone and Dubai time

The “Dubai stone” is a term expats use for the entire stone (6,35kg for those of us in the real/metric world) that you will gain when you first move to Dubai. My advice is to walk and take the stairs, when possible, and to order a side vegetable with your meal.

“Dubai time” operates at the same carefree-tomorrow-is-another-day pace as “African time.” If it can be done later, it will. This can prove to be very frustrating, especially when you are paying for a service. Nevertheless, you can rest assured that you will be served with a smile by the diverse souls that keep Dubai running.

Dear iPhone users

If you don’t already have one, buy a portable phone charger and take it with you everywhere. You’ll thank me later.

Mobile phone sim card

Get a mobile phone sim card at the airport. You will already have your passport on you and this will save you a trip to one of the (ridiculously enormous) malls. Jump to the “Telecommunications: Du and Etisalat” section for more on the mobile networks in Dubai.

Convenience is the way of life

This is not because efficiency is the underlying theme of the way things work here… Dubai’s urban planning is such that all roads are long, winding highways and most buildings are self-sufficient high rises. Mix in the unbearable summer heat and you have one of the most un-walkable cities in the world.

Should you feel the need to take a leisurely stroll, you will need to travel to a park or the beach. Should you dare to run out of food as a pedestrian, you would need to order your groceries online.

Luckily, this is Dubai so there is an app for everything. Fetchr will pick up and drop off your things. Trolley and elGrocer will bring your groceries to you and Deliveroo and UberEats will feed you. Unfortunately, delivery is hardly ever free but fear not indecisive shopper with buyer’s remorse, for cancellation fees are non-existent here.

Telecommunications: Du and Etisalat

The UAE only has two telecommunications service providers, namely Du and Etisalat. Du is annoyingly much like the South African network MTN, in that it has days where it simply is not functioning. Etisalat has data activation issues at registration if you are on a contract. Both are generally evenly priced however 1GB of data costs the same as a penthouse mortgage repayment.

Free wifi is readily available in almost every building in Dubai, so my unsolicited advice to you is to set your social media to post only when connected to wifi.

The difference in networks is insignificant thus you are left with the decision between going prepaid or signing up for a contract… which depends primarily on your level of commitment phobia.

Days of the week

As a result of growing up in a predominantly Christian country, I am accustomed to the Roman calendar.

As history would have it, the Roman Catholic church had no impact on the Emirate’s calendar and so their weekdays are called the same thing but work slightly differently from those in the western world.

To help you out, I have created the below conversion formula. The days on the left are the actual weekdays. On the right is what they feel like in the western world:

  • Middle Eastern Sunday = Western Monday (Yes, that means you go to work on a Sunday)
  • Middle Eastern Monday = Western Tuesday
  • Middle Eastern Tuesday = Western Wednesday (We like ME Tuesdays. Find out why in the “Non-touristy social activities” section)
  • Middle Eastern Wednesday = Western Thursday
  • Middle Eastern Thursday = Western Friday (or as we millennials call it: Friyay)
  • Middle Eastern Friday = Western Sunday (So church services happen on a Friday)
  • Middle Eastern Saturday = Western Saturday (I know, right…)

Dress code

I’ll make this brief: You can wear whatever you want in Dubai for as long as you’re not shirtless or pants-less because that is just public indecency. Swimsuits are reserved for designated swimming areas.

It is no secret that Dubai is the land of all things trendy and flashy. So, ladies, make sure you pack a few pairs of (cute but comfortable) heels as some places require them and in other places, you will simply feel underdressed.

Fun fact: Some clubs don’t allow locals entry if they are in their traditional dress. So as to be on the safe side, be sure to Google each venue to ensure they don’t have any dress code or restrictions.

Transport

Your options

Taxi cabs (from here on out referred to as taxis – it’s an African inside joke) are still the primary mode of public transportation in Dubai.

For those of you who reside under the same conditions as Patrick (from Spongebob), you will be glad to know that “on-demand” transportation is now a thing of the present. Using mobile applications such as Uber or Careem, any destination is now, literally, at your fingertips.

Alternatively, those of you without poor time management skills have the option of using the bus and the metro in Dubai. You will find routes and timetables for these on the Wojhati app.

Just take note that all road transport is subject to the infamous Sheikh Zayed road traffic. In fact, I will go so far as to say do not use Sheikh Zayed road during peak hours; unless micro-motion road trips are your thing.

Taxis

Don’t have the apps, wifi or data? Don’t worry, taxis are readily available outside pretty much every building in the city.

The tops of the taxis are colour coded according to their category. I haven’t quite figured these out yet but I do know that the green and red ones are the cheapest, starting at a base fare of AED5 in the morning and AED7 at night. Ladies drive the pink ones and the black ones are pricier (even though they look the same as the ordinary ones).

Special needs and Hatta (large) taxis require bookings. You can book a taxi, in the Emirate of Dubai, by dialing: +971 (0) 42 08 0808, or by clicking here.

If you have personal space issues and/or a tight budget, then Dubai taxis are for you.

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Uber vs Careem

I won’t go into a comparison of the aforementioned apps with taxis simply because it all boils down to the same thing; bar the convenience of ordering an Uber/Careem as opposed to having to walk outside your building and hailing a taxi.

Uber works seamlessly in Dubai. As a matter of fact (and I am not getting paid by Uber for this) I have managed to order Ubers from and for almost every country I have visited. This includes when I ordered my sister an Uber from Suvarnabhumi airport, Bangkok, while I lay comfortably in my bed in South Africa.

Frankly, Uber is the most expensive way for a pedestrian to travel in Dubai and to make matters worse, Uber has recently introduced a booking fee. Depending on how strong your home currency is against the Dirham, this may or may not suck.

Overall, the Uber service is pretty much the same as it is in any other country: prompt and polite.

In case you were wondering, my personal Uber promo code is “rumbit.” My promo code only applies for your first ride, when you initially download Uber but who doesn’t love a discount?

Careem is a local (i.e. MENA region only) version of Uber and it costs roughly the same as an Uber. The only snag with Careem is that if, like myself, you have one of the newer mobile numbers, you will not be able to register on the app. An error message appears, proclaiming that you are a liar who does not deserve to have nice things. Okay, I am paraphrasing but you get my point.

I would love to tell you more about Careem but, as is evident from the above, my mobile number qualifies me as a persona non grata.

The Dubai metro

If you need to get from A to B in the speediest manner, the metro is your best bet. I can’t guarantee that you’ll find a seat but you probably won’t ride it for long enough to need one. Some metros connect to a tram system.

Depending on the time of day and direction of travel, you may or may not be sardined into a metro carriage. This experience is not for the faint-hearted. I have been shoved out of the way by impatient grannies and stepped on by a stray foot or three. If your amygdala processes personal space violations unfavourably, then a more private mode of transportation would be more suited to you.

One metro trip will set you back about AED3 – 9 but you first need to purchase a NOL card. The upside is that purchase value is loaded onto your card as traveling credit. This card is your ticket and it is used for bus and tram rides as well. Additionally, It can be used to pay for some taxis so try not to lose it.

Bus

The bus experience is pretty standard bar the freezing cold air conditioning that is kept on full blast, regardless of the weather condition. Bus trips cost just about the same as taking a metro but make sure you have your NOL card as they don’t accept cash. You should also keep in mind that peak time sardining and traffic can be expected.

Non-touristy Social activities

You can read all about the touristy things to do, elsewhere.

Tuesday Nights – Ladies’ Nights

Four words: Free alcohol for women. Obviously, your next question is “where?” The answer to that is – pretty much every bar, club, and restaurant in the city.

The concept of Ladies’ night blew my mind when I first arrived. Some places offer 3 glasses of selected drinks with some food. Other places offer an unlimited amount of whatever they are serving. You may be required to wear heels but that is a small price to pay for free alcohol in some pretty cool venues.

As a wine snob (yeah, I said it), I am never impressed with the quality of wines on offer at a ladies’ night however it’s usually easy drinking and of course, it’s free.

For an amazing view of the city and some free Prosecco, visit the Four Seasons Mercury Lounge. Get there early for a good seat. African Queens, if you miss home, you can spend the night dancing to Afro beats at Kiza lounge. You should dress up for both.

As alcohol is expensive in Dubai, the best part about all of this is that you can find a ladies’ night happening somewhere every single day, no matter what vibe you are looking for.

The only issue is how one will transition back to paying for her own alcohol when she gets home.

Brunch

Why brunch is such a big deal here, I have no idea. Regardless, on Fridays, many restaurants, hotels, and bars offer packages of (sometimes unlimited) food and beverages.

I have been to a few brunches and I have to say, my favourite has been the Zero Gravity brunch. The reasons are very simply laid out below:

  • It lasts all day until 5pm
  • It is on the beach – and as they say “sun’s out, buns and guns out”
  • The package comes with unlimited alcohol, including yummy cocktails and hard liqour
  • They offer a decent buffet which even has sushi and dessert
  • They play great music and there is a dance floor with awesome effects like a flame thrower and
  • They have games namely, beer pong and arcade style hoop shooting

Definitely, give this one and a few others a try. If nothing else, it makes for great Snapchat content.

Deira and the Souks

“Souk” is the Arabic word for a market. In Deira (also known as old town Dubai) you will discover a large variety of souks. From gold and diamonds to fresh fish and spices, you will find your heart’s desire there.

Be sure to stop at a perfumery for a lesson in Oud (a fragranced wood burned in incense) and other fragrances.

Should you find yourself in need of new shoes or fabrics, journey into the Aladdin-style alleys and see what you find. At this point, my trips to Deira are the reason I will need to pay for an excess luggage allowance on my way home.

You will also come across some of the best street food in town. I had a shawarma and fresh fruit juice that changed my life for the better, in a street café that strangely hurled me into a deep nostalgia for Buenos Aires. It is still the best AED12 I have spent in this country.

If you follow the colourful glow of lights to the port, you will find the dozens of boats from which they radiate. These boats offer catered cruises but don’t forget to agree on a “good” price before you embark. In Deira, haggling is the way of life.

Church

Upon my arrival, I was a little surprised to discover that churches are a plenty in Dubai. As I mentioned above, church services happen on a Friday in Dubai. You can easily find a church of your denomination on Google. For those looking for a Hillsong-like place of worship give Gatekeepers Church, located at the Hartland International school, a try.

FOMO: The Fear Of Missing Out

The best way to curb (or possibly increase) your FOMO is to search and sign up to the countless Dubai Facebook events and pages, so as to receive daily updates of things to do. The Dubai Calendar app and Instagram are also useful social activities tools. On that note, Hip Hop Karaoke, at Tribeca, is one social activity definitely not to be missed.

After my experiences, I can safely say that being a tourist in Dubai isn’t nearly as gratifying as living in Dubai, no matter your level of FOMO. As with any adventure in a new place, you will have ups, downs and wrong turns. Making friends in a foreign land is one of the multifaceted challenges you will face, but when the dust settles you’ll be looking back on impromptu, late night dinner parties, crazy St Patrick’s day festivities, wardrobe treasures found at unexpected sales in dark alleys and fashion show after-parties in the rain. For me, 3 Months in Dubai now feels like a magical lifetime.

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