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Lessons learned from traveling alone through Dubai

Things learned as a solo female traveller in the middle-Eastern city.

Life Lesson 1: It’s not as scary as it seems

As a female traveling internationally alone for the first time in her life, I was freaking out the second I landed from the airport. The worst thoughts popped into my head; "What if I get lost, what if the taxi driver kidnaps me"... But when you actually take those first steps, those fears melt into excitement. Ask anyone in Dubai and they will tell you the same exact answer, “Dubai is extremely safe”.

Since English is the main language there, I got to chat with some locals and each and every one made me feel extremely welcomed. Even without any cell service whatsoever, I felt comfortable walking through the city by myself at night (and I wouldn’t even walk through my own neighborhood alone at night). The fact that this foreign city made me feel more comfortable than my own town goes to show how controlled the environment is.

While talking to the receptionist at my hotel, she told me that she was even too afraid to leave Dubai since other places are so much less protected, which is kind of a bittersweet testament to the city's safety.

I do not want to give you a false sense of security -as with any place ever, still exercise caution, but for first time solo travelers, Dubai is the perfect city to dip your toes into and explore.

Life Lesson 2: Trains are your new best friend.

Before this week, I literally had never navigated a train before by myself. Before heading to Dubai, I stopped at Newark Airport in New Jersey, and attempted to get to NY for a day using the train.

This gave me boundless anxiety. To figure the different lines to take, where to get off and on from, how to understand the muffled voice of the train conductor… I was terribly freaked out and thought to myself, “if I can’t even navigate NY, how am I gonna figure out the train system of a different country?”.

But to my pleasant surprise, Dubai’s metro system proved to be refreshingly simple. For the price of 22 AED ($5.99), I was able to get an all day pass for the train with the ability to hop on and off whenever. This was remarkable compared to the price of a taxi, which is still cheap but can be double in price for a half-hour ride.

There’s only two lines that go through the city; the red and the green line, and the maps are very straightforward. Just figure out your destination, figure out the direction of the train you’re taking and hop on. The conductor’s voice is loud, clear, and in English so you’ll know exactly when to hop off.

Life Lesson 3: It’s not all skyscrapers

When people think of Dubai, they often immediately conjure

up the image of the Burj Khalifa, the man-made Palm tree shaped beaches, the endless row of skyscrapers in the skyline. In all honesty, I found the most fulfilling parts of the trip to be the older, more cultural sites.

Walking through downtown and the mall may have been a burst of excitement, but it was in Old Dubai where I felt truly in awe. I got the chance to stroll through the Al Seef shopping street during sunset. The traditional architecture, made up of sand colored walls and narrow walk ways was gorgeous and a reminder that it is still in the Arabian Desert.

It’s easy to lose sight of this when surrounded by one hundred + story buildings, but once you’re in Old Town, you really feel the cultural experience and get to admire the Emirati style buildings.

Life Lesson 3: Souqs are NOT for the weak

This lesson might have been the biggest eye-opener during the entire trip. Old Dubai is known for their street bazaars, known as Souqs. There is the spice souq, where exotic aromas fill the air as rows of vendors try to sell their spices. There is also the gold souq, where you will see endless displays of shiny gold jewelry and decor. But what I didn’t realize is that these souqs can be anxiety-inducing for someone who has a difficult time saying no to people.

One interesting thing I noticed is that many of the vendors will refer to you as ‘Shakira’. By the end of my experience there, I heard at least ten times “Hey Shakira! Come here”. Later, I learned that calling a woman “Shakira” is a way of complementing her beauty. I do not necessarily know if the origin of this word is related to their love of the Columbian pop-star, but I do know that it was a simultaneously confusing and flattering thing to be called.

Countless vendors hurredly approached me as I was simply walking through the market, all attempting to entice me into their stores. As someone who had never experienced a souq environment before, I hadn’t yet built up the courage to ignore everyone. I ended up speed walking, trying to escape the men literally pulling me into their stores. Suddely, a vendor approached me and immidiately wrapped a pashmina around my head. Unfortunately, this invasive marketing technique proved to be successful. I ended up in his store for around thirty minutes, making attempts to leave but being convinced to stay. I am not proud to say that after that experience, I was much poorer than when

I entered, even though I told myself that I was not going to buy anything there in the first place (but at least I got a cute pashmina).

Moral of the story is souq markets are not made for people who can not handle the extreme hustle and bustle of carnivorous vendors.

Life Lesson 4: You will see a lot of foreign influence

As an American, I was never necessarily encouraged to pay attention to the culture and norms of far away countries. Even when heading to this trip, I couldn’t name a single famous Emirati or even pronounce the name of their president.

So when locals asked where I was from and excitedly responded with “Ahhh, Obama country!” I was surprised and delighted. I hadn’t realized that the former president had an impact on this small middle-Eastern country and it puts into perspective the global knowledge foreign nations have when compared to Americans. There was actually quite a bit of American influence everywhere, from billboards of Timothy Chamalet to a Subway in the foodcourt of the mall. But it’s not just American influence; one thing I noticed while walking through the food court of the mall and looking at most of the restaurants in general, you will find food from all over.

I didn’t really have a grasp of what Emirati food was like so I wanted to look for a restaurant that felt authentic. But looking at my options, I saw that the food mostly came from other places. I saw countless burger shops, Japanese restaurants, Turkish restaurants, even a Bosnian restaurant, but I had a hard time finding something that felt real to the UAE, at least in downtown. I'm not sure if it's the fact that Dubai is integrated with Western influence or I did not search hard enough, but it would make a fun vacation challenge to check out local hole-in-wall places and taste food that really represents the country.

A little tip for foodies traveling to Dubai: things are significantly cheaper the further you get from downtown. A burger shop I walked by in Old Dubai had a veggie burger for the equivalent of $2!

Dive deeper into Dubai and find an itinerary through my YoutubeChannel here.


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