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city of gold

With the Gulf all over the news last week, S realized that she never got around to writing about her and Munchkin’s first foray to the peninsula a couple of months ago. Originally, we had planned to go to Dubai as a family to celebrate S’s birthday, taking advantage of the long Easter weekend and the rare direct flight from Kigali. With D’s grandmother’s passing a few days before our scheduled vacation, however, the trip became a solo parenting adventure for S.

Dubai had never been high on S’s list of must-visit destinations, mainly because she is not a big city lover and prefers slightly cooler daytime temperatures, but she discovered there’s a lot more to the so-called City of Gold than skyscrapers, malls, and glitz. Staying with Foreign Service friends whose son is a year older than Munchkin, S got to experience the city from an insider’s perspective.

In almost every way imaginable, Dubai offers a stark contrast to Kigali. The food scene is spectacular. The six-lane super highways are a bit of a shock to the senses after Kigali’s narrow roadways. And it was only once Munchkin took off down a long boardwalk on his new friend’s balance bike, that S truly realized how scarce flat, open roads with sidewalks are in the land of a thousand hills that we currently call home. Munchkin, it turns out, is quite the speed demon – a burgeoning passion he can’t quite indulge on his balance bike in Kigali due to space constraints.

S rented a car for the long weekend, and while she felt fine driving in Dubai, navigating – even with the aid of a GPS – proved challenging. There are few numbered addresses in Dubai, and businesses only use their street name and neighborhood to identify their location. The GPS that came with the rental car, on the other hand, would not accept an address without a street number nor could it find even well known landmarks, rendering it rather useless. S resorted to using a combination of Google maps (when she had Wi-Fi), a local map app, and the less-than-helpful GPS, with varying levels of success.

At one point, unable to locate the beach where she had agreed to meet a friend, S asked a man who had parked next to her for assistance. After lending S his phone so she could look up directions, the stranger insisted on driving there himself – a 20-minute commute each way – to ensure that S arrived at her destination safely. When S told the story to our friends, they thought this man had gone so far out of his way because of the respect the Emirati have for motherhood. It seemed that everywhere S went, locals beamed at her belly, congratulating her and asking her when she was due.

Though for many Dubai is an oasis of conspicuous consumption, S and Munchkin skipped the ritzier attractions and extravagances, eschewing the seven-star properties, the world’s tallest tower, manmade islands, underwater hotels, indoor ski slopes and the like. To escape the mid-day heat, S took Munchkin to the aquarium at the Dubai Mall, but mostly they spent their days outdoors, going to both of the RIPE markets – pop-up fairs with food and other vendors in the park; Jumeirah Beach for a daytime swim in some of the warmest water S has ever experienced; and Kite Beach for an evening boardwalk stroll and dinner. Munchkin also enjoyed the diversity of outdoor playgrounds – a simple luxury that simply does not exist in Rwanda.

The trip did not pan out exactly as S had planned when we first booked the tickets, but the long weekend not only provided a nice change of pace, but also an opportunity to catch up with friends from various phases of S’s life. In addition to our Foreign Service friends, she also saw frisbee friends from our Nairobi days and caught up with another friend whom she met while backpacking in Ecuador a decade ago.

Traveling alone with Munchkin, S skipped most of the traditional Dubai attractions – the souks and the surrounding desert and oases – which simply means we’ll have to go back at some point during our remaining year in Kigali and make up the family trip we had envisioned.

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