If it wasn’t obvious, we didn’t want to leave Khoka Moya. At all. But we knew that our two day layover back to London meant we’d need to stick to our original travel plans.
The Belgrace Hotel was a three hour drive from Manyeleti game reserve, conveniently located by a small airport that would get us to Jo’burg, first thing the next morning. Compared to our five days at Khoka Moya, we knew we weren’t in Kansas anymore. The grounds were beautiful, but different in their manicured way. The staff members were cordial rather than warm. The rooms were decorated with old, stuffy looking portraits and the cabinets within smelled slightly of mothballs though they were sprinkled with rose petals when we arrived. The hotel owner’s smile seemed pasted on at all points of the day making her sickeningly sweet in comparison to the help. If you’ve seen the movie Get Out, we couldn’t stop joking that the she may have purposefully built her resort on these semi-isolated grounds to lure guests from the airport. Over dinner, we assured one another that we’d have our phones charged at all times, and that we’d stick together to avoid the sunken place. We’re terrible, we know.
The next morning, the Belgrace Hotel drove us to the very small Nelspruit airport. The terminal was tiny, and the airplane was…well you can see how large it was from Corey’s pic below. It was a short flight to Jo’burg, and another three hours until our flight to Dubai. We spent the time getting rid of our rand in the shops around the airport, and recapping our favorite animal sightings from Manyeleti.
Fast forward and we’re boarding the largest aircraft I’ve ever seen. You know it must have been memorable if I can remember the type of airplane we flew! The Airbus 380 was luxurious even though we were the plebes on the lower level of the aircraft. I thoroughly enjoyed the on-flight entertainment being organised by each Marvel comic series, and by Disney and Pixar rather than by the generic label: ‘Kid Movies’. We arrived in Dubai close to midnight both well-rested and well-fed.
From our cab window, we gawked at the huge skyscrapers hugging the Sheikh Zayed highway. I couldn’t wait to see the buildings in the daylight with our friends. We had to force ourselves to go to bed as we couldn’t stop gushing about our travels to their old stomping grounds: South Africa. Fidel grew up in Durban, and they both went to high school in Cape Town. We met Taya’s dad in Cape Town on our trip as well.
I didn’t know much about Dubai prior to this layover. I wasn’t interested in traveling to what I thought was an artificial oasis built in the middle of a desert. After a mere fourteen hours, I’d say that I judged a book by its cover. Tsk tsk. I can assure you that visiting with local hosts is 100% incredible, and that a state that is only thirty years old is a sociological, and technological, wonder.
We rode Dubai’s ultra modern underground metro, complete with separate cars for women and men. Taya explained how women in our car were likely traveling to service jobs in salons, hotels, and restaurants. In just four stops on the metro, I was shocked to learn we were visiting some of the world’s superlatives in the first hour of our tour. We attempted to stroll the world’s largest mall, but could only complete mere sections. The fountains and waterfalls inside were unique, but the world’s fifth largest indoor aquarium was jaw-dropping. It’s a massive tank in the middle of the mall!
Directly outside the mall is the promenade that leads to the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world. I know I’m not supposed to say this aloud but this part of Dubai definitely felt like Vegas on steroids.
Taya and Fidel planned the morning perfectly. Now that we’d seen the shiny and new, it was time to cab to an ‘older’ part of town to see what things used to look like about twenty-five years ago.
We ate breakfast at the Arabian Tea House Cafe, a magical setting with a warm breeze and gorgeous platters of food. The pictures are worth a thousand flavours!
While I didn’t want to leave our cosy cafe, Taya and Fidel promised the old town, and the souk-like markets should be something to see before we needed to catch our next flight. I had almost forgotten we were on our layover to get back to London!
In the old town, there is a museum where visitors can ask all of their questions that they might otherwise feel uncomfortable asking if they didn’t have local guides. The old town included models of past living accommodations to illustrate previous life in the desert. There were also cute boutiques and small cafes nestled in the side streets.
Before we caught the boat to the markets, Corey was caught up by a vendor in a more touristic part of town. Taya helped him get a fair price, and then we were on our way to the gold and spice souks.
I enjoyed the street art following us back to their flat as it was a reminder of the old city, and its stark contrast with the new buildings erected along the main highway. Fidel and I joked that building here must be an architect’s dream as there are no rules or restrictions other than one’s own imagination!
Throughout our visit, Taya and Fidel shared about many of Dubai’s strict rules, and it’s controversial policies. Relative to the other states of the United Arab Emirates, Dubai is the younger, rowdier teenager of the family. The rebel? But no one is drunk in public. No one is aggressively rude or would curse aloud. No one steals. The threat of being kicked out, or having harm come to one’s physical person is real within the eyes of the law. Only 10% of the population is Emirati and their wealth is the foundation of the state. Everyone else is an immigrant, or ex-pat– terms that are based on one’s class upon arrival. There is a definite challenge with the mass numbers of laborers in Dubai, who are allowed to stay on work visas, but who aren’t allowed to bring their families or their loved ones. Laborers are living in crammed quarters, and paid incredibly low wages, with little access to civil rights. Another debatable topic is the law linked with the aging population. The rules state that you must leave if you are older than sixty-five years of age. Anyone older than this who is seen in Dubai is most likely visiting a family member, or is a tourist. Taya also described the Emirati lifestyle as one that is about spending money whether or not you have the disposable income. The culture feels based on wearing luxury, and being seen, even if you don’t have a ton of cash as an imported worker. Fidel talked about some of his interactions being steeped in patriarchy. Fidel has been asked if Taya has his permission to do things even though she is the reason they have a work visa in Dubai in the first place! They’re constantly navigating the rules and regulations both spoken and unspoken, and learning a lot about how their relationship works within the Emirati expectations.
We vowed to return to spend more time with Taya and Fidel, and to learn more about the UAE. Corey has the Grand Mosque and Abu Dhabi on his bucket list, and I’ve got a hankering to see the island developments that are set to be built in the desert behind their flat! I appreciate that writing a post about a layover shouldn’t be too significant after our two weeks in South Africa, but Taya and Fidel gave an incredible tour in Dubai that made this leg of the journey seem like its own mini-vacation!
Right!…there is still one more leg of this layover journey. We had to leave Taya and Fidel’s hospitality to make our flight to freezing temperatures in Dublin. We checked into the airport hotel, and the only consolation was Irish beer and American football. The weather and hotel decor definitely matched our melancholy mood, but in all honesty, the memories of this wonderful trip, including our layover, have kept us warm for weeks since.