I had a premonition that Abu Dhabi would feel particularly surreal after my experience in Haiti, but frankly I did not do my research and now feel that I am living a life of luxury for which I am unprepared. For example, the Embassy sprang for the Club Floor of the hotel. For the uninitiated, this means free breakfast, free cookies, fruit, and non-alcoholic beverages all the time and free booze and nibblies at night. In fact, I am typing this post from a couch on the club floor that overlooks the inlet and several construction sites that characterize this city. Not too shabby.
After one day here, my (possibly unfair) assessment of Abu Dhabi is that it is reinventing itself as a young Las Vegas without the gambling but with all (or more) of the shopping. I've never before been to a city that obviously has a history but one which isn't evident anywhere except in the echoes of traditional Arabic architecture. I estimate that for every finished building there are two with cranes. We also passed several that are in various stages of being torn down.
This morning Susan and I were disappointed to find out that we were not included in the day trip to Dubai (which we probably could not have afforded anyway) so we proceeded to fill our only free day with seeing the sights of Abu Dhabi. We hit the five big "must-sees," two of which were shopping malls (or souqs which basically means market) and one was a hotel and shopping mall. When you step out of the air conditioning, you are immediately hit with a very humid and hot blast of air that never abates. It is so humid that when we emerged from the airport last night and then again when I went on my balcony this morning, my glasses fogged up for a minute or so in a reaction opposite to that which happens in Chicago in the winter. A result, we were told, of a change in the seasons that also causes a "fog" over everything.
For this reason and fear of it becoming even hotter, we decided to visit the outdoor Heritage Village first. The Village purports to be a representation of what life was like before oil money, and the demonstration of traditional crafts (weaving, pottery, glass blowing, etc) are by far the most interesting part. Following our tour of the Village, we had trouble catching a taxi, and were quite charmed and grateful to receive a ride the nearby mall tourist trap by a pizza delivery man! Although the mall had some incredible high-end shopping, we opted to go to the Central Souk instead. Fortunately the mall had several taxis to chooses from to get us there.
The Central Souq seems to focus more on traditional items such as beautiful silk and wool scarves, rugs, pillow covers, traditional jewelry and others, but it also contains several stores with evening gowns that would appear to defy many of the local dress customs of which we were warned as well as luxury jewelry and watches. The store keepers were so earnest that we started to avoid going in, because they pulled nearly everything off the shelves to tempt us! An incredible series of wooden latticework turned out to be the primary draw of the building. The attention to detail and commitment to quality is unparalleled in the States. We enjoyed the cool and dark interior after the scorching au of the morning.
After a brief break back at the hotel, we journeyed to the Grand Mosque in a hotel car (oh luxury!) for the 2 o'clock tour. We passed the Mosque last night in the dark, but it was even more stunning during the day. Completed in 2007, it holds 1,000 people in each prayer room and is comprised of granite and marble from all over the world. Yellow and white gold leaf as well as Murano glass and Swarovski crystal were also common building elements. Clearly, no expense was spared on this building I was very impressed with how cool the white marble was under bare feet, even when it was in the sun - much cooler than the carpet that lined the bins for our shoes. Susan and I were the only women in our group who were not required to borrow abayas for the tour which made me feel particularly culturally sensitive :)
Following the tour, we went to a 7 star hotel called the Emerites Palace for a food-coma inducing high tea. The menu included a selection of canapés, savory mini pies, sandwiches, scones, traditional Arab and other cakes, and lastly a warm chocolate hazelnut desert. The hotel itself also contained a shopping mall (suprise suprise) and was located on a stretch of property so regal that when we passed it earlier I thought it an actual palace. My mistake I guess.
Tomorrow we meet the embassador and have a concert/master class for NYU Abu Dhabi. Time to work!