15 hours in Abu Dhabi

Booking our tickets to travel to China partly on a guided tour, my boyfriend and I came across the option to fly via Abu Dhabi with Etihad, which was cheaper than others and offered the added benefit of a long layover in the journey’s transit city.

Many people wouldn’t appreciate a long layover, but we decided we would, because we’d use it to go and explore Abu Dhabi.

Even without sleep, as we both usually have trouble sleeping aboard airplanes. Even with a second flight, longer than the first – 9 hours to Shanghai – awaiting us at the end of our “little” stroll.

We’d started getting a glimpse of particular UAE culture already inside the airport, where men and women checking passports and directing passengers stuck to wearing typical attire. I mention this because I don’t remember having seen employees wearing typical ethnic group attire at the airport anywhere else I’ve visited so far – airports, after all, offer some of the clearest examples of what globalization can do. The Abu Dhabi airport was also different in that its bathrooms were immaculate, with women going into stalls to clean them after every use. I was eager to see more, to get out of the airport and into a land totally new to us, after waiting in line for an hour to get a visa.

We figured we should be able to do the top attractions: visit the Emirate capital’s impressive Sheikh Zayed Mosque and the Emirates Palace, stroll down the Corniche along the water… 15 hours should be enough, right? And the heat should be… bearable?

Unfortunately, we’d underestimated both time and temperature.

So how did we fare in our layover fun mission?

The amazing chandelier at the Sheikh Zayed Mosque. Photo by Ana Ribeiro.
The amazing chandelier at the Sheikh Zayed Mosque. Photo by Ana Ribeiro.

All things considered, we didn’t do that badly at getting to see the sights we were after. I wouldn’t necessarily use the word “fun” to describe it, though.

It was September. I’d never felt such intense heat in my life… to the point where I could hardly breathe and had to stop every time I found a little shade. Which was not nearly as often as it should’ve been to be humane. Abu Dhabi is a city for cars and buses, with apparently efficient public transportation and good roads. Not for pedestrians. We only saw two other brave souls walking down the street. Both were also foreigners. In fact, most of the people who live in Abu Dhabi are foreigners. We spoke English with everyone we encountered, and everyone was friendly to us. Except for this one guard who made sure I saw his big scary gun when I took a picture of an embassy, then made sure I deleted the photo from my phone.

We did get to see the lavish-beyond-words Sheikh Zayed Mosque, completed in 2007 – the definite highlight of our stopover. I got to, or in fact had to, wear an abaya (cloak) on its grounds, which for me added to the experience. I got whiplash from looking at the chandeliers, incomparable to anything I’d seen before.

“The pools along the arcades reflect the mosque’s spectacular columns, which becomes even more glorious at night,” says its Wikipedia article, better than I could say it myself (unfortunately I didn’t see it at night). “The unique lighting system was designed by lightning architects Speirs + Major to reflect the phases of the moon. Beautiful bluish gray clouds are projected in lights onto the external walls and get brighter and darker according to the phase of the moon. The 96 columns in the main prayer hall are clad with marble and inlaid with mother of pearl, one of the few places where you will see this craftsmanship.”

We got a very nice tour of the mosque from an English-speaking guide who spent a lot of the time talking about how tolerant and progressive his country was (which is of course arguable, though we didn’t contradict him). He sang the praises of the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, founder of the UAE and builder of the mosque. Sheikh Zayed is credited with the development of the Emirates into a rich country, on oil money that also made him one of the richest people in the world.

The term “First World” definitely kept popping into my head as we went through the streets of Abu Dhabi, and at times it reminded me of the wealthy suburbs of South Florida (largely for the roads and layout around them, not so much the skyscrapers). At least it was so with the part of the emirate we saw, which was admittedly sort of small and central.

According to the page of the UAE Embassy in the US, “At the time Sheikh Zayed was born [in 1918 in Abu Dhabi], the emirate was poor and undeveloped, with an economy based primarily on fishing and pearl diving and on simple agriculture in scattered oases inland(…) Understanding the UAE is impossible without understanding the life of Sheikh Zayed and his deep religious faith, his vision, his determination and hard work, his generosity at home and abroad, and the way in which he devoted his life to the service of his people and the creation of a better world.” I don’t believe in saints, but the guy sure sounds like the national hero; this was confirmed by the big “Our Father Zayed” poster we’d see later somewhere in town, and the corresponding Web site I’d access once back home. These people sure seem to be social-media savvy, also judging by the big “#InAbuDhabi” sculpture at the beach.

We also did get to stroll down the Corniche. But there was no way we’d get to lie on the scorching sand; if I’d had a bikini on, I’d have gone into the water and refused to get out, even having to dodge jellyfish every two seconds. Even at the risk of missing our flight. Along with the very nice and easygoing Polish girl we’d met at the airport and were hanging out with throughout our stay in Abu Dhabi, I threw myself under the public showers at the beach in complete desperation… both of us exhausted and sticky to say the least. (If you ever find yourself in that situation, look for the big “#InAbuDhabi” sculpture I mentioned; the bathroom with the public showers is near it.) My boyfriend was smart and used his umbrella to shield himself from the killer heat and from getting sunburnt; he seemed to be doing much better than I was.

Unfortunately, the food we ended up having, also largely out of desperation, was expensive and there was nothing “typical from the UAE” about it. The closest we got to traditional Emirati cuisine was what we had on the plane. But airplane food, at least in economy class, always somehow tastes like plastic to me.

Yes, some planning ahead would’ve helped. We didn’t know which buses to take, except for the ones from and to the airport, having found the way back by asking around. The hours had simply flown. By high afternoon post-mosque and Corniche, all we’d managed to do was catch a faraway glimpse of the Emirates Palace and take some pictures of it and of skyscrapers while ambling down the road, heading for a mall in the distance as if it were an oasis. And with its air conditioning and available drinking water, which we’d run out of, it surely was for us at that point. I’m sad to admit Abu Dhabi in early September turned me into a mall-obsessed zombie.

So I leave you with these tips if you do decide to stop by there: Find out the right public transportation to use. All the way. And look into the option Etihad offers of staying two nights in Abu Dhabi or nearby Dubai (the second night is supposedly for free), so you don’t have to rush. The airline also offers free shuttles from Abu Dhabi International Airport to Dubai.

A Global Studies doctoral degree holder and former newspaper reporter, avid eater, pseudo-philosopher and poet, occasion-propelled singer, semi-professional socializer, movie addict, Brazilian-American nomad. In this space, she will share some of her experiences and (mis)adventures regarding various topics, with special attention to social issues.

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