“The Phoenix must burn to emerge.” — Janet Fitch
“You staying or going?” you ask.
“One day layover,” he says.
“Me too,” you tell him.
These are the first words you utter to the man you’ve been sitting beside for the last twelve hours.
You get to talking and discover he’s traveling to Afghanistan. There’s an anticipation that belies his poise when he names that place. He knows your mind is flooded with adjectives, many not good, carefully teased out from the noise that engulfs us all.
But you zig when he thinks you’ll zag.
“Ah, the graveyard of empires,” you tell him, referencing how no one, including the mighty British Empire and Alexander the Great managed to plant their flags as victor in that faraway land.
“You’re right!” he beams.
His youth reminds you of your former self. You see the same angst in his eyes, however subtle and bloodshot. You suddenly forgive him for stealing the armrest the entire flight.
You’ve arrived and that’s all that matters.
Before long, you’re navigating this new land by metro. It’s surprisingly simple, which is fine by you. Red line. Green line. I got this, you think.
You listen for your stop as if your life depends on it because maybe it does. “Burj Khalifa,” you keep repeating to yourself.
You make stops, as all trains do, as faces that surprise you as much as yours does theirs board buried in touchscreens.
Wow, you think. I didn’t realize Dubai was so diverse.
You’re reminded how being proven wrong about the world, how you thought it was, or worse, how you thought it ought to be is the whole point. You travel not to see new terrains but to re-explore and illuminate the ones within.
You make your stop and pat yourself on the back for a small “win.” Victories feel heightened when the land you trek isn’t your own.
You make your way to the street and instantly remove your blue blazer. It’s a heat you’ve only experienced once in your life. The same angry sun that accompanied your aimless jaunts in places named Amman, Petra, and Aqaba has found you once again.
In just seconds the heat has already had its way with you. You’ve barely walked the distance of a first down and you’re drenched in sweat.
You follow signs for Mohammed Bin Rashid Blvd, wondering briefly what one must do to have a street named after them before the bright lights of the world’s tallest building lure you like some siren in the Odyssey.
This towering symbol suddenly becomes your North Star regardless of what good, if any, it may lead to.
Soon, you find yourself in Dubai Mall. You chide yourself for traveling across the planet to wander past storefronts selling the same brands back home you don’t want or need.
But the air conditioning is too much to pass up.
You walk past pretty girls in burkas sipping expensive drinks as men in impeccable white thobes huddle over cappuccinos. It’s 10:30 pm on a Wednesday and the mall is packed.
You wonder if the entire city is here.
Now it’s late and you really must get going. “DAMAC Maison Hotel,” you tell yourself before raising your gaze. “Ah! That’s it!” you say out loud.
Only it’s not it.
There are four colossal buildings with the same moniker. But you gamble and somehow guess right.
On the way you hear the orchestra of drills, saws, and grinders from somewhere in the sky. It’s 95 degrees at 11:00 pm. If these are favorable working conditions you wonder what inhumane temperature awaits the next day.
It’s 5:30 am and you’re on four hours of sleep. The excitement, the incurable angst that accompanies your world adventures forces you to lace up and hit the streets.
The faint glow of the sun shines new life on this town as hundreds of men in hard hats and bright yellow vests amble to work. They stare at you quizzically as you weave through crowds competing to build things that will touch the sky.
But you don’t mind.
You’ve finally grown to appreciate your “otherness,” your not looking to be from anywhere in particular is precisely what allows you to go anywhere. You are a curiosity more than a threat, which has allowed you to arrive and vanish in dozens of countries with no incident.
It’s a fair tradeoff, you think.
You have just hours now before you must return to the airport. You glance up at the hundreds of unfinished towers. This city, rising like a phoenix from the ashes is a strange land; a cross between Tatooine and Blade Runner.
You’re intrigued but not quite sold. You’re not sure you could hang your hat here just yet.
Still, you cling to the belief that seeing the world must never stop so long as you’re able. You tell yourself to not travel would be to slowly die because each time your passport is stamped your view of the world is somehow broadened.
You travel not in spite of your ignorance but because of it.
At the very least, this brief layover in this bizarre place has made you realize as much.
That’s something, you think.
This is what happens when you arrive in Dubai.
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