Traveling, no matter the destination, can open us up in ways that secondary sources (i.e. word of mouth) cannot. Across time, stories recount how our physical presence in a completely foreign place can be profound or enlightening, spiritual even. Granted, familiar environments can be too, like returning to your birthplace after leaving for a while (say, six years or so).
Still, venturing to somewhere unknown has its own innate exceptionalism. A sentiment I deem factual, and informed by our contemporary social structure.
The Internet – specifically social media – has galvanized this generation to uninhibitedly explore nonnative regions and customs. More so than generations past.
We have redefined traveling as a necessity, moving away from past notions of it being an unattainable, elitist practice. I’ve recognized an emphasis on travel that is void of fixed presumptions, too. Another concept that contrasts our approach to traveling.
The downside to this mass exposure, though, is our need to commodify every thing. No longer exists sacredness, not with the double-edged sword that is trend-culture. Not even what we’ve reclaimed and remodeled, and extended to marginalized populations that so deserve inclusion. Not even traveling.
Even as someone who immensely values the very act, my newest long-distance trip reminded me of my own shallowness. That my psyche is also prone to, and expresses, reductive behavior.
In December of last year, I was headed to the United Arab Emirates for a visit to see my family. My intentions were straightforward: I wanted to be in my loved ones’ company and create new memories, yes. But I also craved an experience independent of that, one that would impress me deeply.
SIDENOTE: It’s important I explain that my other yearning was not placed above being with family. Of course not. Let’s move on now.
Maybe attaching such a high expectation wasn’t authentic, or perhaps those intentions devalued the ‘go with the flow’ mantra I forcibly project. Forcibly, because an utterly carefree existence is fundamentally discomforting for me.
My assumption is that most adults adhere to common knowledge that declares “expectations lead to disappointments.” This philosophy is personally more intrinsic, as an undercover control-freak, than the aforementioned liberal one.
Suffice it to say, I achieved – and failed – in my quest to unearth an esoteric adventure.
Exterior structures with cultural artifacts and artwork. Sheikh Zayed Palace Museum, Al Ain, UAE.
Emiratis, and the culture by which they are distinguished, are wondrous. They are also mundane. For the latter description, it is appropriate in a particular sense: The country’s societal development parallels all others at the rudimentary level.
As with any civilization, the Emirates pursue innovation, comparable (or superior) economics and globalization. Concurrently, the nation also preserves, celebrates (pridefully) and demonstrates its unique cultural identity. There exists an almost perfect juxtaposition.
At one end of the spectrum, the country is visibly modern. The highway systems are well-developed and kept exceptionally clean, unlike the U.S. (you know it’s true).
Buildings are grand in nature, even those with traditional architecture. There is a mixture of New York style skyscrapers, and Spanish design like California. Think Manhattan meets Rodeo Drive, with a basis of distinctive Arabic aesthetics.
At every turn are expensive cars, high-end designer stores and a plethora of cuisines, all of which are indicative of the country’s oil-derived wealth.
On the contrary, social practices there are purely traditional and, from a Westernized lens, somewhat restrictive. With exception of expatriates and a small number of natives, most of whom are young, educated and well-off men.
Although the culture is rich and highly regarded by its people, it has obviously been plagued by colonialism, much like a lot of this world. Concepts associated with Western nations – like capitalism and supremacy (in the context of beauty standards), classism and materialism – have permeated the Emiratis too. This is what I’m referring to as the mundane: The fact that I could not escape the implications of colonialism. Not even in the Middle East.
This consideration of mundanity by me, stems from a belief that there is nothing extraordinary (or just) about colonization, nor having to exist in a colonized state, regardless how deep the entrapment goes.
In no way does this subtract from my experience, or from the country’s substance. The natives and their way of life are innately meaningful. No one can deny that.
The natural and man-made segments that comprise its environment is masterfully crafted. The government cares about its citizens and their quality of life, something not regarded by a significant number of the U.S.’s population.
The Emirati culture is very much alive, still taking precedence over its modernized counterparts. This is evident in every nook and cranny. In the picturesque malls and museuems like the Sheikh Zayed Palace.
Markets are abundant with elaborate fabrics of gold threads, striking patterns and colors. Cultural artifacts are intricately designed. Original artworks tell stories of how the oil-rich nation became the powerful entity it now is. The founders envisioned a paradisal metropolis, and materialized it as such. In a way, the UAE is an underdog tale.
It’s my own fault for expecting anything from a place I’ve never been, people I’ve never lived amongst. This country has made itself the face of luxury, while holding dearly its traditions. And that is extraordinary. This trip taught me an important lesson: Traveling is profound itself. Only, we undo this by tagging along our requirements, as if we are owed a specific experience. A place can only offer what it is, and it’s up to us to recognize the significance to all of it.
I wish I had more to say, but this country represents itself. For some reason, I think the founders intended to do just that.
Enjoy the visuals!