Day 7: I don’t understand Dubai.

When my Emirates flight to Dubai had 10-inch tv screens in the back of each seat and free bloody Marys until I landed, I should have known that Dubai was going to be different.

I took the long way to Namibia. Three months ago when we were first booking tickets, my friend and I realized that there was no easy way to get to Windhoek, Namibia from Cotonou, Benin. It was just as difficult, but significantly cheaper to fly out of Accra, which set us on a booking adventure that eventually left us with a 22-hour layover in Dubai.

We had planned to act like tourists throughout most of the day. We booked our tickets to the observation deck of the Burj Khalifa before we left Benin and spent most of the day before our 6 p.m. reservation riding around on one of those bright red hop-on-hop-off tour buses of the city. We mostly stayed hopped on because there’s one word that accurately described the heat of Dubai: oppressive.

That’s the first thing you notice about the city. It’s hard not to when it slaps you in the face whenever you walk outside. As we walked out of the airport, my glasses completely fogged when we passed from air-conditioned terminal to non-climate-controlled taxi stand. I didn’t have a thermometer in Benin, so I can’t tell you if Dubai is the hottest place I’ve ever been, but never in Benin did it seem that the heat was physically grabbing me by the shoulders whenever I walked outside.

This heat, though, makes sense. Dubai is the in the middle of the desert. Temperatures are supposed to reach 113 degrees. It’s supposed to only rain 150 mm a year. It’s not supposed to be the place where there’s a mall with an indoor ski slope.

During our tour, one of the facts that we caught was that each year Dubai uses over one million liters of water to water its plants, to pump through its fountains and, I would guess, rehydrate the thousands of tourists that flow through the city. I didn’t understand why this number would be something of which to be proud. This is the desert. One million gallons of water don’t exist here.

I felt this anomaly most of the day. Few things in Dubai seem that they should be there. This is a city that drips in consumerism and extravagance, but few of the people who work at Tom Ford and Oscar de la Renta and Cartier can afford the lifestyles that they sell everyday. Every train of the 75 km metro system is air conditioned, despite the reality of what it feels like when you step outside. This by no means is a phenomenon seen only in Dubai, but the gentrification of nowhere else I’ve scene has been on such an extreme level in such an extreme competition with nature.

I can write about this seemingly defiant place that demands to be what it wants, not what nature intended it to be all I want, but this would be a different post if Dubai was at least doing it successfully. If the city had somehow used all the money that is being handed around these malls and hotels and tourist attractions to help the people who were here before the TGI Fridays, Starbucks and Pottery Barn Kids moved in, maybe this place would make more sense to me. But it’s not and it doesn’t. And that’s what I really kept thinking about during those 22 hours in Dubai: how this entire city seems to be on an endless prescription of retail therapy instead of taking a moment and thinking about the consequences to which its actions are leading. 

Days 1 & 2: Ghana kicks our (collective) ass

We entered Ghana naively thinking that our two years living and working in a west African country would have adequately prepared us for visiting another west African country. (In our defense, both of us had already visited Togo. And Togo really is just an extension of Benin. Despite the fact that everything is cheaper, everything runs the same way.) We were unprepared for Ghana.

We were unprepared for the utter lack of organization at the border. All traffic laws and common courtesies were forgotten. There were cars driving down the wrong side of the street, motos weaving in between the semis and taxis and men almost constantly sticking their heads in the window of our car asking us if we wanted to buy Ghanian sims or change money or have him carry our bags across the border. 

We were unprepared for Ghanaian English. After two years in a French-speaking country, I was looking forward to people being able to understand me. Turns out, my accent is just as troubling here as it was next door.

We were unprepared for our egos to be our downfall. The next morning, we wandered around the town of Hohoe looking for coffee. There were no cafeterias like the ones where we had spent the last two years drinking coffee to be found. We walked to the taxi station to try to find someone who would drive us to the mountain that we wanted to visit that day. We had been told to look for motos (what we had taken around Benin the last two years) to drive us there. There were none to be found.

What our problem was wasn’t that we were unprepared. It was that we had been prepared for Ghana to be just like Benin. And when it wasn’t, we were ill-equipped to handle it. We wanted (or needed) to believe that we could handle any situation after the past two years of our lives. And we were unprepared when things didn’t go exactly as we had planned.

That morning, we were eventually saved by a pair of German doctors who were in Ghana to volunteer at a clinic in the south after I swallowed my touristic pride and asked for help. Soon, I was being shown maps and being explained where I could find the path that would lead us to the top of the mountain and being offered accompaniment on our way there. They had known better.