Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 30 October 2020

Acting like a tourist changed my view of Abu Dhabi

Sometimes we need to take a step out of our daily lives and see what makes the UAE such a great tourist destination

A view shows Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque before a visit by Pope Francis in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, February 4, 2019. REUTERS/Tony Gentile
A view shows Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque before a visit by Pope Francis in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, February 4, 2019. REUTERS/Tony Gentile

Abu Dhabi. Dubai. Six months ago, these places sounded so exotic to me; far-flung holiday destinations reserved for those in search of culture, adventure and a touch of glamour. Then I moved here.

The first time I stepped foot on UAE soil was when I left Abu Dhabi International Airport to make the short journey to my hotel, before starting work at The National the next day. It’s been all go ever since. Abu Dhabi was no longer an exotic spot to me: it’s my place of work, where I do my food shopping, visit the doctor, exercise – it’s my home.

And while my weekends over the past five months have featured desert jaunts, kayaking and trips to the beach – with one or two brunches thrown in – I never really paused to see the UAE the way tourists see it, the way I would have seen it before my big move.

My week as a tourist

But last week, I had my first visitor, who had spent weeks telling me how excited she was to come here on holiday. Initially, the pressure of trying to plan what to do, where to go and what to eat while she was here took over. I was so grateful that she was flying all the way from the UK to see me that I was determined to make sure she had a good time.

It's good to remind ourselves how lucky we are to live in a place that people across the world spend weeks dreaming of visiting

But once she got here, my mindset switched completely. I stopped panicking, planning and overthinking, and realised that, as it was the first time I would be spending a week off in the UAE, it was my holiday, too. Rather than play host, with recommendations of must-see spots, I switched to explorer mode and looked for places we could discover together, the kind of sites that keep about 30 million tourists flocking to the UAE each year.

I had been saving my trip to the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque for a visitor, as I imagined it would be a place I would take many people during my time in Abu Dhabi. When I first drove past it, tired from my seven-hour flight and nervous after landing in a new country, I was captivated by its beauty. In the five months that followed, I must have seen it hundreds of times – I can see it through the office window as I write this – and yet, it wasn’t until I stepped inside the mosque, to see it through the eyes of a tourist, that I truly appreciated how incredibly beautiful it is, and what it means to the UAE.When you live in the centre of a tourist’s playground, it’s easy to switch off from it all. That means avoiding the crowds, carving out your own space, and slowing the pace of your life to a sustainable routine. But every once in a while, it’s good to remind ourselves how lucky we are to live in a place that people across the world spend weeks, and sometimes months, dreaming of visiting, and will pay thousands of dirhams to get to.

I had spent months eating in restaurants attached to five-star hotels, so we went in search of Middle Eastern food, the kind that doesn’t break the bank and can be enjoyed on the side of a pavement in downtown Abu Dhabi, not tucked away in the confines of a glistening resort on the edge of the city.

We went to Dubai, and took in the wonder of the world’s tallest building, Burj Khalifa, alongside the hundreds of other people crouched in the city’s Downtown, trying desperately to fit it all in the frame on their phone’s camera. It was always there, standing proudly as part of the Dubai skyline, but it was the first time I stopped to truly marvel at it.

By the time we reached our final day together, the temperature had climbed to 36°C, and we had planned to spend our time on Al Maya Island, about 10 minutes by boat from Abu Dhabi. After an hour of paddle boarding, we retired to our sun loungers, to reflect on the past week. “I can’t believe I have to go back to reality tomorrow,” my friend whined, sad to leave the beach, the sunshine and the excitement of the UAE behind.

And that’s when it hit me. What was a grand holiday for her is my reality. Sure, I go to work, I do my chores and I may have been taking this place for granted. But if I want to, I can return to that same beach, those same attractions, or countless other new ones, and do it all over again next weekend.

At last, the Abu Dhabi I imagined and the Abu Dhabi I discovered when I moved here found their middle ground, and I’m going to try from now on to think of every weekend, every day off, every little break, as my own mini holiday.

Updated: April 18, 2019 03:57 PM

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