Summer is perfect for savouring all this country offers

Now that summer is here, you don't have to abandon the UAE for somewhere cooler. There are still things to do here, says Justin Thomas

Once, summer was a time of exodus. The city, the seaside and the desert were all deserted. However, with the UAE’s growing popularity, summer has now become a time of influx. The city, the seaside and even the desert are teeming with tourists. Visitors, more than ever before, are prepared to suffer the sun to savour the sights and delights of this new “cool Arabia”.

I recently received some early summer visitors. I enjoy these visits as they allow me to briefly become a tourist again – although, by now, I’m closer to a tour guide than a tourist. I tend to take my visitors to the places that have impressed me, the places I think might impress them, and to the places that the tour books prescribe as obligatory.

Being a tourist again allows me to revisit the UAE and see it through new eyes, the wide hungry eyes of a sightseer, greedily straining my neck in a vain attempt to absorb every­thing. As a psychologist morphing into a tourist, I know that this heightened state of sensory receptivity and savouring is particularly healthy and promotes emotional well-being.

Masdar City tends to be the first stop on my grand tour. The city’s driverless cars always prove popular, even with my most world weary visitors. I suspect that these cute little vehicles bring to mind our long forgotten childhood visions of the future, and consequently reawaken our inner child (bring the kid out in us). On the short ride to the Masdar campus, I again experienced a privileged sense of peeping into the ­future, while the city’s energy-saving architecture and no-frills materials charmed me with their elegant frugality.

By way of creating a massive contrast, I juxtaposed the Masdar visit with a trip to the Emirates Palace hotel: from the aesthetic of austerity to gold-on-gold opulence in a few short minutes. The Palace is always well appreciated and the gold flakes on the signature cappuccino scream luxury. The immaculately attired lobby musicians were playing Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean on the flute. Just as the gold flakes elevated the cappuccino, the flute transformed this 1980s pop classic.

The next stop was Dubai Mall, one of the largest and most diverse retail ecosystems on the planet. Through my tourist eyes, the mall is a cacophonous kaleidoscope of consumption, where the beautiful, useful and moreish jostle for attention. It is easy to suffer from sensory overload in Dubai Mall, beyond the sights there are perfumers wafting thick clouds of high-end incense and, in some ­areas, trance music throbs repetitively. Synthesised beats, ambient strings and the melancholic lamentations of a violin add yet more layers to the sensory experience.

Beyond malls, beyond walls even, my tour also included the Rub Al Khali (the Empty Quarter). This is described as the largest sand-based desert in world, with some of the world’s highest dunes. Visiting during summer, when temperatures reach north of 50 degrees, just gives the trip “extreme appeal” – who wants to visit the North Pole when it’s relatively warm?

I always recall the first time I saw that huge, mind-altering, sandy wilderness. The closest I can come to describing it is to suggest that it is like seeing the ocean for the first time – as an adult. The vastness and the emptiness are awe-inspiring. The Rub is awesome in the true sense of the word; it reminds us of our own smallness, finiteness and insignificance – but in a nice way. The desert never gets old and its power to reboot the mind is medicinal.

I learnt from my most recent tour that there really is no need to travel great distances to get the psychological health benefits of tourism. It’s not about which sights you see, but rather how you see them. We become too accustomed to the daily sights and sounds, and switch off, walking around as though we are on autopilot. The challenge is to simply switch our attention back on. Psychologists in recent years have started talking about savouring: the intentional focusing of attention onto pleasurable aspects of experience. Our ability to savour has important implications for promoting emotional well-being, and savouring is something we can practise.

We can drink a cup of tea, while mindlessly thumbing our phones and worrying about tomorrow’s big meeting. Or we can attempt to focus attention on drinking the tea, savouring the smell, taste and texture, in the same way we gave our undivided attention to our first ever camel-milk cappuccino.

Justin Thomas is an associate professor of psychology at Zayed University

Published: May 25, 2014 04:00 AM

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