Discovering Hidden Dubai, Without a Smartphone

I’ve just returned from a five-day trip to the United Arab Emirates. That sentence has a nice ring to it, don’t you think?

Heather-on-metroLook, it’s Heather on a train in Dubai.

I’m not sure how to begin to explain this trip. Let me start from the top.

I was invited to the UAE by a company called Qualcomm, to participate in a blogger/Instagrammer campaign promoting Qualcomm’s products. Before this invitation, I knew Qualcomm only as the title sponsor of Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego. But it turns out that in addition to sponsoring a football stadium, Qualcomm is one of the oldest and most innovative wireless technology companies in the world. Among many other things, Qualcomm developed the first GPS for mobile phones, it invented airplane mode (for some reason this really impresses me), and it was the first company to develop apps for use in smartphones.

For the purposes of this campaign, the most important fact is that Qualcomm produces chipsets: the tiny machines inside smartphones that make smartphones smart. (I dare you to say that five-times-fast.) Qualcomm’s “Snapdragon” chipsets are inside many of the world’s most popular smartphones. If you’re a techie person then you probably understand what I’m talking about. If you’re an un-techie person (like I am), just trust me when I say that your smartphone very likely contains a Snapdragon chipset or some other kind of Qualcomm technology.

Based on what I’ve just told you, you probably think that Qualcomm invited me to travel around the UAE using a Snapdragon-powered smartphone and tell the world how great it was.

In fact, my mandate was quite the opposite: to go around the UAE with no smartphone at all, and to tell the world what it was like to navigate a new place in a #WorldWithoutSmartphones.

I traveled around the UAE with three prominent Instagrammers: my dear friend Gareth Pon (@garethpon) from South Africa, Putri Anindya (@puanindya) from Indonesia, and Sami Tokhais (@samitokhais) from Saudi Arabia. Before we headed out, Qualcomm gave us several “tools” that represent the different functions of the Snapdragon chipset: a map (to replace mobile GPS), an Instax camera and a sketchpad (to replace smartphone cameras), a telephone/address book (to replace our mobile contacts directory), a notebook (to replace the smartphone notes app), etc. We also each received received an “unsmart” phone — one of those tiny, circa-2005 cellphones that’s good only for calls and clumsy texts.

My first Instax shot of the campaign: a fuzzy portrait of my rad LG “unsmart” phone. I tried texting my mother because her cell number is the only one that I have memorized. I don’t know if she received it.

Then we headed out to explore the UAE and discover some of the area’s “hidden gems”. We spent most of our time in Dubai, the most well known of UAE’s seven emirates, and made a quick jaunt to the capital emirate of Abu Dhabi. I’ll have more to say about Abu Dhabi and some other experiences in future posts, but for now I’m going to tell you about the best hidden things we discovered in Dubai. Fortunately we were allowed to carry our DSLR cameras so I have tons of pictures.

Before this trip many people told me things like, “Oh, what a pity that you’re going to Dubai, there’s no culture there,” or “I have no desire to go to Dubai, it’s all about shopping and money.” After three days exploring Dubai, I’m pleased to inform you that these characterizations are untrue. Sure, Dubai has lots of skyscrapers and shopping malls and eight-lane highways. But in addition to those things, my little band of blogger/Instagrammers discovered fascinating people, amazing natural beauty, delicious local food, and an interesting mix of languages and cultures. We even experienced the inner workings of a Dubai police station, but that’s a story for another post.

Here are pics of some of my favorite Dubai discoveries.

Taj-doormanOne of the first things I learned about Dubai is that it has more immigrants than locals. This is Harpal, a 36-year-old doorman at the Taj Hotel, where we stayed. Harpal moved to Dubai a year or two ago from Punjab, India, where he had a career in the army. Note that Harpal is holding the Instax photo that I took of him; you’ll be seeing lots of these. I’m starting a new series called #2SummersInstaxPortraits.

Sami-and-cyclistMy new friend Sami (right), map in hand, leading us around Dubai. Sami quickly became our expert navigator; he speaks Arabic, which came in handy for asking directions. (Note the guy on the bicycle typing on his phone as he rides.)

Perfume-shopA perfume salesman inside the Naif Souk (market) in the old Dubai neighborhood of Deira. Parts of Deira date back to the 1800s.

Group-portraitFun guys outside the Naif Souk. You’ll notice that all my portraits are of men; traditional Emirati women shun the camera. More on this in a future post.

Dress-shopAhmed, owner of Al Thahoona Trading Est. in Deira, with his #2SummersInstaxPortrait.

Heather-dress-shopI bought a dress from Ahmed. It cost 100 dirhams, which is about $25. I’m not sure when I will wear it but I love it nonetheless.

House-of-TeaThe “House of Tea”, a café in Deira. We had some delicious, sweet Arabian tea here.

Old-Dubai-streetA candid shot of the alley next to House of Tea.  

Guys-on-boatWe hired a traditional abra, or wooden water taxi, to take us on a ride up and down Dubai Creek. The locals use abras as a cheap form of transportation from one side of the creek (which is more like a small river) to the other. 

Dubai-CreekA mix of old and new on Dubai Creek.

The Dubai Marina, one of our last stops in Dubai, has the most beautiful collection of skyscrapers I’ve ever seen. We found a great spot on the promenade where we sat and smoked sheesha and watched the world go by.

Dubai-Marina2Nightfall over Dubai Marina.

Some quick thoughts on navigating Dubai without a smartphone:

  1. I missed being able to instantly download photos from my camera to my phone so I could upload them to Instagram.
  2. I missed messaging my boyfriend. I haven’t memorized his phone number and hence could not text him from my unsmart phone.
  3. Access to Google and a GPS would have been nice.
  4. I got to know my travel companions much better and more quickly than I would have if we’d had our smartphones with us. Normally on trips like this I spend about 30-40% of my time on my phone, editing photos and posting on social media. So this was refreshing change.

In my next post I’ll tell you about our adventures in Abu Dhabi. In the meantime, check the hashtags #WorldWithoutSmartphones and #WorldWithoutSnapdragon on Instagram on Twitter for more posts and images from our journey.

This post was sponsored by Qualcomm. Opinions expressed are my own.

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  • Reply Mike December 23, 2015 at 4:26 pm

    Terrific report. I’m putting Dubai on my list of places to visit! From your tourist experience, would you consider to living and working there?

    • Reply 2summers December 23, 2015 at 4:27 pm

      Hi Mike, I personally don’t think I’d want to live there but that’s mainly because I’m really happy where I live now. But I met many expats there who love it.

    • Reply Ros December 23, 2015 at 5:18 pm

      I think the weather is also definitely a factor when considering living there. Heather visited at the height of winter – temperatures were probably in the mid-to-high 20s. You wouldn’t want to be there from around April through October, when it is unbearably hot.

      • Reply 2summers December 23, 2015 at 5:28 pm

        Yes, I was really surprised by how pleasant the temperatures were last week. Much cooler than Joburg 🙂

      • Reply Mike December 23, 2015 at 6:25 pm

        Thanks for commenting. I was wondering about the heat. It must be unbearably hot and humid at times.

  • Reply UnderAnAfricanSun December 23, 2015 at 6:17 pm

    Great photos and a very interesting twist on the campaign. Can’t wait to hear more.

    • Reply 2summers December 24, 2015 at 7:31 am

      Thanks Kelly!

  • Reply Rosemary December 23, 2015 at 8:50 pm

    Terrific photography

    • Reply 2summers December 24, 2015 at 7:31 am

      Thanks a lot Rosemary.

  • Reply mrs_suvi December 23, 2015 at 11:16 pm

    Really great photos and what an interesting campaign!

    • Reply 2summers December 24, 2015 at 7:31 am

      Thanks. And yes it is — I’m so fortunate to have been involved!

  • Reply SusanB December 24, 2015 at 4:20 am

    What a super wonderful job you’ve turned your blog into Heather. Having followed you from the beginning and through your heartache, life has been much kinder.

    • Reply 2summers December 24, 2015 at 7:30 am

      Thanks so much, Susan. Life has indeed changed drastically for me over the last several years and I can’t believe how fortunate I am. Thanks for reading so faithfully over the years — I appreciate it so much.

  • Reply glenncameron777 December 24, 2015 at 8:02 am

    Hi Heather, thanks for the post. How do you normally instantly download photos from your camera to your phone? What phone and camera do you have? Are they linked by Bluetooth? I have a Nikon D300 and an Iphone, would I be able to do the same? Also is it possible to link my WordPress blog to Instagram to your knowledge, so that the photos I upload to Instagram go straight to my blog and vice versa? Thanks again for the post. Sorry we didn’t get to say goodbye in person, but when u come to the UK you know who you can get hold of. Later Glenn

    • Reply 2summers December 24, 2015 at 4:30 pm

      Hi Glenn, I actually have a DSLR (a Canon 6D) that is wifi-enabled, meaning I can set up a connection between the camera and my phone and download photos that way. More and more cameras are coming out with this technology. I’m not sure about your Nikon but either way you can also buy a wifi-enabled SD card (for not very much money) that operates the same way.

      In answer to your other question, there are several WordPress themes that enable you to link your IG feed to the blog. You’ll see my IG feed at the bottom of my blog – is they what you mean? It won’t work the other way though – photos can only be loaded to Instagram through the Instagram app on your phone.

      I’m so sorry I missed you! Best of luck on the new journey and keep in touch. (Say hi to Michelle.)

  • Reply liz2you December 28, 2015 at 10:18 am

    Hi Heather, Walking about with a map and sending proper letters and postcards are two thinks I miss about the very Unsmart ?” past. Getting lost when following a route with GPS is scary because you are relying on something else, getting lost with a map in your hand, not possible. What a beautiful picture of skyscrapers and the creek!! Great! So weird seeing no women! Well done.

    • Reply 2summers December 28, 2015 at 10:28 am

      Thanks Liz! I agree. I really enjoyed sending post cards especially. I’ll be showing you one of them in a future post 🙂

  • Reply autumnashbough December 28, 2015 at 9:18 pm

    I can see why you bought that dress. Totally brings out your eyes. I expect a full-length shot some day!

    I always enjoy your adventures and have all kinds of annoying follow-up questions. Today it is: What is sweet Arabian tea?

    • Reply 2summers December 28, 2015 at 9:56 pm

      I actually found out later that the real name for it is karak tea. It’s milky tea with kind of a cinnamon-like undertone, much like masala tea that you get in India. It’s delicious!

  • Reply mvschulze January 2, 2016 at 8:16 pm

    Facinating adventure, looking forward to more. I need to become familiar with instgram, which I am not. I’ve fantasized about visiting Dubai, but it would be a real stretch to actually go. Curious about your take on the terrible New Years Eve fire. Thanks for the view. M 🙂

    • Reply 2summers January 3, 2016 at 9:14 am

      Yeah, that fire was crazy! I don’t know what to make of it really, but I do think they should have postponed the fireworks display until the fire was put out.

  • Reply Jaina January 20, 2016 at 5:25 pm

    I was in Dubai for just about 36 hours last year, for a very short weekend break. Didn’t expect to really like it, but saw enough of Dubai to make me want to go back again.

    And reading your post, and seeing the photos, has made me think that planning a trip in the not too far future is a grand idea.

    • Reply 2summers January 20, 2016 at 5:35 pm

      Awesome! Yeah, I really had fun and would definitely go back. Like pretty much every other place, there’s a lot more to Dubai than what we hear in the media.

  • Reply Kate Melville April 19, 2016 at 1:26 pm

    I was an expat there for 2.5 years- and I didn’t like it. Visiting a place isn’t the same as living there. Yes, there were some very cool things about living there (having the extra money to travel, the great scuba diving, the food, the expat community) but there were lots of things that I really DIDN’T like. I was glad to leave. I am now an expat in South Africa and I much prefer it. The people are friendlier here, the weather is better, and South Africa is SUCH a beautiful country (Plus – cheap, good wine! In the UAE the only place you can order wine is hotels and the odd restaurant.)!

    • Reply 2summers April 19, 2016 at 2:53 pm

      From what I’ve seen and heard, it does seem like it is a nicer place to visit than to live. Although I have one friend who lived there for a couple of years and loved it. Different strokes for different folks, I suppose.

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