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.

Cell-phone-Instax
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.

Dubai-Marina
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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