There's so much I want to say about the trip I just took to Dubai, so much that I've really got to split it up into multiple posts for it to make any sense. Rather than chronological, they'll be content-focused...this post will talk about travel issues, but others will cover sightseeing in Dubai, the American University there, the women who spoke with me at the conference, and the women I met who attended the conference. For photos of all of those, see my Flickr photosets on Dubai and the Woibex conference.
I would have had plenty of time to get most of these written during the 14-hour trip home, but I was greatly hampered by the truly awful economy-class seats on the Emirates A340 airplane.
My original itinerary to Dubai had me going from Rochester to Philadelphia, Philly to Frankfurt, spending 7 hours in Frankfurt, and then continuing to Dubai. I nixed that, and asked them instead to book me on a direct flight out of JFK, and arranged for my own travel to JFK.
I'd heard a lot of good things about Emirates, and about the A340 that they fly on the JFK to Dubai route. Having now spent over 26 hours on that plane (12.5 going out, 14 coming home), I have to say that it is, without a doubt, the most uncomfortable airplane I've ever had to travel in. To begin with, the seats are designed in such a way that even wearing boots with heels my feet don't touch the floor.
Then there's the total lack of space under the seats (almost every seat has some kind of metal container attached underneath it), and overhead compartments too shallow for most bags. What makes it even worse is the extreme tightness of the rows. Normally I don't have much trouble with this, because I'm such a small person--I don't need a lot of leg room. But on the A340, when the person in front of me reclined, I was left with less than 3" of usable space on the tray table for my laptop--so it ended up pressed into my stomach, with the screen at nearly a 45˚ angle towards me. (Yes, Scoble, I know...I should have had my tablet with me. But this is the first time I've ever felt this cramped on a plane.)
This Emirates JFK to Dubai route does have two redeeming qualities. The first is the surprisingly good food (and free drinks, though I've avoided those in an attempt to fend off jetlag), and second is the excellent in-flight entertainment, which offers hundreds of movies and TV shows in on-demand format. On the way to Dubai I watched a number of US television programs, and then towards the end of the trip watched my very first Bollywood movie--Kal Ho Na Ho. I loved it! As a result, on the way home I totally binged on Bollywood flicks. I watched Chalte Chalte, Dil Ne Jise Apna Kaha, Main Hoon Na, Tehzeeb, and Baghban. The result? I'm totally hooked. I'm going to have to find a place in Rochester that gets them in regularly (or sign up for a by-mail DVD rental service--do any of them have a good selection of Bollywood films?).
My JFK to Dubai flight arrived right on time, and the trip through immigration and customs was amazingly quick and easy. The hotel--the Al Bustan Rotana--had arranged a shuttle pickup for the two of us who'd arrived on that flight (the other being Sabra Brock, a wonderful woman with whom I spent a lot of time this week), and so I was at the hotel by 10:30. Because Sabra and I were booked into the "Club Rotana" floor, we were directed upstairs to the private check-in--which I mistakenly assumed would mean expedited check-in. Instead, we sat in the Executive Lounge for nearly 45 minutes before receiving our keys.
The rooms themselves were nice, though not extraordinary. The hotel advertises wireless access in public areas, and wired in the rooms. What they don't advertise is the outrageous price--$7/hour, or $40/day. And the per hour has to be purchased in full-hour blocks--you can't use ten minutes, then come back two hours later and use the remaining time. (Happily, the conference organizer agreed to pay for my Internet access.) It was also a very assymetrical connection, with decent download speed but awful upload times. That made it difficult to use Skype as my primary method of calling home--the quality and lag time were too unreliable. And it took me until the third day to discover (after extensive online searching) that the only way to connect to AIM was by changing the port that my client used from 5190 to 5191.
I was also unable to find an accsssible wifi network in the conference venue, the otherwise spectacular Burj-Al-Arab hotel. All in all, I was less than impressed by the limited accessibility of network infrastructure throughout Dubai. JiWire showed only five hotspots in the entire city--and considering the size and technological aspirations of Dubai, that's not very impressive. (I was able to grab a wifi connection in the airport when leaving--a free network was leaking out of the first class and business class lounges.)
Some nice aspects of the Al Bustan Rotana included the free breakfast, high tea, and cocktail hour (three free drinks and plenty of food) in the Club Rotana lounge, and several excellent restaurants. I ate at the buffet restaurant for lunch (it featured a chocolate fountain for fondue), and had dinner one night at the Lebanese restaurant. There was also a Thai restaurant there that came highly recommended, but I didn't have a chance to eat there on this trip. Oh...and the fresh flower and sleep-related quotes I found each night on my pillow were a lovely touch.
On the return flight, I got a chance to see why people rave about the Dubai Duty Free shops. Pretty spectacular. And if what you're looking for is the kind of t-shirt, keychain, stuffed animal souvenirs that one wants to bring home to kids, the prices are very good. (Prices on electronics didn't seem any lower than US discounters would offer, though I didn't get into detailed
All in all, it was a good travel experience. No delayed flights, no lost luggage, no hassles in customs or immigration in either direction. And as you'll read in the posts to follow, the overall experience was well worth any discomfort suffered en route.