Las Vegas meets The Wizard of Oz.

It blows my mind that I could order a Starbucks Mocha Frappuccino in an entirely glass-and-steel city in the middle of the United Arab Emirates in the center of the Gulf states midway through an afternoon call to prayer surrounded by Western restaurants with a heavily pedestrianized boardwalk encircling a man-made marina behind me and luxury sportscars cruising the street ahead of me and feel completely normal. I don’t know what I thought my brief trip to Dubai would be like. I kept telling my husband that I needed to figure it out, that place, make sense of the cigarette smells, the bite of the dry heat, the sounds of local birds, and the sight of native (one thinks) topiary. The best I came up with is that Dubai’s heat harkens back to my deployments to Helmand Province, the scavenger birds sound like Corpus Christi’s winter blackbirds, the palm trees remind me of Florida, and the arid grasses recall California.

I had my pick of familiar chain food eateries: Wendy’s, Baskin-Robbins, P. F. Chang’s, Tim Horton’s. I saw Jeeps, Mustangs, Teslas, and Ford Raptors. American sports channels played at all hours on the hotel television. I could see the headquarters of CNN from my balcony. The American University in Dubai’s campus was kiddy-corner to us. Everyone spoke excellent English and everything had been translated, from menus to road signs. The lure of dollars was strong and this place offered many opportunities to spend cash: jewelry, food, water parks, camel rides. I’m not sure when the mention of “the Middle East” won’t conjure memories of moondust, body armor, Oakley sunglasses, and strip alert, but this was the first time I’d been to a country this foreign as a tourist thinking America had stamped its mark on yet another piece of the planet.

Yet, Dubai wasn’t entirely Western. Colorful headscarves and black niqabs were common, as was the white male dishdasha garment. There was an obvious lack of pork at the breakfast buffet. The Arabica coffee was wonderfully strong. Alcohol was only tolerated inside establishments. The city felt very safe, which isn’t hard to imagine when the penalty for stealing is the loss of the guilty party’s hand. Prayer rooms were as prevalent in the mall and airport as the restrooms, and oftentimes located nearby. Toilet facilities included a drain in the floor and a small hose, which I imagined was a sort of free-for-all bidet. I felt out of place, but mostly because I didn’t do my homework; I knew no Arabic and couldn’t figure out what coins in dirham I had on my person at any given time.

Doobers, as my British friends say, was continuously expanding. I counted twenty cranes in the block surrounding our hotel alone. I was woken by workers assembling scaffolding by hand at five-thirty in the morning on my second day. Plans for the world’s tallest building, in a city already housing the world’s tallest building, were prominently displayed in a gigantic atrium in the world’s largest mall (I fact-checked this: second largest). Everywhere I looked, dust had been converted into sparkling towers offering new age residences, gleaming office spaces, and futuristic shops, every single project seemingly backed by a construction company called Emaar. The Metro, celebrating its ten-year anniversary, was earmarked for extension and another line. It felt like what Camp Leatherneck would have turned into if given a peace treaty, an injection of construction cash, and another twenty years.

I knew I needed a break when I arrived. The stress of the past few weeks – international travel, a deployed husband, my miscarriage – had taken its toll. I slept poorly on the way over despite flying on Emirates (which always runs through my head as “em-AIR-it-ees”), which is lovely even in economy class, and had the sniffles when I landed. I spent my first twenty-four hours basically sleeping. So rock star. The next day, my husband and I booked a couple’s massage – separate rooms – and I genuinely looked forward to it. Two hours of warm-oil bliss in the care of a personal muscle-whisperer was exactly what I needed.

I was not prepared.

My masseuse was a tiny Asian lady who spoke broken English and, I quickly realized, had very few boundaries when it came to body parts. Specifically, my body parts. The first of my trifecta of “experiences” was a whole-body sugar scrub. Perfect! Slather me up in edible cleanser, wash away my grimy exoskeleton, and polish me to perfection. I failed to realize my rookie mistake of shaving my legs that morning five minutes in. My vigorous body scrub consisted of sugar crystals so large and sharp, it felt like coarse grit sandpaper chiseling away the outer layers of my dermis like a snake shedding its skin. My body burned. I wasn’t sure if blood or oil was running down my legs when my little lady finally moved on. She didn’t move far. Let’s just say that the top of my butt crack has never been so thoroughly abraded.

After rinsing off and commencing the second stage – “traditional” massage – I found my body had been turned into a playground. Or perhaps torture chamber. I was taken aback when my lady clambered onto my back, her entire frame consumed with grinding the twisted knots of tension over my scapula, again and again and again. Once feels nice. Twice feels intense. But more than three times in the same spot? That’s just unfair. To top it off, my masseuse dug her elbows into the space where my shoulder blades usually rest, virgin and tender, and rolled them around like a dog in badger shit. But it’s okay; she focused on my neck next, cranking it sideways so hard I yelped. And even when she dismounted and massaged my fingers, she popped so many bones I never knew could pop, I feared dislocation. I kept telling myself my body would feel better for this treatment. When the cooling cucumber slices hit my eye sockets, I knew I only had one round left.

The only part of my frame that didn’t hurt the following day was my face. It’s hard to mess up a facial.

The rest of my five-day trip went by fast, and I massively appreciated the top floor, open air pool with a fantastic view of the Dubai skyline. While I basked in the 97-degree Fahrenheit afternoon average, I didn’t really adjust to it; that was more a mind trip than a heat thing. The aquarium was neat, but overpriced, and I got a taste of how unfussed the locals are when it comes to (not) obeying line etiquette. I was psyched for our evening “safari,” wherein my husband and I would go dune bashing, ride a camel, eat some local barbeque, watch exotic dancers, and appreciate desert culture. I learned that if you have the choice, always opt for the private car hire to take you to your campsite. I only started to get nervous when our jingly bus passed a sign for Oman and I realized not only did I fail to bring my passport, I had no identification on me whatsoever. Thankfully, we never made it that far. I also failed to remember that expectations are not reality, and everyone wants your money. For instance, half our safari experience was riding to and from the site. The other half consisted of being herded like cattle into the world’s scariest ten-minute Land Rover ride of my life (my first clue: the “oh shit” handle in the back had already been ripped off), jumping on a camel’s hump for a thirty-second tour of some dirt, and pushing suspicious curry around my plate while trying to drink the local equivalent of Coca-Cola (Black Tiger). But, hey. We got some great people-watching in and we eventually made it back to our hotel, so let that be a lesson to us in excursions.

Four days of recovering from my Asian nemesis’s back-breaking massage left me with a strange feeling that perhaps I hadn’t gotten the service I craved. So, I signed up for one last session before my plane departed, the hot rock package. I hoped I had a different lady. I hoped my muscles would relax. I hoped the rocks were gentler. To my great surprise, this was perhaps the best massage I have ever had. The pictures always show a blissful, naked Nordic woman resting with her arms folded under her head and smooth river stones lining her spine. I was okay with that being me. I was delighted when my (different) tiny Asian lady started using hot stones to work my muscles, instead of her hands. No one had told me this secret before. I felt like melting into the table, utterly content. When she finished my back, she lined the rocks up as in the brochure, and repeated her magic trick on my arms and legs. If all hot rock massages were like mine, let there be no hesitation signing up. You’re welcome.

Hanging with the hubs was a nice treat considering how long he’ll be away from home still, and being child-free for five days felt irresponsible in the best way. I aim to stay busy over the holiday season and into the dead of winter – writing the first draft of my memoir is high on my list – but I’m looking forward to being back together as a complete family unit. Leaving the U.A.E. was bittersweet, as I won’t see my husband for quite a while, but distance is something I’ve survived over and over again. Still, I’m glad I went.

I’m not sure what I expected from Dubai, but perhaps I got exactly what I needed.

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