When I planned my winter vacation around being in Dubai for the last week of the year and more specifically for December 31st, I foresaw myself spending a New Year’s Eve filled with glitz and glam. I had this image in my head of ringing in the new year from a rooftop bar while watching Dubai’s world famous fireworks show. The only thing that would rival the sparkle of the fireworks would be my fancy dress and cute but uncomfortable heels. I would sip on my champagne with all the other chic partygoers as I watched the world’s tallest building light up in the background. It would be epic.
Well, those dreams were shot down real quick when I found out that the “cheaper” NYE parties in Dubai had entrance fees that started at $300 USD. Yea, there was zero chance of that happening. So, instead of a classy new dress and sky high heels, I donned some flowy pants, ballerina flats and a comfy sweater I’ve had for two years. Instead of a trendy nightclub as my midnight backdrop, I was at a campsite in the desert under the stars and moon.
I had never been camping before that night and let alone in a desert so when the friend who had been hosting me and my cousin in Dubai suggested this alternative NYE celebration, I was all for starting the new year with some new experiences.
Around 8 p.m. on December 31st, the phone rang signaling that our ride to the campsite had arrived. My cousin, our friend, her roommate and I piled into the car with all our equipment and snacks. The driver was a local man from Dubai and a friend of my friend and her roommate. He was also our only connection to all the other people at the campsite. His cousins and a few friends were the ones who had organized this outing. Needless to say there was a hint of awkwardness when we arrived to the campsite to find that us four were the only women and also the only non-locals amongst a group of about 12 Emirati men.
Introduction were made, and we sat around the campfire with everyone making some small talk. The more talkative jokers of the group were immediately comfortable but with the mix of a slight language barrier and general first meeting discomfort, the rest of us needed a little more warming up.
The thing that finally broke the ice was the one thing that always seems to bring together people of all backgrounds: delicious food. The guys brought out a 20kg bucket of marinated lamb meat that needed to be put on skewers and cooked. All four of us ladies jumped in to help the chefs skewer the meat, and we definitely had some trouble getting it right at first. It’s not easy skewering thinly sliced lamb meat! Meanwhile as we were having issues the other guys were moving along rapid fire. They laughed at our struggles and so did we. That’s when everyone really loosened up.
As we prepared the meat, a few of the other guys grabbed the skewers from us and put them over the campfire. Once they were cooked, the guys brought the sizzling lamb fresh off the fire straight back to us so we could eat as we worked and reuse the skewers. We were a well-oiled machine of lamb production.
Cooking and eating dinner took us well into the night, and with only 15 minutes left of 2014 we were all friends. At that point, a few of the guys went a little further out into the desert to get the fireworks ready and started lighting them once our phones changed from 11:59 to 12:00. It wasn’t the insane, nine-minute fireworks show I had imagined myself watching on NYE, but because of the great company I had in that moment I was content.
With the conversation finally flowing, I was also able to talk to some of the guys one-on-one. They were the first Emiratis I had met in my five days in Dubai. With an expat population between 70 and 80%, meeting an Emirati here is not as easy as it sounds. It was so fascinating to hear their stories of growing up in Dubai and seeing the development of the city happen right before their eyes. Walking around Dubai, I had had so many questions about what life was like before the city´s growth spurt, and I was happy to finally be getting some answers from people who had lived it firsthand.
Between the great conversations, we played charades, made s’mores and even did a round of musical chairs along with some other favorite childhood games. It’s funny to think how certain games can be such a universal concept across different cultures.
Never in my life did I think I would spend my NYE playing musical chairs and tag with a bunch of grown adults, but I loved it. It was good, wholesome, genuine fun and all alcohol free, but I didn’t miss the club scene for a single second that night.
I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t a little disappointed that I didn’t get to see Dubai’s epic fireworks show even if it was just the view from a nearby beach. All my friends from back home texting me about the videos they had seen of the show and asking if I had seen it in person didn’t help my cause either. Despite that, I would not have changed my NYE celebrations for anything. It was such a unique experience for me getting to meet, hang out with and camp in the desert with locals from Dubai.
At the end of the day, meeting and interacting with locals are two of the things I enjoy most about travel. They are usually what make for the most memorable moments of a trip, and that was definitely the case for me and my desert camping experience. Before then, some authenticity was what I was missing and craving from my time in Dubai. I wanted to see something other than the big shopping malls that the city is famous for. That simple exchange of glitz and glam for something more down to earth and authentic on NYE was exactly what I needed to round off my trip to Dubai.
I can see cool fireworks some other time.