One year ago, I started into 2016 with a terrific trek to Hampi and Melukote in Karnataka, and my summer was a beautiful episode spent in the Swiss Alps. Later that year, life gave me a chance to travel solo again. This time around, it was the land of sheikhs and dates, the mystical Abu Dhabi. Though it may seem that travelling and living in a Middle Eastern country all by yourself for one week is a daunting task, solo travel really opens a new way to explore the country and its tradition.
As it was a last minute trip, I did not get ample opportunity and time to read up on the experiences of female solo travellers in Abu Dhabi. I had quite a few ideas in my mind about how it would be, but those myths were quickly busted once I had arrived.
Myth #1: Abu Dhabi might not be entirely safe for female solo travellers
Growing up and living in India, I may have my own set of assumptions and concerns about the law, order and safety in the Arab world, but to my surprise my concerns about safety turned out to be a myth. I walked around the lit-up sky scrapers and high rise buildings, and had great chit-chat with taxi drivers who dropped me safely at my hotel – many of whom were actually from India or Pakistan. Not once did I feel scared or worried about my safety, travelling without my family or friends in the Middle East.
Myth #2: You have to dress up in a hijab or burqa
Like many of my friends and family members, I was concerned whether I would have to dress up in an abaya, hijab or burqa during my stay in UAE. Luckily, it turned out to be a futile concern. Tourists are generally not required to dress in a particular way to meet the requirements of a Muslim country, and local women are commonly dressed in beautiful designer abayas as they wander the streets. I dressed modestly, in a pair of jeans and a knee-length kurta with long sleeves, and for most of the trip I didn’t run into any problems.
The only place I had issues was at the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, where a security guard stopped me and asked me to put on an abaya. I agreed in order to be able to visit the mosque, and it was an experience I will never forget. It gave me a new opportunity to connect with local customs and traditions, which was a unique learning experience as someone who doesn’t belong to this religion.
Myth #3 : You only shop at traditional Arabic souks
I’ll blame it on Sex and the City – in my mind I had images of myself shopping only at traditional Arabic souks. Initially I was therefore quite disappointed by the many shopping centres and humongous malls in which I lost my way every single time. I had a shopping list with things I wanted to buy at the souks, but couldn’t find anything from that list. With time I got used to the fact, that the city simply doesn’t have those rustic souks we see on television – and still managed to buy a fine collection of souvenirs, dates and dried fruit for my family.
photo by Lam Chihang via flickr
Raising Eyebrows: Being a female solo traveller in Abu Dhabi
As most of the taxi drivers in UAE are from my part of the world, every time I stepped out of the hotel and got into a taxi was a great opportunity to strike a conversation and hear all kinds of stories. Some were just very happy to see a fellow Asian sitting in their taxi and speaking their native language; but it also raised some eyebrows when I mentioned that I was travelling on my own. “What, you have come alone? Not with parents or husband, but alone? You are a brave girl”, quipped one. More than any other emotion, this reaction evoked a good laugh.
Another person who was appalled by the fact that I was travelling solo in Abu Dhabi, was the lady at the Mosque who distributed abayas to inappropriately dressed visitors. I had a difficult time explaining my situation to her.
I had too little time to explore all the touristy hot spots, and instead stuck to asking locals about their favourite places to see and things to do I shouldn’t miss. The desert safari was a clear winner, so I decided to book one for the end of my stay. Discussing these plans with a fellow traveller I met, I got to see the raised eyebrows once again. “What, you will be going alone? You should have some company”. On repeatedly asking him about the reasons for his brilliant suggestion and telling him how I am used to travelling and being alone on such trips, he failed to explain the reason behind his ‘concern’. In the end I went for the desert safari on my own, and it was the best thing I did all week – that amazing adrenaline rush! I am still wondering whether I would have enjoyed it half as much would I have agreed to take someone else along.
The lesson I learnt from travelling solo in Abu Dhabi is that no matter how many eyes go wide, you just need to follow your heart. Be it Asia, Europe or the Middle East, travelling solo as a woman isn’t rocket science. Though one should always ensure the people you travel with do no harm to your safety, enjoying a sumptuous barbecue dinner alone in the desert safari camp beneath an open sky is probably the best thing you can do for your soul every once in a while.
Let’s travel solo to bust myths about faraway places and different cultures, and raise some eyebrows on the way. We will never regret it!
This is a guest post by Vanya Rakesh.
Vanya is a law graduate and policy researcher from India who enjoys travelling and documenting her experiences. Seeking adventure in new cities is her preferred mode of learning about herself and she enjoys reading, writing and observing people. A camera and a diary are her best friends on any given day. She blogs at Moments from the Carousel of Life and can be found on Instagram @vanya.rakesh and Twitter @vanyarakesh.