The United Arab Emirates is a country full of contrasts. It is both modern and ancient, lively and peaceful. The sights and sounds of the UAE will transport you to another time, although the time period is dependent on which part of town you happen to find yourself in at that moment.

The new UAE is a place where where you can go skydiving next to skyscrapers and take an elevator to the top of the tallest building in the world. It’s a place where you can see the world’s most expensive cars driven by people wearing the world’s most luxurious brands.

Discovering the new and old UAEBut the old UAE is a place where you can ride a camel into the empty desert, or take a dhow (dāw) boat across the water into a world of old markets (souks) with street after street filled with colorful textiles and fragrant spices. It’s a place where you can hear the roar of speeding cars and music from all of the restaurants, and the call to prayer five times a day. In this country, it seems, there is something for everyone.

The desert in old UAE.

A glimpse into the old UAEMy parents moved to Dubai last summer when my dad got a new job, so my siblings and I were ecstatic to have the chance to visit them. It was my first time in the Middle East, and I was excited, although not sure what to expect. I had never been to the desert before, save for some areas of Southern California.

Contrasting the new and old UAEWe spent the first few days in ‘New Dubai,’ wandering around Jumeirah and the Dubai Marina. It is said that one third of all the world’s cranes reside in this city and it’s a statistic that’s easy to believe. What was an empty desert just 20 years ago is now a huge metropolis that has blossomed into an international capital of trade, innovation, and wealth — and it’s still growing.

The architecture and bustling city life is impressive, to say the least. The Burj Khalifa towers over all other skyscrapers, displaying mesmerizing light shows at night. The Burj al Arab is perhaps one of the most unique looking buildings I’ve ever seen, rising from the water like a boat with a giant sail. Parts of Jumeirah Beach feel like Los Angeles, with food trucks and shops along the boardwalk.

 But it wasn’t until we ventured out into the older parts of town that I really fell in love with this country.

We met camel farmers and rode SUVs through the red sand dunes in Dubai and Sharjah, UAE, with no one else in sight. The beautiful quiet of the desert made you feel like you were in another universe; or at least, for a moment, like you were the only person living in this world. Wind blew designs in the sand as we left footprints walking up the huge dunes.

As a family, we listened to Arabian music at a campsite under the stars. We rode camels and drank Turkish coffee. At the Old Souk, we sampled spices and bought lamps. We rode dhow boats across the Dubai Creek and watched the other boats go by. We ate falafel and samosas from street vendors. In Abu Dhabi, we toured the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, made of white Indian marble and containing 80 domes, over 1,000 columns, and the largest single piece of Persian carpet in the world. Our family even met an Emirati man who offered to let us drive his Ferrari, no questions asked — though my parents nixed that idea.

My family now lives all over the world. With my siblings and I getting older and having our own adventures, the times in which we are in the same place have become few and far between.

But when we do reunite, we always pick up where we left off. Staying up late laughing about old times and talking about the future. Exploring the UAE, together: the perfect place to appreciate the old and dive head first into the new.

The desert in the old UAE

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