AED1.80 (less than P15) goes a long way in the United Arab Emirates. Literally. That’s the price for a litre of petrol, and since the roads are wide and smooth, and the heaviest a traffic jam can get can be compared to a moderate day on EDSA, travelling on land is a joy. You just have to know where to go.
After a year of living in Dubai, home to blinged-out structures like Burj Khalifa (formerly Burj Dubai), Burj Al Arab, and celebrity enclaves like The Palm Jumeirah, my fiancé decided to move to the less frenetic, more laidback emirate of Ajman. Forty minutes and 65 kilometers away from Dubai during rush hour, the compromise was still a smart one: the rent for a flat twice as large as one in Dubai was at one-fourth the price.
Oh, and it’s the only emirate where you can buy alcohol without a permit, and store it in your house.
Every Thursday, you will see long lines outside an unmarked, one-storey building along the corniche road of downtown Ajman. Their Thursday night is our Friday night, and like elsewhere around the world, the start of the weekend signals “party!!!” The thirst for a cold beer or a swig of whiskey is the great equalizer among run down Honda sedans, high-powered SUVs, and less moneyed workers who queue on foot. The liquor is passed through windows lined across one wall of the building. It’s like the LTO on a bad day.
Those who like to shop for their liquor in more comfortable conditions drive to Barracuda Beach Resort, 30 minutes away. There is a standalone store—much like BevMo in the U.S.—that sells everything from San Miguel Beer to Pernod to wines. We visit it a couple of weeks before Ramadhan, and outside are posters urging people to stock up before they close for the holy month.
You gotta love an emirate that acknowledges the limitations of its religion—and the natural tendencies of people to bend the rules that come with it.
Life’s a beach
While Ajman is relaxed, next-door emirate Sharjah is more traditional. Alcohol is forbidden. Exposure of bare arms and legs is likely to get punished (generally, skimpy clothing is frowned upon throughout the whole UAE, but it’s stricter in Sharjah). Heck, even men aren’t allowed to wear jewelry, especially earrings.
According to reports, the crime rate is highest in Sharjah. Once, a bank robbery was carried out with the perpetrator armed with only a hammer. A hammer. No wonder my heart always tightens in my chest with a bit of fear when driving through Sharjah.
But Sharjah is also where Hamriyah—a long, long stretch of beach—is located.
Hamriyah seems like a contradiction to the rest of Sharjah. There, one can safely park his vehicle, chug beers, spear fish, and sleep overnight. My fiancé, D, has done this dozens of times; one morning, he woke to the sound of a vendor selling freshly-caught crabs. He took some. One crab escaped and hid under the driver’s seat. D never realized it until he opened his car a day after, and the stench of dead crab, steamed alive in the heat of vehicle, came wafting out.
As the sun sets in the summer, life comes alive in the UAE, where temperatures can rise up to 49-degrees Celsius during mid-day (and can plunge to eight degrees during winter). Everyone seems to wake up from a long, lazy nap and venture outdoors. The local city centers (malls) fill up with youngsters and housewives on grocery runs; poor laborers sit and loll under fig trees, eating their fruit.
Hamriyah comes alive as well, as emiratis, expats, families and locals begin populating the beachside. Some bring personal watercrafts, some picnic mats and food. The water is very, very warm and the waves are strong. Swimsuits (as long as they aren’t offensive) are tolerated on Hamriyah, and during the time I am in the water, baking in the waning desert sun like a giant bacalao, I forget about the fear of the Sharjah police picking me up for being dressed “indecently” (though a one-piece maillot hardly accounts for indecent).
As the light wanes and we walk back to the car and shake the sand off our legs and feet, the anxiety comes back. SUVs and cars swing by, heavily tinted. They’re harmless emiratis, but that doesn’t stop me from wrapping my sarong around my body, like a blanket. I hurry in my fiance’s 4×4 and we head back to Ajman.
Simple, sumptuous pleasures
Sometimes the precautions taken to being decently covered are a hindrance to being fashionably dressed when dining out, which I would greatly mind if in Manila or New York, but there I couldn’t care less.
And so, my legs covered with a sarong, a long-sleeved rash guard over my bathing suit, I have some of the most mouth-watering dinners with my fiancé in various restaurants in Ajman: freshly-made nan with chicken tikka masala, the masala thick and fragrant, in an unnamed Kerala restaurant on the seaside; a Lebanese meal of grilled meat, motabal, and mezza—plates of fresh olives, lettuce, tomatoes, pickled cucumbers, lemon; spicy brain fry, keema (ground meat, in this case lamb, made into kebabs), and nihari (a spicy stew of the tenderest meat and marrow) in a Pakistani restaurant named Bin Laden.
Tip: choose a restaurant with a “family room.” Some don’t, which means only males can dine there. The family room is where women, children, and therefore the whole family, can dine.
The laidback atmosphere of Ajman can perhaps be encapsulated in its summer bazaar. While Dubai has its annual Summer Surprises, the season-long sales in high-end malls, simpler emirates like Ajman hold their versions in the local multi-purpose grounds.
It’s like PICC or CCP 30 years ago, maybe even older. The grounds are decked with basic theme park rides: cup ‘n saucer, a small ferris wheel, animal rides for tots. There are stalls selling music CDs, blasting pop music in Arabic and Hindi.
Inside the bazaar “tent” worlds and time and culture merge: jars of goat cheese mixed with slices of olives; racy naughty nurse and saucy soldier costumes; heavily-sequined burqahs; heady, sticky-smelling perfumes in ornate bottles; Dora and Sponge Bob pajamas for kids; bold-colored handwoven rugs and throws from Syria; local-branded cosmetics; glass evil eye beads and jewelry from Turkey.
I visit the bazaar twice, but on the first night, things get a tad too overwhelming for me. D and I sit outside, under a starry, balmy desert night sky, and order—what else?—hot tea. Being yet unmarried, we don’t hold hands, we don’t kiss. We do as the locals do.