On March 16th 2019, our Egypt Air flight landed at Abu Dhabi airport at 2 pm their time and as soon as I was done with the clearance stuff, I walked outside to look for the ride which the university had sent to pick me. Guys, they sent a sleek Mercedes for me. Me, Byagaba of Kamwezi, Rukiga District. Chei! I greeted the chauffeur, an enthusiastic Indian gentleman whose name I forget, and took a moment to take in my arrival in life as he loaded my ka battered suitcase into the boot. He even opened for me the backdoor to sit like a VIP but I was more interested in taking in the landscape and conversation than the VIP experience so I opted to sit in front with him for the short journey to Adhu Dhabi New York University (NYU), my home for the next 4 days.
He’d been there for a couple of years as a driver and had slowly made his way from driving the city ordinary cabs to driving this sexy machine we were currently in. He told me about his family back home that he saw once every year or so when he went for holidays but religiously sent money to for bills while he stayed in a room with three other drivers that were also immigrants. A story I am accustomed to from the many Ugandans that have come to this land to seek better fortunes for themselves. I don’t know if I will ever do that kyeyo life but if I do, I think I’d prefer to do it when I don’t have a family yet. But life doesn’t want to know about your plans and preferences so you hustle whichever way you can.
The UAE is a desert country and was coming out of their winter season so the sun wasn’t as punishing as I have told it can be. Still, it was hot so we kept the car windows closed and turned up the AC as we cruised along. Abu Dhabi traffic was very organised and tame compared to the chaos of the Cairo traffic where I was coming from so I was able to sit back and enjoy the smooth ride without getting a muscle pull from over-clenching my butt cheeks. I asked if I could drive ko, because I am that guy around cars I like, but he said it wasn’t advisable because the fines he would have to pay if we got caught were just not worth it. The UAE’s law enforcement is very high tech with cameras everywhere that automatically flag any offence and send you a fine by mail which you have to pay before you can leave the country. I don’t remember once seeing a traffic officer the entire time I was there.
We said our farewells after he had dropped me at the NYU campus which is located on Saadiyat Island. From the Welcome Centre where I was dropped, I could, through a haze of sand that had been stirred by the wind and characterized the skyline for the time I was there, vaguely make out the Abu Dhabi CBD across one of the Persian Gulf canals(?) that separates the different islands that make up the Emirati capital. The main attraction of interest for me was the Etihad Towers from that famous flying Lykhan Hypersport scene from Furious 7. The university was helping to host the 2019 Special Olympics which were happening the same time I was there so there was quite a buzz of activity. I checked in at the Welcome Centre and was escorted to my residence which was in a block that housed the university staff and guest quarters. The entire University was all sharp-edged architecture of concrete, glass and palm trees. That’s where my vocabulary for describing their architecture ends so I’ll stop there before I embarrass myself. Pity I didn’t take more pictures of the campus but their website has plenty if you want to see more.
Whereas I was expecting a simple self-contained room at most, I instead got a one-bedroom apartment with living room, kitchen, spacious bed(room) and bathroom. The people at NYU really know how to make their guests feel welcome. To make things even better, a good number of the staff taking care of the buildings, from the welcome centre, apartment block, library and others, were Ugandans so there was plenty of feel at home quorum. I recorded an MTV cribs style video which I sent to my caravan mates back in Cairo to incite some jealousy. Muahaha! We had been staying in the most random places and spaces that we could get for free during the course of the journey, the one in Egypt where I left them being the living room of Baseem, a good Samaritan in Cairo that had agreed to host us, where all of us had managed to squeeze ourselves and our luggage. This was definitely a huge upgrade. I took a long soak in the bathtub and took a quick nap before heading out to meet Piia, my host at NYU, who had invited me along to a small get together that was being hosted by one of the university staff members on one of the floors above mine. It was one of those cozy university shindigs a wonderful mix of brilliant people talking about a variety of topics.
The following day was busy with all the official activity I was at the campus for. The first order of business was participating in a conversation between contemporary South African multi-disciplinary photographer Lebohang Kganya and myself. I talked about my experience with the Great African caravan and my writing while Lebohang talked about her immersive photography. After that, I went and delivered a presentation on Kampala and the nuances of writing about it as one who hasn’t grown up or lived there to Piia’s first-year writing students and developed a fresh deep respect for teachers at all levels. Seeing all these young faces looking at you for knowledge is a great responsibility that I will never take lightly. I was told most of the students at the NYU Abu Dhabi campus are here on scholarships and are headhunted from their different countries of origin. Their future is bright for sure!
Once that was over, Piia took me and Kiana, a visiting Iranian PhD student from the main NYU University that we’d become acquainted with at the get-together the previous night, to a French restaurant in the city where, among other delicious things I don’t remember, I ate snails for the first time. There weren’t that many customers so the chef dotted on us and answered all my questions about their cuisines that I could barely pronounce. The snails apparently are reared on a snail farm in France and then shipped there for the clientele that fancies this kind of culinary experience. There is a business idea there because, really, how hard can it be to farm snails. They had a rubbery texture when chewing and were actually quite delicious. Piia then left for her apartment in the city while Kiana and I took a stroll through the streets of Abu Dhabi. Piia, being the experienced wanderer she is, recommended we get off the main roads and go into the neighbourhoods behind the skyscrapers to get the real feel of the city and that’s exactly what we did. We ended up at a Korean restaurant where we took a cup of tea seated by the roadside watching the mix of people from different part of the world walk by and go about their business while chatted into the night about our different countries, cultures and backgrounds. We finally took a cab back to campus where we parted ways and I went to my apartment to get a good night’s sleep.
I spent the morning of the following day catching up on sleep, checked in on Piia’s class early afternoon to answer some follow-up questions they had from my presentation, said bye to her since the campus was closing and she had a flight that evening to Senegal where she was planning to spend her break. I then visited Angelo, a friend from Uganda who happened to also stay on the campus on the same block as me, for dinner with his family. The following day, Angelo took me for a ride to explore the city and dropped me off at one of the more prominent malls, Yas Mall on Yas Island (No, it’s not named that way because they say Yas instead of Yes), where I was to meet up with Brian, a cousin that works there.
Brian gave me a tour of the mall and, because I am not a fan of mall touring when I can’t afford to buy the things there which was definitely the case here, I zeroed in on Ferrari World, which I didn’t enter because the ticket was not within budget but took an obligatory evidence picture at the entrance, and checking out the Tesla showroom where I got to sit and fiddle around in the Model S and 3. Those are some really sexy looking cars. I even signed up for a test drive only to hear there was a waiting queue and it’d take like a week for my turn. Dammit. Brian also gave me some insights on how most of the security people employed at such establishments are for appearances because the security camera system is sophisticated enough to catch any crimes and the police just show up at your door. Heck, they are even instructed not to chase after petty thieves should a theft happen. Now compare that with the confusion that is Kampala security cameras. Sigh.
I then joined Angelo, but not before taking a quick detour to the Emirates Palace (sorry Angelo. This is why I was late…not traffic), for a drink at the interContinental hotel, one of the older hotels in the city that I was told was frequented by the Ugandan community. We signed out after a couple of beers and headed back to the university where we called it a night.
Abu Dhabi, being the administrative centre of the Emirates, is not exactly a bustling city and because it was just coming out of winter, there wasn’t much tourist activity taking place especially at their extensive beaches which I am told have plenty of action when the weather is warmer and conducive. The other recommended places I had hoped to check out were the Louvre, which is on the same island as the NYU campus, the 5-Star beach hotels, and the Sheik Zayed Grand Mosque but I never got around to doing that. But if you ever find yourself there, make it a point to pass by.
The following morning, my time with the sweet apartment was done so I bid it farewell, left NYU campus and got a bus to Dubai where I was going to be spending the rest of my stay. I’ll share more about that in part 2 of the #RolexInUAE series within a weeks time.