“Kids, we need to strategize,” I called the children together in front of the “super-sized” Carrefour Supermarket which was inside the Emirate Mall in Dubai, UAE, one of the largest mall in the world. “This place is huge so we need to work together.”
I continued, “We need to be smart about what to buy and who will buy what. First, here is the Carrefour’s ‘Anniversary Celebration – Big Deal’ booklet. You are only allowed to buy items that is listed on sale in this booklet. This is our ‘Bible’ for shopping. Now, who wants to buy what?”
“Joani and I can take care of buying snacks,” Nathan volunteered first.
“I can buy the pasta, bread and cheese,” Annie went next.
“I will buy the vegetable and fruit,” Olivia said.
“Okay, I will buy the meat,” I concluded. “Now, remember, only buy those that are ON SALE!”
Off we went quickly to different corners of the gigantic supermarket.
When we gathered back, we examined together our finds. Annie got a plate of cheese cubes which were half-priced because they were the left over pieces. She also bought the cheapest vegetable, cabbage, and the cheapest starch, pasta and potatoes. I got frozen chicken instead of fresh ones since they cost only half as much. But I treated ourselves to fresh cuts of beef tongue from Australia, ribeye steak from Brazil, mutton chops from Pakistan, and lamb shoulder from New Zealand. After not having tasted beef for two months in Nepal and India, I was dying for some large juicy steaks.
“This is literally the ‘World Trade Center’,” Olivia laughed. “Except for the tomato, all the vegetables, meat, instant noodles, and everything else are from countries outside of UAE. This is amazing!”
“I love the variety! This is heaven for a cook. You have ingredients from all over the world,” Annie said happily.
“The supermarket is a perfect representation of the Silk Road, where the east meet the west, where all the trade flow through,” I declared.
“It is basically a tourist destination!” Joani added jokingly.
“I feel like having some time inside the supermarket and people watch. There are people from all over the world shopping here,” Olivia contemplated.
Nathan came back with bulk packages of Doritos and Cheetos, which are preciously rare and expensive in China.
“They will be perfect when we go to the beach,” Nathan said trying to win my approval.
“Dad, I can’t decide which chocolate to buy. They all look so good!” Joani said after spending all her time in the chocolate section.
“These two cartons of ice cream are on sale. Can we buy them, please…” Olivia, together with Nathan and Joani, looked at me with their big eyes, hoping that I would give in to their wishes.
“For lunch, let’s buy a roast whole chickens and eat at the food court with the bread,” I proposed. “An entree at the food court would cost more than these already. We will buy another roast chicken for lunch when we swim next to the ‘Sail Hotel’ (the Burj Al Arab hotel which is the architectural icon and symbol of modern Dubai)”
At the checkout stand, we each guessed how much all these cost. One guessed 500 AED, another guessed 450 AED, and I guessed 600 AED. To our surprise, it was only 336 AED (around USD 94) for our food for the next 3-5 days. We were so happy that we high-fives and congratulated each other for mission accomplished!
We didn’t feel we were there very long but when looked at our watches, we realized that we spent 3 hours in The supermarket! And we didn’t even go through the whole supermarket.
The first time we laid our eyes on a supermarket in Dubai, our jaws dropped. Joani felt that she stepped into the movie Jurassic World. Olivia felt overwhelmed that she got panicky and couldn’t go through the rows of food without grabbing tightly to one of us. There were about 180 aisles of three-layer shelves of food items and about 50 checkout counters. The aisles seemed to go on forever. Our first few minutes in the store were spent just taking photos after photos of groceries in the store. Then for an hour, we just ambled through the maze of food shelves, admiring and touching the pretty packages on the shelves. Many shoppers and staffs stared at us strangely as we took photos of bread, cheese, chocolates, etc. Olivia even made a video to send to her friend. We had not seen so many varieties and brands of different items in one place. To our delight, there were about 20 different types of olive around the world and just as many different varieties of date. After traveling two months in India and Nepal where supermarket was almost non-existent, we were not prepared for the supermarkets in Dubai, where everything seemed ‘larger than life’.
The prices in Dubai also felt ‘larger than life’ for us as well, especially since most of the countries we had backpacked to in the past few years were developing countries with low prices, including Nepal and India where we just backpacked. Supermarket prices for most items were about 2-3 times the prices in China (except for chocolates) and due to the desert climate, vegetables and fruit were 5-10 times the price that we were used to.
“You are in trouble, dad!” Nathan said to me after he saw the estimated lowest budget needed to travel in Dubai as suggested by Lonely Planet, the Bible for budget backpackers around the world. “Here it says that the lowest budget per day per person in UAE is USD 200! Middle level budget is USD 400!”
After traveling six countries so far on our trip, Nathan knew that I am very careful with our budget. In India, we rarely bought anything over one dollar US for food. So he knew that backpacking in UAE will be the toughest challenge I would have faced yet on our trip.
I also knew beforehand that it will be expensive traveling in UAE. Backpacker hostel is rare and very expensive (around USD 25/person). Two hotel rooms for the five of us in the cheapest hotel would be around USD 200-300. With blessing from God, I was able to find a studio apartment on AirBnB (an online site where individuals rent out their apartment for travelers) for USD 103 per night. It had everything we needed and wished for: beds for five persons, kitchen, washing machine, fast wifi (#1 priority), and even 5-star quality swimming pool, of which Joani was the most excited of all.
We avoided restruant at all cost (literally) as the cheapest entree was usually at least USD 10, with exception for maybe local sandwich roll called, shwarmas. We cooked in the apartment for breakfast and dinner and brought picnic food for lunch during our daily outings to different tourist sites. For local transportation, we sticked mostly to bus and metro since transfer from bus to metro or metro to bus is free of charge. Usually, each trip on bus/metro would be around USD 1. For short distance, taxis were actually cheaper than bus since we have 5 persons so we took taxis when they make sense.
As for attractions, we sticked to mostly free things to do in Dubai, which was plenty already. On the first day, we spent half a day at the world’s largest theme mall, Ibn Battuta. Surprising, or not surprisingly, our favorite store was the supermarket where we can actually afford buying something. On the second day, we swam at the free and perfectly blue-aqua sandy public beach overlooking the famous iconic 7-star ‘Sail Hotel’ which has showers, changing room, and toilet. Then we went to the Mall of the Emirates to admire the world’s largest indoor skiing arena, complete with five ski runs, live penguins, and sledding hills, in the middle of the hot desert! On the third day, we joined a cultural tour (USD 2.5/person) of the Jumeirah Mosque where we understood more deeply the practices of Islam. On the fourth day, we meandered in the narrow alleys of the old fish, gold and spice markets of Old Dubai, learned about the history of Dubai at the underground Dubai Museam (USD 1/person), experienced the three stories aquarium, 5 stories waterfall, olympic size ice skating ring, and indoor roller coaster amusement park all at the Dubai Mall, the largest mall in the world. At 6PM, we went outside to admire Burj Khalifa, the crowning glory of Dubai, at 828m high, the world’s tallest building while enjoying free the world’s largest water fountain show next to it. For dinner, a friend who used to live in Kunming treated us to a full meal with 10 dishes of amazing Chinese food at Dubai’s Chinatown. On the fifth day, we took the metro/tram/monorail to experience stepping on the world’s largest man-made island, the Palm Jumeirah, which is in the shape of a palm tree. Afterwards, we strolled along the walkway of the nearby Dubai Marina harbor where we celebrated with ice creams from 31 Baskin Robins the publication of Annie’s first book, “No Work, No School: A Family’s Journey to the Ends of the Earth”.
During our last meal in Dubai, we shared excitedly our experience of traveling on a budget in Dubai.
“So what was our budget in Dubai, dad?” Nathan asked excitedly knowing that we were really smart about how to get the most out of Dubai with the least amount of expenses.
“Well, believe it or not, we spent only USD 5.5/person/day for food in Dubai! If we don’t count the apartment cost,” I announced proudly after going through my trip budget app on the iPhone. “Congratulations! We did it!”
“That’s incredible. That’s probably even cheaper than India!” Joani said in disbelief.
“That’s amazing. And we ate so well here. We had steak, ribs, mutton, salmon, cheese, olives. Every meal I was so stuffed. I think out of our whole trip so far, we ate the best here,” Nathan added.
“Yeah, we also had our OWN private public pool!'” Joani laughed.
“I think that is one of the highlight, the pool,” I added. “It is a really high class pool. It’s so clear and so clean. There was shower, toilet, changing room, and only 1 minute walk from where we live.”
“And air-con in the changing room!” Joani reminded me.
“I feel like Dubai is the Las Vagas of the Middle East,” I reflected after seeing all the world’s “-est” in the city.
“I felt Dubai is like a vacation from traveling,” Joani continued. “Are we going to take a Chinese New Year break too?”
“No. We are one of those hard working people. We only have 7 days of vacation a year! We used them all up already in Dubai.” Olivia joked.
We all laughed.
Indeed, Dubai was a much enjoyed vacation after traveling for nearly five months. Not only did we enjoyed cooking ourselves our favorite foods, but also did it all at one tenth of the typical cost.
I was not “in trouble” after all!