Concrete Airplanes

We had our first visitors this past week. My husband’s mother and sister traveled to Dubai from California, a journey that spanned nearly 50 hours when all was said and done. Their visit was particularly special because my mother-in-law turned 70 while staying with us. So, in addition to showing her our new home in the Middle East (and reassuring her that us moving here was a good idea) we had the added bonus of celebrating an epic birthday. No pressure at all.

So of all the many spectacular things to do and see in Dubai, we decided to start with perhaps the city’s biggest showstopper: the Burj Khalifa. For anyone unfamiliar with Dubai architecture (or with Guinness World Records) the Burj Khalifa is the tallest building in the world and is one of Dubai’s most ambitious—and expensive—endeavors, costing a whopping $1.5 billion. With its blinking disco lights and syringe-like topper, the Burj Khalifa is nearly impossible to miss from any vantage point in the city. Standing a grand 829 meters (more than 2,722 feet!) the structure is now as iconic to Dubai as the Sears Tower is to Chicago, which isn’t coincidental as the two share the same architect.

I’ve always admired the audacity of the Burj Khalifa in the Dubai skyline, an architectural marvel even to an ignoramus like me (I tend to refer to anything built before 1970 as ‘pre-war’). So when the hubs said he made us a reservation at At.Mosphere, the restaurant on top of the Burj Khalifa, I didn’t think much of it. Like anyone else, I was interested to see it up close and curious whether it could possibly live up to its deafening hype. But somewhere I must have missed the part about ‘going to the top’ because when we got there I was completely unprepared for such a terrifying experience. It was as if, in addition to forgetting my house keys, I forgot that I am DEATHLY AFRAID OF HEIGHTS. And not just the mild variety ‘have a cocktail to take the edge off’ kind, but more the ‘all out, cold sweats, there-ain’t-enough-Xanax-in-Dubai’ kind of afraid. So this evening was already promising to be memorable.

As we entered the lobby of the Armani Hotel on the ground floor of the Burj, we were escorted to a special elevator with direct access to the restaurant. The staff was incredibly kind and the ambience was so chill that I (almost) forgot where we were headed. As we stepped into the elevator it felt like we were entering a space capsule—the walls looked as if they were made of titanium and there were no windows or views or even tacky ads on display. There wasn’t even a panel of buttons to push, just a small solitary disc with one destination: THE MOON.

My anxiety was pushing full steam at this point, so I turned to the young woman operating the lift and asked how many times she’s ridden to the top. She laughed and said so many times she couldn’t even count. Somehow that felt reassuring. As we started to ascend it felt like any other elevator ride, but then after several seconds we could feel the gravitational pull in our ears, the pressure making our heads feel a little lighter (or was that sheer terror??) so we chomped on the little hard candies we were given upon arrival. As we headed up, our speed quickening, I had images of being in the Willy Wonka elevator where at the end of the film Charlie and his grandfather are riding up and up and up until finally they blast through the roof of the Wonka Factory and fly out into the sky. Panic took hold of me.

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After what seemed an eternity the doors opened and we stepped out onto a wide mezzanine with the most incredible views (these pictures do not do justice).

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Unlike the rest of my family that rushed towards the glass, I retreated to the corner where I gave out a little cry (with real tears) until I eventually forced myself to peer out the windows. It felt surreal.

When you are standing atop the tallest building in the world, you are so impossibly high that any semblance of being in a building is lost. It’s completely disorienting and you have to remind yourself that you are not floating in the air, and that those are not clouds outside the cabin doors. I quickly realized that the only way I would make it through the evening (unmedicated) would be to trick myself into believing I was indeed flying at 30K feet, instead of closer to 2K. That I was inside an airplane, a concrete airplane, and it was outstanding.

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There was a mother-daughter duo posing for pictures, their backs against a wall of glass, as they continued to turn their faces from the glass to the camera and back again. I watched my fearless husband make his way down the spiral staircase towards the restaurant. With each step he grew more and more encased in blue sky, the windows looming larger around him. I was impressed when I saw my mother in law follow, her steps slightly more tentative but heading down nonetheless, my sister in law at her side. By the time I made it down the stairs, I could breathe easily enough where I didn’t sound like I had run up 122 flights instead of taken the lift. I even managed to stay still long enough to snap a few pictures. But I didn’t touch my nose to the glass. I won’t do that until I’m safely buckled into my seat with my tray table stowed, thank you very much.

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