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Learn “How to See” in Dubai

Engineer-turned-travel entrepreneur Gabby Beckford set out on a year-long Middle Eastern adventure at the age of 21. What she learned there forever changed the way she thinks about travel.

Gabby Beckford in Dubai

Gabby Beckford in Dubai

Gabby Beckford

I was introduced to travel at a young age. My mom was a travel agent for a long time, and today I still turn to her to learn unconventional routes, the best times to book, and travel trends. Also my dad was in the military, and we lived in Japan because of his job. I took my first international trip—a road trip through Western Europe—when I was just four years old, and we often did road trips through the U.S. too. My love for travel may even have been passed down from earlier generations. My grandmother has been to all seven continents now, at 81!

So it was probably just as surprising to me as it was to my family that I landed in college an hour from the small, Virginia town where I went to high school. Money was tight and in-state tuition made sense, but…god, I wanted to get back out in the world. That’s why I started keeping an eye out for travel opportunities like spring break trips to Puerto Rico and London and looking online for tips on how to travel as a full-time student.

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- Gabby Beckford

Cut to, my year-long study abroad experience in Dubai. Let me set the scene. It was Summer 2016. I was studying engineering and commuting daily to an internship that paid well but did nothing for my soul.

On a slow day at the internship I started searching online for student travel opportunities, and I came across a study abroad scholarship that seriously felt like it was written just for me. The application deadline was coming up in just a month. I obsessed for the next three weeks, spent a few all-nighters working on it, and sent it in. And I won $20,000! The scholarship was to learn in-demand languages and I chose to study Arabic in Dubai.

I chose it because it was a place that I knew I had the most subconscious biases about. It was a place that drew a lot of opinions when I searched online—mostly negative. I remember thinking, What’s the reality? Do women have to wear burkas in Dubai? Are women allowed to walk alone? I wanted to see for myself. I wanted to see a completely different way of living, unbiased and with my own eyes.

Experiencing a slice of the Dubai lifestyle

Experiencing a slice of the Dubai lifestyle

Gabby Beckford

I was 21 and nervous and emotional. What if I hate it? I thought, on the 11-hour flight. Traveling solo as a woman isn’t easy, let alone moving abroad to somewhere with a very different culture and way of life—again, at just 21!

The first month was tough. The climate was different, the culture was different, and I was exposed to new things at every turn: Desert sandstorms instead of snow days and yacht parties after school instead of fraternity parties. But it was just as shocking to realize that very soon, it all began to feel…very normal.

Once I consciously let go of my American view of everything, I could see that this was just a way of life here, that if they came to my school and my city, they’d think the way we interacted with each other and the rituals we had were just as strange. I remember one day sitting in Islamic Art & Architecture class and realizing I was the only girl not wearing an abaya (the black robes). At lunch, I asked one of my new, local friends about it. Do Muslim women have to wear it? Why is it always black?

She explained Muslim culture versus local Dubai culture, how it’s always black because of the larger idea of “hijab”—modesty. And that they aren’t just black cloth. Some have intricate stitching, others have sequins, and people’s personalities still shine through. She told me how she could tell the nuances of someone’s culture just by looking at their abaya design.

I was really in awe! Over the rest of the year, I tried to pay attention to small details like that, like differences in the way different nationalities—Omani, Emirati, Saudi—wear their keffiyeh, their headscarves, and hijabs. By learning more about Islam and Middle Eastern history, I better understood all the modern news and references I’d only caught vague hints of before.

There was so much I hadn’t seen—until I knew how to look for it. It further cemented just how much you don’t know what you don’t know, in life and especially while traveling. I saw how much we all see the world through our own limited lens and have to actively ask, listen, and learn to truly get anywhere. That was probably my biggest lesson from Dubai. It was a pivotal moment.

The author on the trip that changed the way she thinks about travel

The author on the trip that changed the way she thinks about travel

Gabby Beckford

Dubai’s proximity to other new countries was a huge opportunity too! By the end of my year abroad, I’d gone on a spring break trip to Thailand and visa runs to Oman and Sri Lanka. I even knocked a super-special travel experience off my bucket list. One Thursday night in Dubai, I spontaneously booked a 6 a.m. flight to the Republic of Georgia for a long weekend by myself—talk about impulsive.

But seriously, all those moments on that Dubai trip—joyful, stressful, overwhelming, lifechanging—put me on the path to becoming who I am. I mean, cut to today: I’m a full-time digital nomad.

Last year alone I went to so many new countries, Mexico, Poland, Germany, Turkey, and Jordan, all solo. I’ve become so in tune with making friends as a solo traveler and feel just as safe abroad as I do back home. I owe that to my time solo in Dubai! It was where I first heard the term “digital nomad,” actually. It’s where I first saw start-ups, 20-something entrepreneurs, and even women making a living as “influencers” Obviously, these trips had a lasting impact.

My next trips coming up are to Fiji and South Africa. In Fiji, I’ll explore, learn more about the lack of clean drinking water, and help install water purification systems in local communities. I’ll stay in South Africa for a month on a fellowship to connect entrepreneurs of the African diaspora.

These are not your run-of-the-mill vacations but those never really have been my style, anyway! I like to live like a local and see unique perspectives on new cultures, tourism, globalism, and simply…life.

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