Dubai Mall was a bust as far as the boys were concerned. They liked the aquarium, liked the Burj, but the rest of it? “Stupid and overpriced,” as Liam announced.  What use did they have for Montblanc pens or Gucci shoes or gold-plated memorabilia?

When we finally escaped from the mall, we had to get  to the bus station for our bus back to Abu Dhabi.  We took a slight detour through the Spice Souk, where the boys found what Caleb called real treasures: golden jewel-encrusted elephants, only 15dhr (about 4 bucks); a replica of the Burj, sprinkled with diamonds, for only TWELVE! A golden box with a genuine enamel lid engraved with an image of the Burj…only TEN!

Treasure packed in our bags, we took a dhow—a flat-bottomed wooden boat—across Dubai Creek to the bus station.

And that’s when we found ourselves in an entirely different Dubai—not the bling-bling world of the mall, or the tourist trap of the Souk. Nope, we pretty much found ourselves in the Port Authority of Dubai, with two tired kids in tow, each just on the verge of complete meltdown.

There was nothing picturesque about this bus station; there was no danger of anyone breaking into a sort of Bollywood-esque chorus. There were just lines. Long, long lines of people waiting for busses and bossy men in over-fancy uniforms telling people where to stand, speaking in a fast combination of Arabic and English.

First fancy-uniform guy ushered us to the front of the line because families get priority boarding (nice, eh?). Then second fancy-pants guy said, nope, get to the back of the line. The boys shifted from quiet grumbling to low-level whining, failing to see any humor in the situation whatsoever.

We watched as one bus drove in, filled up, drove away; then watched as all the men traveling alone were herded into a separate line, while we stayed in the “families and ladies” line to wait for the next bus. And when might that next bus arrive? No one seemed able to tell us.

Boys now in full-throttle whine.

I realize we are (eventually) going to take a two-hour bus ride back to Abu Dhabi on a bus with no toilet, so I seize the moment and decide to take the boys in search of the bathroom.   I saw a sign that said “ladies” and walked toward it, only to realize that the sign was pointing me to a ladies-only bus stand, not the loo. I asked yet another fancy-pants official, who gestured us across the parking lot, so off we went, threading our way through the crowds, boys now whining loudly, close to outright rebellion.

We get across the station and—no bathroom, just a greasy-spoon restaurant surrounded by men smoking cigarettes.

Try again: ask another official, who waved in a different direction, so off we go, me trying to make jokes about how confused everyone is. The boys are having none of it, and this time we end up at a ticket kiosk/prayer corner. Men are buying tickets at one window, and several others are saying their prayers, crowded on a green rug.  Interrupting them to ask where the ladies room is seems like a bad idea.

“Forget it,” I say to the boys.  “We don’t want to miss the bus. We’ll just deal somehow.”

“I have to PEE!” Liam buries his face in his hands.  “WHY CAN’T ANY OF THESE PEOPLE SPEAK ENGLISH!” he shrieks. “And why don’t ANY of them know where the bathroom is!”

I decide now is not the time for a discussion of ethnocentrism and cultural arrogance.  (Plus that, almost everyone does speak English. Which is to say, a hell of a lot better than any of us speak Arabic.)

At that precise moment, Caleb saves the day: he points to the sign on the wall that indicates the way to the ladies toilet.

Liam slams open the door to the stall, only to stop short: the “toilets” are holes in the ground, with porcelain ridges on either side—you know, to help prevent slipping while squatting.

The boys aren’t quite sure what they’re supposed to do and when I explain to them, they’re both horrified—and completely unmoved by the fact this whole situation is going to be harder for me than for them.

The toilet holes accomplish one thing—well, okay, we all pee, so really two things—but they’re so awful that we have no choice but to laugh.  It’s not often that you get to say a toilet hole wards off a temper tantrum, right?

And that, friends, was our night in glamorous Dubai.