While children were winding down their trick-or-treating and adults would soon barhop in costume on Halloween (October 31) 2013, I boarded a one-way flight from JFK International in New York to Abu Dhabi International in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

I experienced UAE during layovers en route to South Asia, as captured in my previous East Africa series. Through this firsthand exposure as well as from case studies in business school, I became enthralled with UAE’s public-private economic development model, which helped the country and its people leapfrog years ahead of other developing nations in terms of quality of life and other economic markers.

In 2013, I was 20-something with both wanderlust and decent written Arabic skills. I interviewed with an American company operating in the Gulf over video conference (well before its heyday) and was fortunate enough to be hired in their Abu Dhabi office. UAE made for an ideal location - safe, sunny, and Westernized - to advance a career in international business and development, explore my Middle Eastern roots, and cross “live abroad” off of my bucket list.

Upon arrival, I found a perfectly sized, perfectly budgeted flat in “old” Abu Dhabi, whose high-rises sprung up around the time of UAE’s independence from Great Britain in 1971. I enjoyed being in the part of the city where a Lebanese nut and coffee roaster, an Indian-run mini gold souq, a Bangladeshi tailor (this gent was an absolute artist at his craft!), and a Pakistani-owned vegetable market were all accessible by foot. Even so, the luxury hotels, malls, and residences that have made UAE expatriates heaven over the years were a cheap taxi ride or a short drive away.

I bought a used silver Mercedes coupe to get around when walking – due to heat or distance – it was not an option. Because of the climate’s oppressive heat or the car’s incline in years or a combination thereof, the car often experienced electrical issues. However, I couldn’t bring myself to be annoyed by the trouble. My gosh, did I love “Gracie” and the hum of her Japanese-made German engine speeding up and down E11, the highway that connects Abu Dhabi and Dubai. UAE deploys radars every so often along E11 to catch speeders. I admit that I paid my share and then some speeding fines, emulating too closely the Emirati locals’ love for fast, beautiful things on four wheels.

I came to UAE in part for cultural immersion, and I was beyond satiated, as UAE is home to over 200 nationalities. I met people from all walks of life and worked with some of the most graceful yet toughest men and women from countries like Afghanistan, Eritrea, Somalia, Egypt and more. My last Gulf employer had over 45 nationalities represented on the payroll. Many of these good souls were in UAE to send remittances to family or to escape violence in their home countries.

The one companion who remains the light of my life all of these years later is Manhattan, my cat. Like many pets in the Gulf, Manhattan was dumped either by a local family once he outgrew kitten status or by an expat family when they moved home in haste. I dared not leave him behind as someone else already had when I returned to the States in August 2016. Nor did we leave behind his pillow procured locally, a gray mat with “New York” and the Empire State Building outline sewn into it.

I hope that my appreciation for my time in UAE shines through this article and the rest of the series. The next topic will be - what else for me? - food.