Spring Break 2015 Vol. 8: Goodbye Dubai

Even now, as I sit in my office at school trying to wrap up this story before the next one starts, I wonder: can she do it? I’ve been saying all along that I’m putting the accommodations in a separate post, which has now migrated into a post for all the hotels/hostels for both the February *and* the March trips, so all I have left is the final day and a half of Dubai. I used to think keeping a blog was a breeze, what could be so hard about just getting your thoughts and experiences out there? I’ve written about a million papers for school and those require reading and analyzing and research and thinking. I’ve written works of fiction that require creating worlds and people and events out of nothing. So writing stuff that actually happened to me personally should be a breeze, right? NO. Turns out, putting your own life and thoughts down in black and white is HARD, at least if you don’t want to sound like a rambling 5 year old. However, I think it’s a great experience — not just for sharing my tales and adventures with you (which is awesome, I love sharing), but to help me assess my travels, what I’ve done and seen and how it’s affecting me, to cement these stories in my mind by viewing and reviewing them, and to create something lasting I can look back on later. So thanks again for joining me for the ride. You keep me accountable to my writing and to myself even when I’m tired, busy, rushed or just not feeling it.


Day 3

Despite having been up till all hours at the Global Village the night before, I still had a full day planned. The tour buses start around 9ish, but I had looked at the map and realized that I couldn’t possibly take the tour bus all the way from the Marina to the Dubai Museum in less than 2 hours, so I opted to catch a taxi to my first stop of the day and then take the bus from then on out. As I exited the hotel in search of a taxi, a nice hotel employee asked if I was looking for a taxi and I said yes. A lot of hotels will help you flag down a taxi and some even have arrangements with the local drivers, so I didn’t think this was unusual. He said they had hotel taxis that had meters, reassuring me more than once about the meter. It turned out to be a meter that charged almost double what the city taxi meters did, so add that to the list of things I don’t like about the hotel.

The driver also didn’t have a clue where he was going! It was like Saudi again, but I couldn’t believe this was happening in Dubai. I wasn’t even going to some out of the way place, I was going to the Dubai Museum, there’s only one. Fortunately this one at least had some concept of how to use his phone to find a place he wasn’t familiar with, so we got there after all, and after a brisk fare argument, I found my way into the museum.

Dubai Museum

IMG_1701I love museums. I go to them whenever I can. I was lucky enough to live a short distance from the Smithsonian as a child which has given me a lifelong love even if very few museums in the world can quite measure up. I try to appreciate them for what they are. There were museums in China that had random artifacts open to the not at all climate controlled air and taxidermied animals that (up until recently) I thought must have been fake. Given how BIG and glamorous everything is in Dubai, I had some pretty high hopes of it’s museum. How wrong can one girl be?

And yet, this museum could have been built at the very first sign of the city’s transition from humble pearl diving village to richest, biggest show off and never again updated. I took a picture of the outside of the building in December, and I think that might have been the best view. IMG_1687The museum started off with an outdoor courtyard display of boats and a sort of palm frond and mud shack. There was some kind of art shop off to one side, but it wasn’t like original or traditional art, so I wasn’t really sure what it was doing there. Everything was small, cramped, old and generally the opposite of Dubai. I think my pictures make it look better than it did in person, because looking back at them I don’t remember being impressed at the time. It was also very crowded, a couple busloads of Chinese tourists had all stopped there at once.

I finally found a door that led inside which took us to a spiral staircase down. Presumably the majority of the museum is underground, because it did take up more square footage than the topside appeared to. IMG_1692Hanging from the ceiling as we descended the stairs were several worn out stuffed seagulls. They were really quite pathetic looking, gray and dusty, feathers out of place and hanging at odd angles. As I looked down I saw that the floor had been painted to resemble the coastline and reasoned that the birds must be there to provide a perspective of flying over the beach, but I just couldn’t understand why these birds were so old and shabby. Dubai! Closer to the ground there was a dead flamingo in a similar sad state of taxidermy.

There followed displays of Arab waxworks, but unlike Madame Tussaud’s, these were not great works of near human art. IMG_1696They were awkward and the displays seemed completely out of time, not because they portrayed the past, but because they did it in such an ungainly way. There were scenes of Bedouin drinking coffee, selling goods, at one point there was a blacksmith forge that had a little movie of fire playing behind the wax people. IMG_1699The ocean room was not too bad, a larger room that used a mirror on one wall to make half a boat seem like a whole boat. At one point there were glass sheets at different depths with fish painted on them to appear more 3D. There was a waxwork pearl diver and a pair of legs coming down from the ceiling next to the bottom of a boat, as if we were underwater looking up. It sounds cool in concept, but the execution was just so tacky.

There were more stuffed animals, desert foxes and other creatures, just as badly stuffed and cared for as the seagulls had been. And there were more wax people displays of nomadic life in the desert. All of this was cramped and close together with tiny aisles between the displays. It was very dark, so they displays were hard to see, and it didn’t actually take too many people before the rooms felt crowded. I don’t think I’ve ever wanted to get out a museum so much,  but somewhere between the grotesque wax people, the sad stuffed animals and the claustrophobic rooms, I could not remotely enjoy myself.

When I finally got to the gift shop, I was happy to be done and decided to find the bathroom before I got on the bus, but I was told that the bathroom was in the middle of the display tunnels. So now I had to fight my way through the narrow, crowded path backwards to find the small, hot, crowded bathroom. I seriously felt like nothing about this museum was even remotely Dubaiesque anymore. IMG_1700On my second time out, I noticed a room off to one side near the gift shop that more or less resembled a museum. It was spacious, cool and nicely lit. There were artifacts and scale models on display around the walls and on plinths or tables. It was actually a little bit of a relief to stand in it, until the hordes of tourists arrived. So I scurried past the gift shop, noticing as I did that there didn’t even appear to be any unique souvenirs there. I had to wait a while for the bus and the only shade was inside a phone booth, but it was still better than being inside. (more pictures)

Dubai is a pretty cool city, with lots of neat stuff for people to see, but I was so disappointed in the museum. I can’t even imagine why the Saudi King has made an infinitely better museum in his capital than the Emir has made in his, but there you go. Score one for Saudi.

Back on the Bus

My second morning starter having been so much less satisfying than my first, I plopped down in the air conditioned part of the bus and consulted my map. My next stop was the Heritage Village and Sheikh Saeed Al Maktoum’s House/Museum. I wasn’t too sure about this anymore considering how things had gone at the first Museum, but I’d seen the Heritage Village stop last time and it was definitely much bigger. It had looked like a full recreation of an old style village, perhaps similar to what I had seen in Old Al Ula. Once again, I am about to be surprised at the fact that Saudi is doing a better job of historical tourism than Dubai.

The bus had a stop or two before mine, and I glanced up as more people shuffled on and off, then I noticed that Urška had just gotten on and sat a few seats ahead of me. I called out to her and she was happily surprised to see me. So we moved closer and swapped stories of our evening before. I told her all about the Global Village, and she told me that she thought her husband was starting to feel better. We compared itineraries again, but it looked like the only stop we were both taking that day was the Heritage Village and after that we’d be parting ways. Still, it was nice to have company even if just for a little while.

Heritage Village

IMG_1704We got off at the stop and had to ask the driver for instructions on where to go more than once because again there were not clear signs. We found the entrance to the village, but it was pretty empty. It looked like maybe sometimes there were events there, people selling food or souvenirs, but there was nothing happening when we visited. There were some shops, a lot of buildings that just stood empty, and almost no other people at all. Maybe the Global Village had tainted my perceptions, but both the Museum and the Heritage Village seemed impossibly fake. I told Urška how strange it felt to be going to all these replicas of desert life, as though it were something from the distant past, when it’s still going on all over the Arabian Peninsula, and I had just been in the middle of it.

IMG_1706We gave up on the village pretty quickly and went in search of the Sheikh’s house. This turned out to be a very beautiful, large building (former house) overlooking the canal. Inside we could see a multitude of rooms that seemed full of posters with quotes from the Quran (in English). IMG_1708There was a small theater set up in the courtyard where people could sit and watch the big screen television, but nothing was happening there. We found our way up some stairs to the second floor and were promptly invited into an office. I’m not entirely sure who the gentleman was, but as he was seated behind a desk piled with books and a computer, I assumed it was his office. He offered us tea and talked about the hospitality traditions in Islam.

He seemed quite interested in having a conversation about Islam with us. I’m no scholar on the subject, but I know a bit, which seemed to make him happy. I can remember the first word and complete some of my favorite quotes. He talked about the importance of being tolerant to all religions (“to you your religion, to me mine” is a famous quote from the Quran) and slowly drifted over to the topic of offensive remarks in media. The Charlie Hebdo incident wasn’t that old yet, so I knew what he was referring to. It was not a subject I was terribly comfortable with.

He said that people should not want to cause offense to others, that we should respect each other’s beliefs, and of course I agreed. should being the key word. People should love their neighbors, and not lie, steal, cheat or murder, but they do. Sometimes the government steps in, for example: theft and murder are both illegal all over the world. So he asked me why shouldn’t the government step in when it comes to religious tolerance and offensive speech. I tried to explain that although I agreed that respect and forbearance were the ideal behaviors, and that even most Westerners would agree with that idea, almost all of them believe it is a personal choice and not something that can be enforced.

I really wish I could write more about these notions. How we view free speech, tolerance and respect as personal or governmental issues, but I’ve been avoiding posting anything about this topic because I don’t want my views to ever be mistaken for an insult to Islam. Also, by this time we were two cups of tea and a bottle of water into the conversation, and were getting restless to move on.

We made some polite excuses, which were not at all false since we did need to be getting on for time’s sake, and took our leave of the gentleman. As we wandered further down the balcony, we came across several rooms that were filled with beautiful Arabic calligraphy. IMG_1709There were many different styles and little plaques that explained the details of each one. I’m afraid I’m not well enough versed in the varieties of the artform, but I really enjoyed seeing so many distinct styles. Islam does not condone the rendering of living things into art, so there are no pictures of the Prophet (PBUH) or any scenes from the Quran, or even any scenes of nature. But that does not mean that Islam is without art. Beautiful geometrical patterns and stylized calligraphy such as we were looking at more than showcase the appreciation for beauty and creative talent of the Arab world.

Finally, we’d made a complete circut of the House so we decided to head back to the bus stop. Although the Village wasn’t that impressive, I’d say the Sheikh’s house is definitely worth a pause. (more pictures)

Gold Souk

My next stop for the day was the famous Gold Souk. A souk (or souq) is simply the old word for a sort of jumbled collection of small stalls in a market place. In the past, many of these were not permanent. They would form only on certain days of the week or holidays, made of of some local traders, but largely of caravans passing through. Over time, some of the most famous became daily events, and some traders stopped hauling in carts and started building stores. Now, some souks are little different from strip malls or shopping centers while others remain more wild. Often there is a blend of permanent and transient shops. The gold souks are simply markets where all the jewelers congregate. There’s generally one in every Arab town, even Tabuk has one, although much smaller than the one in Dubai.

Hopping off at the appropriate stop, I bid Urska goodbye and promised to keep in touch (which so far is working quite well). The bus stop was not in sight of the souk entrance, and I wasn’t entirely sure what I was looking for, but I was sure it had to be more than the meager collection of shops on the main road. IMG_1714After a few blocks and a couple turns and about a million people trying to sell me knock off fashion purses, I finally found the entrance. There’s actually quite a large gate emblazoned with the words “city of gold” so that was helpful. Once past the gate, it was hard to tell I was still outside. The streets were all covered over, keeping the pedestrians in shade, and no cars were allowed on the roads either. It reminded me of certain parts of the Balad Souk in Jeddah, except that every single window was full of tens of thousands of dollars of gold.

I’m not actually a huge gold fan, I prefer silver jewelry, but there is something madly impressive about that much wealth just laying around. There were some truly amazing pieces in the windows, too: necklaces that could easily have covered as much of the front as a shirt, bracelets designed to cover the whole lower arm in gold, and even a sort of suit of armor made of gold. All the shops sell various purities of gold all the way up to 24 (although it’s hard to find jewelry that pure because of the softness of the metal). They sell men and women’s ornaments, as well as coins and bars. It’s all the gold.

The main roads are wide, well marked and full of higher end stores (if you can use that for a place with all gold shops). There were also people wandering around with trays of cold beverages for sale (juice, soda, water) and the occasional vending machine, but there were no food stalls in between the gold shops at all. There were also a lot of barkers trying to attract tourists from the main streets to the shops off in the alleys. I actually had to get rather gruff with at least one of them who was being very pushy while I was still trying to get my bearings. But in the end, I found one who turned out to be helpful, so they’re not all bad.

An interesting fact I learned about the Dubai gold souk: the day’s market prices are displayed on large digital posters all around the area and the shops are mandated by law not to exceed the market price. How, then, do they make any money, you ask? They add premiums for the shape of the worked gold. So the jewelry will be weighed, and that price calculated, and then depending on the type of workmanship, there will be an added premium. I was just there to scout investment gold, not jewelry pieces, so I was looking at coins and bars. Turns out it’s far more economical to buy in large bars than small ones. Not only are many shopkeepers willing to offer a discount on the market price if you’re buying a lot, but the premium for a single bar doesn’t change much whether it’s small or large. So if you buy a 2 10g bars, you’ll pay nearly double the premium than if you buy one 20g bar, even though you’ll pay the same per g market price.

I also went around to several different shops to see what their prices were, and even though the market price is set for the day, the shops vary quite a bit in premiums, so it’s worth shopping around and asking for discounts. Most shops expect people to be buying small amounts, so I didn’t feel at all out of place even though I generally consider my own economic status sort of upper low class. Some of the shopkeepers looked at me a little oddly, but I think it was more for being a woman alone. Once I told them that my father had sent me, they all relaxed.

It was definitely an interesting experience. I think even if you don’t want to buy any, it’s a once in a lifetime display blending extreme wealth and grimy back alley shopping. And hey, if you do buy, now you know how to look for a good deal.

Snack Break

It was a long ride from the souqs to my next stop in Jumeirah and I had to transfer buses on the way. The transfer station was at Wafi, and remembering the bakery from the day before, I decided to stop and refresh myself. Touring is hard work, lots of walking, and I hadn’t eaten since breakfast in my hotel room. I decided that I could get something nice from the bakery and then sit on the balcony with a nice cup of iced coffee. I bought a small loaf of olive studded bread and a chocolate croissant. The staff were very polite and had no problem at all with my plan.

When I asked for some butter to go with my bread, I was brought a little plate with two small covered pots. One contained the most amazing fresh sweet butter, and the other, an olive tapenade, which went just beautifully on my olive bread. Picture 276The croissant was everything you dream of pastry being. Those things they sell in grocery stores as croissants are sad paper imitations. This was the real thing: flakey and chewy and crispy in turns, perfectly layered puffs and deep dark chocolate melted into the center. My latte was no let down either. Served beautifully, it was delicious and refreshing. Instead of granulated sugar, it came with chilled simple syrup on the side so I could sweeten it to taste. The earthy rich coffee perfectly counterbalanced the croissant while accenting the olive. There’s a small part of me that equates luxurious world travel with the slowly enjoyed outdoor cup of coffee, so no matter how much I want to see, I think that’s always an important part of any trip.

Jumeirah Mosque

IMG_1719Mosques are often quite beautiful. I visited the Floating Mosque in Jeddah and was not at all disappointed, so when I saw the Jumeirah Mosque on the tour route, I decided I would make it a stop. The Jumeirah Mosque is part of the “open doors, open minds” program. Typically, in the Middle East, non-Muslims are not welcome inside Mosques. I’ve only been inside one at all because I went in Seattle as part of a research project for school. This mosque is famous for being the only one in Dubai that is open to the public. However, it’s only once a day at 10am. I’m not sure how “open” that is, but either way, I didn’t get there until the afternoon, so I was relegated to the outside as with every other mosque.

It’s pretty. One of the first things I noticed was a large banyan tree in the grassy yard with some of the migrant workers napping beneath it. There were also many other tall trees surrounding the building. The grounds were very peaceful after the bustle of the city. I wandered around admiring the architecture and taking pictures, but in the end I think I missed what makes this mosque stand out most, it’s “open doors”, because the bus drove past many many many more mosques on the Jumeirah which were, if anything, more beautiful on the exterior, which is the only part I can see. (more pictures)

Burj Arab

IMG_1737This is another one of Dubai’s famous landmarks. It is the world’s only 7 star hotel. There’s actually a helicopter pickup service from the airport for guests. However, after getting off at the bus stop and walking up the block and down the street, I discovered that no one can walk anywhere near the hotel without a reservation either for a room or for a meal, and the dinner minimum was several hundred dirhams. While I think that might be a worthwhile experience (similar perhaps to the Globe restaurant in Riyadh) the tour bus company did not provide the information in advance, so I had neither time nor budget for such an event, although the staff at the gate house did offer to call up to the restaurant for me if I wished. So it was that I took a couple pictures from a spot next to the security booth (where the staff pointed out was a great place to get a view) and headed back to the bus stop. I think if I go back to Dubai again, I’ll try to make it inside. I was impressed at how courteous the staff were even to passersby, and there was a cool water park there too that looks like it would be a fun way to spend a day before heading inside for a 7 star restaurant experience.

Traffic

I was starting to feel like my whole day was a little bit of a wash. Other than the gold souk, I’d pretty much been let down by or missed out on everything else I’d tried to see. Yet one more reason the Big Bus company really needs more info on their tour apps so their guests can get the most out of limited or scheduled events. When I had come in December, I caught only a few seconds of the famous fountain show, so I scheduled my last bus stop for the day to be at the Dubai Mall, which was not terribly far from the Burj. Except, I forgot to account for rush hour traffic. The fountain show starts at 6, but goes again every 3o minutes until 11, so I knew I didn’t need to worry about being right on time and tried not to let the traffic get to me.

Soon, however, the bus was completely packed, and we were crawling along at less than a walking pace. My only solace was that taking a taxi would not have been any faster. There was a British couple in the seats in front of me that had tickets to the Burj Khalifa and I felt rather sorry for them, since although they’d left themselves over an hour to get there, the traffic was taking us far longer.

I checked Google maps a few times, and realized that while the distance was slowly shrinking, the estimated time of arrival was not. It took us over 2 hours for what at any other time of day would have been 15 or 20 minutes. Future note, do not plan on going anywhere in Dubai during rush hour. I didn’t even see the metro running on the monorail above us the whole way.

Dubai Mall Fountain Show

Picture 331I did finally make it to the mall, and despite myself, the enforced rest actually seemed to have helped me. I’d been running non-stop all day, and I felt quite refreshed by the time I arrived. I was further bolstered by the snare of a fro-yo kiosk where I got a small bowl of peanut butter and chocolate swirl with nutella sauce. It’s spring break, I can have ice cream for dinner if I want.

I got outside in between shows, which was nice because I had an opportunity to stake out a good viewing perch. It did mean standing for a while, since it gets pretty crowded, but it was worth it. The fountain is more like a fountain complex built into the man-made lake. The show is water and lights set to music, and as I discovered, if you wait around, each one seems to be different, so it’s not as if you catch just one show and take off. The first show I saw was set to Michael Jackson’s Thriller, and may have made up for the entire rest of the day. I caught the whole thing on video from my great seat too.

After the amazing show, I went to find a bench and sit again for a while before deciding what to do next. Of course, I can’t go anywhere for long without meeting new people, and this was no exception. A couple of older European gentlemen asked if I could take their picture against the backdrop of the night-lit Burj Khalifa. I like taking pictures, and that building is soooo tall, that I crouched down to be able to get more of the building into the frame. This small photographic acumen drew comment from one of the men whose daughter did photography semi-professionally. We talked for a while about the industry, but I had to admit I’d been out of it for too long to know much. He was just as interested in my teaching, and asked if he could give my email to his daughter in case she had any questions about working in the Middle East. I was actually sort of impressed by the networking. I’m not a networking expert, or anything, but those guys probably had a whole rolodex of contacts for anything they could ever want.

They soon had to go, and shortly after the lights in the lake began blinking, signaling the start of the next show. I had waited at the bench a little long, but was still able to slide into a narrow spot at the railing. TPicture 300he next show was set to more traditional Arabic music. It was quite a long show, so I was able to take a handful of still pictures and another video. Like so much in life, they don’t do it justice. There’s a cool breeze that comes off the lake from the force of the rushing water, and the fountains reach so high. They only look small because the buildings around are ridiculously large. All I can really say is “wow”. (more pictures)

Nightlife

I was unbelievably tired, also hungry. Perhaps you have noticed that the only food I mentioned all day was a croissant, some bread and some fro-yo? It was getting late, after 9pm. The rush hour traffic was gone, so I caught a taxi back to my hotel. I wasn’t then sure of what my evening would hold later, but I knew that food and a hot bath had to be first. My feet were still swollen quite badly from several days of extended hiking and multiple flights, so I drew a bath while I waited for room service, and then indulged in another ridiculous luxury by dining in the bath.

All of the other problems that hotel may have, their restaurant wasn’t one of them. The food was quite delicious and very generous. Even as hungry as I was, I couldn’t finish more than half of the dish I had ordered. I expected a full tummy and a warm bath to send me straight to sleep, but it seems instead I caught a light second wind, and decided to go out to the Barasti once again. It was Thursday night, after all, the end of the work week and beginning of the weekend, so I couldn’t pass up a look at another beachfront club.

Barasti Beach Bar Couples Night

I had forgotten however that it was also Valentine’s weekend. Living in Saudi has made me really out of touch with “western” holidays, since they are all illegal. Without stores full of pink candy and red hearts, it had completely slipped my mind. There was a bit of a line at the security check, but it seemed to be moving fast, so I didn’t mind. On my way up, I was approached by a young man who explained to me that it was couples night at the club, and he couldn’t get in without a partner, and asked if I would help him get in. I didn’t really see the harm in it so I agreed. We chatted amiably in line. He was from Syria, but had left before the current mess began. The security asked me how many we were and I replied two, pointing to the young man, and they waved us in. Once inside, we parted ways, for which I was a little glad. I didn’t want someone assuming “date” privileges just because I’d helped him get in.

The club was crowded, but not oppresively so. I got myself a beer and walked around people watching for a bit. There was a DJ set up on the stage and people dancing in the sand. Others lounged around smoking shihsa from tall hookahs. Eventually I wandered down toward the water, where a security guard politely advised me not to go past the signs. I guess drunk idiots and open water aren’t the best combination. I think I was too tired for dancing, but the beach was nice and I was still glad to have come out. In the end, I spent most of the evening talking to the two security guards, one was from Africa and the other a former Soviet bloc country, but past that my memory fails me. I do remember that the Slavic man was actually living in one of the Emir’s palaces because the whole group that had been brought in for work had arrived before the accommodations were finished, so he was working at this beach bar shooing drunk tourists away from the water while living in a palace! Dubai!

Fairly quickly my second wind died down and I headed back out. On the way, I got asked by about 5 more guys to help them get in, and several offered me drinks or money. It occurred to me if I was more awake, I could have partied pretty well just going back out for a new guy every time I needed a new drink. I think the Dubai night scene is great, but not after a week of non-stop sightseeing, so I have to add that to the list of things to do next time.

Day 4

Seeing as how my last day in Dubai was a Friday, it was a very hard decision to forgo a second shot at the Friday brunch of awesome. If you haven’t read that one, well, just make sure you’re not hungry when you do. However, brunches all start at 11:30 or 12:00 and go on for 3-4 hours, not counting the post brunch lazing hour+ where you slowly finish your drinks, desserts and coffee as the staff cleans up around you. Meaning I wouldn’t leave for the airport until close to 6pm, and not be able to book a flight before 8pm, and get back to Tabuk actually sometime on Saturday. sigh

So with a heavy heart and a deep sense of responsibility, I booked a flight for 3pm and did not go to a champagne brunch. However, since the dinner at Barasti was so delish, I decided that a beachfront breakfast would be a decent close second. I actually arrived a mere 5 minutes before they stopped taking breakfast orders, and got myself a “breakfast bap”, which is apparently a British name for a breakfast sandwich. I also ordered a single glass of sparkling rosé, so I could do up Friday brunch a little more Dubai-style.

Picture 334The bap came with a polenta bun, on one side a fried egg and some kind of southwestern sauce, on the other, a pile of bacon and sausage. I’m not one of those expats who whines all the time about not being able to eat bacon in Saudi, but I have to admit, after 6 months without it, I really enjoyed my bacon that morning. There were also two golden rounds of hash browns. It could have been greasy spoon fare, but it was all done with a gourmet flair, and accompanied by a stunning view of the beach complete with swimmers and passing boats. It was the perfect farewell to Dubai and end to an amazing week.

Picture 336


And that wraps up the whole week of Spring Break 2015. In just 2 days, I’m heading back out for more adventure, the Royal Decree Holiday Week, an unexpected bonus week of no school courtesy of King Salman. Red Sea Beach Resort here I come! Thanks again for reading, I hope you’ve enjoyed the stories and don’t forget to check out all the extras on Facebook 🙂

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Spring Break 2015 Vol. 7: Dubai Again

I feel like the slowest storyteller second to George R.R. Martin, I’ve been back from this holiday for over a month, and I have another one in a few days and I’ve still got 3 days of Dubai to share! Thanks for hanging in there with me. 🙂


Arriving in Dubai

My flight out of Jordan was an overnight, so I got into Dubai around 9am. Knowing that my hotel was unlikely to let me check in until 2pm, I decided to take care of some shopping errands and check out the city’s fancy metro system. And boy is it fancy. I got a “day pass” for about 7$ so I could hop on and off at my various errands. The stations are all large, air-conditioned and very clean. There are shops with meals and snacks at reasonable  prices. There are also separate cars for women (and children) only, as well as VIP cars for an extra fee.

When I got on at the airport, the cars weren’t very full. A man who had started talking to me at the platform invited me to join him on the ride, but I went to the women only car instead. I’m really glad I did because the cars got just as full as any Beijing subway, and I did not relish the idea of being sardined in with a bunch of GCC men. The women on the metro seemed annoyed that I had a backpack, perhaps it’s a breach of metro etiquette to carry on large bags? I also looked really scruffy from my last two days in Petra (with no shower), but no one was outright rude to me.

When I got off at the Dubai Mall stop, I soon realized that the station wasn’t actually all that close to the Mall. There is a 1 mile long skybridge that connects the metro to the giant mall with moving sidewalks and beautiful views of the city and the Burj Khalifa. I think on another day, I might have found this really cool, but after my Petra hike and overnight flight, I just couldn’t understand why in the world anyone would put a metro station a mile (about 2km) away from the main attraction of the stop. Reminding myself that finishing my shopping that day would free the rest of my stay for fun excursions, I stood sleepily on the moving sidewalks as tourists and shoppers used them to walk speedily by.

Relaxing and Unwinding

I finally got to the hotel around 2pm. I’ll say more about that place in my accommodations post, but this was the fancy almost beach front hotel I’d gotten a 60% discount deal on, so I was pretty excited. They chided me for checking in “late” (between 2 and 3pm) and had already given away my room! To make up for this, I ended up in a 2 bedroom 4 bathroom suite. It was freaking huge. I think 2 families could have shared it. But the water was hot and the bathtubs were deep. I tossed all my laundry in the washer, and settled in for a cleansing soak.

There is a serious problem with washer/dryer combo machines. They take FOREVER. Even after my bath and nap, it wasn’t done. I wanted to go out, but the hotels around the Gulf all require the room key for power. It took me a really long time to convince the front desk to give me a second key so I could leave the room with the dryer running.

After some google searching, I found a beach front bar walking distance from the hotel and headed for it. The Barasti Beach Bar was quite nice. There was a happy hour special and I got a frosty daiquiri and headed down to the lounge chairs on the waterfront. I chatted with some random Scottish dudes but they had to take off because the club was doing ‘ladies only’ from 6-9pm. Eventually, I spotted another lone guest and wandered near to say hello. She was quite open to company and we soon discovered that we were both from Seattle, our homes being only a couple miles away from each other!

Maiya has a rather amazing story, but I won’t tell all of it here because it isn’t mine to tell, but here’s the gist. She was born in Bangladesh and adopted into an American family. When I met her she was returning from a visit with her birth mother in Bangladesh, which was her last, as her mother has passed away since then (send her family some good mojo, prayers and thoughts). All of the servers and cleaners at the bar were Bangladeshi and they were fascinated to learn her origins, and gently teased her about not speaking their language.

IMG_1464We sat on the beach drinking too much and talking about our adventures until we were hungry enough to move up to the restaurant. (the food at Barasti is really good, by the way. I got a giant hamburger because I hadn’t had one in half a year, and she got a Cesar salad which actually had fresh anchovies in it). During dinner she told me about the village in Bangladesh that she had been born in, and how she came to be American, how she had found her birth family and been welcomed back by them. She’d started a non-profit organization to raise money for the schools in the village, for a playground, for materials, and for subsidies to pay the children so their families could afford to have them come to school instead of going to work.

Turns out she’s a little bit geek too, so we bonded over some nerd stuff as well as our love of travel, and have vowed to get our next drink together in Seattle when I come home.

When we finally decided to call it a night, it also turned out we were staying in the same hotel. So we walked back together and wandered into the Carrefour. My room had a full kitchen, so I decided I’d pick up some food for breakfast at the store instead of ordering room service. Maiya wanted to pick out some “exotic” candy for her son, who’s burning question for her travels had been, “Mom, what’s the candy like?” (this is pretty standard, I personally remember my childhood time in Japan primarily through the lens of strange candy).

Seattle has a really good selection of imported candy, though, so this is actually a little challenging. Finally, I spotted some Kinder Eggs! For those poor deprived Americans among you who have never had one of these, I’m sorry. I remembered them with great fondness from my time as a child in Germany, and although I had seen a few places in Seattle with Kinder bars, I had never seen the eggs. I told her as much, so she got several for both her kids. I have no doubt that if they survived the flight, they were much enjoyed.

It just never ceases to amaze me that we can travel around the world to meet people from down the street, and that everywhere I go, the universe finds a way to put amazing people in my path. Thank you Maiya, for sharing your time and your stories. I look forward to that beer in September!

Day 2

The first time I went to Dubai in December of last year, I got a one day pass for a hop-on-hop-off tour. It turned out to include many many admissions and attractions that I didn’t have time to do then, so this time around, I got myself a 2 day pass, and used the map from my first trip to plan out what I wanted to see and how best to get there. The new line that had been added had a stop just down the street from my hotel, and although the hotel had no idea, and there was no bus stop sign, I did manage to catch it anyway.  I used their google maps feature to GPS myself, but even that turned out to be a little off. Fortunately, the driver saw me running for the bus and waited.

My organizational brain has me considering writing a proposal to the company to hire me for a short term project to update all the information on their app with directions to and from each stop/attraction as well as photos of the stops that aren’t well marked. I can’t tell if this failing is in the company (which also operates in Europe) or just because the people in the Middle East haven’t gotten used to doing everything with a smartphone. Either way, I don’t think it would take more than a couple of weeks to ride to every stop and collect the information for future riders and it would sure make the trip easier (especially with photos for those who don’t speak English or Arabic).

The Marina Boat Cruise

My first stop that morning was for the Marina Boat Cruise. Last visit, I’d done the Dhow Creek Cruise and enjoyed it, so I wanted to see another part of the city from the water. Sadly, the bus dropped us off only a couple minutes too late to catch the 10am boat, so I had to wait there until the 11am one. So, I found a cafe to get some coffee at and sat down to chat with an Irish man who’d been living and working in Dubai for several years. I’m still not sure where the actual native residents of Dubai are. I’m pretty sure everyone I met both times I was there was an expat worker or a tourist, but logic says they must exist somewhere.

The boat ride was really quite beautiful. It took us past the marina hotels (so I could see my hotel and the Barasti Beach Bar), through an area of very tall skyscrapers with quite unique architecture, under some bridges and all the way out toward the Palm Island so we could see Atlantis and the Burj Arab before turning around. In the end, I think I liked the Dhow Cruise better, but it was an excellent and relaxing way to spend my morning, and the ticket had been included with my tour bus ride. (more pictures)

On our way back up from the docks to the bus stop, I noticed that one of the ladies had on my walking shoe of choice, the Converse high-top, so as I walked past her I commented, “nice shoes”. She looked a little confused, so I pointed at my own and grinned. We laughed a little and struck up a conversation. Her name is Urška and she is from Slovenia (where I now plan to visit later in the summer). She was also travelling alone, since her husband was back at the hotel and not feeling well. We compared our plans for the day and realized we were going to all the same stops on the bus, so we decided to hang out and be travel buddies for the day.

Picture 189

Driving Through Dubai

I had given some thought to stopping off at the JBR, or Jumeirah Beach Residence, because my students last term told me it was quite excellent. However, since my cruise had been delayed an hour, I no longer had time if I still wanted to do the aquarium and desert tour. But we did drive through the JBR on our way out to Atlantis. It was a very beautiful shopping district along the beach. I’m not overly fond of shopping, however, so while I was glad I got to see the famous area, I wasn’t sad at all that I wouldn’t be spending any time in it.

Urška was very friendly on the bus ride. She had brought a bun with her for a snack and insisted that I take half of it, so I broke out the fruit I had brought for my own snack and shared that with her and we both had a nice little blood sugar boost on the way. Because Atlantis is on the outer edge of the palm island, our bus route took us all the way up the main trunk where we could see the ultra luxury condos and vacation homes on the huge man-made island. (more pictures)

The Atlantis Aquarium

IMG_1486Atlantis is a branch of high end super luxury hotel resorts. It’s also one of the more famous landmarks in Dubai. It’s all the way out on the outter edge of the man-made palm tree shaped island and includes it’s own water park, a Dolphin Lagoon (where people can buy a visit with the dolphins), a plentitude of shops and restaurants, and the Lost Chambers Aquarium. Our ticket to the aquarium was included in our bus tour ticket, so Urška and I snapped our landmark pictures of the hotel as we drove up, then disembarked to check out the aquarium. It was a little tricky to find our way from the bus, since we had to stop at the Big Bus stand to trade our bus ticket stubs for an aquarium ticket voucher, then again at the aquarium ticket office to trade in for an actual ticket.

I read a lot of reviews about the aquarium before I went, and wasn’t really sure what to expect. Dubai has a tencency to do everything over the top. I’d already seen the huge aquarium tank in the Dubai Mall, and several reviews said the displays of fish weren’t all that at Atlantis. That’s sort of true, but incredibly misleading. The Atlantis aquarium is Atlantis themed. It’s less about showing off a variety of marine life (as you might expect in a normal aquarium) and more about creating a sense that you’re walking through the ruins of the sunken city of Atlantis.

We started out at a large cylinder full of silver baitfish, the ones that travel in huge swarms in the sea, flashing silver as they all turn in unison. The tank was lit with blue light and the fish circled endlessly, like a living lava lamp. Unfortunately it was too dark for me to get a good picture, but Urška was kind enough to share hers (credit!). Then we moved into an area with some smaller displays, the backdrops were carved stones, like sunken ruins. As we steped into the first large chamber, we were greeted with a wall sized view of the main tank that we would see in several chambers from different angles. The room also had Atlantean relics, suits of armor, statues and some “technology” that looked somewhere between steam punk and sci-fi.

We walked through a tunnel that was constructed of strange metal shapes and inhabited by lobsters, again giving the impression that we were walking through the ruins under water. The main tank contained much larger blocks, walls and pieces of buildings. There was also a huge cauldron in the middle that would burst up bubbles every few minutes, looking like the smoke of a sacrifice ascending to the heavens.Watching the variety of sharks, rays and other fish swiming alone or in schools through the ruins was enchanting.

Each room had traditional Arabic seating on the floor in front of the display tanks allowing people to sit and enjoy the view without blocking those behind them. I took as many pictures as I could, but it was very dark, and I’m afraid most of them did not turn out well. Urška took some as well, and was kind enough to share them, so now I have double memories!.

Room after room circling around the main tank and showed off smaller tanks full of mysterious ruins or imagined technology. Carvings of an unknowable alphabet graced many of the displays. There were vast vaulted ceilings and elaborate lamps and fountains. In one of the last views of the main chamber there was what looked like a small space-craft, or at very least an air-craft. So yes the fish are not much more than you could see at any aquarium, but the setting makes you feel like you’re walking through the ruins of that lost city. Definitly a worthwhile trip.

On the way out we passed by a small scale model of the Atlantis compound, stood under the most beautiful ocean themed ceiling murals, and nearly got lost in the mall maze of shops. We also took a picture together in the giant Atlantean Throne. In the end, we made it outside just in time to catch the next bus which would take us back to Wafi where we would embark on our desert sunset tour.(more pictures)

Desert Sunset Tour

IMG_1534Wafi is another one of Dubai’s high end shopping malls. It has an Egyptian theme, so there is a large pyramid, and the outside is decorated with huge replicas of famous Egyptian statuary. At the bus stop itself is a beautiful little Arabic garden with all the lovely geometrical patterns, a fountain and pathways through the flower beds. We had only a short time before the desert tour bus left and we were ravenous. We ran into the mall to find a bathroom, but couldn’t see any fast food places around. Fourtunately, Paul’s (a fancy french restaurant chain) had their bakery open as well as their restaurant, so we grabbed some goodies from there to munch on the bus.

The bus was so full that by the time we got on, there weren’t two seats together so we split up for the ride. It took about an hour to get there, and the bus guide fed us little tidbits of information on the way. Among those was the fact that we drove past the villas where the Emeratis live, spending huge amounts of money to preserve their lifestyle of 50 years past. When we finally arrived, it was … a place that had clearly been specifically built as a tourist representation of a desert fort. It was almost comical after seeing the real ruins of Madain Saleh and Petra. It was like the whole village recreations of colonial or old west times that are found on the American coasts.

There was a little red tent that we all passed through to be offered dates and Arabic coffee. I wondered for how many of the tourists here it was their first (or maybe only) experience with this tradition. After that, we all had the opportunity to pose with a hawk. There was a (ostensibly) Bedouin man who had a hawk perched on a sort of mit that he would place on the hand of each tourist while we posed for pictures. There were also camel rides, but like in a little circle maybe 10 feet (3 meters-ish) across. I did pose with the hawk, but did not ride a camel. As we walked up into the “fort” we passed a little meadow with some beautiful white (yes gray whatever) horses. The fort itself was full of more shops, mimicing the souq style with bins of spices and hanging skeins of cloth, but still selling tourist stuff.

We picked up some complimentary juice and tried to avoid the sales pitches as we headed over to the seating area that faced west toward the impending sunset. There was also a lovely lady doing henna hand art. It was included in the price of the ticket, but I did make a point of mentioning to the tourists around that tips would be appropriate. DSC_0985I somehow got to be an official photographer for a group of nordic tourists, which was kind of fun, and also gave me a chance to delicately let the others know that they should avoid showing her face if they took their own photos. I could tell a lot of the people there just didn’t know what the appropriate behavior was, being new to Arabic culture, so I was trying to find a way to let those who wanted to know know while not lecturing anyone on their behavior. She was astonishingly fast, creating detailed works of art, each one unique, in only a matter of minutes! I can only imagine how many thousands she must have done to be able to turn them out so perfectly with such variety. It was just as fun to watch her work on others as it was to take my own turn.

With our hands hennaed, we sat down on a squishy cushion to await the sunset. As the sun drew nearer to the horizon, I suggested we walk out a ways and up a nearby slope for a better view. Each type of landscape has it’s own special sunset qualities. In Seattle, we get mountiain sunsets which are beautiful in a completely different way from desert sunsets. There’s something really cool about the vast flat horizon meeting the glowing orb of light. The dry air also changes the perception of color a little as well, giving a much more golden quality than pink or red. I think I’ll get tired of the desert a long time before I get tired of desert sunsets. There was also a little rivulet of water draining out from somewhere in the fort. It created a tiny river that turned into a silver thread against the darkening sand as the sun sank lower and lower. Urška joined me for a duo-selfie with the sun right between us. I think it might be my favorite picture from the whole group.IMG_1553

After the last golden sliver sank below the horizon, we wended our way back toward the front of camp, taking a few more pictures of the fort lit up for the night. (this one is also courtesy of Urška, since she captured a much lovlier night view than I)

11063262_10203876875378429_2019972989_n We rode back to Wafi and there we parted ways. The bus tour stopped running around 6:30, so we were done with that part of the day. Urška was headed back to her hotel to check on her ailing husband, and I was planning to catch a ride out to the Global Village for the rest of my evening. On the ride back we made sure to trade facebooks so we could keep in touch (which we have done). I’m pretty psyched to visit with her in her home country later this year. (more pictures)

Global Village

IMG_1596A lady friend from Facebook who lives in Dubai had given me a long list of cool things when I was planning my December trip and I obviously couldn’t do all of them then, so I put a few more on the list for this trip. One of them was the Global Village. I’d researched it last time, but just couldn’t fit it into the scheudle, so I was determined to make it out there this time around. The Global Village only operates during the “cooler” months because it is mostly outdoor, or open air buildings. Each region or maybe country has its own pavillion with very … sterotypical national decorations. The only way I can really describe it is Disney meets Model U.N. It’s mostly a shopping place, but there are many restraurants, food kiosks, an entertainment stage and an amusement park. I really only meant to stay for an hour or two, just to check it out and not to do any shopping, but I ended up staying until after 1am! There was just so much to see!

IMG_1573The entrance fee is actually really cheap, only a couple bucks. When I first came in there was a “Bedouin Camp” display. They had made a little brick hut in the desert scene and there were actually men dressed up in thobes and shemagh sitting around having tea and cigarettes but clearly part of the display. I moved further in to the park and saw a huge bright glowing globe off to one side, like the Epcot globe. I still have no idea what it’s for. The first region I came across was “Africa” which somehow incorporated every sub-Saharan African stereotype ornament in one giant facade, as if designed by very un-PC Disney Imagineers.

IMG_1577I went inside and there were rows and rows of tiny stalls, each saying the name of the shop and the country of origin. There didn’t seem to be anything country specific about the goods they were selling as there were booths with animal bone and hide ornaments, carved wood ornaments, jewelry and even Bob Marley/Rastafarian stuff (I guess slave colonies count as Africa, right?).  I was greeted very quickly by a nice young man running a booth near the front. Maybe he was bored, or maybe walking around looking scruffy and carrying a backpack means you’re broke, either way he didn’t try to sell me anything, he just wanted to talk. He invited me to sit with him in his booth and we traded stories. I tried to help him with a few sales, but it was pretty slow.

Since the Global Village is only active about half the year, all the shopkeepers will return to their home countries when it’s over each spring. Muhammad, like many people I meet travelling, dreams of a better life. He asked about improving his English, but I felt like his grammar was fairly good, so I told him to check out videos on voice coaching for actors learning accents. I’d had a long day, so sitting and chatting was nice, but I’d only just started to explore the village and soon had to move on.

IMG_1582Next I came across China, which ended up looking like a cheap Chinese knock off of the Silk Market in Beijing. Of all the countries represented, I felt it was the most accurate at least in terms of how China represents itself to the world. I found one inestimable treasure however. Haw fruit! This small red fruit is very sour and I’ve never seen it anywhere outside of China. Some import shops sell haw flavored candy, but it’s not the same. One of the most ubiquitous treats in Chinese street food is the sugar coated haw on a stick. Among the food stands selling what is basically Middle Eastern fair food there was one stand that had a display that drew me in.

I actually asked the shopkeeper about the haw fruit in Chinese, but I don’t think he heard my words, because he started explaining them in English. He got as far as “this fruit is called” when I interrupted with excitement. He was equally excited though, since I was the first customer he’d ever had who knew what he was selling. I explained about my time living in China and how much I loved the treats (in Chinese) and an Arab man who had also been standing at the booth blinked in bemusement and said (in English) “well, that was unexpected”. They were a little pricey, but I guess it’s not cheap to import a fresh fruit that has no real demand in an area. Yum!

I wandered and wandered and wandered. I discovered that most of the pavillions were just full of shops, after the first few I stopped going inside them and just admired the huge facades that represented each place. Jordan, of course, was a smaller than life model of the Treasury of Petra. Egypt had replicas of Luxor. Cambodia showed off the beautiful temples. Some were more abstract. Kuwait was a scalloped pattern, I’m not really sure what was up with that. Europe was funny, sticking France, Germany, Spain and England together, but Italy got it’s own separate facade. I think there was a small Notre Dame. Spain was for some reason represented by windmills (which I have always seen associated with Holland). It took me a while to understand, but eventually I spotted a statue of Don Quixote and Sancho and it made more sense.

I noticed that there was some dancing on the main stage so I headed over. They had a troupe of dancers doing what I *think* was a Turkish style (maybe Greek, there was some “opa” going on), but I only caught the tail end of the show. Here’s a link to a short video.IMG_1628 There was an intermission and the entertainment resumed with a “Circus Circus” act, sort of a highly stylized dance routine with circus costumes and “acts”. They were quite entertaining to watch and I probably killed close to an hour between the two shows without meaning to.

Around one side were some “pay extra” exhibits. Most of them were not terribly appealing to me, but there was one called “Illumination World” which caught my eye. So for a couple extra dollars, I was allowed in to see the array of larger than life paper lanterns. It was beautiful, but kind of funny to see what represented each country. There were mushrooms and butterflies for Holland, dragons and pagodas for China, the Sydney Opera House and boxing kangaroos for Australia and many others. The Middle East was represented by a scene from Aladdin’s Lamp, some pyramids, and of course… camels. France had a beautiful Eiffel Tower, and America was a Statue of Liberty… flanked by a cowboy and an Indian. No I don’t mean Native American, or First Person, this was super old-school red-indian kind of sterotype. That’s America: liberty, cowboys and Indians. Thanks Dubai.

It made me curious, since I realized at this point that I hadn’t seen any pavilions for the western hemisphere. Asia, the Middle East and Europe were all well represented, and although all of sub-Saharan Africa was relegated to a single pavilion, they at least had something, but where were the Americas?

I set off to find out, vowing it would be my last stop because it was well after midnight already and I wanted to get an early start in the morning. But I was hungry too, so I paused at one of the “heritage” food stands I’d seen around. It turned out they were making another kind of food I really love, although I did not know it existed here. Its a kind of huge crispy crepe made on a massive round skillet. In China, these skillets spun, but here they were stationary. The fillings were also different, I got egg and cheese where in China it would have been egg and vegetable. But it was really delicious and nice to find. It reminded me that I’d seen a similar wheel skillet in a shop in Tabuk and clearly needed to investigate further.

Finally, I found the pavilion I’d been searching for (although I had to go to a reference map to do so). There was only one for the entire western hemisphere, and all of both North and South America were lumped together, seemingly represented by Brazil.IMG_1684 The shops inside were clearly struggling with a theme and no surprise since there aren’t a lot of tourist type goods produced in North America and I guess they don’t really understand Latin America at all because there was just nothing from that country bloc. Most of the goods for sale were very generic and probably made in China for “American” companies, however there was a whole big store full of crocs (yeah the shoes) and that said a lot about our image overseas too.

Completely wiped out, I finally wended out of the park and tracked down a taxi. I noticed as I was walking from the exit to the taxi stand that there were little mule drawn rickshaws lined up along the exit area. After reading a few of their signs I realized they were charging for rides from the gate to your car in the parking lot. I had to remind myself that the village was both an entertainment venue for small children and people who would do a lot of shopping (leave with a lot of bags) to make this service make any sense at all, and it’s still pretty strange. (more pictures)

That wraps up the first couple days, to be continued in Spring Break 2015 Vol. 8: Goodbye Dubai. Thanks for reading and don’t forget to check out all the photos on the facebook page! 🙂

Spring Break 2015: Overview

My English program in Saudi is not a normal University program, but an intensive 21 week all day English course. This means we don’t get the regular university breaks. So aside from the religious holidays of Eid, and the State holiday of National Day, our only other holiday was a week between the two 21 week semesters. I have opted to think of this as “spring break”. I know it isn’t spring yet, but “winter break” has connotations of holidays and going to see family and is usually longer, whereas “spring break” is typically only a week long and used by most to run off an have raucous party times in tropical beaches (which I did at least a little of).

Today is my first day back from the vacation, and tomorrow school starts again, so I’m mostly laying on the couch trying to get my feet to unswell and gathering my strength for a new batch of students. One valuable thing I learned from this is that I really don’t have the fortitude to run around 3 countries in 7 days without proper rest. And I certainly don’t have time to stop and write about it. But since the summer travels will be restricted by money, rather than time, and staying put for a day is one of the least expensive things you can do while travelling, I should be able to take more regular downtime days where I can rest, reflect and share.

But for now, I have to do those things after the trip is finished. Over the next several weeks, I’ll be organizing my photos and stories and putting them here and on my facebook page. Until then, here’s a brief overview of the trip and what stories you can look forward to.

Day 1

This day was entirely spent travelling. There’s a sort of horrible irony to the fact that it took me almost 12 hours of travelling to get somewhere 3 hours away by car. Oh, Saudi. I had a loooong layover in the Medina airport, the highlight of which was meeting the Filapina bathroom attendant and learning the story of her life and how she came to convert to Islam and work in Saudi. Mostly it’s a story about insane economic inequality, but still worth hearing.

Day 2

This day was spent in Al Ula and Madain Saleh. I had to hire a guide because of the travel and driving restrictions in Saudi, but he turned out to be quite nice and very responsible. My original intent was just to see Madain Saleh, the southern capitol of the Nabatean civilization, but I ended up seeing some other cool stuff around Al Ula as well. I ended the evening with a Bedouin style dinner out at the base of some of the high rocks, and had an interesting encounter with the local police and the French Cultural Attache.

Day 3

I also spent mostly travelling. I had an overnight flight to Amman and only crashed for a couple hours in the hostel before catching the local bus to Petra (yay local public transportation). I made it into Petra before the park closed, and since a 2 day pass is only 5JD more than a 1 day, I decided it was worth it for a couple of hours. Petra is the northern capital of the Nabateans, and made famous by Indiana Jones. I met a local Bedouin man who was closing up shop for the evening and just spent some time walking and talking with me. I learned a great deal about the local Bedouin tribe there and even walked up to their village with him at sunset. Dinner was another Bedouin style tent affair up in the rocks, similar to the one at Madain Saleh, but more commercial. However the effect of the paper lanterns on the cliffside was beautiful, and the number of stars visible in the sky was stunning.

Day 4

This was an all day hike into Petra. I have to do some research to find out how far I walked, but it was a looong hike with many many steps carved into the rocks. I walked up to the monastery with another American I’d met in the hostel, and walked back with a variety of trail partners from many different places. I also sat and had tea with several of the Bedouin ladies who were selling handmade goods (and other trinkets) along the trail. Turns out, they still barter as well as haggle. In the evening I took a charter bus back to Amman and waited for my plane in the hostel with another traveler from Australia.

Day 5

Another overnight flight, I arrived in Dubai in the morning and managed to check out the metro transit system and finish up some shopping before having a short nap and heading to a nearby beach bar where I met a lady from two neighborhoods over in Seattle! She turns out to also have an amazing story, btw.

Day 6

Sightseeing in Dubai. I started the day with a boat tour of the marina, where I met a lovely lady from Slovenia because we both had matching high top converse “chucks”. We had the same itinerary for the day, so we stayed travel buddies, and so hopefully, I’ll get some cool pictures from her as well when she’s all done. We went to the Atlantis Aquarium and then ended the day with a desert  sunset  tour. That was especially strange as my third evening in “Bedouin style” entertainment, but Dubai was by far the most touristy and least authentic. Afterward, we parted ways and I went to see the Global Village, which I can only describe as Disney meets Model UN.

Day 7

More sightseeing in Dubai. I made it to the Museum, the Heritage Village, the Gold Souk, the Jumeirah Mosque, the Burj Arab and ended with the Dubai Mall dancing fountain show (I got video and pictures this time!). Traffic was abysmal, and by the time I got back to the hotel I was exhausted, but there  was so much music playing around, that I couldn’t sleep, so I headed back to the beach bar where I ended up sitting on the sand and watching crazy drunk people.

Day 8

Finishing off Dubai without a champagne brunch was sad, but I headed once more to the nearby beach bar and had a lovely breakfast with a single glass of sparkling rose overlooking the marina. Glorious. Then headed back to the airport for the long journey back to Tabuk.

READ MORE

This is all just the quickest of overviews, a teaser, a trailer, a tantalizing glimpse of the wonders I experienced in the last 8 days. Those of you who read regularly know that each tale will be spun in detail and color as time allows, and those of you who may be new or who I met on this trip, I hope you’ll come back and see the full stories.

🙂

Dubai December: The Burj Khalifa

Finally, a month after my birthday trip to Dubai, I’m bringing up the rear with the last-but-not-least-post about the world’s tallest building. If you want all the stats about the height and amazing construction efforts, the largest this and fastest that, you should go read Wikipedia, I’m here to talk about the experience.

After my lovely boat ride down the Dubai canal, I caught that coveted taxi and headed over to the Dubai Mall. That is the giant mall structure that rests at the bottom of the Burj Khalifa, next to the beautiful dancing fountain in the world’s largest artificial lake. The entrance to the Burj Khalifa “At the Top” experience is inside the mall.

The mall itself is, like all Dubai malls, huge and awe inspiringly wealthy. On my way to the entrance, I passed the display for the aquarium inside the mall – a two story high window showing off the underwater reef and fish display.

After some research I had decided to buy my tickets online in advance for two reasons. One, it’s much much cheaper. Deciding to go to the top at the last minute will cost you big bucks, so if you’re heading to Dubai, and want to catch this attraction, go the website and book ahead. When you do this, you pick a time. The website advises readers that the ticket is only good for getting in at the specified time, but once you are at the top, you can stay as long as you like. The website also says that the tour typically takes 90 minutes.

What it should say is that the line typically takes 90 minutes.

Even having purchased my ticket in advance, and arriving 20 minutes ahead of my ticket time, I had to stand in line to redeem my online receipt. Then I had to stand in line to get to the line inside for the security sweep. Then I had to wait in line for the elevator (world’s fastest). Meanwhile we are packed in like sardines, there is nothing to look at but an endless loop video telling about the Burj Khalifa that none of us could hear over the crowds. There is no where to sit, nothing to drink, no bathrooms, just standing in line for 90 minutes. Disney Land has shorter lines.

Now, to be fair, the line may have been excessive because it was both a weekend (Saturday) at I had chosen to go in a time slot that should have allowed me to see the sunset from the top, which is a very high demand time as you may imagine. Maybe if you go off-peak, you’ll have a shorter line.

Your other option is to pay nearly double the ticket price to get the “fast track”. This one might be worth it. It’s about 45$ (US) for a peak time ticket, and about 80$ for the fast track. Either one seems like a lot of money to me to go up a building, but hey if you want to go to the tippy top VIP balcony, you’re looking at 135$. And who knows, maybe that’s worth it too, Dubai does know how to lay on a VIP treatment.

I’m permanently going through life in “poor college student” mode, so I tend to opt for the cheaper choice. So there’s me in line.

When we finally get to the elevators, we’re told these are the fastest elevators that will take us up in less than a minute. Considering they packed us in to absolute capacity, that was a relief. I’m not usually claustrophobic. I managed to ride the subways in Beijing where they literally shove people in at rush hour, but after an hour and a half of being scrunched up in the line, being even more scrunched up in the elevator was not fun.

Some people took video of the floors ticking by so fast, and while that itself is a kind of cool experience, I didn’t think it would be fun for you all to watch. It does bring up an interesting idea of how time and space are linked in our perception. We grow accustomed to traversing a certain amount of space to take a long time, the larger the space, the longer the time. So while the fastest elevator may be a marvel of technology, it seriously distorted my body’s perceptions of how high we had traveled. I wonder if the first people who traveled in airplanes from city to city had a similar experience of distance distortion.

We piled out of the elevator on floor 124 (not actually the highest floor but, I didn’t want to pay for the floor 148 experience (almost 100$ more than what I had already paid). And it was pretty crowded. Not surprising.

The first part was the outdoor viewing platform. Similar to “The Experience” at Al Faisaliah, the platform was surrounded by very high, very strong clear glass walls. I have to admit, that was pretty impressive. There is something really magical about feeling the air from really high places.

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It was crowded, but I was happy to be there finally. I wandered around the edge of the platform, admiring the view, enjoying the breeze and lingering sunlight, and trying to wrap my head around the sheer scope of what I was seeing. Partially, because everything in Dubai is built huge, so it’s hard to feel a sense of scale just from the surrounding architecture. Most of the buildings we can see here are between 50 and 90 stories tall themselves. The distance to the horizon is somewhat more helpful, but since I had never even come close to such an experience before (not even the Empire State, which at 103 stories would have been 21 stories below me). The tallest building in Seattle (my hometown) is 76 stories. It was almost more like I was looking at a model of a city rather than a real city at a distance. Combined with the super speedy elevator trip, it made the whole thing very surreal.

Finally I headed inside. The outdoor platform was not 360, and looked more or less east. I had booked a time to see the sunset, so I wanted to get to the west side of the building before the main event.

The website advertises an “unobstructed” 360 degree view from the top. This is not realistic. Not only are there way too many people to get a clear view, but there is a giant gift shop in the middle, and a green screen souvenir photo set up on one end. There are windows everywhere, and you can walk around and see the whole thing eventually. I got the obligatory “world’s highest selfie”. Getting close to a window was really quite a battle, though.

Perched at what was certainly the best sunset viewing window were three European tourists. They weren’t even looking out the window, just sitting in it playing on their smart phones. I mean, ok if you want to Instagram your world’s highest selfies, take a couple seconds, but to spend the $$, wait in line, and then just sit there on your phone? I tried to politely get past them to take pictures, and finally one of the staff came by and made them move.

No one who was actually taking pictures or actively admiring the view was asked to move, by the way, so I was happy to see that even if the tourists thought they could do whatever they liked, the staff were trying to be fair to everyone.

I stood in the press of people patiently admiring the orange red glow in the west. We should have been able to see the Burj Arab too, that giant building that looks like a sail on the coast of Dubai, but it turns out that the air quality in Dubai isn’t that great. The reasearch I did online seems to indicate that it should be in the green zone, under 50 on the AQI (air quality index, Seattle is around 8, and the worst parts of China are now breaking 500), so maybe it was the reputed “dust fall” but there was quite a serious haze in the air. It was a little bit disappointing, because I can only imagine how spectacular the view would have been if the air were clear.

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I don’t mean to whinge. It was a cool experience, and I’m glad I went. But, I don’t know if I’ll ever go again. And I’ll certainly have some choice advice for anyone who hasn’t gone and wants to.

I should mention at this point that I was heading straight to the airport from the Burj Khalifa. My flight was at 9 and FlyDubai says to arrive 3 hours early for an international flight. Sunset was at 5:30. I’d already determined the 3 hrs wasn’t going to happen, but I figured 2 and a half was probably enough, especially since I didn’t have checked baggage (oh the glorious joys of flying without checked baggage). So shortly after the glow dipped below the horizon I started to plan my exit strategy.

The website had also indicated that there were “official” souvenirs that could only be purchased by one who had got the “At the Top” ticket, and other souvenirs that could be purchased in the mall. I don’t like big gaudy souvenirs, I don’t collect T-shirts or spoons or anything. I have a small shotglass collection, but those are mostly from bars, not souvenir shops. But, I do like odd unique items sometimes. So I wanted a quick look around the souvenir shop before I headed out.

Have I mentioned the crowds? Crowded.

I ducked and weaved my way around the crowds until I found a cute little phone dongle and a lapel pin with the outline of the building. Small cheap but hopefully durable souvenirs with the “exclusive” label so I could rest assured they were at least unique to ticket holders.

Finally, I’d had more people than I could handle. While I had really hoped to see the city lights come on after the sunset, I couldn’t physically handle the crowds anymore, and was starting to get the adrenaline/anxiety combo that had totally eluded me when standing right at the edge and heralded the onset of a mild anxiety attack.

Time to go.

There was a line for the elevator to go down.

So I stood in line some more.

In line.

I don’t know how the fastest elevator stuffed to capacity still takes so long to move people that we had a line to go down. Up I could almost understand, maybe they wanted to wait for a certain number to come down before letting more up because it’s really kinda tiny up there. But down?

When I finally got down, I had the long walk of the Disneylandride-esque line on the other side (where, for some reason they had decided to put all kinds of pictures and stories for us to read on our way out when we were in a hurry instead of on the way in when we had to stand around forever). Then I was dumped into another gift shop (I keep seeing the Disney Land similarities), where I was dismayed to see the same items I’d purchased at the top.

It turns out the shop can’t be entered by mall patrons, so they weren’t lying about the exclusivity, but I really feel like they could have provided a better viewing experience if they’d cut out the gift shop and let us look first and shop later. Plus the gift shop at the bottom was roomier, less crowded and had more stuff.

I took a quick look around to make sure there wasn’t anything else to my tastes (almost bought a scarf, I have an addiction), before glancing at my watch and beginning to panic about my flight. It was already 6pm!

Quickly I darted for the nearest exit, and was greeted by the famous Dubai fountain in full performance as soon as I stepped outside. Airport be damned, this was worth stopping for. Sadly, I didn’t get any pics or video of the fountain in action, because I walked out after it had already started, phone in bag and stuck at the back of the crowd, but what I saw was amazing. That big blue swimming pool looking thing you can see from my picture at the top is actually a lake where the fountain is. This almost makes me want to go back at night so I could see the fountain show from the air. I am going back to Dubai next month, and I do plan to make sure I get a good view at least one night I’m there, even if only from the ground.

I also took a few more quick pictures of the Burj Khalifa at night, cause it is sooo pretty, before I had to run off in search of a taxi (again). As always, check out the facebook page for the full photo album of this and all my adventures! 🙂

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Summary?

Worth it. I am an achievement junkie though, so for me, being able to tell the story of when I watched the sun set from the world’s tallest building is the prize.

My advice to anyone else?

-of course buy the tickets in advance. I’m willing to bet if you want to go off peak, you can probably get  by with a shorter line than me at the cheapie tickets, but if you want to see the sunset, or go on a weekend, spend the extra cash for the Fast Track tickets, those guys were definitely speeding past us. And if you’re flush with cash, check out the VIP and tell me what it’s like.

-don’t bother shopping at the top, everything they have there is in the shop at the bottom.

-show up early, get to the ticket counter at least 30 minutes before your ticket time, which means get to the mall at least an hour before, because you have to walk what seems like several km to get from the mall entrance to the ticket counter.

-be careful what you carry with you. there is a security station that forbids luggage (backpacks seemed ok) and shopping bags (odd since they’re in a mall).

-use the restroom before you get in line. I didn’t see one again until I got back out into the main mall.

Other than that, enjoy it. I had some frustrations, which hopefully if you go after reading this, you can avoid. But the end result was a rare experience, because even if I go back to the top again, I’d go at a different time or day, and see different things. I’m glad I went, and for anyone who likes to build memories of awesome adventures, I recommend it.

Post Script: The Flight Home

International travel without checked luggage is the best. I got to the airport “late” and rushed in, only to be directed to a special check in counter for no luggage customers that also had no line. The clerk was very friendly and we chatted about how much I had enjoyed Dubai, and he gave me an exit row seat, as he said, so I would have extra leg room on my flight. (requesting those seats beforehand can cost up to $50 for the extra room, btw)

I had plenty of time to stretch my legs, explore the duty-free shop (where I got myself a beautiful new hijab, black with one edge done up in blue and silver embroidery. And to make some new friends in the waiting lounge, a nice woman from Kuwait who chatted with me about the cultural differences between Saudi and Kuwait while we waited for our flights.

On the plane, I was still in “western” clothes, my abaya and hijab tucked away in the bottom of my backpack. I was quite surprised when a Saudi gentleman addressed me to ask if I wouldn’t mind moving from the aisle to the window seat. It’s not uncommon for men and women who are not married to trade seats around to avoid sitting next to one another on planes here, so I took the window, he took the aisle and his wife sat between us so everyone was safe.

It was surprising because I was used to being addressed only by women if a married couple needed something, or by a flight attendant if the man single, but I figured she might not speak English, and after all, we were in Dubai still. We chatted a bit more on the flight, I think he must have lived abroad before to be so comfortable talking to a woman who wasn’t covered, and not being at all skeezy about it either.

Pro-tip, order the hot meal when you buy a ticket on FlyDubai, totally worth it.

When we landed and I got my backpack back from the overhead bin, I reached in and pulled out my abaya and hijab to put them on before disembarking in Saudi. There were several relieved faces from the men around me as they saw me getting properly dressed, and the gentlemen who shared my row gave me a compliment on my hijab donning technique, saying that I must have had some practice to become so proficient.

It was really an interesting cultural moment. Clearly these men were braced for the fact that an abayaless woman was about to get off the plane in their country. I’d seen it in the Riyadh airport, where most international flights come in, but this was Tabuk! Yet none of them were chastising, or even giving me dirty looks, they were just prepared to accept that I was different. But the moment that I showed my acceptance of their culture despite my differences we connected in that special inter-cultural space that says of course I don’t live your way, or understand your way, or even like your way, but I’ll respect you.

None of us had demanded our own way and were all prepared to be a little uncomfortable to make the other feel better, and I think we were all happier for it. It was a good trip.

Dubai December: Saturday Tourist

However amazing my Friday was, the trip wasn’t over yet. Saturday I’d planned a bus tour for my Saturday as well as a trip to the top of the world’s tallest building. And, since I’d paid for these tickets in advance, I decided I’d better follow through.

Saturday morning was a particularly slow start. The bus didn’t come to the nearest stop until 9:30, and I figured since I was out late, I wasn’t going to worry too much about waking up super early. That turned out to be irrelevant, as my school teacher internal clock had me awake by 7am. I had a leisurely breakfast, if a somewhat mild one, of cornflakes and toast, and generally tried to starch and hydrate the remains of a hangover away.

In the midst of this, I realized that I’d somehow not only used all the gb of international internet I’d purchased on my phone, but hadn’t turned the data off, so I’d used up all the remaining balance on the SIM card. Which meant I spent a very unproductive 30 minutes using the hotel wifi to try to find a way to recharge the phone credit from the internet, which it turns out you can’t do without a Saudi bank account, which I still didn’t have at the time. Oh well, I say, time to see the day anywho. By this time, I’d missed the 930 bus window, but another was due by 950, and the mall where the stop lay was about a block away.

It bears mentioning that the malls in Dubai are HUGE and not especially geared for pedestrian entrance. Mall of the Emirates was not an exception, and due to confusing parking lot signs and a lot of construction, I walked at least halfway around the building before I found a way in. I found a mall map which told me how far I had to go to get to the bus stop, and headed in the correct direction. On the way, I got a delicious avocado and banana smoothie with a shot of pure ginger juice to finish kicking out the hangover cobwebs. Totally hit the spot.

As I walked through the gigantic mall, admiring the Christmas decorations and ritzy shops, I spotted a display that looked like a giant scene from “Frozen”. I looked closer and realized it was real snow. Gaping at this multi-story indoor snowscape, I recalled stories about the famous Dubai indoor ski slope. I’d seen it was close to my hotel, but since I can’t ski and didn’t have very long in Dubai, it wasn’t on my to-do list. It turns out, it’s actually inside the Mall of the Eremites, and I was walking past the full wall window display that leads up to the ticket entrance.

So after some ooos and ahhs, I continued on toward the bus area. Now, the cool thing about a hop-on-hop-off bus is that inevitably you’ll catch it where you disembarked, but that first stop can be a little tricky. The phone app that the company had sadly did not include any directions or gps for the stop beyond “at the Mall”, so it took me a while to track it down. It turned out to be in an underground parking garage, one I’d passed while searching for an entrance to the mall earlier. The avocado smoothie and indoor snow land made up for the detour, though.

I caught a bus, and there was some conflict over which line it was. Both the website and the app indicate that the company offers a “red” line and a “blue” line, there are maps and descriptions of all the stops. According to both, the mall was only on the blue line. And the driver was talking about the “beach” line, which made no sense. Initially, he told me I needed a different bus, but then he changed his mind and waved me on.

I was the only person on the bus, which was a little eerie. As I unfolded the map the driver had given me, I slowly realized that the website and app were both outdated. There were in fact three routes, and the previously labeled blue line was now green, and the new third beach route was now blue. Hence the confusion. And as it turned out, I was on the wrong line, going the wrong way. So at the next stop, I hopped off and switched lines, and finally around 11am I was on the right bus going the right way.

Other than a slight snafu with the planning, I was really impressed with the bus tour. I’m not a huge fan of organized tours or heavily touristy activities, but the hop-on-hop-off style basically allows you to design your own tour, and not have to worry about transportation, since you can always catch the next company bus that comes along. Plus, in addition to your transportation, it included entrance fees to a ton of sights, museums, boat rides and some kind of desert safari, only a few of which are mentioned on the website. The buses have recorded tour tracks if you like to listen to city information, and free wifi.

I wish I’d had more time. I didn’t realize how much stuff was on that tour when I did the website research, and I got on the bus about an hour and half later than I’d meant to. But what I did see was lots of fun (so much so, I’m planning the two day version for my next trip so I can see everything the ticket includes!). I had booked a 4:00 ticket for the Burj Kalifah, which meant I needed to drop everything and taxi over there at 3:30 at the latest.

And I really wanted to take the boat ride along the Dubai canal, since that was one of the things on the website I’d found and it was recommended to me by a fellow PNW American who’d stopped in Dubai on her way into Saudi. The boat was due to go out every hour on the half an hour, and I made it just in time to catch the 2:30 boat (getting me back to catch a 3:30 taxi to my 4:00 tower experience, or so I hoped).

The boat was entirely lovely.

When we got off the bus, it hadn’t pulled up to the dock yet, so some Dutch tourists and I ended up walking down the docks into a shipping area which made for an interesting detour and we got to see the boats that the locals use for cargo between countries around the Persian gulf.

Once on the real boat, we enjoyed a lazy trip down the canal, narrated by a soft British female voice, and accompanied by snacks and beer. (my first beer since moving to Saudi, I might add)

The weather was beautiful and the views spectacular. It really was a great ride and a nice way to see the city.

We got back to the dock just in time for the next tour bus, but I needed a taxi. So I let the bus go and tried to flag one down. I don’t know what the universal law is that makes it so that taxis are trying to flag me down when I want to walk somewhere, but all of them are full when I want a taxi, but I was starting to worry that I wasn’t going to make my ticket time for the tower. Just as I was prepared to start hiking to the nearest hotel or mall, I finally found an empty taxi, and slumped with some relief into the air-conditioned cab and settled in for the cross town ride.

coming next:

The World’s Tallest Building

and don’t forget to check out the facebook page for more pictures of Dubai December! 🙂

 

Dubai December: A Night in Eden

One of my favorite parts about travelling is meeting cool people and having random adventures. This has not always been true. While I have always enjoyed talking to strangers, I’ve only recently learned the power of “yes” (and while I usually hate self help tag lines, this one isn’t too bad). I never read the book, I heard a story on public radio about a woman (maybe the author?) who had learned that saying yes gave rise to more adventures and a generally happier life. I like the idea. I used to be a rigid schedule kind of girl, and if unknowns entered my plans it was very hard for me to change them and be comfortable.

For a while I solved this by planning spontaneous time. I would schedule times in which anything was allowed to happen and I would be ok. Outside of these times, everything needed to go according to plan. No I haven’t been tested for Autism, thank you.

In 2012 I decided that my new life goal was to be happy. Maybe one day I’ll write more about what that means or how I found it, but today, suffice it to say that one of my many tools for happiness is learning how to seize adventures, be more spontaneous and enjoy what the universe offers.

So, at the end of my delicious champagne brunch at Al Qasr, I found myself sitting on the patio, nursing a mojito and a final flute of prosecco and watching the tipsy diners around me. I’m a complimentary person. I like making other people feel better. My mother does this thing where she finds something nice about a person no matter what, and if you can give a genuine compliment, people feel it and it makes them feel good, which is awesome. So, throughout the brunch, whenever I’d run into someone and it seemed reasonable, I would pay them a compliment.

At the table next to me was a trio of young women, and I happened to compliment one on her dress, a cute powder pink dress with a short skirt made entirely of feathers. I thought it was cute and told her so. Then her friends asked if I wanted to take a picture with them, which seemed odd, but I still haven’t quite grasped the Instagram culture, so I said “sure”, and stood up to join them for snaps.

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We used my phone, and of course I wanted to share the pictures, so we tried to co-ordinate sending, but in the Gulf all that is done on Facebook in the US is done with What’s App, which I had only just downloaded and had no real idea how to use.

So they invited me to sit while we figured it out, and between the champagne and the new app, I had to hand my phone over to one of the ladies so they could add their number and send the photos, but it was a success and in the mean time, we enjoyed chatting so much, they invited me to move my stuff over and stay at their table.

They were all quite tipsy too, which is really half the point of the Friday brunch, and we worked our way through the remaining drinks and coffee, chatting about our lives and continuously telling the staff we’d leave really soon.

It came to light that the girl in the pink feather dress was a person of some fame in India and the Gulf. I’m horrible with famous people in my own culture and have no idea who is famous elsewhere. And no, I didn’t get her full name, and I wouldn’t post it here if I had because that is not the point of the story.

At first, I actually thought they might be making it up. I have friends *ahem* who have been known on occasion when travelling to fancy places to pretend that one member of the group is famous as a kind of game. It’s fun, and really mostly harmless, especially since the advent of smart phones and google. And since these women didn’t seem to want anything beyond company, I wasn’t concerned if they were just having me on.

One girl kept saying to the wait staff whenever they would come ask us to leave, “Do you know who she is?” pointing to the girl in the pink feather dress. Most of the staff would say, yes of course, and continue politely telling us it was closing time soon. But then one waiter asked for an autograph. I don’t know if he recognized her or just wanted to get one in case, but it certainly lent to the air of fame at the table.

The ladies nicknamed me “Kimmie” fairly quickly and decided that they liked me and so invited me to join them at “Eden” after we left the restaurant.

Here is where the power of “yes” and the newfound plan changing spontaneity comes in. My plan for Friday had been to enjoy brunch which ended at 4pm, have 2-3 hours of “anything goes time” during which I’d hoped to see the Burj Arab because it was so close to the restaurant, and then go to the famous dancing fountain at the base of the Burj Kalifah which started at 6pm and went on and off for a few hours every night. My plan.

I’d already spent most of my “anything goes” time with these women, because while the food stopped at 4pm, we stayed on the balcony drinking and chatting until the sunlight started to fade. And I was fine, I was happy, I felt like interesting people and a fun conversation were more than a fair trade for a building.

The old me would have been paralyzed at the thought of changing my plan. How could I ever see the fountain? This was the only time I had plotted out during the visit it would be running! How can I go to a club with strangers? Alone and in a foreign land? The old me.

New me says, “sure”.

One of the ladies had a mildly intoxicated altercation with management somewhere around the final no-really-everyone-out time, and as we were heading towards the taxis, in order to distract her, I told her I was in Dubai celebrating my birthday. Perhaps just as improbably and often used to elicit fun times as pretending to be famous, it happened to be true for me. And made a fantastic distraction. She immediately went from melancholy anger to jubilant singing of “Go Kimmie, it’s your birthday, we’re gonna party like it’s your birthday”.

So after taking a few more random instagramable moments with some total strangers, the ladies shepherded me into their cab and we headed off into the sunset.

First stop was our pink feather dress starlet’s home for (you guessed it) more drinks and some pre-club music. If the reactions of waitstaff at the restaurant had not convinced me, the apartment might have. Beachfront. It was a beautiful apartment, quite spacious and well appointed. Her S.O. and another man were there when we arrived, having just woken up, along with a maid of some minority who did her best to simply serve drinks and stay out of the way.

We headed out to the balcony, although balcony is not the best description, it was more like an open wall third bedroom. There was a circular day-bed on one end, in a matching circular alcove in the wall, a couch, and a table and chairs. The view over the Persian Gulf was quite lovely.

20141219_175710bWe enjoyed our drinks, were silly, danced and reassured each other that we were all quite beautiful enough to be seen at the club without any additional makeup or changes of wardrobe, and then we migrated back to the taxis where I tried to take selfies of us in the dark… <3!

I had no idea what Eden was beyond a dance club. I looked it up the next day on my faithful Google and discovered it was a brand new (month old) beachfront club on one of the palm tree shaped islands. I’m not sure, but I’m guessing it might be kind of exclusive/hot-spotish. This is the calendar for the night I was there. Matthias Tanzmann & Djebali were apparently the musical guests, and I’m not cool enough to know who they are either. But the calendar advises people to be there by 1pm and that a “door policy” applies. Again, no idea.

20141220_001608I followed the ladies from the cab, one who had taken a particular shine to me made sure to keep hold of my arm so I would not be separated, and couldn’t hear what they said to the concierge, but we were wrist-banded and shown in to what was almost assuredly a VIP area. We were elevated, there was a semblance of roof (though after sunset that mattered less, some very lovely couches and a TON of space for us marked off from other similar areas with little velvet ropes. The people in front of us with no roofing were also packed much more like dance club sardines would expect to be, hence my conclusions as to our group’s status.

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We ended up with two very tall white porcelain hookahs with minty shisha (my favorite flavor), and a bottle service of grey goose, which I believe was mixed with red bull. A waitress showed up at one point with the bottle which she placed in a bucket of ice at our table, and several glasses, asking me because I was closest I suppose, what we wanted in our drinks. Wisely, I did not take charge of this choice but asked one of my hostesses, who made the red bull decision.

The music was physical. It went into the bones, and pressed on the ears, but perhaps because we were outdoors, it didn’t feel as deafening or crushing as indoor superloud dance music. The light show was also rather … sensory. I had the sense to take some video, mostly because I was so stunned at how my night turned out that I felt the need to post it on facebook. I don’t seem to be able to post them on wordpress, so here’s a linkPost by Gallivantrix.

Around 10:30, the ladies were ready to call it a night, so I graciously took my leave and a separate cab, thanking them again for the company and the experience.

I was, I must admit,  astonishingly happy. There I was celebrating my birthday in Dubai, not only with a fantastic champagne brunch, but with a jaw dropping night out on the town courtesy of some fun, kind strangers and my own openness to adventure. I could not imagine a more perfect gift than to have everything I had been working toward in myself: happiness, gratitude, confidence, inspiring others to feel good, being open, and having more adventures – all come together in one amazing day. It really is good to be alive.

Dubai December: Champagne Brunch at Al Qasr

The main highlight of my birthday treat to myself was a champagne brunch at one of the most luxurious hotel resorts in Dubai. (ok it was Prosecco, I’m not complaining) It turns out that Friday brunch is the thing to in Dubai. If you’re ever there on a Friday, make sure you find one and go.

See, Dubai is a little like the Vegas of the Gulf, and while alcohol is legal there (unlike in Saudi) it can only be publicly served in hotels. So these brunches, with limitless cocktails, wine, beer and bubbly are where people really let their hair down. I’ve heard stories that some of the more casual places devolve into riotous parties by the end of the three hour brunch tour.

In fact, it was the huge array of brunch options that caused me to spend several days researching and weighing my options. In the end I opted for Al Qasr, located in Al Jumeriah. Three restaurants get together to make the brunch menu, and run from 12:30 to 4:00, slightly longer than the average. Since I wanted to have a chance to try everything without exploding, the longer time was important. The chocolate room didn’t hurt their chances either.

I do not regret my choice in any way.

First, as the taxi drove up, we passed by a beautiful lawn covered in more than a dozen larger than life golden Arabian horses (and some reindeer because it’s Christmas). Then as we pulled up to a beautiful building with traditional Arabic designs and more Arabian horses in the fountain. I spent some time wandering around taking photos before heading in, since I was about 15 minutes early.

When I entered the building, I was completely swept away by the beautiful Christmas decorations that greeted me. I can tell you that there is nothing like spending some time in poor, dirty places to make clean, beautiful, wealthy places seem disproportionately more amazing.

For example, my friend and I while travelling around China, staying in hostels and hiking up mountains were exposed to a wide variety of very … rural amenities. When we took ourselves to a night at the Tang Dynasty theater at a beautiful upscale locale, the bathroom nearly brought us to tears simply because it was bright, clean, private and had warm water to wash up in.

So you can imagine, after living in Tabuk for almost 4 months, working at a school where the toilets haven’t flushed for 8 months, completely unable to clean the dust from my feet or abaya, looking at dreary taupe sand colored everything for nearly the whole time how seeing a huge, beautiful hotel would be awe inspiring.

Even more so that I had been deprived of Christmas celebrations ( having only my own homemade paper ones to try to bring in a little cheer) how seeing soaring, sparkling, bedecked trees under twinkling chandeliers brought equally sparkling tears to my eyes.

I took many more pictures of the building and decorations, little brass camels, antique silver samovar sets, Santa’s sleigh and flying reindeer, and many more things. Those along with the pictures I managed to get of all the buffet displays (before the people started chowing down) are all on the facebook page.

As 12:30 arrived, the staff began to let patrons down the sweeping double staircase to be greeted by a table filled with flutes of pink prosecco and friendly servers handing each guest a brimming bubbling glass.

Escorted, glass in hand, to my table on the patio of MJ’s Steakhouse (one of the three restaurants that blend together at Al Qasr to create the ginormous brunch spread), I passed such an amazing display of chocolates and pastries, as well as a a cheese board that made me wistful at first sight.

I took myself and my camera on a quick tour of the three restaurants and their offerings. In addition to the deserts and cheese that I passed, there was a whole seafood area with a sushi station that could have been a buffet all on its own. There was Indian, Chinese, Italian, French, Creole, eggs and waffles, and some things I didn’t even recognize. All of it cooked or prepared right there in the three gourmet restaurants and served fresh.

There were also buffet drinks stations. There was cognac, beer, a station making lynchburg lemonades, one of mojitos, and one full of fresh coconuts waiting to be cut open and have rum poured into them, and probably some I missed. Just like the food stations, one had simply to walk up and ask for a drink, mixed when you asked so those keeping Halal could know they could have a “virgin” cocktail.

I started at the seafood stations (yes plural). Seafood is one of my favorite categories of food, and I’d eat sushi every day if I could afford it. King crab is a delicacy I rarely eat, not merely because of the price but also because I think it’s crazy that people die catching food in the 21st century. But, there are things to be said for exceptions. Also, steamed mussels, raw oysters, boiled prawns, and sashimi salads were all on one seafood table (and on my plate). And from the sushi table, I focused in on the unagi (smoked eel, and my absolute favorite) and sashimi of salmon, tuna and yellowtail. I should also mention that the pickled ginger was top notch.

Oh and that bright pink and green dish in the corner is lebnah (a kind of soft cream cheese/sour cream thing) with a thin slice of beet, a sliver of fig (which goes great with lebnah as I discovered) and the tiniest most adorable (and sweet/tart) cherry tomato I’ve ever seen.

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It should be obvious, but I’ll say it anyway, all this seafood was fresh, top quality and really delicious. I’ve had mealy shrimp and chewy mussels before when buffets (especially ones that expect you to be drunk) try to cut corners of the pricey food items, and let me tell you that Al Qasr does no such thing.

My second plate was dedicated to the cheese board. I love cheese. I’m always scouring the cheese ends bin at Whole Foods to find tiny tasty tidbits of some old favorite or some new experience. Cheese, as you may know, is expensive. Even my friends who are fully financially secure treat good cheese as a luxury which they buy in tiny slices and serve with matching fruits and wine.

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The cheese board at Al Qasr contained no less than a dozen different types of cheese: cow, goat and sheep; soft and hard, creamy and crumbly, sweet and salty. Sadly, in my eager anticipation of the tastes, I did not record the names. Maybe when someone offers to pay me to be a travel writer or restaurant critic these details will become more of a focus.

In addition to the many fine cheeses, between each was a type of jam or chutney meant to compliment the flavor of the cheese. I picked up these as well, particularly being fond of the mixed berry chutney and the bourbon-bacon-onion jam (I’ll be working on a recipe for that as soon as I’m back where bourbon and bacon are legal).

Beside the cheese board was a bread table with an equally large variety of crisp and soft breads, rolls and crackers to accompany the cheese. I chose a simple pretzel roll as a palate cleanser between cheeses.

A nutritionist once told me that cheese activates the same pleasure receptors as opiates. This day I did not doubt it.

My third plate went after the meats. There was a grilling station that had grilled lamb chops and grilled beef tenderloin (among other things). The lamb was… perfect. Because of the huge amount of dishes to try, I was usually taking only one or two small bites of everything (even those things served in small portions), but the lamb! I enjoyed down to the bone.

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The tenderloin was also delicious, and I also found some chicken satay (one of my favorite Indian dishes) and a new kind of curry that involved sweet potatoes, coconut milk and chicken that I dearly hope I will ever see in a restaurant again someday. Oh! and some Peiking duck, which itself is a dish that is not often seen let alone prepared well outside of gourmet restaurants in Beijing. A perfectly soft pancake, moist duck and a piquant sauce.

Along side this plate, I opted to try one of the coconut concoctions. I really like coconut water, which, like so many other things is better fresh than processed in a bottle or can from the store. These young coconuts were cut open that afternoon, and just enough of the coconut water was splashed out to make room for the rum. It might be my new favorite cocktail, but I’m willing to bet its not as cool if you’re not sipping it from the coconut.

Fresh Coconut Rum Cocktail

I didn’t mean to have a fourth plate before moving on to dessert. In fact, given how beautiful the desert displays were, I was making sure to not stuff myself too full on lunch dishes (hence the one or two bites per dish strategy). However, I passed by a fresh pasta station.

Short of going to a gourmet Italian restaurant or making it at home, one’s chances of enjoying really fresh pasta are far and few between. So I couldn’t pass it up. They had pumpkin, mushroom and spinach fillings for ravioli, and several types of sauce including cream, marinara and I believe a bolognese. I personally chose the pumpkin in cream sauce.

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If you’ve never had fresh pasta, and I don’t mean the stuff in the refrigerated section at the grocery store, I mean dough that was rolled out and filled a few minutes before it hits the hot water, you need to put this on your food bucket list today. Most of my life I only ever had dried pasta, and its fine. With a good sauce it can even be wonderful, but that’s really the point. Dried pasta is a vehicle for sauce. While fresh pasta is an amazing food that sauce compliments.

And while I was there, I snagged a tiny dish of bite sized pot roast and mashed potatoes.

I wish I could come close to describing all the food that was there. I inspected and passed over a whole station of “traditional” brunch foods like egg dishes, waffles, muffins and croissants. I walked past giant cast iron skillets filled with something that looked like jambalaya. There was a small infinity of South and East Asian dishes I vaguely recognized but don’t know the names of. I’m pretty sure even with four plates, I only tried less than half the dishes on offer.

After about 2 or 2 1/2 hours of lunching (breaks to digest and sip prosecco between plates), I turned my attention to the dessert tables. I think there were probably 6-8 of these. One area focused entirely on chocolate concoctions made with Lindt chocolate. And the other was more fruit oriented with tarts, pies and fresh fruit.

In a best-for-last strategy I decided to start with the fruit station. Beginning with the white and orange dish and  moving clockwise:20141219_144159 A coconut pudding with mango sauce, the little orange ball is actually a ball of cream dusted orange resting atop a waffle cone cup filled with raspberry compote, the glass dish contains a mint-chocolate mousse with little crispy decorative bits and a fresh raspberry, a strawberry tart with a cream base and fresh berries, a chocolate caramel macron with gold flecks, the most amazing lemon tart (only thing on the plate that got finished), a mini waffle cone with caramel mousse, some kind of fresh fruit – it was the only one on the table I didn’t recognize so needed to try, it was very tart and a little slimy, and finally a mini soda bottle filled with a fresh strawberry syrup.

This plate went quite well with the mojito I picked up, lest I be remiss in failing to avail myself of a mojito station. The fresh mint and lime flavors complimented the fruit desserts perfectly.

The second dessert plate, and final plate of the three and half hour brunch experience was focused entirely on chocolate. I should point out that while the staff did a great job of making sure that the tables were always full, some of the desserts I saw at the beginning did disappear or get replaced by the time I got to the chocolates. So, if I go again, I’ll be sure to snag anything that particularly catches my eye early on.

Starting at the espresso mug at twelve o’clock an going clockwise:

A tiramisu the bottom layer of which may traditionally be lady fingers, but was dark chocolate cake in this case; a truffle cake lolipop, a pot-de-creme of blissfully creamy milk chocolate, a kind of salted caramel chocolate cream pudding thing (turned out to be my favorite, just lightly salted and a gorgeous blend of caramel and chocolate) with crumbled gingerbread on top; a pistachio chocolate truffle (green); a German torte with a nut filled dark chocolate dense bottom layer and a creamy white chocolate top layer; a white chocolate covered date; some white chocolate with candied ginger painted red and gold.

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At six o’clock we have the darkest chocolate cake with deep dark ganache frosting; a little piece of gingerbread drizzled with chocolate; tied for second place with the chocolate bottomed tiramisu is the molten chocolate tart (kept under heat lamps at the buffet to stay warm and gooey); a Lindt truffle cupcake; and in the center a masarpone cream delight with chocolate and fresh berries.

Someone brought me a delightful and much appreciated cup of coffee with fresh steamed milk and options of white and brown sugar cubes (and it looked like good turbinado brown, not the silly repainted stuff). And I moved onto the main patio with a view of the Burj Arab and the boats carrying visitors by in the Al Jumeriah canal system.

The staff were relentlessly polite without being in any way overbearing. Finished plates were removed, but only once one had set them aside or made some other clear signal. Glasses were kept filled. After any dish that involved finger food (like my prawns) a small dish of scented water and a hot towel were provided.

At one point an American gentleman who seemed to be management of some kind (dressed in a white suit instead of a uniform and clearly supervising staff) asked me about my experience at the restaurant and we chatted long enough to connect over both having family in Austin.

And although the food and beverage stations closed at 4pm, many patrons had plates of goodies and a remaining cocktail or two on their tables which we all continued to enjoy for at least another hour as the staff cleaned up and continued to ply us with complimentary water, tea and coffee (common in America, but not elsewhere, so it was a pleasant surprise).

In fact, so relaxed and full of champagne and delicious food were we all, that I met a lovely trio of ladies who entertained me for the rest of the day and well into a fun-filled night, but that is another story.

In the mean time, feel free to see all the pictures of Al Qasr on my facebook page, or read about my lovely Dubai December trip to the Miracle Gardens. 🙂

Dubai December: Overview & The Miracle Gardens

December is major holiday celebrating time for me. Most westerners celebrate some version of Christmas/Yule and the New Year, and of course Americans have Thanksgiving at the tail end of November. On top of that, I’m a Sagittarius, so I get to throw a birthday celebration into the whole mix.

Saudi celebrates none of these things. Not even birthdays. Islamic New Year was in November (tho it changes on the Gregorian calendar every year) and they celebrated by fasting for three days.

I was lucky enough to have an impromptu Thanksgiving feast, and you can read about my Christmas here. New Year’s celebrations are sadly out, since it’s on a Wednesday, and we work Sunday to Thursday. But my birthday goshdarnit, I could do something about that.

I decided to treat myself to a champagne brunch in Dubai. And since I was there, to take in some other sights as well.

I started my explorations bright and early Friday morning at the Miracle Gardens. This is a huge garden filled with structures made entirely of flowers. It’s actually very affordable, merely 30 AED (about 8$ US). And like all things in Dubai, I’m sure it’s the most, biggest, -estest of it’s kind in the world.

20141219_112658I spent the better part of three hours wandering the grounds, which even in December were quite warm in the sun. Every turn brought new views of the staggering flower creations. A village of flower houses, a tunnel of flower hearts, a giant flower clock, a princess tower, a river of flowers, bowers and bells, and even a floral Burj Kalifah (the tallest building in the world also in Dubai).IMG_0731The air smelled wonderful, and all the staff were amazingly friendly and helpful, constantly offering to take pictures for me so that I could pose next to the floral architecture. There were several pagodas and gazebos where people could rest in the shade and a generous but not overbearing snack center.

This was ceilinged by a carpet of flowers providing shade, perfume and beauty while also preserving the all flower panoramic view from the central hill.  The snack center offered a wide array of snacks from countries near UAE, and several dishes I’d never heard of. Because of my brunch buffet plans I didn’t sample any of the fare, but others seemed to be enjoying it, and it was nice to see snacks that weren’t merely pizza, burgers and fries.

I was also told that they’re working on a “phase 2” which will be the world’s largest live butterfly garden if/when they can get the permits. So I’m keeping my eye out on that one because 35 thousand butterflies would be SO COOL.

It wasn’t very crowded in the morning, but became more so as it crept closer to noon. It was very difficult to take wide shots without people in them, but unlike Saudi, that’s ok. And everyone was very considerate about taking turns to pose and take photos at the best spots.

The garden is only open in the cooler months (hardly surprising given that no one wants to do anything outdoors in the summer in Dubai), so plan your visit accordingly.

I could go on about the astonishing architecture, the magnificent scents, the colors and sheer volume of flowers, but in the end, pictures do speak louder than words, so please take a look at all my photos over on my facebook page, and keep a look out for the rest of my exciting Dubai December adventures!