Malay Peninsula 1: Singapore Gardens & Supertrees

This was not an idyllic holiday in sunny weather full of umbrella drinks and relaxing by the sea. It could have been, and maybe one day I’ll take one of those, but this was not that vacation. As I wrote this, sitting in my cold office the day before students returned from winter break, I could not help but feel a little nostalgia for the warm evenings I enjoyed a walk after my shower, but the twinge in my foot and the weakness in my limbs reminded me that this adventure was a physically and emotionally taxing one.

Which is not to say I did not have amazing times or enjoy myself, but the trekking nature of my plan meant that I was forced to push myself in new ways, to absorb not only beautiful and wonderful new experiences, but also painful, difficult, and challenging ones. Then again, I suppose that’s why I call myself an adventurer and not a vacationer. Whatever the holiday looks like later on, I hope you’ll find the first installment to be as wistful and enchanting as I did.


Singapore

I decided to model my holiday after a tour package I found online but was unable to join due to conflicting dates. Their schedule was only 10 days and covered more places, I had 12 days and was doing (theoretically) less, so I figured I had plenty of time. My starting point was Singapore.

Coming from winter in Busan with temperatures often below freezing, the shock of Singapore weather was something else. Even dressed in light, summer clothes, I was sweating the minute I stepped out of the AC. The first morning in the hostel, just walking from my dorm room to the lobby gave me a stark reminder that equatorial temperatures are no joke. Although I set off in search of coffee, the hostel’s beverage dispenser included something called Teh Tarik, which I decided to try instead and immediately fell in love with. It’s a strong hot, sweet milk tea but despite being made of common ingredients, I had never had anything like it before.

After my tea, I headed out to try to catch the tram to the Gardens by the Bay, a popular and beautiful botanical garden area that also includes the Super Trees (one of my top to-dos while in Singapore). While I was staring at my map app trying to figure out the best way to go, a nice man asked if I needed help. He turned out to work for the Nigerian Embassy in Singapore and helped me find my way toward the gardens, walking and chatting with me until he had to turn off the main road. I love friendly people!

One of the nice things about walking in Singapore (and indeed most of Malaysia) are the plethora of covered walkways that help keep the sun (and rain) off of the pedestrians. I had my “sunbrella” but found I didn’t need it very often.

20170117_093334Shortly after parting ways with the helpful Nigerian, I walked past what appeared to be a large open air food court. There was a roof and fans circulating air, but the entryways were wide open. There were dozens of food stalls from different nationalities, and tables to sit at between them. I went to one stall to get a fried oyster omelette and another for an iced coffee, then sat down to enjoy them. The omelette was a bit odd. In addition to eggs, vegetables and oysters, it turns out this dish is cooked with a variable amount of tapioca, potato, and/or rice starch. This just goes to prove I should have read more about the food before going, because the gooey texture combined with the heavy oil meant that I only ate about ¼ of the dish before I couldn’t eat any more. The coffee, on the other hand, was intense and amazing. I didn’t know it at the time, but Malaysian style coffee is different from other coffees around the world. I’ll explain more when I get to Ipoh, but for now, suffice it to say I was pleasantly surprised.

20170117_100820After breakfast, I passed by all the tall financial buildings and came to the Marina. This beautiful stretch of waterfront goes on for ages with a wide and clean walking path. I came across a shopping mall on my way and decided to head inside for the AC and maybe a restroom. The Nigerian man I’d met advised me that if I ever felt too hot in Singapore, I could just walk inside any building to get some cold air. The mall was nearly empty, which is not surprising for a weekday morning, and I managed to find a 7-11 to get a cheap sim card (less than half of the airport prices). I also got called in to have a sample at two separate skin care shops. The first was a supernaturally charming young man who probably got nearly every woman he met to spend too much money on his skin care products. We chatted and tried out the product and eventually I had to demure from purchase, but he was gracious about it and said he’d had fun talking with me. The second shop was a Malaysian woman who was wonderful and gracious and kind until it became clear to her that I had really meant it when I said I wasn’t buying anything, and then she turned rather sour. Both shops products were in the hundreds of dollars range. It was somewhere around here that Singapore started to remind me of Dubai.

Cloud Forest

20170117_121123I walked more dockside paths and came across a science museum, more flowers than you can sneeze at, and finally some signs pointing to the garden path that was lined with sculpture, topiary and colorful blossoms. Although the Super Trees were my main goal, by the time I arrived at the park’s center, I was hot and tired. I noticed a cool breeze coming from the doors of one particular building and resolved to go inside that. The building was one of the two indoor gardens, this one called Cloud Forest (the other was closed for renovations). It was a massive greenhouse designed to house the ecosystem of a cloud forest, and so not only had pathways winding through beautiful flowers at ground level, it had a miniature mountain in the center that one could ascend and walk around via a series of skywalks that simulated viewing the forest from cloud level and treetop level.

The cool air was not freon induced air conditioning, but a creative cooling system that involved the movement of water and air. The whole thing is designed to be as ecologically conservative as possible. Nonetheless, when I stepped inside from the intense January heat, it was a blissful release to walk in cool air.

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I expected to spend an hour or so inside, but ended up spending 3! The waterfall that greeted us at the entrance was a major photo point, but by no means the only one. Spectacular tropical flowers were in bloom all around, and driftwood sculptures of dragons hid among the foliage making for an interesting game of find the dragon. After walking all around the base, I headed up the mini mountain. At the very top was another tropical garden with a reflecting pond as well as the highest skywalk. At set times, this skywalk produces “clouds” that help water the fragile orchids, and provide a magical mist through which to view the scenery below. It was not cloud time when I set out, so I enjoyed a clear view both down the mountainside and out to the grounds beyond the glass.

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Descending further, there were more walkways inside the mountain structure, another skywalk, and a kind of cave reconstruction where stalactites and stalagmites had been installed around the room with mirrors and informative signs. I hope that given the conservation efforts of the park that these were already broken by some quarrying effort that predated the preservation laws.

20170117_140641The time of clouding was approaching by then, and although the main path did not lead back upward, it wasn’t crowded, so I hopped into the elevator and rode back to the top. I get the impression that in more crowded times, the elevators might be more strictly regulated for the disabled, and the paths through the greenhouse lead firmly one way, but it wasn’t crowded and no one seemed to care if we went the opposite direction. Shortly after 2pm, the skywalk began to issue forth a mist as I set out for my second walk on the sky bridge and was able to enjoy the altogether different view as the fog enshrouded the walkway and the mountainside below.

I thought then I must have seen everything there was to see inside, and so I headed back down through the other skywalk and cave room, but instead of letting us back out at ground level, the path led even further down into a large screening room that played a movie about the dangers of climate change, and an interesting 3-d display of the engineering behind the cloud forest, super trees and other aspects of the gardens.

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After the educational displays, there was one more “secret garden” where a smaller waterfall cooled the air and tiny micro orchids were on display behind magnifying lenses. I took more pictures in that garden than any 2-3 other places combined on the rest of the trip. The flowers were so stunning, and because of the cooling process, the air is comfortable and it’s easy to lose track of time.

Otters?

I had intended to see more of the outdoor gardens, but it was after 3pm by the time I left the Cloud Forest, and my tiny breakfast had completely worn off. Although there were many restaurants near the center of the park, they all seemed somewhat pricey, and so I struck out for the one food area that was described in the park brochure/map as “affordable”. It was another of the “many food stalls under one roof”, but was a bit of a trek from the cloud forest. 20170117_150617Nonetheless, the entire area of the marina is beautiful to walk through. I spotted some otter crossing signs, which are apparently no joke. The environmental reconstruction along the marina has enabled the local otter population to bounce back and they are often seen on the shores near the walking paths in the evenings. Sadly, I didn’t get to see any that day.

I also walked past the Children’s garden, which was a playful garden with animal sculptures and topiary along with a large outdoor fountain/mini water park. Scouting for places to take my niece and nephew that aren’t just another amusement park and this one seemed to pass the grade.

SuperTree Grove

20170117_161628After lunch, I decided i should go find the super trees. It was getting on in the afternoon, and I still had to get across town to the Night Safari for my 7:15 ticket. Although the tall and unique structures can be seen from nearly anywhere in the park, it took a little effort to find the right walking paths to get to them. There are two groves of supertrees, the smaller has only three, which at the time were undergoing a pre-lunar new year makeover.

20170117_164839Eventually, I found the main grove and purchased my ticket for the sky walk. This is a little walkway that is accessed through an elevator in the “trunk” of the trees and lets you walk around the super trees at a good height to both admire them and the overall view of the gardens below. I had a nice walk and an even better view as well as some pleasant conversation with another traveler. No matter how nice the view is, I think my favorite part of traveling is meeting cool people.

20170117_170845The super trees aren’t really trees. They’re man-made structures that sort of look like giant alien trees. They run on solar power and support a large amount of plant and animal life. Plus they light up at night, which is pretty. The super trees are urban art, but more than that, they are a way of combining city and nature and of providing a space for the plants and animals that would otherwise have been disrupted, or even endangered by the urbanization of their homes to have a place. The super tree grove helps to act as a greenspace, cooling and cleaning the air naturally, as well as collecting solar energy and rainwater that are used in running the indoor gardens. It’s basically a big experiment to see if a city can be a modern urban environment AND maintain a natural ecosystem in an economically sustainable way. I hope it catches on. More cities should have giant trees, beautiful flowers, and river otters.


This is but the first of many installments in the Malay Peninsula adventure of 2017. I took so many pictures that day, I can’t possibly hope to show them all off here. Please check out the albums (yes, plural) on Facebook for all the beauty: Around Singapore, Cloud Forest, Flowers of Singapore, and Supertree Grove. Enjoy, and as always, thanks for reading! 🙂

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.

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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! 🙂

The Restaurants: A Week in Jeddah

Staying in a hotel means not cooking for yourself for a while, so naturally, I tried a lot of restaurants. The heat and quantity of food did mean that I usually only went into 2 a day, but since I hate fast food, I did get a pretty good culinary cross section. One piece of advice, bring your own water. In Saudi, water isn’t free. In fact, even the cheap water costs more than the gasoline, and restaurants will charge 10-30 SAR for something you can get for 1-2 SAR in the convenience store or from your hotel concierge. I didn’t go walking without a bottle because of the heat, so I often still had some by the time I got into a restaurant and not one of them complained. Plus, then I could use the money I saved to get one of the delicious juice, tea or coffee drinks 🙂

Indian

My first night in Jeddah, I had a long walk along the Corniche just outside my hotel. I didn’t really want to stay out any longer because I was pretty tired and wanted to get up early the next day, so I popped into an Indian restaurant on the way back. I don’t know the name and can’t find it on a map, but its pretty hard to miss if you’re walking between the Hyatt and the Corniche park area.

I got myself a veggie korma and some naan and headed back to the hotel. Important side note, the restaurants here don’t give you plastic eating utensils. They sort of assume that folks are just taking the food home to eat, I guess. So I had to improvise a spoon out of the foil, yay girl scout training! Also, good food.

BBQ

img_20141001_232826On my way back I’d spotted a BBQ restaurant and figured I’d try it another night. I think BBQ might be international code for “meat cooked over fire”. We have an assumption about BBQ in America that involves a sweet yet tart sauce, but this place seemed like it was trying to represent the BBQ of every nation on earth focusing on America, Brazil and the Mediterranean.

I got the lamb chops with mint BBQ sauce and a side of grilled veggies. It was quite excellent. No room for desert, but I finished off the night with a turkish coffee, lightly spiced with cardamom.

Cafe Aroma

This might be my favorite restaurant in Jeddah (close to a tie with the Marina). The restaurant itself is built to mimic an outdoor garden cafe. Its divided by little stone walls, fountains and trellises, and the ceiling is inset and painted to look like a beautiful blue sky. It gives the illusion of sitting in a cool oasis while allowing one to escape the heat and humidity.

The menu is varied, mostly Western style food with a few traditional dishes. There are breakfasts, salads, pizzas, pastas and entrees of meat and fish. I had the Shakshouka on my first visit. Its a poached egg dish with tomatoes and onions. As my culinarily inclined US roomie pointed out, it might be impossible to find an egg and tomato dish that I don’t like. Another meal I had a sort of chicken stir fry and a green mint tea.

IMG_0165I also had some coffee and tiramisu for dessert. The tiramisu was actually served in a portion size that was slightly smaller than my coffee cup, which was refreshing because I’m so tired of American oversized but underflavored desserts. This one was a taste explosion in every bite, although I’m sure they had to use a non-alcoholic beverage to soak the ladyfingers.

The staff are attentive and polite without being obsequious. The food is really good, plentiful and reasonably priced. Its possible to eat healthy there, which is not always easy here in the land of meat and starch. The atmosphere is soothing and you can spend a few hours lingering over a meal either while waiting for the sun to drop low enough to walk the Corniche, or unwinding and cooling down after a night exploring the town.

The Marina

This one is the close runner for favorite. Just a teeny walk south of the Park Hyatt (like half a block) there is a building set back a bit from the road. Apparently they use this for art exhibits and business expos, but if you walk through it, you reach the Marina and Yacht Club. There’s a lovely restaurant there where you can eat indoors or stay on the balcony overlooking the water and the people walking below.

I had two separate people recommend this place to me when they heard my hotel was near the Hyatt, one among the group of South Africans I’d met on my first night on the Corniche, and the other a Palestinian lady I met at the beach. So I decided I should definitely check it out.

img_20140929_211600In addition to the stunning view, there is a fabulous (if expensive) menu and a great shisha menu too. I got myself a veggie pizza and a lemon mint shisha. The food was good, but this wasn’t a surprise. The shisha is really what I want to talk about.

In the US, any time I’ve had a hooka, its been with these pre-packaged, kind of dried out cubes of tobacco. Here the shisha is a goopy sticky mess of molasses, flavor and tobacco– fresh. The shisha was brought out in a large hooka pipe, and the waiter placed a new plastic disposable mouthpiece at the end of the hose and pipe handle. This was pretty cool because it allowed them to use these high quality hookas without having to worry about cross contamination.

The shisha was delicious, and there were a fleet of coal bearing shisha attendants who circled around making sure we all had fresh coals, and blowing the ash out of the dishes to keep the shisha as fresh as possible. After a while I got myself an iced mocha. Most places seem to equate ‘iced’ with ‘blended’ and this was no different, but the quality of the chocolate and the coffee was much higher.

They were having a promo on the shisha to buy one get one free, so I ended up staying until almost 2am watching the people walking on the waterfront below, reading my book, sipping my coffee and smoking shisha. Cost me around 55$ US for the diner, the coffee and the shisha and probably about 4 hours of relaxing evening.

Additionally, I’m told they have a great brunch deal at 11am that includes a full breakfast and a shisha for something like 180 SAR, which is a pretty good deal.

Park Hyatt

Right next to the Marina, and probably much more famous is the Park Hyatt. It seemed like a must do for the trip, so on my last night in Jeddah, I headed over to the Hyatt for diner  and shisha. I compare this to the Marina because they are similarly located and offer similar services.

The food at the Hyatt is downright gourmet awesome. I splurged on the salmon. Now, I’m a good cook, not a chef or anything, but I like my food to taste good, so I learned how. Most of the time a restaurant is just a place that makes food I could make, but don’t want to be bothered to. Every so often, however, there is a meal that makes you remember why it is culinary art. The last one of these for me was that little diner off the Oregon coast on my Thor’s Well camping trip. The Park Hyatt was another.

Starting from the bread. Fresh and made on site if I’m any judge. It wasn’t right out of the oven, but was likely less than an hour old. There was a light dusting of flour from the baking process and a light taste of sourdough that made me believe the dough had been well rested and even slightly fermented before baking. It was hard to resist filling up on the bread alone while waiting for my meal.

IMG_0272I’m picky about salmon. The Red Sea is famous for its seafood, so I decided the chefs here should have a clue. They managed to serve me a slice of salmon filet that was still moist even on the thin edges. The fish was so lightly breaded it was just a thin crust of crumbs and herbs that gave a light contrast to the texture and flavor of the fish without overwhelming it. The potatoes were tiny fingerlings sliced in half and pan fried with rosemary and sundried tomatoes. Accents included a small scoop of caviar and a kind of white cream sauce. I alternated combinations to see how the flavors blended. Not a meal you want to talk or read through, because it might distract some of your attention away from your taste buds.

img_20141004_224831I did not have room for desert, but I stepped out onto the terrace for coffee and shisha. The Park Hyatt has the best view of the King Fahad fountain around. The outdoor seating area is right on the water and includes a small decorative pool, a couch lounging area, and a dining table area. There are outdoor air conditioners to keep the dining area cooler and drier than the surrounding areas. In this respect, it outdoes the Marina with an even more stunning view and a cooler environment that is not dependent on the sea breeze.

However, I think I’d still go back to the Marina if shisha and coffee was my goal. The coffee at the Hyatt was quite nice, but not quite as good, and I think they may be the only place other than Starbucks that actually served coffee over ice instead of blended. However, the shisha menu was much more limited in flavors, only about 1/4 the options as the Marina. Also, when the hooka was brought out they used a disposable hose, rather than just a mouthpiece, which meant that the hose and handle were all plastic. Maybe that’s more hygenic? I’m not entirely sure, but I can say that the feel of the full weight hose and handle are much more appealing than the plastic.

All told, the Hyatt is a great place for a delicious meal with a great view, a decadent indulgence.

Sushi Yoshi

I passed a little sushi place on my way back from the Corniche on my first night and decided I really needed to have Sushi in Jeddah. So, Tuesday afternoon [redacted] and [redacted] came to take me to dinner and we went to Sushi Yoshi. Turns out this is a small chain, so we didn’t go to the one by my hotel, but rather one up on the north end of the Corniche that overlooked the sea. The family section was on the second floor, so we actually had a really great view.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from a chain sushi joint in Saudi, even in a coastal city, but it turned out to be quite delicious. I’d say mid-range price, reasonable for the quality and quantity of food. I’m a little spoiled by our conveyor belt sushi in Seattle, but really, 30-35$ per person for a large sushi dinner is pretty good.

Also, I don’t think I could ever get tired of eating dinner on the ocean front. Ever.

La Plage

I’ll talk more about the beach itself in another post, but La Plage beach had a restaurant as well. The prices are about what you’d expect from a nice restaurant, possibly a little on the low side for a private resort, on par with Aroma and less expensive than Hyatt.

img_0135I chose the Oriental (by which they meant Middle Eastern) breakfast and logged into the wifi. A delicious meal of sliced tomatoes, some kind of pickled vegetable, fresh cheese, labneh – this creamy yogurt stuff that’s like a halfway point between cream cheese and sour cream, some beans in a tart sauce, mint leaves, olives and pita. Everything came in separate little dishes so I could mix and match. Who knew mint and tomato were such a great combo? I made a little wrap with the cheese, tomatoes and mint and it was so yum! The rich cream was a nice compliment to the tart beans, and the olives and pickled veggies were little refreshing bites in between. I admit, with the whole day before me, I lingered a long time over this meal, chatting to folks online and savoring the flavors and the view.

Later in the day I came in for some snacks and an iced (blended) coffee. I’m pretty sure they put frozen whipped cream on my coffee. Ridiculously good.

On the weekend, apparently they also have a sushi menu, but it was really expensive, and I’d already had my sushi fix for the week, so I stuck to the regular menu.

I think if I lived in Jeddah I’d have to find a way to learn to sleep after work so I could go out late at night to enjoy the Marina, and I’d never save any money from going to La Plage every weekend. I might also gain 30 lbs even if I did go for a walk on the Corniche every night. *Sigh, but it was nice while it lasted.