“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” -Mark Twain

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Last night in Dubai, and Local Flavor (literally)

Burj Al-Arab
I'm sorry I haven't updated in a day and a half, but it's been go-go-go since yesterday mid-day. I'm battling a splitting headache right now, and have to get up for the airport in 4 hours, so I'll try to make this brief, then elaborate when I get home.

Yesterday T's family picked me up and I went back to their house for iftar then shopping at Festival City Mall. I liked it better than Emirates Mall, more locals, less Europeans, and I felt less like a tourist. His mom prepared the most amazing dinner. And it's not like a main course with a few sides... it's many different dishes of shapes, sizes, and flavors. I ate so much! I tried to insist (unsuccessfully) that I was stuffed, but next thing I know his mom is handing me a second plate. Literally, I had 2 plates next to each other with food. Then tea. Then dessert, twice. They invited me back for dinner tonight, so I decided I needed a new eating strategy for the next day.

After dinner his mom, sis, and bro, and I went to the mall about 10pm and shopped for 3 hours, and stopped at a coffee shop. So many families were out and about, socializing, eating, shopping, having a great time, it was like Chrismas on crack. It kinda puts Christmas to shame, actually. I've never seen in America what I've seen here in terms of family and holiday spirit together.

What would be a Chiquita blog without me talking about shoes, right? Like some people travel and pick up souvenirs, I travel and pick up shoes as my "souvenir". A great pair of black and silver-striped satin slingback pointed heels from a London shop. Here's what I find interesting: all the display shoes are a size 8 or 9. We're so used to seeing a small size 5 or 6 on display in the US that it looks so big and bulky on the shelves here. Also, the styles are different... there are more chunky shoes and not as many delicate pairs. I didn't think it'd take me so long to find one pair I really liked. Even the styles at Aldo were completely different in Dubai than in the US.

I didn't get back to the hotel until almost 3am, then I just slept in today and started to pack. At 2pm I had an interview at a Dubai magazine. No, not a job interview... T's dad is a reporter, and he arranged for one of his reporters to interview me for a profile of "an american girl traveling to Dubai to experience Ramadan". He works fast. *smile* Afterward, I went back to their home where we talked for a while, then had dinner again, helped a sister and her friend study for one of their college computer classes, then more tea and dessert.

I'm so glad I had an opportunity and honor to be their guest. They're a wonderful family, funny and hospitable, and it was a great retreat from tourist trap of Jumeirah, and to experience some local flavor. I actually felt more comfortable in the more "local" side of town in the "locals" mall. Maybe it's part of being in Chicago or hanging out in more cultural neighborhoods.

In a few hours I leave Dubai, and I have to say everyone should visit. It's safe, spotlessly clean, friendly, and nothing like some stereotypical American view of the Middle East. Erase of images you have of busy, dirty, old, crazy Cairo, and think about some glistening modern city in the desert on the cutting edge of technology and development. That's Dubai.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Exhausted, but still going.

Exhausted. Completely and utterly. I think last night wiped me out.
Went back an re-read yesterday morning's entry. Water park? Didn't make it back. Couldn't get out of pool. Skiing? Nope - more on that below.

So from where I left off yesterday - Jumeirah Mosque then back to the pool - last night was the desert safari. This is not for those that easily get motion sickness. Oh boy, rolling over massive dunes, speeding to the top only to not be able to see down the other side, where we were going, swerving, and at times wondering if we'd roll side-over-side back down. Kudos to our driver Zahir from Pakistan. Anyhoo, in my opinion, the most beautiful scenery in the world is miles and miles and miles of sand dunes. Don't get me wrong - I love a tropical beach like anyone else, but there's something about sand that does it for me. The Sahara was beautiful, but I also couldn't wait to see a real Arabian desert for myself. Mission accomplished: the dunes in the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve near Margham. Gorgeous. We saw wild camels, and even an oryx, which is somewhat like a white Arabian antelope. Kinda.

There were 5 of us plus our driver in the SUV: me, and Zahir who spoke English, and 4 Brazilians, of which one only spoke the most minimal English. Zahir started talking on our drive, and I heard the woman from the back seat say "no understand." I managed to find out they were from Brazil, spoke a bit of Spanish to them, which they understood, and there was our trip. Zahir speaking in English to me, and I'm translating to them in Spanish, which they recognized because it's similar to Portugese... and they'd speak to me in Portuguese which I'd manage to figure out a few words, and well, our outing consisted of both a safari AND language adventure!

We stopped a few times for a break from the stomach-twisting ride, once at a camel farm that was tended by some Bedouins (which the goverment accounts for much better than the US ever did for the Native Americans - we should take a lesson from them, but that's another blog), and watched the sun set over the dunes. From there we proceeded straight to "camp" where they unloaded us for our dinner. Zahir and another driver invited me to break their fast with them and the other drivers and staff, but seeing as the man-to-woman ratio would have been 55:1 in that case, I politely declined, popped a squat on a dune to watch the sun set, then joined the rest of the crowd. The "camp" in the desert was enclosed by a stick fence. Inside were Persian carpets lining the lantern-lit dining area, which consisted of long, low tables with floor cushions, and a few covered sitting areas for shisha and whatnot. I wandered about for only a couple minutes before overhearing some people at a table speaking English, so I asked to join them. One was an elder couple on a wedding anniversary (and breast cancer surviving/celebration) trip around the world from Australia. The others were friends - Ian from Britain, and his friend Olaf from Germany. We had a delicious meal and spent the next two hours chatting non-stop. They were all great company, and we pointed out how fortunate we were to have met each other - strangers in the desert under a moonlit star-filled night. We had all been to Egypt at one point and swapped stories.

I chose to go on this trip alone and never at any point did I wish I could meet people, had been more social, struck up a poolside conversation, or had a dinner companion. I've been perfectly at ease wandering about on my own. Zahir flirted with me incessantly during our stops, and said he felt badly for me since no one was talking to me. I told him not to, I was comfortable and quite in my element enjoying my time alone, despite being in a crowd of 165 people. I like to think I can bring my own party anywhere I go. If I'm not having a good time, it's my own fault. But this time, at dinner, this was the perfect time to socialize. The perfect atmosphere, the perfect dinner companions, the perfect conversation... we, all travelers, randomly brought together at that one moment under the stars to exchange small stories about our lives, then just a fleeting few hours later, we all go our separate ways perhaps never to meet again. There are times to be solitary, and there are times to be social. And this trip has been the perfect mix of both worlds. I'm glad that we all openly acknowledged how special that evening was.

Which brings me to today... I'll be joining Tarek's family for iftar and shopping afterward, so knowing I had most of the day morning and mid-afternoon to do something, I thought today may be a good day to go skiing. When I woke up I laid in bed for a good 90 minutes, but finally pulled myself together in time to catch the free 10am shuttle to the Mall of the Emirates and Ski Dubai. I had my ski hat, gloves, fleece, and socks. I had all the intention and gear, but once I got there, I had none of the energy. I was wiped. I stood at the "chalet" window overlooking the slopes and wondered if I really had the will and energy to "call it up". Standing doing nothing seemed a whole lot easier than the effort required to get dressed, drag around poles and skis, up the lift, down the hill... So I snapped a picture and wandered around the mall for a bit. I can ski in the US this winter. I could have said I had gone skiing in the desert, but at least I had seen it. It's not like going to Egypt and deciding you don't have the energy to climb inside a pyramid. Skiing can happen elsewhere, and I just wanted a nap.

The mall was nice, but for being the largest mall outside the US, I was expecting much bigger. I've been to the Mall of the Americas, so perhaps I had that scale of consumerism in mind already. A couple hours and no purchases later, I grabbed the shuttle back, donned my last clean bathing suit, and went swimming in the Gulf.

Now as I sit here waiting for Taghreed to let me know when she is coming to pick me up, I haven't yet napped, am still exhausted (can jet lag set in days AFTER arriving, and not right away?), I realize I have just tomorrow left for a full day, and then I'm headed back to the West. I haven't hit Bastakiya or the souks yet, so that's on my list for tomorrow. I really need to get in a real night's rest.

Oddly enough, that's the interesting thing about this part of Dubai so far. It feels like someone dropped a Chicago suburb in the desert. It's so Western here. So American with British flair. SUVs, giant shopping malls, department stores, McDonald's, Applebee's, and TGI Friday's, and acres of open, sprawling cookie-cutter "villas" in a suburb. For a beach vacation where you never leave the resort, this is great. But I almost can't wait to get out of here. "Here" being Jumeirah. Get me into the real part of the city. Get me out of the vanilla that I ran away from in River North in the first place. If this trip has taught me anything - and it's taught me lots - it's that variety is the spice of life. I didn't need to leave Chicago to come to another suburb, albeit hotter. I need diversity. I need culture. I need intellectual stimulation. Going to dinner tonight is going to feel like I've been "saved" from the tourist trap.

But that doesn't mean I wouldn't pass up a 7-day Caribbean cruise where I do nothing but lie about - did I just see a cat walk by the pool? - and not use my brain for a week while cooking my skin in the tropic sun. I'll take that any day, too. *smile*

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Little things that amuse me about Dubai

Are the Brits invading Dubai, or did they leave an imprint on the city before the emirate was independent, or is the entire world like this, except America? What am I talking about? The little things in Dubai that appear quite British. Like red phone booths along SZR. Or white and blue street signs that indicate traffic direction on islands or roundabouts. Or signs indicating camera-monitored traffic zones. And in some little way, this place reminds me that I'm not in Britain, but indeed in the Middle East, like the white-and-black curbs similar to Cairo.

At least in this part of Dubai - Jumeirah - it's immaculate. Makes Cairo look like an old, worn shoe. Perhaps it is, when Cairo is 5,000 years old, and Dubai is 5,000 minutes new. Taxis are clean and all drivers wear uniforms. Chicago should be ashamed. Trash is rarely spotted on the streets, at least not on the main drags. And the villas... more like compounds... some are massive. Some are massively ornate and some are massively gaudy. Perhaps taste is more a matter of volume.

This September 11, I spent the morning at Jumeirah Mosque. It was very beautiful, but although it's reputation as one of the largest mosques in Dubai, I was surprised at its relatively small size (hold about 1,200 worshipers). Perhaps the image in my mind was that of Muhammed Ali Mosque at the Citadel in Cairo, which by any accounts could quite be the one of the largest outside Mecca. At any rate, it had a comfortable intimacy to it. Certainly not old, only built about 30 years ago, which I suppose in Dubai Time that might be ancient.

I chuckled to myself as I took a taxi from the hotel to the mosque, how was I going to find a taxi to get back? Ah well, I figured I'd wing it. I've come to find that Dubai isn't so scary, and if faced with being on my own, I had to make do. Across the street at the Marina Beach Club the valet tried to tell me that a parked car with a driver waiting nearby was a taxi. That's all grand and very well may be, but as I walked over, saw he had no meter, no signage, and I wasn't in the mood for haggling the price of a drive back to the hotel. Just give me a metered taxi. I ventured back to the mosque, and within minutes a taxi passed through the parking lot that I waved down. Problem solved. :)

This evening is the desert safari. Can't decide if I want to rush a half hour into "downtown" or Bur Dubai to visit the old Bastakiya district and then a half hour or more back here... how long does that give me, about 2 hours in the area? Would I be able to find a taxi again? Am I trying to squeeze too much in within a matter of moments this afternoon? Eh, it's my own damn fault. If I had gotten up earlier, I could have booked my safari before I left this morning, then gone from the mosque to Bur Dubai and had plenty of time. But an Australian couple decided to hem-haw their way through the Arabian Adventures office and I didn't have time to waste waiting for them. Hence my silly return back to the hotel just to book the safari. I could do it Saturday, but I also want to find time to ski. It's almost 1pm, by the time I change some more bills, get to Bastakiya, mosey around, shop, and attempt to find a cab and get back here in time, I'll only have about an hour up there, all for the expense of nearly 100dhs round-trip. And I just plunked down 320dhs for the safari, and I'm not about to miss that. Dang, I really do need one or two more days here.

Now I look out my window, and the pool seems to be calling me.


I know, I know... but I can't risk it... Off to grab my bathing suit. Maybe I can sneak in another ride at the water park.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

We had an earthquake? *shrug*

Apparently there was a strong earthquake in southern Iran that shook buildings in Dubai.


Where was I? Didn't feel it.


Do Americans Travel? and, OH WOW

First, do Americans travel to the Middle East? Seems apparently not. It's like all the Europeans are totally tuned in to the happenings of the Gulf, whereas Americans have seemed oblivious. Or it's a matter of geography. When Americans vacation, they head to the Caribbean. When Europeans vacation, they head out of Europe and to places like Sharm el Sheikh and Dubai.

I can count on one hand the number of Americans I've run into here: 3. Total. That doesn't even mean I've actually spoken to them. Three Americans... 2 in my hotel, and one I overheard in an office building in the business district. Otherwise Dubai seems to consist of 2 segments: Brits and Indians. The only time I see any Emirate locals is in the evenings after iftar. Or in lobbies of business hotels. Poolside I have yet to meet an American. They're all European. Not necessarily British, though. Let's see, I've overheard British accent, Scottish accent, met a couple Germans, more than a few Russians, and others in between. All served by Indians. I suppose that's helpful, too. Seeing as a good quantity of Indians are Hindu, they probably don't mind being around Westerners eating and drinking poolside during Ramadan. Good staffing choice.

Cab drivers, bellhops, waiters, construction labor, secretarial, all Indian subcontinent. White-collar office jobs are staffed by Brits and other Europeans. The Burj Al Arab seems to be sufficiently staffed by an equal number of southeast Asians, mostly in restaurant host and waiter positions. Interesting. It's fun walking around here, though. I just nod a cordial greeting and pretend I don't speak English. Gosh, in Cairo I was so used to saying "shukran" and "midfadlak" to people that it doesn't seem to work here. Anyone I'd normally say that to isn't Arab. I have to check nametags before I open my mouth. :)

I'm sometimes having a hard time reconciling what country I'm in since I rarely encounter locals, or even Arabs for that matter. Heck, I get more Arab flavor in the Albany Park neighborhood of Chicago than I do in Jumeirah. *smile* Tarek, are you reading? Where'd your peeps go? We'll see this evening when his sis Tuut (is that her nickname?) picks me up. I forget where she said we're going, but I actually look forward to getting out into the city more, away from tourists, and with some locals. Makes me feel a bit more comfortable and like I'm back in Chicago. Isn't it ironic, don'tcha think?

So today involved two excursions: to Sheikh Zayed Road (SZR), and to the Burj Al Arab. Let's start with SZR. I had a meeting at 11am (which the person was 40 minutes late for, but as Siddhartha put it, a little patience and fasting go a long way). Got a slight peek into Dubai office life and an outlook on the Dubai advertising community. Or should I say it was recommended to steer myself toward the broadcasting/media community and should check out Media City, home of CNN, Reuters, cable outlets, Al Arabiya, Al Jazeera, and others. Interesting, better off on TV production side? Hmm... that's a new avenue to explore.

So after the meeting I strolled down SZR, home of some amazing architecture: Emirates Towers, Dubai International Financial Centre (sorry, Manal, didn't get a pic, but did manage to see it). I wasn't able to find a way to cross SZR to get up-close to DIFC, so a pic from afar would have to suffice. Crossing SZR is like trying to cross the Dan Ryan at rush hour. No way. So camera in-hand (secretly stashed away in my bag during the meeting), I walked about a mile down SZR snapping away, and getting some great shots of the Burj Dubai, now the world's tallest building. Speaking of which, I really DID need a wider-angle lens - the building is so tall it barely fit in my viewfinder. The architecture on the street is certainly awe-inspiring for arch buffs, and perhaps a bit gaudy at moments. Well into that mile walk in my CL's (4" heels, ouch!) I thankfully found a hotel in which I hopped in a taxi to relieve my aching feet. Back to JBH, and I decided to steal a couple more hours by the pool before grabbing a shuttle to the Burj. Or Al Arab. Not exactly sure what the nickname is here.

How handy that the JBH and Burj are sister properties. You can't get past the front gate unless you're a guest of either, or have dining reservations. Or pay. And wow oh wow, the lobby... the 500' open atrium, the amount of gold EVERYWHERE... I tried to look as non-tourist as possible, but I think I was literally frozen for a half second in the entryway. Like I got slapped across the face with amazement. It's just... well, I'll let the pictures tell the story.

Me and the German couple on the shuttle (er, we met on the golf cart on the way in), went up to the restaurant on the 27th floor, which is suspended over the back half of the hotel. The southwest end of the restaurant was vacant due to Ramadan, so we were free to roam and take pictures. We had a clear view of the southwest end of Jumeirah, and the new Palm Jumeirah islands currently under construction. Are you familiar with the Atlantis resort in the Bahamas? You know, that gigantic pink hotel resort? They're building a replica here, it opens in 2 weeks. The gift shop also sold models of these painted camels. Some of you may remember the Cows on Parade art exhibit around Chicago about 10 years back... they did the same thing in Dubai with plaster camels. So I got a little souvenir camel from a Jordanian artist (sorry Tarek, I looked for a Syrian camel, no luck). When I was ready to leave, a golf cart pulled up again and drove me straight back through the Al Arab and JBH grounds and delivered me to my front door. Never had to be on the street. It's incredibly neat that the two hotels share the same grounds.

As I finish writing this, from my room I see yet another helicopter delivering a guest to the BAA. *sigh* Dennis, we need to get a group together, come out here, and stay there. You more than anyone I know would appreciate this place the most.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

What did I do today?

Nada. You might want to stop reading.
Not a thing. It was awesome.

Okay, I got my ass kicked. Er, beat. Well, it's red at the very least. I'll get to that in a minute.

My 12pm activity has been postphoned until tomorrow morning, so I figured since I have the entire day free, I'd do nothing. First day of vacation should be full of R&R. And it was exactly that. I grabbed the camera and walked down to the beach... waded right into the Gulf. It was warmer than bath water (but not uncomfortably hot) and clearer than any seawater I've ever seen. Took a few pix of the Burj and my hotel (Jumeirah Beach Hotel, aka "JBH") from the beach and from in the water, meanwhile holding the camera over my head as the waves came in.

After dropping the camera off at the room, I headed to one of the pools. Guess which one? Yeah, the non-family one. Pulled up a cozy chair, a couple beach towels, and hopped into the water. Drifted up to the swim-up bar for a lemonade, and sat my derierre down on the steps in the water. A little tanning oil and I was in a good place. Get this - every couple hours a guy with a over-shoulder cooler comes around and hands out these wonderful white tropical fruit-flavored popsicles. Free. I love this place.

After browsing a brochure about desert safaris, I thought I'd explore the grounds a bit more. A few twists and turns later, and still in my bathing suit under my dress, I found the Wild Wadi Water Park, which is also attached to the JBH grounds. If you're a guest here, you have unlimited free (!) access. After tossing my bag (JBH also gives all guests free tote/beach bags), I was going to start off taking it easy on the Lazy River. Two times around the park on that, and I was ready for a little more adventure.

This is where the red rear end comes in. Tip: next time you're at a water park, wear a one-piece bathing suit. Here's why... in order to get from the lazy river at ground level to the top of the water slides in which gravity takes you DOWN, the upward slides have water jets shooting up/forward to push you along. Yeah, they push you, but if you're facing forward and your tube is like a donut and not a disk, then they also push your bottoms down. I tried to position myself to go up backward, then they'd just spray in my face and give me a wedgie from Hades. I couldn't win. One slide leads to another slide to another slide to an intersection with your chioce of four more slides, so there were a LOT of those upward jets ruthlessly pummeling my butt. After a while, OUCH, my a$$ felt like I just left detention at catholic school. By the way, ever ride down a water slide twisting and turning... in the DARK?? Yeah, a good 1000 feet like that in pitch black, twisting, turning, all over the place. Blackness. I might go back again tomorrow. :) Also, let's not underestimate the value of a base tan. Spent 6 hours in the sun today with nothing but tanning oil, and not a trace of sunburn. Base, base, base. Start in March if you have to.

After all that, I grabbed a snack and headed back to the leisure pool. And the popsicle guy came around again. I love this place. Did I mention that? While lying at the pool with the Burj Al Arab looming above me, every so often I saw a helicopter land at the top of it to drop off/pick up a new guest. They certainly spare no expense here. All I could muster was, "you've got to be kidding me. That's... ridiculous." In a "yeah, I'm jealous, and this place puts Vegas to shame" sort of way.

I can't imagine coming to Dubai and staying anywhere else. If you can lay down the cash, JBH is the place to be. So much to do. Then again, it's Ramadan and I got a steal of a rate that should almost be illegal, so maybe that's an exception to the rule. There's a reason it's on CNT's Gold List. You get what you pay for.

It's about 90 minutes to sunset and iftar, so I'm going to shower, call local friends, take the camera down to the beach again to get a sunset shot of the Burj (sun sets behind it), and settle down for the night's festivities. I realize I haven't left the hotel yet today, but I'm okay with that. Tomorrow will be an exploration outside the grounds... I'll be heading to the Crown Plaza Tower, and the Emirates Towers are just across the way. You'll probably know them if you see them.

Now THAT is a view

The picture speaks for itself. I opened the curtains in the room this morning, and this is what I'm staring at.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Marhaba le Dubai!


First, the Burj Dubai - now officially the tallest building in the world - makes the Sears Tower look like a shack. And the Burj Al Arab hotel - which I'm staring at right now because my room faces it - is... well, there are no words. How can you possibly describe the awe of a hotel like this with a helipad looming over you, and it all changes color. It's more amazing than any pictures I've seen.

I flew through the airport when I arrived. Contrary to everything I've read, as an American citizen I didn't need a visa. No line to wait in! They directed me straight to the fast-track passport line where I got through it in 10 minutes. As soon as I got to baggage claim, my bag was already through. Hopped in a taxi in 5 minutes and was here in no time.

As we were landing, we flew right by the Palm Deira islands. I wonder how expensive a helicopter tour of the city is?

Ah well, when daylight comes I'll be out and about. I have some plans already mid-day along Sheikh Zayed Road were all the great skyscrapers are, so I should have pix to post tomorrow. I tell ya, a 12.5 hour flight isn't so bad when you sleep through most of it, have a few meals, and maybe catch a movie. Not too bad. I love British Airways.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Flickr Album Open

If you want to follow along with this blog and the pictures, the Flickr account is now open.


I'll be posting all week to the site.

ETA 9/9: Flickr is blocked in the UAE, so I won't be able to upload there. I'll likely have to post select pictures to this blog. Maybe I can get a few on Shutterfly, but I hate to duplicate. I'll work on it later tonight when I settle in.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008


I don't know why I didn't do this ages ago. I spend so much time dreaming and planning trips, with all these ideas, and never have a place to store them. In Egypt and England I wrote about those trips from afar, but I'm no longer a member of the site where those stories were told, but I think I still have copies, so I should paste them here.

Reason is, I leave for Dubai in a few days (!) and definitely want to write again while I'm there. Late at night, I love recounting the day, writing down the memories so I don't lose them, and uploading pictures to tell the story. So here goes... T minus 4 days until Dubai departure, and you can check here for play-by-play updates.

Who knows what other adventures this blog will bring, but at least I'll have a collective place to store those memories and bring you along on the ride.