Saturday, December 31, 2011

Christmas in Cape Town: Getting to Franschhoek

Brian and I decided to spend our Christmas holiday in South Africa. We spent the first 3 days in the Winelands, staying in Franschhoek, and the last 3 days touring around Cape Town. The flight to Cape Town is about 9 hours all told, but seemed like much less as this trip we got tickets in business class!! WOW! What a difference a flat bed makes … and of course the complimentary champagne and wonderful food helps too. :) I could write an entire post about how wonderful it was to fly business, but I won’t bore you. Suffice to say that if you ever get the chance, take it.

We had a wonderful flight and arrived at the Cape Town airport about 8am Christmas morning. It was weird to travel on Christmas eve, but we decided that if we couldn’t be with family, travel was the next best option. We got our luggage without any trouble and headed to the car rental area. The good news is that Thrifty did have an office at the airport (see my post from Jordan about Budget), the bad news is they were either very busy or extremely unorganized as we had to wait quite a while for our car.

Our car. We (maybe I should say I as I tend to do most of the bookings) have an aversion to car rental fees, and as such always choose one of the cheapest (if not the cheapest) cars on offer. Our rentals are always tiny, lucky to have power locks, and often have a manual transmission. And this usually isn’t a big deal – Brian always drives … hmmm, maybe he should have a say in the car choice? Our challenge here in South Africa is that they drive on the other side of the road, which means the driver sits on the right, and with a manual transmission this means the driver (my hero, Brian) has to manage the gear shift with his left hand. It also means the signal indicator is on the right, which means for the first few turns, Brian turned on the wipers instead of the signal indicator, which I thought was pretty funny. We (aka Brian) have decided to upgrade our car rental choices in the future. ;) The other interesting thing about our car is the noises it makes. When we open the car doors to get out of the vehicle, there is this annoying loud beep that alerts everyone in the surrounding area that we have arrived. When we get into the car, we have to put the key in the ignition and LOCK all the doors or the car alarm will start to sound. I won’t even tell you how long that took us to figure out! J We’re thinking it must be because of the crime rate in SA and the potential for car hijacking. We’ve seen a lot of ‘Clubs’ on steering wheels since arriving and were warned before coming not to leave ANYTHING in the car, not even in the trunk.

Anyway, all sorted and off we head to Franschhoek – a beautiful drive through wine country. Here are a few of the breathtaking views along our route.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

A Special Christmas Party

It's Christmas eve morning and a gorgeous 60 degrees outside. I've got the windows wide open to let in the breeze and lovin' every minute of our UAE winter. And before you think of getting jealous, my snow-bound WI family and friends, look back at some of my summer posts and remember only a few months ago we were sweating our 'you-know-whats' off, house bound ourselves and miserable.

Tonight we head to Cape Town, South Africa for a week and thanks to the generous employee benefits of my beloved employer, we will be flying business class - champagne and a flat bed, what could be better? Okay, you can be jealous of that, I guess. I'm fully aware that we are completely spoiled and travel more than any couple should be allowed to ... and that ain't gonna change any time soon, I promise. Let's just say, waiting 9 months to land my job with Etihad was wwweeellll worth it. :)

Speaking of, I had a really interesting experience on Thursday, our last day of work before the holiday. Christmas, by the way, is not an official paid holiday in UAE, but because there are so many Christian ex pats living here, it ends up being quite festive anyway. Most people take the week between Christmas and New Year's off, and all the hotels celebrate the season as you probably saw from my Christmas tree post a couple of days ago. But, I digress.

On Thursday, my co-worker and I were coming back to our desks with the plan of heading to the canteen for lunch and were informed that there was some pizza and cake in one of the classrooms. I was faced with a tough decision ... eat the salad I brought from home or partake of pizza and cake?  Yeah, I went for the pizza. We headed to the classroom and could already hear Christmas music from down the hall. Okay, I guess that makes sense, someone must have organized a bit of a Christmas lunch for Learning & Development teams.

Yeah, someone did ... our recent Emirati graduate class!  Our MUSLIM Emirati graduate class! We were stunned and really really touched. They had the Christmas music going, enough food for the entire Training Academy, a Christmas tree drawn on the whiteboard and even a wrapped present that they put in a lottery for one of us. I was amazed and would never have expected our Emirati friends to throw us a Christmas party. After all, I can't imagine us trying to throw an Eid party. But they did and they were having a blast. I think they loved most the expressions and profuse thanks from all of us. It was really a fun surprise and a truly special gift.

I'll close before I get too sappy, but have to say how much a gesture like that makes you think and appreciate the tolerance we're all shown here in Abu Dhabi (and all of UAE). I know there are many fears and concerns about the Arab world these days, but in our little pocket in UAE, tolerance is alive and well and making a difference.

Have a very Merry Christmas everyone and thanks for reading!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Christmas Trees of Abu Dhabi

Throughout the month, Brian and I have taken photos of all the Christmas trees we've run across. All of them in hotels and all very elaborate as you can imagine. Here's a nice taste to put you in the festive mood.

Beach Rotana
Santa scaling Finz Restuarant @ Beach Rotana
Aloft Hotel
Emirates Palace Hotel (not quite $11M like last year!)
Yas Island Rotana Hotel
Souk @ Qaryat al Beri

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Oh Christmas Tree, O ... wait that's the best you got??

A few weeks ago, we decided to get into the Christmas spirit despite the sunshine and temps in the 80s and look for a tree. Back home, we find a real tree because a) I LOVE the smell, b) there's a tree farm right down the road, and c) what on earth would our cats barf up during the month of December if we didn't get a real pine tree?

As you might have guessed, pine trees are not the norm here in UAE. I did see a few newspaper articles about some 400 trees brought in from Nova Scotia, but really, what's the point? and how on earth do you dispose of the thing? In addition, they were VERY expensive - we think real trees are expensive back home, so to get one here, for us, was a ridiculous idea. Instead, we set off to the hypermarket to find a fake one. Have I told you you can find everything at the hypermarkets? It's UAE's version of Super Walmart without all the scary people ... well, there are a few scary people, but not near as many as Walmart. :)

There were 6 trees to choose from, not counting the bright pink tinsel tree that actually hurt my eyes to look at, and they ranged in sizes from 3ft to 8ft. We ended up with a 6 or 7ft, I think and then picked out some ornaments. These trees are not something to be proud of - they are cheap, plastic and very fake looking, but hey, what's a girl to do in the middle of the desert at Christmastime? The ornaments are equally horrible - plain plastic balls in bright colors, but with no personality whatsoever. We had a tradition growing up that every year my brother and I would get an ornament for Christmas from my parents and/or one of our Aunts so I have a fabulous collection of ornaments, which always made our tree very special as there was a story and a person behind each ornament on the tree. These ornaments from the hypermarket have no story or personality, but I guess you could say that for the first time in my life, my tree looks uniform.

But enough complaining - it's Christmas! We have a tree and it has lights and ornaments and is doing it's part to help put us in a Christmas frame of mind. And, as always, there is a silver lining to this pathetic looking tree ...  no kitty barf! Apparently, Rogue prefers a real tree too.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Jordan Visit - Part IV: Foating in the Dead Sea

My last installment of our trip to Jordan takes us to the Dead Sea. For those unfamiliar, the Dead Sea is at the lowest elevation on the planet and the Sea is ... well, dead. Meaning it has no fish or other living critters, just a few very hardy plants that can survive the approximately 30% salt content. It's that salt content that makes the place famous, that and the mud that's supposed to have healing properties. The mud, as you might imagine, is pimped out all over Jordan and found in every beauty product for sale in the region. Important to note that most of the products say, "contains minerals found in the Dead Sea" meaning they've infused the stuff with like minerals, but probably haven't actually used any of the mud from the sea. I know, we're all just trying to make a buck.

We stayed at the Marriott which is right on the Dead Sea and has a beautiful pool as well as access to the beach and the Dead Sea itself. We checked in, donned our suits and headed to the beach to see what the hype was all about.

Prior to arriving, I found a website with  some tips so we already knew we should wear water shoes (as the bottom is rough due to the salt and can really cut up your feet). We were also told to bring an older suit as the high salt content can mess with the colors in your clothes. And finally, we were told over and over not to put our faces in the water or try to actually swim. Because you float so easily, if you try to swim on your stomach, your head will dip under the water because your head is heavier than your feet. Well, I didn't have to be told twice, my plan was to keep my head out of the salty water and just float on my back.

At the beach area, the hotel provided us with water shoes (nice) that were way too big for me (not so nice). Then they provided two small "bowls" of mud. These were actually just formed out of the mud along the shore. We were instructed to smear it all over, leave on for about 15 minutes and then rinse it off in the sea or the fresh water showers. We slathered some on, but couldn't wait the 15 minutes so just started backing into the sea. We weren't that impressed with the mud - maybe because we didn't leave it on long enough or maybe because it's just mud and all the hype is just marketing. 

So, we backed into the water ... oh yeah, another tip is to back in to make it easier to get your balance and start floating (which worked incidentally).  The water had an almost slimy look and feel to it - very strange - and the top 1/4 inch was really cold, but underneath it was nice and warm. Very strange experience. We floated on our backs, but not the way you would think. In a pool, your feet kind of hang down and you kind of arch your back to stay afloat. In here, you have to kind of hold your stomach in almost like a sit up to keep your head and feet level. Hard to explain - suffice to say it was an interesting experience and very different from floating in the ocean or a pool. It was also as smooth and calm as glass and a little eerie to think that NOTHING lives in that water. Supposedly, you can go scuba diving in the Dead Sea, but neither Brian nor I could understand the point, unless perhaps just to say you did it.

After about 30 minutes of floating and a few more trips in and out to slather on more mud, we called the adventure done and headed to the real pool and hot tubs.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Jordan Visit - Part III: Getting Lost

For those regular followers of this blog, you may have noticed that Brian and I tend to get lost while on vacation (well, truth be told, I get lost all the time around here too). Jordan was no exception. We had, between us, 3 different maps of Jordan and the night before and over breakfast had looked at all of them to determine the best (fastest) route to the Dead Sea from Petra. And, as usual, we thought we had it figured out ... well ...

We started off fine and the road signs matched the little lines on the map perfectly, and then, in a blink of an eye (or it could have been the distraction of a truck full of sheep) we no longer seemed to be on the same road. But, as is also typical of the Stolls, we were able to find our location and re-route ourselves using a different path (we don't need no stinking GPS!) And, as is also somewhat typical, we enjoyed the new route immensely and perhaps even more than had we followed our original plan.

We ended up winding through the mountains and stumbled across an old castle that was open for visitors. Here are a few pics of the castle and the gorgeous drive.

One of about 8 of these guys hanging around the castle. Why? Never did figure that out - the other 7 were huddled together along the top rampart drinking tea ... maybe they take shifts guarding the castle from tourists!

Here are some of the other warriors drinking tea and gossiping.

Our first glimpse of the Dead Sea.
So once again, we proved the road less traveled is the one more interesting. :)

Friday, December 9, 2011

Jordan Visit - Part II: Hiking Petra

Our second day in Jordan was devoted to Petra - we hiked for over 5 hours and still only saw a small part of the ancient city. Petra is the capital city of the Nabataeans and a religious center, tribal burial grounds, and the focus of a bi-annual pilgrimage.  The Nabataeans are a tribe of people descended from Nabioth, the eldest son of Ishmael, the son of Abraham. They were a merchant people who lived in Arabia, initially using camel caravans for trade and later ships called dhows with which they sailed the world carrying on a worldwide trade in exotic items. (info courtesy of
The city is sprawling and there are hiking trails throughout, but the main attractions are the Treasury and the Monastery, two breathtaking structures carved into the rock. As you'll see from the photos, the place is simply amazing and we could have hiked around for days... well, except for the fact that my legs were about to fall off! :)

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Jordan Visit - part I: the rental car

Last weekend we headed off to Jordan with a group of friends to hike through Petra and float in the Dead Sea. Jordan is about a 3 hour flight from Abu Dhabi and with the National Day paid holiday, we could easily make the trip without using too much vacation time (and of course, deep flight discounts from Etihad help too! :)

Since Brian and I were staying an extra day to visit the Dead Sea and had a different flight home than the rest of our group, we decided to rent a car rather than share the mini-bus one of our friends had arranged for the group. We've rented cars all over the world and had a reservation with Budget so figured that would be easy. That was until we got through customs and realized there was no Budget Rental Car counter in the airport ... uh oh. We ended up asking Avis and they said that Budget didn't have a counter, but someone should meet us here in the waiting area. "They coming soon, sir." Yeah right, we started talking about Plan B and resigning ourselves to losing our reservation.

We really shouldn't have been so hasty to worry, though, as a few minutes later, a very nice Jordanian man came up to us holding one of those little signs with Brian Stoll on it. He was our liaison from Budget. After apologizing for being late, he ushered us to a nearby table to do the rental car paperwork.

Now at this point, I have to admit I was a little nervous. He had paperwork with the Budget logo on it and it looked official, but he was in jeans and a sweater and the whole thing just seemed a little dodgy. But, after reading through the contract and asking a few more questions, we were satisfied that this was legit and handed over our credit card.

Equipped with a couple of maps and assurances that Petra was "easy to find" (always the phrase of doom for us) we headed out to the car. And wow, what a car, dirty, dented and a long crack along the top of the front windshield. Looking around, however, we realized that was the normal state of the cars in the lot so off we went ... to get gas. The practice here is to give you the car on empty and then you bring it back empty (WHAT?!) Yes, so we've got the needle on complete empty and then are told the petrol station is "very easy to find".  oh boy

But once again, we worried unnecessarily because the petrol station was easy to find and we did get there before the car stalled from lack of gas. The station was a small, family owned place that was most likely a friend of the Budget agent (at least that's our theory to explain giving us an empty car).

After finally getting everything sorted, we drove the 2.5 hours to Petra (actually the town of Wadi Musa) and while not an exceptionally scenic drive, it was easy enough to follow and we made it without any trouble. Pics below are a few of the sights along the way.

Upon arrival, we checked into the Movenpick, which was the best hotel in town - probably a 3 star by US standards, but with 5 star service - extremely friendly staff and very attentive and helpful with the best made to order omelet chef I've ever seen. We met up with the mini-bus group about 30 minutes later when they arrived and it was clear that our rental car adventure was worth it. Tales of their driver nodding off, clapping (with both hands) while listening to music and trying to navigate a curvy road, and taking them to "the best place for souvenirs" on the way made us laugh, and feel better about choosing the rental car option. And, I'm happy to report that the crack in the windshield didn't cause us any trouble. ;)

Friday, December 2, 2011

Happy Birthday, UAE!!

UAE celebrates it's 40th birthday today, December 2, 2011. 40 years ... that means I'm older than this country. Does that also mean UAE is now "over the hill"? :)

National Day, as it is called is a pretty big deal here and there are celebrations and lots and lots of decorations. They put our 4th of July efforts to shame, but of course, they're much newer at it than we are.

I had the pleasure of being in Al Ain teaching a course in our all female, Emirati contact center during their National Day celebrations so got to see first hand some of the festivities. The first fun thing was all the UAE bling. The colors of the UAE flag are red, green, white and black so everyone had some on (even me!) Still black abayas and head scarves so the bling came out in the form of colorful Shaylas that were the colors of the flag, decorative pins worn on the outside of the abayas, watches, bracelets, temp tattoos, rings and bright red shoes and lipstick - it was really cool!

The event itself consisted of a speech by the manager of the contact center, singing of the National anthem, some traditional dances by the children of the ladies of the contact center and then a bazaar with traditional food, handicrafts and henna. It was a really nice celebration and I was sorry I couldn't stay longer, but had to get going for the 90 minute trip back as we were leaving for Jordan early the next morning.

Back in Abu Dhabi, everyone was decorating their cars ... no, I mean REALLY decorating their cars. We saw elaborate flags draped over car hoods, stickers, streamers and lots of window clings with UAE and photos of the Sheikhs, etc. Pretty amazing to see. I'm told that all these cars then head down to the Corniche and drive back and forth, playing loud music and dancing in the streets. Rumor has it the streets are bumper to bumper all day long, including the road between Abu Dhabi and Dubai! Glad we're out of town, actually as I would have liked to see it and Brian would have hated driving in it! :)

So, Happy Birthday, UAE and many happy returns!