Sunday, April 29, 2012

Visitor Adventures: You're leaving already?

As I hope you can tell from the previous posts, we had a great time with my parents and their friends and had many adventures. So, it was a surprise when all of a sudden it was time for them to leave. I'd gotten used to making the drive downtown after work to have dinner with them, and enjoying long weekends of tourist adventures - it wasn't time to leave already, was it?

Well, it was. So our last evening together, we ordered some yummy mixed grill and reminisced about all the adventures of the past two weeks. Everyone had packed up all their Arabic goodies, passports were out and ready and the suit coats were out (business class dress code for staff travel flight discount).

It was an awesome trip and so nice to share our new 'home' with family and friends. And don't forget, the offer stands if you'd like to experience these adventures first hand. As the Abu Dhabi tourism board says ...
The photos below are of the Burg Al Arab, a 7 Star hotel in Dubai. We didn't actually visit the hotel (you can't without a reservation), but did have a few opportunities to get some nice photos of it from a distance. These two taken from the Jumeirah souk while we were eating dinner.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Visitor Adventures: Eating!

One thing we all did plenty of during the visit was eat! And I thought those of you considering a visit might like to be assured of the fact that there is plenty of good food and most likely your favorite US fast food or restaurant as well. You can find Chili's, Applebees, McDonalds, Pizza Hut, Starbucks, Baskin Robbins, Cinnabon ... (you get the picture - if you start to get homesick for something, we'll take you to the nearest food court and you'll be feeling better in just a few calories.)

So, let's talk about the more exotic dishes you'll have the pleasure of trying while here. And to put the picky eaters at ease, I am one and if my waistline is any indication, you'll be able to find something yummy - even if you can't pronounce it's name. Here are a few of our favorites.

One of my favorites and found at most of the arabic bakeries scattered all over town. Basically a thin round piece of bread (think of a pita, but thinner and softer), covered with Halloumi cheese (think of a cross between Mozzarella and feta), baked in a stone oven and then folded in half for easy devouring. Ready faster than a Big Mac and costs about $2.

Schwarma is a bit like a gyro, but not as garlicky. Same thin pita-type bread as the Manakeesh and inside you'll have dill pickles, seasoned lamb or chicken, cilantro and a garlic yogurt sauce. The chicken schwarmas have the added yumminess of a few french fries. mmmmm, and again, only about $2. You can only get these in the evening after the meat has been slow roasting on a spit all day.

Mixed Grill
Mixed Grill is a specialty of the Lebanese restaurants and the best value for your dirham. A huge plate of slightly spicy seasoned chicken, kofta lamb kabobs, seasoned beef chunks and arayas, which is the kofta lamb grilled between arabic bread and served with the garlic yogurt sauce. When they bring the plate, you wonder how you'll eat it all and then suddenly you're wondering where it all went. A plate of mixed grill will set you back maybe $10, but easily feeds 2 people.
Humous is chickpeas pureed with oil, garlic, lemon, a little water, salt and tahini paste and is oh so good on just about anything. Traditional lebanese style, it's served with arabic bread, tomatoes, cucumber, mint, pickles, and arugula, but I've also used it as a sandwich spread, on crackers, carrots, celery and I'm sure some other veggies as well. YUM!

Arabic coffee
And, of course there are a few drinks to include in the list as well. The first is traditional arabic coffee, which is like espresso (really strong and served in small cups) with a hint of cardamom.

For fun one night, we tried all the different kinds of milks I could find at the grocery store. Camel milk - like a milder version of goat's milk, not as bad as we were expecting. Date milk - really yummy, sweetened with dates it was like a lighter version of chocolate milk. Cardamom milk - interesting and spicy - have had it since in coffee, which is pretty good. We had fun trying the different kinds.

I've written about the incredible freshly squeezed juices of UAE before, but it bears repeating. You can find almost anything and it's all fresh squeezed. My favorite is lemon mint, which is tart and refreshing and often blended with ice to make a kind of slushy. You can also find strawberry, orange, pineapple, watermelon, avocado, mango, lemon, and even sometimes dragonfruit and lychee. Pretty amazing. 

There's plenty more, but writing this post has made me hungry so I'm off to find a snack! :)
Dad's cucumber watermelon mojito from Friday brunch

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Visitor Adventures: The Atlantis at the Palm

From the historical Cultural Centre to the sparkle of the Atlantis hotel on the Palm Jumeirah pretty much sums up the dichotomy that is Dubai. One minute we're taking pictures of traditional village housing and the next, we're inside one of the largest and most decadent hotels in the world. And to think, all this in only 40 years!

We visited the Atlantis just to take a look around (God knows we can't afford to eat there, let alone stay there for a night!) One of the attractions is a large aquarium which is built on the theme of the animated kid's movie, Atlantis (Disney? can't remember). Anyway, we had a coupon so decided to check it out. Photos below are of the hotel itself and our walk through the aquarium.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Visitor Adventures: Bastakiya Heritage Tour

Our next adventure in Dubai took us to the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding. Their motto, "open doors, open minds", which I love. They offer tours, talks, breakfasts and lunches to tourists with the goal of helping all visitors understand and appreciate Emirati culture and heritage. The centre and the tours take place in Bastakiya, which is a restored heritage village. The tours are given by UAE Nationals and the rule is "you can ask about ANYTHING". We had two tour guides and both were excellent, explaining about traditional housing, family life and a bit about Islam. Our second guide was a young university student who spent much of her life in South Carolina in the US - had she not been wearing Abaya, we would have assumed she was American. Both were informative and very open to all of our silly questions. Here are a few myths they dispelled during the tour:

Multiple Wives: The myth is that all Muslims are instructed by the Quaran to have up to 4 wives. Not true. The actual passage is something like, if you can promise to treat them equally, go for it, but one wife is best (clearly that's not a direct translation! :) What was more interesting was our guide's explanation for multiple wives. She told us that the practice started to help some of the war torn countries recover. When a country goes to war, many of the men are lost, which causes a steep imbalance of women to men in the country. So, the good Muslim, extends their family to provide an opportunity for more women to have stable family lives for the benefit of the community. And, she made it clear that the way it is supposed to work is that BOTH husband and 1st wife should agree to expand the family to include another wife. And then, both wives and their families MUST be treated equally. She explained it by saying, if you have two apples, you don't give one to one wife and one to the other, you cut both apples in half and give one half of each apple to each wife - that way, one wife can't say her apple wasn't as sweet. Jokingly, one of the male guides said that's exactly why he's planning to have only one wife! :)

Modest Dress: The myth is that women here are oppressed and forced to cover themselves by their husbands or by the rules of Islam. While this is probably true in some families, it's not a rule of the Quaran and certainly not the majority of the situations here. Most women choose to wear abayas and shayla and actually enjoy the freedom it provides. Think about it, under your abaya, you can wear your pajamas all day if you wish and still look elegant and put together. Under you shayla, your hair can be tied up out of your face - no blow drying, curling, hairspray.... Think of how quickly you could be out the door in the morning! :) "officially" women only need to cover their hair when entering a Mosque and are asked to dress "modestly", which most interpret as covered knees, shoulders and cleavage.

Entering a Mosque: The myth is that only Muslims can enter a Mosque. Our guide gave us some great guidance for entering a mosque (and also permission to enter any mosque we'd like). 1) dress modestly - covered knees, shoulders and cleavage; 2) women cover their head; 3) all - remove your shoes; 4) don't carry any bags, luggage, purses, etc. If you follow those guidelines, you can enter a mosque at any time. And after she described this, it totally makes sense. Think of a church back home - would we ever deny someone entrance? No, as long as they followed the rules - and what would our rules be? Enter quietly and respectfully; remain quiet and respectful while you're in there; be discreet if taking any photos; remove your hat? My favorite comment is when she said, "what does a Muslim look like? How would anyone know you weren't a Muslim anyway?" So true - might have to visit a Friday sermon some time before I left the sand box.

Here are a few photos from the visit.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Visitor Adventures: The Burj Khalifa

No trip to Dubai would be complete without a view from the top of the Burj Khalifa. Well, not actually the top, more like floor #135 or so, but close enough. The trick to a good visit to the Burj Khalifa is a combination of luck and planning. The planning is getting tickets online in advance, which are less than 1/2 the price and ensure you'll get in. The luck has to do with the weather. While we really don't have rain here in Dubai, we do have a lot of sand, that likes to hang out in the air, and ruin the view.

Another tip is to snag the slot about 30 minutes before sunset so you can see the view in the daylight and then later, the night lights of the city. The view overlooks the Dubai Mall fountains, which are a bit like the fountains at the Bellagio in Vegas and were designed by the same person. The light and water show from the top is pretty spectacular as you'll see in the video Brian shot below.

Other cool facts:
  • you get to ride one of the fastest elevators in the world to get there - and it's the smoothest ride you can imagine
  • you can buy some gold from the Gold ATM at the top and even get a small bar with the Burj Khalifa imprinted on it
  • the observation deck is actually outside, so you feel a bit like Tom Cruise from the last Mission Impossible movie ... okay, only a tiny bit
  • there are bathrooms at the top and we found ourselves wondering about how you would need to design such a system so the pressure of a flush didn't take down the whole building. ;)

 One of the gold bars you can buy from the ATM. I think this one was around $300.

 This shot is one of my favorites. Taken from the restaurant where we had dinner that same evening.
 A video Brian shot of the fountain show.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Visitor Adventures: The Wonder Bus

Groupon is dangerous. For those of you who don't know what I'm talking about, Groupon is a discount website that offers 50% or more off all kinds of stuff - manicures, gym membership, hotel stays, and lots of recreational tourist stuff like ... the Wonder Bus.

I first saw the Groupon for the Wonder Bus and laughed out loud because it reminded me of the Ducks in the Wisconsin Dells. It's a bus/boat tour that promises to take you on a tour of the city and then a tour of the Deira Creek in Dubai. And because the price was 55% off, I couldn't resist, and maybe I should have.

After a mad dash through Hardees for some lunch, we found their ticket office and got our seat assignment tickets. The office was very small and a little run down, which already set the scene. It's amazing how quickly I've come to expect sparkly and new here. I'm sure the place looked just fine to the group of tourists getting ready to board, but to me it looked worn out and in need of some updating.

After a few minutes wait, the bus rumbled up. Oh boy ...

 We got on the bus and to our seats, which were a bit dirty and ripped but fine and settled in for the 'city tour'. It was once we got on the road that I realized I had made a mistake buying those Groupons. Our guide must have attended 'cheeseball tour guide camp' because he started out by asking everyone to introduce themselves and sing a song! WHAT? Already preparing to refuse, I relaxed when I saw that he was only picking on the kids to sing (and most of them refused, I might add). I think this whole show was designed to distract us from the fact that there really wasn't any city tour, just a drive through part of the city to get to the entrance to the creek.

To be fair, he did point out the Heritage Village, which is where we were headed the next morning, so that was helpful and a few other things, but all in all, the 'city tour' was a bust. For example, how can you call it a city tour of Dubai and not go past the Burj Khalifa?

In any case, we soon made it to the creek and with a cheesy 1-2-3, we splashed in. I think this was supposed to be the highlight of the tour - miraculously morphing from bus to boat ... it wasn't that cool, but I might just be cranky this morning. :)

The tour of the Deira creek was a bit more interesting. This is one of the few areas of Dubai that seems to have some history to it. Not everything is brand new, huge, expensive and plated with gold. The Dhows (old fishing and trade boats) are the same as they were 50 years ago and bring some culture to the creek that you don't find everywhere else. Then, these are juxtaposed with the streamlined Transit boat that's used to shuttle people back and forth across the creek. The first photo below is the Transit boat and the second, a traditional Dhow. Most the Dhows are now used as dinner cruise boats. You can sign up for lunch or dinner and a float along the creek (a better idea than the Wonder Bus for our next visitors).

 And just as we're enjoying the scenery and thinking, "okay, this isn't so bad", we're passed by another Wonder Bus and reminded of just how silly we all look out here.

But we survived the trip and got to see a fair amount of the creek, which was the intent. Not sure I'll do it again, but a fun story to share at least. :) And another reminder to stay away from Groupons!

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Visitor Adventures: Shopping!

No trip to UAE is complete without a little shopping. We saw the Dubai Mall and the Mall of the Emirates - the huge mega-malls with every fashion designer you can think of and most stores we can't even afford to go into, let alone buy something from. We also spent some time haggling in the Dubai Gold Souk - gold everywhere and some of the gaudiest pieces you could possibly imagine and yet, both ladies found something they liked and bargained for a fair price. We spent some time in the Souk Madinat Jumeirah, which is  a newer souk made to look like an old souk. And we ended our shopping at the Dubai "Antique Museum" which is really just a HUGE warehouse of all kinds of souvenirs - some nice and some tacky. Here are a collection of photos from our shopping excursions. Enjoy.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Visitor Adventures: Trip to Al Ain

On Friday (the first day of our weekend here) we rented a van and took the group to Al Ain, a neighboring city in the Abu Dhabi Emirate and about a 90-minute drive. The trip was great with lots of sand dunes and a few camels to see.

As it was Friday (Muslim holy day) we had to plan our time to coincide with the museum openings, which were later in the day. So, we started off our adventures by driving through the Al Ain Oasis. The Oasis is a lush green area in the desert (actually the middle of town, but this whole place is a desert, remember) with thousands of date palms. The area is broken up into plots which are owned by local farmers and each plot uses the traditional irrigation system you'll see in the photos below. It was gorgeous and so interesting to find this in the middle of the city. Here are a few photos.
This is the road through the whole Oasis, which was a fairly large area. You just wind around and get a little lost and eventually come out the other end. You can see a gate on the left, which is the entrance to one of the plots.
This photo is taken through the gate of one of the plots. The cement trough in the middle is the irrigation system. This particular plot had a lot of grass and open space, some of the others were packed with trees.

After the Oasis, we climbed the Jebel Hafeet "mountain". No, it's not very tall, but in the land of flat sand, it's pretty impressive. At the top, we stopped at the Mercure hotel and had a nice buffet lunch outside with a wonderful view of Al Ain.
The winding road to the top. Unfortunately, it was really hazy that day with sand so the views weren't too great.
 The group at the top.
This was taken INSIDE the Mercure hotel. A whole wall of living vines hanging down from the ceiling. Wonder how they keep them watered and looking so nice?

After lunch, we headed back down the mountain and stopped at the Al Jahili fort and visited the small museum there. Then, we stopped in at the National Museum, which was really nice. Definitely the nicest museum I've seen so far in UAE. I guess it stands to reason that a country only 40 years old hasn't invested heavily yet in museums. ;)

One of the amazing photographs in the Jahili Fort exhibit that chronicles the travels across the desert of Wilfred Thesiger before oil was discovered. A really interesting and informative exhibit.

Also an interesting cultural experience. We arrived at 4:40 and the fort was scheduled to close at 5:00. When we walked in, the guard alerted us to this fact - okay fine. Then, he proceeded to follow us through the photography exhibit and continued to remind us about every 2 minutes (okay, I exaggerate a little, but only a little). When he did it again at 4:45, I said, "we have 15 minutes right?" "Yes, madam" and he stopped ... for about 5 minutes. The guard was an expat.

After the photos, we walked around a bit and then went into the other side of the fort where we were warmly greeted by 3 Emirati women (the guard was still following us to make sure we didn't overstay our welcome). It was now 5:00 and we were getting ready to leave. The Emirati woman asked if we had seen the exhibit about one of the former UAE rulers, and we said no. She said we must go see it and were welcome to do so. I shot a look at the guard and told her, "but it's late, I think we need to leave." She replied, "no problem. I wait for you. Please go and see." We did, and the exhibit was great and we learned another lesson about the hospitality of the UAE culture. Never would an Emirati rush a guest or shoo them out before they were ready.
 The two guards who were late for dinner because of us.
 One of the nice exhibits in the National museum.
Another exhibit of a traditional Emirati Majlis. Think of it as the guest living room in a traditional home. They had one set up as an example.

At by then it was after 6 and time to head home. A great day and some interesting sights.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Visitor Adventures: We worked, they played

The next few days, our visitors were on their own and Brian and I were both working. Here are a few of the fun things they did:

Falcon Hospital Tour
I've written about the importance of falcons to the UAE culture (some even have passports!) and this hospital is one of the facilities that cares for these amazing birds. They offer a tour or a tour and lunch option for visitors and from the descriptions that evening over dinner, it was well worth the visit. They got to learn about the falcons, see an operation in progress and tour the whole facility, finished off with a nice Arabic lunch. Definitely a 'must-do' for anyone coming to the area.

Big Bus City Tour
The Big Bus company operates in a lot of major cities including Abu Dhabi and Dubai. It's a nice way to get to know the area and included in the ticket is an audio tour in a variety of languages. It's a 'hop-on, hop-off' tour that visits the major attractions in the city and allows you to jump off and explore and catch the next bus when you're ready. The benefit was it gave them a good sense of the major tourist spots (and made sure we didn't forget anything on the tour schedule. :) Despite a bit of wind, everyone seemed to really enjoy the tour.

Trip to Sharjah
On Wednesday, they ventured out of Abu Dhabi with our reliable taxi driver, Mohammad, to a neighboring Emirate and city called Sharjah. Sharjah is about 2.5 hours from downtown Abu Dhabi where they were staying and allowed them a nice view of the UAE desert - and they passed through Dubai on the way, which is a always a treat. The destination in Sharjah was the Blue Souk. This is technically the Central Market of Sharjah, but because it's made of these beautiful blue tiles, everyone calls it the Blue Souk. It's a mall, but offers traditional stuff as opposed to high end fashion designers. They got to wander around the shops and see silver, carpets, pashminas, tourist junk and a whole floor of gold jewelry stores. I think they had a good time here, but not sure it was worth the 5 hour round trip. These are a few photos from my visit back in Spring 2011.

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque
Hands down a highlight of the trip. I've heard it twice compared to the Taj Mahal. I've posted on the Grand Mosque before so won't repeat myself. They went in time for the 10am tour and loved it. Ladies have to don traditional Abaya and Sheila to enter the mosque and everyone has to remove their shoes. It's a really great experience and another 'must do' if you're in Abu Dhabi. A few of my favorite photos of the Mosque.

High Tea at Emirate's Palace
As you know, we'd been having difficulty getting in to the Emirate's Palace and on the Big Bus tour, the group found out that they no longer welcome visitors. To get in, you have to have reservations for and event or tea or dinner or ... So, the group decided to sign up for High Tea. Yes, it was expensive, but judging from the fact that no one was hungry for dinner that night, it sounds like it was worth the dirhams. A spread of sandwiches, meats, cheeses and of course loads of deserts kept them busy for almost 2 hours and they really enjoyed the experience.

So, there is lots to do my friends! Have you booked your tickets yet?

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Visitor Adventures: Lost in Abu Dhabi

If you follow my blog regularly, you know that Brian and I have a knack for getting lost while on vacation. Now, one would think that since we live in Abu Dhabi and it's not technically our vacation, that we would be spared the 'getting lost adventure', but alas, no.

Brian was in Dubai for work for the day so I had charge of the visitors and a great plan to take a tour of the Falcon hospital where they care for and operate on falcons. I rented a car big enough for the 5 of us, looked up directions on Google Maps and left in plenty of time to make our 10:00 tour.

And all was going well ... until the Yas Island interchange. Where I took a wrong turn - and as you know, a wrong turn in Abu Dhabi means at least 15-20 minutes to get back to where you started. I laughed it off and made the best of it by pointing out Ferrari world, the Yas Viceroy hotel and the IKEA on Yas Island.

Back on track and the correct turn this time. But then things went awry again and the road we were on didn't seem to be listed on the map I had printed. Things didn't look good and I didn't have a phone number for the hospital. So, we tried to flag a taxi, which didn't work and stopped alongside an accident to ask for help ... which didn't help. More driving around and I decided to 'phone a friend'.

A few embarrassing phone calls to Brian, friends and a co-worker later and I got a phone number for the Falcon hospital ... it was now almost 11:00 (our tour was supposed to start at 10). They kindly suggested we re-schedule for the next day after having no clue where I was or how far I was from the hospital. I knew it was bad when they offered to pick us up at the Airport terminal so we could follow them to the hospital the next day. To heck with that, I was turning in the rental car and calling a reliable taxi driver!

So, the Falcon hospital tour had to wait for Monday, and since I had to go back to work, we sent the visitors with our taxi driver, Mohamed (who found the place with no trouble whatsoever). And good thing too as the tour was one of their favorites of the whole visit.

Now, what to do with the rest of our Sunday? We tried to go back to Emirate's Palace, but were again turned away since we didn't have reservations. They found out later on one of their bus tours that Emirate's Palace hotel no longer lets tourists just wander around - the only way to get in is to make reservations for lunch, dinner or high tea (more on that in another post).

It was way past time for lunch so we headed for The One, which is a furniture store with a wonderful restaurant. Yes, you read that right, we had lunch in a furniture store, and it was delicious. Then, we stopped at Zadina to buy some fancy dates, then to the Central Market to do a little souvenir shopping and then back to the apartment.

Not quite the day we had planned, but everyone said they really enjoyed the almost 3 hour drive to nowhere as it gave them a chance to see the scenery. ... I'm pretty sure they were just being kind. :)

Monday, April 2, 2012

Visitor Adventures: Desert Safari

The Desert Safari is one of the most popular tourist adventures over here. First, you do some dune bashing, which is basically driving up and down the sand dunes in a Land Cruiser, hanging on for dear life, and hoping and praying the driver doesn't roll the truck. My dad asked our driver if he had ever rolled a truck, and the driver just nodded quickly and silently - I don't think you're supposed to ask them that until AFTER you're safely finished with the ride.

Dune bashing is not for the feint of heart or the sensitive of stomach, and if you've got a bad back, forget about it. I, personally, am not a fan of the dune bashing as I tend to get car sick and just don't enjoy fearing for my life in that way, but our visitors loved it. I'm not sure everyone would do it a second time, but they loved it. :)

During a break in the bashing (to let the trucks cool off a bit, I'm sure), we stopped at what seemed to be a camel farm. Lots of friendly camels very willing to be on film.

Back for some more bashing (ugh).

Next on the agenda were the camel rides. Pretty short, but an experience nonetheless. The ride's not so bad it's the getting on and getting off that's the real adventure!

And then it was off to the BBQ - complete with belly dancer, henna painting, shisha smoking and a wonderful Arabic buffet. A good time was had by all as you can see in the photos.

 Henna is a powdered plant material mixed with water and then 'drawn' on your skin to make designs or 'tattoos'. You let it dry for about 20 minutes and the stain on your skin lasts about 2 weeks.
Shisha is flavored tobacco and is smoked through a hooka pipe, which you can't see in the photo. We had apple flavor and had a laugh at everyone trying to smoke without coughing.