Breaking the Fast of Ramadan – A Date with Dates

date palm bw (2)

I cheated on WordPress.  (They host this blog.) I don’t dabble in too many social networking sites, but tried one recently where you post a photo every day for a year. I love the idea of that! But then I only lasted for a couple of weeks.  Really weak, I know. During my brief affair, I kept finding myself photographing dates – date snacks, date trees pregnant with soon-to-be edible dates, packaged-up, beautiful dates.  I don’t think I had ever eaten a date before moving here so they will always remind me of our time here. They were a critical part of Bedouins’ diet in the desert since they were readily available, easy to transport, satisfying and nutritious, and they are still a popular snack in the region. Traditionally they are the first thing eaten when breaking the daily fast of Ramadan at sunset.  Stores here are brimming with piles of different varieties in preparation for the holy month. Since Ramadan starts on June 28th which is just around the corner, this post is dedicated to rich, satisfying and flavorful dates!

Date palms in Oman

Date palms in Oman

 

All of trees around town right now have netted bags of soon-to-be edible dates

dates

Date palm leaves near my house framing the Burj Khalifa

Date palm leaves near my house framing the Burj Khalifa

date palm bw (1)

 

piles of dates at the Dubai fish souq

piles of dates at the Dubai fish souq

 

Dates are not the prettiest fruit around, but Bateel makes them look glamorous, and they taste amazing too!

Dates are not the prettiest fruit around, but Bateel makes them look glamorous, and they taste amazing too!

Who wouldn't want to receive this as a gift?

Who wouldn’t want to receive this as a gift?

Bateel chocolate covered dates

Bateel chocolate covered dates

Bateel dates

some of Bateel’s offerings are filled with nuts or candied lemon, orange peel or ginger

I saw this dessert online quite some time ago and have had this recipe lingering around my kitchen.  I finally got around to making it and they actually turned out great on the first try – amazing for me! Thank you Martha Stewart! (Apologies to any blog I read that may have featured this recipe – I couldn’t figure out where I initially found it to link.)

Martha Steward date bars (2)

Martha Stewart date bars

Here’s the recipe:

Martha Stewart’s Date Squares

  • 2 cups dates, pitted and diced
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 pinch of salt
  • zest and juice of 1 lemon (I omitted the zest, didn’t want them to be too lemony)
  • 12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, plus more for pan
  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 cups quick-cooking oats
  • 1 cup packed light-brown sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda

Method:

Place dates in a saucepan with water, salt and lemon zest and juice.  Cook over medium heat until dates are soft, about 12 minutes.  Remove from heat; let cool before using.  This is the date paste.

Preheat oven to 350F (175C).  Butter an 8-by-8-by-2 inch baking pan, and set aside.  In a large bowl, combine flour, oats, brown sugar and baking soda.  Add butter and blend with your fingertips until mixture resembles coarse crumbs.

Transfer two-thirds of the crumb mixture into prepared pan, and press into bottom and up sides.  Spread date paste over bottom layer of the dough. Cover with remaining crumb mixture.

Bake until golden brown, about 35 minutes.  Transfer pan to a wire rack to cool completely. Invert onto a plate, then back onto a cutting board. (I made a gigantic mess when doing this because the loose parts of the topping went flying across the kitchen!).  Cut into two-inch squares.  Store in an airtight container for up to a week.

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Visit this photo essay in Time to see ways people break the fast during Ramadan around the world.

Ramadan Mubarak to those who celebrate!

 

Posted in Day-to-day living in Dubai, Emirati Culture | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 19 Comments

Food Marathon – Middle Eastern Style

Imagine working at a local eatery when a group of tourists from a food tour pops in to sample some of your offerings.  One of the participants looks particularly excited, giddily snapping pictures.  When you wish her a good trip home, she says, “Oh, no, I live here.”

Your face changes from a pleasant smile to a perplexed expression that practically shouts, “Huh?!”  Such was the look of bewilderment of these guys:

restaurant workers Dubai

when they found out I actually lived in Dubai and was not a tourist.

One of the things I don’t love about living in Dubai is that it’s really easy to live your life in complete separation from the older parts of the city where you’ll find “normal” restaurants. By normal, I mean affordable, non-franchised restaurants serving food from the region.  I don’t eat out all that often, but when I do, I like to have a glass of wine with my meal. That means I’ll usually find myself in a hotel since that’s the only place alcohol is served. Going to palatial and extravagant hotels is exciting at first, but it gets old quickly.  Deep down you know that delicious and complex old-world food that’s rooted in history and tradition is here for the taking, and you’re missing out.

I knew close to nothing about Middle Eastern food before the tour.  Beyond some basics that anyone who has lived in a cosmopolitan city might know, my vocabulary was limited, my taste buds neglected.  I didn’t know where to go to expand my repertoire. Yes, I’ve lived in the Middle East for several years but had to play tourist to learn more about local food. Weird, I know.  But I’m so glad I did!

The food tour takes place in Deira.  That’s a plus.  Deira is an older part of Dubai and one of the areas that feels comfortable.  It’s not grand, fancy, or blanketed in the shiny glitzy sheen that covers much of Dubai.  (Don’t get me wrong, Deira likes its flashing lights, but in a charming way.)  It’s livable and likable, without the need for the “ooh and aww” factor that normally attracts people to Dubai.  I like to come here when I need a break from the sterility and perfectness of other parts of the city.

So now that we’ve established the down-to-earth setting, what about the food?  We made seven, count ‘em, seven stops.  Some savory, some sweet. Somehow, I ended up with tons of pictures from the sweets part, and not so many from the savory, probably because I was too busy eating.  Plus, the beautiful geometric patterns and massive quantities of the baklava and other desserts were just begging to be photographed. Just look at these!

baklava Dubai

 

arabic desserts

Arabic desserts Dubai 2

bukaj Dubai

come to mamma

Spanning five hours and cuisines from all over the region (including Palestine, Syria, UAE and Iran), this tour is not for those watching their waistline.  Your gracious, informative and foodly fearless tour leader will tell you what percentage your tummy should be full at various points in the evening. When she says 15%, believe her!  Will power is not one of my strong suits, and neither is planning ahead.  If that describes you as well, beware of this tour.  STOP when you’ve been hypnotized by the incredibly flavorful falafel and your hand is reaching for another. DON’T opt for a second helping of the mouth-watering Musakhan (a Palestinian dish of roasted chicken, caramelized onion and spices over bread).  PUT DOWN that third piece of baklava. When you’re dying over the flaky crust of the Egyptian feteer (“pizza”) and eyeing a second, RESIST! One of the not-so-pleasant aspects of the tour was the food hangover I had the entire next day.  I didn’t even know food hangovers exist, but I’m convinced now … it’s a thing.

If you live in Dubai and you find your Middle Eastern food vocabulary begins and ends with hummus, falafel, shawarma, tabbouleh, baklava, and dolma, you have to do it.  I thought we’d be going to secretive restaurants shrouded in mystery in dimly lit alleys.  But no, the venues are mostly on main streets like Rigga Road and Muraqqabat Street – super easy to find again to impress future visitors when you take them.  Plus, you’ll learn about that bright orange desert you’ve seen around (it’s made of cheese with a noodle pastry on top that is served with a sugary syrup – a fascinating mix of sweet and salty), you’ll swoon over a lamb and rice dish (Machboos) served with Emirati spices while enjoying the cultural experience of eating with your hands in a traditional style tent, and you’ll marvel at the elasticity of refreshing Syrian pistachio ice cream.  And those are only a few of the highlights. It’s a fun-filled, educational evening and delicious every step of the way.  Here are a few pictures that don’t do the experience justice.  Enjoy! :)

shawarma dubai

We didn’t eat this shawarma, but I wanted to.

Musakhan Dubai

This is the Musakhan mentioned above. Not the prettiest dish ever, but I think this was my favorite of everything we ate. (tough call though!)

Kunafa Dubai

This is the cheese dessert mentioned above; it’s called Kunafa. I like how the famous neon lights of Deira are reflecting on the table. :)

falafel dubai

falafel heaven

nuts and snacks Dubai

Sangak

Iranian bread on hot stones. This Persian restaurant was our last stop so unfortunately I didn’t enjoy the food much because I was in an overfed stupor. But the atmosphere here was fascinating and my favorite of all the places we went to.

Iranian black tea Dubai

Iranian black tea with mint. This was the last thing that went down the hatch that night. Maybe I’ve never run a real marathon, but surely I deserve some sort of recognition for completing this food challenge? :)

(See Frying Pan Food Tours for more information.  An Indian food tour is also offered.  This post was not sponsored; all opinions are my own.)

 

 

 

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Feeling Alive at the Dead Sea

The drive down from Petra via the winding King’s Highway was full of beautiful and varied scenery. I took most of these from the car as we drove.

 

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After a few stops, we arrived at the Dead Sea a few hours after leaving Petra.  When I was a high school teacher, I remember teaching my students about how the Dead Sea is “dying” or shrinking (The water of its main tributary, the Jordan River, is diverted for agriculture to support the booming populations in Jordan and Israel.  The water is also pumped by fertilizer companies. Some estimates predict it will be gone by 2050.).  It was surreal to see it in person.  It was beautiful and serene in a way I didn’t expect.

At the shore, we slathered on the infamously rejuvenating Dead Sea mud and then watched it slowly dissipate in the salty water, leaving behind refreshed and silky smooth skin.  The water was a beautiful greenish-blue color and so clear.  For some reason I expected it to be murky.  When I forced my feet straight down, fighting the buoyancy of my body in the water, I could still see my toes clearly.  Then up they would float, bobbing at the surface with no effort on my part.  Floating… quiet… tranquil.

dead sea sign

That’s 1,377 feet!

olive leaf and dead sea dead sea walkway dead sea shore dead sea mud Dead Sea and Jordanian flag dead sea and infinity pool

Sunset produced an amazing kaleidoscope of colors within a 20 minute time frame: gold, purple, orange, pink.  I snapped a few pics with our phone.

 

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Maybe the extra oxygen in the air went to my head, but I did not want to leave!  The Dead Sea was a little slice of heaven and such a great way to end our trip to Jordan.

Fun facts about the Dead Sea:

DSC_6205The Dead ‘Sea’ is actually a large lake at the end of the Jordan River.

 

DSC_6205

It’s called the Dead Sea because it’s so salty (around 10 times saltier than the ocean) and therefore unable to sustain any marine life (aside from some bacteria)

DSC_6205

Water flows into the Dead Sea from the Jordan River.  Evaporation occurs at a rapid rate, leaving salt and lots of minerals behind.  This process produces a hazy environment that filters out harmful UVB rays.

DSC_6205The air here is unusually highly oxygenated and the water is so dense that floating is inevitable.

DSC_6205Dead sea water and mud have clinically proven health benefits.

 

DSC_6205Floating in the Dead Sea is not as easy as it sounds! It’s easy to flop around like an idiot while trying to get in.  Splashing is a no-no since the water really burns eyes and tastes terrible.  Your best bet is to just lie back gently as soon as possible, even if the water is very shallow.  And do not try turning on your tummy – trust me – more splashing will ensue. :)

 

 

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Petra: we came, we saw, we did not conquer

My travel motto lately is:  Start with low expectations; high expectations just ruin things. I thought Petra would be the highlight of our trip.  I’ve read so many descriptions that try to prepare you by saying nothing can prepare you for its magnificence.  I imagined my kids in awe of the impossibly massive and mysterious city carved into rock. Imagine seeing that as a kid! I was giddy with excitement.  But more on that later.

We left Amman and made a few stops along the way en route to Petra.  We went to Mount Nebo, where it is said that Moses saw the Promised Land, which God had forbidden him to enter.  Jews and Christians believe when he died he was buried here, but Muslims (who view him as a prophet) believe he was buried in a tomb across the river. mount nebo jordanMount Nebo Jordan

Sign from viewing platform.  We could easily see the Dead Sea.  Jerusalem is visible on a clear day.

Sign from viewing platform. We could easily see the Dead Sea. Jerusalem is visible on a clear day.

 

Modern sculpture of a serpentine cross that has become a symbol of Mount Nebo. Inspired by Jesus' words in John 3: "As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up."

Modern sculpture of a serpentine cross that has become a symbol of Mount Nebo. Inspired by Jesus’ words in John 3: “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.”

Old mosaics in the church from around 530

Old mosaics in the church from around 530

After Mount Nebo, we stopped at St. George’s church, a Greek orthodox church that houses the fragments of a famous mosaic that depicts a map of the region, probably created between 542 and 570.  It originally was comprised of over 2 million pieces.

Interior of St. George's Church in Madaba

Interior of St. George’s Church in Madaba

Then we stopped at a touristy but fascinating shop that displays some of the local crafts.  Artists were busy creating some pretty pieces in the workshop. Jordanian crafts

 

 

Jordan handicrafts mosaic

Look at that detail! Amazing!

 

We set off to Petra after this stop.  I’m a low maintenance kind of gal, so I kept an open mind about our bare-bones hotel when we first checked in. I don’t require much but I do like a clean bathroom.  It didn’t look especially dirty, but it was smelly, which convinced me it was in fact very dirty so I tried to keep everyone from touching anything.  The people who ran the hotel were very nice, offering us tea after coming in from a long walk one evening, so criticizing them seems ungrateful.  Instead, I offer a piece of advice to any and all hotels: please invest in fitted sheets.  No, a flat sheet simply won’t do when trying to cover a mattress that hundreds of people sleep on.  One that stays in place is mandatory; one that creeps up and exposes that well-used mattress underneath with any slightest movement is not acceptable.  Yuck! The thought still sends shivers down my spine. Oh well, we wouldn’t be spending much time in the hotel, right?

Our visit to the site was challenging for reasons I didn’t expect.  I thought the baby would give us the most problems, but with kids you never know. First, my son had an allergic reaction to the horse he was riding which necessitated a trip back to the hotel for a shower and medicine, and then a long walk back to meet up with the rest of the crew who was waiting on us.  A lot of unproductive walking plus sleep-inducing medicine is not a good combination for a rigorous day of sight-seeing.  Second, the guide, who I didn’t even know we’d have, talked and talked and talked more.  It was the type of jam-packed commentary that causes eyes to glaze over and hearing to fade. We politely hinted and then outright suggested that we speed up a little because the children were losing steam (to put it politely), yet no detail was spared in his long lecture about the rocks.  I kept thinking the siq (that famous entrance of the façade peeking through the crack of rocks) must be right around the corner … surely it’s right around that bend…. It wasn’t.

By the time we got to the treasury which is essentially the entrance, the beginning, the kids were finished.  Yes, done for the day.  The 45 minute walk that took at least 2 1/2 hours thanks to our guide undoubtedly felt like all day to the kids. At that moment, the sun beat down with unforgiving determination while the return walk loomed over us. They’re not easily fooled, these little ones.  They were understandably exhausted, and if we continued further, it meant a longer walk back. They could not be convinced to continue, even just a bit. Our very informative guide failed to mention there was a little café just around the corner, complete with fruit, drinks and most importantly, shade. So we set off back to the entrance. I trailed behind trying to snap a few pictures, feeling like a terrible wife and mother as my husband carried the little one on his back, and at times one of the boys on his shoulders at the same time, while the other son literally limped.  The midday heat was an unwelcome companion on the hike, causing us to desperately scan the path for the next shaded patch of relief.

Obviously, the experience was disappointing, mostly because I had envisioned the experience quite differently.  Instead of pondering the achievements of ancient civilizations and admiring multicolored geological formations, we’d spend the afternoon in our dingy, stinky hotel room recuperating.  Sigh.  Despite all of this, there is no denying the beauty and impressive ingenuity on display at every turn.  Petra really is spectacular.

That evening was redeeming.  We took a long, leisurely walk around the town.  We stopped for juice and people-watched, and then we ate a lovely meal. One of the waiters offered the children a lollipop but realized he only had two.  He ran off down the street to buy a third before I could protest.  I thought that was so sweet!  We made it back to our hotel and had tea in the lobby with a group of French women while the kids played hide-and-seek. We finally went to sleep before leaving for the Dead Sea the next day.  Here are some pictures from our visit.

Petra

 

Petra

Petra

 

The fam with the guide. They look like one big happy family, don't they? Appearances can be deceiving...

The fam with the guide. They look like one big happy family, don’t they? Appearances can be deceiving…

One of the cool things the guide pointed out - this rock that looks like a fish.  The next photo is the same rock viewed from the front, and it looks like an elephant.

One of the cool things the guide pointed out – this rock that looks like a fish. The next photo is the same rock viewed from the front, and it looks like an elephant.

Petra rock elephant

Petra

I loved the stripes here. The green light is the guide pointing something out. Of course I was zoning out most of the time, but maybe this is where he was showing us the cameras installed to monitor any shifts in the rocks.

 

Petra siq

There it is – finally! Despite leaving at 7 am, we arrived around noon, so unfortunately we didn’t see it in the early, forgiving morning light.

Petra treasury

the treasury

 

Petra camel guides

the camel guys at the treasury

 

another camel profile to add to my collection

another camel profile to add to my collection

 

Another blurry portrait.  I had heard that there can be a lot of pressure to buy things at Petra.  I didn't find that at all.  In our experience, if you told someone no, they did not persist.  This little girl was selling postcards but didn't ask us to buy any.  We shared some snacks with her, and she offered her postcards in return.   I thought that was very sweet of her.

Another blurry portrait – argh! I had heard that there can be a lot of pressure to buy things at Petra. I didn’t find that at all. In our experience, if you told someone no, they did not persist. This little girl was selling postcards but didn’t ask us to buy any. We shared some snacks with her, and she offered her postcards in return. I thought that was endearing.

Petra

Fun facts about Petra

PetraThe city was the capital for the Nabateans more than 2,000 years ago, serving as an important center for trade.  It was later absorbed into the Roman Empire. The Nabateans created an innovative water management system that allowed them to settle in such a dry climate.

PetraThe site was largely unknown to the much of the world until a 27-year-old Swiss explorer disguised himself as a Bedouin and rediscovered the site in 1812.

 

PetraThe facade of the treasury is in remarkably good condition, but bullet holes are visible from when Bedouins shot at it, hoping to discover treasures that were rumored to exist inside.

 

PetraAside from what is pictured in the post, the site features tombs, temples, buildings, arched gateways and colonnaded streets that were carved from the beautiful sandstone.  Despite all of this, it is estimated that 85% of the site has not been excavated.

 

DSC_6094

Featured in Smithsonian Magazine as one of the “28 Places to See Before you Die.”  Named as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, and is designated as a World Heritage Site.

 

Petra

President Obama toured Petra in March 2013.

 

For more info on Petra, click here and here.

For more info on Mount Nebo, click here.

** Thanks to wikipedia and my travel book The Rough Guide for some of the factual information in this post.

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A Glimpse of Amman, Jordan

Amman citadel

ruins of the Temple of Hercules, built around 160 AD

Beautiful Aqaba perched on the edge of the Red Sea.  Shimmering red and gold desert sand punctuated with interesting geological formations in Wadi Rum.  Petra and its rose-colored magnificence.  The beguiling and rejuvenating Dead Sea. Contemporary urban buzz rooted in ancient history in Amman.  Amazingly well-preserved ancient Roman ruins in Jerash. This is Jordan.

But Jordan is more than just beautiful places.  Its complex history is observable through fascinating ancient mosaics, castles, museums, churches, mosques and ruins.  Yet it’s the intangible way this rich historical legacy colors your experience and shapes your mood that makes a trip to Jordan so special. There’s also delicious food, most of which is transported farm to table daily from the valley, and stunning and surprisingly varied landscape such as desert, mountains, grasslands, olive groves and canyons.  There are many sites of tremendous religious significance for Christians, Muslims and Jews, and a fascinating and complex cosmopolitan vibe due to its geographical location (it shares a border with Iraq, Syria, the Palestinian territories, Israel and Saudi Arabia.)  The super friendly and hospitable people make discovering it even more enjoyable.

Jordan has been on my travel wish list for a while now.  A three-hour flight away, it’s a popular vacation spot from Dubai.  When I started researching for the trip, I felt really uninformed because I had no idea how much there is to do. There’s much more to this country than Petra and the Dead Sea (as if those weren’t enough!).  In the few days we had, we could only scratch the surface of discovering everything this amazing country has to offer.

We started with a day in Amman.  I’ve heard people speak dismissively of the capital. “Skip it” is the usual advice.  In a country with so much to do, I can understand in a way, but I really enjoyed our brief visit.  It’s gritty and lively, which I really like.  Fifty percent of all Jordanians live here, so I think it’s important to see if you want to get a sense of how people live here.

The citadel sits on the highest hill in Amman.  It features Roman, Byzantine and early Islamic structures.  A few pics from the area follow:

view of Amman from Citadel

view of Amman from Citadel

Abu Darwish mosque amman

View of Amman hills and Abu Darwish mosque from citadel

 

Temple of Hercules, built around 160 AD

Temple of Hercules, built around 160 AD

citadel Amman

a giant hand, possibly from a statue of Hercules

citadel Amman

Jordanian school girls on a field trip

citadel Amman

detail of the wall surrounding the citadel

I liked the way the delicate little wildflowers framed the view of the ruins and city.

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The shabby condition of the building that houses the Archaeological Museum deceives the high quality of the treasures it holds.  It features some interesting works of art, coins and other artifacts.

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The citadel is also home to an ancient Islamic palace from the Umayyad period.  The mosque in the area has a newly built wooden dome. (The Umayyad period refers to a Muslim dynasty that ruled the Islamic world from 660-750 AD and Moorish Spain from 750-1030)  The dynasty claimed descent from a distant relative of Muhammad named Umayya.

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Built during the reign of Marcus Aurelius, the Roman Theater held around 6,000 people. Restoration work reinforced the structure and it is still used for events.  The columns outside the theater were part of a Roman Forum which was one of the largest public squares at the time.

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After visiting the ancient ruins, we drove through the souk area and then on to the newer part of the city.  I would have loved to jump out of the car to wander around.  It wasn’t a particularly atmospheric area in terms of space, but I enjoyed the glimpse of normal daily life: vendors selling live chickens, women shopping for fruits and vegetables, people drinking freshly squeezed juice.  I took the following pictures from the car.

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Next time we’re off to Mt. Nebo (where it is said Moses saw the promised land) and to discover some of the locally made handicrafts.

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Lost in Translation

I’ve heard expats here in the UAE complain many times about frustrating conversations where no one understands each other even though everyone is speaking English.  I too have had some pretty exasperating experiences, but I’ve always felt grateful I didn’t have to learn Arabic when we moved here. Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to study Arabic, but I know that practically speaking, having to conduct day-to-day affairs in Arabic would have made the transition here infinitely more difficult.  Luckily, English is widely used instead.

I find myself becoming too comfortable (or some might say lazy and presumptuous) during conversations, not considering that most people to whom I’m speaking likely learned English as a second (or third, fourth, etc.) language.  I usually talk like I would to any of my friends or family back home, regardless of who I’m addressing.

When I went to get my hair cut the other day, I was thinking how nice it would be to have my hair all fixed and pretty for when my sister arrived.  I always love running away for my rare outings to the hair salon because it’s one of the few things I do without kids in tow. I enjoyed a coffee and noticed that the Burj Khalifa was looking particularly  handsome that day, so I snapped a picture with my phone.  Life was good.

Burj Khalifa

I’ve been to the same hairdresser, a super nice guy from Morocco, a few times.  I sat in the chair and casually mentioned, “I’d like my bangs to be the length of my eyebrows more or less when they are dry. Just follow the general cut you’ve done before.”  Well, maybe he heard, “I’d like my bangs to be an inch above my eyebrow, or more but not less, before they are dry.  Just don’t follow the general cut you’ve done before.” Maybe he doesn’t know what bangs are since the British version is fringe. Maybe he only heard ‘wuah wuah wuah wuah’ like Charlie Brown’s teacher.

My cheery mood abruptly ended and a twinge of panic set in immediately after the first “snip.”  I hoped that somehow my new, seemingly very short wet bangs would miraculously defy the laws of physics and get longer, not shorter when they dried.  They didn’t. I can’t explain where the communication broke down.  All I know is that after he cut my hair a few months ago I looked like this:

img (1)

 

and this is me now:

img (2)

I was so mortified by my reflection that as soon as I stepped out of the salon, I scrambled for a clip.  A clip is apparently no match for my stubbornly short bangs and they quickly escaped its grasp.  I sighed with relief when I found my new best friend in my bag, my trusty, cheap plastic headband.  We are inseparable these days.

I learned my lesson.  I certainly will be showing a picture of my desired cut next time.  It also reminded me to stop assuming that everyone can understand me and my southern accent, especially when I get comfortable and slip into ultra speed mode.  Maybe I need to slow down.

My foul mood was short-lived though because my sister arrived soon after. It was so nice to have family here visiting.  It’s really fun to show people around and refreshing to see the city as new again, but even more satisfying to see my children’s excitement about sharing mundane, daily activities with their aunt.  There’s something really special about family experiencing our daily routine when we live so far away from each other.  Now when we talk or text, she can visualize where we are – I just love that and so does she!   I’m so glad you came Diana!  Here are a few highlights from her visit.  Some of the pics are very similar to things I’ve posted before, but what can I say, the colors of the souk and the interesting skyscrapers never get old.

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* Thanks to the Hedonista for the tip on climbing the (rickety and steep) ladder to the top of the restaurant Bait al Wakeel for that panoramic shot of the creek.

**self-portrait Jim Carrey pic via huffingtonpost.co.uk

 

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What Sand? Defying the Lack of Water in the Desert

Since spring is officially here now, I’ve been thinking about our version of the season and how there is plenty of green around even though we live in the desert.  When you’re on the ground in Dubai, at times it’s easy to forget you live in the “sandpit” as many expats call it. Take a short drive outside of the city or look out a window a few floors up and your perspective will change.

Burj Khalifa from Safa Park

What sand? Just look at that impossibly green grass. (taken from Safa Park)

view from Burj Khalifa

Reality check (view from Burj Khalifa)

Dubai suffers from a bit of a Napoleon Complex in the water department; there seems to be a need to overcompensate for the lack of fresh water in the area by creating anything one can possibly imagine that requires a ton of water.  I’ve never seen so many water parks in a 90 minute driving radius. (five of them!) The landscaping can be over-the-top with flower lined highways and immaculately maintained neighborhood gardens.  There’s even the world’s largest flower garden featuring millions and millions of flowers laid out in geometric shapes and patters, called Miracle Garden. (some people call it “awe-inspiring” as in the linked article, but I find it sterile and too artificial).  There’s also the man-made Marina and the man-made islands which are occupied by hotels, houses, shopping and dining areas, all within a stone’s throw from water, of course.  Even the names of neighborhoods play into the fantasy:  Discovery Gardens, The Greens, The Meadows, The Green Community, Arabian Ranches, the Springs.  Can’t you just smell the freshly cut grass and visualize the expansive pastures?

Dubai is also peppered with plenty of parks.  Even though all the manicured flowers, grass and bushes generally make me feel uneasy because it’s so out of sync with the natural landscape of the region, I do enjoy the city’s green spaces.  When I lived in Austin and Houston, Town Lake and Memorial Park were a short drive from my house and were my favorite places to run (ahem, when I managed to run).  Safa Park is likewise encircled by a running track (a bit short at just over 2 miles, but nice and cushiony).  On Fridays through June, there is a food and craft market featuring organic produce and countless gourmet goodies, treats to eat, cookbooks and fresh flowers to buy.  The food section follows the crafts area which is bursting with products to browse including toys, clothes and decorative items for children, soaps, jewelry, artwork, and pet items.  It’s a great place to people watch as Dubai’s diversity is on full display.  Absorb countless languages, variations of accent and styles of dress, all while enjoying a delicious snack and a leisurely shopping experience.  What a fun way to spend a Friday afternoon.

Signs along Sheikh Zayed Road (the major highway that runs parallel to the park on one of its sides) indicate that major construction is about to begin to extend Dubai’s creek through Business Bay, cutting across Al Wasl Road, Jumeirah Beach Road and lead out to the ocean. Part of the transformation includes reducing Safa Park’s green space to include more, you guessed it, water.  This is unfortunate because on weekends when the weather is nice, it’s already packed wall-to-wall with families barbecuing, people playing soccer and Frisbee, and children playing.  (Especially if you have lived in Dubai at some point, check out this article in Time Out to see a graphic of what it will look like, and then click through the slide show to see other up and coming projects.  This city is changing at warp speed.)  The parking lot near entrance 5 of Safa Park is already closed due to construction and I suspect this new project is the reason.  Of course, this new extension of the creek plays in nicely with the water motif, as there will plenty of new shopping areas, biking trails, homes and hotels along the canal.

A few pics of Safa Park and Ripe’s Market follow.  If you haven’t been to the market yet, check it out before temperatures become unbearable.  Tick tock!

For more info about Safa Park, check out this post from fellow Dubai blog, Abby’s Roads.

Safa Park

soccer Safa Park

children’s soccer class

Ferris Wheel Safa Park

This ferris wheel stands as an iconic marker just inside the gate of the park, but I’ve never seen it move in the 3+ years we’ve been here.

jogging track Safa park

Jogging track around the perimeter of the park. It offers great views of the buildings along Sheikh Zayed Road. This stretch is shady but other parts are not.

Safa Park

yellow flower safa park 2

DSC_0144-2

bougainvilla Safa park 2

crowds at the farmer's market

crowd at the food and craft market

farmer's market safa park ( Ripe market Safa Park

paella Safa Park

what’s left of a giant paella

Coconut water safa park

Coconut water sells like crazy. Stick a straw inside to hydrate after shopping.

Hello Kitty Ripe Market Safa Park

Hello Kitty was very popular.

pillows safa park flowers safa park Farmer's market safa park dresses Ripe Market Safa cookies farmers market safa park

Posted in Day-to-day living in Dubai, Playing tourist - attractions and activities | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 19 Comments

Let’s Rodeo!

texas longhorn

1) rodeo noun: an event in which people compete at riding horses and bulls, catching animals with ropes, etc.

2) rodeo verb: to participate in rodeo activities as a competitor or spectator

Never heard of rodeo used as a verb?  Then maybe you haven’t spent much time in Texas. Don’t worry, I won’t hold it against you.  I saw online that The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo starts today and it has put me in a lone star state of mind.  It also got me to thinking about how I’m a poor excuse for a Texan.  I don’t own a pair of cowboy boots, I don’t know how to two-step, and I was never all that in to country music, especially the newer variety.  But like most from my lovely state, I have a healthy amount of state pride. One of the reasons I love being from Texas is because people who have never been have the silliest ideas of what Texas is like.  I like playing “cultural ambassador” and explaining away misconceptions or answering questions.

Let’s get a few things straight:

  • The majority of people don’t own horses, and they certainly don’t ride them to work, unless they happen to work on a ranch. (yes, I’ve had to address this one before.) Incidentally, every time I have ridden a horse, I was not  in Texas.
  • Family life for most looks nothing like the experiences of JR Ewing and crew on Southfork.  Erase the show Dallas from your mind.
  • Texans like to do other things besides rounding up their cows and drinking beer. For example, big cities have world-renown museums and thriving arts scenes.  In fact, Houston has more theater seats in a concentrated area than any other place in the US after Broadway.
  • Not everyone is a gun-toting, super-conservative, but they certainly exist.
  • The population is not ethnically homogeneous and Houston is, according to a Rice University study, the most ethnically diverse city in the country, even surpassing New York.  (This segment on NPR (with a great photo of Buddhist monks in front of a strip mall) references the study.)
  • Not everyone owns a gun but they are popular.
  • Texas is not made up only of small towns such as Cut and Shoot and Comfort. (Yes, those are real towns.  Doesn’t Comfort, Texas have a nice ring to it?)  Houston, Dallas and San Antonio are all in the top 10 of largest cities in the U.S.
  • Texas is not full of homophobic racists (in fact, Houstonians elected one of the first openly gay mayors in the U.S.), but again, they do exist.
  • The landscape is not defined by desert and tumbleweeds. Its diverse geography includes pine-covered hills, rolling plains, canyons, mountains, and rivers.
  • The accent.  Not everyone with a southern drawl is from Texas.  Every time my British husband comments on what he considers to be a crazy” Texan accent of someone on TV, the person is actually from Kentucky or Georgia or somewhere else in the South.

What do you think of when you think of Texas? Maybe you think of oil rigs.  Oil is big in Texas, can’t deny that one.  Chances are, if you’re an expat in the UAE, you know someone who has lived in Texas because of the oil connection it shares with the UAE. This article in Forbes about the oil production in Texas states that if it were an independent country, Texas would now rank as the 9th largest oil-producing country in the world, surpassing countries like Kuwait and Venezuela.  If production continues at its current pace, it will surpass the UAE and other oil-rich nations.  Who knew?

I don’t take offense when people share with me a less than informed opinion of Texas (and often times, it’s not too flattering). Even though we all try hard not to be presumptuous, it happens from time to time.  In my opinion, discovering the opposite of what I had assumed about people and places is one of the fun things about traveling and living overseas.

Do people have misconceptions about where you are from? Or have you traveled somewhere expecting one thing, only to experience another? Leave a comment below! And if you’re in Houston,

photo via sheplers.com

photo via sheplers.com

Posted in Articles to Read, Texas | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 20 Comments

Hogs in the UAE

My husband loves motorcycles but unfortunately for him, I don’t love the idea of him riding them.  He used to own a bike but once we had kids, he sold it.  Poor, deprived soul.  (ahem, for the record, I didn’t force him to sell it, although I may have dropped a few subtle hints here and there. :)  ) As it turns out, he’s not alone though because several friends I’ve talked to have said, “Oh my husband used to have a bike, but he sold it when we had kids.” Apparently this is a common phenomenon!  

When his 40th birthday rolled around, I figured he could use a little something to remind him of those carefree, independent days.  So I hopped on the internet, looking for motorcycle rental companies.  This is when I came across Prestige Motorcycles.  They offer Harley rentals and tours (visit their website for more info). I am a nervous type and will think through every possible terrible scenario so you can imagine what I was thinking when I was considering sending my husband, who hasn’t ridden a motorcycle in ages, out on a bike in a country full of completely self-absorbed, idiotic drivers.  As soon as I saw that they offered tours I thought, “A-ha! Perfect! At least he’ll be more visible in a group and he’ll likely be with experienced riders.”

I called and spoke to Serge, a Canadian man who owns the company with his family.  He could not have been more friendly, reassuring and knowledgeable.  He really put me at ease and got me excited about my gift.  I drove out to the Green Community where the showroom is located and marveled at the big selection of beautiful bikes.  They were shiny, massive and just gorgeous!  He asked if my husband likes loud bikes. “Nah,” I said. “He doesn’t care too much about that.” “Really?”  he asked, skeptically.  Then he cranked one up and I have to admit even I got excited by the rumble! I knew he’d love it.

He ended up going on the East Coast tour which leaves around 8 am and returns around 6 pm, going through Hatta and Fujairah.  It’s a great combination of scenery: beach, desert and mountains.  There are a few pit stops for coffee and lunch, so it’s a leisurely pace, but there’s plenty of riding time.  Other tours are available to Abu Dhabi, Al Ain and more.  Check the website for more info.

This is a unique and exciting way to see the UAE if you or someone you know has a motorcycle license.  Serge and his team are so accommodating and attentive and go out of their way to make the day an unforgettable experience. He had a personalized gift certificate made to present to my husband on his birthday and was understanding when I wanted to change the date of the ride.  At the end of the tour, he gave my husband a disc of video clips and photos from the day, along with a laminated certificate of sorts that featured some cute pictures.  These special touches and his genuine interest in making it a special day really made the experience memorable. My husband and I both highly recommend it.  Check it out and have fun on your hog! :)

motorcycle tour Dubai

Sheikh Zayed Mosque Fujairah

Sheikh Zayed Mosque Fujairah

motorcycle tour Dubai

**Photos courtesy of Prestige Motorcycles.  This review is an honest account of our experience and was not sponsored.

Posted in Playing tourist - attractions and activities | Tagged , , , , , , | 20 Comments

Heritage Village Abu Dhabi

Heritage Village in Abu Dhabi is an open museum that showcases traditional ways of Bedouin living.  I always enjoy thinking and learning about what it was like to live in this part of the world before modern conveniences made it so comfortable and easy.  It’s especially fascinating since this traditional way of living was a part of daily life here only 40 years ago.

Heritage Village is very touristy and could use more informational plaques or displays. However, we really enjoyed the view of the Abu Dhabi skyline from the beach and the little workshops that display traditional crafts.  Kids enjoy exploring the grounds and they can ride a horse or camel for 10 dhs.  (Click here to visit the website.)

Here are a few pics from our visit to Heritage Village and a few from other areas in Abu Dhabi.

dhow abu dhabi skyline heritage village

Dhow and Abu Dhabi skyline

dhow Heritage Village Abu Dhabi

Interior of dhow on shore of Heritage Village

Abu Dhabi skyline from Heritage Village

Abu Dhabi skyline

Heritage village Abu Dhabi glass

glass making shop

Heritage village abu dhabi carpet

in the carpet making shop

Heritage Village Abu Dhabi

Heritage Village Abu Dhabi Mosque

men leaving the mosque

He's thinking, "Sigh.  Another tourist, another photo."

He’s thinking, “Sigh. Another tourist, another photo.”

I felt a bit intrusive when I took this man’s picture.  He seemed sincerely annoyed by having to take yappy children and camera-crazy adults for a ride on his camel.  His body language shouted that he wanted to be anywhere but Heritage Village.  When it was time for someone to ride the camel, he was all business. He led the camel with a purposeful gait, walked one loop around, and then made the person get off, completely oblivious to the rider’s inevitable excitement.  In contrast, the man with the horse taught the children a bit about controlling the horse, suggested certain places to take a nice picture and leisurely walked all around the enclosed space.  I don’t like to take pictures of people when they seem miserable, but I couldn’t resist snapping a couple quickly.  I wonder what he’s thinking?

Heritage Village Abu Dhabi camel trainer bw

Coastline Heritage Village Abu Dhabi

Coastline near entrance of Heritage Village

sunset and skyscapers from Yas Island Abu Dhabi

sunset and skyscrapers from Yas Island

Posted in Playing tourist - attractions and activities, Travel | Tagged , , , , , | 12 Comments