Sanctioned Graffiti in Dubai

There is a scene in Mad Men from season 2 where the family is enjoying a picnic on a sunny afternoon. Before leaving the area, Don chucks his empty beer can far afield and Betty shakes the trash off her blanket into the grass and then saunters off to the car.  I often thought of this scene in Dubai because this sort of careless littering is common. Earlier this year I went to a movie night at my sons’ school where everyone enjoyed (non-pork) hot dogs, popcorn and drinks on their picnic blankets while watching the film.  I was shocked by the amount of garbage left on the field after the movie. It was as if there were 100 Bettys from the 1960s! I was embarrassed for us all. Maybe the world-famous* “Don’t Mess with Texas” anti-litter campaign has made me extra sensitive, but I find littering like that appalling! I’ve even seen people throw an entire bag of fast food trash or their drink out the window of a car while driving. I’m not sure why people think it’s okay to leave trash around, but there are certainly plenty of workers available to clean it all up. The malls, airport, cars and metro are gleaming in ways most people wouldn’t think possible. This city is obsessed with cleaning, as long as someone else can be paid to do it.

Given the interest in portraying a spotless presentation to the public, not to mention its non-democratic government, it’s not surprising that painting graffiti would be punished harshly – fines or jail time. Graffiti as a Westerner might know it is uncommon. A few words or short phrases might be spray painted here and there in the older neighborhoods, but generally in black only with minimal artistic flair. Sometimes stencils are used for quick application. Of course, it’s usually removed very quickly.

However, sanctioned graffiti, essentially the antithesis of the graffiti of hip hop culture in the U.S., seems to be growing in popularity. Graffiti artists are hired by big corporations, commissioned to create works on public spaces, and courted by galleries. Despite its controlled messaging, I still enjoy seeing it.  Here are a few examples.

dubai wall art graffiti

This shot is the beginning of a mural along Jumeirah Beach Road commemorating Dubai’s win of the bid for the World Expo 2020.   The circular stars featured here are part of the logo of the expo. The hands with three fingers are a tribute to the leader of Dubai’s well-known three finger salute. Sheikh Mohammed uses the famous gesture in moments of victory. His website says, “It stands for three words; each word is composed of three letters from the Arabic alphabet that symbolize triumph, victory, and Arab origin.” Other sources say Sheikh Mohammed said they mean “win, triumph and excellence”, or “I love you,” or “victory, triumph and love.”

Sheikh Mohammed three fingered salute

picture credit: yahoo maktoob sports

Dubai wall art graffiti

Dubai graffiti

Falconry is a highly respected sport in the UAE and the power and beauty of the bird is revered. A leather hood is used to cover the falcon’s eyes to keep it calm, especially during training.

Dubai wall art graffiti

DSC_0319

Sheikh Mohammed uses this phrase in some of his speeches.

 

Dubai wall art graffiti

Major elements of Emirati culture are presented here: the oryx (a species of antelope native to the Arabian Peninsula), the Arabian coffee pot and wind tower. “Connecting minds, creating the future” was the expo bid theme.

 

Dubai wall art graffiti

The pen represents the importance of calligraphy in Arabic culture. Calligraphy is a highly valued art form and is often used in mosques because pictorial representation of people is forbidden.

Dubai wall art graffiti

Sheikh Mohammed has a passion for horses and horse racing.

 

The following photos are from a newer installation further down Jumeirah Beach Road near December 2nd street and the giant flag pole. The flag pole often serves as a landmark when giving directions, but its importance lies in the fact that it marks the spot where the leaders from the emirates signed the declaration establishing the UAE as a country. A museum is now being built in the area. Not so much graffiti as wall art (on a temporary wall) it includes more scenes of patriotism and local culture, highlighting the importance of the area.

Dubai wall art graffiti

The UAE flag here is comprised of the first verses of the national anthem, written in Arabic calligraphy.

Dubai wall art graffiti

Dubai wall art graffiti

Dubai wall art graffiti

The following piece was outside of an Alserkal Avenue gallery.

Alerskal Avenue grafitti

 

*I said “world famous” because I was so surprised when on a recent visit to Istanbul, I met a carpet salesman who asked where I was from, as they all do. When I said Texas, his first response was, “Don’t mess with Texas!” Whoever incorporated Texan bravado into this anti-litter campaign was a genius! Even Turks thousands of miles away know it!

Posted in Emirati Culture | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Comparisons

Tomorrow marks week two of our repatriation. Since we had just made a 6 week visit over the summer and are still not settled in what will be our permanent housing, it feels a lot like summer vacation.  Even though we’ve bought a car, are about to buy another, have been house hunting and started the kids in school, somehow it still feels temporary and I often find myself instinctively dreading the flight “back home” until I remember we bought a one way ticket to IAH.

Ever since we’ve come back, I can’t stop myself from making comparisons between Houston and Dubai. Surely this must be tiring for friends and family. I feel like an unjust parent constantly comparing the strengths and weaknesses of my children, making other people cringe.

Sometimes I miss Dubai, like when I went school supply shopping. I didn’t have to buy supplies in Dubai.  I breezed into school the first day with only lunch and uniforms to worry about. How spoiled! I should have remembered my sister’s tales of time-consuming shopping experiences; instead, I waited until 9 pm the night before the kids started school. I thought, “It’ll just be a quick run to the store to grab some construction paper. I’ll be back in an hour.” It wasn’t until I was standing in the greatly disheveled school supply aisle that had been moved to a small corner to make room for mountains of Halloween gear that I took out the list only to find things like this:

Zaner-Bloser Grade 3 Spiral Composition Book w/ Whale Cover

HUH?

Mead/Hytone Grade 1-2-3 Handwriting Tablet 1/2″ Ruled, 1/4″ Dotted Midline, Red Base Line, 40 ct 11×8.5 Horizontal

WHAT THE…?! What happened to just picking up some crayons and a box of Kleenex to contribute to the classroom stash?

I didn’t get to bed until 1 am that night after trying to complete my grade 1 and 2 scavenger hunt at three different stores.  I didn’t even get to go home with the satisfaction that I had crossed everything off the list. I admit I got mildly sidetracked by the Halloween items. When I wasn’t living here, the Dubai holiday goodies seemed disappointing because they were always more expensive and in shorter supply. Not to mention the price of pumpkins….  that was enough to make anyone weep.

Dubai pumpkin

Behold the $45 USD pumpkin in Dubai. I now pay $4.

But now that I’m back to living in Houston, the explosion of Halloween items makes my head swim in the sheer volume of unnecessary gluttony. I was in pursuit of some Fiskars 5″ blunt-tipped scissors when I happened to come across this never-ending aisle of candy. I stood and stared in disbelief for a bit. “Monstrously big” is right!

halloween candy 2

Imagine my surprise when I went to the very next aisle and saw this!

halloween candy 4

Then this!

halloween candy 5

Then this, this and this!

This is only the candy. Imagine the costumes, the decorations, the party supplies.  Ugh. This is too much. It made me miss the few little Halloween items in Dubai and simplicity of my old grocery store.

But then I drove to school the next morning and couldn’t be happier to be back in Houston. At the moment I’m driving from the suburbs to downtown, a drive that would make most people squirm with dread, but I was loving every minute. I never used my horn. Everyone stayed in their lane. I wasn’t clutching my wheel with white-knuckled tension. I didn’t blurt out any curse words. I parked across the street from the school instead of blocks away.  A cross-guard smiled and stopped traffic to let me and my children cross the street. I didn’t melt into a puddle of sweat while doing so. Sand didn’t blow in my face. I didn’t have to dash across the street with heart-pounding adrenaline hoping me and my children could outrun the speeding, red-light-running cars.  In the hallways there were lots of moms like me struggling with younger siblings. (At the Dubai school, this was rare because so many people left their babies at home with their nanny.) I left the campus immediately instead of inching away through bumper-to-bumper traffic. I didn’t drive home annoyed and lost in contemplation about the sense of entitlement people must have to think their time is more important than mine, not to mention the safety of children, when they cut in line, block intersections, tailgate and speed on campus.

Deep breath… it feels good to be home.

For an entertaining, well-written (and oh-so-true!) take on driving on Sheikh Zayed Road in Dubai, the road I took to and from school every day, read this post: The Little Things I Miss about Dubai, part 1 on Love Language Love Literature and thanks to Joan Frankham for re-blogging it so that I could discover it.

Posted in Texas | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 21 Comments

Goodbye Dubai

20140921-210340-75820113.jpg

Surprise! We are moving back to Houston. This move came about fast and furious and voilà, the doors on the container are closed just like that. It’s amazing to think of our furniture, picture frames and recently bought, last-minute Dubai mementos in that generic container, hangin’ with countless other containers on a giant barge, out on the vast ocean. All of our belongings (minus 14 bags we are bringing to the airport – gulp) will meet us stateside in hopefully about two months.

The doors of the blog will close soon too. But I have a few posts left in me before saying goodbye, Dubai. More soon.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | 22 Comments

The world from my window

The header of my blog is a detail of the house I used to see through my window when I would write.  It’s a beautiful and very unique villa that is across the street. Dubai loves its subdued tans, browns and beiges.  Colored tile and bright colors are not common, so I loved looking at that quirky and intricately decorated house on sunny afternoons and wonder about the people who live there. (Incidentally, my view is different now. Apparently Dubai can build the tallest skyscraper in the world and shape artificial islands into gigantic palm trees, but can’t connect wireless on both floors of the house we live in. At some point we moved the internet downstairs. So now when I work on the blog, I usually sit on my couch and look through the windows of my living room. My view now reminds me how powerless I am in stopping the never-ending sand from blanketing my patio and outdoor furniture in a seemingly permanent dusty film. I try to focus on the trees and flowers in our yard so I don’t think about how I should get out there and clean.)

I love the idea of taking pictures from windows at home, capturing scenes that might pass unnoticed unless you have a camera in hand.  I also like the idea of photographing a landmark in different types of light or weather.  I have lots of pictures of the mosque I see from my bedroom window.  Here’s one I took recently at dusk.

Dubai mosque

Here’s another from my bedroom window, but I took this super quickly and hopefully stealthily when the window was closed.  I prayed that the film on the outside of our windows that make it difficult to see inside was working really well because I didn’t want to distract the painter. I can’t think of a more dangerous pair of shoes to be wearing while balancing on  a wobbly plank of wood on the absolute highest part of the scaffolding with no safety equipment in sight. It was like watching a circus act from the comfort of my bed!  The other guy is standing on the little planter outside our window. Hope it’s made to support his weight!

photo (6)

This is a picture I took through my kitchen window with my mobile phone. It’s a typical Dubai scene: Something is broken. You call someone to fix it. A crew of 7 men show up, even when the problem is minor.  All but two men then sit around doing nothing.  These are those 5 men with nothing to do, making themselves at home in my backyard, while the other two tended to the problem.

Dubai maintenance men

Every single morning, no matter how hot, how sandy, how humid the weather, this man is washing our neighbor’s cars at 6:30 am sharp.  He’s usually the first thing I see when I take my first bleary-eyed peek out of the window.  I felt a bit like a cheap paparazzo when taking this quick snapshot, but I wanted to capture this scene from my bedroom window to remind me later how certain daily scenes in Dubai that may seem innocuous to a casual observer actually say a lot about the culture here.

DSC_0950-2

I’m certainly not the first to be interested in taking pictures from windows.  In fact, the first known photograph ever taken was through a window (and coincidentally it happens to be kept on the UT campus in Texas now). For more info about this photo, read this interesting post.

first photograph

First photograph, View from the Window at Le Gras, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, ca. 1826 One of the most renowned items in the Ransom Center a the University of Texas

Some of my favorite photographers had entire projects based on photos taken from the window of their home.  Ruth Orkin (of American Girl in Italy fame) dedicated two books of photographs taken from her window. From her website:

Orkin lived in three New York City apartments during her lifetime; Horatio Street, 88th Street, and on Central Park West, and all of these locations appear throughout her work. She first photographed the children in her West Village neighborhood, and later found the vantage point from her 2nd floor window on88th Street interesting. However, it was the view from her Central Park West apartment that she would shoot for the next 30 years. These panoramic photographs of the changing seasons and the skyline became the subject for two books “A World Through My Window” (1978) and “More Pictures From My Window.” (1983) Orkin used to say that she chose the apartment, because the view was the closest thing to the orange groves and mountains of her childhood in Southern California.

Ruth Orkin, Man in Rain, New York City, 1952

Ruth Orkin, Man in Rain, New York City, 1952

Ruth Orkin, White Stoops, New York City, 1952

Ruth Orkin, White Stoops, New York City, 1952

Eugene Smith also took photographs from his New York apartment when compiling photos and sound recordings that became the Jazz Loft Project. From his 4th floor window on 6th Avenue, he snapped pictures at dawn of jazz musicians leaving after a night of playing and truck drivers delivering flowers in the nearby flower district.  When I think of my boring street I get a little envious of all the cool things that were happening outside of his window back in the 60s!

Eugene Smith, White Rose Sign, 1957

Eugene Smith, from The Jazz Loft Project

Eugene Smith, from The Jazz Loft Project

What’s your window to the world look like? I would love to see posts from other people showing your view, where you write or your neighborhood.  I’ll link it here if anyone wants to do it.  :)

Posted in Day-to-day living in Dubai | Tagged , , , , | 22 Comments

HEB, How I Love Thee

It’s 3 a.m. and the entire family is wide awake and starving.  Might as well make breakfast!

Jet lag always seems worse for us in the West-to-East direction. We are back from our trip to Texas and the smell of the Texas Pecan coffee brewing is reminding me of HEB, the grocery store I usually go to when home.  When I travel to new places, one of my favorite things to do is going to the local grocery store to scope out what treats from the region are for sale, people watch and get a feel for what the locals are eating.  It’s also my favorite place to buy gifts to bring home. Going back to HEB when I’ve been gone a long time gives me that same giddy feeling.  Texas-themed items seem to jump out of every corner!  Here are a few examples (click on one if you want to read captions).  Hope everyone has had a fabulous summer and safe travels to those who are lucky enough to be vacationing!

 

Posted in Texas | Tagged , , , , , | 11 Comments

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.

************************

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 , , , , , , , , | 21 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.)

 

 

 

Posted in Playing tourist - attractions and activities | Tagged , , , , , , | 22 Comments

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.

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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. :)

 

 

Posted in Travel | Tagged , , , | 16 Comments

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.

Posted in Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 18 Comments

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

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.

Posted in Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , | 11 Comments