Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine I would be moving to a foreign country to live, let alone a country in the Middle East. Over the 2009 Christmas and New Year’s holidays, my husband Roger and I discussed what we wanted the next part of our life to be like. He thought that before retiring, he would like to do one more airport project but only if he could find something very interesting. I half-jokingly agreed that would be fine but could he try for an exotic location? As usual, Roger came through and soon we were headed to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. This blog is a recap of our "leap-of- faith" wanderings around the Middle East and beyond. We joyfully share these expat experiences.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

DUBAI- ABU DHABI VACATION . . . Russell Foster’s Excellent Adventure

Why is it whenever I suggest to family members that they should come visit us in Dubai I get dead silence and a painful looks? Where are the adventurous genes in our kids? I know it is long 12 hour trip from the east coast of USA and the ticket is a bit steep, but still, we are offering them a once in a lifetime opportunity to get out of their comfort zones and experience a different culture; a culture that is at the forefront of the history being made today.

And, the seven grandchildren have been gifted a ticket by Roger and I. Such a deal!

Ah! At last! One brave soul has picked up the gauntlet. Our oldest son Russell who lives in Denver, Colorado, announces in October that his ticket is bought and he is coming for 10 days in mid November to catch the Formula 1 races. Leave it to the oldest to be the boldest.

Last February, we traveled from Dubai to Denver so we know this is a very long trip. But, Russell is a big strong boy so we have no fear that he can survive it. And he does. After traveling 25 hours – a short 7 hour layover in Dulles – he arrives in Dubai a bit travel weary but with a big grin on his face. What a wonderful sight!

It is 7:30 PM as we travel towards home at break-neck speed on the infamous Sheikh Zayed Road - a road only for the fearless. Russell is duly impressed.

"I am blown away by the size and beauty of the buildings of Dubai. It is like New York on steroids." observes Russell. 

Russell has picked out a number of things to do from my list of possibilities. Abu Dhabi’s Grand Mosque tops the list with the souqs, dune bashing and camel riding in close pursuit. Since Roger has to work the first two days of the visit, Russell and I use this time for a trip to the Dubia Souqs.

Russell gets an unexpected treat on this expedition. As we drive, I am talking way too much and miss a turn, - a deadly sin in Dubai. Not to worry I have the GSP plugged in, but as it turns out it takes us on a grand tour of Diera, the oldest part of town. Narrow streets, bumper to bumper traffic all trying to go  different directions competing with standstill traffic, lots of hand-pulled lorries piled high with goods zig zagging through the cars, pedestrians seemingly unaware they are not the only ones on the road, all make the driving a tad slow.

"Katie, is this what you and Roger call the "loop of shame?" asks Russell.

"Yes! Do you want to drive?" Katie curtly questions.

"No! I sure as hell am not taking the wheel. Driving in Dubai takes too much patience and local knowledge!" declares Russell.

At the Spice Souq we stop to see Yousef, my personal spice merchant. As the story goes, he has offered me and Roger 8 camels for our unwed daughter Holeigh. But as is the Arab custom, when her brother meets Yousef he immediately ups it to 15 camels and pleads with Russell to intervene on his behalf. Russell, knowing his sister’s temperament, politely declines the offer but does purchase some very nice spices to take back to her. 

Yousef sends Holeigh a very special gift - a vial of Arabian perfume he mixes himself from his perfume supplies. I love it so much that he also gives me one too. Not to worry Roger, I think he would rather have me for a mother-in-law than a wife!

We wander around the souqs finding textiles, house goods and the ever present souvenir shops.  

Being  brave, and maybe starving, Russell decides to get something to eat at the K.K. Ibrahim Tea Stall. I demurely order just tea which arrives in a Styrofoam cup and a Lipton tea bag. Oh well, the alleyway has its own ambiance. Russell selects a Samosa, a deep fried pastry stuffed with  - "maybe some spicy beef stuff" - he is not quite sure. A good boy he is, as he cleans his plate and lives to tell the tale.

The Gold Suoq dazzles Russell with it glittering offerings including the Guinness World Record’s heaviest gold ring, the Najmat Taiba, created byTaiba for Gold and Jewellery Co., LTD. It is contains 5.17 kg of precious stones set on a 58.686 kg 21 carat gold ring.  And has a total weight of 63.865 kg.

“Now if Yousef wants to offer this ring for sister Holeigh well, maybe we can do business!” says Russell.

Take note – touring Dubai’s historic district is not a good idea immediately after the Eid holiday. Our trip to the old Bastakiya district is a bit disappointing as my favorite, The Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding, is closed as is the Bastakiah Nights restaurant where I had planned to have a traditional Arab lunch. They have the very best Arabian bread cooked on a hot stone in the patio.

We meander around the narrow passage ways of Bastakiya, noting that the builders were correct that buildings built close together provide much needed shade in the narrow passageways, and make note of the statuesque windtowers  which were the only form of air circulation before electricity.

How quaint the Dubai Creek must of looked back then with a skyline of wind towers; quite different from the amazing high-rise skyline of today.

Some vendors are open and I meet a interesting Iranian antique dealer from whom I purchase a lovely inlaid box for the special jewels Roger gifted me with for my birthday. 
We make a fatal mistake of dining at the Local Restaurant because I can’t find the Arte Café (found out the LR is the old Arte Café that changed hands).

But Russell, getting into the adventurous mode, orders camel croquettes (every other camel offering was “finished” as they say in Dubai).

“My uncles in Colorado will appreciate a picture of these camel balls. They are much smaller than their Buffalo ones.” chuckles Russell.

“"This is the worse meal ever!" Let’s go buy our dinner,” I suggest and off we go to the Fish Souq.

I do not know what it is about me and the fish market but every time I go there is a challenge. I just can’t avoid it. We arrive at 4:15 PM thinking the market opens at 4 but not so. It opens at 5 PM. 

The fish stalls are empty but the collies with their wheelbarrows are ever-present and follow us as we wander around. I seek help from my favorite produce stand and they pick out one of the eager faces surrounding us and tells him to go get us some fish – two large snappers and 12 large shrimp. However, once again the price is steep. But it does prove to be a very special dinner.

Burj Khalifa and Dubai Fountains 

Late the next afternoon we go to the observation deck on the 124 floor of the highest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa. There is nothing like a birds-eye-view to put this amazing city in perspective. 

To the west are the peaceful beaches of the Arabian Gulf; to the north glistening in the waning sunlight are the mighty towers of buildings running alongside the Sheikh Zayed Road; to the north the old part of Dubai with smaller but more dense buildings; to the east the expansive desert; and right under our feet the dreaded Dubai Mall interchange. Can’t tell you how many times I've failed to navigate this maze successfully. 

After the Burj Khalifa we walk to Souq Behar to dine at the Rivington Grill catching the incredible Dubai Fountains show. The fountains are set on the 30-acre Burj Khalifa Lake and shoots water jets as high as 500 ft, equivalent to that of a 50-story building. The performance repertoire including Sama Dubai; Baba Yetu, an award-winning song in Swahili; the Arab world’s top-selling dance number Shik Shak Shok; and the signature piece of world-renowned Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli, Con te partiro (Time to Say Goodbye). The fountain lights are so bright it is claimed they can be seen from space. The Fountains have been designed by California-based WET, the creators of the Fountains of Bellagio in Las Vegas. 
Grand Mosque, Abu Dhabi

The weekend is spent at the Formula 1 Races in Abu Dhabi, but we do manage a side trip into Abu Dhabi to visit the Grand Mosque and enjoy a leisurely drive around the Cornice to see the Emirates Palace Hotel and Sheikh Khalifa’s palace, which is still under construction.

We have a delicious lunch beachside at the newly opened Park Hyatt Hotel on Saadiyat Island The island's buildings, still under construction, are billed to become one of the finest destinations in the world. In the UAE, they do not things on a small scale. 

Sunday night is Sir Paul McCarty’s concert. And we are not disappointed. Paul delivers in every aspect. What an entertainer. It is 3 AM in the morning when we return home and worth every minute.

Khalia, Russell & Roger

Desert Experience
But we have saved the best for last. No one should come to Dubai without a desert experience. There are many packaged deals around that are bit cheesy and touristy but we opt for a private one. I arrange with Arabian Incentives for the boys to have dune bashing lessons, a camel ride and a sunset tapas. 

We travel to the desert of Ras Al Khaimah giving Russell a sense of the desert and less populated areas of the UAE. Thanks to keen navigation by the navigator – that would be me – we arrive with not a single wrong turn. We are graciously met in the middle of a dirt road by Khalifa, our dune bashing trainer.

Khalifa is a likable chap and obviously a safety nut as he goes into an excruciatingly painful detail explanation of procedures for safe dune bashing. We learn to deflate the tires to the proper level and listen very intently to his lesson of how to “crest” a dune without getting stuck. He is extra careful that we understand the rationale behind the maneuver and the maneuver itself. Whew . .can we go now?

And go we do! Racing in 4X4s across the desert floor in a series of twists and turns . . . Roger, cautioned to stay closer to the trainer’s vehicle, moves up right behind Khalifa's 4X4 as we zip through the desert.

Here we go – our first dune. In hot pursuit we begin to mount a medium size double dune. 


Khalifa's vehicle clears the first dune and – I can’t believe this - planes out on top of the second dune and stops.  We are so close that Roger has no alternative but to stop on top of the first dune. In our first five minutes of driving off road we have managed to maroon not one but two vehicles! At least we will get a lesson on how to dig out our 4x4.

"All I heard for an hour was, 'dig Russell dig.' If Uncle John Barr needs a water main installed, I'm his man!" Russell wearily exclaims. 

It takes about an hour to dig out our car but Khalifa's 4-wheel drive is not budging despite the valiant efforts of Khalifa, Russell and Roger. So, Khalifa calls a compatriot who brings a tow truck. Not exactly a glamorous ending but at least we got the 4X4 pried loose. We continue on and do successfully climb and cross several very large dunes. Roger is having the time of his life driving these and I am amazed at his skill.

Russell is in the front seat having a great time but I can sense his impatience as he waits for his turn to drive. I am strapped in the back seat (always wear your seat belts on these excursions) and quite frankly scared to death.  You see as you approach a very large dune, we are talking large enough you have to tilt your head back to see it, at a very accelerated speed, which you need to get over the dune, you reach a point where you can’t see the other side but you have made the commitment to go over the dune. In a back breaking, jarring fashion you breach the dune to land on the other side and proceed to speed down its equally steep backside. Am I having fun yet?

"Katie, I never knew you had such a control of the urban dictionary of cuss words until that last dune!" exclaims a surprised Russell as we survive the last and the biggest dune. 

I am very thankful when we stop to get an lesson on doing a half-moon maneuver on the dune. I request to remain OUT of the 4X4 so I can take pictures. Roger and Russell pick up this half-moon skill quite quickly. It encompasses racing as fast as you can up the side of a very steep dune and at the point you are about to side down sideways or roll over, you turn and descend always at a high speed. Boys and their thrills . . . several time I think Russell is going to end up at the bottom of the dune after having rolled our car but the boy proves better than that mastering the technique quite handily. 

The biggest disappointment is that I am so shaken by my dune bashing experience that I commit the photographer's cardinal sin - failure to check your camera settings - in the bouncing around I must have moved the settings on the camera and so the photos and video I took of the half-moon are no where to be found. 

Al humdulillah - Thank God, time to trade in our 4X4 for something much slower. Up ahead of us we see two camels with their handlers. Roger and I mount one while Russell gets to ride his solo.

Can’t say that this camel ride is anything like the one Roger gave me in Jordan. All we did was walk around in a large circle for a bit. Russell‘s camel, not exactly in the best of moods, finally decides he has had enough fun for one day and sits down. No amount of cajoling from his handler is making this beast of the desert budge. Well, I guess the camel ride is over. 

We have only a short walk to our “camp” which has been graciously laid out for us on top of a plateau by Khalifa.  Wine beer and  . . . and potatoes chips. Well kind of a tapas but the wine is delicious as we toast our day’s adventures and the gloriously setting sun.

Make note, a sunset in the desert is something not to miss. Absolutely surreal.

Our time together is over and with a heavy heart we take Russell to the airport. The only thanks we ask for is for Russell to tell his siblings what a great place this is and what a mistake they are making by not visiting. 

"This is the trip of a lifetime. I will come back in a second. I felt safer in Dubai than I do in Denver. This has been a first class experience from beginning to end - thanks to the best two hosts on the planet - my dad Roger and Katie!

"Russell, there is always a room for you in Dubai!" says Roger.

OK kids, whose’s next?

Postscrips . . .
Ah Ha! Next family member is booked  . . . Ok so it isn’t one of our children but it is my dearest,best and only sister Paty Barr. She and her girl friend Kathryn Brandt have scheduled their trip to Dubai for the beginning of April with a side trip to India. Can’t you just see us dressed in saris riding elephants! 

It just doesn’t get any better than traveling with Paty. There is always the unexpected treat . . . like trying out for American Idol and crashing the MTV party on our last NYC trip! I hope India can handle us.

Car repair . . . alas the dune bashing took its toll on our 4X4 and a strange rattle made me take it in. Needless to say many dirhams later all is well with the old Ford Explorer but maybe next time we will ride in someone else’s vehicle.    

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  1. Would you consider adopting a Chubby Chatterbox from Portland Oregon? I'd love to visit you.

  2. Hmmm . . . that would make 8 children . . if have you finished college and are gainfully employed and financially self-sufficient - we could consider this offer.

  3. What a fantastic time you showed Russel! I agree...the desert is the one 'must' when company visits. I can't tell you how many times I did it and I always warned my family/friends, "I will squeal, but don't worry, I'm having fun!" Actually, I know exactly how many times it was and each time, I swore it would be the last but as soon as a willing victim... I mean visitor arrived, it was off to the desert. Thanks, as always, for sharing Katie. I love reading about your adventures (and, do remember our trip together to the fish market with a great big smile).

  4. Great post, Katie. I have been resisting the 'dune bashing' experience, but I am sure my time will come. So glad you had a fun visit. I am hoping my family will come!

  5. Carmen . . . I also resisted dune-bashing for the longest time . . but now that I have done it . . I needn't do it EVER again! Leaving it to the boys! I will sip wine and wait for them at the "camp" in the desert.

  6. Dubai is more attractive city of the world that to those who travel abroad, do no worry about leaving items off your to-do list. People live and get by in foreign countries and you will too.

  7. Would you recommend Arabian Incentives to friends or should I look into other companies...I like the idea of less commerical/touristy experiences. Thanks for your input!

    1. Arabian Incentives are the only "desert experience" company with whom I have worked. They were very accommodating setting up our private experience when our schedule did not permit us to go on one of their regular scheduled tours. If I needed this type of service again, I would go back to them. But as with the expat experience here, a lot can be lost in translation so be very careful they really understand your needs. Let me know how it goes.

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