Abu Dhabi Do

In the way marketing is supposed to work, my mother watches a certain adventure reality tv show and before you know it, she wants to go to the middle east. Nicely done, UAE tourism board, nicely done.

Like any good daughter does, I found a great ticket price and barreled through the door on Christmas day, not with presents, but a laptop. Before I even said hello, I was sitting at the kitchen table trying to find dates that worked for us both.

And so, we are booked to Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Merry Christmas, indeed.

The plan was to fly into Abu Dhabi and drive to Dubai. No excursion is complete unless I have rented a car and driven untold number of miles. On the agenda: a desert safari with some camel riding, high tea at the Burj Khalifa, some pool time for me, and shopping like I have an OPEC pocketbook even though I am closer to a canola wallet.

When going to one of the richest countries in the world, it’s great fun to drive a 25 year old Ford that looks like it’s been breaded and lightly fried in the dust and sand kicked up by the neighboring desert, has manual window crank things, and an air conditioning struggling for it’s last breath.  It is hard to feel good about yourself, especially when you roll into a parking garage and cruise pass a Bentley parked perpendicular to the spots and is in own inflated tent.Literally, a zip up tent with a blower inflating it like a children’s birthday party is about to break out. In any case, one’s sense of self takes a very humbling turn.

Dubai is the city of the future today. It’s really Orbit City and it’s not done yet. It is ultra modern, with buildings of all shapes and size and no relative theme. The size, the scale, the scope – all virtually impossible to imagine until you see them for yourself. Some parts of the city are testaments to money, excess, improbable stacking of glass and steel. Other parts are up and coming, a tangle of cranes and cement and hardhats. In fact, Dubai is the current home of 25% percent of the world’s cranes. That is insane, utterly insane to think that it’s just one city compared to the rest of the globe – what about the cities undergoing massive growth like those in Asia or India? To contain a quarter of the materials available globally is just wow. Just. Wow. Anyway.

Dubai is an exceptional place, impossibly huge and riddled with juxtapositions. I started this little road trip down a giant highway in my chicken cutlet car, passing the future. literally, the future Dubailand, future amusement parks, miles and miles of car warehouses, desert, more desert, cars, and cranes.

About an hour and a half later, I pull up to the Grant Hyatt Dubai. Not too bad, thank you very much. It is also 120 degrees and feels like I am visiting the surface of the sun. I love it, my travel partner, not so much. For those who are sensitive to heat and sun and living at the edge of the ozone, perhaps one should pack a shammy for maximum absorbency.

My poor, poor mother. She hates the heat. Why she thought it would be a good idea to visit arguably the hottest place on the planet, I will never know. I revel in it, SPF in my pockets, tank tops, flip flops. My mother, by comparison, is so hot, that she looks like she is truly suffering with each step. I drop her off at the front door of the hotel and I go park the car. I let the car run until the air is cold and pick her up at the door. I try to limit any walking to the evening hours and even then, she is clearly the most uncomfortable and unfortunate looking person in all the land. I feel terrible, but there is little I can do short of hiring cheap labor to travel with us and keep an umbrella over her head and carry a small fan.

The first full day consisted of leisure, breakfast, pool time, general relaxation before the fun starts. Once I had packed my mother in ice and assured her we would be in a place fully air conditioned with the guarantee of no sunlight. So we went to the mall. The Mall of the Emirates. Well.

The parking deck was both the most organized (electronic signs telling you how many spaces are left on each floor) and convoluted (can’t find those spots, however) and clean (several car washers were busy at work cleaning and dusting Bentleys). After driving for what felt like 73 floors, I got a spot. And we entered what can only be described as the most grandiose, outrageous, monument to consumerism I have ever witnessed.

For the record, one of the ‘warnings’ about the mall is that it is recommended visitors remain chaste and respectful of the country’s morals and so on. But whatever. Ladies, bring your booty shorts and braless tank tops and challenge those mall cops at every turn. Unmarried couples, make out in the corner of the candy store like the window glass is not actually clear. Honestly, I was kind of curious and wanted to see if there were any repercussions. As though I expected the religious morality police to burst through the panels in the ceiling and swing down like ninjas to arrest all offending Gap shoppers. It never happened.

But anyway. The mall legitimately has a giant ski slope and penguins, and appropriately, a Kempinski Hotel that empties into the mall and is also adjacent to the skiing. There is nothing like being covered in a fine grit sand from head to toe one minute, and freezing walking through the locker rooms in a ski lodge the next. This place is really, really amazing from the scale and sheer size to the people watching. Oh goodness, the people. What a remix.

My favorite part of the mall was the giant supermarket larger than most Midwest towns. This was one of my favorite places, a true amalgamation of global tastes and flavors. Of course, the Mid East was represented, fresh fruit in a variety of vibrant colors, and some things I could not quite identify and required some assistance from google. We walked up and down the aisles for more than an hour. Maybe two. My mother lingered in frozen foods, refreezing her ice packs that had melted some in the schlepping. She needed to power up for the walk from the car door to the front of the hotel. It’s a good 7 or 8 feet, and at 105 degrees in the dark, it takes it toll.

I didn’t buy anything at the mall lest I mortgage my house, but did pick up a few things at the supermarket and my mother did not burst into flames. Success.

 

 

 

 

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Timing is Everything

So it turns out the ballet is a grand experience. I was legitimately glued to my seat, no doubt in part to the fact that I was afraid I would never find it again. But even still.

As I got back to the hotel, I did marvel that the show started so much later than the ticket indicated. In all my research, I never once read that the performances don’t start on time. Perhaps this was an anomaly I simply was not familiar with.

As I started going through my belongings and emptying out my bag from the show, I noticed that the time of my cell phones were wrong. They were an hour apart, but they must have been since I arrived in Moscow. One phone connected to the GSM, the other only to the hotel wifi. Both of which should have been accurate as they were connected. I relied on the GSM phone since it was live and therefore, correct.

Curious.

I realize the other easy and accurate thing to do is reset my watch to local time. My watch, however, is purely ornamental as I am possibly the oldest functioning pseudo adult who cannot tell time. And my watch has no numbers, so it takes me twice as long to count the hands and lines and calculate the time. I am sure a sun dial would be easier for me to navigate. I digress.

The day after the ballet is the day of departure. I get up for breakfast and the restaurant is again, mostly empty. I eat. Then I pack. I cram everything I bought into my tiny luggage, literally sitting on it to zip it shut.

I go down stairs to check out and get my car to the airport. I learn that I am an hour early for that.

Wait.   What?

I check my phones again, and I learn the GSM phone I have been using all week and relying on to wake up was just plain wrong. I was constantly an hour ahead; not registering the correct time zone.  So everything I did, I did (at a minimum) of an hour early.

What a blow to learn that I had been living in the future. Who DOES this? I ate meals, too early. That would explain why I was the only one at 7am breakfast…at 6am. Or why I waited so long for the museum will call to open. This is why I was both late AND early to the ballet.

Sigh.

I went back upstairs to my hotel room to drop off my bag and go for a walk. I had the time to kill. I think.

 

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So Much Culture

Ah, Moscow…what does a girl do on a Saturday night? A hot date with myself at the ballet, of course! That’s right, I went to the Bolshoi to see Lady of the Camellias and as soon as I define Camellias and find the synopsis in English, I will share. Though not before I figure out exactly what I watched first.

The real take away here is that while I’ve never been to the ballet, or expressed a modicum of interst in it, I felt this was necessary to do. The Bolshoi is a world famous stage and as such, I needed to pay it a visit. Especially since I could throw a rock from my hotel window and hit the building.

The show started at 7pm, and it was recommended I arrive at 630 to enjoy the theater a bit and find my seat. No problem. I was just going to lay my head down for a moment and close my eyes, so I set my alarm for 6pm leaving me time to freshen up and walk one whole half block. I was mid dream when I thought it felt like a long 15 minutes. I opened my eyes to find out it was 715. OH NO! I scrambled to get ready while having visions of my big dumb American body blocking the view of all the stately Russians who simply wanted to enjoy a night at the ballet. I ran over to the theatre and to my relief people were still entering the building. Huh, maybe I wasn’t that late.

I entered and found myself comically unable to communicate with just about everyone. I also sort of loved it. After wandering around the fantastic halls and even grander ballrooms filled with antiques and costumes of black swans past, it was time to start the show. I got to my seat courtesy of the nice lady for whom lip liner was a must but actual lipstick was optional. She tried in vain to point me in the right direction, but instead gave up and sat me which is kind of like, you know, her job. So I sat front row in what can only be described as a chair from a child’s playroom tea table.

The theatre itself is so fantastical, extreme and flat out dreamy, I couldn’t believe such a place existed.  Ornate gold scrolling, a  chandelier the size of a small apartment – it was all quite magical.

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And then it began. I admit I was worried I wouldn’t make it through 3 hours of this ‘dancing.’ But I was so, so wrong.

The dancers truly looked like they were floating.  They bent at impossible angles, convincing me they had no bones, made just of flexible cartilage like in the ear or nose. Three hours passed, I never blinked. And before I knew it, the show was over. I’d now have to unwedge myself from the wee chair I’d become one with.

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And they don’t want you taking pictures during the show. So there’s that.

After I’d successfully separated myself from chair #5, I wandered back down the marble stairway and outside into the cold. It had begun to snow, and I got to experience some Siberian flurries.

I got back to the hotel at 20 past 11, thinking to myself how remarkable that something like the ballet would start a whole hour late. But who I am to judge? I’m just a visitor in Moscow…

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No One Asked Me My Opinion, But…

A few things about Moscow that I need to get off my chest.  First of all, no one has any concept of personal space. No matter where I am, I am damn near run down buy men, women and children alike. I give you wide berth on a side walk,  and a strange man still weaves his way toward me like two wonky magnets pulling together, until I have to throw my body in some other direction. Was the 12 feet of space all the way around you simply not enough?
And these old ladies just think they own the place. These discount-at-the-movies women think they are entitled to everything inclusive of your hard won gains. Your space in line no matter long and obviously you’ve been waiting, the elevator for which you’ve pushed the button, the tiny space for one medium sized human in a revolving door. It borders on the ridiculous.
While I waitied patiently in line for the Kremlin Museum, some tour guide tried to cut me. Seeing as how I’d been on line for almost an hour and a half, I wasn’t going down without a fight. She tried telling me the line was for vouchers holders only. No kidding. I snarled, “I have a voucher.” She remainded dubious, as thought I couldn’t possibly understand the gravity of the actual voucher holding community. So I stood, with my feet two meters apart, claiming my space, while she kept talking about her being an official tour guide. I ignored her because I don’t care who or what she was, and NO, I don’t speak Spanish!! Suffice to say, I got my ticket with my voucher, and was on my way. See you on the flip side, sister.
So far, I have a general feeling of: who do you think you are? I didn’t come here to argue ticket lines.  I bother no one, ask for no help, mind my own business. Why can’t everyone else respect that and do the same for me?
I had read about the misery and unhappiness of the Russians. The economy, the hardships, the woeful economy and dicey at best politics. Sounded like a good time to me. I was prepared  to come here and smile my big, white smile all over. Spread my American glee far and wide! Be the envy of the toothless masses! (Seriously. Are teeth optional here?) Upon my arrival, I realized I was in the ritzy part of town. A block from Tom Ford and Chanel, up the street from Louis Vuitton and Gucci. What the hell? Anyone in this neighborhood has nothing to complain about as they run through the doors of the local Bentley / Ferrari / Maserati dealership – stacked upon each other, no less.  In case you need one of each? One stop shopping,  I suppose. I ask again, what’s the problem here?
The reality, at least to me, is that people here seem to trade in misery. Or at least looking miserable. I’ve seen a little joy on people’s faces, they must be from out of town. This works well for me as I, a life long sufferer of Resting Bitch Face, fit right in. Were my hair and sensible shoes not a dead giveaway that I’m not from these parts,  I could pass as a local. There are pained faces everywhere. The state bird should be The Grimace.
And the women – judgey, judgey, aren’t we? None wear flats. Simply towering stilettos over cobblestone.  Up and down flights of steps, in and around the Kremlin, over the bridges. Overdressed for everything, it would seem. Me? Adidas will do just fine for the mileage I’ve been racking up. I’ve walked into accessory stores, and literally been looked at up and down, with a disapproving nose in the air. I felt a little Vivian on Rodeo Drive before Richard took her shopping.  And I wasn’t even in a boutique,  I just wanted a scarf! I see the looks I am getting.  If it wasn’t for contempt and misery,  these people would just be poorly drawn eyebrows and a nose. So I smile with all of my teeth, and skip out the door.

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You’re Putin Me On

So I thought it would be a good idea to swing through Russia over a longish weekend and just see how things are going over here.
And what a freaking fascinating place. First thing I noticed were the yellow cabs were Audi A6s. And also, all the cars, even the clean ones, had a thin film of dusty grime on them. Every single car. Which was curious seeing as how I spent about an hour falling asleep in the back of my ride while sitting in dead- stopped-Lincoln Tunnel-at-4pm-on-a-Friday-traffic. How did such dirt accumulate when everyone was going nowhere fast?
Anyway.
My hotel is grandiose and both in size and simplicity.  I got my key and ran up to my suite immediately. I dropped my bags off and promptly took a nap.
The thing I really needed to do was get cash. I went to the ATM in the hotel and was “denied by my bank.” OH HELL NO. I try again, there must be some misunderstanding.  Still denied. Back up to my room to call Chase and figure this out. After much back and forth, they tell me I should have no problem. I go back down, try again, have problem. But at this point, I am not messing around with the machine any longer as I am burning daylight.
I ran down the block, down and up some steps, and before I knew it, I was in Red Square with St. Basil’s Cathedral looming in the distance.

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Spectacular! Can’t believe I was there! Best part – there were almost no crowds. That’s one of the highlights of visiting countries almost no one else seems to want to go to – personal space.  I can get used to this.
I spent the evening marveling at my location on the globe, the Kremlin and the square. Fantastic.
Just adjacent to the square is a state-run mall, called the GUM, maybe. I stopped in to check it out. I saw another ATM and decided to try it out. I said a little prayer at the alter of St. Gucci, and wouldn’t you know I had a handful of rubles.

After wandering about for hours just enjoying myself in unseasonably warm temperatures,  I went back to my hotel and passed out.

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It’s a Cold Day in Moscow

So before Christmas, there were some low fares to Moscow on Aeroflot. Sure, it’s not the airline that is top of mind when one thinks about flying, but that is ok. I haven’t had an adventure in 3 weeks when I pulled the trigger.

So I got the ticket for a quick three days in the city in March. I was pleased.

Then I looked up the visa details, after I had the ticket. Well, well, well….Turns out I need to complete a multipage, online application that asks for everything from my secondary school to at least two former jobs I have held. UGH. Then I see that I need a formal invitation from a travel agency or something similar. I prayed something was lost in translation but alas, it was true.

I emailed the Ararat Park Hyatt Moscow, my hotel chain of choice, asking for help. I was informed that I needed to provide them details and send back a completed credit card authorization form. They need to complete paperwork on their end, and if I end up canceling the reservation for any reason, I am on the hook for 4.000 RUR.  I did the conversion, and while this can’t be right, it comes to about .06. So, maybe it is a few pennies, maybe it is $60 USD. I just can’t be sure.

Awful lot of running around so far for a three day trip.

After sending the hotel a litany of information, I got back a PDF complete with multiple signatures and many stamped seals of approval. I go back to the on line application I had initially started with the Russian Consulate, enter the confirmation numbers and new approval numbers and I am done.

The consulate details were confusing with many links here and there, including a visa processing service. I had read that applications are not accepted via mail so I needed to visit the consulate in one of 5 major cities around the country. None of which I would be in before March, one of which is a complete pain to get to. So I decide that is ok, I will go to New York and handle in person in the event I have somehow screwed this up and need help.

So I went to the ILS, (Invisa Logistic Service) who work in conjunction with the Russian Consulate, with a 9am appointment on a Friday morning. I brought all my papers, printed, signed, and even had my additional passport photos ready to go. It was my understanding that they did not accept applications via mail, so I needed to go in person both to submit and pick up the visa. As soon as I sat down, I read a print out taped on the glass that featured the message “We now accept applications through the mail.”

While the office was not open when I arrived promptly at 9, a few employees flew in the door not long after. The girl who helped me was very nice and even had a glue stick for my picture. I had originally filed for a one time entry, but she encouraged me to make it a three year entry in case I decide to go back. To be honest, after all this hoop jumping, I may go back twice if not three times just to justify the aggravation.

The visa was to cost $160,I decided that I was not going back  to pick it up, so I paid the extra $70 plus whatever processing fee to have it sent back. $263 dollars later and it was worth every penny.

And now, i wait. I was told it should be no problem and I can expect my visa by January 28. Not a bad deal. What I didn’t love was that they keep my passport and affix my visa directly to it. Makes me nervous but I guess we will see how this goes.

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I Spoke Too Soon

I should have known.

When leaving late at night, its best to book the hotel room through the next day so that housekeeping doesnt surprise you as you’re about to step into the shower. Or so hotel management doesn’t call you multiple times to find out when you are leaving. This is just sound advice from someone who didn’t do just that.

I scrambled to call the hotel loyalty program to secure the room for the rest of the night to avoid being physically removed. It worked out in the end. But I was so close to perfect!

While I was packing and changing, I noticed that my bathing suit bottom had a little tear on the inside lining. Odd that I didn’t even feel it. Upon further inspection,  I noticed that the entire rear of my bottom was actually threadbare.  When I put my hand under it, I could see straight through to my palm. I took a deep breath and wondered how many people I inadvertently flashed with my bright white butt crack for the last 5 days. At the pool, at the beach, walking to and from my hotel room. How many innocent guests trying to enjoy their holiday had been blinded by the eclipse that was my ass? Instead of finding this out earlier in the trip, where I could have switched bottoms (tan line uniformity being my major concern) I didn’t learn this until I was packing to go home. I threw those bottoms away and cursed them, shaking my fist in the air at the Thainese gods. How unfortunate. But not at all unlike me.

So now I am here, in South Korea, waiting for my final flight home. At breakfast in the lounge, I just watched a guy choke up phlegm and spit it into his cup – o – noodles. This whole situation needs to be addressed by heads of state or at NATO or G7 summit. Repulsive all before 9am. I am going to scamper off and see about finding a shirt that says ‘I got Seoul’ even though I am not in Seoul. Or am I? I don’t even know.

I do know I have been up for 24 hours and I am fading fast. I still have 14 hours of flight ahead of me. Before I board, I am going to check to make sure my fly is zipped and there’s no toilet paper hanging out of my jeans. Just in case.

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