It’s Still the Desert

So on this day we journey far afield from all that which we know: luxury hotels, a car held together with bubble yum, air conditioning that requires a down parka just to maintain body temperature.

We are going to take a trip into the desert, the Arabian Desert, which is so large, it touches on five countries and is one of the largest deserts in the world. This I learned in the car on the way in; didn’t do any research prior, I like to be surprised. I booked a tour with Platinum Heritage, and I do not regret it one bit.

But first! We are picked up the hotel in a Mercedes G Wagon, which is what we are going to be using for the whole of the safari. Again, not to shabby for my taste. I grab shotgun because I want the best view and to ask questions all day long. I am probably the single worst nightmare of any tour guide. I wouldn’t be surprised if  I was on some underground database of insatiably curious customers. They have categories like: asks too many questions (askholes), doesn’t participate, drunk, annoying, cheap, picky eater, know it all, big dummy, and so on. And you are rated on all of these charming qualities and then there’s a chance for comments from tour leaders. It’s a low down Traveler Yelp (Trelp) for tour guides. Anyway.

I’m the front seat for the hour long ride to the protected desert area for this safari. I am so excited I am almost twitching. My mom is in the backseat; we both watch the city disappear behind us, passing warehouses that give way to camel race tracks.

Upon pulling into the sheikh owned area, I see Indian Jones style Land Rovers and I immediately wish I had a whip and leather jacket. So badass. After some chit chat, we get on our way with another couple. Two lovely men who clearly didn’t want to be there and I couldn’t figure out why they bothered. I know for sure they are in the Trelp because they sucked. They sucked as passengers, they sucked as participants, they just sucked all the way around.

I digress. We cruise over sand dunes, through the desert, endless sand in varying shades of gold. Probably best to wear a seat belt and not be susceptible to motion sickness for this portion of the day. Honestly, I could not get enough of this. Our driver must be respectful of the land so not to damage it. It’s still home to lots of animals, we mustn’t tear it up. No matter how bad I wanted to hit the gas and launch across the dunes.580.JPG

We saw oryx drinking from the watering holes, and lots of animals and bird poop. I feel like nothing is official if you don’t see poop. Like somehow the animals don’t really live where they say they live, they are carted in for the benefit of the tourists. But once you see poop, you  know those animals made themselves at home and really live there. It’s the real deal. Show me the poop and I’ll show you some serious wildlife shit.

We stop, and have the chance to get out and climb some hills, take some photos. I find the skull of an oryx and hold it up over my head, a sacrifice to the sand gods. I now have the power of grayskull, I am Skeletor.

I loved this, though. I had long since kicked off my flip flops, so I was happy to get my bare feet into the warm sugary desert sand.

Few things have made me feel like I was my own Indian Jones, but this did it. Cruising along, hot desert sand kicking up alongside the truck, far from home. I am totally Indiana. See? Same car and everything. 197 (1).JPG

So we do the dunes, and then we see a falcon show. Nothing like a South African teaching me about ancient Middle Eastern falconry methods. Honestly, he left me with more questions than I started with; such is my way. Trelp me, go ahead.

After that, the part I was most excited about – the camel rides. Since I was too chicken to do it in Egypt, I was more than happy to do it here. Momma was excited, too, in so far as she can be excited about mounting an otherwise potentially stinky and temperamental creature. Turns out, she was right to be wary.

The long and short of it is this: when they tell you to lean this way or that, just do it.  My camel, loving, gentle and my spirit camel, did all he could to ensure I had a lovely journey through the desert. My mother’s camel was resentful and angry, as proven by a series of loud grunts and attempts at dissension from the camel crew. At one point, he would have been guilty of all out mutiny. The camel wrangler got him under control, but I could see as I turned around that my mom was struggling a little bit and perhaps wasn’t having as much fun as I was.

No hands! 627.JPG

Upon the dismount, the instructions are relatively simple: lean back, hold on. That’s it. I got off my buddy with ease, and turned around just in time to see the camel jerk ever so slightly as my mother’s head whipped back; she looked like a pez dispenser and I was waiting for the candy to slide out of her throat. She held on with both hands, for dear life. The tour guide and wrangler held onto my mom as she almost had one foot in the sand. I heard another odd noise but I determined that came from my mom and not the camel.

I admit, I stood by while this was happening as camel dismount is not my area of expertise. But in doing so, I was able to take what is perhaps the greatest series of 3 picture I have ever taken. When they say ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’, trust me when I say that no explanation is needed to describe exactly what was going on.

After the near soft sand landing by camel, we dined in huts under the starts. It was by far and away one of the best meals I have ever had, cooked outside on brick fire pits. Hummus, chicken, vegetables, all of it. Amazing. I wish I could have taken it home with me. 689.JPG

After dinner, we did a little desert, some hookah and some henna. We wrapped it up late, I don’t even know what time, and drive back off into the dessert to our hotel. Fat and happy and thankfully, in one piece.

Fun fact: when I visited, it was at the stat of 3 days of mourning as sanctioned by the government as 3 men had been from the AUE had been killed fighting terrorists in a neighboring country.  As  such, there was no music on the radio other than classic, and there was no dancing in the safari as was promised on the website. It was ok, thought, I totally understood and respected the decision, not that I could change it. I developed an appreciate for Bach on long drives, too.

My mother – still sweating to death.




High tea atop the Burj Khalifa. Reservations required, no jeans, elevator escorts, all of it. We would be dining on floor 122 for the view and the food at At.Mosphere. Not for those who are afraid of heights or $300+ lunches.


It was superb. The views from 122 are beyond expansive. You can literally see the city limit, the edge of the desert and then for miles beyond that. I can see new buildings, cranes, and the homes that make up the older sections of Dubai. They look like raised thumb prints in the sand compared to the monstrosities being built a few miles away.

You can also get more bang for your buck by getting drunker faster at such an altitude. The champagne hit like a fright train for some reason. But I guess if you are gonna be there, may as well go all the way.

Tea was exceptional, several courses punctuated by champagne. Tea selections from the world over or champagne. Finger samwiches and champagne. So basically, the champagne was really good.

But look! Look at the view! Not bad post sandstorm.


The afternoon spent here is an afternoon well spent. It is truly something best told in photos. Overall, the  food was good, not amazing. But I didn’t go there for the food, really. I went for the views, the experience. The paradox of an incredibly old city and culture mashed up against what is clearly the present but inarguably the future.




Getting High is Expensive


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.






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.


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.


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.



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.




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.



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…


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.


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?
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.


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.