Thursday, March 24, 2016

#5countries2seasons1zara: UAE 2015

Oh snap it's been a while! You may remember that last summer I went on the adventure of a lifetime, documenting my world travel with #5countries2seasons1zara on social media. I meant to blog about each stage right after the trip ended, but the summer flew by, my Korean visa expired, and by the time that all got sorted out, the fall semester began and things got crazy (but what else is new?) and I just never finished documenting everything that I wanted to show! SO HERE WE ARE. 

In summary, I flew from Korea (country #1) to the UAE (country #2) to visit some friends last summer (season #1). I got to the UAE in the height of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting. After a quick 3 days, I flew to South Africa (country #3) and because it's in the southern hemisphere, my July visit fell in the middle of winter (season #2). After 2 great weeks in Capetown, I flew back to summer (season #1 again) for a week in Italy (country #4) before flying home for a nice long visit with family in Texas (country #5) (jk jk but really). Over the next few weeks, I will share several posts with pics and stories from my whirlwind adventure! Stay tuned for more! 

Top 11 Things that I loved about the UAE:
(In no particular order.)

#1 The Architecture. 
Especially the Burj Khalifa in Dubai and the Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi. 

I LOVE PRETTY BUILDINGS. The UAE is world famous for its skyscrapers and I've wanted to see these gorgeous buildings for years! The Burj Khalifa was still under construction while I was studying construction in university (Fun fact: You know I'm a teacher/librarian now, but did you know I also have a degree in Construction Science? It's true.) and I remember some professors talking about this huge project growing up out of the desert. Even though I decided not to make a living in the industry, I still have a healthy respect for AWESOME PROJECTS and I am a pretty big architecture nerd. I geek out about tower cranes and HVAC systems and responsible use of building materials. I get so excited about the beauty and grandeur of beautiful structures, and the UAE (especially Dubai) did not disappoint! Beautiful buildings are EVERYWHERE, and since the cities are still growing (rapidly), there is plenty of space to enjoy each building's unique addition to the city skyline. 

I mean, just look. SO PRETTY. Swoon!! 

A lot of things felt like I was walking through Aladdin, but visiting the Grand Mosque was definitely Aladdin-esque for me! 7-year-old Zara was over the moon! Like walking around the sultan's palace, without Jafar. Officially called the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, the Grand Mosque "was initiated by the late president of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), His Highness Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, who wanted to establish a structure which unites the cultural diversity of Islamic world, the historical and modern values of architecture and art." (source: wikipedia

Architecturally, it is BEAUTIFUL. We got there too late in the day to tour inside (because visiting hours are limited during Ramadan), but we took a few photos from the courtyard. One of the guards was even kind enough to let Tim and me get a little closer for a quick photo or two, as long as I was properly covered. I definitely want to go back to see the interior. I've seen beautiful photos online

Back to pics of Dubai...

This is The Address, another stunning building next to the Burj Khalifa. (This is the gorgeous building that caught fire on New Year's Eve! You may have seen it on the news.)


Dubai has two man-made archipelagos: the Palm Islands and the World Islands. I studied the Palm Islands during my soils science classes at Texas A&M and I've always wanted to see them AND THEN THERE I WAS! Incredible!! The Palm Islands are two artificial islands, Palm Jumeirah and Palm Jebel Ali, on the coast of Dubai. You read that right: artificial islands. As in: they MADE islands. Engineering is crazy. I love everything. It was surreal to talk a walk along the coast on a world-famous, man-made island. Surreal is a pretty good word to describe the whole weekend. Ahhh I'm so happy just thinking about it! 

Atlantis, The Palm Hotel on the Palm Jumeirah

I wanted to do 3 things while in Dubai: 1. Go to the Palm Islands (above), 2. See the World Islands (the other set of man-made island, which you can only get to by helicopter), and 3. Go to the top of the Burj Khalifa. Done, done, and done! We could see the World Islands from the top of the Burj Khalifa, so we got two birds with one stone and I didn't have to pay for a helicopter ride! It's really hard to see in this picture, but if you look really closely in the distance, you can see the World Islands there in the gulf!! AHHHH SO AMAZING! ENGINEERING/ARCHITECTURE DREAMS COMING TRUE! 

Jacques and I went to the top late in the afternoon so we could watch the sun set. I still can't believe I got a chance to hang out in the world's tallest building! Unfortunately, the sunset wasn't very pretty, since the sun just kind of sunk into the sandy haze on the horizon, but the view once night fell was outstanding. The city is even more impressive at night, when all the lights turn on and the darkness hides the dirt and the construction equipment. 

To further impress you, and explain why I was so excited, here are some stats and info from the Burj Khalifa tour site

"At over 828 metres (2,716.5 feet) and more than 160 stories, Burj Khalifa holds the following records:
  • Tallest building in the world
  • Tallest free-standing structure in the world
  • Highest number of stories in the world
  • Highest occupied floor in the world
  • Highest outdoor observation deck in the world
  • Elevator with the longest travel distance in the world"
"The high point of any Khalifa experience is the view from At The Top, Burj Khalifa's observation deck. Located on level 124 of the world's tallest tower, this observatory is destined to be the highlight of any visit to the Middle East.Throughout the journey to the top, visitors are entertained by a multi-media presentation of the exotic history of Dubai and the marvel of Burj Khalifa."

I MEAN, RIGHT?!?! Major geeking out happened. All day long.

An open letter: DEAR BURJ, YOU ARE BEAUTIFUL. You were everything I hoped you'd be! So tall! So fancy! You made every other beautiful, tall building pale in comparison! xoxo, love, Zara

Here, I've documented my trip up for you: 

At the end of the night, we met up with a couple of friends and ate dinner while watching the water show at the base of the Burj Khalifa and I was overwhelmed with how awesome everything was. I was swooning over the view and the music and the opulence, and the fact that I was in Dubai catching up with old friends over Arabic food, which brings me to my 2nd favorite part of my trip!  

#2 The Food. 

I want to write a love letter to Emirati food. I ate as much as I could in 3 days and it was not enough. Labna, falafal, pita, olives, dates, hummus, chicken shawarma, pistachio ice cream with date syrup, and everything I ate at the Iftar buffet, I'm yours forever. I love you. I want you in my life on a more permanent basis. I have found a few Arabic restaurants in Seoul but I need to go more often. 

I did, of course, pick the worst month to visit an Arabic country. I showed up right toward the end of Ramadan, which is the Islamic month of fasting. Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset, no food, no water, not even chewing gum. Then, as soon as the sun goes down (approx. 7:15 pm), the Iftar feast begins. It's customary to break the fast with an odd number of dates (1 or 3) and a glass of water (because it is good for digestion). Then you EAT. 

You may have noticed that I am not Muslim, but it was fascinating for me to observe the culture during their holy fasting month. Non-Muslims and children are allowed to eat, but since UAE is a Muslim country, we cannot eat in sight of practicing Muslims. There were partitioned food courts in the bigger cities, like this: 

You can't even drink water in plain sight. My friends and I would have to sneak around a corner or hide in a bathroom stall to stay hydrated as we toured around in the *glorious* hot weather. Besides that, I didn't mind so much. How can I mind when the food is SO WORTH THE WAIT? 

Pistachio Ice Cream with Date Syrup. OMGYUMIWANTMORE. 

Chicken shawarma. Like an Arabic quesadilla of awesomeness. 

We had a huge Iftar dinner (the meal to break fast at sunset) buffet at a restaurant in Al Ain. It was pricey, but worth it. We arrived early, cruised the venue, watched the sun sink down, loaded our plates, and waited for 7:15 pm so we could dig in. I almost wish I'd been fasting all day so I would have eaten more at dinner. Everything was beautiful!! 

Breaking fast with a glass of water and dates: 

Our after-dinner nut and fruit snack, which I was way too full to even think about. But it's pretty.

Grocery shopping was one of my favorite things, as usual. I wanted to eat everything at the supermarkets. I mean, LOOK AT ALL THESE OLIVES. 

AND THE CHEESE! I haven't seen so much variety of cheese in forever! Korea, you have to up your cheese game. Look at what we're missing! 

AND THE DATES! I love dates. I want dates in my life forever. (I could also be talking about going on dates... but that's another subject. And if you think I made ALL THE DATING PUNS while I ate all the dates I could... you would be correct.) 

My last dinner before I left for South Africa... ALL THE FOOD. SO GOOD.

GARLIC LABNA WILL YOU MARRY ME? Swoon. Sigh. I love food. 

All this good food was of course shared with and/or provided by my 3rd favorite part of my trip (sorry, yes, you got beat by food)... 

#3 Old Friends. 

I had 3 awesome awesome hosts for the weekend! Jacques, Anna, and Tim are friends of mine from my very first year in Korea. We met at church in Gwangju and have stayed connected over the years. I'm grateful to have lasting friendships with solid people like these! Jacques chauffeured me around Dubai, Tim chauffeured me around Al Ain, and Anna and Tim took me all around Abu Dhabi so I could see and experience as much of the UAE as possible in 3 days. They are the BEST. So many great memories, so many great conversations. 

This, I tell you, THIS. It's the greatest part about being an expat. You make these friends, then it sucks when they leave, BUT down the line you somehow end up in the same country again and you have instant friends AND hosts for your vacation!! Having friends all over the world is the greatest. Jacques, Anna, and Tim, I'm so thankful for you guys! 

#4 The Beaches. 

I got to go to 2 beaches during my trip. Jacques took me to Kite Beach, but we didn't stay long enough for me to do anything besides dig my toes into the sand and do some cartwheels. 

I got to spend a lot of time at the beach in Abu Dhabi though!! We paid the entry fee for a private beach and basked in the late afternoon sun, waiting for the sun to go down so we could go eat more Iftar food. I took a quick swim in the water and it was even warmer than Galveston beaches in August. It felt like getting into a spa or taking a bath. I don't know why I expected cool water, since it was 100 degrees outside and we were literally in the dessert, but it was still a surprise for my senses. It was kind of nice, once I got over the initial shock. 

I still can't believe I got to swim in the Arabian (Persian) Gulf. Ah this life! 

#5 The Camels. 

I LOVE CAMELS. Everyone in Korea started freaking out last summer about that whole "Middle East Respiratory Syndrome" thing, aka MERS, and I was all like LET'S GO TO THE DESSERT AND PLAY WITH CAMELS! 

But for real. 

Camels are fantastic. 

I saw this sign on my way to the check in counter at the airport. First of all, SHORTNESS IS NOT A SYMPTOM OF MERS. Thanks Korea. I believe you mean to say shortness of breath

I found my first camel at a mall in Dubai and I got a *little* excited about it. 

I got to see a bunch of them at a camel souk! Smelly, giant, hot, and everything I wanted them to be. I can't wait to go back and ride one!

#6 The Desert Heat. 

I LOVED IT. No cold. No winter. Rare rainstorms. I could get used to that. One of my friends was all like "don't you want to go back inside to the air conditioning?" And I was like "NOPE! HOLD MY CAMERA WHILE I GO FROLIC OVER THERE IN THE SUN!" 

I could get used to the permanent heat, especially as I shiver here in my cold apartment after my 4th Korean winter. It is March for goodness sake. Can the cold be over? The dessert sounds really good during winter. I was not made for this cold stuff. I'll take a Houston (or Dubai) summer in August any day if I can avoid Korea in February. 

#7 The Malls. 
Because the dessert heat makes 
most people not want to be outside. 
(I am clearly not most people.)

It makes total sense. When it's 120 degrees outside, it's smart to be inside. When you're running a business, it makes much more financial sense to stick all the businesses together to share the cost of air conditioning. They also have contracts with leading perfumers to pump all the wonderful scents through the A/C system. It's delicious!! The UAE seems to smell good, all the time. You walk around in the beautiful architecture next to the beautiful shops, pause to check out beautiful water features or sculptures, surrounded by beautiful scents. It's glorious! When Jacques first suggested we go eat lunch at the mall, I scoffed. I didn't understand that malls are like upscale villages all by themselves. They've got SKI RESORTS and AQUARIUMS and all the shops and restaurants you could dream of. After a few days, I understood. Malls in the UAE are a whole thing. We checked out an aquarium while we waited for our sunset tickets for the Burj Khalifa and it was pretty neat! They had crocodiles! And the cutest turtle ever. 

#8 The Palace in Al Ain. 

The founder of the UAE is from Al Ain, where my friends Anna and Tim live. While Anna was at work, Tim and I checked out the palace and I was pretty convinced I would be happy living as an Arabic princess. Tim was like "well you'd probably have to convert... and you'd probably be like a 4th wife..." so that would suck. But living in the palace would be pretty cool. 

Here's some info from Visit Abu Dhabi:

The former home of the late UAE founder, Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the Palace was once a political and social hub. Built in 1910, the building became a museum in 1998.

Now creatively restored, the museum houses a large collection of material about the ruling family. Visitors can tour the private rooms and gardens once occupied by the ‘Father of the Nation’.


I found the kitchen!! 

I definitely sang Aladdin songs the entire time I was in this beautiful country, but this was especially true while frolicking around A PALACE. I couldn't resist. Can't stop won't stop. 

This is the room where the sheikh (sheikh = king) would entertain foreign dignitaries, like the QUEEN OF ENGLAND! I am sitting where either the Sheikh or the Queen once sat! I'M SO FANCY.

Tim showcasing a photo of the Sheikh and Queen in this very room
Have falcon, will travel. This is my new motto.
The landrover that the sheih would drive to travel around the country checking things out

The Sheikh and I, rocking our aviators 

#9 The Souks. 

A souk is an open-air market. Becuase the UAE has such an old-meets-new quality, there are plenty of old souks to shop in, but unfortunately for me, they are not open during the heat of the day during Ramadan. Most everyone takes shelter to chill (literally) and rest until Iftar. Tim and I had a nice walk through this souk in Al Ain and I loved the abandoned quality of it. It was eerie. It was beautiful. I saw one person the whole time we were there, dressed in traditional attire. When combined with our palace trip the day before, it really felt like stepping back in time. I was practically walking through a textbook about ancient civilizations. The whole weekend = History geek out session!!! Cultural Geography geek out session!!! Aladdin geek out session!!! EVERYTHING IS AWESOME. 

What's this? A swing set? Or a place to tie up your camels? 

A my-size door!! Hooray! 

#10 A Literal Oasis In The Dessert. 

A LITERAL OASIS IN THE DESSERT. Could I be more excited??? PROBABLY NOT. Oh my word, this was cool. I've read about oases (plural of oasis) in so many books but WE WERE WALKING AROUND IN ONE. Books have come to life!!! THIS IS WHY I READ, PEOPLE. Books take me to all these places, they give my imagination wings, then I get a job overseas and figure out the means to have literal wings (as in, on an airplane) and I get to travel to all the places that I've always read about! 

#11 The Over-the-top-ness of Everything

Everywhere you go, there is this whole We're #1 Attitude, and dangit, they kind of ARE. 

I come from Texas, and if you haven't noticed, we're kind of obnoxious about how awesome Texas is. We are friendly, the food is awesome, it's hot and hardly snows, we have decent beaches (plus a few not decent ones), and we have this whole EVERYTHING IS BIGGER IN TEXAS attitude. 

SO. You can imagine my irritation when I kept seeing "The World's Biggest _______" on everything in Dubai. 

Me: "Psh, yeah right, there's no way... I mean... that's not.... oh crap. Yeah that's awesome." 

Dangit UAE. Why you gotta be so awesome? People are friendly (as far as I could tell in my 3 days there), the food is awesome, it's hot and never snows, they have decent beaches, and literally EVERYTHING IS BIGGER IN DUBAI. It's annoying, and fantastic. Props, Dubai. Props. 
Like, they've got the world's only 7 star hotel, the Burj Al Arab. WHAT. 

I mean, Dubai even has a ski resort ("resort" quote unquote) in the dessert. So. It's crazy. It's environmentally irresponsible. But it's also pretty, um, what's the right term... guns blazing? I mean. You can judge the irresponsible use of resources if you want, but follow me. Once you stop judging, you kind of have to admire the brash courage that it takes to be so arrogant. They are brave. 

The Emirates Palace Hotel in Abu Dhabi is practically made of gold. Again, what? It is obnoxiously over the top. It is amazing. 

There was even a gold vending machine in the lobby. A GOLD VENDING MACHINE.

The only way I was going to let my debit card get within a yard (meter) of that thing was when we noticed that this machine is out of order. Hehehe.

So fancy.

Pineapples! Pineapples are a symbol of hospitality, and I like them, and I got pretty excited about these pineapple door handles. (But let's be real. I was pretty excited about most things the whole weekend. Sorry not sorry.)

Sunshine and palaces are 2 of my favorite things.

So, as you can tell by the over-the-top excited commentary on this blog post, I really really really liked UAE. I didn't expect much before I got there, then everything (or nearly everything) surprised me and knocked my socks off. Who knew? I absolutely want to go back!! I've been doing a lot of research on different aspects of the country, the good, the bad, and the ugly, and everything I read makes me love it more. We'll see when I can make another trip happen, but for now I'll just keep looking at pictures of my visit last summer with fondness. Until next time, Emirates! 

Stay tuned for the next installment of my #5countries2seasons1zara blog series, South Africa 2015!

No comments:

Post a Comment