Out for a hike in Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah, USA. Photo taken April 19, 2016.
Where are Kevin and Ruth right now? Osgoode, Ontario, Canada. Just south of Ottawa.

And where are they going next? We leave November 1st for a six week trip to Romania and Moldova.

Friday, May 29, 2015

What's it like to visit a Middle Eastern country?

I had a note yesterday from our traveling friends Heather and Volkan. We had met them in March of 2014 in New York City after communicating several times by email. We only met for a quick hour and a half lunch at the time, but I know we'll see them again some day.

Heather and Volkan don't have a blog, but they send out regular emails to their family and friends and they've given us permission to share their last email with you. I think it's really interesting. They're in Paris now, after having spent three weeks in United Arab Emirates. We love visiting different places, and middle eastern countries are certainly different. UAE is very  different, and Heather's email details their visit to this world of indoor ski hills and Lamborghinis. So, without further ado, here is Heather...

We are in the United Arab Emirates, staying in Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

This place continues to surprise us.

United Arab Emirates.

You can easily vacation here and forget that you are in a Muslim country. We spent the day at the beach and pool of the Fairmont Hotel, an enormous high rise, among thousands of other high rises. The guests were all from Russia, England and Germany. String bikinis were de riguer. Alcohol was everywhere and not a covered woman in sight.The staff even went around the pool ringing a bell, to remind people that it was Happy Hour and they should order their half price drinks. That is until a sign went up by the bar that evening, declaring that it would be a Dry Day until the following night. The hotel posted the letter from the government stating that it was a Muslim holiday and the government Kindly Requests that the hotel not provide any alcohol to guests or the hotel would face punitive damages.

That pretty much says it all. You feel like you are in a Western country until the minute that you are not…

The talk of the town is about a tragic accident at a school. An elementary school student was forgotten on a school bus. She died from the heat. It was a private school with 2000 students. The school has been closed by the government for not following protocol. All parties involved are subject to jail time, including the school principal (a South African), the bus driver (an Indian), the bus attendant (a Philippino) and the bus company owner. Blood money from each has to be paid to the family. They actually call it blood money in the newspaper. The amount is typically U.S. $15,000 to $30,000 per person responsible.

The apartment that we have rented from Airbnb is spacious and comfortable in a nondescript, immigrant neighborhood. It’s just a subway ride away from the glitz and glamour of downtown Dubai, but so different. A lot of young Philippino men and women live there. The Philippino’s work in the retail and service industries, many in hotels, restaurants and as housemaids. I assume that if the Philippino men and women live together they are married. It would be illegal otherwise. If you get pregnant before you are married, you go to prison and raise your child there, until you get the funds to fly out. Our friends in the medical field here say that rule puts them in an awkward position. Doctors are required by law to declare if an unmarried patient becomes pregnant. Before a procedure, when the doctor asks a single Emirati patient whether there is any chance that she is pregnant, the typical response is “oh no, I am not married.”

The neighborhood that we are staying in is mostly four story stucco buildings sprinkled with the occasional tiny grocery store and a smattering of malls. But just a few blocks away, separated by a ten lane boulevard is a fascinating place. We call it… Pakistan.

I wandered into it by accident one day and have been drawn back ever since. The first thing that I noticed was that there were no women and the town felt more like a small village than a modern city. Lots of tiny shops, all catering to the mostly Pakistani men who live there. But there are also Afghani, Bangladeshi and Indian men. These men tend to work in Dubai’s construction industry. I can’t even imagine what it must be like to work out-doors in this heat. Going outside is like getting into a hot car that has been baking in the sun. I voluntarily wear a veil during the heat of the day, just to escape the scalding rays.

These men don’t bring their wives or children to Dubai because you must earn at least $1200 a month to be eligible for family visas, rents are high for them (about $600/month for one room for a family) and there are no public schools for foreigners.

The Pakistani town has more barber shops than I have ever seen. Volkan goes there every few days to get a shave. There are also tailors making the loose cotton baggy pants and shirts that Pakistanis wear (called salwar kameez) and shops selling nuts and Indian sweets. “Typing Shops” arrange the documents that they need for visas. Kebab and curry shops abound. But best of all, there is a bakery on every corner. The bakeries are tiny store fronts with a tandoor oven. They only make bread. When you arrive they will take a ball of dough, roll it out to to the size of a dinner plate and squash it against the wall of the bowl shaped oven. A few minutes later a gorgeous, steaming, bubbly flat bread is whisked out. They only cost thirty cents, but the freshly baked smell is priceless.

The first time Volkan and I wandered through this town together was a Saturday evening.The place was buzzing. Friday and Saturday is their weekend. The days are so hot that most people avoid going outside until evening. Hundreds of men were out strolling, playing cricket on sandy empty lots, drinking tea at little cafes and praying at the mosques. It wasn’t until close to 10pm that the restaurants started to fill up. We chose the busiest one, called Eagle. But the proprietor wouldn’t let us stay. He said “we have no family room.” That is code for: it wouldn’t be appropriate to have a woman squeeze in among all these men. So sadly we had to go and find a less crowded place to eat bread and curry.  Dinner for two at a curry place is about $3, including bread, vegetable curry, salad, yogurt and water. Its like being in India without worrying about getting sick from the food. We always leave room for Indian sweets like the very popular falooda: vermicelli in cream, with basil seeds and a sweet pink syrup. P.S. I did finally get to eat at the Eagle restaurant. We went when it was less crowded and had a delicious lamb curry.

No matter how late it is, on our way home from the subway, I always cajole Volkan into a late night trip to Pakistan. If you are ever in Dubai take the green subway line to Abu Baker Al Siddique and use the west exit. You will be on Hor Al Anz street, walk straight and you will find this magical town. The actual name of the town is Hor Al Anz, it’s in the Deira part of Dubai.

Taking the metro train is both a joy and a trial. It makes the city very accessible. The system is modern, super clean and well marked. It feels like you are in a new airport. The one complaint that we have with the trains is that they only have five cars. Not nearly enough room for the amount of people taking the train. So day and night, the cars are jam packed.  But it is still better than driving because traffic can be a nightmare. There are female only train cars for those who don’t want to be with men. But I must say the men are very respectful here. The female cars tend to be a little less crowded than the mixed gender cars. Men sometimes men wander into the female cars, to escape the sardine like conditions of the mens cars.There are female police who show up sometimes to shoo out the  men.The ladies car is the same physical car as the mens, but there is a pink line that the men cannot cross. Women can be in any car. There is also a “gold” car, with fancier airplane like seats and less of a crowd. You pay double for the gold car, but its still cheap as the subway is very affordable.  I can’t imagine why they only created enough space for five train cars as this city is already crowded and is growing in leaps and bounds.

We are here for three weeks and have spent five days of that in the capitol city, Abu Dhabi. Its a small compact city that feels like you are in midtown Manhattan, with a lot less women. Through Airbnb we rented a room in a high rise in the center of town. The owner is an Indian man, an executive in the advertising industry. He was very nice, introducing us to his friends and taking us on outings. He makes a lot of international friends through Meetup and Couch Surfing. They have weekly volleyball tournaments and meet for drinks at plush hotel bars.

Volkan and I had rented a car for our sojourn to Abu Dhabi. We were zipping around the city and wanted to visit the famous Emirates Palace hotel. They stopped our car at the gate and denied us entry because Volkan was wearing shorts. In this town of Lamborghinis and Bentleys, I had my doubts that we would be allowed in, driving our tiny, one liter, Chevy Spark. But we came back the next day in the proper attire and were welcomed in with a big smile. We spent a few hours wandering the grounds and the palatal hotel.  I am trying to think of the words to describe it: cavernous, marble, gilded and beige are the words that come to mind. I think they could have done better with their $3 billion dollar budget. The highlight of the hotel was the beautiful pool, with lazy river, waterfalls and manicured grounds. At the beach we were shocked to see camels and a Bedouin tent offering guests tea, dates and a camel ride. A nice touch I thought. Real Bedouins too. They didn’t speak english. It was so authentic that you could smell the camel dung before you saw the camels.

We noticed that the hotel was getting ready for a big event. Ever nosy, we approached the young, covered woman organizing the event and asked what was happening. With a big smile she invited us to stay for the festivities. We are really loving this Arab hospitality. Its going to be tough to get used to being ignored in Paris. The hotel was holding the ceremony for the International Awards for Arab Youth. A famous Emirati Sheikh and a Saudi Prince would be hosting. Of course we jumped at the opportunity to attend. We had to borrow a phone to call our Airbnb host and let him know that we would not be joining him for the Bollywood movie that night. We couldn’t pass up an opportunity like this.

The hotel’s amphitheater filled up with young Emiratis including a contingent of young, male police and another of young, female police (covered from head to toe, except their faces.) The police were there as guests, not to work. There was lots of seat shuffling before the show, as women did not want to sit too close to strange men. There would always be at least one empty seat separating them.

The show started at 7 and went on for about 2 hours. The staging and sets were impressive with both modern and traditional dancing and a strong message fostering ambition in Arab youth. It was all in Arabic, as 99% of the audience were Arabs, but we were given headphones with a simultaneous English translation. The women dancers were beautiful young, Emirati women in colorful traditional robes with their hair flowing down. It was so unusual to see Emirati women uncovered, especially in an official capacity. This country really is an anomaly.

The awards were given in categories like science, art and community betterment. The accomplishments of the recipients were never stated. But we met one group who had created a literacy program in Yemen. The biggest surprise of the evening is that the award recipients were 95% women. They came from all over the Arab world including Egypt. Lebanon and Saudi Arabia. Each young woman walked up to the stage, received her trophy from the Sheikh and had her photo taken. Sadly the two Saudi Arabian women had their faces totally covered. I felt sorry for them as they were invisible, surrounded by the glowing, smiling faces of the other award winners. After the ceremony the winners were congratulated and were happy to have their pictures taken. By the time we arrived at the reception, the cake and hors d'oeuvres were already finished. We rushed off to meet our Airbnb host for a midnight stroll along the Corniche, the boardwalk along the sea.

On our drive back to Dubai, we took the day to leisurely explore the desert towns: weird places in the middle of nowhere surrounded by nothing but sand. The government gives Emirati citizens free villas. Neighborhoods of large homes, separated by high walls have sprung up in the desert. Nearby you will often find camel farms, where families keep their racing camels. In contrast to those dusty towns, close to downtown Dubai you will find lush neighborhoods complete with lakes, golf courses and fountains where the wealthy live in gated communities. You will think you are in Florida.

So our question is, who gets the gorgeous garden villas in town and who gets relegated to the villas in the sticks?

As you can see this is a confounding country. Every question answered brings a new question. Next week we are meeting with the director of the Sheikh Mohammed Center for Cultural Understanding. Hopefully he will be able to shed some light on these elusive Emiratis.

For now we are off to our favorite Lebanese lunch spot, a restaurant oddly called Automatic. We will have a beautiful spread of zucchini and grape leaves stuffed with lamb and rice, a crunchy salad dressed with pomegranate and sumac, homemade yogurt, a tasty array of pickled vegetables and for dessert a vanilla pudding decorated with pistachios and honey.

Thanks for sharing, Volkan and Heather!

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  1. Love, love this detail description of arab world.....I wish more travelers would describe their travels in detail...I could picture everything Heather had to share. Too bad they don't have a blog. Every interesting travelers. Living in Phoenix, I can understand the heat...first time I came to Phoenix, the heat literally took my breath away...felt like I was choking but got use to it over time.

    1. We agree, she did a great job on describing the area, with the sounds and smells included! She really makes you think about what it must be like to actually visit there when you are foreigner and you have to adapt to this new culture which is so different from our own.

  2. Wow - I agree with Rita. The descriptions are so complete that you are almost fooled into thinking you have actually seen it! Very enjoyable read - thanks to Heather and Volkan for sharing! They should consider a blog!

    1. Yes, she does an amazing job of transporting us all there, so much so that we really want to visit there too! We would love it, if they would start a blog.

  3. What an excellent travel log,
    Thanks Heather and Volkan, for taking us along.

    1. Glad that you enjoyed it George!

  4. Wow, Heather is a great writer. I agree a blog would be amazing with pictures as well. I feel like I was there.
    Thanks for sharing.

    1. We love her writing as well, one of the reasons that Kevin asked if we could post her email to our blog. Her descriptions are amazing.

  5. Replies
    1. It really gives you and idea of what life is like in middle eastern country from a foreign visitor perspective.

  6. Heather is a superb writer, she has the ability to put you right there with them. I really enjoyed her vivid description of the area.
    Elaine in BC Canada

    1. Yes, she is a wonderful writer and we agree that she does an amazing job of describing the area and making you feel like you are there. So happy that she let us post her email for all our readers to see what life is like there from her perspective.

  7. What a wonderful trip. Not sure how we would be accepted :) The culture fascinates me and I wonder how many people would turn their noses up at the opportunity. We sure wouldn't. Thanks for posting such a descriptive letter. I think they need a blog!

    1. We think it is an interesting culture as well and what better way to understand it, than to travel there. Travel opens up the mind to so many different things and gives people such a better understanding of people and cultures. I am sure many people would turn their noses up to an opportunity like that, we wouldn't though. We would totally jump at a chance to visit there. We agree, they do need a blog!

  8. Interesting reading. I traveled to nearly all of the Middle East countries during a seven year period. Some of them were very interesting. All I can say at this point is: I never plan to return.

    1. We also think that they would be interesting countries to visit. I am sure that you were there for different reason than to sight see so your perspective would be very different. I could probably understand you not wanting to return, especially the state some of the middle eastern countries are in right now. There are so many other countries on our list of places to visit that we would rather go to first but if someone were to send us there, we would most likely take them up on the offer. It would certainly be an eyeopener for us.

  9. So glad that many of you enjoyed Heather's article.


    1. Thank you Heather and Volkan for letting us share it with our readers.


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