Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Dubai - part 2

I thought I had experienced a lot on the first visit, but this time was utterly mind blowing! Along on this trip were my colleagues, Charles & Heather. The first day we made a visit to a special needs school, and on the way saw some amazing views & pictures of some of the construction projections underway, which our hotel happened to be smack in the middle of – literally feet from our front steps was a huge lot with at least 6 or 7 buildings being built.
After our work appointments finished, we took a taxi down to Jumeriah beach resort to take in the world’s only 7-star hotel and famous Dubai landmark, the Burj Al Arab and dipped our toes in the Arabian Gulf!
In the evening, we visited the Madinat Jumeriah souq where we had much clearer views of the Burj, possibly even more incredible at night, and a fantastic outside dinner at a Moroccan restaurant called Shoo Fee Mafe (translation = What’s Up). For appetizers we had pastillas, deep fried, sweet pastries with different fillings such as cheese, chicken, and pigeon!
Our second day was the absolute best. After our morning press conference, we went on a desert safari involving dune bashing (4-wheeling in a Land Cruiser through the sand dunes), camel rides, sheesha (hookah smoking), a delicious bbq dinner of grilled chicken, lamb, and beef kabobs, and a belly dancing show. The whole experience was incredibly surreal!
In true Dubai “shopping as a national pastime” spirit, the morning of our last day I went back to the Madinat Jumeriah and purchased the most expensive souvenir I have ever acquired - a beautiful beige Persian rug, with designs made from the skins of pomegranate and walnut, for my living room. It will serve as a daily reminder of all the great fun & amazing experiences I enjoyed in this wonderfully advanced, and unique Arabian country!

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

The Bicycle Culture

One of the most interesting and unique things about Amsterdam, besides the intricate and beautiful canal system, is the huge bike riding culture. The Dutch are truly creative when it comes to maximizing the use of their bikes. I’ve seen parent’s with a toddler standing on the back and babies strapped into the handlebars, 20-something women transporting tables, and postmen hauling packages in special trailers. My first Amsterdam-style bike experience was this past weekend when I went out with the Jims – Atlanta Jim and Jim M. We were heading across town and decided the fastest way would be to “cycle,” as they say here, so I hopped on the back wheel (there is a small rack, just big enough for an adult butt!) and off we went. I was surprised at just how easy it was. We hit a few bumps that shifted me on my seat, but for the most part the ride was very smooth and the balancing not as hard as I expected. I caught a few glimpses of myself in some shop windows, and I must say I was very proud at how very Amsterdam I looked gliding along so effortlessly.

Home Sweet Home

Happy to report that after several weeks of anguishing over my options, I found a very cool and unique apartment in the heart of Amsterdam’s Jordaan neighborhood. I’m right around the corner from my good friend Steven and just a canal away from Atlanta Jim (and just downstairs from my new, and very friendly, landlord Piet). My new home is in an 18th century building and the apartment itself used to be shop. It was converted with a living/dining area on the ground floor and a loft-type bedroom just above. I have a little work ahead to Andrea-ize the place, but it’s good to have my luggage finally unpacked and to finally feel like I’m really a resident of Amsterdam!

Dubai - a Mid East Las Vegas

I have only one word AMAZING!
Arrival (again flying business class – KLM kicks Icelandair’s butt all over the friendly skies in this department!) was surreal, passport control was operated by men and women dressed in complete traditional wear – white linen gowns for the men, black for the women, both with covered heads. Although the initial scene is a bit intimidating as it is so unlike anywhere I have been, I found the people to be extremely warm and friendly.
Outside of the airport was a hot & humid mob scene with people waiting to pick up passengers, it was complete craziness!
On the drive to the hotel I was surprised by just how westernized this city is, there were Chili’s, Burger King, Pizza Hut (all with Arabic logos), and even a Woolworths in some of the pristine shopping malls.
I got to the Hilton Dubai Creek around 11:30pm and was awe-struck by my corner room...very modern in black, stainless, and glass interior with breathtaking views of Dubai creek and the half-constructed buildings of the city.
On the way to meet our local partners the next day we passed the iconic Burj Al Arab, first ever 7 star hotel, and more construction projects than I could count! The offices we were visiting were still in a very underdeveloped – in other words, the desert – part of the city, but the futuristic architecture that is so representative of Dubai was very much present as the building is a round, blue globe with a map of the world etched in the glass exterior (the company is Global Village, a soon to be major amusement park, hence the theme).
We had a great first meeting with our, surprisingly, mostly female partner marketing team. I was very entertained by all the different varieties of dress and people buzzing about. There was everything from the very traditional to women dressed in form fitting skirts and blouses. The best part was a waiter at our disposal for any drinks/coffees we wished!
It was at the offices where I noticed a hose in the bathroom stalls next to the toilets. I had an inkling this had something to do with religious beliefs and when I had the courage to ask one of the women in our meeting, an Indian woman who was raised in Dubai and studied in New Jersey, she confirmed that this is used by Muslims in place of toilet paper.
After the meeting we drove, in a Hummer, to the famous Mall of the Emirates with the very cool indoor ski slopes. Our Austrian/Greek hostess, who has been living in Dubai for 7 years selected the Butcher Shop – just catecorner to the Starbucks - a South African chain restaurant, for our lunch. I had a "cocktail" -- mango-banana smoothie – and salad, which was all I could handle in the hot/dry climate.
After some shopping at the mall, I grabbed a taxi back to our hotel and a staggering 45 minutes later!! (the public transportation system they are building cannot come soon enough, traffic is an absolute nightmare and construction vehicles/trucks are everywhere) I arrived just in time to drop off my purchases and head off to dinner with Gerry and his wife Christina. We again met our local partners, the Austrian-Greecian and the Indian-Emiratis, as well as an American woman and a Indian guy who was raised in Rome and studied at Yale, at the Cinnabon in the Madinat Jumeriah Souq (souq = marketplace). This is where Vegas really came to mind as the place is basically a themed, albeit exceptionally nice and enjoyable, hotel complex. We ate at a tasty Italian restaurant and had great discussion about life in Dubai, where the population is 90% expatriates (foreign living workers) 60% of which are from India, and the restrictions on alcohol – for consumption at home you must have a personal alcohol license and you can only buy at a duty free shop in the airport.
Our second day in the city I started the morning with an hour, which was really all I could handle in the heat, by the rooftop pool and spent the rest of the day exploring. I walked down a part of Dubai creek to see the yachts and dhows or wooden shipping boats...because of the free trade Dubai is still very much an export city, then went on to the old city area and visited the Dubai museum. It was very interesting to see the underground exhibits depicting turn of the century life and the industries – pearl farming and fishing.
Waiting for the abra (water taxi), which cost approx 25 cents!, I had a wonderful guava juice and vegetable filled empanada type snack which was quite tasty for street food. The water taxi ride was the highlight of my day though. I was the only white person aboard & only female to boot, but despite some harmless stares from my fellow, mostly Indian passengers, I felt completely exhilarated to be in such an amazingly unique and different place.
After crossing the creek, I visited the Spice Souq and the Gold Souq. Both were a very different experience than anywhere else I had been this trip since most of the sellers were more aggressive and the wares very unimpressive and cheap.
I got sick of being asked if I wanted copy handbags and watches so I wondered towards the ocean to see some of the manmade Palm islands (there are 3 sets). I couldn’t make out much from ground level but I did see the big tanker ships pumping the sand to construct them, which was yet another huge treat of this trip.

Although I only had 2 days here, I got to know a lot about this city and am looking forward to coming back to explore more next week.