07.05.17: Dodging the crowds on Icefields Parkway

When Swindle and I were doing some pre-trip planning and talking about what was on our punch list for this trip, she mentioned, “How many aqua-colored lakes can we see before it gets tiring?” We both agree, it turns out, not enough.

While the sights and hikes at Moraine Lake and Lake Louise were incredible, we were ready to be away from the crowds. So we headed to Icefield Parkway so we could see if both it and Peyto Lake (and Emerald Lake that’s off Trans Canada 1) were worth the hype. Yep, they definitely were!

Amazing views on Icefields Parkway

The 145-mile Icefields Parkway takes you north of Banff to Jasper, which is both a city and national park. It gets its name because it’s where the glaciers came through thousands of years ago. The sights are stunning. Wide, U-shaped valleys flank massive mountains and create outstanding views. Every so often, you’ll drive by an absolutely gorgeous lake. The first stop on the Parkway was Peyto Lake.

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Many mosquitoes couldn’t bring us down at Peyto Lake

Peyto Lake is located about 30 miles north of Trans Canada Highway 1. You can park at the first parking lot and hike up the hill, or do the “oops” we did and park in the lot up the hill where the buses park. (In our defense, we were following other cars and didn’t realize we parked in the wrong lot until we left.) From there, it was a quick three-minute walk to the lookout point. Between the turquoise blue lake and the incredible Wapta Icefield behind it, we had a “holy shit” moment that lasted for quite a while.

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You can stay on the paths and be in and out in 30 minutes, which is what we did. There are other paths, but they’re basically an unmarked maze. With no cell reception and being pretty sore from the day of hiking before, we opted to save our hiking efforts for later in the day.

The only negative – the mosquitoes. It was serious whack-a-mole. The dogs were even going a little out of their mind, biting at the bugs and scratching themselves like crazy. So if you go, double-up on the bug repellent.

Waterfowl Lake was a unexpected delight

We only came across Waterfowl Lake accidentally. The views of the valley from Peyto Lake inspired us to keep driving along the Parkway to see what wonders we’d come across. Waterfowl Lake was about 15 miles past Peyto Lake, conveniently located on a stopover off the road. It’s pretty hard to miss.

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Waterfowl Lake was such an unexpected highlight that we decided to sit on a rock next to the water and enjoy one of the sandwiches we packed for the day so we could take it all in. The pups waded and “patiently” watched while we ate.

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A relaxed hike around Emerald Lake

We knew that Emerald Lake was in Yoho (not to be confused with YOLO) National Park, but we didn’t realize that it meant we were crossing into British Columbia. That means we’ve made it to three provinces on this trip! Emerald Lake is about a 20-minute drive into British Columbia. Like so many of the other lakes in the area, it has majestic blue waters and tons of hiking and walking paths. We opted for the Emerald Lake Circuit, which was about four miles to loop around the entire lake and relatively flat. It was definitely less busy, but later in the afternoon and warm, so there was an unfortunate haze. Don’t get me wrong, it was still stunning, but a little hazy from the bright, hot sun.

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As we walked, we went by a snowpack, which was a little wild to see given it’s early July. The dogs were completely overjoyed – digging their paws and rubbing their faces in the snow.

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At about the midway point, there was wetland type area where all the little glacial streams come together. You’re able to walk on it and get to the edge of the lake. That’s where we opted to wade in the water and have another sandwich. The water was cold, but not as cold as Louise, Moraine, or Agnes, but it was still just as clear, clean, and refreshing.

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Frankie seriously could not get enough of the lake. She’d pull to wade in it any chance she got and would take a few drinks for good measure. It was literally becoming “water in, water out” for her. It was pretty funny. I think glacial water has become her new drug; she can’t get enough of it.

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A gas incident

One thing to be mindful of … gas stations are far and few between. Basically, with all the hills and winding of the roads, my gas gauge played some weird tricks, and things got stressful for a bit. Out of desperation, we did a turnaround to go back to a gas station that was out of gas when we went by it earlier in the day. They had gas the second time around, so we added enough gas to get us back to Banff … to the tune of $3.80/gallon.

The brush with near-run-of-gas experience got us into researching about gas gauges. We learned how off they are … for all cars. Apparently, when the gas light comes on in my car, I have a whopping 60 miles before my car will actually run out of gas, not the 20 miles I assumed. Now, I’m tempted to test it … close to my house, of course.

Two tired pups

The dogs definitely lagged behind as we made our way back to the car after Emerald Lake, and they’ve been pretty much passed out since we got back to camp. It has resulted in some ridiculously adorable pictures of them sleeping together, one of which is below.

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Our last night camping

It’s a little bittersweet that this is our last night camping. It’s been so nice being outside these past few days. We’ve been surprised to see how many people only camp for two nights; the three nights we’re staying is by no means long, either. We started with Rye and Ginger cocktails and have since switched to hot chocolates … spiked with butterscotch schnapps. So we’re feeling good.

We have another early day tomorrow to hike Johnston Canyon and the Ink Pots. More to come. This has been quite the wonderful adventure!

07.04.17: Early birds catch the best light at Moraine Lake and Lake Louise

Getting up early paid off. Not only did we get rockstar parking across the board, but we got amazing light. Like, AMAZING light. Lake Louise looked noticeably different at 3:00 p.m. than it did at 10:00 a.m.

The definition of awesome is to inspire awe. Today did nothing short of that. We were awed all day.

Twinkling, turquoise blue waters at Moraine Lake

Thanks to the helpful advice of a friend, we woke up at 5:30 a.m. (“ish”) and left camp by 7:00 a.m. to get to Moraine Lake as early as we could manage. Even by 8:00 a.m. parking was backed up quite a ways. We took a chance and drove up to the lake to see if we’d luck out, and it paid off.

After a quick 10-minute hike up a rocky butte, we came to the amazing outlook of Moraine Lake. The lake twinkled. The lake was an insanely gorgeous turquoise blue. The lake was crystal clear. The lake awed.

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It’s pretty easy to make your way around the lake. There are lots of walking paths. You can even rent a canoe or kayak. We opted for walking around, even dipping our hands in the water to taste it. As-is, it was ice cold and absolutely refreshing. We explored for a good hour or so, deciding to take off as the next large tour bus rolled in.

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Lake Louise’s milky aqua blue waters and an exhausting hike to Lake Agnes

You also want to get to Lake Louise as early as possible, as parking gets filled up quickly. Even 10:00 a.m. proved to be too late. Luckily, as we pulled up to the parking lot, one of the guys excitedly yelled, “They have dogs!” Despite Alberta’s genuine anti-dog policies, this seemed to be the one exception, as they then waved us up to a parking lot that offered us even better rockstar parking than we got at Moraine Lake.

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The glacial runoff spills right into Lake Louise, leaving a trail of silt behind it, which is what make it a milky aqua color. Despite its color, we tasted that water, too, and it was just as refreshing, but a little colder, than Moraine Lake.

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There were A LOT of people at Lake Louise, but it was still early enough in the morning that it left for some lovely views. We quickly headed up one of the hiking trails to Agnes Lake and the Teahouse. It was rated difficult, which it lived up to. Even though it was just 2.5 miles, it raised 1,500 feet in elevation, so it takes a while to get up. The trails were good, but it was pretty steep, so we went with a slow(ish) and steady approach.

After about 40 minutes, we came to an incredible outlook. From there, the water of Lake Louise looked even more vibrant than it did shoreside.

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We went another 20 minutes or so before we came to Mirror Lake, where you could see amazing view of the Beehive, a part of the mountains that, go figure, resembled a beehive. We and the pups took a much-earned break before making the rest of the way up the peak.

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Even though it was just a half mile, the last 15 minutes to Lake Agnes were brutal. It was really steep and there was little to no shade. Even though we had plenty of water, our legs were getting tired. The pups even stopped pulling. But we did it … we made the 2.5-mile trek up 1,500 feet to Lake Agnes before walking past a waterfall.

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The teahouse rests on Lake Agnes and sells a bunch of tea made from the water of Lake Agnes; they also offer snacks. We brought our own and just sat shoreside for quite a while, barely being able to dip our feet in the 40-degree water. We tasted that water, too. Again, wonderfully refreshing and clean.

We took a little different loop on the way back. Even though we were going down, it was even more rocky than the way up, so it was still a challenge for a bit. Archie definitely lost his energy by the end … I had to carry him for some of it before coaxing him to keep going. He was SO done with hiking.

Once we got back down to the lake, we stopped to dip our feet into Lake Louise and give the pups some time to rest. The water was still cold, but not as cold as Lake Agnes. The pups enjoyed some cuddles, both from Swindle and me, and the many people who couldn’t get over me holding Archie and Frankie like babies.

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Hot Springs in Banff was a perfect ending to the day

After logging nearly 30,000 steps today, we were pretty wiped out, so we chilled at our campsite for a bit, enjoying rye and ginger ales while we chatted and played Bananagrams. Our feet and bodies were hurting, so we headed to the Hot Springs in Banff around 7:00 p.m., which proved to be a great idea, as there was ample parking and no crowds. After that, we headed back to camp and made dinner on the campfire while we enjoyed a Canadian IPA infused with grapefruit. Think summer shandy, but not as sweet. We both felt more like ourselves at that point. We have another early morning, this time heading to Peyto Lake and Emerald Lake.

07.03.17: Blown away by Banff

Apparently, we haven’t really even seen the really beautiful stuff yet. If that’s the case, I don’t know what I’m going to do with myself when we get to Moraine Lake and Lake Louise tomorrow. Luckily, getting to Banff was just a 90-minute drive from our hotel in Calgary, all via the ever-so-convenient Trans Canada Highway 1.

The Canadian Rockies kinda just come outta nowhere. It goes from green rolling hills to BAM! gorgeous, massive, expansive mountains in the blink of an eye. It was definitely more crowded on the road, which makes sense, given Banff is a major tourist draw. It made looking at the scenery more challenging, so we made a couple pitstops to take it all in.

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Dodging the tourist traps

The original plan was to take the gondola up Sulphur Mountain and then hike down and hang out in the hot springs. We quickly learned it was a tourist trap, and at $50 for the gondola, long lines, and crazy parking, it seemed like a waste of money and time, especially given there are so many other trails we’ll be hiking for free these next few days. We instead opted for the turnoff in Banff at Bow Falls. The falls itself are nothing to be wowed about, but the crystal clear, teal glimmer of the Bow River surrounded by immense mountains was stunning.

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It was from there we saw the iconic Banff Fairmont Hotel, which is also something spectacular to see. It was there we stumbled upon the golf course and Waldhaus Pub, that’s right on the 15th hole. It was sunny and 80ish, so a drink was right up our alley. We were able to work around the “no dogs on the patio rule” by sitting on the edge of it and having the pups sit on the other side of the fence that surrounded the patio. From there, they had no shortage of affection and pets from passersby.

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On our way back we saw an elk strolling down the road. It stopped to grab a snack and wasn’t at all phased by the people taking photos of it, including me. I got about 10 feet away from it. The dogs didn’t really know what to make of it.

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Strolling through Banff before heading to our camp site

Banff is an adorable town. But touristy. A lot of the architecture reminds me of Swiss and Austrian ski towns, so I imagine it gets all the more cute when it’s snowy and the skiers and snowboarders are in the town. The main strip through the town is filled with shops where you can do plenty of shopping. Swindle got some postcards and I got my usual magnet. We also stumbled by Rock Paper Silver, which (as you may be able to guess) sells silver jewelry. We both eyed up dendritic opal rings, which is basically a white stone with black and gray marbling. Luckily, the US dollar goes far.

At that point, we were tired of the crowds in Banff and headed to our camp site at Tunnel Mountain Village I. Our timing was impeccable; there was a short line. When we left an hour or so later to go get some ice, the line was … long. So if you ever go, be sure to get there right when you can check in at 2pm. Our site is decent … somewhat private. The way I parked my car makes it even more private. Through the tall trees we’re able to see the mountains from our site. We have a comfy setup; I recently invested in camping cots, thermarests, and sleeping bags, which will come in handy when the temperature dips into the 40s tonight.

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One big bonus of national parks in Canada: you pay $10-15 for a fire permit (depending on the campground), and it includes fire wood. You just need to pick up the dry, chopped wood from a site. There’s even little kindling wood to help get your fire started. We’ve already burned through four big bags today. It’s an ingenious way to get people to stop bringing their own firewood to campsites, which is often a culprit for spreading diseases to the trees. Plus, it’s way cheaper.

Next up: Moraine Lake and hiking at Lake Louise

It’ll be pretty stellar to be outside these next few days. The word is to get to Moraine Lake early to avoid the crowds. After the crowds we dealt with today in Banff, we’re taking the advice and making it an early morning. Our lunches are already made and packed!

07.02.17: Roads, Regina (NOT like Gina), and Calgary

First off, it’s been a long time that I’ve been this excited about a trip. I was packed literally a week before, which is SO NOT the norm for me. Usually, I’m packing mere hours before I leave. (In my defense, I was doing a bunch of laundry and my pack was already out.) I don’t know if it was the excitement about being able to bring my dogs, or going on a rare road trip, or getting to camp and hike, or just the knowledge of the amazing scenery that awaited me … I’ve been pretty fucking jazzed about this trip.

This adventure brings my friend Sarah Swindle, who I met a few years ago at a gym we used to work out at together. She’s a rad, adventurous chick and had never been to Canada, so I’m excited we were able to make the trip work! (I know a lot of Sarahs, so she’ll be referred to as Swindle on this trip.)

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Archie and Frankie – my little soldiers

Roads. And more roads.

It took us about 20 (driving) hours to get to Calgary, which we split up into two days. Day one was 13 hours to Regina. (We shaved an hour off thanks to my lead foot!) We headed west on Interstate 94, taking a pit stop to stretch our legs in downtown Fargo. Just past Fargo we came to North Dakota Highway 52, which we took north through Minot (where we took another pit stop) before coming to the appropriately-named border town of Portal. After getting our passport stamped, Highway 52 turned into Canadian road 13 and brought us all the way to Regina. We literally went west, took a right to head North and stayed on the long, windy (not to be confused with wind – there were bends) before getting to Regina. Despite it being two-lane road, it was pretty empty and there was a speedy white minivan that I was able to keep pace with, so we flew, going 85 mph (130 kmph) most of the way. (At one point, I did get to 100, but only for about five seconds.)

We saw a lot of beautiful farmland filled with neon yellow canola fields. Set against the blue sky and complimented with more green, it made a long drive really enjoyable. Ariz Ansari’s audio book, Modern Love, kept us giggling and led to some great chats where we learned more things about one another. (We also got through the NPR podcast, “Missing Richard Simmons,” which was great.) While it took a little while for the dogs to figure things out and get situated, they’ve been pretty chill. It’s a wonderful feeling to feel their head occasionally pop between us, reminding us they’re there, asking for a quick pet, scratch, or kiss. Archie is a bit more … demanding with his affections, but it’s nothing short of heartwarming.

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Archie needed Swindle time – and wasn’t taking “no” for an answer

Regina does NOT rhyme with Gina

Or as a local DJ says, “It rhymes with fun.” We arrived to the capital city of Saskatchewan on July 1, which is Canada Day. This year Canada celebrates 150 years as a country. This also meant fireworks were happening … and probably some pretty epic ones. To sum up dogs and fireworks, know that (in the US), more dogs run away on July 4th than any other day of the year. It stresses dogs out. Big time. Luckily, we were too exhausted to make it to the 11pm start time, but we still had time to explore what Regina had to offer. Some nuggets:

  • Saskatchewan Roughriders: The team of the Canada Football League has a huge following, boasting as the “Green Bay Packers” of Canada, likely due to the all out greenness of the team. The day we arrived was the first game of the season in their new stadium. The city literally shut down for the game.
  • Wascana Lake: This absolutely lovely lake in the middle of the city is surrounded by the legislature building and museum … and a lot of geese. But seriously, it’s stunning, so you should go.

With 215,000 people Regina felt oddly small. But it was a great little down. Thankfully, they have a couple dog park, which we took advantage of before getting back in the car again for the long drive. I know my dogs were grateful.

Onward to Calgary

Seven hours on Trans-Canadian Highway 1 was terrific. Seriously. More rolling hills with vast canola fields of farmland. We eventually stumbled through the Canadian Badlands, which aren’t as breathtaking as the ones in the Dakotas, but it offered some much-needed visual variety at that point. Thanks to the speedy driver from New York, we were able to pace someone again, so we made good time to Calgary, flying 85 most of the way.

Quickly, the cardinal rule on pace driving … try to stay within a football field length at time. Getting closer makes it obvious you’re tailing (and can be annoying to the car being paced), and any farther negates any advantage you’ll get by pacing, mainly being the bird’s eye to any cops who are on the ready to give out speeding tickets. For the record, we saw just two cops in our 20 hours of driving.

Calgary is a really lovely city, and with 1.2 million people, it’s one of the biggest cities in Canada. Like my beloved Minneapolis, it’s a wonderful mixture of culture (a lot of Chinese influence – they even have an adorably small Chinatown) and nature.

Prince’s Island Park: This lovely park is getting renovated after the massive and destructive 2013 flood took it (and a lot of Calgary) out. It’s large, with many grassy knolls, walking and biking paths, bridges, and sculptures. It’s a lovely oasis in the middle of the city. We got lost here for a while, in the most wonderful of ways.

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The Bow River: It flows through Calgary, and due to glacial silt, it has a lovely cloudy aqua green tint to it. The chilly river flows fast and clearly gets enjoyed. Many people were dropping in rafts (think whitewater but much more low-key) to float down the river.

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The Big Cheese Poutinerie: Located in a super hipster part of town, it boasts 20ish options of the national dish of Canada: Poutine. The classic version is french fries, cheese curds, and gravy. Swindle opted for sweet potato fries, which were awesome. I had a bunch of veggies added to mine (mushrooms, onions, peas, peppers). I wish I would have opted for sweet potato fries in mine. Oh, and a small portion will do you JUST fine.

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When you Canada, you poutine. (An beer.)

Other culinary highlights:

 

  • Sweet Tooth: If you’ve never tried rolled ice cream, I recommend it. We headed to Chinatown to find this very popular shop. Basically, they take your ingredients and put it on a cold stone. Then they add this liquid (what will soon be your ice cream), and mix it all together into teeny, tiny pieces. They then use this tool to roll the thin strips of ice cream into … rolls. It’s cold and tasty!
  • Regrub Burger Bar: Regrub is just burger spelled backwards. What was going to bring us here were their insane milkshakes. If you’ve ever seen those colossal Bloody Mary bars where you can add pretty much anything you could think of as an accoutrement, that’s basically what this place does, just with the sweet variety. Alas, they close at 8pm on Sundays, so we didn’t get a chance to try it out.

One disappointing thing to learn about Calgary is that anti-dog laws were recently passed in Alberta, making it really hard to bring your dogs places … even restaurant patios. While we were able to bring them pretty much everywhere else, it was a bit of a bummer that we couldn’t sit and enjoy our poutine and beer at a restaurant with the pups. It’s a good thing we’ll be outdoors the next several days!

Onward to Banff

To say I’m over the moon excited to be outside camping and hiking these next four days is a massive understatement.

05.14.17: Final nuggets on Emirati culture

An big reason why I travel is to experience other cultures – to really get “all in.” Sure, I like to do some touristy things, but I also really try to get off the beaten path, to talk to people, to actually learn. If you know much about me, you know I’m a constant learner. So instead of going back to get another masters degree, I travel instead.

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When I travel, I like to get to know my drivers or tour guides and ask them questions. After a week or so, it’s interesting to see where there are consistencies in the different stories I’ve heard and where people embellish. I then do a little digging when I come across inconsistencies for more context. I learned a lot of interesting things on my trip to the UAE, particularly about Emiratis, Arabs, and Muslim traditions. It was a refreshingly different perspective from what I hear and see back home in the States.

The UAE’s short-ish history

Before the 1970s, Emiratis were primarily involved in agriculture and camel herding. Given it’s relatively central location near key waterways, this region also played a big part in trading. Regardless, they were for the most part poor people, literally living in tents, huts made from palm trees, or houses made from rocks, all depending on what region they lived in.

So to say the culture has come a long way in a short amount of time is no understatement. Oil in the region was discovered in the late 1960s. So when the UAE was formed in 1971 its leader, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, asked his people to give him time. He promised if they gave him time, he’d take care of them. He then lured businessmen to the area and encouraged them to invest in the region. And boy, did they ever. By the early 80s, Emirati people, who represent just ~15% of the UAE population, were suddenly extremely wealthy and living extraordinarily lavish lifestyles.

Cultural quirks of Emiratis

Status is a VERY big deal among Emiratis. When you get to the UAE, in particularly Dubai, you’ll hear a lot of “the biggest” or “the best” or “the fastest,” etc. This is intentional. Emiratis proudly boast about the UAE having the biggest, tallest, fastest, most expensive everything. This includes buildings, trains, Rolex wall clocks, chandeliers, rugs, trains, you name it! They intentionally try to be in the Guinness Book of World Records. It very much supports the idea that you’re coming to a very luxurious, lavish, over-the-top place when in the UAE.

Emiratis are described by other Arab Muslims in the area as being more conservative. They can typically be more easily spotted by what they wear. Women wear the hijab or niqab, while men wear the thobe, ghutra, and egal. While this isn’t 100% always the case, it’s a general rule of thumb that many of the locals attest to.

I wouldn’t exactly consider Emiratis environmentally conscious. While it’s extraordinarily clean (I saw one guy literally sweeping the road), they’re not big on recycling. Air conditioning is almost always jacked up to maximum velocity (we couldn’t figure out how to turn it off in our room), most people drive gas-guzzling SUVs and luxury vehicles, and people constantly leave their cars running. Part of this has to do with oil being relatively cheap at ~$1.50/gallon. When we were in the Sheikh Zayed mosque in Abu Dhabi for more than an hour, our driver kept the car running the entire time so nothing inside would get overheated. While I appreciated my candy not melting and water not getting hot, his comment captured the sentiment pretty well: “Gas is so cheap here, no one cares.” Scarcity is not yet part of the mindset.

The UAE truly takes care of its people

Ammar, our driver to Abu Dhabi, also made another poignant statement about how well Emiratis are looked after by the government: “Don’t go to the bank or call a lawyer. Go to the government – we’ll take care of you.”

Wesum, our guide on the desert safari we took, had a unique perspective who confirmed Ammar’s comment. He was born in the UAE but is of Palestinian decent; his father moved to the UAE in the 1960s to get away from the turmoil. Despite being born in the UAE, Wesum does not hold Emirati citizenship. He’s married to an Emirati woman, which gets him access to some of the benefits that are bestowed to Emiratis by the government.

Some of the benefits that are exclusive to Emiratis include:

  • Guaranteed work. Emiratis almost exclusively work all the government jobs, earning an average $50k/month (yes MONTH) and get 10% raises every year
  • Brand new (luxurious) homes every four years
  • Free top-tier education and healthcare
  • Interest free loans on anything you want
  • Exclusion from jail and prosecution
  • Each child receives 1 million dirham by the age of two and gets their own nanny

It’s no wonder the Emirati love their government so much! Sheikh Zayed delivered on his promise to take care of them.

But it also seems to come at a cost. Non-Emiratis we spoke to tend to laugh when they describe the work ethic of Emiratis. They’re described as being a bit lazy, entitled, and incapable of doing things on their own because they’ve been given everything. One guy we talked to said, “They focus their time spending a lot of money on little things and really have no idea about the value of money anymore.” A current advertising campaign in the UAE today might echo the sentiment; it encourages mothers to spend less time shopping and having fun with their friends and more time with their children and families. The main slogan of the campaign is about getting children to stop calling their nannies Mom. (Phillipino women are often nannies to Emirati children; children call their nannies Mom and their mothers by their first names.)

Marriage laws

In the UAE, every man can have up to four wives. The tradition behind it actually makes sense. It started thousands of years ago; with men going off to fight in wars there was a major shortage of men compared to the number of women. That shortage still exists today. So to compensate, men can have multiple wives. Today though, the number of wives you have is more about status. The wealthier you are, the more wives you have. (You’ll find out in a minute that having more than one wife gets expensive – quickly.)

The rules around having multiple wives are strict in the UAE and very much enforced. Parity among wives is crucial. For example, if a man buys one wife a house, the other wife (or wives) have to receive the exact same type of house. If he buys one wife a car, every other wife must get the same car in the same model, size, etc. Same thing goes for jewelry, vacations, gifts, you name it – it’s all gotta be equal. These rules apply to everyone in the UAE, regardless of nationality. 

There are a couple other rules about having multiple wives for Emiratis:

  • The first wife must be an Emirati, otherwise, the man loses all the support from the government.
  • Wives 2-4 can be non-Emirati. They receive full citizenship (including government benefits) after five years of marriage but must give up their existing nationality.

From what I gathered from the six Arab, non-Emirati, Muslim men I talked to, it’s typically only the Emirati men who have multiple wives (2-3 on average). Other Muslim men in the UAE have one, and seem very much okay with that. Non-Muslim westerners stick to western norms when it comes to marriage. See my earlier post for more details about dating and marriage in the UAE.

An interesting contrast to this: Emirati women who marry non-Emirati men (which is on the rise in the UAE) lose the marriage fund (dowry) and cannot pass on Emirati citizenship to their husbands or children. While there is some discontent about this and talk about changing it, it’s unlikely this rule will change any time soon.

Perspectives on immigration

Emirati’s attitudes towards immigrants are positive, at least more positive than seems to be the case than the rest of the world. There are certainly limitations for immigrants in the country, but with things like free education and healthcare (not as good as what Emiratis get, but still good coverage), the less privileged are somewhat taken care of by the government. Their life is by no means easy and some work in pretty deplorable conditions, but the plight of immigrants in the UAE is similar to what many immigrants face elsewhere. The biggest difference, in the UAE immigrants make up 85% of the population, so the government (and Emiratis) seem to better appreciate the contributions of immigrants and understand that their way of life couldn’t be possible without them.

The UAE is going to change a lot by 2020

The 2020 World Expo is a BIG thing to the Emiratis. There are many, many projects going on that are scheduled to be completed by then. (President Drumpf currently has three projects in the UAE, one being a golf club, of course.) The government-led construction company, Emmar (pronounced eh-mar) handles the majority of the projects. Any project done by Emmar brands its buildings with the name (rather than the companies that occupy the building), so you see Emmar everywhere.

The UAE will look very different in just a short amount of time. I’m interested in coming back to this country, period. It’s an exciting, sexy country with a lot of things to explore. To me, it will be interesting to come back after the World Expo to see just how much has changed.

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05.13.17: High tea in world’s highest restaurant

It’s not too often I’m going to spend time writing about a meal. (I’ll leave that to the food bloggers.) But the experience of high/afternoon tea in the Burj Khalifa is worth its own commentary. I mean, it included gilded desserts … meaning they actually had edible gold on them!

Here’s what you’ll experience (and some tips on how to go about it).

Make a reservation at At.Mosphere

The wonder of high tea goes down at At.Mosphere, which is the world’s highest restaurant. It’s located on the 122nd floor of the Burj Khalifa. It’s quite easy to make a reservation via their website. They’ll email and text your confirmations. The email will also provide instructions on how to access the restaurant. Making a reservation gives you expedited access to the Burj Khalifa at no extra cost.

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Head to the Armani Hotel at the Burj Khalifa

Yeah, THAT Armani has a hotel, where rooms can get up to $40,000 a night. It lives up to what you’d expect. As we drove up, we passed several parked cars of models like Rolls Royce, Astin Martin, Bentley, Maybach, Mercedes. (Our Uber was a Lexus, so we didn’t feel too out of place!) Doormen opened our car doors and then another set of doormen were on the ready to welcome us to the hotel. Once entering, it smelled incredible and was impeccably decorated and designed. The soft lounge music playing in the background added to the unavoidably sexy vibe of the place.

We were no more than two steps in when an attractive woman greeted us. After explaining we had a reservation for afternoon tea, she walked us to the elevator we needed to take to get to the restaurant check-in.

Just two floors down was a check-in desk where two women who resembled models and were clad in black dresses (that I can only assume are Armani). After greeting us, one confirmed our reservation before the other escorted us to the express elevator.

So far, so good. 

A quick elevator ride up 123 floors

You access At.Mosphere via the 123rd floor. My ears popped several times during the smooth, 60-second ride up. Once there, we were directed to walk down a grand staircase to be greeted by the host table (that’s of course staffed by more ridiculously good-looking people clad in black Armani). The first few steps down were a little trippy, as thanks to the glass windows that surround the staircase, your eyes are quickly realizing how high up you are. The good thing – you’ll adjust quickly.

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We were led to our window table which offered some insane views of Dubai. From 122 floors up, the surrounding 50-story buildings were completely dwarfed.

Champagne to start

A bottle of sparkling wine comes with high tea, but you can upgrade to a variety of champagne offerings, which we of course did. Fareed greeted brought us our champagne and then left it in an ice bucket at our table.

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First course: Gold (and berries and cream)

Afternoon tea starts with a martini glass filled with a mixture of blueberries, raspberries, and strawberries that are sandwiched between layers of coconut-infused whipped cream. On top of that is a mint leaf and flecks of edible gold. It was a nice, light start, especially with the bubbly.

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Next up: Finger sandwiches

There were six options that included smoked salmon, cucumber, caprese, tuna salad, egg salad, and chicken salad. None of these were as ordinary as they sound. They’re very accommodating to dietary restrictions so Kristen had no issues with her shellfish/seafood allergy and I was a-okay as a pescatarian. Vegetarians can also do well.

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The main course

This is more like a small plate offering, but given it’s served during high tea it’s considered a main course. I tried the seared scallop with a cauliflower purée, while Kristen enjoyed chicken with a potato purée. It was light and lovely.

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Tea for two. And two for tea. And dessert!

The tea offerings were plentiful, some 50 or so available. I tried two different teas, each of which was prepared and the presented in a lovely way:

  • 1837 White: White tea with notes of fruit and flowers from the Bermuda Triangle that left an aftertaste of wild berries and anise (this was my favorite!)
  • Earl Grey d’Amour: A light aromatic tea blended with black tea, bergamot, wild flowers, and white tea blossoms

Then came a lovely towering tray of various desserts, many of which were also topped with edible gold flecks. From madelines, to macaroons, to scones, to other insane delicacies, the options were amazing. I think we were most enamored with the house-made butter and raspberry jam. Neither of us are “sweets” people, but we ate every single thing on the tray. There was no way we couldn’t.

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A pricy meal, but a worthy experience

Did I love it? Clearly. Would I do it again? Absolutely not. It starts at $135/person. With the window table and champagne upgrades, it came to about $175/person. It was worthy every.single.penny, so I’m definitely not complaining, but I wouldn’t do it again. This is one of those “once and done” things that I highly recommend you try. A special thanks to my friend Joy for the recommendation; it was a highlight of the trip!

5.12.17: Clothes, shopping, drinking, and dating in the UAE

I’ll fill you in on my takes and tidbits on Emirati culture later. For now, I’ll offer some insights into some things that really puzzled us either before we got to the UAE or once we got here.

On a quick note, I learned last night that me + Arabian coffee + sheesha = no way in hell I’m getting ANY sleep. Part of the casualties of being a travel warrior, I guess.

What to wear

This was probably the biggest question we had before getting to the UAE. The last thing I wanted was to be an ignorant tourist. “What to wear” is likely more of an issue if you’re a woman. If you do any research on the internet, there are a lot of contradictions. When you find one source that says to be conservative, you’ll find another one that says not to worry and just wear what you want.

We erred on the side of caution, and I’m glad we did. Our wardrobe consisted of long and cropped linen pants, long-sleeve button down linen shirts, t-shirts that didn’t show too much cleavage, long dresses, and scarves. We blended in and were pretty comfortable in the heat.

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Here’s some things that we observed that could help:

  • Abu Dhabi v. Dubai: Stick to more conservative attire in the more conservative city of Abu Dhabi. Just be prepared for sweltering humidity to go with the heat. Consider bringing cooling towels that you can wrap around your neck if you need to be outside.
  • At the beach or pool: Wear any swimsuit you want. Just bring a coverup for when you’re ready to head back to your car, room, etc. Maxi dresses can be your best friend.
  • Walking around the streets: Pretty much anything goes, from shorts and tank tops to something more. Some of the locals we met said, “Emiratis need to be more accepting if they want to be a tourist destination.” While I agree, I’m about experiencing the culture, not forcing mine down their throat. You’ll be fine in whatever you wear. Personally, I’m not donning shorts and tank tops.
  • Beating the heat: Loose linen will be your best friend. I wore long-sleeve linen shirts and linen pants in 106-degree heat and stayed relatively cool. (It was great in the desert at night when it gets down to 95 degrees.) Form-fitting cotton will be your enemy.
  • At the mall: Dubai Mall is much less conservative than the Mall of the Emirates, so anything goes at the Dubai Mall (even at night, see below!). While no one will say anything to you at the Mall of the Emirates, you’ll stick out (not in a comfortable way) if you don’t have your knees and shoulders covered.
  • A night on the town: This is where you see a lot of variety. We headed to the Dubai Mall for dinner, drinks, and “scenery.” I wore a halter jumpsuit that bared my shoulders and Kristen wore a long-ish dress that showed some cleavage; we fit in just fine. We saw a group of club-bound gals opting for tight, short, and cleavage. If you’re just going to dinner, stick to something just a tad more conservative. I could have worn a short, flowy dress with a sheer kimono and felt sexy, yet respectfully covered.

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How to shop

If you head to the souks, it’s definitely a bartering society. This means two things:

  • You can get 75% discounts (or more)
  • You will have people aggressively in your face, whether you’re interested in something or not

I shared my sentiments about the crazy art of bartering when I was in Morocco a few years ago. Simplest advice when you head to the souks: Dress down. The vendors size you up the second they see you, and if you look expensive, their first offer to you is going to be really high. Just make sure you know the maximum you want to pay before you start bartering … and start way below that, even if it’s 95% less than their initial offer. (My brother bought a rug in Morocco for $350. The vendor’s initial offer was $5,000!)

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Kristen and I apparently looked like ladies on the hunt for bags, despite being in the spice and gold souks. I’m not exaggerating when I say pretty much every guy who came up to us showed us a picture of bags and then went through his list of designers at turbo speed: Michael Kors, Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Kate Spade, etc. If you’ve ever seen the Disney rendition of Aladdin (pronounced El-Adeen), you may remember a scene where Jasmine is walking through the souk and a guy yells at her: “Sugar dates! Sugar dates and figs! Sugar dates and pistachioooos!” That’s pretty much how we felt, but this time the topic was “designer” handbags.

The Dubai Mall and Mall of the Emirates have pretty much everything you could think of. From designer (Carolina Herrera, Christian Louboutain, Dior, etc) to everything else you could imagine, it’s there. Plus, there are some fun, out of the ordinary highlights at each.

A massive aquarium and ice skating rink await you at the Dubai Mall.

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Go skiing and play life-size Monopoly at the Mall of the Emirates.

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Drinking in Dubai

Many restaurants serve drinks. Just know that you’ll pay a premium for them. I ordered three vodka cucumber drinks and Kristen ordered three spicy margaritas at the Karma Kafe in the Dubai Mall. Our tab for those six drinks was nearly $150, which was more than our food.

While most Muslims in the UAE opt for coffee and cigarettes over alcohol, know that so long you’re not acting like a complete fool, you won’t be treated like a fool for drinking.

Dating in Dubai

We of course asked our local tour guides about dating. It’s different between the more conservative Emirati and other muslims. Legally, Muslim men in the UAE can have up to four wives, but there are strict rules around this. (I’ll share more in a future update.)

  • Emirati men: Basically, once he’s interested in getting married, he tells his mom, who then reaches out to her social circle for any prospects. The potential couple then meets with the whole family and those two decide if they like each other. They can date as long as they want, but cannot be alone anywhere together until they’re engaged. Once engaged, the families talk about the terms of the marriage (basically, a dowry for her). After that’s settled, they’re officially engaged and can go out together alone in public. It’s only until the 1-week to 1-month long wedding ceremony is over that they can live together as husband and wife.
  • Other Muslim men: All our tour guides were men (but were Arab Muslims from different countries), and they all seemed to be unified in saying that they have less dating restrictions. They can flirt and approach women as they want.

Funny story: We sat on the patio at the Karma Kafe to enjoy the scenery, including the people, the Burj Khalifa, and the water fountain. When we walked back inside to leave for the night, there was an AMAZING looking brown-haired, bearded, Tarzan-channeling Western man who was on.the.PROWL. He was with friends but was targeting his gaze (and body) out on every female who walked past him. He made zero attempt to hide that he was checking us out. I smiled, nodded, and winked as we walked out. Sexy as hell, but WAY too cocky.

That brings me to how men treat women. I hear a lot of interesting conversation in America about Arab or Muslim men. The usual sentiment is that “they treat their women like shit.” I’m by no means an expert, but after visiting two Arab countries where the majority religion is Muslim, I can say that personally, I feel the men here are incredibly respectful of women. They don’t ogle, make cat calls, and definitely don’t do any unwanted touching. They are kind, courteous, well-mannered, and really treat you like a human. I’ve been all over the world and can say I felt more safe among a group of men here in the UAE than I have when in a group surrounded by a bunch of Western men. Truth be told, Western men could learn a lot.

Disclaimer: These are my cultural observations

Again, everything noted above were based on my (and Kristen’s) observations as people who’ve been all over the world. We intentionally ask a lot of questions for two reasons:

  • To make sure we’re agreeing with the local customs
  • We’re just really curious people

So if you’re concerned or have questions about anything I wrote, I’m happy to chat with you about it. But also remember, everyone is entitled to my opinion … I mean your opinion.  😉

05.11.17: Sand dune crashing and vintage Land Rovers in the desert

In case you thinking we haven’t had any down time, we have. Yesterday and today started with a couple hours spent in the rooftop pool. Today, we also took a cab ride to see iconic the Burj al Arab and dip our feet in the warm Persian Gulf waters before spending a little time at the super posh Mall of the Emirates (which I’ll update you on later).

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These nice, slow starts to the day made sure we had energy we for sure were spending getting into shenanigans in the desert. The intense heat definitely takes a lot out of you by the end of the day. Despite falling asleep by 11pm, we’ve needed alarms to wake us up at 8am and 9am.

These last two days in the desert were a perfect ending to what I can only describe as a fantasy.

Day 1 in the desert: Sand dune crashing

Tours for sand dune crashing are easy to find, both when you get here and in advance. (We booked in advance.) Six of us were buckled into a white Land Cruiser and were driven about 45 minutes outside Dubai to the Lahbab Desert, which creeps up on the border of Oman. As we approached the red sandy desert, we became one among a sea of other white Land Cruisers.

IMG_0953After deflating the tires a bit and getting the music ready (literally), our driver just … took off, along with about 10 other cars. It seemed like a race to get to the head of the pack, but once the line was formed, we were in our spot, following the path, but each experiencing a different ride. Going 40 mph over uneven, tall sand dunes left for a thrilling, bouncy, laugh-filled ride. Sand went flying everywhere. I had a front seat view, and I swear we were going to topple over a few times, but he clearly knew how to control the vehicle. At one point, we took one crazy sideways turn and the tire popped off the rim! Less than five minutes later, he had it fixed and we were back on our way.

After an hour or so, we eventually arrived to a tent where we enjoyed a lovely sunset, were entertained by fire and belly dancers, smoked sheesha, held a falcon, and ate dinner. When we got back to our hotel, we found sand everywhere. When I say everywhere, I mean EVERYWHERE.

Day 2: A luxury desert safari experience

There’s a reason this tour company is rated #1 on Trip Advisor and is where celebrities head to. Every detail was done to perfection. We lucked out by getting Wesam as our tour guide, who is the team lead of the tour group. He’s a big reason we had such a wonderful experience.

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What our day included:

  • Getting traditional shela head wraps to protect our hair and face from the desert sands
  • Hopping aboard a light green 1961 Land Rover that brought us through the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve and had me thinking I was part of Lawrence of Arabia all day
  • Watching a falcon display its amazing hunting techniques
  • Sipping sparkling date juice as we watched a gorgeous sunset
  • Making camp at a luxurious camp site where we lounged while smoking more sheesha, got henna tattoos, rode camels, watched an insane fire show, and ate a delicious meal

I can’t even begin to describe how wonderful everything was. I’m really glad this was how we ended our holiday. At $150, it was more than worth it. We even paid an extra $75 to get a few photos and fantastic video recap. If you make it to Dubai, work through Platinum Heritage Tours. They know what they’re doing, and you’ll have an incredible experience. Everyone is attentive, jokes with you, and makes sure you’re comfortable and enjoying yourself. It truly was the PERFECT ending to trip that I can only describe as a living fantasy.

05.10.17: Fast cars, gold, history, and one big mosque in Abu Dhabi

If jet lagging didn’t hold us down a few days ago, the 106-degree heat, hot sun, and oasis-driven humidity of Abu Dhabi (compared to the dry desert of Dubai) thoroughly kicked our asses yesterday. Even Ammar (pronounced uh-mar), our Jordanian driver, was profusely sweating through it all, which for some reason made me feel a little better about feeling like a damp noodle all day. He provided a remarkable history and culture lesson on the drive to Abu Dhabi, which I’ll fill you in on later.

The capital city of the UAE definitely didn’t disappoint. So much wonder and even more wealth.

First stop: Formula One and Ferraris

Technically, we first stopped at a place to learn about dates, which are widely consumed in the UAE, often with coffee. I bought a package of nut-filled dates that are covered in dark chocolate that were surprisingly delicious.

Formula One racing is a pretty big deal in the UAE, so we headed to the Yas Marina circuit track. There’s an option to get a lesson with a professional driver and then take four laps around in either a small Formula One race car, the faster Mercedes, the even faster Jaguar, or the fastest Astin Martin. At $160 for the Astin Martin, I seriously considered it until I learned that there’s no AC and you finish drenched in sweat. I was sweaty enough already and knew we had a long day ahead of us. I passed.

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Just a quarter mile away is the architectural marvel that is Ferrari World. True to its name, it’s everything Ferrari, from branded Formula One cars, to its latest model, to some of the vintage race cars, to so much more. One of the biggest attractions is the world’s fastest rollercoaster. It’s huge and super fast, the fastest in the world, clocking in at a whopping 140 kmph (85 mph)! We didn’t have time to try it out. Plus, entrance tickets were around $100. No thanks.

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Next up: Emirates Palace Hotel

What was once the palace of Sheikh Zayed (the first UAE president) is now a 7-star hotel for people to enjoy. His son, who is now Sheikh, has since moved to an even bigger and more luxurious palace about a mile away where he lives with his first wife. His second wife lives in the Emirates Palace, because there’s this whole “equal thing” with the wives, which I’ll get to later. The family are lovers of gold, which is apparent in the decor. Gold. Is. EVERYWHERE. And it’s not gold paint … it’s actual gold. You can even get gold from the ATMs! Upon entering the palace, you see a giant Rolex clock on the wall. Yep, made of gold and is the world’s most expensive Rolex. The palace was massive, impressive even. It was hard to believe that its original purpose was to be a home.

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Third stop: Heritage Village

Heritage Village is where you come to see how Emirati used to live. There were three main house types recreated at the site.

  1. Rock houses, if you lived in the mountains
  2. Tents woven from camel hair, for those living in the desert (like Dubai)
  3. Palm huts, if you lived near a water source or oasis (like those in Abu Dhabi)

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It didn’t seem so significant until we were reminded that people were living this way until as recent as the 1970s. Compared to the ultra lavish lifestyle they now live, it’s very interesting.

Lastly: Sheikh Zayed Mosque (the new one)

Apparently, there’s an old and new one. The new one took 10 years to build and was opened to the public in 2007. It’s the fourth-largest mosque in the world, but at 1.5 billion dirham, was one of the most expensive to build. It boasts the world’s most expensive chandelier and the world’s largest rug, which cost $20 million. It’s silk, and it’s BIG. The inside of the mosque is massive, about the size of two football fields. Muslims pray on mats or rugs, so if the government is going to provide it, it’s going to be pretty big … and as they often do, they make sure it’s the best for its people.

IMG_0748There are very strict dress codes for women who enter the mosque. We did a lot of research before we left, thinking our baggy pants, shirts, and scarves would be sufficient. Alas, they weren’t and were given brown dress robes to put on. They’re comfy and made us feel like we were Jedi knights, which gave us a good giggle. So if you ever get a chance to visit this mosque, don’t bother worrying about what to wear. Just put on the robe they give you. Trust me when I say it’s a lot easier.

The mosque is absolutely beautiful, with lots of ornate tile work and decorative elements throughout. Two surprisingly wonderful things happened once we were inside the mosque:

  • Marble floors. The entire mosque looks like it’s made out of marble. The floors and pillars for sure are. Before you enter the mosque, you remove your shoes and place them on beautiful wood shelves. Wearing dress robes in the stiflingly hot and humid in Abu Dhabi, especially wearing dress robes, so maybe you can imagine the relief we felt when our bare feet touched the cold floors. It was an immediate air conditioning unit that we so badly needed.
  • Chanting. In what felt like a serendipitous moment, the near instant our feet touched the rug, the chanting over the speaker system started. Our mouths gaped in awe; it was so beautifully surreal. Sure, I’m an atheist, but it doesn’t mean I’m immune to being moved by some of the beautiful rituals that come along with many religions. The experience was transient, awesome, so many things. I felt to lucky to part of it.

If you ever make it to the UAE, be sure to make it to Abu Dhabi, and for sure go to this mosque. In hindsight, I would have spent the night for one main reason – to see the mosque at night, which is then apparently illuminated to a gorgeous blue.

05.08.17: Seeing (and eating!) gold – and that’s not even the opulent part

What. A. Day. Jet lag had NOTHING on us today. (Well, I guess technically it did, but we gave it a run for its money!) From witnessing it to partaking in it, the opulence of this day was astounding. I have to break this day up into a few different posts – it was seriously that incredible.

A quick highlight/recap of today’s punch list:

  • Realizing you can hail a chopper, as in helicopter, on Uber
  • Learning about the complex, meditative ritual Muslims take before entering a mosque
  • Checking out the oldest (and first) air conditioning system
  • Getting harangued to buy handbags in a spice souk
  • Seeing gold in the gold souk, including the world’s biggest gold ring
  • Eating gold in the world’s highest restaurant in the world’s tallest building
  • Being mesmerized by shenanigans on an ice skating rink and by a derpy shark in massive aquarium – both in one of the world’s largest shopping malls
  • Touching the softest, silkiest, most beautiful rug ever
  • Seeing a guy buy his girlfriend a customized $250k Tesla SUV at that same mall

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Now, on to some crazy stats about the United Arab Emirates …

A truly multicultural nation

The UAE was originally going to consist of nine emirates, but Qatar and Bahrain declined, so in 1971, the seven emirates merged together to found the UAE. Each emirate has a sheikh, which more or less serves as the respective emirate’s president. There’s also a crown prince for each emirate. Each sheikh votes for the UAE president and vice president; Abu Dhabi’s sheikh is the UAE president and Dubai’s is the vice. There are 9 million people in the UAE, only 10% are Emiraties, the rest are foreigners who represent 200+ countries. Yes, 200+! In the Middle East, there are many different languages, with Arabic being the dominant one. So as a compromise, the two main languages spoken in the UAE are Arabic and, surprisingly, English. English has a more visible prominence in almost everything you see.

Oil pays for a lot

Abu Dhabi is the capital, and holds 94% of the oil reserves of the UAE. Dubai has the most people, with two million, but holds just 4% of the UAE oil reserves. Dubai will be hosting the world expo in 2020, which will draw some 40 million tourists to the city that year, up from the normal 13 million. Construction of beautifully ornate, complexly designed skyscrapers is going on everywhere to prepare and accommodate the influx of people. The revenue from the oil reserves will help fund all the infrastructure projects, including building the new Creek Harbour building, which will be 100 meters taller than the Burj Khalifa (already the world’s tallest building). Surprisingly, revenues received from construction crane purchases, which Dubai has a 25% market share of, will also help pay for all the work going on.

Cars are cheap, but those license plate prices are brutal

There are no duty taxes paid on any foreign cars, from Bentley, Ferrari, Rolls Royce, Mercedes, BMW, etc. As Wael, our Egyptian tour guide said, “Getting cars is cheap, it’s getting the license plate that’s expensive.” Cars are status symbols, but a low number license plate number is an even bigger sign of status. Having a single digit license plate (as opposed to a five-digit one) is a BIG deal. A couple years ago, a businessman in Abu Dhabi paid $13 million for the #1 license plate! An Indian businessman recently paid $9 million for the #5 license plate in Dubai. I can’t even.

I’ll get into the finer details of the adventures we partook in. I’ll just leave it at today being a really surreal day.