Sunday, October 19, 2003

my first birthday in Beirut

Lucky to have celebrated my birthday with my partner and new friends from the neighbourhood, from my Lebanese Arabic class (what a tough, but rewarding course that is!), from Maus Haus (from where we got some of our coolest furniture, and some of our coolest friends!), and to celebrate with Mexican food (yes, even "chongos zamoranos"!) and a surprise cake. Sitting on the floor, enjoying the wonderful Beiruti October weather...  

Thursday, October 16, 2003

Dubai – of luxury and oases

Sadly, my partner had to leave Dubai so I could focus on the work ahead. But not before we had one final super special experience! 

You see, Burj Al Arab (برج العرب‎), that sail-shaped luxurious hotel I mentioned in my previous post, had this very special restaurant with a huge aquarium and a setting to, in theory, make you feel you're underwater. So, why not? A nice lunch for us both? We figured we could splurge just a wee bit on it and I booked a table at Al Mahara (the restaurant). 

We got there a bit early, so before lunch we went for some views at the hotel's Al Muntaha Bar on the 27th floor for a pre-lunch drink and, especially, for amazing – if a bit too bright and sunny? – views of the emirate by the sea...

After that, we headed down to the Al Mahara. Which is on the second floor of the hotel. But once you get there, you're ushered into a "submarine" that will take you to the "underwater" restaurant. Of course, this is all just theatre, and you're shown images and played sounds as if you were actually traversing the ocean to reach the restaurant. It was cute. Super kitschy, but cute. And then, the restaurant. At this point I'm wondering how I forgot to take a photo? I guess I was just impressed and excited? In the very middle stood a huge aquarium with all sorts of sea creatures. Like, immense. I read it contains some 2.5 million litres of water. It's the definite centrepiece, and the tables around (just two rows of tables, so everybody gets  a view) a mere afterthought for the show in the middle.  

And then, lunch. Impeccable service – then again, we know next to nothing about service at a luxury place. Delicious seafood – also, once again, no experts, but we found it really good. And the most delicious and incredible dessert I've ever had, some sort of pudding/pastry, creamy but light, with every bite containing many layers of wonderful flavours revealing themselves in order... Yeah, I know, what a corny description, lucky I don't make a living from writing dish reviews! Again, I was so into this meal I took no photos, as you can see.

Happy from our "underwater" and delectable experience, we had a walk around, getting some views of the Jumeirah Hotel nearby, and one last view of Burj Al Arab.

And then, my partner had to leave for his flight. But I still had a few hours of daylight, and I had to make the most of it – I took another tour, this one to the valleys and oases near Oman! Being in such an extreme environment, seeing the vegetation and then the crystal clear and refreshing waters of oases was simply amazing! And I even got to had a swim in one of them! So guilty my partner missed this! 

At night, and to prepare my mind for the work ahead, I headed to the creek for a nice, calm view of Dubai by night.

A very short trip, to a very curious corner of our planet. Happy to have had the chance to experience this side of the world.

Wednesday, October 15, 2003

Dubai – the metropolis

Our first day around Dubai was all about the desert. The second day? All about this super wealthy city! Dubai is the most populous city in the Emirates, and it thrives on trade, commerce, even tourism! Plus, there are tons of foreigners working and living here, making up some 80-90% of the total population of the emirate. Crazy!

Since the heat was simply too intense for us to explore on our own, we joined a city tour. Absolutely worth it. Especially because of the AC in the bus! 

One of the highlights was one of the emirates most iconic buildings – Burj al-Arab (برج العرب‎‎). It stands on an artificial island, it's shaped like a sail, and is one of the most luxurious hotels in the world. I read you can get rooms that come with a butler? Ah, but the beach you see there? Not something to enjoy as part of your stay, I'm afraid. We dipped our feet in the water. Like dipping your feet in soup! So warm! Yuck!

We also saw the Jumeirah Mosque (مسجد جميرا), done in a Fatimid style. The tour didn't include a visit inside, though, so we could only admire from outside.

Then we went to Dubai Creek (خور دبي), a saltwater creek dividing the city into Deira and Bur Dubai. I liked the look of the modern buildings on the other side against the steel blue waters...

We also visited the Al Bastakiya District (البستكية‎), a historical district from the end of the 19th century that barely escaped total demolition. The curious thing about this area is that you find traditional buildings that allowed for cooling through the use of clever ventilation systems (which I am unable to explain). Hopefully this could provide for a less energy-intensive model for cooling spaces? We also visited the Dubai Museum (متحف دبي) and Al Fahidi Fort (فناء حصن الفهيدي) but, quite frankly, we felt like a quick peek was more than enough.

The tour ended with a nice boat tour along the canal, leaving us afterwards at the Souk (سوق), where you could see all the gold and jewels you – us – would never be able to buy. But at least we got to see some women with traditional face masks, maybe even made of gold?

Now, after that, we still visited some malls (rather boring) and bookshops (even more boring, given the restrictions on what can be sold here). But we were definitely in the mood for a drink with a view at Bar 47, in The Emirates Towers (أبراج الإمارات‎). Oh, and yes, of course you can drink alcohol here! What you can't do is enter a bar or a club dressed in traditional Emirati garb. Well, in theory, an Emirati shouldn't be going to bars in the first place but, once you change into western clothes, how could anybody know you're a local? Hence it's more a question of attire than anything.

Anyhow, we went up to the bar, enjoyed some fancy cocktails in a fancy setting with fancy views of the surrounding city... And on the way down, we had the scare of our life! Because at some point the lift crosses one of the floors in such a way that gives the total optical illusion that you're about to crash into a floor! Pretty cool, once we recovered!

Not too bad for our second day. And indeed, what a curious place... I'd find the film and reading selection rather frustrating were we staying here long-term. Then again, I'm sure locals do find ways to have tons of fun... Anyhow, we still had next day for some more exploring...

Tuesday, October 14, 2003

Dubai – the desert

The good thing about my work is that I not only get to live in other countries, but that I also get to discover fantastic places in the vicinity, both for pleasure and work! And so it happened that, unlike our trips to Syria and Turkey, which were for pleasure, I got to visit the United Arab Emirates – well, specifically, the Emirate of Dubai – for work! And, of course, I was not going to leave my partner behind, right? I mean, miss this opportunity? 

Welcome to the Emirate of Dubai

Anyhow, the experience started right on arrival. This was probably the most visibly international airport I had ever seen! And remember we had a stop-over in Amsterdam when we moved to Beirut! But as we approached customs in Dubai, the flights board was full of countless cities in Africa, the Middle East, all of Asia... it was absolutely mind-boggling. And then the people! All sorts of national dresses, headgear, ethnicities... Really, what an experience!

The other thing that was sort of crazy was when we arrived at our hotel. From airport to hotel we didn't experience any weather, as we were inside enclosed spaces with AC. But once we arrived to the hotel and got off the car? I felt this gust of warm air, as if I were standing next to some exhaust vent of sorts. Nothing. It was just your normal, middle of the night, warm October "breeze". Yikes! 

Desert tour!

Fortunately, I had asked for a couple days off so I could spend some time with my partner exploring Dubai. And what did we do before anything else? We went on a desert tour! Woohoo! This was amazing! Had never done anything like this ever! We went dune bashing! It's like being on a roller coaster, but so much better! The thrill! The driving full speed up and down the dunes! Awesome! Loved it. Totally.

Then, at the end of the day, a gorgeous sunset in the desert. Stunning. In fact, my partner decided to do some Taichi on a dune at this time. No better place and time than this, right?

This was followed by a rather kitschy night party. But hey, at least it was fun kitsch, with belly dancers – did your eyes just roll over all the way to your nape? – and a buffet and black henna tattoos and a night ride on a camel and... best of all? "sandboarding?" "dune surfing?" Well, whatever, hopping on something akin to a snowboard and sliding down the dunes! You had to get it right, or you'd get stuck midway (after all, this was sand, not snow, not water). But still, who would've thought, right?

Very curious place, this emirate called Dubai. Completely different from anything else we had seen in the Middle East. And we still had a couple of days to explore some more...