“The World is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.” – Saint Augustine
I’ve said it before. If money was no object and I could do anything I wanted, I would hit the road, travel the world and see as much of it as possible before I die. I don’t want things so much as I want experiences, adventure, excitement, novelty and the beauty of the unexpected and unfamiliar, all of which comes neatly bound in the package that is open-minded travel. Is there somewhere you really want to go but your partner or spouse doesn’t want to travel? Call me. I’m your travel wingman. But make sure you’re serious before asking me to join you because chances are that I can make it happen.
My brother was visiting in April, and a few glasses into a wine-soaked dinner he mentioned that he was heading to Abu Dhabi for business.
Me: “I want to go! I am dying to see that part of the world, plus I have friends in Dubai who have been asking me to come visit for years.”
Jimmy: “You should come”
I looked over at Steve and said, “Babe, what do you think? Can we work this out?” Steve, ever the supportive spouse where my wanderlust is concerned said he thought we could, and the next day I was booking a ticket to travel half-way around the world for a week in the Middle East.
(Lisle made this for me. She said this was how I was going to look while I was there.)
I suspect Steve had a touch of buyer’s remorse after agreeing to hold down the fort while I went gallivanting since it was starting to sink in just how much he would have to juggle to get the kids where they needed to go on top of his busy work schedule. Steve’s most repeated comment thereafter was, “I’m not sure how good an idea it is to send a mouthy blonde to the Middle East. Hope she doesn’t get herself into trouble.”
The trip came up quickly, and as I started to tell friends where I was going, more than one said something like, “Wow! Be safe. Hope you come back with your head.” Gotta love the reflexive American worry over all things Middle East. Clearly, there are reasoned considerations one should make when headed to that part of the globe, but I wasn’t traveling to the wild frontiers of Pakistan, or even to Riyadh for that matter, I was visiting the United Arab Emirates, splitting time between Dubai and Abu Dhabi. In truth, it felt less dangerous than parts of Atlanta.
Anyway, enough jawboning. Here’s how the trip went down. It was a Dubai sandwich – a little Abu Dhabi with my brother on both ends, and the touristy meatyness of Dubai with friends in the middle. Someone back home who saw my photos on Facebook said she thought I was there by myself, which made her think I had serious balls to be traveling to the Middle East alone. I told her I wished I could take that kind of credit but mine just aren’t that big because, though I traveled to and from there alone, once on the ground in UAE my aloneness ended. It was still an adventure, but not the same one a completely solo trip would have been.
Having pulled what amounted to an all-nighter traveling for 18+ hours from Atlanta to Abu Dhabi via Amsterdam, I was tired and slightly nervous about arriving companionless in an airport I didn’t know in the Middle East, navigating immigration, and getting myself to the hotel where I would meet my brother. As it turned out, worry was unnecessary (as is often the case) – everything was well-ordered, clean, and pretty. This was the first thing I saw when I got off of the plane and made it into the terminal in Abu Dhabi.
Welcome to the Arabian aesthetic – colorful, beautiful, embellished with gold, the opposite of understated.
The impassive official looked me over and, with a stamp to my passport, decided to let me enter the country. I was soon cabbing it to the hotel, unexpectedly accompanied by the familiar thump of Flo Rida’s Low on the radio as the Bangladeshi driver rattled off things I should see in Abu Dhabi. Let me just say how nice it is to piggy-back your frivolous vacation onto your brother’s totally official business trip. His company put him up in what is THE NICEST Ritz Carlton I have seen. Guess who got the best end of this deal? I assure you I would not have been staying there had I been paying for accommodations. Here are a few shots of the Venetian-inspired hotel which opened six months ago. It was gorgeous. The customer service is at a level above what I’ve experienced in the U.S. When it came time to go, I didn’t want to leave.
Rolling up to an unfamiliar place to the sound of someone you adore greeting you takes the edge off of feeling like a stranger in a strange land. I got out of the cab to my brother’s loud, excited, Southern drawl saying, “CHRRRRIIIISSSSYYYY!! I’m so glad you’re here!”, followed by a big, ol’ American hug. I felt slightly more aware of our public display of affection in front of the covered-up Emiratis. Then off we went to drop luggage, grab a glass of wine and catch up. Abu Dhabi seems more conservative than Dubai but most hotel chains and their restaurants are oases of relaxed Western standards and drinks are readily available. I’m pretty sure some of the locals appreciate those relaxed standards as much as the foreign guests do.
We walked out to the front of the hotel grounds with our wine and marveled at the immense Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque situated directly across from the hotel and stunning when lit up at night. We made seeing it our first priority the following day after Jimmy’s work obligations had been met. The mosque is beautiful and over the top in terms of its finishes. It reminded me of cathedrals in Europe so grand and beautiful in their physical testament to God that they pull the reverence right to the surface of you. How fortunate I am to have seen it first hand.
While there, I wore an abaya for the first time, which is the traditional, black, gauzy robe and matching head scarf worn by a Muslim woman to ensure she is covered except for her face, hands and feet. All women entering the mosque were required to be covered in this way. The mosque has an abaya room so one will be provided to you if necessary. The men, of course, weren’t required thusly. Though many who visited the mosque and were Muslim and wore kandouras (the male version of the abaya), (photo credit: khaleejesque.com)many families were made up of Arab men in western dress sporting cool shades, tight short sleeved t-shirts and jeans, and walking a few paces in front of their traditionally-dressed, fully-covered wives. It made me appreciate my good fortune in the cosmic lottery of being born female in America.
All that being swathed in black as the temperature headed toward 104 degrees meant getting poolside pronto was the next thing on the day’s agenda. Here’s how things looked at the pool: abayas versus mankinis. (There was one lady in the pool in a burkini, but I couldn’t get a shot of her without being rude.)
The UAE is nothing if not a study in contrasts with a whole lot of East crashing into West. I wish I had video, for example, of the robed Emirati dancing by himself but looking around the room trying to will a partner to join him as he swayed to the thumping music the DJ was spinning at the Jazz and Fizz Club. (Actually, I just recognized a fellow human having a good time and wanting to connect.) There was no jazz but a whole lot of fizz in that club, like another Emirati in his kandoura drinking at the bar with a heavily made up pro in a mini-skirt on his arm. He was definitely going to score that night. Sex work is alive and well in Abu Dhabi. The night I arrived, we almost went to 49ers, a western (as in Texas flag hanging on the wall, barrel-topped tables, and cowboy hats) themed restaurant / dance club at the top of a hotel, and a known haunt for prostitutes. But I just didn’t have the stamina to stay out late and see that craziness for myself. On the other hand, I’ve seen a few pros working the bar at the St. Regis in Atlanta, so I guess I’ve witnessed a milder version of it.
Anyhow, I was really only in Abu Dhabi for two full days and one of the only things Steve definitively said to me was, “You have to go to Ferrari World and ride the world’s fastest roller coaster, and please bring me something home from there.” Well, I like Ferraris, I’m a speed junkie, and I love me some Steve DeVinney, so done and done!
There are really only two reasons to go to Ferrari World. First and foremost is to ride the Formula Rossa. This ride is a 1 minute and 32 second pure adrenaline rush. A hydraulic launch system accelerates the car from 0 – 150 mph in five seconds. I don’t have words to describe the intensity of it. Just when you think you can’t take anymore, it hits top speed and then backs off. Every rider must wear protective goggles. Here’s what it looked like when Formula 1 drivers, Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa, rode it.
So, of course, we had to ride in the front seats, too. I sat in the same seat as Alonso (on the right), and I’m pretty sure my face did what his did on that initial acceleration because I wiped drool off my chin at then end of the ride. Jimmy and I were both shaky when we got off. Thank goodness I hadn’t eaten much that morning before we went because I’m pretty sure vomiting on the passengers behind you is considered really bad roller coaster form. We waited an hour and rode it one more time, and then we were done for the day. I really would have thrown up if I’d ridden it a third time.
The second reason to check out Ferrari World is to gape at the collection of gorgeous Ferraris on display in the museum, the likes of which you will probably never own. There is other stuff to do there, but none of it matters. So let me just give you a send off of my short adventure in Abu Dhabi with some car porn. Enjoy!
And just because…this song is a perfect theme song for travel, plus Trainspotting is one of my favorite movies.