On Muslim Holidays and Thirtieth Birthdays

While America is winding up its Fourth of July holiday weekend festivities, we’ve been enjoying a long weekend of our own here in Dubai. Our holiday was not to celebrate the birth of the greatest country in the world, mind you, but rather to commemorate that famous night back in 621 AD when the Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him) rode a magical winged steed to Jerusalem and talked with God.

(A more detailed and less flippant description of the Lailat Al Miraj holiday can be found here, for those who hope to learn actual facts from my blog.)

Anyhow, a long weekend is a long weekend - same same but different, right? The holiday also happened to coincide with Alex’s (gulp) 30th birthday, so we decided to head out of town to Fujairah, one of the low-budget emirates I mentioned last week, to celebrate at the beach with some friends.

View of the Gulf of Oman from our balcony at the Le Meridien Al Aqah Beach Resort… not bad for a low-budget emirate, eh?

(Fellow IR nerds may appreciate learning that the resort is situated just on the edge of the Strait of Hormuz, the strategically important choke point between Iran, the UAE, and Oman that about 20% of the world’s oil passes through en route from the Persian Gulf to everywhere else. Non-IR nerds… well, I’ll refer you back to this post someday when Iran mines the crap out of the strait and we’re all effed.)

The better part of the weekend was spent admiring the Hajar Mountains from the comfort of the poolside bar…

… imbibing a variety of brightly colored cocktails…

… and generally doing our best “Brits on holiday” impression, since that’s who you are inevitably surrounded by at these types of locales.

(For those fortunate enough not to be familiar with the species, Holidaying Brits are characterized by blindingly white skin, inappropriate public shirtlessness, questionable beach accessories, and conspicuous alcohol consumption [not pictured], as our friend J so willingly demonstrates here.)

There were also a few rounds of heated competition at the beachside mini-golf course…

… and a friendlier contest to drain the hotel’s Warsteiner supply, one plastic pool-bar tumbler at a time. 

All in all, a solid long weekend and a fitting tribute to three decades of Alex - although I somehow managed not to capture any pictures of the birthday festivities themselves so I have no cheesy blowing-out-the-candles shots to share.

(Eh, who am I kidding - the only thing burning at our celebrations tend to be the coals on Alex’s shisha. When in Rome the Middle East…)

Hong Kong: The Scene

Mel enjoying traditional Hong Kong dim sum shortly before we went out on a bender and lost all motivation to do energy-requiring touristy things. 

So I can’t really say I saw the sights of Hong Kong last weekend, given I was there first and foremost to catch up with my friend Mel.

(On top of that, we had a very late and booze-filled evening my first night in town, which sort of clipped my typically rah-rah militant-tourist sightseeing wings.)

But what I can say is that I saw the scene, and it was a fascinating one at that. Having traveled a fair bit in the region, I was curious to see where HK would fit within my patented, mutually exclusive "There Are Only Two Kinds of Major Asian Cities" (TM) framework: would it be an austere, functional, ever-so-slightly-too-orderly metropolis like Singapore, Tokyo, and Seoul, or would it be a down-and-dirty, in-your-face, anything-goes boom town like Bangkok, Jakarta, and Saigon?

And the answer is… neither. And also… both. (There goes my framework… sigh.)

Because honestly, I’ve never been in a city before, Asian or otherwise, where you could go from this —

Urban chaos and fish markets and people hocking loogies in the street, oh my!

— to this…

Beautiful idyllic townhouses perched tranquilly on an isolated seaside cliff!

… in the course of an easy twenty-minute drive.

(Or - if you’re Mel’s boyfriend’s hedge fund boss - a ten-minute speed race in his Lambo. On a related note, it’s good to see that the douchey banker lives on in Hong Kong, despite its endangered-species status in New York and London these days.)

So it’s difficult for me to pigeonhole the ‘Kong. What I do know was that it was interesting to be in a place so full of Asian stereotypes - like, well, kitsch…

Oh hai, pandas and Hello Kitty!

… and orderly politeness…

Please take care of children and the elderly on the escalator and please open the door gently and in case you are wondering, yes it’s disinfected four times a day OBVIOUSLY.

… but at the same time have one of the best “Western” dinners I’ve had in recent memory, at the appropriately blingishly named Gold by Harlan Goldstein

If you find yourself in Hong Kong and craving non-Asian food, go here. Order the crispy oysters, the kingfish with green apple ice, and the “Big G” Fiorentina steak. Tell Harlan we said hi. (Preferably, you should visit with some high rollin’ finance types who expense the US $2,000 check like it ain’t no thang… otherwise, I recommend a personal loan.)

… and where else in Asia could you casually shop for Pop-Tarts and Aunt Jemima at the American Club's “Country Store”?

Just like where… Grandma… used to shop?

I guess at the point where I reveal that we spent half a day at a snooty-pants American country club (related: why don’t we have this in Dubai?!) I have to admit that I didn’t see as much as I could have of the real Hong Kong. But you know what? I saw my friends’ Hong Kong, and that was worth a trip in and of itself. 

Mel and her boyfriend, The Vanimal, whose identity is protected here because he’s one of those Type-A social media-eschewing power brokers… at least until we get him to join Twitter.

So to my gracious hosts, thank you. And to Hong Kong… well, I got the gist. I’ll be back for the details later.

Hong Kong: The Highlight

I had an awesome weekend in Hong Kong.

Although the city was just as great as everyone says it is, the highlight of my trip was not the food or the culture or the urban buzz, but visiting this girl - my old roommate Mel, who I fell ass-backwards into being friends with more than a decade ago when the Georgetown housing office decreed that we were well-suited to share a freshman cell dorm room.

At this point in my life, I feel like most of my close friendships are ones that I’ve intentionally worked to cultivate based on some kind of logical impetus - shared interests or common backgrounds or similar personalities. But my friendship with Mel is one of those rare relationships that fate seems to have handed down from on high, saying "Hey genius, this person belongs in your life and you wouldn’t have found them any other way, so we’re just going to go ahead and put them smack dab in the middle of your path so you don’t miss the boat." (Fate, apparently, uses a lot of metaphors when it talks.)

There’s not a lot of reasons Mel and I would have been friends had the housing gods not thrown us together in our cramped double room. She was the exotic Singapore-born Californian to my provincial Tennessee-girl schtick; she organized human rights events while I rowed on the crew team; she eschewed the school’s meal plan to make ramen and gyoza in the dorm while I threw back pizza and burgers in the cafeteria; she finished papers weeks in advance while I found myself sprinting across campus, essay in hand, at 12:09 PM, trying in vain to meet a hard-and-fast noon deadline. We were - and are - very much yin and yang, if I may use a cliche-though-fittingly-Asian turn of phrase, but for one reason or another, we just became friends, almost right from the very beginning… and I certainly can’t credit the roomie connection alone, since I have definitely had some roommates with whom proximity did not equal amity.

(The group of girls I shared a Northern Virginia apartment with during my first year out of college - who collectively took to keeping the house’s toilet paper hidden in their bedrooms because I never bought any for the communal supply - spring to mind, but that’s another story.)

Proximity may have brought us together, but somewhere in between those late-night bunk-bed conversations a friendship developed that has weathered highly questionable life decisions, heart-wrenching family drama, emotionally scarring break-ups, divisive friend-group rifts, unfortunate mean-girl moments, and perhaps most challenging of all, distance.

In the years since we shared that subterranean cement-block dungeon, Mel has lived in Frankfurt, Bangkok, Singapore, and Hong Kong, while I’ve called Washington, London, Tennessee, and Dubai home. Under these circumstances, even the best of friendships can wither - and in my own experience, many similar ones certainly have. But somehow, some way, every time we manage to meet up it’s like we’ve never missed a beat - I guess at a certain point, someone just knows you so well (and vice versa) that time and distance actually become irrelevant.

Whether it’s overdosing on “happy pizzas” at a tourist hotspot in Cambodia, reluctantly climbing the highest mountain in South Korea in sub-zero temperatures, road-tripping through middle-of-nowhere Oman in the middle of the night, or sharing tipsy laments at our other best friend’s wedding in Singapore about our inability to find good men (only to realize, a few months down the road, that we both already knew the men who were to become our respective partners, if only we would just freaking open our eyes), the brief interludes that we’ve spent together over the past decade have reminded me that real friendships can thrive no matter where you plant them.

Oh, and Mel, I’m sorry for the fact that after these pictures (in which we are clearly already a few sheets to the wind) were taken, I made you and Van stay up until 3 AM drinking Patron and watching country music videos on YouTube. I would say it won’t happen again, but I think we both know better.

So instead… here’s to the next time!

A Glimpse from the Road…

Central Hong Kong and Kowloon, as seen from Victoria Peak. 

This city, you guys…

Now off to the American Club for some pool time and their all-you-can-eat Sunday morning burger bar.

Expat life for the win.

Speaking of Travel…

Breakfast in the Emirates Lounge at DXB.

After not having seen the inside of an airplane in over four months - a rarity for me, or anyone who lives in Dubai, quite frankly - I’m off to Hong Kong this weekend to see my friend Mel for a freshman-year college-roommate reunion - twelve years (!!!), several continents, and many life-stages later.

I’ve never been to the ‘Kong, so I’m looking forward to three days of amaaaaazing eating, cheap shopping, and general “being in a real place”… stay tuned!

And yes, I realize after last night’s Azeri vodka post, the 9 AM Veuve makes me look like a bit of a Boozy Suzy - but hey, I’m about to get on an 8-hour flight and I’ve worked hard to earn lounge access and all the perks it entails… plus, the scrappy Tennessee girl in me will never, ever to say no to free champagne.

(Also, in typing this post I was forced to acknowledge the distressing fact that it’s been - gulp - twelve years since I started university. Waiter, another glass!)

GPOYTW*: “This One Time, In Azerbaijan…” Edition

My sister recently decided she is obsessed with going to Azerbaijan on a Fulbright scholarship after she finishes college. 

I know, I know, don’t ask - obscure travel cravings run in my family, it would seem. 

Anyhow, her slew of emails and blog posts related to all things Azeri inspired me to look back at my own trip to Azerbaijan in the summer of 2008.

Overlooking the Caspian Sea in Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital.

It was a different time, that era of my life in Dubai a few years ago - a time when my flatmate Eric and I used to sit down at our dining room table every Wednesday night, split a bottle of wine and scour the websites of various developing-world airlines for flight deals, vociferously debating the pros and cons of Eritrea versus Krygyzstan as a weekend getaway. More often than not, we would find ourselves bleary-eyed at 2 AM, having purchased tickets to a destination that prompted the response “You’re going where? … Why?” when we triumphantly announced our travel plans to colleagues at work the next day. 

While it was a great era, it is not one I’d necessarily want to go back to. Because let’s be honest - while awesome, those trips (and, uh my life at that time) were always something of… well, a clusterf*ck.

Take our trip to Azerbaijan. 

For starters, our ghett-tastic flight left at the ridiculous hour of 3:30 AM. Packing in the middle of the night in our darkened apartment on no sleep, I took this as an opportunity to show off my supreme lack of coordination and run into a door, giving me a sweet shiner to show off for the rest of the weekend.

One ices these kinds of injuries in the taxi en route to the airport, obviously.

We arrived in Baku at o’dark hundred, found a hotel, slept for a few hours and then headed out the next morning to explore the capital’s touristic delights - like… really creepy / depressing post-Soviet artwork at the Azerbaijan State Museum of History.

This kind of art should not be inflicted upon people who already have a headache due to their black eye.

After that, we stopped by Azerbaijan’s “Election” Information Centre to learn a bit more about the glories of post-Soviet democracy.

Really, guys? You’re holding “elections” this year? [Wink wink, nudge nudge!] Can’t we at least pretend there is a viable democratic process somewhere in the CIS?

Then we got bored with doing earnest touristy things and we went out for drinks, where we met and summarily befriended members of Azerbaijan’s men’s junior national wrestling team.

I don’t think I need to tell you that the evening only went downhill from there.

The next morning, through the fog of our hangover, we decided it was a good idea to find a driver to take us to the allegedly picturesque (damn you, Lonely Planet!) mountaintop village of Xinaliq, about five hours outside Baku.

The village of Xinaliq, in all its glory. I think as a general rule, one should try to avoid such phonetically challenging locations whilst hungover. You live, you learn.

As it turned out, not only was Xinaliq neither picturesque nor touristy in the least, there was also nothing there. Not a shop, not a restaurant, and nary an English-speaker person in sight. When we finally happened upon a lone villager walking down the road dirt path, our driver translated and told him that the foreigners were hungry (oh! so hungover and hungry!), at which point the villager offered to slaughter a goat for us for the bargain price of 100 euros… which I’m pretty sure is higher than the entire annual GDP of this region of Azerbaijan.

We thanked him but politely declined, deciding instead to head back towards Baku and “civilization.” Along the way, we happened upon a roadside cafe - an Azeri truck stop, of sorts - where we had a lunch of grilled meat, fresh tomatoes, pillowy bread, and… beer and vodka, as encouraged by our Azeri driver. (Hey, when in Rome…)

Please note the ongoing wonky eye.

From our perspective, the rest of the afternoon looked more or less like this:

OH HAY Y’ALL JUST POSIN’ WITH A SWEET LADA! [Falls over.]

Then we saw a roadside farmers’ stand, and we remembered how good our lunchtime tomatoes had been, and how rare it is to find nice produce in Dubai… and the next thing we knew, we had decided to import 40 pounds of tomatoes back to the UAE. (File under: things that seemed like a good idea at the time after sharing a liter of Azeri vodka.)

Vine-ripened tomatoes and banged-up Louis Vuitton… essentials for the seasoned traveler.

Somehow, we arrived back in Dubai in the middle of the night with our precious cargo (somewhat) intact. And as we rocked up to our apartment sometime around 4 AM, crates of crushed Azeri tomatoes in tow, Eric looked at me with contrition in his eyes and lamented, “Gubbi… only a drunk person would think this was a good idea.”

The bounty of our international harvest.

So there, I’ve laid out a travel challenge for my baby sister: she can go to Azerbaijan, oh yes.

But she can’t say I didn’t warn her about the hijinx…

(July 2008 in Baku and Xinaliq, Azerbaijan.)

*Gratuitous Picture of Your Travels Wednesday

GPOYTW*: Buckle Up for Travel Fashion

Ever since I posted this photo of me in Albania back in 2005, I have been the subject of incessant sartorial mocking from Alex and our friend Amy (my #1 and #2 blog readers, respectively).

"That strappy Limited tank top - it’s so 10th grade!" howled Amy, the former New York fashion buyer. "The rolled-up jeans and Asics - all you’re missing is a fanny pack!” lamented Alex, his aversion to unfortunate American travel “style” well-honed during a childhood spent amongst snooty foreigners.  

The unifying element in their respective critiques, however, was the belt: why was I wearing a belt? Not a cool, fashion-y, Michelle Obama cinched-over-the-cardigan belt, mind you, but just a no-nonsense, hold-up-your-pants belt. 

This seemed to mystify them, because apparently, belts are not cool. To hear Alex talk, in fact, belts are not even worn by women on a regular basis. I was slightly mystified, too, because it’s not like I go to the closet and reach for a belt every morning in my day-to-day life. In search of an answer, I started clicking through my travel photo archives, only to find… belt… after belt… after belt?!

The belt was a travel standby in the old days, for sure:

Jesi, Italy in 2005… belted! (Also featuring sweet rolled-up jeans.)

But apparently the belt has persisted in my more recent travels, even since moving to Dubai:

Muscat, Oman in 2008… belted!

Kuwait City, Kuwait in 2008… belted!

Aleppo, Syria in 2008… belted!

Murchinson Falls, Uganda in 2009… belted!

Locked, loaded, belted - in almost every trip I have on record! And yet when I look at non-travel pictures from the same era, there’s nary a belt to be found. So what I am left to infer is that the belt is some kind of subconscious travel-clothing security blanket, an assurance that no matter where in the world I am or what kind of crazy adventures await me - well, my pants? They’re stayin’ right where they are.

If we’re being honest, my ongoing weight gain since moving abroad serves to accomplish the same thing. But carrying an extra ten pounds around my waist doesn’t sound nearly as cool as being… belted!

And for my sartorial critics’ benefit, one last shot of Ultimate Gubbi Travel Fashion (TM). While the belt here is obscured, the photo features my iconic rolled jeans look and members of the Ethiopian men’s national basketball team, which I know will irk Alex on a number of levels. (WIN!)

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in 2007… rolled!

*Gratuitous Picture of Your Travels Wednesday

Romance, Nostalgia, and Ethnic Conflict

As I have mentioned before on this blog, I looooooove Eastern Europe. From Kiev to Skopje, from Ljubljana to Plovdiv, from Mostar to Bratislava, it’s a part of the world that I adore inordinately, disproportionately, and many would say inexplicably in all its unpronounceable, Balkanized, post-communist glory.

A lesson in unpronounceability: overlooking the old city of Gjirokaster, Albania. (Don’t hate on the rolled jeans and the belt - it was 2005 and I was a fetus.)

So naturally, when Alex and I received an invitation to his high school pal Nenad’s wedding in Novi Sad, Serbia this summer, I jumped at the chance to book tickets and be on our way. Plus, “Notes from a Serbian Wedding” will be a nice addition to my ever-growing portfolio of exotic nuptials, don’t you think? (See also: Notes from an Indian Wedding, Notes from a Kenyan Wedding.)

But of course, this being Eastern Europe - and me being a discerning, exhaustive, and most of all cheap travel-planner - it’s never quite as simple as just booking the tickets. What’s a good trip without a little due diligence, after all?

And so I’ve spent the better part of this morning assessing various permutations of the journey from Dubai to Belgrade, since the direct flight on Jat Airways, Serbia’s flag carrier, is (thankfully!) already sold out on our dates.

While exploring one initial transit possibility - a little sojourn through Greece en route to the wedding - Expedia turned up this gem:

Expedia, it’s like you don’t even know me. I’ve used you to book flights to Zimbabwe, to Yemen, to _______ (insert obscure international destination here). And now you think I want to book a flight out of Athens, Georgia? USE YOUR CONTEXT CLUES, Expedia! I’m pretty sure that if anyone from small-town Georgia ever had the wherewithall to leave the US, they would at least have the good sense to drive down the road and fly out of Atlanta. What is wrong with you?! 

Moving on. Another option worth entertaining was flying TAROM, the Romanian carrier, from Dubai to Bucharest and then taking the train onwards to Belgrade. 

TAROM offers travelers a variety of convenient booking options: round-trip, multiple destinations, or… shower. Go ahead, scratch your head. I did too.

Next up, I poked around the Serbian Railways site for a bit to explore our train options… until I discovered that Google Translate is clearly doing its best to kick off another Balkan war:

This page is in Croatian? OH NO THEY DIDN’T! In case you, uh, missed the 1990s, national identity is a point of pride (read: cause for bloodshed) between Serbs and Croats, and although it’s my understanding that the Serbian and Croatian languages are virtually identical - hence Google’s well-meaning mistake - I can think of a few skinheads in Belgrade who might beg to disagree. Watch your back, Google.

Once I managed to get the page translated “from the Croatian,” I was reminded why I love traveling in this part of the world:

"Romance" and "nostalgia" as selling points for a train journey, right up there alongside the timetable and route map. 

Amtrak and Eurostar could learn a thing or two…

GPOYTW*: “One-Year Anniversary of the Most Amazing Trip Ever (Oh Yeah, and a Pretty Cool Wedding, Too)” Edition. 

One year ago today - well, okay, 367 days to be exact - two of Alex’s best friends, M&B, got married to each other in the Maldives. (And no, they weren’t that couple.) I figured their anniversary, along with the fact that our Dubai friends J&A are headed to the Maldives for Easter weekend (AND LEAVING THEIR PUPPY WITH US! … but more on that later), is reason enough to bring back GPOYTW

View on the speedboat ride from Male airport.

In a word, the Maldives is the most spectacular place I have ever been in my life. Okay, that’s eleven words… but still. It’s a place that has to be seen to be believed, and if you ever, ever, eeeeeeeeever have a chance to go, I recommend you grab the opportunity with a white-knuckle grip and hold on to that mother-effer like your life depends on it. (It probably does.)

Headed to the wedding ceremony.

Of course, it’s easy for me to recommend you go there, given it’s only a 4-hour flight from Dubai and the couple getting married graciously covered part of the guests’ stay. In which case I guess what I really recommend is for you to move somewhere within the greater Indian Ocean region and find a partner who happens to have incredibly generous friends… which I realize is no small order. But it’s still probably easier than traveling 20 hours from North America / Europe and footing the bill yourself, so I stand by it.

Awaiting the champagne toast post-ceremony. I die. 

Beachside reception area… HOW CAN ANYONE GET MARRIED ANYWHERE ELSE AFTER THIS WITHOUT HANGING THEIR HEAD IN SHAME? (Also, note the shisha. Alwaaaaaaays the shisha with Alex’s friends.)

Newlyweds in the infinity pool as a thunderstorm rolls in.

So to M&B, happy anniversary. To J&A, bon voyage. And to the travel and friendship gods that conspired to let us spend 72 hours in this little slice of paradise last year… thanks, dudes.

(April 2010 at Taj Exotica Resort & Spa in the Maldives.)

*Gratuitous Picture of Your Travels Wednesday

My sister spent her junior year of high school as an exchange student in Shirakawa, a city in Japan’s northeastern Fukushima prefecture.
Fukushima was one of the areas hit hardest by the earthquake and ensuing tsunami that devastated Japan yesterday. To make matters worse, a few hours ago there was an explosion at a nuclear power plant in the prefecture, causing a radiation leak that will likely extend damage and contamination for miles around the reactor. 
I always say that I travel because it makes things real to me - it puts faces and smells and sounds on stories that are otherwise amorphous and ephemeral. 
Today, these are the faces I am thinking of when I think of Japan: the grandparents from my sister’s host family, who I met when I visited her in Shirakawa almost 5 years ago. The grandfather was the leader of a Shingon Buddhist temple; despite the somber brown robes and professorial glasses, he was raucous jokester, a personality trait so crystal-clear that it dwarfed the linguistic and cultural barriers between us. The grandmother - soft-spoken and dignified, her long white hair pulled back into a perfect bun - accompanied us diligently on endless schleps around the region’s historic and religious sites, climbing flight after flight of uneven temple stairs in her immaculate kimono and wooden sandals, arriving home at night to field calls from inquisitive friends and family - was she feeling alright after all this activity? - with the answer that yes, she was feeling very genki (enthusiastic and lively) indeed.
So in case you need faces to associate with your thoughts and prayers for this beautiful, resilient country, I thought I would share these. Here’s hoping that the genki spirit of the Japanese people can help them pull through the challenges to be faced in the hours, days, and months to come. 

My sister spent her junior year of high school as an exchange student in Shirakawa, a city in Japan’s northeastern Fukushima prefecture.

Fukushima was one of the areas hit hardest by the earthquake and ensuing tsunami that devastated Japan yesterday. To make matters worse, a few hours ago there was an explosion at a nuclear power plant in the prefecture, causing a radiation leak that will likely extend damage and contamination for miles around the reactor. 

I always say that I travel because it makes things real to me - it puts faces and smells and sounds on stories that are otherwise amorphous and ephemeral. 

Today, these are the faces I am thinking of when I think of Japan: the grandparents from my sister’s host family, who I met when I visited her in Shirakawa almost 5 years ago. The grandfather was the leader of a Shingon Buddhist temple; despite the somber brown robes and professorial glasses, he was raucous jokester, a personality trait so crystal-clear that it dwarfed the linguistic and cultural barriers between us. The grandmother - soft-spoken and dignified, her long white hair pulled back into a perfect bun - accompanied us diligently on endless schleps around the region’s historic and religious sites, climbing flight after flight of uneven temple stairs in her immaculate kimono and wooden sandals, arriving home at night to field calls from inquisitive friends and family - was she feeling alright after all this activity? - with the answer that yes, she was feeling very genki (enthusiastic and lively) indeed.

So in case you need faces to associate with your thoughts and prayers for this beautiful, resilient country, I thought I would share these. Here’s hoping that the genki spirit of the Japanese people can help them pull through the challenges to be faced in the hours, days, and months to come.