Kerala

July 19, 2012

In mid-May Jay and I traveled to India for our third trip in 15 months. We absolutely love this country! Whereas previously we had stuck to the cities, this time we headed to the backwaters of Kerala. Our best friends in Abu Dhabi, Ben and Kate, came with us.

The worst thing about traveling to and from India are the flight times. We left Abu Dhabi around 10:00 at night and arrived in the middle of the night. However, this late travel was made quite a bit easier when we were bumped up to Business class – always a delightful surprise! We landed in Kochi, the capital city of the state of Kerala, at 4:00am and then drove directly to a small town in the heart of the Kerala backwaters, Alleypey. We stayed at this darling guest house there called Raheem Residency and we had the entire place to ourselves! Our visit ocurred during the rainy season in Kerala, which is their off season. We only had about 15 minutes of rain during our entire time there – 4 days – but it was very humid and muggy.

Thursday and Friday were spent exploring Alleypey on foot and on bikes, lying by the pool, walking on the beach, and eating the most delicious Indian food. The food of Kerala is much different from the food of Mumbai and Delhi. Kerala means coconut; everywhere you looked in this state you find palm trees with dozens of coconuts growing from them. Additionally, they eat a lot of fish and a delicious bread called chowpathi. And the price could not be better; no meal that we ate was more than $30/person – and you had to really blow it out with alcohol to get to that number.

Exploring Alleypey

Kerala is the land of yoga and Ayurvedic massages. An Ayurvedic massage is nothing like your run-of-the-mill spa massage. And as I sit here writing about this I am laughing at our experience. We each booked a massage. The boys had a male specialist, the ladies a female. You strip down to nothing except a paper thong and they rub copious amounts of oil all of your body. The whole time you lay on a rather uncomfortable wooden table. The experience was anything but relaxing. I had to bite my tongue many times during my massage to not crack up at the entire situation – and thinking of Jay in the next room going through this.

A lazy afternoon on the houseboat

We spent Saturday day and night on a houseboat. There are hundreds of houseboats that cruise through the backwaters of Kerala on a daily basis. We boarded the boat around noon and spent the afternoon just lazing around the boat as we passed through the most gorgeous scenery. At one point we got off the boat and into a canoe to explore some of the smaller canals that our boat could not fit through. The boats are certainly not luxurious, but they have all the conveniences necessary. Ours had two bedrooms that were air-conditioned at night (thank goodness…as I said, the weather was hot and humid). We had a cook on board who prepared all of our meals in a tiny kitchen in the back. There were bathrooms with running water, proper toilets, and even a shower. The night that we were on the houseboat happened to be the night of one of the biggest European soccer tournaments of the year. Jay and Ben could not bear the thought of missing the game so they secured a boat that was equipped with a satellite dish and flat screen television. The game came on at 12:15 in the morning and miraculously, in the middle of nowhere, they were able to get reception and watch. Only in India do you see such dichotomy.

We docked back into the harbor the next morning around 9:00am and by this time, were feeling pretty disgusting and were ready to head to a nice hotel. And that was exactly what was in store for us. We drove an hour north to the port town of Fort Kochi where we stayed at a beautiful hotel called Brunton Boatyard. After 3 nights in much more rustic accommodations, this modern hotel was a welcome sight. We were able to explore the town on bicycles and took a sunset cruise around the harbor. I loved this city and wished we had another day there. The buildings were painted bright colors, cows roamed the streets, and the town possessed an old-world, almost European charm. It was originally colonized by the Dutch.

Brunton Boatyard in Fort Kochi

This was our final trip to India before leaving the UAE. There are still so many regions of the country that we would like to explore and Jay and I have already started plotting a trip next winter from the States.

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Zighy Bay

May 31, 2012

Oman might be my favorite country in the Middle East. It is so different from the UAE. The topography is quite mountainous. The locals are incredibly friendly. We visited Muscat about a year ago and, just a couple weekends ago, in honor of our 1-year wedding anniversary, booked a trip to a different region of Oman called Musandam. Musandam juts into the infamous Strait of Hormuz, which has been in the news quite a bit lately.  The Strait is the strategically-located entrance to the Persian Gulf, jointly controlled by Iran and Oman.  Recently, Iran threatened to cut off oil supply from the Strait of Hormuz should economic sanctions limit, or cut off, Iranian oil exports.

Only a three hour drive from Abu Dhabi, Musandam’s topography combines the mountains with the coastline. It is a popular spot for camping and diving. Let’s be honest, I’m not really a big camper and thus, thought it best to visit Musandom in a different capacity – a luxurious resort called Zighy Bay. The resort is literally carved into the mountains. There are two ways to get to it: be driven in using a sturdy 4×4 or paraglide. (I considered the paraglide option until we got there and saw the cliff that you had to jump off…and then we all chickened out and opted for the car mode or transport).

Our good friends, another American couple, Elizabeth and Will, traveled with us. We booked neighboring beach villas at Zighy, each equipped with a private pool. The villas were the size of my apartment when I lived in DC and had everything we could possibly need. This trip was not about sightseeing; it was about relaxation. We spent our days lounging by the beach or pool. We took bike rides and ate and drank Champagne and cold Coronas. Dinner was enjoyed at a restaurant at the top of the mountain, overlooking the valley below. The scenery was nothing short of stunning. It is small places like this that, before living in Abu Dhabi we had never heard of and once we leave, we will most likely not be able to fly around the world to visit.  But that doesn’t mean that they aren’t worthy of the trip.

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Since day 1 in Abu Dhabi, there has been one vacation that has mattered to me more than anywhere else: The Maldives. There are so many reasons for this: the islands are predicted to disappear within the next 100 years; this is a destination that, while easy to reach from our current location, the flight from the US is a completely different story; and it is supposed to be paradise on earth.  And that it certainly was.

About 4 hours south of Abu Dhabi, The Maldives is an island nation in the middle of the Indian Ocean.  At just over 4 feet above sea level, the Maldives is the planet’s lowest country.  It is the third most endangered nation due to flooding from global warning and it is predicted that by 2100 the sea levels will rise so much that the islands will have to be abandoned.

The one major obstacle to this trip was the cost. The flight from Abu Dhabi averages about $1200/person (for 4 hours!!). But this is just the beginning. Resort prices start at about $800/night (on the low end) and this does not include any food or drink, which is also exorbitant because it is so expensive to get these supplies to these remote islands. (A bowl of cheerios at the resort where we stayed was $20)

But I wasn’t going to let this stop us…much to Jay’s dismay…

If there is a way to do the Maldives “on the cheap.” I think we might have pulled it off.  Early last week we received the weekend faresavers from Etihad and the Maldives happened to be on there. The price, for the upcoming weekend only, was about $300/person. Not a cheap ticket, but in comparison, it was a bargain! We had no plans for the weekend so we thought, “What the hell?” Next we had to figure out the hotel. There is a brilliant book in the Middle East called “The Entertainer.” All major cities have them for dining, spas, and travel. The Travel Entertainer has “Buy 1 Night Get 1 Night Free” coupons for 5 Star hotels all over the region. And amazingly, some of the best resorts in The Maldives are in there. Just a few weeks friends took advantage of these coupons and stayed at the Taj Exotica – and came back raving. We grabbed our coupon, booked our weekend stay (paying only for 1 night), and boarded the plane.

To say I was giddy is an understatement.

Although, I was afraid that there was no way this place could stand up to my expectations – it had been hyped up for months and months.

I should not have worried. I cannot put into words the beauty of this place – and the photos do not begin to do it justice.

We left Abu Dhabi first thing Friday morning and arrived in the Maldives early afternoon. The view of the ocean from the plane was spectacular. Gorgeous green islands surrounded by the most beautiful shade of turquoise water dotted the sea. I have never seen anything like it before. It took us all of 15 minutes to walk through customs and gather our bags. The Taj is located on an island about 15 minutes from the island where the airport is located. Each island is so small that only one resort is on each. The airport is on its own island. The capital city (Male) is another. As we exited customs we were greeted by our boat driver. We walked 30 seconds to the dock, boarded our boat, and were whisked off to the resort. I have never been to an airport that is also a port – brilliant!

The next 48 hours were nothing short of spectacular. We had a private villa situated in the middle of the ocean. There was no need for shoes; all that was necessary was our bathing suits and a t-shirt. The temperature reached into the 90s during the day, but the humidity was low and there was a constant breeze. And at night the temperature dropped just enough that we could enjoy dinner under the stars, without being to warm or needing a sweater. Our days were spent lying on the beach, or by the pool, snorkeling, or utilizing the other water equipment. The view from every vantage point looked like something out of a magazine. It was hard to believe it was real. Jay is not particularly good at sitting around and doing nothing, so I was a bit worried that he would be bored. (Our resort was situated on an island no more than ¼ mile or so long, so options were limited). But there was just something about the beauty of this place that made us both perfectly content to do nothing, relax, and enjoy.

Our two days passed much too quickly and we both agreed that we needed one more.  But, the time that we did have was perfect and I can now cross this destination off my bucket list…although I would very much like to return.

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Hiatus…Over!

April 23, 2012

I know…it has been multiple months since my last posting. Trust me, the reason for not writing is not because there has not been anything to write about, but because there has been too much going on and the blog has moved to the bottom of the priority list. But no more! On April 10, Jay celebrated his 18 month anniversary in Abu Dhabi. This was the amount of time that we originally signed on for. I swear, it was the fastest 18 months of my life. Earlier this spring, we had to make a decision about what to do when April 10 came around. The options available to us was less than ideal, in our opinion.  Given these choices, we realized that we were not quite ready to end our time in AD just yet.  When the reality of leaving hit, we realized how much on our “to do” list still remained. So, we decided to extend our contract here for 6 more months, through October. And since this decision was made, we have hit the ground running on that list.

Just last week, we learned that our next stop was going to be back to the U.S. The details are still quite fuzzy, but it looks like we will return late summer/early fall. This news was actually unexpected. It is a great opportunity for Jay, and I am thrilled to be coming home. However, that being said, we have really grown to love the international lifestyle. The travel we get to do on a daily basis is incredible. Just today Jay commented on this very fact, saying that it could the travel we have been able to do over the last 18 months could easily last many people a lifetime. We have been incredibly fortunate and it will hard to give up our daily adventures. In addition, we have made amazing friends during our time here. We know that they will be in our lives for many years to come, no matter where we live, but just as it was hard to say goodbye to friends when we made the move over here, it is going to be hard to do the same on the reverse end. All of this being said, there is much to be excited about. And with about 4 months left in the Middle East, the real adventure is about to begin!

The Fish Market

February 3, 2012

We have now been in Abu Dhabi for a year and we are finding that we are becoming complacent in terms of exploring, travel, and trying new things. In an attempt to put an end to this, on the weekends when we are in Abu Dhabi, we try to explore a new area or attraction. (Not that there’s a lot of attractions because there’s very little history…but you do what you can). One such weekend, Jay and I ventured off to the Fish Market, located at Port Zayed, which is about a 15 minute drive from our house. The market is actually enclosed and air-conditioned, thankfully. I cannot imagine how bad the smell would be if it were outside on our 120+ degree summer days. It still smelled quite fishy, but it was actually much cleaner than I imagined. There are rows and rows of vendors, pretty much all selling the same thing. Jay and I ended up buying Sea Bass and Shrimp. We were able to haggle over the price a bit. After we had purchased our fish, we headed over to the far end of the market where dozens of men stand around waiting clean your fish.  They cleaned, de-boned, and gutted our fish for less than $3.00.  If you can stand the blood and guts, it’s pretty fascinating to watch. I wasn’t able to watch for too long…

Our fish made for a very nice meal, but I have to admit, I do not think it tasted any better than the fish we buy at the grocery store.

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Abu Dhabi Ridiculousness

January 28, 2012

A very short post about this semi-blurry photo above. I looked out our window the other day and there, parked in the middle of the road, was a Rolls Royce (the brown car with the tan-ish top). It was parked in this location for the majority of the day.  The metaphor for Abu Dhabi was so perfect, I couldn’t resist snapping a picture. You’ve heard me talk much about the excess and wealth of this country. And I’ve said before that I’ve never been surrounded by such expensive vehicles in my life. I don’t even blink when a Bentley drives by me these days. It’s just another day in Abu Dhabi. Can you imagine owning a Rolls Royce and parking it in the middle of the road, so susceptible to being hit or damaged? Of course not. But the mentality being what it is here, that is of no concern. “I don’t need to care for what I have because I will just buy a new one if I need to.” It’s utterly ridiculous.

Danger Zone

January 21, 2012

My parents came to visit us in Abu Dhabi in early November (I know, this posting is long overdue!). We figured that having them come to the Middle East was not enough of an adventure in and of itself so we dragged them to Cairo for 4 days. My parents trip to the UAE coincided with the Muslim holiday of Eid, a huge bonus because it meant that Jay and I had a 5-day weekend.

There was a great deal of hesitance on our part about doing this trip. The Coptic Christina rallies took place a couple weeks before our visit. To be honest, had it just been Jay and me I would not have worried (because we blend in so well and have traveled to so many areas of unrest, of course…ha!). But, we were assured that Egypt was safe and that we would be fine. It turned out that we could not have picked a better time to go (although, violence and unrest erupted again less than two weeks after our visit). Being a majority Muslim country, Egypt was also celebrating Eid and on holiday, which meant that Cairo was surprisingly tame. I actually was shocked by how quiet the city was. We drove all over the area and did not once get stuck in the horrible Cairo-traffic that you hear so much about. Unbelievable. The weather was lovely – sunny and around 75 degrees every day.

Jay and I had secured a guide that we had read about in our local Abu Dhabi paper (The National). A few months ago there was an article about the best tour guides around the world; they highlighted a young man, Ahmed, located in Cairo. We conversed with Ahmed over email and secured him as our guide for the days that we would be visiting. Ahmed met us at the airport upon our arrival and off we went. It soon became clear that, while brilliant, Ahmed had no social skills whatsoever. So that made for an interesting few days. We did learn a lot…but it also meant that, on a number of instances during our 72 hours together, I had to restrain Jay from tackling him out of frustration with his lack of social queues. It made for some good jokes, though, which you will see from Jay’s captions below.

While not a relaxing or luxurious trip, I did enjoy the experience of Cairo. It was similar to India in that my senses were heightened because of the stark contrast of the city to any previous experiences. There is obviously a lot of poverty, a lot of pollution, a lot of trash. But, I did find it beautiful at the same time. The people of Cairo were very welcoming. We were hassled to buy things along the way, but again, it was not as bad as I imagined it would be. In fact, it was nothing compared to Istanbul. Tourism has suffered greatly because of recent events and as a result, the people were visibly happy that we were there and repeatedly welcomed us. At one point, my mom was waiting in line for a public bathroom and she was ushered to the front because she was “a guest in their country.”

One of the most shocking things to me, which I had heard and expected but yet still was eye-opening, was Egypt’s inability to properly preserve their historical artifacts that tell the story of their rich history. Anyone who has visited the Egyptian Museum, where you could literally put an artifact in your pocket and no one would know, or climbed all over the pyramids, can attest to this fact. If they continue to care for these items as they have been, they certainly will not last forever, and I am very glad to have seen them while they’re still in a semi-preserved condition.  The Great Pyramid is one of the “Seven Wonders of the Ancient World” – the only one that still stands, in fact.  We all agreed that it very much deserved this title as one of the wonders of the world.

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Being that Thanksgiving is both Jay’s and my favorite holiday, there was no way that we were going to let the fact that we now live outside of the United States and thus, the last Thursday of November is just another day of the week, stop us from celebrating.  This is the first time in my life that I have been away from my family on this holiday.  Being that I am almost 33, that is saying something.  And I have to admit, both Jay and I felt a bit homesick on this day.  In fact, all of the Americans with whom we celebrated seemed to have a bit of the case of the “Abu Dhabi Blues.”  Jay and I were both lucky that our places of employment gave us the day off.  However, it was quite weird to have the day off and know that it is a special holiday for us, while the world around you carries on as normal (because, of course, there’s nothing special about this day in the UAE).  The other weird part of the day was the weather.  It was sunny and 80 degrees.  Not that I’m complaining!  But, being raised in the Middle-Atlantic state that I was, I just do not associate Thanksgiving with this type of weather.

Jay preparing the turkey and lamb

As for our celebration, we (or rather Jay) decided that we should host a big Thanksgiving dinner.  20 people to be exact.  The funny thing is that only 6 of the invitees (including ourselves) were Americans.  The rest were our friends from the UK, Australia, South Africa, and elsewhere around the globe.  And I have to say, they were perhaps more excited than we were to come to a typical “American” Thanksgiving.  We assigned each couple something for the feast and, despite the international nature of the meal, the meal was your typical T-giving meal: Turkey, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce, gravy, pumpkin bread, my mom’s famous broccoli casserole, mac ‘n cheese, pumpkin pie, apple pie, and more and more and more….  In the Middle East spirit Jay also cooked lamb.  The festivities started around 6:00pm.  Our neighbors across the hall, Ben and Kate, hosted pre-dinner drinks and hors’ d’oeuvres and then the group moved to our place around 8:00 for dinner.  The timing worked out perfectly with the NFL schedule.  By the time dinner was over, the first game of the day had started (1:00 pm EST).  The party lasted until 3 or 4 am, I believe.  I snuck up to bed sometime around 1:30 or 2:00, exhausted.  The next morning when we woke up I turned to Jay and asked, “How bad is it downstairs?” (meaning the clean-up).  His reply said it all: “It’s baaaaaaaaad!”  We spent the rest of the weekend cleaning up.  But it was well worth the effort.

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Banyan Tree

November 20, 2011

There are a lot of things that the U.A.E. has a shortage of: history, good wine, good drivers.  One of the things that is not in short supply, however, is fabulous resorts.  These people love their fine hotels.  So when in Rome…  Around mid-September (I know, I’m really behind on some of my posts!), Jay and I, along with our neighbors Ben & Kate and Christy & Derek (and their friend who happened to be visiting from the UK, Emma) experienced an overnight of luxury at Banyan Tree Al Wadi.  Banyan Tree is located in the Emirate of Ras Al Khaimah, about a 2 1/2 hour drive from Abu Dhabi.  The resort has 2 properties, about 30 minutes apart.  One is located in the middle of the desert and the other, where we stayed, is located along the Arabian Sea.  Normally, it is about $500+/night to stay here, however, over the summer there was an amazing deal for the resort on Abu Dhabi’s equivalent of Groupon.  For about $300, we got the following: One night in our own beach-facing villa with private pool, breakfast, dinner, spa treatment, resort activity for two, and unlimited mini-bar.  I know, it was the last item there that was really the kicker!  We quickly scooped up this deal and booked for a weekend in late September.  We each had our own villa, all right next door to the others.  It couldn’t come at a better time as we went the weekend after my first week back at work.  I needed this luxury after that shock to my system…

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Our Best Adventure Yet

October 28, 2011

I have been very fortunate in my life to have traveled a great deal and I’ve seen a number of varied places.  In all my travels, though, I cannot name a place that is a “must-see;” a place that you cannot leave this earth without experiencing.  But this changed with our vacation to South Africa.  We chose this country as our honeymoon destination, and I must admit, my expectations were incredibly high going into the trip; so high that I was worried about being disappointed.  I should not have.  Our time in South Africa was some of the best of my life.  (I know…that is a pretty bold statement).

I will let our photos and videos tell most of the story of our trip, but will, of course, give some background commentary.  Our itinerary was as follows: 4 days in Cape Town, 4 days in the Wine Region, 1 day in Johannesburg, and 5 days on Safari in the Madikwe Game Reserve.  We were in South Africa the last two weeks of August, the end of their winter/beginning of spring.  I was a bit nervous that the weather would be too cool, especially in Cape Town, but it actually turned out to be a perfect time to visit.  The temperatures in Cape Town and the Wine Region ranged from low 50s to mid-70s.  We had 2 days of rain while in Cape Town and in the Wine Region, but it was still possible to “sight-see” and the sun shone brightly the remaining 6 days in these areas.  Our safari was in the northwest part of the country and was much warmer; the mornings and evenings started out chilly but warmed up to mid to upper-80s in the afternoon.  We were told that this time of year is actual ideal for safari.  Just like humans, when it is extremely hot outside, the animals tend to not move around as much, trying to find respite from the heat.  While the afternoons were warm, it was not uncomfortable and the animals were incredibly active.  During the summer, Cape Town is packed with people and we were told that you fight the crowds at all the major tourist destinations (Table Mountain, Cape of Good Hope, Robben Island).  While these spots were certainly not empty, I would not describe them as crowded.  One morning, Jay and I went for a hike on one of the main trails in Cape Town and we only encountered one other person during our entire 3 hour hike.  When visiting the wine region, we often were the only people at the vineyards, which enabled us to have very individualized service.

So what didn’t we love about this country?  The food is amazing, the people lovely, the scenery stunning, the wine delicious, and the history quite fascinating.  The highlight of our two weeks was the safari.  Every moment felt like we were in the middle of a National Geographic episode.  We were awoken each morning at 6am in order to catch the animals as they were beginning their day.  The lodge that we chose, Morukuru, provided a very personal experience, meaning that we were the only guests in our vehicle and we had our own tracker and guide.  Both of these individuals possessed an incredible amount of knowledge about the animals, plants, landscape.  I learned so very much.  Our tracker, Gummy, sat on a small seat at the front of the vehicle (which I don’t know how he stayed balanced on; our ride was anything but smooth!) and to show how good he was, one night we were driving home and, in the pitch dark, using only a lamp that he moved back and fort, he spotted a tiny chameleon at the top of a tree.  Unbelievable.  Our morning safari usually ended around 10 when we would return to our house for breakfast and a few hours of relaxation.  We would then head back out again 3:00 in the afternoon and stay out until after 8:00 or so, stopping around 6 to have happy hour in the middle of the bush.  This was definitely Jay’s and my favorite part of the day.  While this was our typical schedule, the decision of what to do was entirely up to us.  One day we wanted to do a bush walk so we spent the morning doing that; another day we did a day drive and explored a different region of the park.  I really wanted to see Hippos so we spent a few hours one day walking through the bush, tracking hippos.  The week was spent with my jaw dropped in awe most of the time.  I think this will probably be our first of several safaris…

We made a number of movies during our trip.  The first video is a montage of different moments of the trip in the Cape Town are.  We then put together some clips of our safari, to give you a sense of the animals that we saw.  The safari movie is broken down into two parts: African Safari Part 1 and African Safari Part 2.  We also compiled a video of a series of other non-safari adventures while in South Africa.

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