Saturday, July 30, 2011

Lounging in Lanzarote

Part of the reason we chose Lanzarote for our vacation was because we could use our time share week at one of their resorts, Club del Carmen. A few years ago, we bought a time share week on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. We can use this week in Kauai or we can trade it for lots of other locations around the globe, and since Hawaii is a ridiculously long trip for us right now, we opted to trade. The nice thing about owning in Hawaii is that it's considered a "platinum" location so it's easy to trade - the not so nice thing is that we rarely get an equivalent trade on our end, which was definitely the case with Club del Carmen. Don't get me wrong, for Lanzarote, Club del Carmen is probably one of the nicest resorts on the island, but let's just say it ain't no Hawaii.

We had a one bedroom unit with a kitchen, living area and nice balcony overlooking the pool. It was small, but fine for our needs. Our only complaint was that you had to pay for everything - wifi, water, pool towels! Oh, that and the mosquitos. Here are a few pics of the place.

I got a kick out of watching the other guests vie for sun chairs at the pool each day. When we arrived, we got a notice saying is was forbidden to reserve sun chairs with your towels around the pool and that towels left unattended for an hour, would be removed. So, each morning around 9am, I'd watch the pool migration - one member of the family would head out with everyone's towel, get their set of chairs organized and situated (oh, yeah, you had to get your own chair from a stack in the corner and set it up yourself) and then settle in to wait for the rest of the crew to arrive. It was funny to see groups stake their claim each morning - some people literally spent their entire week in the same place by the pool - they'd arrive at 9am and pack up around 6 or 6:30pm EVERY DAY. And the resort was only a 3 minute walk to the beach. Luckily, neither Brian nor I are "sit by the pool all day" kind of folks, so we didn't run into any issues.

Our lounging preference was to find a nice spot overlooking the water, have a drink or two and bring our books along. On our second day, we stumbled upon the perfect lounge spot along the top of Grand Playa (beach) in downtown Lanzarote. From this spot, we got a great view of the beach (and the fun little toys you could rent), could order drinks and food, had enough shade to stay cool and not get sunburned, and had comfy lounge chairs perfect for reading.

When we got tired of this spot, we could head to a nearby town called Costa Teguise and there was another cafe overlooking one of the beaches. This place didn't have the comfy chairs, but did have a nice bar, shade and a great view.


I know what you're thinking ... "Renee's blog posts make it sound like she's already on vacation" and in some ways that's true. Without a job, I do feel a bit like I've been on an extended vacation (or "holiday" as my European friends would say). But, Brian sure deserved one, so off we went to Lanzarote, Spain, which is one of the Canary Islands, for a week of sun, scuba and sightseeing.

We started our journey at 10:30pm to catch a flight from Abu Dhabi to Paris at 12:30am. Not sure why I couldn't find something earlier in the day, but it seems that a lot of flights leave AD very late (or very early I should say). Not sure if that's a time zone thing, the heat ... In any case, it worked out okay as Brian and I slept most of the way to Paris. In Paris, we ended up in line after line and missed our connection. The first line was passport control, a super slow line where the French officers behind the glass were living up to their stereotype. Then we proceeded to another excruciatingly slow line at security. Each passenger was stopped, boarding pass checked over very carefully, asked about liquids, laptops, remove your shoes ... it went on forever and I kept looking at my watch and asking every agent if there was a way to call up to the plane to let them know we were stuck in security. "Ca Va Madam - it's just up there, you will have time" ... we didn't, and the plane left without us ... we were less than 5 minutes late. (sigh)

But, if you're gonna get stuck somewhere, it could be a lot worse that Charles de Gualle. After getting rebooked for a later flight, we had a nice coffee and pain au chocolate and settled in for the wait.

Next stop was Madrid and then on to Lanzarote. We flew Air France all the way to Madrid, which was fantastic, as Air France is known to be. Then we switched to Spainair for the flight from Madrid to Spain and what a complete opposite. I would rank Spainair even lower than I rank Continental and that's saying something. Seats were incredibly uncomfortable - poor Brian's knees touched the back of the seat in front of him, it was so small. And you got charged for everything - not even a glass of water was free (which was a foreshadowing of our vacation in Spain). But we made it, as did our luggage, thank goodness, and we were in Lanzarote, and the temperature was in the low 80s, and I wasn't sweating!

We headed to Puerto del Carmen where we had reservations for the night at the Apartamentos Mirabel. We planned to stay the week at the Club del Carmen resort, but because of the flight timings, I couldn't get to Lanzarote on the day our reservations started (and could only check in on Thursday due to our timeshare agreement) so we had an extra night to book. It worked out fine as we didn't get in until almost 6pm and simply needed a place to crash and get in the right time zone - the Mirabel worked out just fine for that.

Here are a few pics of our view from this hotel. We were right downtown Puerto del Carmen, which is kind of a mix between Key West and the Wisconsin Dells. :)

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

I think it's finally time to mention the heat

In an effort to survive the summer, I've been putting off thinking about or writing about the heat as it's only going to get worse. But this week, with temperatures consistently reaching 110 and humidity hovering between 60-70%, I think it's time. It also helps that in just a couple of hours, Brian and I are off to Spain for a week where the temps should be at least 20 degrees cooler. :)

As Wisconsinites, we really don't have much experience with hot weather. Yes, we lived in West Africa for 2.5 years, but we lived in the coldest city in the country (literally) so didn't suffer too much ... and it was a dry heat. The heat here is nothing close to dry; it's wet, sticky and uncomfortable. I've been trying to figure out just how to describe the heat as it's easy to complain about, but I want you to have an idea of what it feels like. Here are a couple of thoughts to try and share the experience.

  • When you walk outside, your glasses fog up ... when you walk back inside, your glasses fog up.
  • Within 5 minutes of walking outside, my armpits are damp, my hairline is damp and often I can see beads of sweat on the backs of my hands.
  • If there is a breeze, it feels like you're in front of a hot hair dryer. I think this is the biggest difference. In WI if it was that hot, you might get some relief from a cooler breeze - not here, the breezes are just as hot and don't help one bit.
  • A car windshield shade isn't just a good idea, it's a requirement if you're parked in the sun. Without it, you would literally burn your hands on the steering wheel.
  • When you get out of the pool and lay on a chair to 'dry off', you don't - instead, sweat replaces the water from the pool.
  • Sunglasses are another requirement as it's not only hot, but very very bright.
  • Makeup? Don't bother if you're going to be out more than about 15 minutes - it'll just melt down your face.
  • I've taken to carrying an umbrella if I have to walk in the sun for any distance. Without it, I really do feel like I'm getting an instant sunburn.
  • If you've experienced a sauna and a steam room, it's a bit like combining the two - not quite as hot as a sauna and not quite as steamy as a steam room, but something in the middle of both of them together is summer in Abu Dhabi.
So, for those of you back home complaining about the current heat wave in WI, all I can say is, imagine dealing with those temps for 3 months! And now, I'm off to pack a sweater for Spain. :)

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Finding a Notary Public

During my 13 years at TDS, I was fortunate enough to build up a nice little pension and in an effort to keep things organized for our retirement, Brian and I decided to move said pension with our other investment accounts. Simple enough we thought, but it's been a 4 month adventure to do so (and we're still not finished!).

My 401(k) transfer was a piece of cake - complete a form online and have the money sent to our Investment company and we're done. For some reason (aka legitimate legal safety precautions that I don't appreciate because I haven't needed them) I couldn't request my pension funds by email or phone, but had to submit the forms via the original paper. The additional headache is that they couldn't email me the forms to complete, but also had to send those via snail mail! Seriously?! I begged, pleaded, offered to sign a waiver and finally realized there was no choice but to do this the old fashioned way. Oh yeah, and one more wrinkle. For some reason, Brian is hesitant to have docs like these sent to our PO box here in Abu Dhabi. I haven't really figured out why - I mean, my trashy celebrity gossip magazines arrive just fine (okay a few weeks late, but hey, we're half way around the world) so why wouldn't my pension paperwork arrive safely as well? :) So, we had the added hassle of having to get the docs sent to Epic under Brian's name who then Fed Exes the teams' mail every week or so. Simple enough, but it took more than a month to arrive. Still, no big deal, not like I can touch that money or it makes any difference for a while.

Got the docs, got my portion signed and then realized that WI law requires Brian's signature to be notarized. Again, I understand there are some shady spouses out there and that this was just to protect his interests, but really? Where am I going to find a Notary Public in Abu Dhabi? Thank God for the internet once again. I found one in the Abu Dhabi Municipal courts and at the US Embassy, and since going to the Embassy is a pain (more on that later) and the AD Municipal court had evening hours, I decided to try that.

Wednesday evening and Brian gets me from work and we head to the court building. After explaining what we needed, we found the right office and waited outside for the woman at the desk to become available. About a 10 minute wait in all, so not too bad ... except she took one look at my documents and said, "these are in English?" "umm, yeah, in English"  "No, I cannot notarize in English, only Arabic"


Never occurred to either one of us that this might be an issue. Now, in hindsight I guess it makes sense. So back home we went to figure out Plan B.

Plan B was the US Embassy. I'd been to the Embassy before and as a result was not looking forward to this trip. The first inconvenience is that they only have service hours from 1-3pm Sun-Thu so we had to figure out a time that Brian could take off work. That settled, we headed out there one afternoon.

My problem with the US Embassy is the clash between what I expect to find and what is really there. For some reason, I expected the Embassy to be this nice, comfortable, welcoming place where they show pictures of the Grand Canyon, New England in the fall, lush corn fields of Iowa and the California coast to a soundtrack of John Denver and Lee Greenwood. A place where US citizens can get a decent  cup of coffee, get business conducted and renew their passports. Instead, it's a cold, formal utilitarian place that looks like a prison where UAE residents and expats go to get their visas. It's not welcoming in the least and you feel a bit like a criminal as you work your way through all the security to get in. Let's just say that the Embassy here doesn't do much to portray the US as a warm, welcoming, or friendly place to visit. ;)

Upon entrance you go through the metal detectors (like at the airport) and a security guard looks through your bag, makes you turn off and hand over your cell phone and lets you take in your wallet and any necessary paperwork the rest of the way. You're then 'wanded' by another security guard just to make sure you're not trying to smuggle anything in. Next, you walk outside through a brown, dry dessert 'garden' to the main building where another security officer has to buzz you in (you see why it doesn't feel so welcoming). You are then handed a number and asked to wait ... with the hundred other people waiting. Since they're only open for 2 hours each day, the place is always packed.

The good news is that the process to get Brian's signature notarized was pretty straightforward. The bad news was that it took more than an hour and cost us $50 USD! Can't you get things notarized at almost any bank for free back in the states? $50?! (sigh)

In any case, mission accomplished and now my pension paperwork is complete and on its way back to the US to be processed. And, I won't have to make another trip to the Embassy until later this fall when I'll need to renew my passport - can't wait! ;)

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Dhow Cruise along the Musandam Coast - Oman

Another weekend, another adventure! This time it's because of a GoNabbit deal sent to my inbox. If you're not familiar with GoNabbit, it's a discount website that offers a new deal each weekday at 50% of more off the original price. Most days it's manicures, massages or restaurant deals, but this particular one was for a full day Dhow cruise along the Musandam coast, including transportation from Abu Dhabi - a good deal!

We started from Abu Dhabi at 6am. Well, actually, it was more like 6:10am because per usual, the driver couldn't find our place. :) A little over 3 hours in we hit the checkpoint for Oman where we had to show our passports and purchase an Oman visa. Pretty easy as our driver knew the ropes and handled most everything. Then, a long and winding road along the coast to Khasab where we met our Dhow boat. Well, actually, because we were about 20 minutes late, we got on another boat that had been reserved for a private charter and they dropped us off on our assigned cruise. (Yes, even in UAE the Stolls are late!! :) Here are a few pics of the drive along the coast.

We made it to the boat and settled in. The floors were covered with Iranian carpets and there were pillows and cushions to lay back on. Luckily, there was also a decent tarp cover to provide some shade as it was already getting pretty hot. We travelled through a long fjord called Khor Sham, which they've also named the "Norway of Arabia". Not so much - it's pretty in its own way, but nothing like the photos I've seen recently from Brad & Sherry's trip to Norway. As we travelled, we often had some dolphin friends hanging out and frolicking in our wake. I took about 20 pictures of them and below is the one that actually turned out. ;)

There was a German lady providing information on some of the areas of the trip - not sure if she came with the pack of Germans on the trip or with the boat, but she was nice enough to deliver the same info in English for us. This next photo is the first village of the fjord named Nadifi. There are around 120-150 people living there (which she said equated to about 5 different families) and they are fishermen. The children travel to school in Khasab by boat (there is no land access here). Despite how it looks, these families are very rich from fishing and most own a second larger home on the mainland.

We stopped at two different spots to do a little swimming and snorkeling and had a nice Arabic lunch on board the Dhow. A wonderful, relaxing day.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Read the Fine Print

This is my final post about our weekend in Fujairah and I'm choosing to share it because it's a good example of the cultural/language/perception mix ups that happen over here all the time. With so many different cultures, nationalities, religions, etc. it's a wonder we can communicate at all sometimes! ;)

In looking for a hotel for our trip, I started out with Orbitz, which is what I've used most often in the states. Orbitz works just fine, but I've also found a different site called, which has better rates than Orbitz. I found a few of the luxury resorts, but because we would spend most of our time on the dive boat, we opted for cheap, so I made a reservation at Carlton Furnished Apartments and provided my credit card number to secure the room.

We found the place easy enough as it's located on the road from Dibba to Khor Fakkan and has a huge sign above the supermarket where it is located. There's a lot of construction around the area, so you actually have to park at the supermarket and then squeeze around the side of the building to get to the apartments.

Okay, we made it - whew! When we checked in, they wanted one of us to leave either a credit card or ID with them for the duration of our stay. Seemed a little weird as I had already paid for the room by credit card on so we argued and finally reached a compromise that they could make a copy of our passports. There was no way we were leaving our IDs with anyone.

We got up to our room to find a very clean place ... with two twin beds! Well, I guess a romantic weekend away wasn't going to happen. ;) But, you get what you pay for and this place was a fraction of the cost of staying at one of the resorts. On our way back down to get some dinner, we were again asked to leave a form of ID and we again refused - I suggested some kind of deposit and they suggested that I could leave the full room price for our 2 day stay! Brian said okay, we'll bring it down later, and then we conveniently forgot about it. I know, not very nice, but this just seemed ridiculous - were they afraid we were going to trash the place or something?

We had a nice stay there, aside from the power going out 3 different times (once in the middle of a movie we were watching on TV). Check out time and we haul our bags out to the car. I went back in to sign off for the room and return the key and the desk clerk tells me I owe him the price of the rooms. I said, "no, I paid for the rooms already with my credit card through" and he said, "you did? I don't have that noted here, let me call." I had brought my confirmation email with me, so I pulled that out to show him the receipt for payment ...   ...   ...  and it said clearly that I needed to pay in full and in cash upon arrival!  Oh dear.  Now I finally understood what all the fuss was about the other day.  And I was really embarrassed. After profuse apologies on my part as well as the full payment in cash (thank goodness I had enough cash!) I slinked out of there to tell Brian the story.

Next time, I'll read the fine print on my booking confirmation!

Monday, July 4, 2011

Dive Log: Musandam, Oman

UPDATE! Thanks to Hana, one of our fellow divers on the trip, here are a few pictures.

The primary reason for our trip to Fujairah this past weekend was scuba diving. Brian and I have been diving for around 5 years now and have had some amazing underwater adventures, and we were excited to add UAE to the list. We were also very hopeful as this will be the first time we've lived less than a plane ride away from a decent diving opportunity (no, Devil's Lake doesn't count! ;)

I did some research online and exchanged a number of emails and settled on Freestyle Divers who operate out of the Royal Beach hotel in Dibba. The funniest part of the exchange was the directions to the harbor ...

"right at the dolphin roundabout, then left at the clocktower roundabout, then past the gravel area to the men with guns ..."

We wondered just what we had gotten ourselves into! Well, as you saw from the photos on my previous post, Dibba has made their roundabouts into artwork and the reference to the 'men with guns' was simply the border crossing into Oman (nothing scary in the least). In fact, on the way home, they didn't even look at our passports, just waved us through ... hmmm, maybe it was the salt-crusted faces and windblown hair that persuaded them we were safe?

We found the harbour without too much trouble and met our divemaster, Tom, at the dock. There were 8 divers and 3 snorkelers, which left us plenty of room to spread out on the boat and underwater. (Which was very lucky as the boat ride to our dive site was over one hour!) Tom's from South Africa so he asked us to get "kitted up" and then we were off ... or so we thought. After the motor killed the 4th or 5th time, we headed back to the dock to have one of the engineers take a look. He ended up jumping on board with us and had a day out at sea. We never did quite figure out what the trouble was, but from what I could tell, they needed someone to stand on the motor cover on the back of the boat when the throttle was wide open (the engineer and Tom took turns doing this for the trip out and back). On the way out, the snorkel group sang songs from the radio and the divers chatted about where we'd all been and the latest story of the couple being left on the Great Barrier reef in Australia by their guides ... probably not the best topic given our circumstances, but maybe Tom overheard and took an even more careful headcount! :) We also passed 2 different pods of dolphins and watched them frolic around the boat for a while.

We eventually reached our destination, which was somewhere along the Musandam coast of Oman, and jumped in. The water was very warm (93 at the surface and 88 at the bottom). Definitely the warmest diving we've ever done and the first time I didn't wear a wetsuit - it was fantastic not to get chilled. Visibility was about 5 to 15 meters and not great, but not too bad. It was a wall dive, which is pretty easy from a navigation perspective (just keep the wall to your right) and is home to lots of fish, eels, crabs ... Overall, a great diving experience and something we'll do again.

They had a full lunch on board during our break between dives and during lunch we were all on the lookout for whale sharks. Whale sharks are the world's biggest fish (not actually sharks at all) and they are really cool to watch. They are plankton feeders and cruise along the top of the water with their mouths wide open to scoop in plankton. We had snorkeled with them in Mexico and were hoping to see some of their Arabic cousins, but no such luck.

Second dive was also a nice and easy wall dive with lots of fish and beautiful coral. This area has deep ocean currents coming up from the bottom and mixing with the warm water of the surface which made for some very interesting thermoclimes. You'd be swimming along and all of a sudden, you'd feel this really cold current on one arm or across your legs or over your face. Very fun.

Our dives over, we stored our gear and settled in for the long ride home. Tom broke up the trip by  letting us snorkel at a place he had seen huge amounts of fish before. He talked it up by telling us that a short swim around this rock and bam! we would see tons of fish ... they must have been on holiday as well because when we came around the rock ... there were NO fish. We gave Tom a hard time and climbed back in the boat.

So, a great day diving and an easy trip for us to make again on a weekend!

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Off to Dibba Al Fujairah

June 29th was an Islamic holiday called Isra & Mi'raj. Isra is the night journey the prophet Mohammed made from Mecca to Jerusalem and back on the same night and Mi'raj refers to his assent to heaven and journey back to earth on the same night. It's said that during this trip, Mohammed met with the prophets Abraham, Moses, and Jesus and also had a meeting with God where he received the instructions that Muslims are to pray five times per day. (On wikipedia it says Mohammed was originally told that they needed to pray 50 times per day, but that Moses convinced Mohammed to bargain for something more reasonable and they agreed on five.) I didn't hear much about special celebrations relating to this holiday, but the UAE gov't did declare a public holiday on June 30th so we had a three day weekend!

SIDE NOTE: During all Islamic holidays, no one is allowed to serve alcohol. We found this out by accident when we went out for a drink on Thursday night and couldn't be served until 7:30pm after the liquor ban had expired for the holiday.

We decided to take advantage of the long weekend and check out one of the other of the United Arab Emirates, this time, Fujairah. It was a relatively easy decision to make as Fujairah has some of the only scuba diving in the UAE. I'll follow up with another post later this week and talk specifically about the diving, which was pretty good.

Dibba Al Fujairah is the town we headed toward as this is where the Dhow Harbour and diving boats leave from. I've added a map below to give you a sense of where we were. From Abu Dhabi, it was about a 3.5 hour drive and kind of pretty in a desert-sand kind of way. We saw quite a few camels, but unfortunately, my camera was in the trunk on the way there (I know, stupid!) and on the way home it was really hazy and I only got one photo, which isn't very good. In any case, the pictures will give you a sense of the landscape (really flat and sand dunes for most of the way and then rocky "mountains" as you get closer to the coast).

You can see Al Fujayrah on this map in the upper-right corner.
Here are a few photos from the trip back.
This is a section of the beach not far from where we stayed. The photo looks terrible because of the haze that day, but it was a pretty beach. I could just kick myself for not having my camera on that first day!

This gives you a sense of the terrain in the mountains. 
My only camel photo. :(
Every so often we'd pass a small oasis in the desert. 

Notice the differences in the color of the sand in these three photos. We were amazed to notice how the color of the sand was different as we made our way to the opposite coast and back. ... Hey! Cut us some slack, there's just not a whole lot to see out here, so we've got to notice the little things! :)