Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Happy New Year ... Dubai Style!

Happy New Year!

We kept things low key this year. Oh who am I kidding? We keep it low key every year! I can't remember the last time we went out for New Year's eve. Not really our thing with the crowds, traffic, craziness. Better to stay home with the kitties, pop in a movie and try to stay awake until midnight. Which is exactly what we did.

And we had greater incentive to stay awake this year as Dubai was attempting to set a World Record for the largest fireworks display. While the results are still not confirmed by the Guinness committee, it looks like they've done it. SIDENOTE: Did you know that Guinness has a Dubai office? Wait, of course they do! :)

The live TV coverage was great as we got to see the display at the Burj Khalifa, then the Burj Al Arab and the finally the record breaking event over the Palm and World islands. No way we'd have seen all that if we had driven to Dubai. Newspaper articles say folks from Abu Dhabi took 5 hours (starting at noon) to reach Dubai for the event (it's a 1.5-2 hour drive tops on most days). No thanks, we'll watch from the couch in our jammies, thank you.

"The six-minute event spread across 100 kilometres of seafront, had been 10 months in the making and needed more than 200 pyrotechnicians to be dotted around the two sites to ensure everything went off without a hitch."  Yep, that's our Dubai!

And if you want to get a taste of it for yourself, click the link below.
Video of the Show

Wishing you all the happiest, healthiest and most prosperous year ever! ;)

Monday, December 30, 2013

Vietnam: Arriving in Saigon, or is it Ho Chi Minh City?

I'm a few vacations behind in blogging so let me see if I can catch up a bit this month. In October, we went to Vietnam for a week. A really nice trip and really interesting. Some had told us to be a bit wary of anti-American sentiment, but we experienced nothing of the sort and felt very welcome the whole trip.

We flew to Ho Chi Minh City (AKA Saigon) and found out that pretty much only government officials call it Ho Chi Minh City. Most of the population we met called it Saigon (one told us it was simply because Saigon is easier to say!) In any case, we arrived in Vietnam and made our way to our apartment that we reserved for the 3 days we would be in town.

We've started using Airbnb and VRBO (vacation rental by owner) for a lot of our trips - much nicer than a hotel - more room, cooking facilities. This place was near the Reunification palace and not too long a walk to most of the major attractions we were interested in seeing.

After getting settled, we decided to walk around a bit and find something for dinner. We wandered around and decided to get very local right away so stopped at a little streetside place serving . . . well, actually we had no idea, but it smelled good so we grabbed a seat. 
 I'm not sure how well you can see this from the picture, but basically, you sit around a very low table on very small and low stools (think of a child's play stool and you'll have the right impression). Lots of locals here so we figured the food must be pretty good.
And then we got the menu and realized this might be a little more challenging than we thought - our server didn't speak any English really, but we managed to convey the words soup and chicken and off she went. Oh, and Heineken was on the menu so we at least knew we'd get a beer out of the experience!

The good news is that our 'chicken soup' was absolutely delicious! We figured if this meal was any indication of what was to come, we'd have no trouble with the food.

On the walk back, we started to get a taste of the traffic and the number of scooters on the roads. Now, we've seen this before in Thailand and a bit in Sri Lanka, but nothing like the volume of Vietnam. The roads are absolutely packed with scooters and a few cars, but there is no road rage, a little honking to let people know you're behind them, but nothing irate. It's this flow - like fish in a stream. Pretty impressive. Unfortunately, we didn't get many good pictures to truly show what it was like, but this one might give you a sense.
Crossing the street is an adventure in itself. We were told early on that you just have to step out, stay confident and never stop or go backwards. The stream will pause and shift around you and you won't get hurt. Seriously? Okay they aren't going THAT fast, but still - just walk right out and they'll move around me?

And you know, they were absolutely right. The only time I had any trouble was when I paused or got nervous and took a step back.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

We're Moving!

No, not back home, just to another complex in Abu Dhabi. Not out of choice, but because we're being kicked out.

I came home one night a few weeks ago and as the taxi dropped me off at the exit and I started walking to our apartment, two women stopped me.

"There a residents' meeting tonight! We're all being evicted and they're making this a hotel!"

Huh? and Hello by the way (I'd never met these two). After getting a few more details, I found out there was a meeting in a few minutes with the complex management. I rushed home, changed and went to join the meeting. (Brian was in Saudi for work so couldn't attend.)

And sure enough, they've decided to make our complex a hotel with furnished, serviced apartments. I suppose kind of like the place we stayed our first month after arriving in Abu Dhabi. It will be fully furnished, have daily maid service and the option for room service. At 21% higher rent than we're paying now!

We actually have the option to stay and pay the higher rate, but we'd have to live through 4-5 months (more like 6-12) of construction noise and dust, sell all our furniture, relocate for 4-6 weeks while they renovate our apartment ... it just didn't seem like a good plan, so we're moving in mid-Feb when our lease expires.

We haven't yet figured out where - something closer to Dubai to help with Brian's commute and ideally somewhere that still has a bit of a garden for the kitties (we haven't told them yet - they're going to be crushed to leave their birds and bushes). The way the market works here, it doesn't do you any good to look more than about 4 weeks in advance because properties come and go so quickly here so we've got a couple more weeks before we need to start looking in earnest.

Part of me is excited as I love a change of scenery and an opportunity to redecorate (maybe some new furniture?). But the other half of me is exhausted just thinking about it. We don't have a lot of stuff here, but still - going through everything and organizing a move is never super fun.

And I'm sure the cats will be super helpful (yea right).
You can just move my box of treats over there.
I'm not leaving my garden of birds and you can't make me.
Wait! Petra's coming too?
Would love to help pack, but we're a little busy here.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Merry Christmas from the Sandbox

Yes, yes, I know, I've been a terrible blogger. Let's see what I have here in my excuses box . . . hmmm, busy? (used it before), holiday craziness? (they'll never buy it), getting old? (perish the thought!), just plain lazy? (yep, that should do it).

This time of year, a lot of people send sympathy wishes to us either in their cards (thank you!) or emails, facebook posts, etc. Things like, "I know you don't get to celebrate Christmas there ..." and "It must be hard with no Christmas over there ..."

I decided I'd better set the record straight so that you don't feel too sorry for us. Yes, Christmas time is harder than most because we miss family and friends, snow and Black Friday sales, but not because we don't have any Christmas here. The thing I love most about the UAE is that it is truly international - meaning we get to celebrate everything. Well, almost everything. I'll admit I've never seen anything for Hanukkah or Kwanza, but pretty much everything else. 

Now, it's not as public as back home, but in every hotel and shopping mall across UAE, there are Christmas decorations, music, holiday goodies and even a Santa Claus or two. Here's a taste of what we saw this year.
This is the tree at Etihad Towers (a residential, hotel and retail complex). This was in the lobby and the area next to it is a little shop selling mince pies, candy canes, gingerbread, etc.  Mince pies are HUGE - a British thing that our forefathers must have left behind when they boarded the Mayflower. Some of you probably now mincemeat or mince pies. I didn't really understand until coming here, and while not my favorite holiday treat, I try to get a few during the season each year.
This is the tree in the Park Rotana, just down the street from our apartment. This is the main one in the lobby and they had another smaller one and a gingerbread house down another hallway.
When we arrived at the Park Rotana, the Filipino staff was singing Feliz Navidad ... yep, in the Muslim desert. See? Who says we don't have Christmas here! :)
And this lovely tree was in the restaurant where we had Christmas dinner - turkey, stuffing, roasted vegatables ... and seared Ahi tuna for a starter. :) Not exactly traditional, but really good. And the winter fruits cake and gingerbread for dessert were amazing.
This huge tree was in the Ritz-Carlton lobby. We went there because we heard they were holding a "Christmas Market". Turned out to be just a decorated buffet dinner at their restaurant. Still, nice to see the tree.
And this is our pathetic plastic tree from the hypermarket. While you can find a very few real pine trees this time of year, the cost is outrageous and it just doesn't seem right to buy a tree shipped from Canada. I mean, come on, we're in the dessert! Accept it, buy your plastic tree and move on.

We haven't made it this year to Emirate's Palace, but I've heard they've got their standard monstrosity of a tree in the rotunda - might try to get there this weekend and take a look.

So, for those of you feeling sorry for us, don't. We've got plenty of Christmas cheer and holiday goodies to keep us entertained. And while it doesn't replace being home with family and friends, it does keep us in the holiday spirit.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Happy Hijri New Year! and a visit to the Rainbow Sheikh

November 5th was the Hijri New Year, which is the first day of the Islamic calendar. As I've shared before, many of the Islamic holidays are based on the moon cycle so they aren't fixed dates on the calendar. This year, new year's day was November 5th.

I asked my Emirati acquaintances how the new year is celebrated by Muslims here in UAE and got only a shrug - doesn't seem to be that big a deal. But, it did mean a day off work so everyone was happy about that. What's most amusing to me is that the 5th fell on a Tuesday this year, which is in the middle of the week. So, the government declared the holiday from work for November 3rd giving us all a three day holiday weekend. Who am I to complain? :)

So, did the Stolls jump on a flight to somewhere exotic? Sadly no - this time we stayed closer to home and explored a bit of our own back yard. We visited the Emirates National Auto Museum!

This museum is actually the private car collection of HH Sheikh Hamad Bin Hamdan Al Nahyan and consists of around 200 cars - everything you can imagine. Here are a few highlights:

Sheikh Hamad is know as the Rainbow Sheikh (no, not because he's gay - that would never be admitted in public here) but because he owns a fleet of rainbow colored Mercedes!
We couldn't even figure out what this was - the seats look too small for anyone but children.
I don't think this behemoth runs as there is a set of stairs going up into the cab (sadly blocked off when we were there). Here's Brian kicking the tires to show just how monstrous the thing is.  Why? As one of my recent taxi drivers said to me, "too much money".

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Buenos Aires: Botanical Garden

My last post of our Buenos Aires adventure is a tour of a beautiful botanical garden we walked through on an equally beautiful day in BA. Enjoy!

 Didn't see very many cats in BA - LOTS of dogs, but not too many cats so had to grab a photo of this one

Friday, November 1, 2013

Buenos Aires: Palacio Barolo

One of our favorite adventures in Buenos Aires (wait, do I say favorite on every post?) was the Palacio Barolo night tour.  The Palacio Barolo is a gorgeous office building with a lighthouse on the top and an interesting history.

(Copied from Wikipedia)
Italian architect Mario Palanti was commissioned to design the building by the empresario Luis Barolo, an Italian immigrant who had arrived in Argentina in 1890 and had made a fortune in knitted fabrics. The Palacio Barolo was designed in accordance with the cosmology of Dante's Divine Comedy, motivated by the architect's admiration for Dante and his work. There are 22 floors, divided into three "sections". The basement and ground floor represent hell, floors 1-14 are the purgatory, and 15-22 represent heaven. The building is 100 meters (328 feet) tall, one meter for each canto of the Divine Comedy. The lighthouse at the top of the building can be seen all the way in Montevideo, Uruguay where there is a similar twin building built by the same architect. When completed in 1923 it was the tallest building, not only in the city, but also in the whole of South America. It remained the city's tallest building until 1935.

The tour took us through the various floors with a narration on how the building aligns to Dante's Divine Comedy. We ended up in the lighthouse with some amazing views of the city and even got to sit in the light tower itself as the guide turned on the searchlight for us. Pretty fun experience. Here are some of the photos.
 A view of the lobby (also considered 'hell').
A view from purgatory down into hell.
Some beautiful accents throughout the building. This is supposed to look like a dragon head on and just ornate scroll work from the sides.
A gorgeous view from the lighthouse. The moon was in almost the perfect spot too.
Can you see Evita on the side of the this building?
Even the staircases were beautiful - and to think this is 'just an office building'.
This is off one of the patios (maybe around the 12th floor or so?) It's a huge patio area and this is looking back at the building. There's some significance to the green as well, but I can't remember anymore what it was. A cool view that's for sure.
Our camera has this amazing night shot setting, which is the only reason this photo turned out at all.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Buenos Aires: City Tour

Another highlight of our trip was a city tour. But not just any city tour, this one was in a vintage car!
We stumbled across the tour unexpectedly one afternoon and thought it would be a more interesting ride than the traditional big bus.  And we were right.
Cafe Tortoni is one of the oldest coffee shops in the city. We had breakfast there and it was awesome! The waiters are all in their 50s or 60s and have been working there forever. Not always the most friendly, but very knowledgeable and efficient. So different from the very young, unknowledgeable and inexperienced servers we're used to in Abu Dhabi.
We took in a lot of the architecture.  Buenos Aires was heavily influenced by Spanish, French and Italian and you can see all three in this picture. Can you tell the difference? 
The Congresso.
The oldest and certainly most ornate mosque in Buenos Aires.
Open air tour - a little chilly as the sun went down, but worth it. We also felt a bit like celebrities as people on the street waved and took pictures of the car. What a hoot!
This area is called La Boca and is said to be where tango first started. Did you know that tango was originally a dance performed by two men? It was how the dock workers entertained themselves in the evenings. Very colorful place.
Another view of La Boca.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Buenos Aires: Recoletta Cemetery

I know, I've been terrible at keeping up and now I'm a vacation behind again. Such a rough life I lead! :)

To continue our Buenos Aires adventure, we spent an hour or so wandering around the Recoletta Cemetery, which was in walking distance from our apartment. Why on earth would we want to spend time in a cemetery, you ask?  You'll see ...
Recoletta Cemetery is where the rich families built their mausoleums for the dead. No burials here, but instead elaborate crypts that are somehow beautiful if you don't think too carefully about what they contain.
As we wandered through, we found a huge ladder so I decided to climb up and see what things look like from the top ... not quite as pretty.
Meanwhile, these yahoos were supposed to be holding the ladder!
They variety of the styles, size and complexity is amazing. You can see in to some that have a staircase to a lower level, others that have a beautifully decorated table with photos of the deceased and others that are plain (relatively speaking).

 Nope, not a church, just one of the family crypts.
Apparently, angels wept when this guy passed on.

This was one of the older in the cemetery - such a contrast.