But What Do I Know? My Favorite Posts Of 2012

I listed the top viewed posts of 2012, but thought I would post a list of my favorite posts of 2012 too.

  1. Duomo’s Rooftop, A Sculpture Garden In The Sky – I just like the pictures.
  2. Dubai’s River, It’s Other Waterfront – I liked how different Dubai was from Geneva and loved its mix of cultures.  While you can see cool skyscrapers lots of places, there aren’t many where you can see the old wood dhows and the people from all over the world who trade on Dubai’s waterfront.
  3. Millennium Trilogy Walking Tour Of Stieg Larsson’s Stockholm – Part Two – I loved The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played With Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (Men Who Hate Women in Swedish).  When we went to Stockholm, I toured the sites mentioned in the books.  Most of them were in the super-cool Sodermalm neighborhood.
  4. Mohawks Welcome But Not Required At The Groezrock Festival– We love live music and a European Music Festival is something to experience.  This one had a great lineup and was well worth the resulting fatigue (better described as exhaustion).
  5. The Toblerone Line, One Sweet Barrier– We looked all over Switzerland for this puppy.  Once we found it, we couldn’t stop seeing it places (Reichenbach Falls, near Thun, etc.).
  6. Why I Love Running– One of my favorite things.
  7. Weingut Otto Laubsenstein – Fantastic people + fantastic wine = unforgettable time.
  8. It Wasn’t Premeditated, Our Hike Up Rochers-de-Naye – A reader suggestion and one of the best views in Switzerland.  If you’re not up for hours of hiking straight uphill, you can always take the train there.
  9. The Shock Of Your Life – Culture Shock – I tried to keep it real.
  10. Les Contamines – Although we’ve done a lot of skiing, this was one of our favorite days because we spent it with wonderful fr
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My Visit To Dubai’s Jumeirah Mosque

Located in the concrete filled coastal residential area of Jumeriah, the mosque’s elegant ornamentation and greenery makes it stick out.

Dubai is filled with mosques.  Nevertheless, all but one of Dubai’s many mosques are closed to non-Muslims.  The beautiful Jumeirah Mosque isn’t just open to non-Muslims, the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding gives free tours of it.   After a nice visit to the Centre the previous day (highly recommended), I had to do it.

Muslims wash before praying so in Dubai you see wash stations outside mosques.  You also see bidets in bathrooms (and even hoses next to toilets) to make washing feet easier.  It makes sense to clean before entering a mosque as Muslims touch their heads and hands to the ground while praying.

Shoe’s aren’t allowed inside mosques.  I left my shoes at the door.  Although the cat in the background kept trying to sneak into the air-conditioning, cats aren’t allowed inside mosques either.

Even though it was 48 degrees Celsius (118.8 fahrenheit), I covered up as required.  I had the lady tie up my headscarf for me and swear it instantly made me feel another five degrees hotter.  You don’t realize how cooling a breeze on your neck is until its covered.  I have to admit, I wasn’t disappointed when it loosened.  As I didn’t know how to do it properly myself, this is how it ended up.

The mosque was pretty.  After seeing so many churches in the same style on our European travels, the different style and layout was refreshing to the eye.

I visited Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding the previous day, learned a bit and enjoyed the dialogue.  The “tour” was a little different.  It was more like a session aimed at educating people about the basics of the religion and dispelling common myths (all in 45 minutes).  Although the ladies who conducted the session did a good job and injected a good amount of humor into it, I didn’t enjoy it as much as lunch at the Sheik Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding.

The clock showing the times to pray that day. Muslims pray five times a day: before sunrise (where the prayer reminds people that prayer is better than sleep), noon, in the afternoon when your shadow is approximately equal to your height, just after sunset, and in the evening.

I did learn a bit (which I’m assuming is the official line) about the Emirate’s approach to Islam.  Officially, it supports a moderate interpretation of Islam.  I imagine it would be difficult to remain a global center for business if it appeared did otherwise.  Examples they mentioned in support include:

  • not rejecting the validity of other faiths when they are “of the book”
  • not forcing women to wear coverings outside of church, both women cited the practicality of wearing such garments in Dubai but said they don’t wear them in other places  (one lady said the robe would soak up all of London’s rain)
  • most Emiratis don’t have more than one wife (divorce is permitted)
  • the government distributes guidelines for religious sermons, and
  • texts of sermons are submitted for approval

How Bazzar! Dubai’s Souks

 

A surprising amount of Dubai‘s traditional commercial activity is still conducted in traditional markets known as souks.  Dubai’s souks are chaotic labyrinths filled with energy, movement, sights and smells.  I can’t tell a lie.  In almost 50-degree heat (122 Fahrenheit), there is a little less energy and movement and a little more to smell.   As a result, the best times to see these old-style markets are during the morning and evening’s cooler hours.

Dubai has many of these atmospheric, vibrant, old-fashioned souks, each with their own specialization.  I checked quite a few of them out but didn’t buy anything.  If you do, plan on haggling.  It looked like part of the fun.

The Grand Souk Deira, a bustling textile souk, is Dubai’s oldest and busiest bazaar. Dating from the 1830’s, it contains hundreds of businesses that sell everything from cheap, good quality pashminas to exquisite fabrics to junk.  I giggled when the salesmen remembered me walking down the street earlier and many of them will try to strike up a conversation to sell to you.

On the other side of the river, the 300 stores of the Gold Souk, are filled with a dazzling array of cheap gold.  The souks are regulated by the government which ensures the quality and that items are of the purported the quality.  Silver, platinum, diamonds and other precious stones are also for sale.  By the way, if you are in the market for gold, you can also get a good deal at Dubai’s Gold & Diamond Park.

The nearby restored Spice souk sells exotic herbs, colorful spices and aromatic frankincense.  The barrels and jute sacks contribute to the atmosphere.  Not just a tourist attraction, it also sell groceries, and household goods to locals and workers on nearby dhows.

Dubai also has perfume fish and probably countless other souks that I don’t even know about.

For me as an American, it was really interesting to see so many similar business located in such proximity. Americans tend to think about things differently and prize convenience.  Therefore, in the US, you don’t usually see many districts with a singular-type business or industry that sells goods to consumers.  Businesses in the US tend to try to take advantage of proximity to the consumer.  That’s not to say that you don’t see a Home Depot near a Lowe’s.  I just mean that you don’t see 10 independent small business of the same type all in a row, let alone 50 or 100.

Enjoy the atmosphere and the unique merchandise.  Just don’t expect the souks to be untouched by globalization.  I was amazed by the large array of goods made in China that I could by at a dollar store or Asian market in Charlotte, North Carolina.

 

Dubai’s Malls: Where Money Can Buy Happiness, Or At Least A Walk In Air-Conditioning

Dubai is famous for its malls.  There are over 60 of them and they are immense.

While I didn’t see much in the stores themselves that surprised me and couldn’t find in New York City, the experience was amazing.  People in Dubai don’t go to the malls just to shop, they go escape the sweltering weather, socialize, eat and entertain themselves.

To lure credit cards, malls provide surreal attractions.

The Souk Madinat at the Hotel Jumeriah has artificial waterway that reminds me of The Venetian in Las Vegas.  Since it’s in Dubai, of course it’s bigger.

Go ahead. Shop like a winner.

The Dubai Mall has about 1200 stores.  There are towns a few miles from where he grew up with fewer people.  It has an Olympic-size ice-skating rink!  Hockey anyone?   If that isn’t enough to draw you in, it also has a four-story waterfall, a huge aquarium, indoor theme parks, and a fashion catwalk.   The aquarium is enormous and breath-taking with lots of fish that include stingrays and sharks.  It holds the Guinness World Record for the largest acrylic piece used in an aquarium.

The Wafi Mall has a glass pyramid, kind of like the Luxor Hotel in Las Vegas.

I visited the Mall of the Emirates because I had to see its indoor ski slope with real snow.  When I first heard about this, I couldn’t believe that someone would think to build an indoor ski resort.  For me, part of the fun of skiing is being outside.

Ski Dubai features five indoor ski runs, of varying altitude, incline and difficulty.  I didn’t give it a go because I figured the skiing wouldn’t be better than in Switzerland, but regret not doing it.  They rent you everything you need, parkas, boots, skis and snowboards… I’m not sure if they rent helmets, but wouldn’t doubt it.

It was fun watching kids running around, playing in the snow.  The Magic Planet, a two-story arcade, was lousy with kids fresh out of school and high on sugar.  I had to play.

Another reason I went to the Mall of the Emirates was that I’d heard you can get outstanding coffee drinks at the Armani Coffee Bar.  It did not disappoint.  My coffee drink was amazing and unlike anything I’d ever had.  It was like a super-refined latte milkshake.  The interior lights continually change colors and the Armani interior was elegant.  No surprise there.

As I was leaving, I saw something that fascinated me, a donation machine.  It allows you to give toward food, the disabled, orphans, treatment, house appliances (?), zakat, alms, constant alms and penance.  Does it mean that you can, literally, pay for your sins?

Camels And Falcons And Henna, Oh My!

Okay, okay, I know it is cheesy and a bit hokey, but I couldn’t help but enjoy myself at the “Arabian campsite” on my desert excursion.  I wish I’d been able to stay the night out in the desert, but settled for a sunset dinner.

Even with those sweet eyelashes and innocent eyes, I was glad that he had his muzzle on so he didn’t spit on me.

There were camels to ride outside the site and I immediately did it.  I couldn’t pass up my first (and perhaps only) opportunity to ride a camel.  Someone had warned me to hold on tight as the camel got up so it was surprisingly easy.

Falconry is popular in the region and we were treated to a falconry demonstration.  It was impressive.  After learning about raptors at the Carolina Raptor Center, I find them interesting, impressive animals.

The falconer takes off the mask, releases the bird, and swings the meat around on a string for the hawk grab.  Falcons come back for food.

Some people took advantage of the henna painters.  Others enjoyed smoking sheesha pipes.  A traditional pastime in Dubai, sheesha (also known as narghile in Turkey and hookah in India and Pakistan) is a long-stemmed smoking pipe packed with flavored tobacco.  I didn’t partake in that either, but I heard that Strawberry is the most popular favor.

I love middle-eastern food more than just about any other cuisine and was super excited for the spread.  In fact, I was so busy scarfing it down that I didn’t get a picture.  Sorry.

Luckily I was done eating by the time the belly-dancing started.  I love belly-dancing and the belly dancer was much better than I expected.  She performed in the heat for over a half an hour and had people mesmirised.  It is easy to see why.

Kicking Up Some Sand Dune Bashing In The Desert

I couldn’t visit Dubai without making a quick trip to see the desert.  On the way out, we passed a camel racing track.  Camel racing is huge in Dubai.  The season runs from late October to early April so we weren’t able to catch any races.

Dubai received bad publicity for the abduction/enslavement of boys for use as jockeys in camel races (the lawsuit was dismissed). To avoid using child jockeys, at least in part because of the inherent danger of the jockeying, Dubai now uses robot jockeys.  They look pretty sweet.

A visit to the desert isn’t as peaceful as you’d think. The desolate Sahara this is not.  We dove out the busy highway connecting Dubai to Abu Dhabi.  It is also a dangerous road; driver’s have to watch out for high-end sports car’s flying down the road.  I heard that you have to constantly be on the lookout for them coming up behind you and they expecting you to get over.  You also have to be on the lookout for camels.  As all camels in the United Arab Emirates are privately owned, hitting one, even if by accident, exposes the driver to massive fines, restitution and jail time!

In the distance you can see a bedouin village. They now pitch their tents and sit on rugs inside air-conditioned buildings.

What I did out there, dune bashing, wasn’t exactly peaceful.  It was exhilarating and tons of fun.

We followed a caravan of Toyota Land Cruisers out to the Arabian Desert.  Our guide told us these were the best vehicles for desert driving, although they continue to test new ones every year.  You might catch a glimpse of the test vehicle in some of the photos.  Once we were sufficiently far out and had deflated our tires for the desert driving, our guide pressed play in the CD player and gunned it.  I loved being thrown around the sand with the music blaring.

The sand differs in each Emirate. The redder sand blew in from another Emirate.

It was great fun and I was even able to sneak a glimpse at the sun setting over the stunning sand dunes…when sand wasn’t splashing on the windows.

After a couple of stops to take in the beautiful scenery, aka photo ops, we piled back into the Land Cruiser and headed toward our “Arabian campsite” for a sunset dinner.

Dubai’s River, It’s Other Waterfront

Dubai is situated on a creek that feeds into the Persian Gulf.  Historically the city’s lifeblood it is still a great way to experience Dubai, especially if you want to see something a bit less contrived. I went to an abra (water taxi) station in the Bastakiya Quarter (in the Bur Dubai area) for a ride across to the Deria side.  For 0.50-1.50 Dihrams (US $0.15-0.50) you can take one of the hundreds of boats that criss-cross the river.

Dubai looks different (and feels cooler) from the water.  I liked watching the colorful dhows make up the creek to the Arabian Gulf so much that I decided to go to the Dhow Wharfage to see more.  I didn’t have to walk very far.  Hundreds of superb old Arabian dhows were moored along the creek, sometime 2 or 3 deep.

Dhows are long, flat, wooden boats, the area’s traditional vessels.  Used in the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea, they’ve been in Dubai since the 1830’s when they established a free-trade port.

They trade with Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Oman, India, Yemen, Somalia and Sudan.  With laundry drying on deck and loaded with merchandise, they were an incongruous but mesmerizing sight.  Made from from wood (except for a few of the new ones), they precariously loaded with everything from air-conditioners to cars to car tires.  While much of Dubai appears to be locked away in elevators above the city or behind walls, they are loaded with signs of everyday life, color character and personality.  Perhaps they are so appealing because they stand in stark contrast to the sterilized cleanliness of Dubai’s hotels, malls and skyscrapers.

Their crew members work very hard for astoundingly little and deal with the intense heat, the waters and even pirates (did you notice that they were going to Somalia and Yemen).  When I rode up the river during the mid-day, I spied them trying to rest and keep cool.

Dubai’s Modern Architecture

Bastakiya’s old architecture juxtaposes sharply with Dubai’s masses of jaw-dropping skyscrapers.   Queen Elizabeth opened Dubai’s first skyscraper, the 39-story Dubai World Trade Centre in 1970’s.  Now, the building is dwarfed by those nearby.  It looks like short, little me next in a crowd of NBA players.

When Dubai learned that it was running out of oil in the late 1990’s, it set about remaking itself as a business and vacation destination.  With massive infrastructure projects underway, they began building skyscrapers with adventurous designs.   At one point, they had crews working around the clock on projects.  For example, up to 13,000 workers worked day and night on the Burj Khalifa.  At times, they built a floor in as little as three days!  Someone told me that at the height of the boom, a new skyscraper was completed each week.   Dubai continued this voracious building until 2008 when the economic crisis hit.

At that time, construction on the world’s tallest building was underway.  Financing fell through.  Rather than scale down the size of the project, the president of Abu Dhabi president who’s financial bailout saved stepped in to save Dubai, and gave around 10 billion dollars to complete this futuristic building.   The tallest building in Dubai had always been known as Burj Dubai (the Dubai tower).  To thank, him for completing the structure, it was named Burj Khalifa instead.  At 828 meters (2,717 feet with 160 floors), it 
is the world’s tallest man-made structure.  Sorry, I had trouble getting it all in the shot.

The crazy, ironic (and perhaps preposterous) part is that a large part of its interior sits empty and will remain so for the foreseeable future.  At least that is what we were told by locals while there.  Can you imagine what it costs to cool?

You can visit the world’s highest observation deck there.  It was so hazy and the wind clouded the views with sand so I skipped it.  I’m guessing that on a clear day, the views are stunning.  We did get to see the The Dubai Fountain show.  It reminded us of the Bellagio’s fountain in Vegas, only bigger.  It is Dubai after all.

I’m not sure if it is pollution or sand that caused the haze. Maybe a little bit from column A and a little bit from column B.

The nearby Sheikh Zayed Road and surrounding downtown Dubai has a stunning array of futuristic skyscrapers.  Coming from Geneva where the tallest building is a 12-story hotel that is well away from downtown stories, it was a bit surreal.   The glittering Emirates Towers pair of triangular-topped modernist marvels are instantly recognizable.

Most people instantly recognize the iconic Burj Al Arab, which is shaped like the sail of a dhow with an accompanying wave-shaped hotel.  It quickly became a symbol of the booming city.  It is crazy to think that this skyscraper with a lobby is higher than the Statue of Liberty is built on an artificial island.  They immediately began marketing the heck out of it although it’s impossible to earn more than five-stars, it’s marketed as a the world’s first seven-star hotel.  Exemplifying Dubai’s insane extravagance, 1600 square meters of the interior are sheathed in gold leaf.  How do you say gaudy in Arabic?

You can see the Burj al-Arab from the nearby Arabian-style Madinat Jumeirah, a hotel, shopping and entertainment complex.  It reminded me of an Arabian themed Vegas or Orlando hotel.  On the bright side, it is more tasteful than the Hard Rock Hotel or Treasure Island.  Perinally in workout clothes, I’m probably not the best person to be an arbiter of taste anyway.

The nearby Wild Wadi water park is one of the world’s best, with over 30 rides and attractions.

Heading further out, you reach another megaproject, the palm-tree shaped Palm Jumeirah.  Viewable from space and touted as the eighth wonder of the world.   It is an astounding mock-Arabian city, replete with five 5-star hotels, astoundingly expensive “beachfront” Arabian style residences (this is where Maradona, the coach of the local football team lives), restaurants, leisure facilities and, of course, shopping.   It is another example of opulent kitsch on an epic scale.

Exiting Palm Jumeriah, you see New Dubai,centered around the vast Dubai Marina development, to your right.  It has is the city’s next Big Thing, home to a string of luxurious beachside resorts and an extraordinary number of cranes.  Glass and steel architectural wonders begin to blend together.  It’s a shame because many of the buildings have audacious designs and sleek, innovative flourishes.

I’m so glad I went to Dubai, not just because it is interesting.  The scale and the speed with which it was attained is something that I wouldn’t have been able to comprehend if I hadn’t seen it.

Time Traveling To Old Dubai In Al Bastakiya

Dubai is unabashedly new.  Traditionally, buildings were made from palm leaves.  As a result, not many of the old buildings survive.  Dubai’s Bastakiya Quarter (in the Bur Dubai area) is one of the few places to see traditional architecture.  It is the oldest surviving part of the city and a sharp juxtaposition to the skyscrapers in the distance.

Walking through Bastakiya, you can almost imagine life here when it was a small fishing village and ancient trading port for dhows travelling Gulf to India and East Africa.

The Bastakiya neighborhood dates from the early 1900’s.  Wealthy pearl and textile merchants from Iran’s Bastak region settled here.  Even then Dubai’s trade policies attracted immigrants.   These Persian merchants used more durable coral and gypsum to build their houses that were heavily influenced by traditional Arabian architecture.

I loved exploring the chaotic labyrinth of traditional Arabian heritage houses. This maze of narrow alleyways isn’t on a grid pattern.  Instead, the streets orient toward the water to take advantage of its cooling breezes.  The high walls shade the tight lanes and interior courtyards for much of the day.

Virtually every aspect of the buildings was designed to counter the intense heat.  With heat like that, you can’t blame them.  Houses had a central courtyard and were topped with wind-towers. The towers, which are open at the top on all four sides, act as wind-catchers.  Amazingly effective, they funnel breezes into a central shaft, cooling the room below.  Residents would throw water on the floor underneath the tower.  The evaporating water-cooled the interior.  Trust me when  I tell you they needed every means they could find to help cool things.

Traditional Barasti huts made from palm fronds were cool and easy to build.  Unfortunately, they didn’t withstand the elements very well (and were probably hard to retrofit with air-conditioners).

How Hot Was It?

Mid-morning hydration break. I drank all of it and, well, let’s just say I wasn’t running around in search of a bathroom.

We had heard that December through March is the best time to visit Dubai and to avoid going during Ramadan.  July and August have average temperatures mid-30s to 40s Celsius.  We went at the end of June.  Oops.

You can see where the drip irrigation lines are located.

I’d been warned about the heat.  People actually used the word boil.  Knowing about the heat and actually experiencing it are two different things.  It was 48, 45 and 47 (118, 113, 116 Fahrenheit) on the three days I was there.  I melted.

Bus shelters are air-conditioned.

I have run marathons where I hydrated less.   Like Jane Austen, the heat put me in a perpetual state of inelegance (which unfortunately seems to be the status quo for me).  More accurately, I was dripping, a hot mess.  Luckily, I wasn’t the only one.  Anyone I encountered walking around outside was melting as well.

The inside. Not frigid air-conditioning like in the US, but it kept me from melting.

The heat is incessant.  It doesn’t let up.  Even after dark it is intense.  When I went to the airport at 5:00 a.m., it was already over 30 Celsius (86 Fahrenheit) intense, even after dark.

It was so hot that even the wind towers had air-conditioning.

Just how hot was it?

  • It’s so hot, today I saw a chicken lay a fried egg.
  • Birds have to use potholders to pull worms out of the ground.
  • It’s so hot you need a spatula to remove your clothing.
  • Potatoes cook underground, so just pull one out and add butter, salt and pepper.
  • It’s so hot that I saw two trees fighting over a dog.
  • It’s so hot the robins are laying their eggs sunny side up.

They joke that at one time, water was a more valuable resource than oil. I believe it. It hasn’t rained there in over 3 years!