Thursday, September 28, 2017

A Year or Two in Review [Yet Somehow I Haven't Aged a Day] Pt. 2 / Love on the Persian Gulf

Dear Readers,

I have one promise for you...this post will NOT be as long as my last one. 

Scout's Honor.

(Just kidding, I was never a scout.)

Truth be told, this post will not be as long because I was only in Abu Dhabi for approximately a Planck instant.

Let's rewind.

You may be wondering, "What?! Why would you willingly move to the same place Garfield threatened to mail Nermal?" 

Good question. If you recall the sentiment from the end of my last post, you now know that

However, I forgot the second-half, and most-critical, lyric to that song, "but I won't do that," when I decided to repack the contents of my lil backpack and move halfway across the globe to be with my beloved.


Mi favorito partner in crime/recent fiancé, Sanoon, and I parted ways in Thailand promising to meet up within 3 months despite where we were in the world. As I spent the summer living it up on Martha's Vineyard and he returned to work in the Maldives, we had both been offered a couple of choices as to where we could relocate together. I was offered a job as the resident yoga instructor on a private island in Turks and Caicos, while Sanoon was offered a job as a front office manager on a private island resort in Abu Dhabi. [What is our deal with private islands?] 

Both employers knew Sanoon and I were coming together as a package, so to make the proposals even sweeter, both properties offered positions for our partners to accompany us as well. [Unfortunately] Abu Dhabi won out as it promised a double job promotion for both of us. After MUCH hemming and hawing [#understatement], I agreed to move on one condition... I would apply for Sanoon's K-1 Fiancé Visa and we would move to the States as soon as it was approved. The typical approval process for a K-1 Visa lasts anywhere from 8-10 months, so I knew there would be a limit on the amount of time we'd be living in the Middle East. With that in mind, I applied for our visa and moved at the same time, mid-October 2015 [I know, I know...I'm so backlogged on these posts].

I feel like I cannot give an accurate assessment of Abu Dhabi as a city because my entire experience there was colored by working for the most corrupt company I'd ever had the misfortune of knowing. For the purposes of avoiding any legal battles with the insane management of that property [they've been known to threaten people], I will refrain from calling the hotel by name or posting too many photos of the property.

My days there looked something like this: 

Every morning at sunrise, we would take a speedboat transfer from the coast of Abu Dhabi

 to the empty shoes of our resort island.

From there, we would walk through the depressing and windowless shipping containers staff housing,
(Yes, this is really the staff accommodations.)

and into the resort, where rooms went anywhere from $1,500-$50,000 per night. Most of the patrons of the hotel were sheikhs and other royalty leaving the Sharia Law shores of the Emirates and trading in their national dress code of kanduras [white cloaks worn by the men] and abayas [black gowns worn by the women] in favor of board shorts, bikinis and other lawless leisure they had no other access to on land.
(Many transfers to the island were from private helicopters like this one).

Our working conditions were poor. We were required to work 12 hour days, fed slop, and often stranded on the beach for several hours after work ended as we waited for our speed boat transfers back to Abu Dhabi. The reason for our frequent stranding was the direct result of the hotel running out of fuel to operate their boats. You may be wondering: how could any company in the United Arab Emirates, a land rich in oil and fossil fuels, ever run out of gas? The answer: our ownership neglected to pay their suppliers for months on end and were literally cut off from services. What began as delinquent payments to the suppliers soon trickled down to backpay for all the staff. At one point, several pay periods had passed before ever seeing a paycheck.

For the first time in our relationship, I witnessed an unhappy Sanoon...which says a lot since he has the general disposition of a contented Buddha.
(Sanoon, pre-Abu Dhabi)

However, we found ways to make life bearable despite being temporarily tied down to that terrible job. My favorite escape was physically leaving Abu Dhabi and heading to Dubai for my weekends. Dubai offered all the "-est" of everything in the world. The tallest buildings, fastest carsbiggest name it, Dubai had it and then some.
(This alien looking architecture is the Burj Al Khalifa, the tallest building on Earth.)

Dubai's wealth comes mainly from the oil and fossil fuel industry, however tourism and trading helps to rake in enormous income to the Emirate as well. Many job-seeking expats choose to emigrate to Dubai for it's tax free earning potential and ability to save loads of money, so the city is teeming with a young and hip international scene. One comedian I heard on a night out in the city said, "Dubai is where middle class westerners come to feel upper class." [#truthbomb]

As exciting as it was to get lost in the hustle and bustle of Dubai, more than anything, I loved getting found by my mermaiding yogini gal-pal, Jo. Jo and I became fast friends in Thailand some months earlier on Anna Sugarman's Yoga Teacher Training Course in Koh Samui. 

Jo is an amazing woman who took her passion for magic and mermaids and created the new Dubai sensation Mermaids of Arabia. But before diving into that entrepreneurial ocean, she helped me transition into enjoying life in the UAE by making me some kicka$$ vegan salads accompanied by superfood super-smoothies, 
(Sorry, not sorry.)

taking time out of her week to share in finely crafty cocktails,

(Don't let my composure in these photos fool you...)

(That mango martini was the death of me...and subsequently, the death of Jo's pashmina scarf. #pukedinthepashmina #sorryJo)

and donning our finest yoga pants on the beach for impromptu asana sessions [read: photoshoots].
(Oh this? This was totally candid.)

If you've been following my blog at all, you know that I'm a total birthday glutton, and pounce at the first opportunity to get the hell outta Dodge travel in the guise of celebrating my favorite day of the year. It was a no-brainer to spend my first [and last] Emirates birthday in Dubai. 
(Does this pose look familiar?)

(One year earlier...I'm sensing a trend.)

Lucky for me,  my dear friends from the Maldives, Bindhu and Suman, had moved to Dubai around the same time I arrived in Abu Dhabi. Both girls worked at a swanky downtown Dubai hotel and were able to score Sanoon and me a couple nights there at a massively discounted rate for my special day.
(I only had to travel halfway around the world to reunite with these dear souls.)

Sanoon and I enjoyed my birthday weekend lounging around the hotel pool,

And exploring Dubai at night.

Before we knew it, it was time to head back to Abu Dhabi, where we fell back into the grind of life. However, we still made the best of it by taking time each week to explore the city [read: hang out in lavish malls].

One highlight of my short stint in the UAE was heading to the desert with my pal, Tia, 

and attending a Camel Beauty Pageant.

I know what you're thinking, "How do they judge a camel beauty pageant?"

It's simple. These dromedary darlings are judged by:

1.) The length of her neck,

2.) The size and shape of her humps,

3.) The best camel toe in all the land.

Basically, how most beauty pageants are judged.
(Make camels great again.)


But I have to say that the best week I had in the Emirates was when my dear friend Jon flew all the way from New York to celebrate the New Year with us. Ever since my mom told me to become friends with Jon in 8th grade [because "he seemed like a good egg"]  the two of us have been the fastest of friends. Whether we were the [self-proclaimed] Best Dressed Prom Dates at the Macaroni Grill in Lincoln, Nebraska,

Or hands down, the [self-proclaimed] Best Dancers at a Dog Wedding in Brooklyn,
(Edith and Archie, still going strong 70 dog years later)

For the last 21 *cough* 11 years, the two of us have always created the most memorable adventures together. 

Not only was I excited to spend the week galavanting through Abu Dhabi and Dubai together, but Jonathan was my first "family" member from home to meet Sanoon, so the pressure was on!

Knowing this was a big occasion, Sanoon and I decided to pull out all the stops on Jon's first night in town. We took him to our favorite restaurant in Abu Dhabi, the Shanghai Surprise [because when one thinks of Abu Dhabi, you immediately think of Chinese food]. Shanghai Surprise is located on a random floor in a random hotel that is perfectly situated in a random neighborhood of Abu Dhabi.

We loved Shanghai Surprise for its vast and affordable selection of pan-Asian cuisine, bottomless bowls of kimchi and dimly-lit cafeteria style seating. However, the love we felt for the restaurant was not ours alone. It was shared by a constant influx of South Asian families filling the long tables to celebrate various life-events over flaming plates of pan-fried noodles.
(This level of joy is hard to match)

Much to our [Shanghai] surprise, we found out that the only karaoke bar in Abu Dhabi just so happened to be one random floor down from us in the hotel. We polished off our plates and headed downstairs to check out the scene. 

If you look closely at the signage outside the door, you'll see that the karaoke bar has a daily Happy Hour that lasts from 12 noon-8pm. With a deal like that, no further endorsement was necessary. We pushed through the heavy double-doors, ready to discover just what sorts of patrons frequented an 8-hour long Happy Hour, and were greeted [read: ignored] by about 10 old white men and a handful of middle-aged Southeast Asian prostitutes in bedazzled denim. Surprisingly, none of them were karaokeing, so I took it upon myself to serenade them with a moving rendition of Toto's "Africa."
(It's the best song ever, and you know it)

Everyone danced to my stellar singing [and by "everyone," I mean this lone, 2-foot tall electric Santa Claus in the corner].
(Always happy to pose for photos with my fans)

Although I would have been happy to belt out another classic tune or two for Santa, we decided to call it an early night in lieu of our big plans for the next day...


Have you ever wondered what an alien spaceship, manned entirely by Italians, and landed smack dab in the middle of the desert might look like? 

Behold, Ferrari World! [aka the location of our next big adventure]

According to the Wikipedia gods, Ferrari World is the first Ferrari-Branded theme park in the world and has the largest space frame structure ever built on the planet [see above]. It's also home to the world's fastest rollercoaster, Formula Rossa, which accelerates from 0-150 mph in the first 5 seconds. It's basically like riding an aircraft carrier, if you were strapped to it from the outside and flipped upside down at the speed of sound.

I'm not usually one to spend my time at theme parks, however, my superstar gal-pal, Jo, was able to hook us all up with free VIP passes for the day to the park, and there was NO WAY to pass that up. 

We revved our engines past the uber-authentic Italian/Middle Eastern eatery, Buca Di Beppo, 

Put the pedal to the metal at the entrance of the park,

And were off to the races as we blasted past queuing children, and used our VIP status to cut directly to the front of the line at Formula Rossa...twice.

There's only so much G-Force that my stomach can handle, so we went on to explore the rest of the park by taking awkward selfies in front of fancy vehicles,

Gawking at the miniature Italian countryside from the driver's seat of our very own sports cars,

And, [our personal favorite], riding a 4-D rollercoaster that virtually took us into the Ferrari Factory. The ride was fun, but to be honest, it kind of made us all a little bit nauseas. Curious what I mean by that? Check out this video after the jump and get a taste for yourself. However, it wasn't so much about the experience of the ride itself that we loved so much, but the fact that we were packed into an 8-person rollercoaster with an adorably enthusiastic Indian family. Based on the excited reactions from this family [read: screaming and grabbing at the air in hopes of catching a 3-D hologram], I would venture to say this ride was the best thing that ever happened to them. 

Our picture was captured midway through the ride and offered as a memento at the departure gate for a mere 35 Dirhams. I cannot aptly describe the epicness of this photo. Between the flying saris, the shrieking uncles and Sanoon as white as ghost and ready to puke, it was everything we could ever hope to capture in one digital moment. So why don't I have this photo to share with you? Because we were cheap-ass Americans and thought 35 Dirhams [exchange rate: $9.53] was too much to ask for a picture. 


You know what I do miss? 
That picture.

You know what I don't miss? 

The pangs of regret are sharp.

It's been nearly two years since that fateful decision and Jon still texts me randomly googled images of Indian families on roller coasters in hopes that one day we might be able to recreate the moment.
(Close, but no cigar)

I now know the taste of regret, and it doesn't taste like Middle Eastern Buca Di Beppo...or does it?

Ferrari World is not far away from the Sheikh Zayid Grand Mosque of Abu Dhabi. The Grand Mosque, revered for its stunning architecture, is considered the key site for worship in the country. The last thing Sanoon felt like doing was spending the rest of the afternoon at the mosque, so Jon and I set out to see the site ourselves. The artistic attention to detail throughout the structure was truly magnificent.

After our full day of fun in Abu Dhabi, Jon headed to Dubai for some solo-adventuring. Sanoon and I promised to meet him there a couple days later to partake in some of the world's most extravagant New Year's Eve parties. 

Like I said, Dubai has the -est of everything, and New Year's Eve is no exception. Dubai holds the world record for the biggest fireworks display in the world, blasting pyrotechnics across the skyline at midnight in a 180 degree show for what feels like an hour [it's actually only 15 minutes, but with enough champagne, you'd swear it was longer]. The city also claims to have the costliest parties in the world, averaging $600 per person for entry at any number of bars and venues on that night. [Upon further retrospection, that 35 Dirhams is feeling pretty. damn. minimal.].

We chose to attend a party on the rooftop of the Radisson Blu hotel in the Dubai Marina, and ring in the new year witnessing the ostentatious light shows whilst sipping champagne and dancing to the backdrop of some pretty phenomenal house music.

When the clock struck midnight, the $6,000,000 worth of fireworks did not disappoint. It was the perfect ending and beginning of an era.

Like I said at the beginning of this post, I did not stay very long in the UAE. Although I had planned to stay for at least 8 months as we waited out the approval of our K-1 Fiancé Visa, much to our surprise, our request was approved within one month of me moving to Abu Dhabi! Sanoon set an interview date with the U.S. Embassy, and a few days after the New Year, he was granted his passage to the United States. Against all odds, everything about this process flowed so easily that I was certain we were aligning on the correct path. 

I packed my lil backpack once again and kissed Sanoon temporarily goodbye, as I prepared to scratch one last travel itch before moving to our new home in America...

But that's a story for another time.