Monday, March 31, 2014

day 5: a falafel a day keeps the doctor away

We've got a few other things to get through first, but I have two words for you: food. tour.

Wednesday had been a big day so we were determined to take things easy on Thursday. We started the day at the Souk Madinat Jumeirah. The Jumeriah Resorts is a collection of several hotels on Dubai's coast. We'd already had drinks at the Beach Club, today we would be hitting up the Madinat Jumeriah, and Friday would be the piece de resistance of the Jumeriah experience - brunch.

The souks at the Madinat are completely new, replica souks. Again, very Disney, but it was fun to explore & do some shopping. I'm actually really glad we made the stop because I picked up my favorite souvenir of the trip - a camel print. I like to buy useful souvenirs on trips - things I will actually use and enjoy. We almost always come home with a Christmas ornament. Every year when we decorate the tree, we have fun reminiscing about past trips. You might also remember the bronze nativity set we bought in Barcelona. It's still one of my favorite vacation buys ever. I try to steer clear of the inauthentic trinkets that are mass-produced (usually in some other country) for tourists. We often end up bringing home food or wine, Christmas ornaments, and a wild card item like this print or the nativity scene.

After exploring the shops, we hopped on an abra for a little ride around the resort. This is where Venice, or better yet, Vegas meets Dubai. The Madinat is built around a series of manmade water canals. Abras are commonly used by the guests to get around the resort, but they also give rides for a nominal fee to non guests. It really was beautiful - authentic or not.

We lunched at a seafood restaurant at the resort. It was the second and last time we would eat seafood during the vacation. We were just so consumed with getting our fill of Middle Eastern food.

fruity drink alert! only the hotels serve alcohol in Dubai.
Jon appropriately ordered the redheaded saint
After lunch we hopped over to the beach so we could dip our toes in the Persian Gulf. I wasn't interested in spending much time on the beach. I was perfectly content to just get my feet wet. This may seem crazy, but I'm not a huge beach person. I get hot in the sun, and I think sand is mostly annoying. Give me a shady palm tree by a sand-less pool any day. We [read: Jon] also pedaled around on the bike path near the beach.

So part 1 of day 5 was a success, but part 2 of day 5 would *maybe* be our favorite experience of the entire trip. As we were doing our food research for Dubai, we stumbled across this blog - I Live in a Frying Pan. We planned on using her recommendations to find the best places to eat during our stay, but it turned out, we could do so much better - we could actually go on a food tour with said food blogger. Sign me up!

We would spend the next 5 hours traipsing around Diera (old Dubai) with an Indian-born, Dubai-raised tour guide eating dish after dish of amazing Middle Eastern food. Arva, expert foodie & tour guide extraordinaire, has lived in Dubai for most of her life. This was her neighborhood full of her favorite local eateries where she had been dining for years - what better person to introduce us to this fantastic cuisine?

Along the way, Arva gave us helpful instructions about how full we should feel (I was always at least 25% above her recommendations so by the end I was a good 200% full). She also told us about the history of the neighborhood, introduced us to the story behind the food, and showed us how everything was made. The history nerd and food lover in me enjoyed every minute.

The first stop was actually 2 stops in one. A street falafel shop and a sit-down restaurant owned by the same person. We had falafel, hummus, fava bean dip, lamb and cheese pie. Don't knock the cheese pie, I know it sounds weird, but trust me, it was amazing.

Lamb Mansaf 
kunafa (cheese pie) - yum, yum!

Then we headed to my favorite stop - the sweet shop. Baklava galore. It was so, so delicious. I've never had baklava like that. It literally melted in my mouth. And yes, I brought plenty home with me.  Keeping with the sweet theme, our next stop was for Syrian Boozah ice cream that you eat with your hands. Think about how awesome life would be if you didn't even need a bowl or spoon to eat ice cream. Yes, please.

making the ice cream
eating ice cream with our hands 
bonus henna tattoo shot
I think we're on stop #3 at this point, which was Egyptian feteer. I would describe it as their version of pizza. They had also just chopped a big batch of onions before we showed up so we were all literally crying as we downed our feteer. 
making some feteer
The next stop (are you getting full yet?) was an Emirati place where we had a traditional desert meal. We sat on carpets on the floor and learned how to eat with our hands. Jon excelled at this. I was a mess, but I powered through because the food was good and I didn't want to stop eating just because I was making a fool out of myself.

jon eating with his hands like a boss
i look more like i'm smoking something...
Finally, we checked out an Iranian spice shop before having our last meal at a Persian restaurant. Iranians are known for their rices, and the kabob we had there was so tender and flavorful. We also had the added pleasure of being serenaded by some live musicians.

making Iranian bread
eating Iranian bread


Almost all of the food was completely new to me, and I enjoyed every bite - some more than others, but nothing was unworthy of a second bite. My favorite dishes were probably the Jordanian lamb Mansaf (lamb with yogurt sauce), the kunafa (cheese pie) and everything from the sweet shop. It was so fun to learn about the different cultures and their different approaches to food - you could see how they were similar, and how they differed. My only regret is that I didn't wear stretchy pants.

The best part is that we wouldn't have found any of these places on our own. And even if we had, I'm sure we would have ordered all wrong. The restaurants were more along the lines of "hole in a wall" - places I'm sure we would have easily walked past without being tempted to stop. The Iranian restaurant, for example, was on the 2nd floor of a rundown, under-construction mall. I never would have guessed they were turning out some of the best food Persian food in the city.

Now that we're back, I'm so excited to test my newfound food knowledge and branch out to try some local Middle Eastern places. Now that I know some dishes I like (and have some general ordering guidelines), I'm excited to explore the places in my own backyard. I know they probably won't be nearly as good as the real deal, but I must figure out where I can get a slice of kunafa without flying halfway around the world.

And now, in our bravest move yet, we would follow our evening food tour, with Friday afternoon brunch. I'm not sure what we were thinking, but stay tuned for day 6, which I'm already pretty sure should be titled: it's all fun and games until somebody gets so full they can't even move.

a note on baseball

Happy Opening Day!

I'll admit it, I have a soft spot for sports. It pulls at my heartstrings like few other things can. I'm a sucker for the underdog, the comeback kid, an improbable team. I love feeling the elation of a big win, and I hate seeing the devastation of a tough loss. This image from the NCAA tournament nearly broke my heart. I have no vested interest in Arizona State or this basketball team, but it still hurt.

I may or may not have gotten all teary watching this E:60 special on the 23 pitchers that have thrown a perfect game - and that's for the ones that achieved it. I darn near lost it for the ones that came *this* close. Come to think of it, I get teary during most episodes of E:60. I just can't help it.

Football is great. It will always be my first love. But when spring rolls around, give me baseball. The hot dogs. The superstitions. The mystery. The chess match. The steals. The pitchers' duels. The home runs. The extra innings. The small ball. The smell of the grass. The old school socks. The unwritten rules of the game. The signs. The stealing of signs. If you think baseball is slow, we're probably not watching the same game.

It's why I get so excited for opening day. Today is the start of 162 opportunities to pull at my heart strings, and 162 opportunities to do it all over again the next day. That's far more than any other sport can offer. It's a unique experience, and if you're a baseball fan, you know this roller coaster is unlike anything else.

So because it's opening day, and I get all sentimental around this time of year, here is my favorite baseball moment. Even knowing how it would end the next night, I'd still do it all over again. Because that's baseball. As the great Boswell put it, "If half of your life is richer than the other half but you don't know quite why, you're probably a baseball fan."

Monday, March 24, 2014

day 4: abu dhabi do

Sometimes you have a great plan for how you are going to get from Dubai to Abu Dhabi. And sometimes you end up in the back of a hot, cramped van with 6 other strangers, all men, on your way to being dropped off in the middle of a 6-lane interstate.


On Tuesday, I did extensive planning for our day trip to Abu Dhabi. We would taxi to the central bus station in Dubai, buy tickets for the E100 bus, find the E100 bus, and sit back for a relaxing 2-hour(ish) trip to Abu Dhabi. I had even looked up the bus time tables to make sure we could catch a bus with plenty of time to spare before the morning tour at the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque.

We woke up early to execute said plan. We made it to the bus station no problem. As soon as we got out of the taxi, we were approached by a man who offered to take us by taxi to Abu Dhabi. We must have looked like pretty obvious tourists on our way to Abu Dhabi. Taxis are plentiful & cheap in UAE so hiring one for a long trip was not out of the question. They are subsidized by the government to keep the cost way down. Still, we had planned on the bus because it was only slightly longer, but much less expensive.

Jon, however, jumped at the chance to go by taxi instead. I guess he is easily persuaded. I couldn't understand why the guy was offering to take us for so little money, until he ushered us to a van and told us to pick our seats. It became clear that we were not going to be alone on our little voyage. At this point, I wanted to bail. But Jon was committed, and we weren't going anywhere until that van was full.

Starving, and annoyed, I hopped over to a gas station and bought the only thing that looked familiar - peanut M&Ms. Once the van was fully occupied with 6 men, we were complete silence. No radio, no talking, little AC - just the awkwardness of 8 strangers and the sound of Jon crunching his M&Ms. It was basically my worst nightmare.

They had promised to be drop us off at the Mosque. What they didn't tell us, is that we would actually be dropped off on the side of this 6-lane interstate several hundred yards from the entrance to the Mosque. We didn't really have any choice in the matter so we hopped out & attempted to run across the road without dying.

Safely on the other side, all we had to do was walk to the Mosque, right? Wrong. The Mosque is rather large. There are multiple entrances. We chose wrong. So back toward the road we headed so we could walk in some just-watered dirt until we had reached the correct entrance all the way on the other side. Jon fail. He still owes me a new pair of shoes for that one, I believe.

So our morning was off to a rocky start, but things were looking up. Way up. The Grand Mosque is one of the most beautiful buildings I've ever seen. It was truly spectacular.

I'm not very good at describing things so I'm not really going to try. [See photo dump below]

What I can tell you is why I think I liked it so much. Sometimes I see something really intricate, detailed or impressive and I can appreciate and acknowledge the skill & expertise that went into creating it, but I don't necessarily like it. I feel this way about most works of art. They just usually aren't my thing or my taste. What I liked about the Grand Mosque is that it was not only impressive, but I personally found it to be beautiful. It's how I would build my mosque if I were building a mosque :)

The spotless white marble, the semi-precious stones, the mosaic tile, the gold (yes, some of it was real 24k gold), the colors, the pools, the carpet! I was just blown away. I could have spent all day there just staring at everything.

We went on the free public tour that started at 10 a.m. If you haven't already noticed, I love a good tour (and I really hate a bad one). This one was especially great because it was free, short, informative, and allowed us to access some areas outside the tourist ropes.

abu dhabi had flowers and trees

yep, that's 24k gold
how do you keep all that white marble clean? lots & lots of sweepers

the clock that tells them sunrise & the 5 prayer times for the day
used to be the world's largest chandelier. they seemed unhappy about losing that title. 
our fearless tour guide (and that amazing carpet)
this is where the Imam gives his Friday sermons - a pulpit of sorts. 
it's supposed to represent the milk & honey of heaven
it took over 1,000 Iranian women 2 years to hand weave this carpet
it's the largest single piece of carpet in the world
i just happened to wear matching pants and polish
the women's wash room

After leaving the mosque, we had lunch by the water and enjoyed a great view of Abu Dhabi. We took the bus back to Dubai, and it was lovely. Bus > taxi van.

Abu Dhabi

That night we went back to eat dinner at a Lebanese restaurant near the Dubai mall. We got another view of the Dubai Fountains, but our main reason for eating there (besides the yummy food) was to be near the movie theater in the mall. We had reservations (yes, reservations) to see the movie Non-stop, perfect choice before our impending trans-atlantic flight. Ha! The movie was fine, but the main reason for going was the theater.

more fountains

We bought tickets for the platinum experience - there were only 32 total seats in the theater. They were big, comfy lazy boy-like chairs that fully reclined and came with a blanket & pillow. We pressed a little button to call the attendant when we wanted to order food & drinks. It was amazing, and it has completely ruined any future movie theater experiences for me. Nobody does luxury better than Dubai.