Why Travel?

Exactly a week ago, we were sitting at a financial advisor’s office admitting, somewhat embarrassingly, that most of our assets are in our passport stamps.
This morning, I woke up to this view:

What embarrassment?

Hello, my name is Jenia, and I am a travelholic.

Traveling makes me happy, preparing for a trip makes me giddy. Heck, I even like packing! If you wake me up in the middle of the night, hand me a ticket to virtually any destination, and allow 30 minutes to get ready, I won’t even consider turning down the offer. Shon is the same, minus the packing part. Little Turtle doesn’t really care yet, truth be told.

Between the 3 of us, here’s what our travel map looks like:

visited 28 states (12.4%)
Create your own visited map of The World or Amsterdam travel guide for Android

The old saying about birds of a feather holds true to us as well. We tend to surround ourselves with other travel junkies. This summer, we asked some of them to share why they travel. Here’s what they said:

Andrew, 54;45 countries:

“Why? Because I do love travel and I want to serve others, serve Christ.”

Bennet, 2; 7 countries:


Emile, 10; 8 countries visited (and at least 2 more planned before October):

“I like to travel because I like to explore and learn new things.”

Frank & Melissa, 35 & 34; 32 countries by the end of this month:

“We travel to see the world, experience new cultures, try new foods, and get out of our comfort zone.”

Jenna, 27; 17 countries:

“I travel because you can learn so much – about language, people, religion/spirituality, communication, lifestyles, art, food, architecture, view on life (others and your own), and much more.”

Jody, 38; 12 or 13 countries:

“I travel because I love adventure and experiencing new places and peoples and cultures. I have returned to several of these countries as well. I love meeting people and learning new and different perspectives from people. I love to see how people totally blow stereotypes to bits and I enjoy seeing how people from such different places and cultures are really just like me. God’s creation is beautiful and I love communing with Him in his creation.”

Maria, 31; 31 countries:

“I actually never thought about “Why”. It seems a most obvious thing to do with your time. I would rather ask why someone would NOT travel if they have opportunity?”

Megan, 30; 12 countries:

“Travel because it brings adventure, expands your knowledge, and grows your compassion for all man kind.”

Ryanne, 29; 11 countries (+2 more by the end of summer):

“Because there is only one world and we all live in it. To love all and everyone. 1 John 4:12
No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.”

Scott, 28; 17 countries:

“Travel because it “broadens the mind.” Travel opens your mind to new cultures, customs, and ways of life. Experiencing the unfamiliar challenges what you’ve always expected to be universally true. The newness breeds a sense of adventure as you incorporate the unfamiliar into your own expanding worldview.”

Susanne, 47; 11 countries (2 more by October):

“God blessed this world with so many extrordinary places, people, cultures, and things to learn. Then, He gave me an abundance of curiosity and an adventurous spirit, so travel I must.”

I, Jenia, am 31, and have been to 23 or 24 countries. I believe that the more I travel, the more I learn about myself, the country I came from, and its people. The more I discover the world, the more I discover myself. That’s the biggest draw of traveling to me.

Summer Break, Pt. 3: Rumbles and Rides

Hello all, Shon here.  This week I’m writing about things we don’t do in the UAE, and which we are enjoying while in Northeastern Georgia.  I want to warn you right off the bat, that part of this post is about motorcycling, so if you find that boring (which you shouldn’t, because it’s amazing), you may want to skip this and spend your time reading something else.

Motorcycling exists in the UAE, of course, but I left my Triumph in the States and don’t ride in the UAE.  Why not?  Because the UAE is known (rightly) for its lunatic drivers, and I figured a motorcyclist is easy prey for a zooming SUV in the wrong hands.  After a couple years’ residence in the area, I now feel I’d be okay, but still, why push my luck?  Besides, it’s just plain too hot to ride in full gear there much of the year.

Georgia is both safer and more comfortable for riding.  Nonetheless, the high humidity does a lot to offset the drastic 20-30 degree Fahrenheit difference in temperature from Al Ain to the southeast US, and normally I don’t go on a ride of any length without full safety gear–armored pants, jacket, etc., which makes the ride much warmer.  Spending any time outdoors is miserable in leathers if you’re not moving and the thermometer reads in the 90s.

Somewhere in Suches, Georgia.

Somewhere in Suches, Georgia.

I’ve put about 450 miles under my bike’s tires in the last couple of weeks, which doesn’t sound like that much, I know.  Still, the Thruxton has been to some of Georgia’s best riding roads–US129, Highway 17, Route 60, and Route 197.  These routes are absolutely beautiful, offering mountain scenery to rival many of the prettiest parts of the world, and smooth, swooping roads that may be the best in the Union.  These trips have been with my brother and another close friend, so the rides are great experiences in more than one way (unless, of course, we end up stuck beside the road doing repairs, when it becomes uncomfortably hot and sticky).

This particular side road ended by turning into National Park Forest Service road.

This particular side road ended by turning into National Park Forest Service road.

Regrettably, the Wife has to stay home and watch the littlest Rand, so she doesn’t share the pleasures of the mountain roads I’ve named above.  Not that she particularly enjoys riding on the back anyway.  Sadder still, she finds herself jealous of the Thruxton because I want to spend time on it, which is itself entirely innocent of any wrongdoing.

Luckily, in a way she does share my taste for horsepower.  She just prefers the sort that has four legs and shoes, rather than tires.

The other day we had the opportunity to go for a lengthy trail ride near Watson Mill State Park in Comer, Georgia, thanks to a friend’s friend who made arrangements.

The ride took us over varied terrain near a fork of the Broad River, through trees and pastures, and was altogether a good time.  Despite the sweltering heat and humidity, the horses were in high spirits.  The owners, who were also our guides, were surprised by the animals’ friskiness.  They’d expected the heat to make them sluggish, but instead, they were frequently trotting and jostling for the pole position.

Jenia takes a moment to enjoy the view atop her white stallion.

Jenia takes a moment to enjoy the view atop her white stallion.

One of our guides and a friend on horseback.

One of our guides, who participates in mounted shooting competitions, and our friend who doesn’t, on horseback.

We’ve both been on horseback a couple of times before, but this was the first time that we got to gallop–and that was lots of fun!  There was a stretch of unbroken, smooth pasture that we were able to let our steeds run on, and run they did.  By the time our ride was done, the equines had worked up a fair lather, and both horses and riders were ready for either a shower or an ice cold glass of water.

The owners have 28 horses which they own mainly for pleasure, but which also are used in various competitions, such as Cowboy Mounted Shooting, something you can check out in this video.

So to recap, we’ve been having a very nice summer.  There’s been good riding that kept us both happy, and like I said in a previous entry, we’re still reveling in the pervasive greenery and gorgeous blue skies.

Thursday List: Things to Bring and Not to Bring

I have to begin by saying 2 things: firstly, I was planning to write this sooner, hoping it would be a bit of help to the people moving to the UAE for the new school year. Sorry if I’m a bit too late, guys! Secondly, this is my very personal opinion, and I’m sorry if this list takes too-girly a turn.

Don’t Bring:

1. Electronics and small appliances that don’t have dual voltage (speaking to Americans here, mostly). First of all, they may not work here even with the converter (Shon’s razor worked, his clippers didn’t), and even if they do work, there’s a good chance they’ll just blow out one day (RIP, my lovely hair-straightener!)

If dual voltage is not a problem, consider weight/price. Will it be cheaper to buy said appliance here or pay for an extra/overweight bag?

If you are curious, we brought our laptops & camera. We bought everything else here (most of it used).

The only exception to this list is a router. Do consider bring a VPN-compatible router.

2. Books. They are so freaking heavy. Consider investing into e-books or purchasing books online from bookdepository.com They ship worldwide for free.

3. Crafting tools unless you are bringing the supplies as well. For whatever reason, “making things” is not a favorite pastime here. You may have some luck with yarn and embroidery floss for a reasonable price, but expect to pay a pretty penny for the scrapbooking/card-making supplies, and not be able to find any jewelry-making stuff at all.

Consider Bringing:

1. Your favorite outfit even if doesn’t fit the “clothes acceptable in the UAE” category. There will be all sorts of expat get-togethers plus you can always wear it to a hotel restaurant or just on a trip to Dubai.

2. Non-drugstore cosmetics. Clinique and MAC stuff is available, but costs 2-3 times more, ladies. I have a sneaking suspicion this is true for other brands, as well.

3. A bottle of your favorite hair product, if you have difficult hair. Chances are, it will take you a bit of time to find a replacement here (Americans, try Boots pharmacies). Personally, I still bring my favorite hairspray.

4. Clinical strength deodorant. No, you cannot get it here.

5. US ladies, if you are into Victoria’s Secret underwear, bring some along. Two words: freaking expensive.

6. A small/lightweight/flat piece of your current house decor. It’s really nice to have something from home. We brought 2 plywood people with the maps of our hometowns on them, and we haven’t regretted it.

7. A VPN-compatible router.

8. A traveler’s credit card. We are quite fond of Capital One’s Venture. Most likely, you will not get paid until the end of September, so keep this in mind.

9. If you know you are planning to travel internationally during your time in the UAE, think about bringing some winter clothes. We knew we were going to Russia for Christmas, so we brought our jackets, boots, and a couple of sweaters thus saving a fortune.

A lot of people bring food. I have heard of suitcases packed full of grits (no kidding). While I do notoriously miss my Cheez-Its now and then, I have surely found new favorites (plus, most of the stuff you can’t get is not the best thing for you, anyway, and the healthy stuff can be easily purchased at iherb.com – they ship to the door).

This said, you can find nearly everything here. You will see brands you recognize, and brands you don’t (some of them are just a different name for something familiar). Don’t be afraid of trying new stuff! It’s part of the fun.

Also, if you are curious about baby-related stuff I bring from the States, let me know.

Expat friends, what would you add?

Summer Vacation, Pt. II

The trip has been going well. It’s nice to catch up with friends and family, and the non-desert climate is ever so pleasant. Returning home requires a little adjustment, though, as one grows accustomed to the UAE after a while. We laughingly have listed things that we forgot about life in the USA.

Jenia’s list looks like this:

•Drinking unfiltered tap water
•Driving with your windows down
•Paying attention to gas prices
•Beer being sold next to soda, water, and juice
•How blue the sky is
•Credit/debit card readers (I keep handing mine to the cashier)
•People stopping at stop signs
•Having to keep an eye on your bags and child

Mine includes all those things, and adds:

•Good ol’ southern rednecks
•Drivers using turn signals
•People having the same accent
•New $100 bills (when did that happen?)
•The great selection of familiar foods in the supermarket

What a difference living abroad makes to how we view things. We are that much more appreciative of Breyer’s ice cream, for example, than ever before:)

Here are a few pictures from the last week, and I’m not sure you will revel in the non-desertness of the scenery in quite the same way as us, but still, revel in the greenery:





It’s summer. We said masalama to the UAE and are now on US soil, in the great state of Maine. It feels awfully good to be home, visiting family and friends that we haven’t seen for many moons.

The foremost thing we are enjoying, outside of time with people we love, is the freedom to show affection in public. It’s nice to be able to hug or kiss and such without worrying about the local cops slapping me with a fine or something.

It’s also great to roll down the car windows and have cool air flood in. Maine is absolutely fantastic this time of year–cool at night (55 last night) and warm (79 was today’s high) during the day.

Anyway, brevity being the soul of wit or something, I’d better leave off now. Here’s a pic I snapped while outside yesterday.


The Thai Paradox

Our trip to Thailand was great. There were wonderful things (like mango sticky rice), weird but nice things (like hair washing – a 15-minute procedure at a local salon), weird and not nice things (like people eating bugs), and then there was what I called the Thai Paradox.

See, before flying to Bangkok, I emailed our friend in Udon Thani and asked if there was a dress-code (you ask this sort of question after living in the Middle East for 2 years). She was happy I asked and advised to stick with bottoms that are to the knee or lower & tops that cover my shoulders. I was a little bummed, but it wasn’t a big deal, since this is the kind of clothes I wear here every day.

We also did our research on Bangkok and found out that we both needed to wear long bottoms & closed-toe shoes to visit the Grand Palace. Ok, no big deal again, we packed accordingly.

And then we arrived to Thailand & I felt like I was the only woman under 40 in the city of Bangkok who was not wearing a mini. Seriously.

I thought, “Well, this is the capital, it’s more touristy, people are more wild here. It will be different once we head up north-east.”

Wrong! In the very non-touristy Udon Thani girls still wore cute little dresses and shorts so tiny I’d never dare try them on.

When I asked our friends what’s up with the clothing thing, they explained that generally, Thai people dress modestly, but the younger girls and women want to look Western. “Well, I’m Western,” – I said, – “can I dress like a Westerner?” Their answer stunned me.

“You can wear whatever you want and they won’t care, but if you start talking to someone & they find out that you are a) a teacher’s wife and b) a mother, and you are dressed like that, you will basically lose all respect. Because you should know better.”

Now, we are not talking about daisy dukes & cropped t-shirts. We are talking about something above the knee & without sleeves. Quite a modest culture, huh?  NB: I am not talking about the touristy beaches of Thailand here.

Where’s the paradox, you may be asking.

Well, you see, one of the things Thailand is known for is sex tourism. Male & female prostitutes abound, and while prostitution is officially illegal, I hear it’s actually government-controlled. Here’s a Wiki article on the subject: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prostitution_in_Thailand It’s scary, really, how many foreigners come on a vacation & buy a local for the duration of their stay.

What’s even more strange to me, is that it’s not just the foreigners. Our friends told us that it’s considered absolutely normal for a man to have several mistresses + a wife. Sometimes the women aren’t too happy with the arrangement (we heard a story of 3 girlfriends who found out about each other & joined forces: they sold the guy’s pricey electronics & split the money :)), but in general it’s expected and not frowned upon. Even in their non-touristy city, both of our friends have been approached by the locals. They and their expat friends have been offered “special services” at a massage salon, the guys are consistently asked about their Thai wives (and why they don’t have any), the women are being told that the fact they already have husbands “is not a problem”.

Prostitution and extramarital sex? Yay! Bring it on! Let the whole world come and sleep with our people!

Women wearing anything above the knee? No way! That’s too risqué. We are a modest people.

I just don’t get it. I don’t. 

P.S. The whole issue of modesty/modest clothes is something that I get passionate about very quickly, and since I seem to hold a somewhat not-mainstream-Christian view on it, you may not want to bring up the subject with me.

P.P.S. More reading on human trafficking in Thailand: http://www.humantrafficking.org/countries/thailand

NGO’s that help sex workers:

Empower http://www.empowerfoundation.org/index_en.html

SWING https://www.facebook.com/SWINGfoundation/info

If you know of any others, feel free to leave a link in the comments!

Making a Life

When we started to feel content here in the UAE, it was because we’d committed to making a life here.  Not necessarily to anything long-term, but rather to getting involved in the community.  It’s hard for a westerner to feel like he or she belongs in the area, since the local culture is (at least in Al Ain, I can’t say for sure about Abu Dhabi or Dubai) quite closed to those who don’t speak Arabic.  I’m quite alright with this, since my culture in the USA is much the same way to those who don’t speak English.  It’s all a natural part of moving to a different country.  I know if I learn Arabic beyond the handful of phrases and words I’ve picked up over the last two years (two years!) that more social doors will open.  Although it’s hard to feel like I truly belong here, it’s not been hard to develop relationships with other expats.  Jenia and I have, as we’ve said before, more friends than we did back home in the States.

Kabs (spelling?), freshly made at the Yemeni place.  Ever so tasty.

Kabs (spelling?), bread freshly made at the Yemeni place. Ever so tasty.

For us, this process of feeling comfortable began with people, and slowly expanded to being a part of other things in the area.  We started going to Al Ain Evangelical Church church and attending a small group.  I was invited to play with the church band.  We’ve ended up taking on the responsibility of being small group facilitators, which added a wrinkle to life, and we’ve also started ballroom dancing lessons, something I (Shon writing here, by the way) never thought I’d enjoy at all.

So what’s life like for us now that we’re in the groove?  It looks a little like this, on a relatively relaxing weekend, like the one we just had (which had temperatures dip below 100F and felt marvelous):

On Friday we zipped to the mall, then stopped by our favorite bakery for some savory pastries, and in the evening we attended a choral concert held at Al Qattara Arts Center.  There we met friends and encountered acquaintances, and enjoyed time hanging out with in the relatively cool, oven-dried evening afterward.  Saturday we took Frank and Mel and their expanding family to a fabulously atmospheric (read: hole-in-the-wall) Yemeni restaurant which might be called Al Kabisi (but I’m not sure, as I’ve never successfully translated the sign yet, and I didn’t think to see if it said on the newly-minted English/Arabic menus we were given).  Then we hung around Jahili Park for a while, made a de rigeur visit to Starbucks, where we paid more for drinks than we paid for our entire meal shortly before, and returned home so we could enjoy the evening at home.

We're now accustomed to seeing camels being transported, as well as the odd broken down Bentley and such.

We’re now accustomed to seeing camels being transported, as well as the odd broken down Bentley and such.

Being involved in the community and building a life here has allowed Jenia to build her photography hobby into something more than that.  She’s taken portraits of numerous families on the orange sands and in green parks, done a promo shoot for a local performing duo called Sarah and Adam, and is starting a three-day shoot for a school tomorrow.  It’s great.

Jenia's photos are better than mine, of course, but I snapped this one while she was shooting Sarah and Adam.

Jenia’s photos are better than mine, of course, but I snapped this one while she was shooting Sarah and Adam, and I like it.

I’ve left deeper things out as I recount simple events.  It’s hard to say how much we’ve learned about ourselves as we’ve made a home abroad.  Living here gives us a window on the world that we wouldn’t have had before.  We’ve gained an amazing perspective on life in the Middle East and the Arab world, and grown more culturally empathetic than before.  We’ve found ourselves, as we adapt, stretched and pulled, angered and moved to laughter, exasperated and impressed.

Now, when somebody asks me where I’m from, I no longer immediately respond, “Georgia, in the USA.”  I smile.  I’m from Georgia, yes, but I’m also from the UAE now.  I’ve got a life here, and it’s a nice one that I’m immensely grateful for.  I’m not sure how long we’ll stick around, but for the time being, we’ve got a good thing going.

Summer Heat

Sorry, but my subject for the day isn’t anything deep.  It’s simple–summertime heat.  If you know the Middle East exists, you know that it has a reputation for being hot, so the notion probably doesn’t surprise you.  This year Abu Dhabi isn’t disappointing in the heat department, either.  Last year in 2013 we had a rather mild spring, with a good amount of rain throughout April.  That kept the temperatures comparatively low.  There wasn’t much rain last month, however, and as May draws nigh to a close, the mercury is leaping higher and higher.  Let me share a story or two to illustrate what it’s like.

My cousin is visiting from the USA right now, and Jenia and I have been showing her around.  We spent a day in Dubai and one in Abu Dhabi over the weekend.  During our Dubai time, we were mostly indoors, seeing the tremendous Dubai Mall and such.  I got sick of being cooped up inside, and ventured out to walk near the base of the world’s tallest building, with Jenia and the baby accompanying me.  “Man, that feels good,” I quipped as we stepped out of the air conditioning.  Jenia didn’t seem to agree, but she kept her peace.  It was mighty warm out and very muggy.  After about ten minutes, the little one was bright red, and Jenia retreated with him to shade and then the air conditioning.  We then went to the beach with the aim of swimming at Jumeriah Beach.  To our disappointment, we found the nice beach with paid admission, snazzy park, and, most importantly, showers, had no parking available at all, since most everyone evidently fancied a dip to get some relief from the blazing sun.  Consequently, we drove to the next public access beach, which, on the plus side, offers a great view of the Burj al Arab, but has no showers.  “I’ve never seen it so crowded,” Jenia said, surprised by the mob on the sand and in the water.  We paddled our feet instead of going for a proper swim.  In truth, the water was so warm that it wouldn’t have seemed very refreshing in the first place–a surprise when you’ve been accustomed to the Atlantic’s constant coolness, as my cousin was.  When we returned to the car, the humidity was so high that the car’s body had fogged over while parked, as if it had been driven through a thick haze.

While in Abu Dhabi, we visited the Emirates Palace, a palatial hotel owned by the UAE government and operated by the Kempinski hotel group.  We kicked around the hotel, exploring the opulent (though questionably tasteful) interior.  Eventually, we went outside to have a gander at the grounds.  Jenia’s sunglasses fogged over when she stepped through the doors.  In the space of only a few minutes (perhaps up to 15), we were all dripping sweat.  My shirt was almost entirely soaked, and my linen pants were wet all down the backs of my legs.  At one point, when I put the baby in his carseat, the sweat was dripping from my nose and splashing onto the upholstery.  I’m a lightweight guy–not the kind who sweats easily, so it means something when I’m dripping like a faucet.

Dubai and Abu Dhabi, being coastal cities, are much more humid than Al Ain.  Al Ain’s heat is easier to bear, owing to the dryness of the air.  The sweat doesn’t start pouring off you as quickly.  Still, triple-digit heat is intense.  We’re in Al Ain now, and today’s high was, according to my iPhone’s weather app, 113F, the same as yesterday.  Other thermometers are reading hotter, and it’s hard to know what to rely on.  Regardless, the heat here is akin to that of an oven.  My cousin wears a stunned expression every time she sets foot outdoors.  I tell her, “At least you get a real experience.  The heat is something to write home about.”  That doesn’t seem to help her enjoy it, unfortunately.

So there you have it.  The hottest part of the year is still well on the horizon, and it’s already super hot.  But I expect the heat now, and I smile, because it’s all part of the experience of living in the UAE.


What a Day

I’ve never been locked out of my workplace before, at least not deliberately, by the administration, who blocked off most of and put a heavy chain through the handles of not one, but all the entryway doors in order to contain students today. This was done, of course, with no notification to teachers, and I happened to be getting lunch when they did it.

There were three other teachers with me, and we all found ourselves looking through the glass door at the Filipino office assistant on the other side who shrugged and said, “Padlocked, no key.” So we seated ourselves and talked about the possibility that we might not have to teach another class today.  However, another of the Filipino assistants noticed our plight and pointed us to a back door leading through the biology lab. The guys there threatened to charge us admission fees, but we made it through their gauntlet and got back to work.

Why the extra levels of inmate containment? Not sure, but the kids are getting restless, and I guess the administration sensed the likelihood of a mass escape attempt was high. I say mass, because they constantly manage to squeeze out in small numbers one way or another. At lunch, they sneak over the fence or get out in some other creative fashion. By the way, it’s pretty funny to watch boys wearing what amounts to dresses making their way over walls, as I did a few days ago. Maybe the cause of the restlessness is the Al Ain vs. Manchester City expo game that’s going on now? Who knows.

Anyway, all told, it was just another day. They unchained the doors and released us all when the clock reached the proper hour.

The chain and padlock of which I speak, here shown after the throngs were released.

The chain and padlock of which I speak, here shown after the throngs were released.