On Loving Your Neighbors

I wrote this for Venn Magazine in March, 2015. It seems it may be worth repeating.

 

Recently, I saw an article entitled “Why You Need More Muslim Friends.” While a little saddened by the fact that such an article was even necessary, I thought it was worth sharing on my Facebook wall. The response came quicker than I expected. An acquaintance of mine wrote that I could love Muslims all I want, but he would keep hating them.

His response caught me off guard. I wondered how many others felt the same way. And that led me to ask a few questions.

When you say you hate Muslims, do you really know who it actually is you hate? Do you hate the Muslim women in Saudi Arabia who are not allowed to drive? Do you hate the Muslim children who are maimed or killed by the bombs sent by non- Muslims? Do you hate the Muslim laborers who move to a foreign country to work and live in very harsh conditions for $3 a day and send 90% of that money back to their family, whom they don’t see for a years at a time? Or how about those Muslims in Egypt who formed a live chain around the Christians to protect them during prayer?

Do you hate the perfect stranger who stopped when our friend’s car broke down, called a tow truck, paid for the tow truck, and offered to let the guy borrow his own car while the garage was sorting out the problem? Do you hate the Bedouin lady who gave my crying son one of the toys she was selling and insisted my husband took a seat in the shade to calm the boy down? Do you hate the man who practically ran to our car when he realized we were looking at the map, gave us directions and invited us over for tea? Do you hate my friend’s principle who gave him money to help pay his son’s hospital bill, or my other friend’s vice principal who showed up at her house a couple days after the new baby arrived with a box of beautiful baby clothes and so much food they had to invite people over to finish it? Do you hate the Saudi couple we met at a hotel breakfast and who made us laugh till we cried with the stories of their 3 boys?

These are the faces of Islam that you are not likely to see in your everyday life – or ever. I, however, live in a Muslim country. These people are my neighbors in the most literal sense of the word. They have welcomed me into their homes, and I have welcomed them into mine. We broke bread together. We laughed together. We talked about religion, and women’s rights, and travel, and education. They kissed my baby and called blessings upon him, and I kissed their babies and said they’d been willed by God. They even walked with me through my son’s birth.

It’s rather obvious that we are not Muslim. Even our visas state we are Christian. Yet, this has never been a problem. This particular Muslim country has quite a few churches, and, ironically, we have found a more vibrant, dynamic, and welcoming church community here than we ever did in the Bible Belt. We feel safer here than we ever did in southern Georgia. Around here, when it is time to go back to their home countries for the summer, expat moms worry about giving up the safety of our children running around freely and our purses being left in our unlocked cars.

Do not misunderstand me – there are some barbaric traditions carried out in parts of the Muslim world. The things ISIS does cannot be justified. Yet, judging all of Muslims by ISIS is like judging all the Christians by the Westboro Baptist Church. The man who kills his unmarried daughter because she was seen with a man represents all of Islam no more than a man who says he hates Muslims represents all of Christianity – or even all of the Southern Baptists.

I wonder if we hate people not because of who they are, but because of who we are – humans. Faulty, messy, broken humans who have such a hard time forgiving, letting go, or much less loving a group we do not understand. We can come up with dozens of excuses, but in the end hatred, like love, is always a choice. It is easier to hate and fear than to use critical thinking and do thorough research. It is easier to be enslaved by these powerful emotions than to break their bondage, but since when is easy slavery preferable to hard-earned freedom?

Maybe we break away from hatred when we know people, real life people, rather than mere headlines. In fact, maybe that article was right after all. Maybe we all need more Muslim friends.

Russia: Underrated Teaching Location?

Note: Moscow at one point earned the title of World’s Most Expensive City; that’s no longer the case, but it is undoubtedly more expensive than Kazan. The information herein relates to our experiences in Kazan, rather than Russia’s huge capital.

Russia–what a storied place. Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, Leningrad, multi-hewed onion domes atop brick towers, Red Square. Having had time to reflect on our year in Russia, a few things really stand out about the experience.

First and foremost, it’s a country that can aptly be described as Second World. Google the phrase and you’ll find that it refers to the former Soviet countries (and a handful of others). While the term Second World is a relic of a bygone era of Cold War, it is still used to describe a country’s level of development–between underdeveloped (Third World) and developed (First World). Perhaps we’d be better off using the phrase “developing” instead of Second World. At any rate, whether we call it Second World or developing, sometimes Russia is as modern and wonderful as can be–spacious new apartment complexes, glittering towers, high speed internet, glamorous German sedans, and all the luxury you might imagine of a country that, as some say, is experiencing a type of resurgence. And yet, those glamorous Teutonic cruisers zoom over potholed pavement, suspension slamming against the stops in a most unglamorous fashion, and despite blazing quick internet, the hot water quits working for days at a time whilst undergoing yet another round of maintenance and repairs. The fancy apartment complex’s landscaping consists of tires as planters, poorly pruned trees and helter-skelter shrubberies. The newly paved parking lot has a section ripped up and poorly repaved scarcely a week after being finished. The parking garages in this complex have never even opened because they are both a terrible deal–one has to pay extra to park in them, as opposed to simply parking on the street level–and also because they are dreadfully constructed. Consequently, navigating through the overcrowded street level parking lot is sometimes impossible.

A photo posted by Shon Rand (@shonmrand) on Oct 25, 2015 at 10:47pm PDT

 

It would seem #winter is ending.

A photo posted by Shon Rand (@shonmrand) on Feb 29, 2016 at 9:24am PST

 

Second, it’s an inexpensive place to live, assuming that one makes an otherwise competitive Western salary. While it would be classless to share how much I was making, it was in line with a typical IB/international school salary, and included the usual benefits for those sorts of jobs. Suffice it to say that we were able to send up to 70% of our money home monthly. Cab fare using Tap Taxi would run around $2-3 for a typical middle-length ride (Kazan is cheap compared to Moscow or St. Petersburg, by the way), and while eating out could be as expensive as anywhere else if we didn’t use some discretion, we found fantastic delivery sushi, and groceries were inexpensive. During August and September, the fruits and vegetables were surprisingly fresh and delicious. We had trouble finding decent cheeses, though, and settled on Cheese Gallery offerings as usually tasting best. Home DSL internet is inexpensive. Mobile phone service is marvelously affordable–we paid around $3 a month for our MTS internet-equipped phone plans, for instance. A month’s expenses for water, gas, and electricity, as well as whatever fees the apartment complex included, cost around 5,000 rubles (the ruble hovered around 60 to a dollar while we were there).

By some measures, then, teaching in Russia is a great experience. Financially, it was very good for us. Other things made it hard, though. There’s virtually no English spoken on the street (even though some road signs feature both languages), making exploring more of a challenge. Of course, that also helps one be motivated to learn some Russian, and acquiring a foreign language is no small feat.

What about teaching itself? There is a range of opportunity available for an American to teach English. Language schools are one option, although they are basically their own animals as compared to public or private schools. I was able to get a job working at an international school, which, we shall wait and see, may help open doors to other international schools in the future. The school I worked for was brand new, and had its share of growing pains, which made the work environment a bit more difficult than it probably would have been if the school had been established for a while (there’s a good lesson, I think; find a school that’s been around for long enough to be stable, with administrators who have plenty of experience in their roles). In most ways, the work place was nice–it must be said that the new building was generally world-class; having meals (they even accommodated my vegetarianism happily) provided was super convenient; and having transportation to and from work included was a definite perk.

Coming out of the Emirates, I found Russian students to be much easier to work with than the over-privileged Emirati youth, and that was a welcome improvement. Also coming out of the Emirates, the long work days (7:45-4:45) were not a pleasant adjustment, and seriously ate into my quality of family life, while also making it harder to fit routine things like going to the gym into my schedule.

As was the case in the Emirates, and as is usual of international schools and many teaching jobs abroad, living quarters were included as part of the salary package, and the apartment we had was nice and plenty roomy. The location in the Sun City area wasn’t very convenient, which meant we relied heavily on taxis to get around (we could travel by bus, but it took forever and a day), but as I said before, taxi fare is cheap in Kazan, so that was alright. Of course, Russian taxi men are a mixed bag, and you might get a jovial driver one day, and a horrendous jerk the next. Uber has made its way to Kazan, by the way, but I never had any luck finding a car with Uber.

Everyone always asks about the weather. In short, the temperatures only got extremely cold for about a month around January, and only about 2 weeks were truly frigid (-25 c or more). August sucked–it was cold and dreary, but September was made great by Indian Summer–beautiful and clear–and snow fell and stuck from October. In general, after that, winter arrived and it was an overcast crap fest with terribly short days, especially in December, making the arrival of spring and frequent blue skies most welcome around April. May was okay, and June quite nice.

There isn’t much of an expat scene in Kazan. “Single women we knew had a particularly hard time making any kind of connections outside of work,” Jenia says. There are a few small gatherings, there’s a little Western church homegroup that meets regularly, and with coworkers at the school, we had a bit of a social life, but nothing like the thriving one that we experience in Abu Dhabi. But then, as our world-traveling fellow expat-teacher friends the Casales once observed, it is incredibly easy to live in the UAE as an expat. Russia, or at least Kazan (Moscow and St. Petersburg have larger expat populations), doesn’t make it easy to be an expat, although as I said, that does have some benefits, including making it easier or at least more necessary to acquire some language skills. There are lots of events going on, though, with concerts, sports events, and more happening frequently, if one can just navigate enough Russian to figure them out (a task much easier these days with the mind-blowing Google Translate app).

Travel within Russia is inexpensive. We’d recommend visiting the Caucasus–it’s drastically different from the plains which dominate the rest of the Russian landscape.

#Dombay #Russia #Caucasus #caucasusmountains #skiresort

A photo posted by Shon Rand (@shonmrand) on Apr 3, 2016 at 2:41am PDT

A final observation is what Jenia calls spotty but inexpensive healthcare. There was only one hospital in all of Kazan, with its 1.2 million people, willing to allow me into the delivery room when our youngest was born, for example. This private hospital, Ava Kazan, did generally offer a Western level experience. “It differed dramatically from doctor to doctor,” Jenia says.  Ava had English-speaking staff, too, which was great, but even they couldn’t get Western-made vaccines (Russian ones don’t have a very good reputation).

Where we spent the last couple of days. #Kazan #россия

A photo posted by Shon Rand (@shonmrand) on Nov 28, 2015 at 1:02am PST

 

So is Russia an underrated teaching destination? In some ways, probably so. If you value a place where your dollars stretch a long way, then Kazan is certainly a place where they do. If you don’t need to be surrounded by a large community of Westerners, and if you value the chance to be immersed in Russian (and in the case of Kazan, Tartar) culture, then it’s a neat place to spend some time. So find an established school with experienced leadership, and give it a shot.

How to Find Work in the UAE

Mosque 2

The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi.

Mainly, due to my experience as a teacher with ADEC, I have blogged about working with that organization. However, don’t forget that there are many, many schools in the UAE, and for you teachers on the job hunt, ADEC is far from your only option for employment.

First off, certified primary and secondary teachers have quite an array of opportunities. I’m certainly not going to list every place out there that might be a good fit for you, but I’ll name some of those that come to mind immediately. Emirates National School hires many expatriate teachers and offers a sound employment package. Al Ain English Speaking School is a private school in Al Ain which caters to expat families. Formerly Glenelg Schools, ADNOC Schools recruit expats. Try googling those names and seeing what you come up with.

If you’re interested in higher education, then there are plenty of other opportunities, though they often require degrees in ESOL or the equivalent, or some other type of ESL certification, such as the CELTA. I interviewed with a branch of the Higher College of Technology in Al Ain, and they basically ended up telling me that they were looking for someone with a CELTA or what-have-you. Besides HCT, there’s also the Petroleum Institute in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates University, and any number of other institutions, some of which even have Western pedigrees (take the New York University of Abu Dhabi, for example).

Besides simply googling to find out more about schools, I highly recommend a few websites which helped me find work. I’m in no way affiliated with them, though if they offered me money to promote them, I’d happily consider it!

To get a good feeling for whats out there, you can create a profile and search jobs using Gulf Talent. This site lists job opportunities throughout the Gulf area, not just the UAE, so it’s a great way to get acquainted with what’s available. This is how I got my first contact about working in Abu Dhabi, and the school actually got in touch with me, not the other way around. If you’d rather use an agency, which is what I ended up doing to get placement with ADEC, check out Teach Away. You can register on the website, then get in touch with one of their recruiters. They hire heavily for the UAE, seeking teachers at both private and public (i.e. ADEC) schools. You might try out CRS Education as well. They’re a smaller outfit than TeachAway, and while they tend to hire for China, they have conducted job fairs in Abu Dhabi for two years running, and many local schools were represented there. I’ve been very pleased with the level of personal attention I received from CRS representatives.

I hope this helps you on your quest to see the world and experience teaching in one of the world’s premiere travel destinations. Happy job hunting!

 

That Time I Was Ashamed

Several years ago, Shon & I enjoyed a short trip to Washington D.C.. I loved the National Mall, stood in awe in front of the statue of Lincoln, and wished I could spend a lifetime at the Smithsonian. It was the Holocaust Museum though that shook me to the core and left the most lasting impression. I did expect to be moved by it but I did not know that it wouldn’t be the photographs of starving children or the piles of leather shoes that would bring me to tears. What broke me down was a rather small paragraph of text close to the end of the exhibit detailing the American response to Jewish refugees. As bizarre as it sounds, I don’t think I’ve been more ashamed in my life than I was at that moment. I remember reading about a ship full of Jews being turned around and sent back to Europe (over a quarter of those on the ship ended up dying in the Holocaust) and about Dominican Republic willing to accept more Jewish refugees than any of the first world countries. Since then I have learned that even Japan, Germany’s ally in WWII, saved thousands of Jews. The US though? The self-proclaimed Christian nation? Well, both the population and the government felt that accepting refugees would be too much for the economy, the argument of “they’ll take our jobs” was rather popular, and, well, anti-semitism was no joke.

Does any of it sound familiar?

Today, many of the same people who would agree that the United States should have done more during Holocaust are those adamantly opposed to bringing in Syrian refugees. Without even realizing it, they are using the same arguments their parents and grandparents used 70-something years ago.

Friends, if you call yourself Christian, does your Bible have different footnotes from mine? Is there an asterisk next to Matthew 25:35 that clarifies that “I was a stranger and you invited me in” only refers to said strangers of the same color/nationality/religious affiliation?

I understand some of the fear, I really do. It’s hard to open your heart to someone you don’t know and don’t understand, someone who seems so different from you at a first glance. I know that the potential threat of terrorism can be debilitating. But while it’s potential for us, it is very real for the people fleeing Syria. They have lived through horrors we can barely imagine. They have taken risks we’ve never contemplated. They have made choices I pray I never have to make.

To me, the idea of a child being shot at school by his caucasian classmate is just as scary as the idea of being shot at a concert by an ISIS member. The scarier thing though? Allowing fear to rob me of compassion, humanity, and willingness to take a risk of getting to know someone different.

At the Holocaust Museum in D.C., there is a room called “Genocide: the Threat Continues”. Its purpose is to bring attention to people at risk of mass atrocities. Right now, this room is hosting an exhibit on what the Museum calls “one of the worst humanitarian crises of our time” – the crisis in Syria. And since these people know a thing or two about genocide, it may be worth listening to what they have to say.

Not to Be Missed: Annual Al Ain Life Event for Newbies

While we may not be in the UAE anymore, I cannot help but advertise the annual Al Ain Life event for the new teachers, doctors, and other professionals (and families). It’s a great way to meet people, have your questions answered, find someone to take you dune-bashing, and get recommendations for the best hair-dresser in town (it’s Joanna Graville, by the way.) Please see the flyers below for more info!

An Ending Continues

Our tenure in Al Ain, in the emirate of Abu Dhabi, has come to an end. I’m not writing from the UAE. No, I’m in a comfortable home that belongs to my relative, with green grass and leafy trees outside the airy, expansive living room. There are clouds in the beautiful blue sky, and it looks like rain is coming. This is definitely not the UAE.

As the ending continues, I’ve received my end of service payment and transferred the money home. It’s a nice nest egg that makes some of the struggles of the last few years a more pleasant memory. I had no unapproved days off, and my term of employment started almost exactly 3 years ago, so the sum was more or less what I was expecting, with the added bonus of the airfare amount being a little higher than we’d hoped for. My extremely helpful friend in Al Ain has yet to hear from ADCP about the housing deposit refund (4,000 AED, no small amount of money), but she will pick up the check and put it in the bank for me ASAP.  After that is done, our last remaining financial ties to the UAE will be cut.

#boylovesairports #dxb Turtle said "good-bye" to Dubai today.

A post shared by jeniarand (@jeniarand) on

The last couple of days in Al Ain went like one would expect–trying to reduce possessions to the bare minimum, weeding out things we wanted to keep and things we could do without, packing the suitcases full, soaking up Al Ain life, as well as enjoying hotel’s amenities and saying goodbyes to many good people we may never see again. We flew out in the morning on Saturday, hauling more luggage than we ever have before, and hopefully more than we will again.

“I hope there’s no small child in front of me,” Jenia said, pushing her baggage cart through the airport. She could see in front of her, so I’m not sure what she was worried about. Granted, she did have to crane her neck and peer over a barely balancing toddler car seat perched atop the hulking stack of luggage, but surely she wouldn’t have actually run over any small life forms in her way.

No more #PalmTrees in a week. #AlAin #AbuDhabi #UAE

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At home in the USA for a week now, we’ve been struck by things like polite drivers, the lushness of the southeast, the ease with which we can communicate, the variety of colors and textures of buildings. As Jenia says, the houses and yards offer a sense of personal identity, which contrasts with the UAE’s impersonal but often imposing homes.

Thus, we’re nearly through with our UAE journey. It’s been trying, but rewarding, and I would judge it thoroughly worth doing. The ending continues until the last bit of money comes in…

An Ending Begins

We have 8 days left in the UAE.

The last week has gone by in a blur as I zipped from place to place after invigilation (which ought instead to be called supervised cheating) at school. But it’s Friday, the weekend is upon us, and I’m ensconced in the Hili Rayhaan hotel, comfortably in a king-sized bed, having spent the morning at a leisurely breakfast and then in the pool. There was even a nap this afternoon. Things are looking up.

Here is what happens at the end of working for ADEC. Unsurprisingly, the resignation procedure is much the same as the arrival procedure, only reversed.

The steps are: wait wait wait wait wait for your resignation (which you submitted in the online system well within the official window of time) to be approved, then wait wait wait wait wait wait some more.

Then with about a month of work left, it’s approved and things start moving quickly.

If you’re me, you print a form that you obtained from someone not your principal (who is supposed to have received said form in his email, but may not be aware of it, or perhaps he was just not at work on the day it was sent). You fill this form out, and then you have to collect about seven signatures from various departments at ADEC headquarters (called “The Zone” around here).

You make a trip to The Zone to get the next couple of signatures, because they’re mostly a formality.

Then you wait a bit, because you’re hung up getting clearance forms (haven’t you heard of those? They’re forms which officially show that you’ve paid your bills and haven’t got any outstanding balance) from the combined power and water company (Al Ain Distribution Company). This requires a visit to one of the AADC places in town. I’d suggest the Al Ain Mall one, or perhaps the Hili Mall one (which is never busy). If you go to the big headquarters near The Zone, you’ll probably wait forever and a half day. Anyway, the process takes a couple of days. You request a final meter reading and clearance certificate, AADC sends you a text message as acknowledgement, and then, if things go correctly, you get a second message to say you’re all set. From prior experience, I can tell you if that message doesn’t come after two days, go visit an AADC office and ask for an update. This all means getting the AADC clearance takes a couple days. Then you’ll need an Etisalat (phone and internet) clearance form, too, and that company forces you to visit the large, crowded, slow office in Sanaiya to get a clearance letter, although it bears noting that you can get service cancelled at several other locations (such as Bawadi Mall). Again, the clearance from takes a couple of days or more. If you’re me, you make no less than eight trips to Etisalat to get this done, and you still have to go collect the form another time.

After you have your AADC clearance form, you can get your apartment inspected. We pay 180 AED to the apartment manager because one of our screens has a dime-sized hole in it (and it might indeed be our fault, so no problem), then he prints a letter declaring that you’re all set, but in iffier English than that. You take this letter down to The Zone and collect another signature.

By now, you’ve dropped off and then collected, a couple days later, your dependents’ passports at the Infinity Services window in ADEC so they can type up visa cancellation forms for you (saving a few bucks), and you take these passports a few buildings over to immigration and have them cancel the visas. You need to show your own original passport, Emirates ID, and work visa there. The guy in a kandora behind the counter glances at your stuff, then stamps the dependents’ pink visas with red ink which seems to read “cancelled” in Arabic. He also collects their Emirates IDs. A couple moments later a text message arrives from the Ministry of the Interior notifying you of the cancelations. This means your cleared for the next step: having your own visa cancelled. This means I turn in my Emirates ID (bye, little card!) and passport for a day.

The next day, I collect my passport, and the guys older guy sitting in his chair takes a box of passports with paperwork attached to them from a locked cabinet. He looks at my picture carefully, at me, back at the picture, and is smiling and the other guy is laughing.  Then they tell me how somebody else who looked kind of like me picked it up earlier in the day. “Same name,” they said, but I’d be floored if there’s a second Shon Rand running around Al Ain. Regardless, my passport is in my hand, and I can collect another signature on my all-important form. So I do.

And I proceed to housing, where I need another signature. That’s fairly easy. He directs me to hand over another copy of my AADC clearance, and then take copies to the Abu Dhabi Commercial Properties building downtown to get my housing deposit back. I notice it’s almost 3 o’clock, and it’s Thursday, and figure I won’t find anyone there if I go now, so I decide to wait until Sunday for that.

As it turns out, I need to make another trip to ADEC anyway, because I need that Etisalat clearance form which I haven’t got yet in order to submit my super-duper important form to the last people–payroll, who will calculate up my End of Service (EOS) payment.

Thus, over the period of about 9 days, an ending has begun. There is very little left to be done, and hopefully it will all be knocked out on Sunday. There has been a bit of stress, like there was in the beginning, but it’s been tempered by knowledge that things move slowly here, especially when you hope they’ll go fast. We have only 8 days left in the UAE. Wow.

Highlights

How about a pictorial post featuring some highlights from our various travels the last few years? It seems like a good idea to me. As you probably know if you read the blog thoroughly, we do talk about our travels a bit, but we’re not really travel bloggers in the sense of step-by-step, day-by-day chronicling of our journeys. That has its own appeal, but lots of people do it and probably better than we could. Instead, I offer a handful of what I think are our best instagrams capturing some curious, challenging, or memorable moments from our adventures, and a micro-snippet of a story for each one.

How you get to the train station from #Corniglia, #CinqueTerre.

A post shared by Shon Rand (@shonmrand) on

You’ve gotta be kidding me. Another staircase! AAAAAH! Italy, 2014.

#Escalators in #SiamCenter #mall, #Bangkok, #Thailand

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Maybe the coolest looking mall in the world? Even the bathrooms were awesome. You should go there, because it’s technologically amazing. Thailand, 2014.

Me hanging with some of my students in Sweihan. #UAE #desertlife

A post shared by Shon Rand (@shonmrand) on

I attended the Sweihan Camel Festival with a small busload of my students. It was phenomenally boring. We drank coffee together and sat around at one point. UAE, 2014.

#horseback #riding in #Franschhoek #southafrica #mountains

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South Africa, 2013: no better way to see the hills, or a mongoose. Thank goodness for our friend who watched the little one while we spent an hour doing this!

#Rain caused minor #floods on roadways in #AlAin #AbuDhabi, #UAE today.

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When you gotta drive following some rain. UAE, 2013.

Hangin' on the beach with the cattle in Sri Lanka.

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There were cows moving about freely, and there was trash strewn everywhere, too.

#russia #ryazan #kremlin

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Who cares about the frigid weather and icy walkways? Russia, 2012.

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You never know what you’ll encounter in Downtown Dubai. 2012.

In #Baktapur. #Nepal #BTspringBreak #Travel #Temple

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We strolled through Bhaktapur’s beautiful squares, toddler in tow. Nepal, 2015.

The little one enjoying the #WadiRum #desert a couple days ago. #Jordan #middleeast

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Turtle LOVED off-roading and exploring. Jordan, 2014.

#wadirum #jordan #travel

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LOVED, not least because there were no seat belts in the Land Cruiser!

Looking down over #Liechtenstein. Just one amazing #view. #latergram #Eurotrip #scenery #Europe

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Curvy, narrow roads, steep drop-offs, staying just ahead of bad weather. Liechtenstein, 2014.

Seeing the Himalayas–from 32,000 feet. 2015.

Close encounters of the monkey kind, descending from Swamabhunath Temple on a hilltop–Nepal, 2015.

#boylovesairports #Prague edition. #airport #Praha #blackandwhite

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The child loved snow, too, but not mittens. Czech Republic, 2014.

My view this morning #wadirum #jordan #travel #middleeast

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Getting around Wadi Rum the old-fashioned way; the baby aboard in the Boba carrier. He got used to it and didn’t mind after a little while. Jordan, 2014.

The way out of the temperature-constant caverns. France, 2014.

#romance #love #old #couple at #jardinluxembourg #paris #france #europe #travel

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Sometimes sitting on a park bench lets you witness a story. Could it be true love? France, 2014.

Leaving plastic on the seats and steering wheel of your #porsche is life #emiratistyle #uae #wtf

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Peculiar local customs. UAE, 2012.

Taking laziness to a whole new level… #uae #alain #shisha

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More peculiarity–drive-in shisha cafe. UAE, 2012.

Somebody passed out at a most unexpected time today. #lifewithatoddler #Kathmandu #nepal #travel #Thamel

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Sometimes napping just can’t wait, like here in Nepal, 2015.

What we didn't eat today #food #crazyfood #thailand #asia #udonthani #travel #instatravel

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Fancy a freshly fried snack? We didn’t. This was at the night market in northeastern Thailand with friends. 2014.

Bungee Jumping, Skydiving, and Race car Driving

Jumping from a cage hoisted 50 meters (that’s 165 feet) in the air, plunging from an airplane at 4,000 meters (13,000 feet), and piloting an Aston Martin GT3 car around the Yas Island F1 circuit–all things I’ve done this year. So far 2015 has been pretty memorable. Jenia tells me I should write about these things because there aren’t many reviews online about them. So here you are; I hope you’re interested because I’m offering my .02 cents worth.

A thrilling moment (or rather split-second)!

A thrilling moment (or rather split-second)!

First, let’s talk about bungee jumping. There’s a place called the Gravity Zone in Dubai that’ll take your money and let you scare yourself. This past Friday was the last day of the season before they knock off because of the extreme heat, and I went with a friend to celebrate his birthday in style. He jumped first, doing a fine impression of Superman, and seemed totally unfazed by the whole thing, but I found myself suddenly suffering from fear of heights when I stepped to the edge of that metal cage and stuck my toes over. 165 feet doesn’t sound low, but man, it looks high when you’re up there with nothing surrounding you. I confess that I had to resist every natural instinct to grab ahold of the cage and stay in there. The instructor counted to three, and off I went. It only took a couple of seconds to bounce a couple times and then I was rapidly lowered onto an air mattress and unharnessed as the next thrill-seeker bunny-hopped to the cage (the bunny hopping is necessary as the ol’ feet are shackled together with the cuffs that will keep you alive).

About to bounce!

About to bounce!

As for the way Gravity Zone worked, I found it professional enough, with repeated checks of the safety harnesses and your weight. It’s not an amusement-park like facility, though, so don’t expect anything particularly glamorous. The facility is a little tricky to locate, off from 311 in the Motor City area of Dubai. But if you follow the signs to Motor City, which is on Hessa Street (61) it’s not too bad. Then head for the Kart Drome, which is where it gets a bit more complicated. Only a bit–look for the “Outdoor Kart Drome” and go there–you’ll see a yellow crane (unless this changes, of course) parked in the parking lot, with an airbag set up underneath to reassure jumpers.

Shon and his instructor, Leigh, ready to board the plane at the Palm Drop Zone.

Shon and his instructor, Leigh, ready to board the plane at the Palm Drop Zone.

Man, is that drop fast! Suddenly everything is fierce wind and racket.

Man, is that drop fast! Suddenly everything is fierce wind and racket.

What about Skydiving? Lots of folks know about Skydive Dubai, which makes splashy videos part of the package for first-time jumpers and also includes excellent photographs of people over the Palm. The long and short of it is the whole package, which has recently gone up to 1,999 AED, following the general trend of inflation around here, is well worth doing if you’ve ever wanted to try parachuting. Jenia bought me a gift certificate for a skydive package as a killer Christmas present, and I booked my jump for the end of April. The folks at Skydive Dubai were all very friendly and they did a good job setting me at ease with a bit of instruction about how to go out of the plane. That more or less erased whatever worries might have flitted through my mind when I signed six pages of waivers saying I’d never dream of holding Skydive Dubai accountable should anything go wrong and I perish or be horrifically handicapped. My instructor was a woman named Leigh who hails from New Zealand, though she’s been making six or seven jumps a day in Dubai for more than two years. My “paparazzi,” as he introduced himself, was a guy called Vova who came from Belarus. He asked me some stupid questions on camera (“What’s your Facebook password?”), and I didn’t know whether I should look at him or the lens (in retrospect, with the clarity of a video to watch, I should have gone with one or the other), so I definitely ended up looking nervous, which I guess was the case. Regardless, those two were fun to be around, and they did a great job helping this newbie have a good time.

Hurtling through the air at 125 miles per hour!

Hurtling through the air at 125 miles per hour!

I’ve seen skydiving described for the first-timer as sensory overload, and that does sum it up pretty well. It’s fast, loud, and overwhelming. Every bit of skin or flesh that can blow in the wind (at approximately 120 miles per hour) does. When the parachute deploys, there are crazy g-forces, and the same when making a hard turn. But once the ‘chute is out, it’s also an amazingly relaxing experience. It’s serene. That’s when I could drink in the scenery and marvel at what man has made of Dubai. From the time we left the ground to the time we landed on the grass, only about 15 minutes elapsed. It was all over very fast. Then it was back to life as usual–grabbing a bite to eat with the fam, going to the beach for a swim, etcetera. The transition from WOW! to normal was odd.

The guy at the rear hatch was putting a new memory stick in the on-board video recorder.

The guy at the rear hatch was putting a new memory stick in the on-board video recorder.

So what about driving a race car? Once again, thanks to the wife’s gift-giving (this one was for my birthday), I got behind the wheel of an Aston-Martin GT3 car on the Yas Island track. I can’t say it was the F1 circuit, because since there’s a stretch of very slow, technical corners on one part of the circuit, it was closed off and we were using only a portion of the track. Upon arrival, the folks behind the counter tried to up-sell me to full coverage insurance for my 20-minute drive. I declined, deciding not to wreck the car and settle instead for the basic coverage provided at the regular price. Then there was a briefing about how to drive–“Keep your hands gripping the wheel at 10 and 2 all the time,” stuff like that, as well as, “Entry points at each corner are marked with an orange cone and exit points with green ones.” The laps aren’t officially timed because that would bump the driving experience into a differently regulated category. My friends timed my laps unofficially as I drove past. I didn’t perform that well, honestly, and having not been on a track before (other than a brief stint behind the wheel of a sweet, Rotax-powered go-kart at Al Ain Raceway, and that’s not quite the same), I had to learn a thing or two about “using your whole line,” as my co-pilot told me. Yes, I’ve played video games like Forza Racing, and I should have been able to carry that knowledge–entering from the outside, exiting wide, etc.–over into real life, but it’s hard to break 20 years worth of on-road driving habits and move all over the track, rather than staying on one side of the road. It sounds silly, but that’s the way it was for me.

The little one had a blast just sitting beside the track and watching all the cars go past.

The little one had a blast just sitting beside the track and watching all the cars go past.

What was the drive like? The car was hard to squeeze in and out of, due to its full roll cage, a little slow to start, sounded great (ah, great, yes, a ripping, roaring, rumbling V8), and had lots of power, as you’d expect. But it didn’t flatten my eyeballs when I nailed it; it wasn’t a magical beast that put me in a whole different dimension of performance. Maybe I was expecting it to be like hopping on a Yamaha YZF-R1 and blasting to 150 miles per hour in about the time it takes to write this sentence. But I digress. To return to describing the drive: there was also no air conditioning (it’s a race car, come on, what’d you expect?!), it was very loud which made communication with my copilot/nanny a challenge (hand signals and shouting), and the rearview mirror was angled for the copilot to see out of, not me, so I had no idea when any of the other 7 cars on the track were on my 6, which irked me a bit. The highest speed I managed to reach on the straight was around 135mph, then I had to scrub speed like crazy and go through a couple of tight curves. The brakes were effective but felt sort of agricultural–not what I’d anticipated. Get on the gas too vigorously and the rear end squirmed around and started to go sideways. Nothing surprising there. To be honest, I was expecting more out of the car. To drive it like a pro, I’d need a lot more than 20 minutes to learn what I was doing, of course. The time in the car was really just adequate for me to get comfortable with it and feel like I could start to use it decently. Would I rate the Yas Island Aston-Martin Racing Experience worthwhile? Yes, sure, because when else would I get behind the wheel of a legitimate race car, never mind an Aston? But it wasn’t that great. Maybe it was the nanny beside me; maybe it was simply the nature of the experience as a beginner on a racetrack. Honestly, standing beside the track and listening to the cars, watching them go, that was almost as much fun as actually being behind the wheel.

For something really memorable, of the three experiences I’ve written about, I’d pick skydiving if I had to do only one of them, or do one again. That’s something that’s truly singular, and it’s something that challenged and rearranged my perceptions of what it’s possible to do.