10 Affordable Gifts for Travelers (All under $30!)

Hi Everyone,

Christmas is closing in! Are you doing some last minute shopping for friends? Need some good ideas for inexpensive but nice presents for the travelers in your lives? Here are ten things we love having and would recommend in a heartbeat. The links are mostly affiliate ones, so if you click on them (the pictures are the links, by the way), we stand to earn a few cents (which would be really nice, since who doesn’t like having a little bonus cash turn up now and then)? Naturally, you don’t have to pay a thing for clicking and exploring. Anyhow, without further ado, check it out.

10. Passport Covers. International traveling is fraught, so why make it harder than necessary to figure out whose passport is whose? Get a different color for everybody and no more hassles keeping track.  These are great stocking stuffers. The style options are truly endless:
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There are some fantastic handmade options on Etsy as well.

9. Travel Organizer. Ever get tired of trying to keep all the little things from getting lost in the bag? Enter Grid-It organizer. The elastics of different lengths allow you to create a variety of ways to store everything from a phone charger to a point-and-shoot camera to that pesky lip balm that keeps getting lost.
8. Wall Poster Maps. Every traveler loves maps. They make great gifts for lots of reasons,  not least of which it’s fun keeping track of where you’ve been and where you’re planning to go next. Plus a nice map on display at home makes for a both a nifty decoration and a fabulous conversation piece. One of our favorites is this entertaining scratch-off map.

7. Samsonite Backpack. We’re big fans of Samsonite luggage, thanks to high quality and solid warranties. Keep it affordable with a Classic PFT checkpoint friendly backpack; not only is this pack inexpensive and durable, it’s styled in a simple, elegant fashion, and is quite compact (which makes it a great daypack) while offering lots of ways to organize your things. The laptop compartment makes it a snap to pull out your MacBook when you’re hurrying through airport security.

6. A VPN Subscription. Express VPN is the best choice for anyone who will be going to China (and would be perfect anywhere else that the internet is restricted, too). How else can you guarantee you’ll be able to use Skype, Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook? Also, VPNs make it so you can access the same streaming video services you’d use back home, which otherwise aren’t necessarily available outside of the USA.

5. Travel Journal. Travel journals can be had in all forms and varieties these days. If you can hardly cram in time to jot down any notes or otherwise chronicle your travels, maybe thanks to your adorable little ones, try one of these:

If you are a fan of lists, check out the Listography one:

And then there’s the good old Moleskine:


4. Universal Travel Adapter. These are as convenient as they claim to be. They’re a great gift for international travelers, as pretty much all your bases are covered.

3. Solid shampoo and conditioner. If, like us, you tend to travel with carry-on only and packing those tiny bottles of liquids has gotten to you, do consider solid shampoo and conditioner. We swear by the ones Lush makes.

2. Snap tray. This little tray folds down flat and takes virtually no space in your bag. We bring it with us whenever we’re traveling for a longer period of time. It helps keep things organized and adds a bit of homeyness to wherever we are.

1. A power bank/portable charger. We have come to rely on our phones so much these days, what with lack of paper maps and such, that a dead battery can cause some serious stress. Give yourself some peace of mind. Just remember to charge the charger!

There you have it! Hope this helps give you some ideas. As always, let us know what you think. Are there other things you’d include on a list of sub-$30 gifts for travelers you know?

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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 bringing 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: unnecessarily 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?

Thursday List: Lessons Learned

In no particular order, allow us to present lessons we learned while we traveled this summer.  Humorous?  Maybe (or maybe not, you be the judge).  True?  We think so.

1) The Toyota Yaris is one of the worst cars ever built.  We rented one for a day in Georgia (that would be the state, not the country).  The steering had less feel and was more vague than a careless comment that could be either a compliment or an insult.  The blind spots were larger than a Ford Expedition.  The centered gauge cluster is less sensible than a drunken, raving Mel Gibson. The acres of plastic swathing the interior epitomize the notion of “cheap,” along with every other aspect of the automobile.  Also it has no power.

2) The author of the CNN article “The New London, Paris and Rome” is totally wrong about Ostend.  Ostend is boring and the beach unappealing–not “oddly restorative.”  Besides, we got locked in a Japanese garden while there.

ostend

Ostend. Bland, forgettable, and certainly not worth visiting.  Sorry Belgium.  We love some of your other cities.

3) Couchsurfing is infinitely more fun than staying in a hotel.  And couchsurfers are, as it turns out, not all hippies–they’re a varied group of interesting folks.  We stayed with a guy who works in the Belgian steel industry, two air traffic controllers, and more.  We met fellow surfers who had careers as mind-blowing as molecular modeling researcher and astrophysicist.  Not kidding.  The astrophysicist, a guy named Lorraine from France, is also a beekeeper.  He shared a story about how he was asked to deliver a beehive to the Prime Minister (all true, mind you). He said yes, of course.  “But I told them that because it is summer, if I put the beehive in the car to deliver it, it could be a problem.  Because of the heat, the bees could die.”  The person he was speaking to said, “No problem.”  “Yes,” he said, “It would be a problem.  The bees could die.”  The other person reassured him–“No, no problem.  You will not have to stop.”  He ended up having a police escort through the center of Paris so that he didn’t have to stop and wait in traffic, and he delivered the beehive and set it up at the Prime Minister’s place.

4) Traveling with a baby is not only possible, but for the most part, quite easy (and there’s a post about that in the making).  As a side note, carrying a baby in a carrier starts to hurt one’s back after a couple days (but it is notably easier than pushing a stroller all over creation).

5) We now understand our friends who told us a year ago that they were looking forward to being back in the UAE. Then, we thought they were, well, nuts. Now, we are those people, too.

6) It can be rather hard to explain to those back in the US – or the people we met during our travels – what life here is really like. It seems that there is a backstory to every story. Also, for some reason, it’s easier to tell about the negative experiences.

7) Speaking of backstories, here’s one now: just kidding.  Lesson learned when telling stories to family back home–trim the backstories to the bare minimum, or your loved ones will tune out before you get to the good stuff.

8) Strangely, following the most obvious road signs from one place to another doesn’t always yield the fastest route.  Take our trip to Reims from Luxembourg, for example: this should have been a short two hours, judging by Google Maps, but it took us no less than six hours of meandering secondary roads.

The French countryside somewhere along a rural road between Rheims and Luxembourg.

The French countryside somewhere along a rural road between Rheims and Luxembourg.

We found some great mountain roads between Luxembourg and Germany.  This was just over the German border.

We found some great mountain roads between Luxembourg and Germany. This was just over the German border.

Somewhere in France...

Somewhere in France…

9) That brings us to this point: enjoy being on the verge of lost or completely off track.  Make it a point to simply have a great time exploring.  Make the best of sore feet (an excuse to stop at that little cafe!) or winding back roads (pull over and get a photo of the picturesque mountain pass).  The single best day of our trip was when we were driving, completely by accident and thanks to the road signs, the French countryside.  And enjoy the crummy places you end up, too (within reason, of course), like Ostend.  Where else would we have ever gotten locked in a Japanese garden?  It was a memorable experience at least.

10) It’s good to come home.  We already knew this.  But what we didn’t expect was to grow tired of traveling, since we both love it.  Still, we did.  After what started to seem too long on the road, we found ourselves especially grateful to have our own space and the chance to return to our routines.

Thursday List: Things I Never Thought I’d Say Before I Moved Here

1. It’s 95F. Do you think it’s warm enough to go to the beach?

2. I am freezing, if I knew it was going to be 55 degrees outside, I would have brought my jacket along.

3. Yes. (To a person asking if they can take your baby to the back room of the office to show to their colleagues.)

4. I’ve been to 3 malls today.

5. Let’s go to the park tonight. I miss grass.

6. What time are we meeting your students at the mall?

7. We have not been to Dubai in, like, two weeks!

And the worst one:

8. I miss Walmart and Target.

Should I Learn Arabic? Thursday List.

ADEC has a sales pitch for prospective teachers.  It’s effective: housing is provided, insurance is good, pay is pretty high.  They’ll tell you need that you should have some experience teaching, you should perhaps (or actually definitely, emphatically) be prepared to deal with some classroom discipline issues, and you have no need to speak Arabic.  You are, of course, also tempted by the exotic location and interesting sights.  This sales pitch is all true–you’ll have a nifty life here if you sign up.  They might mention in the interview that you should be flexible, too.  That’s the truth.  Living in a different culture is exciting, but it’s taxing, too, as you try to learn what is considered normal, abnormal, and basically try to adapt to a dramatically different way of doing things.

In fact, what ADEC tells you is entirely correct.  All of the things are true.  There’s much to commend the UAE to visitors and an ADEC job to expatriate workers.  English teachers will have good pay and benefits, and if they’re adaptable, they’ll learn how to work in the classroom here. The job doesn’t require them to speak Arabic either.  But, there is a difference between being required to speak the language and whether or not you ought to.

Today I substituted for a fellow English teacher.  I decided to practice conversational English skills with his students by talking to them.  I asked one boy about his rowdy classmates, and asked them why they behaved so badly.  He told me, more or less, “With Arabic teacher, it is Arabic and Arabic.”  He gestured with his hands, putting them side by side.  “But with English, it is English and Arabic.”  He moved one hand away from the other one at an angle.  He was saying, basically, that the kids don’t understand English well enough to get much out of having a teacher who only speaks English.  And after nearly a year here, I’ve got to agree with him.  After all, many of these young men speak only the most basic English.  The idea is that this will change as the New School Model comes of age, but that day is not going to happen for years yet.

What little Arabic I know I’ve picked up from my students and a few other people.  You ought to see the expressions these kids get on their faces when I use a new Arabic word or phrase.  They’re thrilled.  Their level of interest in what I’m doing increases dramatically, and they like interacting with me.  As a result, If I could recommend any one thing to a person considering teaching in the UAE, it would be to learn as much Arabic as possible.  The more you know, the more effective you’ll be in the classroom.  When it comes to learning Arabic, you might very well be put off to learn that there are many different dialects based on location.  When I found out that Emiratis use a rather different version of the language than most other countries, I allowed it to discourage me from learning much beyond “Asalaam aleykum” before I came.  Now it’s definitely true that the kids here speak a language that incorporates a lot of slang and words from Hindi and Urdu, but they know and understand standard Arabic.

So the question is, “Should I learn Arabic?”  The answer is, “Definitely.  Yes.”  With only a month or so left of the school year, I’m now setting out to actively try to learn more words and phrases.  Next year I may just find myself a tutor and start really trying to learn how to speak conversationally.

As I’ve been thinking about this, I’ve also considered other reasons why it’s worth pursuing the acquisition of Arabic. Here’s a list:

1. It engages students.

2. It’s nice to know when students are calling you bad names or saying bad words, just so that you can respond somewhat appropriately (“What did you say?  Let’s go talk to the social worker about that, shall we?  Or do you want me to call your father?”) and scare your kids into better behavior.

3. It is a challenge–a fun one, if you feel inclined to learn a non-romance language.

3. It can only help you in situations outside of school when you interact with others, such as parents or people in important positions.

4. Learning a foreign language while you are teaching English as a second language gives you a much better measure of sympathy and understanding as to what your students are going through.

Thursday List: Things Russia and UAE Have in Common

Thanks to all of our readers for giving last week’s post thousands of hits!

For this week’s list, we’ve come up with a number of things that the UAE has in common with Russia.  I’ve been to Russia three times, spending weeks at each go, and the wife, of course, lived there for many years.  After the better part of a year living here in the UAE, we’ve noticed some similarities.  Let me preface this by saying none of it’s meant to be offensive.  That’s not the spirit that it’s written in.  These are just our observations.  If you disagree, feel free to say so.  Also, we’re tag-teaming the writing, so you’ll have to apply your brain power to figure out who’s the “I” sometimes, but we have a great deal of faith in your capability to use deductive reasoning.

Alright, let’s get started:

1) Fatalism.  Wow, that’s a strong word, isn’t it?  I don’t think anyone probably likes having it applied to themselves, but here I go doing it anyway.  When I first visited Russia, I was amazed by the number of people who would observe a problem and then shrug their shoulders and say, “Ah, what can I do about it.” Here in the UAE, the number of “inshallahs” a person hears everyday, especially when dealing with important paperwork, is maddening, and basically presents an extremely similar viewpoint on life.  Jenia says that there is a saying, “Avos’,” in Russian which means more or less the same thing. What can I do about anything?  Nothing!  It’s not my fault.  I have no part in this.  I make no guarantees. Maybe…. God willing…

2) Cheating.  It’s practically institutionalized here.  Kids expect it.  Teachers expect it.  The sheer lack of ability that’s applied to academic pursuits is mind-blowing.  In Russia, it is the same.  Many will probably argue, but in reality it’s not nearly as big an offense as it is in the US.  It was absolutely normal for me (Jenia here) to help my classmates with Russian/English/French and to get help from them with Trigonometry or Chemistry.  Teachers knew. We never got zeroes. Ever.

3) Crazy driving.  Picture this: you’re driving along the interstate highway, the motorway, going a little over the speed limit (i.e. 80 mph or so) in the middle lane, and a Bentley sedan zips past you so fast that your car rocks from the wind blast.  It’s followed a moment later by a BMW and an Audi.  Roundabouts are an adventure in daring and intimidation.  In Russia, traffic incidents are so common that people install dash cams in their cars to help determine who’s at fault (among other reasons).

4) Rules are made to be broken.  Or bent, or flexed, or altered, or applied selectively.  Russians hop over fences and ignore signs.  So do Emiratis.  Seatbelts aren’t usually worn.  The legal driving age is 18 in Abu Dhabi, but plenty of 16 year-olds drive themselves to school.  In both countries, the number of people carrying infants in their lap instead of in a carseat is mind-blowing (we think, it’s partly ignorance and partly the afore-mentioned “inshallah/maybe” mentality.  Need I say more?

5) A default religion.  Here people identify themselves as Muslim because that’s the culture they belong to.  I know there’s further religious reasoning behind it, but what I’m saying is that there are plenty of folks who don’t take their religion very seriously, even though they’d identify themselves as Muslim.  In Russia, the same is true, but of Orthodox Christians.  Even if they’ve never been to a church service, they’ll tick the “Orthodox” box.

6) Conformity.  Society doesn’t like individualists here.  You’re part of a group, and you have to do things the way the group wants them done.  You don’t see it to the same degree in Russia, but the old Soviet reality of punishable initiative still dwells in the minds of too many.  It is not always a bad thing, not at all.  It can be, however.

7) Attitude toward foreigners/strangers.  A friend of mine once said that Russians are like coconuts.  They’re hard on the outside, but soft and wonderful on the inside.  The same seems mostly true of Emiratis.  They’re mostly oblivious to you in public, but once you are invited into a home, you’ll find yourself in the company of kind, gracious people.  This leads us to number 8:

8) Hospitality.  When you become friends with a Russian or an Emirati, they shower you with hospitality.  You’ll find lavish meals laid out before you and people eager to share their culture with you.

9) Propaganda.  As a friend of Jenia’s mentioned recently, one can’t help wondering if the Russian government is drugging its people: reasonable individuals seem to be losing their critical thinking skills and believing in whatever the TV is pouring down on them.  In the UAE, a teacher is not allowed to talk about anything related to Islam, Judaism, or any other religion, he/she cannot use a map or a globe that has Israel and/or Persian instead of Arabian Gulf on it; both terrorist attacks and pigs are never to be mentioned.

10) Nature. Both countries have some fantastic views to offer. Yet, neither culture seems to care in the least about preservation. Littering of epic proportions is widespread.

We’ve chosen to write about things which are different from what your average American experiences back home in the USA.  Some strike us because they’re surprising, others because they’re merely unlike what we live with normally.  There are, of course, a great number of commonalities shared by each of the countries we mention, and the UAE and Russia are wonderful and interesting in their own ways.

Thursday List: You Know You’ve Been to the UAE Long Enough when…

1)   A daytrip to Dubai is just a part of the routine.

2)   So is a trip to Abu Dhabi.

3)   You no longer notice that everyone around you is wearing kandoras or abayas.

4)   You shorten your sentences and speak each word very distinctly so that the non-native English speaker you’re communicating with will (maybe) understand you.  Optionally, you leave out linking verbs and articles.

5)   You say “petrol” instead of “gasoline”, “mark” instead of “grade” and tell people your flat is on the ground floor. Oh, and “inshallah” becomes a household word.

6)   Somebody else pumps your gas, er, petrol, and you think that’s normal.

7)   You haven’t washed your car in six months because you can get someone else to do it for five bucks.

8)   You stop noticing that there’s no sales tax.

9)   When the temperature drops below 70 you think it’s really cold out.

10) Every time you go outside you meet somebody who’s neither American nor Emirati, and you’re not the least surprised.

11) You’re no longer terrified by the crazy drivers or the confusing roundabouts.

12) You see so many Porsches and fancy Mercedes that you don’t even notice them any more.

13) However, when you see a girl in shorts/skirt/dress that do not cover her knees or in a sleeveless top, you wonder what in the world she is thinking.

14) You no longer try to snap a photo of every camel truck passing by.

15) When you hear the word “date,” you think of a fruit, not an event.  You even have a favorite kind of date.

16) Truly clear, blue skies are exciting.

17) Seeing a dog is equally exciting.

18) You remember to not take or give anything with your left hand.

19) Last time you had so many friends living in the same town as you, you were in high school.

20) You are ready to pay $10 for a box of White Cheddar Cheez-Its.

Thursday List: Blog Posts I Need to Write

It’s been a long time since I contributed to this blog. There are all these ideas floating in my head, but it’s hard to get myself to sit down and put them into writing.

So here’s a list of blog posts I need to write. Maybe if I have them up here for everyone to see, it will be the motivation I need.

1. Good things about living here

2. Adjusting in a different country. To hate or not to hate?

3. UAE and Russia: what they have in common

4. Shon’s boys outside of school and our visit to an Emirati home

5. You know you’ve been in the UAE long enough if….

Thursday List: Dear Santa

I think it’s lucky we are not brand-dependent. We won’t be running around the local supermarkets in a frenzy, looking for “Comet,” certain that none of the dozens of local cleaners will work as well. My face won’t turn into a pumpkin if I turn away from Clinique ($70-something for a moisturizer that costs $25 in the US!) We may miss Red Robin (great vegetarian burgers), but, truth be told, everything or most everything we used to cook in the States we can cook here as well.

Still, there are things we miss. Silly things, most of them. Embarrassing, even. Supposedly, some of them may be found here from time to time, but you have to be very lucky. So, Santa, here’s what we want for Christmas:

1. White Cheddar Cheez-Its. Oh, how I want some White Cheddar Cheez-Its! I’d probably eat any kind at this point, but none are available.

2. Cape Cod Salt & Vinegar chips. More junk food, I know, but these are the best.

3. Soy protein powder for Shon. Everything here is whey-based (gives Shon a cough), meat-based (we are vegetarian) or completely artificial.

4. Pad Thai noodle kit by Thai Kitchen. We are starved for Thai and Japanese food here. It can only be found in big cities and is ridiculously expensive. If you think good sushi is expensive in the US, think again.

5. Japanese sprinkles for rice. Man, I miss the Asian supermarket! I would also kill for a giant bag of frozen vegetable potstickers.

6. A craft store in Al Ain. Apparently, nobody is interested in crafts here. There is a very small selection of yarn at fabric stores, no jewelry-making or scrapbooking/card-making supplies at all. The biggest selection of crafting supplies I found was at a local bookstore and we’re talking about 1 (one) aisle of construction paper, canvases, several different kinds of paint, yarn, foam, and styrofoam. I may be able to make Mod Podge at home, but there’s no way I can come up with my own Armour Etch!

I may be seen kissing the floors of Hobby Lobby and Michael’s when we return to the US.

7. A candy thermometer. While I’ve successfully made marshmallows without out before, it makes life so much easier! Apparently, people don’t make candy here either.

8. A decent photo printing service somewhere in this vicinity. I am not paying for shipping photos from Shutterfly, and the only two photo printing shops we found here seem to be using regular printers. Yikes.

That’s all I can think of for now. Give me a month or two, and I’ll probably be changing my stance on brand-dependency. That’s what might happen when I run out of my hair products from the States and remember what life was like before Aveda, CHI, and Big Sexy. Then again, may be not.

More Mosques: Thursday’s Pictorial List

Four local mosques: a pictorial list for Thursday.

There are, as you know, some lovely mosques around.  We’ve hardly photographed any of them, but these are all interesting in some way, shape, or form, and I thought I’d share.  None of these are amazing photos in themselves, and since they were all taken with my iPhone, there is considerable lens distortion in some images.  Still, I hear there is no better camera than the one you happen to have with you, and I think you might enjoy a look.

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1) In downtown Al Ain, this mosque, mostly hidden behind the palms and the fountains in this image, is perhaps the most modernistic one that I’ve seen in town. The green lights up top are clocks, which display the time in English and Arabic, as well as the date and month.

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2) This one is about the size of a small gas station and I think it’s picturesque in it’s own way.

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3) More attractive in person, this one has a couple of tall minarets and is what I immediately think of when I think of the word “mosque.”

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4) This reminds me of Alderaan (I told you I was a Star Wars nerd). Sort of spaceship looking, yes?

The call to prayer is echoing gently off the apartment complex’s facade as I write, and I think that signals an excellent time to end this post.