Girls Just Wanna Have Fun

Many things in Abu Dhabi are more expensive than at home so you have to be ready to grab a deal whenever possible. When the girls were here over break I found a Groupon for a mani, pedi, and 1-hour massage for 140dhs ($38US). I haven’t called my kids “The Expensives” without reason; it’s not that they ask for much, but buying everything x3 can add up quickly. So I jumped on this deal and we were able to enjoy a very affordable spa afternoon. Never mind that the place was called ‘Colors Nails’ because almost everything is misspelled here (another place I frequent is called ‘Nails Arts’). Instead of letting it aggravate me I’m learning to laugh it off while enjoying the low prices.

The women of Colors Nails were nicer than nice. Many people in Abu Dhabi move here alone on a work permit and send money home to their families. The woman who did my nails told me she has a husband and young daughter in the Philippines that she supports on her meager salary. In fact, the majority of the staff was Filipino, including my massage therapist, who was a physical therapist back in her home country. She was phenomenal. My only issue is that I had a naked massage while the girls didn’t. If she thought they were too young for that, she should’ve known I was too old; out of the three of us I’m the last one you’d want to see unclothed.

(no photo out of the kindness of my heart)

I also got an awesome manicure that lasted over three weeks and still haven’t redone the pedicure I got from this place six weeks ago, though it needs help now. My students compliment me on my nails all the time. They have a slight obsession with nail polish because most of them aren’t allowed to use it. Instead, the girls often go to salons to have their hands, and sometimes feet and legs, decorated with henna. Some only get henna on special occasions like holidays and weddings, but for most girls it’s not out of the norm. Some get traditional designs, like this:

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while others go for the more modern, swirly versions:

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Henna can also be done using a little squeeze bottle and template at home (I’ll bring some back with me and have a henna party this summer) but of course the girls prefer to have it done professionally. Kate, Jenna, and I got henna while on our safari:

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We didn’t let the henna dry long enough before washing it off. A girl who was watching us get our designs said we could scrub it off under water after 15-30 minutes- that’s the absolute LAST time I listen to an 8 year-old! Our guide later informed us we should’ve left it on as long as possible so the henna would stain our skin better. I spent the next few days scrubbing my hands to remove all traces of henna so I could have it redone at the New Year’s Eve safari. Nice person that I sometimes try to be, I didn’t run over to the henna woman right away, letting other people who were more anxious go first. After dinner, I stopped by her tent to find her sleeping (locals sure do seem to doze off frequently) so I lost my chance that night.

(I took a photo of her, too, but didn’t feel right posting it)

Aside from my nails, the students are obsessed with other things about me that blow my mind. Several of them have told me they “want my eyes.”
“Why?” I ask.
“Because they’re beautiful. And brown.”
“Your eyes are brown, too.”
“No, teacher, our eyes are black.”
Umm, I don’t think so, but I’m not going to argue.

Almost all of the local girls have beautiful darker skin, long, jet-black hair and dark eyes. I’m not allowed to post pictures of them, but generally speaking (you know, there are always one or two who don’t fit the mold…) they’re a good-looking bunch. They’re so used to seeing others with similar traits that they love anything out of “their ordinary,” which is understandable except when they’re referring to things about me that I can’t stand! For example, they’re obsessed with my hair. I try to tell them that it’s limp, lifeless, flyaway, boring brown hair but they won’t have it. They pet my head on the rare occasions I’m sitting down and they can reach it. On days where they’re able to touch my hair, I’m usually planted in a chair blocking the classroom door, preventing my kids from leaving or others from entering, which does not put me in the mood to have them run their fingers through my treasured locks. They also twirl my hair and try to comb it (please get your comb away from me). Hard to believe, I know, but they compliment me multiple times daily.

Another thing the girls can’t understand is why I don’t wear makeup to school. For them it’s forbidden, so they try to sneak application throughout the day. If they get caught (duh, we can all see it!) they have to remove it on the spot. My short answer to why I don’t bother with makeup is that it’s too expensive here so I don’t want to waste it for work. I actually bribed them and said if they all finished their in-class assignment today I’d wear mascara tomorrow. But of course they didn’t finish, so I don’t have to make good on that. I had a pretty good feeling I’d win when I made the bet in the first place.

The moral of the story is “everyone finds someone attractive.” Even if you have to move more than 7300 miles away from home to find those who envy you. Who cares if they’re only teenage girls. Who don’t get out much. Whatever. Here, at this moment, I have great hair.

Don't be jealous of the one on the right!

Don’t be jealous of the one on the right!

Three Little Birds

I was introduced to UAE falcons last September. Shortly after arriving in Abu Dhabi I attended the International Hunting and Equestrian Expo, where a falconer first offered to let me hold one of these prized birds of prey. Initially, I was nervous- all handlers need to wear an arm cuff as protection from the talons, so that alone is cause for hesitation.

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After holding one, however, my fears waned (at least more than they have with squirrels.) So while writing a list of “must-do” activities for the girls’ Christmas visit, I added the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital to the list. In the UAE almost everything has “world’s fastest,” “world’s tallest,” or “world’s largest” attached to the name. So it shouldn’t shock you that Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital is the world’s largest of its kind.

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Since opening in 1999, ADFH has treated tens of thousands of falcons as well as other types of birds. Recently, it has expanded to include a dog and cat clinic along with a shelter for strays (crazy cat lady post pending). After arriving at the hospital and getting the runaround at the entrance gate, we were allowed to enter and wait for the 2pm tour. The tour began semi-on-time, which is pretty good for the UAE. We were first crammed into a tiny “history museum” that showcased falconry items, maps, and things. I can blow through a museum faster than anyone but this was a single room so there was nowhere to run. The guide finally entered and they closed all of us into the standing-room only museum for what seemed like an eternity (it was so long that there was a typical UAE break, where servers provided glasses of juice) to learn everything we ever wanted to know about falcons. Here’s what I soaked in:

Falcons have played an integral part of Arabian lifestyle and tradition for thousands of years; some bedouins still use them for hunting today.

The falcon is the national bird of the United Arab Emirates as well as a status symbol among the Emirati people.

The three most common types used in falconry are the peregrine, saker, and cyr.

The peregrine falcon is the smallest and most expensive and can sell for many tens of thousands of UAE dirhams (as much as $40,000US).

-Female falcons are larger than males and therefore more highly regarded.

-Falcons are issued passports to reduce illegal trading and can no longer be taken abroad unless their owner procures one.

Finally, the door opened and we were shuttled to the outpatient section of the hospital, where a few dozen falcons were lined up and tethered to perches, waiting for their check-ups.

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Most falcons wear hoods on their heads to keep calm.

Keep Calm and Wear a Falcon Hood

Keep Calm and Wear a Falcon Hood

Using a gas mask, the vet anesthetized one of the falcons before weighing it, taking a blood sample, checking its ears, and clipping its talons and beak.

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We were then able to hold and photograph the falcons. It takes a second to get comfortable and then they become quite endearing:

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Though that wasn’t the official end of the tour, it was for the three of us. Kate’s and my undiagnosed ADD kicked in and we felt like we had learned all we needed to know so we asked where the restroom was and made a mad dash for the exit. I guess we missed an aviary show but at the time it seemed much more important to head over to the luxurious Emirates Palace hotel to view the “World’s Most Expensive Christmas Tree” (supposedly $11 million USD).

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A few days later we joined a safari that included a demonstration from a falconer in the middle of the desert. He brought a peregrine male with him and demonstrated training and hunting techniques while the falcon swooped back and forth overhead. Again, we were afforded another photo opp:

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After the girls returned to the US, I happened upon this Instagram photo of Selena Gomez (no, I don’t follow her).

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Oddly enough, my pal Selena and I stayed at the same hotel in Paris in the spring of 2009; she was there to unveil some new clothing line while I was there to scarf down bread and cheese, drink wine, and visit Jim Morrison’s grave. Turns out she was in the UAE over Christmas break too, and held a falcon while on safari. Though annoyed that she couldn’t even throw a text my way, I’m flattered that she finds it necessary to follow me around the world. Living like a celebrity, yes I am. At least until my pre-dawn alarm sounds and I head back to this crazy thing called my job.

Surfin’ Safari

Sandboards

Sandboards


Desert safaris are a favorite way to get a whopping dose of local culture in one fell swoop. No matter which company you book with, they generally follow the same format. I splurged on two safaris this week, one with the girls and the other for New Year’s Eve with friends.

Safari #1
Safaris begin with dune bashing, where you basically put your life in a driver’s hands while he flies you up, down, and around sand dunes all the way to the camp.

Most of you know this isn’t really my thing. Luckily, I found a safari company that offered a 45-minute camel ride to the campsite in lieu of dune bashing (Platinum Heritage/Dubai). The ride was super-fun, though at one point I yelled to the girls, “Raise your hand if you’re out of your comfort zone! I’d raise MY hand, but I’m too far out of my comfort zone to let go!” I think they secretly like when I act like a freak.
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Our guide led us to a small carpet and pillow-covered site where we were given sparkling date/apple juice to sip while we watched and photographed the sunset.
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Next, a falconer brought out a peregrine male and demonstrated some training and hunting techniques. The falcon is the national bird of the UAE as well as a status symbol among Emiratis.
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Then we hopped in our guide Batir’s 4×4 and drove two minutes to the campsite. Coffee and dates were offered as is customary in any social setting. I’m really getting sick of the dates but I’ve come to enjoy the coffee and tea more than I initially did. We learned that it is a compliment to be served a half-cup of coffee because it means your host will refill your drink when finished; being served a full cup is your cue to drink up and call it a night. Luckily, we were all served half-cups or it would’ve been a really short safari.
Dinner began with lentil soup, followed by the usual pita, hummus, kibbeh, tabbouleh, fattoush (salad) and more. Though we were full at that point, the main course followed. I had chicken and lamb with a side of rice; camel curry was offered but after our new friends gave us a nice ride through the desert earlier I couldn’t bring myself to try it.
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There were several forms of entertainment, including dancing and music. A henna artist was on hand as well.
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Shisha was offered near the end of the evening. Later, as we stretched out on pillows and gazed at the million stars in the sky, Jenna said, “I feel like I’m in a snow globe,” a very accurate description of the scene. Unfortunately, our iPhones are incapable of capturing a starry night.
The safari ended somewhere between 9 and 10pm; by that time the temperature had dropped considerably. Note to self: buy sweatshirt, winter hat, and mittens for the next safari.

Safari #2
Several of us who stayed in the UAE over Christmas break opted to book a safari for New Year’s Eve. This time though, we chose to stay overnight. Our guide Farid picked us up at our front door yesterday at 3pm and took us straight to the site. I thought I’d be stuck dune bashing, but since I was sitting in the front seat I got to talking with Farid about how I was afraid I’d get sick in his really expensive Hummer. He offered to drop everyone at the starting point, drive me to the campsite, and then retrieve everyone for the dune bashing. I jumped all over that offer and I think I made the right choice because the “smooth” drive to the campsite was about all I could handle. While a handful of others eventually showed up because they had also shied away from the dune bashing, I was the first one at the camp so I got to take “before” pictures of the place when it was unoccupied. My phone battery drains at warp speed in the desert so I don’t have any “after” photos but the place was desecrated.
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I also seized the opportunity to take a few more camel selfies.
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After my group arrived, everyone poured a drink and headed up the sand dunes to watch the sun set.

Dani, Andy, and Andy's parents Helen and Derek

Dani, Andy, and Andy’s parents Helen and Derek


Andy and Dani

Andy and Dani


We then sat around our table, chatted, took photos, the usual.
Me, Bettina, Joe, and Lisa

Me, Bettina, Joe and Lisa


Derek (looking snazzy in the traditional dress) and Helen

Derek (looking snazzy in the traditional dress) and Helen


Gotta love a girl who brings a wine purse into the desert

Gotta love a girl who brings a wine purse into the desert


All kinds of entertainment was provided: belly dancer, male dancing, magician, henna.
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We again enjoyed shisha.
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The midnight celebration included silly string, massive amounts of confetti, and dangerously close fireworks. Most people went home after that but a handful were in it for the long haul. We stayed up til almost 4am before retiring to our tent. The temps weren’t too bad and the sleeping bag was so warm I didn’t even need my new winter hat.
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We awoke around 9am and were served breakfast before Farid drove us home. The rest of the day was spent hanging out in my apartment reading, doing laundry, uploading and sorting photos. It’s good to have a chill day every once in awhile. Gives me time to think of what I want to plan next.

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