Message in a Bottle

“Where should I send your Christmas card?” LOLOLOL. The three easiest ways I can think of are to put it in a bottle and drop it in the Persian Gulf, throw it out of an airplane at 35,000 feet, or secure it to a falcon and hope for the best. Abu Dhabi has neither an address system nor regular mail delivery. In fact, a year and a half after moving here I still don’t know what street I live on. Truth. We receive bills via text message and either pay online or at the mall. Luckily, I’m able to pay most of my bills right across the street.

I recently read with interest an article about Onwani, the Abu Dhabi address system that’s set for completion in December 2015. Wait… it’s already December, and it looks like there’s still a ways to go. Granted, numerous street signs have been installed in recent months.

However, there are still many streets with multiple names or none at all. Buildings are slowly being assigned numbers. A friend’s building now has an address or two; yes, there’s a different number on the back than the front. Mine has none. Like we learn as youngsters, one is enough for everyone and it’s not fair to exclude. Hopefully this will all even out soon. For now, we navigate the city using GPS and plugging in coordinates, building names, or a landmark near our destination, winging it by sight when we get close.

On the bright side, I never come home to a pile of junk mail.

So please scan and email me your card or send it to my condo back home and I’ll come home to a nice Christmas in July. I really do love all the holiday cards and family photos though, so don’t cross me off your list! I’ll hopefully have a nice family photo by next week to post on FB and Insta that will act as our card for this year. Meanwhile, I’ve amassed some photos of Christmas in Abu Dhabi. They’re not all pretty but most are, and it’s been really nice to celebrate the season these past few weeks.

Tree at Beach Rotana

Tree at Beach Rotana

Life-size gingerbread house

Life-size gingerbread house

Obviously for someone on the naughty list

Obviously for someone on the naughty list

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Tree at Emirates Palace

Tree at Emirates Palace

Friends Ciara & John hosted a fun Christmas dinner last weekend

Friends Ciara & John hosted a fun Christmas dinner last weekend

And now begins our two-week break. Many people have already left to explore new places or visit friends and family at home. Happy and safe travels! I won’t be checking in while vacationing with the fam in Spain, so now’s the time to wish everyone a Merry Christmas and Happy 2016- peace, love, health, and happiness to all!

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Forever Young

As far as birthdays go, this one rocked! I’m not much into aging, though when I whine about it I’m often asked if I’d prefer the alternative. No, I wouldn’t, but life is moving quickly! I think it’s even harder for my parents to watch their kids inch closer toward AARP eligibility. Ack!

I awoke yesterday morning and ran to my breakfast bar to open presents; my friend Jen had brought them with her when she came to visit in April. My sister sent me a bracelet and the girls made a photo album chronicling our Abu Dhabi adventures over Christmas. Add to that a slew of thoughtful gifts given to me by the wonderful people here (see you in the fall, Dave Matthews Band!), and I started the day off right!

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The celebrations actually began about 10 days ago since Kevin and I combined our birthday party.

Me & Kevin

A group of us went to Stratos, a revolving restaurant, for a sunset happy hour. Sadly, I must admit that it made me a little queasy to spin ever so slowly for two hours while drinking cheap sparkling wine but- YOU KNOW ME- I forced myself to have an enjoyable time. It looks like only the girls were in a picture-taking mood that night.

Me, Ruth & Ciara

Me, Ruth & Ciara

Ruth, Ciara, Maeve & Dani

Ruth, Ciara, Maeve & Dani

Fiona & Ashley

Fiona & Ashley

Then last Friday I went to the shooting range at the Armed Forces Officers Club (which actually deserves its own post someday):

Caracal Shooting Paper

before heading out to an “all-you-can-eat-and-drink” 4-hour Mexican dinner with a small group of friends, including Bettina and Shannan. They get credit for giving me this lovely birthday hat among other treats.

Birthday Photo

Bettina and Shannan had bought a Groupon for a night at Emirates Palace Hotel and invited me to the pool on Saturday. Whoa. Cool stuff. After the year we had, we spent hours double-noodled in the lazy river “complaining” how we had to steer clear of the rocks or how the chlorine was getting in our eyes when we tried to duck under the waterfalls. Rough life. But we agreed we earned it the hard way!

Room “key”

Emirates Pool

Emirates Palace Sun Loungers

Emirates Palace Water

Then of course my official birthday landed on a Sunday, the first day of our work week. Boo. But Craig took me to a super-nice dinner at a reastaurant in the St. Regis Hotel called 55&5th, which I highly recommend. It’s expensive even with the Entertainer app but well worth it. Definitely the best meal I’ve had here to date.

Birthday Dinner

I predict the next 8 weeks of my life will be the most stress-free of any I’ve experienced as an adult. With Ramadan beginning by the end of this week (Muslims fast during the day for a month and non-Muslims are not allowed to eat or drink in public during daylight hours) work has been shortened to half days. The students are currently taking one exam per day so all we have to do is grade the English exams and proctor those in other subjects. I’m as close to being on vacation as one can be while still working.

So thanks to all for making this a great birthday! And thanks for making this a great birthday. Or did I already say that? I’m old and tired. But it’s either that or the alternative so cheers to another year!

And We’ll Never Be Royals…

… but it sure is fun to pretend every now and then.

In true UAE fashion, Emirates Palace is over the top. A seven star luxury hotel, the Palace has delighted visitors for the past ten years. Sadly, its status as the “world’s most expensive hotel” has been lost and its current billing is the “world’s second most expensive hotel,” a title I’m sure the locals despise as the people live to showcase their enormous wealth.

Either way, this hotel oozes glitz and glamour. Emirates Palace boasts 114 domes and over 200 fountains, and is replete with gold, silver, marble, glass mosaics, and more than 1,000 Swarovski crystal chandeliers.
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Jen & me out front

Jen & me out front

Visitors are free to roam many areas (though the top floor of the hotel is reserved for Gulf Arab royalty only), so it’s nice to stop in with guests and take a photo in front of the gold ATM and/or the world’s most expensive Christmas tree.
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My December visitors

My December visitors

My first visit to the Palace was in the evening, so I was able to pop into Étoiles, a nightclub that starts rolling around midnight. Because we went at 10pm it was nearly empty. We bought a drink, but after learning the charge to score a table we decided just to walk around the indoor/outdoor club until we finished.

The second drink I bought in the hotel was last weekend with Kathryn, my fourth visitor (I love guests!). I had walked past Le Café every time I had gone to the Palace, so after hearing numerous rave reviews of the cappuccino with gold flakes, I decided to imbibe.
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Since Kathryn was only in Abu Dhabi for two days, we had to make smart decisions about what to see and do in order to maximize her weekend here, and we both agreed this was a win. When the cappuccino arrived, we took photos and marveled at our trays for at least five full minutes before digging in. The presentation, which included a date and a macaron, justified the cost (58dhs/$16 US) and the taste was wonderful as well.
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Treating myself to a few good things in life on the weekends makes the weekdays bearable. Come see for yourself for a taste of upscale living! Even if the UAE isn’t on your travel radar, you can still get a glimpse of Emirates Palace in the movie Fast and Furious 7, along with many other Abu Dhabi landmarks. But I suggest you just make a point to visit me and I’ll take you on a personal tour, gold-flaked cappuccino and all.
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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.

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