Sunday, December 20, 2009

A Little Bit of the "Real" Abu Dhabi

This weekend some of us decided to break away from the city and go exploring around the Empty Quarter (the western desert region of the emirate of Abu Dhabi). We found our way to the Liwa Oasis and ended up camping in some of the biggest sand dunes in the world for a night. Here is a map to show where we were in relation to the city of Abu Dhabi (we were pretty much right where the yellow box that says Liwa Oasis is located):

Unfortunately we weren't able to leave the city until after 4:00 on Thursday afternoon, mostly because yours truly wasn't watching the time while he was BBQing on the roof for a late lunch. Therefore, we didn't reach Liwa until after sundown. As we were driving up and down the winding road that lead through the dunes, we were completely oblivious to the natural beauty that surrounded us (it was pretty much pitch black out there). We picked what turned out to be a great spot to set up camp, about 100 feet up the side of a sand dune in a nice little flat spot. By the time we got to this spot, it was already close to 8:00 at night. Luckily we had a nice, bright lantern and used it to help us see as we set up our tent for the night. After that, we just wandered around the giant dunes in the dark for a long time, stopping frequently to lay down on the sand and stare up at the big night sky. Since there was absolutely no light pollution to interfere with our view, we could see all the constellations perfectly. This was probably the best part of the whole experience. After a few hours of exploring, we found our way back to our campsite, we munched on some snacks, threw back a few cold ones, and just talked for a few more hours.
Probably the worst part of the whole trip was trying to sleep. There were five of us crammed into 1 tent (we were too lazy to put up both tents), and only 1 of us remembered to bring a pillow. That left Jeff, Mike, and I sleeping on our backpacks (mine might as well have been a sack of bricks). The ground was not too comfortable either. Therefore, by the time the desert sun came blaring through the sides of the tent, none of us had gotten more than 3 or 4 hours of sub-par sleep.
Nonetheless, getting up wasn't too painful because, for the first time since we'd arrived in the dunes, we were able to enjoy the natural beauty of our surroundings. Here are a few pictures I took when I woke up in the morning:
Walking up the sand dune to our campsite from the car (doesn't really capture the elevation at all).

Our campsite. You can see some of the sand dunes across the road. That is our car on the right side to give you some perspective on how high we are from the road (and the dunes behind me go much, much higher!).

The 2 1/2 hour drive home through the desert was pretty rough for me because I was tired and sore and everybody else was sleeping. But the scenery was also a nice change from what I'm used to seeing so I tried to enjoy it as much as I could.
Overall, I'd say that everybody had a great time camping and I think all of us are looking forward to doing it again soon!

Sunday, December 13, 2009

An Eventful Weekend

This weekend is surely one I won't forget anytime soon. First, I had my 1/2 marathon in Dubai on Saturday morning. In order to do this, I had to get up at 4am to eat a quick breakfast and speed my way to Dubai for a 7am start. My race started off great, but I slowed down quite a bit toward the end and I was pretty disappointed with my overall finish. But I have to say that the course was very scenic and is definitely one I'll do again next year. Plus, after the race, I got a free massage so that helped me forget about my race a bit too.

On the way back from Dubai, all I could think about was the nice little nap I was going to take when I got home. However, right as I was pulling in, I got a call from Jeff and we decided that we should host a BBQ that afternoon. So, instead of sleeping, I ran in, took a quick shower, and then we were off to buy food and charcoal for my grill. When we got back, I pretty much had to go straight up to the roof to start the grill.

As the chicken kabobs were cooking, all I could think about was how I was going to go to bed at like 7:00 that night because I was feeling so tired. However, when my friend Hector came up to the roof, he had 3 extra tickets to the FIFA Club World Cup quarterfinal match and invited Jeff, Danielle, and me to go. It sounded like a lot of fun, so I figured I would rough it out and then go to bed when I got home.

The soccer game was a lot of fun. It was between club teams from Korea and Congo, and not only was it a close game, but the fans were going pretty crazy the whole time (especially the Congolese fans, who had a little band there and they were playing music and dancing literally non-stop the entire time). Even cooler was the fact that we got our FIRST RAIN since I've been in Abu Dhabi. I had heard there was a chance of rain that night, but I had no idea that it would rain so hard! We were all soaked through our clothes, but we didn't care because we were just so excited that something different was happening with the weather.

Feeling recharged after the game, we all decided to go to our favorite neighborhood restaurant, Al Nasr Grill, to grab some food. During dinner, we started talking about our favorite Disney movies and we decided that we had to go back and watch Aladin after dinner. By the time we got back, got changed, and watched a bunch of random video clips on YouTube first, it was already well past midnight. We decided to watch the movie anyway, and it was close to 3am by the time I went to bed.

The next day (Saturday), it was still raining and since Abu Dhabi has basically no drainage system (it would cost more than it is worth since it only rains a handful of times a year here), all the streets were partially flooded. It was not that bad to drive in, but kind of funny to watch all the local drivers (who normally throw caution to the wind when they drive) be so overly careful on the wet streets. It reminded me of what I probably looked like the first time I drove in the snow. Anyway, I went to the post office to pick up a package and deliver some more of my own. What would normally be a 5-minute ordeal back home ended up taking me well over an hour because . . . well, it's Abu Dhabi. But I didn't care because I was just relieved to get that all taken care of.

Finally, Saturday evening, Andrew and I went to return our old car and get a new one! Our 3 month lease was up and we decided that we wanted to go with a different company, so we dropped off the Chevy Optra and then picked up our new 2010 Mitsubishi Lancer. The Lancer looks pretty nice and still has the new car smell to it, and it only has about 3000 km (about 1500 miles on it). We're probably going to break her in by taking her camping down south this weekend.

To make a long story short, I had a good weekend!

Goodnight from Abu Dhabi,


Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Jordan Highlights

Here is kind of a highlight reel of each of my days in Jordan.

I awoke pretty early to catch a morning flight to Amman from Abu Dhabi. The flight there was quite enjoyable, and we arrived in Jordan with no problems. The line at immigrations to get our traveller's visa was a bit ridiculous, but we got through it and were on our way to Madaba in a taxi in no time. Madaba, a small market town about 30 minutes from the airport, was a nice, quiet place to begin our trip with. We walked around the town and took a look at some of the local shops, many of which specialized in small mosaics--a local specialty. Then we went to St. George's Church, which is famous for the centuries-old mosaic that was discovered underneath the floor there. The mosaic once served as a large, detailed map of the entire area, and includes parts of Jordan, the Dead Sea, and the West Bank region of Israel. After walking around all afternoon, we called it a day early to rest up for a big Day 2.

Inside St. George's Church.

We arose early to get the most out of our day. First, we traveled a short distance to Mt. Nebo, where it is said that God revealed the Promised Land to Moses. Though the haziness limited our views of the surrounding area, we thought it was pretty neat to be at the historic site.
A view of the Promised Land from Mt. Nebo.

Next, we traveled down the mountain and through the Jordan River Valley to Bethany, the place where it is said that Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist. Though this area is military tension zone (it's right on the border of the West Bank), everything was very calm and peaceful there. As with Mt. Nebo, it was very cool to be at a religious and historic site such as this and it seemed to be a place that people of all religious backgrounds in our group seemed to enjoy.
The point where Jesus was baptized. (The river has migrated away from this point over the past 2000 years, but it used to be here!)

Just 30 minutes down the road from Bethany was one of the main beach areas for the Dead Sea, which was our next stop for the day. Keeping in mind that Jordan is very much a developing country and therefore the beaches shouldn't have been expected to match our sometimes very high, Western standards, I rather enjoyed our brief 3-hour stop there. The water was very calm, and like most people who come to visit the place, I just had a lot of fun floating around in the super salty water. (For those who do not know, the Dead Sea is so salty that 1) it is pretty much impossible to sink in the water, and 2) it is completely devoid of marine wildlife.) We were even able to rub this black mud dug up from the bottom of the Sea all over our skin, which, after rinsing off in the water, made our skins feel super smooth and healthy.
Me with some Dead Sea mud on me.

After we had our fill of the Dead Sea and had dried all the salty water off our skin, we moved on up through some mountains to the Ma'in Springs, where people can swim in play in these natural hot springs and waterfalls. While I had my fill of this place in no more than 30 minutes, the natural beauty of the place made it worth the detour on our way back to Madaba. After a pretty full day of events, we were pretty exhausted by the time we got home. We went out for dinner, then again hit the hay early to prepare for our next day's travels.

This day was mostly spent as a travel day. We spent a better part of the day on a 6-hour drive on winding, mountain roads, with stops at Wadi Mujib and Karak Castle. If it weren't for the gorgeous scenery to keep my mind off of all our drastic elevation changes, I think I may have gotten a bit of motion sickness. Nonetheless, it was a very enjoyable ride. Wadi Mujib, dubbed the "Grand Canyon of the Middle East," was simply breathtaking. And the stop at Karak Castle gave me a good warm-up for all the climbing I would be doing over the next few days.
Hanging out at Wadi Mujib.

It was mid-afternoon by the time we arrived in Wadi Musa, the city that kind of serves as base-camp for the Petra site. Not to be caught slacking off, we chose to take a mini-trip out to "Little Petra" that evening, where we got a nice sneak preview of all the cool things we would see the following day. After witnessing a nice sunset over the top of the mountains, we went to bed.
A part of "Little Petra."

This day, the day we went to Petra, was easily my favorite day of our trip to Jordan. Basically, Petra is an ancient city where most of the buildings are not free-standing structures, but rather carved out of the side of the mountains. Between these amazing structures and the cool mountain paths you travel on to see many of them, I had a blast! As an added bonus, for somebody who loves to climb on and explore things like I do, this place was pretty much a giant playground for me.
The Treasury at Petra. This place was not built, but rather completely carved out of the side of the mountain.

A view of some tombs from above. (You always get cooler pictures when you climb on stuff.)

Side-view of the monastery at Petra. Had to climb up 900 steps to get up this place!

We spent a good 9 hours of non-stop hiking and climbing at Petra, and I was exhausted when the day was over. Near the main entrance to Petra, there is a bar inside a cave (not unlike many of the structures we saw in Petra) which is said to be the oldest bar in the world, have served as such for nearly 2000 years. Naturally I couldn't pass up finishing my day with a fresh beer in such an establishment.

On this day, we took a 3 hour bus ride up to the capital city of Amman. We purposely avoided the city all week (our main goal of the trip was to get away from the big-city setting), but our curiosity about the Roman Citadel was enough to get us there for a few hours. We toured the Citadel, which at various times throughout history has served as a fort, hill-top acropolis/marketplace, and/or religious center for the area. Still experiencing some hangover from the awesomeness of Petra, it was difficult to get super excited about the Citadel on that particular day, but in hindsight I can say that it was a pretty cool little area.
Some ruins in the Citadel.

After we had gotten our fill of the city of Amman, we headed back to Madaba to rest up for the night so we could catch our morning flight back to Abu Dhabi the next day.

Though my narrative of my trip may seem a little lackluster, it was actually one of the coolest vacations I've ever been on. In fact, I've been recommending it to all my friends here in Abu Dhabi for their travels in the near future!

Good night from Abu Dhabi,


Monday, December 7, 2009

Back from Jordan

As many of you may well know by now, I have returned from my wonderful trip to Jordan. Unfortunately I have been pretty busy with jumping back into the workday grind the past few days, so my apologies for not having posted sooner! Also, I have had some trouble with my pictures uploading onto my computer properly but you should be glad to know that they are all there now. I am hoping to give you the full run-down of my trip, pictures included, tomorrow.

Goodnight from Abu Dhabi,