From United Arab Emirates

2012: The Year in “Wow, that happened?”

Ah, the year-end recap. Some silly things, some momentous things–and not just a rehash of old blog posts. Genuine new material here.

1. We got a pet.
Well, not really. But we did get Sugar Duck, a very easily anthropomorphized sugar canister from Turkey. He speaks with a lisp, and sounds sweet, but sometimes he can be a bit snippy. Peter and I are rapidly progressing toward being one of those awful couples who only talk to each other via hand puppets.

After a couple of months, Sugar Duck also got a friend from the homeland, Mr. Turkish Teapots!
After a couple of months, Sugar Duck also got a friend from the homeland, Mr. Turkish Teapots!

2. I made Saveur!
Well, really, the excellent restaurant The Curious Kumquat made Saveur, as #39 in the Saveur 100. It just happened to be my name at the end.

3. I got a cover story in a magazine, and I won an award.
Please indulge my career brags briefly. I was moving too fast this year to fully appreciate these things at the time. Typing it now, I feel kinda bad-ass.

Both were via New Mexico magazine, where I’m always honored to be published. The cover story was this roundup of cool hotels in my home state, in the October ’12 issue.

And the award was from the International Regional Magazine Association, for the feature I wrote in 2011 about taking the train to Las Vegas, NM [PDF].

The best awards are the ones you didn’t even know you were up for. A Macarthur is next, right?

4. I traveled alone throughout the Middle East, and I did not die.
Back in February, I was quoted in a story about how Americans were still traveling to the Middle East.

A reader felt compelled to warn me of my foolhardiness:

Hi,
I know you feel travel to the Arab nations is safe, but you need to appreciate is how fast the situation over there can change and as an American you are a symbol of hate at the moment.

We had the student hiker’s capture, when the USA has plenty of Mountains to climb.

We have the Aid workers freed by the Navy Seals in Somalia; BTW I think 10 Somalia’s were killed. So sad considering the Aid workers could be doing aid work in plenty of places right here in the USA.

Please don’t promote the middle east until women in Saudi Arabia can drive and vote. Or until women can choose their own husband.

[redacted]

Er.

Anyway, “the Arab nations” (I can’t vouch for Iran or Somalia) I visited this year are safe. I even picked up hitchhikers in Abu Dhabi.

The UAE is unintentionally hilarious; Doha is delicious; Lebanon has great hiking; Morocco is full of sweet people.

Actually, everywhere is. I don’t think [redacted] appreciates this, and I feel sad for him.

5. I took up a sport.
If you consider hula hooping a sport. It’s certainly more of a workout than I usually get, a bit of a break from my couch-and-bonbons schedule. And, remarkably, it is the only physical activity I have ever been reasonably good at on first attempt.

6. I made friends in Arabic.
For all my years studying Arabic, I have never actually gotten to know someone in the Mid East purely by speaking in that language. That has a lot to do with studying at fancier schools in Egypt, where most people speak English as a second language.

This year, I went to more French-as-backup countries, and my French sucks. And those countries also happen to have some charming and outgoing–and patient–women I’m honored to have met.

7. I went back to Morocco with my parents.
They spent a lot of time there in the late ’60s, which is why I have the name I have. I also finally figured out what my name is really supposed to be in Arabic.

My dad sat down here and said sardonically, "Ah, mint tea again at Cafe Central in Tangier. I can die a happy man." Then the waiter told me he loved the delicious ladies. Just another typical travel day.
My dad sat down here and said sardonically, “Ah, mint tea again at Cafe Central in Tangier. I can die a happy man.” Then the waiter told me he loved the delicious ladies. Just another typical travel day.

All the details will be in the book.

(Oh, sh*t! The book! Why am I writing this blog post when I should be writing the book?!)

8. I turned 40.
And I feel pretty good about it. Even though I almost immediately had to have my wisdom teeth pulled. Life is so much easier at 40 than at 20. And so is traveling.

9. I might have just hit my limit with traveling.
I hope this isn’t related to the previous point. But it was a long year. As I’m writing this, I should have been on a plane to Kuala Lumpur. But general tiredness and a creeping sense of responsibility made me stay home. What’s happening?!

I do have a book to write (ack, sh*t!), and that requires sitting still. I’m a little behind schedule. After this post, you might not hear from me for another month or so.

(The book, in case you’re new here, has a lot to do with “the Arab nations”–and how they’re a great place to travel.)

******

I dedicate 2012 to all the wonderful people I met on my adventures: Maala, Btissam, Said, Alaa, Mido and family (oh, that was late 2011–but still!), Agnes, Holly, Arva, the women behind Qatar Swalif, Habooba, the Asrani family, and many, many more.

May your 2013 be filled with nourishing food and kind strangers.

Also, many ice cream sundaes!
Also, many ice cream sundaes!

UAE Novelty Break!

OK, here’s all my silly pictures in one go. Or most of them anyway. These were taken all over the United Arab Emirates, though mostly in Dubai. Click the pic for bigger versions.

Under Construction in the Emirates

During my trip to the Emirates, one of the main things I wanted to do was drive out into the desert and see the dunes. I grew up in a desert, and I’ve traveled around the deserts in Egypt a bit, but they’re not the same. I still had never seen that super-duney, English Patient kind of desert up close.

Abu Dhabi is the largest of the United Arab Emirates, and in addition to being a pretty slick and functioning city proper, it stretches way out west into the desert, up to the undefined border with Saudi Arabia.

So I drove way out to Liwa, which is a little cluster of settlements along some oases. And because even when I’m not working on a guidebook, I’m pretty curious about fancy hotels, I decided I’d drop in to the Anantara Qasr al-Sarab resort for lunch.

There are only, like, three roads in Abu Dhabi, but I managed to get lost. My Google GPS told me to turn down a dirt road, and I did. Just about the time I was realizing that a rustic approach to a luxury hotel was one thing, but this road was clearly not right, I passed a ghost town.

A mirage on the horizon

I parked my car and hiked down to the trailers. Just like in a good Western, there was a door blowing in the wind, creaking and slapping against the tinny side of a double-wide.

That was spooky enough, but then I heard the faint sound of voices. As I got closer, I realized it was a radio or a TV. Somehow, an inhabited ghost town is even creepier than an empty one.

But it was just one guard, watching TV to pass the time. He said it was fine if I took some photos.

Toilets. Lots of toilets.

Click to see full-size, for the drawing on the wall.

The trusty guard. The only other living thing around was a bird, also yellow.

Virtually everything in the Emirates has been built by guest laborers. Thousands of people can work on a major construction project–the Burj Khalifa in Dubai employed some 10,000 people. This often calls for an independent workers’ town, with bare-bones housing and other services. Smaller projects still often have an adjoining workers’ camp.

This is what I’d driven past, on this wrong road. The guard confirmed my guess–this had been the workers’ camp for the Qasr al-Sarab, which was just over a couple of dunes ahead. It was slowly being dismantled–the good parts, like the toilets, salvaged, and the trailers carted away on trucks.

I said thanks, and then drove off back down the washboarded road and back to the highway. One kilometer farther along was the proper entrance to the resort, with a perfectly smooth black surface curving through the dunes. No eyesore trailers to be seen. The resort, when I got there, was astoundingly beautiful. The construction workers did a fantastic job.

The entrance.

Every construction project in the Emirates has its own ghost town, a negative form that’s destroyed once the real sculpture is created.