Tuesday, November 29, 2016

London, baby!

Confession: this particular leg of our journey is the one I, personally, was most excited about.

London, United Kingdom.

A city filled with history. Exactly my speed.

Speaking of speed, let me back up and share a few details about the Formula One Grand Prix in Abu Dhabi (Not to be confused with Abu the monkey.)(I HAD to get that in here somewhere.)

It was much more exhilarating than I thought it would be. The guys were, of course, totally stoked, and I was excited that they were excited...but I've never followed racing much, and only care about it in a "yeah, my husband and boys watch that on the weekends sometimes while I'm cleaning the kitchen and getting groceries" kind of way.

But it was a spectacular experience. Every time the cars, going over 200 miles an hour, raced toward us down the straightaway, then braked sharply to turn the 90 degree corner, jockeying for position and screeching their tires, I gasped and clenched my hands together, thoroughly enjoying the rush of adrenaline.

All in all, I'm glad I went. It was very cool.

After the race, we walked to the adjoining mall for supper, where we realized, for the second time during our visit to the United Arab Emirates, that their malls are the size of our cities. (I'm exaggerating, but only a little bit. I've never seen anything so gigantic. And we walked the entire dang length of the building, I swear.) In the food court, because we are clearly Americans, we ordered Burger King and Pizza Hut. (insert self deprecating, bemused eye-roll here.)

We rose before the sun and boarded a plane in Abu Dhabi. A fancy plane. A double decker, with a bar in first class and apartments available if you were willing to pay 60 THOUSAND dollars for it. We were NOT willing, (duh) but even economy class was swanky. (by the way, why do they have to call it economy, like that dresses it up? Just say cheap seats, people. That's what they are, and we all know it. No reason to try and make it better with flowery words.)(Tangent ended.)

And that brings us up to London. Where I turned into a total history geek, as expected. I read all the things I could find to read, and when there was no information available, I made Heath turn on his WiFi hotspot so I could use it to google information.

Our first cab driver of the day called our accents funny. And he regaled us with jokes, historical information, and boasts about his city. When he told us that London was the best city on earth because no one was allowed to carry a gun, I wanted to remind him: "Um, sir, we are Americans. You know, the home of the wild, wild west? We are a bunch of cowboys, according to the rest of the world. We have the 2nd amendment...we aren't really impressed by that last little tidbit. Move back to the jokes." Ah, the diversity of world culture.

I wish that we could've spent several more days in London. I am pretty sure I will always want more time in historically rich cities.

But what we saw...was magical. We hopped on a double decker tour bus outside our hotel, and away we went. Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, Parliament, Westminster Abbey...and much more. We ate fish and chips and drank mulled cider at a local London Pub. We ordered lattes from a tiny, owner operated cafe. We rode the London Eye after dark. We walked around shivering because it was so flipping cold. We had the time of our lives.

It was a perfect way to celebrate Heath's 40th birthday, which, if I haven't said so already, was the main reason for the entire eight day adventure. We finished off the celebration of my favorite man in the world with supper at a nice restaurant, and another harrowing cab ride.

And now we are bound for home.

Customs in the London Heathrow airport was just shy of being strip searched, and all four of us find ourselves as excited to be on our way back to the land of the free and the home of the brave as we were to depart on our whirlwind, globe-trotting, birthday bash.

The United States of America is calling to our hearts, as everyone's homeland calls to them, I imagine. But mostly, we long for our sweet kids; for their kisses and hugs, and the way they smell, and how loud and rowdy they are. We cannot wait to hear their voices calling us "Mom and Dad."

We are ready to be home.

Where everyone is free to choose how to worship. And everyone can drink the water straight from the tap. And our phone chargers work in every outlet. And we have a WiFi package. And guns. And we drive on the correct side of the street.

London was fantastic, but there really is no place like home.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Abu Dhabi

I wanted to add, after the title "not to be confused with Abu the monkey" but I knew only my kids and a few others would understand the Aladdin reference...and so I didn't.

My second title idea was "more of the cultural phenomenon," except it doesn't have quite the same ring to it as my first idea. So I settled for terribly boring. Sigh. I feel like a titling failure.

Abu Dhabi is surprisingly different from Dubai. We had to drive through a legitimate desert to arrive here, and the haze of sand is present in the air...and in my eyes every time the wind blows.

The call to prayer rings out much louder, which either means they have better speakers at the mosques, or that there is a mosque much closer to our hotel here than in Dubai.

The breakfast buffet is another difference. In Dubai it was an international spread, featuring pizza and egg rolls and baked beans (yes, on the breakfast buffet...) but here, in the more traditional Abu Dhabi, I was interested and excited to see an entirely authentic assortment of foods. There was an olive bar, several bowls of dates, hummus (YUM), fruit, and platters of sandwiches and pastries and cheeses. Bacon and sausage are clearly labeled either "chicken" or "turkey" as there is no pork to be found or consumed in the UAE. I loved the breakfast experience here. I wished I could've discussed it with my kids, and shared the cultural differences with them.

The Grand Mosque we visited last night was one of the most beautiful architectural buildings I've ever seen. Breathtaking. Intricate. No expense spared. Magnificent and awe-inspiring. We took hundreds of pictures which won't do justice to any of it.

There were very strict dress code rules. We knew about them beforehand, but forgot to take a couple of things into account. Women had to be completely covered. Long pants, long sleeves, a scarf covering neck and hair. We knew that. But we didn't know that they had to be loose fitting (baggy) clothes...and so we had to adjust what we were wearing, or risk being asked to don a traditional robe and head covering. Many, many other women visiting the mosque either didn't take the time to research proper attire, or they didn't care, or they WANTED to wear the garb, because for every two women we saw in long sleeves and pants and scarves of their own, there were at least 5 women in abayas that they were instructed to put on over their clothes before entry was permitted. Also, we read that men could wear short-sleeved shirts, but didn't account for the fact that visible tattoos would not be allowed...and so our friend, Patrick, was able to experience the long white robe kindly forced on him by the guard.

The long, droning wail of the call to prayer rang out while we toured. We watched in awe as men began to run, desperate to arrive at the "Male prayer hall" in time for the evening prayers. The "Female prayer hall" was located on the opposite end of the mammoth building, and women headed that way with equal haste. I can't begin to describe the sadness that overtook me as I witnessed the haste. The people were devout and excited and committed to go into a room and pray...but, they had to go into a certain room, dressed a certain way, and be separated from their spouse in order to do so.

A lump rose in my throat, thinking of all the times my husband and I have grasped hands together, wherever we happened to be, and prayed to God, the Almighty, the ever-present Lord of Hosts...and He heard us where we were, however we were dressed. I won't spend time on this particular tangent, although I could. I did turn to Ashley and whisper, "I hear the call to prayer too. Aren't you glad we can stand right here and pray if we want to?" And she agreed. And then I said "I think the guys should go into the men's prayer hall and pray. They don't have to go in there to talk to God. But they can take the Holy Spirit and a few angels with them." And she smiled, indulging my Patty Bausum moment in the way all my true friends do.

Not being able to touch my husband while in the mosque was another thing I knew to expect, but found much more difficult than I had expected. I didn't realize how often I touched him out of habit. Interlocking fingers, occasional hand placed on shoulder or arm to make sure he was still close by and aware of me...I do that a lot, apparently. Finally, after barely catching myself several times, I crossed my arms tightly, and spent the remainder of our tour that way. I watched Patrick reach back, probably not even realizing he was doing it, holding his hand out for Ashley to take. And when she didn't, he turned, looking for her...and then remembered.

I left the mosque feeling amazed by the beauty of the structure and skill of the craftsmen, somber thinking of the inability to pray anywhere and with anyone I wanted, and supremely relieved to be able to uncover my head and wrap my arms around Heath.

We visited an old market, called a souk, this morning, and that was one of my favorite cultural experiences. Shops devoted to selling fresh spices, shops that sold every variety of dates, shops with silk scarves in every color combination you can imagine. I could've walked the corridors between shops all day long, and never grown tired of it.

Alas, though, there was a little thing called Formula One racing...the main reason we made this trip in the first place. And so we changed from our conservative, souk appropriate garb, into our racetrack attire, and headed there for the qualifying round.

At the gate, we were separated into male and female entrance lines. At first we thought it was because we had purses that needed to be scanned, until we noticed several men carrying backpacks in other lines. Ashley looked at me and spoke in hushed, vehement tones. "I do NOT like the way they treat us here." Indeed, there were 4 lines devoted to taking the tickets and credentials of the men, and only one for women.

There are too many things to document them all, too many wonderful experiences, too many moments of emotional upheaval, and even if I could somehow find all the words and had all the screen space to fill with them...I am just too exhausted.

And so I am posting this at midnight in Abu Dhabi, which is early afternoon in the USA, and bidding you all goodnight!

Tomorrow is race day. Stay tuned.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Dubai

I wonder if the shock of another culture ever becomes less dramatic.

Being that I am not what most would consider "well traveled," I find myself acutely aware of the differences between my own little "world" and the multi-cultural world outside the American South.

And, certainly, this particular trip boasts the most glaring differences of any place I have ever visited.

The United Arab Emirates is literally on the other side of the world from North Carolina.

While there will occasionally be a displaced Yankee gracing the streets and restaurants and grocery stores south of the Mason-Dixon line, saying "you guys" and forgetting to say "yes ma'am" and driving aggressively and staring blankly when someone offers grits as a meal...that cultural gap pales in comparison to the hotels and streets and beaches and airports of Dubai, UAE. (I giggle now at my own metaphorical turn of phrase, because it is ironically true in the most literal sense here. In the USA, I am a relatively olive-skinned person. In the United Arab Emirates...people probably want to blink and squint when they see me walking by. I am, quite accurately, pale in comparison.)

Because I am nothing if not a person who wants to be over-prepared and completely informed about a destination I will be visiting, I read as much as I could, and asked as many people as I knew, what to expect, and how to dress, and all the rest of the truly important things.

And still, the shock remains.

From the first moments of boarding the gigantic airplane, where the people pressed in on every side with no claustrophobia or thought of personal space, to the arrival in the airport and the stringent security enforced by Arabian garbed border patrol...I am feeling very much like a little bitty country girl with two left feet and an accent no one, not even the English speaking, can understand.

SO many languages present themselves to my ears. French, and Spanish, and several I can't recognize...and differently accented English from my own.

It's a sun-soaked melting pot, Dubai, much more so than anywhere I have been before.

After 13 hours on a plane, which included the most miserable night of sleep of my life,(and by sleep I mean dozing off long enough for my neck to get a crick or my arm to fall asleep or my forehead to smack onto someone else's shoulder or the people walking back and forth to the bathroom to smack into me on their way by) I was nearly too exhausted to mentally catalog all I was seeing for the first time...nearly.

But I made the effort, because I knew I would have a moment to reflect, and record, what it was like to visit a Muslim country.

We brought appropriate clothing, even if many of the other visitors to our hotel did not. (see above mentioned statement about being properly prepared) but I still feel under-dressed when walking by women with their heads covered, and entire families in religious garb, and men who stare at us strangely.

I wonder if they are as unused to my appearance as I m to theirs. Surely not. There are people from every part of the world here, and everyone looks and talks and dresses differently.

It's more than appearances I wonder about, though. I wonder, as I make eye-contact with, and smile at, every person I can, if they ponder the type of person I am the way I ponder them.

Are they angry that I made eye contact in the first place? I didn't read about that being taboo here...but I didn't read EVERYTHING.

Are they praying for my eternal soul when they see my in a knee length skirt and my hair uncovered? (And because I am nothing if not my mother's daughter, you can rest assured that I AM praying for the souls of everyone I see.)

Are they glad for the tourist business that I represent, or do they feel put out by the way their city has become so modern, losing some of its culture to the concrete and lights and peoples of the world?

It's Thanksgiving Day in America, at least it will be when the sun comes up there. Here, there is no turkey cooking, or football on television, or family arriving.

There is a crowded beach, and a cool Indian Ocean breeze, and every color and shape and language and bathing suit type you can imagine.

I love it all. I wish I could soak it into my pores the way I am soaking in the Arabian rays. I wish that some of who I am would seep out of me and onto others, so that a little of my culture becomes theirs, and a little of theirs becomes mine.

That is what a melting pot is all about, after all.

The days are jammed full ahead of us, and its exciting and overwhelming and EXPENSIVE, but for a few hours today, I am able to stop and think, and enjoy, and ponder, and pray.

I pray blessings on this country, and it's people...and I pray that the love of Jesus would seep out of me, and somehow, because He is powerful enough to do it, the Holy Spirit would begin to move here. It's a rather large prayer, and certainly more than I could ever begin to hope to see accomplished...but maybe my smile to the sweet lady who exchanged our money this morning will shine Jesus on her, the same way that I felt the kindness in the words of our waiter at breakfast. THAT isn't too much to pray for.

And even though I am an uncultured, little American southern girl, I know that my Lord sees me here the same as He sees me at home, and that He hears me...because I am His princess...even here.

Happy Thanksgiving to all our people back home. The world is wonderful, and filled with adventure and beauty and shock and all the rest...but YOU are home. And we love you.