Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Emotional Roller Coaster of Christmas Shopping

Every time I enter the Dubai Mall here – holiday time or not – I always pause mentally to remember how thankful I am to have the benefits that I do.  Not that Dubai is the come all end all of opportunity, but for me nothing screams excess and wealth like a shopping mall.  I don’t live the lifestyle represented in the media about Dubai, or that represented by those high-end brands from many of the shops there.  Yes, I like what I like, and I am fortunate that I have a job and means to do the things I do while many others in the world are struggling.   I do not forget this.

This thought kicks off my Christmas shopping that I set out to complete all in one Saturday afternoon.  As I am not one who really likes to shop, I wanted it done in one shot.

3:00pm Wow, I am thankful to live in such a place
3:15 There sure are a lot of tourists here.  Everyone going to “The Top” of the Burj.
3:15:30 Tour groups following their guide who is holding up a number or flag through the shopping mall…for adults.  The way people just surrender in this situation just seems odd to me.
3:20 I feel like I have conquered something. You can bargain shop in such a place if you have the patience and time to dig around beneath all the high-end stuff.  There is reasonably priced stuff if you just dig.
3:45 Decisions, decisions.. Back and forth, back and forth.
4:00 I ran into friends drinking coffee at the cafĂ© in the store.  They must think I’m nuts and very indecisive.  I hope they don’t think this is a sign that I am a shopaholic.  I admit, I do have a thing for shoes, but that is a whole different disease.  
4:05 Finally, most of the gifts finished in one store.  Can this be?
4:10 Waiting for gift-wrapping.  It is not that crowded, but wow, these girls are perfectionists and very slow!
4:25 Gifts wrapped, bags back in car so I can travel lightly and fly through the rest of the mall for just a few more gifts.  I am sure I will knock this out soon.
4:26:30 What do you get men that have everything? Hmmmmm
4:30 Pause for one of the very hyped-up Magnolia cupcakes with a macchiato.  As I posted on Facebook that day – it is all about the icing.
4:45 Shot of caffeine, ready to take on the world.
5:00 What do you get men that have everything?… Now things are just looking really expensive.
5:05 A peek into one of the high end stores in the "Fashion Court".  It is packed!  Are there that many people with that much money within one square kilometer?  As I see the crowd in stores like Louis Vuitton and other stores, they must have a give away.
5:10 I see something in the window of a Tom Ford store that is in my mind as a gift for my husband.  Just for fun, let’s take a look and see how much it is.  I love that obvious shock and look of horror / pity on the employees’ faces when they see me in my no name t-shirt, jeans, no make up, insignificant hand bag and practical shoes that scream that I do not make the salary of a movie star.  They were kind and entertained me, but somehow I feel a little more ugly and dirty.
5:15 Walking, thinking, walking, thinking, walking…….
5:20 I was thinking to purchase an accessory for someone with a very fancy handbag.  Maybe a key chain would be within budget.  I head to the other department store that I know sells these.  I look at the coin purses and key chains.  Are they kidding me?  I wonder how many children in Africa that key chain would feed.
5:22  I see Bob the Builder is about to perform.  I had no idea.  A small sense of guilt comes over me as my son is at home.
5:25 Let’s try the other department store.  I wander around aimlessly.  All the same stuff, all the same over priced stuff.  Its just stuff people.  Stuff!!  I am beginning to hate stuff.
5:35 I call one of my friends to see what her kids might like as a gift.  I know what they are into, but I can’t quite find the right thing.  A picture of Michael Jackson is suggested.  Off I go to the toy store.
5:40 Enter Hamley’s toy store.  Please throw me off the balcony now.  Any place where excessive noise, people screaming at you like you are deaf; or those who are confused about the meaning of not speaking English and being deaf are welcoming you at decibels newly known to man, where you have to dodge flying objects is not the "happiest place on earth" as I believe their slogan goes.
5:42 “Do you have any pictures of Michael Jackson?”  They look at me like I am nuts!  (Yes, I am. But still.) I am sure back in 1984 such places would probably have this.  They think I am confused about what decade I am in.  I then proceed to ask if they have anything “Glee” related.  Its popular here, but they have never heard of it.
5:45 Must. Leave. This. Place. STAT.
6:00 More walking.  Have not purchased any gifts since the gift-wrap!  I struck gold there, now I am getting bored.
6:05 I forgot to drink water.  I must be hungry and thirsty, but the overstimulation of stuff has made me forget this.  I drink a very quick glass of fresh mango juice as I continue to shop.
6:10 – who knows when… I continue to wander around with a goal, but yet aimlessly.  I do have gifts in mind for each person, but I can’t quite find anything remotely close.
8:00 – a few more gifts are purchased.  I call my husband to ask a question.  “When are you coming home?”  I am on my way… Little do I know…More thoughts, more confusion, more walking, more fatigue, oh, I forgot to get this one a gift..etc, etc..

Shortly after 9:30 pm, I decided I finally had enough.  On the weekends here the malls are open until midnight.  This can be effective, but after several hours of running around all corners of the Dubai Mall, I don’t think I want to stay and see midnight here.

As I depart, I pass the Magnolia bakery again.  Dare I stop for another cupcake?  Or even worse, take a box home?  Be tempted to eat them in the car?  As much as I feel I earned it, I kept walking.

I see the wealth around me.  I feel the weight of the bags that I carry.  Yes, I am fortunate.  I am fortunate that I entered the world in a body that happened to live in a place where I would have access to peace, opportunity and the ability to achieve my goals more easily than if I had been born somewhere else – in another country, in another body, in another situation.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Sheikh Zayed Mosque, Abu Dhabi

Since my mother-in-law and sister-in-law are visiting this week, we ventured out of Dubai yesterday to Abu Dhabi, the capital of the UAE, to take a tour of Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque that just opened about two years ago.
The project began back in the 1980’s and is now the eight largest mosque in the world. It can hold over 40,000 worshippers – the size of a town. It houses the world’s largest carpet, dome and chandelier. I found the carpet most impressive because it was all one piece and hand made.
I had always seen the mosque in the past during drives to Abu Dhabi for business, but I never knew much about it. Sometimes such a large structure can be overwhelming, and I wasn’t sure what to expect from a place that has 28 different types of marble in it. I found it to be a stunning, beautiful building.
I have visited other mosques and religious sites before so I dressed appropriately. I wore jeans and a loose fitting shirt and came prepared with a shawl in case I needed to cover my head. I am always prepared with this valuable accessory anyway as a result of the artic air conditioning indoors here.
When we arrived, I was disappointed at first because women could not go inside unless they were wearing an abaya (the black dress-like garment with black head scarf). While the air conditioning has made me consider this as an option before, I definitely do not carry one of those around in my bag, much less own one. But as we neared the main entrance, I learned that they were giving them out for all visitors to wear. Yeah! I was excited.
I also noticed that they were giving out kanduras, or dishtashes for the men to wear who came wearing shorts. This is something I will never really understand. Why is it that so many Western tourists who visit foreign countries go to religious places wearing something that they would not wear into their own place of worship at home? I’ve seen it everywhere.
Ladies, would you wear your “Daisy Duke’s” to church? Of course you wouldn’t. Of course this is aside from the question if you own them in the first place. (Slang translation: Daisy Dukes - Shorts that are very, very short and show your butt. Named after the character Daisy from the television show “The Dukes of Hazard”).
Of course I struggled with the head scarf having no clue how to wear it in that very nice way the women do so it is flattering to their face and stays in place. Having a camera strap around my neck did not help it either. My sister-in-law and a woman in our tour group helped me fix it a couple of times, but in the end I wore it loose while covering everything. I’m sure it wasn’t the best, but it worked.
To visit the mosque they don’t just let you roam randomly through it, but they have designated tour guides and take you in small groups. It is a great service and wonderful promotion for cultural exchange and understanding. A local cultural guide goes with you to tell you about the mosque and also to answer any questions about religion.
When my parents visited Dubai they took a tour of the much smaller, Jumeriah mosque and had a similar experience. A Dutch woman who converted to Islam gives the tours and answers any question asked. It is very educational.
Of course I had my camera, but I did not take as many photos as I wanted. One, my son was with me. However, I have no regrets about this because it was a different experience for him, and when you take children anywhere new it is always interesting.
Since all the women were covered in the same garment, I quickly realized the only way my son could identify me was by my camera. I always wondered this about small children who grow up with mothers who are covered in public. I assume at home they see them uncovered, but if you are in a country where everyone is in black and fully covered, what is the identifier. I don’t mean this is a sarcastic way by any means, but I’ve always been curious. I wonder if over time they recognize their mother’s form in the abaya, and of course there is always that expensive handbag for some that will make a difference.
My son wanted to run through the mosque – and who could blame him with over 22,000 square meters of space. There is a large outdoor open space as well as the large prayer area inside with that lovely hand made, soft carpet under your bare feet. Before we went inside we had that talk where we needed to be quiet and well behaved since we were visiting a special place. But when I looked around and saw Muslim parents letting their children run free, I took the “When in Rome” approach. At the time this seemed like a better option than strangulation as my son pulled on the tail of my headscarf playfully to hide in it.
I later saw him kneeling on the floor and thought that he was imitating the worshippers who were praying at the far end of the prayer room. Very cute. Oh, but no. He just needed to go to the toilet. Even though we are potty training, and he is pretty much trained, when going to places like this, I don’t risk it just yet. Thankfully!
The other reason I did not take as many photos as I wanted was because I was torn in wanting to experience the place for the first time. I love photography and taking pictures of things, but I also believe that occasionally you just need to step back and observe something and recall that in your memory as well as in a picture frame. There is something to be said about capturing the essence of a place. While first impressions are also important, you also want to give your subject proper attention and convey the feeling of it, or in this case it’s grandeur. The good portrait and wedding photographers usually will not go in and start shooting their clients without having met them first or knowing something about them personally. I have read of the occasional brilliant “cold cut”, but I think this is very rare.
The same can be said for Africa. People go to Africa, but they are so busy taking pictures of the animals, you never really get to watch them because you never paused for a moment to recall where you are and focus on what your other senses are experiencing. This is what makes professional wildlife photographers great at what they do. Of course they have been working on their profession for years, but as a result they understand the animals, spend a lot of time watching them and can often anticipate their behavior.
Maybe this is a naive approach, as I know life and time does not always allow for a retake or another visit. But knowing that this is just an hour and a half drive away and that I will definitely come back by myself another day to take more pictures, I was able to pause, take it all in and envision my next visit with the camera. Our tour was very brief as the sunset prayers were about to begin. We were allowed to stay outside. Listening to the prayer as the sun set, it was a very beautiful experience.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Random thoughts about my visit to Hong Kong

We went to Hong Kong a few weeks ago for the Eid Holiday. This was our first time there and I can say we all really enjoyed it. Since I have the number 30 on my mind as the “write 30 random things about yourself” note is going around Facebook, I’ll write 30 not so random things about my trip to Hong Kong.

1. We stayed at a friend’s home in an area called Stanley, which I guess kind of equates to a suburb because it was outside of the city. But it didn’t have typical suburbia feel because it was sitting on a hill overlooking a bay. It reminded my husband of Sausalito.

2. It was a crowded, happening city. But honestly, it did not feel that densely crowded to me. Maybe Istanbul conditioned me for this, but it felt very comfortable.

3. It was so clean. One of the cleanest cities I have ever been to. Every city has their not so clean spaces, but even the average establishment had a very clean bathroom. – Potty training a toddler, I can appreciate this.

4. Hong Kong seems like a great place for shopping. I do not really like to shop, and do not know how prices for things compare to other places, but there were shops of all kinds. The line waiting to get in the Chanel store must have meant something!

5. The few times I needed a coffee I had to choose Starbucks. Much to my surprise, it was the only place that had soymilk! Now, I do not seek out chain places when I travel, but Starbucks is everywhere and when a girl needs some coffee, she needs some coffee. I tried to give my business to the other places first, but in the end it was the place with soymilk that won.

6. Every day I would see at least two or three photo shoots going on in the city. It was beautiful weather. They were either fashion shoots or wedding pictures.

7. I found everyone to be attractive and well dressed. I love cities in Asia because you often see a little quirkiness too. Especially with the young girls, I desperately wanted to take pictures of them all. They were cool.

8. In one of the larger train stations there was a shop that only sold combs. They seemed to be of high quality and were displayed very carefully. It all seemed very upscale. Combing my hair has never crossed my mind while on a train.

9. Because of jet lag, we started the days later so walked the streets late at night. This was a lot of fun and a great way to explore the city.

10. We went up to the Peak one night to see the city at night. It is beautiful, but do not wait around for the light show unless there is a huge event going on. There was only really one building that seemed to participate the night we went up.

11. The weather was always pretty hazy.

12. Taking the Star Ferry and looking at the view of the city from the water was pretty spectacular and surreal all at the same time. It has been a scene in so many movies you can’t help but feel like something serious was about to go down.

13. My son is blonde and blue eyed. That was a novelty for many people. Some people would take his picture. When they asked, I asked him. He said no which was fine by me.

14. We ate at a Chinese restaurant that is geared toward Chinese tourists. It was nice, and all the people there were nice. I do not know if it was just this particular group of tourists that happened to be there when we were, but they were so loud. I am usually not easily disturbed by others around me.

15. We went to Hong Kong Disneyland. It was a very manageable size as it is much smaller than any other Disney park. We appreciated this and it was the perfect size to get most of the things done that our son could enjoy in about 7 or 8 hours.

16. The train on the way to Disney was all Mickey themed. I am sure they have this at other Disney theme parks, but I really liked it. The windows were shaped like Mickey as well as the rings to hold.

17. The “street snacks” at Disney included dried squid and fish balls. My husband tried them and did not find them very good… and he eats pretty much anything compared to me, so it had to be bad for him to say that. We didn’t eat a whole lot there.

18. My son’s favorite ride was the teacups – why does this not surprise me.

19. There was a dead mouse on the electric car track at Disneyland. I don’t think it was Mickey.

20. I learned on this trip that I do not really like Chinese food as much as I thought I did. I ate 5-star food as well as regular cheap food. I do love other Asian foods. Perhaps I just need to try some more.

21. The chicken tasted very different than what I am used to. Perhaps it is not as hormoned up as what is sold elsewhere.

22. I was very proud of my son, who is two years old, who was so well behaved at Man Wah, the Chinese restaurant in the Mandarin Oriental hotel.

23. I learned that you should not drop a ball into that conical exhibit thing at the space museum if you need to pee. If you are with your young child, you will have to wait until that ball falls into the hole. It takes way too long.

24. It’s true. There are not a lot of old structures left in Hong Kong as everything is built over with modern skyscrapers. I was pleased to find an old firehouse, although now an expensive store, with an old fire truck on display.

25. I drank bamboo juice on the street. I liked it.

26. The only place to get anything hot to drink in one of the parks we visited was Starbucks – not good! No Chinese tea?

27. My husband lost the key to our friend’s house one night, so we got to experience a city hotel for one night.

28. It was pretty warm outside – maybe 25C / 80F. People were wearing boots and winter coats!

29. We went to the Chinese market one day. I love markets, but they have kind of lost their novelty for me. I think this is because everything everywhere is now made in China. The originality is gone.

30. I love that you can check in, and even check your bags in at the central train station. You can enjoy a hassle free ride out of the city.

...and I must leave you with one additional one that I can't resist...

31. The day I came home, I read a letter to the newspaper where someone was begging the government to not call such a long holiday! It had something to do with the banks being closed.