Last Stop, Swtizerland

After disembarking from our river cruise ship in Basel, Switzerland we traveled by train to Interlaken, a city sandwiched between Lake Thun and Lake Brienz. At this point in our trip, my husband and I were both suffering from mild colds. After checking into our hotel, we slept most of the day away with only a quick outing to pick up some spicy Mexican soup that did wonders for the sinuses. During the two days that followed, we traveled by cablecar up into the Swiss mountains, ice skated outside, and ate lots of chocolate and cheese.

On New Year’s Eve we packed up once again and took the train to Lucerne, the last city on our itinerary. This city stood out as a favorite among the rest—a picturesque setting with old world history. We walked the city to see top tourist attractions including the oldest wooden covered bridge in Europe, the dying lion monument crafted to honor the Swiss troops who died serving King Louis XVI in the French Revolution, and the wall and towers that fortified the city in the 13th century.


Cruising Down the Rhine: Germany and France

After leaving dock in Amsterdam, our Rhine River cruise made stops in three German cities—Cologne, Rüdesheim, and Heidelberg—and two stops in the French cities of Strasbourg and Riquewihr.

Cologne, as you could likely guess, is known for its most famous product, “Eau de Cologne.” The original fragrance was developed in the 18th century under the brand name “4711” and has been worn by many royals including Napoleon and Princess Diana. Our tour guide let us sample the fragrance from the flagship Farina store, named after the cologne’s inventor, and then led us to other notable city landmarks including Roman-era structures and St. Peter’s Cathedral which reputedly houses the remains of the three magi.

Rüdesheim’s quaint charm provided an idyllic Christmas Eve setting with shops selling hand-crafted Christmas ornaments and cafes serving Rüdesheimer coffee. The coffee treat was made right in front of us by our server. She started with Asbach brandy, a speciality of the local area, mixed it with sugar, and set it on fire to caramelize the sugars and burn off part of the alcohol. She added coffee and topped it off with whipped cream and chocolate shavings.

On our way back to the ship we encountered a small band playing Silent Night from one of the town’s castle remnants, a pretty perfect ending to a relaxing day.

Heidelberg was our last stop in Germany. The city sits at the base of Renaissance-style castle ruins on the Neckar River. We spent time exploring the castle ruins and then descended into town to visit one of the season’s last Christmas markets.

The last two stops on our cruise were made in Strasbourg and Riquewihr, France. Overcast skies and sprinkles of rain met us in France, but it didn’t dampen our experience one bit.


Amsterdam Windmill

Traditional Dutch Windmill

Last summer my husband and I toured Scandinavia with our trip starting in Helsinki, Finland and ending in Bergen, Norway. The flight to Finland left us with a 6 hour layover in Amsterdam, a city I had never visited. We made our way downtown to explore the streets, dodging bikes as we went, and stopped at a hot dog stand for refreshment (an exciting event in our mostly pork-less Middle Eastern lives). Between the touristy trinket shops and an unsettling run-in with a man who took unwanted interest in us, I was less than impressed with the city. When we hopped on the train headed back to the airport I remember saying I wouldn’t be coming back to Amsterdam in the future. So naturally, a few months later I was planning our visit to Amsterdam. Naturally. Our Christmas river cruise on the Rhine departed from that very city, so we planned to arrive two days early, primarily to ensure that a delayed flight wouldn’t make us miss embarkation. I think the pictures speak for our second experience, and after spending a fleeting two days in Amsterdam, I can only say it wasn’t enough time.

Travel Lessons: My Normal Isn’t the Only Normal

My Normal Isn't the Only Normal

I flew on an airplane for the first time when I was 18. My brother and two friends traveled with me to New York City. I can’t remember why we picked New York as our destination or why we decided to go in January when bitter cold temperatures seized the northeast. I do remember confetti littered on the ground, left over from New Year’s Eve celebrations and the wind that cut between skyscrapers and stung my skin. I also remember clutching my purse in protection against pickpockets who could spot us a mile away thanks to brightly colored winter wear that contrasted with a sea of New Yorkers donned in black and gray.

We zipped around from one touristy hot spot to the next, seeing everything from a Broadway play to the Statue of Liberty and even securing seats in the audience of a David Letterman show.

Aside from just enjoying the sights, the trip opened my eyes to see that a lot of life happens outside of my little bubble. As silly or naive as it sounds, I walked around New York processing the fact that thousands of people called that very spot home, and it was so very different from my own concept of home. The scenery I was taking in as fresh and exciting would be considered simply commonplace to its residents. My normal isn’t the only normal.

The second time I flew in an airplane, I was a college student headed to Italy for a month-long photography course. If New York City was eye-opening, Europe was mind-blowing. The art, the architecture, and the picturesque places that are “normal” for Italians created sensory overload for this Southern suburban dweller. Watching Italians around me, I wondered how they could walk down the cobblestone streets seemingly unaffected by the beauty around them: Michelangelo’s David, melt-in-your-mouth pastas, the music of church bells, and pristine gardens. Thinking of the places I have lived, I do know it’s easy to take certain things for granted. It’s easy to miss what’s right in front of you if it’s always been there.

Since moving to Abu Dhabi, we’ve traveled frequently, and while I still jump at any travel opportunity, the sparkle and newness of exploring different cities has somewhat faded since that first trip to New York. During this period I’m considering why I value travel. Traveling can create uncomfortable or challenging situations, but more often it’s exhilarating and awe-inspiring. My experiences have taught me that God’s creation is beautiful, that the world is huge and I occupy only a very small piece of it, that the sun and sky and moon looks much the same wherever you are, and that my home is a very special place. When I planned my trip to Italy, I remember thinking that when I’m old and gray I would rather have the memories of Italy in my mind than the few thousand dollars it cost in my bank account. The memories I’ve accumulated of places far and wide are valuable to me, but I think that value would be diminished if I didn’t have a place on this earth to call home, where I belong.

I haven’t been to the United States in almost two years, and I’m anticipating my reaction to my own homecoming. In one regard, I expect things to be as they always were. On the other hand, I know that traveling has changed my perspective, so I’m excited to see what new beauty and value I find in my own home town.

Weekend in Oman

On Thursday night Josh and I packed our bags and headed out for a relaxing mini vacation in Ras Al Khaima. Josh is on spring break from school, and because we hadn’t yet seen much of UAE outside of our Abu Dhabi hometown, I planned a trip to visit the country’s northernmost emirate. We arrived in Ras Al Khaima on Thursday night, did a little exploring around our hotel, ate dinner, and turned in with a 6:30 a.m. alarm set for the next day.

Here comes a side story because I reminded myself of something else in that last sentence. It happens. Do you think that “turning in” is a Southern phrase? Josh and I watched the movie Mud last week which was really good. You should add it to your Netflix watch list now. I’ll wait. The family lives in Mississippi, and in one scene the mother asks her son (imagine this said with a Southern twang), “Are you hungry? Want me to fix you somethin’? Alright then, I’m gonna turn in.” (That isn’t an exact quote; I’m going from memory here.) Josh deemed the phrases “fix you somethin'” and “turn in” as two distinctively Southern phrases. What do you think? I’m not a good judge of these things.

Back to my weekend story… Friday morning came and we set off for Khasab, Oman, the starting point of our dhow cruise. What is a dhow cruise, you ask? Is that anything like a show cruise where the author (me) accidentally types a letter “d” instead of “s”? Yes, I can see how you might think that, but then you would be wrong. This is how Wikipedia explains it: “Dhow (Arabic داو dāw) is the generic name of a number of traditional sailing vessels with one or more masts with lateen sails used in the Red Sea and Indian Ocean region.” I’m sure that cleared things up for you.

Driving through Ras Al Khaima on the way to Oman introduced me to a setting like I had never encountered before. Goats and cows roamed freely. The cows particularly took a liking to the medians of the four-lane roads. At times I could have reached my hand out of the driver’s side window to pet a bull. Half-constructed buildings littered the sides of the roads. Scrap metal and mud and tarnished signs in arabic finished off the landscape. Unique indeed.

Arriving at the UAE/Oman border, we spent a few minutes waiting for stamps and watched goats inch closer to the guards standing post outside, probably in hopes of receiving a morsel of food. The goats that is, not the guards. I wish I had pictures of these scenes; however, pictures taken from the inside of a car never turn out like you hope, and since photography isn’t allowed at the border checkpoints I have nothing to show from that experience either.

The drive along the coast in Oman was stunningly beautiful. Craggy mountains rose to our right with a sheer drop to the turquoise sea on our left. The hairpin turns in combination with the scenery made it the perfect location for a car commercial (listen up you ad men). After an hour in the car we found the building with a sign for our dhow cruise company, Musandam Sea Adventure Travel and Tourism, in a strip mall. An Omani man appeared to be directing the parking of cars. I rolled down my window and he asked,

“Are you going out on a cruise?”
“Yes, with the sea adventure company. [pointing to the sign]”
“Oh no no no. They no good. You should come with me.”
“Well, we’re already booked with them. Sorry.”
“Already booked? Well I give you my card and next time you come with me.”
“Okay. [being friendly and accepting his business card]”
Card reads, “Abdulfattah Bin Ahmed Al Shehi, Chairman, Musandam Sea Adventure Travel and Tourism [the company we booked with]”
Me: “Oh you’re messing with me!”
“Hahaha. Follow me and I will take you to the harbor.”

I start up our car and follow him. Along the way, Josh and I comment to one another about the unorthodoxy (yes, that’s a word according to MW) of the situation. We were blindly following some guy we just met through some curvy roads and more herds of goats to a boat. After 6 months in UAE we’ve come to expect the unexpected! We park between two little fishing boats in the mud because it recently rained and appeared as though it would again in the near future. It turns out that the Omani man was the owner of the dhow cruise company. We waited for the other customers (we learned that many German people vacation in this part of the world) while we drank Arabic coffee and delicious tea – black tea flavored with cardamom, saffron, and rose water.

Enjoying tea while waiting to begin our dhow cruise

Enjoying tea while waiting to begin our dhow cruise

Our boat cruised along the Strait of Hormuz while we strained to see the Iranian land mass across the water (we never saw it) and then explored the Oman fjords.

Our boat left from Khasab and snaked its way among the fjords

Our boat left from Khasab and snaked its way among the fjords

These are some of the views from our ship. We also saw a number of dolphins as they came up for air and splashed about.



We dropped anchor to feast on a lunch of rice, curry vegetables, salad, chicken, naan, and hummus. And of course more tea! After lunch many of us napped as the sound of the water lulled us to sleep. By the time the cruise ended, I felt completely relaxed and tranquil – the desired aftereffects of the perfect mini vacation!

Happy Thanksgiving!

It’s turkey week, but I only believe that because of the date on my calendar. My internal sense of the season is completely thrown off by consistent 80+ degree weather and the small number other Americans who mention anything of Thanksgiving. Things have been relatively uneventful around here for a while, primarily because Josh and I have been swapping colds back and forth rendering us unable (or at least unwilling) to do much venturing forth from home.

In the midst of my illness, Josh convinced me to go to the doctor. I was reluctant given my lack of insurance and skepticism about the quality of medical expertise here (despite what I keep hearing and reading). There is a hospital right across the street from our apartment, so choosing a place to go was simple. I walked in without an appointment and was with a nurse before 5 minutes had passed. She took my blood pressure, weight, and asked me some questions including whether I was allergic to anything. “Yes, sulfa drugs.” “What?” “Um, sulfa drugs…” “What drugs?” “Sulfa.” “Oh, seel-fa.” Right. Yes. That American accent of mine can be such a hassle! I went back to the waiting room to sit for just a few more minutes while a nearby mother and child talked about me in arabic. They were probably saying how awful I looked, but hey, it is a doctor’s office after all, and I shouldn’t be expected to look my best. Now maybe it’s just me, but I think that if I was going to talk about someone in a language that the person didn’t know, I wouldn’t give it away by turning and looking and pointing.

Side story: when I went to the immigration office to get my visitor visa extended, some of the men behind the counter were clearly talking about me, and for the next 2 weeks I received phone calls from a guy who could barely speak English saying he wanted to be my “friend.” So perhaps that incident made me a bit more suspicious of people talking about me.

Back to the doctor’s office. I was called from the waiting room again and ushered into the doctor’s office, but guess what! It actually was the doctor’s office! He had his desk and computer and office furniture along with all the medical equipment, so unlike US doctor offices where you wait in a tiny room for the doctor appear, here he has no place to run. He spent about 3 minutes with me. Throat. Nose. Ears. Sinus infection and laryngitis. “I give you prescription.” And I’m out in the hallway again! Almost gave me whiplash. The pharmacy was about 30 steps away from the doctor’s office, and with pills in hand I walked back home…in the rain. And I live in the desert. Okay, just making sure the irony there was apparent.

Rainy day in Abu Dhabi

Rainy day in Abu Dhabi

Josh has been here since the end of August, and I’ve been here since the beginning of October. Since we’ve been here, there has hardly been a cloud in sight, but last week it rained for two or three days. Someone told me that it hadn’t rained so much in the last 2 1/2 years. I took a picture of a rain-soaked Abu Dhabi from our balcony.

In other news – John Piper came to our church last week, and I was so blessed to hear him preach. He has such passion and joy in Christ. If you haven’t heard about him before, you should check out his ministry website. He’s written a lot of books, some of which you can download for free from there.

During one of the first few weeks I was here, we visited Al Ain, saw the oasis, and walked through Al Jahili Fort which used to serve as a royal summer residence for the sheikh and later (in the 1950s) as a British military base. Here are some pictures!

IMG_0748 IMG_0757 IMG_0762

We’ve also been to the Emirates Palace, a lavish hotel with a gold ATM and the famous gold-flake cappuccino. We wondered about the safety of consuming a metal like gold while Josh sipped his “camelccino” – a cappuccino made with camel’s milk. It didn’t seem too different from a normal cappuccino although I did think it tasted a bit tangier! It turns out you can eat gold just fine as long as it has a pretty high carat. If it does, it’s  biologically inert and doesn’t react with anything in the body. It didn’t taste like anything, and I mostly just found it annoying that it stuck to my lipstick. It looked very pretty though and makes for a nice picture I can share.

Our Travels: Corniche, Grand Mosque, and Kentucky

Abu Dhabi

Josh was in Abu Dhabi for a month at the downtown Crowne Plaza before I arrived. From his hotel, he was able to venture out and easily explore the western part of the island. We now live on the eastern part of the island, and while heading downtown isn’t a chore, it also isn’t something we do on a daily basis. Two weekends ago, we hopped on a bus and headed westward to begin our day with a visit to the Corniche, a beautiful stretch of beach where city meets water.

We walked around during the heat of the day, and the only other people we saw were tourists or workers on break. Without bathing suits packed, we quickly sought the chilled sanctuary of Marina Mall. Malls are dotted across Abu Dhabi like Starbucks in NYC – they are everywhere, and the layout of one is just as confusing as the next. There are half-staircases leading to little sunken areas with tucked away restaurants; 5 floors, with 2 of them dedicated to parking; huge grocery stores taking the place of Macy’s or Sears. If you’re trying to find your car and you head down the wrong escalator to one of the lower levels of parking, you have to go back upstairs and try again. Regardless of their quirks, they have more perks than American malls too. Marina Mall holds an ice skating rink, a tall tower with rotating restaurants giving spectacular 360 views of the city, and offers more than 400 stores. Interestingly, Gap and other shops were putting out their winter wear collections consisting of furry vests, corduroy pants, and heavy duty sweaters. One shop clerk told Josh that yes, it gets cold in Abu Dhabi, a chilling 60 degrees at times! Banish the thought.

– Views from the Marina Mall tower, good eats in the rotating restaurant, and an indoor ice skating rink

After the Corniche and Marina Mall, we took the bus all the way back to our neck of the woods where the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque can be found – the largest mosque in UAE and the 8th largest mosque in the world. I was kindly asked to don a black red-riding hood outfit of sorts since no uncovered woman is allowed to enter. The lavishness of the building was truly spectacular – marble and crystal everywhere.

After the mosque, we walked back to our apartment and took a quick rest before continuing on down the road to experience the happening night life at….KFC, referred to by locals as simply “Kentucky.” Yes, apparently KFC is wildly popular for some unknown reason. Even at 9pm, the place was packed. After ordering, I left Josh to fend for our food (which consists of waving your receipt in front of a worker until they decide to pick you and then waiting while they figure out how to get food in your hands which may or may not be what you actually ordered. (I said 7Up, not Pepsi – they’re not even the same color guys.)) I do feel sorry for the people who work there (I find myself feeling sorry for many workers in this city) since they have to deal with mobs of people all day who demand their food and offer little thanks. In other fast food meal news – I saw a McDonald’s ad yesterday for the “McArabia Chicken.” I don’t think I’ll be trying that “local” meal anytime soon!

KFC is the place to be!

KFC is the place to be!

McDonald's remaining culturally relevant

McDonald’s remaining culturally relevant

Week 1 in the Books

I moved to Abu Dhabi one week ago, but it felt less like moving and more like embarking on a long vacation. I’m waiting for the permanence of the thing to settle in at some point, but for now, I keep expecting someone to announce that I now have to go home. It’s not because I don’t like Abu Dhabi or I’m ready to leave, but when you consider that I only brought 3 hefty suitcases with me, our apartment has a water-front location, and I hop aboard public transportation to go anywhere, you’ll begin to see the similarities between a relaxing vacation get-away and my new living situation.

As I reflect on my past week, I feel like I should have some grand lessons to share about this place and its culture. I fear I don’t have any of these deep insights, but I can tell you some of things that make this place great/weird/totally-the-same-but-completely-different-from-the-US.


The refrigerator’s on/off switch (left). For those days when you want room-temperature milk and meat

1. Haven’t you always thought, “Man, I wish there was a way to accidentally turn off my refrigerator or hot water heater with the flip of a switch that I thought was for the lights?” Yes, well, be jealous because now I can. First of all, let’s just take a second to be amazed at how big these switches are. Forget those skinny little light switches in the US. These require far less dexterity and are therefore, of course, superior.

2. There’s a vegetable called a what? I really wish I had taken a picture at the grocery store when I ventured out by myself earlier this week. The produce section was overrun with all sorts of foreign foods. Spiky things from Thailand and really long yam/potato things from India sat situated between bell peppers from Holland, pineapples from Egypt, and locally grown celery. I didn’t have my wits about me to take a picture because I kept expecting the grocery police to jump out and seize me for having earlier smashed a bottle of BBQ sauce in the aisle. Yes, I did that. It wasn’t as grand and dramatic as raising a glass bottle above my head with a yell and smashing it to the ground with a flourish, but I did knock over a glass bottle on the bottom shelf that went “ker-plunk” onto the floor and looked perfectly fine until I went to pick it up and discovered it was cracked into two pieces. I looked up at the two nearby Indian stock boys with my most honest “I’m sorry!” face, but they only looked at me and then returned to their task. As I slipped out to the next aisle, I imagined that any foreign chatter I heard was about the clutzy American girl and the consequences I would be facing. A couple minutes later, I looked back down the aisle to see that all the evidence of my mishap had been cleared away. Grocery police avoided. This time.

3. All Pakistanis are not terrorists. Well of course not, you say. Why state the obvious? Only because one of them told me! I got in a taxi in downtown Abu Dhabi, hoping to find my way to the local Souk, a marketplace that sells everything from jewelry and local attire to tea and exotic perfumes. The taxi driver, noticing that I had no idea where I was going, asked me where I was from. “America,” I say, “Where are you from?” “Pakistan. [moment of silence] I’m not a terrorist.” Surprised, I say, “Oh, okay, well then I believe you.” If this were a serious comment, I might have taken pause to contemplate what it means that Pakistani people feel the need to clarify their anti-terrorist position to Americans. After a few more minutes of conversation, though, I found that he was a jolly sort that liked to joke and tease. He took me right to the Souk and showed me where to go to shop. I felt the knee-jerk reaction to buy all the pretty things I saw, thinking “I’m in this beautiful, foreign place. I surely need that jewelry to remember it by!” But then I reminded myself that I’m not just visiting. I’m living here, and I’ll see a lot more Souks and fancy jewelry before I leave.

Escalators inside the Central Market Souk

Escalators inside the Central Market Souk

4. In many ways, life is still the same. I work. I cook. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting and dining with Josh’s teacher friends. Life is really good so far in Abu Dhabi!

Al Farah eatery, local fare, Omeir Bin Yousuf Mosque, view of the City from Sophia and Demetri’s apartment

Tick Tock Tick Tock…Ding!

The waiting is over. I have my plane ticket and I’m leaving for Abu Dhabi next Tuesday! Spending time with family in the interim has been great, but the anticipation of what comes next is huge. Josh has been there for 5 weeks now, and I’m ready to be with him again and see all the preparations he has made for me in our apartment. I’m sure the blog posts will pick up now that I’m actually going! But, I couldn’t resist sharing some of these pictures. Hopefully they portray a bit about what this wait has been like.

There was some of this...

There was some of this…

...and some of this...

…and some of this…

a good bit of this...

a good bit of this…

– then back to this…

and one of these!

and one of these!

Okay, so it wasn’t really that melancholy, but waiting for something big and exciting can become really tedious! Well, I’ll be there soon. Stay tuned!

Rocky Top Tennessee

I’m in Nashville this week for work, but in this laid-back, festive city, there’s plenty of time for pleasure intermixed with business. Walking down Broadway, you’ll hear dueling guitar music spilling out of each restaurant’s open windows. Jeans and cowboy boots are the standard uniform for a night on the town. Line dancing lessons are to be expected, and the people couldn’t be friendlier. Just some of the reasons I love Tennessee.