Saturday, April 30, 2011

Temps drop and Sam climbs

Yesterday was beautiful. The sky was a crisp blue with no trace of haze or smog, the air was warm but not humid, and there was a slightly cool breeze coming off the water just enough to brush the hair back from my face. It couldn't have been more than 80-85 degrees (that's Fahrenheit, folks). In places of the world with four seasons, it would be your typical spring day.

palm trees in sun

But Abu Dhabi is a land of one season, summer, that expresses itself in varying degrees of warmth. It does get really pleasant from December to February, or even March, akin to early summer in Boston where you might need a light jacket at night. But for the rest of the year, afternoon temperatures nearly always reach above 100 degrees. Any exceptions are gifts that quickly expire, so it is imperative to take advantage of them.

We got iced lattes and went to one of the city's numerous public parks, which for some odd reason was completely deserted aside from us and the pigeons. We sat on a bench in a sunny patch amidst the trees and listened to the water feature trickling behind us, just soaking in the delightfulness of being comfortable outside in the middle of the day, trying to commit it to memory for when it becomes necessary to hibernate again.

Abu Dhabi parks

Then I pointed to a tree a few yards away and said wistfully to Sam, "Don't you just want to climb it?"

He did.

climbing tree

Friday, April 29, 2011

The wedding

Inspired by our recent trip to London, this afternoon we made scones and clotted cream, served ourselves tea in our fine china (which almost never gets used, so this was an event in and of itself), and watched the royal nuptials on TV.

A memorable occasion, to be sure, and we wish Will & Kate many happy returns, but for us the most important wedding this month took place on April 9th in Estes Park, Colorado. Sam's younger sister, Ann, was married to her fiancĂ©, Eric, at the Stanley Hotel (yes, the one in The Shining; romantic, right?). It's actually a gorgeous historic hotel surrounded by the white-capped Rocky Mountains. With elk and deer grazing nearby, it is a rustic and serene setting, and was perfect for outdoorsy, laid-back Ann and Eric. 

Below are a few favorite shots of the ceremony and the reception, courtesy of the talented Kate Blaising, family friend and photographer:

Flower girl trying on bride's BLUE shoes

Last minute touches before the ceremony...

...and voilĂ !


Sam officiated the service; can you say tear-jerker? (for me, at least)

The happy couple, cutting the cake with such glee - too cute!

 And sneaking a kiss in the sleet (gotta love Colorado in April).

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Oxford blues

Throughout our travels of the past two years, Sam and I have been amazed at how few hiccups we've encountered. True, we spend a lot of time researching and planning beforehand, but especially considering our trips to places where infrastructure is minimal and unpredictable (e.g. Jordan, Nepal), we have truly been blessed with smooth sailing. But no matter how responsible of a planner or how street-smart you are, more travel brings greater odds that you will eventually hit a snag or two. And on our most recent trip to England, our time came due.

In normal fashion, we had a jam-packed itinerary, trying to experience as much of the place as we could in a four day period. It was day 2, and we had a full day of sight-seeing, including a guided tour of Parliament, a visit to Saint Paul's Cathedral, and a quick jaunt across the Millennium Bridge for a glimpse of the Tate Modern Museum, before catching a 2:21 pm train to Oxford (we had pre-purchased tickets online for a really good price). Piece of cake. 

Enter stage right: Shannon's low blood sugar requiring immediate sustenance. We had just arrived at Saint Paul's Cathedral when my stomach began to growl and I realized that a fainting couch would be in order unless I could feed myself asap. Unfortunately, a lunch spot was a detail of the day that Sam the trusty tour guide had failed to research (big mistake). So, we spent the next 20 minutes wandering the streets of the financial district looking for an open establishment. Finally, realizing nothing in the neighborhood was open on Saturdays, we went back to where we started, a chain sandwich shop just outside the underground that we had snobbishly rejected on our first circuit. It was our only hope, so we bought pre-packaged sandwiches and scarfed them down. 

Re-energized, albeit a bit disgusted by our meal, we made our way back to St. Paul's Cathedral, where we (of course) found a dozen open restaurants within paces of the front entrance. We had simply turned the wrong way out of the Underground. Ah well, moving on. We had eaten our way through our Cathedral-touring time, so we snapped a few pictures of the exterior and main hall inside and then moved on toward the Millennium Bridge. By the time we made it across to the Tate Museum, we realized we only had enough time to make a pit stop and then immediately turn back around in order to make our train. 

View of Saint Paul's Cathedral from across the Millennium Bridge

Soon we were on the Tube again, where we plotted the best route to the train station. We had just enough time to make the transfers across town. And then...hiccup! The subway stopped, and a polite voice came over the loudspeaker informing us that all service was suspended for the afternoon, that we'd have to go above ground and take a bus to our destination. Of course, we didn't know how the bus system worked, so instead we ran up the stairs and violently waved down a cab. We told the driver we had 14 minutes to make it to the train station, and to step on it! Which he did, until we hit a traffic jam and came to a complete stand still. With five minutes left to catch our train, the driver sheepishly advised that we get out and run the rest of the way, that it was just over the bridge and around the corner. 

There is a reason that I am not a runner. I have short little legs, and years of cheerleading, gymnastics and dance during my teens left me with rickety joints and shin splints. But long and lean Sam immediately bolted off like a gazelle; there was nothing I could do but follow. I didn't want to be the reason we missed our train! So I ran. Across the bridge. Around the corner. Where I realized the station was a lot farther than the cabbie had let on. I could barely see Sam by now, so I clutched my purse under my arm and gave it all I had. 

Finally, I burst into the station, lungs burning, and found Sam retrieving our pre-paid tickets from the kiosk. It took a minute for them to print, during which time I caught my breath, and then we tore off again into the crowd to find the right track. And there it was. Track 1. Empty. The digital clock directly above it flashing in huge red font - 2:22. We missed it by one minute.

Okay, well, surely they'll just let us get on the next one. We were still hopeful. We waited in line at customer service, and then I gave my best sob story to the Indian gentleman working behind the glass. But apparently the tickets we bought online were non-transferable and now useless. I persuaded him to bend the rules just this once, but the man was immune to my feminine whiles. The best he could do was sell us new tickets for 25 pounds a piece! (The ones we bought online were 6 pounds each.) Our afternoon trip to Oxford would now start an hour later and altogether cost us over 100 US dollars. So much for frugality.

By the time we got to Oxford, it was about 4:30 in the afternoon, and the light was already beginning to fade. We walked into town from the train station and were taking our first pictures of the main square when it happened. Our camera, the one that has captured nearly every picture on this blog, that has been with us to see the Great Wall, the Pyramids, and Mount Everest, sputtered a few last mechanical breaths, and died. And I don't mean the battery died; it was fully charged. It was the hardware itself. It had simply given all it could give.

So, here we were in the middle of one of the most picturesque and intellectually stimulating towns we've ever visited, with nothing but our memories to record it. But die-hard bloggers that we are, we were determined to keep documenting, and spent our first 30 minutes in Oxford at Curry's Electronics inside a bland shopping mall, hastily purchasing the least expensive digital camera we could find, which will hopefully explain why all pictures posted for the foreseeable future are slightly distorted and look like they were taken in 1995. 

Back on the streets of Oxford, it was now after 5 pm, and all the campuses and shops were closed. We spent our remaining three hours wandering, taking photos of exterior walls and locked gates, and ducking into more than one pub to warm up. It wasn't one of our more successful outings, but we did see some beautiful scenery and even had a pint in C.S. Lewis's old haunt, Eagle & Child.

Recounting it now, I am aware that missing a train and losing a camera, while inconvenient, doesn't exactly constitute a travel horror story. Have a better one you want to share? Leave a comment!

Monday, April 25, 2011

London in bloom

On our way to the U.S. at the end of March, we stopped in London for a few days. Sam had never been, and my only memory of it was from a brief visit during the dead of winter in 1994. I remember being cold and damp more than anything else, so I was overwhelmed by warmth and beauty of spring that greeted us this time.

We've been told that early spring can be iffy with London weather, but we were graced with four mild and mostly clear days, no umbrella necessary. Locals and visitors alike were in good spirits, surely due in part to the fresh relief from a long, harsh winter, but also to the royal wedding fever that has captured the hearts and imaginations of romantic tourists, and provided a golden opportunity for entrepreneurs seeking to capitalize on the event. 

It was hard not to get caught up in the excitement, amidst the flowers blooming, lovers strolling, birds frolicking, and William and Kate smiling regally from posters, collector plates, and all imaginable forms of gift-shop paraphernalia for sale everywhere we went. It got us in the wedding mood, which was fitting as we were en route to our own family wedding celebration.


Sunday, April 24, 2011

Risen, indeed!

One of my favorite things about living in Abu Dhabi is its spectacular sunrises. Our apartment affords a panoramic view of the sky, and thanks to our friendly muezzin next door, I am often up early enough to witness the first light of morning. 

On this Easter Sunday, Sam and I wish you the joy and hope that comes from knowing, as surely as the sun rises, that our Savior has overcome darkness, doubt, and ultimately, death.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Road rage

We're back and have plenty of stories and pictures to share about our trip, but first I have to get this one out.

This morning on my drive to work, I was at a busy intersection awaiting my turn when I witnessed a man in a fancy suit get out of his fancy sports car at the stop sign directly opposite me, walk briskly to the SUV idling behind him and proceed to ream out the driver, gesticulating wildly, his coiffed hair shaking with each syllable shouted. Though I couldn't hear him over my iPod, I could practically see spittle flying out of his mouth and veins pushing their way to the surface of his beet red face.

This was one angry driver. I missed whatever action had provoked this reaction, and I missed the resolution as I had to turn right and soon lost sight of the scene, but as I continued to drive in heavy stop-and-go traffic for the next 20 minutes, I filled in the back-story myself.

First of all, I should say that what I saw this man do was the scenario I've daydreamed about since I began driving in Abu Dhabi. How often have I wished to serve up justice for inappropriate driving behaviors! For all the emphasis on politeness and protocol in the Emirati culture, the UAE roads are a place where rudeness rules, where size matters, and where drivers hiding behind darkly tinted windows act as though The Art of War1 was their driver's ed manual.

Now, I appreciate the car horn as much as the next person. It's an important tool when you feel your safety threatened or when the person in front of you is obviously not paying attention and is holding up traffic. But there is one particular use of the horn, far too common here, which causes my blood to boil with its audacity.

It happens to me, and I see it happen to other people all the time, when the driver behind you, or even several cars in the line behind you, takes it upon him or herself to decide that it is now time for you to pull out into traffic, and lays on the horn to tell you so, often encouraging others to join in the dissonant chorus. It is no matter that they do not have the proper vantage point to judge the distance and speed of the cars barreling down the road into which you are trying to enter. It is not important that they do not know the level of responsiveness or horsepower of your car. They are the all-knowing, all-powerful Abu Dhabi drivers, and you better get out of their way, even if it means compromising your own safety.

It's a form of peer pressure, really. And it's amazing how when it comes from the car behind you it carries a different tone, one that accuses you of being too timid. Chicken! you can practically hear them cry. And how unfair that there is no rear-facing horn that you could use to defend yourself. The only options are to take it sitting down, use hand gestures which may or may not translate, or get out of your car and tell them off. Of course, I would never do the latter (and probably not the middle either), but I would be willing to bet the altercation of this morning's commute was exactly that. He had simply heard one honk too many.

Interestingly, as the man carried out my own fantasy of telling off an inappropriate horn-blower, even though he was holding up a long line of cars behind him, not one toot could be heard from the other drivers. I think we were all watching in awe, silently applauding, relieved that someone finally put his foot down.

1Speed is the essence of war. Take advantage of the enemy's unpreparedness; travel by unexpected routes and strike him where he has taken no precautions. (The Art of War by Sun Tzu, 600 BC)